In the old wood burner at the back of the kitchen she did the baking. As across the tin roof the sky broke, she gutted the fridge of all the perishables — the milk and the eggs and the butter. By candlelight she rolled and cut the dough, and as the wind sandpapered away at the clapboard siding, fifteen perfect circles she pressed, with the heel and the palm of the hand, into each of the pie-tins, fifteen perfect circles, tin after tin down the length of the counter. The scent of the split pine stirred her. This was the moment she savored the most: the kindling. The slow burn of the oak, that was the secret to the baking, sure, the reason a stack of quarter-cut always climbed the brick beside the iron maw, but the kindling. That was the treat. The orangey whorl of the sap, the splinters of pitch that stick to the whorls at the tip of the fingers, and honey their way into the crack of the palm, as if the hands were the kindling, as if her own fingers were to suddenly ignite.
All through the night the cold wind scoured the porch, sledge-hammered the rafters, shook the floor to where the candles quivered and the wax in a zig-zag ran. She browned the shells — a blind bake — and as they cooled, she spatula-ed in the last of the peach and the apple preserves. She laid the ribbons of dough in a crosshatch to cover the fillings, sprinkled the quilted surface with a dusting of cinnamon and then, ever so gently (masterful is what it was, in the storm to so pilot the ark), she pressed, one two three four, into the damp crust at the center of every pie, the diamond that rode her fist. A fleur-de-lis. A signature.
And all the while, the skyline bristled. On the far side of the pasture, the crown of an oak wavered and snapped. Down the flank of the Econ a Frigidaire tumbled, clipped the fin of a derelict Harley, gurgled its way into the muddy. Off the coast of Jamaica a freighter capsized, a cloud of birds abandoned the peninsula, up yonder overhead the burst of a solar flare bumpered off the moon to – bullseye – smack the planet, the clouds, the squall, the sky, but all through the night she fed the oven, and the oven baked the pies, and the pies baked the kitchen, and the kitchen held the storm at bay. Majestic. Yes. Majestic. Come the dawn she filled the cavernous hold of her junkyard De Soto with a (years ago the backseat crow-barred away) stack of empty blueberry crates into which she slid the pies, two to a crate and swaddled in wax paper and muslin, and set out on the open road, all or nothing, a dollar a pie, highway robbery were the highway not already bulbous with broken oak and scuttles of canvas ripped from the shop awnings.
A teacher at Valencia College, Alan Sincic has been writing now for years poetry, prose, and experimental fiction that lives somewhere between the two. The short story The Deluge appeared in the New Ohio Review and The Hunting Of The Famous People won The Gateway Review 2019 Flash Fiction Contest. Last month A3 Press published a unique (fold-out map style) illustrated chapbook of My New Car. His novella The Babe won the 2014 Knickerbocker Prize from Big Fiction Magazine, the short story/performance piece Sugar aired on Seattle’s Hollow Earth Radio, the short story Random Sample is currently available online in the Prize Winner’s Issue of Hunger Mountain Journal (hungermtn.org), and the short story Sand appeared last year in The Greensboro Review. Alan Sincic earned an MFA at Western New England University and Columbia, served on the editorial board of the Columbia Review, and — back in the day — published a children’s chapter book, Edward Is Only A Fish (Henry Holt) that was reviewed in the New York Times, translated into German, and recently issued in a Kindle edition.
The cleaning lady must have shredded your order. My truck jack-knifed on the pass. Thursday I’m getting my differential oil changed, then I’ll be delivering backorders all weekend. Monday’s my helper’s day off. Tuesday it’s supposed to rain and I lost my rain tarp on a run last week. Definitely next Wednesday before noon, if my helper doesn’t have to go to the doctor. Thursday provided that I can find someone to watch my kids and get the hitch on my trailer adjusted otherwise I’ll have to find a U-Haul. Definitely today if you can you pay me in cash. Just as soon as I make a detour to pick up my elevator. Rush hour might slow things down a few minutes. I’ve only got twenty-eight dollars to get home on, where’s your bank? Sure, you could get there before closing. I’ve got to get back to my kids; my wife took off to look for a job. What if I come to your house, unhitch my trailer with your containers on it, and beeline your check to the bank before six? It doesn’t look like rain on this side of the mountains. I thought we already talked about price; what’d I charge you last time? Your cancelled check is proof of purchase; I don’t carry a receipt book. The calculator app on my phone isn’t working. How about if I give you a per cubic foot price and we tally it up as I unload. Can you pay me at least partly in cash? Whatever you have on hand would be perfect. You’ll have to find me a screwdriver; I keep my change stashed inside the driver-side door of my truck. The kids swipe everything smaller than a fifty. If your bank closes and I have to wait until morning to cash your check; who will take care of my kids? Tomorrow before noon for sure, provided that I can get the hitch on my trailer adjusted otherwise I’ll have to find a U-Haul. The day after if my helper doesn’t have to go to the doctor. Definitely today if you can you pay me in cash.
