Tag: issue19

From Issue 19: St. Dunstan in the West

Philip St. Clair

Down Fleet Street, then into a tiny courtyard: above us
Good Queen Bess
with orb and scepter hovered ten feet above our heads.
Then a flash of panic –
three swollen corpses, their mottled flesh blue-green,
lurched toward me
from a niche off the vestry porch, but after a moment
I saw they were only
life-sized metal statues, disfigured and corroded by rust:
King Lud and his sons
clad in Roman armor, carried here, the guidebook said,
from the old Lud Gate
pulled down more than three hundred years ago,

and I remembered my childhood
and the comic books bought from a metal rack
at the corner drugstore:
Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear
with the dripping, rotting
faces of the dead that infected me with terror
while their soulless bodies,
reanimated by black magic or unholy science
or a transcendent magic
impossible to explain by logic or experience,
would shamble at dusk
down red-dirt roads to the mansions of the wicked
and take revenge,

and I thought about the ghosts I might have seen:
the first one came
just after I’d started high school – we had to live
with my brooding grandma
in her narrow house on Route 422 while my father
rolled sheet steel
in the mills of Niles and Youngstown. Over the years
she grew senile:
she couldn’t leave her bed and then she died there,
and on one moonless night
a few months later, I opened the door to my room,
saw a pillar of mist
next to the foot of my bed, and when I cried out
from fright and surprise
it vanished in the glare of the sixty-watt bulb
I’d somehow switched on,

and many years later in Kentucky, grieving
over my only brother’s death,
I walked with a girlfriend into my dark apartment,
and as I entered the kitchen
and reached for the light switch, I saw a pillar of mist
in front of the stove,
and I cried out to my companion to ask her if she
smelled any smoke,
and when the lights flashed on it disappeared
just like the time before,

and even though I could have no proof, I knew
they were discarnate spirits
that visited me for a reason I could not understand,
and because they were
faceless and unformed meant I did not have the grace
to see them whole,

and I remembered the one-celled creatures
I watched one summer
through the eyepiece of a junk-store microscope:
slippers and golf balls,
barrels and arrowheads and highway cones.
One was a Roman warship,
armed both fore and aft with ramming spikes;
one was an amulet
of mottled jade, lashing its black whip-tail;
one was a bladder
full of clots of blood, crawling over logjams
of green algae;
one, with great patience, made ropes and lobes
out of its own plasma,
carefully pulling itself across a glass slide
away from the light.

 

Philip St. Clair has published six collections of poetry. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council and was awarded the Bullis Prize by Poetry Northwest. He lives in Ashland, Kentucky.

From Issue 19: Space Witch, Thief of Dreams

Reading by Lucas Webley, Poem Written by Tomasz Wiszniewski

 

 

Tomasz Wiszniewski is currently developing his first collection of poetry, Age of Elephant. He likes to delve into dream clay and unaltered streets, and plans to travel extensively in the near future. Work is appearing recently in SOFT CARTEL, Bywords, and formercactus. He is on Twitter @tomxwinters

From Issue 19: Doppelganger

Michael Zimmerman

 

He was seeing doubles: two yellowing trees, two empty park benches, two flowerbeds where there should only be one.  Actually, he corrected himself, what he was seeing were echoes, the reverberations of light waves pulsed around his retina, and then mirrored into his brain. He thought that he could really feel each process slowly working its way through his head. 

He’d definitely smoked too much weed.

He snuffed the joint, leaving it carelessly in the grass. It wasn’t the only joint discarded in this isolated corner of Riverside Park. Lying on his back, he turned his attention to the sky—which had seemed so mundane just twenty minutes ago—and thought of all intricacies of each cloud, like a painting  where he could see the strokes of the brush, but without the finer details that sober vision afforded him. He stared at it for a long time, watched the sun of the late afternoon shift from white to gold to russet. Once he was seeing one of everything, he walked up the hill, leaving Riverside Park, towards 103rd and West end, heading home. 

He always smoked in the park because Maddie hated pot in the house. Outside the front door, he sprayed himself vigorously with cologne, turned the key, and pushed it open. They would fight tonight, he knew that. They always had little lover’s quarrels before she left. Maddie had another big client in Connecticut interested in some art, and she would have to spend a day or two installing, making sure the client was happy, and rubbing elbows with rich folks. She loved art, but she hated schmozzing, so she hated half her job. And she hated that he got stoned so much after work everyday. You try teaching 8th grade in the Bronx without an herbal supplement, he thought, finally walking inside 5 B, their apartment. 

“You know, the cologne only makes you smell more like pot.” Sitting on the couch, Maddie was a petite girl with her hair cut to her shoulders and cat-like green eyes. 

“Pot? Me?” He smiled. 

“What if it you ran into a student of yours in the park?”

