UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

Two Poems (Peregrine Falcon in Disintegration Loop | Stellar’s Jay in Teller’s Bay)

Peregrine Falcon in Disintegration Loop

by Stephen Scott Whitaker

Perry grinned. Grinning, Perry went to work and watched
A man get crushed by a fist as big as a state. A fist
As big as a statement to fact: a blue ocean event
Will happen in my lifetime. In my lifetime a fist
Big as the sun will smash through ice and make
The earth over in its fiery image. Perry put on sunscreen
And grinned and worked and sanitized his workstation
And took his mood enhancers and sat down when Perry
Felt tired. Perry felt tired because his work was punching
Numbers for the state, filing all of its crimes and rhymes
And rhymes and crimes. Perry grinned and went home
On the train where someone sowed their hate and took
Everyone hostage with her speech which was free
And without consent. Perry grinned and took a hit
Of the newest vape and cruised the socials, a kind
Of devotion. Perry likes and tweets and upvotes with hollow
Gut that nothing matters and matters matter little,
And Perry goes home, slack-jawed and eye walled
And drinks and drinks and talks up his face
In the bathroom mirror. When he looks into his reflection
He can see, in his pupil, a great pine spear
Rising above a body of water. A body of water
Reflected in the eye. In his eye a body of water.
And his body a body of wings and great flapping,
High above the bay he feels drawn, he feels high
As a falcon in the trees, watching for prey, watching
Its whole life for something to snatch from the sky.


 

Stellar's Jay in Teller's Bay1

by Stephen Scott Whitaker

Each year Teller’s Bay swallows up the coastal forest and fields. 

Teller’s Bay, full of wind broken pines grey up to the crown because Teller’s Bay does not play inside the lines and steps up the beach and into the woods to listen to Steller’s Jay, a riot of them, squawking and investigating grey trunks for beetles, for ants, for caterpillar feasts among the breeze down pine shatters and shrub leaves that are soaked with Teller Bay’s tidal foam from where Teller’s Bay rolled in and reached and reached and reached into the wood, dark and brambled, to see the brassy blue birds yelling at each other, Look! Look at this! And This! And This! The squawking and screaming Steller’s Jay nesting in the pines along Teller Bay. The ocean, the ocean wants to play, wants to see the bright blue birds with salt eyes, and hear with thousands of bubbling ears on seafoam, on the crest of a wave, Look! Look at this! And This! And This!

 


1A small bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Each year Teller’s Bay swallows up the coastal forest and fields. Pine trees and soybeans are the usual victims of the salt wash.


Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Shore, Wraparound South, Oxford Poetry, Crab Creek Review, & The Citron Review, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2021. 

Space Grey

by Hahye

She had a sort of fear of being a lesbian. What she thought was her aversion to pink frilly things was really a denial of her own femininity, a drive that led her to embrace all things untraditionally female in the eyes of society.

Where one thing told her to strive for the ideal, she lusted for the opposite. A wondrous compilation of never-ending contradictions. Where she was unable to see her own fallacies, she turned a blind eye to confrontation. Where I am able to run, she said,
I will be safer than any other place in the world.

Where you are able to run is never stable, but an everchanging landscape of worn out tires. Where she ran was nothing short of a one-time leap of faith. Jubilant hypocrisy is what she called it. Harping on the needs of the commoner, she turned up her nose at everyone she met under a pretense of loving gratitude. Never trusting Jesus, God, or
the Holy Spirit she ran her own way, without a thought for the race.

One day she was wary of the train in her head, the one that just would not stop running in a twist. I am a woman, she said, a little too defiantly. Why must I run from my woman-hood, she said a little louder. She walked over to the wonder on display, the mannequin in the storefront window. She gazed at the nipples spray painted in space grey. I wonder if mine look like those, was the thought in her head. I hope mine are better than those, was the next trail of words. Rabbit hole, where the vagina met her state of mind.


I watched as she looked over the fabrics on the rack. Our eyes met. Where are the
better clothes, she asked. I nodded toward my assistant, a young behemoth of a man, who showed her the way to the staircase. Down there, he said. She descended into
the flurry of color.

I wanted to understand why she had entered my store. Of course, I had been the one to open the door, but it had never occurred to me that she would actually step through. I looked to the boy and gestured. Get her a glass, I commanded. He waltzed off to the back room, where he poured a shot of vodka.

She accepted with a hesitant smile on her face, one that was lost in a world not here. I stared intensely as she turned back to the useless camera I had placed on the shelf ten years ago.

She climbed up the stairs. She would not speak. I waited. She would not speak.
She was not here. I willed her to speak. Marionette, dance. I would not see her
leave without a smile.  Smile, where we are you must smile, I urged her.

I grew increasingly angry. The women who had come before had complied with
my requests for laughter and merriment. I would not understand why she would
not smile. Hungry, I asked, and fed her treats. I saw a wan glint of light. It went as
soon as it sparked.

She turned to leave.


She was understood to be cold after the embers had died. I walked to the door
to leave as I stared through the darkened window. He stopped me with his voice.
Watch out for the virus from China. Sneering, I left.

 


Hahye is a little more than the sum total of expectations formed in Korea, North Carolina, Singapore, and the Netherlands. Currently based in the hometown of her mother, she is unmoored for the foreseeable future.

On Witnessing Fires, One at a Time

by Hasheemah Afaneh

There is a long strip of untamed land between the road leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home in Jabal Al-Taweel and the Israeli settlement, Psagot. One can find shrubs, yellow grass, cactus, lost soccer balls, and even, more times than not, Israeli soldiers camouflaged into the land, watching the neighbors and their guests go about their days.

Over the past few summers, the Jabal Al-Taweel neighbor-hood witnessed a few wild-fires emerge in this untamed land. The grayish-black smoke rising into the skyusually gives the wildfire away before the actual fire does. Two summers ago, I was sitting in my grandmother’s veranda one evening, staring through the large windows out onto the street, when I saw sparks of orange appear in the shrubs. The neighbor-hood youth playing soccer outside on the pavement ran to their homes, including my grand-mother’s, to relay the message that a fire had started.

Al-dunya hamya,”  my grandmother, of whom I am the namesake, would comment matter-of-factly. The world is heated.

We watched the clouds of smoke grow larger, as Israeli soldiers emerged, as if from this air, to try and put it out. This swiftness of movement to action was not luck, or that a settler so happened to be adjacent to where I was sitting and she, too, was staring through large windows, and she, too, saw orange sparks appear. It was not luck, at all, for at least one soldier is always on the watch, watching us more so than keeping an eye out for the potential fires that happen every now and then.

