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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Listening to the Wind

by Catherine Mauk

In November, my sister’s husband, a lifelong diabetic, went into heart failure. Doctors successfully inserted heart stents, small mesh tubes, to open his coronary arteries. During the procedure he had a mild heart attack. In December, surgeons attempted to insert more stents to enable blood flow to another part of his heart, but the procedure failed. Open heart surgery was proposed as a future option. 
It is now January. In Alaska, where my sister and her husband live, snow piles in the driveway and drifts down the back slope to the river. Their house sits in the cold shadow of short days. Despite the seven stents that keep arteries open in my brother-in-law’s legs, circulation to his lower legs is constricted, his legs cramp, and he cries out in pain in the night. He has returned to work, but his concentration lapses and he struggles with his memory. My sister and her husband worry about the loss of his job, the loss of his health insurance, the loss of the life they know. They worry about losses they cannot bring themselves to name out loud. Each of them is seeing a separate therapist for depression. The unspoken resentments and disappointments of 37 years have become a bellicose rumbling. They have stopped eating meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, avocados, and all other fats in a war on cholesterol. They have lost weight. They are starved of joy. Each night they fortify themselves with martinis - Vitamin M.
I ring repeatedly from Australia where the inferno of summer slows time. My sister has stopped answering her phone. “Call me,” I say to the voicemail, curbing the concern in my voice.

The preceding August, my sister and her husband left their twenty-year-old daughter in Spain to attend university. The night they flew back to Alaska, their daughter’s roommate was drugged and raped and dumped on a sidewalk in Barcelona. At the same time, though not related to the incident with her roommate, my niece began vomiting black blood. My sister held this news inside for weeks. She held inside the unpleasantness of her trip to Spain: the press of people, the foul smells, her husband’s failing health, her torn rotator cuff, gastro poisoning from contaminated olives, the death of a man with a mouth full of rotten teeth whom she attempted to resuscitate at a bus stop in Madrid.
When she finally wrote to me in late September, it was not about Spain but of autumn: “nearly clear blue sky with a sprinkling of cloud puffs, golden leaves of birch mixed with the dark green spruce, a dusting of snow on the peaks. Have thoughts today of driving out Turnagain Arm to catch a glimpse of the migrating snow geese.” She wrote of the outback where we had gone when she visited me in Australia the previous September ̶ the year before Spain ̶ of the dingo we saw at dusk, of her longing to return.

The day we saw the dingo had had a difficult start. My sister and I had a clash of tempers. We were all edges as I ground the gears of our 4WD and headed out of Alice Springs towards the MacDonnell Ranges, the stony rises and chasms that are the remnants of ancient mountains once as high as the Himalayas. The vexation between us evaporated as we entered a desert that had become a rowdy botanic garden after unusually heavy winter and spring rains. Meadows of yellow cassia, salt spoon daisies, and desert fuchsia spread across the floor of red earth. We couldn’t stand the distance. We clambered out of the car and walked into the desert where the blur from the windows contoured into the particular. Dormant Ruby Dock, which had looked like fading autumn leaves from the car, turned into pink pouches veined in ruby that hung in clusters from soft green stems. Spinifex sported copper tips that rattled in the breeze.  Budgerigars pecked noisily at a feast table of Spinifex seeds in the camouflage of grasses. Suddenly, hundreds of budgies rose from the clearing and streaked the sky with lime, shifting direction en masse, first one way, then another, and another, as if pushed and pulled by currents, before diving back into cover. When I turned to look at my sister, she stood in a band of sunlight, her hair a shimmer of platinum, her mouth open, her arms raised as if to catch the moment with her whole body.
Many times we stopped the car and spilled into the bush to fill our senses with the desert. Our ears captured the songs of rufous whistler, mistletoe bird, and zebra finches marking their territory as they flitted from branch to branch. At Trephina Gorge, clouds of grasshoppers swarmed around us on the trail. We climbed from the cliff down to the river, rolled up our pants legs, took off our boots and socks and waded into the milky red water. The coolness swirled around our ankles and calves as we scrubbed our feet along the coarse sand and moved deeper into the gorge where blazing walls of rock closed us in on two sides.
We were like a pair of ballroom dancers practiced in our routine, taking cues from one another through the tiniest of motions – a nod, a turn of the head, a change in gaze, a press on the arm, a hand to the heart - to stop, to listen, to regard. Words were rarely necessary between us.
We came across a young woman, also wading in the river. She had a Glossy Black Cockatoo feather banded in scarlet stuck in her hair. “How beautiful!” I said as we pushed through the water past one another. She stopped, reached up to the feather, pulled it from her thick brown plait, and handed it to me without a word. Smiling, she turned and continued, her long skirt dragging through the water. As much as I wanted the feather, I offered it to my sister. Feathers, shells, rocks, and pieces of wood are often our most treasured gifts from one another.
We left Trephina Gorge driving away from the receding sun to N’dhala Gorge, where we hoped to hike to ancient rock carvings. But we had dallied. We had stopped to inspect a frill-neck lizard sitting on the road absorbing heat. By the time we reached the turnoff to N’dhala Gorge, the sun was too low in the sky for us to attempt driving over sandy river beds and into unknown bush.
At dusk, the dingo appeared from out of nowhere. He saw us at the same time we saw him. He ran parallel to our car until we stopped in the middle of the empty road. Then, he veered in front of us. He could have been a stray dog with his curled tail and ginger coat, shiny and neatly matted, but for the fire in the eyes. He fixed us in his gaze with an unnerving penetration as he moved in front of the car and continued to watch us as he crossed the road.  When he reached the edge of the road he gave us a final look, then broke into a run and disappeared into the bush.
We sat in in the stillness with all the windows down, breathing in the coolness and slight moisture that infused the evening air. Surrounded by the vast outback, it felt as if we and the dingo were alone in the desert, that it belonged to the three of us, that the three of us belonged nowhere else. It was as if my sister and I too had crossed that road with our smouldering wildness and released ourselves into the bush.
We drove on in silence. A full moon was on the rise with Venus watching on. As neither of us was in a hurry to leave the bush, we pulled off the road to drink a beer and watch the clouds streak across the moon. Black descended around us like a lace curtain backlit by moon silver.
“Sometimes, a day like this is the only thing that makes sense to me,” my sister said.

