Tag Archives: literary fiction

James Hartman

Good Day for the Clouds

The sky was so clear the blue looked prickly, like if you raised your palm it might cut your skin, but the sun was mild and there was no breeze as Jonathan sat in his old beach chair in his open garage and closed his eyes.  He tried to breathe.

“Good day for the clouds.”

He had learned to ignore this voice, the old man sitting in his open garage across the street, the old man next to his easel, his jar of brushes, his silver platter of paints.  The landlord said he was a reputable artist with galleries in Scotland, Norway, one up north.  He had awkward hips and always struggled onto his stool, but once he managed he didn’t leave.  If Jonathan came out to watch the sun set the old man would still be there, pressing a brush to his canvas.  He greeted Jonathan every day with a random comment, and that was it, never another word.  Yesterday it was, “Getting warmer, goldfinches should arrive soon.”  The day before: “I saw a coyote up north near Traverse City once, fat as a bear.”

Jonathan, as usual, ignored him.

“Don’t you think, Jonathan?”

The unexpected sound of his name unnerved him.  It confounded him.  Squinting, he saw the old man hunched over, his large hands covering his knees, grinning.  Jonathan closed his eyes and tried to breathe.  What right did he have calling him by his name?  How did he even know it?  He moved here, what, three weeks ago?  Right after he had ordered everyone to leave.  His brother didn’t like that but he left too after Jonathan threw the vase at him.

“The thing about clouds is, they’re comfortable.”

Jonathan’s eyes opened.

“Although technically they are just vapor.  You can’t actually touch them.”

Jonathan squinted and saw the old man smiling straight at him, one hand on his thigh, the other now moving a brush across his canvas.

“Sure feels like you can, though, doesn’t it?”  He nodded at Jonathan without slowing his brush across the canvas.  “If you do it right.”

Jonathan fired a glare that expressed the old man better shut up.

The old man nodded, like he expected this.

The landlord said he was esteemed for his depictions of some particular type of architecture.  Jonathan constantly toiled with remembering anything occurring more than three weeks ago.  The old man could have specialized in hairy animal genitals.  Who fucking cared?

“I’ve always wanted to paint meaningful clouds,” the old man said.  “But I never had a good reason.”

He was smiling really big and it really pissed Jonathan off.  “You don’t know how to fucking shut up, do you?”  Not shocked that he had spoken, he was angry, so angry he could throw another vase, thirty vases.  One hundred vases.

“I’m not familiar with cloud terminology,” the old man said.  “I just paint what I see.”  He studied the sky, and then he studied Jonathan, and as he smiled he slowly blinked, his brush never slowing.

The fucking guy had outright dismissed him and Jonathan’s anger twisted into rage, his face broiling red.  He wanted to scream.  He wanted to punch.

His cell chimed, dull and distant.  His brother, or mother, or father, or doctor, or boss, or his wife.  He did not care who it was.  The ringing from inside descended like tranquil background music, and his eyelids closed, and, gradually, Jonathan breathed.

***

The next morning he did not return the 39 missed calls, but his routine was still disturbed.  He did not want to go outside and see the old man.  He did not trust what his hands and feet might do so he stayed inside, until the apartment brightened.  He did not like being here when it was this bright and peered out the side window.  The garage belonging to the old man’s apartment appeared to be closed, so Jonathan opened his door and sat in his old beach chair.

Except he couldn’t.

Something was in it.

Jonathan blinked.

A painting.

He bent down.

A painting framed by thin gold.

He peered across the street, at the old man’s three dark windows.  Jonathan squinted at each window but did not detect any movement behind them.  Then his eyes dragged around, lowered to the thin gold frame.  The painting showed a man in a faded red Tommy Bahama chair, his nose and cheeks, redder than the chair, all that protruded from thick dirty strings of hair.  He held a book called Cat in the Hat, the book in his left hand, over his heart.  In his right hand, a purple nightlight glowed.  It was the brightest color in the painting.

