Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
Freckles They Called Him
Walter Branham, a retired teacher, and his wife Victoria went to Applebee’s, the chain restaurant, for lunch one day last week. First time they had gone there. Usually they go to an ethnic restaurant but Victoria wanted a salad. Walt as always was obliging.
The restaurant host was a young man who as a child had attended the middle school where Mr. Branham had taught for years.
That was a long, long time ago but Mr. Branham remembered him for one reason. Back then everyone had called him Freckles.
When Freckles recognized him, he said, "Mr. Branham, it’s good to see you. I haven't seen you in 30 years. I never had you for class but it was always nice to talk to you at recess. You were a lot of fun.”
Mr. Branham said he was glad to see him too.
Freckles turned to Victoria, bowed slightly as some Southerners are still apt to do, and said,
"Miss Victoria, I never met you, but I have heard so much about you from my friends."
Mr. Branham looked at Freckles sternly and said,
"I divorced Victoria four year ago. This is my new wife Agnes. She can cook."
Freckles was very embarrassed. “I'm so sorry, Mrs. Branham. I didn't know. It’s been so long.”
Victoria looked at her husband and said, “Walt, you should be ashamed of yourself. I am Victoria, and I am his wife. He’s not married to any Agnes. There is no Agnes. At least there better not be.”
Freckles looked at Mr. Branham, laughed and said, "You got me again, Mr. Branham.”
At their table the Branhams overheard Freckles telling the waitresses about the joke. They all laughed, including Freckles.
Mr. Branham told his wife he never knew the story behind the nickname. He was afraid it came about more as ridicule than good-natured ribbing.
He had always called Freckles by his surname. Jackson.
In fact he called him Mr. Jackson. He had called all the children by their surnames—Mr. Smith and Miss Jones, whatever the name might be. It made the children feel grown up and they seemed to like it.
Mr. Branham told his wife he couldn't imagine any adult wanting to be called Freckles but he couldn’t remember Mr. Jackson’s first name if indeed he ever knew it.
At the middle school, even the guidance counselors called the boy Freckles.
In this small Southern town, Jackson was a surname as common as briars in a briar patch.
But thirty years ago when he was in middle school, Freckles was likely the only black child for miles around with that nickname.
David Haight received a degree in English and later an MFA in writing from Hamline University where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and Lemon, a collection of short stories in 2015. He is working on a second collection of short stories.
FEDERAL EXPRESS BLUES
There was a single robin outside my window pecking at my bloated liver with his clipped staccato song. I supposed I slept at some point. Most of my time was charting the changing color through the thin white drapes: black, gray black, light gray. When it settled on a milky gray-blue it was time to pull myself out of the bed. Maureen had added a rule to the already burgeoning pantheon of rules I had to commit to memory: be gone before Katelyn awoke and stay away until dinner was threatening to get cold. (And none of that waltzing in the minute the bus dropped her off either.) Our daughter couldn’t know I was unemployed.
Snatching the clothes she had laid out from on top of the dresser, I trudged down the hall, ignoring the floorboards creaking their insults at me, dressed and brushed my teeth in the guest bathroom, making sure to wash down the pink drops of blood that dotted the sink. (Even my gums were conspiring against me.) Inspecting myself in the oval mirror I realized I had a day’s growth on my face. Of greater concern were my eyebrows which were coming together like the transcontinental railroad. I tried rubbing away the offending spider’s legs but to no use. It took too many attempts to get my tie tied evenly. It was a thin, all black tie. It had been my father’s. It was all I had of his to remember him by.
I poured a glass of orange juice and sat out on the front porch. The neighborhood was still. At the end of every driveway stood plastic trash bins, some green, some brown, some were partnered with a slightly smaller companion, filled with plastic and glass objects as an offering to the earth. I had never made an offering to the earth, God or any of the well-dressed men that frequented my door asking for money. Maybe that was the origin of my bad luck.
The sun had started its ascent.
“I need my prescription,” my wife said, clutching at her robe, taking the seat next to mine.
“Your medicine. You need your medicine.” I stared at the horizon which stared back daring me. “You were just in there.” I went into the kitchen, popped open the tab on the pink plastic pill container marked ‘Tuesday’, poured its celebrating contents into my hands.
“Here. I have to go,” I said handing them to her with a glass of orange juice.
“You couldn’t have brought water? That pulp makes it hard to get these down. And it’s so acidic. My stomach can’t handle it anymore,” she said taking them with a scowl. “I see you couldn’t bother to shave.”
I finished my orange juice, set the glass on the patio table, took her glass and did the same with hers.
“You have to stop going to the bar. The bills are unacceptable. Need I remind you we don’t have any money coming in?”
As the sun continued its ascent, my life continued its inverse downward arc. We did this every day.
I didn’t want to respond. I wanted to shove it in that gaping space with all the other pointless endeavors that went nowhere but toppled through inner space and would continue to fall until the day I ceased to exist.
“You used to get mad because I didn’t invite you.”
“You’ve gone every day this week.”
And every day when I walk into that damn place that cunt bartender perks up and asks, “Divorced yet?” It had become a running joke. Even Phil who has never been seen with a woman was in on it now. I had little choice but go there. There was only one other bar in this shit town and I ghosted on a rather elephantine tab. They’ve been calling me looking to settle up and even sent Bobby, the over sized nephew of the owner to shake me down at the Mobil station yesterday. It would be a secret from Maureen only a short time.
“I know the day I was let go-”
“Is that necessary?”
She didn’t answer.
I couldn’t see very far to my left as the street took a sharp turn and slipped away. It was for the best. That Indian man who had repeatedly called the cops on us lived up that way and the sight of him or his luxury car would send this already egregious day sailing right off a cliff. “Anyway I know that on that particular day we spent four hundred dollars,” I paused to let allow the power of the amount reverberate, “to redo Katelyn’s room, which to my eye was perfectly fine.”
“She needs to know things are stable.”
“Is that why I get up before the sun and waste my day avoiding my own god damn house? Applying for jobs from the library?”
