A word was written on an overpass, 20 feet above the splashing cars, and rising diesel exhaust. Tucked beneath the shelf of the roadbed, it’s large letters sulked in the shadow of a rainy day. They were cored in black, outlined in white, and framed below the girders of green scissoring iron. They stood as tall as a man, rising, and presumably illustrated, from a slippery narrow flange.
My car was eastbound, traveling at 60 miles per hour, and a random look caught the tag head-on. But only for an instant. The dark wing of the overpass slipped across my hood and rooftop and quickly receded into the narrowing V of my lane. But I suddenly felt strange. I’d been nicked under that bridge, some small penetrating injury, and was trailing a thin line of guilt.
Ache was the word. Not ‘fuck’, or an angry scrawl. Not some unintelligible inside encryption. And not masterfully executed. But, amplified by these stylistic inversions the word stuck. And its placement on tired ‘60’s infrastructure was like a glimpse of an SOS.
It lodged perfectly, the proper screw for my specifications. In my professional life I have had a hand in a series of bland assaults: pooling of wealth, dimming the sun, warming the earth. A part of a collective worldwide lean. But, outside the muffled backslapping circle of industry, the sound of struggle still carried. It was in the headlines and sprinkled among the homeless tents in their tiny off-ramp wedges. It was in the storm drain run-off of needles, bottles, lottery tickets, and pain pill blister packs. It flew with monarchs and swam with salmon, chased receding snowlines, and sat quietly beside silent springs. All sounds of a world aching.
I don’t pretend to know what the tagger intended with this word. It could be a nickname, an inside joke at the local high school or an homage to the Irish tag artist, Aches. But I do know this: Someone identified a spot perched high above one of the busiest freeways in town. Then, under cover of darkness, felt the way over a guard rail and shimmied along a potentially wet, two-inch flange lubricated with bird shit and sheaved paint chips. Scrabbling blind above quivering calves and speeding lines of traffic, they clutched spray cans and reached out in broad gambling sweeps again and again, until the four tall letters stood, fully formed and outlined. All under conditions many free-climbers would never attempt.
My thoughts on poverty, environment, and the future are churning. But at their heart is a spectator’s wonder and guilt. Because one of us acted. Threw a leg over. Gripped and teetered in the footlights of vans and trucks. Then vanished into the night leaving the word to shimmer high above in an invisible haunting resonance. Leaving their work to be captioned by their risk and our conscience.
Michael Parker is writing while living in complicated times, in Portland, Oregon.
At the orphanage, the Sisters dressed us in street clothes, brown leather shoes, and white socks that standardized our economic backgrounds. Yet, we could distinguish ourselves from one another by our thinness, broken or twisted limbs, cigarette burns, and other scars from abusive parents or caretakers. Even our facial expressions in scallop-edged, black-and-white photos shouted, “Caution!”
The other scars, those internal injuries that no one saw until we cried, bullied each other, or withdrew, we carried years later like a bursting backpack that rounded our adult shoulders wherever we went. Its contents might empty with hard work. But, how many of us pretended we could stand straight when we forged ahead into the world unaware that we needed a better sense of ourselves separate from our accumulated traumas? That we would struggle with forming a stable identity, of becoming autonomous. And how many of those internal scars would keloid into permanent mantras? “I don’t trust you. Love me. Don’t love me.”
But I had optimism. Some days, parents interested in adopting a child would arrive at the orphanage to decide which girl or boy would fit within their family, which one they could picture eating at their kitchen table, which one they could love. Around four or five us pre-selected by the nuns, bathed, and cautioned to behave, waited in a room. We had to smile, stand straight in a line, and not fiddle with one another. If we picked our noses, she added nose-picking. I liked to pick my nose.
While waiting for another nun to bring in potential parents, a Sister waited with us—saplings that one set of parents would pull out by its roots and transplant. She clasped her hands in front of her bib or fingered her rosary at her thigh while she scrutinized us as though attempting to guess which child the parents would select. Afterwards, she nodded her head and smiled at the designated child and parents as though, “Why yes, that is the child I would have selected for you myself.” And while I had waited and hoped they would take me, I continued to look up at them, smiling my best, hoping they would change their mind, their selection. Each time the parents left the room with one of my friends, I wondered why I stood behind.