Until Jonathan realized it was not the brightest.

The two brightest colors, emitting equal amounts of white shine, rose above the young man, one behind his right shoulder, the other behind his left.  They were clouds, and they were so authentically defined the one behind the young man’s left shoulder resembled a three-year-old boy eyeing the book curiously, as if he expected the man to open it and begin reading, while the one behind his right shoulder resembled a slightly older girl, but she eyed the man with concern, the way her hand curled urgently down his arm, as if she knew he needed comfort.

Jonathan stepped back.  He turned and squinted at the old man’s closed garage, his three dark windows.

A golf cart stopped between Jonathan and the old man’s apartment and Elizabeth the landlord stepped out.  Shielding her eyes from the sun with a palm, she said, “Hey Jonny.”  Walking towards him, she noticed how Jonathan stared at the old man’s apartment.

“Where did he go?” he asked.  Shocked, for this was his voice, and he was not angry.

“He moves around a lot, they say,” Elizabeth said, and chuckled, stepping very close, so close their shoulders almost caressed.  “You know, I guess their kind goes where the calling takes them.”
###

James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, December, Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, The Airgonaut, and New World Writing, among others.  His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review.  He has several degrees, including a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife.

Nod Ghosh

Where Your Eyes Used to Be

The first time I took you from your grave, there were spaces where your eyes used to be.

Your taut middle rippled under my fingers, the patterns in your fur familiar, though the bloating was unexpected. I’d thought you might have changed, but had expected a withered carcass, not something turgid.

When I brushed the loam from your body, you felt like an overfull bladder; not the mummified corpse I’d visualised. The skin broke when I rubbed your neck, yielding maggots small as pinpricks.

I returned you to the earth and left you there for a fortnight.

When I did it again, you were wet through, though it hadn’t rained. Gritty soil blended with your coat. I wanted to shovel earth over your body because you were rank with gases of putrefaction, but I hesitated.

I missed you. I was happy to hold you, despite the odour.

I missed you in many ways. How you’d cry for a feed, then walk around my ankles afterwards, hoping for something better. I missed your old smell, somewhere between stagnant water and sausage fat. I missed your meow, loud and operatic at times, quiet and pitiful at others. I missed you positioning your bottom against my lips, as if doing me a great service.

I put you back.

This morning I took you out again.

You have turned fragile in the last month. My spade almost split you in two. You are dry as sticks, brittle as chalk, your centre hollow. I fold the pieces this way and that. Something scuttles from you into the dirt. It is black and beaded, like an overcooked raisin, but with legs.

You are the colour of soil. Your bones roll like dropped pencils.

I know I have to stop doing this. I have to let you go.

You once inhabited the space between nose and tail, front and backbone.

Now there is nothing but emptiness where your eyes used to be.

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Nod Ghosh graduated from the Hagley Writers Institute in Christchurch, New Zealand. Stories and poems feature in various New Zealand and international publications. Nod’s day job involves working in a scientific laboratory, diagnosing cancer and monitoring foetal-maternal bleeds amongst other things. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

Gary Young

3 Poems

The porch light throws shadows on the far side of the canyon. The pickets and posts of the railing cast the bars of an enormous cage, and I can see a giant—dark, featureless—pace between the redwoods and the granite cliffs. At last, he stops, soothed by the stream flowing over boulders and stones that snag the black water and give it voice.

*

We walked past the jail where a woman shouted to someone waving from the window of his cell. At the corner of 4th Street and Broadway, a sign on a shuttered bar said, Goodbye—and thanks to our loyal customers. Delivery trucks had snapped the lower limbs off the sycamores that lined the street, but the leaves high above rustled in a breeze coming in from the bay. Gene and I stepped into his lobby. An orchid sat on a brushed steel shelf. The elevator opened, closed, and when it opened again, we were at Gene’s door. Elizabeth’s hat and scarf were still hanging in the hall. That’s where she died, where Gene had asked, are you leaving me, and she’d said, yes.

