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I’m the Guy Who (Almost) Killed the Guy Who (Almost) Killed Albert Einstein | James J. Patterson

The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament arrived in Washington, D.C., on November 15th, 1986. The participants had marched all the way from California to my hometown, the Capital of the Empire, to protest nuclear weapons. Under President Reagan, the war industry had shrugged off the negative image it had acquired during the Vietnam War. Now, saber-rattling politicians were postulating that nuclear war was something everyday citizens could speak of as a wise foreign policy option. After all, if you want to make astronomical amounts of money, the thing to do is to think astronomically. And the supersonic multi–nuclear warheaded MX missile, coming in at seventy million dollars a pop from the Raytheon Corporation, had the arms industry and all its dependents smiling, with stars in their eyes.

My two-man band, The Pheromones, had a steady group of regular venues where we played in and around D.C., as well as hot spots around the country. With songs like “The Great Rondini” (about our Teflon president), “Peace Once More,” and “MX Madness,” among others, we were the go-to guys if you wanted it topical, raw to the bone, and loaded with attitude. In other words, major media outlets wouldn’t touch us, but fans came in all shapes and sizes. Members of the march’s organizing committee had heard some of our anti-war numbers on the Pacifica radio station out in Berkeley. So, when the ragtag army of anti-war, anti-nuclear demonstrators were at last about to arrive at the nation’s capital after walking three thousand miles, those friendly organizers put us at the top of the show, slipping us in at the last minute. We would play at the Lincoln Memorial, where later Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, and Ralph Nader would praise those marchers for their massive contribution to the cause.

While the marchers were gathering in Martin Luther King Park, we had enough time for a quick sound check. My stage partner Alvis Pheromone picked two songs I had written years earlier on Clovelly Island in Canada, “Grace in the World” and “Holiday,” when even my closest friends didn’t know I could write, play, or sing. I would sit on the porch overlooking the Lovesick Lake and play to the gently rippling tides. Now those two songs boomed out across the Reflecting Pool and bounced off the monuments, delivering an eerie kind of wonder and surprise at life’s more ironic and unexpected twists and turns. We were standing where King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This memory still brings me happy chills.

Casey Kasem, a famous hit radio DJ, was the MC, and he called us up to the stage as the massive crowd of marchers was making its way to us from Martin Luther King Park and Lafayette Square. There were already a thousand or more people gathered there—tourists, locals, and a bunch of fans who had found out we were playing I know not how, because, being last-minute additions, we were not on any schedule. But we could see the throng of marchers, a people’s army, with their homemade banners, flags, and slogans, moving inexorably toward us with the slow determination of history itself. Our fingers were numb in the thirty-eight-degree cold, but we greeted them with songs: “Hey, Look Around You,” “MX Madness,” “The Great Rondini,” “Money Go Round,” “Host Homes,” “Peace Once More,” and “Galactic Funny Farm.” Kasem brought us back for “Grace in the World.”

As we stepped back from the mikes and took our bow, Kasem returned to talk to the crowd; we hurried over to put our guitars away as Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-woman African American a cappela ensemble who just exude a kind of ancient life force, sang a spiritual welcome to our giant peace brigade, who were by now moving in that slow-surging not-to-be-denied way a large crowd moves, right up to the stairs of the Memorial.

As this was going on, at the back of the stage area, standing by our guitar cases, was Ralph Nader, flanked by two young acolytes, waiting for Kasem to introduce him. Now, this was long before Nader had torpedoed his liberal bona fides by running against Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, still fourteen years distant, ensuring that stupid George W. Bush would become our president. But at the time, Nader was a genuine hero. I thought he could be another Abe Lincoln.

I approached Nader cautiously with an “is it okay?” look to his two handlers, who just smiled. I shook his hand and went on to explain that ten or more years earlier, I had bought a Chevrolet Monza that was a total lemon right from the first day I owned it. For example, the passenger door fell off—that’s right, it just fell off. It happened on a first date with a lovely woman I had taken to the Kennedy Center for a concert. It was pouring rain, and when I got out to open the door for her, it simply tore off from its welded hinges and landed in the gutter. Do you know how fucking heavy a car door is? What’s worse, my date insisted I take her home. So, with the car door sticking out of my hatchback, I drove her home with water pouring in her side. You’ll be shocked to learn that our first date was our last. Also, that first year, a strut bar beneath the car fell off, and the entire chassis dropped down, grinding all four tires to pulp with only a few rotations. But I digress.

