Wendy Wimmer

Skate Queen

When Mary Ellen’s left breast grew back on its own suddenly on Saturday during dinner break, that’s when we had confirmation that something weird was happening.

It was between shifts – a private Cub Scout party had just left but our Saturday Night Late Skate didn’t open for another two hours. “Wasted Skate” was our own little staff secret – two hours to kill and a 24 pack of Old Milwaukee because these days we weren’t likely to party after closing ‘er down and more likely to collapse a lung trying to hurdle the mop bucket like we used to twenty years back.

Mary Ellen’s mastectomy scar had been hurting something crazy all night, she’d said. I’d spied her from the DJ booth, touching the pack of Virginia Slims she carried in a jeweled leather pouch in her breast pocket as though the stiff cardboard was poking her scar. She had limped off the rink slowly, her whole left arm collapsed against her side. We were all pretty used to Mary Ellen disappearing from time to time, between the smoke breaks and her chemo panics, you just trusted she’d pop back before you missed her.

Vera had gone into the restroom to pee and caught Mary Ellen with her blouse open, not even in a stall. Mary Ellen was inspecting the scar that had taken residence where her nipple used to be. The angry red puckered monster was scabbed and weeping, even though it had been healed over for seven months. She told Vera that she figured there was nothing to do until the late skate was done, so she popped an Advil and then I happened to play a particularly lovely ELO flashback mega mix, which coaxed her back onto the rink. Then during the swelling of the Moog organ, Mary Ellen took a nasty spill in the back turn. She was usually a ballerina on her Riedell quads, so my first thought was that one of those little Cub Scout cocksuckers had left a lollipop stick on the rink surface. I rolled over to help her up and she reached into her blouse and pulled out her falsie, then felt up her reunited cancer-riddled titty.

Nothing made sense, but when you’re staring at a breast that defied all reasoning, you start adding up all the facts real quick. We all started comparing notes. It wasn’t just Mary Ellen’s prodigal breast. Vera pointed out that she was somehow gaining three pounds a shift, even though she’d cut back to 672 calories a day, a precise number because it consisted of three Kessler and Diet Cokes plus two dry pieces of toasted diet bread. Each of us had held onto the observation that our fingernails weren’t growing as fast as they used to… weren’t growing at all, actually. We’d all hoarded that secret shame, a piercing knowledge that our worst fears were finally coming home to roost, that all the years of abuse and pharmaceutical recreation and our bodies had finally called a time out. Turns out, after twenty, thirty years of taking care of the rink, that old rink had decided to return the favor.

Randy thought we were all full of shit, but then after five laps to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, he felt the memory of his bruised shin return just like he’d only just slammed the car door shut on it that second. The skin was a mean purple but after two more laps, the pain and the bruise were both gone. Then he fell to the ground, skates splayed out in front of him, bent his head and said Hail Marys until The Year of the Cat ended.

Time Passages by Al Stewart seemed to have the best effect, although anything by Fogleberg or Alan Parson’s Project worked good too. The BeeGees worked a little too well, if you know what I mean, made our eyes feel swimmy, like our brains were remapping the colors and state capitals. It might have been the disco ball — hanging there since the Rolla-Rena opened in 1972. Or it might have been the skates, an aggregation of forty years of foot sweat and popped blisters reaching critical mass, leaking back up through our soles. Or it might just have been the new formulation of the blue raspberry slushie that we were testing out, a blend of high fructose corn syrup, energy drink and enough blue flavoring to make it glow under the black lights.

Kyle made us stop every five minutes and measured the length of our hair and fingernails, and asked us a few questions that had no rhyme or reason. Did we need to go to the bathroom? Did we feel tingling in our extremities? What day was it? What year was it? What was three times four? How did you spell “shish kebob”? Randy didn’t know how to spell it but the fact that he consistently misspelled it was good enough for Kyle.

After an hour, Kyle had massed some data to form a few hypothesis: counterclockwise worked, and clockwise didn’t. The disco ball needed to be spinning, but the data was inconclusive whether the laser beams had any effect. There was some backfeed with more modern music, but heavy synths from the early 80s seemed to have the best return on our time investment. The rink was erasing anywhere between a day to a week every time you circled. Your body was getting younger, going back through time, anywhere from a week to a month in the spread of five minutes.

As soon as we put a calculation to it, we all shut up and started skating real fast.

My calves felt itchy, unused, a sense of growth in my spine. Somewhere in the last decade, I had gotten an inch shorter. Spine compression, my doc said, talking about the vitamins that were leeching out of my bloodstream, how my bones belonged to a man twice my age. Now I felt taller.

We all should have been winded from skating miles around the rink, but each lap felt like a new start, as though it erased the one before it and we were starting with a fresh day. Running around the rink without skates on didn’t seem to do anything. Kyle had a theory about spatial contact and rogue soundwaves that no one cared to listen to. I needed to do more laps. We all needed to. Time might have been running out for all we knew.

“We should close the rink.”

“Are oh eye!” Kyle tapped his data sheet with the tip of a chewed pen, as though we were paying attention.

“We can’t tell anyone else about this,” I said, pointedly staring at Randy who concentrated on tightening and retightening his laces. Randy was on probation already. He could get sent back to jail for even being near all these kids. We just made sure he was never alone with any of them.

“What are we going to tell the owner?” Vera’s buttons were straining – I hadn’t noticed that she’d been slowly losing weight over the last few years, but she looked healthier, had to have rolled back six months or more at that point.

“Asbestos mitigation,” Kyle said, squinting. The boy had a tick of some sort, and soft supple hips that reminded me of slow dancing. He held a pair of skates by the laces, the way you might hold a dead rat.

“Them kids,” Vera said, fiddling with her heart monitor wristwatch. “What’s it going to do to them? How many times does a kid skate around a rink? Twenty? Thirty?”

The implications were tough – losing twenty or thirty days was nothing for used up bodies like ours but kids, that was a different story. The potty training gone to hell, the forgotten ability to tie their own shoes. We all looked around and nodded, half thinking about the children, and not wanting to admit that we were also thinking about having more time on the rink. Or less time, if you think about it that way.

