She hoped the couple beside them in the park wasn’t listening to their fight. They, the other couple, were so obviously into each other and so obviously on a first date. They were speaking English, so there was a decent chance they didn’t understand German—so many people don’t in Berlin. They used to be like them—a couple with nothing on the record but hope. This is what they were adding to their record today: A fight, filled with disproportionate rage given the subject matter—surfing.
“Have you ever noticed how many couples you see arguing in the park on sunny days?” She is directing this question towards the man she is on a second date with on her second day in Berlin. Really, it’s a first-and-a-half date. They’d met the previous evening, not even twenty-four hours ago. She’d forgotten what it was like to feel this kind of hope. It surprised her. She no longer went into dates expecting to find a spark—the kind that left you falling asleep imagining what it’d be like to have someone around again. Someone really around, not just as an occasional guest appearance in your life. She’d spent that morning, her first morning in the city, walking around aimlessly, wondering what he’d say about everything she was seeing. He was the only person she knew in Berlin.
When she asked him about the couple’s argument, he used it as an excuse to lean closer to her and translate. “It’s about surfing and whether the best waves are more dependent on the phase of the moon or the time of year.” Then he kissed her.
Laney Lenox is a PhD candidate at Ulster University’s School of Applied Policy and Social Sciences. Her research examines the role of archives documenting incarceration in societies affected by conflict. She conducted fieldwork in Berlin, Germany, working with memorial and archival spaces as well as interviewing former political prisoners incarcerated in the GDR. Her work falls broadly into critical theory with an anthropological approach to fieldwork. She’s particularly interested in viewing linear time as a social construct and in understanding how this relates to power structures when discussing ‘dealing with the past’ and democratization processes in conflict-affected sites.
If right now everything stops, and there is no longer re- but only de- (decay),
Autolysis: self-devouring. Your cells deplete themselves from the inside out. Within seventy-two hours, your swollen heart desists. Orange peels decompose six months later. Cotton socks decamp within a year. Wool sweaters and milk cartons depart in five. (Every carton of milk you drank in elementary school is already gone without a trace, and isn’t that surprising?) Twenty-five years later, your leather shoes defect. Tin cans and tissue (the kind which makes you soft to hold) take fifty to degenerate. Bones and batteries, a hundred years defiant.
Plastic, that twentieth-century debutant, carries on through the 2500s. Only the sun will touch it, photodegrade those polymers into microscopic morsels. Half a millennium to demolish the great graveyards of Dasani, Fiji, Pellegrino, Aquafina, Poland Spring, oh, La Vie. Half a millennium despoiled by every diaper you ever shat. And the ocean breaks down its microplastic detritus last.
Your teeth do not decay for tens of thousands of years. That is not as long as it takes to depose the skyscrapers, debris fields crumbling down to quartz for the wind or the water to disperse. Anthropic fossils press patterns into stone: earth’s interior design. There are mosquitoes deposited in resin, resins deposited in rock, rocks deposited in water. Pirates’ gold fillings do not depreciate, and neither do the diamonds of the brides. Glass bottles, those stubborn webs of silicon, take a million years to deteriorate to sand.
Then finally it is the deathless age of Styrofoam. A quiet planet blanketed with desiccated snow.
And a plaque on the moon still bears dear Richard Nixon’s name.
Hannah Story Brown is a writer and dramaturge based in New York, dreaming about green cities. She graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University in 2019, and her work has been published in The Seattle Times, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, and the Columbia Daily Spectator.
My mother enrolled me in a tap-dance class when I was five; I hated it. The little outfits hung awkwardly on me, the sequins always falling off. The shoes hurt my feet. My steps were uncoordinated and always three beats behind everyone else’s. I couldn’t twirl without stumbling. Everyone else got that lovely tap sound as they danced across the floor. “She’s very pretty with those blonde curls,” the teacher told my mother. “But she has no grace.”
Grace was my only friend in sixth grade. I was hers. We sat alone at our lunch table. We laughed together. If one of us had money we bought a candy bar to share. We exchanged books. One day I invited her home after school. My mother bought cookies. Her parents didn’t want her to go, but she came anyway. We were happy walking home as I told her about my games and chemistry set, but when we got to our apartment my mother sent Grace home. I didn’t understand. My mother said, “I’m sure she is a lovely girl, but she’s colored. She belongs with her own kind.” “She is my kind: we read the same books, laugh at the same things, like the same cookies,” I insisted, but my mother walked away.. Grace’s mother told her that she couldn’t have anything to do with me. The rest of the year I sat alone at lunch; no Grace.
My grace period for paying my student loan was up. The credit mafia made threatening calls, sent threatening letters, even knocked at my door. “But I pay everything I can at the end of the month. I’m supporting two kids,” I told the man on the phone. “Sometimes I give you ten dollars, sometimes twenty-five but I always pay” The man scoffed; “Your money problems aren’t ours.” A friend who was a lawyer worked out a credit plan with them, but I was broke halfway through every month and lost any line of credit for seven years.
“Grace period is over,” they repeated to my lawyer. “No grace left.”
“Forgiveness is an act of grace,” My husband told me when he broke my jaw after a disagreement about nothing important, something I can’t even remember. “Just let it go. I’ll never do it again,” he insisted. Then he repeated, “Forgiveness is an act of grace.”
I laughed and told him, “Everyone knows I have no grace.”
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired social worker who lives in Portland Maine. She is the author of Stealing: Life in America. She has 80+ publications, 4 of which are among the most notable, 5 in anthologies, 1 won Best of The Net and another won the Hope Award.
