Spring 2015 Issue (March 15, 2015)
The Search for a Silent Star, by Russ Bickerstaff
Tender Things, by Joe Cavano
What Happened When the Rodeo Was in Town, by AJ Kirby
I Am A Picker, by Jo Macek
Disrespect, by Charles Rammelkamp......Editors' Choice
Lego House, by Vani Rao
Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, by Phil Temples
The Man on the Train, by Andy Tu
What We Notice, by Gil Hoy
In The Belly of the Boat, by Angel La Canfora
All Too Human, by Lawrence Syldan
The Search for a Silent Star
by Russ Bickerstaff
Stars always seemed so quiet and serene before I started working the job. They hung out there in the multi-dimensional web of everything as these massive forces of tremendous energy. Thinking of them as anything other than the most powerful forces in the galaxy never would have occurred to me. If someone had told me that I could expect to be spoken to by a star at some point in my lifetime, I would have told them that I wasn’t that interested in pop culture. Once they explained to me what they really meant I would have naturally assumed that they were joking with me. No one ever speaks with stars. They’re not sentient. Even if they were, they don’t have anything to talk with. They’re just massive spheres of plasma held together by their own energy. They wouldn’t have any way to speak even if they wanted to.
It was explained to me during training that stars do have identities. They are sentient. Evidently a huge mass of plasma that has a mass of over 2 nonillion kilograms while burning with a surface temperature of several thousand degrees Kelvin due to overwhelmingly intense nuclear reaction in its heart somehow comes to have some kind of consciousness. Who knew?
Stars never seemed to be thinking about anything that they could communicate in anything other than heat and gravitation, but we had come to find out that their deep connection with the origin of energy meant that they were capable of manipulating matter in subtle ways. So they could communicate directly with us by manipulating our own brain chemistry. There are those who have called it telepathy. They can communicate with it quite well.
Evidently the reason why stars never talked to us before wasn’t because they couldn’t. Stars never talked to us before because they didn’t feel the need to do so. They simply never thought it was worth their time. This perspective might seem kind of elitist at first. Shouldn’t they at least say hello? Honestly, though, compared next to our lifespan, theirs is impossibly long. It’s not that they didn’t have anything to say, they just didn’t have any way of relating to us. All this changed, of course, when we learned enough about them to be able to enhance their lifespans.
Our technology had allowed us enough of an insight into physics to be able to take note of something that was going on in the heart of our favorite star. Between that and the fact that it and our favorite planet (the one we come from) was in danger of getting sucked into a black hole. Our survival and its were very, very important to us. So we made a point of learning how to avoid just such a disaster. We harnessed various forces and hauled the thing (and all of the planets in it) our of harm’s way. Somewhere around the time we started moving it away from danger, it woke-up and started talking. It hasn’t stopped since.
Once we had made absolutely certain that our own star was perfectly okay, we let it settle down. Not socially, of course. (Once you start a star talking it will not shut up.) But it looked stable enough to make everything feel comfy. We were assured another few billion years with the star, we started to realize that it was going to be climbing into all of our minds and talking to us telepathically all the time. There were those of us who didn’t mind, but for the most part we just decided it might be best to back off our home world and find someplace that has a sun that still thought of us as being socially undesirable.
It’s hard enough finding a star with a planet that has the right kind of environment that doesn’t already have intelligent life on it. Finding a star at the right point in its life that can safely live without our intervention for a few billion years is always kind of nice, but people tend to flock to those planets and rather quickly overpopulate them. Invariably all the extra traffic to the planet will get the star talking to other stars about us. Inevitably there’s that moment when the star finds out that other stars think that we’re cool and that we can help them out and everything and they start talking. After a few centuries it becomes apparent that they won’t shut up and again we have to go out and find another place.
Stars have a tendency to only talk to those that are really close to each other. So the best bet for remaining anonymous in the long run when moving to a given solar system is to juggle the stars before you get there. They’ll send people like me in ships that look nothing like ours dressed as anything other than our race in the interest of getting them fooled for long enough to pull the sun out into some comfortably remote star. Then we’ll start to move-in with our real colonization ships and settle-in. It’s worked quite well so far as I understand it. There are colonies on a number of different planets that have passed the usual span of time it takes for a star to start getting chatty.
This, of course, makes the work of star haulers like me very desirable. While the work I do is desirable, it’s scarcely easy work. You start hauling a star and all of the planets around it through space to a cozy little corner of the galaxy and it starts trying to start-up a conversation. You try not to encourage it all that much, but it’s always there. It’ll talking to you telepathically whether your awake, asleep or in forced chemical hibernation for the long haul. I try my best to be polite, but it’s really nice to know that I’m not acting as any kind of ambassador. So I can have conversations with these things, but I don’t have to like it. Being unpleasant to a star is actually one of the few things that’s entertaining about the job.
