by Ben Seanor

Michael Collins

Alone in the cabin, waiting

for the Earth to rise, you could feel

solitude expanding, passing

through you (how curious

the body) like the queasing waves

of radiation stars greet us with.


I know you were not the most

alone since Adam, but more so—

you could remember someone

needing to touch your body.

You listened, unsure

how to respond, as Armstrong

and Aldrin walked the surface,

and still the small emptiness

we wish we could end

with words or experience.

Did your mind leap

to deer lining the road home

late at night, their heads tipping

up to see they do not need

to know you? I cannot find

how the light you shone

showed some meaningful curve

to aloneness for any of us

who have spent the day in bed,

the phone off, the light off,

the day off.   

I have heard my father

call my name from the hall,

tell me dinner is ready, and found

it was only a dream of him

alive that woke me. After the dream,

Michael, I had to get up.

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Ben Seanor's poems have appeared in, among other places, The
; Yes, Poetry; Colorado Review; and Cimarron Review. He lives in
Texas and works in higher education.

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by Emily Jalloul


to hope, consider, look attentively

as in:
my name—
which he chose,
which means my hope.
consider the cedar tree,
how it burdens itself
weighed down with cones
filled with seeds
it hopes will grow
wherever they land.
I stand by one of  these
ancient trees with loops and arches
deep in the bark and watch
as he photographs
a poppy, his old body bent
toward the small red flower.
sun to his back, he stands
and looks at me attentively
through his camera, asks me
to take off  my sunglasses
to look up, to open my eyes.
My lids close in the light
as I try to stare back at his eyes
which are like my own, more green
and blue than brown, framed
always by wire-rimmed glasses
I remember grabbing as a child,
small fingers leaving impressions on the glass.
he wants me to know steadiness,
to feel the permanence in our blood.
he clicks the shutter a dozen times
as I blink, light falling
through the canopy onto the ground
like a thousand lenses reflecting.

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Emily Jalloul is a Lebanese-American poet and PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee where she serves as editor for Grist: AAeb Journal of Literary Arts. Her previous work has been published or is forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry ReviewAquiferBlue Earth ReviewJukedOriginsThe FEM, and The Offing, as well as others.

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by Ryan Rattliff

You Find God. You Find God.

on a Saturday morning in your favorite park, outrunning yourself
on the advice of someone who used to love you. It’s all in your head,
your body is fine. Listen to your body. You stretch yourself a mile
down the path, only stopping to witness the water.

summertime and Florida bound, dancing along the shore just
before midnight. Do you know how dark the beach gets at night?
How the ocean never ever ends? Fearless, fearless.

at the mouth of the golden gate bridge on a rainy day. You drop
a penny from the side and watch the slip of copper until you can’t.
You don’t get the urge to crawl over, not even once. The sun comes
out to congratulate you on how far you’ve come. Really, how far
you have come.

in a field, there are wildflowers. The tallest one is the color of
a cloud’s underbelly at sunset. That’s the one.

midday on a bluff, with the sun at your back, winded and tender
from the hike. In autumn, in spring, in love.

at sunrise, the billowing steam from the building across the way
cuts through the sky. It’s dreamy and your morning view at least
half of the week when you are 29 and reeling. You are just weeks
sober and your body knows it in ways you wish it didn’t. No one
ever taught you to feel a feeling out right, but you’ll learn. At least
now you know where to look.

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Ryan (she/her) is a Black and queer emerging storyteller fluent in poetry, prose, and playwriting. Her work centers the familiarity of intimacy, grief, and healing in the human experience. She resides in Middle Tennessee, where she is working on her first poetry collection. Her writing appears in Room Magazine and is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom Magazine. Her work can be found on Instagram @_darlingryan.

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by Grace Day

Falling Knives Have No Handles

I am sweeping the kitchen clean of tens of thousands
of tiny corpses. I am sleeping in the bathtub and the water
is overflowing, you are chopping zucchini, red peppers,
green onions. It is your turn to make breakfast, it is my turn
to make breakfast, the kitchen needs a fresh coat of paint, you put
fans in every window and one on the dresser. We are eating ice cream
sundaes in bed. I part my hair, part my lips and unfurl myself
in the space between a tongue and September. You & I
are reaching for our former life, somewhere on a front porch
swing, reaching for the falling knives. I am counting the bones
in our bed like cold days in November, I am burying sorrow,
half dead, in the backyard. The left side of the bed / yours.
The sharper edge of the blade / mine. Each time we sleep,
we are dreaming, of empty hands and clean kitchens, each
time we wake up, we lie, halfway between dreaming and leaving.

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Grace is a poet from Ohio. She has two cats and a degree from The Ohio State University.

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by Leah De Forest


Sit up straight. Chew carefully. Today is the day you’re meeting them—the family who read about you on a bulletin board and offered to help. They have a long low house designed by an architect (him). Angular windows and muted colors. She, the mother, has styled gray hair and namelessly expensive clothes.

Natural fibers.

Steam-crisp vegetables.

Multigrain bread.

