First Annual Twisted Vine Writing Contest
Deadline: March 15, 2016
Prose: Fiction or creative nonfiction, any topic will be considered, although we prefer work with an interdisciplinary slant. 4,000 words or less.
Poetry: Our tastes in poetry are eclectic and wide ranging, but as with prose, we prefer poetry with an interdisciplinary slant. Please submit up to 3 poems, or 5 pages total.
PLEASE INDICATE THE SUBMISSION TYPE IN THE FILE NAME OF THE SUBMISSION, ex: Poetry_Contest_Submission. ALL entries must be submitted through our submissions manager. Email entries will not be accepted.
Submissions are read blind. DO NOT include your name or any other identifying information anywhere on the entry or it will be DISQUALIFIED.
Submittable has spaces for contact information and a short third person bio—keep all personal information limited to these spaces.
Your entry must be previously unpublished. For the purpose of this contest, Twisted Vine considers personal blogs, websites, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc., to be previously published.
An $8.00 nonrefundable entry fee is required to participate in the contest.
Anyone, excluding Twisted Vine staff, may enter. There are no restrictions on content. Just send us your best.
Multiple entries are acceptable, but each entry must include the $8 entry fee.
Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but please let us know if your work is accepted elsewhere by withdrawing your submission on Submittable.
Give your story a title and proofread thoroughly.
Contest winners will be notified via email in April 2016 and will have their award money transferred via PayPal upon confirmation. First, second, * and third* place winners will be published in Twisted Vine’s spring 2016 issue. (*Twisted Vinereserves the right to forego awarding second and third place if the quality of the entries does not meet the journal’s standards.)
Should your work be selected as a winner, Twisted Vine Literary Journal is granted exclusive electronic rights for a period of 120 days (4 months), as well as a non-exclusive archival rights to maintain a copy of published work in our archives indefinitely. Exclusive electronic rights means that you agree not to re-publish your work elsewhere online, or in print, while the issue featuring your work is current. Writers retain all other rights, including the right to re-publish their work at any time after the 120-day exclusive period ends. Any subsequent publication must include acknowledgment such as “originally published in Twisted Vine Literary Journal.”
Entries that do not conform to contest guidelines will be automatically disqualified. Good luck!
Caseyrenee Lopez – Chief Editor
Eric Allen Yankee – Chief Editor
Twisted Vine Faculty Supervisor
Website/Marketing/Social Media Team
Janeen Thompson Brown
Janeen Thompson Brown
Eric Allen Yankee
The summer’s heat had abated, and it was ten in the morning. She was out for a walk, but now she was stopped on the paved lane that wound through this sector of the mobile home park, a huge complex that was on the eastern fringes of Las Vegas. Since it was October it meant that she’d been living there for three years and was starting in on her fourth year, and so she thought that she should have been used to the weather, but she wasn’t used to the weather, at least not the hot weather. She had made adjustments, though, yet those adjustments had as much to do with weather, hot weather, as they did with aging, or so she felt. In each of the consecutive three summers her daily regimen of taking a walk had gotten pushed further and further back into the day and into the night. During her first summer in Southern Nevada she walked at dusk. The following summer she walked in the early evening, stars appearing, people sitting down to dinner. But then with this past summer her walks became a late-night activity—ten, eleven, even midnight strolls, alone and walking, which caused her to wonder about insomnia. But, as of a week ago, she was back on an autumnal schedule, which meant morning walks, and the same could be said for spring and winter, morning walks, but winter meant bundling up. The desert in that respect, bundling up in winter, was somewhat deceptive, at least for a lot of people, because a lot of people tended to think of only hot weather when they thought of the desert. She had been forewarned, for in her youth she had spent a year in the Negev, Southern Israel, where she had lived on a kibbutz that was about forty-five minutes out of Be’er Sheva by bus, a kibbutz that she probably wouldn’t have ever gone to, or lived on, or known of, if it weren’t for a man that she had met in Athens, Greece, a man in his twenties, just as she was in her twenties, an accidental, coincidental run-in atop the Acropolis. He was sitting on a stone step looking out at the city. It was April, and there was a breeze with a few white clouds moving in the sky, coolness to that breeze, but where he was sitting it appeared to be warm, air not moving, sunshine angling down, stone steps in back of him blocking the breeze. He was rangy and there was weather on his face and hands, and he seemed content for where he was sitting. That was what she first noticed, or what first snagged her attention or her interest, for his contentment was only about the immediate, but in this, inexplicably, there seemed to be other things at play underneath this immediate contentment, things that described aloneness, or lost-ness. She was on her way to Israel, on her way to a kibbutz office in Tel Aviv where she would be assigned a kibbutz. She had her airplane ticket: Athens to Lod, but in reality the ticket was: Los Angeles – Madrid – Athens – Lod, a one-year open ticket. These were the circumstances that framed her time in Greece, a three-day (three night) stopover before continuing on to the Levant.
Accidental or coincidental, or maybe he felt her looking at him, but how could he have felt such a thing considering that his view was away from her? In any event, he turned and looked at her, looked at her and at nothing else, as if the purpose of his turning was to look at her. She was standing away from him and to the side and behind him and a little above him, which put her on the spot, an embarrassing spot, her face flushing, her stance shifting, but whether he saw her embarrassment or not was never made clear because it was never brought up, never discussed. What was clear, though, was his smile, instantaneously clear, for it came to his face in those first few moments of eye contact. His smile was inimitable. It was something to remember. Not a movie-star smile, not that kind of ‘to remember,’ but an odd smile, a crooked smile, a smile that pushed and shoved at his face—the right side of his countenance scrunched up, the left side flaccid, right side of his mouth going up into his right cheek, left side of the mouth level and leaving his left cheek undisturbed, right eye squinting from being shoved up from the bottom by the right cheek that got lifted upward by the right side of his mouth, left eye round. In a way, it was a Picasso face, a cubist portrait. But there was no embarrassment, not about the face or about anything else, at least none that she could discern. It was simply a crooked smile that made for a crooked face, a face he had obviously been living with for a long time, perhaps his entire life, a face that he had come to terms with, made friends with, maybe even utilized as an asset of sorts, for it was a face that could say anything.
And so she had walked over because what else was there to do? And while walking and stepping from one step to the next in a lateral descent to reach his level she became aware of her hair lifting in that breeze and aware of herself smiling, tennis shoes on her feet, jeans on her legs, a sweatshirt on her torso. Her hair, when she reached his immediate vicinity, fell slack for lack of that breeze. She had long hair then, long brown hair. He seemed to be studying her hair.
Standing to the side of him and looking down at him, she said, “Where are you going?” Perhaps because everyone was going someplace in those days.
“India,” he responded. “Do you wanna go?”
He wasn’t joking. She knew this down to her bones, knew it without any doubt, knew that all she had to say was “Yes” and she’d be going to India with him.
Her smile left her face. She didn’t know what to say. She felt naked. He continued to smile, but it was different from moments before, a different smile, yet still tangled, and his eyes had shifted from her hair to her eyes. His eyes were a dented gray. It was astounding, for within a couple of coincidental random moments her course, her plans, her direction, were called into question.
She laughed as if she had no other recourse. He looked at her, his smile shifting, and it took a moment before she realized that he was laughing. His laughter, like his smile, was only on one side of his face, the right side.
They left the Acropolis not long after that, walked down its stony slope to go to a café where they drank retsina and ate olives, feta cheese and bread, and where they talked and talked and talked, everything so urgent, so important. She felt that she could say anything, perhaps because he was a stranger, and it was during their time in that café, late afternoon and into the evening, that he told her about the kibbutz in the Negev, a scrub desert wedged between the Sinai and the Judean Hills. He had just come from there, had just spent the winter there, which was the winter of the war, 1973 and then into ‘74. It hadn’t been his first time at that kibbutz. He had spent the previous winter there as well, six months, and the only reason he had left this time was because his girlfriend, who he had planned to make a life with on the kibbutz, but who was from Tel Aviv, had decided to go to school, university in Jerusalem. And so his plans had been made void. Suddenly he had no future, for the kibbutz and his girlfriend were fused. She couldn’t believe his openness about this, as if he were apart from it and was describing it, and yet it was all over him. It showed—he was inside-out, raw and exposed. He had nothing left to defend.
But about the kibbutz—very basic, no frills, a commune clinging to arid land, Bedouin not an uncommon sight. From the kibbutz, and past its fields and orchards, there was nothing to see but desert. He said he had never known such quiet. He told her how to get there and he told her that all she had to do when she arrived was to say that she had spoken to him—Wade Ricky. The peach crop would be starting soon. They needed volunteers.
Something about the man—the long-ness of the body, the tilt of the head on the neck, the faded red cap on the head, the squinting right eye, which was the eye she could see from where she was stopped and standing on that paved lane, her walk on a hiatus. He was at a wooden picnic table sitting on a bench with a slab of concrete beneath the table, no awning. All the trailer spots had these patios along with space for parking, two-car parking, but his trailer, a singlewide, had no vehicle. But most of all, there was an ‘aloneness’ about him. He was doing something, drawing perhaps. There seemed to be a sketchpad on the table and there definitely was a cup, a coffee mug, along with a calico cat that was sitting its haunches while entertaining the same view as he was, a view of the desert as seen beyond a chain-link fence that was about fifteen feet away from his singlewide and its adjacent patio. This was the backside of the mobile home park. The space next to his trailer was empty, and if it weren’t for that empty trailer space she probably wouldn’t have seen him from where she was walking one the one-way paved road that ran through this district of the trailer court.
