All posts by sofiacapel

Poetry by Heather Bourbeau

The Birdmen of Istanbul[1]

 

I have walked through the night to capture you.

You and I have hid in the brush, unaware how close,

how sweet, our breaths coming together to feed the trees.

 

I have followed the arc of the river, sat in the urine

of deer and dormice, kept myself quiet

to capture your song.

 

I have carved wood from the forest you once called home

to decorate this cage, line it with fabric and paper,

cover your flash of gold, crown of red, to provoke pain.

 

I have found the company of men who know

the attraction of denial, the beauty of survival,

the straining to be heard.

 

I have savored the sweetest sorrow from your voice

as you cry for a female who will never come

to find you, love you, and save you.

 

I have ached for your slavery to liberate me.

My freedom in your pain.

 

[1] In Istanbul, there is a secretive and illegal community of men who keep birds, particularly male goldfinches, in cages to encourage plaintive songs (if concealed from a female in mating season, the male goldfinch’s song becomes more mournful). The men then gather in particular cafes to listen to the birds’ songs together.


Heather Bourbeau’s fiction and poetry have been published in Alaska Quarterly ReviewCleaverEleven Eleven, Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Chalkboard, Open CityThe Stockholm Review of Literature, and the anthologies Nothing Short Of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story and America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press). She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia.

 

Three poems by John Grochalski

hungover and exhausted with all of this

i put down the cell phone and listen as kids play chess

 

sitting

in this barely air-conditioned room

full of children i’m duty-bound to protect

 

i play on my cell phone

like every other dullard

 

and try not to envision the big picture

try not to examine the life

 

but it’s hard

 

back in pittsburgh last weekend

my old man told me

that i needed to start getting my prostate checked

 

prepare for the big colon exam at fifty

 

as if fifty

was just another benchmark

in this endgame played by one

 

and not some train

careening off the rails

and coming straight for me

 

it’s too much this aging

 

counting down

seconds, minutes, hours and days

 

encapsulating decades within the minutiae

of casual conversation between old friends

 

existence itself can drive you mad

when you try and search for lost time

 

hungover and exhausted with all of this

i put down the cell phone and listen as kids play chess

 

and giggle

and laugh with youthful abandon

and run around the room

touching things that i should be telling them

to leave well enough alone

 

for a moment i hate them all

 

sit envious

with how their child-hours seem to loiter

 

as if their little long lives

won’t suddenly catch on fire like mine

 

and this march of time

won’t ever happen to them

 

 

for the lady i met in the laundry room

 

let us speak

less of our fate

and more to the fact

that the laundry must be done

 

we are both slaves

to societal norms and clean underwear

 

but does that mean we need to discuss the weather?

 

or the old building superintendent

who let the cockroaches

roam as free and wild as buffalo

in old western stories?

 

six years after the fact

talk about beating your proverbial dead horse!

 

the way his ears must ring to this day!

 

and don’t you know your ancient grudge

does nothing for your eyes under these dim laundry lights?

 

besides, i could tell you tall tales

about the new superintendent

 

we could sing psalms beneath

the corroded water-damaged plaster of my bedroom ceiling

 

be watered tortured

with the way my shower drips

 

have our very confidence in humanity

shook to its core

with the way his, screaming monster child

runs past my window

caught in the thralls of liquid bubbles

and street chalk

 

or how his wife stares voodoo daggers into me

whenever i offer up a small complaint

 

let us instead

turn this moment of drudgery and chore

into silence

 

human beings are akin to angels

when they are silent and otherwise involved

 

let’s leave the conversation to the gnats

that have begun to congregate in this building anew

 

so that when we finish

we can part ways the best of strangers

 

and i can go back to my apartment

of sound mind

 

and not have to tell my poor wife

 

that the crazy bitch in 2C

is at it again.

 

 

alone, i pour another double vodka

 

and let marvin gaye

permeate the living room

 

to drown out the upstairs neighbor

 

whose fat feet thunder across the floor

like he’s unfurling the wrath of zeus

 

tonight it sounds

as if he’s rolling bowling balls across his floor

then running across the wood

 

to roll them back

 

and i really shouldn’t

be drinking double vodkas this way

at my age

 

it disrupts the sleep

and my brain is dodgy these days

 

but we do as we must to get by

 

and, besides, if i stopped now

it would be a lifetime of false, sober smiles

 

given to bowling ball people

living bowling ball lives

 

rolling and rolling all over me

 

trapping me in an oubliette of pleasantries

with no rusty blade in my hand

 

to cut the occasional vein

and let it all bleed.


John Grochalski has had poetry appear in several online and print publications including:  Red Fez, Rusty Truck, Outsider Writers Collective, Underground Voices, The Lilliput ReviewThe Main Street Rag, Zygote In My Coffee, The Camel Saloon, and Bartleby Snopes.  He is the author four books of poetry The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch (Six Gallery Press, 2008), Glass City (Low Ghost Press, 2010), Starting with the Last Name Grochalski (Coleridge Street Press, 2014), and The Philosopher’s Ship (Alien Buddha Press, 2018).  He has also authored the novels, The Librarian (Six Gallery Press, 2013) and Wine Clerk (Six Gallery Press, 2016).

Two poems by Ben Von Jagow

In a Cafe in Stockholm

The hands on the clock,

like metal spades,

have dropped

between the V and the I.

 

Through pervasive speakers,

a lady sings

to only a couple of patrons

sipping at warm drinks

 

on this cool autumn morning.

The day is prebustle.

Across the street,

wrapped in rented sheets,

 

with curtains drawn,

the tourists sleep.

Song sprinkles their dreams;

the birds search tirelessly

 

through the cobblestone

for bits of bread.

After a brief rest,

the sun returns,

 

shepherding the cranes

as they stalk the shallow horizon

in search of change.

No one shouts, no one honks.

 

The city is tranquil

as the water on which it sits,

clean as the breeze

that ruffles the leaves

 

outside the cafe

on this gentle, peaceful

autumn morning.

 

 

Tiveden

The river will always lead you to the ocean.

You stand between your shadow and the sun.

The canopy eclipses even the bluest of skies

so your thoughts can take root with the trees.

Breathe.

Allow the breeze to sing testament

to the silence of this grand space.

Submit to the melody of the warblers

and quiet the mind.

The creek babbles not without purpose.

Should you feel the need to hum, do it softly.

Don’t give the acorns reason to fall.

It’s time to unburden your backpack,

open your senses,

call forth the wind

and the answers that blow within.

Something special surrounds us.

 


Ben Von Jagow has had poetry featured in literary journals across Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, The Literary Review of Canada, Jersey Devil Press, and elsewhere.

Trust, fiction by Karen Petersen

 

[Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise—Hebrews13:2]

Supermarkets can be dangerous places. You never know who you’re going to meet. The mistake we all make, and it’s hardwired into all of us, I think, is that when we see a smile we assume there is some basic goodness behind it.  And when we discover that it hides manipulation and deceit, it is always a shock, and for some who are fooled, like myself, it can be a matter of life and death.

Shana was a pretty 16-year-old in high school with a part time job as a cashier at the local supermarket. Her conservative parents had emigrated from Greece and her father was a cop. Their tight-knit family was very well-off—where the money came from was never quite clear—and as I got to know her she gave me the impression that her job was just something her parents wanted her to do after school to keep her out of trouble. She wasn’t a very good student and it seemed that a husband and kids was going to be her main ambition after graduation. I enjoyed going up to her because of her friendly smile and bubbly personality, and she always asked how I was and seemed genuinely interested in my replies.

But those large smiling dark eyes of hers hid her true thoughts, which in retrospect probably went something like this: “oh, my God, when is this creepy woman going to shut up and get the hell out of here?”

I didn’t suspect a thing though, and when it came time for an operation on one of my toes in October I confessed to her my worries while we were bagging my groceries.

“I’m going to be laid up for a few days and in need of care,” I said glumly.

“Oh, I totally sympathize!” she cooed. “My granny had an operation and my mom got a nurse for her 24/7.”

“That’s very expensive Shana,” I said. “Insurance won’t pay for that sort of thing and out of pocket would be way too much money for me. I just need someone to come in each morning and evening for a few days to make small meals and feed the cat and empty his litter box. Simple stuff.”

“Anything else?” she said.

“I’ll need to keep the foot elevated and bending down will be painful—at least in the beginning,” I continued. “I have to be very careful of blood clots, as I had some serious ones a few years ago and nearly died.”

She just stood there for a moment staring at me.

“How much are you paying for that?” she asked matter-of-factly.

