Category Archives: Fiction

March 3, 2022


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Olivia Clare Friedman

Never had my mother wanted to live so much as when she was dying. What she made me promise was that she wouldn’t be cremated, that she would be buried with a gravestone in our own yard.

“If I can’t be in a cemetery,” she said, “the yard’s the one place I want to be.”

I told her I would do everything I could.

She said, “I mean it. Complete the circle.”

Just as she died within it, she’d been born in our house. My grandmother was in labor on the living room floor, the midwife guiding, sliding, coaxing my mother’s slick newborn body. For ten whole minutes, my mother did not let forth her first scream. When she finally opened her mouth, opened her eyes, the scream she let out would not stop.

Countless times while my mother was alive, I’d thought about her wish, about not reporting her death. About doing as she wanted, digging a hole in the backyard beside my grandfather’s bench, finding a makeshift grave marker. I’d even dug a bit of earth in the yard before she died, hacking at the ground with a rusted spade. I made no progress. The earth would not give, and I made no hole or dent.

I’d heard on the news about people doing it, burying their loved ones in their own yards, getting caught—one way or another, reported by a neighbor when the rainwater would wash a body up from its shallow plot. It was a federal offense, $50,000 in fines if you were caught, up to 5 years jail time, and government seizure of the body.

Jail wasn’t what scared me. In the end, I couldn’t think of it—my mother’s dead body intact, lying in the ground outside our house, so near to me. My mother’s physical flesh and blood, her blood not moving. It was her physical body I was afraid of. Her corpse so near to me in the yard. I couldn’t think of her body lying there in the ground, her hair, her toes, disintegrating. And when I woke up—her body still there, when I watched TV, ate supper. What if her body came up in a storm? I couldn’t think of looking out the window, seeing her hand or foot emerging from the earth, not quite buried enough, coming back up through the ground.

With me, the only person in the world knowing she was there.

I never wanted to lose my mother’s body, to surrender her. But I didn’t know how to live with her buried in the yard, or how to dig a grave for my own mother.

On the day she died, I couldn’t even touch her. I’d woken in the chair next to her bed. Her eyes were closed, she was no longer breathing. All I could do was sit, watch for a while, struck dumb with grief, stay in her company.

I thought for just a minute—almost struck up the courage—of carrying her body to the yard, wrapped in a sheet, her limbs draped over me. Folding her body up, sealing it in the ground, watching her face disappear. I couldn’t do it. I made the phone call, reported my own mother’s death. Me, the dolty-dolt, sorry-hearted Alma Lee.


On the morning of the fourth day Bordelon stayed with me, we drank beer, watched TV. Perky women on the shopping channel sold caftans made in fabrics in bright colors. Two easy payments of $19.99. We watched infomercials on synthetic diet pills and 7-in-1 insta-cookers. Then a game show with people rolling large dice for big money.

“Come on, big money!” I yelled.

“They have to pay taxes on that,” Bordelon said, when one of the women rolled right, won $26,000. The TV woman jumped up and down, cried right into the camera. I liked seeing other people cry on TV. I could feel my own tears coming, tears of simultaneous happiness and sadness for this woman who exclaimed she’d never had so much money in her life. I cried a lot when watching TV. Soaps and game shows and medical dramas and lawyer shows. Re-runs of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons on during the day, then Matlock and Perry Mason. Even I knew what I was crying about was much more than fiction.

“How much are the taxes?” I said.

“At least a third,” said Bordelon. “And she doesn’t get it all at once. Bet they give it to her in tiny checks, little pieces at a time. You ever read about lottery winners?” She had her dress hiked up in the heat. She held her beer between her knees.

There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal.

“Well,” I said, staring into the woman’s eyes, “she’s happy now. That’s something.” I never had near so much money in my life. At the moment, $362 was sitting in my bank account. Soon but not soon enough, an unemployment check would come, or one from the state from the account my mother had set up. The checks were always different amounts, and I didn’t know why. I applied to what few jobs there were in St. Gen, and I never heard one peep back.

We watched the woman crying into the camera, her eyes clear and lit with happiness.

“She’ll find out later,” said Bordelon. “She’ll find out later how it really is.”

Then the news started. A couple neighborhoods in New Orleans were being shut down for good. In a few years, the land would be unlivable from too many floods. We were coming up on the 37th anniversary of Katrina. A newscaster was telling us all this from behind his desk in the studio, a large graphic of the Louisiana coastline projected beside his face.

Then a segment on protests. There was talk of the government officially making gatherings for public mourning illegal. Religious groups in our state, all over the country, were protesting. They were some of the angriest. There were rallies being organized, people holding up posters. THE DEAD HAVE RIGHTS TOO and GOD IS WATCHING and JESUS WEPT. Whenever I watched protestors on the news, I felt my own sadness come alive. Whole families were there. Children on the shoulders of their parents, holding signs. I thought of what we were doing to children.

As it was, each state stored the urns of the ashes. What would they want with the ashes of our dead? To take away our memory. To take away our mourning.

Now, they wanted to take funeral rites. Any public gatherings of mourning, where three or more were gathered.

The pope prayed for America. The ACLU brought together their lawyers, started petitions, just as they’d done with mandated cremation. I’d signed a few of them last year, but now I was inside the new normal, a slow sink to the bottom of an ocean. When a change first happened, no one could believe it, and then, impossibly, we did.

I took the remote, punched a button, turned the whole thing off. Bordelon tipped back her head and closed her eyes. She wasn’t asleep, just still, holding her beer between her knees.

“Sometimes I think I’m already dead,” she said.

“Sometimes me too,” I said.

Sometimes I thought I could hear it all vanish. Even the edges of the earth.


The automated email from the Government Death Site came that afternoon. They wanted to see me at the parish office in Alexandria. It would be a 30-minute interview. I needed to bring the applicant’s (a) certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) license or state-issued ID, (c) original Social Security card, (d) utility bills (lights, water, gas) and three other identifiers from column E, such as a bank statement or lease. For the decedent I needed to bring (a) a certified, state-issued long form birth certificate, (b) an original Social Security card, (c) $107 for application fee paid to the Parish Clerk, and (d) all of the following: any life insurance policy (she had none), marriage or divorce certificate (she had none), the last five years of tax returns, the last three years of bank statements, any of the decedent’s canceled checks, any will or testament.

The final thing they requested was a personal item. The best thing, the email said, was to bring a photograph. If you had one—“if available to the applicant”—a print photograph. I clicked to the page that would allow me to make an appointment. I’d thought I’d wait weeks, but there was a slot for early the next morning. I checked the box, clicked Submit. Went to my email for the confirmation link. I confirmed.

