Nicole Santalucia


for Lesley, Patty, Kathy, and Eileen


I woke up in a zoo feeding penguins
that looked like grandmothers I would’ve
knocked down to get a cigarette,
but I quit smoking two years ago
when I came face to face with
a skunk in my backyard. Monday
is garbage night—this I know.
There was a time when I didn’t
know I had a drug problem then
there was a time when I did. The knowing
trapped and released me. We fenced
in the backyard last spring to keep out
little critters, and now I have land sickness.
Anne gave us Jack-in-the-pulpits that have been
in the family for generations. I never thought
this scarlet, orange fruit would blossom again and
again and again—that I’d take responsibility without
taking blame. Taking has nothing to do with Mondays
and Tuesdays. I take the weekend to grow tomatoes.
I always take more and the devil’s ear listens
to my spiritual disease. So does Mr. and Mrs. Brown,
and Mrs. Jones down the street wants to put the house
in her name. If the loan doesn’t go through, she might
get drunk and I might get struck by lightning.
I thought it was just me, but it’s also the landscape.
Here at the river of denial, I refuse the weather,
and people who drank like me have been hiding
in the bushes this whole time. The people who
drank like Kathy just sent her a nice check from
a bar she invested in years ago. And my inner
Eileen says we won’t get struck drunk. She hated
zoos and every penguin in town knew it. She
also had pulmonary emphysema and was rescued
by inhaling and exhaling. She taught us not to think
about thinking and how to die without dying.
We are at war with the skunks. This inner protest
and hot head of cauliflower are part of the ritual.
I place my palm on the source of heat and prepare
to listen with my whole body. I begin with tubers
and work my way to the leafy greens then open
myself up to the rage and wild onions climbing
over the fence to choke out the tree-of-heaven.


8 Facts about the Atlantic Horseshoe Crab

Bex Hainsworth


1.) They are not actually crabs, but faux-crustaceans,

aquatic scorpions; arthropods with arachnid-kin.


2.) Triassic reverberations, they are their own ancestors,

unchanged fossils, 230 million years in the making.


3.) Called Limulus Polyphemus, after the Odyssean cyclops,

but unborn embryos have nine eyes and a sense of irony.


4.) Liminal in existence, they live in the gaps between land

and sea: the brackish, the shallows, the world’s edges.


5.) Their distinctive carapace – armour, disguise, barnacled

island – is regularly moulted, left behind like pottery.


6.) Females are larger than males, often scarred from mating,

when suitors cling to the rafts of their bodies for months.


7.) Each spring, they are spades, digging nests in the same sand

where they were spawned; 64,000 eggs shine like blue pearls.


8.) Their blood is used in medical research. We claim catch and

release, hands slick, harvesting the sea in search of immortality.




James Davis May


We were about to die, but it seemed so funny:
the sudden storm cloud unfolding above us
as if we were a pair of cartoon characters
having a bad day. We could see the beach,
our empty chairs, and the other couples
holding drinks and each other’s hands,
while for each stroke shoreward, the sea
(the wind or the waves or both?) pushed
our rented kayak two feet seaward. You knew
my hockey-shattered shoulder weakened us
in one direction. I knew that pain
was better than drowning. Ten years later
you ask what I’d say to the couple we were
in those first years of debt, lost jobs,
and the baby we almost lost but didn’t.
I tell you I’d want to say, “Calm down, kids,
don’t worry so much.” But I take that back.
Think of the storm and how our fear made us
paddle harder and taught us to do it together.



My Mother’s Museum

Mark Brazaitis


When my mother died in May of 2022, at age seventy-nine, she left me and my sister her house in Washington, D.C. I visit the house frequently, ostensibly to clean it in preparation to put it on the market. Less a dutiful housekeeper and more a curious visitor to a museum, however, I never fill more than a few of the 13-gallon trash bags I carry with me. I am reluctant to disturb anything when every room is a wing of a compelling exhibition, and each object in it—photo, T-shirt, letter, knickknack, receipt—is a revealing relic of my mother’s life.


The manner in which I tour her house determines the way I read her story. It’s like inhabiting a work of experimental prose: the beginning and end are arbitrary; characters appear unexpectedly; there are frequent and abrupt jumps in time; and the narrative is nonlinear, digressive, and sometimes redundant. Occasionally my mother recedes from the tale, and I move to the forefront: a ten-year-old, a high-schooler, a college graduate, and—in a bathroom mirror—a middle-aged man still coming to terms with his past.


The following is one of my visits to my mother’s museum, her story—and mine—conjured by four objects:


A mini cassette tape labeled “Step People.” (Exhibit location: top drawer of my mother’s dresser.)


I made the tape as a humorous gift for my mother in the summer of 1989, when I was twenty-four, combining audio from my father’s second wedding and my droll (or such was my intention) commentary on the ceremony. For good measure, I mixed in snippets of pop songs, including the Kinks’ “Destroyer,” over which I shouted lyrics I invented. I named the tape “Step People” after my four new relatives—my stepmother and three stepbrothers—whom I equated with figures from a horror film, even if my oldest stepbrother was my good friend.


For my mother, my father’s remarriage was a double injury. It represented a final betrayal by her former best friend, my father’s soon-to-be wife, who’d encouraged her to divorce my father, then, a few months later, started dating him. And it was the culmination of my father’s cruelty toward her, which had begun years earlier, when we lived in East Cleveland, Ohio, and he had an affair with another of her close friends.


Periodically after the divorce, in the spring of 1982, my mother sobbed in her bed late at night. Invariably, I pulled myself from sleep and sat by her as she revisited my father’s transgressions. To comfort her, I mocked my father and his lovers past and present. My goal was to make my mother laugh. If she was laughing, she wasn’t crying.


