Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
Copyright © 2019 by Alexander Chubar.
About the Artist
Alexander Chubar holds a BFA from Hunter College and a MFA from the Pratt Institute. His work has previously been published in Gone Lawn journal, Gemini magazine, Subprimal Poetry Art, The Tishman Review, and several other publications. More of his artwork can be seen at: www.PaintingsDrawings.com
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
Jamaica, 1973, Day 7: Bottomless
Lorry opened her eyes and began to stretch after an excellent night’s sleep. She looked at Anna’s strangely inert body; bloodshot eyes wide open, lips parted, then became alarmed and checked her lover’s pulse. The tormented eyes turned toward her. “You look awful,” Lorry said.
“Good morning to you, too.” The raw eyes turned away.
“You didn’t sleep. What did you do?”
“It’s probably impossible for someone else to imagine. I don’t understand it myself. I’ve never been without sleep this long. I couldn’t move and I saw everything in the city again. It was awful!”
Lorry took her hand and kissed her cheek, then her neck and fingertips. “I’m so sorry. Can you sleep now, in the daylight?”
“We’re still in the same scary place. Maybe I’ll finally turn into a zombie.”
Lorry laughed and kissed Anna many times. “I swear I’ll get you home before that happens.”
“It’s eerie, irie, terrible and amazing. We learn something new and rotten every day.”
“This is the street academy.”
“Let me never graduate.”
“Let’s eat. That has to make you feel better.”
“Oh yes, my life processes are still staggering on.”
They ate in a bar and grill this time, still relatively American and familiar. Called “The Tomato,” its walls were red but the light was deliberately dim, in keeping with the amount of rum being served. Yet they also served large American breakfasts, clearly to patrons who had been up all night drinking. “How do I look now?” Anna asked.
“Like you were up all night drinking.”
“It is amazing what the mind can do. I didn’t have a drop, but pure decadence has oozed into my pores.”
“Is it getting better?”
Anna squeaked a small “Eh.”
They were silent, happily consuming for a long time, then enjoying the steam and kick of strong Caribbean coffee. “What would you like to do now?” Lorry asked, “We could go back and let you sleep a few hours.”
“No, now I’m mad. I’m really pissed off. If I could absorb a few hours of your blissful sleep . . . But I can’t. I have wholly absorbed the decadence of this place instead.”
“Then you are the real Jamaica.”
“No, everyone but me can sleep and live in this bombshell of a country.”
“It has a cure. We’re going back to a big happy American bed in which we’ve loved our every moment. Would you rather we spent the rest of the trip in Montego Bay?”
“I spent the whole night thinking about that, too. It makes me even madder. I refuse to accept defeat. We’ll stay and learn some more thoroughly rotten truths. Drench me with Jamaica hex remover for the fight.”
“There’s no ingredients list on the bottle, and I’d never expose you to anything dangerous. Also, I still think it’s goat piss.”
“Then I go to battle au naturelle.”
“I like the sound of that.”
Outside, they decided to stroll in the opposite direction, still within the safety zone. Anna felt a tiny presence on her hand and saw what looked like a Monarch Butterfly with color-reversed markings. Black was the dominant color, with orange and white on the rim. You precious thing, she thought. You’ve wiped out my obsession in a breath, restoring my humanity. It flew off almost instantly, making her feel blessed. She smiled and said nothing about the butterfly.
Suddenly a few huge, warm rain drops began falling sporadically. They both remembered the last time they were caught in rain and ducked into a clothing store. “You remember last time,” Lorry said.
“Five minutes before the deluge . . . then an hour nonstop.”
“Maybe we should take a run to that restaurant. We could have coffee or rum.”
“You’re getting too serious about that rum.” Anna put her hand out into the deluge. It was thick warm rain in what seemed to be distinctly fat drops. They ran to the next building and rubbed their arms, laughing at the onslaught. “That’s the warmest rain I’ll ever know,” Anna said, and melded it to her memory. “It doesn’t cool you off, just makes you feel more in union with the tropics.”
“Agreed. I’m a hot, sloppy mess, and I think I’m going to make it worse by having rum.” They sat down and ordered; Anna a good kick of Caribbean coffee; Lorry a rum that turned out to be syrupy sweet pink liquid over proof alcohol. They touched glasses to their new toast, “To your decadence.”
When they were out exploring the streets again, they came unexpectedly to a huge market. It took up the entire street with blue plastic tarpaulins blowing on top of what felt like an African market of bargains. Yams, salted fish, scissors, hair braids, tin plates, rice, brown sugar, plastic mirrors, mangoes and tripe met their immediate gaze and more extended beyond. Nearly all vendors were women, Anna noted. The orderly life of trade and exchange of legal funds is matriarchal, she thought. The women were wearing wide straw hats and heavy leather shoes; their hands were on their hips.
Anna was carrying the map. “I assume we’re in the safety zone?” Lorry asked.
“Yes. Too bad we don’t need anything. I’d love to talk to them.”
“I can pay for a conversation,” Lorry said.
Lorry approached the woman selling mangoes. The woman’s glowing skin made her look young and healthy, but she seemed to have lost most of her teeth, leaving her with poorly fitting dentures. This gave her a perpetual bovine chew. Nonetheless, she was very dark and beautiful. “How much for four ripe ones?” Lorry asked. She began probing them and selected four. They briefly haggled the price, which Lorry assumed was customary, and then Lorry took them in a sack. “How do your fish, fruit and other produce get here?” she asked.
“We get dem early-early in de mornin’. You fas’ asleep.”
“Where does it come from?”
“All over Jamaica. Dem come on buses, sometimes ol’ cars, even de trains; all come to sell here. Can be farmer, can be fisherman. Some have lil’ room for overnight”.
“Are women doing most of it?“ Anna asked.
