08 Dec

Fiction: “Spacey” by Melinda Smoot

by Melinda Smoot

He wasn’t a bad teacher or anything, just spacey. My dad even hinted that he was spacey when he came home from back to school night. My dad, the math guy, said my geometry teacher, Mr. Alvarez, was spacey. Actually, I think my dad really said Mr. Alvarez reminded him of an aerospace guy, whatever that meant. I suppose that’s about as much of a mean comment my dad could muster up when it came to a teacher. Mean words certainly weren’t going to come out of my mom’s mouth unless the teacher was coming at me with a knife or something.

Mr. Alvarez definitely wasn’t going to come at anyone with anything, much less a knife. He was shorter than most of the students, and you could tell he had spent a large portion of his life hunched behind a computer because his head was poised on a neck that was cricked slightly forward. He was bald on top, but the hair he did have around the base of his head was thin curly and kept the back of his glasses warm. My friend Hillary said he looked like a seventy five year old version of Squints from the movie Sandlot. When he opened his mouth, he was nowhere near as cool as him.

“Good afternoon, mathematicians,” Mr. Alvarez had said the first day. His voice sounded like a vacuum that was set on the wrong setting.

“Mathematicians,” Bruno muttered from behind me. The brim of his baseball cap bopped the top of my ear, “he does know we’re only here because we have to be, right?”

While other teachers simply handed out syllabi and read from it verbatim to get everyone accustomed to their rules, Mr. Alvarez began the class with no syllabus and a dot to dot illustration of the ranks and files of “Seventy Six Trombones”. He then spent the remaining hour attempting to show us how to prove the maximum quantity of trombonists allowed on turn of the century streets would be only about five in rank, which made the files enormously long and what a parade that would be!

It didn’t take long for other students to start doing their own thing while Mr. Alvarez rambled. We hadn’t even thought about solving equations for three months, and suddenly the geometry teacher was ready for us to go straight into complex proofs. Bruno was playing his own dot to dot game between his right and left hand—where you make squares out of dot to dots. His right hand was winning.

Being raised by southern parents, my background was to smile and nod. Unless something was explicitly wrong, you just treated people with common decency as a citizen of the human race. Mr. Alvarez was a part of the human race, at least in some small fraction of his DNA, I hoped. Bless his heart.

We went home that night with homework of “prove your room is or isn’t a perfect square”, but we hadn’t even checked out geometry book, or any math book for that matter. I stayed up until eleven that night staring at my notebook paper that said Geometry, fifth period, Mr. Alvarez at the top before my dad told me I best get to bed—No good math happened after eleven. I simply wrote the sentence on my paper saying “My room isn’t a square because it’s passed eleven and my bed is a rectangle.”

The next day, my Geometry class had been cut in half. Hillary was gone. Bruno had enough space in front of his desk that he could stretch his legs out and nap while Mr. Alvarez talked. Mr. Alvarez did seem to notice the lack of attendance, but in his words, we were the ones who would be working for NASA someday, and all who missed were simply losing out. That hour was spent attempting to show us how isosceles triangles factored into a cue ball’s movement in Billiards. He didn’t even collect the homework, which all but infuriated me.

~ ~ ~

“Does he not realize I was up all night doing his homework?” I snapped at Bruno on the way home. I had crumpled the paper I had stared at the late hours of the night into a ball and tossed it towards a trashcan. It missed. I kicked the paper up towards the trash again, and when it missed a second time, I kicked the trashcan itself.

Bruno had more colorful choices of words for what he thought of Mr. Alvarez, ones that I can’t repeat for the sake of my soul. “I’m not going to class tomorrow,” he said as we stopped at the nearby 7-11.

“You’re ditching?” I asked while he grabbed some Big League chew and a Sprite.

“No, I’m going to get my mom to get me out of there,” he said. After handing the cashier a few dollars, he took his stuff, and we left. He shoved a finger full of Big League chew and blew a large bubble. It popped before he continued, “I’ve not learned anything there. Simple as that.”

For a small moment, I wished that I had Bruno’s parents, but I knew, eventually, it would have to get to that point if I complained to mine enough.

~ ~ ~

The following day, Bruno was gone and class attendance was a total of six. Mr. Alvarez’s eyes were dark. His face was gray. His voice was deep. He looked straight in my eyes and asked, “Why do you suppose the class has gotten so small?”

I bit my lip. I wanted to say because although it was clear he knew his geometry principles, it was also clear that he lacked a certain something when it came to teaching high school students. I never really got a chance to speak though, because one of the few remaining students spoke for me.

“Because we haven’t learned anything,” she said. Her fake eyelashes seemed to sassy clap together as she spoke.

Mr. Alvarez’s eyes narrowed. He grumbled that we should pick up our math books.

“We don’t have any,” I said.

“Then listen and listen good. That’s how us older and wiser ones did it,” he said. He uncapped his dry erase marker and drew a circle. This was going to be his moment, I knew it. He outlined the circle with his dry erase marker again.

“Say you have a round patch of land,” he began.

“You mean a cir—” I started, but Mr. Alvarez interrupted.

“No! We don’t know it’s a circle!” He pointed his Expo marker at me as though it were a ruler poised at the ready to slap me between the eyes.

“It looks like one based on your drawing,” another student said.

Mr. Alvarez stood and walked around the empty desks. He hid his dry erase marker behind his back and explained, “I know my drawing looks like a circle, but geometry is about proof with support of mathematic principles. We have to prove this is a circle. How would we go about doing that?” he asked.

The class was silent. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to participate, but because we had absolutely no idea how to go about proving this drawing was—indeed—an actual circle. We certainly didn’t have geometry books we could cross reference yet either.

Mr. Alvarez could tell we were struggling. He moved toward the white board and drew a line from one edge of the circle out to the top right corner. “Okay, let’s change things a little bit here, shall we?”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned. When my yawn was gone, I saw two lines drawn out to a point in the top right corner of the whiteboard, although the second line was from almost the opposite side of what might have been the circle, should we have the knowledge to prove it. “Say you and your family are prepping claim for your homestead out west. This circular plot looks nice and wonderful, doesn’t it?”

“Sure,” I said.

He drew two covered wagons at the point where the two lines crossed, “But your rival, Sparky Mcgee is eying that land from his camp also. You gotta get there before him.” Mr. Alvarez told a lovely story about how your rival was only a thousand miles away, and you had to make a trip of about fifteen hundred miles with a young child who was dying of dysentery and a broken wheel that needed repair. It was as if he were transporting us back to the good old days of playing Oregon Trail on the Apple 2E in kindergarten. His eyes seemed to light up while going on about how life was so complicated back then, and we had a much longer trek to make just based on the data alone. He was quoting theorems that we hadn’t learned yet, but soon would learn in his own words. It was easily the most animated moment I had ever seen come from a math teacher. For a moment, even I wanted to believe that this would be a moment when he showed just how wonderful math was.

Then there was a sudden pause, and his face dropped. Three other students were busy passing notes, but I could see a small sparkle in the corner of his eye. A small freshman student in the front row broke the inevitable silence.

“Mr. Alvarez,” she asked.

Mr. Alvarez held up an empty palm in reply, effectively silencing the student of any potential for criticism, though judging from the thickness of this freshman’s glasses, I’d be surprised if there was any kind of utterance similar to that.

“I’m very sorry, mathematicians,” Mr. Alvarez said. His voice was slightly higher than usual. He turned to the drawing on the whiteboard and wiped at his eye. Condensation was beginning to form on his glasses. He threw the Expo marker onto the tray by the eraser and said, “there is no such circle like this.”

The entire class was hushed. Even the students who were passing notes back and forth seemed to stop.

Mr. Alvarez picked up the eraser and lifted it toward the circle that he had proven wasn’t a circle after all. The eraser shook as he made contact with the whiteboard. It would have only taken a few seconds to wipe the whiteboard clean and have his mistake behind us, but he seemed to choose to keep the shape on there. Perhaps it was the fact that he had, at long last, received our undivided attention at the most inconvenient time—everyone knew he had messed up.

“We all make mistakes,” I said. I knew plenty of teachers who had written or done something wrong in front of students, but this shape seemed to completely unwind Mr. Alvarez to his very core. This circle, or not circle, had suddenly proven to him that he had chosen an incorrect path somewhere in his life—not that he had simply made a miscalculation in a moment of manic illustration.

Mr. Alvarez lowered the eraser into its cradle with his Expo marker. The shape—whatever it was—stared at all of us.

I sat there, torn. The geometry teacher who just seconds ago had excitedly belted off mathematical principles collapsed into the chair at his desk defeated. I wanted to give him a hug, but that was not the time or place to do that.

What I had seen before as a sparkle seemed to grow into a tear. It moved from his eye to the bottom rim of his glasses. Several other tears joined and pooled there until Mr. Alvarez lifted his glasses to rub his eyes. The tears then coasted down his cheek despite the fact that he tried to bite them back. The room stayed completely quiet until the bell rang and fifth period was finally over.

The six of us who remained left the room with Mr. Alvarez spewing tears onto his black loafers. I thought I heard him saying “What a waste” as we left.

~ ~ ~

By the following day, all the remaining students had all been reassigned to different geometry teachers. My new teacher, Mr. Moreno, reminded me of Fozzie Bear from The Muppets. He would clap his hands together and say “Come on guys” when we misbehaved, but he brought us back to the basics of geometry—where proofs meant “Prove triangle ABC and triangle DEF are similar”.

There was a small bit of mystery to what exactly happened to Mr. Alvarez. Bruno swore he probably drank himself to death, but I held out hope that despite him obviously not fitting into the high school environment, he was off somewhere in a covered wagon, listening to seventy six trombones marching down an extremely small street.

Melinda Smoot

Melinda Smoot lives in Cypress California, where she and her husband have an ongoing war with the air conditioner temperature.  In her spare time, she enjoys karate and chasing her cat and dog around the house.  She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Creative Writing, Fiction emphasis.

08 Dec

Fiction: “In All Honesty” by Kim Venkataraman

In All Honesty
by Kim Venkataraman

Maybe it wasn’t the accident that planted the seed, although later that’s how she’d think of it. But it wasn’t an idea that grew and developed over time. No, it was as if at the moment of impact—when metal and glass exploded—Liz understood exactly how things would unfold.

Sean’s comment, forgotten now, had them all laughing in the easy way of two couples out for dinner on a warm summer night. As their car stopped at an intersection, a red convertible pulled up next to them. Later they’d all remember admiring the car, but Liz was the only one who said she’d known—even before anything happened—that something was not quite right. The four of them were still laughing when a truck slammed into the back of the stopped convertible, pushing it forward into the intersection.

