Elusive

By Michael Anthony

 

Arvee Grice led a simple life. Some might even call it monastic. But, this Wednesday evening his predictable routine was about to change. After returning books he had read about America’s earliest explorers and checking out several others at the New Madrid Public Library, he scooped up the hardcovers and spun to leave.

He didn’t see the woman standing behind him until it was too late.

Crash!

With pages flapping, books flew like wounded birds in every direction before hitting the floor in a succession of loud thuds. Embarrassed by his clumsiness, Arvee knelt to retrieve the volumes scattered across the carpet.

I’m sorry,” the woman stammered. “I should have been paying attention.”

No, it was my faul…Rita?” a surprised Arvee said.

Arvee?”

Yeah. I’m really sorry. You’re not hurt are you?” he repeated to the woman from the accounting department of the manufacturing plant just south of town where Arvee ran a packaging machine. Though they worked for the same company on the bank of the Mississippi, their paths rarely crossed and certainly never like this.

No, I’m fine,” Rita Morris assured him.

After sorting and tucking the books under their arms, Arvee and Rita walked out into a pink August twilight awakening to cicadas and mosquitoes. The sun was slipping behind the slate roof of the Presbyterian Church across Powell Street and its steeple cast a long shadow that darkened the library sidewalk.

Arvee glanced at Rita several times as they crossed the parking lot. He had always thought she was attractive but figured she wouldn’t be interested in a guy from the shop floor. Besides, he hadn’t dated in years. So, his skills were a bit rusty. “Reading some health books, huh?” Arvee remarked about Rita’s selections.

Instinctively, she deflected the attention back to him. “Guess you like history.”

Yeah. Figure I’ll have time on the road.”

You going away?” Rita asked while fishing for car keys in the bottom of the large black purse that swung from her shoulder.

Taking next week off to visit my brother in Chicago and go to The Art Institute.”

No way!” Rita chirped as she leaned against the fender of her car. “I’m going to be up in Hammond to see my nephew before he heads off to USC. Oh, I love The Institute.”

Wow! Maybe I’ll see you there,” Arvee laughed, knowing he had better odds of hitting the lottery than actually meeting her in Chicago.

The rays of the setting sun illuminated Rita’s face and hair as if she was on stage. Arvee snapped a mental picture of the moment. After an awkward pause, they wished each other a pleasant trip. Then, Rita slid into her small car and Arvee started up his F-150.

He followed her out onto Powell Street. Nearing the corner, Rita sped up and cut a hard left as the traffic signal turned red. Just as she did, Arvee spotted that mail truck careening down Virginia Avenue with the green light in its favor.

An enormous explosion of steel against steel and a hailstorm of glass and chrome skidding across asphalt jarred the otherwise calm summer air. Arvee parked his truck and ran to the enmeshed vehicles, “Rita, are you okay?” he yelled through the shattered side window.

I don’t know,” she mumbled; her hands trembling; her shoulders quaking.

He didn’t see any blood.

The car’s left front fender was ripped open and twisted across the equally crumpled hood. The mail truck sat at an awkward angle, its driver holding his head in his hands. “You all right in there?” Arvee called. The driver nodded without looking up.

Realizing how close she had come to having the front end of that truck buried deep into her door and maybe even her hip, Rita sobbed uncontrollably. Though relieved she wasn’t seriously injured, or worse, Arvee knew the fault was hers.

A street-weary police sergeant seemed more interested in finishing the paperwork then determining culpability, so the accident report didn’t assign blame.

You should go to Valley General,” the cop suggested. “Get some X-rays as a precaution. Need a ride?”

I’ll take her,” Arvee offered.

No,” Rita protested. “I’ll call a cab.” Her legs wobbled as she pushed off the bumper of Arvee’s pickup.

Listen,” Arvee said. “I’ll drive you to get checked out.”

Lady, take your friend’s advice,” the cop grunted before folding himself back into the patrol car that disappeared down Powell Street.

Thanks for taking me to the hospital and bringing me home,” Rita grinned as Arvee walked her to her apartment door on which hung a strawflower wreath.

Just glad you’re okay. Kinda changes your plans for Indiana, huh?” Arvee said.

More like ends them,” Rita sighed. “No way I can get my car fixed before Saturday and I certainly can’t afford a rental.”

Arvee paused, then said, “Look, I’m still going up Sunday morning. Want to ride with me?”

Rita flushed at Arvee’s well-intentioned offer. “No. I wouldn’t be good company.”

But, you said you were excited to see your nephew before he went off to college,” Arvee countered with her own admission.

I’ll send him a check,” Rita said while rubbing her hip.

Look, I’m going anyway. Be nice to have someone help pass the time.”

Rita hesitated; then agreed, albeit half-heartedly.

It had begun.

Unbeknownst to Arvee, he was being canonized into Rita’s Pantheon of Perfect Men. In her mind, he was a gentleman at the library, her hero at the accident, her friend at the hospital, and now, with his offer of a ride to Indiana, her savior. She thought, “No way could this soft-spoken man whose smile cut wide across a face too large and too round ever become another Elroy.”

As her father, Elroy Morris belittled Rita from her earliest memory until seventeen when she left home for a sweet-talking welder who, as Rita would soon discover, had abandoned his wife and child for her. When after a few months, that welder up and disappeared with an eighteen-year-old counter girl from Hafner’s Ice Cream Stand, Rita returned to her father’s home and scorn. Ever since, her relationships started in a burst of great enthusiasm for having found the perfect man, but ended in great disappointment when his human imperfections inevitably surfaced.

Arvee was just entering the enthusiasm phase.

Pick you up Sunday around ten,” he said cheerfully.

Four days later, Arvee stowed Rita’s suitcase beneath the tonneau cover on the bed of his pickup, then asked, “Music?”

Anything but military marches,” she responded.

Why not?”

Because that’s all my father ever played.”

Arvee laughed and steered the truck out onto Levee Road. “Okay,” he said while checking the rearview mirror, “but don’t expect too many marches on KZMO. Mostly Beethoven and Bach.”

Really? You look more like the Hank Williams type,” Rita said with a hint of her father’s biting sarcasm.

Because I drive a pickup?” Arvee parried.

Rita watched the loop of the Mississippi disappear behind a stand of evergreens atop Dawson Hill. “Never heard the name Arvee before,” Rita said.

Short for Ronald Victor. Hate the name Ronald; and, Victor even more.”

The next hour passed with a typical social conversation about childhood schools, favorite vacations, and the latest good movie. Arvee turned towards Rita just as she opened that large black purse. It looked like a portable pharmacy with pill bottles, ointments, inhalers, stomach remedies, and a variety of similar medications. Catching Arvee’s inquisitive stare, Rita mounted a quick defense. “I need them all.”

Okay,” he shrugged without judgment.

Rita expected the usual questioning about the contents, which she took for those mysterious ailments she could never fully describe nor could the doctors accurately diagnose. Rita had long ago rejected one physician’s recommendation she seek psychological help, telling him, “I’m sick, not crazy.”

Instead, Arvee simply asked her, “Hungry?” as he drove up an exit ramp towards a roadside restaurant that proclaimed the best steaks this side of the Mississippi. Rita said she could have something light, though Arvee was in the mood to test the eatery’s claim.

