Putting on the Dog: TSP Celebrates 5
A Good Cause
Kalamazoo & Beyond
Talking to Conrad Hilberry
Talking to Gail Griffin
Talking to Ladislav Hanka
Talking to Olga Bonfiglio
Fiction 2
Fiction 3
Novel Excerpt
Nonfiction 2
Nonfiction 3
Poetry 2
Poetry 3
Cigar Lounge
Andris' Blue Note
Andris' Blue Note 2
Zinta Reviews
Marketing, Advertising and Donations
Links & Resources
Submission Guidelines
The Editors

"Spawned Salmon" by Ladislav Hanka

Half Shells


Henry W. Leung


The sun bears down on us as we reach the fourth hour of our walk along the 880 South to Walmart. On my left, Al takes out the threadbare On The Road he snuck out of San Francisco’s library last week. He starts to read while walking but it’s too bright and the cars whipping past are too distracting. The book returns to his back pocket.

            On my right is Harris, his purple Gatorade tilted toward the sun. It sweats down into his mouth. I should’ve taken one too when we stopped at Pablo’s house way back in Alameda. He’s out of town now, which is understandable after last night—but we’ve always known the back way in.

            Eliza’s on vacation. After graduation last week, she left for Mexico. She’s gone until Friday, half-naked in a big pool somewhere. I wonder if she’s thinking about us.

            “I think I’m gonna sew his face into my coat,” says Al.


            “My man Jackie,” he says, pointing to the Kerouac book on his right buttcheek. His broken belt loops hang like apostrophes around his ass. They broke at Pablo’s house, when he and Harris were being comical about opening the front door: Al hanging on to the locked doorknob while Harris held on to his belt loops from behind and pulled hard. I didn’t join in. I kept watch. We’ve had enough trouble.

            “You’ll outgrow it quick,” I say. Kerouac is his recovery technique. He just broke up with Ellen Sue, the love of his life, last week. He’s even talking about withdrawing his deposit from SF State so he won’t have to go to the same school as her.

            “Never!” he says, presenting his jacket with both hands, piercing black in the heat. “This is my testament to all Bohemians everywhere.”

            “Hey,” I say, regretting it already, “we should get tattoos.”

            His face is a lemon, squeezing slowly. His eyes flash at the cast on my right arm, and suddenly I feel the burns from last night flare up again. I hold myself and let the subject shrivel. Compared to the scar tissue of my left hand, the cast is pristine white. I won’t let anyone sign it.

            “Whassuuuup,” Harris hollers into his phone.

            It’s his girlfriend Amy. I don't know if he plans to keep on playing her the way he has been. Soon, they’re leaving for college on opposite ends of the country. I know he's cheating on her with Eliza.

            “Calm down, beezee!” he snarls into the phone. “Take a chill pill—what—oh, hell no. She just hung up on me.”

            “Who was that?” I ask.

            “Amy,” he says. “Fucking Shredder.”

            I snap a look at him and inhale quick, like I’m about to blow out fire. But he’s not even looking. He’s called her by the names of different supervillains ever since they got together: Brainiac, Harley Quinn, Doc Ock. Amy told me once that it makes her feel special, but I don’t believe it. No one likes to be the bad guy.

            Al suddenly halts on his tiptoes, bug-eyed, and he points his whole body at a car ahead of us. “Did you see that?" he says in awe. "What a blonde! How do you even talk to a girl like that?”

            Harris shrugs. “Hitchhike.”

            Al’s face smooths into a big grin, and I know this is the stupidest idea we’ve ever had. He sticks out his thumb and beams, “Old Jackie would be proud.”

            Chasing after girls on the street is his other recovery technique. That’s fine with me as long as he doesn’t go for Eliza when she’s back. She’s leaving for NYU, and if I don’t get with her this summer then I never will. Harris is a problem too.

            Harris’s attention goes back to his phone. He swivels it open, texting with both thumbs like a furious gamer. The phone is tiny in his hands, under the shadow of his chin. As an Ultimate player, he towers over everyone on the field.

            I can feel the sweat trapped under my cast, and the burn becomes an itch. A car zooms past. The three of us are poster children for minority youth in the Bay Area: Al’s the Mexican, I’m the Asian, and Harris is black. In other words: no way is anyone stopping to pick us up.

            And maybe it’s boredom, curiosity, maybe the heat, or maybe I just want to hurry up out of here, but for whatever reason I start to hold out my thumb too. I guess we’re all looking for a ride out of this place. My dad doesn’t even know about my hand yet.

            We make our way toward an empty dirt road beside the main highway. It’s separated by a fence, and on our side only one or two cars pass every minute.

            Harris jabs out his thumb too, his phone still in the other hand. With every car that ignores us, the summer traps us for a little while longer. One green minivan honks as it passes, not even slowing down to let us see through the windshields.

            “What the hell?” I shake my left arm at them, trying to get noticed. They disappear like a mirage.


            I’ve been thinking about Eliza, and what she added to our group. It doesn’t seem like much except for the car. We call it the bedcar because the back seats fold down and the four of us converted it into a bed to recline on at the drive-in theater. It’s illegal to drive like that, but we kept it that way and the three of us always fought over who got to lie in the back. Eliza’s no joker but she’s got a great sense of humor and she’s always down for whatever we want to do.

            “Two weeks ago we were in Disneyland,” I say to the guys, “and last week we found the crustacean submarine-looking house in Berkeley. We kept going to the San Jose drive-in, we hung out in different cities, we played pool.”

            “Good times,” Al nods solemnly.

            “And then Eliza left for vacation, and now we’re walking all day to Walmart. For bags of chips (in bulk). And cheap contact lens solution. What the hell happened to us?”

            “We’re babes without her,” shrugs Harris.

“She’s the glue,” says Al. “Our peanut butter. The jam that drips between us. She makes me feel,” he begins to sing, and Harris joins in: “She makes me feel! She makes me feel like a na-tu-ral womaaan!”

            “Who woulda thought,” I say, even while I don’t believe it, “that the one person to keep us together was Eliza.”

            “We’re like the Ninja Turtles,” says Harris. “Incomplete 'less we got all four together.”

            “Oh hell yes!” says Al. “I call Michelangelo. You know the man gets all the ladies.”

            “The turtle, you mean.” I spin the turtles through my mind like an LP. “Michelangelo’s the party guy, for sure. And then we have Donatello, the smart dude, and Raphael’s the one always running off 'cause he don’t belong.”

            “And Leonardo,” says Harris. “Head honcho with the swords. Man, we even got a Shredder already.”

            “Pablo is Master Splinter,” says Al, getting excited. “He even has the bum leg now.”

            In my mind I see him again, limping last night after we almost burned his house down. The fire was not my fault.

            “I’m Leonardo,” I say.

            Harris glares at me. “I’m Leonardo, bitch.”

            If he’s not joking, I’m ready to fight him for it.

            “Naw,” says Al. He usually sides with Harris; they’ve been friends with each other longer than with me. “Eliza’s Leonardo, dog. Peanut butter! Holds us all together.”

            “Maybe we’re all just secretly in love with her,” I say. I want to laugh or something, to mean it as a joke, but the silence sinks in fast.

            I look behind me and think about leaving, heading back alone because suddenly I feel like I know too much about these guys, or the other way around. But the truth is, I don’t even remember the way back. I haven’t come up with an excuse for my dad yet, either. He thinks I’m sleeping over at Al’s house, still in town. I’m eighteen, and graduated, and on my way out of this state. But when I get home I’ll have to show him my burns. I’ll have to tell him I don’t want to play music for anyone anymore.

            By the side of the road, I swing a kick at some dandelions. They spread into clouds of fuzz and fall without wind.

            “What’s the least smooth thing you’ve said to a girl?” I ask. It’s a followup of our conversation from the night before when we bragged about our suavest moments. Some of it was lies.

            Al gives his answer right away: “When I was with Ellen Sue, I told her about the way I like to whack off. I was like: This one time I turned into the doorway and shot my shit all the way across the hall—and then it hit the bathroom mirror!”

            It’s not true because he’d never be so crude with Ellen Sue. They were perfect for each other. This is the first thing he’s picked to say about her all day.

            Harris and I play along, laughing. “You can’t even respond to that.”

