Elegy For Breath



Elegy For Breath

by Carlos Andres Gomez


Picture the adolescent: mimicking

what makes him worthy. Pick his

most potent snapshot for click-

bait: fresh-faced but mean-

mugging; same mask I’d pull

clean across my jaw for any

Polaroid of me & my best friend

in eighth grade. Let’s be clear: joke

stance—now used to justify

killing          make just     the just-

snuffed, just clumsy youth branded

bold-fonted & blood thirst. Peace

sign transmogrified to gang sign—

since the expert talking head

confirmed it. The expert talks &

confirms inside a rectangular frame

that renders most of him invisible.

Talks & confirms        two bullet-

points         from the bleached-

teeth interviewer. But nowhere

is the testimony of       breath

stifled, the practiced hands that

remained watched whenever they

ascended, whether in prayer or

surrender, holding a bag of groceries,

a cell phone, or a son. Nowhere

is that last sigh  freed  from his tired

lungs as the sixth shot   struck

the base of his skull    sprinting

with back turned. The neighbor describes

that final sound I did not hear   & yet

cannot   unhear. It is suddenly the last

sound I hear from too many people

I love: my brother-in-law, my four

nephews, my high school best friend,

my infant son. (Every police officer

is out in the world       defending

himself. Every one of them describes

the nightmares in which they see

a dark object against the darkness

that turns into fire & populates a rigid

void with lead. Every police officer

is a human being. He makes mistakes

sometimes. He got nervous. He thought

about his two kids & his pregnant wife,

it was fourteen days before retirement.

He’s never missed a Sunday at church.

Believe me, it’s true. I’ve seen him pass

the donation plate. Sometimes

he takes a naked, crumpled bill in his

calloused hands, wipes the sweat

& residue on his crotch.) I saw Jesus

on Easter Sunday        still  resting

on the wall, a hooded sweatshirt

draped across his torso from the college

he was to attend  just to make it all a bit

more decent. Everything you stare into

becomes a fist, a loaded weapon aimed

at your face. I wake up in a country

based on a single document made

to protect   every human being   equally

who is a wealthy, white man. The woman

I meet after my show in Myrtle Beach,

South Carolina has no response when

I ask her why the killing of three dogs

made her protest, made her write letters,

made her boycott, while the murder

of a defenseless Black child inspired

not a single word   from her lips?

Loud music; blocking the middle of an empty

residential street; a wallet in a trembling,

outstretched palm; a back sprinting away

in fear; a woman after a car accident

knocking on a door for help; a toy

rifle in a Walmart in Ohio; a boy

in Money, Mississippi, walking, lost

in thought, a stutter from Polio, a whistle

he learned to cope with his stammer,

when the implication of    Blackness

is always absolution     from murder.

My son’s first breath was with-

held: the cord that had nourished him

for nine months now choked   three

times   around his throat, as he fought

for life. Like his sister  at birth. Like

the father  on a sidewalk in Staten

selling cigarettes to support his six kids

to survive  born fighting  stayed fighting

to breathe. When my son   gasped

finally  & then slumbered into dream,

his blooming tenderness  unguarded  as

a single orchid, I said a silent prayer

for the imagined crimes his world was busy

inventing, to condemn him  for being born

Black   & having the courage   to breathe.

Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet and the author of Hijito, selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize. Winner of the 2018 Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, 2018 Sequestrum Editor’s Reprint Award in Poetry, 2015 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Yale Review, BuzzFeed Reader, Rattle, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and elsewhere. For more, please visit: CarlosLive.com.



by Kara Petrovic


My mother holds me down, her hands locked around my wrists as I am screaming, writhing in pain. It is midnight, or sometime after. The fluorescent lights of my room feel too bright, they burn against my skin, cursed with hypersensitivity. I can hear my mother cooing at me, gently whispering it is time to stop. Covered in cold sweat, my skin is slick, and my hair sticks to my forehead. This is a snapshot of my life at its lowest, which happens more often than I care to admit. It is a panic attack, or something similar, some days I cannot tell the difference. Yet, with unyielding patience, my mother hears my screams and we go into our usual song and dance: where my hands are scratching at my skin as if I were digging for gold, and her hands are petting my head, snaking their way around my body to make me still.

My mother never really understood mental illness, not when it first crept into my bed and made itself a home. She thought I was attention-seeking, the youngest child tired of raising their voice just to be heard, that this was the newest of my attempts to gain her affection. My mother thought she could shake it out of me, that if she grabbed me by my shoulders enough times or slapped me across the face hard enough I would snap out of it and be the child she had envisioned.

I am 22 years old now, and I have a cornucopia of diagnoses, all of which seem to be trying to outdo the other. In my youth, I was a lost soul — to put it kindly. A fire raged in my chest while a demon followed my every footstep: I was enamored with death.
If death was a man, with sickly grey skin and bones for fingers, he followed me throughout my adolescence, before I even knew how to correctly spell suicide. At 12 years old, I would write notes to my mother and leave them on the threshold of her bedroom, apologizing for being the way that I was, stating I knew she would be better off if I were dead.

I would watch her read these notes, hidden behind the pillars in the house. With the scoff of a laugh accompanied by a quick roll of her eyes, her staple response to my behavior, she would crumple the paper up. To her, this was a cry for attention, and I suppose in some way it was. It was also a cry for help, one she would make me wait several years to receive.
Meanwhile, I played surgeon with myself. I seemed to believe that if I cut deep enough I could find the source of my sickness and remove it from my skin. Since I had to eradicate this on my own, I had to navigate without a sense of direction. I would lock myself in my room and map out the corners of my brain, go hunting in the depths of my subconscious to try and locate the cause of my misery. At the dollar store, I would buy razors, take them home and break apart the safety barriers. I would mark up my arms, my legs, my stomach. I experimented at first, marking Xs all over my skin, but it quickly became methodical lines and, each new session, I challenged myself to dig even deeper.

