Lindsay Chudzik, “Little Fish” (essay)

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Little Fish

I

I never choose good men. I never ate enough bread while drinking. I never understood how to make my student loan money stretch or how to balance my checkbook. I spent my last $7.50 on a signed first edition of Impossible Vacation, Spalding Gray’s only novel wherein his protagonist searches for just a moment of pleasure, incapable of finding it because happiness is always just a blip no matter where one lives or where one travels. I talked down the bookstore clerk from $13.75.

The former owner of the book’s name was neatly penciled on its inside cover—Jenny Withey. Jenny had underlined many passages, then erased most of her markings, charcoal smudged, indicative of a woman who couldn’t tell where to look or what she should see but still tried. I traced my fingers along her signature as I entered Gristedes.

I grazed the fruit aisle, lining my pockets with wine-colored grapes to eat while traipsing through the market, buying nothing. I knew I would dump corn into a bowl at home for dinner, the vegetables still swimming in the water from their can, goods that arrived in a recent care package from home. I knew I would walk the forty-six blocks to Marymount for my evening playwrighting workshop, bypassing entrances for the 4, 5, and 6 because subways cost money and cabs were unthinkable. Still, I felt like ignoring Spalding Gray would have cost more.

II

That same night I dreamt of other people sleeping. A teenager napping on a bus as it barreled down Lexington, his body origamied with his backpack. A housewife slouched in a beach chair, waves filling in the holes she’d dug in the sand, proving water has no memory. Whenever I saw these strangers’ seamless escapes from life when I closed my eyes, someone I knew had died.

When I woke up I scoured the obituaries and news from Delaware, the Internet an isosceles cage anchoring me to the people I knew when I still had a specific location to call home. I couldn’t keep anything in its place no matter how I tried with moving. Sure enough, one of my closest friends from high school had died in an automobile accident, possibly drinking-related. She was on her way to another party because the first wasn’t enough.

Before going home for the funeral, I had to sit through a dress rehearsal of The Pajama Game at the theater where I interned. The world where saccharine-sweet music could settle a labor dispute and result in love made me sick. I read from my Spalding Gray book in between dance routines.

In the weeks that followed the funeral, there was an initial outpouring of kindness from acquaintances and strangers alike. My professor bought me a drink at BBQ’s, a garish barbeque joint that served oversized margaritas to minors. The clerk at the bodega who was always changing names on the corner of my block took one look at my puffy eyes and gave me a free lottery ticket. My landlord stopped yelling at her daughter in unintelligible Greek from their shared apartment on the first floor. Ultimately, everything returned to normal and everyone forgot.

III

At 22, I was certain I saw Spalding Gray at an airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, haggling with a TSA employee. “We need to see identification.” The worker wasn’t even in uniform, which made the request seem even more insulting. The man who was or wasn’t Spalding Gray rifled through his carry-on luggage. The men behind him in line grumbled.

“There goes our chance of getting beers before boarding.”

“Does that man think he’s so fucking special that he can hold up the rest of us just because he’s old?”

“Men like him shouldn’t leave their houses.”

Men like Spalding Gray? I could vouch for this man, and I wondered why no one else could. But I said nothing, and the man who was or wasn’t Spalding Gray said nothing. The security guard escorted him away to inspect his shoes.

I thought of Zelda Fitzgerald, how she once threw herself down a flight of stairs at a party because her husband was flirting with another woman. Zelda had been called a “woman before her time,” a nice way of saying no one wanted to take the time to understand her and instead opted for the shorthand, calling her crazy. That hadn’t stopped her from demanding attention, but now, nearly a century later, we’ve regressed further. So few of us are of our time, but even more so, so few of us even ask to be acknowledged.

IV

The next time I encountered Spalding Gray was in an airport two years later. It was just after my last night in New Orleans and, though as on most vacations I tried to remember the glimmering moments in between—the jazz, the laughs, the beignets and hurricanes—I felt like it would be impossible to forget the leaving, the hangover I carried through baggage at Louie Armstrong.

I dozed off while waiting for my flight and dreamt of someone else sleeping—a child in his father’s arms during the seventh-inning stretch. When I awoke, I scanned the obituaries and news stories on my iPhone from all of the places I had tried to call home, but I came up with nothing. I considered that dreaming of sleep might have come to mean nothing more than dreaming of sleep, indicative that my day-to-day had left me feeling overextended.

Then I saw it: a small blurb in the Times suggesting Spalding Gray’s body had been recovered from the East River. He had been missing for two months, and there was speculation that he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. Spalding’s widow told the press he saw Big Fish the night he disappeared, a movie that closes with the sentiment, A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal. She thought the film gave him an excuse to die.

I needed to scream. I wanted to shake the businessman to my right, pacing while shouting into his cell, frantic about someone’s stocks that weren’t his own. I wanted to talk to the woman to my right who was breastfeeding her child. The circles under her eyes were deep, grayish-blue half-moons, and she’d given up trying to be discreet.

Instead, I veered toward the airport bookstore. Even though all of Spalding Gray’s work was housed together on one of my bookshelves back home, I scoured those shelves, desperate to find something tangible. I came out empty-handed.

 


Lindsay A. Chudzik received her MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in FLAR, Haunted Waters Press, and Pembroke Magazine, among others. Her short story “Check Yes If You Like Us” was a finalist for the 2015 Dogwood Prize, her short story “Pinning” was a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her creative nonfiction has been anthologized. Currently, she is editor in chief of Feels Blind Literary, an assistant professor of writing at VCU, and a recent recipient of a Gulf-South Summit Award for excellence in community engaged teaching. She spends her free time brainstorming creative ways to work Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna into her store and syllabi.


