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.
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.
Mary Ann Presman
Deep in a daydream, Janet almost launched into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead of “Lamb of God” at Communion. That would have been embarrassing. As it was, she saw Father John glance up at her in the choir loft—he heard that first errant note before she recovered, remembered where she was.
Which was at the organ for eight o’clock Mass at St. Seraphina’s Catholic Church, just hours away from her shift as a Guest Services Ambassador at Wrigley Field. These two occupations were not to be confused, although both were performed in what Janet regarded as rarefied air.
Janet loved to bring the entire congregation to its feet with a hymn that resounded through this beautiful old church in Chicago’s K-Town. Dust mites mingled in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows; the smell of old wood and a trace of incense hung in the air. The ten o’clock Mass featured music provided by a trio of Spanish guitars, but this early Mass was traditional, old school—with the kind of music that had been played for decades in St. Seraphina’s. No choir now, granted. Just Janet, creating majestic music befitting the solemnity of Sunday Mass.
As soon as Mass was over she would duck into the ladies’ room and change into her Cubs’ blue, tucking her fifteen extra pounds under the loose-fitting jersey and her still-auburn curls under her “C” cap. She made a bee-line for the CTA stop at Pulaski and 21st and caught the Pink Line north. It took about an hour to get to Wrigley Field—transferring to the Red Line along the way—but she always arrived in plenty of time to check in and then begin greeting the enthusiastic fans arriving early for Cubs baseball. This was the best job ever. Sure, some people got a little testy when you had to make them move because they weren’t in the right seats—she could nominate many for Academy Awards the way they feigned surprise that their tickets weren’t for Section 131, but for Section 431.
But how about being part of all the excitement at Wrigley? The Cubs were having the best year they’d had in a long time, certainly the best since she’d started ushering—‘scuse me, greeting patrons as a Guest Services Ambassador. And she worked the section above first base, where that cutie pie Anthony Rizzo performed his magic. She was right there to see him climb the rail and perch atop the rolled up canvas to catch that fly ball. And she got paid to be there! Well, granted, not that much—but she didn’t have to fork over the big bucks that people who bought tickets did. Her favorites were the Friday afternoon games—sunshine, green grass, the smell of those kosher dogs on the grill. So what if it had been over a hundred years since the Cubs had won the World Series?
Janet had not been working at Wrigley all that long. It was a much coveted job among seniors—and Janet was only sixty-one. But her regular job during the week was in the office of St. Seraphina’s School, so she had the summers off anyway and decided about ten years ago to look into the possibility of being a Wrigley Field usher. The season started before school was out, of course, and then extended into September (and October if they were lucky!) after school started up again. But the heaviest attendance coincided with Janet’s summer off, and she had no trouble working the minimum number of games in order to guarantee being hired back the next year.
This year, there’d been no problem at all because there was no St. Seraphina’s School anymore. It was just one of the many schools the diocese had to close because there weren’t enough kids to fill the classrooms. So Janet joined the ranks of the retired, a few years earlier than she planned.
Luckily, she didn’t have to pay rent or a mortgage payment. Her parents had bought this 2-flat before Janet was even born, living downstairs and renting out the upstairs apartment to help make the mortgage payment. It was a good deal then, and although the neighborhood had changed some since, it was certainly a good deal for Janet. She lived alone; her mom had died young—younger than Janet was now, come to think of it. Then her dad died just about ten years ago, after more than a few years of Janet caring for him, taking him to doctors’ appointments, cooking their evening meal. After he passed is when she decided to become a Cubs usher, when she suddenly found herself with lots of free time in the summers.
“Now with the school closed, I have lots of free time in the winter,” Janet remarked to Frieda, one of the other ushers. “I can only stand to watch so much TV.”
“You need to get yourself a hobby,” Frieda said. “My sister and I took a knitting class together and now I’m knitting up a storm all winter long. It’s good therapy.”
“I don’t see myself as a knitter.”
Frieda shrugged and turned to the couple coming up the steps, “May I see your tickets, please?”
What Janet really wanted was to be the full-time organist at Wrigley Field. She knew she had every bit as much musical talent as Gary Pressy, sitting high up in his booth above home plate, playing “Good Vibrations” when Anthony Rizzo came up to bat, “Bailondo” when Miggy Montero approached the batter’s box. Wasn’t it time for someone new up there? Like Janet? She could dream.
When October came and the Cubs weren’t in the World Series again that year, Janet saw a flyer at the grocery store for classes at the art supply store near the Pink Line station. Maybe she’d just stop in and look around.
