Brynn Lietuvnikas, “SteamPunk Revolution”

It was a feeling almost unknown in 2134. This thing couldn’t
see her, but she could see it. Mindy was physically the next best
thing to being inside of that tome. She sat with her back arched as
she curved over the book, a bundle of papers tied together. The book
wasn’t peering into her thoughts; it didn’t know how to document
the time she spent on one page and compare it to another. It created
this butterfly buzz inside of her stomach, which was ruined when
Plier opened the steel door to their concrete apartment. Mindy’s
heart rate escalated. The bright white ceiling lights seemed to dance.
Plier was supposed to have been out all night. He had taken the
12:00 P.M.-7:00 A.M. shift at the robotic hospital. She whirled to
the clock and found that it was already 7:45. She turned back to
Plier, whose eyes had never left her. He stared, and Mindy could
hear herself breathe. She hadn’t done anything wrong; what she was
doing wasn’t technically illegal.
When a minute passed without him speaking, Mindy had
to break the silence. It was a mounting weight she had to throw
off. “It’s just…smut,” she blurted. Plier smiled, covered his face, and
laughed bitterly.
“For you, it probably is. It is romanticized, I’m sure.”
Mindy’s face flushed with anger. When Plier called something
“romantic,” he meant “stupid.” Plier came forward, gently tugged
the book from her hands. If he had done it more forcefully, Mindy
would have fought back, but in this case, she just let the volume slip
away. Plier silently read over the page she was on.
Then he smiled. It was an expression full of venom. “So I
tell you, younger generation: they forged you in the smiths like
their machines and sent you out. Stop taking the updates to your
figurative programming. Stop plugging yourself in at night. Rise
with me and we will reclaim what they have taken–” He broke off in
laughter. “Is this man a preacher or a revolutionist? His tone is all off.”
Mindy’s nose scrunched up as her face tightened in on itself.
She began to shout something, but Plier’s soft voice cut her off.
“Well, he certainly isn’t an editor. Look at all these grammatical
errors.” He moved to show her the page again. He was inviting her
to see the book with his eyes; She refused.
“He had to get it out in a hurry.”
“Had to spread the Good Word?” Plier grinned, making a
reference to a long-lost religion. His smile quickly faded, replaced
by concern. “These words may be pretty, but they’ll get you killed.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“Not yet…” He read over the page one last time. His eyes
half-closed, too tired to fight anymore. Mindy wanted to take that
as a victory, but he looked too sad. He passed her the book back
with a sigh. In the morning, he’d say “You can’t fight them. They
have tanks; you have poetry.” But right now, he could only sigh.
Mindy got up. She went over to Plier’s bed on the other side
of the sporadically lit room. She pulled back the covers for him. He
nodded and crawled in. Mindy went back to her spot. She opened
her book again and started to read. She kept her posture better this
time. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the light come on
from Plier’s tablet. His thumb scrolled across the screen, leaving a
data trail he couldn’t see, sculpting him in ways he didn’t know. After
an hour, he turned off the device and closed his eyes. Mindy put her
book down and went to sleep. She had a meeting in a few hours.

Naomi Sheely, “The Theatre”

