Jul 11 2010

Featured Fiction Writer: July 2010 Vol. 2 #4


Rick Pechous


Rick Pechous is pursuing his MFA in fiction at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Elements, Practice: 12 Short Stories and Novella, and Underground Voices. He's interested in absurdist, outsider, and post-apocalyptic literature.




Impossible, Probable


I’m startled by a rabbit as I dash around the corner, his tail a white flag in the darkness jaunting away from me, and in the front yard of a dimly lit red ranch house the rabbit’s first hop provides enough momentum for an improbable second, launching him thirty-five feet into the air where his image momentarily coincides with the placement of the moon, and I can see him posturing there as if he’s done something fantastic. His little paws extend away from him and his bright eyes shine down on me because he wasn’t startled, he was only waiting for an audience.  And just when I think it couldn’t possibly get any better, he falls to earth perfectly as if concussing upon the center of a giant trampoline, and on this third, astronomic bounce, the rabbit is flung off into the sky, past the clouds, where the higher he gets the larger he becomes until he lands on the moon more visible there than when he was standing only a few feet away from me.  A red fire hydrant gnashes at me as I pass, tearing my calf from the bone with the teeth of a Great White Shark. “Dear God, help me!” someone yells and all at once the lights of the neighborhood come on and each door opens in unison and fifty sleepy husbands with frizzy hair say together in an omnipresent, monotone voice “What seems to be the problem here?” It echoes all around me like the chants I used to hear every Sunday at St. Marks Lutheran Church, singing in response “Glory to you, oh Christ.”  Each light within a million miles comes on, even those we hardly use, like the oven light I never found the switch for because it was hidden on the side of the display mount, and the lights are so bright around us that the sun decides to rise out of pure envy. When I look into the sky a hot air balloon decends upon me and inside there’s a doctor in a green tuxedo jacket, but I decide I don’t need him to repair my ravaged calf and just like that it’s fine again. And I’m no longer sweaty or jogging or imperfect but immaculate, the most attractive person ever. I allow the hot air balloon to float to the ground so I can climb inside even though there’s one thing I can’t change about myself and that’s the fact that I’m afraid of heights. Knowing me, since this is my world we’re dealing with here, once I’m up there I’ll have no choice but to let myself fall to the ground and go splat, because if nothing else I’ll at least get the chance to see what death might feel like.


So I wait until I’ve ascended six miles into the air and I can no longer see the tiny perfect plots of land like dead grass that’s lost its color and the only thing I can see for miles is the grey, fluffy thickness of the clouds in all directions. I disengage the hot air function so the balloon hovers there immobile and I cower in the basket with my eyes closed waiting for my self to eject me by causing the bottom to fall out like a trap door. And of course the fall itself is horrifying, my body convulses as it drops, gaining speed, my hands reaching for something, anything, frantically, bursting through the cloud cover, rocketing toward the ground with my balls in my throat and my heart throbbing somewhere else entirely. But I decide I can’t kill myself, even if it’s fiction, because what if like a dream where I keep on falling my brain is so attached to the reality of the idea that I suffer an aneurism and drop to the floor? So I gain so much momentum that I turn into a golden bullet and when I finally do hit the ground I slice right through and end up two miles beneath the surface where I’ve incarcerated a poor, lonely man in a carved out section of the earth roughly the size of a prison cell. “Finally,” he says. “You’ve come to set me free.”

         Not so fast. What makes you think this is going to end well for you?”