While walking towards the entrance, they heard shouting coming from across the parking lot where a man towered over a boy who looked to be no more than ten.

People like that shouldn’t have kids,” Rita complained to Arvee. When he didn’t readily agree, she spun. “Right?”

Hey, I don’t know what’s going on. Could just be a long ride in a small car with a whiny kid. When I was his age I drove my folks crazy.”

Nobody should suffer that kind of abuse,” Rita declared. Her sensitivity to the incident did not go unnoticed by Arvee, who let it pass without comment until they sat down.

The stark differences of opinion about the man and boy made lunch increasingly tense. Though Rita didn’t share all the details, Arvee perceived that Rita’s strained relationship with her own father colored what she saw. By the time they returned to the pickup, Rita’s face was a cold mask of anger. She pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit up while reaching for the door handle.

Sorry, I don’t allow smoking in my truck.”

Oh, geez,” Rita grumbled as she crushed the cigarette beneath her shoe. “Okay?”

They were back on the interstate when Arvee said, “Listen. I know you’re upset about that guy back there, but we don’t know anything about them. I don’t condone abuse, but I also don’t judge folks, especially without all the facts.”

Instead of responding, Rita glared out the window. She was beginning to question her decision to spend six hours in a truck with this man. Some minutes and miles farther up the road, Rita turned and said, “You’d understand if you had children.”

Arvee’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I did,” he grimaced.

The word ‘did’ caught Rita off guard. Another few miles passed before she asked the burning question.

Arvee answered, “Had a wife and daughter.”

Messy divorce?” Rita said.

No,” Arvee replied sharply. “Killed by a drunk driver six years ago June.”

Stunned, Rita swallowed, then mumbled, “I’m sorry. People who do that should be thrown in jail.”

Especially when they’re family,” Arvee added.

What?” Rita blurted in disbelief.

Yep.” Arvee’s voice went flat. “I was bass fishing downstate with my brother for the weekend when my father-in-law came over to take Marianne and our little girl Ellie shopping in Dyersburg. He misjudged the entryway to the bridge and ended up overturned in the river. Bastard escaped without a scratch, but they were trapped inside. He didn’t even try to save them.”

Oh my god,” Rita moaned. “I’m so sorry,” then, added, “and, for everything I said back at the restaurant. Really.” Noticing Arvee’s tear-rimmed eyes, Rita said, “I don’t remember hearing anything about that.”

We were living in Caruthersville then.”

Did he go to jail?”

No. Lawyer got him off on some technicality about the evidence. I didn’t even let him go to the funeral,” Arvee said. “About a year later, he shows up at my door and pulls a gun from his pocket, begging me to shoot him.”

Unsure she wanted to hear Arvee’s answer, Rita nonetheless asked, “And…?”

Told him, ‘Do it yourself, you son-of-a-bitch.’ Then, I slammed the door in his face. Never saw him again. Don’t want to either.”

Can’t blame you,” Rita told the man who was now a mythical god driving her to Indiana.

Arvee flipped the visor down to reveal a photograph held in place by rubber bands. “Ellie and Marianne might be gone, but they’re in here – forever.” His fist pounded his chest. Then, he turned to Rita. “Losing them taught me something important. If we let our anger for someone who hurt us define our lives, then happiness will always elude us.”

Arvee’s words burned into Rita’s heart in a way that no one else’s had. Not the therapists she had visited; not the ministers she sought out; not even her closest friends ever put it to Rita so bluntly and directly. The ‘awful life’ Rita had convinced herself she was living paled in comparison to the anguish this man bore without complaint.

Arvee and Rita did spend an afternoon wandering Chicago’s Art Institute and had dinner in a little restaurant on South Wabash as trains rumbled overhead on the L. When they went out on their first real date back in New Madrid, Rita’s large black purse was much lighter. All those meds, along with her cigarettes, were now gone.

 

Michael Anthony is a writer and visual artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Bull & Cross, Storyland, Burnt Pine Magazine, and The Oddville Press. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay, “Mill Ends,” on the waning textile industry, which he documented while working in a textile mill. A book containing the images and recollections was subsequently published with the same title.

One Wish

By Sara Noë

Charms had always been illegal. Evelyn was well aware of the law when she stood before the stranger’s cart inspecting the wares. What had started as innocent curiosity morphed into wonder further amplified by the wild pounding of her heart trying to fracture her ribs in its escape. There was a certain thrill to breaking the law, an adrenaline spike the likes of which she’d never experienced before. She wiped her moist palms against the rough wool of her forest green cloak. The old mule swishing its tail in her peripheral made her flinch, and every few seconds, Evelyn would pause to glance around in fear that the Amanz were coming to arrest her. But the forest was quiet, and after each quick sweep of the trees, her eyes would be irresistibly drawn back to the cart.

The canvas on the side of the rickety cart had been pulled away to reveal the contraband Charms. A pair of mirrors that allowed lovers to see and speak with one another, a ring that brought good fortune, a goblet that would never empty, a dagger that would never dull or rust, and many more. All looked innocent enough; if Evelyn didn’t know any better, she never would guessed these commonplace items were Charms. All that revealed these were indeed contraband were the strange, tiny markings of a lost tongue etched on each object.

“Anything catch your eye?” A woman bent with the weight of many years shuffled to Evelyn’s side and peered around her arm.

“I’m not sure,” Evelyn admitted. She curled her fingers inward until the nails pressed into her skin deep enough to leave imprints. “I want…something special.”

“Aaaahhhhh,” the stranger breathed, nodding. “I have the perfect Charm.” She scuttled around to the back of the cart, all the while mumbling, “I knew the moment I saw you that you that you wouldn’t settle for anything less than exceptional. I keep my best merchandise back here.” The old woman labored up the three short steps and then crouched to seize a metal ring in the floor of the cart. Evelyn took a step forward, opening her mouth to offer help, but with abnormal strength, the merchant hauled the heavy trap door up to throw light into a shallow compartment. “Come here, child, come here.”

Evelyn’s paranoia made her skim the clearing for Amanz officers again before she wandered over. “Let me see, let me see…ah-ha.” Pinched between the gnarled fingers was a silver chain, at the end of which dangled a crystal pendant that caught the light.

Entranced, Evelyn reached out and set her hand behind the crystal. It felt warm against her skin despite the dark space it had been stored in. She leaned closer to squint at the tiny scrawl.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“It is, isn’t it? A very rare stone for a very powerful Charm.”

Mesmerized by the beautiful crystal, Evelyn asked, “What does it do?”

“This one is very special. It will grant you one wish. Anything in the world you desire is yours. Won’t your fiancé be pleased when you have limitless wealth, or a grand house, or perfect health? You can use it now, or you can save it for when you are truly desperate, when you find yourself in trouble and all options have been exhausted. The possibilities are endless.”

Spellbound, Evelyn couldn’t take her eyes from the crystal. One wish. It would have to be perfect, but she and Sterling would have plenty of time to discuss what they wanted. Anything in the world….

“How much?”

“Fifteen augmins.”