I mock the audience’s unified gasp from the plot twist that
this love disaster has been building to. I can hear the crowd clearly
through the thick wooden doors that I pass on my way to my private
booth. What a bunch of ninnies. Even a blind woman could have
seen his betrayal coming. Maybe one could ignore the late nights at
work or the sudden interest in putting some extra time in at the gym,
but smiling when he’s texting someone else? No ma’am. That cannot
be excused. Neither can the fact that these simpletons were surprised.
I slow as I come to a door with a charred wood finish and
take a deep breath. For a moment, I can smell the fire, the power
smoldered into it. I caress my golden nameplate before entering.
A single white chair sits on the red plush carpet of the booth.
I quickly navigate to the seat, smooth the nonexistent wrinkles from
my bright red pencil dress, and fold into the comfort of the chair.
“You missed it,” calls a familiar voice from the booth to my left.
“I assure you, I missed nothing.”
A smaller, shocked gasp rolls through the audience at the
audacity of whatever tripe the mooch is spouting off now. I don’t
bother to turn my attention to the stage yet.
Instead, I focus on my neighbor’s booth and the light
scraping sound of drawing a tissue.
“It’s tragic, really,” she says over the sound.
“Is it?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t get it.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” I agree, dry eyes and bored with what we
have become.
I stand, sickened by the display and everyone here.
“Where are you going?”
I ignore her even as I hear the rustling of the trademark
navy-blue dress she favors.
“What are you going to do?” she tries again.
I run my fingers along the handle of the bat I keep perched
against the back wall before grabbing it firmly.
“What needs to be done,” I answer as I exit the booth.
The heavy wooden door slams shut loudly behind me, the
nameplate with its engraved “Anger” rattling in its holder.
I swing the bat confidently as I pass doors with their own
nameplates: Grief, Love, Joy, Anxiety.
I head for the stage, confident in my upcoming part, an
unwilling spectator to this travesty no longer.

Hailey Stoner, “Coming Home”

Previously published in BOMBFIRE Literary Magazine

Coming home is terrible. It’s terrible, and I’m not quite sure
why. My husband loves me. Every morning, he makes me coffee
and sneaks a note into my lunchbox before work. He always lets me
play my music in the car, even if it’s something he doesn’t like, like
Beyoncé or Backstreet Boys. He leaves every Friday night open on
his calendar for our date night, and he runs me a bubble bath every
Sunday night.
My son loves me. He dedicates every painting he makes in
art class to me, and only me. Each time I go to the grocery store, he
insists on coming to help with the list. I was the subject for his reallife hero project in English class, and named me “real-life Wonder
Woman, but ten times better.”
I’ve been sitting in my car, parked in the driveway for ten
minutes now, staring at the closed garage door. I don’t want to go
inside. Talking to my husband is exhausting. He asks too many
questions. Can you pick up Noah from school tomorrow? Who’d
you talk to at work today? Do you still want to do poker night with
Danny and Vannessa on Saturday?
I don’t want him to see me through the front window. My
legs stick to the leather seats. It feels like I just ran a marathon by
the time I finally psych myself up enough to get out of the car. All
I want is to fall to the ground and stare at the clouds until my eyes
are so dry that it hurts to blink again, but I don’t. I force my legs to
move toward the house.
As soon as I walk through the front door, I start to sink. The
