From Issue 19: Dr. Marsh’s Final House Call

Philip Ivory

BUZZ. BUZZ.

Rita shook herself out of a deep sleep, flicked on the light and slid into her bathrobe. The clock said 2:45 a.m. The doorbell at this hour? In three and a half hours, Rita would have to get up, feed and diaper Celeste, pack her up with her formula and toys and get her to daycare at 72nd Street before taking the subway to work. 

She stumbled along the hallway, rubbing her eyes, trying to be as quiet as possible. If Celeste woke in the middle of the night, she’d cry for an hour before calming down again, and it would be four o’clock before Rita could fall asleep again. 

BUZZ. BUZZ.

It had better not be Rodney, Rita thought. It was one thing for little Rodney Powers, six, along with his even littler brother Solomon, to run up and down the hallway ringing apartment bells in the afternoon. Rita did not blame little boys for being little boys. Especially when the nearest playground was four blocks away and had been host to two fatal shootings in the last six months. 

If they were doing it in the middle of the night, that would be different. As she stood by the front door, armed with a spatula she’d grabbed from the kitchen, Rita breathed a grateful sigh that there was still no sound from the baby’s room. 

BUZZ BUZZ

She looked through the peep hole and saw nothing. Nobody. She couldn’t make sense of it. In frustration, keeping the chain on, she pulled the door open and stuck her head into the hallway. 

Once again, nothing. One of the hallway lights was working in intermittent spasms, making the pink and orange patterned wall-to-wall carpet look particularly ghastly.

Who had rung the bell? There were no boys in sight. No distressed neighbor asking for aspirins to bring down a fever or disinfectant because someone had stepped on a broken glass. No Mr. Bainbridge coming home drunk, jiggling the wrong doorknob and ringing the wrong bell before half-singing his apology through the door. No sound except the usual distant sirens and faraway street arguments. 

One thing was strange, though. It was May, and the hall felt cold as ice. Usually this time of year the underpowered building AC left the corridor stifling and warm. 

And then the cold moved. It swept through Rita and swarmed into the darkened apartment. She turned in astonishment, clamping a hand to her throat. Then she closed and bolted the door. 

What had caused the rush of cold air? She looked toward Celeste’s room. 

She saw a man standing over the crib. He was as real as anything. Tall, heavyset, in a black belted coat. Brown skin with deep creases under his eyes and ringing the back of his neck. Hair transitioning from gray into white. Not undistinguished. 

To Rita’s shock, he looked at her briefly, nodded solemnly, then returned his attentions to Celeste. He was not touching the baby, but seemed to be drinking her in, his gaze closely scrutinizing her face and tiny limbs.

Celeste’s eyes were open and shining. She was never afraid of new grownups. She gurgled, her little hands writhing in pleasure and the expectation of being held and paid attention to. 

Rita, frozen, uprooted herself by sheer force of will. She took two steps toward the baby’s room. 

That was when the man spoke, his voice heavy and deeply sad, his eyes anxiously seeking out Rita’s. “Why did you call?” 

Rita heard her heart thump. Once, twice, three times. “I … I didn’t.”

The man looked confused, or perhaps embarrassed. Was it possible for a ghost to be embarrassed? He turned his eyes back to Celeste, gazing on her with inexpressible sadness and longing. 

And then his presence melted from the room. The cold was gone too. Rita stood in shock. Had it been real? She rushed to the crib, gripping the rails, and saw Celeste’s eyes darting around the empty space above her. The baby burst into wails, not of fright but of disappointment. 

Celeste had seen him too.

“Yeah, I seen him,” said Patrice Wallace. She sat on the park bench next to Rita, who was gently nudging Celeste’s carriage back and forth to soothe her. 

It was a Saturday. Even the city air was fresh and invigorating on this beautiful May morning. 

Patrice was keeping an eye on her daughter Jade, who has eight and playing on the monkey bars with two other little girls from the building. 

“He came to see Jade when she was a baby,” Patrice said. “He comes to see all the babies. Never does nothing to them. It was a matter of time you would see him.”

Rita had only moved in the building a year earlier, when she was pregnant with Celeste. She had never heard the story before. 

“Well, how many people have seen him?”

“All the mommas with babies, can’t tell how many,” said Patrice.

“What does he want?”

Patrice shrugged. “Nobody knows. He never hurts the children. But he scares folks enough.”

“He scared me enough. Nobody knows who he is?”

Patrice paused to think. “Well, Suzie Winslow, she grew up in 27B, still lives there with her sisters. She says her momma told her the man came to see Suzie when she was a baby. Suzie always said her momma called him ‘The Doctor.’”

Doctor sounded right to Rita. There was something about him. Rita wanted to talk to someone else who had seen him.

“Is Susie’s momma still living here?”

