Tracy May Adair
The alpha they track is the female. Already long
tranque’ed, collared, released to the wilds
of managed lands, her collar’s a spark of white
carried across the camera frame on grey-black ruff.
The scientists did not abscond to a bar or the lower
forty-eight with the grant money. They watch,
with summer’s real-time intensity, from a closet
crammed with computers, what will be transmitted
weeks later. Green speck following one of many
once-invisible paths, each now nearly burned
into the screen’s imaginary topography.
By the time the hackers (public money, private greed)
have their way with that signal, she’ll have moved,
her litter remaining visible on-line only in arrears.
fine as wine
[we at the bottom of the sky]
One night in the woods
we called up
way over our heads
and the stars didn’t say
nothin back but
‘yall niggas gon die.’
We here anyhow so
we just turn our
nose up at em.
We make beautiful things
as much as we can;
tell that big,
it don’t get us
till we dead.
Letter to Aiyana
[lifespan of a black girlhood]
Sweet brown daughter of the bleeding city,
yours is another smile that
echoes in the streets
who rang so still after the shot which
stole you from your mother.
Bang! And you were
dead so quick;
silent as the gun
in that awful moment
(child I wonder,
did your blood wash easy
off that blue uniform?)
Bang! Short and final like a balloon
you might once have popped
at a backyard birthday party;
streamers hung around the front porch
so the whole hood knew—
Bang! muffled under the latest line dance
on the radio and bellows
of your father’s friends, their
beers meeting like wind chimes—
Bang! You’d giggle.
Run and grab another.
my little sister.
Your mother— still her screams
carve through this cracked cement like
river the rock bed;
great, sweeping, invisible cries
wash through the alleys and hang
The ghetto is flooded,
the streets hollowed out,
the city silent— please!
Hold her again.
Could you one day have been among the little girls
wandering the summer block who stopped to paint
flowers on my modest mural, “the garden”?
Dunked your tiny palms in pink paint and
left hand prints heel-to-heel on the wall in your wake?
“Color a circle between them all,”
I might have told you, then
we would have called them petals—
one flower, forever
Detroit, You Have Been Hurt
charred bungalows line the block like
black teeth in rotted gums
of men who have walked by
since before the city burned.
“I’ve Never Been with a Black Girl Before,” or, “Preference”:
A Letter to the Colorists I’ve Accidentally Fucked from that Pretty Little Pissed-Off Mixed Girl
when you fill the silence on this date
with the same tinny dime-store praise—
“totally dig the ‘fro!” (you know, I get it)—
and when you finger these half-kinked coils
like you might the leaves of a rare plant,
I really start to wonder if the very
former weren’t the words which
touched on the edges of your mind
when you right-swiped me on Tinder.
And it occurred to me,
When you congratulated me that I was not
(as in, “like the others;”
as in, “why can’t black girls all just be
that much less black”), that
maybe I should just
lay off the whole “dating” thing, like,
maybe I should just quit the whole
“having sex” deal—
that way, maybe chances would be that
I would never have to wonder
if the hands which reached for me
were making an exception.
I am a bridge
A would-be gateway fuck,
but you take your first few steps
to congratulate yourself and
stop cold before my middle—
turn on your heels.
I am just so rightly dangerous that
you can tell your friends
(“exotic,” that’s good and trite;
I am nearly trophy-colored, anyway),
but not so dark, so rich, so lovely,
that it’s kind of kinky,
and you can’t put our selfies on Instagram,
or kiss me in front of your homeboys.
I’ve just “got that look, you know?”
Yeah. I know. I know the thought you
sucked back behind your lips before
giving that one the go-ahead— you
“don’t usually go out with black girls,
were I browner than your wooden iPhone case,
your faded leather messenger,
your five-dollar lunch-break lattes,
your mother, your grandmother,
your sister, aunt, cousin, niece,
or you yourself—
could your hands find their way through the dark
up the length of my thighs?
Could I better feel the blood move through me?