You are eating a salad sandwich, full of crunchy things and juices that gather in the corners of your mouth. Don’t worry, they say. The mayo is homemade.

Today you’re meeting two of them—the mother, Laura, and the youngest daughter, Fi (pronounced fee, short for Aoife, which they pronounce ay-oh-fee). Fi is 14, a year younger than you. You sit in the open-plan promontory of their dining room, which is just off the kitchen, which looks out to the block of nearly-rural land that they live on. Low white-tape fences line the driveway. On the way in your social worker explained that these were electrified, to keep the horses out.

Horses. This close to the suburbs.

They ask you about nothing much. School (you’re good at it). Where you’re living right now (a group home). You swallow hard and dab your mouth and chew the best you can. They are kind. Their house is beautiful, the light clean in a way you’ve never lived before. Laura works at a school and Fi’s three older siblings all have, or are working towards, college degrees. Fi is funny and friendly and has a quick compact smile.

You’re excited by them—by the prospect of them. Life there feels peaceful and settled and smart. No more wrong-brand-name T-shirts or sweaters. In the car afterwards the social worker asks you how it went and you say it was good (you don’t know yet that you’re supposed to say it went well).

At night in your bunk bed you imagine yourself living a shiny life with this new family, the Gardners.

Your new room is at the back of their house. It has tall windows and a built-in desk and closet. The room used to belong to the eldest, who is now studying to be a social worker. Across the hall is Joan’s room. She is a nurse. A little further down is Fi’s room—she has a high loft for sleeping but prefers her single bed below. Next to that is Jack’s room. He’s at college and from the general tone of voice is not the steadiest. Down this corridor the kids have their own bathroom, including a large shower which has small sea-blue tiles and a strange faucet. Fi has to show you how it works (you pull it out and around, it pre-mixes the hot and cold water). It’s quiet in the hall and there are bird sounds outside. Also outside for several days is your own bed, delivered from your mother’s house. The mattress smells heavily of cigarettes. The white-and-brass bedhead shines in the fall sun and you try not to look. Laura says the bed just needs some airing and you agree and you can also hear those words she’s swallowing. Disgustinghopelesspoor.

It’s 1991 and you are a sophomore. Your school reports are glowing and you really are an exemplary student—although it’s not a very good school and you realize that part of exemplary is in spite of. Nobody says this to you directly. Which is okay. Maybe.

You study the Gardners. You chew through their whole grain low-salt food and copy their vowel sounds. Watch while the father teaches Fi to reverse the car out of the driveway and think one day. For Christmas that year they buy you a Country Road long-sleeved shirt and a large-faced leather-banded watch and you have a new haircut and you are very happy. On Christmas Day of course you also go home to see your family and it is complicated, your mom and your stepdad and brothers in a small new apartment with their old large furniture. You feel this hot something from your mom because when things went to shit a door opened and you took the exit and that makes her sad. She loves you so you almost can’t breathe and she hates your expensive watch and T-shirt and hair so much her words come out in small spits. It’s difficult to taste any of the food she has so carefully cooked.

That morning the Gardners also gave you a book, a collection of short teen romances, inscribed To dear Fi with much love, Christmas 1990. You read all the stories and tell no one about the mistake.

That summer you and Fi get a job cleaning Mr. Gardner’s office on the weekends. Thanks to this, you can afford to join Fi at church youth camp. You sleep in a dorm in the woods and you sing and swim and laugh and feel close to everyone. You’ve just turned sixteen and you’re happy and think you might believe in God. You love the scratch of the dining hall seats on the back of your bare thighs and even the big ants with their pincer mouths don’t bother you. Many years later you will still remember the songs you sang.

Fi has a boyfriend at camp and after you get home she calls him often. You and she are close by then, reading each other’s diaries, and she tells you about what fun she and her boyfriend have together and you’re pleased. When she calls her boyfriend three states over you are also on the phone because he has a friend you like to think you could flirt with. You think—new life, new me, leave it all behind.

It’s mid-1992 and you are due to start 11th grade. You’ve been a Ward of the State for around eight months. You visit your mother sometimes but you’re afraid of your stepfather who your mother says is doing his best and you believe this, but always just beneath the memory surface is his rage-twisted face and your frozen thoughts, this can’t be happening. You don’t like to talk about it because those words, capital-letters Domestic Violence, they seem like a bumper sticker one minute and an assault the next. In any case you’ll be tainted by them, maybe you already are, and it’s all kind of gross, like your mattress.

Some brilliant things: running to the neighbor’s property and jumping on their inground mesh trampoline, splashing up the water that’s gathered underneath.

Teaching Fi the joys of super salty two-minute noodles.

Finding the hidden antenna cable in the hall closet and watching 21 Jump Street on TV.

Re-hiding the antenna cable while Laura pulls into the driveway.

The feeling that you matter.

