time_stamped by Sarah Cavar

time_stamped

The stamp shop next door functions as a liminal space. 

Here’s the scene: you’re standing in a stamp shop, where the shelves are a solid 6’ and you’re a tentative 4’6”. You’ve just tasted your very first bagel sandwich (as opposed to eating two discretely cream cheese’d bagel halves, with which you still feel significantly more comfortable) with curly fries on the side. They were a welcome break from the damp and yellowed monotony of the fries from the freezer. You’re all done eating and full of grease and dread but it’s not time to —––––. You need to be held, contained like a belly, 'till your next appointment. The stamp store is a gas station and convenience store and Dunkin’ Donuts, except with higher standards of restroom maintenance.

You’ve never seen an actual piece of cash money before, other than perhaps that dollar bill your dad showed you and muttered in your ear “money is dirty,” which you’ll later learn to be true in several different ways. All the stamps form walls around you as a consequence of their six foot shelving situation; you’re absolutely dwarfed by the things. A lot of them are facing backward, that is, their respective backings of reddened clay are exposed, toothsome to the finger. 

Your mother seems to ache for craftiness, not in the sly sense but in the P.T.A. sense, and you implore her to pick up some stamps and ink. You suspect she seeks the fruits of some socialite mom’s private creative labors –– which, before the age of Pinterest, remain so very mysterious –– without the imperative to lug ripped-and-spit-spattered orange and watermelon rinds from the youth soccer field to the garbage bin. 

It seems likely she will buy you at least one stamp. She hasn’t bought herself a new pair of shoes since before you were born, which, as you don’t yet know, was not a particularly long time ago in the life of a human but was quite a long time ago in the life of a shoe. She lets you pick one stamp and one ink pad despite the questionable state of her old shoes. The ink is redder than the clay back of the glossy, wooden stamp you get, which you don’t pay for but cradle in your hands anyway. It’s time to go to —––––. You: digested. You are skilled enough with your hands to stick a stamp into some ink and mess it up a bit and then stick it even harder on some piece of paper and the thing that will emerge from the stamp’s surface as it kisses the paper’s face will be perfect. 

You experience grave disappointment upon noting that a stamp might leave a thin outline of ink, sometimes at a ninety-degree angle, just beyond the design that was to be imprinted. Later you seek this for the kitsch. You realize that kitsch only happens once you’ve been around a little longer than a mother’s pair of shoes, or after at least your third or fourth go-round with the bagel and fries combo, after you’ve at least once left that damn container of ink open too long to recover. Until one of your gay aunts purchases you a self-inking stamp that you can’t help but call nifty, as she perhaps would have in the 80s, and although the defining feature of this self-inking stamp is its maroon plastic top, in the center of which is written your home address in black. This is the content of your stamp. The ink attached is violet, which is not yet your favorite color.

Back at the stamp shop you did not think about the way stamps were made; you knew not of their customizability. You were flabbergasted, yes, absolutely shocked when you saw that some people ate bagels as sandwiches. You grew out of many of your intolerances but still stand as an inferior being in the shadow of a six-foot stamp shelf, all red, towering above like a grizzly old giant that comes before you sleep. You still trace the outline of some secret-garden printed behind the raw red track of an old stamp when it appears behind your eyes. The –––- chews and spits you unlike your fatty lunch of choice, which holds your sluggish body long enough to mark.

Sarah Cavar is a full-time student of ambiguous gender. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal, Breath & Shadow, Polyester Zine, and Sinister Wisdom. They have guest-posted on blogs such as Epicure & Culture and Genderqueer.Me, and can themself be found at sarahcavar.wordpress.com

Two Stories by Lorraine Wilson

Lakshmi

She is a trinket, really. Probably haggled for obligatorily at some morning market, flies in the air and the scent of spices, uncooked meat, languages weaving into one another and my grandad’s pale skin always noticed, always odd.

I don’t even remember seeing it in his house, I imagine it boxed away amongst dust-gathered mementos of a life reluctantly left behind. But to see her, brass-cast goddess, hands raised and foot shining from the supplication of my fingers, to see her is to remember. My childhood was filled with stories, you see. Stories scattered with Hindi and Urdu and the crumbs of cake slices scattered around my knees. They were chital deer and tiger prints in monsoon mud, they were dirt roads and they were the smell of flowers beneath a midday sun.

