THE CLANGING HOUSE / FRANCES DONNELLY

This is a difficult tale, but I will try to tell it clearly.

There was once a land in which every person had to remain in their own home from birth until death, due to a lethal aversion to crossing the threshold of their dwelling. The houses of this land were so far apart from one another that friendly neighbours could only communicate by the art of letter.

In one of the houses, there lived a young man. His house was a strong house built of big, squared-off stones. He was very pleased to live there and he passed his days with many pleasures. But one day, his pleasures came to an abrupt end.

The fateful day began well, as so many days before it. The young man was tickled awake by a playful wind that wound the curtains around one another like mating birds, and carried the smell of a sweet summer morning to him. He stretched himself awake and leapt from his bed, went downstairs to his kitchen and heated a pot of morning broth. It was evenly flavoured and satisfying, and he drank it in six smooth gulps. He then took to his study, where he sat and read one of his favourite books.

When he’d finished reading, he took a leisurely walk around the house, letting his fingers fall on the surfaces of objects as he passed, admiring the ways that the sun was reflected off them: the hazy peach-pearlescent vases in his study, the bright sparkles augmenting his reflection in the bedroom looking glass, the warm indented bronze of the kitchen pots alive with bright semicircles like ripples on water. It was a lovely morning.

After a light lunch, he took another stroll, then settled back down in the study. He read a small pile of letters from friends, and wrote letters in turn to each of them, sharing some of the pleasant things he had enjoyed that day. In the late afternoon, he took another turn around the house, then came back to the study to rest in his chair, with a bowl of soup and a book to slowly consume. And there it began. A clanging sound that was so irritating he dropped his book and his spoon. A clanging ­sound so ugly he could not imagine what had produced it in his lovely home. It rang and rang, not holding true to any exact location. Keen to solve the problem, he examined the room, pressing his hands to the walls and sending his fingertips into the crevices his eyes could not see. Nothing was apparent.

The young man was unhappy with this ugly visitor, but determined to remain light-hearted. He investigated the rest of the house, trotting about it alert and curious. He sprang at corner shadows, stalked floating rays of light, ran his hands over the kitchen pots, and murmured into the fireplaces.

By nightfall, he was drained of his humour and energy. The clanging had not stopped. He retreated to his bedroom, where the clanging was somewhat fainter. But when he snuffed his candle, the clanging was made all the more vivid by the darkness, and when the young man fell into sleep, he was gripped by nightmares which twisted around his limbs and tightened at his throat. He woke early, shivering, and the clanging of his terrible dreams became the sharp inescapable clanging of his beloved home.

Each day after this, the clanging persisted from morning until night. The young man went to bed pale and awoke paler still. Soon, the noise had bled the distinction between wakefulness and sleep, cold and hot, rough and smooth, so that the world around him became a frustrating stranger.

On the seventh day, he arose before the warmth of morning had settled in, went downstairs without breakfast, and took a blackened poker from the fireplace. He gripped the poker in his hand and raised his shoulders like a dog ready for a fight, stalking from room to room. His stomach felt hard and cold and had risen up towards his throat. His limbs were burning to attack the source of the noise, but the source was hidden and would not reveal itself. The young man fell on the floor, the poker at his side, and hot tears washed over his face. Even as he cried, the clanging penetrated his chest, and the weight pressed on his heart was not relieved.

That evening, he sat in his study. He passed his bloodshot eyes over letters filled with friendly chatter from his neighbours, tracing their words with a weakened hand and trying to think of a nice reply for each. But their news felt strange and distant, and he had nothing pleasant to say. He stared at the wall for a long time, and then took up his pen and wrote a letter addressed to the local doctor. “I write to you with troubles weighing upon me. The troubles began a few weeks ago but now it feels a very long time. A terrible clamouring noise, which I cannot locate the origin of, has taken over my house. I pray that you might guide me in alleviating it. With my sincerest thanks.”

For a while, anticipation of the doctor’s wise assistance soothed the young man’s discomfort. But the clanging was still hard to bear, and he became agitated that the doctor would not reply, and soon the clanging became more terrible than ever before. His house became ugly to him and he walked with tightened fists and a lowered glare. He missed meals and began to mutter to himself. He lost count of the days before a letter came from the doctor, but eventually it did, and he read it carefully three times, mouthing the words to himself through tightened lips.

“I am sorry to hear of your situation. Sometimes the disturbance can be eliminated quite simply. Please take the following actions. Gather up all metal objects and other resonant materials from around the home. This may include musical instruments, vases, and so on. Cast all these items from your home so that there may be nothing for the sounds that are troubling you to reverberate through.”

