Five and Dime

by Christopher Moylan

How the store survived for as long as it did was a mystery. Why it died suddenly, after holding out for so long, grimly unchanging amidst the incursion of the high end and the fashionable, was a greater mystery still. It was a discount store, purveyor of overstock and cheap remainders, dark and filled to overflowing with things no one seemed to want. It was there for as long as anyone could remember. Then it wasn’t.

He happened upon the place when an errand took him out of his way. and he found himself in what used to be an enclave of odd little shops selling antique buttons, handmade shoes, spare parts for vanished technology, faded prints and naughty snapshots. It was a vice of his at one time to waste an occasional lunch hour wandering from store to store, rifling through through bins in the vague hope that he could find something of value in all that stuff. He never bought anything. It was just killing time.

Someone at the office had mentioned a while back that the store had closed. There followed some brief discussion of real estate prices in the area, and the loss of mom and pop stores.  No one could remember what the owners looked like, or what the name of the store was, if it had a name. The old man, as he was called, was relieved that no one drew him into the conversation. He was senior to everyone else, not terribly old, but he couldn’t remember those details either, and he had been to the store on a number of occasions. This wasn’t the first time he had drawn a blank like that. He had a moment of panic as he tried to enter the place in his mind where that information was kept, and failed. What did it say about him that he couldn’t, as they say, access memories so recent?

Then again, what did it matter? The store was gone. There was no point in filling that blank with details he would never use anyway. He knew what the store would be like when he came to it—aisles once overflowing with cheap, dated kitchen items and plastic toys now dark and empty. The cash register open. Old fashioned numerical keys scattered across the floor like broken teeth. Variations of that scenario had played out many times over the years.

Yet, when he came to the corner where the empty storefront should have been, even that melancholy remnant of the past was gone, effaced entirely by a cafe, as it might be called, a clean, bright rectangle set off against the more conventional facades of a commercial block. How long had it been since he had walked this way, and ducked in for a moment, angling his hip past some stack of cut rate bleach or plastic toys so dated and quaint it made him sad to look at them. Small plastic soldiers with frozen expressions of triumph, agony, or death.

The shop was done in a minimalist style, with an all white treatment in the walls and floors, spare marble tables widely disbursed, and a counter top of brushed steel with a white aluminum facing. A large espresso machine dominated the counter on one side. Behind it stood a steel commercial sink of the same functional simplicity as everything else.  Opaque, sliding glass panels beneath it may have opened to a refrigerator or shelving. Otherwise the walls were bare.

There was no information on what the shop had on offer. No coffee menu or blackboard with specials of the day. No drawings of steam rising from a coffee cup. No information of any kind.

The old man stood across the road, staring at the wall-like, opaque facade. He hesitated to betray his memory of the old shop, more a desolate impression than a memory at this point, by venturing into this new place, more blank page than a cafe. It was just this lack of any inducement to try the place, any vulgar appeal to the new or the exciting, that persuaded him to cross the street. He respected the cafe’s gesture to the pioneering and modern, even if he was not convinced yet that the gesture was successful.

The entrance had no handle, merely a depression, the size of a matchbox, which, with slight pressure drew the door to the side. As the door closed behind him the noise of the outside world diminished to an ambient buzzing and static. With each step inside the noise shook tore from his clothes and hair like a dusting of ash. It was a gimmick, of course, some manipulation of the sound system to suggest that he was entering a hermetically sealed environment, shedding the outside world as he made his way to a table.

He slid his valise under the table and draped his coat on the back of the iron chair, looking about him to get his bearings. The white paint on the walls and floorboards bleached out orienting lines and demarcations so what looked on the outside to be an intimate spot now loomed about him like a theater to which he had arrived too soon, or far too late. He was about to leave, as the whole experience was making him self-conscious, when he noticed he was not alone.  

A man and a woman stood behind the counter, watching him impassively. The man wore a white cloth slung over his shoulder, the woman wore an apron. Otherwise there was not much to distinguish them besides their gender. They were young and gaunt, austerely attractive in their white uniforms and owl shaped glasses. Cut from the same cloth, as the old man said to himself. The man stood a few inches taller than his partner, his partner wore her hair a few inches further down the neck. They were familiar, somehow. Of course, they would seem familiar. as one get older the young tend to look like versions of people one has known over the years, incongruous and out of context, as if they had walked out of photographs from long ago. The waiter was like that: every hair in place,  a counterfeit, a poor simulation.

Settled in his chair, he reached down to take up his briefcase and begin sorting through his papers and taking notes, as was his wont during lunchtime. But the briefcase wasn’t there. He swept his hands under his seat, looked behind him and under other chairs, then back to the entrance, with no success.

His heart began to beat rapidly, and he felt confused and short of breath. He distinctly remembered setting his valise down under the table by his feet, as he always did when he took his lunch at a restaurant. Perhaps the consistency of this ritual had tricked him into assuming that all was as usual. Lunch hour. Coffee shop. Valise with his papers. Always the same. He would put aside assumptions and try to figure out what happened.

He shut his eyes and tried to think what he could have done with such a heavy, considerable object as a briefcase stuffed with personnel files. He might have set it down on the street corner, or left it at the office, or perhaps near the security guard in the front hall to the office building since he made it a point to say a friendly word to the guard. The briefcase could have been anywhere if it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. This was no good.

He shrugged on his coat and rushed to the door, sweeping his hand along the smooth surface in search of a handle or switch. Frustrated, he shoved with all his limited strength against the metal surface, succeeding only in bruising his hip. This was the last time he would patronize a new, artsy place, he thought. At least with a greasy spoon he knew what he was getting.