She is the goddess of things that I do not really value but she is more than that, she is memory too, sublimated from my cells into her and given weight, given form, and it is this that she holds delicate-winged in her tarnished hands. A lost father refound, old abandonments forgiven, the tracery of genetics and distant homes that surfaces on my skin; moments. Moments with him and then the moments without. She has heard me weeping and seen me love, and she smiles for me now, above a fire that lends her limbs some tiny remnant of her native heat, and even when all our pasts are parceled away I will want her with me to tell me this: The world is vast and it is small; full of loss and wonder and stories you have not yet heard, and you belong to all of it.

This Dead Sheep

A half-old dead sheep in the hollow of a burn. She did not startle when we appeared, which was perhaps not surprising, but we were never quite sure about these things. We had come to the soft black edge of a bank to stare down into the burn, mountain stream whispering and racing its way down between rocks and peat and heather. We did not startle either, my sister and me, but there was a whisper-frisson of recognition between the sheep who was dead and us, who were not.

She had died in the water, soft ochre hill-water that had tugged her wool away from ribs exposed by ravens and the winter and stained a yellow that could have been hellish but was almost spring-like. It ran between her bones, the water, and must have been cold when she lay dying, must have made her leaden and gravitous but now it stroked her smooth, tickling at the curves and edges of her fondly, remnants of wool water-dancing.

Scrambling down through heather and black peat, water cut, the wind kept moving but we were beneath it there, stroking horns and bared bones with our fingers, with crystals blinking beneath the tannin water and above us, the sky in amongst the mountains was a gift we could have cupped in our hands. The burn cackled and spoke memories of death borne down the hill and we’d been drinking her, we realized. We laughed and the water laughed, at all the slow decay of her that had passed into the pipes and then to us.

Above the peat but beneath the sky, heather flowers shone constellations, a faerie mist slid windward hiding secrets and we felt we knew the sheep’s secrets too. Somewhere other sheep were calling but they were not here, where we were, kneeling in the stone-spangled earth and whispering to her who was surely a part of us now, drunk in and absorbed into the cells of our limbs. We had her death in our bones, cradled there so that even though she died alone and cold, she was neither, any more.

We wanted to carry her skull with us, wanted to bear her down to our parents like a queen, like proof, like a greeting. But she did not wish to come. Her empty sockets, ghosts of eyes, watched us reproachfully, black-edged teeth moving in silent speech and her horns were the perfect curve for the shape of my palm but she did not wish to come. We had already drunk her memories and her death, and so I supposed that she was content then, to let us carry those away with us while her gone eyes watched the mountain-tops and filled up with heather.

Perhaps she is still watching up there where she fell. She is still in my bones.

 

Having spent many years working in remote corners of the world, Lorraine Wilson now lives by the sea in Scotland and writes stories that are touched by folklore and the wilderness. She has had short stories published in several magazines and anthologies and tweets @raine_clouds about science, writing, cats and weirdnesses.

Storm Warnings by John Carr Walker

Storm Warnings

Weather abroad/And weather of the heart alike come on/Regardless of prediction. — Adrienne Rich

The weather machine plugged in behind the sleeper sofa in the office of our new house, set back from the country road and surrounded by vineyards, an intensely quiet place. I liked to visit the office while my father was out just to look at the weather machine, my knees sunk in the couch cushion, arms crossed over the upholstered back, chin resting on the bend of my elbow. It shared the windowsill with a snakeskin and mound of sculpturesque welding slag—this gray box, with a speaker grate, volume knob, and on-off switch, shouldn’t have been what fascinated me. But push the switch and a voice from the Bear Mountain weather station read the most recent report, and in the event of a storm warning, the weather machine’s siren blared like the house had caught fire.

Now, when information appears instantly on our personal screens, my memory of the weather machine's on-demand technology seems sentimental. In 1981, however, the year my sister was born and we moved into our new house, the Internet was still a military secret. Our phones were a mess of wires. We didn’t yet own an answering machine—few families did. Getting a television signal depended on adjusting a pair of antennae, rabbit ear and telescoping, as if the coarse and fine knobs of a radio. Folded issues of The Fresno Bee, dropped once a day at the end of our long driveway, determined the scope of the news. The weather machine asserted itself in a way most devices would not for several more decades. It only talked about the weather, but my father grew raisins. His livelihood—our lives—depended on the weather.  

