Citrus Aurantium Dulcis

Before breakfast,

I will love you

with the bag of oranges

I have taken from the kitchen,

while you lay sleeping


I will wake you

softly at first

tracing the warm hum of your body

orange by orange

rounded crown, slender, faintly toothed


I will slice the fruit

under ripe, unwashed into pieces

without paring

sieving with my fingers

until slippery smooth


I will steep you in citrus

layer you in pulp and peel

spooning tepid juices

the length of your toes

parting your lips

tender, firm, salient


I will love you

before breakfast

in the dark

orange by orange

until our bed, rooted

in your hips, elbows, thighs

is as fecund as an orchard

high hammock, deep loam

summer sweet

Nicole Zuckerman: I am an ESL teacher in Pennsylvania always looking for new ways to challenge students  to view language as a unique form of self expression.  I am an avid collector of poetry, as well as aspiring to be a poet worthy of those whom I collect.  I love flea markets and auctions and I seek out ephemera because I see beauty in that which defines our daily lives.  

Ode to My Therapist’s Floral Rug

Beneath the florescent thrum of conversation

beneath every sole, heel, and rounded boot

beneath pivotal hearts

you, golden summer

floral buffer

woolen garden, lie

patterned between chair and couch

the tread of your petals

almost sweet


I pass over you

our weekly dance

an awkward shuffle

my feet a jumble of



above you

the story of my life

dredged of all metaphor

begins again


rooted to the floor,

the room, the hour

you listen

radial, calm, captive



cinching round and round

catch, unravel, tangle


above you

faces open and close

like bridges


and you,

floral buffer

woolen garden

knotted in pastels

narrate the silences that fall in-between

shifting and tidal

the telling, sloping

the heart hanging lower


Nicole Zuckerman: I am an ESL teacher in Pennsylvania always looking for new ways to challenge students  to view language as a unique form of self expression.  I am an avid collector of poetry, as well as aspiring to be a poet worthy of those whom I collect.  I love flea markets and auctions and I seek out ephemera because I see beauty in that which defines our daily lives.  


Before snowdrops


before the crocuses

tipsided in a rainstorm


before the forsythia

spills forth

out of a winter closet


the first alive thing unpacked

after the overlong tour of winter


isn’t a flower,

but the low sigh of return,


dulcet, disconsolate.

Jeanne Obbard received her bachelor’s degree in feminist and gender studies from Bryn Mawr College, and works in clinical research. She was granted a Leeway Seedling Award for Emerging Artists in 2001, and attended the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio and the 24PearlStreet Workshop. Her work has previously appeared in American Poetry Review, Anderbo, Atlanta Review, EDGE, Philadelphia Poets, Philadelphia Stories, Rathalla Review, and the anthology Prompted.

What’s Wrong With This Photo?

Little League, Williamsport, PA,

April 2007, May 2014


It’s not the slant of the pitched ball,

the average dust on the bases,

the haphazard smile of the shortstop.

It’s not the pitcher’s skinned elbow,

the crooked cap on the coach,

the cat calls and bellows.

It’s not my daughter at third,

my son at second, deliberating the difference

between safe and sorry.




As always, the sun’s angle’s idyllic,

the parents’ faces predictable.

The best batter grips the usual bat

with the same tense glee,

whacks what intersects his path,

whacks it all the way to the edge

of the volunteer-trimmed field,

past that neatly-ironed flag

stalled forever, it seems, at half mast.


Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 9 collections of poetry, 2 children’s books (including Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems) and over 450 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. Her most recent book, Local News from Someplace Else, focuses on living in an unsafe world. She is co-editor, with Jerry Wemple, of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and is the great grandniece of baseball legend Branch Rickey, who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. In addition to giving readings around the country, she has twice read at both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Little League World Series. For more info, see

Rose of Jericho

It was a long way to here

Blind miles where

Only the highway moved

Unfurling like a black tongue

Or the lone headlight

Burrowing into the night

Deliberate as sorrow

Convinced of its own existence

It’s not until the

Outskirts of Santa Fe

That the radio finds him

Full of static as it is

And that same old line

Where hearts lie

Unfaithful in the pines

Leaves the road tear-blurred

Because darlin’ its funny

How the things you remember

Are the flatness of his fingernails

Or the smell of smoke in his hair

And for tonight, let’s not tell the stars

That they are already dead

Just leave the echo to burn

While our lips hold the lie

And the car grits to a stop

On the edge of the desert

Memory falling like rain

Upon the Rose of Jericho

A native of Pennsylvania, l.e. Archer graduated from Endicott College and currently resides in Salem, Massachusetts.  Specializing in fiction, short prose and poetry, some of her previous work has appeared in The American Dissident, Avocet and the Deronda Review.  She is currently writing her first novel Risen.

Down the Shore

I’d say we drowned the voice of

The deep Atlantic in Katy Perry.


Or banished mystery with

Mini golf and Skee ball.


Or caught chaos in a box and

Turned it into taffy for children.


But the truth is the ocean

Tamed herself: salt-sweet,

Warm as milk, and lolling up to

Lick our hand like a friendly dog.


Peter Galen Massey is a writer who lives with his family in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. He blogs at

Camille: Second Place Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction Winner

They honeymooned in a one-star Mississippi motel: a three-story dingy cube beside an asphalt lot scattered with El Caminos and Volkswagens, notable only for the towering neon sign spelling its name in phosphorescent pink glass tubes – S-U-N  K-I-S-T,  like the citrus – and the seven letters she bet always blinked beneath – V-A-C-A-N-C-Y. Originally, they had planned to drive all the way from Grand Isle to Florida, but they never made it because they got sick of driving – or, more accurately, because Odell’s fingers had been sending a tingling sensation and a string of goose bumps up her thigh since the Louisiana-Mississippi border. By the time he suggested they stop in Pass Christian, she wanted nothing more. She laughed when he pointed at the vacancy sign blinking over the Sun Kist, and she laughed even harder when he drove over the railroad tracks into the lot. And so it was that their son was conceived in Room 301 under the neon pink glow of that sign, while the wind off the dirty Gulf floated molecules of salt and seawater she could taste through the open balcony door. And so it is that, today, on the first anniversary of that night, Mrs. Odell LeBlanc is weaving through traffic into the lot.

Her knuckles white against the steering wheel, she sighs: at the glare of the sun off the dash, the tilt of the second C in VACANCY, which has in the past year all but fallen from the sign. The motor whines as she parks the car. She hurries through the black parking lot toward the office, jumping at the bell that rings as she opens the door.

The receptionist sits behind a desk, legs crossed, seashell-pink lips shimmering as she smiles lazily from beneath her monstrous beehive. Everything in the office is dark brown, apart from the linoleum floor. A fan on the desk oscillates. Pale threads of hair snaking up the woman’s scalp quiver, fuzzing out from her hairdo, that gravity-defying monument to all that is mod.

“Can I help you?” The receptionist hasn’t changed at all. That hairdo, that lipstick. Her fingernails are even the same color, fluttering seashell pink above her desk. Penny remembers giggling at them last summer as Odell held her hand and inquired about a room with the straightest face he could muster – which wasn’t very straight considering the LSD they had taken in the car. When the receptionist reached out to take their money, the pink of her fingernail polish had left traces of light in the air, marking the path of her hands.

“Penny Leblanc,” she says. “I have a reservation. Room 301.”

The woman checks a notepad. The oscillating fan turns, overwhelming Penny, briefly, with a sweet floral scent, the woman’s perfume. The receptionist nods, her beehive bobbing up and down, tiny threads dancing in the air like snakes being charmed. “By yourself?”

In the mirror behind her, Penny watches herself nod back. Originally, Odell was supposed to come with her. But he had called, the week before, to tell her that they were cutting his furlough, moving up his date so his whole battalion could take the same ship to Vietnam.

“Seven bucks,” the woman says.

She fishes around in her bag, watching her reflection as she hands the woman seven crumpled bills. She has been too busy, since Teller was born, to spend much time in front of the mirror. But looking at herself now, she realizes she has her mother’s figure, in addition to her eyes. With her hair pulled back in the fraying bun she’s worn since her son was born, it’s as if her mother is right there, watching her over the shades she bought at a gas station just outside Baton Rouge.

She pushes the glasses up on her nose, unsettled by the idea. Although almost a year has passed since her parents’ accident, the thought of either of her parents still has the capacity to bring her suddenly, and without warning, to tears.

“Can you believe this sky?” the woman asks as she puts the money in the register. “It’s so blue. And with that storm in the Gulf!”

She shakes her head, trying to feign disbelief as she worries whether she forgot her breast pump. Surely she took it out of Teller’s bag this morning before she left him with her mother-in-law. Surely it’s just outside in the trunk. Here she is, separated from him for the first time since he was born – and she knows how she’s supposed to feel, a new mother separated from her infant, she’s supposed to feel nervous, guilty, worried – but she feels relieved instead, unburdened, for the first time since Odell left for the Depot. Teller would be fine; Odell’s parents were thrilled when she asked them to keep him overnight.

The receptionist is staring at her.

Penny tries to remember what the woman has just said. “What storm?”

“Hurricane Camille.”