“Your coffee.” The waiter pointed to the table where a cup of espresso and two sugar cubes on a saucer were waiting for him.

“I’m sorry, but I left my bag somewhere and I need to look for it,” said the old man, feeling foolish suddenly.

“My bag, it has papers…” he said again, having met with no response from the waiter, not even a shrug.

The old man felt his voice trailing off; what did this fellow know or care about losing work related papers, or losing track of anything more important than a woman’s phone number. Up close, the waiter was strikingly handsome, with high cheekbones and dark, brooding eyes that reminded the old man of a movie star whose name he couldn’t quite remember.

The old man was contemplating his own romantic adventures, not the specifics but the feeling of confidence and spontaneity they gave him at times, an almost artistic impromptu, when the waiter took him by the elbow with one hand and made a sweeping gesture with the other. It would have been pointless, and terribly humorless, to resist.

When they got to the table where the old man had been sitting the waiter took up the suit coat from the back of the chair and shook it a couple of times, sending little bursts of static and noise into the air. He draped the coat over the old man’s shoulders, a gesture one couldn’t help but feel was annoying in its familiarity.

“I didn’t order coffee,” the old man said, arranging the coat so it would sit more securely. The dafe was chilly, despite the summer heat outside.

“You will find an extensive desert menu,” said the waiter, with a nod to the wall above the counter. “Take your time.”

The old man was surprised to see an elaborate list of pastries and the like inscribed in a light blue cursive, just above where the waitress was standing. Before he had time to consider, the waiter was at his right hand side carefully placing a plate of biscuits on the table. He withdrew to the counter without saying a word. There was nothing for the old man to do but play his part in this bit of theater. He hated to be unpleasant and, in any event, a jolt of caffeine might be just the ticket.

The first sip of espresso stung as if a lover had bitten the inside of his lip. The sensation turned slowly to a consoling sweetness as the sugar dissolved on his tongue. With each sip the process repeated just as vividly: the sharp, yet pleasurable assault on the inside of his mouth, the dissipating caress of the sugar on his tongue, and last the taste of the coffee unfolding all its complexities for one long moment. By the time he finished the tiny cup he was lightheaded and perspiring.

He pushed the cup aside then ate a biscuit in two bites, using the tip of his forefinger to gather the few crumbs from the plate. The biscuit restored him somewhat. He’d forgotten to take lunch. It was no wonder the coffee had the effect on him that it did. He settled in his chair and considered whether to order something else, perhaps another coffee and some fruit, if they had it. No one would miss him back at the office. Scarcely anyone knew what his position—Personnel Accounts Manager— entailed

The woman at the coffee machine was looking at him. He blushed to think that she had watched him childishly picking crumbs off a plate, then realized that his hand was shaking visibly. The stress of work, he decided. It was good to be away from the office. How could anyone think amidst the clickety clack of keyboards, the constant ringing of phones, the bizarre blips and chimes of other devices. No wonder his hands shook.

Yes, now that he had some time to get used the place he could well understand the appeal of this subdued interior, so simple and meditative. This was just the place to get some real work done: work on paper, with a pen, the old fashioned way. He would get twice as much done here as at the office, and he wouldn’t have to listen to the snide remarks about his plodding ways, the crude jokes about his age and white hair. They would be in his place someday, and they wouldn’t be laughing.

She looked up from her work again, her eyes dark and serious. He thought back over the years to women he knew, young and pretty like her.  He married one like that, more than one, terribly serious and pretty, and he knew others, although just who they were he could no longer say. Faces. A certain timbre of voice he recalled out of the blue on occasion. Arguments, the weight of them on the chest. Longing. The sense of an elusive something in a woman he could never quite get to, no matter how he tried. Who she was…

What would it take to coax the mysteries from this young woman? Various scenarios came to mind in a rapid succession of images and imagined sensations: a touch of his hand on hers when it was time to pay the bill, a smile, a conversation over dinner. It was inappropriate, he knew, for him to be entertaining such thoughts at his age. It was partly her fault. She was looking in his direction, after all. studying his face. No doubt she was bored; where were the other customers? A place like this should have been bustling this time of day. All the better for him. He could work in peace.

He plopped a stack of files on the table, intending to distract himself with work. Life is a process of distracting oneself with work, he thought. Thoughts of lunch while at work, of work while at lunch, of what the evening would bring when he was home, always thoughts of what the evening would bring. Life was an elaborate conspiracy to kill time.

“Aren’t you going to finish what’s on your plate?” the woman said, taking a seat across the table from him. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, crossed her arms on the table and leaned so close to him he was tempted to reach over and brush the stray hairs from her forehead. She looked concerned.

“I thought I had,” he confessed, though a glance at the plate revealed another biscuit.

“You seem a bit confused. Are you all right?”

“I’m not sure where I am,” he confessed, feeling uneasy suddenly. “This place is new. There were other people here some time ago, people I knew slightly. Now I don’t see them.”

“We’ve been here for a while,” she said with a disarming smile. He wasn’t sure if she meant the two of them or the cafe.

“You have work to do. I’m keeping you from your work.” He didn’t recognize his own voice, so plaintive and frail. He gripped his knee with his left hand under the table and squeezed until it hurt.

“Don’t give it a thought,” she said, patting his hand and smiling, her eyes as dark and melancholy as ever. Her companion was shutting the lights off, row by row. “You never told me what you do,” she continued.

