Author: Lucy Kiefert

This Old Town – Stephen Stratton Moore

This Old Town – Stephen Stratton Moore

This Old Town

“Jacob, I wish you could have seen it. When I was a little girl, every one of us, the grown-ups and kids alike, would put on our best and head uptown on a Saturday night. Main Street was lit up like a Christmas tree! There was so much energy in the air, you couldn’t help but get excited. Things were just happening. All the sidewalks and even the streets were alive with folks laughing and visiting and heading this way and that. Mary Jane’s Diner at the heart of town was the place where most were either going to or leaving from, but there were other places, too.

“The old men would gather on the benches in the square to chew and pass the flask while their better halves, the older ladies, congregated at the meeting hall behind the Church of Christ to gossip. All the kids just ran around in small groups absorbing all the energy that the grown-ups were giving off. None of us had much money in our pockets. Oh, Mother might slip us a quarter to go to the movies every now and then, or maybe we’d have enough spare change to share a root beer float at Mary Jane’s because we were not rich people―not money-wise, anyway. Not too many people were in those days. The depression hit hard here. We didn’t have much, but we shared what we had.

“There was a sense of community back then that’s not around anymore. Times were hard, but we helped each other. Bad things were going on in the world, but all those troubles brought us together. It was a simpler time, I guess. Folks used to sit out on their front porches to visit with their neighbors, instead of hunkering down in their backyards. What I do remember, what stays with me to this day, is that even though times were tough, it was a very happy time for me. Maybe our memories play tricks on us, blocking out the bad. Maybe I’ve romanticized it some, but not much. Things were just different back then. Maybe we were different.”

Jacob helped himself to a second slice of key lime pie, offering another to his hostess. She declined it with a wave of her hand, and he smiled, beckoning her to continue, as if he were hearing all of it for the very first time.

“You know, it was at Mary Jane’s that your mom and I became best friends. We were both waitressing there over the summers, so we talked a lot. She was and still is, to this day, the sweetest-natured human being I’ve ever met. She was also very smitten with my big brother, and that’s how you eventually came into the world. Anyway, we got very close, your momma and me, long before we were actual in-laws. I do miss her so… and your daddy, too! Oh, I’ve prattled on for far too long. You’ve probably heard these stories a thousand times!”

“A thousand and one, Aunt Rosemund, a thousand and one!” replied Jacob with a sheepish grin and a sip of his coffee.

Jacob Warren loved his weekly visits with his Aunt Rosemund. He could listen to her nostalgic stories of yesteryear all day long and well into the night. They kept him centered. These visits pretty much kept them both centered. It had been their longstanding tradition, maintained sporadically since his boyhood, but it doubled down to a weekly event after the auto accident that took both his parents away.

Every Friday, just after the noon whistle blew, he’d stop by and take care of whatever household chores needed attention. In return, she’d put a meal on the kitchen table for them to enjoy while he visited. Jacob always wondered how long it took her to make these wonderful meals, but he long ago decided it impertinent to ask. Oftentimes, the very anticipation of those meals got him through a long week. To be honest, it was the only real food he ever ate. His other days of the week were relegated to the much narrower menu options of a bachelor accustomed to little culinary creativity. His focus was on his work―so much so, that he considered food to be more of a distraction. He was indeed a busy man these days. He was on call 24/7, but he always made sure that he had at least a few hours’ time set aside for Fridays at noon.

Aunt Rosemund kept a small home on the edge of town that she had ably maintained for as long as Jacob could remember. She had a huge vegetable garden out back and a flower garden, rivaled by none, in the front. Among the many annuals and perennials, it boasted five-foot hollyhocks and a hydrangea bush the size of a Buick. Her actual Buick, a brown Skylark, had been stored in her outbuilding since ‘84.

“I never had much use for the thing but could never find it in me to get rid of it,” she’d say. “Maybe I’ll put it to good use one day and make a planter out of it. We’re both long past the state of me ever driving it anywhere.”

It could be said that her little front yard at 221 Mulberry Street, which was ablaze with color from mid-June to late October, was one of the wonders of the county, but then again, these days, there wasn’t much competition. The Owensport of Aunt Rosemund and even Jacob’s childhood memories was no more. The town had been in a constant deteriorating spiral for the last twenty years now, and things didn’t look to be turning around any time soon. As it was, the young and able were moving away to seize their day, and the old and infirm were holding on to yesterday for as long as it would have them.

There really wasn’t much left of uptown anymore, just good bones. Most of the shops of Jacob’s childhood were gone. Beck’s Grocery closed down ten years ago, replaced by the Foodland and Wal-Mart in Chester. When Jacob was a child, Mary Jane’s Diner was replaced by Ben Franklin’s Five & Dime, but even that space was now vacant.

The remaining uptown storefronts were now occupied by antique shops, a tobacco store, a carryout, the municipal death knells of a Salvation Army thrift store, and Payday Loan. The old Rite Aid was still there, the last holdout from Jacob’s day. But it was only a matter of time. The old town was on her way out, and though unspoken, it seemed as if Jacob and his Aunt Rosemund would see it to the end together.

Jacob lived over on Water Street in a modest upstairs apartment in one of the grandest houses in town. His living needs were quite Spartan, and he appreciated the minimal personal living space he occupied. It meant that he could focus more of his energy on his career, his vocation. Jacob was known around town for his soothing empathy and the comforting tone and cadence of his voice―a town fixture on whom folks depended in their most troubling hours.

They all knew that he was there to support them with his kind words and gentle humor. It was this gift that he shared with his community. Jacob was also his hometown’s gatekeeper of sorts, an unofficial tender of its very living flame. He was most suited to monitor the town’s slowing pulse rate and vital signs on a daily basis because he knew more than anyone what the real story was.

His was the only business left in town that was still booming. With his inheritance money, he put out his shingle thirteen years ago after buying out the previous owners. Since then, his business had done nothing but grown and flourished. He had been saving up for a while with the ultimate designs of starting a second location up in Chester. But for now, he was biding his time, accumulating his capital while his future plans gestated.

Jacob was also fortunate enough, for convenience’s sake, to live in the same building where he worked, the stately white mansion that rose from immaculately landscaped grounds right on the river. It was a handsome white brick building with four thick columns holding up a Greek portico. Unlike buildings uptown, it was well-maintained with great care to detail.

Out in the front yard, directly under the spreading branches of an ancient pin oak tree, was a wooden sign with elegant gold cursive letters that read, Warren’s Funeral Home Est. 1989.

***

“Good morning, Mr. Johnson. I’ll take good care of you. Linda will think you’re just napping on the couch when I’m done,” said Jacob as he cleaned the body.

Jacob had the habit of conversing with his clients, in much the same manner a doctor might with his patients. The doctor’s intent was to distract the patient from what might actually be going on in the moment, and in Jacob’s mind, this wasn’t much different. It just seemed proper.

After completing the embalming and preparation, Jacob’s assistant Doug helped him with the casketing and cosmetic application while Jacob continued, “Linda wants you in your naval uniform. It’s a bit snug, but we’ll make it work. We’ll get those brass buttons and your medal all shined and looking shipshape! Mr. Johnson, I remember you always putting up with me asking to pet your basset hound Gertrude on your evening walks. What a great dog she was! You were always grumpy about it, too, but I knew it was okay because you’d give me that wink. By the looks of those scars on your legs, you had good reason to be grumpy all the time, but you really weren’t. I always knew that. I’ve already arranged for your guard on Sunday. You’ll have full military honors, sir―taps, folded flag, and a seven-man, 21-gun salute! You’ll have a special Medal of Honor recipient marker on your stone as well; I think you’ll be very pleased with it.”

When he had completed his work, Jacob said a silent prayer. Though he wasn’t particularly religious, it was the routine he followed, whether he had known the deceased personally or not. It was his way of honoring this individual. If it was someone he had known, like Mr. Johnson, it was a longer meditation, honoring that life lived here, in this old town. Many of those lives, more often than not, had touched his own life, and in some cases, profoundly.

Over the years, Jacob had buried a few friends and many neighbors, his third-grade and ninth-grade teachers among them. Mrs. Spence had been his favorite. She always encouraged him to “THINK BIG!” She had written those words in his yearbook, which he still had on the shelf behind his desk. He had also buried Mr. Beck, the man who offered Jacob his first job delivering groceries on his bike when he was twelve. Mr. Beck was like a crazy uncle to him, but a great mentor as well. Jacob learned much from him, especially how to take care of his customers.