It was such a long shot, for how could it be him? Coincidence, auspicious or otherwise, seemed a thing of the past, an event that had sometimes occurred in her youth, but then had faded as she advanced into middle years until finally becoming extinct as she shifted from mid-fifties into her sixties, and in thinking about this, as she sometimes did, she consigned ‘coincidence’ to that time in a person’s life when they are young and so much is possible, and like with possibility and newness and curiosity and excitement coincidence diminished with age until it became a memory.
And yet, the sight of that man sitting at that table had halted her steps. Coincidence?
She purposely took a short cut that put her sport shoes on gritty dirt as opposed to taking a paved route to his patio because she wanted him to hear her shoes crunching on the dirt. The cat noticed first. It was a tri-colored calico and it was sitting on the table to his left, the cat’s head turning, and in this he noticed the cat, or maybe he noticed the cat and the sounds of her footsteps at the same time. He turned slowly, his upper body turning stiffly, which was understandable given his age. His head on his neck turned in the same way, stiffly, until his eyes located her, which then stopped everything about him as if her approach required his full attention. She suddenly felt self-conscious. She felt her feet moving, felt the grit beneath her sport shoes crunching, felt her knees brushing the inside of her cotton skirt. She was glad she had remained slim.
When she arrived at his table she saw that he had indeed been drawing, but now his pencil was stopped and was poised between his fingers, a regular graphite pencil. His head had turned so that his eyes could follow her as she came to the patio, but now of course his head was still and all he was doing was looking at her, his head at a tilt, and she now remembered that, too, the tilt of his head. He was wearing glasses. He hadn’t been wearing glasses in Athens. Horizontally across the lenses of the glasses there was a distinct line declaring upper and lower prescriptions—bifocals. He was looking up at her from where he sat. The cat was looking at her, too. She started to bring a hand up to the lobe of her ear, but stopped, the gesture somehow failing her, hand raised, but with nowhere to go.
“I think we might have met before,” she said.
He smiled. And there it was.
He set his pencil down and said, “Would you care to have a seat?” He gestured to the bench on the opposite side of the table. She sat down.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“That’d be nice.”
“I’ll be right back.”
He picked up his cup and stood up and went to the door of the singlewide and went in. It was quiet and the cat was looking at her, but then the cat looked past her. She turned, as if acknowledging the cat’s cue, and looked at the desert. After this she turned back and looked at his drawing, which was of a creosote bush, but upon closer inspection she saw that he was sketching in a roadrunner beneath the long limbs of the creosote. She turned back around and located the bush he had drawn. It was on the other side of the chain-link fence, about twelve feet from the fence, a large bush like a clump and that some people referred to as a colony. The cat made a chirping sound and she looked at the cat, its face splint into black and white and brown. The cat’s view, outward toward the desert, was intense. She turned and looked again at the desert, specifically at the creosote bush, and this time she saw the roadrunner, but she only saw it after it had moved, moved in a darting sort of way, the bird’s head movement the same, quick and jerky. The roadrunner, when not moving, blended perfectly with its surroundings.
She smiled for having discovered the intrigue of the scene, which was the intrigue of his drawing. She reached over and petted the cat, the cat accepting this without shying. It was a young cat, gangly and still kitten-like, yet there was a serenity about it in the way it studied the desert.
When he returned he carried a round wooden tray, two coffee mugs steaming, a pint of milk, a bowl of sugar, a couple of spoons, and a bowl of shortbread cookies.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after they had fixed their coffees the way they liked them, “but I can’t remember meeting you. If you could fill me in a little?”
“Of course. But first—You’re Wade Ricky, aren’t you?”
He seemed to be examining her face in search of hints that might trigger his memory, but there was more to it than that, which caused her to surmise that he was looking at her with the eyes of someone who drew or painted, eyes that were measuring folds of skin, shadow, hair tint, lips, teeth, thinness of face, length of neck. Were these the eyes he had had in Athens, eyes perusing methodically? But beyond that consideration, there was the overwhelming reality that he was who she had thought, and with this she praised her memory on two accounts: one, recognizing him, and two, recalling his name.
“Unbelievable,” she uttered in a scratchy way, for her throat was constricted. “Athens,” she began, but then took a sip of coffee to loosen her throat.
“1974,” she picked up, and proceeded to fill him in on the particulars. In response, he sat and listened. She had his attention, and it seemed such a long time since she had encountered someone who truly listened. Even her doctors didn’t seem to really listen. Now and then he sipped his coffee. Now and then she sipped her coffee. The cat assumed a prone position on its side, limbs laid out on the table in a splayed fashion.
When she concluded her monologue they sat—simply sat. This ended when he picked up a cookie and put it in his mouth and started chewing. She did the same, picked up a cookie and bit it in half and chewed, but then, when the taste took hold, her chewing slowed and she purposely looked at the half a cookie that was in her fingers. “Is this a Lorna Doone?” she asked.
“My God, I haven’t had a Lorna Doone in ages.”
He grinned. “Well, they still sell them,” he said.
She smiled. “Yes, I guess they do.” The rest of the cookie went into her mouth. Her lips were without cosmetics and the rest of her face was like that as well. For some reason she thought of this and was glad that she hadn’t put on lipstick or cosmetics, for if she had it would have been like she was trying to cover something up.
“The man who became my husband I met on that kibbutz,” she said.
He tilted his head. “Oh? Well in that case, I guess my recommendation was pretty good.”
She laughed. “More than good. It was accurate.”
This seemed to renew his attention, but whether it was her verbal response or her laughter that had pricked his attention she couldn’t tell. He brought his cup up and sipped.
“He was from San Diego.”
“Yes. We came back and got married. He got his Realtor’s license and started making money. San Diego County was up and coming then. I went back to school and got a Masters and then had two children, a boy and a girl. After the kids started school I got a part-time teaching position at a community college, Art History, which turned into a fulltime position a few years later.”
“This was in San Diego?”
“San Diego County. We lived in El Cajon.”
He nodded. “That sounds pretty good.”
She looked at him, searching for mirth, but there wasn’t any. She sipped her coffee. He sipped his coffee.
“My husband, Jacob, died four years ago. A stroke.”
He waited. She picked up a Lorna Doone and held it in her fingers.
“My children were no longer living at home. I was alone in that house in El Cajon, suddenly alone. I stopped working. It was like a knife in the gut, a knife that severed my life, a-before-and-an-after effect. Of course it was impossible to go back to before, because before was gone, and every day in that house reminded me of this.” She paused, the cookie still between her fingers.
“No life is perfect,” she resumed. “There were things with my husband, things with my children, things with my job, things with myself, but still . . . It was a life. It had these qualities, these textures, these familiarities, which constituted a life. But then it was gone.”
He nodded. She put the cookie in her mouth and chewed. The cat was asleep.
“In that year, the year after Jacob’s death, I tried all kinds of things, even a psychiatrist who gave me medication, which helped, but there were side effects.”
“A friend of mine had moved out here. She has a doublewide in the complex here. I came out for a visit. We walked, and then I walked, walked alone in the complex and then walked alone in the desert.”
He was looking at her, that full-attention looking at her.
“A memory,” she said. “The Negev, or something like that. But above all else, it was a break from that house in El Cajon, with all those memories.”
They sip their coffees.
“I bought a doublewide. It was secondhand and already spotted here in the complex. A simple transaction. Not expensive. My children visit now and then, Thanksgiving and so forth. And there are grandchildren.”
“Oh, I forgot. I didn’t tell you my name. I’m Ann, Ann Dell Beck, but of course in Athens I was Ann Caroline Beck, but I probably didn’t tell you all that. I probably just said Ann.”
“Of course I remember you now—that day, your face, the Acropolis, the café. I started east the next day, you know—overland.”
And now she was looking at him.
“But I’m glad you told me your name because I couldn’t remember it. I remember Jacob, his name, his face, etcetera. I knew him well. We worked together in the orchards, the mata, pruning peach trees.”
“Yes, he told me.” And now she paused, before continuing. “Jacob told me a story of how one day, toward the end of the pruning season, when you, the pneumatic crew, were going to start in on a grove of two-year-old trees. It would be the first cut and they’d come into production the following year, and it was a question of how these trees were going to be pruned, because in that first pruning so much of their growth would be determined. So you sat down, tractor and compressor turned off. There was you and Jacob and four others. Only four guys worked with pneumatic clippers, but the extra fellow had come over from the hand-pruning crew because he sometimes worked in your crew. Jacob said that you were the crew leader. The winter before, too, you were the pneumatic crew leader, but of course Jacob wasn’t there then. Anyway, on this afternoon, late in the afternoon, Ben was there, the man in charge of the orchards, the man whose forte was peaches, the man who people from around the world came to see about peach trees, particularly peach trees in the desert. And it was decided after some discussion, which got nowhere, and here Jacob had laughed. Anyway, it was decided that you’d each cut a tree, four trees and then another two trees because there were only four hoses connected to the compressor. And so each of you worked independently, each cutting their own tree as they thought it should be cut, and when the six trees were done the six of you looked at the trees and it was clear that two of the trees were identical—the tree Ben cut, and the tree you cut. And so that’s how the cut went—the entire grove cut to that standard.”
