Not quite the Last Word by Natalie Nera

Our second season is nearly done and dusted, and I can’t help but reflect on the challenges we have faced in the past year and a half. “Hang on a minute!” I hear you say. “You have a job, you live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – what challenges are you talking about?”

            This makes light work of what has been a challenging time for all of us – those in caring professions, children and teenagers, mums and dads, older people, (though I prefer “people of significant life experience”… Ha!) It isn’t natural to sit at home, starved for the chance to touch or see each other.

            Fear is an everyday companion, and so is the reality of our own mortality and helplessness. Nearly everyone has lost someone. I am not just a writer, or a creative, or editor. I am also a mum of two young school kids and a teacher, and I have seen what this pandemic has done to our young people, how it affects them – and have discovered how hard it is to teach your own children while working full time!

            After one particularly painful afternoon of wrestling with maths, my older son blurted: “You’re not my teacher, you’re my mum!” How right he was! The impossible confusion of mixing work and domestic life could not have been summed up better than by my eight-year-old.

            I have struggled more and more to answer submissions on time, which brings me to my next point: if you are currently waiting for a response, I will get back to you within the next month. Please accept my heartfelt apology for the delay!

            And yet, there is so much to celebrate! In the midst of this mad year, despite a global pandemic, we have grown and we have achieved so much. Crick, Rue and I have enjoyed our own creative successes, as well as transforming our small press into a community interest company, which perfectly fits our mission: connecting creative communities everywhere, building bridges between people through their creative output, and offering a platform to those niche and unheard voices if and when we discover them.

            Our experience keeps growing, our friendships remain intact, and our determination to forge ahead is as fierce as ever. After the astounding success of our debut publication, The Language of Salt: Poems on Love and Loss, we are thrilled to announce we will be creating another anthology this year. Keep your eyes peeled for the callout once our reading window closes! If you haven’t yet got your hands on The Language of Salt, it’s now available from our online shop, and we hope to have a second print run before long as well as an official publication for Europe.

            So, what’s the moral of the story? It’s not important if you fall. The important thing is to get up – and it looks as though we might be getting pretty good at it.

About the Author

Natalie Nera is Prose Editor and Co-founder of Fragmented Voices.

Buttons by Clive Donovan

 
Like someone else's mother's button box
not quite the same
and these lingering threads
and grime are they not just
a little repulsive?
Not meaningful
their stories missing
such as my favourite
big blue button off Sandra's coat
that never got sewn back on
and where is the real bone
and abalone
mother-of-pearl
and early bakelite
and look at this disgusting
cloth-covered nub
off a suspender belt
my God the things some folks keep!
And this absurd picture of Scottie dogs
disgracing a toffee tin
our classy shortbread box- lid portrayed
a Gainsborough velvet boy
I remember days of her
sorting through possessions
as she prepared to enter
her final home from home
she sifted slow with crabbed fingers
that never more would stitch
and preoccupied with beds and chairs
I let her say farewell and ditch them all
with many ornaments
rattling to the landfill bin
and I regret that now
and forever since
catching myself at frowsty stalls
and charity shops
purveying bric-à-brac
hovering over other people's
lost small fortunes
of family collections
but it's never quite the same.

About the Author

Clive Donovan devotes himself full-time to poetry and has published in a wide variety of magazines including Agenda, Fenland Poetry Journal, Neon Lit. Journal, Prole, Sentinel Lit. Quarterly and Stand.  His debut collection will be published by Leaf by Leaf in November 2021. 

Deliver Me with Cornmeal by Ben Umayam

How much do Filipinos love beauty pageants?  As much as good fried garlic rice for breakfast.  That is saying a lot if you know anything about  Filipinos.  Seven thousand islands, so many people, and they are all glued to the television when The Miss Universe pageant is on.  There is a YouTube video from the 2010 contest that took place in Vegas.  Four Filipino kids, all guys, all gay.  They represent how enamored Filipinos are with these pageants.  The kids are of all shapes and sizes.  One kid is picking his nose, the others are counting down, some clap when their favorites are announced.  The clip is the announcement of the 15 semi-finalists.  Miss Ukraine, France, South Africa, these contestants get loud applause from their fans.  They are down to the last contestant, the 15th runner up.  The chubby one says it will be Miss USA.  Another folds his hands in deep prayer.  The other kid makes the sign of the cross and picks his nose. 

With a dramatic pause, the emcee announces contestant number 15, the last of the girls from many countries who will potentially be the next Miss Universe.  He hems, he haws, the kids sweat. Remember this announcement is for the 15 semi-finalists, not even the winner!    He announces loudly,  “And number 15…Miss Philippines!”  Bedlam, they go nuts.  They scream and jump for joy, they hold hands, scream some more, and thank the Lord, just like the whole country is doing at that same point in time.  That is how intense Filipinos are about Miss Universe.  Search on YouTube, “We love you Maria Venus Raj” and go to the 2:15  mark to see how insane this is.

I am retired, have not visited The Phillippines in 40 years.  I received a BA in  Journalism from The University of the Philippines under Martial Law.   Marcos and his Army ruled.  When the schools closed down to stop student activists, I got a job as a radio deejay, at The Rock of Manila.  I also started writing record reviews and music articles for a magazine called Jingle.  Their logo was an angel,  back turned, pissing.  They reprinted lyrics to songs with chords.  Copyright was not a big thing during Martial Law.  It was a very popular publication, ran no ads.  Singing along and playing guitar with friends was popular under the rule of a dictator.  

With Martial Law, the army took over most media.  Military tribunals ran radio stations.  They introduced payola.  Instead of playing what I wanted, I had to use a playlist of songs that record companies had paid the army tribunals to push to sell their records.  I quit and wrote about radio industry payola in Jingle magazine.

I was invited to an investigation, me in front of several generals holding my fate in their hands. I envisioned disappearing like Roland, an activist classmate who no longer existed on the face of the earth.  Nothing happened to me.  I was offered a job at The Manila Times. They would train me to be a financial reporter.   No thanks, I said.  If I can get invited to an Army tribunal for writing the truth about payola, in a magazine whose logo was an angel pee peeing, well I would pursue a future career elsewhere.

40 years later, I am visiting my father’s hometown in a northern province.  There is a new celeb in town.  She has just won Miss Photogenic in an international beauty pageant.  The twist, it is a transgender, transsexual beauty pageant.  As with all beauty pageants, this news is wreaking havoc.  Held yearly in Pattaya, Thailand,  a Filipina has won the title two times before.  This trans from my father’s hometown is almost guaranteed a  spot in the top 5, having won Miss Photogenic a few days before the actual competition.  An article about her,  I should be able to sell to some gay mag back in the US.  Did I say, another reason I left the Philippines,  I wanted to come out gay,  not a comfortable thing to do under Martial Law.

In the states, the gay revolution had come and gone, along with the AIDS crisis.  The US Supreme Court had made same-sex marriage legal.  Being gay is now LBGTQ whatever. There is a girl named Francis/Chiara who just won Miss Photogenic in an international annual Miss Transgender/Transexual beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. This was the 15th year.  It is called the Miss International Queen beauty contest, “because that is every girls’ dream, to be a Queen!” Queen Puhleeze!  In my retirement years, I was itching to use my Journalism degree.  I was going to interview and write about Miss Photogenic, who just might win the year’s trans-Miss International Queen!

______________________________________________________________________________

I ask Francis on the phone about her trans name, Chiara.