Evelyn’s face fell. Fifteen gold pieces? She didn’t even have half that in her coin pouch. She feigned a patient smile and unclipped her pouch from her belt. When she loosened the drawstring and glanced inside, five gold coins and six silver gleamed in the shadow.

“What’s your name?” Evelyn inquired.

The old woman answered, “Kassidia.”

“Kassidia, then…your price is very steep. I don’t suppose I could offer you five?”

“You could offer, but my price stands at fifteen. Nothing less.”

Discouraged, Evelyn dumped the contents of her pouch into her open hand and haggled, “Five augmins and six nimms. That’s all I have.”

“I’m sorry.” Kassidia turned away, taking the beautiful Charm with her. “You may choose from my cheaper stock. I went through a lot of trouble to get this particular Charm, and I can’t afford to bargain over it.”

Evelyn pleaded, “A trade, then?” She poured the coins back into her pouch and patted her clothes, searching every pocket for something the old woman might want.

“Nothing you can give me is worth the price of this Charm. However, I could negotiate something else for the price of five augmins. Let us choose something that will make your fiancé happy.” She shuffled around the cart, her arthritic-stricken fingers shaking as they struggled to tuck the wishing Charm in the leather pouch at her belt. Evelyn followed, crestfallen as she watched the crystal vanish. Kassidia withdrew her hand, leaving only a small section of the silver chain dangling from beneath the flap. Eveylyn couldn’t take her eyes off it. It jostled with every slow step, swinging slowly, taunting.

“So, dear, what’s the lucky fellow’s name?”

“Huh?”

“Your husband-to-be. What is his name?”

“Sterling,” Evelyn sighed, unable to mask the desire from her voice.

“And his trade?”

Evelyn half-heartedly surveyed the other Charms again, none calling to her like the crystal pendant in Kassidia’s pouch. “Oh, um, he’s an apprentice to a blacksmith.”

“How nice. May I recommend this for the lovely couple?” Kassidia selected a jade ring and offered it to Evelyn, who took it while glancing once more at the silver chain at the old woman’s hip. “This will bring you good fortune.”

Evelyn tilted the ring to see the etching on the inside of the band.

“Five augmins?” she asked.

Kassidia hesitated, her pale eyes flicking to the coin pouch in Evelyn’s hand at the same time Evelyn cast another longing glance to the silver chain. “Seven.” Disappointment escaped through Evelyn’s lips in a sigh. “But,” Kassidia continued, “for you, I will accept your offer of five augmins and six nimms. Heed my warning, though—this will bring you good luck only as long as you are a good person who deserves it. This Charm will not work if you try to use your luck for sin.”

Evelyn rolled her lips together in indecision. Sterling had given her the money to invest in a good horse so they could plow their new rocky plot of land. All of his savings and her mother’s dowry had been invested in the ramshackle cottage on the bluff. But when Kassidia had found her in the marketplace and whispered enchantments in her ear, she couldn’t help herself. A lifetime of good luck? Surely that was worth more than a horse.

Kassidia coaxed, “Try it on. Believe me, a Charm such as this is worth more than anything you were in the market for.”

Evelyn shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She plucked the ring from her palm and slipped it over her finger. Perfect fit. That must be a sign, right? She realized she was nodding, then squeaked, “Okay.” She would have bought the wishing pendant without a second’s hesitation. But now it was with great reluctance that she relinquished her coin pouch, every cent to her name. If only she could afford the Charm she really wanted. The pendant called her, drawing her eyes back to the chain. Kassidia was old, slow. Who would stop her? The Amanz? Kassidia sold illegal Charms, and seeking the Amanz would only incriminate herself. And besides, Evelyn now had luck on her side….

“A pleasure doing business with you,” Kassidia was saying. “The next time I pass through town, perhaps we could—”

“I’m sorry.” Evelyn rushed forward and curled her fingers around the chain. All it took was a single yank, and the crystal came free. She pivoted and ran, seized in the grips of adrenaline and exhilaration. Kassidia’s old mule startled and kicked at the air while its owner screeched in Evelyn’s wake, but Evelyn paid her no heed. They were hers now. Both Charms, luck and one wish. Her life with Sterling was about to change forever.

____________________________________________________________

Trees flash by, blurred smudges in her flooded vision. Evelyn can’t breathe. Every gasp sears her chest. Muscles burning, lungs on fire, hot saline spilling from the corners of her eyes, she runs. A root catches her foot; a bramble snags her cloak; a branch slashes her cheek like the trees’ enchanted claws are trying to hold her back.

She could hear his footsteps outside. She smiled, counting them: one, two, three, pause. The doorknob turned. Evelyn faced the door, arms poised to embrace her fiancé.

The sound of her cloak ripping on a thorn causes only a brief hiccup in her stride before she pulls free. She leaves behind a chunk of wool in the thorns tipped red with drops of her blood.

There he was in the doorway, the sunlight warming his tousled brown hair. His honey eyes found her immediately and brightened in her presence. “Ah, just the face I’ve been waiting all day to see,” he greeted.

Evelyn’s lips pulled apart into a broad smile. “How was Bolin?”

Grumpy, as always,” was the grim and weary reply. He shrugged. “But I’ve learned a lot from him. Someday I’ll take over his trade and make a steady living for us. Everything will work out, you’ll see.” He pulled her into a strong embrace. Evelyn inhaled the smell of sweat and smoke and iron from his cotton shirt.

She couldn’t dissipate the giddy grin and spun away. “I know it will. I have a surprise for you.”

She trips on a rock and has a full three seconds of flight before gravity reclaims her. Evelyn instinctively draws her limbs inward and twists her body so she lands on her shoulder and rolls. Out of control, she tumbles down the slope, battered and pummeled by brambles with every turn. She strikes a tree with enough force to whip her around and wrench her arms and legs from their cowered position. Evelyn flails through the leaves until finally rolling to a stop. A groan escapes between her parted lips. Dazed, she stares up at the canopy so high above her while her body throbs.

She held out her fist. The silver chain spilled between her fingers, the crystal pendant swinging gently at the end. The facets caught the sunlight and reflected tiny rainbows on the walls. Sterling stared at it, expressionless. Evelyn loved the way the colors lit up his dazzling eyes. “What is it?” he asked.

Evelyn’s fingers uncurl in the leaves. A silver chain falls between her fingers. In the center of her palm is a pendant, black and dull, the ancient words erased.

What have you done?” he shouted. “Have you lost your mind? What were you thinking?” He rushed forward and snatched the pendant. The silver chain broke in her fingers.

She wraps the blackened pendant in her fist and rolls onto her stomach. Everything hurts. And yet, this pain is nothing compared to the ache in her heart. Evelyn scrambles to her hands and knees, then the rest of the way to her feet. She sways, the world tilting for a moment before righting itself. Which way? She spins in a circle.

Sterling, wait! Let me explain!”

That way. She takes a few unsteady steps, her pace quickening to a jog and then resuming her mad dash through the woods.

I don’t understand you sometimes! You were supposed to buy a cheap horse! How are we supposed to till the ground with a plow and no horse? Honestly, Evy, how could you waste all our coins on a shiny trinket? That was all we had left!”

Evelyn pushes through the final branches and halts at the edge of the clearing. A herd of deer, startled by her abrupt arrival, bound away, their white tails bobbing between the trees. Silence settles in the wake of their departure. The clearing is deserted.