floor pulls me under, slow like quicksand. It sucks the shoes off my
feet, and I use the banister to pull myself up, but it holds onto my
ankles. I think it’s going to pull me all the way under, keeping me
hostage in my own home before it stops at my knees.
Coming home is terrible. My husband is already in the
kitchen making dinner. He asks where I’ve been. I should’ve been
home two hours ago.
I try to tell him I was sitting in the office parking lot because
I didn’t want to drive home. I try to tell him my brain finally gave
me a little break, letting my mind drift in the nothing for a short
time. To tell him coming home is terrible. Work is terrible. The
grocery store is terrible. The park, the gym, the school. It’s all so
awfully terrible.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. My tongue is like
a brick, cemented to the roof of my mouth. There’s a tickle in the
back of my throat, and I try to clear it, but the tickle grows, and
grows, until I’m overtaken with a coughing fit. I cough, and cough,
and with every cough, I sink a little lower into the sand that has
become the floor.
At the stove, my husband flips a patty, the grease sending a
puff of steam into the air as if nothing here is out of the ordinary.
I don’t know why he can’t see the sand. He says he will pick me up
from work tomorrow, so he’ll know where I am.
The steam makes me cough, and sink, and cough, and sink,
until a fish comes flopping out of my throat. It lands right in front
of me. It flips around, gills opening and closing, gasping to breathe.
Its little black eye stares up at me, begging for me to save him. The
sand has taken me up to my knees.
Coming home is terrible because I have to continue being
the good mother, and the good wife, even when my mind won’t
let me. Even when it feels like I’m living in somebody else’s skin,
in their house with their family, while my body floats in a tank of
water somewhere.
My son runs down the stairs and yells Mommy! when he
rounds the corner. He runs across the sand’s surface as if it were the
usual hardwood and jumps into my arms.
I sink to my hips. The longer I hold him, the further I sink.
His lips move as he speaks, but I can’t hear anything. He waves his
arms, and my ribs sink under. My husband sprinkles seasoning into
the pan, and my son turns to tell him a story after he realizes I’m
not much entertainment at the moment. When he opens his mouth
again, I hear the sound of water. Like I’m in the ocean, swimming
with the fish that came from my throat.
My son jumps from my arms, and runs over to my husband,
watching him set the plates. He loves to help in the kitchen, but my
husband doesn’t trust him with those tasks just yet. I try to move
towards the table to sit, but the sand makes it nearly impossible to
use any of my lower body. It feels like I’m melting into the floor. It’s
going to trap me. My husband says something, but still, I can only
hear the water.
It starts dull and distant– the water –but it grows. The harder
I push against the sand, the louder it becomes. The boys sit at the
table, ready to eat, and my husband waves me over to join. I use
everything I can to move, but the sand is too heavy.
Suddenly, the walls lean and crack. The house creaks, and
groans, and the water is strong. It swooshes so loud in my ears that
for a moment I believe it will crush my skull. I reach for my husband
and son at the table, but the walls come crashing down before I can
get to them. Water pours into the house through every crevasse,
quickly filling up to the ceiling. As I drift underwater, I see them
eating at the table as if nothing is wrong. I want to shake them from
their trance. To wake them, and save them, but I don’t. I just float.