Even though I’d grown up in this town I’d moved away years ago and now didn’t know anyone. I’d come back to sell my late mother’s house just a few months earlier and get it packed up and moved across the country to California.

So I replied, “Oh I don’t know, $30 a day seems fair.” I thought that $30 for about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening for a few days seemed like a good wage, at least out here on Eastern Long Island.

“OK, I’ll help you,” she said.

I smiled. What a great kid! I thought to myself. “Thanks, Shana, that’s really very kind of you.”

I started to leave and then turned around.  But she’d already moved on to the next customer, with that giant smile of hers. I walked back over.

“I’ll call the surgeon and make the appointment. Here’s my number,” I said, “and write yours down on this. I’m doing a yard sale this Saturday so perhaps you’d like to help with that too. I’ll pay you $10 an hour—you just need to stand watch while I sell the items and bring out more from the house.”

“Ok,” she said. “What time?”

“8 a.m.—that’s when the dealers start showing up.” I smiled at her. “Thanks again, you’re great.”

That Saturday Shana showed up on time and helped me bring out the various items that I’d tagged the night before for the yard sale. One of the items that I’d decided not to sell was a Steiff black cat that was a hand puppet given to me by my late father when I was about 5. It had a lot of character and had become very valuable so I had put it in my bedroom upstairs.

The day went by quickly and almost everything sold. Shana went into the house a few times to use the bathroom or drink some water and by 5pm I’d made over $600. I gave her $60 and sent her home, happy, or so I thought.

When I went upstairs to sleep that night I saw that the hand puppet was gone and was shocked to realize that it must have been Shana, as no one else had been inside. If I could have gotten rid of her then and there I would have but I knew no one in town to turn to for my foot operation.  It was already scheduled for the end of the coming week, and a large storm, perhaps hurricane in force, was supposed to be gathering south of us, ready to hit by the next weekend just when I was scheduled to recover. I was stuck.

Sometimes a sense of foreboding is simply an irrational fear, but other times it is your instinct warning you to beware. In this case I should have listened to my instincts.

I saw her once at the supermarket during the coming week, and her eyes had this kind of glittering contempt in them that was hard to miss. I began to think she was one of these deeply disturbed teenagers who would murder me and then clean out the house with her drunken friends, the kind of awful thing you see on the late night TV homicide shows.

I went up to her and asked “Are we all set for this Friday?”

“Oh yes, I’ve got it on the calendar. Be at your house by 2!” she responded brightly, caressing her long black hair and smiling that big smile of hers. Well, call me old or call me foolish—or both— but I began to feel relieved. The power of youth to charm and ensnare always amazed me.

The day of the surgery a taxi took me to the hospital. My surgeon, who sat on the board of the hospital, had long been considered the best foot man in the area. But lately he’d been distracted by the illness of his elderly mother and I wondered if he was pulled together enough to do the operation. Even rattled, however, he was still the best around, or at least that’s what I told myself

as I lay on the table.

In pre-op the nurse came in and gave me a shot of something that made me feel really sick. My entire body began to itch and my heart raced. A nasty red rash rapidly spread up my arm from the injection site. “Help! Help!” I yelled, into the crowded pre-op room, but no one came.

This time I shouted as loudly as I could. “HELP!” and someone came over and said, “I see you are having an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.”

“Yes,” I gasped. “I’m allergic to it. The doctor knew that.” And this time that person moved very quickly and put a large dose of Benzedrine in my arm and the rash began to fade. I felt my heart slow down.  But then they put something else in my arm which knocked me out completely.

When I woke up in recovery my entire leg was in a cast and both my thighs were black and blue. “What the hell happened?” I shouted at the nurse. “Who injured me?? And why is my leg in a cast? This was a simple operation for a bunion. All my foot needs is a wrapping. This is horrible!”

She came over and spoke in infuriatingly soothing tones, as if I was some kind of unstable crazy person. “It’s ok, my dear, this is what the doctor wanted.”

“WHAT? This makes no sense. I’ve had these kinds of operations before and NEVER ended up like this. That idiot probably got his patients confused.” I was furious, but still groggy, and trapped. No one was listening, or seemed to care. Was this a dream? Was I still asleep?? It was all so bizarre. I looked around in bewilderment as the nurse said “I’ve called a taxi for you and they will be here shortly.”

“A taxi? Are you nuts?? I can barely think straight!” I barked.

Shit. I hadn’t planned on a leg cast. And that fucking doctor had never even mentioned one. He knew I had a history of blood clots. All that immobility now. Was that jerk trying to kill me or what?

They wheeled me to the taxi and I miserably crawled in. I staggered to my front door on the crutches they had given me and went inside and called Shana.

No answer.

I spent the next three hours trying to reach her with no success and finally fell asleep from exhaustion. When I woke up it was dark and I tried her again, this time blocking my number. She picked up.

“Hello?” she said tentatively.

“Where are you?” I said. “You’re supposed to be here to help. I’m home from the hospital and I’ve been trying to reach you for three hours!”

“Oh,” she said blandly. “I decided I really don’t feel like doing that sort of thing, sorry.” and hung up. Goddamn teenagers. I should have known not to trust her.

I lay there staring at the ceiling. The wind was starting up outside—I could hear the trees creaking—a major storm was closing in, and I was all alone.

 

++++++++++

Exhausted, I slept for hours. When I woke up it was dark and the rain was pounding down in a howling wind. The cat hadn’t been fed or his box cleaned and I was hungry. I called the doctor’s service but they told me he hadn’t picked up his calls all night. What kind of doctor was this guy, and where was he?

My survival instincts began to take over. I had my walker and crutches by the side of the bed and was strong enough to get to the bathroom and kitchen. I got up slowly and went into the small downstairs bathroom on my crutches. By sitting on the side of the tub I could empty the cat box into the toilet and refill it.

Getting around in the kitchen was harder. I found if I kneeled my leg on a stool I could stand on the other and reach up into the cabinets for the cat food and my own food, which tonight could only be soup. Bending down was tricky but if I did it quickly enough I was okay. My foot was already starting to hurt and my calf felt like there was a large hard knot in it. I bet I have a clot already, I thought. That goddamn idiot.

The thought that I might have a clot was very frightening, and potentially life threatening so I tried the doctor’s service again. This time he called back. He sounded drunk.

“I’m concerned that a clot has already developed,” I said.

“That’s quite soon,” he said.

“Yes, but you put me in a cast!” I replied, trying to stay calm. “Why on earth would you do that, and you didn’t even discuss this with me. Having the leg that immobile is practically guaranteeing a clot!”

I was astonished. I had a history of this and he hadn’t even put me on a blood thinner prior to the surgery if he’d been planning on totally immobilizing the bottom half of my leg.

“Look, I’m sorry. I thought it would help with your balance,” he said, slurring his words. “I apologize. My mother just died and I’ll be out of the office for a few days. If you still feel worried in a few days, call the office and we’ll figure something out.” He hung up.

I was stunned. He was obviously not thinking clearly. In a few days the clot could have moved and killed me. I felt my heart rate go up and my anxiety soar. I had to call the office the next day and get this damn cast off somehow. He must have left someone on-call.

I suddenly felt faint and had to get back to bed. As I lay down I think I passed out because when I came to it was morning.

The first thing I did was call his office. A recording answered, “The office will be closed for a week and will reopen at 9am next Monday.”

There was no forwarding number or service number. I’d never had anything like this happen in medicine, and was so disoriented that it didn’t even occur to me to go to the ER or call my family doctor for advice. I just lay there sweating and afraid, feeling utterly discarded and invisible. The trust I had put in him was completely shattered.

But I had to survive.

It occurred to me that perhaps I could call a cleaning service and have someone come in for a week to help a bit. This thought cheered me up, and although the quality of people was often very poor it was worth trying. So I opened the phone book.

As luck would have it, the service I called sent over someone I’d gone to high school with years before, a short, overweight woman named Delores. Delores had graduated near the very bottom of her class, and I near the top. Our fate as adults couldn’t have ended up more differently.

I’d left the front door unlocked and was lying down when I heard the door creak and she came into my room. She stood there staring at me with this weird look on her face. The passage of years had not been kind to her.

“So I see you need me now huh?” she finally said as she looked me over. Her affect had both veiled hostility, resentment and gloating in it.

What a way to begin, I thought, uneasily.

“Hey Delores!” I said, feigning cheerfulness. “Nice to see you after all these years—you look great.”

She grunted and then said, “What do you want me to do?”