“Human resources. Strange term, isn’t it. Looking through all those files as if one were hoping to find oil, or gold or something. Have we met before?”

“Maybe I was in your files, the gold you were looking for,” she said, smiling flirtatiously and just a bit sadly, as will happen in encounters between young women and old men. But he wasn’t old, he assured himself, merely older, just as his office mates were not young, merely younger. But she was youth itself: her beauty a warm and generous climate one might enjoy as one enjoys a breeze in the midday heat…

“I used make every excuse to come here,” he said. “Some item I’d forgotten to pick up, or something I’d left behind and needed your help finding. It was a game. Or maybe it was more than that. I don’t know. Was it a game, do you think?”

“Would you like to think so?” she said, caressing the back of his hand. All the lights were dark now save for those just above the table. The cafe was now a gray blur punctuated here and there by the rounded, dark shapes of the chairs or what might have been other customers slumped over their coffee. It was impossible to tell without his glasses.

“Are other people here?” he asked.

“Nothing has changed since the last time you asked,” she said, gripping his hand now, and leaning closer to him. “Are you afraid to be alone with me?”

“No!”

“I’m teasing,” she said, her smile achingly lovely, at once melancholy and seductive. “It’s always nice to see you, whatever the reason.”

She gave his hand another squeeze and let go to prop her head while she studied his face. Her partner was gone, perhaps to a room behind the counter.

He grabbed his valise from under the table and stood slowly. He wasn’t sure what to do next. It was dark in the cafe now and he was afraid he had been sitting there much too long, taking in this woman’s beautiful eyes, and her voice, so soft and kind, not at all the grave whisper that he had expected.

“Are you missing something,” the woman said.

“Sooner or later I’ll be missing something. I just don’t know what it is at the moment.”

“It will come to you,” she said.

“I really should get back to work,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to my watch…Now how could I be missing a watch? You see, this is what I was referring to.”

“Why don’t you have a seat,” she said. “Please, just have a seat for a few minutes more. There are some things I want to show you.”

Because she was so lovely and kind, he took his seat. She opened the briefcase and flipped through the contents, finally removing the contents, finally removing a manilla folder filled with envelopes of various sizes. She opened one of the envelopes and placed an image on the table.

It was a photograph, old process, a snapshot as they used to be called. A middle aged woman stood rigidly upright, looking off into the distance. She was wearing a long dress and a ruffled blouse buttoned at the neck. “What do you think,” the waitress said, studying his face.

“What an interesting picture,” he said. “How formal…”

“Do you recognize her?”

“I might,” he said. It was true; he might recognize her. That may have been the response he was feeling. A stirring, like hearing music coming from a great distance. But it came no closer. She showed other photos to him. Men, women, children, from different times, the picture quality changing, the color more or less convincing in some images, bleached out or saturated in others. He made the sounds people make when looking through old photos:  brief, vague comments; grunts as if in recognition; sighs as if struck by some poignant memory. He nearly persuaded himself that she resembled a few of the women in the photos, something in their straight, lean carriage, an elegance and composure expensive to come by these days. She studied his face, looking for something he simply did not have to give he, much as he tried. The formula was not there, the appropriate words.

The waiter pulled up a chair and looked at the photos, then at his face. He was pleasant, encouraging. He wanted something to happen, but he understood the difficulty.

At last, there were no more photos. The woman took up the pictures and made a stack of them like playing cards. They went back into the manilla envelope and the envelope went back into the briefcase. The waiter and waitress concealed their disappointment behind pleasant smiles. They were kind. Had he more time, he would enjoy spending the afternoon with them exchanging stories, talking about love and adventure, their hopes for the cafe. These things were at a great distance from the old man now. They didn’t concern him personally. He was curious as to how those photos made their way into his files, the files of all those people whose lives he had sorted so carefully into the appropriate categories: promising, qualified, not qualified. The words bore the weight of a wrong he could not identify. Qualified for what? Promising? What did he promise, to whom? So much disappointment. What had he done?

“Are you ready,” she asked, standing over him with her hand extended to help him rise.

“I’m not sure,” he said, feeling frightened and weak, suddenly.

“It’s just a short way,” she said. “You know it’s time. Come.”

He took her hand rather than accept the proffered help from the waiter standing at his side. They walked to the back of the cafe and opened the door to an adjoining shop full of things he remembered from long ago: penny candy, windup toys, comic books and illustrated magazines, trick eyeglasses with eyes on springs, an ice box filled with soft drinks, a bottle opener on the side. Beyond the magazine racks and the ice box, beyond the scattered wooden boxes of fruit and vegetables, there were aisles of books. He thought he glimpsed others wandering down the aisles, but it was some distance and he could not be sure.

“Found what you wanted?” asked the waitress, now dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair tied back with a ribbon. She waited for him to answer while he scanned the magazine rack and looked down the aisles of paperbacks receding into the dark. The question confused him. He didn’t know what to say. Her voice came from every direction, patient and sad, asking him the same question over and over.  

“Forget what you wanted?”

He closed his eyes and heard the click of the door behind her. The waiter and waitress were gone, but surely there must be others somewhere down those dark aisles who would take notice of him. They couldn’t leave him here among the the old rotary dial telephones and cassette tapes, the old paperbacks with torn covers…A life is more than this… He breathed in the dusty air, listening to his heart slow, his thoughts scatter like dust and slowly settle. The store was so silent and still he looked again to make sure the boxes and bins were still there, the old books and magazines from so long ago. But they were gone. It was all gone and down the empty aisles the figures in white were walking towards him, slowly and methodically, come to take him back to that blank, white space and the questions he could not answer.

