After Daniel

“He’s buried in the back,” she tells me, “by the angel.”

I only met her a couple of weeks ago, and we shouldn’t know each other this well.  We’re working long hours at a terrible job, getting pools ready to open for Memorial Day. The days are crazy — driving from pool to pool, rushing to and from hardware stores, frantically trying to piece back together equipment that should have been replaced a decade ago — but once we hit the thirteen-hour mark and the sun goes down, and it’s just the two of us vacuuming leaves out of the pool, we start talking. If you work enough days like that, you get to these topics.

 

… once we hit the thirteen-hour mark and the sun goes down, and it’s just the two of us vacuuming leaves out of the pool, we start talking.”

She drives past every day, she tells me, but if she went inside, she’d cry all day.  She’d never leave. So she just doesn’t go. What kind of a mother does that make her, she wants to know.

She shows me her tattoo, a butterfly with wings that are baby footprints. The artist had to blow the image up so he could tattoo the lines, and the feet are still so small.  She tells me that she wishes she’d been more present that day. I think she was probably as present as anybody could be. I tell her that. You have to survive, I say. That is not a small thing.

We talk about death. A place we’ve both been closer to than most. A thing we’ve both considered over the years. Maybe even today. But who could do that to their family? That would leave them feeling the way that we do now.

She wonders aloud what her Hell would be like, and I can see she’s thought about this before.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I think Hell might be being able to see him, but he’s too far away to reach. But then I’d be able to see Daniel, and I’d be happy. So I think it might be hearing him cry and not being able to get to him. Except then I’d be able to hear him, and I’d be happy.”

It is after midnight, and no one is cleaning the pool now. We’re sitting on the empty deck smoking cigarettes, drinking Red Bull and bottled Frappuccino.

So Hell is the place where she cannot see or hear her child. Which is the place she’s living now.

I bundle my sweatshirt under my head and lie back on the deck. There are no stars where we live, but I watch the sky anyway. I tell her I’m writing a book, and she tells me that she was going to write a book once. I guess a lot of things in her world have become final.

Her book would have been a diary about how she learned to live again after losing a child. She wrote for a few years before she realized there was never going to be a book. There was never going to be a life after Daniel.

That seems like the end of a conversation, and I’m about to stand up, when she says, “Maybe this is a test.  There are supposed to be trials and tribulations, right?”

I can’t help it then. I’m laughing. I tell her, “If life is a test, I have already failed.”

And then we’re both laughing crazy, hysterical laughs.

“Like, no-chance-of-redemption, no-reason-to-show-up-to-the-final failed.”

“It-just-needs-to-be-over, put-me-out-of-my-misery failed,” she agrees.

I am not as strong as she is, but I don’t have half the reason she does. I’m not sure about “God only gives you what you can handle.” I think we just have to handle the shit God gives us.

What else can you do when Hell is an eternity of the things you couldn’t handle when you were alive? Might as well stay here where we can at least dream of something different.

She tells me as we pick ourselves up, aching muscles and sunburned shoulders, the things that people say to her. Things like, “At least you can have more.” As if children are interchangeable. I don’t know how people can make it to adulthood without any real concept of what loss is. What have their lives been like? She tells me that it will come around, that one day they will have to carry something heavy.

I doubt it.

I envy those people so much it keeps me up at night. I tell her that, but she says there’s a plan. She says she believes.

She wonders if God was teaching her a lesson.

I tell her that if God exists, and that’s how He works, He better hope I don’t make it into Heaven. Because I have some things to say, and I am not afraid of Him anymore.

The sun is coming up when we lock the pump room door, and as we’re walking to the car, I notice something in her eyes. A happiness I haven’t seen in her. I’m not sure I’ve seen that happiness in anyone, and I know somehow that she’s thinking about holding him.

Someone said to me once, or maybe I read it, that some people just aren’t supposed to be happy. I wonder sometimes if that’s true for me. It’s not for her. When I see her eyes light up behind the tears, I know that she is not one of those people.  She is supposed to be happy.

Rachel Peters lives in southside Richmond, VA with her husband and dog. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Fiction Southeast and the 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. She still cleans swimming pools from time to time.
Photo by Etienne Girardet

Liftoff

Picture a Sears department store in a Florida mall on a Monday evening deep into July. The store is empty but for employees whose tired expressions and absentminded twirling of lanyards makes it clear that they are waiting for time to slide away, for 8:15 p.m. to turn into their nine o’clock closing time. Drained of color, emptied of customers, the lonely space fills with the crooning of a band that sounds like it wants to be the Goo Goo Dolls.

 

… we begin to press memory foam and whisper things we have never said to each before like “coil count,” “pillow top,” and “posture-pedic.”

My husband and I have entered this deserted corner of a dismal mall to make an expensive, grown-up purchase. Under banners announcing Sears’s “Mattress Spectacular Sale,” we begin to press memory foam and whisper things we have never said to each other before like “coil count,” “pillow top,” and “posture-pedic.” The fluorescent lights buzz with a shrillness I can feel in my teeth.

We press our palms into a few mattresses: too plush, too foamy, too firm. At last, we find one that feels right. My husband sits down, swings his legs onto the bed, and strains to hold his head poised above the pillow—you never know who has been lying there before you, he later explains.

Then I try. I am tired after a long day of work, and whatever the coil count is, it has been designed to lull me to sleep right there in the dim department store. Tempting as dozing feels, I understand that there is a proper amount of time to lie on a mattress that is on display, so no more than a minute passes before I am standing again.

As I compare notes with my husband, a boy about ten years old rushes into the mattress department. Another boy zips in after him, and then another, and soon a whole flock of them has descended. They kick off their sandals and leap onto the mattresses—six pre-teenage boys in t-shirts and gym shorts jump from bed to bed. One does a backflip. They do not shout to each other. They simply laugh and bounce—high into the air.

My husband and I shake our heads. My first thought is a horrified, “Where are their parents?”

Then my husband giggles. We watch the strange impromptu circus. I imagine the give of those mattresses, the moment of lift. Seconds of weightlessness. How their hearts must soar. Then the soft feeling of bare feet meeting cushion. How free this must feel. They could be getting up to all sorts of mischief tonight, but this ecstatic flight is the mischief they’ve chosen.

The intercom cuts off the soft rock. “Security to zone three. Security to zone three!” The boys continue their jubilation, and we return to our price comparisons.

A gray-haired Sears employee in a polo shirt and khakis shuffles into the department and crooks a finger at the oldest boy, whose head hangs down as he trudges over for the reprimand. “You can’t jump on the beds,” the employee says, as if the boys have broken a cosmic rule it is a burden to remind them of. “I’m not saying you have to leave the store. Just don’t jump on the beds, okay?”

As quickly as they came, the boys clear out. The Sears employee shambles toward us. “Can I help you with anything?” he asks, a bit too sternly, as if he knows the secret pleasure I felt. We follow him from mattress to mattress, respectful, subdued. We find one that is good for back sleeping and side sleeping and that our guide says is calculated to reduce tossing and turning by fifty percent. Still, like good adults upholding the protocol for major purchases, we take a night to think about it.

We return to Sears the next evening. I know that I will not see anything like the show the night before. And I know that, careful to preserve the ten-year warranty, I will not jump on this bed once it is ours. But then again, maybe one day, after ten years of unclogging sink drains, filing quarterly taxes, sticking to a tight budget, attempting to be more assertive—and performing all the grown-up tasks I do as if the whirling of the planets depended on them—maybe after all this, I will stand on this mattress and feel the springs give under my toes as I lift off. Because, like childhood, warranties do not last forever.

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot received an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Solidago Journal, South Florida Poetry Journal, Contrary and elsewhere. She lives in South Florida.
Photo by Rafael Lodos

Arabesque

I am in the Pacific Ocean off the Kona coast of Hawaii, wearing two wetsuits, and shivering in the dark. Scuba divers, kneeling below, and snorkelers, floating on the surface, point bright flashlight beams to attract microscopic animals and hopefully their predators, manta rays. A carnival of these angel-shaped beasts—whose wing-like fins span 10 to 20 feet—glide, loop, and corkscrew through divers’ bubbles.

She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. “

I cling to a Styrofoam-covered hula-hoop our guide uses to herd snorkelers. The soundtrack to “Jaws” pounds in my head. One ray fans her wings and swims right toward me. Her cephalic fins spread open to corral invisible plankton into her gaping three-foot wide mouth, big enough to swallow me in one gulp. She must weigh more than a ton, if she so much as taps me, our guide might discover my body before the rays’ cousins, the sharks. The ray rolls and descends.

I grip the hula-hoop. Okay, I’ve seen them, let’s go. I search for the boat, but my guide grabs my arm and yells, “Big Bertha’s right below you.”

She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. I nearly pitch myself onto the guide, but I cannot stop staring at Bertha’s gullet, which is a ribbed cavern. Why is it white, not red? I waggle my flashlight at her to get another look. She undulates, arcs, and somersaults. Ten gills on her vast black-and-white belly fan open, revealing screens of mesh, each hole a tiny white square, a perfect filtration system. She spirals and displays herself again and again. Her friends swoop, unfurling their fins, spinning into arabesques as if choreographed.

I am the last one back on the boat.

Debra Borchert’s work has been published in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, Journey, Stitches, StringTown,The Writer and True Girl. Her short stories have appeared in And All Our Yesterdays (Dark House Press, 2015), Unsavvy Traveler (Seal Press, 2005), X Files (Flying Trout Press, 2006). She is currently at work on a novel of historical fiction.
Photo by Swanson Chan

What I Knew Then, What I Know Now

What I Knew Then

I am in love with Dave. That’s all you really need to know about me. I am twenty-one years old, I am only pretty from certain angles, I wear red Keds sneakers and short dresses and red lipstick (it helps with the bad angles), and I’m in love with Dave. Dave is cologne-model level handsome, and he’s smart and he’s funny and he plays the guitar for me and learns the chords to my favorite Regina Spektor songs. Dave doesn’t love me. He loves Katie. But she’s not here yet, she’s still in New York and we’re here in Dallas, driving in the dark in his parent’s Honda CRV. We’re passing a bottle of wine back and forth across the center console, and we’ve each taken two of his father’s Vicodins. We’re listening to Elliot Smith and everything is beautiful and we’re beautiful and Dave turns the headlights off so we’re just floating in the Texas darkness and I love him so much. It’s on the tip of my tongue, I’m going to tell him, and then suddenly the car is shaking and he turns the lights back on and fuck that’s a fence and then we’re airborne and then I know I’m going to die but it’s not as sad as I thought it would be. I black out and come to and I’m upside down and Dave is finally saying my name the way I’ve always wanted him to, like a prayer, “Jo, Jo, JO!”

 

 

What I Know Now

When I was twenty, I met the love of my life. We never kissed, never did more than spend a night cuddling, but the love of my life he remains. Now I am thirty-two, and I am divorced, and he is married to his college sweetheart Katie, and he’s not the love of my life anymore and I’m not even sure that I believe in the love of my life, at least, not as a real thing that I can expect to experience in my lifetime. I don’t mean to be maudlin, though I often am, I suppose. All you really need to know about me is that I moved across the country and didn’t bring much more than eighteen tubes of red lipstick and ten short dresses and the two cats I adopted shortly after surviving a near fatal car wreck with the boy who may have been the love of my life. His best friend had died in a terrible car wreck six months prior to our own. He had a death wish, and so did I, drinking and driving and never once thinking about the consequences of things. Still, I remember the way my name sounded in his mouth. I hear it on days like this, when I haven’t put the lipstick on and it’s too cold outside and the check engine light is on and how is it possible that no one fell in love with me today? It occurred to me recently, as truths tend to do now that I’m older and know how to put on a jacket and go to the mechanic: I was made so delusional by longing that I very nearly perished from it. I keep the headlights on, but sometimes I drive in the dark and listen to that Elliot Smith album and for a moment I can feel what I felt then, wholly certain of something undeniably true, careening along a country road, suddenly weightless.

Joanna Greenberg lives and writes in Southern California where she is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Metropolitan Review.
Photo by shotinraww
 

 

 

 

 

Cookbook Section

I hate cookbooks because there are so many of them; because on average cookbooks contain over one hundred recipes; because it is statistically likely that the same recipe will repeat in different cookbooks without the authors’ knowledge; because most people own six cookbooks but cook the same nine meals over and over again; because even though food is more available to more of the American population than ever before, cookbooks stoke the appetites of a country that wastes 30-40 percent of its food supply; because although cookbooks with large color photos sell best, most people don’t know that food photographers use household items such as toothpaste and wax to make staged food look appealing; because the colors of cookbooks on a shelf produce an ungracious visual symphony; because the only protagonist in cookbooks is an empty stomach; because although cookbooks are shiny and glossy and brimming with optimism, many recipe attempts fail; because even though the possibilities for ingredient combination are endless, so too our appetites are endless; because even though we finish meals we will never finish eating; because although I can buy a starfruit from Micronesia at my local market or have a French meal at my door in 10 minutes, global supply chains and monoculture have thrown our food system into a strange tilt and we may someday eat ourselves thin; because even though food is infinitely nourishing and comforting and good, even though we need it to survive, someone would die many times over before making a dent in tasting a sliver of the world’s recipes; because new cookbooks are being published every few minutes; because although cookbooks house experiments in recombinatory play, like cellular meiosis, like language they will go on replicating ad infinitum; because, like our expanding cosmos, the number of recipes in existence is bounded but infinite, constantly branching out into a limitless void, and will spiral, interminably, on.

We broke up in the cookbook section.

Now, whenever I see cookbooks, I want to cry.

Kelly Sinclair is is an artist and writer living in the Sierra Nevada. Her multi-disciplinary practice explores imagination and world-building as strategies for creative resilience. Her work has appeared in Bay Area museums, zines, and Stanford literary journals. She is a graduate of Stanford University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe.
Photo by Louis Hansel