A Conversation with Alexandra Lytton Regalado

By Maria Esquinca
Image via Alexandra Lytton Regalado.

Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s debut poetry collection Matria (Black Lawrence Press, $15.95) is on ode to El Salvador, maternity, and womanhood. Regalado sets up her book like a deck of Lotería cards, beginning with “El Chandelier” and ending with “La Virgen.” But this is not a Mexican Lotería card: Regalado creates her own Loteria board using El Salvador as characters, and illustrates the daily realities faced by Salvadorans: “Ours is not El Apache, La Pera, El Catrín. For Salvadorans, all days are Lotería.”

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When it comes to the violence in El Salvador, Regalado doesn’t shy away from its portrayal.  In “La Quinceañera,” Regalado recounts how a fifteen-year-old girl was drowned by members of the MS-13 gang:

fifteen days of rain, like the years of her life, swallowed
docks, swelled mountainsides, unearthed bodies.

In “La Calavera,” the speaker and her son find themselves in the middle of gunfire after leaving a country club:

Our car at a standstill, front row
I see the man with the gun
crossing the street— and by man
I mean a 15-yrear-old boy, tattooed
skull and face.

But, in Matria Regalado doesn’t just dwell on the violence; the women in Matria are central to countering stereotypical notions of El Salvador. Everyday women such as la enfermera and la pupusera offer the readers moments of strength and tenderness. In “La Sandia,” Regalado depicts the laborious pain of motherhood:

And then,
when the pains of labor came
like a machete to a watermelon,
splayed,
I was sent searing
into my gender.

Regalado’s version of motherhood is corporal and visceral. The sacrifice that motherhood demands bleed across the pages of Matria. It’s a continuous thread that runs throughout her book. The speaker constantly motions to the women in her life: they, in turn, become central to the survival and existence of the self.

Image via Small Press Distributors.

The book is titled Matria; could you talk a little about the title of the book?

So Matria, to me, means motherland. I felt like it was important to have a title related to women and in particular to mothers because it actually is part biographical. My mother is Salvadoran and my dad is American. So, my motherland is El Salvador—where I was born, where my mom is from. But for my childhood, I lived in what would be my patria, my fatherland. I thought that it was important because of the idea of a nation, a country, what we define as home, not necessarily defined by borders but really by the space where you can grow and develop and explore.

 

I’m also curious about the cover art of the book; what was your reason for selecting an image of a woman of color?

I felt like it was important to have the cover of the indigenous woman. The photograph is by Luis Gonzales Palma, and he is a Guatemalan photographer. But he is most renowned or recognized for his portraits. He uses a very traditional method. If you see the photos in person, every hair, every wrinkle, every single aspect of the face is very visible, and so I think that, especially the way the woman looks out at the reader with a sort of challenging, questioning look, but also, she is very at peace and comfortable with herself. Not in an angry way, she is just sort of like ‘This is who I am, and this is my face and I’m looking at you.’ Not really with judgement, just standing her ground. That is the feeling that I got from it. And that portrait is part of a series that Luis Gonzales Palma made of different Lotería images. I decided to focus on this woman and that somehow she would be the one ushering people in at the gate, or somehow ushering people in and out of my book.

 

One of my favorite poems within the book is “Salvadoran Road Bingo.” I saw it as an entryway into your book, because you also set up the rules of the game. You also have all these different images of El Salvador like el borracho, the fireater, the hen and her pollitos, and then you also have the points, which is also interesting, but they’re also sarcastic. How did you get this idea, to set up your book through the Lotería, especially in contrast from Mexican Lotería?

It was important for that reason, because El Salvador always has this… it’s never happy with itself. We don’t have a true, strong, national identity. We don’t even use the Salvadoran currency anymore. We use an American dollar. A lot of our advertising is in English. A lot of the advertisements that you see on billboards show fair skinned, light eyed, blonde, [people]. They market them specifically so that it would be like ‘this is somebody who is white, and blonde, and with blue eyes, this is what they would use, so you should aspire to have these products to be like these people.’ So, there’s that sense of ‘what is ours?’ and truly ‘what do we define ourselves as?’

I have a lot of friends that come and visit from out of the country that have never been to Central America. They’ll say stuff to me like, ‘Why are there men with shotguns standing outside of a pharmacy? Do they really make so much money that they need to be protecting every store?’ Part of it is like, well, that’s part of the things that we see, que pasan por desapercibidos. We just assume that’s part of landscape. We are not even shocked by it anymore.

On the weekends, we go out of the city as much as we can. On these trips, I started to create this list of things, iconic kinds of things that we would pass on the side of the road, and so we started playing this game with my husband, where we would say, ‘The first one to spot the guy without a shirt on gets a prize.’ And the prize would be a piece of chocolate or something like that. And so, on my phone, I started writing down all these different things we would see on the side of the road as we were driving. I was also taking photos for my Instagram project “Through the Bulletproof Glass,” too.

I started to see things that would repeat over and over. That was a poem, that was, as you say, the steps into the collection. But I wrote it at the end because I felt like I had already internalized the rules and the structure of the book, but I needed to lay down how to play that game, for the reader. And that’s how I set it up, and the point system is something that I felt made a reference to the way that Salvadorans try to find the humor in a situation. That’s part of our survival process. It’s true and that’s the way that we work, so I just felt that that was part of the rules. That it had to have a point system as well.

 

There’s also brutality and the violence that is going on in your country in your book. One of the hardest poems for me to read was “La Quinceañera,” which is the poem where the girl drowns. Why was it important for you to also talk about this reality of El Salvador, and did you ever worry that an American audience might read that and kind of misjudge your country?

I understand what you’re saying and it’s a debate I had. For example, in the very last poem “Ode to La Matria” there’s a line there that says “I’ve had the privilege of pretending but not without consequence.” So, there’s a sense of empathy of where I try to put myself in the place of a mother, for example, who is desperately trying to find her daughter, knowing pretty much that her daughter is dead.

I’ll tell you the way that poem happened. We have a house on the lake and we go there every weekend, and when we went we showed up on a Saturday. There was that yellow police ribbon tied up, two doors down, all along the shore. There were reporters, and police. So we started talking to some of the locals. As it turned out there was a young girl who had left the countryside to go in the second largest city, or the third largest city of El Salvador. As it turns out she had gotten mixed up with the gangs over there, and had panicked, or decided that she no longer wanted to be a part of that and went back to her house. And when she went back to her house they came looking for her. And so they, they drowned her, and they had located her body that same morning. So, it was very difficult because here I am in a very comfortable place of privilege, you know going to my weekend house, and not being able to go sit at the dock because they had been combing the shore looking for this fifteen year old’s body. My son was 13 at the time, my eldest, and so it was really difficult. It was really difficult to imagine that, to see that. That’s [the] one place for me that symbolizes peace and tranquility and like a sense of home, where I go to disconnect. Even in a place that you consider safe, and quiet, and calm, and peaceful, the violence was already coming into areas like that. Where before we had only grown up with the idea, the fear, the myths and the legends. There was a monster called El Tabudo, that was supposed to pull you down into the lake. Now we couldn’t be afraid of myths and legends because there were actually, real monsters to contend with.

 

I’m also thinking about Donald Trump and his rhetoric around Central America.

