When I was eight, a decision was made to send me on a train trip with my grandmother to visit “Mama Lizzie” my great-grandmother, who lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She had visited up north, but this would be my first time down south. Grandma was perpetually good natured and laughed easily. And Mama Lizzie’s soft smiling eyes turned up at the corners whenever she spoke to me. She was the kindest, most generous, most loving, nonjudgmental person I’ve ever known. I had zero reservations about venturing on this vacation.
Shortly after the train got going, Grandma’s fried chicken and pound cake appeared. (Decades later, that remains one of my favorite comfort food combinations.) Napkins were arranged into placemats for our laps. Then we carefully removed the aluminum foil and wax paper from the fragrantly seasoned chicken and heavy moist cake. I was just starting to read Huckleberry Finn and as the train traversed the Mississippi River I looked out at the muddy, brown-green, meandering water highway, with willow trees hanging heavy over the river banks, convinced that at any moment Huck would appear on his raft just around the bend.
Arriving in Pine Bluff, it was obvious our impending visit had been widely publicized. Mama Lizzie was revered and a number of unrelated people had come with her to meet the train. Secretly loving all the attention, something told me this adulation was unlikely to follow me back home where my mother’s mission was making sure I didn’t get too full of myself.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it was as if the whole universe of unconditional love came spiraling down around me.
The first morning in my great-grandmother’s house, it was just me and her and Grandma. Grandma and I were sitting at the kitchen table when Mama Lizzie, standing at her stove, turned to me and asked “How many strips of bacon do you want, Honey?”
Now I don’t know how my mother’s imprinting failed at that instant, because she was a strong presence in my psyche no matter how near or far she was—but I didn’t skip a beat before replying “twelve.” Neither of my foremothers blinked an eye. And at every morning’s breakfast thereafter, for the whole two weeks of my stay, a plate was set before me heaped with twelve strips of thick country bacon, each strip bracketed by big curls of fat.
Not even Houdini could match the magic of two generations of matriarchs so intent on making a beloved heir happy.
What’s more, on our return home, when my mother complained about my weight gain, Grandma never said a word.
Renée Ozburn left a long legal career in Michigan to devote her time to creative writing. In addition to her flash nonfiction piece, Twelve Strips of Bacon, she recently completed a novel. Her essay, A Redbone’s Reality, won the 2019 Los Angeles Review’s Creative Nonfiction Literary Award. losangelesreview.org She has been a fellow of the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Program. As her blog To Paris and Beyond portrays, as often as possible, she spends time in various venues around France and the US connecting with other writers.
Hair coiling and swirling in the murky current, she claws at gnarled fingers of seaweed, struggles to rise toward the surface before she chokes on the sea sponge lodged in her throat. Bolt upright in bed, she gags. Full moon. Open window. The wad of phlegm lodged in her windpipe loosens. Box of tissues on the bedside table next to the novel she hasn’t started reading. She spits into a tissue and draws heat-thick air into her lone lung. Thinks of how a man she once knew said he’d coughed up a log of tar when he quit smoking. She pictures it, the same texture and colour as the sponge she inhaled in her dreams.
In her dream, she was her girl-self swimming in Lac Pelletier. She leans back against her pillows, wondering why she returned to those long-forgotten docks. Where she was afraid the seaweed in the stagnant lake would drag her down and drown her. In the dream, she clamped her bluing lips against the dead minnows that began trembling on the surface. Panic exploded in her lungs, and she struggled against the sudden undertow until her feet hit the slope of sand. Her leaden legs propelled her to the colourful towel abandoned on the beach where she collapsed. Firepit smoke was in the air. A wiener roast.
She squeezes her eyes against the memory. Inhales and traps air in her remaining lung. Last night, before she went for supper, when she’d glanced back into the full-length mirror, checked her reflection for panty lines, she’d glimpsed the faded scar protruding from under the dress, just above from her left shoulder blade. A reminder that all suffering fades. How, eventually, loss blends in with the mundane. Like the spattering of summer freckles mid-March. As she exhales, she recalls the smell of a bonfire lingering before she slept.
