Tight Faces and Public Aid 


by Morgan Chittum and Olivia Stevers

Editor's note: the pieces in our Order and Chaos series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XV at The King's College. The following piece won first place. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Queen Elizabeth the First.

Manhattan had a dash of home because it was loud and survived off public aid. 


Big fat clouds of smog stood in front of her. Walking down the block, drops of bird shit hit her shoulder. The smell of urine and cigarettes warped their way through the streets, reminding her of the home she grew up in. 

Before things were complicated, she heard screams and things breaking. It was 9 p.m. and she was back. Her close people made big sounds and their faces were always red with frustration. 

They draped their clothing over the bannister because the dryer broke again. Moldy towels were thrown about. And the toilet was doing that loud thing where it leaked onto the shag rug. She yelled at her brother to add more water to the empty shampoo bottle until the 13th of the month. He still didn’t get the routine. 

These were the things. The known things. The comfortable things.

Manhattan had a dash of home because it was loud and survived off public aid. 

She walked through those big fat clouds and held her breath as she walked through the revolving doors. 

Pristine. Sterile. Unbecoming. 

They planned on kidnapping her. She knew. They sat around all day talking philosophy and theory. It was all code. She knew. It was too neat. Too concise. A secret language they developed perfectly to fool her. 

She was skeptical of their fake decorations, their pressed ties and straight spines. 

She understood exactly what was going on. They wanted to groom her and place her on the shelf too. It’s what happened to Brittany from Camden last year.

But the tower had to topple soon. There’s no way they could keep it going any longer. The light foot tapping during second meeting. The planners with connect the dot events. 

It was all cemented in: the gestures, the postures and the systems to the decimal. 

She was paranoid but she played along. She was familiar with the language now. 

She stopped in the lobby where Lydia Moniskhya sat to study everyday from 2:03 - 6:01 p.m. Lydia was a creepy crawly straight haired freak with a Macbook Pro and Michael Kors smart watch.

Lydia kept her hair tight and braided. Lydia had a tight face with tight skin and teeth that fit perfectly inside of her tightly wound mouth. 

Lydia made her skin crawl. Lydia’s skin was like a topographical map of North Dakota. She was so smooth and painfully symmetrical. 

Lydia knew about modesty and understood God’s divine providence. It helped her formulate her four year plan. Lydia spoke in perfect verse, every word a rehearsed oration. The audience loved her. 

Suspended from strings she sat straight, perched in her spot like a marionette. Controlled from above, the audience loved her.

Fire rushed through her veins as Lydia sat quiet and still. It was what they wanted. But she saw through it. She would not be another book on the shelf. 

She left the building and left Lydia Moniskhya. The air was thick with smog and the aroma of hot garbage. It wrapped its arms around her like an old friend. 

Her heart leaped when she was bombarded with free flyers and free mixtapes. A herd of nannies and Tribecan children on leashes knocked her to the ground. 

A woman dropped her papers and the city steam shoved them away. A drunk man pissed his pants and a cockroach danced at his feet to the melody of the subway car squealing to a halt below. Perfect harmony. 

Manhattan had a dash of home because it was loud and survived off public aid. 

 

Photo by Seth Trouwborst


Happy Music

by Anna Wood

Editor's note: the pieces in our COMPASSION series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIV at The King's College. The following piece won third place. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Thatcher.

 

Eight months ago, Grandma slipped and hit her head. Somewhere inside her skull, her brain began to ooze blood. Grandpa rushed her to the hospital. Once she was well enough, my mom and uncle moved her to a home. According to mom, grandma was a believer, and she was going to Heaven. So, everything was going to be ok. She told me to brace myself for the end.

When I found out Grandma died, I booked a flight home. I pulled out my duffle and stuffed it with some shirts, a pair of jeans, a handful of underwear, some socks, and a satin black dress that hung below my knees. I put on a white shirt and black jeans, curled my bangs, and left for LaGuardia.

I snaked through security and sat down in the terminal behind the Dunkin Donuts. Across from me was a man and woman with their hands coiled together resting in the man’s lap. The woman was wearing an engagement ring, no wedding band. She took her nose and rubbed it against his cheek, as if she was a cat looking for affection.

Back when I turned 16, Grandma gave me a letter on how to be a good wife. I was insulted. She had looked at me like I was a creature ever since I was small. It seemed to be her way of telling me what I needed to do if I ever hoped to get married. I stuffed it into my bookshelf and didn’t touch it for four years

I finally opened it because whenever she would see me she would just squeeze my arm, look me in the eyes as her head bobbed in circles, and tell me, “You’re great.” By this point, it was all she was able to communicate to anyone.

At the bottom of this letter, Grandma had two checklists: what a wife needs and what a husband needs. A wife needs honesty and openness, while a husband needs an attractive spouse and sexual fulfillment. She probably wrote the letter because she felt her mind begin to slip, and it was the only wisdom she felt she had the authority to pass on.

I fell asleep on the plane and woke up as we landed in Denver. From the plane, I walked into the bathroom and huddled into a stall with my duffle. I put the bag on the door and put my phone on the tampon trash box. I thought for a moment about how gross it was to put my phone there with all the exposure to unwashed hands and the used applicators concealed under the lid.

When I switched to tampons, Mom coached me through the bathroom door on how to put it in, but I thought the whole applicator was the tampon. It didn’t feel right. So, Mom interrogated me until we figured out why it felt wrong and why I felt the need to walk with my knees together. “It feels like it’s going to slip out,” I told her.

Grandma never told Mom about periods. Mom bled for three days until she brought it up to Grandma while she cooked dinner. She thought she had internal bleeding or an infection. Grandma shrugged off the panic, gave her some pads, and told her to clean her dirty underwear with hand soap and cold water. Mom learned it was normal from her friends at school. She was just shedding her uterine lining.

Usually when I fly home to Colorado, Mom greets me outside the gate. Her arms extend into the air, and she flaps her hands up and down like a happy baby about to be picked up. The closer I walk to her the smaller her gestures become. Even her smile squeezes into a small, restrained grin. This time, my mom stood with one hand holding her purse whiled the other fluttered at me. Her blue eyes were dim and bloodshot, and the skin underneath dragged down to her cheekbones. Even the wrinkle she attempted to cover with her bangs was prominent and deep.

I smiled as I walked up to her. “Hey, Dad told me he was going to pick me up.”

“Yeah, I told him I would get you. I —,” she sighed. “I needed to see you.” She nodded her head and pulled me in for a hug. Her hair was musty.

As we walked to the car, she told me the funeral details. She offered to take my duffle, but I refused. When I asked about grandpa, she told me that it was just “really hard.” It’s what she had said for the last three years whenever someone asked about Grandma’s endless descent into dementia.

As we got into Mom’s 2001 white Lexus, she asked, “When do you go back?”

“Probably next week sometime, but I’m going to wait to get the ticket until after the funeral.” I stopped and looked at my mom. Her perfume permeated the car. It was warm and strong, making it hard to breathe. “Mom, how are you doing?” She sucked air in through her nose and shook her head as she leaned it closer to the steering wheel. Her mouth gaped for a moment, and she looked out the window. “Do you want me to drive so you can just sit?” She nodded.

Mom began to cry. I was going to turn on what she called happy music, but that’s not what she needed. She needed to cry in silence.


Thumbnail image by Angel Boyd.

HOUSE OF WISDOM: a vignette on COmpassion

by Edison Cummings

Editor's note: the pieces in our COMPASSION series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIV at The King's College. The following piece won first place. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Bonhoeffer.

 

We have lived in this house, surrounded by fog, for forever past. Every clock has broken. I am thirty-three years old—at least I think I am. And I know that we cannot leave this place. It was built by my forefathers, and I am the perfect product of their toil. This is the house of wisdom.

                        

Every morning, I wake and stand before the cracked mirror in the cold tile bathroom, scrubbing. I find the craters and rough patches. I find them and scratch them until they are gone. I have a bottle for every ailment and flaw. I dress myself: white starch, tight creases, perfect triangle tie.

                        

One day as I descended the stairs, my lovely youngest hailed me, her face porcelain. “How wonderful it is to see you!”

“Indeed, wonderful it is,” I always say. The rose spreads across my cheek in bliss.

                        

Breakfast had been set before the table. We sat and cracked open the eggs with demitasse spoons in silence.

                        

“I think I shall read the Psalms this morning,” the eldest said. As she ate, she nodded her head and moved her mouth in reverent recitation with the poetry she loved.

“Finish your toast first,” my wife said.

                        

“I would like to contemplate the images of the saints,” the middle said. Her fingers, stained with paints from the night before, picked at the peel of her egg.

“After breakfast, you may.”

“Here.” She unfolded a tear-edged square of ecstatic blues. “It's the sky.”

                        

“Oh dearest,” Mother said with deep eye lines. “How can you paint what you’ve never seen?” A shining giggle followed her careless shrug.

                        

Once the meal was finished and the dishes cleaned and dried, we opened up the book of books and read slow.

                        

“If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand hold me.”

                        

We nodded our assent and pled that it be so: amen, amen, amen.

                        

Just then there was a wild screaming past the porch. She had emerged from the eternal fog around our home—a crying, pathetic wretch. She scaled the porch and threw herself to the doorframe, pounding.

                        

“OPEN YOUR EYES!” She wailed. "OPEN THEM!”

                        

The loud door rattled the living room. My daughters huddled tight together; Mother stroked their braided hair.

                        

And so the siren’s calling faded and became a sound to which we lived our lives. We slept, ate eggs and toast, read the book of books for two days more. Then my wife interrupted me at my morning ritual, her face translucent.

                        

“Our eldest has gone. She’s speaking with the one outside.” I flew down the stairs and found the door wide open, the daughter and the vagrant standing face to face. Wind slipped through the door in cool swaths.            

                        

“It has been so long,” the woman said. “There are more of us beyond the fog.” My eldest’s eyes were wide, her mouth slack.

                        

At this my stomach turned. I slammed the door in disgust.

                        

“She is no longer,” I said to my wife.

“Who?”

“Don’t be stupid. The eldest. She has left our house. Do not speak of her.”

                        

“Wha—how can you shut the door? She’s standing on the porch. She is no threat.”

I spoke again.

“Perhaps I was not clear. She does not live in this house.” I turned the deadbolt.

My wife drew close to me, and I could see her eyes bulge and shine with waiting water. “Do you not know you refer to your own blood? She is the bone of your bone.”

                        

“You question me?” I spoke with a white-hot whisper.

“I do. Let them in and let us continue with our lives! This is no battle to be won. This is a life.”

                        

Her spritely frame took little work to crush. An unfortunate thing, indeed, that she would die in sin and rebellion.

                        

I was pulled from my reverie by the thwack of the back screen door. This was the middle and youngest, also condemned to a life outside the grace.

                        

And so I, the remaining holy one, am alone. I have lived in this house, surrounded by fog, for forever past. Every clock in this house has broken. I am thirty-three years old—at least I think I am. And I know that I cannot leave this place. It was built by my forefathers, and I am the perfect product of their toil. This is the house of wisdom.

                        

Every morning I wake, then stand before the cracked mirror in the cold tile bathroom, scrubbing. I find the craters and rough patches. I find them and scratch them until they are gone, though my skin bleeds red tears in protest.

                        

This is the house of wisdom.


Thumbnail image by Angel Boyd.

Jack

by Kyra Rooney

 

It began with my mother. Flashes of her presence cycled between visual interpretations and sensations of her being. It was like how it was when I was young. We were companions, and we were intimate and playful, the way a mother and daughter always should be.

We were among a multitude of subways. This subway system was not cramped. It was an expansive, intricate highway of trains. There were people around but not so many to the point of overwhelming chaos. Tracks were in disorder–some cut short and some balanced over the city and some crossed over others. Amidst the disorganization, they still worked together to function. Despite this, my thoughts were distracted by my friend Jack’s recent suicide. The rabbit hole of him and the times we shared left as soon as the train eased towards us. My mother and I entered the train but realized that we mistakenly took the wrong one. We traveled on a bridge overlooking the entire city, so we weren’t disappointed about the setback. Once we exited the train, my mother’s presence left, but not uncomfortably or abruptly.

I started down a sort of lopsided concrete street for a few minutes. I was in a state of subtle tranquility and soon felt Jack’s being walk alongside me. He was surrounding me gently to notify me that he was with me. I knew it was him. He had no physical body since that had already passed on to another plane. His voice emerged in my head after he walked with my presence for a while. He started joking with me just as he always used to. They were his usual sort of jokes that made fun of my innocence, sex jokes, and all of the normal Jack-like vulgar things I would expect to hear from him. I didn’t respond to him because I was consumed with laughter. His words spoke to me clearly through real time conversation. All of his vocal fluctuations and scoffs and half laughs were there. I felt the lit up white reflections in his eyes that gleamed when he said something he knew he shouldn’t. I felt him holding a pen and looking off as he’d say something completely inappropriate, then immediately walk away as if nothing had happened. They were his final words to me.

We kept walking along the sidewalk when gradually the familiar background began to fade away. Ahead of us an enormous, illuminated sphere appeared. We revolved around the bright surface of the moon and all of its grayed craters. We were no longer beings, only sensations drifting with the gravitational tug of the iridescent rock. Jack was taking me on a tour of his soul’s new home. Our voices and laughter hushed, but our presence was stronger than it had ever been on earth.

We floated away from the moon and faced vast, deep space. The view was an endless, comforting darkness. As we drifted further away from familiarity and into eternity, an abundance of stars began to glow around us. Specks of light moved as never ending glimmerings of fragile but definite bulbs. Bodies, emotions, boundaries, and pain were gone. The purest form of nothingness enveloped me, and the only thing I was certain of was Jack’s guidance. We surged forward faster into star-infested space–through light years and beyond time and limits–I only felt the slight reassuring breeze of God and Jack and my collected yet simultaneously dispersed soul. I had never known anything more complete than this.


Thumbnail image by Amelia Stanford.

Only Darkness

by Micah Long

Editor's note: 'Only Darkness' was the fourth piece published in our DREAD series in Fall 2017. The series also includes 'morgue poetry' by Claire Bernardo, 'Consent' by Morgan Chittum, and 'Bridget Bishop' by Dean Graham.