He turned his back on her and reached for the doorknob. “Where did you get this? I’m going to sell it back.”

Sterling, you can’t!”

She grabbed his thick arm, but he threw her to the floor and loomed over her, his shadow covering her in darkness. Not once had he ever struck her, but Evelyn cowered nonetheless. He held the Charm over her head, every muscle trembling in fury. “You’ve ruined us! You’re supposed to be my wife soon but…you know what, I’m so angry right now, I…damn it, I wish I never had the misfortune of meeting you!”

“No,” she breathes. A warm wind brushes strands of hair from her face. She cups her hands around her mouth and screams, “Kassidia!” Only the birds respond. “Kassidia….” Her final cry fades to a whimper. She falls to her knees. A dam of shock had been holding back the sobs, but it shatters and they come, racking her body. She wraps her arms around her midriff just to hold herself together.

“What have I done…what have I done?” she chokes. “Sterling, I’m sorry…I’m so sorry….”

The pendant falls from her hand. The crystal, once beautiful and pure, is burned and cracked. It is a Charm no more.

They could have wished for anything. The best horse in the world. A fortune to buy whatever they needed. Ground that would be fertile as long as they lived. Evelyn would have sold her soul to undo it.

But Kassidia is gone. Everything she loved is gone. Everything….

“Hello.”

Evelyn hiccups, startled enough to halt mid-sob and open her eyes. A pair of boots, scuffed and well-worn, are in front of her. Her eyes travel up as her visitor kneels down. “Why are you crying?”

“S-Sterling?”

She laughs and reaches for him, but he draws back with a puzzled frown. “Do I know you?”

Her hand falls with her heart. “I-It’s me. Evelyn. You…you don’t remember me?”

He gives her a half-smile riddled with uncertainty. “I think I’d remember a pretty face like yours.”

Pretty, right. Her eyes feel swollen and bloodshot, her skin marred with scratches, her cloak ripped and peppered with thorns. She swipes the tears from her cheeks, wincing as dirt and perspiration are rubbed into the stinging gashes.

“Are you in trouble?” Sterling asks.

Another sob crawls up her throat and seizes her tongue, forcing her to nod because she can’t speak. He offers his hand—his big, calloused, gentle blacksmith’s hand. Evelyn sniffs, stares at him for a long minute, and then slips hers inside his. A perfect fit. Does he think so, too?

She lets him pull her to her feet. He’s speaking, talking about walking her home, and where does she live, and is there anything he can do to help, but his words are distant echoes. Numb, she lets him tow her toward the trees. Her heel lands on something hard, and it cracks beneath her weight. She glances over her shoulder at the pieces of a broken black rock and a silver chain smashed into the earth in the imprint of her boot. Sterling’s voice calls, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Evelyn,” she whispers.

“Evelyn,” he repeats, smiling at the sound of her name falling from his lips. She whirls, searching his face for familiarity. Surely there’s a trace of recognition in his eyes, the faintest light proving that all is not lost. But his honey eyes are blank. Warm, but empty.

Evelyn sighs, hanging her head to let her long hair cascade over one shoulder and hide her face. She stares at their hands locked together. Between his fingers, she notices a jade ring she’d forgotten she was wearing.

This will bring you good luck only as long as you are a good person who deserves it….

Evelyn’s eyes flick up to Sterling’s handsome face. Perhaps she could make him fall in love with her again. He fell in love with her once, after all. Perhaps with her lucky Charm….

Perhaps.

 

Sara Noë is a writer, photographer, and artist from La Porte, Indiana. “One Wish” was originally published on her blog On The Cobblestone Road. Sara’s short memoir piece “Falling Stars” will debut in the Lubeznik Center for the Arts Sandcastle Literary Journal this year. She has written several novels in the science-fantasy genre and is actively seeking the representation of a literary agent. She has recently ventured into the freelance blogging business, currently contributing to an event planning company based in Washington DC. She has a horse named Scotch and lives in a little cottage with her cat Calypso.

Bread

By Daye Phillippo

 

There is a day that comes when you realize

you can’t bake enough bread

to make things turn out right, no matter

how many times you read Little House on the Prairie

to your children. There aren’t enough

quart jars to fill with tomatoes

or translucent slices of pear to keep you

from feeling unproductive. There is no bonfire

that burns orange enough in the chill October night

to keep your mind from following the lonesome

howls and yips of the coyotes concealed

by darkness in the harvested cornfield

just beyond the circle of your fire. And when you

step away from your family and fire,

into the dark pasture and tip your head back,

feel the whole black bowl of sky

with its icy prickles of stars, its swath of Milky Way,

settle over you, you know that no one

and everyone is just this alone on the Earth

though most keep themselves distracted enough

not to notice. In your hollowness

you open your arms to God because no one else

is enough to fill them. Eternity

passes between and no one knows this but you.

The hum of their conversation, the whole world, talking.

When it is time, you turn, grasp the woodcart’s handle,

pull it, bumping behind you across the frosty grass,

up the hill to the house, where you

step inside cubes of light, and begin to do ordinary things,

hang up coats, open and close drawers,

rinse hot chocolate from mugs. And you are still

separate, but no longer grieving bread.

 

This poem first appeared in The Exponent. Vol. 124 – No 75 (May 3, 2010): 3. Print.

Daye Phillippo, a non-traditional student, earned a BA in Creative Writing from Purdue University in 2011 and an MFA from Warren Wilson in 2014. She is the recipient of a Mortarboard Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Grant for poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Natural Bridge, Shenandoah, Cider Press Review, Great Lakes Review, Literary Mama and others. She teaches English at Purdue University, and lives in a creaky, old farmhouse on twenty rural acres in Indiana with her husband and one son, the youngest of their eight children. 

Dinner

By Garrett Neff

I asked her out in March last year, after what felt like an eternity of chasing after her. I’d been nervous, and never knew if she liked me back, until I got her reaction that night I’d built up enough courage to ask her. I could tell her excitement was genuine.

Fast-forward twelve months, and now I’m scanning the table I’d set up for our anniversary date night. It’s been the greatest year I could’ve asked for. There haven’t been hiccups in the relationship; if anything we’ve grown closer. I’m already excited as I look at the table, the room lit only by the flickering light of several candles.

She’s going to love it.

I force down a smile as I pull out my phone. The name Em fills up my recents. She hates the name Emily. All she ever told me about it was that it was her grandmother’s name. She only told me a couple months ago that she loves her grandmother, but she wanted to have her own name. So she chose Em, and that’s what she is in m contacts.

I click on the top call, the most recent, and hold the phone to my ear. Phone calls have always made me anxious, but they’re getting easier as I call Em every day. She answers on the fourth ring.

Hi, Tyler!” She says, and it sounds more rushed than excited; I can hear a lot of busy noise on her end.

Hey, Em. I wanted to know if you’re still coming down here tonight-,”

Yeah, I am – sorry, I’m going to be a little late. Procrastinated too much.” I hear a nervous laugh, and I laugh too, because I don’t believe her. She’s always early.

Yeah, no, don’t worry about it. Come when you can. When do you think you’ll be here?”