*

In school, my sister read Night of the Twisters, about tornadoes that devastated a Nebraska town, and her imagination wired the disasters of that novel into her nervous system. Though we lived in California, in earthquake country, what might fall from the sky terrified her. When the weather machine's siren went off, she hid in her closet, in the box with her stuffed animals, and prayed the roof wouldn’t blow off the house. 

*

Our weatherman was called Angelo. We followed him with the kind of loyalty usually reserved for a favorite sports team. In one promotional spot, I remember, he appeared on the television screen wearing an overcoat and galoshes, kicking puddles, while "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" played in the background. Then, with an omnipotent twirl of his umbrella, Angelo stopped the rain. Surely, I’m not the only raisin grower’s son who can still see Angelo turning his palm toward the changed sky. It was a brilliant piece of advertising. Weathermen in the San Joaquin Valley were supposed to be able to do the impossible.

*

In preparation for the evening weather forecast my mother set the television trays. She closed the living room mini-blinds to keep the glare of the winter sun off the screen, while outside, the weather did its thing unobserved. My father needed to know if he should expect a freeze overnight, if he needed to run the irrigation pumps to protect the crop, and he only trusted Angelo to tell his fortune.  

From the moment Angelo appeared on screen my father demanded silence. My mother flapped her hands to hush my sister and me. For the weather forecast, everything must stop—talking, eating, breathing. I used to hold bites of half-chewed food in my mouth so not to obscure a word Angelo said. But we always made too much noise, somehow. My father hiked the volume until Angelo’s voice rattled the speaker. The rest of the forecast hollered through its parts: today’s temperatures, tomorrow’s highs and lows, Angelo’s narrative of historical patterns, all delivered at the decibels of a scream. My father kept his jaw set while he listened, baring teeth ground small from being constantly on edge. Only he could comment on the forecast. Perfect, he’d say, or Jeez, in resignation. 

After the five-day outlook, when Angelo returned to the news desk to banter with the anchors, my father turned the volume back down. My mother stormed into the kitchen. I swallowed the bite gone mushy in my mouth. My sister must have been longing for the shelter of her stuffed animal box. 

*

If the skies were gray when our mother picked her up from school my sister begged to go anywhere but home—let’s runaway, she'd plead.

*

In 2006 I moved eight-hundred miles away from our family vineyards. It must be distance that allows me to remember the weather machine as a piece of archaic, amusing technology rather than an instrument of terror.

Angelo retired from Channel 30 in May 2013. Honored as “The Dean of Central California Weathercasters,” by his colleagues, Angelo’s farewell segment lasted for more than six of a twenty-two minute broadcast. He said goodbye to his public with a tremor in his trained voice.

My father leased his hundred acres to an almond grower and in the fall of 2014 the vineyards were bulldozed to make way for orchards. 

*

My sister still lives down the country road from my parents and still gets nervous during storms. Even though Angelo is retired and the vineyards are gone the squalls of our childhood remain. Somehow, a change in the weather still feels like losing everything. 

John Carr Walker’s writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007. His critically acclaimed first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was featured on Late Night Library. A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

Beedancing and Stupidhead by Carolyn Eichhorn

Beedancing

When I was four or five years old, I stepped on a bee. I had been running around the pool at my grandparents’ house in Arizona, exactly as all kids are told not to do, and I crushed a dead bee with my chubby little bare foot. The little bastard stung me from beyond the grave, rearing up to inflict pain and psychological damage long after its last gasps of ridiculously hot desert air. It was probably bitter about the heat. Arizona is a special kind of hot.

Anyway, as my mother tried to calm my gulping sobs, treating my swelling sting with baking soda, cooing, and promises of ice cream, I remember thinking that this was profoundly unfair.  What kind of creature can hurt you after they die? Thus began my bee phobia, my apiphobia, according to Google.

Fast forward to Florida where the air teems with insects and one’s twitchiness caused by buzzing, flying things can really blossom. All those orange groves have beehives set up to pollinate the sunshine fruit, so when riding horses or minibikes, one needs to take care not to end up in a cloud of angry, armed, flying fuzzballs. Combine that with a movie about killer bees, a proliferation of wasps and “mud daubers” with their dangly legs and rampant house building skills, and my nerves were always on edge while out-of-doors.

Aside from one incident with a hornet that stung me through my leather gardening gloves (I sobbed in the fetal position on my living room floor for fifteen minutes), I had few direct interactions with the flying pests. But the buzzing, the threat, always triggered a physical response.