It’s like, well, I’m writing it, yes, it is true, and is it known? Of course. I think that’s what El Salvador is known the most for, for its violence. Even during the Civil War—historically, the area has been a violent area. We are a violent people. The Pipil, and the Mayas, and everyone that passed through that corridor. Everybody was vying for territory and power, and it’s a difficult space to talk about. I did make a conscious decision when I was writing the book that I needed to counter that with other moments. So, there are other poems like the one called “La Mano,” that are more about love, protection, and discovery. I didn’t want to linger in this morbid fascination of the rubberneckers, or the amarillismo. I wrote about it because I thought it was important. I wasn’t doing it to take advantage of a situation or anything like that.

 

Why was it important for you to write about El Salvador, and about your country? 

Because it was my way of figuring out my place in El Salvador, or how I connect to El Salvador. Where do I fit in? What am I contributing to it? At the time that I started writing this book was when I moved back, and I was recently married. And afterwards when I became a mother, I did not have my own mother with me. My mom stayed in the US, and I needed to talk to other women to kind of get the lay of the land, like practical advice, and to be close to women, to have that sense of community. And, they were the ones that became my guides as how to navigate motherhood, and just the day to day life of El Salvador.

 

That kinds of leads to my next question. I noticed most of your poems are lala—they’re feminine poems. There’s only one masculine poem, which is El Chandelier. How did that happen?

I made a conscious choice that I was going to do a Salvadoran feminine Lotería because I wanted all of the symbols, or icons, or everything to relate to women. So, the first woman, “El Chandelier,” talks about the difference between the articles. The use of el y la in Spanish, and how you can claim certain words to a different gender, in a way. That is not something you do in English. I thought it was curious how when they became plural, certain words switch to feminine again, and I thought they were really important and relevant words.

 

Another poem that I really like is “This is Grace He Says” I just thought it was a very beautiful and a tender, intimate poem, because you talk about your son, and compare him to fireworks. It’s just so beautiful. That’s something we constantly see mentioned: motherhood, children, and Chabelita, too, so again the importance of being a mother, or motherhood in your book.

Well, there’s that idea of caring for people, and also caring about yourself. There’s a balance between the two things, and as women I think we have to constantly negotiate that balance, right? I thought it was funny that those kinds of things, where my husband would say, “Let’s catch this ball of sand perfectly in our hand without having it shattered,”—that requires a lot of balance. So, there’s things you want for yourself to find that peace, to find those moments that are going to help you recover whatever it is. There is a moment where you have to fill your own tank with whatever it is, so that you can continue giving.

In the poem you mentioned, I didn’t know that I was pregnant. And there were a lot of moments of tenderness that I needed to explore because I felt there’s a negotiation, and a process, that as women we have. Are we doing enough? Am I allowed to relax now? Am I allowed to enjoy myself? And so in one of the last images in that poem, I try to find that moment of restoration in nature. I’m diving, looking at a sea turtle, not knowing that I’m pregnant, and that life is inside of me. And yet I’m looking outside for something else, for something that’s going to restore me.

In another poem, “La Madre,” I’m on a jet ski with my husband looking for the nesting grounds, so happy and so relieved because I’m able to be away from my son for a little while. I left him sleeping in a hammock, and I was able to go and look for what I needed. So, there’s this idea of how much of what we do is for ourselves, and how much is enough that we’re doing for others. And there’s a lot of that back and forth, like the nurse, the enfermera, she works for a living as nurse and then she sees this young girl who has a baby, and she’s kind of caring for it, and the same time judging, ‘This girl is not doing enough.’ And I’m watching from a distance. So, there’s a lot of that back and forth of carrying, and who cares for us, who will save us, who are we going to save. Those kinds of questions. There’s a lot of negotiating in that kind of respect.

 

What would be your advice for young women who want to write but they might not see women writers reflected in their community? Or in the books they’re reading? Or they might not have someone that’s encouraging them to keep writing? What would be your advice for young women?

I think you need to fight like tooth and nail to find that strength inside of yourself to really carve out that time for your writing. No one is going to be cheerleading and pushing you along, especially after school. I think that you have to learn what your routine is, and what your style of writing is, and what your strengths and your weaknesses are. You have to find accountability, like a system of a checklist where you’re sure that production is happening, and you’re sure there is something that is going to be outside of yourself checking up on you, driving you forward.

Create alliances with writers who you have things in common with, or someone you feel particularly understands your work. You have to be relentless in your submissions, almost to the point where you doubt yourself like ‘am I crazy? Is this even good?’ Part of the reason I included all the semifinalists and finalists prizes in the back of my book was not because I was bragging, it was because I wanted to say, ‘Look, man, it took me ten years to get this manuscript published.’ I got probably triple or quadruple the rejections that are not listed there, and so the times I got an answer back saying ‘Hey, you’re a finalist,’ or ‘Hey, you’re a semifinalist,’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not that crazy. I have to keep going.’

Some advice I was given is ‘touch it every day,’ so even if it’s a line, even if it’s a scribble in the margin in a book you. I adapted that idea to myself, because I know that I have a hard time transitioning in and out of the work. So, I’ll have one day a week where I don’t have meetings. I don’t go to the office. I stay in my pajamas all day long if I want to. I don’t pick up kids. I basically tell everybody in my family, ‘Today, if you need something, ask your dad, ask someone else, I’m in my writing.’ So I know I have that entire day, and that I can put music on, and I’ll produce something.

What it comes down to is that I think that you have to find a routine that works for you. There’s a moment where I’m planting, planting, planting, seeding, seeding, seeding, fertilizing, fertilizing, fertilizing, and then the harvest. You really get to know yourself as a person, and you get to know what works for you. Once you have that figured out, it’s really big hurdle that you pass.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Dulces de Mi Cultura by Ana Maria Gonzalez

Ana Maria Gonzalez was born and raised in Miami, FL. She started drawing at the age of seven and has since developed her love for art into a career. Recently she received her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting with a minor in Art History. Her ongoing inspirations for her artworks are her cuban culture, family dynamics, and psychology.

TWO POEMS by Monica Torres

Vizcaya

It is a dark world but there are lights.

The Barge is drowning.
The smiles of mermaids
cloud into frowns.

In a pale sky,
a storm appears
blue and irrepellent.

There were your knees then,
how they’d bend, myocitic-red,
sharp in youth.

There are dangers in the air:
Tropical daggers of death
fly into our light.
Old paint of Renaissance art
peels from renovated walls
like a warning.
The storm tides purple
Into these clouds.

Down the walking path,
the white marble statues of Greek gods
Leda and the Swan, Adonis, Minerva,
pose in robes, chiseled by the elements,
decapitated by hurricanes, rain, humidity
and tides.

I go there to hide.

Behind these pantomimes of romance and time.
Their toned limbs are mythological stone tombs.

I go there to hide.

Their faces still as ghosts call to me.
immortally posed in a labyrinth garden
under a canopy of Mangrove crones
blanc with a vision of
one hundred years
of solitude.

I go there to hide
from the overwhelming pressure of traffic,
suffocating us into extinction.

Did you wear red when you died?
Where you worried the clock
would not catch-up, ticking, ticking like a beetle?

No one was in garden. No one knew.
We blew smoke outside the tea room
as if it were ours
and we lived there.

We walked out to the gazebos
by the bay under the moonlight.
We imagined what it must have been like
so long ago out here in darkness.
We imagined what it must have been like
when the sea level was two inches lower.

