Issue #4

 

dorberman

 

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BDR #4 Table of Contents:

  1. Warm Fuzzies – Flash Fiction by Mitchell Grabois
  2. Cave Dwellers – Flash Fiction by Mitchell Grabois
  3. Dating Do’s and Don’ts for Dad – Fiction by James Ross
  4. The Eric Church Experience – Non-Fiction by Terry Barr
  5. Things My Mother Failed To Tell Me About Heaven – Non-Fiction by Desiree Kendrick
  6. Being Born Sure is Hard, Mom – Fiction by Timothy Parrish
  7. Flight Feathers – Fiction by Frances Boyle
  8. Full Fathom Five – Fiction by Christie Cochrell
  9. Five for Fighting – Five Questions with Tortoise Books Publisher/Author Jerry Brennan Interviewed by Steve Passey
  10. Moccasin Square Gardens: Short Stories by Richard Van Camp. Reviewed by Lori Hahnel

 

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Warm Fuzzies

Flash Fiction by Mitchell Grabois

On National Lighthouse Day, Bret is charmed by a fourteen-year-old dominatrix in a pink pouffy dress and a Darth Vader mask.

There are thousands of inflamed nerves, deep red in the starless night of your body, Bret tells her, filled with sympathy. I understand that you suffer body-wide pain, and there is no buffering it.

Yesterday I was a wrestler, she tells him, the Iron Shiek-ette. She raises a bottle of XX to her fleshy lips. Bret has XX on his eyes.

You have tenderness in the softest tissues. You suffer fatigue, insomnia, numbness, tingling, migraines, but all anyone can see is the smoke that dribbles up the worn bricks of your face.

Si, she replies.

Are there any lighthouses around here, Bret asks, mindful of the national holiday taking place in America and nostalgic about his years in the Merchant Marine.

Lava rises from the hot spot at the bottom of the ruptured ocean, and creeps from the vent holes of a thermoplastic volcano.

There’s a lighthouse in your pants, Senor, she says. Let your light shine on me.

This is wrong in so many ways, Bret thinks, but she makes him feel all warm and fuzzy as he celebrates his retirement in a Juarez saloon.

Cave Dwellers

Flash Fiction by Mitchell Grabois

On the face of a mountain in Provence is a defunct troglodyte village. My aunt was the last inhabitant. She died in 1948. Now we are re-establishing the village.

My village’s only common property is a single pistachio tree that belongs in a nursing home, but we give her twenty-four-hour care in the spot in which she has always stood.

Meth heads defile the villagers’ memories and our newly claimed property by shitting in the caves.

We live on a diet of thistle stems and burdock roots, and thus we have all begun to hallucinate. The children are dead or dying, but we see them playing.

Meth heads are rodents who barely assume human form, and only briefly, before they revert back to their natural state.

A pistachio is a sacrament, the shell His body, the nut His blood.

I stand on top of the troglodyte mountain, look out at a nuclear plant, fall to my knees and worship the cooling towers. I have returned to my roots, to my rightful inheritance. I descend the steep path to the trog village.

As a child I sat inside my aunt’s cave home. It was warm with love. I ate rock candy she made with a string and sugar solution. Candlelight flickered on her face.

I was in love with a girl who lived three caves away. Her father closely guarded the pig he kept in a shelter just outside. The girl was quite a bit older than me, already a teenager. She showed me her breasts. They were white and cool. Everywhere else, her skin was rough and dirty. Her father was a brute. I saw his features in her face, waiting to flourish.

Work by Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois appears in magazines worldwide, including THE BLACK DOG REVIEW. Nominated for numerous prizes, he was awarded the 2017 Booranga Centre (Australia) Fiction Prize. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and as a print edition. His poetry collection, THE ARREST OF MR. KISSY FACE, published in March 2019 by Pski’s Porch Publications, is available here. Visit his website to read more of his poetry and flash fiction. 

 

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Dating Do’s and Don’ts for Dad

Fiction by James Ross

A few years ago, I found myself dating again for the first time since Richard Nixon was in the White House. People warned me that mores and rituals had changed over the intervening decades. Men didn’t bring flowers on first dates or open car doors anymore. They didn’t automatically pay for meals, either. There was this new thing called the Internet where people looking to date shared flattering photos and imaginative bios. It was a brave new world, and not for the faint of heart.

My adult sons were so concerned about my ability to navigate it, that they gave me written directions in case I got lost. They titled it: Dating Do’s And Don’ts for Dad –  and it consisted of a dozen bullet points of well-meaning advice about bill splitting, background checking and modern dating vocabulary where phrases like “hook up” no longer meant “to meet.” Reading it made me feel like a junior high school kid holding a crib sheet of answers to a test I wasn’t likely to pass. I threw it away.

Then a friend of mine who’d been dating for decades offered to let me be his wingman on a tour of local baby boomer dating spots so that I could put in some needed practice. He meant well.  But the outings turned out to be a pride-stripping disaster. I tend to be reserved. My buddy is the unabashed opposite. The untruths that slithered from his mouth were Trumpian, before that word became synonymous with narcissistic falsehood. Yet he never went home from our excursions alone and I never left otherwise. The reality was sobering.

Then one day while I was shopping at a local grocery store, I remembered one of his dating tips that he claimed was nearly foolproof. Done right, he said, the grocery store was one of the best places to pick up women. “If you see someone you like, you pull up your shopping cart next to hers. Stand next to her and stare at the shelves, and try to look lost and confused. You should be a natural. But don’t say anything. If she likes the look of you, she’ll help you out.”

Well, I didn’t have a shopping cart—just a little plastic basket with a six pack of Diet Pepsi and a jar of peanut butter. Dinner for a man just learning to shop for himself in his sixties. But walking down the grocery aisle in my direction was an attractive woman of about my own age who had that je ne sais pas quoi about her, and I said to myself, Why not? What have I got to lose?  Other than what’s left of my pride?

She’d stopped her cart about halfway down the aisle, and I hustled to a spot in front of the shelf next to her.  Then, following my buddy’s instructions, I stood there staring at the shelf, trying my best to look like I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t hard. And all I had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait.

After a while I remembered that my buddy hadn’t said how long this foolproof scheme was supposed to take, and that he’d qualified his prediction of success with: “If she likes the look of you.” Maybe this woman didn’t like my wispy grey hair, which back in the day had been a thick, chestnut brown pony tail. Maybe she had something against Canadian tuxedos: denim jacket, chambray shirt and non-designer jeans? Looking confused and helpless was working just fine. It must be something else.

Then, just as I was about to give up on yet another unsuccessful venture, she turned to me and asked. “What kind of dog do you have?”

Dog?

I looked at the shelf that I’d been staring at and noticed its contents for the first time. We were in the pet food aisle, and I was standing in front of a shelf of dog food. I didn’t have a dog. I didn’t have any kind of pet. And my buddy’s instructions didn’t cover this kind of complication.

The woman was waiting for a response.

Say something, Jimmy! Anything. In desperation, I stammered the truth, “I don’t have a dog,”

She lifted her chin.

Something else, you idiot! All I could think of was an old cornball joke that no sane man would try to repurpose as clever wit. But then she started to turn away, and I realized I had no choice.

“I’m… I’m on the dog food diet.”

Her exquisitely coiffed head swiveled like that devil-possessed girl’s in The Exorcist.

“My buddy told me about it,” I blurted, adding irrelevance to stupidity. “You put a handful of kibble in your pocket and pop one in your mouth whenever you get hungry. They don’t taste very good.  But they’re nutritious, and my buddy lost fifty pounds before he ended up in the hospital.”

I took a breath. I didn’t know then, that this attractive woman was a nurse. After a long assessing look, she began to explain in precise scientific detail the difference between human and canine digestion that might account for my friend’s hospitalization. I listened and suppressed a smile. When she finished, I said, “That’s fascinating. Though the way my buddy told it, he was just out for a morning walk and had stopped to lift his leg to pee on a fire hydrant, when he got sideswiped by a bus.”

ZOOM! She was out of there. Her shopping cart took the corner of the pet food aisle on two wheels. I figured she might not slow down until she hit the next zip code.

Okay, I blew the foolproof exercise. But I got a laugh out of it, even if it was my own. If the gods were kind, maybe I’d run into her again. Tell her another joke. I picked up my basket and headed toward the checkout counter.

And there she was, standing in line. I guess you can’t flee a store without paying for what’s in your cart, no matter what kind of crazy man you run into in the pet food aisle. I hustled into line behind her, trying to think of something else clever to say while she was penned between the carts. I put my Diet Pepsi and Skippy on the conveyer belt behind her lettuce and brie. She looked straight ahead. She was really, really attractive.

When her turn came to pay, the credit card machine made buzzes and beep sounds. She pressed some buttons and the machine repeated the noises. The checkout girl asked if she had another card. The woman looked in her handbag.

Here’s your chance, Jimmy. White Knight to the rescue. Pay for the lady’s groceries! I pulled out my credit card. She pulled out her checkbook. Without looking up, she started to write out a check.

Damn.

But then, God bless her, the check-out lady changed the course of my life with a single sentence. “I’ll need an ID and phone number for that.”

YES!

The woman handed over her license and recited her phone number. Her eyes caught mine. I smiled and said, “Now that I know your number. Would you mind if I use it?”

I wish I could say that she laughed and that she barely hesitated before responding in the affirmative. But she didn’t. She didn’t say a word. Her eyes scanned me up, down and sideways, and her silence went on even longer than it had in the pet food aisle. But then, as before, she spoke. “I guess you’ll just have to find out.” Then she pushed her cart away and walked slowly toward the parking lot.

So that’s how I met Anne. We’ve been together several years now, all of them bliss. Though she gets kind of squirrelly when I head off to the grocery store by myself.

Jim Ross’s short fiction has appeared in various print and online publications including The Santa Clara Review, The Stockholm Review, Whiskey Island Magazine, The South Dakota Review, Constellations, The Distillery, Lost River Lit Mag and Embark.  His debut novel, HUNTING TEDDY ROOSEVELT, is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in June, 2020.  An oral version of this story took First Place at the live story telling competition, Cabin Fever Story Slam.

 

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The Eric Church Experience

Non-Fiction by Terry Barr

I like Eric Church just fine. His songs tell stories, and live, he can be a pretty electric rock and roller. I disagree with him about Trump, though. Eric feels like Trump has done some good, or at least that’s what he suggested in the Rolling Stone cover story that appeared last fall. Quite subjectively, I have to disagree with Eric’s subjective view of the President’s views. I particularly object to Trump’s view that there were “good” people among the tens or hundreds of those who marched with the Charlottesville Nazis.

Misguided? Yes. Confused? No doubt.

Nevertheless, I cannot fathom how any American today, knowing what the Swastika stands for in modern history, could hoist it, walk under or behind it, or label those who do so “good.”

My fear is that the white nationalist/separatist/supremacist movement will grow from the hundreds to the thousands, marching, marching, all in step toward some horrendous, genocidal end.

Still, Eric has his Trumpian doubts. In that same RS interview, he worried over Trump’s disregard for immigrants who hope to find a better life in America, so I guess he’s not exactly waiting in line for the Trump train.

Good.

It’s hard to separate politics from your favorite rock and roll icons.

I didn’t like former Amboy Duke Ted Nugent even before his drippy French kiss with the NRA, but I love his New Jersey rival Bruce Springsteen and his working class hero tales.

And so does Eric Church.

Of course, President Ronald Reagan was happy to use Bruce’s “Born in the USA” for trickle-down campaigning. No one seriously believed that Ron and Nancy mellowed out each night to “I’m On Fire,” much less to any song on Bruce’s double disc, The River, even if that couple did possess hungry hearts back in the old Death Valley days.

I mention The River here mainly because at one point in his recent “Double Down” show in Greenville, SC, Eric began signing vinyl album covers of his past glory handed to him by very hungry audience members. I recognized none of these covers because only recently have I downloaded a selection of his tunes. However, the other 13,000 fans in the Bon Secours Wellness Center crowd seemed to see God resurrected on the arena big screens with each new triumphant display.

Oversize screens have come a long way since 1975 when I saw my first rock show projection at Birmingham’s Legion Field, over a Fourth of July holiday. Eric Clapton was there, as was Billy Preston, El Chicano, The Raspberries, and Buddy Miles. The screens, of course, weren’t operating during the sunlight hours, but when night descended and Buddy Miles, the last act before Clapton, took the stage, they glowed with their first image:

Buddy’s snare drum.

We were hot and high and only eighteen, but we knew that three screens each showing a snare drum from a man whose claim to fame was experiencing Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies and then releasing his own acid rock classic, “Them Changes (“Well, my mind is going through them changes…”) was only a sign of the impending de-apocalypse. If other images appeared that night I don’t remember them or what they might have shown.

