summer 2012

 Let plainness enter the eye,

plainness like the table on which nothing is set, like a table that

is not yet even a table.

– Mark Strand “Nocturne for the Poet who Loved the Moon”

The first reason Cay is thinking about her mother is that she and Brian don’t yet have a table on which to eat their first dinner as husband and wife.  The lack of table reminds her of the table that’s no longer at her grandparents’ place in Charleston. Four years ago, Cay’s uncle the coffin builder followed her mother’s dying wish by dismantling that table and incorporating it into her coffin.  It now lies buried in a Charleston churchyard even though Cay’s family abandoned religion long before the day of her mother’s burial.

Her mother named her Carolina because that was where she wished she’d stayed.  Besides the coffin wish, it was the only other wish Cay ever heard her mother articulate. 

Cay-Carolina herself doesn’t often know where she’d prefer to be, and in truth she’s grown as unaccustomed to the sound of her own name as she is to her mother’s home state of South Carolina.  To Brian she is Cay.  Cay-roh-lahh-na is the only way he says the full word, as if her name is in a foreign tongue.  

Perhaps because she was already thinking of her mother and her wishes, seeing “Carolina” on the pie label at the gourmet grocery store struck her and now the pie warms her lap as she sits on the bus home, Brian drumming his fingers on its plastic lid.  This will be a one-time purchase, she tells herself—they cannot afford to shop at a place with posh little chalkboards with wine pairing suggestions next to wheels of cheese. The pie is supposed to contain real Carolina peaches, but she doubts this; it’s late July, the tail end of the season.

“Dinner will be interesting without the table,” she says. 

Brian smiles, folding in those crow’s feet that she’s loved for as long as she’s known him, behind the glasses that are new.  “It’ll be fun.  Like a picnic.  Plus now that we’ve got trees outside the window, we can pretend we’re far away from the city.”

But the new table has arrived early and is leaning against their door, not in any recognizable form—a flat, wide box from Ikea, Brian’s name and their new address printed on a label that looks comically small compared to the rest of the box.  He abandons the grocery bags at his feet and whoops.  “Cay, this is perfect!  We should have it all together in time for dinner.  Come on, let’s—damn, that’s heavy,” he says, dropping the corner of the box a mere inch from Cay’s toe.

With some maneuvering they fit the box through the door and set it down flat on the living room floor.  An array of chairs from previous homes is already in place, waiting for the table to center them.  The box takes up a large portion of the floor space and they dance around it while they put away groceries.  Brian is like a child orbiting a Christmas tree as presents begin to surround it, leaving half-emptied bags on the counter to intermittently examine the box.  Cay finally hands him a pair of scissors and tells him go ahead and open it, she’ll finish here.

Her throat constricts a bit when she sees all the large wooden pieces stacked across the floor.  That, a table?  She peeks warily over Brian’s shoulder as he extracts the instruction booklet, only to be sidetracked by the ringing of the house phone.  They both jump.  Brian stands and grins when he sees the caller ID.  He’s barely said hi before Cay knows that it’s Jordan.

“No dude, of course you’re not the first one to call us on here, that was Cay’s dad.  My dad now too, can you believe it?  Would’ve pissed my pants at the thought a few years ago…”

Cay sits on the floor and opens the instruction booklet.  She can’t believe how thin it is and is even more alarmed when she flips through and finds no words.  On the first page, a marshmallowy cartoon man looks perplexed at the array of shapes in front of him.  In the next picture, he’s on the phone smiling.  That simple.

“The trip was great. I’m telling you, Jordan, y’all’s Cay-roh-lahh-na beaches are shit compared to the Caribbean.  You and Lila gonna be there soon yourselves though, ey?”

There it is again, the Carolina thing.  What is it about today?  

“Yeah, yeah,” Brian is saying.  “I know you and Cay aren’t really from South Carolina but I’m gonna keep saying it anyway.  I thought you’d accepted that by now.”

Cay and Jordan became best friends the day Cay ate mud to fit in with the boys and threw up, and Jordan was the only one who admitted that he got sick the first time, as well.  They went to the same college less than an hour from home, and the summer after junior year they both met Brian.  He swept through their lives as recklessly as the Chicago wind that had borne him south, catching on nothing but Cay.

She lets herself stare out the window for a moment and watch another summer ending before she turns to the table.  She rummages around for the bag of nails illustrated in the booklet and wonders what Jordan is telling Brian.  He used to tell her this kind of thing first—girls, vacations, everything.  Why isn’t she best friends with Lila now, the way Jordan is with Brian?

