Flat-Bottomed Canoes of the New River

I never wanted to share the dawn.  This slow August sunrise on the New River belonged to me.  Patterns in the moving fog spoke a language beyond words.

As a child, I resented the old boatmen.  These figures, clad in gray, standing in their long, narrow, flat-bottomed river canoes, silently poling, reminded me of the great blue herons that also rose out of the mist, but unlike the herons they suggested that the river was never entirely mine.

The emergence from the heavy fog of the unstable river canoe’s square prow numbers now among those sights that will not come round again.  The last of the old boatmen are gone.

I wanted the river to myself.  I wanted to know the river as it was before the hundred years of abuse, before the mining, before the dams.”

These men poled their boats of weathered wood up and down the river for profit, hunting the giant flathead catfish, using mostly smallmouth bass for bait, a practice outside the law.  By my time, the frog gigging, the duck hunting, and the trapping largely belonged to the past.  In my youth, I shared the dawn with the last of these gray clad figures as I cast for smallmouth bass.  Sometimes I caught enough for a meal, but nothing I brought home came close to a paying wage.

I stood outside the store near the bridge when Mr. Fowler, the last of his kind, carried in a nineteen-pound walleye.  He dressed it just before he sold it.  The toothy monster’s heart pulsed in the open hand he extended forward to the crowd gathered around him.  He didn’t speak.  He couldn’t.  He was mute.  Boys and sometimes grown men tried to follow him to find out where he hunted or fished only to lose him. I wasn’t one of those who followed.  Somehow I always knew that the lessons of the river couldn’t come to me in that way.

The sight of Mr. Fowler crossing the river bridge on his rusted bicycle toward where he moored his boat under an ancient sycamore was an almost daily backdrop for my early years.  The people called him “Dummy” because he couldn’t speak.  Maybe they resented that he knew things they couldn’t.  I always thought of him as Mr. Fowler, not that I ever bothered him.  He was just there.  Burton, who ran the store, and bought the occasional fish, never said what he paid for the great walleye, but I knew the small exchange couldn’t have been worth the life lost.  I couldn’t imagine killing the great fish just to sell it.  That was years before I had any understanding of deep poverty.

I wasn’t there for Mr. Fowler’s last day on the river.  He fell face first in the shoreline mud and couldn’t get out.  He would have died if my youngest brother, Joe, hadn’t found him and taken him home.  His daughter told Joe that he was ninety-nine years old.  He never came back to the river.

I wanted the river to myself.  I wanted to know the river as it was before the hundred years of abuse, before the mining, before the dams.  I grew up fishing with layabouts, bums, moonshiners either just out of prison or on the river for a period of drying out as they rested the worst of their alcoholism.  Names came back: Jerry, Doc, Tookie, all trying to take something from the river because that’s all they knew.

I spent more time with Jerry than any of them.  I wasn’t ten the day he had a flathead catfish as long as the bed of his Ford pickup truck.  I asked him if it could be a state record.  Why a person could care about such a thing, or would want such attention was beyond Jerry.  Attention meant revenuers.  Attention meant jail.   He didn’t weigh the catfish.  He ate it.

The old boatmen are gone.  In my time I have taken fish from the river, killed ducks and geese, but mostly it was like this morning.  The little spinner I cast made small rings as it broke the surface in those seconds before the tiny impression disappeared in the current as I cast to empty waters.  No feeding frenzy of the small bass began with this dawn.  My time here will make no more impression on the river than my little spinner touching its surface.

No one much now knows how deep every hole is, or where the bottom is sand or solid rock, or tracks how the riverbed changes every time it floods, or knows where the underwater springs bring in cooler water where fish sometimes lay.  These old boatmen loved the river in a way that is no longer known.

Echoes in the fog bring voices.  I have this moment, alone with what it was like before.  The sun will come soon enough.

Edd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River.  His work has appeared in a couple dozen literary magazines in the past year.

Tending Imaginary Sheep

“Mama, can you help me shear my sheep?”