“No, she passed, eleven, twelve years ago. She might have got that, calling him the Doctor, from Mrs. Castle. Maybe.”

Rita nodded. “She’s the real old lady with the little dog? Lives way on top?”

Patrice nodded. “She don’t come out much anymore. The dog died, month ago or so. She lives on the top floor, 34. Been there forever. But yes, that’s who Suzie’s momma talked to. Mrs. Castle’s supposed to know who the man was.”

“You think she does?” Rita said.

“I don’t know. I don’t worry about it.” Patrice glowered. “Seeing a sad man in a coat don’t scare me very much. My little girl got to play in a park where they found somebody dead under the swing set last Thanksgiving. That scares me enough.”

There was nowhere for Rita to sit. Mrs. Castle sat in the only habitable chair, facing the window looking toward the boulevard. The other chairs and sofas were piled with magazines and newspapers. A framed picture on the wall showed Mrs. Castle much younger, maybe age fifty. Next to her was a man in a blue suit and yellowing teeth who had his arm around her.  

“That’s a fine baby,” said Mrs. Castle. “Healthy.” 

“Thank you,” said Rita.

Rita had set Celeste, wrapped in a blanket, on the sole bare spot on the table that wasn’t covered by piles of the New York Daily News. Celeste was, thankfully, sleeping. Rita stood near her, adjusting the blanket to make sure Celeste could breathe easily.

Mrs. Castle talked for a while about her husband, who had been a construction engineer. But he had never stopped smoking. Lung cancer took him eighteen months after he retired. 

“Did you and Mr. Castle ever have children?” Rita asked.

There was a long pause and Rita wondered if she had asked too personal a question. Or maybe Mrs. Castle hadn’t heard her. Rita repeated the question. 

“Yes,” said Mrs. Castle. “But only one. And he died. Just a little baby.”

“Oh,” said Rita, not sure what else to say. “I’m so …”

“You lived in this building long?” said Mrs. Castle.

 “A year ago, May. I had to … I had to find someplace after I got divorced.”

“And you’ve seen him?” said Mrs. Castle. She spoke the next two words quietly, with a slight mocking emphasis. “‘The Doctor.’”

“Yes, he came to see my Celeste.”

“But he didn’t do anything, just looked at her?”

“Yes.”

“My child died,” said Mrs. Castle. “Did I tell you?”

“Yes. I’m so sorry. How did it happen?”

“Malcolm. That was his name. He had a fever. Nothing I gave him would help. I called for Dr. Marsh. He was the pediatrician. On the east side. You know, they still did house calls in those days.”

“Oh,” said Rita. “Wow.”

“Dr. Samuel Marsh. But he never came. I would have taken her to the emergency room. But it was a blizzard in the city. You couldn’t get through the streets. And the power went out. No elevator.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Mrs. Castle gestured out toward the boulevard. “It was so much white, like a sheet, not dirty. White all over. Prettiest thing you could ever see in this neighborhood. I used to like to see the snow.”

Rita spoke very gently. “What happened?” 

“Well, he died,” said Mrs. Castle, biting down on the words. “Our boy. My Malcom. He died. My husband and I didn’t know what to do. No one came and he died, right here.”

“I am sorry.”

Mrs. Castle seemed to ponder this. “Can’t do nothing about it. That’s life.”

An even longer silence. They both looked at the river of cars passing below. Then, sounds of deep steady breathing came from Mrs. Castle. Rita leaned in and saw that she was asleep. Rita put her mug in the sink, washed it, then gathered up Celeste and left. 

Back in her apartment, Rita thought about the name Samuel Marsh. She looked in the yellow pages and saw a listing for a Dr. Samuel Marsh, pediatrician, in the east 60s. She stared at it for a long time, not understanding. It couldn’t be the same. Finally she picked up the phone, started to dial. When a voice answered, female, saying “Dr. Marsh’s office,” Rita quickly hung up. She decided to put it, all of it, out of her mind. She succeeded, until she saw him again.

Rita awoke one night, coughing. She turned on the light. She could not see the smoke but she could feel it. There were yells of fire in the hallway. Someone furiously pounded on her door and yelled “Get out!” 

She ran to the baby’s room. The smoke was thickest there and was rolling in through the edges of the closed windows. The smoke was white and filled the room except for a space of clear air immediately above the crib. 

Rita reeled back in shock as she saw the area of smoke-free space move, taking shape, roughly the shape of a man bending protectively over the crib. Smoke made it hard to see, to breathe, to think. She looked where the head should be and, faintly, saw Dr. Marsh’s anxious face bending over the baby, forming a shield that caused the spreading smoke to roll away from the crib, to double back on itself, becoming thicker and thicker in the room. 

Rita screamed “Celeste!” She reached through the empty space and experienced the same sensation of cold she’d felt before when the Doctor had passed through her. She grabbed up Celeste, who had started to bawl. 