I told her the few things I needed and she looked like I’d just asked her to muck out the horse stables at the Belmont Race track.

“It’s not too much and you’ll only be here for an hour or so,” I said. “Once in the morning and once in the afternoon and evening. So three hours total but you’ll get paid for four—for half a day’s work.”

She shrugged and walked out. I heard her go into the kitchen and open various drawers. This bothered me since I’d already laid out everything she needed on the counter, along with a list of things to do. I knew she was just being nosy.

I wanted to stay awake as long as she was in the house but I began to drift off to sleep. But the sound of the floor joists creaking overhead suddenly woke me up and I got out of bed on my crutches and hobbled to the bottom of the stairs to the second floor. Delores was upstairs where she had no need to be, and I could hear her softly opening and closing the various bedroom drawers. She was obviously looking for things to take.

“Delores!” I shouted. “Can you please come downstairs now? There’s nothing for you to do up there at all.”

I stood there until she appeared. She had this trapped look on her face but I acted like it was no big deal, although we both knew it was.

“So that’s it for tonight,” I said. “I see the storm is over so you’ll be ok driving home. Come by around 8 in the morning.”

That night I felt like there was a brick in my leg. I was sure I had a clot and slept poorly from anxiety.

Delores showed up late and lumbered into my room the next morning around 9:30.  I was hungry, the cat was hungry and it was very close to the time the garbage truck was due for the week.

“Would you please take out the garbage and then put the can out front for the truck?” I asked.

She left without a word and instead of taking the garbage with her I heard her go outside. There was some noise at the front door and she came back inside and went into the kitchen. There was a loud bang and I suddenly understood that she’d brought the garbage can into the house and had emptied the kitchen garbage into it. There was a terrible scraping sound as she then dragged the can across the beautiful kitchen floor and the vintage oak flooring in the living room, and out the door.

I hopped out of bed as fast as I could and hobbled into the kitchen. I could see the scrape marks on the floor in both the kitchen and the living room. That was it. She was gone.

She knew the house was up for sale because there was a “For Sale” sign out front, and she’d done this just to be malicious. What a crazy bitch, I thought. I went to the front door and locked it, and when she tried to open it I said through the heavy wood as evenly as possible, “Thanks for coming but I think I will be ok now, Delores. The garbage was the one thing I really couldn’t do.”

There was a pause. “What about my money for today?” she demanded, breathing heavily. She’d only been at the house less than 15 minutes.

“I’ll call the office with your hours later,” I said appealingly. “Thanks again.” Another pause and then I heard her walk off and get in her car.  I was so relieved. Even though I was still physically vulnerable, it was worth it to get rid of her without pissing her off because I had no idea what that dark mind of hers might think up otherwise.

In spite of the intense pain in my calf I was able to hobble around and take care of various things. It was exhausting, though, and I went back to sleep and then spent most of the day alternating sleeping with watching Stephen King’s “Misery” on TV.  Christ, what timing. The perfect film.

 

+++++++++++++++

 

I called in Delores’ hours and told the service that I’d prefer someone else for the rest of the week. The next day there was a knock at the door and I hobbled over to open it.

Outside was a petite, pretty young woman who shyly said with a trace of an accent, “Hello, my name is Pilar. I have come to help you.”

She smiled the loveliest smile and I immediately knew that I would be ok. She may have been shy but she radiated true friendliness and competence. I was immensely relieved. “Please come in, Pilar,” I said, “it’s so wonderful to see you!”

She stepped in and immediately asked, “May I make you some coffee and breakfast?”

I practically swooned with happiness. “That would be fantastic Pilar, Thank you.”

I went back to bed and Pilar came in shortly with some breakfast and coffee.

“I saw this list on the counter in the kitchen.” she said, “Is this what you want done?

I nodded and asked “Where are you from? Pilar is a lovely name.”

“Ecuador,” she replied, “and my husband is from Columbia.”

“How interesting. Are you here on a green card?” I asked naively.

She reddened slightly and nodded no. Then I understood. They were illegals.

“Oh. Well, anything I can do to help you, just ask,” I smiled at her. “I was a journalist and went to South America on assignment a long time ago but never to Ecuador or Columbia. Perhaps one day.”

She smiled her wonderful smile again. I could tell she was relieved.

The rest of the day Pilar came and went and did whatever I needed. She cooked some good meals for me instead of the soup from a can I’d been having. She was a consummate professional. I was so happy. In the evening I heard a car horn outside. It was her husband.

“Pilar…” I asked. “How would you like to come work for me directly, instead of through the agency? Once my foot is better I will need someone to help me pack up the house so that when it is sold the movers can just come and get it all.”

“I think that would be okay,” she said. “I just need to check with my husband Jaime. Would you mind if he helped?”

“No, not at all,” I replied. “It will go much faster that way.”

She left and I could see in the dark that there was a man waving. I waved back. A little boy got out of the car and ran to Pilar and gave her a big hug. They seemed like such nice people. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

The next day there was a knock at the door. It was Pilar.

“Do you mind if my husband comes in for a minute?” she asked. “He is just parking the car and would like to say hello. We have decided to help you with all the packing when your foot is better.”

“I am so happy,” I said. I was about to shut the door when I saw a man coming up the walkway. He was struggling to walk and one arm hung limply by his side. His face was twisted grotesquely and his head sunk into his shoulder on one side. It was her husband, Jaime.

I was shocked but instantly tried to hide my surprise. As he came to the door I welcomed him warmly. “You must be Jaime,” I said smiling. He nodded.

“Please come in,” I held the door open for him with one of my crutches and he struggled in.

Pilar came out of the kitchen and looked at Jaime lovingly. “My husband had a terrible stroke a year ago.” she explained. “He can speak, but with difficulty. We are doing the best we can.”

She went over to him and kissed him with such love that I nearly burst into tears. He held her with his one good arm. It was clear how much each one cherished the other.

“I will need to go to the doctor on Monday to get the cast off. Would Jaime be able to drive me?”  I asked.

“Yes, as long as it’s in the morning.” Pilar said. “He has to pick up our son from school in the afternoon. I don’t drive so he is our chauffeur.” And they both laughed heartily. It was beautiful to see their bond of love.

My visit to the doctor that Monday proved there was a clot in my calf and I was admitted to the hospital for a week and put on blood thinners.  I really should sue him!  I thought angrily.

While I was there Pilar and Jaime visited me, took care of the cat and the house, and then brought me home and cared for me while I was still weak. I had never experienced such hard working, moral, and deeply professional people in my life. I trusted both of them completely.

In the next few months Pilar and Jaime came every day to do whatever I needed.  They made a great team, with Pilar quietly doing the things that were now impossible for Jamie. But Jamie was very strong and his one good arm was able to pack many things and he was still able to drive to get packing supplies and other things.

My late mother’s house eventually sold and the day the movers came Pilar and Jaime drove me to the hotel by the airport. They had saved my life, and they’d come out of nowhere. I tearfully said goodbye and watched them drive away in their old beat up Oldsmobile.

Several years later I tried to track them down but they’d vanished. Their phone was disconnected and the agency back East had no idea what had happened to them. But wherever they’d gone, I knew that if angels walked the Earth they’d come to me that year as Pilar and Jaime. They had a strength and compassion that I’d never encountered, and the memory of them will be with me for the rest of my life.

 

 

Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications.  Most recently, her poems, flash, and short stories have been published in the Peacock Journal, The Bosphorus Review, Antiphon, A New Ulster, The Saranac Review, The Curlew, and Idiom 23. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish.  She lives in Santa Fe between two mountain ranges with her cocker spaniel and four cats. She has a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Whale, fiction by Sharni Wilson

When I put on my heavy-duty, holographic pink raincoat and started down the stairs to the living room, there he was—a leviathan, pacing around the room, roaring into his phone, dominating the space as if it belonged to him. It did—he owned the townhouse we were renting, and his enormous, shiny portrait hung on the wall, in which he held up a giant kingfish, grinning. I hadn’t met him before, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet him now, even though he was Quinn’s dad.

I stopped short and stared at our landlord—the portrait in the flesh—he didn’t seem to notice me at all, engrossed in his phone call, his face distorted with rage. He was shinier and glossier in person: his casual, flattering clothes glowed with newness, accentuated with a statement watch and a tasteful gold chain. He had thick, silvery white hair, and the deep tan of yachts, golf courses, and tropical holidays. The living room suddenly looked smaller and cheaper by comparison, with our tatty couches in it. I felt like a human tatty couch: off-white and shabby, unworthy to share a room with him, let alone uphold his regal bum cheeks.

