A Few Seconds

by Ron Burch

The first time it happened it was your fault. You had been at a summer party that night and got carried away with a bottle of Jack until it carried you away. You don’t remember staggering sideways to your truck but you did and you drove home or at least towards home.

When everything shuddered, you awoke. There was a semi-truck with its blinking brake lights and your blue Chevy wedged under it. Through slitted eyes, you saw in your blue cab broken glass and blood. To a man screaming at you. Then the flashing reds of a cop car.

You stumbled from your door and fell and the cop ordered you to stay down. You tried to stand anyway. Don’t fucking get up, he said. You thought he was wearing sunglasses but that couldn’t be right because it was still dark outside. You said something to him and even you knew it was gibberish. Don’t fucking move, he said and crossed over to the older man with the gray beard and red flannel shirt standing next to his semi.

You surveyed your truck and noticed how the front was compacted, bent and jagged-sharded like you sharpened it in your sleep. You noticed blood soaking your jeans and you knew it was your blood and you were disappointed that you had ruined your new jeans. That blood would never wash out.

The cop told you that you were lucky to live. That you bounced off the front tire of the semi and that a second or two later you would have driven under the trailer, which would not have left any room for your head. Woulda killed you straight out, he said. He was bent at the knees, his left hand holding onto your flat truck tire, twisted because of the bent axle, for support as he talked to you as you sat there with your back against your truck door or what was left of it. The ambulance is coming, he said.

None of this was making much sense to you and you threw up a brutal puddle of dark liquid on yourself. The cop stood up, the lights of his car still flashing like they were calling your name. The cop shook his head and said, Boy, you just fucked yourself. And he was right.

The second time it happened it was a few years later. You were driving the same truck. The insurance company hadn’t totaled it. This time you were on a two-lane road coming home from a work party. After the restaurant closed, the head chef had made dinner, mushroom risotto and salmon, for the staff, serving the perfect bottles of wine to go with the meal while you all talked about your lives and where they were going. For most of the ride home, you didn’t see another car on the road. But almost getting there you found headlights coming at you. You thought it was maybe the curve of the road since you didn’t know this way too well but then you realized, almost too late, that the oncoming car was in your lane. This time you didn’t pass out. You sat there, breathless, hands strangling the steering wheel, glass and metal exploding in slow motion around you, the truck spinning and spinning and spinning until you ended up sideways in a roadside ditch. Broken glass, blood, you’d been there before. The other car, it was orange and black, kept going. Don’t know how but it did.

The cop who arrived on the scene carried you out of your truck and sat you on the side of the road. Besides being banged up, you were okay. His radio kicked up. They’d found the other car. It didn’t make it too far down the road. The driver was drunk but still alive. Later, before the court appearance, you found out that the driver had fled the country.

The cop looked at your truck and said another few seconds and the other car would’ve hit you head on, you’d be dead.

You started laughing. He didn’t understand why but you did. He checked to see if you were sober. You were because you had lived through a few seconds before.

 

The author and his broken face.

The author and his broken face.

 

About the author:

Ron Burch’s short stories have been published  in Mississippi Review, Cheap Pop, Pank and others. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart, and his first novel “Bliss Inc.” was published by BlazeVOX Books. He’s currently working on his MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Please visit:  www.ronburch.com.

Bittersweet Fantasy at Sweet Lou’s Cafe

By Judith Alvarado

 

Sweet Lou's

A dimly lit, cavernous café/bar located close to campus, Sweet Lou’s was best known for its happy hour special: a large pepperoni pizza and a liter carafe of murky Chianti for $10.00. The first time I heard of the cafe was when my professor suggested that we meet there instead of his office to discuss my thesis; life changed forever when I agreed to meet him at Sweet Lou’s on a balmy, Indian summer night.

Pulling into the café’s parking lot that day, my mind drifted away from the present, away from the rendezvous I’d agreed to; away from fretting over what might happen after sitting, outer thighs pressed together, sipping cheap red wine while examining passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; away from Sweet Lou’s and the man who waited for me inside.