Vera was flipping through the events calendar. “Derby.”

The derby team practiced at the ‘rena every Saturday and Tuesday and could really rack up the rotations: A lot of strong lesbians who couldn’t even get on the team unless they could circle the rink 25 times in five minutes. They’d unage a year in a single practice session. They’d use up the rink and all that youth juice would be gone, quicker than snot.

Vera made us all do pinky swears, for the lack of a suitable bible. “For now,” we said, as though we’d make any other decision until the miracle of the rink stopped working. We made a sign off the clean side of a Dr. Pepper box:


Normally, you don’t think about how many times you do laps. If you do, you start to get a little dizzy, go all Camus about the futility of the situation.

Your laces on the right side start to get loose, from always turning against them. Normally I switch it up, do a little fancy footwork and skate backwards for a bit, but what if that turned the transdermal youthificationwhatever- it-was off? What if I sped up time instead of reversing it and my face melted off like the Nazis when they opened the Arc of the Covenant?

We had been so excited about the discovery that we didn’t notice that Mary Ellen still hadn’t come back from the bathroom after her breast reunited with its beautiful partner. I could see her through the little window in the DJ booth, whenever I’d go in to change the songs. She was standing out back behind the dumpster in her stocking feet, taking long drags off her cigarette, occasionally touching her left breast, feeling for the area where there had been a lump. Or still was a lump again. She had a slushie cup that she was using as an ashtray, the used butts collected in blue raspberry melt. I threw on the soundtrack to Xanadu. I could hear Kyle asking Randy if he thought the rink could be used for other means, philosophical questions. “Just bring a lady here for a friendly skate. She wouldn’t even feel it. She wouldn’t even need to know what was happening. The thing would just be gone. Just skated out of reality, are you feeling me? And then a brother would be off the hook and it wouldn’t be a sin. This is God’s way – this is an act of God, you get what I’m saying?” Randy was muttering and making negative sounds.

I rubbed my bicep. The skin didn’t feel as rubbery. When had it gotten rubbery? I hadn’t noticed, sometime over the last five years, apparently. Mary Ellen needed to get in on this, more than any of us. I leaned my head out the backdoor, feeling the rise of OLJ’s sweet vocals pulling me to skate.

“You coming in and knocking down some laps?” I was careful to not let my skates hit the pavement, my front wheels locked over the doorlock. The owner was insane about the chastity of the skate floor: We swore she could spot street grit through sixth sense but I also didn’t want to impact the sanctity of the connection between the skates and the unending oval time rift that we were freestyling on.

“Diet Coke. Tasted like dirt or needles for so long after the chemo. It just started tasting right a few weeks ago.” Her hand went to touch her left breast but then stopped in midair.

“The tum– lumps are back?” As easy as it was to believe that roller-skating had regrown tissue.

The question loitered between us in the alley. If you didn’t know better, you’d never believe she was the girl in the oxidized photos from the 80s that still hung in the rink locker room. Somewhere along the way, her forehead had cast a long divot between her eyebrows and a constellation of pock marks on her chin and cheek from god only knows what. A feather of a scar curved down from the corner of her lip, so soft and light it seemed that it was a missed spot of lipstick – Mary Ellen had taken a headfirst dive off a boyfriend’s Harley about a decade back. She probably should have gotten stitches, she figured, but the boyfriend had been drinking and doing a little pharmaceutical, so they didn’t dare go into the ER. Then he dumped her a month later, saying that he lost his boner when he looked at her ruined face.

And now I’d get to see the lady unspool, undo the decline of the 10’s and the pessimism of the 90’s. Roll back through the hip hop years, slide into the grunge and then coast into synth pop looking fine in her Levis. I’d only been nine or ten when I first started coming to the rink but Mary Ellen’s clipped business voice as she dished out your skates, followed by her amazing sideways and trick footwork during the slow periods, I cursed our age difference and vowed to marry her someday. Of course, somehow we never managed – Back then I’d practiced my tricks and jumps, and then came the war and the sand and put the rink behind me. When I was working my way off the needles, during the worst of the anhedonia, I’d get a beautiful vision of her swishing in through the brain fog, a blur of satin tight pants and lip-gloss. Had to look her up once I made it past the night sweats and ended up with a job that was meant to last me for a while. That was over a decade ago. Sometimes it’s too easy being easy.

A shout erupted from the rink, over the sweet mellow licks of Olivia Newton-John’s vocal Xanax. I skated back over the carpeted rink hump to the center, where Kyle was curled into a fetal position, as though gut punched. Randy and Vera hovered over him nervously.

Kyle struggled to his knees and then dry heaved onto the rink, letting one sinew of spit slowly slide towards the floor and then had the grace to catch it with his hand and wipe it on his pants. He motioned for a pull up and we all stood in awkward quiet, and looked at Randy, who was the lowest on our pecking order, the one who knew that he’d be kicked out if he made himself even a tiny pain in the ass. Randy obliged and then stuck his hands in the front pockets of his Levis for a discrete wipe.

“Don’t skate too close to the epicenter,” Kyle finally said. “It really fucking sucks.”

His eyebrows were completely gone, and his hair had gone all short and bristly. He limped back to the side, picked up his reporters notebook and fell onto the nearest bench. Above us, the disco ball was an unblinking eye.

Dancing Queen queued automatically, as though the ancient MP3 shuffler was making an editorial comment, urging us to continue to circle circle circle. Vera squealed in approval of the song selection and shoved off, hugging the wall. Her pale doughy stomach peeped out where her shirt had popped a button. Judging by the size of her ass, she had to be coasting back into the winter months of three years ago, when she’d been her heaviest. She skated with a need to feel her jeans get looser; to know that she was skating closer and closer to some version of herself that loved her thighs.

Mary Ellen had come back in and was carrying her skates back over to the bench. I watched her for a minute to see if she was going to put them back on, but it seemed like she wasn’t sure either.


