Disclaimer: For best viewing experience, please view the following pieces on a desktop or such related devices as well as through a chrome browser.
By: Elissa Russell
I couldn’t recognize your accent as foreign any more than I could my own. Each muddy ‘R,’ each forced vowel we produced hung in the air unacknowledged, suspended like mobiles in the damp atmosphere.
It was your eyes that first betrayed you—those flame-gold eyes, the color of honey exactly, fixed always toward the East.
We met at a neighborhood party over hard punch and galettes and too many glasses of Muscadet. Rain swelled the clouds overhead as the fluid language swirled around us. I was dizzy, drunk, still ticking on Central Standard Time. The Atlantic-soaked air had long ago swept my pride and my verb conjugations out to sea.
You commiserated with each awkward bisou, heard each garbled syllable, pulled me aside:
“Yolaine and I met twenty years ago,” you told me in her language: smooth, yet biting. “Elle est ma marie,” you emphasized, the bitter ‘R’ accentuating the phrase’s harshest word. You paused, downed the contents of your glass in one sharp gulp. The closer you drew in, the faster my heart beat. “I hate this rain, this place. I want to learn English. I must. It’s so… beautiful.” Flickering amber eyes, now locked on my blue ones. “Let me walk you home. It’s dark.” You squeezed my bare knee, hard, and stood. The walk home was neither dark nor far, but you knew that. You’d been here now for eleven years, after all.
Upon reaching the yellow house with the blue door, you braced my shoulders and brought your nose within an inch from my own. “Sweet dreams,” you exhaled at me in English, your breath forming a sea-salt cocktail with the night as I dumbly watched you stumble back up the path.
I fished out an ornate house key, which seemed to belong more to the Victorian era than in my Jansport. I winced as it turned loudly in the heavy door, fearing to wake the members of this house, this family that was not mine.
From the peephole, I glimpsed your brown peacoat. You disappeared past the stone wall, back toward your home, where your wife was washing our dinner plates.
Elissa Russell holds an English degree from the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating, she worked as an English teacher in Calais, France. A theatre educator and administrator, she now lives in Colorado, where she continues to explore her passion for writing.
By: Irina Talty
I am two worlds torn in half.
One is Bulgaria,
in the small city of Druzhba.
Long, lazy summers
sticking with sweat,
breath tastes like fresh
banichka; warm and flaky.
My floury lips
take another bite.
Grainy sand under my feet
seaweed catches between my toes
the musty language of the sea
sliding over the sand.
In the distance; a seagull, the roar
of a jet ski. Laughing, shrieking
wind slapping my cheeks,
knuckles pink, red, white
melting into a painful sunset.
Dinners, humming with the lullaby of
clinking plates and silverware
scooping food and pouring wine
glass after glass of the sweet fruit
wrapped under the canopy of vines.
Bodies close, leaning in,
gossip, fights, laughter.
I race upstairs to chatter with cousins
with an unfamiliar language; yet
we can understand the familiar song
of each other’s voices.
Bulgaria, the smell of pearly soap,
cigarette smoke, and sweet grass.
But I am also here.
Apple orchards and Halloween
fast food drives and greasy fingers
solo cups and first kisses
sloshing, wet, giggles.
Hamburgers, hot dogs,
little league games.
Sitting in the heat, the fresh
scent of cut grass.
Driving with the windows down,
hand catching wind,
wind mussing hair.
Coffee shops, subways,
family, loud, bustling
banter while chowing on
buttery angel cake, slippery spaghetti.
Smacking lips, smooching cheeks
telling me how tall I’ve grown
and asking me who my boyfriend is.
Road trips, cheap coffee,
lips on skin, lips on lips
feeling free, going faster,
first loves, first jobs, graduate.
America, my first home.
The feel of wet snowflakes,
crunchy leaves, soft cherry blossoms.
Sitting in an American shop.
Tattoo ink bleeding into my skin
carving lines to create a sunflower
reminiscent of the golden fields
lining the country roads of
Bulgaria. My second home
forever with me,
etched onto my ribs,
etched into my heart.