A week later, we were on the south coast of New South Wales. In contrast to the desert, grey watery skies and cold air draped over our days. The sea churned. The wind blew. On a day when the weather confined us to the house, my sister disappeared into her room for hours. “Join me,” I said each time she reappeared in the living room where I was curled up on the couch reading. She paced for a few minutes, then again retreated to her bedroom. I worried about what churned inside her.
“I love the sound of the wind,” she said to me at dinner. “In my room I could lie on my bed and hear it like a song, drift with it. I kept coming back into the living room, but it wasn’t the same, and all I wanted to do was go back to my room so I could float on the wind.”
The weather cleared the next day. We hiked down the headland and onto the beach to walk to Mossy Point. My sister fell behind. I waited for her to catch up several times. At one point when she joined me she said, “Do you know there are over 400 different species of seaweed?” and leaned down to scoop up a handful of leathery jade strands dotted with green pearls of seaweed fruit. For an hour we picked through the seaweed that had washed up on shore the length of the beach. We identified nine different types. There was the jumble of grapelike balls tethered by green rope and the seaweed that looked like boughs from a pine tree. Some was rust coloured, some a dirty brown purple, other olive. One bunch looked like the charred remains of a fire. Another, like green petticoats.

I think often of those weeks with my sister. About how we let our spirit selves run with the dingo with the fire in his eyes to howl and wail into the soft curtain of night. I imagine my sister drifting on wind currents or riding the tide wrapped in seaweed, protected from the pain for which she has no words. I think of how we are with one another in nature in a way we are with no other. Of our comfortable silence.  But now, with time and distance between us, I worry about her silence. I once read that the dingo mates for life. When it loses its mate, the dingo may mourn itself to death. This is what I fear for my sister, that her grief will consume her.

A short email arrives in late February. “The wind is blowing,” my sister writes, “and my tree out front is covered with cedar waxwings eating the beautiful red berries. They come thru every winter and strip the trees.  I love listening to the wind and seeing the trees bend under its power.”

Cathy Mauk left the US 23 years ago for the love of a man and has been living in Australia ever since. She came to writing late, but is making up for lost time. She has been published in PAN: Philosophy, Activism and Nature, an Australian journal.  She was long listed for the 2013 Calibre Prize, Australia’s premier essay prize. In 2012, she was accepted to Breadloaf in Sicily. She is currently revising a completed memoir Out of Place, which deals with place and identity, and is developing a collection of essays about our emotional, cultural, and moral relationships with place.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Starting Out

by Jean Ryan

When I was twenty-two and just out of college, I left the green mountains of Vermont and moved to Boston. An English Literature major, I was looking for a job in publishing, which I saw as a gateway position to my true profession: renowned book critic. I pictured a tasteful apartment in Cambridge, witty, cultured friends. I knew this manifestation might take some time, but I was certain of my trajectory. This was the life I wanted: why would I sabotage it?

Fortunately, I had a friend living in a Boston suburb who offered to put me up while I searched for a job and an apartment. Each morning I boarded a commuter train, then fumbled my way through the city, often taking the wrong subway line and winding up far off course. Exhilarated by everything around me, sights and places I’d only heard about—Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, Copley Plaza, the Swan Boats, the Common—I didn’t mind these accidental forays and saw them as part of the adventure. At that point, you see, I wasn’t afraid of anything.

Three weeks into my search, I received a call from one of the four employment agencies I had registered with. A small publishing company on Columbus Avenue needed a billing clerk—was I interested? Not the position I had in mind, but a foot in the door, right? I was running out of money and didn’t want to impose on my friend any longer. The apartment I found (a tiny studio off Beacon Street) was also a disappointment, but I signed the six-month lease anyway, figuring I’d be moving into something better by then. I slid my name into the mail slot and beamed. There I was: a voter, a tax payer, a citizen.

If anyone else had wanted me, I would never have taken the job at Benson Publishing. I might in fact have fled the interview, having seen enough.

Benson Publishing, I soon learned, was a vanity press, though we were not supposed to call it that. Housed in an old warehouse, it was dying by degrees, dying along with its owner, an 88-year-old Christian Scientist named Edward Fleese. To this day, I can recall his Dickensian scowl and the croak of his voice, and I can see the greasy brown suit coat he wore every day, the shoulders littered with dandruff. Every few seconds, if you were close enough, you could see the bits of skin falling off his waxen face and onto his desk pad. A few long strands of oily brown hair looped over the  spotted dome of his scalp. His yellowed fingernails, which I couldn’t bear to look at, were long and chipped.