“That’s right.” She heard about it on the drive up, but didn’t pay much attention since it was headed for Florida. “The one that destroyed Castro’s crops.”

“That’s the one.” The woman sets the key on the counter, her seashell pink fingernails fluttering above it, as if she doesn’t want to let go. “Where you from?”

But in the time it takes her to ask, Penny has already swiped the key out from under her fingers, turned around, and pushed the door open, its awful bell ringing merrily as it swings toward the lot. She misses Odell. He was so good at talking. Whenever they were accosted by an inexplicably friendly stranger, all she had to do was stand beside him and smile. Whatever it was – the weather, the war, the fashions worn by astronauts’ wives – he could talk about it politely. “Grand Isle,” she mumbles over her shoulder, then stops, surprised to hear her husband’s hometown instead of her own. “But I’m originally from Pride.”


The sign makes her arms glow a psychedelic pink as she unlocks, then opens, the room door. A smell wafting out, a distinctly stale scent, which she doesn’t remember the room having before. She crinkles her nose, hurries in, opening the balcony doors to let in the smell of sea salt, the sound of seagulls, the brown waves crashing on the beach across the street.

She sits down on the bed, looks around: at the wide brown Gulf beyond the balcony, the ancient-looking radio on the bedside table, the rusty bathtub, the beat-up armoire, the brass handle falling off its door. Nevermind the state of the room, she has to admit, it feels good to be out of the house. Maybe this trip will do her good. Ever since Odell left, there has been something wrong with her brain. It’s gone haywire. Fuzzy. She has difficulty concentrating. Alone with Teller, all day, every day, her grief over her parents’ deaths has come back to haunt her, full force. It was a good thing babies cried when they were hungry. Twice, three times this week, she has put Teller down for a nap, gone to the kitchen to do the dishes, and jumped at the sound of his cries to find herself staring through the window at the brown bay, a full hour gone. Such a strange sensation, to snap to yourself and realize you’ve lost a whole hour. Where do you go when you’re thinking? Is that even thinking, zoned out like that, to stare at the sea?

She pulls out the pack of smokes she bought at a gas station on the way up. Odell’s brand. Lions paw the shield on the logo of the pack, where a slogan is engraved – per aspera ad astra – she doesn’t know Latin. She lights up, takes a drag, breathing in the familiar scent of the smoke, then ashes in the zodiac-shaped tray on the bedside table. There’s a cigarette burn on the quilt beside it, a small black hole in the pastel blue. Did they do that last summer? She can’t recall.

That’s the door they flung open, the threshold where they stood, staring in, on their wedding night. She remembers standing beside him. Auburn hair falling out of his ponytail. Dark eyes laughing as he pointed at the painting over the bed.

Now it’s gone, a rectangle of less-smoke-stained wall in its place. What was it? A sailboat, a print of a sailboat drifting on a perfect blue sea at sunset, which looked like it was painted by someone’s great aunt. She had pronounced it beautiful, noting the extra care the artist had taken to paint the name on the boat. But Odell had noted the unrealistic blue of the sea, which bore no trace of the telltale brown that stained the Gulf for a hundred miles around the mouth of the Mississippi, and they had fallen onto the bed, laughing at the contrast between this place and the suite his parents had reserved for them at the Pensacola White Sands Regal, where his parents said “the help” tossed rose-petals across the bed and brought unlimited champagne.

She stares at the empty rectangle on the wall, disappointed, suddenly, that they stopped here after all. This place was fun, but she’s still never been to Florida. Before she met Odell, she had never even left Pride. Odell would probably call the desire silly and bourgeois – he was always using that word when he talked about his parents – but she would’ve liked to stay at a place like the White Sands once in her life, at least on her honeymoon. Although come to think of it, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t. She couldn’t have gone back to Florida with that hurricane coming. Nor could she have afforded the room.

She leans back into the pillows, the mattress creaking beneath her. If only he could’ve met her here. What a different trip this would’ve been. When they were here, the year before, she had felt so giddy, so free.  As soon as they set down their things, he had pulled her onto the bed. She had reached out to run her hand through his hair and kiss him. But her hand had pawed the air between them, missing him completely, fingers closing instead on the pink-tinted twilight that streamed through the glass balcony doors like water. When he turned to smile at her fist full of twilight, she saw the strangest shapes in the dark green of his eyes, the strangest moving white shapes she couldn’t make sense of. What were those ghosts in his pupils? He held up his hand in a wave and smiled. Hello, he whispered. Thank you for joining us. I’ll be your husband this evening.

Her husband. The man whose laugh, mellow and echoing in her ear, set her whole body trembling. The man whose spirit had streamed out his mouth later that night, into hers, through her open lips, and made a baby. Not literally of course. She knows the biology. But there was this moment when they kissed, this surreal moment, later that night, on the beach. Her toes were muddy and wet and cold and she was thinking she couldn’t tell the difference between the sky and the ocean, everything was black and star-spattered as far as she could see. But when she leaned over to tell him, he had said I know before she had time to say anything. And when he kissed her, she could feel his spirit flowing in through her lips, like water, like the pink twilight through the glass doors, only this time she felt it instead of seeing it as she closed her eyes, let it in. Down her throat, twilight, air, to her belly, a yawn, in reverse, swelling up.

That man. He is missing from the letters he sent from the Depot and Camp Lejeune. Each week, since he left home, she’s gotten only one page, front and back. Seven short dated paragraphs, one for each night of the week. Every time she reads them, she aches, and she’s read them so often, the pages have torn and crumpled. She can tell he is scared They will read them, by the way he refers in this strange blithe way to Our Country and God and Duty with a capital D. But his signature. Each paragraph ends, Yours in spirit. And those three words feel more truthful than anything else he writes. As if he doesn’t want to admit his longing. As if he wishes that by inscribing those words, each day, like a mantra, he could encode his spirit in those letters and send it to her via post. But that’s impossible. Obviously. His spirit has shipped to the jungle with his flesh. When she gets home tomorrow, the house will echo even more with his absence – during the day, as she takes care of Teller; at night, as she sits up, sleepless, watching television. And she has come to this motel alone.

The house has felt so empty, these last couple months while he was in training. She’s been obsessed with the news, consumed by the danger he would face in Vietnam. She’s had trouble enjoying quiet moments with her son.

She fumbles through her bag for the vial Odell asked  her to find last week in the freezer, before he called back a few days later to say he couldn’t make this trip after all. Apparently he had hidden the vial in a bag of frozen okra, the summer before, after they realized she was pregnant, when she asked him to throw it away. She isn’t sure it’s such a brilliant idea to do this stuff alone, but she has felt so awful since he left for the Depot. She remembers the last night they did this stuff together, newlyweds sitting Indian-style beside a campfire, finding themselves in each other, in the flames.

There’s only a small bubble of transparent liquid at the bottom. Odell probably did the rest when he went camping with Pete, two days before they left for the Depot. That would explain his strange behavior the next day, his last with her. She tries to swallow her irritation at the long walk he went on by himself before sunrise, the way he seemed to avoid her eyes, that night, the last time they made love. Afterward, he made her promise not to hang onto his memory for too long, if it came to that. Teller will be needing a father, when he gets older. If something happens to me, you’ll want to find someone else. He had been so sincere about it, so desperate to hear her say yes, that she had nodded. But the truth is she can’t imagine being with anyone else.

His idea had been to relive their wedding night, tonight, to recapture the wonder, the freedom, they felt together before their son was born. But all she wants is to find herself, the girl who once took joy in everyday life. It’s not so different from the vision quests her mother talked about her ancestors doing, before they started going to church and trying to pass as white. She had always been drawn to that idea, the value of stepping out of yourself into a shadow world in search of the truth.

She squeezes the eyedropper, sucks up the rest of the liquid, and drops it on her tongue. Then she lies back down on the bed, tired, the length of the drive catching up with her. She closes her eyes, trying to forget the zodiac-shaped ash tray, the cigarette burn on the bed, the missing painting. The whole world, revolving, turning, spinning around her, against her. Squeezing her eyes tighter and tighter still, trying to see: not the ceiling, or the static on the backs of her eyelids, but him. Staring out of the porthole of a rocking ship on the bright blue ocean with the rest of his unit. Long hair shaved. Face gaunt, muscles taut. His eyes hard and tired. Her husband. In spirit. 

But the image of him that swims up is not what she expected. His eyes are hard and tired, empty, hollow, pale, as he stares out that porthole. And the pale hollow color of his irises has seeped into the skin around his left eye, staining his flesh a faint bottle-sea green. A bruise.


It’s hitting. She can feel it. The mattress has become springy beneath her. She props her head on her hand. Did she fall asleep? The room is alive with pink. The cigarette burn on the blanket glows, layered, starshaped. Outside the hard brown edge of the burn hole, she can see traces of the burn she couldn’t before. It’s translucent around the edges, lovely lace fading into untouched blanket like someone threw water on it before it quite burnt.

It was them who burnt the bed – she remembers, in a rush – they were lying naked on the quilt smoking when the cherry fell from the joint and Odell poured his whiskey to the blanket. A tiny orange zinnia had bloomed out of the bed for a second, until the water at the bottom of the glass put it out.