I’d kept everything about my mother, every form and scrap of paper. Every piece of mail that came. All of it was folded and scrambled, some of it unopened, stored in a battered filing cabinet I kept in the closet. All that afternoon and evening I hid myself away—Bordelon watching afternoon talk shows and dozing beneath the diamonded quilt on the couch, snoring, waking herself up, then back to dozing—searching through each box, finding what I needed, willing myself not to look too hard at what I didn’t. If I let myself look, if I let myself read everything, I’d be lost to it, drowning in the objects of my mother, unable to emerge or lift my eyes away.


On the road to Alexandria, we passed thick curtains of wild grasses and philodendron. I wrote about flowers, even drew them in my late-night time alone. I knew so many by their names. Bordelon put her feet up on the dash, stared out the window. She wore her Jackie O sunglasses like a star.

She’d been the one to ask to come with me. The night before she’d found me with the filing cabinet, surrounded by my mother’s papers. She’d wanted to keep me company and take a drive, and also she didn’t feel like being alone.

Hydrangeas rotted in front yards. Wild azaleas grew in packs. You could smell their rankness, the air brimming with sweet, candied stink. If my mother had a headstone, I would bring her azaleas. I’d pick each one—a quick snap of the stem from the ground—and fill my arms, my purse, my car to bursting. Yes, I could take these flowers’ souls.

The Office of the Parish Clerk was a standalone building with a dented metal roof, a large frayed American flag out front, the rope dinging the flagpole in the wind. Two people sat in the waiting room, the size of a high school classroom. A man and woman, both silver-haired, seated separate and silent, their hands in their laps. The front desk was vacant. I was carrying a large leather portfolio my mother had once given me for my drawings. In there were all the forms, birth and death certificates, policies and paperwork they’d asked for. I had also carefully placed a photo of my mother inside a manila envelope. It was my favorite photograph, the one that stayed tucked at the back of a drawer, only for my eyes. When I looked at it, even for a moment, my body ached.

Bordelon and I sat in a corner, all to ourselves. A sign hung above our heads: MARRIAGE LICENSES. But we didn’t see young couples there. One of the walls had a white line painted a few feet high, right on the brick. I’d seen those white lines before, meant to show the highest place the floodwater had risen to.

I looked to my right—the older woman sniffed, used a worn tissue to wipe a drop trembling from her nostril. There were Bibles, thin and thick, abridged and unabridged, on the scarred table. An industrial sized bottle of hand sanitizer with a grungy pump, a tabloid with a cover featuring British royalty in trouble with the law. Bordelon picked up the magazine and began thumbing her way through, her bag between her knees, her sunglasses propped on her head like two bug eyes.

“These assholes,” she said. She shook her head, looked right into the faces of a film star couple. I recognized them. The man had gotten in trouble for having an affair with the nanny.

A large man with a bald head came out from a hidden room in the back of the county clerk’s office and sighed and looked at a computer screen. Then he called out my mother’s Urn Identification Number. I stood, picked up my leather portfolio. Bordelon looked up at me from her magazine and squeezed her eyes with a long blink. We’d agreed earlier—I’d go in alone.

The bald man called the Urn Number again, and I walked up. He opened a thigh-high swinging door, led me to a smaller desk, told me to sit. He sat behind it, in front of what looked like a new computer. A small placard was posted: URN CLAIMS.

“What’s the State Death Number?” His hands were over the keyboard, ready for me to start talking. He wore a Saints tee shirt and bright blue braces. The Saints hadn’t played in a few years. There was talk of moving the team to another state entirely.

Her number,” I said, “is BROUS440931.”

“That’s the Urn ID,” he said. “What’s the State Death Number?” He looked at the screen, not at me, his fingers ready to type.

I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms.

I took the death certificate from my portfolio and searched for the number. He sighed and looked over.

“Give that to me,” he said.

He scanned the quick response code, then asked me a series of questions to confirm information on the screen. Full name? I told him. Address? Social security number? Weight? Age? Cause of death? I gave my mother’s full name, my grandparents’ full names, as best I knew them.

He stuck out his hand. “Are you paying with cash or card?” he said. “No checks. There’s a five-dollar fee for cards, credit or debit.”

I put my poor little credit card in his palm. $112. He had a card reader on his desk and scanned my card through. He printed out a receipt and handed that to me. Screen, scan, swipe was all I or my mother was to him.

Then he asked me for every single piece of paperwork I had brought. I took each page from my portfolio, delicately handed over each one, one by one by one, as though they were heirlooms. In some ways, that was just what they were. He snatched them from me, began to scan them through a scanner on his desk. His braces flashed in the fluorescent light.

After ten minutes passed, I said, “When’s the interview?”

“This is it,” he said.

“What’s it?”

“You’re in it,” he said. “We’re doing it right now.”

When the scans were done, he punched on the keyboard, looking from the scanned papers to the screen—up, down, up down. The sound of him punching the keys—something about how slight the sound was against the mass of what we were doing—made me dizzy.

He handed me a piece of paper with instructions.

“Read it,” he said.

I was to write out a formal letter, with specific guidelines for each paragraph, saying formally my relationship to the decedent, saying formally I had no other family. I was to sign the letter with a closing statement. I was to have it notarized. I had three days.

“In three days,” the man said. “You come back. You bring the letter, and you come back right here.”

“How do I notarize?”

“Hold on,” he said. He was looking right at me now. “Let me finish. If you are allowed to have the decedent’s urn,” he said. “You cannot bury it. You must keep it, in your own dwelling. Ashes stay in the urn. Read the bottom.” He leaned over, sharply tapped the paper with his pen. “See there? Read that there.”

Ashes must be kept in the urn. They may not float in the sea. They may not rise in the air. You may not scatter. You may not bury.

“Okay,” I said. “Y’all notarize the letter here?”

He turned back to his screen, smacked his mouth over his braces. “You go to a notary,” he said.

“Where’s that?”

“You find one yourself,” he said. “They charge you.”

“How much?” I said.
“Ask them, not me.”

“Where do I find one?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he took my stack of papers to a back room to make copies. When he came back, he had a can of Mountain Dew and my mother’s papers. He put the copies he’d made in an orange file folder. He handed my originals back to me, moist from the can’s condensation. I didn’t know what I was doing, or what got into me, but I had to say something. I said just what came into my head, letting the words leave my mouth before I could chase them back.

“Anyone else in this office think this is crazy?” I said.

He did not look at me. He put the folder in a metal stand on his desk of other orange and blue and white file folders.

“We can’t comment,” he said.

I couldn’t stop myself. “You can’t comment,” I said. “And we’re all just doing it. Saying nothing like this. Going about our business. My god.”

“It’s my job,” he said.

“I get that.”

“And sure. God’s involved too.”

“You think this is something God wants?” I said. “You pretend to know it?”