Were it thicker with a second half
of what would put me
out of the realm of your exceptions?
is solidarity for guilty house niggers, too?
For Massa’s hand-picked worthy?
With your paper bag at hand,
do not dare pat yourself on the back;
with your one foot in the half of me
you are not afraid of,
in the half of me
you care to hear,
do not dare tally me as your first.
I am domesticated.
And I really get to thinking about it
when you pet me like a fucking dog,
Edinson Shane Tolley
Washington D.C., July 12th, 2016
You’re walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after lunch, your federal ID hanging from your neck, the keys to your Lexus jingling in your slacks, wallet stored in your breast pocket, and ignoring the homeless as one must do to avoid depression. Like all summer days in Washington D.C., it’s hot—the pavement and stone drawing the sun in and mixing with the body heat of tourists and elementary school field trips.
The D.C. homeless, as in any major city, are an urban fixture natural as streetlights. They’re simply part of the DNA. It bothered you when you first arrived, but it’s a process. You’d put change in their cups, apologize when you had no change, and make due on your promises to return once you acquired some. There used to be a homeless woman living outside the metro center, and on your way home you’d stop at McDonalds to buy her a cheeseburger, fries, and a water. She disappeared, though, and you assume she went nomadic and took up residence on another street in the nation’s capital.
You’ve adapted now, and pleas for change turn your head no more than a distant siren or the sound of construction. When forced to stop at crosswalks, you hang back ten feet from the light, knowing that, when stopped, people cannot justifiably ignore another human being asking for whatever you can offer. It’s not something you’re proud of, just a necessary measure when living in a metropolitan such as this. Your first friend in the city moved back to Vermont after seeing a woman use a newspaper and a puddle to bathe.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” is by no means a lie. The only physical money you carry anymore is the $40 stashed in your wallet in the event of a mugging. The second Saturday in the city, you were held up and when the perp discovered you had nothing for him, he didn’t steal anything but instead gifted you a black eye and a bruised rib out of frustration. You don’t walk down those unfamiliar streets anymore, but insist there’s no lingering trauma.
You pass under the scaffolding of the resident megalomaniac’s latest high-rise—a luxury hotel well above your paygrade—with his name plastered along the construction site, the font matching the name etched in stone on the soon-to-be-finished building’s entrance.
A trio of homeless men have made camp a few yards from the Department of Justice, ignored by you, the tourists, and the two officers guarding the doors. You’re acutely aware of their race—African-American—and have done your best to understand the system leading to their being there; a system that deposits money into your bank account twice a month.
Two are sitting with their backs against adjacent sides of a newspaper dispenser, and the other man, an overweight man, sits on a bench across from them. There’s a cigarette hanging from his mouth, unlit as he’s sans a lighter.
You’re passing by—as you always do, as one must do—when the cigarette drops from his mouth and he collapse onto his side, taking up the length of the bench. You keep walking. The men sitting down stand up, “You alright, man?” they ask. No response. You keep walking. They rush to him, lifting his limp, heavy arms and putting their fingers on the underside of his wrist, then his neck, checking for a pulse. One of the men gently smacks his face, “Man, wake up—wake up,” he says. Again, no response. You keep walking.
Several tourists stop and turn to the bench—you know they’re tourists because they stopped. An elderly Latino woman cups her hands over her mouth, children point, and a man wearing a visor and a tucked-in polo pulls his phone from a fanny-pack and makes a call. The two conscious homeless men continue to shake the man, now with an audience. You keep walking.
“He’s dead,” one says. “Shit, man—he’s fuckin’ dead,” he reiterates. You’ve passed them, but turn your head without breaking stride. The crowd grows, but you keep walking. “He’s fuckin’ dead,” the other confirms, running his long, uncut fingernails through his long, uncut hair. An arc as formed, providing roughly ten feet of distance between the tourists and homeless men. “I called 911!” shouts the fanny-packed man, his only thanks being another, “He’s fuckin’ dead, man.” You keep walking.