“Oh yes, you got to have wimmin handlin’ de money or how it goin’ to get to fambly, de pickneys? Men only put de money in bullets an’ guns.”
“Are you well enough off?” Lorry asked. “Do your pickneys have enough to eat, if you don’t mind our asking?”
“I don’ mind. You buy my mangoes. Dat feed me pickneys. We OK, not go hungry. I raise my bwais strict-strict. Dey back in de countryside, not part a’ no gangs. My oldest, he almos’ a man and ah tink he be happy wit fishin’, farmin’, ganja and good woman. I tink I raz him good and he be happy man. De utter pickneys, dey is good, too.”
“Where do you go after dark?” Lorry asked.
“I go by bus home, not fa’. I don’ want no gangs an’ guns. It dark, dey take ovah, excep’ a few places fo’ white people and rich-rich.”
Another customer came up, and Anna said, “Thank you for the mangoes,“ and they left. “Are we going to eat all those mangoes?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Lorry said. “It was worth a conversation. See anything else we can buy?”
“How about a pound of brown sugar to give away to some lucky pickney?”
They approached the woman who sold brown sugar and ordered a pound. She swiftly weighed and wrapped it and Anna paid without haggling. This woman was much older. Her softly brilliant brown eyes glowed in a heavier face, and she looked both sensitive and kind. “Where do you get the sugar from, if you don’t mind my asking?” Anna said.
“Dere’s an ol’ man who sells to me. I store here in lil’ rented room and den go back to mah house in de country.”
“Is it a living for your family?”
The woman’s big soft eyes suddenly creased. “My pickneys, dey eat, but my oldest bwai, he once came to stay wit’ me, learn the trade. I not let anymo’ do it. He get mix up wit’ de gangs and he get killed before he even fifteen yars. No more a’ my bwais can come heah. Dey go bad.”
“Are they happy in the countryside, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’ mind none. When customer not here, we jus’ talk all day. Never stop talkin’. My oldest girl, she take care a’ me pickneys, and dere’s bwai she gonna marry. I tol’ dem nevah come to dis place, and dey mind me. Dey live some day by de fishin’ and de farmin’ and I sell what dey make. When dey older and can do dat, dey can come and sell like me. Dey have some sense den and dis’ city not make dem go bad.”
“That sounds really good,” Lorry said as another customer came up and they walked on.
“A good story for a gift to the pickneys. I like that word. It must come from pickaninny. They came up to a coffee vendor who was selling to both customers and vendors. The stand was run by an old man with a large round coffee machine. His business came at a brisk pace. The old man’s head was completely white but his skin had a youthful glow. There was no opportunity to question him, but they asked if they could sit somewhere. He generously gestured to three empty plastic chairs behind him. They sat down and were silent, drinking coffee and absorbing the atmosphere. The market seemed a moving, breathing thing with a clear good purpose, rare in Kingston. They had not expected to find it. When business was slow, the women talked to each other, slapping hands and laughing. They heard African languages spoken as well as rapid, thick indecipherable Jamaican patois.
“We could be anywhere in the third world, particularly Africa,” Anna said.
“But no villages. It would make a huge difference.”
“Yes, no more ugly, violent big city. I wonder why they can’t revert somehow.”
“Too much money and power in the hands of gangs and corrupt politicians. It would take revolution.”
“That’s not all of it,” Anna said. “There’s a bottomless quality to so much ganja and rum. They take away their will to change their circumstances. With plenty of that, the people can even adjust to an abyss of violence surrounding them.” A butterfly suddenly alighted on the bag of sugar, which was open to the air. It was pure velvet black with a thick yellow stripe across its wings. Drink deep, little beauty, Anna thought. I knew that sugar was good for something.
They sat for an hour, glad to be part of a world that made sense; then they continued on an offshoot street in the safety zone. Anna put the brown sugar down upon the first housing stoop they passed. She suddenly looked with intense interest at the map. “There is actually an art museum close by. I’m fascinated; are you?”
“Sure,” said Lorry. “I can’t imagine anything more irrelevant to these hardscrabble lives.”
The museum was not large or elaborately built. It was a concrete rectangle with some artistic grill work over the windows and a scene of extremely variable Jamaican faces in a large bronze plaque laid into the concrete beside the building’s entrance. They entered and paid their admission while experiencing the instant relief of air-conditioning. Many of the restaurants, bars and hotels they had been in were not air-conditioned. “The twentieth century has just dropped down over this primeval space,” Anna said.
They were instantly astonished by a wall-size painting of a white figure lying flat, probably dead, surrounded by a fabulous collection of beings, two human and in mourning, all others clearly supernatural, thrilling and full of mythic symbols, Anna thought. One, probably a god associated with death, was completely black with huge, all-seeing white eyes but for the pupils. He was double the size of the dead figure and covered with squares, circles, arrows, trees and fountains that obviously had spiritual meaning. There were other spiritual beings displaying mythic designs; they were of different sizes and carried jugs, staffs and other symbolic objects. The painting displayed the spiritual world’s perpetually open eyes; the spirits can see the entire universe of life and its visible and invisible processes, unlike the eyeless human consciousness in the three figures portrayed. The open eyes are critical; what can be seen spiritually is cosmic, thrilling, greater than human life, Anna concluded.
All of the figures, too, show positions and implied movement that is utterly elegant and harmonious. That is what these beings, seeing or not, are immersed in: this is the universe’s most powerful attribute. That is just breath-taking, Anna thought. “It must reflect a religion of gods, ancestors and spiritual beings of all kinds, good and evil; the universe as a cornucopia of African origin, but also a reflection of the speed of life and death in the jungle.”
“Well, it just raised the hair on the back of my neck and I didn’t think of a single damned thing,” Lorry said.
