The Oregon Trail calls its dead wife collect

& hangs up after the devil accepts the charges.
Sweat drips from the bile in my dead daughter’s
lungs. My dead son, he was a cloud & he still
is. But the gray he breathes scares me.
& what doesn’t scare me doesn’t exist.
& so & so & so I move on.

On to what? my dead wife’s sickness,
her ex-lover asks me. To the next touch,
I tell him, to the next poem, toward
the air that smells like the third fuck before noon.

There is a sign at the Kansas River crossing:
This way to hell. Smell the dysentery in the dirt.
You’re going nowhere & your wife never loved you.

I could live forever but why?
I could love forever but still, why?
The sign sighs while my dead son
opens his chest until the Kansas River floods
what I will never let be forgotten.

Gregory Sherl is the author of a novel, The Future for Curious People. This is an excerpt from a never written manuscript titled The Oregon Trail Is Still the Oregon Trail Is a Sequel to The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail.

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A Half Portrait

1.
smile a curved palm;
warmed hearth, small.

2.
strong teeth biting secrets,
pin them, tattered.

3.
straight brow, strong line –
sun-constant, bright.

Angelica Chong is an undergraduate student at NYU studying a mix of media & communications, English literature, and business. She has been away from poetry for too long and hopes to always keep it close to her from now on.

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A Woman in a Dress

a woman in a dress is many things:
a city on fire, the first arrival of a train at la ciotat;
beauty is terror. she is
discordant
heat, against your cheek her hand rests
and you notice the arch of her wrist is sharp –
a drop of sweat pools
in the cleft of your collar; the air is stuffed
with the weight of quiet violence.

you are not a woman in a dress. your body is not enough
for this anointment requires: thighs taut with expectation,
muscle memory; back sloped
just so to show off negative space – art draped
or shaped by the gentle unfolding of sight across skin.

you are not a woman at all, but a girl with
sticky lips and fingers not long enough to reach
the back of your throat or the deep of your cunt. a girl
with fat ankles, a furred lip, and a weird-warped spine.
what makes a woman, then? duel to first blood –
hers or yours?

one day you will become a woman, not
because of the new fullness of your chest
or any biological capacity, but because you
have learnt that your hair is a snake-nest, your
smile a steak-knife, the look over your shoulder
a well-laid trap.

when that day comes, you will realize:
a dress is optional.

Angelica Chong is an undergraduate student at NYU studying a mix of media & communications, English literature, and business. She has been away from poetry for too long and hopes to always keep it close to her from now on.

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December Journal: Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sky clears its mind of day-lit thoughts
and opens wide to rush the moon in.
Unapologetic cascades of
noiseless light etch eaves and walls, in
parallelograms on lawn after lawn,
black and gray, and draw utility
poles and their shadows with angles lined
by compasses and straight edges all
the way down the street’s vanishing point
as if ideas had shapes. But watch.
The noiselessness is just now not here.
An owl pencils its plaint across the
ears like the puff from a Spanish fan.
The moment shifts on. And puffs again.

Don Mager’s chapbooks and volumes are To Track the Wounded One, Glosses, That Which is Owed to Death, Borderings, Good Turns, The Elegance of the Ungraspable, Birth Daybook, Drive Time and Russian Riffs. He is retired and was Mott University Professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. As well as a number of scholarly articles, he has published over 200 poems and translations from German, Czech and Russian. In the 1970s, he published articles and review on Gay Liberation. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his partner of 36 years. They have three sons and two granddaughters.

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From Kimchi to Char Kway Teow: A Love Story

Not too long ago, or actually, four years ago, I sniffed at the crimson-streaked fermented cabbage. I tentatively and slowly examined those unnaturally rounded metal spoons characteristic of only Korean restaurants. I marveled with the fresh realization that little dishes of appetizers at Korean restaurants are free-flow and so, so delicious.