“Chiara is an Italian name.  You use the hard “Kuh” sound to pronounce it, like Christine.  That’s how Italians say it.    Still, others want to pronounce it like Charles.  And some like to pronounce it like a “sh” as in Shy.  That’s what makes my name great.  You can pronounce it three different ways, depending on your mood, Key-Yara,  Chih-Yara or even Shee-Yara.  Italian is my favorite. Do you know St. Clare?  She is a saint mentioned always in conjunction with St. Francis of Assisi.  Chiara is her Italian name.”

I ask about her christened name. 

 “I was christened Francis as in St. Francis.   My daddy says when I was born, birds would come by the windowsill in my room and to sing.   The butike, the geckos, they would come down from the ceiling to visit my crib.  Daddy chose Francis for my name after the patron saint of animals.  Daddy is so poetic.  I got those traits from him.  Sensitive, lyrical, a romantic,  that is how I was as a child named  Francis.  My parents doted on me, especially my dad.  I was daddy’s little boy.”

Chiara says she has a photoshoot and has to go soon.  “Only I always felt not like a boy, but like a girl.  In my dreams, I was always a girl!  I always preferred what the girls in the town did.  When I started school, I did not feel comfortable with the other boys.  I did not play with the guns, robots, trucks.  Nakakadiri! “ (Gross in Filipino.) I did not shoot hoops.”  (Basketball is huge in this nation of short people.)  “ With the girls, I always felt good.  The boys, I always felt they were always doing things contrary to my nature.  Looking for frogs, competing with each other in sports, being mischievous to no end.  Me, Francis, I held back.  I would rather play dolls,  I preferred to learn the crafts the mommies taught their daughters.”

Chiara’s mommy, Juris, and I talk at their home, a chicken farm, ten minutes away from my father’s old house.

Francis was religious for a little boy.  I was not surprised he was.  You know, how you say in English,  he was so fem?   (Bakling  in Filipino.)

 Do religious fervor and femininity go hand in hand in The Philippines, I ask.

Yes, of course.  But, you are so American!  You don’t know that?  Francis would go to church often.  He would pray to all the saints, Mother Mary and Baby Jesus.  But he also prayed to Tuglibon, the wife of Tuglay.   Do you know their story?

I do not.

You are more American than Filipino, hindi ba? ( That is “aren’t you” in Filipino.) They were the beings who created the world according to our ancestors from Mindanao.  They took cornmeal and created the first human beings.  The husband, Tuglay got it all wrong at first.  His humans were stiff and ugly. They walked in a herky-jerky manner, not graceful.  Tuglibon, his wife, complained his humans were faulty and they needed to be corrected.  He was insistent that there was no problem with them.  One day, she was fed up,  she threw cornmeal in Tuglay’s eyes.  While he struggled to rub the cornmeal out, his wife created male and female beings that were beautiful, who moved with much grace. When her husband could see, he agreed with Tuglibon, these humans were an improvement.  The graceful humans procreated and that’s how the Filipino race came into being.

Great story, I thought.

 Francis prayed hard to Tuglibon whenever he had a chance. He told me, he felt he was a girl trapped in the body of a boy.   I taught him this prayer.  Dear Mother Tuglibon, deliver me with cornmeal.  When I grow older, make me a woman for that is what I feel that I am in my heart.  Our Christian God and native father Tuglay got it wrong.  Fix me, please, I pray to you.  Francis would pray this at church, after his rosary and novenas and especially after the stations of the cross.

 I talk with the dad over San Miguel, the native beer, at the town beer garden.

He says he always understood Francis.  His mother has told me otherwise, that the dad preferred a more masculine child, who would marry, have children, and carry on the family name.

“Francis did not hang out playing male games, being more like other boys.  When he was eleven, they told me he was walking around the square swaying sexily like a girl.  I did not get mad.”

 Juris has told me stories of anger and fury.

“ I encouraged him to hang out with my cousin Jock who had changed his name to Jackie.  He was very binabae.

That is the word for gay in Filipino. It literally means to act like a girl.

“My wife believed  Francis, being binabae and so devout,  meant Francis would become a friar like his namesake.  The kids would make fun of him and called him St. Francis is a Sissy.  That was his whole life, kids making fun of him.  Me, I was always supportive.  You know why?”

“No, why?”

“Transgender, transsexual trans whatever.  It is a matter of acceptance.  I am the one who taught Francis about Tuglibon. “

I know that the wife, Juris, had done the teaching.

 “It never worried me that he acted like a she.  We are what we are.  You just have to accept it.   I  knew Francis needed a makeover. Francis would find a way with Tuglibon to fix the mix.” 

The dad’s name was Pinkerton, like the guy in Madame Butterfly.  He became somewhat of a Pinay Trans hero.  Pinay Trans is the Filipino phrase for Ladyboy.  Ladyboy is the Thai name for transgender/transexual.  Pinay Trans has a more non- demeaning connotation.   Chiara’s daddy’s nickname was Pinky.   With the new media attention, Pinky was becoming a hero in the Pinay Trans community, a father completely supportive of his trans offspring.  They were calling him Sir Pinky now.

It is Juris who tells me more about the instrumental uncle/auntie.

My husband’s cousin, Jock, during puberty he changed.  He used to be a Jock talaga ( that’s Filipino for really.) Then he became very binabae.  Used to be so sporty, he was a great swimmer, loved the water sports. Francis loved his Uncle Jock.  He followed him everywhere.  When Jock became binabae, he taught Francis all his tricks, how to walk like a girl.  How to soften your voice and use a feminine cadence so that when you talked on the phone people thought you were a girl.  When Jock moved to Manila, Francis was crushed.  I promised him, he could follow his Uncle Jock, now Jackie to the big city.  First, he had to finish high school.

______________________________________________________________________________

Chiara is still busy having won Miss Photogenic.  She makes some time for me.

“I go to Manila after high school.  I did not fall into the cracks. Most Pinay Trans, when they can’t get a job, they end up as prostitutes.  I had my Uncle Jock, well, Auntie Jackie to save me.”

I tell her I know about Jock/Jackie from her parents.

“He was not transsexual. He did not dress up in woman’s clothes.  He was very effeminate though. He looked like Ru Paul, dressed as a man.”

I get the picture.

Jackie takes Francis under his wings.  With his guidance, Francis, now Chiara joins a trans beauty pageant. She is beautiful as Chiara.  She is a finalist.  Jackie uses his connections and gets Chiara a job as a model, around the time when androgynous models were so big.  Within a few months, Chiara becomes THE transgender model in Manila.  She is young, gorgeous and has those pouty full lips everyone loves.  The magazines from Japan and Korea and Thailand, they all come knocking.  Chiara the model is hounded.  She is so successful, making so much money.  She is sending some home.  Sir Pinky and Juris have built a fish farm and are raising tilapia to supplement the chicken farm.  All the  success she says, she owes to Jackie and someone else.

 “I always went to the famous church near Jackie’s house, in Quiapo.  This church houses the famous Black Nazarene statue.  During Lent, thousands pour into the streets for the annual procession.  This Jesus is a more accurate depiction of a Jewish profit from the Middle East.  He is almost black.  All those preachings on the mountains and walking on the waters, you figure Jesus would be quite tanned.”

I agree.

“I went there and I prayed at the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  She looks the least Western of all the depictions of Mother Mary. She looks like the women in the desert between Afghanistan and China, Eurasian, almost Asian. I envisioned her to be the closest to what Mother Tuglibon would look like.   Her crown and clothes are like the Igorot goddesses from the mountain province!  All my modeling successes are Tita Jackie’s successes.  But it is also because I prayed at that altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon!”

