This issue brings you outstanding stories both short and long. As you read, notice how the opening sentence of each of these pieces hits you in the gut and draws you in. That’s hard to find and we’re lucky enough to have six of them. Be sure to check out the “must read twice” editor’s pick this issue by Eric Stoveken — it speaks to the kid in all of us. Kick up your feet and let the magic of Ari Collins, xTx, Joe Austin, Townsend Walker, Eric Stoveken, and Christine Utz take you on a journey.
You loved a stone.
He had chiseled features and rock-hard abs, but that’s not why you called him that. He was an immovable object and you weren’t irresistible. When you left him for me, he was the same as when you met.
As for me, I never claimed I was anything but a mountain.
Ari writes from Boston, where he runs a great daily zine at 55aday.com
Losing the Pee Argument
I never take baths. Baths cost too much time and water. You sit and fester like a chicken breast. Plus, I don’t have a good tub. Note to future self: Get the jacuzzi tub the size of a Mini Cooper, you cheap fuck. My tub is an embarrassment that I lock in the basement and feed through a small slot on the door.
I took a bath. I was going to take a shower, but at the last minute I remembered this show from the other day where some tard told the doctor she had extremely painful anal fissures.
He said, “You’re brave to say that on national television.” He said many people have ass problems and nobody talks about them.
I thought, Why are you talking about your anal fissures on TV with your face so prominent?
He recommended she soak her ass in a hot bath. As I stood in the tub to take a shower, for some reason, I remembered the anal fissure lady. A bath sounded suddenly good.
I turned the water up to super hot and plugged the drain.
At first I stood there and looked at my feet. The water was slow. My toes weren’t drowning very fast. This will take forever, I thought. Maybe I should sit down so at least some more of my body can get wet and I won’t just be standing here naked, staring down my feet, feeling foolish.
I sat with my knees against my chest and my arms wrapped around my knees. I looked like one of those magazine covers where the famous star poses nude, but you can’t see anything because she’s cockblocking you with her pose.
I thought, I should lie down. That is how you take a bath.
I lay down in the tub. I had to bend my legs. The water flowing from the faucet was all I could hear. It grew higher and began to feel nice and warm.
I relaxed as the water rose. I noticed the hot water creep up and cover other dry spots. I watched as it came up over my hips and drenched my pubic hair, below my belly button, and then over my belly and up to my breasts until eventually I was just an island composed of head, breasts, lower thighs and knees.
When I was just the island, I turned off the water and grabbed the soap. I grabbed this scrubber I never use and soaped it up and lifted parts of my body out of the water to soap them. I felt like one of those old-fashioned ladies in the Westerns in a claw foot tub in the middle of a room with my hair piled above my head loosely, right before the hard gunslinger with a soft heart busts in and says he needs to dive in my tub to hide because he’s being chased by some Mexican lenders.
Then I soaked again, thinking of the anal fissure lady. I reached down and spread my butt cheeks and felt the hot water hit my anus. This is what the doctor wanted the lady to do. I might be healing my own anus this very minute. Maybe the lady is taking a bath right now and is spreading her asscheeks too. We are simpatico in soaking our assholes.
Then I felt the onerous urge to pee.
You cannot pee right now, I told myself. You will be soaking in your own piss. I thought, You’re right. I sat there. Everything so hot, so soothing, so relaxing.
You cannot piss! I ordered. That is so gross. But I couldn’t relax. If I peed, then I’d just rinse off after. We’d just soap it off in the shower. I got mad because I was losing my argument to not pee. I was convincing myself.
And then, yes—I did. I peed in my bathwater.
It felt exquisite.
xTx writes anonymously from Southern California, where she penned her first book and blogs at notimetosayit.com.
Each time I look in the mirror, all I see are big loops forming the capital U in Ugly.
My hair curls up like those ribbons my grandma pulls up with half a scissors on birthday presents. My sister’s hair, so dark it almost looks blue, hangs straight down from the middle of her scalp, down both sides of her head like black velvet living room drapery. Not mine. Mine curls all over my head, rings and rings of it, growing out instead of long. It’s like my daddy’s, but I only know that from Mama.
