My days are measured
By bottles of discount wine,
My weeks by clean linens;
I seek salvation
in a cafe benison.
Sleep, sleep divine,
Why should eternal sleep
not be heaven?
For religion begins
Where knowledge ends.
My little fame in life,
Will be confined
to a freeway sign:
a gray morning sky,
Flashing, flashing, flashing
above a highway exit.
The door was closed
and did not open,
So how did the cat
go out again?
But remembering to floss
gives each day
a bright new meaning.
So knowledge ends
Where religion begins.
Italy’s third volcano,
what’s it called?
Not Etna or Vesuvius,
The one in the movie we saw?
I forget, though I should know;
And not Olympus,
with Hera and Zeus
For us mortals what does it signify,
purchasing stain remover
by the gallon?
Pessimism of drooled spaghetti
or long life’s delusive
All hail Staphylococcus,
with my name on it;
Where fear reigns,
Dough, the financial guru says,
you’ll need ’til you’re ninety five,
or perhaps, I think,
Or maybe I’ll rob a bank
or fail to pay my taxes
for a prison bunk
and hospital bed.
But what about the poor teller,
and the unlucky feller
who has to clean up the mess?
The coffee grinder churns,
the espresso machine
so why should I surrender?
Yea, verily, I declare
on my life’s embers
that where true knowledge ends
unyielding ignorance begins
and religion wins.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina and Duke Law School, James Garrison practiced law until returning to his first loves: writing and reading good literature. His novel, QL 4 (TouchPoint Press 2017), set in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, has won awards for literary fiction and military fiction, and it was a Distinguished Favorite for the 2019 Independent Press Awards and a finalist for the 2018 Montaigne Medal. His creative nonfiction works and poems have appeared in online magazines and anthologies. Sheila-Na-Gig nominated his poem “Lost: On the Staten Island Ferry”‘ for a 2018 Pushcart prize.
This story is about drawing my mother’s portrait in a twenty-minute timed session. She is in her late sixties, but I am not sure of her birth year or birthdate. She has changed. She has mellowed out over the years.
Capturing likeness is the aim. She is a willing model. She wants to please. She sits down and I begin. The forehead does not move. Facial muscles around the eyes don’t move. Eyebrows don’t move. They are thick, as they are penciled-in dark.
Eyelids move. Eyeballs move.
Her eyebrows point up; they didn’t before. The end of her eyes where the eyelids meet also point up; they didn’t before. That’s one botched botox job. She is frugal.
Her husband of fifty years wants to leave her. She chewed his ass growing up. He withdrew. She pursued. He withheld.
Old people break up the same way young people do. There is back and forth. There are acts designed to cause jealousy. There is reluctance. There is attraction. There is repulsion.
She lost weight. He lost weight and fixed his teeth. Divorce papers are drawn up, but not filed. Fifty years is a long time.
I am down to her chin now. She has facial hair. She didn’t before. They are bleached but not removed. That double chin can be captured with shading. Time’s up.
Hooman Khoshnood began his artistic career five years ago, after practicing law for over a decade. He began painting at an early age. But his approach to art-making became more conceptual while studying with Laura LLaneli, a sound art artist, and Marc Larre, a photographer. Mr. Khoshnood was also mentored by Giancarlo Bargoni, a renowned Italian painter in painting and theory. They also explored possible connections between painting and poetry. Mr. Khoshnood continued his studies in art at the Art Students League of New York where his painting “Unknown to me” was published as exemplary student work in the League’s 2017/18 catalog. Mr. Khoshnood obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Doctorate in Law both from the University of Georgia. He is also an avid reader focusing on Linguistics, Literature, and Art History. He was born in Iran and has lived in Iran, Italy, Canada, France, Spain, and the United States. He is fluent in English, Farsi, and Italian. He considers Atlanta home.