He grinned. “I liked pruning the trees. It went on all winter. Started at the end of November after the leaves had fallen, which was when the bell pepper crop was giving out because of the cold. The cut continued, grove after grove, variety after variety, until the early varieties, boosted with a spray of oil, started coming into bloom. We raced that bloom, and we were still working on the late-blooming trees and trying to finish those when the early ones started coming in—both winters. That was the window, between when the leaves fell and the trees blossomed.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “I worked in the mata, too, picking peaches, and then in the winter pruning, hand-pruning. Jacob was in charge of the pneumatic crew that winter.”
“Yes. Jacob knew how to cut.”
A pause, a silence. They sipped their coffees.
“She came back,” Ann began. “Came back for a visit at the end of November, looking for you.”
“Naomi. Who else?”
And now he really looked at her.
“Did she stay?”
“No. She was just there for two nights. She came out to the mata and cut trees the one day. We worked together, worked next to each other. We talked. She thought you’d be back to cut the trees.”
“I was in India.”
“Did you ever get back to the kibbutz?”
“When did you come back?”
“Come back to where?”
“You mean Las Vegas, this mobile home park? I moved here from Los Angeles a month and a half ago.”
“I see. Well that explains why I haven’t seen you. I just started walking in the daytime again. But I mean, I know you’re from Los Angeles because so am I. We talked about that in Athens. But what I mean is, when did you get back to L.A.? When did you come back to the States?”
“Ten years ago.”
“Ten years ago?”
She looks at him pointedly.
“How long were you away?”
Her hand comes up but then stops, a raised hand that lingers about a foot above the table, palm slightly turned. She’s about to say something. But she doesn’t say anything. She lowers the hand to where it resumes its place on the table near her coffee mug.
“Did you get married?”
“What in the world were you doing over there? I almost went with you. Did you know that?”
She looks at him.
“Third-rate accommodation, low-paying jobs, and cheap thrills. That’s what I was doing—mostly east of the Hindu Kush.”
Silence—silence that only the desert can produce. She sits with this, as if it were a remedy.
Michael Onofrey’s stories have appeared in Arroyo, Cottonwood, Natural Bridge, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (anthology, University of New Mexico Press), and Weber – The Contemporary West, as well as in other literary journals and anthologies.
He left me because I slammed the kitchen cabinet door. The term “Irretrievably Broken” on the divorce filing was insufficient for him. He wrote “Other” on top of the front page then proceeded to explain I was too loud to live with.
My husband filled out the paperwork and filed it with the court. In his mind, he had done his part.
“The least you can do is to show up for the hearing because only one of us is required to make an appearance,” he said.
Open hours for divorce court are on Tuesdays from noon to 2:00 P.M. I enter the courtroom where only a clerk is present. She informs me the judge is at lunch in his chambers and he will sign off on my paperwork there.
“Hello,” I whisper as I knock tentatively on the judge’s door.
“Come on in,” says a gruff voice.
“Can you sign my divorce papers?” I stand in the doorway until the he waves me in.
“Where’s your counsel?” he asks while eating his club sandwich.
“I don’t have an attorney.” I bite my lip.
Rolling his eyes, he grabs the petition out of my hand. He asks me if there is any chance of reconciliation although my husband has written across the front page “NO CHANCE OF GETTING BACK TOGETHER” with his favorite Sharpie marker.
I can tell he was angry by the way he wrote his letters – each word progressively getting thicker as his anger bubbled to the surface.
“DON’T SLAM THE FRONT DOOR” was printed on bright yellow stock paper and glued to the daylight window in our foyer.
“STOP SLAMMING THE CABINET DOORS” was written on several index cards and taped all over the kitchen.
“YOU’RE TOO LOUD” was smeared with red lipstick on my bathroom mirror.
The judge’s question is only a formality. His pity washes over me and I can’t look at him. I shake my head.
“Why didn’t you ask for anything?”
“He said it would be easier this way.”
“Mrs. Mallory, I shouldn’t give you legal advice but do you want to counter with a cruelty charge?”
I blush. My husband conditioned me to pause – to be afraid – to watch my volume – to think everything through before speaking. I touch my throat to soften my tone.
“No your honor, I just want it to be over. Ten years of silence is more than enough.”
“Alright then. I grant your divorce.” The judge signs the decree and hands it back to me. “Take it to the clerk for filing. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” I whisper.
I hand the documents to the clerk. The ladies behind the counter see what my husband has written and they snicker.
“You should get a certified copy in a few weeks, Mrs. Mallory.” The woman slides the receipt through the window.
“It’s Michelle.” I look down and smile.
I run to the parking garage, my heels pounding on the pavement. I haven’t heard that sound in such a long time.
I accidentally hit the alarm on my car remote. I panic and I look around for him. After a few seconds, I know he’s not there. I slam the door closed. I take in a deep breath, without worrying that my sinuses are too loud.
I enter my new apartment and let the door close, naturally. “Boom!” I chuckle.
I throw my keys onto the glass tabletop and the chime echoes throughout the living room. I throw up my arms. “Score!”
I pull a plate out of the kitchen cabinet. The dishes are not separated by parchment paper to dull the clinking. The cabinet doors do not have a slow release hinge like my ex-husband installed at the house. I let the handle fall from my fingers. The door ricochets a few times off the frame. I do a dance of joy.
I grab a knife from the silverware tray and scoop peanut butter out of the jar. The knife scrapes the sides. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.
I throw the knife into the sink, which I did not line with a rubber mat. The knife torpedoes and scratches the stainless steel. I twirl around like I did when I was a little girl.
I chomp the sandwich, slurp my Coke, and slam the plate on the counter with glee.
My arms sway over my head. And the crowd cheers.
Yong Takahashi lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Yong placed first in the Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference National Short Story Contest and in the Writer’s Digest’s Write It Your Way Contest. Her works appear in Cactus Heart, Emerge Literary Journal, Meat For Tea, River & South Review, Rusty Nail Magazine, and Spilt Infinitive.
A scarlet semi blew its horn in a trailing wail as it thundered past the house along the paved road to drown the rasp of the grinding wheel, blowing dust and a wave of lighter green across the vines, the grape leaves whispering and turning over like hands, a million upturned begging palms . . . .
The window shook, Mrs. Watkins’ peacock from across the street shrieked a woman’s scream and for a heartbeat frozen at the center of the brilliant pane the immense crow with golden eye and glinting rainbow wings alive with evening sun crossed the glass with sudden opening beak—
The gawking prismed thing flashed a dozen colors and wouldn’t pass and I tore at the snap buttons of the oriental gown stitched with Chinese butterflies, until I glimpsed a shifting world of emerald, lavender, red, a rising line of black and purple indigo.
“You’ll die tonight,” repeated the turning fan.
With clumsy fingers I fastened the blue silk, letting my head fall back onto the pillows and my tired eyes stare at the yellow sky.
“Are you or aren’t you?” I complained, my breath coming fast and shallow as my heart began to cramp and I gripped the cotton string so it stretched taut from bed to the lock on the door where one day Aaron Markham would burst in dressed all in white.
The grate of the knife against the grinding wheel in the barnyard had ceased. I reached for the tumbler and brought it to my lips, tasting the gold liquor’s sharp sting.
“Kate?” I asked more softly. Is there balm in Gilead?
I heard only the taunting fan and the rustling of dry paper against the wall above my head. At least the raven with changing wings was gone—
I set the glass on the night table, by the bottle with the wild turkey on the label, next to the I Ching with three new pennies Kate had brought spread across its yellow cover, Lincoln’s bright profiles ignoring and gazing past me.
“Four score and seven years ago . . . . “
Beside the National Geographic map of bird migrations rested my silver hand mirror turned facedown and the matching brush, my DM monograms etched in a feathery flowing script that tried to escape the heat.
And a leather-framed sepia photograph of a girl in black kid boots, standing atop granite steps at the leaded-glass doors to a great white house by the freezing sea—
Clear-eyed and alert the young woman stared forward boldly with unembarrassed beauty, her high-cheeked elegance as natural and unaffected as a lion’s.
Piled layers of sunlit brown and golden hair framed her sculpted face, the strong planes of bone spanned by glowing summer skin.
She had a shapely neck and full lovely shoulders and her ample breasts pushed at the rich, closely cut evening dress, the sloping velvet bodice dusted with a rain of garnets and rhinestones.
And yet something was awry, her open glance seemed also furtive, veiling a secret worry—
The corners of her classic sensuous mouth edged toward an expression of concern. Her right hand was hesitant, half raised, the pretty fingers closed across the palm—you could see the ring and its black polished stone cut from the meteor.