You stop at the crosswalk and wait for the light, playing chicken with the pigeons who’ve lost their fear of pedestrians. You can’t help but look back to see one of the homeless gentlemen crying while the other repeats that he’s fucking dead, man. Some people have their cell phones out, recording and photographing the scene. The light changes and the pre-recorded voice shifts from WAIT to NOW CROSSING. You keep walking.
On your way home, you pass the bench. There are no chalk lines, no police tape, no tourists in stasis, nor any homeless. The body is gone, stowed away in a county morgue awaiting an unmarked grave wherever the city elects to maintain such a thing.
You keep walking.
Home. This is the place that Mom and Greg call home.
Squeezed between the identical one hundred and seventy something stucco clones inhabiting this suburb, each family identifies their home by the same intrinsic knack possessed by new mothers who can enter a hospital’s nursery and pick out their offspring from a cribbed line-up of slippery, standardized, paper white, blank-eyed babies solely by the sound of their cry or the smell of their shit. I identify ours by starting at the third STOP sign and counting down twenty-six houses on the right, and when we pull into the driveway suddenly I remember why I’m here:
Home is where I go when my brain goes bad. Sour. Acidic.
I dared Mom. I dared her to open up my head, to take a tentative whiff and see if I don’t smell exactly like that shoebox of old, leaking batteries left forgotten on top of the fridge in our garage.
And she did. So here I am.
I want to say I’m used to it. I want to carry on this flawed analogy and say that my bad brain reeks of black pepper and vinegar the same way my balls do after a therapeutic, eight-mile run. A smell I’ve grown okay with, more or less habituated to over time, because it’s mine:
“It’s my bitter odor. It’s my sour milkfarts.”
And so the true bitterness of it all doesn’t really become apparent until someone else comes in contact with your headspace, cups their mouth and grows teary-eyed, tells you in the politest way possible:
“You need fucking help.”
Mom has been breathing in my foul attitude for the whole car-ride home. When we get to the house, she advises me to take a hot shower to clear my head. I use their guest bathroom because to use any other bathroom doesn’t feel right. Beneath the bathroom sink I find enough complimentary hotel soaps, lotions, shampoos and conditioners stashed away to trade out in exchange for another one-night’s stay at a Holiday Inn., one with an indoor pool and an exercise room and a continental breakfast buffet of powdered eggs and sausage disks reminiscent of what I was once served in a Cobb County holding cell amongst thirty other men, young and drunk and still of a brain fresh enough to consider myself someone above jail food because I am a levelheaded, college-educated, white kid from the suburbs, judging this older black dude who’s just shamelessly pissed all over the toilet seat in the same cramped room that everyone else is eating, this dude who points to the plastic cafeteria tray at my feet and asks if I’m through with that, my smartass wanting nothing more than to ask if he’s going to wash his hands first, but instead I just smile a toothy, white-guilt smile and can’t resist the subconscious, self-righteous pat on the back as I slide my tray of mandarin oranges and synthetic eggs across the concrete floor over to him, questioning whether this here might constitute as some yearly tax write-off under an act of charity. . .
Likewise beneath the sink, stuffed in the back corner, I find my old retainer. Black, plastic, jagged as alligator skin. And, for whatever reason, I decide to press it back up into my mouth, force it in just to see how fucked up over these last few years my once-perfect teeth have become.
And it’s bad. Really, really bad.
When I unhinge its grip, the roof of my mouth is so bruised I can taste its bloody skin caving in like a waterlogged tent, wondering if the roof might then spring a leak big enough to drip pink, bitter drops of brain down onto my tongue, wondering what sort of person I might be now if, back when I was still young, I’d been given a retainer fitted for my brain, something to preserve that innocent, pre-adolescent headspace I possessed back when I still thought the world was big and the mall was cool and the sound of ice-cream trucks didn’t give me the fucking creeps, back before I learned that every food is a poison and every store is a sweatshop and every person is simultaneously hurting and suburban grownups don’t really watch reality TV and drink bottled beer because they like the taste, they do this to self-medicate, to systemically detach themselves from the dreads of day-to-day living, or else Mom and Greg would still eat and talk at the dinner table, and the fridge in the garage would instead be stocked with malted milkshakes and pouches of Capri Sun. . .