# # #
Russ Bickerstaff is a theatre critic and aspiring author living in Milwaukee, WI.
by Joe Cavano
He positioned himself across from her on the other side of a small ravine. He was safe for now. She was busy collecting delicate, white flowers from a plant they’d discovered a month ago but had yet to learn the name.
She waved from across the chasm.
He hated himself for making her part of it. He should have ended it before it began. He should have tossed his half-eaten, egg salad sandwich back into its brown paper bag, rose from the school cafeteria table, and been on his way.
The girl took her time arranging the pretty flowers into a lovely bouquet. Then she rubbed her hands together to brush away the soil. He wondered if she was sending a message: I’m wiping my hands of you.
He almost wished it were true. It would make things easier.
He watched as she made her way to the ravine and began to descend. Half-way down, she lost her balance and slid toward the bottom. He considered helping her but changed his mind. He still hadn’t decided what he’d say when she rejoined him.
The instant she hit bottom she righted herself and began to ascend the other side. She had long, tanned legs and a pretty face. He could see why others might find her attractive.
It was her idea to spend the day together. “It’ll be fun,” she’d said. It might have been too, if she hadn’t started kissing him. He didn’t feel anything for her that way.
He was staring at the ground rehearsing what he’d say, when he felt a pair of hands place something on his head. She’d fashioned a crown of white flowers. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, as she sat beside him. “I’ve decided I don’t care that you’re not experienced.”
The boy felt his face flush. “I’ve been with plenty of girls.”
“Then why are you so apprehensive? What are you afraid of?”
He’d blurted it out before he could wish it back. “I’m not attracted to you. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Not even a little.” He was surprised how fine he felt after he’d said it.
“Why do you call then? Why keep asking me out?”
The boy shrugged though he didn’t mean to. “You’re a nice person. I thought we might become friends.”
An instant later, she’d ripped the crown from his head and flung it. “Asshole.” Then, she jumped to her feet and began running. He could hear her sobbing as she disappeared.
He felt like sobbing too. He wasn’t sure why. He walked over to where the crown lay and dropped to his knees to retrieve it. Every flower had been crushed. All that remained was a twisted mess.
"Such a tender thing,” he murmured, as he attempted to fix it. “Such goddamn, tender things.”
# # #
The author is a fellow traveler on this lovely green-blue planet we still call home. Oft-published writer, former secondary school and college teacher, jazz pianist and exceptionally well-travelled and companionable, his writing has earned several awards in a relatively brief time. Still, like Woody Allen, his one regret is that he is not somebody else.
His recently completed short story collection, "Tracings,” will be sent packing and looking for a new home shortly.
What Happened When the Rodeo Was in Town
By AJ Kirby
I’m not small-town stupid. Get that out of your head.
Nor am I old-wifey.
But I do believe in dreams.
I dreamed about Sandie; I couldn’t get back to sleep after.
Dale drove me into town. Kept asking me what was wrong, woman, but I didn’t rightly know. Way I’d been thinking though, the dream had to mean something hinkey in Sandie’s marriage. In our town, men wore ten-gallon hats for smart. There was space for folk to tie up horses outside the bank. Indoors, men still behaved like they were outdoors. Treated their women like branded-livestock.
Not Dale: some.
At work my fingers trembled as I counted dough.
I couldn’t meet Sandie’s eyes.
Everything else was normal behind the counter of National Chartered. Time was money Samuels kept saying. But time wasn’t money, money was. We had to be careful counting it. A lot of businesses were on the brink even though the rodeo was in town.
Monday was the busiest day: all the Main Street stores brought in their weekend takings. Sandie and me counted it; deposited it in the vault.
Sandie was always quiet when she counted. After the dream this seemed ominous.
I tried to fill the silence with scuttlebutt.
Samuels coughed; nodded to the National Chartered Ten Commandments above my desk: THOU SHALT WORK PROFESSIONALLY AND QUIETLY..
I got back to it, counting like a librarian, licking my finger every few turns. Sandie counted hers wearing a yellow thimble on her finger. Even in a dustbowl town like ours wearing a thimble was backward.
Sandie lived in what Dale called the Back of Beyond. With her husband Ted, who she claimed was a head honcho in a ranch in Texas during summer. Convenient: meant she never had to lug him along to any of Samuels’ company-bonding nights at Bob’s Burgers.
I stayed late, hoping to catch Sandie. To talk. Not interfere; just check whether she feared for her life in the Back of Beyond. But she slipped out while I was in the bathroom. I was set to call Dale for my ride home but something stopped me...
Samuels was otherwise engaged and there was Sandie’s desk just waiting for me to have a shuffle through.
Maybe she kept a diary.
Somehow I managed to knock the framed photograph of Ted off her desk. Near screamed when it smashed, but managed to hold my tongue. I reached down for it. Back had fallen off the frame. When I tried to put the photo back, the paper felt too thin for photo paper. I flipped it over and I saw Ted had been cut out of a magazine.
Sandie had broken Samuels’ first commandment. All bank tellers shalt be happily married. Otherwise, Samuel believed, the women would be open to a ‘planned seduction’ by a wannabe thief wanting into the vault.
Course, I should have had a word with Samuels, but… Well, he once said something big-headed to Dale at one of the bonding nights and… I decided to handle the situation myself.
What I wanted was for Sandie to confide. Break down: tell me about how Ted was a figment of her imagination; how she’d always been jealous of me and Dale.
That night Dale did his best to prove there was nothing to be jealous of, rolling in late, three sheets to the wind.
I had the dream for the third night running. There was a man behind Sandie. Wearing a bandit-mask. All you could see was his eyes, dark as a starless night on the prairie.
Next morning I went straight to Sandie. I wasn’t sure she’d agree to a meet, but she did.
Despite everything, her face shone like gold. After a while she grasped my hand across the table. Told me it didn’t matter any more; she’d met someone. From the rodeo. A regular cowboy.
I tugged my hand away, told her Samuels will fire you. Told her she couldn’t trust anyone at the rodeo; that she needed someone solid like Dale.
She just smiled.
I walked out before my mouth caught up with my brain and I could tell her what I really thought.
I was late the next Monday. Dale couldn’t get the Ford started. Nor himself, truth be told.
When we hit Main, it was cordoned off; bathed in lights from police cruisers.
Samuels collapsed on the curb; head in hands.
Dale and me stood behind the police-tape. When they led out the cowboy in cuffs there were cheers from the townspeople; boos from the rodeo men. A couple those uncouth fellers muttered it was all a frame-up: their man was innocent.
Sandie was led out last, her face black from run-eyeliner. She saw me in the crowd; hung her head. Despite myself I felt a rush of pride: I was over here and she was over there.
After the trial everyone was sorry to Sandie’s face but called her the worst kind of fool behind her back. She got a severe reprimand from the judge; the boot from Samuels.
Her cowboy got a ten-stretch.
Couple of the businesses on Main got taken to the cleaners. Quite a bit of money had been counted and somehow in all the commotion, it ‘rode off into the sunset’. Nobody could work out where the cowboy had stashed it and his were the only fingerprints in the vault itself after Sandie had let him in.
Sandie met me one last time in Bob’s.She was going on a trip, she said.
I asked her if she’d learned her lesson.
She smiled, all cocky-like; handed over her thimble. Said I might need it if the going got too tough.
Said I didn’t have to use the thimble just to count money.
I think she wanted to tell me something else, but right then Dale honked his horn. I knew better than to keep him waiting.
I left the yellow thimble there, fingerprinting the plastic table; went back out, into the near-deserted parking lot. The rodeo had left town and all was very, very quiet. ‘Cept for in my dreams.
# # #
AJ Kirby is the author of the novels When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, Paint this Town Red, Bully, Perfect World and Sharkways. His short fiction has been published across the web, and in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in three collections: Trickier & Treatier, The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for 2012’s The Guardian Not the Booker prize.
All of his books are available for purchase on his Amazon Author Page. He reviews fiction for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review.
In addition he undertakes Red Sportswriting, as a regular contributor to The Republik of Mancunia and Stretty News blogs. He has written two books about Manchester United: The Pride of All Europe: Manchester United’s Greatest Seasons in the European Cup, and Fergie’s Finest: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Greatest Manchester United x11.
He blogs here: And his official website is here:
I Am A Picker
by J.T. Macek
I am a picker. I remember my grade school history books with photographs of pickers wearing bone-tired thin faces under flea-gnawed straw hats and Aunt Jemima kerchiefs, young boys wearing loose shirts buttoned to the neck tucked into baggy pants wound tightly with rope and girls wearing knee-length over-patched jumpers.
"Hurry up!" I yell to no one particular in line. We have 15 minutes to clock in, or else.
