These selections from past issues were published in Zodiac as Spring 2020 issue on the occasion of re-activating the magazine after three years of dormancy.
o What I Live For, by Robert Boucheron
o Shooting At Diamonds, by Rebecca Clay Haynes
o A Snifter of Absynthe, by Stephen V. Ramey
o My Maintenance Man, by Carol Sanford
o Walking Papers, by Daniel VanTassel
o Crane Collapses, No Fatalities, by Gabriel Schenk o God's Dog, by Gale Tanner
o The Keening of the Ccthull, by David Adès
o Aunt Gwen Sneaks, by Kenneth Pobo
What I Live For, by Robert Boucheron
LOIS WATCHED a bead of sweat form on Mark’s forehead, as he expounded on a topic about which she knew nothing. The droplet swelled, grew heavy, and at last trickled down his cheek, leaving a bright trail.
“. . . without some internal structure to manage decision-making, the group
He looked like he was weeping and didn’t know it. The way some people tap a foot, or adjust their glasses, or twitch.
“. . . doesn’t matter what the issue is or the personalities involved. It’s about size, the number of people, the rate of growth . . .”
Another bead of sweat gathered strength on his forehead. Lois was fascinated. Without warning, the drop raced down his other cheek, then hung from his chin.
“. . . in villages that outgrow the local food supply. If you ask them why, they talk about the will of the gods, or some petty dispute that goes back generations.”
Despite the heat, they were sitting at an outdoor café, on spindly metal chairs at a round table. They were in the shade of a building, on a pedestrian plaza. There was no traffic to shout over, but also no movement in the scene. And no breeze. Lois dangled an arm. The metal tubing of the chair, which ought to be cool, was warm to the touch. She sipped iced tea through a straw. The ice was melting.
Mark was so intent on developing his argument that he forgot to drink his beer. The golden liquid was losing its fizz, going flat. Warm beer was disgusting. Lois preferred cocktails, especially ones colored green or pink, with names that evoked tropical islands. Trade winds. Coral reefs and turquoise waters.
“They take sides, almost at random, to either side of the aisle in a church or a meeting hall.”
The beer glass was wet with condensation. Mark’s face was dripping. Lois, however, was in her element. She liked hot weather, felt more alert, like a lizard that comes alive in the noonday sun. Thin, with dark hair and a medium complexion, she could pass for Mediterranean. Except that she lacked intensity or passion or whatever it is that makes people burn inside. I am an observer, she thought. A collector of impressions.
Mark had reddish hair, thick and curly. It was reddish all over, Lois was pleased to discover. He had thick arms and legs and a thick torso. He was full and fleshy. Lois liked meat. A nice face, finely drawn. Maybe he would run to fat when he got older, maybe not. He was active, when he wasn’t working at a desk. He bicycled, hiked, rowed and sailed. He liked water, swam well. He was young, only twenty-four. Lois had a few years on him. She declined to say how many.
“. . . splits in two, like a cell undergoing mitosis.” He smiled—an infectious, sunny smile, with sweat streaming down his face. Like tears of joy?
“And here’s the wonderful part. The half is immediately a whole. It grows, acquires new members—if it’s healthy, anyway—develops complexity . . .”
This was the climax. Lois had only a faint idea of what he just said. She was a poor listener, but she followed the emotional arc. Mark did not require an interactive audience. Passive acceptance was okay. He was a born lecturer. He would be terrific on video.
As a reward, or grateful to discover it was still there on the table, Mark seized the glass of beer and poured most of it into his mouth. Lois watched the sudsy slime trickle down the side of the glass. Mark wiped his face with a paper napkin, which turned to pulp. Lois swallowed involuntarily, looked at her iced tea, and shivered.
“It’s too hot to think,” he said. “Why did we come out here? Do you want to go somewhere else?”
“No, I’m fine. Sit still, slow down, and let the blood settle.”
“Am I red in the face?”
“Rosy, maybe. Florid.”
“So, do I get the job? Assistant adjunct, one-year appointment, meager salary, no benefits, with option to renew?”
“They would be lucky to get you, mad to turn you down.”
“Waiting is such a drag. The suspense.”
“That’s why we left the apartment. The walls were closing in, you said. A breath of air, a cool drink. We got one out of two.”
“You don’t mind if I ramble on?” The smile was clouded by doubt. Brains and brawn, that’s what the dating service promised, and for once they understated. Yet Mark had moments of insecurity. This was her cue.
“Mind?” Lois sat up. “Your voice is music to my ears. It is what I live for.”
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. He writes on housing, home improvement, gardens, communities, and electric motorcycles. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Cerise Press, Cossack Review, Dark Matter, Echo, Mouse Tales Press, Niche, Northern Virginia, Piedmont Virginian, Prime Number, Real Estate Weekly, Rider, Streetlight, Talking Writing, 34th Parallel and Virginia Business.
Shooting At Diamonds, by Rebecca Clay Haynes
THE RED PICKUP turned onto Highway 111, hewing to each turn tightly, cleanly, and heeding every touch on the wheel and tap on the brake. Luis drove that vehicle the way he made love -- no detours, no room for error, no unexpected stops -- through an autumn forest empty of people, empty of sound beyond the engine and the wind. Towers of fir and pine shuddered at their passing. White and orange chainsaws rattled in the bed, well-greased and poised for their chance.
Paula aimed at the No Outlet sign and fired. As they passed the yellow diamond, she searched for the hole she was sure would be there. But that warning had long since been decimated by bullets and she could hardly read the words let alone find the tiny lacuna left by a .22 shot from a Ford doing 40.
“I think I got it,” she said.
“How could you miss?”
“I have, you know.”
“I know,” Luis said. He parked the truck by a sun-streaked clearing crisscrossed with felled ponderosas and other conifers, their dense corpses showing few effects from their recent death. Mighty trees like this rot slowly. Sweet aromas rose up from the warm reds and yellows of the severed trunks framed by dead cones and the abandoned nests of fledglings long since taken to the wing.
“I wonder what Kit Carson would think of this place named after him,” Paula said, reaching for the smaller of the chainsaws, the one Luis had bought her last spring. It fit her hands perfectly, just like the gun.
“He might not care for it too much,” Luis said. “You know his father got himself killed by a tree he was chopping down that landed on him.”
“You never told me that.”