 

Christopher Moylan is an Associate Professor of English at NYIT where he publishes short fiction, poetry and literary criticism. He is also the founder of Magic Valley, an activist cultural center in the Catskills mountains, and a founding member of Novads, an online art and culture collective.

Pops

by Alan Zacher

The bus hit another bump in the street, and I looked down again at my car in my hand and shook my head.

I had really, really liked my car, but not now. It’s a ’58 Chevy, and red, with a white top—just like our real car.  My toy car has a spring or something in it that makes the back tires move all on their own. Last night, I turned the car upside down to see if I could see what makes it move, but I didn’t see nothing. My car moves really fast. But, like I said, I don’t like it anymore. My dad gave it to me last night, after he came home from work. It wasn’t my birthday or anything. He just got it for me. He’s always doing things like that. I think it’s because he’s always so tired after getting home from digging ditches all day and doesn’t feel like tossing the softball around and all. When he gets home from work, all he really wants to do is eat supper and watch TV—I Love Lucy and such. He always likes it when Mom and me watch TV with him, but I don’t feel like doing that anymore. I want to be in my room reading my comics or magazines about the Army. Mom never watches TV with him. She likes to be in their bedroom knitting.

Dad bought me a bike last summer and learned me to ride it. It’s not a new bike, but it’s great. I can ride it real fast. Well, Mom won’t let me ride it nowhere but in our crappy backyard. She’s scared I’ll get hurt.  I hate that. She won’t let me do anything. I’m eleven, and she won’t let me do anything. I hate it, and I hate how she sometimes tells me that Dad’s stupid. He’s not. Like last summer, he was cutting the grass in our front yard—it’s a hill, our front yard. Well, he gets tired of going up and down it with the lawnmower. So he goes to Mr. Murphy’s store at the corner and buys two clotheslines. He ties them to both sides of the handle of the lawnmower. This way, he can just stand at the top of our front yard and lower it down and pull it back up. Pretty smart, huh?

They argue all the time, too. I hate it. A couple of nights ago, they were arguing about me going next year to public school. Dad said that he can’t afford it no more for me to keep going to St. Paul’s Elementary, and Mom told him that I wasn’t going to no public school with those rough kids where I might get hurt. I’m not afraid of those kids. Dad—on the hush, hush, you know—showed me some boxing moves. I’ll knock the stuffing out of those kids.

I don’t know why they argue anyway. Mom always wins.

I had soft-pedaled it around Mom all day. Our car needed brakes and after Dad got home and we had supper, he was going to take the car to Mike’s and leave it there. Then, Dad was going to get back home by taking the bus, and I wanted to go with him. He would have just dropped it off after he had gotten off of work, but Mom needed him to drop off a load of wash that she did today for Grandma.

She knew I had wanted to go, because I told her that I wanted to go. She made all the usual excuses of why I couldn’t go: “You got school tomorrow.” “It’s too cold.” I got angry and gave her the ‘silent treatment.’ At least that’s what Dad calls it when he gives it to her.

I didn’t think she’d let me go, but guess what, she did. After Dad had packed away two large baskets with Grandma and Grandpa’s clothes in the car, he comes back into the house and says: “Com-on. If you’re going, let’s go.” So I got to go.

I don’t know if they fought about it. Mom made me put on my winter coat, cap, and earmuffs, though.

It was real dark by the time we got to Mike’s. Grandma and Grandpa kept wanting us to visit; kept wanting Dad to have another cup of coffee, and kept wanting me to have more milk and cookies. I took my car out of my coat pocket and showed it to them. They really liked it; said it was cool.

I like going to Mike’s. Things get fixed there. The place ain’t much to look at. It’s just an old brick building with two large garage doors. The place, like Mike, always smells of grease and oil. One of those doors has a mail slot near the bottom of it, and Dad bent down and tossed the car keys in it.

“There,” he said, getting up, “that takes care of that. Let’s get to that bus stop and get home. I’m cold.”

At the bus stop—which was nothing more than a sign on a pole that said BUS STOP and an old wooden bench painted white years ago—we sat on the bench and waited for the bus to come. I was excited for the bus to come, because I had never rode a bus at night before. We waited and waited, but the bus never came. I got tired of waiting for it and took my car out of my coat pocket and began playing with it on the bench.

Then, suddenly, my dad says: “Here comes the bus. Hurry. Hurry.”

The bus looked like a mean dragon, spitting out smoke from its belly. The two doors opened with a gush of hot air.

Dad dropped some coins in the metal box that was next to the huge steering wheel. Dad then gave a nod to the driver. He was a fat Colored man. He was wearing a gray uniform and matching hat. I had never been that close to a Colored person before. It was kind of scary.

Rocking back and forth, like we was on a rollercoaster, Dad gently pushed me down the narrow path between the seats.

Except for an old man, the bus was empty.

“Let’s sit at the back, Dad,” I said.

We sat in almost the last seat. I was going to sit at the window, but it was so dark outside that I couldn’t see nothing so I changed my mind and let Dad sit there.

The bus moved real fast. I liked that. Then, it came to a sudden stop, almost knocking me against the back of the seat in front of me. Then, I heard the bus driver say, “You boys put them cigarettes out ‘fore you gets in here.”

“Yes, Sir, chiefy,” I heard someone say.

I looked to the front and saw three teenagers getting on. They looked mean. They sat in the seat behind us. Then, they started kicking the back of our seat. They kicked it so hard that I dropped my car out of my hand and it rolled off the seat onto the floor. Then I saw a hand scoop it up.