At the Eric Church show, we were sitting all the way in the back, three rows from the top; yet on screen I saw not only the contours of the star’s haircut, I could pick out the letters and images of these album covers. Like I said, even though I could read them, they meant nothing to me, though they seemed to mean the world to everyone else who screamed and cried and genuflected over each one. Eric, too, seemed impressed even though this is surely an expected turn in every night’s performance.

Perhaps what was unexpected was that some mindful fan had brought a copy of Springsteen’s The River, and when Eric held it up, looking quite amazed and outside of himself for the only time that night, I started clapping and raising my own shout.

And I tell ya, I’ve never felt so alone.

I examined the crowd more closely then, and though I could be wrong, I’m willing to bet my first pressing of The River that, at least regarding those who paid to be in this arena, everyone was white, as in Caucasian.

Now, I don’t mind white people. I’ve lived with them all my life. Hell, I might even be one.

But when I go back to Tuscaloosa each fall and mix in with the 100,000+ fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium, I can see that roughly one-quarter of the crowd is African American.

Even at the Clapton show almost forty-five years ago, there were some black folk in the crowd, grooving to Billy Preston’s “Outa Space,” and to Clapton’s “Get Ready.”

After standing out not so much as maybe one of the only two Bruce Springsteen fans at Bon Secours Wellness Arena but perhaps as the only white person other than the one who brought the album to recognize that the face on that cover was not a youthful and decidedly darker Eric Church, I wondered whether I still had the ability to relate to the subjective passion of my regionally-ethnic peers.

And then I wondered if I ever had the ability to relate to my southern peers in politics, in culture, and now, in rock and roll gods?

“What’s so special about this guy?” I asked my son-in-law during a break in the music.

“You mean why this particular white guy with a guitar, and not another?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s what I thought you meant. I don’t know the answer.”

Does anyone?

Not my wife, who was sitting right by my side and didn’t notice the Bruce record at all, mainly because she was texting her women’s group throughout the show. Eric isn’t her thing; hell, arena shows aren’t her thing. Not long after we married, I took her to a Husker Du concert on the University of Tennessee campus. The venue, an old basketball hall, held maybe 3000 people. On this night we were on the top row leaning against the back wall, the most comfortable seats in the house. What can I tell you about Hüsker Dü, aside from Bob Mould? Their decibel level and that panicked guitar sound are akin to 100 sawmills in full operation but not quite in synch. Not that I didn’t love them, but I was twenty-nine years old and fashioned myself as one of Knoxville’s cultural avant-garde.

My wife, who in reality has always been more culturally avant-garde than me, fell asleep during the show.

“At some point,” she said later, “I just go numb when something is that loud, so falling asleep seemed reasonable.”

Maybe she wasn’t this eloquent. Maybe all she said was, “That ‘music’ sucked.” [Actually, I’ve never heard her use any form of the verb “suck” either.]

The morning after Eric, though, she told me that during the intermission, our son-in-law, Taylor, asked her about her “Eric Church experience.”

“I told him that the crowd reminded me of the early days of the Iranian Revolution when everyone was unified and chanting in the streets.”

This was before Khomeini showed his true colors and betrayed many pro-revolution Iranians with his Islamic Republic.

Taylor hadn’t known that my wife still lived in Iran when the revolution began. She was sixteen years old, and soon after the fighting started, her family sent her to the US.

I hope Taylor sees her screen more clearly now.

They spoke further about their political views. I had gone to the bathroom and still can’t believe I missed this free exchange. Taylor surprised my wife by saying he is for open immigration:

“Anyone who wants to come here, find work, and make a better life should be welcomed,” he said.

Taylor identifies as a “Never Trump” Republican. I have him on record as saying he’d vote for either Biden or Buttigieg in 2020.

On this night, though, we were all sitting, and some of us standing, in awe of the one who had the power and all the glory days. I wondered how, or at whom, he might use his gift. If there came a mass movement moment on this night, I might easily blend in. Not everyone in my party, however, could.

#

Life is certainly an unfolding series of unlikely pursuits.

Left to my own devices, I’d never have chosen to purchase a ticket to see Eric Church. My daughters Pari and Layla love his music, though, and while they live in Virginia and North Carolina respectively, they said they’d come home this weekend if we’d all go see Eric.

While I’d follow them almost anywhere, sometimes I don’t follow my own heart.

Once, I refused to pay $125 to see my other rock idol, Neil Young, play in Spartanburg, SC, only twenty-five miles from my house. I’d seen him twice before, and thought this high price unjustified.

And now I’ve paid over $600 (a sum I just confessed to my wife) so that we could all have our Eric Church experience, when the only Eric song I truly like is “Springsteen,” which he played during his encore Saturday night.

Only we didn’t hear it because my wife and I left a few songs before the encore started.

We had been seated in the arena for three hours, which I suppose is a testament to our stamina, our relative comfort, and to our wanting to get our money’s worth from Eric. Still, I’m sixty-two years old, and I have my limits. I don’t want to say that the songs all began sounding alike, but between that and the idea of a comfortable sectional couch, pajamas, and three loving dogs waiting on us at home, this choice seemed clear.

Eric was covering Marshall Tucker’s “Fire on the Mountain” when we left. I had been singing along, feeling out of place again. Before intermission, he had acoustically covered “Tiny Dancer,” “Sunshine,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor,” “Against the Wind,” and “Let It Be.” I sang to each of these, too, unobtrusively, and pretty much alone.

This is a fine point.

I love rock and roll; rather, I love the rock and roll that I love. Regardless of the depth of my love, I try to keep my experience personal. Not inhibited, but personal. I get bothered when someone is talking during a moving or quiet number, as people did in Austin a year ago when the Mavericks covered “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” a tribute to the victims of recent gun violence. I suppose not everyone could identify with that plaintive cry.

But as I watched Eric dance and sing along the runway stage of his dreams—taking time to remind the crowd of those old days when he played at Greenville’s Blind Horse Saloon on Airport Road–there was an epiphany in the arena.

Only it wasn’t mine.

#

If you were to name any Neil Young song from his first, self-titled, solo album through Comes a Time, I could sing along without missing many words. My favorite song is “Cowgirl in the Sand,” from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Neil’s acoustic version of that tune on CSNY’s 4-Way Street might be a better way to hear the lyrics, but it lacks the power of the ten-minute electric version. If I hear it while driving, I not only sing loudly, but if the highway is straight, I play a little air guitar for accompaniment. I cherish such moments as I similarly cherish Neil’s poetry and the images he allows me to see.

What I’m saying is that I used to be “really into” Neil Young.

And then I discovered at the Eric Church concert that whatever degree I think I love classic Neil cannot come close to the way “Derek” feels about contemporary Eric.

I don’t know that his name is Derek, but I asked everyone with me at the show—Pari and Layla; Pari’s husband Taylor; Layla’s boyfriend Artie Shaw (no shit); and my wife (who prefers not to be named), and they all agreed that “Derek” fit.

Sometimes you just know.

Derek and his girlfriend arrived at the seats in front of us roughly thirty seconds before the lights went down and the foot-stompin’ started. We were in tiered seats, high but dead center. Yet, at the angle we were sitting, if someone stood right in front of you, it would absolutely block your view of the stage. I don’t know if I can describe this well, but if an object in your direct gaze stands between you and a guitar slinger some 150 yards away, one of those objects is definitely closer than he appears.

It’s not as if I needed to “see” Eric. I even said before the show that I wouldn’t be bothered if we arrived late, though the kids wanted to be on time given how they feel about Eric. Artie has seen him four times now, which is two times more than I ever saw Neil. The only artist I’ve ever seen four times is Springsteen himself, the last time, maybe six years ago, in this very arena. Still, as we arrived at the show just after 8:00, I felt anxious and dragged my wife to our seats while our children mixed with old friends at the beer stand.

We sat for a good half-hour before Eric took the stage, and our kids made it to the seats ten minutes ahead of time. I thought it unlikely that the seats in front of us would remain unoccupied, and as I said, I didn’t care so much if they filled because I figured if I couldn’t see, so what? It wasn’t like Eric Church was a god.

But gods and rock stars are clearly subjective orbs.

As Derek and his girlfriend made their seats, the lights went low and Eric appeared. I didn’t know then, and have no idea now, what song he opened with. What I do know is that from the opening chord, and I’m gonna guess that it was even before a pick touched strings, Derek jumped up. It wasn’t so much that his standing blocked most of the stage from my eyes, but that he didn’t just stand.

He mimed.

It started with one of those old Arsenio Hall fist-whips, though doubtlessly Arsenio’s show had ended before Derek was born or ever imagined how he’d feel about Eric Church.

Fist pumps; exaggerated arm whips; arms raised to the heavens; plaintive singing; bending to his girlfriend and singing an especially poignant lyric, even if the song was “Jack Daniels;” and most of all, turning behind him to see how the rest of us were reacting to what was clearly a second coming of something that, as I witnessed it, only Derek had the vision to experience.

That’s not to say that the thousands of other white people in the crowd didn’t love the show. But love is different from devotion, and devotion is a passive form of worship, and even worship must bow to adoration.

From time to time Derek would sit down, but a specific lyric would re-motivate mime-mode. I swear he was acting out these songs, not caring, but somehow hoping that someone would appreciate his efforts. I think to a degree, his girlfriend did understand what Derek was feeling. She’d put her hand on his back and pat him; sometimes she’d try to get him to sit, or at least be careful, for what with the beer and the many rows to fall, things could go south so quickly for him. And though she did contain him for moments, nothing was subduing Derek.

Part of me thought, “Well, why should it? He’s in his glory.”

I also felt bad for him because, as Taylor remarked later, Derek kept looking around at us, wondering how on earth we weren’t sharing his epiphany. I’m talking true stunned wonder, and you’ll understand when I say it’s as if an evangelist spent two hours convincing you to accept Christ into your heart, and at the end of that time, you just smiled and said,

“I don’t understand.”

So Derek kept raising his hands in that hosanna-ish “I cannot believe what I’m hearing” ecstasy, shaking his head as if to be certain he was living in this time and this place, and, I imagine, thinking, “Are you hearing what I’m hearing? Can you believe what he’s singing now? Do you understand this visitation?”

And I get it, Derek. It would be like Neil Young singing “Running Dry (for the Rockets)” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, at a show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Atlanta, Georgia—something that only one or two of us would get; something, in fact, that Neil didn’t do.

If I felt bad for Derek, I also felt sorry for myself. I could never match his moment.  I feared, though, that this experience might prove too much for Derek, that he might die on the spot.

Derek might have argued that it was truly the way he wanted to go.

And then almost three hours into the show, the guy sitting beside me, with whom I had not exchanged one word–a guy in his late twenties enjoying his beer and the music, but doing nothing demonstrative and not even clapping after the songs ended—leaned over and said,

“I guess he just loves Eric Church.”

Actually, I had been wondering what this guy thought about Derek. He was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a work shirt, while Derek sported an average Polo shirt and white J-Crew shorts. I never saw his shoes, though Taylor suggested that Derek was wearing cowboy boots. I shot that down, because I know Derek would never do something so strange.

“No doubt,” I said. “But you know, more power to him.”

He kind of grunted then, but I lost that acknowledgment in the next moment as Eric launched into a song I do know.

“Desperate Man.”

If you live long enough, you’ll see everything, and so as I was listening to Eric but seeing only Derek, I saw something that for the past three hours I never imagined I’d see:

In the middle of a song, Derek and his girlfriend left their seats and began heading downstairs.

“Where on earth is he going?” I asked my neighbor.

Without a pause, he said,

“He’s out of beer.”

Sure enough, about ten minutes later, they returned with fresh cups brimming, and my neighbor leaned into me again:

“See?”

Derek’s twirling fist pumps, with beer, got so emphatic that for a moment I wondered what would happen if, reeling back a bit, he caught one of us in the head. While Derek often seemed to lose control of himself, Taylor remarked that

“He never exactly got out of his lane, so there was nothing much to do about him.”

Still, I imagined that as Derek leaned down toward his girlfriend and shouted something I couldn’t make out—perhaps the lyrics to whatever “smoke a little smoke” song Eric was warbling now—an ugly scene might erupt soon because there was simply no way that she, or anyone else, could control this desperado or appreciate these hours as he did.

So, deciding that we had met our wall and couldn’t scale it, my wife and I abandoned my neighbor and our kids.

