Opossum

by Zach Murphy

Pete and Richard’s orange safety vests glowed a blinding light under the scorching sun, and their sweat dripped onto the pavement as they stood in the middle of the right lane on Highway 61, staring at an opossum lying stiffly on its side.

 

Richard handed Pete a dirty shovel. “Scoop it up,” he said.

 

Everything made Pete queasy. He once fainted at the sight of a moldy loaf of bread. Even so, he decided to take on a thankless summer job as a roadkill cleaner. At least he didn’t have to deal with many people. 

 

Richard nudged Pete. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. 

 

Pete squinted at the creature. “It’s not dead,” he said. “It’s just sleeping.”

 

“Are you sure?” Richard asked as he scratched his beard. He had one of those beards that looked like it would give a chainsaw a difficult time. 

 

“Yes,” Pete said. “I just saw it twitch.”

 

Richard walked back toward the shoulder of the road and popped open the driver’s side door of a rusty pickup truck. “Alright, let’s go.”

 

Pete shook his head. “We can’t just leave it here.”

 

“It’s not our problem,” Richard said. “They tell us to do with the dead ones, but not the ones that are still alive.”

 

Pete crouched down and took a closer look. “We need to get it to safety,” he said. 

 

Richard sighed and walked back toward the opossum. “What if it wakes up and attacks us?” he asked. “That thing could have rabies.”

 

“I don’t think anything could wake it up right now,” Pete said. 

 

Richard belched, “It’s an ugly son of a gun, isn’t it?”

 

“I think it’s so ugly that it’s cute,” Pete said.

 

“No one ever says that about me,” Richard said with a chuckle. “I guess I just haven’t crossed into that territory.”

 

Just then, a car sped by and swerved over into the next lane. Pete and Richard dashed out of the way.

 

“People drive like animals!” Richard said. “We’d better get going.”

 

Pete took a deep breath, slipped his gloves on, gently picked up the opossum, and carried it into the woods.

 

“What are you doing?” Richard asked. “Are you crazy?”

 

After nestling the possum into a bush, Pete smelled the scent of burning wood. He gazed out into the clearing and noticed a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky. The sparrows scattered away, and the trees stood with their limbs spread, as if they were about to be crucified. 

 

“Jesus Christ,” Pete whispered under his breath.

 

Pete picked up the opossum and turned back around.

 


 

Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories appear in Reed Magazine, The Coachella Review, Maudlin House, Still Point Arts Quarterly, B O D Y, Ruminate, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. His chapbook Tiny Universes (Selcouth Station Press) is available in paperback and ebook. He lives with his wonderful wife, Kelly, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

The Empathies

by Mindy Friddle

Sunrise to sunset, that was the deal. When darkness descended, their safety could not be guaranteed. After all, the deserted, boarded-up Magic Kingdom of today was a perilous place. 

The governor had finally granted Bev Rodriguez-Cortez special permission to film at Disney World, not an easy feat, that sort of diplomatic dithering, though it helped RoCo, as she was known to friends and frenemies, was an up-and-coming director and, most importantly, born and raised in Florida. 

She’d pitched this one-day event as a benefit for the state she loved and missed. RoCo would bring Empathy, the superhero, to this forsaken place—from the pages of the much beloved graphic novel, to the screen via a live feed, broadcast globally. Because the Sunshine State had gone dark and could really use some empathy right now. If she could prove this hallowed park of yon was safe again— then perhaps it could be transformed into a sort of Sundance for the east coast, a place to advance the work of storytellers in film, gaming, and theatre.

The outskirts rough, though. Yikes. As if the Magic Kingdom were cursed, under one of its storied wicked spells. When they’d arrived at dawn, RoCo—though she’d seen the videos, of course—nevertheless shocked at the graffiti-tagged ticket booths, the spiderwebbed cracked glass. The Hollywood Studios, vandalized beyond repair back in 2030, the governor had given her a heads up about that. But she found the interior of the park spared, mostly, thanks to the swarm of copbots dispatched last year to patrol. 

She had a tight schedule. The choppers would arrive for pick up at sundown. They’d helicoptered in, they’d helicopter out.

Her crew of carpenters had already mounted a set, primitive, hastily assembled scaffolding on an old stage, with a green screen backdrop. They’d shoot outdoors, thank God the weather was cooperating. In the background, ruin porn— Cinderella’s mothballed castle. Shame not to use it, but that was the deal, too. No glamorizing the downfall. She’d add digital scenery and touch ups later, anyway. She had a scrum of extras at the ready, placeholders mostly, for the soldiers and sundry reprobates. 

An audience of one hundred, approved and invited by the governor herself, would arrive in an hour, ferried in by shuttle, escorted by a fleet of copbots. Pricey tickets, but then this was a fundraiser, of sorts.

#

They’d commandeered the former restrooms near the castle, between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, for costume and makeup. There, RoCo found the Empathies in costume for a final fitting. Gemmy, the costume designer, a genius, functioning splendidly without the crutch of flashy technology, if need be. Gemmy could do wonders with cellophane and duct tape. She could sew by hand. 

As for the Empathies, RoCo had cast those who had stage experience, who could improvise. No divas, please. She needed talent. 

And, after weeks of auditions, had found it. Four actors who could carry off the ferocious mercy of an empyrean superhero who takes the form of an afflicted being she saves, before she ascends above the stricken…

She cast Sara Talltree as the Cherokee grandmother in the Trail of Tears chapter. Sara, a singer, a musical headliner—her acting chops superb, too. For the World War II chapter, Rachel Duschman would play the middle-aged woman among the freezing, naked Jewish families in the snows of the Black Forest. Rachel, seasoned actor, a real professional, had no problem with nudity—hers or anyone else’s, if it served the story. It did. Glenna Nettles—her star was rising in the virtual gaming avatar world— would play the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirl. And, for the Mall of America chapter, RoCo’s riskiest choice, a young actor with a dash of community theatre under her belt, but a face that could emote like a son of a bitch—Summer Bremer.

#

“So we were thinking, barefoot,” Gemmy said as RoCo approached Sara. “Ditch the moccasins.”

“They’re a bitch to take off,” Sara added. 

 RoCo nodded. “Barefoot works.”

Glenna emerged from behind a stall, wearing a blue-checked school uniform, faded and dusty, poignantly threadbare. She twirled for RoCo. “Yep. Perfect.”

Rachel didn’t have much of a costume, a few tufts of snow, strategically placed, tits and crotch, just so any pearl clutchers in the audience wouldn’t get the vapors.

 RoCo looked over at Summer. 

“Velvet and booties, they were all the rage back then,” Gemmy said. 

“Nice,” RoCo said. 

#

Summer’s costume: purple crushed velvet dress, lace tights, ankle boots. Fashion from before she was born, so she’d perused old pictures and videos from back then as part of her research. Summer’s character—the victim Empathy chooses to morph into— a “mall girl” from 2017.  Summer had vague memories of malls from her childhood, back when people shopped like that. In the Mall of America chapter, her character is a high school student Summer’s own age, sixteen, who sings in a chorus that Bloody Black Friday. Summer had watched the videos of Santaland in the mall, where the choirs sang Christmas music…just before the attack. She’d read the news articles, how the bomb had gone off in the middle of the mall, the skylights shattered, the escalators torn into jagged broken zippers, the top story collapsing onto the people below. The fake snow and debris plumed, dusted everyone, everything. The gunmen, strapped with assault rifles and grenades, “the evil seven” who were “domestic terrorists,” stormed in to pick off the survivors—the skaters in the ice rink, even the children in Nickelodeon Park. 