 

If you had been paying attention, you would have known that Avery Hopkins was going to commit suicide. He had been receding from the world as of late. His temperament had become neurotic, fluctuating between extreme anxiety and inescapable apathy. He had been drinking far too much.

If you had been paying attention, you would’ve recognized Avery Hopkins. He wasn’t the sort of man you could pass by without noticing. Most people in his city knew him, but very few cared. He had a harsh look in his eyes and an arrogant posture that told people to stay away. Still, his head was always downcast; he never looked up at the sky.

One Sunday morning, Avery dragged himself out of bed, hungover. He dressed himself in a black suit and went down the hall to his study. The sight of his desk, covered in papers and books, awoke his groggy mind and cleared his pounding head. Avery sat and wrote, continuing a diatribe that had been cut off the day before when he had passed out at his desk. A half-empty bottle of rum sat beside his paper, and Avery took a sip.

If you had been standing over Avery’s shoulder, you would’ve seen what he was writing:

    “Obviously, these philosophers were wrong. No ideal man rests somewhere outside this world. ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’ is a nice thought for the minds of the weak, the domestic servant or the bricklayer, but for the educated, it is simple and necessary to realize that man and his philosophy exists for this world.

    “There is no time for idle fancies. It is time for the educated philosophers among us to face the truth. Man has no soul; furthermore, man only has one life. There is no world beyond.”

    Although Avery knew what he was going to write next, he paused. His hand shook slightly as he lifted his bottle off his desk and downed an eighth of the liquid. He returned to his page.

    “Is it depressing? Is it terrible? Is it the kind of idea that keeps you up at night as you drown in it? It very well may be for some. But we rip off our blindfolds and step forwards, although we may be stepping into shadows.

    “Why should we live then? We shouldn’t, I say. We simply do. We keep ourselves anchored to what we know, although we have no reason to. Mankind is no better alive than dead.”

    Avery paused once again, poured the rest of the rum into his mouth, and glanced at the pistol lying on his desk.

“Killing yourself is killing an animal.”

    “You don’t waste time drowning an animal you can shoot,” mused the gravedigger of the local cemetery, setting down the document that had become both the last words and suicide note of Avery Hopkins.

    The housekeeper had found Avery’s body lying next to his pistol and surrounded by empty liquor bottles. The doctor that was summoned pronounced Avery dead by alcohol poisoning  The gravedigger they summoned to Avery’s home to help carry his coffin found the paper underneath the unfired pistol.

    The writing was dated and signed July 6th, 1863. July 8th was the day that the housekeeper returned to work.

No funeral was held. The gravedigger stood in the rain sending scoop after scoop of earth pounding onto the thick wood of Avery’s coffin.

    If you had been paying attention, you would have seen a glimmer in the rain, a vaguely human shape watching the burial. If you could see through the haze of our mortal world, which so often hides what we would call supernatural, you would’ve seen the newly released soul of Avery Hopkins, watching his own descent into the ground.

    The gravedigger, now the only person physically present, fixed a simple headstone bearing Avery’s birth and death dates into the ground. Avery shuddered. It had taken him two days to kill himself. He realized that his body must have been found shortly after he perished.

    Avery was in a new sea of reality. The physical world blended perfectly with a new environment of deeper meaning. A shimmering curtain was shining in front of him, easily visible but infinitely far away. A brilliantly bright soul drifted by him and through the veil. He willed himself to follow, but he was still held back. Another radiant soul drifted by and passed through with a shimmering ray of light. Avery felt a deep agony. More and more radiant beings passed by him. No light streamed from his own form. He was still anchored to something, some deep darkness inherent in his being. However, through the darkness came an even deeper yearning to reach through the curtain, to experience the same light he saw in the others’ souls.

    There’s something to this, he thought. I’ve got to write this down. I have to know what is happening.

    Six feet underground, tears had begun flowing out of the body’s eyes upon Avery’s observation of the burial. The alcohol had run its course and now freed Avery’s body from its deadening effects. The hand of the man twitched. If you could have heard his heart, you would have heard the faintest beating. His mind began to awaken like a smoking pile of kindling, waiting to burst into flame.

    Avery felt a current push him towards his grave. The shimmering curtain blurred out of sight, and the colors of the world around him disappeared and blended into a hazy gray. He willed himself fruitlessly back to the curtain. He saw his headstone for a brief second as he was sucked down into a whirlpool of darkness.    

    “NO!” Avery screamed as he jolted awake. His head and right knee slammed against the top of a rough wooden box. He let out a pained cry and tried to bring his hand to his face to wipe away the tears. His hand scraped against the top of the box, and he felt a few drops of blood surface on his skin. Avery didn’t know why he was here. It felt as if he had just awoken from a dream. He was supposed to remember something from that dream. He was supposed to remember why he had fallen asleep in the first place. And why was he in a box?

    Avery kicked the top of the box. Why was he lying down? Why was he crying? Why was the air musty and thick? Why did it smell like dirt?

    Then a thought emerged, wrenching his heart and dropping his stomach.

    Avery Hopkins had been buried alive.

    His immediate response was animalistic, his fleshly cage overriding his mind and soul. He kicked at the top of the box over and over, hearing several toes crack from their protest against his coffin. He punched the box, more of the skin at his knuckles getting scraped off with each strike. He screamed wildly, as he had never screamed before, but the overpowering darkness drowned out his cries.

    Avery didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He kicked harder, his screams growing louder, building on a pain and hopelessness that eclipsed anything he had ever felt in his life. Blood ran from his knuckles, and he began to frantically scratch at the top of the coffin, feeling splinters of wood bury themselves under his fingernails. He cried out in pain again and again, smashing the sides of the box now in the rhythm of war – a chaotic beat accompanied by only one thought: I’m dead!

    Avery’s life had become hell, his damned state inescapable. He kicked again, his feet tired. One…two… A third kick weakly thudded against the roof of the box, having made no progress over the course of his struggle. Avery lay in the dark, gasping for breath and weeping. There was nothing he could do to help himself.

    His heart slowed and his breathing turned into heaving gasps. His body had given up, and his mind had begun to take over.

    Avery heaved his words into the darkness, “It took me two days to kill myself, and I still can’t let myself die.”

    He lay in the darkness, but he began to panic again. He couldn’t just wait to fade away.

    “Why? Why can’t I die?”

    He thought of the paper he had written. It was wrong.

    Mankind, he thought, is supposed to be alive.

    He let out a sob, his first true expression of regret.

    But I’m not alive. I’m going to die…again…

    Avery’s last thoughts trailed off into the silence of his mind as he began to struggle for breath. His heartbeat slowed again. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the darkness. Tears overflowed and poured from his face, forcing his eyes open again.

    Above ground, the gravedigger hadn’t seen the earth move from Avery’s futile struggle. But he felt a strange, internal compulsion to move. He left the current grave he was digging and strode towards the grave of the late Avery Hopkins.

    Avery’s body was as good as dead, immobile and worthless. His soul was hanging on until the last pathetic breath exited the mortal frame. Then, Avery heard a sound. He could feel the darkness receding, although he still could not see. A metallic tap hit the coffin, just above his eyes. He began to see faint beams of light shining through the small cracks in the wood. Tears ran down his face again. His heart pumping anxiously, waiting for another chance at life. The coffin was pried apart, and there stood the gravedigger, a tranquil figure, sunlight streaming down behind him, the clouds of the earlier rain no longer obstructing the light. Avery’s eyes welcomed the new brightness, but they stung as he squinted and gazed upwards.

    The gravedigger helped the former corpse to his weak feet. Avery’s legs barely supported his shaken body. The two men left the pit and climbed up, back onto the ground. The cemetery grass stretched out around them. The sun above continued to shine down. The smell of rain was in the air. The gravedigger smiled, a compassionate smile for a man whose life had been renewed.

    Avery saw none of it. He staggered home, eyes glazed over. He threw open his front door and climbed the stairs to his study. He staggered towards his desk and lifted a half-filled bottle in the air. He hurled the bottle across the room. It shattered on the wall. He lifted two more bottles and sent them flying in the same direction. He cleared his desk in the same manner, hurling his papers and notes into his fireplace and setting them ablaze. He emptied drawers of his quills and ink, and hurled philosophy books into the alley bordering his house. After an hour of emptying the study and his mind, he stood at the doorframe, looking into the hallway that led to his front door.

    “There’s a life to live, and I need to just live it,” Avery smiled for the first time in weeks at the thought. But his mind wouldn’t let the idea rest. “Why,” he questioned, “should I live?”

    A brilliant light flashed in front of his eyes for a moment. Avery’s mind was being hurled towards a single, inescapable possibility. He felt as if he were standing outside his own body, and something about it felt familiar. For a brief moment, Avery got a taste of something more real than he had ever felt before.

    “No.” With a single word, Avery rejected the new thought in his mind. “I can’t have wasted my life!”

Avery turned back and saw his desk. On it lay his cocked and loaded pistol.  

    If you had been outside of Avery’s house that night, you would’ve heard a terrible cry, a sound that was forced from the soul as the final yearning for life escaped Avery’s form.

    If you were there, you would’ve heard a single shot from a pistol.

    The next day, a single tear fell from the gravedigger’s eye as he piled earth back onto the same coffin he had torn open the day before. No soul looked on at the burial. There was no shimmering curtain to move to, no more hope for the dead man. Only darkness.


Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.

The Seizure Realm

by Abbey Jasmine Watt

Editor's note: 'The Seizure Realm' was the third piece published in our Tan Lines series in Summer 2017. The series also includes 'A midsummer night's heat' by Sabrina Sanchez and 'roots' by Amelia Stanford.

 

Kayvon was a 23-year-old adult who still hung out with high school kids. His brain was fried from years of Xanax and psychedelic abuse, and as a result, he had a tendency to repeat the same story he just told five minutes ago, with (remarkably) the same exact intonation. 

He had a tattoo on the inside of his bottom lip that read "trippy", which he enjoyed showing to people. 

He lived in a 2 bedroom house in my ex-boyfriend's neighborhood with another young man named Bobby G. (the G wasn't a real initial, it stood for "gangsta"), and owned a few large guns that he showed me one time, for "defense purposes". About a year after I moved away, the house would be raided by police, tipped off by neighbors suspicious of an unending parade of cars in that driveway, and we would never hear from Kayvon or Bobby G. again. 

During our high school years, because of his proximity to school and his proclivity towards giving away free drugs to pretty girls, he became our favorite dealer. He would text us "Blue Dream" or "Sour Diesel" and we would go to his house, avoid eye contact with the angry looking dad watering the lawn across the street, knock on the door, and step into a drab, gray, beer-can-littered living room. He would open a safe, take out a scale, and put our little treats in a baggie. 

I would fumble in my purse for a moment like I was looking for money, and he would say, "Don't worry about it, ladies. This one is on me. Issall good."

"Aww! Thanks, Kayvon." 

One time, I noticed the absence of a lumpish presence. "Hey, where's Bobby G?"

His face pale, Kayvon shut the safe, slowly walked over to the once-white couch, and sat, shaking his head. "Craziest shit, man. Scariest shit. Bobby G. had a seizure. Xanax and vodka. He's at his ma's house."

----------

Alexander was my best friend and, though I didn't know it at the time, my future husband. The summer before college, he made some extra money running our friend's mom's boutique while she was away on vacation, so of course we used the store as a smoking den during the closed-hours. 

We took my car, picked up Kayvon, who was "stranded at McDonald's", bought a sack of green from him, and invited him to smoke it with us back at the empty boutique. 

We went into the loading dock, opened the back door to a view of a scorching-hot strip mall parking lot, and took several bong rips, laughing at nothing and everything. 

It was the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday in July, and the Tennessee sun was harsh. The temperature was probably 104. I had not eaten or slept since the day before, stressed because I was fighting with my ex-boyfriend. I did not hydrate that day, it slipped my mind. 

Common seizure triggers: overheating, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, stress, dehydration, mind-altering substances. 

 

Staring at the hot concrete, 

I feel faint.

My head hurts.

Waves of heat take on a hot pink color, 

the color of vibrance

Rising high from the ground, wrapping the nearby dumpsters in a smothering hug, 

lifting the sick-fish scent from the dumpsters up with them, 

traveling into the sky,

back to the sun, then to the ground, 

back and forth, 

no wind, only heat. 

The pink waves hit me in the chest 

encircling my head in an uncertain cloud of fuzz. 

I know this feeling. 

The inside of my head goes electric, 

then darkly quiet, with a low, loud hum. 

 

I turn my head to warn Alexander of the impending fall

But

his head is shrouded in a blue light

Kayvon's is a cloudy orange

a dark aura floats between all of us.

 

I see they are laughing together, loud, 

but I cannot hear them in my mind, 

which attacks and defends itself. 

 

In an instant, I sit down on the floor, lean against a locker and everything else is closed out.

All I can do is sense. 

 

The shapes of their bodies are

gray, 

moving in frames 

through murkiness, 

freaking out, 

approaching me.

I hear far away sounds of fear in their echoing voices.

 

Kayvon's shape claps its hands in my face to try to wake me. 

I muster a lucid thought: "That's annoying." 

He doesn't know any better. Nothing he does will make it stop. 

It passes.

I begin to see clarity through the dissipating haze. Yes, this is the world I live in. 

I can speak. 

----------

"Alexander."

His face was the first thing I saw, looking me in the eyes.

Horrified, Kayvon unfroze and spun with his hands on his head, "Yo, what the fuck was THAT?"

Alexander said, "I think you had a seizure."

I said, "I think you're right."

Our resident expert Kayvon chimed in. "Naw, man, I saw Bobby G. have a seizure and it didn't look like that. You fainted with your eyes open."

"They're called petit mal seizures," I answered. "They are... smaller than the kind he had."

"Wow. It was like you went retarded. That was scary."

"Yes." They stared at me like I was some sort of alien. "Well. I need to sleep now."

Alexander grabbed my arms, lifted me up and helped me walk to a couch in the boutique. 

"Annie, when's the last time you had... one of those?"

"I was fourteen and walking through a movie theatre parking lot. It happened, and I forced myself to keep moving my feet as it was happening until we got across the lot. Then I sat down and let it finish. Two years later, they did tests on my brain to see if I could drive and said that I had somehow become immune to the disorder, because my brain was showing seizure activity even while I was sitting up and talking to them coherently." 

