VOX - Issue II
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
July 15th, 2020
Concrete by Kate Koenig
The Colors That You Know by Sarah J. Kings
The Chef’s Menu by Jaime Balboa
The Voiceless Child by Tiffany Meador
Closet by Stuart Gunter
THE NIGHTS by David Joseph
The Rat Hole by Neilay Khasnabish
The Prettiest Little Things by Gavin Bourke
The Knight-Errant of Scottsdale, Arizona by Abby Mangel
Refugee Returning Home by Alfredo Quarto
Merry Christmas by James Thomas
I | א My Name is Adam by Elder Gideon
by Kate Koenig
I slam my open palm against concrete
try to crack open the feeling
of being crammed alive inside mason jars
I may be on a bed, pressed into stained sheet
unwilling and fragile
but it may as well be black pavement
it may as well be glass or teeth
or needle shards splintered from my spine
it may as well be a bed
on a stage, in front of everyone
under filtered fluorescents
I need to say unwilling
I need to say I was there
but never there, never lying on cotton
that ceased to feel like thread
instead becoming thorns
pricking my skin until blood
pools around me and we are drowning
or rather, I am drowning
His head floats above the crest
So, I am sinking,
flailing under waves
It’s no longer a crowded mattress
but an ocean created
by my own sweat
my own consubstantiated
I cannot tell you the day
or what I ate for breakfast
under the strain of making
the yellow school bus on time
I cannot tell you the day
because it is not a Monday
or a Thursday
It is always and never
I cannot tell you a time or place
other than afternoon
when I was sixteen
and yearning for love
To feel loved, how beautiful
that thought could be
I cannot tell you how it hurt
how muscle ached and ligament
protested under the weight of betrayal
below light, beneath scrutiny
I cannot explain
how lung punctured
and stomach shriveled
into fractures of my former
a weapon against the self
I cannot tell you why afterwards
I curled up like the seams
of autumn leaves on a sidewalk in November
I wanted to be that leaf
dead and dying, but I was stuck on living
I cannot tell you why I remained
as he laid next to me, calm and soft
I cannot tell you what happened
or why the truth submerged itself
inside the fissures of my esophagus
to only suffocate and die before their first breath
I cannot tell you what happened
on a wholly unremarkable day in Pittsburgh
when I was sixteen and still dreaming
of what could be
I cannot tell you what happened
because who would believe
the girl who stayed
The Colors That You Know
by Sarah J. Kings
“Liliana,” they say. “You have to eat something.”
But I am afraid to eat.
“You have to take them with something, or you will get keep getting an upset stomach.”
They say this over and over, every day, but I don’t say anything back. If I tell them what I am thinking, if I really tell them, they will make me take more and more of that stuff, and I will never get better.
Food is why I am here; I am certain of it. Well that, and because I am crazy. But I know that food is how I will get better; if they ever let me. It’s something that I am eating, something that makes my brain go from normal to not. I know that much.
One minute I am me, the normal me, or the normal that I used to be. The next minute I am gone, or floating, or disappearing altogether. And it is strange, because in those small moments, the gone moments, I almost don’t care.
Or maybe, I just don’t mind, or at least I am not terribly afraid.
It’s when I’m in that suspended place, and I try to grab something from the here, from the now, from real life: like my breath, or the shape of the room that I am in, or how big my body is in any given place, that’s when everything breaks.
That’s when I break.
That’s when the nearly peaceful nothing becomes everything.
When it becomes everything on fire.
My neck, the heat on my neck, it’s unbelievable. There is static in my ears. I can hear the air in a still room. And the sound of my eyelids blinking is so loud. I the feel of the whites of my eyes burning, as I try not to blink, as I try not to hear that blinking sound that I know should not exist.
Sometimes they call it a panic attack, sometimes they say disassociatio,n or hyper association, and they give me the yellow and white pills so that I will calm down. And sometimes, when I forget that they cannot help me, and I try too hard to explain it, when I use to many words, they call it a manic episode, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia. When I do that, when I make those mistakes, that is when they give me the blue pills and the orange ones.
Those are the bad ones, the ones that make me feel like my heart is a brick, a heavy brick, with a stick of dynamite strapped to it.
Tick, tick , tick; and I can hardly breathe. I am certain that I am going to die, though I never do, or at least I never have.
Despite all of that, they make you quiet, especially the blue ones. That’s probably why they give them to you so fast; that’s probably why they think they work.
I don’t think they would hand then out like candy in those little paper cups if they could hear the screaming between my ears.
Or maybe they would. Maybe all anyone really wants is for us to be quiet.
So, I stay quiet when she asks me what I want to have for dinner. I don’t tell her that it is the sugar, or the hormones, or the gluten, or the plastic containers they microwave everything in that scares me. I don’t tell her that these are all neurotoxins. I don’t tell her that they are eating holes in my brain.
I don’t tell them that I am afraid to eat.
I don’t tell her that I don’t mind the “sour stomach,” because that makes it easier to throw them up. I certainly don’t tell her that I am afraid of the pills too.
I can see what happens when Sheryl says that she is scared to take them. They call Alex and
Aaron to hold her down. She clenches her jaw shut and yanks her head away.
I cry too, and she takes them. They hold her mouth open like a dog, to see that she swallowed them.
So, I don’t say anything. I take the yellow ones, and I take the sour stomach.
In a little bit I will taste the acid coming up my throat.
In a little bit longer will be all of the extra saliva, and I will throw them up.
They will hear me from behind the closed door because they are always listening.
“Liliana,” they will say. And I won’t say a thing.
