Issue one is finally here. I had no specific expectations or desires for ThereAfter’s first issue, my only wish was to publish writing that made me laugh or stop to think, and art I found inspiring. I am so grateful to everyone that submitted, especially those that contributed to this issue. Their work stayed with me long after my first encounter with it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Fiction by Linda McMullen, Frank G. Karioris, Gabrielle McAree, D.S.G. Burke, Mark Campbell, Dake Stromberg, Taylor Rossics, Yash Seyedbagheri, Linnia Cooley, Nancy Dobson.
Creative non-fiction by O'labumi Idorian Brown.
Visual art by Robyn Smith, Tucker Lieberman, Phyllis Green.
He shrugged off your caress six months ago.
Your friends, a Sex in the City-inflected Greek chorus, sing to you:
He left. He showed you who he is
Now show him who you are
You shouldn’t waste another hour
Indulging your regrets.
You apostrophize to the heavens, cataloguing your shameful fears: abandonment, isolation, unworthiness, and pleading to
the unhearing gods to send him back to you…
One friend plays Cassandra, prophesies that you will find someone better.
You weave and unweave the things he said, the little endearments and the bitter recriminations, with your friends, in the
shower, on blind dates.
Your friends interrupt your love-monologuing, chanting:
You are the heroine of your own life,
Not a bit player in someone else’s.
But he is bound to you, despite the miles, the sirens and the songs he’ll encounter elsewhere. You tell yourself that you’ve
seen into the oracle; you remember that – early or late – he must come back.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over seventy literary magazines, and she received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.
Frank G. Karioris
Let me tell you about this city. For starters, it is called Wanda. There is no ‘ville’ or ‘burg’ designating it a city. Wanda defines itself by its existence. Just, Wanda. It’s outside of what is now called Coal Country, and so a lot of what goes by the term architecture here is really meant as an homage to the mountains that had been pulled down for a few hundred years.
For all that, there never was a throughway that came by town. The closest thing was Country Highway number 17 that, if you stood on the tallest point near the South edge, you could see in the distance its asphalt steaming in summer rains.
All towns have their oddities, whether it is having the “World’s Largest Corn Cob,” that Big Foot had been spotted there, or that it was the birthplace of baseball. As it happened, Wanda’s peculiarity was far more mundane. The fact of the matter was, no one had ever lived there. Or, at least, no human had.
That had never stopped the city from feeling lived in though. Nor did it stop those who did live there from doing all the same things that any city would. They had Mayoral elections, their school board was full of local elites, and the diner in town served what many considered to be the best coffee in the entire world. In fact, the city paper was known for its exquisite puns – if one allows that a pun could ever be exquisite.
In fact, this past year there was a fairly heated discussion of whether or not to shutter the paper, with some saying that readership was down and its importance had declined. Others were of the position that it was the heart of what was really a small community, and served the role of helping to organize life. Let me tell you, it was a heated debate; some squirrels had a particularly nasty take on the Editor-in-Chief’s history of apoliticalness. Their being a moss-covered stone was not a consideration for the squirrels it seemed.
Wanda is like any other small city in the middle country. With its foibles and its folksiness, and always with some joy to be found in each other. For all the struggles they have with each other, more often than not they struggle together for a better community and for the next generation. They’re no different than anyone else really. Tsimbo the Mayor welcomes all visitors with open branches, and, if I might make a suggestion, you really need to try the homemade nut butter sandwich – vegan and gluten free.
They may not have a catchy slogan like Michigan or Las Vegas, but Wanda may well be the friendliest and most inviting place around. Come and see for yourself.
Frank G. Karioris (he/they/him/them) is a writer and educator based in Pittsburgh whose writing addresses issues of friendship, masculinity, and gender. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry Journal, Collective Unrest, Maudlin House, Sooth Swarm Journal, and Crêpe & Penn amongst others. They are a regular contributor to Headline Poetry & Press.
Candy-Colored and Prosect at the Park,
Robyn Smith is a writer and editor based in Queens, New York. You can find Robyn’s written work in BUST Magazine, Business of Home, The Washington Post, Animal Literary Magazine, and more. Find more of her work at robynleesmith.me and follow her on Instagram @bobynns and Twitter @bobynnn.
I Really, Really Don't
My parents’ house is still, quiet, save for the dull hum of the air-conditioning. I pour sink water into the coffee filter and watch
the hues of sunrise come to fruition: oranges, pinks, yellows, reds. I want to swallow it, zip it in my pocket, save it on a flash drive. I only call things “beautiful” sarcastically, but the sunrise is. In a melancholy way. A singular, compact bird with blue wings lands on my mother’s bird feeder, looking for sanctuary. It pecks for seeds but it’s fruitless. The feeder is empty, proving my mother’s negligence lives on well into my twenties. The forecast says rain.
I am getting married today.
Irrationally, I don’t believe this. Who’s getting married? Not me. Not willingly.
Thousands of women get married every day, I know this. They graduate from fiancée to bride to wife. They wear white,
cream, ivory, eggshell. They hold baby’s breath, calla lilies, peonies. They’ll say, I do, even if they mean, I don’t. I really, really don’t.
I am an alien wearing human skin.
It is October 7th. I inspect the medicine cabinet for anything good, but my parents have hidden anything of use. I am getting
married today. I write this on my hand as a reminder, in case I forget. I hear a woodpecker, or what I think is a woodpecker, smack his nose against the giant oak tree in the backyard. The repetition feels salient, personal. I wonder if it hurts, or if the bird is immune. It could also be the neighbors. They’re building an industrial-sized swimming pool. Men in hard hats drill holes. Yellow cranes flood the street. A school bus stop. It’s a Thursday. I read online that it’s bad luck to get married on a weekday.
I am getting married today.