“Hey.” Her face had gone slack and sallow, her eyes bright. A few times, Randy mentioned that he thought Mary Ellen was tweaked. She had never seemed that way to me. Now a sweetness clung to her, like burnt cinnamon and old hair spray. We always thought the crack pipes we’d found in the back alley were from the hobos that liked to dig through the rink’s garbage for half-eaten SuperRopes. Maybe they weren’t.

Randy skated past us and shouted “Woo!” as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” automatically played. It was Randy’s theme song. He got a little too excited about heavy innuendo music and songs usually made us uncomfortable but in my quest for early 80’s music, I had forgotten to remove it from the playlist. Maybe we were all involved in some kind of collective acid trip. Maybe there was a mold in the skate rink, the one that made the girls in Salem all get tried as witches. Did they think they were getting younger? Did they imagine that body parts grew back on their own?

“Eben!” shouted Vera across the rink. “No Madonna! Madonna doesn’t work!” She had ditched her blouse and was now wearing just her bra, her body glistening with sweat. Randy was taking in the sights, weaving behind her like a mako shark behind a seal.

Kyle’s entire skull seeming to glow under its skin. I pushed off the wall with enough force to ruffle the Coke advertisements stuck to the side. For lack of anything better to do, I hit the rink, being careful to take it along the edges, getting no more than a stride inside the invisible line. Lava! Hot lava! A child’s voice played in my head. Going back a day at a time seemed a safe rate. Best not to screw with the natural order too much. Dabbling, was what we were doing. Dabbling. Nothing serious. Nothing like Mary Ellen’s consequences.

What you forget to think about is the logistics of the situation. You couldn’t think about it, you’d want it too badly. Instead you think about the hairline you had when you were seventeen, you think about the way you could stroke off forty times a day and only because you had to sleep and go to school during the rest of the time. You think about how each of your coworkers were skating back days they already spent inside this former fall-out shelter, spinning hot dogs on heated spindles and handing out skeeball tickets to 8-year-olds. You think about how you could do things over — if you could go back again — you could ask Mary Ellen for a date. And then she wouldn’t ever have to date criminals and assholes and take up smoking and get cancer and a ruined face and a mouth that had formed a perpetual frown over time, like tire ruts in a gravel driveway. Enough time and you could go to college with the incoming freshmen, get a real degree and not some late-night-television infomercial certificate of technology that didn’t mean nothing when you actually tried to get a job somewhere that needed a resume instead of a paper application.

Mary Ellen had her purse on her shoulder and was clipping her lighter to her jeweled leather cigarette pouch, the conclusive movement that signaled the end of every shift since I’d known her.

“You’re not going to skate no more?” I shouted over The Hollies The Air That I Breathe.

She shook her head and smashed her lips together, then bumped the door open with her butt and for a moment, she was cast in shadow, backlit by the golden cast of an orange sunset. She paused again and I skated over the carpet, reaching to steady myself at the cashier’s table. The front wheel of my skate kissed the entryway but she had already walked backwards into the parking lot.

Wendy Wimmer teaches journalism and advertising at Lakeland University and also is an editor at VentureBeat. Her fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse, Per Contra, Blackbird, Waxwing, and more. She is an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse and once touched Andre the Giant’s arm. It was amazing. She’s on Twitter sporadically @wendywimmer and even less frequently at wendywimmer.com.

Tariq Shah

the yellow belly

Arriving home from the office, Lester nearly pancaked him—a wounded lark, cornered in his apartment building’s doorway.

A fledgling. It couldn’t fly. The lark would spring into the air, flapping, then crashing, would scurry about the brownstone steps in a zany figure-eight. Dumbfounded, he glanced around for additional eyewitnesses. Lester considered.

A visceral urge to near dueled with fears of getting pecked. It all struck him as vaguely cosmic. An omen, perhaps. A wash of paranoia– someone could be watching. Anything was possible.                                            

Still, he itched to dispel it all as a wild fluke, brought to bear by simple, dizzying thirst. The impulses clashed, jammed him up, left him tingling like a tuning fork.

How strange. Just moments earlier he’d been stomping down the street, livid with fantasies of reprisal, of tattooing those transgressions (of which they were guilty beyond all doubt) onto the skin of every last one of those lawyer pricks for whom he slaved. It had been a trying day at work.

All the more puzzling– that fury, wiped clean by a stupid little bird, as if the wrath that poisoned Lester’s blood had only been disappearing ink.

The lark was lint blue. Of a size akin to a balled-up sock, stuck to toothpicks. Lester couldn’t snuff his smile. He searched for others once more.

Though he could not spot any blood, though nothing appeared broken, it was obvious the thing had been molested pretty badly, with its feathering mussed and quilled. Like it had just been given The Chair.

What to do. Robins in the pin oak stoked a blood feud with larks in the cherry.

Lester texted the news to Lou, who was the bright, tricky girl he drank with on weekends, whose pliant affection for Lester sometimes stumped him, and reinforced suspicions he was a dimwit.

Lou:           🙁
                  U just get home?

Lester:       Almost.  Been keeping this one ‘lil
                  birdie company.     


                 :oh no…am I a sap?!

                 :am I turning into a big old
                 gross lonely old person??

Lou:          been known to happen 
                  even to the best of us

                 :gasp!   what if someone
                 sees you!?        

Lester looked around a third time. The coast seemed clear.

Physical contact felt rash, as a course of action. Old conventional wisdom, from who-knows-where, floated up into Lester’s mind: Keep your Hands to Yourself.

He admired the lark’s anatomical particulars— that long thin bill, downturned like a barrette, lending a permanent appearance of woe, as much as any naughty child’s sorry, bulging lower lip. Heaving breaths. Hyper, quizzical looks swiveling after a car door’s bang. Black nails, like tiny thorns of onyx, clawing up the door’s glass.

Its position prevented entry into the vestibule, and the lark seemed in no hurry to flee. Lester grumbled. Not yet broken-in, his new boots chewed his feet, and his posture had been gradually buckling from his shoulder bag since the afternoon. But here was this puny little pipsqueak, pretty much screwed, while the robins in the birch at the sidewalk jeered, or, like some raucous beer garden in the branches, made merry.

Lou sent the number for animal control. Her boundless capacity to nurture the hurt and downtrodden being one such quality it annoyed Lester to repeatedly, if fleetingly, realize he cherished.