During a volunteering day at Give Kids the World, I was painting the side of one of the administration buildings alongside friends and colleagues, hip deep in hedges when I heard that familiar, horrifying sound. In seconds, I had leapt from the bushes, arms flailing, face contorted in terror, screaming like a sorority girl in a slasher movie. Once out of the danger zone, I looked up to see my team, my friends, doubled over in laughter.

“Did you see that dance?”

“That was a bee dance!”

“Buzz, buzz! What’s that by your shoulder?”

Unfortunately, that bee dance has been repeated many, many times while mowing the yard, hiking local trails, chilling at the pool, even walking across the parking lot to Publix. There was a particularly horrifying incident outside a Sam’s Club once when I discovered a wasp nest up in the handle of the tailgate of my Mom’s pickup truck where my fingers had been. But patio furniture, pool chairs, long wooden docks, and all those places you would expect to relax are like Disneyland for flying, stinging things. Wasps love water parks, by the way. Seriously, just look up while you wait in line for that flume ride. Wasp nest city.

When I get caught in full freakout mode, the question is always the same. Are you allergic? 

Um, no, I’m just fucking terrified. Does it diminish my panic that only pain, not anaphylactic shock, is coming at my face via airmail? Nope. Avoidance of pain seems like a completely legitimate and logical effort to me.

And, by the way, bear maulings can’t be fixed with an Epi-Pen, which is just as well since no one can afford those anymore.  Nor can they soothe the anxiety that descends like that paper dentist bib at the sight of the silvery metal torture tools next to the spit bowl. At that critical moment, when it’s just you and a flying thing that could be a brain eating wasp or merely a ladybug, we have only our own defense mechanisms, no matter how ridiculous they look to others.

It turns out that bee dances are really a thing. Bees communicate with each other, so beekeepers would have us believe, by using a series of “dances,” the most famous being the “waggle dance” which seems to be a butt-shaking figure-eight, not unlike what one might see at the club. Presumably, these bees can share details about the location of food, taking into consideration the distance, angle of the sun, and line of flight.  Seriously. Buzzaboutbees.net even has a video of this spectacle, though I could not bring myself to watch it, as I had no Xanax on hand. And, honestly, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the idea that my lifelong foe is capable of GPS targeting. Are they just messing with me? Throwing in a little fly-by on the way back to the hive for kicks? Gathering with each other for a little pollen and some bee-sized guffaws at my distress?

I’m no longer that child in bare feet, but I find that as a grown-up, I’m still watching where I step, lest something seemingly harmless might come at me with poisoned barbs. I’m listening carefully when I enter a room of chatting humans for any warning buzzes that I should avoid, especially around politics. You might not see the sting coming, but you will often hear the thrumming warning hum. I cannot seem to control my facial contortions in response to bullshit, though arm flailing is infrequent at professional events. My bee dancing is happening all the time in degrees, though not usually in a figure eight. The waggling, I’m afraid, is merely a result of a slower metabolism. I wish that I was just sharing the location of leftover meeting brownies down the hall, but it’s more likely a manifestation of other fleeting things that might hurt us, though they appear harmless.

Stupidhead

“So, we’re all good then?” Beezer asked, like he always did.

Lisa got to her feet and brushed red dust from her clothes and hair. Her limbs all appeared to work normally, but she knew she would bruise where her hip had struck the ground after her Huffy spilled her into the rutted clay road.

“You are a stupidhead,” she said back to him, her standard reply. She gulped the last part, still fighting to catch her breath and not willing to drop the attitude that clung to her thirteen–year-old self like the rust colored earth staining her Keds.

Beezer smiled his gap-toothed grin and Lisa smiled back. After all, it had been as much her fault as his. She’d agreed to sit upon the handlebars as he steered her pink beach cruiser down the steep switchbacks. Turns out, this made maneuvering difficult and the incline did the rest. Beezer had dumped them both over to prevent the bike from careening completely off the road. He’d gotten the worst of it, not from the wreck, but from the removal of the bike from the thorny blackberry bushes growing wild in the ditch. Beezer’s close-cropped blond hair and Ron Jon t-shirt were wet from the Georgia summer heat and his efforts to tug the bicycle back to the road. Lisa took a moment to straighten the barrettes that struggled to contain her insubordinate wavy brown hair. Neither of them wanted questions from the parentals.  For insurance, they picked enough blackberries for a cobbler, wrapping them carefully in Beezer’s shirt, before returning to the cabin. The diversion worked long enough to get them inside and upstairs, but five minutes later they heard Beezer’s mom call from the kitchen.