The event was called: “A Lexicon for Climate Change.”
The panel discussed climate change.
A marine biologist from UM reminded the attendees
that eating animals is a leading cause of environmental degradation.

We kill the earth. We kill her children. We kill ourselves.
The flesh of suffering beings sickness the atmosphere.
Their suffering has angered the sea.
It is murky. It is sick. Sick in love with dead tides.

The lexicon, words to capture a meaning,
includes “grief, sadness, denial.”

We come to imagine what it will be like
when sea level is two inches higher.

The panel concludes that in a four decades
Miami will be underwater.

We serve the products of death. We consume suffering we do not need.
We are healthier green. We serve our own extinction.
Denial. It is a psychological condition.
Grief. It is my cheating lover.

Vizcaya is a story within a story filled with imaginary beings.
The statue of Bel Vizcaya, a fictional conquistador,
stands opposite to Ponce de Leon at the prelude gates.

The next chapter is underwater.

Drag-queens dressed as
turquoise mermaids will sing us sad songs
and weep siren lullabies
as we sleep in a castle by the sea
where no human voices will wake us
till we drown under a blanket of stars.


At Matheson Hammock Park

for David

I.
Barefoot brides,
still maidens, are photographed
on man-made sandbars,
smooth as bellies.

At the thrusting of coming waves,
they soar to greater heights–
wild seabirds in flight.

Their white satin wings spread
open like legs, wet
with the salty froth of desire.

They are so in love with
the water’s surface,
reflecting an illusion,
that they do not mind
the inconsistencies of tides
when the sun and moon collide.

But all along the coast,
The stench of rotten seaweed
Emanates a reminder:
The moon has no mercy
And the sea is sick here, sick
in love with her tides.

II.
By 2050, Florida sea levels
are projected to rise by 13 inches.
Many areas of coastal land will be underwater.

This is how we measure what can’t yet be seen:
plastic bags, bottles, and fast food wrappers littered
along the artificial beaches,
the tortured ghosts of barbecued flesh,
smoking ashes from dirty grills.

Swamped mangroves exposing
their bony, twisted barks,
half-submerged yet poised
between roughness of rocks and fluidity of tides.

Layers of sickened seaweed,
light brown with sulfur, poison
the adulterated air
along the murky coast.

III.
An article published recently in the peer-reviewed Journal of Coastal Research, shows that sea-level rise has pushed mangroves into a westward “death march” and that without coastal mangroves, Floridians should prepare for even worse storm surges and coastal flooding.

IV.
During low tide,
we jogged down the paved trail
through the preserved forest
of naked and crooked limbs.

We saw a sign at the trail’s
entrance, warning visitors
that the path gets submerged
in high tide.
But, we went anyways.

The mangroves
were raw with bruises from
the beating of the bay.
Mounds of damp mud,
where sea creatures once lived,
covered their joints.

Spiders haunted the sites.
Their enormous webs,
thinner than light,
glittered in the sun,
and swayed like silk shreds
still attached to the bones
Of exhumed corpses.

Intermittent and scattered–
they danced with sunbeams
between the branches’
open, directionless leaves.

V.
No one was around.
But I wasn’t worried.
Even as the bay began
slipping into puddles
through my sneakers.

I thought we could beat it,
if we ran faster,
faster than the fluid of life
rushing in through tiny holes
in the dirt, rushing in through my bones.

I thought we were almost
at the edge of this stink-filled
spit of earth.

I wanted to go to the edge.
I wanted to witness the water
rushing in from its four jagged corners
those giant red claws,
clenched and waiting

But you insisted,
that we get off the path.
Nature has no mercy.

So we hit the elevated road,
the main street
where pickup trucks
pull boats into the marina,
where the dead body
of a young woman
was found floating
in alcohol, boats and night.

I wanted to go to the edge.
I insisted. I had not come this far
to miss the sight.

You hesitated,
but were happy to follow the wind
in my black hair,
and the knowing in my hazel eyes.

We found only ourselves
Looking out into that buoyant
Great blue distance,
the distance that comes closer every day,
threatening to devour our existence.


Monica Torres is a Cuban-born Miami-raised poet, singer, artist, and writer. She is the editor of Miami Chronicles. She received a BA in English from FIU, an MFA in Poetry from Converse College, where she completed her first manuscript Moon Over Miami, which includes “At Matheson Hammock Park,” and “Vizcaya.” She is also currently completing an MFA in nonfiction from Bay Path University. She loves cats, open mics, and yoga.

SOME SAY THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE by Vic Sizemore

A few years ago, I stood sweating in my yard Saturday morning and I thought of my dead sister Sylvie’s predictions about the climate apocalypse. The massive oak in my neighbor’s yard had broken about twelve feet up the trunk and fallen on my roof. At eight in the morning, the temperature was eighty-seven and heading toward a high of 106 for the fifth day in a row. We had no power, and word was that it would be out for at least a week. Another tree had smashed through the back fence and filled the back yard with a sudden jungle of limbs and leaves. It stretched all the way across until its small top branches rested bent and broken on the far fence. The wind-torn trees were ripped open and twisted. My wife Ginny and I walked the yard to survey the damage.

“If nothing else,” Ginny said, “it smells good.”

She was right. It smelled like fresh-cut firewood, like a high school wood shop.

Strange iridescent green insects flitted around, bugs who must normally live their entire existences up in the tops of those trees where we never see them. Knocked from their nests, baby squirrels swarmed the felled tree branches; small as hamsters they skittered and chirped and chased one another in confused play. There must have been forty of them. They were gone in a matter of days, I don’t know where, but I have an idea—our neighborhood is not short on cats.

Sylvie hated cats. She wanted to get rid of them. “They aren’t natural to the ecosystem,” she told me. “They are on a relentless campaign of bird murder.”

Trees and power poles were down all over town. So many roads were blocked it took Ginny and me two hours to find a way to the grocery store, only to discover the manager out front waving people away because their power was out too. Cars smashed, houses collapsed around tree trunks. Three deaths that I heard of, people crushed inside their homes.

The weather event that caused all this wreckage was a derecho (Spanish for direct or straight ahead). I had never heard of a derecho, and tornados are extremely rare here in Central Virginia—flooding is our regional disaster. This new, extreme and unrelenting heat created conditions right for this straight-on windstorm that blasted across the eastern U.S. at 80 to 100 miles per hour. The oak was on the roof right above Ginny and my bedroom. I could hear Sylvie’s voice in my head saying, “See?” and “Do you believe me now?”

One evening when Ginny and I took Sylvie some matzo ball soup I’d made from mom’s recipe—except I used Saltines because it’s what I had handy—all she wanted to talk about was this damn article she’d given me to read about global warming. Statistics. Global catastrophe. Doom and gloom of biblical proportions. Weather out of control. People out of control.

Finally I said, “Syl, can we just shut up, eat soup and watch TV?”

She looked at me, imploring me with her earnest eyes, her bruised eyes that were sinking into her skull. “Don’t you get it?” she yelled right into my face. Her breath was hot, coppery and cancer-rotten. “It’s close, closer than anyone knows.”

Ginny said, “Well, tonight we’re sitting her together eating soup and watching TV.”

“Who knows,” Syl said, smoothing her blanket over her legs. “I might even live long enough to see it.”