One Wednesday your social worker pulls up in her white car and asks to talk to you in your room. The Gardners can’t take care of you. They are sorry—perhaps they say that, you won’t recall—but things have changed and this arrangement isn’t working. There appears to be no explanation, at least not one you can understand: Mrs. Gardner needs to take care of herself, the worker says, and you are meant to take from this that everything is fine, it is a disappointment, but it’s nothing personal and you will be okay. The light in your room has shifted and the worker says she just needs to pop out and talk with Mrs. Gardner. After a few minutes you follow. The corridor with its pre-mix shower (the optimal heat setting is three clicks into the red) and natural-fiber carpet hums with a distress you can’t quite feel and you approach the kitchen thinking surely, maybe, this can’t actually be—and you hear Laura and your social worker talking and then laughing, which makes it real, which makes it awful, which makes it your fault.

You back away. You cannot afford for them to see you. It will not occur to you that perhaps theirs is nervous laughter; that Laura’s decision, the next morning, to send her student-social-worker daughter in to “chat with you” is a genuine attempt to help, as in a desperate attempt, because you assume—or you hope—they feel awful.

All you will feel is stupid, is tainted, is wrong.

And deeper, much deeper: rage.

You have two days to pack up your things. You move back to the group home which is, in fact, an okay place to be. You share a room with different kids and sleep in bunk beds but the woman in charge is warm and strong and she cares. She will help you find somewhere else to live, and this may or may not work out well. You stay in contact with the Gardners, so you can maintain your friendship with Fi. They ask that you help pay the phone bill from when you called the boys. You’ll never learn what happened, why you had to leave. Perhaps someone was invisibly ill. Or marriage trouble. Life crisis. Your government file will be silent, as in redacted, on the matter.

You keep the watch, the shirt, the book.

For a time.

One day, many years later, you’ll realize you can’t remember throwing them out.

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Leah De Forest is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her fiction and essays have appeared in LEON Literary Review, Verge, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Eureka Street and The Canberra Times. Her novel was longlisted for the 2015 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers, highly commended in the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and shortlisted in the Varuna Publisher Fellowship Program. She was born in Geelong, Australia, and lives in Boston.

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by Beth Shirley

The Amazing Gonzo

Sophie hadn’t been able to convince her cousins or sisters to come to The Alligator Farm. No one understood her attraction to such a tacky, weird, haphazard place. Standing alone, she studied the Indonesian salt-water crocodile, Gonzo, partially immersed in his tiny pool. His tail and his snout stuck out at either end. At 19 feet, the farm billed Gonzo as the largest crocodile in North America. To Sophie, he looked that long, or longer, even, through the distortion of the thick Plexiglas of his miniature kingdom.

Gonzo’s home was constructed of light blue, painted cement blocks, with a concrete platform in the back, and a brackish pool at the front. There was a four-inch-thick Plexiglas window running the enclosure’s full length, through which visitors could view him. Each end of the pool connected with ramps open to the air, sunshine, and a fenced sand pit. A large informational placard next to Gonzo’s window displayed an Eastern hemisphere map showing his natural habitat among the salt water marshes, lakes, inlets, swamplands, and open ocean surrounding the islands where Gonzo’s family still freely reproduced, swam, ate, and played. Gonzo didn’t look like he was up for any of those activities. He also looked overheated. Every few minutes, he would open his jaws in a monstrous yawn, exposing his snaggly teeth, including several mossy green ones at the edge of his mouth, and then slowly close them. With his mouth closed, his huge upper teeth shut over the bottom of his jaw. Some of these exposed teeth had to be three or four inches long. The educational plaque stated that Gonzo’s jaws could be held shut by a human being or even a rubber band because his jaw opening muscles were so weak. The closing muscles, though, they were immensely strong. No one could open his jaws once he chomped down. Nothing explained Gonzo’s presence as a crocodile amongst all the alligators.

Grandma Alice had donated her body to science. That’s why Sophie was here. There would be no casket, no urn of ashes, and no minister pretending to know Grandma Alice and mixing up her life stories with some other grandma’s. Eleven months ago, her grandfather Jim had made the same choice. But now, the six grandchildren—a range of cousins and siblings spread in age and location, in which Sophie, the eldest at 35, and Bobby, a 20-year-old-sophomore at the University of Florida (who was by turns weepy nosing his coozy-encased glass of grandma’s whiskey mixed into the 7-11’s cocacola or sullen, spitting brown ick sideways into a nasty Styrofoam cup, his lower lip bulging with chewing tobacco), bookended Sophie’s two sisters and Bobby’s older, similarly hulking and tender-hearted and inarticulate brothers—demanded a gathering, a remembrance.

Gonzo’s sides pressed against the Plexiglas. His ridged back, his spiked armor slid and shifted as he moved and breathed. Tiny limbs with pointed claws occasionally scrabbled for traction. To get out of the pool, Gonzo must expend serious energy. Sophie watched him for a long time and no other visitors disturbed her communion. Gonzo’s appearance, at once so gargantuan with that tail and those jaws and so hapless with those ineffectual claws, both fascinated and repulsed her.