Anna laughed. “We’re two sides of the same coin. The point is, this is great stuff. What a contrast with the street! How necessary it is. Do you still think it’s irrelevant?”
“Nope.” They looked around and saw a few white people and some smartly dressed, clearly middle class Afro-Caribbeans. That woman who works at the Visitor’s Information Center probably comes here, sometimes over her lunch hour, Lorry thought.
“I’d love to take one of those market women in here to tell me what she thinks of it,” Anna said.
“I’m getting a feel for what she might say, actually. Her eyes would be wide open and bright, and she’d say, ’Dat de big-big worl’ and all de spirits. Dat everythin’. Can’ say no mo,’ fool.”
Anna laughed. “You’re right. Do we have the real Jamaica at last?”
“It has now expanded by orders of magnitude and we’ll never catch up.” They noted an explanatory card saying that the artist was Cuban and there would be rooms of work by artists of other Caribbean nations in the museum.
Another room displayed more work by the Cuban artist, paintings of supernatural beings, male and female, probably the supreme deities, Anna thought. The female was covered with scales and had a fish carved as part of the frame, the whorls of the frame also suggesting oceanic life. A white snake reared up beside her and wound itself around the scene. Like the prior painting, the emphasis was also partly on the cosmic eyes that can see the universe, as human eyes cannot. The woman’s figure was dark, with eyes large and white with a black pupil that seemed to swim in the iris, unfixed, Anna concluded.
The painting of the male chief god was nearly the reverse of the female. He was almost completely dark, sitting on a stump with a partial cape. Otherwise nude like the woman, he held an ornamental staff denoting power. He had no scales and seemed the ruler on land. His white pupils rose up strikingly from the darker scene, emphasizing the power and scope of his vision. His staff of power is white and so is the snake, which has been overpowered and merely hangs lifeless over his wrist, Anna thought. “These must be their most powerful supernatural deities, male and female. It looks as though the myth of Eve’s fall has a counterpart here,” Anna said.
They entered another room with paintings of jungle life much like Anna had seen from the train. There were wooden houses turning green with jungle vegetation. The wood was so worn by the tropical environment as to have become twisted gray and green boards. The paintings were in watercolor, with emphasis on shadows, Anna thought. Humans and their structures seemed defined by these shadows, hence extremely ephemeral, coming and going rapidly in the cycle of sunlight, plants and jungle, all in vivid colors. The jungle was what remained, perpetually rejuvenating itself, unlike human life, Anna concluded. If I lived in the tropics, painting and sculpture would be my creative modes, she thought. Life away from Kingston is so intense, beautiful, and colorful that it should be rendered in its own materials, as close as possible to unguided senses. Words are a mind away, infinitely distant and more difficult to use. I would live to be very old and have wooly white hair. I would sing in images, paint and stone. I would never be too old but merely expire amidst the beauty I had created.
“I’ve gotten used to your interpretations. So what do you think of this painting?” Lorry asked.
“Oh, so you don’t want to answer. Now I’m really curious.” Anna only smiled. I treasure my secrets from you, she thought.
“Let’s come back again. I want to sit on these benches, then plunge back into the streets.”
“Ah yes, the streets. How we’ve been taken away.”
Outside, they walked several blocks then, on an impulse, Anna turned out of the safety zone onto an unknown street. “So you want to go hunting again?” Lorry asked.
“Yes, I’d eventually like to know how it all fits together.”
“What a metaphysical traveler.”
“No, just traveler, in love with it.” They saw many alleyways and even whole streets composed of nothing but detritus—old mattresses, tires nearly burned away, dirt, empty foundations of what had once been houses, burning rubbish, gun shots a short distance away, chains, smells of ganja and chicken fat, smoke hovering over it all and always the pariah dogs barking and barking over their oblivion. How life snuffs out at the end of civilization, Anna thought. The only residents of such areas were occasional surly teenagers, boys shouting bumbo chaat! Rass chaat! Incomprehensible.
Then, they were in a large crowd of people, people walking pointlessly, not talking. Most were much shorter than the two women, probably stunted in their growth, Lorry thought. Suddenly the world became an abyss. A gang of three tall, husky men stopped their van rapidly in the street. There was no other traffic. The area seemed marked out in some way by someone, its inhabitants of one unknown identity. The three men opened the rear of the van and yelled at the two women angrily to get in.
This was instant danger; they knew it and reverted automatically to their most primitive reflexes very fast. Anna remembered an old tip about what to do if you came upon a cougar in the forest: make yourself seem as big, loud and threatening as you can. She shook her fists at the men and yelled back again and again. No, no, no, you bastards! We’ll have nothing to do with you! Get lost! She yelled at the top of her deep voice so it sounded nearly male. Loud, vicious, any attack will be answered in kind, she thought. Lorry yelled, too, shook her fists and grabbed her knife, circling it around herself as though expert in its use.
Anna got her knife and stabbed it straight at the men. The men continued yelling and shaking their fists but did not come closer. Cougar’s withdrawing, still crouched, ran through Anna’s mind. Then the big quiet crowd began to yell and move guardedly toward them, as hostile as the men. No, no, no! The two women yelled and began walking back to the safety zone. It was four blocks away. At the rim of her vision, Anna saw a policeman watching, doing nothing.
Now they could think of nothing but fury and the first block, just ahead. Keep yelling! She thought. Keep swinging the knife! Look vicious! Noise, pure noise like nothing you’ve ever done or heard before. Sound like a furious, well-armed man! The four blocks were in both their hearts and minds. Just up the block now and into the second block . . . Just get to the zone and yell your throat out! It’s not far. Their blocks are as short and shitty as they are, Lorry thought. A shouting crowd followed them, but not fast. They were evidently afraid of a physical encounter, too. Anna wanted to see how close they were and swirled around, stabbing the air with her knife and swinging her fist as though she knew how to use them like a street fighter.