‘No, that’s not bloody good enough,” he bellowed into the phone. ‘Unacceptable, completely unacceptable. Sort it out. Your cock’s on the block.’

Instinctively I felt for the step behind me with my toe.

‘Oh, hello,’ said an unexpected female voice. Flushing, I turned toward the husky upper-class Remuera tones: hovering in the corner was a woman of indeterminate age, whom I hadn’t noticed until she spoke. Rail-thin, with incongruously huge breasts. Hair dyed platinum blonde. Beautiful, in a very processed way, but flickering with tension. ‘We’re Quinn’s parents,’ she explained, with lips like rubber dinghies. Her deep, dark eyes were Quinn’s eyes, but older and defined by heavy makeup. ‘We’re going out for dinner. She’s just getting changed.’

I swallowed against the familiar tightness in my throat. Quinn hadn’t said anything about that, although she’d been practically pushing me out the door. Typical. I was finally getting to meet the parents. It was not at all how I’d imagined the scene, in my rosier-tinted fantasies. I suddenly remembered that I should be smiling.

‘You’re going down for this,’ Quinn’s dad said into his phone. ‘What are we paying you for?’ The solid buttress of his forehead gleamed with a sheen of moisture.

‘I’m Ishbel, I moved in two weeks ago,’ I said. I didn’t say: I’m Quinn’s girlfriend. It wasn’t like that. Quinn was a very private person. We had separate rooms. We were “flatmates.”

‘No more excuses,’ Quinn’s dad shouted at the poor wretch on the receiving end. ‘It’s your mistake and your incompetence. Call me when you’ve fixed it. And it better be soon.’ He stabbed at the phone with a thick forefinger and pocketed it.

We all shook hands—Quinn’s dad crushed my fingers without mercy—and I made polite small talk with Quinn’s mum, Abha, (‘What are you studying?’ ‘Marine biology’), while Quinn’s dad shook out a little white pill and swallowed it dry, hesitated briefly, and then repeated the action.

I was planning my escape when Quinn thumped down the stairs in her sexy leather boots. ‘Took you long enough,’ Quinn’s dad snarled as she emerged, and slammed the door aside on his way out as if it had personally insulted him. Abha followed close behind, limping slightly in her ivory stilettos. I found Quinn’s hand and squeezed it in solidarity: she gave me a tense smile and let my hand drop to run down the stairs after them.

Trailing along in their wake, I wondered what Quinn’s dad thought of all her tattoos. A golden coin peeked out from under her hair at the base of her neck—he might not know about the other ones.

The rain was hissing and furious on the panes of the front door. Her parents fumbled around with umbrellas and jackets.

‘Look at that: it’s much worse than when we arrived,’ Abha said. In motion, her rubber-dinghy lips were rigid and lumpy. ‘Would you like a ride? You’re on your way to the university, aren’t you?’

Behind her, Quinn gave an almost imperceptible warning shake of her head, but I felt I had to accept—it would be too strange to refuse a ride in this weather.

Outside, a few steps away through the sheets of water, the tall, wide outline of an SUV was visible in front of a boat trailer. The shiny new boat on the trailer had the inscription Pequod on the hull. We scrambled into the SUV, Quinn’s dad swearing like a sailor. Dripping in the fine leather interior, we were thrown about as he swerved backwards out of our driveway, heedless of the boat trailer flung around behind. Quinn and I held onto the doors on the opposite sides of the back seat. He drove with a singular aggression, trusting that other drivers would get out of his way.

‘Where are you off to? Oh, the Institute of Marine Science… I know how to get there,’ he shouted, flooring the accelerator as soon as the lights turned green. I had a sinking feeling that he didn’t know how to get there at all—why would he? He launched into a monologue about his boat. It didn’t seem like anyone else was invited to join in, and anyway, I knew nothing about boats. In the middle of it his phone rang (with a Led Zeppelin instrumental), and he took one hand off the wheel to take the call. ‘I said to call me when you’ve fixed it, you moron. Jesus!’ I prayed for a cop car to pull us over, as he ranted about the product release, and then KPIs, bandwidth, and alignment.

Quinn stayed silent, her mouth set. It was like the real Quinn (the Quinn I knew, at least) was gone for now, and the body in the back of the car with me was a mannequin. Either that or she was just a bit stressed that her parents might pick up a vibe between us.

Around and around we went, as he shouted all kinds of words into his phone, punctuated by obscenities aimed at other drivers. K Road, Mercury Lane, East Street, back to K Road again. At intervals he ended his call and began a new one. His one-sided conversation continued unabated—‘manage the optics’, ‘square the circle’, ‘move the needle’.

‘Richie, I think we should turn right at this next set of lights,’ Abha interjected, looking at her phone. I knew she was correct. I took a breath, about to chime in.

‘Don’t bloody tell me.’ He ruffled her hair with some force. ‘Now, about the paradigm shift–’

‘No, really, we should turn right here,’ she protested with the utmost mildness.

‘Shut your mouth, you muppet.’

I couldn’t tell whether he was talking to his wife or the phone. We were all pushed back into our seats as he revved straight through the lights. The pedestrians exposed to the elements were running bent double, buffeted by the wind. A drenched woman holding a newspaper over her head turned to flip our SUV the bird, her hand held high to the heavens. I wished I was out there.

‘How about the next right, then? Richie?’ Abha persisted. At the next intersection, turning right was not permitted.

‘Stop being so fucking controlling,’ he said. ‘I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Let a man think.’ He drove on, berating his phone, tailgating, switching lanes without indicating. At least his headlights were on.

Abha stroked the surface of her phone with a nervy, obsessive intensity, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and then slid it back into her Prada clutch. Quinn gave me a brief, cool look. I tried to warn you, her eyes said.

He drove in circles, braking and accelerating furiously. The water smashed out of the sky, beat down on the car windows. He shouted and raged. Nausea rose in my throat. It was a Sisyphean circuit: one of those senseless, terrifying dreams that go on and on. I looked at Quinn again: she glanced at me with what looked like despair. I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, letting it linger there for a moment. She brushed my hand aside.

‘Dad, try going left here.’ Quinn sounded like a subdued stranger—as if her personality had been crushed by the hostile mass of his.

He thudded the phone down unto his thigh. ‘Don’t you stick your oar in,’ he said. ‘You’ve got no brains. Not a single clue. No brains, just like your mother. If you had any brains, you wouldn’t be studying fucking anthropology. You’d be doing law and economics, like I told you to.’ His tone was almost absentminded, as if he’d said the same words many times before.

Quinn hunched a bit lower, her face carefully blank. My eyes prickled with tears. His aggression was scary, but the thing that really scared me was how their family dynamic seemed so entrenched that it was normal for them. Just another day, trying to get from A to B, with me, a virtual stranger, albeit an insignificant one, in the car.

Abha stroked his arm soothingly, swivelled to look back over her shoulder at me, smiling with a dutiful docility. ‘Quinn has such a passion for other cultures,’ she said. ‘Did you know, for her gap year, she lived on a tiny island in the Pacific?’

I couldn’t handle any more. ‘Here is fine,’ I said. We were on K Road again, approaching Symonds Street. Not too far away. I’d walk. Quinn stared into her lap.

‘Nonsense!’ he snorted.

‘Let me out please.’ My hand was on the door handle. ‘Please.’

He sped up, but the lights were just up ahead, glowing a beautiful red. We pulled into the lane turning right. Wrong way, again. Good thing the traffic was light.

‘Ishbel, perhaps you’d like to join us for dinner?’ Abha offered, holding on to her seat. I couldn’t think of anything worse right then, but maybe it was the best way to break out of our endless circling. I looked at Quinn for my cue—she failed to meet my eyes, and that’s when I had a premonition that things were never going to work out between us. Sooner or later, our relationship was doomed to fail, because nothing would ever change: she’d never stop hiding.

‘No thank you, I really must…’ My polite voice trailed off as the SUV wove around the corner, boat trailer in tow, narrowly missing a cyclist. The boat trailer clipped a pole with a metallic clank, and we rocked from side to side. I pictured my own death in graphic detail; clicked my seat-belt open. Tried the door: it was locked from the inside. Damn it.

A sudden wild horror descended on me, and I clawed at the door handle with berserk strength, past caring how it looked.

‘Let me out right now!’ I repeated, my voice rising in an unstable screech.

‘The girl’s hysterical. Bloody typical.’

‘Go fuck yourself. You dick.’ I heard the words in the car, loud and strong, but couldn’t believe I’d actually said them. Quinn’s eyes were round: she looked at me, properly, for the first time since we’d gotten into the car. I was afraid.