I didn’t look back at Derek who I was sure looked at me like I was a heathen, or a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Our six-block stroll to our car gave us time to appreciate that we live in a place where walking near midnight isn’t fraught with worry or fear. Just as I thought this, however, I heard footsteps behind us. It wasn’t some rough beast, nor was it a potential mugger. It wasn’t even Derek, hunting us down for leaving early. It was just another couple like us, holding hands, albeit with a Bojangles take-away bag they had purchased at the arena’s concession stand. They looked happy, perhaps because Eric had satisfied them, or because like us, they had beaten the crowd by exiting sooner rather than later. Or maybe because they had an unrestricted view of the singer.

“I’ve been missing Max (our Carolina Wild Dog) all night,” I said.

“Well, you can write about that,” my wife answered.

“Yes, about that… and my Derek experience.”

#

The next morning, I brewed some coffee, fed Max and his nephews Palmer and Warren, and thought about the show. No one else was awake, and the world seemed empty and tame.

Except for images of Derek.

I saw him living alone, on the second floor of a two-story apartment building off White Horse Road. Or maybe it’s a two-bedroom place and he has a roommate. Their bathroom, shared jointly, isn’t very clean, nor is their kitchen, which features a blender, a toaster oven, and has Natty Light beer cans strewn about. In the living room is an old stereo with vinyl records stacked underneath. Alongside the complete Eric Church discography are albums by Chris Stapleton and Trace Atkins. Perhaps Derek’s girlfriend slept over last night and they fell asleep to an Eric side. And when they awaken they’ll head to Denny’s for a grand slam.

Contrary to my wife’s fears for Derek’s girlfriend, I’m going to say that they’ll be happy, though maybe still woozy, this morning. They’ll think about the concert, and Derek will rave about Eric’s “blowing everyone away,” and blasting the best show he’s ever heard. He’ll have downloaded the play list and printed it out to study and relive. He’ll post it on every social media platform, commenting on many of these tunes, and then he’ll staple the list to his kitchen wall, hoping that everyone who comes to party later will ask him how it all went. Maybe he’ll even re-mime a song or two: “Creepin’” or “Country Music Jesus,” or a song I actually liked, “Hippie Radio,” something about a father and his son.

I don’t know about Derek and his father. My own would not have appreciated Eric Church or Bruce Springsteen. Dad thought Neil Young sounded whiney, too, and I never had the experience of attending any show with him. But as Eric said before playing “Hippie Radio,” remembering any good time spent with your dad is comforting, worth celebrating, very much worth writing about.

I hope my daughters agree.

As I thought about my dad, Eric’s dad, and even Derek’s dad, my girls and their guys wandered into the kitchen. I gave them coffee and soon my wife and I were making challah French toast, bacon, over-easy eggs for breakfast. Far better than Denny’s. I decided not to put on music, believing we had all heard enough. We laughed about the night before, and Pari showed some videos she had made of the show. This is the point when I learned that my wife and I missed “Springsteen.” While it bothered me some, in some ways I didn’t care. The song remains the same.

Then, Taylor dropped the bombshell.

As we discussed Derek, Taylor said,

“The craziest thing is that he left before the encore ended. He missed at least the last two songs.”

Oh Derek, how could you?

We didn’t speculate as to why or what led him away. It was enough that we had seen him; more than enough that we were rightly impressed and maybe a little envious, and now a little sad that he’s gone.

Wherever he is, I hope he’s fine. My seat neighbor, too. And Eric who, despite what I think of his music, gave us the chance to unite over something safe, something joyous.

Something decidedly un-hateful.

Terry Barr is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from my Alabama Mother, a collection of nonfiction essays centered on his hometown of Bessemer, Ala. His essays have been published in such journals as The Museum of Americana, Blue Lyra Review, Steel Toe Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, and South Writ Large, amongst many others. His essay “A Big-Ass Pot of Blended Soup” was nominated by Red Truck Review for the Best of the Net Award in 2015. He lives in Greenville, S.C., with his wife, two daughters, and their beloved pets, Morgan and Max (the Carolina Wild Dog).

 

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Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me About Heaven

Non-Fiction by Desiree Kendrick

My mother is a religious individual. We went to church wearing our Sunday-best clothes and dress shoes. She dressed for her audience with God Almighty. Little kid me cleaned up for the chance to twirl in my crinoline skirt and smile at the altar boys. Every night, after bath time and before bedtime, she’d yell over the TV hum.

“Don’t forget to say your prayers. Praying will help people get to heaven.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is kneeling beside the double bed I shared with my younger sister. My flimsy nightgown did little to cushion my knees. Barbie and an assortment of stuffed animals lined up against the footboard, acting as silent witnesses. Outside my bedroom, the newscaster’s tenor voice relayed world events. My older siblings squabbled. I blocked out the noise, twisted the wool blankets’ tassels, and disappeared into my nightly ritual.

My mumbled prayers included asking our heavenly father to take care of my family. This was a list in itself. We were a family of nine. Then I added my best friend and her bestie dog, Tina. In addition, my mother added new names each month. Every time a distant relative, neighbor or someone from the congregation passed away, mum added their name to my nighttime prayers. For a five-year-old, this was a memory game of monster-sized proportions. I could’ve benefited from some Dr. Seuss rhyming strategies. Pray for Alvin Mathieson, who worked at the corner store, and Mrs. Wolfe, who once lived next door. Don’t forget Betty Ann, who wore a red dress, and Mr. William Hartwell Junior, whose yard was a big mess.

Over time, my list swirled through the corridors of my mind, first names dropped at the wayside, as the passenger list on their way to heaven accumulated. A five-minute exercise turned into twenty minutes. Had I wanted to stall bedtime, this was a sure-fire delay. I gave up. Someone else needed to pray for Mr. Kolonoswski, who I only knew as the white haired man who snored in church. What I did learn was that even after a person left this world, people kept their memory alive. Gone but not forgotten.

Keepsakes included silver lockets worn around necks, memorial pages in the town newspaper, and there was talk about renaming Main Street. I never knew either of my grandparents, yet their faded studio portrait hung in our home. My older siblings told tales about granny. A mythical figure, wearing a black and white polka dot dress, I imagined granny handing out treats. Folklore said that she liked to pull you onto her lap and tell stories, while you longed to run outside and play with the other kids. Granny gave sloppy kisses. As a youngster, I assumed Granny lived in heaven, having received her entrance ticket.

As recently as the 1500’s, the Catholic Church still sold what were called indulgences. These deeds, the concept originating hundreds of years ago, were offered by the Pope and pardoned a sinner, offering a direct route to heaven. It was revenue generator versus membership fees, which was a debate in itself. No one suggested our family purchased an indulgence for Granny. I simply assumed if I was including Granny in my prayers, so too had an earlier generation. Surely, the family had acquired a VIP ticket in full by now.

“The more people praying for your soul, the more likely you’ll receive your invitation to the big house,” my mother would tell us.

I assumed, just like everything else, that you needed to earn your way. We received our allowance because we did our chores, a simple equation for a kid.

For a five-year-old, heaven seemed like a planet in another galaxy. Even my brother’s telescope couldn’t spot heaven. Before you left Earth, the priest gave you a proper send off at a funeral. Flowers decorated the church. The wreath size indicated how important you were. I believed the bigger the blooms the more prayers were uttered at night. Candles flickered in red glass. Everyone wore black. Mother never liked me in black, which she considered too mature for a young girl. I was in awe of the fancy black station wagon with curtains. Why didn’t our car have curtains? Had Dad been a cheapskate when it came to the car accessories?

Organ music played at funerals. Men wore suits. Sunday hats and white gloves graced the church. Grown-ups spoke in hushed whispers. Even men got glassy eyed. Kids eavesdropped.

“He lived a good life,” someone said, shaking hands with the grieving family. “I’m sure he’s in heaven.”

“He’s probably the life of the party,” another parishioner chimed in, chuckling.

“He was a good neighbor,” Mother added. “Last winter, he shoveled the walk for us more than once.”

Kind sentiments were exchanged. It was like the two-line movie reviews you see in the newspaper. All endorsements were positive. A youthful, possibly misleading photo was displayed inside the church.

Church ladies served food. The only time I ever ate egg salad sandwiches was in the church hall with my feet dangling from a metal folding chair. It was always a slow drive to the cemetery. The wind howled. Family names carved in stone withstood the elements and relationships etched in so few words seemed to say so much. Funerals were like silent movies, the action stilted, the emotions amplified. Yet Mother gave me no indication what heaven looked like.

My childish imagination ran wild. Inside the church, the Stations of the Cross were scary. Thorns and bleeding feet looked painful. No one smiled. If God sent his son to endure all those injuries, then heaven must be the reward. Surely, heaven was endless cotton candy that melted on your tongue. I envisioned dancing butterflies, covering your arms and legs when they landed, a living kaleidoscope of magic. Endless giggling. Heaven must include running through the sprinkler for hours at a time.

It took my elementary years to reshape my understanding of heaven. It was a place we had never seen and hopefully wouldn’t see until we were super old, like the lady who I excluded from my childhood list because her name was too hard to pronounce. The priest always raised his head to the sky. Classical music and billowy clouds must be heaven. Tina, my best friend’s dog, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Was she enjoying a velvet dog bed, in the section reserved for family pets?

“Oh course she’s is in heaven,” my mother reassured me. “Heaven is all-inclusive.”

Teenage curiosity dissected the after-life concept further. As a young adult, I wondered if faith, hope, and charity were the pillars used to construct heaven. Instructed to trust the priest and his rambling sermons, I drank the Kool-Aid, not the wine. A good life meant an even greater afterlife. Maybe funerals were the backstage pass to heaven. Like getting past security at a Rolling Stones concert, you knew greatness was nearby. Yet, what did our priest know? He’d never been to heaven, nor did he know who the Rolling Stones were. Was it like an exclusive party, where you want the invite but are determined to be fashionably late? Were funerals your last hurrah? Based on my limited knowledge, I was positive there was no fun at a funeral service, even if the squares were yummy.

I can’t remember ever having an in-depth conversation or debate with my mother about death. Mourning was a silent personal activity. Bereavement and prayer went hand in hand. As an adult, I’ve been to my share of funerals. Acquaintances, former colleagues I barely knew, and relatives of close friends lost over the years. I’d sat in churches and halls, dabbing my eyes. There’s a band of solidarity occupying those wooden pews, the wood grain scarred by the fingernail grooves of family loss. Understanding and compassion were shared in every handshake and silent nod. Sorrow echoed in the choir songs. Candles were lit and later extinguished by the altar boy’s snuffer.

Congregations gathered, the bodies rigid much like religious statues. Storytelling goes beyond the spiritual paintings. Funeral attendees find remembrances that make them smile and cast halos. Eulogies capture the individual’s spirit. The loss is magnified. Good outweighs any struggles, pain or suffering. I suspect, it isn’t the act of death that releases the waterfall of tears. It’s the memory of the life lived.

Today, I find it difficult to attend any funeral. Human frailty displayed in every sniffle, bowed head, and trembling lip. Regardless of the setting, my mind wanders to my father’s casket, laid to rest decades ago. Polished wood, trimmed with dazzling brass epitomized the steadfast gentleman that lead by example. His convictions were rock solid, dependable advice dispensed. Teacher and community builder, I was lucky enough to know him as Dad. The service rewinds to his sudden illness, the shock and confusion that lingered around his hospital bed. Antiseptic and hospital cafeteria smells clog my memory. I backtrack further, skipping through childhood. Shared laughter exchanged over board games, mealtimes and family road trips unleashes a river of tears. His vice-grip hugs left imprints on my skin. Good times are tacked to my brain like aging Polaroid snaps or fuzzy treasured keepsakes. Love hoarded.

I’m not the wide-eyed little girl anymore. I’ve raised two children and explored my own road map of life with them. We don’t visit churches very often. However, I’m hopeful they are curious and mature enough to forge their own way in the world.  Bedtime prayers may not be the ritual my mother instilled in me. Hopes, dreams, and a thirst for knowledge are intertwined with making a difference in our complicated world. Spirituality becomes less structured and highly personal. When my youngest was barely a teenager, his camp counselor asked him to describe God.

“I think God is like Nanny McPhee,” he said. “Hanging out in the background, always there if needed, but you don’t want her to do everything for you.”

Comparing a higher deity to a movie character may seem sacrilegious to some, but as a mother, I applauded my son’s insight. He ultimately knew that he was responsible for his own actions. By the time he was on the brink of young adulthood, he was an enthusiastic student, raising funds for charitable organizations. I couldn’t fault him when he skipped class to shadow an exchange student who was struggling with mental health issues. He doesn’t know the Bible reference of being a Good Samaritan and yet he instinctively knew the value of friendship and kindness. At his age, he doesn’t give much thought to heaven.