Perhaps I had forgotten and picked my nose, so they didn’t pick me.
Sharon L. Esterly
As a freelance writer and journalist, Sharon has published articles in many newspapers and national magazines. She has taught highschool language arts, written educational grants, and provides private writing lessons to children and adults. She won First Prize in Nonfiction at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, 2016. In their Winter 2020 Issue, the literary journal Ruminate Magazine published a selection from her recently completed memoir, Bastard. At the University of Pennsylvania, she received her MLA in writing and worked for their Critical Writing Program where she edited and published 3808: Journal of Critical Writing, as well as res: A Journal of Undergraduate Research. Additionally, Sharon belongs to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group and The Authors Guild and is a board member at Glen Mills Schools.
It’s a cardboard box where, for years, Joseph Cornell collected small keepsakes from his friendship with Duchamp. The box contains 117 items of various types: The French artist’s empty tobacco pouch, two cleaners for his famous white pipe, a napkin from Horn & Hardart (one of those automats that was all the rage in the 30’s and where they almost certainly met), letters, photographs, postcards of the Mona Lisa, several yellowed notes in his handwriting, gallery posters and even dry cleaning receipts which reveal Duchamp’s unusual habit of sending everything to the dry cleaner, even socks and handkerchiefs.
The box was put on display for the first time in 1998, on the occasion of the Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp: In Resonance exhibition held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
No one can explain how Cornell managed to acquire such “mementos.”
Allison A. deFreese and María Negroni
Writer’s Biography: María Negroni (Rosario, Argentina) has published over 20 books, including poetry, nonfiction and novels. Islandia, Night Journey, Andanza (The Tango Lyrics), Mouth of Hell, and The Annunciation have appeared in English, and her work has also been translated into Swedish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. María Negroni received a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry in 1994, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1998, the Fundación Octavio Paz fellowship for poetry in 2001, and The New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in 2005. She also received a National Book Award for her collection of poems El viaje de la noche, a PEN Award for Islandia as best book of poetry in translation (New York 2001), and the Premio Internacional de Ensayo y Narrativa de Siglo XXI for her book Galería Fantástica. She taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1999 to 2014, and is now director of Argentina’s first creative writing program, at Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero.
Translator’s Biography: Allison A. deFreese (Portland, Oregon) has lived in Mexico, Bolivia and Japan. She has previously translated work by Karla Marrufo, José Castillo Baeza, and other Latin American writers. She has three book-length translations forthcoming in 2020: a translation and trilingual adaptation of José R. Cervantes Carrillo’s A Practical Guide to Learning the Yucatec Mayan Language; María Negroni’s Elegy for Joseph Cornell, and Soaring to New Heights (Renuevo), the autobiography of NASA astronaut José Moreno Hernández who spent part of his childhood in Michoacán and worked as a migrant farmworker in California. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin’s James A. Michener Center for Writers, as well as an MA in Spanish Translation from the University of Texas at Brownsville (now Rio Grande Valley).
The social club is a cross between a coffeehouse and a hotel lobby, with chic décor and trendy chairs. The woman I’m meeting is a potential client. She works in real estate development and I work in communications. I’m optimistic.
I’m dressed in a jacket and skirt, tall boots. She wears a yellow sweater that complements her dark skin. Her hair sits in an elaborate, braided crown on the top of her head. I perch on my chair, uncomfortable in its faux-schoolroom design of wobbly metal legs and a carved wooden seat.
As she details her history, I listen, but I split my attention. I face her, but I have an imaginary satellite pointed to my right, angled at the corner of the room, attempting to beam in every word. That’s where I spotted him as soon as I entered. The woman across from him is much younger.
“I really think I need to lose another ten pounds, to be perfectly honest,” he says, and I cringe, remembering him saying the same to me, fishing for compliments. He is handsome and charming as ever. Now she’s laughing at something else he’s said. I feel a pang of stale jealousy, faint, like a water ring left on a table.
I shut down the mental satellite and force my whole attention back to my meeting. I ask two questions and note her answers. She’s telling me her vision for the city, and it’s interesting. I take a sip of coffee while she accepts a fresh pot of tea from a waitress. Over her shoulder, out the window, I see snow begin to fall. It’s March, too late for snow to be welcome, but it’s pretty.
I feel lips against my cheek before I can register what’s happening.
