Katherine Agard


It is in white spaces – the gallery, the museum, the university, the diploma, the page — that I begin to understand myself as an artist.

But it is in the dark that I understand what art is, or might be.

These are also the spaces that I began to understand myself as black.

Often these ideas — of white and dark, of light and black — seem in conflict.

Many of these conflicts seem oppositional or binary but many are unnamed, something else entirely.

In a darkened theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts I listened to the Lebanese artist Walid Raad tell a story where, in summary, a group of artists from the future send him messages of the names of various dead and lost artists.

(I am sorry that I don’t remember it as well as I should — I have decided not to let that stop me any longer.)

Raad first thinks he is crazy, that his mind is falling apart, but he eventually commits himself to writing the names streaming through his head in white vinyl letters on a white wall. Raad said: This is the only way an artist can come to understand things — shows them, and waits for people to tell him what it means.

People come to see this wall. No-one has any answers, except one cranky old journalist who says something like “You asshole, haven’t these people suffered enough? And him of all people.” The critic points at a name. “He does not deserve this!“ The man continues and tells Raad that these are artists of the past long forgotten for all the various reasons that have to do with class and religion and disability all those indexed reasons for why some people get written in and others do not. The critic takes a can of red spray paint and sprays the correct name on the wall, marking it like blood against a unnaturally sterile white surface.

At this moment, the voices cease. Raad knew that these artists from the future had got what they wanted. They made him do this the whole operation, the wall in the gallery, the misspelling so the critic would get angry and so that they could get this red. You see, they had lost the colour red in the future, lost access to it and they wanted it, desperately wanted it again.

I took two things from this story:

It is possible to spend your entire life searching for something that you miss.
That thing can be a color.


An artist shows things to others and waits for their responses
This is the only way an artist can come to understand the world.

I am thinking of making a painting and putting in a white space.

A white painting, maybe.

Milk paint is inexpensive and easy to make.

Martha Stewart tells me I will need:

a lemon, a quart skim milk, a sieve, a cheesecloth, dry color pigment or artists’ acrylic paint

She says to

1.     Mix the juice of a lemon with 1 quart of skim milk in a large bowl. Leave the mixture overnight at room temperature to induce curdling.

2.     Pour it through a sieve lined with cheesecloth to separate the solid curds from the liquid whey. Add 4 tablespoons of dry color pigment (available at art-supply stores) to the curd; be sure to wear a mask, and stir until the pigment is evenly dispersed.

I know from experience that this recipe is insufficient.
She has neglected to mention an important chemical — hydrated lime.

But I understand the aesthetic impulse: such simplicity is seductive, aspirational.

To think you could make full bodied-color from milk.

In practice, it produces a thin, sour and sickly whiteness.

milk (noun)                    an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by
                                       female mammals for nourishment of their young

milk (verb)                     extract sap, venom or other substances from

To make a white bath for a cooling head, I was first instructed to use a combination of milks.

This instruction is not private — it came to me by paying for it, from two white women who, I see now, as more than their whiteness. I am no longer angry; but I was.

I told my mother later, angrily, “I should have not to pay for this information!”
She said only  “I did not think I had to tell you such a common thing.” 

You will need:

Coconut milk, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, white flowers (or lucky flowers of any
type), honey, cocoa butter, white soap, cascarilla, Florida water.

Mix this while in bath or shower in a bowl or bucket. Pour over the head.
Scrub self with white soap in a downward direction. Think of what you wish to clear.

After bath, soak skin with cocoa butter.

Take this residue and throw it at the crossroads, behind you.

If this is not possible, down the toilet.

An addition for clarity:

White candle, sharp smelling herbs. Light candle, breathe in.
Imagine a white veil or mist around you. Imagine smell making tear in veil. Continue tearing until reality seeps in. Resist the encroaching white.

If milk is not available, any white powder pasted to the skin and rubbed away will do.     Scrub self with soap.

If you do not wish to through away the residue, put it all behind you, you may
produce your own milk and use it as you wish.

For self-milking:
     retain bath water, particularly concentrate of flowers, milk and cascarilla.

If no bath, retain whatever residue is available.
Press the pulp in your hands.

You may spread veil of confusion or doubt.
You may use to encourage impossible empathy.
You may use to make them see what they say does not exist.

The residue can be used in whatever form is most convenient.

I imagine a choreography:

     Milk rots. It is a horrible smell, says my mother, when it rots.
     Milk is cleaned up immediately. We are forever predicting its spillage.
      “Sit at the table!” “Sit upright.” “Be careful.” 

It could happen at any time.

     A woman is shot and her body remained in the street for observation for days.
     A young man is covered over with police tape and cameras.

     Deaths are notes in the middle of the newspaper, where the tourists will not
     be deterred.

Fill a pool with milk. A pool: a tub. A pool: a hole in the ground, the pit of your stomach.

Bring friends who mourn the people who are now bodies, colors, flesh, smells.

Invite those who do not think they mourn, are simply haunted, see deaths on
a reel or a loop, cannot think to own this grief.

Take this bath together.

It may take a long time, possibly forever. You may never leave this bath.
It will become the world around you, a mist, a veil, although you do not understand
its source.

Scrub each other’s backs. The milk may rot. Dance in this congealed yellowing

Lie there.


Lay in the sun. Spread your legs with fat.

Take the residue and leave it at the prime minister’s house.

The president.

The mayor. Your neighbor.

The woman who laughed loudly during the film.

The people who seem to be just fine.

Anyone who says there’s nothing to do about it.

Watch them experience this.

The responses may be overwhelming, contradictory, in conflict, painful.

You may grow weary. There’s nothing to do, rings in your head.

Repeat this bath for yourself, in private, alone.

If you didn’t before, now you know what it means to wish for a cool head.

Author Statement

I embrace and trouble ambiguity and the in-between.This piece is part of a longer cross-genre piece – actively questioning the space between artistic disciplines, prose and poetry as well as the spectrum of positions of privilege, power and oppressions. It does not attempt to pinpoint or label, but to explore – with the perversity that it sometimes requires.The piece as a whole includes painting, performance and criticism, all revolving around differential aspects of material culture.

Katherine Agard is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago currently based in California. She travels frequently. Her writing has been supported by Lambda Literary, Kimbilio, Callaloo and VONA/Voices. She is currently an MFA student in Literature at the University the University of California – San Diego where she holds a residence in the Visual Arts Department. She writes and performs her relationship to color – material, socio-cultural, spiritual – and the language which allows us to perceive it.

Isabel Balée

From “Land of Eroded Womb”


what else lies
in this ruin —

i birthed

from my
second self

who carries
the deluge

& asks
for complete
erasure —


on a granite

found in
the lawn

of a cremated


i etched
her name

with the

i held

where milk
once flowed —


enclosed center —

porous drain —

ancient stars
lose their

& loss is





& finally


at all—




tombs —

i wake to

what is this


ravine —

glass city—

wrought iron

lungs sewn
shut —


skin my


the knife
to my center

who will clean me

& come ripping

the aorta
out & resew


of failed

where i lie
prone —

Green Fields


in which shape
is my body

not knowing
where to look            



am i

like this


to walk over              

i must be

dimensionality —


harbor —        
birds rustle                       


in pear trees —

within a series
of buildings

& a single

there lies

a closure

not meant
to be read

not entirely.



from the 9th floor window

we unburdened the room’s


onto barges floating

viscously along

the crescent,


& sunken


land became

Gulf & algae

as we looked to

vast blue

for an answer

to the death

we tried

to medicate

dredging  faith

to prevent further


what arises


white flowers

emerge on stalks

in dead cypress


nothing can be done

lungs effuse

& pogonia trembles

below               screaming


into the phone

& open water,

skyline, lung,

salt water intruding

estuaries & river

reaching wetlands

we drank the

flooding from runoff


do not resuscitate


i was still holding

her hand

Author Statement

Language fails.

My work has always been interested in failure.

I break open language to process my own losses: that of my home, New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina; that of Louisiana, due to coastal erosion and the failure of the state; that of my mother. My body remembers grief and trauma. My text is a projection of this lacerated body. I subject my work to depression.

I hope to shape language around the void, to map slippages between impulses, to ask the reader to investigate what’s missing. This inclines me to the divine – the inexplicable.

We do not have language for this.

Isabel Balée was born and raised in New Orleans and has roots in Belém do Pará, Brazil. Her work is forthcoming in Cosmonauts AvenueGhost Proposal, and Littletell. You can find her at ibalee.tumblr.com

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

How to Wage Some Unholy War

If the landlord cuts off the hot water on New Years Day, you can shower at the 24-Hour Fitness on Van Ness early in the morning, depending on who is working the door. Remember: this is the busiest day of the year for gyms across the city, all of which will take extra measures to enhance security. This means the bald security guard will be there, the old guy who works mornings with an omega symbol tattooed on his wrist. Don’t let him intimidate you—he’s just a casual racist. Plenty of patrons heard him call you a high yellow bitch the last time he caught you sneaking in without a membership. The Twitter storm you fueled as a consequence was enough for him to receive a stern warning. Given the he-said-she-said nature of the encounter, the incident wasn’t grounds for termination, but it was enough for management to tell him to look the other way when you sneak in. Yes, you will be evicted if you fail to seek help from the San Francisco Tenant’s Union and cannot come up with this month’s rent—this danger is imminent. But for the present moment, you are the queen of the Twitterverse with a free shower pass. 

            When you finish, walk carefully around the scattering of bodies sleeping inside the service entries of businesses along Van Ness, but don’t count yourself among the homeless yet. Instead, lift a copy of Back to Black when you get to Amoeba Records on Polk Street. Listen carefully: there is only one way to process to track number nine, “Some Unholy War.” Take the advice offered in the song full stop. Go home and lie down on your kitchen floor and replay the track. If the kitchen is too dirty, the bedroom floor will do. Adjust the nobs on the radio until you successfully slow down the tempo—the song should transform into a ballad after a few tries. Close your eyes and press repeat. Play it twice more and memorize the words on the last pass. Resist the urge to obsess over the fact that you haven’t written in months, that you feel extraordinary pressure to produce a manuscript of novel length, to take a job in any field other than writing that pays a decent wage, so that you won’t fear losing your apartment each month. According to the stale fortune cookies you cracked open last night, you will finish writing a book this year. This is your year. Only it doesn’t feel like anyone’s year yet because the early morning hours of New Years Day feel too new to be believed and your jean pockets are so well worn, they are thin as tracing paper. Repeat the mantra to yourself anyway. This is your year.

        The more you listen to the track, the more you think of loving someone as fatuously as the song commands. Reflect on the rhetorical lyric that asks who you write for. Even though you can’t picture a particular person or crowd, don’t let your mind wander. Create a space for the question in your journal and imagine yourself as a person with answers, someone who marches into the Tenant’s Union and reports the landlord for cutting off the utilities, someone who writes and writes and cuts herself over unanswerable questions.

When They Heard About Oscar

They walk nine deep across two city blocks towards the Powell Street Metro Station, a handful of teenage boys. The previous evening, they’d come from Oakland to the Embarcadero and wrestled their way through a large crowd to watch fireworks on the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. Afterward, they’d stayed out all night in the Fillmore, crashing house parties they weren’t invited to, only now making their way home in the early morning hours. They stomp around in puddles, gutter water turning the edges of their jeans a deep indigo. Once they reach the station, they elbow and shove their way to the front of the line on the escalator and take turns hopping the turnstile. The squares—older folks who grow tomatoes and avocados in urban, backyard gardens, and say things to each other like “quite lovely” about wine and food—turn away and clutch their belongings to their chests. The gesture does not go without confrontation. “You scared?” The oldest boy asks a silver-haired man again and again and louder each time until the man cuts his eyes at the group of them, his scowl big enough to carry all of Oakland.

       Out on the platform, the boys split into two groups and howl battle rhymes at each other. The tallest of the group shakes his dark dreads loose from a tattered rubber band and steps into the center of the huddle, his arms extended on either side. He doesn’t want it to get too heated. There are plenty of plain-clothes officers ready to spring out of a quiet corner to slap cuffs on boys like them for less. When their train arrives, they sit and become window percussionists, pounding out beats with their palms and fists.  They stretch their t-shirts over their knees, mindful not to let anyone step on their white sneakers. The cuffs of their jeans dry out on the train, but to be sure, the jeans are cheap—the kind sold three for twenty dollars at the Ashby Street swap meet, the kind that transfers dark blue pigment to their socks, shins, and ankles.

      There are few passengers on the train at this time of morning on a holiday weekend. The boys bore quickly. They rise and stagger single file to the next car as the train begins its passage through the Transbay Tube. The three and a half mile tunnel runs through the bay between San Francisco and Oakland at a depth so low, the boys’ chests tighten involuntarily, and their ears pulse from increased atmospheric pressure. Still, they keep moving and shout out to each other about some girl’s this, and another girl’s that; but mostly, despite the chatter, they speak to each other like strangers. They don’t speak of the night before, their hopes and fears for the New Year. How the soiled fabric on the train seats carries the briny scent of vomit. How some of them will go home, and no one will be there to greet them or worry that they’ve been away all night. How they refer to each other using nicknames because they can’t be sure who is listening. How some of them have been shuffled back and forth between relatives, thrust out of their grandmothers’ apartments when they did not respond to discipline or threats from truancy officers. How these rejections form a slow growing cancerous mound eating at them by degrees each day.

        A small, red-haired woman balances her body against a pole and opens the San Francisco Chronicle. She does not notice two boys standing behind her, quietly reading over her shoulder: “Unarmed Black Man Shot by Police in Subway Station.” The details are scant and contradictory. Some witnesses confirmed the young victim was cooperative with police before the shooting. Others claimed he was a resistant thug rightfully subdued with a knee to the neck. In grainy photographs, the victim lay lifeless on the platform, his thin brown arms handcuffed behind his back. His mother had been tearful, when interviewed—choked up with grief. Investigators released the young victim’s name but were careful to withhold the officer’s. It would be leaked to the press later that day: “Officer Johannes Mehserle Kills Oscar Grant III.”       

         Before the red-haired woman finishes the story, one of the boys, the smallest, whispers to her: “You’re a little far from North Berkeley, aren’t you, snow bunny?” He draws an imaginary line on the floor with his toe. A moment of silence stretches between them. The woman sucks her teeth and holds his gaze for a time. When she opens her mouth to say something, other boys flank her, blocking her path. She closes her mouth and folds the newspaper under a thin, freckled arm. She slides through the semi-circle of boys, a stiff gait all the way to the opposite end of the train car. They do not follow her with their eyes. Instead, they jam fingers inside their ears to relieve the pressure as the train exits the Transbay Tube into Oakland. They say nothing as silver sunlight streams through the windows, into the bay beyond.

Author Statement

I once heard E-40 say something to the effect of “first the Bay Area, then the world.” I can’t find the lie in that sentiment. These somewhat connected stories arose out of a profound love for the Bay, as well as an internal dialogue with a new America I often struggle to understand. When I think of the Sacred Americas, I find myself orbiting New Years’ Day 2009—which, for me, was somewhat of a harbinger of the America we have become. I was living on the edge of Nob Hill in San Francisco at that time, and will never forget waking up to news that a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer “accidentally” shot Oscar Grant. The backdrop to Oscar’s murder was the beginning stages of a tech boom, which materialized from the ashes of the mortgage crisis, wherein unscrupulous loan officers swindled black grandmothers out of their homes in Hunter’s Point. The byproduct of this loss and growth, arguably, was an influx of outsiders and capital that drove up real estate values and inversely affected many communities—most acutely, artists and families of color—who soon found themselves priced out of the city. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and others followed Oscar.  Rancor and duplicity emerged from our national dialogue around the intersections of race, money, and privilege.  For its part, Oakland grieved and roused resistance. Some say it reclaimed its position as a leader in counter-culture, that it is responsible for the birth of new social activists the world over. How, in many ways, the Bay foretold today’s America.

Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in BostonReviewIndiana ReviewWord RiotVoices de la Luna and elsewhere. She has worked on the editorial staff at Apogee and Blackberry: A Magazine, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Jacob P. Waletzky Fund, Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University. You can find more of her writing at www.esmemichelle.com.

