Summer 2011

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FICTION
POETRY
NONFICTION
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE SMITH
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FICTION

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What Noma Meant to Say” by Ron Lands

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Noma Gentry leaned on her walker and stared out the picture window overlooking the lawn that circled Shannondale like a moat. She squinted her eyes,  hunched her shoulders, and bent her knees a little, as if she was searching a half century of horizons back to the gray morning when she watched Hiram back the hay wagon into the barn for the last time.

She had never understood why he continued to work so hard, even after they couldn’t pretend to own the farm.  The week prior, they’d stood on the sidewalk in front of the First National Bank of Oak Grove and watched little clouds form where their warm breath collided with the cold December air. Hiram picked at imaginary flaws in the floppy brim of the straw hat he’d worn for years to protect him from the relentless glare of the sun. At the last minute, he’d shrugged a brown dress coat over his bib overalls, all that was left of the suit he’d worn to marry Noma. She wore her apron over her work dress. The laces wrapped twice around her waist and ended in a  large, looping bowknot on her stomach. Their two boys, too young to understand grinding poverty but old enough to sense the gravity of this situation, stood in the seat of the truck, and watched.

Sweat glistened on Hiram’s upper lip.

“He’s just a man,” Noma said.

“I’ll just talk to him,” Hiram said, like it was an idea that had just occurred to him.

They’d sat in the dark that last morning and drank scalding black coffee. She savored their early morning ruminations, sometimes because of the things they left unsaid, not talking about Russian missiles inCubaor the Mark of the Beast or on that morning,  the impending foreclosure on the farm that had been in his family since before the Civil War.

His voice split the silence.  “I love you,” he said.

The words hung in the air over the kitchen table as if they had just appeared, unconnected to a human thought.  Hiram rationed his words, as if the supply was limited and he feared he’d use his allotment before he ran out of things to say.  He never said “I love you” to Noma in the daylight. He never failed to say  it at bedtime. Noma always answered, reassured that the last thing that either of them heard before they slept every evening was a private, renewal of their wedding vows, to love each other forever, for better or worse.  She looked out the kitchen window, sipping the coffee he always made too strong.  A sense of impending doom settled over her like a shawl.

“I love you, too,” she said.

She waited for Hiram to finish loading hay bales out of the loft, then pull the wagon into the pasture to feed the few cows they had left. She’d seen him step off the wagon bed a thousand other times, letting his knees and hips absorb the impact of the drop without jarring, the way she imagined he did when he was a paratrooper in WWII.   The wind puffed again, cold, straight from the north, moaning a little around the corner of the house.  His body seemed to float, then turn slowly, almost gracefully toward her. His head bowed at an awkward angle. His arms hung limp at his side. She realized that what he meant to say that morning was “good bye.”

The nurse appeared out of nowhere.  “Need to rest?”  she asked. She moved a chair behind Noma to where it just touched the back of her legs.

“Poor little thing,” Noma answered, using half of her working vocabulary. Until a few months ago, she could still say her birthday, but just like the ignition on Hiram’s pick-up truck that had to grind and grind until the starter caught and the motor roared into life, she had to peck her fingertips on the table-top and say “twenty-two” over and over until finally “Twenty-two October nineteen-oh-nine” erupted. She said it in a distinctive rhythm, as if the cadence was as much a part of the memory as the date.

Noma rocked back and forth slightly, as if her body, like her mind, teetered between the things she couldn’t remember and the ones she couldn’t forget. The walker slipped. Noma plunked down hard on the chair.

“Are you OK?” asked the nurse.

“Bless its heart,” Noma answered.

The nurse adjusted Noma’s robe and said something else that Noma didn’t hear because she was already engrossed in a Blue Jay that flew on and off the bird bath outside the window while a well fed tabby cat lashed its tail and skulked nearby.

“Bless its heart,” she said as if she felt sorry for the bird. “Poor little thing.”

There were a half dozen other Shannondale patients in the day room. They had paid no attention to Noma and her leaning, squatting and muttering over her walker. They wandered in their own forests. Like Noma, they had skirted around the edges for years, going through the motions of normalcy, breathing, eating, working, sleeping, thinking that Truman was president and not Clinton or that it was May instead of September or fall instead of spring.

Noma had walked deep into her personal forest never to return the night she called the Oak Grove police to report that dope addicts had taken residence in the crawl space under her house. The young officer had walked with her from room to room, clicked on lights, checked in closets, and looked under furniture. He went outside and aimed his flashlight into the trees, at the shrubbery, between the steps, under the porch.

“I’m not finding anything Mrs. Gentry,” he said.

Each person in the dayroom had their unique travel log chronicling a journey from independence to dependence, from insight to oblivion, from hiding around the edges of the deep dark woods to becoming eternally lost inside it. Every patient had a child who finally shrugged in defeat, then moved their mother or father to a place where an imaginary world could expand safely in a semi-private room, where marriages that had spanned half a century ended as a stranger’s face in a black and white photograph on a cheap bedside table.

The day nurse turned to the other patients.

“Good afternoon,” she said.

Rheumy eyes looked toward her. No one answered.

