Grace lives up the street. Every morning she gets into her mint condition 1982 Plymouth Reliant and drives two blocks down the street where she spends the day with Gary, her gentleman friend. Grace is a spritely 89. She is robbing the cradle a little with Gary who is only 78. Gary is homebound. Diabetes took his vision. They both have grandchildren and great grandchildren of children who left this little town long ago. Widow and widower, they spend their days together. She cooks for him. “Having someone to enjoy the food is the only fun in cooking anymore.” They are intimate. “Our children think we should marry but phooey on that!” They never spend the night. “I need my beauty rest!” She takes him to church and to the Elks club for pinochle and for coffee and pie at the little café so they can get the gossip from the coffee clutch. Gary always has pie, diabetes be damned. She reads the local paper aloud and plans their attendance at funerals. She has a little box of sympathy cards at the ready and an envelope of laundered and pressed five dollar bills. She always gives one in memory of the deceased to the church’s radio broadcast, unless a memorial fund is specified. She includes Gary’s name with her own on the card.
Late one afternoon, after she divvies the roast, mashed potatoes and gravy into separate containers for their meals throughout the week, and puts a couple in the freezer as well, Grace tells Gary she needs a nap before driving home. While she dozes in the floral print recliner, he listens to a cooking program on television. The woman cooks from her kitchen on a ranch, and a husband, children, and a widowed father-in-law are always brought in to eat what she makes, usually after chores or school or some play activity. They are always happy. He likes the show for the stories of ranch life that go with the food. It puts him in mind of his life, before the kids grew up and moved away, before Nettie died, before he’d sold the ranch and moved to town, before he’d lost his vision.
He says, “I was listening to the Pioneer Woman and thinking on the old times.” He says this over and over in the next couple of days to anyone who will listen, to his children, to himself while he waits in the corner of the family room at the church. He thinks on it during the Psalm and the hymns, and still beside the grave where disturbed soil gives scent to his sightlessness. His daughter helps him find the casket with the flowers he’d asked her to buy. The people whisper in the church basement over casseroles and bars, “Grace was always so good to him,” and “What will Gary do now?”
by Tayo Basquiat
TAYO BASQUIAT is a writer, teacher, adventurer, scavenger, and Wilderness First Responder. He gave up tenure as a philosophy professor to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared in Superstition Review, On Second Thought, Northern Plains Ethics Journal, the Cheat River Review, Proximity Magazine, and in a growing portfolio as producer of Wyoming Public Media’s “Spoken Words” podcast.
My father’s father died four years before I was born. Dad reacted by hoisting a massive trunk containing the man’s every worldly possession into the backyard trash barrel and setting it on fire. Mom, who had talked him out of destroying family heirlooms on other occasions, arrived at the pyre too late to protest. She could only stand near the blaze, chastising my father ineffectually, watching relics succumb to engulfing flames.
“The antique trunk alone was worth a fortune,” Mom said. She recalls its contents: Dad’s baby dress, a shift of cotton lawn. A yellowed blanket. A gold ring set with a turquoise stone the size of a grain of rice.
Photos of his parents and grandparents. There was even one of Evelyn, the sister who had died of some unnamed disease at the age of six, leaving behind a corpse the size of a doll’s.
“Why’d he do it?” I asked.
“Because if it’s gone, he doesn’t have to think about it.”
My grandfather, according to family legend, was a layabout. He’d had a stroke in front of the television at the boarding house where he stayed, bottle of bourbon in hand. For half a day the other residents assumed he’d passed out.
I get my dad’s distaste for nostalgia.
There was that Christmas that was perfect. My cousins and I spun wooden tops on hardwood floors as the fireplace raged and cookies baked in the oven. It would forever hover there, a reminder of what Christmas would never be again. More often Mom and Dad, bound for grandma’s, would turn the car around after some knock-down, drag-out argument.
What will trigger tears is unpredictable now. I toss our wedding scrapbook into a pile in the garage but feel a pang when I throw away your moth-ridden Yoda shirt.
by Shannon Thrace
Shannon Thrace is an IT professional, a grad student pursuing a master’s in English, and a devotee of farm-to-table restaurants, summer festivals, all-night conversations and formidable philosophy texts. She is passionate about unplugging, getting outside and seeing the world.
I note the time on my phone as I ring the bell. It’s 2:12 p.m. As I put my phone back into my purse, the door opens, and I force myself to smile. I enter the old house and the familiar warm, stale air envelops me.
I am pulled into an awkward embrace. The stink of cigarettes and unwashed hair assaults my senses and I squeeze my eyes shut while suppressing the physical urge to gag.
We pass through the room with the thousand books. Now we are in the kitchen. Now I am sitting at the round wooden table, sipping shitty, cheap coffee from a dirty cup.
I’m pretending to listen, but the complaints and stories have been soliloquized verbatim for years. I am sitting back from the table
(crumbs everywhere, smudges of jam and butter)
holding the mug handle with my right hand while my left awkwardly holds the side, as if I’m posing for a commercial.
I’m disgusted and for just a moment the disgust softens into concern, almost caring, but the moment passes, it won’t stick. I know from a thousand attempts that it will not stick.
My mind starts going back, and I know I need to get out of here.