An easy answer, really.  Lila can’t finish a sentence without making Cay’s teeth hurt from sweetness.

Brian is feeding his noisy compulsion of opening and closing all the cabinets in the kitchen as he talks on the phone.  He stops abruptly.  “Wait … already?  Without telling me? Fuck, man, no way!  Couldn’t let Cay and me take the limelight for too long, could you?  Holy… I can’t believe you fucker, congrats!”

Cay looks up, not knowing what she expects to see but knowing what she does see.  Jordan and Lila.  Jordan and Lila?  Really?

Brian makes the unnecessary announcement to her and she says congratulations, going to the bathroom in case he tries to pass her the phone.  Apparently the two of them, she and Brian, inspired Jordan to act.  She doesn’t feel like congratulating Jordan directly.

She’s brought the booklet of assembly instructions into the bathroom without realizing it, rolled up and clutched hard.  On the cover a foreign name titles a line drawing of the completed table.  Did she really pick this out?  It’s entirely unadorned, nothing like the table that’s now buried with her mother.  She and Jordan used to play underneath that one when they were kids.  It wasn’t large, either, but it had knobs at the base like lions’ feet and, to a younger Cay, it looked like a feast table where a royal family might eat.  Not like the unimaginative, bare-bones concept of a table captured on the booklet cover.

Cay thinks about sex with Jordan after—okay, during—her mother’s funeral.  Before Brian, but still wrong, the wrongness exacerbated by the rush of warmth and comfort rising in her chest at the memory.  Jordan was the only thing that felt in place when everything else was reversed around her.  Still makes sense to her now, the memory scooping out a hollow in her stomach around which the acid roils in protest.  

Brian is off the phone when she goes back into the living room.  “Maybe I should start on dinner while you work on the table,” she says.  

“No way, we’re gonna make this thing together.  Come on, Cay, when was the last time you got to build your own furniture?”

She smiles and hands him the booklet as she sits on the floor.  She tears open the plastic bag of screws and puts her hand in, running all the little pieces through her fingers.  There are so many different types—long ridged ones, long coiled ones, squat ones with heads the size of dimes, plastic ones, light wooden pegs.  “You think there’ll be leftovers?” she says.  “They’d make some cool jewelry.”

“Nah, we gotta focus, I doubt they’d give us extra.  All right, what first?”

Cay spreads the pieces out in an attempt at orderly piles but finds there isn’t enough room for that.  Instead she finds the nails in the first step.  The instructions portray two nails, an X through one telling her exactly what not to use. Brian flips open the top of the toolkit.  They each take a screwdriver and crouch over the large piece of wood, coming close to bumping heads as they install the first screws.  Brian finishes first, comes over to her side, and adjusts the angle of the screwdriver so she doesn’t scratch up the screw’s head. She wonders if males are born knowing this kind of thing. He high-fives her when she’s done and she laughs.

The instructions say now they’re looking for side wooden panels and attaching metal corners to them for the legs.  As Cay looks for these, Brian says, “So Jordan and Lila, huh?  Didn’t see that one coming so fast, did you?”

I should have seen it coming before you did, she thinks, and then is shocked by the vehemence of the thought.  She accepted Brian and Jordan’s friendship long ago.  It’s good for them, all of them.  

“I didn’t think he’d commit so fast, no.  Jordan never dated a girl for more than a few months in college.  I guess he’s grown up since then.”  She finds the holes on the side of a wood panel and starts to push in the metal corner, but Brian stops her and corrects her placement.

She doesn’t know why she keeps talking.  “Jordan used to tell me that girls like Lila would never be his type.  You know, girls who have to fill every minute with talking and half the time aren’t really saying anything, who shop without knowing what they need…”

“Aren’t all women like that?” says Brian.  He’s struggling with the panel on his side of the table and Cay can’t help but feel a wink of pleasure in the prolonged glare of her irritation. 

“No,” she says.  “What, am I like that?”

“Well…” he’s looking intently at the screws in the table, but after a few seconds gives her a wide smile.  “Come on, honey, of course that’s not what I think.   Although you haven’t helped your case by putting in the wrong screw over here.”

“No I didn’t.”  She grabs the booklet from him and points at the picture.  “See?  I knew it wasn’t supposed to be that one so I…”

“Put it in anyway.  See the size difference?  No worries though, I’ll just get it out.  Is it the wrong one on your side, too?”