Irina Talty is an Emory University grad who is currently teaching first grade in Atlanta, GA. She hopes to go to graduate school for creative writing after she has served her two years in Teach for America. She loves cooking, hiking, and her pet rats.
Two Poems by DS Maolalai
Painting a hot day.
in a housecoat,
on her balcony,
eating an apple
which is dirty
at a view
of the ground.
A bright day.
I can’t find my glasses.
they are somewhere
in the apartment,
but I am at work
in an office-building
overlooking the river
meets the sea.
I wear prescription
sunglasses, get odd looks
from the deli-man
as I grab a cheap sandwich
at the corner
near Tara St station. it’s not
a bright day; the sky dusty
as a broken piano,
untuned and hardly
played, a closed lid
in an under-used
guestroom. I walk
out to the evening
which slaps against weather
quite heavily, like a flag
hanging from a window.
the world today
is clear and lovely,
the dark grey pavements
wet as bathroom mirrors.
I lean by the corner
and eat my sandwich. wear
my sunglasses, enjoy
the cold autumn, egg
and a fingerprint thinness
DS Maolalai has been nominated eight times for Best of the Net and five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, “Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden” (Encircle Press, 2016) and “Sad Havoc Among the Birds” (Turas Press, 2019)
By: Katie Fisher
We walk down the narrow hallway mindlessly, and I feel the blood recirculate to my legs. The world feels fuzzy. My ringing ears process the stomp of feet and rolling of wheels on wax floors.
The air is stagnant despite the crowd of people, yet infinitely more pleasant than the staleness of the cabin that had been my prison cell for the last nine hours. In the palms of my hands, I hold the blue booklet that measures my worth in my hands, and it bites into the soft flesh.
Blinking slowly to counteract the blurriness, I notice monitors hanging from the ceiling of the hallway; their screens cycle between an animated Star-Spangled Banner rippling as if it were blowing in the wind and a blue page with the words “Welcome to the United States of America.”
One of the monitors isn’t connected, displaying a Windows 7 error page. I have a fleeting thought of the oddity, of the disconnect that one system is still using outdated software that has ceased updates, but it passes quickly as I stifle a yawn. For some reason, I point out the error screen to my teenage brother, and we chuckle.
I think it’s from the combination of dehydration and sleep deprivation, but as I’m watching another of the screens, the flag bursts through its digital confines before swiftly retreating as fast as it appeared. The corners of my mouth pinch into a frown, parading my confusion, yet the crowd pushes on, unimpressed.
I follow my family like we’re little ducklings in a row. Turning the corner, the corridor opens to a massive hall, the Customs area. My mom scans the room, searching for an unused kiosk, and whisks us off in the general direction. We take turns scanning our faces and mixture of blue and red passports. I go last.
My heart flutters as I watch the ticket print with a giant X. At five in the morning on a Sunday, I’m too tired for this.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“There’s always one,” my mom jokes.
Tucking the ticket between the pages of my passport, I weave my way through to the border agent who’s calling for the next person to come forward. My family members and I hold our own passports in front of us as we approach the navy-uniformed man. With a flat face, he eyes each one of us with our mismatched passports before questioning “So, what’s the story here?”
My dad, the most charismatic man in my life, responds. “The girls were born here, but we returned home to bring them up around family, and then our youngest was born there. Now, we’ve moved back to the States.”
The agent’s eyes flick between us again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t succumb to my dad’s charm as everyone always does. It’s the deep voice and accent they say. Skeptically, the border agent stamps through each of my family’s tickets until I am left last, again.
I am beckoned with a blue latex-gloved hand. Shuffling forward, I place my passport in the man’s grasp, and he flips it open to the photograph, holding it up at eye level so he can see.
I stand awkwardly, feeling embarrassed about my disheveled appearance in the photo that was taken around seven a.m. on a Saturday morning after a Friday night basketball game I was cheerleading for.
“You’ll look that after you get off the plane anyway,” my mom quipped when she first saw the image.