So, with a couple thousand people waiting, I stood there and told Ralph Nader about a time I was coming up the hill on Florida Avenue, in front of the Washington Hilton, when my brakes failed completely. I was yanking desperately on the emergency brake and pumping the brake pedal wildly and was able to bring the car to a stop but not until I had entered the crosswalk and bumped a man who angrily banged his fist on the hood of my car.

That angry man was Ralph Nader.

“It should have been a Corvair!” Nader laughed heartily, referencing his legal suit against the car company that made him famous and led to massive safety reforms in the auto industry that to this day have saved countless lives. He went on to tell a story of his own. Back in his college days in Germany, he was driving an old beater car with bad brakes, and rolling down a hill toward an intersection where he bumped an old man in his pajamas in the crosswalk. That man was Albert Einstein.

“So, in another life,” he put his hands on my shoulders and smiled down at me, “You’re the guy who killed the guy who killed Albert Einstein!” We both laughed hard. I then handed him two cassettes of our tunes, bootlegged to sell from the stage, with maybe eighty original songs. “Are all these songs different?” he wanted to know as only a true consumer activist would, and he tucked them into his jacket pockets. Then he calmly stepped up to a microphone and said, “I presume that by now, after your courageous experience walking all the way across the country for peace, many of you will go on to become active critics of the footwear industry.”

It was a scream.

Nobody laughed.

Poor Ralph. Once upon a time, he was très cool.

That night we MCed a dance party for the marchers at a Nader event. When I recounted our conversation at the Memorial earlier that day, one of his aides laughed wearily, “Did he tell you his Einstein story? He tells that story to everybody!”

Now, I guess, so do I.

James J. Patterson

James J. Patterson is the author of the essay collection Junk Shop Window: Essays on Myth, Life, and Literature, out June 6th from Alan Squire Publishing. He also wrote Bermuda Shorts, an Indie Bestseller, and the novel Roughnecks. As Jimmy Pheromone, he crisscrossed north America for a decade, writing and performing songs as one-half of the satirical art-folk duo, The Pheromones. Patterson was the founder and publisher of SportsFan Magazine, dedicated to tracking the life and times of America’s sports fans.

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Night of the Butterflies: A Broken Sestina | Tara Campbell

We stood around the bonfire, warming our hands at its glow. I could tell Samantha was fretting about something, but I didn’t ask, trusting her to tell us in her own time. I guessed it had something to do with the ropes Raj was handing out. “Pretend you’ve got to reach a drowning man,” Raj said as he gave each of us one heavy coil of coir. The roughness of the rope against my palms awoke butterflies in my stomach. I knew something that transpired tonight would involve digging.

When Raj turned away, Samantha dug an elbow into my side. The flickering light of the bonfire accentuated the concern on her face. “We were supposed to be hunting nocturnal butterflies,” she whispered. I fingered the rope’s coils like frets on a guitar. I was afraid of drowning in mistrust if I looked into her eyes. “He’s got to have some reason for the ropes,” I told her.

She glanced down at her rope. “I’m not digging this,” she said. “Better than drowning,” I said with a smile. She looked away from me, turning back toward the bonfire as Raj called for our attention once more. “Those of you who are wondering what this is all about,” he announced, “don’t fret. Tonight is indeed about hunting butterflies—but not as you thought.”

“Nocturnal butterflies have long been a scourge in our city,” he continued, striding back and forth in front of our group like a general. “These ropes have been donated by the city council, who send their regards for your courage tonight.” Courage? I wondered, beginning to fret. But I waited to hear more, nervously digging the outside edge of my boot into the dirt. I scanned the nervous faces around the bonfire. Everyone looked like they were drowning on dry land.

Raj tried to drown out our worry with visions of valor. “Tonight we will beat these butterflies into submission!” he roared. The bonfire danced as though activated by his courage. Samantha bravely raised her voice to ask, “But why ropes; why not nets?” Raj glared at her with eyes that could dig graves. “We don’t need that kind of fretting in our ranks.”

My fingers fretted the rope, but I gathered the courage to speak up. “What was that about the drowning man, then?” I asked. Apprehension dug away at my gut. “The butterflies,” Raj said, leveling his death gaze at me, “have metamorphosized again.” The rope jittered in my hands. The bonfire crackled.

