“Snow Blind” by Terri Brown-Davidson

That morning she was snow-blind. The whiteness of the hills sloping outside her frosted windows, the no-color of the sky that flattened behind the mounded snow cloudless and with an acidic undertone of gray, struck her as so sumptuous she could taste it. She fumbled along the kitchen counter for her coffee mug, the cobalt-blue one with gently drifting snowflakes on every side, filled it from the carafe with coffee gone bad, and the acid of those dregs merged with the acidic quality of the sky into a bitter perfection she savored. She closed her eyes: a burst of scarlet floaters, an afterimage of violently glowing snow, the colors of her oversized canvases–green, gold, violet, mauve–leaking into the space between her consciousness and her sight, so, for a second, she became the paintings themselves…and then the sensation passed.

Sitting on a folding chair in her kitchen, she pulled on two black rubber boots over her pajama legs then shrugged on her 20-below navy parka (smeared along the collar with her Cover Girl ivory foundation), strode out into the yard. The snow struck her retinas glittering, searing; the whiteness was a cruelty, an oppression she could scarcely bear though what choice did she have?

She sat down on a wooden bench that looked out over the snowy yard, the aggressive chill climbing up through her pajama pants; she shivered, twined her arms around her torso, drank from the mug she’d positioned on the bench. So strange that she’d rented this house. This rambling, white, run-down house in Nebraska, a house so ubiquitously Midwestern that she shuddered at the blandness of it all: the porch swing strung up by two strong cables, the discreet red geraniums that bloomed in the spring, the clipped-short lawn now buried in snow.

She moved from the wooden bench to the swing, pushed the swing into motion with her booted feet.

Flakes as opaque as iron wafted down from the sky, stinging her chin; she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand until they burned then cleared; she gazed at the shovel she’d propped alongside the house, the blunted steel head, the gnarled wooden handle, wondering how she would manage with all this snow on the ground.

She knew she’d doted on him, and now she couldn’t bear it that he was dead, wrapped up in her best red towel on top of the washing machine, his forepaws stretched stiffly before him in a rigor mortis so irrefutable that–if she tugged on his legs–she knew the bones would snap.

All night she’d gone out to the service porch to check on him.

She didn’t know if she simply couldn’t accept that he was dead or if she’d become fascinated by death itself, a species of morbidity she’d finally succumbed to after all the deaths in her family.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about how he looked, how his luminous brown eyes had acquired an artificial glaze, how his muzzle appeared slightly damp where the last of his antibiotics had run out of his mouth, how his lips, nearly black, were furled back over his protruding and yellow incisors: he didn’t look like himself; no one who died ever looked like themselves; and, frankly, she resented it.

The vet said that Bruises had meningitis. But she’d refused to accept it. She brought home some hideous pink medicine that was reputed to be poisonous to humans if swallowed, spooned it into his mouth. Day after day she watched him crawl in circles on her living room rug, dragging his poor, paralyzed legs behind him, but she was greedy, selfish, couldn’t bear to let him go.

She sat at her kitchen table all morning long, drinking coffee, gazing out the front window. The snow just wouldn’t melt, and she couldn’t bury him yet, and he seemed to be decaying in her mind’s eye atop the washing machine. She stood up, pulled down the blinds, shucked off her pajamas, dressed in a tight red sweater and thigh-hugging blue jeans, went out to the truck.

Bruises kept drifting through her mind while she drove; she’d heard about various approaches to thought-control and willed herself to lift the negative image of him lying on the washer right out of her mind, red-X it, obliterate it. Finally, it worked, and an image of her newest painting drifted into the empty space her dead rabbit had left, a glorious splash of backdropped yellow on which gigantic purple irises seemed to float, flowers more ominous than O’Keeffe’s ever aspired to be, dark-green stems shaded delicately toward ebony that glimmered raw-looking beneath the violet.

She’d painted the irises in a moment of stasis she’d longed for for days, pacing her tiny Lincoln apartment until the beige carpet revealed subtle tread-marks from her sneakers, the flowers blossoming up from her brain stem and then accruing size, mass, proportion until the petals flooded out almost violently from the tip of her drenched brush and she’d had to stay up nearly thirty-six hours to complete the painting.

She pulled onto the concrete parking lot fronting Oakdale Mall, smiled as she put the truck into park. She lived for those moments of rapture, that intense communion with her painting an energy that buoyed her up on days otherwise so gray she’d lie in bed with the covers thrust down around her ankles, surveying her wadded nightgown, the socks bunched up around her ankles, her unshaven legs.

For her painting she’d refused anything else in life that might have been worthwhile: a husband, children, even the joy of certain possessions.

She’d never regretted the choice, not once: she knew it was who she was.

And yet, she’d allowed herself to become far too attached to the rabbit, which was a mistake, she realized, wandering through the mall: attachments, human or otherwise, only interfered with her work, and it seemed that she was born with a clearer sense of purpose than many others on the planet. She’d turned down three proposals before she turned thirty, and now, there were no more forthcoming, though she was a handsome woman, she knew, with a cap of glittering crimson hair just lightly threaded with gray, wide-spaced, near-blue eyes, and a very red mouth that could look, for no particular reason, either petulant or voluptuous.

But she wasn’t interested in romance anymore, not with her work, which she’d allowed, quite happily, to consume her entire existence. And children were a mystery to her: loud, unruly creatures; she couldn’t imagine ever wanting one.

Her paintings kept her company.

Oakdale Mall was ridiculously festive with the season. Five or six portly Santas in crushed red-velvet suits meandered the walkways, gazing at high-tech razors in the Sharper Image window or at green-satin teddies in Victoria’s Secret, kids gaping after them as they wandered. Elves in purple regalia, cap and bells jingling from Elizabethan-style tights, ate Reuben sandwiches at Le Sandwich Shoppe and shared paper cups of black coffee.

Garlands and green banners and silver tinsel were strung across the eaves, so much glitter that Ella felt overwhelmed, the pinprick of a migraine starting at the base of her skull; she massaged her neck muscles till they loosened, bought a steaming cup of Hazelnut Coffee to go at Gloria Jean’s, drifted into Victoria’s Secret though she knew no food or drink was allowed.

Inside, a veritable jewel-tone dazzle. Yellow sleepshirts, brilliant as a burst of winter-morning sun. Plush aubergine robes Ella could disappear inside. She put her coffee cup down on a display, touched, with just her fingertips, a dark-blue camisole, a rich burgundy pair of tap pants. It was a desire she’d confessed to no one: the lingering sexuality that had no further place in her life, which she’d struggled to excise like a splinter with a pair of tweezers. Every once in a while she wondered if she’d made the right decision: foregoing the husband and kids to paint. Some people believed that you could have it all. But Ella’s strength, she knew, was limited; when she wasn’t feeling strong, she was feeling fragile and knew that she couldn’t manage any other tasks in her life.

The salesgirl glided past her. Ella cast down her eyes; she felt too drab to be walking through a store like this, wondered if the salesgirl sensed she didn’t belong. She traced the outline of her dry, dull cheek with one finger, picked up a vial of perfume, took it to the counter to pay.

She was feeling so wretched, she believed, because Bruises had died.

She was uncrimping the wad of cash in her wallet when she saw him. Wrapped up in a greatcoat from neck to ankles, a camel’s hair coat so luxuriously soft that she longed to touch it, he was studying her, his blond hair waving elegantly off his forehead, his eyes penetrating, nearly azure. He lounged against a fleece sweatshirt display, his hands jammed into his coat pockets.

Ella glanced at him, glanced away.

He couldn’t possibly be looking at her. She felt his gaze travel along her neckline, trace her shoulder blades.

“Ma’am,” the salesclerk said. “Your perfume.”

Ella grabbed it off the glass countertop, hurried off into the crowd until she was positive she’d lost him.

But she hadn’t. She was eating a cheeseburger stuffed with pickles, onions, in the food court, a decadence she rarely allowed herself, meat tending to disagree with her stomach, when she felt a presence on the periphery of the crowd; she looked up mid-bite and there he was, hanging back a few feet from a utilitarian table crowded with giggling teenage girls, his posture so erect, his demeanor so contemplative that he might have been carved out of wax, but he was studying her, that much seemed plain; Ella bit into her cheeseburger, snatched off a large, white bite of bun, something inside her stomach loosening, turning gentle: she felt nearly ill.