Fiercely embracing the child, Rita burst out into the hallway. The smoke was equally thick there. She turned left, toward the east stairway, which was closer than the west one. Dr. Marsh melted into view before her, his face and features fully visible now. He held up both hands as if to push Rita back, gesturing in the other direction. 

Rita said “Why?”

“You will die if you go that way,” said Dr. Marsh. His voice was sad and heavy but this time it was imbued with purpose. 

Rita chose to believe him. She turned around and ran for the west stairway. Families from higher floors were making their way downward, handkerchiefs to their faces. Rita and Celeste joined the steady procession downward. 

Down on the street, Rita watched as the trucks unfurled their ladders to battle the flames that had erupted two floors below Rita’s. Soon the fire was under control. 

As Rita huddled with Celeste on the only available seat, the hood of a parked car on the boulevard, Patrice and her husband and little girl found them. Patrice smothered Rita in a hug. 

Like Rita, Patrice had come down the west stairway. Word had spread on Patrice’s floor. There had been a kitchen fire on the east wing. The rising smoke had made the east stairway impassable.

“A deathtrap,” Patrice called it. “Thank God you didn’t go what way.”

It was weeks before the people on Rita’s floor were allowed to return from temporary housing to their own apartments. The smoke smell still clung heavily everywhere. The walls in Rita’s apartment had to be repainted and the curtains replaced. The clothes and furniture were fumigated. 

 A week later, Celeste on her lap, Rita called Dr. Marsh’s office. She told the receptionist she wanted to speak to him, but couldn’t say why. The receptionist took some basic information and said she’d give Dr. Marsh the message.

The phone rang exactly one hour later. The voice on the phone was male, but not as heavy and sad as she’d come to expect.

Rita pretended she needed a pediatrician, and asked questions. Marsh had earned his medical degree thirty years ago. Rita tried to figure it out. That would have been decades after Mrs. Castle lost her child because a doctor failed to appear. 

“Was your … father … a doctor, too?” 

There was a pause. “Yes. This isn’t about needing a doctor, is it? Your address…? That’s where it happened. The apartment where he had the heart attack.” He sounded guarded. “Why are you really calling?”

What could she say? Rita didn’t want to cause more pain than had already occurred. 

“Yes. I’m sorry. My neighbor in the building is a Mrs. Castle, and she told me a story about a Dr. Marsh who never arrived. A long time ago. I just wanted … to understand.”

The voice on the phone sighed. “I know of her case. A colleague of mine treats her. She has dementia. It was explained to her a long time ago that my father never arrived because he had a heart attack. I was just a kid myself then. I mean, this was 50 years ago.”

“Yes. I’m sorry to dredge this up. I just couldn’t make sense of what she said.”

“There was a blizzard in the city, and there some kind of power outage. So no elevator. He got there. Could have turned around and come home. I wish he had. But he tried climbing all those stairs. He made it to the twelfth floor when he collapsed. They … found him like that.”

 “I’m sorry,” Rita said.

“So has she forgotten that part? Why he never arrived?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.” 

In a way, Rita thought, Mrs. Castle was still waiting. Just as the ghost Rita had seen had been waiting and searching for a baby that needed his help.

“I get the feeling he was a good man,” Rita said.

The voice of the younger Marsh now seemed touched by emotion. “He was the best.”

Rita apologized for the intrusion and let Dr. Marsh go. 

The apparition known as “The Doctor” was never seen in the building again by Rita or Celeste or anyone else.

 

Philip Ivory studied literature at Columbia University. He lives in Tucson and teaches creative writing at Writers Studio. His fiction has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Rosette Maleficarum, The Airgonaut, Literally Stories, Devolution Z and Bewildering Stories. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017 and 2018. His blog is writeyourselfsane.com.

From Issue 18: The Count

Christine Holmstrom

My first masturbator was a young inmate—standing at the front of his cell, jeans crumpled around his ankles, boxers sagging below his knees. His hand moved up and down the shaft of his penis. Looking directly at me, he pulled harder, his racing breath audible through the cell bars inches from me. 

I backed away, unable to speak.

What was I expecting anyway? The men here were rapists, robbers, and murderers. This was San Quentin, a men’s maximum-security prison, and I was a new female correctional officer—a prison guard—conducting my first institutional count. But here in West Block, the semi-honor unit in the main prison, inmates were generally respectful of staff, rarely caused trouble. They had too much to lose—coveted goodies like curtains over the cell fronts, small shelves and bookcases made from scavenged cardboard or purloined materials from the furniture factory. On lifer’s row, the first tier, some old-timers even had pets—caged birds, goldfish confined to large glass bowls, and the occasional cat. No one wanted to get written up or kicked out, so they behaved, at least while staff were around. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked, unable to immediately reprimand the masturbator. 