         “Why are you doing this?” he asks and I want to tell him that it’s all just pretend but that would ruin everything because then he wouldn’t care at all that he was about to be disemboweled by a cunning velociraptor (which will be me, of course). I make it so a tunnel opens up to his right and that he thinks it has always been there and for a moment he’s confused because he wonders why he didn’t take that way out from the very beginning. Cleverly, he runs, but I make the tunnel a mile long and at the mouth of the tunnel a county courthouse, and I transform into the velociraptor, black with a white scaly belly, claws so sharp they could rip through glass, teeth so adept at tearing I could thrash God if I needed to, but I won’t, because in this world I am God and like God I’m afraid of dying. The courthouse will be dark, it will be after midnight and the man will have never been there before, and he’ll be trapped on the second floor of the building, which they say is riot proof. I wait until he’s halfway through the tunnel when like a bird with extraordinary strength I bow my head and charge toward him forgetting that I ever was human and that I’ve been the one trapped in a cell beneath the earth for sixty-five million years without a thing to eat. This poor, lonely man will have to suffer for it.  I’m ravenous, velociraptorous, aerodynamic as I careen through this tube, my mouth sopped with saliva which is flung upon the dirt walls that writhe with grubs and leak with ground water as I pass. After four minutes of sustained running, which to me feels pleasantly natural, I can see the unmistakable shape of a human being at the end of the tunnel. I make a sound like a thousand razor blades tearing through a windshield and the human ahead of me sweats his fear so that I can see it like a neon light, causing my stomach to howl louder than this poor man screaming for his life. I’m so obsessed that I come crashing through the opening and even though I can no longer see him, I can hear him breathing and I can smell his fear and I can taste his sweat in the air so I know within seconds that he’s hiding in the bathroom, which is foolish, though he never was going to get away from me. Words can’t describe the fear this man feels when he hears my claws scraping slowly against the floor, taking my time because he isn’t going anywhere—if I wanted I could make anywhere into everywhere I am without him even knowing it. So I posture like that rabbit in the sky, destroying the room around him in a rage, wailing with my raptor voice so loud that the façade, which is made of glass, shatters from twenty feet away, the fragments hanging loose while a stiff wind enters the building, and to show this poor, lonely man the awesome power of my claws I rip apart the door he hides behind in one fell swoop. The smell of piss and shit stifles me for a moment but soon I decide it’s time to give the reader what he wants and I use my teeth to grip this man by his neck, inflicting a dozen little fatal punctures that ooze a triumphant burgundy bile that couldn’t wait to escape. And I can taste the life of it dripping onto my tongue. It’s metallic and fresh and I never want to taste anything else ever again. He flails around and for a brief moment we lock eyes and I wink just once before tearing apart his left inner thigh. I let go to watch him seizure on the floor, the entire bathroom filling slowly with his blood until I’m certain there’s none left inside of him and I can eat the meat without it being saturated. Right before he dies I switch to his perspective so I can feel his pain if only for a second, and I’m surprised to find the sudden onset of death alluring.

* * *

But I can’t bring myself to go along with it so I decide to see what the universe is made of, stranding myself again in the bottom of the basket of the hot air balloon so close to the edge of the atmosphere that I can reach out and grab a piece of the cosmos and use it to live forever.  I ignite the hot air function and turn the dial to ABNORMAL so in the matter of seconds I’m streaming past the rabbit on the moon, except I need more juice if I’m going to get anywhere any time soon so I reach up and adjust the dial to IMPROBABLE, which gets me out of the solar system once and for all. God knows I can’t look down now because like most people I’m frightened by improbable speeds, but it isn’t long before I realize that improbable just isn’t enough and if I’m going to see anything worth seeing I’m going to have to set the dial to IMPOSSIBLE. I’m forced down against the floor while an unGodly nether roaring causes my eardrums to burst and blood to trickle out my ears.  I’m not worried though because I can still hear just fine, and right before my body is about to be compressed into a particle no larger than an atom from the pressure, I’m drowning in a sea of blood. I can still breathe so I swim away from the hot air balloon which has become a hindrance. At first I’m afraid to open my eyes but I soon discover that I can see even through the thickest and blackest of blood.  I notice a tiny little muscle pulsing with all its tiny little might and something inside me knows that this is the beating heart of an unborn Australian Shepherd living in some obscure corner of the flattest part of Holland. I’ve materialized out of one of a million blood cells drifting around me and suddenly I’m standing outside looking down at the mother of the dog in the bedroom of a drafty, wooden house. Something tells me it’s been overcast for days.  For a moment I want to find another hot air balloon to keep me soaring through the layers of existence, but like a house of mirrors I know it doesn’t matter how high or how far I go, the result will always be the same—there are some things I just can’t change. But there’s a shotgun leaning against the wall of this bedroom which is strangely reminiscent of a place I spent a lot of time in as a child, with faux wood wallpaper, yellow carpeting, and brown discolored water stains laced along the ceiling.  I think to myself that I could obliterate the universe in the way of a harmless shotgun blast that no one in this world would even hear, but I know the only way to stop this is to turn it on myself. And I’m prepared to finally do it but when I place the barrel in my mouth and move to squeeze the trigger, I’m reminded of a memory my mother told me when I was young and we were working in the tent outside my aunt and uncle’s ice cream shop selling ice cream for a fair.