My mother, she’s of another generation. In her nineties, her traditions and beliefs offer comfort and promise. There’s no altar in her home. You won’t find our baptismal gowns framed and hung on the walls, much like the Stations of the Cross. However, my mother believes in taking a proactive approach to ensuring a family pew in heaven. Did you know the Marian Helpers offer you a lifetime of prayers for your soul, as a thoughtful gesture upon receipt of your charitable donation? Yes, family names are included in the membership. I’m happy to say my children and I all made my mother’s list. It’s a long inventory, but one with limitations. As for the unlucky grandchild born subsequently or spouses by marriage, they’ll need to hitch a ride to heaven on someone else’s train. Here we are decades after the Pope’s garage sale, and human nature still wants to offer us an express lane to heaven.

I can’t fault Mother for her beliefs. She, like everyone else, is entitled to her faith. I take comfort in knowing she finds solace in her view of heaven. And, if she gains entry, I hope she saves a seat for us all. However, I find myself more focused on my own reflection.

Last month, I was standing in the checkout line at the pharmacy with an armful of cough candies. Two customers ahead of me stood an elderly lady. The salesclerk was attempting to explain the cost of the item she wanted. Seeing a collection of coins on the counter, a wave of sadness inhabited my body. In today’s economy, who uses change to buy anything anymore? Without pause, I bypassed the woman in front of me.

“I can take care of this,” I said, holding out my credit card.

The senior peered at me suspiciously. She stepped back. The young salesclerk frowned, looking at me then before returning her gaze to the senior.

“My good deed of the day,” I murmured, patting the woman’s shoulder.

I was sure that she’d accept my help. It was obvious that she didn’t have enough money for the nasal inhaler she needed.

Everyone looked confused. I shifted uncomfortably, my eyes tearing. I bit my lower lip and thrust my plastic card at the salesclerk. Receipt in hand, I returned to my spot in the line-up. I bit my lip harder, as if to stop myself from blubbering, my muffled sob bubbling inside me. That could be my mother, I thought. Twenty years from now, that could be me. It never occurred to me that my random act of kindness might be a small investment to pay towards my ticket to heaven. I was busy dealing with earthly challenges. Returning to my car, I stuck a cough drop in my mouth, driving home through blurry vision.

My mother failed to tell me that how I live is a stained glass window, visible to those around me. What colour panes I choose today, the design I craft, and the story I showcase determines the radiance. Sure, I can specify my funeral preferences in my will but how I live seems more relevant to me than whether there are finger sandwiches at the service. I’m no longer worried about saying my nightly prayers. For me, what I do during the day feels more significant.

I could be wrong, but I envision heaven in the relationships I build. A ring around the rosy sisterhood, arms linked with my siblings. Strength and resilience frames our story. We’ve been there for each other in sickness and in health. Friendships blended to reveal inspiring landscapes. My best friend from childhood remains on speed dial. Her encouraging words have planted deep roots. Joy and love shimmer from every angle. My children have brought my stained glass story to life – priceless. Our picnics in the backyard, costume parades, and smoky camping trips are recollections painted with vivid colour. Laughter resonates much like a carousal ride, sweet and repeating. Watching my children swim with dolphins gave me a smile almost as wide as the frolicking mammal flipping in the air. The heat of Mexico’s sun kissed our shoulders. This family tableau had to be heaven.

Mother may have nagged me as a child to say my prayers. She might have instilled life lessons guiding me from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Her practice of nightly prayers offered some comfort once upon a time. As I age, my perspective has expanded. Mother should have said, that funerals are for the living, not the dead. You leave family and friends a cache of treasured memories. Making those experiences count puts down the cobblestones to eternal paradise. Mother should have told me it’s how you live that gives you a glimpse of heaven.

Emerging writer Desiree Kendrick draws on a cache of life experiences. A graduate of The University of Alberta, she fused her Bachelor of Arts degree with a Project Management certificate. By day she’s an Event Planner. Generally found crafting business communications, newsletters and promotional materials, she embraces her alter-ego after dark. She is currently working on a novel. In March 2019, she was the winner of Blank Spaces magazine’s flash fiction write prompt contest with her selection “I See You – Do You See Me.” Her writing was included in Nod magazine’s 24th edition. She was a runner-up in the 2018 “Heritage Writing Competition,” with her article, “The Spirit of Apulia” (https://seniortravelexpert.com/.)

 

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Being Born Sure is Hard, Mom

Fiction by Timothy Parrish

 

“But how did I know to be born?”

A small girl, her feet lost in her mother’s best dress shoes, stares into the mirror again, listening and talking, there’s no difference, since she hears her all the time whether she speaks or not.

“Why, you didn’t have to know, darling girl.” The mirror’s face smiles. “My love brought you here. You were born into the Truth.”

She’s eternal, she knows that, even if she turns five today. A birthday is a day like any other, no need for counting. This life is a practice life for the next one, the real one, where she and Mother already live together in the true time. The forever day when the calendar stops and the dead are resurrected to die again, to die for real. A glorious day when all questions are answered and all doubters annihilated. Mother’s says that’s her real birthday which shall be a party never ending. And if she ever tries to leave the party, Mother’s love will capture her and bring her back here, to this mirror, where everything will begin again until I get it right.

“Our relatives have birthdays, Mama. And parties too. Grandma says so.”

“That’s because Grandma lives in the World.”

“We’re not in the World?”

“Not like the others. We’re in the Truth.”

She frowned and Mother in the mirror frowned back. Mother was tired of the same questions but Grandma was often in her mind. She made her cookies and pies and bought her pretty clothes Mother did not let her wear. On the Fourth of July Grandma brought toy flags to celebrate the holiday. Mother tossed them out because “you can’t burn plastic.” Mother said America is a lie. And every other country too. One day the flags of all nations would burn in the same fire.

Then on Easter Grandma brought baskets full of plastic eggs and cute chocolate bunnies.  Mother marched Elle and her brother to the garage where she had them overturn their baskets onto the floor and bade them jump up on the pretty eggs until they were smashed and so was the candy they contained. She said Easter was really Passover and anyway it wasn’t a day for special candy. Then Mother bade them take the garden hose and flush out the mess she had made them make. The baskets Mother kept to keep copies of the Watchtower, the magazine that told them what they were to believe this year. Mother read every word of every issue. That’s why she had all the answers.  The small girl watched her read thinking one day she would she read too, and no longer need to ask Mother to explain why the World was made as it is.

Mother doesn’t listen to her mother because only Grandma wants to mark the day Elle was born with presents and people singing like in church. Mother never lets her go to Grandma’s house on that day so Grandma comes to their house bearing gifts wrapped in pretty paper—dolls and shoes and dresses. Mother has her put them in a box at the grocery store for strangers to find. The small girl cannot bring herself to tell Grandma what happens to her gifts. How could good Grandma Schleiss ever live beyond the Truth when she’s the only one who makes her wonder if being born is not the same as dying?

“The celebration of one day above other days is forbidden since specific days do not count until everyone is counted and on that day there shall be no more days but just one day forever.”

That’s quite the mouthful for a small girl to say to a mirror but it’s really Mother saying it and the words don’t make sense at all since certain days in this life do make Mother angrier than others.  Surely it was the Easter of the desecrated candy when Mother told them that they did not celebrate the days that Grandma and other people celebrated. Easter, Christmas, and her birthday and brother Mark’s. These are special days, whatever Mother says, because they are marked by what we cannot receive from the World until the warrior Jesus lead us to final victory.

On any other day Mother might come home from the hospital where she worked with dolls, toy cars, Nintendo games, explaining they were not to make up for birthdays or Christmas but reminders that everything of seeming value in this World will fall away and only the true believers will survive. These gifts must break or become lost because they are not real. Only Armageddon is. The challenge, Mother says, is to be alive after you are dead, not dead while you were alive. The small always whispers that last part for dramatic effect, because Mother does. Why, she’ll still be whispering that part when she’s fifteen, sixteen, even seventeen, because the mirror never changes. Listen:

“Armageddon has already begun. You must prepare each second of each day to fight Satan’s legions. The World invents unreal days to disarm you before the Truth. You, darling girl, were born a sheep. You cannot die. The rest are goats. Chewing their way to oblivion.”

“And goats go to hell?”

“We don’t believe in hell, pretty girl.”

“If there’s no hell, then Grandma is safe.”

“Not exactly.  Grandma grazes among the dead. She can’t help it. It’s the church she attends.”

“What? Grandma isn’t living?”

“Nearly everyone you know is dead. We are too, practically speaking, since the end of days has begun. But don’t worry. We are of the sheep and will live always in the forever day.”

“How do you know?”

“There’s a book that explains. You’ll read it one day. Until then, take my word for it.”

“Does Daddy know Grandma is dead?”

“He knows. He doesn’t mind. He’s going to be with her in the end.”

“Daddy’s dead too?”

“I’m afraid so. But he can live with us and Grandma can visit until the forever day when she is vaporized along with everyone else.”

“What’s vaporized?”

“Disappear.”

“But I will remember her—her and Daddy.”

“You won’t, sweetie. It will be as if they were never born at all.”  The child seemed to choke on her very breath.

“Darling girl, please don’t cry. It will be marvelous when the masks of the faithless fall away and each of us wears her true face. Jehovah sees you are as you are and if you live in the Truth, then His beauty is reflected in your eyes. In the final battle Satan’s legions will know you by the cross you bear and they will flee the Truth you carry. As for the lost, not even Jesus can speak for them on the Day of Judgment.”

“Grandma,” she sniffles, “works for Satan?”

“She can’t help it.”

“But she has a Bible.”

“She reads it wrong. With the wrong people. People living beyond the Truth. Every Sunday deepening their delusions until they are stuck forever in everlasting cutoff from the reign of Jesus.”

“But our church—?”

—starts when Jehovah made Jesus before he made this World. Then, after His Creation seemed a little off, He put Jesus into Mary’s womb already formed so he could be born and save us from this World which crucified him. He loves us so much, he’s come back, despite being murdered by ignorant brutes. Jehovah raised Him up again as Spirit. He’s all around us right now, fighting Satan.”

“Why does Satan fight back?”

“Satan was a beautiful angel in heaven—beautiful like you. But he didn’t listen to what he was told. He would not accept Jehovah’s love, though it’s infinite like mine is for you. One day from his exalted place he fell and fell until he landed in this World where he became busy invading people’s bodies and churches to trick the unknowing into working for him. Daddy’s church, the Catholic one, is one of Satan’s great achievements in the World. He made it to lure people away from Jesus.  First, he tricked the emperor Constantine and then he made himself Pope who claimed all Christians to be a part of his empire.”

“But we’re Christians!”

“Not like the others.”

“And Christians sometimes work for Satan?”

“It’s a tricky World, sweetie. Evil is so wedded into everything we do it’s impossible to root it out. Most people think they know who they are, but they don’t. Deep down, they are really someone else and a terrible war rages within and that war is their way of being in this life. That’s why Armageddon is necessary.  To burn everything pure. The Battle of Armageddon is fought person by person against herself before it breaks out into the World and destroys everyone. You can’t repress your true self, darling girl, and it’s a sin to try. When the false Jesus-worshippers are exposed, they won’t be angry for having been deceived. They will be grateful not to pretend anymore. They will fight for Satan joyfully and they will be crushed until they are annihilated from this Earth and never have to come back. We’ll be so happy. Just wait.”

“Mama, I don’t want to fight against myself. I don’t ever want to be different from who I am.”

“You can’t be. You and I live in the Truth together. Forever. And I’ll fight anyone who gets in the way. Even you, if you make me.”  With shaking hands the small girl brushed her lips coral pink with her mother’s lipstick she had borrowed from her purse.

“I don’t want to fight Grandma either. I want to save her.

“I tried. She won’t listen.”

“Because she’s a Lutheran?”

“It pains me to say this, sweetie. Grandma is going to be roasted at Armageddon and eaten by one of Satan’s legions.”

“Grandma can’t die!”

“She won’t, sweetie. The truth, she’s already dead. And Armageddon, she’ll just be gone.”

Whenever she cries, wherever she was, no matter her size or how many birthdays have passed uncelebrated, it is always the same tears. Will Mother always be there to watch?

“Don’t be sad. We’ll be among the saved, and your brother too I hope. It will be our task to pick among your relatives’ bones and find the ones most suitable for being made into plowshares.  We’ll clean them and grind them and prepare them for when the bodies are burned away and the surviving spirits are resurrected to serve Jesus in the Everlasting Paradise to come.”

“Tell me, Mommy. Am I dead or alive?”

“Be a good girl and listen to Mother. I won’t leave you to be eaten.”

She had learned before she knew she had learned it that this World is a reflection of the World to come. The mirror’s eyes in take in every inch of her. They never blink. It’s wrong to doubt your mother whose face is embedded in yours. On the forever day, Mother will burst through the mirror to gather her child in her arms, but on this day the small girl Elle can’t reach Mother in the mirror so she must hug herself. The moments of this life only seem to pass.

