Featuring stories by Mari Christmas, Scott Koenig, LaTanya McQueen, JH Bond, Tamar Jacobs, and Traci Sauce, and poems by Mark Williams and James Lineberger.
by Mari Christmas
My husband manages a cheap hotel off the interstate five days a week, and every Wednesday night he visits the community center pool. Some days I meet him there. I like to watch him push the water around. It helps with the arthritis, he says, sculling the surface, making frog legs. He believes I deserve an office job, something that allows me to move between cities while wearing a thin blouse. We hardly speak. This is because of all the guilt. I look out across the pool. Children shiver in wrinkled suits, sucking their hair. Inside, it is airless, hazy, the windows fogged. The water a dark tangle of rope. Even though I cannot see him, I know he is there.
After swimming my husband will stay in his small room, equipped with a desk and a plastic lamp, and berate his romantic Romanian pen pal over the phone. He feels the need to give important looks, to demonstrate his rigor over a crowded table, and so forth, even internationally. “If you piss in the corner, I piss in the corner,” he tells her, speaking in English. For two bars of chocolate a month she puts up with all of that. He refuses to learn her language, as he cannot be bothered with the gender of specifics.
by Scott Koenig
It’s so bright even though the blinds are closed. Streaks of white light gash the wall. The wall Dad painted blue last month. Your favorite color is red but you like blue, too. There’s the humming of lawnmowers in the distance. Open those blinds.
Out there it’s green everywhere. Up above, it’s blue. There’s a white car in your driveway, too. Not our car, you think. Whose car is that. Green grass down here, around the strange little white car, and blue sky up there. The colors are so pure it kind of hurts. It’s nice, though. Do your eyes hurt? You could open the window to smell the grass but Dad got mad last time. Up on the hill where green turns into blue are big brown houses. If you squint they look like blobs of oatmeal raisin cookie dough when Mom lines them up on a baking sheet. And between the houses are thin lanes of grass where the older kids go sledding on snow days. The older kids with the colorful backpacks and the best Pokemon cards. Andy said one of the Meyer boys had three holographic Charizards. There’s no way. You aren’t allowed to go sledding on the hill yet. You just got allowed to ride your bike up to the black mailbox. The green mailbox after that is too high, too far up the hill, too dangerous, Mom always says. You know you can do it but you aren’t allowed. But soon you’ll be allowed to go all the way up – to the top of the hill. Then back down super fast into the coldy sack. Like how the older kids do.
by LaTanya McQueen
Because of her own curiosity she said yes when he asked her to put the bit on him. The bit, or gag, was an iron mask shaped like half a moon with a hook that went around the front of a person’s head. A spiked collar connected to the mask through a lock at the back of the neck.
He collected historical artifacts like these, the iron bit and scold’s bridle women were once punished with wearing, the shackles and chains forced upon slaves, items all from a not-too-distant era. When she asked him why, he told her he had a fascination for history long forgotten.
“Forgotten?” she asked and he shrugged in response.
by J.H. Bond
We’re in a bathroom at McDonald’s and it smells like pee and I’m helping my dad put his makeup on. It’s his eyebrows that he struggles the most with. They’re supposed to arc like dark rainbows high up on his forehead. He can’t do them in the mirror—they look like mountains.
“Get ’em even, Mitchell,” Dad tells me, as he kneels down, eye-level.
I’m always drawing pictures. Now I’m drawing one on my dad. His real eyebrows are gone, lost under a mask of white. I give him some new ones with a makeup pencil, then paint the tip of his nose bright red.
He pulls on his stockings. Zips up his yellow-gold jumpsuit. I hand him his giant shoes and ask how come they’re so big. Goofy factor, he says.
He fits on his wig and it blazes like fire.
“How do I look?” he asks me.
“Like a clown,” I say.
by JP Gritton
I guess you’re wondering how I ended up with a woman like Syrena, in the first place. Truth is, it’s Mike’s fault. He’s the one to blame. Or to thank, I don’t know which. It was Mike Corliss who turned to me on this too-hot afternoon beginning of September. The four of us ought to go out sometime. Double Dutch, I mean. And I remember him smiling at me while my guts turned somersaults. He was a different man those days, full of piss and vinegar. He had a smart mouth on him, and he wasn’t afraid to use it either, which is why Laughton Starbuck kind of had it out for Mike.
“Where’s your protective eyewear, Corliss?”
“My protective eyewear?”
“That’s what I asked you.”
“My protective eyewear’s protecting the dashboard of Sheldon Cooper’s truck. That’s where I left it this morning.”
Sheldon, he used to call me, ’cause he knew it got on my nerves. To everybody else I was Shelley.