(“A star to wear on your finger, a fitting spoil of war for she who conquers night—”)
Was someone calling to her, asking her to stop or wait or hurry? Did she hear the blue flag initialed with an “A” snapping on its staff above the mansion’s mansard roof? Or had she just remembered a name spoken by a mourning dark-suited stranger in last evening’s dream?
The key was the elaborate five-inch brooch at her strong-pumping heart, how it sparkled and appeared strangely animate—as if the fashioned butterfly rested only for a moment in its flight toward a glittering tree or a trellis of silver roses.
The butterfly was rare and precious as the golden nightingale from Hans Christian Anderson, the replacement clockwork bird that sang to the foolish emperor in the Forbidden City, the story I read to Kyla as child and later I saw her kneeling on the Chinese rug, touching the singing bird perched on the king’s ringed finger.
The jeweled wings shimmered, trembling, starting to beat—
I turned from the hungry picture that looked like Kate, Kyla’s daughter, in my dress, bending with my hands toward the velvet draped in a bar of sun at the foot of the bed.
The purple fabric felt dull, faded brown, rusty orange at its edges.
But the true gems scattered among the false stones winked and glinted—violet and gold, green and ruby as I touched them and their facets directed the hot light, sending colored stars skipping across the water-stained ceiling and walls.
“You’ll die tonight—”
I let the bandit Joaquin Murrietta’s diamonds Aaron and the hypnotized Ramon had found almost 70 years ago at Cantua Creek go out.
I leaned back against the wet pillow to breathe deeply and slow, the slips of cut newspaper about Geraldine Ferraro lifting and flapping with the fan, then noticed again the yellow shaft at the window where a hundred luminous satellites circled in wide orbit.
The passing gold and red motes were little worlds like Earth, with oceans and continents, mountains and valleys, vast cities and fields. On each planet late August had come and my granddaughter Kate no longer knocked at my door and I waited breathless and afraid for my heart in the same burning square room, looking west at the glaring vineyard of ripening grapes—
“The sky is blue with white behind it, like the sky in old tempera paintings of Christ,” I said to anchor myself in the heat—the folio of Fra Angelico and early-Renaissance art lay on its side, in my bedroom bookcase on Alma in Acacia, in the House of the Butterfly, across from Hack Wilson’s corner Chevron station. I lay 30 miles north, near Lemas, five miles westward off the 99, on Linda Verde which means “Pretty Green,” next-door to Kate on the second story of Kyla’s, my daughter’s, white farmhouse by the elm and yellow roses.
An hour and the blue will grow deeper and bluer and suddenly flash cobalt just before dark—soon the first crickets will begin, tentative at first, wary that the day has really ended, calling back and forth across the vineyard and lawn—
Venus, my guardian Ferraro, will appear, pure like a cool lamp above the purple vine rows where owls cross and nighthawks with backward-curving wings swerve and dip for insects. The welcome stars will start to burn and the mercury lights announcing the different farms blink on, dimming the sky and staining the barnyards with a shadowless fluorescence—
Then Kate’s window screen will scrape open and the rose trellis tremble against the side of the high house—
“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
Who spoke? Aaron Markham back from the grave and wearing white again?
My heart leaped and hurt and I clasped the cord to the locked door, watching the window pane for the colored crow, overhead the clippings of Ferraro fluttering and scraping like dry leaves, the blown air a desert atomic wind against my dripping cheek.
Like the red diesel truck, a green pickup honked as it passed the house and again I remembered Delmus’ harvest party.
In the morning the men would butcher the pig.
The stone screeched from the barnyard and the tumbler’s edge jarred against my capped teeth. I sloshed the warm whiskey into my mouth and swallowed, then held the glass at my waist, watching the reddening fattening sun slowly drop toward the Coast Range.
There the sea began and the moist sand sloped to meet the breakers— Seventy years ago at Santa Cruz my sisters and I played in the freezing surf, tossing the great ball that caught the light—
From me to Jean to Crystal to Pearl to Harriet and back to me. Round and round. I could see it clearly, a buoyant floating sun. Then backward, the other way—
Now when I threw the ball to hateful Harriet through the sunlit flying spray a new girl caught it.
She wore a bathing dress that flickered a dozen colors like a mermaid’s scales, like a layered swim cap made for Carole Lombard or Janet Gaynor, like a butterfly’s wings . . . . As she reached high for the shining globe her hair came unpinned and red-gold and brown and blonde fell in a torrent past her bare shoulders.
Her eyes shone green and large as mine.
I turned and the circle had broken, my four sisters were gone, swimming far out to a ship with red sails that lifted a barbed anchor. It was too late to follow them as they kicked after the new girl whose strong slender arms sliced the water like fins. The sun sank fast. The moon rocked the waves, cast its white light in broad V’s across the black tide.
The pale ball bobbed back and forth in the backwash and breakers.
“Kate!” I opened my eyes, squinting at the falling orange sun.
My hand fumbled for the string and I grasped it, then turned my head on the pillow to listen.
But it was too early, it wasn’t night yet, there was only the tired whining of the fan, the crackling of the clippings like kindling catching fire, and now the muffled whistle of a man in white linen before the grindstone squealed again—
Each morning Kate and I had spoken after breakfast—about love and Eddie Dodge and Ramon Zapata and Ferraro—and each night I had waited for her footsteps in the hall.
They came quickly, never stopping, always passing my door—Kate’s door would open and close—and ten minutes later her window screen would creak, then bang softly as the rose trellis hit against the house’s wall.
I would get up and hurry to the window to wait, until Kate emerged onto the porch-lit lawn and ran wading out into the vineyard’s plowed dirt with her sandals in her hand, as in the painting of Persephone rushing to save the world before sunrise—
The pink or peach-colored blouse, the white slacks or creased, knee-length khaki shorts, one of the simple solid or print cotton dresses?
Whatever Kate wore, it proved a perfect ending for the day, and an omen for the dark—each night had its own identity and mood, a fated leaning toward passion or calm or explosive disaster, and could wear only one name, like those elusive introverted girls who look and act only as a Cathy or the darkly handsome men with the long-strided confident walk of a Bill—
I took a short drink as the grinder kept up.
Sometimes it was almost funny, it seemed crazy, something I had read once in a book and forgot or maybe smiled or marveled at for a moment, the story’s otherwise-normal character who harbors an obsession for gooseberries or reading Robinson Crusoe over and over like the Bible.
After all, I was Dolly Mable, who had loved and been loved A to Z, been sought after by men brilliant and numerous as stars—
(But who else was alive who knew my full story? Hack had no idea and I’d told Kate only a small if important portion, carefully disguised—)
It was true, I had dazzled Ambrose Bierce and General Blackjack Pershing, Jack London, the governors of both California and Nevada, wonderful athletes and artists like the DiMaggios, Jim Thorpe and Joe Louis, Wells and Hemingway, Saroyan, Cooper and Gable up from Hollywood, young Elvis . . . .
Sad John Gilbert, after Garbo. Sweet Jon Hall. Valentino.
Thanks to Errol’s girlfriend, awful old Joe Kennedy, JFK’s tyrannical father.
All the Big Ones heard and came . . . .
Though never Ramon, who had been Murrietta in another life, in love with me who had been his doomed ivory-skinned and black-tressed fiancée, his true love Belle Solar ravished by the awful Americans—
(The middle of the afternoon as I waved from the north window and drew back my gown I was sure Ramon had driven into the barnyard at the wheel of the long white car with the shining silver horse on the hood. The Butterfly belonged to Joaquin, never never to Aaron Markham—)
Every night after eight I waited nervously for a 17-year-old girl to run to meet her boyfriend, and just as eagerly watched for her return toward morning as my tired but loyal heart kept the time—
Now five mornings and five nights in a row Kate hadn’t knocked at my door or appeared at the foot of the trellis to disturb the gray jackrabbit grazing the lawn—
Tonight would be six . . . . 6 + 6.
“It’s not funny, it’s not any girl,” I objected, taking a sip as the grinding wheel stopped and started—like the Ferris wheel, the night of my kidnap at the Harvest Fair—“Oh Anna, have I at last found you again?”—and I wished I had an ice cube for my cocktail.
The girl was Kate, who was a part of me, my own granddaughter, the only future I would have now!
And the boy Kate ran to see was Eddie Dodge, who had driven my blue Cadillac and saved me when I most needed saving, when my boat was shipping seas and foundering on the far side of despair and he had insisted we push on to find Kyla when I had given up.
“It only takes one—”
All summer it had been as if I were Kate and Kate were Eve and Eddie was Adam who was also somehow Ramon Zapata, Aaron Markham’s chauffeur before Ramon left San Francisco for Hollywood to become a star.
As matinee idol Domingo Esquivel with silk mask and sideburns, black cape and flat-brimmed shiny hat, Ramon galloped to my rescue across the silent Silver Screen, through shadows of oaks in the dusty moonlight, toward Aaron’s white mansion too late to save the beautiful and dishonored Belle Solar.
And so Joaquin began his revenge and later turned outlaw, with Three-Fingers Jack and the others hiding the treasure Ramon would remember in another life, by the dry creek as Captain Love and the murderous posse approached.