“I don’t tell you everything.”
He headed for some trees loosely stacked on top of each other and lowered a pair of white goggles over his laughing eyes, his chainsaw in one hand as he crouched beside the broken butt of the largest pine. His eyes were always amused, taking in the fervor of the human race, especially of the Anglos hustling Hispanic and Indian art back in Santa Fe, ever chasing a better trade, higher margin, more gullible prey. Luis had the blood of all three and respect for only one.
“So why do you spend time with me?” Paula had asked him once.
“You’re not like them.”
“My people killed your people.”
“And mine killed yours.”
“But yours were here first.”
“And we’ll be here when you’re gone.”
The quiet recoiled with the wail of his chainsaw as it slowly cleaved the compliant wood. Paula watched the rounds roll off and cluster by their feet. Luis, his black hair and beard, his strong arms and thighs, his ready smile, loved her despite her tainted genes and roots. He refused to call it that but love was what it was. She went to the truck and took out the ruana he had made her over coffee at Tia Sophia’s, with everyone wondering, especially the tourists, what this big man in a black Stetson was doing with a crochet needle in one hand and skein of dusty pink yarn in the other. This made him laugh all the more.
She draped the poncho over her shoulders and sat down on a stump to watch him work. He gestured with the blade for her to pick up her equipment and follow suit. She smiled and shook her head. Not in the mood, she mouthed. He shrugged and moved on to the next bark-wrapped fir destined for someone’s kiva in the coming months. For friends and friends of friends and even family if they didn’t renege on their promise to pay. It was this and waiting tables that kept his old adobe roof over his head.
The aroma of resin blended with exhaust and dirt still moist from an overnight rain. Paula breathed it all in and looked up at the sky now clear and blue. She would have to tell him. She would have to tell him about how Carl wanted to marry her and how she could no longer say no. About how the lawyer could give her a home and babies and a future. And about how she wanted him, Luis, and not Carl, even though she had told Luis this same thing many times before and he had always chuckled. That was when Carl had been just a name and not a threat and before he had insisted Paula become his wife. Before he had said he loved her and wanted to spend every day of his life by her side, even getting down on one knee and kissing her hands. And before he handed her the diamond ring she had tucked into her lingerie drawer before slipping on her cowgirl boots for this final day in the woods.
When the sun cleared the trees, it shone down hard on the man with the chainsaw and the woman with the heartache, seeming to hover and barely illuminate some truth neither could see. Later, when the truck was stacked with firewood and Luis was sticky with pitch and needles, giving off the scent of man and nature at their best, she pulled him down on top of her, knowing this would be their last. The shadows stretched over them in the crumbled bark and sawdust they could neither taste nor feel.
“I can’t offer you what he can offer you,” Luis said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I can offer you nothing but this moment. And the next.”
As the afternoon light continued to ebb, like a tide washing their memories out to sea, they drove back in silence, his hand over hers and the .22 still loaded and tucked under their seat.
Rebecca Clay Haynes' stories have appeared in The Binnacle, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes and Mused, and are forthcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Rebecca is also a journalist and author of non-fiction children's books. In May, she set off on a literary journey around the world, staying mostly at writer residencies. She'll be in India for the next three months.
Dewey Lake, by Doug Johnson
THE CROWD was pretty much what you would expect when a small Alaskan town of 862 souls is visited by 12,000 passengers and crews of four large cruise ships. I ambled through the town, allowing myself to be deflected from my course as I was caught up in the eddies created by the storefront gawkers or buffeted by the countercurrent of small groups moving against the flow. The sense which stands sentinel on the private space around the body and which will often allow one to move through masses with little contact was overtaxed by the confused and purposeless movements of this body of humanity. My progress was full of small collisions, abrupt stops, sideways slithering, and wide detours into the street. No one seemed to have any idea where they were going. Movement in any direction would suddenly be deflected by almost any random sight or sound or the calling of fellow gawkers. The default movement of the aimless was the sudden stop and many promising advances toward my destination were so delayed.
I particularly hated this crowd of which I was an unwilling member. When people would stop to look at some point of interest, it was so much more irritating and disruptive than the considerate and urbane manner in which I contemplate in fascinated oblivion the sights and wonders of my own travels. I am certain that on those occasions when my movement had come to a dead stop in awe struck contemplation of a Hong Kong street scene, or an Austrian baroque ceiling, it blended unobtrusively and was without effect on the local population going about their routine business.
Furthermore, this crowd was exceptionally unattractive in both manners and appearance. Protruding bellies, misshapen faces, badly pocked skin, legs with lumps, veins, and growths made up just some of the sights with which I was assaulted. It really was quite notable the extent to which the physical deficiencies of this crowd elicited repulsion. While I and many of my friends share the physical shortcomings in appearance of those in this crowd, neither I nor my friends or family had elevated those deficiencies to such a level of repulsion. In fact just the opposite, because it was a strange fact, which I can only attribute to the fine quality of those within my circle, that they had managed to morph what in others were repulsive characteristics into something quaint and quite lovable.
While I was temporarily a part of the crowd, I held myself aloof. My movements had purpose. My destination called to me with its promise of quiet beauty, whispering silence and solitude. It was there that my defenses would drop, the senses would sharpen and peace and understanding would arrive. The path forward would be clear and unobstructed. It was the opposite of everything in town. There the natural eternal order of things prevailed. Here the landscape was littered with the detritus of a greedy and selfish humanity.
Indeed the town itself was a shrine to a time of greed when men forsook all civilized behavior in the quest for gold. When the gold rush of 1898 is viewed from the present it takes on an unreal museum quality. The tourist bar converted from the old bordello with the scantily clad mannequins peeking through the lace curtains from the upper floors is no more real than the replica of a “typical” 1890’s bar which the National Park Service has created on Broadway and placed behind a plastic barricade. The real Gold Rush was made of mud and greed and cruel remorseless selfish striving, carried out with pain, discomfort, and danger in a place far from home, while a sense of forsaken loneliness pressed down on the heart. Companions in misery were competitors. The kindness and aids naturally exchanged by humans facing a common adversity could be a risk to one’s own stake and survival. That such hardships were seized so readily was a testimony to how bad things were for many Americans in the late 19th Century. For many the romantic road of the sourdough to adventure and wealth was taken out of desperation.
