The Dénouement

Posted on: October 29, 2015

The rising sun, a red ball set in a hard grey sky, painted the tips of the ocean waves all the way to the water’s edge. Everything it touched looked bright and hot. Even the crystalline sand shimmered and glowed like a bed of smoldering coals.

A wind from the east blew up from the beach and carried the grit and sea-smell inland. It ruffled and filled the voile curtains at the edges of my French doors and bent inward the saw grass that grew thick at the foot of my terrace. A breeze on a beach was always welcome, but one from the east, with the red light of dawn burning on the horizon, carried a portent. 
I leaned against the terrace railing and watched thunderheads form at the edge of the sea just above the horizon, billowing high into the sky, majestic and foreboding. I was sipping my coffee and studying the gathering storm when I heard my front door close. I turned my head only halfway to listen. It might be the wind, I thought, but then I heard soft footsteps approaching. I’d been expecting the visit. He’d phoned and said he had news, the dénouement, he called it. He came up beside me and stood there in the full force of the wind staring out across the ocean vista and expansive sky. I didn’t turn toward him. It wasn’t necessary. The familiarity of his presence did not require it. Don and I’d been close friends for almost twenty-five years.

He was a man of rhythm and tempo like the waves on the shoreline. He’d been a music major in college, and though he’d left that life behind long ago, his intuitive sense of timing remained. He waited for his cue, counting the pulse of the waves like the measures in a symphonic prelude. I waited for his news, and when he found the rhythm for his words, it wasn’t a wind from the east that spoke, it was the storm.

“Rick loved his pickup truck.” Don began in a matter-of-fact cadence. “You know he didn’t need a pickup truck. He wasn’t in construction. He wasn’t what you’d call a very handyman or a do-it-yourself kind of guy. Those things were not his forté, and in his case, better off left to the professionals.” He chuckled. I smiled. “He was a teacher. He’d always wanted to be a teacher and in the end, that’s what he was. I learned he was a good teacher, imaginative, amusing, held in high regard by his colleagues, well liked by both parents and students. He was a good teacher, a good teacher who loved his pickup truck.”

He paused and gazed down at the swaying saw grass at the base of the terrace. I sipped my coffee and watched the light change with the shifting clouds. I stood pressed against the terrace boundary. I knew some of the story but not all. With the news to come, I wanted to be in the full force of the wind that streaked up from the ocean. Don lifted his head and continued.

“In fact, he loved his pickup truck so much that he decided there was no better place to die than on the front seat. I don’t know how he reached that conclusion. I don’t know what went through his mind. I don’t know how he put the logic together to arrive at that place, but he did. I don’t know the why either, but it took some planning. He removed the exhaust manifold and used a vacuum cleaner hose. It pumped the fumes right into the cab. I guess you could say I underestimated his handyman skills.” Don paused and shook his head, puzzled. “He must have read some books, don’t you think?” I turned and saw him smile at the thought; then Don pulled out a chair and sat down at my terrace table.

I would have preferred to take the news standing full in the wind, but after a last glance at the ocean and the endless white caps, I turned away, pulled out a chair and joined him. I wanted to get away from it, yet I needed to face the end head on.

“When they found him, he was stretched out on the seat under a blanket. Julia told me that they’d been trying for a baby. He’d brought home the blanket one day. It was a baby blanket covered in purple ballerinas. He insisted they sleep under it every night. It was their good luck charm, he told her. Looking back on it, though, it doesn’t seem so lucky, does it?” He straightened and turned to face the wind, hoping it would shutter his emotions. “In that state of mind it must be possible to live two lives in parallel, one where you continue with the life you know, your family, your profession, the familiar and frequent steps, and at the same time, unearth the thoughts and designs that write your own epitaph.” His voice rose to a shout. He spit his words at the rising wind. “How can you believe in good luck charms like a baby’s blanket and then make such detailed plans to end your life?” He was short of breath after the outburst. He slumped in his chair, and tears dropped onto the front of his shirt. His questions remained unanswered. They would always remain unanswered. The dead speak too softly or not at all.

There were no answers I could give Don. The answers he sought had died with Rick. I could only offer him solace and share the grief. It was my grief too. Together, we’d lost a friend, or perhaps he’d lost us. It wasn’t an accident or disease that took him. He’d left by choice like a friend who waves goodbye from a parting car, with no thought of tomorrow, only the journey and the road just ahead.

Written by: James Shaffer
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll

Susan Takes a Husband

Posted on: October 27, 2015

A re-telling of "Mo Takes a Wife"

Sticky damn fingers. Honey, powdered sugar, syrups, jams and jellies, marmalade: Susan always had fingers sticky-sweet with one thing or another. At the moment it was marshmallow-flavoured buttercream icing. She dolloped it casually onto the mini chocolate cupcakes and stood back licking the spatula. She had learned in her time owning this bakery that messy baked goods were always picked first. The crumpled pastry tart oozing burnt sugar, the bread loaf that had been slightly too large, bursting over the edge of its pan -- those were always scooped up fast, leaving her shelves lined with the most symmetrically iced cakes, and perfectly pressed pie shells.