“Hey!” I yelled after turning around and jumping up on the seat. “That’s mine,” I said to the one in the middle, who had my car.  “Give it back.”

They just laughed, like snakes.

“Dad,” I cried.

Dad got up, real tired-like, turned around and said: “Give him his car.”

The one in the middle got up and says: “Make me—Pops.”

Dad stared at him for a long time, and then he said, like he was real tired, “Just give him back his car, will you.”

“And I said,” the guy said leaning over the back of the seat, “‘make me—Pops.’”

Dad shook his head, like he was real disgusted, and then he grabbed that guy by the throat and screamed: “Just give my boy back his car!”

Then everything moved real fast, like in a dream: the bus came to a STOP that almost threw me off of the seat; the guy on the end of the seat raised his fist and was about to hit Dad; I saw someone grab that guy’s arm and spin him around like a top.

“Who you gonna punch, punk?!” yelled that bus driver, holding him by his shirt and shaking him.

Dad stopped choking that guy and that guy grabbed his own throat and began rubbing it hard like he had a sore throat.

“This is my bus, and you ain’t gonna punch nobody,” that bus driver then said.  “You, punk,” he then said to the one Dad had choked, “give the boy back his toy.” He did. “Now, all three of you, get off of my bus.” They did.

After they left, Dad thanked the bus driver. They shook hands and everything.

Those guys stood outside of the bus next to the curb under a street lamp and, as the bus pulled away, they make gestures to my dad with their fingers and said things like: “I’ll remember you—Pops.”

I saw my dad’s face in the cold, frosted window. It looked old and tired. And something else: scared. I couldn’t believe it. He was scared. I didn’t know him. This wasn’t my dad. My dad was strong and brave. I hated it. I looked down and saw my car in my hand, and I hated it too.

 

Alan Zacher has self-published three novels, A Ghoulish Good Time; Murder, Vampires and Leprechauns; and For They Shall Wait. In 2012, Post Mortem Press published his murder/mystery novel I’M NO P. I.

@CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69

by Thomas Mundt

NSFW asks if there will be snacks so I ask him to take a wild guess. It’s a funeral, I remind him, so it’s probably BYO but almost certainly disrespectful. That doesn’t stop him from taking a Snickers out of the inside pocket of the linen sportcoat I lent him for the occasion. @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69 would’ve wanted him to look good and keep his blood sugar up for the occasion, for his legacy.

The family seems normal, no visible scars or ankle monitors. Lots of Irish-looking cousins in khakis, checking their phones. Per NSFW, @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69 was a huge White Sox fan and insists they’re tracking Chris Sale’s pitch count or adding Robin Ventura’s landscaper to their LinkedIns. I watch as the huskiest of the brood shows another a clip of a man on crutches advocating for a U.S. withdrawal from NATO and subsequent invasion of Luxembourg. “Sitting duck,” the hawk proclaims, and before losing his balance and falling face-first into a Weber grill. They proceed to lose their shit and are promptly called a pair of period panties by, presumably, an aunt, who then crosses herself.

“Community meant the world to him,” NSFW offers, the words trudging through nougat and caramel.

***

The priest who delivered the eulogy didn’t delve into his résumé as deeply as NSFW would’ve liked. @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69 was a ride-sharing pioneer, prepared to take his act to the Chicago River once the investors and Kyrgyzstani strongmen queued up. According to NSFW, humankind is innately drawn to water, will leave no intergalactic stone unturned until we find more with which to cleanse our souls and open our pores.

“He was a still waterbirth,” NSFW explained. “Got revived by a miracle. No one felt that connection closer.”

I asked what he intended to do with the fleet of kayaks bequeathed to him by @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69’s live-in girlfriend, Bianca, who just wanted them the hell out of her employer’s basement. She was already on thin ice with the salon, didn’t need NSFW’s bullshit during prom season. There were interested parties in Colorado, he insisted, an uncle with a skeleton key to a Mayflower facility in Fort Collins and 13 credit hours shy of a Class A Commercial Driver’s License.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the business,” he confirmed.

***

People were waiting on the cathedral steps to give @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69’s widow the handshake where you sandwich the aggrieved’s hand between both palms. I yelled for NSFW to join me but he’d been drafted into a pickup volleyball game on the temporary court set up for Vacation Bible School. I watched him demonstrate proper overhand service form for one of the pallbearers, the emphasis on contact with the palmar surface versus the fingertips.

When it was my turn, @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69’s widow asked if I had anything to mix with Crown Royal Regal Apple, preferably something brown and carbonated. I said I had a sleeve of Caffeine-Free Diet Dr. Pepper in my Wrangler to which she could help herself; the passenger side door doesn’t lock, I explained, so there was no need to click the button afterward. I thought I had a roll of Spree in the glove box, too, if she needed an upper.

There were bees everywhere and @CraftBrewsNBuds69’s widow hit one with one with a program from the service, knocking it to the sidewalk. It sounded like the crunch of cereal when she dug the heel of her pump into its thorax.

“What I need is to be out of this bra and into my whirlpool tub.”

***

His Followers count was 87, down from 94. It was indicative of the times, NSFW submitted, that a man’s online presence could take a hit before the man himself could find peace beneath the soil. There were apps you could run, he insisted; you could track down the Unfollowers and get to the Why? of it, the velocity with which @CRAFTBREWSNBUDS69 and his words were disposed. Sure, NSFW would have to get permission from the estate to serve as the feed’s administrator, perhaps even seek some sort of General Webmaster status with the courts, but wasn’t that owed a friend? Our Monterrey Pizza Dippers arrived, however, so the investigation was tabled indefinitely as our appetizers were served.