I used to drink with my shipmates down the street at Moe’s. Nestled behind its fake brick front, it had the ambiance of a parking garage. Substitute exhaust fumes for cigarette smoke and the comparison is even more apt. While not as tony and certainly not as clean as either the National Park Service diorama or the used to be bordello, it was a place where working men and women could go and get a beer. Perhaps a century from now there will be a shrine with mannequins dressed in Carharts and halibut jackets in a cleaned up and restored Moe’s.
I am headed out of town to the East, over the creek and across the railroad tracks. There, tight against the sudden slope of the hill, lay the start of a steep and rocky path. Eagerly I seek the lonely trail the crowd distains. Alone at last I feel the welcome press of the unyielding slope against my calves. Soon tired knees are pumping to the indifference of the hill. They parse out muted time, shrunken yet displacing all else as I count out the slow tortured steps.
This trail is mine. It is claimed by the authority of long association and bolstered by the silent testimony of former trail mates now resting beneath cold alluvial rocks in the valley. My claim has been honed in the winter’s snow and burnished by the mother falcon who slashed the back of my neck one early spring when I unknowingly strayed too close to the nest she protected.
The quiet and solitude enveloped me like a balm. The world began to take on the rightness that one always suspects exists but never reveals itself except in unexpected moments. The words of the Almighty as spoken through the prophet who said, “be still, and know that I am God,” spoke to me as my body worked through that stillness outside of time. I was home. My feet caressed the path like a returning lover. Peace and comfort were once more my companions on the journey. To be once more in a place of certainty and solitude restored my optimism and vigor. The world was indeed a fine place and I was a fine fellow in it.
The sound first came to me from behind, at what I would guess was two switchbacks down the trail. Muffled footfalls accompanied by way too much laughter and chatter for a trail this steep. The irritating sounds made by the interlopers in my domain persisted without letup. After a few minutes I could hear that the conversation was in English and between what sounded like two men with an indeterminate foreign accent and a woman speaking with British inflections. They were not from Skagway or even summer workers who would undoubtedly be engaged at this time in tending the needs of the hordes of tourists from the ships. Hell, they were probably not even Americans. In any case they did not belong on my trail and I resented it.
While I held firm in my conviction that this was indeed my personal trail I recognized the valid claim of others with the proper credentials to the same area. The Chilkoots and other native peoples who had lived in the area for centuries certainly had a claim. Although the areas of Southeast Alaska that the natives had traditionally inhabited were often different than those that the white man generally saw as favorable. The natives tended to select the areas with the most abundant and easily taken fish and game. The water access was good for canoes and most important had the best micro climate. The white man valued harbors for deeper draft vessels and access to minerals and timber and such places were often the most inhospitable without the support of products of the industrial revolution. It was an old joke in Ketchikan that the city had been established in an area that had about the worst weather in Southeast Alaska. It was often raining sideways in town while the old native village of Kaasan across Clarence Strait on Prince of Wales Island would be in sunshine.
While I had regard for the validity of various ownership claims I realized that they were all rooted in possession, habit and selfishness and that the law which gives the veneer of legitimacy is mostly just a snapshot of the reality at the time it was written. A lot of the conflict seems to be over what time is referenced to make it legitimate. My claim, which I held to be paramount, was based on some 30 years of hiking these trails whenever I got the chance. The Native claims would go back centuries when some of their ancestors had without doubt trod this area. The fact that I had never seen an Indian on the trail proved mine was the superior claim. The invaders on the trail behind me would undoubtedly claim that they had a perfect right to be here since it was a public trail, promoted by the tourist board of Skagway and maintained by public institutions and volunteers. I could dismiss such spurious claims without difficulty.
I resented the approach of the hikers and their intrusion into my private space. An intrusion which would in fact be drawn out over the length of time it took for them to overtake me. The insult was all the greater for their young lungs which not only supported a faster pace than my own but also provided a reserve of air to converse and laugh as well. It was now possible to pick up intelligible bits of the conversation and I constructed all scenarios of the relationship of the three trespassers. Above the murmur of the male voices I would catch the trill pleasure of the female laugh. I reached into the shallow well of my reserve energy and upped my pace to exceed theirs. I didn’t look back but soldiered on heartened by the now diminishing sound of the conversation. The burn of a heightened pace gave evidence of costly physical effort but it also stoked the self satisfaction of the preservation of my solitude.
Lost in inward tranquility I almost didn’t hear the first stone rolling underfoot close behind me. Turning around I saw her about fifty paces back, head down, arms pumping, while her heavily shod feet picked carefully between the loose round rocks scattered across the trail. We were on the last straight incline before the crest of the hill. She drew alongside me just as we reached the top. I had just straightened up and picked up my pace on the welcome gentle downward slope to the lake. She slowed her pace to match mine and we fell into step together.
“Lovely morning” she said enthusiastically with a smile and not a hint of breathlessness.
“Yes indeed” I croaked out between ill concealed gasps.
She was wearing some sort of mid-calf khaki pants, a blue T shirt, white ball cap partially covering short auburn/gray hair, and sturdy brown hiking boots. On close inspection she appeared to be about middle age, maybe 45 plus, but the glow of exertion with a patina of sweat, her fit body and her obvious joy spoke of someone much younger than the years which her face revealed.
For the next forty minutes we fell into easy conversation. She had engaged in pleasant exchanges with the pair she had overtaken on the trail before she caught up to me. Indeed murmurs of the conversation punctuated with her pleasant higher pitched laugh had first alerted me to intruders within my domain. And now here I was tolerating without objection, not altogether unpleasant words with one of those who had threatened my tranquility. We were an odd pair. I was a lapsing misanthrope, with every step and word descending fu rther into the pit of hypocrisy, walking side by side with an ebullient embodiment of human congeniality and optimism. Old saws such as “liking man but not mankind” or ancillary ideas often put forth in sales or managerial seminars such as “strangers are friends we haven’t met” or “I never met a man I didn’t like,” rattled through my head. I struggled to grasp at any nugget, however worn, to explain why I was enjoying this conversation and company. For in fact there were many strangers I did not want to meet as well as many people I knew well and didn’t like.