Susan Quinn, “Waynesboro”

George sat on the sewer cap spinning the back wheel of his
bike. He had flipped it over, standing it on its handlebars and had
taken off the Jack of diamonds that made the wheel sing. He liked
the zing sound the card made against the spokes when he rode, but
that creep Joey had called him a baby. So, he had taken it off. It spun
mutely now and so; he heard the grind of the moving van as soon as
it turned onto his street.
The furrows between his brows deepened and he glowered
just a bit more, someone else to call him Georgie Porgy. He spun the
wheel again, watching, as the van lumbered inch by inch up the hill.
It struggled with the weight of its load; the engine screamed; the
trailer squawked. Its gonna blow, George thought in anticipation.
But it didn’t. Instead, the moving van made its troublesome way
past him. George reached up to spin the wheel of his bike again and
a face peered out through the cracked and dirty window of the cab.
She stared down at him. He stared back. The van crept along. The
wheel spun.
The truck pulled into the driveway next to George’s house.
So, someone finally bought that old thing, he thought and spun
his wheel again, faster this time. The air whizzed as the spokes tore
through it. The truck came to a stop and hissed as if in exhausted
relief. The passenger door opened with a loud painful screech but
stopped in only a few inches. Then, it slammed all the way out with
a shriek. George saw the girl’s boot sticking out after her angry kick
and then watched her pull it back just before hopping from the
truck. One corner of George’s mouth lifted just a bit. It didn’t erase
the frown on his face, but he watched now with more interest.
The girl looked at him for a long moment and then cut
across the weeds towards the sewer where George sat watching.
“Charlie! Where are you going?” a man’s voice bellowed.
She turned for just a second, said something to the man
who had appeared around the back of the truck and then continued
towards George. The slight smile on George’s face dropped back
down into a frown and he turned away ignoring her, but his palms
began to sweat, and his heart picked up a beat. He heard every
crunch of her steps through the scorched weeds as she moved
towards him. He listened to the silence when she stopped next to
him, his eyes cutting sideways towards her.
“Hey,” she said.
He turned to face the voice and squinted up into the sun.
George couldn’t see her. She was just a dark silhouette against the
glare and then she moved slightly, blocked the intense light, and
cast a cool shadow across his sunburned face. He could see her now
and the scent of something sweet floated around his head.
“Hi,” he said.
She sat down next to him, and his mouth went dry.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“George,” he said with a look that challenged her to make fun.
“Hi, Georgie.”
He cut his eyes at her, but her smile was honest, and it
didn’t sound so bad coming from her. He smiled back, much to his
surprise. “What’s yours?”
“Charleston, but people call me Charlie.”
“They named you after a city?” he asked.
“It’s where I was conceived,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
“Wow,” George said, “Good thing you weren’t conceived here.”
“Yeah.” She grinned and nodded. Her fingers toyed with the
buttons of her shirt. It was a green plaid button down with the
sleeves cut off and rolled up to make a cuff. He knew they were cut
off because one side slipped down and exposed the frayed edge. The
tails of the shirt hung loose over her shorts which were also cutoffs,
faded denim and instead of sneakers, she had on worn and dirty
cowboy boots. Her hair was long and dark and pulled back into a
thick ponytail. She reached up and spun his tire.
“I’m going into the seventh grade here,” she told him.
“Me too.” He grinned at her. “Mrs. Peebles. She’s a mean
old hag.”
“Yeah. I thought it was gonna suck.” He paused and then
grinned at her. “But maybe it will be OK now.”
She glanced up at him and smiled, then looked away, and
reached up and spun his tire. “Maybe it will.”
She had freckles on the bridge of her nose and her eyes were
green. A rosy blush filled in the gaps between those tiny brown dots,
and he realized he was staring at her.
“Charlie!” a voice yelled from behind them.
She turned towards the man and her ponytail brushed
his cheek.
“I’m coming.” She turned back to George. “I gotta go help
unload and stuff. See ya later, Georgie Porgy.”
He just waved; his mouth was glued shut. The thought of
that feathery sweep against his cheek engulfed his mind. She stood
up and brushed the dirt from her butt and then headed back the
way she had come. He dragged his tongue off the roof of his mouth
and stood also.
“Hey, Charleston.”
She turned with a grimace and stood jaunty in her shorts
and boots, the heat and little puffs of red dust shimmered around
her. “You can call me Charlie. Everyone does.”
He shrugged. “I kinda like Charleston.”
She laughed lightly. “What do you want Georgie Porgy?”
His hands searched his hips for pockets he didn’t have. So,
he spun his wheel instead.
“I got nothin’ to do. I could help.”
She smiled then, all the way to her emerald eyes. He was
wrong. She wasn’t beautiful after all. She was radiant. She dipped her
head towards the truck, an invitation, and the world changed forever.