She stepped off the school bus with her cute little polka-dotted bow and her hardcover books held close to her chest and did I mention that it’s 1973 and I’m one of the Dawson boys, the oldest? I’ve found a litter of kittens beneath my parent’s porch and because I’m home schooled I’ve been off since two and I’ve had just enough time to bury them in the ground with nothing but their heads showing. “Hey, Bonnie,” I say, smiling at her friend who lives kiddy corner from me, whom I’ve never said a word to if it weren’t first directed toward Bonnie.  “Do you want to see the kittens we found beneath our parents’ porch?” She reluctantly complies but she’s skeptical and refuses to let her guard down. That’s why my brother Denny is waiting near the kittens, which can’t move an inch in the dirt and issue meek little whispers he doesn’t hear as he waits for beautiful Bonnie to come around the corner. “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” I shout as we approach the edge of the house where Bonnie and her friend see the pretty little kittens waiting to be freed. Denny grabs Bonnie and says “Hey, Bonnie, hold on!” and I run to the lawn mower I left a few feet behind the kittens and prime it up by depressing the button ten times fast, and then I pull the cord and pull the cord and pull the cord until it revs to life. With pure adrenaline rushing through me and a boiling laughter foaming in my gut, I start to whistle even though they can’t hear me. I move the mower forward and though my mom is only twelve she knows better than to look at what’s about to happen. But she can’t escape the sound the blade makes when it slices through the first kitten’s face, the sound of the skull being torn apart like a stick being wrenched from the ground and spit out into the yard, but this expulsion is red and white and consists of a sick gore the likes of which few people have ever had the chance to see. I’ve lined them up in a row with a half foot between them so when the whirring blade approaches and gets a hold of something solid the din grows louder like a chainsaw getting through to the center of a tree.  And I can think of no better way to experience death than to see it from the perspective of the last lonely kitten trying with all its might to wiggle free from the ground that holds it tight. Nowhere left to go, struggling against the earth around me, the sound of the motor roaring up above like a cacophony of violence, the whirring of the blades, the smell of the grass, the guts of my brothers splattered on my face, my own little voice crying out so loud but never being heard—this is it, death at its best, nothing left to do but let it happen. The mower moving forward, the blade drawing near, the way it burns as it catches, slicing me up, time enough to feel it if only for a second, before all I ever and always see is that blade churning and burning my face, over and over, pushing me away and drawing me in like a wave crashing and receding, or the second hand of a broken clock sputtering upon itself, stuck in place, never moving forward, but never moving backward, either.

Aug 19 2009

Featured Fiction Writer: August 2009 Vol. 1 #10



Janelle Blasdel


Janelle Blasdel, from Columbus, Indiana, is currently working toward her MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she also teaches.  Her work has appeared in one of Main Street Rag’s short fiction anthologies.





Parade for the Dying

(an excerpt)


Forgive her, but she had to see it.  It was why she’d come to the small, little Indiana town in the first place – to see if what she’d read was true.  The first time Gwen learned about it, she stood in line at a grocery store in her New Jersey suburb.  She let her eyes roam over new flavors of gum and candy bars and beef jerky, and when that became too boring, she read the tabloid headlines: Two in Five Gynecologists are Fake; Multiple Personality Man Charged Triple Room Rate; Woman Delivers Own Baby While Skydiving!  But the one that made Gwen reach for a copy had a headline that seemed made for her, written because it knew she would stand in this line on this day and find it.  It read, Parade for the Dying and Almost Dead.  Gwen checked over her shoulder (no one stood behind her), grabbed a copy, folded the flimsy magazine in half, and set it on the rubber check-out belt, beneath the carton of eggs.

The first time Gwen confronted death she stood no higher than a bar stool, five years old.  She’d found her hamster, Scooter, curled up in the corner of his cage, his face pressed against the glass in a way that revealed his two terrible front teeth.  Death, to Gwen, appeared violently, suddenly, without warning.  Since then, Gwen considered her own death each day, clipping out newspaper articles about illnesses and accidents and then rubber-cementing them into a lined-paper notebook.  She collected death – carbon monoxide poisonings, Christmas tree fires, murder-suicides, drownings by lake, river, pond, pool, bathtub, so many car accidents.  At night, she lay in bed and flipped through the pages.  She wore the edges soft with her thumb and forefinger, the way she absentmindedly strummed at the notebook’s corner while reading the reports over and over, thinking to herself, Oh, here’s how I’d like to die, if it were up to me. 

She had no reason to think so often about death; she was healthy, young – only a few years out of college.  Perhaps she was bored with life, bored with her job at the bank, bored with the customers who talked of children and grandchildren and CD’s and home equity lines.  Life seemed more exciting to Gwen when she considered that it had to end somehow, that each person was on some great journey, finishing a puzzle that only came into focus once that last piece got jimmied in. 