        “Oh my God,” Liz said, maybe the others did too. And in that moment the evening changed, although in all honesty, it was different already. On the surface it was like many of the Saturday nights in the last few years. They’d met at Beth and Sean’s condo and had a beer on the deck while they debated where to go for dinner. Eventually they narrowed it down to either the steakhouse or the Thai place, finally leaving with a plan to decide in the car. Liz and Beth had been roommates in college, and Sean and Tom both worked at Sun Life. And while Liz and Tom had started dating first, by the time the two couples had moved into apartments near each other, there were so many ways their lives were intertwined they almost couldn’t remember who knew each other first or how they’d all become friends.

But this night was different. They hadn’t been out together for more than a month. The reason was something they all knew and yet it remained unspoken. Separately they’d talked, but as a group there seemed to be a silent agreement to pretend that everything was normal. Maybe, Liz thought as the evening began, this would be their new normal. In the last few weeks, she’d been thinking a lot about trust and how, in the end, virtually everything depends on it. We go about our lives assuming that bridges won’t crumble and that elevators will stop. We fill a glass at the sink and trust it’s safe to drink. But, yet, we know that airplanes sometimes do fall, and when we’re in our cars, sometimes the driver behind us doesn’t stop. So if it’s all about trust, what do you do when you don’t have it?

The trunk of the red convertible had been crushed, although the rest of the car looked unchanged. The silver-spoke hubcaps sparkled in the light from the streetlights; something Liz thought was odd to be noticing even as it occurred to her. As the four of them watched, the driver of the pick-up truck put it into gear and looked back over his shoulder. The truck reversed about thirty feet, its brakes screaming as it came to a stop. The whole time the man and the woman in the convertible sat stiffly in their car, staring straight ahead.

In the moments before the truck began moving again, Liz had time to consider what was happening. Maybe the truck’s brakes had failed? Maybe the driver was drunk, or maybe he was going to take off? But even before the truck began accelerating, she knew that what was happening was about love and betrayal and someone wanting to hurt someone else. For a second time the pick-up rammed into the back of the convertible. This time the truck wasn’t going as fast, but the sound was still shockingly loud, and the convertible was pushed a few feet further into the intersection. The truck looked as if it was wedged into the red car’s trunk, and for what seemed like minute after endless minute, the vehicles continued to sway from the impact.

        “Oh my God,” one of them said. Maybe they all did.

        When another car pulled up behind the truck at the intersection, Liz was reminded that what they were watching was real, not a scene from a movie. The pick-up truck was now blocked in, and she watched the driver, waiting for him to get out of the truck or go crazy and pull out a gun. She felt pressure in her throat, as if she was going to throw up. She glanced at the convertible’s occupants, who still sat immobile in their car, and then at the traffic light suspended above the road.

        “Green…the light’s green,” she said, choking on the words.

Beth reacted next. “Sean, go! The light’s green.” She reached over to push on his leg. “Go, go. Let’s get out of here!”

        And as they pulled away from the intersection, they sat in stunned silence. Liz tried to decide whether she dared to turn back to see what was happening.

        “Wow…what the hell was that?” Sean said. Which is what they were all thinking, but it was also how Liz knew that their marriage wasn’t going to survive. There was only so much pretending that any of them, especially Beth, should be expected to do. Sean turned west on Route 9 as if he knew, or had decided, where they were going.

“You know, honestly, I’m not really that hungry,” Liz said.

“Mmm,” Beth responded.

Tom reached across the backseat for Liz’s hand. “Yeah, why don’t we just call it a night?”

Sean nodded silently and, at the next intersection, turned to go back home. The tension in the car grew as they rode the rest of the way in silence, each of them knowing that, in all honesty, sometimes there’s no such thing as a new normal.

Kim Venkataraman

Kim’s short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Midway Journal, Redivider and others. She recently completed a novel, “Enough”, based on her grandfather’s experience of being orphaned at the beginning of the depression.

07 Dec

Fiction: “Matty” by Brian Paul Mendoza

by Brian Paul Mendoza

The letter was simple enough.

“Dear Sir,

I am a fifteen-year old male who thinks he might be homosexual. I was looking through the classifieds of the Washington Blade when I saw your ad. It seemed very nice and I thought I would write to you because I have a few a questions.

Thank you,


It was the “fifteen-year old” part that confused me.

Could the author of this letter really be a fifteen-year old boy? I found it highly unlikely. First of all, it was the early ‘80’s. So this was before Will and Grace. Before Ellen. Before Matthew Shepard. Before My So-Called Life. Before Pedro Zamora. Before Madonna.

Before AIDS.

These are the touchstones of contemporary gay culture in America. I mean, sure there was Liza Minnelli and Studio 54. And before that, Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots. And even before that – wait. I think I just proved that homosexuality is genetic.

No. This was 1984. And unless this kid was way ahead of his genetic make-up, my first response was the author of this letter wasn’t really born in 1969. Although quite a year for the gays it was, my figuring was that this letter stemmed from the pen of someone who liked to pretend he was born in 1969. A twistedly creative sexual deviant looking for someone to help him fulfill his role play destiny. My dirty little mind set to a wandering as I searched frantically for some stationary and a pen to respond post haste.

Hmm. Did he imagine himself a varsity football player going one-on-one with his high school coach? The wayward pupil kept after school to face his punishment in detention with the hot chemistry teacher? Perhaps he fancied himself a lone altar boy in search of the gentle guidance of a neighborhood priest. Okay. That one’s a little creepy. Especially in light of all the sexual havoc the Catholic Church has wreaked in the past twenty-five years or so. But it was the early ‘80’s.

Anatomy of a letter:

“Dear Matt,” (I figured if that’s how he signed his name, that’s how I should address the letter. As opposed to “Yo, kid!”, “Hello, sweet bird of youth” or “Oh, you who will soon be taking your SAT’s”.)

“Thanks for responding to my classified.” (I had placed a personals ad in an underground gay newspaper. This is how I figured the author was anything but fifteen. The fifteen year olds I knew were learning how to drive not seek out the advice of a lecherous older – wait. Is it considered libel or slander if I write that about myself myself? Nah. Just low self-esteem. No wonder I was placing an ad in the gay lonely hearts section).

“I think it would be great to meet you. Although I can’t read it very well, your postmark seems to indicate that we live in the same zip code.” (Practically neighbors.)

“Are you familiar with Crossroads Shopping Mall? I’m just down from there, near the dam. We could meet here, then go for dinner or grab a drink. You must have a fake id, right?” (Even if he wasn’t fifteen, I was hoping to play into his fantasy. I was kind of getting into the whole role play thing.)

“Why don’t you write me back and we can go from there?


John.” (It wasn’t my real name, but did anyone give their real name in the ‘80’s?)

I put it in the mailbox and somewhat expected never to hear from him. I mean, it was a personals ad. If he really was a sexual adventurist, surely, he must write tons of guys in the greater DC area, right? Imagine my surprise when I heard from him within the week.

“Dear John,

Thank you for writing back to me. I’m actually in the 22044 while you’re in the 22043 but I am familiar with the area. I see you live near the lake, which is right by my old school, which means, we live pretty close to one another. I would like to meet you as well. Saturdays are best for me, but Sundays are okay, too. When would be a good time?


Matty Meehan”

Nothing really stood out about this letter other than… “right by my school”!?!?

Okay. This didn’t make me nervous but, admittedly, the closest school to me was a middle school. You know, the school between elementary and high school? But something told me this was not the work of a fifteen year old. This guy, this Matty Meehan, had to mean the community college. Although nowhere near where I lived, this is the justification I fooled myself into believing. I mean, what if he was fifteen years old? But, no, that’s crazy. A fifteen year old responding to an anonymous personals ad? In the ‘80’s? That just didn’t happen.

So I wrote him back and we decided on a Saturday afternoon. This is where the story takes an unexpected turn into the realm of surrealism, so bear with me as try to parlay the afternoon’s events into something less than traumatic.

He really was fifteen.

I quickly closed the door on him because, well…he really was fifteen! And I was wearing a pair of flimsy nylon jogging shorts, and nothing else, mind you, made popular by Bruce Jenner when he gold medaled at the 1976 Olympics and graced the box of America’s breakfast of champions… Wheaties. I’m dating myself. Intentionally. For I need you to grasp how shocked I was that he was actually fifteen and I was, well… old enough that my gay fashion sense was inspired by the 1976 Olympics. In other words, I was born way before 1969. But this kid was determined. He was now ringing the doorbell. Incessantly. I couldn’t just turn him away. Not on a Saturday afternoon no matter what I was wearing. I had to invite him in.

“Do you want to come in?”

“Uh… sure. Should I tell my mom how long I’m going be first? She’s parked downstairs.”

And the clock keeps melting.

I quickly ushered him in, then volunteered to put on some clothes after offering to get him a glass of milk. I was a mess. And still am. Clearly. This is more than twenty years ago and it still makes me nervous. Finally, not quite sure what to do, I found myself staring out the sliding glass window. I could hear him kicking his feet on the base of my sofa. I had to do something.

“Do you read?”

“Well, I did write that letter.”

“Sorry. What I meant was, have you ever read anything… gay?”

“I read those gay classifieds. What does submissive pre-op trannie mean?”

“Do you want some cookies? I think I have some Mrs. Fields in the kitchen.”

“Uh. No, thanks. They might spoil my dinner.”

Spoil his dinner?! Was this kid serious? Wait — yeah. He probably was. Because that’s the kind of thing fifteen-year olds say! I suddenly realized that I was sweating. Profusely. Maybe it was the fact that I could possibly go to prison with the potential of what might happen in this room. Where the hell was this kid’s mother? Oh, that’s right. Waiting in the car. Out front!

“I have an idea. Why don’t you… finish your milk and I’ll be right back.”


I quickly made my way into the bedroom. I had to get this kid out of my apartment. And fast. Who knows what the neighbors might have seen? Now if I were fifteen and thought I was gay what the hell would I want to get my hands on besides, well… a penis? Probably reading about getting my hands on… a penis. And pictures of getting my hands, or… someone’s hands, on a penis.