Chiara’s gotta go and says we will talk again tomorrow.

Sir Pinky, he tells me the sad, untimely end of the Jackie story.  A year ago, Jackie and his boyfriend go on a scuba tour of Palawan, some of the best scuba diving in the Phillippines.  It is an island near the deepest part of the waters in the Philippines.  Jackie goes missing,  after two days of searching he is assumed dead.  A few days later,  they find his body, entangled with his boyfriend in an embrace both trying to share the valve of a tank gone empty.

In our interview the next day, Chiara says,  “The Miss International Queen beauty pageant, my Tita Jackie set it all up.  It was her dream that I do this.  So that is why I am here in Thailand, in Pattaya.  I may not win.  Already, two  Filipinas have won.  And this is the 15th year.  The fact that I won Miss Photogenic, that is big.  Tita Jackie, she set me up with my modeling career. I believe that success helped the judges decide I was most photogenic.”

Chiara almost whispers to me on the phone.  “Can I share with you?  Last night, I dreamt of Mother Tuglibon.  She was smiling.  I don’t know if that means I might win.  To me, it means I am a winner, even if I lose!  Oh, and when I woke up, there was a small puddle of water near the bed.  I tasted it.  It was very salty, like the sea!  Tita Jackie and Mother Tuglibon they have visited me.  I believe they will be happy with whatever will be the outcome!”

Spooky, I thought.

We hang up.  Chiara needs her rest.  The beauty pageant is tomorrow.

______________________________________________________________________________

I return to the Chiara house after the phone call.  Juris has invited me to merienda, which is at 4 o’clock.  You might call it teatime, but Filipinos don’t drink tea or eat biscuits.  They eat another meal called merienda!

Pinky, he told you about Jackie’s demise, so sad.  But Jackie had a plan, and it was all in motion before the accident.  Chiara was scheduled to participate in the beauty pageant.  Two years ago, Jackie started her on estrogen.  She would take the female birth control pills for the hormones.  It is the cheap way of Pinay Trans transition.  Her hips got rounder and breasts developed.

Me, I remember walking my dog, Murray at 6 AM one summer in The Village, and a drag queen taking birth control pills was cruising the last of the johns, wearing short shorts and shirtless, baring barely developed breasts.  Many cars with Jersey plates stopped to ask how much. In between she admired Murray, referring to him as she even though he had a he name. Murray was a rescue with a broken foot.  His two front legs were in a permanent ballet position, 4th or 5th except his knees weren’t crossed.    He had a doggie male organ but stood like a ballerina.

Juris says,  Jackie didn’t care if Chiara won or lost.  The idea was to get her to Thailand.  We are very Catholic here.  We do not tolerate Pinay Trans the way the Thais tolerate the Ladyboys.  The Thai people, they are 90% Buddhist.  And Buddha teaches acceptance. Big difference from the Catholics!

 They have many doctors in Thailand, Bangkok especially, those who perform sex reassignment surgery.  There is one who has done over 70 a year.  Jackie and Chiara set up an appointment with him, they had scheduled surgery after the pageant.  Mother Tuglibon’s work will be done by a Bangkok Doctor, aya, too many syllables, I cannot pronounce his name!   Chiara will return, Jackie would say, no longer a chick with a dick.  That Jackie, he could be so vulgar at times!

I laugh, Juris cries.  Jackie is gone.

I leave Juris, Chiara’s mother, full of the merienda, allowing her moments to shed some tears for Jackie the jock who drowned in the deepest of seas in his lover’s embrace.

_____________________________________________________________________________

On the day of the pageant, Chiara still has time for my phone call.

“I am most nervous about the swimsuit competition.  You know many of us still have the male organs we were born with.”

And how do you deal with that?

“We tape it up.  We shave down there, use packing tape so you do not see it when you wear a bikini.  It is like the women who do not want it to be known they have breasts.  They use packing tape to tape it all up”

Naku“, Chiara says. Naku, loosely translated means goodness gracious.  ” Some trans entrepreneurs should start a packing tape company for us.  We use it so much!  They can call it Trans Tape.  ‘For those packages, you want to hide!’  Let me put you on speaker while I finish taping.”  She speaks with an echo.  “I have a stampeta, a Holy Card, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you know, my icon for Mother Tuglibon.  I am keeping the stampeta taped down there for safekeeping.  A few years back, Miss Brazil, she did not package correctly, and it popped out of her swimsuit.  Naku!”  In this case, Naku translates as Yikes!

“ Win or Lose, I have Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon with me!”

The Miss International Queen Beauty pageant has a viewership of a few million in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand.  In the Philippines, many have gathered around the television to cheer on the 2019 Miss Photogenic.  There is no jumping up and down or screaming with joy.  Chiara does not even make the top 5.  Her answer to the question, “Why should you become Miss International Queen?” is a rambling extolment of the merits of Mother Tuglibon and how she will deliver the trans community with cornmeal.  Miss Brazil wins, the first black person to win since the inception of the competition. Her response to the question is “My dream is every young girl’s dream,  in my case, to be a black queen!”

______________________________________________________________________________

Chiara is not upset with the outcome.  She is happy and jubilant.  She keeps her appointment in Bangkok with Doctor No Dick.  She returns home, victorious, Mother Tugliban’s work complete.  There are banners int the town square.  Balloons surround St. Augustin Church, a Unesco site, a Baroque church built in the 1700s with enormous buttresses on the side, a style you don’t see much, some call it earthquake rococo.

______________________________________________________________________________

I call, a year later.  I have not sold the piece about a transgender, transexual international beauty pageant in Southeast Asia.  I might turn into fiction and sell it that way.

I call just to see how they are all doing, Juris, Sir Pinky, Chiara.  I find out, Jackie had one last card up his sleeve.  Aside from having managed finances, Jackie had Francis deposit some semen in a sperm bank.  With the abundant modeling jobs Chiara has had since the pageant, she can afford an in vitro baby.  She has to leave the Catholic Philippines to have the baby and return after the baby is born.  But she can now afford all that.

Sir Pinky is happy, the family name will continue.  Juris and Chiara are happy with their faith in Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon.  And Jackie is smiling from heaven.

A Jesuit sociologist termed a phrase back in the ’70s for all this.  He called it Split Level Christianity.   I call it the brand of religion from my native 7000 islands, Catholicism with an undercurrent of primitivism. 

There is an altar at St. John The Baptist Church near Penn Station in New York City.  It houses the shrine of Padre Pio in NYC.  At the back of the church, is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

 Of late, I go there and pray to Mother Tuglibon.  I ask her to help sell my story.  I also ask her to use her cornmeal on my peas and carrots.  At my age, 64, I could use the help, especially with the carrot.

Previously published in Anak Sastra, a Southeast Asian online journal for Asian authors who write in English

About the Author

Ben Umayam moved to NYC to write the Great American Filipino Gay Short Story. He worked for political consultants, became a chef at a fancy hotel, then worked privately as a chef for priests.  He is now retired and is working that short story again.  Recently he was published in the online publications Maudlin House, Digging Through The Fat, The South East Asia Drabble Anthology published by Insignia, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Anak Sastra.  He can be found on Twitter at Ben Umayam@UmayamBen, on Facebook at Ben Umayam, and on Instagram under benyum82.

Bird’s View by Jenny Robb

 

We watch grounded, heavy humans
fly in metal coffins. You’ll never know
the rush of air separating

and thinning over curved upper-wings,
and skimming under flat-planed under-wings,
pushing our bodies high.