It seemed a bit of a fuss. Pulled-heartstrings aside, calling animal control sounded drastic, an unnecessary escalation, a bit overboard, as-yet uncalled-for, to have them dispatch some coveralled pawn in a van with a cage or something–heavy-duty rawhide gloves, a hooked, aluminum pole–just to handle and remove a trembling fuzz ball that would croak anyway. Kind of an ordeal. Envisioning the giant drag shaping up, like a rogue wave, Lester whimpered, wished he’d never blabbed about it to Lou. It was unfair—he had been trying so hard of late to be the very best Lester he could be.

Passersby, homeward-bound from the day’s work themselves. Lester’s attempts at grabbing their attention, flagging them down, to alert them of this pitiful discovery of his, all failed. They were half-hearted. That his sense of wonder toward the animal, this unfolding dilemma, which locked his legs would even slow, let alone break their strides seemed dubious. Amid the fall of a honeyblue dusk, they wore sunglasses to blunt the groovy warmth of color and headphones like talismans to ward off the world’s relentless intrusions. They would just laugh. Lester couldn’t really blame them.

Or, worse yet, they would gush with sympathy. Revivified by this cute baby critter’s emergency, they would actually halt, at which time he would have no choice but to make small talk. Shoot the breeze. Dying fledgling banter. Involve them. Lester shuddered. Fiddled with his phone. The urgency he wished to telegraph proved as solid as a soap bubble. Lester watched them. They feigned blindness. The fellow with the spade, that brittle chick in the smock, those luck-lorn suits, knifing past strollers—they don’t give a damn, he was sure. Lester balked in a shy panic. Had the lark cowered in any other door, neither would he.

And so they passed, would never know. Lester quit. There he was.

He took a seat on the building steps. “Looks like our back’s against the wall,” he murmured. His street began to calm, as if everybody verged on dozing off. Hi, Hi, he heard the birds sing.

A brief summer idle, in the wake of gridlock, during which a couple clear thoughts might surface.

-A lull, welcome as open seas.


“Hello, fellow clerk,” he remembered Andre calling to him one time, with a casual, two-finger salute.

Lester couldn’t recall the exact occasion. There’d been a promotion. Or an estrangement. A lesser holiday, of some variety. A total bummer. Along with an hourly wage came complimentary grievances earned at the same rate, of a kind only stiff cocktails cured.

By week’s end, the grind and the strain and all the nauseating flattery amounted to catastrophic injury, qualifying them, in their estimate, for exemption from any and all obligations to public decency and moral restraint, as specified under universal guidelines for contractual clauses delineating Acts of God. Put simply, the two would no longer be held responsible for anything.

At any rate, Andre had dreamt up some common cause for a drink and they wound up having very many. As a habitat, Saint Marks Place was tailor-made to beings so newly-released to the wild.

Liquor slackened those crooked Windsor knots. Everything was beautiful. A few bathroom trips for key bumps were par for course, and amplified the reach and scope of their natural facilities, the breadth of their good character. Consequently, when a shoeless crust punk—like the lone survivor of a dirty bomb— shuffled by as they stood outside, splitting a smoke, Lester felt no need to bite his tongue.

 “Whoa whoa whoa…where are your shoes, man?”

It was New York. It was summer. But come on.

The punk sighed, and explained they’d been stolen by some guy, along with the rest of his stuff. Lester was outraged. Andre was aghast. They were feeling really great.

“I’m offended!” Lester cried, and on the spot, judged that smelly chap’s situation just plain unacceptable. An America in which a crust punk’s belongings–sneakers and all!–could be so nonchalantly burgled was an America in which Lester would play no part. As such, he resolved to immediately retrieve them, and return them at once to the mopey, barefoot lad with the lacquered eyes and tranquilized jaw, whose name, they learned, was Norman.

Andre just gave them a blank face, though Lester didn’t flinch: “We’ve been given a mission.” Between them dangled a tacit moment of truth. “Seeing as the park’s only half a block away…” Andre conceded. On the steps then, Lester remembered how he began to dance, to soft shoe, right there in the street.

Gung ho. Shadowing Norman to the fenced perimeter of Thompson Square Park, the geeked duo peered through leafage and a night gloom thicker than a thunderhead. Norman pointed out a chubby, shaggy slob, loitering amid a loose circle of –in Lester lingo– ‘goofy-looking knobs,’ exciting a slobbering pit bull leashed round the fatso’s forearm. It was tiger-striped and joyously mauling a galosh, though it seemed half-blind, bellowing out hoarse barks at impostors that weren’t there.

Some distance behind them, in their makeshift camp: a largesse of litter and backpacking junk.

Andre gulped.


“That’s the motherfucker,” he whispered.

In the daylight, Lester snickered at the flashbacking words, as somewhere beyond view a Mr. Softee truck jangled off Pop Goes the Weasel, on and on and out of time, as if some ghost town saloon’s player piano. Both Lester and the lark turned to lend their ears, keeping hush, until the player’s last notes wafted through once more, and without ceremony, gave up on music for good.

It was quieter below the trees. Weirdly drastic. The canopy broke the massive thumps of the bar’s subwoofer into shards that gave the leaves a buzz, much like the street lights gobbled up by the landscape, but Lester found he’d developed a kind of nocturnal eyesight brought forth by the reflective, late evening dew, a precision of hearing cranked by some electro charge sequestered in the pent air, the cloaked, measured prowl of a stoned, drunk leopard. Operating under the assumption the chunky ringleader was imaginary, Lester gestured to a maroon hiking pack and asked, “Is this one the one?”

In a cracked voice Norm warbled, “Naw, it’s the b-burgundy…”  

Any threat that mongrel posed only dawned on him after the fact. The damage it could do. The risk they ran, of screwdrivers, wine bottles, revolvers to the temple. The prospect of it all being a ruse, a death trap, of mean kids’ cruel kicks being a real thing that actually happened to regulars and transplants alike, only dawned on Lester after the fact, only after he entered those dim grounds, hefted Norm’s backpack, turned heel, lugged it, as if claiming baggage from some rickety airport carousel into lit space, without so much as a cursory over-the-shoulder peek, with a bland face, guided by a distant taxi’s orange tilted headlights, which he mistook for some lysergic double-vision of the moon.