“Benjamin Zachariah Ross! Did you intentionally ruin this shirt?”

Lisa snorted with laughter.

“Goofball,” Beezer said.

“Stupidhead,” Lisa replied.

At least there wouldn’t be stitches this time. The waterbed adventure at the lake three weeks earlier had earned Lisa nine. Filling the patched-up mattress with air and jumping on it from the pier had seemed like an awesome way to pass a hot afternoon. However, seven minutes in, Lisa had been catapulted with impressive height into the closest splintery piling. When she had sputtered back to the surface, blood coursed down her face from a cut at her hairline. Beezer had fished her out of the water and pressed a wet beach towel to her face. Soon, both the towel and Lisa’s freckled face were streaked with watery red. Lisa had joked, “Good thing there are no sharks in the lake or we’d really be in trouble.” This had gotten a laugh from Beezer. He’d looked a little worried.

The parentals had gone berserk. Well, the ones who were still around had. Beezer’s mom and Lisa’s dad were sister and brother. Every summer the families gathered at Pop-Pop’s cabin. While sister and brother complained about their lives over beers and barbecue, Lisa and Beezer played in the woods around the lake, not wanting to hear anymore about illness or affairs or heartbreak or divorce. They already knew the ways parents could leave.

Each summer meant elaborate adventures, mostly of Beezer’s invention. As the older cousin by a full year, he became the coordinator for their summer shenanigans. They improvised parachutes of bed sheets and leapt off the roof. Luckily, there were no broken bones, but both agreed it would be best not to tell the parentals. When Beezer wanted to catch a Sasquatch, they dug a hole so big it took them a week before they covered the opening with tree limbs and set up surveillance. They checked it every morning for six days. No Sasquatch. They searched for treasure and buried some of their own – just stones, an arrowhead, a metal Corvette toy, and other stuff in a cardboard shoebox, the location carefully marked with an X on a bona fide map. They built a make-shift tree house with some old two-by-fours and plywood scraps once Beezer was old enough to use Pop Pop’s drill. They played Hunger Games. Although Lisa had agreed that real bows and arrows were probably not safe, she fell while fleeing Katniss-style into the old Sasquatch trap. In the darkness of the pit, the wind knocked from her lungs, she managed to gasp, “Beezer, you stupidhead.”

Their last summer together at the cabin had been before Beezer went away to college. He played football, channeling his toughness into the game. After graduation, he became a coach at a high school in Florida. Last Christmas, Lisa had teased him in front of his boys about the trouble he’d gotten them in as kids. He’d laughed in a way that made Lisa suspect that he had pulled off a few adventures with his little guys. Lisa had punched his arm and complained that he always seemed to get away with everything.

“Not true!” He’d laughed, showing that same gapped grin.

And he was right. In the end, it was cancer that caught up with him, not his reckless spirit. Lisa ran her thumb over the raised lettering on the funeral program, while the pastor lead the congregation in prayer, blinking back hot tears before whispering, “Stupidhead.”

Carolyn Eichhorn completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa where she won the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest in 2015. She's had stories published by Oscillate Wildly Press, ScrawlBrawl, and the Baltimore County Library Foundation and is currently shopping her mystery novel, Murder in the Mix. Carolyn teaches writing and writes twisty fiction in Baltimore, Maryland. You can check out her blog at: https://groundsforsuspicion.blogspot.com/.

Fighting Over Depeche Mode by Stephanie Valente

Fighting Over Depeche Mode

My sister and I are in a battle: we know we'd be so good – married to Depeche Mode. The romance, the lust, the hunger. When I play, I play to win. Who gets to marry Martin? Who gets to have Dave? Is one better than the other? I tell my sister that as the oldest, I get first choice. It's only fair. I'm protecting her from a mistake and midnight-blue heartache. After all, it's an older sibling duty.

My sister says that we should think about this carefully. We already died a few times – first by the music, the second after dancing, and the third by the ocean. It’s the British accents, I say. They’re poison. It’s always sweet and always delicious. Who could say no to that? Who could say no to death when it’s so much fun?

My sister says that we should wait and see. We should propose. We should choose the right man. Which musician will make breakfast in the morning? Or will both of the men sulk away and write sad, sad songs with big wet eyes? We hope so. We told them we’d make good wives and wear branch crowns and wait by the window with poetry and berry lips. We think they’d like it. We think they’d like to watch us dance. We think they’d like to touch our wrists and tell us about all of the tiny traumas that live in their hair, the faded ink receipts in their pockets, what it’s like to feel lonely when you are not alone.