His open mouth snapped closed. He sputtered, stepped on the brake till it squealed, and pulled over. The door opened under my clutching fingers and I launched myself out into the storm. I’d never been so glad to get out of a car. The bucketing rain felt like an overwhelming rush of gratitude.

But Quinn, if only I could’ve taken her with me… Should I have said something like, your wife and daughter deserve to be treated with respect? Would that have changed anything? I’d have to start looking for a new place to live first thing. Not to mention a new girlfriend. Or should I swallow my pride, apologize to them both and try to smooth things somehow?

In shock I walked on, back to the flooded intersection of Symonds Street and K Road. Then hearing the swerving of wheels as the SUV wheeled round in a reckless U-turn, I turned, to see it bearing down on me. It shot forwards with frightening velocity, water flinging from its wheels like mountain torrents down a flume, and as it reached the vast puddle at the Symonds Street lights, it spun closer, and the wave shot up in a fan of muddy water higher than head-height, drenching me from head to toe. I saw the apologetic O of the wife’s mouth as she clutched her husband’s arm, following him along no matter what, the dark shadow of Quinn in the back, and the vehicle drove on relentlessly, hydroplaning out of sight around the corner.

I walked on, as soggy as if I’d been swimming. My phone beeped—a death rattle from water damage? I made it across the intersection to the shelter of the shops, plucked it out of my jacket pocket with a sopping hand and shook the water off, and there it was: a text from Quinn.

You’re right, my dad’s a dick. A MOBY dick. Let’s move somewhere better. Love you xx


Sharni Wilson is a New Zealand writer of fiction and Japanese-to-English literary translator, whose work has appeared in Takahē and the Tokyo Poetry Journal. She  can be found at www.sharniwilson.com

Between Two Hills, fiction by David Kemper

Pablo wondered if his ability to create was gone forever.  It was his one true gift, the reason he’d been born, and if he couldn’t do that anymore he might as well not exist.  It had all happened so fast.  In a matter of months an exceptionally prolific artist had become a dull and idle loafer with neither strength nor motivation to put his brush to canvas or plunge his fingers into clay.  It was almost like he’d been injured, but only on the inside, with no external signs of trauma.  It wasn’t a car accident or a fall from a ladder that had ruined Pablo’s art.  It was meeting Philip Swain.  In a way, it was his own fault.  How could he allow that gallery owner to talk him into going against his better judgment?

A fire at the storage facility had destroyed a cache of Pablo’s sculpture.  Everything was chipped and cracked, with large pieces broken off, charred by smoke and waterlogged, trampled beneath the rubber boots of firemen who knew only about flame and nothing about art.  Pablo was set to toss it all into a dumpster but the gallery owner convinced him to exhibit the ruined artwork in his space.

“All we need is a good concept,” he told Pablo.  “I’ll take care of it.”

The exhibition opened under the title Damaged Vessels – The Inherent Brokenness of Human Relationships.  According to the program printed by the gallery: “Pablo employs a multi-tiered process in which the sculpture is first nurtured like a relationship in its earliest stages, subsequently embellished like two lovers gradually revealing themselves to one another, and finally obliterated in the tumultuous breakup.  Tragically, as with these damaged vessels, it is the essence of our own inner-brokenness that prohibits we humans from seeing the damage we inflict upon those closest to us and ourselves.”

The New York Times swooned.  Wealthy art collectors flocked in from Westchester.  Every chipped, charred and battered fragment sold, at outrageous prices, much of it to Philip Swain.  He cornered Pablo at the reception, a glass of chardonnay in one hand, a cocktail shrimp skewered on a plastic toothpick in the other.

“Man, it’s brilliant what you’ve done,” he said, wolfing the shrimp.  “When I look at your broken sculptures I see my broken marriage, my broken relationships with my children, the very essence of my own inner-brokenness itself.”

Why did Pablo listen to that gallery owner?  It was because he’d been so desperate, he had to admit, thirsty for the notoriety he saw other artists getting, the kind of attention he knew his art deserved but wasn’t getting.  He made a deal with the devil.  That was a mistake.  But it was too late to undo it.

“I’m nothing but a broken vessel,” Philip Swain said, stabbing with the toothpick at his teeth.  “I see that clearly, now.  Thanks to you.”

Pablo vowed never to do anything so stupid again, no matter how lucrative.

“Feel free to call me anytime you have a fire,” the gallery owner laughed as they were divvying up the proceeds.  “These jetsetters can’t get enough of this fucked-up shit.  Tell you what: I’ll bring the kerosene if you bring the matches?”

Fortunately, Pablo did not have to resort to arson as a career move.  His career was made.  There was no problem now, getting the recognition previously denied.  Newspapers and art journals were lining up to write about him.  His canvases and sculptures were coveted by the chicest galleries.  Celebrities solicited commissions for their sunrooms.  It all came Pablo’s way without him having to work those shady avenues where he was deficient and which he hated: networking, schmoozing, glad-handing, self-promotion.  Gone were the days of pounding the pavement with his portfolio, trying to talk his way past bored receptionists who only wanted him to leave so they could get back to fingering their phones between their thighs.  No longer was it necessary to waste entire mornings dialing, pitching his work to gallery honchos – always too busy and important to talk to him – only to get hung up on by some secretary.  He didn’t have to waste any effort anymore, dialing anyone.  The world was on its head.  Everyone was dialing him.

***

“Come on downtown and meet me for lunch.”

Philip Swain’s imposing voice sailed across the megahertz to Pablo’s ear.

“I’m buying the steaks.  I’ve got some friends who’d like to meet you.”

Pablo hung up with Philip, but not before the remorse of agreeing to go took hold and shook him.

“Idiot!” Pablo reproached himself.

He’d not accomplished anything constructive all week.  His projects were stalled, gathering dust, waiting for him.  And where was he?  Off somewhere, making nice with fancy people he called ‘art groupies.’ Lunch with Philip, he knew, meant an entire afternoon, and possibly the evening, wasted on nothing, nothing that would last, nothing worth painting or fixing in stone or bronze or even in mud.  He saw the whole rest of his day unfold before him: $80 steak and too much drink, forcing smiles through gritted teeth as Philip and his crowd of Wall Street poseurs peppered their new mascot, ‘the artist,’ with clever talk about philosophy, Andy Warhol, the meaning of soup cans and experimental jazz.  And that’s exactly how it went.  Sometime after midnight, seated at the head of a long table, Philip got up to make a toast:

“To my dear friend, Pablo.  The greatest living American artist.  In my humble opinion.”

The stupid, leering faces turned to Pablo, glasses raised.  Inwardly, he seethed.  If he really was so great, why were they keeping him from his work, the thing, allegedly, that made him great in the first place?  Why couldn’t they all just disappear and let him get back to doing what he had to do?  Perhaps, he mused, he’d somehow been transported into a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

“Is this some kind of twisted joke?” he wondered.  “Is Philip taking revenge on me for something?”

***

Without warning, Philip was prone to turn up at Pablo’s studio.  As Chairman of Swain & Swan Holdings, he wasn’t obliged to anyone else’s schedule, so there was never a time when Pablo could safely rule out a surprise visit from Philip.  He’d stroll about the space as though it were his own, flipping through canvases, shopping for more pieces to acquire for his growing collection.

“I like those two,” he’d say, dropping a wad of hundred dollar bills on the table.  “Have them shipped for me, will you?”

Mostly what he liked, though, was to sit around drinking and disrupting Pablo’s progress with what he plainly regarded as deep and novel conversation.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he announced, “and I’ve finally figured out what you are, Pablo.  You know what you are?”

Pablo shrugged, not knowing what was coming, and dreading it.

“You’re a bridge between post-modernism and the new-wave romanticists.  That’s what you are.”

Philip beamed in triumph.  Pablo smiled, weakly.  He did not believe he was a bridge between anything and anything else.  There was no point, though, in correcting Philip, who simply talked louder and faster at the slightest hint of opposition.

“Your paintings,” he declared, “are like power.  And your sculpture is like sex.  And remember what Oscar Wilde said: Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.”

Philip nodded, raising his index finger as a sign, Pablo thought that they were both supposed to observe a moment of self-reflective silence.  Philip sipped.  His eyes twinkled.

“Good old Oscar,” Pablo said.

“There must be a connection, there,” Philip said, refilling his glass.  “Don’t you agree?”

Philip’s overreaching theories made Pablo very nervous, as though they were playing a game in which Philip first bound Pablo to a stake and then began throwing darts at his head and at his heart.

