What She Dared

Around the block from where she lives, another brick row house waits. Victorian like the rest, with deep blue trim and a stoop of four marble steps. The not-so-young couple that lives there moved into the neighborhood about the same time she left the suburbs and chose the city to find an engaged life. Hoping for weekends that didn’t include the rituals of lawn mowers and Weedwackers and piles of mulch. Planning for museums and long river walks.

She saw the couple a few times right after her move: the woman with a full-to-bursting belly, the man with his fifties crew cut. He was nothing to her then—just one of her neighbors. Occasionally she saw him stoop-sitting or carrying groceries home. She remembers talking to him a few months ago when neighbors gathered to chat.

Today, she is sixty-five and Medicare-ready. Because her hormones have long ago declared a ceasefire and her eggs have long ago disappeared, there can’t be a chemical trail running invisibly toward that neighbor’s house. But he has sensed something through the summer heat. He asks for her number one afternoon in front of her house while his dog wraps the leash around the urine-scented tree.

“Here’s my home phone,” she tries.

“No, your cell.” He laughs. “That way we can chat.”

She is sure of what the neighbor wants—as if the book on seduction has suddenly opened to her again. Just two weeks earlier, she’d left her second husband in the middle of their European vacation after a fight that never belonged in a lavish restaurant overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal. Lashing together her stuffed bags and carry-on, she rolled them down the street, making her way to the airport alone.

She’s spent the time at home revisiting old photo albums filled with her lost young man. They’d been married fifteen years when he died, gone before he could bald, work on his beer belly, or become bored with her. Disappeared in the middle of their lives along with all their memories, so she could never again turn to someone and ask: Remember when? No one would ever know her young, or dream a long future with her, or remind her of that exact moment their children were born. It should have lasted fifty years, that marriage.

But the neighbor doesn’t know her story; he only pauses in his dog-walking to get that number and start words flowing between them.

* * *

Let’s meet for coffee, the neighbor texts. Or for a drink or dinner. I’m really free next week.

So transparent, she thinks, as she loads on the wedding bands and her engagement ring. And chooses a dress that shows her figure but doesn’t reveal too much. How her body has changed in the last ten years, slackening into an odd variation of itself. She turns away from what she sees.

Locking the door behind her, she thinks that she’s always lived an honest life. Holding to rules that might protect her from moral disaster: Keep shared secrets; don’t hold grudges. Don’t envy others even when they’ve loved the same person for a lifetime. Don’t sleep with more than one man at a time. And certainly not with a man who belongs to someone else.

She isn’t even sure it’s him when she enters the bar, running through what she remembers from the sidewalk interview. That clipped hair. Tanned skin. Trim for a guy around fifty. Waiting for him to turn around, she feels all the years compress into this single moment. She is both that skinny teen waiting for her breasts to appear and the woman who has collected more experiences than anyone merits. Time confuses her, filling her with sadness.

“I’m not sure about my marriage,” she starts, getting to the truth even before she sips her wine. Even before he can start his seduction. “Not sure he can change. Or of what I want.”

She wants to say: I know what you’re about and you scare me. This scares me.

“I’m very attracted to you,” he says. “Was from the moment I saw you talking to your friends.”

“On the stoop?” she asks. “That was months ago.”

“I think about you whenever I walk by your house.”

“With or without the dog?”

He is laughing. “Marriage is hard.” Then he adds, “There are gaps,” as if admitting a secret.

She advises like someone’s mother. “But you have a child. You must be careful.”

“Supplementing works,” he offers.

“To fill in those gaps?” When he nods, she says, “Have you done this before?” His hand trembles slightly, the ice hitting the glass. As if he’s afraid.

Supplementing, she thinks. Like increasing vitamin D. Or devising a financial plan to insure both growth and safety. Or adding fiber to every meal. Supplementing: a new way to describe an ongoing problem since biblical times—one so common there’s even a Commandment against it. Number seven, she calculates.

So why that night does she say No, then Yes when he opens his front door? “Do you want to see the house?” Hadn’t she always been curious about that third-floor addition?

And first No, then Yes when he asks, “May I kiss you?”

He touches her face, his hands in her hair as he guides her into the kiss. Her hands stay by her side, and she wonders if she should move them. He pulls them around his neck and plays at her lips with his best technique. She tastes alcohol on his tongue.

She leaves so quickly the neighbor must wonder why, almost slamming the door behind her as she runs toward her house. But she is simply amazed that she has dared. The first new mouth in years. In front of her mirror, she wonders if this sin is etched on her face. Across the places where she rubs creams and glycolic acids each night.

She thinks of a statue that long ago beckoned—even before she was naked with a man, even before she had kissed passionately. The man’s hand rests gently on his lover’s bare thigh. The woman’s arm is around his neck, but he holds back, restraint tightening the muscles along his back. Nothing exists for them but the sensations their mouths produce. Their marble bodies glowed before her. For the first time in years, she wants to visit that sculpture. To revisit that kiss.

* * *

A few days later, in the middle of her living room, the neighbor’s second kiss is familiar and hungry. His mouth more insistent, less polite; his hands strong against her back. She’s aware of the fullness of his lips and the rhythm of the kiss. The very shape of his body.

“Mmm,” he mutters. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

But she remembers kissing her lost husband the first time behind the college dorms. He’d pulled her close, holding her against him in the spring air. Couples were locked together in every dark spot next to the building. Back then there were no husbands or wives or nosy neighbors to hide from. No teenage kid to damage. No grown children to disappoint.

“I want to kiss you now,” that lost husband had said when they were nineteen.

“If you didn’t,” she answered, her mouth against his ear, “I’d be rather disappointed.”

She can still pull the words and feel that long-ago kiss, one of thousands before the disease ignited within him to destroy. Before she washed his face after his breathing had stopped, and kissed that stilled mouth one last time.

The neighbor studies her face. “Are you here?” he asks. “Here with me?”

“Yes,” she answers.

