Seeking Fiction Editor

West Trade Review, a print literary arts journal based in Charlotte, seeks

Our mission is to perpetuate the work of artists, both well-known and yet-to-be-known, and to enrich our world through the written word and visual arts.  We strive to reflect diversity in style, content and perspective throughout fiction, poetry, photography, and other artwork. 

We prefer an individual with an educational and/or professional background in literature, creative writing, and/or editing. 

Applicant needs to be:

– An attentive and critical reader with  a passion for contemporary fiction

– Self-motivated and capable of meeting deadlines

– Able to clearly express oneself in writing

This is a volunteer position that requires approximately 5 hours or so per week.  The fiction editor will work remotely using Submittable and Zoom and is required to meet weekly deadlines.

 Interested parties should contact Ken Harmon at kenny.harmon@jwu.edu.  Please place “Fiction Editor” in the headline. Please include resume and cover letter.

“Poet” by Tufik Shayeb

Tufik Shayeb’s poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Sheepshead Review, The Menteur, Lost Lake Folk Opera, Madcap Review, Heyday Magazine, Blinders Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Restless Anthology, The November 3rd Club, Lifelines and others. To date, Shayeb has published three chapbooks and one full-length collection titled I’ll Love You to Smithereens. Currently, Shayeb practices law full-time in Phoenix, Arizona.

POET

your words are molasses
bubbling from a spout

or a jumble of loose nails
clanging in a bucket

either way,
your sound is relentless

like a heavy dog
growling at a window

but where are the creases
they paid you to see?

the folds of your life,
where you bend like origami

where the soul’s chisel
gives shape to your story

like a sculpture, or a painting
made in all the shades of

Bukowski yellow, Plath red
the things that serve you

on a long pewter tray
to a hungry, roiled crowd

“The Fish Cure” by J.T. Townley

J.T. Townley’s work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award, and he holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

So I slink out of Infinity Spa, no mean feat at six-five, two-twenty, head down, wary of being spotted. I’ve been coming here for a month now. Six weeks. It’s slowest on Wednesday mornings, empty, just the way I like it. Less chance of unexpected run-ins with friends or colleagues or casual acquaintances. No one knows about these regular visits to the hottest new salon this side of 635. No one knows about my secret new habit—not even Jeannie.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those fruity guys with the lip gloss and glitter makeup that hangs out on The Strip in Oak Lawn. The only reason I ever even braved Infinity in the first place was for Jeannie’s birthday present, a gift certificate for their fanciest day-spa package. I like to plan early and be prepared, but now look what’s happened. Still, it’s just a massage for the hands and feet, with a little something extra. And it’s called a manny-peddy, by the way. They’d give it a different name if it weren’t for men, okay?


So far, no one’s noticed.


The whole place has a Far East theme, what with the music and décor and little women who run the place, so I’m not surprised to discover a small koi pond out front next to one of those Zen gardens full of boulders and raked sand. I’ve never noticed it before, but today something’s different. As I stride past, on a beeline for my black F-350 with the crew cab and lift package, I hear a gurgling that sounds like, “Waddup, Coy?” I glance around, burning with shame, but all I see are gray-haired retirees and mothers with children traipsing in and out of the natural food store next door. Then here comes that voice again: “Ain’t you gonna dab me up, man?”


I sidle over to the pond. The fish are huge. Orange and white, gray and gold. Too many to count. They cluster at the surface, splashing and jostling, their little mouths biting at air. When I don’t scatter fish feed, the koi flop and writhe, then glide away into the pond’s dark corners. All but one. He lingers, swimming figure-eights and slapping the water with his tail. Splashes me right in the face. Then he swims to the surface, stares me dead in the eye, and—there’s no other way to put it—smiles. It’s possible I hear wet laughter. I shake my head, hoping for a little clarity, then turn to go. Behind me, that same voice: “Alright then, Coy. Peace.” Without looking back, I march to my truck, fire it up, and rumble out of the lot.


Although I crank Bob Wire’s “Drownin’ Blues” the whole way home, the distraction does little to dispel my doubt. The thought that one of my buddies, or worse, one of Jeannie’s friends, might recognize me and start asking questions petrifies me. But a fish in a fish pond? No big deal. Except that maybe I’m losing my mind.

The twins come squealing as soon as I’m through the door: “Daddy!” I hoist them into my arms and spin them around. When I set them back down on the polished hardwoods, Marcie gazes at me, eyebrows scrunched together.
“You look funny,” she says.
“Smell funny, too,” says Andie.
“Funny how?” I say, grinning to mask the heat flushing my cheeks.
Then Jeannie bustles into the room, half-dressed, hair in curlers. “You’re home.”
“Hey, babe,” I say.
“Would you mind feeding the twins?” She digs through a kitchen drawer, though for what is unclear. “I’m running late and have to get all the way to Lake Lewisville.”
“What for?”
“I told you about this,” she says. “It’s girls’ night.”
“At the lake?”
“Fish Bowl,” Jeannie says over her shoulder, speed-walking back to the bedroom. It’s a boutique bowling alley and wine bar right on the water.
“Right.”
I trail the twins across the kitchen into the dining room and find them elbow-deep in, of all things, a jigsaw puzzle. Shouldn’t they still be playing with dolls? They haven’t gotten very far, but I can tell what it will become from the box lid: a Jacques Cousteau seascape, with brain coral, reef squid, and several varieties of tropical fish.
“It’s coming along, girls,” I say.
Their eyes brighten. Their little lips curl into grins.
“Y’all getting hungry yet?”
When they don’t answer right away, I lean against the lintel and watch them work for a while. Puckered faces. Casual bickering. Moments of muted glee.
“I was thinking Big Pappa’s. Sound good?”
Maybe they just don’t hear me. I figure there’s no way they’re gonna turn down a large double-cheese and some pepperoni rolls, so I dig out my phone and place the order.
By now Jeannie’s spruced up for girls’ night, and I see her off at the back door. “Y’all have fun,” I say.
Jeannie licks lipstick off her teeth. “There’s some mac ’n’ cheese in the pantry, if you want. Or Starfish & Stripers.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I say.
Jeannie gives me a funny look.
“What is it?”
“Did you get a haircut?”
“Last week. Why?”
She shakes her head, inspecting me like a drill sergeant. “That’s not it.”
“That’s not what?”
Jeannie squints and ponders. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s different.”
“I probably just look tired,” I say.
She doesn’t seem convinced but drops it. “Y’all have a good night, okay?” She kisses me again then heads out the door.
The food arrives fifteen minutes later. I carry it into the dining room, where the girls are still hard at work. “How bout some pizza?” I say.
This time they both look up.
“Mommy doesn’t like us eating pizza,” says Andie.
“Mommy’s not here.”
“Could we have fish sticks?” asks Marcie.
I catch a heady whiff of garlic, butter, and parmesan cheese. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “You want fish sticks instead of pepperoni rolls?”
“Please?!” they whine in unison.
I dig out the Van de Kamp’s box from the back of the freezer and pop a dozen fish sticks into the oven.
When the food’s ready, I do my best to coax the twins into the living room, where I’ve got an action-thriller disaster movie, Hurricane Season, playing on the big screen, surround sound speakers working overtime. Yet Marcie and Andie prefer to eat at the kitchen table. I can’t even lure them with the promise of Under the Sea, their favorite mermaid movie—Jeannie has them trained too well—so I humor them while they munch fish sticks. I’m happy to be near them, even if the stink of ketchup begins to turn my stomach. When they polish off their supper, they skip back into the dining room to work on their puzzle.
By now my Big Pappa’s has gone cold on the kitchen counter, garlic butter darkening the bag, cheese grease staining the box. I carry my food into the living room and sink into the couch cushions. Although I start the movie over from the beginning, for whatever reason, I can’t get into it. By the time I’ve polished off half the pizza, I’ve completely lost interest. So I shut off the system, put away the leftovers, and wipe down the kitchen. I can hear my own daddy’s voice the whole time: “Are you doing woman’s work?”
When I wander in to see how the puzzle’s coming, I notice the girls have turned on the aquarium lights. They love those fish: angels and zebras, rainbows and bettas. Then I notice it. The huge goldfish. It looks just like the one from the pond outside Infinity, not that I’m any kind of expert. A couple-three quick steps and I’m right next to the glass. The fish glides by, once, twice, three times, then it’s all grins and bubbles. I blink, rub my eyes, blink again. But it’s still there, staring at me, a smile plastered across its face.
“What’s with the huge goldfish?” I stammer.
“It’s a koi, Daddy,” the twins holler in unison.
When that fish won’t stop staring at me, I kill the aquarium lights and escape back into the living room.

Sunday is Father’s Day, so I drag myself out of bed in the pitch dark and drive a couple hours to Lake Palo Pinto. After Mama passed away, Daddy sold their house in town and moved out there full-time. I agreed to go fishing with him, the only gift he said he actually wanted, though it hasn’t been my thing since I was little.
And I’m clearly out of practice. First, I cast too close to the shore and hook a tree limb, then I get my line all tangled up. By the time I’m finally settled, Daddy’s already caught three fish, though only one’s a keeper. While he grins each time he pulls the hook out, all he says is, “Ain’t that sumpin?” His hearing’s shot, so his shouts echo across the open water.
I listen to the brown waves lapping at the side of the boat. The dank odor mingles with the sweet scent of mountain cedar. As the pink and tangerine sky fades to pale blue, I stare absently past my cork bobbing in the ripples. I feel myself getting antsy, and I can’t understand how I ever enjoyed this so-called sport. Soon Daddy sets the hook again and reels in another keeper. I haven’t even gotten a bite.
When things get slow, Daddy motors to a new cove then another. We drop anchor again, go through the process of baiting hooks and setting out lines. The sun’s now up, and it’s already starting to get hot though when has the heat ever bothered Daddy? He sits up front in contented silence, focused on his cork. The warm breeze picks up, carrying mesquite smoke from someone’s charcoal grill. I feel my stomach rumble. I pour myself the last cup of coffee from my thermos, but it’s gone tepid, so I dump it into the water. Then I hear a familiar voice.
“Ain’t you got no manners?”
Daddy sits silent and motionless in his casting chair up front, waiting for another hungry fish to take his bait.
“Don’t you know this is our home?”
I scan the water near the boat. A splash to port, then when I glance that direction, another splash, this time to starboard. When I turn back, I catch a quick glimpse of orange and white before getting squirted right in the face.
“Got your attention now?”
I backhand lake water out of my eyes. That’s when I see him. The fish. That same fish. Only how much sense does that make?
“Remember me?” he says, grinning. Then he swims a couple quick figure-eights before darting beneath the boat and splashing up beside the shimmery port gunwale. “We ain’t been properly introduced. Name’s Dr. Fish.”
I blink and shake my head. Heat must be getting to me. But when I open my eyes, the fish is still there.
“Now’s when you tell me your name.”
“But don’t you already know it?”
“Play the game, man.”
“Fine, I’m Coy, and I’ve gone off the deep end. Nice to meet you, Dr. Fish.”
“Same here,” he says, then goes under for a few seconds. When he comes back up, he says, “You shouldn’t be out here, Coy.”
“Because of the heat?”
“Because you killing my homies,” he shouts.
I glance at Daddy, who’s fussing with his pole.
“Know something else?” he asks but doesn’t wait for a response. “You shouldn’t be serving up no fish sticks to your kids.”
“But—”
“And you damn sure shouldn’t be getting no manny-peddy.”
That catches me off-guard. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
Dr. Fish flops and splashes, then squirts me in the face again with a long stream of funky lake water. “Wake up, Coy Brown. What do you think that pedicure’s all about?”
“It relaxes me,” I say.
“You playing for the pink team, man?” He splashes again. “Anyway, why you think it’s called the fish cure?”
“You mean fish pedicure, right?”
Dr. Fish flops and spits. “How you think they convince them Garra rufa, the so-called doctor fish, to eat all them corns and calluses off your disgusting feet?”
I wipe my sunglasses.
“Cuz that shit’s nasty, Coy. You feel me?”
My cork bobs and dances, but it’s just the wind.
“Ain’t rocket science,” he says. “They starve them half to death.”
“What are you talking about?”
“As in, withhold all sustenance.” Dr. Fish ducks under, then pops right back up. “Somebody starve you, Coy Brown, I bet you’d go to town on some dead-ass skin. It’s animal abuse, plain and simple. And now you part of it. What kinda man you think that makes you?”
With that, Dr. Fish squirts me in the face one last time, then disappears into the brown depths.