            So this parade, just the idea of this parade, made Gwen’s heart speed up and her palms sweat.  She pasted this article in her notebook, on the cardboard backing to mark the very end.  For three days she read the article at breakfast, spooning cereal into her mouth and running her bare feet back and forth across the cool linoleum floor in her kitchen, wondering if this parade was real, wondering what she might find in France, Indiana, a town just barely large enough for its own post office and a Wal-Mart.



            The outskirts of France reminded Gwen of a postcard she’d once seen of the Midwest: fields full of feathery-tipped wheat, the golden stems bowing in the wind.  In the middle of the field, a combine.  Blue sky above. 

            The town itself consisted of a single main square, a redbrick courthouse in the center with window shops forming a larger square around it.  Gwen read the names of the shops – Judy’s Alterations, Phoenix Orient Chinese, France Goodwill, Master Chin’s Tae Kwon Do, Taylor & Co., CPA.  In one storefront she noticed a row of mannequin heads, all donning old glamour hats with wide, sweeping brims, some with bows.  Not many people were out on this Tuesday evening – just a middle-aged couple on the sidewalk, both of them overweight and walking aimlessly.  The man raised a hand as Gwen drove past.

She kept on through Seminary Street, out beyond a few homes with rusting rotary clotheslines in the front yards, plastic toy lawn mowers and strollers and deflated kickballs abandoned in the grass.  In one yard sat a tan Buick with a red FOR SALE sign taped to the windshield.

Her bed and breakfast, The Almost Home Inn, sat out in the country just past these homes, near the quarry through which the old railroad tracks used to run.  It was a restored Victorian house with hunter green siding and a thick, green lawn.  The fence around the yard wore a fresh coat of white paint, as did the house’s trim and front porch.  A wooden sign hung by the mailbox, announcing Almost Home and its birth year – 1928. 

Gwen parked in the lot just off to the side at about the same time the sun lowered.  She pulled her suitcase from the backseat and made her way down the sidewalk, skirting past the mulched landscaping, the pansies, the morning glories.  She hopped the steps up to the porch and paused in front of the door to fix her reflection in the windowpane.  With her fingers, she brushed her short, amber-colored hair to make it sit just so on her forehead, pulled at the bottom of her shirt, and then pushed open the door.  A bell jingled above her head as she stepped inside.

            The foyer collected shadows across its hardwood floor, and Gwen moved quietly as she set her bags down on the bench by the stairs.  She liked the smell of the place, lemons and dryer sheets, and looked around for a desk or a counter where someone could help her.  Nothing.  If it hadn’t been for the hanging sign at the mailbox, Gwen would have worried that she’d mistakenly entered someone’s home.  In the corner by the door stood a coat rack with a few jackets; on the floor next to it was a woven basket full of antique toys like Jacob’s ladders and John Deere tractors and a Jack-in-the-Box.  Gwen moved to pick up some of the toys, but stopped short when she heard a voice behind her.

            “Hi, there,” the voice said.  Gwen turned and saw a young woman with chestnut-colored hair that stopped just below her shoulders.  She carried blue towels in her arms and wore a white polo shirt and black chinos.

            “Hi,” Gwen said.  “I’m here to check in.”

            “Sure,” the girl said.  She nodded at the towels she carried.  “Let me just put these in the closet.”  The girl disappeared through a door for a moment and then was back with a clipboard and a key.  “Gwen?” the girl asked.


            “Hi, Gwen.  Nice to meet you.  I’m Natalie.”

            “Natalie, good to meet you too,” Gwen said, and they shook hands.

“Yes, well, you’re in Room 3.”  Natalie handed Gwen the key.  “Oh, that’s a nice one that looks out over the cornfield.”  She ran her finger down her clipboard.  “There’s also a patio out back with some bird feeders – a lot of finches to watch around here, if you like birds.”

            “Sounds nice,” Gwen said.

            “Yes, and let’s see – breakfast is served between seven and ten.  If you enter or leave the inn at odd hours, please try to be quiet so you don’t disturb the other guests.”  The girl looked again at her clipboard.  “If you have any questions I’m always available.” She nodded at the door across from the stairs.  “I’ve got an apartment here myself.”

            “Actually,” Gwen said, and here she felt embarrassed for asking.  “Is there a parade here this week?  I read somewhere that – ”

            Natalie’s eyes narrowed for a second, making Gwen pause.  The girl took a step closer to Gwen and spoke in a soft voice.  “Why?  Would you like to register to walk?” she asked and placed her hand under Gwen’s elbow.

            “Oh, no.  No.”  Gwen waved her hand.  “I just wanted to see it.”

Natalie laughed, her voice rising to its normal volume.  She stepped back from Gwen.  “Right, right.  Well, we’ve got the festival tomorrow morning, and then the parade later that night.”

