Monday, July 16, 2018

#270: "News of the Loch Ness Monster" by Carla Douglas


~This story previously appeared in The New Quarterly  (2003).
My father has his telephone set to ring twelve times before the answering machine picks up. Tonight he gets it on the eighth—just as I’m deciding whether or not to leave a message.
“Hello,” he says, expectant but not hopeful.
“Hi, Dad, it’s me—”
“Oh, yes.” He fumbles with the phone. “Yes, of course, hello dear.”
“Hi, Dad.”
He always knows my voice, but I tell him who it is anyway. He’s going blind—I have just recently learned this, and I presume he needs help making the visual connection. I realize this is something like shouting at people who don’t speak English.
“You’re home. I didn’t know if you’d be there. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“No,” he says, “I’m just resting. I’ve just finished my dinner.”
“Uh huh. What did you have?
“A meal on wheel. A piece of chicken with a vegetable and potato.”
Did the people who invented meals on wheels ever intend for them to be anything but plural? I imagine a chicken drumstick on a unicycle, somehow managing to get up the steps to his apartment door and press the buzzer.
“And was it okay?”
“Yes, it was fine,” he says, “very nourishing.” He says noorish—rhymes with moorish.
I have two pictures of my father. Or rather, I picture him in two ways. In one, he is sitting in a bright, spacious living room. He is nicely dressed in grey flannels—slacks, he calls them, or trousers—and a clean, pressed shirt. He could be expecting a visitor. In this picture he is pleasantly occupied; a fresh breeze blows in through the open window, and there is definitely no gold shag carpeting.
In the other picture, the one I see when I talk to him on the phone, he is hunched over his unwiped kitchen table in the dim light of a single overhead bulb, staring at the blank wall. The sink is stacked with oatmeal-encrusted bowls and glasses rimmed with rinds of old milk. There’s a smell, too—sour food combined with cooking odours from other apartments and the open tube of liniment in the bathroom. I am in this picture because I am the one connected to the other end of the telephone.
And what am I doing? Mostly, I’m trying to keep these images at bay. And on this particular night I’m fumbling with a flashlight and candles, because to the east of Toronto, where I live, a blanket of ice has descended upon us and shut down the power grid. I wonder if he can see me in the dark.
My father lives in Niagara, in a renovated red-brick cannery. This sounds quite grand, and it could be. Everywhere, it seems, old warehouses and factories have been transformed into spectacular living quarters, with cavernous interiors, exposed brick, and walls of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on urban streetscapes full of shops and cafes. On the outside, most of these buildings have retained a period facade, some even sporting signs identifying the original owners and uses—Dempsey’s Candy Factory; Canadian Textiles.
These lofts always seem to be occupied by designers and artists, part of the space being given over to studio, where they work, live, and entertain lavishly. You see them in magazines and on the Home and Garden television channel. Seldom do they have children, but in the rare cases that they do, the family occupies two floors of the building, the parents’ and children’s spaces connected by a system of intercoms, wrought-iron spiral staircases, fire poles, and perhaps even a slide.
My father’s apartment isn’t like this. You would have to be told—and then you still might not believe it—that until the 1950s it was a thriving little cannery, one of a dozen or more in the city that packed soft fruit and shipped it across the country. Peaches, plums, apricots, pears—staple winter fare in most homes before advances in refrigeration and trucking brought oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, and anything, really, from the south, year-round.
Only traces of its former use remain on the outside of the building. The old, tall windows have been replaced with cheap aluminium sliders, smaller than the originals, and brown siding fills in the gaps at the bottom. But the bricks are pleasingly weathered, and the oversize double doors hint at how the structure could have been transformed, if only the developer had had more imagination.
“… but they always give you too much. I can’t work my way through all that.” He’s still talking about his meal on wheel.
“I didn’t know if you’d be home.”
Usually when I call, he isn’t. Nearly every night he has dinner with his woman friend, a widow he met at his bridge club not long after my mother died. She has become his constant companion. She feeds him, phones him, and fills his head with ideas about how offspring should properly behave. For her fussing attention my father returns a kind of blind party loyalty. She is the final word, the source of all opinion, and he acts as a conduit, reporting all the news to us—mostly about her children’s and grandchildren’s (wholesome, practical and infinitely superior) achievements, but other things, too. She persuaded him to rent this dismal apartment a few blocks from her house. “He’s legally blind, you know,” she told my sister, hurling it like an accusation.
For a time her mere existence provided me with guilty relief, but this soon made way for smug certainty that my mother wouldn’t have liked her either. “She’s not really my type,” my mother would have said, with a sniff. So now I stand on guard with my siblings, ready—eager, even—to preserve our parents’ marital tensions beyond the grave.

Monday, July 9, 2018

#269: "We Take the Bus" by Jacquelyn Bengfort


~This poem was previously published in Gargoyle (2016).




