Monday, October 16, 2017

#246: "Getaway" by Rachel Vogel

~This story was previously published in Passages North (2009).
~Selected by Kenneth A. Fleming, Assistant Editor, Fiction.

            Ellen lies on a bed at the Plaza Athénée, idly stroking the satin coverlet. She and Jim have been on plenty of weekend getaways, but none like this. We just need some time alone, he has promised, and Ellen wants to believe.
“The water pressure’s weak,” he calls from the shower. He’s annoyed and Ellen wonders how long he will take to ease out of it. In the early days, a drink before dinner did the trick. Now, an entire bottle of merlot can’t shake Jim of the tension he wears like a porcupine coat. Ellen’s sister has urged her to consult a lawyer.
            “Should I call the front desk?” Ellen’s words sound foreign to her, as if another woman has spoken them, a common occurrence since the birth of their child. Spending hours alone with a toddler has atrophied Ellen’s mind. She barely glances at the newspaper each morning before flipping to the ad inserts in search of diaper coupons. She used to read Wittgenstein, for Christ’s sake.
            Ellen looks around the suite, which contains several furniture arrangements they will not use, and lets her eyes linger on a Chippendale breakfront stocked with porcelain knickknacks. It’s funny how all you really need is a bathroom and a bed. Jim would disagree. Their first weekend away, he spent forty-five minutes shuttling around The Four Seasons Miami with the hotel manager. Every room was too small or too noisy. When Ellen finally suggested they settle for a junior suite on the second floor, Jim admonished her. “You’ll never get anywhere if you’re willing to settle.” Where am I going? she wondered, but just in case, she kept her mouth shut.
From the beginning, Jim’s dark eyes and barrel chest made her heart dance in a million directions, and she loved his quick tongue. Sure, it had gotten them into trouble. Like the time he said “fuck you” to the American Airlines flight attendant and security guards “escorted” them off the plane to the cheers of the other passengers. But Jim’s unpredictability provided a certain excitement. Besides, you couldn’t expect to get all of the good and none of the bad in a marriage.
Jim emerges from the bathroom, a towel wrapped tightly around his waist. Ellen loves when he is freshly groomed—the sweet scent of soap, the rubbery feel of his damp skin, the minty smell of toothpaste with just a hint of his real breath coming through. She pats the bed and he sits down. Then he reaches over and squeezes her nipple. God, how she hates that. In six years of lovemaking, Jim hasn’t learned not to go straight for her boobs or her cunt. She likes these parts worked up to, yearns for a delicate path that meanders to an exquisite ripeness. But she wants the weekend to go well. If she offends him—and when it comes to sex Jim is easily offended—he won’t shake it off and they’ll go ten rounds. So she lets him plot his course, even gamely strokes his thigh. In another minute, though, she can’t stop herself from remarking,
            “I wonder if there were any more bombings in Baghdad today.”
            Jim, who follows the war obsessively, grabs the television clicker and looks for CNN. Ellen breathes a sigh of relief. She isn’t ready to succumb, not yet. As he works the remote, she stares at the walls, seeking inspiration. Above the bathroom door, the creamy paper is curling back, exposing a gluey yellow compound which casts a tawdry glow on the rest of the room. The antique furniture, at first glance so elegant, now suggests the tired finery of a brothel in an old Western, while the fringed skirting on a red silk divan dangles like a beaded saloon door. Ellen wonders how many couples have groped each other here, prostituting their better judgment in a last-ditch effort to blow some oxygen back into the dying embers of their passion.
“Can you believe those bastards killed off four more Marines today?” Jim says. An image of blood-drenched bodies and twisted metal floats across the television screen. “Blew them to bits with a car bomb and got away.” He sounds animated, almost gleeful.
Ellen wonders if the attorney’s business card is still tucked in her sequin clutch where her sister slipped it one night after a difficult party.
She wriggles on the bed, a twinge of excitement shooting through her. When Jim turns off the news, she is ready for him.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

#245: Three Poems by Kate Bernadette Benedict

~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant editor for poetry 

~This poem was previously published in Without Halos (1988) and Pudding (1993)

“Early Lessons: Submission”

She hates it, they make her eat it,
she mustn’t leave the table until every slice
of cold boiled carrot is off her plate.
6:30, 7:00: she sits there, staring
at those vomit-orange pellets
on pink Melmac, stabbing
at them with a fork, smelling
their sickening odor.
7:30, 8:00: now and then she thumbs a wedge
into her pressed mouth, gagging.
8:30, 9:00: her father holds firm,
she has to eat them.
Her mother warms them up and makes
a carrot sandwich: carrot bits,
pocked with mayo, poking
out of soft white Wonder bread.
It feels moist and lumpy in her hands
but the ruse helps.
She gets most of it down
and is released to one TV show,
a cupcake, her sheltering bed.
Then it’s time for breakfast.
They feed her boiled eggs
with raw running whites,
and orange juice, mossy with pulp,
and bacon, blubbery with slick fat,
and she hates it and has to eat it.