When the wind picks up a little later, we reel in our lines, then Daddy fires up the engine and points the boat across the lake. The hot wind whips. The Evinrude whines. It’s white-capping out on the open water, and the hull slaps hard against the waves. The trip seems to take forever.
Back at the cabin, Trish, my little sister, puts the finishing touches on an impressive Father’s Day lunch. Homemade hush puppies, homemade French fries. A mountain of fried fish. She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand and says, “It’s all what Daddy caught.” That means crappie, black bass, maybe some catfish.
“Let’s eat, y’all,” says Junior, Trish’s common-law.
I wash my hands, then help Trish finish setting the table. She lays out the food, and Junior digs in, though Daddy’s still puttering around outside. Trish slaps his wrist. Junior chews his mouthful, wiping his greasy hands on his shirt, though I just laid out paper napkins. Daddy lurches through the sliding-glass door.
“Happy Father’s Day, Daddy,” says Trish.
“Happy Father’s Day,” I echo.
“Soup’s on, Carl,” says Junior.
Daddy shuffles to the fridge and guzzles a can of beer without even closing the door. He gazes down at everyone, crushes his can, and belches.
“Come and get it,” says Junior. “’Fore it gets cold.”
Daddy wanders over and sits down. “Sure looks good! he shouts, as Trish scurries over to serve him.
I plate some food and sip my ice tea.
“Y’all catch anything this morning?” asks Junior through a mouthful.
“Daddy did,” I say.
“Good on you, Carl.”
Daddy just grunts.
Junior smirks my direction. “Expert like you didn’t hook nothing? Where’s the justice?”
“Be nice, hun,” says Trish.
I nibble a couple fries, staring at the blob of fish on my plate. It’s breaded and fried and bears no resemblance whatsoever to Dr. Fish. Still, I feel a little queasy.
“What for?” says Junior. “He ain’t gonna get his sissy feelings hurt none.”
“But he’s a city boy now,” says Trish.
“That’s right,” Junior says with a snide grin. “Big D.”
“Plano, actually,” I say. I’ve never much cared for Junior, but it’s Father’s Day, so I refrain from needling him about his kids—three daughters by two different women, from what I understand.
Junior helps himself to seconds without even offering Daddy any. “What is it you do again?”
“You know he’s a lawyer,” says Trish.
Junior shovels fried fish into his maw. “Naw, I mean what do you actually do all day?”
I take another sip of ice tea. That queasy feeling’s getting worse. “I broker energy deals between venture capitalists and—”
“And I’m sure we’re all impressed,” says Junior, snickering. “But lemme ask you sumpin. When’s the last time you put a three-inch lift on a Ford F-250? Or rebuilt a Cummins diesel? Or replaced a—”
“Hush, Junior,” says Trish. “You’re being rude.”
“All I’m saying is, I do man’s work. That’s more than I can say for that pansy brother of yours.” Junior glares at me. “Got him a high-dollar pickup with all the bells and whistles but probably can’t even change the oil.”
“Can I get you anything, Daddy?” asks Trish. She doesn’t wait for him to respond, scampering over to refill his tea. Junior rattles his ice for more, but she pretends not to notice.
Though by now I feel green around the gills, I manage to say, “I just came here to spend the day with Daddy.”
“And shouldn’t he be grateful,” says Junior through a belch, “shining star such as yourself.”
Right then, and with no explanation, Daddy reaches across the table and grabs my left wrist. We lock gazes for a long moment. He inspects my palm, flips my hand over and examines my knuckles and fingertips and nails. I know what he’s looking for: calluses and blisters, scrapes and bruises, dirt and grime. The best I can offer might be a paper cut.
Trish’s face puckers. Junior grins so wide he can barely chew. I flex my jaw, since protesting would only make things worse.
“Hate to tell you,” says Daddy, shaking his head, “but you got lady’s hands.”
“Lemme see them things,” hollers Junior, braying with laughter.
Trish gets up and goes to the freezer. “Who’s ready for lemon icebox pie?”
I suffer through most of dessert, but the nausea has bloomed, and my gut’s roiling. I rake my chair back and say, “Guess I better get moving.”
“Don’t let us keep you,” says Junior.
I pat my father on the shoulder. “Glad we went fishing together, Daddy.”
He nods and loads another forkful into his mouth.
“Give our love to Jeannie and the girls,” Trish says.
I wander to my pickup through clouds of black gnats. Mosquitoes whine around my ears. Before I climb up into the driver’s seat, I double over, expecting the worst, but it’s a false alarm.

Jeannie and the twins have a special evening planned, with homemade fajitas and silly games, but after the long drive, I feel even worse. So I beg off and head straight to bed, tumbling into a deep, watery sleep.
I glide through the bottle-green lake, fixated on food. But there’s no scarcity. In fact, my buddies are already having a field day at the all-you-can-eat buffet. “You gotta try this stuff, Coy,” they burble. “It’s amazing.” I don’t even greet them as I arrive, ripping and tearing at the bounty. And they’re right. It’s good, really good, the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside. Delicious!
Still, questions dance like shadows across my mind. Where’d it come from? How’d it get here? What is it? I know I shouldn’t care, but I can’t help it. Maybe those flavors and textures are simply too good. Maybe I’m drawn by a power larger than myself. Whatever the case, a new hunger mutes my ravenous appetite, so I drift away from my feeding spot to get a better view.
It’s hard to make out in the strange, slanting light. But it looks like it might be a—body. A human body. I’ve been feeding on one of the feet. Not the muscles and bones, just the skin. It’s disgusting when I think about it, so I try not to.
“Dumb jackass,” my buddies gurgle.
“Fell in and drowned.”
“Got himself dead and dumped in the lake.”
The man’s body bobs and jerks with the force of little teeth as it sinks toward me. I skim up to his head, squinting in the murky light. My buddies nibble at his ears and nose and lips, but I nudge them aside so I can get a better view. And that’s when I realize:
The dead man is me.

I awake panting, my heart racing, the sweaty sheets knotted around my legs. I think I’m gonna puke, so I lurch out of bed and beeline to the guest bathroom so I won’t wake Jeannie. I hunch over the toilet bowl. Now here come the water works. I’m prepared for the inevitable, and it might make me feel better, but I don’t even retch. I wait for a few minutes, then step to the sink and splash cold water in my face.
I can’t go back to bed in this state, so I pace the downstairs, trying in vain to avoid the creaky floorboards. If I keep at it, I’ll wake up the whole house. So I wander over to the aquarium and flick on the light. I watch the angel fish glide through the clear water. It’s mesmerizing and helps quell the lingering disgust from my dream.
Then I spot the new Coy. Dr. Fish. He swims into view, then darts behind a bright bloom of coral. But I know he can see me. Hear me, too, probably, so I don’t mince words.
“That’s not right,” I say. When he pretends not to hear, I tap on the glass. “Hey, I’m talking to you. I know what you’re up to, Dr. Fish. Can’t be a man without humanity—kindness, compassion, empathy for all living things. Don’t you think I know that? But I’m not the one to blame, okay? If anything, I’m the innocent victim.” Now I slap the aquarium wall with so much force I’m afraid it may crack. “Go torment somebody else!”
“Coy?” calls Jeannie, her voice thick with sleep. She emerges from the hallway shadows, squinty and off-balance. “What are you doing out here?”
“What?”
“Who were you talking to?”
“No one.”
“I heard you shouting, Coy. It woke me up. It scared me.”
I focus on her at last, her matted hair and baggy t-shirt. She’s beautiful, even with bed-head. “Just a business call.”
“It’s two in the morning.” She gives me a groggy frown. “You don’t even have your phone.”
“Maybe I was sleepwalking?”
“Sleep-shouting’s more like it.” Now she studies my hands. “What’s going on with your fingers.”
“My what?” I look down. My fingernails seem to be glowing, as if under a black light.
“And toes,” says Jeannie.
I shift my weight and fold my hands behind my back. Her own nails look perfectly normal. “Probably just the light.”
“Weird,” she mumbles. Then, “Come back to bed, Coy.”
I nod. “I’ll be right there. I just need a minute.”
Jeannie shuffles back into the shadows. When the bedsprings flex, I turn back to Dr. Fish. He floats into view, a faint smile on his lips. Just before I turn off the aquarium light, he blows me a bubble kiss.