He sat there, looked stiffly into my eyes. “We can’t comment,” he said.

He cracked open his can of Mountain Dew and went back to his work. That was all, he told me. We were done. Later, I remembered: he never asked for the picture of my mother.


Driving back to St. Genevieve, I rolled down the windows for the green smell of life, the rotting overbloom. I told Bordelon I didn’t want any music on, didn’t want to talk. She just stared out, watched the wild roadside green scroll by.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.

My leather portfolio sat on the back seat. The applicant. The deceased. The decedent. Here lies. Here lies paper. What I wanted was just her ashes, a simple thing to want. I could throw all the papers to the wind. None of these things was my mother.

“Hold on,” Bordelon said. She took off her sunglasses and looked out the window, sat up in the seat. “Pull over.”

“What?” I said. “Stray dog?”

“Pull over.”

We were on a two-lane highway, a few other lonely cars and a truck tugging a camper behind us.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” I said.


“Right here?” I said.

“Pull over, pull over, pull over.”

I skidded to the soft, grassy side of the road, stopped the car. The truck with the camper took off ahead of us.

“Over there.” She looked back behind us, pointed out the window. “A ways back now. You wouldn’t pull over.”

In the middle of a small field, a few hundred feet from us, was a tree. A bold crepe myrtle, stark against the weeds, blooming alive with fuchsia.

I turned off the engine. We got out of the car, and all we could do was stare at the myrtle. It was all on its own, and not tall, and not not tall, but strong and rising, brimming with limbs and bright blossoms.

“I feel like we should do something,” said Bordelon.

“Like what, exactly?” I said. But I knew what she meant.

“I don’t know. Meditate, make a wish, throw a penny.”

As if by instinct, by some magnetic pull, we walked side-by-side to the tree. We had no explanation, no reason it should be there, but there it was, here, here, like a rising flame, a flowering sword.

Olivia Clare Friedman is the author of the story collection Disasters in the First World and the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Granta, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among other publications. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she holds the title of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Professor. “Myrtle” is an excerpt from Here Lies, her first novel, forthcoming from Grove Press.
January 27, 2022

The Garbage Dump Veteran Museum and Gallery

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J. G. Parisi

Johnny Fabulous stood at the white glossy podium, stationed at the front of The Garbage Dump Veteran Museum and Gallery. He was dressed in all white. The gallery was a mammoth warehouse painted in shiny black paint. Everything reflected off everything. Lining the walls, were garbage dumpsters with lids in various states. Some opened. Some closed. “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey played from the Super-Fi speakers in the gallery, echoing off the mirror-like walls.

Today was Friday, June 13th 2042, one day before Halloween that year. Several buyers were stopping by that afternoon, which was why Johnny Fabulous had adjusted the calendar to accommodate the myriad of eclectic characters. An artist. A marketer. A president. A senator. A cause. Johnny Fabulous, a weary 62-year-old, waited patiently as the buyers filtered in.

“Keeping them half-dead keeps them palatable.”

“I need a veteran for the plot of my next novel,” the beret said.

Johnny Fabulous stepped to the side and held out his arm to the left side of the gallery.

The beret stroked his goatee. “I want him to be strong.”

“Don’t we all.”

“And broken. Pensive. Rage.” The beret took out his mole-skin notebook.

“I’ve got just the one.” Johnny opened the lid of the closest dumpster.

Inside, rested a set of wiry bones—twisted in circles. The veteran was alone. Afraid.

“He’s perfect!” The beret scribbled something. “Here’s an IOU. When I get rich, I’ll give back to the veterans.” The beret loaded the wiry bones into an alligator-leather side-satchel, next to his $10,000 laptop.

The dumpster was empty now. The lid was left open. Striding back to the front, Johnny Fabulous checked the sold-box on his clipboard. He was a shooting star through deep space. A white paint drop on a black canvas. A white dot in a hall of black mirrors.

“Good day, sir,” A woman with a cell phone said. “I need a commercial veteran.”

Johnny Fabulous flipped through sheets of paper. “For commercials?”

The cell-phone-woman punched buttons. “For, and mass-society acceptable.”

“Those are rare. Veterans are the worst.” Johnny led her to a dark corner in the back.

A shiver caught the cell-phone-woman. “It’s so cold back here.”

“Has to be. Keeping them half-dead makes them palatable.” Johnny Fabulous brushed back his wavy black hair and put on a pair of mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses.

The cell-phone-woman saw herself staring back at herself. “I see.”

“Here she is.” Johnny lifted the lid.

A veteran sold for someone else’s cause, Johnny Fabulous thought, as he checked another box.

Lying in the fetal position, a woman trembled. She was fighter-pilot sized.

The cell-phone-woman gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She shook her head.

“Bring in the billboard,” she said into her cell phone.

Four people ran in. The fighter-pilot-sized veteran was laid upon the billboard like a wounded warrior being placed on a stretcher. She was carried out.

The dumpster lid was left open. A veteran sold for someone else’s cause, Johnny Fabulous thought, as he checked another box. Back at the front, he waited for the politicians. They always came in groups. Retrieving a lint roller from under the podium, he ran the sticky tape over his white three-piece suit while he waited. The son of a Sicilian chess champion and French Olympian, he had made a name for himself as a showman on the stamp collecting circuit. He had been introduced to the world in 1980 when his mother heard the breaking news that Reinhold Messner of Italy had solo climbed Mt. Everest in three days, ending her eighteen hours in labor. He listened to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” playing in the gallery.

The president, senator, congressperson, governor, and Super-Pac all arrived at the same time. “Give us a story,” they said in unison.

“We’ve got many veteran stories. What kind?” Johnny adjusted his sunglasses.

The politicians saw themselves staring back at themselves. “No. Not a story story.”

“I must have misunderstood. You don’t want a book about a veteran.”

“Why would anyone want that?” The politicians rubbed their heads.

“And not a book written by a veteran.” Johnny Fabulous took off his mirrored sunglasses.

The politicians became rowdy. “Who would read that?”

Johnny Fabulous stared at them with his abalone-shell eyes that shimmered in the dark-light like kaleidoscopes. “Even if it was fiction?”
“Even if it was fiction?” The politicians punched each other in the shoulders. “Especially if it was fiction!” The rowdy rancorous representatives roared in uncontrollable heaves. “A veteran writing fiction!” Everyone guffawed.

Britney Spears “Till the World Ends (Twister Remix)” played in the gallery.