This particular fire seemed to be getting out of hand, and so, the Palestinian firefighters were called, by whom, I can-not recall. They parked their fire truck on the road between my grandparents’ home and the untamed land and began their attempt to put the fire out. The fire seemed to be put out within thirty minutes, which was much shorter than the length that the smell of burned land lingered in the air, I’ll tell you that much.

The next afternoon, I was sitting with my grandmother and the neighbors as they spoke about the fire. The Jabal Al-taweel neighborhood women have witnessed the changing landscape - an olive harvest season that was not like what it used to be, threatening economic growth of Palestinian farmers; and settlement fences getting closer and roads getting tighter, threatening Palestinian access to land and movement.

Al-dunya hamya, one of the women remarks. The world is heated.

I thought of how this group of women were speaking about a symptom of climate change without realizing that they were speaking about a symptom of climate change.
I don't even think the Israeli soldiers realize this, as their first question post-wildfire was, “who started it?”, pointing fingers at the neighborhood youth and their friends.

Al-dunya hamya, or the world is heated is, in the literal sense, used to describe weather events. However, it has a metaphorical spin: the world is heated with struggle and strife. I reflect on how the United States has witnessed its share of moments this year depict-ing both the literal and metaphorical meanings of this phrase. Whereas in a small neighborhood in Palestine, the wildfires were extremely small, the fires that raged through the lands across the West Coast were on the other end of extremities. The world is also hot, so to speak, with struggle and protest in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many others we have and have not heard of. From Palestine to the U.S., we are collective witnesses to the changing environmental and political climates.

“See this picture?” The barista at a local coffee shop in New Orleans said, as she approached me with her iPhone. Her and I, like everyone else living through 2020, are witnesses to a world of social distancing and masking up, so she stretches out her arm, and without getting close but being close enough for me to view what she wants me to look at, I see a picture of a picture of a group of people in front of a home. It was a photograph taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she told me.

“They came to help us clean up and fix our home. We need to go over there and do that,” she comments, nodding her head in the way that one does when their mind is made up. I smiled at the gesture, thinking, if only it was that easy to get over there. 

The over there she was referring to was Beirut, Lebanon. Just two days before, I was working from the same coffee shop she was working at, when a seven-second video of the August 4th blast circulated on the internet. We both were so taken aback when we viewed it that we  could not focus on any task for the rest of the day. For the barista, it brought up the memory of a rescue crew coming to help the locals after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For myself, it brought up the memory of when a gas tank blew up in the home next to mine, killing the father in the household. When I finally got ahold of the Palestinian fire department that day, I was asked, “Are you on the Israeli side [of the area] or the Palestinian one?” In other words, there are places that they would not be able to reach because of the Israeli occupation, even if they wanted to.

All the neighborhood youth, women, men, and elderly could do was witness the wildfire from across the street  and believe that it would be taken care of. In this particular area, they cannot run to stop the fires, even if they wanted to. It is not because they don’t care about the land. They cannot approach because they would risk their lives, and not because of the wildfire but because of open fire. There would be two fires to put out, and no one wants to be witness to that.


Hasheema Afaneh, MPH, is a Palestinian-American writer and public health professional based in New Orleans. Her work centers on social justice and various intersections related to it. You can find some of her work in the Fair Observer,
HuffPost, Shado Magazine, The Markaz Review, 580 Split Magazine, Glass Poetry Poets Resist Series, Poets Reading the News, This Week in Palestine, and others.
Her website is norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com.  She tweets at @its_hashie.

Environmental Disturbances

 by Anita Goveas

Marcella met her soulmates on a school-trip to London Zoo, swept along in a gaggle of knee-socked girls and grubby boys to the Reptile House. In the midst of disdainful snakes and over-active lizards, a lime-green bulbous-eyed Waxy Monkey frog stared right back at her. Wise and thoughtful, with luminous skin like pista halva, it could walk in the trees. She thirsted to know more. She asked for books about her-pe-tol-ogy, spelt out carefully with a damp finger. Her father took her every weekend to see the Brazilian blue poison frogs at the Horniman museum, while her younger sister Camila played netball. She studied their delicate toes, while they gazed around with their beady black eyes.

The last present he gave her before he disappeared into the hospital was two African dwarf frogs in a five-gallon tank. Marcella spent her weekend mornings in the library, afternoons watching the air filter bubble, evenings reading under the bed-covers. She learned a new fact every day: they ate brine shrimp, liked to hide under plant-pots, average life span was five years, but some lived up to twenty. Everything had to be perfect for when her father saw them. But he never did.

Hoppy and Sleepy were excellent listeners. She made up stories about them
when Camila was restless, how they saved the world from evil fly supervillains
and too much homework, how they sometimes worked with a dark-haired man
with a strong chin and thick eyebrows.

Uncle Filip helped her write them down on green paper, drew her pictures of lakes and forests. They were one of the few things that made her waning mother smile. She mur-mured about the place she grew up in, Mangalore, and soon the frogs jumped about in rice paddies and saved trees from over-enthusiastic wood-cutters.

Three years later, when Grandpa Bob moved in to help out, he told them stories of their father as a small boy, counting tadpoles in their pond in Manningtree, learning to climb trees. Marcella liked those stories better, but still remembered her amphibious super-heroes. She found all the drawings one day in a cupboard in the kitchen, neatly lined up in a folder labelled ‘Artwork’. They were crumpled and dog-eared and mysteriously streaked.


The frogs had just made it to their seventh birthday the month before she left for University. Marcella wrote down their routine for care and maintenance for Uncle Filip
to follow; he had been the one who helped her the most. Mother insisted on ironing
her jeans.  Camila was reading War and Peace, and Grandpa Bob was staring over
The Times at them, his thick eyebrows drawn together.

“Aren’t you taking those things with you to Lancaster?”

Uncle Filip kept writing, but she heard the iron hiss as if pressed too hard, and the
flip of pages stopped. Sleepy hid under a piece of flowerpot, a strategy she admired.

As she got older, the stories about her father changed. Her interest in amphibians grew, and she watched only wildlife documentaries and spent weekends helping at the pet shop where Uncle Filip worked and Grandpa Bob talked more about her father’s interest in chess, in crosswords, in doing his homework. Interests that didn’t involve frogs. He also talked about how sad it was that someone couldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps.

“I’m not sure they’d survive the journey. They’re fragile, Grandpa.” His heavy sigh indicated this wasn’t important.

He always took Camila to her netball games and to her computer club, never went with her and Uncle Filip to the Horniman. Her mother didn’t attend any of the activities the girls did. Marcella never begrudged the time to herself after the busy days at the hospital; now she wondered if she hadn’t wanted to take sides.

“Well, if your mother’s brother flips out again, I’ll be the one who has to flush them down the toilet,” said Grandpa.