Another short, crapulous block and the end in sight, Lorry thought—and the van and the crowd came on . . . More yelling, continuous yelling and we’re louder than they are, Anna thought . . . They could only think the zone, the end, the end! We can do this! But, they weren’t out of it yet. The crowd and the van were still following. They yelled and walked as fast as they could but did not run. They wanted to show disengagement but not a whit of fear or cowardice. Then the cougar springs.
An agony of sound and fury and the corner in their eyes . . . around the corner and it’s done, a street in the safety zone . . . They walked ahead and knew they were safe. The crowd and van were still in the danger zone but they were not. “We made it!” Lorry gasped and laughed. “But let’s keep moving, anyway. I want more space between us and them.”
They continued walking but heard a whistle and a Caribbean voice behind them say, “You, young ladies!” They didn’t look or act a bit like young ladies, but their switchblades were again tucked away in their boots. They turned and to their surprise, it was the policeman who had abandoned them. “You two,” he said, “you can’t go out of the safety zone. I won’t protect you there. You were in one of the areas controlled by a powerful gang. Everyone there is considered their property. They thought they had the right to take you and do as they pleased, and I would have let them.”
“We noticed that!” Anna nearly yelled, still aroused by the crowd.
“My job is to protect you here, not there. I want you to know that there’s nothing to save you if you go out of the zone.”
“As if we didn’t know that!” Lorry yelled.
“Calm down. You’re safe.” he ordered and they merely walked away. They continued walking until their pace grew normal, they were no longer gasping for air, and they could think.
“Well, that is the second bona fide attempt on our lives,” Lorry said. “I defy you to tell me we learned anything from it!”
“But we did: what their corruption feels like close up, how violence feeds on itself and multiplies. It’s bottomless. Just think of it: the gangs own the people there. No wonder they looked like zombies.”
They both expelled a deep breath and gently, at that moment, it was over. “It’s around dinner time,” Lorry said.
“Oh, yes! Let’s get some blood sugar, and this time I join you in that pink over proof ooze they call rum.” They smiled at one another and it meant the same thing; what bliss to be survivors.
“We’ll have to tell Rory we got chased by a pack of zombies. She’ll believe it.”
“Unfortunately, it’s mostly true.” Anna began laughing and Lorry instantly joined in. They hugged one another and saw a few tears in their eyes. Then, they chose an outdoor bar and grill as dusk came down and the sunset was still glowing, ordering fried fish and plantains with ackee and gleaming pink rum.
“Don’t take a big swig of that.” Lorry said. Anna tested it with a small taste. As they were eating, their thoughts revolved everywhere—all over the island, comparisons with New York, with other third-world countries, the undeniable fact that they had instantly known the best strategy: big, loud, mean and the knife stabbing the air.
“I remembered something I once read in a camping guide, all about what to do if you came face-to-face with a cougar in the forest,” Anna said.
“I read the same thing about some other animal. Get as big and loud and scary as you can. Look so vicious that no attack would be worth it.” The two suddenly convulsed with laughter again. “Sometimes I was just thinking, ‘ SOB’, ‘mean SOB!’ I also read that with bears, it’s the reverse: be passive, invisible. What’s interesting is, we knew immediately that they’d be like cougars.”
“And how the yelling set off that crowd, as though they were just waiting for it,” Anna said.
“There’s your violence just below the surface. What a goddamned fucking awful thing to have happened! I am reduced to obscenities.”
“That may be a step up. We were reduced to animal growls before.”
“What will this do to your sleep?”
Anna laughed. “You can forget about that until we’re back in the States. Maybe tonight I’ll try this lethal pink syrup for entertainment.”
They left the restaurant and were immediately assailed by heat, the city’s dark giant. As they walked, reggae sounded everywhere, a heartbeat in the night. You were never without heat to the sound of reggae, Anne thought. In this concrete cage, it was always pressing in upon everyone until the only outlet was rum or ganja, that or violence. Tonight, they carefully checked the map to stay in the safety zone. Still, they stopped and looked from time to time at streets that ran off the zone, chaotic and crooked often but places of residence nonetheless. They stopped and looked but did not go into that darkness. Now they knew it was bottomless. On one crooked street, they saw burning tires and corrugated fences around tiny houses. Gunshots sounded from pools further down in the endless dark, and they passed away from it.
At another point, they looked down a side street and saw zinc-fenced shanties with tin roofs and chaotic clumps of palms around them. The eternal pariah dogs were barking as they circled around burning rubbish. They had no more desire to explore such places. They had revealed their meaning, their secrets. Now they offered nothing but death, Anne thought, worse than being lost in a jungle Still, the tropical heat pressed their bodies and even entered their mouths like something alive.
“We might want to check the map for a beach tomorrow,” Lorry said but Anne thought, how can it be safe? It would be isolated. Would they hear gunshots in the surf? Any kind of violence is possible in a city like this.
Past the reggae nightclubs, they reached their hotel and both wanted nothing more than a shower, a chance to rid themselves of the tropics’ suet covering their bodies. So, they showered together, passing the soap from one to the other. As they toweled down, the heat was briefly defeated, just a kind of liquid the city lived in.
After they got into bed, Lorry began massaging Anne’s back. “There’s always that possibility you might sleep,” she said.
“That’s lovely,” Anne said and thought, It won’t happen. What we’ve discovered today is a black tide that will just cover me over, leaving nothing but danger and open, peering eyes.
“We’ve come to the end here, haven’t we?” Lorry asked. “We can go back to Montego Bay now, which we haven’t explored that much. They’ve wanted to kill us twice here; we’ve seen the bottom of the cesspool, surely. There’s nothing more to know. Let’s go. You can probably sleep in Montego Bay.” The backrub pleased Anne utterly and she thought, of course she’s right. We stop short of gunshot, don’t we? We know everything about this place now but how to die.