My mother’s tears ceased before morning. Perhaps she didn’t think she could afford to let her sadness slow her down. She was the tireless, inventive, and accomplished editor and publisher of Hammer and Dolly, the monthly magazine of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association. She’d turned Hammer and Dolly from a 16-page provincial digest into an 80-page glossy with an international readership. The magazine featured news from around the world on everything from computerized estimating systems to new paint technologies to controversies over aftermarket parts, as well as profiles of people in the industry and lighthearted features, including a cover story on the best “whoopee” cars.


Nor did my mother cry when one of her boyfriends was on the scene. Did she not feel the urge to cry, or did she refrain because she was worried that the man she was with would feel diminished by the feelings—negative but powerful—she still had for my father? I never asked her.


My mother would marry my stepfather a few months after my father’s wedding, but this didn’t mean he wouldn’t suddenly exit her life, as he’d done before, when they’d been dating. Meanwhile, I’d graduated from college, would soon leave for Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and wouldn’t be around to soothe and amuse her. I decided she needed something to comfort her in my absence. Whenever she felt blue, she could listen to “Step People.”


Before my father’s wedding, I placed my microcassette recorder in my suitcoat pocket. Immediately before the ceremony, I pushed “record.” I was my father’s best man. Standing with him at the altar, I might as well have been wearing a wiretap. I alternately felt like a righteous informer and a stool pigeon.


Clearly eager to appear learned and worldly in front of what he must have judged a sophisticated crowd—both my father and his bride were reporters; their wedding guests included well-known politicians and journalists—the pastor interspersed Bible verses with wisdom from other religious traditions. And he couldn’t resist sprinkling his service with lines from Kahlil Gibran, the author of The Prophet, whose overquoted words had something in common with greeting card rhymes.


At one point in the service, my stepmother’s middle son read a poem he’d written, its final couplet rhyming “Tom,” my father’s name, and “Mom.” My sister and I, trained by our maternal grandmother to be literary snobs, had to think sad thoughts so we didn’t howl with laughter.


At the reception afterward, the husband of a local news anchor protested that his wife—who was clearly used to getting whatever she wanted immediately—had yet to receive a piece of wedding cake. The cake had been cut only a couple of minutes before, but never mind—her sweet tooth needed instant gratification. He chanted his demand: “My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake!”


I captured all of it on tape and spliced highlights, or lowlights, together with music and my oh-so-funny (or snarky or sophomoric) observations.


I wonder how often my mother listened to “Step People.” Because I found the tape in an open box in her dresser’s top drawer, I suspect that she must at least have looked at it long after my father’s wedding and probably long after his death, of kidney cancer, in 2005.


From time to time, I’ve felt guilty about mocking my father’s wedding. I would have been ashamed had he ever listened to “Step People.” But staring at the cassette, titled with my long-ago handwriting, I imagine a sorrowful night in which my mother, alone in her dark bedroom, clicked “play” on her mini tape recorder. If her tears gave way to laughter, I don’t have any regrets.


A photograph of my sister and her then-boyfriend, when they were in college, sitting on an armchair in my mother’s living room. (Exhibit location: a drawer in the vanity of my sister’s old bedroom.)


My sister’s boyfriend broke up with her on Christmas Day, 1992, but only after he’d celebrated the holiday at our house and loaded the trunk of his car with the gifts my family had given him. An hour after her boyfriend drove off to his home in New Jersey, my sister shared her sad news with our father, who was living down the block with his second wife. My father grieved—not for my sister’s loss but for the money he’d spent on the guitar tuner he’d given her now ex. “My God,” he said, “he might as well have robbed me at gunpoint. It would have been more decent.”


What strikes me about the photo, however, aren’t its two subjects but what is visible at its edges. Under the lamp on the table beside the armchair is a collage picture frame with photographs of my silver-haired, tanned stepfather. Above the lamp is another collage of photos, this one featuring a baby, my stepfather’s first grandchild. On the mantel above the fireplace is a 10-by-13 high-school photo of my stepfather’s younger son. Behind my sister’s head, in an open cabinet, is the television my stepfather watched endlessly as he smoked one cigarette after another, the fumes sucked into an electric air filter my mother insisted he use.


I’d forgotten how much of the house, which became my mother’s after she and my father divorced, my stepfather had claimed. Now I remember returning to it at various times after I’d left home for college, for the Peace Corps, and for graduate school, and finding it each time a degree stranger than the house I’d felt most comfortable in, which wasn’t when my father lived in it but in the months immediately after he (and his temper and his obsession with tidiness) left.


My stepfather, who was then my mother’s boyfriend, moved into my mother’s house at the beginning of my junior year in high school. In the aftermath of a divorce, it isn’t uncommon for children to live with the stranger who is their parent’s new partner. By extension, we children of divorce live with the stranger’s family and friends, their habits and hobbies, the foods they like, the entertainment they entertain themselves with. Do most of us grow comfortable with the arrangement? I never did. The longer my stepfather lived in my mother’s house, the more it felt to me like a bed-and-breakfast whose walls, weirdly, held a few photos of me, my sister, and my mother.


After twenty years, my mother divorced my stepfather. But even now, more than a decade after he last stepped foot in the house, I find traces of him: golf tees engraved with the name of the insurance company he worked for; videotapes of his favorite comedians; a pennant from a professional football team he liked. Although I call my stepfather every Christmas and faithfully send birthday cards, I’ve never stopped thinking of him as an interloper. After my father’s exile, I was, briefly, the king of my mother’s house. I’d thought this was the way it was supposed to be; I was next in the line of succession, after all.


If I have more perspective on my Oedipal ambitions now, I am no less interested in reclaiming my territory. Anything of my stepfather’s I come across goes straight into one of the trash bags I’m carrying. Discarded item by discarded item, I begin to restore my mother’s house to the place I felt most comfortable, the place I believed was most mine, the place I would most call home.


