Category Archives: Issue #15

Christopher Merkner

Swimsuit

I do invite the kids to have a drink every now and again in the European tradition, and often someone will in fact raise their eyes at me. But I laugh it off.  I drank with my mother when I was young.  Then she quit, then she drank again, then quit, then drank, then quit. Then she quit again, permanently, until my wife and I encouraged her to pick it back up.

My father had just died. She had to sell their home in Illinois. My wife and I moved her into our home and world with us and the kids.  To call her miserable!  I didn’t even say anything: I just filled a snifter one evening, left it there on the end table beside her recliner in our living room.

The kids’ swimsuits had disappeared before this, yes.  But the day following the left snifter, a suit vanished, and then several more disappeared later that week.  The relationship wasn’t immediately obvious.  I retrieved a teal Speedo from the lower branches of the cottonwood out back.  My wife found the top to our daughter’s two-piece in our compost pail.  Naturally, we blamed the kids, who were negligent and brazenly irresponsible, generally.  They argued their blamelessness to no effect.  My mother was asleep on the sofa by dinnertime.  We thought nothing of it. We are a people surviving day-to-day by the most basic of arithmetic.

Then one morning we learned through a neighborhood app that a woman had been found at sunrise on a whale floaty in the community pool wearing only a pair of boys jammers.  I did not claim her.  Instead, I reported that I’d just witnessed a Welch Corgi having been hit by a van, and that the sweet thing was bleeding out on the corner of Eighth and Vine.

My mother would find her way back to our house, swaddled in some expensive robe she’d picked up in lost and found, and my wife would help cut her out of our son’s suit in the powder room.  That’s when we realized we’d better pump the brakes on the wine at dinner for the kids, for all of us.  Sobriety is no one’s friend, and the kids were dismayed.  My mother shook her head.  We pointed out that our neighborhood, for all its good parts, was mostly conservative filth, the seething backwaters of a lifetime of wealth and religious sentimentalizing, and if we weren’t careful we might find ourselves smote or crucified.

Sadly, perhaps predictably, the suits continued to disappear until the day my mother would eventually die in our living room. She had been drinking beer on the sofa while we’d been away at the grocery store.  She was wearing my wife’s pregnancy swimsuit, which was burgundy, the belly a large sagging prune across her lap.  Her head lolled back over our woolen throw.  The kids saw nothing, as kids so often don’t, a mercy.  My wife and I buried her quietly in the garden later that night.   The suits stopped vanishing, mostly, and we resumed inviting the kids to have a drink with their snacks after lunch, etc.  To the day, they express their disgust at people who live as we do, in a neighborhood like ours, where you find no social peace whatsoever, where your grandparents live with you but don’t know you, where your swimsuit will be disappeared without warning or explanation and then miraculously restored.

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Christopher Merkner is the author of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.  He teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

Dionne Irving Bremyer

Shop Girl

You will spend your entire life selling – but this is the first time. So small, you barely reach the counter. You are given a stool. You are told if you work hard, there will be a reward. You are taught to make change. You are taught to make smiles at the customers. You are taught to cut yam, to chop pig feet, to take hot patties from the hotter oven. The burns and scrapes and cuts will last through adulthood, will last beyond death. Injury will always remind you of what it means to work.

And: We’re gone help our people, help them right / Oh, Lord, help us tonight! /

Cast away that evil spell / Throw some water in the well / And smile!

On Saturday morning, the shop is clotted with people from the Island, all there to buy oxtail, and pig feet, to take packages of tripe, leaking, wrapped in heavy butcher paper – and to argue and laugh, and laugh and argue. They’ll lean toward bags of otaheiti apples, or chocho, or tins of Milo. If only you could inhale the coming future in which these foods will become fashionable, in which this education in butchery, in food and flavor, will twenty and more years later help you appear hip and cultured – exotic, even – to lighter-skinned friends in particular. You can’t now know, but you will be the lonely one who understands how blood thickens stew, how marrow complicates flavor, how the perfect pepper in the bin needs to be found. Forget this work? No. Never. This work defines you, contains you. Allows you. But much later, your friends somehow think you spent your early years traveling – not, in fact, in the back room of a small shop inside a strip mall, listening to the high musical Bajans remind you that Coward dog keep whole bone. Listening to the Trinis insist, better belly buss than good food waste. And the Jamaicans, the Jamaicans, measuring out mutton with their eyes, asking, Just a toops more fi make mi belly na cry fi hunga. Floors always need sweeping, candies kept clean, not to eat. You dust shelves stocked with things you cannot imagine your friends at school eating: Guava jelly, tamarind paste, cock soup. There’s always, always a cricket match on the small portable television, and everyone complaining about the gassed bananas and eating gizzada and bun and processed cheese that comes in a tin. How can you explain this, any of it? Your history with food, with work, the way they are fastened together? The way that you love and hate the shop equally?