Grace lives up the street. Every morning she gets into her mint condition 1982 Plymouth Reliant and drives two blocks down the street where she spends the day with Gary, her gentleman friend. Grace is a spritely 89. She is robbing the cradle a little with Gary who is only 78. Gary is homebound. Diabetes took his vision. They both have grandchildren and great grandchildren of children who left this little town long ago. Widow and widower, they spend their days together. She cooks for him. “Having someone to enjoy the food is the only fun in cooking anymore.” They are intimate. “Our children think we should marry but phooey on that!” They never spend the night. “I need my beauty rest!” She takes him to church and to the Elks club for pinochle and for coffee and pie at the little café so they can get the gossip from the coffee clutch. Gary always has pie, diabetes be damned. She reads the local paper aloud and plans their attendance at funerals. She has a little box of sympathy cards at the ready and an envelope of laundered and pressed five dollar bills. She always gives one in memory of the deceased to the church’s radio broadcast, unless a memorial fund is specified. She includes Gary’s name with her own on the card.
Late one afternoon, after she divvies the roast, mashed potatoes and gravy into separate containers for their meals throughout the week, and puts a couple in the freezer as well, Grace tells Gary she needs a nap before driving home. While she dozes in the floral print recliner, he listens to a cooking program on television. The woman cooks from her kitchen on a ranch, and a husband, children, and a widowed father-in-law are always brought in to eat what she makes, usually after chores or school or some play activity. They are always happy. He likes the show for the stories of ranch life that go with the food. It puts him in mind of his life, before the kids grew up and moved away, before Nettie died, before he’d sold the ranch and moved to town, before he’d lost his vision.
He says, “I was listening to the Pioneer Woman and thinking on the old times.” He says this over and over in the next couple of days to anyone who will listen, to his children, to himself while he waits in the corner of the family room at the church. He thinks on it during the Psalm and the hymns, and still beside the grave where disturbed soil gives scent to his sightlessness. His daughter helps him find the casket with the flowers he’d asked her to buy. The people whisper in the church basement over casseroles and bars, “Grace was always so good to him,” and “What will Gary do now?”
by Tayo Basquiat
TAYO BASQUIAT is a writer, teacher, adventurer, scavenger, and Wilderness First Responder. He gave up tenure as a philosophy professor to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared in Superstition Review, On Second Thought, Northern Plains Ethics Journal, the Cheat River Review, Proximity Magazine, and in a growing portfolio as producer of Wyoming Public Media’s “Spoken Words” podcast.
Karen Carpenter was emblazoned into my retinas in the mid-1970s. I see her as the delicate, elfin creature who tiptoed into the spotlight inside the Hersheypark Arena and simply said “hello.”
That night, Karen wore a bell-bottomed, lace pantsuit and a metallic gold belt. Pantsuits were the rage then. Everyone was wearing them from Gloria Steinman to Charlie’s Angels. But this pantsuit! Fashioned entirely of beige lace. I imagined an elderly, nimble-fingered woman from Bruges, pins pressed tightly between her lips, toiling under weak candlelight with her loyal, calico cat by her side. The lace maker had read the measurements sent by the famous American pop star to a tee. That pantsuit fit like an elegant glove.
As soon as I sat down in my seat eight rows from the stage’s lip, I pretended my concert companion wasn’t there. I vanished the form of her body inside a navy pea coat perched loosely around shoulders into thin air. I blockaded her Shalimar perfume scenting our section like an old flower delivery inside a closed room and concentrated instead on the hopefully intoxicating qualities of second hand pot smoke.
I have no idea how or why my mother and I came to be sitting at that concert together. It was out of our ordinary. We never transcended. We never became more than what we were by blood. We almost never did “friend things.” It wasn’t meant to be. We were too different, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Even with the attendant mystery of why my mother and I attended a concert together once, I remember what a good performance it was. In addition to Karen Carpenter’s outfit, I have a permanent recording of her unique and beautiful voice inside my head: deeply resonant, pure, strong. But when she sang of being on top of the world, her smile was staged, a Cheshire grin on a thin face. Her brother Richard, seated at the piano, had the opposite problem. He was too consistently perky, bobbing his head every second note even during the sad songs like the one about rainy days and Mondays and having the blues.
It’s raining on a Monday. My mother forgets what day it is now. Her short-term memory has gone missing and the other parts of her, her distant memories, her sense of humor, are frequently on the fritz.
Today, she has forgotten more than usual. The index card standing at attention in the middle of her kitchen table is waiting in vain to learn: “TODAY’S DATE IS…” The Lilliputian billboard offering a daily reality check has taken the place of traditional, cheerful seasonal centerpieces and candleholders. I pick up the nearby red pencil and print: “Monday, October 7, 2019.”