Bria A Moon-May, “Rooted in Honesty”

“Thank you for tonight,” said Daisy to Marigold.
“Any excuse to spend time with you is a good one,” Marigold
replied as he pulled his date closer to him.
Her skin was soft as petals.
Daisy’s eyes drifted to the small, metallic circle at Marigold’s
right temple, and her smile wilted.
She looked away, and he felt the chasm between them.
Hesitantly, Daisy spoke, “You know… I haven’t wanted to
push, but it’s been a while now… You say that you love me, but I’d
really like to see it for myself.”
She turned her face to his, a delicate blossom searching for
the light.
Hurt, Marigold responded, “Haven’t I been good to you?
Don’t you trust me?”
“You can’t keep me in the dark forever,” she insisted, thornier
than before, “I’ve been open with you, I want a partner who can do
the same.”
He could see the resolution, clear as day on her face. The
colors of determination and courage radiated from her own metallic
circle at her right temple.
His face burned as echoes of his father’s voice reverberated
through his mind. Lock that thing down. Real men don’t make a
spectacle of their feelings.
“Marigold, please, I need to know that you love me.”
“Am I a game to you? Are you just playing with me??”
“No! Of course not, you’re the most important person in my-”
“Then show me!”
The wind was cold…
The blazing red of her Mood Ring softened, deepened,
tinged with colors of pain and sadness. She explained herself, “If I’m
just something to pass the time… I need to know. Please, Marigold.”
Once he showed her, she would see everything. She might
not want him anymore, damaged as he was.
“Ok, but… Please don’t hate me.”
He pressed a clammy finger to the metal in his temple.
She gasped and stepped back, hand flying to her mouth in
shock. Tears welled in her eyes and what must have been a dozen
emotions played over her features in a dazzling array of color.
He knew the deep purple of fear all too well, shifting into
teal confusion, into the warm tones of sympathy and compassion,
into tenderness, and was that love coming through? He could hardly
believe his eyes.
“I didn’t want to burden you with this. I’m sor-”
She lunged forward, arms outstretched.
He flinched but could not escape her loving embrace.