            “Exactly,” continues Al. “She didn’t say anything, but the look on her face was so bad. It’s like I was shrinking into little Mario. In my head I was going, No-no-no-no! Why did I say that?”

            I say, “Mine doesn’t even compare, dude. One time I was at dinner with Amy”—I wait for a reaction, but nothing from Harris—“and the whole thing turned into her moping and me eating, 'cause that’s the first time Harris broke up with her. So afterwards, she drops me off at the beach, right—”

            “The beach?” cuts in Al. “What the hell?”

            “And she just parks there for a minute to tell me she’s sorry. But before I get out, she points to this dandelion right next to the car and says, You should blow that out and make a wish. So I’m thinking: Alright, here’s what I’ll do.”

            “This is a long story.”

            “I’ll get out, pick the flower, look at her, and blow it out. I won’t even say anything, but she’ll know I made a wish to make her feel better. It’ll be a nice, tender moment. Right?”

            “Yeah yeah yeah.”

            “So I open the door, and first I trip on the way out the car. Then when I get to the dandelion I can’t even pick it 'cause it’s so stuck in the ground. So I use two hands to pull it out, and I bring hella dirt and weeds and like vines with it. And not only that, I pull it so hard the wind totally destroys the flower, so all that fluff is gone too. I’m standing there looking at her holding this nasty handful of dead plant. It was all bad.”

            Another pause of laughter, and a short reprieve. Most of this is a lie too.

            “I didn’t know she talked to you about that,” is all Harris says.

            I press him for his story. I want him to confess something, to admit to his mistakes. But he won’t play, and I let my arm flare silently. I could call him out on everything right now, in the middle of nowhere, far from home. I could defend the honor of both girls.

            But the moment fades and I remember our smiles from a minute ago, can still feel the muscles under my cheeks. It’s easier to pretend, so I sigh at the sun melting over us, hold out my limp thumb, and wait for a change.


            Finally, a white Toyota slows behind us, leading a trail of dust. The windows roll down and we see two Latinas inside, both our age. The driver’s on the phone.

            “Where y’all headed?” asks the front passenger.

            “Just to the end of this road,” cuts in Al, before I can say our actual destination. I feel stupid but don’t know why.

            We squeeze into the backseat without a word, no worries of getting kidnapped or robbed. We’re three guys. We’re the Ninja Turtles.

            I’m in the middle with Harris on my left behind the driver, who yells into her cell phone, “Yea, I just picked up three niggas and we lookin’ at they baby pictures right now!”

            She slams the phone shut, throws it on the dashboard, hits the gas. We’re speechless until we figure out from them talking that the driver has just broken up with a good-for-nothing boyfriend.

            “Fuck him,” she keeps saying. “Fuck that. Fuck that.”

            “Yeah girl,” says Al. She turns around to nod her chin at him, and they come to some sort of understanding. She looks at my cast.

            “What happened there, yo?”

            I lean forward and present my open palm to show her. But it’s all wrapped up so it just looks like I’m sticking out my arm. I don’t answer for a second, waiting for Al to say I got in a vicious gangfight in Chicago or Harris to say that we had a little accident and it was his fault. The inside of the car is decorated with Catholic stuff all over. There’s a wooden cross and rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror. Then I notice small posters of Jesus printed from a home computer: Jesus with a hot sun behind him, Jesus at the right hand of God, Jesus at the Last Supper. The last one’s taped over the odometer.

            I lean back and let the arm rest on my lap.

            “Well,” I say, and the wind is just as loud as my voice, “we were at a friend’s house last night. See, we just graduated from high school. We chilled at his place on Pioneer Court—I always remember the name cause it’s his pornstar name. You know, your first pet plus the street you grew up on: Dino Pioneer.”

            The girls laugh. I go on.

            “Anyway, we’re just sitting around when our friend goes, Hey, you wanna try something cool? I heard that if you take melted wax and set it on fire, and then pour boiling water over it, it creates like a huge explosion or fireworks or something. And I swear, I remember coming out of this guy’s house earlier that day”—I point at Al—“and his mom yelled out at us, Make good decisions!”

            “No kidding,” laughs Harris. “She did say that, didn’t she.”

            “Make good decisions. Or fire.” I use my hands to weigh the options. The burned arm is the bad one. “So guess what we did?”

            “It exploded?” the driver says.

            “No, no. So here’s how it goes. We just take a couple tiny table candles and melt them in a pot. In another pot we got the water going. And whose stupid idea was it to do this in the kitchen instead of taking it outside?”

            Nobody answers me. Maybe it was nobody’s fault.

            “But nobody wants to do the deed, either. Our friend Pablo—Dino Pioneer—he takes a match and lights the wax up. But the water, that’s the last and scary part. He’s the one who suggested the whole thing but he’s never even seen what happens. So we’re standing around, and wasting time cause the wax is starting to burn up and the water’s cooling quick. So I step up.”

            I decide not to say that I was egged on, that I’m the one who always hangs back and even Al said it’s not fair unless everyone in the group does stupid shit at some point. I decide not to say that secretly I hoped this would happen, that I would lose my hands or my hearing, or something, some excuse to get me out of my life.

            “And everybody backs the hell up, right. I’m standing there in a damn tank top, holding this pot of boiling water. And then I toss it up, right into the flaming wax.”

            “So what happened?” asks the front passenger. Her eyes have been on me this whole time. She looks soft to the touch, the way the sunlight rounds the edges of her hair into a lighter brown. Only the driver’s watching the road now.

            “You know how mushroom clouds look in the movies or in cartoons, where it’s a shaft that goes straight up and then spreads out at the top? Well, it was exactly fucking like that, except it was pure fire. Whoosh! Goes straight up to the ceiling and all over the cupboards. It’s real quick too, just spreads, and then it sucks right back into the pot and we hear the tap tap tap taptaptap of wax hitting the countertop. I didn’t even realize until after hearing it that my arms were on fire.”


            I don’t say that Pablo ran for his fire extinguisher and twisted his ankle on the way back, and instead of putting out my arm he sprayed his walls down first. I don’t talk about trying to stop, drop, and roll, and how it doesn’t actually work if it’s just one limb because I ended up just pounding my hand against the kitchen floor. I don’t talk about how I screamed.

            “What was it like?” asks the driver.

            I hold out my arms again, my battle wounds. “Hurt like hell.”

            It still hurts. They got me to the emergency room pretty quick, and I was lucky I had my insurance stuff in my wallet. My dad never had to find out.

            Meanwhile, we’re getting to 80 miles an hour, alone on the road. I hear Harris and Al breathe out, like they’d just relived the fire and were glad to have it over. Every time we tell stories like this, we burst out laughing after. Or we come up with a new wisecrack. This time, nothing.

            Suddenly I don’t know why we’re here or what we’re running from. I look at Jesus but his eyes are turned away. We’re going too fast now and the wind punches at us with the sound of ripping paper, the windows are all open, and I’m wishing I could stand on my own two feet.

            “Stop,” I gasp, but not loud enough. My stomach tightens and I don’t care anymore, I just want to be home.

            “Stop!” yells someone else. I swallow hard as we come up on a car backing out from behind the fence ahead of us. The brakes weep. We swerve a hard right. The side of the car grinds against the fence and all I hear is scraping metal and wood snapping apart: crk crk! crk! crkkk!

            We skid sideways into the dirt, spinning a mist of brown. The car slows down, then jolts to a complete stop. Then silence, and heaving chests. We all look at each other. No one seems hurt. I hold my arm, numb and cold.

            The driver turns around to look at us and smiles nervously. She extends one hand, palm down, to say, “Chill.” We all laugh a little, the kind of laugh that survivors share when they realize they don’t ever want to see each other again. We step out of the car to check the damage. It’s just scrapes and dirt cakes along the doors. I can almost believe that nothing happened at all.

            We get back in the car, moving slowly, hardly talking. We’re on a detour in the wrong direction, so we ask the girls to drop us off at an intersection once we’re back in traffic.

            When we’re there, the driver pulls over and offers her hand to me, which catches me off guard because we’re supposed to be strangers, just a ride, passing through.

            “My name’s Rachel,” she says, “and this one’s Marina.”

            I fold my left hand over her right and say, “I’m Raphael,” and I know that it’s true, because I don’t belong to this group, and these are not my brothers.