Susan pulled two of the cupcakes off the tray and took the rest out front. The day was cold and the frost had covered the windows during the night. As the bakery warmed up with piping hot loaves and croissants filling the shelves, the frost would melt away and turn to steam instead. For now, the view of the street was hidden. She couldn’t make out the dark city that lay sleeping around her.

Susan returned to the kitchen, wiping her glazed fingers on her apron. Genna, the bakery’s one and only employee, had arrived early. She was a pleasant girl who only stopped talking when she shoved her ear buds into place and vanished into music. Her long blond hair, in thick dreads, was usually worn tucked up and wrapped in silk scarves. Today’s scarf was a bright canary yellow. Genna, was always sure to let you know it was Genna-short-for-Genesis and not Jenna-short-for-Jennifer. Susan enjoyed her company. She was teaching her how to bake.

“I brought a smoothie in for you to try today. Watermelon, yoghurt, orange juice.” She poured the pink liquid into two glasses and dropped a straw in each.

Susan brought out the plate with the two mini cupcakes on it. She placed them in front of the smoothies. “Breakfast of champions,” she laughed. “So how was last night?”

“The band was ahMahZing! You should have been there.”

“Meh, not really my thing.”

“My brother was there,” Genna said coyly.

“You have to stop pushing that. It’s never gonna happen.”

“Why not? You are both awesome, and both alone.”

“I’ve seen the girls he dates, all blonde and pale and tall. I’m not his type.”

“Maybe he needs something different.”

“Your brother is not interested in a hot mess like me.”

“Hot and spicy, my brother needs a little Caribbean flare.”

“That’s not the sort of hot I meant. Besides I’m not sure if your brother is my type.”

“What’s wrong with my brother?”

“Nothing. He’s a nice guy, but he’s too cool. He’s like one of those ‘Bro’ guys.”

“Bro guys!” Genna howled with laughter.

“You know what I mean. He’s into sports and beer and he’s cocky and tough. No offense.”

“Nah,” Genna shrugged her shoulders. “That pretty much sounds like my brother.”

“I just want a man who is nice. Someone who wants to be with me because they like me, not someone I have to convince to like me.”

The phone rang and Susan popped the last of her cupcake into her mouth while Genna answered the phone.

“That was Alice; she’s sending some guy here to pick up a cherry pie. She says to watch for the hobo wearing a million and one sweaters. His name is Mo.”

Susan pulled a cherry pie from a rack and tucked it into a white box, tying the flaps tight with string. When the bell tinkled, she called out and left the kitchen for the front of the shop.

Mo was hidden beneath layers of mismatched wool and cotton. He looked out of place standing with his hands resting against the Carrara marble counter. When he smiled at her, the first thing she noticed was his teeth. They were terrible - crooked and chipped and not particularly white, but just after the teeth she noticed the smile. It was warm and kind; it was an invitation.

“Are you Mo?”

“Muhammad. My name is Muhammad.”

“Alice told me you were coming, Muhammad. I have your order all set.”

Susan placed the pie on the counter and started to ring up the order.

“Thank you, Susan.”

He smiled at her again, eager and fully attentive to every movement she made. He watched every bop of her head and curve of her lips, taking in each flick of her round fingers, coated in sugar.

“So is that everything?” Susan asked.

He hesitated gaping around the shop, taking in the shelves of baked goods.

“Actually I need some other things.”

Susan guided the eager Muhammad through the shop, showing him all her favorite things. He nodded and smiled and took one of everything, watching her neatly package up scones, muffins, and loaves of pumpernickle bread. As he turned to leave at last, Susan saw the pie, forgotten on the counter.

“Wait, you forgot your pie.” She leaned in close to tuck the pie safely on top of a bag of dinner rolls. She could smell his skin, like curry and musky soap, and despite her shaky nerves when Muhammad asked her to join him for dinner, she agreed.

“Sure,” she laughed awkwardly. “Meet me back here at six.”


“Anyway,” said Genna as Susan re-entered the kitchen. “You need to find someone. I hate to think of you being alone all the time. You need a man to take you out, to show you a good time. Someone confident and good looking, someone to match you. You need a hot and spicy man.”

“I need a sweet and exotic man,” Susan said, quietly kneading bread dough. “I think I’ll make some coconut-curry buns. I have a craving for something different today.”

Written by: Sarah Scott
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

White Flight Ghost

Posted on: October 22, 2015

They say her baby never cries. The handsome, black woman wanders the streets each afternoon in a beet red cardigan and a white poodle skirt. There are large, yellow dots on that skirt, and shapely hips beneath. The businessmen paid her to swagger: a buck fifty an hour, and a dollar bonus for scaring the white husbands. She learned to stride in two-inch heels: a rhythmic click that turns our heads. Her stroller rattles upon worn, plastic tires. Ripe daisies cover the movable bassinette - a print that climbs over an accordion hood. The child beneath is lifeless.

She began her tour before I was born, when the block’s windows were adorned with flower boxes - when a westerly breeze might carry lilac into the city. These were also the years when the tension was obvious. The sprawling urban streets were plastered white, and the fear of new, black residents – climbing north for jobs – sent the neighborhood into a frenzy. Some crumpled, old men point to “era” as an excuse for their racism: “Our houses would be worth less if black families moved next door.” This is denoted with the same cavalier smirk as when they explain atom bomb survival techniques -- “We’d hide under our desks and cover our heads.”