I was a faithful wife. Very. 17 years faithful. I had never strayed from my marriage. Oh, I fantasized about it, what an active sex life I had while my well-intentioned, emotionally distant husband snored next to me in our vast king-sized bed. Affairs were plenty as I lay next to him. Trips to Rome with the hot construction guy, building the deck on my neighbor’s house. He and I making out next to the Trevi Fountain on a humid summer day, hands roaming over each other’s tan, salty bodies. Secret trysts with the muscular Whole Foods produce man, doing it pressed up against a massive, stainless steel refrigerator in the back of the store. I even fantasized about men I had never met: a billboard ad boasted a hot male model with a smoldering stare—oh, the adventures one can have with a one dimensional person. I had an active imaginary sex life to counter the very real stale one in my bed. It was safe, only I knew about my fictional indiscretions. But to actually cheat, shifting the act from the world of fantasy into the real world, would change everything.

I knew the literal rendezvous would send tremors through my life, an earthquake of the highest magnitude, and that’s what I was thinking as I labored to push open the imposing wooden door to Sweet Lou’s Cafe. I exhaled, hard, put both hands on the recalcitrant door and thrust it open. Wide.

Round tables of different heights and diameters, covered in vinyl red and white checkered tablecloths were arranged in no particular order on top of a dark-stained wooden, plank floor. The tables sat in front of a long oaken bar that accommodated more than 25 barstools, and multiple dormant pool tables hungry for attention were on the bar’s left side. Three muted TVs tuned to various ESPN channels were spaced equally apart, mounted above rows of expectant, liquor bottles, patiently waiting to be tipped over icy, stainless steel shakers. And, an old fashioned, chrome jukebox like the one Danny Zucco from Grease leaned on as he chatted up Sandy, played The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

As I walked over the threshold, I spied him, his back to the room, sitting on a stool, both elbows propped on the bar, sipping a half-full glass of Chianti. I thought, I must appear nonchalant. Must conceal my trepidation. I spied my reflection in a smudged, long mirror with the Sweet Lou’s logo on it. I looked good, sexy. My short, silky skirt and thigh-high leather boots were perfect for this meeting. The multiple wardrobe changes were worth the effort, and I was even wearing a thong. Hands trembling, I reminded myself that I’d rendezvoused hundreds of times in my fantasies. I was always calm, the one in control, looking hot. Staring at his hunched back, I ventured further into the café, channeling my best fantasy self. My heart leapt because as I did so, he turned his head to face the door and me.

Unfortunately, though, my suave entrance was disrupted. Shattered. The heal of my leather boot snagged on a sticky, rubbery doormat, and down I went, head-first. My thunderous thud proved to be serious competition for The Rolling Stones, who I wished would give me what I wanted and get me the hell outta Sweet Lou’s. Adding insult to injury, as I lay face first on the wooden floor, I noticed a draft, a draft revealing that my silky skirt had flipped up high over my ass—I was mooning the room.

Splayed, I reached both hands back readjusting my skirt, while at the same time willing the varnished, dark, wood floor to swallow me up. Something this undignified never happened to me in my fantasies. Maybe he didn’t notice, I thought. He’s an intellectual, absorbed in heady thoughts, ruminating on nascent Marxist elements in 17th Century poetry. But a bold hand appeared in front of my face, his actual hand, not the hand of some imaginary man. A warm, manicured hand that I had to grasp. Grasp, rather than do a rewind in my head to restart a fantasy gone awry. It took me a moment to reach for it, but bracing my body and my fragile ego on his hand, I eventually stumbled to my feet.

As I got my footing, I took in his appearance, and, for the first time since meeting him two years prior, I noticed that he was a little man, and I realized that I didn’t much like him. In fact, I didn’t like him at all, but I knew that I had to have him.

