A week after our father’s memorial service, my sister and I leave town for our cousin’s wedding. A wordless clamp lodges at my temples. My sister turns me sideways in the bed, places her hands in my hair. Maybe I can make it go away, she says.
The women in our family are always the loudest. Our cousin Marsha, yellow hair, red dress, calls out steps: the wobble, the slide, two kinds of shuffle. We dance with her into the din. We’re following orders, we’re miming happiness until we (goddamnit) feel it, every movement prescribed.
It’s a relief not to think for a while.
Later, my sister and I lie side by side on the queen-sized bed because we’re too tired to go back down and request a double. My sister says: Nope. Not tonight. We’re not going there.
Don’t say it.
No tears allowed, no crying.
There’s a snake around my neck that used to be a lion.
Melissa Benton Barker
Melissa Benton Barker’s work appears in Jellyfish Review, Peach Mag, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Elemental, was named semi-finalist in The Atlas Review’s semi-annual chapbook reading period and finalist in Eggtooth Editions annual chapbook contest. She is the former managing editor of Lunch Ticket and a first reader at Vestal Review.
He looks like a more drunk, shorter Santa Claus, minus the charm & good cheer
except he’s got a fresh gash under his left eye that’s bleeding Christmas red & every word from his mouth is buckets, & I mean buckets, of cheap fifths of gin. This white homeless man, first asking then demanding a dollar from me & the woman I love in front of the pharmacy on the corner of 8th & University. I raise my hand, silent apology offered
as we move toward the door to find a birthday card for a friend. It’s people like you,
he says, catapulting his five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch frame into a monument of self-
righteous fury, and I’m talking to YOU, he barks the spit-laced words, calloused index finger nearly touching the raw umber hue of my fiancée’s clenched jaw—You’re not even
human, he says, you fucking monkey.
I knock him the fuck out—feel the sting
in my index & middle knuckles, relish
that crunch from when I sledgehammered
his jaw. His face becomes Mr. O’Reilly
telling me to stay out of trouble when
I came back to visit freshman year, it
becomes the mutiny of my body on
a dark street passing a man in a low-
pulled hoodie, it becomes my father’s
slight accent & my fifth grade friends
who giggled whenever he said the word
womens, it becomes my deeply buried
relief at knowing a cop protects me,
the time I carried my drunk hallmate
home in college, held her hair back
while she threw up for three hours, how
a hallway of mostly white faces still
assumes I fucked her.
When I write the story
in my head, I am always
the hero. In the old ones,
I was always the victim.
I easily have twenty pounds of muscle on this dude, not to mention
thirty years, seven inches, & one less extended tour at war—
not to mention enough light-skinned privilege of my own, enough
class benefit-of-the-doubt. I could pummel him into a coma
with a gang of NYPD officers nearby, explain why & have them chuckle,
nod, & say, Don’t worry, pal. We get it. Just clean up afterwards.
He follows us, my love in tears, as she retreats into the closest aisle.
I turn & face him: You just called my future wife a ‘monkey.’ Why?
You’re better than that. Imagine someone said that to a person
you love. And his eyes suddenly arrive—no longer
in Vietnam or his uncle’s basement in fourth grade chained
to a radiator or three decades’ worth of park benches—histrionic tears
start to drown the haphazard whiskers on his ruddy cheeks, as he pulls
sheets upon sheets of stolen frozen crabmeat from his tattered backpack,
his arms extended to her, offering them up as penance. The irony,
the allegory of this white man offering cold seafood to a Black woman
with a shellfish allergy.
A broken man has bullied the woman I love & anything I do will make me his bully.
I ask her, What would Darnell or Maurice do? What would Dr. King do? What would a ‘good man’ do? What should I have done? And again, the world demands answers from her but then mutes her response, silent as her voice in this poem, asking her to answer for something she has never owned nor sought. She’s between sobbing & punching the next man who talks, trying to busy her hands with Hallmark cards she can’t read through tears.
I imagine the scenario again, except this time while holding the hand of our six year-old
daughter & I am convinced that what just happened was either the bravest or most cowardly thing I have ever done.
I lie awake until we finally talk – she’s angry still,
the ache fresh as the gash on that hobo’s left cheek:
Honestly, fuck your social worker bullshit. He was
more important to you than me.
But, baby, what was I supposed to do? Beat his ass? What would that have done?