“Where do you think I get the pot?” He winked, moving to join her on the sofa. 

“Don’t joke like that. One day you’re going to get a laced batch, then you’ll be sorry. Uh, that colonge.” She got up, feigning disgust—or was it real?—and headed into the kitchen. “I’ll check on dinner.”

“You’re going to love it,” he called after her. “Pork roast in the slow cooker with apples. Started it this morning before I left for work.”

He got up to join her in the kitchen, stood by the small table for two in the corner they had set up when they first moved in four years ago. Normally, Maddie kept a vase on the table with seasonal flowers, but the vase was empty. 

“I wish you didn’t have to go.” He stood behind her, put his arms around her waist, and kissed her neck. 

“Pork looks ready,” she removed his hands so she could grab the tongs. “At least something smells good in here.” She grinned at him. 

He began slicing the meat and putting it on plates while she set the table and filled two bowls with salad. Maddie always tried to help, but she wasn’t much of a cook.

“What should I dress the salads with?” she asked. 

“Cider vinegar?”

“Whatever you say, dear,” She dressed the salads and got them each a knife and fork at the table. He brought the plates over, sat down with him, and started playing the news on his phone, like they did every night. 

“Well, the world’s gone to shit. Just like yesterday.” He grinned at her after the news finished. “No telling when it’ll end. You should probably skip going to Connecticut and work entirely.”

“Let’s not bank on apocalypse,” she said. They finished quietly, Maddie’s tension visible as she scrubbed dishes, but not directed at him. He dried dishes in just the perfect order so that she had enough room to add one more. She drained the sink while he gave the table one final wipe. “I have to pack.”

“I’ll shower.” They hadn’t fought. Maybe they would have sex tonight before she left, he hoped. He walked into the bathroom, stripped, and looked over himself in the mirror, popping a pimple on his back, deciding to shave. He started the water and climbed in quickly.  

He heard her sighing as he toweled off. “What’s wrong?” he called through the door. 

“You didn’t pick up the dry cleaning.”

Shit. “No. I forgot. Want me to go now?” An empty offer. He started lathering his face to shave.

“We’ve been over this. They close at 7, dammit.”

“Need your lucky pantsuit?”

“Fuck you. I gave you one thing to do to help me get ready. Now I don’t have enough clothes for the trip.”

“Okay, I love you,” he opened the door, “and you do too have enough clothes for the week. Have you seen the amount of Prada in your closet?”

“Not all of us can wear tucked in T-shirts to work.”

“Polo’s are not T-shirts,” he yelled to himself in the mirror as he shaved.

“Fuck. It’s not just the dry cleaning. You know that.”

He rinsed his face, patted it dry. “Can I make it up to you?”

“Yes. Pick the dry cleaning up tomorrow and bike over with my perfect Prada top. I’ll only be about 30 minutes away.”

He walked out of the bathroom with just a towel around his neck. “Not what I had in mind,” he winked, pointed.

“Oh, honey, that’s not big enough to wear out. Besides, I still need to shower and finish packing.”

“We’ll be waiting for you.”

“By we you better mean you and my perfect dry cleaned shirt.” 

“Of course—but what I’ll be doing with it—that’s the real surprise,” he said. He left Maddie to pack and walked into the bedroom, closing the door.

He turned on the small bedside lamp by his side of the bed and crawled under the covers, just to get comfortable, listening to Maddie pack and resting his eyes for a minute. He thought of the few days without her—how would he fill his time? Maybe he would text some friends to see what they were up to. Jason at work had been asking to get a drink for a while. He closed his eyes in bed.

A window behind him opened, and he knew it had to be closed. 

Everything was dark, something was outside the window, trying to get in.

Two birds with the same face were singing an ugly song. 

(In the house? Where was he?) 

He was in bed. He’d dozed off. Maddie wasn’t there. There was no window behind him. He got out of bed, slowly, the remnants of the dream lingering. It was like waking up after a night of heavy drinking; he felt buzzed and confused. Maybe it was some leftover weed in his system. The clock read 6:13. 

“Maddie?” he called, opening the bedroom door.

“We’re here.”

The door creaked open and he looked into the dark living room. Maddie’s figure was outlined on the couch. “We?” His heart was pounding.

“My suitcase and I. I didn’t want to wake you, so I figured I’d wait out here until my cab gets here.”

“Oh, honey. Come to bed.” He walked over the couch, gently took her hand. “No funny business. Let’s just be together.” 

“I’m fine here.” She pulled her hand away. 

“Oh come on. Don’t be pissy about the dry cleaning.”

“My car will be here in 15 minutes.”

“I’ll wait with you. I’m up anyway.”

He put his arm around her and she slumped her head on his bare shoulder. 

