It wasn’t a very good time at all, not good. Edward Whitley stood in the corner like an old floor lamp. He wasn’t looking at anything. His beady little eyes just sat there like the last two peas on a plate, lost in some thought, away from everything around him. Winnie Spencer was passing out homemade peanut butter cookies, a good thing to do, but there weren’t many takers. It wasn’t that out of place. This was peanut country. Everybody loved a peanut. It’s what made Southampton County tick.
Why is it that the more miserable a time you’re having the slower it seems to move? It sounds reasonable, even true, but why, really? Emma Pattersoll’s little girl was sitting on the floor in her best Sunday dress, petticoat and all, playing jacks The ball bounced and she’d grab one. Then she’d do it again. George Spencer chewed Beechnut. He had a sort of slow rhythm to it. The last thing anybody needed was a clock.
Wade and Wayland Bennett were identical twins. It wasn’t until Wade died that anyone could tell them apart. “So, that was Wade,” someone said looking down into the open casket.
“Wade was the silly one. He had a mole.”
The funeral home man said, “I was expecting a bigger crowd.”
“Yes,” said Rosalie Bennett Poole, “I can’t understand it. Wade was such a good man. There weren’t no other man like him.”
“People just don’t pay respect the way they used to. They don’t come out.”
“I know. I know.”
“I always figured Wade Bennett to be queer,” said Charlie Ingram.
“For land sakes Charlie, don’t say that. Don’t say it so loud.”
“Hell, I thought that was Wayland.”
“Well, it don’t matter now.”
“Cookie?” said Winnie Spencer cheerfully.
James William Gardner
James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south. The writer explores aspects of southern culture often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
There once was a girl who lived with her parents in a clapboard house in the Bible Belt. One day, her mother died just as she was pulling a weed from the garden, as if the root had been attached to her heart. When the girl’s father found his wife, bent sidelong in the garden, he pulled out his hair and burned the bedsheets in the yard. Oh dear god, I am cursed, he cried. First my son and now my wife?! He watched his daughter as she watched him, her hair like coal- stained cattails, dents in her cheeks and chin, a Kodachrome of her mother when she was young, and he took her into his bed as his new wife.
After several years, the girl passed her exams on the sly and left the town to attend a school near the sea. She learned how to cook and paint and drove a cab for a living; she did not return to her child-home for a long, long time. One day, she received a letter from her father’s hired man, who had tracked her to the city to tell her about an accident in the woods behind the house. Her father had been paralyzed from his neck to his toes. The next day, the daughter flew to her old town and saw her old enemy, laid out in his old bed.
Oh my daughter, he said, I cannot hold you but please make me something to eat for eating is the only pleasure I have left. So the daughter went outside and slaughtered his hound and sliced it into a stew and served it to him. I can only wonder how you made this, her father said and he ate and ate. The servant, a canny Scot, watching from the window, laughed and said, he ets the screps of the welp he fed his screps to. Then he took from the pantry and the barn in measures equal the pay owed him, left the house, and didn’t return.
The father was still hungry so he asked his daughter to bring him another bowl of the stew. When she told him there was no more, he fell into a hard sleep and dreamt about fleas. As he whimpered in sleep, the daughter lopped off his feet and steeped them in a soup, which she fed him in the morning. This is even better than the last, he said. So that night, she trimmed him a bit more, up to his knees, and served him his shins, smothered in mushrooms she found in the forest. Your cooking makes me young again, he said. I feel like I could stand up and run.
So the daughter kept feeding him his chops. She popped off his knees and served them like halved apples, still sizzling from a buttered skillet over the fire. She cut up to his hip and tossed it with his schmocks in a broth and he gobbled it up. His belly removed, she put together a roux and when he ate, it shot down his throat and onto the sheets. Please tell me there’s more, her father said. I can’t seem to fill myself up.
The last night, she sawed off what remained below his neck, smoking his arms over the fire in the hollow of his ribs. He ate greedily when he woke, his au jus running down his chin. She lifted the sheet to wipe his mouth and when he looked down and saw no body underneath, he gave one final gasp and died of fright. The daughter tossed the head into the fireplace and sold the house, taking the money back to the bay, where she bought a brownstone on Balboa. She wrote poems and died many years later, alone and at ease.