The rubbing stopped; Lorry was asleep. Anne found it impossible to stay alert and nearly slept. Tonight, there were jungle animals all over the room, clinging to the walls, peering, watching, eyes in the night. If only you were really here, Anne thought, hypnogogic. Eyes answered, eyes stared, eyes caressed her. A van suddenly rushed into the scene, but the animals flew to it and covered it over. It was lost in the jungle.
And still, she could not really sleep.
Copyright © 2019 by Bev Jafek.
About the Author
Bev Jafek has published about 50 of her short stories and novel excerpts in the literary quarterly and university press publications. Some have been translated into German, Italian and Dutch (as well as appearing in English language publications in India) and won many literary awards, including publication in the annual “prize“ anthology, The Best American Short Stories. She also won the Carlos Fuentes Award and the Editor’s Prize for fiction from Columbia Journal well as first prize in the 2001 Arch & Bruce Brown Foundation short story competition for “redemption of gay history” through creative writing. The Overlook Press, distributed by Penguin-Putnam, published her first story collection, The Man Who Took a Bite Out of His Wife, and reprinted it in paperback two years later. It was cited as one of the best story collections of the year in The Year’s Best Fantasy (7th edition, Teri Windling) as well as being selected as a finalist for the Crawford Award (best new fantasy fiction writer of the year). She has been a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University. Her first novel, The Sacred Beasts, an epic of 122,000 words (Bedazzled Ink Books, October 2016) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her second novel, A Kind of Paradise, was released in 2018 also by Bedazzled Ink Books.
I now have 50 publications rather than 45,
and Columbia: A Magazine of Literature & Art is just called Columbia
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
She’s still trying in her way to get back
to the ledge, that daring edge she never
believed she quit for the blue. Falling takes
forever with her eyes closed, gravity
a force that exists only in someone
else’s life, not long arms pulling her back
when she’d rather go on. We’ve all been told
by a man who knows that every night in
bed right before slumber we can rewrite
our day, change all that happened even with
someone else’s leg thrown over us on
dirty sheets, the only part she trusts that
some man’s always watching, whoever he
is. We want narratives that make sense and
so reject her story, most of us not
able to follow the modernist tale
with its changing point of view and suspect
heroes, the unfamiliar use of words,
that experimenting with verbs as if
run doesn’t mean what it says, implies a
way of seeing as strange as the inside
of an angel’s cloak, just to say she once
lived across the street, looks up at me when
I whiz by in my car, unrecognized.
Copyright © 2019 by Sandra Kolandkiewicz.
Cul De Sac
I know what I have to see out my view
every morning: the sky red, warning of
the absence of delight. I have tried on
these pants, wear this jacket like my own, my
success the result of diligence and
the sacrifice of others. I don’t claim
a shirt that doesn’t have a blue collar,
wouldn’t know how to frame the world any
other way than escape, the kind of hope
that let me flee a neighborhood where folks
were kind, paid on the same house for fifty
years, not enough of a life for me but
what I am still in spite of traveling
from there to here. I am ever grandson
and soldier, a son who left after a
war he didn’t win and never returned,
who remembers the cornfields, now shopping
malls, disoriented by apartment
complexes and that French-sounding name that
leads nowhere but a circle: cul de sac.
Copyright © 2019 by Sandra Kolandkiewicz.
About the Author
Sandra Kolandkiewicz’s poems have appeared widely, most recently in Adelaide, London Magazine, New World Writing and Appalachian Heritage. Her book Turning Inside Out was published by Black Lawrence. Finishing Line has released The Way You Will Go and Lost in Transition.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
My grandmother hung
a perfect wash that danced
in the wind and trapped
a free matinee of sun or
froze in heartless January
when she had to stand each
stiff pair of jeans or plaid shirt
on her kitchen floor where
they collapsed in slow motion.
Pushing the rope on its pulley
out from the house, she
taught me matching socks,
towels arranged by color,
each denim shirt pinned
on the seams. I take
care to do it well
she claimed, Because folks
notice. I did not
know at eight or ten
who these noticing
folks might be or how
to discern a wash
hung perfectly from
one less skilled. But this
chore was not mindless
for her like my clothes
these days, left in the dryer,
sometimes folded or
piled in a basket
wrinkled and forgotten
until we need them.
I suppose I take
pride in things besides
straight collars or sheets
that smell of sunshine.
Copyright © 2019 by Beth Konkoski.
Take me home and let the night
take us round in close circles of lust.
Taking exception to any rule or none, we will
take back at least a tepid joy, a middle-aged
take on passion where the knees and heart can
take their time. I long to feel over-
taken again, swept in the dust pan of ecstasy as it
takes long strokes along the concrete of our days.
Take me, yes, like a hostile
take over. I won’t complain or turn away.
Take comfort in my longing that it seeks you,
takes our stacked history as aphrodisiac when I could
take my wares elsewhere, let someone else be on the
Copyright © 2019 by Beth Konkoski.
About the Author
Beth Konkoski has been published in journals such as the Potomac Review, Gargoyle, Saranac Review, and Mid-American Review. Her second chapbook of poems Water Shedding was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. She has read her work in and around Washington, D.C. and has been a host and organizer of the Miller Reading Series at Rock Creek Park for the last three years.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
A Strange Love Poem
Roses are forgetting raining days for Naples, I’m afraid.
Styrofoam is always that September you had,
a twist on the beach is this impressive light
to somebody’s packaged death-site wound.
I had died and poured black worse, driving through
a choice in a land to be corrected, near miles of ocean.
I want tonight, the footprints of winter cooler, to grab a conch,
coat and hat, than onto something surrounding us
all the time. All events, by love, a block and a half ahead,
years ago, are free. Life, your shoes, the snows,
a half-eaten garden, swims in the color, slides above granola bars
mostly. In your heart of love do the stars shower in this,
and power the accordion. The pomegranates fill their dust city.
The potato trees in Amish country were dreary,
and my eyes kept having soup.
Copyright © 2019 by Rustin Larson.
Additional Love Poem
Does wine flood my face or my heart with dogs
at the core of the ocean’s emptiness? Dear she-wolf,
this is how of air I imagine, howl these events.
Love is more that the days come, haunt you in your sleep,
and go and envision shores. You hear waves fall
for their own sake, and we don’t live in radio static,
and the tree goes anywhere crumbled. Cast your nets
and you shall again in trees be fed. Daylight is its own spring.
The world blows its top. The unthinkable happens.
I ask for a book called Turn, Zero, Zero, Zero.
My name for the life cleaner is not an issue.
I won’t let my name split my head open, nor will I find
my name running or falling from the gallows. I’ll run
until I fall through starlight, a world full. I’ll land
in the forest on the lips on the cavern of death.
Copyright © 2019 by Rustin Larson.
About the Author
Rustin Larson’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, and North American Review. He won 1st Editor’s Prize from Rhino and was a prize winner in The National Poet Hunt and The Chester H. Jones Foundation
contests. His books of poetry include: Library Rain Conestoga Zen Press, 2019); Howling Enigma (Conestoga Zen Press, 2018); Pavement ( Blue Light Press, 2017); The Philosopher Savant (Glass Lyre Press, 2015); Bum Cantos, Winter Jazz, and The Collected Discography of Morning (Blue Light Press, 2013); The Wine-Dark House (Blue Light Press, 2009); and Crazy Star (Loess Hills Books, 2005).
He has been a seven-time nominee for a Pushcart Prize, has been a featured writer for the DMACC Celebration of the Literary Arts, and has been a finalist for the New England Review Narrative Poetry Competition 1985.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
I smelled his piss before I saw him. The sulfurous stench rose as a filthy, noxious cloud and filtered in through the screen of my bedroom window, working its way under the cracks between the pane and the sill, carried inside on the ever-colder air of late October.
Uncle Nick was here.
Mom told us he was coming. She wasn’t sure when, but he would likely get in before her. She was going to a concert with dad. They were meeting in the city and wouldn’t be home until much, much later. It was nine-thirty now, and I was fifteen.
I cracked open my bedroom door to listen. Uneven footsteps clambered in through the back door, followed close behind by a torrent of skittering. Bailey’s claws scratched against the wood floors in frantic rhythms. She adored Uncle Nick.
I went downstairs, knowing it was easier to get it all over and done with quickly than to try and hide. The lights were on. We always kept them on downstairs when mom and dad weren’t home. It made us feel safe, but it had a hollowing effect on the house. The brightly lit rooms shone with a tangible absence, tense and ringing, demanding to be filled.
I heard Uncle Nick crash haphazardly into a chair. I turned the corner and he looked up at me, startled, as if I had clattered drunkenly into his house. Then he smiled. It was awful when he smiled, all yellowed teeth and grizzled skin. “Hey! Adam! How’s it going?”
“Hey Uncle Nick. It’s good.”
“It’s good? Good. You’re having a good night-you’re good in school-you’re doing good? What’s up, what are you doing?” The questions slurred out through his lips like sewage then he staggered from the chair before I could answer, hitching up his worn jeans and turning. Uncle Nick dressed in an assortment of battered, layered shirts and sweaters we refreshed every Christmas. His hair was a tangle of graying, matted curls.
“Here ya go.” My uncle handed me a CVS bag. Inside was a giant package of peanut M&Ms. He always brought me M&Ms. When I was a little kid, it had been a fun treat. Now it felt like a greeting carried out by muscle-memory. Just enough of him was left to repeat the action, over and over, every time, like a clicker-trained chimp.
“Oh, thanks!” I gave him a smile.
“Oh s’nothing — ” He turned bashfully away and I thought that might be the end of it. Bailey trotted into the room, her thin tail wagging with elation. She was a little runt of a pit-bull with short, light cream fur and un-clipped, bat-like ears. She looked up at me with her beady brown eyes as if to say, Can you believe this?
Unfortunately, yes. I petted her on the head and she wriggled away, sniffing Uncle Nick’s pant legs with a ferocity.
“Whoa, Bailey,” Uncle Nick chuckled. He looked at me with sudden seriousness. His eyes were black and glassy. “Where’s your mom and dad?”
Uncle Nick’s voice was loud. I cringed, thinking of my younger brother trying to sleep. “They’re at a concert in the city.”
“Oh! No kidding!” He laughed and nodded to himself, swaying a bit. “I knew that. Shit, right I knew that. Oops. Hee hee hee. Yeah, you know it, right?” He looked at me.
“ . . . Right.”
“Atta boy . . . ” My uncle pulled another plastic CVS bag out of his backpack. His arthritic fingers struggled to find the handles. “Where’s Finn?”
“Oh, he’s upstairs asleep actually.”
“Upstairs you said?”
“Yeah but he’s sleeping.”
“I just want to give him something.” Uncle Nick was moving past me.
“Uncle Nick,” I hissed. “Just-let’s just wait until tomorrow morning. I don’t want to wake him up.”
He furrowed his brow and blinked. It was hard to know if he understood me at all. He’d grown an uneven goatee around his mouth. The lines of his face were crowded with grime and the rest shone with sweat. “No, no I won’t — ”
“Okay.” It was impossible to know if he’d really understood me or cared. My uncle had a habit of rendering other people’s concerns into errant background noise.
I glanced at the back door. It was still open. Right next to it was the bathroom. Why had he taken a piss outside when the bathroom was right there?