I won’t say that I hate my full name. I won’t say that nobody outside of here has called me that in so many years. I won’t tell them that, outside of this place, everyone calls me El. I won’t say that “El” makes me happy, or that so does any name other than my own, because then they will say it is trauma, or abuse, or repression.
And there will be more colors, colors that I don’t even know.
And maybe they won’t be the quiet kind. Maybe they will bring the screaming out, out into the world. And then what? No, it is far better to stay quiet. Far better to be how they’d like me to be, so I can try to figure this out on my own.
The Chef’s Menu
by Jaime Balboa
I walk the long way around to the entrance of Café Raven. Today there’s a spring in my step. I avoid cutting through the back alley, nowadays littered with people, sleeping on their sides, holed up in cardboard boxes, swaddled in dirty blankets. Jesus, the smell of it. Stale, concentrated piss, stale people. I take the long way around to get my breakfast. This way, I can pick a lilac bunch for Gabby.
I love the café even with the encroachment of urban decay. Café Raven, with the new paint and the refreshed menu, is really quite good. Gabby, the owner, always greets me like a long-lost cousin. Her house-made bagels are her specialty. She knows I’m an executive chef myself, and so my praise of her work goes into that special category of one artisan to another.
After exchanging polite concerns with another customer about the situation in the back alley, I ordered my usual: a toasted salt bagel with cream cheese and chives. The pimple-faced cashier was new, though, and just gawked at me. He stood there until Gabby came out, calling my name.
“Chef Clayton, how are you? Get this man his usual," she said, and Pimples sprung into action.
"My kids are coming for a visit," I said, handing her the bunch of lilacs. I could barely contain my excitement. She smiled.
"I didn’t know you had kids, Clayton.”
"Well, they're not so much kids anymore. I haven't seen them in years. It’s been years, Gabby."
Screeching tires and the bellowing thud interrupted us from the street outside. I gasped. A fender-bender. But then Café Raven radiated, the way a street does in the summer heat. Everything blurred, and I saw, in that moment, another car wreck, flashing lights, mangled metal, shattered glass. When I realized I was holding my breath, I let out a long, slow exhale.
"Is everything okay?" The question didn't register until the familiar scent of bagels pulled me back. “Here’s your bagel," Gabby said.
"A fender-bender… Reckless drivers... Very lucky, those two…" I wagged my finger at the drivers.
"Tell me about your kids, Clayton."
"They're finally coming for a visit." I leaned in close to her and whispered, "I'm making Beef Wellington." I was more than a little embarrassed by that admission. No chef worth their salt makes Beef Wellington anymore, but it was the only meal my two kids ever agreed on. My menu for their homecoming had been weeks in the planning. It’s been so long since I’ve cooked for them that I was nervous. “Julia is a mother now and Jeremy is in law school. Time marches on, Gabby, and I just never get to see them.”
My thoughts wandered to my kitchen, to my recipes, and to my menu—red wine pairs with beef. For me, that would be a Cabernet. But kids, the younger generation, they might appreciate a trendy Malbec, maybe. My fingers tingled with anticipation and I felt the need to start cooking right then and there. And, in a moment of bursting exuberance, I declared, "This bagel tastes so good, I wish I could share it with all of you!"
Two women seated at a table snickered but would not look at me. Across the room, a young guy peeked up from behind his laptop, only to look right back down.
"Clayton, everybody's already eating."
"Yes, of course," I said, shuffling my feet in embarrassment. My eyes turned to my bagel and I noticed that my fingers were filthy.
Traffic again flowed where the fender-bender had blocked the lane. The only evidence of the accident was a single, red shard of plastic, broken off of one of their taillights. My gaze fixed on the red shard and, again, I'm in a car, ears ringing, cold rain pouring through holes that shouldn't be there, crumpled metal pressing against me. The rearview mirror, somehow still there, reflects the wreckage. Nobody in the back seat could have possibly survived. Not Julia, not Jeremy. “Nobody did,” I heard myself say. I glanced up from the red shard to see a faint reflection in the window: a specter of a man, haunted and despairing, cloaked in drab greys, matted hair. And, Jesus, the smell.
I hurried out the door, eyes downcast. It happened again. I had gone there yet again.
Slumping into the alley, I sat on my dirty blue tarp and ate the rest of my bagel in tiny little nibbles to make it last.
The Voiceless Child
by Tiffany Meador
Dear mom and dad of child loss: in the end, you learn there is no pause for grief. No timeline, no right or wrong way, and not everyone gets it. No matter what classification system you use, this is not your regular mourning period. Life, as you know, has now changed forever. You will find your new normal and life will keep moving forward. You are not required to be strong, mentally capable, or happy each day. You are not required to feel horrible for those brief moments where you forget and let yourself be free. Rejoice in the good and always let yourself feel your grief. Holding it all in will make you self-implode. Not everyone will understand, and that’s okay, I am here to remind you, you are not alone. I support you. Take your time, take a breath, exhale slowly, and when you are ready, keep reading.
It is a subject most will never hear; the loss of a child. Countless women carry their loss as a scarlet letter on their chest. Everyone knows it exists, yet no one wants to entertain it. We mourn our child in stillness, we tip-toe around the subject, and we let people silence us to preserve their comfort levels. Crying behind closed doors, we hush the memory of our dead child while parents around us express joy over their children’s achievements. We placate the inability to see your visions of the future may not go as planned.
Bereaved parents around the world smile daily as you show them new finger-painted works of art, send videos of dance recitals, post pictures of team sports, and attend cookouts with your perfect family in tow. You talk aimlessly about your children to us, yet you request for us to not speak of the life we envisioned for our children no longer on Earth. I find you extremely blessed, and I want you to know that I am happy for you. Life has given you everything you ever wanted and then some.