I must’ve hung onto the greasy bars of the 1 train hundreds of times through college, as it creaked down to 34th Street–Penn Station. We were a city school, obnoxiously proud of that fact and appending “of the city of New York” to the formal name of the school. I found that there wasn’t an abundance of time for carefree city exploration as the pamphlets promised. But whenever I made plans to escape those iron gates, I’d suggest Koreatown.

In particular, I’d head to the Tofu House. It’s not some scrappy homey restaurant that I discovered. It’s a chain run with militant efficiency and, as I learned after a year of frequenting it, thirteen branches across both coasts. (On Friday nights, on which I once made the mistake of visiting, the line snakes down the block, and three staff members monitor it with loudspeakers and superhuman patience.)

Inside, tables clutter two floors, with high ceilings, and the mostly Korean staff bustle around, hefting saucers of those appetizers, sizzling pots of bright red viscous tofu soup, in those black clay pots taken right from the stove, handles at each side like ears. Their menu was expansive, but the regulars knew the one thing to order: kimchi tofu soup, $13.99 or $11.99 for lunch, with pork or beef or seafood or vegetables or dumplings or some combination of the above, in ‘Mild’, ‘Medium’, ‘Spicy’ or ‘Danger’.

We start with little saucers of appetizers. Several long strands of kimchi piled on top of each other, spicy cabbage juice leaking and dripping off the chutes of their stems. Little one-inch squares of braised fishcake, glistening with oil. Chunks of baby octopus, slathered in thick spicy sauce. A single small fish, around the size of my hand, fried in light yellow batter, every bite a mouthful of prickly bones.

The main course is more tofu than soup, really. I stir, sifting through the quivering teardrop-shaped slab of tofu. I fumble to crack an egg and watch the perfect circle of yolk tremble on the surface, before my spoon impales right through its center, scattering its sticky strings everywhere. The best tofu soup, like this one, has rich flavors, a thin film of oil stretching across the top, the melding of meat, tofu, and spice. And I eat, spooning squidgy oblong pieces of tofu into my mouth, occasionally coating the rice in its sauce. Steaming, soft. It melts in my mouth, like baby food.

After one of my first friends as a freshman dragged me there, calling it the best restaurant in New York (before I realized her love for hyperbole), and after I had my first meal and promptly agreed with her assessment, I was back.

I dragged my roommate, on her virgin trip to Koreatown. I brought my spice-averse boyfriend when he flew to New York to visit me, and was thrilled when he later brought his college friends. I coerced my scavenger hunt team from a school club and introduced many Americans to this spicy delicious mess of food. (I learnt then that it is possible to have not eaten dim sum or real Chinese food before in your life.) I cajoled friends from Singapore who protested the entire way, craving some Singaporean fare instead. I schedule sufficient time for a meal there every time I pass through Penn Station. When I received the call that offered me my absolute dream job, a few hours after the interview, I was between mouthfuls of that tofu soup.

Having a regular haunt also made this feel more real, as if I was a New Yorker with my own corner coffee shop and favorite takeout places and regular bodega, as if I was here in this glorious city for the long haul.

At midnight while ploughing through an assignment, my college friends would grab mac and cheese from a box, or greasy chewy cold pizza, or fried chicken or other things fried to a tasteless crisp. Basically things with a lot of calories. Maybe it was the heady rush from consuming something so patently bad for you…But me? I’d traipse to the communal kitchen and return cradling a steaming bowl of kimchi tofu soup and ramen, that round yolk quivering above.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota recently found that when subjects were served either their choice of food or a granola bar after watching horrifying video footage, the effect was the same: they felt better within a few minutes.

But there are so many entwined mysteries hidden under the impenetrable ridges of our skulls, invisible frenetic movement, zooming neurons and ropey nerves and zigzagging structures. I don’t presume to understand. The one thing I know is that when loneliness settles into my bones, when choking stress envelopes me like a cloud, when fresh raw grief spills over, I do not reach for a salad.