The time she’d begged Uncle Filip to come to parent’s evening had been three years ago. She’d not really understood what his Asperger’s meant then, how much it took out of him to be around people. All he’d done was lie down on the floor, but Grandpa Bob had added it to his stories as a lesson. She’d never been sure who the message was for.

There were words that might fix this, but Camila had those. All she could think of was that her version of her father bought those frogs, but he seemed very far away.

“Frogs are important to the ecosystem; it’s all a very delicate balance.”

Grandpa unleashed his contemptuous snort. “And that’s why you’re dumping them on us.”

Uncle Filip slammed down his notebook, marched out, and Marcella watched Hoppy sneak under the flowerpot before she followed. A hum of triumph joined the flip of pages. The faint hint of burning invaded her nostrils, but her mother held the iron mid-air.


After University, Marcella took the first job she was offered.

She settled into American academic life. The worst part was the pressure. The pressure to publish, to obtain funding, made her studies seem different every day.  A landslide or a flood was devastating for the people from a region, but could impact flora and fauna for years. The balance between the thoroughness needed to be objective and the speed needed to make sure that the object of the study was something that still existed made her head spin like a centrifuge.  Her lab in Wisconsin was better equipped than where she’d done her Master’s, but money wasn’t everything.

The slam of the door meant Tanya had arrived to the lab. Her PhD supervisor was
the noisiest person Marcella had ever met. The sound of her slurping her herbal teas
echoed from the next room. Marcella put down the slide she was about to examine.

Tanya demanded everyone’s full attention.

“Marcie, you’re going to want to listen carefully.” Something supressed ran through her voice like carbon dioxide bubbling through lime water.

“The good news is, I got it, the money came through. I can finish my research in the field! And the better news is I want you to come with me!”

Marcella moved a beaker away from Tanya’s pointing fingers. Marcella straightened out her forceps, the pipette, the box of cover slips, to give herself some time.

“But you’re studying the impact of man-made pollution on rural farming, I’m swabbing frogs for anti-bodies to fungal pathogens. How on earth can your research proposal involve me?”

“Come on, how many times have I heard you give your ‘frogs are bio-indicators speech’? It’s your party piece! Your frogs are going to help find those toxic chemicals we know are out there. And you’ll never guess where we’re going!”

The lab benches seemed to shake; Marcella rubbed the crick in her neck. Tanya smiled with all her teeth, as if she’d already heard the yes.


Two weeks later, Marcella stood in the paved-over garden outside the terraced house. She’d forgotten how small it was. She hadn’t willingly come back since that first and
last row with Grandpa Bob. After her frogs died, it had become easier to spend her weekends in the lab and the holidays in the library. Her mother and Uncle Filip came
to watch her graduate with a First in Biological Sciences. Camila had been on her term abroad in France. Grandpa Bob hadn’t been well enough to travel. Her mother’s smile had been enough. Then, hen Marcella applied for her Master’s, with included a chance for her to take a year abroad in America, she’d needed to work to save up for the fees. Uncle Filip had already mastered Skype to talk to Camila. Marcella’s news never took long to report. And after Grandpa Bob’s funeral happened the same day that the Life Sciences Symposium commenced, there had been even less to say.

The doorbell still played ‘Frere Jacques’, higher pitched than she’d remembered, like the whine a record made before it stopped. She listed all the frog diseases in her head twice before a grey-templed Uncle Filip opened the door.

“I own the shop now,” he said, peering through the sliver of light he’d created.

“That’s great Uncle, I’m really pleased.”

“I bought two Leopard frogs; they’re in a twenty-gallon tank in your old room.”

“It’s ok, I’m not moving back home. Just … can I come in?”

A faint voice asked, “who is it?” Uncle Filip kept the door open at the exact same angle, but turned his head.

“It’s Marcella,” he said, then walked away, leaving the door open.

She followed after him, but the door stuck a little, and he’d vanished when she hurried down the linoleum-covered hallway.  Her mother sat in a worn green armchair, squinting at Cosmopolitan.

She’d hadn’t worked out how to say hello and stood in the doorway, hands clenched.
Her mother looked up, pushed at her blue-framed glasses.

“You didn’t phone? No need to upset Filip like that. He missed you, thought you
stopped coming because he didn’t keep your frogs alive.”

“I’d have lost my nerve, you know that. I’ll explain this him.”

Her mother slapped the magazine’s shiny paper with her palm.
Then she stood up and leaned her square chin on Marcella’s shoulder.

“We both missed you. The house is ... quiet.”

Marcella lifted her hands, felt the sharp bones of her mother’s shoulder blades
under her thin turquoise cardigan when she hugged her.

“I should phone more, I know, but I wanted to see you before I went away.
I’m going to Mangalore.”


A wall of heat hit as she stepped out of Mangalore airport. It almost knocked her back. Marcella’s face took on the glow of over-exertion, or embarrassment, and she could feel the ten-hour flight in her shoulders. It was supposed to be cooler in April, but monsoon was on its humid way, and the air was moist and heavy. She searched for the faces she’d memorised from photos and Facebook. She should have asked what they’d wear, how they did their hair. She’d never been to a place where everyone had the same skin colour as her, and she towered over their heads. People waited in erratic groups. Her earlobes sweated. The cool air of her tidy lab in Green Bay seemed distant. A pig-tailed girl appeared in front of her, holding a card saying “Paddock.” Marcella smiled at her gratefully.

“I think that’s me.”

“Come, my daddy’s waiting.”

She pulled Marcella through the intent crowd, which barely moved out of the way. After three sweaty minutes of walking, they reached an oval-shaped car and an angular-shaped man who she’d only seen smiling in two dimensions, her cousin Salvador. She slid into the backseat of the large boxy grey vehicle and the man slammed the door shut. The little girl sidled over to the middle next to her, then put her feet up into the gap between the front seats. A woman with neatly plaited hair turned towards her from the left side. At least they seemed to drive on the side she was used to.

“Marcella, this is my beautiful wife, Lia, and my irrepressible daughter, Alysa. Move over, you’re squashing your auntie enough. We need her fresh for the party.”

“Just ‘Marcella’ is fine, I’m not used to being an auntie. What party?”

“Everyone is auntie here and everyone is waiting to meet you. Welcome to India!”


Marcella tucked her socks back into her hiking boots and placed her sodden hair back up into a bun. Ranipuram peak loomed through mist. Water seemed to have soaked into her eyeballs. But frogs thrived in water, and she had to find her specimens. The agreement between her and Tanya, to examine the native purple frog population for the impact of pollution, had left out the part where someone had to catch them while standing knee-deep in the lime-pickle green Shola woods.  Monkeys bounced through the leaves and mosquitoes buzzed up her nose and ears. It was difficult to listen for a tell-tale splash when her neck was dripping into her trousers. She held the handle of the flapping net above her head, the chirp of cicadas mocked her, and the hum of forest noises were resolutely splashless.