My job was to accurately count the men in each cell (none, one, or two), add up the total number for the tier, and turn in the count to the unit sergeant. I’d been assigned to the third tier. 

Should be easy—all I had to do was click my round metal tally counter as I looked into each cell. What I really wanted was a senior cop at my side, a seasoned officer to help out, give me confidence. But I was on my own.

Get it right, don’t mess up. Climbing the stairs, I clutched the tally counter, took a deep breath, and made my way down the tier. Somewhere up on four, the burrito man was at work—the scent of fresh salsa and frying onions drifting down. West Block was home to multiple entrepreneurs—cooks, tattoo artists, pruno (prison hooch) brewers, and guys who could iron a crease in your state-issue blues as sharp as a newly honed shank.

The cops pretty much ignored most of this—not the pruno or drugs of course. But the count was serious business—it had to clear before inmates could be released from their units to go to the chow hall. Any delays would throw off the entire evening schedule—night education classes, clinic appointments, self-help group meetings, mail pickup and distribution.

Peering into the cells I felt like a Peeping Tom. Most men were sitting on their bunks, or at the sink brushing their teeth or combing their hair. Still, it felt as if I was invading their privacy.

Would I give away my “fish”—new officer—status by staring too long? What if I missed an inmate curled beneath his blankets or squatting in a corner of the cell? The rule book said that inmates were supposed to stand at the bars for the count. Most didn’t. As green as I was, I knew no cop was going to write up half the inmates on the tier for “failure to stand.”

Halfway down the tier, the sole inmate in cell 3-52 stood at the bars. Slender, clean-faced, he could’ve been a high school student. A second passed before I recognized that he was jacking off, his erect penis glistening under the overhead light. My throat tightened. I felt soiled. 

This was worse than the crap I’d put up with as a cocktail waitress—the ass-grabbers, the men who’d drop their hotel room key on my tray like I might want to saunter upstairs at 2 a.m. for a little nooky with some salesman from Des Moines.

My concentration on the count evaporated—my brain heated and empty as midsummer desert. I wanted to yell or curse, but nothing came out. Shit, what was I supposed to do? All I could think was that the young inmate had messed up my count. And disrespected me. Little fucker.

Stepping back, I wondered—did I press the clicker, count him? Forcing myself to inhale slowly, I pressed the tally counter and moved to the next cell, finished the count, and headed downstairs.

R.J. “Raw Jaw” Campbell, the West Block sergeant, looked up from a stack of memorandums and forms piled on the coffee-stained surface of his battered Prison Industry Authority desk. His slightly dissipated face and puffy body reminded me of someone who liked his whiskey a lot more than he enjoyed exercise. 

Handing him the count slip, I felt a wave of anger tug at me like a riptide. 

“Sarge, the inmate in cell 3-52 was masturbating when I walked by to do the count.” I looked at Raw Jaw, waiting for an expression of outrage or, perhaps, sympathy. 

Feeling like a little child who’d run to Daddy for help and was about to be rebuffed, my spine sagged. I imagined Campbell’s thoughts. Get over it. He won’t be the only weenie-whacker you run into here. This is a frickin’ prison, not Sunday School. 

In the lengthening silence, my thoughts cleared. I’d been hired as a correctional officer and had to do the same job as a man. Still, I’d hoped my supervisor would reprimand the inmate, stand up for me.

Raw Jaw took a slow swig of coffee from a chipped mug, his expression unreadable. Finally, he asked, “Did you get the inmate’s name and prison number?” 

“No.” I felt heat rise up my face, my eyes starting to water.

“Well then, go back up on the tier and get his name and ID. You can verbally counsel him or you can write him up.” 

Trudging up the stairs, I struggled to rehearse what to say, how to confront the inmate. My gut was as jittery as if I were pinned against the side of the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.

Why was I so nervous? The masturbator reminded me of something long ago, a memory I couldn’t retrieve. Think about that later. I had to deal with this prisoner. Now. Otherwise the word would get out, and every closeted flasher and wannabe weenie-wagger would be waving his dick at me next time I was on the tier. 

The inmate was fully dressed, standing in the back of his cell, washing his hands before chow release. I planted my feet, stood straight, hands on hips. “Give me your ID. I’m writing you up for sexual behavior.”

“Miss Lady, I didn’t know you were there.” 

“Bullshit,” I sputtered. “You knew I was on the tier. It was the four o’clock count. Now give me your ID.”

The inmate’s mouth twisted into an attack dog snarl. “I didn’t do nuttin.”

We’d argued for a moment. He claimed he’d lost his ID, said he’d misplaced it, insisted I had no reason to write him up.

Finally he reached into his prison denim jacket and fished out his ID.

I examined it, comparing the picture on the small plastic-coated ID to the young man’s glaring face, then noted his name and prison number in my pocket-sized notebook. Downstairs, I’d write up a beef—a disciplinary—and give it to an inmate clerk for typing.

A few days later, on my day off, I told a girlfriend about the masturbator. My friend was an airline reservation agent and had never worked in a prison. She clicked her tongue and gave me one of those “What kind of heartless bitch are you anyway?” looks. “Men need to relieve themselves. After all, their sex drive doesn’t disappear just ’cause they’re in prison.”

Astounded, I’d scowled at her. “They have plenty of time to curl up on their bunks with a copy of Maxim or Hustler and ‘relieve’ themselves when I’m not standing in front of them.”

Back at Quentin, word was out that Officer Kim Haylock had coldcocked an inmate who’d grabbed her breasts. “Right in the middle of the upper yard,” a cop had said, “the dude walked up and put his hands on her tits. She decked him, laid him flat.”

Wow. I envied Kim and her roundhouse punch. But I was no warrior woman. My weapons would have to be verbal. 

Words had failed me at times, refusing to emerge. Like when I was a teen and my dad began leering at me as I bounced past in a bikini, when he put his hands where they didn’t belong, subtly exposed himself when I came to say “good night”—his flaccid penis reminding me of a large ugly worm.

I hadn’t been able to confront my dad. But no way was I going to let some inmate jerk-off artist intimidate me now. I’d signed up for this prison guard job and I was either going to deal with the bullshit or quit. 

Quit? I had no intention of going back to waitress work. My dream was to hold on long enough to become a parole agent—get out of prison and hit the streets. Picturing myself decked out in a shantung silk suit from the San Francisco garment district, driving around town in a state car, checking on my caseload of parolees—that would be my salvation from the daily crap I endured at the prison. 

To combat the masturbators, I needed to embrace my inner smart-ass self.

As a kid, I’d be punished for my “smart mouth”—my parents threatened to wash away my insolent words with soap and water. That smart mouth turned out to be the ideal weapon at Quentin. When a ham-slammer went into action for my benefit, I’d stop and holler, “Hey, you, if you’re going to put on a show, get me a magnifying glass so I can see it.” Hoots and curses would rise from neighboring cells. “Stop messing with yourself, asshole.”

 Put-downs generally worked. But there were a few dedicated masturbators, like the guy in East Block who whacked off every time I passed his cell, which was often, when I was assigned to the elevated gunrail in the housing unit. Writing up the inmate and public shaming had both failed. I called the unit sergeant, asking his advice. We all loved Sergeant Sam—he stood up for his officers. 

“No problem, I’ll send up the tier cop to standardize the guy’s cell.” Sergeant Sam’s voice boomed over the phone, rising above the background of clanking steam heaters, PA announcements, and the cacophony of competing television and radio stations blasting from the cells.

Within minutes, the masturbator was cuffed to the tier railing, and two cops were throwing out contraband—cardboard furniture, excess toilet paper and soap bars, purloined state clothing, and other goodies, heaving it all over the rail to the cement floor two tiers below. The inmate yelled and begged for them to stop, to no avail.

That guy didn’t give me any more trouble. Still, every time I worked a different housing unit or shift, I had to establish my prison creds. Success was often elusive.

Prison work is a cat and mouse game. I didn’t always win. Before he’d stepped in front of me for a pat-down search, one prisoner had concealed his exposed penis beneath his denim jacket. As I ran my hand up his inner leg, I felt cool, flaccid flesh. Jumping back, I’d yelped, “He’s got his dick out.” 

Other officers turned and stared. “You should’ve rung his bell,” one of the male cops said, shaking his head.

Darn—it was too late. But I knew I wouldn’t have yanked on the man’s genitals. My hand had recoiled at the feel of naked flesh. Once I’d washed up, the grossness of the incident evaporated. Yet the cop’s words echoed in my brain for weeks. I’d been gamed. Still, I felt sorry for the inmate, for his pathetic desperation for a woman’s touch, however fleeting. Who was I mad at? Myself? Or for the cop for judging me? Sometimes all I’d really wanted was reassurance, to be told I’d done the best I could in the moment. 

Another time, an inmate kitchen worker “accidentally” sloshed water on me, then started dabbing at my body with a towel. “Don’t touch me,” I’d said, hurrying away. The same shit had happened years before when I was a cocktail waitress, men brushing my legs “by accident.” Once a group of college guys started throwing ice cubes at my cleavage as I passed their table. Without thinking, I’d snatched a glass of draft beer from my tray, flinging the contents in a urine-yellow arc toward my tormenters. They left, remarking, “Hey, you oughta pitch for the Oakland A’s.” But prison was different—you couldn’t retaliate by picking up a pail of water and dumping it on an inmate worker. You’d get in trouble, be written up.

At times, I just ignored the bullshit, like when all the guys in the North Block housing unit group shower turned to watch as I walked past, wagging their soapy dicks at me. 

Jeez, a regular penis party, a chorus line of dancing dicks. I rolled my eyes and headed upstairs. There was work to do—escorting inmates to the visiting room. 

And I couldn’t always think of a good wisecrack.

Maybe you get used to the kind of crap you get as a woman. Or learn to laugh at the bullshit. Sometimes you simply suck it up. Like when I opened the gate to the fourth tier in East Block one night, and the inmate in the first cell hollered, “Pussy on the tier.” Jagged bits of mirror, affixed to broken pencils or old toothbrushes, protruded from each cell as I passed. All I could see were a series of squinting eyes reflected in sharp glass. “Pussy on the tier” reverberated from the cellblock’s concrete walls as each prisoner took up the cry. But no one was masturbating. So I kept going, my heart thumping. 

Another time, in the Adjustment Center, the lockup unit for the baddest of the bad, all the white boys on the second floor squatted near the front of their cells when I walked by after the 1:00 a.m. count. Their faces were at the level of my crotch, and each prisoner inhaled deeply as I passed, as if he could detect whether I had used strawberry- or cherry-flavored douche that morning. What would these guys think of next? At least they weren’t trying to stab me or throw urine-fermented excrement at me.

No doubt about it. San Quentin was a pit. But I wasn’t leaving.

 

Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in various literary journals. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.

From Issue 18: Waste

Rich Furman

I have watched so much rot before me, and here now, two potential disasters. The pickled Korean cucumbers, the more serious of the two; I will need to build courage.     

I reach toward the back of the refrigerator, and remove a translucent-blue container. Cheese I brought home some months before from Mercado Latino. Queso Oaxaca, half of the strings stripped and eaten, the rest, a disconsolate off-white moon with a glowing, yellow haze. I may be too late. I open the lid, breath in, and am pleased–only mildly pungent–not far from its original form. 

I peel a small thread, from the middle of the broken center to the front, bring it to my lips, taste. Satisfied it represents only a moderate risk, I break off a wedge and fuse it with the slightly stale end of a loaf of French bread, despite there being a new one nearby in the cupboard. A sandwich is born.

I no longer pay for much food in my home–my lover’s primary contribution–but it unnerves me, the progression from vigorous to defective.

There has been so much. Take my knees for example. They have turned my world small. The bodies of four dogs that now linger in ash. The flesh between old friends that has torn and split and bleed. The narrowing of the tarsal-tunnels in my ex-wife’s feet; the pain receptors and neurons that turned it all sour.

But this cheese sandwich–it is evidence. I am a hero. I am an entire search and rescue operation. I will receive a medal. Something like a purple heart. 

 

Rich Furman, PhD, is the author or editor of over 15 books, including a collection of flash nonfiction/prose poems, Compañero (Main Street Rag, 2007). He is professor of social work at University of Washington Tacoma.

From Issue 18: My Parents’ Hands

Ellen Stone

 

I saw the way she pushed them –
flickering like river –
into the mound, turning what
was almost weightless
into substance, flour of air,
pinch of sea, sludge of yeast
she drained, slight foam
from the narrow bowl,
hard plane of her wide palm
pressing on counter, leaning
with her urgent weight, making
something live that was static.
The way her brain flew, fingers
turning dough into baby, white
dusting cabinets, floor, her face
a studied countenance of care.

The manner in which he held a hoe
as if it were a loved thing, what
can be leaned or relied on, his
intention sharp as a pine’s outline
on the ridge over the dark swamp.
Then swung it, swift cuts into dirt,
precise, methodical as a church bell
but sharp enough to kill a helpless
small thing. How he let me help
hammer iron stakes, string line
to make the rows. His hands
that raised the sledge above
our heads & released it over
& over. How I thought life would
always be like this, measured
even in cruelty, even in death.

 

Ellen Stone teaches at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poems have appeared in Passages North, The Collagist, The Museum of Americana, The Citron Review, and Fifth Wednesday. Ellen’s poetry has been nominated twice for a Pushcart prize, as well as twice for Best of the Net.

Featured: Free Surge

Ross Hargreaves

 

Right before lunch in the West Junior High band room when the overhead tells us about the Surge truck parked by the cafeteria ready and waiting to give us all free Surge. “Hurry up,” the overhead said. “Because it’s first come first served.”

No way was this ending civil.

Surge was all the caffeinated rage. On the news parents were saying that it had too much caffeine, that along with Marilyn Manson CD’s it was driving kids crazy. And these parents hadn’t had to deal with Red Bull or Monster yet. Surge actually had less caffeine than Mountain Dew. And if it seems dumb to get so excited about a new soda, a Mountain Dew rip-off, remember that this was the mid 90’s. Cobain was dead, Rivers Cuomo had gone back to Harvard, Seinfeld was ending and the best Simpsons were behind us. Movie-wise, beside maybe Men in Black, the whole period was a real dump.

