When I google Turkey earthquake photos, I find a man sitting amidst broken concrete slabs, holding the hand of his daughter, her body sandwiched between mattress and pancaked upper floors. Her hand is smooth and white, spared from the broken and slid. Her palm is open— an invitation. The pink sheet too spills off the bed, the way she’d slide off each morning, sleepy-eyed, following smells into the kitchen, her chair across from his. His other hand is in his pocket. Men dig around him with bare hands. His stare barely touches upon their movements, the sunsets and sunrises that will come and go.
I zoom into his vacant stare. And I am sixteen, with too many theater friends piled in my car. We sit at a red light in awe of the pink and orange sunset silhouetting the mall. In the next lane, a woman stares ahead, unsmiling, haggard. We bang on our windows and yell until she hears our muted cries through glass and turns, confused, awakened. We wildly point and shout Look. At. The. Sunset! until she understands. And when she sees it, she smiles. We pulse with victory, changing the world one soul-less adult at a time! All the empties that walk the earth— those who’ve forgotten to notice.
Caroline N. Simpson
Caroline N. Simpson’s chapbook, Choose Your Own Adventures and Other Poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. In 2020, Delaware Division of Arts awarded Caroline an Established Artist Fellowship in Poetry, and she has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize in both poetry and nonfiction. carolinensimpson.com
Although I’m not particularly fond of violence, I decided to watch the TV miniseries “World without End.” It’s a Medieval butchery, maybe along the lines of “Game of Thrones,” which I haven’t seen.
Anyway, I watched the first hour of this curious pastiche of 21st century sensitivities dressed up in 14th century primitivism. In that hour, I saw a man get his forearm chopped off with a meat cleaver; a man get both legs broken with an enormous mallet; a pilloried man getting dung thrown at his head, apparently all day; and two hangings, one of which included about 15 victims, all of whom were simultaneously thrown off a bridge, necks ennoosed. There were also three graphic depictions of coitus, only one of which was consensual.
I stopped watching just before the first burning of a witch. My god, who are we to make such inhumanity profitable?
Richard LeBlond is the author of Homesick for Nowhere, a collection of essays that won an EastOver Press Nonfiction Prize in 2022 and was a finalist for general nonfiction in the Spring 2023 San Francisco Book Festival. His essays and photographs have appeared in many U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Weber – The Contemporary West, Concis, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”
The table is long, filled with empty plates, glasses, and a steaming pitcher of coffee. Everyone is smiling, and grandpa has an eyebrow cocked in a sassy way at the camera. The plates are red, and they nearly blend in with the teak table. A light on the wall shines behind the family, just above grandpa. A stone fireplace sits to the right of grandpa, and his daughter, my boyfriend’s mother, sits in front of the fireplace, snuggled up close to her father– grandpa. In front of her sits my future brother-in-law, his blonde hair parted in the middle to look straight out of the 90s. The swinging door to the kitchen is far behind everyone, slightly skewed to the left. In front of the door and to the left of grandpa sits grandma, her body hunched just slightly. She leans into my boyfriend, her youngest grandchild, just as his mother leans into grandpa. Closest to the camera is my boyfriend, soon fiancé. Everyone is smiling, probably because they are full of breakfast foods, but more likely because they are enjoying the company. It’s grandpa’s 93rd birthday, and he’s going strong. I’ve heard stories about him, about the farm he owns and continues to run. My boyfriend told me all about it, about the times he worked on the farm. I can listen to stories, but that is it. There’s an empty chair at the table, and I wonder if I could ever fill it. I imagine coming with my boyfriend, or maybe fiancé, or maybe even husband one day to visit his grandparents. I want them to smile at me, offer me a hug, and eat breakfast with me. I want to sit at that table. But I know I can’t. I can’t because they are old and can’t handle change. I can’t because their grandson, my boyfriend, is the normal one, the one not married to a man, but in reality, he is. He is in a relationship with someone who looks like a man at face value but was born a woman. If he told his grandparents? Who knows. He wants to keep them safe in their old age and keep life simple. But my life, and now his life, is not simple. We are two men in a happy relationship. I have a vagina, but strangers don’t see that. We’re nearly engaged, we’ve bought the rings, and we have started the process to have a child. Yet his grandparents will never know this, never know me. And so, at night, as I’m alone in my bed, I find myself hoping my life wasn’t so complicated, that I could be normal, that I could sit at the table and enjoy breakfast.