Somehow Mr. Fleese managed to employ seven of us, though of course he paid very little. We all sat at what looked like military surplus desks, in a big room that was always too hot or too cold. Each of us comprised our own department. I was the billing department, and my desk was next to the room’s entrance. What I did each day was type up letters to our clients, requesting prompt payment for services rendered, and at the bottom of the page I’d stick on a Dunn and Bradstreet label for emphasis. These letters were sent to the same list of authors on a rolling basis; when I reached the end of the list, I would start back at A.

Sandra had the job I wanted. She was our editorial department and was responsible for evaluating and editing the occasional manuscripts that came her way. Because new authors equaled revenue, Sandra approved most everything before turning back to her real passion: her elaborate wedding plans. Sandra was a tall, soft-spoken woman, and nothing ruffled her, a knack that made me wistful. She had a habit of tilting her head to one side, probably to keep her long blonde hair out of her face, and so she appeared kind and attentive.

Sam, our funny man, was in charge of marketing. I’m not sure what exactly he did for Benson Publishing, but he was very skilled at marketing himself. We were all trying to get out of there, but Sam was especially energetic about it, each week coming up with ingenious new resumes—which he’d hand over to me for proof-reading (there was no automatic spellcheck back then; this was the era of noisy, balky typewriters). I adored Sam. He made me laugh, the way he mugged faces when Mr. Fleese walked past, and I loved the notes he used to drop on my desk on his way to the men’s room, quips that amused and sustained me.

Ida was the art department, in charge of designing book covers. Ida had a face like a fox and was nasty in a smiling, backhanded way. No one liked her. She was a lousy artist, which didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Fleece. Ida spent weeks laboring over a single awful cover, which she would then hold up for applause.

Fitz was…here’s the thing: I never knew what Fitz was hired to do. Much older than the rest of us, Fitz was a corpulent alcoholic with flaming cheeks and a sweet nature. Stubbornly, oddly, Fitz dressed for success: black slacks, rumpled white shirt, striped tie (the rest of us wore casual clothes that reflected our opinion of our status). Fitz had positioned his department strategically, his desk being the only one that Mr. Fleese could not view from his office, and he could usually be seen with his head buried in his arms, peacefully sleeping the day away. We all liked Fitz, and on the days he didn’t make it into work, we lied for him, assuring our boss that he had indeed called in, with the flu, a funeral, whatever we could think of; we usually agreed on something before Mr. Fleese arrived.

Last was the shipping department: Eddie and Zach, two part-time college students who could rarely be depended on to ship a box of books without incident. Much of what they sent out came right back to us—insufficient postage or a bum address. At these times Mr. Fleese could be heard haranguing them—the shipping room was a dark cubby off to the side—and looking up from my desk I could see, beyond Mr. Fleese’s flying arms, the bored postures and hangdog faces of Eddie and Zach. Eddie, the more talkative of the two, would promise to do better, while Zach, who was constantly stoned, would just nod and smile. Then Mr. Fleese would shuffle back into his office, Eddie would try to look productive, and Zach would amble off to the stock room, where, in the towering stacks of books we would never sell, he had made a nest to nap in.

As you can imagine, booksellers were not exactly clamoring for our products, but we did have a few pearls—tabletop books with gorgeous photographs, slim volumes of surprisingly good poetry. Several of our authors were foreigners who did not understand the contracts they were signing; others simply trusted us, assuming we’d keep up our end of the bargain and get their beloved works out into the world. Sandra said that was the worst part of her job, calling those unwitting authors to give them “the good news.”

It was a job, as one would say, and after a short time I got used to the degradation. My tasks were not difficult: answering the mostly silent phone and typing up form letters. Easy as the work was, it seldom passed muster. My biggest challenge was trying to figure out what I did wrong. When Mr. Fleese found an error or disagreed with my wording, he’d crumple up the letter without a word and toss it on the floor. After he went back into his office, I’d get up from my chair, pick up the ball and smooth it out. Sometimes I spent an hour looking for where I went wrong, which did, on the upside, fill the time.

When you’re twenty-two, time is something you think you have a lot of. I stayed a year at Benson Publishing, rescued not by a better job but by the misguided notion that I needed to leave Boston and move to a place where my luck would change. Things had not worked out so well. No matter how many excursions I went on, the city held me at arm’s length, kept her pleasures to herself. Finding no way in, I gave up and stayed home. The red felt squares on my bathroom floor kept peeling up, and the plaster on the ceiling was falling into the bathtub. The failing motor in the half fridge woke me up at night, along with panic attacks that kept me wide-eyed from midnight to dawn. The man in the basement apartment below me had lost his job at Honeywell and was now agoraphobic. Sometimes his letters wound up in my mail slot, and when I went down to his apartment to deliver them, he would not open his door all the way: I never saw his whole face. I began to fear the same fate, that one night my panic would never leave.

Little things helped. Lacing my morning coffee with Jack Daniel’s. Watching TV before work, some mindless show from childhood. Checking my reflection in plate glass windows to make sure I was still there. Fortunately, I had made friends with a beautiful young woman down the hall who dated a succession of doctors and happily supplied me all the Valium I began to require. Panic attacks are common in the young, especially in women making the transition from college to career. You think you’re ready for the world and you’re not. There’s nothing to be done for it; you just have to heal as you go.

My plan to become a book critic had slipped a few notches; I was allowing modifications, leeway. I had no idea how or why this happened. It is said that everything occurs for a reason, and we all wind up where we should. I doubt it. I don’t think life has that sort of structure. I think youth is something we mostly bumble through, and usually squander, and that it can’t be and shouldn’t be any other way. We are old so much longer than we are young, and there is ample opportunity to be wise.