            But then Al says without missing a beat, “I’m Mikey,” and gives a cartoon wink.

            And Harris says, “Name’s Don.”

            As we get out, the driver says, “Be safe, y’all.”

            “You too.” And they drive off without looking back.

            Smog rises around us and cars are honking everywhere. We’re on the wrong road, and probably the same distance away from Walmart as when we started. It’s nearing evening; the sunset’s cooling down. The three of us stand at a crosswalk until the light turns green. We cross the street, ready to move forward, because there’s nowhere else for us to go.


Henry W. Leung studied creative writing at Stanford University and the National Book Foundation's summer writing programs. My work has appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Lantern Review, Xanadu, and the forthcoming Solo Café 6.

return to top of page

The Dummy's Guide to Marriage Proposals

J. A. Pak


She first asked him to marry her when she was five, when `marry me' meant `I like you more than anybody else' and she loved everybody around her who was nice to her.  And he was so very nice to her.

She waited two more years to ask again.  He informed her, with regret, that he was already married.  She shouldn't have dallied at recess.  She wanted to ask again when she was eleven, but she'd begun that process of self-suppression.  Her next proposal was when she'd just turned nineteen.  She was a little on the drunk side and he was so beautiful and all her emotions, her desires, her ambitions, her hopes just kept tumbling and tumbling out of her.  It was her longest proposal — about twenty minutes.  She cried.  And cried and cried.

She didn't have the opportunity to ask again until she was fifty-six.  She asked very lightly and he said that he loved her and always will.

Time flew and suddenly they were eighty-two.  Week by week he came by and they took long walks and he'd find himself proposing.  And she'd smile and hold his hand and the question flies in circles, in small, looping circles like a toy aeroplane caught in a drift of warm air.


J.A. Pak's work has appeared in a variety of publications, from Quarterly West to Art/Life, VerbSap to Everyday Genius.  More can be seen at


return to top of page

"Iowa Couplets Cover: Corn" by Ladislav Hanka


Going North

Nels Hanson



               “—Observant scholar, traveler,

               Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave,

               A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades,

               A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,

               A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

               All these are Robinson in sleep . . .”


I barely heard him those evenings Weldon Kees—my dead wife’s favorite poet, who’d jumped from the Golden Gate in 1955—followed me as I browsed through Sears, Hank Bauer’s, Big 5 Sports. I felt him watching with alarm when I bought new waders, four flannel shirts, a webbed canvas military belt, mosquito repellent, and seven pairs of woolen socks.

“Good thick ones,” said my mother’s ghostly voice, “like your father used to wear.”

I checked the different items off my list with bold blue V’s. Rod, two reels, hunting knife, snake kit, lip balm, compass, waterproof matches in a thumb-sized plastic case. My passport. Aspirin in a tin pill box.

Like a commando preparing for a secret mission, I arranged the gear on the cleared dining room table. I’d wander in to admire my building store.

“It looks good, Phil,” agreed my fallen father, killed 34 years ago by the shooter on the Texas tower. “Real shipshape.”

As the sun set and fell across the mahogany surface lined with glowing equipment, I sensed that downtown at headquarters, in the darkness under the sidewalk’s grate, the new sleek cat was waiting. Poised and alert, my totem animal—the feral tabby now recovered from its injuries—was eager, ready for the night . . . .

With big X’s, Sergeant Glad was crossing out the dates on the calendar. He’d tacked a map above his desk and drawn a red circle around Clarksville, then a bigger, heavier circle around the county. Then a third, circumscribing Montana, so our destination looked like a bull’s eye.

“The albino buffalo was sacred,” Glad explained. “The Indians thought it was magic. It could change into a hawk or fox. Or a woman.

“They tried to use ghost shirts to stop the white men’s bullets. Pretty sad, huh, Phil? Cloth flak vests, with eagles painted on them.”

Glad had talked of nothing but cowboys and Indians, buffalo, horses, and rodeos for six weeks, since the federal exchange had come up and we’d put in for Montana. He was reading shiny paperback supermarket novels of the Old West and he’d gone to the library to find more detailed reference books.

I dragged myself through the coroner’s final report of the sensational murder that had recently grabbed a week’s headlines in the Bee: “Multiple stab wounds to the chest . . . sharp, flexible object . . . thoracic cavity incised . . .”

Helen Blane, an attractive, 32-year-old elementary school teacher, had knifed and mutilated her unfaithful lover-psychiatrist with a nail file during an after-hours therapy session.

The next afternoon Glad arrested her as she came out of a beauty salon on Van Ness, then patted her down. She was clean, so Glad opened her purse and found Ravenscroft’s heart wrapped in a handkerchief.

With latex gloves I placed it carefully in a zip-lock evidence bag. I felt its weight in my palm. It was both heavier and lighter than I thought it would be.

On the Bluffs, a boy named Hargrove, a high school water polo star, ran down his lawyer father with a John Deere tractor-lawnmower, after a quarrel over the boy’s 14-year-old pregnant girlfriend. Later, the lab attributed the baby’s paternity to the elder Hargrove.

For approximately five dollars and assorted change, Chico Peña, a gang member with “El Loco” tattooed on his neck, bludgeoned to death Heraldo Vasquez, a Mexican national who wore a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe and pushed an ice cream cart that said “Helado” in yellow gothic script. Vasquez left a wife and six children in Morelos.

Early on a Wednesday evening when Glad and I pulled up in front of a pink house to meet an anonymous witness, someone fired from the alley. The rear window of the Dodge exploded as I ducked and steered the car against the curb, my father whispering at my ear: “You’re fine now, yes, just like that.”

Glad managed to jump out and shoot twice at the running form who carried a rifle. Peña staggered and then fell, dropping the gun, screaming and grasping at his knee. In his back pocket was Vasquez’s wallet with the embossed horse’s head on the cover.

But there was one case, the weekend before Memorial Day, a strange one—“Good strange,” as Glad had called it—that I brooded about for a week, that invaded my thoughts and wouldn’t let me rest, even though the escape to Montana was only days away, already we’d received the tickets for our departure.

It was a murder that wasn’t a murder, an armed robbery that wasn’t a robbery but a generous act of charity, involving an 86-year-old man and a rare blue flower, $90,000 in cash, an expensive wooden arm like a sculpture, holy water, and an inspiring letter from a long-deceased wife—

“When at last our hearts are reunited, we will be as old friends returning to a garden—”

I thought of it as the Blue Flower Case and kept seeing white-haired Albert Rainie dead on the lawn, beside him the large-faced flower like a deep-blue dahlia that breathed a disturbing and intoxicating scent.

And the special water in the crystal vase, his wife’s handwriting on the love letter 60 years old, composed before they were married, soon after Rainie had lost his arm in an Alaskan mine explosion.

In a full-length mirror attached to the victim’s bedroom door I saw myself sitting at the kitchen table, where the polished arm rested with its gesturing walnut hand and the fragrant blue flower rose from its crystal vase.

Nothing added up, and I heard Kees recite his poem about the foiled detective, called “Crime Club,” from Kees’ book, “The Last Man” which I’d found on Ellen’s night table in Greenwich Village after her death:

“No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair—”

Glad leaned against the drain board and drank the dead man’s whiskey. I saw my reflection in the mirror and half-imagined I was in my house on Sawyer, that the old man was my father, then myself, that I was old and had offered the blue flower to the memory of Ellen.

I reached with a careful finger to touch a petal that threatened to drip with blue, then dipped a fingertip into the crystal vase and tasted the water.

“Does it taste different,” Glad asked, “than regular water?”

“It tastes the same,” I said.

The overwhelming vanilla aroma filled the car when Glad insisted on delivering the blue flower and the wooden arm to the mortuary. As we drove home, the scent remained, and that night I dreamed about Rainie and the flower, and the old man’s wife.

And Ellen.

Again Ellen was alive, beautiful, she hadn’t cut her wrists in her artist-lover’s New York apartment six years ago—


And then she leaned and kissed my lips as the star jasmine’s scent at the screen turned to the blue flower’s, the flower’s scent was hers—

Ellen had come home, to deliver an urgent message that on waking I tried to remember but couldn’t as the phone rang and rang—

For several days I was obsessed by the dream and its meaning, wondered what Dr. Edwards would have made of it, wished my old professor were alive so he might help me probe the mystery, maybe hypnotize me and let me relive it.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ellen had told me something vitally important, whispering a request or warning or secret at my ear before she kissed me.