Marcella had had enough for one day. She gathered up her bucket and water bottle to head back to the lab again in Karasgod. She was still squeezing out damp bits of water from her when she got there and didn’t notice that Tanya was talking to anyone until
she and the other person abruptly stopped in front of her.

The pale-skinned, thick-necked man was bursting out of a spotted green tie, as if he
was wearing an escaping yellow-spotted lizard. He stalked away on awkwardly long
legs, wrinkling his nose at the trail she’d left.

“Is that someone from the Institute? I thought they were all Indian.”

Tanya had been wining and dining agricultural scientists and research chemists. Farming was essential to the communities that lived along the Western Ghats, and crop failures could devastate whole regions. She’d been reaping the benefits of the local efforts to figure out long-term solutions to changing weather and growing populations.

“No, just another American working round here. You’re not going to drip like that in the lab, right? I don’t want you to mess up my notes.”

The hairs on Marcella’s neck rose, a primal instinct. She walked towards the bath-
room, slapping down her feet slowly and deliberately until Tanya disappeared behind
her computer screen.

Aftwerwards, she walked towards the entrance to check the sign-in sheet, with the man’s name so neatly written it was almost printed;  the company’s title, on the other hand, was a blurred scrawl:

‘Jason Thomas, Emerald Mining.’


She tried to ignore it as she ate dinner at her cousin’s house, something her Aunty Valerie’s large eyes tracked as if it were research. Which fish did she take more of, which vegetables did she ignore, how many servings did she take? This was something she did during every meal, for the last nine days. Today’s fried kingfish flaked apart like falling leaves, but Marcella wasn’t craving the spicy crust or the firm meatiness. Instead, she gulped water as if she hadn’t been soaked all day.

“Salvador, she doesn’t like it. Buy some chicken tomorrow.”

“Sorry Aunty, I’m just tired. I’m probably jet-lagged, and I’m still getting used to the lab here. Can I have it for breakfast?”

“There Mumma, relax. She loves it. She wants it for every meal!”

Aunty Valerie dug a sharp elbow in the roundness above Salvador’s right hip, and brought Marcella tiny brown-skinned bananas from the garden. Their perfumed softness seemed flesh-like.

Salvador brought a sliced cheese and white bread sandwich to her room, really Alysa’s room, which was plastered with pink butterfly stickers. Marcella dug her thumbnail into the crust. Green chutney oozed out.

“Are you really tired? You can tell us if you want to eat something else.”

“The food is wonderful! I’ll just have to let all my trousers dry first.”
Marcella couldn’t stop her sigh.

Salvador rubbed his pot-belly and smiled, but didn’t leave. He leant expectantly
against a neon pink wall.

“What is the Emerald mining company?”, Marcella asked.

“Have you seen that bilious billboard? Some American company. They’re trying to buy land to building a school in Madikeri. Obviously, they want something; no one is sure what, though. There used to be hematite mining in the mountains, but it’s been illegal for 10 years or more.”


She drove past a giant green billboard advertising the school on her way back to the forest and frog-hunting the next day. The sign squatted over the dusty red road like
a hooded cobra. As she stood in the woods, Marcella returned to the face of the man which had approached Tanya earlier on in the lab. He had a bland, smooth countenance, only marred by his reaction to seeing her.

The stillness was rippled by a slight splash. A glistening purple frog stared at her, so round and flat it looked like a piece of amethyst with white-tipped feet. She pressed her tongue against her teeth as she lowered her net, not breaking eye contact with the frog.

After unloading the net unto her palm, she cradled the frog, then placed it
in the prepared bucket with a layer of water and mud. The frog didn’t try and
escape; it nestled into the bottom as she covered it with mesh and then hurried
back to the car.

The small and spotless lab was empty when she entered. She gently transferred
her prize into a tank. The frog sank into the sand while Marcella tidied away the rest
of the equipment.

Tanya bustled in. Marcella stood in front of the tank, now hoping not to hear a splash.

“Empty-handed again? Not to worry, Marcie, I think I’ve found a way out of your little problem.”

Marcella focused on the yellowish spot on her supervisor’s lab-coat collar, an escaped drop of green tea. It throbbed in the fluorescent light, a visceral bruise.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into networking, thinking about the uses of what we’ve been studying, while you’ve been enjoying yourself in the mountains.”  Marcella willed the tea spot to grow tiny webbed fingers and aim for Tanya’s throat. Tanya went on: “A great opportunity has landed in our laps, real money to do real research!”

“I am doing real research, Tanya.”

Her supervisor chewed at her fat slug-like bottom lip.

“Just hear me out; it’s gonna make your life much easier.”

Tanya spread out her hands, as if inviting Marcella to dance.

“There’s this American company trying to get a footing here and they’re looking at ways to get involved in the community. They’d pay us to set up a new lab in Bangalore, study the impact of mining. They’d pay us for that report.”

Marcella’s breath swelled in waves up her throat. She fixed her eyes on Tanya’s, willing herself not to blink.

“You want us to move away from a place where the effects of mining are everywhere, to study the effects of mining? And why would a herpetologist be helpful for that?”

Tanya looked away. Marcella smirked.

“Ok then, you got me. It’s a stupid amount of money, Marcie. For whatever reason, they want to give it to us. It’s the smart move to take it, do what they want, then use the money to do something good somewhere else. Even the frogs are screwed here. This placed is fucked.”

Tanya shuffled out, swung her hand back into her usual slam-the-door position, and hesitated. The  tiny click still echoed.


Marcella stayed in the lab that night, so late that even Aunty Valerie gave up on and left dinner on a plate for her. Marcella was up with the neighbour’s vigorous rooster the next day, left behind a sleeping Saturday-lazy household, and even worked through lunch. Salvador found her peering at a microscope slide, a pen stuck behind her ear. Marcella kept rolling her shoulders, as if they were powering the lights. She pushed the slide away and whipped round, her mouth relaxing when he sheepishly waved.

“I know, Aunty Valerie sent you. I’m sorry, I thought I’d be back in an hour. I won’t be long. Save me some lunch.”

“It’s 8pm.” Her body drooped, as if he’d hit the latch of a collapsible table.

“Oh no, is everyone upset with me? This is a horrible insult, isn’t it?”

Salvador’s round face flooded with something intangible, like her mother’s
when Marcella caught her asleep at her father’s desk every night after he
didn’t come back.

“There’s a problem, cousin, isn’t there? Have you made a mistake?” His eyes were suddenly her mother’s, mahogany-brown and warm.