At the audition, the director, RoCo, had told Summer, yeah, well, all kids want to be Empathy for Halloween, this is more than costume play. That was after Summer had told her she’d cosplayed Empathy at ComicCon for three years. Summer was more than a fan, is what she meant to convey. She was a follower from the beginning, an Empathy disciple.  

The director was scary, a little. Gemmy said, Hon, don’t let RoCo freak you out. She’s a softie underneath the armor. 

#

“Anyone want to run lines?” RoCo said now. There were a few ha-has. They all had just the one line, albeit in different languages. What you do to others, you do to yourself. 

Summer’s line, the only English version. All the work in gesture, in the face. That’s what RoCo said, and why she’d cast Summer. 

When Summer learned she got the part, her mother almost didn’t let her accept, especially when she found out Summer wasn’t allowed to bring along a parent, or any adult, for that matter. Florida? Her mother said, over and over, making it sound like Shanghai or Moscow, far more hellacious spots, she reminded her mother. They lived in Connecticut now, Summer and her brother, Townie, with their mother and Ivan, in a Community of Peace. 

 Ivan, her stepfather slash acting coach, told her mother this could be Summer’s big break.

It took Summer and Ivan three days to persuade her mother this was an opportunity not to be missed, working with Bev Rodrigues-Cortez, and this audition might just lead Summer being cast in the new Empathy series. 

Last year, Summer had played Ophelia in Hamlet, for their town’s Shakespeare in the Park. Sort of a big deal. Ivan had told Summer, Your pain is fuel. Use it.  Fresh from her father’s deathbed, Summer had great gushes of pain to pull from. She got a standing ovation. Ivan had sent the video to RoCo. 

 

“Half an hour,” RoCo said now. The audience had arrived.

Summer felt the usual pre-performance butterflies, nothing she couldn’t handle. Or so she hoped.

There was just the one set on stage. A string quartet and drummer, in front of the stage where the orchestra pit usually was. A few extras—from boys to old men— to play the oppressors. RoCo called the scenes truncated action. Empathy descends amid savage violence, wields her magic mirror, recites her line of power. The reckoning then, as the cruel ones wither and see, as Empathy morphs into one of the victims, and ascends.

“Remember, what I’m after here,” Roco said. “That instant of epiphany, that turning point when the evil is reversed, when the wicked are wounded by their own deeds, and Empathy reflects that complexity in her face, in her body.” 

There would be a live stream of today’s performances. Two drone cameras, and one cameraman, as RoCo intended to capture the audience’s reactions. But RoCo said she’d take the raw scenes into the studio next week and work her magic, add all the flash and dash, fuse the scenes into one polished video, post it for a global audience. Summer had overheard Sara and Rachel talk about how this was RoCo’s own audition, too. To prove she could direct the Empathy series. 

“No green room, sorry,” RoCo said now. “But there’s a tent, behind the stage. A monitor in there, to watch.” After the shoot, the Empathies were expected to circulate in the crowd, with props— magic mirror, boomerang, a stuffed toy falcon. “It’s part of their ticket price. So, smile and pose with the big wigs.”

When the solar shuttle arrived to ferry them over to the stage, Summer sat behind Gemmy and RoCo.

“You know, these one sceners—what do you call them? Truncated action? Tableaus? It reminds me of the Stations of the Cross,” Gemmy told RoCo. “ ‘Meditating on specific holy events’, as the sisters used to say.”

“Bitch, really?” 

Gemmy needled RoCo, it made Summer nervous. But RoCo didn’t get too riled up or anything. She and Gemmy went way back. 

“I haven’t been to mass in forever,” RoCo added. 

“Just saying. You can take a girl out of the church, but ...” 

RoCo eye rolled, yeah righted. 

But RoCo was thinking of her mother and her aunt, living together in Vermont, in a Community of Peace where RoCo had safely installed them. These days, her mother and aunt both prayed to Empathy along with the Virgin Mary and sundry other candled saints. They hated leaving Florida, detested the cold Northeast, pined for Miami even now, where they’d lived all their lives…before Helga. Miami, the Keys, gone now, sea-swallowed after Helga roared in. Much of Southern Florida unpeopled nowadays, what land left, bitterly fought over in legal battles, in violent squabbles. Gated communities breached like broken dams. Then the rise of Florida Anarchists—Flanarch—their ruptures of lawlessness, their demands that Florida secede. 

Her mother and aunt would watch the live stream today—RoCo’s gift to them. They would watch and brag about RoCo to their neighbors, of course, but she hoped the performances would bring them comfort. Surely her mother and Aunt Maria would be moved, watching these Empathies brandishing mirrors of comeuppance, wielding ferocious mercy, here in Florida.

#

 

In the tent, the chattering stopped because they were getting into character. 

Rachel practiced deep breathing in the corner, Glenna yogaed, warrior position. Sara, first up, stood still, eyes closed, waiting for her cue.

Gemmy helped Summer slide on her chiffon robe over the velvet dress. Gemmy had designed the robes for all four Empathies—translucent, shimmery like gossamer. There were wings, too, crepe that drooped, like enormous limp lettuce leaves. Summer had practiced for hours, shedding the robe in one fluid movement, as if emerging from a chrysalis, when she transforms into the mall girl.

 On the monitor, they watched the governor introduce RoCo. The camera panned over the glamorous audience, sequins twinkling. “Florida’s gentry,” Gemmy whispered, “what’s left.” 

Summer trembled. She always shook before performances, it was okay, it was energy, but Gemmy looked worried. “You’ll do great, hon. Besides, I’ll let you in a little secret. They—” she tilted her head toward the audience—“don’t give an alligator’s ass about the performances. They’re here sniffing around investment opportunity. Ka-ching. It’s just a big ol’ shmoozefest cocktail party.”

The drummer started up, loud boom booms, going right for the solar plexus. 

“Hey, when you circulate after, head for the bar.”  Gemmy winked. “I’ll sneak you some sangria.”

#

The extras assembled on stage. Three teens, two older men, all dressed in black, like stagehands. The point, RoCo said, was to keep the wicked faceless, to make evil banal. Sara glided onto stage, one foot in the rope sling, her sheer robe and wings fluttering, catching the sunlight. 

Summer had read The Trail of Tears chapter to her brother, Townie, hundreds of times, she knew every frame. The three American soldiers in blue uniforms, with rifles and bayonets, on horseback, forcing Cherokee people to march through the woods. Women held babies, men carried the old and sick who were too weak to walk the thousand miles to Indian Territory. The soldiers barked orders, warned them to leave the dying behind. The youngest soldier, the yellow-haired one, rides his horse over, kicks one of the old women as she falls to her knees, begging to rest— 

 Then, when you could hardly stand the cruelty, Empathy descends, glowing like the moon, then growing so bright you can hardly bear to look. Bring it on, Empathy. Torch those evil dudes. Smite them down! But—she doesn’t. As much as you want to her to, she doesn’t. At first everyone freaks out, the horses rear, the women clutch their babies, the children wail. One soldier shouts to take cover, he thinks they’ve been blasted by cannon fire. No, the other soldier says, squinting toward Empathy, they cursed us with their savage gods, they brung this on. 