When she looked up, he was standing there, right in front of her.

“Hello,” he said, his voice almost unnaturally soft.

Ella flushed, indicated, one-fingered, her mouth crammed with cheeseburger.

“Mind if I join you? I was just going to get some coffee.” He gazed at her steadily, waiting for her nod.

It came, and then he said, “Where’s the best place to buy coffee around here, anyway?”

Ella lifted her napkin, covered her mouth with it before she spoke. “Not the Chinese place,” she said. “They leave it sitting out for hours, you know. And not Arby’s, because–”

He was gazing at her quietly, as if he were enjoying a private joke.

“There’s a Starbuck’s on the end,” Ella said finally, and rubbed her lipstickless mouth dry with the napkin.

“Back in a flash,” the man said, shrugging off his beautiful coat, leaving it draped over the chair before he headed off in his brilliantly glittering oxfords toward the green-and-white Starbucks sign.

It occurred to her, when he was sitting across from her, peeling the lid off his coffee and blowing on it to cool it, that nobody ever looked directly at a human face. It was impossible to take in all at once, especially if you were sitting close. Some features tended to haze in and out of focus. Others tended to become part of a large, abstract design, almost amorphous, as if the facial features blended into each other then melted away.

She found it easier, less confounding, to concentrate on one part of his face at a time.

His lips, she thought, looked Italian: overfull, very pink, disconcertingly sensuous, perhaps.

His eyes shone such a clear lavish blue that she wondered if he weren’t prettying them up with contact lenses.

His forehead was broad and pale and smooth; his blond hair waved almost girlishly.

They sat at the little table in the corner of the mall and talked for hours. Once he reached over across the table and gripped her hand. Her first impulse was to tug it away, but she didn’t. She looked at her hand lying there on the table, his larger, lightly furred hand curled closed over it, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.

She wanted to tell him about Bruises but couldn’t manage it.

She swilled some of her own coffee, which had grown tepid.

She watched his pink mouth move, forming words.

She gazed at his handsome, amiable face and saw the ghost of a rabbit skull floating behind it.

In the end, the mall closing, the whir of vacuum cleaners surrounding them, vacuum-pushers bumping up against their chairs, the clang of mesh gates folding down and locking into place, they each took a piece of scrap paper and jotted down the other’s name, address, phone number.

She drove home through a frosty night pinpricked with stars. Inside her truck, it was so cold that she breathed rhythmically in and out to watch clouds form before her face. The truck smelled sweet from the perfume she’d bought; at every stop light she uncapped the bottle, smelled it until the jasmine scent seemed to creep out and over her, until the petals settled in their infinite sweetness deep inside her lungs. When she got back to the house, she saw that she’d forgotten to turn any lights on. She sat in the truck, staring for a second at the closed, blind house, so like a furled eyelid, but washed yellow with moon.

She fingered the scrap in her pocket, making sure it was still there.

She stared at the front door of her ramshackle white house, some vague presentiment striking her that she didn’t want to go in. Not yet. Not yet.

The snow heaped everywhere, shining lovely against the baseboards, dripping down over the bushes, its smooth surface shimmering with moon.

She went inside, snapped on the lights, and poured herself a brandy from the minibar she had set up in her painting studio, downed it hard and fast. It was strange, she reflected, how silence could create its own kind of sound, its own thickness, so, standing there with her snifter in hand, gazing up at her enormous irises that glimmered a weird fluorescent purple in the moonlight streaming through a high-set window, she couldn’t stop listening to that silence, its low, monotonous buzz surrounding her on all sides, and it wouldn’t stop, it wouldn’t stop, not even when she changed into her soiled white nightgown and went to bed.

She slept deeply, dreamlessly–or at least there were no dreams that she could recall. When she woke the next morning, sweating beneath the piled-on blankets, she had an intense and dazzling sensation of whiteness infiltrating the room.
She sat up in bed, the covers falling away from her breasts.

It had snowed more last night.

The window was piled high with snow, dense pale dollops of it; snow layered the bare branches of the elm outside her window; there’d be no digging today, she thought, and fumbled on the floor for her slippers, feeling around on the dusty floorboards for her little pink scuffs.

When she stood up, she was dizzy, and she thought, I must be getting the flu.

She made herself some chamomile tea, the ultimate comfort drink, hoped she’d have the energy later that day to paint. While her tea steeped in a delicate china mug, she went to her coat, pulled out the scrap of paper, smoothed it across the tabletop.

Jordan Michaels
5803 Sandhills Terrace, #14
Lincoln, NE 68505

She felt hazy, a little floaty, as she kept staring at the paper, though that could have been the flu, she thought. She unfurled all the blinds so the snow-whiteness could pour into her living room, kitchen, then sat down at the table in her nightgown, wrapping her palms around the mug to warm them.

His skin had been an unusual color, she reflected; an ivory with a healthy pink rising toward the tops of his cheeks; his skin struck her as delicate, unusual, for a man.

And his shoulders, beneath his pressed blue shirt, had seemed almost unnaturally broad–perhaps he worked out?

There was a gym down the street from where she lived, but she never used it. Something about all those glistening, sweat-drenched bodies behind the plate-glass windows, bodies in tank tops and skimpy shorts, running on treadmills or pumping the broad pedals of elliptical trainers, scared her.

People shouldn’t put themselves on display like that.

She drank her tea faster; it scalded her tongue; she watched the phone as if it might come alive any second and continue their conversation from last night.

What had he said?

“You have the look of a lonely woman. Are you sad?”

She’d hastened to reassure him that no, she wasn’t sad at all, that her life was very full, what with her painting and tending the rabbit before he’d died.

And before that, of course, there’d been her mother.

His eyes seemed to glisten at her remarks; he seemed genuinely interested in what she said, fascinated, even, and, remembering that, she put two fingers to her lips as if she wanted to shush herself; she rose, a little agitated, from the kitchen table, walked in her scuffs to the living room window, gazed out at the snow and the blue or brown houses beyond it.

She kept watching the paper scrap. She came to depend on it, in fact, for a certain level of unavoidable exhilaration. Even as one day passed, then two, the scrap seemed to hold out so much promise. She kept picking up the receiver and replacing it quickly in case he was trying to call. She’d spot the paper suddenly, while she was rubbing a Brillo pad over the caked-on spaghetti sauce in a pan, and then she’d move over to it and couldn’t believe that it was just lying there on the table, and then she’d finger the edges very delicately, the crispness of the paper starting to moisten due to all her handling, and she’d read his name and address over and over; sometimes she’d even whisper them out loud before glancing around the empty house, a flush rising in her cheeks, as if there were actually someone there to witness her silliness, though there was no one, ever.

She’d finished the irises painting and started on another, her new work a still life of a pineapple. O’Keeffe, of course, had been ridiculed for painting a pineapple for Dole, but O’Keeffe’s concerns had been monetary, commercial, whereas Ella was simply interested in the color and texture of the fruit. She propped it up in a pan in her studio, all spiky shell and overpoweringly greenish top until she knew, quite suddenly, that she had to paint it, hacked it open with her heaviest butcher knife, lay bare the glorious swell of intense yellow sweetness, as dazzling in that tiny room as trapped sun.

She kept herself away from the washing machine for several days, forced herself to hold back until the snow had melted. In the meantime, she tried to keep herself preoccupied. She’d paint from ten to four in her studio then take a coffee-and-cinnamon-bun break, watch TV. She had a particular fascination for the Dr. Phil show, mainly because she didn’t understand who this large, brutish man was nor why so many people seemed willing to subject themselves to his scorn. If she’d had a husband, she reflected, she probably would have ended up with someone like that: red-faced, cocky, bald, a man who really enjoyed pushing others around. She hated the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, the way he positioned couples half-facing each other in chairs until their knees nearly touched.

He was a manipulator, she decided: nothing more, nothing less.

She pulled at strands of her sticky bun until it unraveled.

In between putting the ropelike sugar pieces into her mouth, in between watching a psychologist on TV heckle a gargantuan woman with a too short dress and a blonde wig that seemed to slide over her forehead when he yelled, she thought about the rabbit on the washing machine and how Bruises was changing, how her momma’d changed. She thought about the man in the mall, too, and wondered why he hadn’t called, if he’d lost her corresponding scrap of paper. Several times she picked up the receiver, started to punch in his number, but then she pictured him always, at that second, lying with a beautiful, dark-haired woman naked on his bed, holding her in his arms, his chance encounter with Ella long forgotten.