I’m not Korean, by the way, neither do I look it. I don’t speak Korean. I’m one of the minority of Singaporeans that do not enjoy Korean pop music or dramas. I also had never tried Korean food before I arrived in New York.

After I order at a Korean restaurant, there’s a flicker of recognition and eye contact when the waiter realizes I speak Korean – or, that I just am extremely good at pronouncing the names of and eating Korean food.

That’s because there’s more than enough food in Singapore for me. Singaporeans can unashamedly say that the thing they miss most about the country is the food – and their parents and family and beloved friends will not take offense. When I fly home every winter break, my mama constantly asks me, What food do you want to eat? What food do you miss in the US? Better make sure you eat this dish before you fly to New York after break! As if I endured that twenty-four hour flight back to Singapore to eat.

When people ask, always delicately and thoughtfully phrased, about my origin, or an explanation for the slight roughness and taint of colloquial Singaporean English (Singlish) in my words, their eyes light up when they hear I grew up in Singapore, “Ooh, all that good food in Singapore!”

I usually concur, “Yah and super cheap too! You should visit.” But I reconsider, and always feel the need to add with a dismissive flick of a hand, “But you only need to visit for a weekend, there’s not much else to see there…especially compared to other countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand…”

I’m probably not a great representative of my country.

We do not quite have a very distinct culture, or language, because we are a mishmash of many. We do not have a single glorious historical event. Or maybe, we do not make any historical event glorious, because we were shoved into independence only through the abject failure of a doomed political union, and this independence was streaked with paralyzing uncertainty, washed by the salt of the prime minister’s fearful televised tears.

But we have food. Cheap, good, varied, everywhere.

There’s carrot cake, my favorite. No, I am not referring to that concoction of dense cake and frosted cream cheese, which is also good, but never as good. Singaporean carrot cake is a concoction of moist soft tubular radish cakes with generous amounts of egg stirred in, salty and smoky and sweet and soft and crunchy all at once.

There’s chicken rice, steamed tender stringy chicken drizzled with soy sauce on a warm bed of garlicky, gingery chicken rice, stewed in broth and pandan leaves and fats and chopped shallots and garlic and all things good. This man claimed he would fly fifteen hours to eat it (http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20151105-the-singapore-dish-worth-a-15-hour-flight). There’s an ongoing $16M lawsuit concerning the chicken rice fortune. There’s a romantic comedy about two feuding chicken rice store owners, inspired by Romeo and Juliet.

There’s char kway teow, thick strips of rice noodles lovingly stir-fried over a carefully cultivated flame with prawns, clams, bean sprouts, thin slices of pork, usually helmed by a balding taciturn middle-aged man in those threadbare white singlets splotched with sweat. He expertly wedges the flat plane of the wok spatula between square blocks of noodles, and slides them neatly onto a plate, still steaming, gravy bubbling.

And so many more, united not by any distinctive flavor but a hodgepodge of many. Onomatopoeic names, dishes generous with fats and rice and meat and none of them gluten-free or vegan, humble dishes that inspire devotees to spar and write comparative treatises over where to find the best rendition of the dish in the country.

So it’s not just a little odd, or strange, to crave Korean food. It’s an aberration. It’s a heinous betrayal.

“So what do you say when people ask what your hobbies are?” my roommate Y asked, leaning against the kitchen island, sipping orange juice from a plastic cup.

C, the other roommate, paused, brow furrowed. “Just a bunch of stuff, like traveling…”

“Reading…” I chimed in.

“Watching television?” Y suggested.

“Eating!” C crowed.

“That’s a great one. And visiting restaurants, dining out…those are my hobbies.” Y added, clearly satisfied at the conclusion of our introspection.

I used to always think liking to eat was unremarkable. It’s not something worth saying. Isn’t saying you like food akin to saying you like happiness and you like dogs? One doesn’t not like food. Isn’t it normal to plan your entire day and hedge all your emotions around your meals?