She gets up, unlocks the door. Gasps as the warm night air rushes in. It was light when she went in. The key, the key. Then she’s walking, one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where she’s going, a calm steady rhythm of boot on pavement. Past the concrete staircase down the side of the building. Past the old blue Rambler sitting comfortable, angular, in the back lot, right where she parked it. Where else would it be?

She turns the corner toward the street where the neon sign glows candyapplepink against the night sky, amazing. At the edge of the highway, loud white headlights come around a curve in the road, speed her way. She stands there a long time, watching yellow and orange and peach lights come and go, speed and slow, blur and fade from both directions until the road goes dark.

Across the highway she goes, up the stairs to the little wooden boardwalk that rises over the dunes, where the sand makes the rhythm of her boots on the wood crumbly. Gritty. Toward the Gulf that looks just like it did last year, before she got pregnant, before her parents’ accident, before he got drafted. When the whole world seemed as lovely and simple as this glassy black sea. She runs down the hill, down the stairs, through the sand and the mud and the tide washing up. The sea knocks up and down as she runs. Goes still, when she stops to catch her breath.

In the dunes behind her, past the hightide mark, she sees something. Hears something. She tiptoes back there, best she can, in her boots, in this state. There’s a couple smoking pot behind one of the dunes. She can smell it. The boy’s laugh sounds like Odell’s, a low chuckle, as if he knows things no one else knows. She stands there for a moment, listening, wondering if it could be him. Then she shakes her head, remembering. It can’t be. He’s out there, on that ship. Looking out of that porthole, reaching for her. Fumbling, stumbling, into star-spattered black. Endless waves.

She walks out into the sea. Twilight. Water streaming. Until the wind sets in and the water turns cold and she sees herself shattered with the stars in the waves. Then she shakes her head, bites her lips, seasalt, sand, wanders back up the beach, boots muddy with tide, creatures, seaweed.

When the dune rises up to meet her, she realizes how much she hates the ocean. The cold. Everything that’s come between them. Especially those men, those terrible uniformed men who have trained him to use weapons, to kill. She scoops a fist full of sand, lets it sift from her fingers, remembering the bruise she saw on his face. Have they hit him?

No, she thinks. Not now. Stop it. You’re not in the right frame of mind for this. Dusting the sand from her fingers, she tries to pull off her boots. They make a loud sucking sound as they come off. She peels off her socks, lies back in the sand, and looks up at the starry sky. Before her parents’ accident, the stars were always a comfort to her. She would look up at those patterns and remember the stories her father told her. Now, when she sees those patterns, she sees her father, her mother. Grief.

Tonight, each star is surrounded by a faint nimbus of light of a slightly different color, something more than white – a halo of antique yellow, a circle of gauzy peach – and she can see all of them, even the faintest ghosts of stars light years away. The stars are so infinite in number, so close together that they merge and dance and play, faintly different colors bleeding and switching as she takes them all in. She sees no patterns, none of the constellations her father taught her.

She closes her eyes and remembers the afternoon Odell materialized beside her, a long-haired handsome stranger, as she walked past a bar on her way home from school. Six feet tall, the longest torso she had ever seen, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulders. Miraculous. A dream. At first he had reminded her of old pictures of her father – his strong jaw, that wide chest – he even had her father’s red hair. It was the first week of senior year. When he fell into step beside her and asked her name, she couldn’t find her voice to answer. But he didn’t seem to care. I’m playing at The Blackwater tonight, he said. Do you smoke? And she had found herself trotting after him toward the forest, sharing a joint, letting him press her into a tree for a kiss. When he did, the earth had seemed to slip out from under her feet, and she thought she could feel their selves colliding. It was so intense she had stepped away, frightened, pretending to be interested in a red leaf on the forest floor. The reddest leaf she had ever seen, a sycamore leaf, fivepointed, shot with rust red at the center that faded to lemon at its tips. This beautiful pattern of veins threading through the leaf to feed it with sunlight and chlorophyll.

She looks up now and sees it in the stars, that beautiful threadlike pattern of light against the black of space, connecting the stars like veins. It lights up. Once, twice, three times. Pulsing. Then it disappears. Revealing a hole in the horizon, an inky black starless spot where the sea and sky seem to end. She watches it quietly, lying on her back on that dune, hands behind her head as it grows – is it growing? – it is, slowly but surely swallowing a few stars every minute, like a Rorschach, an inkblot spreading over the sea.


Her first impression upon waking is of light filtering down through the holes in her fingertips, a strange lime green haze. She blinks, shades her eyes from the strange light. Her throat dry. A streaking pain in her breasts; she needs to pump, and soon. She looks for the sun, wanting to know what time it is. But all she can see is this haze. She sits up, her neck stiff, brushes sand off her shirt, slaps the crust off her jeans. She doesn’t remember falling asleep. How late is it? She needs to get back to the breast pump in her car, back home to her son.

The wind carries a cloud of sand past her bare feet. Her boots. She remembers taking them off. She left them behind a sand dune. But which one? The dunes roll out before her, a thousand hills covered with seashells and crab grass.

It’s a long walk, barefoot, back to the motel, her heels sinking into warm sand as she hops over jellyfish and sea anemones. She tries to avoid broken shells, sticking as much as she can to the grass, her eyes on the sand. The wind whips her hair.

As she walks, she wonders if she found what she was looking for, last night, if she completed her quest. She doesn’t feel like her old self, exactly, this morning, but something about this day feels unusual. The whole world looks new, as if a veil has been lifted, and only now can she see it for real.


She hears the strip before she can see it. Hammers pounding nails. Raised voices on the wind. She picks up her pace, hurrying up the boardwalk. There’s an elderly couple in front of the Sun Kist, boarding up one last window with plywood on the first floor. Above them, the second and third floor balconies are crisscrossed with tape.

She hurries down the steps, crossing the empty highway, the railroad tracks, passing under the sign where the haze in the air glows a mysterious peach. The elderly woman turns and sees her, a gust of wind whipping her skirt, her white hair glowing pink. “You Room 301?”

Penny nods, out of breath.

“You left the door open!”

She opens her mouth, tastes the mist on her tongue, forgets to speak.

The old woman yells something indistinguishable from the noise of the hammer, then hurries over, her dark narrowed eyes betraying what she thinks of girls who stay out all night on the beach. “I said, I shut it. The door. Lord, girl. Got a key?”

Penny feels for it in the pocket of her jeans, then nods, embarrassed.

“You hear about the storm?”

She shakes her head.

“It turned last night. It’s headed straight for Pass Christian.” The woman shakes her head, glancing back at the man hammering at the window of the last first floor room.

Penny thinks of the inkblot she saw last night, swallowing the stars. Her stomach knots up.

“We’re pushing our luck,” the woman goes on, “staying behind to finish. How’d you get here?”

“I drove.”

“You better get going.”

Penny blinks at the sun-ruined wrinkles of the old woman’s face. Her eyes are so dark, you can’t tell where her irises stop and her pupils begin.

“Go on, get!”

Penny hurries around the side of the building, past the single red car in the side lot, up the concrete staircase. She pauses at the door to her room, fighting down a shiver. That woman. Her eyes were unnerving.

She unlocks the door, the stale scent of the room bombarding her as she walks to the sink to wash her face. The room is just as she left it: zodiac-shaped ash tray, empty rectangle of wall over the bed, cigarette-burnt quilt. Except for her bag. The clothes she packed for today are scattered on the dresser, along with her cigarettes and chapstick. But she doesn’t remember unpacking. She checks the bag. There’s her wallet, sunglasses. Toothbrush, toothpaste. Everything but her car keys. And when she up-ends her bag, the keys don’t fall out. She grabs the bottom, shakes it. The bag doesn’t jingle. And it hits her. Why did that woman ask how she got here?

No. That’s all she can think as she rushes to the window to see the first drops of rain fall on the black asphalt square where her car should be. She blinks. First her boots, then the storm. Now her car stolen? She’d only planned to be apart from Teller for a day. And her breast pump is in there. Her chest aches. She folds her hands across her breasts, relieved at the pressure, the wetness, trying to think. Could she ride with that woman? She grabs her things, throws them in the bag, and hurries outside, down the hall to the staircase – where she slips on the water dripping down the top step, praying she doesn’t fall all the way down the stairs as she grabs for the railing – and she doesn’t – the railing shakes a little under her weight, but holds. She stands up, finishes her descent of the stairs more carefully, sliding her hands down the rails over warm beads of rain. Hands dripping wet, toe swelling, bleeding, she limps into the side lot – it’s empty, she realizes – and calls out. But the front of the motel is now as deserted as the lot, the tiny red car heading up the highway doesn’t slow, and her voice is swallowed by the wind that picks up as if in answer, slapping her cheeks with rain and sand until she bows her head and shades her face.

The rain is shooting down fast now, staccato, full tilt, hitting her forehead so hard it should sting. But she doesn’t feel it. She just hears the sound, the tapping. And then, as the rain soaks her through and her skin grows slimy and wet and beaded, she steps out of herself; she blinks and sees herself standing at the front of the lot. Her eyes empty, like his.

