A Sisterly Confession
Starved for all
you have excluded
from your life,
you confide how
loneliness and misery
overcomes you in closed rooms.
In funereal black for our father,
your skin stretched tight
across your forehead,
like an immigrant ancestor
accustomed to deprivation—
You tell me that nothing I tell you
can make your life better.
You don’t want advice,
but what is rarer—sympathy.
Sometimes, with others,
I notice that something pent-up
from under great pressure
rushes out of you,
and your voice is like a waterfall
trying to drown out
the threatening world
in the cocoon of your own sound.
Their ice cream was already melting from the few step journey from kitchen to living room couch. Sarah began hers directly, but Ted preferred the slippery texture of melting cream, so he set his aside while he set up the disc.
“Wow, this is really good for store brand,” Sarah said, her voice sloppy, half full.
Ted returned, pulled his spoon around the bowl’s bottom between the frozen mounds, carefully balancing the dripping load to his mouth to qualify her statement. “Oh, yeah,” he affirmed, “Those praline bits are really good.”
“Yeah,” Sarah trilled.
They had spent the afternoon in the backyard “poolside,” alternately lying across it, then in their plastic chairs by its side, feet ready to kick water over Jonah as he ran by in anticipatory speed, mouth agape with his rapid unquenchable giggling. Jonah would race through their gauntlet, then over to the sheets and towels hanging almost to the ground on the line; he’d wrap himself in the sun warmed fabric, play tag with his shadow, then peek out from behind these stage curtains, gauging his crowd’s attention, anxious for his cue to jump out with a resounding “peek-a-boo!” Both parents vied to be the whale that got to swallow him.
The sun heat was still saturated in their skin as they sat down to their ice cream on the futon. They were nearly tempted to scoot Jonah over in his cool nightly bath and join him, but a blessed breeze had come, drifting a casual path from the screened front door, across them in their proneness, through the kitchen and out the screened back door. They indulged in candles on weekend nights, from an appreciation for the quarter light, the wonderful inconstancy of firelight. Tea-lights glowed a yellowish-white through frosted glass wall sconces; floating candles drifted, propelled across their shallow round pools by their burning; a votive flickered in a glass cube sheathed with perforated rusty metal, projecting stippled light in a transient rhombus while another votive sent leafy shadows rustling across the wall through an iron lantern. The candles themselves weren’t the indulgence—they had been gifts—rather, the opportunity to enjoy them together, since Ted’s second job wrenched him from their apartment before the dark of night, and returned him well after Sarah had succumbed to sleep.
At the height of the afternoon’s heat Sarah and Jonah had retired upstairs to siesta, while Ted visited the San Lorenzo Library. He had lingered, savoring the air-conditioned central space, traced his fingers across the short story anthologies, almost picking up The Norton Anthology of Latin-American Literature before reminding himself that he had more books checked out than he had time for at home already. A quick pivot right, and a glancing told him that no new periodicals of his interest had arrived, so with another right he skipped past the magazine racks, and most of the main stacks, to the Nonfiction DVD section at the foot of one of the long bookshelf rows.
“Thank goodness for the library—otherwise we’d never have anything to watch.”
Crouching, he picked a pair of Rick Steves’ Best of Travels in Europe: Ireland for himself, Portugal for Sarah. They were running out of episodes they hadn’t seen – Ireland and Portugal being among the most popular, and therefore frequently absent.
The last artificial synthesizer bass notes dump-dumped over the title screen, and Rick introduced their trip to Portugal. It was a summary to their day: not lazy, rather unhurried; tropical ocean currents flowing around islands of soft events; only their small archipelago lacked the exoticism of the unfamiliar, which they supplemented vicariously tonight with the Iberian and Gaelic, flat representations the only foreign lands within their range. Ted and Sarah marveled at a Lisbon church that lost its roof in a 1755 earthquake. Grass grew throughout the interior, and though the church was cracked open like an eggshell, it was still useful, remained fertile: something that touched Sarah especially, even two years after Jonah was cesareaned from her. This invoked melancholy was soon dispatched by continuing on to the Algarve and Salema, (“Even the buildings lay flat, sunbathing along with their occupants”), which promised an enviable, “simple life in the sun,” that Sarah thought she really might like giving a try.