There are five of us, including Mama. My sister Ellie, the twins, Claude and Cole, and me. Both girls got E names after Daddy Eli, and both boys got C names after Mama, Caroline. Daddy Eli left just about when the boys were two, then died somewhere outside Phoenix shortly thereafter. I was three or so; Ellie was six. I don’t remember him much at all. Ellie does.
I remember one thing about Daddy Eli, just one quick snatch of memory. I was little, real little, smaller than normal, just like I am now, and Daddy Eli was carrying me. I was cuddled against his neck, the smell of cigarettes and baby powder coming right off his skin and filling up my nose. He carried me through a door, kicking it open with his foot and then holding me on his knee at a picnic table. That’s it. I don’t remember his face really, or the sound of his voice or anything else but the smell and the cuddling and the snuggling and the picnic table. Almost like a dream you sort of remember when you wake.
Ellie has a few more memories of Daddy Eli. She doesn’t share them much at all. Mama, she doesn’t say his name hardly at all anymore. Once in a blue moon, maybe after a glass of our neighbor, Mr. Haleman’s homemade wine, she says something. Sometimes, after a glass or two, Mama’ll sometimes grab a handful of my hair, hold it gently in her fingers and cry a bit. Sometimes, she’ll say his name then. I’m the only one of us with Daddy Eli’s curls and sometimes, I get blamed for it.
A child doesn’t ask for what they get, do they? We don’t ask for big noses or ears that stick straight out like those handles on vases you see in pictures from Ancient Egypt. We don’t ask for bad teeth or fat feet or big butts. Why would we? And we don’t ask to look more like one of our parents instead of the other. So it shouldn’t be our fault? Should it? But Mama, I think, sometimes forgets how he much he hurt her and those stretches of forgetting are getting longer and longer. When she forgets, I’m just her sweet little daughter, Emma. When she remembers, though, I’m not Emma; I’m Eli’s kid, with the Eli curls and Eli face. When she remembers, she forgets that I’m not the one who hurt her.
There are times when Ellie is sleeping in the bed next to mine that I sit up and stare at her face in the moonlight. She looks so much like Mama. Even when she sleeps and her lips are slightly parted and they ripple with sleep breath, she has a soft beauty, an elegance. Ellie has pure clean skin and almond eyes.
I stare at her, knowing how the moon must love her face too, because it works so hard to find her and shine so bright on it. I put my hand to my face, feel the ugliness, feel the bumps and the wide nose and my big ears. I run a hand through my hair, and find it is too curly and tangled and my hand gets caught in all the dark brown snags.
I’m jealous of Ellie. I love her and hate her at the same time. I’m angry that she got all Mama and I got all Daddy Eli. I wonder if I cut her finger and cut my finger and press the bloody spots together, will I get some of her pretty? If I do that every night, how long will it take for me to turn from ugly to pretty? Will she get some of me, too? Will I get prettier and will she get uglier? Can we meet somewhere in the middle, both of us not pretty but not ugly either?
Sometimes, I think these things so long I watch the sun come up.
Mornings, Mama gets us all off to school. The twins go to a different school than Ellie and me and leave earlier than we do. That frees up the only bathroom for Ellie and me. I usually let her go first.
When we leave, Mama heads off to the diner where she waitresses. She works breakfast and lunch so she’s always home in time for us after school. Ellie and me watch her leave, walking in the other direction toward the Golden Harp Diner. We wave goodbye and go to school.
A block away from the school, Ellie looks at me and tells me to wait on the corner. She doesn’t want anyone to see her walking up to the school with me. She makes me wait there all by myself every day. And I do. Every day. Alone and ugly on the corner.
Kids walk by. No one says a word. I can see Ellie run up to her friends, all pretty like her and they squeal and laugh and huddle up to tell their pretty girl secrets.
Then I leave the corner. I watch the ground pass below my shoes and don’t look at anyone. And no one looks at me. When ugly walks past, you turn away, you hide your face, you don’t look at it. Never acknowledge ugly. First rule of school. Ugly should be ashamed. Ugly should be invisible.
I float past the pretty kids completely unseen, or at least unacknowledged. I go into the building.
I go to class.
I sit down.
I take out a pencil and my notebook.
I pretend I’m not here.
This morning a substitute walks in. She’s tall and beautiful with caramel skin. Her eyes are green and bright and smiling.
“Good morning. I’m Miss Unger,” she says. “Since I don’t know any of y’all, I’d like someone to help me with the attendance.” She is smiling, looking out across the room for a suitable volunteer or that one perfect face, perfect smile, perfect perfect.
Pretty girls say “Me! Me!” and raise their hands frantically as if the classroom was just invaded with fruit flies. Boys slouch in their seats.
“How about you with the pretty hair?” she says and, like the boys, I slouch down. I look at my dress, plain and boring, my bony knees and the brown shoes that used to be Ellie’s two years ago.
“You,” Miss Unger says again. “With the pretty curly hair.” I feel a shadow, dark and airy, cross in front of me, and then stay there, blocking me from the rest of the class. I’m grateful to be hidden.
“Do you mean Emma?” I hear from the back of the room. It’s Delia Lance. She’s tiny like a marionette, but not so pretty. She’s only almost cute.
I look up. Miss Unger is standing in front of me holding a sheet of paper. She is smiling at me as if she knows me- has always known me.
“God, what I would give for such beautiful curly hair,” she says, and hands me the paper. “What’s your name?”
I just sit there for a moment, not sure of my own name, not sure she is really talking to me, not sure this isn’t some strange dream. I finally say it. “Emma.”
“Will you please take attendance for me?”
Pretty. Beautiful. Me. If I didn’t think smiling made my nose look even wider, I would have smiled all day. Pretty, beautiful me. I look at the list of names and first, before I do anything else, I mark myself here.
Joe writes from New York City, where he teaches English to young aspiring writers disguised as high school students.
Cleo is thirteen and incontinent; Max is five and knows where and when to do his business. But when the neighbors ask Helen to take care of their Cleo, a miniature poodle, it’s hard for her to refuse. After all, Helen leaves her terrier, Max, with them when she goes on vacation. Not exactly a fair exchange, but for neighbors . . .
On Saturday morning Helen feeds Cleo and Max, and takes them for a walk in Gramercy Park. It’s the same story Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Cleo spends nights in her own apartment. Helen can’t stand the old dog’s smell. On Monday morning Helen goes over to get Cleo and finds her curled up under the kitchen table.
“Cleo.” Helen tentatively touches the dog’s head. “Cleo.” Cleo doesn’t move. She kneels down and puts her head next to the dog. “Cleo, time to get up,” Helen sing-songs. The dog doesn’t move. “Poor, poor Cleo what am I going to do with you ‘til your folks get home?”
“Sure Helen, bring Cleo on down,” her vet says. “I’ll store her here for the week.”
Helen finds a big robin’s egg blue Tiffany’s bag in the apartment, gingerly places Cleo in, covers her with tissue paper, goes out, and waits for the cross-town M 23. The only seat is across from an unkempt chap in last month’s matted hair, a small weak mouth, stubbled chin and a soiled Knicks jacket. He looks at the bag with squinty black eyes; keeps looking. He’s giving Helen the creeps. The bus stops at Eighth Avenue. People get off. Unkempt grabs the Tiffany bag, dashes through the closing doors, and runs down Eighth.
Helen sticks her head out the window. “Hey asshole, no returns or exchanges, got that?”
Townsend writes from San Francisco, where he gave up life as an Economist and Banker to pursue his passion.
What Bonzetto the Younger Did on His Summer Vacation
As a child of the circus, Bonzetto the Younger decided to run away and join the suburbs. He snuck out of the big top during the Flying DeSades’ trapeze act, clutching his pack stuffed with cotton candy and corn dogs; his red rubber nose and a tube of greasepaint tucked in his back pocket just in case. He found a minivan with no soccer decals or honor student bumper stickers: an aspiring family in search of a kid. Kneeling down in the shadows, he waited for the moment to leap.
Sure enough, once the show was over Bonzetto heard the electric chirp as a man in khakis and a cardigan wielded his keychain like a magic wand. He and the wife had kids in tow, but the titles of Aunt and Uncle were quickly uttered revealing the family to be nothing more than their vicarious brood. The young clown slipped in the sliding door and buried himself behind the third row seat, his knees in his eye sockets like he was back in the tiny hatchback with Starry-eyed Calhoun sitting on his legs.
It seemed like forever until they got there: a two story McMansion built in a little more time than it takes to raise the big tent, and no elephants involved to make things too interesting. Bonzetto was soon discovered, and offered to pay his way doing menial tasks: mowing the lawn, wearing a crooked tie in family portraits and supplying the refrigerator with a steady stream of doodles and etchings.
They lived that way for a while, enjoying backyard barbecues with pitchers of lemonade that “Mom” made by furiously squeezing lemons over the pitcher until pulp and rind squeezed through her fingers like the wild yellow hair of Nutsy Malone, then adding sugar as freely as Nutsy inhaled his curative powders.
Bonzetto taught their dog, a goofy half Chihuahua half German Shepherd mutt, to dance the Lindy; and drew strange looks from neighbors who wondered where he came from and why his shoes were six sizes too big. He would just finger the rubber nose in his pocket and mutter that old habits die hard.
Old Habits Die Hard.
Eric writes from Pennsylvania where he edits the literary broadsheet, “Loquacious Placemat”, and tells strange and unusual tales at ericstoveken.weebly.com
How to Tell Your Mother
She knew she’d never be the sort of woman who could say, I am the most important person in the world and actually believe it. Sitting at the kitchen table, Sunday’s crossword puzzle completed in red ink in front of her, Jillian flipped to the next chapter of the book she was reading: How to Tell Your Mother You Want to See Other People. She picked up the phone.
“Mother?” She wrapped the phone cord around her wrist three times so her arm would stop shaking.
“Jillian? Is that you?” Her mother wasn’t forgetful. She just liked to act as though Jillian’s calls were fewer and farther between. Jillian felt the sharpness of her saliva before she swallowed.
“Mother. I want a divorce,” Jillian said.
“Don’t be silly, dear. You’re not even married.”
“Not from a man. From you.”
The line was quiet. Then her mother’s steady voice, “You’re still angry about this whole business with Mr. Crawford.”
Her mother lived in a twenty-story retirement home a block away from the ocean. Jillian had always wondered what all those old people would do if there was a fire in the building. The ones on the first floor would make it out all right. But the others? They sure as hell weren’t going to take the stairs.
Inside the deathtrap, her mother liked to practice the art of self-improvement on anyone who came close enough to hear her prickly voice. She taught one nurse how to fold a dinner napkin into a Bird of Paradise. She lectured the cleaning staff on the proper way to polish the floors. And she bribed Mr. Wilcox, the Center’s manager, into allowing her special visitors every Friday night.
“It’s him you should stop seeing, not me,” said her mother.
Jillian let her forehead touch the wall. “I really can’t keep doing this,” she said.
She thought about last September. The dried leaves gone soft in dark puddles along the sidewalk. Dylan Crawford coming out of the coffee shop, his grey hair wet with moisture from the steam vents, noticing her cowering behind the newspaper stand, greeting her in a voice that sounded like swaying wheat, asking her to dinner; the two of them in his bed after Tiramisu.
“Dear, you have to understand. Things like this don’t matter in the end,” her mother said.
“It never mattered,” Jillian hung up the phone.
She looked to the crossword puzzle for a word to articulate her disgust, but found only asphyxiate, millstone, and croquet. She unraveled the phone cord; her arm flushed with relief. The book on the kitchen table lay open, displaying the heading: Once You’ve Ditched the Bitch. Tip # 25: She’s going to call back. DO NOT answer the phone.
Jillian glanced at the phone and hoped the book was wrong. She did not want the phone to ring. If it rang, she would have to answer, and the conversation would begin all over again and they would keep going in circles until her mother convinced her she’d done nothing wrong.
Jillian stuffed the book in her back pocket, put on a jacket and drove to the ocean. The beach was empty, save for a stray dog chasing birds along the tide line. She zipped her jacket all the way up her neck and started walking. That spot right there, where the wood stuck out of the sand from the old pier, that was where she’d sat and waited for her mother to come down from the Seaside Hotel with her lips newly painted and her panties in her fist.
“Don’t make a big fuss about it. Your father doesn’t know,” she’d said the first few times she’d dragged Jillian to the ocean. Most of Jillian’s teenage years had been spent on that piece of wood, thinking about what her mother was doing and wondering who she was doing it with.
She’d found out last week. They were in her bed, sweating under the blades of the ceiling fan, her cheek against his bare chest feeling the drum beats of his heart after their lovemaking. Dylan Crawford was telling her about the crowd he used to run with back when he was much younger. He’d talked with a drawl, his brown eyes hazy like sea glass. There was this woman, he told her, used to meet him at a hotel and they’d go crazy for hours. Who was she? Jillian had asked, not really caring to know. When Dylan said her name, Fanny O’Neil, she felt something in her chest give way like a collapsing building.
She told him it was over. Then she gave him a hand-job until her arm felt like it was going to fall off. He left a small stain on her sheets that she stared at long after he’d gone and the shadows in the room began to change.
Jillian walked down the beach until she found herself looking up at her mother’s retirement center. Half the letters of the welcome sign were burnt out; the place looked like a dump on the outside. She took the book out of her pocket and opened to Chapter 6: Taking the Maternal Helm.
Definition: Assertiveness is the ability to boldly and non-aggressively put forth one’s wants and needs. In this chapter, you will learn to draw lines and enforce boundaries between you and your scheming mother.
Jillian looked at the retirement home and imagined a bad fuse in the sign short-circuiting a wire and starting a fire in the building—everything going up in flames, the residents tripping over their nightgowns, trying to push their walkers down the stairs. And she, waiting in front of the glass doors for her mother to emerge sleepy-eyed but triumphant, her nightgown burned to shreds and her hair a mess of melted plastic.
“What are you doing out here?” she said, the grey shape moving closer to her on the sand.
“You called,” her mother said. She pulled the collar of her wool coat up around her neck.
“I hung up on you.”
“I knew you’d come here.”
She reached for Jillian’s hand. Jillian stood still and tried to focus on the sound of the frothing waves. Her mother snatched the book from her fingers and opened it to the dog-eared page.
“So this is where you’ve been getting your ideas.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about him?”
“Why would I?”
“I was there!” Jillian was shouting like her six-year-old self, tossed into time out in the corner of the dining room.
“It was years ago.”
“But he was with you,” Jillian said. She thought of her mother and Dylan on the bed sheets of the hotel, of herself entering the room and joining them.
“Well look at me now,” her mother said. She dropped to the sand in her lovely coat, sat cross-legged and looked up at Jillian.
Jillian studied her. Through the creams and rouges, she could see dozens of wrinkles. The curve of her arched nose, her thin pretty neck—it was all obscured by the weight of her age. If Jillian reached up and touched her own cheeks, she would feel the same half-moon crescent on either side of her lips. The same mark left by their collective smiles.
“I don’t want to,” Jillian said. “Not now—not for a long time.” She retrieved her book from the wet sand where her mother had dropped it. She said nothing when she turned and walked back up the beach. She marched right to her car and drove home with the windows down, the cool air biting her skin.
Christine writes from Brooklyn, where she lives with her books and her fish, Elliot, while pursuing a Master’s in Fiction from Adelphi University.