“I’ve been checking to make sure I haven’t made a mistake. This frog seems to be resistant to disease. This would be a huge breakthrough, and I don’t know what to do about it!”

It cascaded out, how a lack of frogs are an indicator of a dying ecosystem, how long she’d been searching in Karasgod, how frogs everywhere, from South America to Australia, were being decimated by fungal pathogens that no one could be sure wouldn’t get worse as the climate warmed, that this frog could be an advance for the environmental science and medicine, and how someone was trying to destroy everything.

“How can I take on a whole mining company? I’m alone now, without Tanya. Who else have they bought in the lab?”

“My very sweet, very English cousin, you’re related to at least half of the neighbourhood and its surroundings; we’ll think of something. You think we haven’t noticed how the quarrying made the floods worse? People lost their animals, sometimes even their houses; no one listened. Now, we can protest about these frogs!”


When Protest Day arrived a week later, it became clear that no one knew what a frog protest should be like. Salvador and a shy cousin at technical college printed off purple frog t-shirts, and several people wore them. Some people sported deely-boppers and carried windmills. Someone painted faces purple, green, yellow, and stripes of red.
There were placards saying, “Save the Ghats,” and, “Hands off the frogs,” and, “Big Business Out”. Someone even dressed as Kermit—top-half nylon frog, bottom-half sensibly dressed in shorts and chappals. What swelled in Marcella’s throat was not
the different ways in which people decided to save the frogs, but that so many people had something to say. It wasn‘t just her, or even Salvador, with Lia dragged alongside him.  Her dad would have laughed and ruffled her hair. It was glorious.

There were speeches. A thin, balding man whispered about being forced to sell his farm, and then work for the mining company, a young woman in red plastic glasses and skinny jeans talked about the landslides in Kodagu, a plump man in a frog t-shirt and a lungi shouted about how climate change made the most impact on poorer communities and that’s why no one listened. People cheered after every speaker. The technical cousin filmed everything, and Marcella watched the videos later, on YouTube, in her borrowed bedroom, and afterwards, on the Kannada news channel as well. She turned her phone off after the fourth call from Tanya. She was fixated on the TV screen until Alysa skipped into the room with the house phone. Her mother was talking on the other end.


A crowd waited for Marcella to accompany her to the airport. She decided to ride in Joseph’s (the technical cousin’s) purple Tata Tiago, because it made her smile. He
still communicated with her mostly in nods. She’d used so many words talking to journalists, about Tanya, resigning from college, and while discussing fungal path-
ogens over the phone with Uncle Fillip and in person with Alysa, who’d taken down
all the pink butterflies and replaced them with hand-drawn rainbow coloured frogs.

They drove past the Madikeri school, with operations being completed by a charity. Marcella felt her gut sink as she recognised the thick-necked man from the mining company, the one she wasn’t supposed to know about, talking to a paint-splattered workman. They’d won a small victory. Emerald mining caved to the publicity’s disapproval of their actions, but some of the pollution here was irreversible, and big companies had experience on rewriting the narrative.

Salvador seemed to glow in the airport’s light. She hugged him tightly.
Their foreheads touched.

“You’ll be back, cousin. We have lots of things to do.”

“I’ll be back, cousin. Maybe the University of Bangalore would like a herpetologist.
And Mum definitely needs some time in the place she taught me to love.”

 


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Little Fiction and mac(ro)mic. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically at @coffeeandpaneer.

Her debut flash collection, ‘Families and other natural disasters’, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com.

Doña

by Mary Teresa Toro

Rocking, slowly rocking,
fanning herself more from habit than from heat,
la doña sits on the balcón,
thinking of the old days -
of fiestas, bodas, and bautizos.
remembering her family, so many, so long gone,

She fans herself and rocks
waiting to join them…

fan open
             click, swish…
fan closed
               swish, clack

rocking, remembering,
absently fanning herself .
The creaking rhythm of the rocker and swishing of the fan
create a pleasant harmony,
the music of her life now that she is old and waits,
remembering…

“Every fine lady must have a fine fan,”
he had written on the card in the box
decorated with their monogram,
initials as entwined as their lives would soon be.

The fan was made of the finest ivory,
intricately carved with filigrees and gold leaf on each rib,
the lace and ribbons of purest white,
as she and he had been,
she for him alone and he for her.
The ribbons and lace are now frayed and
yellowed with age,
the ivory carvings smooth with wear,
the gold leaf worn away

Yet it is with her always,
as it had been through labor and childbirth,
parties, school plays, her daughter’s wedding, and
the funeral of her son -
dead in a war fought for a country not his own,
a place of sand and heat and death,
with no sapphire blue ocean, no tropical breeze,
a land far from their beloved Borinquén,

click, swish…
            swish, clack

Essential pointers at family gatherings,
more discrete than fingers,
or so the doñas thought

the fans would flick
             open… click, swish…
                         close…swish, clack,

the symphony of openings and closings,
cooling their faces but not their tongues.

click, swish…
            swish, clack…

the whispers, quiet laughs and smiles
all hidden behind their dainty handheld screens.

As the doñas gossiped,
their men played dominos and drank Don Q or cerveza Corona,
the clicking fans echoing the clacking tiles.
The banter of long friendships was broken only by
the occasional slap of a winning ficha.
The men laughed watching their wives,
wondering who was being roasted like a lechón,

knowing it was better to attend these reuniones
than to be the topic of conversation.

click, swish…
            swish, clack

She held it at his funeral,
not to cool herself, for
she felt the chill of loneliness already pressing in,
but as a memory in her hand-
used then to shield not laughter, but the tears of parting.

She packed it carefully when she moved to her daughter’s house.
She brought only the fan and two sillónes, his and hers,
which sit here now, side by side, as always
She reaches for his hand,
finds only the cool wooden arm worn smooth by his palm.
She sighs and rocks …
                       remembering …
                                                     waiting…

fanning herself more from habit than from heat…

click, swish…
            swish, clack

 


Mary Teresa Toro is a late bloomer baby boomer who just achieved her lifelong goal of receiving a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature. She will begin her quest for an MFA in writing in January 2021. Although she is seventy-one years old, her motto is ¡INDY! (I'm Not Dead Yet). Mary Teresa lives in Central Florida with Frank, her husband of over fifty years, and Bitsie, a ten pound mix of daschund and mystery.

 

And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

A look back at The Overstory by Richard Powers

by Z.L. Nickels

“Now the gods are dying, all of them.”