“This traveling sucks.” She lifted her head up, checked her phone, and sighed. “I want to leave this job, open  a small gallery in some small town. Go somewhere it can be easier than this. I’m not cut out for the high client business. I’m fucking tired of this city.”

“We’ve been over this. I’m not ready to leave.”

“I feel like I can’t start over until you are. I’m on hold,” she said. 

“This is a shitty time to bring this all up again. Let’s take it easy.”

“Easy?” Her phone buzzed. “My car is here.”

“Of course it is.”

She got up to leave, grabbing a small suitcase, her purse. 

“Wait,” he put his arm around her, thinking to kiss her passionately, but got a closed-mouth peck from her instead. 

“Think about it,” she said, closing the door behind her. 

He retreated to the couch and fell asleep for another hour. He dreamed of windows opening and closing , of something scratching to get in. 

He swam out of sleep a few minutes before his alarm went off. His back told him, asshole, you slept on the couch last night, so he walked over to the kitchen to take two exedrin. He held them in his hand, staring at the identical emerald green capsules before swallowing them at once, no water. He left for work a few moments after. 

The subway was always empty this early, and the walk to the high school was lonely, but he liked that. The empty landscape cleared his head. At work, the first thing he saw on his desk was his contract for next year. They loved to give them out mid-February. He texted a picture of it to Maddie at 7:30 am. 

Should I sign? Let’s talk more. 

Olive branch, he thought. 

The day blurred by, with the usual. Kids yelling in the halls. Kids complaining about the assignments. Kids butchering poor Shakespeare’s play. By the time the final bell rang, Maddie still hadn’t gotten back to him. He headed home from the Bronx, grading some mind-numbingly bad essays about Twelfth Night on the 2 train. It was his own fault for assigning the stupid things. 

Getting off the train, he realized his left his stash of weed in the apartment. His phone read 6:13 pm, which meant about an hour left of light in the park to smoke. He walked down 103rd toward West End Avenue. He opened the door to his building and walked up to 5 B. 

Something stopped him at the door. A noise—banging or clanging. Something falling? No. There was a rhythm to it. Someone was in the apartment. The super? A neighbor?

Hairs on the back of his neck prickling his polo, he carefully turned the lock and opened the door. The couch was just where it should be. The TV, laptop, all present. The side window was open, though he’d left it shut. The fluttering white curtains looked like a ghost in the corner of his eye. 

“Hello?” he said. The sound continued from the kitchen. Someone was cooking?

“Hey,” he heard Maddie’s voice. 

He walked into the kitchen, where it smelled like smokey paprika and wine and herbs. Maddie was standing there in a pair of cutoffs and a white tank top, her hair in bun. 

“Chicken Provencal,” she said with a wink. 

“Since when can you cook chicken Provencal?” he asked.

“Since forever,” she said. Maddie was happy to help in the kitchen, but couldn’t scramble an egg. He had once tried to teach her—unsuccessfully—many times and many dishes. There was something nice about a woman cooking for her man, he always thought. 

“I’m confused,” he said. 

“About the chicken?”

“About you. Being home. You had that big client in Connecticut. I didn’t hear from you all day.”

“Client cancelled. Left my phone at the office, I guess.”

“You guess? You once described your phone as the most important relationship in your life.”

“Ha. I’m taking it easy,” she said. She walked over to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of white wine, refilling her glass and pouring him one. Was she mocking him by echoing what he said earlier? No—she was actually taking it easy. 

“Cheers to that,” he held up his glass. 

Clink.

“You relax on the couch. I’ll be done in about 15 minutes.”

“I’m not sure I trust you with this chicken. You wanna talk about earlier?”

“First, chicken Then, talk. Go, go, relax,” she ushered him out of the kitchen, squeezing his butt. 

He sat on the couch. Maddie seemed like when they had first met. Her wit was entertaining rather than biting, and her attitude was light. She was smiling and she was cooking. He sipped his wine and contemplated going out for a smoke. What time was it? He reached for his phone. 

He had a text message from Maddie. 

Sorry I took so long to get back. You’re right it wasn’t the right time to bring it up. Let’s talk when I get home Sunday. The message had been sent at 6:35 pm. 

“Hey, weird,” he called to her in the kitchen.

“What weird?” she called back. 

“Just got a message from you saying you’d be home Sunday.”

“Hmmm. Must be a misfire from earlier.”

“Yeah.”

He wrote back: Thanks in advance for the chicken and the sex last night. Hope you’re still smiling this morning 🙂 

He was surprised to see three dots indicating a response coming. 

What???

“Hey, Maddie, I think someone has your phone. They’re answering a text I just sent.”

“My assistant maybe? She knows my passcode. Sometimes I have text messages forwarded to email. Help me in here?”

He sent: Maddie’s home. Sorry—I think you’re in her messages! 

What????

If you’re Maddie’s assistant, you’re in the wrong folder or something. This is Maddie’s phone!