Johnny Fabulous straightened out his all-white three-piece suit. “You want a veteran with a backstory.” He led the politicians to the rear, past the ice-cold dark corner, came to an elephant-sized bank vault, turned the silver dial this way, turned the dial that way, yanked the titanium door when the safe clicked, entered, held it open for the politicians to follow him through, let the door close as they followed the hovering bomber-group of lightning bugs that lit the path forward into a cement tunnel, dust crunched under rubber soles, trudging forward the tunnel-diameter shrank gradually, and lightning bugs grew bigger in size. The light grew brighter. Sitting cross-legged in the back, eyes closed, dreaming in color, was the rarest of veterans: an Omaha Beach H-Hour D-Day Veteran, a captain in the army—the greatest generation. A velvet sunflower.

J.G. Parisi was raised on 12 acres in a mobile home in rural California by two public school teachers. After high school, he enlisted in the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan two months after 9/11. His great uncle was an Omaha Beach H-Hour D-Day survivor, an Army Captain, and the inspiration for J.G.’s service in the Marines. He holds a BA in Philosophy of Language with a minor in Communication Theory and an MFA in Fiction. He has lived in his truck three times, worked on a rice farm, delivered pizzas, washed golf carts, and worked with at-risk high-school youth. This story, his first publication, appeared in LitMag #4. It was the winner of LitMag’s Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction.
April 12, 2021


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Josh White

Mac had long carried a linesman’s tool bag to Midwestern fairs where he competed at each locality’s butter sculpture contest in search of a fame that eluded him due to his choice of venue for his talents. He’d found the bag years ago at a pawn shop while stopping in Oshkosh for a fish sandwich and a beer, drawn in by the sadness the weary canvas bag projected through the neon-adorned windows of the shop. Now Evers, the Lower Manhattan gallery owner who’d moved Mac to New York to alter his fate and become a well-known artist, rifled through Mac’s bag, giddy and chatting about how the smooth, greasy edges of the tools told stories to his fingers.

Mac and Evers had built an enormous, glass-enclosed, refrigerated chamber inside Evers’ gallery space, where Mac was to accomplish his life-size carving of a great white shark, sawn in half, laterally, organs fully detailed in salted butter.

“Butter, as a medium, poses its challenges,” Mac said, “Which is what draws me to it.”

Evers liked to spend his afternoons, cocktail in hand, chatting with Mac while he carved in full view of the street. Clusters of tourists and New Yorkers would gather to gawk through the glass at the enormous pale shape taking form.

“It was your attention to detail that I first noticed,” Evers said. He’d encountered Mac’s incredible dairy cow at the Wisconsin State Fair over a year ago while taking a break from helping a friend hang a show in downtown Milwaukee. Every hair detailed on the hide. The nose practically glistening with mucous. All in butter. The sight had made Evers’ stomach gnarl, such was the visceral and simultaneous attraction and disgust at this bulking effigy of Midwestern culture. He was getting the same feeling from the shark sculpture as it took shape, for which he had helped arrange the commission.

“Butter, as a medium, poses its challenges,” Mac said, “Which is what draws me to it.”

After Mac had roughed in the basic shape of the shark, he began to work on the head, in finished detail, moving inch by inch, from the shark’s teeth, to its eventual tail.

“You know I love your details,” Evers said, “But why so much?”

“I’m inspired by Tibetan butter sculpture,” Mac said, “Very intricate and finely crafted and colorful. For them it is an ancient art with its origin high in the mountains, where the ambient temperature was such that butter sculptures were practical for public display to celebrate their spring festival.”

“Okay, good.”

“They used Yak butter, which I am told has a milder, more acidic flavor than our cow butter.”

“Yak butter? I can get us yak butter. I think I have a guy for that.”

“But would that be honest? This is the American State Fair. It’s about celebrating the Middle-American folklore.”

Evers smudged a bit of the sculpture from the shark’s tail and tasted it.

“It’s not food. It’s not art—this is perfect. It will confuse the hell out of people,” Evers said.

“Back home I have a dog, his name is Cheese.”

“So the two of you are Mac & Cheese.”

“I left him in the care of my sister. I hope he isn’t missing me too much.”


After his day at the studio, instead of going to his apartment in Washington Heights, Mac took the train to Queens to visit Kelsey, Evers’ gallery manager. She’d invited Mac to come out for beer and sketching.

Mac was a large, rounded man with curly brown locks and a buttery softness to his skin and complexion. His body could have been a butter sculpture. Mac noticed Kelsey’s eyes on him as they putzed about her fourth floor walk-up.

Her apartment was long and narrow, the entry opening into a living room which then led to a kitchen which then split into a narrow bedroom to the left and a narrow bathroom on the right. The front room was floor to ceiling books on one side, and a couch and two chairs with a low coffee table crowding the leg space on the other. Charming bric-a-brac covered the spare surfaces along the shelves and the coffee table and the table by the couch: gem stones, buddhas, talismans, piles of hand-printed zines and show posters. The vertical space did not escape this horror vacui; prints and paintings hung salon-style on the walls while Japanese lanterns and various Calderesque mobiles dangled from the ceiling.

Kelsey got them beers from the fridge and they settled into the front room to chat. Mac took the couch, spreading his arms and legs, Kelsey sat in a nearby chair, which appeared to be rescued garbage and questionably functional. The spindles groaned and cracked with her weight as sparks of affection flew from her gaze toward Mac’s body.

“Would you like to sketch me?” Kelsey asked.

When Mac did not immediately respond, she added, “No pressure.”

“Um,” he started, “Actually, I was hoping you could sketch me. My entire body, in the nude. I’m working on something.”

“I’ll get you the robe, you can change in my room.” She dodged across the apartment to her bedroom. They crossed each other at the threshold and she handed him the red silk robe with black lace trim.


By the time Mac emerged wearing only the robe, Kelsey had set up an easel by the couch and installed lights trained on an area of the room where a grey sheet was draped down the back of a chair and across the area rug.

Mac shed his gown, leaving it on the arm of the sofa. His motions were graceful, like those of a man who never felt a sense of urgency. He took a pose at the center of the gray sheet and Kelsey began to put her marks on the page. He saw Kelsey staring into his eyes, possibly drawing them. His skin was buttery and luminous in the generous warm light she had trained on his body, giving a strong highlight on one side, and a clear shadow on the other.

“It’s disgusting, absolutely revolting,” Evers said, smiling broadly, causing a washboard of age lines to ripple across his forehead and around the edges of his mouth like multiple sets of parentheses.

“You seem to be a natural at this,” Kelsey said.

Mac raised an eyebrow. The gesture made it into the drawing.


Evers and Mac stood side by side, small plastic cups of wine in hand, regarding the eight foot tall butter sculpture of Mac. One detailed brow was raised. The penis snoozed against the thigh, the legs spread apart, flat footed, the shoulders rounded. A bystander compared it to a Segal, only more edible. Another onlooker made the arch comment that the piece spoke to the idea of the artist as a victim of late-stage capitalism’s culture of consumption, dropping the names of several artists and philosophers Mac had never heard of.