* * *

Before the third kiss, in the corner of his hallway far from the windows where someone might see, the neighbor holds her tightly. The colored bubbles have flown between their houses, between their separate beds a block away. Foreplay that’s so provocative she can’t breathe. Can’t imagine being wanted this way after so long. Her now husband has stopped kissing her, along with everything else. A quick peck on the lips seems to be all she merits. She, who has always relished the physical.

For the first time she gives in to the neighbor’s kiss. She thinks of swooning Victorians, of young girls who lose control and later pay, of foolish old women chasing the past. She wants to cry and sing at the same time, to call out: I am still here. She wants everything this man can offer, played out in those bubbles that find her instantly in the bed she has taken over.

It’s the same she once shared with her lost husband—her lifetime bed. An antique they’d found on the Outer Banks when just engaged. The one she made her babies on. The one where she clasped him to her that night before the hospital, not realizing that they would never lie together again. The one she wept in after he died.

With her second marriage, she changed the mattress. Jettisoned the older one with hopes for the future. That husband, still in Europe, calls her daily, begging her to keep his spot until he returns. If she lets him come home. Tonight she will sleep on the diagonal, claiming all the territory as her own.

* * *

For days, all she is sure of are the sensations the neighbor’s mouth has ignited, like in some pulsing romance novel she always ignored in the store. I will, she thinks. I’m my own person. I want to live. I’m tired of being abandoned.

But the neighbor panics. I’m not sure I can, he writes. Afraid of making a mess. Please understand. I’m very, very sorry.

The texts slow down, then stop. She sees him on his stoop with his son. Walking with his wife on the street. Summer is over, and in the indifferent air, rules are once again important.

Only an interlude, she tells herself after she reads, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. It’s beginning, middle, and end already marked. She will not deceive her own face in the mirror. A small moment, she knows. And nothing more. Her husband will return with his apologies packed in his oversize bags and with his secret, tight mouth.

* * *

In winter to come, the house around the block will be closed. She will watch the shades open and close, the window boxes cleared of flowers, the collected trash on the curb for recycling. Inside will be the man who once kissed her. Before, she might have convinced herself that none of this mattered and passion was over. That she was old enough to be happy with what she had. That she shouldn’t again expect something like those three kisses and all those imaginings.

But nothing will work against what the future cannot hold. Because in his coming and disappearing, in the colored bubbles that once floated through a sensual twilight, he has left her pregnant with desire.


About the Author: Phyllis Carol Agins has long found inspiration in Philadelphia, PA. Two novels, a children’s book, and an architectural study were all published during her years there. Recent short fiction has appeared in Minetta Review, Soundings East, Pennsylvania English, and Lillith, among more than thirty-five other literary journals. Lately, she divides her time between Philly and Nice, France, adding the Mediterranean rhythms to her sources of inspiration. She has recently finished FINDING MAURICE, a novel about Algeria and France during the 1960’s.

in the moment of awakening

the first part is easy

set the fat man on fire just to
hear the young girls laugh, and
of course they do

smell of roses in the back yard,
sound a train passing through the
middle of town and when you
turn to slap your son your
hand is made of feathers and glass

when the plane crashes into
                               the river
all the angels are out of town

the house is empty and the
pool drained

nothing but bones in the garage

painter out behind the barn with
an empty canvas and his 
                      hands cut off

says god is either
everywhere
or nowhere at all

says faith is the smell of roses
or the smiles of sleeping
                               children

everything a reminder of death
and everyone a corpse draped
in beautiful tapestries

each day the one that
will matter most




one wrong choice given flesh
and wings and
all it ever does is
fly too close to the sun

About the Author: john sweet, b 1968, still numbered among the living. A believer in writing as catharsis. Opposed to all organized religion and political parties. His latest collections include APPROXIMATE WILDERNESS (2016 Flutter Press) and the limited edition chapbooks HEATHEN TONGUE (2018 Kendra Steiner Editions) and A BASTARD CHILD IN THE KINGDOM OF NIL (2018 Analog Submission Press). All pertinent facts about his life are buried somewhere in his writing.

Bikes

Through the open door
of the closed pizza parlor

glint three delivery bikes 
parked in a line in the dark, 

the immigrant deliverymen 
due soon 

after having worked 
late in the rain 

for tips only 
while fielding complaints 

in a language 
not their own, later

sleeping in an illegally
partitioned fire trap—

three cots 
parked in a line in the dark.

About the Author: Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Alabama Literary Review, Atlanta Review, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry East and The South Carolina Review. His latest collection is Watching Ourselves (Unsolicited Press, 2017). Previous collections include Breathing Room (Aldrich Press, 2015); Night Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2013); While We’re Waiting (Aldrich Press, 2013); and Walk With Me (Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2012). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times. Please visit www.markbelair.com

Disappearing

          It takes me a minute to realize that my mother is talking, and I reluctantly look up from my book. “What?” 

          “You need to get ready, we’re leaving for the ‘Preserve Chapman Island’ meeting in ten minutes.”

          “You’re kidding, right?”

          The meeting has nothing to do with me—it’s just an excuse for my parents and their friends to drink martinis and talk about getting rid of the cannery on the island. 

          When she doesn’t say anything, I add in the bitchiest, most sarcastic voice I can muster, “I thought I was grounded?”

          Silently she scowls at me with her hands on her hips. “You’re coming with us. That’s final.” 

          As I expect, the “meeting” is a bunch of old people drinking and laughing too loud. As soon as we walk in, my parents are pulled into a conversation and I take a drink off a tray—a gin and tonic or a vodka tonic, I’m not sure—and walk out to the sunroom. I ignore the women talking at the end of the room, and sip my drink and stare out at the sailing-school boats in the bay. Watching the little boats pulling on their moorings, I thank God that sailing lessons are long behind me. All the other kids seemed to love it, but for me it was torture. Even when the water was calm, it was a blue so dark it was nearly black. I spent every minute on the boat worrying about what was hidden under the surface—mackerel being chased by stripers, lobsters crawling over the rocks or something else I didn’t want to let myself imagine. I tried to convince myself that whatever was sliding through the water wouldn’t hurt me, but every time my sailboat capsized, I’d scramble as fast as I could to right it and climb back in. I couldn’t bear to be in the water, my legs dangling down into the black, thinking of everything that might be lurking below. 