I live in Napa now, three thousand miles from my past. Napa is a lovely place, and one that suits me. But Boston will always be my favorite city because I was young there, and scared, and hopeful anyway.

I remember one particular afternoon at Benson Publishing, when dust motes floated above us, and the hands on the wall clock weren’t moving, and a mantle of submission had settled over the room. Sandra was filing her nails, Sam was crafting another resume, Fitz was sleeping, I was leafing through a travel magazine, when Ida said: “It’s snowing.” We all got up then—even Fitz roused himself—and gathered at the dirty windows and watched the first snow of the year fall between the red brick buildings. Who would have guessed that decades later, I would look back on this scene, would see each of us with such clarity and tenderness, would love even Mr. Fleese, who did not come out to see the snow.

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Blue Lake Review. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Name My Parents Didn't Use

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

“Ken” was a boy’s name, was an appellation, which I also associated, in the 1960s, with a male doll. It was, as well, the means I had of summoning my partner, in the 1970s, on my high school’s debate team.

Such a name lacks frills. The name possesses no soft-edged phonemes, no feminine prefix or suffix, en total, no petticoat wisdom at all. As evidenced by my debate partner, that particular means of calling up a soul was commonplace back in the day. Had I worn a different configuration of stuff between my legs, that name would likely have been mine.

However, I was born a girl.

I grew up in a household of women whose lone male resident, my father, was wheelchair bound. There was no talk of sports in my home. No toilet seat was ever left raised. Machismo, in my childhood, was found only on my family’s TV. The fashionable contemporary social belief of the time, in the supremacy of men over women, only made itself manifest when my sister and I played chess or sought to wear pants. On such occasions, we wondered, aloud, how boys did such things.

I knew that “boys” existed. “Sons” appeared in high school literature homework assignments. “Brothers” were bothersome creatures that constantly interrupted my girlfriends’ lives. It was my family, alone, that seemed to hold little that was virile, brave, or strong. Simply, my family lacked a man, in the conventional sense of such things.

Since our nucleus was deficient of any able-bodied male, as defined by dint of genetics, we got by with fulfilling that social need via inventing a man. My parents assigned that social portion, which was ordinarily assumed by fathers or brothers, to me. I became my family’s male surrogate. During my formative years, I was forced to operate as a boy.

It was my job, for instance, to lift and to dress my father. My chores almost always also included: doing yard work, taking out the trash, and bringing in the groceries.

Likewise, in keeping with the social order of the age, it was expected of me to be accomplished academically. “Girls” were cared for; “boys” found means, first in school, and later, in jobs, to provide sustenance. As the latter was my destiny, any grades that I brought home that were less than supreme cost me my allowance. Any high marks I earned raised my parents’ expectations for my future performances. 99+s, the highest score possible on standardized tests, were lambasted by my mother and father because they were not 100s. When I wanted to write for my high school newspaper as a lifestyle columnist, they coerced me to campaign for editor, instead.

I hated my assigned job. I hated being the heavy. I hated being the star. I wanted to wear ornamented clothing and to sing in a chorus of modest achievers. I wanted to experiment with opalescent eye shadow, to laze about with romance novels, and to study baton twirling. Instead, I was pushed to try for the lead in a school play, to excel at weightlifting, and to win my state forensics tournament. My built up biceps and triceps not withstanding, I was and would always be a girl.

I’m not sure how I would have responded, during that part of my life, to being treated as inferior to males, as was the fate of girls with normal social function. I’d like to think that I would have appreciated being noticed and fawned over by boys. I had no confusion as to who I was. As it is, I’ll never know.

I was biologically a girl. I had a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics. Plus, I liked boys. I considered their fledgling facial hair and other manifestations of masculinity’s relatively more hirsute nature, down right sexy. My synapses fired whenever a locker room-scented young man walked past or sat next to me. My endocrine system went into overdrive if one of them, even if he was among the group with whom I competed in classes, in intramurals, or in interscholastic math or writing tournaments, so much as looked in my direction. I had no problem discerning for which team I batted.

I didn’t want to be like boys; I wanted to be liked by boys.

In college, nonetheless, I dutifully studied for a science degree. Thereafter, I sought to fulfill the destiny that had been artificially created for me: I followed the route to becoming a professor.

As an academic, I reached for professionally normative accolades. I engaged in a rigorous program of research, taught a variety of upper and lower level classes, and participated in academic discussions at the national and international levels. I could have been a wonderful good ‘ol boy had I not been a girl.

The older that I got the more I failed to experience the social equilibrium that my family imagined for me. I could never be “one among men.” as long as tenured sorts, who were twenty or thirty years my senior, noticed my female attributes and found no reason not to comment on them. It didn’t matter to those more senior faculty members whether or not I could shoot baskets from court keyholes with regular precision, whether or not I could swim an hour’s worth of laps, or whether or not I exploded with footnotes faster than most of those trussed thinkers. To my surprise, shortly after taking my terminal degree, I found myself litigating against a bunch of boys, i.e. male colleagues, who acted on their articulated hatred for accomplished women.

My experience of gender identity changed further when my sister and I each got married. My husband was a dutiful son. Her husband was a man of means. At last, the male void in my family was filled. I was no longer needed to take up that position.