Sara Talltree, Empathy now, stood on stage in her tattered white gown. Summer could see anguish in her face. Fury, too. She held up her mirror, the men cowered, as if it were a weapon. It was a weapon. But Empathy stops herself from wreaking revenge. That’s what the professor on the Hullabaloo talk said, when Summer researched. Empathy’s mirror goes off like a nuclear flash and the soldiers fall, they think she’s going to kill them and they crouch in “defensive positions,” the professor said, before their “egoic hard shells are melted” and they “see.” The professor called this “cathartic equilibrium.”

“What you do to others, you do to yourselves.” Sara recited the line in Cherokee. Her face soft but strong, too, with “strident benevolence.” The soldiers sob, take off their own coats to give to the women and children. 

Sara slipped off her gossamer robe without a snag. In her beaded ragged dress, she cradled the mirror, slipped her foot back into the rope sling, and slowly rose, off stage. 

RoCo, watching the monitor, said, “She nailed it. Sara totally nailed it.”

The audience clapped.

#

In the World War II chapter, Empathy arrives to save a group of Jewish women, naked and freezing, running in the snow. The Nazi soldiers herd them out into the woods, to shoot them and shove them into a mass grave. Empathy descends in the clearing ahead, she fixes the soldiers with her gentle, steady stare. The soldiers shoot at her, scream louder and louder. The bullets go through her. The soldiers’ dogs, unleashed, charge at her, then stop, lick her hand. When she raises her mirror, a ball of light glows and spreads, solid to liquid to air. The women huddle together. The light expands like the sun, it blinds. The soldiers’ guns jam. Their eyes, you see it in their eyes first, the widening, then filling with tears. The lieutenant takes off his wool coat and he wraps it around a woman near him, it is still warm from his body, and he says here, here, then he takes off his shoes, his dry wool socks, his shirt. He wraps the clothing around the woman, blue with cold, until he, himself, is naked.  All of them, the soldiers, are soon naked, shivering with cold, as they drape the women with their coats, their shirts, their long johns, so warm, one of the women says, so warm. We will save you, the lieutenant says, his teeth clacking with the cold. The Nazi soldiers are overcome with shame, with the pain of seeing what they have done. They FEEL it. How could they have been so blind to their own brutality? They will save them, the humans in front of them. They will die for them.

Rachel almost stumbled off the rope sling, but caught herself, and made it look natural. When she shrugged off her shimmery robe, she was naked, and stood ram-rod straight. Her line, delivered in Yiddish, rang out clear, and there was such beautiful suffering in her face as she rose off stage. 

The audience clapped and cheered. 

#

Glenna came on like gangbusters, jumped off the sling rope, landing in a crouch, like a gymnast. Glenna told Summer she was into Empathy as gangster superhero, who freaks out the soldiers, before she mirrors them. “I want them to cower and piss themselves. I want those assholes to hurt,” Glenna had admitted. Glenna researched for her part, too. She hadn’t even known anything about Boko Haram, and how they kidnapped more than two hundred schoolgirls from their dorm in Chibok, Nigeria, and then raped them, enslaved them for, like, years. Glenna had hired a dialect coach to help her get the Hausa dialect right. It sounded melodious when she said it now, her line sounded powerful, and Glenna’s face was mostly furious, and a little sad.

The audience clapped and whistled.

#

Summer was not herself. 

She was Empathy now. She placed her foot in the rope sling, nodded. Began sailing over to the stage, to her mark. 

In the Mall of America chapter, Empathy arrives amid the mayhem of dust and blood, surrounded by the cries of the injured, the silence of the dead. The Evil Seven had detonated the bomb from afar, and would shortly arrive, toting assault rifles and grenades. 

Empathy would stop them from further carnage, when she mirrored them. But what of the dead innocents at her feet? The injured? What if she’d arrived in the Seven’s headquarters the day before, a junk yard on the outskirts of the Minneapolis where they’d built their bomb from pressure cookers and scrap metal? And stopped them… then? This must weigh on Empathy, Summer thought. That her superpowers could not obliterate the root of the tragedy that day. Even a superhero could be sick with grief.

Summer, herself, had been sick with grief last year, after her father died.

Rob Bremer chose not to live. Declined treatment after he was diagnosed with cancer, refused to give up the drinking habit that taxed his ailing liver, because it was the only joy left in his life. Or so he told Summer’s mother. This was after he’d been fired from Reflexa Pharmaceuticals and he nursed his humiliation every day, along with vodka sodas. Summer had overheard her mother talking with him on a video call, begging him…he had two children to live for, so stop being selfish. Summer’s mother accused him of punishing her, still, for leaving him.

 When Summer sat by her father’s bed at the end, and held his boney, bruise-splotched hand, he tried to talk, but the painkillers stole his clarity. She said, Daddy, I know you love me. I know you love Townie, too. There were other things she wanted to tell him. How sorry she was about turning snotty, convincing herself, at one point, he was a terrible father. She regretted not staying with him the summer before, even though he told her not to bother, he didn’t need kids around for God’s sake. So she and Townie had stayed home with their mother and Ivan, and Summer did her plays— 

Summer stepped off the rope sling, now, onto the stage. In one hand, the mirror, hidden in the folds of her shimmery robe. She took a step toward the extras in their black leotards, frozen in malicious crouches. Her soft wings dragged a little behind her, and she felt a tug. A nail, maybe, snagging one wing. 

The professor on Hullabaloo said the Mall of America chapter revealed Empathy’s “impotence,” her “reckoning with her own limitations.” The superhero, he said, “is not omnipotent, but must accept what she can do, from where she lands.”

As mortals must do. 

It felt tragic, to witness pain and heartache in a loved one, as Summer had with her father at the end. But she’d discovered there was something purifying about facing the suffering with him. Not running away from pain, but seeing it, enduring it— 

Summer’s face dripped with tears now, the rivulets tickled, running down her neck.

A raspy buzz zipped by her, a drone camera hovering for a close-up.

The extras began slowly moving, standing, from their hunkered down heap.

Townie was watching the live feed, from a thousand miles away. Summer imagined his beautiful hazel eyes gazing at the screen, at her, at Empathy. His bandaged arm still propped up, until they had the new skin ready. Townie had put his hand on the gas grill at the Father’s Day cook-out. Her mother had screamed— Summer would never forget the sound of her mother’s scream, there was such agony it. Later at the burn center, her mother kept asking, why, Townie, why? Summer knew why. Townie was nonverbal, but he finally understood about their father, that he was really gone. Forever gone. Dead. Townie wanted the pain, to feel it completely, he wanted physical grief, he wanted to manifest the sadness locked inside him. 

If only Summer could stop Townie’s suffering.  

“What you do to others you do to yourself,” she recited now, in the midwestern flat accent she’d practiced, and each word plumped and glistened as she held up the mirror, and the extras dropped to their knees. They writhed as she mirrored them, and it felt good, just as Glenna had said, to watch them cringe and thrash, hurting, but there was poignancy, too, as they run to the injured, as the leader of the Seven cries out when he cradles a bleeding woman, as if she were his own mother.  

Summer—Empathy—began to slide off the gossamer robe and wings, transforming into the mall girl. The girl who had dressed up to sing in her high school chorus, O Holy Night, when the bomb went off. Who would rise now—

The stage rocked and shook. 