Last night, a fever had penetrated her in his bed and clung as she untangled herself from his legs, his sheets. The heat followed her home where the swelter was trapped. As she’d lifted open the window, the neighbour’s woodfire wafted in and she paused—torn between the desire to savour the smell of her lover lingering on her skin and to escape the heat. Not wanting to get sucked into the undertow of a love that will never be more, she left the window open and sank into her empty bed.
Rachel Laverdiere is a writer, course designer and instructor living on the Canadian prairies. Rachel’s essays are recently published in journals such as The Common, X-R-A-Y Literary and Pithead Chapel. Her flash CNF was shortlisted for CutBank’s 2019 Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest, made The Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2020 and has been nominated for Best of the Net 2020. For more of Rachel’s writing, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.
During my third May in the house I built, a sog of mist dripped from one day into the next. One afternoon, when no doors were closed, a drizzly fog drifted up the valley and entered my front door and trailed—like the ghost of a snake—through the house and out the back door. It passed by me, a strand of vapors, and merged with the mother cloud on the other side of the house.
A fog in the old cantos forebodes reckless actions caused by short-sightedness. Or else its drift is a symbol of memories lost. It mutes nature and makes implicit the forms it contains. As such, fog is elegiac—an encrypting ether that spirits the imagination to the horizon’s absence, the erasure of trees. It settles on the world a crown of longing.
Hemmed in by a dense fog, I walk the slim margins of visibility without orientation. This kind of fog is a labyrinth without hedgerow corridors to follow and right-angled choices. In the place of spatial acclimation is the visual cancellation of depth. Dense fog is a self-referential experience, a targeting of consciousness as a center without circumference.
Or—in the near distance—the fog fills the woods: the air permeable, a murky waft that silhouettes and desaturates the trees. Forms appear more like a dream of forms, emerging and disappearing as the fog settles and unsettles. I see outlines and contours—what I might call the forest’s presentness—as vague references. The wooded horizon dissolves into a play of restless tonalities.
Acting as the cloud it is, fog is ephemeral. It persists without anchor—drifting away or lifting—vaporous droplets incubating rain. In late summer, a wisp of fog often settles over the valley in late evening. Although a common scene during mornings, it is hard to pass by and not take notice: ridges and mountaintops poke above a sea of white—an archipelago of the high Appalachian Mountains.
In this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina it is lore that for every morning fog in August there will be a day of snow in winter. In my county where students miss an average of 15 days of school due to winter weather, this form of forecasting is practiced more than you might expect. The tradition is to put a large bean in a jar for a heavy fog and a small bean in for a light fog. Each large bean represents a heavy snow day in winter, and a light snow day, determined by the ability to track a rabbit in it, for each small bean.
After the sun rises above the eastern ridge the valley fog burns off. Slowly, increments of color clarify. Forms—still ambient in the last of the mist—tighten their lines of contrast and depth. Remnant moisture rises back into the sky. The fog is gone in a breath.
Philip Arnold’s essays have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Fugue, and apt, where his piece, “Stereoscopic Paris,” was a notable selection in the 2017 Best American Essays anthology. He is the author of the poetry collection The Natural History of a Blade (Dos Madres Press 2019), and has had work appear in Arts & Letters, Iowa Review, Atticus Review, Midwest Quarterly and Southern Poetry Review.
My ruminations don’t come preformed in neat complete sentences with subjects, verbs and objects, beginning with capital letters and ending with periods (what the British call full stops, hexagonal red symbols of written language); rather my contemplations appear in my mind as fragments that start and pause and pick up again, that change direction and double back on themselves, that sometimes s-l-o-w w-a-y d-o-w-n and come to a near halt—as you may be tempted to do at a stop sign when no cars are in sight—and then plunge ahead; but they’re always connected in an erratic and inexplicably continuous narrative that switches on with my pre-dawn awakening and runs all day (like our ceiling fans in August), punctuated by comma and semicolon pauses, by parentheses for explication and dashes for enhancement, by asterisks that act as mental notes in the margin, by question marks and exclamation points, not to close off the dialogue but rather to ask or assert … and even when my thoughts start to evaporate, before they dissolve completely around ten p.m., there’s an ebb, a gradual subsiding, and I can almost hear the dot-dot-dot, the slow, even syncopation of ellipses, those three-dot placeholders, the last ticks of consciousness that lull my brain to temporary cessation, and while the last of these may finish with a fourth dot—the finale, the inevitable full stop—I don’t see the sign, hear its clang, or feel that definitive plop: I’m switched off for the night….