Life hurled a curveball at me, and here is what I need you to know. Saying my child’s name lets me know you haven’t forgotten him or her. It is more than acceptable to ask me how I am doing, bringing up the subject might not always make me smile, but I promise you it matters. Let me speak! Let me tell you of the memories I hold near and dear to my heart. Set aside all the uneasiness of the subject, I assure you silence speaks louder than anything else.
In a society where so much is out in the open, it is astonishing that child loss isn’t one of them. There are constant movements through equal rights marches. Colorful flags are hung proudly. Clothing of rainbows are displayed in most storefronts. It is a subject of much debate, but the debate is there. We are a society that will literally challenge anything and everything. For every glass half full there is a glass half empty. We even throw abortion around as if it’s a natural concept to argue.
Parents of lost children sit in small circles at group meetings. We may run into new people on the street and chat about the latest trivial subject. Is the dress blue or green? Bring up the subject of losing a child, and the room falls instantly silent. Heads avert to avoid your eyes. Silence so deafening, you can actually hear their hearts beating faster. The beads of sweat adorn their foreheads. Crowds start to dissipate until you are left alone to your grief once more.
There is a gravestone that stands alone on a hill for my child. My child existed. My child was a human being. I may have only had thirty-eight weeks in the womb to bond with my child while the woman across from you in the grocery store had sixteen years. For some, the only thing they ever got was a blimp on a screen before their loss. Yes, your child is beautiful, brilliant, gentle, and smart, and I will cherish the time I get to spend with them, but my child was beautiful too. We are both mothers, just cut from a dissimilar cloth.
by Stuart Gunter
My great grandmother found
my great grandfather
dangling by his neck
from a belt in their bedroom closet.
My uncle drove his Jeep
out to the pine barrens
of King & Queen County
shotgunned his brains out.
I imagine a great brick wall
rising in the road before me. Today
it’s a log truck,
or a truck heavy with cars,
dropping all or part of its load
onto the road in front of me.
The wall begins
The clouds are hanging high in the quiet blue sky.
The wind is ruffling the pines.
It’s far too gorgeous a day for tragedy.
by David Joseph
The nights were the hardest. The dark nights. The long, dark, nights, when I’d awake soaked in sweat, the terror draining my face of whatever life remained. I can’t remember when it began, sometime after my parents died. It’s hard to say since the days ran together, time moved fast, and the nights arrived one after the other again and again and again. There was nothing I could do. When the lights went out, I was simply no match for what the darkness delivered.
The first time it really caught me off guard, to wake up with my heart racing, my shirt drenched, and the damp feeling of sweat sticking between my thighs. But it was the betrayal of my breathing that struck the fear of God in me. That horrible feeling of waking just as you inhale a giant breath and are caught gasping, eyes open, neck tense, struggling to capture enough air to slow the heart down to a reasonable pace.
I tried everything—eating right before bed, not eating at all, a sound machine, falling asleep to peaceful music. For a period of time, I attempted to use guided meditation. I tried exercising my body to the point of exhaustion, taking long showers, and drinking cups of chamomile tea. Nothing worked. Or I should say, nothing was formidable enough to combat the night and the terrors it brought.
I had never been to war, but this felt like it. I really didn’t know how to fight this enemy. After all, it was an invisible enemy. But it was still a fight, so I kept a baseball bat under my bed and a revolver in the drawer of the bedside table. This made little sense since they weren’t any good to me once I closed my eyes. I can’t really explain, but there was something about just having these things close that gave me comfort. It was as if I was no longer unarmed, at least metaphorically, and it helped me create the sensation that I wasn’t going to go down easily.
My wife didn’t think keeping a revolver next to the bed was a good idea. She had seen me wake up with the fear coaxing through my veins, part of this world, and part of another. She had witnessed the wide-eyed gasps and seen me thinking less than clearly. A revolver within reach held risks for even the calmest, sanest man. A revolver within reach for a man who wasn’t even sure he was in his right mind bordered on reckless. When we discussed this in the daylight hours, I couldn’t help but agree with her. However, when the night came, I wanted the revolver close by, and I insisted that it was loaded. I tried to convince my wife that it was also prudent in the event of an intruder, but we both knew that I was the one to fear.
Our bedroom was small, but we had a nice window. This made it feel slightly bigger than it was. There was a comfortable chair in the corner, and I wondered if sleeping in the chair might solve my problems, but it didn’t. Furthermore, I couldn’t get nearly as good a night sleep when I tried to sleep sitting up. There was a dresser in front of the bed with a mirror above it. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t find myself. I mean, I knew it was me, but I almost didn’t recognize the face looking back.
The doctor prescribed some medicine, but that only made things worse. I had been reluctant to take pills, but I had gotten to a point where I’d try anything. At the beginning, I was completely inflexible when the doctor brought up the possibility of medication, but I was getting closer and closer to despair. My wife was feeling more helpless than ever, and I was humbled really. When you are humbled, truly humbled, you begin to consider things that would have once seemed unthinkable.
The medicine did make me fall asleep faster. There was no question about that. But it also made me wake up more disoriented and more volatile. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember where I was, where we were living, or what year it was. This only added to the fright, and I would often leap out of the bed only to stumble, wholly off balance, with a head rush from moving too quickly. Then I would need more medicine if I had any hopes of getting back to sleep, and that was no good. I was at a loss.