A therapist once told me that the pain I carry is liquid gold, and it fills up the cracks inside of me and creates a new work of art each time— I stare at my pain and try to see the beauty in it, in its curves and twists, the knots in my forearms and the scars on my body. All I see are cracks. White lines that look nothing like gold. I trace my fingertips along the hypertrophic scars and, suddenly, I am engulfed in loneliness and vulnerability. Though I want nothing more than to hold on with an iron fist, I let go of the abyss and tell myself the wounds have healed. Yet they burn each time I see someone trying not to stare.

My mother believes pain can be expunged, as if my pain and I should separate. My mother says happiness is a choice. I promise I am trying to choose happiness every day, but maybe the words stick in my throat, maybe I’m so used to excelling as her disappointment that I can no longer tell the difference.

I am fifteen years old and I have been living with an unnamed illness for three years. It’s November, 2011, and my sister and I are setting up the Christmas tree. My parents are still together, out for the evening at a concert, desperately hoping this date night will save their marriage. At some point in the evening, my lungs and heart plummet in my chest and my mind repeats one track. I sneak into my parents’ bedroom and find my father’s sleeping pills I had stumbled upon several weeks prior. I read the label with care, noting all the warnings. “Do not operate machinery. Take with food. Do not consume with alcohol.”

Do not consume with alcohol.

Before I know it, I’m standing in front of the liquor cabinet, 26 pills in hand. I look through my options, and settle on the one with the highest alcohol content: tequila. I down the pills, chase them with the tequila, in seconds. The alcohol burns my throat, my body contorts in protest and I shiver as it enters my stomach. For a moment, nothing happens.

I walk upstairs into my bedroom. I pick out the outfit I would like to be found in: I change my shirt. I put one leg into my favorite pair of jeans.
When I wake up, I’m in the hospital. My mouth is black, covered in charcoal, and there are light burn marks on my chest. My mother sits across the room from me. Her thumbnail is in her mouth. She has been crying but when she realizes I am awake, her face hardens. I can hardly hear anything; the world is muted. She draws near and kneels by my bed. Her brown eyes I inherited are cold. “Listen,” she says, “there will be a psychiatrist who comes to see you. You must listen to me. You must lie. You must not tell the truth. If you do, you will be hospitalized and this will ruin your life.”

Ruin my life.

She coaches me, over and over, on the things I have to say. I stand up groggily and stumble towards the bathroom. She follows me, stands behind me, watching as I wash my face. She follows me back into the room, saying, “This was a mistake, an accident, you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“This wasn’t an accident,” I say, wincing as the words make their way from my throat.

“Don’t be stupid. You must tell the psychiatrist, ‘no, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.’”

When the psychiatrist visits me the following day, I say,  “I made a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I answer, “No, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.”

When my 24 hours are up, I am released, and the next day I go to school as if I hadn’t just died two days prior.
This becomes a standard play for us. The following year I make the same attempt. I steal painkillers, head to the liquor cabinet, swallow tequila. Again, I wake up in the hospital and follow the same script. When it happens again, and again, and again, we eventually manage to avoid going to the hospital, and it is my mother’s turn to play doctor. As she wraps gauze around my wrists when I am 17 years old, her lips in a hard line though the rest of her face has softened over the years, I note her expertise: it had always been second-nature to her, healing my physical wounds in ways she could not mend the disorders in my mind.
Somewhere along the way, without much notice or declaration, everything changes. I have moved out and am living an hour’s drive away. We see each other on weekends. Some weekends I skip. I ignore my mother’s messages, her phone calls, and the more I do, the more they increase in frequency. No longer does she look at me with disdain. On this visit, I am 19 years old, sitting on the porch and smoking a cigarette with my mother. Even when we are the same, both smokers, we are different. She smokes thin sticks, I smoke 100s.

She asks, “How are you doing?”

I say, “Better than I have in years.”

I look toward the setting sun as she flinches. I flick my cigarette away. The conversation is strained, painful, and I’m checking my phone at five-minute intervals; waiting for when I can take my train to a home that is no longer with her. She sends me care packages, tells me not to worry so much, kisses my forehead, and I realize this is the most attention I have gotten from her in years. Except now, I think, I no longer need it. I am independent, grown, away from her. I am eating healthy, sleeping well, saving money. For all intents and purposes, I am well and stable.
But I am not cured.
The illness returns.

I find myself coming home more and more. My mother welcomes this. We have a family dinner every Sunday, just the two of us, and I can see the happiness etched into her face. I feel her warmth for the first time in years, and I suddenly begin to loathe when it is time for me to return to my house.

At the end of the year, I move back home and nestle myself into her. She calls me baby, and reminds me that the world is not my enemy, and neither is my mind. I realize, then, that finally: neither is she.

My mother never understood mental illness, no, but she grew to accept me. We had lived in parallel, traveling in the same direction, never once touching. In the years that followed my first splitting of skin, I learned to come to terms with my mind. My darker inclinations left shadowy traces on me that I have filled with gold. My body is a work of art I cherish, each mark a reminder not of my lowest, but of what I have survived. I fell out of love with my own melancholy. In ways unclear to me, my mother did the same.

My mother holds me down. After a few minutes, my breathing evens out and my tears dry themselves on my face.

That night, we sleep together, cocooned around each other and still.

Kara Petrovic is 23 years old and is currently living in Toronto, Ontario. They are a survivor of trauma three times over and are living with a variety of mental health disorders. They have been writing poetry since they were 8 years old. In 2017, they self-published a collection titled beyond rock bottom. Their poetry has been previously published by CONKER magazine. In 2018, they were selected to read for Toronto’s Emerging Writers Series. They are also currently writing a book of fiction with a co-author who lives in Belleville, New Jersey. Philadelphia holds a special place in their heart, as their father and youngest sister live there. They identify as genderfluid and pansexual.

