Six knives hang above my butcher’s block but the bread knife is my favorite. I love its heft and the way the black handle marries my hand. Wrist stiff, I saw a two-foot long ciabatta loaf into thick slices to bag and freeze. Back and forth, enjoying the rhythm and the crackle as serrated teeth shatter the bread’s exoskeleton. Watching tiny shards of crust tumble to the scrubbed pine board. The sweet relief when the blade sinks into the dough’s soft meat. The last cut that scars the wood when the slices separate.
Jack rolls orange sleeves over firm biceps. He’s missing a lower molar. “I’m a murderer,” he says after my prison writing workshop, not in a way that might intimidate, but more to provide an explanation.
“Oh, really?” I don’t know what else to say.
He’s done nineteen years locked down for most of each day. But that morning, he’d been pounding armored Arizona dirt with a pick-axe in the garden, knee-deep in lantanas that he’d coaxed to flower red and purple.
“Yes, but that wasn’t why I got thirty-two years. The judge didn’t like that I cut the body into eight pieces.”
I like Jack. He fishes for life. Although he lives in a place where men hoard the scent of weakness to hone into shanks, his smile radiates possibility. Every few weeks, he rips little pieces from the worst list of his life and records them on paper ruled with blue lines as faint as scars.
“The body was dead!” he says. “Why did the judge think that was worse than murder?”
In the windowless corridor where even shadows have shadows, sweat slicks our skins in the sweltering heat. He carries my clear plastic tub of books.
We reach the courtyard and the sun’s glare. Troubled that I don’t know the answer to his question, I tell him to revise his poem. Writers have to examine their motives.
After I’m waved through the gate, Jack spreads his legs. A guard bends low to probe Jack’s groin, he slides two hands down each long thigh as though smearing ointment. I don’t hear the joke Jack shares while fingers explore his armpits but I’ve heard his jokes before. They’re silly. Fit for the Sunday Times comic page.
Outside the final gate, the desert is parched to gristle. Mesquite leaves rustle like old fish scales. It feels good to exit that last prison gate and breathe untainted air. But I’m not cleansed. Jack’s story is stuck beneath my tongue. I hope the murder was quick. I wonder where the eight cuts fell, I wonder whether they were chosen to facilitate stackable lengths.
My kitchen knives are old and blunt. They need replacing. When I slice a ripe tomato, the soft flesh bulges before it surrenders to the knife. Before the skin splits to reveal soft flesh, the color of gums. Before the sacs of tiny seeds rupture and squirt thin juice to moisten the front of my shirt.
Gillian Haines is an Australian who lives beside Sonoran saguaros and rufous hummingbirds. She has volunteered in Tucson’s federal and state prisons for eleven years because inmates only know the desert’s thirst. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her narrative nonfiction is published in various magazines including The Santa Clara Review, Bridge Eight, Biostories, The Cherry Tree, and the Tishman Review.
A teenage boy has never worked a day in his life. He drives a brand new Mercedes to school each day. The parking lot at school is full of shiny new cars, driven by children who have never known a day of hunger and can choose not to work. Ever.
BMW told us if you buy one of their cars, you can end hunger. Really. It was in their commercials. “Drive to end hunger.”
More than half the population of the greatest country on earth is made up of the impoverished, the poor and low-income citizens. The percentage is about the same as Indonesia.
For a hundred dollars and up – way up – you can go to an NFL game, where they dress the coaches and staff in military garb and denigrate anyone who dares to protest injustice.
There are about 645,000 homeless people in America The Beautiful.
Jeff Bezos rakes in one hundred ninety-one thousand dollars per minute. His philanthropy is an affront to altruism and a pittance of his assets worth one hundred sixty-three billion dollars. He’s not alone.
Grocers in the Land of the Free throw away tons of perfectly good meats and vegetables every day. The waste is ten percent of all the food we produce. When I asked them why they didn’t give it to food banks, they said they could be sued. Many of those grocers sit on the boards of directors of food banks.
For $440 per month, you can buy individual health insurance through the ACA. Of the developed nations, the Greatest Country On Earth is one of the few without universal healthcare.
Our military budget for 2019 is 716 billion dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of 177 of the 195 countries on earth. Bombs and bullets, murder and mayhem drive our economic engine.
We spend those billions of dollars in part by bombing schools, hospitals and mosques, murdering tens of thousands of men, women and children, in hopes there is a terrorist in their midst. Then we bomb the funerals. Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not terrorists.
