October 2022 | nonfiction
The inside of the ice-cream truck is a hot dark closet with syrup air that gags. We are rumbling around a New Jersey cul-de-sac and no one can catch us. My six-year-old fingers are soft worms straining to hold onto the slippery silver rod above. The floor shakes, but my bare legs do a clumsy dance to stay standing. The man in the white uniform driving looks back at me and smiles. I wonder if my big sisters can see me. The ledge of the slide-open window is too high to peek over. The tinkling bells and cries of the neighborhood children outside, the radio voices of Diana Ross and The Supremes inside cannot drown out the sound of my blood pounding: This is the bravest thing I have ever done. …baby love, my baby love / Been missing ya, miss kissing ya.
We stop so hard I must grab the bar with both hands. I bump up against the freezer with sticky red popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, and fudge bars. I cannot wait to see the faces of the others clutching quarters in their hands, when I pop out of this ice-cream limousine. They have never been inside, like me. I will spring out in surprise.
But the only face I see is my father’s.
What is he doing here? He is never here when we buy ice-cream. He is away “on business” when we buy ice-cream, when we ride bikes, when we go to Brownies, when we have back-to-school nights. When we wake up because our mother is crying, smoking and drinking from the jug of red wine on the kitchen table. My father’s eyes scare me; he looks like a killer. I am afraid he is going to hit me. But he lunges past, at something white behind me.
A. Cabrera’s poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, Ravensperch, Best Travelers’ Tales 2021 Anthology, Deronda, and other journals. Their work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company.
October 2022 | nonfiction
There’s singing and then there’s Freddie Mercury. Out of the deep and deepening well of sound just there in him as if music like a swarm of bees searching for home at last finds it in him, pours into him, seeps into every molecule of bone and marrow, shimmers the blood flowing through every capillary, flumes up into his throat and rushes out to buoy me on the exhilarating, turbulent sea of Bohemian Rhapsody, waking my fallow griefs, fruiting them in every bare note of a capella then oozing into ballad then punching up my flagging spirit with fisticuffs of opera and hard rock then wafting ever so slowly like a collapsing mylar balloon sinking back and hovering over the reflecting well of sound in him and submerges there.
Biographer David Bret puts Mercury’s deep, throaty rock-growl nudging a tender, vibrant tenor to life, then scaling a high-pitched, perfect coloratura, pure and crystalline, in my ears, and for a moment I hear the small shatters of broken glass on kitchen floors, the throb of tired feet and stubbed toes on a narrow trail. I draw a breath of musty, fragrant air, duck my head into a dust devil whirl of exhilaration and then I’m wrapped in the chill of lost ways and then lifted in crazy joy, into the mosaic of a stained glass window sunlight beamed through the pinwheeling colors splashed onto a stone cathedral floor.
He’s humming now, collecting minors and majors, pulling out useful detritus from his storied life as he draws out a velvet chair, directs me into it, and settles me at the groaning board of the feast. The late summer dusk chorus of crickets starts up and I do not shut the windows all night.
Paula Marafino Bernett
Paula Marafino Bernett’s poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Louisville Review, Margie, Nimrod International Journal, Rattle, Salamander, Tar River Poetry, and Whiskey Island, among others. Her lyric essay “Digression and Memory, The Handmaiden Effect” and a companion essay “Four Hands Improvising on a Piano” appeared in Fourth Genre. A lyric essay “The Smallest Leaning Begins …” was published in Eastern Iowa Reviewand Birdcoat Quarterly published “Lady Mondegreen Rises from the One Who Was Laid Upon the Green.” The flash essay “How a Person Becomes a Body” was published by Gigantic Sequins and nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MaLa from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM. She lives in NYC with Chance, her beloved Chessie.
October 2022 | nonfiction
That’s what the man says. He says, It’s toast. You can get another opinion if you want, but I can tell you for sure, like ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure, it’s toast.
This tree, a Hong Kong orchid tree (or more properly, Bauhinia × blakeana) is the showpiece of our small yard here in Florida. A willowy head of lime-green tendrils that explode each “winter” in fuchsia flowers as big as my hand. Planted by the previous owner, but tended fiercely by me for three years. So unlike anything in our yard in Oakland, all summer dry flax, firepoker, rosemary, sage.
Another tree man says, You never want to say never, but…
Of course I see what they see. The wound on the trunk. How the smooth gray bark has peeled away. How some of the tree’s insides are now outside. How ants teem. I also see the lip of bark callousing the wound’s circumference to shrink the exposure as weeks go by.
A third “expert” chimes in. Says, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ll have to remove it. He suggests a few trees he says are better suited for the small space: a dwarf powder puff, a desert cassia, a golden dewdrop. All lovely, I’m sure, but we love this tree.
He adds as an afterthought, I’m guessing you won’t miss it though, they’re so terribly messy. He is right. It is terribly messy. But he’s wrong to think we won’t miss it because he doesn’t know about the tiny birds. How they came for those fuchsia flowers that first December, day after day, buzzing, hovering, lingering to drink more, sparkling green and black, tiny ruby flashes. How they reminded us of home, of the ones that buzzed the Mexican sage and nested in the crook of the plum tree outside our kitchen window.
Two years now since the experts’ pronouncements. The tree leans heavily, half its crown missing. I’ve splinted the lowermost trunk, propped the weight of the lean with a two-by-four wedged atop the patio. A brick-colored fungus stacks small shelves on one upper branch. But the tree still sprouts tender green leaves from stems reaching for the sun. I tell myself, it wants to live!
It’s August now, the crepe myrtles blooming, big and pink and crepe-papery. These blossoms will be smooth green berries by September and the cardinal pair will come to nibble them. Then two more months, maybe three, depending on the rains, and the orchid tree will put on its show again. We have been here long enough now to know the routine. We fell in love with the tree that first December and again each year after and now? Now I feel responsible for it. I feel responsible for the little birds.
We see the tree is, in fact, dying. Of course the experts were right. But as we watch it each day and August moves toward September, we say to each other, Just one more year.
Deborah Sherman is a writer, photographer, bird nerd, and cat servant from Oakland, California. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College where she served as Editor of the graduate English Department’s literary journal, 580 Split. Her essay “Tale of the Bufo” appears in Hippocampus Magazine’s March/April 2022 issue, and her micro love story “The Fling” was included in the 2018 anthology Short on Sugar, High on Honey published by Flash: The International Short Short Story Press. She currently lives in Delray Beach, Florida, with her husband and two cats, and is working on a collection of essays about place, impermanence, and possibilities. You can find more of her work at deborahsherman.com.
July 2022 | nonfiction
Zero is a beginning and one is a beginning too. I was once a zero and became one after one year. It was then I began to walk and talk. Early, they said, but for me not soon enough.
At five I was flying, off to other States, which gave me a taste for adventure. When I was only one decade old, I spent most of my time in the woods, eating wild plants and hiding, having developed a knack for hating indoor school, which continued for many more aggregates.
At 16, I became what they call a professional (got paid) and at 1 and an 8, left home for good. Off to the big city of New York to become a ‘real’ actress, where I mostly stumbled and stopped flying. I found it difficult to maintain flight throughout my 20s and 30s with so many men telling me what to do. Directors and producers all had so much to say, like lie down and don’t tell anyone.
At 3 followed by an 8, I found God, only later to discover it was a cult. This was after 16 grueling years of hardcore belief. I was now in my fifth decade ‒ 5 followed by another 5. At this point, I fell in love and rediscovered I had a body with desires. This sent me flying again, back into my body and remembering I hated school, however disguised.
Now in my 7s followed by a zero, seven decades, I mostly live outdoors again, riffling through weeds, kissing peonies, writing essays, and witnessing too much death. Friends and otherwise. But I still have love, my body, and trees.
I may live to a one followed by two zeros. Ten decades! Back to one, followed this time by two zeros. Hopefully I’ll still be in my body on hands and knees in the dirt. Or, lying in the earth, scarred and resting, with all those zeros and ones spent.
Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Critical Read, Adelaide, Epiphany, Memoir Monday, Anomaly, Westerly, Channel, Capsule, Tiny Molecules, Sky Island Journal, Hotazel Review, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and lives now in the hills of Vermont.
July 2022 | nonfiction
Strawberry shoots, signs of life, play peek-a-boo in the leaves I spread before the snow fell. Last time I saw Mom, she was tethered to an oxygen converter. A few days later, she was in hospital, hooked up to monitors and a morphine drip. I prefer to think of her here, greening-up from within the strawberry plants she gave me years ago. She always loved arithmetic—adding up her tidy rows of numbers, carrying remainders. Perfect calculations. There is comfort in knowing that each spring I’ll find Mom multiplying and dividing her strawberry plants across the garden, multiplying and dividing.
When I walk past a mirror or quickly sift through old photographs, I assume it’s me I see. But sometimes it’s my mother. Always the trickster jumping out, scaring the bejeezus out of us—whoopee cushions on the kitchen chair, a giant plastic spider beneath the pillow. This tendency towards mischief we share showed up in my son early on—ketchup packets under the toilet seats, my handwriting impeccably forged (ice cream, poop wafers) on the grocery list, flour on the keyboard to decode a password. Harmless disruptions of the mundane.
Mom always kept us well fed. She still surprises me when I flip through my favourite recipes and see her treats in her slanted cursive—tangy rhubarb crisp, zucchini bread, Grandma Thibault’s apple pudding. I was her shadow in the cramped orange kitchen of my childhood. I stood on the stool as she showed me how to make mustard beans, pickled beets, stewed tomatoes. Thanks to Mom, my pantry brims. Eventually, she will feed her great-grandchildren and theirs.
I dig up two strawberry plants for my little brother so he’ll always find Mom in his garden when he needs her. Plus, strawberries are his favourite. Mom loved to give gifts that, like here, keep giving and giving. A twinge of sorrow tugs at my heart, but the pull of joy is stronger. Mom will never abandon us. She’s in the shape of my hands and muscular calves. In my cousin’s smile, and the way she holds her cigarette. If I search hard enough, I can find Mom in everyone I love.
Soon, Mom’s earthly body will leave us, but I’ll find her multiplying and dividing in the strawberry patch each spring. She’ll remind me that she never actually left by multiplying ruses, divvying up signs that prove she’ll always remain. Disguised as a crow’s cackle moments after I stumble and hope nobody saw, she’ll keep me humble. A decade from now, her laughter will echo in my grandchildren’s as they snort and slap their knees. In my late fifties, I’ll see her more and more in my reflection—jowls beginning to sag, doughy folds draping my cheeks. I won’t even be surprised when she replaces me. I’ll open wide my mouth, expose every tooth and let loose the laugh she could never contain.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s most recent publications in Bending Genres, Five South, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Grain and other fine literary journals. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.
July 2022 | nonfiction
I was in line at the Delta counter behind two white men of military bearing. They each had man sized hard cases with latches and locks, big enough for long barrel shotguns or automatic rifles. It was Mother’s Day in Texas, and I had missed my flight home to true blue LA. Delta had a flight out around noon and I was trying to find out if there were seats to be had for anything less than the cost of a Trumpian lie.
Five lines. Three agents. Worse still, the agents kept calling up those waiting in other lines. The world’s babble tangoed on the noisy air: Italian, Arabic, Tex Mex, Chinese. 20 minutes later, I sighed with exasperation, sure that whatever seats were left were gone at any price. The man in front of me confided:
“You’d think they would want to get the guns out of sight first….”
That won a chuckle from me.
Another long wait. The first guy with a gun case was finally summoned. The case was opened. A big rifle. The crowd was unimpressed. Much chatter among the uniforms, then a strategic huddle and another long wait. My neighbor laughed:
“That guy’s a pilot for them—Delta. What am I gonna have to do?”
The pilot signed a contracty looking document and was handed a red tag which he carefully placed inside the case before securing all the locks and an extra case-hardened steel padlock. The uniforms witnessed his every move until all those keys disappeared into the man’s carry on and he had stepped back from the gun case.
We were invisible again. A Chinese traveler from another line needed a translator. The man in front of me turned and made small talk:
“Where are you going?”
“To California,” more assertively, from inside my covid mask. A translator was found. The Italian family were called next.
“Where are you travelling with rifles?” I asked.
“Nevada. We got the contract on feral pigs outside Vegas,” he drawled.
“Yes,” I answered. “I read recently that they are becoming a problem in Southern California, too. Do you ever eat what you kill?
“Once. I brought a young pig home to cook for my sons. One, two years old—they only eat nuts and roots. The older ones eat dead things and stink. I had a bite. The meat was really sweet, but I am a vegetarian, almost a vegan, really.”
I had been visiting my sister in Austin for the first time since Covid began, since her husband had died, since my cancer fight. Alito’s draft opinion on Roe leaked that week. We hung on each other again, trying to ease our shared despair. Uvalde was yet to come.
I called her when I got home and told her about my travel travails, ending with the vegan pig hunter. She laughed and sung the Lyle Lovett line:
“Texas wants you anyway….”
Ellen T. Birrell
Ellen Birrell is an artist and lemon farmer in Ventura County, CA. Her writings have appeared in X-TRA, Cabinet, Adelaide, Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2018, Mac-ro-mic, Condiment, Material, and Parabol. Her 2019 essay “Gloves” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is Faculty Emerita at California Institute of the Arts.
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