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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

#259: "No thanks, I'm just looking" by Welton B. Marsland


~This poem was previously published Cargo (1988).

~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant editor, poetry




"No thanks, I'm just looking"


I stand and peer in through the window.
I want him.
Everyone else thinks I'm admiring the clothes
  placed so strategically casual in the display
  but it's him that I want wrapped up to take with me.
Every night, on my walk home from work, I stop
  and fuck him through the cold glass.
Does he think I only like the clothes, too, or
  is he aware of me outside his shop,
  the red neon light illuminating the lust in my stare?
I don't think I want to speak to him.
He's simply another item in the shop,
  to be admired, perused, pinched, considered, bought and used.

And so I watch him -
  he woos customers, wrestles coat-hangers,
  stands strangely on one foot 'cos those new shoes are hurting again,
  placates complainers, runs long sensual fingers through jet black hair,
  and looks relieved to see the last of them go at half-five.
He glances at the window and my eyes dart back to the display,
  that cream jumper is cheaper than last week... how interesting...

Then I walk away towards the train station,
  leaving a foggy patch on his window to remind him I was there,
  and I go home empty handed.

*****

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

#258: "Remember the Grass" by Tariro Ndoro




~This story first appeared in Thyini  as “Inevitable.” (2015).
~Selected by Kenneth A. Fleming, assistant editor for fiction

You know it is over when your grandmother comes from the general dealer and confronts you about it. You deny it all because perhaps you weren't just ready to deal with it yet. Your grandmother takes you on the next bus to town anyway and just when you've thanked God that the General Hospital is already closed, a young pharmacist tells your grandma that pregnancy tests can now be bought over the counter.
            She buys five to make sure before dragging you to your uncle's house in the township where dust floods the streets and kids ran around with snot on their faces and no trousers on. Unconcerned men laze around on rundown cars with their shirts off because it is summer, just like Mutare, just like the neighborhood you were uprooted from, while guavas fell from the trees and Rutendo played marakaraka with you until sundown.

Your uncle’s wife is surprised to see you, but when she sees the look on your grandmother’s face she acts like a good daughter in law and silently makes tea. Your grandmother refuses to drink it. Sweat beads down her temples, running from somewhere beneath her doek to the bottom of her neck and there is an eerie silence, like the time you snuck out at night to go dancing and locked your her in the house.
Taking the tests is hard enough with your grandmother and your aunt watching as you intently pee into the cup. Like the old ladies they are, there is a great fuss about following all the instructions to a T. The results don't surprise you – you’ve skipped two periods already. You have to wait for your uncle anyway, so your aunt makes another pot of tea – hot water in a yellow metal kettle with the milk and sugar thrown in it already and chunks of bread with only one slice margerined, just the way you've had it every day for the past two years since coming to live with your grandmother.
When your uncle arrives, the tribunal has to be held via loudspeaker on your grandmother’s solar phone, although not everyone’s opinion is heard because they are all headstrong and all loud and all right. Your grandmother is broken, she looks angry but she's crying. You've never seen her tears.
Every family member has something to say about it all but as always your own mother is silent. Your mother was silent too when you'd been caught talking to your Math teacher after twilight, and when you had failed all your subjects that school year and when you were caught changing the marks on her report card. They decide that your uncle and aunt should escort you to your new home.

The journey back to your grandmother’s is tense. From Rusape town all the way to Gunda turn-off no one speaks to anyone else, all you can do is listen to the vague radio somewhere behind the gossiping mothers and watch as the brown grass flies past you, just like the journey from Mutare, the one you thought had a return date on it but didn’t.
       When you arrive they pack everything you had with you when you came – it all fits into one satchel, and even the satchel was a donation but this isn't the time for details. That is why you went to the grass in the first place; it helped you forget about the rural school you now had to attend. It was light years away from feeding the chickens with their pecking, and the pigs with all their hovelly sounds...