Lester had stopped there, tingling then, too. Altogether different, though, from that brought on by this doorstep lark.

Norm barely thanked them, rushing instead to inventory his possessions. They didn’t mind. Andre and Lester were content to bathe in the afterglow of their virtuous deed. Norm, with unique care, removed a shoebox and placed it on the sidewalk. Lifting the lid, he revealed a pigeon.

Lester, this time, bell-rung and listing from vibrations along a heavier frequency.

“Now you guys get why I was flipping out,” Norm explained, sprinkling droplets of water onto the pigeon’s head, hopeful a few would enter its beak, but they just wicked off its plumage, and anyway it was irrelevant—a basic fact to which poor Norm was totally oblivious—the pigeon was completely dead.


A squad car sharking up the block spooked away the memory. Lester scooted into the last few shavings of sun. He yawned, cracked his back. The lark slanted his head toward him as if to say, Aren’t you going to do something?

But Lester knew what he would do. Everyone knows the outcome coming. Let’s not kid ourselves. He saw it, gaped, and bowed towards it. Put on knockoff Ray Bans.

As if to say, That’s that?

Weaving a nest from a tree-snagged plastic, the robins took no heed of what transpired beneath them, while the larks bickered amongst themselves. Bird brained. It finally clicked.

Lester sat tight on the steps and guarded the lark a little longer. It would chirp, at a dwindling pitch, chew-toy squeaks, every now and again. He made a pivot of focus, back to those blithe pedestrians, whom he supposed had better things to do, and probably did, in their own little cosmos.

Andre and Lester, edging away from Norm while he propped up the limp bird, at an angle conducive to swallowing, then making their measured retreat, making a toast, obliterating from mind that macabre scene with the power of a couple Irish car bombs. In complete agreement their little recon sortie’s final twist warranted exclusion from subsequent tellings. Being just a wrinkle. They’d won the day. That was enough. How many people get mugged there every year? I don’t know. Dozens at least. That junkyard dog was definitely rabid. Everyone knows to never go into Tompkins Square after nightfall. Let’s be honest.

“That went rather well. Creepy little curveball at the end there,” Andre cackled, dusting off his sleeves. We are champs, they’d roared. Looking back, Lester again located the fat vagabond in the dark. He was laughing too. This was a story of truth, justice, and the American way, with a happy ending, a conclusion that help is just round the corner. It was settled.

A simple question of when to stop talking.

The lark, plopping down on the concrete, became a lump of gasping down. He named it Clark.

Norman had a sweetheart. Believe it or not. Wanda, or something. It was she who’d vainly watered the clearly-deceased pigeon. Come to think of it.

Furthermore, and on the other hand, one should never invade the personal territory of any beast, feral or otherwise. That goes double for those internally bleeding.

Additionally, no sudden movements, evidently. Just trouble all around.

Lester began to hold his breath. His neighbor, Trish, happened to return home then, walking her ten-speed, the neighbor whose name, even after three years, Lester had yet to speak aloud, though she spoke his, which never bothered him for more than a handful of seconds, but during that handful of seconds, made him as remote as a cave diver.

It all rendered Lester seasick–the relentless seesaw of the past, through which he steered, rudderless and blinded by all that raw, icky clarity. That was always the problem with peace and quiet. Everything got so clear.

 “Some day, huh,” He murmured to himself, rankled when the words, unacknowledged, caught in the air, dispersed like seeds.

Clark the Lark was still. Lester eased back onto his feet. He crept in, searching for signs of life, speculating what the twit lawyers would think, repeating, in a gently diminishing fade, “And we’re relaxing….we’re relaxing…”

In all honesty Lester had no inkling whether Clark was a lark. Hadn’t the faintest idea what any bird actually looked like at all.

Pit bulls make the most loving companions. It so happens. Go look it up.

He remembered the open sea can, in fact, be quite awful.

  Lou then, from nowhere:

          :are u really, really scared??

          :whatcha  fraid of
          fraidy cat?

          :just hang on – here I come to save the day!

Can, in fact, be rather dangerous.

Don’t look down, whatever you do. Horrifyingly immense, and mesmerizing, that profound abyss. An inch of plank parting endless sky from the sea’s countless tongues.

Imagine what awaits, down below.

Imagine those depths.

Tariq Shah is a writer living in New York, and a student in the St. Joseph’s College Writers Foundry MFA program. His chapbook, ‘a sedge of bitterns,’ was a finalist for the 2015 No, Dear / Small Anchor Press chapbook contest. He was born and raised in Illinois, and has works appearing or forthcoming in Gravel, King Kong Magazine, Denver Syntax, TASTY Magazine, BlazeVox, and other publications

Petra Kuppers

The Wheelchair Ramp

Joshi wheeled over rough wood. She reached down, felt the residual warmth of early fall in the grain. She pulled herself further along by grasping the metal railing. Ice cold sweet on her fingers. She pushed, and her wheels glided upward. She was on a wide ramp, an art project erected in this condemned block of wooden homes and churches, a Latino neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Her wheelchair reached the ramp’s apex, and its flow changed, a freewheeling moment of suspension unaided by her fingers. She laughed, roared along the open platform, wind in her black hair.

She climbed a last segment, and centered herself in the middle of the keep, snug and upright in her wheelchair’s seat, sides clasped by bright plastic. This last bit of the ramp led nowhere. It was suspended over empty ground, creeping alongside the old wooden building but extending beyond it. From here, she could look through the ramp’s metal railing to survey the land around her: empty buildings, shaped by age, now reshaped by installation artists. This was a fortuitous site to meet her blind date. Derelict elements artfully stripped and patched, now combined into rhythmic patterns of hope. Anything could happen here. New sensations could reach out of gaps and fissures. She checked her bright red watch. One minute to go.