He left his phone of the coffee table while he went in the other room to help with dinner. Had he stayed just a minute longer, he would have received two more messages and a picture. 

This is Maddie. What is going on?

I’m home? 

And a picture of Maddie, in the bathroom of a client’s house in Conneticut, looking troubled and tired into the camera of her phone. 

In the kitchen, he arranged the salad while Maddie pulled the chicken out of the oven. Smeared with the darkened paprika, the chicken looked bloody from where he was standing. He poured them both another glass of wine. 

“We should wait for the chicken to rest,” he said, pulling her close to him. Normally, Maddie would pull away, but this time, she dug her hips into his and kissed him, squeezing his butt again, squeezing at his groin. She gripped him harder, kissed him harder, rubbed him harder. 

“Wait,” he said.

But she gripped him harder and harder. He groaned, coming in his khakis like it was his first ever hand job. She burst out laughing, and so did he. 

“I’ll change before dinner,” he said.

“Cold water rinse on those, bud,” she winked. “I’ll carve the chicken.”

He walked through the living room and heard his phone buzzing. 

In the bedroom, he pulled off his khakis and slipped into a pair of dark jeans Maddie liked. Wow, he thought. Even early in their relationship, when sex is always electric and new, Maddie was never assertive.  He felt himself grinning like a fool even as he walked over to the coffee table to grab his phone. 

More messages from Maddie’s number. A picture of her. The last message read: Are you tripping? Should I come home? What is going on?

A picture of her was over the line. Was this her assistant’s idea of a fucking joke?

This isn’t funny. I think you and Maddie are going to have a long talk tomorrow. 

I’m Maddie. 

Then who is this in the kitchen? He snapped a picture.

“Hey babe. You need to fire your assistant. She’s sending old pictures of you to my phone, claiming to be the real you in Connecticut.”

“What?”

He walked into the kitchen, holding his phone to show her. “Fucked up, right?”
She stopped carving the chicken, wiped her hands to scroll down. “Seriously twisted. Her ass is clearly fired. What do you think? Am I the real Maddie?”

“In the flesh,” he said.

“Good answer,” she gave him a toothy grin and wrapped her arms around him, walked back over, picking up the carving knife. 

“Here, I’ll know you hate that,” he said, gesturing for the knife. 

“I’ve been watching some videos,” she said, cutting deftly through the wing joint and popping it out with ease, holding it at eye level with a happy grin. “We should let the rest of this sit for a bit to keep the juices.”

“True,” he said. 

“Should we smoke?”

“Pot? In the house? We?”

“We can just open some windows,” she said. 

“Is everything okay? Did you like quit your job or hit your head?”

“I didn’t do either of those things,” she pulled a lighter out of one of the kitchen drawers. 

“Okay. You don’t have to do this. You have nothing to—make up for.”

“I know that. I want to. I thought you would enjoy this. I thought this was the girl you wanted.”

“I am. I do. It’s just not like you. Okay—let’s go the living room.” He walked through the kitchen, feeling so confused he didn’t think to pay attention to his phone buzzing. He opened the window with the lace curtains a little bit wider, and he started rolling a joint. Maybe something he had said really did make Maddie change her mind. He licked the joint closed. Maddie and he crouched by the window, using a coffee mug for an ashtray, blowing their smoke out the window. He closed his eyes, sat on the couch, and waited until he felt the distant waves of the high settling into him. 

He was counting the buzzes on his phone—who was texting him?—when Maddie said something to him. It took him a minute to figure out what she wanted. He needed some water.

“Take off your pants.” 

He felt Maddie’s hands slipping off his belt. When he opened his eyes, he was seeing doubles again, triples,  and then it was like a harem of Maddies slipping him out of his clothes. Something about all of those fingernails as he watched her unbutton his pants made him think claws, claws, claws. She pulled his pants off and held him in her hands, with the same triumphant grin she had after detaching the chicken wing. 

“No.” He hadn’t meant to yell. 

“No need to scream. God.” 

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m seeing doubles. It’s freaking me out.”

“Doubles?” she laughed for a long time. “I’ll go finish dinner. You just rest, Sebastian.”

He buttoned up his pants and closed his eyes, waited for everything to stop spinning.  He heard his phone still buzzing as he drifted off. He was dreaming again and he knew it because everything was in flashes. He saw phones, windows, claws, but nothing distinct enough to be coherent. 

When he woke up, Maddie was sitting across from him, watching. “I was worried. I would’ve thought you had more of a tolerance than that.”

“Pot always makes me sleepy. And hungry.” 

“Well then. Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” she said. “Let’s eat.”

She grabbed his hand and pulled him off the sofa, leading him with a seductive samba of her hips into the kitchen. She sat him down at the table and started serving him a plate.