Fireworks? 

RoCo hadn’t said anything about sound effects. Screams from the audience. Another blast, closer, and Summer felt herself flung into the air, she was flying, and then… everything went black.

#

Two drone cameras captured footage of the carnage, the cameras zipping merrily as hummingbirds, dutifully recording not just the performances but afterwards, the capsized tents, the blasted, splintered stage and chards of chairs, the heaps of groaning wounded, the dead and the dying. No one knew much about Flanarch, how many of them there were. But these days, just one misanthrope could throw a wrench in the smoothly running cogs of a society, a country. It was the most perilous development, the ability of a single individual, leveraging technology, to wreak such havoc. Flanarch had detonated two explosives remotely, hacked into the copbots, the firebots, even the medbots, and put them into sleep mode.

 RoCo screamed. Her black spikey hair gone, her head covered in purplish clots, and yet she screamed at the medbots, she kicked them with a bloody bare foot, yelling wake up, wake up

#

 

Summer was not a girl. She was not herself. Summer was Empathy. A superhero. That is what she told herself now, after she came to. That is what she believed, because otherwise—

Otherwise, Summer could not survive this.

She let Empathy take over. She folded Summer up into a tiny box, origamied herself, pleated tight, tucked somewhere inside dark and hidden. 

Help the one in front of you, where you land.

Summer had landed hard, concussed, on a tent that cushioned her fall from the asphalt. Her left arm, broken, hung limply at her side, she tried not to move it now, as she applied pressure on the man’s leg, the stump of leg, with her right hand.

 It was hard to see the face of the man Summer—Empathy—was saving now, because of all the blood. Thirsty, he rasped. Water. “Water!” Empathy demanded. “I need water here.” A bottle of soda appeared, pushed to her by unseen hands. She poured a few drops into the man’s mouth. Empathy told him to wake up.  “Look at me, now. Stay awake.”  His eyes—dark brown, caked in rusty gunk— opened, moved to her. “Sir? What’s your name?” Avoid shock. That was after you stopped the bleeding. Because people could die of shock.

(Summer, herself, in shock, after seeing Gemmy lying there, barely recognizable, except for the necklaces—a cross, a Star of David, a crescent, hedging my bets, she’d told Summer, just an hour before. But Summer couldn’t think about that now.) 

The tourniquet on the man’s leg soft with blood, pulpy, but Empathy pressed, pressed hard with all her might. Like the health teacher had instructed, when Summer got certified in First aid, for Townie, in case Townie ever—

The drone camera zoomed close. And Summer remembered. The live feed. Townie. Watching!

“Townie, I’m okay,” she told the hovering camera. “I’m helping, we’re helping people. Empathy is here! Empathy is saving them.”

 


 

Mindy Friddle is the author of the novels The Garden Angel, selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers program, Secret Keepers, winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and Her Best Self, forthcoming in 2024 from Regal House. Her short stories have appeared in storySouthLitMag, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, phoebe, Bright Flash Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, A Long Story, Gateway Review, Failbetter and Emrys Journal. Mindy earned her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson and now lives on Edisto Island, a small barrier island in South Carolina. Details at www.mindyfriddle.com.

Deconstructing Mourning Through Memory: A Review of Lisa Solod’s “Shivah”

by Nia Dickens

What does it mean to grieve a loved one for too long—and to have no choice in the matter? In her debut novel, Lisa Solod explores the terrains of grief through seven parts. While the structure borrows from the seven-day Jewish mourning practice, Solod’s prose reminds the reader that each day carries a lifetime’s worth of memories, contradictions, and precarious emotional attachments. To accept death in the face of little familial reconciliation requires demanding malleability from the processes by which we use to mourn the ones lost.

Solod’s novel begins with Leah witnessing the death of her mother, a woman who’d used alcoholism as a means to cope with her dementia and later Alzheimer’s. Leah’s not alone in navigating her mother’s demise. Her two sisters, aunt, and young daughter also feature prominently throughout the novel as these women reckon with what they once knew to be true of the maternal head of the family. Solod’s writing demands that the reader take their time with this family. In beginning with death, Shivah works to peel back the complexities behind not only the women of this family, but the emotional drainage that one experiences when forced to grieve a loved one while they’re yet still alive—even as the concept of what it means to be a “loved one” gets continually challenged in this family.

It’s no small thing that Shivah’s subtitle is “a novel from memory.” Memory plays an integral role as Leah deconstructs the memories of her mother—featured then as a vibrant, independent, bipolar, and emotionally abusive woman—while attempting to coexists with the fragmented parts left behind by Alzheimer’s. Memory of course is often less about the order in which events get remembered or even which ones linger. It’s about the gaping wounds and euphoric highs left in our bodies.

By mixing memory with grief, Solod deviates from any linear structure of storytelling or one predicated by an overdependence of plot. Shivah is about emotional resonance and Solod’s novel barrels towards its moments of emotional fracturing. Sometimes it’s between Leah and her siblings as they grapple with what’s owed to their mother during her slow demise, Leah and father, whose struggled to support his wife’s navigation of mental illness and his daughters, and of course Leah and her mother. By the end, we’re rewarded with a quiet moment of resolution, along with the reminder that acceptance is not necessarily something that can be found at the “end.”

 


 

Nia Dickens is a fiction writer, whose work centers on Southern Black coming-of-age narratives. She's a former fellow of Richard Hugo House, alum of Hurston/Wright and VONA Voices workshops, and recipient of MVICW's 2020 Voices of Color Fellowship.​Dickens currently serves as a teaching artist for Write253, a Tacoma-based nonprofit for youth writers. In Fall 2020, she began an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Miami. Her work can be found in Tahoma Literary Review and Wraparound South.​The recording of her latest flash piece "The prayer Sally Hemings's mother teaches about boys named Thomas" can be found on Soundcloud.

A Conversation with Lisa Solod

SC: Could you speak a little about your process when writing this novel? Were the sections drafted chronologically, was there a certain theme that you started with and expanded the plot from?

LS: I usually start my novels with a central idea. I don't outline but I do know, in a vague way, what I am going for.  That said, I start writing chronologically but that often goes out the window when I am deep into a book. I can write the middle, the end, anything can happen. I also have a tendency, when finished with a first draft to rearrange parts and sections. In fact I might do that up until the final edit!  I am very concerned with smooth transitions.

SC: The book follows a very particular structure. Could you speak a little to your thoughts when it came to those choices and how the structure informed content/plot or vice versa?

LS: The structure of Shivah came to me in a flash, even before the title. I began to understand that while I was writing I had also begun the real life mourning process. I just had no idea that process and the novel would take a dozen years. And in fact, of course, the mourning process is still with me.

SC: Besides structure, which craft elements were you most interested in prioritizing in the novel?

LS: I value beautifully crafted sentences above all else. I am absolutely fanatical about finding the right sentence, the right words, the right rhythm. I want my readers to stop many times in the novel and say: Wow. I want them to think: This is powerful, this is beautiful, this is true.  So, my writing has to be everything at once: compelling, intelligent, gorgeous, and also I wish to use the fewest words  possible. I am a cross between Raymond Carver and Philip Roth.  Anyway, that is the goal.

SC: What went into the decisions on characterizing Leah's mother in the novel? Was there ever a concern on your part about balancing the mother's flaws without sacrificing the reader's emotional investment, particularly in Leah's grief?