But some of my friends ate quinoa and boiled vegetables every day. And my boyfriend was very vocally reluctant to make the hour-and-a-half winding commute to Queens, even though the Korean barbeque there was purportedly truly ‘worth it’. And some people are genuinely not upset with eating cold sandwiches; they do not bemoan and regret that one subpar meal for the rest of the day.

I’m not even one of those fanatic foodies. I can’t list all the newly opened restaurants in Philadelphia as my roommates can. I’m not willing to spend fifty bucks on any regular meal. And I couldn’t care less about the ambience or décor of restaurants. I just care about the food.

I just want some of that kimchi tofu soup of my college days.

I want to be strolling down the uneven tiles intersecting the heart of the campus, seeing the glittery lights of the massive library on the right, feeling that tense breathlessness tight in my chest, that I am on the brink of something, of possibility and open-endedness, an open canvas, whatever I want it to be, as I conjured my future out of clay, just me, my life dangling ahead of me, unencumbered and unrestricted by home and family and friends and practicality, as I inhale the rarefied air of this ravenous, throbbing city.

The first sign: one of those Thursday nights in my first few months of work. I stumbled through the doors of my apartment, pulling along my weekly luggage containing my life, balancing a Styrofoam container of takeout Korean stew.

The kimchi tofu soup in Philadelphia is average. I should have considered this before moving here.

I stirred and minced the slab of mediocre tofu in mediocre kimchi soup. The soup was limp, thin. The yolk had hardened in the soup on its journey here, no longer molten. When my plastic spoon scraped the last dregs of stew off the bottom of the container, I racked my brain to recall why I had anticipated this moment as I worked through that flight, what exactly was so good about kimchi tofu soup of my college days, what exactly it was of my college days that made that soup so good. Was it the anxiety, the self-imposed desire to perform the best I could? Was it the irrepressible longing after getting off phone calls with family and friends, them starting their days as I settled into bed, a cruel reminder of our distinct, diverging trajectories? Was it the twinge when everyone talked about hanging out in their squad? Was it New York, that beautiful, striving, but so tragically broken, city?

The second sign: Thanksgiving weekend, 2016. Two months since I started working, six months since I graduated from college, three months since I left Singapore again but this time without knowing when I’ll next return. I have no family in the US to give thanks to, so I’m back in New York.

After a night of foiled plans and a midnight scramble to find a place to sleep, I dragged my weekly luggage to meet my college roommate. Over spicy kimchi tofu soup at that Tofu House, paired with crispy, chewy, doughy pancakes studded with fresh seafood, with the usual kimchi and fishcake and fish and steamed spinach and bean sprouts as the preamble, we made a valiant attempt to update each other on the last year of our lives. We continued at one of my favorite cafes just down the road, until I boarded my train, hazy with fatigue.

An hour into the train journey, I began sweating. A dull but sharpening ache bloomed from my stomach and fanned outwards.

The man next to me was speaking softly on the phone with a family member, I couldn’t quite detect if it was his wife or daughter. I asked him, smile stretched too wide as my stomach churned, to watch my bag.

As the Northeast Regional trundled past New Brunswick and Newark and Trenton and the dark slanting light of dusk bathed the open streets and boxy low buildings and strip malls in an eerie gentle glow, I balanced gingerly on the toilet seat and clutched my stomach and squirmed and sweated and shivered.

Maybe I wouldn’t make it off the train. Maybe I’d just be stuck here, going round and round around the Northeast, on the freaking Amtrak.

The pain eased, after a bit. Shuddering, I slid back into my seat and prayed the train would accelerate into the Philadelphia 30th Street Station.

But it happened again though, a gleeful pilgrimage to the Tofu House culminating in shivers of pain shooting through my body.

Maybe it’s hard to indulge in that wistful romanticism of college, that blithe sweetness, that truncated simplicity.

The third sign: Christmas week, 2016. I slid into my seat at Penang in Chinatown, which I had somehow always assumed was a Singaporean restaurant though it is named after a city in Malaysia. We are here because I thought the boyfriend would appreciate some good Singaporean food.