She pulls up the panel to check and thinks of her uncle taking apart that beautiful table for the coffin.  It couldn’t have come apart as easily as this one does.  She’ll have to ask him about that one day, when that side of her family has stopped tearing up at the mere mention of her mother’s name.  All of them press their hands to their hearts as their eyes fill up, as if they’re squeezing the liquid up from their chests.  That’s part of why she’s avoided Charleston ever since her mother died.

“Cay, you there?  Wanna get that screw out?”

“But it’s the right one,” she says.  “I got the panel in, didn’t I?”

“Oh.”  He peeks over skeptically and then shrugs in assent.  “All right then.  Why don’t you put it back on and hammer it in from the top?”

She riffles through the booklet.  “It doesn’t say to do that.”

“Of course not, but do it anyway.  It just makes sense.”

She replaces the panel, and takes the hammer.  As she grips it a minute pulse of pain shoots through her palm and the hammer clatters loudly onto what exists of the table.  

“Shit, what happened?” says Brian.  “Did you hurt your wrist?”

“No, I think I got a splinter,” she says.  She can’t quite believe it, either; the surface of the table is so sleek and harmless-looking.  “It’s all right, I’ll take care of it later.”

“Why don’t you get it now?” He’s taken her palm and is turning it over for closer inspection.  “If I can find it…”

“Don’t worry about it for now,” she says more firmly, taking her hand back.  

They work in silence on the corners and attaching the panels to the table.  Then Brian says, “So what is it you have against Lila, anyway?”

“I never said I have anything against her,” she says Cay.  “It’s just—” Brian says It’s just simultaneously, his tone perfectly, bitingly synchronized with hers.   She sucks in her cheeks and gnaws hard on their insides and he laughs.

“Never mind,” she says.

“Cay, honey, don’t be mad, I’m sorry.”  He’s still laughing but trying to stop himself so his face is turning red.  She tries to say she’s not mad but she can’t quite form the words.  She wants to say something about how does he think he knows her?  Just because they’re married doesn’t mean they’ve been married for ten years, or however long it takes for it to matter.  It’s been ten days.  Her parents were married for twenty-four years, the whole time thinking they knew what the other would be like in the face of an illness like the one that killed her mother.  Turned out they were both misled.  

Who’s the last person she really acted like she knew, anyway?  She doesn’t do it with Brian.  He came into her life as a passionate, talkative boy from a metropolis of things she couldn’t begin to picture, and he will always be that.  She tries to imagine the two of them older, sitting at a real table like the one from her grandparents’ house.  They look flat and paralyzed, like they’re invading someone’s painting and trying not to breathe too hard.

She remembers that he apologized and says it’s okay, she’s sorry, too.  They secure the corners onto the tabletop with a hammer.  She squeezes her hand into a fist and feels the splinter embed itself deeper into her palm.

He kisses her lightly on the cheek.  “I love you.  And you have no reason to be jealous of Lila, okay?  Wanna take a break and start on that Cayy-roh-lahh-na pie early?”

It now feels like the entire splinter is under her skin.  “I’m not jealous.  Why would I be jealous of Lila?”  She sounds loud and unconvincing even to herself.

Jordan.  The last person she acted like she knew—truly believed that she knew—was Jordan.

Maybe she stopped believing that when Jordan started dating Lila.  Or maybe it was a few minutes ago when suddenly he was marrying Lila.  Or maybe it was when Brian started knowing him better than she did.  Or maybe it was that oppressively hot summer that her mother died, when it was supposed to feel like home, but the only remnant of home in the place was Jordan.  The summer after which she couldn’t hear the Carolina in her own name.

Brian has put his tools down and taken a few steps back from the table.  “Hey.  Is everything okay?  Is there. .  . look, I’m not even sure what to ask.  But Jordan…”  He doesn’t often let his words trail off.  She does know that much about him.

She might have put that screw in wrong, after all.  The whole table could fall apart as soon as they set down the peach pie.  Hell, it’s not a table—even with all the legs screwed in, it will still look like pieces to her.  She waits for Brian to finish the sentence and thinks of how lucky her mother was to have not just a real table, but a real place where she wanted to be forever.