We are music, song, infinite colour.
We are feathers, predators, prey.
We are air creatures. 

Our telescopic eyes ignore
your feather-less lives,
but some of us devour decaying flesh.

Our Peregrine Falcons
dive like stealth-jets,
beaks severing necks in mid-air:

but you could eliminate us all.


About the Author

Jenny lives in Liverpool.  Since retiring from work in mental health services, her poems have been published in online and print magazines, and in anthologies. She has poems forthcoming in Prole, Orbis and The Dawntreader. Her debut pamphlet will be published by Yaffle Press in 2021.

Food, Memory and Loss in the Works of Aleksandar Hemon by Ann Henry

In the middle of Catastrophe, the Hemons managed to scrounge up some makeshift joy.  Aleksander Hemon, “Sound and Vision”

Aleksandar Hemon, a young Bosnian journalist, found himself in accidental exile in 1992, having accepted a fellowship in the U.S. just as the war broke out. Cut off from his beloved Sarajevo, he had to reinvent himself as a writer in a different language, and as a person in a different context. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius grant,” and the PEN/ W.G. Sebald Award. His fiction is and is not autobiographical, so that it is easy to slip and call his narrators “Hemon.”  Though details may be shifted, arranged, and wholly invented, the central persona of his fiction and essays always remains himself.

            His tragicomic flights of language often reference his memories of home, a love poem to a lost Sarajevo. He is enamoured of the vibrant, sensual surfaces of life, and he uses narrative as a way of “making up the losses.” Hemon’s nostalgia is often passionately gustatory, from his mother’s feasts, detailed in essays such as “Family Dining” and stories such as “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” the peasant simplicity of borscht, and the meals at a favorite Ascinica (an informal restaurant in which food is cooked rather than roasted or baked, where “everyone is equal before a shallow stainless steel bowl.” He evokes the essence of Bosnian cuisine:  “Unsophisticated dishes designed for ever hungry people, of the loss that flickered in everything we did or did not do.”[1]

 Good food, in Hemon’s homes of Bosnia and Chicago, represents family, cultural identity, survival, abundance, continuity, and love. In his descriptions of bad food, army chow, American fast food, etc., the opposite is evoked: scarcity, rootlessness, and alienation.

Bosnia, even before the war, was the poorest of the Yugoslav Republics, a land of long harsh winters and limited arable land, thus hardship created the cultural preoccupation with abundance, and inclusivity. The hardship was not only a result of terrain and climate: the blending and adaptation of multiple culinary traditions was the result of multiple invasions and colonizations.  Bosnian dining might be compared to what is said to be the essential root of all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us; we’re still here; let’s eat. The eating habits of the rural poor and the urban middle class did not differ markedly in Bosnia: a mélange of Turkish and Central European food traditions, with an emphasis on hearty simplicity. The Sarajevo office worker needed the same physical and spiritual sustenance as the rural farmer.

For holiday and weekend meals, the main meal, rucak, begins in the afternoon and ends when the last guest, stupefied with repletion, “descends from the mountains of meat to the lowlands of sleep.”[2]

There is little conversation at a Bosnian table; eating is serious business. “We ate in silence, as though the meal were a job to be done,” [3] the narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” tells a teetotalling vegan American guest.

Simpler, work week meals are frequently a large soup or stew, which Hemon lovingly describes in his essay “Family Dining,” detailing his family “recipe” for borscht, a food tradition they imported from Ukraine. There is, of course, no real recipe-it is “a song you learn by singing it, containing whatever vegetables were available in the garden at the time,” meat, vinegar, dill, and of course beets. The amounts and proportions change, “just as a song and a singer” it is, writes Hemon, “…poor people’s food. It was designed-if indeed it ever was designed, not to delight the sophisticated senses but to insure survival… a perfect borscht is a utopian dish: ideally, it contains everything: it is produced and consumed collectively: ” …a perfect borscht is what life should be and never is.” [4]

Hemon’s attempt to make “solitary borscht” for himself in Chicago was a failure.  It must be “consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness. “The crucial ingredient of the perfect borscht is a large, hungry family.” (Note that in Bosnia, “family” is often expanded from nuclear, to extended, to whoever stops by at mealtimes.)

In The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s narrator opens by detailing his double life as a ‘reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries”[5] who loyally celebrates Bosnian Independence Day in Chicago with a “ceremonious dinner” on February 28. (Bosnian Independence Day actually falls on February 29, but one ceremonious dinner every four years seems stingy.)  It is the one day a year he and his fellow Bosnians feel “solidly Bosnian.” Driven by “poor people’s affliction that plenty never seems enough for all” they “…make disparaging remarks about the food, which they then turn into contemptuous contemplation of American obesity,” indignantly explaining to the uncomprehending wait staff that Bosnians “…eat their salad with the main dish, not before it.”[6] “And pretty soon whatever meagre Americaness has been accrued in the past decade or so entirely evaporates for the night…everybody has an instructive story about cultural differences between them and us.”[7]

 In his essay “Who is That?” Hemon describes his parents and sister arriving in Hamilton, Ontario as refugees, and his sister finding a job at what she termed “Taco Hell.” His parents began “…cataloguing the differences between us and them,” and the essential difference being, of course food. “…We like to simmer our food for a long time, while they just dip it in extremely hot oil and cook it in a blink. Our simmering proclivities were reflective of our love of eating and, by extension and obviously, of our love of life.” [8]  That his  “life loving” country is embroiled in a vicious civil war that drove his family into exile to peaceable,  “Soulless” Canada is an irony not lost on Hemon. Identity, for a Sarajevan, is also geographic-

In Sarajevo, one possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the streets where people recognized you, the space that identified you; because anonymity is well nigh impossible and privacy incomprehensible, (there is no word for privacy in Bosnian) your fellow Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them…your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical collar was the architecture of the city.  [9]

            This sense of self as prototypical Sarajevan, (and thus forever hungry) is manifested in his description of his favorite Asnicia, Hadzizbarjrics, and is the subject of one of his first published writings. “One of the urban legends about the Hadzbajarics claimed that, back in the seventies, during the shooting of The Battle of Sutjeska, a state-produced world war two spectacle starring Richard Burton as Tito, a Yugoslav People’s Army helicopter was frequently deployed to the set deep in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, to transport Hadzizbajrics’ buredzici (meat pies in sour cream) for Elizabeth Taylor’s gastronomic enjoyment.” [10]

Hadzibajric’s represents, to Hemon, food infused with what can only be described as Bosnian love of continuity. It has been owned by the same family for eight generations, “…the secrets of preparation have been passed on from generation to generation, until the dishes have been so perfected that it’s hard to imagine how they could get any better.”  Whether, as Hemon writes, Hadzbajaric’s supplied “some of the fat in Purple Eyes’ ass,” the restaurant served both royalty (King Juan Carlos) and neighbourhood workers with inexpensive, lovingly prepared food. Its cooking fires, he writes, is what “warms my heart when I return home.” [11]

Prior to the latest catastrophe, most Bosnians sense of identity was not based on “ethnicity,” but on what Hemon calls the raja-a Sarajevan child’s gang. The family, of course, is everyone’s primary raja, and food evokes in Hemon powerful memories of parental love, most notably in the essay “Family Dining.” 