Her father’s indifference to his deceased parents outraged her. After a life-time of parental adoration and generous gifts of every advantage in life, he felt no obligation to honor them. Even his younger brother appeared more aggrieved than grief-stricken. As the geographically closest son, Uncle Ed had cared for his parents through the last difficult years while constantly being compared unfavorably to the preferred son who made few appearances. Sophie’s Dad hadn’t come to Florida with the rest of the family. “Grandma Alice didn’t want a big to-do about things, Sophie,” he said, “and your stepmother isn’t feeling up to it.” Sophie ground her teeth after getting off the phone with him; she was that angry and disgusted. Despite many invitations to her father and stepmother, her father had visited Sophie’s home in Atlanta just twice and then only when he was already on his way somewhere else: one time, she even met him at the funeral of one of his friends to be able to see him. Likewise, he hadn’t seen any of her performances—she sang soprano with a touring light opera company. Not even comped tickets to Pirates of Penzance when she sang Mabel—her first lead part—in his home city lured him to the theater. Since she went to college, she had seen her father only a handful of times.

Sophie’s first trip to the farm occurred during a college Christmas break visit with her grandfather and grandmother, soon after their retirement. Grandma Alice had been mobile then, and Grandpa Jim chose amusement over sarcasm, at least for that outing. He even snapped a picture of Sophie inserting her head inside a life-sized bronze alligator sculpture’s immobile maw. Gonzo’s exhibit had been roped off that day, closed to the public.

They enjoyed a standing-room-only show in the open-air amphitheater featuring a concrete stage with an oval sandpit in the center. The performance starred a 10-foot-long American alligator and an alligator wrangler, a slim, compact man with a watchful manner and serious demeanor. This is a life and death business, he said, making show ponies out of alligators. At one point, the wrangler admonished the crowd to be silent. The man stroked the throat of the alligator until it opened its jaws. He stuck his arm inside the open jaws and held it there for at least 10 agonizing seconds. Several women smothered their gasps; every person held his breath. No one could believe that any man would do such a thing, and the crowd sat mesmerized. When he pulled his arm out safely, he gestured toward the alligator with a dramatic flourish. For his final trick, the wrangler “hypnotized” the alligator. After wrestling it for several suspense-filled, chilling minutes while jumping and ducking the dangerous thrashing tail, the wrangler flipped the beast onto its back, emitting a grunt, holding the jaws closed and shaking its body once up and down like a whip. The alligator completely relaxed or played dead and lay immobilized on his back. The crowd stood, whooping and clapping, and Sophie clapped like crazy with them. Her grandparents played along, laughing.

Today, watching Gonzo open and close his mighty jaws, Sophie considered the wrangler’s arm between the alligator’s open chops all those years ago. She hadn’t questioned the danger, but she now realized that using clever positioning the wrangler could have made it appear that his arm was inside the deadly jaws, when it wasn’t, exactly. She felt cheated; the wrangler took advantage of the gator’s weaknesses to win, perhaps unfairly? Maybe the alligator was drugged too? Sophie had never considered such a possibility before today. The alligator farm’s thrill-factor rested solely on the apparent danger presented by proximity to ferocious predators. The wrangler disturbed her excitement and discombobulated her notions of predator and prey.

She marveled at Gonzo stretched out in all his immensity, his tail alone bigger than she was. Crocodiles, she learned, commonly live over 70 years, and they keep growing until they die. Gonzo’s placard reported that he had been bought from another alligator farm as an adult in 1960, making him about 70 years old. When had he ever lived as a crocodile? He had grown so large that he was a danger to move. Gonzo lolled in his too-small enclosure, waiting for what? Death. Sophie thought, all creatures suffer these contradictions—the power of youth and the weakness and dangers of old age. Your survival itself inevitably renders you too big or too old to fight and win. It made no difference whether you were a crocodile or a human. The devious wrangler too would grow old and weak, certainly too weak and slow to take on an alligator, probably sooner than he thought.

Gonzo looked miserable and lonely. If he was this miserable and lonely on display, what could possibly have caused the handlers to close his habitat to visitors as they had that long ago December day when Sophie had visited the farm with her grandparents? She shivered to think of it. She touched her face and found it wet; she was crying.

Sophie sniffled into the cuff of her jacket because she had no tissues. She rummaged in her bag anyway, finding a roll of peppermints, so she unrolled one and put it in her mouth. It was time to leave or be late for the remembrance. A woman entered the tunnel with a trash and cleanup cart. She glanced at Sophie but ignored Gonzo, as she removed the top of the trash can to tie the bag together and remove it. Sophie sucked her peppermint and found herself feeling better. She hiccupped twice, wiping her tears onto her palms and then her jeans. She would tell her cousins and her sisters the story of the alligator farm visit with her grandparents. She would tell them about the central feature – a humongous sand pit with pools and teaming with alligators. Above the pit, fenced wooden bridges crisscrossed the area for visitors to walk along and look down into the enclosure. Some fathers, bearing tiny offspring on their shoulders, leaned over the fence perilously. Both children and parents seemed oblivious to the danger, though several huge warning signs announced in ominous, red lettering that the alligators could jump up to 15 feet in the air. Every time Sophie visited, she saw the same sight—little kids hanging out over a sandy abyss filled with death-dealing, snapping jaws. She thought that image provided an apt metaphor for childhood. She began thinking how to make her farm visits into a funny story, and left the tunnel without looking at Gonzo again.


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Beth Shirley lives in Albuquerque, NM, with her husband and two dogs—Beau, who rescued her, and Kismet, who rescued Beau. Beth and her husband decided they rescued each other. Beth has a PhD from the University of New Mexico in English, and has published work in Thrice Fiction. She has had careers in both teaching and technical writing.

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by David Bersell


You know the party scene in rock star movies, when gorgeous people dance and drink until sunrise with a nerdy teenager or potbellied roadie slumped in the corner? Every night was like that. We were on tour, but we were home. It doesn’t take long for the nervous system to adjust to prolonged highs, and then you’re just a person standing in room of strangers again, looking for ways to feel less alone.

When I was 19, my best friend Jonathan opened a house venue on the outskirts of Downtown Nashville. Hundreds of kids swarmed every show, too young to see their favorite bands play anywhere else. I watched friends become stars, baristas transform into metal gods, a folk rocker play her last show before chemo, Stones knockoffs, Joy Division knockoffs, horrorcore rappers dressed as Jesus and Satan, so many aging wonder boys traveling back in time.  

I stood next to Jonathan at the sound board. We’d stolen a velvet rope from the movie theater to deter the crowd from accidentally unplugging anything. There were so many people that a flock of dancers couldn’t flap their wings without knocking into a disgruntled normie, who would try to step away, thus bumping into a sweaty stranger who would bump into another sweaty stranger, setting off waves of passive aggression. From the other side of the crowd, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes nodded her crown of bleached hair at Jonathan, bloggers observing from the bar.

There were more old people, 30-year-olds in dresses and polo shirts, than I had ever seen at a show. It was Friday night, and they wanted to feel cool and try something new, like that house venue they read about in the Scene. They were civilians, tourists pretending to head bang, a pose on top of a pose, the men slamming Bud Lights and spilling on each other, a pastime I knew well and should have accepted, but they simply could not hold their alcohol, cheeks glossy and pink as a pig’s on a spit. It was far too early for such behavior. 

Jonathan and I had a soft spot for the band on stage. Ranch Ghost had been playing the same batch of psychedelic surf rock tunes for years, forever holding out for a deal from a major label. Their sound was unique to our scene, but like a lot of bands, all their songs sounded like imitations of their best stuff. The rhythm section looked like the baby-faced skaters they were, but the guitarists were all ‘60s linen and mustaches. The Lilliputian lead singer wore platform dress shoes, rocking side-to-side as he played a guitar that was half as big as he was. Sweating and swaying, they were a band of pirates fighting the sea.

Jonathan looked like one of them, a plush hotel robe and necklaces layered over his concave chest. He leaned into the sound board, turning everything up, a sliver of smoke rising from his mouth. The crowd pushed back and forth, their weight dipping the floor, the stage rocking with every step, every chord, and the house seemed to slant like in a children’s book. This was his equilibrium.

After my lunch shifts at the pizzeria, I’d drive through the clogged heart of the city with leftover slices because they were the only thing Jonathan would eat, exhausted by all the attention and noise. It was too hot to go outside for long, too hot for shirts or socks. We’d sit on the floor with all the windows and doors open, and I asked what else he wanted to do, and he always gave the same vague answers, and I asked follow-up questions and he brushed me off, as if we both knew I would write a story about him one day.

When he was in a decent mood, he’d pick a piece from his crust and set it on my foot. It was our game. Over and over, he’d place a crumb between my toes or in my elbow, ear, bellybutton, and I would eat it, Jonathan clapping and smiling. Even though we barely touched, it was the closest I felt to him all summer. Once, he slipped a piece in the waistband of my boxers. I held the crumb in my mouth and waited for something else to happen, a hand on the knee, innuendo. I counted to five as a fly circled his head.

Between sets, everyone evacuated the room for fresh air. Jonathan and I stayed within the velvet rope, drinking and smoking. I could hear the silence beneath the speaker’s new wave, a buzzing amp.

I said, “That was great.”

“They’re always great.”

“That was like Michael Jordan great.”

“That was like The Beach Boys on cocaine, in space.”

“That was like having sex with an alien who feels like a human, but you can tell there’s something inside them you don’t understand.”

“That was like music.”

He played “Disorder” by Joy Division at maximum volume like a midnight drive when we were younger, and the song made us feel like we were flying, and I tried to remember or imagine a conversation that would make both of us feel better, but the next band started to soundcheck over the song, and the room filled as we belted out, “Feeling, feeling.” Nobody heard us.

