Flash Special: New To Us (March 2012 / 12.6)
Artist, Robin Grotke: Grotke is an artist and photographer living on the southern coast of North Carolina. Her inspiration is drawn from nature, people and cultures, emotions and humor, new life and decay, present moments and distant memories. Grotke’s work focuses on the sensation of “being there,” of taking the viewer to the location of the photograph and to feel like she did when the image was taken. Man and a Tree was taken in Fort Fisher, North Carolina.
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Headless in a Hole
The first time I fired Ray’s 12–gauge into the woods—the first time I shot a gun—and felt the fuck yeah kickback of the butt of the gun against my tender shoulder, my inner-Hemingway emerged. I packed my bottom lip with a pinch of Skoal and said, “Gimme another shell.”
Soon, Ray and I took to getting drunk on Saturday afternoons and shooting squirrels out of trees. I missed every time. Except once.
On that day in October, we started drinking Wild Turkey at noon, and by the time the sun snuck behind the mountains surrounding the lake, we couldn’t grab our own asses with both hands.
“Wanna smoke some critters, hoss?” Jay asked.
“Hell yeah,” I said.
As Tess and Briana plead with us to put away the gun, Ray put a fistful of shells in the pocket of his jeans, and we went outside, tanked and unshaven, with the sole intent of making confetti of any squirrel dumb enough to scale a tree in our vicinity. Ray blew away three squirrels with his first five shots and then handed the gun to me. Slugging straight from the bottle, I waited until I saw a patch of yellow leaves shake and a squirrel scamper to another branch. It stood still, its nose twitching as I raised the gun and aimed.
The blast echoed three times through the mountains. On the ground, beside the tree, lay the dead squirrel, its skull blown apart. I stood over the corpse and stared, this thing that breathed life until I snatched it—me, its stupid executioner. I handed the gun back to Ray and began digging a hole with my hands. I kicked the headless thing into the hole and covered it with dirt, not wanting to see the death or the blood on my shoes.
That night, in a drunken sleep, I dreamed of the squirrel, heard its heartbeat in my head. The squirrel climbed on my chest and said, When you take a life, you own it. Then it said, If you cry about killing a critter, you’re cooked. Both are true, both are so true.
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, with his wife and two children. He is the author of three books of poetry — After the Honeymoon (sunnyoutside, 2009), Teaching Metaphors (sunnyoutside, 2007), Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2004) — and a collection of stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002). His work has appeared in The Hawaii Review, Night Train, Freight Stories, Word Riot, Sententia, The Owen Wister Review, Rattle, and others.
the first thing to tell of is the food on east fifth street . this is not an area of canton frequented by any health inspectors, yet lines of people litter the sidewalks outside the grubby, almost lean-to refuges—greasy savior buildings that could quiet one’s deepest yearning. some folks, still in line, have looks of near desperation, as if this meal will save their very soul. or at least their rotten day. others, after having purchased their immeasurable desire, stand with oily waxed paper bundles, arms glistening from its run-off. sated.
every third building on east fifth street is a bar. there are not lines of people outside. there are not neon lights. the only thing that distinguishes them from being abandoned buildings is sound. small, lilting noises, like a cell phone in your back pocket that you check because you’re certain you heard it ring (it didn’t), or a rustling while turkey hunting that is, in fact, not a turkey, just a rogue squirrel. one cannot believe that anyone is alive in these places, but for the occasional sag-eyed woman who steps out to call her children and beg money surely owed, or the random exiting stumbler, winding through the crowd like a python. other than this, these buildings are a dead zone to the jostle that the street seems.
i am out of place, here. my plow-scuffed boots do not blend in. my bulky, bug-bitten arms are obvious. i am neither hungry nor thirsty. i am too old to avoid strangers by introducing myself, and too young to ambivalently feed the pigeons. and i am completely numb. i watch my feet walk into the pub as if they, and my liver, have made this decision on their own. they did not consult my mind. they never do.