I suggested he stand down, recommended the high road or, if still under construction, the path of least resistance. Escalating any web conflict at this juncture would only throw sand in the gears of emotional machinery already replete with moving parts.

“I’ll roundtable it with my people.”

There was tomato basil marinara in NSFW’s goatee but I said nothing. DiMuzio’s had mirrors everywhere you looked and it would be revealed in due time.

***

Thomas Mundt is the author of the short story collection You Have Until Noon To Unlock The Secrets Of The Universe (Lady Lazarus Press). More stories and Twitter tomfoolery can be found at jonathantaylorthomasnathanmundtdds.com and @Jheri_Seinfeld, respectively.

Oscar’s Blues

by Gerald Kamens

The nurse left work at five o’clock. By the time she’d arrived in their driveway, her husband had already started digging, after the July heat had begun to fade.

“I was reading about political prisoners in some godforsaken country,” her husband shouted, when she came into the yard. “Forced to dig their own graves. Then, afterwards, the soldiers would shoot them on the spot. Fell right over into the holes. Jesus Christ!” Carving out a tiny grave for Oscar, her husband muttered snatches of curses and bellows as he sweatily dug down into the hard ground.

As she watched him, Martha thought about Roger’s rough childhood, their rough marriage, the second for both of them. She could barely make out his words, so disconsolate was she about her faithful cat, who’d befriended her, in his own sweet fashion, for going on sixteen years, twice as long as she’d known Roger.

Until yesterday, when she found little Oscar, lying under their bed, silent, barely moving. And this morning, he was dead. She hoped he’d have a better life in the feline hereafter, and wondered if it were true, as she’d heard from a friend, that departed pets came back to this earth as angels.

“I’ll get us some lemonade,” she said to Roger, a smallish, thinnish man, except for his incongruous paunch, which hung over his belt, as he hurled his pickax up and down, to make a big enough dent in the rocky ground out by their back fence. “Least,” he said, “we didn’t have to take him to the vet’s to put him out of his misery!”

She walked up to the kitchen, trying to recall exactly what had drawn them to each other initially, and into what wormhole that attraction must have disappeared a while back.

“Hey, wife, this is hard work. Squirt a little gin in that lemonade!”

Those were the last words she heard from him. When Martha came out from the kitchen and onto the back porch, carrying the tray with the two glasses, she saw one point of the pickax rooted in the earth, and her husband slumped over on that ground. The beginnings of Oscar’s grave could contain only the man’s hand. She walked over to her husband slowly, and, kneeling down, saw that he didn’t seem to be breathing. She took the pulse in his right wrist, the one hanging down in the half-finished grave. In her ER work, she’d taken many pulses.

Knowing for sure, since she was a professional, that he was dead, she walked slowly back up onto the porch, and slumped down in a chair. She sat there, immobile, for what seemed a long time, but probably wasn’t, wondering about mighthavebeens. Martha knew at some level that her customary state of feeling lonely had been replaced by one of being really alone, adrift in the ocean of the world. Finally, moving to the kitchen phone, although she realized it wasn’t really an emergency, she punched in 911.

 

Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children’s stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s The Seagull.

 

Broken Wrist

by Jiayi Ying

1997.

I am seven years old. Grandma, Grandpa, Dad, and I are standing on the platform at the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station. It’s early—6am—and we’re waiting for the train to arrive to take us to Brussels, from where we’ll connect to another train that will take us to Luxembourg City. The scarves around our necks and the hats on our heads keep us warmed, but there’s something about the fresh coldness of the early morning that leaves us restless, makes our bodies bounce in place to their own beats. We stand under the white glow of moonlight, which seems to dilute just a little more every time I look at it.

Like us, the sky is only just waking up.

“The train must be delayed,” my dad says, in Chinese, to my grandparents. He looks at the schedule, locked inside a plastic case on the wall, to confirm his hunch, but the paper doesn’t return any new information. Our train that’s supposed to leave at 6:18 is still nowhere in sight at 6:16.

Aandacht alsjeblieft,” the voice of a train station operator blares through the overhead announcer. “Voor de trein naar Brussel deze morgen,” he says, a static crinkle stroking his flow of words, “het platform is veranderd naar platform zeven.

Vanwege deze reden, de trein vertrekt om zes vierentwentig nu. Als uw vandaag naar Brussel gaat, ga dan naar platform negen nu. De trein vertrekt in acht minuten.” He pauses before concluding, “Dit is het laatste bericht, dit is het laatste bericht.

I stand on the platform, not sure what to do. When else did he announce this? And how many trains are going to Brussels this morning? My dad, who has lived in Belgium the longest out of all of us, survives without needing to know Dutch. In medical research, he says, everyone knows English. It is on me.

“I think,” I say, in a meek voice in Chinese, “that the train is on a different platform. He,” I point at the concrete above, “just said platform seven.”

“Is it our train?” my grandpa asks.

“He didn’t say a number. Just the train to Brussels.”

“As long as it goes to Brussels,” my dad says. “Are you sure it’s going there?”

His asking makes me doubt. “Yes,” I say hesitantly. A small uncertainty gathered like a dust ball inside me—did I dream it? “He said Brussels.”