It takes only thirteen pages for Richard Powers to paint the lasting image of what might rightfully be called the most ambitious novel of the 21st century. Thirteen pages, and a Brooklyn boy heads West with his new bride while back on the Eastern seaboard, the American chestnut tree is going the way of the dodo. Neither husband nor wife recognize the significance of the six seeds forgotten in the man’s pocket, buried later in their front yard. Of these, one will grow and come alive, just as its brethren die by the billions some 1200 miles away. Stripped from life, the gods begin to girdle, inch by inch. You have to admit it—Powers’ image packs one hell of a wallop.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 512 pp. $18.95.

Start again. Reexamine the text. Replace Powers’ “gods” with “trees,” so that now “the trees are dying, all of them.” We lose the metaphor but gain the thesis: first, that the Earth is rich and abundant and beautiful, the way all necessary things are; second, that human beings are killing it with the ruthless efficiency of late capitalism, and it has to stop. Because if not, not only is this going to end much sooner than we expect, but we will end up losing the one thing that made any of it worthwhile in the first place.

Despite the more than 120 single-volume books Powers read in order to write it, The Overstory is not a non-fictional work. However, as a novel, it is persuasive in the way all great non-fiction is: it presents the reader with a depiction of the world and asks them to treat it as if it were real. Only Powers’ depiction is more literal than most. Across nine separate (albeit interweaving) personal stories, each containing a character whom Powers asserts has a rightful claim to his alter-ego, we come to discover how truly intertwined we are with the natural world. The resulting effect is, quite possibly, the most comprehensive book on human beings and nature ever written. And yet, two years removed from its publication, the question remains as to whether The Overstory managed to accomplish its primary goals.

To the extent that any of us believes in science, the first thesis is easy to accept. Is nature necessary? Just open your eyes and go outside. However, the second thesis is tricky. Really, really tricky. One of the themes of The Overstory is that there is a multitude of forces working against the Earth’s longevity and nearly every single one of them is by human hands. The second thesis says that, if our actions are the disease, then our intervention just might be the panacea; while a book of fiction may not be a Bono song, it is still as good a rallying cry as any.

Right now, we are living through a pandemic. It is a suitable time to reflect. Because as our activity has slowed, nature has begun to stir: wildlife has returned; emissions have fallen; smog has lifted; vibrations have waned; the air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; everything is cleaner. But despite the clamor of our most outspoken extremists, the Earth cannot be rid of the human element forever; sooner or later, we must rejoin it. The logical question, therefore, is the familiar one: How do we balance our needs against the planet’s? Seeking answers, we return now to the novel that was written to solve this question. How does Powers balance these needs in his work—the needs of the world with the needs of his characters? The answer is appropriately bleak: he chooses the world.

“The full force of human ingenuity can’t stop the disaster breaking over the continent.”

This is the next sentence, the one that follows directly after the dissolution of the gods. As a postscript, it seems notable. One hundred years after a virus swept over our continent, destroying the American chestnut, something analogous is happening today. Our country is suffering from its own widespread disaster, one that we are currently incapable of solving. But the relevance here extends beyond the point of comparison: notice, it is only after addressing the trees that Powers chooses to mention the people. It is almost as though they are an afterthought.

Shortly after The Overstory was published, Powers appeared on PBS NewsHour to answer questions about the book. In one answer, he mentioned that there are two forms of storytelling Western writers are interested in: the first involves conflicts an individual must face alone; the second involves conflicts faced between two individuals. He continued on to describe a third form of story—one that has been forgotten about—which involves conflict between an individual and the rest of the world faced over an issue that the latter is “at best indifferent to and may be hostile toward or at least incompatible with.” As Powers tells it, he wanted to bring human beings and nature back to the negotiating table in The Overstory. The problem is that, in any good negotiation, both parties have equal claim to the outcome; in this novel, nature has the upper hand. Once signaled, the thematic victory is never in question.

At least at the outset, this appears to be otherwise. The first section of the novel (roughly one-hundred and fifty pages long) is comprised of personal narratives drafted in breathtaking detail. Like a series of intimate New Yorker character sketches, these accounts twist and wind their way through the lives of men and women who have all been touched by trees. This is where Powers’ characters are at their strongest. The conflicts that arise are of the usual variety—the novel has yet to address the inherent tragedy of the third form. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the descendants of that Brooklyn boy; the daughter of a lauded engineer; a precocious psychologist; the improbable romance of an oil-and-water couple; a former Stanford prison experiment inmate; a computer programming genius; the rise and fall of a cutting-edge biologist; and, finally, the death of a college student. It is during this last story that we start to notice the writing. Whereas before we were being eased into Powers’ world, we are now suddenly confronted with The Big Idea. Turning the page to the next section, we quickly learn that, in fact, the college student did not die. She is alive. She can now hear the voices of the trees and must save them.

In a novel where characters irreversibly die, get thrown in jail, get thrown in jail again, become paralyzed, consider suicide, get sentenced to one-hundred and forty years in prison, and more, this is easily the most jarring development. It transitions the novel from its original conception—a book about our relationship with trees—to a new work, which inevitably loses this thread. In The Overstory, the broader narrative is prioritized over the individual stories of these characters: they become vehicles for the discussion Powers wishes to have regarding our ecological predicament. The resulting effect is predictable: it undermines the reader’s ability to relate to the text.

As we continue through the novel, the essential relationship these characters have with trees begins to weaken. For four of these characters—Nicholas Hoel (a fine artist), Mimi Ma (an engineer), Douglas Pavlicek (the Stanford prison inmate) and Adam Appich (the psychologist)—this relationship is replaced with an inexplicable attraction to Olivia Vandergriff, the college student. Together, these five characters abandon the promise hinted at in their opening sections and commit their lives to Olivia’s ideals. Over time, their actions escalate from ideological protests to ecological terrorism, their desires having been replaced by the voices in her head: “Olivia needs only lower [sic] her chin and the others fall silent. Her spell over them has grown with each crime.” This unflagging devotion continues until they must choose between themselves and her ideals. At which point the novel begins its long, slow march to the end. 

Meanwhile, there are four other main characters who never, or who barely ever, interact with this core group of five. Patricia Westerford, the biologist, spends her time making revolutionary discoveries and advocating for her results in the courts of law and public opinion. Neelay Mehta, the computer programmer, builds a virtual empire that soon becomes more popular than the world it was based on. And Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, the couple who begin their marriage by planting a tree every year on their anniversary, are reduced to staring out a window by its end, gazing upon a world with which they are unable to interact. It is almost as if the novel is running on two separate tracks: the Cult of Olivia, which maintains its prominent voice until the final page, and those original character sketches, which never make it off the ground and never really go anywhere.

Presented this way, one might wonder: Why read a novel that treats its characters as if they exist solely for the purposes of an ecological mission? Perhaps we find it refreshing to see these familiar roles finally reversed. Or perhaps it is because Powers draws the world so beautifully that we tend to forget the novel’s underlying problems. The truth is that Powers probably could have written five-hundred and twelve pages of tree descriptions, and we would have come along for the ride. But therein lies the issue.

