1997


by E. R. Murray

I can still remember the last time he was pushing me. Those big, soft hands on the small of my back giving me just a little more momentum each time. Not too much, not too little.

“Hey, dad. Dad!” I would call. “Push me higher!” My hands squeezed the chains as I swooped down to the bottom and glided back up to the top. I loved the motion and I loved watching everything move. Everything flew around me, the trees, the buildings, the people. Down, down toward the ground and then the quick takeoff toward the sky. There was that moment when everything stopped, and then I fell backwards, back to earth, back to him, back to us.

I guess it was boring for him, standing there in the late afternoon sun, pushing and waiting, pushing and waiting. I’d hear him mumbling behind me sometimes. “Ridiculous”, he would say. “Grown man with better things to do.” Or sometimes he would walk away and let the swing slow almost to a stop, then without a word start pushing again.

Sometimes at home he just seemed to be asleep. Mom would talk to him and he would just say ‘yeah’, or ‘no’, or ‘I don’t know’, or sometimes not even answer. Other times when he would talk, non-stop. He would tell me everything he saw, everything that happened to him that day, everything that went through his mind. “This guy called and said he wanted to place and order and I said ‘wait ’til I get my form’ and he said ‘don’t you think you should have them ready when people call?” and I said do you want to place an order or do you want to tell me my business. Some people always think they can tell you how to live your life. Don’t ever let anyone tell you how to live your life.”

I tried hard to be interested, too. “Really?” I would say. Or, “How about that.”

But I always wanted to go to the swings. “Hey, dad. Dad!” I would call. “Push me higher!”

So he pushed. He lay his hands gently on my back and at the absolute peak of my momentum in one direction he started me off in another. I hung, absolutely still for a moment, and when that moment bled into another, I moved again. The swing made a perfect arc, like a big pendulum ticking off minutes.

“They’re just mood swings,” my mother would tell when he wasn’t around. “Just something he goes through.” She had a funny, sad look on her face, and she started to keep her back to me a lot. “He really loves us a lot….”

I thought that learning to pump might help. It would give him a rest, and maybe make him proud of me. So, when he wasn’t with me, I’d climb on, kick my legs and eventually get a little movement going. Feet out, head back, hold on tight going forward. Head up, knees in on the return. Kick those feet going back up again. Soon I was moving smoothly and independently. I wanted to show him, but I waited for a bad day, a mumbling day, thinking it might make him feel better.

That muggy afternoon in the park I could feel his anger. The morning had been a talker, and the afternoon was becoming a mumbler.

“Just too stupid,” I heard him say behind me as he gave the first push. I felt nothing on the next two passes, but then the reassuring and gentle hands resumed and I was soaring. ‘Now is the time’, I thought. After the next push I kicked my legs out and threw my head back. On the way back down I felt him move out of the way. Again and again I thrust myself forward and kicked backwards. I was really pumping now. Higher and higher, faster and faster, in control of my flight.

“Hey, dad. Dad!” I called. “Look! I can pump.” At the top of the arc I managed to turn just enough to see behind me.

But he was gone.

And now I push. Not too much, not too little. He looks a little like me, but more like him. I think maybe the nose skipped a generation.

“Daddy!” he shrieks in delight. “Push me higher!” And I do. I check to see that he’s holding on tight and that he’s not slipping off the seat, and watch his little rear end coming toward me. I step back a bit so his feet don’t kick me, and just at the top of the arc, when all forces of nature are balanced for an instant, I push. Not too much, not too little.

“Daddy,” he calls again. “Push me higher!”

by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“So, what do you think?” she finished her speech. Her voice and her manner were just as sweet as they were in real life. The speech she had just finished had a definite theme to it: she had a crush on someone, and it wasn’t me. This person was a friend of mine, and that was what had won me the honor of this phone call. She didn’t even know him, but she had liked him for years. She asked me if he likes girls, which I had to answer truthfully:

“No.”

But I had to explain that, damn my conscience.

“I mean, like, he does, but not in a practical way. Like, he doesn’t want a relationship, or anything even close. Sorry.”

“Well that’s okay.” Doubtful that she meant that. “It’s just that I wanted to see if I should give up.”