          I startle when someone next to me says, “Care for a canapé, Miss?”

          “Uh, no thanks,” I say distractedly, glancing at the server then back out at the water. 

          “What the hell, Frankie?” the girl says.

          I turn to look at her. She’s wearing black pants and a white shirt, but she’s young and her long hair is pulled back in a ponytail. 

          She stares at me with disbelief. “It’s me—Shannon—we hung out at Tina’s last week? And like a million other times too?”

          “Right! Of course I know you, Shannon.” I force a laugh. 

          “For a minute I thought you didn’t recognize me!” She says, laughing, “Thank God! I didn’t want to think you’re like everybody else here!”

          “Oh, please!” I say, rolling my eyes. “Don’t confuse me with my parents!”

          “Will you be at Pete’s tonight? Everyone’s going and the twins got a keg.”

          “I’m not sure if I can. I’m still grounded.” 

          Mrs. Carson sees me through the doorway and comes out to the porch. “Oh, Francine! It’s so nice to see you! Charlotte will be sorry she missed you; she’s not back from London yet.”

          I can feel Shannon watching me as I nod slightly.

          Turning to Shannon, she says, “Why don’t you refresh your tray, and please tell someone in the kitchen there’s a spill on the rug in the study that will have to get cleaned up quickly or it’s going to set.”

          “Of course.”

          To me, she says, “As soon as Charlotte’s back we’ll have to get out on the tennis courts.”

          As Shannon walks away I blurt out, “See you tonight.”

          Mrs. Carson seems startled, but Shannon doesn’t acknowledge what I said.  

          “Nice party,” I say to Mrs. Carson, “I’m going to go outside for a bit,” and go out the screen door to the lawn. I wander around and then sit on the tree swing. Lazily I push myself and think yet again how annoying it is to be grounded, especially since there are only a few weeks left of summer. The funny thing about getting caught Saturday is that TJ had promised the night would be epic, but it was actually one of the most boring nights all summer. When he picked me up, I was just happy to be done with the SAT tutor my mother had somehow found to come out to the cottage. The tutoring—and my father and brother’s constant arguing—were driving me crazy. In most ways it wasn’t different from any other summer, but somehow everything was grating on my nerves.

          TJ picked me up in his faded red pickup, and as we drove I was content to feel the breeze and watch the sky smeared with orange and pink. We stopped at the empty parking lot at Crescent Beach and smoked some pot while we watched the sunset. As usual, the pot put TJ in a philosophical mood.

          “There are two kinds of people in the world, Frankie,” he’d said, counting on his fingers. “One, the kind who are petrified of doing anything because they might screw up their one precious life. And, two, the kind that have to find a reason every day not to end it all.” He looked over and took my hand. “Am I right?”

          I smiled. “You might be.” 

          We hung out for a while longer, and as he pulled out of the parking lot, TJ asked, “You ready to get this evening started?” 

          “Sure,” I said, adding, “Hell, yah!” Trying to sound more excited.

          Leaning back against the headrest, I felt sleepy from the pot and thought about what TJ had said. He said things like that a lot—usually when he was trying to convince me to do something like get high, jump off the dock railing, or have sex with him. And maybe there was something to his philosophy, but I know there are way more than two kinds of people in the world. There are the ones like the kids at home who are going to succeed and live impressive lives, despite all the ways they’re bound to fuck up. There are the clueless, oblivious ones like my dad, who doesn’t seem to register anyone except himself. And there are the “everything is wonderful as long as the neighbors think it is” people like my mother, who is entirely focused on creating the appearance of perfection. Then there’s my brother who’s threatening to be some kind of a rebel, but who I’m sure will end up exactly where he’s expected to be. But if TJ wants to see the world as black and white, who am I to disagree? 

          “Let’s get this party started!” He accelerated briefly before stopping at a traffic light.

          When the light changed, TJ hesitated for a moment before turning right like the car in front of us. We drove for a few blocks back toward the bridge to the island, and I wondered where we were going. Maybe to get some food at the Clam Hut? But then he turned left, and took an immediate right heading away from town, just like the blue Camry in front of us. I glanced at him but he seemed to be concentrating.

          We drove for a bit and I had no idea where we were. The road became narrower, winding through dense woods. Finally, it straightened out and we passed a farm with huge fields stretching out on either side, the empty fields lined with fence posts and sagging strings of barbed wire. 

          “Where are we?” I asked. I honestly didn’t know what town we were in, and there was no one else around except the car in front of us.

          I looked at TJ and he shrugged.

          The Camry was still in front of us, and it accelerated and then suddenly turned left into a neighborhood without signaling, and TJ turned in after it.

          “What are you doing?” I asked.

          He looked at me and said with a laugh, “Check this guy out! He is totally freaking…”

          Just as he said that, the Toyota took a quick left and then a quick right. I had to grab onto the armrest as the truck swerved and the car in front of us sped back out of the neighborhood, TJ keeping up with him.

          “What are you doing?” I asked, realizing I’d been holding my breath.

          “Oh my God!” he said, laughing again. “This guy is losing his shit!”

          The Camry blew through a stop sign and raced down another quiet side street as we followed close behind, and I wanted to tell TJ to slow down. Then suddenly, with tires squealing, the guy in front of us turned into a driveway. I wondered if it was even his house.

          TJ slowed his truck as we passed and I could see the driver—an old guy with short gray hair and a beard—staring at us in the rearview mirror, his eyes bugging out. As we watched, the car door started to open. TJ stepped on it and we sped down the street and turned back out on the main road.

          TJ slapped the wheel like he’d just seen the funniest thing in the world. Finally, he turned and looked at me. “What?”

          I could feel my heart pounding. “What was the point of that exactly?”

          “Don’t you ever feel like you need to do something…unexpected? I don’t know Frankie, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you.” 

          We drove in silence for a few minutes, and I considered asking him if he’d take me home. I didn’t feel like going out anymore, and having an early night sounded much more appealing than hanging out at a random party.