My wife insisted that I talk to someone. She told me if I didn’t, she would leave. So, I did. It helped when I was there, and I drew comfort and was cautiously optimistic following our sessions. They were encouraging, and he assured me that I was making great progress. But then the nights came, as relentless and dehumanizing as ever, and just like that I was right back where I started. It was almost more demoralizing than if I hadn’t gone to see somebody because it crushed whatever moments of hope I might have had.
Somehow, we managed to keep it from the children. They knew I was more tired than normal during the daytime hours but, other than that, they assumed everything was normal. That is until the night I felt myself sinking, sinking further and further into the ground, below the surface, in something like a half-awake dream, surely to be suffocated under the impossible weight of the earth. I came out of this slow free-fall only to roll to my right, grab the revolver, stand up in the bedroom, and begin unloading the revolver into the ceiling. I emptied the chamber, all six shots, with my wife screaming and the kids running down the hall awakened by the terrible noise.
By the time the children arrived at the door, I had come to my senses and placed the gun on the nightside table. My wife rushed to the door to great our children and redirect them back down the hall, telling them that everything was okay, that everything would be okay. I sat down on the edge of the bed, brought my feet up and then slumped against the headboard. I was in a daze, but I can remember hearing the sound of my wife’s voice hurrying the children along and the noise the tires made when she peeled out of the driveway. And that was it. That was the last time I saw my wife or children. The sound of her car disappeared, and she drove off into the night.
It’s not easy to watch everything you care about disappear from your life, or rather, run from it. But that’s what they did. They fled. It’s even worse when you understand why they did. I understood, and as much as I wanted to be with them, I couldn’t blame them. What choice did my wife have? She had been there for all of it, and she had tried to help me improve, but there is only so much one person can do for another. It was too much work, too much work for her, for anyone.
Once there was nothing left and no one left, I had only me. It was a strange sensation to be all alone, something I hadn’t felt, well…ever. I had been lonely before, but I had never been alone, truly alone, and now I was. There is a difference, you know, and being alone was both a liberating and terrifying feeling. On one hand, if I plunged deeper into the darkness, towards the inevitability of self-destruction and obliteration, there would be no one relying on me. I would be missed by no one, and my end would not have a single impact on the world, on anyone’s world. There was a feeling of relief in the bleak truth of that reality.
When I finally decided to look in the mirror for the first time since that night, it was hard to recognize myself. I hadn’t shaved in weeks, and the hair on my face had started growing wildly across my cheeks and down my neck towards my collar. My eyes were nearly shrouded amidst the beard, but they were clear. They were finally clear, and the surface that was once filled with bloodshot streaks was now clear and white. I used multiple razors to shave my face. Then I took a shower, put on some fresh clothes, packed a bag, and went down to the kitchen to eat. After breakfast, I walked out the front door, down the path, and turned right at the sidewalk.
What happened next is something of a blur. I just started walking, I guess, walking towards the sun, towards the light, away from the house that had encased all the darkness. I don’t know how long I walked or how far but, somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t going back. I would never go back, not to that place and not to that house, not ever. I just kept going, kept walking, all day and into the night. When the sun fell, I kept walking, and I was still walking when the sun came up. I felt the warmth on my face, and I just kept walking, following the sun, and capturing the horizon with each forward step.
There was a time when I thought I would never escape the dark, but I learned that everything comes down to direction. If you aren’t moving up, you’re sinking down. If you aren’t propelling yourself forward, you are being pulled back. And if you aren’t seeking the light, you’ll fall into the clutches of the dark. So, from that day forward, I just kept walking, walking towards the light, towards the new seasons of my life, where rays of sun cascade down from the sky and memories exist only in the future, in the new ones we create moving on in search of time that has yet to be born.
The Rat Hole
by Neilay Khasnabish
Rehman made his way through the crowd and reached the edge of the pit. Standing on the edge, he looked down and felt a shiver of fear down his spine. It was terribly dark inside, and although it was filled with water, water wasn’t clearly visible from the top.
His elder brother Akram was trapped in the mine along with fifteen others. The sun was going to set, emitting its final golden lights.
“Will you save my Abba?” Abdul asked with fear and hugged Rehman’s waist tight.
Rehman had punched Charu on his nose and absconded from college hostel at night a week ago. Then his elder brother Akram, who lived with his only son Abdul and worked at a coal mine in Lumthari village, sheltered Rehman from Charu and his gang. Rehman was born at a Chapori. A Chapori is a riverine island of the Brahmaputra River. Charu often made fun of the girls, who were born at Chaopries and spent their childhood with minimal pieces of cloth to cover their bodies because of their poverty. Charu specially pointed to Rehman’s sister.
“Chacha?” Abdul asked and shook Rehman’s wrist forcefully.
“Allah is kind to everyone,” he said and lovingly placed his hand on Abdul’s head.
He must save Akram. But how would he go down? It was almost dark, and nothing was clearly visible. Soon fog would settle all about. While he was thinking about these things, he saw two middle-aged men approaching the ladder, thick ropes in their hands.
“Don’t stand on the edge of the pit. Go and stand there,” Rehman tapped Abdul on his shoulder and pointed to a safe place. He then immediately strode towards those two men and asked loudly, “Are you going to enter the mine?”
“Yes,” one of them replied.
“Do you know Akram-bhai?”
“He’s trapped inside along with other fifteen men,” the other one said.
Rehman felt an itchy sensation in his heart and said, “Give me a rope. I’ll enter the pit.”
“Do you know how to swim? The water in the pit is so cold.”