Shortly after my sister married, I got pregnant, a very female thing to do. Gestating, nursing and fostering helped me to redefine myself. My burgeoning belly, my leaking breasts, and my years spent away from my career, surrounded by diapers, larking at museums and playgrounds, and cooking all manners of child-sized treats, yielded, for me, a different sort of understanding of myself than the one I had been forced to endure earlier.

Accordingly, I invited myself to study herbal medicine and basket weaving, intentionally picking endeavors that I associated with female traditions (few folks, Yours Truly included, realize that basket weaving, among indigenous people, is a male art). What’s more, I again embraced creative writing, intentionally endowing most of my narratives with a woman’s point of view. I learned how to belly dance. I wore dresses and skirts and I grew my hair past my shoulders.

Interestingly, in the face of those facts of my working so hard to reclaim my living as a girl, I was not willing to release all I had gained when I had lived as a boy. I still enjoy weightlifting, landscaping, and all manners of academic challenge. Whereas I have become convinced that the world of women ought to be celebrated as such, I have never been entirely willing to leave the world of men.

My father passed away years ago. During the span from the onset of his illness to the time of his death, my sister, my mother, and I experimented with integrating male and female social purposes and with appreciating and encouraging a mixture of those traits in the people in our lives.

To wit, my older son, who trained as an army sniper, remains one of my family’s best cooks. My younger daughter wears braids and ribbons, colorful nail polish, and other female-assigned artifacts, but insists she’s going to use her interpersonal robustness to become a criminal lawyer. My older daughter dresses in traditional female garb, but is among the most respected teachers in her all boys’ school. My younger son, the family member who is physically larger than any of the rest of us, is also the first to offer hugs when siblings or parents feel down. My husband, a software architect of the highest caliber, can sigh or cry as well as any lady and considers his comfort with expressing his feelings to be the hallmark of a true man.

Ironically, these days, the complaints I had as a child, as a teen, and as a young adult about my ill-fitting social responsibilities would attract as much attention as would any other literary detritus; no one would care. As a culture, we are, at least superficially, able to accept women in men’s roles. At present, it’s no big deal if a lady is an athlete, a nerd, a breadwinner, or an emotional toughie.

Regretfully, our civilization continues to fail to likewise celebrate women’s roles, whether those roles are assumed by girls or boys. Until such time, we will lack authentic social success.

As for me, in particular, as I ride through midlife, I remain aware that I can like perfume and disdain body powder, wear hoodies, but stay far away from camouflage prints, and expect respect from my university students, but insist that my own sons and daughters continue to regard me as both cuddly and fallible. As such, I am no longer a token male. I live the life that my female body parts and inclinations had always prescribed for me. I am still not the name my parents didn’t use.

Faithfully constructive in her epistemology, KJ Hannah Greenberg channels gelatinous monsters and two-headed wildebeests. As such, she helps out as an Associate Editor at Bound Off! and at Bewildering Stories. Her most recent books include: The Immediacy of Emotional Kerfuffles (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2013), Citrus-Inspired Ceramics (Aldrich Press, 2013), Intelligence’s Vast Bonfires (Lazarus Media, 2012), Supernal Factors (The Camel Saloon Books on Blog, 2012), Fluid & Crystallized (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Don’t Pet the Sweaty Things (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2012), A Bank Robber’s Bad Luck with His Ex-Girlfriend (Unbound CONTENT, 2011), and Oblivious to the Obvious: Wishfully Mindful Parenting (French Creek Press, 2010).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Summer Crushes

by Jono Walker

Rumor had it Jimmy Brusco went to reform school for hitting a cop with a two by four in broad daylight on Main Street. I have my doubts about that. Most of the folklore that circulated about Jimmy in those days couldn’t possibly have been true. All I can say for certain is that he was the scariest greaser in town and that for one long summer back when my cousin Bud and I were around twelve years old he was also a pretty good friend. Of course, I can see now that the crush he had on our older cousin Kelly had a lot to do with that. Why else would he have hung out with a pair of little squirts like us? Although we were too young to actually realize it at the time, unless my memory has totally failed at this late date, I can assure you that Kelly was a stunningly voluptuous 14 year old, which explains a lot.

It all began when Bud and I were riding our bikes down Mayfair Lane, the long private drive of what my Uncle Toppy dubbed the “Wassell Arboretum,” an eight acre enclave with housing lots Bud’s grandfather, YiYi, had set aside for each of his children. A sizeable part of the estate was eventually turned into the three-hole golf course that we remember from those years—that golden decade not long after three of YiYi’s sons who were meant to build their houses in the big field were killed in the war. In spite of its tragic history, Bud’s neighborhood was an idyllic spot to grow up—a protective cocoon with only one occasionally worrisome drawback. We were uncomfortably close to Narrow Rocks Road, a heavily wooded tunnel leading to some neighborhoods of much smaller houses that adjoined the railroad bridge with its splintery walkway and rusted railing that served as a gateway to the nexus of the real danger: Saugatuck, the part of town where the greasers lived, the kids with rolled-up sleeves for cigarette packs, pointy black boots, slicked hair, and sinister sounding surnames like Izzo, Kondub, Shipple and Slez.

At the end of Mayfair Lane there was a traffic island with a patch of grass lined with Belgian bricks and a big maple tree, and as Bud and I got closer it was evident that some kids were hiding behind it. Bud, who had stronger territorial instincts than me, sniffed his disapproval and pedaled a little faster while I, feeling more cautious and sensing danger, was content to coast.  Something wasn’t right. Sure enough, first out from behind the tree were the Sendecke brothers, Al and Joe, and hissing out from behind them came that nightmare of nightmares, Jimmy Brusco. He was short for his age, but built like a bantam boxer, with skintight black Levis and a plain white t-shirt, icy cold blue eyes and distinct signs of stubble along his handsomely chiseled jaw.