As he read and re-read, the young man let the doctor’s instructions penetrate his chest and mingle with the anger in his desperate body. The clanging pressed and pressed and pressed. The young man stood up from the desk and set to work.

He gathered, one by one, many things from around his home: the huge brass kitchen pots, the cutlery, the pearl vases, his reading lamp, his looking glass. And he put them all in a sack, and dragged them to the highest window. He then heaved the sack over the window ledge, and let the contents fall out, so that the bag became suddenly as light as the air. Then he looked out of the window, and saw the lifeless pieces smashed against the courtyard’s flagstones below, tiny and pale and indeterminate, fingered by the wind.

He stared out at the ugly sight for a while. His hands wrapped round and round the sack, and they wound it so tightly into a knot that his skin went white. He felt a terrible numbness inside him and couldn’t think. Behind him, pressing up against his back, was the clamouring clanging sound as loud as before, and when he turned towards it, it filled his nose and eyes and mouth and he had to duck his head to proceed back down the steps.

The next day he sat in his bed and wrote another letter to the doctor: “I thank you for your advice. However, the noise has not abated, and I am in desperate need of assistance. The trouble is not just the ugliness of the noise itself, or the fatigue. It is how it presses on my thoughts and disrupts my natural feeling.”

The young man then took to pacing the hallway, eyeing the letterbox for word from the doctor, and on the third day he fell to his knees to grab up the officially stamped white envelope. The young man held the letter in trembling hands.

“I’m sorry to hear that your situation has not improved. Can you give me a precise description of the noise you are troubled by?”

The young man listened to the sound as directly as he could bear, and wrote back: “It is a terrible noise that seems to take up every single frequency but mainly those of the human voice. It sounds like the devil shouting to kill the world. It sounds like something being ripped apart over and over, but the thing being ripped apart isn’t paper, it is an animal and it is myself.” Then he screwed up the paper and wrote again. “It is a clanging sound. It is very loud and unpleasant.”

The next letter from the doctor arrived a week later. “Thank you for specifying that it is a clanging sound. I would suggest that you now try stopping off the entrances and exits to the house, to block any errant winds that may be causing the disruptions you describe. This should include all windows, the fireplace, and any other miscellaneous passages in or out other than the mail slot. Please allow at least two weeks for this to take effect.”

The young man gathered up strength and will as best he could. The clanging reverberated more sickeningly with every step he took, but he crossed the half-empty study, went up the stairs, and sought out sheets and blankets and rugs from around the house. With weak hands, he fumbled to plug the beautiful fireplace, the stove pipe, and every window.

When he was finished, the place was dark and the air clammy, and the stark, plugged-up rooms felt like a different house without an owner. But the clanging seemed to have softened a little. The young man went into the hallway, closed each of the doors leading into it, and found it even quieter still. He was so relieved that his muscles seemed to melt down the length of his body, and he then crumpled to the floor and fell straight asleep, his cheek pressed to the cool tiles.

He awoke not knowing if it were night or day, damp from a night-time fever. He stood up and looked around his new protective shell, in which the clanging remained muffled. The hallway, lit by pallid lamps along each side, was not much wider than himself, and only a few paces long. The ceiling was curved and yellow, set with heavy wooden beams. The walls, too, were a deep yellow, something that had never been so apparent with the doors thrown open and the addition of fresh daylight.

Now, the waxy closeness threatened to turn his stomach, and he had to cast his eyes to the floor, which to his dismay was patterned with frantic geometric shapes that seemed to shift like a snake’s writhing belly. He looked up again towards the ceiling, but felt afraid that the heavy beams were going to crack and fall on him under the pressure of the insistent clamouring about the house, so his eyes returned to the floor. He went to one of the doors leading back into the house, and opened it. A moan slipped out of him, but was dissolved beneath the loud clanging that broke into the hallway. He shut the door again, and sunk to his knees.

From the shut-up hallway, he wrote again to the doctor. When the reply eventually arrived, the young man struggled to read the doctor’s words, spread out like a fuzzy puzzle across the clean page, but slowly and carefully he pieced them together.

“I’m sorry to hear you have not experienced sufficient relief from the clanging and are experiencing some distress. It is good that you have developed some coping mechanisms. Ongoing, be vigilant about any household activities that seem to exacerbate the noise and maintain any effective restrictions. We will review your case in six months. Regards.”