“Oh, a festival?  I didn’t realize – ”

Natalie nodded.  “If you’re going to the parade, you’ll want to go to the festival, too. And take cash with you – it’s cash only.”

            Up in her room, Gwen unpacked her clothes, hanging her nice shirts in the closet.  She’d brought one sundress with her, blue with white straps.  Once she finished, she sat on the bed (white linens) with her notebook in her lap and looked around the room, taking in the pale yellow walls, the white day lilies that sat in a vase on the nightstand, the white furniture.   A round, red clock hung on the wall across from her.  She ran her fingers over the notebook’s smooth cover and listened to the quiet evening settle in, the clock ticking in the background.  She kicked off her tennis shoes, but still felt hot and sticky in her traveling clothes, so she peeled off her socks and slipped off her jeans, too, lifted her T-shirt over her head.  In her bra and underwear, she walked to the bathroom and brushed her teeth, took a drink of icy water, and then fell quickly into a heavy sleep.

            For breakfast, Gwen ate a bowl of homemade granola and fruit with a little bit of milk, some scrambled eggs.  She took her meal alone in the breakfast nook, up early so she could be one of the first to get to the festival.  Natalie had said she could walk, that it would be a nice walk in the cool morning.  Gwen headed out the front door and down the sidewalk to the fence, smelling wild onions and cut grass.  She walked along the road’s edge, staring out over the hayfields and the early morning fog that hung above everything like a steamy blanket.  Soon the sun felt warm on her shoulders, and as she neared the houses closer to town, she took off her windbreaker and wrapped it around her waist. 

            When she reached the crest of the hill just before town, Gwen saw roadblocks at each of the square’s corners and men in navy blue volunteer shirts turning away traffic.  Gwen nodded to the men as she passed and walked carefully through the already-thick crowd of spectators.  Dotting the lawn around the courthouse were white canopy tents.  Gwen expected that beneath them she’d find latch hook rugs and local honey and fresh flowers, an assortment of produce and crafts and baked goods, but as she neared them, she realized that this festival was, instead of a farmer’s market, a yard sale for the dying.

Behind a table at the first tent sat a twig-thin woman with yellow-white hair.  Even in the heat she wore a sweater, a red flannel blanket spread across her lap. 

“Hello,” the woman said.  She held her hand out to Gwen.  Gwen saw how it trembled as it hung in the air, and when she took it in hers the skin felt waxy to the touch.  The woman continued in a shaky voice.  “I’m Ruth,” she said.

“Hi Ruth,” Gwen said, and she let go of the woman’s hand.  Gwen felt like she ought to say something, something encouraging or consoling.  “I’m sorry – ”

Ruth waved her palm as if swatting gnats.  “Don’t be,” she said.  “I’m old.  My husband’s dead.”  She coughed, one hand on her chest.  “ ’Scuse me.”  More coughing and then she looked up at Gwen.  “Do you need potholders, dear?  I’ve got a lot of those, really good ones, too.  It’d be nice to know a pretty girl like you’d be usin em.”

Gwen smiled.  She didn’t cook, really, but found it hard to say no to a dying person.  She held up two fingers.  “Two, please.” 

Beneath other tents, those who were dying weren’t so old.  Sometimes there were future widows and widowers looming in the background (perhaps for sale, too), retrieving items from shelves, counting out change from lockboxes.  Children played on blankets, their cheeks red from the heat.  In one tent, Gwen couldn’t tell at first who was dying.  She entered the tent smiling but not meeting the eyes of the man, the woman, or the young child on the man’s lap (a boy).  Was she supposed to smile?

She stood in front of one of the tables, a red tablecloth spread over its top, and scanned the array of things to choose from: salt and pepper shakers, old CDs, sewing kits, a sun tea maker, packets of seeds, stacks of paperbacks with torn covers, a few watches and necklaces and bracelets, some rings.  Must be the woman dying, Gwen decided, and she couldn’t keep herself from checking over her shoulder, to see what the woman was doing.  Gwen spotted her, standing in a corner, this woman who could have been as young as Gwen, her blonde hair pulled up off her neck with a plastic clip, her thin arms crossed in front of her chest.  Dark circles hugged the bottoms of her eyes, making the woman look, not sick, but tired, like any mother of a young child might look. 

Gwen moved to the back of the tent where clothes hung on a rack.  She slid the plastic hangers of sweaters and blouses and slacks and dresses back and forth so that they clacked together.  She touched each item lightly, careful to treat the woman’s belongings with respect as if that would make the woman feel respected herself.  Finished with the clothes, Gwen moved to a row of shoes sitting in the grass.  A pair of black leather sandals made Gwen pause, and as she bent to pick one up, the woman came to her side. 