The showerhead starts to scream after I’ve been in here for too long, which I have no excuse for. Ever since my last psychotic break when I awoke at two A.M. and shaved my body down, head-to-toe, there’s really no more hair left to lather, rinse, repeat. But I’ve been in here for about twenty minutes now, and while an alternative me—one insightful enough to have worn his brain retainer since before hitting puberty knocked loose all former sanity—might still be lingering in the shower amongst the most vile and vivid of all childish imaginations, seated on the shower floor, crisscross applesauce, yanking out sticky globules of forsaken progeny that refuse to float nor circle the drain, there is now the paranoid-parent prospect that this bad brain of mine has gone worse, has macgyvered that curled metal wire of my retainer into some janky weapon of self-destruction as Mom and Greg stand outside the bathroom door, deliberating whether or not to pick the lock and risk barging in to find their son naked and depraved, or otherwise dead. . .
But I haven’t jerked off in months. When I turn the shower off, water droplets bead along my hairless body like I’m made entirely of wax. I skirt a towel around my waist and move to the guestroom, where the evidence of my last intimate one-on-one affair, way back in December, still exists as an inscrutable stain atop the wood finish of the guest dresser, its origins dating back to Christmas morning when my brain aroused me awake in the dead of holy night and refused to fall back asleep, prompting me to eventually get out of bed and stand barefoot among cardboard boxes and Scotch tape and rolls of gift wrap illuminated in moonlight to jerk off before this dresser onto a Kohl’s receipt for a crockpot that Mom would later have to return for store credit, only to wake up hours later to find the receipt paper and my jizz then fused to the dresser’s wood, picking off with my nails as much as I could, my fingers stinking of sour, rotting progeny all throughout unwrapping presents. And even now, however many months later, this receipt is still visible. Preserved like a fossil beneath a yellow, hardened tar pit of cum, it exhibits a barcode that you might scan to learn the price to pay for having a bad brain you’ll most likely pass onto your future children, and the price scanner reads:
NOT FUCKING WORTH IT.
Duck and Pray
Ellen ran up to our group in the school yard to report what she’d heard. “Sister just told some kids, ‘Saint John will save us.’ ”
“Saint John the Apostle?” asked Andrew.
“No.” Ellen smirked. “JFK.”
A week ago, President Kennedy went on television to tell the nation there were missiles in Cuba pointed at us. We’d heard some of the names in the news before. Khrushchev was the guy who banged his shoe on the table. And Andrew liked to call the Soviet minister Gromyko the gecko. But mostly we kids were worried and unclear on the facts.
As the morning bell rang, Ellen and I got in the girls’ line. “Nobody tells us nothing,” I kind of hollered, because who cared about double negatives when it could be the end of the world?
Our seventh-grade teacher didn’t ease our fears. She started each day now with the same question.
“Is your soul in the state of grace?” She looked hard at the troublemakers who she kept close in the first row. “If your soul is pure, you should be happy to die.” She began to pace the classroom. “If the missiles come, this entire class will go to Purgatory. She struck a pointed finger at the air on each word. “Not one soul in this room is worthy of heaven.”
We were all nervous, but Andrew seemed really shook up. I could tell by the way he was twisting the top of his sock around his finger into a white cocoon. It couldn’t be the threat of Purgatory that was bothering him; we’d heard all that before.
I drew a question mark on his back with the edge of my ruler.
“I’m, I’m…” Andrew and I both stuttered a little when we were nervous, like if we had to go up and put stuff on the black board. “I’m not worried for me but…” He turned his head a little so I could hear.
“What?” I whispered.
“I’m not supposed to tell.”
A crack of Peter Marie’s ruler against her desk ended our chat.