In The Woods

In the Woods

by Curtis Smith

The cut ran fifty yards, a scar halfway up the hillside. The cut scoured by glaciers, or so the boy had been told. He climbed atop a boulder larger than a car, and he imagined the hill and all he knew entombed in ice. The boy’s steps careful as he descended into the cut, the bothering of roots and rocks. The boy tacked an envelope to a fallen oak. The wood riddled with bugs, and the boy ran a finger over the bullet holes and thought about the days his father had brought him here to shoot. The boy retreated, and at thirty yards, he unshouldered his father’s deer rifle. He loaded a single cartridge and secured the bolt. The rifle was heavier than the .22 he’d learned with, but the boy was older and stronger now. He steadied the rifle and placed the scope’s crosshairs on the paper. He didn’t love shooting, but he liked this—the sense of a world stilled, the woods breathing with him, the rocks aware of his beating heart. He rooted himself, an anchoring in his boots, his spine straight, and squeezed the trigger. The kick knocked his shoulder, and he lurched back but he kept his feet. His ears rang, and the echo pulsed between the trees before the quiet rushed back.


Their house stood in a clearing at the hill’s base. The house built by his grandfather, white clapboard, moss on the roof. Generations of settling had robbed the structure of its straight lines. Pictures hung crooked, or appeared to. A dropped ball would roll until it reached a baseboard. A gravel drive slanted down to the two-lane road, and beyond that, a longer slope that ran to the river’s edge. The boy had seen the river cover the road, and although the water had yet to reach their home, the boy knew this was inevitable. The back door slammed, and the old lab that had been his father’s hunting dog followed the boy to the yard’s burn barrel. The boy covered the barrel’s ash with a layer of cardboard and cartons. Junk mail. The bills they’d ignore until the envelopes stamped with red warnings arrived. The grass around the boy and dog silver with frost, and when the dog peed, steam rose.

The boy considered the hillside, his gaze lost amid the naked trees. The hill blocked the morning sun and shielded them from a nor’easter’s winds, but when the storms pushed from the west, the drifts grew deep. On the nights the wind whistled across the frozen river, their crooked house shook, and the boy listened to the roof’s groan and slept little, fearing collapse, a burial beneath wood and snow. He squirted fluid into the barrel then struck a match. He paused, waiting to feel the heat on his fingers before dropping the match. The flames caught, a gasp of oxygen, a pull the boy felt in his lungs. He watched the flames, his hands buried in his pockets. The dog, which had lurched back with the flames, now came sniffing to the boy’s side.

On the road, a black pickup slowed. The truck lost from sight, but the boy heard it pull onto the riverside’s shoulder. The engine killed, the doors and gate slammed. The leafless forest offered little cover to the men who set upon the hillside’s rocky path. The men stocky, black skullcaps and thick beards. They didn’t carry rifles, but they soon would. The boy wondered if they noticed him or the smoke from the barrel or the dog that offered a brief, feeble bark. The boy had seen their truck from the school bus window, its oversized tires, its decals and gun rack. Common courtesy should have directed the men to knock at their door. An asking of permission. A thanks for sharing the land. Perhaps they believed the land beyond the clearing was open despite the weathered No Trespassing signs the boy’s father had posted. Perhaps the men knew the boy’s father was gone, and they believed there was no need to seek consent from a woman and her boy. The men walked on then vanished into the woods. The boy turned to the dog. “Come on, girl.”


The boy and his mother ate long after dark. Thanksgiving leftovers and tomorrow she’d teach him to make soup from the carcass. Her late shifts at the warehouse, the ride that took over an hour on snowy days. She often returned from work dazed. The pace. The warehouse’s acoustics. The hours on her feet. The boy had always loved her, but he’d grown to appreciate her. Her devotion. Her strength and sacrifices. He fed the woodstove, and the dog curled close to the warmth. The boy hoped to shoot a deer in the coming week. They’d stock the freezer. He’d help provide. He was down to ten bullets, but he reasoned if he was patient, if he heard his father’s voice—his urgings to be certain, to breathe deep and melt into the woods’ stillness—he’d be OK. He washed the dishes, the water cold after his mother’s shower. He returned to the living room to find her asleep on the couch. He turned off the TV and covered her with a blanket. Outside, headlights, the cars and trucks navigating the dark and the twists of the river road.


The next morning, the boy woke before dawn. They used to go to church on Sundays, but that was another life. His mother gone, as she would be every weekend for the next month. The chance for overtime, and perhaps they’d even have enough for Christmas presents, although the boy assured her he didn’t need anything. The boy made coffee, savoring its warmth more than its flavor, but firing up the woodstove could wait until he came back. He bundled up. In the mudroom, he grabbed his father’s crowbar. The dog followed, its movements slow in the cold, its black eyes upon him. The boy stood in the open doorway, letting the dog have its choice. Outside, the dark of starlight, the river’s churn.

The boy crossed the clearing and entered the woods. He aimed his flashlight on the path, and the rocks and leaves passed like a stream. The cold in his lungs, and balancing it, the kindling of muscle. He thought of all the times he’d followed his father up this trail. When he dreamed of him, they were often in the woods, his father’s back to him, the boy struggling to keep pace.

The boy waited for the dog to catch up before turning off the path. He petted her, a habit he engaged in more and more, the understanding of her age and a future in which he’d miss her. He looked up. A thousand branches fragmented a sky just beginning to lighten. He’d have the dark for a while, the hill’s western shadows, a sensation that had always made him think of the river’s fish, a submersion, yet in a world so often turned upside down, who was to say whether the river was the darkness or the light above?

The flashlight’s beam passed across the branches’ tangle until it settled on the tree stand. “Stay,” he told the dog. He heard his father, his talks of doing the right thing, and the boy apologized as he grasped the first rung nailed into the wide trunk. In the boy, a balance of footing and grip. Then a deeper balance, the equaling of what was right and what was just.