Bonafide Rojas


tierra is the first word
the island teaches us

the wind is our navigator through
this land of the valiant lord

the coasts are crystalline cobalt blue
we give all the hurricanes names

these pueblos of deserts & jungles
opens the roads to the edge of history

we are measured in size & location
harmonize in a minor key

we carry forced exoduses on our backs
our blood is a lineage of caña y café

columns of smoke to obscure
the clarity of this gorgeous sky

seventy eight provinces from bend to bend
from la mar to el oceano, from faro to faro

we erect gigantic billboards of
foreign products, molasses & gasoline

electric poles line the island like sheet music
our technical progress has invaded the countryside

we torture the muscles of these mountains
the small towns are being reconstructed

transformed by irrigation
radio waves & the smart phones

we increased the speed of development
on our  backs & legs

tomorrow seems like a frightening place
of radioactive beaches, plastic forests

bare mineral shells of former glory
hydraulic energy cities & neon mountain sides

this exploding super-population hasn’t
culturally develop the next

we need to defend our island from
the statues that represent an oppressive future

we cannot assure ourselves the air
we breathe will always be free

we cannot assure that these homes of ours
will always belong to us & not a bank of leeches

the geographic position of our land has determined
the course of our history, sovereignty & strategy

we are a forced a collective personality
casualties of imperialism

in between two americas
our lack of volume, our lack of ports

our island that can be seen in two days
tourism is the mirror ball & chain

our reflections bare a narrow house
cramped by the plains, & valleys,

our vision is a trip on the immediate
extension of our landscape

if we stretch our bodies far enough
we can touch the four corners

our history would have been different
if our land was different

our heroes, our fighters who did not fit in,
who fled & died in foreign lands

may have been treated different
because the lack of space needed to create

wouldn’t have been an issue
everyone’s perspectives would’ve been broader

we are geological positioning
we are invigorating climates

we are biological constitutions
we are imperial landscapes

we are trapped in a perpetual cycle of self destruction
operating on our collective psychosis

we were once woods, pastures,
swamps & untapped potential

now a paradise in a schizophrenic conundrum
divided by invisible titles of state & independence

we are jibaros with satellite dishes
we are farmers who carry computers

we are fast food, fast highways,
corporate tools, monopolizing landlords

our hearts sit on the lap of rediscovery
our hands balance the conflict & cooperation

home is the flower of the land
caribbean & atlantic picturesque

our expression is coupled with
our anguish of yearning for freedom

our memories made of lumber, metal,
history, poetry, folklore, & tradition

this land & the century long fight for
the people & our self defining roles

these coasts are crystalline cobalt blue
we give all the hurricanes names

the wind is our navigator through
this land of the valiant lord

libertad is the first word
we taught ourselves

tierra is the first word
the island taught us.

Author Statement

Home Is The Flower Of The Land is an analysis on how post modernization has stunted the growth of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has been a colony of The United States for 119 years & has disconnected the island with the other experiences of the region. To be included in the Sacred Americas Folio connects Puerto Rico with the rest of the Caribbean, Central America, North America & South America in the fight against imperialism, colonialism, racism, gentrification & working towards liberation.

Bonafide Rojas is the author of four collections of poetry: Notes On The Return To The Island (2017), Renovatio (2014), When The City Sleeps(2012) & Pelo Bueno (2004). He appeared on Def Poetry Jam & has been published in numerous anthologies & journals. He’s the bandleader for The Mona Passage, whose debut EP was released in Aug. 2016. He’s performed at various stages: Lincoln Center, The Brooklyn Museum, El Museo Del Barrio, Bowery Ballroom, The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, Rotterdam Arts Center, Columbia University, NYU, The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, BusBoys & Poets & Festival De La Palabra. For more info : www.grandconcoursepress.com.