The guy behind me mumbles, "Don't wanna get docked no pay." He's one of those in-the-hood Mexicans with tattoos from head to toe wearing shorts down to his ankles. I have better shoes, $10 Goodwill sneakers I duct-taped last week after my soles cracked. Office workers dressed in pressed khaki pants or skirts and heels by-pass me in line and I realize the difference between rich and poor is clothes that fit.
"You're blue today." Max is round and short, a few inches taller than midget with slicked down dark hair and dark eyes that dart about looking for safety violations. He doesn't talk much, as if his body has finite words and he might expend his allotment.
"K." I like the blue section with small stuff because I don't have so much lifting, only walking and pushing. Old pickers picked cotton, I pick everything: bestselling books, red cotton-poly blend turtlenecks, heritage tomato seed packets, spark plugs, LED HDTVs, blue baby blankets, vacuum sealed coloring book 6-packs, 14k gold serpentine bracelets, loaves of bread, fine imprinted linen stationery paper, Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Old pickers dragged a burlap bag taller than a man behind them stuffing tiny white cotton bolls into it. I have a shelving rack as tall as me packed with plastic blue totes I push (on good days) or pull (on tired days) down aisles ways.
"Get those things outta your ears!" Hershey yanks an earbud out of my ear. "You wanna get written up?"
I frown at him, shoving wires down the neck of my t-shirt, letting them dangle from the iPod I'd duck-taped to just under my t-shirt armpit. Three write-ups would get me fired. I know Hershey's only looking out for me.
Hershey shakes his head pushing his cart past. The rules say we can't have anything that restricts hearing - no headphones, no earbuds, no earplugs. Instead I have the opportunity to listen to forklifts blasting get-out-of-the-way warnings behind me. During summer, 10-foot ceiling fans drone on like small jet engines. During winter, big block heaters hanging from steel rafters hiss out hot air. Heat rises, so we didn't get much of it on the floor. Add to that noise, the thump, thump, crash, crash of boxes and cartons smashing into each other and the whirring football field long conveyor belt. I wonder what old cotton pickers heard under sun, clouds, sky. Music would've made this place tolerable.
"Don't you want to go back to Pennsylvania?" I ask Hershey at lunch, sitting across from him on a hard metal bench at a long metal table in the break room. The break room has a dozen vending machines full of sugar: sodas, cookies, chips, lining white washed walls. Sometimes we need glucose-rush energy.
"Too cold there." He bites into his bologna sandwich.
"So you like Phoenix better?" I laugh. Hershey worked at the famous candy plant until shutdowns and lay-offs forced him to leave. He doesn't talk much about that but he nearly always has a few chocolate bars on him, a memory of better paying times, and against company rules of eating on the floor. In summer inside at 120 degrees plus, he plastic baggies halfsies of chocolate bar folding and tucking them inside various overall pockets. At break, Hershey ducks behind a rack and sucks the melted chocolate from wrapper and plastic, occasionally letting me lick part of his stash. God, that's wonderful! Sweet, smooth, ambrosia . . . no earthly words can describe the taste and feel of melted sweet chocolate on my tongue.
"Don't snow here." He laughs. Ever pragmatic, Hershey's my mentor and compatriot. He'll call me up to tell me who's on-the-spot hiring. "Get your skinny butt over here!" He'd yell into his cell. I'd come peddling my bike as fast as I could. That winter we worked for a company named after a mammoth, snaking river. Last summer, I called him. "Some big car parts job. Bring two pieces of ID. We're going to working for the Irish."
Farmers paid cotton pickers $2 per hundred pounds picked until the 1950s when diesel fueled cotton picking machines abrogated human laborers. A dozen families cleared 20 acres in a day. I've touched cotton balls and wonder how many of the tiny fluffs make a pound. I wish I were paid by the pound of plasma TV's, brake rotors, men's size 12 ice hockey skates I lift into bins or onto conveyor belts. I sharecrop my job, I don't own it. My pay is by the hour. Think 200 orders per hour divided by 10 hour days divided by 60 minutes in an hour. Three orders per minute walking a 15 acre warehouse, or else.
"See you tomorrow," Max tells me at shift change.
I look surprised but give Max a weak wave. I search out Hershey, finally spying him squeezing through the milieu of comings and goings at the back door. I catch up with him outside. "I'm coming back tomorrow!"
"Good for you." He means it.
"Want to get a pizza?"
"Sure. You buying. You rich now."
I had won Sally Field's First Cotton Harvest Prize in Places in the Heart. Tomorrow is my 90th day. Tomorrow is security that comes with extended steady pay and medical insurance. Hershey and another 85% are out as of today, day 89.
I call Hershey but he doesn't answer his cell. I wonder if he went back to Pennsylvania. I think only technology and pickings changed over the past 100 years.