“Let me help.” 

“No. I’ll serve you,” she winked, bringing him a plate, and starting to set one for herself.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You didn’t hit your head or something? I can’t remember you ever asking to serve me.” 

“I think there’s something sexy about a woman serving her man.”

“Okay, we definitely need to have you checked by a doctor.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“The news?” He gestured to his phone in the living room. Faintly, he heard it buzz. 

“No,” she grabbed his arm. “Let’s just enjoy the not-depressing evening we are having.”

“This is delicious,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. 

Maddie smiled, though she hadn’t really touched her chicken. Mostly she was pulling it apart with her hands, twisting the bones, leaving meat in long strips on her plate. “Wash your hands, dirty boy.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, walking over to the kitchen sink. He started filling the sink with hot water and soap, and then he dropped his dirty dishes into it. He took the stripped chicken bones from both their plates and put them into a plastic bag. When he turned around, Maddie was grinning at him with a smile the could only be called predatory. She took both of his hands in her 

(claws) hands and led him out of the kitchen, back over to the couch, slowly undressing him again, smirking down at him as he sat on the couch, transfixed. It felt more like giving in than getting it on. The window was open, and the lace curtains danced victoriously in the night breeze in the corner of his eye. Maddie pulled his hips closer to her pelvis, gripping him firmly against her.

Just as he slid into her on the sofa, he heard a key turning in the door. 

 

Michael Zimmerman is a writer of short stories and poetry, as well as a middle school writing teacher in East Brooklyn. His previous work has been published in Cutbankk, A & U Magazine, and The Painted Bride. He is the 2015 recipient of the Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press and a finalist for the Hewitt Award in 2016.

From Issue 19: Rope Swing

Brian Phillip Whalen

after Czeslaw Milosz and James Wright

slow leaf
on a cold                                       October morning

baby daughter’s peach-
sweet hands rake                          the cotton

weave                                             there will be no other end
of the world                                   no

pleasure than
to waste                                        each miraculous hour

 

Brian Phillip Whalen’s writing appears in The Southern Review, Spillway, Mid-American Review, North American Review, Cherry Tree, Fiction International, Poets.org, and elsewhere. Brian received his PhD from SUNY Albany and is a lecturer in the English Department. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and daughter and teaches creative writing workshops in regional libraries.

From Issue 19: The Winter of East 81st Street

Robin Greene

     Above the grainy black and white Newsweek photo, the caption read “New York’s #1 Pedophile Gets Caught.” And here I was, sitting at a dentist’s office, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, staring at Marty’s face again.      

     Marty—the man who raped me when I was seventeen and who I hadn’t seen since—the man who, almost four decades ago, changed my life. Convicted of recently raping two young women, Marty had confessed, the article reported, to raping hundreds.  

     I put down the magazine, glanced around the large, almost empty waiting room—a man in a suit flipped through an issue GQ; a raven-haired teenage girl texted with her thumbs and smiled into her iPhone. Then I heard my name called, shoved the Newsweek into the rack, and followed the hygienist into an exam room. 

     On the chair, I listened with my mouth open as the hygienist cleaned my teeth and talked about her toddler, how she had wandered outside in the rain yesterday, and for ten frightening minutes, she and her husband searched frantically before they found her playing in a large cardboard box in the garage. Then the dentist appeared for a final check, saying something about the recent heavy rains. Then, patting my shoulder, he said “looking good,” as he left. The hygienist nodded, offering me a new cherry-red toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a miniature roll of dental floss. “See you in six,” she said.

     At the front desk, I paid, scheduled my next appointment, and left to drive to campus, only a few minutes away. I had two student appointments, a class to teach, and a late afternoon meeting. 

     But that evening, Marty’s face returned to me, and after my husband went to bed, I went to my study, pulled up the Newsweek article on my computer, and began, once again, to write about Marty and that winter on East 81st Street so many years ago.    

      

     It was 1972. I lived in Manhattan and attended a non-traditional college. My program consisted of attending lectures on existentialism at the New School for Social Research, studying with a playwright and theater critic for the Village Voice, writing poetry under the guidance of a Bank Street poet, and taking modern dance classes with a performance company. I lived in a four-room, cockroach-infested a railroad flat, with a roommate, Denise, a stranger I’d found through an apartment-sharing agency. Though we had “hit it off” immediately and I thought we’d become friends, Denise—twenty-eight, an unwed mother who had “adopted out” her infant daughter to an aunt and uncle in New Jersey—botched up a suicide attempt two weeks after I moved in. 

     In fact, I was the one who discovered her, heavy and stiff, collapsed from an overdose of valium—pills scattered across her bedroom floor. I don’t remember much about that night, but after calling 911, I rode with Denise in an ambulance to Lenox Hill Hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. Later, her doctor told me that I’d saved her life.