He knelt down next to me and pushed my sweaty hair behind my ears. 

"Alex, I need you to get me some food and water."

"There's pop tarts and koolaid in the employee fridge."

"No, I need real food. Please take my car, drive Kayvon home and bring me real food. I will be resting on this couch."

"Okay.. should you call into Applebee's and cancel work?"

"I can't cancel 3 hours before I have to go in."

"But this is a medical emergency--"

"If I don't go to work, I have to tell my folks I had a seizure, which will worry them about whether or not I can survive college on my own. They will not want me to go."

Alexander squeezed my hand. "Okay." 

----------

I woke up to see him holding a Chik fil A bag and a large water. He brought it over to me and watched me eat. 

As I finished my water, I had a thought. 

"I am glad it was you who saw that."

His green eyes widened and he nodded. "Me, too." 

"Now you know."

"Yes."

"Poor Kayvon."

"Oh, Kayvon!"

And we laughed for a long, long time. 


Thumbnail Image by Blake Brown

Wed to Freedom

by Evelyn Stetzer

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2017 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIII at The King's College. The following piece placed third. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Truth.

 

Brooklyn, 1860.

Based on the true story of Sally Maria “Pinky” Diggs and her day of freedom at nine years of age in Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights on February 6th, 1860.

 

Had I seen it sooner, I would’ve given her my whole damn house. But it was only last week that Reverend Harry Ward Beecher brought up another slave to the pulpit and stood over him like a firework exploding while the dark boy sat on the matted green carpet. The Reverend fancied pulling out his best auctioneer act to rile up the Sunday morning church-goers to buy the children’s freedom. If I sat in the first-floor pews instead of the second, I might have seen his spit spray overtop the pale pink hat of Mrs. Amy Talcott that meant to hide the sweat she couldn’t fan away. But I liked the pew all the way in the back left corner of Plymouth Church. I sat here to observe the bronze organ pipes that looked like they forced their way right out of the top of the Reverend’s head while he did what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle paper kept calling “theatrics” every Sunday.

Reverend Beecher caught a congregation quick with his way of talking. I’ll never forget when I heard him preaching that “Gospel of Love” for the first time, even from outside of the open doors on Orange Street. I just wanted to get home to Margaret after another all-night argument with the boss about how New York City’s ports are losing business to New Orleans. I didn’t want to hear anything but Margaret’s sinkers coming out of the oven, hot and ready for a slab of butter. But I waited for lunch to have my biscuits when Beecher’s voice boomed that Sunday morning last Autumn. I had to know what all that clapping and hollering meant.

I’ve been coming every week since I walked through the large white doors. It wasn’t because there were plenty of others coming in late to the Reverend’s sermons, maybe finishing their night shifts like me. It was who everyone’s eyes stayed fixed on—a simple man with long hair and a black jacket. He kept launching off the edge of the pulpit shouting into the ears of those facing him. He didn’t waste anyone’s time with formalities. It was evident that Reverend Beecher never wanted to be a normal preacher because if he were like the others, I’d forget what he had said before I left the sanctuary. Despite my tardiness, that “Gospel of Love” churned in my mind all week and it made me leave my coins with the homeless man I passed on my way to work. By February, the Reverend’s words still had me stirring in my pew. I fingered the items in my pocket until they no longer felt like they were mine. They belonged to her.

 

Brooklyn, 2015.

Based on the true story told by Raleigh Sadler, founder of the anti-human trafficking agency focused on equipping local churches called Let My People Go, established in 2016.

 

Had I only known it sooner, I probably would have done something. Because if anyone knows how to do church, I do. I stand in the front row for worship every week at Family Church Brooklyn. This row is a plague-ridden zone to the other church-goers, so I have ample space to spread my arms out and lead the congregation by example. But in part, it helps me with my weaknesses. I get distracted easily and anything obstructing my focus on God enrages me. People that know nothing about how to worship and just stand there like brick walls or people that sing off-pitch particularly bother me. I stand in the front to avoid this and, luckily, closing my eyes kills two birds with one stone: blocking out disturbances and focusing on God alone. But it was last week when someone sat right next to me in the front row as if she didn’t understand the courtesy mandate of New York City.

Has she never paid attention on the subway? If there are multiple seats open, one seat courtesy space is required. Anyone that’s lived in the metropolitan area knows this. I live in an eight hundred square foot apartment with two other roommates, so the least I deserve is a cushy seat boundary between me and anyone else in the front row I’ve lived in for the last four years. The intruder sat in her polka-dot skirt draped seamlessly across her lap, hands folded neatly, during Pastor Eric’s sermon. I looked over from my knees poking out of ripped jeans to her bruised ones and wondered why she didn’t have a Bible open like I did. Have I seen her before?

“Hi, my name is Angela,” I offered with an outstretched hand to her after the sermon wrapped up and Justin Bieber played. “That sermon…so good, right?”

“Yeah!” The woman said with a jolt. She didn’t accept my hand but weakly returned my smile before gathering herself up to leave. Could she hear my silent thoughts expelling her from my personal space the whole service? The realization of my foolish thoughts flushed my cheeks burnt pink, and I determined to be more welcoming the following week. But I still didn’t have her name.

“Pastor Eric, sorry to catch you on your way out, but did you happen to know the woman sitting beside me?” I asked. His tattooed arm lifted his belongings up so he could scratch his beard. While he thought for a moment, my mind trailed off to the kid playing in the seats behind us. Pastor Eric brought me back.

“I believe that her name is Kelsey! She usually sits in the back, so I remember now being surprised to see her up front. She’s been coming here for a few years now…serves on the children’s team every once in a while. You should get to know her!” As he wished me a good afternoon, I resolved to show Kelsey the ropes of the front row next week.

 

Brooklyn, 1860.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind…are you getting it, church?” Reverend Beecher implored as he jumped for emphasis with drips of sweat running from his temples. He couldn’t stop there. “You, you, and you! Get your purses ready. Behold! We are here to auction off this slave for freedom.” From my second-floor station, I could see the back rows of the first-floor slowly ascend to bob their heads atop the sea of people in front of them. They craned their necks to get a view of who Reverend Beecher brought to the pulpit this time. “Let it be reckoned! We are here to do what Christ did—to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” With his final line quoting the Gospel of Luke, he slid aside to reveal her.

“This is nine-year-old Pinky, church. This is her year of the Lord’s favor.” The Reverend stretched out his hand and let his mouth flat-line to a matter-of-fact resolve. Silence cascaded over the previous ruffles in purses and pockets as we all gazed upon Pinky. Her skin was light, mulatto blood, and her curls fell into her eyes. She looked fixedly on the green carpet as if it were the mat and she was the lame person tied to it. Her striped dress rumpled up over her left knee, revealing tender skin decidedly a slave’s. All I could do was stare at her small features.

“Buy her freedom or let the next sinner buy her bondage! What’s your Christianity, worth, huh? Think of the price Christ paid for you to get out of bondage! When’re you gonna put your freedom to use?” Reverend Beecher’s words cumulated storms in the church’s atmosphere, and as the buckets passed, coins clanged like rain. One after another, hands surrendered their money for groceries, their month’s wages, their pocket watches, and their spare change to Pinky. Reverend Beecher had the riches dumped on the pulpit in front of her as they were gathered. “Let the sound of freedom ring over you, Pinky! We’re going to get your thousand one hundred dollars! Betsy, start counting,” he directed the plump choir master.

“Terry,” Mark said beside me. “It’s your turn.” I took my hand out of my pocket, not realizing how tightly I clenched it. My hands were clammy as they grasped the bucket, warm from being passed along in an urgency matching the pace of the auction below. I opened my fist to reveal the large fire opal ring I had to surprise Margaret for our anniversary. It was all I brought to church today. Margaret wasn’t expecting me to come home with anything—I never did on Sunday. And after today’s church service, she’d be right again if I dropped the ring in the bucket. What Margaret won’t know is that I’d be willing to give Pinky the whole damn house.

“Does anybody else want to treat this little girl as their equal in Christ?” the Reverend called to the top corners of the sanctuary. I thought about all the sermons I’d heard since last Autumn. I remembered how that Gospel of Love set me free from the first day I heard it in the back of Plymouth. I looked down at Pinky. How could I deny her of her freedom when mine was a gift? Why did she have to earn hers?  I dropped the ring into the bucket and watched the usher carry it to Reverend Beecher who poured it on top of the cash and jewelry pile. As the final count came to a conclusion, Pinky’s chin raised to peer at Reverend Beecher who stood in anticipation. Betsy whispered in his ear. He kneeled to pick up Margaret’s ring before meeting Pinky’s eyes.

“With this ring, I do wed thee to freedom,” the Reverend said placing it on her hand.

 

Brooklyn, 2015.

By the time the last song of worship ended, and Kelsey had yet to arrive. I looked behind me quickly during prayer in the dark auditorium and can’t see the last row, where she might have returned. After all, she did spend years there without me knowing. With all heads bowed and eyes closed, I prayed, God, give me the chance to show that I can learn how to give up the right to my personal space this week instead of being the way I was before—that I can be like Christ and love someone who I don’t even know. Because like your Word says, it’s nothing notable to love someone that’s easy to love. Awareness of Pastor Eric’s prayers interjected my personal one, saying, “Lord, grant your mighty peace to the family of our church member who passed away this weekend. Equip the NYPD with what they need to catch the trafficker and solve this case. Do what only you can do, God.” Who was he talking about? I had to know.

Following the congregation’s collective “Amen,” I still couldn’t bear the weight of knowing someone had died. Who the hell was it? I ran through the list of people in my head that had been writing prayer requests for sickness, but I didn’t remember hearing a follow-up about those. What if it was Emily? Emily was the best keyboard player we had, and I knew her pneumonia was bad last fall, but I thought she got better. Did I ever text her back about helping her make meals while she couldn’t walk around? I hated the thought that I forgot to do that. I’ll text her tonight and just tell her I forgot to hit send on my message.

I resolved to pull out my iPhone now, knowing I’d probably forget to do it with grocery shopping looming over my Sunday afternoon. It might not hurt to Google the news in Brooklyn, while I’m already on my phone. But if I knew anything about people having their phones out during church, I should probably open a notes page first. Except that wouldn’t work since Pastor Eric was only giving his opening story that’d probably be a metaphor in the sermon later on. Why would I even pretend to take notes if all he’s talking about getting stuck in traffic? My curiosity overcame my concerns. I needed to clear my conscience of knowing whether or not I could’ve done something if I found out sooner. I clicked the article from yesterday titled: “Brooklyn Murder and Unexpected Trafficking Bust.”

Kelsey’s name lit up my screen. She went home Friday to be reported dead the next morning and abandoned by what her neighbors called a loving boyfriend. My eyes scrolled furiously to read that the NYPD found further evidence of pimp activity. Her boyfriend had been selling her to the neighborhood for sex—evidence that traced back to years of business—but he escaped the scene. The last sentence of the article included a quote from Pastor Eric’s interview. “As a victim of human trafficking, her hidden Bible in the kitchen cabinet is evidence of a miracle at hand…to somehow come to church every week without her boyfriend knowing and to keep believing? Praise God she never actually married him. Now she can find true freedom in Christ in heaven!” Well, I guess that explains the bruises on her knees. It’s a shame no one asked what they were from.

Pastor Eric’s story ended, and I locked my phone to pay attention. “Turn with me to Luke 4:18-19. This week we will continue our series on how the freedom of Christ impacts our personal lives…”


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Your Friend With a Swimming Pool

by Helen Healey

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2017 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIII at The King's College. The following piece tied for first place. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Thatcher.

 

You’ve been staring at the tips of your socks and watching the red light on your ankle monitor blink for two hours now. You’re sitting on your bed, surrounded by tin foil and an elastic exercise band, a silver spoon and a small syringe, an old bag of orange slices -- caught in the eye of the dope tornado. You feel good. You’re not even thinking about the stupid thing you did.

Your old cat Kimba with a hip injury climbs on your bed and rubs herself next to your palm, but you can’t take your mind off the sock. “That’s my sock,” you think, “and that’s Kimba,” but you don’t move your hand to pet her. It’s in the high 80s outside today and your air conditioning isn’t very good. You’re sweating, badly, but it’s hard to take your mind off the sock. “It’s 82 degrees,” you remember, and that’s sweat on your arm.

The truth is if your house were on fire you wouldn’t budge from that spot on your bed. You’d still be thinking about your sock, like a true junkie. 

You hear a cabinet open and close downstairs and then here it is: the sweet spot. First there’s a warm feeling in your chest and then your veins expand and contract and turn into ice. They’re on vibrate and you feel like the guy in the 5 Gum commercial, basking in a pond of magnetic marbles.

Suddenly you’re not on your bed anymore, but lying on the cold sand with your girlfriend Heidi. You’re back a few months ago, before the stupid thing you did. You’re both lying on your backs looking at the overcast sky and you’re holding onto her pointer finger. It’s a Thursday and you just shot the white lady into your left forearm for the first time and you look into Heidi’s eyes and ask if she feels anything yet. “Not really,” she answers, and you hold onto her pointer finger staying quiet, listening to the sound of the bay and you have butterflies in your stomach but you try to relax, filling your diaphragm with air. An airplane is landing overhead and you hear its engine. Next thing you know you’re making love to her, right there in the sand. It’s freezing and you keep your face on her neck so both of you are warm enough. You feel the cold sand in your ear and smell the bay and her metallic-lime hair.

And then you open your eyes and you’re back in your room. The junk has run its course.

There’s the lighter and the spoon from your kitchen and the orange slices. And the tin foil. There’s your sock and there’s Kimba. You realize your mouth tastes like vinegar and Heidi hasn’t come to visit you since you’ve been stuck at home -- since the stupid thing you did.

Your mom is screaming your name now. She wants to know what you want for lunch. You’re itching all over. “I’m not hungry,” you yell back. You rub your face. You feel pretty nauseous.

You open the window and feel the sunlight on your forearm. You look down at the blinking light on your ankle and you itch even more.

You look outside and there’s Jack, your neighbor, in a pair of red swim trunks doing push-ups in his backyard. You’ve never met Jack, but he looks like a good kid to you. Maybe when this whole thing blows over, you’ll introduce yourself, and if you get on well you and Jack and Heidi can swim in his pool. That is, if Heidi could just forget about what you did.