Monday, September 18, 2017

#244: "Go Back to Where You Came From" by Rita Ciresi

~This essay previously appeared in Divergent Voices (2014).

            Like everything else in our house that plugs into a (working) electrical socket, the record player comes on The Truck. My father knows a guy. Who knows a guy. Who knows a guy. You never know which guy will barrel The Truck up our steep asphalt driveway: Ugly. Shorty. The Schnozz. Big Willy.
            Whoever si chiama, the guy flings open the back of the truck and deposits the unsealed box on the back porch. No money changes hands, at least in front of my mother. 
            I don't ask no questions, Ma says.
            The record player comes in the swankiest color of 1967: avocado green. My three sisters and I haul it into the living room and drop to our knees to worship it—like it's the Archbishop's gold ring that contains a sliver of Christ's cross. 
            Sister Uno plugs it in. Sister Due puts the 45 on the turntable. Sister Tre pushes the lever that makes the record drop and the arm lurch over. 
            The speakers screech.
            I cover my ears. The record player is a piece-a-shit, like everything else in our house—the washing machine that doesn't wash, the dryer that doesn't dry, the baccaus that clogs so often I am terrified to cacca in it.
            Needs a needle, Sister Uno says.
            Ma heads for her sewing box. Sister Due digs through the Styrofoam and plucks out a silver stylus, thin as the slivers Ma yanks out of the bottom of our feet when we don't listen to her (you kids, you stunod kids, you don't listen to me, you never listen!), and walk barefoot on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. 
            The needle picks up every pop and scratch on the record. Then a deep, commanding voice enters our living room: Welcome to Italian One. Lesson One. Greetings. Listen and repeat. 
            We listen. But do not repeat. 
            Buon giorno, Signora Rossi, come stai? (Ding!)
            Bene, grazie, e Lei? (Ding!)

Monday, August 28, 2017

#243: Three Poems by Michael Morell

~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor, Poetry

~This poem was previously published in Paterson Literary Review (2004).

The Ghost of My Grandfather


It was a summer night in August
when my grandfather came downstairs from his bedroom
wearing an undershirt, scarf, dress pants and hat,
and asked my father to call him a cab because he wanted to go home.
Gramps was eighty-two, I was ten, and he’d lived with us for seven years.
When my father questioned him, reminded him that he was home,
Gramps gave his boyhood address in Darby, two towns from where we lived,
close enough for a man to smell the ham and cabbage
his mother cooked for him on special occasions.
After hours attempting to convince him
he lived with us, fruitlessly showing him his bedroom,
my father called for a cab, slipped the driver extra cash
and asked him to drive Gramps around the block a few times
before bringing him home. Fifteen minutes later
he was sound asleep in his bed.
Sometimes the mind plays tricks on you, son, my dad said.
Three weeks later my grandfather died.


I drive to my parents’ house for Friday night pizza
and my eighty year old father, who no longer looks like
he’ll live forever, calls to my mother like a crow
home home I want to go home. Later, I drive my father to Darby,
where he was born, where his father was born, past Fitzgerald
Mercy Hospital where I was born. He sees the pointed brown bricks
of his childhood, overlooks new storefront signs, falls back into
1940 and penny candy, today’s Soul Food Store once again
Waxman’s Shoes, smell of glue, rubber, and polish permeating the air.


I have always wanted to go back in time and meet my parents
as children, eye them walking home from school or chasing fireflies
on a summer evening, begging their parents for one more minute
of playtime before surrendering to the darkness, and now, here
my father sits, man, boy, dad, son- a mixture of everything he is
and was, time stripped aside, years peeling away like old paint
to reveal bare, clean wood, a moment where the sea of consciousness
is parted by some invisible staff we cannot grasp.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

#242: "Permanently Cool: A Tattoo of One’s Own" by Alice Lowe

~This essay previously appeared in Soundings Review (2014).

January: The idea worms its way into my head as I start anticipating—you might even say obsessing about—my October birthday. While I accept my senior status and its dubious benefits with appropriate aplomb and all the grace I can muster, damn it, I won’t go down without a fight. I want to do something symbolic, something tangible and visible, something out of character. A tattoo—that’s it!—I’ll get a tattoo. And I’ll write about it.