Some people said that death was a natural act. Ella’d never found it so. Bruises had circled around and around on the carpet, dragging his dead limbs behind him, a faint glaze covering his eyes so he became like a sealed-up house, and she couldn’t see in anymore.

Her mother had sweated and thrashed before she died; her tangle of black-gray hair had lain sticky on the pillow case; saliva streamed out the corners of her mouth as she mumbled and begged for water.

Ella was her caretaker before she died, so she got used to a certain routine: going in to change her mother’s urine-soaked sheets, stripping the bed, wiping up any excess fluid that had leaked through to the mattress (the mattress pad was ancient, riddled with holes).

She’d place her mother’s long, gaunt torso on the carpet before she changed the bed, and her mother would lie there on the carpet, breathing hard but otherwise quiet, her large gray eyes that seemed to grow ever-more-luminous as she drifted closer to death fixed upon the ceiling, which wasn’t anything interesting, to be sure, a cottage-cheese ceiling much like those found in apartments.

And, after she’d changed the bed, Ella would drag her up onto the fresh change of sheets, which was never actually all that difficult because her mother weighed less than eighty pounds toward the end of her life, and Ella was—then– quite strong.

Then, after her mother lay in bed, Ella would pull the sheets up under her chin, smooth and arrange her hair around her face, fold the blankets down over her flattened breasts, whispering to her, stroking her cheek, telling her how much she loved her.

One day Ella woke up and the snow had melted away, and it was time. Ella put on a battered pair of jeans, a worn flannel shirt she buttoned up to her neck.

She hadn’t opened the service-porch room in days, and she knew it would smell in there: death had an odor like no other, a combination of sickliness and sweetness and decay so rich that she realized, when it struck her, she’d be tempted to pass out.

But she wouldn’t, she knew, because life wasn’t like that, and people had to be strong.

It was all a matter of choice, she reflected, grabbing the shovel off the porch, hacking away with the blade at the hardened mud, thinking about Bruises wrapped up in her best red towel and how his face would have shriveled and turned black, how his eyes would have become so deeply glazed that they resembled fogged glass, how his body would have leaked onto the towel and the shape and imprint of him would lie in deep, dark stains upon the fabric.

But it had to be faced; she’d loved him, but one had to be a realist, after all, and there was always her painting, she thought, tossing up mud from the deepening hole, though she’d have to throw the scrap of paper away when she entered the house; she’d have to throw it away and promise herself to not ever think about it again.

Terri Brown-Davidson is a Pulitzer Prize nominee, who has also been recognized via thirteen Pushcart nominations, the AWP Intro Award, a Yaddo residency fellowship, the New Mexico Writer’s Scholarship, THE LEDGE Chapbook Award, and other prizes. Her work has appeared in more than 1,000 journals, including Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Virginia Quartrerly Review, Triquarterly, the Literary Review, and Triquarterly New Writers.

“Green Car Crash” by Lauren Eyler

I’d just dropped out of med school, but I hadn’t yet gone for the powder so I was poor on account of being unsure of who I was. Then, I mostly slept to escape the body I inhabited. I failed because every third dream showed me the ways that the girl who had left me could torture me from afar. In those dreams she called and asked me to help her move. When I got to her house and rang the bell, she never answered. But every time she called, I went. Something I would’ve done when I was awake.

That day I’d awoken to the sound of the train bleating its way across the city. Strange, as I’d become used to it over the years I’d lived in Columbia. I rolled over to check the alarm clock and saw it was only eight, four hours before I usually got up.

The bleating transformed into the phone’s ringing in my dreams. For a few minutes, I lay paralyzed beneath the covers wondering if the train had called me into a somnambulant state. After a long swill of whiskey from a bottle on the nightstand, the hard taste vanquished this concern. Pretty soon I longed for coffee, but I only had the energy to turn on the TV.

It was on the History Channel, even though I knew I hadn’t watched it in weeks. A documentary was on about the Army of Tennessee’s destruction. At that moment, the narrator began discussing the Battle of Franklin that had taken place about five miles from where I’d grown up. A new train moaned. I flicked off the TV.

When I was in fifth grade, I went on a tour of the Carter House with my uncle. The house had served as Union headquarters during the battle. After the tour, I cried when he wouldn’t buy me a toy saber in the gift shop. Instead, he bought me a book called Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin. When I’d finished reading it, I called him on the phone and explained that a pile of bodies had trapped the Carter family in their basement for three days. Then, I recited the names of the five Confederate generals that had died. I read it twice more before my mom took it away because she thought I had an unhealthy obsession.

I did, however, write a poem about five mice named after the generals for the school poetry contest. The poem won honorable mention. After that I decided to become a poet. Then a year later, my poem about five wolves named after the generals failed to place. I gave up on verse.

I got out of bed to make coffee. I tried to remember the names of the generals, the names of the mice or the wolves, but nothing came to me. When I looked at my clock, it was only 8:45 so I decided that I might as well make a trip to the university library and see if I could find the book I’d read as a child.

Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was the way cars stopped for me as I crossed the street. I started thinking of writing poems again. Poems might be the way out. Or stories. I could write a story and inhabit it with my characters. There I would find a place to hide from her.

The Civil War generals. What would they be thinking in the here and now? Their faces, the setting came to me. Ten of them would be sitting on folding chairs in a room. Their legs would be crossed. The carpet would be orange. And on the room’s walls, TV screens would be playing a continuous feed of The Falling Man. As The Falling Man fell, the generals would discuss matters of polite society. Is Lincoln really in love with what’s his name? Where was President Davis dining this evening? The generals would not wonder at the steel building. Neither would they be concerned by the smoke thicker than any they’d seen in battle nor the figure falling from a height at which they believed men could not breathe. But why?

If my story were discussed in a classroom, some tired student would posit that the generals were all blind. That student would complete my story. And if there were a second student who guessed this, she would also complete my story. The story would then be endlessly completed. If the student also suggested that the generals could not leave the room because janitors of the building had piled bodies outside, then that student would not only complete the story but also understand the author. The professor in that classroom would take that student’s idea and write a paper that the committee of the American Journal of Literature would accept. The published article might be enough for the professor to get a tenure-track position.

By the time I walked in the library doors, I’d decided that the professor would ultimately lose out because the story and the author would be overlooked while the next cannon construction took place. The professor would wither into an old woman housed somewhere at a satellite campus in Idaho. She’d never teach the story again.

At the library computers, I found the book’s call number. I hadn’t brought paper with me so I took a notecard from a pile and wrote E468.9 .F385 2008. As I was riding the elevator down to the third floor, I realized I held a card from the library’s dismantled card catalogue. I flipped it over thinking, wouldn’t it be a story if the card held the location of the book that I was looking for? It didn’t of course.

No. The author of the book on this card was Achen, Lotte. She had entitled her book, Hand in her Pockets: The Abridged Memoirs of Lauren Eyler. The call number read PT 2687. E85 S7 1996. This number indicated that the book had been translated. Since I knew Ms. Achen hailed from Dortmund and I had spent a number of years of my life with her, I knew the book had been translated from German.

Before I returned to the elevator, I retrieved the book on Franklin. I thought over General Hood, who’d had an arm and a leg amputated during the war. In the black-and-white photos I remembered, he looked no better than the Army of Tennessee that he had spent the entire war destroying in an attempt to win. He had gone about planning battles as stupidly as a general could and for this I took a strong disliking to him as a child. For me, as a Tennessean and uninformed youth, he lost the war for us. This was a bad thing when I thought about it then. Here I am obliged to say that I don’t think of it as a bad thing now. In fact, it is a fine thing, a fine thing what General Hood had done in trying to win because he had lost.

Envision a library, a college library. Imagine a forest. Allow the shelves to become trees and the trees to become shelves. The experiences are now one. In both places, you never know what you might find, a flower that leads to a stream that leads to a hill—the book you stumble across whose index leads you to another that leads you to a magazine in which you encounter a phrase that defines you at that very moment in time. I strode across the carpet of the library’s sixth floor. The sense of merging urged me forward. I felt the same tears flow together, the exact same tears I cried when I read the line you haunt me from a letter I had received from Lotte two years before.

I did not find a book. Instead, I found a piece of paper. The paper looked as if it had been jammed in a bag full of rocks before it had been shelved between two titles of which I feel ashamed to write the names.

The title of the book only existed on the card. The ink was blue, the only color she wrote letters in, but the handwriting was as unfamiliar and insignificant as the font of any book worth reading.

She lived nineteen years before she discovered me, she the conquistador and I from Aztlan. And though you want this to be from her perspective because of this volume’s title it is not. She does not understand herself as what she trod upon and left. In her mind, she is a character in a novel. She is the character that disappoints her crowd and then won’t go home again.

We went to Normandy. She walked out onto the pier and stood above water where the remnants of 10,000 men soak and float. There she put her hands in the pockets of her long black coat. Her posture said I am looking at myself as a person who is looking at a tragedy. Later that night, she said she should have died weighted down by a helmet and bullets before arriving at the beach. She also told me she loved me, but she told this to too many people and the words were no more than soaked and floating skin.

I am the non-existent victim of the car crash she had. I am the one that would have landed her in jail for the rest of her life. I am also the police officer that would have given her the ten DUIs she had snuck by.

Tell her when you see her that she wants answers to questions that cannot be answered. She wanted to know over the phone why I could not answer them. I never answered those questions because if I had she would have attempted to live them. She could not have lived those answers any more then she could have died on D-Day. No more than she could have ever died for a cause.

If she wants to know if I will talk to her please tell her I will not. Wreckage cannot speak.

And if she finds that this is overwritten tell her it is not more overwritten than her account of her own life.

Do I write that I never left the library? No, the truth is more important. I left. Do I say I learned that liking General Hood left me looking like him? No. I will still say that I will be like Pollock and will kill people when I’m drinking and driving and leave my wife a widow. After I have died, she will make mediocre art. And she will think she has gotten rid of me, but I will hang across from her in the Tate Modern next to a can of Campbell’s Soup.

Lauren Eyler is a second year MFA student at the University of South Carolina. She is also the co-editor of their literary magazine, Yemassee.

“The Unsuccessful Biographer” by Dan Townsend

Part I, Chapter 1

Courageous Luke enters the arena of the Wild West Show for his final trick of the night. The dirt is loose¸ chopped in small clumps. He can feel the crowd’s staggered breath. He has been riding Philip the Horse three years, two of those years in this exact show, performing these same audacious feats of horsemanship.

Tonight in Philadelphia, Courageous Luke feels something awry in Philip the Horse’s gallop, an unusual tightness in his gait, the tendons of his shoulders rising conspicuously in his skin like the fingers of an heiress beneath her velvet cloak. Philip the Horse is an unbalanced carriage. Courageous Luke suspects his horse has gas, that someone poured beer in his trough, fed him a sausage or a nasty head of cabbage. These things had been known to occur behind the scenes at the Wild West Show.

Despite the awkwardness of Philip the Horse’s movement, their set goes well, and per their routine, Courageous Luke kicks Philip the Horse into a bouncing gallop as they circle the arena before their last trick of the evening. Courageous Luke will stand atop Philip the Horse’s saddle as he continues around the arena at an impressive speed. Courageous Luke will shoulder his Remington and shoot the door off a birdcage positioned on a three-legged stool in the center of the arena, sending three mourning doves flapping into the rafters, spraying their desultory feathers over the clapping throngs.

Bouncing through their second lap Luke uses his best Russian accent to whisper encouraging sentiments in the ear of Philip the Horse. He strokes his mane and wishes the horse a good performance by repeating what he’s picked up from the Georgian Riders who are from Georgia, Siberia, and Ukraine, nowhere near South Carolina. Courageous Luke knows very little Russian: hello, goodbye, bastard, penis that is big, penis that is small, vodka, potato, lavatory, vagina that is good, vagina that is bad.

Don’t worry, he wants to say, we’ll do great like always, but the only Russian he knows that could possibly house this thought is an old insult about a person’s mother. It has a comfortable sing-song quality that Courageous Luke imagines Philip the Horse enjoys, if for no other reason than he, himself, enjoys saying it. Courageous Luke’s bandying of this insult is permissible for two reasons. The first is that Courageous Luke has no idea what this piece of Russian means. The second reason is obvious: Philip the Horse speaks neither Russian nor English. He is a horse.


Hezekiah dreamt of entering into treaties with blanket-wrapped Indians. He wanted to shoot buffalo from the mount of a charging steed. He pictured himself with a long coat flapping behind him when he robbed dining cars with Jesse James. He had heard about Indians from a traveling Methodist preacher who referred to them as the “lascivious savages of lands yonder.” The preacher gesticulated widely with his hands and eyebrows when he said “yonder,” the swinging motion of his features inculcating in young Hezekiah a spirit of curiosity, of wonder, for lands yonder.

The preacher was the most educated man Hezekiah had met, and though Hezekiah understood little of his philosophy and erudite speech, he acquired from the preacher a certain knack for mimicking facial expressions and exaggerating bodily movements to encode for his bumpkin audience a unique, wordless language.

Still, Hezekiah had asked his pa what “lascivious savages” were, and his pa had run his tongue between his top lip and his gums that were always throbbing with abscess.

His pa’s scarred fingers reached to Hezekiah’s chin and plucked a meandering hair that grew long above his Adam’s apple. (Hezekiah often toyed with these hairs during conversations in the field. It was a nervous habit. He would wrap the hair around his finger and straighten it again, staring off into what he now thought of as The Yonder, there being at this time in his life but only one yonder.) His pa made words out of a low hum like ripples are made out of still water,

He said, “I reckon them are savages that got what was coming to them.”

He twisted Hezekiah’s hair in his fingers before releasing it in the breeze. A wall of trundling purple clouds threatened to shorten their day.

Hezekiah was a tall boy, broad of chest, with a Roman nose and the well-placed cowlick of a London strongman. Philip Hezekiah Haley, dirty as he was with sweaty smears on the back of his trousers from working long days in the fields without proper undergarments, would go West one day.


Courageous Luke won Philip the Horse off Ivan Who Lies Too Much. The exchange was the result of a card game that took place one night somewhere outside Boston. Ivan Who Lies Too Much had been upset and inebriated, as was his custom for that time of day.

He had stood, wobbling the small table in the middle of the dusty tent, and said, “Courageous Luke you have swindled me, and I shall vanquish you some time in the future.”

Everyone said, “Pshaw. Ivan Who Lies Too Much is exaggerating.”

Courageous Luke said, “You are drunk, and that has made you a bad card player. It is well known that I do not cheat at cards. Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

Ivan Who Lies Too Much opened his mouth to say something, but everyone was laughing and no one would hear if he spoke, so he remained silent.

Before he could speak, a couple of riders sitting on the ground at the back of the tent, too drunk to attempt card games, argued briefly as to whether Ivan Who Lies Too Much should be renamed Ivan the Exaggerator, before deciding exaggeration was a form of deception falling under the definition of “Lying Too Much.” They decided the name change wasn’t necessary, but if they were going to change Ivan’s name, the most accurate name would be Ivan Who Lies Too Much, Especially By Means Of Exaggeration.

This conversation distracted the men in the tent, and Ivan Who Lies Too Much did not find a release for his anger. They all took him for a fool, his mother for a lusty trollop. That night he whispered into the darkness that he would avenge this humiliation, even though Courageous Luke had said he could ride Philip the Horse whenever he wanted. This kindness of Courageous Luke, a nicety not required of him as a stipulation of their wager, made him seem that much nobler. Ivan Who Lies Too Much seethed with anger, this rage compounding with the bitterness and negative attitude that were the hallmarks of his otherwise unremarkable personality.

Part I, Chapter 1 (second half)

When the horse stumbles, pitching forward in a cloud of hooves and dust, the crowd gasps. They have heard much of these brave Russians. They wear kerchiefs and long mustaches. Their chests are wide, their arms and shoulders bulging, unlike those of the men of Philadelphia who remain buttoned-up into the evening. At their smartly pinched gullets satin ascots dimple fashionably, billowing as if inflated by their bodies’ own systems of respiration.

Their voices choked, they tell one another that this is part of the Wild West Show, the Georgian Riders being the last act before the yowling Indians circle the arena beating their war drums. This is the last trick of that penultimate act. It is a spectacular feat of survival, like a man shot from a cannon, like an Oriental sword swallower, like anyone who entreats death to come during the cessation of applause.

It is another of their tricks, they think.

Then someone says it: It is part of the show!

Through the smoke of the bleachers and the mist of kicked-up dung and sawdust, they watch the rider climb to his feet and stumble to the wall. He holds his cheeks as if to keep his head – his vision – from undulating. His eyes are wide, his mouth quivering with the beginning of a thought. Men dispersed throughout the bleachers make innocuous comments about bells ringing and stars being seen.

He took a good wallop! These men say. He will continue to feel that when the sun crests upon the horizon marking the start of a new day!

Their comments fade when the rider attempts a few steps and falls face down into the muck of the arena floor. It is the Show’s last night in Philadelphia and a noteworthy odor rises from the dirt.

Among the commenting men in the crowd are boys who will circumvent horseback riding from this moment onward.


Courageous Luke is being interviewed about his life in the early Westerns. His Alabama drawl is impressive, though he hasn’t seen Pickens County since his mother, who was demure and descended from wide-hipped West Alabama sharecropper stock, died back in twenty-seven. He was already a star of the Westerns by then, discovered by chance on a train bound for St. Louis. The producer who spotted him in the dining car remarked often that he had never seen a young man of such statuesque build adorn himself with a silken neckerchief. Truly, it enlivened the sober tones of reality while endowing its wearer with an ageless heroic mystique.

He would also become famous for his lacinated shirtsleeves, his lopsided smile and broad chest that drew comparisons to the swelling hull of Noah’s ark.

Now on his deathbed, after months of sickness and countless balls of blood-soaked handkerchief, the interviewer positions his microphone close to the dying man’s pillow. The interviewer’s intentions are noble, and his subject has only agreed to allow his biographer a few minutes at his bedside to reconcile misunderstandings that have, his entire life, plagued his conscience. The interviewer promises his dying subject that his story will be told fully and truly. Then he asks Courageous Luke, (as he prefers to be known) “Why is it you left the Wild West Show?”

With his mind distracted, perhaps by thoughts of his own mortality or maybe the simple crankiness of discomfort brought on by the headache pain he experienced since the day of his accident, Courageous Luke tells the interviewer, “Listen to me you ugly bastard. It’s Ivan that done in my beautiful gelding Philip the Horse, and I swear to Moses, I never meant to be disrespectful of his dear mother!”

This sends Courageous Luke into a coughing fit that signals the terminus of the interview, this denial unfortunately marking the last recorded utterance of silent film star Luke Knox, a man often seen and rarely heard.


Luke Knox was born Philip Hezekiah Haley, originally from Pickens County, West Alabama, in a country wracked by poverty and red clay. The economic turmoil caused by freed men competing with poor white sharecroppers for a pitiable lot of arable land sent many young men away from their ancestral homes in search of gainful opportunity.

Hezekiah’s mother and pa farmed a corner of land that would grow cotton they picked by hand. Hezekiah slept on a mattress made from yellowed grass and did not often notice the bugs nipping the skin of his ankles or crawling in the hair on his neck. Hezekiah’s pa was a lecherous man, who sucked his gums as he pleasured himself underneath shade trees, leaving his sons to toil under the burdensome Alabama sun. Their bags of cotton were gray and of inferior quality compared to the ginned product coming off the farms upriver.

“I will leave this place, Pa.” Hezekiah said, unslinging his bag of pickings, but his father did not look up from his masturbating. “I will leave you to encumber yourself with sin.”

Hezekiah, always curious about his namesake, would go see the traveling preachers and ask them about Hezekiah from the Old Testament. In the process he’d learned much about religion and his father, whom the preachers called a “vile fornicator.”

Hezekiah never spoke to his father again. He took his cotton bag and filled it with cheese and bread made from beer his pa had let sour after losing consciousness one Sunday afternoon. He took his extra pair of coveralls and his felt hat, and he departed. He cried openly when he reached the lock and dam where a Scotch-Irish ferryman asked him if he were “Momma’s fancy lad.” If Hezekiah were not now a Methodist come through the Pentecostal fires, he would’ve snatched that coot by the throat and thrown him headlong into the wretched mud, for Hezekiah was strapping and cast a formidable silhouette.

Part I, Chapter 1, Section 3

Courageous Luke walks with a limp from this moment on. He finds it impossible to locate the balance and confidence required for many of his tricks.

As for Philip the Horse, a rusty old nail is discovered driven through his hoof. He has contracted tetanus. Courageous Luke must shoot him, but when the time comes, when they are scheduled to depart for their next performance, Courageous Luke is not courageous enough. Ivan Who Lies Too Much steps forward, setting the muzzle of his revolver under the beast’s awesome mandible and sending a cloud of cranial detritus into the bright yellow rays of early morning.

“Maybe now we can be continuing onward with our travel,” he says as Philip the Horse withers in a roadside heap.

By the time all hangovers clear that afternoon, they near the train station at the center of the city. No one knows Courageous Luke has packed his things into an old potato sack and bought a ticket to St. Louis where he will join the church of a preacher he admires. The preacher will guide him like the storied pillar of flame. Methodists prosper in Missouri.

He shoulders his potato sack and turns to the Riders who are pungent from their alcoholism. He says, “It has been a pleasure knowing all of you. I have long considered you my true family. I thank you warmly for all you have taught me. I arrived here an ignorant boy. And I am now a skilled rider and full-grown man. As you all know…” He clears the hardness from his throat and allows a few quick tears to run over his cheeks. In his best Russian he says, “Women folk love me. This includes your mother.”

He turns and leaves their caravan before he loses control of his emotions. Their laughter will haunt him until the day he dies.

Part I, Chapter 1, Section 2 (first sentence)

Before Philip the Horse stumbled, throwing him into the arena wall, Courageous Luke Haley had stood tall even among the heroes of the Wild West Show, and though his great American adventure would not end this day, he would never regain the surety of conscience – the inner calm – that once defined his character.


Hezekiah met a traveling revue on the road in Crittenden County, Mississippi. This was a despicable land, inhospitable and full of the devil. The line of wagons had stopped in the rutted dust to chase down an African orangutan that had escaped its cage and made up its mind to hide in the brambles, hurling feces at the men attempting to obtain his capture.

Hezekiah, crestfallen, travel weary and homesick, exhausted of body and spirit, knew these men were his blessing from God, his saving grace.

“I will work for food and what travel accommodations you are able to provide,” he said.

The man trying to capture the orangutan kept his beard tied up with string, like sausage links made of dry brown fuzz. He laughed and said, “Help me catch this monkey, you jackass!”

Hezekiah ran heedless into the Mississippi weeds, unschooled in the guile and awesome strength of monkeys.

This was Hezekiah’s first job in the entertainment industry. It was an Amazing Act of Courage.


“No,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much said, drunk yet again. “Like this. Womenfolk love me. Try that.”

Courageous Luke tried it, the syllables hard and ill-fitted to the geography of his mouth, “Women. Folk. Love. Me.”

“Good. Yes. This is better,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much Said.

“Now. This includes your mother.”

“This. Includes. Your. Mother.”

“Say it again.” Courageous Luke said it again. Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed so that a worm of snot unfurled over his top lip.

“It is a humorous language,” Courageous Luke said as if conceding an opposing point in a casual argument.

“You have to say it when you take tickets before the show. I will teach you more riding tricks. To each person, what do you say?”

“Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.” Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed with the sound of flapping horse lips. He untied his kerchief and slung it around Courageous Luke’s neck.

“Every person whose ticket you take. You have to do it. You have to wear this too. You have to.”

When Ivan Who Lies Too Much rose from his stool, he stumbled into the side of the tent causing a tie-down to snap and the canvas to sag in that spot. He lay on his back and he laughed and laughed.

Part I, Chapter 1, Section Three (Last Paragraph)

Luke would often think of the camera as an admirer, a penitent sinner before the absolving hand of the Lord, the eye of God peering down Abraham’s threatening blade into the pale of Isaac’s round, boyish tummy. He would scowl upon the lascivious savages as if they were the men who drove his mother to an early grave. His story has many parts, and it is difficult to say whether it is even the story of a movie star or a congeries of disparate and often contradictory yearnings confounded in one humble body. Sitting on the train that afternoon, regaling the film producer with tales of his travels and confusions to that point, Luke sensed in himself a pull – a call – toward the films the producer described. Mimicking the frame the producer made with his thumbs and forefingers, Luke imagined a reckonable yonder through which he could see a version of his true self.