There. On the nightstand. A penis. Well, not really. But there were books. About penises. Kinda’. A collection of gay short stories. A biography of Oscar Wilde. Some cheap porn. I bundled them up quickly and rushed back into the living room. Such a good boy. He’d finished his milk evidenced by the foamy substance forming on his top lip. Either that or he had rabies. Regardless, I had to get him out of my apartment because the foaminess that made up his milk moustache was most likely clinging to the peach fuzz that made him every ounce of his fifteen-year old self. This would not look good and I would not do well in prison.

I tossed the books in his general direction, grabbed the empty glass and headed straight for the kitchen. “Do you want something to uh… conceal those with? A bag or something. Matty? Matt? Matt, did you-?”

And I’ll never forget this. It’s one of those images that haunt you for the rest of your life because it was one of those images where you know you’ve changed someone’s life but you don’t know how you’ve changed their life and chances are you never will.

Sunlight streamed in from the sliding glass window. It danced on his bare legs. Get your mind out of the gutter, he was wearing shorts. But the light caught the hair on his legs as it flitted about. Yes, flitted about, like that loose mossy shit that lives on coral. Underwater coral? The kind you only learn about when you’re watching some special on the Discovery Channel? Sea Coral: The Abandoned Tenement of the Deep Blue Sea. Because, you know, everyone squats on sea coral.

Tangent aside, the kid was shaking his right leg back and forth, almost as if he were wagging something. If humans had tails to wag as opposed to asses to shake, it would have been something akin to that. He was excited. Engrossed. Energized, if you can imagine that. It was as if his whole world had suddenly become something he never imagined it ever could be. And when he looked up from the porn magazine — he hadn’t even opened it, just staring at the cover — there was so much… possibility in his eyes.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked.

How do you answer a question like that? To someone on the verge of discovering who they are. To someone about to understand what it is to be a man. To someone who you’ve just given the key to a multitude of countless broken hearts and numerous gifts of inconceivable beauty. To someone who might very well expose his soul to you and rip your heart out at the same time. To someone who, god love him, didn’t even know what to do with pornography. How do you answer a question like that?

“Uh… you’ll figure it out?”

And as quickly as possibility appeared it was replaced by unmitigated terror.

“Uh. You’ll figure it out.”

And the possibility was back. Like that. Crazy that much…muchness could hinge on nothing more than the inflection of my voice.

“You should go. Here. Put those, especially this, in this non-descript, brown paper bag. It isn’t suspicious at all.”

That was funny. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t laugh despite the irony-laden humor of putting pornography into a non-descript, brown paper bag because the boy had no idea what the fuck even pornography was! I could just feel prison peering into my apartment through the peephole. This kid had to go before my guilt got the better of me and called the police. On me.

“And then you should put that in your book bag.”

“I didn’t bring my book bag.”

“Of course, you didn’t bring your book bag why would you bring your book bag when your mother is parked in the 15-minute zone or did she find something in the garage?”

“She’s in the handicap spot. I told her she shouldn’t park there on account she isn’t handicapped but that didn’t deter her none.”

Prison was literally planning a surprise party to welcome me to the cell block.

“Then whatever you do, do not open this until you can get into the privacy of your own room, can lock the door and… figure out what to do with it. And can this please, please, please stay our little secret? You can have the books. Their yours. Do what you want with them, just… do not reveal where you got these from.”

“Okay. Thanks, mister.”

“Actually, my real — you know what? Mister is just fine.”

We were at the front door and I knew I’d never see this kid again. I couldn’t have been more relieved.

“Here let me get that for you.”

“Thanks, again.”

I closed the door, threw the bolt, then crumpled to the floor. Dramatically. I imagined myself some fierce ‘80s actress with a severe Nagel-esque blush application doing the doorframe meltdown. You know the scene I’m talking about. It’s when Meryl or Jane or Karen Black, although nowhere nearly as celebrated as Streep or Fonda, Karen Black had her moments, gets such terribly devastating news she collapses and literally melts down leaning against the door? Yeah. That scene.

Well. The knock from the police never came. The call from his mother was never placed. And the state penitentiary will never know the gifts I had to offer. So many gifts. I suppose the statute of limitations on guilt have finally – oh, wait. No. Had they lifted, I probably wouldn’t be writing this story. But I wonder. I wonder what ever happened to little Matt Meehan.

Matty. The fifteen-year old with a penchant for milk.

Brian Paul Mendoza

Brian Paul Mendoza received an Honorable Mention in a National Contest for an original radio play written for Children’s Radio Theatre produced on NPR — he was in the 7th grade. After a slight detour into the world of musical theatre performance, Brian Paul wrote his first stage play, *change at Babylon, produced by and starring Chad Allen (CBS’ “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”).

His collection of short fiction, The Gay Cycle, for which “Matty” is the first story, is a veritable gay La Ronde. Following the intersecting lives of gay men over a 25 year period, the collection opens when Matty is fifteen and questioning his own burgeoning sexuality and closes with the adult Matty, now an adult with a lifetime of love and experience and once again the Narrator of his own story.

07 Dec

Fiction: “A Sleuth of Bears” by John Brantingham

A Sleuth of Bears
by John Brantingham

Martin’s grandmother wakes him on the day he’s supposed to leave for college by shaking his big toe. “Martin,” she says. When he doesn’t open his eyes, she yells, “Marty.” She slaps him on the leg a couple of times too, something she hasn’t done in the long months since he graduated from high school.

“What?” he says. “Jesus Christ, what?”

He sits up, and she makes her eyes wide. “It’s a bear.”

The sentence doesn’t make sense, but he gets out of bed and follows her into the kitchen. Sure enough, a bear is in the backyard snuffling near the trash cans. He must have come down the alley and slipped over the chainlink fence. Maybe he was driven out of the foothills and into the city by the lack of water this year, and there are fewer blackberries or whatever it is they eat.

“It’s a killer,” she says. There’s terror in her voice, but it’s the same sham terror she gets when Martin stays out late with his friends. He’ll come home, and she’ll be awake and weeping emotional blackmail.

“No.” Martin points across to the other side of the house. “It’s a whole group of them.” Two others are over on their own near the kiddie pool that’s become a mosquito farm in the tall weeds.

“What more do they want?”

“What do you mean?”

“I gave them the leftover Chinese food and a frozen pizza, and they still want more.”

She gets that addled face again as though she actually believes this was a good idea. “Grandma, you can’t do that.” He says it as though he’s scolding a child, as though she doesn’t know it already, as though this isn’t just her game.

“No?” For a second, he wonders if she is actually delusional. Her face his weak, slack-jawed. Her skin seems be sagging and graying. “But if they eat a whole pizza, I mean a whole pizza, they should be full and leave.”

He wants to tell her to drop the stupid act, but he can’t do that to this woman who has given him a place to live these last five years. “You can’t feed bears.”

She doesn’t answer except to shake her head as though his words don’t mean anything. “Can’t you see that I need you?”

“Grandma, any time you need anything, and I’m not around, just dial 911.”

She reaches out and touches his face with her finger. “Honey, I don’t think I can live in this world alone.”

Martin turns his head to the ceiling and sighs heavily.

“Do you know what kind of labor I went through for you?”

He looks at her hands, which are massaging her fingers. He looks at her chest, which is swelling up and down.

“I was in labor for 16 hours. The doctor told me he’d never seen pain like that before. Your father left me the night you were born. He never said why, but I knew it was because he wanted a son.”

Her eyes have gone glassy with a lifetime of frustration and loss.

“Grandma?” he asks.

With that, she seems to snap back into the world. She blinks, and her mouth tightens.

In that second, he gives up on his dream of San Francisco. It’s too late to register for a university in Los Angeles, but he supposes there is always community college.

His grandmother starts to cry in a cinematic wail. “Fine,” she says. “Fine.” She stands up out of her chair and stomps into the backyard. The bears, all three of them, turn their heads to her. “Eat me,” she yells, and she steps forward with her hands raised. “Eat me, god damn you.”

For a moment, Martin flashes on San Francisco, the life he could have there, and his breath catches in the far flung hope that they will devour this woman before she consumes him. Then his grandmother screams, “Eat me,” and steps forward, and the bears hop over the fence in a terror of humans that has been bred into them over the last ten thousand years. He can see into his faraway future, how he will pay for that fleeting hope for her death with a lifetime of compromises and a wish that will ulcer his stomach through.

For now, however, he simply has this woman, standing in the mustard grass of the backyard, weeping and stomping Chinese food boxes as the bears flee her in a way that makes Martin jealous to his soul.

John Brantingham

John Brantingham’s work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has seven books of poetry and fiction. He is currently working on a collection of flash fiction pieces with Grant Hier that covers the entire history of California, and he teaches poetry and fiction at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Mt. San Antonio College.

06 Dec

Fiction: “Bacha Posh” by Meagan Noel Hart

Bacha Posh
By Meagan Noel Hart

        Her mother, Pakiza, laid a blue, flowery dress across the bed. It looked alien against her dark comforter. She did not want to wear it.

        “It’s only a suggestion, Safiya,” said Pakiza.

        “Safi,” she corrected, offering the male version of her name.

        “There’s no need for that here,” her mother said sternly. “We are in America now. Whatever you choose, we can use your given name.”

        “They don’t name boys after girls here.”

        “Safiya, you are not a boy. You were bacha posh, and you don’t have to be anymore. In Kabul this was best for our family. But even there, this was temporary. One day, honorary boy. The next day, bride. You are thirteen. Your body will make you a woman soon. It is not right to continue on in such a fashion, no matter what soil your feet are on. No bacha posh is meant to live as a man.”

        “Some have,” said Safiya very quietly.

        “Dishonorable. Living their lives in secret. Offering no offspring for their mothers, no husband. They are not meant to exist. Those that do must only out of terrible necessity. It’s punishable by death. Not a life. Not a choice.” Pakiza sat heavily on the bed, causing the dress to slide toward her some. “I admit, it is different here. America is all about choice, even bad ones. Your father wants us to embrace that, and that means allowing you to decide, but Safiya, there is only one obvious answer. Here, you can be both a woman and free.”

        Safiya bit her lip instinctively. She had always given her mother respect, even if it meant physically restraining herself. Her bottom lip was forever chapped, even in Summer. Safiya wanted to call her mother blind, blinded by the fairytales of the West. There was no denying women had more rights here than in Afghanistan, but it was foolish to say they had no restrictions. A society across the sea was still a society, and sometimes the rules not written in ink were the ones dangerous to break.

        “Give the dress to Fereshtah,” Safiya said finally.

        Her mother sighed. “You know she will not wear it. Is this my curse? To bear no sons yet have daughters who are no good as women?”