A box full of empty boxes. (Exhibit location: the attic.)


It’s a metaphor, I decide. But of what?


Do the dozen small boxes, each large enough to hold a necklace or a tie, represent the gifts we never gave each other?

What gift would I have wanted from my parents?


When I was growing up, they gave me model airplane kits, books about dinosaurs, a baseball glove. Later: a Bruce Springsteen album, a black sweater, War and Peace in the original Russian. (A lazy Russophile, I read no more than a page.) But if I could go back in time, to when I was ten or twelve or fifteen, and ask my parents for a gift, I’d wish for something immaterial.


It wouldn’t be that they remain married, which would be to wish for both the impossible and the undesirable. They’d had two wedding ceremonies, one Catholic, one Protestant, in order to appease their Montague-and-Capulet parents, who’d deigned to attend only the ceremony they preferred. A more mature and compatible couple might have overcome this inauspicious start, but my parents’ marriage soon became strained, contentious, and, most damaging, adulterous. It needed to end.


If I wished that my parents had never married, I wouldn’t be wishing myself out of existence. I’d been conceived two months before they exchanged vows. But as resilient and tough as my mother could be, she would have found single-parenting challenging, especially because my father would have been, at best, a reluctant contributor to my welfare, stingy with his time and his money. And they wouldn’t have had my sister.


No, the gifts I wish they’d given me are the gifts I wish they’d given each other.


I wish my mother had given my father the gift of her forgiveness. From the start, he was an unsuitable partner, expected to live up to Father Knows Best standards that his own father, an alcoholic who abandoned his family when my father was eight, never came close to meeting. Tormented by his Catholicism, which sanctified sex only if procreation was its aim, my father found sin tempting not only for its pleasures but for the middle finger it waved in the faces of oppressive authorities. Early in his marriage, my father and one of his lovers received a citation for public indecency. My father considered it a kind of medal—proof that he’d defied God, the Catholic Church, and the law. When he told me the story years later, he seemed unconcerned about the only person his behavior had actually hurt—my mother—who’d found the citation in his desk drawer.


If my mother had forgiven my father, she would have freed herself from the debilitating anger and resentment she felt toward him. But even in the months before her death, she belittled his character and blasted his failures as a husband and father. She’d forgiven him nothing.


From my father, I would have wanted the gift of clarity and compassion—clarity about how he’d made my mother miserable and compassion for her pain. Had he acknowledged my mother’s sorrow and told her he was sorry to see her suffer, he might have lessened the bitterness in their relationship, thereby liberating me from my role as my mother’s confidante and consigliere—and his secret critic and lampoonist.


What gifts would my parents have wanted from me?


My mother, at her angriest and most wounded, might have wanted even more of my loyalty—perhaps my outright refusal to have anything to do with my father.


My father, I suspect, would have liked me to be less sensitive. If I’d been less attentive to my mother’s needs (or neediness, as he might have put it), I would have been more accepting of his relationships, particularly with his second wife. For a long time, I saw her only as my mother did, as someone deserving scorn.


What gift would I have given myself if I could reach across the years and place it in my teenage hands? The equanimity to accept my parents’ flaws, including their failure to temper the rancor in their relationship, and the wisdom to realize I had no power to make either of them happy—and no obligation to.


Of course, to gain such equanimity and wisdom, I needed to have lived the years I’ve lived. I imagine myself, as in a science fiction novel, returning to the time of my parents’ divorce. Do my parents notice I’m a fifty-six-year-old man with gray hair and spider-web-thin lines at the corners of my eyes? Am I able to retain my transcendent tranquility, or do I become, again, the boy I’d been, caught in the tempest of the never-ending end of my parents’ marriage?


Even now, I would have nothing more to offer than a plea—Be kind to each other, please—which is what I wanted to say a thousand times but never did.


A Rolex watch. (Exhibit location: a bottom drawer in the vanity in my mother’s dressing room.)


I’ve always thought of Rolexes in the same category as Ferraris: showpieces beyond the means of most mortals. Evidently, the watch wasn’t beyond my mother’s means, although it was difficult to determine what her means were. She was open about much of her life but deeply secretive about money. My sister and I watched her spend it sometimes in what we considered frivolous ways—she bought more Beanie Babies than should have been legally permitted, for example—and we braced ourselves for the day she would confess to bankruptcy.


I don’t remember my mother buying a Rolex. I think I would have. Although she was circumspect about her money, she was ostentatious about her purchases. Her Beanie Babies occupied half of the shelves in her house. Her Diane Freis dresses filled an entire closet. She bought enough books on tape to listen to John Grisham, Stephen King, and Anne Rivers Siddons over the course of three lifetimes.


Did my mother inherit the Rolex from her mother? When my grandfather wasn’t arguing with my grandmother, he worshipped her. Perhaps the watch had been one of the few extravagant gifts he’d bought her. Having survived the Great Depression and worked his way into the middle class, he was a devout believer in the American Dream. A Rolex would have been proof that he’d achieved it.


I’ve never imagined owning a Rolex. I’ve lost enough Timexes to wonder if I should own a watch at all. But even if it’s a woman’s watch, too small for my wrist, it’s mine now. Therefore, I’ll need to revise my idea of who I am: poet, former Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, environmentalist, and…Rolex owner! The latter puts me in the company of such luminaries as tennis star Roger Federer and jazz singer Diana Krall.


The Rolex has stopped ticking, but HNP Jewelry and Watch Repair is less than a mile from my mother’s house, conveniently tucked in the basement of Rodman’s, which sells everything from Greek wine to organic dog treats to Tylenol. HNP is owned and operated by an older Asian couple, and when I hand the watch to Corey, a soft-spoken man with a subtle wit, he smiles and says he’ll have the battery replaced in ten minutes.