The pleasure of her company could not be explained through sexual tension, because while I confess to often preferring the company of women I could not envision a circumstance of physical attraction. A benefit of having a certain number of decades on the odometer is the ability to relate honestly to the opposite sex without the deviations of a younger man. Indeed we were in a post sexual world. She told me much about her life, confirming my thoughts that she was once a beauty, and had experienced all that entailed for a girl and later a woman abroad in a world of men. She imparted this plainly and within the context of the conversation and my practiced ear I could find no hint of subtext. Her words provided a peek into another life and a view of the world from that life which I would never be able to comprehend on my own.
I learned that she was born in Kenya to English parents at the end of the colonial period. She lived there until she was 15 and then moved to the UK with her parents for three years. After that she lived and travelled widely, I think Indonesia and Australia were mentioned. Later came marriage and children. She now owned an orchard in the Okanagan in British Columbia which she claimed took all of her time with little left for travel or other pursuits. The visit she was on to Alaska was a retracing of a trip she had made years before with her husband. Her words were intelligent, informed and molded around a world view based upon the observations of a life deliberately lived.
At the south end of the Lake we parted, she to continue around the lake to the steeper upper lake trail, and I to return to town by a different route.
Doug Johnson lives and writes on an island in PUget Sound. He has spent his professional life at sea and around ships and boats. Recently he has begun writing tales inspired by events in his life.
A Snifter of Absinthe, by Stephen V. Ramey
SHE SWIRLS absinthe in a snifter half again as large as her delicate hand. Her eyes are green, and shine with their own light. I take the stool next to her. The bartender sidles over, a bear of a man with lamb chop sideburns, very retro.
"Babel on the rocks," I say. "And bring the lady another drink." He nods and moves away.
"So," I say. "My name's Jack." Her name is Fay, according to the nametag affixed to her blouse. She must be an off duty hostess.
She turns an icy shoulder. She has small breasts, a pointed chin. I imagine those slender fingers serving coffee in bed. I imagine that petite mouth blossoming into smile.
"Look, I'm just making conversation," I say. "I'm not trying to get into your pants." Pause. "No way would they even fit me." Usually that gets a smile. This time, nothing.
"You seem a little down," I say. "What's the problem? I'm a good listener."
I pay for our drinks. Fay pushes the new absinthe toward me. I reach, using the motion as an excuse to touch her fingers.
A spark shoots between us. Twisting, impatient energy migrates up my arm, splashes into my thoughts. Explosion casts shadows and shapes. For an instant I see a city inside the snifter. Not a city, the city. New York. Skyscrapers, Statue of Liberty, green waves. My breath catches. A sour taste swells along the back of my tongue, raw vegetation, chlorophyll. I want to spit, but swallow instead.
The city is gone. I can't stop feeling it was there, that I have glimpsed my own surroundings from a distance.
"They think it's the iron," Fay says. She's watching me. All I can see is her eyes through a tunnel of green light.
"We were born in a baby's laughter," she says. "Why should we fear iron?"
"I... don't... uh, know?" I can't turn my gaze. I grasp blindly for my drink, anticipating sweet Kahlua. Glass clicks on tooth. I taste metal, a suds of mortar on my tongue. Fay sips from her snifter, and shivers. I catch a glimpse of translucent wing, gone as quickly as it appeared.
"It’s not only the girders," she says, "but also what they replace. Trees, flowers, grass."
"You lost me."
Fay smiles, and it's everything I hoped for. Perfect white teeth, a pleasing oval mouth.
"Perhaps I've drunk too much?" she's says. A titter sparkles from her lips. The mist of it breathes past my face. A memory of Mother comes, perfectly formed, as if she were here and not a million miles away in Phoenix. There's so much left unsaid between us. I want to call her right now, immediately.
"Love," Fay says, nodding. "It's almost enough." She looks sad. "There's too many of you, Jack. We cannot keep up. The end is nigh."
"End? You mean, like Global Warming."
She shakes her head. "More sudden. A different tipping point. Everything we maintain, undone." She downs the remainder of the green liquid. "Alcohol helps a little," she says. "Numbness, you know?"
I nod without understanding. I do understand numbness, but not what she means.
"It was nice to meet you, Jack." She hops down from her stool.
"Wait," I say. “I bought this for you.” I take the untouched snifter into my hand and extend it toward her. "One for the road. For old friends."
A strange expression comes over Fay, a faraway gaze, as if she's considering something a lot more important than absinthe.
She shakes her head. "Too late, Jack." She hurries to the door and pushes through. The sudden sunlight stuns me. I close my eyes and watch an afterimage of Fay's silhouette rise up again and again behind my eyelids.
When I look next, the bar is dark. A television blares. I feel alone. I feel the building perched above me, tons of steel and mortar and glass. Concrete below, a basement soured by mildew.
Too much, I think. Too many. The absinthe is still in my hand. I stare into the snifter green, and wonder.
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, a small city with a big heart. His work has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Microliterature, Bartleby Snopes, and Daily Science Fiction. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Inc and the twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com
My Maintenance Man, by Carol Sanford
FRED'S BROAD SHOULDERS, light step and deliberate movements make me think of a bull. I haven’t spotted him outside in the last fifteen minutes, which means it’s probably safe to head for the communal laundry in the basement of Number 2, the building next door. That is, unless Fred is down there watching my sweater go round. It came out a mess of wrinkles, so I put it back in with a wet towel. Fred is maintenance for this apartment complex. He drives in from the family farm five days a week, six every other week, and keeps the place running. I’ve been here three months, a woman in transition. Before then, I lived with somebody—parents, sibs, college roommates, a husband—and mostly in the country. Now I’m in love with city life; I’m not in love with Fred.
Earlier this morning I noticed he was supervising the lawn cutting. Now he’s disappeared. There’s a padlocked storage closet for tools near the laundry, another reason he might be down there. I’ve been in the laundry room with him twice, don’t want it to happen again. He was decent enough but the close quarters made my heart pound. He’s been divorced and is married to a woman much younger than I am. That’s good.
Yesterday Sue came over to sit outside with me. It’s early July, everything is lush. Fred has the grass at the edge of the parking lot trimmed smartly, and the blue hydrangeas are starting to bloom. We took our drinks out, and before we settled in to a nice chat, Fred ambled over. He was all southern gent coming to pay his respects, pass the time of day. We didn’t ask him to sit. He plopped down on the lawn, fondled the roots of the tree next to him, and leaned into the trunk to scratch his back. It was too funny. I half expected him to bend his big head down to sniff a flower like Ferdinand, the little bull in the children’s story.