I’ve sat down at self-professed Singaporean restaurants, my hopes elevated by the Singlish of the owners and waiters. I don’t order my favorites; I order dishes like fried noodles, dishes harder to ruin, that would at worst just taste like Thai food or lo mien. I fight and tamp down the rising anticipation in my chest. Because those feeble imitations, those that try so hard and come so close to the real thing but ultimately fail, are always too much for my aching heart to bear. I leave with a stomach heavy with carbs and oil, and a heavy heart.

I ordered the char kway teow – low expectations and all. I also ordered the roti prata and the sambal kang kong entrée and informed the boyfriend I’d eat some of his prawn noodles. I’m still Singaporean, after all.

I almost choked on the first bite, unable to believe my taste buds. Char kway teow may sound just like any other Thai or Chinese-inspired fried noodle dish, noodles with random veggies dumped in and all mixed with some sort of sauce, that anyone can effortlessly replicate at home for a weeknight meal. But this…I could taste the wok hei – the one thing that distinguishes truly exceptional Singaporean street food – the breath, the searing, scorching kiss of the wok, coating and glazing every strand of noodle, the crunchy bean sprouts, the measly teeny shrimps.

It tasted like the car rides with my mama and my sister every day on the way to and back from school, me chattering far too much about every miniscule detail of my day. It tasted like the muggy afternoons idling in the canteen in school, analyzing the latest relationship challenge with the girlfriends. It tasted like evenings in, snuggling with my dog as we all sat in still silence watching movies. It tasted like dinners at home, takeout with brown paper packets of fried noodles and rice laid out, my mama and papa squabbling amiably over who took too much of the precious chili.

And my heart sings, a Singlish song.

Jiaying Lim is currently based in Philadelphia, and was born and raised in Singapore. She has also been published in River Teeth, Full Grown People, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

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Monsters

We snuck away in the middle of the night, staying off the main roads, cutting through yards and alleys until we reached the safe house. Mom had hastily packed a few changes of clothes for us in preparation, careful to be sure that Father wouldn’t find out. Uncle Mark was waiting for us, ready to whisk us away to the first of many women’s shelters we would flee to over the next few years as we’d continue to trade one unpredictable home for another.

We had our own room on the second floor of an aging, historic brownstone, a private space to escape to when things felt unfamiliar and scary. The shelter spilled over with battered and broken and terrified families. Mamma bears bristled with trauma as they tried their best to protect their cubs.

Time did not exist in this space; neither hours nor days nor weeks nor months passed with any recognition at all, and before I knew it, we were heading back out into the world to survive on our own once again, the same way we’d left it.

#

We set up camp on the top floor of a run-down yellow two-story house on the outskirts of Stillwater, near the old prison. Steep, paper-tarred steps led up the back to a makeshift patio, which was also gummed black. The sun softened the gunk in the summertime, and the smell would reach into the pit of my stomach with noxious claws.

Mom got a job making bowling shoes, earning just enough money to squeak by, but it wasn’t long before Father came back along to sabotage the progress she’d made. I didn’t understand why she would let him back into our lives, but I didn’t think she really understood either.

After a while, there were days when she just wasn’t able to show up for her shifts, when her face was so beat up that she couldn’t find the strength to show herself in public, embarrassed and ashamed of what people would think. What if they thought she deserved it?

Did she think she deserved it?

#

“You fucking idiot.”

Father jabbed his finger in Mom’s face until it repeatedly poked the bridge of her nose.

“Stop it, Lee, you’re hurting me,” Mom said.

“You realize they’re right out there, don’t you?” Father asked.

Who’s out there, Lee?” Mom asked.

She opened the back door and peered outside.

“Nobody’s there.”

“You fucking called them, you bitch, you called them!”

Father shoved her, hard, and her head bounced against the wood as the door slammed shut. He grabbed a handful of her hair and dragged her into the living room like a rag doll, then dropped her onto her back and sat on her chest, pinning her arms down with his legs as she screamed.