And now we’re digging the trap, fretting it won’t be large enough. And now we’re setting more bonfires to lure the prey, drowning the darkness in light. And now the butterflies are coming, wind from their wings whipping the flames, and we can only hope the ropes will hold.

Tara Campbell

Tara Campbell is an award-winning writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University's MFA in Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing at venues such as American University, Johns Hopkins University, Clarion West, The Writer's Center, Hugo House, and the National Gallery of Art. Her publication credits include Masters Review, Wigleaf, Electric Literature, CRAFT Literary, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She's the author of a novel, two hybrid collections of poetry and prose, and two short story collections from feminist sci-fi publisher Aqueduct Press. Her sixth book, a novel featuring sentient gargoyles in the 22nd century American West, is forthcoming from SFWP in fall 2024. Find her at www.taracampbell.com

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Bump in the Night | Benjamin Woodard

A noise wakes us at 2 a.m., and when we open the door to Zoi’s bedroom, rather than spotting the five-year-old tucked under blankets, Stefani and I are greeted by Zoi’s small, padded frame wrestling with her pink down jacket, for she must already be wearing three pairs of pants, six shirts, four sets of socks. A plum-colored magic eight ball sits on the floor. She surely knocked it off her bureau while hunting for clothes. Its bang on the hardwood is probably what roused us. This is the first time I have spent the night, and when Stefani informed Zoi of the sleepover after dessert, Zoi gave me the stink eye before she threw a pair of unused butter knives at the wall and stomped up to her room. It’s funny, since during dinner, Zoi told me the carbonara I prepared was the best spaghetti ever and asked for seconds. She even laughed when I pulled a face behind Stefani’s back. But presently, she freezes next to her stuffed backpack when we flick on her bedroom light. The scene looks ridiculous, the three of us standing there. I almost laugh until Zoi declares that she is taking all of her clothes and moving in with her father across town, and since I know that there is nothing I can say at this moment that will get me back in bed any sooner, I return the magic eight ball to its bureau perch, step into the dark hallway, and listen as Stefani patiently tells her daughter that nobody makes rational decisions in the middle of the night. I hear the rustle of fabric as she pulls layer after layer from the girl, much to Zoi’s frustration. Their voices rise, so I retreat to the living room downstairs and turn on the television. What they say above me I cannot decipher, but on the screen, I see that the network is airing 13 Ghosts, a black-and-white film I have not watched in probably 25 years. I am just in time for the early scene where the lawyer tells the married couple that they have inherited a new home, only that it is full of ghosts. When the couple try to chuckle off such a declaration, the lawyer turns serious. “They go with the house,” he says, stony-faced, before he leaves them alone to consider their future.

Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin Woodard's fiction has appeared in journals like Joyland, F(r)iction, Cutleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, as well as in the 2019 and 2021 editions of Best Microfiction. He is editor-in-chief at Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine and can be found at benjaminjwoodard.com.

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The Revolution comes to the Midwest | Tommy Dean

Dakota leans against the stop sign, hand outstretched flipping off driver after driver. Kids in backseats meet his eye, and he smiles, beckons them to join him. The ones that turn in their seats, heads popping up in the glass as the car retreats. These are his favorites. His fellow revolutionaries. They'll grow up remembering him—a scarecrow of capitalism. He is twelve years old and accepts his allowance in Bitcoin, taking Christmas gifts in other cryptocurrencies. Financial freedom is how you fuck with the status quo. Twenty-five cars pass before the sheriff rolls up. He doesn’t even roll down his window anymore. A flash of the lights, a blip of the siren, and Dakota walks off, already scrolling on his phone.

Dakota has bigger plans for the community pool. He loves walking through the neighborhood at night, street lights placed haphazardly. Their arms hanging over him like a scolding adult. He runs from pools of light to the shadows and back again, hopscotching on the cracked and gritty streets while the blue glow of TVs pulse in the corner of his eyes. He screams, chest tightening, waiting for the pulled-back curtains before slinking off. But here is the pool, surrounded by a chintzy eight-foot chain link fence. He vaults over it with the ease of youth, spray paint cans ratting in his jacket pockets. He loves how the little ball rattles around the inside of the canister. The spray comes out fast and irregularly, but the words are clear enough for a quick pic. Southfield sucks deez nuts. Stupid, unoriginal, but the challenge is complete. A few hashtags and he’ll go viral. Leave this wasteland behind.