#

The small girl’s feet have grown too big for the other’s shoes. Mirrors are everywhere if you know how to look and Mother looks about the same. Now she’s the one asking questions, about the books she’s always reading, or the drugs she takes, and, always, who she is kissing. Not those girls you see! Are those dates! Mother says lesbians are goats, adding that the body is a sieve catching defilement and will be annihilated forever. From this statement, Elle infers that all choices regarding the body are fraught with difficulties, and thus worth exploring, though Mother says, smiling, she’ll learn what a body is for, if not now, later. Meanwhile, a therapist might expedite matters, fix things. She doesn’t need fixing. She flashes her teeth and licks them. It’s funny to see Mother wearing the black lip gloss K. gave her.

Anyway, she’s not a lesbian. Her body is her body, words are labels, and if she wants to put a word to her flesh she’ll dress it herself. She craves a tattoo to assert this very point, but neither the state nor Mother will consent.  Not yet eighteen, her body is legally available for hire, subject to terms. Twenty hours a week, she loans it to her boss at the bookstore. A man like all men, Mother says.

She would have preferred the library to this place just off the interstate, or the B & N, but it’s ok. The pay is good. She needs it for her tat and for college. He hired her without an application or references—he didn’t even ask her age! He liked the looks of her, which, granted, are remarkably similar to Mother. Everyone says so. He mentioned tips, but that was . . . an exaggeration.

I’m a Book Shepherdess. That’s what she tells herself, content to till the books only she touches. The others just want the magazines, the photographs, the DVDs, though the vintage connoisseurs prefer VHS and beta. The rooms where they seek ecstasy have walls of plywood, hard and smooth for easy cleaning. No rooms with naked women. No glass cages. No rotating platforms. No ecstasy peepholes.  “Private reading rooms,” her boss calls them, “like library carols.” Study time rarely lasts more than ten minutes. Afterwards, there’s always a surface that needs wiping down. What a Jerk-off Jehovah must be to have made an endless supply of that. She never sees another woman except when she catches her own image in a mirror. She has to stop herself from asking Mother to quit following her.

Mother need not tell her the men occupying this low-rent twilight zone are dead. Swarming zombies congregating to inhabit bodies discarded. Odd that Mother frowns on her dating girls, but thinks cleaning up spattered semen a suitable job for a young woman. Men will be men, she says, better get used to it before you’re married.

Ejaculating penises employ her but it’s the reading that keeps her there. The books are a miracle, an offering left over from some time when books were the store’s only merchandise. Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Suzanne, tattered tomes of philosophy and crackpot history, several describing the zombie apocalypse, which make her laugh because they’re so wrong. She even found copies of the Watchtower, which she burned.

Two books transport her like premonitions of the afterlife. The Portable Nietzsche, which she brings home, steals, technically, since she doesn’t tell her boss. It’s like she started it in another life and saved it for this one. His face is on the cover. When the reading makes her pause, she stares at it until sleep catches her. In her mind, he is a knight protecting her from Mother’s mirror.

The other is a science fiction novel concerning extra-terrestrials who travel to earth before and after the universe exploded. No zombies but the porn star in the cage cracks her up, given her circumstances. It knows eternal things without mentioning Jehovah, who has always struck her as a bit of an asshole, whatever Mother says. She loves that the protagonist is a pilgrim unbound by Time. She sometimes thinks Time is coterminous with her Mother, but the pilgrim leaps from moment to moment regardless of how much “space-time” intervenes, beholden to no one. Nobody is saved or damned. Everyone is dead and it’s ok. You’re just who you are, always. And you can leave whenever you want.

Like her new friend, Blue, whom she recently met in her school bathroom. Elle noticed her feet in the mirror and thought she was levitating. She was hanging from the light. Her blue face cast a glimmer of recognition. Elle wanted to hug her, to keep her safe from Satan, but Mother stood behind her shaking her head no. She picked up the chair Blue had kicked aside and sat with her new friend until the guard cut her down. The third one that year. Elle was sorry she had not met the other two. Later, perhaps.

The next morning Elle noticed Blue’s picture on the refrigerator.  Mother had cut it from the newspaper. Every time a girl dies at school, Mother grounds her from dating and warns her about drugs. Heroin, opioids, whatever. Mother is a nurse. Dead kids find her. Mother knows them all.  Now one had found Elle. Mother should lighten up. She knows perfectly well that the Apocalypse is on. Apocalypse is a word for when the future bends into the past.

Blue understands. By her look Elle knew they would meet again and often. This gladdened her. The final battle is near. It lurks behind the next mirror. Allies are welcome in a fight.

The books shall be her weapons and her shield. And the Tat, when she gets one at last, shall be her sign, marking her as that ancient boar marked Odysseus. That’s another book at the store. Happily, she has plenty to read and her chosen books know her, wait for her, like Blue. Start one anywhere and she never loses her place. Which is fortunate, since customers keep interrupting her reading to ask for a room key.

“This isn’t a library, girl. You can read aloud. Come here. Watch me watch you read.”

Like a jailer she moves them in and out, these men paying money to use up bodies which won’t stand anyway. From the hall, her book in hand, she hears them moan and sweat and shiver behind shut.

“The body is a machine designed to trap you with its levers and button.”

That’s Mother talking in the mirror but Elle listens instead to the singing hum swelling like organs through the building. Medieval monks chanting hymns seeking that dimension which abolishes time and makes everything for the moment pleasant. Perhaps it’s like time-traveling in that novel she likes. A lever moving them from past to future and back. Such short trips they take! And then what?! They breakdown daily, hourly, by the minute, like universes contracting. The mechanism of their joy collapses from its own furious activity. Annihilation lingers but not to stay. When their singing stops, the body they possess remains, so solitary. It’s different kissing K. A premonition of the forever day. Soon, these poor dicks will be gone with goats, which almost makes her sad because among these stray books, and this choral singing, she almost feels safe from Mother’s gaze.

Today is her last day but she hasn’t remembered that yet. Right now, this second, she is somewhere more sacred than Mother’s church which she no longer visits. She doesn’t feel the hot dry wind in her ear or the hands on her shoulder, only a blissful calm that is her body reading, giving way to pure thought, something like kissing K but better. K gets cranky when she misses her fix but her book never forgets where she is, as if she had never put it down. Time recycles itself. The book is the afterlife winking at her, different from what the men know. The hot wind speaks.

“Tips happen when you go in the room before they make the mess, honey. Then money rains from heaven. I’ll get you started.”

Startled, she jumps from her chair. Her shoulder catches his jaw. His teeth gash his tongue so that his words are flecked with blood.

“Girl. What the hell. Shit, that hurt. Better get me some first aid.”

She remembers it’s her birthday tomorrow. Some years she forgets. This one she can’t, Next one comes her tat—the day the state shall side with her against mother. May as well celebrate early. Without answering him, she picks up the book and walks out. At home, she puts it next to the other one. Her true tips. The books of her own Bible.

She calls K. She doesn’t mention her birthday, though her mind bears a precious gift. Near the moon and amid the wheeling stars, between countless kisses, she yields her virginity, which she bestows up K’s lips until it is devoured and gone. All night they roll into one other until the earth’s spinning rolls the sun which awakens her. She feels marked, transformed somehow. Curious, she pulls from her purse a mirror to study the changes her face holds. She sees none but Mother, urging her to come home, saying it’s not yet too late.

She goes straight to her room, feeling something between hope and joy. Maybe Blue will be in the mirror but Mother is so dramatic. She’s dressed like a knight. Elle cues up a 45 of Jimi’s “All Along the Watchtower” on the turntable Mother gave her last December three days after Christmas. The rush of the opening riff is the sound of this World’s imminent end. She wonders if she is ready. She doesn’t feel like a fight. She sets the machine so the song keeps repeating and sits on her bed, back to the mirror, reading the German philosopher.

A wonderful smell, different from the herb she smoked last night, infuses her body like peace. Pineapples baking. A hint of cinnamon. If it weren’t her birthday, she would think Mother is making a cake. Her favorite, in fact. The aroma makes her drowsy. Her book slips from her hands and she can’t help noticing that Mother’s knight outfit includes apron. Her left hand bears a cake but her right one is hidden behind her. Does it hold a sword?

“The cake is for a ceremony, Sweetie, but it’s not what you think. Gird yourself. The future is now. College starts soon. You will need more than your book or girls’ bodies to protect you. Now have a slice and please turn down that music.”

Before she can take a bite, the cake disappears. She’s thinking this is the moment, the moment when all moments converge, but that voice distracts her.

“Sweetie, what’s that on your arm?”

The room glows with a radioactive light. It’s her right bicep. The mysterious touch she felt last night is coming through her skin like an infection. . . or a birth. It’s the tat! The one she was, or is, to get on her eighteenth birthday when the law allows.  She wonders if Blue is her secret body artist, but accepts that there is no explanation beyond belief. Like Mother always says, it will happen, so it has happened.

It’s marvelous how the skin splits to reveal ink shaped into a face, the emblazoned expression of the German philosopher she knows so well from the book’s cover. The eyes seem to know her, but then the face shifts and shifts again, taking many shapes, not all of them does she recognize, though the eyes never change.

Time holds all events. Lifetimes must pass but she will know the name of this face. And then she does. It’s not Blue but Z, the philosopher’s creation, talking from her arm and the mirror too. How did he penetrate Mother’s realm? And what did he do with her? No matter. Z’s a friend she can always have on her arm.

Whatever happens is always happening.

Thus speaks Z from a universe eternally recurring—where lives the pilgrim, Blue and Elle and maybe K too, everyone but Mother who knows how it all ends. The voice amplifies, multiplies. It rings and chants and keens like the men singing in the bookstore. In Zoroastrian, too, which she understands perfectly.

“When you go to women, you must take along the whip!”

  1. lifts a familiar arm above his talking head. Jimi’s guitar slashes about her ears like a whip coiling to strike. Purple finger tips wield the handle. By the nails she knows the hand.

Submerged voices murmur between the guitar’s notes as if her room were a river in which two tributaries had come to meet. Two streams becoming one and each one singing a song she has neither yet sung nor forgotten. The river’s voice is German, Mother’s childhood tongue.

Don’t fear the lash, my child. Its path is the arc of my love. It encompasses all of Creation and describes a sacred circle in which you are safe. I raise it against the World, not you, though you may sometimes feel its sting. Love hurts, darling girl. Its pain protects you.

Before the lash strikes, she reaches for the handle—she puts her hand on Mother’s purple-tipped one. It is as if their hands share the same body but then the mirror divides. Mother cracks the whip upon Elle’s burning arm, whereupon Z. ducks as if he has done this before. Look! He has occupied Mother’s bicep! The whip’s cracks seem infinite. She sees her tatless arm moving in time with Mother’s. The pain becomes so pure it ceases to hurt, as when this World yields to the next. On Mother’s arm are Z’s eyes and in their reflection, she sees rising upon her bicep the letters M-O-T-H-E-R.

She jerks awake, hugging herself, rubbing the arm as if to make the letters disappear. Her flesh is as white as ever, but her arm feels vacant and she wishes that today were the day. It craves a needle—a stylus that moves according to her own command like the needle playing Jimi into eternity.

Relieved to have escaped her dream, and its German voices, she has the thought that this room is also her tomb. She wonders if her door will open. It does and she ventures to her favorite coffee to prove to herself that she can.  She orders a four-shot Americano and looks around for a mirror. She spies a rack displaying watches for sale. The old-fashioned kind that require winding to tick. Such time-pieces have always attracted her. This one is unusual. Its face has no arms but wears a man’s face printed on it. Numbers circle him. She looks closer and remembers again that nothing that happens in this World is a coincidence. The philosopher’s visage greets her without a wink. She laughs so hard people turn to stare.

“Today’s my birthday,” she announces. “I’ve just found myself a present.” A day late, she knows, but what’s a day when every day is her birthday.

In her room, it’s as if she never left. The stylus can’t quit Jimi’s groove. Winding Herr Friedrich is such fun, it’s like ruling the world. The minutes turn into hours, the hours into days. The watch ticks with the tune. When the ticking stops, despite her winding, Jimi rocks on.

In the mirror, she sees Mother wearing her watch and talking to the small girl.

“It’s time, darling. Don’t cry. You’ll see Mommy again.”

“You can’t leave now. I’ll be so alone. Everybody has been eaten but me.”

“No worries. The World is not the World.”

“Are we dead?” Mother puts the watch to her ear.

“Of course not. You’ve been born. Truly born.”

“Why can’t I come with you?”