“Those are my favorite,” the woman said.  “I could live in them all summer long.”

Gwen smiled.  She looked at the still sitting husband and child, then back at this woman who, Gwen noticed, was very much alive right now and smelled like lavender.  “They’re very pretty,” Gwen said, and she nodded a few times.  Are you afraid to die?

“They are,” the woman said.  She bit the inside of her cheek.  Yes.




Jul 26 2009

Featured Fiction Writer: July 2009 Vol. 1 #9

Renee Evans:


Renee Evans is a recent graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review and roger.






(excerpted from the full-length piece that originally appeared in roger)


            The young woman pulls a tissue from her red purse and wipes her daughter’s nose. The child turns her head and the mother clutches at every piece of this scene she can: the lines between her daughter’s eyebrows, the tight corkscrew curls, the skin that always smells like syrup. The young woman wants to cry, but they are on the bus, and people aren’t supposed to cry on the bus, or in public places. People should save that sort of thing for inside their houses. But a  month ago her landlord left a note saying she’d been evicted—people always say she isn’t very bright, but she knows what it means to be evicted—and has no place to cry. Her daughter is too young to understand, and the woman hopes not knowing will make this easier. The young woman folds the used tissue around its warm contents and puts it back into her purse.

            For a while, she was proud of herself for doing so well. A place to stay and a job that let her bring the child to work. Her daughter played in a pen in the manager’s office while the young woman took orders and delivered food. Mr. Holly, the manager—he was a nice man with a round stomach and a round nose and a round, bald head—stayed in there with her as much as he could, but sometimes he had to see to unhappy customers. The daughter didn’t speak much, but she pointed to every fat old man she saw and called him “Lolly.” On her breaks, the young woman sneaked leftover dinner rolls to her daughter, who plucked at the bread with her still-chubby fingers and sogged it around in her mouth. It was a mess to clean up, but the child laughed and grinned and showed bits of sticky white bread between her perfect little teeth.

            Mr. Holly was pretty good at calming customers down. The young woman had grown accustomed to knocking on his door when someone rolled his eyes and said, “Can I see your manager?” And they used that tone of voice with her, too. She was polite and allowed the customer to be always right—besides, she could take a second to pick up the child and hug her before she went back to check on her tables.

The last time she knocked on Mr. Holly’s door, the customer followed her to the manager’s office and peeked inside. The child smiled when she looked up and saw the young woman standing just behind the customer, but he wasn’t happy to see the child.

“What is this?” The man raised his voice and pointed—it is not polite to point.

“I’m sorry, sir. Would you like to speak out in the dining room?” Mr. Holly stood between the child and the customer.

“What the hell is a kid doing here?”

The young woman picked up her crying daughter.

“No wonder the service here is terrible—running a daycare for retards.”

At that, Mr. Holly asked the man to leave. Before he left, the man threatened to have everyone fired. But everyone wasn’t fired—just Mr. Holly and the young woman. So she collected her final paycheck early one morning and left before Mr. Holly got there. She felt bad for getting him fired.

The bus’s brakes squeal and both the young woman and her daughter jump at the noise. Their stop is coming up soon. The child fusses and shuts her green eyes—she is tired or hungry or everything all at once. The young woman pulls a packet of crackers from her purse. They ate at a buffet yesterday and stayed in the booth a long time. They sat under a window and threw food at one another. The young woman watched her child’s movements, tried to memorize the creases and folds of fat. This baby will be a beautiful woman someday—the young woman felt good about that. She stuffed that red purse full of crackers before they left. They couldn’t afford to leave a tip.

            The child bounces along in her seat and gets crumbs down her front. She sits still long enough for the young woman to brush them away. She watches the specks fall to the floor of the bus and grows angry. She is angry at herself. And at the purse. No, this is her fault. She was selfish—she is selfish. She just wanted something for herself. It was just a purse. A pretty red purse with a metal clasp that clicks when it closes, just sitting there all shiny in the window. And she hasn’t received a birthday present in years. She hadn’t considered how much money she wouldn’t have for rent until it came time to pay the rent. People say she’s not too bright. She tried to take the purse back, but the woman said they didn’t do that.

            So as they sat at the buffet yesterday, the young woman thought about what she should do. She didn’t know. She doesn’t have Mr. Holly’s phone number or his address. And if she did, how could she pay him for anything he did for her? The last time she owed someone, the man said he could show her how to find an apartment—she was just out of the children’s home, old enough to be on her own, they said—the man found a room for her to stay, helped her make the child, then left. Everything else she’s done on her own, including mess it all up. But she planned for this. She was sure to save enough money for the trip.