Although we live in a big city apartment, my three-year-old is blossoming into a fine imaginary shepherd. Equipped with a pair of red plastic tongs, he gently coaxes his herd out of the dining room and into the kitchen where we work together to snip wool from each member of his sheep family. We scratch them behind the ears and nuzzle their wet noses. They baa, giggling when we tickle their tummies. We diligently load the invisible wool into his small plastic dump truck, sending it off to be spun into imaginary yarn.

Longing to share his purposeful concentration, I commit myself to sheep shearing. In the privacy of our kitchen, I allow myself to become unselfconsciously, luxuriously absorbed.”

As a writer, I understand how deeply satisfying it is to be completely absorbed in an invented world. As a mother, I’m honored to be invited to tend my child’s imaginary flock. It means he trusts me to take his creative work as seriously as I expect adults to take my own. But also there is a special purity to his endeavor. While I must stay focused on my final product, he is free to be blissfully process oriented.

At three, my son has yet to internalize the adult concept of time. He is gloriously unburdened by my grown-up notion that time must be spent productively. Flow, the deeply satisfying feeling of being immersed in the creative thought process, is immediately accessible to him.

Longing to share his purposeful concentration, I commit myself to sheep shearing. In the privacy of our kitchen, I allow myself to become unselfconsciously, luxuriously absorbed. But I cannot hold back the passage of time. Church bells confirm that evening has arrived. The baby cries to be nursed, dinner must be cooked and dishes are piled high in the sink. Practical concerns always seem to invade our creative space just as we hit our imaginative stride.

Putting an end to our play is painful for both of us. My five-minute warning functions only as a premature interruption, turning a sweet moment bitter by disrupting our suspended disbelief. I attempt to keep playing even as I nurse the baby while pulling ingredients out of the fridge. But the jig is up. I’m no longer a carefree shepherd and we both know it.

“The sheep are tired now. It’s their bedtime.” I suggest, hoping for a graceful exit. “No, it’s not.” My son whispers, betrayed. I’ve broken the spell and let my rushed tone, my real world urgency shatter his calm. Poof, the sheep evaporate, our happy moment of focused cooperation along with it.

Imagination is the mechanism by which children explore the mysteries of the world, making important connections and discoveries. We adults, even those of us in creative fields, can easily sabotage our imaginative potential when we undervalue process in our rush to work more efficiently. But serious thought, especially creative thought, requires blocks of focused time.

This is a need I want to honor in my children. But often I find myself modeling just the opposite, for instance pestering my son with urgent demands when he is deeply engaged in imaginative play. He’ll be attentively tending a feverish teddy bear and I’ll step right into the middle of it, ordering him to put on his shoes and socks, “Right now!” When he doesn’t switch gears immediately and jump at my orders, I lose my patience and snap unkindly. Conflict escalates — calm evaporates. Remorse comes tumbling after.

My discomfort with slowness, guilt about time wasted or unproductively spent makes me fret if I’m not doing multiple things each moment I’m not truly maximizing time’s potential. It’s not for lack of knowing better. I have read  about the downside of maternal multitasking. When we multitask we subject ourselves to an increase in negative emotions, stress and feelings of conflict. Yet, there are places to be, chores to complete, deadlines to meet and commitments to honor. How then can I teach my children to move gracefully between their creative pursuits and practical responsibilities?

The glimmer of an answer comes with my son’s favorite question, “Can I help?” He stands atop a wooden chair next to me at the kitchen counter, peeling carrots. I hold them steady while he carefully positions the peeler. Orange ribbons dance to the cutting board in long fluttering strips. He laughs, delighted. His eyes have that same look of intense concentration he gets when we are shearing our sheep. He works deliberately, gaining confidence with each turn of his wrist. I tune out my peripheral thoughts, slow myself down and join him in the flow.

Hallie Palladino is a playwright and essayist. Her most recent essay Gather the Stars appears in The Point Magazine and her plays have been featured in Idle Muse’s Athena Festival, PFP’s LezPlay and Something Marvelous. She has performed at a numerous Chicago live lit venues including Tuesday Funk which she co-founded. She lives and writes on the north side of Chicago.


Through the Wall

I had been the only English-speaking tenant in my building for almost five years when my New York story happened.

I remember that day in early spring when I walked to my tiny rent-controlled apartment in Chinatown to find two men standing rigidly, like posed mannequins on the stoop, on either side of the giant orange gate that served as the door to our building. No one ever hung out on those steps, so I knew they were cops of some kind even though they were in plain clothes. I now understand how the TV cops on reruns of Law & Order always get “made” by street punks and seasoned criminals.

It was true. My building was like a ghost town. I rarely saw other tenants in the halls.  Out of 20 apartments, I only recognized three people.”

As I approached the gate, I did not acknowledge them, but the one on the right, a stalky, five-foot-five-ish Asian, held out a piece of paper with two mug shots on it and said, “Have you seen these men in your building?” The other cop, a six-foot, skinny Caucasian, at least as tall as me, stood idly by, seemingly uninterested.

I briefly studied the sheet in front of me, and said, “No, I haven’t. Sorry.” I reached for my key to unlock the gate.

He must have thought I was blowing him off because  in an air of disbelief, he said, “You mean to tell me that you’ve never seen either of these people?” and stabbed his petite forefinger at the picture on the left side of the page. “He hardly looks like anyone else in the building, so you should’ve seen him.”

As far as I knew, I was the only person of color in my neighborhood who did not live at the housing projects down the street. I didn’t know whether to be insulted by the insinuation that the black guy in the photo didn’t “belong” in our walk-up or not.

I looked down into the cop’s face for the first time. “Seriously, I’ve lived here for nearly five years now, and I barely know what the lady across the hall looks like. So, I wouldn’t know if they’ve been in the building or not.”

It was true. My building was like a ghost town. I rarely saw other tenants in the halls.  Out of 20 apartments, I only recognized three people.

The woman across the hall from me was old. I saw her peek through her cracked door once when I gave her a package that was accidentally delivered to me. As far as I knew, she never left that apartment. The only thing I was sure of was that once in a while someone who I assumed was her son would stop by, and that she didn’t start watching TV until 2 am on weeknights. I would hear the same Chinese soap operas blaring through the insanely thin wall we shared, because she was most likely half deaf and slept through the daylight hours.

The woman farther down the hall would stop by my apartment with her baby on her hip and plead with me in very broken English to call the landlord because she had no heat and her baby was cold. I couldn’t stand the thought of a child suffering like that. Who could? So, I would always say, “I know! I definitely will,” nod profusely, and immediately call 311 and the landlord in rapid succession, even though I had already done so earlier the same day. I had no heat or hot water either, but I chalked it up to the price of cheap rent. I would deduct money from the eleven-hundred-and-change for each day heat was absent, and my landlord never had an issue with this. He was an Italian man in his late 30s who lived in Jersey. Oddly, I had a good relationship with him, but it still took him two years to install a new boiler. The point is, I knew what that lady looked like only because I answered the door for her. She lived on the same floor, but I didn’t even know what her husband looked like. I suspected he was a raging alcoholic and most likely a wife beater from what I could gather from the sounds emanating from their apartment. I was constantly tormented about when to call the police. Their baby cried constantly. They led a miserable life. But, I couldn’t have identified him in a lineup or otherwise. I had never seen his face.

The only other person I could even begin to recognize, was the new girl upstairs. She was the second non-Chinese tenant in that building and had moved in a few months prior. She was a Swedish woman, also in her mid to late twenties, with an out-of-date blond bob identical to that of Chynna Phillips in the 90s. I met her on the stairwell. She was carrying a bag of recycling down to the dumpster when the flimsy plastic ripped. Empty handles of liquor and beer bottles flew in every direction as they hit the stairs and bounced unpredictably like Plinko chips. I helped her to gather them for two flights down, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Inga. After that, I would occasionally say hi to her on my way in or out of the building.