She turned the radio on and adjusted the volume. A preacher at WOAK finished his Sunday afternoon sermon about escaping the wrath to come. Organ music played the melody to “Farther Along” while the disc jockey read  the weekly obituary and extolled the virtues of a pre-paid funeral plan from  Tauscher’s mortuary.

A quiet and aloof former schoolteacher pursed her lips like an axterix, extended her gnarled index finger and marked out the rhythm for a classroom full of unruly students that still lived in her mind.  The other residents leaned over their wheel-chair armrests or tilted forward against their chest restraints, frozen in waxy postures, gazing with empty eyes into a future they no longer feared.

Noma nodded her head slightly as if a memory of the music was trying to wriggle free from the plaques and tangles that held it submerged. Before her last stroke cauterized the speech area of her brain, she shuffled the halls and sang, “Some glad morning, when this life is ov-er, I’ll… fly away.”  Sometimes, a burley man with a phlegmy cough echoed the bass refrain from down the hall, “in the morning.” After he died, she lowered her voice and sang it herself.

Noma rocked, gathering momentum to stand again.

The nurse put her hand on the cross bar to steady the walker.  “Tired of sittin’ already?” she asked.  For a moment, their hands were side by side, Noma’s with fingers that twisted at each joint and translucent skin that showed her veins like a relief map, and the nurse’s smooth, symmetric and tan.

“Bless… its… heart,” Noma said, punctuating each rocking motion with a word to add momentum. “Poor… lit…tle… thing,” she continued.

She bent over with her elbows on her walker and rested for a minute.  Then she stood and leaned a little to the left so her right foot could scoot on the tile, a gait she’d acquired gradually after a stroke weakened the right half of her body.

Years earlier, before the doors to D-wing were set with alarms and before Noma needed assistance, she had wandered off the campus and ambled down the one mile stretch of highway into town. The nurses and aides searched all over Shannodale until someone called from Bill’s Meat Market where she had loaded a grocery cart and was chatting with the cashier at the register about her growing boy’s appetite and how she enjoyed her new job at the hosiery mill. She couldn’t remember either of her boys’ names by then. Her mind held a composite of the two, one generic son that she inserted into whatever distorted recollection she might have.

Noma turned in a series of fragmented steps to follow the nurse. She winced when either foot accepted her full weight. She shuffled a few steps, scooting her walker in front of her, then rested and watched as the nurse stopped beside a man with a string of drool that stretched from his sagging lower lip to a moist spot on his plaid flannel shirt. He bore little resemblance to the boy who’d hitch-hiked to the Navy Recruiting station in Knoxville the day after he graduated from Oak Grove High school in 1943, anxious that the war would stop without him.  The nurse wiped his mouth with a paper towel. She uncapped the tube that entered through his abdominal wall and ended in his stomach. She poured an elixir of medicines that were as pointless as his mind was blank.

They  moved to the next patient, a former deacon at the First Baptist Church. His daughter brought him to live at Shannondale when she found him living in squalid conditions in the home where she grew up. He rarely spoke, except to pray long prayers, using flowery lines and beautiful words when called upon to deliver the blessing for the evening meal.

“Take your time,” the nurse said as she took colored pills of different sizes and shapes and placed them in his mouth. “Now, take a sip of water.”  She waited for him to swallow.  “Now stick out your tongue,” she said. She peered inside to make sure all the pills were gone.

They moved from one patient to the next. The nurse placed pills and sips of water onto the desiccated tongues of people whose personalities had disappeared with their memories and left no distinctive features other than the typewritten name and birthdates on their plastic wristbands.  Noma scooted along behind like an acolyte.

“Poor little thing,” she said.

May you swallow and not get choked.

May the good Lord bless and keep you….

“Bless its heart.”

They stopped before a cadaverous old man who sat propped in his Geri-chair. His back was curved so that his neck had to be buttressed on pillows. People joked that he had developed his deformity from years of hunching over, counting his money. An oil painting, commissioned by his mother when he was young and his body was arrow straight, still hung on the wall in First National Bank lobby.

The nurse fluffed a pillow under the banker’s neck. She adjusted his hands on his belly, one over the other, to look like he meant them to be there. The broad blue veins glistened like ribbons through his cadaver white skin. She placed a pill on his tongue. A weak, wet cough interrupted his shallow breathing.

“Poor little thing,” Noma said.

“He’s pitiful, ain’t he?” the nurse said.  “They say he used to be rich.”

Noma gently ran the tip of her arthritic finger along the bones of the banker’s forehead where the fat had melted away and the skin stretched tight over his skull. A blind person might have performed the same gentle gesture in an effort to recognize a loved one they couldn’t see.

The nurse put a thick yellow slurry of medicine into a little plastic cup and dribbled it into his mouth. She watched him swallow, then helped him settle back on his pillow. She penciled her note, then pushed her cart toward the door and disappeared down the hall.

Noma frowned again,  as if she had recognized the outline of  the man from that morning decades past when he hunched over his mahogany desk and wrote on a sheet of paper the dollar amount that Hiram would need to pay just to postpone losing the farm for another year.  He had pushed it toward them with the eraser end of his pencil, as if by not touching it, he somehow absolved himself of his part in the destruction of the hopes and dreams they’d planted there.