At the beginning of his movie career, Luke Knox attended countless soirees, openings of nightclubs and dinner parties with famous politicians and artists. One night, slightly drunk and in need of a reason to approach a lovely young baroness from Kiev, Luke decided to ask a question he should have asked long ago. He sidled up to the baroness when she broke away to use the lavatory. She was having an affair with an old man who owned a once great newspaper now in decline. The rumor was that the newspaper man was trying to sell his company, but no one was buying. He had worked himself up from unloading dead chickens from boxcars, and he would be destitute by the end of the year. He attended parties with the baroness, an exquisite female half his age, a clothes horse in the first degree who enjoyed being seen in all the latest Paris fashions. He went to the party for her, though she would never remarry and thus abdicate her tsarist titles. Their affair was an open secret.

“Baroness,” Luke said, his Alabama accent surprising her. Luke did not speak much, and the severity of his drawl stunned the blue-blooded partygoers. “Will you tell me the meaning of a certain something? It is in your native tongue.” Luke’s cowlick had come loose and a coil of hair spun down his forehead. He licked his palm and smoothed the hair back into place as he said, “Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

His pronunciation was near perfect though he had only thought those words for the last three years.

The baroness slapped him and ran to her paramour. Already roiled from bitterness and the strain of playing the garrulous optimist for the pleasure of the evening’s braggarts and pedants, the newspaper magnate charged Luke. Sharp breaths were drawn and a circle formed around the combatants. Candles fell from elaborate holders.

Although the newspaper owner didn’t have enough force to bring the cowboy to the ground, he sent Luke stumbling backward, toppling an end table, and drawing the attention and ire of all in attendance. Once Luke gained his balance, he was able to pull the newspaper man off him and punch him solidly in the face, breaking his nose with an eggshell crunch. There were smears of blood. Luke Knox – aware of his celebrity status and the moribund witnesses shrinking around their champagne flutes – slipped into his showman role, rolling his shoulders back and smirking to showcase his trademark dimples. If he didn’t say something, the newspaper man would recover, and in his desperation, connive to make Luke the villain of the scene. In that moment, he thought over all of the events and memories of his life.

He said, “There’s a man that got what was coming to him.”

In the morning, when the newspaper man’s competition broke the story of the silver screen cowboy punching out a crazy old drunk at a party, Luke became a legend. His story was told in Alabama and Siberia and Philadelphia. The story was repeated as if all who’d heard the tale had been present to witness the events unfold, as if all parties had made the personal acquaintance of the hero. It was the kind of story that was too good to resist claiming for oneself.

Dan Townsend has work forthcoming in Drunken Boat. The word he mispronounced as a child was ‘cupcake’. He called it ‘pupcake’. It was adorable.

“Blow, Satchmo, Blow Part III: That Gig in the Sky”

Read Part I

Read Part II

It is July 1971.

Word on earth is, Gabriel’s real green over the way Satchmo can let it blow, and will, for eternity, and maybe a little longer.

Down in New Orleans, the Devil has a cafe he’s particularly fond of, with some tables out on the street, old world style, and every once in a while, just to try and rattle him, a few of the seraphim sit and have a latte or two at a table near his. They never seem to succeed in shaking him up, but it was on one of these days that a very young Louis Armstrong was playing in a dance hall down the street. When the first notes of his horn floated down their way, Lucifer glanced over at the table of seraphim, and noted the shift in Gabriel’s face. The Devil smirked in a, well, rather devilish manner, and called the waitress over to ask her to please put the tabs of those three young men sitting at the table near him on his bill. He gave her a 25% tip, and continued to smirk all the way back to Hell.

The Devil never challenged old Satchmo in all the years his horn warmed and sweetened the earth. He was a fiddler, to begin with, and even down in Hell, those swingin’ notes that Satch was playing made their way through the pits and the torture chambers, causing the fires and the demons to still, just a little, as they listened to something they could almost but not quite understand.

Now, on earth, there has been a great outcry at the loss of Louis Satchmo Armstrong. There have been an awful lot of people cursing Hell and Heaven alike. Lucifer doesn’t mind; he’s used to it by now, and has always felt that Louis was likeable, for a human. The angels up in Heaven, well, they’re a different story. Despite the fact that they ought to be used to bitter cries of “Unjust!” from mankind after these many centuries have gone by, they’re not like you and I—angels are jealous by nature, and vindictively obedient. It’s one of the reasons Lucifer up and left for Hell, as he maintains (although he never denies his roots if you ask him about them. Go ahead, next time you see him). Anyway, Gabriel is angry, angry, almost hopping mad about the arrival of the now actually immortal Satchmo, and he’s humiliated because all of the folks down on earth seem to know. He’s read what they’ve been writing: “Move over, Gabriel! Here comes Satchmo!” and “Gabriel will be alright now that he’s got the greatest horn there ever was to teach him a thing or two,” and even “God must need Satch to play that sweet music for some gigs up in Heaven, that’s why he’s gone,” the last of which Gabriel finds particularly insulting, because not only does it fail to mention him, but it also suggests that this man is more important than he could ever possibly be, a base creature like a human being. Where is the humility? Vain creatures, all of them, in Gabriel’s opinion. Lucifer catches sight of this opinion from down below, and laughs, It takes one to know one, Gabriel!

Meanwhile, up in Heaven, Louis Armstrong is getting his bearings. Always fast to make friends, and no stranger to bigotry, he goes right up to Gabriel and offers his hand for a shake. “You’re the cat I’m supposed to jam with at the end of time,” he says, smiling. “How d’you do?” Gabriel feels the other angels looking at him, and knowing he’ll never be able to face the Devil in New Orleans again if he doesn’t, he takes the hand that’s offered. “Now, about that gig,” Satchmo continues when Gabriel turns to leave. He stops, a little peeved that he is unable to make his escape, but more surprised by the fact that Louis seems to want to speak to him, and despite his unfriendliness, doesn’t seem to be discouraged at all. Gabriel nods, signaling Louis to continue; he’s not human, after all, and unless he’s smiting them, he doesn’t really know how to interact in a proper and socially acceptable manner. Pops goes on, “Listen, I was thinking—wouldn’t it swing real good if, when the fires come up on the earth, instead of those grand hosannas and fanfare type stuff, if you and I made it a day of blow, blow, blow on the horns, and played some real jazz to greet all those souls on their way to join us?” Gabriel looks at him, at a loss for words. Lucifer watches intently; he finds this incredibly interesting.

Louis continues, “Now, I know it’s not quite what you all are used to playing up around here, but it’s always been a good time for me, and with the earth in flames and all, don’t you think those folks that are seeing the world burning could use something they’re accustomed to? And me, well, I’ve got ‘em all accustomed to it by now!” And Louis laughs.

Gabriel still can’t seem to find any words. He can feel, all the way from Hell, Lucifer waiting for him to do something disgraceful. As if Pops can read the anxiety in him, beyond that impenetrably perfect angelic face, he says, “Well, why don’t you and I go and jam a bit in the meantime? We can talk about it more; we’ve got plenty of time, after all, and I’d like to hear you give it what you got. Have you got your horn around here somewhere?”

As a matter a fact, Gabriel’s horn is nearby. He goes to get it, and brings it back with him. Louis smiles. “Well, it may seem a little silly up here, but I just feel like playing ‘Saints’ right about now. You know that chart?”

Down on earth, the children in Corona, Queens look up at the sky. They hear something, but they don’t know what it is. Some of them think it’s the ice cream man, but that idea goes away as quickly as it came. The youngest of them, who can’t be more than five years old, smiles and hums a little. He sings quietly, Oh Lord, I wanna be in that number…The moment passes, the children resume their play, and the sun sets. A handsome figure walks down 107th street, pauses in front of number 34-56, smirks in a not so devilish, but rather unusual way, as though sharing a joke with a very old friend. He tips his hat, and continues along his way.