“Hello,” he says. “I just had to say hi.” I am stunned.
“Hello,” I say. Then he walks back to his table, without greeting my companion.
I blink at her, wide-eyed. She stares back at me. She is tall and strong. She is independent. She is a business owner. A man has just kissed me in public without my permission. In front of her. I am mortified. On her face, I see understanding. It has happened to her, too.
An audio clip plays in my mind:
“Trump: I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Bush: Whatever you want.
Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Our meeting ends and when I rise from the table, I turn to the left and do not look at the corner of the room. We walk down the stairs and out into the snow, making promises to follow up, to see each other again soon.
 From Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women, New York Times, October 8, 2016
Marijean Oldham is a public relations consultant and writer. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. In 2018, Marijean authored the book 100 Things to Do In Charlottesville Before You Die, Second Edition (2018 Reedy Press). In her spare time, Marijean bakes pies competitively.
The phone is ringing I am sure the phone is ringing somewhere in the dark cave of my bedroom in the black void of sleep I know the phone is ringing.
The phone is not ringing. The phone is in the other room, plugged into its charger. It is not ringing. The phone is not ringing.
Something is wrong with the kids I know something is wrong with the kids deep in the fissures of my brain I know that something is wrong with the kids.
Nothing is wrong with the kids. Go back to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. Nothing is wrong with the kids.
Thirty-two years ago, as I lay asleep and unsuspecting after a glorious night, nature worked the way it often does, and I was invaded by another human being. Hospitably, I opened my womb to a developing life–my baby, our baby, a temporary visitor, a sublet for nine months or so.
I did not know he was colonizing. I did not know he was going to stick with me forever.
While I thought I was gestating, he was moving in. Fetal cells crossed the placenta into my blood stream, into my cells. Like stem cells, fetal cells can morph and change into the tissue they inhabit. Scientists discovered this when they found cells with Y chromosomes–male chromosomes–in a woman’s brain tissue.
Her son was right inside her head.
Further research has shown that this is much more common than anyone had previously believed. Apparently, we give birth, but apparently, they never quite move out.
They call them micro-chimeras, little bits of other people living inside of you, making cell lines, taking up residence in your head, in your heart.
These chunks are all mashed up like the chimera of Greek mythology—a monster with a lion head, snake for a tail, and rising out of the back of the beast, a goat head. The chimera breathed flames. It was an omen of disaster ahead—fire, shipwrecks, volcanoes.
The chimera was, of course, female.
Later, a sister, another colonizer. As her cells crossed the placenta into my blood, as they latched and landed and became one with my tissue, did they meet her brother’s cells? Did they wrestle, like Jacob and Esau, in my brain, in my heart? Or did they link up, united in their intrusion into my body?
How do they mingle, co-mingle, with each other and with me? Which one is the lion head, which one the snake? Which the goat head rising up from the center, bleating its dismay?
Now they roar inside me in the middle of the night. Wake me in a blaze of panic because I know one or the other child is in trouble–struggling, despairing. Sometimes I am right. The phone is ringing, the kids are in trouble.
But my heart always knows before the phone rings. My brain knows before I am even fully awake. My boy, my girl, they will not let me go.
Kit Carlson is an Episcopal priest and a life-long writer with work appearing in publications as diverse as Seventeen Magazine and Anglican Theological Review. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, recently published in Ponder Review, Bending Genres, and The Windhover. She is author of “Speaking Our Faith” (Church Publishing, 2018). She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband Wendell, and Lola, a nervous rescue dog. Find her at www.kitcarlson.org.
Karen Carpenter was emblazoned into my retinas in the mid-1970s. I see her as the delicate, elfin creature who tiptoed into the spotlight inside the Hersheypark Arena and simply said “hello.”
That night, Karen wore a bell-bottomed, lace pantsuit and a metallic gold belt. Pantsuits were the rage then. Everyone was wearing them from Gloria Steinman to Charlie’s Angels. But this pantsuit! Fashioned entirely of beige lace. I imagined an elderly, nimble-fingered woman from Bruges, pins pressed tightly between her lips, toiling under weak candlelight with her loyal, calico cat by her side. The lace maker had read the measurements sent by the famous American pop star to a tee. That pantsuit fit like an elegant glove.