Andrew and I were the only kids in our families. We both wore glasses, loved to climb trees, and we’d been best friends since kindergarten. But when we were at school, he hung around with the boys, and Ellen was my best school friend. She and I ate lunch quickly so we could run upstairs and claim the one tree in the school yard. She pulled some candy and a paperback from her bag. On the cover was a girl, a horse, and a boy.
“Are your folks building a fall out shelter?” She carefully divided her candy between us.
“Nope. Don’t ask me why.”
We’d all been sent home with the pamphlets that showed drawings, measurements, lists of building materials and all the food and water and tons of other stuff we’d need when the shelter was built. When I had showed them to my parents, they looked at each other and shrugged.
Ellen handed me one half a brown licorice, one whole black, and a red hot jaw breaker. “What if you were locked up in a fall out shelter, with your boyfriend, after a bomb?”
I snorted. Boyfriend. Right.
“I mean make believe boy friend, one of those cowboys you like.”
I was too embarrassed to name the guy, but Ellen wasn’t. “Michael Landon.”
I preferred the make believe one. “Joe Cartwright.”
I pictured him in our basement, cowboy hat tilted back, eating canned pears with me and my parents while we waited for Armageddon.
“OK, Little Joe,” said Ellen. “What if you were going to die, would you go all the way?”
Ellen was very interested in that subject lately.
“It’s a sin,” I reminded her. “And not just any sin. A mortal one. Besides, we wouldn’t want to sully our love.” That was a new vocabulary word I’d learned in the Reader’s Digest column “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power.”
When the end of recess bell called us to formation, Andrew pushed in front of me as we lined up.
“So what’s your secret?” I asked.
“Tomorrow. I promised I wouldn’t tell until tomorrow.”
“But the missiles!” My voice sizzled through the quiet of the forming lines.
“My dad said if Castro doesn’t watch out, he’ll get a taste of our cigars.” Dave Ryan chuckled at his joke. We joined in with muffled snickers. I kind of liked Dave. He asked me to go bowling last summer, but I got chicken pox, so he took Lousia Scarmaleno instead.
At one-fifteen, the principal’s voice came over the loud speaker.
“Sisters, boys, and girls.” Around me a silent chorus of kids lipped the familiar greeting. “At one thirty promptly, there will be an air raid drill. When the bell sounds, go quickly and quietly to your lines and proceed in silence to the church.”
“The church?” I was stunned. Saint Patrick’s was a converted opera house, two open stories with big stained glass windows. Why not send us to the cafeteria which was a cellar with stores of canned goods? Why were the adults ignoring this fallout shelter stuff? What were they not telling us?
Sister told us all to be quiet but nailed her eyes on me.
We filed into church and took our place in the center pews.
As we waited for the principal to begin the rosary, I tipped my head back. Oh no. Right over head, one of the lights. They were bigger than me, and hung from long gold chains and fixtures that looked pasted to the ceiling. I tried to never sit under one, but it was hard since there were four each side above the center pews. I’d noticed the nuns always sat in the side aisles.
I knew it wasn’t true, but I liked to picture the chains that held the lights going through the fixtures, then up through the ceiling, and winding around a huge steel beam, which nothing could disturb—except maybe a missile.
After the rosary we went back to our classroom. Sister told us to take out drawing paper, although it wasn’t art day. Threatening us with extra homework if we didn’t stay in our seats, she tucked her hands behind the front panel of her habit, and left the classroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. Seconds later, fifty five kids cut loose. Some hung out the windows calling to people in the street. The door slammed back open, bouncing against the wall. You could hear from up and down the hall the other classes going wild. Some kid ran in our classroom to report that all the nuns were downstairs in the principal’s office.
A black board eraser whipped passed. It planted a chalky bar on the back of Andrew’s white shirt. He kept drawing. I leaned forward to see. His paper was covered with missiles and tanks, except for a box framed by swords. Inside it stood an armored knight, lance in hand.