BobeMelissa Bobe holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Translation from CUNY Queens College. In 2011, she was a writer-in-residence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. She founded a creative writing workshop for teens at her public library, and has also taught writing at Queens College and at Rutgers University, where she is currently pursuing a PhD in English literature. Her work has appeared in Anomalous Press, Steel Toe Review, and The Glass Coin. You can keep up-to-date with her on Twitter (@abookbumble).

“Solomon Victorious” by Don Jennings

Jerry watched as the kitten tried to scramble onto the sofa. Her front claws were sunk in the threadbare fabric. Her head hovered just above the cushion and her hind legs flailed, before she collapsed onto the floor. It was her fifth failure of the morning.

He snickered. “I be damn. They ain’t never supposed to land on their backs like that.”

In the apartment’s other room, his bed was unmade. He passed it by and stood on a bare patch of linoleum that separated the kitchenette from the bathroom and broom closet. A galvanized bucket had been placed just outside the latter’s door. A box of Morton’s salt and a gallon jug of water lay beside it. An empty light socket with a string attached was immediately overhead.

He stood and studied the collection of items. The presence of this suicide assortment, this anti-survival kit, brought an odd sense of comfort. If the pain ever got bad enough–when he simply could not bear living anymore–he knew he had only to shed his boots and socks, step into a bucket of salt water, stick his finger in the socket and pull the string. Zip, zap, I’m outta here. No deposit, no refund.

Jerry had never attempted suicide. There were no scars on his wrists to mark ineffectual slashings of years past. No record of treatment in mental hospitals to document former pleas for help. He was too thorough, too methodical, too independent for such as that. No, if he ever decided to kill himself, the event would be singular.

He opened the refrigerator door and removed an open tin of tuna from the top shelf. Picked a dirty fork up off the counter, knelt, and scooped a small portion of fish into a stainless steel bowl. “Solomon! So-lo-mon,” he repeated in a singsong voice. The kitten was female, but the male name had stuck before Jerry had realized his error. So hard to tell with cats. She bounded into the room and began to gobble the tiny chunks.

He rose and turned toward the broom closet. Stepped past the bucket and other items, and opened the door.

The enclosure was full of weapons. A 12 gauge shotgun leaned against one corner, a 22 rifle against another. On a shelf about waist high, lay two handguns. One was a nickel-plated 9mm, the other, a blue-steel double-action 38 snub nose. Sometimes, a man wanted to announce that he was armed. On other occasions, he preferred it be a secret. He picked up the smaller, darker pistol and slipped it into his coat pocket.

The tuna was gone. “I be back in a little while,” he told the kitten, the words trailing from the side of his mouth as he walked past. Her head stayed down as she continued licking the empty bowl.

His hands were cold at first, but after he walked a couple of blocks through the Lipscomb streets, Jerry began to warm up. He dreaded the coming of full winter. Frost on his windshield in the morning. Always watching the weather forecast and wishing his water pipes were insulated. The imperative to drive on his evening sojourns past Doris’ house. He stopped in the shadow cast by a cedar tree across the street from her place. Blew hoary breath onto his hands, and surveyed her driveway.

A red pickup was parked there, same as last Tuesday. So it was confirmed: she had a new fella, and Herman had moved on down the road.

Before the divorce, Jerry had been with Doris for seven years. It was the longest she had stayed with anyone. Since they split, though, she’d had a revolving bedroom door. None of her lovers stuck around more than a few months. Within a week or two of the departure of each, a new truck or work van would be parked outside her home.

Jerry watched as shadow images flickered on the curtains that covered her picture window. Lightly fingered the trigger of the pistol in his pocket. Wondered if they were making out. They were newbies, so the good times were on. Their embraces would be tender, their kisses, passionate, their sex, athletic. Only after the guy moved in, and had lived there a month or more, would the trouble start. The new would wear off the toy for each. Some little thing he did, like chewing food with his mouth open, would begin to irritate her. He would decide to to go shoot pool with his buddies, and she would bitch. A argument would flair. Voices would be raised. Within a couple of weeks, dishes would be broken, then eyes blacked and lips bruised, and finally the police would arrive. Watching her court a new man was like seeing a slow-motion film of two freight trains approaching a head-on collision. There could only be one outcome. You were powerless to stop the carnage, and the tension was excruciating as you waited.

Eventually, she would come to her senses. Surely to God. She had to know this wasn’t working for her. It had never worked, and it never would. Everyone had always said Jerry was the best thing that ever happened to her. She was bound to figure out that was true, one of these days.

He stepped out of the shadow and started walking again. Paused for a few seconds and stood, his face turned back over his shoulder, toward the window, his fingertips resting lightly on the grip of the pistol in his pocket. Then he withdrew his hand and resumed his trek.

Back at the apartment, Jerry found that Solomon had succeeded in climbing onto the couch. “Well, look ah chew,” he congratulated. The cat watched silently as he passed.

He opened the broom closet door and returned the weapon to its place on the shelf. Closing it again, he noticed the metal pail resting at his feet. He bent and caressed its rim. His friend, his comforter. His escape hatch.

Tonight? Was this the night? Should he step in the water and pull the string this very night?

No, not tonight. The game wasn’t over yet. He’d give it a while longer. Eat a sandwich, get some sleep, and see what the sunrise looked like in the morning. But he wouldn’t put the items away just now, either. They had been in place for a year and a half, ever since his divorce. He thought perhaps he’d need their solace for a few days more.

Returning to the living room, he found Solomon still atop the sofa. She was reared on her haunches, front paws lifted, belly exposed. Kitty Victorious. Jerry reached down and goosed the fur on her chest. A paw snaked up and slapped the side of his hand, but with claws retracted.

“I be damn, Sol,” Jerry chuckled. “You think you’re King Shit now, don’t you? I be damn.” Then, for a moment, he stood silent. His eyes focused on something in the distance, outside the window, and his brow relaxed. He voice was a whisper when he spoke. “One of these days, gal, you and me gone get this here business figured out,” he told the kitten. “The both of us will. Just you wait and see.”

Don Jennings lives alone in a tiny apartment stuffed with books in Richmond, Kentucky. A grandfather hailed from Lipscomb, Alabama. His stories have been published in Fried Chicken and Coffee, Wrong Tree Review, and elsewhere, and he blogs about fiction and other truths at http://oaknpine.blogspot.com .

“Blow, Satchmo, Blow Part II: He Is Just Away” by Melissa Bobe

Read Part I

“Be proud and strong, Lucille, in the knowledge that you were beloved of such a man.”
“Words are never adequate at times like these, but it must be some consolation to know that you were married to, and loved by one of the most beautiful men of this or any century.”
-excerpts from condolences sent to Lucille Armstrong upon Louis’s death

The mail had come again today. She’d never known so much mail in her life, even when Louis was getting fan letters and requests for autographs on a daily basis. It took her two trips just to get all of the condolences to the kitchen counter. She’d worried the other day that the postman might be irritated by the inconvenience; but then, he’d recently given his condolences, too.

The house was quiet. No tape machine running, no children on the front step—even the Good Humor man seemed to have given it a rest. She hadn’t been outside much, either. It was July, surely too hot to be out.

She opened a few of the condolences, reading but not really absorbing. It was strange, like being spoken at but not to. So many people, with their own stories, their own mourning, their own lives, cities and states and countries away from her. Louis was wonderful. Louis was fine. God must have needed him. They’d see him again.

They all read, Dear Lucille, Dear Mrs. Armstrong, Dear Madam Satchmo, Mrs. Pops. But they weren’t messages for her, she began to suspect. It felt like some kind of sick joke someone had planned to confuse her, to make her doubt. But what did she have to be doubtful about? There it was, in telegrams and on stationary: she was Mrs. Satchmo Armstrong. The letters said it, and so it must be true. The wife of a legend.

A car backfired in the street, and she jumped. Her heart was pounding, and she felt a moment of real terror. Who was she, really? Who was this Lucille that the whole world wrote to every day, now that it was summer? The heat was confusing her, perhaps. She was the wife of a genius that all the world loved dearly, but what did that make her? Not even his only wife, she was the most recent in a pretty long line of wives for one man—count them, one, two, three, Lucille makes four—even if that man was Louis Satchmo Armstrong. And was she really the last woman he’d have loved? Or had he just up and run off, leaving a widow at random? If he’d lived longer, would they have parted, too? She could imagine the headlines: POPS TURNS 190, MARRIES 12TH WIFE AT BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION!