The cop looked me up and down, and decided to give up the fight, so I unlocked the gate and went up the four flights of stairs to my apartment.

It was an unusually hot summer that year, and Inga had a slew of people coming in and out at all hours nearly every single night of the week. With windows open and the music blasting (a mixture of alternative and classic rock – my kind of music – so I never complained), I could hear them as they came in, as their conversations got progressively louder and stranger in what I believed to be drunken, coked-up rants. I figured that because of the frequency of revolving individuals, someone was most likely dealing out of that apartment. And, because I had served a month on the jury of a murder trial for a drug deal gone wrong the previous year, I always half expected a shootout and a stray bullet to tear through my walls, CSI style. That summer, LCD Soundsystem lyrics looped endlessly in my head: New York, I love you/ But you’re bringing me down. I also half expected that one day the woman down the hall would bring her limp, lifeless baby to me and actually beg me to call the police— Like a death in the hall/ That you hear through your wall— in the back of my mind, both of us were somehow the foregone casualties of wayward urban violence. But, of course, those fears were only minimal and never strong enough to warrant moving out.

In late September, I was awakened by loud pounding on my door. It was daybreak, but my windows were on the backside of the building where the bricks of six adjacent structures smashed together to form a perpetually dark cubby with cement and weeds below. It was still dark. The banging continued though, so I jumped out of bed and went to the door. I looked out of the peephole and saw four men in black vests. They had guns. It’s possible that the logos on their gear read FBI, but that could just be another TV memory now implanted in my brain. I recognized the two furthest as the cops from the stoop incident. I cracked the door with the latch, and chain still attached.

“Who is in there with you?” the knocker said, holding what I assumed was his badge, which also may have read FBI.

“No one. Well, I mean it’s just me and my cat.” I said this more out of confusion and sleepiness than concern for their presence.

“I don’t believe you. Open up, we’ll need to search.”

“Okay, you won’t find anything in here.”

I opened the door. One agent swooped in and looked around. “Where is he?” another said.

“Where is who?”

“I bet he’s in the tub. Check the tub,” he said to the one wandering around my 400-square-foot apartment as if a hidden room would somehow magically appear.

In that moment, watching this stranger poke around in the bathtub, under my bed, in the closet, under the kitchen sink— Who could fit in there?— I thought of Inga and the long hot summer. I also thought about how often people miscount the number of flights in pre-war walkups.

“You may actually want to be upstairs,” I whispered to no one in particular as I pointed to the ceiling above me. “I think that’s who you’re looking for.”

The agent at the door looked at me with the tiniest flash of panic, “There’s another floor above this one?”

Then, the thick static of radios: Chrrrchrrr… “I can see him on the floor through the back window. Where are you?” This had to have come from someone stationed on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the courtyard.

Before I could process what was happening, they tore up the stairs, one saying “We’re going in now!” through the radio on his chest. The agent in my apartment ran past me through the door and slammed it so hard on his way out that it hit the latch and swung back open. There was no apology or acknowledgment of me. I stood in my open doorway. My cat must have been hiding, because he didn’t try to make his usual daring escape. All I heard next was the thud of a door, unintelligible yelling and a lot of shuffling of feet. One very audible, “Get up!” and then more shuffling. New York you’re perfect/ Don’t change a thing. I closed the door; my alarm clock went off, and I got ready for work.

When I arrived back home that evening, I went up the extra flight of steps to find that yellow police tape had been strung in a giant X over Inga’s apartment door. It was like that for a couple of weeks until the apartment was released by the authorities, and my landlord decided to “renovate” it by removing the wall that made our tiny units one-bedrooms. He later explained to me that he had replaced the wall with a small glass partition because he thought a studio would appeal more to the influx of hipsters moving into the neighborhood.

A month later, he rented that apartment out for more than three grand, and within a few months later there were several more renovated apartments in our building with English speaking tenants who introduced themselves to me in the halls, which they frequented regularly.