He talked about tenants, present and past. I was surprised he remembered so many. He talked like a people person—warm, open, caring. I’d have to say gentle. I could see Sue wasn’t buying it. She isn’t the only friend I have who arches her eyebrows when the subject of Fred comes up. I usually just say, “Fred’s okay.
The truth is I don’t know how to handle men like Fred. Right after I moved in, he came to my door unannounced to install screens in the living room windows. Felina, my illegal cat, was curled at the head of my bed, her metabolism slowed to a mummy’s for the rest of the day. I made sure to shut the bedroom door. It must have been Fred’s low, easy voice that brought her to life. I heard her paws like a whisper, then scritchscritch on the door. Next she would extend her claws and gouge then start meowing. I talked louder to Fred, hoping he wouldn’t catch on. The back of his tan work shirt was growing a wet spot as he struggled to secure the old screens with a screwdriver. The next few minutes were ridiculous: Fred sweating and cussing softly, Felina complaining in several registers, and me talking hard to Fred about how grateful I was for the screens as well as any other topic that came into my head.
“There you go,” Fred said at last. “You’re all taken care of.” He gathered his tools, wiped perspiration from his brow and went out smiling. That smile was like the Mona Lisa’s, pleasant enough but smirky too. I called my thanks after him, and he turned, eyes flashing, and said, “You’re more than welcome.”
It took Fred awhile to decide not to inform on me. When he came again, thrumming his knuckles on my door three times, he leaned casually against the doorjamb and said, “If they ask me, your little friend doesn’t exist.” I heard myself saying “Thank you.”
Sue and I decided to take a dip in the pool after Fred went back to work. I put on my swimsuit, a black one-piece with orange-red poppies and started for the pool while Sue took her turn in the bathroom. I knew she’d come out with a bikini on and wondered how she’d react if Fred gave her a look. I found the gate to the pool locked. Fred was within shouting distance, so I called to him. He turned on his heels, picked up speed and came to my rescue.
“Good!” he roared, and grabbed my shoulder, “I get to throw you in!”
I stepped back, shocked. Laughing, he opened the gate just as Sue appeared in her minimalist suit. Sue looks great in swimwear; Fred didn’t seem to notice. As he left us, I managed a polite, weak “Thanks.”
There was one other incident. My kitchen is tiny, so I was careful not to find myself on the wrong side of the stove when Fred pulled it out from the wall, blocking the doorway to the living room. He’d come to see why the oven wouldn’t work. He went down to the basement and told me to yell from the top of the stairs when the ceiling light in the kitchen went off, signifying he’d probably thrown the breaker to the stove. I felt like a wife, and I didn’t like it.
No more procrastinating. I have to get that sweater out of the dryer.
I take a hanger from the closet and proceed across the lawn to Building No.2 and go down the poorly lit stairway. Someone has washing in; I hear the swish swish, lull and rhythm. I stop the dryer, reach in for my sweater—looks good—and hear Fred’s hooves on the stairs.
Here’s the thing: If I’m going to survive alone, I’ve got to figure out how to handle uncomfortable situations. Fred is one. Just one. “Oh, hi,” I say nonchalantly. “Hot out, isn’t it?” I suspect he’s used his pocket comb on the way down.
“Real hot.” He’s grinning.
“A lot of work lined up for the day, I’ll bet.” I notice he has his toolbox and fervently hope he’s here to get something he needs.
“Nothin’ that can’t wait.”
“Like my dad always says, make hay while the sun shines.” Before the last two words are out of my mouth it dawns on me that Fred might not be the literalist I take him for. What does he think I mean by “hay”? God, I’m already out of clichés.
Fred doesn’t answer. Maybe mention of my father was the right thing. I don’t want him to see I’m nervous. The basement air feels damp, cool, way too private. I adjust the sweater on the hanger, button the top button, and turn to go. I glance at Fred. His eyes are glazed. Now I’m scared. He reaches out awkwardly, almost as if to take the hanger, as if I might need help carrying my sweater up the stairs.
“Oh, Fred,” I interject quickly, conversationally. “I wanted to ask about your wife.”
“You said she’s young. I think you said twenty-nine?”
“I’ve been thinking how lucky you are.”
“You know…to find someone after an unhappy first marriage. Me, I’m not even thinking about a new relationship. It’s going to take a long time. Know what I mean?”
He lets me pass. I put my foot on the bottom stair and start up. Heat lightning dances on my neck, back, buttocks. But I manage to climb in a certain way—like an old washerwoman maybe. Weary yet tough. Like someone you can’t fool, someone born knowing how to get the wrinkles out of things.
Carol Sanford likes to write in the loft of a cabin she and her husband built next to a charming river. Some of her best work can be found in print in special editions of the journal Creative Nonfiction, in the collection Peninsula Essays and Memoirs from Michigan, and online at Ragazine.
Walking Papers, by Daniel VanTassel
I KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING when I see her talking with the man in the mall. I hear just sentence fragments, but a quick glance reveals the imbalance. I move in closer. She has this rigid voice and posture as he stands there with lowered head and eyes. He tries to argue, but he's going down for the third time and she has no lifeline for him.
I move in closer still.
"I thought we… I… I dunno. I just thought we’d go along like this for a while, and then maybe we'd even…"
She shakes her head slowly in that way that puts a final stamp on things, and then she just walks away. He watches her curve down and around the tiled steps of the terraced food court area and make her way toward the crowd of shoppers.
She has an angelic face, the kind of face my dreams used to be made of but no longer can be. Her clothes convey a sort of sophistication, and she projects a kind of…I don't know…class, maybe. Of course all of those descriptors are relative. Eye of the beholder. One man’s classy is another man’s déclassé.
I decide she’s a Scorpio. Her magnetism reveals it, and there’s that dark, sadistic side of the Scorpio that I see in her. She may already sense that I, a fellow Scorpio, am nearby. I berate myself for further violating my vows with these thoughts about astrology.
At any rate, she seems out of place among the people here who look like refugees by comparison. Many look up as she passes near them. A song comes to mind: And when she passes, each one she passes goes a-a-ah. She projects an aura of classiness so strong that she holds everyone's attention until she's out of range. I watch the crowd of shoppers open up around her and take her in.