 

About the author:

Judith Alvarado has been published in 101 Words and The Napa Valley Register. Her other newspaper appearance was at age 11: she was the subject for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle when she tried breaking the Guinness Book of World Records pogo stick jumping record.  Although she ended up with bruised legs and no record, she, to this day, fully embraces life’s ups and downs.

Eucalyptus Fears

By Nancy Barnes

The mountains were lovely in the light that followed the dawn. The man who led us along the trail pointed to a giraffe, a calligraphy stroke against the far horizon, then to a herd of bok, much closer, grazing on a hillside. His finger stopped on a reddish brown spot. “Look there,” he said. “That one’s half goat. It was abandoned by the herd when it was a kid so it joined a family of goats at camp. Looks like it’s come back to visit with the bok. ”

The South African teenagers at the camp where I was a counselor had all been affected by HIV/AIDS, many of them orphaned, forced to move from place to place, auntie to cousin to neighbor. I was a white American woman, a college teacher with all the comfort and privilege that suggests. These young people had endured such hardship and loss, almost beyond my imagining.

What did I have to offer them? My assignment at the camp was to teach the kids to swim. I’ve always loved to swim; swimming has gotten me through tough times in my own life. But was that enough? My life was so distant from the lives of the South African campers. I was anxious about the distance between us.

There, in the mountains above Johannesburg, the noonday sun was terrifying. The languages that careened around me at the pool– Xhosa, English, Zulu – left me exhausted. Boys strutted and splashed, shouting to drown out their fears. Thirty campers, one cabin of girls and one of boys, arrived at the tiny pool each hour.

The hour before lunch I was always starving, barely hanging on. I collected mounds of sopping wet towels and hung them to drip on the wooden stakes of the fence that circled the pool. The rusty brown goats that ambled around the cement rim of the pool liked to rub their faces against the towels.

By late afternoon the mountains darkened. All of us, campers and counselors, made our way, single-file, along a dirt path towards a stand of eucalyptus trees beyond the farthest cabin. The eucalyptus were towering mottled trees; they shed a thick, messy carpet of leaves that rustled and crackled underfoot.

Up ahead a dead tree, at least forty feet long, rested in the crotch of a living tree, maybe twelve feet up. The angle was steep. The exposed trunk shone as though polished, gleaming under scabs of bark.

Singing, as ever-present as the mountains, swelled around me. Then the crowd stilled. The camp director began to speak. “You have now entered the panic zone,” he said. “That’s right – the panic zone. For this next activity all of you, not just the children, all of you will walk up that tree. Your fear will teach you the skills you need.”

Huh? The panic zone? All of us? Was he serious? Fear would teach us? I thought I must have misheard him.

The campers couldn’t stand still; they jostled and called out, daring each other to try. A brave young man stepped into the clearing and began to creep up the trunk, his bare feet molded to the bark. My breath caught.

Panic flickered in my throat. I was in my early sixties — there was no way I was going to try that. Wasn’t I old enough to say no? Besides, I stood next to a camp director from the Midwest, a nimble-looking woman in her thirties. Like me, she had come to the camp as a volunteer. “I wouldn’t let my cat walk up that tree trunk ,” she whispered.

I felt myself rooted to the ground. I had never been daunted by the idea of learning something new, or helping others try. Certainly not afraid. Back home, I worked with kids in public high schools in the city and undergraduates at all sorts of institutions. I had experience with the hazards of adolescence, and a special affinity for that age. But rooted there under the eucalyptus, everything felt perilous.

This wasn’t my responsibility, I told myself. The South Africans were not my students. My job at the camp was to teach swimming. Water did not frighten me. I just had to get through the next hour, take some teasing and watch these amazing athletes show off.

Thomas was one of those athletes. He was Zulu, a counselor at nineteen. Tall and skinny and kind, Thomas had a sweet smile. He had been forced to move, alone, into a shack in a township just outside Johannesburg when HIV devastated his family. When he told me his story Thomas stressed how much it had meant to him when he could bring his younger siblings to live with him. His young life had demanded great courage.