“Because there’s still work to finish. I’ve left you Grandma’s bones—and Daddy’s and your brother’s too. Use them to till the earth. If you become too tired, it’s ok to rest. I’ll watch over you even if you never rise again.”

“Mommy.”

“Yes, darling girl.”

“Being born sure is hard.”

From the mirror’s eye, she looks to be praying, though she’s just reading in her room. It’s her college dorm now.  That’s a year away but it may as well be today. Time travels happens if you let it. She didn’t bring a mirror with her but her roommate did so Mother feels at home. From her familiar perch, she scrutinizes the tattoo artist’s work which pleases Elle. She’s glad she had him mix the ink with her own blood. The letters really stand out. L-O-V-E is a red-letter word.  Love hurts. If it’s real, it does.  Mother knows, which is why she keeps cracking that whip. A stinging whip—that should be Mother’s tattoo! In between snaps, she speaks of wars and rumors of the wars, Days of Battle when the past and the future overlapped, something about how at the End the mirror’s reflection shall consume the World it reflects. Mother talks so loud Elle knows her words can be heard in the hall. Jesus, she thinks, this time Mother really is coming through. Bring it on.

Just the two of them, encircling each other, entwined by the tender lash poised to strike. Is this moment all there is?

On the bed, head down, she reads the sci-fi novel. The book’s words move her mouth until they spill one by one into her lap from her hands’ pressure. She continues reading, through blank pages she need not turn, sitting so still, her neck exposed like an offering.

Then it happens. Against her will she moves, if only slightly, whether to miss the repeating lash or absorb its blows hardly matters. She sways a little and her swaying becomes a rocking. She rocks as priests in the Bible were said to do, slowly at first, then faster, like convulsions. It is not prayer, for she does not pray, and never will. It’s just the waves of Jimi’s guitar building in intensity and Blue riding the song’s breakers, a mermaid wearing K’s sweet face, singing there must be some way out of here.

The seconds aren’t there to be counted. She knows who is behind her just as she knows it’s not the song rocking her but the small girl who cannot die, she is eternal, and she’s rocking her from this room to the next life and back again, through all the days of her life to come, just to prove no place under the sun exists beyond the arc of Mother’s love.

There is no birth without Mother.

Timothy Parrish is a writer and critic who lives in Sacramento, California and teaches for UC Davis.  His recent short fiction includes “Phillip Roth’s Final Hours,” which appeared in Raritan, the novella, “The Critic,” in Ploughshares, and “Birth” in Vestal Review. “Final Hours” and “Birth” were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His story, “History,” received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train January/February Short Story Award for New Writers contest. “Being Born is Sure Hard, Mom” received Honorable Mention in the 2019 “Family Matters’ Contest.

 

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Flight Feathers

Fiction by Frances Boyle

 

A bird in hand, that’s what Maddy has. A live if rather stunned bird that she’s carrying to school in the container of her hands. It is light. She can almost believe there is nothing there, but she sees its dust-brown shape when she peeks through the gap between her thumbs. Its body quivers, just slightly, as she tries to hurry without jostling the bird. Its stiff tail-feathers scrape in tiny movements against her damp palms. And, in the shadowed light that her fingers let in, delicate fluff – like dandelion tufts – moves as if her breath is blowing it. But Maddy hardly even dares to breathe.

The bell rings and she’s still a block away. The playground is empty when she gets there. She nudges her way through the heavy doors with her hip and shoulder so she doesn’t let go of the bird. She walks the hallway to her classroom, her echoing footsteps the only sound.

“I saved a baby bird,” Maddy whispers, and holds her hands out, still cupped. Mrs. Melnyk, at the front of the class, frowns. Kids stand up beside their desks, crane for a look, shout questions at Maddy. She just stands there, her face hot.

“Grade Two! Please be quiet! Settle down, and open your workbooks to page 22.” Mrs. Melnyk waits to make sure everyone does it. “Start to work on the first five subtraction problems. Maddy, come with me.”

Maddy follows the teacher between rows of desks. Sheila and Germaine both whisper, “Can I see?” and gesture for Maddy to stop, but she ducks her head, and keeps walking to the small room full of paper and supplies beside the cubbies.

“Now, let’s take a look.”

Maddy uncurls her fingers slowly and the teacher peers at the bird on her palms. It shuffles its feathers. Maddy notices a touch of yellow on the wings.

“That’s no baby, it’s a grown bird – just a sparrow or something.” Mrs. Melnyk dumps chalk out of a box onto the counter. She scoops in a handful of pencil sharpener shavings from the waste-basket where they’re collected. “Let’s give it some quiet.”

Before Maddy realizes, the teacher has plucked the bird from her hands, placed it in the box and closed the lid. Mrs. Melnyk puts the box up on the high shelf and pats Maddy’s shoulder.

“Sit down, and do your arithmetic, dear. It will be fine until lunch time.”

Maddy tries to work. The period takes forever. When the recess bell rings, she heads towards the back, but Mrs. Melnyk, impatient now, stops her and says “Just let it be, Maddy. Go out and play.”

Recess. Boys yell and run after balls; the bigger girls make complicated chalk marks on asphalt. Led by Sheila, the knot of Grade Two girls crowd Maddy and shuffle her to their corner of the yard. They all speak at once: “Is the bird sick?” “Did you take it out of a cat’s mouth?” “Does it have a broken wing?”

Maddy’s mouth is dry. She swallows, starts, “I was walking to school—”

“But how did you find the bird?” Sheila asks. Normally Sheila is the one the girls listen to. Today, she acts like Maddy’s her friend.

“It was just lying there, inside the fence.”

“Inside the fence? How could you see it, then?”

“It was a metal fence, with bars and pointy spikes. You know? At the house with the big hedges? And the pretty flowers?”

The girls shift from foot to foot, crowd closer, prod Maddy to keep going. She feels a flush up her neck and across her cheeks, and her hands are sweaty. She’s never had anyone pay this much attention to her before, and she feels a little dizzy.

“… So, a cat lives at that house. That’s why I looked, ’cause if it’s outside, I can pet it. Then I saw the bird on the ground –the patio – and it wasn’t moving at all. That cat could come any second. And eat it up!”

Sheila squinches her face and says “I tot I taw a puddy tat.” Nobody laughs. They’re listening to Maddy.

She tells them she got right down on her stomach, and reached through the bars. But her arms weren’t long enough so she carefully opened the gate. Maddy doesn’t tell them how breathless she felt going onto someone’s property without permission.

“I bent over, real slow. And I put my hands round it, and scooped it up. It was scared, a little baby bird. It was hardly moving, but I could feel its heart.”

She pauses, remembering the fluttery pulsing on her palm. “I’m going to take care of it, make it all better.”

One girl whispers, “Awww.”

Sheila says, “My grandma’s got a bird, you know. It’s a canary, like Tweety-Bird. I help her with it sometimes. Its cage gets really stinky, and—”

But Germaine interrupts. “Maddy, do you think Mrs. Melnyk will let the bird live at school?”

Sheila’s hand goes to her mouth, her eyes wide. “Maddy! You said your bird wasn’t moving? I bet it’s dead!”

“It’s alive! I felt its heart.”

“Did you make a hole in the box for it to breathe? Poor thing. It probably died in that box.” Sheila drapes her arm around Maddy’s shoulder. “Oh, Maddy. Your bird is dead!”

Maddy insists that the bird can breathe, that Mrs. Melnyk would have made sure that it could. But a weight still blankets her when recess is over and they go back indoors. Mrs. Melnyk won’t let her check on the bird, though all Maddy wants is a peek to make sure it’s okay.

This period, the class takes turns reading aloud. Jamie Lang is struggling with “night” when a high and long tweeo-o sounds in the classroom. Maddy rockets up in her seat. The bird is alive! Exultant, she looks over at Sheila. Sheila looks away.

The sound trails off, but starts up again, the thin piping whistle ringing out four or five more times during the hour. Kids laugh. Mrs. Melnyk is cross now.

At lunch time, Mrs. Melnyk hurries to take the box down from the shelf and hand it to Maddy. “Take it to your parents. You can set it free when you get home.”

Maddy imagines telling her mom and dad about how she saved the bird, how proud they’ll be. She knows the bird still needs her to nurse it better, that they’ll have to let her keep it. Maybe it will eat seeds right from her hand. Maybe it will sit on her windowsill and sing.

Outside, girls and some boys, kids from her class and even Grade Three, crowd around her again, clamour to see her bird. In the press of bodies, Maddy finds it hard to breathe, as if the bird – or she – might suffocate. She grips the box tighter and breaks away, stomps towards the other side of the playground, dust rising in tufts at every step.

The box is clutched to her stomach. Through the cardboard she can feel the bird slide back and forth, hears the scrape as its claws dig at cardboard, trying to right itself, and the flump as it topples again. She slows down, and carefully tips the box up and peeks though a space where cardboard edges meet. One bright eye gleams back at her. There is the sound of feathers rustling as the weight shifts. There’s less scrabbling. The bird peeps, once, twice. It’s quieter than it was in the classroom.

Sheila calls out her name, but Maddy doesn’t stop. Sheila sprints to catch up. “Hey.” Out of breath, she holds onto Maddy’s arm.

Maddy pulls away, shelters the box.

“Maddy, come on! I don’t want to take your bird, I want to help you.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh-huh. My grandma’s bird was sick one time? I learned how to feed it with an eye-dropper. It takes two people – I could help with that.”

“I don’t know if my bird’s sick. I think it’s just tired.”

“Well, it’s going to need something to live in at your house. I think my grandma kept her old cage when she got Goldie a new one. Maybe you could have it. I can bring over some seed and stuff too.”

“Okay. Maybe.”

“Please, just let me look at it.”

Maddy doesn’t want to, but a cage would be perfect. She gently tugs open the lid, just a crack, but Sheila yanks at the box. Frantic wings push up the lid, rise and beat in front of the girls’ faces. Maddy and Sheila both take an involuntary step backwards.

The box falls. The bird hobbles and hops, then rights itself a few yards away. It dips into the dirt, spreads its tail and bobs it up and down, straightens wing-feathers with a ruffling motion that runs along its side.

Maddy moves towards it, arms outstretched, with slow, careful steps. “Oh please, oh please,” she croons. The bird shifts its head towards Maddy, then looks across the field, up to the sky.

Sheila claps her hands and yells, “Get it Maddy!”

At the sound, the startled bird lifts off, and flies. Sheila skips away, stepping on the chalk box and flattening it as she goes. Maddy’s throat clogs with a lump that could choke her if she tried to say a word.

She watches the bird rise and dip and soar through the schoolyard, past the fence, and up and over the poplar trees beyond. Maddy squints, tries to keep her eyes fixed on the small winged body and the path it is traveling as it flies away from her. Soon she can no longer tell if it’s the bird she sees, or maybe just a dot floating in front of her eyes. It moves over the housetops and into the farther trees.

Maddy watches until there is nothing at all she can see. She squeezes through the gap in the schoolyard fence and heads towards her own street. Maybe she won’t tell Mom and Dad about this morning, or what it felt like to hold the bird.

As she goes, she turns her head at every brown flit in a hedge, every dive from a power line or gate, wondering bird? My bird?

Frances K. Boyle is a prairie-raised, Ottawa-based writer of fiction and poetry, with two books (a novella and a poetry collection) to her credit, and two more (a short story collection and another book of poetry) forthcoming within the coming year. She’s published stories and poems in many print and online magazines throughout Canada and in the United States.

 

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Full Fathom Five

Fiction by Christy Cochrell

In August a fishing boat broke up against the rocks below the house they’d moved into that spring.  The quiet of their Friday morning was assailed by the terrible grating, grinding of the metal hull against the reef the boat was hung up on, the waves smashing it relentlessly to pieces.  There were helicopters, too, an invasion of search and rescue vehicles.

Gabriel ruefully conceded to Ella over their scrambled eggs that if he’d seriously intended to get away from shipwrecks, they should have moved to Denver (his family), Phoenix (hers), Death Valley (far from everyone and everything).  But they’d both liked the idea of retiring in Santa Cruz, laid back and right by the ocean, after so many stressful years in metropolitan Long Beach.

“You’re saying ‘I would fain die a dry death?'” he asked her drily.

“Says who?”  Shakespeare, Ella knew.

“Gonzalo, the honest old counselor in The Tempest.”

Like honest old Gabriel, her counselor, husband, best friend.  With time now stretching vast and uncharted around him, he’d been planning and planting a Shakespeare garden off their back deck.  He’d picked up an illustrated book of “Mr. Shakespeare’s Flowers” at the unexpected Shakespeare museum and archive in Moss Landing, where they often went for grilled fish and to walk at Elkhorn Slough, be charmed by the buoyant otters.