Ted preferred the foggy brisk of Dingle, and the Aran Islands. The envy, with the amusingly literal grass is greener, (“I’m sick of golden hills: give me that rampant green”), came for him with the knowledge that the inhabitants of these islands were living exactly as they wanted to, while also being part of a real community. In Hayward Ted had close neighbors that he hadn’t even seen, much less talked to, or wanted to. Rick showed how one town with a population of 1,500 had fifty pubs. Hayward had a population of 144,721 with only two non-dive pubs: Buffalo Bill’s and The Bistro, both on the same block.
Behind the living room wall against where they sat slumbered their anchor. But anchors, even those slipped into the water unintentionally, cannot be resented for stopping your course. They realized this without articulating it, and did what they could within their shortened circle.
(When the credits rolled, Sarah would sigh, and Ted would tell their favorite lie, “Maybe when Jonah has finished college we’ll…”)
Between travels, Sarah snuck into Jonah’s room on the pretense that she was going to the bathroom. He was sleeping with his face turned away, so that in the cerulean nightlight cheek, lidded eye, and forehead were receding hills, eyelashes stilled palm fronds, in the deep sleep without the breezy dream’s sway. She was unable to reach him with her lips over the high crib railing, and so sent a kiss by proxy across the tips of her fingers.
Later, when Sarah was brushing her teeth, Ted peeked in on Jonah, taking the short, winding course, around the squeaky floorboards up to the crib. Jonah’s blanket was perfectly situated, but Ted adjusted it regardless.
My Life Reduced to Boxes
Furniture ghosts in plastic wrap.
Books sleep in their dark order—
stacked like months of winter nights,
waiting for daylight’s release.
Journals whisper to each other,
cap their pens
and swallow their tongues
at the click, click of footsteps.
Wedding china (eBay-bound)
preens for the camera, smoothing
its bone white faces, flashing
its royal blue eyes.
Turkish cotton towels tussle
with over-satisfied sheets boasting
their grandiose thread-count,
Egyptian provenance, satin trim.
Oh, these prideful objects!
So sure it is their presence
that gives value to our lives,
their cost that measures our worth.
Downsizing makes us choose:
Chair or ottoman?
Hat or scarf?
Husband or lover?
On Rosh Hashanah each year, God inscribes
who will live and who will die. Today
I am the list-maker. The mattress stays.
The headboard goes.
I thought this house could make us happy,
but happy was a room we forgot to build.
After my divorce, I realized
my fear of heights wasn’t vertigo,
but the heady desire to fling
myself over the edge
a staircase, an overpass,
Is that how I died in a past life?
Is that why I married
a stolid, broad-shouldered man
to tether me to this lifetime,
so I could drape him over me
like the dentist’s metal apron,
his density pinning me to our bed,
his strong, blunt hands
a helium balloon,
from drifting up
to the ceiling,
out of my body,
flying away with Jo Jo,
my imaginary childhood friend,
the one who only breezed through
in the night, in the dark,
to carry me away from the crush
of my father’s body,
his hand over my mouth?
UMKC Basketball Player Shot
Had my window open at Twin Oaks. Heard the pop. Indigo Rolling
shot in the shoulder at the Piggly Wiggly on 12/Main.
Story goes, Indigo was getting cash at the ATM after a game,
and some guy said, “Give me what you got,” and Indigo looked
a little too long, said, “Hey, don’t I know you?” and bang, yes, he did.
It is dusk. I am in the museum alone, the only “artist in residence.” For a week, I have the honor of being scared by great art—day and night. I sleep on a cot. I wander the rooms in bare feet. Before me is Gauguin’s Riders on the Beach. Two half-naked men on steeds turn toward rough surf as cobalt blue stretches beyond. Two women chat. One is on bareback, the other has bare breasts, belly hidden by a gold cloth.
“I sit in front of nature. . . then dream about it,” writes Gauguin.
I close my eyes and press into the canvas. My shoulder, my soft hip and breast. Rough smells of pigment fill my nose. I strain through scratchy layers, break through wall into sky. I am stuck. Polynesian sun warms half of me. The other part chills in inky museum shadows. My paintings of flooded cities, bloated suitcases and ruined pipes haunt me. Dark fragments drain me of desire. I want to run by the Atuana shore.