Father went to town on her face with his fists, hitting her over and over again until blood was everywhere and Mom was silent. Until there was no noise left in the room at all except Father’s heavy breathing.

I hid under the kitchen table and bit down on my knuckles to choke back the tears, thinking Mom was surely dead this time, afraid he’d do the same to me if he found me. Father crept out of the room without giving me a second glance, as if I didn’t exist at all.

I tiptoed through the kitchen. Mom wasn’t moving. She looked like a corpse. Her face had been pounded into goulash, chunks of flesh mashed into bone. I wondered if she was alive. I leaned in close and tilted my head to listen for her breathing.

A few minutes passed like this.

They felt like an eternity.

There was a loud pounding on the door, and I dove back under the kitchen table. I huddled as far back in the corner as I could wedge myself as Father’s footsteps came back up the hallway. He dropped a wet towel on Mom’s chest as he walked past her, then peered out the back window before opening the door.

“Hey,” the man said, tall blue jean legs and cowboy boots.

“Hey man, what’s the happs?” Father asked pleasantly, as if he hadn’t just beaten the living crap out of his wife, who lay there, unmoving, just a few feet behind him.

“Not much,” Cowboy Boots said. “You ready to roll?”

“Yeah, man, I’ll grab my bag and be right down.”

Father tried closing the door, but Cowboy Boots stepped in at the last second.

“Yo, I can wait right here.”

“Nah, that’s alright,” Father said. “You go back down. I’ll be right out.”

Cowboy Boots disappeared, and Father shut the door behind him. He walked back through the kitchen, stopping briefly in the living room to look at Mom, who was sitting up now, holding the bloodied rag to her face.

She was still alive.

Father shook his head, then skirted the wake of carnage with his duffle bag in hand like he couldn’t wait to escape into the scorching sun of indifference.

#

A few weeks later, dishes shattered against walls and wood smashed into splintered pieces. Father’s voice rang out the window while Mom’s cries went unanswered. I stood on the tarred stoop and waited for the turbulence to blow over and the silence that would inevitably follow. I had to go to the bathroom, and it was getting harder and harder to hold it. I crossed my legs, shifting every which way, as things crashed around inside the house.

The fighting raged on until I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I crouched down to relieve myself in my overalls. The late summer sun scalded and judged me. Aunt Mary drove up in her Jeep Wrangler and hopped out of the suicide door. I stayed squatting, my underwear full of shit.

“Hi, Matthew,” she said, followed by “What the fuck?!” sailing from calm seas to Category 5 hurricane, as most of Father’s family was prone to do.

“What’s going on up there, Lee?” she screamed at the house.

The back door flew open.

“Get the fuck off my property,” Father said as he waved his shotgun wildly in the air.

“Your property? Your property, Lee? Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t own this shithole. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. What a joke, sponging off your woman like loser trash. What, you think you’re a big strong man with that gun?”

She hoofed up the stairs, unfazed. Father looked around like he was trying to find a quick way to escape, while I tried to disappear into the corner of the deck.

Aunt Mary winked at me and whispered, “You stay put.”

She was at least half a foot shorter than Father, but she shoved him aside like a pile of dirty laundry and went inside the house as he muttered something incomprehensible under his breath. She came back out with Mom, the whole time threatening Father within an inch of his life if he even thought about touching her. Aunt Mary grabbed my hand and escorted us both down the stairs to the Jeep. I was still embarrassed that I had gone #2 in my pants, so I huddled on the floor behind her seat where she couldn’t see me. I was in the clear until we got to Aunt Mary’s house, where Mom had to wash the shit out of my clothes and give me a bath.

We didn’t even spend the night.

Mom brought us right back home a few hours later.

#

Once the swelling and bruising around her eyes and nose had healed up enough that she could cover the rest with makeup, Mom got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken after she was let go from the sewing factory. Father was supposed to watch me during the day, but he almost always slept until late afternoon, so I was left to my own devices. I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Clifton, who lived down the street in a pale yellow house with dark brown trim almost identical to our own.