Joshi looked away from the gently ticking watch. She checked the alignment of her booties on the footrest. Adjusted her scarf, fluffed her thick hair. Tugged the leather jacket tight around her torso. She looked sharp, she knew, sartorially savvy graduate student playing with the archetypes of power and sex. No oriental kitten here in red roar lipstick.

A number of people had stepped onto the platform just beneath her, along the first long incline. Would her date be among them? She saw two middle-aged women, sandaled, sweaters. No way. One lonely man with a camera, arranging shots of the crisscrossing wood and metal, crouching and skipping. Unlikely. A family: man, woman, two blonde kids tiredly drooping in their parents’ clutch. And there she was. Yes. She was bound to be her blind date, yes please.

A large woman, white like so many of the visitors here around art-city, but marked with tribal signs Joshi could decode: a large tattoo in her neckline, single color red linen top under bright fleece jacket. Black leggings with pleather inserts. Voluptuous lines.

Joshi’s hands twitched just looking. She waved. The woman waved back, not fazed at all, no double take visible. Joshi had identified herself as a wheelchair-user and a grad student, had given that much at least, before putting her lot into the electronic hat of the blind date lottery. She had no need to see pity blossom in anybody’s eyes, old stories that were not hers draped around her by foreign minds. This woman looked like she could deal. Joshi let out a deep breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

The woman’s boots clomped up the ramp to the aerie. Joshi felt the rhythm of the woman’s legs in her seat, the ship-like motion of wood’s give, translated into sensitive sit bones. She watched the vision in red and black climb to her, leaning into the grade.

And there Joshi was, her hands reaching out from the house that the twister ate, in Oklahoma, so many summers ago. That day, she had been the girl cut by the edge, left alone and crying. Her parents, who had made their trek to Vietnamese orphan homes, and who had held out their sweet lined hands, now lay crushed beneath metal spikes and rafters. Joshi’s teenage hands climbed and climbed, spiders concentrating on scratching, sound-making, forward motion. That night, Joshi had lost her legs to metal and wood, to the crunch of ceilings coming down like pistons. She had lost feet, calves, knees, thighs. Had lost ghosts of her white family. Had gained hardware, rubber, screws, new knobs and gears.

 The spider child had crawled, mewled, protested and rallied, till the ceiling burst open when the rescue crew found her. She had reached, and hands had come down past lathe and plaster, had grasped, pulled, and blankets, fluids, time, time, more time. White time. Red time. Hospital time.

Her favorite nurse, LeighAnn, warm voice and mother song, telling her stories of smoking weed on the back of corvettes at Wayne State tailgate parties, of going out with football stars, stories of nightblack yards and velvet skin.

On the ramp, Joshi blinked, focused on the wetness of rusty water on her hand, the drizzle on her neck, like her therapist had taught her. Come back, girl. Shh, girl. Here, girl.

She twisted her wheels against one another, a ballet in place, a racehorse nibbling at the stable door. The woman, her blind date, was coming nearer, and Joshi liked the dark hair, the dark eyes, the carefully shaped eyebrows. The bosom firm, encased, the bow of a boat under the red fabric, parting the mists. Joshi smiled now, made sure to keep herself open, and in the now. But then, for one second, she looked beyond the approaching woman, and her eyes climbed up the exposed sinews of the condemned house skeletons around her, climbed their lathe layers one by one, a mathematics of escape.

The twister had held the house for a short time in its eye, in its spiral coil. Joshi saw the tentacle of bricks and wood hovering above her, every single one heavy enough to crush her, to end her probing gaze. The bricks had spun on in their complex dance, energies rushing out and up. The tornado’s snout had sucked in chairs and wardrobes, splintering wood into eye-piercing shards. The circle hole in the sky had sucked, and sucked, and she had been horizontal for a while, her hands entwined in the pipes of the kitchen sink, till the eyes closed, and the column collapsed over her pelvis.

Her blind date. She had shifted space, was now here, like the girl in Ringu, jump cut.

“Hello. Joshi?”

A melodious voice asked, reminding her of LeighAnn, of painkillers, of laughter, of boys, of cars on wet fall nights in the drive-in. Joshi nodded, her larynx dry and closed tightly shut. The woman opposite her seemed to know.

“I am Lorna. Nice to meet you. What a great place for a date!”

Joshi had nodded, eyes pleading, wide, her hands fluttering like hummingbirds at her side. Her voice was gone, gone, time split.

Lorna shimmered deep inside herself, felt her fascia unclasping. Long sheets of fiber reached into her muscles, membranes connected sectors of pulsing tissue. She was walking, stopping, standing. Her feet heaved up, down, in a rhythm that was distinctly her own, slight hitch here, the self-consciousness of successful physical therapy.

The slight incline of the ramp had put extra pressure on her calves, as her figure bent into the lean. She felt the blood pulsing there, too. Every step massaged her muscles from inside. Blood beat. Lymph moved. Her juices, coursing. She let her fingers trail along the rough railing. Cool steel. The tiny dimples of beginning rust offered texture.

Every sensation was intense, new, still full of the excitement of reconnecting nerves. Before she lost herself in her body’s spectacular alignment, though, she looked up, at the young woman in the intricate wheelchair, perched high up on the top ledge of the ramp. Lorna liked the wheelchair’s clean geometry, its metal lines and steel origami. She also liked what she saw of the young woman: dark leather, tight posture, fingers on the wheel’s rim. A black mane cascading over the black leather.

A motorcycle fantasy flitted over Lorna’s memory screen. She had always liked the fast ones, wheels and dust.

She took the next step, upward. The wood under her feet showed the memory of trees, the branch holes and contours of age rings. The tree had grown for a long time, before being hewn down and planed into wide sheets.

Lorna flashed back to her own wood memory, to the moment when her blood stained and watered moon canals, whorls of ancient grain preserved in man-made stone. It had been concrete that crushed her. Concrete pressed between wooden plates, imprinted with the growths and patterns of a tree’s fingerprint.

In the blink of an eye, Lorna was back between the pancaked layers of a grey, bare New Zealand corridor. It had happened on her way to the swimming pool in Christchurch. The smell of chlorine in her nose. The moist warmth of the heated rooms heavy, condensing on her glasses. She had walked through a modernist ode to progress and efficiency, grey, flat, raw material brutal and real all around her. She couldn’t wait to escape into the weightlessness of the water.