“Take this painting, the one I just bought.  What I see here – and the reason I believe it’s worth every penny of those seventy-five hundred dollars, frankly – is a tragic juxtaposition of mortality and denial, a kind of boxing match between death in one corner and the frenzied will to go on living in the other.  Do I have that right?”

Pablo recognized the language from an exhibition review that had appeared in some newspaper.  It made him cringe when he first read it, as it did now when Philip recycled it, almost verbatim.  He managed to confine his answer to: “You certainly have given it a lot of thought, Philip.”

Bound hand and foot, shimmying like a creature in a trap, Pablo did his best to not get hit by anything sharp.  It was hard work, and he resented it.  When the topic shifted to personal matters it was no better.  Philip complained at length about his ex-wife and his girlfriend, about his responsibilities as an executive and the countless sleepless nights his adult children had given him.  He rarely asked for details of Pablo’s life, though.  And if Pablo volunteered anything that wasn’t gleaming with optimism Philip got churlish.

“Ah, you artists!” he’d say, halving the air between them with a decisive backhand.  “You’ve got no worries.  As long as you’re talented and brilliant you’ll be fine.  Just look how everything worked out for you.”

Pablo wrestled with the urge to spit the truth about the damaged vessels in Philip’s face.  It would serve him right, he thought.  But before he could make up his mind Philip had already swung the spotlight back onto himself.

“Now, take a business guy like me.  Do you have any idea what I have to put up with?  All the people who depend on me?  All the risks I have to take?  When you’re in mergers and acquisitions you put your life on the line every day.  You have no clue.”

Pablo looked helplessly at the wall.  Six o’clock.  Another day wasted.  He’d not even put on his work clothes or got his brush wet.  Should he just throw Philip out?  End their association for good?  That wouldn’t be easy.  Philip had done so much to help his career.  He was Pablo’s biggest supporter, the one who owned the largest collection of his work.  He’d subsidized Pablo’s projects and introduced him to many influential people who’d also helped.  Surely, Philip meant well.  The fact, however, that his meaning well could cause such disastrously contrary results only made him seem that much more sinister to Pablo.

Philip smiled: “Dinnertime.  Let’s go.  I’ve got some people I want you to meet.”

***

One of Philip’s haunts was a cigar lounge in the East Village that prided itself on its diverse clientele.

“We’re not snobby,” the manager, Jake, was glad to confirm for Pablo.  “We cater to all types.  Blue collar Joe’s.  Artists like yourself.  Hipster kids and bikers with tattoos all over.  We believe that fine cigars were meant to be enjoyed by everyone.  Not just wheeler-dealer bigshots like Philip.”

Philip laughed and asked Jake to retrieve two coronas from his personal stock, which was stored in the back in his own humidor.

“It’s a convenience,” he explained to Pablo, “included in my elite membership.”

They sat in leather chairs, Persian rugs under their feet, sampling the flavor of the cigars and of the room.  A handful of businessmen were scattered about, wreathed in expensive smoke, alone or in small groups.  Pablo looked for the tattoos and blue collars but saw none, only a chalkboard sign above the bar reminding customers it was a ‘tie-free zone.’  Philip slipped his off and hid it in his pocket.  He was anxious to talk about the inherent brokenness of human relationships.

“I sent one of your damaged vessels to my ex.  With a note that said: ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE.’  She won’t get it, though.  She doesn’t think deep the way we do.”

Philip’s thumb and first two fingers cradled the corona like it was born there.  While he spoke, the hand moved rapidly in all directions, as though drawing pictures in the air, using the glowing tip of the cigar to sketch out shapes and symbols that might help – if Pablo could read them – explain what it was that Philip said:

“It’s interesting, because the totalizing nature of brokenness, as it pertains to human relations, obviates the desire to recognize and heal that very brokenness itself.  The meta-narrative of all humans is: ‘I break therefore I am.’  I assume that’s what you were getting at?”

“I hope the weather clears up,” said Pablo.  “Do you know if the Mets won?”

“Ah,” Philip laughed, “you artists.  Ancient Chinese secret!  Come on, quit playing coy, I’m serious.”

Pablo bobbed and weaved around Philip’s deepness for a while, and was rescued when Philip suddenly remembered something else they had to do.

“Hey, it’s getting late.  I told Monique I’d drop by.  I want your opinion.  I think you’re really gonna love her.”

***

At a loft studio not far from Pablo’s, Philip introduced Pablo to Monique, a young black woman with braided hair colored to resemble the African National Congress flag.  Philip and Monique chatted while she worked on a new painting.

“Well,” she admitted, “only part new, actually.”

She’d been invited, she explained, to submit her work for a corporate-sponsored exhibition that was coming up.  It was a themed exhibition, titled H2O.

“So everything has to have water,” Monique said.  “At least a little.  That’s why I’m putting in this waterfall.”

“Ah,” Philip said.  “You know what Antonioni said about water, don’t you?”

Pablo studied the canvas, searching for some hidden kernel of interest that might reveal it as more than just a dark brown patch of mud, and crudely rendered.  He found nothing.  It was a dark brown patch of mud.  There were some grayish objects, apparently boulders, arranged in a circle at the center.  Monique was sacrificing a few of her boulders for the waterfall, which she painted on top.

Stonehenge, Revisited,” she told Pablo, “is what it used to be.  But now I’m going to call it Drowning in the Cesspool of My Bitter Tears.”

“Nice,” said Philip.  “Deep.  Deep water.  H2O.”

“Either that,” Monique said, “or Surf’s Up.”

The other paintings she was retrofitting stood on easels around her, in various stages of their H2O metamorphoses: a craggy mountain that now had a swimming pool teetering on top, a cornfield sprouting bottled water in place of corncobs, a tenement that somehow found itself submerged inside a fish tank – algae, swordtails, crayfish and bubbles.

“A great painting,” Philip said.  “Dali couldn’t have done that.  What’d I tell you, Pablo?”

Pablo was having trouble connecting the word great to any of the paintings.  They all displayed the same dull artlessness as the mud patch – rudimentary, technically awkward, unremarkable in every way.  He tried and failed to think of something nice to say as he stood before the last canvas, an old man in Indian garb with a faucet instead of a mouth.

Injun Joe Gets His Comeuppance,” Monique told him, “is what it was.  “But now I’m not sure what to call it.”

“How about Just Add Water?” Philip suggested, his eyes puckish.

“I don’t think you have to change it,” Pablo said.  “I think it’s the same.”

Monique beamed.

“Hey,” she said, “thanks.  That means a lot coming from you.  You know, I’m a big fan of your stuff.”

She gave Pablo her card and suggested they get together sometime for coffee.

“Nothing would please me more,” Philip said, “than for you two geniuses to collaborate on something.  I’ll buy it right now.”

Pablo succeeded at closing the discussion civilly without commenting on Monique’s work or committing himself to anything, which irritated Philip, he could tell.  Philip’s face clouded.  The corners of his mouth went taut, as – Pablo imagined – they might in the boardroom when the other members refused to go along with Philip’s plans.  Philip and Monique disappeared into another room.  When they returned, Philip was handing her a thick envelope.

“Have them shipped for me, will you?” Philip said.

In the taxi Philip was brooding and Pablo wanted to go home, but Philip insisted they make one more stop, a party at a converted bookbindery in SoHo.

“If you’re too threatened by Monique’s talent to acknowledge it,” he said, tersely, “perhaps at least you’ll find it within yourself to enjoy the free drinks and entertainment provided by my friends?”

Pablo would have jumped out of the car if the driver ever slowed down enough to give him a chance.

***

Their objective was a 19th century cast iron hulk where artisans once sweated over Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, and now in their place Manhattan’s richest and most beautiful lived, prospered and misbehaved.  Philip announced his presence to the valet, who unhooked the red rope and stood aside to let them pass.  In a freight elevator large enough to transport cattle a uniformed operator closed the gate and they ascended.

“Lotta folks up in there,” he said.  “Gonna be a long one, yes sir.”

At the penthouse Philip and Pablo went their separate ways without a word.  It was easy to get lost.  The party was big, thrown by fancy art groupies, Philip’s colleagues, lawyers and financial wizards who had everything but good taste and talent, and had now decided, evidently, to purchase those things, too.  Among the throng Pablo saw many artists whom he knew – good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones – eating and drinking and dancing with the suits.  They all seemed to have a wealthy patron, and they all knew Philip Swain.