# # #
J.T. Macek teaches history and critical thinking at several colleges and has written articles about teaching. He is new to the field of creative writing.
by Charles Rammelkamp
A lot of gays go to my gym already so it was particularly uncool when this kid started it with me. I was standing under the blow-dryer after my shower, toweling off, when I saw somebody I thought I recognized at a locker about fifteen feet away. I waved and nodded, said hello. He kind of blanched and ignored me.
I was not wearing my glasses, and I realized after a moment that I’d made a mistake.
“Sorry,” I said to the kid, a musclebound jock. “I thought you were Saul.” Saul Levy, a lawyer friend, often uses a locker in that area.
“Who’s that,” the kid sneered, “your buttboy?”
I was a bit taken aback by the belligerence of the kid’s tone, not to mention offended by the gay smear.
“No,” I replied, “but come to think of it, you do look like a buttboy.” I almost regretted saying it but it was like he’d offered the comeback on a platter.
“You want me to kick your ass?”
“You and what army?” I shot back, remembering the playground banter.
“You asshole,” the kid snarled. He suddenly looked vulnerable, a boy cornered into a fight by his high school classmates.
“Hey, sorry, man, just forget it,” I said, and I headed to my own locker in another aisle.
The kid looked relieved. If he’d attacked me, he would probably have been accused of elder abuse. I was old enough to be the putz’s grandfather.
# # #
Charles Rammelkamp’s collection of poems involving missionaries in a leper colony in Vietnam during the War, FUSEN BAKUDAN (“Balloon Bombs” in Japanese), has just been published by Time Being Books. He edits The Potomac, an online literary journal: www.thepotomacjournal.com. (See Charles' other fine stories published in Zodiac's Spring '13 and Fall '14 Issues.)
(Can a monkey assemble Lego pieces?)
Maya was in a particularly good mood this evening. She rolled her windows down and hummed as she drove home from work. After three months of brutally long hours, she was going home early.
It couldn’t have been easy for her twelve year old daughter Chitra. “I’ll make it up to her” Maya thought as she turned into her Piscataway neighborhood. Raghu had called her earlier in the day to tell her he would be away for a few days.
The neighborhood was awash in summer colors – green lawns and roses in full bloom. Folks worked in the garden or sat on their porches drinking cold beer. Maya pulled into the garage. She noticed that the side door leading into the backyard was open. She walked towards the door, her stilettos clacking loudly on the hard garage floor. Outside, she saw Chitra planting stakes in the vegetable garden and carefully tying the tomato and bean stalks to it.
“Hi baby” she called out.
Chitra gave a slight wave without turning. Maya shook her head. Chitra was becoming increasingly moody, almost hostile, of late.
“I’m going in, Chitra. Don’t be late” she said. No response.
She shrugged and went inside. A sink full of dirty dishes greeted her. Maya opened the window over the sink and started working on the dishes.
She watched Chitra in the garden. The printed shorts and t-shirt stretched over her buttocks and back as she bent forward to plant the stakes. Her pony tail swung back and forth as she worked. “She’s beautiful” thought Maya with wonder. She smiled, feeling like a sculptor who steps back from his work halfway through and realizes that he has a masterpiece in the works.
She looked at the sprawling backyard and thought: “So much better than a one-bedroom Edison apartment”. Chitra was barely four when her first husband was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed a year later but the out-of-pocket expenses had nearly left Maya bankrupt. She had raised Chitra alone until two years ago when she had married Raghu, an Engineer like her, and together they had bought this sprawling suburban house and filled it with furniture from Ethan Allen.
It was quiet except for the distant shrieks of children at play. She felt peaceful, watching her daughter. A car pulled up next door. It sounded close, as if it were pulling up on their driveway. Chitra, who had been crouching over a tomato plant, paused and looked up. Her body was rigid as she looked over her shoulder at the garage door – one, two, three beats. Then perhaps realizing that the car was her neighbor’s she went back to her plant.
Maya looked at her, frozen and unmoving, holding the dish and sponge in her hands, forgetting to breathe. Her mind was blank, as if refusing to process what the eyes had seen. Maya shook her head. “It’s my imagination. The mind’s a monkey” she thought. Besides, such things did not happen in the Indian community. Did it?
A seemingly random thought bloomed in Maya’s mind: “Oh God. If it is so…then I have to start from scratch, all over again”. Her shoulders slumped and a wave of depression filled her heart. She looked at her daughter and her blossoming womanhood and silently screamed: “Don’t ruin it this life”. And for a split second hatred coursed through her veins, making them throb.