Nicole Azores-Gococo

outside the soft gray sky watched me mournfully,
on page 419—which I turned to filled with a haunting feeling of sorrow,
somehow knowing there would be unsolvable crimes soon,
a loss both tragic and unstoppable—a single petal from a cherry blossom
clung to unread words, nearly transparent with hope, I guessed,
it was like love pink and innocent and bitter before it could be explained,
or felt on whispering spring winds, I folded my bookmark
absently, tossed the ideas, the foreshadow, the vanity into the ether,
it was all meaningless, just a track on loop, a song on repeat
and if you don’t get it, what I’m getting at, then you’ve never read it
or felt it or denied it, you’ve never found a helpless pink lifeless thing
under overcast skies

Thomas Pescatore

Thundering in the day I was like that and it was odd that I thought of thunder. There was no thunder but the good heaviness of the solid summer ways felt like they were making a solid sound even as they were not. Going there, and looking across fields, I had just stopped the truck and so the truck and I waited on gravel roads to witness the sprawling fields. Light winds then came or perhaps were already moving across the way, and they bent over the stalks and they went into the trees on the left hand side. I noticed the sky, sure, and also the sunlight as it peaked now and again through clouds and touched down upon the tops of things- a curt and smart barn adorned of a green hue that bordered on black in the distance, a pole, some wire, the gravel rocks in the thousands……..but it was something else, it was the dark shaded parts of the stalks, and of the branches, – especially the world inside of the trees or worlds in plural to be sure. This is what was containing inside secrets of existence itself. If only I could read the darkness, and what the shaded parts knew, because they knew more that the cities and the towns, than the birds or the owls or the wild turkeys down the way. The shaded parts in the trees knew something profound and they were waving it in their own way but only to one another as I was just a watcher. But for a moment there I remembered a song that I had heard in a store, a song I had showed itself that day, just hours before, but that I had listened to over and over years before. The woman was from England and she sang in the most confident but calm and subdued voice- almost just talking, and in the song she said told of how she longed to be a hunter again, to be solitary again and to experience the world on her own again. She had been talking about a time past, when she had freedom and had experienced things, discovered things. There had been a video too, of her walking through a city at night. The breeze and the wind and the trees and their darkness opened a passageway for me to remember the feeling of the song and what the depth of being in time can sometimes convey. This is being back to itself. Which is something dare I say eternal in the midst of our secular headache and manicured brightness. Cool yet soft textural darkness. Flowing levels of layered and carefully wrought non-linear knowledge or actually no-knowledge. The way we were when we were that way but we forgot. That was part of the secret that the places by the trees in the darkened shade-wind were conveying. But what do I know? I threw my cigarette on the ground, stepped on it carefully, and went around the other side to the driver’s seat and carried on. You can’t stay staring at the wild fields and the shaded tree branches forever. There is no place for a seer, a seeker or a slouch in the modern world. You gotta enter laneways, remember to use your indicator properly, check all gauges, and be with it be with it be with it or else.

Brian Barbeito

1/ Seagull

With its sharp wings
Feathered with
The light of thunder
The seabird is cutting open
The curtain of a whole season
Along the borderline
Between the seas and the sky 

2/ Swirl

A gossamer-like breeze 
Left behind by
A running dog
Tries to strike
The stagnated twilight
All over the city
Before the storm sets in

3/ Sprout 

From under
A bulky boulder
Sitting still, meditating
Like a Buddha
A tiny bamboo sprout
Has just broken the earth
Ready to shoot up
Against the entire sky

– Changming Yuan

1/ Photism

Although born with a weak vision
I always enjoy watching the stars
Bluish or silver
Getting filtered
One after another
Out of the cosmos
And seeing them
Falling right
Into the boldest pages
Of history 

2/ Phonism

Even in the dead
Heart of night
I often hear
A short blunt saw
Working aloud
As if to fell down
The old tall oak tree
Standing high against the sky
On an unknown hilltop
Beyond the map
Of my mind

Are you listening to what you have heard
Or can you hear what you are listening to?

Changming Yuan

Sweat tries to swim upwards through the hairs
of a labourer building the statue of the herald
but fails and falls in the soil sucked up by heat,
Vanishes as a struggling animal in quicksand;
Dreams drain and entity turns into fossils as slippers
walk over it.
His weapons are a chisel and spade;
He lifts them to protest but vacuum wailing in the curves
of his muscles make it fall again on the mummified ground;
just to dig, dig the ground for
the Herald’s statue must stand firm
or his existence will be buried under its
falling weight.
Toils will evaporate with the smile of the moon
The dawn will hear sounds again-
sounds of iron striking against rocks.
The air waits to weave those sounds 
and strike a twister with them-
Tall enough for the world to see 
bold enough to step over mountains
Clear enough to show the waving hands
begging a day out of slavery.