And so, the young man made his home in the hallway. His daily activities began whenever he awoke, as he had no idea if it was day or night. He had little appetite. He paced the hall, up and down, down and up, seeking patterns in the tiled floor and sometimes shouting at the heavy beams that he wished would fall and kill him. He picked up the few items that lay about the hall in turn, and let them fall from his listless hands. Time passed and this new existence became familiar.

Then, one day, the clanging stopped. The young man held himself very still for a while. Suspended in the air was a sweetness he had never so fully appreciated, and he wept with pleasure as the knot in his chest unwound as smooth as silk. He left the hallway and sprang from place to place. He began planning letters to his friends, and read passages from his most beloved books, feasted on forgotten treats. He was spread eagle on the polished wooden floor, admiring the cornices on the grand ceiling, when the clanging began again.

The young man felt very little. His heart and eyes and fingers all seemed to lose sensation as if suddenly choked, and he returned to his hallway obediently. But the memory of his adventure lingered, and over the coming weeks he revisited it in his dreams, and in his waking hours he became aware of the call of his forgotten home beneath the clanging. And he opened the door from the hallway to his study, and let the clanging fall on his head and neck and back as he walked forward into the room.

Standing in the study, his eyes shied from the tall shelves of books that he knew he could not read. His hands found the gnarled carved back of a chair and he drew comfort from the hard textures that pressed into his skin. He smelt the dust that cloaked the velvet seats, and the sour mildew gathering in the air. He took his hand from the chair back, dug his nails into his palms, and he walked his way around the room, several times, until his body was drenched in sweat and his chin was on his chest.

And alongside the sickening repetition of the clanging he felt a tender forgotten feeling that he wanted more of. And so, he walked once more, despite the difficulty, before he returned to the enclosure of the hallway. In the hallway, he took the final letter from the doctor, and ripped it up into tiny pieces. They fluttered to the floor, gathering in the dirt that had been settling for many weeks. He swept the floor clean, and slept a contented sleep.

The next day, he once again went into the house. He pulled away the corner of a sheet stuffed into one of the windows in the study, and watched dust play in the narrow beam of light. Then he tried to climb the stairs to his bedroom, but the clanging gurgled out of the open doors and through the walls in ugly bursts and split the air around his head, and the thought of his beautiful bedroom cracked a hole in his chest. He returned to the study, and walked around it with clenched fists, examining each section of the mottled floor.

And the new life of the young man continued in this way, with expeditions that varied in length and success, in misery and apathy and occasional pleasure. It was a hard and tiring life, but he did live, and it was his life, and this is the end of the story.

 

 

 

 

Frances is a writer and artist who currently lives in Brighton with five rescue rats and one human partner. She works in digital communications for left-wing activist organisations. She makes synths and facilitates electrifying workshops as half of Rat City Synths.  You can contact her here: franceslauradonnelly@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE WRONG WAY / JAMES MULHERN

My father picked up Martin and me for a visit once every couple weeks, on a Sunday after church. Martin was at swim practice, so today I would be with him alone. Any hope of my parents getting back together had diminished a few weeks after Mom’s release when they had seemed so affectionate.

“Stop hovering,” my grandmother said. I was peeking through the sheer curtain of one of the bay windows in the living room.

“He makes me nervous.”

“Why would your father make you nervous, Aiden?”

“I never know what to say.”

“Sit down on the couch next to me.” She wore a hairnet and sipped a mug of coffee. Her face looked drawn. My mother, who was still asleep, had been acting strange, she said. She saw that ghost man again, she told me the day before.

She put her warm hands over one of mine. “Tell your father about school, your friends. Ask him about work. He loves to talk about that job.” She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “Dry shite to me.”

“What?” I scratched my cheek.

Boring. I find your father boring.” She pushed my hand away from my face. “Stop scratching yourself. It’s a nervous habit.”

“You don’t like Dad?”

“Of course I like him. He’s a good man, just dull. Or maybe I’m dull.” She laughed. “We have nothing in common is all. He’s the total opposite of your grandfather, God rest his soul. He was curious about everything and had the gift of gab. Sometimes I would pretend to fall asleep.” She smiled, closed her eyes, and leaned back.

I laughed.

A car honked.

I smoothed my sweatshirt and straightened my jeans.

“Do you think they’ll ever get back together?”

She tamped her cigarette, stood, and kissed me on the forehead. “I don’t think so, darling. Some things are not meant to be. It’s nobody’s fault.”

He honked again.