“It’s disgusting, absolutely revolting,” Evers said, smiling broadly, causing a washboard of age lines to ripple across his forehead and around the edges of his mouth like multiple sets of parentheses.

“You’ve riffed on Hirst, you’ve done your Segal, what’s next?” Evers said.

Mac shook his head. “I do not know. I wish little Cheese was here so he could comfort me. Because, quite honestly, I’m getting a little stressed out from the attention I’m getting.” No one had ever paid much attention or made arch comments at the unveiling of one of his butter sculptures at a state fair exhibition, except for maybe a stray single mother with child in tow, stopping to exclaim, “Look, sweetie, it’s a man making a cow out of butter—imagine that!”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll have your little Cheese on the next flight out of Milwaukee,” Evers said.

Kelsey pulled away from a cluster of fellow artists to join the two men. “Want to have a night cap at my place?”

“In Queens? No thanks,” Evers said, “You two go without me.”

Kelsey hooked her arm through Mac’s and led him away from the press of the well-heeled crowd toward the greasy light of the subway entrance nearby.


Mac awoke from an intense dream in Kelsey’s bed. The details were slipping away; something about the police forcing him onto a plane back to Wisconsin. The walls of Kelsey’s room were covered with her prints. Mostly organic colors and shapes colliding with hard geometric lines and plastic colors. There was one realistic oil portrait of a dog. Mac’s phone on the hardwood floor told him it was 2am.

“Go back to sleep, babe,” Kelsey said. She rolled her smooth, warm body against his and wrapped her arm around his torso.

“What are you working on? Do you have any projects?”

Kelsey seemed to suddenly become fully awake. Coils of energy shedding from her body.

“I’ve got a whole sheaf of sketches; you want to see them?”

He nodded and they climbed out of bed.

Kelsey fished around behind the bookcases in the front room, finally heaving a thick sheaf of papers from behind several other things jammed into a crevice. The light loitering in from the city outside was not enough to review the sketches by. Kelsey flipped the light switch for the overhead lamp, but it flickered and went out. She grabbed the creaky chair from beside the couch and stood on it, thick sheaf sketches cradled in one arm, the other arm reaching up to adjust the bulb, which flickered to life in that moment and seared into Mac’s mind the vision for his next piece.


The breeze blowing from the Hudson lifted Evers’ ivory tufts of hair away from his bronzed scalp like he was waving hello with his head. It was the gala opening for Mac’s newest sculpture, a Godzilla-sized work looking across the Hudson and out over the rest of the country. Caterers scampered to proffer snacks and refill drinks for the several dozen VIPs gathered inside the cordons. The sculpture commanded a central position at the end of the Highline, in the shadows of the freshly constructed waterfront skyscrapers.

“You know you are my fucking muse,” Evers said.

Mac grunted. “Kelsey is a good artist, too.”

“Of course I know that,” Evers said, “But I can’t find buyers for her work. I’ve tried.”

The sculpture was a forty foot tall refrigerated glass case, containing a thirty five foot tall butter sculpture of Kelsey, standing on a chair, a thick sheaf of sketches cradled in her left arm; her right arm extended to hold aloft a giant LED globe that reflected rainbow colors into the overcast night sky above.

Evers waved his hand in dismissal. “A group of women activists-painters will steal Kelsey away from me and then she will have her time in the galleries. It’s their fight, it’s not mine.”

Mac stood quietly and argued no further, scanning the crowd for Kelsey, the real Kelsey, who was not visible at the moment while likeness stood three stories tall, comprised of five inches of butter slathered to wire mesh and mounted to a massive steel frame.

Evers pulled a neatly folded satin handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his nose.

“I’m in love with your work! Look at her. She’s looking westward, beckoning. Telling the country, ‘Give me your coddled, fidgety masses. I lift my LED lamp at the golden door!’”

Kelsey appeared out from behind a cluster of art buyers carrying Cheese, the little dog scrambling to get down and see his owner. Cheese ran and jumped into Mac’s thick, smooth arms. He tried to pet his dog but Cheese obsessed over licking the butter on his fingertips.

Mac looked up and noticed dozens of birds animated along the roof of the sculpture. Thirty feet below the massive base thrummed with machinery and arm-thick cables ran across the cement of the plaza where tourists stood in clumps struggling to fit the full view of the sculpture into their selfies.

Josh White has a smattering of publishing credits, mostly nonfiction, in local venues. This is his first piece of widely distributed fiction. He lives in Brooklyn.
July 26, 2018


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Jayne S. Wilson

A better person, she will think later, would worry about him. And maybe she does, but in a way that she can live with.

She will enter his room, take in the smell of crusting dust and stale breathing with a fresh comforter and two pillowcases folded over her arms, and notice the creases on the yellowing sheets and how empty they seem without the spindly arms and legs they have sunken around. She will tuck her hair, gray roots reemerging, behind her ears and think that he is probably in the garden, must have pulled and forced himself out of bed and down the stairs to sit outside on the chair shaded beneath the oak they’d planted together some decades ago on their first weekend in the house, toasting later with sweat on their foreheads and above their lips to the years and the firsts in them that then still had yet to ensue, and that mostly confused him now, tethered somewhere behind his eyes on the same frangible thread as songs he didn’t know he knew, movies he couldn’t be convinced he’d seen, and the faces of neighbors and friends, and her face too, that he had to be reintroduced to, their existences like items that had rolled, one by one, from atop a dresser and into the dark, small space against the wall behind it, lodged and invisible.

But when she steps outside with his lunch tray poised between her hands, she will find that the chair, too, is empty.

But when she steps outside with his lunch tray poised between her hands, she will find that the chair, too, is empty. She had missed the subtle creaks, softer than before, of his weight against the old wood on the staircase, the shifting of dust from the bannister to his pruned hand while she kneeled in the basement an hour earlier pulling laundry from the dryer, and the empty dish on the hall table where the car keys had been. And when she does notice, when she does see, there will be unease, like a pinch of the skin, but only for a second before she’ll think of him remembering the steps to the door and the color of the car, and she will not be able to keep herself from hoping, instead, that he loves the push of his feet against the pedals and the feel of adjusting his rearview mirror, peering into it for blind spots and cautionary distances, perhaps seeing her.

The car door was heavy, the leather thick, the steering wheel unexpectedly stubborn, but the radio dials were tuned to where he hoped he could sing along to a Tom Petty song…

And all this she will not know: how he had strewn his pajamas upstairs on the floor of the bathroom with the careless grace of a teenager running late; how the bottoms had almost slid down on their own as he stood, how the buttons on his shirt had an easy give; how even with the keys in a different bowl on a different table, the second family car had been an easy take; how he imagined his parents at work and no one else to notice him slip out with no clothes on his back when he aimed the car out of the driveway and toward the lake just at the edge of town, a flash of blue he could almost see between trees.