As I’m wandering the aisles, I have a sweet fantasy of Corey returning my watch and, after an appreciative whistle, telling me it’s worth $20,000.


When I return to his counter, he says, “You’re the man with the Rolex?”


I nod as modestly as I can.


He retrieves it from his worktable and gives me a sly smile. “You know it’s a fake, right?”


“It is?” Surprisingly, my voice doesn’t rise in plaintive disappointment. I’ve prepared for this possibility. What’s too good to be true usually is. I ask, “How do you know?”


“From what’s inside it.”


Instead of platinum springs and wheels—or whatever the inner components of a Rolex are—I imagine aluminum and plastic.

The new battery is $25. I wonder if the watch is worth half as much.


“More fake Rolexes than real,” Corey says. His shrug suggests this is true of so much in our imitation world.


Driving back to my mother’s house, I wonder if Bob, one of my mother’s former boyfriends, gave her the “Rolex.” It was Bob, after all, who, as he asked her to marry him, presented her with a ring made of cubic zirconia. He claimed the ring was diamond, but, suspicious, my mother brought it to Tony Bonanno, a famously discerning jeweler with a workshop in the Maryland suburbs. In his gravely, Godfather voice, Bonanno told my mother, “It may be worth $3, but I wouldn’t give you a dollar for it.”


When my mother confronted Bob about the ring’s inauthenticity, he tried to reframe its value by telling her it was “made in space.”


When my mother shared this information with Tony Bonanno, the jeweler said, “Lady, I think your boyfriend was made in space.”


In my mother’s last conversation with Bob, she told him, “Either you’re lying or you’re stupid. Either way, you’re out of here.”


I helped Bob load his belongings into the back of his truck before he drove off. His last words to me were: “Go out with your hair on fire.” To this day, I have no idea what he meant.


In later year, stories of “Diamond Bob” never failed to draw a laugh from people, even from my mother, who, despite her general good nature, was sensitive about certain portions of her biography. My grandfather found special delight in “Diamond Bob” stories, perhaps because he was susceptible to conmen.


My grandfather believed not only in the American Dream but in its accelerated version. He made several investments with acquaintances who promised fast and fantastic returns. One involved a self-healing asphalt. With the technology, my grandfather told me enthusiastically, potholes would become extinct. Potholes defied predictions of their demise, and my grandfather lost $5,000.


To the end of his life, he hoped to cash in. Even as he slid into dementia, he mailed off checks to sponsors of sweepstakes, one of which, American Family Publishers, had a prominent (and seemingly trustworthy) spokesman, Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s chuckling sidekick on The Tonight Show. My grandfather was convinced that McMahon would soon be knocking on his door, million-dollar check in hand. “But don’t tell your grandmother,” he said to me. “I want it to be a surprise.”


I wonder if my grandfather received the “Rolex” as part of “winning” a sweepstakes. My grandmother would have known it was fake. But, respecting his dignity, she would have kept this insight to herself.


On my drive back to my house in Morgantown, West Virginia, I think about giving the “Rolex” to my younger daughter, who is twenty and about to leave for a junior-year-abroad semester in Italy. I picture the delight on her face as I hand her what I’ll allow her to believe is the genuine article. I imagine my pleasure at being the author of her joy. How long would I allow her to keep her illusion? Tony Bonanno is dead. He can’t tell her that her father was made in space.


I don’t lie to my daughter, but she wants the watch anyway. She’ll have fun pretending it’s authentic, she says.


I hand it to her. She places it on her wrist. I’m disappointed: It doesn’t fit perfectly. But: “Good enough,” she says, and, laughing, goes to look at herself in the mirror.


When There’s No One Left to Point At

Eric Scot Tryon


On Fridays after school, we rode our bikes to the liquor store to buy sour candy, the kind in large plastic bins with big metal scoops. Sour peaches, sour rings, sour bears and worms and sharks, sour lips and sour rainbows and sour kids. Emily never had money, so I paid, which was fine.


With the bag of candy tied around my handlebars, we pedaled to the high school where we sat in the bleachers, on the top row, and pressed our backs to the metal railing. The first sour bite was the best. The way my jaw clenched like a fist even before the sour hit my tongue.


Meanwhile, the field below was electric with teams practicing and students buzzing, and we played a game called That’s Gonna Be You. Emily and I were still a year away from high school and joked that watching from above was like watching ourselves in the future.


“That’s gonna be you,” she’d say, laughing and pointing to the football player dragging his feet, half a lap behind the team.


“That’s gonna be you,” I’d say and shoulder-bump her, pointing to the cross country runner leading the team in stretches. Blonde hair pulled tight in a ponytail, she barked orders and counted to ten.


Besides pointing out our future selves and sucking the sour off gummy soda bottles, we also complained about our parents. To make Emily feel better, I made stuff up about my dad yelling and being an asshole, but really he wasn’t. He was the kind of dad who always listened, even if sometimes I wished he talked too.


But Emily’s dad was another story. Three months ago she found out he had another family. Family #2, she called them. She found a birthday card in his office desk with a drawing of a dad, mom, older boy, and a little girl with red curls. Emily was blonde and an only child. She didn’t tell her mom, but she told me as we pushed sour rings on the tips of our tongues. How many could we fit until one snapped? She didn’t cry like I thought she might, but instead pointed at a group of boys huddled like vultures under the bleachers across from ours, secretly smoking and punching each other in the arms. “That’s gonna be you.”