“Go on. You look fine. Relax. Talk about the weather. They say we’ll have snow today. You’re a smart boy. You’ll think of something to talk about. Don’t forget your coat.”

The sky was gray and the air brisk. I was glad my father had the heat on.

“Where’s Martin?” he said.

The hot air blasted from the dashboard vent. It felt good.

“He’s at swim practice.”

“The miracle of heated swimming pools. At the YMCA?” He smiled.

I nodded.

“It’s just you and me then.”

I thought he sounded disappointed.

“If you don’t want me to come, that’s okay.”

He put his hand on my head. “Of course I want you to come. We’ll have a great time.”

“What will we do?”

He checked his mirrors and turned into the street.

“You wanna watch the game?” He rubbed his beard stubble and smoothed his dark hair. The skin under his eye looked bluish.

“What game?”

He laughed. “Football. The Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers. We can order pizza.”

“Sure.” I knew nothing about football and hadn’t any interest, but watching TV would suck up time. The games lasted at least three hours.  We wouldn’t have to say much.

When we passed the rotary by the police station, he said, “So, how’s school?”

“It’s good.”

“What’s your favorite subject?” He glanced at me, then turned on the wipers. The snow had begun to fall.

“English.”

“I was never any good at English. What are you learning?” A red truck whizzed past us. “Did you see that asshole? I almost hit him. Too many irresponsible drivers. They don’t give a shit about other people. Always in a hurry to get places.”

“Maybe he’s late for work.”

He laughed. “On a Sunday? I doubt it…Hey, I interrupted you. Tell me about your English class.”

“We’re reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.”

“He wrote A Christmas Carol, right? Never read the book, but I liked the movie. The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.”

“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”

“Huh?” He wrinkled his nose and rubbed it with the edge of his leather coat sleeve.

“Dickens calls the Future Ghost Yet to Come.”

“I get it. So what’s this book about?”

“A boy named Pip. His parents are dead and he lives with his bitchy older sister on a marshland in the outskirts of England. His uncle is nice, though.”

“That’s a weird name for a kid. What happens?”

“I just started it. I’m at the part where Pip meets an escaped convict in the graveyard. This scary man in rags jumps up from behind a tombstone in the marshes and grabs him. The guy orders him to bring food, and a file so he can saw the chains off his legs. He threatens Pip if he doesn’t follow through.”

My father nodded. “I like crime and suspense.” He turned the heat down. “You comfortable? I hate the sound of that fan.”

We passed the Arnold Arboretum, where Nanna took Martin and me. The snow was falling softly on the Spruce trees. My father put the wipers on high. I liked the swooshing sound. Snow collected on branches and the grass below.

“How’s your mother?”

“She had a vision of that old man again.”

He shook his head. “I thought she was getting better.” His Oldsmobile Cutlass slid to the right. He slowed down. “I know you think she’s psychic, but I still find that hard to believe, Aiden.” We were on the Jamaicaway, a four-lane parkway, one of the curviest roads in Boston.

“I think she is better.”

“For Christ’s sake, Aiden, your mother thinks she sees ghosts.”

“Scrooge sees ghosts.”

“That’s a made-up story.” He turned into the parking lot next to Jamaica Pond, the largest body of fresh water in Boston. We pulled into a space in front of waves rippling from the wind. The snow swirled outside the car.

“Made-up stories can be based on real life.”

“There are no ghosts, Aiden.” He took a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket and lit it. “We shouldn’t have released her from McCall’s. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. The nurses and psychiatrists said she wasn’t ready.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Are you and Mom ever gonna be together again?” I felt my eyes tearing up.

He slid closer on the seat and put his arm over my shoulder. A few ashes dropped on my jeans. I brushed them off. “No, Aiden. Your mom and me, we aren’t meant to be together.”

“Why not?”

He tightened his lips and paused, as if thinking what to say.

“I’m moving to Arizona.”

“Why?”

“I met another lady and there’s a good job for me out there.”

“What about Martin and me? And Mom?” I pushed his arm from my shoulder. “You’re dropping ashes on me.”

He cocked his head back and raised his brows. “Sorry, buddy.”

“I’m not your buddy.”

“Fuck it.” He looked in the rearview mirror and put the car in reverse. “Someday you’ll understand.”

“I understand now.”

He laughed. “Aiden, you’re just a kid. When you get older, you’ll realize that what I’m doing is the best thing for all of us.” A shiny blue car sped by the exit of the parking lot. “People are crazy. Don’t they realize they could lose control in this weather?” My father looked both ways before starting to turn.