“Here is your tea, Mom. No sugar, right?”
“I don’t want that milk.”
“Tea requires a drop of milk, remember? To protect teeth enamel. How about a cookie?”
I open the “sweets cabinet” underneath the toaster oven, noting the blackened toast crumbs and frozen pizza cheese coating the bottom tray like an ugly scab. Some changes about this kitchen of my childhood I will never get used to.
My mother’s sweets cabinet never harbored much promise while I was growing up in that house. Not today either.
“Fig newton or a gingersnap. Unless you want a Saltine or a box of golden raisins.”
“No chocolate chip?”
“No chocolate chip.”
“Forget it then.”
I give her one of each kind of cookie. She bites and chews.
“These cookies are stale. I can’t believe your father hasn’t inhaled them yet. Still good though. These are the classics, figs and snaps. Stick with the classics, Virginia. You’ll never be sorry.”
My mother stands. Limps. Retrieves both cookie boxes. Leaves the cabinet door open in a wide yawn. Takes one more of each variety for he paper plate. I put up my hand in protest when she reaches in for more. She hands over two fig newtons anyway.
“Speaking of the classics, Mom, how about pea coats. Remember those? People still wear pea coats.”
“Those were smart. Nice, big buttons with embossed ship anchors I think. Sailor coats.”
“Remember when you and I saw The Carpenters at the Arena? Remember the lace pantsuit Karen Carpenter wore?” I ask.
“I don’t really like pantsuits on women. Pantsuits make them look like astronauts.”
“What’s wrong with women being astronauts?’
“Nothing, I guess. If you want to fly to the moon, go ahead.” A rare laugh erupts from my mother, but it doesn’t succeed in changing the flat expression that has come to reside on her face.
“Do you remember that, though, Mom, when you and I went to the Hersheypark Arena and we saw The Carpenters? We sat really, really close to the stage?”
Outside, the rain intensifies. In the street, drops dart earthward, bounce off the standing, trampoline puddles. A red bird waits under a grey shrub, twitching nervously. Down the cement sidewalk, across the street, and up an identical walk, Mrs. Milhimes’ has arranged her customary, autumnal display of rust and yellow mums. The straw-hatted scarecrow stuck in one of the pots doesn’t like cold rain on his face. He’s slouched forward. He’s waiting it out.
My mother blinks, smiles weakly, swallows cookie.
“Yes, I do. I surely do,” she responds. “Didn’t we have a lot of fun together.”
I open my mouth and close it. Outside, the red bird decides she can’t wait huddled underneath shelter forever. She leaps, lifts her wings and flaps silently away.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found or upcoming in Illuminations, The Florida Review, The Moon City Review, Palooka Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Burningwood Literary Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal among others. Nominee for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2019 in nonfiction, Virginia resides near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Truth About Eternity
The happily ever after is the return to the disenchanted life. —Ruth Daniell
Check the refrigerator door,
the photos of your son at six, at ten,
graduating from high school,
gone, lost to the skirr of time,
of your wife before the pain set in—
the hikes, the ski trips, vacations
to lands with grapes and siestas,
yourself fifty pounds ago holding
a little boy on your lap, your arm
around a gorgeous woman with hair
the color of a midnight fairytale,
of Fred and Toots in Michigan standing
in front of the largest birch tree you’d
ever seen, cut down by Fred shortly
before time’s timber felled him and Toots,
of Dave Fick, your wife’s sailing instructor,
whose swim trunks slid south exposing sailors’
crack when he launched his boat from your dock,
and whose ashes now mix with sand and soot
in the depths of Walloon Lake,
of Art and Cee Culman, multimillionaires who spent
a summer laying tile in their kitchen only to realize
that what they’d learned was useless since they’d never
use those skills again before they died—and they didn’t—
of Bill Mackinen who taught you that no politician had
the right to define a “family” as a man, a woman, and
their children only—Bill who died watching the Tigers
route the Braves on his hospital TV, and
today, photos of Chuck Kinder, the best writing teacher
you ever had who, in the midst of criticizing a boring story
you’d written, fell into a raucous coughing spasm and,
once recovered, proclaimed, “that’s what happens
when you smoke seven joints in a row.”