The drowning man stares at the spot where she disappears. I fight off the urge to approach him, to counsel him. After a few minutes he slowly raises his left arm and extends it toward where he last saw her, his hand reaching out as if to touch her, and then he drops it abruptly. He looks around and catches me staring, and I look away.
He passes behind me and walks down the curved steps, and I can study him again. He's a good-looking guy with the clothes and boots of a construction worker. I notice a red Bobby J. carved into the back of his wide leather belt, a license plate for anyone who wants to find him.
As if witnessing this event isn't exciting enough, I'm thrilled to see and overhear the same young woman about forty-five minutes later as I'm looking at some clothes in the store that has those hot ads featuring svelte young people.
"I needed to tell you that, Sam, before we both made a big mistake and things got more serious." She is very firm, a little colder than she had been with Bobby J., and I fight the urge to comfort this guy, too, as I’ve been trained to do. The extent of my hunger terrifies me.
"No, I don't see," he says quietly. He has the same look and sound as Bobby J. "Maybe after a week or so, after…"
"Maybe when you realize what we…"
He nods numbly. Again I resist the urge to help, one of the urges I was born with. She turns and walks away, slipping adroitly through the display racks like a cool breeze through boughs of hemlock.
Sam continues to stare at the last place he saw her. They're similar, Sam and Bobby J., but Sam is obviously a businessman of some success, judging by his clothes, and he’s much taller. Six-five or six-six, I figure, another license plate, if anyone wanted to track him down. A lawyer, maybe, who has just pled his case and lost. He looks about her age, as Bobby J. did. Maybe a little older. Thirty, I'm thinking now, about my age. I know now that both men will need my help in getting past the pain, and I develop a plan that creeps upward, an insidious, pleasant thing that begins to dominate my thoughts.
It's about two weeks later and I'm on another trip to the mall. I return to the places where each man was given his walking papers. I stand where she stood, and then I turn and stand in a sort of reverie where each of the departed stood. I breathe in the remnants of their hurt. Requiescant in pace, I offer, remembering to make the verb plural. I mentally light two candles and picture the men on their knees, begging me to release them. Their candles flicker out and I shiver in their remaining warmth.
I return to the mall several more times during the next week. I’m beginning to think I'm seeing her, glimpses of someone in a store. I often follow someone right out of the mall and into the parking lot, only to discover that it's someone else. And now, on one last shopping excursion, I'm waiting in line at a fast food counter, and I feel a hand on my arm. I turn slowly.
"Excuse me, do you have the time?" she purrs.
It's a double blow, suddenly having her close enough to smell and having been hit with new information about her, but I’m cool in my response.
"Yeah. It's just about noon."
She moves ever-so-slightly closer. My thoughts about her carom off the walls of denial and temptation in my head, and I light another mental candle.
"I mean, do you have time to go some place and…you know…" Her voice and breath are like the warm communion wine I took today but shouldn’t have. I feel my heart pound.
She smiles. "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?"
It's such a trite thing to say, and I force myself to walk away. I'm vaguely aware that I'm trembling. I'm feeling a bit out-of-body. When I'm several yards away, I stop and look back. She's already after the next guy in line, and he’s looking at his watch.
But wait…now she’s turning away from him and looking around for me and we lock eyes. I look at my watch and then back up at her, but she has vanished.
Daniel VanTassel is publisher of The Zodiac Review and author of the novels The Aries Obsession; The Feminist Gene and the Election of 2024; and the short fiction anthology, The Man Who Was Looking Down. Following retirement from private sector jobs, he enjoyed college instructor positions in English Composition and ESL. He served in the U.S. Navy.
Crane Collapses, No Fatalities, by Gabriel Schenk
CLARK HEARD a man scream outside. He looked out to the street but no-one was there.
Michelle gestured at the wooden chair on the other side of the coffee table, and he lowered himself into it. The chair was too small and the sides pressed up against his thighs. He shifted his weight from one butt cheek to another and felt the wood buckle. He stopped wiggling and concentrated on his legs instead. Crossed or uncrossed? How does he usually sit? Crossed. No, uncrossed. He laid his hands out on the armrests, palms-up. They were glistening with sweat.
“Thanks for seeing me so quickly,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans.
Michelle nodded her head slightly, gold earrings flashing under her black bob-cut hair.
“How are you feeling, Clark?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean, I’m not fine. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been... having trouble sleeping, and pills don’t help. I can’t get to sleep at night and then I wake up too early. I have this great job. It helps distract me, but when I’m not working I’m worrying about all the bad things happening. I don’t know how long I can keep distracting myself.”
Another person screamed outside.
“I’ve never had therapy before,” he said. “Is this how it works—I just talk about my problems? What do you want to know?”
Michelle leaned in and the sides of her hair jerked forward in tandem with her earrings. “As this is our first session I just want to get to know you, and find out some of the issues you’ve been experiencing.”
He stood up.
“Sorry, I feel a bit claustrophobic in that chair. Do you mind if I walk around? I’m not much of a sit-down-and-think kind of guy.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“Thanks. What is this painting of? I mean, where is it?”
“I’m honestly not sure. Does it have a title?”
It didn’t. The mountains were capped in pink snow, bound at the roots by swathes of pine forest. A pale blue lake flooded the foreground, crusted with ice, like the layer of sugar on a glazed doughnut. He pushed his glasses further up his nose and peered in closer. The brush-strokes were thick and there was no signature. It was probably made in a Chinese sweat shop. If he closed his eyes and listened carefully he could hear the noises of hundreds of brushes rasping and sliding against canvas.
He looked around for something else to inspect but aside from the painting, a computer on a desk, the little coffee table, and two chairs, the office was empty. He cautiously lowered himself back into his seat.
“Ever been ice-fishing?” he asked, his seat creaking softly. “My dad took me out once. Deep winter, up near Wilmington. We drilled a hole six inches through the ice and waited with bated breath... bated breath and baited hooks. We were there for hours. I pretended we were Lenape Indians, and dad played along, teaching me some Unami words he knew, and telling me how people used to live off the land. We caught Rainbow Trout and Yellow Perch before it got dark, then went back to the car to eat peanut butter jelly sandwiches and trail mix.”
“That sounds fun,” said Michelle. “Did you often do things like that with your dad?”