The woman’s lips are painted cherry-red. She occasionally touches them with her ivory, lace gloves, then looks to her blemished fingers. Fifty years later, she’s not used to the facade. Her candy-apple veneer stands out against a burnt background. She passes by Merv’s Grocery, or the faded building that was, and speeds her gait. She is running from someone.

The average house had two prices: three thousand for whites, four thousand for blacks. This was the result of deficient realty laws and racial zoning. It became advantageous, to the shoe-shined narcissist, to force white families out of the city – to the burbs – and replace them with the more profitable blacks. Movement is created by fear.

Some men who measured moral foresight in nickels tried to scare the white residents away. They created black ghosts. These spirits were released as rumor: “A negro family is moving into the Smith’s house.” As slander, “The nigger child is ripe with disease.” And as a beautiful, black woman in a red cardigan, “Just have her push a carriage through the streets. Don’t let her talk, just walk. They’ll assume. Hell, they’ll assume.”

My middle school clan used to hang out behind the boarded windows of an abandoned storefront. The building sold televisions - records prior to that - and before that, women’s shoes. The interior light bulbs were smashed, and the circuits mutilated, so we’d have to assemble during the day – when channels of light would sneak through cracked walls. Dust particles were heavy in the beams. Four others, and myself, all thirteen or nearly thirteen, would argue about the White Sox, punch one-another’s arms numb, and consider sex from afar. We were boisterous until three o’clock. The woman arrived at three. Her clicking heels would stop in front of the boarded windows. Her head turned toward the dilapidated storefront. With halted breath, we watched her through the porous timber. Johnny, who was slight yet brash, would whisper, “Damn she’s fine.” James, whose father was shot while holding a gram, concurred, “The things I’d do to that ghost.” Richard, tall and straight-jawed, promptly reminded us, “I heard she worked for them, and did a fucking good job. I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. She’s not real, you can’t touch her.” The woman would proceed to take off her right shoe. She then examined her calloused toes – fifty years on two-inch heels. She peered into the vacant glass, to the shoe store past. The woman will never afford comfortable shoes, but she will come again tomorrow.

She was, one might surmise, like thousands of others – ambitious, black, and berated by the south. She could legally vote, but large men who wore white hoods at night stood in the doors of the polling centers. She could legally buy a house, but it might be set aflame. She was taught with shoddy books, in a shoddy building, where she urinated in shoddy toilets -- “Don’t flush, the city hasn’t fixed the plumbing.” Her relentless spirit longed for freedom – to own a car - a home - herself. She scaled north on a bus, and was dropped into Chicago, where her cousin said the jobs were. The bigotry was not obvious. She could walk on white sidewalks, but discrimination bubbled discretely beneath. She pressed for a meaningful career, but was repeatedly turned down.

Not wanting to give up, she answered a newspaper ad, “Seeking a pretty, 20-25 year old black girl—physically fit.” Looking past the kinship to slavery, she answered the call. Two clean-shaven, white men in tailored blue suits, gave her a baby doll, a carriage, and paid her in cash. “Make them think you’re moving in. Walk slowly. Give the husbands a wink…the wives can’t hurt you. You’re a ghost now.”

She sauntered.

White men considered her ass, and then considered their net-worth. White women envied her rouge, and then solidified racist dogma. White children wanted to see the black baby, but they were packed into the Studebaker and shipped forty minutes west. Nobody sees the baby.

Her stiletto blades have worn grooves into the cement. She watched the neighborhood change hands, and kept walking. She watched her loved ones default on dirty loans, and kept walking. She watched houses crumble under racially burdened debts, and kept walking. She watched nature crawl through the cement cracks, then trampled the weeds in her path, and kept walking. She is the lasting moniker of our demise. But I’m used to her poodle skirt – this ghost in the daylight.

Written by: Dan Rousseau
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart


Posted on: October 20, 2015

Read the rest of the "West" saga: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Chris reached the top of the peak and looked east. He saw clouds passing, obscuring his view, then clearing away. Trees, wild and unfettered, without the usual corridors for cell phone towers. The lake down below, for which the mountain had been named.

This was almost everything he’d had in mind.

He wished he could distract himself, think of anything but his original vision of being here with Dena. But he’d cut himself off. His usual distractions--the scrolling pictures, the flashing lights, the texts--were gone. He’d called his father from the AT&T customer service desk after having his cell phone shut off.

“I just wanted to let you know my phone got stolen,” he lied. “I know...yeah, I’ll be reachable soon, but we’re going to be in a national park in a couple of days, and I doubt there will be any service anyway...I just didn’t want you to worry…”

Lex, the AT&T employee who’d disconnected his phone, grinned at him when he hung up.

“Going off the grid, dude?”

“Just...taking a break,” Chris had said.

At first, he’d hoped that taking a break would be enough for him and Dena, too. Getting out of town. Reinventing themselves on the road. Dena had been through a lot. She’d suffered more in the past six months than he had in his life. What bad thing had ever happened to him?

His parents’ divorce, after which they both became better, happier people? Getting busted for carrying drugs one, isolated time--then getting off with a stern warning?