At Rainie’s service, the blue flower stood alone in its vase on a short column of marbled plastic. Rainie’s grave lay beside his wife’s, which had a tripod and a large floral display from the Catholic Church. Along with Glad and me was an older woman, Rainie’s neighbor, who had known that Rainie read at night, which explained his wife’s letters in the night table drawer.

Behind us stood a priest from Sacred Heart, where the old man had left the coat with the money sewn in the lining, then taken the water from the font.

The funeral director hired a part-time minister to say a few words. The minister was a cabinet maker, a modest, well-meaning man who delivered eulogies for those without church affiliation or faith, and I’d let him look at the letter from Rainie’s wife, the one I’d read the night I’d dreamed of Ellen.

The flower’s scent moved about the mourners in a cool inviting mist above the clipped lawn, as if the flower were still opening, it hadn’t reached full bloom and its perfume grew sweeter and more complex as the minister quoted the words of consolation and promise the young woman had written so many years ago when she learned of her fiancé’s tragic accident.

The casket remained closed but Glad and I and the funeral director knew that Rainie wore the walnut arm. As Glad and I walked away, I sensed the flower’s beckoning scent lingering on the air and stopped, looking back at the green funeral tent across the lawn of flat graves where the workmen lowered the coffin with a crank.

“Ellen,” I whispered that night, before I went to sleep, “did you try to reach me?”

There wasn’t any answer.

A week went by and I called the mortuary, to ask if the flower were still at the cemetery. I had a police color photo of the flower, but I thought its fragrance might rekindle the dream of Ellen or trigger another.

The director himself had gone to the graveyard the day after the service. The flower was so unusual that he thought it would be all right to take it home, to keep it alive for a few days as he studied it. He intended to dry it and preserve the seeds, so he could propagate it. Botany was his hobby and he knew flowers pretty well.

But at Rainie’s fresh grave the blue flower was gone, someone had taken it, sometimes children made collections for school.

After that I didn’t dream of Ellen or the flower again, my sleeping memory couldn’t recall her words, only the wonderful reassuring atmosphere of the bedroom awash with star jasmine, when Ellen appeared by the window’s blowing curtains in the silver moonlight.

“It’s all right,” I told her,  “you don’t have to answer.”

The blue flower was too beautiful and sweet for this life, for the blaring daylight of hot streets and sidewalks and red murder scenes. And the dream of Ellen was finally a dream of the dead, who were forever lost, more distant and silent than the English climber Wilson I’d read about in National Geographic, the brave mountaineer packed for 60 years in the high Himalayan ice.

If there was another world beyond this earthly life, an impenetrable wall separated the two, remembered voices of old loves couldn’t pass the iron door that swung one way only and slammed finally shut.

I put the picture away and forgot about Albert Rainie and the flower and whispered secrets from beyond the grave as the air filled again with conifer and fern and my day thoughts returned to sparkling waters and leaping trout—

On the 56th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, I felt crisp and new as I stepped briskly from the taxi and entered the terminal alone, shorn of the phantoms who’d arrived in early March as the violent city spouted blood. I checked my bags and placed my badge and gun and house keys in a plastic dish while I went through the metal detector. I walked the tunnel to the loading gate, handed over my ticket, then out a door and along the cyclone fence with my fishing gear under my arm.

The plane had arrived early and was already taking on passengers. A pool of businessmen with briefcases, sport-shirted vacationers, women in shorts and straw hats, and a large man in fancy Western dress stood by the stairs.

I glanced over my shoulder, looking for Glad, who, the story went, really had been late to his own wedding.

“Phil! I was getting antsy you’d miss the flight—”

I stepped back, for a second sure that a new visitor spoke, the Angel of Death relieved that I hadn’t escaped my appointment—

Then the familiar voice registered and I felt a wave of welcome surprise, a rare, full-bodied laugh blooming and instantly dying in my chest.

“I’ve been looking all over.”

In expensive ostrich-leather cowboy boots, wide black Stetson, Western-cut tan sports coat, a white shirt with pearl buttons and green piping and a bolo tie, tooled belt, and outsized silver buckle encrusted with a bronze lasso over two cocked Colt .45’s, Glad resembled a young Gene Autry and made a vivid contrast to my summer gray.

We waited to board from the hot tarmac.

“It’s what they wear up there—”

I shook my head.

“You watch,” Glad said as we settled in our seats, pulling at his hat brim so it nearly covered his nose. “You’ll be odd man out.”

People looked over at us, but as the plane took off, then dipped a wing and banked, climbing with ease above the smog-bound city, I felt immediate relief. The random glint of a warehouse roof or parking lot signaled a murder or vicious assault about to take place, and North Fresno’s ten thousand swimming pools of the rich formed ironic dashes and dots of a foreign code I no longer needed to decipher.

Tentacles of new subdivisions reached to claim tracts of vineyard and orchard planted in neat rows, and I could see the next section of field that would fall. The green squares of farmland, the great San Joaquin, looked gray through the dirty air.

Ten minutes later, I stared down at the brown and scanty pine forests of the Sierra Nevada and felt shock, then a pang of comfort that Ellen wasn’t alive to mourn her beloved mountains.

“We’re out of it,” Glad said. He looked out my window, his black hat on his lap.

“Just in time,” I said, taking in the sick woods and slopes of dry slash.

The plane cleared the tree line and the wall of granite peaks and began to cross the Great Basin. The Nevada desert was a tonic, the wasteland intact and empty and dry. I absorbed the pristine desolation of pale rock and sage as Glad talked about Montana and all the things we would do.

“Fishing, Phil, and campfires. No city lights. No smog. We’ll see stars.”

“We’re on assignment,” I reminded Glad, “it’s not a vacation.”

“No, you’re right, Phil—”

Glad nodded off and I watched the parched land for half an hour, then the rippled surface of the blue inland sea, the spreading veins of coffee-colored brine, the white shore and specks of circling gulls, then greenery again and the temple as we set down before the wall of Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake.

“This Clarksville?” Glad said, sitting up, blinking sleepily at the terminal.

“No,” I said. “Not yet.”

“Wake me when we get there.” Glad closed his eyes again and was asleep.

I waited with interest and building excitement, sipping a Scotch and water. The plane took on new passengers and rose again, straight north for the Rockies and blue lakes I’d dreamed of for a month as I cast my line through the thin clean air before I woke and drove to headquarters.

The approaching outline of high ranges lit the horizon. Pines and quaking aspen mantled the shoulders that narrowed toward steep slides of scree, below the scattered snowfields and the gray glacier-streaked citadels.

Raw granite scarps 100-acres wide notched the sky with sheer faces and pinnacles and shaded flanks like the moon’s dark side. Each sharp crag cast a cold shadow and appeared its own K-2, a twisted stone cypress shaped by agonizing winds.

Ten million years of ice had cut the ridges into giant shards whose razor edges threatened the eye and made my fingers close across my palm.

Unexpectedly I shivered, a cord cinching tight in my shoulder, now my neck as the bare formations passed 4,000 feet below. Something chill raced down my side, I realized my hands were moist.

My pulse beat at my throat as I placed the plastic glass on the tray and tried suddenly to catch my breath—

It was silly but the looming nakedness of the peaks terrified me.

The dead jutting rock glared up inhuman and obscene, jabbing the blue air.

No lichen or moss or blade of grass would venture near the Earth’s upraised splintered dinosaur bones. The shattered towers stood like abandoned nameless tombstones of dead gods, then the awful gods themselves, cracked and turned to stone—

Each cleft and minaret, ancient ledge and jagged crown—I saw them all.

I stared through fresh icy waves of anxiety past the jet’s wing—hypnotized by spires in a row that resembled honed incisors, for killing and tearing, the satisfaction of a cannibal’s hunger that would end only with the end of all things—as I forgot the day and year and my destination—

I’d felt the same paranoia before, on a night transpolar flight three weeks after Ellen’s death. I was on my way to Paris, to see the paintings Ellen loved, to look for her strolling ghost in some dark museum like a church.