For this, my sister and I think they would be interesting husbands. But, we don’t know who to choose. They both sing. They’d both give us ghost children, but only if we wanted them. As for me, I think of the blonde one late at night. In my morning dreams, he lays behind me, a face in my shoulder, my neck. We are always naked and never cold. I think about how his voice would curl behind my ear. I think about us smiling with all of our teeth. I told my sister I would like that.

Good, my sister says, I liked the other one better.

Good, I say. And I think this life would be full of machine music and the man with the sad blue eyes would be mine. Finally, finally. I would always hold his hand. And maybe, steal his leather jacket. I tell my sister he would roll his eyes, but truthfully he’d love it.

My sister would love the other man with dark eyes. They like to dance and contort their bodies. He has the best record collection for dancing. But, I have the better kisser. Though, in some ways, it makes me jealous. With our husbands, we’d be good at sending each other our thoughts. If you’re going to marry a band, you’d have to have superpowers, no? Being a vampire is overrated. But telepathy, my sister and I decide, is where it’s at.

But then, I think of the dark eyed one and the full lips and perhaps, one day, we would be happy too. Dancing in the weird moon. Laughing and not being so serious. I told my sister this could work, too. If she’d only let me try. It’s only fair.

Stephanie Valente lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has published Hotel Ghost (Bottlecap Press, 2015) and waiting for the end of the world (Bottlecap Press, 2017) and has work included in Susan, TL;DR, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Sometimes, she feels human. http://stephanievalente.com

Treasure Hunt by C.D. Hermelin

Treasure Hunt

Anyone who’s ever denuded a Christmas tree of its cheer and ribbon knows it takes at least a duo to truly get every ornament.  It’s a particular blindness that only manifests once a year, brought on by an eggnog/potato gratin hangover. I’m the type who thinks it’s the will of the objects -- mischievous elves, Hallmark Snoopys, woodland critters, tarnished baubles, all begging to stay displayed. They’d all rather nestle amongst the branches than be relegated to cardboard boxes and upcycled egg cartons.

This year, I didn’t get enough Christmas at Christmas, so I’m trying to find magic where I can get it. That’s how I started finding ornaments. The discarded Christmas trees are clogging the gutters of Park Slope, more every grey January morning, filling the wrought iron planters, stacked like firewood. I wend my way through the blocks, dial my eyes into deliberate hopefulness, and see if Christmas Ornament Blindness afflicted any of these brownstone dwellers. It happened on accident. Walking to work, I found a pull-string nutcracker that clicked its heels. And like most happy accidents, I wanted to see if I could make it happen again. And I could. I carry gloves to put on and dig. I sift through rotting trees for shiny tin Frosties, wooden surfing Santas, popsicle stick Jewish stars covered in blue glitter sprinkles.

I have a system. I try to give the families time. I see the abandoned ornament, and leave it. Sometimes I move it, make it more visible. It’s better if they find it because they were looking for it than me hand them a piece of holiday garbage they meant to throw away. After an un-conceal, I walk by that tree a few more times, to see if they found it. I try to keep up with garbage schedules. Usually it’s still there, and my own tree gets a new decoration. I keep it up into February.

Today, it’s a plasticine skier on 2nd and Carroll I saw last Friday. He’s still there. 6 inches, skis and poles missing. This is not a recent acquisition. The plastic looks battered. Maybe the glamour of tradition had worn away and he was so broken that he was deliberately left behind. I like the expression of grim determination on his face. It matches my own. He’s tired of the slopes, of climbing the heights of mountains only to reach the bottom again. Or maybe not. In my post Christmas malaise, he looks like he’s stuck. On the ski lift, left to freeze.

“What the hell are you doing?” a woman’s voice asks, cutting the cold January morning like a foxhunting horn through a still forest. A baby’s coo follows, like a softer pastel echo of her reproach. My hand is deep inside what is most likely their tossed away tree. I feel like a kid caught cheating in class.

I wrestle my arm from the tree and still don’t turn around. “I have a system,” I start. She grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around. We look into each other’s eyes, and I see she’s bewildered, not angry. She’s not much older than me, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, but she’s bouncing a swaddled pink-faced baby on one hip, she lives in this brownstone, and she’s wearing pearls. She might as well be a different species.

