After he closes the doors and tells the driver “Okay,” the man asks Curtis, “What brings us out here this time?” He’s flipping through papers on a clipboard. “Has anything changed with your wife since…?” He’s tracing his finger down a list. Curtis’ face is already buried in the sports page. He lowers the paper and looks at the man and then back at the sports page.
I tell the man it’s the lump between my shoulder blades.
I’d show him, but I can’t even turn over in here. Not the way they have me strapped down. Not with all this equipment and Curtis and the man crammed back here, too.
I say I can’t describe the lump other than it’s a lump because I can’t see it. I could never turn the right way in the mirror in the bathroom because I can hardly turn around in there. Curtis has looked and probed but always says it’s nothing. “No thing,” he says.
I can see the silhouette of his head nodding behind the sports page.
I tell the man Curtis says it’s nothing, but I know it’s there. I have dreams about it. It has a pulse. It’s growing. Why wouldn’t it? It gets watered a few times a week. If I lie on my back at night I can feel it against the mattress. Hot. Itchy. If I go to sleep like that I dream about the lump. I hate calling it that. Lump. A generic term for something that could be festering a sac of pus that could burst subdermally and poison my system. I’ve told Curtis this. How many times? Ask him. He doesn’t deal with it. But my dreams. Almost always the lump has grown out of control overnight except I know in my mind in my dream that it hasn’t. It has been growing all along but I had hidden it under an Ace bandage or a bulky sweater or sweatshirt. “Don’t touch me, Curtis,” I’d said for days in my memory in my dreams. Which I’d never say to Curtis because I love him going on eighteen years.
Curtis rustles his paper, but he doesn’t respond.
I say in my dream I’m denying to myself and the world that the mass is a thing that has to be dealt with because it’s like I’m barely a thing if I am even a thing to be dealt with and then I’m growing something off me that requires a greater degree of dealing with, like here’s a sequel to me and everybody shows more interest in it than they do in me.
The man lights up a cigarette. He pats down his shiny pompadour and adjusts the rings on his fingers. He leans in to me. I feel his hand between my shoulder blades. He says, “Yeah. We need to cut that bad boy outta there.” His cigarette bounces up and down between his lips with each word. “You got insurance?”
I tell him no.
“It’s gonna cost you. And that bad boy is huge. Or keep it. Hell, maybe it’ll shrink.”
Curtis looks at the man over his paper and says, “Don’t. For chrissake, what’s wrong with you people?”
I tell Curtis this is what you get when you don’t have insurance. I keep telling you. This is what you get when you don’t deal with things.
Curtis asks the man for a cigarette. Now they’re both smoking. I’m going to choke to death back here. Curtis asks, “Can’t you give her the orange pills?”
The man says, “We can’t do shit until she’s admitted.”
I shoot Curtis my dirtiest look. He shrinks down behind his paper. I’m not really mad because at least we’re back to dealing with things for right now.
Jeff Burd spends a lot of time writing and thinking about writing, and worrying about not writing and thinking about writing. He graduated the Northwestern University writing program and works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.
He doesn’t want to go to the dinner party. She tells him he promised but he tries to get out of it anyway. He had his mind set on laying around the house and doing nothing in particular. On the drive over he thinks about the planet Mercury. He’s reading a book about space.
Despite being closest to the Sun, Mercury is not the hottest planet. Venus is the hottest planet. This is because Mercury doesn’t have an atmosphere. Ice has been discovered buried in the bottoms of craters located at its poles. Mercury orbits the Sun every eighty-eight days. A year on Mercury is three months on Earth.
They arrive at the party. They say hello to the people they know and meet the people they don’t. He knows everyone can tell they have just been fighting. Sipping drinks in the living room, he ends up on the couch with Greg and Allison who predictably shift the conversation to improbable, unprovable conspiracy theories. She talks with a couple over by the record player. He met them ten minutes ago but has already forgotten their names.
Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system. It is larger than Mercury. Ganymede orbits Jupiter every seven days and Jupiter orbits the Sun every twelve years. A year on Jupiter is twelve years on Earth. Ganymede has a deep saltwater ocean fixed between layers of ice buried below its surface.
Dinner is risotto with sauteed morel mushrooms, homemade bread, and a fresh picked green salad. He is impressed and compliments the chef multiple times. He volunteers to do the dishes with no intention of actually doing the dishes. Later, everyone plays a board game in the living room while he drinks whiskey and smokes cigarettes on the back porch.
Neptune is the coldest and most distant planet in the solar system. Pluto is not a planet anymore. A year on Neptune is one hundred and sixty five years on Earth. Neptune has winds that blow close to supersonic speed and rain made up of compressed carbon. It rains diamonds on Neptune.
On the drive home she gets serious. She tells him he is absent. She feels he is no longer trying in their relationship and doesn’t know how long she can keep doing this. Also, he drinks too much.
Triton is the largest moon of Neptune. Triton was once an independent planetary body, drifting in space, that got captured by Neptune’s gravity. Triton’s orbit is in decay and it will eventually be torn apart by tidal forces and the pieces of its shattered carcass will spread out to form rings around Neptune.