The groom is Ronald. He sits in a cubical and has a collection of golf putter headcovers he outbids fellow collectors for online. His brunt, maple hair is shoulder-length. He uses professional grade gel, but I’ve never seen him floss. He tucks his jeans into the bottom of his white socks and only listens to talk radio. This is how I describe him to people who ask. He is fine. Decent. I could do worse. He doesn’t make me laugh and I don’t particularly enjoy eating meals with him. But people don’t care about any of that, not really. They just want to know that he has money and is good in bed. Ronald does make a lot of money, I say. My father likes him.
The coffee machine beeps. I overfill a mug that reads: World’s Greatest Dad. My hand burns against it, but I don’t move. The
pain reminds me that I am getting married today.
Ronald and I met when I rear-ended him on the I-465 ramp. He was ridiculously polite about the whole thing. His friend
owned an auto repair shop down the street, so we took our cars there that day. No insurance exchange, no red and blue lights, no police report, no deductible. I was convinced Ronald slammed his breaks on purpose, to forge our “chance meeting.” He bought me coffee from the bakery next door and thanked me for getting him out of a strategy session with his co-workers. I work in marketing, he said with the same tone my mother uses when she tells people she has plantar fasciitis. When he asked what I do, I shrugged and said, Nothing. The coffee wasn’t what I ordered. He fell in love with me instantly.
I’m wearing an A-line, sleeveless wedding dress. It’s blush pink, and there are little flowers and grandmother pearls on the
tulle. I look like a cake topper, but my sister, Jane, cried when I tried it on. She didn’t cry at any of the others. I’m not wearing a veil because I’ve had premarital sex. Many times. I wanted to wear one to be ironic, but Jane said no. She’s a virgin and believes God paints the sunrise with his own hair.
I remember to take a sip of coffee. It is room temperature now, watered down and insipid. Sugar and cream won’t salvage it,
my mother only buys the cheap stuff.
Ronald wants to have two kids by the time he’s thirty. He’s twenty-eight. I haven’t told him I have a pathological fear of pregnancy. It’s called Tokophobia. I looked it up on the internet. I really, really don’t want our kids to have Ronald’s hair, Ronald’s rabbit teeth, Ronald’s pasty skin, Ronald’s personality. If I procreate with him, I will be doing my lineage—no, humankind—a disservice. Our kids will be picked on. Bullied. But Ronald is so nice. It doesn’t matter that his hair is orange.
I put my wedding dress on in the kitchen. Jane says I need to be comfortable in it.
When the doorbell rings, I expect it to be her and my bridesmaids—a collection of girls I don’t like—armed with Day of Wedding tasks. But it’s Darren Weston wearing a brown jumper. A box rests on his shoulder. I lost my virginity to Darren Weston in the back seat of his red Ford Escape. Ten years ago. Back when I was young and didn’t like chocolate cake.
Holy shit, he says.
How do I be a wife? I ask him. I’ve never been one before.
I get in the truck with Darren Weston and we drive far, far away, into a different zip code. We stop at a gas station and buy out their rum section. He tells me he couldn’t get rid of the Ford Escape. That he is an alien too. We unzip our human skin and wait for God’s painting.
I am not getting married today.
Gabrielle McAree is an avid reader and writer from Fishers, IN. She studied Theatre and Writing at Long Island University Post, and loves love, cereal, books, and conversations over chai tea. Her work can be found in Loomings. She resides in NYC.
Creeping Jenny: A Houseplant's Tale
When washing in someone else’s shower, there comes a moment when you fling the water out of your eyes and notice the shampoo is a total stranger. All the bottles are shaped wrong. They are covered in fine text, like someone at a soap company is sneaking their novel onto the labels of body wash. And you respect that because hey, published is published. But also, you wonder where the person who owns this shower found these strange hygiene condiments. They look semi-homemade or at least like they’re meticulously planned to appear homemade as if produced for a farmers’ market, or an old-timey apothecary. And because you’re in your twenties and you’ve just moved to this city, you don’t know where or when the farmers’ market is, or if you could even afford anything there, least of all body wash when there is Suave for $2.99 at the pharmacy around the corner from the apartment you now share with a total stranger. And you wonder what it is about you that seeks out strangers, including this man from the internet who, let’s be honest, you may never see again before bothering to find out if there is a weekly farmers’ market nearby where you could buy squash or an aloe plant to make your life more connected to the roots of the earth when you are feeling like a balloon a child let go from hands slick with popsicle slime.
You slip out while he sleeps. Your hair was still wet when you left because you didn’t want to stay and find out if he has a
hairdryer left by some previous woman or if he would offer to make you waffles. You wondered if anyone will notice you dripping on the subway, but they all stared straight ahead into their own personal voids.
As soon as you get back to the apartment, you fall asleep on the couch. It’s not your couch, so you toss and turn to get
comfortable but at last, you drift into a current that is deep and dreamless. When you finally wake, it’s nearly dark outside. You notice you’ve been drooling on the cushion, so you turn it over to hide the wet spot from your roommate.
Eventually, you find a farmers’ market or at least an open-air market, it goes up by the museum every Saturday. You wander
the stalls looking at acres of apples and extravagantly priced pork until you buy a plant because of its name. Creeping Jenny. Now you just need a fancy pot and fertilizer, and a long-stemmed watering can so that you can stand by your only window and peer down to the sliver of street between the building next door and the corner of your own while you water your plants. But that will have to wait until the next paycheck and, as you don’t have a job, the next paycheck is distinctly elusive. For now, you water them out of a mug that appears completely black but if you add a hot drink words will materialize: “Nobody Knows I’m a Mermaid” the mug announces until the drink goes cold and the message fades.
Already the Creeping Jenny looks yellow and its leaves are starting to curl and crisp up. You wonder if it needs more water,
so you pour in two mugfuls instead of one. It drinks up the liquid instantly and seems to need more but then you wonder if it might be getting too much instead of too little. You go online to check and learn that yellow leaves can be a sign of root rot and you worry that you just murdered your new plant. You try talking to the Creeping Jenny about your day. At first, it doesn’t seem to be listening but by the end of the week, you think that perhaps its leaves have flattened out a bit and there is a new baby tendril slipping down the side of the sill.