Dropping myself into the front seat of the rusted out Dodge I avoided my daughter’s bedroom window and turned the key delicately, popped the beast into neutral and rolled down the driveway, cranking the steering wheel a hard right when it reached the street. I tried as best as I could to start the engine quietly and crept through the still slumbering neighborhood.
The route to the Federal Express Ship Center was artless and far. The two lane highway cut like a scythe through reaching stalks of corn and claustrophobic, dormant fields. Despite the autumn chill I kept the window down and the radio off. There were no other cars. No lone bike riders or joggers edging the shoulder. No sudden deer making a desperate break for it. The sun was pink like a halved grapefruit or bloodshot eye. Then without telling me it changed clothes and was a bright, some would say hopeful orange. Things are always doing that. Changing without giving notice. Katelyn has a birthday in two weeks. My wedding anniversary - my tenth wedding anniversary was in a month. (A fourth of my life had been spent with Maureen, a statistic terminal and unavoidable like an amputated stump.) A nuclear holocaust would have been less troubling.
I pulled into the Federal Express parking lot at 4:40. The building was a massive cement lung, pumping out gray air from two large smoke stacks and several smaller ones. As I entered one of the giant bay doors I was terrified that I would never be seen again, terrified that no one would care, or have anything good to say about me, that my funeral would be a series of awkward silences, and relief when it ended and roast beef sandwiches were brought out; a sense of panic rippled through me: perhaps I didn’t have any real belongings, any friends, connections that mattered, perhaps I was not a good man.
I was directed into a cramped room with a single outdated computed blinking anxiously at me.
“You’ll have forty-five minutes. The instructions are next to the computer,” the man said and exited.
I finished in twenty-three minutes. That was bound to impress somebody. It briefly impressed me. I guess you could say I had lowered the bar on the expectations of my life.
A man in a blue uniform a different man from before a clipboard suffocating under his right arm and whose belly was itching to make an escape from the bottom of his shirt, burst into the small room a few minutes after I had completed the assessment.
“There seems to be something on your background check that will prohibit us from hiring you.”
I sat in my car and methodically smoked a cigarette. I was nauseous and furious with myself. For getting my hopes up, again. For having to disappoint my wife once more and dash our future (as she will no doubt point out) upon the rock of that late, late night and its ensuing bad judgment (did I have anything else anymore?) that is forever disinterestedly linked to me like an steel umbilical cord in some government database.
The dream, of course, was to have a moment of reckoning. In this case having nearly reached my car I would turn march back through one of the yawning bay doors, through the bustle of activity, and zipping forklifts until I found the man directing a small crew of men knock the clipboard out of his hands and tell him to fuck off and march triumphantly to my car righting the wrong perpetrated upon me and through this small act transform my existence.
I pulled into a SuperAmerica picked up two dogs, slathered them in mustard and a forty ounce beer and headed over to Sarah’s tiny little house in Needmore. I sat in her driveway staring at the bedroom windows thinking about her lying in that bed (no doubt in a pair of black underwear and nothing more) that looked so much larger than it was because of how tiny Sarah was. It was the one place in the world that maybe I belonged or at least didn’t flat our reject me. I ate both hot dogs. I cracked open the beer and knocked on the front door.
“Sarah. Sarah, my little fuckbird, it’s me,” I whispered into the door.
I went at it for some time, past the point when it was obvious, despite her car in the drive that she was home, had grown tired of me (that was apparent the last few times) and wasn’t answering the door. Making my way to the end of the driveway I sat on the curb and drank my beer laughing at the passing mothers and children and the embarrassment my presence caused them. They weren’t seeing some lost saint. Eventually (there’s always an eventually with me) a neighbor like a Greek God in human form appeared on the opposite side of the street and stood imposingly, silent. I laughed even louder, chugged the rest of the beer and tossed the empty husk at his feet where it shattered unceremoniously and left.
I directed my car home. Refused to acknowledge any notion of time or the context of my situation. I drove fast, reckless towards my home. Because in the end where else does a man run to? Despite my wife’s long grown cold heart, the eventual exile by my daughter, and all the Sarah’s in the world – what else did I have? I was relieved when I turned the final corner of the final street to find Katelyn and her mother on the corner hand-in-hand waiting for the school bus, was overjoyed watching my daughter’s face explode into the grandest supernova smile as she saw me, and (this is how perverse the world and family and our place in it both is) was comforted by that scowl of complete derision of my wife, standing not even a foot to her left, as if that moment justified the reasons she would later, no doubt divorce me. I waved deliriously and screeched away.
It will come as no surprise to you, my wife and at some point, my daughter (when recounting this to some future husband, wife, bartender or therapist) that I ended up at that dank bar. I stormed the front door like it was god damn Normandy beach and was barely inside when Ole Bess, pulling a beer from the tap, glowering like the cat that ate the bird, asked, “Divorced yet?” and I punched her square in the jaw.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
NEVER TOO LATE FOR A COMEBACK
The television crew took over the study in the apartment of Juan Alvarez. Bright lights played over his bookcases, his floor-length globe, over his desk with massive piles of paper, some stained with coffee or cigarette ash, books with the pages marked with bookmarks poking out, and half-filled cups of coffee.
Alvarez wore his customary black beret and wiped his eyes with a white handkerchief. It was a good day for him. His old bones arose from his bed when his housekeeper, Helen, entered the room and told him breakfast was ready. With both hands, he drank orange juice from a wine glass, scooped up the poached egg on English muffin and sipped on his coffee with half and half. He enjoyed stirring it with a small spoon and viewing how the color changed.
They needed him. The world had forgotten him for forty years but now they were calling for him again. They needed a leader and who better than Juan Alvarez who had led a failed coup in his native country of Uruguay. His mind today was as sharp as it was back then, when he and his banditos, tried to wrest control from the latest dictator who was pilfering the tax rolls and leaving nothing for the paisanos. A machine gun drilled a hole in his knee which accounted for his slight limp.
After the failed coup, he escaped to the United States, was taken in by an aging aunt and uncle who lived in the Dominican section of New York City where the Spanish language pushed its rolling Rs over the side walks and fruit stands spilling over with their mangos and papayas, plantains and dark coffee beans and chocolata.