Um, twenty minutes?” Somehow I can tell the phone’s squeezed between her head and shoulder.

Alright, that sounds great. I’ll have everything ready for you.”

I hear a smile on the other end when she says, “Awesome! Thanks for doing all this for me, Tyler. I appreciate it.”

No problem. Love you.”

Love you, too.”

I hang up and sigh, looking down at the phone for another moment. She knows exactly what’s coming; I’ve done this for her on several occasions. Most of them were me wanting to do something for her on a whim. But not this time. I worked especially hard to make it great for her on our anniversary.

I go back into the kitchen and walk around, blowing out the candles. I’d lit them early, expecting her to be here sooner, but I don’t mind blowing them out. I understand where she’s coming from.

I sit down on the couch, setting a timer on my phone for ten minutes, and power on the television. There’s nothing good on, so I open my Netflix account and start playing Friends. I only turn it on for background noise; I’ve seen it enough times to have it memorized. While it’s playing, I find myself checking the bathroom mirror to see if I look okay. I straighten the furniture. I try to spray some air freshener around the house, and finally I convince myself that it’s okay. She doesn’t care, her house is the same way. She has a messy home.

When my alarm goes off, I’m in the kitchen grabbing a mint, and my phone’s sitting in the living room. I rush over to it and shut it off; I hate the noise, I don’t know why, but I’ve always hated the sound of my alarm. It reminds me of early mornings and stressful days. I need to change it.

I go into the kitchen and relight the candles. The room looks as good as I’d left it. I straighten my shoulders, tell myself I know she’ll love it, and go to porch to sit and wait.

And I’m right. I’m only sitting there for a couple minutes when her red car pulls into my driveway. I check my watch. She’s almost five minutes early.

I go down to let her out of her car, but she handles it herself, and meets me halfway up the walk. I laugh and take her hand in mine. We kiss in greeting, and I say, “You’re five minutes early, Em.”

Yeah, well, that means I didn’t get to finish my makeup.” She says, and if I hadn’t been able to see her, I would’ve thought she was actually irritated. There’s a hint of a smile on her face, though.

I hold the door open for her, and let her step in. She pauses for a moment, and says, “Wow, it smells nice in here.” And though it sounds real, a voice in the back of my head says, It actually smells terrible in here. This is her way of acknowledging it. Way to go, you did spray too much air freshener. I push the thought away and say, “Thanks.”

She takes her shoes off and leaves them by the door; she’s done this enough times to be confident with the rules of my house. Well, my parents’ house. They’re on vacation right now. It hits me that they may have planned it this way – them out of the house on the day of me and Em’s anniversary.

Even though she knows what’s going on, Emily lets me lead the way to the dining room, and gasps as she sees it. “Oh my god, Tyler!” She starts, but I stop her by wrapping my arm around her shoulders and saying, “Em, you knew what was coming. You don’t have to act surprised anymore.” She smiles up at me and says, “Oh, I know, but it’s beautiful. I can’t believe you’ve done this.”

I pull out a chair for her and let her sit down. She takes her phone out of her pocket and says, “Sorry, I have to text my mom – tell her I got here okay and everything. You know how she is.”

Of course, yeah, I understand.” I tell her, and then I say, “Well, I’m going to get the food out. It’s still warm – if you’re ready to eat,” I add.

Yeah, I am.” She says, already typing away at her phone. I watch her for another moment, enjoying her presence. And then I step back behind the kitchen counter and start loading food onto a tray.

The tray’s plenty heavy by the time I bring it out to her, and she acts surprised once again. This time I don’t mention it. I tell myself she means what she says. It’s nice to have somebody appreciating my efforts, so I accept her compliments.

I’m about to sit down, and we’re ready to get into the dinner when I hear my phone start to ring from my pocket. I say, “Oh, sorry about that. I forgot to turn off my phone. I’m gonna take this, I’ll be right back.” She nods and says okay, and I step into the back room, closing the door halfway for privacy.

When I pull out my phone, I see that the call’s coming from Betty. Em’s mom. She only calls me if Em forgot to text. That’s… odd.

I take a step into the dining room and look at her. “Hey, Em.” I say. She turns and looks at me, eyebrows raised. “Yeah?”

You did text your mom, right? Tell her you got here okay?” I look into her eyes, and I’m sure I see something flit through them when I ask her. It’s gone in an instant, though, and she says, “Yeah, of course I did. Why?”

I look down at my phone; it’s still ringing. I’m going to tell her, but when I open my mouth, all that comes out is, “No reason.” I don’t know why I chose not to tell her.

I step back into the back room, close the door again, and hit “Accept,” on what must have been the call’s last ring.

Tyler?” Betty says, and I hear worry in her voice; she’s sniffling, like she’s been crying.

Yeah, it’s me. What’s up?”

She pauses, and in the pause I can hear hurried voices speaking in the background, a man and a woman that I don’t recognize.

I know something’s wrong before she says anything.

Tyler, I don’t know what happened, but you have to… you have to come to the hospital, now, please. She – she was on the way to your house and then I got a call from the hospital and they said there was an accident. She’s on her way to the emergency room now, but I don’t… I don’t know if she’s going to make it.” She sniffs again; it might just be me, but I think I can hear a rhythmic beeping in the background.

I don’t know what’s going on, and anxiety starts rising in my throat. “Hey, whoa, Betty, slow down. What happened? Who’s hurt?”

It’s Emily, Tyler!” I’ve never heard Betty call her daughter Emily before; she usually respects Em’s dislike of her name. “She was in a car crash and she’s hurt and she’s on her way to the emergency room but she’s… she’s dying, Tyler! Emily is dying!” She finishes in a wave of sobs, and my heart drops.

What?” I say, but I’m speaking so quietly there’s no way even Betty could hear me. “No, there’s something wrong – that’s impossible – Em’s right…” I lower the phone and raise my head as I hear the door start to creak open.

There she is, my Em, standing in the doorway, a knife in her hand.

 

Garrett Neff loves writing more than anything, but this is his first time being published – though it will hopefully spark many more publishings to come. He is fourteen years old and lives in rural Jamestown with his mother, father, brother, and four awesome dogs and cats. Here he goes to Western Boone Jr.-Sr. High School, where he’s one of a two-man team on his middle school track team, thanks to his passion for running. He hopes to someday become a book editor and successful freelance writer.

Saturday Morning

Mid-morning temperatures rise with the sun

as I sip coffee by the fireplace.

Leah’s vacuuming roars, drowns the yowls

of my mini-schnauzer’s summons,

“You will come and get me.” But, I don’t.

Now working by the dining room window,

I look up, spot two field sparrows pick and peck

at the tube feeder. A blood-colored intruder

flaps furious wings,

clears a space and lights.

Moments later, Karma

from the neighbor’s power drill,

clears the perch.

I hear Leah grunt, then chuckle,

unused mop set aside,

as soapy circles swab hardwood—

tenacious knees move backward

for  “stretches better than Pilates.”

Out the window, an orange fox squirrel

jumps on the other feeder, spread-eagles across

the roof, shakes it like a paint color mixer

breaking its handle.

Furry friends scatter

like popcorn

in an un-lidded popper.