One of the first evenings at camp Thomas had noticed that I was awkward and nervous when everyone began to dance. The South Africans seemed to dance as they sang, graceful as floating eucalyptus leaves, from daybreak until bedtime. That night Thomas had pushed through the moving bodies to stand next to me. He knew, somehow, that if I could step with his steps, our hips bumping gently, I would be alright.

Now, Thomas stood behind me in the shadowy grove. “He will love this insane activity,” I thought. This was a man who balanced barefoot on a thin pipe railing outside the dining hall in the first morning light, singing to greet us as we gathered for breakfast.

Through the curtain of trees I could see the figure of the young man edging up the slanted trunk, arms outstretched, teetering, seeming not to breathe as he inched one foot forward, paused, then the other. A group of girls at my side hugged each other tightly. The chanting and goading stilled; low voices encouraged him: “Don’t look down, don’t stop – you’re almost there.” “Beautiful! That’s beautiful!”

Dread settled in my chest. My private fears – being inadequate, losing face in front of the kids — blossomed into fears for them, these teenagers who had already met dangers and borne sorrows almost beyond my ken. I held my breath.

Suddenly a strong dry hand gripped mine. Thomas had stepped to my side, his sneakers silent on the fallen eucalyptus leaves. How did he know I was afraid? How could he know?

I smiled at him. Yelling and screaming erupted as the first climber reached safety and raised his fist in the air. Thomas and I stood still, holding hands.

I smiled again, to thank him.

Thomas did not smile back.

“Nancy,” he said, “I want to climb that tree. I will climb faster than he did. But I don’t know if I can keep walking to get over there.” I felt his arm tremble. “I am so afraid. There might be snakes in this grass, under all these leaves, and spiders.”

“Please don’t let me go,” Thomas said. “I have never been in the forest before.”

 

About the Author:

Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist who has had a long and wonderful teaching career in college and high school, in women’s prisons, and in Burma, Mexico, and South Africa. She has only recently begun to write personal essays. This is her third publication.

It’s Flash Fiction Week at TUAS!

This week two talented authors consider what’s left behind in the wake of loss.

Leftovers

by Ishita Aggarwal

I was finishing off Mom’s homemade brisket, Dad sitting across the table from me. We listened to the tick and tock of the wall clock and I realized. This would be the last time I’d ever eat it.

*******

Two Hours after the Funeral

by Jennifer Fliss

It wasn’t two hours after my father’s funeral that the aunts descended on our home. One, the one with less tact, plainly said “this is disgusting.” So many bottles. So many cockroaches. What do you do with the guns? They asked. How are they disposed? Bring them to the police. They’ll know what to do. I was mortified. That this was how we grew up. But now he was dead, and at the end of the day, boxes and boxes and half-finished bottles of vodka and trash and memories had left and even his ghost would not have recognized the place.

About the authors

Ishita Aggarwal was born in New Delhi, India. She immigrated to Canada in 1998 and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology, Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Toronto. Despite her formal education, she enjoys writing short fiction and poetry and recently published a short story in Setting the Scene: A Collection of New Canadian Short Stories.

Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin and California schooled, Seattle based writer. She holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Brain Child, Zelle (Runner’s World), Prime Number, Foliate Oak, Silver Birch Press, Blotterature, The Belltown Messenger, Daily Mom, Behind the Book, BookerMarks, and The Well Read Fish. More information can be found here: www.jenniferflisscreative.com

 

Prankster Comes Clean

by Randall Martoccia

wall of pranks

Wall of Pranks

I was a serial April Fools’ prankster up until that week in 2014. My MO was to make the prank look like a bulletin from a university department or, as in 2014, from the campus newspaper. That year’s prank—my 18th—was an Onion-style article about a pair of characters who are devastated to find out that their beloved East Carolina University athletic program is clean.

“Culprit Comes Clean” capped five days of fallout. On the day after the prank, I dismissed my class and saw a campus cop in the hall. My class had just talked about the Birther conspiracy belief, and the discussion continued down the hall. I noticed that the officer trailed us but I thought little about him. In fact, when he confronted me, I took him to be a former student. I greeted him how I usually greet students whose names I’ve forgotten: “Hey, how have you been doing?”—making up for my memory lapse with exuberance.

He asked if we could talk privately. It beat “publicly,” so we walked to my office. He showed me my flyer and asked me if I knew anything about it. I confessed, which he said was a good idea because I was “all over the surveillance cameras.” Around this time, I half-assumed that I was being out-pranked.

Was it wise of me to wallpaper my office with my past pranks? Probably not. There I was with a uniformed officer questioning me about a hoax, with the evidence of nearly two decades of impishness on the wall behind me. The décor resembled the wall clippings you see in the boudoirs of cinematic serial killers.

With this prank, my last, I made two undeniable mistakes. I used the campus newspaper to distribute the hoax (by stuffing my flyer into the issues). Also, I used the paper’s logo. I assumed that any readers with any sense would realize that it was an absurdist satire, but they would have no way of knowing that the prank was not from the newspaper staff.

Involving the athletic department might have been my third mistake. I did not satirize the university’s sports programs, but I understand why the leaders of the program were angry. The fear of improprieties hangs over any college program, so I get why the officials would dread even the whisper of a scandal—or the screaming of it in a bulletin’s bold headline. Plus, my hoax was off color. I have one of my distraught fans, John Tuttle, posit, “Handjobs get results.” The character is presented as a fool, but since no other hoax generated negative blowback, the fool was possibly correct about one thing: “Hand jobs” might have gotten a result.

That any part of me was expecting the officer to blurt out, “April fools, sucker!” shows my cluelessness. A couple of years ago, my buddy James Marshall asked me how I got away with my annual April Fools’ gags. Unlike corporations, I told him, universities tolerate dissent, even subversion. I pointed to a precedent. Several years ago, my hoax concerned the silencing of the Pirate Rants, a series of anonymous rants that appear in the campus paper, which—by the way—are the paper’s most popular feature. The then editor published a playful response, which read, “I would, however, like to thank the individuals who decided to create this unique prank because our readership increased….” To expect pranks to always be taken in this spirit was just wishful thinking.

Ultimately, no charges were filed. I sent apology letters to all of the offended parties. Seeing my name and face in the paper next to that headline made me edgy. I looked at the article that one time and couldn’t even bring myself to read it all the way through. For weeks afterwards, I avoided picking up the newspaper, fearing a reference in—yep—the Pirate Rants. I was done with April Fools’.

And I was relieved. April Fools’ Day pranks had become an obligation. Late March had become a stressful time for me, as I had to rack my brain to come up with a new gag that could top the previous year’s. A lot of people—I call them normal people—don’t feel the yearly urge to create satirical hoaxes. I’m now one of those people. So in this case, if none other, I’ve been normalized.

The Making of a Prankster

Slide1

Pranksterism runs in the family. My dad sprung something on his family every April 1st. I’ve picked up fake dog shit with a paper towel and swatted a rubber cockroach with a shoe. I’ve seen what looked like a tipped-over bottle of chocolate syrup on the kitchen counter only to realize that the spill was a flat piece of brown rubber.

The pranks he pulled on his Psychology Department colleagues were more sophisticated. They usually appeared in the form of department memos. I remember one of them, in purple mimeograph ink, announcing that ECU would be enrolling a pair of gorillas. This was back when Koko was astounding people with her communication ability. Marsha Ironsmith and John Lutz, my father’s colleagues, recall another prank that followed “a heated debate on the merits of the foreign language requirement.” The next morning, my father, who had been silent during this contentious department meeting, sent out a set of minutes—in French.