Emily started questioning everything about her father. Whenever he wasn’t home, which was a lot—work trips, golf trips, who-knows trips—she assumed he was playing catch with his son or teaching his redheaded daughter to ride a bike. When he was home, she tried to sniff foreign odors on his shirt as he hugged her goodnight. And when the light hit his mouse-brown hair at just the right angle, she swore she saw hints of red.


The more she shared, the less I shared. Having to deal with Family #2 was so much worse than my mom drinking too much white wine after dinner. My mom didn’t get silly-drunk like in the movies, but the next day she wouldn’t remember what we’d talked about. I had to get used to cloned conversations. Plus I was running out of bad things to make up about my dad, so mostly I just listened and searched the field for future-me.


Then Emily’s Dad called her Dylan accidentally. Twice.


Dylan doesn’t sound anything like Emily,” I said. “How can the dillweed make that mistake?”


With a mouth full of sour gummy bears she’d scrunched together until four became one, Emily said, “Whatever. That’s gonna be you,” and pointed to a funny-looking kid sitting against the goalpost doing homework alone.


“Yeah? Well, that’s gonna be you,” I said and pointed to a cheerleader practicing her leg kicks. She looked ridiculous, and I knew that would get Emily good because she swore she’d never be a cheerleader. She said cheerleaders were just decorations for guys, and how stupid was that? I was waiting for her to point out the worst guy and say it was me, but she didn’t. She just sat there working her tongue, unsticking bears from her back teeth. Finally, she said, “Shit, Dylan’s even a cooler name than Emily.”




Today, as I’m scooping the last of the sour fish into the bag, Emily says she has something big to tell me. But later, with our backs against the cool metal bars and one handful of sour keys already gone, she still hasn’t said anything.


“So, like, did something happen?” I ask, as the marching band marches in a giant circle.


“Nothing happened,” she says, tears in her eyes for the first time. “But, like…I realized something.”


I want to give her a hug, but I’m not sure if that’s the kind of friends we are. So, like my dad, I sit quietly. Waiting to listen.


“What if, like…” She stops to tie a sour rope in a knot, then bites off one end. “What if I’m Family #2?” She looks away. “What if it’s not them. What if it’s me that’s Family #2?”


The worst part is I don’t know what to say because she could be right, because who gets to choose? I try to imagine what my parents might say, but I’ve got nothing. So I reach into the bag and grab two sour cherries—her favorite—and give her one. Then she grabs two sour bombs—the strongest of them all—and hands one to me.


“That’s gonna be you,” I say and point to the girl walking like a horse with high knees, twirling a baton.


“That’s gonna be you,” she says and points to a big kid banging a drum hung around his neck.


And then we can’t stop. We point out everyone on the field. The football player doing pushups, the sprinter collapsing on the grass, the kid in crutches asking girls to sign his cast, the couple holding hands, the boy getting yelled at by his coach, the girl with pink hair. That’s gonna be you, I tell her. That’s gonna be you, she tells me. And we eat. We eat until the sour scrapes our tongues and cuts our gums.


Eventually the sun drops behind the mountains, and the lights of the field click, then buzz, then shine. That’s gonna be you, she says and points to a kid sitting alone, picking grass. And to the coach blowing his whistle. And to the boy trying to do a cartwheel. That’s gonna be you, I say and point to a girl sprinting as if she’s late, backpack bouncing side to side. And to the girl crying into her phone. And to the girl who was running laps when we first sat down and is still running laps, her face bright red, and she has not stopped, has not even slowed. That’s gonna be you, that’s gonna be you, we say until all the teams have packed up their equipment and left, until even the non-athletes, the randoms and slackers and stragglers have decided it’s time to go home, and there is only a pile of sour sand at the bottom of the bag, and our mouths are swollen and raw, and we have pointed at everyone until there’s no one left to point at, and still we have no idea what kind of people we are going to be.


In Memoriam: Aurelie Sheehan

* The following essay is reprinted from The Florida Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1997, in memory of its author, Aurelie Sheehan, who died earlier this year. The essay is followed by reminiscences from two of the magazine’s editors.


Aurelie Sheehan

The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche


I had a date with loneliness. I’d honed loneliness in my New York studio apartment. I’d done it there in a kind of salty paroxysm of soup making and blue bathtub evenings and La Boheme and La Traviata listened to again and again until the tapes were worn thin and scratchy and my neighbors were considering aria-murder. I’d been lonely before—for instance, during the long shallow lake of my relationship with Sam. But in New York, after a splendid heartbreak, I felt alone with new ardor. I cut up carrots and peppers and onions, and I stirred a pot of black beans and dipped a spoon in and added salt and garlic and thyme. I filled the bath with water and bubble bath, and I lay in the scalding water with a screaming woman in the background. Die die die or I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying. I didn’t know Italian, but, sure, they were suffering. I thought about making love to a lion. I let my arms lift corpse-like to the water’s surface.


Besides sensuous disorders, I could buoy myself into the grace of selfhood with good conduct. Diligence in all things, in particular cleaning and eating and saving. The last time Our Friend had slept over, I hadn’t changed the pillowcase for a week—wafting maleness does something for the soul. But then I washed the sheets and just kicked into a really clean lifestyle. There’s a beauty that’s almost sexy about lining up the books on your bedstand so they all face the same direction, the small ones on top of the big ones, and so on. I ate cheaply: peanut butter and jelly or a plain bagel or a slice for lunch, penne with olive oil and broccoli for dinner. Self-inflicted virtue coursed through my veins. There’s an extravagance in spending twenty measly dollars on groceries for the week, and sending a check to your credit card company that hurts and hurts good, all through those long, pasta-eating weeks until the next little paycheck comes in to be spent instantly.


Was I having fun at the law firm where I worked as a secretary, or was I in misery? It was hard to tell—to wear pantyhose, as we know, is tight and encompassing, but was this containment coming to something? Day after day, week after week, counting numbers, budgeting, allocating. Knowing it’s wrong to think about having sex with your boss on his big desk when he is dictating. Knowing that. Knowing that the clauses pursuant to and heretofore can’t possibly mean anything prurient, can’t possibly be laden with ulterior meanings, posterior meanings. Knowing that the guy you’re having phone sex with is dumb, not your type when it really comes down to it, but it doesn’t really come down to it, not with him, anyway, only with your own hand in the privacy of your beautiful palace of East Village solitude, love nest for one.


I went to the opera a lot that winter—the unbudgeted item. I tiptoed up the red swirling staircase to the upper banks of the Metropolitan river of desire and consummation. I trailed my hand against the velvety red wall like a girl on her way to a baptism (a dunk in the waters of belonging) or a confession (a confession of love) or confirmation (confirmation of the passionate in a world of word-processing and subway tokens). I sat in my red seat and ate chocolate and watched and listened. The libretto was always satisfyingly melodramatic, and it seemed that often enough the women were dying of tuberculosis/a broken heart/insanity—and this seemed accurate to some great truth about the world. I always had the cheapest seats in the house, so I was basically in a tower, dizzy with vertigo, peering down at the action. There I was again—traipsing around in an evening gown. There was the scary witch mother in her black swirling cape, and there was the distant and square-shouldered father emperor. There was the prince I’d read about somewhere. There was the chance to prove, once and for all, your love, and there was the chance to make great sacrifices and, in the end, to be compensated, no, wait, to be murdered. Everything was over-the-top, but it made sense. The absurdity of the human condition—wasn’t that the point of the striped outfits and flailing and dwarves and backdrops? I put another square of chocolate on my tongue, and, at the end, I was wrung out and exhilarated.


Yes, solitude had its advantages. You could plunge headlong into tragedy. You could save money at Christmas. The set outcome of hard work, little sleep, and frugal budgeting could be the actual outcome of the week. I got up earlier and earlier, made happy by the work ethic of my novel, the stumble toward it, the dream of being a writer. Time became the thing I grabbed to my breast and clung to obsessively. After awhile, I had a boyfriend and he came over—but not until late, around ten, and he left at six in the morning, so basically we just had sleepovers, which was fine with me, since time was my real lover. I sat at my desk and wrote about France. Blanket over my knees, second cup of coffee brewing, sooty New York dawn brightening around me, it was as if I were in the other country.


There was a second novel idea lurking, and it had to do with snowy mountains and a lost woman. A Cold Place, I was going to call it, and maybe it was inevitable that I’d get what I wanted. I was offered a job that took me to the orange-fish heart of the avalanche mountain, and I took it.


The sky was blue and vast in Wyoming, and the birds sang in the trees but you couldn’t see them, and if you saw them, you had to wonder how long they were for the world because some people there shot them as pests—building nests and all that crap. In your driveway was a big snake. In your bed was a spider. It was all very intoxicating at first—time had spread out and become space too, so it was a double-lover thing, which was exciting, but also daunting. Who knew it would be too much, all this unallayed freedom and time to yourself? A sweet man with a sexy Led Zeppelin swing asked if he could live with you when you came back from your semester in France (a surprise invitation to a residency program), and you—in the kitchen of your trailer, pictures of your friends on the refrigerator, first time you’d ever taped up photographs, first time you’d needed that reminder—said to yourself two things at once: I “love” this man and he “loves” me—why not make it happen? Take a risk? Do something irresponsible for a change? And in a tinier voice: This time and space business is too big. Why not line up a bedmate for when I come back? Done.


France is always across the ocean, I wrote, on the Mediterranean. I was writing lovelorn letters to the Led Zeppelin character back home. I realized that I was never happy anywhere, and that was kind of amusing, or poetic anyway. Wasn’t it ironic that I was in France but what I longed for now—after a year of wishing I were in France—was to be back in LZ’s arms? In Cassis, I smiled heartily at the poste and patisserie as I made hash out of the simplest sentences, gesturing and jerry-building my thoughts to fit my vocabulary—then I retreated back to my apartment overlooking the sea. I wrote diligently, and in that was a kind of English-language call and response: someone—the semblance of someone—was listening. But, in general, I took loneliness to new heights altogether. This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing. It was me and Remembrance of Things Past—solid companions for the blue nights. Topping things off atmospherically, I reread the first two books, adding a kind of timelessness to the timelessness of time.


I moved from place to place: by the window, at the desk, on the couch, on the bed—clearly my days had not just order, but activity. The loneliness, which had a keening, drowning lull, a call from Cerces, abated with the blast of sun against the sailboats in the bay, against my body, and the crisp enveloping waves of the sea, and the lemon tarts and olives and bread and coffee. But the nights. I borrowed a radio from an old, lonely man I’d met at the café, and my rooms rung with French pop, even that a relief from the extraordinary silence and the waves—beat, beat, beat—against my solitary vocabulary, my turned-in-on-itself language. Writing LZ had appeal, but it was also wretched, an intricate theater of the imagination, romantic but unreal. The here-and-now was trotting my body from station to station during the course of the everlasting days. And the here-and-now pastries, I can’t forget them, the lemon tarts by the lighthouse and the seagulls and the waves.


I returned to Wyoming and my new home with my new boyfriend who really I hardly knew at all. Risk? Did it matter? There I was, and because we actually had very little to say, I found myself spiraling back into the kind of aloneness I had known could happen in relationships, and which I didn’t want to happen again.


We went to the Busy Bee luncheonette for breakfast, just like I had when I first came to Wyoming and it had been fun then, local color. Now we were the local color, and Lonnie, queen of the flipped burger, didn’t take to my long-haired, earring-wearing, Doc Marten-shuffling boyfriend, and the greasy spoon experience lost its appeal. Our neighbor had a big garden, and she trapped cats and brought them to the pound if they so much as strolled by her pepper plants. The Chamber of Commerce had a coyote hunt with fox as tie-breakers and t-shirts for all the good folks who participated. I brooded and brooded, then wrote a letter to the editor—always a sure sign of feeling pathetic. At the copy shop, the Hallmark Catholic said, So, you’re a writer, half-handing me the copies she’d made of my poems about abortion, sex with women, etc.


Aloneness took on societal proportions that maybe kept me together with LZ that winter. I drove my blue 1977 Grand Safari station wagon eighteen miles to work, listened to the scratchy country music radio station, looked out at the ravishing snow hills and black cows in a line, at the blue sky that went on forever, waited for my favorite tree to appear on the horizon, and looked for deer and bald eagles and found them. And there, on the highway, the ranchers and I waved at each other—four fingers up from the steering wheel, no smile—and I felt like one of them, like I belonged.


Maybe it’s always true that you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings. In any case, everywhere I looked, cows were being trooped off to the one-good-steel-rod-in-the-forehead house; raccoons and fox and deer and elk were being shot as vermin or predators or trophies or meals. Bumper stickers read Clinton Sucks and No Wolves and Wyoming Native and An Unborn Fetus Is God’s Child more than they read I Brake for Animals or I Brake for Hallucinations or Women Against Nuclear Power. In the 1994 state primary for U.S. Senator, the county reported 192 local Democratic votes and 2,128 Republican votes. Whenever LZ and I walked in the forest, we heard gunfire.


As per usual with displaced New Yorkers on the range, I wrote about my surroundings. I’d gone to Butte, Montana—city of desolation, a mining camp gone sour—and the destruction of the land was visceral there. The story that I’d begun in New York, as a kind of Audrey-Hepburn-meets-John-Wayne comedy of manners, intensified into a crystallization of all I’d found alienating about this new atmosphere. Then spring came. On my way to work, I saw black calves, stumbling in their first sleek morning, and lambs scattered like dropped sweaters on the newly green fields. It was warm enough to take to the skeet range. I couldn’t help thinking about the beginnings of things, the other side of the pact, and to forgive the land, the ranchers, and the whole nine yards of it for the death part of the equation. I broke up with my boyfriend, ready to take on Wyoming alone, now, after a stall of almost two years.


I moved to a geodesic dome house a mile from my office; it was on company land. I took an airplane ride because I was scared of small planes, and when we whirred and shook over my house, the scant shadow of our survival passed kite-like over an amazing amount of nothingness. My house and my neighbor’s house were the only buildings for miles, and the creek bed our lots clung to zigzagged like a fractured artery. It was appalling to see how little water was around—how little of anything. When I walked down the road, I only knew the nothingness I could see, not what was over the next hill. Nothing becomes something when you walk over it, when you see how long it takes to go from here to there, boot marks in the mud.


My new house was airy: high ceilings, corporate furniture, no boyfriend. I walked around like a guest. At first, happiness clung to me in a way that was almost indiscreet. I luxuriated in the space that had once seemed too much entirely. I spread my manuscript on the floor like a hopscotch game. I looked out the window at the flat-topped hill and the two horses in silhouette, at the deer like camouflaged puzzle-pieces on the tawny field, and the magpie in his tuxedo on the wire. No one else, but the sky could save me here.


That fall, I lit the woodstove and sat on the couch and wondered what it meant to have this moment alone, reading by firelight in a quiet house on a crisp night in November. What does experience mean if it is unshared; does it matter, does it exist at all? Aloneness resonated in the house in a way I’d never felt before. It was a little like death, but I tried not to think about it like that. I lay on the couch and looked out the picture window and listened to Lucia di Lammermoor. Clouds moved across the black sky, trailing toward, then over, then away from the half-moon. The universe was moving around me; I was in the arms of the night. There was no anxiety in the opera then, only the beauty of the voice.


While my boyfriend and I had kept a scoffer’s distance from the coyote/cowboy debate, the battle got closer. My neighbor shot cats, “but not ones with collars.” (Could anyone see Fluffy’s blue and white flea collar?) The man who owned my house and all the land around me shot birds by the dozens—he shot the red-winged blackbirds that graced barbed wire fences along the highway, he shot flickers that flew at you out of the grass and gave ventriloquist calls to keep you away from their young, he shot anything that hooted or squawked or tweeted at the wrong hour of the day, he shot birds because he could. He shot foxes and cats and skunks and prairie dogs, and once in a while, he went to exotic locations to shoot doves, pheasants, or whatever winged creature was indigenous by the hundreds. Once he shot his girlfriend’s cat off her porch—but that was a long time ago. His ethic regarding killing was clear—what do you expect from an oil baron? I sat in my house, his house, and wondered: But what am I doing here? Whose side am I on?


I tried a little killing. I stalked pheasants and shot one. I had antelope haunches in my freezer. I watched my cat bring in mice, chew their heads off, then go to town on the rest of them, leaving the livers and intestines in pungent piles. I changed a little: I was no longer against hunting wholesale. It seemed honest to kill what you ate instead of buying it wrapped in plastic at Safeway. If you hunted an animal, saw it alive, and killed it, you’d become aware of what it meant to be a carnivore. I realized that the allegiance some ranchers had to their animals wasn’t all about money—it was also an in-the-trenches experience with birth, illness, survival. Things weren’t black and white anymore. Even solitude, which I’d associated with soup and opera and frugality in New York, became less absolute. It wasn’t great; it wasn’t horrible. A fractured image came together, and I loosened my hold.