Indoors, the ticking clock reminds me it’s time.

I save my work, deposit yowler

in grass, thank Leah with smile and cash

as she takes a last swipe across counters.

On the way to the car, Leah strokes

Canine Verbose’s nose

through chain links.

“You’re a little stinker!” she scolds.

 

Denise C. Buschmann is owned by two miniature schnauzers, Cupcake and Coco, and is a freelance copyeditor in Carmel, Indiana. She has been published in numerous journals and anthologies in the US, the UK, Australia, and India, including Branches MagazineIndiana Voice JournalRat’s Ass Review, Lamar University’s Wise Ass Anthology, and others. In 2016, she was a finalist both in the Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize contest and in the Pride in Poetry Prize contest.

 

Revolution

By Kimberly Madura

 

SHE lived at 1414 Rust Street in 1994,

in a gray, industrial, American Midwest town.

Her Czech father was a worker at the steel mill.

He was a hard worker.

Their house had a green door.

 

SHE looked like that woman in that

Czechoslovakian painter Alphonse Mucha’s painting

called “Spring” – that fluid beauty.  Mucha painted it in 1896

in pastels and gem tones: blues, greens, pinks, and

yellows like the color of her eyes, her hair, her clothes.

The woman he painted, SHE represented an

antidote to an overly industrialized world,

they said.

 

In Czechoslovakia, in 1989, during the Velvet Revolution – in a country

of blue mountains and green meadows and white castles, the people

marching in the streets jingled their keys – gray, steel and metal keys.

They were sending a message to the Communists to go home and

to symbolize the new possibilities that were being unlocked for them.

I wonder if one of those keys unlocked the green door

to her father’s house?  (The man who worked at that steel mill

and never heard of Alphonse Mucha or the Velvet Revolution.)

 

Kimberly Madura has been a social worker for the past 20 years.  She has been

published in several poetry anthologies.  Her first chapbook, Neon Glow, was just

released.  She currently divides her time between Vermont and Northwest Indiana,

where she was born and raised.

The Lion, the Unicorn, and the Dragon

The Lion, the Unicorn, and the Dragon

By Jeff Fleischer

They’re at it again,” one of the messengers yelled, and Alice couldn’t help but feel curious. As she had earlier, she followed the king to the edge of the gathered crowd. Alice could see only a cloud of dust in which the Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown.

The cloud was as hard to see through as ever, with the one fighter’s horn and the other’s tufted tail the only signifiers Alice could make out for much of the battle.

I suppose they’ll just go at this forever,” she remarked to no one in particular.

Forever sounds right,” a voice to her right replied. “They’re content to fight for the crown forever, just so long as only the two of them get to fight.”

Alice turned to see the speaker moving to sit beside her, which was a Dragon with bright red skin, horns, and a pair of enormous wings on his back. He had a corkscrew tail with a nub like an arrowhead at the end, and his tongue ended in a similar tip.

Not wanting to be rude, Alice introduced herself.

Nice to meet you Alice,” the Dragon replied. “Surely you’ve heard of me in your schooling at some point.”

Alice thought for a moment, as the Lion threw the Unicorn to the ground. “I think so,” she said, clearing her throat to recite. “And behold a great red Dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth…”

The Dragon laughed, dribbling small flames from his mouth as he did so. “You’ve mistaken me for someone else. I have but one head and two horns.”

Alice laughed. “Then I’m afraid I’m not familiar with you.”

It doesn’t matter,” the Dragon said rather sadly.

The two of them sat in silence for some time, watching the combatants fight a few more rounds. The Unicorn ran the Lion through with his horn, and the Lion swatted him away with his paw, but neither seemed to gain the upper hand. Alice soon grew bored watching the endless battle.

I doubt either deserves the crown,” she said. “They don’t seem very smart.”

The Dragon asked why, and Alice continued. “When I met them, the Unicorn believed me to be a fabulous monster. The Lion could not even classify me as animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

You’re quite right; neither deserves the crown,” the Dragon replied. “And yet they fight for it all the same. Often the Lion wins, sometimes the Unicorn. They batter and wound each other. For us, little changes but the herald they carry.”

After several more rounds of the fray, the king called for refreshments, and the messengers emerged from the crowd with the familiar loaves of bread.

The white bread and the brown,” the Dragon said indignantly. He spat on the ground, which briefly caught fire before he stamped it out with his foot. “They would never deign try soda bread, though it bests both.”

I quite like soda bread,” Alice said. “At least on the day that it’s made. It doesn’t last.”

The best things rarely do,” the Dragon said, though it seemed as if his mind was elsewhere. “For we are the little folk we. Too little to love or to hate.”

I’m afraid I don’t know that one,” Alice said.

Unsurprising,” the Dragon said. “None where you come from know it yet. Or have they long forgotten it?”

Tell me more of it,” Alice said. “I’d quite like to remember it.”

I don’t see much point,” the Dragon said. “The Unicorn fears the Lion, and the Lion holds a grudging respect for the Unicorn, but neither gives the red Dragon a second thought. When you retell your adventure today, I imagine those you tell will forget our conversation entirely.”

As they had before, the drums began before Alice could answer him. She dropped to her knees and covered her ears to muffle the noise. “How I wish this commotion would finally drum them out of town,” Alice said, her hands still over her ears.

The Dragon just grinned at her affectionately, and bowed his head. “Me too,” he replied.

 

 

Editor’s note: This reprint originally appeared in 2016 in Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than three dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

Fundamental Brethren

William Penn towered over us—

his shadow swallowing

our vanquished voyager—

his brooding eyes

cautiously admiring us,

seeing our gaunt reservations

but out hungry fortitude

his piquant smile

enthusiastically enveloping us,

turning haunting nightmares

into memorialized dreams

his downturned hands

effortlessly uplifting us,

reassuring us about brotherly love

not yet conceived

but eventually attested.

We knelt to freedom—

our new god on this new continent—

forming a prayer circle:

to share stories once again

about injustice and reverence

to decry our persecution

and trials we survived

to weep about triumphs

over avarice and doctrine—

all tribulations familiar with infinity—

until hoarseness punctured our throats.

Disheveled and distraught—

but determined!—

we interlaced our arms,

firmly disembarking,

to let liberty cradle us.

 

Christopher Stolle’s poetry has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in the “Tipton Poetry Journal,” “Flying Island,” “Branches,” “Indiana Voice Journal,” “Black Elephant,” “Ibis Head Review,” “Edify Fiction,” “The Poetry Circus,” “Smeuse,” “The Gambler,” “1932 Quarterly,” “Brickplight,” “Medusa’s Laugh Press,” and “Sheepshead Review.” He works as an acquisitions and development editor for Penguin Random House, and he lives in Richmond, Indiana.

The Big Snow

The Big Snow

by Rich Elliott

The first thing you should know about my mom was that she loved to bake. I have this image of her bustling around the kitchen mixing things, the eggs and butter and whatnot, a smudge of flour on her forehead. She made these amazing sugar cookies with frosting on them that looked like beach balls. Boy, people went crazy for them at the annual church bazaar.

The second thing about my mom is that she taught me everything I know about wrestling, and I know a lot.

