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.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

#263: Three Poems by Meg Eden




~This poem previously appeared in Kansas City Voices, Salzburg Review (2015).



Civilized People Keep their Silver Polished

My mother polishes her father’s silverware
on the dryer downstairs because
he’s asked her to, and there’s no room
to do it elsewhere. The basement bathroom

hasn’t been clean since my grandmother died.
In the living room, her Greek statues dangle
from bird cages, her piano untuned and unplayed.
In some of the rooms, it still smells like her.

My mother tries to go through each room
with “a woman’s touch”—as if she’s
some spin-off Midas, who can make
the ugly shine—but my granddad

won’t let her throw away anything
that might come in handy one day.
In his workshop, rusting hammers wait
to fix and be fixed.

 *****

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

#262: "The Jaws of Life" by Todd McKie



                                                                                                            

~This story previously appeared in Conclave (2012).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction

                          

Give us this day our daily bread. And give us, please, the good stuff. Give us something that smells of wheat, not plastic. Give us this day—right now—something good and chewy, baked with care, to sink our teeth into.

          Years ago, newly married and full of youthful enthusiasm, I tried to learn to bake bread. How hard could it be? In our pint-sized kitchen, surrounded by cookbooks, I added water to yeast, salt to flour. I kneaded until my fingers ached. I patted and poked and folded the dough. Eventually I produced six or seven edible loaves, but I also baked some things the dog wouldn’t touch: dense, burnt things more like rustic doorstops than loaves of homemade bread. The successes we ate immediately. Denise oohed and aahed. She made a fuss.
          “Mmm, this is good with butter,” she’d say. Or, “This is so good hot.”
          It was an awful lot of work for something that could be eaten in one sitting, something that only tasted good hot. After a few weeks, I gave up. Ever since, I’ve been glad to pay what’s asked for a good loaf of honest bread.

          Stories should have a bit of historical background mixed into them. That’s what I’m doing when I tell about my early attempts to bake bread and that’s what I’m doing, I suppose, when I tell you that Denise and I are good people. We’ve had, like most married folks, our share of hard times: lost jobs, dreams that disappeared so slowly we didn’t notice them creeping away, a thousand sad things big and small. I don’t recall a time, though, when we were too discouraged, too angry or scared to sit down at the end of the day and eat a meal together. We’re good people who love to eat.
          I  should mention one unhappy fact: Denise and I are fat. We’re not pudgy. We used to be. We used to be ample, heavyset, substantial. Now, God help us, we’re enormous. I guess, relatively speaking, I’m fatter than Denise, but that’s quibbling—we’re both porkers, plain and simple.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

#261: "Sam's Way" by Ruth W. Crocker



~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2012).

“We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom; nothing is anything but according to nature, whatever it may be.”
Michel de Montaigne Of a Monstrous Child

 “Look at that face! Okay you kids – get close to Sam – give him a tickle – let’s get him to smile – here we go.”
Click.
The earliest memory I have of my brother, Sam, is this photograph taken by my father with a Kodak box camera in 1950.  Sam sits scowling in a red Radio Flyer wagon pulled by our older brother, Bobby, over the bumpy flagstone walkway in front of our childhood home behind the nursing home in Old Mystic, Connecticut. I am standing next to the wagon, my blond pig-tails sticking out like a four year old Pippi Longstocking, with a child-sized garden rake in one hand and the other on Sam’s tiny shoulder, steadying him on his perch. This pose with me as the big sister trying to keep a grip on Sam foretold our future. His expression, with his chubby lower lip pulled up to his nose and eyebrows scrunched together under a wide-brimmed girlie sun hat, was also prophetic. There were arrows coming from his eyes towards the camera. He was eight-months old in that snapshot, but I would see that same expression many times over the thirty-nine years of his life. 
 From his earliest days he could aim that scowl at anyone and the word went out: “Sam’s not happy.” He sent mood telegraphs with his facial expressions. As soon as he could stand up on his little mutton chop legs, he further illustrated his discontent by taking off in all directions as fast as those mini gams could carry him. Drooping cloth diapers never slowed him down. Sam could turn ornery at a moment’s notice and demonstrate demon behavior – something that I aspired to as a child but assumed I could never get away with. 
Our parents battled for control over Sam’s moods and meanderings.  Many a family outing ended with my mother’s frantic cry: “Where’s Sam?” and the alarm went up: “Sam’s taken off again!” We would all go to our lookout points. Even at a picnic table in a park in an open clearing with ten pairs of eyes looking left and right, he could vaporize. 
He would never have his picture taken with Santa Claus at the G. Fox & Co. department store, in Hartford, Connecticut, a yearly tradition for the rest of us.  He was already on the lam as soon as we entered the store. Each year, as my older brother and I waited like automatons to sit on Santa’s lap, standing on fake snow in the line of children that snaked through Frosty Village and the elves’ toyshop, Sam had already departed for the luggage department or housewares or men’s clothing with our parents in pursuit, my father panting in his wool suit, overcoat and felt hat, my mother slipping and sliding in her high heels and taffeta dress with her coat over her arm – both wearing a look of alarm. Sam could do that to adults. They never knew what he was going to do even though he seemed to do the same thing, over and over. 
 “What ails that child?” said my grandmother, “he just goes off on a toot whenever he wants. He takes after Grandfather Sam. He couldn’t stay t’ home either. Shouldn’t have named him after him.” 
This knack at physical disappearance raised conversations within the family both about the origins of Sam’s behavior and/or the reinforcement of such propensities. Was it nature or nurture?  “How did he get like this?” they wondered.
My father: “Sam needs a good hiding.”
My grandmother and mother, in unison: “Don’t you dare touch that child.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

#260: "Ant Farm" by Laura Oliver


 ~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction

--This story was first published in Glimmer Train Stories (1999).

       After Brian moved out I bought our daughter Erica an ant farm. I thought it would distract her. A flat plastic skyline sat on a slice of sand wedged between two clear plastic panes to form an underground window. Toys R Us couldn’t stock live insects however, so after buying the kit, we sent the enclosed coupon to Uncle Willy’s Ants and waited for our tenants to arrive in the mail. We were not to be alarmed if they arrived “sleepy” the literature stated, which meant, barely thawed.
       We set up the display in preparation of their arrival and read the instructions. “ANTS DON’T LIKE LANDSLIDES!” That meant don’t shake the farm. “ANTS DON’T LIKE LEFTOVERS!” A piece of fruit the size of an asterisk can feed a whole colony for a week, we discovered.
        I think of that now as ants scurry in erratic patterns to nowhere across the family room floor--but these are garden-variety ants that have somehow found a way into the house. Uncle Willy’s ants must have been derailed somewhere, because it has been three weeks and they have not arrived.
       “Don’t step on them Mom,” Erica says. “We can put them in the farm.”
       I am not actually stepping on them. I have bought a few ant traps and am encouraging one to venture inside with the toe of my shoe. He veers off again and again. Finally I pick him up and drop him on it. He scrambles away.
       Things have been like this since Brian left. The house painter I hired turned out to be an evangelist. My son Adam, a freshman at St. Luke’s, announced to Sister Francesca that he’s a practicing Hindu, pierced his ear and got a tattoo.
       “At least it’s not a skull and cross bones,” my son points out. “At least it doesn’t spell anything.”
       “It could have said, ‘Mom,’” I say.