Sylvie had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL in the literature). By the time she got around to getting the swollen glands checked, and they did the whole chemo and Rituxan thing, it had metastasized, was in her stomach, which everyone knows is a death sentence. Sylvie was so sick that we kept a full glass of water by her bed because barfing the water immediately back up was less unpleasant than dry heaving.

Ginny made more sacrifices than I did. She used up her personal and sick days at work, and then took unpaid leave to help mom care for Sylvie.

Five months after the diagnosis, my sister was a walking skeleton, when she did walk. She was often too tired. Mostly she sat on pillows, under dirty pilled blankets, in dad’s old easy chair at mom’s house, books and journal articles and videos about global warming scattered around her. She hadn’t long to live, but she was determined to use every minute of it preaching her environmental gospel.

One day she shoved an article at me that she had torn out of a Rolling Stone from a stack in her doctor’s office, by Bill McKibben, called “The Reckoning.” The red and black picture accompanying the article is what looks like an Easter Island head facing up, sinking into a charred earth, breathing a solid flow of numbers in or out of its open mouth. Behind the head, the world is engulfed in flames, oilrigs rise on the red horizon, trees are leafless and dead. Everything is ruined. Yellow flames lap at the face. There are no people. The lead in: “Climate change has some scary new math…three simple numbers…global catastrophe…”

Syl had passages highlighted for me, had created hysterical marginalia for my further enlightenment. McKibben writes that the “acceptable” gigatons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, 565, will raise global temperatures by two degrees, which doesn’t sound like much, but will change the shape of continents, make entire island nations disappear, make the weather go bat shit crazy. However, the actual gigatons already in the big oil companies’ reserves for sale, 2,795, will increase the global temperature by eleven degrees and “create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

Sylvie was nonreligious at the end of her life. She’d left the church yet again, which I was glad of because she could be a little self-righteous and Ginny and I were spending so much time over there. Mom needed the help because she is not well herself; we’ll be starting the routine over, taking care of her before long. I swear it seemed like her decrepitude accelerated after Sylvie’s death.

One other evening before Sylvie died, we were settling in for a few hours of TV, and I said, “I’m making a rule for tonight. Nobody can mention global warming.”

Ginny and Mom both said, “Deal.”

“If you see someone in a boat heading for a waterfall and you don’t yell and warn them, what kind of person does that make you?” Sylvie said.

Mom got up to go check on some vegetable broth she was simmering. The whole house smelled of rich and healthy food. Mom made her own broth from fresh ingredients, and then tossed the sapped and soggy vegetables into her composter, which I jokingly called the creature feeder because she couldn’t keep the animals out of it.

“In a way,” Ginny said, “we’re all in the same boat.” She said, “Let’s just be in our little boat together tonight and enjoy each other.”

“You’re not in my boat,” Syl said bitterly. She scratched at her scalp under her mangy chemo hair. “You are not in my boat.”

“I know,” Ginny said. Ginny is the picture of sunburned good health. She runs marathons. She plays league softball.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She stared at the floor.

This derecho gave us a fleeting glimpse of what the end of the world might feel like. Ironically, when the windstorm hit so unexpectedly that Friday night, Ginny and I were already in our basement, settled in and binge watching this show about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Our daughter Gracie was at her mother’s house for the summer.

On the show, a chef who closed her restaurant for work elsewhere after Katrina destroyed the town comes back for a visit. She rides the trolley, gazes out at her drowned city, and weeps. A singing vagabond, played by the real singing vagabond Steve Earle, has just been mugged and shot dead in the street. Cops have shot kids, people are desperate, some still without homes, some trying to cobble a life back together, exposed to the elements and to the predators—both in masks and in dapper suits—running the streets. People are angry. They are fearful and desperate. John Goodman’s character commits suicide.

The TV zipped to black as the overhead lights went dark. Upstairs, the wind was loud as an endless subway train on top of the house—within that roar were the gunshot cracks and banshee squeals of trees breaking and shearing and crashing to earth.

After five days in the dark, our electricity came back on. I spent those days cooking all our meals on the backyard grill. I even made coffee on the grill, and sat outside in the hot morning air listening to the chainsaws and chippers and sirens ring out in every direction as I drank it. It was a little uncomfortable—and we still have a tree looming over our bedrooms; we are out of that side until the arborist can get a crane and remove the tree without destroying the house. We haven’t suffered. Not really. It was more like a window to the suffering of New Orleans cracked open and we got a glimpse, then it closed and we were once again out of the brutal sun in our cool homes.

Though a number of limbs rested on top of the house, there wasn’t much damage to the roof. A massive white oak outside our daughter Gracie’s window—which we call Gracie’s Oak—caught the bulk of the falling tree. That is where it still hangs, waiting for our arborist to secure a crane, the two trees’ branches clasped together like hands sprouting out into the sky a gnarled and broken here is the church… see all the people.

Our arborist has names for everything. The way this tree hit my tree and slid back onto its own trunk is known in the business as a barber’s chair. A large branch broken off and hanging in a tree is called a widow maker. I know a woman here in town whose husband died in just this way: they were at a neighborhood barbecue; he was holding a beer and watching his daughters play with the other kids, and a fat limb fell on his head and killed him while burgers and dogs smoked on the grill.

In the days following the storm, from the backyard, through the tree’s twisted branches I saw truck after battered truck of profiteers, riding the streets like revolutionaries, gripping their chainsaws like guns. Many houses emptied by those fleeing the storm and the heat were being broken into by looters. A gang of homeowners near us discovered just such a thief one night. In a fit of vigilante justice, they chased the guy down, cornered him, and beat the hell out of him Little League ball bats. How little it takes to collapse polite suburban niceness into raging violence. How easily it feels as if everything is flying apart, as if the end is near.

Sylvie’s end-time obsession was not new to her illness. She had been on one desperate campaign to save the world after another ever since we were kids. I can tell you the exact night it all began. It was in the late seventies, when mom and dad had tried to save their marriage with religion—it didn’t work. They dragged Syl and me along to church three times a week, and to see every crackass evangelist in a three-piece suit who rolled through with his eponymous crusade.

They loaded us up and carted us to this end-times crusade in the Huntington Civic Center one night. People poured into the parking lot in cars, church busses and vans. The evangelist preached on how horrible it was going to be for the unsaved after the Rapture, a man with coal black hair and a coal black suit and something like a flat Michigan accent. His wife was very small but sang like an opera diva—I remember the two of them making jokes from the stage about her being some kind of massive voice in a ninety-eight pound body. Rexella, Roxella, something like that.

His descriptions of the horrors to be rained down on earth scared Sylvie and me witless, and we nearly ran down front when he called the invitation. A man with a bushy mustache and tangy coffee breath took us together to the edge of the stage. He had a fat red tie with a knot big as a fist held under his chin, and he led us in the sinner’s prayer, and gave us both copies of the Gospel of John and made us promise to read it.

Sylvie had on an Izod shirt with green, red, and blue horizontal strips that night, and her hair was short as a boy’s for gymnastics. She gave me that huge grin, goofy and sincere, while the man who’d led us in the prayer told us we needed to start reading our Bibles and praying, and find a good church to go to, did we have a good church to go to? I was trying to avoid the pain and horror of the Great Tribulation, nothing else. The night faded in my mind like the memory of a troubling horror movie seen too young. Sylvie though, she got a good long swig of the doomsday Kool-Aid.

She became involved in this weird end-times scripture code breaking: the bear represented Russia, and China was the dragon—who but an idiot couldn’t see it. “There’s no eagle mentioned,” she told me. “The United States will not be around. Who knows, maybe the USSR will blow us from the face of the earth before then.” She was in seventh grade. Twelve years old.

Sylvie left the church in junior high. She ran with dope smokers, wore punk rock spiked hair, torn shirts, leather, and face piercings. She marched in anti-nuke rallies, protested Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and called herself an Anarchist. Then in high school, she had another radical conversion back into church. She swung back and forth like that, but she was always on the front line of the fight to save the planet. It was as if she would be yelling across the picket line, suddenly step across the line, turn around and resume her yelling back the other way. It might have had something to do with her sexuality and the church, her inability to settle in with one group and stay there. I can’t say for sure.

Her second conversion was in the late eighties—mom and dad were finished with religion by this time, long divorced, mom remarried, dad drinking and job hopping, trying to get his shit together. Sylvie joined this whacked out Fundamentalist church. When Bush Sr. rolled into the first Gulf War, Syl wrote me several letters begging me to get saved because it was clear that the world was coming to an end.

I found one of the letters the other night, after Mom and I sorted through Sylvie’s things. She sent it to me in February of 1991. Here it is, just to give you an idea in her own words what I’m telling you about my sister. I haven’t changed a single word of the letter:

Jeff,
I just got my report card (4 A’s and 2 B’s) it’s not as good as I’d hoped, it never is, but it will do. My A in history is all that really matters to me. The more I study it, the more I understand biblical prophecy. I think the Russian people (Gog and Megog in Jeremiah) or I should say person (Gorbachev) will play an important role in the “global peace” that will set the stage for Jesus’ second coming. We clearly see that it cannot be Saddam because Babylon is going to be wiped out.

While my friends and teachers hail Gorbachev for bringing peace and freedom to Eastern Europe and the USSR, I’m skeptical. From studying history, I’m beginning to wonder if glasnost and perestroika are a deliberate ploy to set up the West for its final destruction, by creating the false peace that the Bible prophesies. By freeing Eastern Europe he neutralizes Western Europe and destroys NATO. The U.S. and Western Europe then take over the financial burdens of Eastern Europe.

The neutralization of Western Europe through a great peace has been on the Kremlin’s drawing board for years. And since 1948, when Israel once again became a nation, the only thing left to happen before Christ returns is the world peace, and Russia marching on Israel. We are close Jeff. We are so close. Gorbachev is using religion to unify his country. But he is embracing a false religion. Roman Catholicism. And many Russians will be misled. The Pope, like every pope before him, has dreamed of uniting Greek Orthodoxy and the Roman church. With Europe united and a uniform religion spreading, the Roman Empire will once again rise, just as prophesied. In the Middle East because of the current crisis democracy is seeping in, thus another possibility of a united world living in a false time of peace and prosperity before the final battle. Please, Jeff, make a decision before it’s too late.
I love you,
S.

Near the end, when we were just trying to show her some kind of enjoyment where we could, Ginny and I took her to see a movie by Tim Burton, her favorite director. We both loved the old short feature of Frankenweenie he did back in 1984, so it was going to be a treat. This was a new 3-D, stop action version, and we were seeing it at the new IMAX.

It was not one of her good days, but insisted she was up for it. I rented a wheelchair with swing-away footrests from Bedford Medical Supply, paid $175 for one month. It was grey and came with a detachable desk arm. Ginny padded it with a couple of mom’s quilts—one her own mother made, and she’d ignorantly sewn in these designs that looked suspiciously like swastikas, so Syl and I always called it the Nazi quilt, laughed at it, told mom to hide it when people came over so we wouldn’t lose friends.

We picked her up and eased her into the chair. The plastic squeaked and Syl groaned. She didn’t weigh anything at all; I was afraid of holding to hard, afraid I might break something. Her arms were skeletal, bruised, scabbed. I pulled a happy pink sweater over her head, and then replaced her knit cap. I piled the quilts on.

“Look at me,” she said. “I’m Jack the Pumpkin King.”

I stopped at the dollar store and left the radio on for Syl as I ran in and grabbed some Goobers and Raisinets (Sylvie smiled ironically at the green bubble on the yellow box advertising natural source of fruit antioxidants) and Twizzlers to sneak into the movie. I bought one Sprite for Syl and one Ginny and me to share. I didn’t want to hurt Syl’s feelings, but I didn’t want to drink after her. A sickening rot hangs in front of a stomach-cancer mouth. We parked the wheelchair in the back of the theater, Ginny and I helped her down a few rows, and we sat in the new seats that leaned back like airplane seats.

Halfway into the movie, Syl took off her 3-D hipster glasses and starts coughing. She’d only had a few sips of Sprite, and no candy of course. She hacked and coughed, and then retched onto the Nazi quilt folded over her lap. A woman turned and looked at her, then turned back to the screen. Ginny folded the quilt closed and rolled it away from Syl’s lap. I whispered, “We have another one. We’ll switch out.”

Sylvie retched again. A dry heave that ended in a vocalized groan.

The woman turned around and said to me, “Please.”

“She’s very sick,” I said.

“Then take her to a hospital.”

Syl shouted, “Fuck you.” She dry heaved again and groaned.

The woman said, “Sir. Please.” A child beside the woman rose up and pulled off his glasses to get a good look at us.

Sylvie cursed her again. I lifted her from the seat.

Ginny stood and leaned over the woman and said into her ear, at normal conversational volume, “God forbid you get stomach cancer.”

Ginny gathered the quilts and followed as I carried Syl like an overgrown infant up the aisle. Sylvie hissed into my ear, “God damn it, I’m not leaving before it’s over.”

One month ago, Ginny went into her room in the morning and found her on her back in bed, already hours dead, the blood pooling at the bottoms of her arms making them striped blue on bottom white on top, the difference as stark as a dipped Easter egg.

It looks like the new regime is out to gut the EPA, even as the scientists there scramble to save their research and fight back against Big Oil. I saw in the news that the White House tried to make them delete the climate change web page, but I visited it the other day and it is still there. It is not for the faint of heart.

This past winter was the warmest winter ever recorded here so far. It is March and for the first time ever, my Swiss chard grew through the winter months. Another storm came crashing through yesterday evening, with pounding rain, lightning and thunder, ominous sky and heavy wind. Ginny and I once again heard a tree cracking outside the dark windows, so we fled to the basement. As we descended the steps,

Earlier Ginny had made Thai chicken and peanut noodles and put it in the fridge. She brought the bowl down with a chilled bottle of wine. She set up dinner on the table in front of the couch, lit by a green Coleman lantern that had two soft white tubes glowing vertically inside. We ate and drank wine in the soft white light.

With the storm raging above, Ginny says to me, “Can’t watch TV. Whatever are we going to do?” She grins at me, half her face illuminated by the soft fluorescent lamplight, the other half in total darkness.

I shrug.

“I guess we’ll just have to have sex,” she says.

Lightning strobes down the stairs from the kitchen above. Cracks and rumbles of thunder follow. Ginny scoots closer to me, and her pale arm reaches for the black knob on the lantern. The basement goes completely dark but for the flashes from above. Her mouth is close to my face. Her warm breath smells of garlic, peanut sauce, and wine. She says, “Gracie comes back from her mother’s house tomorrow, you know.”

“What if the world really is ending,” I say. “What if Sylvie’s right?”

“Eventually,” Ginny says, “she will be. But I think we’ll make it through tonight.” She kisses the side of my mouth in the dark.


Vic Sizemore’s short story collection I Love You I’m Leaving is forthcoming from Big Table publishing. His fiction and nonfiction are published in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best of the Net, and several Pushcart Prizes.

THREE POEMS by Jason McCall

When White People in College Towns Stop Assuming I’m a Football Player and Start Assuming I’m a Football Coach

I correct them all, but I can’t help
the glimmer of pride hiding

behind my eyes as I roll my eyes
on the way out of the textbook store

or DMV. My shoulders are wide enough to push a kid
who’s already in tears into a suicide

drill. My voice is deemed worthy
to command discipline and order,

and the cashiers and office managers swear to me
that those boys damn sure need discipline and order.

I’m one of the good ones.
I get to be a black man instead of a black male:

the difference between handshake and shackle.
In all these eyes that can’t see

color, I am—before I announce I’m only a teacher—a petty
god who demands young sinew and bone

as tribute. I’m trusted
to hold a weapon: a scythe

to trim the boyhood out of black
boys, to craft Davids from Southern clay,

to school young zealots dying to bash their enemy’s skull
and bring it to me as a gift.

John Henry Was only 5’ 1”

That makes me a monster
next to him. I’m seven
inches taller than him. Pay attention. Idris Elba

is seven inches taller than me, and Blake Griffin
is seven inches taller than him, but
we can all be the same height in the chalk

outline holding our spirit after an APB
turns the air to sheeted flame,
turns every white hand into David’s hand

and every black shadow into Goliath’s
bronze helmet. This country
made a giant out of a man barely

the size of a boy scared to let go
of his polo and dress out for P.E.
Alchemy is a dark art, and the god

of America is a god of black
magic, an arch-alchemist turning lead-
skinned bodies and gold-skinned bodies into pig

iron and coal. Years ago,
after watching some Incredible
Hulk movie, a boy saw me

sitting outside the theater and pointed
with a zeal only the young
and the newly converted can harness.

His father told me the boy thought I was nothing
close to a mere man. The boy never saw me;
he thought he saw Shaquille O’Neal.

The father laughed. I couldn’t
help but laugh, and I couldn’t help
but remember every story that teaches

us what we must do to every giant
and monster that wishes
to take some part of this world as its own.

How You Interpret the Legend of John Henry Depends

On how you feel about the hard or soft
version of nigger.

On how much you value the tracks
in every Southern vein.

On your pledge of allegiance to the self-
checkout line.

On how long it took for you to stop counting the dead
bodies who died so you could sigh
one less time on your commute to work.

On whether you can be bothered to recall the law
of conservation, whether you can accept
that his last hammer strike is still striking the earth.

On whether you believe in ghosts
that won’t stop begging you to open up
your mouth and repeat after them.

On who you believe
will touch your body first
when you die on the job.


Jason McCall is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of North Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his collections include Two-Face God (WordTech Editions); Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize); Silver (Main Street Rag); I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press); and Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He and P.J. Williams are the editors of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press).

THREE POEMS by P. Scott Cunningham

Rooftops

I go on blinking in your perpetual spring light. You have made the eyes I look through.
-Harry Matthews

The first time I climbed onto my parent’s roof I did it because the Everglades were on fire. The windows in my sister’s room were the kind that cranked open. If you popped out the screens, they became kid-size doors. One sat on a small ledge, from which I crawled up the sloped Spanish tile to the house’s apex. From there, I could see the western horizon, bathed in orange and black light. The air smelled wintry, dried up, dehydrated. Despite the flames, the air was cold. I felt like a logger tied to the top of a pine tree. On one end, I saw where civilization began, a thin line of water, and on the other, where it ended, a proscenium of smoke. It was easy, caught in the middle, inside the circumstance of height, to mistake myself as the protagonist. Miami is pockmarked with tall residential buildings and houses situated on bay, ocean, river, canal. If Miami were an architectural feature it would be a balcony. One thing architects never screw up here is the view. It’s the view that sells the property. It’s the gazing that makes a Miamian. Look down at the water. Look up at the billboard. You can tell which parts of Miami are real because no one is asking you to look at them. Map which ways the balconies in Miami face and then walk in the opposite direction.

Catering

If we’re going to throw a party in Miami, it should be endless. It should be an industry. The companies should have names that tell us what kind of party it will be: Imperial, Premier, Continental, Essence, Tip Top, Creative Edge. All the waiters should be male and impossibly gorgeous. They should be hired from modeling agencies. This beauty should be an unsustainable bubble made sustainable by the constant, unnoticeable replacement of faces. So few of these models should make it as models. Most of them should get absorbed into the service industry that they must have believed, early on, was their means and not their ends. The fifty-something bartenders at hotels on Miami Beach should all be former models and by being still gorgeous should not feel former at all. Modeling should be like a sunset inside the Arctic circle. Some models should start landscape design companies. Some should get into real estate, where they’ll become the models for model homes. Some should make the jump to New York or Los Angeles and be lost forever, like 19th century sons who went off to sea. At first, the sea should be a path, and then the sea should be your home. All land should be island. All landings should be tidal, pauses in the current, hallucinations before the momentum rips you back into the arms of the sea.

Rain

Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace.
-Carlos Drummond de Andrade

In Florida, I don’t trust the sky unless it’s raining. When I’m elsewhere and it’s raining, I miss the rain here. Non-Florida rain to Florida rain is like skim milk to whole milk. The rain here is denser. If you weighed it, it would be heavier. It rarely falls at an angle. It drops straight down as if retiring after years of being rain somewhere else. Florida rain doesn’t belabor its existence. It drops, and the clouds pack up and fly off. They don’t hang around all day graying the air and providing nothing. Every morning, the earth is divided. The land is one place. The water is the other. Instead of despairing of the division, a cloud gathers and traverses and expends itself completely, knowing that tomorrow, it will just have to do it again, and the day after as well. It must be so exhausting to be a cloud. To be, by definition, a creature who can never land, can never be one thing or the other. Maybe that’s why they take on the shapes of things they can never understand. As a kid, I sat in the window seat, anxiously awaiting when the plane would slice into a gigantic cloud. What would be inside? What room was the husk concealing? Only to find out, over and over, there was no room, only more husk. Drawing closer to a cloud is like attempting to divide your way to zero. Loving a city is the exact same thing.


P. Scott Cunningham is the author of Ya Te Veo (University of Arkansas Press, 2018), selected by Billy Collins for the Miller Williams Poetry Series. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in Harvard Review, POETRY, The Awl, A Public Space, RHINO, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, Monocle, and The Guardian. He lives in Miami, FL, where he serves as the director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival and the editor of Jai-Alai Books.

FLIGHTWRIGHTS by Laurinda Lind

We from the longearth
leave our houseruins
under the citylight, stay

through sunshift. Despite
disasterpaths we walk
for heatwater, we’re glad

for glassfaces during day-
shadow since then we are
more prone to mouthshock

in the midst of wreckgear.
The nightrail runs through
where we stopstand and

study our footrunes.
Flock back to these
heartfreak lifeboxes.


Laurinda Lind is an adjunct English instructor in New York’s North Country, and won the 2018 Keats-Shelley Prize for adult poetry. Some poetry publications have been in Blueline, The Cortland Review, Kestrel, Main Street Rag, Plath Poetry Project, Rogue Agent, and SWWIM. Poems will appear in the anthologies Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers Press) and AFTERMATH: Explorations of Loss & Grief (Radix Media).

ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM by Jonathan Duckworth

Some assembly was required, I told you.

Be more open about yourself, you said.

I let you take a scalpel to my chest,

to part the flytrap jaws of my ribcage

& retrieve the device that began to hum

26 years ago during an Indiana blizzard.

A dozen whirring gears of bronze & electrum

interlocking teeth & spinning cogs.

Were you surprised what a life looked like?

Were you surprised what my life looked like?

Fifteen pounds of metal: a clicking, grunting

analog computer, a star clock; programmed

to mark the steps in a waltz of galaxies.


Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Superstition Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere.

HEAT LIGHTNING by Hallie Johnston

While both our parents are at work at the grocery store across town, Leigh and me sit on the roof of our trailer. She’s thirteen and I’m eleven. Even though it’s after dinner and there’s only a thumbnail’s worth left of the sun, the roof is still warm from the August day in Alabama. It heats us through like an oven. From up here, Redfield looks different. Smaller. Like a little air has been let out of everything. Highway 10 makes a clean part through the kudzu growing like wild, untamed hair along the side of the road. It weaves in and out through the chain-link fence, wrapping around our trailer park as if it’s holding us in.

Across the way, the military base is still busy as an ant hill even as the sun sets. Leigh and me watch the cars drive in and out until it turns dark and the heat lightning starts. In Redfield, watching heat lightning is like watching a fireworks show. That’s what we’re doing on the roof in the first place. We’re watching for heat lightning.

“Jessie, it’s coming,” Leigh says. “I feel it.” She’s sprawled out on the roof, her body open to the sky. It’s been two months since I first followed her out her bedroom window, up the tree, and onto the roof, feeling as if I deserved to, having started my period then, making me closer to what she was. But I still keep my knees pulled close to my chest, still afraid something bad might happen.

“I can’t get my eyes open,” I say, struggling to pry apart the eyeliner and mascara gluing my lashes together like a sealed envelope. Before we’d gone up, Leigh made me over into a Redfield High Ruby. In my town, us girls dream of growing up to sparkle under the football stadium lights in a silver-sequined one piece, cut off at the thigh and clasped at the back of the neck. To have smoky eyes, traced in lines as dark as shadows, and bow tie lips, red as candied apples. Our next-door neighbor, Jeanine, made it last year. The first Friday night we saw her lined up with all the others, it took a while before we could pick her out. Like one of those pictures drawn out in colorful dots that trick you at first, making you go cross-eyed, but finally show themselves after you’ve stepped back and looked at it for a while.

“There!” Leigh yells.

“Missed it,” I say. “Why’d you put so much on me this time?”

“Takes more to cover up that baby face of yours,” Leigh says. She was always saying things like this, talking about my baby face.

“It’s getting thinner,” I would tell her, and she would say, “There’s a lot more to growing up than that,” and I knew what she meant and I didn’t, both at the same time.

“Here,” she says, unclipping a link from her bracelet made of safety pins. I manage a small slit of sight just in time to see her coming at me with the point of the pin. I jerk away. “Hold still.” She works my lashes apart.

“There,” she says. “Now, next flash, pose.” I frame my face in a V below my chin, and Leigh puckers out her lips into a kiss.

Ever since her thirteenth birthday earlier that summer, when Leigh and me were on the roof after her party and caught Jeanine making out behind the trailer park’s pool with her boyfriend, she makes the kiss face whenever we pretend the lightning is a camera.

If it hadn’t been for Bear coming to scoop out the dead rat floating on the surface, I think Jeanine and her boyfriend would’ve kept going for a while. Jeanine says Bear’s always catching people doing stuff at school, coming out from the shadows of corners and from behind doors and things. Like a bear out of his cave. That’s half of how he got his name. The other half being he can predict down to a field goal the final score of any Alabama football game. Jeanine says he didn’t get enough oxygen as a baby, so his brain can only hold enough words to talk about Alabama football. She laughs when she says it, but it doesn’t seem all that different from anyone else in this town.

Because Bear’s daddy is in the army, he lives over at the base, but I see him when he drives to our trailer park in that car of his, with the one headlight and squeaky door, to fish out the roaches and crushed-up cans from the pool. “I do the job all for my baby,” he says, talking about that car, “so one day I can take her and get the hell out of Dodge. If you stay in this town,” he says, “you’ll be wearing a uniform to work one way or another. And I don’t wear uniforms.” Bear’s been a sophomore at Redfield High for almost two years, but because of his strict army daddy, everybody knows he’s not going anywhere until he’s got his diploma. And when he does, he’ll be leaving with the army.
That night after her birthday, Leigh and me heard Bear as he started “oohing” at Jeanine and her boyfriend before they finally pulled apart. “You’re gonna get stuck like that,” he was telling them, laughing so loud it sounded like an echo. He was always saying things like this. That’s why people hate him, Jeanine says.

“There it goes,” Leigh says, breaking her pose and letting her lips fall loose as another flash of heat lightning passes. “I think that must be what it’s like.”

“What?” I ask.

“Kissing.”

“Like lightning?”

“Like heat lightning,” she says. “But in your stomach.”

In the time right after the sun goes down and before the moon comes up, everything is gray. The bleachers Leigh and me sit on blend into the light as we watch the Rubies kick and high step at band practice. We usually stay all practice, taking turns being different girls. But now that the football team practices at night—too many boys were passing out in the sun—Leigh’s always looking across the field.

It’s been four days since the heat lightning, and Leigh says if she doesn’t get kissed soon, she’ll dry up like an old prune. “Prune’s aren’t old,” I say. “Old people eat them. They’re just plums, dried up real small.”

“You don’t get it,” she says and moves up a bleacher. “What about him?” Leigh points to a saxophone player.

“Too old,” I say.

“Him?” She points to a drummer.

“I don’t know.”

“What about Bear?” Leigh asks as he laps the football field, wiping his sweat on his shirt sleeve as he rounds the corner. Because of his grades, Bear can’t play football, but he still comes out to practice, circling the field around and around like a vulture forced to run instead of fly.

“Gross,” I say. “Don’t you remember all Jeanine’s stories?” Last year, before he failed again, Bear was in Jeanine’s art class. One day she said he squirted hot glue on the tip of his finger then stabbed his skin with the point of a safety pin, saying, “No pain, no gain.” “He was trying to play real tough,” Jeanine said. “But then he started bleeding all over the place. There was so much we thought it had to be paint.” Seems like Bear was always taking jokes and things too far.

He rounds the corner again, this time shedding his shirt. “Maybe he’s not so bad,” Leigh says, stretching out her legs in the space between us. Her shorts are bunched up high around her thighs, and I’m surprised to find her legs shaved above the knee where mine aren’t. And I get it, all at once, why a girl would do that.

It was right after Jeanine made Rubies that she got her boyfriend. On the days they go parking after practice, Jeanine gives us the signal from the field, arching one eyebrow so we don’t follow her to the car, but start walking home instead. It’s just a few roads over, and Leigh and me usually dance all the way. These days, I’m the only one dancing because Leigh’s still thinking about kissing.