Alice Lowe’s flash fiction and nonfiction have been or will be published this year in Hobart, JMWW, Door Is a Jar, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Burningword Literary Journal. Her essays have been cited in the Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She writes about life and literature, food and family in San Diego, California, and posts her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
Last chance to save the Norwalk whales I learn via email—subject line only—then delete from the passenger seat while the toddler stands and drives far too fast for someone who can’t see past the dash. We’re both bored of the living room, of his abandoned baby toys, maybe, too, of each other, but the outside air smells of our futures, incinerating, and the parks are all slung with caution tape, their swings swung round the cross bars out of reach. Instead, I hold the keys in-hand while we drive nowhere into the empty expanse of late morning.
We are out of time / we have all the time.
Panda sock-toes curled to the edge of the captain’s seat, he leans and veers and vroooms while I wonder at the ash of ancient redwood bark, invisible until it settles, offset by the dark hood, the windshield, the tinpot roof overhead. Something you don’t see until it’s there. Neighbors walk by, laugh at my chauffeur who waves merrily. A mayor on small-town parade. He’s forgotten about the horn from last time, blessed be, but not the four-ways—never. Knows a good red triangle to see one. They blink throughout our entire drive, battery leeching its last begotten energy:
emer gency / emer gency / emer gency.
Geoff Martin is a CNF contributing editor at Barren Magazine. His place-based and environmental essays have appeared most recently in Boulevard, The Common, Slag Glass City, and Creative Nonfiction and have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. Originally from southwestern Ontario, Geoff now lives in San Francisco. He can be found online on Twitter @gmartin9 or at www.geoff-martin.com.
The ritual of Domino Night began the summer after we immigrated to the United States. On warm, dry Friday evenings, after we ate dinner, Mama and Papa collapsed the card table and a folding chair from our kitchen, then Papa hefted them the entire half-mile down the tenement-lined sidewalk to where Broad and Union Streets converged, ending in the emerald triangle called Salem Park.
Once there, Papa plunked his table and chair among the labyrinth of other players—all Russian-Jewish Papas and Grandpapas—and commenced doing battle. The United States and the Soviet Union were waging their own war in the eighties, each threatening to nuke the other into extinction. Speaking Russian within earshot of American passersby was asking for trouble. Too ashamed of their broken English, the players spoke to each other through the slide and click of their moving tiles.
When I wasn’t off trapping fireflies in old jam jars, I was hiding behind the bushes on the northern angle of the park, which pointed towards Manhattan, secretly practicing my English curses with a tribe of equally naughty grade school kids. Or, I was hanging with Mama on the southern angle, which pointed towards home, my presence shielding her from heckling in-laws. Or, I was standing beside Papa, watching him play, a distraction he would allow only while winning.
Today I know that Domino nights were a proving ground for Papa’s much later conquests—like wealth and corporate celebrity—personal victories that, according to Papa’s polemic, upheld the American Dream as something available to all who were willing to work hard and sacrifice. In between moves, he used to sit in utter stillness on Domino nights to consider his hand, bony elbows propped on bony knees. A still life of sinewy limbs folded in on each other, poised to capture a hundred black dots, like a young mantis seconds before pouncing on a colony of beetles.
Meanwhile, Mama and I waited—often in corners of hedgerows, often until midnight—for it to end. Once it did, Papa hefted my small, sleepy body onto his shoulder, carrying me back along the concrete path lined with tenements, my head bobbing beneath his chin, the sounds of motors and the threat of epithets muted by the nighttime sigh of a city that was, for the moment, too tired. The world silenced by my ear pressed against his heart.
To make room for me, Papa left the card table and folding chair behind, to be delivered later by one of his opponents—a tacit consequence for losing.
Tali Perch earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys writing about parenting, feminism, cultural anthropology, and her childhood as a Soviet-Jewish refugee. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Under The Gum Tree, The Colorado Review, Longreads, Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. Tali’s essay “Records on Bone” (2019) was nominated by The Colorado Review for a Pushcart Prize. Currently, Tali is working on a memoir about the challenges of assimilating into American culture as a soviet-Jewish émigré during the Cold War.