“Hasta la vista!” Joaquin shouted.
“In heaven or hell?” Jack laughed.
“Vaya con Dios! Whoever lives can have the gold!” Joaquin cried, then the last words he spoke on Earth—“Andele Rey Negro!” and the black stallion named Black King galloped forward.
Each night that I watched Kate cross the lawn for the vineyard I had seen that Creation was beginning over in front of my eyes, I knew again that Love existed, there was Hope—what Kate wore was the color of the Future and promised that the World would survive and wasn’t doomed by the crazy “Death Valley Days” actor who joked about the Bomb, that Ferraro and Mondale (My Valley in French) might win the election in November—
And for another night I was safe from the Butterfly.
The fan swiveled, the dust fell like hot snow across the window as a white peacock cried and I raised the glass of unchilled bourbon.
I wondered, watching the deepening azure sky, remembering the changing crow, feeling the beads of perspiration along my lip, the sudden pulsing of my heart—
Should I welcome my panic and be grateful for it?
All things are made ready? 777?
Without the terror there would have been no reason to leave Acacia—I would never have known Kate or Eddie, the two would never have met and fallen in love and become the twin avatars, the perfect living symbols of the New World about to be born!
In answer, an early moth, a big gypsy, hit against the rusty screen, then again, and I thought of San Francisco, of pretty Madame Zanda in her turban, her palms and Tarot cards—
Lightning Striking the Tower.
A mourning dove!—the same dove, my muse?—called above the vineyard beyond the elm where it used to live, before the great horned owl had come. The dove had given me the poem I wrote down for Kate, after Kate told me about loving Eddie Dodge and how afterward the roses on the trellis seemed alive and awake:
When doves assume the branch at dusk
In shadows cool and murmurous.
I watched the amber wings fly into the sun, above the sea of vines toward the darkening blue gum grove.
There had been a subtle shape and logic to it all, how my fear had come full circle and formed something perfect, like a shining, heavy, dead-ripe fruit–––––
Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana, and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 12, and 13. Stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Word Riot, Montreal Review, and other journals, and are in press at Tattoo Highway and The Milo Review. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.
Atoms moving in the void—this is the metaphysical truth of life. That endless infinite place we call space is the very fabric of our existence. But is there really nothing there? People used to think that if you took all the air out of an area you would be left with a genuinely empty vacuum. But then quantum theory came along and proved that empty space isn’t really empty at all because this “nothing” contains something. Science has understood this to be a fact for decades. Quantum mechanics is a field of physics that studies the laws which govern very small things like atoms or nuclei. Classical physics, on the other hand, describes the laws which govern very large objects: people, cars, airplanes, jets, spaceships, planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies—you name it. Here’s why quantum mechanics rocked the very foundation of scientific understanding: the laws which govern very small objects, the minutiae, don’t apply to large objects like me and you. On the quantum scale atoms can pass through lead and can act like waves or particles or both at the same time. They flash into and out of existence for moments so fleeting it’s hard to say that they even happened at all. But they are there. Always. Bursting into and out of existence every nanosecond in the empty space all around us; a divine display of fireworks invisible to the naked eye.
-Excerpt from “Wonders of the Quantum” by Patrick Laster
The lights in the room were glaring. Bright, florescent lights gave the room an unreal quality. Like looking at an HD television for the first time, it all looks too real. The smell of industrial strength disinfectant filled the room making the air thick and heavy. I’ve always hated being in hospitals because they make me feel exposed, raw. The whitewashed walls, the bleached lighting, the blinding glares on the waxed floors. I always felt like a specimen under a microscope like there was no part of me that was hidden from them. They could see every imperfection on my face. They could even see inside of me, things I couldn’t even see.
“The doctor’s on his way in right now dear,” the nurse said, poking her head in the door. “Sorry for the wait.”
“It’s no problem,” I said, smiling.
She paused as if to say something before quickly ducking out of the room. Whether it was pity or empathy that was radiating behind her eyes I couldn’t tell. She was a good nurse, the maternal type to whom nurturing came naturally. She made me feel comfortable throughout the entire process. Never questioned my motives or gave me those cutting, judgmental glances that I got in the administrative office when I was completing the paperwork. She had deep, caring eyes that did most of the talking for her. While she was recording my height and weight, taking my temperature, oxygen saturation levels and heart rate she never asked questions about why I was there in the first place. And it’s not that I think she was indifferent to me either. She seemed to go out of her way to make sure I was comfortable while she took my vitals for the doctor.
“I’m going to do this so that you experience as little pain as possible,” she said as she slipped the needle into my vein to draw blood.
Gaudy department store artwork checkered the walls, out of place and ignored. The wax sanitation paper crinkled as I shifted on the edge of the observation table. The doctor gave a few rushed knocks on the door and entered before I even had a chance to say come in. What’s the point of knocking if you’re not going to wait for me to say come in? Was the knock a courtesy so that I get an extra few seconds to wrap up whatever I’ve been doing for the last hour to pass the time? That way I can give him the impression that I’ve been sitting patiently in silence, staring at the door waiting for his arrival. Are physicians really that desperate for an ego boost?
He was wearing light green scrubs and his surgical mask dangled loosely around his neck like dog tags. He sat down on the rolling stool and flipped open a chart, slowly rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. This chart presumably filled with my “vital statistics”–those things which will determine the decisions the doctor makes on my behalf–only tell part of my story. Those measurements and numbers are arbitrary when viewed independent from the whole. Behind those numbers are an entire person with thoughts and motivations and loves and hates. The fact that the doctor seemed indifferent to the latter only added to my anxiety. Every so often he would look up from the chart and give me a once over as if he were trying to determine if what was written in the chart was correct by eyeballing it.
“We’re very grateful that you came forward,” the doctor said. “You’re performing a very noble service. Voluntarily, I must add. Thank you.”
“It’s no problem,” I said. “It’s funny, when I first thought—”
“We’re also very fortunate that your blood type is O negative,” he said. “It’s a very rare blood type. Are you aware of that?”
“Uh… Yeah. So I’ve been told,” I said.
“It’s really quite amazing. A complete stranger could accept any form of major tissue from you, and their body has more than a 90% chance of accepting it. It’s a very rare blood type, you know, just magnificent. We really hit the jackpot with you.”
His excitement grew as he talked more about my blood type. Not even five minutes in the room with this quack and he’s already shown me that he’s more interested in my blood than me as a human being. Look at him, gesturing wildly with his hands, eyes as big as dinner plates, as fascinated as a kid who managed to catch a Pegasus in a homemade trap. I wondered if he even knew my name or if he referred to me as “my O negative patient” to his doctor friends. I couldn’t listen to him drone on and on about my blood any longer. It was making me squirm.
“So how many of these procedures have you done? Exactly how difficult is it?” I asked.
“The incision is the easiest part,” he said. “It’s everything before that which determines the success of the surgery. It’s all in the preparation.”
“How invasive is the procedure?” I asked.
He let out a laugh that filled the entire room in an instant. This guy definitely wasn’t making any sort of effort to befriend me. But then again why would he? His job didn’t require that we become close any more than a mechanic needs to become friends with the car he’s using for spare parts.
“I know it’s extremely invasive,” I said backpedaling trying to make myself seem more informed than I really was. “What I meant was how will I feel after the surgery? Will I be in constant pain from the… removal?”
“Well, due to the extent of cutting that I’ll be doing, there will be extreme tenderness and swelling around the incision site, no doubt,” he said. “Some internal bleeding possibly. But, honestly, you’ll be so drugged up that you won’t feel a thing.”
That wasn’t the type of reassurance I was looking for, but I was there with a purpose, and I knew that it would be unpleasant from the start. Bravery is required to accomplish noble deeds. So much so that it makes you look borderline reckless, borderline insane. But isn’t that what makes a hero a hero? Someone who can skirt that line between brave and crazy, impossible and possible?
“How soon can we get started?” I asked.
“ASAP. If it was up to me we’d go ahead with the surgery today, but we’ve got to get you through all the pre-surgery examinations. You wouldn’t buy a car without taking a look under the hood first, right? Right? Am I right?”
This must have been his attempt at humor. I was less than amused, and it showed on every inch of my face.
“Ahem,” he said clearing his throat. “To answer your question: the quicker we get moving, the greater chance the recipient has for survival.”
I’m not sure what bothered me more, his attempt at humor when discussing cutting me open or the way he referred to Meghan as “the recipient.” Did he even know her name? How about her middle name? Or her favorite color? Or her favorite song? I know those things. She’s the whole reason I’m here.
“One last question for you doctor,” I said. “What are my chances of getting a donor for myself after this is all said and done?”
He put his hands up, waving the question away with his hands. “You’ll have to talk to the social worker about that,” he said.