LS: I absolutely was concerned with balancing Mother's issues with the things she handed down to Leah: the strength and faith and commitment and love of beautiful things.  I have written a number of non-fiction essays on my real mother and I understood the balance but needed to stay on top of it when writing a novel and a longer work. I needed her to be believable, not a villain but a complex character; I needed Leah to also be flawed: too introspective, too concerned about closure. I needed both the main characters to be people readers might recognize.

SC: Since the nature of grief often doesn't function like many readers expect a narrative to (with a neat beginning, middle, and ending), how did you balance finding a resolution for Leah within the confines of the novel?

LS: I don't think I completely understood the nature of grief until I began to write about it about 15 years ago: first in dealing with my father's long illness and death, then with an estrangement with my sisters after that death, and then with my mother's protracted disappearance.  I also realized that I had tamped down other "griefs" over the years and that ultimately, to heal, I had to at least acknowledge my own helplessness to change the outcome of an event: no just the death or estrangement or even the failure of purpose but that I had to learn to move on or I would be captured forever in the spiral that is grief. In the novel, it was important to me to end on a positive note:  especially when the Mother dies before the book even opens. It was important to show a journey for the two, Mother and Leah, that wasn't always linear but that had its own end that made sense. I think the novel is very much the way women talk to each other, in my experience; they circle and circle and go off on tangents but they also talk about everything that matters, eventually.

 


 

Lisa Solod has been writing since the age of eight and publishing since the age of seventeen. She has pursued numerous careers and held a number of jobs over the years including journalist, public relations expert, advertising copywriter, freelance writer and novelist. A lifelong writer, she finds listening to and telling stories just about the best thing in the world. Her writing has appeared online in The New York TimesThe Washington PostLilithThe Boston GlobeThe Boston HeraldSavannah MagazineThe Manifest-Station, and the Huffington Post among other places.

Lines from Billy Collins, Robert Browning, and Script from Legally Blonde (Exquisite Cento Project)

by Andrew Beckett Gibson and Zebulon Huset

Valor lies in bed listening to the rain
as we wind through a flock of abstract, silky, golden strands
                               then a mile of warm sea-scented beach
                                                that made up the miniature town.

The card goes one way, being signed, as the drinks go the other
                                thinning away to nothing,
                                            a salad bowl filled with cash—
                 think of an egg, the letter A,
                                                 with shrieking and squeaking.

You are the rapids, the propeller, the kerosene lamp
                                                (The reporters laugh as they snap pictures)
                you are the dove-soft train whistle in the night
hugging her knees and cowering in a wretched little ball.

He swims in candlelight for all to see,
                                (a cop stands guard at the door)
his death had pages, a dark leather cover, an index,
                                                                  with milky admiration
                (no wonder I find him in the pale morning)
                                                and blue spurt of a lighted match.

You are Jean de Brébeuf with his martyr’s necklace of hatchet heads.

                Outside was all noon and the burning blue,
                                                eating popcorn and drinking red wine.

                                Something is always missing:
his twenty-seven year old daughter and the pool boy.

                 But—all the world's coarse.                Thumb
exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy
                                in his hybrid creole accent.
His dead body                         with a bullet in it
                                              with a beauty queen smile in place.
                 It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen,
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.

 


Andrew Beckett Gibson studied creative writing at North Carolina Central University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Collidescope, The Bookends Review, Random Sample, Always Crashing, and Heartwood Literary Magazine.

Zebulon Huset is a teacher, writer and photographer living in San Diego. He won the Gulf Stream 2020 Summer Poetry Contest and his writing has appeared in Meridian, The Southern Review, Fence, Atlanta Review, & Texas Review, among others. He publishes the writing blog Notebooking Daily, edits the journals Coastal Shelf and Sparked, and recommends literary journals at TheSubmissionWizard.com.

Two Poems (Dark matter | Spell against nervous suffering)

Dark matter

by Moira Walsh

Never mind the alligator
at my doorstep or the rabid
fox under the dining table

Your love protects you
from my anti-love

 


 

Spell against nervous suffering


by Moira Walsh

If they see you
standing on tiptoe
to witness the star through the window
that’s enough

Say what you mean,
offer water

Sooner or later,
the outcast
is celebrated

May you live to see it

 


Moira Walsh, born in Michigan, lives in southern Germany. She became a published
poet in 2020 and is the 2021 Anne-Marie Oomen Fellow at Poetry Forge. You can find more of her work at https://linktr.ee/moira_walsh.

Not Beautiful Birds

by DS Maolalai

they are nesting
in the building's
shared carpark. they are
pigeons – not beautiful
birds. two in an alcove
just next to the AC
split units. two
by the gate control,
over the bins. it makes me
feel quite good
to see them
build space there.
I walk
the dog past them,
walk past them
myself. step
around birdshit
like burst toothpaste
packets. check in
every morning
to see how
they're doing,
like a baker
with a fresh loaf
of bread.

 


DS Maolalai has been nominated eight times for Best of the Net and five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, "Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden" (Encircle Press, 2016) and "Sad Havoc Among the Birds" (Turas Press, 2019).

The Gnome

      by M. Shaw

         We caught a gnome in our house, in a trap we had set out for the raccoons who kept getting in the basement.

      “He’s adorable!” said Jean, and we put him in a cage. A big, old birdcage, it had belonged to my late grandfather’s parrot, who had finally died the previous year. The little fella didn’t seem to mind. He slept a lot, and then he did these little kicky dances and made all these noises that sounded like words, but weren’t. “Dow-tee hoy biddo! Funger hoo tee hoo!” That sort of thing. It had a pseudo-Irish sound to it, but we didn’t think he was a leprechaun, because of the hat. His was cone-shaped, definitely more the kind of thing you would associate with a gnome than a leprechaun.

        “Do you think he, you know, has intelligence?” I asked Jean after a couple days, while we were watching him in there. He had completely replaced the TV at that point, in terms of how we spent our time.

      “All animals have some degree of intelligence,” said Jean, “so it depends what you mean. Human intelligence? I doubt it. I mean, look at him.”

      “He’s wearing clothes and everything,” I pointed out. It wasn’t complicated clothing, just some baggy trousers and a shirt. It looked a bit like pajamas. And the hat. No shoes.

      “So is Princess Diana,” said Jean. That was the name of our Bichon, who was, after all, wearing a doggy Christmas sweater.

        I still wasn’t sure that they counted as the same thing. We watched him for another five or ten minutes, and then it hit me. “But we didn’t put the clothes on him,” I said.

        “I should make him some little outfits,” said Jean. “On the sewing machine.” I couldn’t tell if she had misinterpreted the point I was making, or if she was ignoring me completely.

         I lost a lot of sleep thinking about this. Was that a good measure of intelligence? To be able to not just wear clothes, but to put them on yourself? Did that mean that, when my parents dressed me, when I was little, I wasn’t fully human? What if I became quadriplegic, or developed some kind of dementia, and couldn’t do it myself anymore?

      We gave the gnome some steamed chicken and carrots, but he showed no interest. We gave him some canned dogfood, and he wasn’t interested in that, either. He seemed to never need to eat or go to the bathroom at all. I asked Jean if we were sure he was really a living creature. The lack of eating or pooping would seem to indicate no. But again, he slept. And when he slept, you could see his torso rise and fall, breathing. And he had a beard, and the beard was grey, suggesting growth and age.