When he’s through with the push-ups, you watch him reach his arms up toward the sun and take a delicious breath of air.  He climbs up the steps to an above-ground swimming pool, a big blue tub. The water reflects Jack’s image and you can tell he has big strong arms. He probably does push-ups everyday. Jack slaps a pair of goggles over his eyes and dives right in.

Your stomach feels rotten and he sun is making it worse.

Jack glides back and forth, dolphin-kicking his feet. You imagine yourself doing the same, moving through the ice with Jack, the sun on your back. 

 


Thumbnail image by Eleanor Allen.

Craving

by Joesph Cambonga

Editor's note: 'Craving' was the first piece published in our Morning Breath II series in February 2017. The series also includes 'Lines' and 'Not the Same' by Sabrina Sanchez, 'Wedding Invitation' by Dean Graham, and 'Ownership' by Abbie DeHaas.

She wants chocolate. Some candy bar you never heard of. She doesn’t know where to get it either. But it’s the only thing that will make the cramps go away.

You’re watching Finn and Jake fight the Ice King in this week’s Adventure Time, slouched on the couch you bought off eBay last week. It has a couple tears, but it beats sitting on the wood floor. You turn up the volume every time she yells for you.

“Remember the pie!” she says, shooting you in the head with a pillow.

It was Thanksgiving. You were begging her to go to Costco because they have the moistest pumpkin pie ever, and you didn’t want to take the two-hour trip to Red Hook because the Broncos were holding on to a touchdown lead against the Giants. They lost. But when she came back past midnight, you both ate two whole pies. “Damn right,” you said.

So you promise you’ll get the candy bar. Not because she is pregnant and going through mood swings, or because you’re doing it out of a commitment lasting for five years and some months, but because you haven’t had any action since your honeymoon in Jamaica. Maybe, if you do this one thing for her, then according to logic, she’ll do the same for you. Isn’t that what marriage is about?

You pick up the pillow, scream in it, and go over to the bedroom. You place it under her head, but she turns away from you. You kiss her on the shoulder. On the nightstand, you see the ring you proposed to her at graduation, and you place yours right beside it. Everybody has their urges, but you’re glad you didn’t follow yours last night. That run away from Boston at the bar last night, with the dead tooth but eyes like honey, was not worth it.

You turn off the TV, got to the kitchen and drink some water, staring out the window at a girl in an oversized t-shirt smoking on the fire escape across the street. You toss the plastic cup into the sink and leave.

When you close the front door, the black plastic number nine falls off. You don’t stick it back up because no one comes over anyways. Your frat brothers haven’t reached out, so you stopped poking them on Facebook. They all wear suits and work in the Financial District as consultants and lawyers, with their roof-top parties and skyline penthouses. What would they want with a Philosophy major who makes lattes at The Standard, unless it’s to sell insurance.

The hallway smells like piss. The stained green carpet and torn wallpaper make the place a set for some cheap 40’s noir movie. On your first step, there is a squish. Since you moved in, you kept telling yourself you will set aside $40 of your bi-weekly paycheck, and sooner or later, you’ll move out into some brownstone by Prospect Park. But if you don’t stop going to the Dizzy Pig on Houston street, drinking more than three beer-and-shots, then might as well be buried here in Chinatown.

You flinch when the light bulb flickers. Cats meow in room six. The old hag probably didn’t feed them yet. You remember how one of her cats got stuck in your kitchen vent. How you used a piece of string to lure it out but its claws got stuck on to your hand.  You hope she hasn’t flatlined yet . . . for their sake.

You shield your face from the sun. The humidity blitzes, and you choke on your own salvia. You cough, pat your back, and realize you forgot your backpack with the red Camelback water bottle. Should you go back up those creaky stairs? You’re not trying to fry like an egg on these streets. Screw it. Having to go back into your piss-stained apartment, only for your wife to see you without her fix. No. Screw that.

A young man walking a pack of dogs passes by, and they sniff and bark at you. You smile at them, remembering when you asked your mom for a Rottweiler. She said no because she cleans your shit already. So you got a brother instead.

You cross the street, and a delivery bike swerves around you. He flicks you off, but crashes into the back of a taxi. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. You enter the corner-store, where you get a Marlboro for 50 cents, and ask the clerk if he has the candy bar. He just stares at you. You look at his gray mustache and crow’s feet, and break eye contact, staring at the condoms behind him. You ask again, but nothing. And you ask again . . . and again.

“What?” he screams, “what, what?” and points at the rubbers, “Huh?”

“No!” you say, “forget it.”

You go to the back of the store, grab a bottle of orange juice, drop a dollar off at the counter, and walk out. You go to Columbus park, sit on a bench, and drink your juice. You watch a chess game. For starts, you know she spends $30 on organic wine and gourmet cheese at Vending Mike’s near Union Square. You don’t understand the appeal of the place. Why anybody likes guacamole ice cream is beyond you. But it’s where she gets Israeli-made olive oil. If she came across anything food-related, it would be there. Besides, their recycled toilet paper is soft.

You head to the 6 train at Lafayette street, swipe your Metro card, pass the turnstile, and look at the marque. Four minutes. You lean on the green metal pillar, hovering your foot past the edge of the platform, and looking down at all the garbage on the tracks. There’s a fat rat running around with its head stuck in an empty Cheetos bag.

You remember your last job as an usher at the Angelika Film Center. You watched people throw full bags of popcorn on the floor when the credits rolled, and you had to wipe the condiments station every half-hour because it was never not covered in ice and butter and salt. You also saw a hobo, with vomit all over himself, passed out by the gate you closed after your graveyard shift. You propped him up against the wall.

After that night, your boss Dick, who you saw on camera smacking a microphone in the box office (he has a short-temper for employees who don’t make customers sign the receipts), gave you a mop and told you to clean the mess up. You went to the basement of the theater, took some bleach and dish soap and window cleaner, mixed it all up in a bucket, and poured it over the dry food chunks. Dick then tells you take graffiti-remover and scrub off the racial slurs and penis drawings spray-painted on the gate while you’re outside. You tried to cover your nose and mouth with your shit, but still felt queasy. You still hope don’t have cancer from breathing in all those fumes.

The train approaches. The doors stop where you stand. You give a soft applause, taking it as a sign of good luck from the universe. The doors open. Only a few people are in the car. You take a seat across from a guy wearing yellow Beats headphones. You read the ads posted overhead: one is for Long Island University, as a black lady with a stethoscope around her neck smiles at you; another ad is for a survey on marijuana, the word “Addicted?” in red letters; another ad is for subway safety awareness, to always inform officials about any suspicious packages by calling 1-800-NOW-BOMB. You squint your eyes at a black square in the corner of the Bomb ad. It’s a card for a psychic. At least they are cheaper than shrinks.

It takes three stops to get to Union Square. You get off the train, walk up the stairs, and hear tambourines from people in white robes. They’re sitting in a circle, mumbling mantras.

You exit the station, but a lady with a baby carriage needs help getting down the stairs. You help her, and she asks for a swipe, so you give her one; then you exit the station. You cross the street and enter Vending Mike’s. Most men are in plaid shirts and suspenders, and most girls have glasses and nose rings. The check-out line circles all around the store. Where the hell is this candy bar going to be? You walk down the desserts aisle, and don’t know if what you are looking at is chocolate or not. Buzzwords like “No Preservatives!” and “Locally Made!” take up the packaging, and you pick up a blue bag of what looks like jellybeans, but the words are in Russian. You see one of the employees in a red vest restocking dried mango slices.

“Excuse me,” you say to him, and he turns to you. You ask him if he has the candy bar. He blinks. You look around at the people scurrying, carrying baskets and totes. You ask again.

“Hold up,” he says, “let me ask my manager.” He stares, stands, blinks . . . then leaves.

He doesn’t come back. You walk around and find him flirting with a girl with pigtails, who’s offering samples of 100% free-range salmon. You ask her about the chocolate, and she says she used to offer samples of it last month. She says the candy bar has purple wrapping, a gold star logo, and is half cacao. But last week, Vending Mike’s stopped selling the chocolate because the candy company couldn’t afford the shelf space. You ask her if another store sells it, and she tells you to try the farmer’s market in Flushing. You ask her again if there is another store in Manhattan. She says that’s where she gets it. You say thanks, and try a sample of the salmon. It’s too salty.

You walk to the Doughnut Pub on 7th avenue. A small cup of black coffee and two Boston creams lifts your spirits. You tip the waiter $3 since you’ve been coming here for the past month at 5:30 in the morning before your shift starts.

You take the 4 train to 42nd, and walk the hallways in the belly of Times Square, not acknowledging the fight between two bearish guys in hockey jerseys. You barely make it on the 7 train, squeezing between the doors and a small woman in her winter jacket. After a couple stops, your ears pop as you go under the East River. After coming up the tunnel, you see out the window the Empire State and Chrysler building. You yawn, and look down at all the cars moving left and right, forward and backward. You look at the people around the train car, swiping on their phones and staring up at the ceiling. You close your eyes, and laugh. You’re going to be a father. You have a beautiful wife and a job. Everything is alright . . . right?

Even if your boss thinks you never have enough teaspoons at your workstation, you still make enough money for the simple things, like whisky and pumpkin pie and Netflix and hopefully this candy bar. You remember your boss asking if you would be interested in bartending, since some are going to be fired for taking shots behind the bar with the hostess. Yes, you nodded, and started making mimosas during breakfast. Even though you pour the orange juice first, and then the champagne, and the drink fizzes and overflows, it’s good enough to soothe people’s hangovers.

You get off at Willets Point. Overlooking the meadows, you spot those old towers from the World Fair far off in the distance. You ask the woman stuck in the MTA booth about the Farmer’s Market. She tells you it’s on Main Street, near the Botanical Garden. You should have gotten off on the next stop. You shrug, and head to Corona park, walking to the Unisphere. Admiring the water fountains, you try to remember the last time you took a stroll in the park on such a sunny, clear day. You walk down the path by the pools, hoping on the cement edge and walk like its tightrope. Passing a playground, the kids jumping and running around, you jump, clicking your heels, and walk on.

You approach the Botanical gardens. A lady with a pearl neckless tells you entry requires a donation. You give her a dollar and some coins. When you enter, the flowers take your breath away. You forgot what clean air feels like. The yellows, the oranges, the purples and pinks. You rub your eyes. There’s crates of plums, cabbages, tomatoes, corn; and sacks of coffee beans, pinto beans, fava beans; and tables of yams, eggplants, cucumbers. You walk around, checking for any brown spots like in the supermarket on Bleecker Street. None.

You see a stand selling caramel apples, and pull out your wallet, but put it back. Then, behind the glistening bronze fruit, there is a purple banner with a gold star. You go up, and there is a guy with glasses wearing overalls, putting tin boxes in the back of a blue Ford truck.

“Are you out of those candy bars?” you ask.

“Unfortunately,” he says, then points, “there’s the last bar.” Sitting on the bench, a chucky fella stuffs his mouth.

You ask the candyman if he knows where more would be. He tells you he will be back with more bars next week. I just need one bar you plead, and he wipes his glasses, and says there’s nothing he can do. You both shake hands, and you leave the garden without a chocolate or a caramel apple.

As the sun sets, you walk up Main Street. All the shops are in Chinese. One of these places must sell more than just fried ducks. Screw it. You’re waiting for the 7 train, sitting on a wooden bench. You take off your shoes and stretch your toes. Maybe a foot rub will make it up to her. A busker with a trumpeter plays softly, picking up the notes her and there. You give him a thumbs-up. He gives you one back. It’s night time, the train arrives, and you slug yourself inside the car, sit down with your shoes on your lap, and nod off.

You yawn. There’s a homeless guy with shopping cart sitting across from you. You see a green sack of glass bottles piled on the car, but notice the candy bar against the grates. You point at it, and he leans in to you, smiling without teeth. He fishes it out the cart. It has a gold star.

“Where did you find that?” you ask.

“It dropped off the back of truck,” he says, “lots of cool things fall of the back of trucks.”

You open up your wallet and there’s nothing but lint. You tell him your wife is pregnant, and she’s been craving for that candy bar. He laughs. You ask him to follow you to a bank at the next stop. You will give him $20. He blinks. You say $50. He blinks. $100. He yawns. You hand your shoes to him, but he pushes them away, and tosses the candy bar to you.

“It’s just a piece of chocolate,” he says.

You shake his hand, but he wraps you in a hug, and you pat him on the back.

“Good luck with your family,” he says.

The train stops at 42nd and you put your shoes back on and leave. He waves goodbye at you, and you wave back. While heading to the 1 train, you inspect the candy bar: 200 calories and 50% cacao. You put the candy bar in your pocket, board the 1 train, and touch the chocolate every now and then to be sure you still have it.

You get out the subway, walk east on Canal Street, and go up those creaky stairs. The old hag yelling to keep it down. The cats meow. It still smells like piss, the lights still flicker, and the nine still on the ground, but you open the front door, and there she is, on the couch watching the news. You sit by her, propping your head on her shoulder.

“Where have you been all day?” she asks, rubbing your head.

“Seriously?” you say, then stand up.

“Yes. Seriously.”

You throw the candy bar right beside her. She can’t believe you were listening to her, that you spent your entire day off over a piece of chocolate. She uncovers the purple wrapping, breaks into two, and gives you a piece, smiling at you. She chews, and smiles at you with chocolate on her teeth. You bite in. It’s not as sweet pumpkin pie. 


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

A Letter From Rudolph

by Rachel Sheldon

Editor's note: 'A Letter From Rudolf' was the third piece published in our Smoking Under the Mistletoe series in December 2016. The series also includes 'The Christmas of '96' by Lis Stanford, 'Childhood Wasteland' by Isabelle McCauley, and 'Years Only Happen Here Now' by Jaxon Bradshaw.