What was he doing, letting her outlive him, anyway? You’re not supposed to outlive legends, even if you are married to them. Was this his way of moving on? Had he left her for another woman, a celestial beauty somewhere up there? Were earthly women not enough anymore? Was he trying to tell her she was not enough? She remembered he’d told her that, if he went before her, she should get herself another man. Was that because he’d be getting himself another woman? She was furious; her hands shook. Card after card reminding her to be thankful, to remember that she’d been lucky enough to marry the old dog, and there he was, somewhere she couldn’t get to, making eyes at every singer and piano player in a tight dress that passed him by!

She caught sight of her own reflection in the letter opener. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hair looked a mess. She smoothed it, tried to stop her hands from shaking. This heat—it had to be the heat. She couldn’t keep thinking right now. She should sort through some of these cards, get them ready for the scrapbooks. Scrapbooking might help ease her mind—it had before he’d gone, she didn’t know why now should be any different. She scooped up all of the cards and telegrams from the counter to bring them over to the table for sorting. As she walked with the pile, one card fell to the floor. Setting the rest of the condolences down, she turned, and with a little effort and a small groan to prove it, she bent and picked the card that had fallen off the floor. She glanced inside.

“Thousands acclaim Satchmo for what he was—a great man—a fine musician. I’ve always thought of you as a pretty great person also, who contributed an immeasurable amount to Mr. Armstrong’s career.”

Well. Maybe the wife of a legend is more than that because that’s exactly what she is. And she’d miss him, wearing that pink shirt, grinning at her from under those big old reading glasses of his, that crackling laugh, that laughing smile.

Sorting the mail could wait. She felt like taking a walk. She slipped her shoes on and stepped into the thick, bright Queens summer.

BobeMelissa Bobe holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Translation from CUNY Queens College. In 2011, she was a writer-in-residence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. She founded a creative writing workshop for teens at her public library, and has also taught writing at Queens College and at Rutgers University, where she is currently pursuing a PhD in English literature. Her work has appeared in Anomalous Press, Steel Toe Review, and The Glass Coin. You can keep up-to-date with her on Twitter (@abookbumble).

“Blow, Satchmo, Blow – Part I: The E Train” by Melissa Bobe

Note: This is the first of a three-part fiction piece. It is the product of a residency at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archives, where the author had access to the condolences written to Lucille Armstrong upon the death of her husband. The short quotations used are valid under the fair use act.

The E train at 3:00. You know what I’m talking about. The E train. It’s air-conditioned now, and has those little light-up schedules on either side, where you can see what stop you’re at, where you’re going, what lines you can transfer to (although you probably won’t want to leave the air-conditioning). The ride’s a little smoother, and at 3:00, it’s not quite packed yet. Rush hour is coming— you know it, I know it— but it isn’t there yet, and you can remain in the car between boroughs without feeling claustrophobic, and maybe even get a seat.

It was 3:00, well, okay, it was 3:14, on the E train, and everyone was plugged in. Mostly to iPods, although there were the occasional technological deviants who had those other mp3 players, feeling special because they hadn’t succumbed to a brand name, and meanwhile wearing Cons on their feet and Moleskines in their back pockets. Those who weren’t into their music were busy on Blackberrys, some Blackberrys were accompanied with music, and a couple even had iPads (those were the ones who had procured seats immediately). Pick your plug—it’s New York, after all, and what kind of city would this be if you couldn’t get your electronic drug of choice?

If someone on the E train had decided to unplug at 3:00 (by which I of course mean 3:14), that person would have noticed the man with the horn smiling at the boy in his stroller, monitored, but not actually watched, by his iPad-entranced mother. The boy was only three, so he wasn’t plugged in, and he was already three, so he was getting quite comfortable making acquaintances, and he waved at the man with the horn, who chuckled and said something to the woman next to him.

She was lovely, with a softer smile than the man with the horn, though it was just as kind, and her hair was piled high up on her head in a classic and elegant way. Her eyes were striking, because they were ever-so-slightly bigger than most, and her brows were articulate, solid and beautifully arched, giving her a look of combined wisdom and sweetness.

If someone on the train unplugged, they would hear the woman call the man Satch, and ask him if he didn’t have another little horn for that handsome little boy. They would hear the man call the woman Pearl, and tell her no, he only had the one horn, but maybe if he held it careful, the boy could get a real good blow or two out of it.

A man sitting opposite the two looked up from one of the free subway papers that are always given out at the entrances. He wore a double-breasted jacket, had a handsome pencil moustache and a gentle but oh-so-slick smile, one that, had they unplugged, the two ladies sitting next to him would have swooned for. “You never did do anyone harm along the way, Pops,” he said to the man with the horn. He took a cigarette from his sharp-looking jacket and patted around for a light.

“Say, let me get that for you, Duke,” a man with a soft baritone-bass voice said, leaning over and offering a light. His icy eyes would have made him appear harsh, had his visage and voice not been so kind and charming, accented by the beautiful, long-stemmed pipe he was biting on. Those two ladies sitting nearby were still preoccupied with their Blackberrys, and apparently no amount of good-looking men in their vicinity could break their focus. The little boy reached out his hand as the blue-eyed man lit the cigarette, and the man smiled and said, “I think you’re just a little young to start smoking, fella.” The man with the horn laughed, and the man called Duke said, “Just give him a year or two.”

A burst of laughter came from the other end of the car, a cackle more than anything, low enough to rival the voices of the men, and with almost as much static as the man with the horn.

“Darlings,” the woman said as she approached, “have you been having a party without me?”

The man with the horn nodded his head towards the little boy and said, “We’re just wishing we had another horn for this here cat to play.”

The woman bent down to meet the boy at eye-level and said, “It’s a shame I had to give up Winston Churchill—you’d have adored each other, Darling.”

“Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister?” the blue-eyed man asked the others.

“No,” said the woman called Pearl, “her lion cub. He was also Winston Churchill.”

“A cat named for a cat,” said the man with the horn, laughing.

It was now 3:17. The E train was approaching midtown. Some people got on, others got off, but no one unplugged.

“We’re almost downtown,” said the man with the paper.

“Remind me why we’re going there? I forget things so quickly,” said the woman who’d had Winston Churchill the lion. She was making faces at the little boy, who was laughing delightedly.

“Why, we’re going to see one of your films, Tallulah,” said the blue-eyed man. “It’s your turn this month.”

“Oh, of course, Darling! How exciting!” And she turned a cartwheel right in the center of the train car. The other four laughed, and the little boy clapped his hands—he was very well-mannered at three.

“Do you think any of these folks are going to join us?” the blue-eyed man asked, looking around.

“If they didn’t join us after that,” the woman called Pearl said, indicating the other woman’s cartwheel, “I don’t think there’s much hope.”

The man with the horn said, “It’s a real shame we can’t bring this one with us.” The little boy had taken his hand and was gripping two of his fingers tightly.

“Always a sucker for the kids,” said the blue-eyed man.

“And why shouldn’t he be? I adore children,” said the woman who’d turned the cartwheel.

It was 3:26. The train was starting to fill up.

“Time to leave, all,” said the blue-eyed man. They gathered their things, and moved towards the door.

“Once upon a time,” said the man with the horn to the little boy, “I’d have taught you to blow this horn on my doorstep.” The little boy waved good-bye as the subway doors opened, and one woman looked up from her iPad and started upon seeing the group. The man with the horn waved back at the boy, winked at the startled commuter, and stepped onto the platform. The cartwheeling woman took his arm. “Come, Darling,” she said. “The only person who enjoys the sound of their own voice more than you is me.”

The train doors closed behind them. The woman who’d looked up for an instant shook her head and returned to her iPad. The little boy kept waving as the E train pulled away, and 3:30 appeared on the digital clocks on the tops of the cars. The rush was about to begin.

BobeMelissa Bobe holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Translation from CUNY Queens College. In 2011, she was a writer-in-residence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. She founded a creative writing workshop for teens at her public library, and has also taught writing at Queens College and at Rutgers University, where she is currently pursuing a PhD in English literature. Her work has appeared in Anomalous Press, Steel Toe Review, and The Glass Coin. You can keep up-to-date with her on Twitter (@abookbumble).