 

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Simon Perchik, “*”

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*

What’s left are its pilings
pinned down the way the pier
once smelled from marble

though the sails could tell
one wave from another
were content as fingertips

and shoreline, here, here, stretched
without holding your hand in water
–what juts from this hillside

has outlasted its ships, ropes, tears
stacked in crates for a better night
and you are now the horizon

slowly dragging the sea back
for more darkness, its mouth open
hoarse from lips singled out

covered with mud, with a moonlight
filled with wood close by
kept wet for you and leaving.

 


Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems, published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities,” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.


 

Michael Brockley, “Aftermath”

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Aftermath

You ride a red horse through the American apocalypse, remembering days of purple rain and Chinese oranges. Along your trek, paintings of la Santa Muerte deface the billboard ads for roadkill toupees. The wall always rises in the south—rage evolving on its pocked surface. Your saddlebags are packed with relics from a saint’s bier. The DNA of bees. Books with red, white or blue in their titles. Without recourse to your obsolete maps, the horse discovers the ghost towns where you camp overnight. Around a creosote fire, you reread Blue Highways and wrestle against sleep by playing mumblety-peg with river rats. Their teeth against your knife. It’s been months since you’ve seen color, years since you’ve gathered a bouquet. In the morning you shoot at the Wanted posters shellacked on the wall. You’ve been riding the roan along this trail like a prison sentence. Drinking gray water and eating crickets. Bone grates on bone in your hips and knees. You mark a page in the book of roads with a hair plucked from the roan’s mane. You’ve quit counting the years since women last appeared in your dreams.

 


Michael Brockley has had poems appear in Atticus Review, Gargoyle, Third Wednesday, and Flying Island.


 

Jennifer Poteet, “Shell”

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Shell

I had prepared for this to happen,
but not tonight. Not like this.
Two men came to the apartment
in dark suits.
One pushed the gurney, the other, gloved,
unzipped a black shroud.
We didn’t speak. I left them alone to work.

My mother had climbed over
the raised rails of her hospice bed,
and fell to the floor.
Her aide heard the thud, dialed 911, called me.
I was blocked from the bedroom
as EMTs compressed my mother’s chest,
but she was already gone.

There was a bump as the men hoisted their cargo
past the room divider, out the front door.
The lower plate of my mother’s dentures
was left behind on the carpet, a half-smile.
I reached down.
Still warm. I raised the pink horseshoe
and cupped it, as I would a seashell, to my ear.

 


Jennifer Poteet lives in Montclair, NJ, and works in Manhattan as a fundraiser for public television. Work has been published recently in Whale Road Review and The Cortland Review. Jennifer’s first chapbook, Sleepwalking Home, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.


 

Christopher T. Keaveney, “Thoughts and Prayers”

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Thoughts and Prayers

The Hello Kitty piñata
was doomed from the get-go,
ditto the sheet cake
we left at the door of US GUNS
the store that anchors the local strip mall.
We decided too late that bleeding hearts
scrawled inside our bodies
outlined in chalk on the sidewalk
might be overkill.
Five more shootings this week,
one mass and four regulars,
staccato to parse
the familiar rhythms of summer:
beach balls and barbecues,
Thai takeout
and tired TV jingles as therapy.
Special orders don’t upset us.

I love you this much,
the child’s arms spread wide enough
to accommodate the bouquet of lilies
and forget-me-nots
for the brother
who caught a stray bullet
while playing in the local park
toward dusk–
drug deal gone bad in a nearby parking lot,
playing zombie apocalypse star wars
with classmates.
found wedged in the highest point
on the monkey bars
sporting the Darth Vader mask,
not a whimper.
Like a good neighbor.

What if “IMAGINE” spelled
out in Ferrari red
in the frosting
misses the mark?
Maybe a poster with photos
and names of each
of this week’s casualties?
Perhaps a bottle of whiskey
and enough shot glasses
to toast individually each of the lives lost,
the 1970s sitcom
theme songs looped
throughout the day from speakers
in front of the store as BGM?
You deserve a break today.

The brick and mortar of Ecclesiastes,
a dereliction of duties
and a the silent linking of arms
on a warm Sunday afternoon
on the steps of the Capital
waiting on a sweeter chariot.
Surely the familiarity of rituals
applies even here,
reading names
beneath the Schopenhauer flex
of stained glass,
our involuntary flinch
at the pop pop pop of fireworks that marks
another quinceañera celebration in the park.
Have it your way.

As soon as he opens the door we notice
right away his arm in a sling,
the cast all the way up
to the elbow,
the constitution wedged
into the holster above the Glock.
He laughs about the
challenges of cutting the cake
with his cold, dead hands
and gives us a thumbs up
and a wink
before propping Hello Kitty
in the window
as the shop’s maneki-neko
beneath the Group Therapy bull’s eye poster,
a familiar face
to welcome the elect.
I’d like to teach the world to sing.

 


Christopher T. Keaveney teaches Japanese language and East Asian culture at Linfield College in Oregon and is the author of three books about Sino-Japanese cultural relations. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Minetta Review, and elsewhere, and he is the author of the collection Your Eureka Not Mined (Broadstone Books, 2017).