        There was a gasp from the doorway. They looked just in time to see Fereshtah’s burka disappearing down the hall.

        In bimani ast,” her mother muttered, hurrying after her other daughter.

        Safiya felt a pit in her stomach. Even in the land of choice, there was no choice.

        In Kabul, with no sons, her parents had lacked respect. Worse than that, they were pitied. Before Fereshtah, her mother had given birth to two stillborn girls. Depressing as that was, the true devastation was that they were female. When finally Fereshtah was born, Pakiza’s mother had simply said, “Well, at least this one is alive.”

        When Safiya was born, the decision to raise her as bacha posh, a girl dressed as a boy, was an easy one, and a respected one. Though no one spoke of it directly, everyone knew that even a fake boy was better than a girl. And it came with benefits. She received a better education, walked the streets freely, came and went as she pleased, helped her father with errands, escorted her sister, could work if needed, and best of all, played football. She loved football. Loved kicking the round ball as hard as she could, her blood racing, her heart pumping, her clothes filthy with the dust and grime of city streets. It was exhilarating, as if she was built for it. The real boys never guessed the truth about her in those random street games, and if they did get suggestive or nasty, as boys tend to do with one another, she would get nasty back. She had won many fights.

        It was after such a fight, less than a year ago, that her mother had told her the hard truth. Her body would make her a woman. She would live like one and become a wife. It was a fact, not a choice, but for Safiya, living with the rights of a boy was also a fact. She had been Safi since she was 3 weeks old. Even hearing her birth name, Safiya, felt foreign and unreal, but going against her parents’ wishes and the demands of her culture would be dishonorable.

        So, by day she wandered the streets of Kabul as Safi. At night, the coaching of Safiya began. “When you are a woman, you will not greet guests in such ways,” Pakiza would say. You will not eat this way. You will not walk this way. You will not run those errands. You will not say such things nor keep such friends. You must lower your laugh and avert your eyes. You must smile.

        You can rely on a salwar kameez, at least in summer, but you must learn to wear the head scarf properly. It is always falling off. Maybe it’s your hair,” Pakiza said, adjusting the scarf one evening. “When it grows out more, we can pin it.”

        That night Safiya started trimming her hair before bed, keeping it short.

        Outside, she became more aware of both men and women. She had always been aware of the obvious differences, but it was the subtle things that made her stomach churn. The comments. The glares. Both how women were acknowledged and dismissed. Once, a man made a disparaging comment about Fereshtah. As her brother, she was able to approach and threaten him with her knife while her sister stood silently back. He was at least two heads taller than her, but she pressed the blade rough against his beard, a beard she could never have. Her heart pounded, but before she could rethink her actions, the man laughed, congratulated her for being such a brash lad, and moved on. That was when she had first felt the pit in her stomach. It was only a matter of time before she could not only not defend her sister, but would take the same abuse herself.

        Then the attack happened.

        As her father’s son she was first to be contacted when he could not be, and received the full details. The perpetrators were from a village taken over by the Taliban. A man in the city had denied the marriage of his daughter to a villager. The villager’s brothers came to Kabul to find her. They mistook Fereshtah for this other girl and threw acid on her face and arms. Realizing their mistake, they attacked their original target as well. All on school property.

        These incidents were common, but having it happen to family changed everything. How could her parents expect Safiya to become a woman? Yet, how could they not? Fereshtah was no longer marriageable. Her mother refused to send her to one of the shelters for women, insisting they would be abandoned soon by the expats who funded them, and her daughter would have nowhere to go. Fereshtah, already a reserved girl, became more so, frightened to leave the house.  She did everything to hide her scars, finally resorting to wearing only burkas. Her pain was amplified by the fact that the men were never prosecuted and that no one fought for such.

        Safiya’s silent rebellions became more pronounced and began to weigh heavier on the family. She stayed out later and later playing football, avoiding her mother’s training sessions. She picked a few fights with other boys, coming home bruised and bloody but victorious.

        Then one evening, her father announced they were moving to America. He had secretly been preparing for it for some time, but Fereshtah’s attack urged him to escalate measures. They would be leaving everything they knew behind, meeting cousins in the nation’s capital, and this, he said, would give his children a chance.

        Safyia felt hopeful when she heard the rumors about equality in the West. She even practiced introducing herself in the mirror. “I am Safyia.” The name still felt bulky, but less offensive than it used to.

        They arrived to a hot American summer. Excited and jet lagged, she and Fereshtah giggled at the ridiculous sight of men in shorts and stared in wonder at the confidence and ease with which people entered motor vehicles. For two months they stayed with her fathers’ cousins while searching for their own home and while her father adjusted to his new job. It was a time to adjust for all of them, to try their feet out against this free soil. There were several daughters in the family, and at first they seemed bold and brazen, with their hair free and their every opinion rattling across their tongues, just like men, but Safiya soon recognized familiar distinctions.  These girls had lived here all their lives yet still dressed and spoke differently than the boys. Their parents were more instructive with them, more protective. When they walked down the street, men would still call out rude, obscene things. They acted as if it was normal. From what Safiya could see, these girls were not the exception, but the rule.

        While there, her parents presented her as Safi, out of habit and perhaps also fearing their transition would go poorly without a son. (Old habits and superstitions died hard.) This only highlighted the differences further. Safi was given a later curfew and asked, over the daughters, to run forgotten errands after dark. Also, she struggled to make conversation with them. Instead, these free girls, the ones her mother said she would soon be “just like,” spoke more easily with Fereshtha, even when she insisted on burkas and ignored their advice about scarves attracting more onlookers than scars.

        Safiya spent most evenings kicking a ball against the side of the house alone, finding the sweat, the dirt, and the thud, thud, thudding comforting.

        In honor of their new country, her parents had taken a new position. Being Safiya or Safi, this was her choice now because choice was American, and here, women could dress as boys and act as men without consequence. Safiya suspected otherwise, and mild research confirmed that though things were different here, people who broke norms where still met with fear and hate by many. And, the norms were clear.

        TV, radio, advertisements, and neighbors bombarded her everyday with what a woman was. Silent but bold. Sexy but chaste. Smart but in the right way. They challenged men while needing them. Pakiza’s coaching sessions had ended, but something equally overbearing and much more confusing had taken their place.

        Additionally, her parents instructed her to make the decision hers, despite how painfully clear it was what they expected.

        “In America,” her mother said the first night away from the cousins, “you can be whatever you want to be. No more pretending. You can be you, but as a woman. You can even play football. Your new school has a team just for girls.” Pakiza ran her fingers through her daughter’s short hair. “Your father and I think it is wise you decide now, before classes begin Monday. The principal says if you register as a girl, but act and dress like a boy, it may cause issues. See, they have a physical education class there. You should like that, but as a girl, you must practice that with the girls. That makes sense, yes? Now, the principal did say they could make an exception and let you play with the boys and register you as such if it is important to your, well, he said sexual identity. It is so odd, people speaking so directly about these things. Anyway, you have options. But, clearly this option he suggests is ridiculous.”

        “Why? I’ve only ever played with boys. Playing sports with girls seems more ridiculous.”

        “Having a choice is important to your father. He says it will make you both more American and help your sister distance herself from her pain. So, we must consider it. But, Safyia, right is still right. The choice is obvious.”

        Safiya said nothing then nor the next day. Now, with school beginning, a decision was necessary.

        The blue dress was a reminder of what was right.

        Safiya plucked it off the ground. It had fallen when her mother hurried after Fereshtah. She could hear her mother comforting her sister, slipping in and out of English, fighting to maintain what her father wanted, a normal newly American family, where having two girls, even a scarred one, even one who didn’t want to be one, was acceptable, normal.

        Holding it, Safiya saw now how short the dress was. No, Fereshtah could never wear this either.

        She walked to the kitchen where her father was reading. He watched silently as she dropped the dress into the trashcan.

        “The dress isn’t necessary,” he offered. “Most do not wear them regularly.”

        She shook her head. “You want me to decide. So, I have decided.”

        Safiya swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, the growing pit in her stomach finally bottoming out. She had thought on this American soil, surrounded for miles by people speaking their minds, even when it didn’t make sense or was dangerous, that making this decision would feel better. It did not. Choosing male felt like some kind of defeat. But, choosing female meant living the consequences of that defeat, and that, that would be unbearable. Trying to find something in between would only fill her life with disappointments from both sides.

        For a moment she feared he would make her explain herself

, and she doubted her words would be sufficient for the things she was feeling.

        Instead he nodded. Not approval but acceptance. “I will notify the school.”

        She stayed still.

        “And inform your mother.”

        Still, she did not move.

        “Thank you, Safi.”

        That was what she had been waiting for. To hear his confirmation in her name. The only name that felt right.

        She returned to her room, shutting the door behind her. This was not the easier choice. She knew that. The American boys would not be kind once they found out.

        But, boys she could handle.

Meagan Noel Hart

Meagan Noel Hart is a  lover of stories who’s been chasing the truth through fiction all her life. She mainly writes flash fiction of varying genres, but occasionally produces a poem or essay. Her work has been included in Mothers Always Write, Everyday Fiction, and Welter, and will be included in the Writers Workout’s 72 Hours of Insanity in 2017. She has three collections of work, Twisted Together, Whispers & Fangs, and A Short Stack of Silly Shorts for the Morally Sidetracked. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, two rambunctious but lovable sons, and a house full of fur-babies. By day, you can find her teaching English at Stevenson University.   

05 Dec

Fiction: “The Afterlife” by Lena Zaghmouri

The Afterlife
by Lena Zaghmouri

It shouldn’t have surprised Kareem that his friend and former neighbor, Faris, had a heart attack last night. Kareem didn’t know much about his health, but Faris was over seventy and had just endured a trying decade: caring for a mentally ill brother and a mother undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

The manic outbursts from Faris’ brother and the pained ones from his mother often frightened Kareem’s young children. At night and during the day. The three of them would huddle under the tables or in their parents’ bed when a gut-wrenching cry or a blaring fit would break through the walls.

Kareem imagined that those outbursts must have frightened them more now that he didn’t live at home anymore, but they never mentioned anything during the weekends they spent at his two bedroom apartment.

But now they wouldn’t be scared anymore: Faris’ mother had passed a few months ago, and his brother would have to be sent to an institution because there was no family left to care for him.

And there was no family fit to perform the ghusl, or cleansing, of Faris’ body before his burial.

So the imam offered the honor to Kareem, who accepted dutifully.

He called in to work and met with the imam a few hours before in his small office at the mosque. Kareem tried his hardest to keep his hands folded and his feet still while they spoke. He hadn’t been in the mosque much in the four months since his wife changed the locks and threw his belongings on the front lawn; he figured it was best to let people discuss his broken home without fear that he would walk up and interrupt their conversations.

“Faris was your good friend?” the imam asked hesitantly as if it that was the uncomfortable matter to broach.

Kareem nodded. “Yes, of course.” But he wasn’t so sure he would define his connection to Faris that way; Kareem had only moved to this town two years ago to begin his career as a pharmacist. Faris’ house was the only one with more tension and resentment than Kareem’s, whose marriage had begun to disintegrate well before he had moved his family here, and the two men often used Kareem’s garage as a short respite from their homes. Faris had been a mechanic before he retired, and he would tinker with the engine of Kareem’s car while they discussed things like politics and their adolescent years back home in Palestine, which had been separated by a full generation. Anything but the lives they had right now.

The imam suggested they begin the ghusl soon; the funeral would only be in a few hours. He stood and led Kareem down the corridor to a separate room. “We’ll wash him together,” the imam promised as he opened the door to the room that held Faris’ body.

Kareem braced himself before looking so that he wouldn’t gasp or choke. He had seen many dead bodies in his childhood and early adult years back in Palestine, but it was a crushing experience each time. Besides, his fifteen years in the United States had softened him to such things; the threat of death was so much fainter here than it was back home.

But seeing Faris’ body wasn’t as horrifying as those he saw in the rubble back home who were often bloodied, mangled, and so young. Faris’ skin now was a slightly paler gray than his eyebrows and chest hair, but some of the lines on his forehead and around his mouth seemed to have disappeared, making him look closer to Kareem’s age than his own.

The imam wasn’t as serene, though. He stood more than two feet away from Faris’ body, and the color had drained from his smooth face. “I’ll let you do this,” he said as he rushed out. “Brother Faris would want a friend to do this.”


Kareem never thought that washing an adult body could take so much time and energy. It was different than bathing his children, who were squirmy as babies and loved to splash the water all over him and the bathroom floor; Faris’ limbs were still and heavy, and his skin was so thick and tough that it seemed like no amount of soap and water could clean it. Once Kareem had dried him off and wrapped him in a white cloth, the muscles in his arms and back burned from the effort of maneuvering Faris’ weight.

The imam had returned by then, his solemn composure regained, and offered Kareem a seat in a small folding chair next to the table that held Faris’ body. He took it, slumped and quietly panting. “Faris is with Allah, brother,” the imam said with his hand on Kareem’s shoulder. “You must make wudu to be clean before God.”

Kareem dragged himself up the flight of stairs to the washing sinks in the men’s bathroom. He scrubbed his hands, feet, and calves intensely, noticing how much lighter live flesh felt in his grip.

He inhaled deeply as he filled his cupped hands from the faucet, drinking in the air around him, and he only faintly felt the tears falling from his eyes when he doused his face with the warm water.

Lena Zaghmouri
is a fiction writer.

Lena Zaghmouri’s writing has been published in Sinister Guru, KNOT Magazine, The San Joaquin Review, and Sukoon. She has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her story “Al Walad” and was shortlisted for the OWT Fiction Prize; she has pieces forthcoming in Pulp Literature and First Wednesday Journal. She is currently working on her first novel.

07 Nov

Fiction: Leave It At The Altar by Jasmine Wade

Leave It At The Altar
By Jasmine Wade


Planning dates with my boyfriend Henry was always an ordeal. For one: he never showed up anywhere on time. So, a show or movie was out of the question. Two: our illnesses combined were like a herd of cows blocking the road to Normal Dateland. He suggested an action movie, a concert, and crowd watching at Fisherman’s Wharf. None of those were viable options because of my hallucinations. I suggested nachos and drinks at a local bar which he couldn’t do because of his bipolar medications and their oh so pleasant side effects.

This sort of thing was not an issue when we met. We had both been in a psychiatric hospital hidden in a wooded, secluded part of Northern California (civilization was at least 20 miles away). Paramedics wheeled me in on a stretcher. Joey stayed by my side while the nurse gave me a tour and took my bra (“The underwire is dangerous, dear”) and deodorant (“because of an incident with an alcoholic”).

Henry was the first fellow patient to talk to me. He was about my height (short for a guy, tall for a girl) and wore the same blue Cal hoodie the whole week he was hospitalized. His brown baldhead shined under the fluorescent lights. I tugged at my hair, which desperately needed a relaxer, and tried to look somewhat presentable.

“What are you in for?” he asked.

For a second, I thought about lying and saying something less stigmatized like depression or anxiety, but something about his smile made me want to be honest. “Schizoaffective disorder. Meds stopped working. You?”

“Whoa, schizoaffective. That’s schizophrenia plus bipolar, right?” He held a hand over an open mouth. I nodded. “I’m just regular old bipolar. Went off my meds.”

“Naughty boy.”

He chuckled, and the fat of his belly jiggled like it was laughing too.

That was three years ago. I’d managed to stay out of the hospital since then. Being healthy involved a balancing act between my two boyfriends: Henry and my illness. Both required respect, attention, loyalty, and tenderness. The madness was more demanding. It decided where I went, what I did, and who I did it with. If I stepped out of line, didn’t give it the attention or care it felt it deserved, I was punished with visions of pedestrians on the road where there were none or creepy crawlers on the walls, the ceiling, my skin. It was abusive but there was no breaking up, no moving away, no hiding.

But still, I dreamed of a normal boyfriend and a normal romance. That life would be like a really boring movie, but we would be enthralled with it and each other. Normal life (house, marriage, maybe a kid or two or three) was the altar, and I was the pilgrim walking many miles to get there. My illness, however, put up road blocks and detours to make the journey seem endless and the destination impossible. Henry was my golden ticket. Because he had a mental illness too, we’d be more understanding of each other and make better caretakers. He would take my life to the next level.

Joey plopped next to me on the couch. He tossed his leather jacket on the floor and flexed his chest muscles under his white tee. “Why don’t you just stay in? Order Chinese and watch a movie on Netflix.”

That’s what we always did, and I was sick of it.

“Then, go out the next morning to some public place. Like the Botanical Gardens. That shouldn’t be crowded on a weekday morning.” I stared into Joey’s eyes. The blue of his irises and the white skin of his eyelids were blurred slightly, my clue that he was a hallucination. But, in that moment, he was also kind of brilliant.

“How about we stay in tomorrow night?” I suggested to Henry. “We can order Thai and watch that World War II movie you wanted to see. I have to work the next day but the day after that, we can go to the Botanical Gardens.”

“Sounds perfect. And maybe over the weekend, we can drive up to see the Redwoods and walk along the beach.”

“I’d love that.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow at six.”

Six o’clock came and went with no Henry. I practiced pitches for the arthritis medications I sold to doctors during the day. I went over the index cards I kept in my car. Dr. Herman was a big fan of Crossfit, so I would mention the squat challenge I did the month before. Dr. LaSalle hated exercise junkies, so I would bring the double fudge cookies from the bakery she liked. Dr. Harbinger did a juice cleanse during the second week of every month, so I’d scrap the treats for that visit and bring detox tea instead. Dr. Singh’s daughter was preparing to go off to college, so I would be extra sympathetic and bring apple tarts. I went over the science behind the medication until I could pronounce all the terms perfectly.

I worked until ten o’clock and then started my nighttime routine: meds, bedtime yoga positions, herbal tea, and a book. I curled under my covers and tried to focus on the words on the page and not my irritation that Henry didn’t show up. (I was really looking forward to sexy time.) Part of me was used to it. He was a freelance photographer. When he was healthy, he traveled the world taking photos. When he wasn’t, he stayed at his mom’s house in Oakland. I didn’t know if it was his personality or his job, but he had this idea that he could sweep in and out of my life whenever he pleased. It upset me, and it upset my other boyfriend, the madness, who needed a predictable routine to lull it into dormancy.

As the meds and tea began to work their sleepy time magic, statistics ran through my mind. An old psychiatrist once told me, sixty percent of schizo-types functioned at a diminished capacity. They were greeters at grocery stores and had family or the state taking care of them. Ten percent were institutionalized, unable to leave hospitals without a judge’s approval. Ten percent were dead at their own hands. And twenty percent were out and about, holding down jobs and attempting to blend into mainstream society. I was one of the fortunate twenty percent, but that wasn’t guaranteed to last for the rest of my life. If I messed up badly enough, I could have another psychotic break and get knocked down to diminished status. I’d gone over these statistics a million times.

Similar racial statistics and their accompanying mantras—Talented Tenth, twice as good—were the rope at the end of a finish line that kept moving. And yet, I kept trying.

At three ‘o clock in the morning, loud booming knocks hit my front door with an impatience I could feel under my covers.

“Someone’s at the door, sugar pie,” Joey said. He stretched his legs from the papasan chair in the corner of my bedroom, as if he was also waking up.

I paused for a second, thinking maybe the knocks weren’t real. I froze, my head just an inch away from the satin pillowcase. The knocks came again, so loud and impatient I was sure the neighbors would wake. The cold air hit my feet first when I threw the blankets off of my body. Something’s wrong, I thought. As I walked to the front door, images of fires, earthquakes, freak tornadoes in San Francisco whirled through my mind. I imagined the end of the world. (Assassins also entered my mind for an instant, but what assassin rings the doorbell?)

I peeked through the peephole and flung the door open when I saw who it was. “Henry? What are you doing here?”

I took a good look at him. His eyes drooped, and he wasn’t moving like himself. He seemed slower, heavier.

“My mom kicked me out.” His voice trembled. “We had another fight. She said she’s tired of playing caretaker or some nonsense. She’s too old or whatever. I’m too much or something. I don’t really want to talk about it.” He sniffed.

“So…” The unspoken question hung in the air. I needed him to ask me, especially when I saw the two large suitcases and duffel bag sitting on my porch.

“Can I stay here for a few days? Just until I can find some other place to rent.”

“Just a few days?” I imagined my other boyfriend roaring with rage. Moving in? It would destroy my routine. But Henry was my actual boyfriend, accompanying me to the Altar of Normal. (Plus, moving in was a super adult move, right? Definitely something normal people did.)

Henry blinked back tears. ” I’m so tired. I think I need a day to rest. Or two days. Two days to rest and then two days to find a place.”

It didn’t feel right. But what could I say except, “Okay, baby, come on in.”

He pulled his suitcase right to my bedroom, threw his stuff onto Joey’s chair, and then crawled into bed on my side.

I watched Henry fall asleep almost immediately–something I had only known men to do.

Joey zipped his leather jacket up to the middle of his chest and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You should have talked to me about this first.”

“This is what adult couples do. They move in together,” I whispered.

“He’s not like you.”

“I know him better than any other guy I’ve dated.”

Joey snorted. “Yeah, all three of them?”

“Shut up.” He was right though. I’d been on more medications than dates. (Shit, I’d been hospitalized more times than I’d had orgasms of the non-vibrating variety.)

A shadow passed on the wall as Henry rolled over. “Who are you talking to?” he mumbled. He didn’t stay awake long enough for me to answer.

I crawled into bed next to Henry and tried not to toss and turn even though I couldn’t sleep. Just when I closed my eyes and began to drift into dreamland, my alarm blared. I caught it as quickly as I could and started going through the motions of my morning routine. When I got back to my bedroom after a shorter run than usual, Henry was awake, still in bed, and staring at the ceiling.

“Come get back in bed,” he said in a pitiful, whiny voice.

“I can’t stay with you. I have to go to work.”

“Come on, play hooky.”


I peeled off my running clothes and hopped in the shower. The water–as hot as I could stand it–beat against my skin. I had to stick to my routine. I couldn’t play hooky. The potential for chaos in my mind was so great that my world had to be as orderly as I could make it.

I stood before my closet in just my lace panties, wondering if the sight of my almost naked self would get Henry out of bed. He didn’t seem to notice. I put on my tan skirt suit and pink blouse. In the kitchen, I made a kale, strawberry, and blueberry smoothie with almonds. Half went in a travel cup, and the other half went in a glass for Henry.

“I’m leaving,” I said as I placed his glass on the end table next to him.

He mumbled something.

“Pull the blanket away from your face so I can hear you, please.” I add the please a second late.

“I feel heavy.”

“Are you depressed?”

His body moved under the blanket in what looked like a shrug. “Probably.”

“Then, you need to get up.”

I knew mental illness demanded that I do the opposite of what my brain told me to do. If my brain told me to trust what I saw, I had to be a little suspicious. Henry’s brain was telling him to sleep all day. He needed to do the opposite.

“Go for a walk,” I said. “Head down to that grocery store you like and pick up some veggies to go with dinner.”

“Goddammit, Dawn.” He kicked at me from under the covers.

I walked out of the room without saying another word. I tried to remind myself of all the things I liked about Henry. He was smart, funny, and sweet. He never showed up on time, but when he did show up, he usually had flowers or something else to make me smile. He thought it was cute that I had a flat screen TV mounted on my living room wall even though I didn’t watch TV. (I liked the way it added to the decor of the room.) I needed to be patient with him. After all, if the roles were reversed, if my madness were out to play, I would want him to be patient with me.

We were a perfect match. We would take turns playing caretaker. Give a little, get a little. I told myself this over and over as I drove to the VA Medical Center in Oakland. By the time I pulled into their parking lot, I had calmed down.

Men in wheelchairs and on canes hung out in the grassy area outside the main doors. I nodded and smiled at them as I walked in, even though my stomach twisted in knots. All the pain in their faces and their bodies made me feel like my samples of arthritis medication were insignificant. Inside the lobby, my heels clacked against the orange tile.

There was no one at reception. I looked around and a middle aged woman walked up wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard. She was dark-skinned with a cheerful, round face. “Hello,” she said. “How may I help you?”

I held out my hand to shake hers. “I’m Dawn, a rep from Mantex Pharmaceuticals. I’m here to give some samples to Dr. Herman.”

Instinct told me to look her up and down, but instead my mind wandered to what Henry was doing. I hoped he had at least moved from the bed to the couch to watch Netflix on his laptop.

“Oh, Dr. Herman just went into a meeting with all the other doctors. I’m on my way there now. I’d be happy to drop off the samples.” She reached out her hand. “Unless you needed to talk to him?”

Henry needed to snap himself out of his depression before it got more intense. There was a way to head these things off. Didn’t he know that? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? “No, no,” I said to the woman. “I mean, talking to him would be ideal, but if he’s in a meeting, I’ll call him later and make an appointment.”

“Great. I’ll take the samples to him.” The woman stepped a little closer, her smile widened.

I stared at her for a moment longer than was appropriate. Something didn’t feel right. “Thank you,” I said as I handed her the bag. Maybe I could convince Henry to cook some comfort foods with me. Mashed potatoes. Fried chicken.

The woman took the bag and shuffled down the hall. I started to walk back through the lobby towards my car. Maybe I could convince Henry to go to a movie with me. Or sex! Sex was good for depression, right? (Although I wasn’t sure how it would impact his man parts.)

Just before I walked back out the front doors of the clinic, I looked over my shoulder at the woman who took the samples. Damn, I should have gotten her name. New doctor meant new contact and new index card. I was off my game. She was pretty far away, but her shoes looked awfully comfortable, like slippers. I stared at her feet as they moved farther and farther down the hallway. She was probably wearing some comfortable brand of loafers.

Back in my car, I pulled out of the clinic parking lot. As I approached a red light, a green hatchback appeared in front of me. I slammed on the breaks wondering where the hell the car came from. The silver car behind me laid on the horn. I glanced in the rearview mirror. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I muttered. When I looked back in front of me, a second later, the green car was gone. I looked in all the lanes–no green car. The light was still red. Down the streets, back in the rearview mirror–no green car. I froze. The light turned green, and I didn’t move.

The green car was a hallucination. Not too bad, it happened from time to time. But it got me wondering about the woman at the clinic. Was the clipboard she was holding a little blurry? Was the white coat slightly out of focus? Who did I give the samples to?

“You should go back and check,” Joey said from the backseat.

“No, that would make things worse.”

“You gotta do something to cover your ass.”

The silver car honked again, and the world came back into focus. I moved through the intersection just as the light turned yellow.

I debated going back, but it would be worse for me to go back and admit I gave samples to a hallucination, right? Instead, maybe no one would even know I was there, and I could schedule an actual appointment with Dr. Herman. Or maybe I could say I gave them to an orderly whose name I didn’t catch. Either way, I had options.

I was about to go pick up some food to take to the next doctor on my list, but I realized I left the other packs of samples at home. I sped back and ran up the driveway as fast as I could in heels. I prayed Henry was at least sitting up.

I didn’t notice the blood at first. I tracked it halfway down the hallway before I noticed my shoes were sticking to the floor. I turned around and almost screamed at the sight of bloody footsteps. I recognized my small shoe-shaped prints in the blood, but there were larger prints with red toes on my hardwood floor.

“Henry?” I followed the bloody toes through the hallway to the entrance of my bedroom. The door was closed.

Joey breathed on my neck. He reached his white hand toward the doorknob, and I followed with my brown hand.

The trail of blood led from the door to the bed, where Henry was a lump under the covers.

“What happened? Are you hurt?”

He poked his head out. “Everything hurts.”

“I know, baby, I know.” I sat at the foot of the bed, wishing I could see under the covers, unsure of how to get him out of his cocoon. “But there’s blood on the floor. Where are you hurt?”


I reached up and started to pull the covers away.

Henry’s hand flew near my face and dragged the covers back. I propelled myself backward, trying not to get hit.

I passed the green smoothie, untouched, on the nightstand as I left the bedroom.

Glass crunched under my feet when I stepped into the kitchen. My mouth opened and closed as I searched for words and breath. Every dish in my cupboards was on the floor in a heap of broken glass. Blood mixed in with the shattered pieces and trailed out of the kitchen.

Joey came in behind me. The glass didn’t crunch under his feet. “This, my dear, is what we call a 5150 kind of situation.”

A 5150 involved a call to the police, who would come and investigate the situation. They would inevitably deem Henry “a danger to himself or others” and cart him off in handcuffs to the nearest hospital for a psych evaluation. He would ride in the back of the cop car, sliding around the seat with every turn, unable to brace himself because his hands would be cuffed behind his back. He would be “escorted” into the hospital, with anyone watching unable to distinguish him from a criminal. He would be forced to disrobe down to his underwear in front of the cops and bear the cold, sterile hospital air in just a gown. The cops would tell the nurses to chain him to a bed and station a guard outside the door. It was humiliating. (Believe me, I knew.) It was the sort of thing that damaged the soul, and would definitely damage a relationship. I could not convince my black self to call the cops on my black boyfriend just because he broke my dishes.

I rushed back to the bedroom. The smell of decaying fruit hung in the air. But my nose adjusted after a few seconds.

“Henry, we have to talk. Do you know what my kitchen looks like right now?”

He rolled over so he was facing my direction even though his head was still under the covers. “It was an accident.”

He accidentally broke all my dishes?

“The first one was. An accident, I mean. I’m not sure what happened after that.”

“Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“I’m between treatment teams.”

“The whole team?” We were marching into dangerous territory. No treatment team meant no therapist, no psychiatrist, no professional support.

He poked his head out. His eyes were red. “I can get better on my own. I just need time. You know how this is. Sometimes you just have to ride it out.”

The smoothie on the table had begun to separate into its different elements. The green of the kale sank to the bottom while the oil from the almonds rose to the top.

“Can I look at your feet?” I said in my sweetest voice. I tried to channel the psychiatric nurses, who have amazing abilities to get uncooperative patients to follow orders. “I want to help you.”

I pulled the comforter up from the bottom. Mental note: remake bed.

Streaks of blood dripped down the sheets and the bed skirt onto the floor. Henry’s feet were covered in blood in varying degrees of dryness. It was caked between his toes. It oozed from cuts on the balls and soles of his feet. Shards of glass jutted from at least a dozen places on each foot.

“You don’t feel this?”

“I don’t feel much of anything.”

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. (Did he really have to be so dramatic?) Impatience returned with Joey, who sat in the chair in the corner. The smell from the sour smoothie returned, and I caught a whiff with every breath.

I needed to get the glass out of Henry’s feet before it got infected. I grabbed tweezers from the bathroom.

I pushed the tweezers into his skin on either side of a shard of glass and pulled. The tweezers screeched against the glass, like nails on a chalkboard, but it didn’t move. I moved to a bigger piece. Slowly, the glass separated from flesh. A trickle of blood flowed from the open wound.

Joey had moved a little closer. “Hmm. Gauze?”

The blood dripped onto the sheets and then onto the floor. Mental note: clean floor.

I ran out of the room, slamming the door behind me, and sprinted toward the kitchen. I tiptoed over the glass, grabbed my first aid kit and my hot pink toolbox from under the sink, and ran back to the room.

The stink of the smoothie smacked me in the face when I opened the door, but I didn’t stop. The kale had separated from the red and blue of the berries. I’d never been more disgusted by the color green. The bedroom felt like it had shrunk to half its original size.

My heart pounded. In the back of my mind, I heard my therapist telling me to slow down, take a break, relieve some of the stress. But I couldn’t. Henry needed me to get the glass out of his feet.

My phone rang. I panicked, knowing it was work. They were undoubtedly wondering why I had missed the rest of my meetings. Or maybe it was about the VA Center. Nausea turned my stomach (the smell plus anxiety was a bad gastrointestinal mix).

I focused with a set of hot pink pliers on one of the small pieces near the ball of Henry’s top foot. My hands shook too much to get a good grip. My brain felt like it was swelling, pressing against the edges of my skull. I was getting overloaded. I leaned back, shook my head, and felt a drop from the ceiling land right on my forehead. Just as I looked up to see where it came from, another drop hit my eye. I wiped my eye and saw paint swirling around on the ceiling, as if a large child had finger painted up there. The greens swirled with the blues and reds. Drops of paint fell and landed on me, dotting my tan suit jacket.

The pressure in my brain intensified. I took a deep breath and peeled my suit jacket off and tried to concentrate on Henry’s feet. My madness was awake and roaring. I’d upset the delicate balance of my brain chemistry. My illness collided with Henry’s in my tiny bedroom, and it was hard to breathe. I knew I needed to take a step back, let my brain heal, keep from going too far, and prevent getting knocked down to diminished status. I would rest after I handled Henry’s feet.

I pulled out a couple more shards of glass and glanced over at the untouched smoothie. The kale seemed darker, like it was rotting. My stomach heaved.

I extracted piece after piece of glass out of Henry’s right foot. The sheets would be soiled forever. Mental note: Toss sheets.

I pulled and plucked until there was just one shard left. It was tiny and hidden right in the soft tissue of his arch. I leaned forward, gripping his ankle with one hand. My face was just inches away from the glass, which was getting harder to see as the sun began to set. I pushed the points of the pliers into Henry’s foot and didn’t grab the glass the first time around. It was like those carnival games with the claw and some nice, shiny, unattainable toy sitting in the bin. Henry groaned. I pushed the pliers back in. Henry screamed, jerked his foot up, and kicked me right in the face.

I fell off the bed, stunned. I felt my face. The glass left in his foot had scratched my cheeks, chin, and nose. I couldn’t tell my blood from Henry’s blood from the “paint” on the ceiling.

Joey crouched in front of me. Neither of us said anything for awhile.

My cell phone rang again. It was my boss Larry’s special ring tone. I wondered if it was about the VA Center.

How was this my life? Covered in blood, sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a sick man who doesn’t seem to want to do anything to make himself better. And all my dishes were broken. Mental note: buy new dishes.

“This isn’t working,” I told Joey.

Joey tapped his thigh. “You’re already in relationships.”

He was right. I was stuck in the miserable relationship with my illness. Henry had his own extra girlfriend. Maybe we couldn’t all be in the bed together. There wasn’t enough room. The road to the Altar of Normal had cracked, bent, warped and it felt like my brain was following suit.

Henry and I couldn’t be together anymore. A familiar ache—loneliness, fear—grew in my chest. I had planned out the whole normal life with Henry (house, marriage, kids, dogs). The collapse of the plan ushered in a panic that my life would never be what I wanted, that I would never have someone, that my madness would always be my closest companion.

“Focus,” Joey commanded.

And so, I did.

Mental notes: Call Larry and tell him I took a sick day. Call Dr. Herman and make an appointment. Get the glass out of Henry’s other foot. Make dinner. Buy more kale.

Throw away the smoothie.

The smell assaulted my nose as soon as my thoughts turned to the smoothie. I grabbed it and stomped toward the kitchen. I forgot about the broken glass and winced when I stepped on it. The glass fell out of my hand and smashed against the tile. The green liquid mixed with the red and white checkers of my kitchen floor.

Clean up the smoothie. Take the sheets of the bed. Clean up the glass in the kitchen. Get the blood out of the rug in the bedroom.

My phone ran again. Larry was calling.

I wanted to scream. I opened my mouth and the walls of the kitchen bent inward. I closed my mouth and the walls bounced back to their original place. I blinked once and then again, harder.

“I’m done,” I said aloud.

Trembling, I found my cell phone in my briefcase by the front door. I went to my living room and curled my feet under me on the couch. I dialed 911.

“Hello? Yes, I would like to…I need a…” My breath caught in my throat, and the tears started to come. “My friend…” He’d been reduced to that. He was no longer lover, boyfriend, hopes for normalcy, plans for a good life, golden ticket. “My friend is bipolar, and I can’t help him. Can you send someone?”

Jasmine Wade
is a fiction writer.
Jasmine Wade is obsessed with the ridiculous, and oftentimes traumatic, trials of growing up. Her short stories have appeared in Drunken Boat, TAYO Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Copperfield Review and others. She is an alumna of VONA/Voices and Mills College’s MFA program. She has won the 2016 Edward P. Jones Short Story Contest and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award for College Writers. When she’s not writing, she’s usually buying or reading more used books than she has space.

06 Nov

Fiction: “Interview” by Jonathan Harper

by Jonathan Harper


Of course it’s him.

It takes only a second to cycle through the rolodex of my mind and match the name with the face. Stanley. Jones. Name as bland as the gray suit he wears. I stammer, I almost tangle my feet.

“Danny?” He says my name like it’s up for debate. In another life, I would have simply walked out of the room.

We stand in his fancy office, windows overlooking the bustle of K Street. He’s done well for himself: the executive desk, framed degrees, the plastic plants. All the signs point to the level of upper-management where you’ve been successful enough to just coast by the rest of your career. Stan’s got that pleasantly plump build, his face soft and his hair fully grey. He looks like somebody’s dad. On his desk sit a trio of picture frames featuring his wife and children. They arch out like a ward against evil.

“Jesus, Danny. It’s really you, isn’t it?” He thrusts his hand at me and I hesitate before shaking it. “I had no idea!”

Who’s he trying to fool? I’m here for a job interview and my resume is spread eagle on his desk. It clearly lists where and when our paths have crossed.

“You look great,” he gushes. “Haven’t changed a bit.”

Liar. I’m thicker in the gut with a receding hairline and crow’s feet. My blazer is borrowed. And ill fitting. I got a tattered JanSport backpack holding my portfolio: over a decade’s worth of web designs and marketing kits and anything else I could think to throw in. I don’t just want this job. I need this job and I’m trying not to show it.

We’re still shaking hands after several seconds, like a test of willpower to see who will let go first. Stan’s face is jubilant. “Do you still keep in touch with the others?” he asks. The corner of his mouth starts to twitch while I try to guess which names he wants to hear. “Didn’t think so,” he says. “That’s a shame. We’re lucky if we find a group like that once in our lives.” Then comes the silence. He let’s go of my hand. “So, what have you been up to all these years?”

I hand him my portfolio, take my seat, and watch him toss it aside. “Straight to business. I like that,” he says.

The way he acts would make you think this interview was just a formality. He starts with the most banal questions: Where do I see myself in five years? How do I overcome challenges in the workplace? He feeds me each answer. The design department, he assures me, is self-sufficient. It just needs a manager to ensure deadlines are met. My portfolio remains untouched.

The way Stan speaks is rehearsed and phony and full of generalizations. Soon, he quits asking questions altogether, talks about the company like it’s one of those ominous evil corporations straight from an 80’s sci-fi flick. And he’s just one of the henchmen. When it’s obvious he’s lost my attention, he knocks on his desk to bring me back in. His hands are large, well manicured nails with age spots around the knuckles.

To think, he used to make my cry with those fingers.


My last vivid memory of Stan, eighteen years ago: he was spit-roasting me with another one of his chums in the back of the Greenpeace outpost. I was sprawled over a table among random papers and Styrofoam cups, the three of us sweaty and stoned and out of our minds.

“I’m doing this for the planet!” I hollered and both of them laughed before they put me back to work.

This was back during my political days, when I was a twenty-four year-old professional intern, ready to get elbow deep in whatever cause would take me on. This was when Stan was a bushy-haired organizer, a guy who knew how to motivate. His friend – another one of the foot soldiers, the kind who rotated in and out whenever it was convenient.

Back then, every week was about signature collections and databases and long strings of credit card numbers. I never knew what became of all this data. I started in Stan’s office because I needed work experience and a reason to live in the city. I stayed because of the people and the drugs and because together, we were humanity’s last stand against environmental annihilation. How many nights did I spend in the break room, talking about carbon emissions and big business schemes, conspiring against the enemy and “motivating” the allies. I thought, as long as we didn’t save the world, this could go on forever.


The job interview doesn’t just end, it fades out slowly. Before I know it, Stan is talking about the good old days, lamenting the loss of lower rents and the late night parties. But what he really means is he misses his youth. I was once part of it. He wants to know when I became a graphic designer? Where am I living these days? Do I still go out to the bars on 17th Street?

“Tell me something,” he says. “Something dangerous and true.”

I say, “The oceans are rising at a current rate of 3.3 millimeters per year.”

He pauses and forces a chuckle. That’s no longer his department. “Oh we had fun back in those days. Now it’s just work, work, work.”

I look back at the family photos: the two little boys in matching bow ties and monstrous grins. The wife looks … sweet. I grimace. It’s involuntary.

“You know I can’t hire you,” Stan says. His voices dips back to that cold informality that years ago I grew to detest. He’s not supposed to say that. “I’m not supposed to say that,” he says. “But I don’t want to string you along. The thing is I see you as a doer, not a manager. You understand that, right?” He gives that tilted-head sorry look, because I should have understood the moment I walked through his door. “We do take on freelance work. I can send your portfolio to the marketing department.”

He wants me to stay seated, to barter for the job. Just like I did when the internship ended. That was a terrible day. He sent me home, back to Kansas City, without so much as a letter of recommendation. Now, I don’t take the bait.

All I can do is let it roll off me with a shrug and explain that I have enough freelance work. But what I want to tell him is that I need the health insurance, the 401K, all the stability I should have had while doing the odd jobs that people like him leave unfinished.

“There’s a happy hour next week. You should come with me. I’ll introduce you to a few people. Sometimes, it’s all about who you know.” Asshole. He knew what he just said. “Let’s talk about it over drinks. My treat.”

He extends his hand again. I do not take it, but then I do. He’s all transactional, ugly and charming.

“I could use a guy’s night out,” he says. “Just like the good old days.”

I’m sure we remember the good old days very differently. For me, they were full of men like Stan, who believed compromise equaled defeat, so they set the bar low enough so they wouldn’t have to do it. They were the ones who hired me, used me like a sponge and sieve for their momentary fascinations, each one ending up as a trophy line on my resume. When I shake Stan’s hand, I feel all of them there asking in unison, “Didn’t we use to play together?” As opposed to work.

They are like children to me now.

Jonathan Harper
is the author of the short story collection Daydreamers (Lethe Press), which was a Kirkus Review’s Indie Book of the Year for 2015. His writing has been featured in such places as The Rumpus, The Rappahannock Review, Chelsea Station, and in numerous anthologies including The Best Gay Stories series. Visit him online at jonathanharper.com

13 Jul

Fiction: Fireflies by Nicole Sharp

by Nicole Sharp

Fireflies blink on and off in the overgrown Spanish moss trees outside my bedroom window. My brother used to tell me that if I ever got lost, all I had to do was find the fireflies that winked and blinked in the long green hair of my trees. He told me that the fireflies would be my own personal beacons of home.

When I was younger. When I sat on the front porch with my grandmother who told stories of her childhood. When my skin stayed sticky in the height of the summer months. When I had faith in my widowed father who liked to bring his dates home. When life was a perfect blend of all these things, I had faith in my fireflies.

Daddy’s found a wife since then, since I was younger. Actually, he found himself three wives since then. They were all the same. They loved him at first, smiled at him in the mornings over the kitchen table. With grandma sitting next to me, her head bowed in prayer, I watched the looks between my daddy and his new wives. They loved him at first. They would smile, unashamed about the night noises that banged and screamed from daddy’s room. Daddy used to stare at the red lipstick painted on his new wife and lick his lips like he could taste it.

“Amen,” Grandma would say. We’d all eat biscuits and gravy and grits with a lake of melted butter in the middle.

When grandma died we’d eat Captain Crunch or peanut butter toast or leftovers for breakfast. Grandma never taught me how to cook. I go to the grocery store and don’t know what to buy. The shiny wrappers look more appealing than the stacks of earth tones in the produce section. I buy the shiny packages. No one complains. But most of the time I miss steamy grits with a lake of butter and heavenly biscuits.

Doreen, who laughed like a frightened bird, was daddy’s first wife. After mama, so I guess Doreen was really daddy’s second wife. Carla, who chain smoked cigarettes in her bathrobe while sitting in the kitchen, was his third wife. Tammi, with an ‘i’, who rearranged the living room furniture every afternoon, was his fourth wife. I didn’t like any of them. What they thought of me I didn’t much care. We passed each other like strangers on a street.

Daddy spends most of his nights back at the bars now, looking for a fifth wife. I sometimes wish he’d bring home one that could cook grits the right way.

Somewhere in between the second wife and the third wife, grandma died. We put her in the back yard in a pine box daddy and my brother built. We could have buried her in the cemetery, but that wasn’t how my people did things. That’s what daddy said at least. We buried her next to my favorite dog that was killed when my brother was learning to drive the pick-up and my mama who died bringing me into the world.

A preacher came out and said a few prayers over grandma’s box. He held out his hand to daddy, to console him, to shake like a man, but daddy just grunted and walked away. I took the big hand instead. The preacher gave me a sad smile and I regretted putting my hand in his. I pulled my hand away and he asked me if I’d be okay, nodding toward our house. Nodding toward the screen door that was slamming with daddy’s anger. I didn’t answer, just turned and walked away. I wanted him to hear me slam the screen door closed too.

Soon after grandma the muggy swampy heat of the summer brought Tammi who rearranged the furniture. It also pushed at my brother who announced one night that he found Jesus and was going to become a preacher man.

Daddy just stared at him, the night he made the announcement. Daddy shook his head. I looked between them and didn’t know what to do, so I bit my lip and looked out the window at my fireflies. We stood in our silent triangle for years, weeks, moments. I looked out at my fireflies winking at me in secret codes I didn’t understand. My brother moved to leave and our triangle shattered.

Three days later, wife number four stood at the front door and looked at the furniture that had been rearranged so much I no longer knew where it had started. She sighed and told my father she was leaving. He muted the TV from the chair she was sitting on and nodded his head. I thought maybe he’d say something, but he just turned the volume back up then. She looked at me then, into my eyes and smiled. Then she asked daddy why he always forgot he had a daughter.

I didn’t feel forgotten. I had the house with the graves of the people I loved, I had my own room. I had quiet nights when daddy left to look for a new wife. I had my fireflies. I didn’t mind being invisible to him. I knew it was better than being as visible as Sally. Her daddy saw her all the time and reminded her of her existence every chance he got. Sally always talked about leaving while she hid the newest bruises on her face with her hair.

I’ll leave one day too, I suppose.

That’s what daddy said one morning when I stared at the back of the glossy Fruit Loops box. You’ll leave and go away and marry a man or get a job and move to a bigger city.
I thought about that for a long time.

Does it bother you? I asked.

He shook his head.

I didn’t think so. He had more important things to worry about, he needed a woman with red lips to sit across from him in the mornings.

But you can always come back here, this is your home. Not much of one, but it’s yours. You’ll want to come back and visit one day, he announced.

I thought then, I might leave. And if I got lost I could always look for my twinkling fireflies.

I was gone the day daddy brought home his fifth wife. I never knew what she did.


Nicole Sharp
is a fiction writer.
She swigs coffee the way a dehydrated sailor with scurvy would whiskey. The writing of Arrested Development gave her faith in humanity once again. She is a purveyor of the perfect Italian Cappuccino and world travel. And after all these years of writing, she’s pretty sure she’s just trying to write one good sentence.

22 Jun

From Our Archive – Fiction: “Coconut Oil” by Ayobami Abedayo

Coconut Oil
by Ayobami Abedayo
(as printed in Volume I: Issue I – May 2014)

When you first said you were in love with me, I thought it was one of your many jokes. I thought you were trying to help me forget the boyfriend who had just ditched me because my scores beat his in class. So I laughed and thought that you were such a wonderful friend. You laughed too but when I turned to look at you, your eyes couldn’t meet mine.

They are not meeting mine again now, those brown eyes that have made me forget to breathe so many times. You face the door, running your hands over the tips of your dreadlocks. This short version sticks up on your head like you’ve just had an electric shock and I resent it. You cut the dreads low just before the first time we broke up. And as I ran after you that day, I longed for the tresses so I could pull you back to me with them.

You take a step towards the door and I am afraid you will walk right through it, creating a replica of the you shaped vacuum that is already in my heart. Then your shoulders heave and I realise you must be shedding silent tears that mirror the ones cascading down my cheeks. It soothes me that you are finally falling apart after months of telling me to get myself together and move on. I step closer and hug you from behind. I link my hands across your navel, thrilled that leaving me devastates you too, even if just a little.

‘We must do this for the future.’ You say, placing your hands on mine.

‘And what happens to our own bloody future?’ I scream so loudly that my words hurt my ears.

‘You know better.’ You reply moving your palm over the back of my hands in a slow caress that I want to feel every day of my life, a caress that I don’t want any other woman to experience.

‘We don’t need to have children.’ I say this to startle you. Though I have agonised over the thought for months, it’s the first time I am suggesting it.

You turn to face me. Your eyes are dry, calm. You have not been crying after all. I loathe you for this. This calm you have displayed since we both learnt that we share the AS genotype just weeks after our traditional engagement. This calm that you have the audacity to maintain even today, the day we had planned to get married, the day I should have become Mrs You. But then, do you even remember? I loathe myself even more for the tears that are welling up again in my eyes.

You wrap your hands around my waist, lean close and whisper into my ears, ‘Tell me you really mean that and I swear I’ll stay.’ I should lie to you, make you stay, but your breath is tickling the nape of my neck and my mouth forgets to mould the lies. I say nothing and just listen to the glorious sound of your breathing.

Good bye.’ You say and pull away, breaking my bliss.

We have acted out this scene so many times that I’ve lost count. It has always ended with me running after you, blubbering that I couldn’t let you go. You always came back in, and for a few weeks we would be together. Until one day you would say we couldn’t keep deceiving ourselves or that it was over and the drama would begin again. But not today, your dry eyes have drained me of the strength to chase you.

I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hands as I watch the door slam behind you. Then I go to my room and pick up the framed picture on my bedside table. My head is bent over yours in the picture, my hands are in your hair, your face is slightly upturned and your dreadlocks are going in every direction. Your roommate took this picture when we were in the university. You were about to graduate and I still had two years to go in medical school. It was the day you wrote your final paper and I had come to your room to congratulate you, to ask what you wanted as a graduation gift. You reached into your cupboard and handed me a bottle of coconut oil. ‘Rub this in my hair,’ you said.

Time slowed to a crawl while you sat on the floor with your head between my thighs. I rubbed the oil into the kinky roots of your hair, wondering why you were so quiet, wondering why my legs were shaky. Your roommate came in the moment you said you had something to tell me. He captured that moment for us with the canon camera he always wore around his neck. Later that night, you told me you had been in love with me since we were in secondary school.

I dismantle the picture frame allowing the glass pane to clatter to the floor and shatter. I rip the glossy photograph into tiny shreds. You are standing by the bed when I turn to throw the picture’s pieces in the dustbin. We stare at each other for a while.

‘Did you forget something?’ I ask, startled that you came back, stifling the urge to run into your arms.

You walk to the door briskly as though my words are propelling you away from me. You stop when your hand touches the doorknob and start wailing. You wail and curse. You hit the door with your fist and feet. And then suddenly you fall silent and come back to me with halting steps. You stop at the foot of the bed.

“Come. Please.” You croak holding out your arms.

I walk into your arms, hold your face against mine and your tears fall on my cheeks. I close my eyes and inhale the scent of coconut oil in your hair. In this moment, there are no genes, there is no future, no past, there’s only you, your tears on my cheeks, the scent of your hair intoxicating me and your arms holding me as though you would die if you ever let go.


Ayobami Abedayo
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife and has worked as an editor for Saraba magazine since 2009. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. Ayobami has received fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Sinthian Cultural Centre, Hedgebrook, Ox-bow School of Arts, Ebedi Hills and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria.
**Feature image used at the top of this story was sourced from this website.