Rehman didn’t answer. He took a rope from them and went to the edge of the pit. There were wooden ladders joined in a helical manner. The workers had descended the ladders. On the wall of the pit, there were small holes – few of them were faintly visible – through which the workers used to crawl every day to collect coal. The mines having such holes are called rat-hole mines in Meghalaya. Rat-hole mining is illegal. But nobody cares about it. Rehman tied the rope to his waist and gave the other end to one of them. He then carefully placed his left foot on the wooden rung. The ladder shook slightly.
“Take the torch,” someone from the crowd said, offering him a torch.
Others focussed their torches on the ladder. Rehman carefully began to descend the ladder, and the crowd became invisible slowly. While descending, he touched the wall of the pit. It was rough and damp. He felt coal particles on his palms and wiped them on his pants. The more he descended, the more the musty smell became intensive. He had never entered a coal mine before. It was dark inside, everywhere. Now he started to feel like a claustrophobic. He mentally thanked the person who had given him the torch.
Akram had worked at coal mines for a decade without any complaints. But he never allowed Abdul to enter coal mines.
Now Rehman found a rat-hole in front of him and decided to stop there. He held the ladder with one hand, balanced himself on the rung and pushed his head into the hole.
“Hello!” he shouted.
His voice echoed in the hole. It was completely dark and damp. He again took a deep breath to ease his claustrophobic feelings. Then he decided to descend further, and within a short while, he felt the ice-cold water touch his heels. He shivered with cold. He shone the torch. The stagnant water from the Lytin River looked like tar and smelt musty. He checked the rope. It had been tied to his waist. He pulled it two times to send signals and then, without wasting a single moment, he jumped into the water.
Rehman climbed up the wooden ladder and reached the top of the pit. He was panting. It was completely dark by then, and people were standing, hurricane lamps in their hands. He heavily sat down on the ground. He heard many voices addressing him, asking him about the inside of the pit. They were at a distance from him.
He tried to find Abdul in the crowd, but failed. He closed his eyes, and his eyelids were wet.
He mustn’t cry.
Slowly the place became more crowded. Now Rehman thoroughly searched for Abdul in the crowd. He didn’t find Abdul. He then decided to return to their hut. It was a moonlit night in November. Fog had gathered all around. Freshly cut coal was lying scattered here and there on either side of the road.
Rehman got to their hut.
He found the door unlocked. He hurried into the room and saw Abdul sitting in the corner.
Abdul lifted his eyes from the floor and said, “I won’t cry, Chacha.”
But he didn’t stop crying. Rehman sat down close to him, fondled his head, then gathered him into the warmth of his bosom. He kept on sobbing, rubbing his running nose against Rehman’s right arm.
“Go to sleep, Abdul. It will be dawn soon,” Rehman said, his chin on Abdul’s head.
The Prettiest Little Things
by Gavin Bourke
Hard to believe,
in the world of now.
reconfigured by money.
The consistent pummelling,
of the orifices.
pain masquerading behind masques,
without glamorous balls,
in the charades and scenarios.
Wide open mouths,
high blood pressure,
rapid beating hearts.
More and more,
for less and less,
tears and tears,
of soft tissues,
invisible to viewers.
Often estranged, from families.
Anaesthetics, opiates, narcotics,
just to cope,
with the slow,
of the soul.
Perfect young bodies,
inner portraits revealing,
a hammering with pickaxes and mallets,
cuts with saws.
Leathering with whips
and slaughterhouse chains,
Prodding and impaling,
without the taxidermist’s expertise.
Only seeing the scarring and indentations,
from the dripping discharges,
alone in bathroom mirrors,
The traumatic memories,
of being ejaculated upon,
by more than one person,
at a time.
To get up once more,
encouraged to do more,
to pay the bills and rent.
changing with prolonged exposures,
over time and times.
Sold, packaged in glass and plastic,
until wanted, desired
for various reasons.
transformed and farmed,
to want more and more,
images and scenes.
Pity the poor, little things,
with little choice or alternatives.
The Knight-Errant of Scottsdale, Arizona
by Abby Mangel
I still remember how the priest looked uncomfortable standing beside the bus driver. He was cloaked in thick black garb, and droplets of sweat trickled onto his white collar. Perhaps he regretted his decision to chaperone the loud and disorderly lot of my peers. I imagined his withered mother chastising him in the back of the chapel for spoiling his Sunday best. The man detested children so much that I wondered why the all-knowing Lord would call upon him to work at a school for boys in the first place. He haunted the backdrop of my childhood like a statue of a disapproving saint, always looking down upon us with his hard granite eyes.
A film of perspiration covered my skin underneath my uniform. The dry heat hastened the commotion around me. The other boys poked and prodded each other, rambling nonsense about stolen Playboy magazines and watching Charles Barkley destroy Ricky Pierce in the playoffs later – things I could not fathom ever finding interest in. Damp and scrawny, I felt exposed to the elements in that stuffy bus. My body was flimsy armor back in those days.
I was about ten, almost a full year younger than everyone else in my class at Sacred Heart. My small stature made me an obvious target for juvenile warfare, but there was something else, something slightly less tangible, that bothered my classmates terribly. They called me Trixie at recess and audibly coughed the word faggot when the teachers were away – but I never felt gay. I actually preferred sitting with the girls at mass, admiring their long hair and makeup, and matching dresses and shawls. In fact, I was rather relieved when I heard they would be celebrating the day with us.