I opened another tallboy. The band on stage, Faux Ferocious, moved here a few years earlier and sounded like a combination of two of the most established bands in our scene, JEFF The Brotherhood and Natural Child. They even adopted the shaggy hair and painters caps of their musical forefathers. It was unclear if anyone minded. Due to the extreme body heat, the majority of the crowd seemed resentful of each other and/or blackout drunk, and Charlie Brown shoulder shrugs and twirls gave way to moshing. Articles of clothing were removed and lost. Two lovers climbed on top of the bar, performed an off-beat jitterbug, and tumbled over the edge to be replaced by another couple. Those outside the scrum backed against the velvet rope, and I stepped forward to protect Jonathan and the music. Between pushing sweaty backs, I speed-gulped my beer, arms waving like a drunk aerobics instructor. When the crowd surged into my chest, I reached back to steady myself and dropped my can, watched it tumble in slow-motion, get booted skyward, a gold mist spraying the dancers.

When I couldn’t take one more sound, I set down my beer and walked out the door, past the neighborhood’s splintered porches and low-lit restaurants, blind dates twirling pasta, wine glasses flickering like candles through the windows. I saw men passed out on bus stop benches, old women with their entire lives in shopping carts. Cutting through the park, I wondered what the nighttime joggers thought of me, if they were scared, if I should be scared, staring at the World War II Memorial’s giant onyx globe, all those lost in the black sea, my grandfather, my father, how we were still fighting, maybe men were made to fight and die and be forgotten. We did our best to remember by scratching lines in stone.

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David Bersell is the author of two chapbooks of essays, Nashville Notebook and The Way I've Seen Her Ever Since. His writing has also appeared in HobartCarolina QuarterlyThe Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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by Josh Boardman

Fancy Feast

I loved their vacant bivouacs outside my window. The London planetrees lining the street braced under their heft. I loved the emptiness and the colorless shade of their walls. I sat in the window of my rented room cutting my apple into smaller and smaller pieces. I had almost forced myself to eat something since my nightshift started the night before—when my migratory neighbors arrived at home bickering after their trip. My appetite was dashed. They were limegreen parakeets. They flapped down into their nests like tennis balls launched over far off fences.

I lived in a lonesome houseroom in a city of apartments. Not because I’m rich—my job is smiling to deliver drinks while customers drool over plates of finger food. I got the room for cheap because a friend of mine finally cracked under her Ivy League peers (money and influence and Adderall) and retreated to a cabin in the woods. I was quiet—clean—I got home from nightshift and sleep fluttered right down from the exposed rafters.

It was a single room on the third floor of a Victorian. Sometimes on my way in or out I’d run into the landlady in the second floor hallway—the second black woman to graduate Harvard Law. We shared a kitchen I never used but I had my own private stairwell. She was slowmoving and dismembered from family too. She said okay instead of hello or goodbye. A forgiveness for having presented myself.

Monk parakeets are noisy. The way sparrows can be if you smoke too close to their bushes. Online the parakeets’ calls are called metallic squawks or screams. Throaty kurrs and chapeyees. Rasping chapes. I’ve lain in bed while two of them taser back and forth with percussive scrapes. An article on a literary website described this particular habitation of Monk parakeets as sweet and melodic singers. Obviously the writer hadn’t tried to sleep through one of their arguments.

A note on the language—we’re charmed when parakeets learn to speak English. But when they choose to refrain we make up words to describe it anyway.

4:30-5 in the morning I got home from work. The moon barely propped itself above the sill. I was used to birdsong when trying to sleep—the first sound of the rest of the world winding up. But these parakeets had invited the inlaws. Monk parakeets are familiar with the concept of nuclear family. The sky began to diffuse with talcum powder and I still wasn’t asleep.

I heard what sounded like a steel brush against the window. The parakeets never approached the glass—they built additions to their nest so they only went out to forage. The brush went on and I tried to bolt shut my eyes. I squeezed the pillow over my face. Brushing. The sun laid a line across my blanket. Brushing. Finally exasperated I got up to check the sound at my window and found not a parakeet scraping its beak. I found a bottlebrush tail brushing the glass and two yellow eyes slitted around the parakeet nest—a stray cat balanced on my windowsill.

I had fled my lazy hamlet on Lake Michigan because my house was haunted. Formless blackbirds alighted on the windowsills. Starlings knifed their beaks between the shingles. Woodpeckers clung above the door and bored their way inside. My whole nuclear family having been drained of color (a Macktruck crunched overtop of them) nobody stayed at home to hear me speak. Bedsprings popped when I rolled over. Sheets once white soiled by bodyoil. My presence expanded all the way to the walls until the rooms threatened to crack.

I abandoned the family homestead to the birds. I came to this city on the opposite side of the country to live quietly. Instead of taking on more and more air I chained myself to a contained tidiness. I understand that I (like everybody else) can instantaneously fold up into a greying body—the lifeglow drained from the corners of its mouth.

While there was still light in the day I walked outside to see how the cat had climbed to my third floor window. My room looked over the driveway where one arm of a London plane reached between houses. The porch roof overhung streetside but the leap to the windowsill was too high even for a cat—no gutter ran that corner of the house no shutters provided clawholds.

