We Don’t Promise You a Rose Garden

1974

Every time Robert pulled the starchy, white surplice over his head, he thought of watching his ma help his grandma into her nightgown, even though hers was flannel with pink flowers on it. He knew the other boys got to watch Hawaii 5-0 on the color tv in the rectory on Tuesday nights and the housekeeper made them chocolate chip cookies, and sometimes Father Ignatius gave them private catechism lessons in his study. The other boys gave each other nicknames based on the show but they called him Porkie, which he knew had nothing to do with Hawaii 5-0. His ma told him he was lucky to stay home and watch tv with her instead, but he felt sure that father Ignatius left him out because he was fat.

 

1978

In the locker room after the game, Victor Viccarelli flicked a towel at his butt and called him a name he would never say out loud himself.  He’d known most of the team since elementary school and St. Augustus days, although he’d stopped going to church when his grandma died, but he still wasn’t one of them. Robert hated showering in the mildewed open shower room where he felt his size was not an advantage, like it was on the field, but an excuse for others to pummel and pinch, as if he were made of clay, not flesh. He laughed it off but sometimes let the shower stream longer on his reddened face to obscure the tears.

 

1982

He never thought he would become friends with Victor Vic, but from the day they sat next to each other in the molded plastic chairs of the Marine recruiting office, under a dog-eared poster claiming, “We Don’t Promise You a Rose Garden,” they had learned to appreciate and protect one another. One evening at chow, when Robert was picking out the stringy cubes of pineapple from the fruit cocktail and pushing them to the side of his plate, Victor made a joke about watching Hawaii 5-0 at St. Augustus, as if they’d both been there. “Those were some days,” he said. Robert shrugged and said nothing, feeling that pit-of-the-stomach weakness that still lurked beneath the armor of his camouflage uniform.

 

1986

It was his ma who spotted the obituary in the local paper, circled it in red magic marker for him and left it on the kitchen table, so he saw it when he got home from work. Victor had hung himself with his standard issue Marine mesh belt in a Holiday Inn in Manhattan, Kansas. That wasn’t in the obituary, of course; another old classmate who worked at the airport with Robert heard it from a friend of Vic’s sister. Robert thought about going by the Viccarellis’ house to pay respects, but he had never really known the family.

 

1990

No one in town besides Robert seemed surprised by the story about Father Ignatius, who was long gone now, anyway. Sandra Viccarelli wrote a rambling, angry letter to the editor about her brother, but people said she was a drug addict and a drama queen and just wanted attention for herself. Robert spent days watching reruns of Hawaii 5-0, his bulk pressing down, down into the brown plaid couch, his calloused fingers picking at the wiry upholstery. His ma asked him to come to mass with her, just this once, and he said no.

 

Theo Greenblatt

Theo Greenblatt’s prose, both fiction and nonfiction, appears in Cleaver, The Columbia Journal, Jellyfish Review, The Normal School Online, Tikkun, Harvard Review, and numerous other venues. She is a previous winner of The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Theo holds a PhD from the University of Rhode Island and teaches writing to aspiring officer candidates at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI.

Shiny Perfect

We went to see him at night. Upstairs, third door on the right. One room with a bed, chair and table. Clothes hung on a metal rack. A bathroom down the hall. He was working—taking the foil from an empty cigarette pack, folding it, cutting it with a razor blade, unfolding and folding it again, cutting it again. Finished, he laid it flat on the table and slowly pressed the creases out with his thumb. I couldn’t stop looking. Do you have more we can see? We moved aside as he got down on hands and knees beside the bed and pulled out one large ring binder after another.  Is this all of them? He smiled. No. I’ve got more. Fascinated by nature with edges, creases and spaces, I spend an hour sitting cross-legged on the floor, slowly turning pages, examining each one up close just as I have Van Goghs, Mondrians and Kandinskys. No two are remotely alike.

On the way home:

How did you find him?

I heard about him from a friend.

We should show his work.

What about the committee?

We’re going to show his work.

I’ll talk to him about it.

What do you mean?

We’ll see. I’ll do my best.

Opening night, the place is packed. The artist has brought his daughter and granddaughter.

He has a daughter?

Yes.

I don’t get it.

Something else I didn’t tell you. He has cancer. He’s dying.

Why didn’t you tell me?

Would it have changed anything?

I look at his daughter’s face. Proud of her father. Astonished at the hundred or more people milling around and the dozens standing in front of his work, politely jostling to get close enough to see in detail the corners of the cuts, the faint lines of the creases.

Under the light, I look at his face, covered with creases, intricate in design. Shiny. Perfect.

 

Michael Aro

Michael Harold, who also goes by the name Michael Aro (his father’s birth name), is the author of five novels, five volumes of poetry and two chapbooks. His work has been published in The American Poet, The Journal of Experimental Fiction, Identity Theory, Smokebox, Harvey Bialy’s bialystocker.net, Steve McCaffery’s North American Center for Interdisciplinary Poetics, Unlikely Stories, In Posse Review and in the Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind Anthology by Unlikely Stories and the Dirty, Dirty: Anthology by Jaded Ibis Press. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, once for a poem, once for a novel. He lives and works in Louisiana.