Then it had happened, quick and slow at the same time, in a dizzying heave. The corridor wall had shifted toward her, jump cut, both left and right, converging on her. The wood-patterned concrete had come nearer, ever nearer, to the polyester of her swimming suit, to her painted toes, to her outstretched hands, closing in with every heave and tremor of the earth. Smaller chunks had arrived first, had pressed first cool and moist, then harder, into her limbs. Their sharp edges had ground their own imprints into her yielding flesh. Eventually, her skin had split.

Lorna rarely had flashbacks, and this wasn’t quite one, either. There was no panic, no sense of doom or hopelessness. She walked on the ramp, anchored. She had escaped that pool hallway, had been pulled from the earthquake rubble, after many hours staring at the ever encroaching cold grey fake concrete wood. Fake. Concrete. Wood.

That had been a long time ago. It was past. But here were the patterns anew beneath her feet, real wood, for certain, in its own raw authenticity. There was this kinesthetic, inward feeling of disorientation, the slight pull of unusual pressure on the backs of her legs. She tried to think about new lovers, not about old blood in chlorine water. Lorna was ok. She was ok.

No. She wasn’t. No. But she had tools. She breathed. Stopped the ascent. Assembled her tools. There, in a clock’s tick, as she wasn’t ok, she fled to the warmth of the therapy pool, on her back, no weight on or in her, floating, floating. Open. Breathe. Feel the water.

The soft rain on her face helped. It cooled her. Lorna was fine, just fine. She stepped forward again, the moment of hesitation gone, conquered.

Ahead was Joshi. Ahead was a new person to explore. Joshi’s wheelchair fascinated Lorna, and she longed to explore its contours with her hands, on someone else’s body, a body molded by fissures and angles of metal and plastic. She longed to feel the plastic seat radiating a flesh bottom’s heat.

That’s why she had entered the date lottery – to meet a wheelchair-using woman, to see how life could go on, how wholeness could take on new meanings. She had earned her strange desires. And she would confess, eventually, once the fantasy liaison became more than a fetish meeting, if and when this young woman reached deeper inside her. Eventually.

Her fingers were again on the railing. They followed her momentum, took direction from steel’s flowing melt. Upward.

“I love installation art.”

Lorna did, she really did. She was happy to say it out loud. She wanted to make this beautiful creature in front of her understand. Lorna loved installations, their offerings to her body. She travelled far and wide to see the kind of installations that offered a new home to a body chopped up, mediated, transformed. Lorna wanted to inhabit. To find the angular walls of home. To run from the walls. To touch and lick and squish herself close.

She spoke again, as the young woman in front of her was silent, but attentive.

“I love it. I am so glad you chose this site. Thank you.”

Joshi still couldn’t speak, but her face was open, upward, glowing. The woman called Lorna seemed to see her.

The woman called Lorna knelt down, right there, on the wet wood of the ramp, out over the street. She knelt, and it was as if a wave of red and black rolled over the ramp, surrounded Joshi, warm and close, disorienting.

“It’s ok. I am an architect. I am a surgeon. I am a poet. I am a dreamer.”

Had she really said that? Had she? Joshi blinked, saliva flowing gently, slowly, a new river deep inside. In front of her, Lorna blinked, gently, held herself at bay, hovering. A dream woman. Was she here? She had dark eyes, lashes like iron posts, an offering of sanctuary. Joshi tried to speak, couldn’t, felt for her parents’ love, couldn’t, thought of the maze of masonry and kitchen pipes, and the dancing, dancing bricks.

In front of her, Lorna’s hands sunk into the wood of the ramp. Joshi saw Lorna’s fingernails lengthen, grow lines and whorls. Hands folded right into the wood grain. Now she knew what to do, how to respond to the invitation. Joshi pulled forward, her wheelchair wheels, sensitive and light, curling into Lorna’s palm. They fit as if into grooves. Joshi felt her pelvis widen, sink, a metal filigree that began to unclasp from the bottom of her wheelchair seat. The pelvis metals drilled down, wings and cantilevers, angles. Lorna’s head reached up, her throat’s tender underside open and warm. Joshi leaned in, her lips finding the warm rosy skin ahead of her. Lorna’s head slowly came down, her dark hair cascading into dark dogwood twigs. Their mouths met. Copper. A tiny clash of enamel.

Metal and wood, they shifted into their puzzle form, clicking into place. They molded, like a ship’s plank bowed over steam. Curve and angular containment. The rain started, and the ramp’s planks steamed into mist.

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (Spuyten Duyvil: 2016). Her stories have appeared in Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, Future Fire, Capricious and Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Her first fiction podcast, Ice Bar, is forthcoming with PodCastle. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective. She lives in Ypsilanti with her poet partner and collaborator, Stephanie Heit. petrakuppersfiction.wordpress.com

Hadley Moore

Not Dead Yet

It had been ten years of coincidences, and now here was the worst: Dean’s second wife had the same kind of cancer his first wife had died from. It was a very common cancer, but still.

They had met in a support group, two surviving black spouses of white spouses dead from cancer. Dean tried to play down the coincidence of the group. Seventy percent of the reason anyone was there was to meet someone new.

They had also both gone to (separate) high school(s) in Philadelphia and taken circuitous life paths (entirely different in timing and stops, it was true) to land in Michigan. They both had a shellfish allergy. They had read Anna Karenina and War and Peace all the way through. Their hair, pre-graying, had been reddish. They each had two grown daughters.

“We both wear glasses!” Dean would interrupt, when this tiresome listing got started, usually by one of the daughters. “We both like peanut butter. We each have two legs. Our thumbs are opposable. Who cares! Not everything is interesting.”

His first wife’s name was Marie, and a stranger at a party once said to him, “Oh! I have a friend named Mary.”

“Yes,” he’d responded. “Everyone does.” He didn’t say, Her name is Marie.

If he had a life’s motto, this would be it: not everything is interesting.