As I neared the top of the world I watched the endless waste of ice and pines whose white silence reigned forever absolute, unbroken by the beating of a human heart. The world of snow had its own slow pulse, I could smell its frozen scentless breath, see in the North’s eternal winter what Ahab saw in the breaching blank face of the whale, for a flash glimpsed Rockwell Kent’s woodcut of the maddened one-legged captain and the monster in Ellen’s copy of Moby Dick.

Life had never promised love or calm, but only opened into another hollow aspect of itself, death and death and death and death, a series of empty white Chinese boxes.


I hunched in my seat, trembling and gripping the arm rests as I fought the impulse to run for the emergency exit, pull the latch and jump—

Now directly below, one pillar like a broken femur became the sniper’s tower in Austin—from his perch the former Marine and Eagle Scout chose his targets as I swam and laughed a mile away with Randy Cochran at Reimer’s Park.

The bleached remains of Whitman’s victims—my policeman father and Lisa Barlow and the 14 others—lay scattered at the tower’s base, the wide shelf of split boulders sleeping whitely in the sun.

I blinked, then saw the glinting aluminum was real and not an hallucination, a rigged snapshot of my panic. The still-shiny plane lay in three silver pieces across the snow-spotted stone field.

“XJ417,” read the black numerals on the uncrumpled wing.

The twin-engine plane was like the body of Wilson on Everest. Every ten years or so, snow blew from his unburied frosted corpse and he was rediscovered by a climbing party that passed him on the way to the top.

Now Weldon Kees whispered at my ear, leaning forward from the seat behind me as I surveyed the wreck, half-searching for survivors:


               “The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water,

               And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his

                       Love . . . .

               The pilot’s relief on landing is no release . . . .

               The world, like a beast impatient and quick,

               Waits only for those that are dead . . . .”


“Earth,” “Nature,” “God,” they were the same, just different names for “El Loco.” I could read the tattooed word on Chico Peña’s neck as he fingered Heraldo Vasquez’s horse-head wallet.

Dr. Edwards spoke:

“‘Say there is a devil or an evil god, with a body and face and hands like ours,’ a patient told me once, a wealthy trial attorney who was certain all his clients were guilty. ‘On one long finger he wears this ring. It flickers bright and dark, our night and day—’”

But now I noticed that the light in the cabin had shifted, just as I was ready to jump up and go sit in the restroom away from the windows.

The sky out the porthole seemed softer, almost rosy, as if lit from below. Warm sun fell across my tensed arm. Beyond a far crest I could see a vast basin brimming with light.

I breathed deeply, sitting back as I glanced again at the jet’s frail shadow crossing the sculpted turrets.

The summits fell away toward gently sloping hills and open valleys and I felt myself drawn closer, as if toward an embrace. Watching the green land unroll, I thought of Ellen, who had loved all sentient and non-sentient things, the flowers and grasses and hand-like summer leaves she had sketched or painted in her watercolors.

How intently she could observe the smallest bird, describe in minutest detail a striped hood or splash of color. In her hands rocks came alive as she showed me a vein of greenish-blue, some striation that by its beauty suggested a hidden, deeper grace.

“Look, Phil, it’s like a mirror.”

It was as if all things existing in the world, each pebble or feather, bud or bright leaf, were a reflection of something beyond sight. I had been blind and she had made me see, and the more I saw the more life became a mysterious hope and opportunity.

Ellen placed a furry seed or blue robin’s egg in my open palm and I had known that it was impossible to die.


               “I want your lips upon my lips, your mouth

               Upon my breasts, again, again, again, again;

               I want the morning filled with sun.”


Past Ellen’s reflection in the heavy glass, I watched a blue and winding river that found its way through a lush-looking arroyo like a living vein flowing toward the heart of something. Again I remembered the Blue Flower Case and the circles of large petals around the flower’s eye-like center the color of water.

“Fly-fished late September,” I whispered to Ellen, “upper Kings. You drew the purple flowers along the shore. I waded upstream, admiring you—”

“I was painting the blue flower. I had to include the cloud of bumblebees. The flower was so sweet they had to have it. Can you smell it?”

“Yes, Ellen, I can—”


The stewardess stretched across Glad to offer packets of salted almonds and I realized I had talked out loud, to answer Ellen. She’d softly spoken the words from Kees’ “Girl At Midnight,” before alerting me to the blue flower’s scent.

The gold-flecked eyes in the pretty made-up face gazed into mine, gauging, trying to make some professional judgment.

“Thank you,” I managed, quickly reaching for one of the colored foil wrappers.

She pulled back and moved slowly up the aisle with her tray, turning twice to stare again into my face.

“Who cares what the living think?” Ellen asked. “What does she know?”

I looked down through my window, watching a valley of green alfalfa, the yellow hay rolled in little stacks like loaves.

“Not so much,” I whispered, for Ellen’s sake, as I tasted the spicy almonds on my tongue and the tang of a final botched intimacy.



Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and writer/editor. He earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana and received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and a citation in its Joseph Henry Jackson competition. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, South Dakota Review, Starry Night Review, and other journals. Stories are currently in press at  River Poets Journal and the Overtime Chapbook Series at Blue Cubicle Press.


return to top of page

Vanilla Orchid


Murray Dunlap



The only thing Heather asks for when we move is a bed.  Not a mattress set on skinny metal bars, but an honest-to-God bed with headboard and frame.  She says a bed should be made from wood.  She points to a magazine and says Sutter-style panel bed.  Then, crown molding, bun feet, mortis-and-tenon joinery.  

So I say, I’ll build it. 

I’ve got hands for wood and it’s two months before I start a teaching job at Bayside Academy.  Heather smiles.  She knows I’m serious.  We talked about this on our honeymoon at the Grand Hotel just three weeks ago.  And I’ve done this before.  I built our coffee table to the exact dimensions of a sushi service.  I have my grandfather’s lathe.  I can handle this.  I buy lumber, clear space in the garage, and dig my tools from moving boxes.  I drop an old sheet to the floor and lug my worktable to the center.  I rip the picture from the magazine and tack it to the wall.  The measurements are right here on the page. 

I’ve got hands for wood.  I can handle this.

            My brother Graham stops by for coffee on Saturday. We’re in the garage and I’m pointing out modifications to the bed.

            “Look here,” I say. I drop a finger on graph paper. “Drawers.” 

            “Drawers?” he says.

            “You’d never think to do it, would you?  I could sink two drawers on each side. You know, sweaters, sheets, whatever.”

            “So what, you’re going to dig holes in the mattress?”

            “No. Come on. The mattress sits on top of beams.”

            Graham squints at the plans. “Won’t that be sort of high?”

            “A mattress is only ten inches thick.”

            “But the box springs.”

            “Yeah.  Those too.  It won’t be too high.”

            “You’ll need a pole vault to get in bed.”

            “Fuck off.”

            “What about tools?”

            “I’m all set.  Pop’s lathe, that jigsaw, and my baby here,” I stroke the yellow handle of a circular saw. “It’s a DeWalt.  Heavy duty.  Carbide tipped blade.”

            “But you’ve got detail work in these plans.”

            “A few hand tools.  That’s all I need.”

            Graham pours the last of the coffee into his cup.  The coffee maker turned up in the garage when we moved, and I’ve decided to keep it here for this project.  For me, it’s coffee all morning and cokes in the afternoon.  I don’t sleep much, so caffeine keeps me moving.  For a stretch in college, I felt lucky to get two straight hours.  I wake at the faintest sound.  If the ceiling fan hums at a higher pitch, I’m up. Heather is just the opposite.  She’ll sleep through lightning and thunder. 

            “Pop built this entire house,” I say. “I can build a bed.”

Graham sits on a stool and scratches stubble on his chin.  He can grow a full beard in three days.  He readjusts his baseball cap. We talk about the bed, the Grand Hotel, and Alabama’s summer heat.  Our mutt dog Blue circles twice, then lies at our feet. Graham finishes his coffee.

            “Is Blue fixed?” Graham asks.

            “They fix all the dogs at the pound,” I say. “No exceptions.”

            “It’s a shame.  Blue is a fine dog.”

            “Blue was the best man in our wedding.”

            “So why don’t you tell me why you really eloped.”

            “I just told you,” I say. “Too much stress.  Keep things simple.  Two people, a waterfront view, a nice sunset.  What more could you want?”

            “Your family, for starters.”