American Horror

When I pressed the button it stopped beeping, clicked and spun and a tired sound came into the room. “Hello, this is Frank,” it said. “I wanted you to know that my son, Johnny, died from an overdose of heroin last night. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.” There was a long uneasy pause, the dial tone burred, and went silent.

He hadn’t left a phone number and I felt a sudden sense of panic. I didn’t know any Frank. I pressed the button again and tried to recognize the intruder. “Hello, this is Frank. I wanted you to know that my son, Johnny, died from an overdose of heroin last night,” it said, but somehow the voice had changed. There was a vacant tone of relief in it as it repeated, “I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”

The cold burr of the dial tone returned and the whirr and click of flashing plastic was ready to do it all over again. I pressed the button a third time and the flashing clicked and beeped, sending out its horror from a voice I would never forget.

 

J.S. Kierland

J.S. Kierland is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and the Yale Drama School. He has been writer-in-residence at New York’s Lincoln Center and Lab Theatre, Brandeis University, and Los Angeles Actor’s Theatre. He’s written two Hollywood films and rewritten several others but refuses to talk about them. Over 100 publications of his short stories have been published around the country in Collections, Reviews, and Magazines like Playboy, Fiction International, Oracle, International Short Story, Trajectory, Colere and many others. He has also edited two one-act play books, and has “15” of the best of his short stories published as a collection from Underground Voices, along with a novella ebook titled HARD TO LEARN.

The Final Exam

On the day of the final exam, students walked into the classroom to find a long table lined with body parts inside jars. Confused, and not seeing their professor anywhere, they walked along the table and read the labels on the jars:

– #1: Albert Einstein’s Frontal Lobe

– #2: Frida Kahlo’s Hands

– #3: Chris Hemsworth’s Biceps

– #4: Joan Sutherland’s Lungs

– #5: Usain Bolt’s Feet

– #6: Jane Austen’s Temporal Lobe

– #7: Freddie Mercury’s Vocal Cords

– #8: Oprah Winfrey’s Mouth

– #9: Anthony Bourdain’s Tongue

– #10: Beyoncé’s Legs

– #11: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Heart

– #12: Mother Teresa’s Heart

 

One of the students noticed an envelope at the end of the table marked, “Please read aloud.” He picked it up and said:

“Hi, class. This is your final exam. You get to choose one jar to eat from. A few minutes after you’ve eaten, you will receive skills and talents related to the person’s body part you’ve selected. As there are only 12 of you, you must choose quickly. You will receive your grade after the test is complete. Once these instructions have been read aloud, you have precisely one minute to select and eat. I am watching. Go.”

The students were the best and brightest at the university, maybe the country. They scurried around the table, some diving for their desired jar, snatching off the lids, shoving the various body parts into their mouths.

After the minute passed, the students stood around the table alternating between looking at each other and looking down at themselves, blood smeared across their hands and faces, meat wedged between their teeth. Only one person stood apart from her classmates.

She clung to the wall, face ashen, body shaking, but as each of her classmates began to clutch at their throats, lines of red crossing across their eyes, gasping, reaching out for help, toppling to the floor, convulsing and then settling into grotesque stillness, she noticed the lone jar left on the table, the one that would have been hers, shining like a beacon, and she understood.

The door opened, and the professor walked in, beaming.

“Congratulations,” he said, shaking her hand. “You passed.”

 

Elison Alcovendaz

Elison’s work has appeared or will be appearing in The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, The Portland Review, Lost Balloon, and other places. Elison has an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and was selected as a Best Small Fictions 2020 winner. To learn more, please visit www.elisonalcovendaz.com.

Heaven

At first they were delighted when the Enochville Swallows came from behind and won the game. The team had struggled all season. It felt good to cheer. A decisive victory on the following day was even more surprising.

They finished the season with eleven straight wins. This unexpected turnaround kept everyone talking all winter, basking in the warmth of new heroes. Photos appeared in bars and diners.

The following April, Mayor Davis threw out the first pitch and the Swallows won again! After four more victories, demand for tickets soared and there weren’t enough seats to accommodate the newly-minted fans. That was when the mayor lobbied successfully for eminent domain and the destruction of the nearby Walton apartments. The wrecking ball threw up clouds of dust; the additional grandstand beyond the outfield ensured that everyone could view the action.

How did Jerry Mercer make that incredible flying catch in the ninth? What accounted for Felix Romero’s uncanny curveball in his two consecutive perfect games? Who could explain Bobby Sheets, the light-hitting second baseman, stepping up to the plate and jacking a tie-breaking home run that sailed over the astonished faces in the new grandstand before landing in Walter Schmidt’s vegetable garden and bouncing over his hedge and splashing in Rose Kindley’s birdbath? The ball was brought back to Billy for an autograph and charitably auctioned off at a price to pay the city’s operational budget for schools, police, and fire department. Mayor Davis held a press conference and announced, “We shall abolish all taxes.”