Aarron Sholar’s book, The Body of a Frog: A Memoir on Self-Loathing, Self-Love, and Transgender Pregnancy,is forthcoming from Atmosphere Press, and his essays have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He holds an MFA from MSU, Mankato, and a BA from Salisbury University. He serves as the Prose Editor for Beaver Magazine.
It was after a single glass of Gruner that I decided to throw it all away. I opened the “everything drawer” in my kitchen. Everyone has an everything drawer, right? A drawer crammed with the innumerable yet unremarkable artifacts of life.
From a young age, or maybe after a long therapeutic stint, (the timeline is murky), I learned to look life in the eye. Confrontation, it turned out, could be invigorating. Freeing even. This was one such moment. I towered over the jumble of odds and ends that had inexplicably taken up residence in this drawer; things I thought I may need one day, things that had taken mastery over me, things I was scared to touch.
The lone AA battery, its charge status forever a mystery. The fragile, doll-sized sewing kit from some bargain basement store–I don’t sew, but it’s there just in case. A coin from an Indian sojourn a decade ago–a talisman for a return trip that may never come. A rubber cock ring–all promise and little payoff, but preserved nonetheless. Keys with forgotten purposes, still stashed away just in case they hold the answer to a future locked door. Bereft-of-bounce hair ties that remain as a last-ditch option for a bad hair day. A weathered Chapstick, survivor of the washing-machine, harboring hope of someday coming to the rescue of desperate lips. Stubby pencils gnawed down by past worries. Orphaned pens caps. The remnants of burnt birthday candles, wishes blown. A cluster of Lego’s that once pinched under my unexpecting feet–they stay, for they might complete an unfinished castle someday.
I grab things, my hand making generous swoops into their tiny cosmos, and consign them to their new home—a mint-scented Glad garbage bag beneath the kitchen sink. No sorting. No recycling. I grasp for control. The rest of my life I can’t control. The “everything life” can’t be dealt with so decisively.
My mounting parking tickets; the ceaseless rhythm of school drop-offs; looming dentist appointments; cancer; my brother’s depression; my unregistered Jeep that exists somewhere beyond the DMV’s recognition; my cat who’s always hungry; the lone survivor of my chicken coop (curse those raccoons!); the continuous piles of unfolded laundry; the never-ending grocery list; the unopened texts from an ex; my fiancé; my newborn; planning a wedding my father might not be alive for; my addiction to cigarettes; my overachieving attitude—these things are not so easily discarded.
They must be faced. But this drawer, this ludicrous, cantankerous drawer that can’t even close, I can control this. I can throw all of this away.
Until later on tonight when my four-year-old walks into the kitchen, tears in his eyes because his Narwhale night light has died. And I find myself elbow-deep in the trash bin, sifting for that AA battery. I find it, scrub the remnants of spaghetti from it, and bring the little whale back to life. My son returns to his bed, his world right again.
And there I am, alone in the kitchen, surrounded by the unshakable, unthrowawayable things. My heart heavy with the need for these things. I rescue the misfits from the garbage and refill the “everything drawer,” ready for the day I might need them.
Anaïs La Rocca
Anaïs La Rocca is a writer, film director, and member of the Directors Guild. Her writing can be found in Shots Creative, Mother Egg Review, and The New York Times Tiny Love Column. Her film Good Bones, a collaboration with acclaimed poet Maggie Smith, won an International Motion Arts Award. She is the co-founder and editor of Litt Magazine.
begins with dissonant strains of the national anthem, further distorted by the rink’s poor acoustics, accompanying the humming exit of the Zamboni machine. In the white glare of overhead lights, they signal it’s time to “get in the zone” for the free skate warm-up.
You don’t want to hear about the “home of the brave,” or “bombs bursting in air,” knowing better than to take an early victory lap.
Your group is called for warm up. Skating around twice, getting the feel of the ice. A spin, then on to jumps. Look confident. Don’t look at others. One more double Axel. The five minutes almost up.
Skating first means cutting warm-up short. Going last, losing the feel of the ice, hearing competitor’s applause, convincing yourself you don’t have to pee again. Order drawn from a hat. You deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.
The calling of your name, the assuming start position center ice, the waiting for music to begin. In an arena so hushed you can hear your pulse hammering. Breathe. You’re in the air at an angle. Ban the vision. Smile. Just four interminable minutes. Flirt with the audience after the double flip. You actually land it. Barely. The final spin, so fast the blood vessels break in your forearms. The list of your mistakes, as you wait for the marks in “the kiss and cry.” At what point does your pulse return to baseline, breathing to normal? At what point do you emerge from the twilight zone? Maybe never.
Lorraine Hanlon Comanor
Lorraine Hanlon Comanor is a former U.S. figure skating champion and U.S. team member. A graduate of Harvard University, Stanford University School of Medicine, and the Bennington Writing Seminars, she is a board-certified anesthesiologist and author or co-author of 35 medical publications. Her personal essays have appeared in the NER (Pushcart Nominee), Boulevard (Notable in Best American Essays of 2020), New Letters, Ravens Perch, Ruminate, Gold Man Review, Book of Matches, Deep Wild, Consequence, Joyland Magazine, in press The Healing Muse and The Rumpus.
The first human cremains I should have seen? What kind of question is that? I have an answer — my mom’s. I did not see them because when they were done (is that the right way to put it?) I was living 300 miles away. I had them overnighted to her mother, 1,200 miles away. The first human cremains I actually saw were on the east bank of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Heavy-duty plastic bag, from a distance like sand. But then, label, name, death date, crematorium address. The name was Duka. I thought it was a cremated dog, like a female Duke. I regret this assumption but I volunteer at the dog shelter and they aren’t no-kill, so.
The next morning I returned, re-read the label, saw a surname. A person. Two coins by the bag. Fare for Charon? A straight shot to one of the islands, the afterlife. It’s a wide river.
I searched for an obituary, found none. Do I often search for obituaries? I’m not going to answer that. Saw references to the ethnicity. Nepalese. The city had accepted Nepalese earthquake refugees. They lit funeral pyres on holy rivers, part of the passage to reincarnation. I guessed that waterborne funeral pyres were not allowed in central Pennsylvania. I could picture elderly Nepalese doing the next best thing, ferrying ashes to the river’s edge, just setting them there. And the coins not for Charon, but maybe Lakshmi coins. Wealth.
I went back day after day and crouched by the bag, curious and sad. Who else visited? Is that a question you’re really asking?
I had this question: Why ashes? Cremains look like smashed coral. When have I seen smashed coral? When haven’t I. I kept thinking of the scene in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild where she tastes her mom’s ashes. I could not imagine putting this fine gravel of bone against my lips. I could envision reincarnation, however. Even Charon, I could imagine him.
What happened to the cremains? A flood, rafts of branches pummeled the bank, broke the bag. When the river level dropped to shallow, I could see a white swirl embedded in the mud, like a shred of a shroud. Wouldn’t the flood have taken it all away?
I hate your questions. Why not ask what compelled me to return and look.
Jen Hirt is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees, the essay collection Hear Me Ohio, and the poetry chapbook Too Many Questions About Strawberries. She is the co-editor of two anthologies of creative nonfiction. She is the editor at the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize, has been listed as “notable” in Best American Essays, and was nominated by Terrain for the John Burroughs Nature Writing Award. She is an associate professor at Penn State Harrisburg. Read more of her work at jenhirt.ink