Cameras everywhere. Infiltrating. Surrounding. Dakota walks through the high school hallways with an unfurled umbrella. He found this particular tactic on TikTok. As he approaches each corner, he flops the umbrella upward, blocking the camera and masking his movements. He hasn't heard of a revolution starting in school, but he is bent on becoming a #trendsetter. His classmates laugh and jostle the umbrella, cursing and calling him #lame. He flips them off and sneers into their phone cameras. Welcome to the fucking Revolution. Don’t say you didn’t know.

This lasts two days until the gym teacher stops him, the man's red face looming over the top of the umbrella fabric. Dakota jerks the umbrella back, but the man wrenches the material toward him. "Dude. Don't be an asshole," Dakota says, wishing he was in one of those karate movies, or an Avenger, whipping the metal of his umbrella across the man’s face. But, instead, he loses his grip and falls to the floor, the grit gathering on his palms. He lays there quivering, the teacher standing over him, saying in a low voice, “Get up now. Don’t make this a scene.” On the way to the office, the teacher's hand gripping his shoulder, Dakota dances and squirms for the cameras. Fist raised high. Flicking his hair out of his face, shouting, We want Freedom, We Want Freedom.

Senior year. Dressed in cap and gown. A concession for his mother. The night before, she promised him a two-drink maximum. And still, he witnesses her stumbling, falling into the lap of another father. Dakota has planned for this. Her failures have become his license to do something unbearably embarrassing. He’s thought of violence. An assault rifle hidden under his robes; a barrage of bombs left under the stage. But these thoughts leave him breathless, a bit giddy, frightened by how easily they come to mind. His anarchy arrives in softer forms. He wants them scared by his potential. But he hungers for change, too. He isn’t that fucked up. Not yet. So he waits until his name is called, waits until he has shaken the principal's hand, has gotten the required photo, his smile a little smirk he’s too proud of before flipping open the app he developed to coordinate with the school’s sprinkler system, the water splashing from the sky, the fire alarm ringing. He unfurls the umbrella secreted underneath his ropes and walks out the back gym door and into the gloaming.

Tommy Dean

Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks and a full flash collection, Hollows (Alternating Current Press, 2022). He lives in Indiana, where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, 2020, 2023, Best Small Fictions 2019 and 2022, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Find him at tommydeanwriter.com and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.

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“To live in one world and breathe in another” | Shiksha Dheda

CW: mental illness

 

- title taken from Science girl(@gunsnrosesgirl3) tweet on 25/10/2022

 

They say that no other whale can hear his 52Hz cries of solitude. The blue whale being heard at 10 – 39Hz; the fin whale being heard at 10Hz; they can all hear one another. No one can hear him. No one has ever seen him. We’ve just heard his elusive calls of soothingly lonely pleas. Some say he could be deaf. Some say there are others just like him; more than just one lonely whale, wallowing in 52Hz solitude. No one really knows, though, but we can still hear him. In the expanse of the ocean, away from the masses of schools of whales, no predators, no preys, no enemies, no friends, no family, no mate; just him, Mr Blue, Mr 52Hz, Blue 52.

Whale J35, also known as Tahlequah, is an Orca that has given birth to three calves now. Her second calf, her middle child, Tali, died almost immediately after being born. J35, in an unprecedented and unexpected display of motherhood and grief (and maternal grief) carried the lifeless body of her offspring for 17 days, across the ocean, until she felt that she had grieved sufficiently. Other maternal orcas in her pack helped her carry the hefty corpse when she tired of carrying the burden of grief.

When sperm whales tire, they commonly sleep for 15-to-20-minute power naps. Usually, they sleep upright (or longitudinally/vertically) with one eye open, usually very close to the surface of the water. This is usually done in their packs and looks somewhat like massive sacs of alien eggs, just waiting to be released. All whales sleep in this manner to keep their guard up, in case any predators attack them, but also because whales cannot breathe underwater.

Whales (despite living in the ocean), cannot breathe underwater. They usually come to the surface of the water every 20-to-90 minutes to breathe. How strange it must be to live in one world and breathe in another.

I lapse, usually every few minutes, into an intrusive thought. I wander, just below the surface of normalcy, to dwell on the intruding theory. I count…till 9…till 12…till 15. I do something elaborate with my fingers. I touch my chest (where my locket used to be), say a silent prayer. I do it once more. I do it thrice more. I come back up to the surface; for air, for sanity, to breathe.

Oh, how strange it is to live in one world and breathe in another.

Shiksha Dheda

Shiksha Dheda is a South African of Indian descent. She uses writing to express her OCD and depression roller-coaster ventures, but mostly to avoid working on her master's degree. Sometimes, she dabbles in photography, painting, and baking lopsided layered cakes. Her writing has been featured (on/forthcoming) in Wigleaf, Passages North, Brittle Paper, Door is a jar and Epoch Press amongst others. She is the Pushcart-nominated author of Washed Away (Alien Buddha Press, 2021). She currently has chapbooks published with The Daily Drunk Mag and Fahmidan Publishing & Co. She rambles annoyingly at Twitter: @ShikshaWrites. You can find (or ignore her) at https://shikshadheda.wixsite.com/writing

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On a Monday, Mourning Doves | Michael Todd Cohen

The mournful cooing of the Mourning Dove is one of our most familiar bird sounds. European settlement of the continent, with its opening of the forest, probably helped this species to increase. Regularly swallows grit (small gravel) to aid in digestion of hard seeds.

— Audubon

 

On a Monday, I drag something out to the curb. They watch wary, then scatter, tittering into the wind. In New England winter, the Mourning Dove is a melancholy absurdism.

 

In therapy, I confessed I was not earning enough: not writing or drawing or reading nearly enough. Who is saying this to you, my therapist wanted to know. Titter into the wind. My uncle, lodged in my psyche, unyielding as a beach stone. I've worn him down some, but the ballast he left in my brain tips me back from the brink of weightless flight: What about the money? Where is the money? uncle said, then said again, until I learned to coo it to myself.

 

On a Monday, I drag shit out to the curb. Lots of little shits in little bags. They watch wary, the doves.

 

In the foyer of cousin’s mansion, uncle stepped from the shadows, ring-eyed and crooked with age. Before dinner, ringed around the coffee table — husband beside me — uncle asked what I thought of the effort to criminalize queerness in the classroom. I don't have a problem with it, he added. He is a contrarian, cousin said. His wife called their young children down, using the intercom.

 

On a Monday, I drag myself out to the curb. Shit. Who is saying this to you? Emboldened into a sullen huddle, the doves do not scatter. They coo. They who.

 

Monday shit.

Monday shit.

Monday shit.

 

On a Monday, husband drags shit out to the curb as I sleep. In New England winter, mourning is melancholy, Doves. Winter, in New England, Doves, is in.

 

In a little room behind the sanctuary at father’s funeral, uncle said to me he’d be a father. I was fifteen. I did not know then uncles are uncles, not fathers, and I want to say, in the years to come, he watched wary, but he didn’t. I want to say, instead, he tittered into the wind but uncle is logic-cold. He has never tittered.

 

On a Monday, Doves!

On a Monday, I drag myself.

On a Monday, I drag uncle out to the curb.

 

I am an uncle, too. A tragic exuberance, dramatic, erudite, not a little bit anxious and largely unavailable. I have promised to be a father to no one.

Michael Todd Cohen

Michael Todd Cohen’s work appears in Columbia Journal, Catapult, Pithead Chapel, JMWW Journal and HAD, among others, and has been included in Best Micro Fictions, the Connecticut Literary Anthology, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives with a poet-husband and two illiterate chihuahuas, by a rusty lighthouse, in New England. For more: michaeltoddcohen.com.

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Type Casting | Matthew E. Henry

“That’s some white people shit.”

“What?”

“Were all of the people who thought you were gay white?”

“It’s not that they thought I was gay exactly…”

“Not straight. Whatever. Were all of them white?”

“No.” I mentally scroll through faces and races. “Yes?”

“See? You don’t fit their Black-Man stereotype, other than dating white women…”

“Hey…”

“Whatever nigga: you do you. I’m just saying you don’t fit their image of what a Black man is ‘supposed’ to be. You’re not some overly masculine thug, sitting on a stoop, rocking a durag and sipping a 40. A sensitive and educated Black man, who works with kids seems femme to them. So, they assume you’re not straight.”

“No, V. That can’t be it.”

 

It was.

___

Before-school conversations were a regular event with Eden: a young, white lesbian needing to unpack her thoughts about sexuality, gender identity, proper pronouns, the school’s GSA, the “Day of Silence,” the Stonewall Uprising, whether Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham are closeted assholes, turning the self-loathing of their internalized homophobia on others, and a host of other issues my teacher education program did little to prepare me for. But I love my kids and I’m always available with what little knowledge I have. And it’s not like she’s the first to drop questions of identity like bruised apples on my desk. One morning, driving to work, our last conversation still weaving through my head, a question occurs which should have dawned sooner. When Eden enters my room, I ask if I am the only adult she’s talking to about all of this. I assure her that I’m in no way suggesting that she shouldn’t be talking to me, but ask if it would be more beneficial—make more sense—if she were talking to one of the other teachers, someone within the LGBTQIA+ community, not just an ally? She gets quiet. Seems suddenly concerned with sporadic red squares in the sea of beige titles at our feet.

 

“Well, I mean… To be honest…”

“What?”

“I shouldn’t even say it.”

“Say what?”

“I mean. Okay. I mean. Look. I…,” her blue eyes now darting between the technicolor posters adorning the walls. The pocked ceiling tiles. The slated blinds that can never quite close.

“Oh, for the love of God, out with it.”

“Okay. So, I never really thought you were fully straight. I thought you were a little…,” with a limp flick of her wrist, she makes a hand gesture that was a popular insult

“Wait. What?”

 

The conversation gets weird. I don’t even know what “fully straight” means and neither does she. Maybe bi. Maybe pan. She knows I was married to a woman, but thinks that might have been a farce, that she was my beard—10 years with a spouse pretending passion. In Eden’s defense, we did get divorced. She says she was confused because I once used the word “partner” to refer to my wife. I say there is no way in hell that happened because I hate that word in that context. She says it must have been something. I say I’m not sure what. She finally looks at me. Sees the look on my face. Worries that something has been broken, that I’m offended. I realize that I am offended. Not because she mis-saw my sexuality, but because she thought I was peering out of the crack of a mostly closed closet door this whole time. That she saw me as she does Pence or Graham: a hypocrite living a double life. Given all our conversations, given how almost every lesson in our class comes back to themes of figuring out who we are, living in the truth of our authentic selves, I’m offended that she would think I don’t practice what I preach. Then something clicks.

 

“Hold up. Is that why you came out to me? Why you’ve felt comfortable having all these conversations?”

“Yeah. That’s part of it, I guess.”

___

A few days later, I’m Zooming with two former students—both in college, both queer, one male, one female, one white, the other not — and mention my conversation with Eden as an interesting happening. But I’m also curious to hear what they will say. From their college dorm rooms I receive opposite reactions. Later that night, and over the next few days, my survey of former students and close friends begins. By some I’m met with the immediate incredulity of furrowed brow and nose. But then there are the others. The initial silence and blank stares, familiar darting eyes, and the electronic hesitations—being left on read, before typing bubbles appear and disappear in response to my message. Eventually I get an answer from these. Phrases like “big gay energy” and “theatre gay” are used more than once, but only by some. It took V, a queer Black woman, to point out the pattern. She’s right. Every person of color, and all my Jewish friends, balk at the assumption that I am anything other than a cishet “breeder.” Every white person questions, assumes a hidden sexuality. Some have even created detailed narratives on the subject, drawn elaborate connections to my anxiety, depression, and divorce.

 

Maybe it is time to reassess.

___

 

My sophomores are in the throes of dissecting Jackie Sibblies-Drury’s drama Fairview and discussing Franz Fanon’s “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”: what it means to be seen, how being seen changes how you’re seen. It’s a Heisenberg theory of racial ontology. Or something Hegelian—thesis and antithesis. Is the boxed cat Black because it is, or Black because

of all the ways they’ve said it’s “not white”? Whether it’s dead or alive is secondary and almost never in its hands.

 

I begin to picture this other they see, begin to weigh this alternate I never knew I carried. The mannerism they take to be feminine. The softness of how I carry myself, my body. The talking with hands and comfort crossing legs. My raging ADHD seen as flamboyant or fierce. The slipping in and out of foreign accents and dialects for comedic effect, which sounds like lisping in their ears. My being a hugger and easy giver of consolation.