“carter.” the bartender mutters this minute hello and barely has the energy to look up from his newspaper. with an elongated sigh, he puts the paper down and fills a not-chilled glass with more foam than beer. i am not a good tipper. i stare at the drink in front of me for minutes that feel like hours. i do not want to pick it up. i do not want to taste it. i pick it up. i taste it. every one of my cells joins in a chorus of “aaaaaaaaaaaah.” if only my conscience had cells.
not a drop of rain had fallen on canton; it was about six sweaty minutes to sundown. the back porch light was lit as if God himself were showing me the way home. ralph stanley is playing in my head like an endless loop, “i am weak and He is stro-o-ong…me and God. He forgives me when i’m wro-o-ong…me and God. He’s the One i lean on, when life ge-e-ts ha-a-ard, me and God.” when i walk in, my wife is wearing an apron and nothing else. it is gingham, red and white, but not apple red—more like the shade of clay that swallows our town. i catch myself thinking more about the color than the shape of her body and wonder quickly, “why?” behind her, at the sink, the last single ray of the day stutters in and rests at her ankle, like an old, loyal hound.
“i’m fifty eight,” she begins. and exhales with what seems to be complete acceptance. “there is cottage cheese in my ass.” i have heard this woman cuss a total of four times before tonight. once, when our cat was in a tree. twice, when our boy believed he could one-up her. and once when she woke up to me touching myself instead of her. rooves have fallen in, electricity has been turned off, and the baby has cried out from hunger; she has never faltered. tonight, though, she is talking about her ass. the same ass i forgot to notice. and she is cussing. it scares me.
“anyway, i just thought you should know,” she says, and heads toward the laundry room, presumably to put on some pants. on her travel she steps on the one errant floorboard that moans under pressure. it was not in her path. if this kitchen were as wide as a canyon, she would still step on that board. for the better part of a decade i have promised to fix her floor. she knows better than to believe me. and that moan is her personal declaration. it stings.
i used to bristle at scenes like we are playing out now. they used to be kindling for what would become a raging fight. there was something in the way she held her eyes when one was being lit—something likened to a person peering out the side of their curtains, trying to spy on the neighbors. just without the curtains. and without the neighbors. spying on any fight i might have left in me. any fight left for us. these days, though, we communicate through a fog of understanding. there is nothing vehement to our days anymore. nothing near fire.
“i think you look great for your age,” i tell her when she returns to the kitchen in a pant suit i have seen a thousand times. her face pinched. i do not say the right thing as well as a prize fighter punches. i do not say the right thing even when i don’t say anything at all.
“well,” she says, “did you at least catch any today? you’ve been fishing since sunup.”
“not a thing, ma. not a God-dammed thing.”
Lori (Nickoli) Kuykendall is a writer of poetry and fiction, a devoted mother and wife, and a commercial carpenter in the Atlanta area. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she founded the Almeda Street Poetry Co-op and has been featured reading at the Toledo/Lucas County Public Library and the Toledo Museum of Art. Her work can be found in the anthology Tuesday Nights at Sam and Andy’s Uptown Café (Westron Press, 2001).
It was nearly a hundred degrees and the humidity was stifling that Sunday in 1954. The streets were quiet, a few kids playing a slow game of catch in the shade of the giant valley oaks, which dappled most of Woodland, lending the town a shire-like tranquility. Couples drove convertibles to and from the drive-in for malts and ice-cold sodas. Men and women still worked, they cleaned, clerked, ran tractors in the fields, sat in cop cars and ambulances, but nonetheless there was a quiet in the air, and it was strong enough to bring a wetness to Chet’s eyes as he leaned back from his desk in the creaky chair and lit another cigarette. He was in his office, an old garden shed he’d fixed up after he moved the family to the bigger home in the nicer neighborhood when, following years of struggle, his construction company had gained momentum. He looked out the window, shaded from the sun by a screen and a lemon tree, through which he could see the rows of his wife Fern’s tomato plants, housed in their wire frames. Beyond them, a carport beneath which a Studebaker was parked, the family car, and around the side was his Dodge with the company logo stenciled on the side by the delicate and steady hand of his son. On the side of the house behind the Dodge was the basketball hoop, a plywood backboard mounted on the eaves. The net was torn and frayed, a fact that gave Chet great satisfaction. The worn quality of the net was to him a material symbol of success, of the good life, a family and friends playing horse and bump and around the world on the smooth concrete of his back patio, beside the deep greenness of his grass, heat waves rising off the black asphalt of the street in the young summertime. The tattered net testified to the health and happiness of the home, the basketball had passed through it many times with the laughter and jesting of his kin slipping off into the valley air.