            “I know.  I know.  But that’s just not us.  Heather and I wanted our day to be our day.”

            “Give me a fucking break.  Weddings aren’t about the bride and groom.  It’s the weepy mothers that deserve it.  And hell, you’ve done this three times now.”

            “Uh huh.  But don’t forget the weepy stepmothers and half-sisters and that wanker third cousin who pissed in the azaleas and stole a bottle of bourbon from an open bar.”

            I sketch a circle into the headboard and look up. “Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at your wedding.  But that’s not what Heather wanted.”

            “Fine.  But what about you?”

            “I wanted the same thing.  Just the two of us.” 

            “No wankers.”

            “Not a one.”

            I tap my pencil on the work table and grin.  Graham smiles back.  Blue twitches oversized paws, chasing rabbits in his sleep.

            “Can you believe we both moved back to Alabama?” I ask.
            “My new job is worth it,” he says. “But I didn’t think you’d ever come back.”

            “And with Heather,” I say.  “That’s the hardest part to believe.”

            “Sis won’t come back,” Graham says. “She wouldn’t live in Alabama if they made her queen of Mardi Gras.”

            “She left because they tried to make her queen.”

            “Do you miss Virginia?” Graham asks.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Just what I said.  I’m talking about the cabin, the dog, trout streams, cooler weather.”

            “Sure. The dog,” I say. “I miss some things. But not others.”

            “Audrey wasn’t all bad.”

            “But our relationship.”  I raise my eyebrows and exhale.

            “Things looked good to me.” Graham slips both arms inside his t-shirt and pushes out faux breasts.  He stretches the shirt until it tears.

            “You’re an idiot,” I say. “That’s not even the right wife.”

            “I’m pretty sure that remembering who you were married to was your problem,” he says. “At least you kept the dog this time.”

            Blue begins to bark.  Not real barks, but quiet, dream barks that sound more like whimpers. 

            “My only child,” I say.

            “I should get back to little Ellie,” he says.

            “She’s a sweet one.”

            “She is.  You know she’s shy of men now.  Not sure why.”

            “Is that normal?”

            “Sarah says it is.  She’s read all the books, so I’m sure it’s fine.  When are you guys going to step up?”

            “Heather doesn’t want kids. We’ve got Blue.”

            “You’ve said that.”

            “I’m with her.”

            “You’ll come around. Both of you.”

            “We want what we want,” I say.

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Graham flicks a hand out and pats the air between us. He steps under the open garage door and into gauzy mist. “Better work on your bed, Ben.  You can fill those drawers with rubbers.”


            When Heather wakes up, she rolls off our mattress and walks straight into the garage.  She’s in t-shirt and panties and her newly cropped hair stands on end.  I can’t get used to the haircut and I double-take when she steps into the light.

            “Well?” she asks.

            “It’s been a week,” I say. “I’m in the design phase.” 

            “Just checking.”  Heather goes to the coffee pot.  She picks it up, then puts it down.

            “Graham stopped by. I’ll make more.”

            “No.  I’ll make a pot in the kitchen.  Your mother sent us a giant chrome thing that says it’ll make a latte.”

            “Is that what that is?”

            “It says it makes espresso.  Steams the milk and everything.  Push a button and presto, it’s hot and ready.”

            I slip my hand between Heather’s thighs.

“Presto,” I say.

“Nope,” she says. “I’m just hot.”

I pull back my hand and shake it.  I blow on my fingers.

            “This humidity is unreal,” I say.

            “I’m sweating just standing here.”

“Fairhope is hot,” I say.

“Hot.” Heather says this through a yawn.  She lifts her arms and stretches her back, exposing a pink, dime-sized birthmark below her navel. 

            “I’ve been designing a carving for the headboard.”

            “A carving?”

            “Yeah.  An oak tree.  Oaks symbolize love.  I looked it up.”

            “Love.”  Heather raises her eyebrows and snorts.

            “Love.”  I make a heart with my index fingers and thumbs.  “If I add acorns, it could symbolize fertility, but I figure we’ll be good with love.”

            “Are you shitting me with this?”

            “No maam.  I am one artsy motherfucker.”

            Heather stands close and I wrap an arm around her waist.  She still smells of salon chemicals.  I kiss the nape of her neck for the first time in years.  Her skin is damp with perspiration.  The birthmark turns red.


            A month later, we throw a dinner party.   The boxes are gone, art hangs on the walls, and the to-do-list goes in the garbage.  We have power, phone, cable, and water.  Heather’s Jeep and my Volvo carry Alabama plates, licenses, and insurance again. We’ve eaten two scoops of crawfish at Judge Roy Bean’s and been out to see the Monday night movie at Red Bluff Theater.  I even found a lake behind some soybean fields that I didn’t know existed. There’s a path through the woods and I can walk over without getting caught.  When I’m frustrated by our bed, when the measurements don’t match up, or when I ruin yet another bun foot on the lathe, Blue and I sneak out to the lake and fish. 

            But the house feels settled enough, so we invite three couples to dinner.  Graham and Sarah, of course; they come early and help set up.  Fred and Maxine arrive with a potted vanilla orchid.  Heather swaps out her own centerpiece for the new one. Yellow flowers hang down like trumpets with softly curved openings.  Long, thermometer shaped buds dangle next to the blooms.  Buds outnumber blooms four to one.

            “Thank you so much,” Heather says. “It looks like this will flower for weeks.”

            “We love them,” Maxine says.

            “Yeah,” Fred says. “But get this. The flowers on these guys can only be pollinated in a single day.  If the greenhouse man isn't there to hand-pollinate on that day, and just that one day, the vanilla bean won’t form.

            “This thing makes beans?” I ask.

            “That makes me sad,” Heather says. “How does it work in the wild?”

            “I think there’s a Mexican insect that does the dirty work,” Fred says.

            “The orchid pimp,” Graham says, turning his hat sideways.

            “Only one bottle of wine down and we’ve moved right into pimps,” Maxine says.  She lifts a glass of club soda on ice. “Cheers.”

“Take your hat off,” Sarah says. “This isn’t fight night.”

Graham works a combination of upper-cuts in the air.

Shane and Delia let themselves in the front door, red-faced and carrying four bottles of wine. Blue barks and wags his thick brown tail. Shane lets Blue lick his face.

“Sorry we’re late,” Delia says. “Traffic.”

“Sex,” Shane says.  He’s got a thick red beard and perfect teeth.

“Pimps and sex,” Sarah says. “Delightful.” 

Maxine and Sarah clink glasses.

 “Welcome, welcome,” I say.  Heather and I take the wine bottles and put them on the sideboard. 

“Wine, beer, or booze before dinner?” Heather asks.

“Two wines,” Delia makes a peace sign with her hand and Shane grabs it.  He bends down her middle finger.  “One wine, one whisky.”

Delia frowns and points her index finger at Shane. “Be good.”

“Okay,” I say. “Everybody knows everybody, right?”

“Maxine and Delia haven’t met,” Heather says, handing Delia her wine.  I pour the scotch for Shane and hand it across the table.

“Maxine, Delia. Delia, Maxine,” I say.  Maxine stands a foot taller than Delia and when they shake hands, it looks as if Delia is in mid-curtsy. 

“Shane, you remember Fred from Graham’s wedding.”

“You bet,” Shane says. “Fred and I conspired to throw Graham in the Bay.”

“Fuckers,” Graham says. “I had to ride in the limo like that.  They charged us extra.  I got a rash in my crotch.”

Shane and Fred high five.

“I love the house,” Delia says. “Beautiful.”

“We love it too,” Heather says, then looks to me. “Just one last project and we’re all set.” 

“It’ll be done in three weeks,” I say.

“What’s all this?” Maxine asks.

“The pole-vault bed.” Graham raises his glass.

“Shut up,” I say. “It’s going to be perfect.”

            “What, what, what?” Maxine says.

            “Ben has decided to build a bed for us,” Heather says. “Ben does great work.  You’ve seen the coffee table.”

            “Sushi night!” Fred says.  He squeezes his eyes shut and bows.  Shane plays along and bows back.

            “But this is a big project,” Heather says.

            “A bed should be rock solid,” Shane says.

“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ve got it under control.”

I turn to face the sideboard and pour fresh drinks.