Joel Wayne is a writer and producer from Boise, Idaho. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, The Moth, Burningword, and Salon, among other places. He was an MFA candidate at Boise State University and has won the Silver Creek Writer’s Residency, the Lamar York Prize, and is a Pushcart nominee. Wayne produces the podcast “You Know The Place” for public radio, serves as a judge for the annual Scholastic Writing Awards, and can be visited at JoelWayne.com.
His co-workers lounged against the building, drinking coffee and smoking before punching in for the early shift. The elbow nudging began as he got out of the truck, walked to the driver’s side window, and kissed his wife goodbye. He sensed the men’s envy as he watched her drive away, and could just make out the familiar, mocking whispers of pussy-whipped, on a short leash, and under her thumb before he turned and the smirks quickly vanished.
They never said anything to his face, the chicken-shits. Must have been something about the way he carried himself or the old knife scar bisecting his right cheek that quelled even bigger men’s voices. But he’d seen their stares when she brought him his lunch every day, wearing those short-shorts and bare-midriff blouses, the way conversations halted and sandwiches stopped midway to mouths when she shook out her blonde curls.
He knew they wondered how somebody who looked like him had gotten someone who looked like her. Hell, he wondered himself. So, if she liked taking him to work, bringing his lunch, and picking him up at the end of his shift, he didn’t complain. A short leash anchored both ends.
Bob Strother’s work has been published internationally and adapted for film. A three-time pushcart Prize nominee, Strother has four novels and a short story collection in print, as well as several magazine articles.
Christian Cohen-Muhamed was the fruit of a union that celebrated diversity with some enthusiasm. He grew up in a dumpy, used-to-be kind of city, where the little kids at school called him “Chris”. Later, when a few of those kids paid a little attention to high school social studies, they called him “Rainbow”. In college, his frat brothers called him “Buddha”. They said it completed the cycle, but it was a double joke, because all those beery nights had made him newly plump and oddly peaceful.
Buddha’s dad ran a homeless shelter, and his mom worked for a nonprofit devoted to developing minority artists — preferably with an abstract bent, though that was only her personal crusade and not official policy. Worthiness having its price, the family had no money to keep their son in college past sophomore year. So, plumpness and peacefulness notwithstanding, Buddha joined Army ROTC to pay for college. Mom and dad were not thrilled, but they valued autonomy over autocracy and gave consent by silence.
During summer field training, his company fell out for a 12 mile forced march. The Drill Instructor, who wore a Ranger tab, had them chant Ranger marching songs to keep cadence. So there was Buddha, fast-timing through the Georgia woods, chanting with all the other summer warriors:
“Locked and loaded and ready to kill.
Always am and I always will.”
As the summer went on, Buddha got leaner and harder. In quiet moments, he began to feel a little strange to himself. His first major shift in self-image came the day he realized, after some training in combatives, that he had begun to look at everybody else as a target, automatically figuring angles of attack as they walked by. The second shift came when he scored “Expert” on the marksmanship test and the DI called him “Killer”.
Back at school in the fall, the whole frat heard the stories from another brother who’d been there. Buddha no longer looked like Buddha, nor did he still have that peaceful vibe. They kidded him that he needed a new name. They asked him to pick one, just so they could scrap his choice and pick something else to bug him.
He knew that “Buddha” was out and needed burying anyway. “Rainbow” was too gay to stay, even though it would be kind of backwards-cool. “Chris” reminded him too much of third grade. So, with wisdom born of Budweiser, he picked “Rambo”. One minute later, they’d scrapped “Rambo” and given him the handle that stuck for years. The day after graduation, after the commissioning ceremony, his peers toasted him by his new name: Second Lieutenant Christian (“Shiva”) Cohen-Mohamed, United States Army”.
Thomas Reed Willemain
Dr. Thomas Reed Willemain is a software entrepreneur, emeritus professor of statistics, and former intelligence officer. He holds degrees from Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His memoir, “Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency” was published in 2017. A native of western Massachusetts, he lives near the Mohawk River in upstate New York.
A faint breeze blew through the shutters, bringing with it a trace of garlic and mussels from the nearby bistro. Oh God, Maître Barbier was known for his sensitive nose. He should have arranged for the bistro to close for the evening. As Pierre rose to go to the window his wife put her hand on his arm.
“Stay, Pierre. You must not be gone when Monsieur arrives.”
“But the smell! What if he notices? ”
“What if he does? It’s your night, isn’t it? Not his? Come, Pierre, sit down.”
Pierre been planning the Vernissage for months. Everything – lighting, temperature, ambiance – must be just so for the visit of Maître Barbier. It was an incredible coup to secure him for the opening. Pierre knew he was being unreasonable and took a deep breath. Everything that needed to be done had been done. He smiled at his wife then turned towards the door where a sudden flurry heralded the great man’s arrival.
Eventually, the introductions and speeches were done and Maître Barbier walked towards the central painting in the exhibition. It was of a tree in winter, bare branches stretching towards the sky in something like supplication. So many freezing days in the forest trying to capture the light between the branches, the yearning in their stretch and reach. Pierre sivered.
Maître Barbier leaned towards the painting, angling his head slightly, took a step backwards, then another. He approached the painting again, bending forward almost double. As if to sniff it, Pierre thought. The hush was palpable. Finally he turned to the assembled crowd.
“Competent”, he pronounced, then moved on, followed by his eager entourage.
Pierre made a quiet return to his position at the Bank later that year. How kind of them to hold it open for him, everyone said. A crise de folie, they said, this wanting to be an artist. And his wife, so patient. He would grow out of it.
Years later he watched the last leaves of that same tree drop soundlessly to the ground, propelled into their leaving by some invisible force. Gravity? Indifference? They might never have inhabited the branches, never have borne their vivid greenness with pride. Uncomplaining, they left behind the stark outline of their world. He mourned their loss and wished he’d known to come and look at the tree when it was at its best.
Carol A. Caffrey
Carol A. Caffrey is an Irish writer and actor living in the UK. Her short fiction and poetry have been published by Lunch Ticket, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Mechanics’ Institute Review, among others. She has been shortlisted in a number of competitions and her Flash story “Vertigo”, nominated for best Small Fictions, won the BlakeJones Review Flash Fiction competition in 2019. She tours the one-woman play “Music For Dogs” by distinguished Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan. Her debut poetry pamphlet “The Untethered Space” is published by 4Word Press in June 2020.
The low clouds only added insult to the oppression Lucy and her colleagues felt at the 61st Annual Law Librarians of New England Spring Meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn Portsmouth, which had been more of the same reluctant glorification of artificial intelligence in legal research paired with debates on the looming obsolescence of their profession, but afterwards, late in the gray afternoon as she sped north through New Hampshire into the White Mountains with her fists at ten and two on the steering wheel, right before she entered Franconia Notch, right where things started getting majestic, Lucy rolled down her window, stuck her head out, and sucked the cold air hard into her lungs as her black hair whipped around her skull like flames, and just then the clouds parted and golden sunlight prismed into great triangles that quilted the earth, illuminating the white quartz in granite walls, dazzling the green sequins of new birch leaves, setting spark to the Pemigewasset River low in the valley where it rode high and wild with snow melt, and a small shard of sunlight tore from the quilt to puncture Lucy’s left eye and travel unknown conduits deep between dark folds of her flesh to prick some sublime wound, ancient and tender, which never fully healed and claimed only a thin membrane to protect it; this the shard pierced and a surge of energy, unnamable, untamable, pitched through that punctum, up through her body and out her mouth and eyes, translating not into words or wisdom but violent laughter and tears, forcing her to pull to the shoulder, tires crunching over gravel, so that she might die just for one moment of perfection on the side of the road with the 18-wheelers roaring by, rocking her car on its wheels as she sat stunned, laughing and crying at the light, the granite, the leaves, the air, and her heart in anguish with joy at the absurdity of beauty before the membrane just as quickly mended and she, careful to use her blinker, conscious of the time and when her son’s high school rehearsal of The Tempest would end, wiped her eyes, rolled up her window, and merged back into traffic to continue her drive home where she would reheat yesterday’s pea soup for dinner.
Julie Jones holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, and the Cincinnati Review: miCRo. She has been nominated for Best Microfiction 2020. You can find her at juliemjones.com.