Gabriel’s familiarity with shipwrecks—fires—accidents—thefts—sinkings of marine craft, any size—came from his forty year career as private investigator for marine casualty claims, something he’d happened into after majoring in Classical Studies (cultivating critical thinking skills, as he’d put it to disparaging friends and family members) at Claremont McKenna College, with a minor in Psychology.

Ella, whose degree in Classics had led her instead to write mystery novels about a classical archaeologist, had in the past few months been researching Antikythera—the big shipwreck found by sponge divers off the little Greek island, the recently revealed bronze arm, probably unrelated to the earlier bronze head which had been christened “the philosopher.”  (Disarming, she’d call it in her next installment of the bestselling series.)

Ella wrote in the sunny south-facing room (oddly, facing the western ocean too, because of the way the bay curved), the walls washed a pale clear-eyed blue, like the Ionian Sea.  Its white shelves full of books on Ulysses and Theseus, snake goddesses, and the ill-fated Argonauts.  A replica of a Minoan octopus pot.  A basket of Greek sponges they’d brought back from a trip to Kalymnos and Kos.

Both were unnerved by the shipwreck practically on their doorstep.

“It’s like we are responsible somehow,” Ella fretted, “because those rocks are right there, and more or less ours!  Like not keeping one’s sidewalks clear of ice in snowy lands.”

#

Because it had unsettled them, the peace of their repose, Gabriel went out to talk to the Coast Guard response team gathered on the bluff.

“So what happened?”

A young recruit told him the boat had run aground sometime before daybreak, and was reported to the Coast Guard when it started getting light.  Its flotsam included a dozen empty tequila bottles, a triple-bagged pound of cocaine, a French lace camisole covered in blood, and a note reading in capital letters, “Full fathom five!”  There was no sign of either a body or living crew; the pilot was assumed drowned, or to have walked to shore during low tide.  There’d been no distress call.  No witnesses who’d come forward.

But Gabriel, who woke early every day (“at a godless hour,” according to Ella, though he couldn’t agree), knew the earliest dogwalkers—Big Tom with a blue merle Sheltie, Marilynn Gamble with two moppy Shih Tzus, and Mateus Castelo, a local artist with a Newfoundland, who liked to walk past Natural Bridges to the open fields and whale bones at the Marine Center to let Maggie off the leash (against the rules, but harmless).  Though he wanted to get on with his Shakespeare garden, listen to Shawn Colvin on a new Bluetooth speaker, bask in his hard-earned life of leisure after all those years working obsessively and running his health down, he had to admit being just a little curious about what any of the three might have seen.  It did feel personal, that shipwreck, happening so close to home, right under their noses—though they had been insensibly buried in pillows at the moment of catastrophe.  And he was intrigued by the Shakespeare reference, from The Tempest.  Did it mean something, or nothing?

#

Not having run into the dog people during the day, he shrugged on his Fair Isle sweater the next morning and waited for them to emerge.  Weekends always started more slowly.  At the corner of West Cliff Drive and Chico Avenue he spotted the young Newfoundland—hard to miss, especially with a handsome stripe of turquoise down one side.

“Oil paint,” the large, taciturn owner smiled, seeing him notice.  “She brushed against my latest painting of Seabright.”  And then, “Gabriel, right?” The artist offered his hand, also turquoise-freckled, switching the dog leash to the left.

“Gabriel Foss.”

When she took the name on, thirty-four years ago, Ella had been delighted by the etymology.  Old Norse fors meant waterfall.  The Anglo-Saxon name Foss came from residents along Fosse Way. The surname Foss was given to a person who resided near a hill, stream, church, or type of tree.  Gabriel, who’d had it all his life, was mostly annoyed that he often had to spell it, since people heard it as Fox.

Mateus was an artist, and his boxy modern house was full of bright abstracts of waves, the ocean—colors and choreography dominant, with grace notes of swimmers, surfers, birds.

“Getting ready for Open Studios in October.”

He gave Gabriel Illy espresso from a Keurig-like maker.  “I did see a couple of surfers coming ashore on the beach at Natural Bridges, before it got light.  Not sure there was a connection.”

“Anyone you know?”

Considering.  Cleaning paint brushes in the sink.

“No one I recognized—or Maggie did, which she would have made obvious.  She isn’t one for suppressing her feelings.  I was painting pictures in my head, the way I do, and wasn’t paying much attention to the real world on our way past.  Sorry, man.”

Back outside on the oceanfront, Big Tom, an ex-Marine who reminisced from time to time about parties with Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia, told Gabriel he’d seen nobody in yesterday’s early dark.  Contrarily petite and always stylish Marilynn, with her Shih Tzus, Xishen and Chenjinggu, which she’d told him translated as Joy God and Old Quiet Lady, agreed with the artist that there had been a pair of surfers on the beach.  Her sharp eyes missed little; she’d been a scathing columnist in Washington, DC much of her life.

“It looked like the lady who lives down near the end of Swanton, maybe,” Marilynn suggested.  “She surfs.  And she’s had a houseguest this week.”

#

From ingrained habit, Gabriel ran an online search.  The house the dogwalker had identified was owned by a Gloria Christiansen.  Pausing only momentarily, he called the young Coastguardsman he had talked to on the bluff, Barry, who filled him in on the official investigation.  The boat was registered to a Dermott Brennan, they’d learned.  They hadn’t been able to reach him, getting no answer at either of his listed phones.

Telling himself the incident would be resolved without his help, that he had no business acting like that busybody Prospero, orchestrating the whole show, Gabriel worked on the Shakespeare garden the rest of the afternoon, deciding among rue and rosemary, mulberries and medlar, bachelor’s buttons, columbine, and cuckoo-buds.  He tried to locate a mail-order source of eglantine.  That evening he made cinnamon and honey Scotch sours, their current favorite cocktail, and Ella set out on their old rosewood table a chicken tagine with eggplant and olives and tarragon.

#

Out walking the next day, Gabriel came across divers looking for Dermott Brennan’s body—or an unknown woman’s, the unlucky owner of the bloodied camisole.  Stopping to chat with them, he learned that an investigator had been asking Brennan’s work associates and neighbors whether he—a local ophthalmologist—had appeared suicidal.  They thought not.  Brennan had no drug or other criminal charges on record, though his father, a whale cruise captain, had drowned mysteriously seven years ago.  One neighbor remembered having met a son, who stayed with the boat owner sometimes in his Craftsman bungalow on East Cliff Drive but hadn’t been around for quite a while.

Not able to let the matter drop, Gabriel called his own eye doctor, someone he played softball with, to see if he knew Dermott Brennan.

“Yes, in fact—we were together in school at UCLA, and our sons were in Boy Scouts together.”

He produced a cell-phone number for Dominic, the son, who lived in Monterey.

When Gabriel reached him, on the third try, he said rather truculently that his father was in Baja, fishing with guys he met there every year.  He wouldn’t be in contact until the weekend.  As far as Dominic knew, his father’s boat, La Niña, was safely moored at the Santa Cruz harbor.  He hadn’t seen the news, knew nothing about the shipwreck.  Gabriel felt bad about alarming him.

“Is there anyone who’d have it in for your father?”

“Only my mother!” Dominic snorted.

Sibyl Yates, her son admitted, was more than a little volatile.  His father frequently and bitterly accused his ex-wife of doing everything she could to make his life a living hell.

And now a dying hell, Gabriel wondered?  But his body hadn’t been found.  And still no one else’s.

Sybil, Dominic answered his speculative question, was a good friend of Gloria Christiansen’s.  She was a drama queen.  An actress, summers, with the defunct Shakespeare Santa Cruz.  She surfed.  She’d been a swimming champion in high school.  She knew perfectly well where La Niña was moored.  Only—her son had no idea where Sybil was moored.

“She is a free spirit, for sure; I didn’t hear from her often.  Almost never.”

He went on to say that he’d guessed that maybe she and Gloria were lovers, though neither had mentioned it specifically.

“I’m surprised, because my good Catholic father would have apoplexy about that.”

#

Ella had become fascinated by an amazing device found in her 2,200-year-old shipwreck, she told Gabriel as they walked West Cliff Drive before sunset.  The Antikythera Mechanism had thirty-some gear wheels, which allowed it to track the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, to predict eclipses.  A missing piece had recently been found, a cogwheel with an almost indiscernible image of Taurus the bull.  The mystery she was working on included the device as the pivot of a series of murders.

“And what’s the pivot of yours?” she asked.

“Mine?” he parried disingenuously.  “You know I’m not involved.”

She shot him a fond, amused glance, completely unconvinced.

“It’s not a murder, as far as we know.”  (She noted that “we” without comment.)  No body had surfaced; no further clues had been unearthed—or fished out of the water—by the divers or the real investigator on the case.

“What’s with all of the sensational finds?  The bloody camisole and the cocaine and all?”

“What would you guess?  Why would you write them into a mystery of yours?”

“For their sensational effect, surely.”

“I would agree.  They seem too staged, somehow.  The stuff of melodrama.”  He thought of the ex-wife, Sybil, who had been called a drama queen by her scarcely admiring son.  Of her experience with Shakespeare heroines, who included the devious, sensational Lady Macbeth, the tirelessly artful Rosalind, Viola, Portia, even Juliet—winning their way by gumption and by wits through men’s devices and desirings.

#

Incurably curious, Gabriel walked over to Swanton Boulevard to talk to Gloria Christiansen, passing the grove of Eucalyptus trees along the side of Natural Bridges State Park, where Monarch butterflies wintered in kaleidoscopic flocks—now sadly fewer and fewer.

With curly hair, a nose reddened from sunburn, and a sad mouth, Gloria made him think of an old-fashioned clown.

“That Medusa!  I don’t want to hear one word about her.  I’ve told you guys already.  Get out.”  But before she could slam the door on him, Gabriel said, suggestively,

“Full fathom five?”

Gloria’s face turned bright red, then white, blanched by fear.

“Okay, then—come in.  I’ll tell you, I’ll be more than happy to, if you’ll just leave me out of this.  It was all Sibyl’s idea, and I wanted no part.  I only went along because she threatened—well, threatened to report my drug habit, if I didn’t.  That could have lost me my job at Cabrillo College.”

Standing in a narrow enclosed sun porch lined with alternating surfboards and tall wooden Polynesian tiki masks, a fun pairing, Gabriel speculated.

“She piloted the boat to that beach west of Natural Bridges since it’s likely not to be observed before daybreak, and just abandoned it?  You and she swam to shore in wetsuits with your surfboards, just in case anyone saw you?”

“Well—yes.  Okay.  I only went along,” she insisted again.  “I thought she needed my moral support.  But now I’m thinking she just hoped to implicate me, besides framing Dermott.  She planted all those things in the cabin of La Niña to make a big splash in the news, ruin his reputation.  Cause him financial damage, not least, knowing by chance that he’d let his insurance lapse.  And psychic damage—she was always big on that.”

“Why did she hate Dermott so much?”  Malefactors’ motives and flash-points intrigued him, and he’d always shared the best of those he’d winkled out in his investigations with Ella for her novels.

“She wanted revenge on him for leaving her without a penny.”

“What has she done to make you turn on her?” Gabriel wondered.

“She seduced one of my grad students, and stole an irreplaceable emerald ring of my grandmother’s when she took off.  I don’t know which hurt me most.  She’s down in Capitola now at the girl’s parents’ beach house.”

“And why ‘Full Fathom Five’?”

“You know—”  She quoted the familiar lines to him.

“Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made . . . .”

And then went on, “I got so sick of hearing that!  She learned it when she was playing Ariel in The Tempest in the grove some years ago—gender ambiguous, appropriately!—a tricksy spirit bound to the tyrannical magician.  Prospero shared a number of offensive traits with Dermott.  Then, she accused her ex- of having done in his father—drowned in the bay five or so years ago—one of the reasons she left him.  Dermott was anxious to inherit the family fortune, and she assumed the worst.  She loved Felix Brennan; a real gentleman, she said—he often took her part.”

“Why did she choose to be avenged now?”

“She was rather mysterious about that.  I’ve deduced that she ran into someone from back then who brought the whole thing up again, and maybe egged her on.  And then of course there was the lapsed insurance on the boat, quite opportune.”

So that was that—once he passed on the information and they bearded Sibyl in her Capitola eyrie with its spectacular ocean view.

#

But something bothered Gabriel, troubled his sleep.  “Full fathom five.”  The note he’d been allowed to look at had been drawn in near calligraphy, in a striking, luminous green.  He’d seen a lot of that particular shade recently—where?  He got up, made himself a half pot of cardamom tea, and went to sit with his laptop in the inner patio, where the little stone Buddha sat under a cover of Japanese maple, a variety Ella had chosen called Ariadne.