The car door was heavy, the leather thick, the steering wheel unexpectedly stubborn, but the radio dials were tuned to where he hoped he could sing along to a Tom Petty song, with the windows down to let a fickle summer breeze tease his hair and the sun warm the eager goosebumps from his bare skin. The rest of the baseball team’s seniors were, like him, barreling from their homes and climbing into their parents’ cars, or cars that had been given just days before as graduation gifts, in nothing but sneakers, stifled laughter and palpable heartbeats soundtracking their ride to the senior picnic at the lake to answer the rallying call of team captain, Joey Guadagno, who wanted to one-up the football team’s “piss-poor” senior prank of super-gluing all the school doors shut by having them all streak their entrance to the picnic – a line of boys with farmer’s tans hooting with the mania of summer and a future that was nothing but theirs.

The skin on his thighs lifted from the seat like warm rubber and he imagined, vivid as memory, the stupid-brilliant lot of them dodging blankets and coolers and scandalized girls and Principal Hadley, who later, when they were dressed in the gym clothes they’d pre-packed in Joey’s car, would give them a lecture on decorum, saying, “I guess you fools are proud of yourselves,” then asking them what in the hell there’d been to gain, because he couldn’t see it, that there’d been only Maggie amongst the girls, laughing as she tucked her hair behind her ears, and that there’d been the pushing and daring of distance, and the taste of endless sunlit air. And so who could feel remorse?

Jayne S. Wilson lives in California. Find her @thisjayneperson and This is her first published fiction.
December 26, 2017

Song of a Flightless Bird

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Brian Koukol

Amelia lowered her husband into their double bed—his naked, cachexic body cradled in the polyester sling of their Hoyer lift. As the plush mattress accepted his feeble weight, his contracted legs splayed, exposing a mound of unkempt pubic hair and a flaccid penis, demurely tucked to one side. A musky smell of salted dairy wafted into her face, and she had to work hard to suppress a reflexive cough. Once upon a time, twenty years earlier, this area had been a source of great pleasure for her. Now it was a source of bladder infections and obligation.

When the bed had taken all of him, she cut off the descent of the lift before its cross-brace could crush his scrawny throat. She unhooked the sling, slid it out from beneath him, removed the lift.

Then began the tightrope act of rolling his body to and fro, adjusting limbs and pillows, always a millimeter away from a mistake and a full redo from the top. As she did this, he stared at the ceiling, unable to turn his head and look at her due to a lifetime of muscle wasting. He didn’t talk much out of his wheelchair, a victim of a near-catatonic loss of control. She didn’t blame him. For any of it. But that didn’t stop her from hating him.

After tucking the top sheet and matelasse coverlet over his shoulders and around his neck, she grabbed his BiPAP mask from the bedpost and slipped it over his head, careful not to mess up any of her delicate positioning from earlier. She adjusted the nasal pillows of the mask to nestle comfortably into his nostrils and tightened the strap that ran across the top of his head, then turned on the bedside ventilator.

Amelia slipped into bed beside her husband. She rolled onto her side, away from him, with her butt pressed against his hip and her bottom leg thrust back to support his legs.

It roared to life with a series of beeps and his eyes drifted shut, as they always did. She sighed. Time for bed.

Amelia slipped into bed beside her husband. She rolled onto her side, away from him, with her butt pressed against his hip and her bottom leg thrust back to support his legs. Only her bottom leg would do. They’d tried pillows, but the shape and texture conspired to put his neuropathic feet to sleep.

And then she waited, listening to the inspiration and expiration of his augmented breaths. After a few minutes, his jaw went slack and the snoring started—a horrible crackle of wet air reinforced by the power of positive pressure. Spit spewed from his mouth with every exhalation, bubbling from its corners, dripping down his cheek, his mandible, his neck; aerosolizing, perfuming the air with phlegm, dusting her hair.

The ventilator beeped, indicating insufficient pressure on account of his open mouth, insufficient oxygenation, the onset of hypercapnia. She waited some more. The beeping stopped, his breathing regulated. The snoring and misting continued, but more subdued, tolerable. He was finally, deeply, asleep.

Amelia took her leg back, slid out of bed. She walked to the wardrobe. Her cigarettes were on top, away from the edge, out of any wheelchair-based sightlines. She grabbed them. The cellophane wrapper crinkled; she left it on for that very reason—the crinkle, a call to freedom.

She opened one of the French doors to the backyard, leaned against the jamb, sniffed the tip of a cigarette. It was woodsy, inviting, like a hike on an autumn afternoon. She brought it to life with a flick of the plastic lighter tucked inside the pack and took a puff. The warm smoke, acrid and fiery, filled in the cracks of her lungs. Her shoulders sagged in sated relaxation as she exhaled, blowing the smoke outside.

A shuddering snore from her husband grabbed her attention and she turned to witness a plume of saliva spritzing from his open mouth. He was pathetic. Not the one she’d married, who’d been vital and defiant and loving despite his disease, but this one, this thing that brooded and gave up and ignored her in the face of his innumerable problems.

She glanced through the open door into the dark backyard. His anxieties wouldn’t allow her outside, wouldn’t allow her out of earshot when he was trapped in bed unable to move on his own. She couldn’t blame him.

She took a drag and stepped outside.

The guilt struck her at once, but she pushed past it, into the cool night air. She forced the smoke from her lungs, suddenly satisfied, the concrete cold against her bare feet. Another stride and she was in the grass, staring at the waxing moon, her arms spread.

She heard a distant beeping in the bedroom and ran, not toward it, but away, toward the door into the rear of the garage at the far side of yard. When she reached it, she slipped inside, hit the light, took another drag.

The car beckoned. It was so close, so accessible. All she had to do was slip inside, drive off, leave him to rot. It was that easy. She could drive up the coast, drive forever. She’d never had that freedom. Not with her parents. Not with him. She’d gone from one to the other, with no time for herself.

She left the garage and slammed the door behind her. She couldn’t leave him. Not like this, trapped and alone. She knew the feeling and couldn’t inflict it on another. Even if the other was him.

After snuffing out the cigarette on the fence and throwing it into the neighbor’s ice plant, she slipped back into the bedroom. His mouth was bubbling, overflowing. The room stank. The snores were deafening. The ventilator returned to its beeping.

She stepped over to it, hit the power button. It asked her if she was sure. She was.

With a quick movement of her finger, it all stopped. No more bubbling. No more spritzing or snoring or beeping. Just a soft coo, the only thing his weakened diaphragm could muster.

For a second, two, ten, thirty. She wondered how she would react to it all. To him being gone. She knew she wouldn’t be able to show her joy. Not at first.