Deer son,

I heard that you gots accepted into Santa’s Reindeer Flight Academy. Well, I can’t even say I’m proud cause we all saw that one comin – its really just busyness as usual. Yer mum and I knew you weres a good flier, even as a calf, though you gots your antlers tengled in trees and tellyfone wires all the time and you always smelt like burnin cause they ‘lectro-fried you so much. Well, you don’t haftah be worried about tellyphone wires here in the North Pole cause we don’t have so many of those – Santa likes to keep us off the grid like some Area 51 or something. We don’t have no TV or radio or nothin. But don’t thinks you’ll be bored – trainins will start as soon as you get here and if you work real hard at it and make top-of-yer-class, when you graduate, you might be qualyfied ‘nuff to pull the sleigh for the Bossman himself. Hell, you could even be my understudy!

But don’t thinks for a second it’s gonna be easy, son. Yessiree, the Bossman runs a tight ship over heres. The firsts thing the Bossman’s gonna do is take your phone away and stick it in one of those plastic baggies so they’ll be no textin or messagin or tweetin or instagrammin or snapchattin or googlin or pinterestin or talkin to Alexa durin yer trainin. Last cadet who was textin during a flight practice texted himself right into a tree and totaled the practice sled. One of Santa’s little spy-cameras caught the whole thing, so now you’re probably gonna haves to watch the info video as a warnin before you starts flyin. After that, Santa’ll take your clothes and all your other stuffs and issue you a North Pole red uniform. You’ll look so official, I might even tears up a little bit to see it -- but makes sure you always wears it or you’ll get written up.

Next, don’t be flyin near any of those black buildings. I know you was always a curious calf, but I’m real serious about this one. No one knows what Santa does in those black buildins – only the highest rankin elf chiefs can go in and out of theres. Really, son, don’t walk around those buildins or even ask about ‘em. My old flyin partner, Racer, he was a real hooful. Well one day he says to me, “I’m goin in those buildins, Rudolf,” and I said, “Don’t you dares, pinecone-brain,” but he went in anyway and you know what? I don’t know what, I haven’t seens him since. And the funny thing is when I ask about him, everyone seems to go deaf or act like they don’t no him – even his mum does it. I mean, I kind of geddit, he was a forget-able kind of guy, but still…

Anyways, things have been pretty quiet over heres now that the Christmas season is over. I really can’t waits for you to come. If the other kids tease you ‘cause youre my son, don’t think too much on it – theyre just jealous you’ve got such good flyin blood in you. And I want to tell you for a second that I don’t believe all them rumors about you having a blinkin belly button. Errm – I s’pose unless you do have a blinkin belly button, in which case, it’s okay, son, cause thats who you are. Even if who you are is kind of embarassin.

I guess I should warn you about some other rumors you might hear while yer out heres. You might hear some stories about me doin some interestin things in my younger days – well, don’t believe ‘em. Although I guess we was pretty crazy back then, now that I thinks about it. I mean, me and the guys used to gets together and smoke hay in the big barn down under Santa’s Woodshop while the elves tap-tapped away with their dumb little hammers. I’m thinkin you best be bringin some ear-stuffers or plug-‘ems or somethin because all that ruckus is real ‘noxious and it makes it hard to sleep. I guess it’s not so much of a big deal ‘cause not many toys are handmade anymore – only the workshop over the barn is saved for the elves who have to be makin stuff out of wood for all them hipster parents out in Brooklyn. Everythin else is made on the main factory floors, where Santa’s got all them newfangled 3D printers.

Anyways, sorry, I gots distracted. I was tellin you a story so you can say you herd it from me firsts. So one day, Dasher and Crasher and I are smokin in the barn below the woodshop cause there’s no little hidey spy-cameras in the stall furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t double-check to sees if I stepped on my cigarette all the way cause the next thing we knows, the hay is all lit up and the alarms are goin off and it gets real hot in there real fast. Course, Dasher is the first one to make a run for it – we call him Dasher for a reason. And when Santa and his guards come runnin, I had to say Crasher knocked into a kerosene lamp and started the fire, cause he’s the biggest clutz and he knocks into everythin – we call him Crasher for a reason. (Acshually, we call everyone everythin for a reason. Like, Vixen, we call her that cause – well, I guess I ain’t gonna tell you that story till your older.) So the mean brute elf chiefs, they puts the fire out while Santa gives me a talking-to, Dasher gets off scot-free, of course, and I ain’t seen Crasher since – but its okay cause he was a clutz and always pulled the sleigh off-kilter anyways. So that story is at least a teensy bit true.

Oh, and while we’re on the topik of elfs, you best be watchin out for those carnies. They steals everythin. Not that we own anything here at the North Pole – everythin is for the good of everyone. But elfs really don’t like sharin. Lots of ‘em got sent here on probation – that’s why they’re wearin stripes – it’s got nothing to do with no candy canes. I tell you what, tho, some of those guys make some real good Christmas cookies, if you get my drift, you just gots to know which ones to ask.

I’m tryin to think if I have any more stories from when I was yer age. None have ever topped that time Blitzen and I threw-up down ten chimneys after a bender up in Sigh-beeria. They call him Blitzen for a reason. Anyway, that Christmas Eve, the snows came down real thick and not even my Las Vegas strip nose could get us out of that whiteout, so Boss had us hole up with some Mon-goals for a few hours until the skies cleared and we could see the North Star again. The nay-tivs were confused about who we were cause we don’t ever really bring em presents. It was awkward cause there was nothin much for us all to do ‘cept sit around the fire and stare at each other, so the chief brought out some vodka. Those Mon-goals sure know how to stay warm in the winter! Course, then we flew so crooked we ended up gettin off track and going over the coast of Africa, and we don’t really drop off many presents there, neither, so it got us a few hours behind and kids in the Philly-peans didn’t get their toys that year, just somethin called a soo-nam-ee.

Now, we don’t usually get stuck places like that, so tell yer mum not to be too worried about strandins. Though Santa does spend a lot of time in Cuba some Christmas Eves, which is okay by me cause we gets to wait besides the beach and eat some cocoa-nuts.

Makes sure you remember to salute Santa when he comes on by, and keep your portrait of him in your dorm straights, not crooked. You gotta be real nice to Mrs. Clause, too, even tho she keeps tellin me to grow out my fa-shul fur and cover up my tattoo. She say its unprofeshinul-lookin and what if one of the children were to see it? Well, firsts of all, no children should be seein us – if they do, we’re already being real unprofeshinul-like. They might see our vomits, but they’ll never see us. Second, it’s a tattoo of my granddad’s antlers – how could she ask me to cover ol gramps? I justs wanna say she’s lucky we don’t have no fingers on our hooves, cause you know right qwick which one she’d be gettin.

Agh, I’m teachin you bad manners again, son. You gots to eat this letter so yer mum doesn’t see it. Speakin of which, how is your mum? I know times have been tough for her and you, seein as I’m always busy flyin around the world and stuff, but just know that I always love you two even if everyone in the North Pole is one big family and we’re not s’posed to have close intra-personal bonds or speshul attachyments to any one or two individuals for the good of the communitee.

I’m glad yer comin up cause I miss you, but I’ve also been thinkin that I’m gettin kind of old now and I ain’t so sure about who’s going to lead the team once my nose’s batteries start runnin dry. I was thinkin it could be you, but I don’t know now if all you’ve gots is a blinkin belly button. You’d have to fly mighty strange to see anythin out there. I sure wish you’d been born with antlers like wind-sheeld wipers or somethin even more useful, maybe like fires that come out of your eyes. Oh, well. Honestly it ain’t much of a big deal ‘cause Santa has an ipad and I know for sures that thing has a flashlight.

Anyways, it was good talkin to you, son. I sure hopes you get this letter okay and it doesn’t get taken by no Santa drones or nothin. I gots to go now cause the whistle just blew for the work shift and we all need to get goin if we wanna eat later. I can’t think of no other advice you’ll need, cept remember you can’t be wearin no earbuds or nothin when you fly over here --- it’s a safety hazard.

Sorry about the messy handwritin. I didn’t want no elf doing it in case he got the words wrong again cause frankly elfs have got no grammer and they’re kind of disslex-ic, which isn’t to say theyre bad people – theyre bad people cause of other reasons – but I wanted you to see your father’s own words written by his own teeths and not some elf’s grubby hand.

So, yeah. I know I’m two days two late, but Merry Christmas, son. I hopes I’ll be seein you come the New Year.

 

Yer lovin father,

     Rudolf


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

To Dust

by Dean Graham

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2016 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XII at The King's College. The following piece placed first. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Churchill.

 

“cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

—Genesis 3:17-19

I.

Tucked among the rolling hills and tree groves of Greenwood Cemetery—the 478 acre oasis for both the dead and the living hidden in the heart of Brooklyn—a cobblestone path runs to the top of an unassuming knoll. The stones are old and worn and in the fall clumps of brown leaves gather along the edges of the path. As the path wanders across an uneven asphalt road and begins to make its way up the hill, another shape appears scattered among the pointed edges of the leaves. First, it is the dull red of a single apple, closer in size to a young tomato. As the path continues to climb, the apples strewn along the ground become increasingly frequent.

After a minute or so, the path cuts sideways across the hill and the crest comes into view. At the top of the hill stands a large, ornate grave marker, taller than a man, with the three points of a triangle and names inscribed on its three concave sides. Small, plain gravestones sit in imperfect rows all around it. Draped over everything are the long, ancient branches of a single apple tree. Its branches, exhausted from carrying the weight of a century, droop down and touch the ground behind the monument. On a crisp fall day, crooked shadows mix with the weakening sunlight in a dance that is alive yet wary, resigned to the coming winter. The air is full of the sweet scent of ripening apples. The ground is covered with the dull brown of dying leaves.

 

II.

My parent’s house in North Carolina—the house I grew up in—was designed to imitate a farmhouse, even though it is in the middle of a neighborhood and they have a city address. It is a large house, covered in stone and white wooden siding. A narrow porch wraps around the front of the house and along one side, until it connects with the screen porch in the back. The side of the porch looks out over a small lake. The lake is always a muddy brown color, but it is pleasant to look at. A set of wooden stairs descends from the porch and points toward the lake. When I was in high school, I would sit at the top of these stairs, lean back against one of the columns supporting the roof above me, and read through the evening.

One evening when I was a junior in high school, my mother came out on the porch and asked what I was reading. I don’t remember the book, but it would have been either a classic novel or a theological book recommended by a teacher from my small Christian high school. Either way, it wasn’t schoolwork. I spent very little time worrying about school then, and I think my mother knew that.

“Are you done with your homework?”

“Enough of it. I’ll do some more in the morning when I get to school.”

For years, I had enjoyed the nonchalance of a student who gets very good grades and puts in very little effort, partly because I didn’t have to and partly because I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t ignoring my homework for the sake of playing video games or sleeping in. I spent free time sitting on the porch, reading Fitzgerald and Nietzsche and Calvin. I thought this was the proper way to learn: quietly, intently, focused on the learning itself and not the sort of the application-building that my school guidance counselors were starting to talk about.

But recently, the idea of a future that was somehow at stake had begun to take root in the back of my mind. Being captain of my school’s swim team was more than just a fun afterschool activity or a futile attempt to get girls’ attention by breaking records. It was a line item for my resume. Leading a Bible study for other students on Friday morning before school was about studying God’s word, but it was also great leadership experience. When I chose to read Paulo Coelho on a Thursday evening instead of doing calculus problems, was I exchanging a good college, and a good job after that, for a few pleasant evenings on the porch?

I explained all this to my mother. I told her how I wasn’t that worried about my grades or about going to a great college, even though I could probably get into one. One of my teachers that year, Mr. Cohen, had worked hard trying to help his students understand that satisfaction and self-worth shouldn’t have anything to do with your grades, the college you go to, or how much money you make afterward. Mr. Cohen had received a full scholarship to the University of Florida. When they found out, his parents bought him a brand-new Mustang. He gave it back.

I don’t know what my mother thought as I explained all this too her. I’m sure I was telling her nothing she didn’t already know. If she worried about my future, she didn’t show it. She told me I was right, that the college I went to would not define me. That I didn’t need to worry about the future, things would work out great. She probably also told me not to neglect my homework too much. Looking back, I wonder if she was just glad to see me in a peaceful state of mind.

 

III.

The breath caught in my throat as I listened to the phone ring. I stared at the string of numbers as they lit up across my screen. I closed my eyes, opened them again, reached for the iPhone on the desk in front of me. Hello?

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I had gotten permission to use my professor’s office for a phone interview for an internship the coming summer. It was a successful, exciting startup company, and having recently transferred to my college’s business program, I knew this internship was my chance to prove myself. I had researched the company thoroughly. I had done a mock interview with a professor. I had been confident. Relaxed. Ready. Now I could barely release the simple hello lodged in my throat.

My interviewer was a graduate of my college, which is how I had gotten the opportunity in the first place. This was the first time we had interacted outside of email, and while she was polite and maybe even friendly, there was no warmth in her voice. Maybe that’s why I choked. The first question was barely a question at all: Why don’t you walk me through your resume? Shit, why didn’t I have a copy of my resume in front of me? Why was I talking so fast? Why was I talking so much? After what felt like ten minutes it occurred to me that maybe she wanted the chance to speak again. Do you have any questions about any of that? I asked. Yes, I do. Her voice was cold.

A few minutes later, we exchanged awkward goodbyes and she hung up the phone. I knew I had blown it. I could write a good cover letter, and I had done great interviews in the past for small time writing or editing internships. But this was for a real job, a respectable job, and I was out of my league. My mock interview that morning, the one I had done so well in, that had made me feel so ready, was part of an exercise in my Business Communications class. My classmates had been excited when the professor mentioned that my mock interview wasn’t just theoretical; it was practice for a real interview that very afternoon. As I walked down the hall past empty classrooms and tried to think about something else, I turned a corner and walked by one of those classmates.

“How did the interview go?” he asked, his voice full of optimism. I froze. Should I admit how embarrassed I was, how badly I had messed up this opportunity? If I invited him in to see my failure, would he have words of encouragement, of advice?

“It went fine,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I hear back from them.”

 

IV.

“It’s not about Christianity. It’s about image.”

My friend leaned forward as he spoke. We were sitting at a table by the bar at the Chip Shop, a small pub in Cobble Hill that I frequented for their fish and chips and rotating assortment of British and Irish beer. I had just finished telling him about a story I was writing for a school competition. A memory had recently resurfaced in my mind, I had explained, of myself in high school, sitting on my porch and telling my mom that I wasn’t worried about college or my future. This had been just a few months before I heard about the college I would eventually attend, enthralled by its call to excellence and talk of “Godly ambition.” That night on the porch had been a moment of peace and clarity, and I told my friend I wondered how I could get that back.