When your life diverges from another person’s--theirs into misery, yours into happiness--what do you have? Dena sat right beside him as they drove, but she was still miles away. He couldn’t change her. He couldn’t even heal her.

He retrieved the Chinook keys from the pocket of his corduroy jacket. Dena had given him the keychain--a flat rubber raccoon advertising Ricky’s Recycling Service, Macon, Georgia.

“Sorry, pal,” Chris said.

He hurled the keys over the side of the mountain, closing his eyes as they flew through the air so he couldn’t see where they landed.

“That was dramatic,” a voice said.


Chris turned around to see a man standing behind him. He was older than Chris, maybe mid-forties, and wearing a backpack.

“How are you going to get home?” the man asked.

“I’m kind of in transition right now.”

“Oh, one of those.”

“What do you mean?”

The man unclipped a water bottle from his pack.

“You know. Finding yourself in the great outdoors, or whatever. Quarter-life crisis. I get it, I really do.”

“I don’t need to be patronized right now, okay?” Chris said.

“Nah, I didn’t mean it like that. Just--I’ve been there.”

“Are all the people in your life shit?” Chris muttered.

“We’re all shit, man,” he said.

Chris and the hiker stood in silence, looking at the lake, until the hiker’s phone buzzed. Chris reached for his pocket out of habit, then laughed as a wave of lightness washed over him.

“Sorry,” the man said. “It’s my store.”

As the hiker stepped away to talk on the phone, Chris tried to burn an image of this place into his memory.

Skinny pines. Grey rocks. Algae and reflections creeping around the borders of the lake, making it look like the flecked iris of a human eye. This place was made for Instagram. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was made for this moment only--for Chris’s deliberate efforts to really see it.

Maybe Lake Peak didn’t need the likes. Mountains are above validation. Mountains don’t give a fuck.

“I have got to get someone who can make a decision,” the hiker laughed, sliding his phone back into his pocket.

“So you have a store?” Chris asked.

“Camping supplies. Over on the other side of the National Forest. A new shipment just came in, and my assistant manager is brain dead.”

“You need a new one?”

“A brain? God, yes. Please.”

“An assistant manager.”

“Now that’s a thought,” the man said.


In the final montage of their story, a Bob Dylan song would play on the radio station for the brief moment before the three cars passed out of range. The first car, Drew’s old Toyota, would be the only one still headed west. He would pour a package of peanuts into a plastic bottle of Coke, and dream of a place where he could play ping-pong on his lunch break. Where his desk chair would be a stability ball.

In the second car: Chris, riding shotgun, his new boss driving east as they wound their way out of the Santa Fe National Forest.

“Let me get your number, and I’ll call to let you know what time to come in,” the hiker would say. Chris would just smile.

The last car would be the hot-wired Chinook re-routing its path back to Austin. Dena would reach for Jennifer’s hand, but she’d pull away.

“Let’s go slow, okay?”

Dena would nod.

“Yeah,” she’d say. “We’ll go slow.”

In the last moments of the story, the chorus of the Dylan song would swell, guitars jangling as the radio flickered in and out. The invisible triangle connecting the three vehicles would grow larger and larger, stretching until it was too faint to imagine, until everyone had landed on a different frequency. The sun would drop away in the west, headed for the ocean.

But this was not a story. Truly, there is no such thing.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Luke Pamer

Things That Went Missing

Posted on: October 15, 2015

I remember redwood picnic tables, still wet from the rain on a Sunday morning before the dogs and nude sunbathers came out. You weren't there to see, gone missing. Microscopic creatures swarmed like jellyfish in puddles although the shore was 100 feet away.

And I never wanted to lay a hand on you. The things that went missing were the things we never had a hand on in the first place. The things nibbling at the edges of our imaginations that were not to become tangible, or completely visible with the naked eye. Neither knowable, nor close enough to tear apart or off.

Maybe we didn't see the things that stood right before our eyes. The things that were visible were the ones that disappeared first, without being missed, in the light evening of an undiscovered promise, the summer night of a California beach with water too cold to skinny-dip with strangers. We obsessed over what wasn't there, and took for granted what was there all along.

I saw you in your red underthings doubling as a bathing suit. A cool breeze swirled the aluminum torches along the patio edges, with laughter and unheard insults floating across the beach in choppy whispers. The bonfires lit in dancing crescents, the bronze bodies with nylon stitching, and a backbone of fiberglass surfboards hatcheted into the sand like a prehistoric animal with no ancestors. With no future past August.

The things that went missing were never offered. The air teased the elastic of our flirtations as you picked sand from between my toes with our legs crossed in artificial modesty, up on the bamboo railing. I saw you looking. And the apocalypse of the tide made my memory obsolete.

You blamed your brother for the ride you missed. Ochre smoke hung innocently on the inseams of your bathing suit. The nylon of the jacket held just so but was safety-pinned in a secret place to preserve the illusion. The beach was suddenly empty. The pepper lights hung on a wire that squeaked in the salt wind.

The things that went missing were the ones we weren't paying attention to. The price of gas that made Chet stop driving the Cadillac. The storage shed filled with mother’s photo albums, grown dank and green. Your desperate hold on the neck of a Guinness, stolen from the bottle shop. Fresh-caught fish on a line, smiling and circling in the pails.