“You’re friends with Philip, right?” they said.  “Good man to have on your side.  Don’t blow it.”  And: “I always liked your work, Pablo, but when Philip discovered you I knew you were destined for great things.”

“Discovered?” Pablo said.  “Like Columbus?”

The question went unanswered.  Pablo was advised to fill up on champagne and caviar and not to think too much about where it came from.

“Have fun with it,” he was told.  “You’re lucky to be here at all, dude.”

Pablo wondered if these other artists were suffering the same lack of productivity as him.  They weren’t getting any work done tonight, that was plain.  If the intent of Philip and his fancy Wall Street friends was to stop all art from happening they’d found the perfect recipe: fish eggs, French bubbles, subwoofers and a dance floor.

Three DJ’s rotated between sets of live music, edgy noise-rock bands that Philip liked.  One of them was called Double Wide Trailer.  Another was The Deep-Seeded Agents of Faith.  To Pablo they were virtually indistinguishable, a generic sort of band that specializes in making a chaotic, grating racket, purposely ugly, though ultimately without purpose.  At times it was like an industrial accident, at others it was like two camels in a death fight, exactly the thing, Pablo thought, that Philip and his crowd of art poseurs would be smitten with, a badge of honor to be worn only by those enlightened enough to recognize – beneath all that shitty sounding crap – the infinite brilliance.  As he stood soaking it up, Pablo invented band names he thought were more befitting.  Double Wide Trailer became Narrow Gauge Wailer, Trailing Edge Failer, Machine Shop Camel or Dude, What’s Tonality?  The Deep-Seeded Agents of Faith were rechristened, simply, as The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Philip finally wandered over.  He had a couple of the musicians with him.  They were all pretty drunk and Philip was showering the band with his typically florid praise.

“You weren’t just playing, man, you were putting a new set of ears on my head.”

Pointing at Pablo, he added: “Don’t bother asking his opinion, though.  He’s a genius and some of them can be very stingy about that.”

***

It sounded good at first: country woods, winding trails, fresh air and quiet.  Paradise!

“Why not come stay at Swainwood for a while?” Philip had asked.  “The guesthouse has been empty since Ashley left for Colgate.  No one will bother you.  You’ll have privacy.  And plenty of time to make your art.”

Philip’s estate, Swainwood, sat on three hundred acres of rolling woodland not far from the Hudson near Pocantico Hills.  There were tennis courts, walled gardens with sculpture, a conference center and a polo pitch shorn between the towering oaks and maples.  Pablo was in a battle with a horrible landlord, so he leapt at the chance to bailout on his studio, a temporary fix, he’d find something permanent later.  All his stuff was moved to storage.  He boarded the train at Grand Central.  The city limits were not yet behind him when the good feelings from ditching his lease wore off, replaced by deep forebodings about life under the roof of Philip Swain.

“Oh, man,” Pablo realized, “where will I go if he gets weird?”

That first night, when he went to dinner at the main house, two servants were busy in the ballroom, hanging Monique’s tenement in a fish tank above the fireplace.

“You’ve got to admit,” Philip said, pouring the wine, “her conceptual composition is second to no one.  Not even you.”

From his place at the head of the table, Philip passed the dishes along with the conversational agenda, reveling in his role as commanding though generous host.

“You know what Pocantico means, don’t you?” he quizzed Pablo.  “Running between two hills.  Rather poetic, don’t you agree?”

Pablo was surprised at how conservative Philip seemed.  His speech and mannerisms, even subtle things about how he dressed, were different here than in the city, more genteel.  Philip didn’t drink as much, either, which relieved Pablo a little, though he was having difficulty following the gist of the conversation, fixated as he was on the strange new tone in Philip’s voice, the merest suggestion of an English accent.

“I do believe,” he said, “you’ll find it inspirational living here.  Swainwood has a way of bringing out the best a man can be.”

Again and again, Pablo wondered: “Is he joking?”

“Yes, and I wanted to talk to you about that commission.  The Saga of Swainwood?  For the Orangery?  It has to be big, you understand?  The biggest thing you’ve ever done.”

Reluctantly, Pablo had agreed to paint a large mural for Philip, depicting the long and fruitful history of the Swain clan in New York.

“Yes, and I was thinking it would be nice if perhaps you’d dedicate it to me?  Nothing fancy, mind you, just a simple: ‘In Deepest Gratitude, To My Dear Friend and Patron, Philip Swain,’ or something.  No big deal.”

Philip was smiling when he said it.  But Pablo knew this time it was no joke.

***

At Swainwood there was no one to talk to, no everyday demands and no distractions.  The only thing to do was to get down to work.  Pablo had setup a makeshift studio in the guesthouse so it was practically just a matter of rolling out of bed.  He kept expecting Philip to barge in and interrupt.  Now that Philip had such easy access to him, Pablo figured, he’d be over all the time, hanging around, shooting the shit.  It never happened.  During the entire length of Pablo’s stay at Swainwood he saw less of Philip than he used to in a few days back in Manhattan.  So he was able to get some stuff accomplished, though he wasn’t sure if any of it was any good.  Everything seemed to have less teeth than before.  Part of that, he thought, was the environment.  The country was nice and it was certainly relaxing but not at all inspiring, no matter what Philip said.  Pablo wasn’t a painter of rustic landscapes.  He didn’t want to do oak trees or colonial bridges.  The energy here was wrong, too sedate for who he was.  It even affected how he dreamt.  In the city he’d often awaken in the middle of the night from electric dreams, which pulled him from his pillow into the studio, and which instantly became the sparks that fueled a firestorm of new work.  At Swainwood there was nothing like that.  Pablo slept straight through and either did not dream at all or dreamt of lifeless things that went nowhere.  One night he dreamt of Philip in his smoking jacket.  Philip wasn’t doing anything, just sitting in his chair, gesturing with his cigar and saying something ridiculous in his English accent about art.  Another dream was Philip at the breakfast table eating oatmeal.  Two servants held his Wall Street Journal for him.  The first one kept it straight with both hands while the second one turned pages in response to Philip’s nods.  Both of them wore paint-splattered smocks over their uniforms.  But the most frequently reoccurring ghosts in Pablo’s slumbers were trees.  From the hazy fringes they encroached to chase his eyeballs back and forth, and one morning, after a single leaf dropped from a maple took all night to reach the ground, Pablo found himself virtually paralyzed, rooted, robbed of purpose, empty of action.  He stayed in bed the whole day, staring at his easel, twelve feet away.  What kind of art could ever come from dreams like that?

***

Though Philip wasn’t stopping by in person to badger Pablo, there were other methods.

“Good morning, sir,” the servant said.  “Mr. Swain left this for you.”

Pablo tore open the envelope.  A typed letter from Philip.

“I do hope you’re enjoying your stay and are getting somewhere with your work.  I’ve been busy downtown and am off to Europe tonight, but I’ve been thinking of you and will be eager to see the great things Swainwood has brought out of you.  One point that occurred to me as I was reviewing my collection is that you might do better – please don’t take offense – if you emphasized more the dialectical (i.e., the vertical) as opposed to going so heavy on the emotional (horizontal).  I’ve always sensed that – great as you already are – you were on the cusp of breaking through to something bigger.  I’d be honored if my modest insights were the catalyst that took you there.  Not so much onward as upward.  Think about it!”

Crumpling the paper, Pablo thought some other things instead, which were not nice.  On another occasion he found a handwritten note under the door.  The barely legible scrawl advised him (please don’t take offense) that there were too many angles in his work.  Too many angles?  “It tends to overload the viewer,” the scrawl explained, “with sensory geometry.  Just my two cents, you understand?  From one art lover to another?”

Pablo once believed all babies were born artistic, but that in most cases the talent wasn’t nurtured and so it died.  Philip Swain forced him to reconsider this opinion.  There were many, he now knew, born without a trace of artistry, and there were further those whose only natural talents were lethal to art.

Another two cents, deposited electronically this time:

“Just been to The Louvre, where something about the Near Eastern Antiquities reminded me of you – a likeness in line and symmetry, if not in subject.  It might be interesting, when you start on the Saga of Swainwood, to incorporate some of those ideals – the New York Swains as Mesopotamian kings?  Just a thought.  Have fun with it!”

Pablo went straight to the Orangery.  He painted the New York Swains as cubist ducks in a blood-red sky, and some hunters down below, vaguely Mesopotamian, shotguns raised and set to scatter (horizontally as well as vertically) every last patrician feather around the air.  Finally, Philip had done something to inspire Pablo.

***

The woman exhaled: “Oh!” and then: “Are you the new gardener?”

