In the Aisle - Jeanne Borawski
Justice for All - Holly Hages Perrault
More Love from the World - Randall Brown
The Silent Inmate - Liam Brennan
The White Oak rose once again before him.
He studied it, his eyes following up the trunk to where the branches seemed to infinitely divide. He noticed how the reticulated vines tightly held to it, overlapping the gray, fragmented bark, which shimmered like rainbow trout scales in the sunlight.
It had been two days too many. Too many days fightin this tree. Rubbing his tender shoulder from the tackle he gave it just yesterday, he lifted the ax and inspected the developing wedge.
Every swing buried deeper in the tree, which shed piercing slivers of bark all around. As he tried to remove the blade, each time fighting in agony, the splintered handle reopened the healing wounds into thick flowing streams of blood.
Pain surged through his muscles. Black spots boiled, swelling in his sight, as the landscape, morphing into indistinguishable shapes, produced phantasmagoric patterns of intense, alternating light. He stumbled back, cracking his spine against the mangled knot of a pine tree.
Weary, he rested his ax against the tree and placed himself upon a near by stump, lifting the bottom of his frayed shirt to wipe off his face. The sweat, flowing over his sunken, pockmarked cheeks, followed his natural tear lines.
Trying to compose himself, he inspected his worn Fortis wristwatch, then rolled the tattered leather band about his wrist, and producing a handkerchief, meticulously wiped the sawdust from the scratched face; condemning the hands which sat idly. Again massaging his tender shoulder, he eyed the tree in contempt.
Drawing back against a slender, rotting log, he let his mind wander to the sweet taste of baked beans, darkened on the bottom, frying in a mountain of barbeque sauce. The fire would crackle with the fresh scent of oak wood cooking the beans to perfection. And he would sit, content with the raw tip of his pipe dangling in his passive bite, the amber cherry pulsating rhythmically.
It could do so much for me if it would just give. The wood'll get me damn near through the whole winter.
"Youra son ofa bitch," he let out, his warm whiskey breath hesitating in the air. It was strange to hear himself talk. It had been such a long, long time.
Grabbing the worn handle of the ax, and dragging it wearily back to the tree, he cut out a shallow path of dirt among the rock hard grass. He knew he only had three or four good swings left in him.
He raised the ax up over his shoulder, his boots sinking into the barren soil. With knees quivering, he tried to hold his hips strong, releasing a harrowing breath. He felt it as he swung, the crippling heat beginning near the shoulder, advancing down his arm in bold bursts which vibrated deep in his fingertips. The ax moved across the air with a tremendous sigh.
The White Oak shook, groaning something fatal, its majestic branches snapping against the trees surrounding it.
A robustious gurgle of air hushed deep in his throat attempting to escape between his clenched jaw. As he fell, grabbing instinctively, the flesh of his palms shredded over the rough bark. The taste of blood was never new.
Furiously trying to move his one good arm, he searched the ground for his ax. Only the frost glazed grass filled his grip. His heart seized its final beat as he surrendered his heavy head to observe the tree. But still it stood, as the ax rested peacefully in its side.
In the Aisle
Dad lies in a coffin, but I imagine him in an air-conditioned heaven, reclining on a cloud watching TV. He calls to a blonde angel, "Get me another beer, will ya?" The angel floats to him with a can of Bud.
The Malibu parked outside the church isn't mine, I should be driving my own car, a '93 Civic. But it's broken because Dale, my ex-husband, borrowed it last week. The key had been stuck in the ignition for over a month and Dale decided he could force it with pliers. Now the key won't go in at all and we're waiting for a part that will supposedly fix it.
In the meantime, I got rides to and from work, and my father went to bed one night and didn't wake up. His last night probably consisted of pizza, five or six beers, and a Red Sox game. They shut out the Rangers the night he died; I checked the score in the paper after my sister Marie called. I hoped he saw how it ended.
The girls at work offered me more than my fair share of the tip jar so I could rent the dark green Malibu. I wanted a red one, but it seemed inappropriate for a funeral.
My car is acceptable, but my dress is not. This short black cocktail number is the only thing I have that is dark and formal. Naturally, everyone else got it right. Mom's lumpy body is stuffed into a stiff black dress. Marie is wearing a stylish black suit and her husband and two small sons are in coats and ties.
The priest enters onto the altar and stands under an enormous crucifix. After saying how sorry he is for our loss, he says, "We must focus not on the actions of a man, but on the love he gives and receives."
If we ponder the actions of the man, we might have to consider that heaven isn't where Dad ended up. Don't get me wrong; he wasn't evil. He just drank and collected unemployment and played the lottery.
Do you get into heaven simply by doing no harm? If so, Dad will be fine. When he was in the happy state between sober and sloppy, he was actually pretty fun. The problem would be if you have to actively do good to get into heaven. If God asks him, "Why should you get into heaven?" what will Dad say? Maybe loyalty. He rooted for the Red Sox for sixty years before finally being rewarded with a World Series win. He never cheated on my mother. When does loyalty become laziness? Does God care?
The heavy wooden doors groan at the back of the church. The priest stops and everyone cranes their necks as if it's a wedding instead of a funeral. But instead of a bride, at the back of the church stands Dale in a brown suit. The sleeves aren't long enough, exposing his wrists. He ducks into a pew and the priest resumes.
It's been five years since our divorce. The marriage didn't quite last three. Every night I'd return home smelling of cooking grease and other people's money. Meanwhile, Dale would get a job, lose a job, and take time off. One night, after a double shift, I found Dale with two of his friends stoned in our living room. He asked me to make some cookies, this special kind I used to make with coconut and chocolate chips. I left the next morning.
The priest moves down into the aisle, to the foot of the coffin. We all stand. The end is near. He waves his right hand high in the air, dramatically making the sign of the cross over Dad. In the pews, we all cross ourselves.
Six of my male cousins roll Dad's casket on a gurney kind of thing up the aisle. The contraption looks shaky, like it could tip.
Mom walks behind the casket, followed by Marie and her family. I follow. As we reach the back of the church, I see Dale. His dark hair is neatly combed down behind his ears. His clear, sober brown eyes look straight into mine.
"I'm sorry." His mouth forms the words without sound. Tears fill my eyes. I feel myself start to cry.
Then he points to the back of the church and, with an exaggerated smile, mouths, "I fixed your Civic."
The tears disappear, replaced by laughter, which bubbles up, choking me until I have to release it. The faces of my family in the pews are confused, then angry. In my short black cocktail dress, I follow my dead father toward the doors of the church laughing uncontrollably.
They are right to disapprove. I am inappropriate. As soon as my father is buried, I will tell my mother I can't stay. I will return the rented Malibu and drive home with Dale. I will draw lazy circles along his thin wrists with my fingers and I will skip work. My father would have approved.
Jeanne Borawski lives in Boston with her endlessly supportive husband, her enchanting one-year-old son, and overflowing bookshelves. She is grateful to the writers at Grub Street and The Bay State Scribblers for their encouragement and feedback.
Justice for All
Holly Hages Perrault
Legal eagle, he chirped.
He was met with silence; then the matter of fact voice of a stranger. I need a lawyer, she said. Her voice was deep and coarse.
You're talking to a lawyer. He reached for a legal pad.
You guys work late, huh?
Sometimes. He heard the sharp intake of breath, the drag on a cigarette.
I know cause I seen it on TV. You got a trial comin' up?
What can I do for you? He noted the date and time on the pad.
I got some questions.
Hold on. You gonna charge me?
I heard lawyers charge for phone calls.
I'm not charging you.
Good thing. So it's about the woman upstairs. She's a piece a work. She's really been buggin me lately, and I couldn't take it no more. We got into a blow out argument, bigger than usual, yellin andů
Ma'am? he interrupted.
Could you tell me how it ended?
I thought you wanted me to tell you what happened?
The important thing is the outcome.
So it turned into a bloody fistfight. The next thing I know I'm in the freakin hospital. And, she sputtered, I had a miscarriage.
I'm sorry, Ma'm. Were the police called?
Did they charge her?
No. I think she knows someone in the department.
What did they say?
That it was a mutual fight.
Then why are you calling me?
Who's gonna pay for my hospital bills? I lost a baby, ya know. It's not fair.
What do you want to do?
You tell me. You're the lawyer.
Are you saying you want to sue?
Yeah. That's what I want.
I have some questions. Do you rent or own your home?
He wrote a zero on the pad.
And she rents upstairs?
He added a second zero.
What kind of car does she drive?
I dunno. It's real beat up.
He put down a third zero.
Does she own any property?
How should I know?
You can find out by contacting the town tax assessor.
Why do I have to do that?
Because if there's nothing to recover, it doesn't make sense to sue.
Hey, wait a minute. She raised her voice. What about justice?
What do you think is fair?
He heard another long drag on the cigarette. It's criminal what she did to me and she's gettin away with it. She should go to jail.
Do you want her prosecuted for a crime?
Then you can talk with the prosecutor.
Your county attorney.
The person who presents the state's case.
This sure sounds like a lotta work.
You said you wanted justice.
Line two began blinking.
Ma'm, the best you can do is what I've outlined. Could you hold a minute?
Hey, how long you been a lawyer? You don't sound like the lawyers I seen on tv. Those guys don't make their clients do the work.
Her voice got hard. I'm not gonna hire you.
Line one went dark as he pushed line two for his wife's call.
Holly Hages Perrault teaches in the Women's Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire. She recently had a poem published in Foliate Oak Online.
More Love from the World
The last time I saw my mother and father together, I was eight years old. We were at Kentucky Fried Chicken. They were saying something about falling in love, falling out of it, a bad match, like putting biscuits and cheese sauce together. You know, my mother said, that we stayed together so long for you, before we realized, well, how maybe that's not a good idea. That's why? my father said. As if he'd just been told the Big Bang was actually the creation myth of our times.
Thirty years later, they sit together again. I am receiving an award for teaching. Under the golden dome of the state capitol with painted stars above us, I wonder what's behind the stars. Imagine it's God. What a funny thing to believe.
Maya's introducing me. She's a senior at my school, nominated me for Teacher of the Year. She's saying something about the distance I keep from students--what a great thing it is, this space I create for them that they must fill with themselves.
My mother says to my father, "Another thing our son has learned from me."
My father says, "You can't hurt me anymore."
"Do you know what he did?" my mother says. "He'd run out at 2 in the morning in that big red whale of a station wagon to The Curve Inn to get me like a whole quart of Schaeffer's. That was foreplay."
Maya wishes all her teachers had learned not to impose themselves and their desires upon their students. It takes a very special teacher (and here Maya pauses for dramatic effect and looks down upon me with something like love) to bring out what is real and essential in his students.
I remember my father's journeys through the late night sea of fallen clouds and stars so hidden they could not guide him. I slept outside on a hill and wasn't missed. I could not imagine that what appeared to be the space of a finger between stars actually spanned infinite, impossible spaces. I could not grasp that I was learning something about love and the world and that this learning would become confused with who I really was.
Everyone is clapping.
"For a while it worked," my mother says. "Look at him. Our boy."
"What do you mean--for a while?" my father asks.
I am being rewarded for an emptiness so vast that nothing fills it but these other-selves, year after year. There's something else to learn about the world. It's about the myths one grows up with, the secret behind stars, the open arms of Maya, children I will never have. The air ripples and whatever it is, the secret final thing, ends up obscured and faraway.
"Give it a rest," she tells him.
"The teacher of the year..." Maya says.
"It's unforgivable," he tells her.
I rise through the applause. It's a tidal wave of meaninglessness. I am a myth. Like whatever lies behind the stars and cares what it is we do.
Randall Brown is a teacher who lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife Meg, a cabaret singer, and their two children. He is a Pushcart nominee, a fiction editor with SmokeLong Quarterly, and on the editorial board of Philadelphia Stories. He holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College and a BA from Tufts University. His stories, poems, and essays have been published widely, with recent work appearing or forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review, Cairn, The Saint Ann's Review, and Connecticut Review. He's currently working on a short short collection, Mad To Live.
The Silent Inmate
The young guard towered over the blood-drenched body in shock. Officers gathered round to witness the horrific site that lay on their cold, cement floors in Kingsway Penitentiary. "He went for my gun. I was lettin' em out to the yard and he jumped me. I didn't know what else to do boss," he uttered as beads of cold sweat met with tears. I wavered at a distance as they carried the body away; their heads low out of respect. The dead man had been a favorite among the inmates and guards because of his solemn presence. "He used to smile two miles wide when that weekly letter came," said one of the guards. They consoled each other in various ways, trying to maintain a strong presence in front of the other inmates before leaving the block.
The young guard, the newest in the Illinois State Penal System, stepped into the dead man's cell and paused. I moved closer, peering over his shoulder as he stooped down to pick up a yellow note that had fallen from the open envelope on the bed. I sensed the apprehension in the man's eyes as he unfolded the paper and scanned its contents: Young Max has lost his arduous battle that consumed him these past four years. He is in a better place. Placing the note in his breast pocket, the guard pulled himself together, couldn't let the other inmates see through his cool exterior. He brushed against me inside the confined chamber, the hairs on the back of his neck rising as he passed. When he had gone, I sat down on the silent inmate's bed and flipped through an old comic serial, "The Last Stand of James T. Tall" that accompanied the note. The main character lived in the woods, a lumberjack by trade, and each week he warded off the menacing creatures that came his way. It was a simple life, something that the inmate and I had discussed many times.
"That boy wrote him every week." I turned to see two older guards, their faces frail and ravaged by years, standing at the door. They looked around the empty cell with great compassion and sorrow in their voices as they traded stories about times the inmate had confided in them. "Talked about that kid like it was his own" said the elder guard. "Used to sit there day and night readin' those damn books. Said he identified with him, the main character. I'm sure he meant that bald little cancer boy though." The other guard held back tears as they flooded his eyes, "Must have been some bad news this mornin'." The elder guard blessed himself and they departed.
I decided it was time to move on as well, stepping past the icy, brick walls and chain linked fences, walking toward the dense forest that isolated this place from the reality of the outside world. The trees towered over me as I knelt to gather wood. I'd never started a fire before but the pictures in the serials were self-explanatory. With the smack of two stones, a spark shot up and I lay back with a sense of pride, although it appeared too effortless to be true. At that moment I heard it, the thumping sound of an axe blasting through tree stumps with the greatest of ease. I turned and there he was, having already arrived in our new world. The bullet holes were gone and he looked as I'd always pictured him, just as James Tall looked when he conquered another scoundrel. I stood and brushed the hair out of my eyes as he chomped through the final piece. He wiped the sweat from his face and moved slowly towards me, with that comforting smile creeping across his face. "Max?" he said, as I nodded my head and returned the favor. This was the life we had been dreaming of, in a world without restrictions.
Liam Brennan is a twenty-two year old university student soon to be graduating with a BA in English Literature. He is a frequent contributor to Winnipeg student and city newspapers and has written numerous flash fiction pieces with "The Silent Inmate" being his first published work. He is currently developing a screenplay and a book of short fiction, while his dog sleeps on the floor beside him.