Most of all it helped you to forget gratitude. They always forced you to remember that when you arrived you had nothing but the clothes you wore, that your Aunt Rumbidzai had paid your school fees and that it was Aunt Namato who brought you food every month. You were tired of justifying your existence. You hadn’t planned to stay that long with you grandmother. No one had planned it – except your mother.
       And so it is with your uncle and aunt that you walk the 2 km journey from your grandmother’s home to your new husband’s home. You will go without a price because you sold yourself cheap. You walk past fields that smell of fresh long grass and cow dung, fields in which you had lain as he had loved you. It was in these fields and fields further on that you had sat with him and learnt to forget, the world stopped still when you were here, but now it's catching up with you.
As you hear the njiva sing above you, you think of all the days you had played truant with him – he had quit school long ago so his presence came with intoxicating freedom. Out of the trees hanging low, he would pick hute for you as you sat there in the grass, hiding from busybodies.
The welcoming party is meager, one skinny sister in law suckling her baby, and your lover. Their homestead is peculiar in its lack of livestock. Your uncle and aunt leave after saying the necessary and for the first night you will be joining in his hunger, the hunger that that drove you to steal from your grandmother to feed him, isn’t that what love does? That is why Grandmother had insisted you leave with nothing, so you can see for yourself that he doesn't really love you.
But he does love you. Of course he has not been you first lover; your first lover had been the neighbour. But that was before he wanted to play the game with your baby sister too and that got you into trouble. Love stops where marriage begins. That's what they say. It is that way when finally you live with your man. You struggle for money and give birth to your first child on the side of the road and he dies before you get to hospital. You get pregnant again. You fight over something as crazy as five dollars and you make up, but not before he kicks you in the stomach and you lose that baby. Six months later you're pregnant again.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“Remember the Grass” was inspired by a course in synchronous narrative. One of the readings for the class was “Rooster Pollard Cricket Goose” by Noy Holland which reminded me of rural Zimbabwe and also made me think about narrating a story from the perspective of a character who has been robbed of agency.

*****
ABOUT TARIRO NDORO
Tariro Ndoro is a Zimbabwean writer and an alumnus of the Rhodes University Master of Arts in Creative Writing progamme. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Contrast, Oxford Poetry, AFREADA and Fireside Fiction.




Monday, February 12, 2018

#257: Two Poems by Jacqueline Jules



  
~This poem previously appeared in The Cape Rock (2014).


How Is Mom Holding Up?


When they heard the news in December,
Mom did not cancel their summer cruise.
The doctor said three rounds this time, if all goes well.
Besides, they bought insurance.

She hasn’t canceled yoga, either. Tuesdays 9 a.m.
are blocked off from January to June
to breathe deeply in class,
not at the hospital in chemo spouse position.

With no surgery scheduled, no bedside duty,
Mom plans to keep tutoring Wednesdays, too.

She’s already flipping through catalogs,
choosing seeds for the spring garden
unplanted last year in the storm
of a darker diagnosis.

And when I asked why she was gazing
through a frosted bay window
with dreamy gray eyes,
she said she was picturing
Sunday walks at the lake
hand in hand. Each day
growing longer and longer
until twelve hours of sun
and dinner for two on the patio
consumed the fear
of one plate on the kitchen table
and a six o’clock sunset outside.




*****


Thursday, February 8, 2018

#256: "Far-Away Love" by Nahid Rachlin


~This story was previously published in Virginia Quarterly Review (1980).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor, Fiction


                                    
                                                                                   
                                    I am standing at this street corner,
                                    Where we used to meet
                                    But is it the same street?
                                    -- a Persian song