In a barn on the edge of the cattle field, across the way from a hill tipped with red rock, sat an old letterpress. On Sunday afternoons or in the whistling dark, I taught myself how to set type. There was nothing better than holding the metal frame in my hand and picking out an a or a t or an l from the drawer, then placing it next to the other letters in an upside-down row in my palm. When I finished a line, I started another, and when the lead pieces weighed heavy in my hand, I smoothed the stanza into a tray, wrapped it with string, and started the next one. I dotted the steel rollers of the press with rubber ink, and the black blotches stuck to the rollers and made a sucking sound when I rolled and rolled and rolled them around. The poem was in the tray, squeezed tight by wooden blocks and shims. Then the rollers swept over the poem. On a white page, the image of words. I touched the letters with my fingers; language merged with the physical world. Everything took hours, and I didn’t know I was alone.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius

Notes on first reading “The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche” 


It was the slush pile days, over-the-transom days, mailbox filled with envelopes packed with manuscripts (some smelling distinctly of cigarettes across the miles), SASEs with exotic stamps, and hope. I was the nonfiction editor at The Florida Review, back before my stint as editor.


We read through the stacks in coffee shops, dim offices, hallways, airports, and bus stops.

I remember the fear that so much reading would dim my senses, like getting tagged with too many cologne samples at the department store. The first one is distinct. The second one a little less so. Then they all blur together.


That was the minor anxiety of reading those stacks of manuscripts. Maybe my judgment would cloud over. Maybe I’d overlook something good.


The first line of the essay was heart-stopping: “I had a date with loneliness.” Even though I didn’t recognize it as a line from a pop hit of the early 1960s. The repetition in the first paragraph engaging, the relentlessness of loneliness enacted.


Everything was too good to overlook. So my second anxiety kicked in. Could this beautiful and original voice be sustained?


Page after page, the answer was yes. Beauty from despair. Insight from loneliness. A soaring worldview from isolation. The surprising turns of phrases continuing to surprise me.


Hilarious images: Opera as “a screaming woman in the background.” Virtue that is “self-inflicted.” New York City’s Metropolitan Opera as “the Metropolitan river of desire and despair.”


Heart-breaking images: “Time was my real lover.” Loneliness with a “keening, drowning lull.” The possibility that “you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings.”


Terrifying realizations delivered—somehow—with a kind of acrobatic self-deprecating humor: “This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine-alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing.”


There is also action. Trips and boyfriends and relocation. Jobs and life in rural Wyoming.


Then, after some months in the new place, there’s a turn. The self-proclaimed New Yorker shakes off some of the focus on her despair and her self-described “displaced New Yorker” approach to Wyoming, something shifts in this narrator. Something small at first, but deep and compelling.


Every word in this vivid essay dazzles. No amount of cologne sampling or reading could dull a single sentence.


It’s one of the most original and heartbreaking and joyous essays I’ve ever published. And that I’ve ever read. Congratulations to The Florida Review for making it available once again.

David James Poissant
Remembering Aurelie Sheehan 

I was a student at the University of Arizona in 2005 when Aurelie Sheehan entered my life. She was my first graduate workshop leader, and she remains one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever known.


A single observation of hers made me the writer I am today. I was trying, at age twenty-six, to be a dark, gritty Southern writer. I distrusted earnestness, and my greatest fear was the label sentimental. I wrote vicious characters, and Aurelie quickly called me out on this (privately, after class). “You’re not a vicious guy,” she said. “You don’t have to lean so hard on cruelty.” I was writing against my own grain, exploring characters I didn’t understand. I told her I was afraid of sounding sentimental. “Then don’t be sentimental,” she said. “Risk sentimentality.” Different writers will interpret that advice different ways, but my mantra, in writing and in life, became just that: Risk sentimentality. It’s the first lesson I now teach my graduate students, and it’s a lesson they tend to hold dear when they leave the classroom.


Aurelie visited my class once, via Skype. My students had read the story collection Jewelry Box, and it was the class favorite of the semester. She was as kind and patient and generous with my students as she’d been with me, all those years before.


Sometimes, when we talk about teachers of writing, we forget that they are writers too. Aurelie was a tremendous teacher and mentor, but she was also a world-class writer. I’ve read her four story collections, and one of her two novels. They are beautiful lampposts lighting my way whenever I need examples of elegant craft and a gorgeous prose style. Knowing there may be no more books is heartbreaking. Knowing there is another novel, plus a Ploughshares Solos novella, brings me peace. I have at least two good reads on deck for dark days. I imagine that reading them will feel like hearing from an old friend.


I loved Aurelie the teacher and Aurelie the writer, but I’ll miss Aurelie the friend most. She was maybe the wisest person I’ve ever met, and she could make me laugh like no one else. The last time we talked, she spoke of a novel she’d written, or was writing, one set on a cruise ship, which remains a book I’d love to read. Short of that, it’s my great joy to bring you this uncollected essay from the archives, one written by a young writer just coming into her powers. The ending destroys me, but I love the portrait Aurelie leaves us with. Here is a person comforted by words. Here is a study in not being lonely while being alone.


At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll end with this: Aurelie is gone far too soon. The world is a worse place without her in it, but the world is a better place because of her words. I miss her terribly.


Jocelyn Bartkevicius studied literary fiction and nonfiction writing at The University of Iowa, nonfiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, and completed a doctoral dissertation on the essays of Virginia Woolf. Her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and such journals as The Iowa ReviewThe Missouri ReviewThe Bellingham ReviewFourth GenreThe Hudson ReviewGulf Coast, and TriQuarterly Online. She has won several teaching awards, and her essays have been awarded prizes from several literary journals. She is the former editor of The Florida Review. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida.


David James Poissant is the author of the novel Lake Life, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the story collection The Heaven of Animals, a winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida and serves as Editor of The Florida Review.