Dean detected a bit of jostling over who, primarily, the new diagnosis was happening to. They all had grief cred. His own daughters hung back some, which was decent and fair, but they would have to witness their father’s grief a second time. That was no minor thing.

His step-daughters were about to be orphaned. They were forty-something, self-sufficient. They had their own children. Dean wasn’t sure whether having acquired a step-father as adults would mitigate the finality of orphanhood. Most likely not. They didn’t need him. They needed their mother. They needed their own father.

Of course, the one this was really happening to was his wife.

It was happening to him too, though. He didn’t want to compete with her, or with any of the daughters. But it was happening to him again, goddammit. Twice he had sat in a doctor’s office with a woman he loved to hear a too-young white oncologist foretell her end. This second time his initial response had been, eloquently he thought, “Fuck.”

The doctor had nodded, and his wife, bless her, actually snickered at his swear. Then they were off on a discussion of time left and how to preserve its quality. That old topic.

Here was another coincidence: each time news of the diagnosis got out someone had sent a card printed with a—what? poem?—called “Cancer Stops at Hope.” Cancer stops at love. It stops at friendship, and at the door to your heart. It stops at faith. Well, fuck you, because it also stops at death, but not before taking the long way through pain and precipitous weight loss and vomiting. Both times he’d intercepted the mail (such a lucky coincidence) and tossed out this treacly bullshit like the trash it was.

He felt righteous and rigorous and angry. There was some satisfaction in feeling this way, some relief. It was animating. The first time, though, the anger had surprised him. Why anger? What, rationally, was its object?

“Ah, Dad,” his older daughter had said, “you spend all your days at least half-indignant anyway. Maybe just go with it. Be pissed off.”

That was up there with the most tender things anyone had ever said to him.

He took long walks, then and now, striding, marching, thumping walks. He winded himself and got his heart rate up. The first time, a dozen years ago, had been easier. That is, the exercise had been easier when he was sixty than it was now, at seventy-two, not the grief and anticipation.

But he could still feel his own vigor as he strode, his heart keeping up in expectation of, perhaps, another two, even three decades. Would he go back to the cancer-loss support group? He would have to examine his purpose.

She wasn’t dead yet, his second wife, Lorraine. (Both his wives had French first names, a coincidence no one had yet remarked upon.) Barring a joint accident, either Dean or Lorraine would have to bury two spouses. They had always acknowledged this. He should be glad to spare her.

The doctor had said two years at most, but they all knew that didn’t mean twenty-four good months. It might mean a few normal-seeming months—through Christmas? it was now August—then a tumbling decline, then some bad, terrifying months. Maybe he’d have a massive heart attack in the meantime. This was a tremendously selfish but tantalizing wish.

It was how his father had gone, undetected arterial build-up (smoking, red meat, an aversion to [white] doctors all encouraging whatever tendencies his body had stored from conception). He’d been alone. It had likely taken just minutes. And though the shock had been indescribable for Dean and his mother, there was also some relief that what was done was done.

But he was thankful Lorraine wasn’t dead yet! Every day he was glad, every time she looked at him or made a morbid joke. He tried not to say I love you more than the usual amount because he feared she would hear I’m glad you’re not dead yet. He fairly pulsed with his excess I love yous and his not dead yets.

A heart attack was better than, say, Alzheimer’s, cancer in some ways better than a heart attack, illnesses better than accidents, losing a parent better than losing a child. A few good months were better than none, two happy marriages better than none, four helpful daughters better than none.

There were a couple of other cancer families in their neighborhood. This was no coincidence; it was probably the same or worse everywhere. His colleague Morley from the university was around the corner. Morley’s first wife had been gone six or eight years; the second wife was healthy, as far as Dean knew. And there was this Asian kid down the street, dead at nine or ten. For months Lorraine had taken casseroles to his poor parents. They had a new baby now.

So Dean was luckier than the dead kid’s family, less lucky than Morley.

“In some ways I feel lucky,” Lorraine said to him one night in bed.

He had started to drift. They’d had gentle, elderly sex—one of these times would be the last—and he had settled into sleep with his hand on her thigh. He was quiet a few seconds, rising out of unconsciousness enough to catch the echo of her words.

“What?” he said.

“I’m the lucky one. You know.”

“Well,” he said. “Yes. I am glad I can spare you.”

It was a lie. They both knew it.

“Of course,” she said, and then, “If I weren’t so selfish I would put your pillow over your face.”

Dean waited for her to laugh. When she didn’t, he said, “Maybe I should do it.”

He heard her inhalation.

“I mean—” What did he mean? He was half asleep.

“Well, don’t do it to me yet, darling.” Now she laughed.

He thought he’d meant himself.

“Maybe I could still spare you,” she went on. “If you don’t like the pillow, perhaps you can hope for a massive—”

Heart attack.

“Hemorrhage.” She laughed again. He felt her leg under his hand, then felt it slide away as she turned from her back to her side, toward him. She laid her palm on his sternum. “But I’m not dead yet.”

We both like peanut butter. We both wear glasses. We’ve both read Tolstoy. Who cares! But how could he not wish for more of all of it? We’re both still alive. We’d both choose to go first.

“I hate this,” he said.

“Me too.”

“What is the point?”

“No point. Wrong question.”

“What is the question?” Wordplay now. Sleepy banter.

“Eh. No question, no answer. Just…”

“What? Just what?” He wanted to know.

“Life. Nothing.”

“Life. Nothing.” He tried it with different punctuation. Life: nothing. Too shrill and obvious. He put his hand over hers. If he could, if he believed it, he would tell her there was nothing to fear. But they both had too much terrible knowledge for that. So they held hands and waited for sleep, and tomorrow they would wake up, still two complex organisms, big animals with too-big brains, aware of the pointlessness of everything but willing, or at least not yet unwilling, to attend to it all anyway.

Hadley Moore’s short stories, novel excerpts, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Newsweek, Witness, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the revived December, the Indiana Review, Quarter After Eight, Confrontation, The Drum, Ascent, Midwestern Gothic, Redux, Knee-Jerk Magazine, and other publications. She is at work on a novel and a collection of stories, and is an alumna of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.