As soon as I sat down in my seat eight rows from the stage’s lip, I pretended my concert companion wasn’t there. I vanished the form of her body inside a navy pea coat perched loosely around shoulders into thin air. I blockaded her Shalimar perfume scenting our section like an old flower delivery inside a closed room and concentrated instead on the hopefully intoxicating qualities of second hand pot smoke.
I have no idea how or why my mother and I came to be sitting at that concert together. It was out of our ordinary. We never transcended. We never became more than what we were by blood. We almost never did “friend things.” It wasn’t meant to be. We were too different, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Even with the attendant mystery of why my mother and I attended a concert together once, I remember what a good performance it was. In addition to Karen Carpenter’s outfit, I have a permanent recording of her unique and beautiful voice inside my head: deeply resonant, pure, strong. But when she sang of being on top of the world, her smile was staged, a Cheshire grin on a thin face. Her brother Richard, seated at the piano, had the opposite problem. He was too consistently perky, bobbing his head every second note even during the sad songs like the one about rainy days and Mondays and having the blues.
It’s raining on a Monday. My mother forgets what day it is now. Her short-term memory has gone missing and the other parts of her, her distant memories, her sense of humor, are frequently on the fritz.
Today, she has forgotten more than usual. The index card standing at attention in the middle of her kitchen table is waiting in vain to learn: “TODAY’S DATE IS…” The Lilliputian billboard offering a daily reality check has taken the place of traditional, cheerful seasonal centerpieces and candleholders. I pick up the nearby red pencil and print: “Monday, October 7, 2019.”
“Here is your tea, Mom. No sugar, right?”
“I don’t want that milk.”
“Tea requires a drop of milk, remember? To protect teeth enamel. How about a cookie?”
I open the “sweets cabinet” underneath the toaster oven, noting the blackened toast crumbs and frozen pizza cheese coating the bottom tray like an ugly scab. Some changes about this kitchen of my childhood I will never get used to.
My mother’s sweets cabinet never harbored much promise while I was growing up in that house. Not today either.
“Fig newton or a gingersnap. Unless you want a Saltine or a box of golden raisins.”
“No chocolate chip?”
“No chocolate chip.”
“Forget it then.”
I give her one of each kind of cookie. She bites and chews.
“These cookies are stale. I can’t believe your father hasn’t inhaled them yet. Still good though. These are the classics, figs and snaps. Stick with the classics, Virginia. You’ll never be sorry.”
My mother stands. Limps. Retrieves both cookie boxes. Leaves the cabinet door open in a wide yawn. Takes one more of each variety for he paper plate. I put up my hand in protest when she reaches in for more. She hands over two fig newtons anyway.
“Speaking of the classics, Mom, how about pea coats. Remember those? People still wear pea coats.”
“Those were smart. Nice, big buttons with embossed ship anchors I think. Sailor coats.”
“Remember when you and I saw The Carpenters at the Arena? Remember the lace pantsuit Karen Carpenter wore?” I ask.
“I don’t really like pantsuits on women. Pantsuits make them look like astronauts.”
“What’s wrong with women being astronauts?’
“Nothing, I guess. If you want to fly to the moon, go ahead.” A rare laugh erupts from my mother, but it doesn’t succeed in changing the flat expression that has come to reside on her face.
“Do you remember that, though, Mom, when you and I went to the Hersheypark Arena and we saw The Carpenters? We sat really, really close to the stage?”
Outside, the rain intensifies. In the street, drops dart earthward, bounce off the standing, trampoline puddles. A red bird waits under a grey shrub, twitching nervously. Down the cement sidewalk, across the street, and up an identical walk, Mrs. Milhimes’ has arranged her customary, autumnal display of rust and yellow mums. The straw-hatted scarecrow stuck in one of the pots doesn’t like cold rain on his face. He’s slouched forward. He’s waiting it out.
My mother blinks, smiles weakly, swallows cookie.
“Yes, I do. I surely do,” she responds. “Didn’t we have a lot of fun together.”
I open my mouth and close it. Outside, the red bird decides she can’t wait huddled underneath shelter forever. She leaps, lifts her wings and flaps silently away.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found or upcoming in Illuminations, The Florida Review, The Moon City Review, Palooka Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Burningwood Literary Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal among others. Nominee for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2019 in nonfiction, Virginia resides near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.