My friend had done everything right. He was kind and well liked. He had aced his classes in college and graduated a semester early. Now he was working a good job in New York City. He was also suffering from depression and existential crisis, the side-effects of realizing that he had spent years of his life striving for something that ended up being profoundly unsatisfying. As we sat and reflected on the nature of our small Christian college, where I was still a student, I explained to him how another friend, someone I considered myself close too, had begun avoiding me at school. How I had confronted her to ask what was wrong and she had told me, with an avoidance of specifics that was almost impressive, that she had issues with my reputation. What did I do? I had asked. Her response: I don’t know. I didn’t ask.

I looked across the table at my friend. He was wearing a sleek sports coat and slacks that fit perfectly. He wasn’t even coming from work; he had spent the evening alone at the Whitney. I was wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans, a worn hat covering my long, unruly hair. I had spent my afternoon watching Netflix and writing stories, recovering from a late night. By most accounts, I should have been learning from him, asking for advice, trying to emulate the success he had achieved. But here I was, taking a large sip of Kilkenny Cream Ale as I listened to him talk about crossroads, uncertainty, what his life was and what he thought it should be. I wondered how we could both be so lost.

 

V.

Deep into Greenwood Cemetery, past the apple tree, there is another, much larger hill. Groves of tall trees climb the hill on every side. The crest is narrow but long, stretching out across the center of the cemetery. I climbed this hill with Andrew on a Saturday afternoon. We had met that morning at a small coffee shop in Windsor Terrace. I forgot to bring cash, so Andrew paid for my coffee. As we sat at the narrow bar along the back of the coffee shop, Andrew told me he had left his job as an accountant to take an internship at a small production company in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had recently been made a full-time employee at the accounting firm, complete with healthcare benefits and his first trip to the dentist in years. Now he would be working the same sort of internship I might find as a college student. We sat at the bar and talked about books, about movies, about the web series he would be working on at his new job. We finished our coffee, and as we walked out into the November sun and turned our feet toward Greenwood Cemetery, we were happy.

At one end of the hill, there sits a large mausoleum from the early 1900s. Heavy stone walls climb toward an ornate green roof fifteen feet off the ground. Rows of small gravestones stretch out from the base toward the trees on every side. Above the stone entrance, something is inscribed in large Greek letters. It was the most impressive grave marker that Andrew and I had come across in our many hours walking the cemetery. After some searching, we found the name of the inhabitant inscribed on the stone. We searched the name on our smartphones and learned that this man had been intelligent, had worked hard, made large amounts of money, and had great influence in New York City. I would tell you his name, but six months later, I can’t remember who he was. Neither can Andrew.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

The Diary of B

by Alexa Rivera

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2016 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XII at The King's College. The following piece placed third. It was submitted on behalf of the House of ten Boom.

 

Dear Diary,

We moved into our new house today. Or rather, apartment. It’s Section 8 Housing, because that’s all we can afford right now, especially after Papa’s death. The first time I saw the apartment was the last time I ever wanted to set foot in it. The once-crimson paint had chipped and was now the ever-flattering color of raw chicken. There were a dozen tiny dents in the door as well. Bullet holes, probably, but I tried not to think about that.

The kitchen was cramped and there was no dishwasher, no microwave. The smoke alarm was right above the stove, which was a gas stove, and which only had two settings: Barely Cooking and Practically On Fire. There was no way Mama would be able to cook a meal for four without setting the alarm off. The alarm that none of us could reach because we’re all so short. That’s not a stereotype. It’s just true. Papa, who was the tallest in our family, was only 5’3”.

The bathroom was dimly lit, with a yellowing, flickering light just above the scratched and dirt-stained mirror. There was no curtain for showers. Hot water was extra, so we’d have to take our showers cold. There was a fist-sized hole above the browning toilet. I tried not to think too much about what happened there, either.

I try not to think about too much of anything.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

After throwing out wads of delinquent bills, I found out that I got accepted to that nice school Mama applied to for me. I should be happy about this, right? They have a nice performing arts program, just like I wanted. I’m kinda scared, though. It’s in the real nice part of town and I have to take the bus to get there. I’m scared other kids will think I don’t belong, especially since Mama can’t pay my tuition and especially since Papa, well, you know. By the Lord’s good grace, I got a full scholarship there. But I don’t really belong. I’ll never belong. I pray the Lord will protect me.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

There are so many more choices here than there were at my old school. They have dance classes and theater classes and even songwriting classes. I’m in one of those and it’s called Lyrical Study. Everybody brings in a song each week and we analyze it. We don’t have a car or a radio, so my songs are always the old ones that Mama sings when she’s cleaning. They’re also mostly in Spanish. The other kids think they can understand them since they’ve been in Spanish classes since freshman year, but they’re wrong. They only understand on the most basic levels and more often than not, I have to translate it for them because they’re too lazy to do it. The teacher asked me to try and bring in some English songs next time because she thought it would make it easier for everyone else. No one ever thinks about what’s easier for me except me and Mama.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

How come we only read books by white guys? Europeans aren’t the only ones writing books, you know. There are five other continents out there. Maybe I’ll become a writer myself and show them how it’s done. Maybe I’ll start by writing the school to petition for a world literature class.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I’ve been frequenting the library a lot lately and reading everything they have (notice that I used the word ‘frequenting’). I’ve been studying all of the classic authors they made us read in English class more closely. I think it’s stupid that they call it English class. You don’t learn English, you just read literature. But anyways, this week I’m reading Emma by Jane Austen. I like the way she writes. I want to write like her.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

My teacher won’t add any more books to the class list, but if I can come up with a book list for the proposed class, I can get it added. I’m going to start with Don Quixote and work my way up from there.

- B

  

Dear Diary,

On the Russian front, I’ve added Anna Karenina and the Fountainhead to the list. From the Middle East, it’s One Thousand and One Nights. I picked that one especially because I believed it influenced many of the writers we focus on in English classes today. As far as Hispanic novels went, it was very hard to choose. These are the stories that are going to represent me as a person and the culture that I come from. I’m rather fond of Esperanza Rising, but it might be too simple for a high school level course.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I’ve submitted my proposal to the Principal. She says she’ll get back to me about the course’s approval within the week.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

The course will be taught next fall, if she can find someone to teach it. I’m very excited for this opportunity.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

Did you know that Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens? Maybe I should come up with a cool pen name. A lot of authors like to use their initials. Maybe I’ll do that, too. J. K. Rowling did it because her publisher didn’t want people to know she was a woman. They thought books by a woman wouldn’t sell in that genre. She proved them wrong. I want to be like her and prove everybody wrong.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I submitted a short story to the school’s literary magazine under the name ‘B.’ It was accepted and everyone is trying to figure out who wrote it. I won’t tell them that it’s me because I think it’s better that they don’t know.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I’ve submitted several more short stories since then, all anonymous. I’ve written copies of them and sent them out. The originals are in a folder under my bed. I’m going to keep them all together so that I can publish them all one day.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I’m old enough to work now, so I went out and got myself a real job. I still babysit the neighbors’ kids on the weekends, but at my new job I’ll be making $8 an hour! I’m going to save up to buy myself a computer, so that I don’t have to use the ones in the library no more. Sorry, anymore.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

Mama surprised me with a computer for my birthday! It’s nothing fancy, but I love it all the same. She used up all her tax refund money just to get it. I’m gonna spend the rest of the night typing up my stories so that I can send it to a publisher and so that I can make some more money to buy us more nice things. The first thing I’ll buy is a better apartment. There’s a girl at my school who says she doesn’t have to share a bedroom with anyone and that she’s got four bedrooms in her house. Four! And my poor Mama can only afford two. I share a room with her and my brothers share the other. We all share one bathroom. It would be so nice to each have our own rooms, but I don’t even know what I would do with all that space. As much as I hate living in this apartment, I think it brings Mama and I closer together. Some of the kids at my school just have no respect for their parents. They only try to become friends with me if they want to be rebellious. One time this kid even asked me for some weed. I didn’t have any weed, but he was willing to pay a lot, so I came back the next day with a Ziploc full of oregano. That night I took the family out to dinner at Chili’s, my treat.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I’ll be graduating soon and I’ve got enough stories now to make a book out of. I’m sending it to some publishers next week under the name A.A. Batista. Batista was my father’s name. My mother doesn’t use it anymore, but I do. I haven’t forgotten Papa. I never will.

People used to tell him that he’d never amount to anything and that his art was a waste of time. He didn’t make a lot of money from it, but he didn’t let his family starve. He got another job and spent his free time divided between us and the streets. He used to paint these beautiful murals on the sides of the walls downtown. Right where all the white people worked, and all the people like me lived. I often wondered how they could be so blind.

But Papa made his murals and hung out with his friends that Mama didn’t like.

And one day he was in the wrong place at the wrong time…

And well, you know.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

It’s been a few months since I sent my first manuscript in and still no reply. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of personal taste and not because I’m a terrible writer. I’ve worked so hard. I just wanna be worth something.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

I got my third rejection today. Maybe I really am a terrible writer. I wish they would tell me what I’ve done wrong, so that I know what to improve. Or maybe Mama’s right. Maybe my last name is too Cuban for them? Even if it was, I would never be ashamed of it. I’m not going to change who I am for them because that would mean that they’ve won. I can’t let them win. I have to show them that I’m worth something and that starts with me believing that I have worth.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

After 11 different publishers, someone finally agreed to publish my stories. Maybe I’m not so terrible after all. The royalties look promising, that is, if anyone even buys it. Hopefully, I get my first paycheck soon. The sooner I can move out of this dump, the better. Mama deserves a better home than this. She deserves a nice big kitchen to cook in.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

My first paycheck came. I’ve never seen so many zeroes in my life. I showed Mama and she told me we could go to any restaurant I wanted for dinner. I chose to go to Red Lobster and we all ordered whatever we wanted, without even looking at the price. Is this what financial stability feels like? If so, I like it a lot. I could get used to this.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

All the money has been deposited into my bank account. I wanted to give most of it to Mama, but she insisted that I’d earned it. I’m gonna help her pay for the few remaining months on the lease, and then we’re out of here. I’ve started looking at some houses in the nicer part of town. Some actual honest-to-goodness houses. Maybe we’ll be able to afford one of those four-bedrooms my classmates have told me about. Maybe we’ll even be able to afford five. A room for each of us and then one leftover for guests. We could start having guests over more often. We could have a home that we aren’t ashamed of.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

We went to the cemetery today to put some flowers on Papa’s grave. I told him about all the wonderful things that have happened that he never got to see. And Mama told me something important. She said to me, “And none of those things would have happened the way they did if he was still alive.” She’s right, though, because I never would have written about that awful apartment that we lived in. I never would have written about racism, gang violence, or drugs. I never would have been published in the school paper for speaking out against those things. Or maybe I would have, but I wouldn’t have felt as strongly about it. His death gave me a cause to fight behind. It served as a reminder of how precious one life is. Life can be taken at any moment, so you must constantly ask yourself what you have to show for it. For him, he had his artwork. He hung out with the wrong type of people, sure, but all he ever wanted was to be heard. He knew how important his voice was, so he knew he had to use it. It’s not his fault that some cop didn’t want to listen.

It is in this moment I think of a favorite poem of his: a poem I now hold close to my heart. The famous poem of Dylan Thomas, its last stanza quoted here:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I used to wonder what it meant. It used to be just simple words to me, void of any meaning. But now I know there’s something more. Don’t let your light burn out. Don’t let the darkness win. Speak up for what you believe. Don’t be silenced without a fight. I won’t be silenced. Not while I’m alive.

- B

 

Dear Diary,

We moved into our new apartment today. Except actually, it’s a house this time. It’s in the nicer part of town, because that’s all we can afford right now, especially after Papa’s death. The first time I saw the house was the last time I ever wanted to leave it. The once-white paint had been painted over and was now the ever-pleasant color of the sky. There was only one tiny hole in the door: a peephole set to just my height.

The kitchen was large and there was a dishwasher, and a microwave, too. The smoke alarm was off to the side, but still close enough to go off if we needed it to. The stove was electric and had five different burners, each with a wide variety of settings. There was no way Mama would be able to cook a meal for four without running out of space. We had an island in our kitchen now and even a bar to sit at.  

The bathroom was brightly lit, with a bright white light just above the freshly polished mirror. There was a curtain for shower that looked like a scene from the beach. I could pay extra for hot water now, so for the first time today I took a long shower.

I think a lot about who lived here before we did. I think about a lot of things now and turn all of my thoughts into stories.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

A Search For Things To Extol. 

by Jesse Inman

Part I

Early in the morning the God moved towards the sycamore tree and the clearing where the man and woman lay. He was whistling cold and strong, and the little rabbits ran from him and kicked up fallen leaves and rustled the ferns in the clearing.

The man awoke to these rabbits dashing past and he knew the God was coming. He rose and stoked the fire from a cinder to a small blaze and heated water. He was just bringing out the little bag of coffee beans from the canvas bag, when the woman stirred. She opened her eyes up to the sky and the faint twilight, and felt the warmth of the babe snuggled against her body. Then she felt the whistling through the trees and saw the man near the fire.  

He turned and met her eyes with his. She rose and came to the fire with the baby still against her breast, and the man and the woman looked out into the trees and hills where the God would come from. He poured the water through the beans he had ground and they passed the cup back and forth between them. The man placed his hand on the head of the child and stroked the soft black hair, but the child slept still. 

Then a buck broke through the front of the clearing, galloping from the direction of the God, scrambled through the long ferns on the western edge, and disappeared just as quick into the thick trees on the other side.  

The sky became an almost indigo blue, and the stars, almost hidden before by the hint of the rising Sun, shone with a newfound strength. 

The man saw the stars grow in power, and he looked into the woman’s eyes again.

“You and the boy could go into the thick trees.” He said.  

The woman looked back and touched the child’s head as well and said to the man,

“We are not the deer or the boar. The clearing is ours and you are ours. There is no hiding.”  

And the man grasped her hand and looked out again to the trees and hills where the whistle was growing. 