Her hand goes to her eye, and she snaps back to herself. What’s wrong with her brain? The trip’s over. Stop it! She limps through the side lot, makes her way up the stairs to her room. The space on the bedside table where the clock should be is empty. It’s missing. Or it never was there this visit. She has ridden out several hurricanes in Pride; they were never very bad out there. But she doesn’t know what it would be like on the beach. There was still damage all over the place in Grand Isle from Hurricane Betsy, when she first moved there. Piles of rubble, construction that had been going on for years. Odell said his parents had completely rebuilt their house. What if this one is just as bad? Didn’t they listen to a radio last year, one night, as they sat on the balcony?

There it is. On the other side of the bed. Behind the lamp. She flips it on, listens to the end of a pre-recorded message before it starts over and starts making sense:

Repeat, as of five o’clock this morning the National Hurricane Center revised its predictions for Hurricane Camille. The storm has changed course. This is Harrison County Civil Defense strongly, repeat, strongly advising all residents to evacuate. There’ll be winds up to 180 miles per hour, and a storm surge of up to 20 feet. Landfall will be late this afternoon or early evening. Repeat – 

180 mile-per-hour winds? A 20 foot storm surge? She changes the channel. The next station plays the same message, and the next. She picks up the phone to call for help, but the line is dead. She grabs her chapstick from the dresser, twists off the cap, smears the ointment on her lips. Suddenly chilly.  She walks out onto the balcony to look at the bones of this building: its concrete walls, its windows, its height. She walks out of the door to look out through the parking lot at the city of Pass Christian. Is there any other place for her to go? Somewhere more safe?

None of the buildings that she can see from balcony that overlooks the parking lot seem as sturdy as this one.  Not the tall ones. And she needs to be high up to survive a twenty foot storm surge. She stands there, looking out over the city, wondering if she should go further inland. But how far will she get without a car? Where can she go, if not here? Where else would she be able to keep out of the rain? She goes inside, changes into a t-shirt and jeans and sits on the bed to look at the storm through the taped glass doors. That haze is covering everything now. The sky over the sea is darker, a color she has never seen the sky be. A watery electric green. As her heartbeat slows to its regular pace, she sees a shape on the horizon, snake-like, pointillistic. Then it shifts in the wind, disappearing, becoming rain, simple rain, the color of her son’s eyes, of trees, coming down in sheets.

Soon the water will come. The great green whorl of water. Thundering over the beach, swallowing the dune where she slept, her boots, the dune where they kissed. But this building, she tells herself, will be safe. Please god let it be safe. It was built on a hill, or so sturdily that it will stand even in the sway of so much water. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, says a prayer her mother taught her long ago, one her mother taught her. Her fingertips press her flesh through her jeans. Until lightning flashes nearby, lighting up the balcony, and she remembers standing there with him.

The first morning they were here, they didn’t wake until almost noon, their bodies intertwined, the damp bedsheets twisted around them. They’d walked to the balcony and stood there a long time, wisps of auburn and black hair whipping in the breeze behind them as they let it dry their skin.

She can almost feel his fingertips, now, brushing concentric circles at her hip. Her skin tingles. She reaches down to touch the skin at her hip, feels the hairs standing on end, the goose bumps just above the waist of her low-cut jeans. But the denim reminds her where she is now, the year that has passed since, the terrible storm that’s on its way.

The room is dark now, outside and in. The power must’ve gone out. Even the faint pink glow of the sign outside is gone. Her stomach rumbles. Something shakes beneath her – she thinks – maybe not. The wind fades to a whistle. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. Cups her knees. She shouldn’t have come here; she shouldn’t have put herself in danger, for her son’s sake.  The memory of him, in her arms, before she handed him to her mother-in-law haunts her. Was that the last time she’d see him? She remembers staring down at his wide eyes, on the first day of his life, in the hospital room, touching his pale wisps of dark hair with awe and disbelief. His eyes followed her hand. Hello, she breathed.

The floor beneath her is shaking. She can feel it, jostling the sides of her feet. She puts her palm to the wood, the knot in her stomach growing tighter when she feels vibrations. But they stop almost as soon as they start.

She falls back in time to the hospital room, where her son had started crying. Loud and scary, a newborn who knows no other way to speak. She stared down at his screwed up red face, suddenly swept up in his fear, wondering if she’d scared him by speaking. Don’t cry, she whispered, her heart breaking for him. Don’t cry. Please. But he kept wailing, until she remembered what her mother told her about breastfeeding – that the baby would want to eat, right away – and pulled aside her gown. He went quiet almost immediately, started suckling. And she felt this tingling in her breast, and from deep within, an upsurge of feeling, of wonder, that he knew what to do.

She feels herself pitching backward, steadies herself on the floor with one hand. Noticing, all at once, the wetness inside her brassiere. Her breasts have leaked.

The floor rumbles beneath her. The building, she realizes, is shaking in the wind. She stands up, collects her things. One last glance at the room, and she steps outside. Down the hall, down the stairs, slow, be careful. Holding onto the wet rail, water streaming down her fingers. Long hair whipping from the building, the sea. She hears a loud crack, shields her face from the rain, and peers – slowly – toward the street, through the spaces between her fingers.

The sign. The wind has shattered the letter T. There’s a cranberry spray in the side lot, glowing slightly in the dark with a strange light, as if there is energy in the liquid itself. She holds onto the rail with her free hand, looking out. With another crack, the second S explodes in a merry arc of pink. Then the I. And the K. And the glowing pink arcs floating toward her on the wind are so beautiful and thin and watery in the dark, so like the pink twilight, the strands of memory and light that connect past to present, that she finds she can’t look away. She can only stand there in the hissing rain, holding onto the rail, watching the letters shatter – one by one, glass glittering – until they’ve all exploded.

Then she lets go and crosses the lot, which glows faintly in the dark as the rain bounces off it, a silvery mist at her feet. And although her back is a painful staccato of raindrops and her hair is pressed slick to her scalp, as she crosses the railroad tracks, she walks calmly, telling herself she’ll be safe, she’ll be safe. Until she hears a roar behind her and loses her nerve. There’s a road that runs north-south nearby. The one she took down here. She’ll take it to the big concrete building she passed on the way in, which is further from the beach. If no one’s there, she’ll break in.

The wind picks back up as she crosses that road, and she falls on her scraped hands and knees, her jeans ripping. She’s too scared to stand up; for a minute, two, she crouches, waiting for a break in the wind. Staring up at the shadowy shape of a boarded-up grocery long enough to remember she’s starvingher stomach! When was the last time she ate?

Crouching there, in the rain, she hears an ominous hissing behind her, under the sound of the wind. She has no idea what it is. But she doesn’t turn, doesn’t look at all, only stands up and starts running, wind be damned. When the water starts splashing her legs with each step, she’s relieved – it’s only a couple inches – until she realizes it’s deepening, faster than she thought water could deepen. She has to slow to a jog, then a walk, as it swells to her knees.

And she panics. Not because the water is rising, cool and wet, to her thighs and her hips, but because of its color. It’s glowing in near total darkness, a watery electric green. It’s here, she realizes, the inkblot she saw in the night sky, the creature she saw over the sea. She turns blindly into the wind and rain, bowing her face.

Something hits her thigh. Drags her down into wet, bubbling, burbling. A sharp pain. Salty green going up her nose, the scent, the taste of sea. She swallows. Eyes open, burning. In the wide underwater rush of mud and living bubbles, she kicks up through the muck, clawing her way to the surface. Gasping for air as she surges on a wave toward a tree.

Her fingernails dig into its bark as she climbs the wet ladder of its branches, bare feet slipping in the wet. She climbs, slowly, carefully, higher, higher still, to the highest branch she trusts. Where she clings, back to wind, trembling arms wrapped tightly around the trunk. Until the water rises to just below her feet, and in the not-dark of the glowing green water she begins to make out debris: a tire, a trash can, a table, a dead fish, an uprooted tree.

And the water keeps rising, slowly, submerging her legs, her knees. The branches above won’t support her. They’re too weak. Her arm muscles ache. If the water keeps rising, she’ll have to let go. She waits, watching the water, clinging to the tree trunk, deaf now to the wind and rain as the water seeps up to her thighs, her waist. She wills it not to rise any further, tells herself, over and over, she’ll be safe.

She closes her eyes, imagining her son in the bassinette she left at her mother-in-law’s, eyelids fluttering, smiling faintly in his sleep. His chest rises and falls with a regular rhythm. She breathes with him – in, out, in, out – as she clutches that tree.

Until her ears pop, and she’s stunned to hear – nothing – suddenly, weirdly, nothing but the dull distant echo of that roar in her ears. The air has gone still. It’s stopped raining. And through the now-bare branches of this tree, suddenly, she can see the night sky, like she’s looking up from the bottom of a well walled with wind. The eye, she thinks. Then the floodwater tickles her feet – it’s sinking – and the air around her goes strange. There are particles in the air, spinning, blood red, suspended in the still like energy. Glowing faintly. She reaches out with her left hand, eyes closed, certain she will feel a spark, but feeling only grit on her skin. Sand. Spinning in the dark like dust, whipped up by the wind, drifting to the rooftops revealed by sinking water. Glowing red, faint, flickering. Fire – she can smell it, ash, smoke, the pungent scent of gas, carbon, burning – see it, to the west, at the edge of this clearing.