In 2001, the first April after my dad died, I was grading papers in my office over the weekend. I had taken on the tradition just a few years earlier, and feeling overwhelmed, I was planning on skipping this year. Then, something kicked in and I decided that, no matter how busy and how drained I was, I had to do something. My prank—a parody of the course flyers that were then common on my department’s walls—was probably my least ambitious both in concept and in execution. I made about ten copies and just taped them up among the real flyers. The mock course, by the way, was the most boring one I could think of, The History of Punctuation. I know of no one who tried to register for the class, nor do I know if it was noticed at all. Still, it’s one of my favorites. Continuing the tradition seemed so important that day, less than four months after my dad died.

In those first pranks, I was doing for (or to) my department what my dad had been doing for the psychology department. Local were the themes and the distribution. I was content to plant posters in the English Department office suites. I expanded into campus-wide pranks in the early 2000s. Some pranks were just silly, as in 2009’s “Bring Your Pet to Class Day.” In 2010’s “‘Pirates’ No More.” I had UNC system president Erskine Bowles change ECU’s nickname to the more politically correct Organic Space Farmers. Most hoaxes are inherently satirical, but with the silly hoaxes, the only target of satire was people’s gullibility. In some years, though, targeting a social issue or campus concern took precedence. In 2004, I had ECU launch a faith-based curriculum. The flyer, designed by my sometime collaborator, had a Heaven’s Gates gatefold.

One of my problems with the 2014 prank resulted from combining a hoax and a social satire. My usual strategy was to attract attention with a shocking headline and use a familiar logo to get past the readers’ skepticism. If someone wanted to suspect ill intentions, the 2014 headline—“Scandal! in the Athletic Department: No-show Classes, Paid ‘Chaperones’ to Entice Recruits, and Illicit Payoffs”—provided ample material. I’m confident that no one fell for the prank. In order for someone to believe that the fan club actually called for improprieties, one would have had to miss my clues, such as the bulletin’s picture and caption, wherein a football player flaunts cash above the words “Brian Cardiff holds up bills shamefully not given to him by the ECU Pirate Athletic Department.” And would anyone who misses the irony actually want to admit it? Still, this prank shows the problems that arise from mixing a hoax with social satire. I couldn’t pull it off, and I had 187 square inches to work with. 

“Whatever It Is, Randall Did It”*

In the days leading up to April 1st, 2015, I told everyone that my plan for that day was to be as innocently visible as possible. A friend threatened to make a bunch of “Randall masks,” assemble a prankster team, and release them—V is for Vendetta-likeon campus. I had a mix of worry and hope. Maybe the scandal would rise up again. Maybe the tradition would continue.

I behaved myself, but I didn’t have a chance to bask in the bright light of virtue for long. On April 2nd, in an unsigned editorial, which was primarily about the loss of several positions in my department, the campus newspaper staff wrote, “We consider it alarming that Randall Martoccia was not among the professors who were let go earlier this year,” meanwhile accusing me of slandering ECU’s football team. That the hit seemed so off (slander?) and so, well, old did not make it any easier to read. The same raw feeling came back, and I wondered about the future. Could I expect the scandal to blaze forth every April like azaleas? And then wilt a few weeks later, also like azaleas?

What disturbed me most was the loss of control of my image. Like most writers, I have some narcissistic tendencies. I occasionally cast myself in my own movies (and—good God—I’m no actor), but in those cases I’m in control of how the world sees me. My name and my old picture (in the 2014 article) were used willy-nilly by people with vats of ink at their disposal. My scandal was very minor, but I found that the public arena is an icky place.

While in that place, I saw myself the way my newspaper detractors saw me. Was I really guilty of something so awful? Well, the newspaper nearly seduced me into thinking so. Then something a colleague told me helped pull me out of my prankster remorse. This colleague—a thoroughly respected and respectable professor—stuck his head in my office and said, “If they can’t take a joke, fuck ‘em.” I had been suckered into seeing myself as a particularly humorless group saw me, and of course I was going to look like a delinquent to them.