In “Stairway to Heaven,” the narrator’s dangerous adolescent rebellion (fueled by a drug addled madman named Spinelli) is quelled, and fear consoled by “…my sister picking the green beans off father’s plate; father slicing his steak, still wearing his pith helmet despite mother’s nagging; mother parting the mashed potato and carrots on sister’s plate because Sister never wanted them to touch.” [12] The quotidian comfort of family life, for Hemon, is love manifested by food. The opposite of Spinelli’s cynicism and lies is the simple truth of familial love.

The story “Everything” concerns the seventeen year old’s comic foray into adulthood, traveling alone and staying overnight in a hotel to buy his family a freezer: His father informs him that “The well being of our family requires new investments…abundance requires more storage.[13] His parents thought the errand would teach him “banal, quotidian” responsibilities. “They wanted me to join the great community of people who made food collection and storage the central organizing principle of their life.” [14] The narrator, who responds to his parents’ inquiries about his future with quotes from Rimbaud, is more inclined to view the errand as a possibility for sexual debauchery, to which end he has obtained a single contraceptive pill. He encounters frightening Serbian convicts on the train, and forgets about his mother’s lovingly prepared chicken and pepper sandwich. He considers simply forgetting about the freezer and absconding with the money, traveling aimlessly forever.

In Murska Subota, his destination, he gets drunk with a crazed stranger in a bar, gives his spending money to a kindly waitress, stalks two women, and awkwardly propositions a married American tourist at his hotel, only to be beaten up by Franc, the hotel receptionist. Only then does he remember his chicken sandwich, which had gone “mushy and stale.” The narrator dutifully buys the freezer. Without money for food, he relives the beauty of Mom’s chicken sandwich. He returns home, where breakfast, of course, is waiting.  Hemon’s black comedy keeps the story from bathos. Food serves as a metaphor for family, safety, and abundance; the freezer arrives and is “filled to the brim with “veal and pork, lamb and beef, chicken and peppers.” [15] to feed the ever expanding circle of family and friends.  Hemon, whose funniest works are imbued with tragedy, notes, “When the war began in spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and then finally perished.”[16] Abundance, communion, and love are, in Hemon’s world, fragile, evanescent, and contingent, unless recreated in memory and language. 

In “Sound and Vision,” he writes of an ill-fated family migration-enroute to his father’s new post in Zaire, the family’s travel funds are robbed in Rome. His mother, preparer of feasts and woman of great resourcefulness, takes charge of the situation and sells her gold necklace.  The family takes a walk on the Lido: “…the Hemons leisurely strolled along the Lido, as if on vacation, the parents holding hands as if in love, the children licking gelato paid for with the family gold.” [17]

Hemon writes of the immigrant experience of alienation, often using food as a metaphor. In “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” he describes working briefly on the graveyard shift at White Castle, “…stealing the small burgers and taking them home to eat them cold, his pockets reeking of rotting processed meat and dissolving minced onion.” [18] His other experiences as a Food Service employee, images of American consumption juxtaposed with images of Sarajevan suffering and starvation, are equally infelicitous he is fired from a Mexican restaurant for dropping a pitcher of  “…sky blue Margaritas into the lap of a local cop…” [19] He works at Boudin Bakery, a pretentious faux French chain that requires him to wear a beret, “…manically filling up the bins with eviscerated bread bowls, shrivelled croissants, jagged watermelon slices, salad tidbits, slimy non-fat yogurt, jumbo gumbo slough” until he is fired for refusing to show proper deference and sympathy to a customer disgruntled by the presence of iceberg rather than romaine lettuce on his turkey Dijon croissant. “Romaine, iceberg, what’s the difference?”[20]

 The hero manifests his anxiety over the fate of his fellow Sarajevans by “…devouring Snickers, and Baby Ruths and Cheetos and Doritos and burritos and everything he could put into his mouth, so he gained thirty flabby pounds.” [21]

The protagonist of The Lazarus Project, the more acculturated Vladimir Brik, and encounters the globalized alienation of MC Donald’s in Chisinau, Moldova, the building “ …shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic.”  As he consumes his Big Mac, Large Fries, and Coke, he reflects that “This is no comfort food; it was food that implied that there had been and never would be any need for comfort.” [22]

Hemon’s “mildly troubled” adolescence is evoked again in his essay “Family Dining.” He describes the banality of the family meal.  Rucak was invariably served at 4, accompanied by the radio news. Hemon and his sister never allowed to “eat in silence, let alone read or watch television.”  His ideal adolescent dining experience involved Cevapci (grilled sausages in somun, a pocket bread, and until the recent advent of McDonald’s, Bosnia’s primary fast food) accompanied by “comic books, loud music, television, and the absence of our parents and weather forecasting.”  This changes when Hemon enters the army. The lushness of his evocation of good meals- “roast lamb, ham and cheese crepes, or my mother’s spinach pie” [23] is only equalled by his blackly gleeful description of army food: “Dry bread…rancid margarine…a thick bean soup –complete with tiny sprouts that looked like maggots…a greasy cup of prune based bowel movement potion…And those were the good meals.” [24]

Family dining, which, despite his adolescent restlessness creates a bond, is the antithesis of what happens in the army: deprivation creates competition and dishonesty.

…The army was supposed to be one big family, a manly community bound by loyalty and comradeship, sharing everything. As a matter of fact, at no time did we practice anything close to sharing, unless you count the farts. You never, ever offered to anybody your goodie-laden package from home, nor did you leave any food in your locker…if you had any food left after stuffing yourself, you bartered it for clean socks and shirts, for an extra shower or a daytime fire-watch shift. Food wasn’t meant to be shared, because it was a survival commodity. I had no trouble imagining heroically facing the foreign enemy only to die for the can of tuna in my pocket. [25]

In “Family Dining,” His mother visits him from Sarajevo:

Mother had dragged heavy bags of food on the many trains from Sarajevo and had brought along a feast: veal schnitzel, fried chicken, spinach pie, even a custard cake…the first bite into spinach pie brought tears to my eyes and I silently swore that that from thereon in I would always respect the sanctity of our family meals. I wouldn’t entirely keep my promise, needless to say, but as the perfectly mixed spinach and filo dough melted in my mouth, I felt all the love that could be felt by a boy of nineteen.[26]

The last essay in his collection, The Book of my Livesis entitled “The Aquarium.” It concerns the death of his infant daughter from a brain tumour, the most harrowing and affecting narrative he has he has ever written. It is both about loss, and the use of language to, as Hemon has said, make up the losses, of “narrative imagination,” which, like food, is a means of survival.   Hemon and his older daughter, on a break from the hospital, stop by a pastry shop and pick up cannoli. He receives a call that his daughter’s tumour is haemorrhaging. He is struck by the incongruity of the cannoli still in his hands, and puts the cannoli in the hospital refrigerator. The “selfish lucidity” of the act causes him to feel guilty.  “Only later would I understand that that absurd act as related to some form of desperate hope: the cannoli might be necessary for our future survival.”[27] This action underscores the role of food in Hemon’s writing: survival contingent on desperate hope and makeshift joy.


    

About the Author:

Ann Henry has lived all over the world, including, for some years, Bosnia. She is a teacher and writer. Currently, she is living, working, and writing in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

[1]            Aleksandar Hemon,  “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole in the Wall Fit for a Yugoslav King” (The Daily Beast; 5/11); [www.dailybeast.com].

[2]              Aleksandar Hemon, “The Question of Bruno” (New York: Random House, 2001), chapter “An Exchange of Pleasant Words”

[3]             Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “The Noble Truths of Suffering” p.202.