        “I think maybe he’s a filter feeder,” said Jean, cutting out pieces of a sewing pattern. “Like a sea sponge. Or maybe he does photosynthesis.”

        “In the basement?” I asked.

        She shrugged. “I don’t know, Todd, I’m not a scientist. What do you want me to do about it?”

        I didn’t want her to do anything about it, so I said nothing. I was just worried about the definition of life. Honestly, sometimes I worried about whether it applied to me, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the gnome.

        “I’m thinking of naming him Bernie,” she said.

        This caught me off guard, and I still said nothing. She was thinking of naming the gnome? Somehow, I thought, that seemed untoward.

          “How does that sound to you?”

        “What if he already has a name?” I said.

        “Why don’t you ask him?” she chuckled.

          He was asleep when I went downstairs, but I tried anyway. “Hey buddy,” I said, “what’s your name? You got a name?”

          He didn’t wake up, and it occurred to me that he had never directly acknowledged me in any way. In fact, I didn’t get the sense that he was aware of his surroundings at all, except for the cage, which was a physical limitation. But as far as his behavior went, the cage might as well have been in the middle of a corn field. Or on top of a skyscraper. Or in the area with the high crime rate. I might as well have been anybody, to him. Hell, I might as well have been nobody.

          We never saw another gnome. We had an exterminator come out, to figure out how he had gotten in. The exterminator fiddled around the basement with her tools. Wrote some things on a pad with carbon paper. Looked at the gnome.

        “Funny little critter, isn’t he,” she said.

        Have you ever seen one before, we asked.

        “Can’t say I have.” She shook her head. “Can’t say I have. But, what are you gonna do? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things,” she repeated, “have happened.”

        I didn’t think that was true, but she said it with such confidence that I couldn’t disagree. She made some suggestions about the chimney, about caulking and insulation and things like that. She also sprayed some poison, and I still wonder if there are dead gnomes in the walls of the house. We never smelled anything, but maybe they don’t stink when they decay? Maybe they don’t decay? They just lie there, little lifeless rubber dolls?

          The gnome did not seem worried about his comrades.

          One day, Jean called me over. “Todd, look at this!” From the basement.

          I went down there, to find that the gnome was now wearing an outfit she had made
          for him.

          “He didn’t mind me putting them on him,” she said. “Didn’t make a fuss, not even a
            little.”

          He was wearing a black fleece pullover and dungarees. It looked like he was wearing little black sneakers as well, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be baby booties, made entirely out of linen but sewn to look like sneakers. She had taken the hat off and, what do you know, he was completely bald underneath.

          “He’s dressed like you,” she explained.

          “No he’s not,” I said, in a whiny tone of voice that embarrassed me immediately. I didn’t even own a black fleece pullover, which was the worst part, because it still seemed like the kind of thing I would wear, even though I had never actually worn one, as far as I could remember. Or maybe the worst part was the shoes, because I did own black sneakers, but mine were real sneakers. And this was like, these might as well be your sneakers, Todd, even though they weren’t even close, really. I’m not sure how the dungarees could have been the worst part, but maybe they were too.

          He absolutely was dressed like me, is what I’m saying, and I hated it. Not exactly like
          me, but like me.

        “Why did you do this,” I said.

          “It’s cute!” said Jean.

          It was cute, and there was nothing I could do about that.

          I decided to sell the gnome on the internet, secretly. I didn’t take any photos, but a few days after I posted the information about him, a guy came over to take a look while Jean was out with her friends at the roller derby.

        “Wow,” said the guy, watching the gnome dance in his cage. “It does this all the time?”

        “He actually spends a lot of time sleeping,” I said. “But apparently he doesn’t mind if you change his clothes for him.”

          “You ever let him out?”

        “Of his cage?” I said. “No. No, we never have.”

        The guy nodded. Princess Diana, wearing a tiny dog-sized cape with a Wonder Woman symbol, licked at his shins. “If I can ask just a really honest question,” he said, “is it legal to--well, I mean, not legal, but like--okay--I mean, to have a person, well, not a person person, but you--as a pet, or whatever--I--uh--like, is it kosher, you know?”

         “I’m not Jewish,” I admitted.

        He rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’ll give you thirty-nine dollars for it,” he said.

        “Okay.”

        “Well,” he made a wobbly motion with one hand, “thirty-seven.”

        “Okay.”

        “Actually, I’m not interested.”

        “You can have him for nothing,” I said. But the guy had already left. He really had turned on his heel and walked right out of the house, as if he suddenly found the whole thing appalling.

          Jean never found out that I had tried to sell the gnome. She came home from the roller derby and went directly downstairs to visit him, sleeping in his cage. When he first showed up, she and I would usually watch him together, and she would react to what he did by cooing or giggling or adding color commentary. Gradually, though, I had stopped spending much time watching the gnome, and she had transitioned into watching him silently. Like a vigil. But, that’s the way a lot of people watch TV, so I didn’t think it was all that weird.

            I spent weeks mentally destroying myself over why the guy who had initially wanted to buy the gnome became so upset. The gnome wasn’t doing anything wrong, so it must have been me, right? He must have found something repulsive about me. Maybe he noticed that the gnome, who was still wearing the fleece pullover outfit at the time, looked so much like me, which made it seem like I was trying to cast out this little simulacrum of myself. It would be like a kind of suicide, from his perspective. I wanted him to take away a facet of myself.

          The gnome was not a facet of myself, but the guy didn’t know that. And, from an outsider’s perspective, if the gnome and I seemed that similar, wasn’t that what mattered? There was no difference between me and the gnome, because a visitor to our house, who didn’t know me, couldn’t see one. And if that were true, then all the stuff I’d been thinking about, about life, was just wrong. Being able to put clothes on yourself, or have a name, that didn’t matter. It was all about how other people, with no connection to your abilities, thought of you. Which would mean that being intelligent, or being a person, had nothing to do with you. My body and my mind couldn’t be a person; only the idea of me could. Was that what the guy thought? Was that what everyone thought?

            I started watching the gnome with Jean more often, in silent vigil, the way she did. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. If he was a person, in her eyes. If I was.

            She made him a little dinosaur costume, from a children’s Halloween pattern. “It’s October,” she explained. We had found the gnome in July.

            At that moment, I remembered that the guy had also asked whether we ever let the gnome out of his cage. Maybe that was the problem: that we kept him in the cage all the time, never letting him leave.

          When I thought of this, I felt an unexpected stab of resentment. Why should anyone be concerned about whether the gnome was being let out? What about me? Was anyone going to let me out?

          What am I talking about, I thought. Let me out of what?

          “We should take him trick-or-treating,” I said.

        Jean wrinkled her nose. “Jesus, Todd, he’s not our child.”

      This was true, of course, but then, what was he? “Is he, like, a pet?” The guy had used
     that word, after all.

        “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I guess I have fun with him. He’s entertaining. And he’s harmless. He’s more like a,” she twirled her finger around in the air, “a toy, or something. Well… eh, the attraction is that he’s not dependent on me. That’s really the key piece. A child, or a pet, they need you. You have to do all these things to keep them alive and happy, feed them and clean up after them and whatever else.”

        “What about a husband?” I said.

        She didn’t seem to have heard me. “Whereas he’s basically alive and has a little personality, but he pretty much does his own thing. There’s no responsibility. I can rest.”