from Blowing Smoke; a Compendium of Everyday Excuses
“Whoever wants to be a judge of human nature should study people’s excuses.” Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), German poet and dramatist
Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg. Her most recent publications are You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore; Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier (University of Alaska Press) and the memoir, Horses Never Lie About Love (Simon & Schuster). Other poetry books include Oh How Can I Keep on Singing, Voices of Pioneer Women (Ontario); The Dust of Everyday Life, An Epic Poem of the Northwest (Sasquatch); and We Never Speak of It, Idaho-Wyoming Poems 1889-90 (Ontario ) all are available online from Open Road Press as are her two novels, Alaska (Harper & Row) and The Pearl of Ruby City (St. Martin’s). She lives with her husband on a farm in the Cascades.
Just before midnight, Irina and I went to Odessa station to meet the Moscow train. I paid our taxi driver but asked him to wait; he might or he might not, I knew.
It was cold, black, and raining softly. Half the platform lights were out. The station stank of soot, wet concrete and disinfectant. People huddled, smoking, talking. We stood to one side. Irina wore dark red lipstick; raindrops jewelled her fur coat and her hair.
Loudspeakers crackled an announcement. People shuffled forward, craning their necks. The train drew in and stopped at the buffers with a hiss. Doors opened and passengers spilled out, some looking purposeful, some dazed. Men in fur hats embraced, slapping each other’s backs. Couples walked off carrying plastic suitcases.
We’d come to collect something that someone in Moscow had paid the train guard to bring Irina. ‘Medicine you can’t get in Odessa,’ she said. We climbed onto the train, the steps and handrails battered with years of hard use, and walked through the carriages. Flattened-out cardboard was spread underfoot on the wet metal floors. Compartment doors hung open, showing rumpled grey blankets on narrow fold-down beds.
We found the guard in his yellow-lit cabin, distributing items to people who thanked him quietly and quickly disappeared. He handed over a small packet; Irina slipped it into her bag. Nobody looked at us as we walked back along the wet platform to the gates. Our taxi was waiting after all, and we drove back along Gagarin Prospect, lines of white headlights and red tail-lights starry in the increasing rain.
I didn’t ask Irina about the package, it was none of my business. Once we got to her flat I gave her back the old Makarov pistol she’d asked me to carry.
Peter Justin Newall
Peter Justin Newall lives in Thalgarrah, NSW, but has lived variously in Australia, Ukraine and most recently Kyoto, Japan, where he sang for a popular local blues band. He has been published in England, Hong Kong, the USA and Australia; his stories The Luft Mensch and The Chinese General were each nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Miriam, sandwich? The man waves one. You want?
She doesn’t. Miriam expects him to see that she is busy, and doesn’t want. She is talking to my wife. My wife is looking out the window. I know the look on her face, having to be polite.
We are polite on holiday. We don’t take drugs, on holiday. It’s like we want time out from our bad habits, but the reason is that we don’t risk bringing drugs with us on cross-border trains – only in our heads, a last glorious ingestion in the station toilets. We also don’t risk buying drugs on holiday. Our experience of this has led to a crushing disappointment in our fellow men, loss of money, and, once, loss of blood (mine). I’m not a fighter, and in any case we are too old to squabble with strangers over the price or the alleged purity, or lack of it, of various powders. So we are more polite to strangers, but more edgy if they overstep the boundaries.
It’s us and them in the minibus. As it was early in the morning, and we were bleary-eyed, that wasn’t apparent when we boarded. It was only on the road that they revealed themselves as a group, and, as collateral, us as outsiders.
Gradually, they shout merrily at one another. It is a small minibus. They extract sandwiches from Tupperware, examine them, and pass them around. It is a confined space. We are hungover. The sandwiches contain salami with a discernible garlic content. There is coleslaw. I know because, in the act of being passed, some of it, reverting to liquid in the heat, drops on my bare knee. I examine it. My instinct is mean, to wipe it on the nearest garment belonging to one of the group, but instead I use the underside of the seat.
Miriam talks to my wife about where we are going on our sightseeing mission. She finally refuses the sandwich, which stops the man we suppose is her husband from offering it. Instead, he says, well don’t ask me later for one, and adds endless variations of this warning.
Miriam’s older relatives, and those of the whole group, and those of my wife, went to where we are going, some of them leaving it, luckily, to tell the world about it. This leaves me as the only true outsider. The minibus driver delivers us to Auschwitz, the museum on the site of the notorious Nazi death camp. In the snack bar there, Miriam buys a Snickers, with me behind her in the line, dehydrated and in search of fizzy water. I say to her, you should have had the sandwich, and she snorts and nods and grimaces and says, yah – who knew, right? She rejoins the group, my wife holding on to my sleeve to make sure we let them get far enough away to be out of earshot, to be miserable on our own terms, and in silence.
Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, and getting the train for the hell of it, is out with UK independent publisher Unthank Books. His 20K-word ‘novelette’ The Exploding Elephant was published by Bards and Sages in 2016. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast
Jasmine sat in the chair in the counselor’s office, pressing buttons on her cellphone. “He’s gettin’ executed today.”
“Really? I would have thought it was going to take a bit longer, you know, with all the stays and appeals,” Ms. Freeman said.
“Naww,” Jasmine said, unperturbed. “This is it. Six o’clock this evening.”
“Yeah. I heard he wants a cheeseburger and fries for his last meal.”
“And a bowl of butter pecan ice cream. He used to like that a lot.” Jasmine glanced at the counselor’s black shoes. They were small on her feet and clean. Every time Jasmine saw Ms. Freeman, she had on those same clean, dainty black shoes. Ms. Freeman sat a few feet away on the outside of her desk; her round, pleasant face oozed with empathy and curiosity.
“How do you feel about it?”
Jasmine shrugged her shoulders. “Nothin’, I guess.” Her fingers worked across the cellphone with slow purpose.
“Well, you have to feel something … he is your brother.” Ms. Freeman couldn’t discern if Jasmine was scrolling through Facebook on her phone or just looking for something to divert her consumed mind. She thought to ask her to put the phone away but decided otherwise.
“Mama said I had another brother that died when he was two days old. Mike gonna be buried next to him.”
“I see. Are you worried for his soul?”
“No more than I am for my own.”
“But you didn’t murder two people.”
“I could’ve stopped him.” Jasmine glanced at Ms. Freeman’s poised hands crossed on her lap. She looked away and stared at a picture of Ms. Freeman and a man. She wondered if Ms. Freeman was married but really didn’t care.
“You were just a child then. What could you have done? I’m sure you felt paralyzed when you saw him raging in the house.”
“I felt like, like the sky opened up and a big dog jumped out of it. Are you worried about your own soul, since you askin’?”
“I do but not like that. I haven’t killed anyone.” Ms. Freeman’s round, pleasant face was nearly pinched with smugness.
“Lucky you. You know, God kills and orders hits every day… He orderin’ them now to kill my brother.”
“No. Mike brought death on his own head. He didn’t have to kill his girlfriend and her lover. He could’ve let it go.”
“How do you know that? Maybe God told him to do it.”
“I know you don’t really believe that. God would never tell us to kill anyone.”
Jasmine’s fingers paused momentarily over her phone. She eyed Ms. Freeman with incredulity. “I guess it was the devil, then.” She returned her gaze to her phone. “Hmmph. My brother sent two bad dogs to heaven. They couldn’t’ve gotten there without him.”
Alifah Omar has been writing since a very young age. She has poetry and prose published in Z-composition, The Fable Online and will be featured in Plainsongs’s July 2019 edition.
The mole traps haven’t sprung. The wishbone handles of grey metal stick up from the ground like tuning forks. If I’d caught, the handles would be angled wide apart – V for victory, or fuck off, depending which way you look. I seldom trap one, but it makes me look busy.
Another Sunday, another Sunday roast. A ceremonial carve up. Do you take these legs and breasts as your lawfully stuffed lunch? Soon she’ll start banging the saucepans on the hob and peeling vegetables. The needle will start after breakfast. Could be anything. How long to cook the meat is our Sunday family favourite. Last week I did the cooking.
“It’s running with blood,” she said and didn’t touch it.
We used to yell but it skidded out of control. Rattled the kids. A bit of pushing that’s all, a slammed door, a smashed plate.
Yesterday she said, “Don’t roll your eyes at me. You’re beginning to look like your father.”
I said, “Control your temper. You’re beginning to sound like your mother.”
My father’s got his anxiety. Her mother’s dead.
To find the mole runs I prod the grass with a screwdriver then dig round holes into them with a trowel. I set the traps on a hair-trigger and lower them in. Lay on a lid of turf, plug the gaps with dead leaves to stop daylight or draughts. The moles sense both. Noses like radar dishes.
“Mum says lunch is ready. Can you come and cut the meat.” Our youngest enjoys running errands for his mother. I follow him as he runs back up the path from the toolshed.
Chicken’s on the table. The sharpening steel, carving knife and fork laid out like an amputation.
“This bird doesn’t smell right,” I say.
“In what way?” she says.
“Smells like shit. Literally like shit. Excrement.” I prize apart its back end and bring out a smear of brown on the knife.
“Smell that,” I say.
“I can smell it from here.” She takes the carving fork from my hand, spears the meat and dumps it in the bin.
“Just roast potatoes and veg today. The chicken is shit,” she says to the kids.
Back outside a trap’s been sprung. I pull the dead animal from the earth, its neck broken, a lick of blood oozes from its mouth. I take the mole to the fence and spike its corpse onto the barbed wire. By morning all trace of it will be gone.
Steven John’s writing has appeared in Riggwelter, Spelk, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record six times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at www.newflashfictionreview.com @StevenJohnWrite www.stevenjohnwriter.com