We saved them from the shark surf. Later you would fry them over phonebook flames with a steel claw made of hangers, like evidence you were determined to destroy.

The promise of summer, paved in gilt-edged bible pages, seduced me into unwinding the regrets you never replayed for me. You only agreed to see me when everyone else was gone. The sunset burned the smog into unnatural colors. And the windshield filtered the light in that starving morning, bringing a touch to your skin and the hidden elastic below the fold, discarded on the backseat floor. The crease left wet, your silent tear glistening along the cheeks that still burned with the force of that accidental reversal.

The things that went missing were a foreshadowing of our death and of the birth. The religious poise of a creature, found floating towards deeper water, the wave of a new world simple in its proposal and fertile grace. Missing were the things never seen. My stories were jokes you didn't hear, the punchlines an insult they took the wrong way, your secret an opportunity you'd backed into by accident. You let him watch you change in the shower stalls down by the lifeguard station after the festival.

I'd have worn a mask to enter your light, splintered with styrofoam vertebrae and warmed by the driftwood furnace. But I was up on the hill overlooking the summer houses built deep in the shale, and the plan fell in the vast sea of night. My plan drowned by Poseidon, lost beyond Apollo, in the parking lot of the Scop Cafe in the backseat of the Cadillac, whispered at lunchtime the following Monday.

Did I tell you? The sharks went hungry.

Your indignation was a pose against this Sodom and Gomorrah business, that Guernica night that began as it ended, a grand embrace of our last night alone, the desperate attempt to find what had already gone missing, your smiling teeth dark in the shadow, a trick of the flame while tequila smoke coiled from the cement rings on the dirty sand like a broken necklace, spilled in an amorous struggle.

Butts and pop tops and clear plastic wrappers. The slow curves pitched with duckweed that damselflies swarm around like high school. I lit the flame and you let him have it. I wore another suit of clothes. Last call before we take inventory of the supplies.

The things that went missing had to be reconstructed later in a hand-held reading where I passed my own poem over to let someone else read, with broken rhythms I had no way to put my hand on, to twist back in shape.

Waist ties poked in my thighs at the joint. I imagined the burn of your hand for hours. The color was an illusion of the printer, and should not reflect your final result. Once you live by the coast, you never get it out of your blood. Grains of sand circled at the bottom of the empty shower stall, beads of glass a blind memory of something never consummated.

The man with the orange blazer would hose it down come winter, during the rains. At the naked clearing dotted with redwood picnic tables, I held you down to make you confess, holding the lapels of someone else's windbreaker, which you tore off then never reclaimed.

It fell apart that August. The things that went missing were not there to begin with.

Written by: Roger Leatherwood
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll

Dear Lydia

Posted on: October 13, 2015

I had you too young. I wasn't meant to be a mother so soon, but I chose it for myself. Don't ask your father about this, he wouldn't understand. He says he does now, but he didn't then. It's the "then" that I want to talk to you about.

Yes, I'm a coward because I can't do this face-to-face. It means driving out to see you, and to see California again, and I just can't do that. They're right when they say some wounds haven't healed. This is one of them. Don't get me wrong -- it's a great state, and I'm glad you went out there. I'm glad you and Carlos are happy and possibly settling down. (Possibly. I promised I wouldn't rush you and I won't.)
California's where I went after your dad left. It's where I went after I found out I was going to have you because Aunt Jo wouldn't let me stay in the house, and I didn't know where else I could turn. Uncle Sid took me in, even though he didn't have to. He was mad at your father for a lot of things back then, but mostly for leaving when he knew you were coming.

Granted, Sid was mad at me, too. I was pushing your father at a time when he wasn't pushing himself, and when you push someone who doesn't want to change, whether they know if it's good for them or not, they strike back. So he walked away. I didn't follow, and I didn't beg him to stay. Maybe I should've. I know you're angry at him, too, right now.
Instead, I left with you and found a new California, as you know. Marin City. We made new friends -- you remember Kendall and Leo, from the pictures -- but they couldn't do much for us. They weren't even able to help themselves, with almost six jobs between them and barely making more than I was. I guess that's what happens when you run into people in situations as sticky as ours was. They had a baby right before I had you. Did you know that? I’m sure I told you. A baby girl: Merry. Probably named her that to help change their luck around, or lift their attitudes, or something.

I'm not even sure how I took care of us during those years. You're going to roll your eyes at me because this sounds like an excuse, but it's not. I blanked out most of that time. No, it wasn't long ago, but a year feels like seven when you're in dire straits.
We had a very hard time getting by. We were -- are -- lucky to have Sid and Ty in our lives, though. They never asked many questions, but you know that. How much stuff have you hidden from me in their pockets? You're the writer, you'll get that metaphor, or whatever you call it. They take things on without knowing what they're getting into. It used to get them into trouble, but I think you coming into our lives stopped them doing that for everything, and started limiting it to some things.
I remember the day your father came back to us like it was yesterday. He was finally admitting to being wrong. He'd been crying, and his cheeks were pink. He saw you first, and then me, outside Sid's house -- that dinky place you always see in the early photos in your baby books. He went to you first, and you weren't that old at all, only six months, maybe. He didn't stop saying sorry the rest of the day.