Jacob had let him know as much during his preparation for burial. “Mr. Beck, I don’t think that kind of customer service exists anymore. You always took the time and went the extra mile for folks, and they really appreciated it. You inspired me in that way and a lot of other ways. You know, to this day, I still show the bagboys how to properly bag my items at the Foodland. I thought you’d appreciate that. I was taught by the best!”

Like Mr. Beck, Jacob provided a service to his community and to the folks he knew and loved. His calling was in the sacred preservation and celebration of solemn human dignity. He brought it forth through the time-honored traditions and techniques that he had learned. Through his art, he was able to take the ugliness and often raw brutality of death and transform it into beauty. Each case was unique. Sometimes, only a little touchup was necessary; other times, a great deal of challenging reconstruction was in order. Occasionally, the circumstances were far beyond his abilities. Wherever they fell within the spectrum of his skills, it was his mindset, his humanity that made all the difference. He was good at what he did.

***

The noon whistle was still blowing as Jacob latched the front gate. He took three paces and hugged his aunt, who had just risen from tending to her roses.

“I don’t need much done today, Jacob, just a curtain rod that needs put up in the front room. I have a pork roast and beans stewing in the crockpot and cornbread in the oven for when you’re done.”

“I’ll get right on it, Aunt Rosemund. Do you need a ride into Chester later? I have an errand over that way myself, so I could drop you at the Foodland.”

“That might work well for me, thank you sweetheart!” she replied, patting the side of his face with a garden-gloved hand, leaving a smudge of peat moss on his cheek.

After a lunch of pork roast and white beans, served with fresh-from-the-garden sliced onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers in sweet vinegar (and some good conversation), he helped her clean the kitchen. She then grabbed her purse from the peg, and they headed out the back door. He helped her up into his Wagoneer, gently pushed the passenger door closed, and walked around to the driver’s side.

He climbed in, saying, “You ready to roll?”

To which she replied, “Just drive the car, Jeeves.” They rode in silence for a time as the Wagoneer followed the wide curve of the river for the fifteen-minute drive. “What’s your errand in Chester, Jacob?” she asked curiously.

“Business, actually,” he replied. “That is, my business; I’m looking into opening up a second funeral home over there. I want to look at some listed properties, maybe give old man Vinton a run for his money. I’d have to hire some more associates to help run it. I’ve been percolating on the idea for a while now, and I think that now’s the time to begin the building of my empire, Aunt Rosemund. THINK BIG! Right? THINK BIG OR GO HOME!”

She only crinkled her nose in response and looked out the passenger window at a passing barge on the river.

Without turning to him, she responded, “So you’re going to be some fancy corporate tycoon. Is that want you want to be?”

“Well, sure, I guess, if that’s what success makes you. Seems like the smart thing to do.”

Jacob dropped his Aunt Rosemund at the Foodland and did some preliminary drive-bys of the three properties he had in mind. The third one actually spoke to him. He got out of the car and walked around. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but the location was good. The building was locked, but he was able to peer into the front window enough to see that it needed a lot of work on the inside.

As he swung back around the block to collect his aunt and her groceries, Jacob noticed a poster advertising a folk music festival that was going to be held later in the summer at the county fairgrounds. That looks interesting, he thought. He’d heard something about it on the radio as well, so he made a mental note to check it out.

The drive home was a comfortable quiet with the radio low, but Jacob could sense that his Aunt Rosemund was somewhere else. When they passed the Welcome to Owensport sign and slowed to drive through town down Main Street, she finally spoke.

“Daddy would be heartbroken to see the wretched condition of this town. I hope he’s somewhere where he doesn’t know about it.”

Jacob’s grandpa had been the Mayor of Owensport for twenty-eight years, and Jacob’s dad had been the Fire Chief all through his childhood. Both had always been a deep source of pride for him.

“Yup, Grandpa would have a conniption,” he replied. “He would not be pleased with the Owensport of today.”

***

Jacob was downstairs by 7:30, just in time to greet the van as it backed into the garage entrance. He and Doug guided it into the bay. The driver then came around and opened the back doors, and they received the mortal remains of Dwayne David Stone, one of too many who had died from an opioid overdose.

“Jesus!” said Doug, “How many dead friends does it take for these people to stop doing this shit?”

“Too many,” replied Jacob.

It was indeed the single most troubling aspect of his job these days. In previous years, the greatest specters had been crack and crystal meth, which wasted their victims to skin and bones. Jacob had seen multiple bodies of young people whose physiological age was that of an octogenarian. Meth users still came in on occasion, but they were usually not overdoses; their organs just finally gave out. That was horrible enough, but it was the sheer number of opioid overdoses of young and middle-aged folks that was truly shocking. Most disturbing was the average condition of their bodies: healthy yet dead. The bulk of his clientele were still old folks, that was true, but the kids were coming up fast on the inside and gaining ground, almost tripling their normal death rate.

Later that evening, in his apartment, while winding down from his busy day, Jacob pulled the cork from a bottle of Makers Mark 46 and poured the golden liquid over ice. He briefly held the glass to the light, admiring its caramel tones, anticipating the slow warmth of the bourbon flowing down his gullet and into his belly. Perhaps it would render him the same unfeeling numbness that Dwayne had so longed for. In that moment, he completely empathized with the dead young man. He downed his first glass, immediately poured another, and walked across the room to sit.

As much as he desired it, Jacob could not drink off the dark mood. It was not a sudden thing. It had been building, culminating like the gathering of leaden storm clouds for some time now. He’d been able to keep it at bay with his natural positivity, but Dwayne’s arrival this morning had ripped off an old scab, reopening a familiar and festering doubt within him. It seemed that tonight, it all would come to the fore. Tonight, the storm that had been looming on the horizon would come rolling through his mind, and he was helpless to stop it.

At what time does a small town hit critical mass? Had that already happened? He had a good thing here, a great career. A dying town was technically good for the bottom line of a funeral home business, no question about that. The questions were more of the intangible variety, the ones that had to do with his sense of place, his personal connections to Owensport. This was his town. He dearly loved this place where he was born and where his parents were born and buried. He loved this town where he had grown into a man and become a successful adult. It was in his blood flowing through him like the river itself. It was real. But… what had this town become? What was it now, today? If he stayed here too long, would it take him down with it?

And what would happen when Aunt Rosemund passed away? He didn’t like thinking about that, but it would happen at some point… it was a real consideration. She was his only tangible connection, the very last link to the Owensport of his soul. If she were not here any longer, if (or when) she was taken out of the equation, what would life be like here? He thought about his possible project in Chester. Maybe he should move forward with it more aggressively. Maybe he should get out of town completely while he still could… someplace new… someplace warm… someplace different. THINK BIG… OR GO HOME.

“It’s been a long and shitty day, so I’m going to bed,” he said aloud, walking over to the kitchenette to pour the last of his bourbon down the sink.

As Jacob nodded off that night with his thoughts still unresolved, he settled into a deep sleep, and he dreamed. The ghosts of Mrs. Spence and all the friends and neighbors who had passed on over the years visited him in the form of a great parade up Main Street. He was a little boy sitting on the curb, bathed in the yellowed summer light of an old Polaroid photograph. They passed by him in joyful procession, waving. The parade started off with Mrs. Spence, clad in a striped clown suit, gangly, walking on stilts. She held over her head a large sign that read, “THINK BIG, JACOB WARREN!”

Behind her were several bunting-covered floats, depicting Jacob’s childhood memories in paper-mâché. The first one depicted the time he broke his arm after Marcie Dent, his best friend growing up, dared him to ride his red racer sled all the way down Owensport Hill when they were eleven. The second one commemorated the Christmas when he got a coonskin cap and leather-fringed jacket from Santa. It was officially a Davy Crocket jacket and cap, but when he played in it, he was always Daniel Boone. The third float celebrated his teenage beer can collection, which featured a great pyramid of rare 1930s brew vessels.

Following the memory floats was Mr. Johnson in his naval uniform and distinctive medal draped around his neck, walking Gertrude the basset hound, and glad-handing the adult spectators as he passed by. He wasn’t grumpy anymore.

Next in line was a small marching band of old people with tall furry hats and ill-fitting uniforms playing a Glen Miller dance tune on clarinets. There was a short gap in the parade, during which he only heard the muted crowd conversations around him.

The lull was finally broken by the shrill siren from a shiny, red and chrome fire truck. Jacob stood up, leaned forward to get a better view, and saw his mom and dad together in the front seat smiling large for him. He waved at them until his wrist hurt. His mom blew him a kiss that he caught and put on his heart, his small hand covering an orange Popsicle stain that resided on the front of his striped t-shirt.

Behind them came a smoke-belching tractor pulling a trailer of waving kids. The trailer had handmade posters with brightly colored lettering duct taped on the sides. This was followed by a large troupe of sequin-clad little girls twirling batons, shrinking in height with each line, increasingly younger and more awkward as they passed by. He learned from the colorful writing on the posters and majorette banner that they each represented the town’s drug abuse fatalities.

The crystal meth victims waving from the trailer threw handfuls of crack vials to the little tots, who ran along the periphery filling their plastic bags with delight.

The opioid victims, the twirly girls, smiled their blank, soulless smiles from little cherubic faces plastered with too much adult makeup. They wore so much mascara that it appeared to Jacob as if they had no eyes. He stared transfixed into the black voids until he heard the bling-bling of a bicycle bell.

It was Mr. Beck who shakily rode Jacob’s old Schwinn with two expertly filled grocery bags in the basket. He gave Jacob a quick two-fingered salute before regaining control of the bike.

The great procession finished with the parade’s Grand Marshall. Jacob’s grandpa was sitting up on the backseat of a 1974 burgundy Cadillac convertible with door magnets that read Clyde Orville Warren, Proud to Be Your Mayor Since 1948. He was smiling and waving to all the cheering citizens lining each side of the street. In the eternal moment when their eyes met, Jacob could plainly see the tears streaming down his grandpa’s cheeks. From the expression on his face, Jacob could not clearly tell whether they were tears of joy—or sorrow.

Little Jacob then reached down and picked up the sweating glass of bourbon that had been sitting on the curb beside him. He held it up to the sun for a moment’s examination, brought it to his nose, inhaling its potent aroma, and then poured the golden contents into the gutter. He watched the liquid slowly making its way toward the storm drain at his feet. It perversely reminded him of formaldehyde and bodily fluids swirling at the drain of his embalming table.

***

The coming of a new day did not bring relief to Jacob’s unrest. He awoke abruptly that morning to an aching lamentation and the coppery tang of despair on his tongue. Sometimes, dreams have a way of sticking, and he wore it all day like an extra layer of clothes. He finally figured the best way to deal with it was head-on. He arranged to meet with the commercial realty company to take a closer look at the Chester property he was interested in. It was across from an attractive park and situated on a street that provided a direct route to the city cemetery, located just up the hill above town.

Unlike Owensport, Chester’s economy was on the rise. Its boundaries were growing outward to the degree that the rolling country and river allowed. It boasted much of the restaurants and service amenities one would expect from a larger town. It even had a hotel and an Olive Garden! The town had a vibe, a cultural, artsy personality to it. Now, this is a destination town, he thought.

The walk-through revealed that the property had promise, but also, as he suspected, would need a great deal of work to convert it to his needs. It would be a very expensive project. Jacob now found himself at a crossroads. It was a manufactured crossroads, evolved from his own mind, but he felt the bewilderment of it, nonetheless.

There was an underlying sense of urgency in it, one that he did not completely understand. Something larger than himself was going on here. It seemed as if things were moving at an even faster pace than before and gaining momentum, creating an emotional vertigo that filled him with the urge to vomit.

***

Jacob and Rosemund sat together at the same old table that he had known since he was a boy. He was more aware than usual of the little things about the room, the precious details, the warm smells of a well-used kitchen. The very air was infused with the scents of its soul, of cinnamon and coffee, of bacon and dish detergent, somehow blending together to create the timeless aroma of comfort, of home. From the hallway, the old family clock ticked off the passage of every second of his life. It continued in its mission of gear and spring working precisely in the darkness behind old polished wood. He gazed around the room and noted the folded dishtowel by the sink, the neat stack of opened envelopes and bills by the microwave.

He noted the hummingbird feeder filled with red sugar water hanging from a grey rusting hook just outside the window, the very same hook that hung suet in the wintertime. Everything was in its place, just as it had always been for the entirety of his life. Jacob smiled at his aunt as she placed a freshly cut slice of coffee cake on his plate.

“I love you, Aunt Rosemund.”

His mind had gone around and around things for a week now and each revolution of thought ended with the same revelation. He had to remove himself from the only home he’d ever known. Where had this all come from? Why now? The suddenness of it was crazy, but it was visceral. He knew that he had to make a logical decision, and make it now… even if it hurt the person he loved the most.

“I need to leave here, Aunt Rosemund. Maybe just up to Chester, maybe farther. I don’t know yet. Maybe you can come with me… we can open up a cantina in Mexico, what do you say?”

She thoughtfully breathed in, exhaled slowly, and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Honey, I don’t want to see you go anywhere. I would miss you terribly, but you have to follow the path that seems right to you. I’m not going to be around here too much longer anyway, but the only place I’m going is where the good Lord leads me. Until that great day comes, I’m staying right here where I belong. I do know exactly how you feel, though. I understand it more than anyone else in this world.”

“That’s just it,” he replied. “The Owensport that I know and love isn’t real anymore. It doesn’t exist. It’s all just a fanciful figment of our collective imaginations now. Our memories are sweetthey’re beautiful, but they’re not tangible. They’re not real! We… I can’t live on just that. I can’t live in a dream anymore. I have to make my own reality before it’s too late. It’s time that I close the casket on this town, Aunt Rosemund, and move on with my life.”

Aunt Rosemund smiled and replied, “I think she still has a little breath left in her, but you do what you have to do, Jacob. I don’t want you just waiting for me to die before you go, either. You go now. I’ll be fine. I have my gardens to keep me busy. Just visit me from time to time, that’s all.”                          

***

Later that afternoon, as Jacob was driving down the curvy road of Owensport Hill, a thought popped into his head out of nowhere. It had been quite some time since they had been in touch with one another―over a year, maybe three? It was crazy, he thought, how effortless it had been to get so caught up in the day-to-day and lose touch with the bigger picture.

Marcie Anne Dent had been a part of his bigger picture for most of his life, but they had drifted apart in recent years as old relationships oftentimes do.

“How does that happen in such a small town?” he wondered aloud.

Jacob called Marcie, and as old relationships also have a way of doing, it was just as effortless to begin again right where they had left off. After catching up, he asked if she was interested in checking out the upcoming folk music festival and maybe grabbing a bite to eat afterward. They had dated a little back in the day, but early on, they each had resigned themselves to the fact that they made much better friends then they did lovers, and ever since then, minus the three-year hiatus, they had been close. After ending the call, Jacob smiled and thought, Life changes so much, and yet it all stays the same.

***

The morning was still cool as Jacob pulled up in front of Marcie’s house with a quick double honk.

“Mornin’, Mad Dog,” said Jacob as Marcie slid into the passenger seat next to him.

“Jake, I can honestly say I’ve not responded to that nickname since Reagan was President,” replied Marcie, shaking her head and rolling her eyes in mock exasperation.

Jacob grinned as he pulled from the curb heading for the county fairgrounds. They spent the entire sun-warmed afternoon together enjoying the festival, which was a much larger event than he had expected. Five separate stages each featured acts ranging from full bands to individual artists and smaller groups playing a wide variety of instruments and musical styles. A large vendor’s area offered food and traditional Appalachian instruments for sale. There was public camping where you could even rent your own private yurt for the weekend if you wanted to shell out the money for it.

After checking out the evening’s performance schedule and discovering that Rhonda Vincent and the Rage was the headliner, Jacob and Marcie immediately decided to grab some fair food and stay. While they waited for The Rage and sipped their beers, Jacob had the opportunity to talk at length with Marcie about what was going on with him, and she had some new ideas, some insight, and a few suggestions of her own that put things in a completely different light.

“What an awesome day! I really needed that. Thanks for your feedback. I think we might be on to something here,” said Jacob as his Wagoneer squealed to a stop in front of Marcie’s house.

“I’m excited!” she replied. “I’ll be reaching out to some people. It might take some time, baby steps, but I will get back to you as soon as I know something. Thank you for calling me. I had a wonderful time,” she said, squeezing his hand as she opened her door.

“I bid you a good evening… Madam Mayor!” said Jacob in a jovial tone.

Marcie turned back smiling before closing the door and replied with equal spirit, “And to you, good steward. And to you!”

***

(Saturday Night, Six Years Later)

Uptown was lit up like a Christmas tree. There was so much energy in the air, you couldn’t help but get excited. Things were just happening. All the sidewalks and even the streets were alive with folks laughing and visiting and heading this way and that. It was the fourth year of the Owensport River Music and Arts Festival. It had been a slow start for the first three years, but it was looking quite promising this year, slowly gaining notoriety. The Uptown Owensport Renewal Project was in progress as well, but it still had a long way to go. With the funding of some generous local investors, it had gotten a foothold, and that was all they could have ever hoped for. It was all about momentum now.

THINK BIG… AND… STAY HOME! Jacob thought, looking up and smiling at Marcie as she slid into the booth beside him.

“I just love to people-watch, don’t you?”

“Yes, Aunt Rosemund,” replied Jacob. “Yes, I do.” The trio sat in their usual spot, watching the many folks walking by the window, each enjoying their own vanilla bean, craft root beer float—the specialty of Mary Jane’s Diner.


After losing three close family members at an impressionable age, Stephen Stratton Moore attributes his influence as a writer to this experience, especially in the way that he looks at things. It gave him a richer appreciation of our connectedness as human beings and stoked an inner passion to revel in the bittersweet nuances of those bonds. Stephen is a published writer, musician, and graphic designer.

The First Existentialist Poets – Milton Ehrlich

The First Existentialist Poets – Milton Ehrlich

The First Existentialist Poets

Have always been individuals trapped in existence

like everybody else caught in the undertow of being.

Even before they knew how to spell phenomenology,

poets were sensitive souls with angst in their pants

who still longed to rise up, to sing and dance.

They knew freedom could open the doors of perception

and help us make better choices.

As kids, they figured out that life was absurd—

hearing adults bray, “Yes indeed, we are all going to die.”

The better poets keep you laughing at yourself,

providing insight, irony and wittiness in their poems.

Some poets can make humor the backbone of their verse.

Poets capture the moments missed by ordinary folks

who move along with the herd with their heads down.

Awareness, awareness, awareness—the key to the heart of a poet.


Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 88-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

Packed and Ready to Go Out of this World – Milton Ehrlich

Packed and Ready to Go Out of this World – Milton Ehrlich

Packed and Ready to Go Out of this World

Lovebirds sit on their suitcases

waiting for their wings to sprout.

They listen to a melancholy melody

in a minor key planting seeds of love.

They carry a supply of dark chocolate,

a magnum of Cabernet Sauvignon wine,

a double cream brie soft-ripened round,

and a Rukaza silicone hot-water bottle.

Under the white sheen of a full moon

their backs begin to swell with buds

unfurling of newly formed angel wings.

Radiant and winged, they fly away

to transmigrate in the crisp night air.


Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 88-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

Look, Stop, and Listen – Milton Ehrlich

Look, Stop, and Listen – Milton Ehrlich

Look, Stop, and Listen

The world is naked before you—

a Bacchanal feast worth exploring.

Listen to the hum of the wings

of a cluster of hungry hummingbirds

at your backyard feeder.

Notice the sluggish crawl of a swollen

caterpillar about to metamorphose

into a Monarch butterfly.

Embrace the buds of chrysanthemums

about to bloom into dazzling whites.

And don’t forget the morning glaze

on a forgotten peanut butter and jelly sandwich

left on a bench at your bus stop.

Can you appreciate the charm of the cracks

on the cement sidewalks you stand upon?

Every stone, leaf, and petal smiles in a silent song and dance—

performed free of charge as long as you pay attention.


Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 88-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

Hands – Milton Ehrlich

Hands – Milton Ehrlich

The blunt, at times sardonic tone of this poem of Milton’s — as well as the three others we’ll be sharing from him — accurately captured the sweet-and-salty nature of life we all feel at times (now more than ever, surely, for some of us). Enjoy.

Hands

Can pluck a Stradivarius,

sculpt a David out of marble,

pleasure oneself, or a loving partner,

scratch an itch, pick your nose, wipe your ass,

write a play, applaud and give a standing ovation,

tie a shoelace or play an accordion,

steer an ambulance or a “Just Married” car,

dig for gold or bury a good or bad soul,

swat a Corona Virus mosquito,

shake hands with an old friend or a new enemy,

pull the pin on a hand grenade, squeeze the trigger

on an M-1 rifle or press the code for a nuclear bomb.

Never forget, a hand can always reach

for the hand of God.


Milton P. Ehrlich Ph.D. is an 88-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published poems in The Antigonish Review, London Grip, Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant Literary Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

Mrs. Fonseca – Francine Rodriguez

Mrs. Fonseca – Francine Rodriguez

Mrs. Fonseca

Every time one of those big trucks barreled down Coronado Street flying over the traffic bumps, going fifty miles an hour on a residential street, Mrs. Fonseca’s entire apartment above the garage shook and the dishes in her cabinet above the sink rattled. The trucks passed by several times a day on their way to the freeway entrance headed south or maybe east. She couldn’t really tell the difference because she never drove herself.

About half of the dishes in her cabinet were cracked anyway. She kept them just because she’d had them so long and the rest of the set had long since broken and been thrown away. Sometimes when she stared at the few Blue Willow plates left, she remembered happier times when she’d prepared big meals for her family and served them on those same plates, mofongo, arroz con pollo, and rellenos de papas. Her sons were big eaters, known for taking seconds and thirds on whatever she cooked. Her daughters were more finicky. By the time they hit high school they complained that Puerto Rican food was unhealthy, heavy and greasy, and they nibbled daintily on non-fat yogurt and baby carrots and then stuffed themselves on chips and candy bars.

When the grandkids came along, they whined for pizza and soda, and she dutifully counted out the rest of the money left from her Social Security check to order it. She hadn’t seen her great grandkids for quite a while now. Everybody was always so busy, and they reminded her she’d never learned to drive.

Juan used to drive her everywhere. He insisted on taking her where she was going and watching her every move. But he was dead now and had been dead for fifteen years. It didn’t bother the kids much when he died. None of them cried. The youngest ones didn’t know him that well.

“Good riddance, asshole!” her older son yelled as he threw some pebbles on the coffin.

By then, Juan wasn’t coming around that much anyway. When he died, she thought about learning to drive, but to tell the truth, she was scared of the traffic and couldn’t remember the rules for driving anyway.

She practiced driving with her youngest daughter, but it ended badly with a lot of screaming, mostly on her daughter’s part.

“I keep telling you, you can’t turn left from the right lane, and you’re following that car too close.” Sometimes Elizabeth would yell at her at the top of her lungs. She was sure everybody in traffic could hear, and she flushed red with embarrassment when the yelling started. “Mom, you’re holding up miles of traffic. Figure out where you want to go, damn it!”

Elizabeth wasn’t the only one who didn’t think she could learn to drive. “You’ll have an accident and kill somebody.” Her son, Carlos, couldn’t believe that she would even consider something as complicated as driving. “You better stick to the bus.”

So, she did. She took the bus to every location of importance in her world: the Vons market all the way down on Sunset Boulevard, the bank at the corner of Alvarado, and sometimes her doctor’s office on Vermont. Usually, once a week, she traveled west on Hollywood Boulevard on a local bus to visit her best, and only friend, Mrs. Akmajian. The rest of her friends were either dead now or had disappeared somewhere and she didn’t know where to find them.

She walked arm-in-arm with Mrs. Akmajian, looking in all the shop windows and clucking at the immodest clothing on the mannequins. When they were tired of walking, they stopped for a Value Meal at McDonald’s. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

A few times a year, she took the bus the farthest and visited her beauty parlor which was actually in what they called “West Hollywood.” Her hairdresser was a nice young man named Rene who wore tight pants and a lot of makeup. The makeup confused her, but Rene had been cutting her hair since he left beauty school, and he still charged her the same price for a haircut and always told her how beautiful she was. Her white-domed church was close by her home on Michaeltorena. She walked there every Wednesday night and Sunday morning for services unless it was raining.