That’s when I moved out.

M. P. Nolan is an English professor and writer of identity-driven poetry, creative non-fiction, mystery, and academic texts. She is the author of Stratification. For more information visit www.mpnolan.com.

Lentil Soup in Yiayia’s Kitchen

The first time I died I wasn’t ready to go.

Papou pulled me out of that thick fog, and said not yet, stern in a way I had never seen from him before. It didn’t scare me though. I knew. I knew what he meant. It wasn’t my time.

But I was so tired, and so beaten, so beat. And the lentil soup that Yiayia was stirring on the stove in the kitchen, that kitchen of hers, the smell of garlic and bay leaves and comfort, that she took such pride in, immaculate as it always was, the white ceramic tiles absolutely luminescent, perched high above Twelfth Street overlooking the steady stream of sleek eighteen-wheelers and stubby, grubby coal trucks that rumbled by outside rattling the windows and shaking the walls towards the interstate that stretched endlessly to a whole wide world beyond Eastern Kentucky, was too tempting, and Lord was I hungry.

And the lentil soup that Yiayia was stirring on the stove in the kitchen … was too tempting, and Lord was I hungry.”

I hadn’t been eating. I couldn’t eat. That dreadful disease that the medicine couldn’t fix and the doctors didn’t know how to stop wouldn’t let me.

I was hungry but I couldn’t eat, and when I tried, everything came racing through me, scorching liquid tinged deep crimson, my insides melting, my intestines a sieve. Fifty pounds peeled off like nothing in three weeks. I could barely move, couldn’t sleep, dead on my feet. I was done. And all I wanted was to sit down at the shiny stainless steel and red vinyl breakfast nook, a remnant from the diner Papou and Yiayia used to own, where my dad and uncle worked as teenagers bussing tables and mopping floors weekdays after school and all day weekends, and hunch over that steaming bowl of salty soup and breathe it in, eyes glazed over, lazy grin, and slurp it up like my life depended on it, and it seemed like my life did.

All I wanted was a bowl of lentil soup in Yiayia’s kitchen, as Koukla, the cotton candy Maltese my parents got when my sister and I were finally out of the house, who never liked me nor I her, yapped away in that insufferable high-pitched bark of hers and nipped at my heels, the poor creature having long since passed from heart failure and had somehow ended up here, wherever here was. I knew where it was but not exactly how – a moment frozen in eternity, Papou and Yiayia’s old house, in Yiayia’s kitchen, the way it was, the way I remembered, when everything was alright.

How I longed for everything to be alright. But Papou said no, and he could be a real son-of-a-bitch according to my mom, but he loved me, I was sure he did, and I was in awe of him, everything about him – his broken English, his white buzz cut, his leathery skin from working in the yard, the dent above his left eye where he said a bird once pecked him when he got too close to its nest, his stories, how he had come over from Greece alone at thirteen, which I delighted in telling my young friends, flushed with pride as if it had been me but it never could be because I never thought of myself that fearless, the quests we went on during those magical summer afternoons to abandoned, overgrown parking lots to pick dandelion greens and bring them back crammed into teeming paper grocery bags so Yiayia could boil out the bitterness to have for dinner with thick-cut pieces of pink country ham and yeasty dinner rolls.

I knew he meant it, although I didn’t have to like it, and I didn’t, when Papou grabbed me by my boney shoulder, deceptively powerful and strong, especially at his age, which always seemed old, and told me as forcefully as I had ever heard from him, “Not yet.”

I awoke with a startle, in a sterile, confined space, tight and bright and antiseptic, a hospital room in the ICU, stiff and stuffed into a rigid bed, immobilized by sheets wound firmly around with what felt like a twenty-pound weight on my stomach, tubes jammed up my nose and down my throat and into the pin cushions that used to be my forearms, at a loss for anything that was happening, a beautiful, peaceful image scattering from my mind like sand blowing across the beach, reality, my new reality, seeping in, suffocating, to try and begin my life again.