February: It’s a dramatic undertaking for me. Once it might have been thought radical or subversive—foolish for an old broad, maybe—but not now. I read about the recent proliferation of tattoos on women in Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women & Tattoo, which traces the phenomenon from a Native American captive in 1858 with a chin tattoo to the explosion of popularity over the past 20 years. Until recently tattoos carried a stigma of tawdriness for most women, although they became a fad in late 19th-century European and American elite society (usually tucked away in places that could be covered by clothing). Winston Churchill’s mother—the infamous Jennie—had a snake eating its tail, the symbol of eternity, inked on her wrist. Janis Joplin was one of the first celebrities to display them—a bracelet on her wrist, a tiny heart on her chest. Now they’re a fashion statement across age and class, and in 2012, for the first time, women got more tattoos than men. A political statement too: Mifflin sees women’s tattoos as “badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.” Right on, sisters!

Monday, August 14, 2017

#241: "House of the Ancients" by Clifford Garstang

~This story was previously published in REAL (Regarding Arts and Letters) (2008).

Nick—having learned from his Lonely Planet guide that the Mexico City subway is cheap, but infested with pickpockets—clutches his shoulder pack to his chest. He knows that the obvious anxiety marks him as an American or, at best, a Canadian, but right now, eyeing his fellow passengers, he doesn’t care. He’s been walking all day, like a zombie for the last hour. He’s worn out. The blister on his heel burns. He detects, via the low-pitched growl at the bottom of his gut, that he might soon be laid low with whatever it is that keeps Alexis tethered to their hotel room. And now he needs to know—it’s essential that he knows—that he is headed in the right direction. The guidebook falls open where he’s dog-eared the subway map. He boarded at Auditorio and the train has just left Constituyentes. Good. South, just as he wants, toward Barranca del Muerte. Ravine of Death.
As the train pulls into Tacubaya, a sprawling station where three lines meet, he slips the guidebook back into the bag. At least the flood of new passengers won’t identify him immediately. Unless the shiny Nikes give him away. Or his White Sox cap. Or his Levis and University of Chicago t-shirt.
When the doors hiss open, a family enters: a dark man with a guitar slung over his shoulder, a woman with a babe-in-arms, and two small boys. At the head of the subway car, the man unslings the guitar and hugs it close, plucking the strings tentatively as he sings in a piercing voice that rises above the train’s clatter. The lyrics don’t penetrate Nick’s meager Spanish, but the other riders, who nod appreciatively with the staccato beat, seem to recognize the song. The wife takes a seat with the baby and keeps her eyes low. The boys—Nick has assigned them names, Roberto for the older, and Pablo for the little one—the boys make their way through the car, Roberto down the left side, Pablo down the right, each with a grimy hand extended, stopping before every promising passenger, waiting for a coin or a head shake, or a scowl.
It is tiny Pablo, wearing green sweat pants and a tobacco-brown sweater, who stands before Nick, gazing up at him with wide, dark eyes. The father’s voice sails through the car, an arrow Nick thinks is meant for him, and Pablo bounces his open hand, a hand no larger than a cat’s paw, on Nick’s knee. When Nick presses a peso into Pablo’s palm, there is no smile, no acknowledgment. The boy breaks his gaze and moves on. At San Pedro de los Piños, the boys jostle through the rushing passengers to join their parents, and the family passes into the next car, to be replaced by a grim-faced young man selling DVDs of a rock concert that he displays on a portable player held above his head, sour chords blaring from the machine’s tiny speakers as the vendor maneuvers through the oblivious crowd.
The train hurtles through the tunnel, a passage in time for Nick, back to his Chicago commute, images of Alexis flickering on the black windows, their future together, healing the strain of faded newness, feeling their way toward something solid and lasting.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

#240: Four Poems by Michael Hettich

~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor for Poetry.

~This poem was previously published in The Great River Review (2015).

The Milky Way

If we could imagine that every word we speak
were an animal or insect, the last of a species
ever to be born, that the very act of speaking
brought extinction even before our words 
had been heard and replied to, we might get a feeling
for the vanishings we witness but don’t see. And if every
conversation were understood as a kind
of holocaust denuding whole landscapes, some people
would simply fall silent—as far as they could—
while most others would keep chattering on. Just imagine
the vast forests of lives, the near-infinity of forms 
brought to a halt with a simple conversation.
And I would be one of the talkers, despite
the fact that I knew what my talking destroyed.
And so I would mourn every word I said,
even while I argued passionately for silence
and for learning to honor the sacred diversity
of life. Just imagine watching the stars
go out on a dark night in the far north, a clear night,
one after the other until the sky was black.

Once, when I was taking out the garbage, just walking
dully across my back yard, a huge bird—
as big as a vulture but glittering and sleek—
rose from the grass and flew into my body,
knocked the breath out of me, then flew up and away
with a powerful pull of its wings. I could hardly

see it in the darkness. And then it was just gone.