The banker sputtered and coughed. His mouth opened and closed like a baby bird. His eyes bulged, watered and gave a reflexive frantic unseeing look around the room, then rolled back under his wispy white eyebrows and closed like he was asleep. A white froth gathered in the corner of his mouth.  His lips turned as blue as the veins in the back of his hands. The room filled with a feculent odor as his sphincter muscles relaxed.

Noma turned to the window. The winter sun had just kissed the mountain top goodbye, leaving only the frowning silhouette of the ridgeline on the horizon. A red light blinked, slower than a heartbeat, warning the occasional low flying aircraft to stay clear of the WOAK radio antenna perched high on the top of the fire tower. She leaned on her walker unencumbered by the fading wake of painful memories or the fear of eternity.

“Poor little thing,” she said. “Bless its heart.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the journal “Floyd County Moonshine.”

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“The Dashboard of an El Camino” by Kevin Ridgeway

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Calvin didn’t normally accept the charges for his father’s calls from prison, especially when his mother wasn’t home and working her marathon shifts as an assembly line butter churner at the San Dee’s Old Time Barn and Creamery. But he relented, and the call opened with the usual disclaimer:

“This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility.  The call may be monitored for your protection…”

The message was followed by the flurry of static accompanying his father’s deep growl.

“Son? Dad here. Is your mom around?”

“No, she’s at work.”

“Good. You know son, I know I haven’t been around for much of–make that most of–your life.  I owe you a lot but I have a favor to ask you.”

“What, dad?”

“You know my El Camino, is it still parked in the driveway?”

“Yes, dad.”

“Okay, cool. I’ve got something stashed away inside of the dashboard and I need you to bust it open and get it out of there.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you what it is on the phone, for Christ’s sake. I need you to do this for me, son.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility. The call may be monitored for your protection…”

“I want you to get inside of the dashboard and get what’s in there and find a good hiding place for it…maybe in your room…”

“Okay…this isn’t going to get me in trouble is…”

“No, no. You’re just a kid.  No one will suspect you of anything, it’s quick and easy.”

“Fine, but this better not get me in trouble.”

“You’re a great kid, son. Pardon, I mean, a great young man.  How old are you now?”

“Sixteen.”

“Your grades still all A’s? Honor roll and all that shit?”

“This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility.  The call may be monitored for your protection…” 

“All A’s…”

“Good job kiddo…I didn’t get all A’s until I was in continuation…either at Folsom or Vacaville…” Warren laughed. “But it’s never too late, right?”

“Um, no…”

“Tell you’re mom I’ll call her again…and thanks, Calvin…”

“This better not get me in trouble.”

“It won’t!”

“I’ll trust you on that…”

“Okay, kiddo.  I love y—“

This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility.  The call may be monitored for your protection…”

Calvin hardly knew his father, a friendly phantom voice coming out of a telephone receiver who was absent throughout his childhood save for a brief cameo appearance when he was 12, and back to prison in three months, and again another cameo and locked up just three months prior to the current phone call. His father was a serial parole violator, the parole stemming from his greatest crime, the Sanwa Bank Robbery of 1983.  He was a stark contrast from his mother, who raised her children to be over achievers.  Calvin was in the top ten of his class and a school leader.  Drama Club President, Debate Club Vice President, German Club Treasurer.  No one knew about his father.  It was a carefully guarded secret.  Calvin didn’t even want to know too much.

Decked out in an unfortunate choice in work clothes—sweater vest, pleated khakis and shiny dress shoes, and armed with only a box cutter and a rusted crow bar, Calvin stared in curiosity at the jet black El Camino, a car suiting his father’s outlaw style, but certainly not Calvin’s Bartlett’s Book of Quotations bookish, sensitive sensibilities. If the car were a living thing, it would beat the shit out of Calvin for just looking at it.  Calvin set off to work.

He carved a deep unsteady incision in the heart of the dash, making a wide box design.  He shoved the angry tip of the crow bar in the northernmost incision and began to pull and grunt for dear life.  Someone who had muscle mass on their arms would have had it cracked upon in a snap, but Calvin was a bean pole who still shopped in the boys section of Sears, not yet developed enough to graduate to young men‘s.  Finally, after over an hour of making faint progress the top portion of the leather stripped open, sinews of foam extending in long strips with remnants floating in the air above Calvin’s red sweat drenched face.  He looked beyond it to the contents hidden inside.

Holy shit,” he thought.  What if it’s guns in here?  Or drugs?  Or both?”

He abandoned the project, a gaping hole in the dash, and paced about the house, his imagination running wild.  Finally, he made his way back to the pebble-encrusted driveway and was stunned by the whizzing of three black and white patrol cars from around the corner.  He immediately flew to the ground on a stomach churning from severe paranoia.  Calvin looked up.  The police cars were long gone.

He slowly approached the El Camino and the mess of litter resulting from his deconstruction.  He took a seat on the driver’s side and began to cautiously peer down inside of the dashboard.  At first he saw nothing and thought that maybe his father had gone completely batty and didn’t put anything in there.  He opened the glove compartment and retrieved a flashlight.  Guiding the dim glow of the flashlight Calvin was able to see in the deepest cavity another face.  It was…Popeye the Sailor Man.  Calvin reached in and rescued him.  It was a plastic replica of Popeye’s iconic head that Calvin had used as a toddler for a piggy bank.  It had disappeared years earlier.  He shook its contents, one large jangling thump on the inside of Popeye’s bulging cheeks.

Calvin uncorked the hole at the bottom of Popeye’s neck and carefully pulled out a plastic baggie containing a folded wad of thick glossy sheets. He unfolded them to discover them to be faded color photographs of a kid dressed in a cowboy suit at either Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm in one, and in the other a gawky teenager with the early makings of a mustache lying prone on the top of a bunk bed reading a beat-up paperback of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  A chicken scratch note accompanied them, hardly legible, which read:

“Son—dear old dad was once an innocent young buck just like you…these are the only pictures of me that are left from when I was a kid.  Save them and show them to your kids.  I love you, son.  Dad…P.S.  Sorry so sloppy.” 

The adolescent rage in his heart quieted to a gentle new beginning of understanding this strange man who was his father.  Calvin brushed all of the remnants of the dashboard into the empty hole and carried the treasure into the house.  In the aftermath of losing his piggy bank, Calvin had purchased a large combination Batman safe that let out a ring when it was broken into.  He put the pictures and the note inside of it.  He went to the family stereo system, complete with a CD changer and tape deck in addition to an ancient turntable and pulled out an old vinyl LP that was his father’s favorite—Super Session, a combination of blues and soul by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills.  It was the first time Calvin listened to the record and enjoyed it.

*** 

A few days later the phone rang again, at about the same time in the afternoon as before.

This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility.  The call may be monitored for your protection…”

“Hi there, kiddo. Did you get in there?”

“Yeah, I did dad. Thanks, those photos are really cool.  I might have them blown up and framed.”

“I wanted you to have something, anything—little mementos of your dear old dad.”

“I listened to that album that you love—”

“The Al Kooper one?”

“Yeah.”

“You hate that one!”

“I’m starting to like it…I kind of get it now.  It’s pretty cool.”

“The soundtrack of my youth…shit.  A lot of memories behind that one.  Well son, I’m assuming your mom is at work—I’m getting out of here maybe in around ninety days.  Maybe I can show you more of dad’s favorite things.” 

“Sounds good—it’ll be summer vacation by then.”

“You taking any college courses again this summer?”

“Just an English one.”

“Ah, my son, the scholar!  We’ll see if I can get you to play hooky, and we can go down to one of my favorite spots, a cove down south ofHuntington Beach.  I think its still there.”

“Okay.  Thanks, Dad.  We could get the Super Session on CD.  Play it going down the coast.”

“That’s my kiddo…whatever you want…I better go now son…”

“Okay, pop.  I’ll talk to you soon…”

“Okay, son.  I love you, and I’m proud of y—”

“This call is from an inmate at a federal corrections facility. The call may be monitored for your protection…” 

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Kevin Ridgeway is a writer from Southern California.  His prose and poetry have appeared in Mt. San Antonio College’s The Left Coast Review and the magazine Insomnis Veritas.  He has forthcoming publications in Breadcrumb Scabs:  A Poetry Magazine as well as Calliope Nerve and Larks Fiction Magazine.

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE SMITH

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POETRY

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“Expedition” by Valerie Nieman

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She walked until the river split into streams,
streams to creeks, creeks to runs
and the last run like a dark thread
drawing her into the land itself,
into a closed wound.

She had lenses for looking up and counting
the stars and lenses for looking down
and counting springtails in the blackened leaves
and some that were only mirrors.

She penciled entries on the pale
machine-drawn lines of her journal –
the first morning bird (indigo bunting),
the way alder leaves were chewed and tattered.
At first she ignored broken beer bottles,
plastic jugs impaled on branches,
until they disappeared.
“One tire in the water,” she wrote,
then left the rest of the page blank.
“A girl’s hair ribbon, brown with algae,”
and she walked upstream, the ribbon
waving behind her, a single meager thread
useless in the great maze of the land.

Once people came past her camp,
sang hymns
washed in the blood of
the sweet by and
nearer My God
and she thought they were angels
until a voice broke and she cursed
them and their victim.

The moon came night after night,
round then horned.
When there were clouds then the sky
was a perfect swollen gray,
like the inside of a ball of wool.

A hunter stood at twilight on a ridge,
listening to distant hounds.
He tended a fire, stirring it with a stripped
and broken limb. Sparks whirled up.
He might have worn a red plaid coat,
a letterman’s jacket with demons
or dragons, something extinct,
might have worn leaves for leggings
and braided vines.
She watched his movements
until he became a figure
marked with a burnt stick
on the wall of the sky,
jumped into life by a fire’s emaciating light.
She turned to her own small flame.
Her arousal spiraled into the night air
and extinguishment.

The land shut around her.
She tried to climb the bluffs
but found the way too vertical,
treacherous with abrupt springs,
spalled stone and clay.
The water no longer seemed to flow past
but knot and tangle, a black net
heaving in the rapids, at the narrows.

She fished with a line twisted
from her hair and knotted
to a hawthorn hook, caught minnows
and ate them quivering whole, their silver eyes
seeing the way down her throat,
scales clinging to her fingers
like the light of the absent moon.

In the fall came a flood. Her books,
pages long sealed with mold and fungus,
went like unearthed coffins
on the brown tide.

She ate lethargic ants
and grubs with useless fat-man’s legs,
peeled the bark from cherry trees
and chewed the green lining, like the frayed
lining of her coat.
She killed a belling hound lost to the hunter,
and fallen as she had
to the bent snare of the land.
She seared its flesh over a fire lit
with alder leaves and berry canes
and fed with the litter that accumulates
on the upstream side of a leaning snag.

The trickle of water was a gash in the frozen land.
She wore the dog’s hide on her blackened feet
and the dog’s head on her own,
fangs permanently bared.
She watched ice creep out from the banks,
knit itself together the way
bones heal, swords cross,
random marks of the unlettered
are sent tongueless to the future.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Wake Wake Wake (Press 53).

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“This Place” by Valerie Nieman

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The bearded stranger chants old name:
Davis, Bennett, Hoy, DeGroot,
families twice removed, forgotten like second cousins,
their farms parceled
and the names they set here
tailing off like the farm road to Davys Run,
gone to a depression in the running hay.
There were two ponds, one above the other …
Only the one now, sulphurous, shrunken,
the higher pond drained down to marsh.

And the long field we planted in corn …
Hay grows now, and around the sickle curve
at the back, a stand of dogbane.

The others were in wheat, my father
drove the horses that pulled the thresher …

At the point of woods was a persimmon tree,
look for the fruit after frost …

What this stranger knows with his feet
and the reach of his arms,
what I can’t recognize or is no longer there –
even the flats where hogs
rooted up a Confederate belt buckle
(so he says, and I want to believe)
are overgrown with box elder, sassafras,
crabapple, ash, trees stem-green
as grass, so quickly
the land throws itself into forest.
In the meadow I find
coal and limestone, fire slag.

That was where we shod the horses …
The Cutlip places sifts into its foundation
and my dogs go in and out the windows.
I lived in that house, 
by the flats, below the fields.

We hold to it
like the mole whose pale hands
knew the ground better than either of us
until it was turned out, broken,
belly up under the porch
where the post begins to settle,
its hands palm-up,
narrow and thumbless
like the warding hands of saints.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Wake Wake Wake (Press 53).

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“Arrival” by Clifton Snider

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I return to the house I love
in a new season,
this house for twenty years
a refuge,
sporadic home
adobe-style
with three aspens
rooted in the rear.

I’ve come to watch their
heart-shaped leaves
turn from green to gold to brown
then drop.
I will see it happen
and the aspens, the cottonwoods,
the piñons in the Taos mountains
will verify–or not–my intuitive belief:
there is healing in this land,
in this house of memories
laid out in movements
of my blood.

3 September 2010
Taos, NM

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“Indian Summer in New Mexico” by Clifton Snider

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The high desert sky
nearly cloudless
the day before the clocks fall back,
sun bright as an atomic flash,
cottonwoods, aspens, maple, willows–
leaves falling like they rarely do
back home in Southern California,
a day to walk on roads
whose dust rises with every pickup
& Prius that passes,
& as you watch a northern flicker
with red mustache
perch on a slender stump
two dogs cross the field
and the creek bed
and join you on the road,
you shoo them off
& happily they scamper away
& you walk down a quiet residential street,
one house a junk yard of old cars & trucks
stuffed with all shapes of rusted metal & tubes,
further up a majestic modern adobe,
unoccupied for the season,
kids jump on a trampoline in another yard
while grandma and grandpa sit in the shade,
then back to your casita & for once
you leave the door open.

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“By Degrees” by Clifton Snider

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I return home
on a freezing November night
in Taos, New Mexico,
to find a lifeless heater.

I set it higher–74-77 degrees.
Nothing.  No creaking from the white metal
that borders the bottom
of the walls of my casita.

No problem for bed:
I sleep without the heat.
The trouble is the morrow.

I think of Cro-Magnon ancestors
bundled up in tailored skins
fur turned inward
gathered around an open fire
as I wrap myself in layers: T-shirt, sweat shirt,
Norwegian sweater
& I work & wait & shiver by degrees
until another human being arrives,
a native of this town, who knows
better than I how to light
the light.

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NONFICTION

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Almost a Chainsaw Massacre” by Robert Lavender

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I work as a psych tech at a psych hospital, which means I get all of the dirty work. If the psych patients puke, I clean it up. If they get confused and wander into the wrong room, I retrieve them. I take them to the nameplate outside their door and say, “This is your room. See. This is your name.” I take them out to smoke. I show them the location of the lighter on the wall of the smoking porch. I demonstrate how to use it. No lighters allowed. They may burn the place down. I’m their guide through Lala Land. I am their shepherd in fields of madness.

Today, I’m guiding Lester. He threatened members of his family with a chainsaw because they wouldn’t buy him chewing tobacco. I’m not making this up. It happened. He went after them because his family spoon-feeds him his government check. They act as his overlords. But one day he’d had enough. He cranked the chainsaw and went for them in the yard.

Lester reminds me of Karl Childers from the movie Sling Blade. He’s a child in a man’s body. Built like Karl in the movie. Has a stomach like Karl’s. Keeps his blue jeans pulled up over his bellybutton. Talks with a drawl like Karl and weighs over 250 lbs. His love for chewing tobacco hasn’t waned since being here. He never spits his tobacco juice. Ever. He swallows it. The only time he spits is when we make him spit it out, and even though he swallows it, he can’t have it on the unit. We keep his tobacco in the desk drawer. We hand it to him when smoking time rolls around. Then a week into his stay, he runs out of tobacco. The family won’t bring him any no matter how many times he calls them, and he calls every time the phone is available. They’re done. They’ve had it with him. But I feel sorry for him. This afternoon I caught him rummaging through the trashcan on the smoking porch. It resembles a trashcan you might see in a national park—green heavy-duty metal. Bear proof. But not Lester proof. He had his arm elbow-deep inside the trashcan, searching for a wad of tobacco he’d spit out the day before. But recycling chewing tobacco is not something the hospital allows, so I yelled for him to get out of the trashcan. He froze like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He turned and smiled, and then took his arm out.

After work I go to one of the discount tobacco stores that dot our city like Starbucks. The woman behind the counter knows me. I’m a regular cigarette runner for the hospital. Whenever a patient is out of cigarettes and driving staff crazy, we will all pitch in and buy a pack for them. Sometimes the woman behind the counter will donate a pack. And instead of one can of Skoal, I buy him a roll containing six cans (I’m a softie), and the woman behind the counter throws in two free cans of grape Skoal, a new product giveaway.

The following day I tell Lester what I have for him.

His eyes widen, and he says, “That’s like gold.”

“Here’s the deal,” I say. “Every time you go out on a smoke break, I’ll give you a pinch, then you have to bring it back and spit it in this bag. Got it?”

“Got it,” he says and laughs like a Darling on the Andy Griffith Show.

I watch him pace the smoking porch with a pregnant lip of gold. His Adam’s apple jutting out every few seconds. He walks and turns at the edge of the boundaries the hospital has mandated for them. They must stay in sight of the long plate glass window of the unit. He pulls his pants up at every turn. We’ve taken his belt. It’s in a storage lockup off the main nurses’ desk. He’ll get it back when he’s discharged. But for now his body misses it. He keeps a T-shirt tucked inside to help compensate.

The unit phone rings and I turn to answer it. When I turn back, I can’t find Lester. He’s out of sight. I rush to the unit door, figuring he’s gone beyond the boundaries and roamed around the corner of the building and into the center courtyard. But before I get out of the door, I see him. He’s doing pushups on the sidewalk.

“Lester, don’t exercise on the smoking porch.”

He rolls over onto his butt and pushes himself up, one knee at a time. He’s breathing hard. Sweat beads dot his forehead. He walks to where I stand and says, “I need my nitro pill.”

“Nitro pill? Lester, what are you talking about?”

“My chest is really hurting.” He has one hand over his heart.

“Come back inside. Let me take your blood pressure. But it’s probably heartburn from swallowing all of that Skoal.”

“No, it hurts bad.”

“Okay, I’ll call the nurse.”

A minute later the charge nurse bursts through the unit door. “What are his vitals?”

“I just started the machine.”

“Where do you hurt?” she asks.

“Right here. I need my nitro pill.”

“You’ve been prescribed nitro pills?”

“I brung’em from home with me. When I got here, that woman took’em from me.”

The blood pressure machine beeps, and the charge nurse looks through her bifocals. “That’s not good,” she says.

She picks up the unit phone and calls the med room. “Can you check to see if Lester Glassco has any medicine he brought from home. Then call me back on unit three.”

She walks back to where Lester sits. He’s rocking in his chair. Hand over his chest.

The charge nurse looks at me and asks, “What was he doing when his chest started hurting?”

“He was out on the smoking porch.”

“What was he doing out there? Was he smoking?”

“No, he dips Skoal.”

“Well, that isn’t much better. Did he get in a confrontation with someone? Did anything happen that would elevate his heart rate?”

“Well…he was doing pushups.”

“Doing pushups?”

The unit phone rings and the charge nurse picks up. “You found them. Great bring one quickly.” She hangs up and says to Lester, “She’s on her way with one. Lean back for me and try to relax.”

She looks at me.

“Why was he doing pushups? Were you out there with him?”

“No, ma’am. I saw him and went to the door to make him stop. Then he came inside and told me that his chest was hurting.”

The med nurse appears with the nitro pill.

“Here you go, Mr. Glassco,” the med nurse says. “Have you taken one of these before?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, hope this helps.”

We watch him for a few minutes. Not a word spoken.

Five minutes later, the charge nurse says, “Okay, let’s take his blood pressure again. How’s the pain? Better?”

“Better,” he says.

Once the crisis is over, the charge nurse takes me to the side and says, “No more exercising on the smoking porch. It’s your responsibility to watch them. They don’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain, and they sure don’t know when enough is enough. So no more exercising on the smoking porch. Not even a jumping jack. Got it?”

“Gotcha.”

The next day Lester becomes agitated and throws a chair across the dayroom. The man is country strong. I get out of his way until some more techs arrive. Then we wrestle him down to the floor. He’s screaming obscenities.

All of the patients scatter to their rooms except for a runt of a man. He’s sitting in a chair in the dayroom watching like a monkey high in a tree, munching on a banana. Just there. Not afraid of Lester.

We walk Lester to his room. He sits on the bed with his fingers twitching. His head bowed. Silent now. Staring at the floor. Breathing heavily.

I’m praying he won’t blow a heart valve. The charge nurse will blame me.

She rushes into the room. “What’s going on here?”

I look away from her.

“Not sure,” one of the other techs says. “He just started screaming and threw a chair.”

“Could be the nitro pill,” I say.

The charge nurse looks at me like I’m a dumbass.

“Lester, what’s going on?” she says.

“Ben Stallings is the one who broke up my marriage.”

The charge nurse says, “Does it upset you seeing him on the unit?”

I want to give her one of those you-dumbass-looks.

“Yes,” Lester whimpers.

I’d searched Ben a few hours ago when he was admitted. He has red dots that resemble measles all of his body. When I asked him about them, he said they were a side effect of the medication he was taking.

“Does it hurt?”

“Nah,” he’d said.

He hasn’t spoken a word since.

I wonder what kind of woman would desire a man with synthetic measles. It’s comical in a sense, a sad sense, a head-wagging one. What are the odds that you’ll encounter your nemesis in a psych hospital?

“Well, you need to stay clear of him. I can’t have the two of you fighting in my hospital.”

“I’m not going to fight him. Maybe kill him,” Lester says, looking up for the first time with a weak smile.

The charge nurse turns to me.

“I want you to keep the two of them separated. Let’s stagger their smoking breaks and meals. Let one go, and then the other.”

“Got it,” I say.

I wonder how it all went down between the three of them. I ask the charge nurse later when I see her off the unit. Surprisingly she tells me the story. Lester and Ben were once in the same group home. Lester had threatened his family once before and they kicked him off their property. He landed in a group home for a while, which is where he met Ben and his future wife. Lester married her, and they moved out.

“She’s been a patient here as well. Many times,” she says. “In fact, this is where Ben and her began their affair, so to speak. The two of them were discharged on the same day and rumor has it that they got together.”

She tells me her name.

“I remember her. Tall with hawkish features?”

“Sounds like her.”

I try to imagine how it all went down. Maybe Lester got down on one knee and proposed in the living room of the group home while a soap opera played in the background and a leaky roof stained the ceiling above. Maybe she slapped her hands together in excitement and shuffled her feet on shag carpet. Maybe Ben was lurking at the edges of the living room wishing he had thought to ask her first. Maybe the wedding took place on the lawn. Maybe they went on a honeymoon, and then moved into an apartment, rubbing two government checks together to pay the bills. And perhaps life was good for a while. Then she had a psychotic break or got off her meds. Who knows? But she was admitted around the same time as Ben. And Lester’s marriage dissolved.

Later in the shift, while Ben is outside smoking, I ask Lester what happened.

“He stole my wife. That’s what happened.”

“I know that, but how did it happen? How did you find out? Did she tell you or did you catch them?”

“I caught’em in bed together.”

I picture it. His wife below a red-dotted man.

“Wow! What did you do?”

“What did I do?” He screws up his face. “What did I do?”

“Yeah, what happened?”

He eyes me.

This is when I remember the chainsaw and his outburst in the dayroom. The charge nurse wouldn’t forgive me if I somehow instigated another one.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” I say. “I understand.”

Ben comes to the unit door. I open it and let him in.

“Okay, Lester, it’s your turn. Come get your Skoal.”

I let him get a pinch.

“No pushups. Got it?”

“Got it,” he says, while cramming the Skoal into his bottom lip.

It’s been two days since Lester threw the chair across the dayroom. Lester and Ben have managed not to speak. Ben remains perched in one of the high back chairs in the dayroom. Lester paces the hallway. His family is visiting tonight. It’s almost visitation time. The phone will ring any minute. The operator will tell me that Lester’s family is here to visit.

Thirty minutes into the hour visitation, they finally show. I carry Lester to the cafeteria that smells like bleach and toe jam. Three of his family members are seated near the empty salad bar. They hardly look at him as he takes a seat at the table. I sit nearby so I can hear the repercussions of an almost chainsaw massacre.

“I can’t stay here any longer,” Lester says. “Ben Stallings is here. Remember Ben?”

All three of them blink—two women, one man. One woman has on a flowered sundress. The other one is wearing low-rise jeans and a midriff shirt that exposes a red rose tattooed on her lower back that is dripping blood. The man is wearing dark blue coveralls with stains on the knees.

The man finally speaks. “You ain’t living with us. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be hacked into pieces. You scared the shit out of us with that chainsaw.”

“I wasn’t gonna hurt nobody.”

“Well, tobacco ain’t worth killing over,” the man says.

“Did you bring me any tobacco?” Lester says.

“Your ma ain’t got no money.”

“You got my check this week. It’s the first of the month.”

“What do you think we used to get here tonight? Gas is expensive. Then we got to eat. Damn near two hours just to get here. And you gonna sit there and act like we living high on the hog with your paycheck. The government don’t think that highly of you.”