He grasped the next-to-last rung. The sky above lighter, and he became the fish rising to the bait. He looked down. His dog lost in the darkness. He thought of falling, the breaking of bones. Of dying alone. He wedged the crowbar under the rung below the stand. He jerked, and from the wood, a groan. The rung pulled away in fits. He caught his breath. The sky lighter, the gray of ash. He swung the crowbar, striking the plank’s back. The thuds echoed until the plank dislodged. The dog barked. The boy stepped down a rung and went back to work.

He rose early again the next morning. He sat perched in the tree stand, and in his father’s orange vest, he felt like an exotic bird waiting on the sun. The vest smelled like his father, gun oil and grease.  The perch a half-mile from the other tree stand, and the boy imagined the trespassers, their anger, their thwarted schemes. The boy lifted his chin, and his exhaled breath rose. He found peace in accepting the truth that the world owed him nothing. Below, a rustling, and the boy waited, knowing the darkness would fade.


Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and the WW Norton anthology, New Micros. He has worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a book of creative nonfiction. His latest novel, LOVEPAIN, was released in 2018 by Braddock Avenue Books. 



by Christine C. Heuner

Heuner photo

John used to say that we were millionaires, but now we might lose the house. Tommy, our oldest, and his wife, Ashleigh, plan to buy us out. We told Tommy that he, Ashleigh, Emily, and Troy could just sell their house, pay off our balloon loan (whatever that is), and live with us while we pay him back, but Tommy wants to own it free and clear and have his say-so. He said, “Dad, you haven’t fixed a f—ing thing in this house in over forty years.” Well, that’s true. John denied it up and down, but it is true. Raccoons and squirrels ate into the house through the roof and missing shingles. We had to call West Pest.

Our first plan was to move into Tommy and Ashleigh’s house, but we’re eighty, and there’s no way John and I could climb all those stairs. Truthfully, Tommy and Ashleigh have something to gain from the move, too. Their taxes are almost twelve thousand. (John says ours are eight). And if we moved in with them, they’d have to renovate and that meant even higher taxes. That’s how they explained it to me. It made sense, sort of. I don’t understand why making your house better costs more in taxes.

Also, we live in a good school district. Ashleigh told Tommy that if they buy our house they can take the kids out of private school. More money for vacations, she said.

Sometimes, I get upset. All my friends have a nest egg with eggs still in the nest. Well, soon our nest will belong to Tommy and Ashleigh. I thought we could sell the house before we lost it and move to an apartment or one of those elder places, but John would have none of it. He said, “I’ve lived here almost all my life; I might as well die here.”

Before Tommy decided to sell, John would call him every night after The Wheel, pushing him about the house, asking Tommy what to do next like Tommy was God Almighty. It got so bad John said, “I took care of you. It’s your turn to take care of me.”

I wanted to say, “it’s not right.” Tommy has been there for us, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, having us over for dinner. It’s more than Maryann and Paul have ever done for us.

Tommy owes us nothing.

. . .

Just after Tommy and Ashleigh sell their house, we have to clean out ours. I find pocketbooks and clothes with the tags still on them–Dotty and I used to go shopping every day–and I offer them to Ashleigh and Emily, but they don’t want them. The clothes wouldn’t fit them anyway. I am not a small woman.

So John has to get rid of his stuff, too. He saved and saved and saved things, thinking they’d be worth something someday. We find an antique dealer who wants to penny-pinch. John moves stuff to the “keep” pile when he doesn’t get the price he expects. Ashleigh says to him, “We’ve all made sacrifices,” and what can we do? What’s hardest for John, I think, is just knowing that no one wants his stuff. And some of that stuff like the records and cameras got damaged when the basement flooded; time yellowed his classic comics and all those National Geographic and Playboy magazines. I don’t want to know why he keeps the Playboys; he says they’re worth money, especially the Trump issue. The antique dealer says they’re a dime a dozen. He also says that about the Norman Rockwell plates, which Bradford Exchange said would be worth a mint someday, but Ashleigh checks the internet and says they’re worth forty bucks for a whole set. Well, John, who paid thirty-five a plate, won’t believe it. How is it he always bets on the wrong horse? And here I am, holding the ticket.

John wants to keep games with the pieces missing, the broken bowl he said was his mother’s, and the wreath with the bells. He and Ashleigh have a real fight over that one. I have to call her into the middle room and tell her that he isn’t acting like normal. “He’s not sleeping or eating as much,” I say.

She lets him keep the bells.

Ashleigh goes through the place like we aren’t still living here. About the hutch, she says, “There’s too much sh-t in here” and asks if we need the salt-and-pepper shakers Dotty gave me from her trip to Alaska.

She holds the big glass of sand from our trip to Hawaii for our twentieth, makes a face and asks, “What’s this for?”

I let her get rid of the china they gave us at the Trump Taj, and she lets us keep the Lennox from our wedding. She says it’s special and I like that.

She takes down all of the fake flowers, saying they’re full of dust; she brushes off a little puff as proof.

“I like the flowers,” John says in the same voice he uses to praise the ratty green carpet, broken nutcracker, and cracked slushie maker.

Ashleigh moves onto the bathroom and cleans out the drawers. She throws out one of John’s medications that expired in ‘08 (almost ten years ago); he tells her to give it back. She asks, “Why not just call the doctor for a refill?”

He says, “The doctor’s dead.”

She laughs the kind of laugh that seems like she is crying, and then she goes back to her own house to finish packing.

. . .

While cleaning out the basement, Tommy finds a clacker thingie. He brings it upstairs.

“Dad used to hit me with this piece of sh-t,” he says, whacking it loud.

Well, I really, truly don’t remember that at all. “He never hit you or Maryann or Paul.”

“He didn’t touch Maryann or Paul. He went after me.”