With our approval and assistance, the Saudis have murdered hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, including the starvation of eighty-five thousand children. We’re focused on the murder of one Saudi journalist.
In 1990, the US ranked sixth in the world in healthcare and education. We’re 27th overall now, and 38th in math. We’re way behind Cuba, if anyone’s counting.
With 2.3 million prisoners, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Wave the flag. We’re number one.
Our prisoner tally boasts of 14,000 unaccompanied immigrant children. Our Department of Health and Human Services says we’re keeping them safe from harm.
We’re obsessed with Russian meddling in our 2016 elections. Like this was their first experiment. We don’t just interfere with elections around the world. We overthrow governments.
We elected a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, narcissistic, incompetent megalomaniac to the office of President of the United States.
That, my fellow Americans, is a small sample of what makes us great.
All is well…all is well. We’re the best there ever was.
Outdoor Writer and Photographer, Novelist and Story-teller. Fisherman, Outdoor addict. Official Oldfart. Student of sunsets, campfires and dawns. Companion of dogs. Highly appreciative of fine food and drink. Fond of napping. Comforted by silence.
This story is about drawing my mother’s portrait in a twenty-minute timed session. She is in her late sixties, but I am not sure of her birth year or birthdate. She has changed. She has mellowed out over the years.
Capturing likeness is the aim. She is a willing model. She wants to please. She sits down and I begin. The forehead does not move. Facial muscles around the eyes don’t move. Eyebrows don’t move. They are thick, as they are penciled-in dark.
Eyelids move. Eyeballs move.
Her eyebrows point up; they didn’t before. The end of her eyes where the eyelids meet also point up; they didn’t before. That’s one botched botox job. She is frugal.
Her husband of fifty years wants to leave her. She chewed his ass growing up. He withdrew. She pursued. He withheld.
Old people break up the same way young people do. There is back and forth. There are acts designed to cause jealousy. There is reluctance. There is attraction. There is repulsion.
She lost weight. He lost weight and fixed his teeth. Divorce papers are drawn up, but not filed. Fifty years is a long time.
I am down to her chin now. She has facial hair. She didn’t before. They are bleached but not removed. That double chin can be captured with shading. Time’s up.
Hooman Khoshnood began his artistic career five years ago, after practicing law for over a decade. He began painting at an early age. But his approach to art-making became more conceptual while studying with Laura LLaneli, a sound art artist, and Marc Larre, a photographer. Mr. Khoshnood was also mentored by Giancarlo Bargoni, a renowned Italian painter in painting and theory. They also explored possible connections between painting and poetry. Mr. Khoshnood continued his studies in art at the Art Students League of New York where his painting “Unknown to me” was published as exemplary student work in the League’s 2017/18 catalog. Mr. Khoshnood obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Doctorate in Law both from the University of Georgia. He is also an avid reader focusing on Linguistics, Literature, and Art History. He was born in Iran and has lived in Iran, Italy, Canada, France, Spain, and the United States. He is fluent in English, Farsi, and Italian. He considers Atlanta home.
It sidles up next to you, standing closer than you like, as usual, with its offering plate.
On top is the lesson you prepared after eleven last night. You and the middle-schoolers will be reading about Jesus busting up the temple. You like that story, and you think they will also because it comes unexpected. They like you more than you expected, and you like them, too, which is why you teach them On Top of Everything Else.
You have 22 freshman essays to read before Wednesday, including Collin’s, for once.
There’s 57 pages of Dante to read this afternoon if you count the introductory material. You’ve never read Dante—really!—but you assigned it this semester because you felt it was about time you did.
The 30 pages of Derrida and Foucault you have read before, though the truth is that won’t matter with these two. Count on four hours.
Your boys appear before you wearing the burgundy lipstick you bought for the Halloween party last fall. The lipstick careens beyond the boundaries of their lips. They look like they have been killing chickens with their teeth. You should be dismayed—we need to be leaving in three minutes, David announces—but other details keep swarming into your line of vision: the unruly trochees and anapests from last Friday’s failed scansion lesson; Collin arriving fifteen minutes late to class and then peeling an orange, right there in the front row, extending an easy smile as way of apology, his white teeth lined up in disciplined, military rows.
We need to get gas after church, David adds, and we’re out of cereal. The bathroom wastebasket is overflowing—from the corner of your eye the wadded Kleenexes look like anemic peonies cascading across the black mouth of the plunger.
You are certain Collin is still sleeping, and you suspect he might end up enjoying his Sunday more than you will enjoy yours.