For Jeannie’s birthday, I take her to Fathom, a hot new restaurant on Lower Greenville. The space is sleek and open. A fire crackles in a slick stone pit. Ambient music creates a watery feel. I was smart enough to make a reservation two weeks ago, so the hostess leads us past waiting throngs to a corner table at the far end of the restaurant. Murmurs ripple and swell. We step through faint clouds of lemon butter and sautéed garlic. Even as I glance at waiters gliding out of the kitchen, their enormous trays laden with dinner, I can’t discern what type of cuisine we’re in for.
Perhaps the ubiquitous aquariums should’ve clued me in as soon as we stepped through the door. They’re everywhere, freestanding, suspended from the twenty-foot ceilings, recessed into white granite walls. Beautiful, too, what with the brightly colored tropical fish and coral and all that aquamarine light.
Now we’re seated and comfortable, menus open. Jeannie’s beaming and talking a blue streak. Then I glance at the appetizers: fried calamari and fresh oysters and rockfish-and-conch fritters. What have I done?
“Let’s get some oysters,” says Jeannie, giddy.
“They’ll bring us bread,” I say.
The waiter, an ageless, genderless person named Quinn, offers a brisk, subdued greeting, then tells us about tonight’s specials. For starters, they have shrimp croquettes, lobster bisque, or sea urchins with crostini. For the main course, there’s pan-seared tuna steak with soy-ginger glaze and steamed asparagus, grilled swordfish with garlic-potato mash, or sesame shrimp scampi with linguini and roasted vegetables.
Jeannie orders oysters on the halfshell. I ask for a bottle of dry chardonnay, her favorite. A gofer brings a basket of warm wheat sourdough.
Although Jeannie shivers when the AC kicks on and shrugs a cardigan over her bare shoulders, I feel sweat beading and rolling down my back. The air hangs heavy with garlic-and-butter stench. My vision goes fuzzy around the edges.
Quinn pours the chardonnay with an understated flourish.
I raise my glass and say, “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” We clink stemware, and I pretend to drink.
“Excellent choice,” she says after a long swallow.
I remembered to bring her gift, and, sweating into my collar, I slide it to her across the slate tabletop.
She opens the envelope, reads the card, and tears up. “That’s so sweet, Coy.” When she discovers the Infinity Spa gift certificate, she’s all teeth and little squeals. “It’s just perfect,” she says. “How’d you know?”
What can I tell her? The fish pedicure’s even better than she’s heard? “The twins might’ve mentioned something,” I say.
Jeannie grins some more. “I can’t believe I finally get to go.”
By now I’m slouching and sweaty and feeling green.
“Coy?” says Jeannie. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure.” I sop at the sweat with my crisp, starched napkin.
“Because you don’t look so good.”
I swallow hard, rap on the table twice for no particular reason, then stagger across the restaurant to the men’s room. As I pass one aquarium after another, fish of all sorts give me the stink eye.
Inside it’s clean and white and empty. I drop to my knees in the first stall, grateful it smells of mint and lavender. It’s no false alarm this time: everything comes up. Only takes a minute. I heave and pant until I catch my breath, then wobble to the sink. I gargle cold water, splash my face, and dry off with fistfuls of paper towels.
When I feel less dizzy, I suck in a deep breath and step back out into the dining room’s charnel stench. I stand there for a moment next to a tank teeming with live lobsters, catching my balance, fending off the green wave of nausea. The kitchen must be right around the corner because I hear the clank of saucepans and clatter of crockery, the thwack of chef’s knives and shout of orders. And the screaming. At first, I think it’s the high-pitched wail of steam. But then I hear the shouts, grunts, and wailing protests of pain. I lean against the wall, swallowing and breathing and trying not to listen.
“Shit just got real, am I right?”
I glance up. Dr. Fish hovers at eye level, blowing bubbles against the glass.
I shake my head once, but I can’t put words to the thought. More muted screams from the kitchen. I glance that direction, but I can’t bring myself to peer around the corner. The horrors are too easy to imagine.
Dr. Fish glares at me. “Now what you gonna do about it?”
“I only came here for Jeannie.”
“Man, don’t gimme that.” He smacks his tail against the glass. “You coulda gone anywhere. The Buckle & Bean Sprout. Chez Légumes. Mama Jasmine’s Vegan Kitchen. But you didn’t, did you? Naw, you chose this hellhole.”
“I don’t even like seafood,” I yell at the glass just as a svelte twenty-something in a skimpy dress slinks around the corner toward the ladies’ room. I pretend to be on the phone.
Dr. Fish chuckles, but then his mouth twists into a scowl. “Comes down to this, Coy Brown. You a man or ain’t you?”
“What’s that supposed to—”
“A man stands up for what’s right. A man protects those who can’t protect themselves. A man sacrifices his own self for the good of others.” Now he stares me down. “That what you gonna do?”
“I’m just saying—”
“You gotta figger out whose side you on. You gotta man-up.” His fins flutter. He wriggles and sloshes. “Ain’t no half-stepping. Ain’t no in-between.”
More shouts from the kitchen, the vigorous boiling of water, the sharp thwack of knives. And all that screaming.
I step out into the dining room far enough to spot Jeannie’s concern. She’s fidgeting with her napkin and staring at her phone and guzzling chardonnay. She glances up every few seconds, eyes glassed with worry. The oysters sit mutilated in the middle of the table.
I steady myself and say, “Keep an eye out, okay?”
“Now that’s what I’m talking bout,” says Dr. Fish.
I slide a heavy slate flower pot over to the lobster tank. I climb up and teeter on its lip, gazing down into the cold water. From this angle, the crustaceans are blurry pinkish-gray. I’m glad their claws are bound.
“Bring it, brutha man,” says Dr. Fish.
So I plunge into the tank with both arms. I sink up to my shoulders, stretching my six-five frame, balancing on my tiptoes, but I still can’t reach. There’s only one way I’ll have enough stretch. I gulp a breath and dunk my head in, too. Now I’m grabbing at lobsters, as many as I can carry, maybe a dozen or more. I surface with a heavy armful, funky tank water streaming down my face.
“Hells yes,” hollers Dr. Fish, splashing and swirling in his aquarium. “Liberation like a muthafucka.”
I wobble on the edge of the flower pot, trying to blink away my blurry vision.
“Excuse me, sir?” calls a waiter behind me. The voice is too deep to be Quinn. His starched apron rustles as he speed-walks toward me.
I leap from the flower pot and trip into the wall, almost spilling my load. Somehow I only drop a couple crustaceans.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the waiter hollers.
“It’s the M to the A to the N,” Dr. Fish sings.
I peek over my shoulder at the stern-faced waiter quickly making ground, dodging lobsters and brandishing his corkscrew like a cutlass.
“You need a man? Say where and when.”
Then a stream of water from Dr. Fish’s puckered lips arcs through space and splatters the polished concrete. The waiter slips and hits the floor with a grunt. I sprint for the side exit at the end of the corridor.
As I barrel outside, arms full of writhing crustaceans, and steal across the hot asphalt, I can just make out Dr. Fish’s elated burbling.
“Cuz Coy a man.”

Excerpt of Interview with Alyssa Monks

Alyssa Monk’s work is represented by Forum Gallery in New York City. She lives and paints in Brooklyn. Her latest solo exhibition “Breaking Point” was in October of 2018 at Forum Gallery. Monks’s paintings have been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions including “Intimacy” at the Kunst Museum in Ahlen, Germany and “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820–2009” at the National Academy Museum of Fine Arts, New York. Her work is represented in public and private collections, including the Savannah College of Arts, the Somerset Art Association, Fullerton College, the Seavest Collection, The Bennett Collection, and the collections of George Loening, Eric Fischl, Howard Tullman, Gerrity Lansing, Danielle Steele, Alec Baldwin, and Luciano Benetton. In 2015, Alyssa gave a TED talk at Indiana University discussing her recent work, which is featured on TED.com. Recently, she was named the 16th most influential female artist alive today by Graphic Design Degree Hub. Her work was featured heavily in season 6 of the FX television series The Americans in 2018.

Born in 1977 in New Jersey, Alyssa began oil painting as a child. She studied at The New School in New York and Montclair State University and earned her B.A. from Boston College in 1999. During this time she studied painting at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. She went on to earn her M.F.A. from the New York Academy of Art in 2001. She completed an artist in residency at Fullerton College in 2006 and has lectured and taught at universities and institutions worldwide. She continues to offer workshops and lectures regularly.

Alyssa has been awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant for Painting three times and has served as a member of the New York Academy of Art’s Board of Trustees since 2010. https://www.alyssamonks.com/

WTR: Your work has often been described as conveying a deep sense of vulnerability and intimacy. Is this intentional or an unconscious act?

AM: I think it is just how I am in the world. I don’t see much of a point in doing anything without being really invested in it – and that means present, which means some vulnerability, and certainly it will be intimate.

WTR: What role has the natural world played in your artistic expression? In your TED Talk, you mention taking a canvas into the forest after your mother’s death. Would you say that’s the moment when the natural world took on more significance in your work?

AM: Absolutely. I really wasn’t much into landscape painting at all before that. It was a strange thing how it occurred and really surprised me. I almost had a disdain for painting flowers in my formative years. That makes me laugh so much now as all I do now is paint flowers. I’ve even taken to growing my own flowers. It began with trees after my mother died. It was the character of trees, the way they live and die and function and connect and feed each other underground, provide shelter, take the sun in and weathered the storms and just stand there and take it all, swaying as needed but never complaining or resisting…I found it comforting in so many ways. I used to say then – “just be a tree,” and I could get through it. The way I painted changed as well. There was so much less precision and so much more amazement with the medium, itself. The color was earthy and rich and warm. The paint was unpredictable, and the image was coming in and out of realization. It felt “real” to me – more real than any synthetic illusionistic attempt at realism.

WTR: When discussing some of your earlier works, you remarked that you found it interesting how steam and water could be used to distort a figure and noted that you are always “looking for new filters all the time.” In your more recent works, it appears that the natural world and figures pressed against glass are your new filters. Are there any new approaches such as these on the horizon that you have not explored before?

AM: I am planning on there being limitless approaches to explore. And I’m so excited about that. Discovering and experimenting new “filters” as I like to think of them makes my head explode with possibility and ideas.

WTR: While many of these filtering techniques appear to act as a sort of membrane between two worlds or experiences, can they also be viewed as method of transmission, or ritual passage, from one world to the next or perhaps even a boundary or barrier?

AM: I don’t purposely attach or force metaphor or symbolism in my work. It’s a visual exploration for me and while I am in it, I stay with that only. I follow my intuition and aesthetic as I make decisions and experiment. What is revealed is organic and almost subconscious.

WTR: In past interviews, you’ve mentioned the importance of love, connection, and empathy in your work. You have a very keen ability to connect with others on a very human-level in your work. What role do these filtering techniques play in that connection?

AM: Thank you. It is my hope to do that. I want people to find themselves in the work, feel seen by the work and understood and connected to it. I think on a technical level, the filter creates a way to obfuscate the details of a human face. Without so many details and specificity, people can more easily find themselves in the work. I so often get emails and notes that people really think I am painting them or their friend, parent or child. To me, that is perfect.

WTR: If you had to choose one adjective to describe your work, what word would you choose and why?

AM: Searching.

“Hideous Creatures” by Casey McConahay

Casey McConahay is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and a graduate of Miami University’s MFA program. He lives in northwest Ohio.

HIDEOUS CREATURES

            Months after he moved to the canyon, Sam heard a noise out his window. The faint, maybe-scratching sound reminded him of a branch scraping siding. He went to the door at the back of the house. The night was onyx-black and moonless as he reached for the light switch.

The bulb lit the patio in bright yellow light. At the dim place where light met darkness, he saw the lawn beyond the patio—the tawny grass on which a pair of rats stood unmoving, their eyes gleaming ugly with alarm.

They held scraps of paper from a torn bag of garbage that was spilled across the lawn. He looked at the rodents’ fat, mangy bodies and long, naked tails, and as he moved toward the door, he heard scratching.

There, on the downspout, he saw another rat—a smaller one. It stared at him, its nose twitching inquisitively. Its arms hugged the downspout, and its small, tack-sharp claws scored ragged lines in the metal.

Some movement on the lawn then. No longer transfixed, the rats turned away from light and scurried off to the bushes. A rustling betrayed their location.

The other rat stared from the downspout. Sam saw its sallow incisors and its quivering whiskers, but it was late at night, and there was nothing Sam could do about the rodents—no traps he could set; no poisons he could feed them. He went back in the house and made his way to his room.

In his bed, he could hear it—the scratching.

.           .           .

In the morning, he imagined that there was someone with him. One of his pillows was beneath his head. The other was beside him, and his arm held the pillow as though its shape were a woman.

When he remembered that he was alone again, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His sheets were on the carpet. He’d torn them from his bed in the night, so he reached for the sheets and put them back on the mattress.

The room was silent. He looked at the clock.

He dressed in sneakers and running shorts. He drank water from the tap. It was cool in the canyon yet, but the Texas heat would return soon. By the time he finished running, he’d have sweated through his clothes.

He opened the back door, but before he walked through the doorway, he shouted. The shout was sudden, involuntary, and he was startled by its timbre. He closed the door—turned the deadbolt. Then he went to the window. He watched the form on the patio—the long, toast-brown body of a mountain lion lying on its side.

The animal was turned away from the doorway. He could see the back of the mountain lion—the subtle curve of its spine, the bony crags of its shoulders—but he could not see its head. Better that it was turned from him, though. Better that it hadn’t seen him. Its body was man-length. The tail made it longer. It was sleeping—hadn’t moved when he shouted.

He called animal control.

—A what? asked the woman he spoke to.

—A mountain lion.

Silence on the other end of the telephone. Then:

—You’re sure? she asked.

—I think so.

He heard the woman’s fingers on a keyboard.

—Could it be a jaguar? she asked him.

—Are there jaguars in Texas?

—In zoos. Might have traveled from Austin.

Sam thought about it.

—It doesn’t have spots, he said. Don’t jaguars have spots?

—Are you sure that it isn’t a lion?

He took the phone to the window. Looking at the animal, he said:

—It doesn’t have a mane.

—But it could be a female lion, couldn’t it? Females don’t have manes.

—Yes, he acknowledged. It could be a female lion.

—And what is it doing now, sir?

He answered the rest of her questions and gave the woman his address. She said they’d send someone soon. In the meantime, he monitored the animal. There were children in the neighborhood—children who rode their bicycles around the cul-de-sac. If the mountain lion rose, he’d need to scare or distract it. He took a knife from a drawer in the kitchen.

When the animal control officers arrived, he left the knife on the counter. He met the men in the driveway, and the larger man—the one with the mustache—asked him:

—This the house with the bobcat?

—It’s a mountain lion, I think. It’s out back.

The man’s companion opened the door of the van and removed an aluminum snare, a cable looped on one end. Sam regarded the snare skeptically.

—Will that be enough? he asked.

—It should be, said the man with the mustache. See Miguel there? Miguel snared an alligator at Lake Travis last Thursday. Ever seen an alligator?

Sam had not.

—Nasty little devil. Thrashed worse than anything. Miguel didn’t flinch, though. Did you, Miguel?

—Maybe one time, said Miguel. When it bit me.

Miguel showed them the marks on his arm.

—See that? said the other man. Bit by an alligator but fearless. He’s not afraid of your tiger.

—Mountain lion, Sam told them.

—Where is it?

He led them through the house, and at the back door, the men crowded around the window. The mountain lion was on the patio yet, and as the animal control officers looked at the animal, Sam heard fragments of what they said to one another.

—In the back.

—If it cooperates.

—Maybe.

Then they turned to him.

—When we snare him, said the man with the mustache, Miguel needs to lead him around front. If we can get him in the van, we’ll be done.

—And if you can’t?

Miguel pointed at Sam’s sneakers.

—If I can’t, said Miguel, at least you’re ready to run.

And the men laughed together.

They opened the door slowly. Miguel crept toward the animal, and the other man followed. Sam remained inside for a moment but walked through the open door just as Miguel moved the snare toward the head of the mountain lion—a round head with dark, pointed ears standing upright like spikes. Miguel tried to maneuver the snare’s cable beneath the animal’s chin. The man with the mustache watched the mountain lion for movement, and behind him, in his sneakers, was Sam.

Sam was leaning away from the men when Miguel withdrew the snare. Miguel frowned at his colleague and then prodded the mountain lion, pressing the rod against the shoulders, the spine, and the hindquarters of the animal.

—You see him move earlier?

—No.

—He just laid here?

Miguel gave the snare to his companion. He circled the mountain lion, and after staring at its body, he knelt beside the animal and placed a hand on its head. He touched its whiskers and ears and then moved his hand to the forepaw. Rubbing the pad on the paw’s underside, he spoke to his colleague.

—Dead, he reported.

Sam watched from the window as the men retrieved a tarp from their vehicle. He’d offered to help, but they’d told him that there wasn’t anything to do except to get the mountain lion in the van. They’d not brought the gurney they sometimes used to transport dead animals, so they put a tarp beneath the mountain lion and dragged its carcass through the yard. Boys on bikes happened by as the men hauled the cat to the street, and as the boys set their kickstands and gawked from the sidewalk, the men opened the rear doors of their vehicle. Working their arms beneath the limbs of the animal much as one would lift an inebriate, they raised the mountain lion from the ground and placed its body inside the van.

Sam went outside as they were closing the van’s doors.

—I didn’t know it was dead, he told him. I didn’t think to check.

The men had their hands in their pockets.

—Forget it, said the man with the mustache. Easy mistake. And anyway, it’s the first time we’ve seen one of those. Smaller than we thought it would be.

—Calmer, too, said Miguel.

The man with the mustache put a hand on Miguel’s shoulder. This was a signal, it seemed. Miguel stepped away from his colleague and spread the tarp on the lawn.

—We can’t say for sure, said the other man, but we think he was hungry. They’re in the hills, you know. Sometimes livestock go missing, and ranchers see tracks.

Sam glanced at the van.

—What killed it, though?

—Hard to say. Poisoned, we think. That’s what Miguel says.

Miguel was folding the tarp. He folded it as carefully as flags are folded, matching the corners of the tarp’s material and trying to straighten the folds.

—Poisoned how? Sam asked.

There were shrubs near the corner of the property—shrubs that looked desiccated during dry spells but were resilient and dense.

—Those shrubs, said the man with the mustache, sometimes rats like to nest in them. You have rats in this neighborhood?

On his lawn. On the down spout.

—Yes, Sam admitted. A few.

—You put out poison?

—I haven’t. Not yet.

More boys approached them. The boys had heard about the animal and hoped to see its cold body.

—Could’ve been anyone, said the man with the mustache. Any of your neighbors could have put it out.

He nodded at Miguel, who was nearly through with the tarp.

—Miguel says it could have eaten rat poison. Or rats. Maybe rats it ate were poisoned. Maybe that could have done it.

The tarp was the size of a cutting board then. Miguel put the tarp beneath his underarm and stood beside his colleague.

The man with the mustache shook his head.

—Shame it had to go that way. It’s not a good way to die. Not for rats, even. An animal like him—he should’ve died in the hills. Not with foam in his mouth. Not in anguish.

The boys went up to the van. They put their hands to their faces and cupped their hands against the windows. As Miguel whispered something to the other man, a boy shouted:

—Can we see it, mister?

The man with the mustache took some keys from his pocket. He gave the keys to Miguel, but before the men left, Sam asked:

—What did your friend say to you?

The man touched his mustache.

—He said that in the hills, they mostly die of starvation. He said it’s quicker, at least, if you’re poisoned.

And then they walked away. Sam watched from the sidewalk as the animal control officers opened the van doors and showed the children their cargo. He heard breath leave the children—heard gasps.

.           .           .

When he woke the next morning, his sheets were on the carpet again. He left them there. Before he grabbed his shorts from the hamper—before he searched for his sneakers—he went to the door to the patio.

Nothing.

There was nothing to signify that a day before, a mountain lion lay there. So he dressed in his running clothes. After he went outside, he locked the door to his house and hid his keys in the cold ash of the fire pit. He followed the path in the yard where the tarp had been dragged, and when he went through the gate, he started running.

Boys on bicycles saw him as he ran down the street. The children laughed and followed him, and Sam heard the chains on the spokes of their bicycles. He didn’t mind. He didn’t mind when the boys raced him, either—when a swarm of bikes hurried past him, boys’ bottoms raised from their bike-seats as youthful legs pistoned pedals.

When the boys were out of sight, he had a lane to himself. Cars passed occasionally, and Sam raised an affable hand to them. Sometimes drivers waved back to him. Sometimes they didn’t. It made no difference to Sam. He reached the end of the subdivision and kept running. He ran along the road that led away from the canyon, and after he came to an intersection, he turned and started back.

When he returned to his house, his shirt was sweat-damp and heavy. He stopped in the street. He stopped where the van had parked the day before, and with his hands on his knees—and as sweat from his face dripped in beads to the concrete—he saw the shrub at the corner of his property. He saw the faint rustling in the shrub that was wind or a bird or a fat-bodied rodent, but as sweat stung his eyes, he looked away from the shrub. To the house across the street. To a woman.

She wore sneakers and Lycra. She was stretching on the lawn. He watched her reach for her toes, and after her fingers grabbed her sneakers, the woman noticed Sam—smiled.

She came to him. She looked in both directions at the curb, and she waited before crossing because some brothers on bicycles had a race in the street. She let the bicycles pass. She put her hands on her hips. The sneakers she wore were fluorescent.

—I’m Elaine, said the woman. You’re?

—Sam.

—Sam, she said. Sam. Nice to meet you.

He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Her hair was red like paprika, and strands of hair had escaped from her headband.

—That your house? she asked.

—It’s that one. The white one.

They looked at his house together.

—You’re the man with the cheetah problem.

—I think it was a mountain lion.

—Same thing, said the woman. And anyway, it could be worse. I’d rather have a mountain lion than rats.

—I have rats, too. Rats and a mountain lion.

—Do you have rats in your house, though? I have rats in my attic. I’ve heard rats in the walls since I moved here.

He vaguely recalled a moving van.

—Which was when?

—A month ago. Maybe a month. I don’t remember. I’ve been working so much. All the days run together. But today, I slept in.

—And you’re running.

She looked at her sneakers.

—These are new, she said. This is the first time I’ve worn them. It’s the first time I’ve run in forever.

—They look fast, Sam told her. They look like shoes you’d want to wear if lots of rats tried to chase you.

—God. What a nuisance. Those rats.

She turned toward her home.

—I liked the house, she said. The area. I didn’t know there were rats, though.

She put her hands on her hips then, and he noticed her hips. He watched her lips when she spoke—watched with longing.

—Maybe they’ll go away, he said.

—I hired an exterminator. He put some traps around the house.

—And you’ve caught some?

—I think. I don’t know. He comes to check every day or so, but I’m gone when he comes. I never check them myself. Imagine finding a rat in a trap. A dead one. Or a rat that’s been poisoned.

He remembered the mountain lion.

—And anyway, she said, they’ll keep coming. He sealed the hole in the attic, but the other rats—the ones outside—there are too many. He put out spring traps and poison, but he said he couldn’t get rid of the rats until everyone in the neighborhood got rid of them. Everyone has to put out traps. Do you put out traps?

She was looking at him. Her eyes were green and arresting.

—Yes, he said, lying. I do.

He couldn’t tell if she believed him.

—What kind of traps do you use? Do you use glue traps? The spring ones? Just poison?

—Poison, he told her.

—That’s good, she said. Poison is good. That’s what my exterminator said. He said that everyone is the neighborhood—everyone whose house he services—uses poison.

—Yes, he said again. I used poison.

—I’m glad to hear that. Rats are hideous. Hideous creatures. Don’t you think so?

He started to tell her that yes, he thought they were hideous, but before he could respond, she said:

—I’m sorry. I can’t believe this. I’m stupid.

She raised a hand to her face and looked away from him.

—For what? he asked. There isn’t anything to be sorry about.

—Carrying on about rats, she said.

—It’s fine.

—It’s embarrassing.

—It’s okay, he assured her. I’m glad I met you. I’m glad we talked about rats.

She lowered her hand and then spoke nervously, rapidly.

—Would you like to go to dinner sometime? Would that be okay? I haven’t had dinner since I moved here—not a nice one. Would you have dinner with me?

—Yes, he told her. I’d like that. Maybe tonight, even. If you’re free.

—Tonight would be fine, she said. Tonight is good.

—And we can talk a bit longer.

—Not of rats. Or of leopards.

—Or mountain lions. Not about them.

.           .           .

There was a candle on the dinner table. It sat between them, its flame sputtering intermittently as it burned low on the wick and touched the well of melted wax.

—This is nice, she said. It’s pretty. I like it.

He looked at Elaine. He looked at the wine list. He looked at the flame of the candle.

—I like your dress, he told her.

—Thank you.

—It’s stunning.

The dress was black, tight, and strapless. She wore a necklace as well—a silver chain with a charm. When he’d met her at her house that evening and saw her in the dress and the necklace, he knew that he couldn’t take her to the bar in Round Rock like he’d planned.

She glanced at the tables that surrounded them and turned her glass by its stem.

—Have you been here before? she asked.

—I have. Maybe twice.

—And with me now.

—That’s right. This is three times.

She turned her glass again. Leaning toward the center of the table, she told him:

—They don’t have restaurants like this where I’m from. Restaurants where girls can wear dresses.

—Or with wine lists.

—Or with wine lists. Exactly. Listen—can I tell you something?

—Tell me anything.

—This dress, she said. This dress I bought a year ago. I’ve never worn it. I never had a reason to. I wanted one dress—one really nice dress—that I could wear to restaurants and parties and glamorous places. So I bought it. It’s spent a year in my closet.

Around them were other tables with other diners. Around them were candles with flames that wavered occasionally and waiters in black vests who carried dishes and drink trays.

—Is this glamorous enough? he asked her. Does it deserve a nice dress?

—At this point, she told him, I’d have worn this dress to a barbecue. I’d have worn it to an ice cream truck.

—We should leave. We should leave and get ice cream.

—And I’ll wear my dress, she said. And when the man asks me what kind of ice cream I want, I’ll ask for his fanciest flavor.

—In a cone?

—In something golden. A chalice.

Her smile was sublime in the candlelight.

—I like this, she said. I like you. I’m glad you brought me here.

—What if they don’t have ice cream?

—I’m glad you brought me here even if they don’t have ice cream. But I’m sure they do. That woman there is eating ice cream.

They looked at a woman across the restaurant—a gray-haired woman with a gleaming pearl necklace. The woman had a hand on the table, and the man across from her—a man with hair combed in wisps across his pale, balding head—placed his hand above hers as she ate.

Elaine was solemner now.