          “I’m not like you,” TJ said, seemingly out of nowhere. “I don’t come from a rich family with lots of houses.”

          “We only have two houses,” I interrupted. “Well, three, I guess, if you count the ski cabin but…” I let my voice fade away, hearing how stupid I sounded.

          TJ didn’t even look over at me, seeming lost in thought. “Whatever—one house, three houses—it’s not just that and you know it.” He scowled at the road. 

          “And it’s not just the money, although that’s part of it. It’s more that you’re not from here. Your life is already bigger than this place. My life has always been—and will probably always be—here. But the island is just a place you come sometimes, a stopping point on the way to your real life.”

          We rode in silence. I wanted to contradict him, but I couldn’t think of what to say without sounding condescending. And the truth is, I got what he was saying. 

          “Sometimes I feel like I’m looking through binoculars, you know?” he said. “Like all I can see is one tiny area in front of me…when I know there’s so much more out there. There has to be,” he added softly.

          We stopped at Dairy Queen for hot fudge sundaes, and someone told us that the party on the beach had already been broken up. So we drove out to the marsh and drank the six pack he’d brought, until I was tired of pushing his hands away from the zipper on my jeans and said I had to get home. 

          I don’t even know what time it was when I got home. I just have a vague memory of staring up at the stars as TJ drove me home, but that could have been a memory from another cloudless night when we were driving around. All I know is that there’s a different sky in Maine— where millions and billions of stars crowd the black night sky, a sky that doesn’t exist anywhere else. 

          TJ shut the headlights off before turning into the driveway, and he stopped far from the house. I wasn’t even drunk, and I’ve snuck in so many times I know how to keep the kitchen door from squeaking, but that didn’t matter since my parents were sitting in the living room. One thing I do remember, is saying “Oh, fuck” when I saw them.

          Of course they acted outraged and grounded me for a week. Listening to their lecture about my lack of responsibility, I felt like it was a scene scripted to make them feel like good parents. It was such an overreaction—and especially stupid given how lame the night was—but for some reason I didn’t feel like arguing. 

          The first night of my sentence, Jay and I were both home and we played Yahtzee on the screened porch like we did when we were kids. Our parents were out and we sipped cans of beer and watched the sunset. As the darkness took over we didn’t bother to turn on the porch lights, our game forgotten.

          Out of nowhere Jay asked, “So why are you hanging out with TJ? He seems like such a loser.”

          Pissed off, I sat up. “No he’s not. He’s…” 

          I tried to think of a response while at the same time trying to figure out what I really thought of him. “Maybe he doesn’t belong to the yacht club, but he’s better than most of the douches that come here for the summer.”

          Jay seemed to think about that for a minute. “Fine, but I’ve seen him doing wheelies on his motorcycle, and I heard he can get kind of out of control.”

          “Jesus, Jay,” I said with a laugh. “It’s called being a kid—doing backflips off the pier isn’t exactly a criminal offense.”

          “I know…I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

          It actually made me kind of happy to hear him say that. “I know. TJ blows a lot of smoke too. He jokes about not living past twenty-five, and going out in a blaze of glory. But he’s not serious about any of that. He’s actually pretty smart and will probably end up going to college.” 

          After a minute, I added, “Don’t tell Mom, but I’m actually starting to wrap my head around senior year and college, too.” We ended up talking about my top college choices and whether I should apply early like he did, or keep my options open. 

          I’m thinking about that conversation when my parents finally leave the party. I’ve been sitting on the swing for more than an hour when they come out. They seem slightly surprised to see me, as if they forgot they dragged me there. I don’t speak on the ride home, and they’re so busy talking loudly—or arguing (sometimes it’s hard to tell). I try to pretend I’m not there. They’ve both definitely had a few, so at least I know I won’t have a hard time sneaking out later.

          I call TJ from the kitchen phone as soon as we get home, and make a sandwich and eat it in my room. At ten o’clock, I put a sweatshirt, a flashlight, and two joints I’ve been saving in an old backpack. If I have to, I can climb out the window and climb out over the porch roof, but from the hallway I can hear my parents’ voices coming from the porch. From the volume of their voices and laughter, I know that I can go down the back staircase and out the side door. I make sure to shut off my light and put my pillow under the quilt in case they check in on me. I don’t think they ever do, but better safe than sorry. 

          At the bottom of the stairs I almost bump into Jay leaving the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream. 

          “Oh my God! You gave me a heart attack!” I whisper as loudly as I dare. I put my hand to my chest and can feel my heart beating wildly.

          “I gave you a heart attack? What are you doing?”

          “Nothing…”

          “Right. For God’s sake, Frankie, you’re grounded!” he interrupts. 

          “Fuck you, Jay.”

          “Nice,” he responds.

          “No, seriously, you’re not in charge of me.”

          “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not being stupid…”

          “Stupid? Wanting to go to a party and hang out with people that are real, and aren’t just the same country club assholes?” My voice grows louder but I don’t care. 

          “No, I get it,” Jay says, his face serious. “I really do.”

          He reaches out and touches my arm. “I just worry about you—especially with TJ.” 

          I consider telling him to fuck off again, but looking at his face I say, “I know, Jay. But you don’t have to worry about me. It’s summer and I just want to have a little fun, I’ll be fine.”

          I turn to go but he holds onto my arm. “OK, promise me? And don’t be too late.”

          “Okay, Jean,” I say smiling. We both hate it when we call each other by our mother’s name.

          “Promise?” he asks again, gently squeezing my arm. 

          “I promise.” 

          The moon is nearly full and I don’t even have to turn on the flashlight as I walk down the driveway to the end of the road. Waiting for TJ, I slap at the mosquitos that buzz incessantly around my head, and I wonder if I should have said I’d go out. But as soon as I see his headlights, I’m glad I did. There are only a few more weeks until I have to go back home and deal with the real world. I need to seize every chance I have to enjoy what’s probably going to be my last full summer on the island. 