Bailey had worked herself up to panting. Her flat pink tongue hung out from her mouth against her jagged teeth. “Hello, Bailey . . . ” Uncle Nick dropped the bag of candy and crouched down in front of her, rubbing her neck and the sides of her heads roughly with his hands. The dog snorted happily, pushing into him and licking his face. “Oof!”
I went and shut the back doors, first the heavy outer one with the broken knob, latching it hard, then the thin, inner one, latching that too. No one needed to go outside now. Bailey had been walked and let out. Everything could settle down.
I turned and heard Uncle Nick’s thunderous, staggering footsteps on the stairs. My chest hitched with frustration, listening as the floorboards of Finn’s bedroom groaned, hearing my brother’s surprise and their voices as Finn got out of bed and Uncle Nick went into the upstairs bathroom to take another piss.
I stood downstairs just listening. If I went up, I would have to deal with it. If I stayed down here, it could go on as if I weren’t here, as if it weren’t my problem. I glanced down the hall. The front door reflected the empty living room back at me.
Upstairs Uncle Nick and Finn were sitting on the couch watching one of my brother’s nature programs. It was called Walking With Prehistoric Beasts. Finn had seen most all the dinosaur documentaries that existed, and had since moved on to the age of mammals. He was twelve, and knew a lot, but very little.
“See that’s the Giant Ground Sloth I was telling you about,” Finn pointed.
Uncle Nick’s face lengthened with all his available concentration. “What-wow, that’s, wow what does it eat?”
“Mainly plants, look, see?”
Uncle Nick was nodding at the screen with the glazed expression of a toddler watching lights and colors. Then his eyes snapped to me. “Hey, Adam!”
Finn looked up too, “Hey! Uncle Nick got me Skittles.”
“Oh, nice. I got M&Ms.”
“Do you want to watch?”
“Maybe!” My voice strained. I edged back to the doorway. Maybe I could leave them in here, and Uncle Nick would stay glued on the couch, even fall asleep, and I could go back to my room.
“Adam, I’m-I’m sorry about that text I sent you,” Uncle Nick said.
I blinked at him, then remembered. Three weeks ago my uncle had texted me, Missing vagina, watch out! unprompted at four in the afternoon.
“It was part of a joke, but I didn’t tell it, you know?”
“It was funny, you’d like it, you just, I didn’t tell it right.”
“It’s okay,” I looked down at my feet and then up again, trying to reset the moment. Uncle Nick was already staring off at the TV with a lost expression.
“Hey Uncle Nick?”
“I locked the doors downstairs. Mom told me to tell you not to take Bailey out, or let her out in the backyard.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because it’s late and she had her walk, and the back gate isn’t working well. It keeps coming unlatched.” I looked at him.
He continued looking at the screen.
“Just don’t let her out, okay?”
Uncle Nick’s eyes snapped to me. “Okay! Alright, don’t worry, Adam. Relax.”
I swallowed the rebuke and took a deep breath. “Okay,” I smiled at Finn, who looked up at me with big gray eyes. “Enjoy the show and the Skittles!”
I backed away from the doorway and walked on my heels to across the least-creaky floorboards, back to my room, hoping my movements wouldn’t inspire my uncle’s restlessness. My door groaned but I shut it quietly and stood in my room. I took a deep breath, trying to loosen my chest. I didn’t even like my room that much. It was cramped and cluttered with objects that weren’t really mine, but had rather followed me through childhood, and so I was obliged to house them until I could leave them behind. The room’s value came from its being small and demarcated. It was a manageable space I could hermetically seal and understand all the variables within.
Bailey’s claws were on the stairs, heading up in her clumsy gait before clicking down the hall, past my door and into the TV room where I heard muffled voices greet her. I froze for several seconds, listening for signs of human movement. None came. I went to my desk and opened my computer, scooted up my chair, put my headphones on.
Music played. I listened to a Weezer song and pretended everything was normal. I went on Facebook and sent my friend a message: hey. But they weren’t online. Maybe they were out having fun, I wondered. The thought washed over me again more powerfully. How did I know he wasn’t out having fun without me? He might have other friends, friends that I didn’t know about, and they would get together on Friday nights, hang out at other people’s houses, sit outside at the edges of ridges above the city, listen to music, kiss one another, drink beer.
I opened the chat bubble again and stared down at the hard surface of the screen. Floorboards groaned two walls away. I stiffened, yanking my headphones off and straining my ears to the silence of the house. Uncle Nick’s drunken gait was moving out of the TV room.
“Are you coming back?” Finn was asking.
“Sure-for sure, yeah bud.”
I yanked the door open and the light from my room flooded him like a spotlight. He jolted, animal eyes searching for a split second too long before finding mine, recognition trickling faintly into his gaze. “Hey!”
“Where are you going?”
“I was gonna go to the backyard.”
“Have a smoke,” he was turning away from me.
“Uncle Nick,” I pressed. “Don’t go in the backyard. Just go to the front of the house.”
“Well, I think Bailey wants to go out.”
I wanted to scream. “No, Uncle Nick, don’t let her out in the backyard.”
“Because the gate isn’t working. She’ll get out.”
“No, she won’t.”
“Yes, she will. Just, please, please don’t go in the backyard. Smoke in the front yard, just until my mom gets back. She said so.”
Uncle Nick turned to look at me and I flinched. His face was filled with hatred, the lines contorted, sharpened and drawn in the half-light of the hall, as if we were a stranger on the streets he walked at night, or one of the cops who put him in jail.
Then his face fell. He looked away. His words mixed with the sharp groans of the stairs. “I’ll smoke in the front.”
Bailey hopped down from the couch and went to the top of the stairs, then looked back at me with uncertain button eyes. The crooked teeth of her lower jaw were caught in her jowls again. It happened a lot because of her under-bite. We called it her toothy face.
“Don’t go outside with him,” I told her. “Just stay up here. Be a good girl.”