Shortly after the release of The Overstory, Richard Powers conducted an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books wherein he said, “If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees.” This is remarkable admission. Remarkable, first, in the sense that we are so rarely gifted an author’s true intentions: Richard Powers did not want to write a book about people fighting against one another, he wanted to write a book about what was in the background while they did. He wanted to write about the world, and when you see how gorgeous his world truly is, you can recognize why. But this admission is also remarkable in a second sense. He continued on to admit, “Such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers.”

It could be the case that such a novel would be beyond our ability to grasp. But we were not given that novel. Instead, the one we received includes nine main characters who are not trees: they stand collectively as the alter-egos of Richard Powers. He might not believe that our survival can be separated from the world’s, but his characters can; although they may speak for the trees, they can hardly speak for themselves. But maybe that is to be expected. When tasked with balancing the needs of nature with the needs of his characters, Powers chose nature. This is not a common choice. Perhaps the true lesson of The Overstory is that, if we are unable to strike a balance, it is better to err on the side of nature. It is a lesson that we should not soon forget.


Demise of the Starry Sky (星空之死)

by Yan An, co-translated by Chen Du and Xisheng Chen

看到星空之死的人是一个懂得取舍的人
一个缘木求水的人
一个缘海求云的人
一个抱住山脉的龙脖子测量体温的人
他熟知很多事物的来龙去脉
他在任何一个地方
都是在类似往世或者异乡的地方

看到星空之死的人 不论你在哪里
他都会看见你 你也是孤身一人行走
不是要寻找什么 只是在行走
巨大的旷野和地平线只是另一个人的背景
你没有方向,只有远方,不断地变小
仿佛也是一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人
要去会见另一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人

看到星空之死的人,对世上的好多事
哪个多哪个少哪个深哪个浅了如指掌的人
你要前去会见但并无多少把握的人
他看见大地在变 大地在大地中坠落
他自己也在大地中坠落

就像仰望苍穹
巨大的星辰比蚊蝇更细小更脆弱
在难以觉察和体会的焚烧中
缓慢地焚毁
同时向着虚无纷纷坠落

*

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Is a man knowing when to accept or reject
A man climbing trees to look for water
A man sailing in the ocean to seek for clouds
A man embracing the dragon neck of a mountain range
To take its body temperature
He knows very well the ins and outs of many things
No matter where he is, it’s a place
As far as in the past or in a foreign land

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
No matter where you are, he will see you
You too are walking alone
Not to seek for something but for the sake of walking
The massive wilderness and horizon
Are only the background of another person
You have no direction, but only distance,
While you become smaller and smaller
As if you were a man with an odd mind-body size
Going to meet another man with an odd mind-body size

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Knowing which of the many things in the world
Is more, or less, or deeper, or shallower,
Like the palm of his hand
Whom you are going to meet but not sure about
Sees earth is changing earth is plummeting in earth
He himself is plummeting in earth as well

Just like looking up at the vault of heaven
The enormous stars are thinner, tinier
And more fragile than mosquitoes and flies
In an incineration difficult to perceive and comprehend
They slowly burn down
Meanwhile plummeting towards nihility, one after another


Yan An is a poet in contemporary China, author of fourteen poetry books, including his most famous, Arranging Stones, which won him The Sixth Lu Xun Literary Prize, one of China’s top four literary prizes. He is also the Vice President of Shaanxi Writers Association, the head and Executive Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Yan River, one of the oldest and most famous literary journals in Northwestern China, and a national committee member of the Poetry Committee of China Writers Association. “Demise of The Starry Sky” is an excerpt from Yan An’s latest book, A Naturalist’s Manor, which was published by China Youth Publishing Group, and won the “Ten Best Poetry Books in China” award in 2018.

Chen Du is a Voting Member of American Translators Association and a member of the Translators Association of China. She holds a Master’s Degree in Biophysics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a Master’s Degree in Radio Physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She revised more than eight chapters of the Chinese translation of the biography of Helen Snow, Helen Foster Snow – An American Woman in Revolutionary China. In the United States, her translations have appeared in Columbia Journal, Lunch Ticket, Anomaly, The Bare Life Review, and River River. Her essay was published by The Dead Mule and Hamline University English Department, where poems have also appeared. Her poetry chapbook was published by The Dead Mule online. She is also the author of the book Successful Personal Statements. Find her online at ofsea.com.

Xisheng Chen, a Chinese American, is an ESL grammarian, lexicologist, linguist, translator and educator. His educational background includes: top scorer in the English subject in the National University Entrance Examination of Jiangsu Province, a BA and an MA from Fudan University, in Shanghai, China, and a Mandarin Healthcare Interpreter Certificate from the City College of San Francisco, CA, USA. His working history includes: translator for Shanghai TV Station, Evening English News, Lecturer at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China, Adjunct Professor at the Departments of English and Social Sciences of Trine University (formerly Tri-State University), Angola, Indiana, notary public, and contract high-tech translator for Futurewei Technologies, Inc. in Santa Clara, California, USA. As a translator for over three decades, he has published a lot of translations in various fields in newspapers and journals in China and abroad.

Two if by Sea

"Two If By Sea" by Christopher Woods
"Two If By Sea" by Christopher Woods, 2020.

Christopher Woods is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas. His photographs can be seen in his gallery. His photography prompt book for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT, is forthcoming from Propertius Press. His novella, HEARTS IN THE DARK, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press.

Letter from the Editor(s)

Early mangoes growing in Maeve's backyard. Photo by Ezra Remer, March 2020.

Dear Reader,

Spring in Miami is typically lush, the streets littered with fallen blooms from the multicolored flamboyan trees and rotting fruit carcasses leftover from mid-morning animal feasts. This week marks mid-May, and I'm writing to you from my kitchen table, nearly-ripe mangoes swaying in the breeze on the tree just outside my window.  The natural world is virtually the same as it always is today: cycling on and on unless otherwise disturbed.

But, the world within us is not cycling the same as it always does. I'€™m sure you feel this like I do, the day-to-day pulling of teeth, our feet quick-sanded €”no matter what we do to drive ourselves forth, our world remains stagnant. We sit here, fixed in the strange space-time of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsure of what will finally break this sequence. Unsure of what lies just mere steps ahead.

I'm not going to write to you and hypothesize a panacea for this uncertainty. I won'€™t even try to speculate about the future, the state of the world, of  it “opening back up,” or the metaphorical implications that statement might hold. Rather, I would like to simply acknowledge the fear we are all experiencing right now. The grief, the dread, the eternal sundown only ever disrupted by temporary blips of what it meant to be alive prior to now. Folks have lost their homes, their jobs, their lives. There is no ignoring this, the worsening embedded in our day-to-day.

I have nightmares of the images of death we'€™ve been bombarded with since March. I can feel the miasma of despair weighing on everything I do. In all of the interactions I have, there it is. But, like many others, and as Myliyah Hanna writes, I'€™ve had to keep going. I'€™ve had to keep turning, loving, living, working. And what that means in the context of the world within us, I'€™m not quite sure. Maybe it just means that continuing on is a possibility, even if it's only a mechanism we've adopted to stave off total hopelessness. Simply being is a possibility, even if it hurts.

I write this letter to welcome you to Issue 8 of Sinking City. The writers and artists who have shared their work with us have continued this phenomenon of being. Their work, most of it submitted prior to the pandemic, glimmers with possibility in the face of our current deterioration. I hope it will guide you away from the dark space we are currently inhabitants of, even if temporarily. I hope it can speak to you as it does to me, in a close whisper: we are all still turning, still writing, still loving. Even if we aren'€™t cycling. Even if we aren'€™t moving. 

—€” Maeve Holler, Managing Editor 2019 - 2020

*

I'€™m thinking about the smell of jasmine that comes alive at night, right outside the door of my house and which resides near the big tree that seems to have grown with me my whole life. I've made a nest of habits during this time of pandemic: I've sung with the first blue jay I've ever spotted before in Miami; I've become closer, more vulnerable near my friends, family.

How lucky am I that I get to be near them, in all senses of the word.

I'm even more fortunate of being able to become a part of Sinking City in the midst of the pandemic, to introduce Issue 8 along with Maeve. Of being able to witness, read, indulge in beautiful pieces of work that resist uncertain, chaotic energy. That hold time back. Or, as Clair Dunlap writes, put forth a œwild act of self preservation,€ where when we €œshut our eyes there is only the color of the mountain at a distance.

I think about the concept of distance during these times. I think about how lucky we are to have this issue out in the world, one which asks that we join in in every work€™s act of meditations, reflection, and hopefulness which are ingrained within their bodies, ones we’ve been honored enough to engage with, and carry along with us, as close as we can.

Thank you all so much.

—€” Clayre Benzadón, Managing Editor 2020 - 2021

Old Friends

by Daniel Elfanbaum

It is in the parking lot of a liquor store that I pick up a friend from college who was left there by the woman he’s been living with, a woman who wants to make a home-cooked meal for us to meet over, who thinks it’s a good idea that my friend and I meet up, the two of us, beforehand. I’ve been given to understand she likes to run things. I think this must be good for my old friend. I haven’t seen him in some years and it is very bright outside when I pick him up in front of the store. Two red plastic bags of beers and a half bottle of whiskey because he knows I like it. His workday uniform of ill-fitting khakis and an ill-fitting shirt sits familiar with my memory of him in ill-fitting gym shorts and tee shirts the year we lived together. The thing is that he was just so thin back then, and still is now, in the car driving in his new home town.

The highway exit ramps and interchanges loop over and around each other. We’d hugged when I got out to greet him, and I turn the music down a little as a gesture. Slow to start. We talk and catch up, a little. We exchange pleasantries about the weather and roll though our life updates in bulleted lists, and I’m happy to hear things are so good with him, these days. And these days they’re maybe not as much so good with me, but when we’d last known each other things had been at least OK on my end and not great with him. This meant that things were not great with us and our friends, and I spent a long time covering up this old friend’s tracks, misdemeanors, mishaps, and I can’t say that I had liked it. Had not liked it when there was a banging on my door at one in the morning, when the woman he’d been seeing started throwing shoes. Just kid stuff that shouldn’t have mattered, but of course kid stuff that felt important at the time. We were of an age for kid stuff. No more. And maybe a touch of infidelity is the kind of thing that always matters, I don’t know. Can’t really think how it’s always, things I’ve seen and heard about and done, can’t think of anything as always, but we’re not talking about it anyway, because why would I bring up that sort of thing. I wouldn’t. But I’m willing to be wrong about it.

My old friend lives in the kind of town that’s oscillating between new office buildings and old office buildings and buildings abandoned and buildings coming up. The familiar mish-mash of things and peoples and peoples and things moving, i.e., displaced, and I’m wondering what kind of car my old friend is driving now in his wrinkled khakis.

“I meant to tell you, I’m getting married,” he says, and I’m staying with him and his girlfriend, and so I hope I’ll like his wife. Fiancée. This is a slip.

Me? I’m single driving a cheap Japanese sedan but at least it’s clean, clean even though I’ve got my shit here and there and everywhere because I am right now in a way living here, in the car, I mean. The job I had had was over and the lease was month to month and I was so tired of putting so many things together poorly.

“I would love to be in the wedding,” I tell my old friend when he asks.

He directs me where and I drive and soon we’re in a little suburban town with green lawns even in February, with an attractive touch here and there of pre-dusk frost on the tips of the blades of grass, and my old friend is telling me about this house his fiancée bought a while back where he’s been living. Put together. They have a dog, a very good dog, and they’ve been going to church, and when we pull into the driveway tucked into the best corner of the cul-de-sac, and the house has half a brick front like the house that I’d grown up in, and I come in and meet the fiancée, this smiling woman, there is a constriction in my chest. I notice I am tense. I am pretending like I am not taking deep breaths to cool down. I don’t remember being sick or needing to cough or what I’m supposed to be stressed out about. I don’t know that this might be a kind of awe.

They together show me to the room where I’ll be staying. There’s pictures of them at a fair and with their dog on otherwise bare shelves, a double-high air mattress where I’ll sleep tonight and the next two nights at least, unless I do something wrong again, like when I saw my friend in Tennessee. When I come back into the kitchen after putting down my things, availing myself of the toilet, after observing that the room I am in feels almost intentionally un-moved-in-to, as if they were saving it for something, something, and I know what, I walk into the kitchen. My old friend is helping his soon-to-be wife make dinner. Smiling. He hands me a beer so as to clink glasses, and I feel as if I could weep. Marriage, babies, new life. Just me and the car and couches to sleep on.

We eat fish tacos for dinner and afterwards they let me join them to wash the plates and pan. We watch a program on TV and then his fiancée goes to bed to read. She says she wants to give us some “guy time.” I ask her what book it is, and it’s one I’m a fan of. We wish her good night.

“I thought you’d like her,” my old friend says.

Sinking into their big leather couch, I tell him he seems happy, and he admits he is. I’m glad, I tell him. I’m glad.


Daniel Elfanbaum is a writer from St. Louis now living just outside of Boston. Some of his other work can be found in S/Word, Taper, and Levee Magazine