“You’re going the wrong way.”

“No I’m not. My place is in that direction.” He pointed.

“Take me home.”

“You don’t want to watch the game?”

“I hate football and I hate you.”

“You don’t hate me, Aiden. You’re angry.”

He turned right. We passed the arboretum again. The pine branches seemed to droop with the snow. A father and his son shoveled their walkway.

When we were in front of my grandmother’s house, Dad said, “Are you okay?”

I opened the door and stepped onto the curb. “You’re irresponsible. You don’t give a shit about us and you just want to hurry away.”

“You’re pissed, Aiden. I still love you. We’ll talk about this again when you’re not so upset. I planned to tell you and Martin over dinner. I was gonna take you out to a nice restaurant. Sorry it happened like this.”

My grandmother and mother were shoveling the front steps. They stopped and looked up.

Mom shouted, “You’re home so soon. What happened?”

“Nothing,” I said.

My father waved to her, then whispered, “please don’t tell them, Aiden. Your mom’s not ready to hear the news.”

“Dad, I’m sure she already knows. That’s the difference between you and her. You think she’s crazy, but she’s not. Mom has the ability to see things you can’t. You’ll never understand. I think you’re a sad guy, like that Ghost of Christmas Past.” I kicked some snow. “Maybe I just expect too much, or maybe I’ll understand someday like you said.”

“You won’t say anything, right?” He looked like a child and an old man at the same time.

“I won’t say anything, Dad.” I shut the door and walked towards the steps.

“What the hell happened?” My grandmother wrapped her arm around me. Mom kissed my cheek. I heard my father drive away.

“The streets were getting icy. The snow was falling harder. Dad wanted me home before the roads got bad.”

My mother stared at me. “They already are.”

Nanna said, “My ma used to say, ‘Never dread the winter till the snow is on the blanket.’ Let’s get inside.”

We leaned the shovels against the side of the house and walked up the steps. I felt the beating of my heart and the passing of air into my lungs. The smoke of my breath rose, and dissolved like eddies in a careless sky.

My father drove onward, streets glistening, snow like piled linen, and Arizona far away.

 

 

 

James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and received several accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In September of 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a full-paid writing fellowship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. He has also received other awards. His writing (novel and short story collection) received positive critiques from Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MESSAGE / JOHN THOMAS WETMORE

On the grass under the trees, a mumbling woman
scatters seed for pigeons—whole bags of it—
which makes them lazy, trusting, unafraid.
She sprinkles her feed, not noticing a squirrel’s
torn-off tail—mistaking for a root the skeletal
pinion rolled in dirt. She is a merciful god.

A pigeon’s wings are bigger than you’d think,
the ball joint whiter, smoother—oiled
and lacquered for a lifetime of flight.

I first noticed this while watching
the hawk lofting in the clocktower fry
the air—fast as light—a small red sun
slung from the cloud of a cruel universe.
It grabbed a fat pigeon and instantly tore
free its useless, non-nutritious wings.

Once I found a carrier pigeon sitting broken
on a slate staircase—I stared into pink
holes the playful predator left in his body.
He held a message in his red-glass eye:

the pigeons we love are loyal, smart,
can carry our missives covertly—

but even the cleverest, who travel miles,
globes of bone turning a million times
in their sockets, are no match
for the hawks. Yet, pigeons understand
the black flash of shadow on their backs,
the puncture of blades, and the loss
of wings much better than the epistles
attached to their feet—

much better a god who mumbles
and scatters seeds.

 

 

 

John Thomas Wetmore received his MA in Secondary Education from the University of Connecticut. He now teaches English and creative writing at Arts at the Capitol Theater in Willimantic, CT. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in the publications Bop Dead City and Liminality. Thanks to his teaching position, most of his poems receive thorough scrutiny from a crack team of high schoolers before reaching later drafts. He is very thankful for the opportunity to witness brilliance on a daily basis with his students, and to provide a space where art and performance are a regular part of the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DIESEL MORNINGS / JOHN ABBOTT

The school bus chugging away
Leaves a cloud of exhaust
And a back window of kids
Sticking out tongues, or,
For braver ones, skinny butts
Pressed against cold glass.

He watches from the corner
Smoking a Camel, hacking blood
Into a handkerchief, killing time
Before his shift at the airport starts
And the diesel smell sticks
To his clothes once again.