Michael Martin, “If Loving You Is Wrong”

“Are you coming over tonight?”
Her alluring voice came through the phone, a siren song
of smooth, sweet promises laced with unspoken risks. A drug that
jumped my heartrate and numbed my brain – the more moral aspects
of which were screaming at me to stop before things turned physical.
I’d stopped listening to that part weeks ago.
“I’m thinking about it. She knows around what time to
expect me, but I can tell her I hit traffic.”
My chest felt as if an intense weight rested on it, pressing
the air from my lungs. Was it excitement? Anxiety? Or both?
I wanted this. I needed this. Ten years of lifeless marriage,
roommates than lovers. My wife had committed numerous betrayals,
some of which I’d even found out about. If not for the kids, I
would’ve left long ago… I thought. I didn’t really know anymore.
I’d grown accustomed to the dull acceptance of an unfulfilling life,
an unfulfilling marriage.
Natalie had awakened something I forgot existed. I need this.
Surely karma would see what I’d gone through and consider
the balance sheet equal. Karma owed me this one after all these years.
My response met only with the sound of steady breathing.
Was she getting cold feet? I hadn’t considered the possibility
that Natalie would be the one to back out. She’d known from the
beginning that I was married; despite her occasional lapses into
religious guilt, she never wavered that this was what she wanted too.
The silence grew louder with each passing second. It was
deafening; I couldn’t take it.
“Are you ok?”
“…are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”
Was she referring to me visiting tonight? Or what I promised
to do when I finally spoke to Lydia afterwards? My heart sank; just
one hour ago, I was on top of the world. Everything I wanted was
coming my way. With one sentence, Natalie had pulled the rug
from under me; the solid footing I thought was there revealed itself
to be a lie.
How to respond without pushing her further down the path
of doubt? I didn’t know what she was doubting. Precious moments
ticked by; I was bordering on giving off doubt myself.
“I’m absolutely sure. I’ve never met anyone like you, I’ve
never felt this way before. You’ve opened my eyes to what is possible
when you find someone that you truly connect with. I want this
with you.”
“I know, I feel the same.” She paused. “I meant tonight.”
The pressure on my chest eased. She wasn’t questioning our
future, only if giving in to our urges before I ended things was the
correct thing to do. Back on solid footing again.
“If you aren’t comfortable” I lied, “I have no problem
waiting,”. I could only hope the prospect of not getting our hands
on each other would push her off the fence. Me, I’d long moved
past worrying about whether we should or not.
“Maybe that would be better, at least until you’ve left her.”
The cold sting of disappointment… my plans for the night,
my excitement, all vanishing as we spoke.
“If you’re absolutely certain that’s what you want… I won’t
press you.” I’d always been terrible at expressing my real feelings,
but I’d learned long ago how to manipulate others to get what I
want. Call it a gift from a less-than-stellar childhood.
“I don’t know.” Still on the fence… meaning there was still a
chance. “Are you sure she won’t find out?”
I had no way of knowing if my wife would ever find out.
“One hundred percent, yes. I’m certain.”
My heart skipped three or four beats when I heard her
respond. “Ok, come over then.”
“Alright kids, it’s time for bed.”
My heart was beating through my chest. Was it excitement
or anxiety? Or both?
Carl would be home in an hour; he’d left the conference
three hours ago. I knew exactly how long it would take him to get
back; I’d checked Google Maps to get the route time and to see
if there was any traffic along the way. I wanted to let him know if
there were any delays; Carl hated traffic. And I hated when traffic
stressed him out. I wanted him home.
One-by-one, I hugged each of our three children and kissed
their foreheads, tucking them into bed. With each bedroom door
I shut, my heart raced a bit faster. Carl had begun to act strangely
after he left for his trip. Nightly calls from previous business trips
over the years became one midday, ten-minute call. He felt distant.
I asked if he was ok. He wouldn’t tell me.
“We can talk when I get back.” That was all he would give me.
Subsequent texts offered no additional clarification.
I wished he would’ve just told me whatever it was. The
anticipation was surely worse than whatever he had to say, but my
innermost fears manifested worst-case scenarios – then replayed
them countless times in the days since. Things that could never
happen, like Carl asking for a divorce. Or worse, that he was leaving
me for another woman.
He was far too selfless for that. My Carl, the man who stood
by me even when I broke his trust. I didn’t deserve him; he was far too
good of a man. I couldn’t think of a better father, a better husband.
But… I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was
coming. Something I wasn’t ready for. My stomach bad been turning
for days. I hadn’t eaten; I couldn’t eat. The thought made me even
sicker to my stomach.
As I sat on the couch, my phone lit up.
Carl Calling.
I snatched my phone off the coffee table and pressed Answer,
trying to calm myself before talking to not appear as desperate as I
really was.
“Hey, on your way home baby?”
“Yeah… I’m on the road now.” He sounded hesitant.
“So, I’ll see you in an hour?”
“I wish. I hit bad traffic, and we’re barely moving. All lanes
might be shut down.”
An icy dagger pierced my heart as he recited his lie. All my
excitement at seeing his name pop up on my phone only served to
raise my spirits higher so that the emotional drop was even steeper.
Crushed, I didn’t know how to respond. How do you tell the man
you hope isn’t coming home to tell you he’s leaving that you know
he’s lying – without pushing him further away?
“Oh… that’s not good. Have you looked it up yet on
Google Maps?”
“Yeah, it looks like road construction up ahead. We’re backed
up for miles. It’s going to be a while.”
All my worst fears, the dread I’d felt for the past three days,
bore down harder than ever before. I’d been fighting my fears,
telling myself I was being irrational. Hearing how much Carl had
rehearsed this lie, though, cut through any delusions I still had left.
“Carl, where are you headed?” My voice was much steadier
than I felt, my fears turning into resolve as I spoke. The silence grew
louder each moment he didn’t respond. The only thing I could hear
was my own beating heart as I waited.
“What are you talking about?” His voice was slower,
measured. He was gauging how much I knew. 10 years of marriage,
I knew when he was lying, when he was trying to gain more time to
figure out how much he could still hide.
My heart broke as I realized he wasn’t headed home.
Wherever else he was going, he didn’t want me to know. Based on
his lie, he planned on being there for hours. Was he even coming
home? I was afraid of the answer, but I asked anyway.
“Are you coming home tonight?”