One day, shortly after I started kindergarten, the bus dropped me back home, and I walked down to Clifton’s house like I did most days. An older man I had never seen before answered the door dressed in paint-splotched, faded blue jeans and a stained white T-shirt.

“Hi mister, can Clifton come out to play?” I asked.

“Clifton isn’t here right now,” he said. “His daddy took him to the store real quick. They should be back in a little while.”

He looked past me down the alley.

“Say, I need to pick up something at the drugstore in town. Would you like to come with? Maybe we’ll run into Clifton. You can even pick out a toy before we head home. My treat.”

I climbed into his rusty truck, grabbing the inside door handle to help lift myself up in order to reach the tall ledge with my foot, and then awkwardly pulled myself onto the edge of the bench seat, onto my stomach. Throwing my legs around to the floor, I flipped right side up so I could sit on the seat while my legs kicked in the air.

We drove the winding road that led from Oak Park Heights toward downtown Stillwater, descending into the valley, passing the steep bluffs along the St. Croix River. The many rainy days we’d had over the summer provided a tremendous amount of green, and the trees and grass and flowers had exploded into a lush Minnesota rainforest.

The man parked his beat-up truck on Main Street and led me by the hand into the store. He picked up a few things and placed them into a wire basket as we walked the aisles. Standing next to him, my head barely reached his thighs. He was much taller than my father.

We strolled around a corner and there was the toy aisle in all its glory, filled with colorful packaging screaming, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ as my eyes filled with longing. There were so many choices, but he’d said I could choose just one, so I settled on what looked the most exciting: an orange and blue NERF gun that shot neon green foam balls.

The man helped me into the truck this time, lifting me up by my wrists and setting my feet onto the ledge, then pushing my bottom as I scrambled onto the seat. The rusty door complained as it shut. He drove the same way home as we’d come, slowing down as we passed the truck stop diner nestled beneath the bluffs on the side of the highway heading out of downtown. I’d been to that diner once before with Grandma Hazel earlier that year, around the time I’d just turned five. She’d taken a Styrofoam cup of coffee to go and bought a newspaper from the coin-operated rack on our way out, setting the folded paper on the car seat between us and wedging the coffee cup in its usual place on top of the dashboard against the inside of the windshield, where it had steamed up a large circle on the glass.

“Are we going to the diner, mister?” I asked, hoping I could get one of the giant M&M cookies from the display case.

He didn’t answer. The truck slowed down, but instead of turning right into the diner’s parking lot, he turned left in the opposite direction, onto a dirt road heading toward the river.

The mammoth tires pulverized the gravel, trapping us in a cloud of dust, sending loose rock pinging against the undercarriage. Tall grass stood erect like wheat along both sides of the road, while an abandoned industrial building loomed up ahead at the bank of the river. He swung the truck to the right, along the railroad tracks and an overgrown cluster of bushes, as the sun slipped silently behind the cliffs, hushing the river valley, except for the crickets which noisily chirped their anticipation of dusk.

The man got out of the truck, came around to my side, opened the door, then picked me up underneath my armpits and set me down on the gravel. The smell of dead fish clung to the humid air. He took my hand and directed me to the crumbling cement wall holding the earth against the river. We stood there for a minute, neither of us saying anything, watching the river laze along. The silence filled me with unease, and I nervously watched bits of leaves and foam and an occasional piece of river wood drift by.

We explored the abandoned building, the part that was open to the elements, and I heaved chunks of collapsed concrete into the river. They kerplunked as the water swallowed them whole. Everything was in a state of decay. Eventually, we grew bored with kicking up sand and dust into the twilight air, and headed back toward the truck.

The man opened my door, hesitated for a moment, then said, “I should check you for wood ticks,” like an afterthought.