“Why are you digging through my tree?”

Instead of saying anything, I just burst into tears, a hot wet rush, and I let out one gasped sob. That sudden sound surprises the baby, which makes it cry, and those sobs actually sound like a beagle’s bark. The huge sound is so incongruous to its tiny red faced self that I laugh, and the baby’s cry turns to a laugh too, and then we’re both laughing, and then all three of us are laughing. The whole process takes about half a minute.

“I’m sorry. I just find ornaments,” I say, the baby still cooing, our adult laughter dying out. The twin shocks of tears and laughter still reverberate in my teeth. I hold out the skier. “And I salvage them.”

“Oh that thing? My aunt gave me that. After what she pulled this year, I decided I didn’t want to put it up anymore.”

I don’t respond, still trying to regain my composure.

“You had a rough one this year too, huh?”

I want to say, “It’s just - time at Christmas is compounded. So far, every Christmas is the same traditional scenes, only changed by degrees every year, like cells in a film strip. But this year, I looked in the past, and saw those cells, those hearths - they look brighter than the ones I have to look forward to. The film is degrading. So I had to make a new tradition. A new thing, that wasn’t decaying.”

I don’t. Instead I say: “Yeah. But, you know, Merry Christmas anyway. And happy new year.”

“Yeah, Happy New Year.”

*

That night, I'm trying to invite someone over to tell the story of the decorations, of the mom, of the baby. I want them to come over and drink a cocktail with me, and then we’ll come up with fanciful histories for the ornaments. I start texting friends, then girls from Tinder.  It’d be nice to kiss in the perfect glow of Christmas tree light.

It’s all in vain. Surprisingly, a curling, dead, 3-foot Christmas tree that’s covered in garbage isn't much of a draw to my friends, or a stranger from the internet.

I think better of putting on Christmas music, and instead put my phone on do not disturb. I lay back down on the couch with the tree at my feet, take my glasses off, and let my eyes go unfocused. The lights blur, grow brighter. The skier stands front and center. He’s not on the slopes at all. He’s in Iceland. He’s gone to see the Northern Lights. They fill him up completely, so there isn’t room for anything else.

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C.D. Hermelin is a writer and literary agent based in Brooklyn. He writes flash fiction inspired by Max Elman's photography over at astoryandapicture.com. As the Roving Typist, he has typewritten custom stories, poems, and horoscopes for thousands of people all around the world.

Alphabet Ashes by Catfish McDaris

Alphabet Ashes

Nappy’s dad John was a bricklayer. His mother Winnie was a mobile librarian. She drove all over New Mexico, lending books to the Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo Reservations. At first, Nappy collected feathers, rattlesnake tail buttons, and Pecos diamonds, they were quartz healing crystals. As he grew older, he learned to identify buffalo wallows, where arrow heads or bullets could be found. He collected small clippings of cacti for his grandmother’s garden from his desert adventures. Nappy collected wheat pennies and his grandmother had two duplexes, she rented mostly to Air Force flyboys. She started collecting stamps from all over the world from their letters. Nappy was soon learning geography from stamps, he knew Magyar meant Hungary. Nappy became a bricklayer, he had many side jobs. He went to Montgomery Ward’s and bought five electric lawn mowers with long extension cords. He hired his friends for a lawn service business and his sister Cindy to be the boss. Then he bought a pinball machine and set it up in his garage to earn a nickel a game. Nappy went through a motorcycle phase, buy low, sell high. Then it was marijuana into matchboxes and lids. Before you knew it, he had collected plenty of green paper with dead presidents on it. The law finally got him and he paid to get in the army. While playing G.I. Joe for three years, he sent his grandmother stamps from all over Europe. When he got out he traveled Mexico and finally ended up near Lake Michigan. He collected a few autographs, Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Red Skelton, Robert Duvall, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs. Over thirty years working at the Main Post Office in Milwaukee and he read and wrote poetry to try to keep his sanity. He was collected by a Mexican wife of thirty-three years and they had a twenty-nine-year-old daughter. Published here, rejected there, chapbooks, fat books, anthologies, broadsides, archives at a college: it’s all become alphabet soup. He remained his biggest fan. In the end he thought all you collect are memories and what are they worth?

Catfish McDaris won the Thelonius Monk Award in 2015. His work is at the Special Archives Collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is listed in Wikipedia. His ancestors were related to Wilma Mankiller from the Cherokee Nation. Currently he’s selling wigs in Milwaukee.