“He never–”

“Wake up, Ma! You know why he stopped hitting me? We were outside doing yardwork and the mower went over a f—ing tree root and stopped. He came at me with a stick and you know what I said? I said, ‘You can come at me now, but I’m getting bigger than you and one day I’m going to hit you back. I’ll knock your f—ing lights out.’”

God’s honest truth: John is a good man and always has been. He was a well-decorated engineer. I don’t know what all he did each day except that it involved circuits; he earned more patents than anyone else in the company. On the dining room wall, we have a huge plaque dedicated to his service. I am surprised that Ashleigh, as she takes everything off the walls, says, “This is an amazing accomplishment. We’ll put it back up after we paint.”

Ashleigh, a lawyer, is quite accomplished herself.

I get rid of huge garbage bags of stuff, but it’s the small treasures that are the hardest to lose. Ashleigh takes off the magnets and grandkids’ art projects from the fridge. She even removes the St. Jude prayer card. He’s the patron saint of lost causes; we need him now more than ever I tell her, and she says, “But it’s water damaged. I’ll get you a new one.”

. . .

As soon as our house becomes theirs in early March, Tommy and Ashleigh rip it apart, even all six of the old trees and bushes that are just about ready to bloom yellow. I think John will burst. He almost loses it when they knock down the kitchen walls and pull up the tile. They find asbestos beneath it, and someone special has to come remove it. Tommy gets angry as if John put the asbestos there himself.

When the walls are stripped to their wooden bones, the work guy finds an old hornet’s nest and one dead squirrel. He lifts it up to show us. It looks like it was flying mid-air, all its charred limbs spread out. The guy points out two thin slivers jutting from its mouth. “It was probably electrocuted,” he says.

The next time John tries to step in and offer some advice, Tommy says, “You begged me to buy this f—ing house for you. Begged. And now I’m here. You don’t see Maryann and Paul helping, do you? They took the money and ran. I’m here now. Stay out of my way.”

Tommy used to be such a good boy. When John’s father died, Tommy was about fifteen; he put money in his grandpa’s suit pocket so he wouldn’t be bankrupt in heaven.

. . .

Tommy thinks we lost all our money because we were “high rollers” at the Taj and we bailed out Maryann and Paul. Well, I’m not sure where all the money went, but we gave Tommy money for his first house. He paid us back, but the point here is that he took from the pot when it was full.

God’s honest truth: I used to love going to the Taj. The purple carpet and glittering chandelier above the escalator welcomed us like royalty. The jingling slot machines sounded like a party, and I’d sit there for hours just watching them roll and roll and roll, spinning colors and promises. We won ten thousand once, the money pouring in my cup like gold from a rainbow. We got to eat at the private dining room on the fiftieth floor where they made the special omelets and served steak and shrimp for dinner. And they gave us gifts too: sweatshirts and coats and wine and liquor and small kitchen appliances and comforter sets and the china Ashleigh took to Goodwill. I got a Michael Kors pocketbook that I found while cleaning out and gave to Ashleigh who was glad to have it. I’m glad I can give her something.

Now we go to the Sands in Bethlehem every Thursday because it’s closer and, of course, the Taj is no more. Sands is not the Taj, but it will do. Ashleigh gets annoyed that we stay up all night playing and come home in the early morning.

“Didn’t you learn your lesson?” she asks. “Plus, you could get in an accident.”

I tell her we go just for fun. There’s no traffic at that hour except for the trucks. They give us the play money on Thursday and we don’t have the money to spend now anyway.

“But we took over almost all your bills,” she says.

I tell her we have the car insurance, the burial plots, just stuff like that. I can tell that John wants to tell her to mind her own business, but he won’t do it. His courage is as brittle as his knees, which the doctor says are bone-on-bone. Plus, he knows what I know: they can throw us out anytime they want.

. . .

Ashleigh is what you call a tricky wicket. Before she moved in, she used to have us over for dinner every Sunday and buy us food from Costcos, but now it’s different. Maybe it’s all too much for her. Maybe she is worn out, but, even so, she is strong. She can lift almost anything even though she’s tiny. She comes home from Costcos with big boxes and holds them on her hip. On her shoulders, she carries bags, big and heavy like saddlebags. I say, “I don’t know how you do it.”

Ashleigh says, “I don’t either” or “Someone has to.”

John thinks she hides food in the basement. They made a kitchenette down there. I haven’t seen it because I can’t get downstairs (the sciatica), but I hear it’s nice. John says, “I heard Ashleigh tell Emily they have oranges and bananas. Why won’t she share?”

He likes an orange and banana every morning. He mostly eats very healthy.

“It’s not our food, John. We didn’t buy it.” Honestly, it’s like he’s a third grader.

“But she used to share it, Peggy.”

“Maybe she’s sick of sharing.”

He’s quiet for awhile and then asks, “Why would that be?”

“Why what?” I’m doing my word-find and don’t want to be bothered.

“Why won’t she share? I like a banana in my cereal.”

“John, for God’s sake, it’s like I said. She’s sick of it. It doesn’t make sense to me. A few oranges, bananas–how much could that cost? But you wouldn’t want your roommate eating your food, would you?”

He considers this. Then he says, “But we’re not roommates. We’re family.”

I tell him I know. I go back to my word-find until The Wheel comes on. I used to have ice cream while I watched The Wheel, but Ashleigh said that ice cream is not good for me. I said I heard that milk can help you lose weight. She laughed, not a mean kind of laugh, but, at the same time, not a good-humor type of laugh. I get the sense that Ashleigh is amused by the expanse of all I do not know.

I don’t tell Ashleigh that Dotty was dieting on her deathbed with not even a hair on her head, so what’s the point? I’ll take my cookies and ice cream, just not when Ashleigh is awake.

. . .