“This is private property,” Bud announced with an air of authority as we neared the big tree, leaving me thinking he had lost his mind. Couldn’t he see who we were dealing with? We could get killed and he was worrying about property lines? Alas, there was no time to sound the alarm. We were already too close to turn around when the Sendecke brothers sprang into the lane and grabbed hold of our handlebars. In an instant, Al had me in a crushing half nelson and all tangled up in my bike just as Jimmy got up in Bud’s face, launching into a string of taunts that was solely intended to escalate matters into an all-out melee.

From beyond the sounds of my own gasps for breath I could hear Jimmy’s tirade—half of which I could only dimly comprehend—and I was now thinking okay Bud, do the right thing. Politely agree to everything he says about the rinky-dink golf course and our sexual preferences. Just tell him “Yes sir! … Yes Sir! … Yes SIR!!” but for reasons I can’t possibly begin to explain Bud took a more combative approach. I suppose his ill-advised comeback could have worked if it hadn’t been for his tone of voice which was so sarcastic and snotty I knew immediately we were toast. With just a single word our fate was set:

“So!” he said, and the punches flew.

Bud succeeded in fending off the opening flurry of blows and managed somehow to stand up on the pedals of his bike, pressing down with his full weight to get some momentum going. It looked for a moment like he may even escape (which, by the way, would have left me in a world of hurt) but as he leaned down for a second mighty heave on the pedals, the mechanical failure every boy fears most when riding a two wheeler occurred: the chain slipped off the crank set and sure enough, down Bud crashed with his crotch hitting the crossbar with such force I swear I heard a “pop” and half expected to see his family ornaments bounding onto the macadam.

The poor kid slumped onto the crossbar while slowly rolling away in debilitating cross-eyed pain. His bike wobbled along with a mind of its own which happened to be down the gentle incline off the side of the lane and into the big green hedge. The best friend I would ever have in my life remained upright for a second staring mutely into the prickly branches of the hedge before he and his trusty Huffy Flyer—now fused between his knees—went down together like a felled tree.

I got a clear view of all of this through the pungent strands of Al’s hairy armpit, and when Bud went over like he did, all four of us—Al, Joe, Jimmy and I—said “whoa” in unison. It was an accident breathtaking to behold. Before anyone could fill the awkward silence that began building over the moans emanating from beneath the hedge, I feigned one of those laughs that come sputtering out like a cough, and before I knew it I was released from the headlock and found Jimmy, Al and Joe laughing right along with me. Sure, we were having a hoot at poor Bud’s expense, but I did all I could to encourage the sudden surge of merriment that seemed to be miraculously clearing danger from the air.

By the time we caught our breath, Bud was sitting up. He was going to live.  Jimmy and his henchmen were wiping tears from their eyes, and I realized the moment had arrived for some audacious diplomacy; something ventured that just might change the subject and avoid any further bloodshed. “You guys want to come for a swim in the pool?” I asked as casually as my pounding heart would allow. After shooting quick glances around at one another, the trio of the meanest looking greasers I had ever seen shrugged their shoulders and to my profound relief Jimmy replied in his best tough guy accent, “Sure, what da fuck?”

We made our way slowly up the lane towards the distant sounds of kids playing in the pool. Jimmy gently nudged Bud aside and took up his bike with its drooping chain. This touching act of kindness allowed Bud to limp gingerly along behind us, nursing the ache between his legs. The Wassell’s in-ground swimming pool was a magnet for the entire neighborhood in those days so when we rounded the pool house and saw the usual swarm of kids jumping and splashing around the sheer chaotic volume of the scene made the three of them pause. They seemed suddenly shy and I think would have bolted had it not been for my Aunt Betsy who was just then walking down from the house. She looked over at us with one of her winning smiles and waved us in without a moment’s hesitation or a single question about the disabled bike or the lingering greenness around Bud’s gills.

Our new friends stood poolside wondering what to do. Behind them their shit-kicker black boots were lined in a neat row beneath the fence where they had hung their T-shirts.  I demonstrated for them a simple feet-first jump into the deep end and they tentatively followed suit. Jimmy, Joe and Al were awkward swimmers at best, handicapped all the more by the weight of their long jeans.  I wondered how guys who just minutes ago could look so menacing could now look so harmless—vulnerable really—as schools of well-tanned little kids darted to and fro like dolphins beneath their pale and pimply backs. That’s when Kelly stepped up to the diving board in her emerald green two piece bathing suit.

Jimmy was off to the side treading water when she made her dive, intently scanning the surface in anticipation of her return for air. I might have been only 12 years old that summer, but when Kelly came up and blinked the water from her eyes, I could tell she was conscious of Jimmy’s stare and was keeping him in her periphery as she calmly breast-stroked towards the aluminum ladder. And in that moment I received my first inkling of just how far away those houses at the other end of Narrow Rocks Road actually were. When I turned back to Jimmy, who was still sputtering in place, I knew he knew much more about that distance than I could understand and saw for the first time the look of someone hopelessly surrendered to love at first sight.