Sonnet Mondal

It was a painful discovery.  My patience, tolerance, yeah, understanding betrayed.  For what, then, my smooth nature, my sweet patient smiles and delicate nods of the head?  For what my staunch support from afar?  And then my French salon soirées creating an alternative, way cool social circle?  The gradual legitimization, the black sheep made pale grey if never again white?  The blessing of my good name, my reputation, my intellect, the respect garnered by years of sacrificial integrity?  Only to discover that I was an inherited friend, a friend who, like the plates and silverware, was unpacked from the box of possessions labeled “His.” The “Hers” went back to Arkansas without me.  Was I once gently wrapped in tissue, or even newspaper, to keep me safe and whole in the split, the separation that would lead to divorce?  Or was I tossed in like a Tupperware container that everyone knows can fend for itself, indestructible polymers that, in any case, have a lifetime guarantee and can be replaced at no cost in the unlikely event of product failure?


The discovery came at dinner.  Not an intimate, private dinner, but a public venue, as it were.  The five families gathered together for the monthly discussion and collaboration on a health food order.  The pot luck wealth of each family’s creativity dissipated, plates being lifted, carried, scraped, the ten of us hovering between tasks and stages of the evening’s orchestration.  Suddenly, an unexpected accidental: “We’re expecting.  In September.”

Astonishment.  The quick crescendo of oohs and aahs exceeded those of any studio audience.  The bold beam of paternal pride; the shy warm blush of maiden mother.  I sing of a maiden that is makeles … Mother and maiden Was never none but she! Another Virgin Birth!

Quick calculations: only six months away.  Three months of tight secrecy, of knowing and not telling.  And no ordinary announcement this.  From whence this sudden fertility in an infertile system?  Three months of pregnancy, but how many months of tests, consultations, diets and medications lurked behind those three months?

Shock. (How?)  Joy. (Congratulations!)  Resentment and sadness.  Mark was nearly my age.  He had cast off the peer-wife of his youth to take a younger bride.  Cassandra was his student when the affair began and seventeen years his junior.  His junior in age as in so much else.  Middle-aged women don’t take younger lovers as a rule–okay, maybe Cher, who has fame, fortune, genetics, and plastic surgery on her side, or Susan Sarandon, who’s simply marvelous and admirable.  But the rest of us, feet firmly planted in the clay, are somebody’s mother, and you don’t fuck your mother. (Ask Oedipus.)  Not to mention that mothers are rarely temptresses.  We are caretakers.  Ask any sociologist.  Or any husband/father/son for that matter.

Okay, so first I had to deal with that whole thing–my gendered age making me my students’ mother figure, his gendered age making him–What?  A wise man?  A guide?  A tutor to an eager tyro?  His passions gone physical, the ethereal and the corporeal combined, the honors project gone beyond creative design to implementation, my passions restricted to intellectual nurturing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved my husband, still do, but ached for the youthful passions too.  The quick stab of longing still stabs.

Simply put, I envied him the greater freedom of his sex (in whatever way you care to interpret it).  But a friend is a friend.  So I listened, I made no judgments on any of the parties involved.  I simply accepted the situation as given.  Where there had been two, there were now three.  I remained friendly with both women and remained a friend to Mark.  There were children involved–two boys Mark and his soon-to-be-former wife had adopted because they couldn’t conceive.  To be fair, he explained all this to his soon-to-be-new wife who, at her youthful age, might reasonably have hoped to have children.  But of course love is blind, or if it isn’t blind it blinds us, and she gave up future children to have the present husband, previously her teacher.  And she would, after all, be sharing the two boys with the former wife, so what need had she of children?

But the first wife declined to remain conveniently located in the town where her disgrace had befallen her, and packed up Tupperware and breakables and boys and moved back to Arkansas, thus initiating the first of many long car trips the boys would make between the two states, and giving rise as well to Mark-become-Persephone’s annual late August depressions. 

About that time we left the country for a while.  Mark and Cassandra moved into our house, still unmarried.  People were scandalized–by the breakup of the marriage, by the teacher-student aspect of it, by their unmarried cohabitation, and by my apparent condoning of it all.  But as I’ve said, I simply accepted the situation as a given, and rented my house under market to my friend Mark.  I even left two place settings with wineglasses on the dining room table as a welcome gift.

Cassandra and I began a laconic correspondence, she having taken on the wifely duty of secretarial tasks it seemed.  But we did gradually come to know each other better.  She and Mark visited the Justice of the Peace to legalize their relationship and honeymooned in our house.  Cassandra shaved her head for the wedding, a la Sinead O’Connor, which may have outraged her parents more than their “Catholic” daughter marrying a divorced man.  Propriety is propriety, in all its forms.