No, it didn't fix anything. Aunt Jo was still mad and his family was still mad. Everyone was mad at me, just like you are now. They all loved you, though. There wasn't a time that they didn't love you.

I'm sorry I wasn't old enough to have you when you came into my life. I'm sorry I used that as an excuse not to do better when it would've counted most. I'm sorry you needed to rely on Sid and Cousin Ty and all those people who weren't me and your dad. I'm sorry I took us so far away from home and then couldn't do much for you once I did. I'm sorry this made things harder.
I know it doesn't change anything. You're still hurting, and anyone would be, finding out like you did. No kid wants to find out that there might’ve been a time when their parents didn’t want them, and they really don’t want to find out by total accident. Those abortion forms got lost among the rest of my paperwork very early on and by the time I decided to keep you, I forgot about them. I promise I wasn't trying to hide them, or the letters to your father, or anything. They were stored away because I couldn't keep looking at them after the first two years I'd had them. I put them away to put it all behind me.
For a long time, you didn't seem to need any closure about where your father was in all those pregnancy pictures, or why he came back. You didn’t seem interested in why your first year of life went undocumented when it wasn’t a holiday. You didn't ask questions, didn't root around, nothing. You were a good kid, quiet, thoughtful, maybe too attentive around me. You did your work and had your friends and grew up really, really well.

You seemed to understand why your dad and I weren't around all that much, even after we got back together. I never expected you'd be so hurt when you finally found out. I was barely a month into the pregnancy when I went to the clinic...but I guess that’s not the point. Maybe I should’ve known you’d shut me out, but I didn't want to make that hundredth call and have you not pick up again. And hell if I was going to put all this in voice messages.

I know it's not enough. This doesn't tell the whole story by a long shot. I hope it answers some questions, though, and enough of them that you can finally pick up the phone when I call.

I'm going to call. You're my daughter and I love you, and I'm going to call to check in on you, just like I always have -- even when I wasn't a good mother. You can ask Sid about that, if you want. He'll tell you.

Love always,


Written by: Caitlin Mannarino
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll

Prayer Mile

Posted on: October 8, 2015

When my mother died, she became my God. Whenever I prayed before, it was always to something or someone I couldn’t quite grasp. Sure, there were titles I’d been taught to use: Lord, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Those names didn’t make the deity easier to picture or approach; they just kept him distant and vague, important and quick to shame. But my mom always talked about God the Father as the epitome of love, and she wanted everyone to know that he’s got so much love for everybody. What I didn’t realize until after she was gone was that if God was the epitome of love, then she was his embodiment. Nobody loved as much as that woman did. I don’t know who God the Father is, but I know my mom. So, when I pray, she’s the one I’m praying to.

There’s this tower at the plant as tall as Babel with a ladder all the way up. I have to sit up there about every week to monitor pressure gauges, make sure we’re not putting out too much yuck. The sun’s usually following me when I climb up and always beats me to the top. There’s a breeze, and the clouds look like cotton candy as day breaks. You probably didn’t know that a new morning has a smell, crisp and clean with hints of earth. I see why those people a long time ago tried to build their way to heaven, because seeing the world stretched out and the horizon wrap around will make you feel brave, like you can do anything. It’ll make you feel like you can get over your mom dying while you held her hand even though you know you never will.

My wife was going through some really terrible stuff a couple years back. Her boss asked her if she needed to take some time off. She said no. She said work was the place to be because if she stayed home, all she’d do is think about all the terrible things and she’d lose her mind. Now, I get what she meant. Having a job that makes you use your hands and your head all day is like a salve, soothing the wound that still exists underneath. The guys at the plant are well-meaning; they want to ask if I’m doing all right and give their condolences. I hate it when they do that because it makes me remember, ripping at me like a bandaid. But I smile and thank them, then get back to filling out an incident report with my head downturned so they can’t see me sniffling.

I signed up for overtime and told my wife it was mandatory. I knew she knew. There’s these huge pots full of molten metal that we’ve got to keep clean. It’s monotonous work, but it was just what I needed. I kept raking the debris out of what looks like the belly of hell, watching the heat purge the impurities. It makes me wonder if hell is just a stop before you get to heaven. Maybe you go there to get clean so God can welcome you. If such a place exists, I doubt my mom had to go, or if she did then it was for like two minutes because maybe she lied once.

There was a spill one day that messed up a flock of geese. They were washing themselves in the puddles like they always do, but it wasn’t water this time. The oil coated their feathers and stung their eyes. We got the right people to take care of them, but I couldn’t think straight. There was one goose lying on her side, breathing slow with her beak open a little. The black liquid coated her feathers, reminding me of the stuff they had to pump out of my mom’s lungs just to keep her going. The tube ran from her mouth into a canister on the wall above her hospital bed, and it would get full so quick. One of the animal rescue workers picked up the goose and told me she’d be all right once they cleaned her up. A doctor said the same thing once about my mom, so the doubt is thick in my chest.

The cancer looked like an oak tree stretching its branches across her lungs. They said it was progressing rapidly, and things weren’t looking good. There’s nothing more emasculating than waiting for someone you love to die. There were people from the church praying for a miracle in the waiting room, but I knew my mom was going to die days ago. I surrendered myself to the brute force of death’s grip on her, and let it embrace both of us as we sat on the sofa. I said everything I needed to say. I told her I loved her when she could still respond. I told her thank you. I told her that she’s the best, and my kids will know her. Seeing the MRI scans made me feel better that I got a chance to do what others don’t, what others probably resist.