We ran to platform 7 and got on the waiting train. It took us where we needed to go. On the ride there, my grandparents boasted with pride and disbelief. Without me, they kept saying, we’d still be standing on that empty platform, waiting for a train that would never come. “Ayah,” my dad said, with a sigh, “None of us can understand.” A streak of amusement and feeble regret lingered in his voice. At once, I felt a sense of age, of respect. Is this how grownups feel? To have people do things by your word.

We spent the day in Luxembourg City, walking around aimlessly and posing for pictures in front of elaborate castles.

That afternoon, on our way to the train station, my grandma slipped on a metal cellar door on the sidewalk. She tried to break her fall and ended up snapping her right wrist. Back home, at the hospital, she had a titanium plate nailed across where the bones disconnected to hold the two pieces together so that they could grow back into one.

2011.

I am twenty-one years old, visiting Xi’an with my mom and sister. It’s summer vacation and, my dad, in the middle of a research project, could not claim, as we could, the time off as his right.

This morning, my fourth great-aunt—Grandma’s youngest sister—called to invite us over to her apartment. Earlier this year, her son had stayed with my family for three days, a detour in his trip through Europe. “Your fourth great-aunt wants to treat you, because your uncle said your mom’s cooking saved him,” Grandma said, with a laugh, as she announced the day’s plans she’d made for us. “He could not get used to any of the food in France.”

I nod, even though I wasn’t there. “Do you remember him?” my grandma asks.

“I don’t,” I say sheepishly, guiltily.

“You were too young,” she says. The last time I saw him was right before I left China, at five years old, and even then it was brief and sporadic, at a big family gathering. He knows what I look like now, Grandma tells me, because of the pictures my mom showed him. I nod and smile. I have no idea what he looks like now. Or before.

“How are we going to get there?” my mom asks. There’s five of us with my grandpa. We’d need two taxis.

“I can take one with Joyce,” I say, confident and eager. At twenty-one and fourteen, neither of us are kids.

My mom dismisses the idea. “You don’t know where Fourth Great-Aunt’s house is,” she shoots back, matter of fact, at me.

“I can write down the address,” my grandma says. She gets up from the couch and walks towards her bedroom. Her voice raised, she tells the story about when she and Grandpa visited us in Belgium and we were going to Luxembourg.

She comes back with a piece of paper, an edge of it raw from being torn off, and a pen. With her left hand, which she trained after her fall, she writes a string of characters and, with her right, she hands the note to me. “This,” she says, pointing to what she wrote, “is your great-aunt’s address. This,” a second line, “is our address.”

I look at it, none of it recognizable. She sees the blank look on my face.

Ayah,” she says, with a sincere smile. “I forget that you can’t read Chinese anymore.”

 

Jiayi Ying lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Psalm

by Sophia Park

The small window of the room brightened as the sun rose over the mountain next door. Even though the light had barely begun to hit the empty bed, the impatient rooster had already begun his piercing morning call to demand that his humans start their day. Down in the quiet sanctuary of the church, Su-jin had started her prayers. Her slightly hunched back was moving softly forward and then back as she confessed her innermost thoughts and desires to the Only One Who Knew It All. The comfortable rhythm that filled the room reflected the many years of prayer and service she had dedicated to the church. Though her husband was the pastor, she had somehow become the exemplary religious figure in their church. The sun’s rise picked up pace and introduced the other parts of the sanctuary to the day. The light traced the piano and the newly acquired electric organ. It dipped and swirled as it highlighted the patterns on the glass podium. As if an alarm that only she could hear went off, the rhythm of her prayer sped down as she moved to a barely audible whisper of repeated thank you, thank you, thank you. Gamsahapnida, Gamsahapnida, Gamsahapnida.

She moved on with her day by greeting the two cats running around the courtyard. They created an orange and white blur around her legs as they purred for their first meal of the day. Their morning menu was the leftover fish from her meal last night. Her slight stature with bowed legs and a wobbly walk betrayed her body’s ability to keep up with her mental desires. Though she complained of knee pain, she never let it actually bother her because it was better than the bout of cancer from five years ago. She continued on to the other animals. They all seemed particularly eager that morning for their meal. All four dogs were yelling, each in a different register. The chickens were the worst.  They pecked each other while screaming nonsense. Unable to understand why they were so restless this morning, she moved more cautiously than normal and carefully removed the lock to enter the chicken pen. The impatient rooster stared at her as she placed the food in their bowl. Amused, she treated him with an equally strong glare. She alone held the key to the rooster’s heart, but even her enticing food never seemed like a fair exchange for his obedience. Obedience was not her objective today, not when she had such a long day ahead of her. She exited the pen. 

As she made her way to the other side of the farm, she stopped by the green house to check on the drying peppers. The valleys of the peppers’ wrinkles were a beautiful deep red color that promised a deep spicy flavor that would be worth the wait. The two cats had silently followed her into the green house. As she scurried them out with a small broom, she noticed some peppers had fallen off of the plastic covering they were drying on. She gently placed them back into the mix of the other hundreds of peppers waiting for the sun to change their flavors as the days passed. She pushed on, as there were other plants and animals waiting for her.

Three goats stared at her from outside their little house. The goat compound was large. The inner space was for sleeping and evading the harsh winters. A fence that came up to her chest marked the outside space. Two large black containers were arbitrarily placed in the outside area because sometimes, every creature enjoys being alone. The female was purposefully marching around as her two small kids were tailing her at a distance barely enough to prevent tripping on each other. She paused thinking about how she had heard the pregnant female’s urgent cries two weeks ago in the middle of the night. She rushed over to assist the birthing but discovered she was powerless. It was up to the female goat’s given innate strength to push the new lives out of her. The kids were small but their fur was bright and shone with good health. What a wondrous sight it had been to witness. She gave thanks.