The newlyweds soon bought a house not far from ours, we moved back home, and life went on.  The boys came for Christmas and summers.  Mark and Cassandra would go into a frenzy of preparations, especially at Christmas, buying far too many  presents, sometimes seeming to try to keep up with what and how much the first wife (a trust fund baby) could provide.  Guitars in Arkansas meant guitars in Pennsylvania.  Visits were planned and orchestrated as carefully as a foreign dignitary’s dinners, parties, sleep overs–half a year’s lifetime crammed into a winter holiday, summer extravaganzas punctuating the rhythm of the weeks here, in Arkansas, on the road.  My part was minimal.  I sponsored a number of dinner parties and cookouts to bring them out into the society that had shunned them. Time mostly took care of the rest.

The newlyweds became a married couple like the rest of us, except for the cycle of complete freedom they enjoyed from August to December and January to May and the in-between fiesta seasons.  I admit I envied them in some way.  While they went to dinners, the theater, and seemingly endless social events, I stayed home with the kids, certain I too could be a witty participant at any party.  But I dutifully read bedtime stories and listened yet again to Raffi singing Joshua’s Giraffe, hugging tight to the nostalgia of the future even as other versions of life passed me by.

Cassandra mentioned children once in passing, but I believed it was impossible.  But the constant, repetitive loss of the boys twice each year was taking its toll, and she could see that she would never really be their mother, just their father’s wife, the usurper.  Kids never understand that you can’t take someone away from someone else; they can only go.  I think it was Margaret Mead who wrote about the inevitability of serial monogamy as a consequence of our increasing life span.  Maybe there’s even some sort of biological imperative in a man taking a second, younger wife.  Cassandra certainly felt the weight of biology, a desire not quenched by occasional mothering from the usurper position.

So when they made their surprising announcement, I assumed that I had been excluded, that other, younger friends had been included sooner, perhaps even following events from the first tentative inquiries to actual conception.  And why wait three months to share the news?  Superstition perhaps?  The first trimester is often unreliable.  But if supposed sterility could be shared, as it had been, why not fertility?  Why so open about the negative and so secretive about the positive?  I was just beyond the womanly art of conception, and Cassandra and Mark’s unexpected fertility seemed almost an affront.  She had seized the advantage again–free while I was encumbered, about to be encumbered when I was approaching a freedom both desired and regretted.

I have never come to understand what happened, so I suppose I remain excluded, but I know now that we were all excluded, young and middle-aged alike.  No one shared in the unfolding of events until that public announcement.  Then we watched their (her) choice of a midwife over traditional and locally available medical care, followed the weight gain and cravings and annoyances of pregnancy, and the joys of fetal movement and growth.  In August, a full month before the due date, Cassandra’s water broke at our house just after dinner.  Their first child was born about twenty-four hours later, a sprightly girl.

A year later Mark pulled me aside to tell me they were expecting again.  No hat trick the second time around.  And they had decided to tell me first.

Now they have four kids–the come-and-go twins from Arkansas, and a stay-at-home girl and boy.  August is less depressing now.  Sure, sadness reigns when the boys head home, and there are more partings than ever, since the stay-with kids also part from the traveling twins.  But the sprightly girl and jaunty baby boy keep joy alive.  Cassandra is a complete mother, not just a part-timer.  And Mark has an almost second-generation family.  Maybe when we do things twice we do them better the second time.

And me?  I remain an inherited friend whose value, like that of Aunt Helen’s antique serving platter (may she rest in peace), depends on the need of the moment.  Sharing center stage for grand occasions, respectful storage when not needed. But always appreciated.

Linda Ledford-Miller

“Today is a crying day,” she says with her hand on my shoulder. Her skin is exposed in those mittens with the removed finger holes. They hang like teeth from the orange and white design: tiger stripes.

“I’m fine.”

“It’s okay to cry.” She says.

“I’m fine.”

She leads me to the car, her hand gripping my arm like it might fly into the wind if she lets go. Old friends pass with hooded eyes. I blink sideways at their departures. Behind the window, all the faces look ghoulish through the water stained angles. Tears are glued to cheeks, crusty and stretched with the effort of words. I want to pick. Marie shakes her head to their eyes as if to apologize for the dryness of mine, holding out her palm to touch each gloved hand. The crowds of gloves: leather, plaited and laced, some thick cotton, all without bare fingers, touch covered skin. I want to shove their hands into her face and scream: See, Marie! This is how an adult wears a mitten!