     All this to say that I wasn’t in a good frame of mind that fall. In fact, as autumn temperatures dropped and leaves fell, Denise was released from the hospital and returned to the apartment to recover. And I became depressed.

     I’d been running out of the money I’d saved from my summer job. To survive, I ate lots of oatmeal—often for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then I stopped sleeping; I’d felt claustrophobic in the small flat and found myself leaving the apartment and going out to walk at two or three a.m. along the concrete path by the East River. In the distance, I’d see Gracie Mansion’s lights shining across the black water, and sometimes there’d be tugboats struggling against the current to reach the lower-end docks. I wore my old green army parka, zipped completely up, with its faux rabbit fur hood extending past my face. I’d stop, peer into the river, and huddled against the sharp wind, brace myself to continue walking until dawn. 

      All my classes met downtown, so I killed a lot of time in Washington Square Park, where I’d sit on a bench, watching the ebb and flow of NYU students, street people, and food vendors. I met Moon-Dog, an indigent poet and musician who dressed like a Viking in furs and a horned helmet, and whose death I learned about many years later on NPR. I met Stevie Wonder and spent an afternoon with him. And I met a Ghanaian, dashiki-clad poet who invited a crowd of well-wishers to a lower Westside dock; a big, dark man in traditional costume, he read his poems in a loud, deep voice at the edge of the Atlantic, the Statue of Liberty behind him.

     And during this time, at the onset of winter, I met Marty, a man of average build, with a trim beard and glasses. But truth be told, until I saw his photograph in Newsweek, I hadn’t remembered his face. What I did remember was that Marty claimed to be a psychologist and urged me to talk openly about my life. He had authority and was in his thirties, which seemed old to me. 

     One day we met in the Loeb Student Center, and I told Marty about my childhood, complained about my crazy brother and how my parents always seemed oddly on his side. Another time I met Marty at the Eighth Street Book Shop, where we discussed literature, and I’d been impressed that Marty loved Tolstoy, one of my favorite writers. I remember us walking once across lower Fifth Avenue—holding hands and weaving between cars stalled in gridlock. Once we had coffee together in a small village café, sitting across from each other at a tiny table against the wall, where we intimately connected about Denise and my current situation.  

     On most days, though, I’d be busy with classes and wouldn’t see Marty or socialize with anyone. After school, I’d ride three subway trains and walk from Lexington Avenue to East End and York to return to the dingy apartment in late evening darkness. 

     Denise would be in bed, lethargic from depression and the drugs the doctor at Lenox Hill had given to her. She’d say hello, and after dumping my books on the dining room table, I’d cook oatmeal for myself and dinner for her—usually hamburgers broiled in her small gas oven. I’d bring her dinner on a tray, and she’d eat in bed. Then I’d help her use the bathroom. Most of the time, she’d be in pajamas—Dr. Denton’s with feet and a back panel. I can still feel the weight of her as we hobbled down the narrow hallway—she, leaning against me while I undid her flap buttons. I’d have to back her carefully into the tiny bathroom, pushing slightly so that she landed onto the toilet.    

    The apartment would either be too hot or too cold, and there was no thermostat to control the temperature. I’d do a bit of homework, but often couldn’t concentrate and would go to bed, try to sleep. But there, I’d feel the subway train rocking me through the dark tunnels or visualize Denise after her suicide attempt, the night I’d discovered her: heavy and stiff after a sleeping pill overdose, almost dead. I’d see her on the stretcher, EMTs struggling down the four flights of stairs to carry her unconscious to the ambulance, where I rode with her to Lenox Hill Hospital—the siren screaming, red lights flashing through the dark streets. 

     Over time, my insomnia worsened until, by first snowfall, I was almost sleepless and very depressed. Or more accurately, I stopped feeling. Though I attended classes, took notes, tried to write my academic papers, I became emotionally disengaged and lost my sense of who I was; I felt suspended in time. I stopped writing poetry and did the minimum to get by. 

     One cold morning, while trekking to the Lexington Avenue subway, I picked up a chunk of glass from the gutter and pocketed it. Later, when I got off at the Eighth Street station, I removed the glass from my pocket and cut the palm of my right hand. I had to strike the flesh a few times to make it bleed. I felt no pain. And when I finally bled, I stopped in the middle of a crowded street to watch the red liquid trickle from my hand. But even then, I couldn’t feel. Pedestrians bumped into me, walked around me, but no one stopped. I slogged off with my wounded hand to Washington Square Park and sat on a concrete bench in the frigid morning air before finding my way to the New School and to my existentialism class.    

     Then, one late night as Denise slept, I sat on the rocking chair in the poorly lit front room, listening to the loud argument of couple next door. Joel was a cameraman for NBC, and Sarah worked as photographer. Dishes broke, furniture crashed. I heard Sarah scream, “Joel, you’re not a man!” and watched as cockroaches streamed from the woodwork, scurrying across the hardwood floor.  

     I put on my parka, ready to walk along the East River, but then, I remembered that I had Marty’s phone number in the pocket of my jeans. I pulled out the small piece of torn notebook paper, the phone number’s ink faded and bleeding, and walked to the kitchen to call Marty from the wall phone there. Though it was past midnight, Marty answered right away. I sat down on a kitchen chair, and we spoke for an hour—I telling him that I felt suicidal and wished to harm myself, he insisting that I come to his apartment immediately for help. 

     I agreed—without considering the risks. Stupid, I now think, but I was seventeen.     Marty lived on the lower West Side, and I had a long trip ahead of me. I had to walk to my station, take the train to Times Square, transfer, take another train, and then walk six blocks to his building. The train and the streets were nearly empty, and the night was biting cold, but somehow, I wasn’t dissuaded. Nor was I frightened to be out late, or scared to be going to a near-stranger’s apartment. I wasn’t thinking and couldn’t feel much. Desperation drove me forward.    

     Marty opened the door and welcomed me. I hesitated, then crossed the threshold into his small apartment. I probably looked distraught. I took off my parka. Marty made me tea. We sat together on his upholstered couch. Marty touched my knee.

     Then there’s a blur, and I’m lying on his bed, my shirt off, and Marty’s rubbing my back. I feel his hands reach lower to my thighs, and then he’s on top of me, my pants off. I don’t struggle, only whisper, “I’m seventeen.”

     At some point, Marty pulled off my underwear. I remained passive, lying on my stomach, my back toward him, so I couldn’t see his face. I heard Marty remind me that he was a therapist and my friend. He told me he was sterile. I closed my eyes when he penetrated me. In a matter of minutes, it was over. 

     Rising from the bed, Marty quickly became apathetic. He tossed my clothes to me as he himself dressed in sweatpants and tee-shirt. In the living room, he seemed anxious for me to leave and didn’t offer to call a taxi or to talk further. 

     I put on my parka, zipping it up all the way up, and left. I have no memory of getting home. 

  

     The next day I was miserable. I didn’t go to my existentialism class nor did I meet with my teachers. Instead, I left the apartment early and walked the cold streets—all the way from 81st down to 8th, thinking about what happened. I had no one with whom I could talk, so I tried to process my experience with Marty alone, replaying the previous night’s events, feeling first guilt, then shame—for being needy, naïve, stupid, complicit. 

     I never reported the incident to the police nor spoke about it with friends. After all, I reasoned, I was the one who called Marty and asked for help; I was the one who’d ventured out in the middle of a winter night to a near-stranger’s apartment, allowed myself to be touched. 

     During the next few months, as spring approached, Denise began to recover. She dressed during the day, went grocery shopping, began seeing a therapist, made trips to New Jersey to visit her daughter. She even went to interview for a secretarial job with an uptown CPA firm. 

     I, on the other hand, spiraled downward. I’d completely run out of money and had all but withdrawn from my academic program. By March, I knew that I had to leave the city. 

     When I phoned my parents on Long Island, they said that if I attended an accredited college, they would help. So, I made a last-minute application to a college in Connecticut, and when I got accepted, packed my stuff, moved home for a month, and then into a college dorm. 

     I never saw or spoke to Denise or Marty again. 

     By my second semester, I had declared myself an English major and began writing. I wrote about my experience with Marty. At first, I’d write as if I were a criminal—each poem a trial in which I’d find myself guilty. Then, I developed a more fatalistic view, imagining my encounter with Marty had been inevitable, that we were partners, and that my innocence was something I had to lose. Later, I saw myself as a victim: Marty was the culpable adult who had taken advantage of me, a child. Had I been raped? Seduced? Or merely unlucky?

     And why, I’d ask myself, did I need to answer these questions? Why couldn’t I forget or simply let this unfortunate incident go? It had happened—for whatever reasons—and I needed to chalk it up to experience. 

     Back then, no one spoke openly of rape. There were no crisis hotlines, no networks or agencies for victims of sexual abuse. In fact, women victims were often blamed for provoking the men who assaulted them. So, I continued to suffer alone, struggling with shame, searching for self-compassion. 

    Now, alone in my upstairs study, I found myself suffering again, remembering back to that winter on East 81st Street, recalling the many years during which I distrusted men. Over the decades, I’d dealt with depression and suicidal impulses—even as my life became increasingly successful; I was now a tenured English professor, a writer, living in North Carolina, with my professor husband, having successfully raised our two sons.  