Amelia slipped back into bed beside him and waited. On top of everything else, he suffered from sleep apnea. His death, when it came, would be peaceful, unknown to him. Much better than abandoning him alive.

After a few minutes, even the cooing ceased. For a second, two, ten, thirty. She wondered how she would react to it all. To him being gone. She knew she wouldn’t be able to show her joy. Not at first. She’d have to play the broken widow for a while, soak up the sympathies and the praise for two decades of caregiving. The platitudes, the casseroles. And then her life would finally be her own. For once.

He sputtered beside her, gasped. The cooing returned.

Not tonight, it seemed.

She rose out of bed, placed the BiPAP mask back onto his face. A quick adjustment of the nasal pillows. The tightening of the strap on his head. Then she turned it on.

The ventilator roared to life, the snoring returned, the spit flew.

She slipped into bed beside him, stuffed her back leg beneath his, sniffed the lingering smoke on her collar.

They had to get up early the next morning. He had another doctor’s appointment.

Brian Koukol is a native of California. His fiction has appeared in Phantaxis Magazine, The Missing Slate, and other places. Visit him at
December 26, 2017


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Kiran Chatuvedi

The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheel before sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.

Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.

Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.

Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.

This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.

I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.


April 10, 2017


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Meghan Callahan

Tell it like this: she meets the wolf.

She invites the wolf out for coffee on a whim. Perhaps he is tall and broad and barrel-chested and he laughs at her bad jokes on the subway. Latte? she asks. Yes, he says, but what he means is mine.

Or maybe it starts like this: he is someone she knows, but not well, from the office or the bookstore or a night class. She’s always taking night classes—pottery, mostly—and this time he asks first. He’s got holes in his skinny jeans and she outweighs him easily, well-fed and well-mannered. He is everything gaunt and hungry.

Tell it like this: the day was bright.

It’s usually sunny on days like these, light coming through the leaves and sliding in between curtains. And who could feel afraid behind a bookshelf, a counter, a drive-through window, with mundane sounds of receipts printing and the soft hiss-hiss of tires on pavement? Make it clear that she was not expecting this. Make it clear that she should’ve been.

There’s a list, so recite it.


April 10, 2017


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Greg Mulcahy

A desultory replacement life partner. She had not had to call him that. That comment of hers did not help matters, and he told her. He said he assumed she was not trying to mean something. Do you think, she asked, there is no point in attempting to describe or illustrate nuanced, complex social relationships?

Cloudy outside and breezy hot. Inside, air conditioned.

Appearance was misleading.

Was she saying that for all his high capability he was low functioning?

Typical of her to borrow language as though she could throw an appropriate context at him.

Perhaps she could make a graph.

Narrate projected slides.

A warning implied some articulation. Some force. If only force of assertion.

Some, it was said, said it would come as a card or flier or broadside or notice or broadcast or by entrails or by live bird.

He was not endorsing this; he simply knew it to have been said.

No denying there was commentary there.

He would not attempt to define or characterize it. That was not his role.

He could make comments about things he knew or understood Complaints he could make as well. Physical, psychological, and apt for his profession.

And then what? Collapse? Or try to rise to something?

As though he and she, they, could wrap themselves in cleverness.

Or listen.

He wanted to leave himself out of it.

She had said she knew that.

He remembered when she had said it, he was standing in the front room looking at a bird that was on the lawn, the bird that flew away.

No remedy for that.

He asked her what she meant, exactly.

Or intended.

He doubted she listened.

In a way, after a while, he could not blame her. Nobody listened forever.

Or he stopped listening.

There were worse things.

Greg Mulcahy is the author of two story collections, Out of Work and Carbine, and two novels, Constellation and O’Hearn.

April 10, 2017

After Life

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Jen Michalski

Of the two of you, you were always more morose. In fact, you could never remember a time, exactly, when she complained about anything—her parents, her job, her friends. But she was delicate in a way, a lack of permanence, a lack of tenaciousness, but still tough, like the way celery is impossible to break apart because of all those fibrous strands, and it never, ever rots, ever, even though you’d buy it and it’d sit in your shared refrigerator for months, waiting for you to begin your diet, because you were always the chubby one, always sturdy, Eastern European dough girl, and she was the thin one, the one who people always asked whether she was a dancer, a ballerina, a model. You were more like the celery, and she was not food at all, maybe rice paper, which is technically a food, although transparent and lacking mostly in nutritional value.

She was so nice. And that’s what makes it so difficult for you to understand. Even when she broke up with you, she framed it in such a way that you didn’t feel so bad, that she wasn’t good enough for you, that you deserved better, that you should examine your options. And when you think about it, she was probably right, not because you are some great catch but because you never really knew her. You wondered if anyone ever did. You thought maybe she would let you in, that you would get to know her, but even at night, after you kissed her and ate her out and fisted her and licked her breasts and stroked her thighs, you asked her what she dreamed about, and it was always that she was in French club but realized she couldn’t speak French or that she missed the ferry back from the Vineyard and got fired.

You were looking for dirt that you could rub between your fingers, a grit that would catch under your fingernails, take days to scrub out.

She had things. She went to all the camps, French and drama and some sort of Jewish religious camp with girls who went on to become psychologists or star in cable television comedies. You always went to parties with her, ones you wouldn’t have normally been invited to because you were Polish and lower middle class and your mom signed you up for swimming lessons at the Y and the summer reading challenge at the library because there was nothing else to do in your neighborhood except get high behind the 7-11, except smoke pot and listen to hair metal bands. You’d stand by the serving spread and sample smoked trout on crackers the size of half dollars and she would be in the middle of the room, head arched back, laughing with someone she went to school with at Smith, her doubles partner from day school, god knows what she talked about and you thought these people didn’t know her either, because they were so transparent but maybe she was, too, and when you complained about them on the ride back to the apartment she’d laugh and touch your thigh and say, “they’re just friends. You’re my girlfriend.”

What privileges were bequeathed to you as girlfriend, you’re not sure. You saw her without her makeup on, sure, but was it really a terrible secret that she read Vanity Fair on the toilet? That she ate almost nothing, that jar of Nutella that she’d spoon while watching the late night talk shows, and cereal? That when she farted she laughed in apology, and it was almost too cute? There was nothing, on the surface, to suggest anything terrible, and maybe that’s why you found yourself looking through her desk, her computer, her purse, the trash, when she was on the phone or outside on the balcony, having her once-a-week cigarette. You were not looking for evidence of an affair, or bulimia, or membership to a terrorist cell, just something. You were looking for dirt that you could rub between your fingers, a grit that would catch under your fingernails, take days to scrub out. Something that would leave a mark.