—which shouldn’t need translation—this button (faded, pale green with white lettering) dates back to the ‘80s, when I was a student at San Diego State University, and Aesop’s Tables, in the corner of a strip mall just off campus, was where an assortment of left-wing literati and hangers-on gathered over glasses of Retsina and plates of hummus, pita, and olives until the restaurant got booted to make way for new construction, and the owners had these buttons made up so we could commiserate and rail at social injustice.
—the seminar leader passed out small gray buttons with white lettering, all caps, no apostrophe, to stress the futility of wishful thinking in lieu of action or acceptance—“fonly I’d married Bert instead of Bart, fonly I’d started saving when I was 20—her topic was fundraising (fonly someone would donate a million dollars) and she also handed out toe tags to remind people to look alive, and though I don’t remember anything she said, the button is a talisman.
—I don’t recall the origin of this one with the universal no (non/nyet/nein) symbol, a circle with a diagonal red line through it, and though I’m not inclined toward whining and wailing, this is one of just three buttons I’ve kept out of hundreds—a collection from decades of progressive activism: Bread Not Roses, Draft beer not boys, This is what a feminist looks like, Voice for Choice, U.S. Out of Nicaragua, Jane Wyman was Right—and now I find a timeless thread running through these residual relics: shit happens, we can’t wish it away, and there’s no use grumbling.
Alice Lowe is proud to have her third published piece in Burningword. Her flash prose has also appeared this past year in Hobart, JMWW, Door Is a Jar, Sleet, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Headlight Review. She’s had citations in Best American Essays and nominations for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice writes about life and literature, food and family in San Diego, California and at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
I regret that I am not going to be a student ever again. A real student I mean, with an assigned desk, a name tag, a government-issued pencil, composition books, wooden ruler.
Standing in line for my turn at the hand crank pencil sharpener mounted on the wall beside the globe we are not supposed to spin. Why not. Will we make the world too dizzy?
I regret that I am not going to be a real student again with hand-me-down, hard cover textbooks. All dog-eared and water-stained. Covers scuffed, ripped. Punctured by what, the dagger on the end of a silver compass? Names of the students before me listed inside the front cover where I add my name and erase it a hundred times because I can’t get my writing to look cool enough.
I regret that I won’t hear my name in attendance roles, that I can’t find my home room, my locker, the entrance to the gym, the cafeteria, the auditorium. Where is my bus, my lunch table, the idea that everything I did would lead me to some preordained and glorious destiny. To my unique place in this world, to my purpose in life. To what I will be when I grow up.
Here is what I regret the most. That day my best friend Lisa forgot how to make her fingers move inside the music room that reeked of motor oil. The only classroom in the basement. There were no windows. The door always closed to not disturb, whom exactly? Our voices walking to that classroom, past the boiler room and janitorial closets, like a cannon ball rolling around in huge metal tub, as if someone had melted the tuba to take a bath.
Lisa, her hands frozen in air over piano keys. A person in an oil painting, or rain clouds over a person in an oil painting. I, the page turner, seated beside her. We’d practiced, you see, at her house in her sunken living room with the white shag carpet and the baby blue velvet furniture.
I didn’t look at her. Her tears wetting the keys, the white ones, the black ones. I held my breathe.
The teacher folded herself at the waist like a playing card, brought drumsticks down hard and swift. Lisa’s fingers dipped and struck an awful music. She might have cried out. I’m not sure. Two more hearty whacks, and we were back in our seats, Lisa’s hands red in her lap. Why wasn’t she rubbing them. She needed ice, but the door was closed.
Now someone was playing notes so easily, so clearly. I’ve heard them ever since. Why didn’t I get to my feet and shove that monster. Why didn’t I rise up, take my friend by the forearm and drag her out of that room.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, Burningword Literary Journal, The Moon City Review, Permafrost Magazine, Palooka Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Sky Island Journal among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction and nominee for Best of the Net Nonfiction 2019 and 2020, her poetry chapbooks “The Werewolves of Elk Creek” and “Shot Full of Holes” are upcoming for publication by The Moonstone Press. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.
Not until his funeral did I begin to realize how much of Dad’s life I had misjudged. I was too busy rebelling, even at age 37, which is how old I was when he died on his 61st birthday.
But I got a glimpse of the man I couldn’t see when several members of a Japanese-American family unexpectedly attended his funeral. We had no idea who they were or why they were there.
One of us Euro-American mourners approached them after the service, and we learned the Japanese-American family had owned a grocery store in our Portland, Oregon, neighborhood. But it had been more than 25 years since we had moved away from the area and 34 years since the incident that prompted their attendance at his funeral.
During World War II, they had been forced to relocate from Portland to an internment camp. (Imprisoning families of other ethnicities is a measure of our chronic barbarism.) After their release in 1945, Dad was the first to welcome them home. It seems a simple act, yet it had great meaning for them, and their gratitude lasted his lifetime.
This was the man the Japanese-American family saw, and it is to them that I owe the prompt for a larger view of his life.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in many U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Redux, Compose, Concis, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”
Issue 100, published October 2021, features works of poetry, flash fiction, short nonfiction, and photography by KJ Angelo, Elaine Barnard, Ruth Bavetta, Marcia K. Bilyk, Heather Bourbeau, Heath Brougher, Juliana Chang, Todd Copeland, Danica Depenhart, David Dephy, Edilson Afonso Ferreira, Sandy Fry, Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, Tawnya Gibson, Scott G. Harvey, Mark Henderson, Stanley Horowitz, Penny Jackson, Christy Lorio, Joe Lugara, Andromeda Mendoza, J. Alan Nelson, Marlene Olin, James Penha, Patrick T. Reardon, Nicolas Ridley, O.G. Rose, Jim Ross, Claire Scott, Roberta Senechal de la Roche, April Pride Sharp, Dave Sims, Richard Stimac, Ellen Stone, Lou Storey, SM Stubbs, Shannon K. Winston, and Tanya L. Young.
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