*

In the facility, those who could, spoke, and those who could not, listened. A woman stood to the side. Her face was placid, but it was clear that she wanted to join in. At last there was a pause, and she asked no one in particular, am I dead?

###

Gary Young has been awarded grants from the NEA and the NEH. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and his book of poems, The Dream of a Moral Life, won the James D. Phelan Award. He is the author of several other collections of poetry including Hands; Days; Braver Deeds, winner the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize; No Other Life, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Pleasure; and Even So: New and Selected Poems. His most recent book is Adversary. In 2009 He received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches creative writing and directs the Cowell Press at UC Santa Cruz.

Claudia Smith Chen

Gacy’s Wife

John Wayne Gacy buried twenty-three victims in the crawl space of his house.  But when Carol Hoff, Gacy’s wife, was asked if she smelled anything, she said Gacy told her the smell was because of mice.

My father gulps purple wine, his pinky sticking out.  I hate this pinky, and the way he masticates the delicate olives we chose for him, the way he spits out the pits and says Italian, like it’s a joke, saying the “I” the way you say the capital letter.  Of course I don’t have the words yet, and I don’t know that it isn’t the chewing I hate, or the chewed up food in his open mouth.  It’s his hands at my throat, when I scream and it is, of course, the pressure of those wide but surprisingly small hands in the small of my back as he presses down and says, Be still.

How my body disobeys my brain, when he says that.  I can’t be still, and I can’t be quiet.

I climb the only tree in our yard, and my brother can’t, he isn’t old enough, so I am high above the clothesline and the honeysuckle, even the roof of our bungalow.  I read up there, closer to the sky, throwing apple cores.  Until I am called.

My mother stands naked as my father points to the different body parts for my brother.  I am embarrassed, but if I say so he will punish me so I go to my room  This house is not a rental, my parents bought it and so my room is my very own.  I keep it very clean.  My father painted fairies over the door, dancing fairies and lilies.

I fall down at school and skin my knee, and at the sight of blood I burst into tears like a baby.  They walk me to the nurse and it’s too humiliating, I’m still crying, my nose is even running.   I walk into the window unit sticking out of the nurses office and bang my head so hard there is a lump.

After that I just don’t cry.  I mean, I never cry.  Even when my son is born, I’m quiet.   I stick needles through the fatty pockets of my fingertips, showing off.  See? I say to my brother, no matter what the pain, I wont scream.  The past is growing its scabs.  There are missing children on milk cartons, and my mother tells me about the evils, there are clippings on the refrigerator.  Out in the field, I could be captured and sold.  White slavery, my mother calls it.

At night he buries his head in her lap, he says, Im so sorry, and I love you so much.  And, Im just a wee babe.  I’m not sure he is talking to her when he says this, but of course how can I tell her this?  She believes in him.  He will forgive in himself what she forgives, which is just about anything.  It’s what makes her so good.  I believe in this the way I believe in prayer, the way I believe in Jimmy Carter’s essential goodness, the way I believe my dead grandmother can hear my thoughts, and the scapular I wear, even in the shower, protects my neck from vampires at night.

Why does she tell me this?  Well, there isn’t anyone else to tell.   But it is too much.  She tells me during our coffee breaks; she will cut me a piece of apple crumble.  She doesn’t eat much.  Sometimes, a peanut butter cup from the 7/11; she’ll divide it in perfect fourths with a grapefruit spoon.  She never eats much.

One day, after climbing too high, I fall from the tree and pass out. When my mother comes to get me I vomit the half-bag of Oreos I gobbled that afternoon.

I dont know what your father would do, she tells me, when the danger has passed, after a night of shining lights in my eyes.  I’m in a hospital bed, and the wallpaper, a bunch of paper doll cut-outs in blacks and reds, is making me sick to look at.

I dont know what he would do,  if he lost you.  Probably kill me.

~~

Claudia Smith Chen’s The Sky Is a Well and Other Shorts was Winner of the First Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest. Her latest full-length book is Quarry Light.