From a young age, I grappled with her on the living room carpet. She’d take the top position and show me the basic moves for turning and pinning your adversary. The half-nelson, the trap, the chop, the double-arm bar, the cradle—Mom went through all these moves, and she’d have me try them, and she’d make corrections. Then she moved to the bottom position, teaching me the various strategies for escaping and switching, all the while pointing out with great insight the elements of leverage and geometry and weight and balance crucial to gaining an advantage over your opponent.

How she learned this stuff I don’t know. Maybe it came from having five brothers, which she described as a continuous battle royal.

We had great fun wrestling. We’d sweat up a storm, and it wasn’t weird at all holding my mom around the waist and feeling the sweat on her arms and smelling her hair, it was kind of pleasant actually, until she’d get me in a terrific half-nelson and drive my head into the carpet.

Things got pretty heated when we were grappling. We’d fly around the room crashing into chairs, banging into tables, and knocking over lamps. My kid brother Clark would run in, and he’d jump up and down cheering for Mom, then cheering for me. Eventually, our sessions deteriorated into tickling contests, Mom and I laughing and screaming on the carpet, reduced to silly putty.

During one of these wrestling matches was when I first thought something might be wrong. I had the top position with my arm around her, my right leg straddling hers, and my head driving into her armpit. I slid my right arm across her chest, trying to get a good grip on the back of her neck, when she let out a yelp.

Sorry, Mom.”

It’s nothing,” she said. “Something’s a little sore. Keep going.”

____________

Our family was such a well-oiled machine that when Mom got sick, everything stayed pretty normal. I remained focused on getting straight A’s—I got a dollar for every A—although algebra was giving me fits. I was also on my way to becoming the junior high wrestling champ in the 113-pound weight class. Clark did whatever fourth-grade boys do, stealing cookies from our cookie jar, roving around the neighborhood on his Sting-Ray, and generally being annoying.

Dad was the only one behaving differently. I should mention that Dad had kind of a light presence in our family, not in a bad way, I just mean he was a quiet guy, and when Mom got sick, he got quieter. He retreated into his books. He was a big reader.

Seems like Dad read everything there was on the Kennedy assassination. He was pretty much an expert. He’d go on and on about the Warren Report, believing it was deeply flawed, because how could an average marksman like Oswald, using an old bolt-action rifle, get off three shots in eight seconds at a moving target nearly ninety yards away, and hit his target with two of the shots? And what about the reports of gun smoke seen at the grassy knoll? And how about Oswald’s connection to Russia and to the CIA?

To my dad, these were endlessly worrying and intoxicating mysteries. He tried to get me interested, but I’d always beg off, suddenly remembering some important game that required my immediate attention.

____________

A storm hit on the night Dad got a call from the hospital. We should come right away, Mom was fading. Throwing on winter jackets, we plunged outside into swirling, freezing air. We already had several storms that January, and now over a foot of new snow lay on the ground. While Dad and Clark scraped off the Chevy, I shoveled two strips down the driveway, hurrying and slipping as I went. Dad got the car going, and we made a run to the street. Spinning and fishtailing through a white ocean, we crept down our block while the storm went to full blast.

Traffic stalled on the Eisenhower, turning it into a parking lot. Thick sheets of snow thwacked our windshield, we could see maybe ten feet. The city plows vanished. Clark and I sat unspeaking. Dad hunched over, twisting his fists on the steering wheel, peering into the black night. The guy on the radio said Stay home, whatever you do, don’t go out.

Once we stopped, that was it—when we tried to move again, the tires spun and spun, and we were dug in.

Get out, boys.” Dad untwisted his fists from the wheel. “We gotta walk it.”

You know in a horror film when a guy gets possessed, that weird look he gets in his eyes? Dad had that look.

We abandoned our car. Plunging through waist-high drifts, we picked our way slowly down the highway. We passed car after car half-buried in the snow like in some ancient volcanic tragedy. We peered into the dimly-lit cars at the stranded occupants inside, and they stared back at us, kind of defeated, like right before drowning.

Maybe two miles to St. Jude’s Hospital. Dad made no attempt to slow down, high stepping through the mire, not even turning around. I yanked on Clark, trying to keep up.

I’m cold,” Clark whined. “My feet are wet. Let’s go back.”

I jerked him hard. “Shut the hell up and keep moving.”

Dad put him on his shoulders and kept his pace. We scrambled up an embankment, left the highway. We plowed through drifts for a long time. We thought we could see the silhouette of big St. Jude’s in the distance, but it never got closer.

The wind off the lake stabbed my face, the snow so thick it was hard to breathe. My stocking cap iced up. It kept slipping over my eyes. I heard a far-off rumbling, either thunder or buildings falling. The earth, once so benign, cared not at all.

We took a wrong turn. Dad stopped, looked around in every direction. He walked a few steps, then halted again. He growled with frustration. The snow whipped around us. Finally, Dad staggered forward in a different direction, Clark squirming on this shoulders.

When I think of my dad that night, him lashing through the storm, he seems pretty heroic.

I’d given up caring if we ever made it when we found ourselves outside the hospital entrance in the pre-dawn light. The three of us fell blinking into the lobby, crusted in snow like a scene from Doctor Zhivago. We drifted down antiseptic-smelling hallways, pulled by unseen currents through enveloping gloom and finally halting at the silent island of her room.

A single light shone harshly on her empty bed. The three of us sat together on the crackling, plastic sheet. I swept my hand over the cold surface where she had lain.

A nurse saw us arrive, and she came into the room to report the obvious.

She passed in her sleep, Mr. Stewart.” The nurse sighed and looked down at Clark and me. “We waited all night, but then we had to move her to the morgue.”

We three orphans stared blankly around the room.

____________

Mom was a big fan of pro wrestling, she got me into it too, and we hardly ever missed the matches on TV. In fact, she’d make popcorn, and we’d sit and yell at the TV—we made an occasion of it.

Mom was exceptional at critiquing the wrestlers, and during the matches she kept up a running commentary.

Oh, now that was a pretty mean dropkick!”

Come on, you can break that hammerlock! Just drop your shoulder!”

Geez, now you’re going to whine to the ref? You’re not hurt!”

Mom had a code about how competitors should behave, even though she knew pro wrestling was mostly a sham. She really detested Gorgeous George for example. It wasn’t just his ridiculous ruffled gowns, his perfume, and his bleached blond hair, though that was bad enough. It was his flagrant cheating that she hated most, the hair-pulling, the kidney punches, and the eye-gouging. The wrestlers she loved were the ones who dispensed with the show and tried to fight clean, guys like Lou Thesz and Whipper Billy Watson.

Those guys play the right way,” she’d say.

As I think about it now, I guess Mom’s code for wrestling applied to just about everything. “Roy, lose the drama,” she’d tell me when I started to whine about something or when I got too big for my britches. “Play it straight up.”

____________

We stepped from the hospital into the blizzard. We waited for Dad to decide what to do as thick, powdery clouds of billowed around us. Finally, Dad pushed us into a tavern across the street. The sign said ________’s Place, the name covered up by a giant lip of ice. The bar was crammed with stranded souls like us.

Dad ordered three 7-Ups. The bar was loud with laughter, the people seemed to think the storm was the funniest thing of all time.