Talking to Creeping Jenny fills your unemployed hours until you get a job at last. A temporary administrative position taking
orders for a high-end toilet company. You didn’t know that toilets could be high-end but now you are taking orders for $8,000 toilets for hotels and private citizens who prioritize their butts. It redefines how you feel about your own toilet. You wonder if you’ve been shortchanging your bowel movements all your life. And the owner of the luxury toilet company says that you are doing a good job. Before you know it, a whole pay period has gone by and you have money to spend on anything. You think about getting the long-stemmed watering can for your plants, but by now the Creeping Jenny is fully brown. And even though it’s just a plant, it’s the only living thing in your care. So, you cry big thick tears that fall down your cheeks and onto the brown leaves, burrowing beneath the soil, finding purchase in possibly-rotting roots. You cry so much that your right contact lens falls out and lands precariously on Jenny’s last green leaf.
The next day is Saturday and you think about going to the farmers’ market by the museum. You put on your jeans and a \
hoodie emblazoned with the name of the college you visited once with your mom during senior year but didn’t end up going to because she died at the end of summer and you just couldn’t fathom doing anything, much less school. You consider putting on makeup but then decide that the best thing about living in a city is the supreme unlikelihood that you’ll run into anyone you know or would care to see you made up. It isn’t until you are looking for your keys with a rising sense of did-they-fall-off-the-earth-I-literally-just-had-them, you see that Jenny is not dead, not now. She—surely a resurrection should be rewarded with anthropomorphic pronouns—is as green and lush as the day you bought her. You sit down and move to call your mom before you realize. Then you just sit and wonder how you’d been so wrong, going through the usual self-questioning that miracles always inspire among the sane: Did you dream that the plant had died? Was this something Creeping Jennies did, just like a plant-version of a phoenix? But phoenixes are not real, or are they?
You start talking to Jenny regularly again. It’s a stream of consciousness diatribe of all your fears, one after another. You ask
her how many mugs of water she would like. It dawns on you that she doesn’t want tap water at all. However, you can’t cry on command. You were never a good actor. You spend a few days bargaining with Jenny over other types of non-tears or tear-like droplets that you could produce for her. But she is adamant. She curls her leaves in protest. You try to cry. You try so hard that the skin around your eyes starts to ache. She turns yellow, then brown.
You walk into the luxury toilet store on Monday after a weekend of dry-eyed defeat. For a few hours, you lose yourself in the
order forms and practice answering the phone with the right lilt in your voice that says you are helpful and professional and willing to discuss the mechanics and aesthetics of toilets without ever laughing even a little giggle. But the next caller sounds so much like your mom, even the way she said “afternoon,” with a lengthening of the oo’s so that it was stretched out.
You realize you’re crying. A ghostly presence of mind moves you to grab an empty water glass nearby. You capture six big, globular tears. When you leave for the day, you’ve already slipped the glass into your purse without anyone noticing. It’s got a bit of saran wrap and a rubber band around the top to keep the tears trapped.
You bound up the four floors to your apartment. Sprinkling the contents of the glass over Jenny, you lean down so that only
she can hear.
“There’s a lot more where that came from.”
D. S. G. Burke (she/her) lives and writes in New York City. Her writing has appeared in the Seattle Times, 3Elements Literary Review, and Stinger Stories. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram: @dsgburke.
The Church is Open for Prayer and Quiet Reflection
Tides of people caught fragments of his songs as they hurried about their business. The lid of a guitar case flopped open like a beggar’s hand outside Victoria Square. As evening fell, the crowds thinned. His fingertips were raw from playing in the cold all afternoon. He peered into the case at the bronze and silver coins sparsely scattered across the felt.
The Albert Clock chimed in the distance. He pulled his phone from his pocket. The outline of a battery flashed red in the centre of the black screen. There was a lull as daylight faded, in the time after the shops closed on a Saturday evening and before the bars and clubs began to fill with the late-night revellers. He looked for somewhere free to sit, avoiding the smicked out teenagers chancing their arms before the bouncers started their shifts and the madding crowd of grim gospel preachers and anti-abortion, petition wielding sorts who had yet to pack it in.
One of those beer bikes perpetually filled with middle-aged women on a hen-do emerged from around the corner like an unnotified public procession. Early-noughties pop music filled the air. They jeered and splashed beer on the cobbles as they rolled past him.
“Awk, would you look at the cut of him with his wee guitar and his fringe and all”.
“Bless his heart.”
A hoppy aftertaste lingered in the air.
He found an unoccupied bench along one of the quieter pedestrian streets. He reached into his coat and pulled out a notebook to jot down a phrase that had just formed in his head. The narrow back of a young woman breezed past him with a guitar case strapped over her shoulder. The case bounced against her legs. He scribbled another note on the page.
His guitar case banged against the half-open double doors as he sidled through the entrance of the pub. He still half-expected to get stopped for ID everywhere he went. Not just in bars. Everywhere. On the train ride into town, he had compulsively checked his wallet every minute to ensure he hadn’t lost his ticket. When the conductor finally reached his compartment, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the ink washed clean with sweat from the scrap of paper and to be thrown right off at the next stop.
There was already a young woman crouched down in the small staging area by the corner setting up. He studied the small of her back as her t-shirt rode up while she tinkered with the amplifier. The manager bundled in between them, glasses hanging from a string around his neck, jiggling against his chest.
“Nick! I’ve been calling you mate. Didn’t you get any of my texts?”
“My phone died.”
The young woman turned around. She shook the hair out of her face and pulled her t-shirt down to cover her belly button.
Nick addressed the balding overweight man standing in front of him.
“What’s the craic?”
He peeked around his belly. The manager smoothed a greasy hand through what was left of his hair.
“Listen mate, I’ll tell you what it is -”
The woman stood beside Frank.