I know Ashleigh takes pills. I don’t know what all for. Maybe for a general kind of illness people get when the business of life gets heavy. She still goes to her Wednesday night meeting where people help each other. She’s been going for years and years. I used to watch the kids for her; she was a nervous wreck in those days, running from here to there, dropping them off at the front door after Emily’s dance class, speeding away, calling us before her return to have the kids ready to go. She’s a bit softer now.

Three times, she went to a place Tommy said was like a hospital, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I went over the house and helped with the laundry, took care of Emily and Troy for a few days until she came home again. God’s honest truth: I liked those days when I could help with something.

I still wonder where Ashleigh went, but I’ve learned it’s best not to ask. People get offended so easy. And, I don’t know, it just seems like everyone has something they want to keep close inside, a self they don’t want anyone else to see. They get scared of someone taking what’s theirs.

. . .

In May, my younger sister Adele’s husband Charles dies; he’s been sick for awhile now. Tommy tells me not to cry. For the first time, I yell. “I am sad, Tommy. Can’t you understand that? I know you don’t want me to cry. I know you don’t want us living here. You wish we were gone.” And when I say it I believe it. I know John and I have more years behind than ahead of us.

He walks away; Ashleigh comes up to me, puts her arm around me and says, “We do want you here.” She whispers it like she doesn’t want Tommy to hear or is scared to say it.

. . .

My sister Adele has been calling me every day since Charles died, punishing me with evidence of how awful life can be and is. She even tells me about her neighbor’s dog who can’t defecate. She says, “They have to send him to the vet, which may cost thousands. It’s just awful.”

And always someone at her church is dying. John, who sometimes listens in on speakerphone, says, “Well, we all have to die at some point.”

She ignores this excellent logic to talk about funeral services; she has nothing to wear but the basic black dress with the bottom seam ripped because she’s worn it so many times.

I tell Ashleigh about Adele’s doom-and-gloom. She asks how I stand it.

“Well, I do my word-finds while she’s talking.”

“Can’t you tell her to talk about something positive?”

“I did once. She said then she’d have nothing to talk about.”

Ashleigh shakes her head. “I don’t know how you do it. You’re too nice.”

“I should be tougher, like you,” I say.

She smiles and shakes her head. “No way. You wouldn’t want that.”

But maybe I do want that.

Tommy comes inside, sweaty from yardwork. He says to Ashleigh, “You could come out and offer me a drink, you know.”

“You could’ve asked,” Ashleigh says. “I can’t read your mind.”

“You’re such a help. I guess I have to get it myself.” He takes a big glass, opens the freezer, and grabs a handful of ice.

Ashleigh looks at me. I shrug and give her a smile. Troy comes into the kitchen and says, “What’s going on, guys?” He’s so sensitive he can smell conflict. He’s the best of all of us, altar-serves every week and prays before every meal: “We fold our hands, we bow our heads, we thank our God for our daily bread. Amen.”

I taught the prayer to my friends at the Women’s Club, and we say it every time we go out to eat. I’m so proud of Troy, but worried, too. You can’t help worrying.

“Nothing’s going on,” Tommy says. “I need help pulling weeds. Get your shoes on.”

Tommy goes downstairs in a huff to wake up Emily. She stays in her room all the time these days. Whenever she comes upstairs, her eyes look heavy, her hair a little dirty. If she smiles, it’s a weak one. Maybe she needs some kind of pills, too.

Last week, I asked Ashleigh if Emily was okay and she said, “We’re taking care of it.”

All I can do is say my prayers for everyone’s good health. I pray all the time, for all of us.

. . .

Church is the only time we’re really together as a family. Like I said, Troy altar-serves. Before the move, Emily used to be in the choir. Ashleigh is a Eucharistic minister so she holds the gold plate or the metal cup with fake jewels and says either “the body of Christ” or “the blood of Christ.” She gives everyone a smile, like she’s offering them a meal at her house that she’s been preparing all day.

Afterwards, we go to the Golden Corner and have coffee and pancakes and bacon and hashbrowns. Ashleigh gets her egg-white omelet with fruit. People must think that we’re a perfect family, and when my friends and people I barely know come up to us and say how wonderful it is that Troy serves every week and ask how John and I are doing, I can almost believe it myself.

They smile at Ashleigh and tell her she did a good job, which she later tells me she doesn’t understand. “I’m not really doing anything up there,” she says.

I tell her it’s important to serve, and that’s what she’s doing. “Someone has to, right?”

She smiles and says that yes, she guesses that’s true.

. . .

One day after church and breakfast on the first hot day of the season, Ashleigh does dishes with her purple gloves on, hunched over the sink. I ask her about something not at all important. She looks at me and I know she has not heard. “You look pale,” I say. “I think the stress is getting to you.” (They were back and forth from the storage locker all week).

She starts crying, wipes her nose with the purple glove, and says it’s more than that. She sits at the table beside me. “Tommy wouldn’t want me to tell you, but I’ll just say it. I had a miscarriage.”

“Oh, wow,” I say. “Dear God.”

I want to give her a tissue, but there’s nothing on the table, not even a napkin. I never have what I need when I need it.

I stand up as best as I can, hold onto the table, and put my free arm around her. She pulls away and rubs her eyes, the gloves still on her hands. They are big gloves and make her look like she’s ready to handle something hazardous.

“He blames me,” she says, curling up her legs on the chair.

That’s Tommy for you. He always blamed us for how he turned out; he said we held him back by convincing him not to join the Marines like my brother. Once I asked him, “How long are you going to blame us, Tommy?” He didn’t have an answer to that. There are always more questions than answers.

I sit back down next to Ashleigh and tell her about both of my misses. The doctor said it might be because of the Factor Five and that I should tell my kids about it because it might be part of them, too, and that’s the scariest thought: something in me I didn’t even know was there striking out to curse them. But my kids didn’t want to hear it.

“Did Dad blame you for them?” Ashleigh asks. She’s probably in her late thirties by now, but she looks like a child, her brown eyes deep and sad, her nose a little wet from where she wiped it with the glove.