We had a lot of 7-Ups, and then Clark began to cry, quiet at first, then louder.

Hey, what’s wrong with the kid?” a guy in a hardhat asked.

Nothing,” said Dad.

Clark, lose the drama!” I told him. “You’re annoying people.”

He blubbered on. He was saying something we couldn’t understand, something about cookies.

Beach Ball!” he sobbed. “Who’s gonna make us Beach Ball Cookies?”

____________

Our house was entombed. We had to dig our way in.

We’d left the bar when the crowd turned angry after the booze ran out. Dad flagged down a bus whose driver proved to have great determination and resourcefulness. The driver rigged a snowplow on the front of his bus. Three hours later we got close enough to our house to hoof it the rest of the way.

Inside was real quiet. Each of us went to our bedrooms, and Dad didn’t come out for days.

During the storm, I watched a lot of TV until the Indian Chief test pattern came on all four channels, and the shows didn’t come back. So I switched to the radio, which played the Top 40 over and over, the only breaks being the dire news bulletins.

I heard reports of eighty mile-an-hour winds and drifts fifty feet high, reports of children, playing in drifts, being run over and killed by snowplows.

Abandoned vehicles, thousands of them, clogged the roads.

The storm—the news was already calling it The Big Snow—was in its sixth day.

Dozens of people died of heart attacks while shoveling. A husband and his pregnant wife were found frozen in a sled outside a hospital. Gangs of looters tunneled into stores and hawked merchandise from sleighs.

The roof of Milford Junior High collapsed, the school shut down indefinitely.

A mountain range of white formed along our block. As the snow piled up, our house got darker and darker, and now the only natural light filtered in from our second-floor windows.

____________

Dad wouldn’t come out of his bedroom. When I cracked open his door to ask him if he wanted anything to eat, he said, “No, son, I’m fine.” He sat in his pajamas in his La-Z-Boy reading by the light of a lava lamp. He flipped the pages of a book titled Rush to Judgment: What the Warren Report Conceals about the Assassination of JFK. I closed the door as he was saying something about the single-bullet theory.

Earlier I’d taken something from his room, a framed photograph of my mom. I’d seen it before, but I wanted to look at it again. In the picture, Mom is in her early twenties, and she’s standing looking directly at the camera, her chin up in a kind of defiant pose, her arms dangling at her side. She’s in the middle of a laugh, her eyes squinty, hinting at mischief. She’s wearing long silky pants that remind me of a picture of Katherine Hepburn from a magazine.

Mom is thin and attractive, and I wish I’d been around when she was young like that instead of later when her hair was done up and she was thicker like all the moms and more serious because she was the wife of a businessman. I wish we could know our parents when they were young. That would be cool.

____________

One time earlier that winter I sat by Mom’s bedside, half dozing, while Dad and Clark were off in the bowels of the hospital trying to locate some pizza. Mom said something I couldn’t understand, so I came closer, leaned over her, and she grabbed me behind my head in a wrestler’s hold, pulling my cheek tight against hers.

This thing.” She paused to get her strength. “It’s like Gorgeous George. It keeps cheating.”

You got some more moves, Mom.”

She gripped my neck harder. “Clark and Dad are going to need your help.”

Right before she fell back to sleep, she shook her head slightly and got this expression on her face that spooked me. The only word I can think of to describe it is bitterness. Bitterness that she was pinned by such a thing.

____________

Dad still wasn’t eating. Clark and I had cereal for every meal, and that got boring, so one night I made a hot dog casserole, which was one of Mom’s specialties. Except that I obviously did something wrong because the thing never set up properly. Slices of hot dog floated in the cheesy water. I have to admit, it looked pretty awful. I poured it into bowls, thinking we’d have it as a soup.

I tried to sell it to Clark, putting the bowl in front of him with a flourish, Ta-da! Clark poked at the bobbing hot dog slices. He set his chin the way he does, then he stood up and flung the bowl and its contents into the sink.

I was on him in a second, executing a hard, single-leg takedown to the kitchen floor.

You little shit! I made that dinner for you, and you’re going to eat it!” I had his face shoved into the linoleum.

Can’t make me!”

I forced my left arm across his face hard, grabbing his opposite arm above the elbow to put him in a cradle. I guess that’s what caused his nose to start bleeding.

Say ‘Give’!” I hissed. “Say it!”

Clark squirmed with all his might. I squeezed harder. His eyes filled with tears.

Say it, swear to God, I’ll break your neck!”

Roy, stop.”

Dad stood over us in his pajamas. He had a patchy beard. He looked like the oldest man on earth just then.

____________

The next morning I got up early. I thumbed through Mom’s recipe book, trying to be careful with the brittle, ramshackle pages. I found the recipe I was looking for. Then I rummaged through her cupboard, which was like a bakery supply depot.

I carefully measured and stirred in the flour, the baking soda, and the baking powder, like I’d seen Mom do a hundred times. In another bowl, I mixed the butter and sugar until smooth. Then I beat in the egg and vanilla. I poured the dry mixture in with the moist stuff and blended it all together. I rolled out the mix on a sheet, trying to remember how she got it to not stick to the rolling pin. I used the cookie cutter to make circles. Then into the oven.

I gathered the confectioner’s sugar and milk and corn syrup and almond extract. I mixed them real smooth, it looked about right. I divided the frosting into three bowls. In one bowl, I put in the red food coloring; in the others, yellow and blue.

When the cookies came out of the oven, I waited until they cooled, then I brushed each one with the frosting in a three-color pattern.

I didn’t have to get Dad and Clark. The smell made them show up. They shuffled into the kitchen, slowly sat down at the table, their faces a little like Christmas.

Dizzy with memory, we leaned over the plate of warm Beach Ball Cookies. We inhaled the smell with a long sigh.

Dad, eyes closed, was halfway through his second cookie. “Maybe a little crisp, Roy,” he said.

Clark had frosting on his lips. He smiled. “Pretty good though.”

Silently we ate until the plate was bare, while outside the snow stopped falling.

I guess we should go find the shovels,” Dad finally said. “Start digging out.”

Yeah, Dad,” I said. “That’s what I was thinking.”

 

Rich Elliott has been a gravedigger, English teacher, dishwasher, textbook writer, construction gofer, video producer, and track coach. He is the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the editor of an award-winning nonfiction anthology on running. He lives with his wife in Valparaiso, Indiana.

The Winter Stars

Sparkling on high, unreachable,

Strewn far across the endless void,

Cold, dark, lifeless heavens devoid

Of human scale and human feel;

 

Casting a sterile, bone-white light

That deepens the already biting chill

Of frozen windblasts, reaching in to kill

The very peace of soul with fright.

 

What solace can I find in you,

Your faintness, distance, or your glare –

Aloof, disdainful, icy stare

That pierces deep and freezes through?

 

O soulless, unforgiving stars,

Eternally unmoved and unperturbed!

I rail in vain, for never have you heard

A prayer, appeal, or even curse of ours.

 

Adam J. Sedia is a Lake County native who returned home. He practices law with the firm of Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans as a civil and appellate litigator, and serves as president of the Lake County Bar Association for 2017. His poems and stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring’s Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives in Griffith with his wife and family.