“Yeah, but you know you won’t. I could tell you there was no hope, no chance, but there’d still be a part of you that said there was hope.” Experience told me this was true. “You want me to tell you that there’s nothing you can do, s o you won’t feel bad when you do nothing. ‘Cause whenever you see him, there’s gonna be this yelling voice that’s like screaming at you to do something, to walk up to him, to talk to him, to do anything.” Why did I say this? Why? “But there’s always t his equal and opposite reaction, fear, that’s like telling you not to because it won’t work, be cause you’ll make a fool of yourself, because something won’t go perfect. You want me to tell you there’s nothing there so you won’t feel bad. But it doesn’t matter. Every time you see him you’ll go through that. And every night, before you go to sleep, and after you go to bed, you’ll have these dreams, these daydreams, not real, like, subconsciously fashioned dreams, but hope dreams, the things you want. Those dreams where he’s lying next to you in your big, empty bed, and he’s holding you or he’s kissing you, or he’s touching you, and maybe more. Or maybe you’re just thinking about tomorrow-maybe you’ll see him, and you’re thinking that he’ll drop a bo ok, and you’ll pick it up, he’ll smile and introduce himself-like you don’t know his name already-and you’ll start talking and he’ll reveal that he dropped the book on purpose, so he could talk to you, because secretly he’s liked you forever and then even tually you’ll end up in each other’s arms. Or maybe you’re reviewing today, thinking what if I had done this or this. But this is just a dream. It’s all like that.” I paused, reviewing all I had said. “Sorry.”

The other end of the phone line was quiet for a time. And I knew everything I said was true, not only for her, but for me. And tonight I would dream of her soft, warm skin, but that was as close as I would ever get.

by Rusty Fischer

i guess i should have checked but i
believed you all those other times and
ended up looking stupid i guess i got sick of it
when i heard the sirens i knew exactly what it
was dropped my microwave popcorn
no one else on our street was such a
psycho except the guy with the train set
it was almost a relief by then except
i’ll never admit that now
tried to tell them i was related
to get a better look the
cops got mad like it was my fault i let you
do that when if they’d ever even met you
once they’d have known better
not just seen you lying there all bloody and
pale and innocent looking like some kind of
victim not the super freak you’d
always been were currently being and certainly
would have been forever if you’d made it

by A.Y. Tanaka

But she wasn’t meant for me anyway,
one of the too many girls who cliqued and huddled
after school
and clicked their heels and conclaved their homework
and whispered about us and hid our file.

Lots of Italian girls, lots –
sharp, rounded, eyes full of fire.
Even the wine-scented roses
from Pius IX Prep had something to offer,
if they wanted to offer.
But they knew me too well, or pretended –

those quick strong tongues that whipped me apart,
why would they lie?
I was them — they were me,
the chrisms and scapulars and first communions,
the long hard pews of St. Mike’s Emergency,
the long hard pews of the precinct’s coffee room,
the showdowns, the rollcalls to dust off your pride,
cushion the eight-ball rolling in your gut,
the nudge, the whisper who to turn to.

You can’t escape from a world full of sisters,
warm roses pretending to be sisters.

by Richard Fein

Old anthology, fourth edition, not a rare book,
binding almost gone, many loose pages,
a dusty outline on the shelf
when I first lift the book.
One Cathy Brady owned it once
sixty years ago, she dated it.
Her signature is neat; her letters
are smoothly curved with no sharp angles.
I thumb through the pages.
Every poem I’d bother to read again,
she had already circled.
Every line I might memorize,
she had underlined.
Were she twenty then she might yet be living,
white hair, her hand shaky,
but maybe her letters would still posses
something of those gentle slopes.
I bought the book for eighty cents.

by Rusty Fischer

tells stories about
wars mostly sometimes
cars or taxes
count quarters to avoid his yellow rheumy
eyes trying to impress the girlies
in their short shorts and
heels from the massage
parlor next door bent
over green folding tables
chewing gum above smoking tin
ash trays they laugh
call him names behind his back i
like him better
they laugh at anyone who’s not
paying them

by Andrew William Manoff

And then the pagans proclaimed me as their king
How could I refuse?
The next 10 years of bondage were tough
But I never felt like I was being used