As for my friend’s threat to deploy a band of masked pranksters on April 1st—well, I now wished that he had followed through. I wished to see the Pirate sculpture bedecked with shovel and jet pack as he transformed into an Organic Space Farmer. I wished to see the Pirate Rants turn Francais for just one day. I wished to lose control of my image in the grandest possible way. I wished for my face to really be “all over the surveillance cameras.”

Alas, my friend was only bluffing. For the first time in three decades and maybe four, ECU’s campus was free of the Martoccia prankster tyranny.

*On my first prank-less April Fools’ Day, an unidentified colleague posted on my office door a note with this message.

About the author:

Randall Martoccia teaches composition, literature, and film studies at East Carolina University and screens fiction entries (among other duties) for the North Carolina Literary Review. Several of his short videos can be found on YouTube. His most recent is Campus Ghost Walk/Folk Talk, a documentary about legends on East Carolina University’s campus. His work has appeared in War:Literature and ArtJersey Devil Press, and Skeptic Magazine. His poem “Love as a Space-Age Polymer” was a finalist in a Prairie Home Companion sonnet contest. His story “Pipe Dreams,” about his mother’s head shop, was one of the first stories published on the Tell Us a Story blog. You can read it here: Pipe DreamsTo see the pranks mentioned in this article and most of the others from Randall’s 17-year run, go to his blog: https://randallmartoccia.wordpress.com.

Empty

by Melissa Rose

the author’s mother

 

When I was ten

my mother became a celebrity

the newspaper headlines read

local teacher caught drinking and driving

passed out in the middle of an intersection

a can of beer still clutched in your hand

my infant brother in the car seat beside you

beg the reporter not to print the story

you were a single parent praying children wouldn’t be taken away

I didn’t know what “alcoholic” meant

just the sound of empty bottles

the smell of your breath.

 

Eavesdrop grown up talk about foster care for days but

probation turned weeds into wishes

when you were sober we used to take weekend walks down lonely beaches

collecting seashells like souvenirs

holding one to my ear you said

I could always hear the ocean inside if

I listened

the sound of amplified waves creates a rhythm only mothers and daughters can dance to

this is how I remember you

I was a young statue

admiring a flawless block of marble.

Every year chips away parental perfection

over time your overcast reflect a rock bottom I can’t fathom

became a helpless star

watching the earth pollute

herself.

 

Alcohol stains the gene pool like an oil spill

by age seventeen we share our hangovers

like secrets

our sentences never make

sense.

I used to admire you

now our similarities scare me

to this day there are times when I still need you

the day after I was raped you were too drunk for me to tell you what happened

I watch you deteriorate into detox clinics

still filtering out the parts of you I want to remember and

hold those moments like souvenirs.

 

When the afternoon finds you passed out on the couch I still

put my head to your chest just to remember what the world sounds like when

played to your rhythm

I want to bring the beach back home

gather shells from the sand

hold them to your ear so

you can listen for

the sound of the strength it takes to admit that

your imperfections are what make you whole

beautiful

and bottles are what made you

empty.

The author

 

About the Author

Melissa Rose has been writing and performing poetry since 2001. She currently travels across the United States conducting poetry workshops and helping others discover how writing can improve their lives.

This is NOT Another Dead Cat Story

by Jen Stiff

Orangie lounging in the sink

Baby Orangie lounging in the sink

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1997, my older brother Ryan brought home a cat for her. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was just the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let him stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

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I’ll never forget the first time Orangie died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the communications major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either. This was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

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The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran him over with his white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, looked at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

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 Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had 9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it,  Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

Orangie

Old man Orangie still not giving a shit

 About the author

Jen Stiff lives in San Diego with her mountain man of a husband and the world’s two most adorable creatures – pugs named Frankie & Beans. She just recently figured out she likes to write, even though she’s technically old enough to be a grandmother. She spends her free time writing for a local animal rescue, traveling, and beating everyone else at yoga.