I do a turn and the red dirt flies up from my feet. It hangs in the air a while. Coming up to the trailer park, all the houses seem to stand tall, making the wood carved beaver on the Beaver Creek Trailer Park sign seem more like a squirrel or a large rat.

“What about getting kissed in the rain?” Leigh asks.

“What about it?” I ask, leaping into the air so that I don’t really hear her answer. Before I ask what she said, a loud noise comes from behind. It’s Bear and that car of his that’s always winking.

“Hey, ladies. Need a ride?”

“What? A few feet?” Leigh asks, real sassy, like she’s being mean or flirting, and I know which.

“You snooze, you lose,” he says. “Later, gators.” He grinds past us real fast, his engine clanking like a screw has come loose somewhere, but can’t find its way out.

That night, there’s no heat lightning. Our parents are working late, so Leigh and me sit in the bathroom and make each other into Rubies.

“Like this,” she says, opening her eyes wide. Leigh places her tongue at the corner of her mouth and re-traces my eyes.

“Do I look like one yet?” I ask after Leigh shoves the eyeliner cap back on until it clicks.

“Not yet.” She tugs at her bracelet of safety pins. “Your lashes are too short. They’re sticking together again.” She unclips the pin. “Hold still.”

“No,” I say. “No more.”

She looks back at me with her Panda-ringed eyes, and I wonder what boys see when they look at us with makeup and if wearing it long enough could turn us into different people after a while.

“So what about kissing in the rain?” she asks, widening my eye with her finger, trapping me.

“What about it?” Because I can barely move my lips with Leigh’s safety pin that close to my eyes, the words are more like sounds without endings.

“I think it’s romantic,” she says and sits back, and I blink hard, knowing I’m leaving mascara prints on my cheeks.
“I think it would be wet and cold,” I say, and Leigh just shakes her head no. Then she closes her eyes, and I know she’s thinking about kissing because I can feel the heat from her skin. Almost like a fever.

The next day, Jeanine is arching her eyebrow almost half-way up her forehead before practice is even over. Dark clouds sit low in the sky, so Leigh and me decide to take off early. We cut across the parking lot just as a flash of lightning strikes in between two clouds. It’s more than heat lightning. A clap of thunder follows, and when Bear’s car pulls up next to us, we’re ready to get in before he even offers.

His car makes a whirring sound as it cuts through the humid Alabama night, speeding down Highway 10 on the way back to the trailer park. Even with all the windows down, the whole car smells like the vanilla air freshener ticking back and forth on the rear-view mirror.

At the red light, his car rocks back into a stop. Pennies and chewed up pen caps tumble along the floor. When the light turns green, he looks over at Leigh in the passenger seat. “You ever played freeze out?” he asks.

“What?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer. He just turns back around. In the next moment, the car lurches through the intersection. We’re going in a straight line, but it feels like we’re climbing—higher and higher. The wind rushes through the car, tangling my hair in knots.

Because we’re going so fast, I don’t notice at first when it starts to rain, and I’m so cold I could die.
By the time Bear slows down, it’s raining so hard he almost misses the turn into the trailer park, and the car bounces off the curb on the way in. When the car door opens without a sound, it’s as though the rain has turned the whole world mute, so I don’t hear the splash of Bear’s cannonball into the pool, followed by Leigh’s smaller one. I’m in such a hurry to get out of the rain I almost run right past them until Bear’s laugh breaks the sound barrier and I follow its echo into the pool.

“Get in,” he yells. “Before you get wet.” He laughs again. The echo follows. A shiver runs down me, and when the latch doesn’t open right away, I almost turn back.

But then Leigh says, “Get in. It’s warm,” so I work at the gate a little more until it finally swings open.

The water is colder than I expected, so I don’t move right away, but just float on the surface with the dead roaches. I can see a fuzzy picture of Bear and Leigh’s legs standing at the opposite end of the pool. When I come up for air, the rain is so hard it parts my hair.

“Leigh,” I yell and swim toward them, close enough to see Bear’s tree trunk legs moving in slow motion toward Leigh. Before long, he’s wrapped them around her, and I watch his hand move underneath her waistband. It stays there, moving real fast like it’s trapped, and I’m almost drowning because I think it’s a dream, and when I finally come up for air, they’re kissing real tight. Leigh’s got her eyes wide open. For a moment, I wonder if I should leave, but the rain starts coming down even harder until I can barely make out the two of them.

“Leigh,” I yell again. I hear splashing, like maybe a struggle, and before I know it, I’m being yanked out of the pool, Leigh’s arm is hooked in mine, and together we’re moving far away, toward our trailer where she releases me and without saying anything, starts into a jog until she’s out of sight.

The storm passes, and when Leigh’s back, she goes straight into the bathroom and comes out with her face so naked she’s disappearing.

“Let’s go to the roof,” she says, and once we’re there I say, “Where’s your bracelet?” And she says, “Lost it in the pool.”

Then we don’t talk. She wraps her arms around her legs, and I stare at the chain-link fence, silver in the lightning, that holds together what feels like is coming apart.


Hallie Johnston is a fiction writer from the South. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review.

from GUESS WHO by Katy Gurin

Guess Who #1

Are you a farmer, your fields within?
Are you an ecosystem,
a composite? Or are you
a parasite,

poking holes,
lapping up
the leaked
sugar?

Without the other,
you’re a blob: no
tufts or strands―

eater of rock, “you’ll have
no tassels”
until you cradle your
eater of light.

Guess Who #2

One set of jaws to eat only

what’s been freely given,
               another set
               just to cut
through your shelter of silk and rock.

You make a second body
to travel to the new fluid. Then a third, which you unfurl at the surface,
                                to take in their heady scents—
                                                                             your yearlong life:

you were submerged all winter
in the best water.

Guess Who #3

The feeling they produce is not transferable.
–John Steinbeck

Dear Reader, do you remember
when Sarah Connor
shot the T-1000
and he just kept healing,
kept staggering toward her
until she ran
out of ammo?

This is how they grow
pruned by lightening
practically immortal; “cathedrals”
that can eat the rot
of their own
aging limbs.

*

I just don’t know how to address the few
who are left.

What I feel is a face
looms 300 feet above, and down
in the dark
of the soil below my toes
they clasp hands and nurse
through their anchors.

Sometimes, I want to slice
and core, to smell the sugars
and see the chambers

to write
and read
our history.

*

In the early ’90’s,
Maxxam cut most of the old growth:
one section
of a two-thousand year old body
to one
log truck.

“Our city’s sole work,” Mom said,
“is to take
unfathomable beings
and pile them up.”

A few years
and the piles dwindled, then
Maxxam
raided the pensions.

Now, what else can we do
with our scant joy

other than walk upriver
to be with them as they peek
around the broad, fragrant planes
of their wounds?

1:lichen 2:caddisfly 3: redwood


Katy Gurin earned her B.S. in Environmental Engineering from Humboldt State University in 2011. She has worked as an engineer on projects throughout California, including the restoration of Wishon Quarry, the decommissioning of the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant, and the removal of San Clemente Dam. Katy’s field guide to common birds of the Mojave Desert can be found at UC Riverside’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, and several of her poems have appeared previously in Narrative Magazine. She is the curator of the Eulachon poetry reading series, and co-founder the climate activist group 350 Riverside.