The empty space that fills our universe plays a constant tug of war with all the things in it. At the subatomic level, energy can be borrowed or exchanged on very short time scales. This makes the vacuum a very violent place. Although you and I, day to day, are unable to perceive the events with the naked eye, empty space is a froth of buzzing energy like molten metal. To understand the shrapnel flying out of these subatomic explosions, you have to look at the universe differently. You have to view the most fundamental building blocks of matter as not being solid at all. In the quantum world, when you observe particles, you observe them in a state that looks more like a wave than a particle. On the quantum scale, when we smash these infinitesimally small points into one another, waves spread out from a central point instead of singular particles jettisoning off into a given direction. It’s just like how throwing a stone into a pond creates ripples across the surface. Further proof that everything in the universe is interconnected. Nothing is ever new. Everything in the universe is just a clever rearrangement of atoms.
- Excerpt from “Wonders of the Quantum” by Patrick Laster
The social worker wanted me to meet her in Meghan’s room, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to see her lying in a bed half dead connected to tubes and machines like some sort of cyborg. I’d rather remember all of the little quirks that rounded out her personality. Like how much of a reckless driver she was, steering with her knees while texting and lighting a cigarette at the same time. Or the face she’d make when she was horny, biting her lip while tilting her head down, looking up at me with those stunning eyes; yellows and greens and browns all swirled together like an abstract painting. Or how she laughed with her whole body–head thrown back, every perfect tooth showing, hands rising to her face while she stomped her feet. Or how she could pull her hair back into a perfectly centered ponytail quicker than I could put a shirt on.
Back when we were together she had a habit of whispering the words “I’m so in love with you” when she thought I wasn’t listening. She’d say it so faintly, just below a whisper, that I would only catch her in the act every once in a blue. But those times I did catch her were the happiest moments of my life. Even though she didn’t want me to hear, and I had to feign ignorance when I did, it meant the world to me knowing that if even for the briefest moment she felt that way about me. Moments such as these, so short lived we tend to forget them right after they happen, were never lost on me. I cherished every one of them. Much of what’s in the universe only exists for very short flashes of time. Why should love be any different?
I heard the faint echo of heels approaching from down the hall at a deliberate, determined pace. The social worker. She sighed when she made it into the waiting room where I was sitting. “Can’t even bring yourself to look at her can you?” she asked. I said nothing, electing to stare at my feet.
“Have you seen her at all since she was admitted?” she asked. I shook my head.
“Jesus Christ,” she scoffed. She walked over and sat in the chair opposite mine. “Look, I’m a really busy woman. I’m responsible for the admission and discharge of close to 100 patients a day. So, you’re going to have to forgive me for a little good ol’ fashioned plain speaking. I believe in getting to the point.”
I looked up and saw her face for the first time. She looked exhausted; the face of a woman burdened by the problems of others, her patients, her coworkers, her superiors, her husband, her children. They all unload their problems on her, burdens which she graciously accepts and carries with the cold, stoic nobility of a Viking. She gave off an aura equal parts concerned mother and exhausted triathlon runner.
“I think you’re doing this for one of two reasons,” she said. “One, you feel that because you two broke up, your life is over, and now you’re giving up the most romantic way you could think of. Or two, you feel by doing this, Meghan will fall in love with you again. Either way, it’s just wrong. You’re being selfish by giving up on the people that really love you, and you’re a fool to think that this will bring her back to you.”
“Trust me. I don’t expect this to bring her back to me,” I said.
“So, why are you doing it then?”
“Everyday eighteen people die awaiting an organ donation. I’m just trying to do a good deed and help save someone’s life, that’s all.”
“And that someone just happens to be your ex-girlfriend,” she said laughing. “Those are some pretty riveting statistics you just threw at me there, by the way. It must have taken you all of five minutes to find that on Wikipedia. Well, I’ve got some more numbers for you, Mr. Laster, facts to consider, if you will. Live organ donation, especially from a non-family member, is extremely rare. And anytime it happens, it always makes us raise an eyebrow. I just want to make sure you’re aware of the gravity of what you’re choosing to undertake. The most common live organ donations are kidneys. That’s because the surgeries have become less invasive, and a person can live with just one kidney. The next most common live donation is liver donation. People can donate sections of their liver, and their liver will regenerate and regain full function. It grows back. Even less rare are lung and pancreas donations, and that’s because those organs do not regenerate. The donor would have to live with those organs performing reduced functions. Those types of live donations are extremely rare. Extremely.”
She sat forward in her chair and waited for me to make eye contact with her before she continued. “And then there’s what you want to do. It’s… It’s unusual to say the least. I mean do you really know what you’re signing up for?
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to save her life.”
She slouched in her chair and shook her head, defeated. “I guess you’ve convinced yourself that what you’re doing is noble, but, trust me, it’s not. I’ve done my research on you, Mr. Laster, and you’ve got a promising life ahead of you. You’re set to graduate this spring with a PhD in Physics. I actually read your dissertation, and it’s quite impressive—brilliant, actually—which is what makes your decision all the more baffling. Look, you’re a smart guy. All of your professors speak highly of you. You’re destined for a long career in academia. Why throw it all away for a girl? A girl that wants nothing to do with you. Don’t do this. You’re killing yourself, that’s what you’re doing. Do yourself a favor and just forget about her.”
“That’s the crazy thing about love, I guess. When you love someone—I mean, really love them—you can’t stop loving them,” I said. “Sure, you might get mad at them, resent them, maybe even hate that person, but all of those things are just thrown on top of the love, like scars on your body. The love is still there no matter how tainted it becomes through the passage of time. The love remains. And you can’t just take it off. No more than I can ask you to stop wearing your own skin.”
“You know she won’t care that you did this for her,” she said. “She’ll have no idea what you sacrificed for her. Don’t you care about that? It’ll all be in vain. I hope you realize that.”
“So much of the universe is unseen to us,” I said. “Human interactions are no different. The bulk of any relationship is composed of events or actions that we can’t see; the secrets that we keep from our partners, a piece of our past that we fail to disclose, the emotions that we leave unspoken and suppressed, the little white lies that conceal the truth. These things, though insignificant and overlooked they may be, form the foundation of our relationships with each other. The trick to truly loving someone is coming to terms with that. She doesn’t have to acknowledge what I’m doing. I’ll know, and that’s all that matters.”
She let out a long sigh and shrugged her shoulders before rising from her seat. “Have it your way, hun,” she said as she rose to leave. She left as abruptly as she arrived.
“I didn’t catch your name,” I said, calling after her.
“I didn’t give it,” she said over her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. We won’t be seeing each other again.”
There’s a phenomenon in particle physics referred to as quantum entanglement. After two particles collide in the right conditions, they become forever linked. If you change the properties of one, you immediately change the properties of the other. Researchers found that even if particles were separated by miles they would still show this effect. Changing the mass of one entangled particle in New York would immediately change the mass of the other entangled particle in L.A.; two entities communicating through the void of space. Einstein referred to this phenomenon as “spooky action at a distance.” One way to think of it is to pretend that two people buy a pair of gloves. They place one glove inside one box and the other glove inside another box. One person takes a box and travels to one side of the universe. The other person takes the other box and travels to the other side of the universe. The first person opens their box and finds the left glove. Upon doing this, they know immediately that the other person is going to open their box and find the right glove. They don’t need to call the other person on the telephone. Nor do they need to see inside the second box to confirm this fact. The gloves are, in a sense, entangled. One glove can tell you all you need to know about the other.
- Excerpt from “Wonders of the Quantum” by Patrick Laster
Most of us fear death. We believe in it with such conviction because we’re told our whole lives that we’re going to die; that it’s an inevitable fact of life that we have to accept. We associate ourselves with the body, and we know that the body does in fact die, so it’s understandable why so many people accept death as an eventuality. But is it really? One of the most fundamental axioms of science is that energy can never die. It can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Why can’t this law apply to our conscious brain, which is just a twenty-watt battery of energy? One golden rule of quantum physics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely. The very act of observing something changes it ever so slightly. Instead, there is a range of possible outcomes each with different probabilities. What’s the probability that our essence can exist after the death of our bodies, in a space outside of time that we are unable to perceive in our current state? I don’t fear death any more than one should fear moving; the only thing that changes is your point of reference. After all, the universe wastes nothing. Everything we see consists of particles, which have for all extensive purposes, always existed and always will.
I’ve always believed that people could experience phenomenon on the macro level that are similar to those which occur on the quantum level. For instance, shouldn’t it be possible for two people to become entangled, where observing one person tells you all you need to know about the other? It happens all the time that people become so in sync with one another that they can communicate without speaking and complete each other’s sentences. Twin siblings frequently state that they can feel pain that the other is experiencing even though they’re miles apart.
Although our time together was brief–just as the impact between two subatomic particles lasts mere nanoseconds–the collision between me and Meghan, like most short lived love affairs, was a violent flash of brilliance that had a lasting impact on me. Afterwards, I felt linked to her in a way. Long after we stopped being a “we,” she’s always felt slightly there, influencing my life in some obscure way. That’s what made my decision to risk my life in order to help her such an easy one. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from particle physics it’s that the most awe inspiring, life-changing events can happen in the blink of an eye. The entire universe came into existence fractions of a second after the big bang. Time and time again, I’ve seen that the most beautiful things in our universe are also the most fragile and short lived. It should come as no surprise that love abides by this same law.