“Thank God, no.” What else can I say?

She cries again and it doesn’t seem she’ll be able to stop.

Then there’s Tommy at the kitchen entrance. He’s taller than John, which makes him 6’5.” He fills the space around him. Now that he has so little hair, his eyes seem big and, when he isn’t smiling, almost mean. He isn’t smiling now, but he doesn’t look angry either.

He comes up to us, puts his arm on my shoulder. “Hey, Ma,” he says and then turns to Ashleigh. He puts his arm around her.

She shrugs him off and calls him an “a–hole.” She says, “You know what I gave up to come here? I loved that house. Our bedroom overlooked that magnolia. We had room to spare. Now, I live in a f—ing shoebox.”

“That tree was a mess, Ash. You know it. All those blooms turned brown like turds and you’d freak out whenever we tracked them in the house. Don’t shine it up–”

“And now this.” She puts her hands over her stomach. “You have the nerve to blame me.”

She swipes at the table. The plastic napkin holder stuffed with napkins and the salt shaker take flight across the room. The salt shaker cracks open like an egg.

She gets up and heads for the door, but Tommy blocks her. He puts his arms around her, bends down and kisses her hair.

“I’m sorry, Ash,” he says. “We can try again.”

She pushes him. “I don’t want to try again. I need a nap.”

Tommy lets her go. He and I look at each other for a moment. I want to ask him how it got this way. I thought Ashleigh wanted to be here, wanted the good schools and lower taxes. She told me she buried St. Joseph upside down in her front yard to help them sell the house.

Tommy leaves and I have to clean up the salt shaker myself. I throw some over my left shoulder, for good luck.

. . .

Ashleigh says luck runs out, and she’s right. Just before August, John gets sick, first just a cold, then bronchitis, then pneumonia. He wouldn’t let me or Tommy take him to the hospital, but then he got so sick he couldn’t stand up straight and Tommy said he was through with him being “f—ing stubborn” and drove him himself.

It’s hard to see John with all the tubes attached to his hand and the bruises on his arms from the blood thinners. For the first time maybe, I understand that I might have to live life without him. With the exception of Margie, all my friends’ and sisters’ husbands are dead.

The night before they release John from the hospital, I rest in the chair beside his bed and watch him sleep with this mouth open, snoring slightly, his hair in a messy froth against the mattress. I remember something: after my first miss, not long after I had Maryann, he told me I should’ve rested more. He brought home all kinds of fruits, mostly oranges, and said I needed more vitamins. “You’re not healthy enough,” he said. Well, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for days and couldn’t really tell him why.

And I can hear that clacker. Tommy crying.

Not long after we arrive home, we’re sitting at the kitchen table and Ashleigh keeps asking John if he needs anything. He finally asks for an orange. She goes downstairs and comes up with one. She stands at the sink, peeling it.

. . .

I get sick, too, not as bad, but enough to need the antibiotics. We can’t get out to church. After mass, Ashleigh brings communion to our room, which is so cluttered with stuff she can barely get inside. (Tommy says our room smells; he sprays it every day with Lysol and says we need to get rid of more “sh-t.”)

John tries to sit up in bed, but cannot manage it. Ashleigh holds out her hand, but he won’t take it. I know what he’s thinking: how does it look, this little pint pulling him up?

“I’m embarrassed,” he says.

“Don’t be,” she says. “We all need help. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he says with phlegm in his throat.

She pulls him to half-sitting, takes a wafer out of the little brass box, and places it on his tongue.

She comes to my side of the bed and holds up the wafer like it’s everything I could want in the world and sets it in my palm. “The body of Christ,” she says.

I cross myself, say “Amen,” take the wafer and put it on my tongue. As it becomes a sticky clump on the roof of my mouth, I think about bodies melting away through sickness and sadness. The priests say: the body dies, the spirit remains. Ashleigh once told me I have a strong spirit, stronger than she’d ever have. Well, I’m not sure I believe her, but it was nice to hear from this tough little lady.

My older sister Helen says to count your blessings and also that you never can tell where the blessings will come from. Ages ago, her little Tessy, not yet two years-old, took a seizure and passed on. Yet Helen never stopped believing in God, so I believe through her. If Ashleigh says my spirit is strong, well, maybe she can believe in God through me.

Ashleigh asks if we need anything. John asks her to turn on the TV. She clicks it on and the hazy light makes the room seem even smaller with all the boxes stacked in every corner; they block the closet and dresser. We are old, so old, and this stuff will live longer than we will. Maybe the room is a fire hazard like Tommy says, but God’s honest truth, there’s no sense in worrying about it.

. . .

The next morning, I make it out to the kitchen to get my coffee and see a St. Jude prayer card on one of the table’s placemats, trapped in shiny plastic, protected from harm.

Well, that’s Ashleigh for you.

Christine Heuner has been teaching high school English for over 18 years. She lives with her family of six in New Jersey. Other than reading and writing, she enjoys spending time with family and exercising before dawn. Her work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is forthcoming in Scribble. She self-published Confessions, a book of short stories.








by Louise S. Bierig


I moved to Oil City to get away from Sylvia.

But apparently, she found my address, because on December 28, 1928, she sent me a New Year’s card on her exquisite Japanese style stationery. The front of the card showed a sketch of a boat, which reminded me of a Japanese character. This type of art was all the rage in the salons Sylvia attended.

Inside I expected to find a haiku she had written, but instead she wrote a brief note saying how excited she was to have obtained my address. She encouraged me to write her back and promised more unsolicited letters soon.

I lay the card down on my rented table and let my breath out slowly.

No, Sylvia, no. Please leave me alone in Oil City where I can start my life over.


But Sylvia would not leave me alone. Ostensibly, I went to Oil City to take an electrical course. When the lakes froze in winter, the freighters stopped running, so it was a good time to study and learn some new skills. I wanted to advance from an oiler to an engineer, and an electrical license would help with that.