          The party ends up being way more fun than I expected. Jason has a big house, and his parents’ bar is well-stocked. We do shots and then someone cranks the music and everyone starts dancing. I’m having a good time, but after we’ve been dancing for a while I look over at TJ and catch his eye. He winks and I wink back, then he walks over and takes my hand.

          “Ready to go to Deer Point? It’ll be romantic.” He raises his eyebrows trying to make me laugh. 

          I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. “Another time. I’m ready to go home.”

          He kisses my head and we walk to the car. 

          It’s only a couple miles back to the cottage across the bridge to the island. I sit close to TJ as he drives. He has one hand resting on my leg and I put my head on his shoulder. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, I suddenly feel as if I could sleep forever. 

          “Tonight was fun, thank you,” I say.

          “Frankie, you don’t have to thank me. Being with you is the best part of my summer…the best part of everything, really.” 

          I’m thinking about what he said as we approach the bridge. Even though it’s not even four o’clock in the morning, the sky is changing. Not quite gray, but there’s a hint that the sun is about to rise. 

          I take TJ’s hand and he looks at me. As he turns his gaze back to the road, he says, “Oh, shit.” 

          As I look up, the blurry shape of a deer is rushing toward the side of the truck. TJ jerks his arm and I fall to the side as the pickup swerves. My head twists sharply as we slam against the bridge railing, and I feel a rush of air as the door flies open. As I wait for everything to stop, I realize that I am falling. And there must be sound, but I don’t hear a thing as I feel the truck slam against the water and the rush of cold surround me as everything goes dark. 

About the Author, Kim Venkataraman: My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Carbon Culture Review, Desert Voices, East Jasmine Review, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, The Licking River Review, Midway Journal, Nassau Review, Penmen Review, Redivider, Riverwind, Spout Magazine, Talking River, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Willow Review. I live outside of Boston, and spend time during the summer in Maine where I grew up.

Diary of a Sixty-Year-Old Married Man—Part III

“A hundred and eighty-eight,” I read the blue LED scale numerals. 

       Passing the mirror toward the steaming shower, I smiled, admiring my shrinking belly and flanks. The short moment of joy vanished when I looked down and noticed my penis had shrunk too. 

       I try to eat away my emotions, but only indulge in health food. My favorites are stir-fry yam noodles, fried tofu, and fat-free Greek frozen yogurt. At least that stuff is supposed to be healthy. As it turns out, all my lite, lesser-caloried, vegetarian delicacies have rendered me pre-diabetic. When my bloodwork came back, Dr. Razinni sent me to a diabetes dietician, who put me on a new food regimen. 

       “Thirty grams of carbs per meal,” Dr. Woo mandated. That in itself felt like being on the end of another short stick. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she told me to keep a goddamn ruler in the kitchen. “Eat your meals off a nine-inch plate,” she said, “half non-starchy veggies.” She gave me a faded, mimeographed handout that read: “broccoli, cauliflower, green squash, yellow squash, carrots, onions; red, green, or yellow bell peppers; preferably steamed.”

       “The other half,” she instructed me, “is split equally between lean protein such as skinless, boneless white chicken and fish,” she said, “and whole grains.” She told me to refer to the items listed under the vegetables. 

       I looked back at the paper and read them to myself: “Brown rice, millet, quinoa, barley, couscous, buckwheat, cracked wheat, kamut, spelt, teff, farro, and bulgur.” 

       Yuck, and no pasta, I thought.

       My dad loved bulgur. I would have loved to take him to Canter’s before my new dietary development for breakfast. Order lox on a twice-toasted everything bagel with heavy cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers. Coffee with half-and-half, and a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Dr. Woo says fruit juice, in terms of sugar content, is the dietary antichrist. Those weren’t her exact words, but you get the drift. While sipping that long, last cup of coffee, we could split a Danish, maybe some strudel or chocolate rugelach. Pops would have loved that, but he’s gone now. It’s been twelve years last May. I stopped going to his yahrzeit since my fallout with the canter and rabbi on Sukkot a few years back. My therapist suggested my short fuse was handed down by Dad. 

       Mom’s alcoholism fueled Dad’s rage. Flying chicken potpies were the dinnertime norm, metaphorically speaking, of course. We never ate chicken potpies, or anything from the frozen food section; Mom cooked everything from scratch, and if you forgot that, she’d miserably remind you.

       It wasn’t easy being the middle kid during those explosive meals, stuck between my two overeating siblings. Until my first semester at Hollywood High, my only escape was Hardy Boys books, firecrackers, basketball, and Boy Scouts. I loved blowing shit up, and almost made Eagle Scout, but around the third week of the tenth grade, I left the quad and found salvation in the bleachers. That’s where I learned the ways of self-medication. I started off easy with ten-dollar lids of commercial Mexican pot and malt liquor. I loved smoking joints and chugging forties of Colt 45 and Olde English 800.

       Sometime after Groundhog Day, I advanced to LSD, and the occasional barbiturate. 

       Soon thereafter, my sister Laura moved to Colorado, and whatever false semblance of a family life I thought I was included in vanished, leaving behind a willful, angry stoner dude, who unknowingly craved his father’s love. 

       I sought elsewhere what Dad couldn’t give me. But not without consequence. And on one hot summer night, in a house just off of Mulholland Highway, on a street named Macapa, I fell prey to the darker side of Hollywood. I wanted to say, “NO,” or maybe I didn’t, but either way, Cody wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

       By wintertime, angel dust and quaaludes became a staple. Thank God I didn’t get into speed, nor did I partake in any cocaine or heroin till well after graduation. 

       Dad died in 2006. 

       I was just south of turning twenty years sober. I devoted myself to him during those last several months of his life, taking him to doctor’s appointments and doing his house chores on Saturdays. Changing his diapers and washing his genitals, which I later realized completed an unspoken father-and-son circle-of-life ritual. 

       We never did make it to Canter’s. 

       Dad complained about the meters on Fairfax, and parking in a pay lot or using a valet may as well have been one of the Thou Shalt Not’s.

       On our last drive to St. Joseph’s Oncology Center, Dad told me he was curious what it would be like on the “other side.” 

       Two days later came the phone call from Jerry, the Meals on Wheels dude. “Your father had a fall,” he said. “I found him about an hour ago.” Jerry paused and I worried what words might come next. “The ambulance just left for the hospital. Sorry I didn’t call sooner; I just found his phone with your number. The paramedic thinks he may have broken his hip.” 

       Dad caught pneumonia during his hospital stay. I remember what I feared was one of his last days, sitting on the edge of his bed, stroking his thin, white, oily hair, watching him while he slept. His face was pale, gaunt, and covered in coarse, three-day gray stubble. His sleep appeared deep until his eyeballs began twitching beneath his closed lids. Then his face contorted as though he was having a bad dream. His milky morphine eyes opened, and he looked up at me and said, “You turned out all right, boy.” He reached for my hand and held it tight. His fingernails were in need of trimming, and his knuckles were cracked and dry. “I could sure go for one of those Wienerschnitzel dogs with onions.” He’d forgotten the nurses had him on soft foods only.

       I regret not making that hot dog run. Dad died the next day.


About the Author Jon Epstein: My work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Coachella Review, New Mexico Writers Project, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway. I am a member of The Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective.

Magic

Stirring my tea
sets this forest spinning
and all its leaves are peppermint

About the Author: Gary Galsworth grew up in the New York City area. After the Marine Corps he studied painting and filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. His work has been featured in Abstract: Contemporary Expression, Nebo, Pennsylvania English, Broad River Review, and others. In addition to writing poetry, he is a professional plumber and a student of Zen Meditation. He’s published two books of poems: “Yes Yes”, and “Beyond the Wire”. Gary lives in Hoboken, NJ.

Decisive Moments

“Your first 100,000 photos are your worst.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

New York—June 1961

       A farewell lunch in our back garden. The usual cold cuts and salad. I had been accepted as a set design assistant in the student program of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. It was the fourth year of the festival. I was to fly to Rome that evening. Suddenly, mid-mouthful, my stepfather decided that I needed an instant introduction to the art of photography and a proper camera to record the adventure on which I was about to embark. He excused himself and raced upstairs. My aunt had had an old Leica, which was sleek and more compact than any camera I’d ever seen. I was hoping something like her Leica would be coming my way. 

       Hans returned carrying a worn leather case with a broken strap, out of which he extracted a large, black, metal box about 3.5"x3.5"x7" with two big apertures, one on top of the other on the front and a lot of cranks and dials on the sides.

       “This should do you fine.” And he passed it across the table to me. “It is the Contaflex TLR that I used to shoot in Iceland before I went to medical school.” 

       “Contaflex TLR?” 

       “Yep, it is a beautiful little machine, designed in the mid-thirties by Zeiss.”

       “That’s great, Hans,” I said, balking at its obvious age and weight and daunted by its complexity, “but I’ve never used anything other than a Brownie. I have no idea how to—”

       “This baby will do it all for you. It is the first camera ever to have a built-in light meter. And it’s a single lens reflex, meaning that when you look into the viewfinder from the top, that’s what you get. You’re seeing what the lens will see.” 

       “Single lens reflex?”

       “All you need to learn now is the relationship between shutter speed and f-stop.”

       “F-stop?”

       “The diameter of the opening of the lens. It will only take a minute.” When Hans decided something was going to happen, such as my carrying this monster box with me to Italy and learning to use it, it was going to happen. 

       In the hour-plus before we took off for the airport, I watched him work the dials and cranks: the one on the left rewound the film, the one on the right wound the shutter and set the shutter speed. I learned to open and close the viewfinder, to respond to the light meter indicator, and to focus by adjusting the lever around the viewing lens. I took careful notes on the relationship between shutter speeds and f-stops, and thereby acquired a superficial understanding of the workings of this extraordinary object. On the way out the door, Hans pressed into my hands some old rolls of black-and-white 35-mm film while my mother and I piled into the car. On the way to the airport, Hans delivered a short lecture on ASA ratings and film speeds, thus completing my crash course in photography.

       Eddie Williams and I met at the gate for our Alitalia flight to Rome. Eddie was a college friend and a super-talented pianist in musical theater. He had been accepted into the same student program but as a musician. As soon as we boarded, we turned our attention to drinking all the free booze that Alitalia would give us during our overnight flight. We landed at Fiumicino the next morning, hung over and clutching our instructions from the New York office of the festival. We camped out in the Piazza Navona, sipping wine and watching people until it was time to board the train to Spoleto. Once on board we fell into a deep sleep and awoke to the conductor announcing our arrival in Spoleto with barely enough time to disembark.

       At the train station we went to the head of the rank of matchbox-sized taxies and mumbled, “Spoleto, Officio di Festival?” to the driver who nodded, stuffed our bags in his boot, and took our lives in his hands. Off we zoomed to the foot of the mountain, where the straightaway died into a sequence of narrow streets with almost no sidewalks and hairpin turns that took us up, up, up and into the Piazza della Libertà, where the outlook opened and our taxi screeched to a halt. 

       “Eccolo! L’ufficio del Festival,” said our driver, pointing to a row of windows on the second floor of a large building occupying the entire south side of the square. We tumbled out into the cold afternoon and gathered our belongings. I was to find the festival office, and Eddie was to stay with our bags. An efficient woman, speaking perfect English and later identified as (Countess) Camilla Pecci-Blunt, head of the student program, descended from the windowed façade, checked us off on a list (very reassuring), and assigned a young man, an Italian fellow student, to walk us to our respective digs further up the hill and into the heart of the town. 

       I and several other students were to board with Signora Luna, who lived on the east side of the Piazza Mercato. Sig. Luna, a short, square woman of stern countenance and greasy hair, and her husband and children, whom we rarely saw, had been squeezed into two rooms at the back of the flat so that six of us could be accommodated in double rooms along the square. Sig. Pecci-Blunt instructed us to appear at the Teatro Nuovo, the larger of Spoleto’s two main theaters, in the evening, where Menotti would be rehearsing Vanessa—his lyrics, Samuel Barber’s music. Vanessa was to be the season’s opening production. 

       It was as cold inside Signora Luna’s as it was outside. After a light supper I put on as many layers of light summer clothes as I could and set out into the dank chill of early evening in hopes of meeting up with a familiar face on my way back down the hill to the theater. Whereas it had been warm and sunny in Rome, here on this Umbrian hilltop it was bitingly cold, damp, and gray. 

       Inside of the mid-nineteenth-century Teatro Nuovo, five tiers of boxes were piled up in a typical horseshoe shape around the gently sloped orchestra level. The tiers of boxes died elegantly into proscenium boxes at each end, which defined the stage opening. The faces of the boxes were slightly convex and encrusted with gold and white garlands and putti. The Teatro Nuovo had languished for many years before Gian Carlo Menotti, the festival’s founder and artistic director, and his benefactors had it fully restored some five years before. 

       Most of the people who showed up for this briefing were unfamiliar, other than Eddie and the Italian fellow student whom I spotted across the rows of deep-red, upholstered theater seats. Once assembled, Sig. Pecci-Blunt rose from her seat at the front of the orchestra, greeted us formally, and introduced other staff members from the festival office. She spelled out a few general rules and regulations, then some specifics relating to perks of the festival that were off-limits to us students—none of which I chose to remember. Then Menotti himself rose to welcome us. He was slim, with dark, wiry hair, a long, patrician face complete with Roman nose, and a winning smile. He spoke perfect but heavily accented English. Charisma and creativity exuded from his every pore. He was surrounded by a bevy of young, beautiful people, mainly men but some women: Tommy Schippers, his former protégé and now a well-known conductor; Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Tomas Milan, all actors; and a whole clique of gorgeous Germans whom I later learned were bound to the German photographer Herbert List, a regular at the festival who had not yet arrived on the scene. 

       Because there were only a few functioning restaurants, we all ate in the same Trattoria del Teatro at lunch and the more upscale Il Pentegramma for dinner. Once introduced, we stuck close to one another as much for bodily warmth as for company. We soon became acquainted with the beautiful Germans. As friends and disciples of the legendary Herbert List, most were aspiring photographers. One who was especially handsome, Roger Fritz, was taking pictures all over town. He had both his Nikon and his light meter around his neck day and night. I had never seen a light meter in action and was glad that my Contaflex had automated this function. The Germans had a whole apartment to themselves uphill from where I lived. The apartment had a fireplace and firewood, so after dinner several of us repaired to their apartment for more wine and warmth. In the absence of Fritz’s regular girlfriend, Crista, who would be arriving later with Herr List, I was invited to his bed, first for play and then for the first warm night of sleep since my arrival.

       On day four I was fetched by a feisty young Italian woman with wavy, strawberry-blonde hair and a profile any Greek goddess would kill for. I had seen her that first night at the Teatro Nuovo but she hadn’t been introduced. She was Giada Franchi and had come in her Fiat 600 to take me down to the scenografia, a large, mid-nineteenth-century warehouse on the side of the mountain, where the scenery for each production was made. Giada was slightly older than I, spoke flawless English, and had an axe to grind about how young Americans come to Italy but never make an effort to learn either the language or the way things are done in Italy. Instead they stick to their own smug ways and go home none the wiser. 

       That was not going to be me. 

       At the scenografia I was introduced to Fiorella, an androgynous young set designer clad in trousers and a loose shirt, sporting a beatific smile. She was the assistant to Lila di Nobili, a distinguished Italian scenic and costume designer with many productions at La Scala under her belt. Di Nobili was far off in the distance, bending over as if to study something on the floor. Her posture, her concentration, the shape of her graying hair, and the bend of her neck and shoulders brought to mind the images of Wanda Landowska that I remembered from the covers of my recordings of the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” 

       Fiorella was to be my boss. I was to assist in the painting of a backdrop designed by Lila di Nobili and was turned over to Renato, the head of the scene shop, a skinny, gruff, grizzle-haired guy who spoke no English and had little time for anyone who broke up the routine of his work. There was a heated exchange in Italian with Renato shouting, Fiorella holding her own calmly but insistently, and a lot of large-scale hand gestures. Renato stomped off.

       “It’s going to be fine. Renato is really a pussycat,” said Fiorella.

       Renato returned with a cigarette in one hand, another behind his ear, and a long stick with a paintbrush at its end in the other hand. He gestured way across the open floor to a music stand with a colored sketch on it. Fiorella beckoned to me to walk across the huge piece of canvas that had been laid out on the floor and over toward the music stand. A grid had been laid over the sketch and numbered in both directions. 

       “The grid on the sketch,” she explained, “corresponds to the grid that you see drawn on the canvas that we are standing on.” It came to me that the canvas on the floor was the backdrop itself! Here, and maybe everywhere in Italy for all I knew, scenery was painted on the flat, not vertically from scaffolding as we did it in college.

       “Your job,” Fiorella continued, “is to paint what you see in each square of the sketch onto the corresponding square on the canvas. You try to work with one color at a time in each square. When you’ve done all you can with one color, wash your brush and start with another. You’ll have to mix colors as you go. Clean as you go. The paints are over there.”

       You gotta be kidding, I thought. Painting by numbers! I remember doing something like that as a kid. But this wasn’t quite the same. The scale was daunting.

       “Let me show you.” And she grabbed a brush and began. “You work beside me. Take the brush Renato gave you and get started.”

       Way down at the far end of the same space was Lila di Nobili, painting her own scenery with her own long-handled brush, just I was about to do. We started at 9 a.m., broke for a short lunch of bread, salami, and cheese, which we had to bring with us as there were no cafes in this part of town, and went on through the afternoon. It was hard work but I was good at detail and gave it my all.