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs, and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

bioStories Editor publishes new novel

Mark Hummel, the editor of bioStories Magazine announces publication of his new novel, In the Chameleon's Shadow. For details, overview, and links to purchase or read a sample, please visit his author website at Mark Hummel Books.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Summer Before My Brother Died

by Rob Stanley

The first punch hits me in the left ear and it actually feels good, invigorating. I duck around the next few but the second one to connect hits me in the jaw and it hurts a lot. By the time the third one hits me in the forehead the sweat and moisture gathering on the faux leather gloves has a stinging effect, and that, combined with the actual force of the blow through my neck and spine, leaves me reeling.

“You hit like a girl”, I mutter as I step back and roll my head low across my chest a couple of times, my chin tucked in a defensive position.

My brother smiles. Even he finds that funny.

We’ve been combatants like this for most of my thirteen years, but this battle is different than the others. Those were usually fought inside, on our paper-thin carpet during miniature versions of sports we’d seen on TV; knee hockey in the living room, sponge-ball tennis in the upstairs hallway; full-contact mini-hoop basketball against my brother’s bedroom door. Those were battles. Sometimes just for fun, but most times they had an undeniable edge that my mother hated seeing in us. This boxing thing today though, this is fun.

“That’s enough,” my brother says as he extends one of his gloved hands to cup my shoulder. The air is warm and were both sweating. 

There in our driveway, perched on a hill amidst a hay field that never seems well kept, we draw deep breaths and eye each other. In years past I might have cringed at the prospect of my brother delivering a sucker punch at this point, but Billy and I had changed a lot recently and the thought of a sneak attack doesn’t cross my mind. 

I step into his embrace and let my shoulders slump in a sign of respect to my big brother. This male-affection thing is something we do now, ever since he got back.

“You want some more?” I ask with just enough sarcasm in my voice for him to know he shouldn’t take me seriously. 

He grins again and doesn’t even bother responding. We both know his sinewy strength is more than my pudgy frame can bear, especially considering the fact that he’s three and a half years older and four inches taller than I am. 

To me it seems as if those final inches have been added in the past few months, during the time when Billy was away. That’s probably not true, but I’m shocked at how grown up he is now and can’t settle in my mind why it is I’m viewing him in that light. It’s only been two months since we last saw each other, but it seems like years.

I had been surprised back in the spring when I walked into the kitchen, saw Billy and my parents huddled at our round country table and caught the final hushed syllables of the default advice that my father always seemed to give whenever we asked for help on a topic he didn’t really care about.

“Well Billy, I think you should do whatever you think is right.”

There was usually a passive-aggressive tinge to Dad when he said stuff like this, a sense of him knowing more than you and not wanting to bother having to share on a topic so menial as one that dealt with emotion or a simple life decision, but this seemed different. This time he seemed to be choking back his true feelings, keeping his heart safe behind a wall of good sound advice.

With my back to the table, pretending to rifle through the cupboard for an elusive glass while I tuned my ear to process the emotion in the room behind me, I sensed a slight waver in Dad’s voice, one that he hid it with a quick forced cough, as he probed Billy further

“So, what exactly do you plan on doing in Toronto?”

This being the first I’d heard of my brother in Toronto, or of something as stupid as him willfully leaving me, I dropped my act of lingering over the glasses and quickly turned to face the conversation. All three heads swung toward me, and I was happy to see that none of their faces conveyed malice or annoyance. I took a chance and stepped toward the table, leaving the cupboard door to swing shut behind me, hoping that my presence would be tolerated amongst the adults.

It was. 

And it was there, standing beside the table, hovering over a conversation that would ultimately change our family forever, that I heard of Billy’s plans for the summer. Mom had family there, and his idea involved heading to one of their homes to enjoy the big city as well as the much larger minimum wage that jobs in Ontario offered. He and I didn’t know much about Mom’s family; the bare minimum, really. We knew there were lots of aunts and uncles, and that the word “abuse” often got thrown around whenever the topic of Mom’s absent father came up, but the whole scene was sheltered in some urban dream for us.

Obviously, Billy was ready to experience some of that scene for himself. Dreams didn’t scare him. There was always a sense of largeness and destiny about him, and most of us knew that he wouldn’t be in small-town New Brunswick for long. Back then, he often spoke of travel, of the army, of radio technology school—all large dreams in their own right—but each of them seemed firmly within his reach. He’d always been blessed with an innate sense of accomplishment and likability. Friends gravitated toward him, teachers loved him and young women flocked to him. Even at a young age, he radiated a quiet warmth and a sense of safety that people just found endearing. Listening to his plans to head to Toronto then, wasn’t some flight of fancy, it was the first step in an unfolding plan that most of us thought would end very well for him. 

Of course had I known more, I would have been better able to identify the strange case of déjà vu at play in the room that day. Unlike my brother, who enjoys playing by the rules and excelling, my father has always majored in challenging authority—a trait I certainly come by honestly—as his means of getting ahead. So, when he was seventeen, Billy’s age exactly, Dad had made his own pilgrimage to T.O. Like Billy, it was outwardly because of work, but inwardly a lot more about finding himself. Dad had bounced from job to job until he found what he was looking for while working as a manager at a Kresge’s department store downtown. Not only did he come by security and a steady paycheck, he also found a girlfriend, an unexpected twist, and in a very unexpected turn, she was soon pregnant. Dad, sensing that this teenage tryst needed a man to guide it as opposed to a boy to tease it along, forced his own hand and spirited his girlfriend—my mother—back East on the first bus he could find. She soon became his bride, and soon after, she gave birth to William Jr.—Billy.