      “But you do all these things for him,” I said. “Making clothes. And spending all this time watching him.”

        Jean said nothing. It must not have registered as a contradiction.

      “Is that what you want?” I asked. “Someone you’re not responsible for, at all?”

        She nodded. She didn’t look at me. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

           I could see the gnome, then, as I thought she must have seen him: as an ideal version of me. A person wearing my clothes, and living in her house, but with no needs at all. A harmless me.

          We decided that, instead of taking the gnome trick-or-treating, we would move the cage near the front door, so that trick-or-treating children could see him, dressed as a dinosaur, and be horrified or delighted. There weren’t very many children in our neighborhood, so we usually spent the trick-or-treat time eating candy out of a bowl, watching television and occasionally answering the door, often seeing kids dressed as the very characters we were watching on TV.

          This year was different. Jean sat in a chair, facing the front door, the gnome in the cage by her side. Not eating any of the candy. Just waiting. When the doorbell rang, she would exclaim delight over the children’s costumes, then say, “And look at this!” And look at the gnome. He was almost always asleep, and she seemed no less excited for it.

          “Is that a bird?” one kid asked.

           Weird, said most of them.

         “It’s baby Jesus,” said another one, with a completely neutral facial expression and no trace of emotion.

           Others simply ran away.

            For the first bit of the evening, I stood slightly behind Jean, out of a sense of obligation. I felt it would be disrespectful to do anything else. Eventually, I took a break to feed Princess Diana, which had to be done. After that, nostalgia getting the better of me, I adjourned to the living room and turned on a show I’d been watching. She had no reaction. I looked over at her every so often, but didn’t get up. It didn’t look like she needed anything.

              I wondered if this was how things were going to play out from now on: Jean watching the gnome, inviting herself to be watched, watching the gnome; me, off by myself, watching TV. She with her perfect, harmless version of me, and me doing my best to be as harmless as possible, as much like the gnome as possible. I closed my eyes, using the sound of the TV as background for picturing this as normal. In the vision I made for myself, I was doing my best to disappear, or at least, to become invisible. I could sit here, in front of the TV, all day if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t be bothering Jean, because she would be with the gnome. I imagined myself wearing very large, linen facsimiles of sneakers, imagined what the linen would feel like on my feet all the time. I saw myself sleeping all the time, never needing to eat. I heard myself talk, and I heard what I said mean nothing. And what else is a house, but a very comfortable cage?

                I was asleep, is what was going on by the end. Jean woke me up late, with all the children long since gone home with their candy.

              “Todd,” she said, “it’s time to take Bernie back downstairs.”

              “Okay,” I mumbled, “I’ve got you. I’ll help!” I wondered how long she had sat in front of the door, waiting for another costumed kid to show up, after the last one had left.

              “You fell asleep on the couch,” she said. “Are you okay? How are you doing?”

              “Good,” I said. “Really good.” I stood up, did a couple shallow knee bends, getting ready to carry the cage.



M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. Despite the best efforts of some, they STILL live in Arvada, Colorado, where they run the micropress Trouble Department. Their website is mshawesome.com. Their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.

Smell a Rat

by Kate Maxwell

         When they all came in together, flooding the room with spikes, and swells of the last hour, minute, and now, it was always my favourite part of the day. The still panting ones, filling the room with sweat, green leaf volatiles, and just a faint trace of hot rubber from their sneakers. The squealing sherbet-breath brigade, seeping that sharp chemical punch of coloured textas from their fingertips. And oh, the delights of raspberry Slurpee pings, lingering lilt of tuna fish, and cheddar cheese preservatives, all swirling around the room in a pungent post-lunch storm. Sometimes ripe garlic belches and egg farts punctuated the masterpiece with bold and brilliant force. But nothing ever came close to me. I was, of course, the most profound and powerful force in the room.

         They’d been searching for me for weeks. Cleaning out desks, fossicking in cupboards. But I knew how to lay low, how to build and fade when necessary. I greeted the sensual smorgasbord, arriving after break time, with relish. All those familiar and new friends.
The class had moved shelves and tables, checking for mouldy sandwiches, or rotting
fruit that might fester in hidden peace. As if something that inane could create such glory. Beneath the carpet, beneath the floorboards, beneath perception, I putrefied
at glorious leisure.

         When I first took control of the room, everyone immediately blamed William. It’s true,
the boy can cultivate aromas usually too advanced for his years. A rotund child with large pores and a penchant for hard boiled eggs and kimchi, who often refuses to take off his woollen jumper on warm days, William does indeed have a unique and memorable scent. But, despite his talents, he was never a match for me.

         Today, the big one, that smelt of hand cream and deodorant, wafted behind chairs, instructing children to check their bags. Admittedly, some scents had stewed for weeks, months and were quite impressive; a deliciously rich, rotten banana in one bag, and in another, an almost stinging cocktail of wet socks mixed with rancid yoghurt. Oh, this was a good day. If the weather heated up a little more, it could be a great day. But, of course, opened windows and spinning fans denied that pleasure. Smells struggled and held on as best they could, but faded, settling into the carpet, walls, and skin instead. That rush of air, sprinkled lightly with pollen and dust, swept through in a stream of smug carnage
to diminish us. But I had reserves left. I could wait.

         Not long after recess, a strange scent entered the room. Hairspray-and-Stale Perfume I recognized, but another smell of metallic bitterness mixed with perspiration was distinctly new.

            “Mrs. James’ and Year Four, please welcome our regional director, Mr. Saville,”
Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume said.

         An upthrust of scent as chair legs scraped the musty, cookie-crumbed carpet
and students stood. Less raspberry Slurpee and sweaty sneakers smell by now, and
more pencil shavings and bored farts. But what was that other smell? Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume I’d smelt before, but this acidic aroma was definitely new; a corrosive overwhelming force pushing out all other scents. A smell of compliance and domination that sought to set one standard smell to rule the others. A growing whiff of fear emerged, sparking like tinder throughout the room.

         Even Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume emitted spices of stress as she said, “Children,
Mr. Saville is here to explain the new testing system for next term. Once a fortnight we will test in preparation for final term assessments.”

         Metallic Acid interrupted, “It’s an exciting way to learn and will only take up ten extra minutes of your lunch time.”

         The children grumbled. A charred scent of scorn filled the room. Not the rich wonderful scents of the playground, flesh, and classroom, but a heavy, thick aroma, threatening to cover all the rich layers in the room.

         “Now, Now, Year 4. You and your parents will see that this academic immersion will
be of great benefit to the school and students.”

         Then I knew what must be done. If he wanted immersion, I’d show him immersion. Fortunately, the day had heated up, and a dense warmth had melted into carpet, settled under armpits, napes of necks, and baked into my core like radiance. I was ready to rise.

         There was a scuffing of leather on carpet. Hairspray and Metallic Acid were leaving.
It had to be now. Mustering a surge of aromatic outrage, I let him have it.

              “Oh, that smell!” cried Hairspray.

            “Yes, I thought it had gone,” Hand-Cream-and-Deodorant inhaled, “We’ve checked
everywhere. It’s been hideous this week in the warmer weather.”

        The students groaned, coughing and spluttering. Metallic Acid gagged. William,
who could not resist my call, added in some beautifully ripe kimchi farts. The classroom was in uproar. Students flapping, Hand-Cream calling for them to settle, but leaching out her own stale hungry breath into a kaleidoscope of scented air.