And in between loading luggage
Onto the plane he stares
Up into waiting areas where people
Read magazines or check phones
Or any of the other things
People do to pretend the time

Between here and there doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, Portland Review, Redivider, Bitter Oleander, and many others. His poetry chapbook Near Harmony is available from Flutter Press, and his story collection is available from Underground Voices. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DOLLS / EMILY F. BUTLER

It really did start off as a school project, but I haven’t been in school for over a decade. I wanted to see how people treat you if they think you’re a mother, a young, single mother. And yes, I wanted to know how it would feel to be a mother, to push my blue, sun-shielded baby carriage around town, for the bus drivers to lower their ramps for me, to hold my little bundle of plastic.

They don’t look like plastic, though, they look real. Monica, Tiffany, and Stacy. Noah and Mark. They were each manufactured with care by a company that values authenticity. They have rosy cheeks and chubby knees and you should see the way they look at me. They even close their eyes when you put them down to bed. Really they just blink if you hold them at a certain angle, but I like to imagine they’re asleep, dreaming about the day we had together.

One time a woman gave me eighty dollars. She handed me a wad of cash, said, “You need this more than I do,” and walked away. I tried to give it back but she just turned and left. I used the money to buy them clothes. I couldn’t in good conscience spend it on myself and anyways, Stacy needed a new hat.

I have five now and another on the way.

Have I shown you my pictures yet?

Oh, I see. No, I don’t want to hold you if you’re in a hurry. Maybe next time. You can meet the new little one. I don’t even know what I’ll call her yet. Or him. I don’t know the sex. I asked not to know the sex. It took a lot of arguing with the comments and complaints lady, a lot of phone calls and emails. They finally agreed to send me one at random. No checking off the boxes for eye color, hair color, you know, boy or girl. I prefer to be surprised.

 

 

Emily F. Butler is a high school librarian by day, stand-up comedian by night. She currently lives in western Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A LITTLE POOR TASTE WARTIME HUMOR / TOM SCANLAN

“It was supposed to be a radioactive sneeze,” my wife said. “A painless moment before the Milky Way wiped us off their sleeve.”

Her flair for speaking in rhyme within profound statements, such as a euphemism for WWIII being a metaphor about snot, is why I loved Bridget. The woman was a mouse with square red glasses. A frail creature, skin always goose-bumped. Sitting at her desk in the living room, drinking tea and writing children’s stories in the vein of Shel Silverstein. I loved Bridget.

We went to the Cape house in East Sandwich when the news anchors started to screech war war war war war. Big warships sluiced through a black Atlantic and fired at one another, exploding holes in starboards and larboards, while the news cameras struggled to pan fast enough to capture the massive moving vessels in frame.

“It’s always more complicated,” I said. “We should drive in-land. The Chinese or Russians or whoever are going to attack by land from the coasts.”

“You don’t know that—”

“Keep your voice down, don’t wake Kara up.”

“You never know, Russ. They might reach shore and then launch an aerial assault in the heartland.”

“You’re overthinking it, like everything else.”

“Well, we need to think.”

“And I think we should drive in-land. The coasts are all anyone cares about.”

Bridget parted the white bedroom curtains. The warships had come farther down the eastern seaboard. I could tell she thought they would arrive any day. Probably in Provincetown. Or at the base of the Cape, on either the North or South Shore. Either way death blew in from the water.

“Another option is on the table,” she said, “if you think we both are able.”

“Can you stop rhyming?”

“It’s a nervous habit.”

When I was ten my dad thought that the Gulf War would blow up into a third World War. He became unhinged. He tried to convince my mom that they needed to spend their savings on a fallout bunker. I looked at him differently then and I was disgusted by seeing an adult, and especially my father, not in control of a situation. A father was supposed to have all the answers. Being disgusted was easier than being terrified. I didn’t want Kara to experience that.

“World War Two ended. People thought the world was over back then,” I said.

“You know as well as I do that things are different today. The problems the world has won’t just go away.”

“Children’s books are all about staying positive.”

“I think the positive thing to do, is to use your gun to kill Kara, me, and you.”

“If you rhyme one more time I’m going to let you.”

“Where is your gun?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Come on, Russel, be serious. The political turmoil’s been depressing enough for years. THE SKY’S BEEN FALLING FOR YEARS! It was bad enough putting up with it then. Don’t tell me you want to deal with this. We don’t have a choice.”

“What about Kara?”

“What about her? We would be doing her a favor. Do you have any understanding of what happens to women in wartime?”

“I’ll protect both of you.”

“Don’t try to be romantic about this. Or protect your ego, honey. It’s done. You can’t save us from what’s done.”

“Great, now I want to kill myself.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, do you think you could handle Kara?”