But Sylvia did not care about my career advancement. She wanted to domesticate me, keep me inside all winter, locked in her embrace. She wanted to feed me salt-glazed soft pretzels, and apricot tortes with thick crusts, and German butter cookies, until I gained weight. For despite her fascination with Japanese art, Sylvia was second generation German, a curvy woman, who loved nothing more than baking with flour and butter. At the very least, she wanted me to take my electrical course in Erie.

“That I cannot do,” I told her. “I must go south.”

I did not elaborate on how far south I needed to go. Let her think I went to Louisiana, or maybe, to Antarctica.

But now Sylvia had found me. And she would know I had gone sixty miles south to Pennsylvania’s oil capital. Surely, my sister had provided Sylvia with my address. And now she would be writing me all winter, trying to get me back to her apartment where she wanted to teach me how to put the toilet lid down without slamming and wash the dishes without banging.

“This is a house, Nathan,” Sylvia would admonish. “It is not an industrial environment. It is not the William Mather.”

Now when I worked on the SS William Mather—from late April through November—we would get a weekend’s leave in Erie once a fortnight, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Sylvia then. On a weekend, in spring, summer, or fall, with the windows open and the breeze flowing through, Sylvia was quite tolerable. Enjoyable even.

But not in the winter. I learned that lesson last year and decamped in January to my sister’s, but that was no good because Sylvia would come to visit me there      and whine and pester and cajole to get me back over to her apartment.

So Oil City it was. The electrical course was all right. I’ve had plenty of time to explore the city where oil was first discovered, trek around the ghost town of Pithole, and make the rounds of the five bars. Many of these watering holes were popular with the other fellows from my course, so I often bump into familiar faces.

Last night when I returned home from a tour of The Moose and Bob’s Oil Gauge, I took out Sylvia’s New Year’s card again. Her stationary was very elegant, some kind of Japanese influence, as I’ve said before. The cover I now realized was an origami sailboat. Inside, she expressed her delight at finding my address and her intention to write more soon.


It was now a day into the New Year.

When I woke up, it was morning, pale light coming in the white curtains. I was lying on the davenport, Sylvia’s card on the floor. I picked it up and placed it on the buffet. My course wasn’t back in session until after the holidays, so I walked down the flight of stairs to the mailbox. From it, I pulled a letter from Sylvia.

                         Dearest Nathan,

             I don’t know how to begin this letter. I am so glad to have found you, while simultaneously completely confused by you. At times I think you are a bad man. Sometimes I even say to myself, he is a bad, little, stiff man. I think of that night and how you kept shouting. But other times I remember all the good in you. I remember the sweetness in your voice, the deep look in your eyes when—

             Sorry, Nate, I will try this letter again another day when my thoughts are clearer.

           With love,


 By the time I finished reading the letter, my hands were shaking. This was another thing that infuriated me about Sylvia. She had studied Jungian analysis in Paris and everything that happened had to be analyzed and reanalyzed and then triple analyzed. I never knew what she meant.

A bad, little, stiff man? I had never seen myself that way. And if I was that awful, why was she writing to me?

I did recall shouting at her, particularly last winter, when we were trapped in her rooms, two hundred inches of snow having fallen over the course of the winter. I knew that shouting made me a bad man. But at least I was honest with her. I didn’t keep my aggravation bottled up the way my father did, only to snap at my mother or my brothers or me with some sideways comment that no one understood. People always knew where they stood with me, and when I was angry, I made no bones about pretending otherwise.

Then I was struck with terror that Sylvia would find a way, between snowstorms, to come visit me. I could imagine returning home from my electrical course and finding my landlady had let my “wife” into my apartment. Sylvia would smile and say, “You didn’t come to me, so I came to you.” Then she would berate me for leaving her alone for Christmas and failing to celebrate the holiday with my sister.

Or worse, what if she staked out one of the bars, and I ran into her at The Sinkhole?

I had never forgotten that awful weekend when she’d turned up in Cleveland because I’d missed our rendez-vous in Erie the weekend before. There had been trouble with the prop, or something, but Sylvia had taken it personally. She’d shown up at the ship, pretending to be my wife. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that wives didn’t show up at ships and follow sailors around to bars. Wives waited at home. Instead, I’d booked her a hotel room with a view of Lake Erie and took her out for a sirloin steak.

Alone in my room in Oil City, I dropped to the floor for one hundred push-ups, followed by one hundred sit-ups. I felt better when I continued my William Mather routine as much as possible ashore. In Sylvia’s apartment, I had hung buckets filled with weights from a hook I installed in the ceiling, and lifted them all winter to keep up my strength.

Once I finished my exercise routine, I felt better. I crumpled Sylvia’s letter up into a ball and aimed it towards the waste basket. I missed. Then I regretted having crumpled the bizarre post and decided it would have been better as a paper airplane. I walked across the room to the waste bin and grabbed the ball and began smoothing the paper out. I lay it under the bulk of my electrical guide, hoping the heavy tome would smooth out some of the wrinkles. If that didn’t work, I would iron it. I had once dropped a school paper in a bucket of water, and my mother had helped me air dry the paper and taught me to iron it without scorching the paper.

Once Sylvia’s letter was creaseless, it would make a perfect paper airplane, and I would sail it right out the window of my apartment and let it fly over the snow blanketing Oil City.

Next winter I would have to go further south.       

Louise Bierig grew up in the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania and now lives in the Southeastern corner. In both corners, she has enjoyed writing, sailing, and growing native fruits and vegetables. Currently, she leads the Lansdowne Writers’ Workshop, grows a small garden, and, along with her husband, raises two sons. She has published her work in Philadelphia Stories, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Swarthmorean, Soul Source newsletter, and wrote a newsletter column titled The View from Lupine Valley for the Lansdowne Farmer’s Market newsletter.

Currently, she is at work on a novella set in a Californian mining town.