Anticipation ceased all conversation in the band room. Instruments were quickly put away. I lugged my tuba down to the band storeroom and by the time I got it hooked in the bell rang. I hurried to catch up. I though Surge was like drinking Gak but it was free and everyone else was doing it. Classes with a majority of cool kids had been let out early and were already mobbing the truck. I caught up with the group racing across the outside basketball courts with the Sprite backboards. Someone pushed me, someone kicked me in the back of the knee and someone spray-painted a dick on the back of my sweatshirt. That slowed me down a bit.

The Surge truck was parked behind the cafeteria. So many kids surrounded it that the Surge spokespeople couldn’t get out of the back of the truck. They were tossing out single bottles into the crowd and when that didn’t give them enough breathing room they tossed out whole cases. Most were caught. Some exploded on the asphalt, sending up a Surge mist that would last the rest of the day. Skaters were picking up broken bottles and using them to spray at girl’s chests. Other kids took intact bottles, shook them up and tossed them into the air.

I held back. Sure now that I wouldn’t get any. One kid, a sax player in the band and supposed child genius who would dedicate his life to pot smoking, ran out of the crowd, his arms loaded down with Surge bottles. “Look how many I got,” he shouted at everyone.

Another band kid, Casey, a trumpet player, came and stood by me after getting his own armful. Casey would alternately annoy me and be my friend throughout Junior high and high school. I couldn’t stand his hair, styled after the lead singer of Silver Chair. But these days we share a really funny back and forth on Facebook so you never know how these things are going to turn out.

“Casey,” I said. “Can I have one?”

“No,” he said.

Those throwing bottles were starting to take on targets. One exploded on the wall between me and Casey. Both of us sure that we had been the intended targets. “Screw this,” I said but did not go anywhere.

The Surge spokespeople began to apologize. All out of Surge. The last cases were already on the ground being fought over. The truck door was pulled down and the truck shrieked out of the parking lot.

At this point another group of cool kids showed up. Their leader was the tallest white kid in school. The basketball coaches loved him, ignored that he double dribbled every time he got the ball. He was also one of the only kids who drove to school. So every lunch his group used his car to smoke weed or cigarettes, listen to CD’s and even go to McDonalds, though they weren’t supposed to leave campus. That day who knew what they were doing, only that they had to hit the car before free Surge because the Surge would wait for them. Obviously.

“Not fair,” a blonde girl in the group said.

Some of the group entered the fray over any remaining bottles.

The tall kid pointed at me. His face was red with a recent outbreak of acne. “Did you get one?” His voice already full of rage. Sure that if a loser like me had managed a bottle of Surge it proved how unfair this whole situation was.

Casey had disappeared. “I didn’t get one,” I said. The tall kid spit on my shoes and walked away. I twisted my ankle the best I could and tried to wipe the loogie off on the ground.

The cool kids, when their friends wouldn’t give them up, began to pick out the weak kids. A plump kid from my math class gave up all six Surges held against his chest for the unlikely promise of being left alone.

It wasn’t enough, of course. Soon enough a real fight broke out. The tall kid who’d just spit on me vs. Puck, the diminutive lord of the skaters. A kid beloved for his sexual aggressiveness. The rumor was he’d attempted to fuck a seventh grade girl in the very band store room where I kept my tuba. Apparently she was too tight for him to finish. All the band teacher would tell us was, “There is stuff going on you guys can’t understand.” I wondered how involved my tuba was in all this. But what could I do, I emptied the spit valve and washed the mouthpiece out in a drinking fountain.

Puck and I had had run-ins before. The time that sticks out most, some early morning, he was standing in front of my locker talking to this Mormon girl who one day would become a tattooed bartender. I said, “Excuse me.” He ignored me. Then when he deemed it was time for him to move on, he turned to me and said, “There you go, faggot.”

The Mormon girl said to me, not unkindly, “Don’t worry about him. He’s high.”

The politics of this shit.

Feel sorry for those that do the things that really matter; drugs, drinking, fucking too early. Forgive the fuckers who have victims. All so one day you can jump into a pool fully clothed with a bunch of people on a day of celebration. Or hate them until college when you can become just like them. Sit in a room full of your awesome friends watching a home movie projection of you sitting in a room full of your awesome friends.

Is it too much to consider that we are all fascist?

The fight was mostly shoves. The crowd circled before the first punch. Some people backing a particular fighter. Others jumping back and forth to be seen as rooting for both. I wouldn’t root for either. Fuck both those guys. If they killed each other, cool.

A few punches were thrown and then Puck slapped the tall kid in the face with a full bottle of Surge. The sound reverberated throughout the now silent crowd. Then they replaced it with unanimous groans. Half the tall kids face was a slimy yellow mess of popped zits.