[4]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Family Dining” p. 36.

[5]  Aleksandar Hemon,        The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 11.

[6]              Ibid, p. 11

[7]              Ibid, p.12

[8]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives )New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013) “Who is That?” p. 56

[9]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)  “Lives of a Flaneur” p. 117

[10]  Ibid, 112

[11]  Aleksandar Hemon, “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole-in the Wall is Fit for a Yugoslav King”, The Daily Beast, 5/2011, p. 2

[12]  Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Stairway to Heaven” p. 35

[13]   Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Everything” p. 39

[14]              Ibid, p. 45

[15]              Ibid, p. 59

[16]    Ibid, p. 59

[17] Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Sound and Vision” p.29.

[18]   Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno (New York: Vintage, 2001), “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” p. 192

[19]   Ibid. p. 195

[20]  Ibid, p. 187

[21] Ibid, p. 189

[22]  Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p.207

[23] Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013),  “Family Dining” p. 33

[24] Ibid, p. 33-34

[25] Ibid, p. 35

[26]   Ibid, p.35

[27]   Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “The Aquarium” p. 191

Two Poems by Paul Waring

Pizza & Trumpets

There’s no greeting fanfare in Arrivals, 
chest-high sign blaring your name in black 
capitals, pat on the back for a model past,
reunion with family tree and pets. All that 
awaits is white, corridors of unfamiliar faces 
like first day at school. Hymns plucked 
on thousand-string harps, no flamenco 
slap or Starman on the radio oh-oh. 

Driven wild by whispers of basement 
parties, Jesus flipping burgers at barbies, 
brobdingnagian pizza and trumpets,
gin-swilling saints, Hollywood greats, 
Elvis, Prince and Jimi Hendrix on stage,
John and Yoko together again.

Turning Point

Tongues loosened by quaffable red,
shared ear for Ella, Miles, Lady Day 
and Coltrane, we ratchet up banter.
Air scents of kitchen roast chicken notes, 
winter light all but out, rain playing 
percussion on window panes, I watch 

you ovenglove the cradled beast to rest, 
brindled, bedded on veg, carving knife 
poised before my curveball comment 
punctures the mood. Eyes fixed apart, 
we bolt down dinner, chew over barbed words, 
wait for time to dress, digest the wound.



About the Author

Paul Waring is a retired clinical psychologist from Wirral. His poetry is published in Prole, Atrium, Obsessed With Pipework, Ink, Sweat & Tears, London Grip and elsewhere. Awarded second prize in the 2019 Yaffle Prize, commended in the 2019 Welshpool Poetry Competition, his debut pamphlet ‘Quotidian’ is published by Yaffle Press.

www.waringwords.blog 

Twitter: @drpaulwaring

Veni, Vidi Vicky by Stephen Albones

Black Box Gallery, Manchester, England, 7.34pm, Friday, 26 November 1999

I didn’t relish this assignment. The thought of another opening night at an arty event, surrounded by sophisticates, bobos and hipsters all trying to out-pseud each other, filled me with despair. And, sure enough, the usual crowd were in attendance with their Dahrlings and butterfly kissing, clinking their glasses and daintily nibbling hosomaki. The exhibition was called ascending | descending and was the work of one Johnny Rembrandt, a lesser-known member of the YBAs. Some of his earlier work had been brilliant, but of late he seemed determined only to épater les bourgeois; a noble aim in itself, but tiresome when the work was otherwise devoid of substance.

            I wondered where Rembrandt was; usually, he loved to be the centre of attention. The crowd entered the exhibition and were greeted by Rembrandt’s controversial self-portrait: a priapic version of the Vitruvian Man. I tried my best to keep a straight face, while the intelligentsia remarked on its form, its composition – everything except the picture’s most striking feature. I realised I was not alone. An attractive blonde of about 23 was looking at me and similarly trying to stifle laughter. She gave a conspiratory smile, and I thought it was worth a try.

            ‘Hi, do you come to a lot of these events?’ I said. Not particularly adventurous, I confess, but I thought it best to take the subtle approach.

            ‘No, it’s my first time,’ she said, in a manner that I can only describe as coquettish. ‘But I’d nothing else on tonight, so I thought, “Give it a try”. And you?’

            ‘I’m writing a piece for a magazine. These events can be…’

            ‘Pretentious?’

            ‘Yes. Very. Though sometimes they’re brilliant and—’

            ‘Well, look who it isn’t!’ said a familiar voice behind me. It was David fforbes, presenter on the TV arts programme Chiaroscuro; a former colleague, and one of the most repellent people you’re ever likely to meet.

            ‘Are you still working for that dubious publication?’

            ‘If you mean Maulstick, yes.’

            ‘That’s good. Only joking, of course, in fact we’re thinking of doing a feature on it sometime next year. Well, aren’t you going to introduce me to your lady friend?’

            ‘She isn’t my “lady friend”, as you so quaintly put it, we just happened to be discussing the exhibition together.’

            ‘Victoria,’ said the woman, holding out her hand, ‘but call me Vicky.’

            ‘David fforbes. It’s very nice to meet you Vicky. Do you like Mr Rembrandt’s oeuvre?’

            ‘I haven’t seen much of it yet. But your friend is going to show me round and explain all the subtle nuances and po-mo allusions to me.’

            He looked disappointed. ‘Well in that case, I’ll leave you in his capable hands. Enjoy the show’. He set off in the direction of a Japanese woman, who was seemingly on her own.

            ‘Has he come here from the nineteen-sixties?’ said Vicky.

            ‘I know what you mean; he is a bit of a relic from a former era. Were you trying to shake him off, or do you really want me to show you round?’

            ‘Both.’

            I introduced myself and told her about my reporting work at Maulstick as we carried on round the exhibition. The next room wasn’t particularly controversial, more downright bizarre. It was full of gigantic Liquorice Allsorts, scattered about as though dropped by some clumsy Brobdingnagian. The crowd greeted it with a series of Ahhhs and Goshs.

Vicky sat on a pink-black-yellow-black-orange striped oblong and crossed her legs.

            ‘What do you like about art?’

            I wasn’t expecting this. ‘It’s difficult to explain without sounding…’

            ‘Like I said, pretentious?’

            ‘Yes. There is a lot of pretentiousness when some people talk about art, but it’s greater than that. I think it’s all about us, Homo sapiens, how we communicate with each other about life, death, love, hate, etc. And how we try to create order in a chaotic world.’

            ‘So, what great truths is this communicating? How is this bringing order to a disordered world?’

            ‘Well, sometimes it’s just about fun, I suppose. There’s nothing wrong with that. Art should be able to laugh at itself, shouldn’t it?’

            Vicky smiled sweetly. I’d passed the test.

            David fforbes was still with the Japanese woman. He spoke in A LOUD VOICE, so everybody would know how clever he was.

            ‘Of course, the Stuckists know more about what they don’t like than what they do.’

            Vicky linked arms with me. We walked into the next room and were confronted with a giant egg. The ovum was three metres high on its side, and had four cracks running part way round and all meeting at a small hole. I found it strangely unsettling.

            ‘What d’you think’s going to hatch out of that?’ said Vicky.

            I laughed. I felt like I had known Vicky for months, not just an hour. She was intelligent, funny and very easy to get on with. I really liked her company. The rest of the crowd wandered in, and milled about the egg – yet more Ahhhs and Goshs. David fforbes looked at the egg and made a jokey reference to Ai No Corrida to the Japanese woman (who obviously wished she could be somewhere else).