“Faith. Nice to meet you.”
Her nails were painted purple. He shook her warm hand. She held up the palms of her hands for examination before rubbing them on her t-shirt.
She pointed at the equipment in the corner.
“Son, there’s no easy way of saying this.”
“I’ve been playing here for months. Same time every Saturday.”
“Now, you know yourself you’re not for everyone.”
Frank shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t take it personally alright.”
“Aye dead on.”
“Mon son, calm yourself. You know rightly -”
Nick stormed out of the bar.
As he barged through the door, he ran into a crowd of early starters. One of them bumped into his shoulder, knocking the strap of his guitar case loose, sending it banging between their legs.
“Yeo! For fuck sake, are your eyes painted on?”
He kept his head down and fought his way through the crowd, striding in the opposite direction. The light was fading. He slipped down a side street and found an alleyway to hide in. He sucked the cold night air deep into his nostrils and slowly let it whistle out between his pursed lips.
His tongue pressed against his right incisor. He bit down until he could almost taste the blood. He slumped to the ground, back against the wall with his guitar case down beside him and unclipped the clasps with a metallic click. The stern of the wood nestled in the crook of his armpit. He plucked the strings absentmindedly.
A passerby tossed a coin in his case. He stopped playing and looked up. The passerby slipped out of sight at the end of the alley.
Nick stood up. He set the guitar down on the wall opposite him. The guitar stared back at him. His footsteps echoed in its base as he walked away.
After wandering around for a while, he found himself outside the city cathedral as if its long spire had pierced his arm like a needle and dropped him drugged at the door. His graduation ceremony had taken place in the same cathedral less than a year ago. Most of all he remembered the funereal air to the day. How uncomfortable he had felt in his suit. He only ever wore a shirt and tie for a job interview or when someone had died and that day had the feeling of some grotesque marriage of the two. Bumping into old classmates, looking less sure of themselves already, surrounded by their parents, swaddled in their black robes and mortarboard. He remembered how the university chancellor had told them they were all destined for greatness in a speech that felt more like a eulogy than a commencement.
There was a sign on the door that read: ‘The Church is Open for Prayer and Quiet Reflection’. The church hall creaked and echoed with every step as if it were an instrument itself. Dust swirled by the frescos and stained-glass windows as he pushed through the heavy doors of the reception area. The church was empty. His fingers traced along the top of the rows of pews. When he had nearly reached the chancel, he took a seat. He examined the grain of the wood in the back of the pew in front of him. Sitting there reminded him of old school carol services when he was a child. Lined up in their shorts and blazers. They would make them sit in alphabetical order. C for Considine. He would always be at the end of the row right beside the scalding radiator. The hot metal singing the tiny hairs on his bare legs.
He walked underneath the gilded arches engraved with depictions of the crucifixion and the resurrection. A mosaic above one of the arches told the story of St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland. Or something like that anyway. The fella looked like he must be a saint. He stood on a grassy bank with his staff in one hand and the four-leaf clover in the other, his image set above an old, long ship sailing past a crop of mountains.
Underneath the domed roof of the baptistery, he lay down on his back and looked up to imagine what he might have seen if his parents had been religious enough to christen him as a wean. The ceiling was adorned with a mural of the night sky. A moon beamed down upon all of creation: the trees, and the flowers and the fish swimming in the lake. In the centre of the moon, a heavenly cloud from which an outstretched hand emerged, with two fingers extended.
He had heard stories about signs from God appearing to men, like a tear rolling down the cheek of Mary Magdalene or the face of Jesus in a slice of toast. No miracle revealed itself to him.
He rushed back to the spot where he thought he had abandoned the guitar. Near enough every weekend he trained it into Belfast and still barely knew its head from its hole. Panting, he halted when he recognized a plaque on the brick wall of an old building. He caught himself on the corner of the alley. Like the back of my hand, he thought to himself. He reached for the torch on his phone before remembering it was out of battery. The moonlight glinted off the strings. He genuflected before the neck of the guitar.
He headed back in the direction of the pub. He made his way through the main bar out into the fresh air of the beer garden. He bought a drink and sat down at one of the stools facing the outside bar. The heat of the crowd warmed him as people pressed in close to order their drinks. He studied the bartenders as they went about their work. He tried to guess who they would serve first. The music floating out from inside belonged to the band that normally followed him.
A woman slid in beside him. She leaned against the bar and tucked the wet strands of hair clinging to her forehead behind her ear. He could smell the hotness on her neck like lemon and salt where she had sweated through her perfume. It was the girl from earlier. She got served right away.
She finally noticed him.
“Two please, actually.”
She turned to face him as she waited for her drinks.
“We meet again.”
The bartender returned with two shot glasses. She slid one over to him and clinked her glass.
She stuck her tongue out and flipped the glass upside down. He grimaced at the taste and wiped his sticky fingers on his jeans.
“Sorry I missed you.”
“You hardly miss me already, we only just met an hour ago,” she teased.
“I’ll have to get over to see you the next time.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon.”
“Don’t really want to talk about it. Dirty bastard. Thought he’d never hand my money over.”
“Used to it by now.”
“Will I get you a taxi?”
“Will you fuck. Taxi’s the last thing. I’d take another drink.”
He pulled his wallet out and set it on the bar as if that would help attract the bartender but really it was the presence of Faith that brought him back. He ordered the same again for them.
“Why do we bother?”
He paid for the shots. They clinked and drank. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. She pointed at the guitar case laying between his feet and the bar.
“Dragging these all over the place with us.”
He sipped on his beer to wash away the aftertaste of the shots. He shook his head.
“Some eejit told me I was good in school and probably ruined me forever from getting a real job.”
Nick downed the rest of his beer. He toyed with the glass in his hands, turning it around and around.
“I’ve been having this nightmare recently where I’m on one of those talent shows on TV. On stage in front of three judges and all that bollocks. And I know I’m supposed to play something, obviously, standing there on stage like a dick with my guitar and a microphone in front of my mouth but the words won’t come out.”