I take her on the city bus
The six blocks to the library
Six blocks too long for toddling legs

I take her on the city bus
So she knows what it costs to spend a dollar eighty
For an hour’s trip across the District

We take the bus.

I take her on the city bus
So she will learn things
Some people never know, see things

See the women bent over their drugstore walkers
See the men with eyes stuck shut, murmuring
See the girls, young, with babies like her

And hear the boys in the back rapping freestyle
She is nearly two and’s seen
More than I at twenty-two:

A gang of masks on Halloween punching out a neighbor,
Panhandlers asking only for a smile
Homeless people passing the peace at church

And all the sirens at night
In place of stars, sirens and
Helicopters, bellies full of hurt children

How young should one begin to know?
Will all this turn her callous
Or cause her pain?

A man on the radio the other day:
“When it comes to our children
Know the space between pain and suffering

“Pain is a teacher. Suffering
Destroys. Just hold your babies
When they are hurting.”

So we take the city bus
With grandmothers and their grocery carts
And men preaching Jehovah’s promise

We take the bus to see the city
At the slowly rolling speed of
Start-and-stop amidst strangers

My daughter and I, she and I,
We take the city bus.

*****

Monday, July 2, 2018

#268: "Between Foreclosures: July 2009" by S.J. Dunning


~This essay previously appeared in Dogwood: A Journal of Prose and Poetry ​(2013).

In the field of foreclosure we measure our days by cities and houses: the condo and the house in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, on Monday, the two-story farmhouse in Washougal, Washington, on Tuesday and Wednesday, “The Shack” in Fairfield, Idaho; from Thursday thru Saturday, a 1600-square-foot million-dollar condo in Big Sky, Montana on Sunday, and there will be many others coming up, each vacant.
My father has said it’s like we’re living the Jonny Cash version of the song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” or I’ve said it’s like we’re living that song on the road, or we’ve both made the comparison. There’s some truth to the analogy—we’re always totin’ packs as the song goes—except our travels are limited to States within the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. We might as well be driving across the country and back again, however, on account of all miles we tally between these properties.
“We trashout foreclosures,” is the answer I give when people ask what my father and I do on the road, but to “trashout” a house is to remove everything it contains, even the appliances in some cases, and that’s not always why we’re dispatched to a foreclosed property. 
What we actually do at each property depends upon its accompanying work order. In the process we call the “trashout”, we clean the houses, winterize or de-winterize them, change the locks, and do landscaping. Or we might “refresh” a house that’s already been emptied (dust and sweep and make new vacuum tracks) or we might mow a lawn. The yard at the house in Great Falls, Montana, our current destination, is overdue for mowing, so that’s why we’re going there—even though the grass (if there actually is any) is probably dead, even though the mower’s blade will merely spit dust and gravel and litter at me as it spins.

Monday, June 25, 2018

#267: "Another Curio Shop" by Dan Branch




~This poem was previously published in Explorations (1992).
~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor for Poetry




Winter die back comes early to this tourist town.

The east coast sleaze boys left after the last tour boat,
taking their cardboard boxes of cheap furs
and the money of visitors who believed that Loring
is an igloo village.

Forty percent off sales and moonlight madness pass like
Chinook winds over the downtown stubble fields.

Curios still need dusting, don’t you know.

Some folks ride out the season south of the Tropic of Cancer.
Five Star and the Potlatch stay open
to give comfort to Thomas Basin.

Our pale teens prefer Mickey D.

June of June’s CafĂ© stays but won’t thaw out any meat.

Last fall they gutted Charlie’s for another curio shop.

Last fall I cared.

I walk on past the Arctic Bar to drink espresso
and watch the sea lions hammer herring near Ryus Float.

Soon the black cod fleet will off load at Silver Lining while
eagles watch perched in the trees along White Cliff Street.

I’ll have a double,
The first Princes boat isn’t due ‘till May.