Alvarez was so depressed, he wished he were dead. He told no one. Gradually, over nine months as the leaves changed on the maple and ash trees, he returned to health and found a job at the Cartagena Book Store. A man of ideas, not only of rebellion, Alvarez upped the sales three-fold, as they hosted readings that were broadcast on the Spanish television stations across the country. Book orders flooded in. Soon he was promoted to assistant manager. And he, Juan Alvarez, gave readings about the coup, as he began to write his memoir, subsequently titled “From Farm Boy to Leader of a Revolution.”
A black-haired woman named Esther Katz was in charge of production in his apartment. A tiny, well-proportioned woman, she scurried about with great authority. “You will sit here during the interview,” she announced, pointing at the brown leather divan he never used. He looked quizzically at her, while she paid him no mind. Then she clipped a tiny black microphone on the inside of his blue-checked shirt and pinched his cheek.
“You remind me of my zayde,” she said. “My grandfather.”
He laughed and stared at her with his cloudy blue eyes, the eyes of an old man.
“What’s with your nails?” she asked.
He held up very long white nails.
“Si, with these I play the guitarra. Very well I play this instrument.” He pointed to a Les Paul guitar leaning against his desk. “I write,” he said, “and then I play.”
She explained to him that Mr. Robert Hernandez would interview him. Nowhere was he to be seen. Another quizzical look. But Esther was getting wound up and was unable to pay attention to him.
Suddenly Hernandez materialized with a great flurry of energy. A whirling dervish, thought Alvarez. He pumped Alvarez’s hands and stared at his long white nails.
“Spontaneity,” said Hernandez, “is the best way to interview you, sir. Shall we commence?”
“’Commence,’” thought Alverez. That was one of Hemingway’s words. From a farm boy who never read a book, who was illiterate until he came to the United States, where it was dishonorable not to know the native tongue, he was hungry to learn the new language and read all the famous authors. F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and so on. And he, Juan Alvarez, within ten years had written not only one novel, not only two novels, but was now writing his sixth.
“Relax your shoulders,” said Esther, who sat atop the old man’s desk and watched him on the divan.
“Take one!” she called. “We’ll do this in one take. And edit, if necessary. You’ll be fine, mon vieux,” she smiled.
Hernandez wore a charcoal gray suit with red tie. His black toupe looked quite natural and the old man couldn’t decide if it was real or was a “rug.” He made himself shut up and concentrate.
“How proud we are, ladies and gentlemen, to have the astonishing Juan Alvarez as our guest. You may remember him as leading a coup against one of Latin America’s great dictators – Lonnie Alejandro – of Uruguay – whose inhumane rule locked up thousands of political prisoners who were never seen again. Our guest got out alive, as you can see” – he paused for laughter from the unseen audience.
“You also know Mr. Alvarez for his many novels of magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez. We are pleased to have him on our program of ‘Great Hispanic Writers.’”
The camera shot a close-up of Alvarez, showing a man with large Buddha ears with the light shining upon them as if they were spectacular jewels and a fuzzy beard that gave him the look of an intellectual.
“Tell us, Mr. Alvarez….”
“Please to call me Juan,” he said with a loud “wh” for Juan.
Hernandez may have blushed, the old man wasn’t sure.
“How did you change from revolutionary leader to writer and author.”
Alvarez explained that he had expected to become the leader of “our beautiful mountainous country of Uruguay,” was terribly saddened when the coup failed, and needed to find meaning in his life. He late mother would read to him as a child, every night before bed, sitting at a little red desk next to his bed, and he
developed a taste for literature. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Adventures of Robin Hood. “If that’s not great literature,” he intoned in his accent, “I wonder what is.”
After a moment of silence, Alvarez laughed. “The finest magical realism.
“I went on to marry and father six children. My life seemed to expand like a parachute. From doing nothing in America, I was doing everything. Please, to hand me my guitarro.”
Hernandez followed Juan’s eyes and lifted up the chestnut-brown guitar.
“Look!” laughed Alvarez. “My little grandson, Maxwell – such a name she gives him – only three but he plays it better than me. That’s youth.”
Alvarez began to play. “You like ‘We Shall Overcome?’”
He played a few moments and so well the crew was astonished.
The audience across the country was waiting for questions about the recent presidential election, which Hernandez finally pressed upon him .
Alvarez broke out into laughter.
“Los Americanos couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Of course we – and I include myself in this for I am a proud American citizen – we got the politician we deserve to be our forty-fifth president. My little grandson, Maxwell, has photos of our new president across the mirror in his bedroom, along with his grandfather’s picture and his sister’s, La Princessa.”
“What do you think about the future of the world?”
“I am ninety-three years old, I believe. We’re never sure, you know. I won’t be here when the world floats into the sea and the dinosaurs return and not a man nor a woman is left. God always tries hard but in the end he fails. Adam and Eve were the wrong parents.”
He strummed on his guitar, a version of The Star Spangled Banner. Not exactly Jimi Hendrix but not Les Paul either.
“One more question, Mr. Alvarez.”
“I will guess what it is and answer it before you ask. My advice to anyone who wants to write is: read three great books. Anything by J D Salinger, ditto Anthony Doerr, and Flannery O’Connor for the quirks of God.”
He strummed a few notes.
“Keep a notebook in your pocket. I get the tiny mottled ones you buy at Staples and when an idea comes, capture it before it flies away like a mosquito. That’s all there is to it.”
The camera soloed on Juan Etienne Jorge Alvarez who sat dreamily with eyes closed. In fact. he was fast asleep.
Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist, editor and photographer based in New York City. Fiction is published in The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, The Solidago Journal, West Trade Review, Paraphilia and Visions Libres.
Photo: Donna Rich
“In order to know the devil, you must first understand him. By understanding, it is nothing more than looking into a mirror in darkness and standing before it until you dissolve into your reflection. Subsume is the word; you become your darkness. Yes, that is the devil. The devil is you.”
Eddie’s earnestness and intensity was atypical, but so was his drinking Johnny Red neat, the fingers nervously turning the barrel glass grasped in two hands scraping the scuffed oak corner table as we sat chattering away.
