Book Review: Tidal Wave, by Dennis H. Lee. Passager Books, 2020.

Jacqueline Vogtman

Dennis H. Lee’s Tidal Wave, inaugural winner of the Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize for a first book of poetry for a poet 70 years or older, does what all great works of literature do: it uses specific moments to reveal universal truths about shared human experiences. This extraordinary collection has a heavy emphasis on place, beginning and ending with images of a Coney Island childhood, touching down throughout the book in Brooklyn, the suburbs, and the Catskills. Lee uses vivid imagery to evoke these places, like the final line of his opening poem “Coney Island, July 4, 1952”: “Tonight’s sky will be brighter than the Ferris wheel.”

While many of the poems in this collection evoke the past, many of them also speak to the experience of growing older. The second poem in the book is titled “Measuring Our Time,” and the collection itself seems to do just that, moving between past and present. The poem “Candle in the Universe” is a funny and poignant memory of an elementary school astronomy lesson, while several poems narrate the absurdities of aging, especially in connection with the medical establishment, such as “The Man Who Had Nothing Wrong” in which a series of doctors and specialists perform tests on the speaker determined to find something wrong with him.

Indeed, the absurd plays a role in this collection. Consider the poem “The Barking Woman,” a fable-poem about a woman who wouldn’t stop barking, and the poem “Dryer Sheets,” which comments on suburban absurdity with a narrative about a woman who puts dryer sheets in her garden because she thinks they smell better than roses. Lee’s use of humor is one of the most entertaining aspects of this collection, including the hilarious poems “So What, You Wet Your Pants” and “Tea and Cream with a Coffee Bean” which follows a miscommunication with a barista.

But there’s a more serious side to Lee’s poetry as well. In the second half of the book, there is a series of four poems—“Blood Room,” “On Dark Wings,” “Fortune Cookie,” and “I Wish Now I Could Have Buried You”—that narrate the loss of a spouse. While the poems here focus on small moments, cumulatively they have a power and wash over the reader with, yes, a “tidal wave” of emotion. “On Dark Wings,” in particular, is a moving meditation on loss, and the use of repetition adds to the power of the poem, the first four stanzas beginning with the line “I held her hand,” and the final stanza breaking that pattern to state, “I held her dead hand.” It’s a heartbreaking poem, but an honest portrayal of grief.

Lee’s collection is one of heart and humor that will appeal to readers young and old, near and far, but I believe will be particularly resonant with readers who grew up on the East Coast in 1950s and 60s. This collection runs the gamut of human emotion and experience, but ends with jubilance in the face of fear. “Tidal Wave,” the final poem in the collection, is a long poem that ends with a memory. Lee writes, “I remembered a wave / at Coney Island when I was about six that lifted / me and carried me up the beach. People screaming. / Water began to cover me. Rain water. A deluge of rain. / I was running so incredibly wet and happy. That’s it.”  It’s a powerful image to end the collection, but a fitting one for a collection so powerful. 

About the author:
Jacqueline Vogtman is the Editor of Kelsey Review.


D.E. Steward

We slept in the same room for years  

“When we think of being we arrive at our real home”  (Heidegger)

Which is the sort of thing we would often talk about

He was serious

And we were serious together 

On a train through the Ukraine from Moscow to Sevastopol, he was in the corridor talking heatedly with two Iraqis 

Iraq had just reestablished diplomatic relations with the USSR, they were probably from the Iraqi embassy, older, seasoned

There were strong words, my brother’s raised-voice lecturing being countered in sputtering Arabic

They jostled him and then one went for him hard

Fast, I got him out of the corridor and back into a compartment

He was so intelligent, but would flash out impulsively 

And he never quite realized

When he was a Columbia graduate student once I took him to a bus upstate in Sidney on the Susquehanna, and it was late and lonely and we both cried

We sat there in the car waiting talking as we were rarely able to as men

About our mother probably more frankly than ever before

But he disallowed what I told him had really happened to us

He shouted me down, to stop telling him, to not say what I was saying, as though I were telling him in Arabic    

He was four when it all happened and he had buried it

At seven I would resolutely not forget

Only the two of us

As it always was after our family was gone

We talked so much about so many things

Brothers as only brothers can be 

With each other’s trust

And understanding

He always tried, he didn’t fade, he always tried

To play ball when he hated it, to be one of the group when I took him along with me

He liked model trains, wanted badly to own a monkey, had a drum major’s baton and practiced twirling 

He had a three-speed Raleigh when the rest of us had balloon-tire cruisers 

I cannot remember that he had a favorite color

Maybe blue, maybe only gray  

To avoid school at five and six he would lie in bed and plead a stomachache

So often he did not fit in

He was always responsible about important things and when he took sides he was on the right one

Quite often quixotic but remarkably convincing

He was polite, but witheringly caustic with the occasion  

He was the brother who older people liked

Once we drove together to Jalisco and he flew back to New York from Guadalajara

He would come from Paris to Switzerland to visit and we would go into the Alsace to hike, or to the Alps, or northern Italy 

And once he came all the way up to my Forest Service ranger station in the San Gabriels

Always a good brother in that way

And he was solicitous to a forlorn aunt whom I had almost nothing to do with

He had close friends when he was younger but dropped them soon after college

He was a beautiful man, although he was stubborn, and arrogant in the realms of his ignorance

Social with the need

Often magnetically attractive in social situations 

Constantly glib

Curious about what he didn’t know


And very funny at times

A tall, skinny, handsome, Princeton, multi-lingual, sometimes brilliant, lonely man     

Dead for a long time now 

Wiped away with other smudges and traces like the light grease from yesterday’s croissants

Traces, hair, dust, smegma, flakes of skin, with no reconciliation at all between fresh leavings and our deaths

He was alone for his forty-ninth birthday, a day like his other last days

He died four weeks later as if he was making a plane

And refused to share his doom with anyone

On his bed staring up at a ceiling fan silently reeling his thread of remaining time

Staring at the maples outside, listening to the familiar sounds of the house in which he had spent most of the nights of his life

Alone, thinking, he must have been deep in death fear

When he realized death was immediate he must have known terror

It must have been the agony of shame for him, with his self-justifying rationalizations and careful arrangement of lies

Maybe he observed to himself in that wry and charming way of his that at least he would not have to turn fifty

Like nothing he had ever faced, something ultimate very unlike his complicated hygienic-dietary induced solipsistic cautionary phobias

But he wouldn’t talk and he sent anyone away who wished to help or comfort him

His death was medieval in its inevitability, an early AIDS death that did not allow hope of his life being at all prolonged

Knowing that every local pathogen could opportune to invade his immune-blown cells to kill him, doom him to stop living, drive him through thick walls of pain into oblivion

Horrible for him even beyond what he had imagined what it was going to be like to die that way

As he lay there, his handsome, gawky, obdurate, slimness bent fetal, face to the wall


And no painkillers, no doctors, no friends

He lost sixty pounds in four months



Finally allowed us to take him, on his back, to the hospital the day after a final long-dusk June weekend at home

The second day he went into a coma there on the ICU machines and cotton-head drugs

Almost at the end, while still in his bed at home, he spoke of complex and wonderful things, said convincingly that he wanted to describe them, did not

A black locust fell upslope from his house in a wind the night of the day he died

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacadia, extremely thick bark, dark brown, furrowed deeply, wood hard, strong and stiff, the heartwood brown, green or yellowish green

In a couple of years, some of its bole and parts of its upper trunk were wet-rot brown, bark nearly gone, less tree all the time each season, lower and lower, rotting into the duff

And then in less than a short decade it was gone completely

Just as in the way that he lived became meaningless after his dying because he had lived entirely within himself

The smudges wiped away 

His way of hiding behind a high wall of a self-mocking urbanity, his acerbic sense of humor, his insistence on privacy so intense as to freeze-dry any violation of it with his arrogant scorn

A quixotic libertarian


Gushingly compassionate

Frequently dismissive


The puzzle is his death’s legacy, a need to map out how he would wish to be remembered

As the compassionate, curious person he had once been, or the coolly lonely, embittered, sneering, sarcastic man who died

And with that once established, it should be determined if such is fair to him, what he was, and if it is anything like what he imagined himself to be

He would have been one with Tchaikovsky, who in 1880, wrote, “The notion that one day people will try to probe into the private world of my thoughts and feelings, into everything that I have so carefully hidden throughout my life… is very sad and unpleasant.”