Chitra finished tying the last plant and headed back to the kitchen peeling off her garden gloves. She took her muddy shoes off and paddled barefoot into the kitchen. She passed Maya without glancing at her and went to the cereal cabinet.
“Where is he?” asked Chitra.
When Maya had introduced Chitra to Raghu, he had told her “You can call me uncle or even just Raghu if you wish”. But Chitra had abruptly stopped saying his name for a few months now.
“He had to go to Boston- some office emergency. He will be gone for a few days.”
Maya felt, with the preternatural instinct of a parent, felt Chitra let her breath out in a silent sigh of relief. She heard Chitra putting things on the table - cereal, bowl, spoon, milk – and every sound she made sounded deafeningly loud to Maya.
Thump, thump, thump. Chitra’s hands thumped on the counter as she ate. Maya felt the walls of the house slip away and she found herself back in the ultrasound room, looking at the blip on the screen that would be Chitra and listening to the steady, rhythmic thump of the baby’s heart. She had stared at the screen, the world ceasing to exist except for her heart beating in sync with the life growing within her. She whispered to her unborn child: “Be safe."
Chitra had stopped the thumping and was now softly tapping the counter with the tip of her index finger. It sounded like clicks to Maya. And all the scattered thoughts in her mind, even ones that had been swiftly sent to the depths of her subconscious, now fell into place one by one. Her realization that Raghu was not just an introvert but a loner (so what, still a good guy), his willingness to watch Chitra so Maya could work (jackpot, girl!), Chitra’s increasing moodiness and withdrawal (pre-teen angst), her avoidance of Raghu at all times, and finally her sudden call on one of Maya’s all-nighters screaming and sobbing and demanding to know why she was always working late (I’m doing this for you, baby). And on and on her mind arranged her thoughts- like Lego pieces clicking into place.
She had finished washing all the dishes. The sink was clean now. Chitra was no longer tapping and the only sound was the soft clinking of the spoon against the bowl. Maya turned. Chitra was eating her cereal exactly like she had always done, even as a little girl – never taking her eyes off the bowl.
“Chitra” Maya called out softly as she walked toward her daughter.
# # #
Vani Rao is originally from India. She has been a corporate IT person for over twenty years. In all that time, reading was her passion, writing her dream. She has been privileged for the past four years in pursuing her dream of writing full time. She lives in Pittsburgh PA with her husband and son.
Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands
by Phil Temples
"Now don't you worry, gals. Everything will be just fine. Let me handle the talking. And remember: don't overreact to anything that happens."
Commander John Richardson mustered his best John Wayne imitation while speaking to his subordinates--Ensign Sandra Baker, and Petty Officer Elizabeth Sanders. Baker found his comments annoying and patronizing. Sanders, though, was still somewhat infatuated with the young, handsome commander. She hung on Richardson's every word with bated breath. The three were members of the elite Colonial Marine Expeditionary Force based on Station Cygnus 3. At this moment, they were waiting in a colossal chamber that was the living quarters of the sovereign leader of Gerellia-3. No human had ever met or seen a Gerellian. In fact, the trio would actually represent the human race in making first contact.
Baker had never met any aliens face to face. She was noticeably anxious. Sanders, on the other hand, had once been introduced to the Riconian ambassador at a cocktail party at their station. She found his reptilian features -- especially the reticulating membranes under his eyelids -- to be exceptionally creepy. But she knew better than to betray any hint of fear or disgust. As custom dictated, Sanders had bowed her head and held out her left hand, palm up. The Riconian's long, slimy tongue darted out, caressing it for a brief moment. The appendage deposited a tiny drop of saliva, and then it quickly slurped up the moisture and retreated back into an orifice situated where a human's Adam's apple would have been. Sanders remembered she smiled weakly at the ambassador and then she curtsied.
As she spied the Gerellian leader entering the chamber followed by his entourage, Baker was struck by the alien's insect-like appearance. He and the others of his kind towered over the humans. She estimated they stood over three meters tall. Sanders wondered what protocol would dictate, in this first historic meeting of the two species. She had no earthly idea. And despite his entire bravado, she suspected Richardson hadn't any idea either.
For Richardson, this was his sixteenth extraterrestrial encounter. It was, however, the first time he had been given the honor by Headquarters of making first contact. But why they had paired him up with these two rookies for such an important assignment was beyond him!
And, why two women?
Richardson knew it was important to represent the human species with both male and female genders, but-- Come on! Two girls? Well, he was bound and determined not to let anything screw this up. Richardson was painfully aware that any embarrassing reaction or gesture on their part could be a career-ending move for him. If only the Bureau of Alien Ambassadorial Affairs had had some data on these-- these-- INSECTS!