            The bus doors open. This is their stop. The young woman gathers her daughter into her arms and steps off the bus and pauses. The afternoon sun is bright and glares off the parking lot. An old man with a bagful of groceries grumbles, pushes past the young woman and onto the bus. He smells like sweat and bus exhaust.

            The child buries her face in her mother’s neck. It feels good—the girl’s hair tickles and the bump of her nose fits perfectly into the woman’s neck. This will be harder than she thought.

            But she tried to think of all of this yesterday. She told herself that this was what had to be done. For the child. She has ruined enough, and even if it hurts, she has to do it. She hasn’t cried. But her insides feel foreign. She doesn’t feel sick—just wrong. For a second she wonders if she could just turn around and walk away. Or maybe a better solution will stop her before she passes through the sliding doors, but nothing happens. She adjusts the child on her hip and keeps moving.

            An older lady in a vest is arranging carts when the young woman and her daughter enter. The older lady doesn’t look up as the young woman heads for the back of the store. This was the one place the young woman knew her daughter would be safe. She holds tighter to the child as she passes shelves of stereos and televisions. “Lolly,” the child points to a picture of an old man who is on all of the screens. The sound is turned off, and he looks odd smiling and moving his mouth. She can’t understand what he is saying. She keeps walking.

            Color and color and color is what she sees. This is her favorite section of the store—the fabrics section. Sometimes the bolts are arranged by color, sometimes by pattern, other times, the workers put the ones that feel the same in one bin. The child claps her hands. She likes this section, too.

            The young woman thinks she should put the child down to let her wander between the shelves and feel them for herself, but the woman can’t bring herself to let the child out of her arms. They move together.

            “Look,” she says, and puts the child’s hand on a roll of bright orange fabric that looks fuzzy. It reminds her of blankets she has wrapped her daughter in. The child breathes through her mouth—shiny bottom lip. Her nose is running again. The young woman uses the loose flap of fabric to wipe her daughter’s face. The child leans into it. She smiles.

            They walk around all the stacks of fabric, mother and daughter holding one hand out to feel the different textures, holding on with the other hand. They pass quickly by the reds and head for the wall of fabrics behind the cutting counter. There are no workers back there at the moment. Three rows of different kinds of fabric. She can only reach the first two, but they make two passes—one to feel the bottom row, one to feel the middle. Some of the colors she doesn’t even know the names of. Standing there in front of all that color, she wants more than ever to cry. But this is just as public as the bus. She has no home to cry in.

            They stop at the counter with pattern catalogs. The young woman picks one out and sits on the floor with her daughter in her lap. Her child weighs barely anything. There is not enough of her. They flip open the magazine and peel one glossy page from the next. She can hear her daughter breathe through her mouth. The young woman knows her own child’s breath. She is concentrating on turning the pages one at a time. The child’s tiny back—with all the tiny bones inside—presses against the mother’s stomach.

            “Pick one,” the young woman says to her daughter. She smells the girl’s hair. She kisses her cheek—feels the way the skin pushes back; it tastes like syrup.

            They sit there on the floor, hidden between aisles, for a long time.

The young woman will not cry. Her daughter will not cry.

“Pick one and I’ll make it for you.”

The child is so young. She should not understand, but she turns the pages one at a time. The young woman picks up her daughter and sets the child down beside her. The magazine goes onto the girl’s lap. She bends her head and focuses on separating one page from the others with her little fingers.

The young woman kisses her baby girl on the head lightly—she does not want to distract the child from her task—hair and scalp and syrup; that’s all she can take in.

The young woman tucks her red purse under her arm and walks quickly out of this public place.

Jun 20 2009

Featured Fiction Writer: June 2009 Vol. 1 #8


Melissa Scholes Young


Melissa Scholes Young’s work has been published in the nationally syndicated Front Porch Magazine, New Plains Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Literary Mama and in Mothering.  She has been anthologized in the book Cup of Comfort for Teachers.  She won Front Porch Magazine’s Best New Nonfiction Author Contest. She has also written feature articles and humor columns for Family Forum and Capital Culture. In addition to her writing, Melissa has taught English and Creative Writing at all levels from middle school to high school, from community college to university and finally, at an international school in Brazil.  She is currently working towards an MFA degree in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University.     