            Soosan sat in the Gelato Lab, eating her plum sorbet while her son, having finished his, stood by the fish tank in a corner of the cafe watching the fish tumbling in the water. They both needed rest. For hours, they had been going from shop to shop in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar in the center of Tehran, with her doing some the last minute shopping for the party she was giving for Darien’s tenth birthday.
            The cafĂ© with the bright display of fruit and Cola bottles on a counter, green lights from tiny bulbs in the ceiling beaming, and its air fragrant with floral scents used in sorbets and gelatos was serene. But Soosan was far from relaxed. The closer it got to Darien’s birthday, the more she missed Bill, the American father of her child. How could she forget Bill, the stormy love between them that had come to an abrupt end ten years ago when he had to leave Iran, practically escaping, going back to America? Darien, looking so much like him, a son he had no idea existed, was a constant reminder of him. When the Revolution raged through Iran, with the Shah overthrown and a new Islamic regime about to take over, there was a wave of anti-American feeling that led to 52 Americans being taken hostage. Then the State Department had ordered all Americans residing in Iran to evacuate-- special planes had been sent for them. So she didn’t have a chance to even say good-bye to Bill. The Revolution and then the war with Iraq, which ended just a year ago, brought communication between Iran and other countries to zero. Phone lines were mostly disabled; post office didn’t deliver to other countries or received mail from them. The soap factory where she and Bill had both been working had closed soon after the American employees were forced to leave.
            She had kept hoping the relationship between Iran and America would resume and Bill would return. But everything got only worse. The hostages were held much longer than expected, over a year; the American embassy never opened, and a war, with Iraq attacking Iran kept going, making communication between Iran and other countries nearly impossible.
            She tried and tried to find a way to go to America and search for Bill but it became clear it was impossible for an Iranian to get a visa to go there.  Even if she could, how would she track him down in the vast country? She had no idea even what city he was living in.
            Her thoughts went to when she just met Bill. A young American man stopped by her at a bookstore where she was buying a novel in English. He began to talk switching back and forth from English to Farsi. They realized they both worked at the office of Parsa Soap Factory; she was a receptionist there, and he was an engineer consultant.     
             “I’m taking an English course in an evening class,” she had said to him.  “I see all the American movies shown in cinemas. I want to understand them in the original language.”
            “Maybe we can go to one of the movies together,” he said.
            She shook her head. He seemed to understand that she couldn’t accept the invitation, knew that it was forbidden in this culture for men and women to interact freely before they were married. They would have to see each other secretly.
            “Let’s go to dinner then, I know a good place outside of town.”
            She hesitated but then she agreed to that.

Monday, January 29, 2018

#255: Three Poems by Gregory Luce


~This poem was first published in Logical Reader (1997).





“Better git it in your soul”
(for Jim)

Better embrace it like Mingus’
bass, stroke it, caress it, pull it in,
draw it like smoke, drink it
like old bourbon burning
all the way down.
Then give it back.



 *****

Monday, January 22, 2018

#254: "N.O.M.E." by Hildie Block


~This story was previously published in The First Line (2005).






"That was the best game we've ever had!"  Her eyes were shining as the setting sun glinted off her long dark hair with the pink streaks.  She looked like a little girl instead.  Instead of the 25 year-old with a wasted B.A. in English, suffocating as an administrative assistant that she was.
He dumped the Scrabble tiles into the box without another thought.  She suddenly looked like she'd been stabbed. 
            "What are you doing!"  She was standing and looked agitated.  She was digging her nails into her palms.  The blood started to drip again.  He wondered, not for the first time, why she filed her nails to a point.
He looked shocked.  "Wha' "
"The perfect game!  The perfect game!  It's gone!"
She sat down and looked about to sob.  He looked around the park to make sure no one was looking.  "Look," he said covering her hand with his, "we know we played the perfect game.  We know we did it, finally, we used every tile, and we know the score was exactly even."  The wind stirred the leaves at his feet.  He put his hand in his pocket, fingering the blue velvet box that he kept there like a talisman – the box that would come so close to making a public appearance and then disappear again-- and instead grabbed a clean napkin from lunch.  "Here," he said, handing it to her so she could dry her hands.  She stood, wiped her hands, shook her head, as if to shake a thought out of it and then smiled -- off they went for coffee at the new place around the corner, as planned.
*************

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

#253: Two Poems by Esteban Colon


~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant editor for poetry


Before the Storm

~This poem was previously published in After Hours (2014).

polka dot dress traced love on
Japanese streets
                        chalk
saying what cards never could,
waited
            for a mother she never met,
till
foster parents dragged her inside
drowning in the downpour
like
drawings
erased in the rain


 *****