As any teenage daughter would be, I was mortified—not to mention that it won’t expire for ten years.
“Take off your glasses,” the border agent commands nonchalantly.
I silently comply, taking off the prescription glasses.
“Undo your hair.”
Again, I silently comply, pulling loose the soft braids.
The agent shakes his head. “This doesn’t look like you.”
My mouth is frozen, but my empty head is now filled with thoughts, worse-case-scenarios. I turned eighteen two weeks ago. He can legally separate me from my parents. I could be detained. I have school tomorrow. I don’t want to miss class.
I fumble for words, “It’s just a bad picture—”
“This doesn’t look like you,” he punctuates in a staccato rhythm, waving the passport as a taunt.
I don’t know what to do. We’re young, my siblings and I, sheltered in a protective bubble of naivety that borders on ignorance. We’ve been raised in small town America, where homogeny runs rampant.
I’ve fended these questions since the tender age of eight, but my existence has never been doubted.
There’s a lump in my throat, it could be the dehydration, but probably the nerves too, and I tense as my eyes get prickly. I don’t want to be separated. He stamps my ticket and reluctantly thrusts the passport back into my possession.
My small hand reaches up to pinch the passport between my fingers and out of his grasp. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding as he lets go, and a golden bald eagle leaps from the booklet. One talon grasps an olive branch and the other arrows as it soars about the massive hall before perching on the Customs sign. Even in the artificial lighting, it glitters as brilliant as the sun.
And suddenly in that moment, I know what it feels like to be an immigrant in America. I don’t laugh anymore at the memory of a broken screen.
Katie Fisher is an undergraduate at Illinois State University, studying English in the Publishing Studies sequence and working as an academic peer advisor for first-year students. She enjoys spending time with her two lovely cats and listening to BTS.
Wheel of Fortune
By: Denise Berger
I saw my former boss on Wheel of Fortune. Contestant Number 2. I happened to look up when Pat asked, “So what keeps you busy?” He immediately lit up with responses “Oh! Cycling! Hiking! Skiing…” I didn’t even catch the whole answer, I was so amazed to see him. Not just that he was on TV. I was amazed because there wasn’t even a hint of the ailing body that was so central to the man I knew.
By the time I worked with him, he spoke as though part of his tongue was either missing or enlarged. People reacted to him with the benevolent condescension reserved for the disabled. Sometimes he just powered right through, the force of his will taking over, cheerful and exuberant as when he appeared on Wheel of Fortune. Clients and coworkers would tilt their heads in to hear better and, without realizing what happened, they would be in his swirl. Other times he avoided conversation. His body held pockets of stiffness, not necessarily in the joints but at random intervals. And there were odd angles, as if there were a rusty wire running through his skeleton. It must have been torturous to be trapped in that body, to be treated as a diminished being even as his own essence refused to be diminished.
Interestingly, his mannerisms remain unchanged; those are what I recognize right away. His brows arched in a state of surprise. The Muppet-lipped smile that seems like he might not have any teeth, although his teeth are right there. The hearing aid. The bounce in his step, even when standing in place. The broad waves of his arms, conducting an unseen orchestra as he speaks. And the satisfaction, the split second swelling of his chest, as he beams just beyond Pat when the answer is complete.
Then I see his name. Mike. Check. And it’s “Great American Cities Week,” from Denver. Check. He told me about his house in Colorado, somewhere in the woods where his porch light had to comply with dark sky regulations.
I can’t believe how vibrant he is. The whole show is focused on him, spinning the wheel as a full-body experience; he isn’t really exerting himself, he’s just so excited to be in the present moment, his joy unaffected whether he guesses right or wrong. His hair looks like silken thread, pulled into a small gray ponytail just above the dent where his head meets his neck. I wonder why he chose to dye it black at work.
I check the guide on my TV. Episode is from May 2016. Filming had to have been around February. I met him in November the following year. I could sense what he’d been like before. He had all these stories — about inventing things, about sneaking into the USSR through Finland with a woman he met in a Helsinki bar, about driving all night to his dying mother in Arizona… He knew the Sunday morning lineup on Classical KUSC. He’s someone I could have loved.
At my interview he asked me to describe a fantastic day, and to tell him how I knew when I had done a great job at something. Every word I sent to him landed.
I’m rooting for him to go to the bonus round. Even by game show standards he has an energy that leaps off the screen. I want to see who he has in the audience. I want to know about him, to spend time with him.
I think of when my mom came into the showroom, how he hugged her exclaiming, “Oooooh, you’re Denise’s mother!” and practically spun her in the air. He gave her an employee discount on the clear sparkling candlesticks she got for Shabbat. There was no mention that when I was growing up, our house did not have Shabbat candles on Friday night; our house took spiritual cues from the ACLU. He had no idea that when we learned in school about the plight of Soviet Jewry and sang about trying to worship in secret, I totally identified. I knew what it felt like to be penalized for faith, though I never had the guts to try any clandestine activities. I didn’t tell him. I liked this feeling, of introducing my mom as someone who appreciated what was important to me, who delighted in loving openly.
At some point she told me that Michael was a very sick man, that he didn’t want to be there, that he only took the job for the health insurance. She must have registered some sort of mirror image, the way people with similar interests spot each other in the airport.
At the start of 2018, he and my mom were two of the most central people in my life. A year later, they were both dead.
I cry as I tell Rimma. She assumes I have regrets, that I would have done something, or a lot of things, different had I known they would both soon be gone. That would make sense. That’s how people are taught to think. But what I actually cry about is that over and over it happens: all the signs point to death and yet it feels a surprise — as if Fate just somehow landed, with no predictable warning.
Denise Berger is a Los Angeles based writer. Recent work has appeared in Beth Am Review and Detroit Jewish News.
Two Poems by Jason Melvin
as I squeeze the toothpaste
onto my toothbrush staring
into the hotel room mirror
if the apocalypse happens,
could I sustain myself
by eating toothpaste?
With a foamy mouth
the near empty
travel size tube
It expired a year and a half ago.
you had to sneak up yelling did no good
walking up lightly shaking whispering Dad
never a good idea
a punch was coming your way too fast to dodge
ten quarters stacked on his elbow
caught in that hand
3rd-degree tae-kwon-do black belt
you learn that lesson once
Saturday afternoon boxing matches
watching with eyes closed
laid out in the recliner TV so loud
the deaf could hear it
which was kind of the point
I go for the toes down on all fours
for a punch to reach He’d have to sit up
and I’m hitting the ground
the recliner footrest my shield
no war zone in that sleeping mind
bad ears take you out of the draft line but
What’s behind those closed lids?
that keeps him on high alert
at the slightest touch.
Jason Melvin is a happily married father of three children and one granddaughter. He has of late rediscovered his joy of writing and thought WTH, let’s try publishing. His work has recently appeared in From Whispers to Roars, The Beatnik Cowboy, The Raw Art Review, Rat’s Ass Review, The Closed Eye Open, Kitchen Sink Magazine, The Electric Rail, and Front Porch Review.
Cat Eying the Butter
By: Antoni Ooto
Every morning I feel you missing.
It’s been a while,
and only now do I speak quietly
hoping for an impossible presence
to hold on to.
There is less laughter
at the breakfast table,
but as I chew,
I think of you
eying the butter on my plate.
Sick as you were,
you never lost your taste
for Baby (our tiny cat)
(February 19, 2000-July 28, 2014)
Antoni Ooto is an internationally published poet and flash fiction writer. Well-known for his abstract expressionist art, Antoni now adds his voice to poetry. His love for and studying the works of many poets has opened another means of self-expression.
His recent works are published in Amethyst Review, The BeZine, The Poet Magazine, Brown Bag Online, The Wild Word, Active Muse: Journal of Poetry and Art, and many journals and anthologies. Antoni Ooto lives and works in upstate New York with his wife poet/storyteller, Judy DeCroce.
Ducks Don’t Like Fritos
By: Dan Nielsen
He took the standardized test and went from Slow to Genius. He moved to a place where everything was free.
He set the clock radio for ON instead of ALARM.
“Mary had a brief affair with a shepherd named Moe,” the radio said.
He dreamed zippers. He dreamed alphabetically. This was his final dream.
At Mother Superior Genius School, their mission is to educate the smartest people to believe in God because lots of people believe in God, but few of them are educated and smart.
The light bulb burned out. He went to the convenience store. The convenience store was miles away. A Piggly Wiggly sat across the street. He knew where the light bulbs were at the convenience store; he had no idea where they were at The Pig. The last time he went to Piggly Wiggly for a light bulb, he left The Pig with a bag of Fritos.
He didn’t like Fritos. He fed them to ducks. The ducks didn’t like them either but ate them anyway.
It’s dark as he arrives at the convenience store. He wonders what time the ON went off. He unscrews the top of a two-liter Diet Cherry Coke. He doesn’t want it. He likes the sound and the fizz. The clerk doesn’t say anything.
He goes directly to the place where the light bulbs are. They aren’t there.
Dan Nielsen is a part-time stand-up comic. His least favorite flavor of jelly is petroleum. Most recent FLASH in: Defenestration, The Daily Drunk, Backchannels, Potato Soup Journal, and Jokes Review. Dan has a website: Preponderous, you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES. He and Georgia Bellas are the post-minimalist art/folk band Sugar Whiskey.
The Sun Was Just Rising
By: Mercury-Marvin Sunderland
“Are you scared?”
Julius’ phone was unpleasantly pressed to his ear. He sighed. The hospital was so quiet.
“No,” he responded. “I’m not scared. Just worried.”
“You’re just so young—”
“I’ve known this for a long time. I don’t want kids. I’ve been sure of that ever since I was ten. I just don’t want to be pregnant. You know that I’ve been saying that for a long time.”
“But I want—”
“This isn’t a thing about you, Mom. And besides. I’m not your only son.”
He listened to his mom’s silence. He looked out the window. The Sun was just rising.
“Besides,” he continued. “You know that I’ve always been a big fan of adoption. I’ll do that if I ever change my mind.”
His mom continued to be quiet.
“It’s gonna be okay, Mom. The surgeons know what they’re doing. And they’re a lot more trans-friendly than those ones at you-know-where.”
“That’s good, honey.”
Julius bit his nail, and then stopped. He’d been trying to quit that habit for a long time. Painting them didn’t help as much as he’d hoped. He usually liked to paint them in the colors of the trans flag. Blue, pink, white, pink, blue. They were so pretty and they’d get so eaten up by his anxiety sometimes.
“Is Diego there?”
“We broke up, Mom.”
“Like, two months ago. I thought you knew about that.”
“Well I-I’m sure I—”
“Mom, it’s okay. I know you forget stuff. It was mutual. We’re just friends now. But we’re giving each other space.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
“Mom, really, it’s okay.”
“Mom, do you have work today?”
“Well, yes, but that’s not in for a few hours.”
“You’re a schoolteacher, Mom. Go back to sleep.”
“I—” she hesitated. She sighed. “I just get so lonely. It’s been so long without any kids in the house.”
“Mom, I’m twenty-five.”
“Well, don’t you have a few hours?”
He looked at his watch. “It’s starting in an hour, yes.”
“Then we have plenty of time. Isn’t it going to hurt?”
“What, and childbirth doesn’t?”
His mom sat there, silent.
“Look, Mom,” he clarified, rubbing his forehead. “I know you want what’s the best for me. But I’m my own person. I can know what’s the best for me. Or whatever version of me you’ve made in your head. Even if it wouldn’t be the best for you.”
The Sun was getting in Julius’ eyes. He pulled the drapes. His mom was quiet.
“Besides, Mom. You know this will help. I won’t get the cramps every day any more.”
“I need to get ready. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Love you, dear.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum Literary Journal, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Portrait of a Mother on the Eve of Spring Break
By: Tamra Plotnick
through the parlor window
my last umbilical issue
load her distilled yet spindly
wonder into a hired car
and stream away
a long buried yet noodling crevasse
an invisible emptiness threading my core
that she began spinning since her womb exit fifteen summers back
that holy filament hooked onto her suitcase wheels
stretching my hollowness
I stand behind glass
these wafery walls of skin
vacant of her
glamour, grace, gall
this empty arc of bones
pressing against my own architecture
prayers, poems, partners
so as not to cave
under the weight of
talk too tacit
I forfeit color and verve
with her departure
though blossom’s promise looms a day away
and the charge is to view flamboyantly all
till the return of my Persephone
Tamra Plotnick’s poetry and prose works have been published in many journals and anthologies, including: Serving House Journal; The Waiting Room Reader, Global City Review and The Coachella Review. Her book In the Zero of Sky, Poems will be released by Assure Press in 2021. She has performed her work in multimedia shows in New York City where she lives, dances, teaches high school, and malingers with friends and family.
My Heart Is Good and Yours Is, Too
By: Laura Eppinger
Last week I turned in the keys to my old place so we could move in together. Time to let your one-bedroom go, too, but first we’ll have to liberate it. Let’s just say, you keep a lot of clutter.
It’s not like I haven’t seen your bathroom packed with more skincare products on one shelf than I’ve purchased in all my life to date. I snap on rubber gloves so we can get to the bottom of it all, make sure your floors are lemony clean. You look down at your feet, embarrassed.
There was a time I’d gag or call you messy piggy. I’ve been a rotten girl with a mean streak. I don’t joke or judge right now.
Thus far I thought the only way to keep love alive was to look the other way. But now I’m holding a furry glass in my hand, and pitching it in the trash instead of trying to save it. Who knows how many months it’s been since you poured yourself a Monster and drained it?
I stare directly at this neglected bachelor pad. It’s time to get to work. Your playlist makes me swoon: Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins. You sigh like you’ve tasted something sweet when “Perfect Drug” begins.
You attack the kitchen, ensuring every chopstick is wrapped with its mate. I linger while your back is turned, to hear you chiming in. I sing along too, in wonder and recognition.
So I take the bedroom, sweep up an impossible amount of hair (while I don’t keep enough to gather a ponytail). There isn’t a crevice without your DNA; it’s peeking out of the fibers of the yellow rug, wedged into corners of board game boxes, and lacing the weird arches of your PC-gaming chair.
I joke: you’re lucky I don’t practice that kind of magic, because I could use your hair and make you do anything I wanted.
You can do that anyway. Just ask.
But I’d kneel to kiss every goddamn Magic card. (It would take days, your decks seem endless.) Every spike in Gundam armor, every Pony figurine. Of course you are not your stuff, but I want to touch all the things you touch, every manga cover with its teal lettering.
Trust me, I am surprised to find love at 35. The weight of all that time. After the slow creep of decades of men who made me wilt. After inviting vampires in through my window, knowing I was worth less than the dirt of their graves. After the burn of diet soda in the throat, a rebellion of stomach lining. After all those cigarettes stained my teeth, the hunger in a ruined mouth.
Here I stand, left to rediscover my own skin. I loved songs about toxic love before I’d even been kissed. Did I use them as a blueprint?
The parched years are over. My vampires, all staked.
I cradle the next stack of DVDs, tuck them into a box for storage, then zip ribbed sweaters into plastic bags. The stitching is ordinary, the stitching is safe.
But here is a new thrill: desire without compulsion.
I’ll ask you later if you’ve read that recent interview with Trent Reznor where he sips green juice and beams about being a dad. But not now—in this moment, we’ll stick with the beat.
We hear: I got my heart but my heart’s no good. We’ll sing it but not live it.
Our hearts are healthy as yolk, wholesome as ginger in rice.
My heart is good and yours is, too.
Laura Eppinger (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at The Rumpus, The Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal.