Winter 2015

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Father’s on the Other Line by Kelly Ann Jacobson

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When Celia’s half-brother, Liam, called her on a Sunday night, Celia answered on the first ring. Liam rarely called, and Celia, a ghost mystery solver, was often otherwise occupied with skeletons, séances, and murders.

“Hello Doctor Elingston,” she teased as she picked up the phone with one hand and poured Earl Grey tea into her teacup with the other. She could spend hours that way, musing over the goings-on of New York City from her fire escape, if she didn’t have so many cases to work on.

“Hello Mrs. Darden. I take it you’re enjoying a night off from chasing dead people around the city?”

He sounded shaken, though he recited his usual greeting. Celia didn’t need to be a detective to hear the uncertainty in his voice, though her brother had never been anything but collected in the entire time she had known him.

“Has something happened,” Celia asked, “to my nieces, or to Mary?” Celia had no children of her own, but she lived for those two girls.

“No, nothing like that.” Liam paused. “It’s just…have you seen anything unusual lately?”

“Unusual? Like a baby left for dead in a hand basket who cried for ten years straight, a man with both his arms cut off, or a string of gruesome psychopath’s victims chopped up and arranged in mandala patterns? I’m paid a measly income from the government and a lot of money from private patrons to stare at unusual things for them. What’s this is really about?”

“Fair enough.” Her brother sighed, and Celia ran through all of the terrible things he might say. Cancer. Tumor. Something wrong with mother. A lost job. “I saw father last night.”

The cell phone in Celia’s hand tumbled onto the fire escape and rolled. A few inches from the edge, where it would have tumbled into traffic or, worse, a pedestrian, she snatched it back to her ear.

“You can’t be serious.” She clutched her hand to her chest, feeling the suddenly unbreathable city air struggling through her lungs. “Father’s dead. And I don’t just mean he died overseas, I mean he came back as a ghost and finished his unfinished business—telling mother about you—and then he died again, for real. I watched him vanish.”

“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Liam said, back into his doctor-comforting-a-patient voice. “I’ve never seen a ghost, and I probably won’t see one again, but Celia, it was him. I went in to check on the girls and there he was, standing over them like a sentry from his watchtower. I bit my lip so hard it bled trying not to scream, but he just put a finger to his lips and disappeared.”

“Impossible—” Celia started to say when her call waiting buzzed in her ear. “That’s strange,” she said more to herself than Liam. “It’s mother.” Their mother Robin had developed Alzheimer’s several years prior, and had stopped calling her children around the time she confused Celia for her grandmother.

“Pick up,” Liam urged, probably out of a combination of curiosity and relief.

“Fine, but this conversation isn’t over,” Celia said. She switched to the other line.

“Celia?” an uncertain voice asked.

“Yes, it’s me. Is everything alright?” Celia spoke carefully, her voice soothing and slow, while she swirled her tea bag by the white string.

“No,” her mother answered, “but I need to speak to you, and there might not be much time. Celia, if your father’s there, I need you to give him a message for me.”

Celia’s heart pounded faster, mirroring the rapid ca-ching ca-ching of tires over the metal grate.

“Father?” she asked, her voice higher than she meant it to be.

“Yes dear, hasn’t he visited you yet? I saw him earlier today on the veranda, watching me through the window, but when I tried to talk to him, he—”

“—vanished?”

“Exactly. Just tell him that I love him, and ask him to wait for me. I’ll be there soon.”

The line went dead, and Celia placed her phone back on the metal step with a shaking hand. If her father was still a ghost, then what had happened forty years ago when she had told her mother about her dead father’s mistress and his son, Liam, before he disappeared? Where had he been? If he needed a shepherd to lead him to the afterlife, why had he never come to Celia to ask for her help?

Her phone rang a third time, and she answered without checking the number. “Did you see him again?”

“Mrs. Darden?” an unfamiliar voice questioned. It was a man’s voice, with an almost huffing tone, and Celia thought she’d heard it before.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, this is she.”

“This is Officer Barrett. We’ve met several times at the office, but unfortunately, I’m not calling about a case.”

“What happened?” Celia asked. “Is it my father?”

“Your father? They told me he was your husband—a Mr. Cain Darden?”

Celia let out a relieved sigh. “Yes, he’s my husband. Has he found a crime scene he needs me to look at? He can’t see ghosts, you know, only hear them, so—”

“He’s dead.”

When Celia arrived at the scene of the crime, a robbery in an alley only a few blocks from her apartment, she was prepared to see her husband’s spirit floating somewhere on a fire escape or window ledge. She practiced what she would say to him over and over again—how he could not wait for her to die but should move to the afterlife, how no matter how much he would miss her, he needed to be free—but when she arrived at the alley and ducked under the police tape, she saw…nothing.

The body was there, of course, but Celia had seen enough dead bodies to tell Cain’s spirit was no longer attached to the lump of cold flesh emptying itself through the wounds like a deflating balloon. She knew that when she confirmed that those were indeed Cain’s eyes and his pale white hands and his perfectly combed black hair, she might as well have been looking in the face of a doll.

“Are you going to pass out?” an officer asked as she swayed. The night had grown cold and overcast, and any minutes, the skies would open and rain away the last mark of her husband.

They gave her his belongings: an empty wallet found in Cain’s hand, half of a pencil, and three loose quarters. The thief, who the police promised they would work tirelessly to find, had left the photograph of her in the wallet flap, so at least her husband had that small comfort as he waited to die.

Celia wanted to be at least appreciate Cain’s spiritual evaporation—he had not felt tethered to their earth, had simply floated up to the heavens or whatever abyss ghosts disappeared into—yet at the same time, she was hurt. Had she not been enough unfinished business for him? Had he needed a child to cling to life long enough to pass on a message, the way her father had? A greater passion, like that of her cousin William, who she’d found in that very apartment just waiting to reunite with his love?

When she returned home, wet from the rain that had indeed come, she was suddenly so weary she did not remove her shoes as they dripped mud and water onto her white antique carpets. Instead, Celia sunk into her easy chair and stared at the photograph as though her own face might reveal something she had missed. Over and over again she examined it, and then, on a whim, turned it over.

Your Father, the tiny pencil print told her from the corner of the back side. Here.

Celia slept for hours. Her phone vibrated against the marble top of her bedside table; her door reverberated her brother’s knocks and calls through the house. As her legs and toes and fingers grew heavy as stone, Celia imagined that if she could only lie there long enough, Cain would come in from the cold, his scarf wrapped around his neck and face like a mummy, and kiss her through the wool. Only the clock, her Aunt Sophie’s antique Gilbert Speltor, kept time, though eventually its fat, embellished belly seemed to sink into its skinny legs as sleepily as her own stomach into the comfort of the mattress.

After an entire day had passed and the darkness of 3:00 A.M. surrounded her, Celia woke from her half-sleep and heard Cain’s voice, though the sound came from inside of her. Enough. She dressed in his favorite outfit of hers, a forest green sweater-dress and the cowboy boots they’d bought while tracking a murderer to Texas, and layered the clothing with a winter coat and matching green hat. She turned off the lights, closed the shades, and locked the door behind her.

As she leapt from the balcony, as intent as a ghost as it falls from its heavenly assent to the location of its haunting, Celia spotted her father above her. He sat on the railing like a fisherman waiting for a catch, and then, in one beautiful dive, followed her past the joyful windows of her neighbors.

She could never be a ghost, she decided right before she hit the ground. Her unfinished business knew she was coming, and he was waiting for her on the other side.

 

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The One for Tommy by Michael Trottier

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Tommy wakes up around 5 o’clock to discover he is in a cave.  The cave is square, a perfect one, with stalagmites and stalagmites in perfect symmetrical order.  He wanders down the hallway entertaining thoughts of mystery and love.  He did not remember how he had gotten here.  He did not remember the past month of his life.  All he felt, was a warm sense of longing, like the feeling of looking at a crush, comforted by the fact that you’ll never actually have to make a commitment.  Tommy loves not having to make commitments.  He has gone through his short life making almost none.  The only agreements he made were being born and eating food.  Were he old enough to pay taxes, he would probably sweat at the thought of entering into such a long-term relationship.

As he walks, Tommy marvels at the sharp edges of the cave, the perfect 90 degree walls, the stalagmites coming up in smooth rectangles, with no grain of dirt out of place.  He touches one, and feels a heat, like a dying fire that is not there.  He puts his hand on it. It burns.  Suddenly overcome with anger, Tommy kicks the structure, toppling it, reducing the once perfect block into a billion specks.  The cave now looks filthy.  It feels filthy.  Tommy scoops up the detritus and wonders if it is hurt. He tucks the dust away in his pocket for safe-keeping, and instantly regrets everything he has ever done.

Tommy starts crying.  Tommy drops to his knees.  The warm feeling is getting heavy and traveling down to his stomach.  As his tears hit the ground, they transform the cave into something more.  The dust turns to carpet as the cave collapses upward.  A loom sprouts up behind him as lights turn florescent.  He looks around.  The rooms is made of carpets.  Oriental, with flashes of tile.  Tommy notices the fine grouting as a “shh” comes from behind.

“But I didn’t say anythi-”

“SHHH!”

Tommy looks behind him, and sees an elderly woman at the loom.  She is making a carpet, but not in the way that Tommy thought carpets were made.  She appeared to simply be hitting the loom with her finger tips, like a child pretending to play piano.  Yet it seemed to work. The loom was producing beautiful carpet.

“That’s amazing.” Tommy says.

“It’s crap,” the woman replies. “Complete and utter crap.  I’m never going to amount to anything, I’ll never become something important.  Look at all these rags.”

She gestures to the whole of the room.

“No even fit to be wallpaper.  Even tried tile, but failed at that too. Nothing right, nothing right, nothing right.”

She stops picking at the loom and holds her head in her hands.

“The landlady will be here soon, I think you should find your own space, and maybe make something of yourself.”

“I’ll never make anything as beautiful as you.”

“HAH!” The lady spits. “Then the world lost nothing.”

Tommy is confused by this.

“Tide comes in, tide comes out,” the old lady continues. “It’s always gonna go out, out, out.  Can’t stop it ‘less you shoot the moon.  But I was never good at cards.  I bet you’ve got a mush mind, you look like the type, well, that’s fine I suppose.  She’ll know what to do with you.  Should be coming any time now.  She gives mush minds like the one-two, know what I mean?”

“I don’t.”

“THAT’S WHY YOU’RE JUST DIRT AND MUSH, YOU LITTLE PIECE OF INSIGNIFICANT AFTERBIRTH. YOU ARE NOT MISSED, YOU ARE NOT LOVED.  THE WORLD IS GOING TO LOOK AT YOUR GRAVE AND SHURG!”

The woman’s loom explodes into flames.  She screams.

“That’s enough for today.”

Another has entered the room.  She is dressed crisply, with a  sharp blazer and stylish glasses.  She doesn’t walk so much as change her stance.  Her presence is heavy.  She waves her hand as the flames dissipate.

“Back to work now.”

The elderly woman does not speak.  She returns to her now unburnt loom, and whispers things no one wants to hear.

“Come now, Tommy.  I’ve prepared your room.”  The sharp woman takes Tommy by the hand and leads him through a door that was not there before.  For a little while, they are in darkness.  Then there is a bed.  Then there is a closet.  Then they are back in Tommy’s old room.  The one he had when he was five.  There are dinosaurs on the wall, and glow-planets on the ceiling.  Tommy remembers watching their fake light for hours while sleep evaded him.

“This will be your repository.  I have tried to make it comfortable for you, but you may do whatever you like with the place.  Spruce it up.  Add a spaceship.  Do something productive.  I don’t care.”

“I can…I can do whatever I want?”

“Yes.  You always could, Tommy.”

“Didn’t feel that way.”

“Well, it isn’t.  It’s not.  But I like to say that to the newcomers.  They do seem to love it.”

“Do any of them believe you?”

“No.  But it never hurts to try.”

The room didn’t seem too bad.  Things would have to change though.  Tommy knew that.

“Is this my punishment?  Am I gonna be like her?”

“Only if you want it be, Tommy.”  She gets up from the bed.

“I did it wrong, didn’t I?  I did it all wrong.”

The walls are sweating now.  The plants are becoming yarn and unspooling.  Everything is a mess.

“I did, right? So I’m bad.  I’m mush!  I’m dirt!  I’m the worst kind of car crash, forgettable.  Nothing…NOTHING!”

“Shhhh.” The lady spoke somewhere between comfort and ennui.  “You chose to make the tide go out.  Your mind was as inevitable as water.”

An empty bottle of vodka sprouts from the Tommy’s bed, which is now growing furry arms and legs like a teddy bear.

“Ah, good.  I’ve been waiting for the vessel.”  She grabs the bottle and gives it, delicately, to Tommy.

“Here my darling.  You have one last thing to send.  Only one thing you can send to them.  Put it in the bottle, and I’ll take it topside.”

On Earth, five years pass before Tommy touches the bottle.  He is using most of his time to try and untangle all the yarn.  It is an arduous process, but allows him the pleasure of not seeing the bottle’s permanence.  When the yarn is finally neat, there is nothing left to do but stare at the bottle.  This takes another two years.  Finally, Tommy reaches inside his pocket and takes out the dirt of the shattered stalagmite.  With a sudden rush of feeling, he pours it into the vodka bottle.  The material begins to bounce and sway, aching for form.  Tommy closes his eyes and breathes into the bottle.  The dust clings to breath, embracing it like a cocoon.  The shape is messy, malformed and needed.  Tommy thinks it looks like the burnt end of a rope that ties together the fibers.

He throws it into the darkness where the sharp lady catches it.  She observes the structure and nods.  As he lies down and sleeps for the first time since his arrival, Tommy knows he will never exhale again.

The planets are glowing, and the bed hugs him goodnight.

 

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Nora by Jose Sotolongo

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The gunshots woke him up just as it started to get light out.  Too early in the season for deer hunting, he thought.  Must be another animal being hunted down.  Jeremiah loved the fact that the woods surrounding his house were insulation from the human contact he wanted only sparingly, but here it had been violated this morning, violently.  It would be another hour before the alarm would go off, but he wouldn’t go back to sleep now, eager for the beauty of sunrise.  He turned the radio on softly, although he was all alone in the house, as he had been for the past three years, except for Nora.  He got out of bed to a chair by the window and sat there naked to watch the birds.

The clearing where the house had been built in the early 1800’s was in the middle of  acres of woods, hundreds of them.  The tree closest the house was an ancient and dying maple, its trunk three feet across.  Just beyond it started a trail that went for miles, into unpopulated acres of the Catskills.  Daily, after work, he and Nora, his Newfoundland, would climb to the top of Goat Hill and never see a soul.

She was a huge dog, the focus of his emotional life after he brought her home from the shelter, two weeks after Rose had died.  Her slobbering affection dominated any room she was in, and he woke up in the mornings now with a sense of purpose that was new.  Even people at work, an emotionally cold place for him, had noticed a change in his spirits.  The one person he occasionally chatted with at the factory, Luna, had noticed the change.

“You actually smile in the mornings now.  It’s that dog, isn’t it?”  she had said a few days after he had brought Nora home.   And yet, even with Luna, who was dark of skin and mood, he maintained a certain distance, despite the fact that he thought of her pretty face and shapely body when he woke up with a morning erection.

He had broken his engagement to Rose three years ago, after a difficult year.  What was the point, he had concluded, of marrying someone with whom there were more skirmishes than pleasures?  He knew he tended to be too logical and rigid about things, and Rose had been careless of any order, even messy.  He wanted, for instance, the orange juice in the refrigerator on the left side of the shelf and the milk on the right, so that he could pick up the heavier milk with his stronger right hand.  Rose didn’t see the point, or didn’t care, and put the cartons back any which way.

He had liked her sweet thoughtfulness in the early days of their relationship, especially in the quiet mornings as they got ready for work.  She would scald the milk in his mug in the microwave as he liked, before pouring the coffee in, and would give him a kiss on the cheek as she handed it to him.  All her charms had become eclipsed by her worsening temper in the evenings, along with an enormous weight gain.  Some evenings he wished that she would not come home from the auto dealership where she worked.

He had finally run out of energy for Rose, and had called it off one Wednesday evening as they were cleaning up after dinner.  Standing at the sink, with his back to her, he had said, “I’ve been doing some thinking about our future.”

After a few seconds silence, during which the clatter of dishes that she she was clearing had stopped, he continued.

“I’m not sure marriage is what I want any time soon, or ever.  I need time alone.”

She had dropped the dishes on the table and spoke incomprehensible words through heaves and tears.  She went to him, looked at him incredulously as he turned finally from the sink to face her, but he said nothing more.

With her face bathed in snotty tears and drunk on chardonnay, she had driven off in the dark, forgetting the headlights and the seat belt, and had gone off a high bridge over a dry creek.  He made himself believe it was just an accident, and nothing more, although her weight problem, she had often said, had kept men away for most of her adult life.  He was it, she had said.

She had been just slightly overweight when they had met, having just finished a diet, but in the space of two years she had grown massive, clothes splitting and eroding from the chafe of her flesh.  The smell from under her breasts and abdominal folds when they were in bed was yeasty and pungent, and sex had become nauseating for him the rare times he even attempted it.  Even as he prepared the words for the break up, days before the accident, he kept hearing  her words that he was the only one with whom she could have a future.

She had died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.  Whether her death had been accidental or a suicide, he felt the crush of guilt.  His wish for her not to come home had come true.  Perhaps if he had used different language, or chosen a quieter, less acrimonious evening, he thought, she might still be alive.  He wished he had stopped her from getting in the car while intoxicated, and wondered whether he hadn’t because on some level he had hoped for the very end she had met.

George, the foreman at the factory, had reluctantly agreed to his week’s vacation.  It was a busy time of the year in the manufacture of chef’s knives, three months before Christmas. But Jeremiah was a good worker, punctual and fast, and he was seen by George as dour and distant, not likely to back down easily from a reasonable and rare request for vacation.  “Going anywhere on your time off, Jeremiah?” He had asked, trying to break the uncomfortable distance between them.

“Nope,” Jeremiah said quickly, but without vinegar.  “Just catching up on work around the house.”

In fact, Jeremiah had made plans to pack up the tent and take Nora on a camping trip to a lakeside, where she might go swimming, which she loved to do.  In preparation, he went shopping for the provisions he would need, mostly vegetables and grains.  He was working towards being a complete vegetarian ever since he had become educated in the practices of the food industry: chickens that never saw daylight; calves chained to remain tender veal; pigs that lived in pens so crowded they ate their young.  He didn’t want to be a predator of other animals when there were alternatives.  His lack of banter about women and his vegetarian lunches at work drew smirks and snide comments from some of the other guys.  He kept his distance from everyone but Luna.

On Monday, the first day of his vacation, he arose just a little later than usual.  He lingered over his coffee in the kitchen, looking out at the busy bird feeder.  As he watched, a male cardinal in brilliant red flew in to feed, and immediately was attacked by the resident and territorial male cardinal.  After a scuffle of red on the ground, he could see one of the birds limping away, unable to fly.  Better to look away, he thought, and not witness this violence.

“Come, Nora, let’s go for a walk.”  She perked up her ears and ran to the door, waiting for him to grab his flannel overshirt.  They took the path by the maple, planning a longer walk today, luxuriating in his first free day.  Nora nosed the trail, finding hidden scents, and he envied her connection to her surroundings.  Compared to her, he thought, he was an alien visitor to this planet.

He took the low trail to go back, Nora leading the way.  Near the bottom of the trail, not a half mile from the house, Nora pointed her nose up in the air and took off into the woods.  When she didn’t come back right away, he sat on one of the many boulders for a few minutes.  It was nearly lunch time, and the lentils he had left soaking before the walk would be ready for a quick boil with garlic, oregano, and olive oil.  Where was Nora?

After a few minutes she reappeared on the trail, carrying a large, muddy object in her mouth.  She stopped for a second and looked at him before racing down the trail, back to the house.  Jeremiah followed her back, intent on not letting her eat something that might harm her, like a deer bone.  As he neared the house he saw her by the kitchen door, eating the contents of what she had been carrying in her mouth: a wooden box almost big enough to hold a pair of shoes.  She looked up at him as she crunched what must have been a bone, her found snack.

The small brass plaque on the mahogany box that now sat on the kitchen table was engraved:  Richard Scofield, June 6, 1938 — September 20, 2010.  The name was familiar.  He knew they lived in the area and had read something in the paper about them, but didn’t know them.  He searched in vain outside by the kitchen door, where Nora had been going through the box, looking for any recognizable remains.  Nora sat by her food canister, ready for a proper meal.

He cooked and ate the lentils, and fed Nora, usually an enjoyable task for him.  Today, though, he fed her without satisfaction, watched her eat not with the gratification of nourishing her, but with some disgust.  Her eating fragments of human bones, likely the result of cremation, had crossed a line for him.  She had chased and mangled squirrels and woodchucks before, and would partially eat them some times.  But to eat human remains — didn’t dogs have a sophisticated olfactory system that would limit what they would eat?  He watched her finish her bowl of kibble with sadness and disgust.

After lunch they set out again, up the trail, to the boulder where he had sat and waited for her.  He tried to determine where in the dense brush Nora had ventured off the trail, and he went into the woods, hoping Nora would lead him to the spot.  He had brought the box along to place it back in its proper place, if he could find it.  But where could it have been that it was so easily reached by Nora?  Why wouldn’t it have been properly buried, or kept in the family’s home?  He held the box close to Nora’s nose, but she took no initiative.  He walked through some brambles with difficulty, looking for a clearing with a freshly dug spot, without success.  He put the box down in front of the dog.  She ignored it and sat, looking at him.  They went back home.

There was one Richard Scofield listed in the telephone directory.  He considered calling the number, then knew he couldn’t face telling whomever answered what had happened.  And wouldn’t there be legal repercussions for him because his dog had disturbed a gravesite?

He closed the lid of the box as well as he could.  Nora’s powerful jaws had broken the hinges and cracked the wood.  He walked to his pickup and placed the box in the glove compartment.  He busied himself with repairing a tear in the tent and cleaning the bed of the pickup, in preparation for tomorrow’s camping trip.  By then he’d be done with this incident.

After dark, before dinner, he set out without Nora towards the address listed for the Scofield house.  It was easy to find on this country lane with very few homes.  No other cars traveled the road as he approached the house, which was entirely dark except for a light downstairs.  A car in the driveway of the only other house, some forty feet away, reflected the blue light from a T.V. set coming through a window.  Jeremiah stepped out of the truck and tried to place the box in the mailbox, but it wouldn’t fit.  He left it on the ground, and left.

Back home, he found the number again, and dialed.

“Hello?” It was the shaky voice of an elderly woman.  Frail.

“Is this Mrs. Scofield?”

“Yes.  Who is this?”  There was some alarm in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” Jeremiah said.  “It was an accident.”

“I don’t understand.  Who is this?” now with some fear.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.  “It’s by the mailbox.”  He struggled to say something comforting to this scared old woman on the phone, but he did not want to give his identity away.  “I’m very sorry.”  He hung up.

He slept badly, tortured by the furtive way he had returned the remains.  He arose at dawn, unable to sleep once the sun was up, and got ready for the long drive later that morning to the campground.  After breakfast, as he finished loading his gear on to the bed of the truck, a state trooper pulled into his driveway.  Jeremiah froze, already queasy with dread that his truck had been identified last night.

“Looking for Jeremiah Spencer,” said the trooper.

“That’s me.” He tried to sound casual and relaxed.

“Your vehicle was seen by a neighbor as having been at 71 Denton Road last evening.”

“Yes,” said Jeremiah.  “I wanted to return a wooden box to its rightful owner.”

The trooper made some notes in a pad.  “How did you come upon the box in the first place?”

“My dog Nora found it in the woods.”  Nora, who had been lying down between them, looked at him and at the trooper when she heard her name mentioned, wagging her tail.  The trooper ignored the dog.

“Do you know what was in that box?” he asked.

“I couldn’t be sure, but the plaque on it had someone’s name and dates, so I assumed it was in memory of a deceased person,” Jeremiah said.  There was no point, he thought, telling the trooper about the crunching of bones in Nora’s jaws.  The trooper thought about Jeremiah’s response for a few seconds, and then asked Jeremiah to show him where in the woods Nora had found the box.  With some trepidation, thinking the trooper might arrest him for failing to prevent his dog from desecrating a grave, Jeremiah led him up the trail, followed by Nora, who gamely ran circles around them as they walked up the trail.

The walk seemed to relax the trooper.  “Nice country back here,” he said.

“Yes, Nora and I have been walking this trail ever since I got her as a pup, almost two years ago.

They walked the rest of the way in silence until they arrived at the spot where Nora had emerged from the woods with the box.  “This is where she came out of the woods with it,” Jeremiah said.

“Did you go into the woods at all, you yourself, I mean?”

“No, I just saw her come back to the trail through there,” he said, pointing at a clearing.

At this point the trooper took out a roll of yellow tape from his pant’s pocket printed with “CRIME SCENE DO NOT ENTER,” and tied a length of it across the clearing between the bushes where Nora had emerged.  Jeremiah thought the next words out of the trooper’s mouth would be “You’re under arrest,” and he looked at the trooper with dismay, feeling faint.  He sat down on the nearby boulder.

“You OK?” the trooper asked.

“Not sure,” he said.  “Am I in trouble?”

“Not really, but we may need to ask you more details in the next few days.  The box your dog found was one of several stolen last year from Hansen’s Funeral Parlor.  Someone broke in looking for jewelry being buried with the deceased.  We’ve had a couple of suspects for a while.  Be sure to be available for the next few days.”

Back home, Jeremiah unpacked the camping gear, and after putting it all away sat at the kitchen table and looked at Nora, sleeping by the door.  Nora’s behavior paled now next to the ruthlessness of the robbery.

It was not noon yet.  If he couldn’t go on his camping trip because of the trooper’s instructions, he would not waste his vacation.  He found his fishing gear and loaded it onto the truck, put Nora in the back, and drove to a stream eight miles away where there were trout running.

As he put on his long waders and got his gear ready, Nora sniffed towards the woods, then ran off into them.  He heard a horrific scream then, coming from the woods, not more than twenty yards away, followed by the rustling of vegetation being disturbed.  Had something attacked her?  There were bears still out this time of year.  The fear of her being killed or injured chilled him.

Nora burst out of the woods suddenly, carrying a spotted fawn in her mouth, not more than a day or two old, bleeding profusely and still kicking, even as it died in her jaws.  Jeremiah became quickly nauseated at the sight of the carnage.  His disbelief at what he was seeing paralyzed him, and the panic of losing her gave way to revulsion.

As if watching from the treetops, he saw himself moving away from her and closer to the few people in his small world.  He looked at the dying fawn, savaged by Nora.  This graphic proof that death was inevitable and sometimes untimely brought him sudden peace.  He had caused a flare-up in Rose’s despair, not her death.  Other events to come in his life would lighten that weight.  Luna, for instance, had asked last week, without a trace of guile or calculation, to meet his dog.  It would be nice, he thought, if that went some place eventually, unless that too fell apart, or death came to one of them before the relationship matured.  He didn’t think he was being morbid.  No, it was just the way things were, what could happen.

And then Nora walked up to him and dropped the now limp and bloody carcass at his feet.  She went to lie down in the shade a few feet away, panting from the heat, looking out at the stream, as if she was pondering a swim.

 

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Book Review — Dead Zero

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Reviewed by Scott Holstad

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started out really well, but the ending was so incredibly stupid that I have to give it just a couple of stars. The book starts out with Ray Cruz, a Marine sniper who is tasked with having to assassinate an Afghan warlord named Ibrahim Zarzi. However, out in the Afghan wilderness, he and his spotter are jumped by mercenaries (American). His spotter is killed, he is wounded, but escapes. He tries to complete his mission, but a missile destroys the building he was going to use to do it on.

Fast forward in time. The FBI comes to one Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Hunter’s books up til now. Retired and an old former Marine sniper, they want his help in locating and stopping Cruz, because they’ve received a message from Cruz that he’s going to somehow finish his mission, killing Zarzi in the US as he tours the country. He’s changed his ways and is an American golden boy now, and we’re promoting him for Afghan president. The problem is, the mercs are still after Cruz, and now they’re after Swagger.

It’s an action packed, fast paced mystery/thriller that is pretty exciting and even though it’s not remotely believable, unlike Alex Berenson’s novels, it’s still a good ride. And then something happens. A few things.

I don’t know how to write spoilers in these reviews, so I’m just going to write it here:

*** SPOILER ALERT***

Cruz turns out to be Swagger’s son. Nice coincidence, that, don’t you think? Now we can keep the book series alive, even as Swagger gets to be too old to continue. I didn’t like that. Not at all. And I’ve read the next Cruz book and I hated it, so … not thrilled.

The FBI finds out there’s an emergency at the White House and they need a sniper. They call all of their snipers and find they’ve all gone home because they’re tired out from what they just went through. So the FBI goes to the White House with Swagger and Cruz, who apparently aren’t tired at all. But here’s the thing — doesn’t the president have the … Secret Service at all times? Wouldn’t you think they’d have plenty of men around to terminate the threat? Wonder why Hunter didn’t think of that….

Here’s the kicker. Major spoiler. The ending is so damn stupid as to make the entire book useless. The bad guy did everything because he’s pissed off at the West (and the US) for the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 and what that has done to women. Yep. Women work now and earn just as much, if not more, than men. (Don’t know where Hunter got that utterly false statistic.) Women should be barefoot and pregnant, apparently, and should know their place. The family unit is shrinking. Western society got along quite nicely for centuries with men in the lead and now, thanks to birth control, women are running wild. So Islam, with its misogynistic views, is our only hope. Yeah, I know. Can you believe that shit? That’s the biggest pile of horseshit I’ve ever read. To think that an intelligent reading audience would buy that as the reason for taking down the US by a traitor is asinine. So I would give this book one star, but I’m giving it two because it was exciting, up til that point. Still, definitely not recommended.

 

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Book Review — The Night Ranger

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Reviewed by Scott Holstad

The Night Ranger by Alex Berenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an interesting read. On one hand, it was an exciting, action packed thriller that was hard to put down. On the other hand, the author wrote in some loose ends and his portrayal of women in general leaves something to be desired, much to my surprise.

In previous books, former CIA agent John Wells saved the country and maybe the world from biological weapons, nuclear war, etc. Big stuff. So this one is on a smaller scale. He gets a call from his estranged son, Evan, who pleads with him to go to Kenya and Somalia to track down four college age aid volunteers who have been kidnapped. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it is. He discovers a conspiracy on the part of the leader of this aid group to kidnap his own nephew and three others, hold them for awhile, and release them with the release of his new book, making him a best selling hero. But things don’t work out that nicely. First, the young people are all very unlikeable. Scott is a frat boy dick who gets away with anything. Owen wants Gwen, a vapid, beautiful blond sorority girl. And the other girl just seems to be along for the ride. So a Somali warlord finds them, kills the fake kidnappers, kills Scott when the kid mouths off to him, and takes the remaining three to his camp in Somalia to hold them for ransom. Wells figures this out. Problem. Corrupt Kenyan police arrest him for nothing at all, so he has to escape and now he’s being hunted by them. He’s trying to use his old CIA contacts for help locating the camp, which works out, and he goes there, one against 60 or 70 armed militia men. Seems a little unbelievable, but Berenson is such a great writer, he can have you believing just about any scenario he writes. And so he saves the day. As you knew he would. It’s more exciting than that, but I don’t want to give the plot away.

My problems are these: Wells went to Africa as a favor to his son, yet we never hear anything that results from this action. Do the two draw closer? Does his son forgive him for “deserting” he and his mom when he was little? We never find out. Additionally, John’s girlfriend Ann just seems to be a minor plot device that is literally useless. We never get to know her, so we really don’t give a crap when Wells is kissed by an African woman who’s after him (or so it seems). Screw Ann! I couldn’t care anything at all for her because the author hasn’t given her a remotely significant role to play in these books. Also, the women all seem to be pretty stupid in this book, led by the two college girls. Absolute airheads. If I were a feminist, I think I would be pretty ticked about this representation of women in the book. Moreover, there’s the Evan problem. He turns from this total nerd in love with Gwen into this vicious monster, willing to kill just about anyone and anything and it seems completely out of character for him. I had a hard time believing it.

So how do I rate this book? Considering all of the problems, it probably deserves three stars. But considering the action and how exciting this book is, it probably rates five stars. So I’m giving it four and going with that. If you like the John Wells character, you’ll probably like this book. Recommended.

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POETRY

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Poetry by Simon Perchik

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As if these sleeves are cooled

As if these sleeves are cooled
and that slow roll
you’re still not used to

left one arm in the open
struggling, almost holds on –the tattoo
helps, smells from flowers

kept cold though it’s an old shirt
given your bare skin
for its years, months, minutes

and the exact place held close
licking the ice from your shoulders
your breasts and the flowers.

Here, there, the way silence

Here, there, the way silence
tows you below the waterline
and though you are alone

you’re not sure where her name
is floating on the surface
or what’s left

grasped by a single wave
that never makes it to shore
splashes as if this pen

is rowing you across the stillness
the dead are born with
–you are already bathing, half

from memory, half by leaping
from the water for flowers
growing everywhere –for you

this page, unclaimed: a knife
dripping with seawater
and your throat.

 

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Poetry by Bruce McRae

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House To House

A salesman is going door to door.
He’s selling bottled rain, sniffed fingers
and seraphim-scented handkerchiefs.
A salesman, in an ill-fitting suit,
is selling love-powder and paper aqualungs.
A mouse’s shrugs. Dents in a bucket.
Bio-degradable emotion detectors.

The uninvited, leaning on your front door’s bell,
hauling a scuffed satchel, carrying snake-hips
and vaporous handles. Hair dye for the dead.
A swastika of smoking ashes.

Who’s selling two absolutes for a dollar,
the semi-divine, and storm windows too —
lest yon tempest offend thee.

Absentee Landlord

The house with bones on the lawn.
The house with the hidden basement,
its spooks stowed in the web-ridden attic.
Where the nervous newspaper boy
refuses to deliver and it’s always dark,
windows dust-rimed and blacked-out,
the blinds drawn since Day One,
its flowerbeds filled with headless roses.

The house you rent by the minute,
its garden path cracked and gnarled,
its front door marked with a sign,
with, I suppose, the blood of a lamb.
And the only sound on the streets —
footsteps, fleeing in terror.
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New Poetry by Lyn Lifshin

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TANGO WITH HIM AND HE LEAVES A STAIN

it’s indelible,
he’s glued to your skin,
then, that staccato
pull away that leaves
dark skid marks.
“ dumped by,” I
want to say his name
but it ought to be
on t shirts, a warning,
revenge. He’ll hold
you so close you
can’t breathe, leave
you panting with no
thing but a dark
indigo. Each scar a
Rorschach he was
wild for, then
tossed. Wild for
the chase, a hunter, he
sees what he wants
thru the cross
hairs. He uses his
charm like a
gun. He’s a dancer
who can turn. He
moves into you with
his eyes, his
bolero. Everywhere
he was you are
not what
you were

“THAT CRAZY MAN ON THE TRAIN”

a girl with a butterfly
on her tawny skin
laughs, “he ought to
get himself into bed
and sleep it away.”
From Dupont metro
center, waving some
thing in his left hand
and shouting out
“lights,” or maybe,
“blights” – a hand
grenade, a notebook,
some bomb camou-
flaged as a book. A
woman near him
was laughing, a good
sign I guess. Maybe
they’ve been at a
party or just went out
and had too much
to drink. I like that
better than supposing
something in what
he’s shaking has
something to do with
how he’s jerking
his hand up a la Heil
Hitler or maybe
he’s just wondering
if somehow on the
metro there’s a men’s
room and maybe he
really needs it

I CAN BARELY CONCENTRATE ON THE STEPS, HIS EYES HIS
LIPS MYSTERIOUS AS THE LIPS OF HORSES

there was that poem he
says, the one, you know
Juarez and the porch.
It’s volcanic, it’s a
different language.
It’s code. This isn’t
Austin after too many
margaritas. Do you think
I want it to be? Want
you to want me? Be
the leather jacket another
picked up and carried
gently? When you
say “you fascinate, you
are invention,” I’m
astonished. I’m the addict
I knifed my way from
being. When you’re
a drug, a dangerous
rumba no one comes
back from with what they
had. And our words
pelt, a tattoo, a brand.
I’m dazed it’s not the swirl
of the dance spinning
and I know if I don’t wake
up this could play
out as you said
and you know I am gold

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Poetry by Michael Mark

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My next woman

When she does something that
bugs me,
I tell her my next woman won’t do that.

This is meant to be serious and amusing as
I don’t have plans for another woman but
I really don’t like some of the things my wife does.

When she hears this, she says, “Oh yeah?
Who is your next woman? Do you have one
picked out?”

I think of all her magazines
and the beautiful women in them.
None of them make the list.

I don’t tell her this.

I consider my old flames,
some of the girls in yoga,
a few of her friends.
None of them make the list.

I definitely don’t tell her this.

I say, “I need you to pick her out
for me. You know what I like so well
and what I don’t.”

Depending on the tenor of the moment
she will pinch me, punch me, laugh
or walk away.

I think she has a “next man” list
but she doesn’t tell me.

I’m careful not to do too many things
that bug her.

 

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Poetry by William Miller

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Ghost Hunting at Gettysburg

Local kids, kids from
as far away as Philly,
roam the battlefield
at night.

They pass bottles,
laugh, flash their lights
on the rocks at Devil’s Den.

They know little of the history,
only that the South
lost here, then lost
the war.

One thinks he saw
a man dressed
in blue run into a
a hollow, a rifle across
his back.

All have heard voices,
sharp commands,
“halt!” or “strike the tent!”

All have felt
they are about to be
shot by a sniper
hidden in a tall tree …

These strange nights
end, and they return
to cell phones, the web,
classes they suffer through.

But thoughts of the battlefield
distract them from
the hurdles to a good job,
a wife, children.

If they really saw something—
a wagon rolling by,
heard the moans
of wounded men,

if they saw soldiers digging
the graves of those
who died for a flag, a cause–
that might change everything.

Life was about mystery,
chasing after it,
believing there’s more
than skin and teeth,
but ghosts, too,
their war still fought.

Mall Walkers

They meet at the south end
by the dry fountain,
dry for an hour.

Some use walkers,
others canes; a few
are shaky but upright.

They move slowly,
in a careful line, talk
about bone doctors,

Medicare, the price
of a decent funeral:
“Throw my ashes

to the wind; I always
liked the outdoors!”
They laugh and pass

locked shops for
the young trying
to look younger:

makeup counters,
exercise machines,
bras that push up, out.

At the first turn,
an old man falters,
drops to his knees.

The line breaks
and becomes a circle
of concern.

Brought back to his
feet, he says he’s fine,
though they hover until

he can keep up. To prove
he’s all right, he tells
a filthy joke about

a preacher and a pig.
Everyone laughs and some
try to tell even worse.

At the end, the doors
about to open,
the fountain gush,

the oldest lady tells
the dirtiest joke.
“A hobo ate a woman’s

pie, then asked for
seconds; she said sure
and hiked up her skirt!”

The mall walkers are left
with that, still laughing
while their serious sons

and daughters help them
into cars where dirty jokes
are never told, old means old.

Lazarus

In the bright light
of market days, he forgot
the cave, the call,
the rising from shadows.

But he heard the whispers
in the booths as he
walked by. He lived
again, yes, but was he
“clean” or “unclean?”

No one clasped his hand,
embraced him when
leaving; small children
scattered when he
crossed the village square.

He wanted to go to
Jerusalem, ask the rabbi
who raised him,
why he now had
to die twice.

But he had been
whipped, mocked,
nailed to a Roman cross.

Lazarus heard rumors
that assassins
were coming to kill him
for simply being alive,
“his greatest miracle.”

But Lazarus grew old,
much older than
the first time,
and seemed the ghost
of a man who once laughed,
drank from the common well.

No one would call him
forth now, the grave clothes
still binding him.

God killed him the first
time, so he might be
raised from a rocky tomb.

The last choice was his,
go down meekly like
an ewe, or take a knife
and bleed by his own hand.

There was magic
in that final choice,
mystery in control
of the death
he died alone …

Women wailed a second
time. The rabbi chanted
from a sacred scroll
words, more words.

Thunderbird Drive-In

Every Friday night,
we parked the Impala
in the gravel
between speakers.

My uncle and cousin
sat up front; the youngest,
I watched from
the back.

“Patton” was long, slow
and bloody.

He slapped the soldier
but led his army across
the deadly fields of France.

My uncle said we could
use “’ol blood and guts now.”

The war in Vietnam
never ended, a war of mines
and snipers, firefights.

And we saw “Dirty Harry,”
a city where a psycho
wore a peace-sign belt buckle,
killed for fun.

The police were weak;
the law protected killers,
but one man, one gun,
made justice real.

He fired his last bullet
into an evil heart.

Then “Easy Rider” came
to the wide, night screen.

When the bikers were shot
at the end, my uncle and cousin
said they deserved it.

They were “drug dealers.
drug takers and worse …”

I didn’t say anything
about their cool clothes
and hair, the freedom
to come and go …

In a few years, I’d fight
in the jungle, unless
there were too many
caskets on the runway.

The best I could hope for
was a job in a steel mill,
a runner through hot
dark pipes …

Maybe I’d ride across
the desert all the way
to Mardi Gras,

give my middle finger
to anyone who hated me,
loudly different.
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Poetry by Rich Ives

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From the Forest

this sky seems small enough
to live in if you could ever get there

but today it does not take over
moderate sky

I’m still the passing cloud
that never stops passing

this might be the torture that kissed you
this air so blue it seems never to have fallen

an illness or a rock it’s all the same
not a man but a predicament

like an ant drowning in sugar water
or the wrong hair on a bonebed

no more than a touch at the horizontal door
felt and not heard and opening out

an act of kindness without the kindness
one thing fell away and then no more

abashed: you don’t mean anything disgusting
how can I respect you

this refusal feeding on itself beneath the beautiful leaves
without evil good would be merely ordinary

Gainfully Unemployed

only one story is this story only one sky-colored passenger
arrives with you in his pocket and wears
forward as a separate command

something hard and difficult recognizes you
but let’s not say suffer let’s not say ownership

because I embrace my inadequacies
the horror here is neither leafy nor whispered
you could probably do without it

you could see this horror at most celebrations depressing
a wallflower with too many pencils and condoms
the score is always lower than the water table

so the pencils smear recording the zero
it looks like where the face of someone who never arrived
arrived

one of the birds was nearly opened by the wind it had chosen
this allowed it to fly safely the way the word for it
contains more than it contains

I was exploring drive-by banking and intermittent cloud cover
I can’t say I know what it means to participate willingly

my dinner is a wilderness my wilderness a torch my torch an error in judgment
your ancient license brings me only a precious cloud of weeping

like an acre of silent microphone cuddling
asymptomatic stones believe their bodies cling to them and
glass is too obviously approachable to participate quietly

marbles have been used to align the brittle circular remnants

a small gift I cooked in a turtle shell floats by
reminding me of the distance between a pearl and a lesion

I’ve grown quietly aware of the quiet that is there

Gathering My Canine Thoughts

how can you separate life from death
when your bark sounds like a question

deprivation creates vision it seems
I can see better with the light closed

an idea straining on a leash
may forget what holds it

watching a dog make up its mind
is like counting water

sometimes intention adds up to dog
and sometimes it just flows

the dog’s favorite word is fetch
which means now but nothing later

a dog can smell you thinking tomorrow smells sweeter
but tomorrow is not the same dog
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NONFICTION

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He Died in the River by Ruth Z. Deming

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Some names have been changed

A good man is dead. They found him in the river. I knew him. How long had he stood on the bridge before he jumped? What were his thoughts? Did anyone see him?

I met Vinnie by sheer chance. From my home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, I backed out of my drive, glancing at my yellow house, admiring the red poppies and green hostas, and drove off to Titusville, New Jersey, home of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, who would publish for free my mental health magazine, The Compass.

All I needed to do was find the damn place. I knew with near certainty I’d get lost. This is why I left at ten in the morning. I had told Ed Quispe, the Peruvian-born printer, I’d be there at one. Turning on the classical music station, I drove through the resort town of New Hope, where my late father had owned a legendary “head shop,” then crossed the clattering chain-link bridge into Lambertville, New Jersey, and drove down scenic River Road – Route 29 – following directions until, as always, I strayed onto a lonesome back road and stopped the car. I was lost.

I found myself in a little village of quiet houses right on the Delaware River. What a wonderful place to live, I thought. To have a view of water would be ecstasy. Of course, I was getting a bit anxious now since I was on a mission. Emerging from my little white Nissan, I stretched my legs and arms. I’d have to do the serious business of finding out where Janssen was. My notes read: 1125 Trenton-Harbourton Road. I’d been there four times before. What a beautiful campus it was, a little city, a gated community with countless security guards. Directly across the street was a farm, where cows peered from beyond the fence with their big soft eyes.

There must be someone to ask for directions.

It was sandal-wearing weather, so I walked rapidly down the street of pastel houses, feeling the cool breeze of the spring day, and watched for moving objects.

Was that a noise I heard? I saw a small white house which seemed to have another, smaller house, in front of it. I bravely walked up the sidewalk. A white-haired man was working in what must be his work shop. His back was toward me and I thought how easy it would be for a robber to grab him from behind. He was so vulnerable. I stood a moment and then said, “Hello?”

Vinnie dePasquale turned right around and smiled.

“I’m lost,” I said. “Can you tell me how to get to Janssen Pharmaceutical?”

“You’re not far,” he said.

I told him I had to be there at one and it was already 12:05.

“Oh, you’ll be there in no time. I’ll meet you in the house. Have a seat in the kitchen.”

The house was neat and tidy. It was as if I were a little girl, lost in a fairy tale, who had wandered into this perfect little house, with no wicked witch to gobble me up. In the entrance hall, a few of Vinnie’s shoes sat by the door and above that, hooks upon which his jackets, sweaters and caps hung. A strange feeling ran through me. It was as if I actually lived here. Did I detect a woman’s hand? Not at all. So, Vinnie was a bachelor. A man who appeared to be well into his sixties, about six years older than me. The pretty little cottage was fairly bursting with miniature lighthouses. I wandered about the living room looking at the collections on the shelves and mantelpiece. There were even lighthouses on the towels and potholders and cups in the kitchen.

When he joined me in the kitchen, he asked what I’d like to drink. He opened the refrigerator and I stood next to him, gazing inside. There was a carton of eggs, bacon, some leftover rotisserie chicken, and a carton of Tropicana orange juice

“Is that bottle of Diet Pepsi open?” I asked.

He pulled it out.

“I’ve always preferred Pepsi over Coke,” I said.

“Me, too,” he said. “It’s sweeter.”

I didn’t even have to ask him for ice. He knew.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked while sipping our Pepsis out of tall amber-colored plastic cups. He surprised me by saying he was married. His wife, Kathy, was in Arizona, visiting her daughter. No, he said, he didn’t particularly miss her, and, yes, all the lighthouses were hers. I told him about my Compass magazine, that we had articles by psychiatrists who I’d interviewed and one long story explaining genetics. People with depression and bipolar disorder, like I had, wrote articles on their condition and what helped them manage it.

“Best of all,” I said, “we have a section called ‘The Purple Pages’ – Janssen uses lavender paper for us – and it’s filled with poetry.”

As we sat together at the table, I heard the loud ticking of the clock and looked up at it.

“You’ll leave at twenty of,” he said. “It’s right up the road.”

He wrote down my name and phone number and said he’d be in touch.

Then, in the course of my busy life, as director of New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones, I forgot all about Vinnie.

A couple of weeks later the phone rang. “diPasquale” read the Caller ID. My heart quickened. He’d remembered me. As is my habit, I took the phone outside and walked up and down my street while talking to him.

“When my wife’s not home,” he told me, “I’d like you to come down and visit again.”

“Vin,” I said. “I’d like to. But I’ve gotta tell you one thing. I… I’m not going to be your girlfriend.”

He laughed.

He treated me like a queen when I drove back to his sleepy little village. That strange feeling came upon me again as if I’d known the man all my life, that we were old buddies. He drove me to a nice restaurant, his car crunching on the red gravel in the parking lot. Inside, he told me to order anything I wanted. He suggested the trout almandine, which was delicious.

Afterward, since it was Friday night, we met his friends at a bar. The place was packed and I could barely hear what people were saying at the bar. Mostly, I just sat and nodded my head, taking occasional sips of my Seven-Up. His friends made conversation with me but even when I stood up and went over to hear them, I was stone deaf with all the chatter and music in the background.

Vinnie saw me yawning and suggested we call it a night.

He invited me to sleep over but I said I hadn’t brought my pills with me and I would leave right now and drive home.

A couple of weeks later I was back again.

In my traveling bag, I not only brought my medication and a book for night-time reading, but also my bathing suit. Vinnie had told me we’d swim in the river. He loaded me up with a couple of thick towels and gave me a pair of little white plastic beach shoes to wear in the water.

To get into the river, we walked down a couple flights of wooden stairs. He showed me the mark on the railing where the Delaware had flooded the year before. I pictured him as an old sea captain out of a novel by Melville.

Together, we waded into the swiftly moving currents. Despite my little white beach shoes, the rocks and pebbles stung my feet.

The water was freezing cold. Swimmer that I am, I breast-stroked quickly through the rolling brown water, gradually warming up, then swimming back and forth for twenty minutes or so. I couldn’t believe my luck, actually swimming in the Delaware.

Vinnie looked good in the water, with his trim body, silver hair plastered on his chest, and silver mustache. After we swam, we hung onto a canoe, kicked our legs to stay warm and talked. He told me he wished I could come down for the fireworks on Independence Day. We’d sit on his front porch and watch their thunderous explosions over the Delaware.

As we swam back and forth around the canoe, I learned more about this retired steelworker who had worked at the old Fairless Hills steel mill. After we walked back to his house, he showed me lots of photos, stored in his work shop, from his days as a foreman at the mill. Because my late father had been a businessman his whole life, who hired people to come out to the house to fix things, I’ve always admired men who can make things work with their hands.

I told him my big Jewish family – we’re originally from Cleveland – had taken a vacation to Detroit. My parents and my four little sisters had piled into the Ford Country Squire and drove up to “The Motor City.”  On our itinerary was visiting a steel foundry.

“Vincent, you do not know the meaning of ‘hot’ until you walk into that place. You think you’re gonna catch on fire.”

“I know, I know,” he laughed, holding a color photo of himself and his men, lined up like in a classroom picture.

“When I worked, goggles were mandatory,” he said, tapping his eyeglasses. “You also wear special gear to protect you from the heat and the sparks. OSHA regs,” he said. And, yes, he admitted he and his buddies had gotten singed and burned many a time and sent to the infirmary.

When night arrived, we sat outside on his front porch. A dozen steps made it rise above the street. We listened to the sounds of the night, the crickets and cicadas, and watched the flashing fireflies as they seemingly competed with the glittering stars overhead. I had my Diet Pepsi on a little table beside me, while Vinnie was sipping on a beer. After a while, his neighbors got wind of us and half a dozen came over to chat, some sitting on the stairs, others on the wicker chairs on the porch. They asked about me and how we met. I let Vinnie tell the story. One man asked if I were going to be his girlfriend.

“Nah,” I said. “Just a friend. A good friend.”

The man seemed disappointed.

We must have sat out there until two or three in the morning. I refused to look at my watch. I can’t bear the passage of time, for I know where it leads to. The five inescapable letters that drive us onward.

Vinnie walked me upstairs to the spare bedroom with its twin beds. The blinds were drawn, but I peeked out to get my bearings. The Delaware River was glimmering under the stars.

“You sure you don’t want me to join you?” he asked.

“Positive,” I said. “But I like you and I’m flattered you asked,” I said, knowing how hollow the words sounded. He’d told me previously that he and his wife didn’t see eye to eye but there was no way he’d ever divorce her. The bedspreads had a feminine floral pattern and the pillows were enclosed inside a floral coverlet. Someone had taken great care to make the room homey.

I asked how to turn the reading lamp on and off. No matter how late it is when I fall into bed, I always read at least a page until the words swim before my eyes and dreams overtake me. We said goodnight. I slipped into the cold sheets and drew the lightweight blanket over me. Was it right to be sleeping in the house of a married man? It felt strange. The whole neighborhood knew, and I decided never to do it again.

Vinnie told me later that when his wife came home, she had searched my bed, looking for signs of co-habitation.

When I awoke the next morning, I smelled bacon. Sure enough, Vinnie had a full-course breakfast ready for me. Scrambled eggs, bacon, buttered English muffin and a large glass of Tropicana OJ.

Did we hug goodbye? I honestly can’t remember, but, knowing me, I probably just stuck out my hand to shake his.

Over the next few years our relationship stayed strong. Vinnie would call me and I’d take the phone outside and wander around my tree-filled back yard and listen to him tell me things he never told another soul. I am a psychotherapist, after all, and sometimes I think I have a mark on my forehead reading: Tell me your secrets.

He told me about his growing up years far from Titusville, about his relationships with women, his years on the job, his retirement and his passion for American history. Today, some twenty years later, I can’t remember a single word he said. All that good talk, swallowed like buried treasure on the bottom of the sea.

When he next called me, it was to say his daughter, Michele, by a prior relationship, was getting married to an architect.

His voice simply oozed pride and love.

Shortly thereafter, our relationship was over. I ended it. I’d called him one time and the dreaded wife answered the phone. I tried to be friendly but her voice was like an icicle drilling into my forehead. I’d gotten into the habit of sending postcards, innocuous missives, which I often ended with “Say hi to Kathy for me.”

Vinnie was excised from my life. And forgotten.

So it was quite a shock when, a decade later, I received an email from his daughter Michele in May of 2014. Somehow, she knew I’d been one of his friends and told me, in her brief email, he’d been missing for nearly a week. We emailed back and forth. I suggested perhaps he had early dementia and had wandered off. But, no, she said. Alcohol had been a problem, on and off, for years. Alcohol is a depressant. Makes you see life through a glass darkly. You hate yourself and your life. Think you’re a failure.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” I wrote Michele, “but might he have jumped into the river?”

I had a picture in mind of a bridge that Vinnie and I had walked across. A manic-depressive like myself always thinks of jumping to her death from a bridge she’s walking or driving over.

We don’t know how long he stood there. We don’t know what he was thinking. We don’t know if he planned it or if it was spontaneous. When the “missing man” article appeared in the local Jersey paper, it said he was five-feet four, 72 years old, with hazel eyes. A photo showed a smiling man in glasses and a plaid shirt. That was my Vinnie, all right.

The arms of the river received this good man. It swept him away. His body ran with the currents, his thin hair streaming behind him, his eyes open but seeing nothing, visible only to the fishes and the hawks high above. He was a fisherman and a lover of the sea.  He had sat on the front porch of his Titusville home nearly every day of his life, gazing into the mystery of that sea. This would be the kind of death that made sense to him. No one knows the reason why, nor shall they ever know. No one, that is, but the river. She knows all.

______________________________

Starting to Breathe by Patty Somlo

_______________________________

The first thing Barbara taught me was to feel my feet. We began by sitting in straight-backed chairs facing one another. The only window in the room was closed but I could see the fog outside still thick and white, leaving small scattered streaks across the window pane. Barbara asked me to take my arms away from my waist, where I’d wrapped myself in a tight hug. “Like this,” she said, and I studied her hands, knuckles resting on her thighs, the palms open and ever so slightly curled. And then she told me to put my feet flat on the floor, a slight distance apart. At that moment, we started to breathe.

***

People rarely ask for a memory of happiness. But I will give you one. For the briefest moment, the wave picks me up and I feel as if I might be about to fly. Then the wave hurtles me forward, to shore. Even though I get pulled under, and it is dark and the water whirls me around, I manage to push my head out of the swirling tide and take a breath. Afterwards, I stand and lift the elastic of my bathing suit pinching the top of my leg, to let all the water, sand and fragments of shells out.

***

We take the breath first to the feet, feeling the toes — the big toe, the second toe and the baby — and then the arches of the foot, before moving on to the heel and up to the ankle. The breath takes us back inside, away from the fog clutching the window. We move the breath on up, to the calves that ache a little from jogging and the knees, and next to the thighs spread across the chair. Barbara says to me, “How are you feeling now?”

***

I suspect they wanted me to be a boy. The third girl child of a military man, what else would make sense?  For a long time, I was small. My father used to call me Shorty. When he took me to the dispensary to get shots, he would hold my hand. Before the pain began, he’d warn me to look away. I’d watch my eyes staring back at me from the surface of the shiny brass buckle on my father’s uniform belt.

***

I have no answer to Barbara’s question. This is bad. I’ve always been a girl who knows how to please. Barbara won’t be pleased when I tell her what I’ve got to say. “I don’t know how I’m feeling. I don’t feel a thing.”

***

It’s strange to me now how muddy the memory can get. There are rivers in the mountains close to where I live that carry glacial melt and the color of the water is brownish gray. The water moves very fast, in part, I suppose, because it is headed down.

***

“Where do you feel nothing?” Barbara asks, and I squirm in my seat, as if this might help me find an answer. I run my mind up and down, from my feet still pressing the floor to the tips of my fingers and up to my eyes. In the space above my eyebrows, I find it. “It’s in my forehead,” I say.

***

Military kids know how to tell time. It’s one of the first things we learn. We can even convert civilian time to military time and back again. Time is not a game, though, to be toyed with. If something is supposed to start at 1700 hours, that doesn’t mean 1701. The best way to understand military time is to know that wars are often fought under the cover of darkness, before the sun comes up, at 0600 hours.

***

I pay for hour-long sessions with Barbara. But after fifty minutes have passed, she will say to me, “We’re going to have to stop now.”

***

We ate dinner every night at 5:30 sharp, no matter what the season or month. My father sat at the end of the table, closest to the window. I can actually see him sitting there in my mind. It’s strange that I think this now. It’s strange because we lived in so many different houses, moving on the average of once a year. Regardless, in my memory, he is always sitting in the same spot, and I am sitting to his right.

***

The breath takes time to reach my forehead. As I have been taught, I begin directing the breath to my feet. The feet have tiny bones but I ignore them, letting myself only be concerned with the flesh. I’ve started to swirl the breath around each one of my ankles.  I can’t explain why.  Breath hitting the forehead is like a rock smacked against a concrete wall.

***

On Sundays, I helped my mother polish the sterling silver spoons, knives and forks. After dabbing the soft cloth in cream, I would rub away the black coating, amazed when the shiny surface that had been hiding underneath appeared.

***

“What does nothing feel like?” Barbara asks, and when I don’t respond she tells me to take the breath back up to my forehead. I watch as the breath slithers up my throat into my mouth and out my nose. It’s a soothing feeling to take the breath to the eyes and the eyebrows, a bit like getting a massage. The weight presses down above my eyes, almost a headache but not quite. When I move the breath to the space above the bridge of my nose, I see that my whole forehead feels as if someone has stuffed it with cotton.

***

We were not allowed to laugh or fool around at the dinner table. The only way to keep from saying or doing something wrong was to keep my mouth shut. In the silence, I could hear the ice cubes smack against one another as my father swirled whiskey around his glass.

***

“It feels like cotton stuffed up there,” I tell Barbara, and then we breathe some more, waiting to see if the clean air might cause the tightly packed cotton balls to loosen, like muscles after they’ve been massaged.

***

Military children learn how to be perfect. Perfection starts with the clothes. A dress should be well-pressed and stay wrinkle free in the wearing. This requires a girl to sit up straight and stay still. It’s easy, of course, to mess up, to drip catsup on a pale blue front or to drizzle milk on a dark skirt, that even dabbing with a napkin won’t hide.

***

Silence causes me to become too aware of the ragged sound of my breath. Barbara expects me to fill up the silence with words but I have nothing to say. Isn’t this what I’m paying for, the hourly rate that only covers fifty minutes?  “Does the silence bother you?” Barbara eventually asks.

***

Before my father hit me, it would get quiet. The silence spun around us in a cloud, thick and dark. I couldn’t have told you then that my father was an unhappy man. What I would have said if anyone bothered to ask was, “I always manage to make my father mad.”

***

“Silence isn’t supposed to be there,” I tell Barbara, and she asks me if my father was ever silent. “He would sit,” I explain, “all by himself in the den. If I had to walk past him, I would try to be very, very quiet.”

***

A sterling silver spoon hitting the knuckle doesn’t make much of a sound. The second time it strikes, one is prepared. By the third time, one has taken the mind away from the dining room table to a dark little room, where no one else is allowed to come inside.

***

Barbara instructs me to take the breath through my body again, starting with the feet. As soon as I reach the belly, Barbara asks how I feel. I tell her it feels like I’ve got a pair of hands wringing inside. She suggests that I start breathing into those hands.

***

It might have to do with his military training but I never heard my father say, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t use words like “love” or “child.” There were times he’d mistakenly call me Carol, his second daughter’s name.

***

The breath eases in and slowly begins to separate the hands, one curled finger at a time. Before I know it, the hands are open and loose and they’ve left a terrible, wrenching sadness behind. The sadness shoots up to my chest and then into my throat. I’m bawling now, huge mucousy sobs, and all the light has vanished from my mind. I haven’t a clue what’s happened to the breath, because I’ve fallen down into this dark, narrow tunnel so far.

***

I read somewhere that military children develop a sort of radar. When they enter a new school for the first time, they can instantly sense which other kids in the room are military brats. Military children make quick calculations about what is expected of them. In a sense, they become like their dads, ready at a moment’s notice to defend themselves.

***

Barbara’s not letting me give up just yet. She instructs me to bring the breath back, to the place where all that sadness came from. And then she asks me what I see. “I am an egg,” I tell her, as if this were the most logical thing in the world. “I am an egg with huge eyes, and the eyes are constantly moving around the surface of my skin, keeping me safe.”

***

 

When I lived in Hawaii as a child, the sun would often emerge before the rain ended. Just when it seemed as if the darkness would linger a long time, all of a sudden the sun would crack open the clouds and penetrate a curtain of showers, making the raindrops shimmer. If you ask me to give you a memory of happiness, I will tell you this. When I look back at my life, seeing sunlight dance with rain is what I most like to recollect.

    

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CONTRIBUTORS

Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes poetry, nonfiction and fiction from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry has been published in journals including Metazen, River Poets, Bellowing Ark and Innisfree.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ray’s Road Review, Haggard andHalloo, Creative Nonfiction and Writing Disorder. A mental health advocate, she is director of New Directions Support Group of Abington, PA, for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
Hannah Duncan is fourteen-years-old and enjoys photography and the arts. She currently sells her photography at Fiddlehead Junction in Glade Spring, Virginia and The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Virginia. She has won an award of merit and the People’s Choice award at the Virginia Highlands photography contest. Beginning December 31, her photography will be on exhibit at The Arts Depot. She intends to continue her photography and artwork in hopes of becoming a professional photographer and artist one day.
Scott C. Holstad is the poetry editor of Ray’s Road Review.
A former Ray’s Road Review contributor, Rich Ives is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. His book of days, Tunneling to the Moon, is currently being serialized with a work per day appearing for all of 2014 at http://silencedpress.com. Tunneling to the Moon and Light from a Small Brown Bird (poetry, Bitter Oleander Press) are both due out in paperback in 2014.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is a fiction writer, poet, and lyricist who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She recently received her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she now teaches as an Adjunct Professor of Literature. Kelly is the author of the literary fiction novel Cairo in White and the young adult trilogy The Zaniyah Trilogy, as well as the editor of the book of essays Answers I’ll Accept and the anthology Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Magical Fiction.
A former Ray’s Road Review contributor, Lyn Lifshin has published over 130 books and chapbooks including three from Black Sparrow Press: Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. Before Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle, Lifshin published her prize-winning book about the short-lived beautiful race horse Ruffian, The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian and Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness.  Recent books include Ballroom, All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead, All True, Especially The Lies, Light At the End: The Jesus Poems, Katrina, Mirrors, Persphone, Lost In The Fog, Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems .  NYQ books published A Girl Goes into The Woods. Also just out: For the Roses – poems after Joni Mitchell and Hitchcock Hotel from Danse Macabre. Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle.  And Tangled as the Alphabet,– The Istanbul Poems from NightBallet Press. Just released as well : Malala, the dvd of Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass. The Marilyn Poems was just released from Rubber Boots Press. An update to her Gale Research Autobiography is out: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace: On The Outside. Also just out is a dvd of the documentary film about her: Lyn Lifshin: Not Made Of Glass. Forthcoming books include Luminous Women: Eneduanna, Schererzade and Nefertiti: Femina Eterna and Moving Through Stained Glass: the Maple Poems.
Michael Mark is the author of two books of fiction, Toba and At the Hands of a Thief (Atheneum). His poetry has appeared in Angle Journal, Awakening Consciousness Magazine, Empty Mirror, Everyday Poets, Forge Journal, The Lake, OutsideIn Magazine, Red Paint Hill, Scapegoat, The New York Times, 2014 San Diego Poetry Annual, UPAYA, and The Wayfarer, as well as other nice places.
Pushcart-nominee Bruce McRae is a Canadian musician with over 800 publications to his credit, including Poetry.com and The North American Review. His first book, The So-Called Sonnets is available from the Silenced Press website or via Amazon books. To hear his music and view more poems visit his website: www.bpmcrae.com, or ‘TheBruceMcRaeChannel’ on Youtube.
William Miller is the author of five collections of poetry, 12 books for children, and a mystery novel. He lives and writes in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
A former Ray’s Road Review contributor, Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, including free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.


Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest, and has been nominated for the 2013 storySouth’s Million Writers Award. She am the author of From Here to There and Other Stories. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains, Shaking Magazine, andThe Write Room, among others, and in twelve anthologies, including Solace in So Many Words, which won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Anthology.


Jose Sotolongo’s background and previous field of endeavor is in medicine. His fiction has appeared in Turk’s Head Review and The Rusty Nail. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his partner and an Australian Cobber Dog.


Michael Trottier’s fiction has been published with Beyond Imagination and Purple Pig Lit. His plays have been developed/performed with Boston Playwright’s Theatre, The New Group (NYC), Buffalo United Artists, The Blank Theatre (LA), Young Playwright’s Inc., and Florida Studio Theatre. He has also written the scripts for several video games, including The Greatest Misadventure Ever Told and Infinite Dive. He currently resides in Washington, DC.