 

I begin to consider my pedigree—my Jamaican parents. I’m the son of a mother with first-born sensibilities. The daughter of a blind woman with an iron fist and an ever-ready Green Mountain switch. I’m the son of a father who lost his own by age eight, was raised by a strong mother and older sisters: women who raised me alongside their own. I’m the youngest sibling of two sisters, then a brother and a sister.

 

I begin to see the history composed in young, queer white eyes: an 80’s baby, an elder-millennial, an elder-queer. A 40-something survivor of not only Boston’s police brutality and the crack epidemic, but Reagan’s silence and the AIDS crisis. I can see him, my doppelgänger. But V, and so many others who look more like me, can’t. But as that child of the 80s, I know my TV tropes and myself. I’m neither the big Black buck or the gangsta with the heart of gold. So they’ve typecast me as the weirdest magic negro ever: a mentor in queerness, both the token gay and Black best friend. Definitely some white people shit. My trans brother will get a laugh out of this, and then get really serious, pondering the implication: white supremacy raising another hydra head.

 

But I’m thinking about the kids for whom I was the first adult—if not person—they came out to. Counting the number of “hypothetical” situations and stories about “a friend” in crisis my ears heard. Their worries of putting grandmothers in early graves and parents being less progressive than they claimed. The Sunday sermons about hell-bound souls they heard. The kitchen tables stacked with books on “healing” and pamphlets for summer programs sure to “fix” them. The terror of old eyes seeing them in new ways: whispers in the hallways, friends reassessing their comfort in locker rooms and at sleepovers. I’m counting the confessions of retracted lies, the real reasons for school absences and hospitalizations. Counting how many of them told me I’m one of the reasons they’re still alive. And, honestly, I’m not sure how I feel.

Matthew E. Henry

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of multiple collections of poetry, including the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022) and Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020). He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes. MEH’s poetry and prose appears or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Porcupine Literary, Redivider, Shenandoah, and Zone 3 among others. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at www.MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.

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Skate Sundays | Jennifer Todhunter

We had these skateboard ramps to the left of the house, a mini ramp and a vert ramp and forty or so skaters every Sunday with their dogs and stoke and speakers blasting new school punk and old school country and sometimes It’s Brittany, Bitch, and during the peak heat in summer some of the skaters would take a break and get crafty at the picnic tables we built from weathered fence boards, and one Sunday this girl pulled out a bag of foraged crystals she bought off the internet and thin gauge wire and needle-nosed pliers and she encouraged me to recite a wish while she worked the wire around the crystal I picked out at her insistence, and it was like she bound my wish, secured what little hope I had left to something tangible, and it wasn’t a great time for me, I was newly separated but not quite divorced, and childless every second Sunday and I often got drunk those second Sundays because I missed my boys but not their dad—missed their direction and affection and distraction—and I kept the crystal next to my bedside, picked it up when I was drunk and lonely or groggy with waking and I’d turn it between my fingers and recite the wish, and at the time I lived with another family in a room I rented because single parenting was easier when there was another mum and another dad in the house to fill up the space, and they had a daughter and a son of similar age to my boys and this particular summer, the Summer of Separation, our kids all skated too, learned how to drop in on the mini ramp alongside the big kids, the click of their wheels and their hollering praise at each other, and the family’s daughter found my wire-bound crystal next to my bedside light one night when she’d finished skating, sat on my bed with her knee pads and helmet still on, took my crystal between her fingers and stared at its intricate wire work, its twists and circles and loops, asked me what it was for, what did I do with it, and what I meant to say was, everything, and, keep those pads and helmet on because you’re going to need them, but all I said was, nothing, I said, I don’t do anything with it, and I placed the crystal in the palm of her hand and wrapped her fingers around it and said, It’s yours now, good luck.

Jennifer Todhunter

Jennifer Todhunter's work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Forge, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and Wigleaf´s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

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“Call Me” Duet | Alexander Burdette

(pt. 1)

I think when I say “anything but ‘it,’” what I really mean is, “Make some choices so I can see if they work for me. Call me ‘he.’ Call me ‘they,’ in the same breath. Call me ‘e’ or ‘xe’ or ‘nir,’ so I can hear it. Call me ‘she,’ even, but make sure I know you do not think me a woman because of it. Call me any neopronoun you might know how to use. Make one up, if you like. I’m collecting data, collating results. The only thing I know right now is ‘it’ doesn’t work. Call me anything. Call me anything else under the sun. This is science; that’s why it’s called ‘experimenting.’ Give me enough data points that I can discern any kind of pattern at all, because I don’t know exactly what’s going on yet.