Sandra Inskeep-Fox, “Pieces”

It is the 33rd year of a marriage that failed: her second, his
first, and I am imagining it all, still looking from the outside in and
bargaining. I can only bargain with what I see to be true, to be false,
but mostly I bargain for some kind of reality that I can accept.
It is an embryonic Spring day, a morning not quite born,
with birds, with the tiniest red nubs of tree buds, with an early bed
of purple and yellow crocuses, all converging to tease them at their
breakfast, the breakfast she is preparing and will soon set as a gift
for him on the aging, green formica-topped dinette that stares at
its own view of the backyard patio. His place faces the front of the
house, looks onto the street where the action, if there is any, will
occur. She will sit beside him, her view the wall that separates the
kitchen from the garage. She won’t notice the wall, will look past
the linen dish towel calendar that decorates it. She will see only him,
and over his shoulder, whatever the world provides as hints of Spring.
Before she sets the table, she carefully covers the partially

worked 1,500 piece interlocking jig saw, a puzzle that pictures in
its incompleteness a field of vivid flowers, perennials, I think, and
a barnyard of weathered wooden structures. She covers it with
yesterday’s news, but not before she pauses to review the previous
day’s progress and contributes to it by fitting into the framework a
single piece. The piece is blue, almost white but blue, and it fits into
a sky of similar blues, the fit perfect, bringing up into her throat an
almost humming sound. Not a significant enough piece to make the
hum more than a vibration, but she feels it and smiles; and then coughs,
ending the hum. Then the newspaper covering carefully applied.
Over the newspapers she places a tablecloth, flannel-backed
vinyl with oranges, rust, greens, all forming leaves and flowers in
patterned sequential squares; K-Mart, $1.99 on sale; earth colors,
her favorite colors remembered from the old farm kitchen of her
youth. Her mother’s favorites, also. She presses at the centerfold
mark to smooth it, presses down firmly with the heel of her hand,
stretching then in her smallness to run her hands along the edges
and down the sides, an extra gesture of wrinkle-control, ensuring
smoothness over the roughness that she knows is there.
This is all in my memory. I feel the warm sun through the
patio window, smell the new vinyl of the K-Mart cloth, and the
bacon lying ready to fry across the room. I hear her coughing away
her hum of pleasure.
He sits sunken down into the couch, a spot just his size and
shape has grown downward into the fabric of it, an inch at a time,
over the last twelve years since the time he bullied a beleaguered
salesman into delivering it on Christmas Eve, a story he still tells
whenever he gets the chance. He likes remembering that Christmas
Eve: going into the store late in the day, choosing the couch, telling
the salesman “Deliver it today, or the deal’s off,” making his purchase
seem many times larger than the actual price. He is a muscular
dwarf of a man, overstuffed like his couch, with his middle sagging
and his stocky legs just touching the floor. His hair is grey-white, a
flat-top with a GI ‘high & tight”, his hairstyle caught in the timegap