It must have been ten or fifteen minutes before Sister returned in the middle of our booming madness. Silence fell slowly as she entered through the open door. Andrew turned to me and rolled his eyes. Here come the cannons. To our amazement, she acted like we weren’t even there. She went to her desk and began to pack her book bag. The dismissal bell rang. Still, Peter Marie said nothing. Eyes signaling messages of surprise, we packed up quickly and pushed for the door before she could change her mind. Andrew thundered down stairs to his altar boy meeting. No one got in line today, or paid much attention to the No Running rule.
Outside it felt more like summer than three days to Halloween. I tied my sweater around my waist and shifted my books to my hip, boy-style. I passed a group of kids coming from public school. They were dressed in the colors of fall, clothes as mixed as the kids at St. Patrick’s were uniform. I was loaded with books, while a lot of them carried nothing, or just some loose papers. They seemed happy—loud, laughing. I studied their faces. They didn’t look like they had missiles on their minds.
Walking home, I managed to kick a stone all the way up the hilly sidewalk without losing it once to the street. My mother was on the porch, checking the mail box.
“It’s over hon,” she called. “It was on the news about an hour ago. Khrushchev’s going to take the missiles out of Cuba.”
I dropped my books and did a little dance while I said a prayer of thanks for our deliverance. I remembered the nuns leaving us all unsupervised while they went down to the principal’s office which had the school’s only television. They must have seen it on TV too. The Cuban Crisis had passed, the end of the world wasn’t coming, and Sister Peter Marie hadn’t bothered to tell us.
“Andrew called,” my mother said. “He must be excited about the baby.”
“Baby?” So that was Andrew’s secret. I knew it was selfish, but I was a little sorry he would no longer be an only child. Still, I understood now why he had been so worried. Would it be bomb or baby?
“He said it was a secret, but you knew?” We sat down together on the porch steps.
“Sometimes his mother and I volunteer the same days at the parish thrift shop. She’s due around Easter.” My mother flipped through the mail. “Got a lot of homework?”
I nodded. “Mom, weren’t you worried the world was going to end?”
She tucked a stray hair behind my ear. “Your father and I went through the war,” she said as she sometimes did, to remind me, I guess, that we can all be brave when we have to be.
She tapped the top of my head with the mail, smiling. “Pot roast tonight with ginger snap gravy.”
Neato. And I still had time before dinner to bicycle over to Andrew’s, to talk about the end that didn’t come, and the beginning that did.
Tracy May Adair holds a MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC. She also has a B. S. in Chemical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and makes a living working in the coffee industry. Because, of course, Poetry + Engineering = Coffee. She has poems recently published in Fickle Muses and Sediments Literary-Arts Journal and blogs at www.adair-author.com.
Rosie DeSantis is a rising senior at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She studies acting and theater-making, as well as a nebulous combination of nonprofit management, applied theater, artistic entrepreneurship, and community organizing. Passionate about her hometown, Detroit, and the small, daily acts of resistance, celebration, and remembering she has witnessed in the city, she intends to build her career there. Her work has thus far been published in two other journals to be released this year.
Edinson Shane Tolley, who goes by Shane but can’t deny his first name looks good in print, is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. His work is featured or forthcoming in The Allegheny Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Black Sheep, Panoplyzine, and The Sandy River Review. He currently lives in Northern Virginia.
Stephen Wack is a (semi-) recent graduate from UGA where he studied Psychology with an emphasis in Neuroscience and briefly worked as an intern at the university’s literary journal, The Georgia Review. In June he self-published his first chapbook, “scalpy,” a collection of auto-biographical prose and poetry detailing his six-month trial and error(s) of withdrawal from cold-turkey quitting one’s anti-depressant medication. The majority of his free time is happily absorbed in writing, cooking, attending local open mics, and slumming it around town with his dog, Ernie. “Brain Retainer” is his first publication credit to date.
Diane Bonavist’s fiction has appeared in Tiferet Journal, The Milo Review, Fable Online, and The RavensPerch. She is a former Editor in chief of Tiferet Journal. Her first novel, Purged By Fire: Heresy of the Cathars, has recently been published by Bagwyn Books.