Uh-oh. Show time. What do I do? Kiss, bow, or shake hands?
Richardson sucked in a lung-full of air, turned, and winked at the two women wryly to reinforce that he was in control. Then he strode ahead towards the Gerellian, who had stepped ahead of the others.
They met halfway.
Richardson reached down to flip the switch on his universal translator.
Before the Commander could utter another word, the Gerellian leader towered over the human. From its head protruded a pair of powerful jaws lined with multiple rows of wicked sharp teeth. The jaws bit Richardson's head off cleanly at the shoulders causing blood to shoot a half-meter high.
Baker was paralyzed with fear; she bordered on the verge of fainting. But Sanders attempted to retain her composure and analyze this now-life-and-death situation they now faced.
The Gerellian chomped on Richardson's head for another few seconds. Then it flipped the switch on an electronic device on its belt that began translating the following:
"Welcome to our world, humans! And thank you for the tasty gift of one of your fertilizer specimens. It was delicious! Allow me to introduce myself . . ."
# # #
Phil Temples has written flash and short sci-fi/fantasy for nearly twenty years for his own enjoyment. This is only his second submission. He works as a computer systems administrator and lives in Watertown, MA.
The Man on the Train
by Andy Tu
The train goes chug a chug, a chug, slowing down, and then gsshhh, ding, the doors sliding open. Feet shuffling in, another ding and the doors begin to close, but a man slips in as they slide together and the gears beneath us gshhh. The train pulls us through the tunnel, zooming by unseen walls and intermittent lights that assure we’re heading somewhere. A destination. Ahead, moving. Reaching for something, like this man on the train, clenching the pole in the center with a stiff arm, facing but looking past me.
I sense him sensing me. His eyes glide over the sitting passengers, the ads near the windows, the floor; they come at me. I look to the side. Inspect him with my peripherals. Now he’s the one staring, sensing me sense him, trying to locate me in his memory, the curved scar beneath my eye, the skull on my hoodie, the rip along my sneaker. How does he know me? From where?
I look back at him. A flash of confrontation. His eyes dart toward the window, but his hands reach into the pocket of his hoodie. Checking for his shank. No, he must already know those are useless in these streets. A pistol. He’s going to follow me off this train. When I turn the corner, he’ll hide in the wall’s shadow, waiting for his chance to rush up from behind and pull the gun to my head. Remember me? He’ll say. No, of course you don’t. But you may remember my brother, or cousin, who you shot over $200.
Chug a chug, a chug, a chug. Our train decelerates. We’re all trying to get somewhere. Prove something. Like this man on the train. Why does to follow me? What is our history? Gshhh. Ding. The doors slide open. He walks through them, calmly. Perhaps tonight is not the night he makes his move, or I am mistaken, and he is not one of my enemies. Either way, I’m not taking any chances. I slip through the doors as they slide together, and follow the man, matching his footsteps as he walks through the crowds.
# # #
Andy has been writing in his spare time for a year and a half while teaching Chinese, Science, History, and ESL at a K-12 private school. He will be taking a year-long break from the education sector starting August to pursue writing full time.
What We Notice
by Gil Hoy
I first lived like a tadpole, swimming up-current in a raging river. Never noticing that I’d been crowned heavyweight champion of the world, the impossible odds overcome, or the miraculous union with my waiting cell that might otherwise have been washed away and lost.
The lesson is that you have already overcome impossible odds.
I next existed in a big liquid belly. Not noticing much of anything, except a growing thumb for comfort, kicking feet, and a flesh tube carrying essential supplies and services, never imagining the awakening and magical state change that lay outside mother’s womb.
The lesson is to expect the unimaginable—even when things seem boring and dull.
I next crawled on tiny hands and scuffed-up knees. Not noticing the shoveled sidewalk, our tidy house, the monthly ritual of writing checks for the too many bills for our bank account to deal with at the dining room table.
The lesson is to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices made by others.
I next stumbled along on wobbly chunky columns. Not noticing the sticky mess that I had made on the floor, while king in my high chair, feasting on a high-powered meal of smashed green beans and sweet applesauce.
The lesson is to clean up your messes before they rot.
I next walked down a flower-covered church aisle. Not noticing the profound commitment that I had made to another or seeing the children who would follow, how they would change me, and make me grow despite myself.
The lesson is to think about what really matters and the feelings of other human beings. Appreciate how they see the world and recognize their strengths, weaknesses and fears.
I now board the trolley to go to work. Not noticing the disheartened souls in the long unemployment line, their needs and wants, some having given up, a few scarce bucks for the kids, their faces taught and worried brows.