He turned my little body to face away from him toward the train tracks, and, reaching around me, undid my belt, unbuttoned and unzipped my pants, then pulled them down around my ankles. He slid his big hand down the front of my underwear and felt around. His fingers stung like ice cubes and the chilly air bit at my eyes.

The calloused hand reached around to my bottom, and I could feel his breath, hot on the back of my neck. It was putrid, like he’d not brushed his teeth in weeks. I stood frozen in place, afraid to move even an inch. His breath coupled with the smell of rotting fish made my stomach lurch in violent somersaults.

“Can we go home now?” I asked.

My voice was tiny, but it startled him. He quickly pulled his hand out of my underwear and stepped away from me, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time, like he didn’t know if I was a human or a dog or a cricket.

He cleared his throat as he dragged his feet against the rock.

“Yep, you bet. There are no wood ticks on ya, that’s for sure. Yep, you’re in the clear, and Clifton is probably back home by now, anyhow…”

“I don’t want to play with Clifton anymore,” I said as I pulled up my pants.

I gazed out the window as the rocky cliff-face whizzed past, feeling tired and confused and spooked because I didn’t know what we had been doing by the river, and I didn’t like the feeling of what had just happened, even though I didn’t really know what had happened. He’d said he needed to check me for wood ticks, but something about the way he did it felt wrong.

I wondered what would happen if I flung the truck door open and jumped. If I could tuck myself into a ball quickly enough in mid-air before landing in the gravel along the side of the road, and roll safely into the dogwood, maybe I could disappear into the burning bush forever?

#

I threw the NERF gun in the garbage can behind the garage before I went into the house. I never wanted to see it again. Never even took it out of the box. I felt silly for wanting it so badly in the first place, plus the thought of telling Mom how I’d gotten it made me feel dirty and guilty.

I never saw the man again after that day. It was as if he’d vanished, or—and I desperately wished this to be true—maybe he’d never existed at all. But either way, Mom was so wrapped up in her own battle for survival, I don’t think she would have noticed if he’d been sitting on our back steps waiting there for me every day for the rest of my life.

Matt Rydeen is an LGBT author, a member of the Loft Literary Center, and has spoken excerpts from his upcoming debut memoir, Cherry Lane, at Toastmasters International. He is passionate about partnering with organizations fighting to end domestic violence as well as the stigma of mental illness, and works to champion change by providing a personal account of how easy it is to fall through the cracks, and to raise awareness that the system, although designed to help, still fails many abuse sufferers that go unnoticed. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can learn more about his life and thoughts at http://www.mattrydeen.com.

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Self-Portrait, as a Watercourse

Not a teacher, not
married, twenty years ago
—was I this person
I am now? At Mass
in those days, the Creed’s words
filled my mouth
and like parakeets
flew happily out.
My heart was in it.
In those days, I climbed
the long steps of the college quad
in night’s thinnest hours
with the woman I spoke with
every single day and who loved me,
I’m sure, in her own way.
I proposed. Within a year,
we both wept
then exchanged no words
for more than a decade.
Even the skin of the body
I call mine, liver cells,
blood cells that Sherpa oxygen
from lung to muscle have all gone
and been replaced.
I am a river
flowing through myself.
What did I know
from books about Hiroshima?
The knowing-that-comes
from standing, damp
and close, waiting
for a streetcar
on the humid stop
then herding on board
to sit across from Sora-sensei
explaining to a third-grader
that this densha
—the very rattling
streetcar we swayed inside—
rode on
through those atomic
August days—
that knowing only came later
to a man becoming me.
I am a creek-feeding
runnel, dry for weeks,
and the cycle of my life
is the cycle of one year.
Aging is expansiveness-
in-flow, crystallizing
as self reaches
beyond self
beyond who I am
so that 20 years on,
at the age my father
coughed against his cancer,
when I can no longer
call myself a teacher,
what prayers, what pills,
what gratitude,
will be my companions,
enlivening the man
I cannot meet.

Edward A. Dougherty is on sabbatical from teaching at Corning Community College to research the creative process and to write.

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