Your refrigerator door gives the lie
to eternity—the door from whose surface
someone, someday, will remove your photos,
put them into a shoebox, and store them
on some disenchanted shelf.
The Truth About Conspiracies
What about those nitwits that won’t vaccinate
their kids against measles—the same screwballs
who criticize climate change deniers because
they denigrate science? Didn’t god invent jail cells
for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children?
What do you think happens when an
antivaccine ninny gets wheeled into
an emergency room gasping for breath
and holding her chest? Does she shout,
“Don’t touch me with that EKG!” Or,
“Keep that oxygen away from me!” Or,
“Don’t you dare take my blood!” No,
once in the ER, she becomes a big booster
of medical science. Just as there are no
atheists in foxholes, there aren’t many
antivaccine nutters in cardiac care units.
What about extended warranties?
A company has so little confidence
in its product that it sells you a warrantee
on top of the warrantee that already
comes with the oven, iron, refrigerator,
or the most shameful appliance of all—
the electric can opener. Isn’t a sign
of adulthood, of entrance into what Lacan
called the “Symbolic Order,” the ability
to operate a manual can opener? Doesn’t
that old-timey can opener allow us to assume
our place in Western Civilization? The truth
(and this poem is about the truth) is that
the company knows these gismos will last for years.
They play on our insecurity and incompetence: sell us
warrantees that make us pay twice as much for the widget
than it’s worth. Thank you P.T. Barnum!
Speaking of what lasts—every day I put cat poop
in the plastic bag my newspaper comes in
and it will stay in that plastic bag as long
as the plastic bag exists, which is forever.
Think of that—the only proof we have of eternity—
a plastic bag full of cat poop! Wait, there’s more—
I shave with the Gillette razor my father bought
in the thirties and used all through World War II.
Stainless steel doesn’t rust! The Gillette company
realized in the sixties that, if they kept making
this quality product, something that never needs
to be replaced, they’d go broke. So they turned to
the plastic disposables they make today that occupy
our landfills and compete for space in our oceans.
What about expiration dates? I get it with mayonnaise.
When green spores or brown splotches spoil its virginal
perfection, it’s time for the garbage bin. No problem there, but
everyone knows that salsa and Tobasco sauce never go bad.
They’re too hot to go bad, like my wife whose body may
be gnarled in places and is often wracked with pain,
but her essence, her bedrock goodness, her passionate
kindness and understanding will outlast any date etched
on a tombstone or printed on a death notice.
The Truth About Obituaries
The one time you absolutely must read
the obituary column and you can’t
because you’re dead! You will never read
what the amorphous “They” wrote about you.
And no fair writing your own obit. That’s cheating.
Talk about a conflict of interest!
The point of reading your obituary
is to see what others thought about you.
After all, as Sartre said in rebuke to Heidegger:
My death is not only not my ownmost possibility,
it isn’t my possibility at all. I’ll be dead!
No, my death, wrote Sartre, is some other
poor sod’s possibility (I’m paraphrasing here).
Someone other than me will discover my body—
maybe my sweet wife as she struggles to
find warmth in our bed only to discover
the cold hulk that was me; or some overworked
cop, called after a neighbor saw too many
newspapers bunched on my front porch;
or some luckless EMT who has to pry
my broken body out of twisted metal.
Will that final scribe highlight my kindness,
my fortitude in resisting the government as
a conscientious objector during Viet Nam?
Or will she focus on my disgust with academia
and the ever-dwindling psychoanalytic mirage;
my disappointments about growing up
in Cheyenne, Wyoming—a dusty, backward,
one-horse town that might as well have been
in the deep South—with an alcoholic father
and a mother who chose an alcoholic man?
Will she emphasize how ill-tempered I am
after my daily walk? How crabby I get
before dinner? Will she find some scandal
I’d forgotten or didn’t even know about?
As I rethink this now, it will be good
to be dead when my obit appears.
I’m with Sartre’s—let the other
deal with my demise.
Charlie Brice is the author of Flashcuts Out of Chaos (2016), Mnemosyne’s Hand (2018), and An Accident of Blood (2019), all from WordTech Editions. His poetry has been nominated for the Best of Net anthology and twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Main Street Rag, Chiron Review, Permafrost, The Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere.