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
“Yes, well, here at Ventura Capital, we pride ourselves on our work environment, and I think you’ll fit in perfectly, John. Thank you for coming in today.”
“Of course, my pleasure, Alex. I look forward to hearing from you.”
The two men get up from their chairs. They shake hands solidly, just as their dads had taught them when they were four.
John opens the door and starts to walk out –
“ – oh John I have to ask you one last question.”
“Yes I can accept the job right now,” John replies wittily, “but seriously, ask me anything, Alex.”
“It’s just this question that HR wants me to ask all interviewees. I forgot to ask you because we were having such a pleasant conversation, in spite of the fact that you’re a Yankees fan!” a hearty laugh comes with the joke. “An employee a few years back had a bit of a drinking problem and turned the 2013 Christmas party into the most unforgettable party this office park has ever seen.”
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
“Perhaps when you start here, John, I’ll tell you more.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Alex”
“Anyway, I now have to ask all interviewees whether you have, or have ever had, a problem with alcohol or any other form of controlled substance?”
“Never. I enjoy a drink every now and then, but that’s it.”
“Excellent. That’s what I thought. I’ll mark down just a social drinker.”
“Well . . .”
“Well . . . I wouldn’t say I’m a social drinker.”
“What type of drinker would you say you are then?”
“More of an individual drinker, an alone drinker, I like to . . . just, you know, drink alone.”
“Of course, we all enjoy a beer every now and then just by ourselves. Completely understandable.”
“Well . . .”
“It’s just that I only drink alone. I never drink with other people.”
“Right but just like a beer or a glass of wine right?”
“Oh yes to start, definitely.”
“And then you have more . . . while you’re alone?”
“How much do you drink?”
“You know just as much as anyone else.”
“Yes, alone only.”
“There is just something more rewarding about drinking alone.”
“ . . . ”
“Alone, I drink sip by sip with my attention focused solely on me, my surroundings, and the effects of the alcohol. With each sip, the alcohol’s effect changes and compounds on the previous sip. Only when I am alone can I truly experience each increment of intoxication. When I drink with others, conversation carries the night and, next thing I know, I’m drunk. That’s not necessarily bad. But alone, I have a deeper understanding of how alcohol impacts my body and how joyful and different each little sip can be.”
“So you really like drinking then?”
“Oh I wouldn’t say like.”
“ . . .”
“I’d say love.”
“Okay well. Thank you for this information, and . . . we . . . we’ll be in touch with you.”
Randall Weber-Levine holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School and a B.A. in philosophy and economics from Colgate University. He is an aspiring writer who has been published in and served as the editor of, Columbia Law School’s literary magazine, the Morningside Monocle.