“Oh sure. Yeah. He knew so much about the local history and landscape.”
He paused. He knew what he had to say next, but finding the words was difficult, like hunting for jigsaw pieces in the dark.
“He died last year. Mom says she’s fine but I still hear her crying at night.”
“It’s hard to lose a husband, but it’s also hard to lose a father.”
He nodded. “It was so sudden. He was in the back yard raking up leaves when it happened. I should have been there. If I’d found him in time I could have taken him to the hospital. Is it normal to feel so guilty?”
“It’s normal, yes, to feel responsible for the death of another person—especially a parent.”
More people screamed: long wails of despair and angry shouts of frustration. He turned to look at the window.
Michelle followed his gaze. “Is it too bright?” she asked. “We can close the blinds if you like.”
“No, it’s fine. It wouldn’t make any difference. But thank you.”
They fell into a silence offset by the screams of help he could hear continuously, like radio static, unless he shut them out. She looked back at him expectedly. He stared at his hands, wondering what else to say.
“There’s so much bad stuff happening all the time,” he said at last, the words tumbling out of his mouth.
There was a bang; the rumble of metal tearing through brick and concrete; screams, these ones abruptly cut short.
He stood up again. “I’m sorry, but I really have to go.”
“We still have twenty minutes.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll be back for our session next week.”
He hesitated at the door, one foot in the corridor, the other still in the office. Outside the window, on the other side of the city, he heard people yelling instructions to each other. Some of them were calling his name.
“What if it was my fault, though? What if I could have saved my father and didn’t?”
Michelle stood up as well. “You couldn’t have saved your father,” she said, bending down to pick up her empty notebook from the chair. “You’re not...”
She looked at the door but Clark had already gone.
Gabriel Schenk completed his DPhil in Arthurian literature at the University of Oxford in 2014. Since then he has been working in academic publishing, and writing fiction and articles in his my spare time. His main project is a novel set on Mars.
God’s Dog, by Gale Tanner
GOD WAS LONELY, so She left and returned with Dog. Where She got Dog from, She never said. But since there was no one around to ask Her anything, it did not matter much anyway.
Dog was black, but not purebred. She had three white paws and a patch of white on her throat. God knew the white would spread as Dog grew.
Dog was very small when God brought her home. In fact, the first time God looked for Dog, She could not find her. Dog was hiding under the sofa. Her whimpers gave her away.
God moved the sofa and picked Dog up. God was shocked by how much Dog had grown in such a short time. But Dog still fit in the cup of Her hand.
God sat down on the sofa and unbuttoned Her blouse. She gave Dog Her nipple, but Dog would not suck. God took Dog into the kitchen and gave her water in a shiny bowl. Dog drank.
God went out again, and when She came back, Dog had made puddles and left droppings on the floor. She had pulled God's book down from the coffee table and was chewing it. God only had one book, and She liked to read it.
"Bad Dog," She said.
Dog kept chewing. God raised Her foot to stomp Dog out, but She did not. She knelt, petted Dog and took the book.
"Listen," God said, and read part of a page that Dog had chewed a hole in. Dog wagged her tail. God tore the page out of the book, wadded it into a ball, and tossed it to Dog to play with.
Behind God's house was wild. God liked wild. Sometimes, She put on Her snake boots and walked far into it. She never had trouble finding Her way home.
One day, God took Dog into the wild with Her. Dog ran away. God looked for Dog for three days and three nights before She found her. Dog was on a path, but not much of one, in the dark. At first, all God could see was Dog's eyes, reflecting yellow in the beam of God's light. God put the light down on the path and stepped into the beam. She knelt and called Dog's name. Dog came. God hugged Dog, and Dog licked God's face.
God built Dog a yard. She laid a low stone wall and set a fence into it. The fence was made of links of chain. The stone was there because God liked stone.
God planted a fig tree in a corner of the yard to go with the oak and the magnolia that were already there. She split a rock with the blade of Her hand so that water ran from it for Dog to drink. She made a gate in the fence for coming in and going out. Then She put Dog in the yard, and went back into Her house.
God stood at the kitchen window and watched. Dog ran along the fence, sniffing. When she stopped running, she started jumping. She jumped many times, but the fence was too high. She came, sat and looked up at the kitchen window as if she could see God's face behind it. She barked. God smiled and went deeper into the house.
When the white patch on Dog's throat had spread far enough, God left the house again and this time came back with Buddy. Buddy was like Dog, but bigger, golden and male. God opened the gate and let Buddy into the yard. Then She went into the house and stood at the kitchen window. Dog and Buddy sniffed each other, but did not snarl or snap. Wind blew. A limb fell from the magnolia and broke into sticks. Buddy took a stick in his mouth and ran around the yard. Dog chased Buddy until she caught him and took the stick away. Then Dog ran around the yard and Buddy chased her. But Dog was very quick and Buddy could not catch her. Dog stopped and dropped the stick. Buddy picked it up, and Dog chased him again. God went into Her study and read Her book.
God built a shelter out of wood in an unused corner of the yard. It was big enough for Dog and Buddy, and if the day were hot or wet, both would retreat into it. But at night, God brought Dog into the house and Buddy slept in the shelter alone.
One morning when God let Dog into the yard, Buddy was gone. Under the fence was a tunnel. One of the stones was marked with hair and blood where Buddy had scraped by. God filled in the tunnel and left Dog in the yard by herself. Dog ran along the fence. She did not find Buddy. She picked up Buddy's stick and ran some more, but Buddy did not come back.
Dog's belly swelled, and in time, she delivered. She bore her whelps in the shelter on a hot day. Only one survived the travail. Puppy. God buried the others in the wild. At dark, when God opened the gate and called Dog, Dog did not come. She remained in the shelter and nursed Puppy. God closed the gate and retired.
Puppy grew. It was golden like Buddy and had white stockings like Dog. Puppy liked to splash in the fountain of the rock and run around the yard with Dog. Dog brought Puppy Buddy's magnolia stick to play with, but Puppy could not pick it up.
God was at Her window watching when Owl swooped down and seized Puppy in his talons. Day was almost dusk. Puppy had been drinking at the fountain. Dog lunged at Owl, barking and snapping, but as quick as she was, she was not quick enough. Owl rose above the trees, flying to the wild. Puppy struggled and yelped. Dog howled. God rushed out Her back door, and Owl dropped Puppy. God went into the wild to find her.