            After some time, one of the attendants led us into another room. We all sat on hard chairs. There was a television and video recorder at the front. The TV was switched on, but the screen was just snow and white noise. We waited. Then Johnny Rembrandt appeared. He was smoking a cigarette and carrying a brown paper bag. The crowd clapped, but he didn’t respond. With a practised insouciance, he stubbed out the cigarette and pulled a video cassette from the bag. He inserted the tape in the slot, and invisible hands took it and dragged it into the bowels of the machine. Cogs whirred, and an image appeared on the screen.

The 90-minute presentation consisted of Johnny Rembrandt, dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl, wearing only an ‘I ♥ Tracey’ T-shirt.

            After about five minutes, Vicky leaned over to me and whispered.

            ‘C’mon, let’s get out of here.’

So we stepped out into the wintery night, and thus began our fiery affair. Vicky and I spent the next few weeks eating out, visiting the cinema and the theatre, discussing art and life, and making love until the early hours. I thought it would last forever but it ended as quickly as it had begun. She simply stopped replying when I phoned her. When I went to her flat, I found it was empty. Nobody knew where she was. She had disappeared completely. I saw in the new millennium alone, with a bottle of Pinot Noir on the hills above Manchester.

Catbrain Hill, South Gloucestershire, England, 8.31pm, Sunday, 28 July 2058

It is a warm summer evening. I am sitting alone, looking down at the village. The orange disc of the sun is just about to touch the horizon, like God and Adam’s fingertips. There’s a ghostly half-moon. Tiny flies spin wildly. I hear my two granddaughters; they are running towards me. One of them has her hands cupped together around something.

            ‘Grandad! Grandad! We’ve caught a fairy.’

            I fumble for my glasses.

            ‘It’s beautiful,’ she says. She opens her hands, just enough for me to see. I see the iridescent wings, and I recognise Vicky’s face.

            ‘Can we keep it, Grandad? Can we? Can we?’

            I look again. The wings are already losing their glow and starting to fray. That face seems paler.

            ‘No. That would be cruel. Give it its freedom.’

            ‘Ahhhh. Pleeeaaase.’

            ‘Set it free.’ I say, kindly but firmly.

            She steps back, opens her hands, and it is released. It soars upwards, higher and higher, until it is lost in the blue. I smile sadly.

            I shiver at a cold wind. My granddaughters are running away. I call after them, but they don’t hear. There’s nobody else around. I want someone to take me home. It’s starting to get dark now. The only warmth I feel comes from the urine flowing down my leg.

About the Author

Stephen Albones a northern writer based in Burnley. He writes mostly short prose and poetry, and I have had pieces published in Pennine Ink magazine. However, he has plans for a novel, and he is currently working on a radio play.

Two Poems by Mark Fisher

I Street

there is another world 
	down that street 
filled with fault line fables 
cracking through 
the archetypes of neighbors 
and all the loving truths
stuffed away 
	in the backs of refrigerators
in Tupperware hells
with all the other leftovers
grown fuzzy with mold
but such a pretty blue
blessing the bread


Midnight City

moonlight bright streetlights
cast shadows across your soul
while angel faced women dance naked 
through the saxophone streets
and late night vagabonds with the cash
shell out for crispy potato prayers in diner cathedrals
sipping Stella Rosa communion wine
wistfully looking through mandala windows 
into blind primordial streets
feeling the liquor bottle emptiness of waiting
and just getting older




About the Author:

Mark A. Fisher is a writer, poet, and playwright living in Tehachapi, CA.  His poetry has appeared in: Angel City Review, A Sharp Piece of Awesome, Altadena Poetry Review, Penumbra, Young Ravens, and many other places. His first chapbook, drifter, is available from Amazon.  His plays have appeared on California stages in Pine Mountain Club, Tehachapi, Bakersfield, and Hayward. He has also won cooking ribbons at the Kern County Fair. 

A Metropolitan Avenue-Bound Love Affair by Alex Antiuk

The old, rickety door creaked open. To my dismay, Boo-Boo ran towards me. Boo-Boo had the teeth of an old Englishman. They were gnarled and broken, and the bottom layer stuck out with a sharpness. I always wondered what would happen if Boo-Boo came for my ankles, but I was fortunate that he was as aloof as his owner.

            The apartment had a peculiar smell. It reeked of a heavily salted, pungent scent, that landed harshly in my nostrils.

            Closing the door behind me, I quietly began to creep towards the kitchen. Vicky was nowhere in sight, so I made a break for it.

            The bathroom was a small, decrepit room directly beside the kitchen. It had chipped ancient blue paint and always stunk of urine. It also always contained a mountain of empty toilet paper rolls beside the toilet, that neither Vicky nor I ever bothered to throw in the trash.

            Once inside, I locked the door. But when I flicked the light switch, a large frown formed on my face. Vicky had informed me the day I moved in that the light switch, “has a mind of its own.” I didn’t particularly understand what she meant at first, but after only a week of living here, I’d finished two showers in complete darkness and found myself one night urinating on the wall – the light had gone out mid-stream.

            Now the light didn’t bother to turn on at all, but I had no intention of trying to fix it. I could see the slightest orange hue dripping in through the small, fogged window – enough to reach the sink. I was planning on heading to bed soon. I brushed my teeth quickly and shifted towards the toilet, when I heard a loud and heavy slamming of the door.

            Vicky had returned. I immediately felt my nerves blossom. I had desperately wanted to go to sleep without having to interact with her, but I was too late.

            I flushed the toilet and began to prepare for how I’d escape our inevitable conversation. But in the almost total darkness I wasn’t keen on staying too long. Once after I’d exited the shower, I felt something crawl onto my foot. It forced me into a distressed dance that ended with me banging my knee against the mold-infested, claw-foot tub and letting out a squeal that echoed off the bathroom tiles and only exacerbated the pain.

            Slowing opening the door, the light of the kitchen overtook my eyes. Vicky had turned on the fluorescent, over-head bulb, which created a blinding glow. I was able to make out her figure but the light had formed black spots in my eyes so I couldn’t see the details of her frame. All I could see was that Vicky was wearing her usual nighttime attire – an unwashed, skimpy pair of children’s pajamas that didn’t fit her peculiarly shaped figure.

            Vicky turned towards me the moment I shut the bathroom door. Her voice held its usual, hoarse tone when she asked, “Do you have a sec’?”

            “Yep…” I replied hesitantly.

I headed towards the small side table we ate on. Vicky had never bothered to purchase a dining-room table. All our meals were taken on this side-table, whose neon-green paint was completely chipped. Beside it, Vicky had two mis-matched chairs – I always sat in the beat-up plastic one. The other was a large lounger that was covered in dog-hair and had become Boo-Boo’s bathroom over the years.

            After taking a seat, my eyes finally began to heal. The blinding spots were fading and I could finally see Vicky clearly. Her back was towards me, but I began to notice something off-putting on her bare legs – a series of red, swollen bumps. They were ripened and bright, and consumed almost every visible inch of flesh on her backside. The bumps didn’t overtake one another. Instead, they created a consistent, evenly distributed layer. Each leg was completely covered and I could no longer see the natural paleness of her leg.

            Vicky turned and her portrait engulfed my periphery. She caught my awe-struck eyes.

            “It’s-Nothing!” Vicky exclaimed. She spoke in an unusually hysteric tone. Vicky looked like she had chickenpox, but if they had swollen and were coated in a thin layer of crust. I held back my tongue and remained silent as I continued my covert examination.