“Oh, aye I know that one. That’s the one where the guitar’s actually your cock and you secretly want to ride Simon Cowell.”
“No harm to you but there’s nothing as boring as other people’s dreams.”
She took a bite out of the lemon and licked her wrist.
“Used to love those shows. Saddest thing was never the people who were shite though, it was the decent ones who would end up not getting enough votes to go through.”
“Aye sometimes they came back the next year too.”
“Right. That’s my point. You couldn’t not even if you wanted to. The liver keeps growing back.”
“Nothing. Just, it’s like drinking isn’t it? You go out and get blocked, wake up with a hangover and swear off alcohol forever. But you can’t help yourself.”
Faith made a move as if to slide away from the space she occupied between him and the bar and disappear back the crowd. She placed a clammy hand, sticky with spilled liquor on his forearm.
“You can walk me home if you want but don’t be getting any ideas.”
So, he walked Faith home and he kept his ideas to himself.
Mark Campbell is a graduate from the MA in Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast and is currently based in County Down, Northern Ireland. His short stories have appeared in 'The Honest Ulsterman' and The University of Exeter's 'Q Journal' where he studied English.
Held and Lift,
Held - a bead of water in the páramo ecosystem known for its pure water (Bogotá, Colombia)
Lift - a Siberian gull (Mumbai, India)
Tucker Lieberman is the author of Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty, a reflection on literature, history, gender, and race. His short fiction is in STORGY. His photography has appeared on the covers of Crack the Spine, Ponder, and Nightingale & Sparrow. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @tuckerlieberman.
Dree Your Weird
Learn to love disappointment as the ear loves a resolving chord.
Hello. Welcome. Step right in, sir.
Yes. No, not a pet, sir. I am the proprietor.
I assure you, yes. Not a joke. Owner and operator, sir.
Not a cow, sir. A bull. The difference? Ahem. I’m surprised you ask.
Yes, right this way. We stock dinnerware, toasting flutes, vases. Christmas ornaments along that wall. Tumblers of
every variety by the window displays.
Oh, dreadfully sorry. I’ve just—well, yes, it seems every time I turn around, this sort of thing—no, really, I’ll clean it
I beg your pardon? Well... yes. The—the merchandise. We do carry quite a bit of... shall I say, weathered
Well, I suppose, yes. Broken, sir. Strictly speaking.
No, sir, what you see is what we have.
Well. I can hardly deny it when you put it so plainly, but... yes. Indeed. Not surprising at all, being that I am a, as
you say, sir, yes: a bull.
Is it really so amusing, sir?
Well, please do come again. You won’t be? I am sorry to hear it, sir.
Open a what instead, sir? Ahem. It is the, erm, female of the species that gives milk, sir. But I thank you for the
Good day, sir.
Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes his living as an editor a translator. His work has been published here and there.
O'labumi Idorian Brown
My mother would get mad whenever I slipped up and used the words “good hair” or “bad hair” around her. But as I strode into the schoolyard of PS 138 that Monday, head held high, there was no denying that it was my good hair making all the difference. I’d already earned compliments from a couple of the girls. And as Jean-Marie and I began untangling a jump rope for a game of Double Dutch, some of the boys threw me compliments too.
I was new to public school. I’d spent my first four years of elementary education at Our Lady of Victory on Throop
Avenue. But when my brother Dana came along, it put a strain on the household budget. So, PS 138 it was.
“There’s no such thing as good or bad hair!” mama would argue. “People just have different grades.”
But I could see the difference in the way people treated nappy-headed folk like me, and how they treated those with long, silky locks.
There were four of us in the game; Jean-Marie, Cynthia, Shirley, and me. All 5th-graders. We had become fast
friends in the schoolyard because the four of us loved Double Dutch and four is the perfect number of people to play it: two long jump ropes being turned in opposite directions by two girls, while another girl – or girls, depending on the game – jumped the ropes.
“Why do me and Shirley have to turn?” Cynthia complained through the wad of Bazooka she was chewing. She’d
been wearing the same braids for two weeks, I noticed. They looked like a thick nest sprouting from the top of her skull. One sad braid with a lavender bow attached to it flopped around on the top of her head when she ran, like a broken bird wing.
“It ain’t fair,” Shirley, her companion in crime chimed in.
We called her Beaver because of her bulging front teeth, and hair that resembled a pile of twigs, like a beaver’s
dam. Bad hair. The both of them.
“Well, since me and Dorian untangled the rope,” Jean shouted back, “it’s only fair that you two turn it.”
As usual, Jean’s hair was flawless; the braids parted with such precision it looked as if they’d been split with a
razor rather than a comb. Except for her darker skin, she reminded me of Sherry Alberoni, one of the Mouseketeers on the Mickey Mouse TV show. Jean never had to spend her money or beg for chips and treats at recess. Kids just gave them to her. And the white teachers never complained when they asked us to line up in alphabetical order and Jean maneuvered her way up to the front of the line. They never scolded her about it like they did when it was one of us. No sir, Jean-Marie Ingram got the real princess treatment at PS 138 because she had what most of us didn’t and that was GOOD HAIR.
I had envied and admired her since the day we met.
But now things had changed.
It had taken me weeks to convince my mother. I recited all my achievements; reminded her of all my good report cards, and pointed out that in another year I’d be in junior high school and certainly too old to be wearing the same old bows, braids and plastic clips I had worn my entire childhood. I begged. I argued. I even spilled a few tears, before Mama finally agreed to let me have my hair restyled.
Now, my dark brown locks were shiny twists, gathered into pig-tails with rubber bands, so that they hung down
like thick, straight strands; each adorned with beads of gold. I felt regal, like Princess Badroulbadour, the Duchess from the Far East who married Aladdin. She was my favorite fairy tale princess because, unlike Thumbelina, Rapunzel, Cinderella and the rest, Badroulbadour was brown like me. And now not only did my hair resemble hers, as I stepped up to the twin ropes that Shirley and Cynthia were now turning, my gold-studded hairdo put me right up there with Jean and her good-hair friends.