I responded, “I see you are paraphrasing Jung, again. Red Book, I gather. Liber Novus, pretty pictures and illuminations, or perhaps the reader’s edition, all pimped out in a plastic cover and reading ribbon in order to look like the fucking Bible.” I was already into my second drink, and the dullness of getting drunk.
Eddie took note, “Yeah. Whatever you say. However, in the subsuming into his being, you become humanized. At least that’s what I think. Remember what Helen used to say—‘we are only human’—this, she would say before doing something to fuck you over again.”
He had a point. Regarding Helen, anyway. She’s the mistress of using precursive self-justification before dropping something really stupid on my lap to deal with, using those very words before, during and after engaging in some behavior that made me look stupid for being with her. I finally got sick of that, so she was out of my life. But, yes, we are all only human. She is more human than most, and I am paid to be less of the other, but that comes from our jobs.
Why Eddie brought Helen up is because he wanted to hurt me by deflecting my subtle insult toward his intelligence. I didn’t have much respect for it, and he knew after a couple of drinks it came out. Yes, I don’t need a mirror to know the devil; expensive scotch does just fine to reveal to me what a bastard I am, thank you. The Balevine is my mirror and though expensive, is better than standing in the dark with my dick hanging out.
I had no worries of such justifications from Eddie, for he was as straight as they came; as in straight line, or, better described, a descending arrow reflective of a rocket with poor propulsion engineering.
He is, however, a bit messed up; messed up being attention deficit disorder, and the medication begins to wear off after lunch. He also tends to drink on said meds, me catching him once a couple of years ago downing them with a beer at a bar. So he’s perpetually nervous, and often prone to stress attacks, generally pushed by our shared supervisor, another piece of work with more issues than The New York Times. Also, he tends to talk so fast that he is practically incoherent at times. Fortunately, however, he is mellowed out with the cheap ass scotch, and I can understand him, though not really wanting to, but since I am his friend and a captive audience I have no choice in the matter. He is paying the check; therefore, I endure.
We continue to discuss whatever was on his mind. When he drinks, he is more focused, but after too many drinks, Eddie becomes an opinionated blowhard asshole, and edgy—like he would reach across and attack you physically if you give the wrong response to anything he says. For example, our politics diverge dramatically at the fork between the sublime and the ridiculous.
I tend to try not thinking about things I cannot do anything about. I find myself nodding in agreement with just about anything he has to say in an avoidance ritual that, while I disliked greatly, served a wise purpose at my age. I don’t like conflict anymore, unless I find it a direct threat. He is not a direct threat not by any stretch of the imagination, his being from A to B, however, when I do wish to offer an opinion, it is usually a well placed thought serving to divert his attention. I learned it well long before he arrived in my life. After these scotches, it was vital to maintain that poise.
As I said, I never really liked doing this, but again, I had no choice in the matter. This was sad; wishing I had a different life, but this is the one I ended up having. Sitting here getting drunk with a person I don’t like very much. That’s not even tragic, so I am on thin ice to complain. Yet, I wish I could move on to the land of elsewhere and elsewhen, a place where there aren’t any people with problems, or I have the tools and courage to deal with them and not inflict on any others.
I would find such a place liberating, indeed. Like unicorns and virgins, and those who love you without question, there is no such place. Never was, this elsewhere and elsewhen; no heaven or hell, either. The paradise, I fear, is when we grant ourselves the privilege of dreaming as we sleep, and sadly, we often only remember the fragments, and usually not the best parts. As I sat across the table, I felt an urgency to go; to leave into the city and try to enjoy the Indian summer warmth before the cold front arrived the following evening.
I managed to finish my drink and convinced my so-called friend that he had had enough. I managed to get him on to the 1 train at Christopher Street uptown to the Port Authority, and turned and headed east toward the Hudson River. When I got to Hudson Street, I reached into my bag, pulled my Nikon point and shoot camera from its case, and adjusted the settings. I snapped off a few test shots, making sure I had enough street light to avoid using the flash, and satisfied with the results, I put the camera strap over my head, holding the Nikon steady and tight against my chest, as I walked north toward West 14th Street.
The Nikon is a small digital camera with twelve pixels of memory and a wide-angle len to make it easier to photograph people in the street without much suspicion. In the months since I began photographing street scenes, people, and the architecture of Manhattan, I learned that I am not totally invisible in that regard; people, at least more than a few, do have a subconscious awareness of the camera, and on occasion despite my best efforts, I am caught photographing someone. Once, a young woman gently grasped my wrist, and calmly, politely said, “Delete that.” I held up the camera for her to see the preview, and responded certainly as I erased it from the camera card. What she didn’t know is I shot another photo of her earlier. It sits in a folder somewhere on my laptop, and remains one of my favorite photographs.
However, I do not like that term, capture. You do not catch a photograph—you take one, and the intention is to create a work of art in the process, its value subjective to creator and to the viewer. Each day and evening I go out with the camera this process is to me both a means of expressing my creativity and a personal means of escape, particularly from the Eddies of the world. I do not consider myself the hunter, only if that what I am seeking is only the expressive manifestations of life itself, the mundane surroundings of where I go to and from; its emotions, angles, lines, shadows and light. Architecture urbane in its starkness, whether realistic or pretentious ,is only part of what appeals to me.
Several years ago I began by taking photos of the buildings in Greenwich Village, the high angles, spires and cornices reaching for the sky. More recently, in the last year or so, I began to populate these urban spaces with people, finding that there is a reaction, a response, to the urban environment around them. People in the morning, half-asleep, still in their daydreams, hopeful still for the day ahead, and in the evening, run down by the workaday, hopes faded, diminished by realism, dreams deferred as one can discern in their expressions, tired, worn and used.
They passed beneath the skyline approaches that I exposed with my camera as if ants scurrying up the streets. I became more confident and less timid, they grew larger as I photographed closer, tighter. I grew nearer to these people I passed, photographing them using my field of vision—my eyes—the camera positioned at my chest, snapping away, while in passing on the sidewalk.
I rarely use the viewfinder; I want to maintain that respect for their privacy by not intruding openly, instead, furtively, as a voyeur, or more accurately, an observer scribbling notes through pictures from the view of a passerby.
The first and only impression, only going as deep as what lies bare in their gestures, body language, eyes, sensing the feeling they unknowingly express to me as they walk by. But again, I believe that with so many of them, there is a hint of awareness. My initial motivation was to become more aware of my surroundings; lately it is because I am drawn by the possibility that in creation, I am conjuring a certain possible magic in this regard.
How do I know? I just do, another line I remember Helen using in the days when we were together, memories faded to journal pages and occasional recollections, dissolving to nothing as I snap a photograph of a woman crossing Perry Street, her tan trench coat open, scarf collected at her neck, arms swinging gracefully, with her head turned in a three-quarter profile with a determined expression on her face. I could say it was her mood, depending on what she felt she was walking toward, or regarding what she was leaving behind in her mind, but perhaps she glanced momentarily at my chest, and saw my hand over the Nikon, thumb pressed over the shutter, and she chose to expose a little of herself, her mood—who she is at that very moment, or in general. Strong-minded this figure on her approach, and I wondered after her passing, pausing to look down at the preview screen, if she went back to the face she held before I prepared to take her photo; expressionless, a little sad.
Younger than yesterday and not at all sure of herself, unlike the woman I supposedly ensnared in pixels, later to be processed in Adobe Lightroom, made into a black and white photo, printed on eight by ten glossy, filed in a folder, while the electronic image later stored in an external drive.
As I walk north on the cracked sidewalk, crossing pavement and the remaining brick streets in the Village, I segue into my natural daily rhythm as a street photographer, snapping features of passers-by, some interesting, but not as much as the woman crossing Perry Street. Still, I am at peace, forgetting liquor and Eddie, my work day, Helen, my mesh of boundaries and incipient fears, and just letting go. I am happy, imbued with a sense of creative satisfaction.
I do not think much about technical perfection. I make an effort, and daily learn to do more, and better. Albeit, I only think forward to the next photograph. Whatever I accomplish in terms of what makes what I created good is not up to me, and slowly I plod toward completing a portfolio to present to galleries, and upload online to photographic competitions.
Only I know when I am ready for it. I know I am not, just yet. Until then, I move in the darkness, with the street lamps and light reflected from the automobiles and the apartments and shops providing the basis for my canvas along with the sidewalks, buildings and streets for the figures of this city I paint with my thumb pressing the shutter, my left hand holding the camera steady. Some I will know I have missed, most I will not have correctly. I realize I can get it right at a future time, another day or evening, sometime. Never worried, and I don’t let a failure bother me. Losing Helen will continue to bother me for longer, but never does at the end. In the long run, people matter more than art.
Satisfied mainly because of the photo of the woman in the trench coat, I stop taking pictures when I reach the corner at 14th Street. I put the Nikon in my bag and wait at the bus stop. On the M14 bus ride home, I stare out watching the urban carnival pass. I decide to get off at Union Square, and take out my camera again to take photos of the Hare Krishnas performing at the corner. I get down on my knees and take some full frame photos through the viewfinder, mainly of an aging blond dancing to their music. I purposely go for slow exposures, her arms, legs swirling against the lights from the shopping mall across the street. I felt alive, a part of something, though distant I am not in isolation, feeling a sense of belonging this evening that I did not at the bar trying to have a conversation with Eddie, or in the past with Helen—at least not in a long time.
When finished, I make my way through the crowd, surreptitiously as is my wont, snapping images of chess players, lovers, homeless caging quarters, guitarists and tourists, until I reach the triangle park across the street. Returned into my bag, the Nikon lays at the bottom as I make my way home.
After I arrive, I make a fresh pot of coffee. I turn on my laptop, and insert the card from my camera. I make my way through the Lightroom collection of the night’s work to the photo of the woman in the trench coat. I pause to stare.
Upon closer inspection, I discover she is staring directly at me, having turned her face, but keeping her gaze on me. She knew. Not assumed subconsciously, she was fully aware of me and my Nikon. As the other street photographers I met since I began this informal project say on occasion, the hunter was captured. While I never think in those terms, I see this image for what I feel it truly is, which is this was a connection, and a story attempting to be told. She felt a link and wanted to convey a notion of a narrative, and I guess I did as well, considering how I felt afterward.
I looked again at her expression. She looked confident, but in her eyes I detected a hint of apprehension, possibly of revealing too much or thinking momentarily that there was a connection—a two-ended arrow as a fine line from her eyes to mine when they met as I clicked the shutter. Will I see her again? Probably not, but I will remember her and that is the point, this much is for certain. She, crossing Perry Street, aged mid-40s, medium build, five-five, with blond strands flying across her brows as she turns slightly away from me. Still pretty and now remains so, remembered, and yes, I must admit, captured.
Thus is the magic I have conjured, and am reminded that although Jung also wrote about magicians in the Red Book, and perhaps when out in the street, I am one; changing a person with my presence magically by the mere fact that I have a camera strapped loosely about my neck.
Maybe Eddie is correct without actually realizing it, as he was half-drunk talking. While the devil you know is the one I recognize as myself, I am too shy to lead anyone to temptation, but with these images I deliver them from evil, and keep them filed in my own purposeful innocence.
For a moment, a second, I represented temptation. I saw the ring.
Willow Schafer is a full-time honor student pursuing classical archaeology while following her other passions of writing and art which she’s had since she was a child. She has spent much of her time volunteering at Sarasota Country Library and attending her local art center in Southwest Florida. Some of her published work can be found in the Elektraphrog Literary and Arts magazine. She is also working on getting her first science-fiction novel published.
Anima Ex Machina
This was a man with everything to live for. He was from a wholesome family, he was healthy, happy, even had a pregnant wife. The mother of this man was as proud as ever, often badgering her daughter to why she could not be more like her brother. Everyone always wore such perfect smiles, especially the mother’s son. This was his last weekend here with her, before he left for Africa for volunteer work.
A week later, the mother was hunched over her morning coffee as her daughter made breakfast. The son would be gone for about two or three months, and she wondered if he would return just in time to see his child born. Every night she would burn a single candle by the window, piercing the dark like the eye of God. The eye of God was not awake now in the morning light. She watched her daughter scurry around the kitchen, her body boney and pale, always wearing long-sleeves to hide the needle puncture marks on her arms. How could the mother have two such different children? One perfect, and the other… some drug addict. The daughter stopped in front of the coffeemaker. “Stop looking at me like that. Like I’m just some shadow.”
The mother rested her hand under her chin. “You’re my daughter, not a shadow. You only act like a shadow, and that’s what is so shameful.”
“What else about me do you think is so shameful? My decisions? Or is it this?” She tapped a cracked fingernail beneath her eyes. Her daughter had not been born with blue eyes, but brown. Not long ago one of her daughter’s drug deals had gone wrong and her dealer came at her with a knife to her eyes. But the daughter didn’t stay blind for long because she always knew how to scrape up money anytime she really needed it. She got herself some synthetic sensory prosthetics so she could see again. New eyes. The mother did not agree with such things. It didn’t matter if they helped people. They were inhuman.
The phone rang. The daughter answered and the way her expression dropped told that something was wrong. “It’s him,” she said. “He’s back.”
“How’s that possible?” asked the mother. “It’s too soon.”
At the city hospital they found the son hooked up to many medical machines. The doctors said he had picked up some disease from Africa and it was attacking his organs. Her son was going to die. “No,” the mother said. “No, don’t let him die, you can’t. I’ll pay for anything you can do to save him. An organ transplant, can’t you do that?” They said no. But they had one last option.
“We can make a fabricated organ transfer,” said a doctor. “Your son’s best chance at survival is if we replace his failing organs with fully artificial ones.”
The mother felt frozen. She could feel her daughter’s eyes on the back of her head. Fake eyes, inhuman eyes. Was it even her daughter’s gaze at all? What about her son…? Her perfect son. It was just some internal organs. No one would ever know just by looking at him. But how much of her son would still be left? She couldn’t think like that. Not with him. He would still be her son. “Yes,” she said. “Do it.”
And her perfect son was still alive. The mother insisted that he live with her until he was fully recovered. She kept lighting that candle in the window just for him. The candle looked like a star from outside. “Keep that star burning,” the son said while out walking with her, “and I’ll always be here for you.”
Time went by and the son was getting stronger. Soon he insisted that the mother had taken care of him enough and he went back with his wife to their house down the street. A few days passed and everything was wonderful. But the mother could not sleep soundly one night. She called her son but there was no answer. He always answered, no matter how late it was. Paranoia gnawed at the mother’s mind and she ended up at her son’s doorstep, knocking. Finally, the door swung carelessly open and she saw her son slumped against the wall holding a bloody tissue to his reddened mouth, looking like he was about to pass out. “Mother,” he croaked before collapsing to the ground.
The doctors said the disease had unexpectedly spread further into his system. Again, just when things seemed to be looking up, he was dying all over again. More organs were failing. His blood was not circulating properly and his feet were sickeningly blackened. They would have to be amputated. Modern prosthetics were only realistic to a point, but they could never quite master the real texture of living human skin. She couldn’t do it. She could not let her son become some… factory-made abomination. But all the doctors said he would die tonight if they did not make the transfers immediately. She couldn’t imagine that, for her son to be gone in an instant. It was so wrong. But he was her only son. “Do it,” she said.
Her daughter would not talk with her anymore. The mother didn’t care. All she could think about was her son and all his prosthetics. She held onto his hand as he struggled to remain conscious. His whole torso was lined with horrific scars, and even with a fake heart he was still smiling. “It’s all alright,” he said. “I’m here.”
Things kept getting worse. The disease was trapped within his system and it kept spreading no matter what the doctors did. The mother broke down in the hall outside the operating room, sobbing because she had somehow agreed to let the doctors cut out as much of her son as was necessary to keep him alive. What was he anymore? Some scarecrow stuffed with fancy technology all as some poor substitute of keeping him human. She had tried to lie to herself in the beginning. Just a few organs, he was still human, pure. What was the point until he wasn’t human anymore?
Her daughter stopped in front of her in the hallway, looking down at her. “I can’t believe you,” she said distastefully. “You’re biggest grudge against me has been about my eyes. Fake eyes. But when it’s him you don’t care what they do just as long as they keep him alive.”
“It’s still him,” the mother sobbed. “He’s still my son.”
“And I’m your daughter. But I guess that never really meant much to you. Never human enough, I guess.” The daughter left the mother alone in the corridor.
Weeks of recovery time went by horrifically slowly. Every night the mother would go back to her house to light that single candle in the window. The disease was worse than the doctors could have ever expected. Surgery after surgery, they took out more every time. Did real blood even run through her son’s veins anymore? She did not know. The only thing left of her son was his brain. That was all that mattered. The anima was within the brain. The soul. The soul had been known religiously for thousands of years, but only recently was it scientifically recognized as the main administrator of the electrical impulses of the brain, truly defining what made a person a person. As long as that was safe, everything was okay.
She found it sad when her son’s wife went into labor and had the baby in the same hospital he was having surgery in. It was a boy without a name. Only a few moments after the baby was born, a doctor came and told her there were more complications with her son. At that, she almost collapsed.
She could see her son though the window of the operating room door. A machine with a soul. He was not horrific, he looked human enough, but there was something about his unnaturally smooth artificial skin that was so unnerving. Too perfect. Her beautiful son. The disease had spread to his brain. She thought she would have cried and screamed or done something, but she had already done all of that.
A brain transfer was necessary. An artificial anima transplant. Somehow technology made it possible to syphon her son out of a human brain and into… whatever mass they planned to implant into his head. Then nothing human would be left. Was that true, even if he still had all his thoughts and memories? Would it still be her son, or would he already be dead and she would just be talking with a shadow? She couldn’t do it. Let her son die while he could still be called human. But then she thought of his wife and the baby. The wife would be so eager to see her husband again so he could see his son for the first time. She told the doctors to perform the surgery, but she could not bear to be in the hospital any longer so she went home and burned a candle.
Her son came home next week. He did not have any disease anymore. He was cured. He was a machine. He was her son. He did not come to her first like she thought he would. He stayed at his own house with his wife for a while, and the mother did not visit him because she was… unsure. Her daughter had moved out and she was alone in her house. She wondered if it was possible for her son to die now, and if he did die would his artificial soul be able to travel anywhere, or would it be trapped in his fake skull forever?
The mother often watched from outside her window but did not leave her house. Sometimes she could see her son wandering around with the baby in his arms. He did not smile like he used to. The son never glanced at his mother’s house when he passed it. She never left her house, she was terrified of what was out there, all the things that might or might not be human. Was her son still out there? She was still lighting that abominable candle every single night at the front window, letting it burn out in the dark, a beacon for her lost son to come home. Come home.
One night he came home. The mother saw him standing on her lawn, slightly illuminated by the light of the moon. His false face quite looked like him. Blond, blue-eyed, fair, with laugh-lines around the mouth that were not used so often anymore. His eyes glinted blankly in the night, catching on the distant light of the candle from the window. “Mother,” he said. “I’m here.”
The mother stared at the man on her lawn. She wet her fingers, putting out the candle, and she closed the curtains.
Grey Traynor is a west coast playwright and novelist. He's currently editing his novel about a copycat criminal.
I taught my daughter better than white roses. This church looks like a goddamn rerun of Melrose Place.
And if their first dance is to “Kiss From a Rose,” I am going to urp my breakfast, all half a bagel and eight cigarettes of it. Hell, I would love a smoke right now.
Why do I have to pee again? Did I have a coffee? Oh God, that syrupy twenty-ounce gas station concoction...
Is. That... Don't reach down and touch it, Sadie, just look...
Jesus fucking Christ, my daughter has a white velvet aisle runner.
The classic New England church of modest architecture houses thousands of white roses wrapped in gilded-silver ribbon. Attached to the end of each pew, bouquets link together with fluffy white tool.
At the altar, Father Michael McClaren shares a smile with chiseled groom Jason Pierce as they watch the giggly wedding party sweep down the aisle and join them.
The final couple splits, joining the other bridesmaids and groomsmen, and the congregation stands. In the third row of pews, on the bride's side, Sarah “Sadie” Whitney jiggles her right leg as her daughter comes down the aisle in a tight-bodice, drop-waist wedding gown arm in arm with Sadie's once husband.
At least the dress fits her nicely. Too bad it doesn't go with her décor.
Michael looks fatter. A lot fatter, in fact... He's definitely fatter.
I'm sure Jenny's been plying him with croissants. “Hi, I'm Jenny of Jenny's Patisserie. It's so nice to meet you.” Ugh, what a cunty introduction. Just say, “Hi, I'm that thirty-year-old with a diamond encrusted wedding band fucking your ex-husband.”
She added the fourth non-existent syllable in 'patisserie' like some brainless, well-manicured American waif. As if Googling “bakery synonym” just to set herself apart from the Panera two blocks doqn actually counts. Foregoing any French accent was smart though, I would have socked her.
Let this be a quick one, Lord, I don't think I can hold it.
Almost to the aisle, with her dirty-blonde hair locked into a tight bun, Sylvia spies her mother and smiles softly, eyes bright with incredulity.
I can't believe it either, kid...
I didn't think you wanted to know me after all the therapy and soul-searching you went through. In California, no less!
I'm sorry you want, nay, beg for answers about all the fights with your father, the breakdown, the reclusiveness, the other breakdown. I can't give you what you want. I'm a mess.
I'm just not a giver. Your father can give, at least to you and Jenny's Glorified Fucking Bread.
When I stumbled upon the save the date in the mail and then the invitation, I was just a ghost starting out my meager retirement and trying to Zumba to feel something.
Now I'm a ghost in a lavender skirt suit still sore from that Zumba class six months ago, jostling about to avoid erupting crappy holiday coffee all over this pew.
Sadie nods to her daughter. With a squeeze of her father's hand, Sylvia focuses back on the altar before her and her husband-to-be.
Father McClaren asks everyone to be seated as the last notes of the organ's “Wedding March” drift into the hallowed limestone.
An hour later, after all the wedding party's Bible passages and Father McClaren's sage advice, Jason and Sylvia begin the ring exchange. Sadie's right leg now shakes with the velocity akin to a seismograph during a whopper. “Will you please cut that out,” whispers the man sitting next to her. Sarah's leg rests.
If this Quaker Oats looking asshole only knew what I was saving him from. How does even know Sylvia... He looks like the mailman.
Sadie. Look at your daughter. Concentrate on what you brought into this world. Focus on that. Isn't she beautiful? I always tell her to wear her hair down, but she never listens. Even when she was a kid, it was always ponytail, ponytail, ponytail. She must see that she has my mousy ears!
Please declare the couple already. Please, fucking God! I know it's your House, but I would really not like to piss all over your furniture!
“Stop it,” says the Quaker Oats mailman in Sadie's ear. Her right leg had started up again, more rapid this time.
“I am the bride's birth mother, asshole, and I paid for this wedding so I will do whatever I goddamn please.” Someone shushes them from behind despite this incident unperceived by the wedding party. Sylvia and Jason have exchanged rings and now Father McClaren is building up to the big announcement. Closing her eyes and biting her lip, Sadie's head begins to shake with her leg.
He'll never know I didn't put down a cent for this wedding. Please hurry. What is he gonna do, ask the bride and groom? Please hurry. Please hurry. Please hurry. I can't pee on my daughter's wedding, not literally. This can't happen. Not today. I won't see the grandkids. I wasn't that bad of a mother; I don't deserve this. Not today. Not today!
“I now pronounce you man and wife!” booms Father McClaren.
The organ starts up as Jason holds his wife's head and they kiss. Everyone in the congregation stands as the newlyweds make their way down the aisle, wedding party in tow.
Oh. God. I was that bad of a mother.
Sadie awkwardly removes her white one-inch pumps using her toes whilst clapping along with everyone else, a fragile, wide-eyed look on her face. All the guests in their respective pews have turned away from the aisle, shuffling to the cocktail hour as fast as they can. Sadie looks down.
Good news... The skirt will live. There's just a cloudy circle, but it looks like you can cover it with your purse. Good. Very good. Bad news is that you wet yourself at your daughter's wedding and you need to step away from the scene of the crime. Also, these soaked pair of panties need to come off before the yeast infection.
As for the puddle... that's in God's hands.
Sadie's pew spills into the rest of the crowd and after nearly ten minutes of inching and dodging people from her old married life in the aisles and the foyer, she spots the restroom door.
“Sadie! Sadie Barnes?” a voice calls out. One hand on the bathroom door, Sadie turns around.
Fuck. Marjorie Kline.
“It's been ages!” says Marjorie from across the foyer, heading her way.
“I just need a second, hon,” says Sadie. She gestures to her face. “I'm a little emotional.” Sadie slips into the bathroom and grabs a handful of paper towels, wetting them. She looks under the stalls.
The disabled stall is open! Hallelujah! Bless all the ass-kissing WASPs present for telling the bride how beautiful she looks and how lucky they are to be her best friend before relieving their own bladders. I'll run out to J. Crew the minute I can to show my patronage and appreciation.
Sadie locks the stall door and exhales.
Nobody knows. Nobody saw. They were looking at your beautiful daughter. As long as everyone continues on to the reception, everything will be just fine. The church janitorial staff, if there's even such a thing, will just come in, find the puddle, have a lot of unanswered questions, and they'll clean it up. It's not their job to ask questions. They're like taxi drivers that way, tight-lipped and full of stories.
“Sadie, darling, you have yourself a cry and I'll just be waiting out here,” Marjorie says through a cracked bathroom door.
“Yep,” says Sadie, the crying-wail in her voice both feigned and blissfully real.
Wiped down and newly commando, Sadie exits the bathroom with a sigh of relief to find Marjorie chatting Michael's ear off. He sees her and shoots Sadie a look of desperation. She turns toward the church exit with a wry smile.
Jason and Sylvia are stationed at the church doors thanking and hugging those in attendance.
That's my girl. Get the mandatory thank you's done so you don't have to make the rounds at the reception. That way, when you're drunk and full of life, you'll have enough free time and thought to request “Hotel California” for the 3rd time.
“Hi, mom,” Sylvia says, taking her mother into a big hug. “Can you believe it?”
“Yeah. I really can, kiddo.”
They pull away and both wipe at their eyes.
“Syl, this is your mother?”
Such a stupid question and he used that godawful nickname. I would have named her Syl if I wanted people to call her that. That is, if I named my daughter after a window component.
“Yes! Jason, this is my mother, Sarah.”
“Please, everyone calls me Sadie.”
“Well, Sadie, you raised a hel, whoops, a heck of a woman.”
“Thank you, Sylvia, for leaving out all the bad parts.”
Sylvia puts her hand on her mother's shoulder. “Mom, could I just speak to you in private for a second.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
Fuck. She knows.
“Jason, honey, I'll be right back.”
“Don't go all runaway bride on me!”
“Promise.” Sylvia pecks him on the lips.
They trot down the church stairs and settle beside a potted tree.
“He seems very charming,” says Sadie.
“He's very good to me. I'm very lucky to have him.”
“And he's very lucky to have you.”
Looking at her feet, Sylvia sighs. “Mom...”
Oh God. Here it comes. “Mom. You pissed on my wedding.”
“Mom, I saw you out of the corner of my eye during the ceremony...”
I've committed the worst, most bizarre betrayal. This will be in textbooks.
“You seem to have finally gotten it.”
“What?” Sadie asks a tad too loud.
“I mean, I've been trying to tell you for years that my whole life you just never seemed to care that much about me. You were always so wrapped up in your own stuff, which is fine but growing up I felt like you never cared, like there was no time for me. And seeing you in the crowd, concentrated so fully on me and the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, well, I could feel your support, Mom. I could feel your love from where you were sitting. H-honestly, I didn't think you would even come and now I can't imagine you not being here. It's just so... So ni-” Sylvia's face scrunches. Shocked, Sadie pauses before rushing to embrace her daughter.
“Honey, don't cry. You got a million pictures to take. But I know, sweetheart. I know.” Wild-eyed, she rubs her daughter's back.
Thank, Jehovah! I understand that after this I have no more luck in this life and I am totally fine with that.
“Sylvia!” says a woman from afar. Sadie and her daughter break the hug. A bridesmaid, holding up her floor-length dress, flounces down the stairs over to them. “Sylvia, have you been crying?”
“No, she's doing just fine,” says Sadie, exchanging a bright smile with her daughter.
“Megan, this is my mother, Sadie.”
“Lovely to meet you,” Megan says, then, turning quickly to Sylvia, “Jason wants to do photos in the church now so his nana can go back to the nursing home sooner rather than later.”
“Well, I'm ready when he is,” Sylvia says.
“Great! But, um, I should tell you...” Megan steals a glance at Sadie and then rests her gaze back on Sylvia. She leans toward Sylvia and blocks her mouth with her hand.
This close. I was this close and now it's all fucking over thanks to this harried, uppity-
“One of the kids peed on your aisle runner,” Megan whispers.
This woman is a godsend! She is God! I hope she's maid of honor. She deserves it. I want her to be my next maid of honor. All hail, Megan and her deductive skills!
“Oh no, are they sick?” Sylvia asks.
“I don't know. I can't figure out which one of 'em did it.”
“Ah kids, so prone to accidents,” says Sadie, “I'm sure the parents brought a change of clothes. Great advice for anyone thinking about children.”
“Note taken. Now, we've got to get this bride ready for some photos!” says Megan, taking Sylvia's hand.
“Are you coming, Mom?”
Those eyes... It's been so long since they weren't steely or constantly cutting in my presence. Look at me with that need and tender care forever. I'll try to do whatever, be whatever, just to see that look of yours because I love you. You are my daughter. The baby I rocked to sleep. The young child I helped with her multiplication tables. The radiant woman I now see on her wedding day who wants to take a photo with her unraveled, exhausting mother. My daughter, the beautiful bride, her handsome, dorky husband, my loser ex-husband, and me, panty-less, posing in a Church that, mere minutes ago, I defiled.