                                                                                        *

        Later, after the ammonia and detergent ones had done their best to subdue us all,
I pondered the day. The room, now empty, had only the faintest trace of glue sticks, banana and Cheetos left. I contemplated my spread. If I could merge into the sub cavity,
I may be able to infiltrate along the hall and enjoy other rooms too. I needed heat and maybe some moisture, but it was entirely possible. I could make these rooms reek like
the dungeons of hell. And on cue. Specifically, I could target those extra ten minutes
of learning allocated for the students. They’d be forced outside and then return with all their wondrous fragrances, big and small, bursting back into the room where I could then demur to entertain my old and new friends once again.

        Tonight, I would rest while the cleaning products reigned, and the sky was black
and cold.

        Tomorrow, William and I would take down the system.

 


Kate Maxwell is yet another teacher with writing aspirations. She’s been published and awarded in many Australian and International literary magazines. Kate's interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her first poetry anthology will be published with Interactive Publications, Brisbane in 2021. She can be found at https://kateswritingplace.com/.

Sock and Buskin

      by Steven Bergmark

     

      There are moments in life that rip so close to a body such as almost missing the last chopper out of Saigon, or almost being hit by a bus, or almost kissing that person you know you shouldn’t, that when the danger’s passed, what almost happened still seems inevitable, and yet...

“I get this feeling in the back of my head.”

“Really? I feel it more on the face, like a mask I pop on and off.”

They sat at a mesh iron table, hot to the touch. It was early afternoon at a bar beside the highway. Less coarse, more elegant kinds of bars they once frequented in a better part of town were seemingly behind them now.

“Admit it though, where we were raised, where we went to school, we should have achieved much more.” He squint-scowled at the sun and noted it would be at least another half an hour before reprieve would reach them. There was something in his heart like those predecessors who named the god of Pompeii, the god of the Plague, the god of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Some kind of coal that glowed with menace and burned cold.

At the time, the two were twenty-five.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, his cold beer resting, sweating, and wetting his belly. “I suppose in one, narrow way.” He squint-smiled at the sun and set his beer down. His heart also had that cold-burning coal--everybody’s got one--but it was not nearly so large. There was something in his heart of his predecessors who named the gods of holidays, the gods of fucking and drinking, the gods of the sky and the as-yet unborn god of global comity.

“I think you need to ask somebody,” said Squint-scowl.

Squint-smile ignored him and jerked the umbrella closer to their table roughly, and
Squint-scowl peered tensely at the bar’s black windows.

“You should have asked first,” Squint-scowl said.

Squint-smile shrugged, and with a relieving grunt, fell back into his mesh iron chair.

“So you feel it in the back of the head?”

“Yeah, when I worked that job at the mall especially. It was this pressure back there as
the rest of me did the work. All jobs, really.”

“Yeah, I feel it in my face. Something I put on, but I’ve been told it doesn’t always work
properly.”

“You reek of contempt.”

“It’s nothing personal,” Squint-smile said. “So, how do you relieve the pressure back
there, with a spoon?”

“Liquid lobotomy.” Squint-scowl raised his pint and took a couple drinks.

“I see,” Squint-smile said and laughed.

Years elapsed and the history of their friendship accumulated like sand compressed to stone. Sedimentation is rarely so simple as some imagine, and all the time chunks crack and break apart, and yet the sand continues to compound over the craggy scars. Their personalities were brought together by accident of birth and circumstance, but they were held together by that engrossing mystery of the dance between clear water and golden oil swirled, resting, or slopping in a bowl. Comedy and justice. Ebullient and irascible. God of the sky, god of underworld.

Life went on and it turned out they were both right, but their fortunes bent away as quickly as light upon the bottom of a spoon. Squint-smile had many misfortunes to come, in time, but also with a few important, auspicious turns. Squint-scowl had misfortunes, and some auspicious turns, albeit not quite so auspicious, and in time, those rare victories soured in one way or another.

Squint-scowl lost his father, but he didn’t tell Squint-smile until one blind-drunk night of wine, when Squint-scowl smashed a box fan in his filthy apartment and stomped on it until he fell over and Squint-smile grabbed him and held him as Squint-scowl sobbed and pushed and Squint-smile kept holding him until Squint-scowl gave up on saying, “No, no, I don’t want it”, and he slept until the next morning, when he had no recollection whatsoever of his hot tears. He puzzled over the destroyed fan, but wouldn’t admit his forgetting to Squint-smile, and so did not ask about it.

Then Squint-scowl felt the cold-burning coal grow, as it was wont to do. He blamed Squint-smile; somehow the red veins of the coal seemed to pulse in Squint-scowl’s presence, so he turned away from Squint-smile. It was something about his smile, thought Squint-scowl, something obscene and abusive. Still, the coal burned and grew without Squint-smile. One day, the coal had burned and grown until it took up Squint-scowl’s whole heart, smashing the other chambers up against the muscular walls. It had happened, but he didn’t quite know yet, or rather, understand it.

Meanwhile, Squint-smile felt a little raw as the months went on, and his calls continued to be ignored. He resolved to visit Squint-Scowl and invite the one who held it in his head to take a walk.

“Haven’t answered any of my calls.”

“Haven’t answered anyone’s calls.”

It was the middle of a long, dry winter. The weakness of the sun rinsed the city in a
kind of pallid myopia.

“Why’s that?”

“I’m leaving. Going to live somewhere out in the country.”

They went on walking and Squint-smile wanted to keep going, but Squint-scowl
pointed back the other way, down a quiet road.

“So, just like that?”

Just like that, Squint-smile felt a bright lance of cold pain in his back and he would have stumbled forward were it not for a hand on his shoulder pressing him deeper into the lancing pain, until suddenly the hand let go and he fell on the salt-scuffed sidewalk and he saw the large, glaring eyes behind the coke-bottle lenses and beneath them, a black, dry scowl that turned away and was gone from him forever.

If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. For Squint-scowl, somebody had to die. Someone had to stand accountable for the obscene, abusive world. Such is the way many cold-burning hearts become killing hearts, and what they find crumpled before their feet is not this or that person, but in some sense, all life. This is how others die, even as they continue to live. They cannot kill themselves, because first, they need to witness the obscene, abusive world die first.

Squint-smile tried and failed to cry out as he lay, and the coarse salt clung to his coat and he could taste it on his lips, and he got the feeling it was his kidney, and it was no good. Somebody came and something was being done, but he was already stepping offstage as his heart, like the heart of his predecessors, the hearts who named the gods of holiday and sex and comity, ebbed onto the concrete.

His first thought was that he had so very little time left to think and so much to think about, and so he tried to think of all the things he thought most important to think about, namely, all the love of his lover, and the love of his dog, and the love of his family, and the love of his friends. He tried not to think about the pain, the pain of the newly wrought mittens so soon returned to his partner, and what to do with his books, and his clothes, and the empty spaces he’d leave to everybody else to handle.

His last thought was unfinished, but it had to do with this strange feeling he had about how all of it was inevitable, and yet the gods of holiday and fucking and sky would persist and yet, some would only almost die and yet, still more gods were yet to be born and yet...

 


Steve Bergmark (@BergmarkSteven) lives and writes in Chicago. He teaches
high school English and Humanities on the south side.