*****


Monday, June 18, 2018

#266: "The Conveyance of Sound" by Virginia Hartman






            “The doctor will be here in a moment, Mr. Cameron.”  The nurse pulled the door behind her as she left, and I turned toward Tommy, sitting at the end of the examining table, his white-sheathed arms wrapped around himself in an involuntary embrace.
            “What happened?”  I said.  My voice echoed in the bare room. 
            He looked down at his dangling feet, the only limbs still free.  He moved them aimlessly as if he were sitting on a dock, cooling his toes in the water.  He acted like he belonged here, like it wasn’t all a mistake.  But it had to be.
            “Tommy, what happened?”  I repeated, with a bit more force than I’d intended.  He didn’t answer.  That used to be his way of getting at me—acting vacant, giving me a “Duhhh…” when he didn’t feel like answering.  Now, he wasn’t kidding.  He was sitting at the edge of that table like an idiot—so help me, that’s exactly what was going through my mind—my older brother looking like the village idiot.  I took him by the shoulders of that awful jacket and said, “Tommy, tell me what is going on!”  He looked at me—an unfocused, distant stare—and then he looked away.
            I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and heard a soft voice say, “Mr. Cameron, why don’t you join me in the next room?”
            It was a thin, severe-looking, middle-aged woman with black hair pulled tightly back in a barrette.  On her coat was embroidered in cursive writing, “Dr. Landis.”  She was the man in the white coat, I thought.  The one who comes to take you away.
            We stood behind a one-way mirror and watched Tommy from the other room.  I couldn’t shake the sensation that all this really wasn’t happening, that sooner or later I’d wake up.  I’d call tom and we’d laugh about this dream.  I touched the glass in front of me.  It was solid.
            Tommy went back to watching his feet.  The doctor must have been standing back here before, observing my brother and me like two bugs in a jar.  She had probably been sizing me up, too, diagnosing me.
            “Could you please take that jacket off him?” I said.
            “Yes, we will,” she said.  Her voice was a low whisper.  “He doesn’t seem to be a danger to himself anymore.”  She stood behind me, the two of us peeping through the glass at Tom.  “I was hoping that you might be able to elicit a reaction,” she said.
            I was going to ask her what happened, but before I could ask, she began to tell me.  Tommy had called the crisis center shouting, she said, shouting that something was about to happen.  When the operator asked what he meant, Tom said something like, “I just need some talk-back!”
            “Talk-back?  What is that?” I said.
            She didn’t know.  She thought I might know.  She waited, then continued.  After he said this, he accused the operator of not wanting to listen to him, and dropped the receiver, leaving it off the hook.  When the paramedics got to his building he was on the roof, sitting out on the edge of a cornice, dangling his feet, just as he sat now on the examining table.  According to the rescue team, when they pulled him back to safety, he flailed and resisted, but he didn’t say a word.
            The doctor stopped talking.  I felt like screaming at Tommy, “Cut it out!” but with that glass between us, my words would have only bounced back to me, unheard.  The doctor, standing at my shoulder, resumed speaking in her low tone, telling me that it might have been an isolated incident, but then what about his unresponsive state?  Had he been acting erratically?  Had he been depressed?  No, no, I said.  I couldn’t think.  The last thing I heard her say was that they’d keep him there for observation, and then I stopped listening.
            Pulling out of the dark parking lot I passed the “St. Mark’s Hospital” sign, and I thought of the directions Annie and I gave people who were driving to our house for the first time.  We used this place as a landmark.  “Turn left at the loony bin,” we always said.  Ha ha.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

#265: Three Poems by Sophie Cabot Black




~This poem was previously published in Bloom (2015).

THE PENITENT


How tired the day of me realizing
Again not the way wanted, the waste
Of each body by mine and yes

I kept myself capable and yes
When entering a room I was the center
But how unchosen I stood

In a slow undraping to catch
Any task of your broad and apparent
Hands; no longer do I know what to cover,

The cat in the corner overseeing
My fall toward not how I have changed
But finally how I could not bear you.

*****

Sunday, May 13, 2018

#264: "Goosepimples: by Dallas Woodburn


~This story previously appeared in Arroyo Literary Review (2014).

~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction


He isn’t bothering anybody. He’s just sitting in his car in the parking lot by the freshly mown soccer fields, waiting for his daughter to be done with practice. He isn’t looking at anything in particular, just gazing out in the direction of his pony-tailed daughter and her friends, running forward and back across the field, their cheeks flushed and their toothpick legs like pinwheels in their high rainbow socks.
            But he isn’t really watching them, nor is he particularly aware of the pigeons squatting along the telephone wire in the distance, clumped together like old ladies gossiping, nor of the acute blue of the sky behind them, so blue it almost seems artificial. He gazes towards all of these things but he doesn’t really see them, in the way one stares off vacantly into space when deep in thought or daydreaming.
            He isn’t daydreaming or deep in thought, but the opposite. His mind is blank, blissfully blank, like the clear blue bowl of a sky above them, only an occasional cloud-thought skittering past, dissipating before it wakes him from peaceful emptiness.
            It is a shadow that finally rouses him, falling across his face like a summons. He glances up through the dirt-streaked windshield, expecting to see the shiny red face of his daughter, but instead he is met with the round, shapely behind of a young woman. Tight Lycra shorts grip her perfect, tan thighs. He takes in the smooth-shaven backs of her knees, her slender calves tapering down to exquisite ankles, her running shoes edged in pink trim.
            Quickly he looks away, out at the blue sky, the telephone poles, the gray brick restrooms huddled in the midst of green expanse of soccer fields—but immediately his eyes itch to return to her. She is, after all, standing right in front of his car. Her curvaceous lower half directly at his eye level. Where else is he supposed to look?
            He looks.