    

     I turned my attention to the computer screen to reread the part of the article in which Marty described his “seduction” of hundreds of young women. The stories were versions of my own. Marty found lonely, needy young women, developed trust, raped, or—as he insisted—seduced them, allowing sex, vulnerability, need, and shame to merge so powerfully that his victims became unwilling to step forward. But now, two had, and Marty had confessed, even bragged about what he’d done. And, the article continued, Marty had been convicted, sentenced to prison.  

     “Closure?” I asked myself, leaning back into my office chair. 

     I shut my eyes and saw myself at seventeen, sleepless, walking the pavement along East 81st Street in the middle of a cold, dark night. I could feel the winter wind burn my face as I pulled up my parka hood and turned onto the path along the East River. Then, I saw myself at the threshold of Marty’s apartment, felt the warmth of his living room, the promise of human connection enticing me forward.    

     I breathed into that space—anger and shame washing over me. 

     When I opened my eyes, the grainy photo of Marty’s face still appeared on the computer screen before me. But something shifted as I realized that my story was and wasn’t my own. Women strangers were now coming forward to tell their stories. Certainly, two of Marty’s victims had, but there were others—across the country.

     Yes, I would tell my story, too, add my voice to the chorus of others. 

     All that week, I wrote about my experience—words pouring from me as I remembered the girl I was and the winter that occurred during the springtime of my life. 

     I wrote longhand, mostly, with Marty’s photo in front of me. But sometimes I’d minimize the screen, and type, giving myself over to the electronic page. 

     Then, one morning I was done; I’d completed a draft—this draft. For one last time, I maximized Marty’s face, then clicked him away from the screen.

 

Robin Greene’s new novel THE SHELF LIFE OF FIRE is due out in April 2019, and her last book REAL BIRTH was published in 2015. Greene teaches Writing and serves as director of the Writing Center at Methodist University. Check out her website at robingreene-writer.com for more info.

From Issue 19: The Reaper’s Child

Paul Sohar

Late October, leaves turning all around the house. The mangy rhododendron is dark bronze and brittle, but what the hell? Candy wrapper caught in the twigs, but on closer look it’s alive, it’s a flower, yellow going on red, a luxuriant but muted rainbow. Life born out of death, a dead mother giving birth to what must be the reaper’s child.

The Reaper’s Child, the sketchy poem I present to the workshop that evening elicits skeptical comments, the leader likes to see real life experiences turned into literary masterpieces and not abstract surrealist fantasies. There’s just one person who shows interest, a newcomer, and he claims my story is not original; just a few years back there was a case of a dead mother giving birth in the coffin, and unconsciously I must have been inspired by the news reports of the event. 

“The story was nipped in the bud,” he launches into his narrative taking off his glasses and rubbing his red face as if tired of the debate. “The hospital managed to hush it up with the connivance of the Governor and the FBI, like they always do…”

Conspiracy. Now we’re getting somewhere. Everyone perks up. The newcomer, now in the limelight of all those eyes, looks into a corner of the ceiling and, clutching his hands together, he continues his revelations.

“It seems, there was this woman in a coma, an accident victim on life support system, fairly young and not bad looking either, so much so that she seduced this security guard or male nurse one night. From then on he had sex with her whenever he was on night duty. When her belly started to grow he increased the glucose in the iv and the signs of pregnancy were hidden by general weight gain. All that time though there was no evidence of brain activity, so the insurance company decided to pull the plug on her. The rest is pure horror show: imagine the coffin lowered to the grave, the hollow bang of the first handful of dirt thrown on it, and suddenly a whimpering sound rising from the pine board box, the funeral party frozen stiff, the priest a solid funerary statue, and then the whimper grows louder like a baby crying its birth breath. Quick, raise the coffin, force it open. The mother still as dead as a brittle rhododendron leaf in fall, but the baby alive and well and screaming like the purple glow of an uninvited flower in the midst of a dying world, borne of a mother capable of birthing only lifeless leaves, a corpse raped by the grim reaper plus a devil child, a bloom stuck in the eye sockets of the skeletal temptress in a black cape, taking lonely mortals on a danse macabre.”

Our visitor falls silent, eyes still fixed on a far corner of the room. 

“Did the baby live?” a pudgy lady asks earnestly.

The narrator suddenly turns to face the group: “Thank you.”

Applause. 

I felt like an empty coffin walking out of the meeting room. What a stroke of genius: A dead mother giving birth in the grave. Why didn’t I think of that? Why, because I am a live poet giving birth to dead poems. I can never go back to that poetry group again. And I’ll have to get rid of that rhododendron. Unless I can think of a better story about it.

 

Paul Sohar has published seventeen books of translations earning three prizes. His own poetry: “Homing Poems” (Iniquity, 2006) and “The Wayward Orchard”, a Wordrunner Prize winner (2011). Prose works: “True Tales of a Fictitious Spy” (Synergebooks, 2006) and a collection of one-act plays from One Act Depot (Saskatoon, Canada, 2014).