We disembarked the bus in front of the Medieval Times castle and formed a single-file line. Our excursion to the stubby gray fortress outside the Scottsdale suburbs was meant to be a special treat that marked the ending of the school year, with us finally matriculating from the elementary level to junior high. I spotted the girls from Saint Agnes already inside the air-conditioned building. I waved toward a friend I knew from church, and the boy next to me slapped my arm. “Gotta girlfriend, Trixie?” he asked, the meanness shining like a dagger in his eyes. I felt my bare arm turning a tender pink color where he had hit me.
The priest lectured to us about crusaders as we dawdled in the Arizona sunshine. God sent them on a treacherous pilgrimage to the Holy Land to recover the besieged Kingdom of Jerusalem from the heretics. We learned about them during the school year – the Holy Wars were the unambiguous highlight of Catholicism class – and to commemorate our last day in the fifth grade, we would root for the Red Knight during the show of martial games. As he spoke, the priest emphasized the Red Knight as humble in prayer and invincible in battle. He was a living crusader, the official mascot of Sacred Heart, and like the crusaders of the old world, he was everlasting through the Lord and pious in his violence. The priest aimlessly rattled on, professing each adult man’s obligation to carry the cross into the war against evil.
We could hear the girls laughing from outside. The mascot of Saint Agnes was the lamb, which seemed better than a crusader to me. Fighting was never my strong suit, and I always liked animals.
With thirty minutes before the show, we filtered into the castle lobby in our starched white shirts and sweater vests bearing the Sacred Heart monogram. The boys sparred with foam swords and sauntered through the Museum of Torture as the girls chattered about the horrors awaiting them inside the dingy gallery of breaking wheels and racks and whips. I quietly broke away from my party, having previously found their company on the bus to be torture enough.
I found my friend nestled in a small circle. With a paper crown and a sack of plastic trinkets at her feet, it looked like she had ransacked the store in the castle’s atrium. She was sitting crisscrossed on the floor as another girl braided her dark brown hair into a twist when I tapped her shoulder. “Brian!” she said, spinning around dramatically like Maid Marian in high socks and tennis shoes. She scooted over, and I involved myself in the girls’ conversation, quietly appreciating the way they spoke. Topics bounced around like tiny sparrows, hopping from Jason Priestly and Luke Perry to the mystery of Michael Jackson’s changing complexion. They overlapped, ebbed and flowed with a fluidness that would have been incomprehensible to my classmates at Sacred Heart. I was ready to chime in when a teacher whistled, signaling everyone to gather and enter the theater.
“I wish you could just sit with us,” my friend said, flattening the dark blue pleats of her skirt.
“It’s stupid how they keep us apart.”
“Don’t say stupid, Amber,” another girl added. “It’s mean.”
“Whatever,” Amber replied. “We’ll see you later, Brian.”
My class was seated in the front row of the southwestern stand, cheering with abandon for the Red Knight, and the girls were somewhere behind us. The stadium thundered as hundreds of children pounded their flimsy plastic goblets against the tabletops, sloshing frothy waves of Coca-Cola and Sprite over their sticky brims.
The solemn old king and his courtly tribe of princes and fools paraded into the arena.
Presiding over the tournament of medieval-style games, the king introduced the performers with Shakespearean gravitas. As we dined on the standard offerings of rotisserie chicken and potatoes, we watched sword-fighters battle and falconers toss long-tailed hawks into the air. There were common serfs and wenches dancing and fawning over a wizard dressed like Merlin, but none of these feudal marvels could compare to the virile courage of the Red Knight on his white stallion.
We watched the prominent cross adorning the knight’s shield tremble as he wielded a steel lance from atop his galloping charger. The mounted knight barreled at high speed toward the Green Knight, his reviled adversary, whose serpent-like banners streamed behind his metal plate armor. The Red Knight’s lance clipped the Green Knight’s shield in a spectacular display of dexterity, hurtling the emerald chunk of wood onto the tramped earth below. To my classmates’ delight, a plucky squire retrieved the fallen shield as the knights swiveled around in the corner of the roped-off enclosure for a second joust.
I turned around and saw Amber with the girls in an adjacent row. The Green Knight was their assigned champion, and they collectively cringed and balked as if that blow hit them hard too. I winced, wishing that I was suffering the humiliation with them.
The boys snarled at the Green Knight as the squire stumbled to return the blocky shield, hopping awkwardly to reach the steely rider towering in his high-back saddle. Pausing to absorb our taunts, the Green Knight swiftly repositioned his weapon under his arm while patting his horse’s neck. The Green Knight lingered there for a moment with the shield in hand, close enough that I could see the dirty strands of yellow hair peeking beneath his great helm. From the front row, we felt the heat radiating from the Green Knight’s panting horse before it took off again, steadily racing to clash against the holy Red Knight once more.
Concentrating the full momentum of his charging horse, the Green Knight lowered his lance to connect squarely between the thick lines of the cross on the Red Knight’s shield. It splintered the wedge into a dusty explosion of shards. The horses screeched as the blunted tip of the Green Knight’s lance propelled through the air, striking the breastplate of the Red Knight with a force that knocked him off his saddle.
The Red Knight’s horse reared in panic, its guttural scream silencing the audience. As the horse thrashed its legs, the knight squirmed to escape the blows of the flustered animal’s hooves. He caught his left foot in the stirrups. Dirt swirled above the ground as the horse dragged its entangled rider across the arena. The Red Knight bellowed in dismay. His limbs twisted and flailed until the horse anxiously trotted to a stop.
“Why, God, why?” hollered the grinning boy next to me. I frowned as the stony priest wrangling our flock alighted to attend to my shrieking classmates. They should have expected this much, I thought. People died in the crusades, after all.