Bailey looked back at the stairs and started down them. I sighed. The front door opened and closed before she’d reached the landing, and I heard Uncle Nick’s footsteps disappearing from the porch. For a moment I wished he’d just leave. It wouldn’t be the first time. Sometimes he would just go, in the middle of the night, in the middle of an argument, or for no reason at all.
I went into the TV room. Finn was watching his show with a frown. “It’s nice that Uncle Nick’s here,” he said.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Where’s he going?”
“Just outside for a smoke.”
“Okay, I’ll pause it then,” Finn paused the DVD on a woolly mammoth’s foot pressing into mud. “I want him to see the next part.”
My heart pulled at itself. I pressed my lips together and looked at the dark hall so that my brother couldn’t see what I knew, that Uncle Nick didn’t care about anything Finn wanted to show him, that he was less capable of understanding it than a toddler, uninterested in even trying.
“Tell me if he doesn’t come back in a bit,” I said. I went back to my room and closed the door. I put on music and checked Facebook. I checked my phone. I put on music and sat with my arms folded, trying to make the rest of the house disappear.
There was a knock on the door. My chair scraped against the floor as I stood and pulled it open, expecting Finn.
“Adam,” was all he said. His head was bowed away from me, like a ten-year-old boy expecting punishment. I felt taller than him. I looked down and saw the leash in his hands.
My body was cold. “Where’s Bailey?”
“Uncle Nick? Do you want to keep watching?” Finn called.
Uncle Nick was talking at a million miles per hour, “I just let her out, I went to get the leash to walk her so she wouldn’t get away and then I went back outside, I went and I saw, I didn’t realize, she can’t have gotten far, but she’s not on the block-”
“Why did you let her out in the first place?”
“I-I-I-” Uncle Nick stared at me, crisp fear in his eyes, the clearest they’d been all night. “I-I have to find her. Help me.”
I turned and grabbed my phone, pushing past Uncle Nick and into the hall, down the stairs with him behind me.
“What’s going on?”
“Finn, just stay there. We’ll be right back.”
I stomped across the living room, the lamps trembling in my wake, Uncle Nick at my heels, breathing heavily. We shot onto the dark street and stared around.
“Bailey!” I called. “Bailey!”
“Bailey! Come here girl! Bailey!”
My mind raced. I tried to think of ways she might have went. Left or right. She liked going left on walks. Left then, it would need to be left. “This way.”
We rushed on, calling at the tops of our lungs. I stole a glance at my uncle. His movements were loping and haphazard, but his eyes were set in his skull, staring out with rigid concentration, as if there were two of him inside fighting for control, and the deeper, lost version was struggling to pilot a damaged plane through a storm.
Houses stared out at the street in the dark. Trees layered over each other and obscured our line of sight to the pavement. My eyes twitched at any hints of movement. I felt my phone in my hand, wanting to call mom or dad, but knowing they couldn’t do anything more than I could, that I had to find her, that it was just me and that I had to find her and that it was just me and no one else.
“Bailey!” I shouted so loud my throat burned.
Uncle Nick opened his mouth and for a moment I thought the sound was his: the screech of brakes and a guttural howl and shriek punctuated by silence.
My uncle’s eyes were blue. I hadn’t noticed that before.
“Bailey,” he said.
I was already running. I made it there before him, past the house, to the right. The car was still there with the headlights on. Bailey was crumpled on the sidewalk with black treads on her twisted neck, thin legs tangled between each other in a half-run, and blood. The driver was pulled to the other side of the road. He was getting out and talking fast with wide eyes and I wasn’t listening to him, I was turning towards my uncle with curling fingers and a thrashing scream building in my lungs, and then I saw him stop in the road, and I saw him see Bailey.
His face froze. His skin was as gray as the whites of his eyes, still as rigid as before, and for a moment I wondered if he understood what had happened at all, but his mouth curled down in a black crescent moon, and his eyebrows knit together, his face contorted and his arthritic hands raised to his forehead and he bellowed out a long, awful sob. “Ohh!” he stumbled past me and sank towards the street, shrinking beneath me. “Ohhhhhhhh! Ohhh, ohhh, ohhhhhhhh no—”
I was still. Uncle Nick bent to Bailey then lurched back, unable to touch her mangled frame, fell onto the sidewalk, grabbed his face in his hands, seething sobs into his palms and the spaces between his fingers. I was still.
“Ohhhhhh, ohhhhhh, oh-ohhh-ohhhhhhhh — ”
Mom and dad made it back an hour later. They came up the street from the train, their faces grim in the dark. The driver had waited. Dad went and talked to him. Mom breathed the scent of wine into the night air and screamed at her brother as he rocked back and forth on the curb where he’d remained, still moaning wordlessly with his eyes shut behind his hands. Then mom turned and went into the house, came back with a thick blanket and took up the morbid task of hoisting the limp neck and limbs, the lifeless spine and empty eyes into the bundle and folding the ears back to wrap her easily away.
I took up the far uglier task, placed my hand on his shoulder as he rocked back and forth, squeezed the taut grizzled muscle, my eyes fixed away, and said it’s okay, really, it’s okay, because it was, really. It was fine.
Copyright © 2019 by Otis Roffman.
About the Author
Otis Roffman is a writer from Yonkers now based in Minneapolis.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 129
Ender by Reflections
Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie Sabourin.
About the Artist
Stephanie Sabourin is a photographer, teacher, and nature lover. She draws inspiration from the beauty found all around her. As the owner of Stephanie Sabourin Photography, she is frequently found photographing dogs and other animals, along with their people, in natural settings. Stephanie is a member of Professional Photographers of America, and she has been published in Wonderful West Virginia Magazine and on a number of web pages. She lives with her husband and standard poodle in Columbia, Maryland.