Perhaps next week you will decline the descent into Sunday. Perhaps today you will sit on the front row and write a poem, one free of rhyme or meter, during the sermon—a poem, you admit, no one, save Collin, has time to read.
Kristin Van Tassel
Kristin Van Tassel teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. She writes essays and poetry about place, teaching, motherhood, and travel. Her work has appeared in literary, academic, and travel publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, World Hum, ISLE, The Journal of Ecocriticism, The Los Angeles Review of Books, About Place, and Temenos.
Her parents, for reasons she did not fully understand, didn’t attend church. Ever. Her father said nature was his church, but, on the other hand, so many millions believed otherwise, who was he to judge the merits of indoor, group-oriented worship? He drew the line at smoke bombs and hocus-pocus; he wouldn’t even read fiction because he only wanted to learn facts. Her mother saw no point without such evocative pageantry, but she didn’t want any trouble at home.
They didn’t want to deprive the girl, their only child, of wholesome church-going social normalcy, nor, certainly, any possibility, however remote, of everlasting life. So, at 11, she was left to the mercy of, briefly, the Pentecostals and later, more lastingly, the Nazarenes. (After all, moderate factions don’t recruit.) She was as good a Sunday school student as she was a student-student, the girl who grew up to earn a PhD and three master’s degrees, and her teacher, Mr. Meadows, offered her the unprecedented opportunity to prepare and teach a Sunday school lesson to her peers.
What was he thinking? They paid her elaborate, lavish inattention, doodling, passing notes and chatting with one another, sighing and fidgeting as if she weren’t there, until Mr. Meadows broke in and took over. She stayed, she had to, they carpooled rides home for orphans like herself.
She could not, however, muster the perspective to return. A month later Mr. Meadows, jilted lover, appeared at their door, to say that one day she’d be a wonderful teacher. As her father jumped up and stood, spread like an X in front of the card table littered with ashtrays and beer cans, she understood.
Julie Benesh’s fiction has been in Tin House Magazine, Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Crab Orchard Review (receiving an Illinois Arts Council Grant), Florida Review, Gulf Stream, and other places. Micro-memoirs are forthcoming from Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Green Briar Review. She has an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and lives in Chicago.
I press the button attached to the IV attached to my arm, and the sweet burn of morphine runs through my veins. The drip, drip, drip drowns the music of newborn cries, coming from down the hall. Obstetrics, gynecology. Same wing. Same floor. The baby nursery is right next door.
Maybe I should count sheep.
One little lamb. Two little lambs. Three …
“Don’t be greedy.” My surgeon’s words on speed-dial in my brain.
“You have three healthy children.”
This is what he tells me, when he tells me my cervix has to go.
Three little lambs. Four …
The lights on the ceiling, flush mounts they’re called, look like breasts, breasts heavy with milk.
Polished nickel nipples, ready to feed.
There’s an army of ants. Yes! An army of tiny black ants climbing the wall across from my bed. I laugh. The newborns across the hall wail. Time to press the button for more morphine.
Four little lambs. Five …
My father used to call me shefele. That’s little lamb in Yiddish.
And then there was Jay. Met him in July,1976. The summer of the Bicentennial—a good sign, if you believe in those things. I was just fifteen.
Married in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was President and Sally Ride, the first woman in space. “Every Breath You Take” had just highjacked the airwaves.
Why do I feel I can’t breathe?
Seven, eight little lambs …
“Even nuns get dysplasia,” that same surgeon tells me, after he tells me I have cancer, the unruly
child of a runaway STD.
“Even nuns have affairs,” the words of my Catholic-school friend …
Nine, ten little lambs. Eleven, twelve, thirteen …
Jay and I were each other’s firsts.
I thought I was his only.
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen …
The nurse comes in. I pray she won’t notice my brave six-legged friends, climbing the hospital wall.
Seventeen, eighteen …
- Jay had just ended his second affair.
Bill and Monica’s story broke that January, amidst semen stains and cigars.
Arnold had fathered his housekeeper’s child.
The year prior, Kathy Lee—and the world—found out that Frank was fucking a flight attendant.
So many men wielding their fleshy swords …
I’m afraid I’ve lost count.
I look up at the tiny soldiers. They’re busy, those ants, driven to move in their stick straight line. I wonder how they do that, march so fearlessly, black against a cold white sea.
What would it be like to be so bold, to move forward, even at the risk of being seen?
Diane Gottlieb received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction and as a member of the interview and blog teams for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com.