I hear the guard’s footfall on dull museum floors. A bony boy, blank eyes of an addict. His navy jacket cuts into his crumpled khakis. He aches to talk, to hold me. My arm yanks his lapelled shirt. “Push,” I yell. And he does, trembling.
I land flat on pink ground in a breeze. Horse hoofs rise by the shore. Bronzed torsos and heads with black locks surround me. No one sees me. How can that be? Two riders look far beyond. One dons an orange hood, the other yellow. They are ready to leave earth, to carry off Gauguin for good.
Syphilis twists in his groin, ulcers mar his legs. His dark eyes are dim. Only fifty-three years old. Eager for wild untamed growth, he paints frescoes with blue trees and women with walnut-colored skin. He craves noa noa, fragrance. His wife and five children stay in France, waiting for his money, his success. I have left my family too– my parents and lonely husband.
Help, I call to Gauguin. How do I lose the swell and stink of city sewers, the sirens’ wail, the wretched heat of pavements? The headaches that lure me into dark rooms. Show me how to turn leaves vermillion, to pour gold on raw canvas, to find your stillness.
“The silence of the night here is absolute,” Gauguin writes.
Not even a bird’s cry breaks the quiet.
I follow a path of ferns and palms. Green and purple slash the sky. I hold his brush. No one lingers so I may paint their strong sable bodies. I am the pale spirit of the dead disturbing their day. Steep cliffs, dry land. I lie down in pink sand and ask the spirits to take me away.
No, Gauguin chides me. This is my path. Live yours. He steers me sideways. Forehead and cheeks square, his body is a brute sailor’s strung out on morphine. He pushes me and I fall into the dank museum with pigments on my legs and fish in my hair. Bah! I call out. The sand sticking to my skin will renew me.
The guard bends beside me. He folds a towel around my neck and offers a glass of water. I gulp it. He plucks seaweed from my forehead and asks me what I’ve seen. An endless beach, the will of nature. Death closing in. I speak my vision as he cradles me.
In the Details
“That’s it! I’ve got it!” Elmer shouted. He grabbed his notebook and burst out of his cubicle with the urgency of a man trying to beat the devil.
Which was fair enough, seeing as that was his actual situation.
In all his time working for the prince of darkness ― and Elmer long ago lost track of how long that had been ― he spent what few free hours he had trying to devise a way to reclaim the soul he’d lost in what could kindly be called a sucker’s bet. He’d had similar brainstorms before, but this idea was a winner.
I’ll say this, Elmer thought as he pressed the down key on the elevator to the underworld that magically appeared whenever the prince of lies sensed one of his servants needed it. He may be the embodiment of evil, but he’s a lot more accessible than any of my old bosses.
Ever since the devil told him he could have his soul back if he replaced it ten thousandfold, Elmer had taken periodic trips to the fallen one’s office on the bottom floor and patiently waited his turn in the lobby among other lost souls in similar predicaments. None of his few dozen pitches had ever gained much traction with the chairman of the board, but that hadn’t stopped him from trying. Sometimes, he wondered if that cycle was part of his eternal punishment.
“Have an appointment?” the secretary asked, even though the answer was always no and Elmer would always have to kill an excruciating amount of time in the lobby’s sauna atmosphere.
Uncomfortable with awkward silences, Elmer tried unsuccessfully to make small talk with the others waiting for their audiences. “This time it’s a good one, I swear on my mother’s grave,” he told one of his fellow petitioners, missing the irony that swearing on said grave was partly how he first got into this mess, and that his mother had been cremated.
When the secretary finally read his name off the clipboard, Elmer gathered his notes, straightened his tie, and marched into the head office with as much confidence as his sweat-drenched body would allow.
“What have you got for me?” the lord of the flies asked in a bored tone, leaning back in his chair of bones, with his cloven feet up on his desk. He does always get right to the point, Elmer thought, but at least he listens.
“I’ve developed a video game. It’s the answer to our prayers. I mean, my prayers. Not prayers. You know what I mean…”
The old adversary sighed. “I will grant you they take something of human’s brains, their ability to interact, and ― as this meeting is threatening to do to me ― their attention spans. Not their souls. What good does this do me?”
Elmer took a deep breath, forgetting the office’s ever-present brimstone scent would burn his mouth. After a coughing fit, he continued. “It’s a game where they have to defeat you in a wager. If they win, they get points and coins or whatever. If they lose, they give their soul to you.” He opened his notebook and showed his boss some preliminary sketches of how the game would look.
“Now, that’s interesting, though I’m hardly a fan of letting them beat me.”
“I know you don’t have time to play games,” Elmer continued, knowing from experience that the son of perdition had a predilection for flattery. “But I’ve done the research here. People love these games, and as long as they can beat levels and feel like they’re accomplishing something, it becomes addicting. Maybe we let them beat you in a fiddle contest, or guessing riddles ― we have to make them hard, but winnable. They’ll keep playing, but it’s like a casino. The house always wins in the end.”
“Casinos. That was one of the better ideas anyone in that chair ever proposed.”
“It’s not even a trick. Not really. They lose their soul right there in the game.”
“Why would people purchase such a game?” the proprietor of Hell asked. Elmer could see him losing interest, and began to get nervous. He’s only patient to a point, Elmer reminded himself, rubbing the spot on his thigh where his last failed pitch had earned him pitchfork scars.
“They don’t buy it. We let them download it for free. I mean, you let them. Ten thousand is a small number for a something like this.”
“I admit, this is better than your plan to steal souls with cameras,” the devil replied. “However, you again forget the key point. While I may win a soul through guile, I can’t claim it unless the risk is made willingly. It’s what I get for pushing for free will. Pretending to bet a soul is not the same as doing it.”
“That’s the beauty of this. We make it part of the terms of service.”
“Terms of service?” This question surprised Elmer; he always assumed they were originally an infernal idea.
“We explain the risk right there in the terms of service. Nobody reads them. Everybody just checks the box and willingly agrees to whatever you put in there.”
“This, I like.”
“It’s an easy win. You take their souls. I get mine back. It’s all volume. It just needs a marketing plan, and I know you have plenty of people here who can do that.”
The old serpent pressed the intercom button on his speakerphone. “Get me marketing.” He turned his countenance to his beaming minion. “This is useful work, Elmer. Your service may soon be complete.”
Wanting to quit while ahead, Elmer picked up his clipboard and left the office with a feeling of relief. Though had he stopped to realize that it would be the game developers and sales team who actually acquired the souls for the author of sin, he might have been less content as he whistled in line for the elevator back to purgatory.
Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections. Meteor Shower (2016) is her second collection from Dos Madres Press, following The Refrain in 2012. She is the author of a novel, Fall Love, as well as short stories, essays, features, and reviews. Recent honors include 2016 Songs of Eretz poetry prize; 2016 winner of the Common Good Books’ poems of gratitude contest; 2016 RhymeOn! poetry award (first prize); the 2016 Fitzgerald Museum poetry prize, and 2015 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize. Last July Garrison Keillor read Anne’s poem, “One Summer Day on the Number One Train,” on The Writer’s Almanac. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and lives in New York City.
Josh often feels like he is the only writer living in San Leandro, but he looks forward to retiring somewhere warmer. His stories have been published in over a dozen literary journals and anthologies, a couple receiving Pushcart Prize nominations—though he has yet to win any carts. His books include the seriocomic novel Alexander Murphy’s Home for Wayward Celebrities, and the collection My Governor’s House and other stories. Until the riches pour in allowing him to write full time, he will continue forcing high school students to read, write, and think. Visit his blog, oralrandomly.blogspot.com, for more information about him than you’d probably care to know.
Elya Braden took a long detour from her creative endeavors to pursue an eighteen-year career as a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur. She is now a writer and collage artist living in Los Angeles where she leads workshops for writers. Her work has appeared in Dogwood, Forge, poemmemoirstory, Rat’s Ass Review, Shark Reef, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Split Lip Magazine, Willow Review and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.elyabraden.com.
Kevin Rabas teaches at Emporia State University and has seven books, including Songs for My Father: poems & stories.
Pam Wolfson writes fiction and paints abstract landscapes. She is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction has been published in Vestal Review, SLAB, Other Voices, Quality Women’s Fiction, and Inner Landscapes (Grayson Books). Her flash fiction was selected for the cultural exhibit “375 Views of Boston.” Pam has a Masters in Literature from the University of Toronto, and the Southampton Writers’ Conference awarded her a merit scholarship for her novel The Causeway.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.