That’s how she found herself gluing little pieces of ceramic tile to a plate in November. There were a half-dozen women in the mosaic tile class, some with plans to create Christmas gifts; others—like Janet—wanted to do something artistic without necessarily being able to draw or paint. With a great deal of help from their instructor, who was also the store owner, Janet created a plate with a deep green background and a pretty white dove. Christmas-y. And not bad for her first effort.
The store provided all the supplies for their first projects, but then Janet and her classmates were advised they might want to begin to acquire some of their own materials. Over the winter months Janet spent a lot of time browsing at flea markets and tag sales, rummaging through her own attic. She spread the word among her siblings—her two married sisters and her one sister-in-law—that she’d be happy to take off their hands any cast-offs: odd plates, saucers, leftover squares of ceramic tile from bathroom or kitchen remodeling jobs. Preferably solid-colored. Flat pieces were better than curved, but she could make some of the slightly rounded pieces from mugs or vases work.
Janet wasn’t quite sure what her next project would be, but she wanted to have raw product on hand for when the inspiration struck her.
In the meantime, she snuck into St. Seraphina’s on weekday afternoons when nobody was around to practice ballpark songs on the organ. She had “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Go Cubs Go” down pat, but wanted to work on the other songs that a savvy Wrigley Field musician might play to entertain the crowd on a sunny day in what Steve Goodman called “that ivy-covered burial ground.” You never know, Gary Pressy might have a heart attack and keel over. Somebody had to be ready to step in. Janet was determined to be that somebody.
“Hey, Janet, are the Cubs coming to Mass Sunday?”
Janet nearly jumped out of her skin. There was Father John, right behind her, grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh, sorry, Father.”
“Hope I didn’t scare you?”
“No, no. Well, maybe a little. I wasn’t aware anyone else was in the church.”
“I heard the music when I left the rectory next door and thought I’d better stop in to check it out,” the genial priest told her.
“No need to apologize. It’s probably good for the organ to get used now and then between Sundays.”
“It probably is,” Janet was quick to agree. “I was going to start practicing some of the music for next Sunday’s mass next.”
“Right.” Father John looked at her a little quizzically.
“It’s so cold out, I thought a little baseball park music might warm things up.” Janet was grasping for some sort of explanation.
“Aha! Next thing you know I’ll be hearing luau music,” he beamed at her. “Should I go get my ukulele?”
She laughed. “I didn’t know you were a musician, Father John.”
“I’d have to get myself to Confession if I said I was, Janet. I don’t really have a ukulele—I was just kidding. You’ll forgive me, won’t you?”
Janet could feel her face redden. She issued a strangled giggle.
“Not to worry,” Father John said. “There’s no sin in a feeble joke. I apologize for interrupting your practice session. I’ll be off.” The priest patted her on the shoulder and then was off down the steep steps from the choir loft, whistling “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as he descended.
She waited until she heard him go out the heavy front door, then opened the hymnal on the music stand and launched into “Soon and Very Soon,” one of her favorite recessional hymns.
Later, as she was in the kitchen warming up last night’s goulash, Janet wondered if she felt more guilty about getting caught playing baseball music on the church organ, or about her half-heartedly wishing some mishap might befall Gary Pressy. Maybe her wish was even more than half-hearted. She couldn’t recall ever wishing real harm to anyone before.
Except maybe Bruce Osinski, that painter she had hired a half-dozen years ago to paint the entire upstairs apartment between renters. He had flirted shamelessly with Janet to the extent that she daydreamed about giving up her virginity—along with her spinsterhood, of course—until someone at school told her he had a wife and four little Osinskis at home. Janet considered two possibilities: murder Osinski by sticking his head in a paint bucket, or joining the convent. Within a week, the painting job was done, Bruce Osinski was gone, and she returned to the safety of life as usual.
Just thinking about that painter person sent Janet to the corner of the basement where she hammered plates to pieces. The long-neglected ping-pong table was her work space. She donned her safety glasses and chose a pretty turquoise dinner plate from the cardboard box on the floor. She set the plate face down on the old blanket she used to cushion the blows, picked up her hammer and BAM! smashed the plate right in the middle. That first blow was always the best. Janet wasn’t crazy about the grouting part, but she loved the smashing part. The blanket helped keep the pieces on the table, which she proceeded to hammer into smaller and smaller pieces until she had chips suitably sized for ceramic tile work.
Only one plate tonight. This was exhausting work, and although Janet was in good shape, the Cardinals were coming to town tomorrow and there’d be a big crowd at the ballpark.
Friday afternoon at Wrigley, the wind blowing out. “There must be forty-thousand here today, don’t you think?” Frieda speculated.