Your parents don’t understand the shame of Monday morning. Don’t know what it means to have fish scales on your pink Keds, or what it means that your hair smells like brown stew chicken, or that your sandwich is corned beef and salad cream between two thick slices of hard dough bread, or that a boy tells you it looks like mashed brains so you look down and chew and chew and chew. You won’t know for years that it tasted like home and empire.

And: “Dancin’ to the reggae rhythm / Oh, island in the sun”

On Saturday you will hear – over and over again – It’s so good to have the whole family here. Working. Over and over again – all day – you will hear it, thinking of other girls your age in ballet classes. Sleeping in. Shopping with their mothers. Settling into Saturday morning cartoons. And Bowls of Captain Crunch. You sweep floors, cut dasheen, and try to read when you can, waiting for the book to be snatched from your hands. This shop is your story, your inheritance. Over and over again – as you haul ten-pound bags of basmati, stack tins of coconut milk. I’m glad you are doing it. Just like the Chinese. We need to be more like them. You will remember Oliver Twist, which you read between snatches, and the workhouse and Fagin. And you can’t imagine why someone won’t come and save you, too. But you remember that these are your real parents, that these Saturdays are your real life. That this world and everything beyond it is yours, and not yours. You will always associate work with the coppery smell of animal blood and saw dust and blades that cut fish.

And: “Miss lady whey Sonny bite yuh / Right deh, right deh, right deh”

If you could, you’d squint and look into the future. Tell the customers – so much in love with your work, with your working – that the Chinese and everyone but them will own their Island one day. Hurt them. If you could, you would look down, fold your arms, suck your teeth, and tell them that you won’t remember them fondly. You can’t know if they will remember you with fondness either – or perhaps at all. You – the little girl, swinging with effortless precision, wielding that machete– the magic of it all. You close your eyes and the rest of you becomes the machete too. Cutting through their dreams, as they lie in bed, their bellies full. Will they remember the sound of the blade cutting meat, cutting bone, before it thuds home of the butcher’s block? Will they remember who did the selling?  Or will they only remember buying?

You will just remember the work.

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Dionne Irving Bremyer’s work has appeared in The Missouri ReviewBoulevard MagazineThe Crab Orchard Review, LitHub, and others. Her essay “Treading Water” was a notable essay in Best American Essays 2017, and she recently co-edited the collection Breastfeeding & Culture: Discourses and Representations. She has also received fellowships from the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

 

Marcela Fuentes

He Sings

Tunde calls Elisa between ten and eleven o’clock at night, from his second job, the group home where he is paid to sleep on a living room sofa.  He calls to sing the praise song to their son. That way, when Tunde’s mother visits the United States, the child will recognize the song and respond with the appropriate refrain.

At least that, he had said to Elisa when she left. At least let him have that.

He had hoped for obstinance from her. He’s an infant, or perhaps, Wait until he starts talking. Any argument. Any opener.

But Elisa had said, Of course.

Now she answers the phone and says, “We’re here.” That is his prompt to begin. If he says anything to her, she will hang up. He is a stubborn man, but he has learned this.

He sings carefully for his son’s sake, but it is difficult. He hears soft breath in the spaces beneath his voice.  An image rises, vivid and immediate: the pale whorl of her ear, tender and expectant.  Blood pounds in his temples.

On their last night together, they had walked home from a downtown theater at one in the morning.  Fresh snow glittered along the black street. He’d worn the camel wool overcoat she especially liked. They had walked past blocks and blocks of cold, unlit neighborhoods to their apartment. Elisa had taken off his right glove and folded it into his coat pocket because otherwise, she said, she couldn’t hold his hand properly. She was only just starting to show.  She had tucked her fingers into his hand, a gesture both dainty and proprietary.

The next day someone told her. But he has that night of perfect, unpunctured happiness.

 

It’s not real, she’d said when she left him. You were lying, so it wasn’t real.