Sundays were paradise for Chet, who usually commenced them with coffee, aspirin, and a cold shower to shake off the lingering fog of Saturday night’s revelries, which was as constitutional as Sunday morning’s visit to church, and although he did not believe, he liked the ceremony, liked the excuse to bring the family together, well groomed and attentive, to share a space with other families, friends and strangers alike. Afterward they ate brunch and then he walked out to his office and turned on the fan and the baseball game. Though he didn’t follow the game closely, it was integral to his afternoon ritual. The sound of the crowd and broadcasters was more like music than anything else, the sound of his childhood, a canonical, primordial sound. As the innings passed he caught up on paper work, took care of accounts, read the news and made calls or wrote letters concerning past and future jobs. He could have plowed through the work in an hour but he spread it out, went slowly, stopping to smoke, closing his eyes, moving from the desk chair to the small couch and back, going inside for a pop with a paper napkin wrapped around it to catch the condensation. He identified the singularity of Sunday afternoon not only in a personal sense, but also in the texture of reality itself. The splash of kids in a pool, the whine of big rigs headed up to Redding, the bark of a dog from the back of a pickup.
As the shadows sharpened and the game ended, Fern would bring him a drink, and he could see the flicker of the little TV in the kitchen where she was cooking and drinking coffee and smoking with her friends. About the time he was ready to turn on the desk lamp, there was big band music on the radio, Fern called him in and he broke a sweat just walking through the evening heat of the backyard. They ate and then as the kids cleaned up Chet and Fern took a Sunday drive in the Studebaker, each week a different route, though every road in the county was familiar, because there weren’t many roads. They hit the river, where the air was a little cooler and birds would glide to a stop on the glassy surface, and they talked about what the valley was like when the grass grew high as the withers of a horse and what it would be like when interstates cut through. They pushed their speed on straightaways between fields beginning to swell with growth, radio up and windows down, sparks from their cigarettes flying to burn little holes in the upholstery but they didn’t care. They stopped for a drink and danced to just one song on the juke. They came home to see the kids watching TV westerns or playing tiddlywinks and they sat together until the kids went to bed, because they were working for the family business that summer and the day started earlier than it did during the school year. Around eleven Chet and Fern sat out where finally the air was cool and he lit her cigarette and they touched the glasses of their nightcaps with their arms around each other and nothing to say. The echo of neighboring radios and TVs, the wail of a siren on its way to bust a drunk or save the sick, the click and hiss of summer insects. When Fern went to bed Chet walked back out to the shed to turn off the fan but he always lingered a moment, sat in the chair, had a last cigarette. Usually, he’d abandon it halfway through and head back to the house, leaving the butt to extinguish itself in the metal ashtray on the corner of the desk.
Joshua Willey is currently chopping firewood and shopping a novel about hitchhiking.
Two Willow Island
Where, now, is the other willow?
You are not the first person to lean forward, your middle against the railing of the paddleboat that is parading you slowly along the shoreline of Lake George, and ask this question. The tour guide, his voice cracking through the P.A. system, named the island as you passed it—Two Willow—but offered no background on it. You expected at least a tidbit—that it belonged to some industrialist who built the nearby mansion or became a lookout post during the French and Indian War—but the tour guide does not even mention the oddness of its name. The island has one willow, not two.