“It’s always this way with the Cardinals,” Janet agreed. It was the top of the seventh and the Cardinals were up 4-3. Many of the Guest Services Ambassadors found themselves with little to do. Janet made her way up toward the organist’s perch—she wanted to see Gary Pressy accompany the guest conductor—some hockey player she’d never heard of—in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning stretch.
Pressy looked disgustingly healthy. If she was going to wait for him to drop over from a heart attack, she’d have a very long wait. Janet knew he took good care of himself, worked out daily, even took the stairs all the way up to his organist’s booth instead of the elevator. She had to admire the way he led the hockey player–who had no voice at all, by the way—and the crowd, with the right pace so everybody could keep up. It was a highlight of every game; they really didn’t need some no-name celebrity to “lead” the crowd.
When the song ended, Pressy got up and looked as if he was going to leave his perch—something he rarely did during a game. Maybe he needed a bathroom break. Janet was close enough to the door to the booth; she could reach out and touch him if she wanted. Or she could stick her foot out and see what happened. Maybe Pressy would fall to the cement steps and get one of those concussions everybody is suddenly talking about. Wouldn’t that be a shame? After the medics hauled him away, she’d be right there. Nobody would suspect her, and she could just slide in there on the organist’s bench and finish playing for the rest of the game.
The next day they’d come to her and ask her to finish out the season.
Janet glanced down at the grassy green field which would become her domain. She saw Anthony Rizzo taking practice swings in the on-deck circle and realized he was up next. He could hit a homer and tie up the game.
But he probably wouldn’t if she tripped Pressy and created a scene. A distraction. A jinx. A new Chicago Cubs Curse.
Janet turned and descended to her place in the right-field stands. She didn’t know if Pressy even ever left the booth, maybe he was just stretching.
That night she found a small vase in her basement stash that was just the right shade of blue and brought the hammer down with a shattering blow. There were enough red chips left from a previous project; she could make a tile with the Cubs logo to set on the windowsill over her kitchen sink. This could be the year.
Mary Ann Presman is a retired advertising copywriter and a Chicago Cubs fan. “Picking Up the Pieces” is part of a collection of short stories entitled “The Good Dishes.”
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.
The sweet susurration of tires continues
as cars drift ruefully past my house.
It’s a constant stream, day and night,
and by now I no longer hear them.
Except, there are fewer after midnight,
which means that the extra ones in morning
act as a gentle kind of alarm clock,
drawing me out, hauling me up
from the deep, still waters of sleep.
Long ago, I learned to draw. In order to draw
well you need to learn not to think
too much. Afterwards, I learned to paint,
which to my surprise involved forgetting
how to draw. The ability to paint well
is grounded in many small acts of refusal.
If I were to paint the cars on the street
I would probably use very little black.
For some of my teachers, any amount
of black was too much. Use blue,
they said. Or even purple. Look more closely,
peer into darkness and learn to see
the light that escapes from the black.
(There is always light. Even in blackness)
After I was finished with painting, I began
to write. Having already learned how
not to think may have been what led
me into poetry. Nothing is more damaging
to the poet than a sequential mind. The stream
of cars can only exist as fiction. The darkness
in poetry refuses to release the light.
Paul Ilechko is the author of the chapbook “Bartok in Winter” (Flutter Press, 2018). His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Stickman Review, Mocking Heart Review, Oberon, and Dime Show Review. He lives in Lambertville, NJ, with his girlfriend and a cat.
This is what I do these days
Watch the geese overhead, how they move
in their perfectly coordinated flight going south.
Watch the four inch green sprouts growing in the garden
in the desert winter. I watch them little as they are.
I have odd dreams with you in them
and we are young again, maybe it is spring time again, and we are
ready to save the world from exactly what has happened
to it anyway, the over heating and earth changes with gardens out
of whack, the poles shifting perilously, madly.
In another dream we return differently, steady, reposed in a way.
Nowadays, I get it all, I know it all makes sense,
how Einstein’s theories are confirmed,
simply, elegantly, the earth, the universe, space,
all of it returning upon itself and
in spite of the black holes and blazing summer days,
nothing actually disappears.
The nasturtium with the heart shaped leaves bloom again, their petals
unique, yellow, exactly the same even though they are different.
Charlene Langfur is an organic gardener, a rescued dog advocate and a Syracuse University Graduate Writing Fellow and her most current publications include a series of poems in POETRY EAST and WEBER-THE CONTEMPORARY WEST ( 2016 and 2018) and poems in GRAVEL, THE CALIFORNIA QUARTERLY and COMMON GROUND REVIEW.
Rebecca Beardsall received her BA from DeSales University and her MA in English from Lehigh University. She is in the MFA program at Western Washington University. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, and she co-edited three books. Originally from Pennsylvania but considers Washington and New Zealand home.