The shackles on my throne chaffed
So I gnawed off my hands
My nation grew rich
Because we dealt exclusively in contraband

They gave me a gold watch
And let me go back to the mailroom
I swore I’d never again enter
The company’s executive washroom

by Holly Day

calm, these places we dance
horizontal to the ceiling
to each other’s chasms yawn
wide in the egg-shell enamel
the walls of our bedroom opening
to yet another world

and why, why is this special to me
places we go together without
moving, places we are always welcome
known as creators, messiahn, gods
teach me back these things I taught you
don’t leave me lying here, stupid
alone

by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“Get away from me,” she yelled through her tears. “Get away;” her words were nearly unintelligible, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and down into her mouth. They tasted really salty. She backed up, until her back touched the metal grid wall of a jungle gym. “Leave me alone.” She picked up a handful of the small pebbles that were the flooring of the playground and threw it at them in a wide arc. Some of the boys jumped away from the projectiles with practiced grace, while others just took the shots with a military stoicism.

They all kept advancing, though. The semi-circle was growing tighter. It was like a nightmare she once had, except in the dream they were pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and big roly-poly clowns.

“Oh, come on, Jamie, we’re just having a little fun.” Josh smiled when he talked, almost reflexively, and his teeth were perfectly white and straight, and when he smiled like that, and spoke in his angelic child’s voice, and said such rational things like, “It’s only a game,” then his smile was terrible. Like it was now. He was the center of the enclosing arc: the keystone. There were about seven of them in front of her, coming in slowly, like it was such a sure thing that they could get her that they could take their time. She threw some more stones at them, and started shoveling great handfuls, as much as her small, pink nine year-old hands could shovel. The stones fell like hard raindrops from the late autumn blue-gray sky. Robbie yelped and held his hands to his left eye.

George went over to Robbie, who’s face was turning red with the effort from holding the tears in. George gently pried open his hands, and looked at his face. “He’s O.K., just hit him in the cheek.” Josh continued the advance.

“You O.K.?” George asked quietly. Robbie felt silly and childish saying that he wasn’t, and he was reasonably O.K., but it stung where she hit him. His tears turned into a snarl, and he growled out, “I’ll kill the bitch.”

David came up to them quietly, and said, in his high-pitched voice, which always sounded like he was that-close to laughing, “That’s for Josh to decide.” He snickered a little, and jumped away before they could respond.

“You’re lucky you didn’t hurt him badly. Then we’d have to hurt you. Badly.” His smile was leering at her, and it seemed there was no way out. Except up. The thought had occurred to Josh also. She turned around and was about to scurry up the grid, when Neil grabbed her hands off the metal, and pulled her towards him, towards the bars, so that she was pressed face-first against the jungle gym. Neil smiled and licked her cheek. His pink tongue was insanely long, but she was screaming now, screaming loudly, a ragged syllable, pausing only long enough to breathe in, and she wasn’t paying attention to anything else, except that she couldn’t move her hands; no matter how much she thrashed about, and she did do quite a lot of that, his grip on her remained iron-hard, his fingers digging into her wrists the more she struggled.

“Oh, whatsa matter, Jamie,” said Jason, mocking her struggling. She spit near him, not able to turn her head all the way. He laughed, and she was crying more and more. The more she cried, the less anything else came to save her. She was surprised that she still had more to cry. Her entire face felt hot and red and puffy, and she just wanted them to stop and leave her alone. Jason moved over to get closer to her. Josh roughly shoved him aside, and just stood there, staring at him. Jason moved away, stepping back not so much to make room for Josh, but to put some room in between them. Alpha male always gets first pick.

Josh still smiled, and brushed his curly brown hair out of his deep brown eyes. His one distinguishing feature was his smile. All the other boys were of the same height, or near enough, and same weight. They were all lean and wiry. Jason, George and Neil had black hair, the deepest, richest, moonless midnight black. Robbie and Chris had blonde hair; David had strawberry blonde hair, hints of red in the flax, and his was the longest, straight to his shoulders. Kenny had a buzz-cut of indeterminate color, which matched his gray-like eyes that sometimes seemed blue, or green, or hazel, or any other number of colors, depending on the way the light hit them. There were nine people in this group, and the ninth called out.

“Why, hello, Misses Jankowski. What brings you out here? To our playground? Walking steadily towards the jungle gym?” he called out in an exaggerated voice, loud enough for everyone to hear him.

Josh grimaced, his upper lip curling up, showing his teeth in something not a smile. Neil had let go of Jamie’s hands and was climbing up the jungle gym’s metal grid wall. Josh leaned in closely, and whispered, “We were just playing a game, Jamie. No one was going to hurt you. O.K.? Just a game.” She nodded slowly, drying her tears quickly on her sleeves, wiping her entire face, which seemed to Josh to just spread the tears and redness all over her face. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and smiled to reassure her. He had decided that she would probably die soon.

“What are you doing Josh?” asked Mrs. Jankowski, her voice tinged with anger, her hands on her hips.

“I was just telling Jamie that I liked her, Mrs. Jankowski.” Josh had stopped smiling here, and instead looked up like a little puppy dog whose favorite treat was just taken away.

“Come over here Jamie.” Jamie meekly walked over to the teacher. Most of the boys were innocently playing with the swings, and slowly walking away, towards the bigger section of playground; a small windowless jut of red-brick school-building separated the two sections. Josh, standing there all by himself, had turned on all of his boyish charm, channeling all of it into looking forlorn, and sad. Not giving in, Mrs. Jankowski took Jamie away, with one final look at Josh, warning him about the consequences if he had lied, or even worse, made another student cry. She couldn’t imagine that some kids could be so casually mean. But still, she thought, it was better than how some of the kids related to each other in city schools. Some of her friends who had worked in those schools told her stories, stories involving guns and knives, and killing. She waited until she got Jamie inside the classroom. Jamie sat down, and dried her eyes with the tissues that Mrs. Jankowski gave her. “Tell me what happened.” Her tone was soothing and confidential, but it was a commanding tone also. Jamie blew her nose, and began to tell her (making it up using what she had overheard her older sister say on the phone) about how Josh had told her that he liked her, and how upset she was because they were such good friends, and she didn’t want to lose him as a friend. Not even this would make her forget her loyalty to the golden playground rule: Never tell a Teacher. Mrs. Jankowski listened to everything she was told, and she knew that some thing in the story wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the way that Jamie told it, or the way she kept biting at her lower lip. The lipstick was smudged mostly off; Mrs. Jankowski was always a little surprised, upset maybe, about how the girls in fifth grade were always trying to act older. The makeup, and the training bras, and sometimes the stuffing of bras, everything which they affected, it all disgusted Mrs. Jankowski, who was feeling every of her thirty-eight years. Jamie, one of the smarter girls when it came to books, had skipped a grade, and so being the youngest, tried the hardest to act and look the oldest. Why were they in such a rush to grow up? Her deep-seated feeling was that kids should be kids. Jamie left the room, and Mrs. Jankowski used the last few minutes of recess to go to the bathroom. Women’s bathrooms, at least to men, always seem better furnished. The faculty women’s bathroom at South Grove Elementary School was an exception to this rule-of-thumb. The walls were grimy and the ceiling was patchy with mold and falling down in places. Mrs. Jankowski was used to this mess so she just went into the first unoccupied stall. She wiped the seat before sitting down. Along with the feeling of relief, the sound of urinating always calmed her. She flushed and walked out of the stall, pausing to look at herself in the mirror, before going back out. She felt old. She didn’t want to deal with children who were rushing to be old, and she couldn’t seem to convince them to be happy the way they were. They always wanted more.

Josh was gathering his group around him, calling them to their playground, now that Mrs. Jankowski had left.

“Fucking A, man,” said Jason, “Why the fuck did she have to come over here?” Jason was on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth and nose, and all before anyone had even seen Josh move. Josh’s hands were still clenched in fists, but he had turned away.

“What the fuck,” with all the emphasis on fuck, “was that for?” Josh looked at Jason for a second, smiling, while wheels turned in his head.

George looked at Josh, waiting for a sign that would tell him that it was safe to help Jason. Josh jumped at Jason, grabbed his shirt front and shook him, his head hitting up and down on the grass, most of which was yellow and dead. After a few minutes he got off him, slapping him once for good measure, and stood up, brushing his shirt down, and brushing the hair out of his eyes. George went over to Jason, holding a tissue to his bleeding face, and whispering about how to make the bleeding stop. George’s parents were both doctors, just like they wanted him to be. George was only ten, like the rest of them, so he didn’t know what he wanted, and wasn’t worrying about it yet. Josh looked at the rest of the group and smiled. Brian, the ninth person in the group, and the second-in-command, like Josh had the same shade of brown hair, but was curly, where Josh’s was straight, and brown eyes, though his mother called them hazel, because it sounded nicer. Brian didn’t smile as much though, and the reason was whenever he did, people invariably noticed how sharp his teeth were, and how much they made him look like some sort of carnivorous dog, a jackal or hyena maybe.

Sometimes, older adults would make comments to his parents about how they should get him braces so he wouldn’t look so much like a dog, like a hyena.

Brian took special pleasure then in telling them that hyenas weren’t real dogs. When he left they usually muttered something under their breath about how it takes one to know one.

Now Brian was looking at his watch and walking over Josh. “Hmmm. Josh, if you want to get something fresh to eat, we should go now, before recess is over.”

Josh nodded his assent. “Let’s go find us some fresh meat.” He started walking away, towards the little forest that bordered one side of the schoolyard. Brian, Chris, Robbie, Neil, Kenny, David, who was running around, back and then forward, side to side, followed him into the woods.

George helped Jason get up and then walked after them. Josh had started jogging, and soon the whole group was running through the woods. Jason started limping in the direction of the forest, his bloody tissue pressed to his nose. He also started running to keep up with the group, the bloody tissue dropped to the forest floor like one of fall’s red leaves. Was it just a trick of the light, the unsure gloom of the sun-dappled forest floor? Or were they running on all fours? Like wolves.

by David Peterson

“You want fries with that? It comes with fries you know.”

“Did I ask for fries?”

“Uh, no. I’m just sayin’ that if you order the pattymelt that it comes with fries”

“I don’t want fries.”

“I still gotta charge ya for ‘em”

“Fine”

With military precision my pattymelt arrived about ten minutes later and she still brought the fries.

“I really don’t want these.” I said pointing to my plate.

“Well the thing is, I gotta charge you for ‘em,” gum snapping as she spoke, so I went ahead and put ‘em on the plate….”

The waitress droned on, I wasn’t surprised though. It had been like this during the entire tour. The van, driven usually by me, would pull into some podunk town, find the worst possible diner and then, zombie like, we four wannabe rockstars would pile out and slouch into the first available naugahyde booth. We had been doing this same routine for about four weeks when I first noticed the pattern. It got to the point where no matter what I ordered, it tasted the same.

Like donuts. Our frontman, Danny said that this was the mark of a fine diner.

Danny had a cast iron stomach and could talk about the most disgusting things imaginable while eating. Once, in a diner in Jersey I saw him kill a cockroach that was making a beeline for his omelet without missing a bite. “Hey, I didn’t order this,” he said while scraping the carcass from the formica table. Then, while still chewing his last bite, he ordered, “hey sister, lemme have a hunk of that pie will ya?”

This was life for us at the time. We took ourselves very seriously and were unified in the notion that at any moment a major label A&R guy would appear at one of our ill-attended shows and make us the stars we thought we were entitled to be. We were living in the crease of society and were able to make enough dough to cover the essentials; beer, cigarettes and guitar strings. The songs were good, or at least our girlfriends thought so, and we really clicked on stage as long as nothing went wrong. Things usually went wrong. There was a long list of things that could go wrong.

Anything that happened at night in a club, any problem that may have arisen while we were on stage was always talked about while we were eating. Strange, but I don’t remember ever sleeping while we were on the road, though I’m sure that I must have.

Once in a diner in El Paso, Texas I sat, staring, bleary eyed and hungover at two grease pools that were allegedly eggs. Though it was clearly a breakfast choice the waitress had still uttered those magic words, much to my chagrin. “Uh, honey, you want fries with that?” She was going too far. I felt the tension mount as the band got ready for another long castigation from me on the sins of french fries. I was too tired to let this one have it. I meekly muttered, “no.”

This place was too much, even for Danny. We all sat there unsure of what to do.

I was sure of one thing, there was no way that I was eating what was in front of me. We all just sat there not saying a word. The smell from these alleged food products was giving me a tremendous headache when all of a sudden, John Locke, our drummer, blurted out “I AM NOT EATING THIS!!” no one even looked up at the normally quiet John Locke. He said this in every other stop that we made. Truth was he only ate about once a week. I would not have believed this fact but I lived with this man in very close quarters for an extended amount of time and I like to think I know what his habits were. John Locke was a first class beer drunk. He would usually start drinking as soon as we got to the club. Before that, if he was awake, he would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in the back of the van. He rarely said more than three words at a time. The only response he got was from Danny. “Good, can I have the rest of your….whatever that is?”

Danny could never admit that a place actually had inedible food. If the sign outside said restaurant’ that meant that whatever they served you inside was fit to eat. John Locke looked at Danny and then contradicted himself by saying

“Nope, I not quite done yet.” He remembered that no matter who ate the food in front of him that he would end up paying for it. Grimly he picked up a fork and started in on his order.

There was actually a space of three full days on the tour where I managed to trick the conspiracy of waitresses. I had taken to eating only pancakes.

Pancakes. I was amazed that it had taken so long for me to figure this out. No one ever ate fries with pancakes. Then one day in Spearfish, South Dakota, I met my match. We decided to eat before retiring for the night rather than in the morning. I ordered pancakes and eggs as it was the special of the day. The waitress was a chubby biker type. She was only thinly disguised by the official polyester waitress uniform. I knew right away that my happiness would be brief…. She actually leered as she said it. It was as if she had been waiting all night, I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Lenny, our guitar player, muttered, “Shit, here we go again.” I immediately started in on my usual diatribe…

“Who the hell eats french fries with pancakes?” I complained.

“Listen, you little shit, I’m not gonna take in crap from you tonight you understand?”

I was slightly shocked but no less determined.

“Did I ask for fries?”

Danny and Lenny tried to get me to stop but it was too late, I was on a roll.

“I don’t give a damn what you asked for you little punk.” She was raising her voice now.

I knew I had her even though I was scared.

“You gotta care, you’re the waitress and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have asked”

She sighed. She was down but not out. I didn’t figure on what she said next though.

“If you’re still in town when I get off I am gonna kick you skinny little ass.

Do you understand me?”

I sat there blinking, bare arms sticking to naugahyde. I had no response.

My mates had abandoned me in my struggle against french fries. They were all doubled over laughing. I wasn’t laughing. I knew she meant it. She had dealt with those like me before. I was beaten and I knew it.

I sat there staring at the fries on my plate. It was a conspiracy. They were all out to get me. The only recourse I still had was not to eat them.

Unfortunately that really wasn’t the point though. The fact that they had to be there at all really burned me. I was so dejected that I volunteered to drive the van through the night rather than stay one unnecessary second in this godforsaken hell-hole in the badlands of South Dakota. We were playing Fargo the next night and by comparative standards the food would be fit for Kings.

Danny walked alongside me as we made our way through the expansive gravel parking lot, the gravel crunched beneath our boots. “I knew she was trouble,” he said. I was silent, he was right. “Cheer up man, the sun’ll come up in Fargo tomorrow and you’ll be able to get even with all of ‘em then. Might want to think about ordering cereal though — just to be on the safe side.”

All in all it was the food that I remember most. I have since moved from the crease of society into the quick. I am older, I drive a station wagon and have a respectable job. But every now and then during the heat of summer I pick a direction at random and hit the highway. The feel of the wind in my face, and the sound of radial tires whining on the asphalt is exhilarating……and sometimes, if I try really hard, I can almost catch the not-so-subtle scent of fried bacon and boiled coffee….and if I press the illusion just a little bit farther, I can hear the rustle of a polyester waitress uniform and am always startled when the amalgamation of all the waitresses in all the dirty cafes utters that beautiful, succinct aside, “honey, you want fries with that?

…comes with fries you know.”

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