But, look, the spell of the waves and the incessant snort of the steam engine has been broken. You are headed back to the dock. Talk has turned to choosing a restaurant for dinner. The sun has climbed its mountain for the day like a Tour de France cyclist and ever since has been coasting into town, out of breath. The sightseers file out and go their separate ways.
Your thought about the willows steps into the long line of questions you entertain, but do not pursue.
Italian? Mexican? A&W for a burger and a pile of fries? You are not very hungry. It doesn’t matter to you. You will follow her lead.
You unfold the map of the lake and look for the island amid the cartooned cartography one last time. You do not find it.
Of course, some time ago, perhaps before you were even born, Willow stared at it from shore. Often she would climb to the attic of the Victorian her parents owned. From its window she had the clearest view. In the sunlight, the island looked like a cameo, ridged and sculpted above the ruffled water.
She was enchanted by the island. She thought it was her namesake.
She wondered, too, about the name and asked her father. “You are the other Willow,” he had told her.
That was all she needed to hear to cast her heart out to it. The island made no sense without her.
She began to pester her father to take her out there but he always put it off. Until that summer. When her grandmother in Tupper Lake became ill and her mother would go visit her every weekend, “just Friday into Saturday,” she would tell Willow, making light of the time away. Her aunt, her mother’s sister, would “take a break” and come down from Tupper Lake for the weekend.
For some reason, that summer, her father relented. He would row her out to Two Willow. He would leave her, let her play. “You can’t tell Mom.”
He would work on his projects in the attic, he told her. He could see her from there.
She was thrilled to have run of her own kingdom. Thrilled that her father understood her wish for freedom. Her reign was ten Fridays long.
On the first Friday, she tended to a cluster of rounded rocks that she imagined to be pterodactyl eggs.
On the second, a heron visited and she stood frozen, alert, until it flew off.
On the fourth, she stared at the house but no face bloomed from the dark window of the attic. She strained to hear his electric saw.
On the sixth, she swung on the branches of the one willow as if they were her mother’s hair.
On the ninth, she pressed her head into the trunk of the willow and shrieked. She wanted to leave but felt an allegiance to weeping. This was no kingdom of hers, but a prison.
On the tenth Friday, when he came to collect her, she was nowhere to be found. She had bugled to a passing regatta and an elderly couple broke from the fleet and stopped for her. They sailed with her, their dog in her lap. She wanted to press him closer but the puff of the lifejacket they had popped over her head was in the way. The sun, wind, and water seemed less magical to her—it was hands on the rudder and hands on the sheet that carried them off. They explained how it all worked, giving her the chance to be a good listener.
She remained mostly mute for she knew that if she talked too much they would discover where she lived and bring her home.
They treated her to ice cream—any flavor—when they landed. Mint Chocolate Chip.
They sat on a bench in the park while she played fetch with Monte Cristo.
They strolled with her to the police station.
They trailed the squad car to her house and watched the reunion between her father and the woman who rested her hand on the underside of his forearm.
Willow’s grandmother recovered. Everyone was supposed to be happy.
Her father lost her forever.
While her mother took her out to lunch and shopping during parent’s weekend, her father searched for her in the lighted labyrinths of video arcades. While her mother helped her line the generous cupboards of her first kitchen, her father stamped down the dark hallways of the House of Frankenstein, stopping for no one, not even the Monster. While her mother helped insert an organza flower into her chignon, her father called for her down the sad aisles of the dumpy supermarket that tourists found quaint and well-stocked with pricey beer.
She had only been lost for a few hours but it was a lifetime for him.
She is the love of your life. Her kisses are the most consistent touch that you have ever known, like oars dipping into water over and over. She will never return to Two Willow. It holds no power over her anymore. Someday she might tell you the story and the basics of sailing, but, for tonight, she is in the mood for linguine and clam sauce. And ice cream. Not Mint Chocolate Chip.