On the Fourth of July, the Swallows were still undefeated, the longest winning streak ever. Families put out blankets on the grass to watch the fireworks show, recalling with incredulous laughter the previous season when Felix Romero had blown a game by walking in a batter with the bases loaded, or when the team had squandered a six-run lead and Bobby Sheets took a called third strike for the final out, whereupon he ducked his eyes amid the boos and slouched dejectedly off the field. A few people, though, claimed that he’d ripped off his helmet in disgust and dashed it to the ground, cursing the umpire. People enjoyed disputing different versions of that debacle.

But this season offered no such controversy: it was unstinting victory, game after game. One night near the end of July, the Swallows fell behind by nine runs in the first three innings, and it appeared the streak would end. Spectators leaned in closer, their throats going dry. The air was sticky, expectant, still.

Then gale winds descended upon Enochville, a thunderstorm with sheets of rain. Lightning struck the scoreboard and the roof of the concession stand got blown off. It was a wash-out.

The next day, skies were blue, the air pure. Wise folks who’d saved their rainchecks redeemed them that afternoon at a make-up contest where, starting afresh, the Swallows won. That evening they went on to take the regularly-scheduled game, to sweep the double-header.

By August, it was easy to spot empty rows in the grandstands. Ticket prices dropped, though the team’s record was still unblemished. In local bars a new fashion emerged for blindfold billiards. Conversations turned to cooking shows and dialectical materialism. Business was generally down as many patrons traveled to watering holes in other towns.

When school resumed in September, local teachers succumbed to pressure from Mayor Davis to organize field trips to the ballpark to watch the undefeated Swallows, whose example offered pupils lessons about life and success. These outings also helped to fill the empty seats. Kids grumbled that the games lasted an eternity, and numerous parents wrote them false notes of excuse in order to relieve them of this burden. People were sick of baseball.

 

Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared previously in the Burningword Literary Journal, as well as the New England Review, North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His most recent book is AGITPROP FOR BEDTIME (stories).

To the River

As the nights grew longer, more children appeared at the swimming hole. Except they weren’t children, not anymore. Months of solitude had hardened their bodies, as if loneliness were tougher than skin. Yet inside, they softened from the relief at finding others who were lonely too. We can say they knew more than they should. But that’s only part of what came of their gathering.

I went down to the river
Before the break of dawn
I went down to the river
But now the river’s gone.

Down to the river, her phone lighting the path through the woods, Hollie wondered how many others she would find this time. Every night since the problem began, more were congregating at the water’s edge. With the town in lock-down, they had nowhere else to loosen their fear except among these dank shadows, drifting first to one cluster, then another, like moths drawn to broken flames. Distances were breached, breath expelled too close in illicit sighs from mouths unmasked. They believed the danger couldn’t follow them there. The river would keep them safe.

Beyond the trees, the half-moon hit the obsidian pool as the revelers held hands to jump from the bank above. The cold took their breath away before they rose to the surface with screams of laughter. After months of self-restraint, they craved spontaneity. They did it for kicks, just like kids had been doing for decades in this very spot, the clock turned back to a time when the biggest threat was gossip. Now, no one cared. Clenching and unclenching, they cleaved to each other in the night’s unburdening.

I jumped into the river
To the place where I was drawn
I jumped into the river
But now the river’s gone.

Hollie looked for friends but saw only unfamiliar faces. It didn’t matter. They were all here for the same thing—the ritual of water and the cleansing it could bring. Since entering the river was required, she shed shirt, jeans, phone, and shoes, bundling them at the bottom of a tree, not worrying whether they would be there when she returned.  

Watching for an entrance into the current of bodies, her mind rewinds to a time when women in white were dipped backward, their unbound hair mingling with mud. As if all it took were water and prayer to cleanse a transgression. If she listens, she can hear the murmur of hymns promising salvation or heartache, with no guarantee as to which would be given.

 I crossed the river
And found my way was wrong
I crossed the river
But now the river’s gone.

Hollie wades out until the water reaches her chest. She raises her arms, takes a breath, and dives. Going under, she swims away from the pack before surfacing toward the pale light.

In five days or fourteen, she will know: has the river washed it away?

 

Kayann Short

Writer, farmer, teacher, and activist Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press), a Nautilus award-winning memoir of reunion with a family’s farming past and call for local farmland preservation today. Her work appears in Midwest Review, Hawk & Handsaw, The Hopper, Pilgrimage, Dash, Genders, Mad River Review, and the anthologies Dirt: A Love Story and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-Fiction. Dr. Short organizes community writing events and teaches digital storytelling and ecobiography at her own Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range. More on her work can be found on Instagram @kayannshort and at www.kayannshort.com.

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