“HANDLE? You want me to kill my daughter?”

“It’d be horrible not to.”

“No.”

“She’s my daughter, too.”

“Yeah, I was there.”

Bridget had a cold streak. I’d catch her looking away from out of the bottom corner of her blue eyes when we made love. After that many years of marriage, sex was hard. But the hardest part for me was that when she went from a good start to looking off sadly, I realized that she was playing a part, and that I was an idiot for thinking otherwise. In less obvious ways than mid-sex she looked off and away too.

“Fine,” I said. “If you don’t want to give it a chance. Don’t want to just wait until our military defeats the enemy. Don’t want to wait until everything is back to normal. I’ll get the gun.”

“Thank you.”

“But I will not murder Kara.”

“Me either.”

I handed her the gun, a Sig Sauer .9mm. The chamber was empty and there was no magazine in. Bridget couldn’t tell the difference between that and a loaded gun.

Her eyes got wet holding it.

“Please don’t watch,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to have such an intimate act watched. It’s the same as when you love a song and then you play it in the car for friends and they don’t get it.”

I sat on the edge of the bed. It took up almost the whole loft bedroom. I looked at the patterns in the wood of a dresser drawer. “Love you,” I said.

“Love you, too.”

I couldn’t see, but I imagined what the gun looked like and felt like to her, as she burrowed it against her skull through her dirty blonde hair. Right above the ear. I’d thought that I’d be able to laugh at her, a suicide prank, a little poor-taste wartime humor. But it wasn’t funny.

I heard the empty plastic trigger pull. The spring went thunk. Then she pulled a second time. A third. Like she wanted nothing more than to escape.

“It’s not even loaded,” I said.

Her small body trembled. She’d taken her red glasses off, and put them on her nightstand, and without them her eyes looked swimmy and unfocused. I hugged her. Her tears wet my cheeks. Her soft cries of a death embraced and avoided vibrated in my ear.

“My God, thank you, Russ. I love you so much.”

“You see now?”

“Wyoming? What about Wyoming? I read an Annie Proulx essay on birding there once. We can probably settle on a ranch. Instead of the ocean let’s have a ranch. Let’s leave now.”

“There’s probably already been a run on gas.”

“And?”

“You might have to settle for Tennessee.”

“Okay, I’ll wake up Kara.”

 

The car ran out of gas in a pocket of the Appalachian Mountains where West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky met. Roanoke was twenty miles east. The famed original American colony where all of the settlers disappeared. It seemed like a lot of West Virginia folks fled up into the mountains. I let Bridget and Kara pick out the home they wanted. A brick colonial with a lush green backyard, and a turnaround driveway circling a large water fountain.

The Appalachians were close enough to touch. In the mornings the base was wreathed in fog, and at sunset blood-orange explosions hovered at the green upper limits. When we looked out as far as we could, the mountain tops dulled from green to shades of dark and then light blue shadow. Kara counted them. If I said I saw five before the horizon, she’d say six.

For weeks we scanned the AM radio on the previous family’s SUV. There was no news about the war. The one good thing I could do for my family was walk to a Home Depot and drag a generator and gasoline back on a cart. Bridget cooked non-perishable meals for us. In the evenings, in the electric light and with the hum of the generator outside, she read children’s books to Kara.

Bridget didn’t talk to me much. I thought she was embarrassed. Childishly I hoped she was just disappointed we weren’t at a romanticized ranch with land and horses and Annie Proulx’s birds in Wyoming. I tried to make love to her one night in the master bedroom we were borrowing. She turned me down. I was mad. I thought that the intimacy would help us forget our current problems. My heart raced as I swallowed back the nasty things I wanted to say to her. I wanted to hurl at her the truth that I could’ve killed her by letting her kill herself. That she should be grateful that I did her a favor. And was she really going to waste it by moping like this? After five minutes too long I asked if she was all right.

“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said.

“Of course it is.”

“Of course nothing, Russel. Of course nothing. You should’ve let me be. And you should’ve handled Kara. Don’t you see?”

“There’s that word again. Handle.”

“A man handles things for his family.”

“If you want to be handled so badly, go right ahead.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.” Then she cried. Two minutes later she rolled into my arms. The heat was awful. If we stayed I’d have to put in the air conditioner. “No, I want to live. I’m just nervous about the future. What if America doesn’t win?”

“America always wins.”

“I feel it in my chest that this one is different from all the rest.”