I was just a journeyman carpenter back then. I drove Lij’s truck to work and home every day, give my best friend Mike Corliss a ride. Half the time, he’d forget something on the dash: that blue bandana, that pack of smokes, that pair of goggles.
by Tamar Jacobs
I was chopping peppers when Ronnie came home. I’d been thinking to go to Safeway to see if there were any open bags of candy I could take from, or maybe walk down to the water to feed my birds, but then I saw him and all those ideas went up like smoke from my head. I hadn’t seen him in two years. He got out of the car and stepped into the sun, one whole big part of his skin a new lake of blue. I saw later up close it was all made of little tattoos lifting and blending together, but from behind my side of the kitchen window that day, it looked like he’d been afflicted with some kind of blue sickness. Down his arm and up his neck and some up on his forehead right above his eyebrows and a little trickle from just one eye. He’d gone away, got dipped in color and come back. I found this extraordinary and mysterious, and it kept me up at night thinking about it, touching my own skin wondering what it might feel like to go blue.
After Ms. Eva got done bumping into everything around her with her car like always when she parks, and they slammed their doors closed and went inside her house, I squeezed my eyes shut and chopped as fast as I could, felt tiny sharp prickles of cold pepper water punching into my fingers. I could not look down, because if I did the pepper water became the licking tongues of snakes trying to kiss me away from my knife, trying to slither out from under the blade I was hacking on them with. But as hard as I could I refused to see and they gave up moving and I heard Ms. Rose roll over the loud spring on the couch and I tried even harder because I could not let her hear me chopping in a crazy-sounding way or she would know I’d been skipping pills again. I would not feel sorry about those snakes. Would not, would not, no, I told myself.
by Warren Decker
Mike came to Japan because he was tired of being Mike. He was the only guy in the dorm who would never take lime Jell-O vodka shots, and would get mad if his roommate woke him up— stumbling drunk through the door, and turning on the florescent light, before passing out snoring in the lower bunk, fully clothed, wearing shoes filthy with mud and wet grass clippings from the university lawns. Mike would climb down from his top bunk and turn off the light but he could never get back to sleep, and his morning study routine would be disrupted.
This story originally appeared in New Ohio Review 8. Here, Joanne Serling, author of the new novel, Good Neighbors, reads for our NOR Audio feature.
Illustration by Devan Murphy
by James Lineberger
In the sixth grade I asked
if she would go to the picture show with me
on what was supposed to be
my first date but when I said it her eyes got wide
and her mouth fell open and she just backed off till she ran into
a chair and had to sit down and didn’t say a word.
But during recess I could see her at the swings
giggling and whispering to her girl friends
and all of them staring at me
but if it was a trick or what I didn’t know
cause while I was waiting for the school bus
she came up to me and said
well all right but she would not go to
the Paramount which all
they showed was double-feature westerns with people like
Sonny Tufts or Charles Starrett
and if there was anything she could not abide it was Charles Starrett doing
The Durango Kid.
The poem, “Hilltop Cemetery” by Brendan Cooney, originally appeared in NOR 22. It became the inspiration for this short film, by Bridie Jackson.
This story originally appeared in NOR 23. Listen to Eliot Fintushel’s rendition here.
Illustration by Devan Murphy
by Mark Williams
It is better to write of laughter than of tears,
for laughter is the property of man.
I’m stumped. A man angel with a giant halo
is talking to a woman angel with an average halo.
They appear to be a few feet apart,
but since they’re standing in the clouds,
they could be miles apart, in which case
they are giant angels and the man giant angel
has a ginormous halo and the woman giant angel
only has a giant halo. Either way,
I have no idea what the man angel is saying,
but I have six-and-a-half days to figure it out.
Possibly, cartoonist, Will McPhail, had an idea
when he drew the angels for this week’s contest: #526.
Or maybe he was Sullivan in search of a Gilbert.
I thought I was a Gilbert when, in response to #520,
Corey Pandolph’s drawing of a banana peel
slumped on a psychiatrist’s couch,
I had the psychiatrist saying,
Depression, heart palpitations, fatigue?
You could be low in potassium.
Still, you have to hand it to first place winner, Michelle Deschenes
of Fort Collins, Colorado, who wrote,
It’s normal to feel empty after a split.
He never used one word when ten would do …
is what I’d write if someone were to draw my tombstone.
I can see why everyone might think
the angels got me thinking about my tombstone,
but I’ve been thinking about my tombstone
ever since the banana peel in #520 when,
before I came up with
Depression, heart palpitations, fatigue? et cetera,
by Traci Skuce
For the past hour, Alli had been sitting against the small oak, her eighteen-month-old son latched to her breast. His molars had finally—thank God—broken through, and now he suckled, cheeks sticky and eyes lolling with pleasure. Alli had hoped another mom would show up. Jeannie was off visiting her parents in Vancouver and Clay, well he was just plain off, so she hadn’t had an adult conversation in days. She wanted someone, anyone, to gab with about the impossibility of lost sleep, errant husbands, and teething. But there were only the crows, waddling around the rim of a garbage can, diving in for pizza crusts then flying off across the playground to the giant cedar.