I don’t know, she says, I guess sometimes our options are only what is
At rest upon a body
of water without life
at the bottom of the earth
wedged between two peaks
in the middle of the Middle
East, serene resort
in the midst of a cluster
of ubiquitous crisscrossing
wars that are now just
landscape: two bodies
learn how to float again
for the first time. Two
best friends. Close
enough to the end to no
longer keep track of hours
or days. They carry
nearly two centuries
of stories and losses
and secrets between them
into this stinging cold
that refuses to let them
sink. Each refusing
to release the other’s
arthritic grip, knowing
they came here today to
let go—and so the lake
becomes a sea of schoolgirl
giggles hijacking their hoarse
throats, now laughing as
their scars make them
into glowing quilts beneath
the sheen of heavy salt. I see
only them in this sacred
pool that is closer to hell
than any other, called Dead
because nothing is able to
survive its grasp for too
long and yet here they are:
two old ladies who’ve defied
Carlos Andrés Gómez
Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet and the author of Hijito, selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize. Winner of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, Fischer National Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, his writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in the New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Yale Review, BuzzFeed Reader, The Rumpus, Rattle, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and elsewhere. Carlos is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
I wore my secondhand Ann Taylor dress for the occasion, a clean navy A-line with a futuristic geometric collar. That morning, underneath a colorful illustration of Dolly Parton, my cat inhaled food from his bowl and I didn’t think of you then because I was trying to get out the door.
You weren’t on my mind during my commute or when I was busy crunching numbers for my new boss. You weren’t there when I walked from 5th Avenue to Madison on my break, forgoing all the overpriced lunch places and instead deciding to enter a bank. When I shook the hand of a banker and told her I was there to open my first business account, you weren’t around. But when I spotted the “private client” sign on her desk, that’s when you entered my head.
You in your office with that unreasonably large computer screen and that framed letter J Edgar Hoover wrote to your mom’s dad. Hoover died almost fifteen years before you were a single cell ready to divide but even before you had a pulse, you had contacts.
You in your daily uniform of custom Brooks Brother suit, polished wingtip shoes, and a haircut that ages you by decades. You’re a young move maker motivated by a corporate spirit. While people your age are running companies that celebrate jeans, you prefer your female employees teetering in heels.
You come from people who know people so pictures of you shaking impressive hands are your favorite kind of art. The office’s only décor is framed pictures of you wearing the same smile and holding the same grip. There you are with the leader who is known for sexual assault and that other leader who filled that mass grave and there is that pin loving secretary of state. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen your office but I’m sure there are new frames of you shaking an Oscar-winning lady, a certain Vice President, and that daughter who grew up in the Senate.
As my smiling banker asked me questions, I remembered how on my last day you could barely shake my hand. At the elevator you looked like a kid playing grown-up, trying to look me in the eyes as you offered to help me in the future, considering yourself extraordinarily generous for giving me one week’s pay for severance.
As I transferred most of my small savings into my business account, I thought how luxurious it must have been for you to start a company that only presented a risk to your reputation. As my banker asked me to sign some papers I thought of your family Rolodex, Union Club membership, personal trainer wake up calls, and the thrill of starting my own business began to feel a lot like regret. My plans started to cracked, my mission and vision blurred, and I was about to tell my banker to stop when I really remembered.
I have that letter you signed, the one you asked me to help you print. The letter that says your company didn’t need me anymore because after two years of running matters of compliance, I was suddenly too qualified. I remembered that out of all the smart people you hired to hold you up, I was the only one to have her position dissolved. And that’s when you left my head and I went on with my business.
Angela Santillo is a playwright based in New York City. Her plays have been produced and developed in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Her first nonfiction story, “Everything I Could Dump Into a Prologue” was published by Exposition Review and has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She is producer and host of the podcast And Then Suddenly. She has her BA in English and Theater from Saint Mary’s College of California and an MFA in Theater from Sarah Lawrence College. www.angelasantillo.com
I was to be sedated due to overwhelming anxiety and a horrific gag reflex. A pill, an injection into my right arm, and inhaled gas. Seemed like a lot for a skinny eleven-year-old, yet I gulped the gas in fear. The dentist tilted the chair until I was lying flat. Within minutes, I was asleep. Slumbering in a soporific dream. But though asleep, I was able to observe, kind of like when you suddenly die and you’re floating toward the white light but can see everything happening to your body as the doctor tries to restart your heart. It was that vivid and clear. Like sitting in the front row of a movie theater. Anyway, I could hear the dentist telling me everything would be fine, to relax, that he was going to remove those “dirty little cavities.” I heard the click of the door lock. He turned on a radio, loud. Then, unexpectedly, he unbuttoned my trousers and pulled them to my knees. Then my underwear. He placed a white towel on my lap and a wet washcloth on his instrument table. He touched my penis, barehanded. I felt warm and flushed, my heart slapping hard in my chest. He moved his fingers faster and faster. Then I felt a sudden shiver of my body, almost like a seizure, but a good seizure, then pure exhaustion.
I awoke to the sound of Frank Sinatra, or maybe it was Dean Martin, I don’t remember. The dentist snorted a laugh and handed me a mirror to look at my teeth. Two gray fillings sat planted in the back. He told me I was good to go, but to brush daily, and see him in six months. My mouth was still numb, but I tried to thank him: Thankf youff. He winked. I slid from the chair, stumbled a bit, and opened the door to the foyer where my grandmother waited. Another young boy, seated with his mother, fidgeted nervously.