I wriggled into my blackshirt and pants. On my way out (my mask of silence still firmly set) I ran into the landlady on the porch. She leaned back in a lawn chair with a steaming mug of tea. I was almost to the sidewalk when she spoke.

You’re aware I don’t allow pets in my house she asked? I’m allergic. You understand?

I understand.

It’s probably just a stray she said. O—kay.

By the middle of a sleepless spring a new sound peeped into my room. The parakeets had kept themselves busy. New woven into the walls of their nest was a lattice of plastic and cigarette papers and coffeestraws. The dun color of their nest splintered into a kaleidoscope of garbage. Walls rose so I could no longer see their dinosaur heads jerk back and forth when the parakeets settled down. But I could hear them. Their chatter turned to tender cooing. A third bulb sagged on the far end of the branch.

The addition was a nursery. I couldn’t see the color of the eggs—but while the parakeets foraged for berries their newborns strived above the garbage walls. Black tongues lapped the sky.

When it got summerhot our customers would keep drinking until close—and if the manager felt like it he would ask me to stay after rattling down the shutters. By the time I arrived at home the cat was already gone. One night before work I opened my window a few inches. Just to see what would happen.

By the end of the night exhausted from speaking I had already forgotten about the window. I came in the backdoor and tiptoed up the steps. Coffee gurgled in the kitchen. The shower ran. Quietly I whooshed my bedroom door over the rug but not quietly enough—like brandy touched with flame the cat leapt from the foot of my bed and bolted out the window. She dropped out of sight before I could get a good look at her. A smudge of red and black.

After that night I left the window open out of habit. When I returned in the morning the cat would be curled into a ball in the same place on the bed. Just as soon as I opened my door she dashed through the window. I wanted her to wait a while so I could examine the deadly colors that swirled her chest and back. I even tried leaving cans of fifty cent wetfood to entice her. But she wouldn’t eat them. I carried the untouched cans back to the restaurant to throw them away. No pets (not even a stray) so no evidence.

I almost couldn’t believe in the cat. She disappeared too quickly. I set my phone to record the brushing of her tail but I couldn’t hear anything over the racket of the parakeets.

I don’t hate birds. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to admire them. Right now a sparrow has hopped a couple inches away from my foot. Its feathers are three shades of brown.

1) Its back and wings the color of cedarbark.

2) Its breast tinged with yellow ochre.

3) Ornamentation around its brow and collar so rich it’s almost black.

I uncross my legs and the sparrow flitters off—but I’ve already glutted its color. Gulls gulp on the updraft. Robins with royal breasts peck around the trees. Plenty of birds chatter and chirp and sing woodland songs that no human being can annoy at hearing. None of them complains like the parakeets.

They were the most dire shade of green I’ve ever seen. I could pick them bone from bone until the color swelled inside me.

Sneezes slid beneath my bedroom door. The landlady knew I worked nights so her careful footsteps on my stairwell were a surprise one evening as I collected my waterbottle and eyedrops. Another open can of wetfood stunk up the room. Before slitting the door to her knocking I scooped it into my bag.

Her nose puffed out. Her eyes streaked with discharge. She said your friend assured me you have no pets. I’m—deathly!—allergic.

She craned her neck and peered around my room. The box of catfood was hidden beneath my bed. I had left my window open as always. The landlady noticed. Do you always leave the window open when you go to work?

I stammered. O dear . . . it must have been on accident.

Lots of cats live in this neighborhood she said. If it’s too warm I can loan you the window unit.

It’s all right I said. I’ll be sure to close the window from now on. . . .

I heard my voice like I was eight feet away—eight unreachable feet and curled at the foot of the bed. I sounded a throaty kurr. Chapeyee. What a stupid sound I made. Surprising she understood me. Surprising even more that she believed me.

As sorry as I should have been for causing physical distress to the lonely old lady—I wasn’t. Joy inflated my lungs. Her allergies proved my cat was real.


To customers I smiled and spoke softly. I had to repeat myself because my voice was lost in the din of drunkards. They slurred their words their ears were boxed they couldn’t read the specials board so when the bill arrived they made a fuss. I smiled and spoke softly. I repeated myself.

Wednesday night. The shutters were down. The room too dark to see my feet. Wiry orange bulbs dimmed the walls. Along the bar three middleaged men in sportcoats twirled highballs.

Where are you headed the bartender asked me?

I had thrown everything into my bag ready to go. I hadn’t sat a table in an hour.

I didn’t let you off. I had to cut fruit through the rush. Refill the oranges limes and lemons and you can go.

That isn’t my job.

I had to say it louder. One of the sportcoats chuckled.

The bartender dried a glass with his bluestriped rag. You know what I noticed he said? You’ve been losing tips. It’s like you lost a step. Where’s your smile?

I started to tell him about the parakeets. That they had taken position outside my bedroom. Trying to choke me out. I had to put in eyedrops every hour to keep my eyes from showing sleeplessness. . . .

My voice had dropped so low he didn’t realize I was speaking.

As to the question of what your job is and what it isn’t he said—you don’t have to come back tomorrow night.

Four shotglasses lined up. The sportcoats raised them high.