       Evenings, everyone involved in the festival, including pre-season guests and visitors, congregated at the Teatro Nuovo to observe the progress of the rehearsals for Vanessa. My mother had taken me to Vanessa in 1958, shortly after it premiered at the old Met in New York. I didn’t much like opera, and I hadn’t liked Vanessa at all. But in Spoleto it was different. Menotti had translated his own libretto into Italian, and all of a sudden Vanessa became a quasi-lyric opera. Hearing the same passages rehearsed night after night, the displeasure of dissonant harmonies combined with a dysfunctional and unsatisfactory narrative were replaced by the comfort of familiarity. In less than a week, I had become a fan.

       One evening after rehearsal Menotti hosted a gathering for us students. My mother had told me that festivals like this were largely funded by private donors, many of whom might be local gentry. She said to look out for these people, to be super-polite and appreciative, and not to be my usual smart-ass self. When we students arrived, all the beautiful Germans were hovering around a large, once handsome but now sinister and debauched-looking older man, in a crumpled suit and loosened tie, who was wedged into the corner of a large, plush sofa. His thinning hair was slicked back, and his eyebrows seemed permanently knitted together. A lit cigarette hung from the right corner of his narrow, downturned mouth. He could definitely pass as local gentry. Those acolytes who weren’t seated next to him leaned over the back of the sofa or sat on the floor at his feet, each desiring maximum proximity to his noble personage. Roger Fritz waved me over. 

       They were playing a variation on the Marienbad game in which ten matchsticks are laid out in four rows with four, three, two, and one matchsticks per row. Each player in turn takes as many sticks off each row as he or she wants. The loser is the one left with the last stick. Play was interrupted long enough for us students to be introduced. The noble personage seemed to be a viscount. (I thought Italy had only counts and the odd prince.) When my turn came, I laid on my most obsequious smile, extended my hand, and did my stuff:

       “I am very pleased to meet you, sir. We all want to thank you for all you are doing for the festival.” 

       Without offering his hand in return, he threw me a scowl, then removed the dangling cigarette from his lips and, turning to Roger, said in accented English, “Who the hell is she? And what the fuck is she talking about?” 

       No reply. 

       “Come here,” the viscount called to me. “You think you’re so smart? Come play this game and see if you can win. Crista,” he said to Roger’s newly arrived girlfriend, seated at the other end of the sofa, “get up so she can sit here and play,” beckoning to me. And so, fortified by crude Spoletino wine, I played Marienbad with this strange group well into the night, never figuring out the combination of moves that would result in my not being left with the last matchstick. 

       Once outside and on the way back down to my room at Sig. Luna’s, I said to Eddie, “Who was that guy?”

       “Luchino Visconti.”

       “Who is Luchino Visconti?” I asked.

       “Haven’t you heard of Rocco and his Brothers?”

       “Yeah, but…” I had seen Rocco and his Brothers in New York and had been terrified by its violence. 

       “Stupida, he was the director! He’s a genius and he’s here now to direct Salome, the next opera after Vanessa!”

       Luchino Visconti, Count of Lonato Pozzolo, rich as Croesus and a registered Communist, I later discovered. 

       What did I know from Italian nobility?

       A few nights after the Visconti gaffe, I decided the time had come to bring out the Contaflex and try to take some pictures of the Teatro Nuovo’s spectacular interior and the proceedings. I was beginning to enjoy looking into the single lens reflex viewfinder, setting the dials and knobs, running up and down the center aisle of the orchestra snapping this and that when my foot caught on the hem of a coat that was hanging off one of the aisle seats. I tripped and, in catching myself on the back of the chair ahead, I dropped the Contaflex onto the wooden floor.  

       The built-in light meter… 

       When I picked the camera up, pointed it toward the illuminated stage, and looked into the single reflex lens, the light meter indicator was stationary. I collapsed into the nearest aisle seat, put the camera between my legs and my head between my hands, and all but wept. How could I ever explain what I had done to my stepfather? 

       I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned around. Seated directly behind me was a slight, middle-aged man with short, white hair, a high forehead defined by a receding hairline, a finely chiseled face, large, not quite circular wire-rimmed glasses set on a narrow nose, and a gentle smile. 

       “I saw you taking pictures and wondered if you might have been using a Contaflex?” he asked in lightly accented English.

       “Yes, it was my stepfather’s. He used it when he was a photographer for Look magazine before the war and now I’ve broken it. It’s finished.” 

       “I am not sure it is broken,” he said. “Would you let me see it?”

       “Of course.” I handed it to him, still enclosed in its beat-up leather case. He took it out of the case, turned it over, and fiddled with its various parts.

       “This is a lovely camera. It is in excellent condition,” he said.

       “Yes, but I’ve broken it,” I insisted.

       “Yes, the light meter is broken and is probably irreparable. But the rest of the camera is fine. You can learn to take photographs without a light meter.”  

       How can that be when Roger Fritz does nothing without consulting his light meter? He practically wears to bed, I thought.

       “I take a lot of pictures, and I never use a light meter. You will soon get the feel of it, and you will do it by instinct.”

       “Really?” I said.

       He went on to tell me that some things must be absolutely precise to be valid. Others do not. He said that his wife was Javanese and pointed to a gorgeous Asian woman deep in conversation a few rows behind us. She had been a dancer. But she broke a finger on her right hand, and when it healed it had remained out of alignment. Because Javanese dance is narrative and told through the very specific gestures and positions of the body, its limbs and their extremities, she had to give up her art because of her one crooked finger. 

       “Taking pictures isn’t like that. It is not so precise,” he went on to say. “The smallest thing can be a great subject. You should give yourself some time with that lovely camera. It will come to you.”

       “Thank you so much, sir,” I said. “You have made me feel so much better.” 

       “I am glad,” he said, this time smiling broadly. “I hope we’ll meet again.”

       “Oh yes, I hope so,” I said and added, as if as an afterthought, “I am a student here in set design. My name is Leslie Armstrong,” and once again I held out my hand.

       He shook it warmly and said, “And I am Henri Cartier-Bresson.” 

       I’ve never used a light meter since.


About the Author, Leslie Armstrong: I have audited the biannual Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for the past eight years. I graduated with Honors in Art History from Brown University and obtained a master’s degree in architecture from the Columbia School of Architecture. I enjoy classical music and theater, and continue to work as an architect and as a writer.