I intently studied the Green Knight as he tossed his weapon onto the dirt floor and dismounted his horse, stroking the jawline of his frightened steed before passing the reigns to the squire that stood frozen in the corner. For a few minutes, the Green Knight was invisible to the feral children that surrounded me.
The baritone voice of the king declared the tournament’s premature winner through the stadium amplifiers. I watched the Green Knight cross the jousting field to check on his defeated rival with the swagger of a cowboy, abruptly recalling the fact that we were still somewhere in Arizona. “You bitch!” the thwarted crusader howled at the Green Knight between gasps. “We didn’t rehearse that!”
The Green Knight removed his shadowy helmet, revealing himself not to be an errant knight at all. While the first row began to exit the stand of the dinner theater, I witnessed what my classmates had somehow missed, a revelation that echoed in the chambers of my heart years later: The Green Knight was a woman.
Refugee Returning Home
by Alfredo Quarto
You sleep your feet awake
upon the walls with dreams
of movement beyond this train
while through night we pass
to days ahead to places
we have been before
towards the time when we will take
our separate paths that cross
two borders home.
You dream of Guatemalan armies
pursuing you through jungle
crossing streams, drawing near…
their rifles a metallic gleam in sun.
The last quetzal rises before you
its verdant wings your guide
to safe passage from their guns.
In passageways between the sleeping cars
through an open window, feel the breeze…
at a crossing, the train wails
a long halting note that sounds
of distance drawing near.
Its freedom lost to dollars
Guatemala passes into night
where armies rise and fall
those who’ve been disappeared
legions of the poor
struggling for justice.
In dreams your feet
upon the wall
beyond the train.
by James Thomas
Every Christmas until this one, my father had always been in charge of the Christmas tree. For reasons that were unknown to me this year, my father had put off going to buy the tree which normally happened a week or two before Christmas Day. Two days before Christmas and still no tree my mom had had enough and took matters into her own hands by walking into my room that morning, keys in hand, and declaring, “Let’s go get us a Christmas tree.” She drove the family Delta 88 to the nearest Christmas-tree lot which happened to be a grassy field next to Walker’s Feed and Seed about two miles from our home in the small town of Wetumpka, Alabama. As far back as I could remember, I rode with my dad to purchase the tree; sometimes, my mother came along, and before my sisters moved out of the house, when they were young girls, they came too.
In fact, the second most important difference that distinguished the Christmas of 1972 in my eyes from the others of my childhood was our family was now down to three. My oldest sister, Wendy, had left home for Auburn University three years before and my other sister, Sherry, graduated from high school and began college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa that very year. Sherry attending Alabama always stuck in my dad’s craw since he was an Auburn alumnus, though the irritation would be short lived for Sherry fell in love her freshman year and dropped out of college, and was now living in a tiny house between Wetumpka and Montgomery with her boyfriend, a pothead who wouldn’t, not couldn’t, keep a job nor make the grades at the community college in Montgomery. I was now the only child at home.
When my father came home from work that afternoon, the tree was lying on the front porch by the front door. Earlier that day I had crawled up into the attic and handed down to my mother the boxes containing the lights, ornaments, and tinsel. The boxes were sitting in the living room, where we always set the tree. I was sitting on the couch watching reruns of “Leave It to Beaver,” one of my favorite after-school TV shows, along with “I Love Lucy,” the black and white shows with Ricky, and The Three Stooges shorts, the ones with Curly, when he marched into the house. “We got the tree,” I said with excitement. I was rather proud of my mother, and I had accomplished this, in my eyes, very important task. He said, “I see that,” with a smile, then “Let me change clothes, and we’ll get that baby up.”
Looking back I don’t remember any animosity, hostility nor even one grain tension in the air at the time. From my thirteen-year-old eyes everything, other than his absence from the tree purchase and my sisters’ absence from the family, was going according to expectations. My mother more than likely put on a Christmas album, Burl Ives telling us to “Have a holly, jolly Christmas.” There’s a good chance that she made some hot apple cider, though I don’t really remember if she did on that particular occasion. After my dad changed clothes, he and I went outside to attach the stand to the tree. Sometimes this task involved trimming limbs or even the base so the trunk would fit through the collar of the stand and into the bowl. We wrestled the tree into the stand, carried it in the house, then balanced our Christmas joy in the living room using a few of my mother’s old Good Housekeepings and Ladies’ Home Journals. My dad was in charge of stringing the lights with help from me. I was a good size boy by then, so I remember I actually helped instead of just being there pretending. Stringing the lights was the most exciting part of decorating the tree for me. My body tingled in seeing the strands plugged in with illumination; my favorite, of course, were these bright colored plastic bases with a pencil thin glass cylinder filled with red-tinted water sticking up four inches from the center. The base and water glowed while small bubbles danced in the cylinders; those bubbles baffled me not only as a kid but even to this day, another layer of magic for the Christmas holidays. While we strung the lights, my mother would help untangle the strings, then once done, would begin prepping the glass balls. She’d start untangling the hooks and setting new ones for the balls which had lost theirs.
I remember the tone as being happy, another Christmas when everyone was in a good mood, laughing, gently teasing one another, an abundance of treats including my mother’s special Brownie recipe with its thick fudge topping. But I will be honest here, I’ll admit that I’ve learned in my understanding of our day-to-day reality that confronts us all, that even the best of times are not pure goodness and free of darkness. When Sherry had moved out of the house there was a sense that the family had lost another member, and with this loss our family had now been whittled to three and a hint of loneliness had invaded our home, seeping through the windows and doors. Our home, our full home of three kids and parents contained a lively level of mirth, energy generated by five people who loved one another and lived under the same roof. Again, let me acknowledge that I am fully aware a family is not always full of happiness; children endlessly create jealousies, disagreements, disputes, and full-bore arguments. My two sisters and I fought, picked on one another, and naturally struggled with our childhood complexities and evolving independence. Yet the arguments and traumas are life, and as each sister left home, a part of our family’s vitality was lost. I have a vivid memory of missing my two sisters, even though I was the target of many of their jokes and cruelties. And my mother and father certainly had their moments of disagreement, as all couples do. Yet their happiness seemed full and complete, at least as one could expect two people to be who lived and slept together.