Back at the house he apologizes. She is right. He has been absent. He tells her he will try harder and he loves her and wouldn’t know what to do without her. They talk for a while and end up making wild, frenzied love on the floor.
Triton will be destroyed in three and a half billion years.
Barry Biechner writes poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in CIRQUE and Apeiron Review.
The woman had no set schedule. She came and went of her own accord and when we saw her it was like a glimpse of some elusive animal. She had soft flips of hair and wore furs and costume jewelry, dark sunglasses, always wheeling a carry-on. Sometimes we didn’t see her for weeks and then there she was, strolling past the ostentatious clock stuck at a quarter to three, the old men in faux leather chairs reading The Wall Street Journal, the fake ivy planted in plastic urns.
The manager wanted us to clean the room the woman had occupied secretly since who knows when. It was a hidden room behind a wall, and to get to it, you had to remove a patch of carpeting big enough only for a cat. When we peeled back the carpeting, we saw a small square entrance. We chiseled away at the entrance and saw the lair for what it was, a room the size of a large closet with clothes, boxes piled to the ceiling, a cot with a simple pillow.
The manager in her Talbots suit and Tiffany bracelet was anything but sympathetic as she rummaged through the belongings with an attitude of disgust. She uncovered old blankets, sheets, a stewardess’s uniform with a pair of gold wings attached to the lapel. In another box, there were extension cords and blow dryers and large hot rollers with protrusions like sea creatures.
We did not realize there could still be secrets behind the walls. We thought that these had all been eradicated with the razing of the asylum, back when they used to bring in the crazies confined to chicken crates. But we cannot deny—some of us found things: a small trunk under the pigeon-infested rafters filled with photographs and pressed flowers. A collection of glass bottles with poems curled like messages. The remnants of a leather strap. These were different from the hair ties, half-filled plastic water bottles, and gum wrappers we found in the common areas when shampooing the rugs or mopping the floors.
We hauled away some of the boxes. Some were full of Christmas presents, neatly wrapped and with bows. Others had dolls pressed up against cellophane windows; dolls in velvet dresses with names embroidered on the lapels—old vintage dolls with glass eyes peering out at us apprehensively, as if we were doing something wrong and they were concerned.
Later, in the parking lot, we divided up the gifts and unwrapped each one: miniature china tea sets and tiny spoons, glass figurines, the makings of a toddler’s chair. We thought, perhaps, she was dead. Or was she a ditz, forgetting to give presents and have children? We laughed uneasily, thinking of our own children, and remembering the rows of granite markers with chiseled numbers back by the recycling center where the land slopes gingerly toward the cornfields.
Laurette Folk ‘s fiction, essays, and poems have been published in Waxwing, Gravel, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Mom Egg, pacificREVIEW, Boston Globe Magazine, and Best Small Fictions 2019. Her first novel, A Portal to Vibrancy won the Independent Press Award for New Adult Fiction. Her second novel, The End of Aphrodite, is published by Bordighera Press. Laurette is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee and a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program. Her website is www.laurettefolk.com
W Va. Hospital for the Insane
Name: Alona Perrine
Admitted: 6 June, 1866
Summer nights, Clay, the boy my husband hired, peeps through the window as I undress. One night, by the dark of the moon, in the gloom of the barn, aroused by the musky aroma of animals, I feel God-like and make a man out of Clay. His hands, raspy corn husks, shuck off my bodice, as I forage for his needle in the haystack.
My man, he never was a churchgoer, thank God. The Reverend Wilkins lays hands on me, saving me like a gold piece pilfered from the collection. In the choir loft I take up my cross, his belly, pudgy as bread dough. Oh, my Lord! he keeps repeating like grace over dinner.
One Saturday afternoon, at a private quilting bee in the store room of Maxwell’s Feed, the owner stitches me as I lay on sacks of seed, on his breath, the smell of penny licorice, his tongue, black as the snake’s. Afterwards, he beats me. Bloody, I run to the parsonage, demanding retribution or there will be hell to pay. Reverend Wilkins pleads, He’s a pillar. He has children. He tithes! When I threaten to confess before the congregation, he quotes scripture, He wounds, yet He binds. Then he washes his hands and testifies against me like a Pharisee. To prevent further “self-abuse,” he hog-ties me like a rodeo steer with leather straps from a broken mule harness. The following Sunday, a special collection raises enough to ship me off to some asylum.
On the women’s ward, a hen house without rooster, I undress for the doctor. To decipher my insanity, he prods my privy parts with his cock-and-bull, saying my clitoris rivals the size of a man’s penis, and how I would not leave until he was satisfied he’d done all he could to return me to normal.
donnarkevic: Buckhannon, WV. MFA National University. Recent work is forthcoming in The Centifictionist, Blue Collar Review, and Ancient Paths. A Best of the Net and Pushcart nominee. Poetry Chapbooks include Laundry, published in 2005 by Main Street Rag. FutureCycle Press published, Admissions, a book of poems, in 2013. Many Sparrows, a book of poems was published in 2018 by The Poetry Box. Plays have received readings in Chicago, New York, Virginia, and West Virginia.
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.