The driver nods as Marie tells stories from the cemetery to my place on Parkcrest Avenue. The dead live in the layers beyond the soft ground. His head moves like his ears are full with grief, but the sounds from his mouth drones with the windshield wipers, words that say: Nothing new, nothing new.

I want to pick.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay tonight?” Marie asks me.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“I could sleep in the guest room or you could come over to the house. I would love to sit around and watch the television with you.”

“I’m fine.”

The tiger’s mitten mouth breaks shape, almost toothless as she lets me out of the car. Her finger is already busy on the window button as I shut the door, rolling it down. 

“I love you, you know.” She says through the window shriek. 

“I know.” I touch her face.

I want to pick.

My body heaps across the couch. I don’t think Annie will mind if my feet are on the coffee table tonight. If it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to put my feet up on the coffee table. My boots powder sleet and soft dirt, Astroturf and dirt, over the slew of magazines.

“Astroturf.” I say it out loud and my eyes strain to see my lips say it.

“Astroturf.” Again, I say it because my lips resemble a beak.

I turn on the T.V. and flip through the colors on each channel. My attention keeps going to that picture on the wall. The one of us smiling, the here let’s take this picture of us just smiling together, picture. I bang my boot down against the coffee table, just to watch the dirt fall once more.

If it’s a crying day, I can go to my bathroom and pick.

I swing my boots off the coffee table and gather the dirt with a sweep of my hand, a cluster, and carry it to the bathroom garbage can. A click, snap and I dust off my hands. It’s a relief to finally be here. I study my face in the mirror. There are so many dried flames on my skin. It must be the weather. I get out my tweezers.

The television from the living room plays: Three’s Company, Sanford and Son, Roseanne. Roseanne? When did Roseanne become a classic sitcom? I move my tweezers under the faucet and wash the skin flecks and red residue down the drain. I think of my sister’s mittens, the tiger’s teeth with her fingernails red. Had her fingernails been red, like blood? Is that why they looked like teeth?

I’m about to wash my face when I hear the front door slam.

“Annie?” I call.

She’s been mad at me for weeks. If it’s a crying day, then it’s a day for her to answer me when I call.

I sigh. The tweezers go back into the cupboard, behind the aspirin and sleep-aids. I undress and nudge through the bedroom door. I want to turn on the light and look at her, but I know that she will only get mad, so I slink under the covers. This bed feels so cold.

“I want you back, Annie.”  I press my lips against the pillow bulk and steal the fragrance of her hair. When will this fight be over? I wonder. I just want her there.

I want your words back, I dream. The scent of scourged soup fills my nostrils. It weaves like strands of blonde hair that sleeps. The pressure in the room is the sound of the front door. It bangs against my foot as I see her lying on the couch. Her face is waterless and I want to scream, but it’s so wet outside!

“Do you know where you are, sir?” I wake to the groundskeeper’s tapping with the heel of his shovel. My feet must have gone to the cemetery in my sleep. My face is planted in the earth; I spit flakes of soft dirt.

“I’m in the Astroturf.” I answer. My mouth smiles soil, a dirty laugh.

“I just don’t know how you got i-”

He talks and I don’t listen. He reminds me of that driver’s windshield wipers: Nothing new. I sit up and make waving gestures with my arms. He will leave me alone if he thinks I’m crazy. I sway my wipers from side to side in front of his eyes.

“You’re bleeding!” He cries at me, “What’s wrong with your face? Are you okay, man?”

My face? I touch my hands to my cheeks as he’s screaming for me to stop, wait, get back here. As I make it past the Parkcrest Cemetery gates, I wonder: If I’m in my shorts, how do I still have my boots on?

I finger my face. The scabs I trace burn beneath my fingertips.

The air seems crueler as I near my place on Parkcrest Avenue. The vehicles honk as if to expose me in my shorts, in case I hadn’t noticed the chill. This walk gives me time to think, so I think. I can use this story. I can tell Annie this tale; I can add in a funny run-in with the police. Maybe she will laugh. Maybe she will yell at me for being so stupid. Anything to get her words again.

The front door is wide open when I arrive.

Just as I’m walking inside, the phone rings. The bedroom door is also wide open. From here, I can see that our bed is empty. I grab the receiver.

“Annie?” I ask.

“I tried your cell eight times! Where have you been? I was so worried!”

It’s Marie.

“I went for a walk.”

“Did you just say-“

“The funny thing is: I forgot to put my pants on.”

“What! Oh Jack, I’m coming over.”

“I’m kidding, sis. I’m fine.”

She talks and talks. I don’t listen. Her voice seems to drown and break in waves. The rain outside is louder. It’s pouring. I had just missed the downpour. I move my arms back and forth like wiper blades, watching through the door still wide open. The volume seems to rise.

“Call me if you need me, please.” She says.


I set the receiver down; I have 5 new messages on the machine. Annie never leaves messages, she hates being recorded. You can’t fix what’s been recorded, she says. What if I do something embarrassing in the message, like sneeze?

Her sneezes are always so loud. It shakes the glasses.

I smile, closing the front door.

My cell phone is lying in the couch between the cushions. I grab it among a handful of dust ashes. I flip the receiver open, 6 missed calls from Marie. You called 8 times, Marie? The envelope notice shows a full mailbox. I dial Annie. It rings. It’s her message machine. I dial again. It rings. It’s her message machine. She must have gone for groceries.

But she left her slicker, I see. It hangs dry by the front door.

She’s going to be soiled when she comes back, I think.

The warm aroma swells as I heat broth in the kitchen. I chop celery, carrot stem, and onion. Marie left me some fried chicken in the refrigerator. I peel the remaining pieces, setting the skin to the side. Annie likes to eat the skins. I will let this simmer until she arrives and watch the television.

My weighty eyes flicker the channels: Green Acres.

Hands find my face. Scratching the crust and scabs, I close my eyes.

A chicken squawks over Green Acres, acres of faux green. He bobs his head into a double rhythm. He must be lost, it’s so cold here. He’s confused that he can’t find seed. It’s so green here too, violent green, where could it be? He can’t settle on the grass, it tastes like plastic. If he only digs deeper, maybe he will find what he needs. Past this hoax of grass, deeper, his feathers falling in flakes. Feathers, feathers, feather flakes that crumble-feathers don’t crumble-but fried skin does, fried chicken-I want to pick-my beak buried into the soil. It’s so soft. I have to dig six feet under. I need to find seed, I must find, I must find-the smoke alarm.

I’m chewing, nose deep into the couch cushion when the smoke alarm wakes me. The taste of seared leather is  thick on my tongue. I rush to the stove and turn the burners off. The broth has evaporated and the pot is filmed with a boiled brownish muck. I open the kitchen windows, whapping my arms into the air.

“Annie?” I call.

My stomach growls, as if in response. I think I will watch the news. She should be home soon. Maybe I will put on some tea. Annie loves peppermint tea.

I click on the news: “-out to get the groceries Tuesday morning, found his wife lying on the couch, the house-” I turn the television off. Yesterday was a crying day.

I go to the bathroom and pick. My skin is so rough. There are so many dried flames; it must be the weather. The ways these flakes crisp as they hit the sink, they remind me of something. What? My belly stirs, it hurts. I never got to eat my soup. The air smells so good; it’s a warm aroma, something like fried chicken. There’s so much skin, fried chicken skin in this sink. Annie loves eating the skins. I will save her some, but I have to have something to eat.

The front door slams.

“Is that you, Annie?”

The house has fallen to shadows. She must have gone straight to bed. I will talk to her tonight. Apologize. This silence between us can’t go on forever.

I nudge through the bedroom door. I want to turn on the light and look at her, but I know that she will only get mad. I slink under the covers. This bed feels so-

I’m digging, blonde hair says, I’m digging myself deeper into a hole. I tell her I don’t want to fight anymore. It’s so cold out here, I say and she laughs and tells me I’m silly, darling, for not wearing my mittens. She gives me hers with that beautiful glow, its Eva Gabor in acres of green; no it’s my wife standing on the Astroturf. I’m sweating because of the fire. Annie, I ask, how are you so dry? Her skin looks waterless, but it’s raining and she has her slicker inside. My fingers are blistering. These mittens look like tigers, wiggling like teeth, no more like worms crawling over an oblong wife-box buried beneath the phone. The phone inside is ringing.

My back suffers the reach as I silence the ring.

“Hello?” I ask.

“Oh good, you’re awake. Jack, I just wanted to check in. Are you doing alright?”

“I’m doing fine, Marie.”

“Can I come over, please? Have you been eating? I know Annie used to do all the-Jack, something rather disturbing happened last night. It’s on the news.”

“I’m fine, Marie.” Pulling off my boots, I hang up the phone. My head feels like I haven’t slept much, I need to go back to bed. I nudge through the bedroom door.

“Annie?” I ask.

I turn on the light to look at her.