When I arrive at the hospital the day of the operation everyone greets me like I’m a rock star. They show me to my room where I’ll be recovering, and it’s already full of flowers and get well cards. I feel like a hero. I hop on the stretcher. They sedate me slightly, strip me, shave me, and then wheel me out. We wander, what feels like an eternity, through an endless labyrinth of humming white walls before finally arriving at the operating room. They slowly lower the mask over my mouth and nose, and that’s when they knock me out good; it’s like I’m sitting on top of a train that’s just entered a tunnel, and as I look back at the entrance, I can see the circle of daylight growing smaller and smaller as we barrel into the black abyss…
So what’s it feel like not having a heart? Well for starters your chest feels hollow, cavernous. Something essential is missing, and your body aches in a way to let you know as much, like the ghost sensations of long severed limbs that amputees feel. Gravity is more intense yet softer, like being held down by hundreds of pounds of feathers. The meds make me feel like I’m lying at the bottom of a murky lake. I can just make out the light at the surface. It wavers and ripples, coming into and out of focus as faces appear intermittently across the surface. I can make out people moving about in the background, amorphous blobs of color. Occasionally, they say something, but I can hardly make it out from this depth.
“Patrick,” a voice calls. The lake’s surface shivers. The doctor’s face inflates, shrinks, and then folds into itself. “We’re still working on getting a heart for you… shortage in the country… doing the best we can…” Time dissolves, becomes meaningless; a forgotten relic from another life. Alone in the dark. Occasional footsteps. The flip of a light switch. Forever the droning of machines, like the moaning of whales. The doctor’s face again looming over the lake miles wide. “It’s Meghan,” he says. “She’s not responding how we hoped she would… it seems the heart just isn’t enough… not doing well.”
That was the last time I saw the doctor. He hasn’t been around since. How much time has gone by? Weeks? Months? Years? There’s no way to know all the way down here. Meghan is long dead. No one has told me, but I know it. It’s my heart after all. When it ceases to beat, I know it. I have no regrets, though. It was easier this way, much more appealing than spending the rest of my life beating myself up for not having the courage to take the plunge. It’s just a piece of muscle. Why are people always so scared to part with it?
These days, the nurse comes in often to keep me company and water the flowers in my room. The same nurse who did my pre-surgery examinations. She has a peaceful radiance, which always manages to cut through the haze of painkillers and medications. One day, she tells me a story: “You know, when Meghan died, we managed to save your heart. There was nothing wrong with it. It was perfectly fine. Her body just didn’t accept it. Initially, the surgical team was going to give it back to you, but then they heard about a girl, a two year old, in the next county who was sure to die without a heart transplant.”
At that, she held a picture close to my face, and I could just make out the rippling photo of an almond-skinned toddler with a gorgeous head full of curls, like someone dumped a bucket of curly fries on her head. She was beaming into the camera, radiating the eternal happiness of childhood despite the tubes protruding from her chest. She was beautiful.
“Anyway, they decided to give your heart to her, instead. She’s a great kid with her whole life ahead of her. And just the cutest thing you’d ever see. Not that it changes anything for you, but I thought that you might want to know that. I figured deep down that’s what you’d have wanted anyway, right?”
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My thoughts drift back to memories of Meghan and how we used to sleep draped over one another, fitting together as perfectly as jigsaw pieces. In this particular memory, it’s the dead of night; that time when the bats are done feeding, but the birds aren’t awake just yet. She’s got her head rested on my chest, and I watch it rise and fall with each breath I take. When I look down at the foot of the bed, it’s hard to tell where I end and she begins underneath the covers. I can remember during that time being acutely aware of the fact that the bliss I was feeling would not—could not—last. This was one of those interactions destined for brevity. Very similar to the events observed in particles accelerators; two entities moving so fast they become one for just an instant, creating a connection greater than themselves.
I kiss her forehead and tell her that I love her. I preferred telling her that way. I’ve always felt that those words are thrown around carelessly. You can’t constantly tell someone that you love them without the words losing some degree of their meaning before they become watered down into an automated response. They should be kept preserved and protected only being brought out for use during those times when you mean it the most, like in the middle of the night when only her soul will hear it.
A new event invades the memory. A pinpoint of light opens in the ceiling, and I see it receding through the roof and into the starless night sky. I feel myself rising off the bed, suddenly weightless. I strain for the light with every ounce of strength left in me; reaching into the void of empty space toward whatever unseen wonders await me there.
Kyle Holland is a single father and aspiring writer living in Tampa, FL. He spends his free time watching Adventure Time with his daughter, Aiden, and getting knee deep in all manner of awesomeness with his muse, Ivy. When he’s not doing either of those things, he can be found in a dimly lit room hunched over a laptop mumbling to himself as he writes for hours on end. He couldn’t be happier.
My parents died with three teeth between them. It wasn’t their fault. Genes or heredity or something. Cousins Melvin and Paula lived the last six weeks of their lives drinking all of their meals, their teeth completely gone. Just before he died, Grandpa Willis’s teeth turned brown and fell out of his mouth like breadcrumbs. Same with Grandpa George on my mother’s side.
Uncle Randolph, not yet sixty, has been losing about one tooth per month for the last two years. He keeps the brown pebbles in a squat glass vase on his nightstand. I’ve seen Uncle Randolph spit a tooth into his palm like a watermelon seed, admire its wet shiny surface and shriveled size, and tip his hand over the lip of the vase.
At seven, my brother Gage began losing his teeth. He was younger than Kari and me. We knew baby teeth fell out in order to make room for adult choppers, but with Gage, his teeth came out brown and shrunken, and adult teeth never sprouted. Gage died in the bedroom upstairs with Kari and me holding his hand.
I still miss Gage, but in a way, I don’t know him anymore. I was eleven when we buried him at Grace Hill. Now, I’m 31 and Kari is almost 29, and when it gets quiet and lonely, Gage comes to mind. Only he is still seven years old and what do I know about consoling a dying child?
Neither Kari nor I have kids. Kari says she couldn’t do to a child what has been done to her or Gage. I agree. Who in this family wants to have a baby whose future is a toothless death?
Gage and Kari had been close, and Kari had cried for many days after Gage was gone. Then the tears stopped, and Kari became defiant and angry. She obsessed about her teeth, about keeping them clean and healthy and white and rooted to her gums. Above all, she was determined to keep her teeth.
Years later, Kari found a dentist and made his acquaintance. Dr. Ronny had come from a huge city and worked in emergency rooms where he’d seen abscessed teeth, bleeding and festering, teeth hollowed by cavities, blackened by disease. Dr. Ronny gave Kari fluoride treatments, cleaned her teeth every month. Meanwhile, Kari brushed each tooth compulsively, her medicine cabinet stocked with water picks, teeth-whitening strips, rolls of floss, bottles of mouthwash, boxes of toothpicks. She used manual and electric and battery-powered toothbrushes, toothbrushes with rotating and oscillating heads that cost $140 each.
Kari visited Dr. Ronny so often that they fell in love, married within six months, and moved in to this house with me, and when Kari saw a speck of brown on her lower left cuspid, Dr. Ronny immediately performed a thorough teeth-whitening procedure. “I don’t want to die,” Kari said. “I refuse.” She repeated this often like a song she couldn’t shake. So Dr. Ronny blasted Kari’s teeth white, and she came home smiling, pausing at mirrors to pose and grin and show me what was possible. “We don’t have to live the past,” she said.
But later, the fleck of brown returned, and Kari stopped smiling, had all of the mirrors in the house covered with construction paper and masking tape and stored in the garage. When her first tooth fell out (the pesky cuspid), Kari told me it wasn’t fair, that no matter what you did, life had its own stubborn agenda and the cruelty of living was thinking you could change things you didn’t like. “Why were we born at all?” she asked me. “Why did Mom and Dad make us when they knew what would happen?”
I couldn’t answer Kari’s questions, didn’t even make an attempt. Instead I sat with her, holding her left hand as the right reached into her mouth to tug and twist a dangling incisor. She cried.
But Dr. Ronny became defiant and angry himself and wouldn’t quit. He contacted endodontists, periodontists, and oral surgeons, called in favors far and wide, spent hours researching cures for oral maladies. He inquired about experimental drug therapies and, since Kari refused to leave the house now, he brought experts to her. But nothing helped. Her teeth, one by one, turned brown, loosened like ripe fruit on the vine, and fell out. Like Uncle Randolph, Kari collected her dead teeth in a glass on her nightstand. As the glass filled, Kari wept, lamenting the death of each tooth. She hardly spoke anymore, grunting and gesturing only when she really wanted something. Most often, Kari wanted to be left alone. Dr. Ronny offered her false teeth, but Kari refused them.
On the very last day in May, the phone rang. Uncle Randolph had died in his sleep–peacefully, the aide assured me–a single brown molar jutting out of gray gums. As a result of the liquid diet, he weighed 127 pounds. I told Dr. Ronny about Uncle Randolph and he replied, “What is it with your family?”