“America always wins,” I said again. I tried to think of a more clever way to reassure her. I couldn’t think of anything to say about patience, everything being okay, or me protecting her. Truth was my heart didn’t know what was true any longer. If America did live on what would become of it anyway? It wouldn’t be America. Christ, maybe she had a point about handling things. “Yeah,” I repeated. “America always wins.”

 

 

 

Tom Scanlan is a Boston-area writer. After graduating from Emerson College with a degree in creative writing, he went on to work for the Massachusetts Department of Correction as a correction officer. If he isn’t writing, he’s work-shopping with his Rhode Island-based writing group Hypergraphiacs Anonymous, watching horror movies, BBQing some meats, or cuddling with his rescue dog–a majestic red Dachshund–named Louie. He publishes short fiction while finishing his first novel. He also blogs about culture and does short story reviews on his website tomscanlan.me. He’s on Twitter @TheTomScanlan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AFTER SCHOOL PRACTICE / NICOLE MASON

When you’re fifteen you can take off your clothes
and stand in front of a boy.

You do it because he looks like a famous person.
You do it because he has the same name as someone you’ll
love in twenty years. You do it because it’s all you
know to do right now.

Your knowledge of world politics and ethical veganism and
music and literature is shaky at best,
so you take off your clothes.

It’s hardly sexy.

You haven’t mastered pulling off your shirt in one fluid motion
and it’s midday so the light is harsh
and your skin is bad.
In time you’ll learn your angles.

This is just practice.

In three years that boy will drive himself into the river
and you’ll think of how he pushed your hair out of your eyes
and said you looked pretty in the blind-slatted light of his room
and how he looked so surprised when you
started to unbutton your jeans.

 

 

 

Nicole Mason received her MA in Literature at Northern Michigan University and currently teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Indiana University of South Bend. Sometimes she writes poems. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in SOFTBLOW, (b)OINK, Farther Stars Than These, and Cease, Cows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE DEAD DOG IN THE FIELD / NICOLE MASON

I like to tell it like it happened in July so

there can be implications of watermelons,

fireworks.

 

In December, though, the blood on the house and snow

are peony blooms in red and white.

 

But if it’s in July, there can be an image of my grandmother

leaned up against her spade,

the handle tucked up into her body,

the silver head tucked into the soil,

the top of her lip moist,

the dead dog next to her, inert.

 

If it’s in July, there can be flies,

swarms of flies,

covering the opened up parts of my dog

so that I can’t see the insides.

 

I can have my grandmother rest

for a bit over the hole and say:

the foxglove ain’t comin up this year.

Although, there’s never been any foxglove

and all I can imagine are thick leaves

and milk oozing from its anonymous roots

to saturate the soil.

 

In December, we find her still-alive and the neighbor across

the stumped over corn field sews her bits back together.

 

If it’s in July, she can stoop down to grasp a leg,

to chuck my dog into the hole.

It can be under the willow tree,

and I can crouch on my hams to peer over the side before

my grandmother begins to throw the dirt back in.

 

In December, my father goes out at night to find the

dogs that attacked her.

When he finds them,

he shoots them and throws their

bodies on their owner’s porch.

 

If it’s in July I can feel the sun on my head.

Grandmother pats the last of the dirt with her hands

and asks me if I want some potato salad.

 

In December, my dog lives and I feed her small pieces of old pizza

while she rests on a blanket in the basement.

 

 

 

Nicole Mason received her MA in Literature at Northern Michigan University and currently teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Indiana University of South Bend. Sometimes she writes poems. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in SOFTBLOW, (b)OINK, Farther Stars Than These, and Cease, Cows.

MISS / KAMAL E. KIMBALL

The morning is silver with birdsong.
Clapboard chapel sides

thunk down in the grass
as nude pews shudder.

The priest is sick.
His coughing will curse

both houses. The rings will roll
off the knuckles that don’t exist.

Crinoline waits, a virgin
in the dress shop, untouched

by the woman’s fingers.
It wants to be cut, trembles

for scissors. There will never be
a dress handmade from the shades

of the morning for the woman,
never specked with silver

sequins like finches pipping,
she vows. A bell’s throat

won’t clang and the hands
won’t clap after the kiss, after

the giving away
everyone wants, she fears.

 

 

 

Kamal E. Kimball is a poet currently living in the Ohio River Valley. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Zetetic, Literati Magazine, Indolent Books, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and elsewhere. She is a member of the Cincinnati DIY Writers and founder of Fresh Darlings, an online writing community. She works as a grant writer and journalist. More at kamalkimball.com