She’d walked in on Pablo as he was scrubbing the acrylic rainbow off his hands.

“I’m a friend of Philip’s,” he told her.  “From the city.”

“Ah,” she nodded, “yes, I’ve heard about you.  The new artist.  Not the new gardener.  My apologies.  Victoria Swain.”

She came at him, offering her hand, a smart, petite blonde in an equestrian outfit that wrapped her contours like cellophane stretched around a holiday fruit basket.

“So you’re the one I have to blame for taking up an entire room of my house with broken junk.”

She smirked, one eyebrow raised, her hand outstretched for Pablo to shake, or maybe kiss, he wasn’t sure.  He shrugged and nodded at his own hands, which were still a disaster, dripping colors and solvent into the sink.  Victoria Swain’s arm fell back, useless, against her side.  On one finger was an onyx ring the size of an ashtray.  Pablo explained about the mural and the arrangement he’d made with Philip.

“He invited me to stay here while I work.”

Victoria laughed.

“Well, that’s nice,” she said, “inviting you to stay in a house that isn’t his.  Didn’t he tell you?  No?  So like him.  Swainwood’s mine.  I own all this.”

She turned slightly, making a sweeping gesture with the ashtray apparently meant to encompass the land and everything on it for miles around.

“I was young and naïve,” she said, “but thank god I listened to my mother about the prenup.  Philip’s the one who should be thanking me for letting him stay.  I still haven’t decided about selling.  I’m in the city mostly, now, or Boca Raton.  Do you play polo?”

Without waiting for a reply Victoria proposed a one-on-one for after lunch.

“Actually, it was a relief to find you here.  All the way driving up I was thinking I was going to have to kick that bitch out again.”

***

“You want her?” Philip said.  “Take her.  She likes artists.  I learned that the hard way.  Only don’t expect her to understand you.  She doesn’t have the mind for it.”

Pablo had not mentioned his brief encounter with Philip’s ex.  She must have said something, though, for Philip was keen to bring it up.

“Her kind of woman,” he told Pablo, “doesn’t waste time on anything she can’t use to make her girlfriends burn with envy.  The only things that interest Victoria are new shoes and skybox tickets to Yankees games.  She likes ballplayers more than artists.”

With much effort Pablo steered Philip off Victoria, but then Philip grabbed the wheel and crashed them head-on into Monique.  When was Pablo going to get together with her?  Hadn’t they made any plans to collaborate?  Why wasn’t Pablo helping Monique the way Philip and his friends had helped Pablo?

“I heard that interview you did on NPR,” Philip said.  “It doesn’t bother me that you can’t bring yourself to express even a shred of gratitude where I’m concerned.  But it really would have been nice if you’d put in a good word for Monique.”

That was it.  The limit.  Pablo couldn’t bob and weave around this.  The truth shot from him like a punch.

“Her paintings are shit, Philip!  A waterfall over the top?  Because they told her to?  That’s not an artist.  That’s a house painter rolling on a second coat of semi-gloss.”

Philip was stunned.  And then infuriated.  He threw his arms around and shouted but it was impossible for him to simply dismiss Pablo’s opinion.  Pablo was a genius, after all, Philip had said so many times, and how can a genius be that wrong about anything?  A conundrum Philip could not concentrate his brain on to untangle, and he’d had three glasses of wine so he settled for shouting louder and flailing his arms a little wilder, forgetting his Englishness as he did.

“I’m going to Indonesia on business for three weeks.  And when I come back we’re going to have a little talk.  Your attitude needs some shaping up, you know that, mister?”

From the airport he sent Pablo a message, apologizing.  It was the alcohol, he said, which did not make Pablo feel any better.

***

The want ads were in his lap.  He was seriously considering some sort of menial job.  The desire to create had fled him.  What was the point, when whatever he created would only be misused, misconstrued by poseurs like Philip; categorized, labeled, arbitrarily relegated to the same specimen jar as the Monique’s and Double Wide Trailers?  Any new work that Pablo did would implicate him as an accomplice to the fraud.

From the other direction Victoria was stalking him, trying to shanghai him down to Florida to do her portrait, a whole series of portraits – The Horsewoman in Action – saddled atop her beast, jumping fences, wielding her crop.

“I could use a good stable boy,” she told Pablo, eyebrow raised.

He did not want to go.  Was a menial job in Florida better than a menial job right here?  Puppet strings, it seemed, were tugging on every move that he might make.  He’d had that dream again, about the two servants holding the newspaper for Philip.  Only this time one of the servants turned his head and Pablo saw clearly, and with horror, who it was.  He was out of bed and packed in fifteen minutes.  He left the keys on the table, with a note:

“Philip: thanks for everything.  The mural is done.  Take care.”

When Philip returned he would find the Saga of Swainwood as he’d ordered it, a king-sized tribute to the storied Swains and their achievements, the biggest thing Pablo had done, so imposing it was like two dozen murals woven through and around each other, a swirling jigsaw of scenes that could be stared at repeatedly for years without nearly registering every image that was there.  The cubist ducks and the hunters with their shotguns were as good as invisible, concealed within a larger rendering of Ebenezer Swain coming ashore off the Mayflower.  The parable of the evils of capitalism was also not likely to attract anyone’s attention, painted upside-down inside a gilded commemoration of the first board meeting of Swain & Swan Holdings.  And there were many more hidden treasures like that, so many not even Pablo could find them all when he was finished.  Philip would look straight at them and never see.

“Where to?”

The cab driver’s question startled Pablo.  He hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Just go,” he said.  “I’ll let you know where when I know where.”

The driver laughed.

“Oh, one of those, eh?  Sure, why not?  I got no plans today.  You want a circle or a figure-eight?”

He laughed again, started the meter and coaxed the car along the twisting, wooded road towards the front gate.  


David J. Kemper hails from Chicago, Illinois, city of big shoulders and hog butcher for the world.  He attended music school, dropped out and has had many, many jobs he can’t recall.  In Little League Baseball he played center field and first base.  Besides writing fiction and poetry, Mr. Kemper composes and produces original, independent, genre-defying music, some of which can be sampled on his website, www.davidjkemper.com.  At present, he is willfully semi-homeless and quasi-stateless, barnstorming Europe and South Africa, seeking out like-minded artists to collaborate with.

We know it’s hard, Foreword by Kelvin Kellman SRL issue 29

Writing is no easy affair; no casual evening stroll. It perhaps might be agreed that the commonest phrase in the writing world asides the “show don’t tell” mantra, is “writing is hard”, even though I believe “good writing is hard” would do a better job at the idea. What is often not said is, “editing is hard”. Because in a fast-paced world like today’s, with everyone believing their writing merits your time, the sheer number of submissions in journals is cripplingly daunting—ours not excluded.

Be that as I may, perhaps no time is better deserving of proper narratives/writing—owing to the hounding noise of extreme right-winged anti-human/anti-reason sentiments springing up the world over—than now. This is not to salute the opposite extreme either—the extreme liberals, with whom there is no sense of balance. But more than ever, in the teeth of this many (distracting) dins threatening the collective, good writing must rise to the occasion, worm its way into our soul, and must remind us of our fragile humanity; remind us of our sentinel duties on the watchtower of our democracy.

In the words of Barrack Obama in an interview with Michiko Kakutani, he said, “we are a story telling specie.” This is one of those succinct truths that is absolute both in wording and meaning. On account of this, narratives either impel or expel us as a collective. Forward or backward. In or out. This is a simplest reason why the world have no need for fascists, why the world have no need for people for whom thought and reason is not a habit; people for whom the highway and hatred is the only answer.

We are reminded of our fickleness, of our leaching nature as humans in the wisdom of words.

Heather Bourbeau’s poem, The Birdmen of Instabul brings this to mind:

“…I have found the company of men who know

the attraction of denial, the beauty of survival,

the straining to be heard.

 

I have savored the sweetest sorrow from your voice

as you cry for a female who will never come

to find you, love you, and save you.

 

I have ached for your slavery to liberate me.

My freedom in your pain.”

This wisdom continues in the solemn profundity in the poet, John Grochalsky. Karen Peterson reminds us of our hardwired nature to trusting the exterior, judging a book often by its cover—an affliction that boomerangs over and over again.

For what it’s worth, the combinatorial stanzas and paragraph sutured into issue 29 is the reason I read, the reason I chose this arduous path of writing, of editing. And like me, I am confident that you the reader will be the least disenfranchised by the singing wisdom and crafty melody of this issue. Because in all these cache of words and phrases, is a mirror of our own humanity.

Dear all, shall we?—issue 29.