The day after decorating the tree, Christmas Eve, was a Thursday and my day still rose early and made the drive to work. My dad rarely took extra days off during the Christmas holidays. He worked as a civil engineer at Maxwell Air Force Base across the Alabama River in Montgomery. He would mumble how no one really worked during the couple of days before Christmas, but he got up and went in just the same. Wendy and Sherry were not home yet; they were spending a few days with their boyfriends’ families. For the first time in my life Christmas would not have its usual glow that emanated from being around my sisters and parents. A recipe seemed to be missing two key ingredients. That Christmas Eve morning after my day had left for work my mom mentioned to me as she made my breakfast of cheese eggs, bacon, and toast that we should drive around town that evening to look at the Christmas lights. I had happily agreed, of course; outdoor Christmas lights were part of the Christmas charm for me.
Dad usually arrived home from work between 5:00 and 5:30. When he failed to walk in the door for dinner by 6:00 my mother decided to call his office from the kitchen wall phone as I stood next to the kitchen counter. Of course, I didn’t hear what he said, but I distinctly remember my mom muttering several “uh huhs,” then hanging up the phone in the kitchen, walking over to the stove and begin stirring the pot of chili she had been cooking all day.
After a couple of minutes, she walked over to where the den began, looked at me and said, “Your father is working late, so we might as well go ahead and eat. Come on and fix your bowl.”
I was bewildered at the prospect of my dad not coming home from work on Christmas
Eve. Something was out of sorts, my dad almost never worked late, but the implications of this for a thirteen-year-old are limited. I filled my bowl, walked into the dining room where we ate most of our meals. I sat down and waited for my mother. After a few seconds she walked in, sat down, and began eating without saying a word.
“Did Dad say when he would be home?”
“Your father said he would be home within an hour or two.”
“Are we still going out looking at Christmas lights?”
My mother’s eyes froze in space. She chewed slowly, almost as if she was trying to ensure she chewed every morsel.
“I don’t see why not. As soon as he gets home and eats a bite we’ll go out.”
The remainder of the meal was spent talking about my two sisters, their boyfriends, and what I wanted for Christmas. Dad had not arrived by the time we finished dinner. Mom washed our bowls while I fed my dog Kook who lived in the backyard. After I returned and my mom had cleaned our few dishes she walked into the den while giving the clock a quick glance.
“I can’t believe he’s at work at on Christmas Eve,” I said.
My mother walked over and sat in the easy chair that was adjacent to the sofa I was sitting in. She grabbed one of her magazines off the coffee table.
“He’ll be home soon,” she said, then let out a deep breath.
A few minutes of flipping through a Redbook Mom asked, “Do you want to watch Frosty?”
“Sure, if nothing else is on,” I said trying to smoother my enthusiasm for the cartoon since I was beginning to step into the adult world.
She walked over to the tv, flipped it on and quickly checked our four channels. “I thought Frosty always came on Christmas Eve,” she said.
I studied the screen. “Me, too. Doesn’t seem like Christmas without Frosty,” I said.
She clicked off the set and walked back to her chair and sat down. We sat there, the two of us, without saying much else for several minutes as we studied our magazines. I don’t remember how long we sat there, but I do remember at some point looking at the clock above the tv and seeing the time was a few minutes before eight. I felt uncomfortable, uneasy.
“Why doesn’t he come home?” I asked.
My mother looked up at the clock and said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do, why don’t we take a spin and look at some lights. We can’t wait on him forever. We won’t make a night of it or anything, by the time we come back he’ll be here wondering where we’ve gone.”
She stood up then walked into the kitchen and turned off the chili, grabbed the keys off the kitchen counter, walked back through the den on the way to the front door and said, “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
I sat there frozen like the Tin Man. I watched as she grabbed a coat out of the foyer closet. She put her right arm through the coat sleeve then froze a stare right into my eyes. “What’s wrong? You don’t want to go?”
“No, no, that sounds great.”
We finished readying for the cold, which was in the teens, a hard cold for central Alabama, and walked out to the Delta 88 with the full moon shining off its sky blue hood. My mom cranked the car, let it run for a few minutes to warm up, then we pulled out of the driveway on our way to admire people’s celebration of Christmas. As we drove off I looked at our staunch red brick home, the Christmas lights on the tree blinking chaotically through a living room window.
We drove through the few blocks of our immediate neighborhood admiring the displays of Christmas gaiety. We lived in a neighborhood that exuded a desire to care. There were many Christmas trees with tinkling lights, plastic candle sticks on windowsills topped with the comforting rounded bulbs, and the big blue, yellow, red, and green bulbs strung along eaves, doorways, and window frames. The Pattersons, who lived a couple of blocks over and were friends of my parents, had used all blue lights on their non-blinking tree and the outline of their house, which was different and for me, classy. After weaving through the streets for a few minutes we ended up at Augusta St., one of the main thoroughfares for Wetumpka, Alabama.
“Why don’t we go over to the Nelson’s neighborhood since it’s just right down there. They usually have nice lights,” my mom said.