She was a short woman, grown shorter over the years and likely from the curvature in her spine. She kept her kinky iron-gray hair cut close because it was easier that way. The years and rich meals she cooked had added pounds to her once slim frame, and she found herself wearing larger stretchy polyester pants and a jacket to cover her stomach and hips. Back when she was in her late sixties, she started wearing orthopedic shoes, something she thought she’d never do, because back then she never left the house without her stilettos. The wrinkles were always a shock. So many of them now, that it seemed her eyes had almost disappeared into the many folds and her lower jaw receded when she didn’t wear her partial plate. But then, she reminded herself, she was almost eighty.

These days, her apartment wasn’t the only thing that shook. So did her hands as she counted out the number of pills in several bottles of pain pills and one bottle of sleeping pills. She used the pills judiciously, knowing that lately her doctors didn’t want to okay a re-fill, and they cost too much, anyway. She’d been saving most of the pills for quite a while, even before her daughters moved her from her small bungalow that they’d rented for years, the place with a small garden where she raised the kids. The pills were there like a security blanket. She knew when things got really bad, they’d be there waiting. It was the one thing she could count on.

Both of her daughters were insistent about the move to the tiny garage apartment.

“You don’t need all this space. Daddy’s gone and there’s nobody to help you keep it up. Walking up the stairs is good exercise for you. Besides, they keep raising the rent for this house and pretty soon you won’t have any money left for food.”

The apartment above the garage was up a steep flight of wooden stairs, and she climbed them slowly, hanging onto the railing as the pain in her arthritic hip shot down her legs. It was tiny; hot and airless in the summer, and cold and damp in the winter. She kept a little portable fan on the window ledge and learned to adjust her small rocking chair so she could watch her thirteen-inch television set and let the warm air circulating from the fan blow on her face at the same time.

There wasn’t much furniture in the cramped space besides her rocker, a small green velour love seat, and the television stand where the portable television rested. Above the velour sofa hung a large picture of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns. The picture was somewhat faded because of the sun shining directly on the glass frame, but the eyes still stood out, and she swore they followed her and saw everything she did.

To the right, in the alcove by the window, was a circular two-seater table that her oldest daughter had given her when her husband bought her new patio furniture. Behind a patchwork curtain, there was her single bed and a miniature chest of drawers where she kept a few changes of clothes. When Carlos visited here, the place seemed even smaller. He was a large man and complained that he had a terrible time turning around in the bathroom. The stove, an ancient two-burner, and the antique-looking refrigerator that looked like it had survived the fifties, came with the apartment. The tap water ran rusty into a yellowed porcelain sink.

The one thing the apartment did have a lot of was photos, all framed. They covered every inch of available wall space and left only enough room for the television on the portable stand. There were pictures of all her kids as babies, alongside their high school graduation photos that hung next to the grandchildren’s photos. The walls held school photos, photos taken at her daughter’s quinceneras, engagement photos, wedding photos,photos of family picnics, photos from a trip to Disneyland that the family made after months and months of saving, and photos of Juan when he was a young man working on a boat, before he came to the United States.

In the corner, where the walls met, a small photo sat on a wooden shelf in a painted silver frame. The photo was of a toddler, perched on Juan’s shoulders. The toddler wore all white and his light hair was long and curling. She hated the photo and always planned to throw it away. The opportunity came when Juan died, but by then, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It was a picture of Juan with one of his outside children from so long ago. Somehow it seemed like a sin to throw away a child’s picture.

Narrow wooden stairs ran from the rear of the five-foot-wide service porch behind the refrigerator, down to the cement walkway behind the garage. On warm days, she hugged the railing all the way down to sit in the sun on a canvas fold-up chair she dragged down from her living room. She’d always liked the sun, even though it wasn’t as strong here as it was on the island. She sat, turning her face upward, and felt the heat burn into her skin and dive deeper until it cradled her curved spine in warmth. She sighed then, in comfort, as the aching pain in her bones dulled, and she let her mind slip back to the days when she and Juan were both young, before they came here to start a new life.

When she closed her eyes she could see Juan, tall and handsome, his skin glowing like polished copper, and herself, several shades darker, with crisp, curling hair, holding onto his arm as they strolled along Calle de la Cruz, watching the tourists. So long ago. Where had the time gone? They’d lived in New York for a while, in the Bronx, when they first came here. Their oldest was born when they lived in their first walk-up.

Then they moved to Los Angeles because Juan’s brother found him a job at a maintenance company. It was good for a while until the company closed. After that, they both hustled a living cleaning offices. They liked living in this part of Los Angeles, where they could hear Spanish spoken almost everywhere and the rents were cheaper. Besides, they were just a short walk from the park, where the paddleboats floated peacefully on the water and the geese chattered at the people picnicking on the grass near the boathouse.

That was before the rest of the children were born and before Juan got his “wandering eyes” that lead him out of their little house and into the bars where he spent too much of his paycheck. That was before she hated to answer the phone because some strange woman was calling to let her know she was having sex with Juan. That was before Juan got “mean drunk” and beat the kids when he came home late at night, and before he started beating her, too.

She almost moved out of the neighborhood once, when Mrs. Akmajian’s son tried to get her an apartment where his mother lived, in the tall white building with balconies in Little Armenia, an area of East Hollywood. He explained that only old people lived in this building near Hollywood and you had to be on a waiting list to get in.

“The place is rent-controlled. They have emergency alarms in every apartment in case you fall or hurt yourself.” He tried his best to convince her. “The apartment is just ten years old. It has carpeted floors and central heating. You never have to be cold in the winter like in that cracker box you live in now. Besides, I have connections with the Armenians who own it so you can bypass the waiting list. You can see my mother every day without taking the bus.” He was referring to her only friend, his mother, who spoke no English or Spanish, but always understood Mrs. Fonseca.

She thanked him but didn’t take the offer. Probably not as many people spoke Spanish in that neighborhood, and she didn’t know her way around the streets there. Besides, there was no park, just block after block of apartments that all looked the same. All that concrete hurt her eyes. Where would she go to walk in the early morning or sit on a bench and feed the geese, or buy a taco from without the lady pushing her cart around the cart? So, she stayed, even though it rained like crazy that winter and water leaked from the roof onto her thin carpet and left it smelling like mildew.

After the big rains stopped, neighbors moved next door in the adjoining garage apartment that had been empty most of the time she lived there. She watched curiously through the window, peeping behind her heavy tapestry curtain. They were very young. Probably in their twenties. The man had long hair and a mustache, and his arms were covered with tattoos. The young woman had very hair red hair that she wore twisted into spirals that hung down her back. She was very thin and had tattoos on her arms and legs, and even some on her chest.

Mrs. Fonseca watched them move in. They only brought a big mattress, a tall glass bookcase with glass partitions, and a giant television set. She watched in amazement as they carried it between them up the narrow stairs. She’d never seen a television set this big. It must be as big as the whole apartment, she thought to herself. As it turned out, she was right. Peeking in the window one day, after making sure nobody was home, she saw that the television covered most of the wall opposite the window.

Gracias Dios, why does anybody need a television that big?”

They came over that night and introduced themselves. Her name was Maureen and his name was Sean. They’d come to California to be actors, or at the very least, television stars.

“We’re both working on screenplays too,” Maureen explained. “But I work at Trader Joes part-time to get money to live on until we make it.”

She listened, nodding her head. Maybe someday they would be famous, and she could say they were her neighbors. Sean insisted that they drink some wine and invited her in to watch their television. She drank a few sips of the wine. It warmed her stomach and made her feel dizzy. She could feel her face getting red.  Maureen kept asking her questions about Mexico even though she explained she was from Puerto Rico, and she wasn’t Mexican. Maureen and Sean looked puzzled and asked her if she would make tamales. They’d had some in Nebraska once. She cringed, thinking about how tamales made in Nebraska would taste, and told them where they could buy some in the neighborhood.

Maureen and Sean liked to play loud music. She guessed it was music, but it was unlike any music she knew. Mostly she heard somebody screaming in a deep angry voice and a clashing sound that could have been a guitar or maybe a hammer striking metal. In fact, Sean said it was called “heavy metal,” and it was all he listened to since he used to be a singer with his own band. That was how he met Maureen, he explained proudly. She came backstage and claimed him as her own.

All in all, they weren’t bad neighbors, except when they brought their friends over and stayed up until the next morning, playing their music so loud that you could hear it up and down the street a block or two over. On those nights and early mornings, nobody slept. They drank a lot. She knew that because she checked the bottles in the trash. Not just wine, but whiskey and gin, and other kinds of alcohol that she didn’t recognize.

Most of the time, a strange smell floated out of Maureen and Sean’s apartment. She figured it wasn’t marijuana, because her son had smoked before. It made him giggly and he said he couldn’t stop laughing.  Juan found the weed he’d been hiding behind a dresser and kicked him out of the house.

Vamanos Marijuano,” he yelled while he pitched tennis shoes and basketball shorts out into the street late one night, and her son held his stomach and laughed hysterically.

This was a different smell, like nail polish remover, or maybe like too much cat pee if you forgot to change the litter box. The kids had a cat once, she remembered.

On one really warm day, when the temperature was in the high nineties, she saw Maureen throwing away the garbage in the covered shed at the rear of the garage. She was wearing a long-sleeve black turtleneck with a name on the front that she didn’t recognize, heavy black jeans, and knee-high Doc Marten work boots.

“It must be so hot in your apartment,” she said, staring at Maureen, knowing that neither apartment had air conditioning, and even with the portable fans running all day, you could barely breathe.

“Yes, it’s pretty bad,” Maureen assured her, wiping her forehead with the back of her arm. Her face was red and sweaty.

“Just wondering, why are you wearing such heavy clothes in this heat?”

Maureen looked away and tugged at the high collar on her turtleneck. “Sean likes me to dress like this. He likes all black. You know, this look. He doesn’t like anything else, really. I used to…” Her voice trailed off.

Mrs. Fonseca nodded as if she understood. “Oh, I see. I mean, those clothes just look so hot.”

Maureen put her head down and walked away.

Sometimes, she saw other things when she peeped into the side window, spoons and syringes like the nurses used when they gave you a shot and tiny little glass tubes. She had her suspicions, but figured it was none of her business.

Maureen and Sean argued a lot. They called each other bad names like “asshole” and “fucking cunt.” Sometimes, they threw things. Many times, she could hear the sound of something smashing, as whatever they threw hit the wall and broke.

But still, they were some company in her solitary life, and more often than not, she turned down her television so she could hear them argue. The sound of a human voice that didn’t come from a television set was special these days when hardly anyone talked to her. She told herself it wasn’t eavesdropping; she was listening to a live play through the walls, and she happened to know the actors personally. Sometimes it was actually exciting, and it made her heart race as she waited to hear the crack of one of them being slapped or the thud made by a fist striking soft flesh. Sometimes, she heard the sound of blows followed by Maureen crying. Then Sean’s voice, low and deep. Maureen stopped crying then.

When she saw her the next day, Maureen’s face and arms were all bruised, reddish and purple, and she wouldn’t stop to say hello. A few times, she thought that maybe she should ask Maureen if she was okay, or maybe call the police, but she was embarrassed. Nobody in the neighborhood called the police for anything. You never knew what they could do, plant drugs or arrest you for something. Better not to. Besides, by the time they’d get here, everything would be quiet. Exhausted from all the stress of the goings-on next door, she usually fell asleep as soon as she heard Maureen stop crying.

It was a Saturday morning, the best day of her week. Today she would go and visit Mrs. Akmajian in Hollywood and they would go shopping and have lunch afterward. She prepared her morning cup of tea and dry toast and thought about eating her breakfast downstairs as the sun was coming out. Holding her cup of tea carefully, she opened the back door to the stairway and then stopped. Her hands shook too much, and she knew she couldn’t navigate the stairs and hold the cup in her other hand without spilling it.  She turned around and walked back in. Sitting down on her velour couch, she suddenly brightened. What she needed was to hear her grandchildren’s voices, or at least one of her children. It had been a long time since they called her. She’d tried calling a day ago but couldn’t reach anybody.

She picked up her princess phone that she’d managed to save all these years and use for her landline. The phone made her kids laugh. They’d tried buying her a cell phone a few years ago, but it was way too confusing, and she couldn’t get the hang of using the one they showed her. Besides, it came with a cord for charging and she knew she’d never remember to keep it charged. She flipped through her little phone book and began dialing her children, one by one. Their phone messages were all on, telling her to leave her number and they would return her call. Sighing in disappointment, she tried her two oldest grandchildren. It was the same thing. Nobody was answering.

Her daughter told her before that it would be better if she got a cell phone and texted. Nobody answered phone calls these days. Her son even showed her how he texted on his own phone. She watched, shocked. Why would somebody want to write all those words? What she wanted was to hear the voice of the person she called. When you heard their voice, you could tell how they were doing, if they were happy or sad, if they needed comfort. No, she would stick to the phone she was used to.

She began combing her hair, dressing in one of her better pairs of black polyester pants purchased from JC Penny’s. Each year, her daughter took her shopping for Christmas and had her pick out a few items of clothing to charge on her card. She scurried around the sales racks, pushing items aside and pulling them away for examination. She checked price tags and only picked the cheapest items on sale. She didn’t want to take advantage.

It was nine o’clock and she planned to take a walk around the park before she caught the bus to east Hollywood, to see her friend, Mrs. Akmajian. She was washing her teacup in the sink when she heard a huge crash and the sound of shattering glass on the other side of the wall. The crash was followed by a moment of silence, and then a shrill scream of pain that ran deep into her spine and made her hands freeze in place in mid-air.

She heard Sean’s voice scream, “Oh my God!”

It occurred to her that she hadn’t seen either of them come out of the apartment for a few days. It didn’t seem that Maureen was going to work either. She stopped drying and started across the room. Something was wrong with Maureen. She was sure of it. The pounding on the door stopped her in her tracks.

“Open up! Open up!  I need to call an ambulance quick.”

Sean was standing outside her door. It took her a moment to recognize him. He seemed even skinner than last time. His skin was pale under his tattoos, and his hair and beard were wild and uncombed, standing away from his head. He was only wearing undershorts that looked like they might have once been white but were now a dirty gray. She stared at his legs, boney and veined, the skin translucent.

“I need to use your phone now. Can’t find mine. Need to call an ambulance.”

She pointed to the alcove where the princess phone rested, staring, her mouth open.

He grabbed the phone, punched in some numbers, and began yelling into the receiver. “Please, I need an ambulance. My girlfriend fell and hit her head. She’s not moving.”

She heard him give the address and listened as he told the person at the other end of the line that Maureen didn’t seem to be breathing. She watched him drop the phone and start back out the door. Without thinking, she followed him. The door to their apartment was jarred open, and the shades were drawn, keeping the room in semi-darkness. She looked around in shock. It looked like someone had turned the apartment upside down and shaken everything before it fell. The television set that used to hang on the wall was lying face down on the floor. The rest of the small living room was covered with half-empty food containers, pizza boxes, and scattered clothes. She could see dirty dishes stacked in the sink of the tiny kitchen and on the counter more used food cartons. A reddish, blood-like liquid had splashed all over the linoleum and the puddle had dried in a sticky film. Beyond the kitchen, the bathroom door hung off its hinges and she could see the floor covered in water and balled-up towels. There was no sheet on the mattress in the corner, and in its center was a small pile of syringes and plastic bags.

And then her eyes started to get accustomed to darkened room and she turned to her right. Huge chunks of glass lie broken and gleaming on the floor below the remaining glass and metal poles that had once held the bookcase shelves. Maureen lay there on the glass, her back to the bookcase, her hands flung behind her, one leg twisted to her side. She wasn’t moving and her eyes were closed. There was a long bloody scratch across the side of her face.

Staring in horror, she backed away from the body. “Oh my god, what happened? She’s not breathing!”

“She fell,” mumbled Sean, holding onto the sides of his head. “That’s all. She fell.”

The woman kept her eyes glued on the body. Somewhere, she had a dim recollection about first aid. You were supposed to do something. What? Breathe, yes, breathe.

“We need to breathe into her mouth to make her breathe,” she told Sean. She’d seen it on television before.

“Just get away from here, you nosy old bitch. I don’t need you here. Go!”

She looked up, her face dropping at the outburst. “What? We need to help her. Her color’s bad.”

“I said get out!” he screamed, moving close to her face.

She looked at him now more carefully. His eyes were red and sunken and the veins in his neck stood out.  His fists were balled up as he stepped toward her. For an instant, she thought he was Juan, returning from the dead, drunk and ready to fight her.

She backed up and turned as two husky Latinos wearing white uniforms with red stitching on the breast pocket ran noisily through the open door carrying black equipment bags. She heard them call out the address and ask who was hurt. Then she turned and ran back to her apartment.

After collapsing into her chair, she sat for the next hour shaken by the thought of Maureen lying there. She was a nice girl. Too nice to be hurt like that. She’d just seen them kissing the other day, or was that a few weeks ago? She couldn’t remember.

The men from the ambulance must have made a call because when she looked out the window again, another vehicle showed up that said “City Coroner” on the side. She watched while they carried a white stretcher up the stairs and then a few minutes later, carried it back down, this time with somebody on the stretcher completely covered with a white sheet.

The police pulled into the driveway about the same time the Coroner’s vehicle was leaving. After talking to the ambulance attendants, two police officers, a short Asian and a taller, light-skinned Black man, banged on her door. They wanted to know what she’d seen. She told them she hadn’t seen anything. They took down her name and phone number anyway and said some detective would be out to talk to her later. She stuck the card they gave her into her pocket and ducked her head. She hadn’t seen what happened to Maureen, she told herself. Sure, she’d heard things coming from that apartment. But why get involved? It was always better to keep your head down and look away.

So many years ago, she’d pounded on a neighbor’s iron security door when they lived in the scattering of broken-down shacks that stood one block over from the industrial area near downtown. She banged on the nearest door two houses over, running from her house at two o’clock in the morning, in her nightgown, blood streaming down her nose, and her dislocated shoulder throbbing as she moved.

“Please, call the police. My husband beat me up. I’m afraid for my kids. Help me, please!”

She could hear the inside door latches snapping open, and the porch light flicked on. A woman peered around the small gap between the door frame. In the background, a television played quietly, and she could see several small children sleeping in their underpants, sprawled on a couch by the door. The woman had wide-set eyes brown eyes and dark skin. Her braid of black hair had come loose, and the wiry strands blew around her face.

Si?” she asked in a heavy accent.

She told the woman again that she was running away, that she was afraid of Juan, of what he could do. Afraid he would hurt her son. She asked her to please call the police as she wiped the blood from her face with the back of her arm.

The woman looked at her and shook her head. “No Senora. No quiero problemas. No molesta a mi.” She slammed the door hard, turning off the porch light.

Mrs. Fonseca clutched her shoulder and staggered to the side of the house bordered by a patch of dry weeds and sunk to her knees, crying.

She always cried, and at first, Juan was always sorry. He held her in his arms and kissed her. He blamed it all on his drinking and said he’d never take another sip. She prayed he would change. But a day or so later, he’d hit her again, or beat one of the kids too hard with his wide belt with the brass buckle. He stopped saying he was sorry, because he wasn’t. He started staying away from home. She and the kids were so glad. When he finally came home to stay, he was in the last stages of cancer. Her children had grown and moved on. He lasted about a month.

Shaking, she closed the door behind the police, desperate to forget how Maureen looked, all twisted up on the floor. She sat rocking herself on the small loveseat until she heard more commotion coming from next door. Cautiously, she pulled a corner of the drapes aside and peered out. More uniformed police were running up the stairs, leaving their cars with the doors open, parked one behind the other in the long driveway. The house shook with their heavy footsteps clomping up the wooden stairs. She heard voices yelling and watched as three police half-dragged, half-carried Sean down the stairs as he tried to grab at the banisters with his hands cuffed in front of him. She watched as the police stationed themselves on either side of him and pushed him headfirst into the first car by the stairs.

She heard one of them call up the stairs, “Lock it up, Fernandez. Nobody’s coming back here.”    

Grabbing her purse, she hurried down the stairs, moving faster than she ever did, barely holding onto the splintery railing. Clutching her purse, she moved quickly, heading up to Sunset where she caught the bus just before it was about to take off from the curb. Out of breath and shaking, she stumbled into a seat up front by the driver. Her heart was hammering, and all she could see was Maureen’s pale purplish face.  She’d seen a few dead people before, back home, and once at a wake held on the top floor of a walk-up in the Bronx where she’d been hired to cook food for the mourners. One side of the family had removed the dead man’s body from the funeral home because they wanted to conduct the service at home, and the police came to arrest them and take the body back.

Her lips moved silently as she prayed to Jesus to protect her and keep her calm. Then she crossed herself and turned to look out the window as the bus bounced along, passing Thai restaurants, taco stands and laundromats. When a grubby-looking man stumbled on, shoeless with tangled hair, carrying several shopping bags of possessions, and sat down next to her, she moved closer to the window and held tighter to her purse. The rank odor coming from the man’s dirty clothes was familiar; she’d smelled it so many times before, passing homeless camps crowded with blue plastic tents in the park and along the sidewalks. You could count on there always being homeless people, and poor people, just like her, she thought. Sometimes it was nice to know what you could count on when everything was changing and going by so fast. Thank God for Mrs. Akmajain!

She tried to keep her eyes closed and not look at the man sitting next to her who was now mumbling to himself, but when she did, she kept seeing Maureen’s purple face. The bus made a wide turn onto Sunset and picked up speed. Within a few minutes they were across the street from Mrs. Akmajian’s apartment building. She stepped off gratefully, her legs still shaking.

Ringing the buzzer by the mailbox, she waited for her friend to answer. Mrs. Akmajian spoke very little English, and Mrs. Fonseca didn’t speak Armenian, but they still spoke to each other with a combination of gestures and grunts, vowels and syllables that substituted for the language they did not share. Over time, they each tried to teach the other the words for things they wanted to talk about, but neither one was good at remembering the new word for more than a few minutes, so they never quite managed to exchange vocabulary.

Mrs. Fonseca was so glad to see her friend come down the stairs that she hugged her extra hard, noticing that she looked sad.  “What’s wrong?” she asked over and over. “You have problems? Maybe with your son?”

Mrs. Akmajian just shook her head and chewed on her lower lip. She didn’t understand. They started out on their usual walk, but she didn’t seem interested in the things that usually made them point and stare: the few hookers in high platforms strolling up to the cars, the man with dozens of watches for sale hanging in the lining of his heavy trench overcoat billowing around his ankles, the teenagers with spiked mohawks dyed aqua and purple, with piercings through their lips and cheeks, or the women with their faces and chests covered with bold tattoos of birds with spread wings and evil looking serpents that circled their necks, tattooed in reds and greens. They stopped for their usual lunch at McDonald’s, but Mrs. Akmajian barely touched her Value Meal, and Mrs. Fonseca found she wasn’t that hungry for the treat herself.

Shaking her head, she looked at her friend and wondered what was wrong.  She wasn’t enjoying herself much either, she wondered what was going to happen to Sean now, and did she really see them carry Maureen’s body down the stairs or was it all something she imagined.  Sean was such a nice guy she thought. Why did he change? Why did Juan change? He’d choked her once until she almost passed out. The kids saw it too. They were too scared to do anything, but then so was she.

When the bus stopped across from the tall apartment building, Mrs. Akmajian’s son was parked in front, waiting in his black E-Class Mercedes. Mrs. Fonseca knew the car was expensive because her son Carlos had once given her a ride here and talked to her friend’s son. He came away saying that the family had a lot of money they made in something called “import and export,” and wishing he made enough money operating a forklift to buy a car like that.

Mrs. Akmajian’s son stepped out of his car holding his cell phone to his ear. “Just hang on, okay?  I’ll just be a minute. Don’t hang up.” He turned to Mrs. Fonseca. “Look, I just waited to tell you, I’m moving my mom to San Diego in a few days, so you won’t be seeing her here after today.”

Mrs. Fonseca stared, not believing what she heard. “What did you say?”

“I said, we’re moving to San Diego. I’m opening another warehouse down there. We’re having my mom move with us. She fell in the shower a couple of days ago and couldn’t get hold of me. It’s just too far away. Anyway, I don’t think she should be living alone anymore.”

“But she likes it here,” Mrs. Fonseca stammered. What was she going to do without her friend?

“I know,” her son told her, “but it’s for the better. I mean, she doesn’t even speak English. I don’t know how you even talk to her.”

Mrs. Fonseca felt tears start to fill her eyes. “Can I have the phone number there?”

“Sure. Don’t know why you’d want it. She can’t talk to you.”

“Yes, I want it. We manage.”

The son shrugged. “Well, I know my mom has your number. I’ll call you and give you our new number at the house.” He turned away and started talking to his phone again. “Hello, sorry. Just some nuisance business to take care of.”