Into the sweep of the rotating ropes I leapt.
My eyes sharp…
My grin wide…
This was my time to shine!
I hopped on one foot for a few beats, then switched into a skip. GO DEE GO, GO! GO DEE, GO, the kids in the
schoolyard began to chant. I went into a hands-free jump, my arms crisscrossed behind my back.
…GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO!
I moved into a scissor jump, one leg forward, then the next; crouched down to my knees and jumped a fancy-foot- formation. Mirror, mirror on the wall, I told myself as I crouched down to my knees. …GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO! I’m the fairest of them all!
Next, I angled my body back towards the middle of the rope, closed my eyes, and held my breath. I planned to do
the toe-to-toe hop next, which had taken me most of the summer to master. I took my time, slowed my steps, and concentrated, wanting to make sure I’d pull it off. But at the last second, just as I was pointing my toes, the rope collapsed.
I whipped my head around to Shirley, holding the rope. Jean was there beside her, pursing her lips in my
direction, trying to indicate something. I took it for a kiss. This must REALLY be my shining moment! I thought.
Exasperated, Jean pulled the rope from Shirley’s hand, slapped it against my legs, and whispered, “Behind you.”
My eyes scanned the schoolyard, searching out those meddlesome boys who often got their jollies by ruining our fun, and proceeded to give them a piece of my mind. “You ass—” was as far as I got.
“—You the ass,” someone snarled.
There, not trying in the least to hide the fact that it was her who did it, with one end of the jump rope still in her mitts, was Dragon Della. We called her that because she was the only one in our fifth-grade class who could blow long streams of cigarette smoke without coughing or choking.
Her real name was Leanna, and she was the class bully. In the short time I’d been there, she had stolen erasers
and pencil cases, and had stuffed wads of trash into the obsolete ink bottle holes in our desks. She’d gone in the closet, when no one is watching, pulled all the nicest coats and hats from their hooks and left them on the floor. Just a week before, she rammed the lunch line, knocking me and a few other kids to our knees.
Now, here she was, standing right in front of me, jump rope in her hand, a sour look on her face. “You look like
Bozo the Clown, she said, “wit’ all them beads in yo’ head and them stupid red shoes.” Her light skin, combined with the slant of her eyes made her look Chinese. She would have been cute if it wasn’t for her hair. It was wooly and shorter than my pinky toe. And no matter how much she brushed, the shit stood on her head like fresh cut-grass.
“Let go of the rope Leanna,” I screamed.
“Make me, Bozo Head,” she yelled, giving me a shove.
Kids closed in around us. A moment before, it had been GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO! Now the chant was FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
“NO!” I protested, “I’m not going to fight.”
“She pushed you Dorian,” Jean hollered, “push her back!”
The crowd murmured their agreement.
“No,” I repeated. Louder. “I can’t. Dr. King said not to fight and to love our enemies.” I had gotten this from Sister
Garret at Our Lady of Victory, and I had taken the words to heart. So, when I said it, it came out with such authority that mouths gaped, eyebrows arched, and the yard went silent. For a moment everyone just stared at me reverently as if I was the great Dr. King himself.
But Dragon Della quickly broke the spell.
“So,” she smirked, “if I step on your Bozo shoes right now you won’t hit me?” “No,” I uttered.
“What if I punch you in that Bozo nose? You ain’t gonna hit back?”
“No,” I repeated, a whispered croak this time.
“Ok.” She shrugged and then did the unthinkable.
She grabbed two hands full of my beads and twists and yanked them violently downward, as if she were slamming the lid on a coffin. In my pain and fury, I swung my arms like a windmill hoping to grab her hair. But I couldn’t get a grip on her mess because it was itty-bitty and greasy. I yanked at her clothing, as her punches landed hard on my gut and chest, but only managed to grab air.
I was able to protect my face from being punched or scratched by keeping my head down, but the Dragon had a
steely clutch on my locks. I screamed as she yanked my head left and then right, my tears blurring the beads into mere gold specks as they hit the ground.
Then, in the distance, I heard the sound of a whistle, followed by Dean Walzman’s familiar voice demanding Break
it up! Just as Dragon Della’s knuckles connected with my face. I was grateful to feel the arms of an adult as they pried us apart, Della kicking and hissing “Lemme go lemme go,” all the way.
“Enough, Smart-tard!” The Dean yelled in her direction.
Dragon Della, wilted.
Smart-tard was one of Ms. Walzman’s trademark expressions. We didn’t know if she was calling us smart or retarded when she used it. But we did know she scared the crap out of us. I cried all the way to the Dean’s office.
I cried the whole time I sat there.
“Leanna can’t hurt you now. She’s in the room down the hall,” Dean Walzman said, “so stop crying.” But I cried
when I went back to class and after school I cried the whole six blocks home. When I took out my key to open the door, I heard something drop and looked down. A single, gold-gilded pellet winked at me from the ground.
…Leanna can’t hurt you now.
Dean Walzman just didn’t get it.
Ms. Browne has attended the literary workshops of Michel Marriott's, Soul's Sojourn Memoir Writers Workshop; The International Woman's Writer's Guild; Gotham Writers Workshop; and The Yorkville Writing Circle. She is a long-time resident of Brooklyn New York. “Dragon Della” is an excerpt from Browne’s memoir, Hairalujah.