She feels a pain in her thigh, sees the tear in her jeans, and beneath it, the soft gel pink of a wound. She wonders what cut her. Then the water sinks even lower, revealing the second floors of flickering buildings, piles of bricks, fallen trees. Until she forgets time and space. Until this strange red world flows straight through her, because she’s beside her son’s bassinette as he sleeps. She picks him up, careful not to wake him.

Her arms are so leaden, so heavy.

She presses her face into his, breathes in the soft pink scent of his skin. He looks up at her, smiling, his eyes the most beautiful green. For a moment, everything is perfect. There is nothing but his smile, his weight in her arms.

Then she’s blinded by a great roar, and she feels herself falling, weightless, wary, waiting for the splash she knows will sound as she hits.


The next morning, when she wakes, shivering, she doesn’t trust her memory. It doesn’t seem possible for her to be awake at all. But here she is, curled up atop a mound of trash in a strange world of uprooted trees. She remembers the moment she spent underwater, thrashing, kicking, when she plunged beneath the surface of the sea. She remembers surfacing just in time to see this mound of debris, then reaching up through the rain and the wet for something metal, something solid, and climbing up here. She looks up at the bright sky, now, and clears her mind, a rush of gratitude welling up inside her to the universe just to be. Her fingers pressing drowned wooden beams, a soggy mattress, she pushes herself up with her hands. The cool morning air gives her goose bumps. She smells mud, brine, compost. At the edge of the mound, as she scrambles off of it, she sees a half-buried sheet, something tangled up in it: a shirtsleeve, a gray finger, a wedding ring.

Bare feet sliding over muck, she runs from the body, her breasts hard nodes of pain, until she finds herself at the edge of a shallow lake. When she steps into the water, the cuts on her feet burn, and she’s forced to slow her pace. The pain reminds her of her son, her resolve to get home. Near the edge of the floodwater lake, she meets a starving wet dog, a Catahoula, one eye brown, one blue, both wild, who bares yellow  teeth. And she’s off, again, flying away through mud and mist until her feet touch metal and wood, and she looks down and sees the railroad tracks that pass directly in front of the Sun Kist.

She stops, stares down at the tracks, runs her bare toe over the rail. The icy cold, the dew of the metal, makes her shiver. Something rises in her throat, a puff of gray air, of nothing, a laugh that vanishes as it floats from her lips. Then she spreads out her arms, balancing like a trapeze artist, marveling at the strange upside-down forest around her, as she starts back down the tracks toward town, or what’s left of it.


Mary McMyne’s stories and poems have appeared or will soon in Los Angeles Review, Pedestal Magazine, Word Riot, Contrary Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic, Apex Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won the Faulkner Prize for a Novel in Progress and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award. Dancing Girl Press published her poetry chapbook, Wolf Skin, in 2014. Additional support for her writing has been awarded by New York University, Louisiana State University, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in northern Michigan, where she is an assistant professor of English and fiction editor of Border Crossing at Lake Superior State University. Learn more at

Stone and Paper and Vinyl and Skin: First Place Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction Winner

When Libby’s last check from the bike shop came around, their rent was already two weeks past due. The guys offered to buy her lunch at the Crown and Anchor, but she told them she had to go, had to get moving, was afraid if she didn’t she might never. She gave them one-armed hugs, the envelope still in her hand, and she rode the five miles home, crossing the Colorado at the Longhorn Dam, blasting through Lakeshore Park and down Pleasant Valley Road to Riverside. At the bank, she found they had included a farewell gift of a hundred dollars in stiff twenties. It made her regret not going to lunch with them for a longer goodbye. She curled the bills into her pocket, cashed the paycheck, and went to the Taco Cabana for bean burritos. She read a few pages from her paperback before phoning a thank you.

“Don’t forget about us. You come back, you call us.”

“I will.”

“Alright. Go get it.”

She dumped her tray and rode around the corner to the row of townhomes. They had moved in with Trevor the month she started high school. Now she’d been out of high school a year, and her mother and Trevor were missing. What the detective meant was her mother and Trevor were dead. Three weeks and no word from them.

She took the pictures she wanted out of their frames and slipped them into one of Trevor’s old record jackets, Pink Floyd, leaving the black disk on the rug below his stereo. He wanted her to love his records, like he did, so she listened politely with him, for her mother’s sake. Last week she had decided the stereo was too heavy to take and too much hassle to sell. What money they left behind she had already spent on food, cigarettes, and shipping the television to her father, which was probably stupid, but seemed a decent plan at the time. She couldn’t bear going through her mother’s jewelry for long. Their bedroom began to overwhelm her: the beige carpet, worn to a smudge between the vanity and the foot of the bed; the walls her mother called Apartment White. She took a pair of crow earrings. But keep it real light, she thought. Don’t think, even. Keep moving. Her foam pillow, her sleeping bag. Her pack stuffed with tee shirts and socks and panties, her iPhone in the shaft of one of her Doc Martens. She remembered her father’s hunting knife, and she went back to the jewelry box and lifted the long felt tray where all these years her mother had kept it. He never hunted, she said. But here was something she could give him. Hey, Seth, remember your knife? Found it in Mom’s back. She slipped the thing into her boot, too.

She emptied what little was left in the cabinets into a cardboard box, along with one loose-handled pot, and salt and pepper, and put it in the back seat of the car. She strapped the bike rack onto the trunk and secured her Vilano with bungee hooks, testing it with pushes there in the hot drive before the tall homes whose shadows could tell time. Back inside, last chance, she turned the air off and unplugged the fridge and netted the six fish from the tank into an old Coleman water jug she drove to the river. The fish were stilled at first, pulsing in the shallows, but as she shook the last of the water out, they moved deeper for the current, their colors fleeing. She thought about them as she drove north for Dallas on I-35. Not the other way. Not the way Trevor and her mother had always gone, south, to San Antonio. To Nuevo Laredo. Past Nuevo.


Gunning the highway north of Knoxville, she was trying to find a sign that marked the turn. Her hands ached. Her back itched. Her twinging bladder kept her awake.

In a moment of lucidity, she admitted her memories of her father were not to be trusted. Most of them were her mother’s, passed along incidentally or accidentally, perhaps over take out, a few remember-when moments on car trips like this one, other anecdotes mumbled in late night trances after bowl hits with Trevor. They weren’t all bad. But they weren’t hers, either. Libby’s mind kept returning to the small framed photograph of him, which stood for years in rear rank on her vanity: Seth smiling and pointing a finger at the camera, as if pointing his finger at her dyed hair or black lipstick or the pierced eyebrow he had never gotten to see. That picture didn’t go into the Dark Side of the Moon with the others, it was in the glovebox, with the novel and the roadmaps, for quick reference. His hunting knife chattered in the wedge between dash and windshield. She looked down at the phone charging in her lap, and in that instant the car struck an orange construction barrel at the shoulder.

Shot through with adrenaline, she braked and slowed and looked back at the toppled thing through the spokes of her front bike wheel. No cars in either direction, she left it, kept going, accelerated. The relentless black curves came nauseously into the high beams. Just a damned barrel too close on the shoulder. She pressed on for the state park the atlas had marked with a green pine and tent. Who would ever know?

A stone wall with the sign flashed by before she knew she was upon it. She backed up the empty highway and made the turn uphill, through a split rail fence and a meadow that narrowed with encroaching forest. Yellowed notices were taped to the glass of the booth at the camp’s gate. No one was in it. She turned off the headlights and lurched over the speed humps. A cobwebbed park map cowered beneath a buzzing vapor light, the blue paint of a lake outlining the camp’s peninsula.

She puttered through sites carved left and right among the trees. The place was wholly empty. But when she snapped her headlights on to follow a turn, orange and red reflectors flashed like gems. A motorhome and a boat trailer. She put the lights out again and made her way by recall and moonlight past them to the back of the camp.

She pulled past a numbered post at the far end of the loop, and quickly went to squat in the pine needles. The ground was soft near the lake. When she was finished, she lit a cigarette and lay atop the picnic table, pointing her toes to stretch her back, a little ill from the block of cheddar she had pared one slice after another into her mouth, and a hot 7-Up, finished after all the coffee, a half hour ago. The crickets were wound up. The lake had a fishy smell. The day’s drive had been hot, but it was cooler up here in the hills.

On her back, she was watching the stars through the trees when her phone disrupted the stillness. A number she didn’t recognize.

“Do I call you Dad, or Seth, or what?”

“Whatever you like,” he said. “Dad?”

“I can tell you what we used to call you.”

“Probably not that.” She heard him take a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I got the tv and the note.”

“Well, she’s gone.” She went on before he could speak, to be sure he had her meaning.

At last he said, “Your mother?”

“Yes. Who else?” She waited. “Look, I’m just out of Knoxville tonight. I’ll be there tomorrow.”


“I’m driving. I’ll be in Philadelphia tomorrow,” she said.

“No. How?”

“I’ll tell you what I know when I get there. My phone’s dying. I got to go.”


It took two cigarettes to stop the quivering. She regretted some of how she had said what she did, but it wasn’t fair he should call her at, what was it, eleven. She wanted to talk to him when she was fresh. She would see him tomorrow evening, maybe before sundown. She went to pee again, and returned to lie upon the table. Ashes glowed bluely in the fire ring, as if the gliding moon had just scraped them there as it made its way across the opening in the trees. Soon it would disappear in the weave of leaves on the other side.

“Hey.” A man stood on the road above the site. “You aint up to anything you aint supposed to. I hope. Are you?”

She sat up. “No. I’m okay. I just pulled in.”

“Yeah, I heard you come through. How long you staying for?”

“I’m leaving if I can get some sleep.”

He looked down the dark lane. He was carrying a guitar. The trees were still. “Well, I’m the watch.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I’m in charge. Nice to meet you.”

“Like the camp host?”

“Like the camp host.” He set the guitar on his boot. “It’s twenty dollars.”

“I’m not actually camping.” She tried a smile. “I just needed to pull off and rest.”

“Where you headed?”


When he lifted his chin, his forehead gleamed palely. “Philadelphia, I heard.”

“None of your business,” she said. “I’ll be out before the sun comes up. Nobody the wiser.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I don’t have twenty dollars. How do I know you’re who you say you are, anyway? You got a badge or something?”

“You know you have to pay. Aint no free lunch.” He lifted his instrument by the neck and dragged a toe through the gravel. He spun the loose wheel of her bike and read the plate on the bumper. “Texas? You like music?” he asked.

She said nothing.

“You got another cigarette?”

They sat together on top of the picnic table, smoking in silence, and she listened to him play for ten or fifteen minutes. He didn’t sing anything. Nothing even seemed to be from a song. She felt he was at least thirty. She realized she couldn’t tell the difference between thirty and forty. Her mother was forty. What did fifty look like? Just older. He looked up from the frets at her and his face turned sad and he lost the thread of what he was strumming.

After a moment, he said, “You’re thinking nobody’s going to remember me for my guitar playing, aren’t you? It’s alright. You lose it if you don’t practice, and I haven’t practiced. When I was a kid, I used to be pretty good.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m really sleepy.”

He gave a little nod and rose from the table. “Things disappear on you.” He stopped at her car and looked in its open window. “You spare another cigarette?”

She walked the pack up the slope, holding it out, the lighter, too. “Here. Take them. We’ll call it even.”

He reached for them. His face still had the sad, slow look. He grabbed her wrist and pressed her against the warm car. The cigarettes and lighter fell, and he dropped the guitar, its steel strings sounding a deep tone that hung about under the pines. He pried the phone out of her fingers, and it fell to the ground, too.

“Quit it.” She mule kicked him, her boot glancing off his shin.

“It’s alright, Texas.” He was against her. “I won’t hurt you. It’s all alright.” His whiskers were at her collar.


When she arrived in Philadelphia, it was steamy. People sat smoldering on dark stoops, and air conditioners were humming and dripping over the sidewalks and in the alleyways. She was smoking on Seth’s couch, reading the manuscript he was keeping in a dented shirt box on an otherwise bookless bookshelf. She had their old tv on for company–she had gone out to the fire escape, where earlier she had sneaked in, and run a coaxial cable looped out there through the window, across the room to the set, but tv was just tv, and these pages, which were about the only evidence of her father in the place, she decided right away were not very good. It looked like an empty life: a water pitcher and a half bag of coffee in the fridge; a couple chipped plates in a dish rack; mousetraps in the crannies between appliances.

Outside the apartment’s door, a man was calling kitty, kitty, kitty. The summons stopped, a key sounded in the lock, and the door swung open. There he was, the man who would be her father. Before he even spoke, he was contemplating the taut black wire strung across his living room. She looked under it at him, but didn’t get up. “Your neighbors have cable,” she explained. She smudged her cigarette out in his cereal bowl. “Is there a cat?”

“No. There’s not a cat.” Even his voice was empty. “The old lady downstairs thinks she has a cat, and I look for it for her,” he said. “Welcome to Philadelphia.” He ducked under the cable, unable to close his mouth, from shock, she guessed. “Stranger,” he said. He stepped over the pages she had stacked sloppily on the hardwood floor. He grabbed her hands, running his thumbs briefly over the rings, and began to tug her from the couch.

“Hey, don’t pull me. Let go,” she said.

She stood on her own, and he opened his arms for a hug, which she hesitated to enter. He was taller than she thought he would be, and he didn’t look much like the old picture except around the eyes. He wrapped her in his arms. He was sticky with sweat and smelled a little of booze, but not badly. She could tell he was waiting to feel her return grip before he let go, so she gave one, a small one. She wasn’t processing his words. It was just wooden babble. She sniffled at the black window and asked could they do this in the morning, she was so tired. The exchange petered out. He straightened himself and led her to his room, behind the wall the television was on, and lowered the blind and she got in bed, and he pulled the sheet to her chin, all as he might have done fifteen years ago, carrying her in hot Austin, taking care not to knock her precious head. He resumed chattily, about the humidity, probably not knowing what he was saying exactly, either, as he turned the window unit on high and went back into the other room. The tv siphoning his neighbor’s programming was shut off, and she imagined she heard the sound of him gathering the pages on the floor and fitting them back into the box.

It was a story with her mother in it, but not as she recognized her. How old would her mother have been? Libby had stopped reading when the words started swimming on the page. So this is Seth, she thought, because she felt she now was the time to really contemplate him. Her father was a middle aged boy. Nothing but this crappy apartment. Part of her wanted this news to please her.

The air conditioner’s fuzzy rattle was like a prop plane that never passed, as if maybe she were not beneath it but flying in it, and it would go on like that all night. A fat housefly circling your head begging you to kill it. That kind of annoying. She pushed her foot from under the sheet and pressed her toe against the plastic grill to deaden the vibration. She thought she might be able to sleep that way, and it was about then she knew she would never tell anyone, never mention last night in Tennessee at all. Trevor had told her marijuana was the best way to go to sleep for him, and it would seem it was for her mother, too, since she had already fallen asleep on his chest there on the couch, Supertramp ringing bright layers through the Advents. Give a little bit… give a little bit… And the one lamp on that softly lit her mother’s sleeping head rising and falling on Trevor’s sloped chest as Libby said It doesn’t seem to put me to sleep, but it puts me in a place like sleep, but sleep with lights, like lighted sleep, like watching your dream in a theater but it’s just what you’re seeing right in front of you. Trevor smiled his high smile and stroked her mother’s hair. And then he had expired, too, their heads nestled together. He wasn’t a bad man. And she stayed like that all night, cradled Pietà-like in the overstuffed armchair, watching them folded together on the couch into dawn, the blue light coming through the long livingroom windows and over the glass coffeetable. And the noisy birds that had made her smile that morning but this morning in Tennessee had sounded so furious as she bent over the lake to wash herself, not wanting to walk that way, past his guitar on the ground, to use the bathhouse. She parked in front of his camper on the way out, but left the motor running. She beat the dash once. She found the leather sheath on the floor and put the knife in the glovebox. Inside the RV, a squalor of snack bags and ashtrays. DVDs on top of a small television. Little Feat cassettes. A centerfold hung beside the mirror on the bath closet. He had written things on her leg. An opened carton of cigarettes, which she took. She found a twenty folded in half on the countertop by the filthy range. She took it, too, and tossed it onto the passenger seat and left. The farther she drove, the less she wanted to touch it, not even when she had to refuel in Roanoke, not until she was shaky with hunger in Staunton and stopped at a drive-thru for a Whopper without meat and there was the way the kid in his uniform and headset in the window looked at her through his glasses as if he just knew, and she handed him the twenty from the seat where it had ridden nearly five hours untouched and drove away for the Pennsylvania Turnpike without waiting for any of its change. Nothing. And then she couldn’t even eat the food.


She was awakened by the sound of sirens, which put her in a small panic. She found Seth waiting on the couch in the other room, dressed and shaven. He offered her a fresh towel. After her shower, he took her to an early lunch.

Taking a quick look into the place, she decided it simpatico and went to a booth halfway down the wall of the dark saloon. He slid into the seat across from her, and suddenly she felt cornered. A waitress came from the tv to take their order. Seth introduced her as his daughter, Libby, from Texas. So, okay, she thought, and she said hello and ordered a 7-Up with olives and conceded, to herself, she was on his ground. “Just introduce me as Libby for a while, okay, Seth?”

“Sure,” he said, but his look was harder now.

She wanted to deflect his scrutiny. “I like this place. Looks like it hasn’t changed in fifty years.”

“No, no. They just built it like this last summer,” he told her. “Shabby-retro. I walked in at the grand opening, they were still spraying on the antiquity.” He twitched his finger at her.

She gazed at the table and pinched her straw. She wouldn’t smile.

“What is it with you?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I admit all this is awkward, and I realize you might not want to talk about it, but I have to know what happened. I have a right to know, and you haven’t been all the way straight with me yet. You’ve barely talked to me.”

“You mean about Mom?” She had to send her memory back to the earlier misery. Her mind hadn’t been on it for two days. What right did he have to be demanding, anyway? Shouldn’t she be the one drilling him with fifteen years of questions?

“Yeah. I couldn’t even sleep.” He sat back. “You have to know it’s killing me. Even if you think I don’t deserve to know, which maybe I don’t-”

“Not much we can know, Seth.”

Now the hard look was an angry one. “Nice. I can see you’re no stranger to ambiguity.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means don’t be so goddamn condescending. Maybe you despise me,” he said. “Okay, fair enough. But never be so cavalier when you talk of the dead. Any dead. It dishonors her. It dishonors life altogether. Get me?”

She tried for a different tone. “She and Trevor would cross over for a weekend, or a week. But not a month. And she didn’t call once.” Her voice sounded just as hollow as his had last night.


“Yeah. They’d go to Mexico.” She waited to see what else he would ask, what they did in Mexico. “That long, she would have called by now if she was okay. Even Mom wouldn’t just…”

His blush was hot. Their drinks arrived, and he took a quick sip. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Wouldn’t just disappear. Right.”

She had shamed him, but it didn’t feel as good as it should have. Her voice quavered. She looked at the ceiling to keep from crying.

He put his hand on hers. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m glad you’re here.” On the paper placemat were recipes for age old cocktails. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

She blew her nose in a napkin, more to dry her eyes, and started again. “They’re both gone. If I said dead, I didn’t mean to. The police said they’d let us know when they found anything. But a lot of times they never do. They said expect no news or expect bad news. I mean, no news is bad news, isn’t it?”

“Her family?”

“They know.”

“I should call them.” He repeated it, as if reminding himself. “My mother?”

“God, Dad, I haven’t seen you since I was a kid. You think I talk to Grandma?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t her fault. You might have.”

“She sent stuff for Christmas and on my birthday. She quit when Mom stopped reminding me to send thank yous, I think.”

“I see.”

“It’s not how you thought it would end, is it?” It should have made her feel like she had some power over him, but it didn’t, and if it did, she didn’t know what she’d do with it. She was squandering this moment, and felt a long way from home.

Seth was watching some people in the back corner, out of earshot but looking their way.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Students I know.”

“You hang out where your students go?”

“Not usually.”

“So, okay,” she said. “New topic, please.”

“Alright. Tell me about my girl. What do you like? Judging from your gear, looks like you like outdoors stuff. Camping out?”

Her pause was heavy.

He gave a small shrug.

“How about you tell me,” she said. “What’s your version of why you left? I’ve always wanted to hear it.”

Now he was the one searching the paraphernalia on the walls. Lights and signage. Old boots. He made a small sound. Photographs of virile ballplayers in midswing. “You tell me your version first,” he said.

“Okay, Seth.” She rose to it. “Here’s how I remember. I remember you packing your bag in the middle of the night, but passing out in the driveway, behind the wheel of the car, the one with the ceiling felt coming down.”

“The Chrysler. You remember that? We used long strips of balsa, like ribs, to hold the felt up.”

She didn’t break her gaze.

“It worked,” he said.

“Whatever. Anyway, Mom finds you in the drive in the morning and won’t let you take the car. Practically pulls your ass through the window. Waking up the whole neighborhood. So you take off down the sidewalk with your bag. Walking in the sunshine. La la la.” She leaned back and waved at him across the table. “See you, Dad.”

There. She had rehearsed it from Texas to Tennessee, had been waiting to tell it. But from Tennessee to Philadelphia, there hadn’t been room for it in her mind. How it had tumbled out so quickly, like stones dumped from a barrel, and not nearly as eloquent as she had dreamt a few days ago. “I remember some phone calls,” she added. “Mom didn’t cry much after the first week, if you were wondering.”

“You don’t remember that.”

“How would you know? She told me not to dwell on you, though I always felt she said that because she needed to hear herself say it. I was four years old when you left. But we got by fine, you know. Great. It was all good. She said if I wanted to find you-”

“Okay, you found me. And I’m sure it wasn’t all good.”

“So what’s your fucking story?”

“Easy. Don’t give me language like that. Or at least not here. I’m not sure what you’ve come for, but you won’t get it with that tone. It was wrong what I did. But after I had done it, she told me to make it clean. No back and forth. End it. I sent some alimony I couldn’t afford. A joke, I know. But I sent you what I could save, and borrowed on a credit card, but when I went back to school I was out of money. We hadn’t talked. I didn’t know what was going on. Gradually, to move forward, a person quits looking back.”

“Just like that.”

“The short version.”

“You left us to go back to school?”

“No. Before. The plan wasn’t so clear as that. There was no plan.”

“What do you mean you quit looking back? Is that even possible?”

He slowed his answer. “With time. Years go by.”

“Oh yeah, right. The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

His eyelid was twitching. “You’ve read Faulkner.”

“No,” she said. “Mom. She used to say it. She said you used to say it all the time, but it was more like an excuse for shit you hadn’t done yet. And so like now, the other day, after fifteen years, you can just say you love me on the phone…” She had heard it last night, too, as he put her to sleep on his mattress.

“You think I can’t. I do. I love you.”

“But you’re conveniently skipping all sorts of stuff, Seth.”

“I’ve had to have you in the back of my mind, not the front. You hope and imagine things are well, but I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to die. I hadn’t expected your coming now. It’s…”


He nodded. “It doesn’t have to be.”

She raised her phone from her bag and snapped his picture. “When were you going to expect it, though? One of us had to do something. And I didn’t want to tell you about her, except to your face.” She took another picture. “Do you always dress like this?”

“No. Yes.”

“Can you get me an apartment?”

“Do you even miss her?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I do.”

“You’re hard for me to read. She was a good woman.”

“She could be,” Libby said. “Not always, I wouldn’t say.”

When he glared at her, she clicked again.

She made a point to frown at the images.

He sat up in the booth. “Are you glad you’re here?”

“Sure. I’ve never seen Philadelphia.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean, do you want to stay in Philadelphia?”

She leaned across the table. “That’s not what you mean, either. Is it, Seth? Let me look around. How much are one-bedrooms?”

“Maybe more than you’ve got. Or I think. You can stay with me.”

“No offense, but if I stay here, I want my own place. How much does a place like yours go for?”

“How about just take my place,” he said. “Go on and take it for now. I’ve got somewhere else I can stay awhile.”

“A woman?”

“No, not a woman.”

“A man? That other address you sent me.”

“My friend’s. He and his wife are out of the country.”

She shrugged. When the food came, he ordered two lagers, one for her and one more for himself. She peeped under the sandwich bread. She’d restricted bacon from the BLT. “There a garage I can park my car?”

“No. But I can show you where to park without getting a ticket. I don’t have a car, myself.”

“How do you get groceries and shit?” She thought he laughed.

“Looks like I beg my daughter to take me. We’ll call it rent.”

“Call it even,” she said. Her words spooked her.

He raised his glass. “Cheers, then.”

She leaned close. “I don’t drink, Seth.”

So he drank hers, too. “Come on, I want to show you something. If I can find it.”


He called directions from where he had jotted them on the back of an envelope, up 76 to Bala Cynwyd. He ejected the disk she had in the dash player, Rainer Maria, and put in Skip James. She wanted to turn it down when she heard the barrage of pops and crackles, but she did not. He told her how, in the twenties and thirties, the record company sent the musicians north on trains to Wisconsin, and how they recorded almost as if in secret, blacks in a white town, so much of the north inhospitable to the great migration, before they were turned instantly around with a little cash in pocket and shipped back to Mississippi to await the modest release. Then the Depression. Libby pulled the car through the gate at the corner and set the parking brake on the hill. They walked between the memorials in the lumpy lots. He told her they were looking for Skip James’s stone.

“The guy we were just listening to? It’s funny how English teachers are always into the blues.”

“What do you mean funny?”

“Like, grammatically. To show they’re not uptight assholes.” She glanced at him to see if he had the hard look again. “Somebody else pointed it out to me. But it still kind of backfires, because only pretentious white guys-“

“Oh come on, Libby. Whom do you love?” He elbowed her, and she smiled. “Poor grammar can be dangerous, though. I heard tell of a convict killed in prison. Ended his sentence with a proposition.”

“I could learn to like the blues,” she said.

“Like learning to love a sickness.”

The hard ground was wildly uneven, churned and rechurned, and the grass was coarse and sparse. Many of the stones didn’t have concrete foundations and, here and there, were toppled or sunken. They paused a moment looking down the hill of them. A backhoe was parked in one of the lanes. “This place is a mess,” he said.

“Why do you want to see his grave? You’ve got his music.”

“I know. But why do we put up memorials at all?”

“Meh. Rocks are a silly way to remember the dead,” she said.

He chuffed. “How else should we do it?”

“I don’t know. Look, Chinese…”

There, below the road, was a whole section of their glyphs on stones, and at the center, a small dais. She began to step down toward it, but the very motion–and the slope, the table, the way the trees were grouped around the site—was familiar, and gave her a chill.

Her father didn’t notice. “How do you remember your mother?” he asked.

“Stop it, Seth.”


“I probably remember her better than you do.”

They passed through a cloud of gnats as he kept scanning left and right in the grass. “How?” he pushed.

“It’s not a fair question. But I remember her when I get high. Sometimes I’ll go online and listen to songs she used to like.”

“Like what songs?”

“Like Connells songs.”

“She liked the Connells.” He seemed to remember this about her. “So, smoking grass, listening to songs Rachel liked, works for you. What do these rocks do?”

“Nothing for me.”

“No, I mean think about it.”

She crossed her arms as they went on in the heat. “They’re like these permanent signs that you once existed.”

“Right. Of course, some are more permanent than others.”

“Some are bigger. The pyramids,” she said.

“Or Grant’s tomb. Sometimes the rock is commensurate with their stature…”

“How about this one?” she said. They looked at it at their feet. A black kid’s picture was glued to the surface of a baseless slant, which was tipped on its back in the weeds. Her father bent and pulled the stone upright. Up the hill, the groundsman in the open shed watched them without moving. “He was my age,” she said.

He looked away. “Where the heck’s Skip James?”

“We can keep looking, if you want. Or go ask that guy.”

“No. Let’s go.” He walked. He walked faster.

“Hey, you’ve always got the CD,” she called. “Wait up.”

He looked frustrated as he turned to her. “I take your point. But which do you think will last longer? The music, or a rock like that one there?”

“The music. You know these answers, professor. Are you okay?”

“Right, ars longa.” He was talking to the bright white sky. “But I’m not so sure. I mean, everyone knows what the pyramids look like. But I can’t name a single song from ancient Egypt.” He met her eye.

Together they looked up the steep rise of buried dead to where her small car was parked.

“I don’t know that’s a fair analogy,” she said.

“There’s no stone for your mother, for instance. How will she be remembered?”

She pulled her hair up off hot her neck, and found that even this common action was no longer hers. She felt the hand behind her in Tennessee. She let her hair drop. She would get it cut even shorter, soon, tomorrow. “Just by us who knew her, I guess.”

“And when we’re gone? What?”

“She won’t be remembered, Seth. That your point?”

He pursed his lips. “How about us?”

She wanted to go. “We won’t be remembered either. Nobody will remember anything about anybody. You need me to tell you this? People will just step over our rock, if we even have a rock. If someone is even around enough to get us one.” She marched past him, up the the lane for the car. She didn’t turn around to see if he were following. It was a steep hill , and she wouldn’t forget it, nor the way the sun beat on the ragged grass. “But, come on, being remembered isn’t even what’s important.”

“No? What is?”

“God, Seth. Being worth being remembered.”



Some weeks later, she had taken a job as a bike messenger. She was smoking with Judge in his apartment in Fishtown. She had been spending time with him, but it was the first time she had been to his place. He only smoked Turkish cigarettes, which she could never justify buying for herself, and he slid the box across the table, gifts for her, the moment she rubbed one out. “I remember your dad,” he said. “But I was only at that school like a couple months. Figured I could learn photography on my own, so that’s what I did, and hell of a lot cheaper.” He had turned his bike upside down on the floor and was cleaning the sprocket and chain with an oiled cloth.

She browsed his shelf, stacked with tattered books on photography. Most of them had library markings taped to the spines. A pile of comics. Tattoo magazines. His own script was blue on his black skin, which, at a distance looked like hair on his chest, but it wasn’t. His chest was smooth. Libra’s level scales on either pec.

“These cameras all work?”

He looked up from the sprocket. “Them my babies.”

“How’d you afford them?”

“Tell me, what’s he like, anyway? Your dad.”

He had spent ten minutes explaining why there was no point in her going to school, yet it still seemed he was trying to get his head around Seth. Feared him, maybe. Her father like a picket out in front of her. It occurred to her she might ask the same thing of him about her father. You sat in a class with him, what’s he like anyway? She raised a camera to test its heft. “Seth speaks in italics,” she said.

“He do what?” He hadn’t stopped looking at her. “Speaks in italics?”

“Like professors do. Professorial.”

“Aw, yeah. I hated that. Sage on a stage. You get along?”



“But I’m not going to live there anymore.”

“Mm. You got people?”

“I have a lead.”

“A lead?” He put the back of his hand against her temple. “You can stay here until you’re set up.” She liked how his tough was a quiet, thoughtful tough. How his touch was gentle, despite his arms. “Or you can set up here.”

“I don’t have much stuff,” she said. He was moving in to kiss her again. She stayed him.

“It’s alright,” he said.

“Don’t say that.”

“Don’t say it’s alright?”

“If it’s alright, it’s alright. I’ll know it’s alright.”


“Let’s go do this.” She rolled her sleeve up to her shoulder and looked at her bare arm. They were going to go to Chinatown.

“Okay,” he said. “After.”


She came down the stairs and met Seth at his own front door. He was wearing flip flops and a straw cowboy hat, which looked like it had been run over at least twice.

“You got mice,” she said.

“Yeah. Thought we’d go swimming. What’s that?”

The loose pattern of small skulls cascaded over her shoulder. Like a cluster of grapes, was how she had described it to the guy at the Chinatown shop. “New ink,” she said.

“You just got that?”

“Last night, with Judge. You like it?”

“The money I gave you,” he said, his voice hollow again. “I don’t know. Ask me in thirty years.”

She stopped smiling. “Fuck you.” She pulled her arm away. “I like it.”

“No, it’s cool. I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”

“You didn’t say you did.”


“Nice hat.”

“It’s like a baby’s breath of blue heads,” he said. “Who’s the Judge?”

“Just Judge. This guy.”

“Well, I was hoping to take you swimming.”

“The beach?”

“No, not the beach. Some place more clinical.” He was squinting at the pavement. “Concrete and chlorine. I hate the beach.”

“Good. I hate the beach, too.”

“Right. We’re beach haters. Good.” He stepped back onto the sidewalk, a visitor at his own apartment. “I mean, I like the ocean plenty,” he said, as if it clarified something.

“Here.” She handed him the knife. “Happy Father’s Day. Look, I’ll go with you, but I can’t get in chlorine. You belong to some sort of club somewhere?”

They greeted the hotel’s doorman as though he should remember them and strode across the carpet right in front of the desk, past the ferns, and down the tiled hall. They boarded the elevator and went to the roof. No keycard, he knocked on the window. Two wet kids, seven or eight years old, sat on the nonslip concrete picking at their toes. One of them opened the door. Libby was hit with breeze and blue sky. The kid called the other to go. They had southern accents. They passed quickly under her father’s arm, leaving wet footprints to the elevators.

There, on top of the city, the cloudless sky was as blue as the pool she and Seth to themselves. She tossed the paperback from her bag onto a white patio table and sat. She hadn’t touched the book since Texas, could barely remember what it was about, and yet she considered how, whatever it was, its story was still intact there between the covers, immutable, complete, even as her life these past couple of months had endured a hundred revolutions. She turned her chin to her shoulder. This tattoo would stay, a constant.

She watched her father hang his towel near the deep end. He stood staring at the knife in his hand. She was glad he had it now. It made her feel safe that he had it. She had avoided the Internet as much as possible, staving what news might ever come from Tennessee.

Things disappear.

“You remember it?” she called.

“No,” he said. “Was this mine?” Still holding the knife, he rolled into the water like a fluke and sank all the way to the bottom. He sat there submerged on the blue floor. She couldn’t laugh, but she wanted to, a little.

She checked her tattoo again. She liked it. She hadn’t slept since getting it, had stayed up all night with Judge and the others afterwards, spray painting the bike entirely white, sharing smokes beneath the rasping speakers in the messengers’ garage. From a chair in the corner, she had watched them trying to recall anecdotes about the guy who had been struck. Nothing that memorable. What tears there were only seemed to acknowledge this lonesome fact about him. After a while most of them just stopped talking, drank their IPAs, and waited for the dawning to come incrementally through the glass blocks high on the wall.

At eight a.m. their peloton crept down Market en masse, motley of polyester, Judge in front with a traverse towing the riderless ghost bike, the fixie’s pedals paddling over the asphalt like drumbeats to some silent dirge. The lot of them was too egalitarian to ride rank, but Libby sensed the preferred outriders and kept her front wheel back. Their dogs trotted alongside. Judge hit the stoplights at greens and yellows and they rode through reds like a passing barge, just try it, not a single honk, and went down 19th Street for a full lap around Rittenhouse Square before dropping deeper into South Philly. When they reached the corner where the messenger had been lost, they dismounted, and they quickly fastened the painted ghost to the stop sign, U-locks, padlocks, and chains. She thought someone might say something. Someone should say something. But all of them, thirty or forty, scattered like marbles through the chutes of Center City.

Chad Willenborg teaches writing at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, though his resumé tracks stints as a bartender, a gravedigger, a dry ice blaster, and a wild game packer. His work appears in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Fugue, First City Review, and The Best of Philadelphia Stories (Vol. 2). Two excerpts from his novel, Suit of Lights, were finalists for CityPaper’s annual writing contest, and “Stone and Paper and Vinyl and Skin,” winner of the 2014 Marguerite McGlinn Prize, is a third excerpt from that novel. The author is at work on a book called The Sexton and a collection of “cover versions” of James Joyce’s Dubliner.