He started with Sibyl Yates.  She’d appeared in The Sentinel with her husband in the Christmas boat parade; was shown crossing the finish line in the 2015 Ironman triathlon.  Her Ariel had been judged captivating, her Titania majestic.

He went back to the review of The Tempest, having almost missed the connection he was subconsciously seeking. When he saw it, the name of the actor who had played Caliban with her in UC Santa Cruz’s Shakespeare grove, he remembered where he had seen the green, and followed its trail to a startling conclusion.  Mateus Castelo’s paintings of waves had been drenched with exactly that color, as a counterpoint to the turquoise, his signature in a stylish calligraphy.  And the brushes he’d washed in the sink, too, the morning of the Illy espresso, had bled a light-struck green.

Stories of the suspicious drowning of Felix Brennan, Dermott’s father, those seven years ago, mentioned a diver injured in the search, requiring surgery.  Further reading revealed his death a few days later from septic shock.  The diver’s name was Jaime Castelo; he’d left a teenaged son and younger daughter to fend for themselves.  He’d had no life insurance, no savings, no family in America to take the children in.

#

Phthalo Green, it was called, the paint of the waves and the note on board the shipwrecked fishing boat.  It was Mateus’s trademark.

Eventually the artist admitted it all—his masterminding the shipwreck after he’d run into Sibyl Yates at the farmers’ market one Saturday morning, picking through plums and nectarines.  They’d gotten talking, relived their summer playing The Tempest, their lives since then.  They’d both hated Dermott, for their own reasons; had been wishing him the worst, as memories of him festered over the years, and seized their chance—combined their best efforts to defeat him.  The staging of the boat’s demise had been dramatic and also artistic.  The two had worked together well, again.  Reviews would have been rave.

#

Feeling his buoyant mood deflating as the day went by, and noticing that the last debris from the shipwreck had been cleared from the tidepools and small strip of sand at the foot of the bluffs, Gabriel left Ella to her own device (the ancient Greek one) in her writing room, though he would have welcomed some obliging commiseration, and put his gardening gloves back on—returning to his unassuming role as quiet old Gonzalo, trusted advisor.

At dinner that night he half-grumpily shared Gonzalo’s vision of retirement by an again temperate sea:

“No occupation:  all men idle, all.”

Christy Cochrell has been published by Tin House, New Letters, Catamaran, and Belle Ombre, among others, and has won several awards including the Dorothy Cappon Prize for the Essay and the Literal Latté Short Contest.  Having traveled extensively all of her life, she now lives and writes by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California.  She loves the play of light, the journeyings of time, things ephemeral and ancient.

 

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“Five for Fighting”

Interview with Jerry Brennan, Publisher (Tortoise Books) and Author of Island of Clouds, Public Loneliness, Zero Phase, and Resistance. Interviewed by Steve Passey.

Author/Indie Publisher are two things that are both related/unrelated. How do you manage your time between your own projects, your duties at Tortoise Books, and your other obligations? What’s a day in the life of Jerry Brennan like?

It sounds selfish, but I make sure I do my own daily writing before I do anything for Tortoise Books. I’m a big believer that if your life’s in balance, you’ll probably be most productive and most energetic first thing in the morning. And I’m trying to keep a lot of things in balance—my writing, my duties for Tortoise, a normal 9-to-5 day job (because neither of the first two things are paying the bills yet), plus a wife and two kids. So I carve out time in the morning to write. If I’m taking the kids to school, I can get up at 5:00, be writing in the den a little before 5:30, and get a good solid hour in behind the keyboard before we have to start waking the kids up. Other weekdays, I can sleep in until 5:30 and write in a coffee shop. This time of year I can bike into work, stop along the way, and get an hour and a half of writing time in before I have to get back on the bike. I think a little bit of routine is necessary to make steady progress, but a little variety is good to keep the synapses firing.

Editing comes next—making sure I’ve got stuff in the pipeline for Tortoise, and that I’m making steady progress on whatever I’m actively editing. When I’m taking the kids to school, I can edit on the ‘L’ train on my way in to work—we’re far enough away that I can get a solid 40 minutes of work done on the way in.

Then other publishing stuff: on my lunch break, or right after work, so I can come home and pay attention to my family.

I do that five days a week; on Saturdays I may edit first and then write, especially if I feel like I’m behind on one of the editing projects. Then I take Sundays off so I can recharge. All in all, it works well, especially writing early: the earlier the writing’s done, the less of the day you spend fretting about it. Plus, having it done means I can give full attention to the Tortoise stuff when I get to it—I know it’s not getting in the way of my writing. It’s like the airline safety cards that tell you what to do if the cabin depressurizes—you put on your mask first, and then you help others with theirs. It sounds selfish, but it’s not—if you can’t breathe, you can’t help anyone else, so make sure you can breathe.

Chicago has what appears to be a very lively indie lit scene. I see you recently made the Newcity Lit 50: Who Really Books In Chicago 2019 In terms of the scene, how involved are you/Tortoise? Indie publishing is a labor of love, describe the labor.

I’m pretty active in the scene. Before I started Tortoise, I wasn’t; I’d hole up in the coffee shop and write, and never go to readings or book events—it was very socially anorexic. And I’d wonder why I had a hard time getting published! Then in 2010, I got involved in an indie publishing venture—my ex-girlfriend’s sister had started a literary paper, and I showed up to their first event, and submitted a poem I’d shopped elsewhere without luck, and lo and behold: they published it. And I kept showing up and kept being involved, and my writing life got less lonely and more fulfilling.

But when I started Tortoise in 2012, I still wasn’t going to a lot of that type of thing. Then when we published Giano Cromley’s first book, he got active doing events, and I started going to those events, and lo and behold again: life got bigger.

I can’t get to everything—Lord knows there’s just too much to go to. But I go to as much as possible, and try to buy and read books, and be a good literary citizen, and it does feel infinitely better than “only” writing. And when I went down to the Newcity photo shoot, I knew a lot of the other people on the list, so it felt great—a reunion of friends, more than anything.

Describe the Tortoise Process, from submission to offering a publishing contract to editing/designing the book. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned along the way so far?

When I was pitching manuscripts, I resented the fact that it was so hard to submit—everyone had different reading schedules and different arcane rules, and it felt like you had to craft an impeccable query letter and land it on the right agent’s desk at exactly the right moment, on the first Tuesday of a month with an “O” in it, while the moon was a waxing crescent, or some such. ANYWAY, nothing happened with that, and nothing happened with targeted query letters, and I resented that the process was so opaque and so frustrating, so I’ve tried (with varying levels of success) to make ours transparent, or at least translucent: you submit a query through our site, it goes to my email, I respond and ask for the manuscript as long as I don’t totally hate it, and I (or an associate) will work to read and evaluate it in the next few months.

Then, depending on how much work’s needed, we may reject it, or kick it back for revisions, or accept it more or less as-is. But we may get solicited submissions or friend-of-friend manuscripts in that time, or some other opportunity may come our way, and we try to read and evaluate those as well.

ANYWAY, at some point when we’re pretty confident that the manuscript can and will be a book we’ll all be proud of, we conclude an author agreement and figure out a publication timeframe. We may come up with a cover ourselves, or the author may find someone they want to work with; we may do publicity ourselves, or the author may decide to hire someone. (I wish we were big enough and had enough clout to always get reviews in major publications, or to spend huge amounts on covers, but we’re not there yet, and in the meantime we’re not too proud to accept any extra help an author decides to throw our way. As one of my coworkers said regarding my willingness to gobble up free food at the office: “You don’t turn down nothing but your collar.”)

As for learning: I’ve learned how incredibly fun and empowering it can be! (And also how truly and tremendously hard—everything that annoyed me about the publication process when I was trying to get published traditionally I’ve probably done myself now, as a publisher.) There is no shortage of decent-to-good writing out there, and it’s a lot of work to sift through all the B-minus and B-plus manuscripts and find the As. And when you do find them, it’s amazing! But it’s still a lot of work to get people to pay attention. You have to just enjoy the process and the finished product, and recognize that the rest isn’t in your hands; you have to be grateful for what you get, while still finding a way to move forward.

Your series of blog posts on selling indie lit is a must-read for anyone in the business of writing/publishing at any level (sales channels I through VIII found here (http://www.tortoisebooks.com/whatshappening) – A lot of publishers are not as forthcoming about the actual business of selling indie lit. How has the feedback to the series been? Is there anything you’d wished you had added to the series?

There’s been great feedback to the series! There’s an awesome Netflix special with Brené Brown talking about getting out in the arena, exposing yourself and being vulnerable, and it seems to fit in well with my experiences with Tortoise. Every time I worry about whether or not to be vulnerable (and risk getting my ass kicked), and I do it, it seems to go well; every time I put up a front and try to protect myself and/or hide, it goes poorly. Or in tortoise terms: you have to stick your neck out to make progress.

What’s next for Jerry Brennan the author, and Tortoise Books the publisher?

I’m about halfway through the next book in the Altered Space series—a set of literary spaceflight stories based on might-have-beens from the Golden Age of space exploration. This current one’s a Cold War fever dream set in the late 1960s; it’s about a crew of Air Force astronauts on a manned spy satellite, where one of the crew members learns about a plan to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The series has been tremendous fun to write, and they’re all disconnected, so you can read them in any order. (There’s that concept of the ensō in Zen Buddhism, where you try to draw a perfect circle; these stories are a set of disconnected circles, and there will be a circularity to the whole set of five, once it’s completed, God willing. And circularity itself is a recurring theme—the repetition and progression of life itself is defined by the orbits and rotations of the planet.)

And Tortoise has some tremendously exciting books that we’ve released and that we will be releasing in the next year! We’re launching a second book from Joe Peterson in July, a hypnotic and intoxicating set of vignettes about the dive bar life called Ninety-Nine Bottles. (Again—repetition and progression in that song! And boredom and banality. In some ways it’s a depressing metaphor for life itself.) Stuart Ross’s Jenny in Corona is launching in September—a weird and hilarious book that’s made me laugh harder than anything else we’ve ever received. There’s Turi Ryder’s She Said What?—a chatty and fun fictionalized autobiography about the life of a radio DJ. Vojislav Pejović’s American Sfumato­—an awesome novel-in-stories with this weird sexual energy, like he’s a Balkan Haruki Murakami. Billy Lombardo’s Morning Will Come, a devastating and lovely portrait of a family in crisis. (Plus a lot of stuff getting lined up for takeoff in 2020.)

 

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Moccasin Square Gardens: Short Stories by Richard Van Camp. Douglas & McIntyre, Madeira Park, BC: 2019. 160 pp; $19.95

Reviewed by Lori Hahnel 

Internationally renowned storyteller Richard Van Camp, born in Fort Smith, NWT, is the author of twenty-three books including novels, books for children, graphic novels and short story collections. The just-published Moccasin Square Gardens is his fifth story collection.

Van Camp’s easy conversational tone and pervasive humour make this slim collection a whole lot of fun to read, with plenty of laugh-out loud passages that I read to whomever happened to be around (pets, husband, sons). In spite of the laughs, the writing is far from lightweight; there is often a one-two punch effect to the comedy. Take this example from the hilarious and poignant “Man Babies”:

“Dude, if your mom’s still calling you Baby at twenty-eight and you’re still living at home    being an Xbox champion, looking for the fire axe in World of Warcraft, rocking your     little hockey socks and your little track pants – if you’re too busy playing Nintendo to     work and earn, right, we may have a situation of learned helplessness.”

These details brought several of my former creative writing students to mind, but my amusement faded cold when I read the next line:

“And that is what the government is counting on: that our warriors will remain couch potatoes. That our languages and customs will die. That we will fade out.”

Point well-taken, indeed.

Van Camp explores different styles and genres in Moccasin Square Gardens, including a pair of sci-fi stories, “Wheetago War I: Lying in Bed Together” and “Wheetago War II: Summoners”. Actually, these are more properly cli-fi, involving both the fallout of climate change and the Wheetago, figures which appear elsewhere in Van Camp’s work.

My favourite story in this collection is “Ehtsée / Grandpa”, which is again both hilarious and touching. In this story, the narrator watches the movie E.T. with his elderly grandparents and the grandfather later reports that his grandson “showed him a movie about a mushroom who helped a boy”.  In a later scene the grandfather wants to know “what smells like dirty socks” in his grandson’s truck. When the narrator explains that he’s been smoking “US cigarettes”, his grandparents insist on trying them. Eventually and unsurprisingly the trio later end up at KFC, famished.

Moccasin Square Gardens is a funny and fast-paced read, containing food for thought as well as a lot of laughs. This was my first Van Camp book, but it won’t be my last. And, with his prolific output so far, I’m pretty sure it won’t be Van Camp’s last book, either.

The End