After dinner, we step out onto the back porch so Shane can smoke.  Blue runs into the yard and disappears into shadow.  The Childress River slinks past, slow and bright with reflected moonlight. 

“Why don’t you ever fish the river?” Graham asks.

“I’m not sure anything’s alive in there,” I say. “Besides, I found a lake full of bluegill.”


I look at my feet and whistle.

“Is it a fucking secret?” Graham asks.

As Shane lights his cigarette, Fred pulls out a handful of cigars.

“I’ve got a secret,” Fred says.

“No you don’t,” Maxine says.

“Come on Max, it’ll be fine.” Fred see-saws one cigar between his fingers.  “Anyone join me?”

“Sure,” I say.  “What’s the occasion?” 

“Fred,” Maxine says.

“Max here--” Fred begins.

“Fred.” Maxine cuts him off and glares.

“We got one in the hopper!” With closed eyes, Fred lifts his chin up, bends his knees and thrusts his pelvis. 

“Fred.” Maxine crosses her arms. “We are supposed to wait until the doctors tell us it’s safe.”

Fred shrugs.  Then he hands out cigars.  Maxine and Sarah pass.  As we light cigars and make toasts, I listen to Blue snuffling through the shrubs.  He barks once, then growls, and something unseen scrambles over the fence.  Blue stands on hind legs and sniffs the fencepost, a patch of light falling across his uneven ears. 

“You know it’s a miracle we’re pregnant,” Maxine says.

“Max,” Fred says.

“What with Fred’s, well, limitation.” Maxine winks at Fred.  Fred doesn’t wink back.

“Give it up Freddie,” Graham says, lifting his fists.

“Slow swimmers?” Delia asks. “Cigars will do it.”

“Raw oysters cancel those out,” Shane says. “I eat them everyday.”

“Thanks Max,” Fred says.  His face goes slack. “I played rugby in college.”

“Oh hell,” I say. “I don’t think I want to hear the rest of this.”

“I do,” Heather says.

Fred looks at his shoes. “We were in a pile up and a guy stomped my balls with his cleat.” 

We all groan.

“They removed one and fixed up the other. They said I’d function fine, but they didn’t sound optimistic about fertility.”

“Uniball,” I say.

“Uniball hits a homerun,” Graham adds.

“Freddie one nut,” Shane says, extending a hand. “Congratulations on your baby.”  They shake in earnest.  Maxine giggles and pats a hand on her stomach. 

“I can’t believe you’ve kept this a secret all these years,” Heather says.

“Would you tell that story?” Fred asks.

“I think it’s sweet,” Delia says. “One little ball triumphs over adversity.”

At this, everyone laughs.  Shane squeezes Delia and kisses the top of her head.  Fred scrunches up his face and lifts a fist into the air.  He makes like he’s banging a door with the fist and marches in place.  Blue squeezes under Heather’s chair and barks.   I go inside for more wine and scotch.


On the path to the lake, Blue chases rabbits.  They’re small and fast and Blue has trouble deciding which one to hunt.  If a rabbit darts across the path, left to right, Blue runs hard through low brush until the second rabbit shoots under his nose heading left.  Blue brakes, sliding in pine straw, and reroutes with his nose to the ground.  By the time the third rabbit jumps across the path, Blue freezes, turning his head side to side, then looks at me.  I shrug. 

At the lake, Blue jumps in first thing.  He swims out fifteen or twenty yards, sniffing and lapping at the surface.  Then, as if suddenly realizing the ground has left his feet, Blue jerks a u-turn and paddles fast to shore.  He shakes, pants, and lies at my feet.  We do this every time.

I fish with a cheap Zebco I bought in town.  It’s short and light and easy to carry.  There’s a cartoon picture of Snoopy on the reel.  I tie cork, sinker, and hook to the end of the line and dig up worms on the way.  The underside of one rock can have enough for an hour.  If not, I keep a minnow lure in a box in my pocket.  The minnow, red and yellow with reflective stripes, makes a noise like a rattlesnake when I shake it.  The googley eyes on his face spin.  But the minnow never works.  I’ve only caught fish with worms. 

Today, the sun sits fat and hot at the top of the sky.  I’m soaked in sweat and hang my shirt from a branch.  I wade in knee-deep and cast into the crooks of a fallen tree.   Blue rolls on his back at the grassy edge of the shore.  I’m watching him when the fish bites.  The Snoopy rod doubles over.  Line pulls from the reel, singing high and fast.  I grab hold and start the fight.  But a few seconds and it’s done.  The fish loops the tree and my hook snags mossy wood.  The fish shakes loose and flicks a tail at the surface.  Blue runs for the splash.  Usually, Blue jumps right in and bites at the water as if the fish is still there.  But today, Blue stops short of the fallen tree.  He dips his head and sniffs.  He begins to whine. 

I reel in my line as I walk to the tree.  When I get the hook sorted out, I see what Blue sees.  A small raccoon, wet and motionless, lies curled up at the waterline.  Blue turns a circle and whines.

“Hush Blue,” I say. “No need to cry.”

 The raccoon looks to be a pound, maybe less.  His eyes sit open, unblinking as I nudge him with the tip of my sandal.   

“Easy Blue, I think this one’s dead.”

Blue lies down with his nose to the raccoon.  I can’t stop staring either.  The glassy eyes and black nose remind me of Blue as a puppy.  But it’s the hands that get me.  I go to my knees and take one between my finger and thumb.  It’s too much, so I stand up and look at the lake.  Three teenage girls walk along the opposite side with lawn chairs and beach towels. 

“Sorry buddy,” I say. 

But it won’t leave me and I sling the fishing pole into the lake.  The girls are setting up their chairs and stripping down to bathing suits.  They look up, suddenly embarrassed, and clutch towels to their chests.  I jump back from the water and run with Blue to the trail. 


            I wake up at two am, cold with night sweats.  Heather sleeps on her back, her head ticking side to side and her lips mouthing words I can’t understand.   I slip out and walk downstairs.  Blue stays put, curled in a ball at the foot of the bed.  His eyes follow me as I go.   In the kitchen, I take a coke from the fridge and carry it to the garage.  Thin squares of moonshine slant through the garage door windows, and in this indigo light, the bed looks finished.  The beams and bun feet seem evenly spaced, correctly sized, and precisely joined.  The stain seems rich and consistent.  The headboard, tall and wide and topped with crown molding, almost looks like the wall of an English billiards room. There are no drawers, and even if there were, there are no rubbers to fill them with.  I never started the carving.  I knew I would fail. 

But right now, in this light, the bed is beautiful.  I pad along the edge of the room, toeing boxes and stepping on screws.  I retrieve a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch from under the top tray of my tool box.  Then I pull the magazine page from the wall.  I backtrack to the kitchen for the phone and sit at the dining room table.  I don’t even open the coke.  Instead, I take a shot of scotch from the bottle and read the bottom margin: To place an order, call 1-800-762-1005, 24 hrs/day, 7 days/wk.  So I call.  I’m given an automated greeting and put on hold.  Your call will be taken in the order in which it was received.  I wonder who else finds themselves in need of Sutter style furniture at two o’clock in the morning.  I stare at the vanilla orchid, noticing that more blooms have opened, and think that maybe two o’clock in the morning is exactly the time at which a person finds himself in need of a good bed. 

            Blue appears in the kitchen, and it’s his clicking paws that remind me of a dog I used to know.  A dog who slept under the bed when I lived in Virginia.  My dead father’s bed.  It was a mahogany Hepplewhite with slender posts, hand carved rosettes and beading.  I could have sold it for five thousand dollars, but the thought of taking money made me sick.  It looked ridiculous even after I tore off the drapery.  Nothing felt right about sleeping in it, if I could sleep at all.  And then there’s the girl who became my wife who became my ex-wife who slept in that bed.  Not to mention the bastard who bought it.  So when I packed my bags, I left the bed where it stood. 

Blue licks my hand.  A cool draft floats in from the garage, sending chills down my back.  I spill drops of scotch on the table, beading up like dew.  I take another swallow.  It won’t be long now before summer is over.

A bright voiced woman clicks on the line.

“How can I help you this evening?”

“I want a bed,” I say.  I pluck an open flower from the orchid and hold it to my nose.  I am stupidly surprised to discover the bloom does, in fact, smell like vanilla.  I wipe my eyes.