Chael Needle is a writer, editor and teacher living in Queens, New York, nowhere near a subway line. His work has been published in bottle rockets, Lilliput Review, and Owen Wister Review.
They left the boy in the musty, rancid parlor, alone, with the thing lying in the casket. The boy sat on a chair with a foreshortened leg, at the far corner. The chair teeter-tottered on the wooden floor, making a clicking noise which bounced off the yellow walls and back into the boy’s ears. It sounded like slats of wood being flung against concrete. He reached into his pocket and squeezed the little rubber penguin toy his father’s friend had given him in the park a few days before. Outside the room they were fighting over who would get the house, the land, the chess set, the broken violin, the Leica, the pictures, the animals, even the chemical trays the old man had used to develop photos in his homemade darkroom, which no one would use anyway.
The boy was angry. Boiling at the strange, leather-faced women who had come to the viewing and had broken down on their knees, wailing and beating the casket with their fists, making a familiar, requisite spectacle in the name of charity wine and coliva. The soul of the reposed person is only as good as the coliva prepared in his memory. That’s what the priest had said. The boy fumed. He hated coliva. It was just some lousy boiled oats and powdered sugar. No one’s life ought to be measured by that. He hated the show. The spectacle of the after-death was sickening. The Parastas was to follow before the burial and the same veiled women would be there, again beating on the casket with grief-stricken fists; again sucking down red wine and filling up on charity lunch—stuffed grape leaves and sausages. They would place small icons in the coffin, with a hand cross and even a prayer rope in the palms of the deceased.
“O, pray before the Christian who has reposed before the Lord!”
This was no longer his grandfather, this…dead thing. Just some quick-hardening matter lying on display like an animal in a taxidermy shop.
A shrunken head, neatly shaved. Macabre make-up and rouge. Small, pursed lips.
The last day of summer, before they cut off the boy’s hair to go to first grade and sent him back to the city, the old man snapped photos of him swinging a wooden tennis racquet, in a quick succession of shots. There were about twenty in all, black and white, made with the Leica. Those were his favorite. He pretended he was Nastase playing Connors. He had long, dirty blonde hair and his front tooth had fallen out the night before, but in the photos he was smiling and swinging a forehand at an invisible yellow ball: a massive groundstroke straight out of the fifth set on the lawns of Wimbledon. There were also photos of the day after, taken by his father: the schoolboy with obtusely chopped hair and a checkered white and blue shirt—the red, pioneer cravat tied neatly around his neck. Such a good, young communist. He looked like a defeated zek. Like those people coming out of the salt mines after years of interrogation. The day before and the day after. That’s the line you cross. That’s how fast it comes. There is nothing tangible for the living or the dead save pomp and circumstance. Tradition. And the things people leave to be remembered, the important things… footprints, smudges on glass windows, written papers, paintings…. They’re cleaned up and sterilized and packaged for the wake. They’re erased to make room for wailing mourners and sweet, boiled, charity oats. Professional funeral crashers.
A heavyset woman came into the parlor swinging the doors violently. She startled the boy who was thinking about smoking a cigarette he had stolen from his uncle earlier. He’d been seven when he first inhaled the stale smoke of a Marasesti hand-rolled cigarette, and he’d tried covering up his breath by chewing mint leaves which grew wild in the fields behind his grandfather’s house. The woman came in with a white cloth and began to wipe down the tables. Everything went on the floor.
“Eh. What are you still doing here?”
She didn’t look up at him, she just wiped and shook out the cloth automatically, not glancing at the shrinking body in the casket at the front of the parlor.
“Eh? Go already you little moocher.”
Everything went on the floor. Napkins too.
She stepped around the tables, crushing the breadcrumbs under her shoes. They crackled like fragile bones under a car compactor.
“Go on now,” she said and blew her nose into the same cloth with which she was cleaning.
“There’s another one coming later this afternoon and this place has to be spic and span.”