Then all was bright and loud and the God came past the sycamore. The child slept and the man and the woman sat with open eyes and the God clanged and shone from the front of the clearing to the back. 

The stars grew faint and the sun rose slowly hour-by-hour over the forest. No man lived in the clearing.  

The buck had run far off now and his coat was flecked with sweat. Here and there leaves had been stripped from the branches he dashed through, and had stuck to his haunches. He and his like and the God were alone in the forest.

Part II

There was a God who made a stone and the stone was beautiful.

And on the stone he laid a man and the man went back and forth from one side to the other and saw the whole stone and said “how am I here on this rock?”

And then the God laid a woman on the stone. The woman sat up and the man stopped his moving and did not ask the question, but he and the woman sat on the side of the rock and talked of all the great grand things that took place in front of them on the stone.


Thumbnail image by Rebekah Averett.




Billings, MT

by Jesse Scott Owen

Let me first tell you about where I am, and then I can tell you why I am here. I’m in Billings, Montana. I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. When you enter, there is a small kitchen to your left. There are probably a few dishes in the sink, and a few more in the drying rack to the left of the sink. A frying pan lives on the stove top. The refrigerator is full-sized. Inside there are bagels and bread, a gallon of milk, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, orange juice, beer, lunchmeat, mayonnaise, ketchup, sriracha, worchestershire sauce, butter, hummus, grapes, cream cheese, and limes. In the freezer there are four ice trays, breakfast burritos, and a bottle of Seagrams. On the fridge, affixed with a magnet from a local bank, is an invitation to my niece’s second birthday party. On top of the fridge is a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Los Generales. On the counter next to the fridge is a toaster and a microwave. The counter is an orange-red color, and the tile behind the counter is light blue. The cabinets are made of a light-colored wood, and the refrigerator is beige-white. The toaster is white and so is the microwave. 

Go into the apartment past the kitchen, into the living room. On the floor is a large grey rug. There is a wooden desk in the corner covered in papers and notebooks and sundry items. There is a small lamp on the desk. There is a green couch with a dark blue blanket tossed onto it, and in front of the couch is a low coffee table. On the coffee table is a metal ashtray, several empty or almost-empty packs of cigarettes, rolling papers, pouches of tobacco, a couple of yellow Bic lighters, a scattered deck of blue Bicycle playing cards, a coffee-table book of Kurt Vonnegut’s artwork, various receipts, a Swiss army-style knife, a small metal grinder, weed, a red glass bowl, less than a buck in change, and a dirty glass tumbler. Next to the couch is a short, wide bookshelf. The walls are painted off-white, and there are two windows in the far wall. In the windowsill on the right there sits a small dying bamboo plant.

There are three doors inside the apartment: Across from the kitchen is a doored closet. There's a small hallway from the living room, there is a door to the bedroom, and a door to the bathroom. In the bathroom there is a grey litterbox, and my personal grooming effects are strewn across the counter. There’s a small green shag rug on the bathroom floor. In the shower there is a bar of soap and a washcloth. The bedroom is dark and rarely used. A mattress lays in the middle of the room, and the walls are lined with short stacks of books. A tall wooden dresser sits across from the foot of the bed, and a mirror rests on the dresser. Various items are scattered across the top of the dresser. And a closet without a door holds clothes and cardboard boxes. 

Vernon, my gray-and-white cat, spends most of his time on the living room windowsills, or atop the refrigerator. I adopted him soon after I moved here, and now he’s spent more time in the apartment than I have. I try not to inconvenience him with loud music or smoke. Having a cat is better than having a friend, because if he trusts you, that trust is unconditional. Vernon does not hold it against me if I drop and break a glass, or if I forget the dishes. I demand his attention, he is kind enough to sit and listen. I really cannot say what I would do without him.

I work at a local movie theater, where I am an assistant manager. My bachelor’s degree is in art history and English literature.

I moved to Billings after college. I went to a small school in New York, and after graduation, didn’t find work in any field resembling my degree. I worked at an independent movie theater for eight months, and saved about $1200. I borrowed some money from my parents to move to Montana. I chose Billings because it sounded romantic, and I had heard that Montana was beautiful. It is beautiful, and I love to go out to the edge of the city and smoke and look at the mountains. I wonder if Montana is named for the mountains. I’ve never considered that until now. 

Throughout college I worried about college and I worried about my future. I wanted to be the best writer of my generation, the next Stephen King or Hunter S. Thompson or David Foster Wallace. The iconic white male writer, who smoked and drank and suffered from depression. In my senior year of college, in the last semester, I realized that I was going about it all wrong. I had thought: writers smoke and drink, so I will smoke and drink. Soon I discovered that I was subject to a cruel delusion, and my only connection to any literary sophistication was addiction, and just as well any alcoholic could call himself a writer. My father must be a writer, and my grandfather. My Uncle Mark too.

I became obsessed with the story of Henry J. Darger. He was the outsider artist. He was born and eventually died in Chicago, Illinois. He wrote novels that spanned thousands of pages. He illustrated his work with painting and collage. And he did it all for himself, in the comfort of his apartment. How lovely. His work was never found until he was near death, and he was never recognized for his genius in this life. How nice.

I dreamt of being a Henry Darger, of creating a huge wealth of work to be discovered after my death. But I would still be vying for approval, deluding myself into believing that I am a great. I know I am not good enough, I am no Darger. In locking myself away, I'd be admitting that I cannot be successful in this life. Maybe if I tried hard enough, I could do moderately well, even get a few books published. But not a great. And what is the point of living, if you are not a great? There surely can be none. 

I exiled myself, not to create great works, but because I knew I could not. I moved to Billings to be alone with my misery, and to survive, and to take care of a cat. My shame consumes me.

I still write. Sometimes I use my desk, but most often I sit on my couch with my legs propped up on the coffee table. I am working on a novel, probably my only novel. Here is a bit I have about Oli:

Oli lived with three roommates in a rat-hole apartment in Brownsville, New York. Brownsville is a dangerous neighborhood out in Brooklyn, and the four of them were the only white residents in their building. Oli was a tall, husky kid with short hair and a stubbly beard. He laughed nervously and he spent of his days in his bedroom, playing World of Warcraft with his girlfriend, who lived with her parents in Manhattan. He played guitar, and his extra cash went to buying pedals and better gear. His roommates were sick of his music, and when he played, he kept his door shut.     
Sometimes one of his roommates’ friends would come over, and he would get to show them his setup. He was proud of his pedal board, and as much as he only bought popular gear, he liked to believe that his sound was unique. Most recently he bought a Boss Mega Distortion pedal, and almost completely stopped using his standard distortion pedal. The sound was more rough, more hard, more metal, and he loved playing such absurd sounding music. 
 

Oli is an odd guy, I find it hard to dislike him. He’s not a neutral character, but about as close as you can get. He isn’t necessarily a force for good in the world, but there is no evil about him. Oli is kind and forbearing. He is loyal and quiet. But Oli produces nothing, and works as a busser at a hotel restaurant in Manhattan. Surely there must be someone more qualified and enthusiastic willing to take his place on the planet. But so far Oli has pissed no one off, so he gets to stay. I’m not sure what he’s doing in my novel, but he’s a good roommate, and makes a good buffer. He’s not a compelling character. But I guess that doesn’t matter, I like him, and I want him to stay. 

I brought my books with me from New York. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams, The Confessions by Saint Augustine, Godric by Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner, Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coehlo, Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by Mark Doty, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, Vie Francaise by Jean-Paul Dubois, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman, Loving by Henry Green, Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, Ulysses by James Joyce, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, Lit by Mary Karr, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, On Writing by Stephen King, My Struggle: Books 1 & 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, Why We Suck by Denis Leary, An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis, Close-Up Card Magic by Harry Lorayne, Non-Memoirs by Yuri Lotman, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Hollywood Said No! by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, Billions and Billions by Paul Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World by Paul Sagan, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Tenth of December by George Saunders, Barrel Fever by David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by Amarillo Slim, Just Kids by Patti Smith, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tarbell Course in Magic: Volumes 1-8 by Harlan Tarbell, Now You See It, Now You Don't! Lessons in Sleight of Hand by Bill Tarr, The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut, Sucker's Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut, The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, Still by Lauren Winner, and The Shack by William P. Young.

All the books I own,                   
Maybe I'm meant to be alone.

At some point you've got to stop inflicting yourself on other people. 


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Nothing

by Caleb Zimmerman

*This story was originally written as part of an SAT class that Zimmerman taught using short stories.

She was sitting determinedly in one of those strange seats that they mold perpendicularly to the wall on D trains, and her knees were stretching straight out so that they almost touched the empty yellow plastic that jutted out apathetically along the wall in front of her. The woman's gaze was hovering over this seat as she eyed the empty space above it with resolute clarity. A child of 1 or 1-and-a-half sat happily or unhappily (you couldn't tell which) just above her legs, and there was nothing about the scene to make it especially remarkable. This fact - that the woman and her child were sitting on a D train in a completely regular, average, everyday manner - made the way you were always looking at them and never getting their commonplace presence out of your head seem strange to you. The child was a slightly darker color than the woman's Indian or Pakistani brown, and you were persuading yourself that you kept watching the placid pair because you just couldn't quite place where in the world they might be from. Every 20 seconds or so, the child would say something to the woman and the woman would say something back. The woman's red and blue hijab was almost as beautiful as the calm way she held her head.

You were starting to scroll through your 314 Spotify playlists with the ridiculous, futile hope of finding something new. You were beginning to think about dinner (you had never not begun thinking about dinner). In other words, you were almost not thinking about the woman and her child when a man steps onto the train with a gigantic TV on a really crappy, clanking metal cart and begins to tug the cart past your feet.

The man is from North Africa. He boards the train next to you and crosses it to sit down next to the woman. His TV is probably 4 feet wide and it's in this big, obnoxious box right in front of him. If the woman and her child want to exit the train, they will need to ask the man to move his TV. There are maybe five other people on the train.

The woman does not move. Her eyes betray no recognition, and he does not act like he knows her either. You cannot imagine having the audacity to sit next to a woman you do not know on a train with five other people on it, and with a TV that hedges her into awkward, blatant captivity. You hope the woman is not uncomfortable, but you know that she is. You are uncomfortable.

The man is about to turn to the woman and say something to her in a language that, although you have been to thirty-seven countries on four continents, you will know you have never heard before. She will look at him and say something, and he will pull some things out of his pocket and then put them back in again (you will not be able to see the things without looking very much like you are seeing them). The man will begin to talk more loudly, and the woman will say very little, and the child will become completely silent. You will begin to hear the same sentences repeated, and you will wish very badly that you knew what the sentences meant, but you will not know this, and you will wonder if you should do something. This will all continue as the train continues past several subway stops. Then the man will get up with his TV and walk behind the bench where the woman is sitting to look for a little at the subway map, or maybe just at the wall, or maybe at nothing. Then he will stand and hesitate for a terrifying interval in the middle of the train car, and he will be looking at the woman, and he will say something very loudly -- so loudly and so forcefully that no one in the train will be able to ignore it. She will say something back, and he will walk to the doorway. At the next stop, he will make a final declaration, stare back at her, and then yank his ridiculous television off the train. You will look back at the woman, and she will look just as she always did: calm and somehow very beautiful - more beautiful than before. And she will sit like that for three strange seconds during which you will wonder if the story is over. Then she will spring up, squeeze her child to her chest, and run out of the train onto the platform, where she will stand very still and yell something after him. By this time, he will already have descended partway down the elevated platform steps. The train doors will then close, and she will stand hollering the same seven syllables after him again, and then again, and each time she will yell the last syllable will turn into even more of a scream that could be either desperation or rage – maybe both, but definitely not neither – and then the train will pull away. The woman will still be standing there and you will watch her as long as you can, and for all you will know, she might stand there forever with her child, looking and yelling after the man. When you turn back around, the people on the train will all be looking at a 45-degree downward angle toward the part of the speckled floor of the train car that is five feet in front of them, and actively persuading themselves and each other that nothing had happened.

You will think about this, and you will think about talking to other people about this. You will start to stare at the train's vinyl floor like everyone else is doing and always does, but it won't matter how normal you will look because this thing will be the only thing you think about for the next twenty-five minutes. You will get off the train and you will think about the woman and the man and the child almost as much as you will think about yourself for the rest of the day. You will hope that the woman is ok, you will pray that she is ok, and you will convince yourself that by now she is probably ok. But you will not forget the woman and her child. You will start to wonder if they really are ok. And soon you will admit to yourself that they probably are not as ok as you want them to be. This will unsettle you in a vague, small way, but many things do that, and soon it will get jumbled in with the rest of them so that you will think you might have finally forgotten about it.

But you also might not have forgotten about it. You might start speculating again about what might have been happening – what you might have missed. One day, you might even write a silly short story about it and give it to your SAT class. Your students might like it, or they might think it's dumb, but it won't really matter what they think, since what they think of your story will not change the way life is for the woman, and the child, and the man, wherever they are, right now. 


Thumbnail photo by Emily Bingham

Mr. K

Anonymous

Mr. K was my Philosophy professor during my senior year of high school. Technically, he taught Theology. Apologetics? He was 25 and I was 17.

In the middle of February, we were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cafeteria (we alternated making each other's lunches twice a week). His eyes reminded me of my cousin’s. My cousin has been addicted to meth for the past three years, and his eyes are so crystal blue because they contrast his starving pale skin. Mr. K wasn’t a meth addict, but his eyes contrasted his face in the same way. We were smiling about Derrida’s zombie simile in the corner of the cafeteria when he asked if I “want to hang out this weekend.” I covered my mouth with my fist, so as not to show him the chewed-up sandwich, and nodded my head. I lost eye contact.

He picked me up at 7 on Friday night in his Jeep. He said, “I really need to get rid of this gas guzzler” as he looked over his shoulder and pulled out of my driveway.  I asked him inflated questions like, “How are you?” and “What was your day like?” but his response was immediately honest: “I’m only a teacher because I love feeling like the smartest one in the room and everyone hangs on my every word. It’s a real power trip when someone writes down what I say.”

After ten minutes of driving, we pulled up to Paul Anna Bay. It was dark and the bay was frozen. I hoped we weren’t getting out of the car, but he came around the passenger side and opened my door. I thought “Shit” until I saw a bottle of wine and a red-checkered picnic blanket in his hand.