The house got hungry. Floorboards rumbling with my stomach. Since my conversation with the landlady I had slapped shut my window to keep out the cat. When I arrived at home early that morning the brushing became so violent it chipped the paint on the windowsill.

The bakery I passed on my way home had cleaned out stock. Banana boxes heaped with buns marked free out on the sidewalk. The bread was a pretty beige that lightened when crumbs sprinkled my bedsheets. Starchy sweetness crept across my tastebuds.

I kept cans of fruit in my kitchen cabinet. Syrup dribbled down my chin. The peaches were sunhot yellow in the dark kitchen. I puckered from the brittle orange of the mandarins. I ate them up. A can of refried beans gummed the tip of my finger—they must have been redbeans from the tint of their sludge. I lined up all the empty cans on the counter until they reached the edge and then I started on the landlady’s stock. Moonlight interjected through the window making the labels illegible. Although my stomach bulged the food seemed to evaporate into my body. I pictured the parakeets.

I still had a few cans of catfood left under my bed. I glided up the stairs and slid out the half empty box. I peeled back the lids. Sunk my nails into the meaty pucks. Almostgrey grit dissolved on my gums but I couldn’t stop thinking about the green of the parakeets.

I curled into bed. When I opened my eyes they met a second pair honed in lasersharp on the top of the dresser.

THE CAT’S MAJESTY—She was neither tortoiseshell nor calico. Her back a covering of black and rust. Her breast a fissure of white that spread into a grin on the bottom of her face. Her feet, tubesocked. Her face the color of toasted wheat. Behind her ear a black mask hung over her right eye which blinked yellow and hungry.

We had the same smile. We had the same mask. She perched on top of my dresser watching me. Her tail slithered over the dressertop.

At moonset, the clan of parakeets returned from foraging and the peeps of their chicks wafted in the window. I could picture the delicious young from where I lay—resting in the basin of their eggs they drew out their coffeestraw wings. Their shallow bodies glowed the color of life. The brilliant lime of the parents’ feathers bounced from corner to corner. Their voices broke open the morning.

Hearing them talk dilated the eye of my stomach. The cat pounced down from the dresser. I fell through the bed. I leapt through the unopen window. The cat and I together. I, the cat.

I dig my nails into the windowsill resituating my feet arching my back as I eye out the distance to the treebranch the green smudges dropping ingredients from their beaks into begging mouths I glance down at my own hands mittened in white the fissure of my breast spreading into a hungry smile and before me the exposed feathers cackle a racket swivel toward me and I launch across the great silent void between us bubbling from my very depths down dries my tongue shallow skin tears apart I am a Macktruck of a cat crying and crying out the most incensed yowl—

I kept the door shut between us. The window having been closed for so long my bedroom was stuffy with summer heat. The landlady tapped her fingernails against the wood. I had opened the rest of the catfood cans in different parts of the room—I swept them up into my arms to hide them.

Just another thirty seconds I called.

Midday sunlight dropped in through the window. It was blank and colorless but that was all right.

What’re you doing in there she asked? Someone drank through all my tea—my throat is swollen so tight I can hardly breathe.

I had stacked one too many of the cans into my arms—their tower lost balance clattering to the floor. The heatmelted paté spread out on the hardwood. Cold prickled my skin. A bloom of meatsweat smelled up the room.

Can you come back later I asked?

What have you got in there?

I curled my fingers around the doorknob. Opening just a slit I tried to blow out the boundaries of my body so she couldn’t see past me. I prayed the walls of the bedroom wouldn’t crack.

Two loaves of swollen skin framed either side of her nose. Her eyes almost stuck shut.

Have you seen the parakeets she asked? There’s an article in the newspaper. They can’t seem to locate them.

My tail bottlebrushed. My back arched. My pupils narrowed and I leapt back hissing.

The landlady whispered. You better find a new place to live.

The twig and trash structure resembled again the bivouacs I loved so much when I first arrived—still and silent bobbing on the windy treebranch like a dead seal washed up on shore.

I watched home listings in my area climb. One day I laughed at the offerings—the next they were twice what I was already paying. I didn’t have a plan. Since I lost my job I was afraid of the language necessary to obtain another. I picked up my phone to call help wanted signs but couldn’t make a peep.

No place left to go—so I wailed to those other strays who crowded the neighborhood and decided to join them. As I closed my bedroom door I noticed something on the uncased pillow that hadn’t been there when I straightened the sheets. Grit or crumbs I thought. But when I came closer I recognized the parting gift. Creamy offwhite and speckled kiwi green. Crumbled eggshells.

Let it be known—the landlady was wrong. I never kept a cat in that room.

A cat keeps herself.

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Josh Boardman is from Michigan. He is the author of the chapbook ‘Plantain’ (West Vine Press, 2018) and conducted the Latin translation project ‘We, Romans’ (2015). His stories have appeared in journals such as the Fanzine, New York Tyrant, BULL, Maudlin House, and Catapult. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is working on his first novel and a collection of stories about his hometown.

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