I.S. Jones

Ritual Switch

Instead it will be your swift backhand that undoes me
brutal in its bursting
until the raised skin reaches for mercy
tomorrow you will motion
for the chancla when I get a wrong answer
on my math homework
the next day the choir in my flesh will stand,
each pore blooming with blood
when the extension cord meets me
the nerve to meet a god in the eye
as though we are equal
so you break the wooden spoon across my face
and this must be love
yes, because you bring me to the end of myself
again & again
to save me from my foolishness
from the designated bullet   baton   pepper spray   curb stomp
which has promised
its full force upon my skull
you break me with love because
this is your inheritance
A family heirloom
dear god
dear father-god
dear father
if this is love
then pull each plea from me
until I am ruined beyond wanting
until I am a proper disciple


When asked where home is,
I point to a no-nothing night.
A night so black, I could close my eyes
& become that night itself—
empty               expanding, expanding.


Every map I point to has no hands that would point back,
doesn’t recognize this body or mouth
the way it reflects two lives.
In one, home is a disappearing landscape.
I call out to the no-nothing & my words turn to gold smoke.

When Momma refused to teach me Yoruba,
she told I should be grateful she was selfish
with her heavy, brilliant tongue,
kept Nigeria & the war & all its music &
schoolyards & dirt roads & men with their greedy hands
in a pantry my small hands could not reach.
To keep me as American as possible. Or safe.
The darkest white girl with a single-barrel mouth,
skinny with a language that was second-handed to me.

In the other, home is a place in memory:

the house on Danville St.
                          grandma’s loose skin
eating fufu with our hands        
                                        James’s Taylor “You Are My Only One”

momma’s garden      sneaking out to kiss boys with busted teeth
                       running through the rose garden

            the wall I punched a hole through

the sound of god falling out of my mother’s hands. 


The beautiful struggle of my body against this night,
I have coveted the moon as a heart,
& I think this is home.
A night such as this, I breathe
& my skin begins the faithful labor of unraveling

I.S. Jones is a writer, educator, and hip-hop head hailing from Southern California. She is a fellow with The Watering Hole, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, and Callaloo. I.S. is very Blk & loud about her joy. In 2016, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has been praised by Rachel McKibbens as a “god-lit marvel”. She is the Assistant Editor at Chaparral. Her works have appeared in The Harpoon ReviewThe Blueshift JournalSunDog LitMatadorReviewWusgood.black, forthcoming in great weather for MEDIA, the Black Voices Series with Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Hofstra University.

Cortney Lamar Charleston


They invoke your given name—

                                                                             call on you, a witness,
to take the stand so they can ask what happened as you see it,
all attention settled solely on you as you approach the hot seat
thus creating a deafening silence, locusts in their eye sockets,
a plague set upon your body, your skin crawling, trying to crawl
away from race.
                                   Once seated, you submit to the traditional
procedure: left hand on the bones of God, right hand to the sky.
You take oath, or you send a prayer straight into the salted earth:
same difference. They point their questions like pistols and you
pull answers out of the pockets of your memory; say what you say,
it isn’t gospel to anybody in the room, and even you can’t be sure
you haven’t lied to yourself. Even in saying the Lord has been good
to you, they will press on how good, will insinuate it wasn’t good
enough to stop you from doing what they said you did that night.
But when He sees you through the trial and tribulations like an X-ray
or ultrasound, you’ll be forced to testify all over again, go on about
deliverance despite your doubts:
                                                                            when Pastor asks for a witness,
you’ll give him a witness; you’ll catch the Spirit, take to the choir stand.  


        As the street-side window decal reads,                    
                Where the Word is the Word 

the Word is bond like mortar is to bricks
        if talking black to black,

                brother to brother, sister to sister
                        and so forth (amen).

        Because boys like me don’t rise
                of their own accord save for

the Savior, I’m raised instead  
        between these oven-like walls,

        anticipated to behave as bread does
                while it’s baking (amen).

        Hands make the metaphor make sense:
how anointing works is by touch

                as is how dough is made
        from scratch, but that’s beside

the point of this place;
        a name isn’t just a name,  

        there’s always a ghost behind it,
an instruction for living (amen).

        In the face of everything we face
                in Chicago, America,

God is the logical response,
        hence the Greek is borrowed from

                for this as with the letters
        of all our frats and sorors.

Bring your sorrows here.
        Bring your skeletons here.

         We’ve crossed bridges of blood
thrice over and now this  

        is what we have to show for it (amen).
                It may be hot as hell in here

some days, but it’s cold as hell
        outside, in those streets:

        cold case (amen) after cold case (amen)
after cold case (amen) though the killed

                and the killers are all known
        and loved above; we all know

                an excess of fire feels like
        being engulfed in ice, what we learned

from all our scrapes and all our bruises
        all over our bodies (amen).

                So, take this book to heart.
        Study it good. And remember,

        when the church says amen,
                say amen (amen).   

Catfish Heaven Variation

I’ve heard it theorized before that heaven has ghettoes, favelas,
        shantytowns and such, and should speculation so happen to be true,
I give praise in advance for I know none of the aforementioned
        to exist without colored peoples to people them homes: havens for
the culture from music to cuisine, all things that cleanse spirits
        like river water.
                                           O Lord, on a good day and a bad, give me all of
my niggas. On a good day and a bad, give us all the fried things
        that send our bodies straight to hell but make the glory shine
even brighter inside us, vessels of the gospel according to grease. Every
        human being comes from a hole in a wall, it’s just that
some of us are better about embracing it—
                                                                                    the food is always going to
        taste better where folks are most thankful for it. It was
said the meek shall inherit the earth, but I say the meek should also inherit
        the meat: batter the bits in powders and spices then let
the oil and the fire do their work.

        Give it up for eloquent hands taking birds beyond abstract
ideas or metaphors, turning them into things we can consume; give it up for
        generous hands that give us fish because we’re hungry and
in need of grace:
                                everyone requires reminder of what and who’s gotten
        them through, who and what they can place their faith in.
Let’s just say I’ve got myself a circle, a divine constellation of personalities
        around me, the ones who pass the hot sauce when I ask
and don’t make me reach for it.
                                                              I can’t figure out most days if love is too big
        a word or too puny, but I know when I die, I want to have
this moment back as many times as I want without worrying over weight or
        blood pressure. People may eat for the body, but they cook
for the soul—
                            so we buy more strips of catfish, we put in another order for
        wings, get lifted in a legend nobody else can ever grasp past
my inability to define miracle without using miracle, my failure to explain
        this isn’t myth because I was there, with them, and couldn’t
shake anyone else’s hand for a week. 

Author Statement

Love in the face of indifference; healing in the face of violence; jubilee in the face of injustice; community in the face of isolation; music in the face of silence; blackness in the face of white supremacy; history in the face of ahistorical interpretation; truth in the face of lies; God in the face of his self-serving children: when the nation I am given gives me nothing to hold dear, to steady my sunniness and hope, I imagine other nations. I make home in sovereign moments where there were no degrees of separation between freedom and myself.   

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. A recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, his poems have appeared in POETRYNew England ReviewGulf CoastTriQuarterlyRiver Styx and elsewhere.  

Daria-Ann Martineau


God of sweat and mud and rain
God of ashes resurrected
God of angels—feathered, near-naked glimmer
God who casts our souls in fishnet
God of scandal
God of wine
God who gave us bacchanal
God of one-more-day ‘til Lent
God of a love-beaten roadway
God on stilts
God who carries the Spirit in her garment
God’s baptism in a river of revelers
God makes a rolling sea of waists
God among us as woman and man
God of soil
God of High Mas
God of mortal burdens cast on city
God of Amen let it be
God of lost reason & birth
God of a garden in riot
God of ragamuffin
God of royals
God of buxom Dame and blue devil.
God of longtime, of ancient
God of still here.
God of new
but always ours
God of revelation in mask
God of sacrifice and offering
Goddess pose, hips opening
God of omniscience and sky
God of sunlit skin
God of dust that shadows foreheads
God of a fast broken, then entered
God of farewell and beckoning
God of because we can
God of because we must
God of Our Lady and sinners

When I Have Left My Body

In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects.
-Holy See declaration

Bury a seed amidst the dust of my bones.
Each artery that branched
along my limbs
will be razed to ash and soil
sprouting a tree.

But first,
make fruit of my flesh
Take my skin to the burned,
my eyes so someone might see.

Why should I not scatter
my ribcage in soot, free my heart?
–A chance to beat again. This is my body
which will be given up for you.

This is what I was shown:
how to abide as branches to The Vine.

I want to go
where there is no need for a church,
no yearning for a collected body.
Can I find new life if I lose myself
in the roots of an unborn seed?
leaves that bear breath to a dying
girl. Give her my lungs.
Give whatever you can;
All I was taught I could be
was dust.

Let my flesh be entombed only
in another’s breaking ribcage.
Let the plant grow.
Let a young woman
unwrap the shrouds of death,
fold them neatly at her bed’s foot.
Let doctors witness her open her eyes, awaken
out of her anesthesia valley, proclaiming,
she is risen. 

Author Statement

Both of these poems stem from the Roman Catholic influence in my native Trinidad. Being raised Catholic, there are so many rules around what we can do with our bodies, even when we die. I find myself trying to exert autonomy but being afraid to offend the Church by doing anything “too pagan.” That is where “When I have left my body” comes from. “God of sweat and mud and rain” examines the many cultures of Trinidad that are present in Carnival. Slaves making the festival their own, bringing African influences into the mix, I think was a kind of quiet resistance enacted against the French slave masters who brought Carnival to Trinidad. It also reminds us that Carnival—like Easter and the Winter Solstice—was originally a pagan ritual before the Church repurposed it.

Daria-Ann Martineau was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. After earning a BA in Speech and Hearing Science from The George Washington University (DC), she saw there were more interesting ways to understand language. She now holds an MFA in Poetry writing from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Hospital fellow. She is an alumna of the Saltonstall Arts Colony and the Callaloo Creative Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her poetry has appeared in NarrativeKinfolksQuarterly, and The Collagist, among others. 

Andrew E. Colarusso

Airplane Mode

He chose the wrong people
                                                 to make God*

a secret-                      -smoking a cigarette
followed me all day-                   to remind

I m lactose intolerant-                   so often
do I forget                                that we left

to fight               for the right to have it all
for the right to ask-     -before lines crosst

where does the world end-                 -and
where was your temple                    begun

and ask again    where does the world end
and                               -your temple begin

and again-            -why did the world end
when                           -your temple began

and ask again-            -why end the world
where-                        -your temple begins
and again-

*Kamau Brathwaite on Caliban

sunclade and fallen

you re sick I think    -then start to get hard
the whites                  -on the stovetop fire

of your eyes                bloodshot and puffy
from nights fallen asleep-    with the glow

melanopic yellow-                   -of an apple
product on your face-      -so you ve come

to expect that light-     -from who so nears
in the same but other quiet       your sleep

elsewhere-                       around the world
people                      -shoulder to shoulder

are shouting get-                      -your hand
out of my pocket and-         -farther down

you alone prosper          -in the possibility
in the fruit of your fantasy            holding

closer                                     to your chest
the thumbelina doll              -your mother

wanted but never held                         -for
more than                                   a moment

clutching herself      -like a shadow presst
to the wall                             praying for it

not to be taken-              -until she s taken
no longer                       -by the possibility                      

that              -now and everyday hereafter

you re an accident-     -leaning half asleep
on every emergency exit  and every night

light                                   feels to you like
                                the holy roman empire

Author Statement

Funny how one’s being in the Sunken Place has entered the lexicon following Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). These poems were written well before the platonic arrivant of the film’s now famous phrase. In fact, the italicized language is borrowed from the great poet of The Arrivants: A New World TrilogyHe chose the wrong people to make God, is how Kamau Brathwaite described Shakespeare’s Caliban in his 1982 lectures at the Centre for Commonwealth Literature and Research in Mysore, India: “…what happened to Caliban in The Tempest was that his alliances were laughable, his alliances were fatal, his alliances were ridiculous. He chose the wrong people to make God…

Clearly Caliban was in the Sunken Place, conditioned to fear a kind of false magic (not the magic of his mother, Sycorax). He chose the wrong people to make God. It’s a line that haunts me. Brathwaite is asking me to consider the ways in which I’m complicit with my oppressor, asking me to consider how I’ve allowed myself to become captive. Sometimes you need to put the whole shit on hold, put the whole world in airplane mode. Get free.

Andrew E. Colarusso was born and raised in Brooklyn. He is assistant professor of literary arts at Brown University and editor-in-chief of the Broome Street Reviewwww.iDoNotMove.com

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