She said you were too clingy, too questioning, too suspicious—not everyone had to be damaged, at least damaged in a way that rendered one non-functional. Not everyone had to be difficult or deep or mysterious. Not everyone had to be like you. But everyone had to be someone, you thought, and not like someone. Not a person on paper. A real paper, with pulp and grain, and not a Xerox. But she made you laugh, the silly songs she made up about the cat, or how her trip to the grocery store, uneventful for most, became the most-fucked-up-thing ever because she ran into that guy she used to do improv with when she graduated from college and he was buying vaginal cream for his girlfriend because she was too embarrassed and how he quizzed her on the finer points of the 3-day versus the 7-day and there was that kid in the aisle with the mom who freaked out because colon cleanses made their way into the conversation and then she left her keys, somehow, in the produce section, right by the melons, and it took her an hour to find them, isn’t that crazy, because neither of us eats fruit, right?

There was nothing to suggest she was unhappy or that she missed you.

Sometimes when she’d sleep you’d watch her, and deep in dream she would frown, or flinch, and you questioned her when she woke up but she said you were being paranoid, that she couldn’t even remember what she was dreaming about. She would then ask about your dreams and you’d had a particularly disturbing one, how you sat with your dying grandmother and she smelled, she smelled so horribly of decay, and you’d known it’d been weeks since she showered, she could barely move, but she put her head on your shoulder, and you knew she missed being touched because no one ever touched her anymore, and it wasn’t her fault, that she was so gnarled and foul-smelling and immobile, her eyes milky and weepy and you realized this woman was a child once, a girl, a woman who fucked, who loved and hated and regretted, and all she could do was put her head on her granddaughter’s shoulder while her granddaughter tried not to breathe.

She was clever that way, always turning things back to you, like a psychiatrist, and maybe you were so fucked up yourself it took you a few years to catch on, to recognize this game of deflection and to call her out on it, and why didn’t she dream, why wasn’t she ever unhappy when you could see it sometimes, in the briefest of moments when she thought you weren’t looking, the way she frowned and chewed her fingernails, then she’d freak out in the car on the way home from the birthday party because she thought she was mean to someone but she was never anything but nice to everyone, always complementing, always laughing, always caring, in such a way that no one ever thought she was fake, and if they did, they would never say it aloud because they’d look petty, a bitter sister, and it was that way, the way they felt for a minute, that you felt all the time, that she was a mirror that showed you all your faults and when you reached out for her it was your own hand coming back toward you, your own warts, your own insecurities.

You were thankful she stayed with you. It became easier—imperative—after a while, for your own sanity, to believe in her, believe she was happy, successful, beautiful—and she was beautiful and successful, of course–and that she would make you a better person by association. And you tried. You tried to iron that shit out—all your wrinkles, all your neuroses, your disappointments, your snark. You tried to be like her, but it felt like scooping everything out of yourself and tossing it into the laundry basket before you left the apartment. You felt nothing, and that didn’t make you sad, so maybe that was good. But it didn’t make you happy, either.

When she broke up with you, you took it badly. You blamed yourself. You could never rise to whatever level of Zen she had carbined herself to. You were afraid of such heights. She said you’d changed, and when you pointed out that you had, that you tried so hard to be like her, she said she liked who you had been. But you weren’t sure whether you had liked who she had been, because she’d never been anybody. And that wasn’t the point, because she dumped you, and in that equation, the dumped is always at fault.

You moved to this city, where you are now. It folded around you like your grandmother, and it was something you got used to. Its scents, its dirt. It was you. What you knew. But you stayed friends with her on Facebook, and she stayed in that city, and had those friends, that cat. There was nothing to suggest she was unhappy or that she missed you. And no one told you that she did it, you just found out because of the Facebook posts people left on her page. Hundreds of them. In hysteria, in shock. But why she did it—no one ever asked you. If they thought you were the reason why she did it, you would never know. They never spoke to you after the breakup. It wasn’t mean or spiteful; they just receded, like waves, back into their massive, glittery, transparent ocean in which you, of heft, of gravity, always flailed, always felt like you were drowning.

How could you live with her for so long—four years—and make her come, watch her sleep, buy groceries together, how could you not know she would do something like that? How could you not see she was unhappy? And if you were with her for so long, how could she not tell you? How could you not know someone at all? Why did you stop digging, weren’t you supposed to find all the poop the dog had left in the long grass in the yard, before you step in it, before someone else did?

You are not responsible. You know this. But you lie awake at night and think about the dreams in which she had forgotten how to speak French, got stranded in the fucking Vineyard—would have been out of bounds to suggest she speak to someone, take something, go on a journey of self-discovery, on such flimsy evidence? And what did she want in you—did she want to live vicariously through your faults, your moods, your failures, her head on your shoulder, with her hair that smelled like Paul Mitchell, her breath that always smelled like gum?

There are things that you keep in your apartment in your new city—they were of no great importance to your relationship, exactly, just some things you have kept after your life with her. A CD she made you of French chanteuses that she gave you after your second date. A rubber bat she hung on the mirror of your car one Halloween morning. A necklace she always wore but never told you its origin—a broken crystal in a handmade wire setting. Had someone made it for her? Had she made it herself, in summer camp? You took it thinking she would contact you, ask you if you had stolen it, demand you give it back. It was important to her, and she could not live without it. She never did. You stopped wearing it after a few weeks because the crystal dug at your breastbone, left a little red welt. The little wire scraped your flesh. You tried to remember whether it had agitated her skin like it had yours. Had she never taken it off, even to shower, to sleep? Did she move it from one side to the other, trying to find where it irritated her the least? And if it bothered her so much, and how could it not, with its impossible craftsmanship, why didn’t she take it off?

You thought about returning it after you found out what had happened, maybe sending it to her mother, her sister, even though you’d only met them once. She said she was on good terms with her family, adored them, but you never visited them, nor them you, and they never called, to your knowledge. You had always just assumed it was because they didn’t like you. You still thought it should be returned to her, wherever it was she wound up—but those details were never offered to you. A few weeks after it happened, someone deleted her Facebook and her Instagram. Or you were deleted. Does it matter which one it was?

The necklace, at least, is still yours, although it never was. It’s all you have and you can’t get rid of it. Not because you want to keep it, but because everything needs a word, an answer. When your new girlfriend moves in, it hangs in your bedroom window. You never offer its origin. Most of the time it’s just there, like a crack, a nick on the dresser, that you are aware of but somehow stop seeing. Although sometimes the sun catches the crystal, refracts the light, and spreads little rainbows on the wall. They are always changing their places. You never know, where things will be, from moment to moment.

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King, a couplet of novellas, Could You Be with Her Now and two collections of fiction, Close Encounters and From Here. She is the host of the reading series Starts Here! and editor of the journal jmww.