Love through winter
Those were the months that blurred. I know I’m supposed to talk about them, but it’s impossible to talk about them in a concrete way because there is nothing connecting me to them, not really. The only way I am connected to those months is the fact that I was breathing during them. I cannot tell you much more about the five Januaries I had. I didn’t sleep much and I wasn’t awake just as often. I kissed empty girls and I hid beneath down blankets and I drank cheap vodka, but that’s all. I can’t tell you what ended the five Januaries beyond the girl who burned through me with her Roman candle voice. I ended up living with her in her ugly, terrible apartment in the city. Our bed was in the living room on the floor and I never slept better beside anyone but her. She was the messiest person I’d ever met and I loved her. Those were the months I saw more shooting stars than I thought possible, and when I was sure I was recovering. I tried to leave everything behind for her. I tried to stuff it beneath our couch, and into the back of the closet and into the love letters addressed to my dead self. It was messy. I don’t think it would have made a difference if I’d been tidier about it. Time unpacks everyone’s carefully packed drawers. The night I took my shit and left, I learned that my stars I’d been wishing on had been dying cigarettes tossed from the balcony of our upstairs neighbors when one nearly caught in my hair.
Taylor is a queer writer from Maine. She prefers to write about love gone sour and the discomfort of owning a body. Her poetry can be found such places as littledeathlit and Postscript Magazine among others. Her short fiction lives in Southchild Lit, Coffin Bell Journal, and upcoming in Wrongdoing Magazine, as well as many more.
After his older sister, Nancy, died, Nicky searched for new names. His own was a reminder of lost tempers, sisterly smiles, and car crashes he couldn’t stop.
They didn’t fit. Nancy would have laughed, her laughter, goose-like, yet beautiful.
He settled on Chevalier. Knights could try to save.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University's MFA fiction program. His stories, "Soon”, “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” and "Tales From A Communion Line," have been nominated for Pushcarts. Yash’s work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.
Phyllis Green's art has appeared in ArLiJo 123, the Revolution, Open Arts forum, and Earth and Altar. Phyllis is also the author of 16 books for young people (EATING ICE CREAM WITH A WEREWOLF, NANTUCKET SUMMER, BAGDAD ATE IT, WILD VIOLETS, to name a few) and over 50 stories in literary journals.
I Walk Out of my Mother's House and Towards the Pacific Ocean
All at once, it's over. I take a plane ride 3,000 miles away from my mother. She drops me at departures in her new car, and when I take the escalator up, I don't turn around to wave goodbye. I have a new address now, a new driver's license, a new haircut, and a new job. California is sunnier than I expected. I walk past a row of seven palm trees on my way to work, their trunks stretched upwards towards the sky. On the first day of August, I call my insurance provider and get a referral for therapy. The operator asks me a question and I ramble for a bit too long, my babble filling the silence on the other end.
When I cry, I crouch in the closet so as not to disturb my roommates. I have five roommates, all PhD students, all quiet and studious. My therapist keeps a jar of glass pebbles in her waiting room. The pebbles are green, blue, and gold, and the top layer is covered in dust. The pebbles are to look at, not to touch. When our sessions are over my therapist says, "It was nice seeing you this week" and I say, "It was nice seeing you too."
I buy a new pair of sneakers and throw the old ones in the dumpster behind my bank. Later, I take my money out of that bank and put it in a new one. I clean the bathroom. A week goes by, I clean it again. My roommate becomes my best friend, and then slowly, suddenly, he becomes someone who shares my bed. The bad memories make the good ones stand out with even greater clarity. In the darkness, I spend hours observing the place where the curve of his nose blends into the wall. My mother used to say I was difficult to love. Now I have no mother and I sleep as one part of two, his arms wrapped around my cold little body. I dream all night. My brother is three years old, standing by the staircase. My mother stands behind him like a shadow. She raises her hand: he screams and screams.
Linnea Cooley is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work appears in McSweeney's, Pif Magazine, and The Roadrunner Review, and in 2020 she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Long May You Run
Wanda McPherson’s ass hurt. She shifted on the bench seat of “Sally,” her ’86 Silverado. It brought some relief, subtle as hearing a teaspoon stirring iced tea in a glass. Wanda felt vindicated though and decided to put aside her doctor’s advice to get a hip replacement for now. She pressed down on Sally’s gas pedal with her red Keen sandal, and the truck roared up the entrance ramp to the freeway. A small thrill, but at her age, Wanda took what she could get. Next to Wanda sat a brightly colored fabric leash, new but with one end chewed right through, and a clean envelope with her youngest son’s name written in blue ink. Danny’s probation officer had told her the letter “. . . must be written in blue so the court knows it’s an original.”
As she merged onto the freeway under bright sunshine, a Honda Civic zoomed past and quickly veered in front of her. Her body tightened automatically when she thought the sedan was going to sideswipe Sally. It sent an angry sneer down her leg. Why did people drive so damn fast? She felt a little foolish when the Honda roared off, crisis averted, and she was left with an irate hip, and a whole morning of town driving ahead of her.
Her cell phone rang, the sound muffled in her purse. Wanda didn’t believe in using cell phones behind the wheel, though
she saw people do it all the time. Probably Danny calling to see if she was on her way with the letter. Wanda glanced over at the envelope. It had taken her two hours last night to write three short paragraphs about her youngest son. Sitting at her cramped kitchen table, her golden retriever Waylon snoring at her feet, Wanda had thought carefully about what to write. And what to leave out. She dreaded the conversation she feared would take place when she handed over the letter. What if Danny’s probation officer asked her the one question she couldn’t answer?
Two blocks from the probation department, Wanda shifted again and her right foot tingled, a warning it was on the verge
of losing sensation. A dented Buick sedan sat stopped at the light ahead. Wanda went to depress Sally’s brake pedal but couldn’t feel it go down.
“Shit.” Wanda pushed down hard on the pedal, even though she felt nothing past her right hip. An ancient muscle memory must have triggered her body because Sally miraculously slowed. As the Buick moved away, a young woman in the back seat turned to look right at her. Wanda felt a wave of humiliation roll through her. She’d been driving for decades before that girl was even born. At least Sally hadn’t failed her. Wanda had affectionately named the Silverado after Clapton’s song. To Wanda, Sally wasn’t just a vehicle, but a reliable friend. “Thank you, girl,” she whispered, patting the faded dash.