            Luciana likes to sift the flour first, leaning her hip against the marble counter and watching the powder fall like fresh snow into the blue bowl. She pumps the handle on the metal sifter and tiny pin pricks line the surface of the flour.  It’s her mother’s bowl, a deep cobalt with chipped edges, the one she watched her make cheesy pao de queijo and sweet brigadeiros in.  The one she found after the flood.  Luciana shakes her head at the wonder of a heavy ceramic bowl balancing on a piece of driftwood floating to the surface and her mother, light as a feather, sinking below. “Luci, always the flour first. Sift it fine so the chocolate mixes well. Flour, chocolate, sugar, salt and a pinch of coffee. Add the wet ingredients last,” her mother said in Portuguese. Luciana shakes the bowl and watches the flour settle into a smooth mound. She reaches for the chocolate and the measuring spoons.  She adds the sifted flour and chocolate to each layer from the bowl watching the pile grow smaller until only a light brown dust remains. One layer of crème de leite with condensed milk, one layer of crème de café with Brazilian coffee, one layer of crème de liquor.  “Sweet, bitter, strong.  Always in that order, bonitinho,” her mother said.

            Eduardo complained that the chocolate was too expensive when he added up her nightly receipts.  Sitting at his tidy desk in the study, cigarette smoke curling from his fingertips, as he pounded away at the keys on the adding machine. “Buy American chocolate, Luci.  It’s cheaper.”  It wasn’t a question. Luciana couldn’t understand a man who thought American chocolate tasted anything like Brazilian chocolate.  But she didn’t understand much of Eduardo anymore.  Two years in this country and she can’t remember why they came.  “Everything’s ruined here, Luci.  Everything’s gone.  We need to go, too. Let’s go, amorzinho. Let’s go while we can,” Eduardo said pressing her hands into his. They left on the ship the next day with a blue bowl wrapped in handmade sweaters packed in the bags beneath the deck.

            Luciana leans her whole body over the cold, reflective surface of the counter and watches herself lick the wooden spoon and her mind travels back. The spoon tastes like home and she smells chocolate baking and cinnamon and sticky sweet icing and sees chickens in the road.  They scatter as she skips toward her mother hoping she’s not too late to dip her fingers into the blue bowl and drip chocolate onto her waiting tongue.  Her mother leans her hip against the wooden table with the wobbly left leg and dries her hands with a stained dishtowel.  Smears of chocolate brown on white cotton, crusty and dark as blood. A smile fills her mother’s face as Luci licks chocolate fingers. He mother spits into the towel and wipes a smear of brown from Luci’s cheek and kisses the clean spot.

            Today, Luciana wants to talk to her mother most of all.  She wants to tell her how Eduardo has changed. “It’s this country,” she’d say, “nothing makes sense.  Everyone has everything and no one’s happy. Not even Eduardo. He’s never happy anymore.” Her mother would know that it’s actually something else. Her mother would narrow her eyes and stare hard at Luci.  The silence always made Luci talk faster. So then she’d tell her about the small things.  Eduardo staying out late but coming home sober.  Eduardo working at the office all the time but less money to buy groceries. Eduardo calling another woman’s name in his sleep.  Luciana heard it clearly. Serena. She wonders if she is an American.  Luciana pictures Serena as a blonde, a tall woman who wears pale pink as the Americans do when they jog.  Serena has curly hair and blue eyes like her mother’s bowl.  The other woman is the exact opposite of Luciana with her thick, black hair that hangs down her back like a rope.  Luci hardly reaches Eduardo’s shoulder.  He used to pick her up like a doll and set her on his knee like a child. He’d nuzzle into her long hair and inhale.  Luciana smoothes her hair from her face now with the back of her hand and leaves a white trail of flour in the black strands. She stirs the batter harder, the wooden spoon clicks loudly banging against the sides of the blue bowl. She pours each batter into three round pans and slams the oven door behind them.

            Luciana measures out the powdered sugar for the icing as the cakes bake. She glances at the clock. 2:12.  17 more minutes to bake. An hour to cool. She’ll ice the cake and add the fresh strawberries to the top. She’ll drizzle the chocolate over the strawberries minutes before Eduardo walks through the door. She’ll stand in front of the cake and he’ll see it over her shoulder as she steps forward to peck him lightly on the cheek. “Ah. Chocolate,” Eduardo will say into Luciana’s hair, holding her for a moment in his arms. “I thought it was blood.” Luciana’s eyes will flash and narrow as Eduardo traces a stain of chocolate up her arm.

            The final ingredient, the rat poison, which Luciana ground with her mortal and pestle, will make Eduardo double over in pain. Luciana imagines his bleeding ulcer bleeding more. His insides twisting in agony. Eduardo rushing down the narrow hall and retching again and again into the toilet bowl.  His hairline dripping, his eyes closed against the pain.