The tears rolled down Mrs. Fonseca’s cheeks, and she hugged her friend tight. Mrs. Akmajian was sobbing and shaking her head. They stood there together rocking back and forth, knowing they probably wouldn’t see each other again. They wouldn’t be talking in their own made-up way anymore.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” her son told Mrs. Fonseca.  “I’m taking her back to my house. My wife’s coming down tomorrow to pack up her things. Time’s up for the afternoon, I’ve got to get back to work.”

Mrs. Fonseca stepped back and wiped her eyes. In the end, time was always the boss. She kept her head down all the way home, feeling sick to her stomach, and thinking about everything that happened since she woke up this morning. Maureen, the nice white girl who lived next door, was dead it seemed, and Sean, who seemed so sweet, had done something wrong, and just as she knew this, so did the police, or they wouldn’t have taken him away. She shivered, knowing their living room was really a crime scene. And now, her only real friend was moving away.

Her mind ran through a procession of the long days to come. Days when she would always be alone.  Nobody to talk to, nobody asking how she was. No Saturdays to look forward to when she knew she would see her friend. Days where she was in bed by seven o’clock, her dinner eaten an hour earlier. Long days with nothing much to do. Might as well end that kind of day early. The sleeping pills helped.

Stepping off the bus, she started down the block, surprised to see the mail carrier still out delivering. She walked to the rear of the front house and he stopped in front of her, handing her a white envelope with blue lettering. She recognized her electric bill.

He pushed the floppy canvas safari hat he wore back from his forehead. “Had a late start today, and this whole block was closed off, anyhow. Heard somebody got killed up there.” He gestured toward the garage apartment on the left.

The sadness started leaking out of her eyes. She was going to miss her young neighbors, too. They were always so full of life. Just listening to them was more entertaining than television. She stumbled up the stairs and closed the door behind her. The stillness pressed in, filling the small room and reminding her that she was going to be spending the rest of her years here. Her kids said it looked like she was going to live a long time, and it would be some time before she’d end up in a home. She needed to talk to one of them now, better if it was one of her daughters. They’d understand how she felt and maybe they’d decide to come down and visit her.

Feeling a little brighter, she checked her pocket phone book and started dialing. First, she dialed her oldest daughter. The call went straight to the message. Still not sure how to leave her message, she yelled into the phone, and then dialed her other two daughters. They didn’t answer either. Well, maybe Carlos then. He might yell at her about calling during work hours, but at least she’d hear his voice. Feeling more confident, she dialed his number. Nobody answered, and the phone rang and rang. She waited for the message to come on, but it never did. He must have forgotten to set it. She hung up feeling worse and tottered over to the kitchen counter on arthritic legs. With shaking hands, she poured out a couple of sleeping pills. She’d finish the day early. Maybe it would be better tomorrow.

God, she missed her children, not these adults who were really strangers, always all business, making you talk to phones instead of talking to a real person. Strangers who didn’t even care enough to call her and say hello. They weren’t really the children she remembered. She missed the little children who stood by the sink patiently in their new shoes from Discount Shoe Mart while she combed their hair and held her hand tight on the first day of school.

She carried her pills and a glass of water over to the couch, turned on the television and stared at the two people reporting the news. All of it bad. But she didn’t care. She couldn’t help those little refugee children or cool off the earth or keep the police from shooting more Black men. She wasn’t even able to help Maureen. Maureen, with her fiery hair, and her tattoos of angels, devils, and flowers that covered her chest and arms. Poor Maureen. She was some mother’s baby daughter. Whoever her mother was, whenever she found out, she would feel the kind of pain that never stops.

She pictured Maureen’s face again, bloody and purple. The world was a horrible place, full of men like Sean, and women like her and Maureen. She was like Maureen, she thought. The only difference was that Juan and his wandering eyes left, or she might have ended up in the same place, on a stretcher going to the morgue.

She wondered if Maureen ever thought it was all her fault. She’d thought like that at first herself. She wished she’d talked to Maureen before. She could have told her about how it was with Juan, told her that Sean wouldn’t change, no matter what she did to please him, and that she needed to leave, not to be afraid, life would go on without him.

She sat there thinking how nobody was there to help Maureen when all the time, she was suspicious. No, more than suspicious; she knew but never said anything. She felt ashamed. All the time being lonely and miserable, useless, with no real purpose anymore, and nobody to talk to. She could have helped. She saw that now. Maureen needed somebody to stand up for her, to make sure there was justice. Sean was not the one.

There was still time, if not in life, then in death. She dug into her wallet and pulled out the card the police left her. She wouldn’t wait until the detective called her. She would call him and tell him what she heard through the thin plaster walls and what she saw. And after that, she would find more women like Maureen who needed her help. She took the sleeping pills in her hand and poured them back into the bottle. She didn’t feel like going to sleep this early tonight.


The stories in Francine Rodriguez’s collection, such as Mrs. Fonseca, are written about women from various walks of life, and at differing stages of their lives. She chose to focus her writing on the lives of a handful of Latina women living emotionally precarious lives on the edges of society, whose voices and stories are under-represented in women’s literature. She honed her creative writing skills writing appellate briefs for many years, where it was required that you spin broken flax into gold. She also spent some time studying writing with the author John Rechy and found that she, too, could identify with the themes of Los Angeles’s neighborhoods. During her course of study, she developed a process to put her feelings and obsessions with this area and some of its inhabitants into words with a fresh perspective. You can find her at francinerodriguezauthor.com.

Going Home – Barbara Daniels

Going Home – Barbara Daniels

The second and final poem we will be sharing from Barbara as of now. The story-like quality of both “Her Seven Faces” and “Going Home” were impressive to us, and we imagine you’ll agree. Enjoy.

Do you enter from a garage,

step into a laundry room clacking

and steamy with cleanness?

Or slide a glass door down a track

bumpy with sunflower hulls

left by finches and chickadees?

Do you wipe your feet? Your hand

sorts through mail on a desk

by a door. The skin on the backs

of your fingers. The single

broken nail. I rest my forehead

on my own door. After a while, I go in.


Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Her Seven Faces – Barbara Daniels

Her Seven Faces – Barbara Daniels

Her Seven Faces

Sleeping in blankets like limp wings,

she dreams a madwoman’s dreams,

(pointing fingers, orange birds

whistling convulsively, cord strung

with teeth and a prickly amulet).

She bursts out of sleep

like a swimmer gasping for air.

Dried salt marks her skin.

She searches a mirror

for her seven faces — stiff grin,

frown her face slumps into,

sales-talk smile, and, damn it.

What were the other ones?

Her teeth are still yellow,

A3, determined when her dentist

held tinted chips against her mouth.

These are her eyes in the mirror,

flecks of grayed slate.

A ghost brushes the back of her neck.

Charms, countercharms.

It’s not too late to be changed.


Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

OK Boomer – Dash Bevis

OK Boomer – Dash Bevis

This comedic poem of Dash’s is a sharp, fun, and enlightening read. Enjoy.

OK Boomer

OK Boomer.

We can’t use books because they have no buttons! GOD that’s funny!

Icecaps melting, wildfires, hurricanes, but it’s just sunny!

“These Millennials are sensitive; I can’t call guys him or that girl her!

Oh, my coupon is expired? LET ME SPEAK WITH A MANAGER.”

OK Boomer.

“What? You just rent? I bet it’s ‘cause of those phones!”

No, Karen, it’s because I can’t afford my goddamn student loans!

“But I worked my way through college! It’s you guys that want the most!”

Said the article that blamed the avocado toast.

OK Boomer.

“That phrase is so disrespectful! This is an insult we will not take!”

What about when everyone you insulted was a “snowflake”?

You’re old and washed up and entitled and annoying.

The world is changing and won’t be enjoying

This negative mindset of superiority,

So feel disrespected, take the insult and leave!

OK Boomer?

Everyone is a wussy for one reason or another!

You aren’t special just for being a grandmother!

We can all get along, it’s not really a big deal,

Though, it would be nice if y’all would tip with your meals…

Spring Submission Deadline

Spring Submission Deadline

Hello there,

We are currently in the final stages of assembling our print issue, and as the end of the semester nears, as does the end of our submission season.

The official end-of-year deadline we’ll be honoring at this time is April 22nd — after that, we will be closed for submissions once again. We encourage you to take this weekend, above any other weekend, to finish up any pieces you’d previously planned on submitting and get them into us. The material we’ve received this year has been truly special, and we’d love to receive more, even if it’s down to the wire.

We thank you & hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,

The Editors