The lesson is that what you think is tedious is often a profound gift, and the stranger standing next to you may be someone from whom you can learn a great deal, if you will only listen.
I now hurry to my kids’ school events. Not noticing the unkind word or critical gesture that may forever change the way they see the world, and the enduring ripple effects that such a careless act might have.
The lesson is to recognize how a supportive word can lift a child to the heights of Olympus, and an unkind word may shake a growing child’s confidence to the core.
I now cruise around town in my fancy car. Not noticing the rusting auto on the side of the road, the worn treads or the young pregnant mother cuddling her crying child while they anxiously wait for a long overdue uncaring tow truck.
The lesson is to help those who are less fortunate than you at every opportunity.
I now fly in jet planes. Not noticing the starving children in the poor warring nation right below us, after trashing my leftover too-much-food lunch, their bloated stomachs, terrified faces and protruding rib cages.
The lesson is to waste nothing, and that every human being deserves certain basic rights and essentials, called “natural wealth” by Aristotle.
And one day I will lie in my casket —six feet under. Not noticing, perhaps, much of anything.
The lesson is to remember coming out of the womb---for who ever could have imagined the majesty that awaited you? Is death so?
# # #
Gil Hoy is a Boston trial lawyer and studied poetry at Boston University, majoring in philosophy. Gil started writing his own poetry and fiction a year ago. Since then, his poems and fiction have been published in multiple journals, most recently in The Potomac, Third Wednesday, The New Verse News, Clark Street Review, Stepping Stones Magazine and The Zodiac Review.
In the Belly of the Boat
by Angel La Canfora
A large boat sits in the field near my house.
Inside the vessel are unopened presents
that have amassed under the mast
over weeks, months, years. Clothed
in purple and pink foil and ribbons,
they lie from bow to stern, glinting
like luminous fish-scales
caught in a sunbeam.
Exotic gifts from Madagascar
and Morocco, Madrid and Malaysia,
lie in wait from port to starboard.
The only water this boat has known-
the monsoon rains of August.
Like a beached whale, it rests tilted
on its side - its great hide
pollen dusted and rusted.
The neighborhood kids gaze
at the beast and plot its takeover,
but thorny brambles enshroud
the base of the hull
like a treacherous moat of
a million needles.
I smile watching the frustrated children
for I know that when I pass on,
the colorful contents of the beast's belly
will be revealed, unconcealed,
their wrapping eagerly peeled,
by these same curious kids.
And maybe, just maybe,
those kids down there,
or by then all-grown-up kids,
will have one extra-memorable day.
# # #
Originally from Huntington Beach, California, Angel La Canfora
is a singer/songwriter, landscape photographer and poet. Her
poetry has won awards from Writer's Digest and Grey Sparrow Press
and has been featured in Snow Jewel, Poetry Quarterly and also
the upcoming June issue of Star 82 Review. She presently resides in
Henderson, Nevada with her two fluffy rescue cats, Harold and Mod.
by Vani Rao
Emily walks out into her backyard—the seemingly endless expanse of green broken by a small beach that stands between the yard and the Mississippi.
For thirty years, Emily has lived here—utter ennui caused by unbroken routine—drinking, beating, sex, drinking, beating…
Today, everything's changed. The whole landscape seems preternaturally vibrant. She feels like she is standing in a Monet painting. Everything around her—sky, water, grass, wildflowers—seems to come alive under her gaze, move to the relief in her heart, dance to the laughter in her soul.
She looks up at the heavens and laughs. "It's a new day."
# # #
Another wonderful (and important) piece by Vani Rao. See her "Lego House," above, in Flash Fiction.
All Too Human
by Lawrence Syldan
Nothing seems to wait and that leaves me trying to catch up. Just a moment now,
I want to say to the growing stack of bills and the appointments to come and the appointments missed. Circumstances are conspiring to create a travesty of this year. Who is responsible for this runaway? Do you mean to say it is I, this little consciousness peeping out at the world? The wisdom books continue with the same line--those repetitious mystics are unnerving. Rumi and Whitman, get off your spiritual high horses. Shoes are piling up on the patio, marriages are sliding backwards into murk, resentful children are staring down at us in the grass and death is growing like a potted palm from the peak of my thoughts. Great mother of this and that, I hear you listening, you must be merciful and allow me to fall through this scrabbling plurality and be resolved into the world. But here amid the sibilant traffic there goes the phone and I have to see a rosy-faced man about aluminum siding….
# # #
Lawrence Syldan writes: "I am mainly a poet but have written a few nano fictions."