It was memories of these days of struggle that soaked my father’s words with unspoken fear as he listened to my brother’s plans at the table that day. He hid them as best he could, but even I could sense the unconvincing tone in his voice as he heard my brother out one last time and offered a final retort, this one even weaker than the last.

“Whatever you think’s right.”

I know my Dad didn’t mean it. I know he wanted to make him stay. 

But he didn’t. 

He let him get on the bus, alone. He let him make money. He let him test he bounds of his overprotective mother’s patience. He let him experience whatever he needed to. 

He let him go. 

And now, standing out of breath beside my brother in the driveway, my face flush with exhaustion and pride, I’m glad that Billy got to go and do all that stuff, but I’m more glad that he’s back. Yeah, I know he just beat the shit out of me, but it feels good to be here, alone with my brother again.

Just then, a flicker of movement catches my attention in the windowed porch that runs along the side of our house. The Rorschach-like reflection of the sunlight on the glass makes it hard for me to make anything out, but as the shadowy object moves and takes shape behind the panes, I can see that it is my father. Apparently, he’s been the lone spectator of our little battle, and he’s stepping out to comment on it.

Before I have a chance to acknowledge him or protest, he quickly covers the five or six strides necessary to reach me and wordlessly lifts one of the boxing gloves off my hand to place it on his own. His eyes are on Billy the whole time, and as he slides the other glove onto his hand I can see that something more primitive than age or ego is fueling this. He circles his son, and they both look like they’re relishing what’s about to happen. 

Billy has Dad’s body down to a T, save for the thick padding that years of office work have added to my father’s midsection, and they both share quick feet and great eye hand coordination. Right now they also share the same bemused look of concentration and outright fear, part cocky grin and part studied intensity. This appears to be in good fun, yes, but I’m sensing there’s a lot more riding on this.

A rush of warmth fills me as I step back from the fray and realize that the grown-ups have again let me be involved. I’m glad I’m here, that no one is telling me to run along, and no one is holding back so I won’t be adversely affected in some way. I’m a participant in this, even if it’s just as an occasional brow-wiper and potential referee. Just the three boys, mano a mano a mano in the driveway. Hell, Mom isn’t even invited.

Before I have time to dwell on things for too long, I’m snapped back to reality by the first wave of punches. Billy and Dad are circling each other and straight right jabs are flying. Only straight right jabs, the safest of all the punches. Each volley is cautious and aggressive at the same time. Skinny arms extending for a quick sting but never venturing too far from a defensive position. As the seconds roll by, the feeling-out process evaporates into the late summer air and the punches extend. They’re longer, a tad slower, but a hint of menace accompanies each one. Adrenaline crackles with every slash, and each one is yearning for some damage.

The cars on the road well below us pass by every so often without even a hint of recognition of what’s happening on the hill above. The waves lapping against the shore of the rocky beach just beyond the road continue unabated as well. All is at it should be, yet a seismic shift for our family is happening right here in the open.

A constant patter of nervous laughter and semi-audible grunts fly back and forth, but the punches aren’t matching the ferocity of the verbal assaults. No one is really connecting, and I’m rather proud of the fact that my bout with Billy had a lot more action than this. Less emotion, but a lot more action.

Just then, a punch lands. Then another. Then there’s a spirited reply that’s none too polite. Eyes are now slits and the mood changes. Another punch lands. My adrenaline begins to flow and the warmth of simply being there evaporates. The action spills into my face and I’m forced to recoil to move away from them. 

They don’t even notice me. 

Another punch. 


Soon my hands are flailing in front of me, trying in vain to deflect the action and voice some protest, but nothing stems the tide. My heart pounds and I realize that this is inching toward the danger zone when a shriek pierces the melee and I cringe from its fierceness.

“God, Bill! What are you doing?”

My mother’s voice jerks us back to reality, and for a moment we pause awkwardly and by instinct try to look as nonchalant as possible. Our hands fall, our backs straighten and the pained expressions ease from our faces. Frozen in time, we all try our best to deflect the intensity of the past few moments.

Mom though, isn’t falling for it. She missed the run-up to the bout because she’d been busying herself inside our house, and now all she has seen is her entire family, all three of us, flailing and spitting at each other in the driveway.

Her shoulders sag incredulously and a look of complete bewilderment causes her mouth to gape wide open. She bores a hole in my father with her knowing gaze, and an elongated blink and a shake of her head is all she leaves him with as she closes the porch door and retreats to the safety of the home she’s created for us.

We’re still frozen in place. Dad is the first to relent, removing his boxing gloves just as silently as he put them on and handing them to me without even so much as a gaze in my direction. He steps toward the void in the doorway where Mom stood seconds before, knowing that any sort of comment would be fruitless. This is going to warrant a longer conversation than that.

Billy and I stand staring, transfixed on Dad’s back as he walks, and wondering if there might be repercussions for us too. As Dad steps up into the doorway he uses the shift in weight as an opportunity to glance back at us over his shoulder. We immediately catch his eye. 

A slight grin crosses his face.

It isn’t a defiant look, or one that could be misconstrued against Mom in any way. It’s simply a man speaking through a look to two other men. Nothing more needs to be said.

Dad disappears into the house. Billy and I shuffle for a second, then realize that we should busy ourselves with something else. We go our separate ways, both filling time with nothing.

I think I ended up listening to Aerosmith, probably “Permanent Vacation”, and reading an Archie comic. I don’t really remember. For me, the beauty of the day had already been cemented.

Rob Stanley lives near Toronto, Ontario with his wife and children.