of his 30’s where everything important had happened, where
his life had been lived. His square jaws flex against the earthenware
coffee mug as he gulps the coffee, she has carried to him, gulps it
down and then, in a sputter, wipes his chin and lips with the side
of his right hand as he looks over the headlines of the paper she
retrieved earlier from under the shrubs at the front of the house. I
find some glory in the memory of the dampness of his paper and
the stinging burn from the hot coffee, little victories in memories
that otherwise are filled with defeat.
But, what do I know? I am looking into this marriage from
the outside. I hear the rustle of the paper, feel its soggy dampness,
hear him swear, calling her “Bitch” as he wipes the hot coffee from
his mouth.
She is small, everywhere. Petite. Her grey-white hair is rinsed
“Charcoal Dawn,” a concession to her years. There is always half a
smile here, ready to live or die away completely at the whim of the
moment, a half-smile that apologizes more often than not, but that
can greet neighbors, friends, and her grown-up and away children,
first with assurances and then with blessings. It’s her eyes that draw
them in though: the eyes that I remember and miss so much. They
are green, the shade of April greens, a shade, and a half darker than
lettuce, almost frivolously squirreled away among her wrinkles and
crow’s feet, and they look clear and alive and penetrating no matter
what her smile is saying. She hears him muttering now, and rushes
in with a towel, saying “sorry, sorry.” Always sorry.
On the table she places salt, pepper, margarine, two knives,
two forks, two spoons, two breakfast plates—smaller than dinner
plates, larger than saucers—and a jar of Smuckers Strawberry Jam.
She wishes she had her own mother’s strawberry patch and the
skill to whip up some of her own. She starts away, then comes back,
looks to see if he is involved with the news, and removes the salt.
His diet. She knows he will be irritated that it is not on the table,
and she will get up to get it for him, but she watches out for his diet
anyway. After all, if his heart….
She thinks about his anger and puts the salt back again in
the center of the table.
A piece of the puzzle catches the hem of her apron and falls
from her chair to the floor, a center piece with notches on all sides.
It lands upside down, and when she reaches over and picks it up,
she finds she is holding the face of a small child. She remembers
from the picture on the box that the child is in the lower left of
the puzzle hiding, peering out from behind a rusted wheelbarrow.
I hear her chuckle very softly as she puts the piece into the huge
pocket of her apron.
The bacon begins to sizzle, showering grease onto the range
top from the cast iron skillet. She feels guilty about the bacon, and
about the eggs she is about to fry for him. She knows he shouldn’t
have them, that she shouldn’t be frying bacon ever, but then he loves
it so, has been used to eggs and bacon all these years. They are a part
of him the way he is a part of her, she whispers, a habit that starts
the day, that almost makes you afraid if it’s not there. She drains the
bacon on the paper towels and breaks the eggs into a cup. Maybe
if she switched to safflower oil instead of bacon grease? Maybe he
wouldn’t notice the difference.
He finishes frowning at the headlines and the picture
captions in Section A, nodding disapproval but reassured that
the sonofabitchin’ world hasn’t changed overnight. It’s a world he
understands, has a name for. This is a moment she studies, watches
him as he reaches for the sports section. This she understands: if his
world is the same, hers will be also. Maybe his team won yesterday.
She refills his coffee and pats his knee to let him know, looks across
to see that he has smoked three cigarettes already this morning and
another one is burning in the ashtray. Lung cancer scares her at his age.
I have not gone away. I am still watching, smelling the bacon
draining, the cigarette smoke. I hear the paper crinkling against
itself, burying the news into its own archives. I see so much; I think
sometimes I know so much when really, I know so little.
The eggs were so perfect this morning. Spring eggs: brown,
large, and soft-shelled. Early Spring eggs, maybe even, yes—doubleyolked. He’d be surprised, pleased. Well, she wouldn’t scramble them
even though he asked for scrambled. Double-yolked, basted gently.
A happy surprise! No broke yolks, please, she willed, squeezing her
eyes tight in child’s prayer for just that flickering second.
I blink and rest my memory, storing the data. I pick them
up later in the day, and the sun is around the house and low in the
western sky, streaming in the front window past his couch. This
moment they are both at the kitchen table. The dinette is uncovered
now, with the puzzle between them and the overhead light glaring
down over their work. The frame is finished, the sky filled in, and
the barn and sheds with their beds of autumn mums begin to tell
a story from their childhoods. It slows them both a bit to see this
lazy scene and not be able to connect it exactly with the proper
memory. Looking now, over their shoulders, I shudder expecting
that someone will appear to disturb this peaceful pastoral beauty.
Again, she sees that his cup is empty and moves to fill it,
brushing her hand against her apron pocket with a smile as she does
so. It is the smile of a kid with stolen candy, apprehensive maybe,
but naively secure. As long as she has stolen candy school will pass
quickly and the homework will be easy.
I see now that this is a game.
While she has her back turned to the coffee pot, he reaches
into the very center of the puzzle and removes a piece, wipes it
against the side of his trousers, and slides it into the pocket of his
olive-green cardigan sweater. It is clear to me that he now also has
stolen candy; he also has a sly smile that he hides by wiping his
mouth with a wrinkled handkerchief.
Hours pass. It is a large puzzle, and they work outside in,
surrounding it’s story. They like the suspense of knowing they do
not know something for certain. They work long into the evening.
The sun is continuing its journey elsewhere and they have pulled the
curtains and lighted the living room also. They still sit in the favorite
kitchen spots: he, facing anticipated action; she, with a view to the
puzzle and to him. They are almost finished now, have filled in the
framework piece by piece during this long day. Each piece seemed
a victory of sorts, but confusingly so. Her victories seemed more like
his defeats; his progress for them both. They work in silence, the TV
playing in the background has no drama that draws them from this
theater of action. His piece, her piece, his piece, her piece…
I remember it all. Memory, too, fills in the picture for me:
suspense, anticipation; putting one piece into another until I think
I have it figured out. It closes in on me, always on me. Now I am
the puzzle, a puzzle framed in the afternoon of another day, waiting
long into this cricket-filled night. And there are these two missing
pieces, staring back at the world as two green eyes, empty, and the
soul, my soul, escaping through the emptiness. She is dead now,
died on another sunny, embryonic Spring day just after breakfast,
her fingers curled as if to shelter stolen candy. He lives alone, sitting
deeper into the couch with each passing year, too blind now to work
on puzzles. His fingers, curled in arthritic anticipation.