We sat on the beach drinking wine out of red solo cups. I sat cross-legged in between his legs. He rolled a joint in the middle of a sentence about sentences (whether subject/predicate distinctions actually correspond to reality). His eyes were so blue, I was jealous of them. He took a hit and blew smoke up my nose and I kissed him. He drove me home and I was in bed alone by 11.

The next Friday evening, we watched X-Men on his couch. We drank wine, this time out of more adult glasses, and he rolled a more sophisticated joint and lit it with one of those old-fashioned metal lighters with the flip-up tops. He said, “I know everyone pulls this card when they’re trying to be intimate, but your eyes are really something.” At those words, I called it off; I sighed and left and took the joint with me.


Photo by Evelyn Stetzer

Nonsequential (Self Portrait)

by Mark Burger

April 17
I saw my father’s face in my reflection of the subway train again.
My doppelganger got off at Fulton Street.

Search History:
1:15am: Jesus (Battery: 82%)
1:20am: historical Jesus (Battery: 80%)
1:22am: criterion of embarrassment
1:24am: Sufjan Stevens
1:30am: Interstate 273 (Battery: 75%)

January 6
I am hovering above the wrinkled, cracked Midwest, it's wounds poorly stitched together by lines of light connecting its cities, towns, and suburbs. A white and grey corpse, resuscitated nightly by artificial light. A jet cuts through the pale blue sky, piercing the soft gradient of the sunset.
"That's beautiful," I say to myself, out loud.
The embers of the city streets, muted ever so slightly by the clouds, are volcanic spider webs, growing in size and frequency as the night fades in, as I journey further east. The sun continues to cut a thin canyon along the clouds, a fiery Marianas Trench in the clouds, and thus, I'm underwater. The cities are deeper still, hidden under a thick current of clouds, some resonating through like a closet light left on overnight to let others know you're home. The real monsters aren't in our closets or under our beds, anyway. They're in the words we refrain from saying, the places we don't end up going because it'd be easier to stay at home instead, and no one's going to be there anyway.
Looking out across the horizon, the towns below, lit up for the night, are lightning storms caught in a snapshot, like nebulas frozen in time. I think about the city I'm going to and the people in it. I think about a girl who I know, who I once told it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to the earth. The same girl who said she wanted to kiss my twenty-year-old lips in said eight-minute-old sunlight, but I wasn't sure about all that and now I think about the lifespan of moonlight. My mother says that it's okay to eat the food in the can even if the date's already passed, because its just estimation and it still has a few good days left after it. I wonder how many more good days I have left, before I become stale and have to recycle myself. I wonder if sunlight ever becomes stale and if it would feel different to kiss someone in the sun even if it's a few weeks after we said we were interested. But I don't want to lie and say I do when I really don't know anything at all.

May 3
Sometimes I think about reaching inside myself and pulling out the wiring behind my eyes. To rearrange the infrastructure of my jaw, to pull the metallic lining of my skull apart. I’d like to feel the synapses of my brain, coursing with electricity; to feel the links between my skin, the hexagon patterns and lines that seal the cables and cords inside.

[open:<rm.9%>\//**/.:: would yo/u like to// reboot/?]

Sometimes I wish it were easy to coordinate the colors of my life into cyan, charcoal, magenta, pyrite. To not have to coordinate my every move weeks in advance, to loosen the controls, douse the mainframe in ice water.

[fl:0000579\\5SL/D:: file h//as been corrupt/ed//::please consult a manual:]

I feel the ticking of my internal clock gauge the minutes, the seconds, the breaths and sighs that imitate reality. The stream of memories flood the system, the older data is too far away to reach. I can still rework the past in my head if I try hard enough. Repress the bits I don’t care for and adjust the brightness of the room, change the color of the walls, alter the setting completely. I don’t remember myself anymore.

[Q:://90FRWL/\\_n: d(id any //0f it/ really happen), a_/nyway/?]

I am in a state of flux.
The familiar pathways and networks are foreign to me now. I can’t navigate as I used to, I can feel the barrage of indifference rise above my face like a wave of grey matter. Pools of mercury fill the fissures left behind by reckless collisions with meteorites—others I thought would understand, others I thought could interpret my code and sort through the missing links. I was wrong.

[\\*0097:\\there’/s n0//thing left to \\say, the rest is.//]
[*0098_X\\::hu//m/an://err0//r/]

Has the taste of acid always felt this familiar? I’ve become too accustomed to closing my eyes and pretending I can’t hear the sounds of sirens, the screams, the mechanics of entropy.
I’ve learned to crave the smell of iron and gasoline and steam and exhaustion.
It’s too late for me.


Photo by Evelyn Stetzer

Alone

by Nathan Deardorff

Sean is sitting in the corner on a baby-blue bench made for two, alone. He sees that every other bench is full, with some of the average uptown F-train cargo standing. He divides the patrons into categories: tourists headed to midtown (count 10); practically identical Jewish women (6); zoned out twenty-somethings on their serviceless-smartphones (27); older men checking out girls sporting yoga pants (3); group girls chatting and toting yoga mats (and sporting yoga pants) (6); practically identical Jewish children belonging to said Jewish women (~11); Chinese absentmindedly covering the Do Not Lean door signage with their back-pockets pressed up against exits (13). He counts the groups simultaneously by assigning each to a finger and taps the respective finger with his thumb for each time he sees a person in one of the eight categories. It looks like typing, but with only two keys, his thumbs. He can’t remember why he is counting like that, as always, but the way he was taught never worked as well for him, so he isn’t bothered and he continues to stare at the crowd. Sean thinks about the fact that no one on the train will ever remember anyone. The funny thing is, everyone gets off the train and never gives a second thought about the person who sat across from us for twenty minutes. He hates and loves riding on the train. Today it was just hate though. What would it take to be missed by any of these lowlifes? Closeness, probably. But not simply in proximity. He starts to think about what he would want at a funeral. No one would give Sean a proper burial, but if they were to, he wants it to be all formal like they are in movies and end with a potluck. Yeah, one with casseroles and loads of mashed potatoes and pork-loins and that red fruity sauce and green beans. He’d leave a sad letter to his black-clad, weepy-eyed friends about how he didn’t expect to live on in their memories, and even if he did, that it’d be only temporarily because they’d all forget and then die. And at dinner they’d all laugh at stories about him and stories at him expense which would make them feel better for the simple reason that when a person laughs or cries their brain bumps around chemicals in the exact same fashion as when it is jumbled by heroin. Exact same chemicals or synapses or whatever. The friends would go home and keep living, that’s the part movies never show (which are really the only point of reference for Sean because he had never been to a funeral). They would go home day after day and eventually forget to be sad. They’d forget the shirt color and the jokes and after decades of this all that would be left would be his name. Sean Stoller carved by some tombstone engraver man, giant on a pillar of granite the size of an automated MTA Metro Card dispenser:

1983-20XX
Here lies Sean Stoller
The man who was never known

After he thought the last line Sean knew that his imagination had run out, that wasn’t the sort of thing people put on graves, it was too depressing—maybe too truthful too. He thinks about reimagining it in his head for a few minutes while the train jostles from side to side then takes another step back from his invented world into the world where it wouldn’t matter what he wanted his epitaph to be because he wouldn’t be getting an epitaph or funeral or black-clad, weepy-eyed friends. He won’t even have memory of the imagined epitaph or funeral he conjured, and it won’t even be the fault of the drugs. He realizes he forgot to include himself in the final count of the train-car. Seventy-two, including this self-fulfilling prophecy of a man, a smelly drunk who all that others expect of is what they see, and all they see is what they expect: a cliché to project their ideas city life’s lowest class (count 1). He looks up and realizes the count has already changed due to stops on the train that he had forgotten to pay attention to. People’s efforts to organize themselves by emotional stability and social class is amplified on subways due to the ridiculously extreme proximity of diverse housing, mandatory commuting, and the Anything& Everything which happens to be a non-negotiable term in the contract of New York City life.

As a side note, future anthropologists will create charts with curves to illustrate how the inverse relation of open space and economic success in the biggest cities of the 2000s was in fact a mathematical constant of which, could be plugged into the computers that perform city planning programs to compute a dire combination that provided utility but impeded happiness. The first continent that this specific formula/program mash-up would be used in is South America. Authorities, wanting to reform the reputation of their specific country, would try to show the world that imported steel and numbers could create as much wealth as their drug-running ancestors. This was unfortunate for the officials on two counts: one, the rest of the world had already forgotten about their ancestors for the simple fact that they weren’t their ancestors (meaning “the rest of the world’s”); two, the number-crunched cities were not more profitable, which planted seeds of doubt in contemporary science in the hearts of the younger generation of said South American country. Ironically, if they had plugged the future (or “contemporary” at this point) anthropologists’ numbers on recreational drug use in their formula they could have raised their net happiness at the expense of utility.
But here and now, happiness is neither here nor now. Here, happiness exists in the Hampton's. Here, every walk on the street is the most urgent thing in life and how dare you for getting in my way; if you have time to stroll along, your time must not be worth as much as mine, or much at all really.
Sean blinks. He notices the horizontal bars of florescent light that lit the train-car are caught in the black space created by his eyelids. Sean himself could be considered an after-image, like the one of the TV channel’s icon burned into the bottom right hand corner in the plasma-screen at the deli off of 10th Ave. Yeah, he was like that. Never fully looked at or seen, he may make a flash on a stranger’s mind’s eye, but he himself has never made an imprint on anyone’s mind. He knew he was expected to be slumped in the corner of a train car. He was there, but not there, forgotten but expected, like person’s nose. Sean had never heard the expression Eyes are windows to the soul. Sean blinked a dozen more times, playing with the lights burned onto his retina. Out of the thousands of people he saw a day, not a soul saw his.

Tired of the scenery Sean exits the train car and sits on a wooden bench with a missing armrest. He puts his baseball hat on the ground and reaches for his cardboard. It isn’t there; it must be on the train or where he woke up this morning. Damn. Why couldn’t this be the same bench he was at. He’d found a quiet, warm station to get a change of scenery and slept there the past few days, but he couldn’t make much money due to the quietness. Pros and cons. Sean laughs to himself, which again, had nothing to do with the drugs, but a pun that always played out in his head. He wishes he was a pro and a con. He laughs again. That’d be the life, a professional con-artist. He wonders what his father did. He wonders what life was like back then. His mother always called him a miracle. She was a good mother, but he stop believing her when she stopped saying it. He knew it couldn’t be true because there were 4.5 billion other miracles walking around when he was born. If life was so miraculous, it wouldn’t happen so much. She would always tell him that she didn’t know how to raise him right, but in this day and age there were more good things out there for him than he could count. If you can’t count variables, you can’t know them, if you can’t know something you can’t achieve it, and what you can’t achieve shouldn’t matter. So he doesn’t let it matter. He knew he currently felt better than anyone he saw around him. It was obvious. Nearly all of them were checking their watches or craning their necks to peer down the tunnel. Convinced by their restlessness, Sean gets a weird twinge of pride and tells himself that he is better off because he thinks about the concrete things like death and doesn’t let the stupid fluid things like life bother him unlike all the people around him who never think about anything but their own life yet are miserable because they will be never satisfied with what they have. It’s much easier to live while having nothing. Perhaps not better, but that’s all in how you look at it. Certainly lack of possessions does not perfectly correlate to happiness and a content life. Sean reassures himself the he isn’t that naïve and wonders why that word has an extra dot above the i. His eyes roll back and his chest arches forward in a wave of drug-induced euphoria. Maybe he isn’t coming down as quickly as he’d thought. Maybe he is just tired. A brave rat scurries past him on the lego-studded cautionary floor tiles that line the edge of the tracks. It doesn’t bother Sean. He smiles as his head leans back on the glossy white wall. Not much bothers me, that’s another one of his strong-suits. This causes another twinge of pride. Sean pictures a nice suit, but instead of regular sleeves the pinstriped fabric was puffed up and muscular like Spiderman costumes that eight-year-old boys wear. Sean laughs and falls asleep. Sean is sitting in the station on a wooden seat made for six, alone.


Photo by Evelyn Stetzer

A Solemn Vow and Promise

by Abigail Jennings

When you and I were young, you introduced me to divorce. A photo of a man in a red and blue windbreaker standing in a dead-leaf forest.
You and I would climb over the fence, tiptoeing through the briars to be kind to the threads of our t-shirts. Your mother worried during hunting season. She would have preferred we stick to the dead-leaf trampoline, but we wanted at least wild onions. So to the Pasture we went, ears sharp for gunfire. Sometimes our older brothers would come back with ammo shells, but you and I didn’t look much at the ground. We spent more time slicing our hands on tight twine, as we scaled massive bales of hay, glowing gold at the edges in a rich afternoon sun. Our ascent would leave the dogs swimming around on the Pasture ground below.
I remember paint. A puppy in a box, named for a gas station. Car accident. Striped pants. Your great-aunt called us Red and Black, even though everyone before that had considered my hair brown. We were small and smiled.

There was a gap.

You and I met again with old souls. We were entirely different people—you with substance, I with doubts and shadows. I can point to where this era began—I was only writing in red ink. Maybe you saved me—by giving and asking—blogs and Perks and rings and prisms; fathers and God and art and almost smiles.
I grew to love and depend on you. In a great kindness, you once brought the rain back from your vacation. And you grew to love me, too, as a poetic project of yours, in a telephone-smell sketchbook. I did my best when you were in Deep Trouble, though it was out of my experience. I defended your questions. You were once a world of mine. We ran bridges together.

And we broke a solemn vow and promise.
Now you’re just another young person who cries to music, falls asleep on the phone, drives fast, drinks. Maybe your cigarettes are still hidden in an empty playing card box, like the one I once brought you a letter and feather and Roman pin inside of. I’m changed again. Entirely different. I’m amazed that you treat me young. You were born eleven days ahead. I’m ancient. I lean into me. You should see.

Sometimes I wear your rings. Heavily. You’re mostly wedged into my mp3 files, and a few fond figures of speech. I remember you with holiness. You are the time my life began to change. Maybe someday we’ll climb back into the Pasture, but it won’t be the same when we’re taller than the haystacks.


Photo by Evelyn Stetzer