Sunday, March 25, 2012

#26: "Astro City" by Richard Peabody

~This piece previously appeared in North American Review (2003)

From the bouncy spring rocket ship ride on the playground where he sits, Sean watches the orange-suited convicts rake litter and brush from the shoulders of the asphalt that wraps around the crescent-shaped beach.  He remembers that Key West’s motto is “One Human Family.” Sean doesn’t know why he remembers this but it comes to him seated here now, watching his children run loudly from the swings to the colorful slides, which despite being made from some sort of space-age polymer designed to remain cool to the touch in direct sunlight are, he knows, already too hot for their tiny hands.  Too hot before noon even this time of year on a disastrous Christmas vacation.  Disastrous because Sean is hung over, because he feels so genuinely guilty about drinking again last night after two years on the wagon that he’s caved to his wife Carmen’s demands, and taken the kids to Astro City Park, the only playground they could find, and guilty because he knows that the convicts aren’t included in Key West’s tourist brochures, though he is just now beginning to believe that the convicts in their orange suits have more freedom than he does.
Sean tries to resist this train wreck of thought, when it is flicked from his consciousness like an errant mosquito as Chai, the younger of the children, trips, falling head first into the steps of the playground slides.  With a quickness that amazes him, Sean has moved across the hot sand and is scooping up his toddler before she realizes she’s hurt, actually bleeding.  She’s got a bloody nose and Sean knows it’s got to be painful as he brushes sand away, and rocks her gently in his arms. Bobby, the oldest, appears simultaneously in the opening of the tunnel slide at Sean’s feet. His son’s glee quickly turning to concern, fear. Sean can see his boy pointing. He looks down. Chai has bled all over Sean’s brand new Hawaiian shirt. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

#25: "Rituals" by Monica F. Jacobe

~~This essay previously appeared in Under the Sun (2008).
I learned to drink coffee by watching my mother.  She used to sit on the corner counter in the kitchen every morning stirring and stirring it.  She made instant—with milk and pills of Nutra Sweet that looked like aspirin.  Her coffee was always the same color and always the same color as her cup—middle brown like toffee or caramel.
            I didn’t drink coffee then, but the smell of it was the smell of morning for the first eight years of my life and still is, in the same way roasting turkey is the smell of Christmas presents.  I used to wake up on those mornings and hurry across the kitchen tile, cold against my bare feet, and curl up in a ball on the little mat in front of the heater just below her feet.  It would blow warm air against my face, and I would inhale deeply the scent of heating ducts and instant coffee in the time before my brother and sister woke up.  I stayed silent and curled up, watching her feet swing above me in fuzzy blue slippers and hearing the sound of coffee stirring over the cycles of the heater.
            The sound of those mornings is almost clearer than the smell.  The spoon made light but firm chinking sounds against the ceramic cup, not too fast and not too slow.  It’s the rhythm of coffee, a deeper sound than a spoon on china or glass.  In fact, there’s no other sound like it in the world.  I still have her cups for their sound and for their color—the color coffee should be.  They are gracefully curved in the center, as if for the comfort of the hand that will hold them.  The handle is a simple curve that highlights the mottling under the shiny glaze; it is dark at the joints and lighter across the smooth middle.  The top of the rim is almost white, though still shiny, but the ring set into the bottom is white and unglazed.  I love to run my fingers across that rough ring and up onto the smooth of the gently angled bottom.  It reminds me of those mornings.
            After she died, I would wake up from a dream where it was all a dream—her death, the days and weeks since.  I would wake up knowing she was there, and I had lived a long nightmare in a single night.  Running to the kitchen and to her for reassurance, I didn’t notice that my running footsteps echoed in the otherwise quiet house.  When I got to the edge of the tile and looked across the kitchen to where she should have been, the kitchen was cold, empty, and smelled of dish detergent.

Monday, March 12, 2012

#24: "The Excitement Begins" by Leslee Becker

~This story previously appeared in Ploughshares (1995)

            On the day before his fiftieth birthday, Bill Lander received a letter from a woman he’d never heard of—Amber Harding—saying she’d be pleased to come to Wallace to meet him and be his birthday date.  She noted the time she’d arrive on the train and said she’d have no trouble recognizing him.  “I’ll just look for a tall, silent type,” she wrote, but warned that she had modified her appearance some since her ad ran in Soulmates.  “I took the plunge, and had my hair cut and permed.  The color’s the same.”   She closed by saying she looked forward to meeting a real cowboy and seeing Wyoming.  Her letter was mailed from What Cheer, Iowa, and Bill read it again, certain there had been a mistake.  He called Directory Assistance, then Amber Harding.
            “There’s been a mistake,” he told her answering machine.  “This is Bill Lander leaving the message.”  He noted the time and date, and left his phone number.
            He was outside spreading hay, when it came to him that someone was playing a birthday trick on him, someone’s idea of a gag.  He flung the hay, hitting a heifer, her big eyes regarding him stupidly, her tail flicking at a halo of flies. 
He had a long list of culprits to choose from.  He’d lived in Wallace all his life.  He was a bachelor, and friends were always trying to hook him up with someone.  They were the ones who were going all out for his birthday.  They rented the Union Hall and hired a local band, promising him he’d have a night to remember.
            He got in his pickup and went to the barbershop in town.  Ned Jencks grinned at him.  “The birthday boy.  The big five-oh.  Bet you’re here for a haircut.”
            “No,” Bill told him.  He saw Soulmates on top of a stack of magazines, and picked it up.
            “That’s an interesting publication,” Ned said.

Monday, March 5, 2012

#23: "Fires on Highway 192" by Deborah Ager

~This poem previously appeared in The Los Angeles Review (2010)

Fires on Highway 192

       after Neruda’s “Disasters”

In Florida, it was raining ash because the fire
demanded it. I had to point my car landward
and hope the smoke would part, but it was a grey sea
absorbing my body. Cabbage palms were annihilated.
Even the Indian River steamed. Black stalks stank.
The condominiums spit smoke into twilight.
Still, a cattle egret landed, preening, in a pasture
filled with embers – the cattle dead or removed.
And I was hungry; there was nothing to eat.
And I was thirsty and raised the river to my mouth.
And I was alone, and there was only that one egret
searching for a cow. The wind was a whisper on my tongue.
Ash on ash. Slumber shallow. I was a frown
in an unfamiliar city after sundown. Vultures circled
like assassins. I made a bed of the road.  I made a pillow
of misery and slept and had no story I wanted to confess.