Puppy lay at the foot of a hollow tree. She was without blemish, but she did not move. God picked Puppy up and stroked her head. Then She buried her with her brothers and sisters.
God opened the gate and called Dog. "Come," She commanded. Dog did not come. "Come," She called again. Dog came out of the shelter but only as far as the open gate. Dog sat on her haunches, looked up at God and howled. "Come, Dog," God said, "let's go inside." Dog turned away and went to where Puppy had left droppings. She lay down and rolled in them. God closed the gate and went into the house.
Dog howled all night. God did not rest. When the sun rose, God went into the wild without taking time to put on Her snake boots. She removed the stones with which She had covered Puppy's grave and thrust Her finger deep into the mound. Puppy clawed her way up out of the grave. But Worm had done its work. It had taken one of Puppy's eyes, and Puppy's smell was not good.
God carried Puppy to the yard, opened the gate and put her inside. Puppy staggered toward the shelter. Dog came out, sniffed Puppy, and bit her. Puppy yelped. Dog howled. God entered the yard and took Puppy away. In the wild, She twisted Puppy's neck and put her back into her grave.
Dog grew old. White spread across her breast and under her chin. She lived in the yard, drank from the fountain, and slept in the shelter. But every morning, God brought her into the house and fed her from the shiny bowl.
On a Spring morning, when leaves were falling from the magnolia and the fig showed promise of the first nub of fruit, God went into the yard and found Dog dead. Her body was in the shelter. Her head lolled from the opening, and her tongue hung pink. God knelt on both knees, reached out and touched Dog's face. It was cold. God howled. She leapt to her feet, tore off Her clothes, and rolled in Dog's droppings. She sat on Her haunches and howled until Her throat hurt too much to howl any more. Naked and reeking, She lifted Dog's body and bore it into the wild. With Her hands, She tore a hole in the earth and laid what remained of Dog into it. She covered the mound with stones. She stood before it and wept. The first finger of Her right hand ached with desire to plunge into the earth and bring Dog back.
"No," God told Herself.
She turned away from the grave, went into the house, and cleaned up. She put on fresh clothes. Then She sat on the sofa and read Her book.
Gale Turner lives in Forsyth, Georgia. His fiction and poetry have been published in River Walk Journal, Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, and 14by14. He has a story forthcoming in J Journal: New Writing on Justice. Gale is married to Isabelle, and is the father of Jessica and Justin.
The Keening of the Ccthull, by David Adès
IT WAS TIME, once more, for the keening.
Since time immemorial, the Ccthull had gathered across the world in great keening bowls for the keening. They had keened the world in its youth, in its vitality. They had keened for remembrance and for history; they had keened for dream and for strength.
Once, it was a keening of joy, of thanks, but that time was long ago.
The world was tired now, in decline, its resources greatly diminished, and with them the Ccthull. Now they keened also for loss and grief, they keened for the passage of all things through the heavens.
Always, the Ccthull had searched the stars and keened their aloneness in the universe. How could it be, they wondered, that in the brightness of the skies, ablaze with stars, no other life manifested? In keening their aloneness, the Ccthull filled the keening with yearning, with both throb and plea, with waver and quaver.
Every corner of the sky the Ccthull had searched, with every science they possessed, with every resource and every skill, to be met, epoch after epoch, with an absence of any sign in any frequency.
The keening had evolved over time, adding layers of richness and complexity, weaving more voices and experience and knowledge into the song, many-layered, never the same.
The Ccthull gathered now, for the greatest keening of all, a keening of heart and soul, of life and death, of rise and fall.
All over the world, the Ccthull filled their great keening bowls, raised their muzzles to the sky, and began a keening that would be a broadcast, a transmission to the universe, here joining, here parting, here weaving, here crossing, here haunting and beautiful, here elegiac, here joyous, here extemporized, the few and the many, the one and the all, the chant and the prayer, keening the ground, keening thunder, keening cycle and blaze, keening, keening.
It had been found, at last, in a distant corner of the sky, from a star system beyond reach and beyond reply, from a time that may have already passed, an answer, a noisy transmission, and now, knowing that they were no longer alone, the Ccthull keened as they had never before keened, keened for themselves and for the other who would never hear, who would never know.
David Adès is a poet and short story writer who has recently moved to Pittsburgh from Adelaide, Australia. He has been a member of Friendly Street Poets since 1979. His poetry collection Mapping the World was commended for the Fellowship of Australian Writers Anne Elder Award 2008. His poems have appeared widely in Australia in publications including over 20 of the Friendly Street Readers, and literary magazines such as Island, Tirra Lirra, Wet Ink, Famous Reporter, Five Bells, Social Alternatives, Verandah and Studio, with some poems also appearing in translation in Vatra (Rumania). He was the winner of the Wirra Wirra Vineyards Short Story Prize (2005).
Aunt Gwen Sneaks, by Kenneth Pobo
THE SERVICE BEGINS promptly at 11:00, the hour of the week that Gwen most hates. As a minister’s wife, she feels that she is hard ground and the church members are a trowel, all scratching to open her up. She wants to be liked and has spent her first forty years trying to please. Uncle Jim is tough to please though many call him a “loving spirit.”
Hymns done, the morning prayer said, Jim grabs the pulpit as if it’s a football he’s going to toss into the end zone. Mr. Ranwood, the oldest deacon at 95, says such displays prove that Jim Dremon is “spirit filled.” While her husband preaches, Gwen pulls a screen over herself in the front pew. She changes clothes. Jim leads twenty-four souls in a prayer that can also be used for tanning lotion. In a bikini, Gwen stretches out. The sun breaks through stained glass and kisses her. Pelicans and cockatoos roost on the organ bench.
A minute before he is ready to invite people up to accept Christ, Jim notices his wife. Alarmed, he keeps speaking. It’s important not to make a scene, to do things in the promised order. But he can’t resist – blocked by the pulpit, Jim calls to her, calls to her, calls to her.
Kenneth Pobo won the Qarrtsiluni poetry chapbook contest for Ice And Gaywings. They published it in November 2011. Also published in 2011 was Tiny Torn Maps, a collection of microfiction, from Deadly Chaps. He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University in Pennsylvania.
END OF SUMMER 2020 ISSUE