I remember the whole thing in super slow mo. In a way it never could have happened. That sound was the most satisfying I ever heard, until years later while working at a CheapFoods I witnessed a security guard whip a shoplifter in the back of the head with a bag of apples.

That ended the fight. Teachers came out and dragged Puck and the tall kid away. Everyone else scattered. Losers to their hiding spots. Cool kids to the basketball courts to be seen. Surge bottles kept getting sent up like fireworks. After lunch everyone returned to class covered in a sticky film.

The next day the overhead gave the whole school a stern talking too. How we didn’t behave the way young adults should, didn’t save any Surge for the seventh graders lunch. Our privileges would be limited from this point forward and if they ever allowed an opportunity like this to happen again, they hoped we would conduct ourselves in a manner befitting our situation as students of West Junior High.

No blame for themselves of course. Sending us out there like the animals.

 

Ross Hargreaves lives and writes in Idaho.

Featured: The answers are written in the book you wrote over

Kennedy Sievers

in purple and blue crayon leaving messages for me that resonate within my head your messages of love overlaid with the text of The Confederacy of Dunces I’ve never read the book on its own but now it’s in conjunction with your sweet nothings you filled the pages with your heart and dinosaur stickers and now that your beating chambers belong to someone else my book sits on the shelf collecting dust alongside my memories of you remember that time we walked to get candy and lay in the grass staring at clouds eating Werther’s caramels or the other time or the other time or the other time or when we stripped down to bare vulnerability souls and asses bared at the sky remember the time I made you laugh so hard you peed on the stairs remember when we snuck out and thumbed down the cops remember remember remember remember when you loved me talk about a confederacy of dunces the real dunce is me

 

Kennedy is a senior at Western State Colorado University. She is an English major with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in Psychology. She has been published several times in both the school newspaper, Top o’ the World, as well as the school literary magazine, Pathfinder.

Featured: Good Morning, Get Up

Michael Brosnan

Birds, as they must,
Sing at the first sign
Of light,

The blue hour.
There’s a word:
Perforce.

You and I, we push
Through — as if to stop
Is to lose.

But lose what?
(The severely imagined)
God knows.

I only know
That possibility
Punishes every pause.

 

Michael Brosnan is the author of The Sovereignty of the Accidental (Harbor Mountain Press, 2017). About the collection, poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “A stunning book…. Poems which stir language, memory, momentary intense awareness, to give us back the bracing joy of clear thinking.” Read more at www.michaelabrosnan.com.

Featured: The Seed, a Sonnet

Daria Smith Giraud

The clapping of my beaded braids
were downbeats to dirty New York streets.
Brand new shell top Adidas chasing a gaze
of graffiti tags thrown up subway upbeats
where summers were my treasure under stars and moon.
I’d dance like Ancestors with aether in my lungs
under Union Square women heavenly commune
shekeres chasing trance in polyrhythmic tongues.
And I and I embodied in space and time
channeling forgotten pasts forbidden to die
from Pangea to Americas to this paradigm.
We’d meet in this plane where the dance survived.
Serenaded by a sea of black bodies jumping from the air,
Awakening the dead, this dance became our prayer.

 

Daria Smith Giraud (Ria) has a performing arts classical vocal music background having studied and graduated from Washington, DC’s, Ellington School of the Arts. Earlier performances include the Kennedy Center sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones. She offers her gifts to community as an organic gardener, arts as education performer, vegan chef, yogini, storyteller. An Honors Bachelor of Arts, Communications student with a minor in Creative Writing, Daria is inspired by her poetry professor to explore her talents and passions in poetry by discovering open mics where her “metaphysical, transcendent historical voice” can be heard.

Featured: Visit to a Small Planet

D.G. Geis

No telling
what He thinks—or if.

His ears,
a zillion light years wide,

pressed to the fizzy heart
of the universe,

a hydrogen gasbag
folded in on itself

like table napkins
on the Hindenburg,

an omelet,
or a quantum quesadilla.

What we call spiral galaxies,
He calls soup and sandwiches.

What we call supernovas,
He calls shoe polish.

What we call black holes,
He calls a paycheck.

What we call space,
He calls the barstool.

What we call the Big Bang,
He calls Louise.

It’s why the sun’s
so hysterical

and the moon
so matter of fact.

But it’s also why
stars twinkle–

The Big Guy winking at us,
humming a little tune

to Himself,
while he helps Louise

with her zipper.

 

D.G. Geis is the author of ‘Fire Sale’ (Tupelo Press/Leapfolio) and ‘Mockumentary’ (Main Street Rag). Among other places, his poetry has appeared in The Moth, The Irish Times, Fjords, Skylight 47, A New Ulster Review, Crannog Magazine, and Into the Void. He lives in the Hill Country of Central Texas.