It’s a hike from the plant back to the locker rooms. I call it the Prayer Mile. I start and end my days on it, telling my mom about her granddaughters and asking her how I can be a good husband. Sometimes I try to listen, and I don’t hear anything, but she was never one for words. Mom was a hugger. So, when twilight and dusk wrap around me each day, I think about the mornings when we’d snuggle on the couch before getting ready for school. I think about the way she held me on my wedding day, and threw herself on me when I told her we were going to have a baby. I think about that last squeeze of my hand before her spirit left her body, and her light left my life.

Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Samuel Zeller


Posted on: October 6, 2015

Jack walks back in the trailer with a little box of gentle blue; larger than your usual eggs, richer too, he says. Says hen's eggs are for any old farming domesticate no matter how freckled brown and soul-wholesome they look, but the duck egg is reserved for the true children of the wilderness. Magical dawn-blue shells. I remember hearing once that folks in the middle ages would smash up their eggshells to powder 'cause otherwise witches take them and sail away. Mighty small witches they got in those parts, I remember thinking, and then I remembered Baba Yaga; fierce initiator of the Slavs riding through wolfish pine-needle teeth in her mortar and figured witches can be any damn size they want.

'You want eggs, Boo?' Jack calls out real gentle 'cause Boo was deep in her colouring and you didn't want to disturb that beautiful bubble expanding around her head like a halo of blown glass. Strawberry field girl, smile like a new moon. Jars of meadow flowers all around her little altar of personal peace; arterial spray poppies and cornflowers and the dandelion heads ready to Cinderella into a thousand wishes at midnight.

I'm busy stitching up a sleeve torn up bad on barbed wire. Red and blue checked squares sacrificed to sweet corn we browned up on the grill, watching Boo while Jack is cooing china blue babies out of his feral harem by the pond. She don't need an eye on her all the time as such, but sometimes she breaks the chain of her long dreaming and lifts up her contradictory body to go dancing by the river, and Jack's blood goes cold every time because she can't swim and the river means she is in a sad place. Sometimes she is up a tree and he hums to himself gettin' his hands in the greening vegetable soil of their patch because his girl is making a nest up there; talking to birds he'll never know the names of. The sky means she's happy as a woman can be trapped in the changeling baby brain of an old car accident that scythed her mind away.

Even her hair is a dandelion. So soft and corn-blonde wispy, like a breath would blow it clean away from her skull in Rumpelstiltskin reels of spinning gold, leaving just that valley of indented flesh where they took the smoking pieces out. She wears white dresses stained at the hem with smudges of bleeding grass, and no other colour. Jack finds careless summer shifts at the thrift, shed like snakeskin by girls ripening into autumn and buys them for her, armfuls of calm, cloud white.

'These are some coin of the realm,' I say, my mouth still working at the yolk explosion, my mind on Boo and soft colours of duck egg and cotton worn thin by limbs tumbling in sunlight. The eggs are lavish protein and I listen to the weary cells of my morning body say grace. Hallelujah.

Jack places a plate of eggs by Boo, her wrist is a swan's neck nodding over the paper for all ages to colour in by number. He jerks his head towards the door and I follow him with thread dangling off my arm into a sun slipping off the noose of early morning; roaring off the sides of the trailer, frying the grasses dry. We sit by the ashes of the night's fire and Jack twists the heavy metal ring he forged himself for their wedding round and round his finger.

'She's a little funny about food right now, can't tolerate a lot, but she loves the eggs.'

I have some vision of Boo pushing away plates of anything that ain't white and yellow. Anything that isn't her pale tranquiliser or her lover in the sky. Belisama, Jack calls her now, the wife of some old Celtic sun god; the Fair Shining One. He breathes in and looks hard at the ground and I get one of those psychic little earthquakes in me like I'm a rat or dog about to flee the streets.

'Good for the baby, duck eggs,' he says.

I go dead-sand hourglass still, like the whole of my being has to be suspended for this telegram to be pressed into my hand. Suddenly I've got a black hole where my mouth used to be so I decide to see how much matter it sucks in.

'You think I'm sick, huh?'

I think of Boo, half-brained honey-sweet thing, swelling like one of her dandelion heads. I think of her transcendent nun's face, and the heft of Jack's body that two seconds ago was as dickless as some tonsured novice. Thought that was how they lived. Thought they lay together in their doll's house trailer like smooth peg dolls, if I thought about it at all.

'It wasn' how you're thinking.'

'You don't know what I'm thinking.' Twisting the red thread hanging from my sleeve over in my fingers like I'm plaiting a thin dribble of blood.

'No, I do, see, I know what anyone who sees her would be thinking. But it wasn't like that.' He picks up a half-burned stick, pokes the ashes. 'She'd come down from one of her trees, and she was singing. She pushed her dress up and smiled at me, and her face, Natty,' he looks up at me then and his eyes are wet watercolour hazel. 'Her face was a star had fallen to earth. She was so happy.' He stares off toward the riverbank, where the sadness lived. 'So happy.'


Behind us there is a vague angel, weightless in prairie cotton, and Jack rises from that circle of sour and dead fire and holds her 'cause Boo just wants to reassure herself there is one solid thing left her in the world. And then I know where the grey pieces of that surgical valley went; to the hands of a man who molded them like butter, heart-shaped.

Written by: Natty Mancini
Photograph by: Karen Zhu


Posted on: October 1, 2015

Puffs of breath, like wisps of dreams unspoken, float off Quinn’s bottom lip. He’s singing silent. Singing to himself like he always does—like he always has. Bits of TV jingles and theme songs, jumbled choruses and verses like crumpled sheet music. It irritates the hell outta Stella. But Stella ain’t here. We could hear her snoring while we got ready, pulling on jeans and flannels and coats, warming our hands on mugs of coffee thick as the mud squelching under our boots. The sun hadn’t reached through the dirty window above the kitchen sink yet, but when we tumbled out onto the front porch, cold nipping at our cheeks and ears, Buck was there.

“C’mon now,” he said. “Time’s a-wastin’.”

Buck walks ahead of us, shotgun broken in half over his shoulder, the double barrel staring at me like dead eyes. His Labrador Retriever, Ranger, trots just to his left. Quinn weaves through the underbrush just behind them without seeming to see it, following Buck like flies to roadkill. He’s a better hunter than I am. I don’t like to sit still, can’t focus on the prey. But I can gut the deer and carry the birds. Quinn doesn’t mind the shooting, it’s the dead things he can’t seem to cope with. Buck never asks why and neither do I.

Daddy used to say Quinn was broken in the head, that I had to be a smart little girl to make up for it. I always pictured little puzzle pieces tumbling around inside his skull, trying to fit themselves back together.

I touch Quinn’s shoulder and nod to the horizon, which is starting to fade from black to pinkish gray, like the belly of a fish. He leans close to my ear and hums “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, and I wonder if he remembers watching the movie with Ma singing along, slopping gin down the front of her nightgown even though it was barely noon. I hope not.

“Heard from your Daddy?” Buck asks.

I shrug, and then remember he can’t see it. “Ain’t heard shit.”

Buck’s the only one I don’t mind answering even though everybody in town asks. Buck knew Daddy before Quinn and I were born, so I know he’s asking for himself. Everybody else asks so they can give us that crinkle-brow, frowning look. That pity-look that I hate. When Daddy first dumped us on his Momma’s porch and told her to look after us for a few days, Buck came around not an hour after. I don’t know if Daddy stopped by his place, too, or if he could hear Stella screaming at us. We’ve never called her Grandma. Three months later and it’s the three of us in a cabin barely big enough for one, Quinn and I trading spots on the sleeper sofa and the floor, sometimes curling together like hounds that don’t know they’re too big to act like pups.

“Stella said he’s gone to California,” Quinn adds, unexpectedly, before lapsing into melodic muttering that might be “Surfin’” by the Beach Boys.

Buck spits to the side, a globe of saliva stained brown from the chaw tucked into his cheek. We stop at the edge of a wide field, the perfect place to scare up some birds, and I sneak up next to Ranger, burying my cold fingers in the coarse fur at the nape of his neck. I can feel the tension and excitement running through him. I have little of that myself. I don’t care if we don’t bag any birds today. It’s enough to be standing with the cold on my cheeks, smelling the dampness in the air. Quinn reaches over and tugs a strand of my hair, come loose from the stocking cap I stole from Buck. It’s as affectionate as he gets, and I smile, smoothing the duct tape patch that’s always peeling away from the shoulder of his coat. His coat leaks goose down, little white tufts that flurry away like snow. Buck casts around for a minute, sharp eyes scouting the lay of the land from beneath his black eyebrows. He spits another stream of murky juice and jerks his head to the left. I see the silver glint of water along the far edge of the clearing—a perfect spot. Quinn holds his gun easy, like it’s another part of his hand and hums. I try to guess the melody by watching his breath frost the air, hypnotized almost. Buck flicks my shoulder and I look away from my brother.

“You doin’ a’right, girl?

I know better than to shrug. Buck doesn’t ask questions that don’t need answering.

“She forgot to buy groceries again last week, but I saved a few oatmeal packets and there was some meat in the freezer.” I chew on a hangnail. Quinn and I had missed meals before and no doubt would again.

“You let me know next time, y’hear?” Buck waits for my nod before moving towards a tall stand of grass.

We hunker down at the edge of the field and watch as the sun begins to send fingers of light through the wispy fog. In the near-silence, I hear the clap of wings. Quinn raises his gun, lips moving silently, but doesn’t shoot. The grass crunches as Ranger shifts, eager for the hunt.

My lips are dry and taste like the chicory in our morning coffee. As if the sun summoned them, the doves appear, looking themselves like bits of morning mist. I glance at Quinn, his face still as he sights along the barrel of his gun and pulls the trigger. A piece of fluff from Quinn’s jacket floats towards my face as I lock my sights on a bird. I imagine their little bodies, light bones filled with air. Breathe in, out. Feel the trigger warm beneath my finger. The shot echoes through my ears and another bird falls.

Written by: Hannah Sears
Photograph by: Kayla King

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