What is more real than our baby? he’d demanded. What greater fact can there be?

His son, Tunde decides, is sleeping near the open phone line. That is the soft breath he hears. Probably she tucked the phone in the bassinette, and five states away, his voice is spilling into the air near the baby’s head. Probably she is not even in the room.

Tunde reminds himself that is a man of great endurance.  As a youth, he spent weeks at every harvest walking across his father’s cocoa farms. He had run down game on foot, armed with only a cutlass and his prodigious stamina. Even these days, when his back aches from lifting the residents at the MMR homes where he works, he will walk home if he misses the bus. Hours and hours on dark roads. That is nothing. Only Elisa’s silence makes him falter.

Still, he sings. I have crossed so many things.  I will cross this also.

It will not always be like this. Soon his son will be too big to be left alone with the phone. She will have to stay to keep him from grabbing. She will have to hear him sing.

He sings into a thousand miles of silence. He imagines Elisa curled on her side, their son tucked against the underswell of her breast. The phone in her hand.

Eyes closed, voice pitched low so as not to wake the residents in the group home, he sings. One day it will be her breath he hears, because she will be listening. And if he is very quick, he can tell her he loves her before the connection breaks.  He will treasure that he has made her hear it, as a victory.

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Marcela Fuentes’s work has been published in the Indiana ReviewVestal ReviewJuked, and other journals. Her flash fiction is anthologized in Flash Fiction International by W.W. Norton, Dzanc’s Best of the Web, and New Stories from the Southwest. She teaches at Texas A&M University.

 

 

Jody Brooks

A Tribute

We went to your last concert, our grins purple with wine. The Crescent Street drunks stumbled from the theater, fireball drunk on the early show, angry because you didn’t play your signature song—their weekend lover—angry and swerving to their status cars through white pigeons rummaging for scraps.

We took our seats among the garish sequins of your fans—women in heels too high to walk, men watching the stage through their phones, unable to clap as the ceiling turned to twilight and the backdrop bloomed into kaleidoscope. Your shadow appeared, propped on a stylish cane, behind an ever-changing mandala, mystic and celestial.

Just you and a piano to make the stage feel small. Funk, jazz, pop, cream, nothing compares, and you stood up to dance only once—a sign, in retrospect.

You died on a full moon, the smallest of the year, a moon named after a flower, mauve and shaped like a star. Had we known, we would’ve celebrated louder, listened closer, gazed longer as you glowed beneath the fiberoptic sky.

The lights went down one last time and the lavender smoke led you back on stage. We thought about the fiery drunks from the first show, who booed and hissed as you left the stage. They never meant to cause you any sorrow. They didn’t know you were in pain.

We rose to our feet in the purple light, because we knew what you were singing about up there, and we raised our hands in joy while the moon waned across your slender back.

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Jody Brooks’ short fiction has appeared most recently in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hobart, The Florida Review, and The South Dakota Review.

Michael Martone

Hunter and Art Hunt, Student Fund Raisers

 

The thing is we have been selling these chocolate bars door-to-door in Winesburg for as long as we can remember. We used to like chocolate, but we don’t anymore, having had to eat our consignment too many times. “Bring back empty boxes,” is what we hear from Mrs. Wiggs our faculty advisor. She advised us to bring back empty boxes, and we took that to mean that if you couldn’t sell all your consignment you had to buy the surplus yourself and eat it. It is hard to sell the chocolate after awhile. The town’s not that big, and all the children in it are selling the same thing to the same people who are all the parents. We got a lot of different kinds of no-ing. You can see the bars of chocolate that got there before us in a pile on the floor of the front hall. The adults at the door looking down at us are always sad and a little angry. We think we are raising money for a field trip to someplace, we don’t remember. Maybe South Bend. Maybe a toboggan ride at Pokagon. Maybe Muncie. We don’t remember. We end up eating the candy ourselves. It’s like eating the quilted skin of hand grenades. Long ago we gave up the dream of being the number one and two top sellers and winning a premium or two. Once, I wanted that Huffy bike, and Hunter, he’d go on and on, as we opened bar after bar, about those stilts that fit on the bottom of your shoes and lifted you up, a little bit, off the ground.

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Michael Martone’s new books are The Moon Over Wapakoneta: Fictions and Science Fictions from Indiana and Beyond published by FC2 and Brooding, essays, published by the University of Georgia Press. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.