(Please stop telling me about your uncomfortable bra. Please stop telling me about your friend from 75 years ago.)
“Here, here, take this.”
I take the folded white envelope from the wrinkled, mottled hand and shove it into my purse.
A hundred dollars cash, in twenties. From a lonely, fragile old woman who doesn’t realize she’s paying penance for an absolution she will never receive.
I hope it was worth it.
I know it wasn’t.
But I’m not giving it back.
I glance at the dash of my car as I back out of the driveway. It’s 2:33 p.m.
by Anne Alexander
Anne Alexander is a native Houstonian. She is a writer, wife, mother, autism advocate, and rescuer of animals, not always in that order. In a former life, she was a travel writer, correspondent and managing editor of a small town newspaper. She holds a BA in Psychology from Texas A&M University and is currently working on a collection of essays about families, mental illness and other delights.
When you left last night, pieces of sorrow drifted in your wake like lazy snowflakes. Some the wind caught and blew away. Some stuck to my sleeve. They remind me that what I need to say to you I need to tell myself.
Whose voice is it inside you pretending to be your own and telling you that who you are and how you are and where you are and what you are doing right now is not good enough?
That voice needs to be still.
Listen to your own heart. Do you hear passion and compassion, sorrow and joy, generosity and need, vulnerability and strength? These make you human – complex, contradictory, beautiful.
Why are we told we should want more or should be more? What more can there be than sharing our humanity with others? That alone may be the affirmation of our worth.
Some will not understand. Some will not care. Some will resent and malign. Some will say you have erred. That is their impoverishment, not yours.
Still, it will hurt. That will pass if you let it…if you don’t have someone else’s voice inside you ripping off the scab.
As for those who claim they speak only truth, you can measure the value of their words by the love you hear in their voices or see in their eyes. If the love is not there, it’s just noise.
Stand in the river. Embrace the good. Let the rest flow by you.
by Phil Gallos
Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 28 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in Thrice Fiction, Sky Island Journal, The MacGuffin, and Stonecrop Magazine, among others, and is forthcoming in The Wire’s Dream and Carbon Culture Review. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.
All your friends have older brothers–some in jail, some in Vietnam. But Nancy’s brother is a cop. He works nights and sleeps days, so he’s always snoring in the back bedroom when you play at her house.
Nancy is a tomboy. She likes to play Matchbox cars. She always chooses the cop car and makes the scary siren sound–rrrrrrr rrrrrr–as she rushes the black and white car marked POLICE across the worn carpet.
You’re not a tomboy. You want to choose the turquoise Bel Air convertible so you can pretend you’re Miss America being driven down the street in a parade. But you always choose the ambulance and follow the cop car across the carpet, because when there’s a murder, somebody’s got to clean up the mess.
One day Nancy’s mother goes to a wake and leaves you in the house with just the cop brother snoring in the back.
Do you want to see my brother’s gun? Nancy asks.
You don’t really. But you know it’s polite to say yes.
She drags a chair over to the wooden cabinet in the front hallway, climbs up, and takes a pistol out of a leather holster.
She points it at you.
You stare into the dark hole of the barrel.
You better put that back, you say, or else–
Else what, she says.
Else I’ll tell your mother, you say.
She shrugs and puts the gun back in the holster.
You don’t tell her mother. Or your own mother. And you keep playing Matchbox cars just like before. But for weeks afterward when you go to bed and mumble now I lay me down to…, you hear Nancy making the scary siren sound–rrrrrrr rrrrrr–before you fall into the dark barrel of sleep.
by Rita Ciresi
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and three award-winning story collections, Second Wife, Sometimes I Dream in Italian, and Mother Rocket. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review.
In German, Kummer means grief.
My grandmother died twice: the first time was a lie.
My mom asked a friend to call her at work with a fake family emergency. Afterwards, we drove to Paducah and ate Arby’s french fries.
My mother talked about how awful my grandmother was and told me I should be grateful I had a great mother.
The second time was the truth.
My grandmother passed out drunk outside her trailer in rural Oklahoma in the middle of winter. They found her on the first of January, her bones frozen and her fingers cold.
My mother laid in bed and wept for hours. She cried until she threw up, until words could no longer escape her mouth. She cried until she found it difficult to breathe, her chest concaving in rapid and hectic spurts.
There are words in German that can’t be translated into English.
These words travel down linguistical rivers and get lost in the current.
Words that dangle from broken driftwood.
Kummerspeck is the German word for the rolls of fat that have accumulated around my mother’s waistline.
Kummerspeck cannot be translated into English. When all emotions are abandoned, it translates to grief bacon.
My mother used to starve herself
She would only nibble her food
This was back when daddy would hit her every time she said something he didn’t like
She thought the faster she wasted away,
The faster her bones protruded from bruised and beaten skin
The faster she could escape
After my grandmother died, my mother became fat.
Her stomach bubbled over her jeans.
Her bones became lost under pounds of adipose tissue
She taught me food was a substitute for therapy
And words that were too hard to say out loud.
by Brittny Meredith
Brittny Meredith was voted “most opinionated” in high school and has since considered it a challenge to remain the loudest, most obnoxious woman in the room. She co-hosts the podcast, Mansplaining, where she analyzes hyper-masculine culture within action films. Her work has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Graceless.