Lester slams his fist down on the table and says, “I want out of here. I swear I’ll kill Ben if I have to stay here one more day.”

They bat their eyes.

Then the father says, “We done sold your chainsaw and your guns.”

“Well, by damn, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”

I walk over and say, “Lester, calm down or I will have to take you back to the unit.”

He glances at me with a thousand chainsaws reflecting in his eyes.

“Try me.”

I fear the charge nurse more than I do him at the moment.

He wags his finger at me, and then diverts his eyes.

When the operator announces that visitation hours are over, they stand. No hugs or kisses. They simply walk out. Lester looks at me. I take him back.

Two days later while working on another unit, I see his face in the square window of the psychotic unit door. He’s looking out at the nurse’s station, and when he sees me, he shoots me this huge smile. I put my key in the lock on the wall and open the unit door.

“How’s it going?” I say.

“Fine, just fine,” he says.

Then he says something that shocks me.

He says, “I love you.”

He suddenly looks embarrassed. His huge smile trembles beneath the florescent light of the hallway. He stands waiting for a response. It’s my turn to say something. His face is red. I’m not sure why he says this. I’m not sure what my response should be. Should I reply? It’s not every day that a man tells me he loves me. Not even my own father. Growing up we never said these words to each other. I think about this while staring into the face of this chainsaw-wheeling man. Can a man like this feel love? And maybe it has something to do with the grape Skoal. I’m not sure why he feels the need to say this. But I can’t say it back. I stand flat-footed, refusing this love, whatever it might mean.

Lester is being discharged this afternoon. We are waiting on his family to arrive. We’ve packed all of his belongings in hospital-issued plastic bags. I wrote his name on the side of them with a Sharpie. Now we’re out on the smoking porch. I’m sitting at a picnic table, doing paperwork. He’s pacing, working the Skoal in his lip, and swallowing every few minutes, as the sky threatens rain and the air is muggy, the way it gets before a thundershower.

The charge nurse opens the unit door and says Lester’s family has arrived. She tells Lester to spit out his tobacco and asks me to take Lester’s belongings to his family in the lobby. I follow the nurse and Lester to the front. When we get there, the same family members await him. The old man has on the same pair of coveralls with stains on the knees. They don’t look me in the eyes, but surprisingly, they hug Lester, and I realize the power of familial love.

Outside on the sidewalk leading to the visitor parking lot, I reveal another can of grape Skoal that I got for him this morning when I made another cigarette-run for other patients.

I place it in his hand. His face widens the same way it did when I revealed the Skoal to him days ago. He grabs and hugs me.

“Don’t squeeze too hard,” I say, feeling uncomfortable in his arms and glad to get this response. When he lets me go, I say, “Enjoy it.”

“Don’t you worry,” he says.

Lester and his family climb inside a dented, blue Ford. The shocks labor beneath the weight of them, as they position themselves. Lester looks back at me through the side window in the backseat. He shoots me a shit-eating grin. I see a lump of grape Skoal in his lip. The father backs out and guns the motor. Smoke drifts into and beyond the telephone poles at the edge of the street, dispersing into gloam, and I’m wondering how long this newfound love will last.

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CONTRIBUTORS

Ron Lands is  enjoying a second career in academic medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His short stories have been published or are forthcoming in several literary journals. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published several reflective vignettes in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Internal Medicine. His work appears in literary anthologies published by both of these professional journals.

Robert Lavender currently works at a psych hospital, where he teaches creative writing as therapy to suicidal adolescents. You can visit a blog of their writing at http://360westproject.com/.  His work has been published in Brevity, Reed Magazine, Front Porch Journal, Controlled Burn, Clackamas Literary Review, and he was a finalist in the 580 Split Fiction Contest.

Valerie Nieman’s third novel, Blood Clay, is newly published by Press 53.  She is the author of a collection of short stories, Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press, and a poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry, New Letters, Blackbird, 5 A.M., and West Branch, as well as two chapbooks and several anthologies.  She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry.  A native of Western New York State, she graduated from West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte.  She teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University and is the poetry editor for Prime Number.

Kevin Ridgeway is a writer from Southern California.  His prose and poetry have appeared in Mt. San Antonio College’s The Left Coast Review and the magazine Insomnis Veritas.  He has forthcoming publications in Breadcrumb Scabs:  A Poetry Magazine as well as Calliope Nerve and Larks Fiction Magazine.

Clifton Snider, faculty emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, is the internationally-acclaimed author of nine books of poetry, including his latest, Aspens in the Wind (2009), and The Alchemy of Opposites (2000).  His Moonman: New and Selected Poems is scheduled to be published in the coming year by World Parade Books.  His novel about the rise, fall, and physical and spiritual recovery and comeback of a 1980s rock star, Loud Whisper (2000), is slated to become a major motion picture from the award-winning independent film company, Iconoclastic Features.  His coming out/coming of age novel, Bare Roots, was published in 2001, as was his novel about two gay Pentecostal preacher’s sons, one of whom disappears under ominous circumstances, Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers.  A Jungian/Queer literary critic, his book, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature, was published in 1991, and he has published hundreds of poems, fiction, and articles internationally.  His work has been translated into French and Russian.