The news of Uncle Randolph wouldn’t help Kari, so I kept quiet. Kari had worsened to the point where she was crying all the time, mumbling incomprehensible words, and drinking meals through a straw. But Dr. Ronny told her about Uncle Randolph, and Kari insisted on going to the funeral. A few friends and coworkers gathered at Grace Hill, Kari and I the only kin. As Kari cried, her lips sucked into her mouth with each sorrowful convulsion. She hardly acknowledged the coffin even as I stepped forward to pitch a handful of dirt onto its lid. She gazed elsewhere–into a stand of hemlock, at the cloud-smeared sky, at her own hands.
Kari grew worse over the following weeks. She lied about taking her pills and claimed never to be hungry for a meal replacement drink. And she stopped crying even when her teeth uprooted and fell out.
I spent time reading the newspaper to her or a book if I could find one whose characters didn’t die prematurely, unjustly. I brought Kari the mail and helped her tear through the envelopes. I wanted to be near her, as with a prolonged embrace.
Dr. Ronny entered Gage’s old bedroom and placed divorce papers beside the glass on the nightstand. He said to Kari, “What kind of dentist has a wife with her teeth in a cup?” I waited for Kari to gum her way through a tirade, to smash her glassful of dead teeth against the wall, but she kept quiet, and Dr. Ronny soon moved to Florida. He could not save Kari’s teeth, and she could not save her marriage.
I brought Kari a meal replacement drink and left it on the nightstand, the straw bent over the lip of the tall glass. While holding her hand, I told Kari a story about an earlier time, when we rode bikes to the orchard and pulled apples from the trees and crunched them in our teeth, the juice wetting our lips. Kari’s head ached. She pointed to the door, mumbled, “Leave.” I kissed her cheek, said, “I love you,” and sat downstairs, the house dark and still.
Kari died the next morning, her drink untouched, four obstinate teeth remaining.
I ignored my own pain for as long as I could but found myself at the bathroom mirror, steam rising from the faucet, my lower lip pinched between two fingers. Brown decay coated each tooth. My gums felt spongy, soft, like the dirt at Grace Hill. One after the other, my teeth died, and as they fell out, I collected them in the empty tomato sauce jar on my nightstand.
I always have headaches and can hardly sleep in this empty house. No one reads to me or brings me the mail. No one serves me meal replacement drinks; no one holds my hand and reminds me of what life used to be before my teeth started falling out.
Two molars and two incisors remain though they are brown and ready to die. I have paper and pen here, but no one to write to. I write anyway, about my parents, about Kari and Gage and the others, about trying to understand this thing about to happen.
The page is full, but I don’t remember what I wrote. I am glad there are no children to see me this way, to wonder why I created them when I knew their teeth, like their lives, would brown and loosen and die. And yet if there were children, they would kiss my cheek and say they love me and read to me and maybe this would be easier.
Brian DiNuzzo is a writer, photographer, and teacher, originally from New Jersey. His publications include: Thin Air Magazine and Echo Ink Review.
We found porn at Pompeii. In touring the famous ruined city, our guide brought us to an actual ancient brothel. Up on the walls, frescoes still remain depicting various couples engaging in sexual acts. Surprising and explicit sexual acts. My wife and I were a bit astonished. And impressed. Also, we discovered a rather large penis carved into the stone ground around the corner from the brothel, a phallic arrow traffic sign pointing the way to the house of pleasure. Then later we found yet another penis carving on a wall on the other side of the city. The tour guide assured the group that these pagan perversions were actually considered good luck charms in antiquity. I always figured those things brought trouble, not good fortune.
Our peculiar guide spent an inordinate amount of time with us inside the brothel. She stood just below a certain naughty fresco depicting two very agile and flexible lovers, entwined in bed, and told us stories of life that exhaled throughout these rooms, these corridors, these cobbled roads. My mind began to wander away, back to 79 CE when Vesuvius, the monolithic monster towering just beyond Pompeii, erupted and twenty feet of ash and pumice descended upon the inhabitants. It’s conceivable that there could have been patrons right here, engaged in some Roman hanky-panky, suffocated by the volcanic gas, right where I now stood. Cast and frozen by the tephra, preserved for centuries. A cheeky discovery awaiting the unsuspecting archeologists down the line. I felt the awkwardness resonate across time.
There is a story there for someone to tell. Engorged in great ecstasy, in the shadow of angry Vesuvius, within the bordello walls. Convenient lovers end up locked in death eternal. In the midst of our life we are in death. Etcetera. It’s the story the Russian artist Karl Brullov told in his painting The Last Day of Pompeii (1833). Lost in their decadence, these are the brothel patrons emptying into the roads of Pompeii, as the sky bleeds red, turns to black, and columns fall and the breath of Vesuvius swallows all. It reminds me of the story Malcolm Lowry told in his novel, Under the Volcano. A book about a broken man’s fight against and eventual succumbing to the forces of this world designed to destroy him. It’s inevitable. No amount of stone penises will protect you. Nothing good will come from living under a volcano. I mean, isn’t that obvious? Now we take guided tours and construct stories amidst the arrogance and defiance of the ancient people of Pompeii.
After the excursion across story and time, my wife and I wandered around an open-air market. Meandering from table to table, sweating beneath the hot honeymoon sun and Vesuvius out in the distance. An over-sized and ornate ring seized my wife’s attention. Silver and studded with elegant stones and colors. It leapt out from the surrounding trinkets and ornaments, and I could see that she had already cemented her mind. This ring would be hers.
“Oh you like?” an ancient voice sopping with the beautiful song that only comes from an Italian trying to speaking English. “Very beautiful!”
It was then we noticed the beyond-elderly woman who tended to the table of jewelry. Short hair of silver crowned her rotund face, which was the color of the red clay that once formed the tiles of all the roofs of Pompeii. She had spotted leather skin that bunched into crinkles and furrows at her thick wrists. She was clad entirely in Sothern Italian black. The cloth of the Mezzogiorno. She was both tiny and massive, magically simultaneously. She could not have been five feet tall. She could have been more than twice that around. I don’t know. Squat, like the broken columns dotting Pompeii. She might have existed on this spot, behind this table, for epoch upon epoch, like the statues we just saw guarding the remnants of temples. Her left eye suffered a cataract and when she smiled only the right side of her face tugged at her mouth. Her coarse laughter was the sound of time being crushed beneath the will of God. My wife and I later, with much love, referred to this woman as our Strega Nonna, our grandmother witch. Strega Nonna, from that story I read back in my childhood.
It became clear immediately that our Strega Nonna had almost used up her sum total of English. My wife speaks no Italian, and I know only a fraction more than the bad words I overheard my family use when I was a young. Language was not going to stop my wife from getting this ring, and for a bargain. And so the negotiation in fractured language commenced.
“Quanta?” I might have asked.
“Quaranta euro,” Strega Nonna answered.
“What did she say? How much?” My wife asked me. Her eyes increasing to match the sight and size of the ring.
“40 euros. I think.”
My wife will never pay the first price asked. She is an expert negotiator. I always pay the first price asked. I am a terrible negotiator. My wife abandoned translation and spoke directly to Strega Nonna. She spoke in California English. She spoke of the ring’s beauty. She spoke of our wedding day. She spoke of our honeymoon in Italy and our home in Los Angeles. She spoke of a thousand other things. Strega Nonna sang in Neapolitan Italian. She sang of her piccolo jewelry stand. She sang of rings, and necklaces, and altri gioielli. She sang of her family that came from the clay and left in the clay. She sang for a thousand years.
My wife and Strega Nonna concluded their spellbinding colloquy with laughter and embraces. My wife’s arms tight around Strega Nonna’s stout shoulders. Strega Nonna’s dappled callous hands around my wife’s back. That is what my wife does. Within minutes of meeting her you are swiftly swept up and away. Across the ocean of language, for a true bond requires no translation.
“You, you are Italian!” Strega Nonna declared in fractured English.
My wife laughed and said, pointing to me, “Nope, he’s the Italian!” She gave Strega Nonna the newly agreed upon 20 euros and Strega Nonna called me closer to her with a hook of time-worn and weathered finger. She whispered a story to me. My wife had lived right here, in Pompeii, two thousand years ago. That she was the most beautiful woman in the whole city. The noble men all lined up at her feet. That even Venus was jealous of her, and that is why she commanded Vulcan, the god of fire, to ignite Vesuvius. To destroy the city. To bury it like treasure.
She put a small card in my hand. “For you. For you, Italian. For good luck.” It was a holy card. On the front, a painting of the Madonna, cradling and infant Jesus, with two other people kneeling before her. On the back it reads: Nostra Signorina del Rosario di Pompeii, Ovunque Proteggimi. Protect me always. I keep the card in my wallet for good luck. Better than a stone penis. And although I am sure that Strega Nonna has given a holy card to every tourist customer she has brokered with for a century, this is not the story that I want to tell.
Daniel Buccieri has taught history in the Los Angeles Unified School District for eleven years. He is a National Board Certified Teacher, a member of the UCLA Writing Project Advisory Board, and a 2011-2012 LAUSD Teacher of the Year. Buccieri graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a Bachelor’s degree in history and from the California State University, Dominguez Hills with a Master’s degree in education. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, his newborn son, and his cat. Buccieri’s writing has been published in the Still Points Arts Quarterly and in the UCLA Writing Project Anthology.