The doctors never mentioned anything about where I had just been, or why, and maybe they couldn’t tell despite all the science fiction machines I was connected to. But I knew, and I was no longer afraid.

The first time I died, it wasn’t my time.

Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, The Courier-Journal and www.peterjstavros.wordpress.com.



Shapes in the Grass

He gouges the blade into the soft flesh of the tree. Sap spills from the heartwood, coating the blade’s belly in thick, amber droplets.  His delicate fingers work the knife like a saw, forcing his initials to appear.


He sighs for a moment, running his fingers along the letters he’s slashed.  The world all around is baking lush, green and thick.”

“Those will last as long as the tree does,” he says, stepping back to view his work. He’s twelve years old, unaware that he’s already over halfway done with his life. He was middle-aged at nine, with more than a few of his baby teeth still fastened in place. He wants them gone in order to feel like the adult he’ll never grow up to be.

“And how long does a tree last?” I ask. This one, and the thousands like it, sprawl out at the end of a dirt road that runs past both of our homes. Every day during the summer we vanish within them, ghosts haunting a house made of leaves and bark. This forest is gifted with crops of wild orchards, birthing misshapen apples and bruised, dented pears. We’re never hungry here, never thirsty or bored. The sun wrings sweat from us as payment for the many blue, cloudless days we spend playing here, exploring.

“Centuries,” he replies.

“That long?”

He wipes the soiled blade against the back of his pants. Flakes of fresh dirt drift down to the ground. “Longer, maybe. Depends.” He sighs for a moment, running his fingers along the letters he’s slashed.  The world all around is baking lush, green and thick.

“Let’s go,” he says, collapsing his knife and slipping it into his pocket.

Birds, out of sight, show off their harmonies. Branches snap beneath the weight of our shoes, highlighting their songs, a soundtrack of nature that plays on repeat. Each breath we take smells different from the last; clover with one pull, berries with another. Farther along the trees become thin, allowing tall stalks of grass to burst from the soil. We notice the places where the grass has been matted, where deer and elk have made beds for the night. We lay down in the earth, within the depressions they’ve made.  We lay in their shapes and pretend we’re these creatures. We wonder where they’ve gone, when they’ll come back, and if they ever happen to see our shapes in the grass, our dusty footfalls, and pretend to be other creatures themselves.

My mind is still seized with the passage of years.

“All of these trees? Centuries?”  A single cloud lays immobilized above, as if time, like oxygen, grows thinner with altitude.

“Yeah. Centuries.” He laces his fingers behind his head. “You should carve your initials too, sometime,” he says. “Pick a tree next to mine and carve them right in. It’s like a fossil of you. Something for someone to find a long time from now.”

The wind stirs the grass like waves of an ocean as if the world is exhaling with the passing of daylight. A hint of coolness is beginning to settle, meaning soon we’ll be on the road heading back toward our homes.

Six more summers would pass by, uneventfully. The seventh would bring a late August day, along with a tractor, a chain, and an ending. Men had arrived to thin out the forest, to excise trees deemed fit for harvesting. He would be helping a worker pull a stump from the ground, under the shade once again of towering oaks. The stump was encircled with a length of the chain, the other length fixed to the tractor. A gear would be turned, an ignition fired up, and the machine would lunge violently forward. The stump held tight, forcing the tractor to flip. Secured to the seat with a belt around his lap, he couldn’t flee. Crushed by the weight of rumbling, orange metal, he’d be dead before the dust he’d kicked up settled back to the earth.

By the time another August had passed, a small wooden memorial would mark where he died, off the road but still easy to spot. His initials would make their final appearance, carved into the marker by the grace of his father barely a mile from where they’d been carved just a few years before. Like the smashed stalks of grass we’d passed so long ago, these carvings were proof that a once living thing, some glorious creature that had once roamed the earth, had left an impression behind.

Will McMillan was born and raised in the untamed outskirts of Portland,Oregon. His work has also been featured in the journals Nailed, Sweet, and Sun.