—I moved here for business, she said. I’ve never had a job before—a serious job. I thought if I could get to the office early, I’d make a good first impression. So I’m there before daylight. And I stay till it’s dark out. That’s the way my days have gone.

—For a month? he asked.

—That’s right. For a month.

She blinked her eyes—blinked slowly enough that he saw her eye shadow, her mascara, a strand of hair along her cheek.

—But it’s better, she said. Now it’s better.

He put an arm on the table.

—I came for work, too. From Ohio.

—Ohio? Really? I’ve never been to Ohio. I’ve never been anywhere.

—Is that why you came here? he asked. To go somewhere new?

She shook her head.

—Not really. That was part of it, I suppose. But not the main reason.

—What then? Why move? Just for work?

She reached for the charm on her necklace.

—It wasn’t that, either. It’s hard to explain. I don’t really—

She leaned away from him.

—I don’t mean to pry, he said. Forget I asked.

—No, she told him. It’s fine. It’s just a difficult question. I wanted to leave my family. That’s why. It’s a hard thing to say to someone, but that’s why I came here.

—Everybody does that, he told her. Everybody leaves their families.

—With me, she said, it’s different.

He was going to mention something else. He was going to ask about her work or about her rat traps or about the music she liked, but after a short moment’s silence, she said:

—My father made things difficult for us. For my sister and me. He wasn’t a good person.

He looked at her face in the candlelight.

—I’m sorry, he told her. I shouldn’t have asked. You don’t need to—

—It’s okay. Really, it is. It was a long time ago. We’re fine now—my sister and I—but it wasn’t a happy childhood. We learned things we weren’t ready for. We learned more about the world than we were ready for.

Hiding the charm with her hand, she told him:

—The worst part was that our mother didn’t believe us. We told her what was happening. We told her over and over. She never saw it, though. She worked nights at a factory. She was gone when it happened.

She paused then, and in her silence, he could hear conversations from the restaurant’s other tables. One couple discussed finances. Another talked about a trip they were taking to Singapore. Someone several tables away from them was celebrating a promotion, and a woman at the bar was on the phone with her daughter.

—My sister told her counselor, Elaine said. My sister is older than I am, so for her, it happened longer. But what bothered her the most was that she couldn’t protect me. We don’t talk about it often, but when we do, that’s what she says. She did protect me, though. When she told, she protected me. I was fourteen when they arrested him. Fifteen when the trial began. We both had to testify, which was terrible. Imagine sitting in a courtroom, and your mother is watching. And your father is there. And you tell them the ways that he hurt you.

She held the charm even tighter.

—It’s hard to say those things, she said. And to tell them to strangers. The words for it are ugly. And you know that you’re hurting your parents, but you have to do it because if you don’t, it won’t end. So we told.

She glanced at the table beside them and back again.

—He’s in prison still, so we don’t have to worry about him. But at home, we remember. Ordinary places—the high school, the movie theater, restaurants—it’s hard not to think about him. And not just about the bad times. There were happy times also. It hurts to remember the happy times. You wonder how someone could be so kind in public and then other times, when he was alone with us—

She hesitated.

—Anyway, we both left. My sister left as soon as she could. I stayed for my mother, but after college—after I got this job offer—I moved here.

Here, at this moment, was a restaurant she wore a dress to. It was a restaurant where the murmured conversations at other tables discussed banal things and trifles. But banality had fled from this table, and in its place was something too immense to be answered. He looked away from Elaine and from the hand on her necklace, and then the flame at the end of the candlewick started sputtering. It burnt so low on the wick that it touched the wet wax. It was drowned by the wax and extinguished.

.           .           .

It was dark when they went from the restaurant. The moon, a bright billiard cue, dangled above them, and in silence, he drove Elaine home.

She touched her necklace and stared through the window.

When he came to their block, he parked his car along the curb. He opened the door for her, and he walked her to the house.

—Quite a night, said Elaine. And that moon—

Sam looked at it.

—It looks so big.

—Like it’s close. Like it’s falling.

As they pondered the moon, boys on bikes pedaled by. The boys had lights on their handlebars, and the lights darted rapidly as the bikes hastened past. The lights lit a few yards of concrete—hardly enough to be of use—and it looked to Sam as though the bike boys were rushing toward a curtain of night.

—I wish I were a child again, Elaine told him. I wish I was a girl on a bicycle, and I could ride down the street with my sister.

She asked him:

—Did you ever ride a bicycle?

—Now and then. With my friends.

—We could bike. You and I. We could race.

He looked at her. He saw her eagerness, her expectation, but he was removed from it.

—I run, Sam reminded her.

—We could run then. We could run from the boys on their bikes.

But the boys had disappeared. His car was in the street, but the road was otherwise empty. It felt for an instant as though they were alone in the canyon—as though it was them and the night and the moon.

She stepped toward him.

—I had a nice time. Thank you, Sam. Thank you for dinner.

—It’s nothing, he told her. You’re welcome.

She waited for him to say something more, but when nothing else came, she took her keys from her handbag. She looked at the door and then looked back again—focused on Sam. Her eyes were sad, like she knew. But she asked.

—Want to come inside?

Glancing toward his car, he told her:

—I can’t. Not tonight.

A few formalities followed. She thanked him once more, and they spoke vaguely, hollowly, of plans to meet sometime later. They said goodnight. She looked wounded. She was holding the charm. Then she turned, and she entered her house.

He saw a light through her windows as he walked from the doorway. A light-ring reached to the sidewalk, and he stayed in the light. It was difficult to move from it, but then he walked to the curb, and when he reached the place on the street where the mountain lion had been carried, he heard a sound in the darkness. He thought the boys on bikes were approaching him, but the evening street was vacant. The sound grew louder—a shaking sound. A sound that meant movement. And he searched in the darkness. He paused.

He looked at the shrub at the corner of the property. The shrub shuddered as though something was agitating it, and the longer he watched the shrub, the more it trembled. It roared in the night till the sound of the rustling shrub was within him—till it echoed and boomed in his ribs.

He didn’t move from the street. His house looked distant and strange. A nest of rats in his yard—in the bushes.

Excerpt of Interview with Raina Gentry

Raina Gentry received her degree in art from the UA in 2002. Her artwork incorporates her studies in printmaking, life drawing, and painting, and is heavily influenced by her education at Prescott College. She views each canvas as a playground for her psyche. Each piece evolves naturally and intuitively with little structure or expectation about the final outcome. Through this organic approach to art making, Raina believes that she taps into and expresses universal themes that many people can identify with. Through complex layering of acrylic paint and ink, with a focus on nature or the female form, she creates meaningful, evocative works that draw her viewers in, and expresses her deep love and connection with the natural world.  See her work at https://rainagentry.com/index.html

GENTRY photo

 

WTR:  How would you describe your relationship with the natural world, and why is it so often an integral part of your work?

RG:  Nature is my greatest inspiration.  I have a deep soulful connection with nature that is impossible to describe in words.  That is better left to poets.  I feel an almost constant sense of awe and wonder about it.  I not only hike every day in nature, but live in a house surrounded by it.  I am impacted by many aspects of it, not just the trees and the birds, deer and squirrels, but also the breeze, the rain and snow, the rocks, the grasses, even the dirt.  Whenever I am outside my senses come alive, and I seem to absorb the essence of the place directly into my own body.  Everything seems “right with the world.”  If I am able to convey this experience through my artwork, I feel that I have succeeded as an artist.

 

WTR:  Mountains, trees, and animals are often important parts of your paintings.  What landscapes, real or imagined, fascinate you most and why? How have they influenced your work?

 RG:  I am inspired by all of nature, and find all of it interesting in one way or another, whether forest, desert, complex, simple, lush or stark.  Everything from giant redwoods to the smallest weeds.  All fascinate me on some level.  Most of my work depicts high desert mountains and forests, because these are the places where I have lived, but I do long to paint other types as well.  I am especially drawn to more stark landscapes, but have not figured out a way to do this in my current style.

 

WTR:  Buddhist images are prominent in a number your paintings.  How role, if any, has Buddhism played in your life and what effects has it had on your consciousness as well as your work?

RG:  Although I don’t consider myself religious, the Buddhist philosophy resonates with me.  I think many of the Eastern religions have similar philosophies, but Buddhism is the one I’ve had the most exposure to.  It teaches a reverence for all life, not just human life, and compassion for, rather than dominion over, all things.  I like how it puts balance, harmony and equality above other pursuits.  I believe in walking a gentler path on this earth because we (humans) are but one aspect, and depend completely on it.  Again, it is my hope that my work expresses this, even in the slightest way.

 

WTR:  In your collection focused on women, such as Prana and Make a Wish, among others, is there a particular question or set of questions you are asking about women’s interaction with the non-human world?  What is the central idea your hope to communicate about nature and the feminine?

RG:  When I was painting the human form more frequently, my focus was on women in relation to nature.  I believe it was my way of trying to express my love and connection with nature.  “Prana” I feel was my best attempt at this.  It’s about the life energy that flows through and connects all of us; humans, animals, and nature.  “Aquifer” is another one of my favorites from that period, as it depicts a woman who is one with nature; the boundary between her and the earth are blurred.  In one other painting, “At the Edge” the woman is actually beginning to morph into a bee.  In most of my paintings of women in nature, the mood is somber.  I believe I painted them this way because of the sadness I feel around how humans treat the natural world.  All of my early paintings evolved organically without much for thought about the final outcome, so I am only guessing at my subconscious motivations.  In other words, I never planned out a painting ahead of time, rather I let the painting lead me.

Excerpt of Interview with Poet Dylan Krieger

from West Trade Review, Spring 2018, Vol. 9  ©2018

http://www.westtradereview.com/subscription.html

 

Dylan Krieger is an automatic meaning generator in south Louisiana, where she earned her MFA in creative writing from LSU and now sunlights as a trade magazine editor. Her debut poetry collection, Giving Godhead (Delete Press, 2017), was dubbed “the best collection of poetry to appear in English in 2017” by the New York Times Book Review. She is also the author of dreamland trash (Saint Julian Press, 2018), no ledge left to love (Ping-Pong Free Press, forthcoming), and an autobiographical meditation on the Church of Euthanasia called The Mother Wart, as well as numerous other solo and collaborative projects. Find her at www.dylankrieger.com.

 

krieger

WTR:  A common theme we notice in your work is the idea of a fracture or break, whether that is   a physical or emotional one.  How has this idea influenced how you shape the structure of your poems? Was this something you considered when writing “Head in the Cloud?”

I have a rather strange relationship with form and structure on the page, primarily because I’m such an auditory rather than a visual thinker. There’s a very real sense in which visual form simply doesn’t matter to me, insofar as the most complete instantiation of the poem is heard, not seen. That being said, however, the interlocking short lines of “head in the cloud” have appeared in my work more than once, and for this particular poem the notion of disconnect you point out is important. The images of the fractured gravy boat and the liberty bell replica, among others, touch on an anxiety about symbolic and sentimental objects’ inevitable decay, posing a morbid curiosity about the extent to which ideas die with their symbols.

WTR:  There seems to be a tension in your work related to an individual’s understanding of their culture.  Why do you choose to address this idea?  Was there any particular event that prompted your exploration of this?

I think being homeschooled all my life until college led to a sense of cultural alienation for me, a feeling that I somehow stood outside of my local and even national communities, looking in. Even now, I often find myself referring to the “high school” era of my life to maintain an air of normalcy I had no hope of achieving then. But in contrast, there was also a reflection on cultural absorption that only took place after the homeschooling, when I realized I’d been totally indoctrinated in a Biblical understanding of the world that was/is by no means universal. In other words, although I’d always considered myself an outsider, I eventually came to understand that self-diagnosis as itself a distinctive mark of extreme-right polarized American thinking—I was both a social outcast and the epitome of a culture sponge.

WTR:  A recurring idea in your work appears to be an underlying frustration with relationships, both familial and romantic.  Is this your method of seeking emotional release or remedy?  If so, which of your poems best demonstrates this and in what way?

Writing qua communication is an inherently social act, so I think it’s useful and often cathartic to plug it into particular relationships and watch the lights flicker. At bottom, everything is therapy. But like in any doctor’s office, you sometimes discover there is no remedy. I think my poem “money / talk,” which depicts my finance-oriented relationship with my mother, best demonstrates this lack of clear remedy by admitting in its final lines I have “nothing left to say.” When it comes to family, some scars just sit there, and you have to love people around and through them rather than reopening the wound every time you interact.

WTR:  What do you see as the importance and power of nature imagery in your work in such poems as “sick of shelling?”

One strategy I’ve employed for several years now in my above mentioned enterprise to de-stigmatize the grotesque body involves drawing parallels between it and the grotesque transformations we see in nature that are (in contrast) usually considered quite beautiful. The prickly abrasions created by both beard and cactus in the last few couplets, for example, could be said to show the violence of nature, certainly, but they also illustrate penetrability as a basis of desire—the speaker wants to feel the cactus’ “golden arrows”—as well as vulnerability to aggression.

“Small Pieces” by John Findura

from West Trade Review, Spring 2017, Vol. 8  ©2017

http://www.westtradereview.com/subscription.html

John Findura holds an MFA from The New School as well as a degree in psychotherapy. His poetry and criticism appear in numerous journals including Verse,Fourteen Hills, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, NGM_N,  Jacket, and Rain Taxi. A guest blogger for The Best American Poetry, he has won and been a finalist for various awards. He lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife and daughters.
SMALL PIECES
Last night I dreamt
of an old face
I thought I had
forgotten
she was wearing a new
dress
and her voice sounded
the same
It seems she has
fallen apart in
small pieces
a little at a time
no one defining
moment
just small shudders
water dripping
through the cracks
that had always
been there
the reservoir has
run dry
and the fish have
suffocated
no fire and brimstone
tidal waves
or comets
just loose rivets
and places I forgot
to glue

“Everything is Ours” by Jen Corrigan

 from West Trade Review, Spring 2018, Vol. 9  ©2018
A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, Jen Corrigan’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Change Seven Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. She is also a book reviewer for The Coil. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.
“Everything is Ours”
by Jen Corrigan

          It was surprisingly cool in the bathroom at the back of the church. The two girls had tucked themselves into the stall on the far left, the one with an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the door. The sign was Nicole’s idea, a precaution against the nosy camp chaperones who might notice they were gone and go looking for them.

The theme for the last day of Bible camp was deliverance, or obedience, or some other –ence word. Tina did her best to look attentive and innocuous during the opening scripture reading. Sitting in a pew as far back from Pastor Rick as possible, Tina used a hymnal balanced on her knees as a makeshift table. Without looking down, Tina scrawled OUT OF ORDER in big, authoritative letters. Instead of looking at the paper, she watched the sweat dotting Pastor Rick’s brow. In the light filtering through the stained-glass window, the beads looked golden, ringing his head in a luminescent halo.

When Tina lifted the paper up from the hymnal, Nicole elbowed her and pointed to the smears of permanent marker that had leaked through onto the cover, declaring the hymnal OUT OF ORDER.

“You’re going to Hell now,” she whispered in Tina’s ear, the vibration tickling her earlobe in an itch. Tina always seemed to grow hyper-sensitive to itches and skin sensations whenever the girls were together. She also laughed at the smallest things around Nicole. The girls tried to cover their giggles behind their palms, but Pastor Rick heard and shot them a stern look in between scripture.

Tina sat on the toilet seat, back pressed against the wall. She pulled her red, scabby knees up to her chin, arms wrapped tight around her shins to keep herself in place. Nicole sat above her, perched delicately on the tank with the precision of a small parrot. She tucked her long legs between Tina and the damp ceramic of the tank. When one of the girls shifted, the skin of their legs rubbed together, and Tina’s face would glow warm just under her eyes.

“How much longer until this stupid day is over?” Nicole asked, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. Her charm bracelet jingled against her face.

Tina peered around her calves at the watch on her wrist. The green numbers glowed in the dimly lit bathroom.

“We’ve only been in here forty-five minutes.”

Nicole groaned dramatically, her voice bouncing off the walls and the ceiling in an echo. Tina shushed her.

“Don’t shush me,” Nicole huffed, reaching over and yanking Tina’s greasy red ponytail. “You are not my mother.”

Tina reached up to grab a chunk of Nicole’s hair in return, but Nicole smacked her hand out of the way.

“And you do not touch a black woman’s hair, either.”

Tina scoffed, and a sense of mischief squirmed through her body, up and down her sternum until it rested in the low part of her stomach. “You aren’t a woman.” With a finger, precisely poised, she flicked the flat front of Nicole’s butter-yellow tank top. “You’re what my mom calls a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board.”

Nicole grinned, her small white teeth glowing in the fluorescent dim of the bathroom. She ripped a long strip of toilet paper off the roll, tore it in half, and crumpled each half into a ball which she then put down her shirt and wedged into her training bra. Sticking out her chest and pulling her tank top tight across her body, Nicole wiggled her shoulders.

“How about now? Do I look womanly?”

“You look stupid.” Tina squashed one of Nicole’s paper breasts with her palm. “Nobody would believe those were real.”

Tina looked at Nicole puffing out her chest like a proud peacock about to strut past a group of hens. The clumps of toilet paper under Nicole’s shirt looked lumpy and hard in a way that was both funny and sad.

Sometimes, Tina wasn’t sure if she wanted Nicole or if she just wanted to be Nicole, with her long, lithe body, pretty features, and infectious, slightly crooked grin that made her look older than thirteen. Instead, Tina was chunky and freckled, her arms and legs covered with bright-red specks that only got bigger and redder in the summer sun. The only thing Tina had that Nicole didn’t was breasts, great soft lumps that hurt when she touched them. Nicole wanted breasts so badly, every night doing chest exercises in hopes of stimulating their growth. Tina didn’t think they were worth the trouble.

“I bet Pastor Rick would like them,” Nicole said of her newly constructed bust. She looked mischievously at Tina from the corner of her eye. “He seems like a man who would like a big rack. He probably likes your tits since they’re fucking huge.

Tina felt her face become suddenly hot, like she was leaning into a campfire. She looked at Nicole’s lumpy artificial breasts and imagined Pastor Rick cupping them gently with both hands. A pang went through Tina’s chest. “Yep,” she said, her mouth pulling up on one end into a bitter smirk. “Like a pirate’s dream: a sunken chest.”

Nicole pulled out both wads of toilet paper and tossed them at Tina’s face. Tina shrieked and Nicole laughed.

The door to the bathroom creaked open, and Nicole clamped a hand over her own mouth, choking her laughter quiet. In tense silence, the girls sat completely still and listened as the woman, wheezing slightly, plunked down on the toilet in the stall next to them. As her weight hit the seat, the lid on the tank rattled. Over the course of several minutes, Tina and Nicole refused to look at each other, afraid the look would trigger an outburst of nervous laughter. The woman grunted and sighed, finally completing her bathroom visit by flushing the toilet and leaving without washing her hands.

“That was disgusting,” Nicole said once the door banged shut. Her voice sounded squelched and nasally like she was talking without breathing through her nose.

“Yeah, it was,” Tina agreed, plugging her own nose between two fingers. “And just think she’ll be using those hands to do Jesus crafts with children.”

“The unwashed masses.” Nicole waved a hand in front of her own face as if trying to shoo away the smell. Her charm bracelet tinkled happily like tiny church bells.

Tina had given Nicole the charm bracelet for her ninth birthday, the one Nicole had at the ice skating rink, despite the fact that nobody except her could skate. While Nicole flitted across the ice, her skates making a chkk chkk rhythm across the smooth surface of the sink, Tina and the rest of the guests scooted behind her, wiggling their hips in a sad attempt to propel forward. Fast and almost erratic, Nicole jumped and spun, circling the rink again and again as if she was flying. The way she seemed to skip across the ice reminded Tina of the Jesus lizard on a Discovery channel nature special, running lightning quick over the top of the scummy jungle water.

Tina stayed close to the edge of the rink with her right hand touching the wall at all times as if the contact provided any protection from falling. She moved herself carefully, her skates slipping forward inch by inch. Tina watched the advertisements printed along the walls, visible during the local hockey games broadcasted on a local cable access channel: law firms, realtors, several restaurants in downtown Iowa City with reputations better than their actual food.

Although none of the party guests were as good at skating as Nicole, the second-best skater was Lydia, a girl from out of town whom Nicole met at summer art camp. Shifting her weight from leg to leg, Lydia propelled herself fairly quickly across the rink, keeping up just enough to talk at Nicole’s back. Nicole turned her head over her shoulder to respond, smiling and laughing. Tina hadn’t spoken one word to Lydia, but it was at that moment that Tina knew she hated the girl.

It was as if Tina’s body made the decision for her. The next time Nicole and Lydia swept past her, Tina’s left leg shot out in Lydia’s path. Their skates collided, and Tina and Lydia tumbled to the ground. Tina’s hands were already out to catch her fall.

As if in slow motion, Tina watched Lydia fall beside her. Her feet shooting out behind her, Lydia careened forward, her face falling toward the ice in a perfect arc. Tina gasped, her chest constricting like she had had the wind knocked out of her. She wasn’t sure if she was regretful or simply awed by the trajectory, by the crack as Lydia’s skull met the ice.

Nicole’s mother took that moment to usher everyone off the ice for cake and ice cream while she called Lydia’s parents to come take her to the hospital for stitches. Tina was unscathed. After Nicole opened her presents, she and the guests went back out on the rink. A long pink streak marked the place where Lydia’s head had broken open on the ice. Tina skated over the spot and felt a chill inside her body. The blades of her skates rubbed away Lydia’s blood with every lap around the rink. Her shame, however, rested warm in the pit of her chest.

“God, it reeks in here,” Nicole said, still fanning the air with one hand. With the other hand, Nicole absently traced a phrase of bathroom graffiti carved into the metal wall of the stall. Crissy sux weinerz. “Good for you, Crissy,” Nicole murmured.

“We could sneak back to the group,” Tina suggested. “At least we’d be outside.”

Nicole shook her head, her big loose hair bouncing slightly. “No way. I’d rather sit in a poo cloud for all eternity than go out there and participate.” She scowled at Tina. “I’ll never forgive your mom for convincing my mom to sign me up.”

It was true. Tina’s mother was the reason they were both there, crammed in a stall in a stinky church bathroom.

“It will be good for you,” Tina’s mother had said when she expressed outrage at the idea of going to Bible day camp.

“We’re not even religious! We only go to church on Christmas and Easter,” Tina protested. Nicole called their type the C & E crowd. To emphasize her point, Tina slammed a kitchen cabinet. The dishes inside rattled dangerously.

“Watch it,” her mother said in a low voice that vibrated like a cello being tuned. She slipped a cigarette from her pack and wedged it in between her lips. Her blood-orange lipstick left a thick, bright smear across the filter. “I’ll talk to Nicole’s mom. Nicole can go with you.”

“They’re not religious either!” Tina yelled, feeling the fury well up inside her. Since she was a child, she’d been angry. When the anger came, it felt like a visceral itch, a sensation in her body that demanded to be noticed and wouldn’t go away until something, anything, was destroyed. Her mother assumed it was because Tina’s father left, and took her daughter to therapy where she could talk out the resentment. Tina wasn’t sure what she was angry at, or if it was even really anger she was feeling. She didn’t think much about her dad, but for all she knew, her mother was right, that the absence of a father had fucked up her psyche in some way. The only thing Tina was sure of was that she felt calmer when Nicole was there to smile and laugh and dismiss all Tina’s rage with a joke. Tina’s sense of being different, and afraid of that difference, subsided when the girls were together.

“Tina Marie, don’t you dare raise your voice like that,” Tina’s mother said, raising her own to match her red-faced daughter.

As if a cord inside her snapped, everything came tumbling down. It was a blur. Tina running to the mantle in the living room, Tina clutching one of her mother’s Precious Moment’s statuettes in her hand, Tina hurling it down onto the hardwood floor where it shattered, but in a less satisfying way than she had imagined.

That outburst solidified her mother’s decision to send Tina to Bible camp that summer.

“Mom just wanted me out of the house,” Tina said, reaching out to rub her index finger across Crissy sux weinerz like Nicole had done. “I don’t know why your mom signed you up. She’s never home anyway. Not like you’d bother her.” Nicole’s mother worked long shifts at a hospital over in Cedar Rapids.

Nicole rolled her eyes. Even when she was being obnoxious, she still looked pretty. “She told me she didn’t want me sitting in front of the TV all summer, eating junk food and getting fat. Still, she could have picked something better for me to do than praise Jesus all damn day.” She uncrossed her long legs, recrossed them.

Tina felt desire swell in her chest. I’m going to tell her, Tina thought. The adrenaline ran hot like liquor through her veins.

Nicole sighed, peeled a piece of toilet paper from the roll, and began methodically shredding it with her fingernails. Her chipped glitter nail polish sparkled even in the harsh fluorescent light. “So, what do you want to do to kill time?”

Tina shrugged, feigning apathy. She willed herself to feel calm, but the idea for her reveal was percolating. The fantasy played inside her head, and she watched it like a movie in milliseconds.

“We could play Truth,” Tina suggested. It would be the perfect way of saying it, her revelation masked as just her being goaded into it by a game.

But Nicole shook her head. “Truth isn’t fun anymore. We already know everything about each other.”

Tina nodded, pretending she agreed. “Yeah, Truth is boring.” She paused, lifted her pinky finger to her mouth and gnawed delicately at the skin around her nail. The idea swam into her head and bumped up against the gray matter, like a horrid fish in an aquarium slamming against the glass.

Tina’s voice sounded tinny and far away as she blurted it out. “Maybe we can practice kissing,” she said, her gut deflating. “You know, so we’ll know what we’re doing when we start dating boys.” Her voice put the emphasis on boys. Even to Tina, it seemed like a creepy proposal, and with such a bizarre cover that entirely negated her revelation. The words hung in the air between them, hovering like a horsefly that wouldn’t leave. Tina looked down at her shoes, suddenly interested in the laces, wishing that the words would just drift away.

“Um, I don’t think I want to do that,” Nicole said carefully.

At a distance from herself, Tina tried a breezy giggle, as if none of it mattered, as if she really did just want to practice for boys. “It’s cool,” she said without looking at Nicole. “It was a dumb idea anyway.”

The awkward pressure dissipated as Nicole cleared her throat and recrossed her legs. Leaning over, she dug a fingernail into a scab on her knee. Delicately, almost clinically, Nicole peeled away the rust-red strip from her skin, exposing the oozing red world beneath it. Flicking it from her fingernails, Nicole dropped the scab on the floor where it landed perfectly centered in the middle of a small square of grungy turquoise tile.

“So,” Nicole said, her voice light once again, “what are we going to do about lunch? I’m starving.” Tina looked up at Nicole. While Tina’s cheeks were still glowing like leftover coals, Nicole had moved on, changed the subject entirely. It felt as if, for Nicole, nothing had happened. A surge of shame and disappointment and rage swirled in the pit of Tina’s stomach. She itched for acknowledgment, any notice that, yes, she was there, and that she was the way she was.

Without answering, Tina hopped up off the seat of the toilet and unlatched the stall.

“Where are you going?” Nicole asked.

“You said you were hungry,” Tina replied. “Let’s go.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Nicole asked. With deliberate motions, she unfolded herself and climbed down from her position on top of the toilet tank.

The flare of anger pulsed dangerously inside Tina, stopping her from answering. Instead, she threw open the stall door, banging it against the wall. The sound felt louder, sharper in the small space.

Without looking to see if Nicole was following, Tina threw open the door to the bathroom and marched down the hallway to the small kitchen where fellowship and senior dinners were held.

As she stomped across the church, Tina reveled in the action, the movement. She felt the air against her warm cheeks as she propelled her body in the space. Her arms, her legs, all moved freely in motion. She knew this beauty as change, and an intense joy curled itself around her heart.

Her feet felt light as she trounced into the kitchen. She threw open the door to the small, antiquated refrigerator and peered inside.

“What are you hungry for?” she asked Nicole. Tina pulled out a huge glass platter of turkey and cheese hors d’oeuvres wraps, each one a tight spiral. A sheet of plastic wrap covered the food, crinkling under Tina’s hands. “Want some of these?”

A tingly smile threatened to break Tina’s face. With pleasure, she realized that nothing would ever be the same, that nobody, not even Nicole, could ever quell the fury inside her.

Nicole gaped at her, her eyebrows knit in the kind of guarded look you’d give a crazy person. “We can’t eat those. They aren’t ours.”

Tina laughed. “Everything is ours.” Balancing the platter in one hand, Tina peeled back the plastic wrap, plucked a wrap from the bunch, and popped it in her mouth. The flavor, the texture, everything danced together in a synaptic explosion of taste. Tina chewed, rolling the food around on her tongue a bit before welcoming it down into her stomach. One after another, she shoved the wraps in her mouth, smearing mayonnaise across her lips.

“Tina,” Nicole said in a soft voice. “We can’t.”

The newfound freeness of Tina’s body took over and she watched her arms lower and wrench up, flinging the platter up into the air. The platter careened upward and then back down again before crashing to the floor and shattering. Shards of the glass platter and the wraps exploded across the floor in a loud, delicious sunburst.

Tina looked down at the kitchen floor, at the mess of glass and cheese and mayonnaise. She marveled at how it would never fit back together again, would never be as it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Down at a Certain Season into the Pool” by John Stephens

John Stephens is a 29-year-old practicing attorney  that lives in New Orleans who attended Louisiana State University as undergraduate where he studied creative writing.  He later attended Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans.

 

This story originally appeared in West Trade Review, Spring 2017, Vol. 8 ©2017

 

Down at a Certain Season into the Pool

By John Stephens

 

The waterline on the walls came up to his neck.  Even after the two foot incline of the entryway wheelchair ramp.  He stood looking at the molded highline as particles floated in piercing sunlight, weightless and defiant.  His sister, Dana, yelled from the road outside.

“Bedan! Should I come in?”

The wall was bowed concavely and large patches of plaster had sloughed away.  Small rotted planks showed, some of them still moist.  How, he didn’t know.  The sun had been vicious since the storm, consuming, as though it meant to burn its ancient grudge with man to the root.

“Gotdamn,” he whispered.

Dana walked up the outside ramp and he looked at the tilted doorway then back at the wall, the floating particles now lost.  His sister stopped at the doorframe.

“You find it?” she asked.

“What?” he replied, his tongue dull, his eyes still at the wall.

“I said did you find it?” She crossed her arms.  Bedan turned his whole body to her.

“And I said find what?” He sharpened his eyes at her, the heat from this place seeming to leak into his forehead.

“You said you had to come inside to get somethin,” she said, and Bedan turned back to the wall.

“Don’t even remember what,” he admitted.  Dana looked at him a while.  Nearby a bulldozer cranked up, whining into gear.

“She was a baptized child of God,” Dana said eventually.  “This ain’t her home anymore.”

Bedan nodded slowly.  “This place,” he said.  “Just a house, then.  Didn’t have any choice but to sit here and go under.”  He turned to his sister.  “And it was the same for her, wasn’t it?  Her just layin here.  She couldn’t even try not to die.  Now you gonna try to talk to me bout the good that comes from splashin water on a gotdamn baby?”

“Bedan!” Dana snapped, and she took a swift step forward but suddenly stopped herself.  Her eyes sunk on him, sorrowfully, as though she could actually see the leak in his head.  “The hand of God could slap you better than I ever could,” she uttered.  “You just hurry up in here.  All’s left is trash.  And our people waitin up off the roadside.”

“I know they are,” he said.  “And let em wait, damnit.  After everything, this here’s the easy part for em.”

“Dont you keep talkin that way at me,” she said.  “You best be happy they called us at all.”

“You go on out,” he said.

She walked back down the ramp to the car and on her way past the old fence in the yard she tugged at the cast iron gate but it halted in a congestion of rust, like the jaw of some long-dead beast.

Bedan turned around, took in the old living room.  Some of his aunt Mamiere’s books were overturned on the floor, one of them opened upward with its pages mildewed and crippled.  He walked over to it and tapped it with his foot and some thin bits of gold gilt scattered from the pages.  Crippled, he thought.  Broken down.

Keeping on, the hallway dark and moist, smelling of all sorts of mishaps.  From shitmud to motor oil.  On the walls hung a dozen crooked pictures, those from his chest on down all dilapidated, smeared outlines of his people within the frames.  He stood before one of them.  He’d known the picture well and though it was washed out he remembered the image of himself as a baby being held in a rag by his Mamiere in an old wooden chair.  The frame lopsided, swollen.  Maybe the last thing in her head.

He stared and licked his thumb to wipe away mold from part of the glass.  Then he straightened the frame on the wall.

Beside him a bowl-shaped light fixture hung from wires where it had lost its holding in the ceiling.  A small remainder of leak-water sat stagnant in the bottom of the glass, delineated by old evaporation lines.  Above it, the hallway ceiling was cracked and sagged and Bedan worried that if he touched the dangling glass the whole of it would crumble down on him.

“I aint ready for that,” he said.  He walked past the hanging glass, a small staircase up on his left and a thick rank coating everything, as though the air itself was ill.

An old carpet running up the middle of the staircase was stained blackgreen, hairy pustules growing atop the matting.  A motorized wheelchair apparatus stuck out from the wall, the connecting platform for the chair near the very bottom.  Maybe she’d made it up to the fourth or fifth step.  Breathing, crawling a short length after falling out of the seat, before the water took her and she just floated off.

He bent over and pushed on the platform where the chair had been attached.  It creaked about an inch.  Bedan shook his head and sat down onto the mess of the rug and laid his elbows into his knees and his head into his palms, his throat feeling like it had begun to unskin itself.

As he sat there a heavy flush of wind rolled through the front threshold, moaning, banging the door against the wall.  Then the moan rushed up into his ears and everything outside his head went silent as noises scraped about in every direction inside of him.  He pressed his palms against his head and the noises turned to urges, each urge a different kind of snake but each with the same hiss.  Then a charge shot up his spine as he stood abruptly and raised the heel of his boot.

When he stomped the fourth or fifth time at the wheelchair platform it broke partly out of the tracks, taking with it a heap of plaster, roaches squirming out from behind it, this whole place stormed into some infested strangeness.  And how the sky gonna send away a lady, he demanded, still kicking at the rubble.  A whole damn old lady.

—-

 

There was work to ought been done in the front yard, overgrown grass drowned into parched yellow clumps and a cement bird feeder cracked down through the base and leaning with impossible luck, the stone curtsy of it drawn so tiredly.

Bedan walked through the fallen portion of the fence and up to the car where his sister sat in the passenger seat.  The engine had been running and when he opened the driver door he felt the gushing air from the vents. Dana sat looking through the window at the front of the house, her chin on her fingertips.  When Bedan sat he could hear barely over the air conditioner that she was humming.

He looked at her.  “Give it your peace, then,” he said.  “Mine too.”  She continued to hum and she nodded slowly as Bedan grabbed at the pouch on the backside of her seat and pulled out a half drunk pint of whiskey and uncapped it and turned it into his mouth.  Feeding the snakes, or tiring them out.  It didn’t matter.  He capped the bottle and drove.

As he neared the end of the block, Bedan slowed.  A street sign on the left corner lay covered with whatever blackened residue might tire itself in the coursing of a flood.  On the right corner two vehicles were parked, a glistening black sedan beside a tired old truck with wooden makeshift cargo railings implanted into the truckbed panels.  Two white men in ties and pleated slacks stood at the rear of the sedan and behind them a black man in torn overalls leaned with his elbows atop the tailgate, his face drooped there between his arms.

Bedan drove slowly, his eyes set like hounds upon each of the men yet with a greater draw upon the black man.  He stared at him, released the gas pedal and let the car coast.

“Mamiere told me one time,” said the sister, watching Bedan stare out the window.  “If you don’t ever get the urge to take off and run from your job then you ain’t likely doin your job right.  That or you just too tired to try runnin at all.”

“Every geezer gonna say that.”  Bedan pressed the brakes, rolled the window down.  The white men turned to look into the vehicle while the black one stayed with his head down between his elbows.

“Always got trouble with the water, don’t we,” said Bedan.  The whites turned to one another.  Bedan stared beyond them.  “Always gonna have trouble with the water, ain’t we!” he yelled.

The black man lugged his head up, his sagging eyes punctured with wide pupils, bearing already whatever shame might come his way.  He stood there quiet, tired, almost broken, like a man standing by to watch his own self drown.

 

—-

 

Down the road Bedan reached behind the seat again and put in a couple more swigs.  Licked his upper lip a while then accidentally jerked at the wheel as he went to put the bottle back.  The boxes of keepsakes clinked.  His sister grabbed at the dash.

“You gonna let a ditch kill us?” she snapped.  “God all good and mighty.”

Bedan said nothing, clenched the steering wheel.  They drove on out of the neighborhood, onto the freeway and west.  There was no more humming, no giving of peace.  Just red unease hanging above the airflow.

“Our people,” Bedan mumbled.  He shook his head.

“What did you say?”

“You called them sons a bitches our people.  Back there at the house.  They ain’t any more our people than the gotdamn chinese are our people.”

“Yeah okay,” she said.  “Get mad, go on and get it.”

“They ain’t got nothin to do with us ‘cept that business back there.  Our people, our people gettin lost, gettin put out.  And for the bottom fuckin dollar.”

“I didn’t say any of this was right.  You best get your mind away from that idea. And away from that tongue while you’re at it.  Yellin at that poor man back there.  Pride doesn’t put food on the table, Bedan.”  She reached at a box in the back seat and moved a lamp post to stop its rattling.

“Everybody a crook,” he said.  “God and everybody.”

“I know it ain’t any good,” she said.  “But you keep all this up you gonna make yourself whole in hate.  And that evil’s a disease.”

 

—-

 

They went only a few miles on the freeway before Bedan slowed the car onto an exit and headed towards the river, towards the smokestack plumes of the refineries off there in the distance.

“What now?” said the sister.

“Montichella,” he said.  “Want to check on that horse of hers.”

“That thing aint dead?”

He pulled through some of the city’s longstanding neighborhoods, grass all drowned, sediment set down like decayed fur covering most of everything on the ground and three feet up anything that stood.  Sinkholes in the roads, jagged and gaping.  He hand-cranked the window down and in came the rotten smell of mud, drying out there like grief, drying up but all it takes is another touch of water.

Eventually he made his way to where the flooding hadn’t stuck, near the section of the levee that didn’t had its back broke.  The section that hadn’t had the old ladies around it swallowed up, where the sons and nephews of them ladies didn’t have to come around and knock everything down, didn’t have to confuse their salt and pepper with their pride.

A few more turns before he passed through the rusted gate of the small barnyard, the peeled-paint sign above the driveway of gravel and small white seashells that led to the stables right there where the levee and the railroad tracks came to a corner in the northwest hitch of the city.  The tires clacked against the rocks and dust kicked up as he pulled to the stablehouse and set the car in park.

“How long you gonna be?” she asked.

“Can’t tell for sure.  You can take the car, just be back around dark.”

The stablehouse smelled the same as when he’d been a boy.  Hay, dung and sweat.  He’d swept and shoveled for this place for several of his younger summers, back when his uncle pulled his way into a handful and gone and got that American Quarter halfbreed.  Mamiere liken to make the whole neighborhood’s throat sore for screaming about it so much.

“Hello?” said Bedan.  A beautiful brown stood its head out from a stall and shook.  Tall and shiny, young, saddlebred.  He went down to the stall and held his palm out to the horse, let it sniff.  The brown licked at it a few times, then shook again.  Bedan rubbed its jaw and patted down onto its neck.

“Gotdamn lucky,” he told it.

“Can I help you?”

Bedan turned.  A man had come from the door down the way.

“Come to check on my auntie’s horse,” Bedan said.  “‘Unless I just aint heard bout it dyin yet.”

“The name?”

“Jubilee,” he said.

“I mean your aunt’s name,” said the stranger.  He’d walked up to Bedan and stood there in a worn-out pair of jeans and a denim shirt to match.  Whiskered, tired.  Bedan had never seen him before.

“Her name’s Fisk.  Horse is called Fisk’s Jubilee.”

“Alright,” the man said, nodding.  He looked behind his shoulder towards the end of the hall, looked back at Bedan.  “You got an i.d. or somethin?”

“Need a license to ride a horse?”

“Just askin what I’m told to ask.”

“She’s my mother’s sister, we don’t share the name.  But I’ve been up here the last fifteen years of my life.”  He looked past the man, around and up and down the stalls.  “Where’s mister Cassidy at?”

“I imagine you’re meanin my brother,” said the man.  “He’s out down the levee trottin.  What’s your name?”

“Bedan.”

“Well, that’s right,” said the man, easing up.  “My brother mentioned you might be comin by.  Your aunt the one who passed in the storm?”

Bedan nodded slowly.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Fine old horse of hers,” said the man, motioning over his shoulder.  “I come in from Beaumont to help Doug with the mess he had dealt here.  Damn sloppy bunch of it.”  He looked down at his boots and swiped a heel against the dirt.

“The horse,” said Bedan.  “She alright?”

“She is,” said the man, looking back up.  “She’s in the back left down there, all fed and restless if you’re wantin to saddle her.”  He turned and walked down to the stall.  Bedan followed, passed some long snouts and longer eyes tucked back into the stall shadows, faces storm-struck and nagged weary by it, hay dust drifting about in the quiet air.

When they got to the far down stall the brother unclasped the latch and pulled open the swing gate and motioned Bedan into but Bedan stopped just before the opening and looked in at the horse.  Her eyes long like the others but holding captive a more fluid weariness, a black sadness in them moving slight against the bare light like marbles in a breeze.  And the hide, dark brown like a good roux, with a blackhair mane sliding down the neck.  Bedan felt a warmth in himself as he watched at her.

“I brushed her today already,” said the brother.  “I can get the pad and pull down a saddle if you want.”

Bedan walked into the stall and put his hand onto the girl’s snout, rubbed soft, felt the heat swell in his throat.  She gave a few thick breaths and rubbed back against his hand.

“How bout a walk,” he said to her.  The brother walked off behind him and Bedan put his sweaty face down onto the horse’s cheek and felt himself almost apologize to her.

After a few moments the brother came back with the pad and saddle slung over one arm and the bridle held in the other and together they tacked her up in silence as the horse stood there, still and graceful.

When they’d finished readying her the brother took a step back and looked at the horse, then at the man.

“Y’know,” he said.  “Doug and I, when we was younger, we had another brother.  He was the youngest, had some bad legs and fell out into a pond on our old farm one day and drowned.  Doctor told my mother there wasn’t any more hurt or sufferin to it than fillin a glass of water.  Or fallin asleep after a long day’s work.”  He shrugged and put his head down and let the words offer themselves up in the humidity.

Bedan nodded a short while.  Something like cool milk spread in his chest, calming, an understanding to be had here in an otherwise foreign sense of relief.  Silent thanks was given as he nodded once more and let the careful course of the calmness move him.

“I’ll take her on out,” he said.

 

—-

 

The leather reins felt like feathers in his sweaty hands as he rode the old girl, took her slow up the stretch onto the crest of the levee.  The breeze climbing along with him and the horse.  Down to his left the railroad tracks paralleled the road and to his right a crescent jut of the Mississippi jawed southward, all that wide brown water strewn about into wildness by the reflections of the sun.

“You,” he said to the water, and then he trotted on.

About a hundred yards down he spotted a manned horse clapping its way back towards the stables.  Watched the man handle the ride.  Cassidy, he thought.  He picked up the old girl’s pace and not long after he came abreast of the rider.

“Mister Cassidy,” said Bedan, nodding his head.

“Be damned,” said the man, tipping the brim of his hat.  “Been too long.”  They both pulled their horses to a quiet and Cassidy looked Bedan up and down.  “I see you got her goin alright,” he said.

“She still knows the way.”

Cassidy nodded and then leaned back and stretched his shoulders and chest out to the sun.  “Ain’t that fine,” he said, and he rubbed the neck of his own horse.  “You stayin around long?” he asked.

“No,” Bedan replied softly.  “I believe I had enough, probably since the minute we come into town.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cassidy.  “But I admit, the storm has seemed to have a way with messin with the way time works in people’s minds.  Too much of it at once.”

Bedan turned his head, wiped a hand across his eyes and cleared his throat.

“I can keep her long as you need,” Cassidy continued, watching the man beside him.  Bedan nodded slowly.

“Mighty grateful,” he said, and the men looked out beyond the trees.

“People who say blood’s thicker than water,” said Cassidy.  “They never seen the Mississippi.  Not this leg of her anyway.”  He squinted against the down-plow of the setting sun.  “Down here folks abide to the water above all else.  It moves em, takes em.”  He turned to Bedan.  “You know it too true.”

“Your brother,” replied Bedan.  “Told me bout yall’s younger brother.  Bout him out on the farm.”

Cassidy cocked his head.

“Did he now?” he asked.

“Yessir,” Bedan replied softly.

Cassidy turned and eyed down the old stablehouse, then looked back out to the river.

“I dont know why,” he said.  “That man in there’s the only brother I’ve ever had.”  The words were spoken truly and he lifted the rein in his hand and the horse underneath answered with a turn and a slow push back towards the stables.  “You stayin out a while?” he asked.

“Nothin bout a pond on a farm?” Bedan asked, the heat of snakebite in his throat.  “Nothin bout fillin a glass of water?”

“I honestly don’t follow you,” said Cassidy.

Bedan closed his eyes, tightened his grip on the reins.  His horse’s ears laid flat.

“I’ll see you shortly,” Cassidy offered.  As he moved off Bedan said nothing.  Opened his eyes and stared out at the brown passing weight before him, the watery slug of this earthly world that must always move, must always go.  Must flow on out to the ocean, take whatever it has the strength to pull along with it, all the energy involved made into one drowned madness by the tug of this place.

Bedan turned onto the sun and held out his face.  Felt the stinging of his eyes and he thought about how the river would take him if he galloped in.  Just the curiosity of it, how long he could stay up, and how he would have to eventually sink.

He held his face out still, tried to keep his eyes open but the sharp sun pressed them down like hot thumbs against open wounds.  Forced to look away but ordered somehow to stay put, his vision upward refused, the true heart of that fiery thing impossible to know, to understand, but always there, to live with and without at once.

Eventually the white blur faded enough from Bedan’s eyes, his sockets sore and worn.  He turned to the stables, over there in the shade of the levee and standing upright despite all the push and pull.  The forces allowing, accepting of it.  Bedan whispered and nudged the horse, and with his hand on her neck and her tired heartbeat in his palm he led her back to the stables, to the quiet and dark and unforgotten.

 

 

 

“Be damned,” said the man, tipping the brim of his hat.  “Been too long.”  They both pulled their horses to a quiet and Cassidy looked Bedan up and down.  “I see you got her goin alright,” he said.

“She still knows the way.”

Cassidy nodded and then leaned back and stretched his shoulders and chest out to the sun.  “Ain’t that fine,” he said, and he rubbed the next of his own horse.  “You stayin around long?” he asked.

“No,” Bedan replied softly.  “I believe I had enough, probably since the minute we pulled into town.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cassidy.  “But I admit, the storm has seemed to have a way with messin with the way time works in people’s minds.  Too much of it at once.”

Bedan lowered his head, wiped a hand across his eyes.

“I can keep her long as you need,” Cassidy continued, watching the man beside him.  Bedan nodded.