            The percolating silence led Vicky to hastily turn towards the stove, before taking a long, frustrated breath and exhaling, “It’s-NOT-a-Big-Deal!” Vicky then scrambled through the cabinets and took out an old wooden spoon. She began to stir the large, steaming pot.

            “The cure is bone broth. Plain and simple.” Vicky’s confident voice explained. I watched her hands drift towards the cabinet, and I noticed inside were a half-dozen identical cartons of the broth. Vicky pulled another down, ripped open the top and poured the entire thing into her soup. She then gave it a quick stir before taking a seat beside me in Boo-Boo’s chair.

            “Anyway, did I tell you who’s coming over tonight?” Vicky began. Her voice was jubilant and energetic, a stark contrast to my continuous yawns and wavering eyes. I shook my head.

            “He’s not one of my regulars.” I remained uninterested in Vicky’s plans, but I couldn’t turn my eyes away from her. Each time I felt my tired eyes droop to the floor they’d notice another pulsating, oozing bump and return towards her. Vicky added, “He’s a Real Man.”

            Vicky had a simple and effective way of acquiring companionship, although I’d learned it was not a way to locate love. Through the thin wall that separated our room I’d gotten to know many of Vicky’s suitors, and Vicky herself. I’d hear their brief conversations, beginning with Vicky’s off-putting, boisterous laugh and ending with her overly dramatic moans. These were followed by silence, before I would hear the door shut and footsteps head down the stairs.

            I had yet to encounter Vicky in love, but when I asked where she met tonight’s visitor I was stuck by the smile that radiated off her blushed face, which in conjunction with the bumps had turned it completely red.

            “After work I was waiting for the train, and of course, the M never came. Boo-Boo needed a walk, so I was like, ‘Screw it! I’m gonna take a cab’ but then I accidentally rammed into this hunk.” Vicky took a brief pause, as if she was attempting to control herself from jumping out of Boo-Boo’s lounger in excitement.

            “His name’s Jan – He caught me with these… Hands!” Vicky’s voice jumped in excitement. “They were so rough and scratchy, and when I looked up and saw he had a cute little bald spot too, I knew I couldn’t let him go.”

Vicky had become completely giddy. Her voice kept rising in pitch and velocity and I wondered if she’d slow down her speech or allow it to completely overtake her.

“And then he spoke. You wouldn’t believe how thick his accent is. I couldn’t understand a thing, but every word was just so yummy…” Vicky finally took another breath. Before launching back into her retelling in an unusual, poorly-mimicked accent. 

            “‘Where you’ live?’ Turn’s out, we’re neighbors! We hopped into a cab, and he even opened the door for me.” Vicky paused to breathe, but only for a moment. “But when I gave him a little, thank-you-pat, I didn’t expect his arms to be so hairy and greasy.” Vicky’s smile exploded.

            Vicky’s grin became glued onto her face. She was barely able to sit still, but so engulfed she didn’t bother to get up and deal with the overflowing pot on the stove. She held a radiating glow and I could sense even just retelling this story made her heart flutter. But then Vicky caught my eyes.

            I had attempted to keep them on her lips and eyes during her monologue, but I noticed that her excitement had forced one of the bumps on her forehead to begin to leak a small, steady stream of pus. It was a white, lightly foamed substance.

            Vicky placed her hand on her forehead and wiped off the goo. Her smile disappeared and I watched her lift herself up and head back towards the stove.

            “When’s he coming over?” I asked.

            “Jan’s working a late shift. He said midnight. You should’ve heard how happy he was when I invited him over. He even mumbled a few words in Polish, but I didn’t care I couldn’t understand them… He’s such a sweetie.”

            My eyes fell onto the large clock above the stove and I noticed it was already past my bedtime. I let out a yawn. Despite Vicky keeping me up, I was grateful to learn I’d be long asleep by the time Jan arrived – Vicky had a knack for inviting lovers over unannounced, forcing awkward, lumbered introductions each time I went to use the bathroom before bed.

            Pulling out a bowl, I watched Vicky pour a heaping portion of soup. She then slowly headed towards the salt and pepper shakers in the corner of the kitchen – I realized this was my only chance to escape. Once Vicky took a seat I’d be roped into further conversation that I knew I’d regret when I’d arrive to work with dark, swollen bags under my eyes, both of them likely crusted shut.

            I stood, and when Vicky turned back towards the table I left her with a light, good-hearted, “He sounds like the one.”

            Vicky took a sip of her broth. After a moment she said, in an unexpectedly genuine tone, “I have that same funny feeling.” A large smile formed between her swollen cheeks, before she added, “Good-Nighty! Also, I promise I’ll keep it down tonight.” Vicky then blew the steam off her soup and slurped another sip in glee.

            I headed back through the living-room, past the slumbering Boo-Boo and into my room. It was down the hall in our old, rail-road apartment. I locked the large dead-bolt and hit the lights. I pulled the covers over my exhausted frame and prepared to sleep, when I felt a sudden, unexpected joy.

            This was the first time in almost a year of living with Vicky that not only did Vicky say goodnight, but she promised to be quiet. Vicky had often had suitors over till the morning light shined into my window, and many times I’d been forced to stay up with them.

            I began to wonder, if this was who Vicky became on the outskirts of love, who would I awaken to the following morning? I closed my eyes, and allowed Vicky’s smile to pleasantly drift through my thoughts. It was warm and welcomed and I’d completely forgotten about the bumps that overtook her frame. But then it all disappeared in an instant.

            “Boo-Boo! That’s not your Wee-Wee Pad!” Vicky’s hoarse voice reverberated through the thin walls and into my ears. It began to echo throughout my room and even when I placed my pillow over my head, my ears remained alert. There was a brief pause, but it was broken only a moment later.

            “Boo-Boo! How dare you! You know Mommy has a guest coming over!”     

About the Author   


Alex Antiuk is a writer and former vitamin salesman from New York. He was also a winner in author Simon Van Booy’s Short Story Competition in 2018.

Three Poems by Kayleigh Campbell

Lunar Eclipse 
 
She stares at the triangle between her legs,
the darker tip of it like a snow-covered
 
mountain top. She lifts her foot from the water 
and suspends it as a skin-covered moon.
 
She lifts her right hand as Zhenyi 
might have, scrunches it into an earth-fist.
 
She holds her left hand up, palm flat, fingers
outstretched into a pygmy sun and pauses: 
 
she aligns here in this moment, 
before letting her limbs go limp.

Dear Vera Shimunia 
embroider me a star  
splattered night sky  

and sew my body so beautifully  

into a constellation so I can hang myself  

and the universe  
on the kitchen wall.

Andalusia 

She licks crisp schnapps from her lips  
as she watches palm trees sway in Balearic breeze. 

She fingers pages of The Handmaid’s Tale, 
as she examines the body language of sun loungers.  

She spots her fiancé in the pool, hazy with cheap beer
and chlorine. She imagines it is a stranger.

She begins to imagine a different holiday,
where she is alone.

She looks beyond the resort, across the beach
into carolina sea and imagines

she could be crystallised like salt
and drift away from here.

About the Author

Kayleigh Campbell is a third year Creative Writing Ph.D candidate at The University of Huddersfield. She has previously volunteered for Stand Magazine based at The University of Leeds; she lives in Leeds with her partner Joe and their daughter Eliza. Her pamphlet Keepsake is available from Maytree Press. Her work has appeared in the likes of Anthropocene, Butcher’s Dog and Ink, Sweat & Tears.