As we drove home, I noticed a damp spot on my pants, near the bottom of my zipper. I turned toward the car window so my grandmother couldn’t see and touched it with my finger. It was a texture I recognized from the times I secreted a Playboy to the bathroom and locked the door. I rolled the window down and rested my chin. The storefronts passed and the wind tousled my hair.
I’ve never been able to love. I’ve tried but failed, miserably. Over and over. I’ve struggled to understand why, scouring the years of my life for an answer, yet finding none. However, I’ve noticed that when love begins to emerge from the solace of aloneness, I recoil, the festering memory of the dentist’s chair rising like shards of glass tumbling in a broken heart. It’s a gaping wound that can’t be stitched. So now, in the closing years of life, I’ve resigned that finding love is at hopeless end, and my remaining days a fated time of lonely solitude.
Semi-retired physician and writer, published in medical journals and a smattering of literary journals, including The Healing Muse, Blood and Thunder, Intima. A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Months To Years, Cleaning up Glitter, Prometheus Dreaming, Hektoen, Hospital Drive, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Tendon, and others. Currently working on a collection of essays. Lives in Charleston, SC, longs to return to the west. Lover of dogs.
It’s noon at the assisted living. My father-in-law is splayed on the couch. It’s been months since Gerry remembered how to turn on the television. Instead he sits there staring into space. My husband Michael takes a long hard look. Then in a fake peppy voice, he throws out an invitation.
Heh, Pops! It’s lunchtime! Let’s go out to lunch!
Gerry glances up. His face is blank, the words still computing. So Michael speaks louder as if his father were deaf. I’m hungry! You hungry? Is anybody hungry?
But hearing isn’t the issue. Gerry looks down at his legs as if they were strangers. He has forgotten how to get up from the couch, a simple series of movements we take for granted. I read the panic in his eyes as they dart from his feet to the floor and the floor to his feet. So gently, I bring his long legs to the edge of the sofa. Then I wrap my arm around his shoulders. There you go Dad, I say. Now we’re getting up.
Our outing continues along these lines. Gerry silently asks for help while his son sits there just as helplessly. My father-in-law gazes at the menu before him like it looks vaguely familiar. What do you want to eat, Dad? asks Michael. Once again, Gerry has that deer-in-the-headlights look. What do you want to eat? Michael says again.
I turn to Gerry and hold his hand to make sure he looks at me. Then I run through the list of his favorite foods. Cue him. Grilled cheese today, Dad? How about a tuna sandwich or pastrami?
When the French toast comes, he starts eating with his fingers. Michael by this time is crunched up in a ball in the corner of our booth counting the minutes until our visit ends. He is averting his eyes. I take my utensils and cut Gerry’s food into bite-sized pieces. He quickly grabs his fork and hungrily gobbles down his meal, compliant as a child.
Finally, it’s time to drop Gerry off. Then Michael looks at me and says, I don’t know how you do it. The way you figure him out.
Every week we have the identical talk, and every week my reply is the same. It’s just ESP, I say. I just guess what he wants and sometimes I’m lucky.
Then as sure as the sun sets, the moment we get home Michael heads to bed. His limbs are limp, his shoulders slumped. He takes a long nap, exhausted. And when he finally emerges, the silence will be thick enough to taste. No words will be spoken until the next Saturday, when armed with our jackets and our sweaters, we head to the assisted living once more.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Arts and Letters, Catapult, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.
On the porch of the house on Thelma Street, you hold my hand and your wife holds my other. She’s my mom but what matters is that she’s your wife, who will leave you in a year and take me with her.
In this one, soon after, more hands. You wear a suit (your sister’s funeral) and smile helplessly. As does your wife and, in the middle, me. Binding us together for now.
Your father takes me into the dark backyard, points to a star and says, “That’s your aunt Shirley, she’s winking at you. She loved you so much.” This goes on for years. I hear in Gramps’ creaky voice how he misses a woman I don’t remember, the one – you will tell me – that he wishes you had died instead of.
Later, in this one: you and Gramps and me on the sofa. Shoulder to shoulder, some awkward holiday. Secrets pump through us, a closed circuit. I hear him again: “She loved you so much,” and in my head I bend the phrase so that he’s talking to you, Dad, about your wife, and with the same small trick – like turning over a card – I can make him say, “I loved you, too,” but I can’t make you believe it.
Randy Osborne’s writing is listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays for 2015, 2016, and 2018. His work has been published in four print anthologies and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. It has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, The Lascaux Review, Flyleaf Journal, 3:AM Magazine, Empty Mirror, Fiction Attic, Identity Theory, 3Elements Review, Bodega, SLAB, Lumina Journal, Loose Change, SunStruck, Green Mountains Review, 34th Parallel, Spry Literary Journal, Scene Missing, Thread, and other small magazines, as well as the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He lives in Atlanta, where he recently finished a book-length collection of essays.