Give me a multitude, that I might divine.”

 

(pt. 2)

It’s enough syllables to wrap around me like a cloak. Nine letters long: three by three. A pair of trochees like a coal in my hand. “Enough of a name to keep me warm,” I say, my lips upturned at the end, like a joke. Mayhap they’ll think so. But the truth lies buried like the warm ember at the heart of my name: it is warm. Nestled comfortably inside and a clear enough sound for the highest summer sky.

My last name was cool blue, bordering on periwinkle, and would sometimes fluff into wisteria when I gave it out whole. This one, that I picked, is sparks and embers wrapped in steady dark brown branches that never crumble away in ash. I picked a name that rolls amber off my tongue and tingles at the touch.

A name that keeps me warm resting in my voicebox and my heart and my core. A name that rattles its trochees in my hands and rings itself in the air inside my skull.

Alexander Burdette

Alexander Burdette is a multimedia artist whose work explores kindness, visibility, liminality, and the mundane. Eir work has previously appeared with Poet's Choice, Red Noise Collective, the Anderson, and the Kennedy Center. One of eir favorite words is "circummured."

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The Light That Follows | Micah Chatterton

Once, drunk, two brothers decided to walk west until they reached the ocean. The older one was to be married seven days later to a kind, dark-haired woman, so the younger one never left his side for more than a minute that night. There were other, incidental men in their group, but their names have all flickered out by now. They’d just come from a variety show and 8 course dinner in Chinatown, so drop soup & sour mix slicked the bowls of their bellies as they walked through the city. The cigar smoke didn’t help their nausea at all.

Truthfully, the two were not brothers, whatever the younger one wished. Just college buddies. Just friends who’d seen the worst moments of each others’ lives up to that point, & who both loved the dark-haired woman in their own way. They all stumbled west from Long Beach, shouldering street lights until they reached the dim, moondrawn edge of the ocean.

As they walked, the older & younger man stood away from the drove of swaying drunks. Someone fell backward into a rusty firepit, was forgotten. The younger one, already a divorced single parent, wanted to say something wise to mark the moment, weighting his hand solemnly on his friend’s shoulder.

He wanted to tell the future. Like this:

In seven days, you’ll catch up to her laugh.

In one year, you’ll find a stray cat behind

a dumpster & grow your family to three.

In seven years, you will have a son

& I will lose a son, whom you love, months apart.

You’ll wonder, passingly, if there was a way to trade

your son’s unformed soul for my son’s

chemo-battered, 12-year-old soul,

would you take it?

This is the most loving thing

you’ll ever say to me, & still,

in ten years, we won’t be friends anymore.

The many stories of our one fight

will be so much less important

than the state of unfriendship that came after.

I will get married, and we will both have second sons,

months apart, each on our own sides of the world.

You won’t tell me when your wife gets sick

or when she gets better

or when she gets sick again.

& still, in sixteen years,

you will call me at five in the morning

to tell me they can’t stop the bleeding.

I will drive a hundred miles to see her,

& you, & I will arrive

five minutes late—

But the younger man didn’t know this future, so he stuck his hands in his pockets and said nothing as they walked across the sand to the water.

Look, the older man said. The ocean’s glowing.

The seasonal bloom of bioluminescent algae, the kind that turns blue when agitated, came early that summer, banking the L.A. coast with neon for a week. Each wave warmed in a long, slow curl, then exploded into beryl in the break & churn. Someone realized that hard footsteps on wet sand would linger. Someone waded to his hips to slosh a blue angel out of salt & darkness.

Come on. Let’s write our names with pee, the older one said, and everyone agreed, because it was his party and he was their leader. Other, incidental men joined the almost brothers in a line facing the ocean, 8 Picassos about to draw a centaur in the air with a light pen.

Between waves, they each held their cold dick out & tried to piss a signature in front of their feet. Not one could finish the full, glowing script of their name before the damp sand faded black, before the ground was dark enough to disappear into.

Micah Chatterton

Micah Chatterton’s first collection, Go to the Living, was published in 2017. His work has appeared widely, including in Pratik, EcoTheo, Tupelo Quarterly and Best New Poets. Micah teaches rhetoric and library at San Bernardino Valley College. He tweets about small, wild things at @micahchatterton and is waiting for a new heart because his old one mutinied.

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