“Is there a particular style I can help you with?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Sutter-style panel bed.  Crown molding, bun feet, mortis-and-tenon joinery.”


“Queen.  No, wait.  King.”

“Excellent choice. How will you be paying this evening?”


            “That’ll be fine sir. I just need to take down some information.”

“Of course,” I say. 

Then I tell her everything.



Murray Dunlap's work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Night Train, Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Bark, Mused and many others.  The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing.



return to top of page

Dorothy's Parker House Rolls: a recipe

Rebecca Coffey




A messy divorce.

A late spring night in Boston.




1.     First, let's agree to call them "Pahkah House Rolls," for the Pahkah House is a luxury Boston hotel. (We'll be returning to Noo Yawk on the mawning train.)

2.     Mannahs are made up of the trivialities of depawtment. Start this recipe off prettily. Check in to the Pahkah House, rouge your lips and knees, and proceed immediately to the bah…

3.     …whayah (oh, heavens; I cannot maintain that particular pretense), you'll meet athletic, Back Bay gentlemen singing divine drinking songs and wearing khakis (by which word I don't mean "car keys").

4.     Have a martini. Add another. And another. Do this until you've acquired the taste for them (you've always, actually, preferred Scotch) or until Boston Brahmins become altogether attractive, whichever comes first. It's important to become uninhibited enough to put on airs. For tonight you will be not be Dorothy Parker, a perennially broke writer and book critic with a tragically sensitive mind, and newly divorced wife of one Eddie Parker, a nobody. You will be Dorothy Parker, a whimsical, wealthy, if somewhat wounded wit of the "Boston Parker House family".

5.     To do this, you'll need to have yet another drink. Now, quickly, in the manner of someone tucking her own hotel's ash trays into her purse, abscond with three of the Parker House bar's best-looking gentlemen patrons to your room.

6.     Once in your room, order a few bottles from Room Service. Behave regally toward the waiter. Then pour drinks for everyone.

7.     Take the first gentleman eagerly to your bosom. Teach him everything he wasn't taught on the rugby fields at Exeter. Give yourself over to high ecstasies, and make sure to give him a few, too.

8.     Repeat as necessary with your other two gentlemen. Pray for strength. Really, put your back into it if you must.

9.     Pour more drinks.

10.  Mind you, no matter how much alcohol you add to this recipe, sooner or later, you will get tired. Tell the gentlemen to stop. It's only an old wives tale that you should taper off.

11.  Sleep.

12.  Before you leave for the train to New York the next morning, invite your gentlemen to breakfast with you in the dining room, where the waiters will call you Miss Parker, and you'll all be served delicious, trademark Parker House rolls, fresh from the oven.

13.  As you spread quickly-melting butter onto your bread, ask your three gentlemen a riddle: "What is worse than a Parker House roll?" Take a bite of the lovely bread. As steam escapes it, smile becomingly.

14.  Remember, your gentlemen are fleshy-faced, hung-over, sexually spent Bostonians with lovely, quivering souls. They haven't shaved, and they've only brushed their teeth with their index fingers. Their sort is prone to mental wanderings anyway, but this morning in particular your three gentlemen will be in no mood for riddles—or for anything from their Miss Parker except breakfast.

15.  Regardless of their mental condition, repeat, "What is worse than a Parker House roll?" Then, "Really. I won't be offended. We can all enjoy a 'Parker House' joke together, can't we?" Then, "Oh, come now." And then, "Ha! As if you three haven't come already." (Wink, wink.)

16.  Actually wink and wink.

17.  At this point, in a climax of courtliness, one or another of them may mumble, "What?"

18.  Say, "Pardon?"

19.  He will say, "What is worse than a Parker House Roll?".

20.  Now they are cooked. Positively braying at all three of them, screech, "Three Parker House Rolls! One with you! And one with you! And one with you!"

21.  Being Beantowners, at first they won't understand. But with your howls and squawks of laughter, as well as with your pointing finger and the palm of your other hand, which you will slap loudly on the table, you can help them appreciate your urbane, felicitous noun-to-verb word play. You can help them even as you hand them the hotel and restaurant bills, though the clarity in your message may cloud a bit as your laughter is overtaken by your shuddering and wretching, quivering and convulsing as specific memories of the previous night begin to emerge from blackout.

22.  Your eyes are getting sticky and pink. Dry your nose with the sleeve of the light coat you bought two years ago.

23.  There you go getting emotional again. Goodness. It's no wonder men never send you flowers.


Rebecca Coffey’s short fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Revolving Floor, and other literary outlets. She is a frequent contributor to Vermont Public Radio's "Commentary" series and to Discover Magazine.

return to top of page


Robert Schladale


       “Get out—now! Vais!”

     Isabel grabs the broom and they flee, all of them, scattering the chickens in the yard and racing down the road of dried mud towards the sea.

     “Drown in the ocean!”

     Yes, drown like Bastardo, who fell from the rocks and was swept away, the bobo.

     “What good are you?” she yells, knowing the answer. Boys will grow up to be men if they live. Criminals, cowards and worse.

     Chasing after them she swings the broom at the youngest, Pesti, and knocks him down. Without a word he scrambles to his feet while Isabel stops, breathing hard, and glances back towards the open door of the house for Felipe, the Liar who isn’t coming. Who’d better not come now. If she sees him—or any man—she will carve her initials upon his throat.

     Five men, five children who are like living sins. Not reminders of sin, there was no sin as long as there was love. But it died, like bad meat, and all she got were the maggots: Pestilencio, Tuberculo, Cáncer, Judas—and the dead one, Bastardo.

     She flies downhill like a demon.

       “Into the water!”


       Her vision swims.  The beach is alive.  In the fading light the sand moves as if infected. Tiny creatures squirm and wriggle towards the sea.

       “Tortugas!” Pesti squeals and races across the beach, followed by Cáncer and Tuberculo, kicking at the turtles, flinging them into the air with their toes, like soccer balls.

       From the rocks two men watch, unnoticed until the pulse of a cigarette, red like a Devil’s eye, catches Isabel’s attention. She grips the broom tightly and backs away.

       “There she is, the whore.”

       “Which one are you going to kill today, whore?”

       Pesti has a stick, he is batting the turtles thrown to him by Tuberculo. Pieces fly—heads, arms, legs—in every direction.  Cáncer too has a stick and beats on the sand, laughing at the sound of a shells cracking. Judas dances among the squirming turtles, some of which are just at this moment digging their way to the surface.  His fat feet squash them back down into the sand.

       Dizzy, Isabel stares. Dead and dying animals are mixed with shards of driftwood and broken shells and torn strands of kelp strewn across the sand. One, swatted her way by Pesti, lands at her feet. Raises its head as if begging her for mercy.


     Abruptly, bitter tears rush from her eyes.

       “Parada! Stop!”

       She flies at them, grabs the sticks and flings them into the marram grass.  Falls to her knees, cradles a tiny lifeless body against her heart and wails.

       Around them, gulls are landing for a feast. They snatch the living and the dead.


       “Guardarlos! Save them. “


       She stands, lunges at the gulls. “Tuberculo! Cáncer!” Flails her arms, kicks at them.

       The boys rush the gulls, scattering them back to the sky. They wheel and return, and a battle rages. Pesti carries a squirming turtle into the water. Judas picks them up two and three at a time and flings them to safety. Cáncer and Tuberculo do the same, fighting off the gulls that nip at their arms and shoulders. The turtles disappear beneath the waves.

       The beach is moonlit by the time all of the squiggling turtles are gone. Isabel holds out her arms and the boys find her, hesitant, touching her fingers first, then the backs of her hands. They lay their cheeks on her wrists, her arms.  Her warm skin is like silk to them, foreign and luxurious, valuable beyond anything they have ever known.

       Isabel catches her breath at their touch. Closes her eyes. Then Judas raises two fingers, stretching to reach her lips with the softest kiss the world has ever known.

       She will sleep with them tonight, all of them pressed together as if it is the first day, as if they are only now emerging from her body.

       When they pass the two men on the rocks she does not notice the red eyes of their cigarettes, or hear anything that they say.


Robert Schladale has been writing for many years and won first prize in the 2009 Southwest Writers short fiction contest.  He lives and writes in Sacramento, California.

return to top of page

©All material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission

Feedback, submissions, ideas? Email