A young man smoked outside the back entrance of the probation department’s adult division. Wiry and short, he had a large, cartoonish star tattooed on his neck. Wanda eyed him to determine if he posed a threat. He offered a weak smile and held the door for her. Gripping her letter, she ambled past him, nodding her thanks. Poor kid. His eyes reminded her of a winter lake ringed with barren trees.
Danny’s parole officer was a brassy blonde with a weak chin and several silver rings adorning her fingers. Her desk was cluttered with paperwork, and a stack of file folders, along with a Breathalyzer unit and an ankle bracelet with the battery compartment open. Wanda took the paraphernalia in stride. Danny’s numerous brushes with the law had included a few visits to juvenile hall before moving onto longer stints in county jail. She knew her son’s file was one of the bulging ones.
“Mrs. McPherson,” The officer extended her hand. “Jessica Ciccero. Call me Jess. How are you?”
Wanda nodded. “Getting along, thank you.” She shook Jess’ hand and sat down. She then shifted her body to the right,
just enough to ease the pressure on her hip.
“Danny told me you agreed to write a letter for him.” She nodded to Wanda’s hand.
“Not sure it will do much good.” Wanda handed over the envelope.
Jess retrieved a thick file folder from her desk and opened it. She set the letter inside on top of the other documents but
did not open it.
“As you know, the terms of Danny’s probation are clear. He hasn’t missed a day of work since being released, hasn’t had any other infractions, till this incident.” She glanced at Wanda before closing the file folder.
“It all depends on what he does between now and June 30th.” Jess crossed her hands in front of her black vest. “He’s
lucky the state changed the guidelines. Still, he’ll need a lenient judge or he’s probably going right back to county.”
“How long would he get?” Wanda asked.
“If he’s sent back? Probably two years, maybe eighteen months if he behaves himself.”
A spark of hope flickered in Wanda’s mind. A year and a half sounded like a nice vacation from Danny.
The other woman seemed to mistake Wanda’s silence for sadness. “It’s unfortunate, I know, but he can take classes, maybe get on the work release program.” She smiled. “He’ll get by.”
Wanda thought of the sleepless nights she’d endured since Danny’s last release from jail. Wondering if he was checking in with his PO. Worried he was missing work to hang out with old friends who couldn’t avoid trouble themselves. Or that he would show up on her doorstep. She pointed to the letter on the open file. “You can read it. I don’t mind.”
Jess leaned forward. “I was going to wait until you left. Some don’t like me reading their letters in front of them.”
“No.” Wanda waved her hand. “Danny’s my son. I love him, of course.” She felt her face redden. “I just want to make sure it sounds right.”
Jess eyed Wanda for a moment, then opened the envelope. While she read, Wanda frowned at her own hands. They were like old, dried oranges. She remembered them being slim and spotless once, back when she used to paint her nails with Revlon’s Cherry Wagon. She loved that deep, rich red. She’d been pregnant with Danny the last time she painted them. Now her hands had the gnarled, spotted look of a gremlin. She knew the transformation had been slow and invisible, but looking at them now, it was as if it had happened overnight. She looked out the window of the small cubicle. A car had pulled up and the wiry man was leaning in the passenger window.
Jess cleared her throat. She nodded to Wanda.
“It’s good. I read a lot of these letters and, let me tell you, they sometimes get off on the wrong foot, expectations too high, explaining too much. Yours is to the point. You don’t apologize for Danny.” She folded the letter again. “Is he still living with your brother?”
Wanda shook her head. “Not with Jerry, just in his rental downtown.”
“Ah, good. Close to the meat market.” Then she added, “At least he likes his job.”
Wanda frowned. Danny hadn’t revealed this detail to her, but then again, she had never asked. She felt tired and on edge, the needle in her hip ready to stitch her to the narrow chair if she stayed any longer. Wanda stood to go, her right foot thankfully full of feeling. Jess stood as well.
“I’ll be in touch, Mrs. McPherson. Thank you, again, for bringing the letter. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
Back in the truck, Wanda opened her thermos to swallow down two ibuprofen caplets. She took a few lingering sips as
the spring breeze blew through her long gray hair. The appointment had gone smoother than Wanda expected. It was clear Jess understood the strain her clients caused their families. Over the years, Wanda had tried to love her youngest son. She wondered if the experienced PO had sniffed out her shortcomings in the letter, a plea from a mother that should be heartfelt, but somehow comes up short.
Lost in thought, it took Wanda four rings to realize someone was calling her again. Danny no doubt. Wanda pictured him running through their old house on Sutter Lane with Bear, their yellow lab. Of her three boys, Danny had always been the fondest of animals. He was the only one of her sons to endorse her decision to start fostering dogs, after she retired from the phone company. She still had the drawing he’d sent her from jail of her hugging a lab, surrounded by sunflowers. A decent sketch, Wanda used it for her business logo, which pleased Danny. Wanda felt a surge of regret for not putting more fire in the letter.
Wanda readjusted herself on the bench seat, as Sally’s engine thrummed. Guilt compelled her to check in on Danny. No, not today. Maybe next week she’d stop by Steak ‘n Shake. Buy him a strawberry milkshake, his favorite. For now, she wanted to get back to her dogs and watch them romp till the sun went down. She looked at the leash Willie had chewed through. She had planned to return it, but Petco was on the other side of town, and she felt her hip quaver beneath her like a fault line. She could call Danny later. After she had a chance to pet the dogs with their brown, adoring eyes, let them lick her hands, her laughing as they tried to climb in her lap. The pups could make her forget all about her hip. Maybe all Wanda had to do was keep shifting one way or the other until every pain, even the serrated ones, edged away.
Nancy’s work, both fiction and poetry, has appeared in various publications including Capsule Stories, Five on the Fifth, and Madcap Review. Her poetry has won a few awards, including a prize from the Academy of American Poets. She also contributes to Gold Man Review, a literary journal based in Northern California, as an assistant editor.