When she threw their food over the fence, she noticed that the male was missing. Normally, he was the first one stampeding his way towards her. After making sure there was enough food for the female and kids, she walked around the compound. She checked inside each of the containers, but he was nowhere to be seen. Last week, she noticed that he had figured out how to jump over the fence. She had assumed he was too shy to pursue his curiosity because he jumped right back whenever someone walked by him. She wondered if his courage finally got the better of him. She chuckled and told herself she would be wandering too. What fence had limited her fearlessness? Thinking about her granddaughter, she chuckled noting curiosity ran in the family. Hoping he would return soon, she continued with her day.

The sun had fully exposed itself and she decided it was time to eat. It was just herself so she pulled out some banchan and already-cooked rice instead of putting together a new meal. The solitude also meant she had to acquiesce to the lack of a hot, freshly prepared bowl of soup. She transferred a small, one-person sized amount of each banchan into a separate plate. Usually, she preferred a nice color-coordinated arrangement. Today, she placed them in the order of the containers in front of her. The bright red color of the kimchi was clashing with the slightly darker red of the pickled radishes. It would have to do just for today. Out of habit, she arranged the greens from the lightest to the darkest colors.

She sat on the corner seat of the table. She whispered a prayer before starting her meal. Picking up her spoon, she considered where the goat might have gone. The farm was a mountain-locked peninsula with a river in the fourth direction. Maybe he was going through some type of goat mid-life crisis with the birth of the kids. She laughed at the thought of the goat having an existential crisis while climbing the mountains. At least it was the perfect place for such crises. The kimchi had fermented to just the right amount for her taste that day. She muttered a thank you.

The day moved quickly as she tended to the plants. The lettuce was growing in full force this season. Her neighbors and church visitors never failed to comment on their enormous size and always asked for her special formula. Nothing in particular, she would always say, but the soil on this farm is very good. Though full of rocks, the dark brown soil boasted its healthiness when she ran her fingers through it. Rows of garlic peaking through clear plastic, which helped retain their nutrients, grew obviously taller every day. She didn’t have to do much for them. The garlic knew what they were doing. For her age, she was considered very strong and healthy. However, when she had to kneel down to pull the ready garlic from their dirty dens, sometimes she felt her energy draining faster than in the past.

She could breathe up the mountains. Before her husband’s retirement from a large church downtown, she had lived in a small apartment. The church was very close, but everything else was too small. Her only respite was the small patch of plants she had nurtured on the apartment’s balcony. She had been provided with so much, yet the fermented guilt for not thinking that there was enough never fully vacated. The new place allowed her to spread out and occupy the space she desperately needed after a life of meticulous, difficult religious service. She walked around checking in on the farm’s growing life. She was thankful that she no longer lived in an apartment. She wouldn’t have the opportunity to worry about a missing goat. There would be no goat at all.

Around dinnertime, the sun slowly started to make its descent. She still did not see the goat. Slightly more concerned than she was in the morning, she selected a nice walking stick from the ground and started to walk out of the farm. The two cats reappeared at her side as she walked past the main entrance. The goat probably would not enjoy the noisy cars on the main road, but given his long absence she decided to give that direction a chance. Accompanied by the cats, both smelling a spot here and there like the dogs would, she allowed her walking stick to guide her downwards. The setting sun was hugging the top of the mountain in front of her. Had the goat purposely disappeared to the song of an especially beautiful evening?

She continued to walk down but her knees ached for her to stop. Sighing, she turned around. The cats followed her steps. Even though she had not made it too far down the mountain, the uphill was more of a challenge than anticipated. For her, the difficulty of the upward climb was proof of each of her passing years. She reached the house and looked over to see if the goat had returned. He was not there. Unsure of what to do, she decided to wait inside the house. Besides, her show was about to come on.

At ten to eight every night, she watched the daily drama that was on TV. She imagined that her daughter and granddaughter in America had joined her that night. They would have led the search party for the goat. Her granddaughter would make some strange comment about Korean society and how obviously it was the show’s protagonist’s mother-in-law who did it. Two church visitors had brought her fresh apples from their orchard.  She peeled them adeptly with a knife and chopped them into smaller edible pieces. The apple crunched and the juice was sweet. Her granddaughter had taught her some strange saying from America about how an apple tells the doctor to go away. She chuckled.

The preview for the next night’s episode barely finished when she heard a strange thumping noise outside. A black flash swept by the window. She turned the lights on outside. She heard odd clicking noises coming from near the goats. When she walked over, she saw the male goat standing outside of the pen. His beady eyes stared with great concentration. He seemed to be shivering. Why was he just standing there? Did he want her help getting in? When she took one step closer, he quickly turned around and jumped over the fence.

He walked around inspecting whether anything had changed. She told him nothing had changed so he needn’t worry. As if he understood what she said, he looked over at her, snorted, and entered the covered area. She walked around to the gate where she found a stack of hay to perch on. The inspection was still in progress. He bumped into his partner. He eyed the leftover food. She noticed there were apple peels left next to their pen. She poured the peels into the eating area. He pounced on the peels. She watched him fondly as he ate enthusiastically. He reminded her of her daughter and granddaughter when they came back home. They ate like her cooking was the only food left in the world. She smiled. He was home. You can come and go, but try to come home. There are those who thoroughly miss you.

 

Sophia Park is an artist, science educator, and writer born in South Korea and currently living in New York City. She is a co-founder of A Ramen Quest, a ramen review blog.