With that, he wanted to be alone

About the author
D. E. Steward’s five volumes of Chroma were out in 2018 from Archae Editions in Brooklyn. Chroma is a month-to-month calendar book, the months are continuing.

Horsing Around

Judith Salcewicz

“It’s going to snow this winter,” my mother said.

“That’s what it does in New Jersey,” I replied.

“Don’t you think it would be better to wait to get your driver’s license?”

“It’s only September.”

“But I worry,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll wait,” I replied, secretly relieved.

I waited until July and then promised not to drive outside the square mile limits of my small town. I didn’t really want to drive over the river bridge anyway.

Where was my sense of adventure? I’m not sure it ever existed.  In third grade, the instability of a bicycle without training wheels made me wait two years for a second attempt. One skinned knee while roller skating and I retired my skate key.

“Sorry, but I can’t make it,” was my reply to a high school ski trip invitation. I couldn’t imagine racing down a slippery slope.

There are many ways of building confidence. Mine came from falling off of two horses.

College came with the promise of new beginnings. I wrote for the school newspaper and made the Dean’s List, but that was like what I’d always done. How could I break out of my cycle of wariness? I decided to take a chance.

I applied to be an exchange student in England and was accepted. On my first airplane trip, I flew across the ocean unaccompanied. I found the train that took me to Worcester College. I tapped into a reserve of courage I hadn’t known existed.

I loved sightseeing and having cultural experiences. Could a spirit of adventure overcome my reticence? I hoped so. I said yes when asked to horseback ride with other exchange students.

There were no lessons at the stable. It was assumed we knew how to ride. I planned to cover up my inexperience by carefully watching those with more.

We were escorted to our horses. What magnificent animals! Thoroughbreds. I was drawn to a cream-in-coffee-colored mount.

“Hi buddy,” I said holding my hand for him to smell. “What’s your name?”

Then I saw the nameplate on his stable. George.

“Hello George, I’m Judy. Do you think that means we’ll be friends? I hope so.”

“You picked a calm one, you did miss,” said the groom as he helped us lead the horses to the trail.

I smiled at this revelation. George had an intelligent face and a long stately neck. He hadn’t yet committed to friendship but was not resisting my approach. I knew to mount from the left side and was soon sitting in the saddle.

“Relax Judy, you look like you’re sitting in a chair,” said my roommate, Barbara, who had promised to keep an eye on me.

I relaxed my knees and tried to align my legs, mimicking the others. Curved shoulders of insecurity kept me from sitting tall in the saddle.

We followed each other on a trail through a lightly wooded area. George seemed to know the way. Soon we were trotting. I tried to learn to post and match my rhythm to George’s. The next day’s sore muscles told me I didn’t quite succeed.

I was drawn to George and made the mistake of looking at him instead of where we were going. Startled by a low branch, I reacted. I could have reined in the horse. I could have leaned forward and hugged his neck. Instead, I leaned backward losing my equilibrium.

I felt like I was falling in slow motion: a sideways somersault followed by a rump first landing. I was shaken but not hurt. Barbara said my fall looked like a ballet move.

George trotted off to the side and stood there watching me warily. Some say animals can’t express emotion but I know George was embarrassed. He lowered his head and warily watched my approach.

“It’s okay George. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said soothingly.

We bonded over my mistake. 

As the weeks went by, I started to look more like a rider. I developed the ability to sit tall. I’d like to think George looked forward to our jaunts. Sore muscles and pride didn’t deter me from riding. I learned how to trust myself and to move in sync with the horse.

The circus came to town and no one wanted to go with me. I wanted to see a British circus. Embracing my sense of adventure, I decided to go alone.

Once inside, I bought a large stick of cotton candy and looked for a safe place to sit. Next to a father with two small boys seemed like a good choice. The boys had never seen cotton candy. I shared.

“Look,” I said. “You can pull off a piece. It’s just spun sugar.”

“Why do you talk so funny?” one of them wanted to know.

“I’m American,” I answered

“Really? Do you have a horse? Do you know any cowboys?”

“No. It’s not like that. I don’t know any cowboys.”

“Aren’t they all over America? I’ve seen them on the telly.”

“There are cowboys out west but not where I live.”

“Our policemen are Bobbies. They carry sticks. Policemen in America have guns. Did you ever see anyone get shot?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“But they shoot people, don’t they?”

“They try not to.”

“Wouldn’t sticks be better?”

“Maybe,” I said glad that the show had started and stopped the questions.

Midway through the show a majestic white stallion entered the ring.

“Is there someone in the audience brave enough to ride this stately steed?” asked the ringmaster.

British reserve was in full force. No one volunteered.

“Surely someone dares to accept this challenge.”

“You can. You know cowboys,” said one of the little boys.

“I told you I’ve never met one.”

“But you can ride a horse,” he continued.

“Well yes,” I began but was cut short by the boys jumping to their feet.

“She can, she can, she rides horses,” they chanted pointing at me.

“No, don’t, sit down,” I whispered, temporally losing my sense of adventure.

My objections were ignored. Two clowns grabbed my hands and pulled me into the ring. One of them removed my glasses. Everything was a soft blur. A belt was secured around my waist. It was tethered to the top of the tent. Before I knew it, I was on a bareback galloping horse. There was nothing to hold. Forgetting form, I hugged the horse with my knees, amazed that I had stayed on for several seconds.

“Kneel,” someone ordered.

Adrenalin took over. I knelt and bounced.

“Now stand,” I was told.

I did, falling off immediately. I was airborne. The clowns lifted me with by the belt pulley. I flew to the top of the tent spinning like a starfish with my limbs forming an x. I continued to spin as I was lowered. Dizzy and blind, I couldn’t control any of my appendages.

I kicked a clown. His yelp told me it hurt despite the comical fall that elicited audience laughter.

Two others dredged up courage to follow my example but the little boys insisted.

“You were the best.”

Years later, I told my high school students about my horse riding escapades.

 “Mrs. Sal, you’re not afraid of anything,” one of them said.

I smiled.

About the Author
Judith Salcewicz, a retired teacher and writer, lives, gardens, and volunteers in Lawrence, NJ. Her work has been published in The Kelsey Review, several Chicken Soup for the Soul, US 1 Fiction, and other publications. She writes book reviews for Lawrence Historical Society’s newsletter and participates in two writing groups.

Getting to Carnegie Hall

Paul Levine

There’s a famous line: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice.   But like most clichés, a sprinkle of good fortune is indispensable.  We were nearing graduation day in Mrs. Wolfson’s 6th grade class.  I had already made my musical debut in various school plays, excelling in sticks and recorder.  I was a mean triangle player too.  A musical triple threat, with Jascha Haifetz potential.  As a result, I was selected by Mrs. Wolfson to meet the man who would judge my musical skills and determine my musical future for years to come; Mr. Rubin from JHS 198.  He was a teacher without a first name. It was a sign of respect, afforded those who earned it. He headed the music department and he was scouting elementary level raw talent for next year’s band.  He was the first teacher I ever met who wore a suit and tie.  I never saw him without that uniform over three years.

Though nearly 40, he had a cherubic baby face, that couldn’t possibly support facial hair.  He wore his jet-black hair straight back, using a hair gel that resembled Texas Crude, right out of the well head.  It glistened, even in fog, and I’m sure passing ships used him for their beacon entering New York Harbor.  His solemn demeanor let us know that junior high school music was going to be more serious than triangles.  He was a violinist, which explains all you need to know.

I wanted to play the saxophone.  Jimmy Dickstein played the sax, and he was the coolest kid in the projects.  Of course, all musical aspirants wanted to be just like Jimmy.  He often played outside on the corner of Beach 51st and Beach Channel Drive, until the Rockaway Beach winter set in and made that impossible, as gusts screamed off the ocean to chill the soul and freeze the lips to the reed.   Despite my obvious musicianship, I was one of the last to enter the interview room.  I assumed my entry into the room was, unlike that of the sequential numbered tickets at Goldberg’s Deli, based on talent.  They were saving the best for last. This could only be only explanation. While I waited, I practiced my line: “I want to play sax, just like Jimmy.”  Like Prince, Jimmy didn’t need a last name in this context. Jimmy was Mr. Rubin’s protégé, and this was a twofer.  It would not only disclose my interest, but would be complimentary as well. How could Mr. Rubin resist the sincere request of a 6th grader who was both talented and had advanced negotiating skills?  The time arrived, and I was ushered into the room.  This was my moment.

To my surprise, Mr. Rubin didn’t ask for my musical instrument preference, which I was told by exiting classmates was the procedure.  This was 1964 after all, and the feelings of an 11-year-old were of no concern.  Self-esteem had not been invented and the only safe spaces that existed were under the bomb shelter signs that adorned two apartments per floor in the projects. We were told that these signed locations would protect us in the event of a Cuban missile attack. We believed the instructions and were happy that in the event of a nuclear attack, we’d at least get to spend our last moments with our neighbors, the Touhy’s, and their six kids.  Mr. Touhy sold Entenmann’s cakes door to door and always had snacks.  That’s all I needed to know about nuclear fission.

Mr. Rubin needed a tuba player, and nearly everyone else who proceeded me, wanted to play sax or clarinet.  I thought clarinets gave all woodwind players a bad name, particularly when excessive air flow over the reed attached to the licorice stick resulted in a sound similar to that of nails over chalkboard.  Mr. Rubin was on a mission, and I looked like a stereotypical tuba player; overweight, puffy cheeks and lips that, unlike most my age, could fit comfortably into the oversized tuba mouthpiece, requisitely gracing the interior polished silver surface.  The weight of the mouthpiece alone was equivalent to a well stuffed pastrami on club sandwich.  “How would you like to play tuba?”, he asked.  The thought never entered my mind.  The honest answer was no, but I remained silent for an eternity. I was devastated.  I would never be the next Jimmy Dickstein.  A tuba?  Are you kidding me?

Mr. Rubin sensed I was disappointed, but sweetened the deal.  Unlike the others before me, there’d be no further auditions.  If I agreed to his suggestion, I would be a shoe-in for band, and orchestra if I wanted.  This, I now know, was the art of the deal. An offer I couldn’t refuse.  And I didn’t.  The job was mine without further preparation. Call it pragmatism; some might call it laziness.  Great triangle players should never have to audition to play tuba.  It was beneath me.

Fast forward and I was in all the obligatory junior high musicals.  Oliver, Fiddler and Oklahoma.  I loved it; not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But let’s be clear.  In junior high, tuba was more of an accompaniment, and not the main course.  Ketchup, not steak. Oom pah pah, was the standard, and it wasn’t particularly challenging.  In the annals of tuba history, I was barely on the plus side of mediocre. 

When I arrived in high school, there was a similar dearth of tuba players. I continued to ply my craft by default, largely to break the rigor of AP calculus and chemistry, which was often far easier than playing endless harmonic scales.  No longer the music teacher, John Bart, was the musical director when I arrived at Stuyvesant High School. Though we knew his first name, everyone except his closest friends, and he had none, called him Mr. Bart, with the emphasis on mister. Nearly five times my age, with a face like a warden, a shaven head and horn-rimmed glasses, he could make prisoners at Guantanamo disclose their darkest secrets. Frankly, prisoners were the lucky ones; he took none.  Despite his age, he was a man of physical stature, undoubtedly a massive stone of a man in his younger days, whose lasting image was one with his hand cupped behind his left ear, a baton in his right hand, pointing at you and grimacing, no matter how well you did or how much you tried to please. 

He demanded perfection always.  To him, the tuba wasn’t just an instrument.  It was a sophisticated mechanical device; the largest and lowest pitched musical instrument in the brass family.  Sound was produced by lips vibrating within a large restrictive mouthpiece that captured the kinetic energy and transferred it into an ever-increasing radii of continuous brass tubes.  The instrument had more plumbing than a small third world country. It wasn’t just acoustical physics. It was an ever-present demonstration of musical history dating back to 1835, that employed valves to make it possible to play nearly three octaves.  I could barely play two.  The history lesson aside, I was petrified by his presence and never wanted to disappoint.  Music wasn’t a diversion to him.  It was his DNA.  A musical genome project.

For three years I struggled to stay on his good side.  I largely succeeded and, under his tutelage, I advanced beyond mediocre, to somewhat less than good. It was progress, and my lack of tuba talent was often masked by the other musicians in the band who were far better, and most importantly, louder.  Plus, I sat in the back and could hide as necessary.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the increasingly challenging musical selections and the featured pieces that highlighted the brass section.  In the privacy of my own home, I’d admit that I also loved Sousa marches, occasional polkas and Klezmer tunes from ancestral homelands; eastern European soul music in the most minor of keys.  Most of all, I enjoyed the fellowship of the kids in the band; some of whom I maintain relationships to this day.

The ultimate test was about to come.  High school graduation.  Our high school was built in 1914, without an auditorium large enough to accommodate parents and students on that final day.  A negligent omission. Our alternate location for large events was Carnegie Hall.  Yes, that Carnegie Hall. Mr. Bart unveiled the songs we were to play.  The usual suspects like the National Anthem, the school song (which I still remember), several processions and as a finale, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.  The composition revolved around images of witches gathering to await Satan.  Oh God, say this isn’t so.  It was a familiar classical piece that featured the brass section, particularly the trombones and tubas throughout.  This particular arrangement started with a tuba solo.  Three beats, three valves down to maximize the length of constrained air flow and the resulting lowest note possible on an E flat tuba, the dreaded low A.  That note was scored three lines lower than the lowest line on the standard five-line bass clef.  It wasn’t even meant to exist, except in the maniacal imagination of a depraved Russian composer. For God’s sake, who could play that?  Certainly not me. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, to quote the metaphysical wisdom of Martha and the Vandellas.

To hit that low A, the mouth had to be inserted into the mouthpiece perfectly to allow the lips to vibrate as relaxed as one can be.  Relax?  Too relaxed and there’s no vibration, just embarrassing silence coming out of the bell; too much and you’re playing a low E, instead of an A.  Impossible.  I’m about to play a solo at Carnegie Hall and any fault would be magnified across one of the most acoustically pure auditoriums on the planet. 

As we neared graduation day, we practiced the piece daily; I even brought the tuba home on the subway to practice, much to commuters’ discontent and my neighbor’s displeasure. At class, Mr. Bart would typically say I was pitchy, which was the conductor’s way of saying inappropriate things about you publicly; his private vocabulary was undoubtedly more colorful.  I was sure he’d replace me with one of the freshmen, who were infinitely better than me.  It would be the ultimate embarrassment. He didn’t.  Maybe he knew something about me that I couldn’t possibly imagine at the age of sixteen?

It was graduation day. June 16, 1969, as best I remember.  I wore the first suit I ever owned, a real tie (not a clip-on) and a white shirt, suitably starched, which I borrowed from my father, who similarly had no use for such formalwear. This was no time for casual Friday, my mom insisted. I must have looked like Mr. Rubin, including the greased hair, whose reflection illuminated those within 50 feet of me under Carnegie’s bright house lights. I was sitting on stage, looking out at the hundreds of assembled students, parents, grandparents and siblings, eager to memorialize the event that would see their kids off to colleges that none could possibly afford, but were destined to attend. We played our obligatory opening tunes nearly flawlessly, interspersed with a half dozen forgettable speeches. I was oblivious to all of them. I was counting down the minutes to my solo, in a manner that mimicked the intensity of an Apollo moon launch.

I needed a miracle.  And then, the best speech ever delivered at a high school graduation in the history of mankind was recited. A Stuy High grad from the class of 1919, fifty years prior, and a century ago today, was given his 15 minutes of fame.  He didn’t need all of them. He spryly jumped up on stage, grabbed the mic and knowingly proclaimed to all those still awake: “Not one of you in this hall has any interest in listening to one more speech.  Particularly by me. You all want to celebrate, go home and get on with your lives.  So, the very best to you all.” He received a standing ovation as he raced offstage and disappeared into the crowd.  I felt as though the tension in me, left with him.  He said publicly what I and everyone else in the hall was thinking privately.  A former graduate, masquerading as a modern-day philosopher, who noted that life is only as complicated as you care to make it. I wanted to run out after him and shake his hand.  But that was impossible.  I was still shackled to the chair by fear.

Now was time for the big and last event.  My solo. True, the band was also going to play too, but that was inconsequential now. An afterthought.  I had three beats to deliver; the rest was detail. I felt that Mr. Bart was already regretting his decision not to replace me; the telepathic message sent across the stage through his piercing eyes was don’t screw this up, or worse. This was his day too.  But the tension in me was miraculously gone, lifted by an anonymous stranger, fifty years my senior; a contemporary of Mr. Bart, who just encouraged us to celebrate and enjoy life above all else.  An eternal message.

Mr. Bart raised his baton; the audience fell silent.  He pointed right at me.  It was my time to shine, or not.  Three valves down, as relaxed as I could possibly be, the low A filled the hall.  It was perfection.  I knew it. And Mr. Bart winked at me; I’m reasonably certain.  But even if it was my imagination, it was the first time I ever saw him smile in three years, and may have been the only time he expressed any public emotion.  I was beaming.  I not only played at Carnegie Hall, but I played a remarkable solo there.  One note for three whole seconds!

So how do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice.  And relax.

About the author
Paul Levine recently retired from the rigors of environmental consulting and is now filling his free time with combinations of day dreaming, telling fibs, and teaching an introductory class in sustainability at Middlesex College. He also continues to be a regular at Nancy Demme’s writer’s group, exploring interests that have remained dormant for years. When not writing, he finds periodic solace in participating in current events and investing clubs, but most appropriately he is looking forward to the end of this pandemic, so he can revisit and attend to his bucket list.

Black Taffeta

Barbara Krasner

Bryna Dvorkin Krasner sits like royalty next to her king, husband Mordechai, also known as Mottel. She wears no crown, only the traditional matron’s sheitl (wig) to ensure she’s unattractive to other men. Her eyelids draw heavy curtains over eyes that perhaps have seen too much and cannot absorb this strange city of Newark, New Jersey. She wears tightly pleated black taffeta with seven tightly strung strands of white beads around her high collar. Seven strands for the seven children she has given birth to?

Her lack of teeth—no false teeth for her—accentuates her high cheekbones. She is all about tradition. Yet, she has been known to consistently lie about her age to U.S. Census enumerators. After more than a decade in America, she is now younger, so she says, than she was when she arrived (at sixty). Gray tufts of hair peak out from under the wig and her eyebrows have nearly disappeared into the deep lines of her face. It could well be that she never actually knew her age for certain. When other women at sixty might have been thinking about their final days, Bryna instead may have said, “Mottel, grab the featherbed and the candlesticks! We’re going to America!” She and Mottel weathered the storms of the Atlantic and arrived in September 1901, too late to stop the marriage of daughter Chaike to the presumed ne’er do well, Sam Williams, who already had two daughters through previous relationships.

We only know about six of Bryna’s children: Doba, Malka, Hillel Meyer (Meyer or Mike in America), Chaike (Ida in America), Mendel (my grandfather, Max), and Hesia (Bessie in America). Of these, all but the elder two came to America. The immigrant and the American-born family members come together in a photo taken in Newark, New Jersey in 1912. Doba’s daughters are here, the eldest with her two New York-born daughters. Malka’s daughter Minnie is here, too. Meyer brought her over, but one daughter stayed behind in Russia. While Ida is not in the picture, two of her big-bowed daughters are.

In the photo, those located closest to Bryna are grandchildren and great-children, a mix of Old World and New. Within just a few years, Doba and Chaike (a.k.a. Ida) would be dead. Mottel and Bryna’s brother Chaim Ber would pass in 1915. Chaim Ber had been the first of the family to come to America, in 1886. With so many of her close family now gone, black taffeta became her staple.

Bryna becomes a fixture among her children and grandchildren. Though her daughters-in-law may find her abrupt and caustic, her grandchildren adore her. Ever in her black taffeta, she stands in for the motherless Williams children. She brims with a universal love that transcends language, although her grandchildren may well have known her Litvak dialect of Yiddish. Black taffeta means respect for the dead, respect for tradition. It’s Bryna’s job to teach it to the American grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They can ask, “Bobe, why do you wear black taffeta all the way to your neck, to your wrists, and to the ground?” She’d bring the children into an embrace, plant each one with a sloppy, toothless, wet kiss. Each would feel the silkiness and fragility of the taffeta. Bryna would say, “I need to keep these memories—my husband, my daughters, my brother—as blessings. I will remember and respect them always. I mention their names every Friday at sunset as I light the Shabbos candles. Every Yom Kippur. Every Yahrzeit of their deaths. I hope when the day comes, you’ll do the same for me.”

By 1920, Bryna is about 80 years old. Her children have (finally) married. In one photo, granddaughter Adele, named for Ida who died of post-partum hemorrhage, sits on her lap. In another photo, Adele wraps an arm about Bryna’s shoulder while her mother holds her. Ida’s daughter Nellie, now about 17, tenderly places a hand on Bryna’s shoulder. Bryna wears a sweater, American style. The sheitl has given way to a kerchief. Bryna takes the name Bertha for Newark census enumerators and city directories. But for her, a name change does not change who she is and who she needs to be.

Her children and grandchildren, that is Bryna’s world now. Having come from the unpaved streets of wooden shacks of White Russia to the wooden tenements of Newark’s Third Ward, she straddles the Old and New Worlds. Grandchildren on both sides of the Atlantic. Able to cook for one set but not another. Russia has now become the Soviet Union. Letters to family there don’t come as often as before. Bryna sees the opportunities her sons have here to own their own businesses, Meyer in tailoring and Max, in groceries and dry goods. Even Bessie had her own business.

The respect for Bryna is palpable. She rests on a chair outdoors while others stand and the camera readies. Children intuitively know whom they can trust, and Bryna’s grandchildren trust her.

Her tradition becomes especially noticeable as the 1920s proceed. The hemlines of her daughter and daughters-in-law rise above the ankles, but her own graces the dirt and grass beneath her sturdy footwear. Her taffeta blouse hangs over her bosom like a feed bag and the billowing sleeves narrow drastically at the wrist. She is tightly connected, tied tight to family and to the fleeting practices of the traditions her own grandparents taught her. In this photo, her cheekbones suggest a smile under her losses, thinking about the better future her grandchildren may bring. At least three of her great-grandchildren, myself included, are named for her. Immigration has been worth the sacrifice.

Bryna with Adele and the Williams kids
Bryna with Meyer and Bessie

About the author
Barbara Krasner teaches in the Liberal Arts division of Mercer County Community College. She also serves as Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College outside Philadelphia.

The Bather

Ilene Dube

Lately I’ve become aware of bathing facilities in unexpected places. Faced with the temptation, I find I cannot resist.

At the public access station where I work, the restroom has a shower alongside its single stall. This is odd, because the building has been office space since it was constructed in the 1950s. At that time, employers had yet to offer bathing facilities as a perk. Perhaps an opportunistic builder wanted to cover all the bases.

At the natural foods grocery store where I shop, one of the two all-gender restrooms has a shower alongside the toilet. I wonder if the shower is for kitchen staff  who would otherwise go home smelling of ginger, garlic, and cardamom.

The Victorian building in which the gluten-free bakery is housed was indeed, at one time, a residence. Whenever I stop in for a knish or a vegan wrap, I make it a point to use the restroom, just to fantasize about luxuriating in its magnificent claw-foot tub. I tease the staff that I’ll return in the night to take a bath. They must hear this all the time because they don’t even fake a smile as I drop coins into the tip jar.

Back in the office, I hear the monitor in the station manager’s office broadcasting a documentary about public bathing. “From Russian banyas and Japanese onsens to Turkish hammams and Finnish saunas, immersing in hot water to release toxins has been practiced since the Neolithic Age,” the voice-over ethnologist tells the interviewer.

Painted depictions of steamy wood cabins and zaftig bathers appear on the screen. “In Russian banyas it is not uncommon to wear felt hats,” says the ethnologist, now on camera in a gray wool cloche with Ukrainian embroidery.

The station manager switches to a locally produced show in which the guest interviewee, a candidate for town council, is fulminating about the state of the world: “…from the high-level cover-up by the drug industry, to the wildfires and flooding and plastic detritus winding up in the intestines of baby albatrosses; the invasion of the spotted lantern fly and emerald ash borer; and now the resistance to fact-based science and medicine… No wonder we are seeing a rise among those living on the streets.”

We have aired numerous documentaries about programs to help people who have lost their way, from alternative housing solutions to art therapy programs. Restoring personal hygiene can be a first step toward regaining a sense of worth, according to one.  The chronically unhoused are more approachable by helpers when they have access to bathing facilities.

As a journalist, I try to experience what my subjects have been through, in order to better show their perspective. Or could it be that I became a journalist because I wanted to absorb myself in others?

I decide to test out the shower at the TV station late at night when no one is likely to walk in. There is no lock on the door, and the shower has no stall or curtain.

I usually keep my gym bag in the car, packed with towels, shampoo, conditioner, soap. I stuff the gym contents into my camera bag. My towel is bulky and just barely fits—I can’t zip the bag completely shut, and a flap protrudes. Out of the corner of my eye I see a mermaid fin, then realize it’s just the towel corner.

I am editing a documentary about an organization teaching sewing skills to unemployed women. As my coworkers filter out for the day, I finesse the continuity of a social worker’s speech, along with B roll showing fish pillows the clients have created. Fifteen minutes after the last worker departs, I nuke a frozen dinner and eat it while checking e-mail. After digesting, I walk around to make sure the coast is clear, then haul in my bathing supplies. As a measure of security, I block the door with my camera bag.

It’s a good thing I packed flip flops because the bathroom floor at the TV station is not what I’d want to step on in bare feet. It would have been ideal if I’d brought along a terry robe, but there’s no way that would have fit in my camera bag.

There’s a separate nook that serves as a dressing room for TV guests. I spread out the clothes I remove, then wrap myself with the towel and carry the basket of toiletries to the shower.

Apparently the fixture has not been used in ages. The lever is impossible to turn. I struggle until beads of sweat form on my forehead but the lever will not budge. I’ll have to come back with a wrench. I pack up my bath supplies, then repeat steps A and B the following night, this time with tools. I use a hand towel to protect the chrome lever, then turn the wrench. It is still extraordinarily difficult but finally it gives way and cold rusty water spurts out, staining my towel orange and causing me to shiver.

I wait and wait but the water does not warm up.

Finally, I take the soaking wet towel and wrench and struggle to turn it off, but it will not close. Water gushes at a steady pace.

I dress, pack up the wet washcloths and towel, and clean up as best I can. The only evidence is the water. I am simultaneously shivering and sweating from fear of getting apprehended.

Emerging from the ladies’ room, I check the hallway in either direction, and steal back into the editing suite. I put on my coat, shut down the computer, and grab my bag to leave. On the way toward the exit, I hear the janitor mopping the floor at the other end of the hallway. I skedaddle without looking up.

The next day, I notice the plumber’s van parked outside the TV station. A memo goes out stating in no uncertain terms that the shower in the lower level restroom is not for staff use. In fact, the entire restroom is closed for two days as the plumbers work on the repair.

We are instructed to use the restroom at the affordable housing office, located in the same building. There had recently been a fire at one of the community housing sites—an elderly resident had fallen asleep in the bathtub with candles burning and subsequently drowned. The candle dropped on her robe, which was all cotton, not a fire-retardant fabric, and the fire spread quickly. Thirty residents of the subsidized unit lost their homes. There is a fund drive to help them out, and I contribute what I can.

The shower at the health food store looks to be in better shape. The bathroom has been redone with white subway tiles and shiny chrome fixtures. I fill a reusable grocery bag with my bathing supplies. During the middle of the day, I enter the restroom as if I just need three minutes to perform the usual bathroom functions. Before stripping off my coat and clothing, I test the water. Again, the knob is tightly shut, but I have brought along a piece of rubber with which to grip it. Sure enough, it loosens!

The bakery department is on the other side of the wall—I can smell the yeasty dough. Now I worry that they will hear the rush of the water. I turn it ever so gently. Again, the water is cold and rusty, but soon it warms up.

The health food store has various soap products on the shelf for customers to sample. I get a feeling this is going to be a delightfully fragrant shower. I quickly undress and lather up, giving myself a quick shampoo with something called Selkie Soap with Sea Buckthorn and Ylang-ylang. The water has turned delightfully warm and I would have enjoyed luxuriating longer, but I quickly rinse off, towel dry and dress. Just in time, as there is a knock at the door. “Be right out,” I shout, and shake my head to dry my hair. I quickly mop up the wet areas with paper towels, then emerge from the restroom with dewy skin.

When I pass the bread window I see the baker looking at me with a scowl. I run my fingers through my short wet hair, ignoring the stares as I head for the exit.

“Mmm, you smell good,” says a woman in the cheese aisle. “Is that the Selkie Soap?”

The bath at the gluten-free bakery is going to be more relaxing, I anticipate. No one ever goes up to the second floor, where it’s located. I’d have plenty of time to soak. The tub does look a bit gritty so I give it a quick swish. It would have been nice to have had a bath mat, but it would have made my bag too bulky. In my haste at the health food store I had absent-mindedly packed the Selkie Soap, so as the water runs I pour in the viscous liquid and the room fills with the scent of ylang-ylang.

It does take a good long while for the tub to fill. If I were waiting in my own home I’d be listening to the radio, but that would draw too much attention here. I don’t want to put the water on full force because of the noise.

On the wall is a poster of Pierre Bonnard’s “Bather”; the subject is completely submerged in the tub. I’ve read that Bonnard’s model/muse/lover Marthe was secretive about her name, age, and family, and was a paranoiac recluse with poor health. She self-medicated with hydrotherapy, bathing several times a day. One of Bonnard’s lovers, a young friend of Marthe’s, drowned herself in the tub when Bonnard spurned her for Marthe.

I get in while the water is shallow and close my eyes as I slink down. Just as I am completely relaxed, there is a knock at the door.

“Right out,” I say, trying to release the water while minimizing the gurgling sound. I rinse the soap from my body, then rinse the soap scum from the tub. The knocking persists, and I towel off, giving myself a short massage with cardamom body butter. At least I don’t have to deal with my hair, which has stayed out of the water. I quickly dress, pack up my supplies, wipe the steam off the mirror and a few wet spots on the floor.

When I open the door, the head waitress is staring at me sternly, arms folded. I can tell she is also stifling laughter. Surely she dreamed of taking a bath here herself and is jealous that I’ve actually done it. She can’t find the words to reprimand me, so I blithely make my way down the stairs, one hand on the curvilinear balustrade. I love this old building, with its creaky old wood. Downstairs, I see the manager and the owner looking up at a drip drip drip in the pressed tin ceiling.

A few weeks later I lose my job at the TV station—they tell me there have been budget cuts. I am given a day’s notice to pack up my things.

It is hard finding new work at my age, and after a few months of not being able to pay the rent, I move in with my brother, sleeping on his couch. My brother isn’t the best of housekeepers—his bathroom is fairly grotty. He has only a shower, no bathtub—thank goodness, I don’t want to have to clean up a bathtub. A shower, in my view, is self-cleaning.

Staying with my brother, I have a nightmare. While visiting the city museum, housed in an Italianate former mansion in the center of an historic park, I encounter a jewel of a clawfoot tub. Checking to make sure I am alone, I turn on the faucet. An alarm goes off, and miniature police arrive. They manage to handcuff my big toe and pull me out—though tiny they are strong. I notice that one of the officers is the ethnologist in the felted Ukrainian hat. “Why did you do it?” he interrogates.

“Because it was there.”

After a while my brother grows tired of hosting me, and I find myself moving from place to place. Fortunately, the weather has warmed. My gym membership expired and I am in arears on the insurance payments, but I still have my car. I am no longer welcome at the health food store nor the gluten free bakery, but the library offers most of what I need.

The community housing office has rebuilt the unit that burned. The residents haven’t yet moved back in—there are inspections and approvals underway. It occurrs to me that I’m now eligible for subsidized housing. I go to look at the model apartment. The leasing agent has taken a prospect on a tour, and I am left to wander the model on my own.

On a coffee table I see a raggedy copy of a collection of John Cheever stories. I thumb  through to find “The Swimmer,” about a 1960s suburban man who, after a few drinks, sets out to swim home through all the swimming pools in his county. At one point, when he has to swim in a particularly dank pool, he reminds himself that he is a pilgrim, an explorer, and takes the plunge.

The bathroom in the model apartment includes a tub shower stall. It still has the manufacturer’s stickers on it but that doesn’t stop me. I turn on the water and let it flow, remove  my clothes and step in. I pour the Selkie Soap.

I hear the familiar knock, faintly this time. “I’ll be a while,” I say, lighting the candle that had been left on the sink. The air is cool, and I slip down to fully submerge.

About the author
Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, filmmaker and curator. Her short fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals, including Kelsey Review.

They Still Go to the Big City: Reflections on My New York Salad Days

Karen Carson

In the decades between college graduation in Boston at age 20 (I’d graduated high school in New Jersey at 16), and graduate school in Lawrenceville much later, my friends threw me a going away dinner, we packed up my posters, my books, and my newly-earned Bachelor’s degree, and I boarded the Amtrak train for New York City.

One evening, my cousin, Alonzo met me at the edge of the stage with a dozen red roses, as I took my bows with the rest of the dual cast of the opera, “Carmen.” Performed on a split stage, one cast performed the familiar tragic love story, the other presented an updated, “uptown” version, entitled, “Carmen’s Community”. My character had no name, no lines–and no salary, for that matter–so, channeling the great Anna Magnani from “The Rose Tattoo”, I was determined to make my mark, standing out from the other “cigarette girls.” Without warning the playwright  or the other actors, as we danced around Don Jose to the beat of The Habanera, I suddenly pulled out a pair of orange striped boxer shorts that I’d bought at the dollar store and, going off script, tossed the underwear in his face, implying that the character had left them at my flat the night before! Avoiding the director’s eyes, I basked in the applause, milking it for all it was worth.

At Astoria Studios where there was an audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, “The Cotton Club”,  I didn’t look like a young Lena Horne or Ethel Waters even on a good day, but I had worn a flower on the side of my head freshman year in college in an homage to the great Billie Holiday, and I’d impressed my teacher and classmates at HB Studios with an excerpt from her autobiography that I’d adapted into an excellent monologue. They had been moved. They’d clapped. Several classmates approached me afterwards to work with me. This audition was a cattle call so, if nothing else, I’d get more auditioning experience, and someone would keep me in mind for a future role. I’d cast plays before, and I knew that sometimes the people in charge of an audition were hoping to get their casting cues from whoever showed up.

I temped for weeks at a time at law firms, airline companies, consultant firms, and insurance companies, backing up data at the end of each day on huge floppy disks. At evening ticket sales jobs, I often fell in with a fun group of coworkers who shared my dubious view of being pressured to cold call families who could never afford season subscriptions. At least we got commission and a complimentary ticket. Some of us managed to sneak out early from the office, dragging tote bags of snacks and sodas to Central Park to enjoy the opera for free. We’d spread our blankets out so far away from the action that Pavarotti looked tiny enough to fit in my palm. Wolfing down Smilers subs–one guy made the best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever tasted!–we enjoyed being young at a time in our lives when we had no mortgages, no children, and could temporarily keep our college loan debt at bay. One evening after work, we met actor/producer/director John Houseman at a Q & A at The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street.. Mr. Houseman, known to my generation as the imposing Professor Kingsfield from the film “The Paper Chase”,was engaging and approachable in a vivid lemon sherbert sweater. I was so close to him, that I could see his hearing aid behind one ear and the liver spots on his hands.

After couch surfing at my cousin’s tiny loft on West 55th Street, I had the opportunity to return the favor when he needed a part time job. Although I had long since gotten rid of my childhood habit of tagging after my older cousin, I still missed him, and wanted to spend more time with him. Alonzo was a star student in Luigi’s master dance classes near Lincoln Center, and needed some extra cash before he went overseas to dance in a revue. Though he was a talented musician and dancer, he had often been passed over for many roles–including “A Chorus Line”–because he stood a head taller than most dancers. Tall male dancers paired with tall female dancers in heels were often in more demand out of the country and in Puerto Rico.

While sightseeing, I was tempted to join a group of gorgeous guys I’d run into at the Staten Island Ferry terminal who told me I was cute and looked just like Janet Jackson, but I thought better of it. I  enjoyed my role as ersatz ambassador to visiting relatives and friends. Back then I could walk for miles without stopping to rest, looking up at the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, and looking down at the cars below me and across to the Manhattan buildings before me. We passed NYU (where early one morning a stranger on a bicycle gallantly handed me a single red rose!),walking  far up and over to Columbus Circle (near the hospital where Alonzo would die), and finally to the fountain at the Lincoln Center plaza.

Most people lagged behind during my “walking tours”, but not my friend, Yuko. She was in New York on an education visa, staying with her uncle (whom she finally admitted was actually her older married boyfriend, necessitating a hurried, unplanned return to Japan when his wife came to visit).  We were an unlikely pair–a tall, curly-haired girl  and, a head shorter, the straight-haired, small town Kanagawa-ken adventurer in an “I Love New York” tee shirt, trying very hard to look Tokyo-chic in knock-off Liz Claiborne designer sunglasses. Yet both of us–still mortgage and baby-free– were much more alike than different.  Although hardly fluent in each other’s native language, we understood each other. I’d taught myself a few basic phrases in Japanese, could write my name in katakana, and had a good Japanese accent, while Yuko’s heavily-accented high school English taught by a native Japanese, made her shy about  speaking English with anyone else but me. Yuko and I shared an offbeat sense of humor, a curiosity about the world around us, and a love of Junior’s strawberry and pineapple cheesecake!

I still look at old photos of Yuko and I, taken at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival,  and at the memorial I held for Alonzo in space I rented at Brooklyn College. I designed the memorial program myself,  with Alonzo’s acting headshot on the front, and on the back cover, the most adorable grade school photo of him with a crew cut, and a toothy grin, wearing a little bow tie! 

My teacher, the late William Hickey (“The Producers”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”), trusted all of his students to choose our own scenes, and when and with whom we would present them. I had free rein to cast myself however I wanted to. My character choices  ran the gamut of styles from young, headstrong Lady Teazle in the Restoration comedy, “The School for Scandal, to Celia, the wife of a morphine addict, in  “A Hatful of Rain” to Celimene (in an Afro!) in Moliere’s 17th century comedy, “The Misanthrope”, to Catherine in “A View From the Bridge”, set in an Italian household by the docks in 1950s Red Hook. I cast  a classmate who was a retired high school principal as my father, King Lear. To get closer to a guy I had a crush on, I cast us as Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. I cast myself as Eve Carrington in “The Wisdom of Eve”, the basis of the film, “All About Eve.”

I am forever grateful to my beloved teacher, “Uncle Bill”, for allowing me to stretch my creative muscles even further than I dreamed they could go in a wide range of juicy roles. A small, delicate, leprechaun of a man with gentle blue eyes, he chain smoked from his corner desk, and sipped from a coffee mug of unknown contents, giving  an honest, yet never brutal critique of our work, as we sat across the stage from him, eager for his approval. Uncle Bill knew just how far to push each one of us individually. Like the handful of remarkable teachers I have studied under throughout my life, Uncle Bill was spot on in his assessment of individual talent, and knew precisely how to nudge his students toward greater accomplishments.

Early on, I had tried to twist Alonzo’s arm to do a scene with me but, die-hard night owl that he was, he refused to get up by 10:00 on a Sunday morning to make it to my 11:00 class! I regaled him with highlights of the scenes I’d cast him in. I promised a standing ovation. I begged. I whined. I promised him an entire pint of vanilla Haagen Dazs ice cream that he wouldn’t have to share with me. But no amount of cajoling would get him up before noon. “My heart isn’t even beating yet at that hour!” he opined. The guy in my class whom I was crazy about took me to his dad’s loft to rehearse our scenes and we, unfortunately for me, did just that. We rehearsed our scenes, and nothing more. Sigh.

Duncan, “Birdy”, and I, and all the other students were artists in a safe space with a teacher who loved teaching just as much–maybe even more so–than the film, stage, and television roles that made him a recognizable character actor. I miss him dearly.

One night when I got home, there was a message waiting for me. It was one sentence explaining that my father had died of a heart attack. Daddy had retired early at 52  with a government pension and secure insurance. It had been the carrot that kept his generation of veterans in one place for so long. He was glad to have  more time to go fishing with our neighbor, Mr. Sanchez, and to go hunting with his beagle and longtime hunting buddy, Mr. Morgan. Their friendship went far back to their army days and they, as did their wives before them, would all die shortly afterwards.  I hadn’t spoken to my dad in quite a while. It would be too easy to link my close relationships with my teachers to that estrangement. Too easy, in fact, but all too true.

When my older sister and my younger brother and I cleared out the family house, I found an old drawing on the floor that I’d made for my mother when I was seven and she was dying in the hospital. I had drawn purple, green and red crosses and written “God bless you” across the bottom of the paper. I also found my dad’s pocket phrase book in German and English with useful phrases like “Halt!” and “Don’t shoot!” for any unlucky American soldier under fire who may wander off and get lost on his way back from the latrines.

I’d been living in New York City when my father died, so I took a picture of my mother’s headstone from twenty years before to the stonemason to try to match the style. I instructed him to engrave a line in Norwegian from a favorite movie of mine. In the film, “The Days of Wine and Roses”, Lee Remick’s character toasts new boyfriend Jack Lennon with, “Til sammen i himmelen”. No doubt intrigued at this request from a young woman with brown skin, the stonemason asked me, kindly, if I was Norwegian, and what the words meant. “No, I’m not Norwegian,” I said. “It means, “together in Heaven”. “That’s very nice. Don’t worry. I’ll do a good job”, he assured me.

In years to come, on his birthday or the anniversary of my father’s death, I would sometimes make sausage and peppers with the good crusty sub rolls he used long ago on Saturdays while my brother and I lay on the living room floor, our eyes glued to the television in front of us..

I tell myself that my father is happy and free now, finally reunited with my mother. Maybe driving that old fashioned car in the picture they took when they got married. Or maybe it’s November where he is, and he and Mr. Morgan are wearing their orange hunting caps and vests, standing side by side, holding up the pheasant or duck or rabbit that they’ve caught, enjoying the savory smell of the onions and gravy they will cook them in.  And they are smiling.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, Alonzo had died from kaposi’s sarcoma, a complication of AIDs, but I had to call the hospital myself to learn this. During my last visit, he’d periodically pull aside his oxygen mask to laugh and talk with me, pointing admiringly to my sweater’s pastel design. I was happy to get the thumbs up from one of the most popular guys in our high school who’d been voted “Best Dressed” year after year. He was the star!  And he was my cousin! Image that! Alonzo had come out of a coma and, according to a friend of his, had even been able to walk to the bathroom on his own. But over the phone, a hospital operator had paused, telling me  there was no one by that name in that room or in the patient directory at all. I assured her that I was aware that hospital policy would prohibit her from telling me that he was in fact dead. She couldn’t confirm my identity over the phone. I paused, giving her the opportunity to tell me that I was wrong. But she did not.

About the author
Karen Carson is a Trenton resident and contributing writer for the Trenton Daily online publication. In addition to writing observations on cultural and historical aspects of the City of Trenton for the Trenton Daily, Karen Carson was also interviewed by U.S.1 about her original monologues on coping with job loss from the 2008 recession. Karen was also a featured guest on 1077TheBronc’s “Your Career is Calling”, and NJNTV’s “Classroom Close-up”. A former manager of volunteer audiobook recording talent and operations for a radio reading service broadcast for the blind, Karen was also recording liaison for local authors, producer of an international audio conference, producer and host of a book club for the blind, and speaker for state conferences and workshops on the topic of volunteerism.


Janus C.

Vampire, vampire, hotter than hellfire! Strolling through the city, her heart has got no pity for ya! She tapped her fingers lightly against her thigh to the beat as her alarm rang out. After a moment, she sat up and stretched her arms out. Her small yawn turned into a bearing of fangs. Eventually, once the 30-second clip of the song ended, she clicked the alarm off and stood up to get dressed for the day.

Her name was Clarissa Handel, 22. Well, she was much older than that, some hundreds of years, in fact, but her appearance suggested otherwise. Her hair— wavy and a royal blue— ended an inch above her shoulders. Her eyes were a bright piercing red. Her skin was light yet grayed, for she had no life within her. She stood at 5 feet and 7 inches, a bit taller than some of her peers. Most importantly, she was a student attending the only college for monsters in the mortal realm, Fiend’s Valley University! It was a pleasure to live there, even throughout the summer. With the facilities powered by magic, there wasn’t much need for any restrictions on students staying as long as they needed.

Just like any other day, it was a good day for a pair of combat boots. Besides the boots, her dark red thigh-highs were a staple of her daily outfits. She even decided to pull out her favorite black dress— lacy at the shoulders, flared out slightly to the hem from her waist— for the occasion of the year, move-in day!

Why was it so special? Well, it was the day that her lovely and literally demonic ex-girlfriend, Hysteria, moved back on campus! Hysteria couldn’t live there because her job required her to stay in Hell during the hottest months. It was peak torture season, so the rest of the demons there needed as much help as they could get with punishing all those atrocious bastards. As such, she usually volunteered to work then. Clarissa grinned at the thought of how charitable and wonderful she was. Seeing her again after those long 3 months was the best thing one could ask for.

On the other hand, she had no idea what dorm her beloved would be staying in this semester. The two used to live in the same room— the one she’s currently staying in— but this year, Hysteria opted to get a new room after their breakup. So, it was time for her to get going—out to the campus green. Before leaving, she grabbed her blacked-out parasol and rubbed on some sunscreen. It was her daily routine to apply the substance so the sun’s rays wouldn’t slowly burn her skin to a crisp.

At the front of campus—the site of Clarissa’s room—two dorm halls were on opposite sides of a great marble walkway, which was then surrounded by a few yards of healthy, newly-cut grass. The walkway led up to a set of Gothic black gates with matching fencing that stretched across the entire perimeter of the university.

Hysteria would be a flame ascending from a set of proverbial stairs near that entrance to the campus grounds. These stairs disappeared after her and many other demons’ exits. They were like what a human would call a school bus, except they departed from the depths of the blazing underworld.

Right on cue, the stairs appeared with a burst of smoke just outside the gates. Clarissa practically sped down the hallways to one of the dorm’s doors. Her parasol opened with a fwoop in the entryway before she spun the door handle and burst through.

Excited to the brim, Clarissa teleported in a dim azure flash from one end of the green to the other until she had exhausted her power. The rest of the time she had her parasol in hand, running her way off to the front of the gate. She attempted to catch her breath quickly and stood silently, both hands clutching the parasol while waiting for Hysteria to grace her.

Most of the demons and other Hell-dwelling creatures had already left through the gates to find their rooms. The stairs descended back into the ground with a glorious rumble as her love leapt out onto the marble and landed on her feet in an explosive crash. The stone cracked around her, and fire burnt some of the surrounding grass.

Hysteria. She was a shining figure, burning with a blaze of dark red skin. Her wavy, licorice hair floated off past her right shoulder, defying gravity. Her frame was strong, muscled yet soft to the touch. She was tall, standing a few inches above Clarissa. The head upon her shoulders was round and plump. Her eyes were golden with bronzed, fiery irises like the sunrise that graced the planet each morning. She wore ripped-up black jeans and a tight sleeveless top with a high neck.

Clarissa swirled her parasol around as Hysteria approached. “Welcome back!” She smiled coyly. “Your entrance was spectacular as always. Truly.”

“Hey, Clarissa. You say it every time, but…your compliment is always appreciated.” She laughed and pulled her into a tight hug. “I missed you.”

Despite her arms burning from the sun-kissed contact, Clarissa’s smile grew. “I missed you too…”

Hysteria let go and sighed. “The work down there is…something, alright.”

“I understand, Hysteria. Torture sounds exhausting. Having to listen to all those cries…it must be irritating.” Clarissa put a hand to her chest and moved it away when she finished her statement.

“Not necessarily.” She looked at Clarissa as they walked past the first academic building. “The gags help with that. The only issue is how tedious it can be. It’s fulfilling work, but it is long. Each one gets an hour, and since we continuously restore their wounds, it gets old very fast. Not to mention, I…” She stopped herself and laughed again. “Can’t say that, actually!”

“You won’t divulge, even to me?”

“It’s a secret. Well, maybe I can tell you later!”

“Hm, alright! What dorm are you in, though?” The other students nearby were flooding into the Gothic halls. Each dorm building looked very similar in their structure. The paint and siding of each building were some kind of neutral hue, with different pops of color on the spires and the shutters of the stained glass windows. Each dorm was decorated with a different color combination, but they all resembled each other besides that. The only other indication was by the nameplates plastered on the front entrances.

“Invictus, 242. Promise you won’t show up out of nowhere?” Hysteria stopped walking and stared at Clarissa.

“How come?” She pulled her parasol closer to her.

“I have a roommate. At the very least, can you knock?”

“Of course….” Clarissa smirked.

Hysteria glared at her. “Come on. Promise!”

She giggled. “I absolutely promise I won’t enter uninvited.”

“Thank you.” As they got closer to Invictus Hall’s umber-colored exterior, Hysteria prepared to break off and enter. “See you at lunch, Clarie.” She waved and disappeared into the entryway.

The nickname! Ah, it had been so long, Clarissa thought. Her heart soared, and she wondered what she should even do next after that exchange. The sun was beating down above her, so she decided to head off under the shade and apply more sunscreen before anything else. The parasol was doing well enough, but sometimes she preferred to walk around like the rest of her friends. It took her a few minutes to completely cover herself in enough for the day. It was a sunscreen made specifically for vampires, sold by her friend Ode at their shop off-campus. Although she didn’t like the sun much, it was nice every once in a while when she was feeling particularly on top of the world.

After she was done, Clarissa took off to go to her first class, which admittedly was another thing she did rarely. What even was there left to learn in regards to Eldritch chants? She knew much of the basics, and it wasn’t her favorite thing in the world. The chants were only useful in the context of homicidal rituals, which she didn’t have to perform to kill someone. Besides, murder was wrong. In most cases.

Truly, the University had much too many highly-specific classes. Then again, it was made to teach mostly immortals and death-defying creatures, so there had to be a plethora of subjects to choose from. The logistics of the college always went right over her head, though. Clarissa wondered what in the world possessed the Lord of the Underworld and a coven to create this place in the middle of California. What was the story again? She thought for a brief moment, but she didn’t care too much. She was only grateful she had the opportunity to spend her life there. She giggled silently at the thought that Hysteria and Ode certainly wouldn’t like her being so nonchalant about its creation. Ode, particularly, had a soft spot for Satan, so they especially would have scolded her. She wondered how her friend was doing today. The two were supposed to meet for lunch, but Ode’s duties at the shop usually took precedence over hanging out. It was always a mystery how they ever had time for anything else.

The class ended with a demonstration, and afterwards, a student with a death-wish volunteered to have someone practice on him. Clarissa left feeling a little disgusted at his crudeness. In any case, she successfully passed the time for lunch to come up quickly. Ecstatic, she bounded out of the classroom and off to the cafe to grab a drink.

The cafe was the only place that was suited to tend to any kind of monstrous appetite. There were other restaurants scattered across Fiend’s Valley for lots of different cuisines, but the university needed to accommodate as many monsters as possible.

Contrary to popular belief, most vampires can actually eat regular food! Human blood is just the tastiest, most appealing, and fulfilling thing for them. Clarissa needed a lot of it to keep healthy when the rest of the time she just delightfully indulged in desserts and alcohol. Other types of food were reserved for special occasions when she wanted to be polite. Her favorite drink to get her actual fill was a mix of blood and fruit juice—delicious and refreshing! She couldn’t fathom only eating other organisms like some kind of carnivore.

With her drink in one hand and parasol in the other, she left out to the courtyard that sat in the middle of the university’s main building. The courtyard had about a dozen tables spread out across more marble flooring. There was a separate grassy section a few steps below the tables with trees for shade and some assorted flowers planted alongside the building.

Clarissa found Ode sitting patiently at one of the tables alone. They were an alien-like creature with pinkish-gray skin, layered with brown birthmarks and whitened scars. Multiple eyes with black sclera and white irises were scattered across their face. Their fringy, ivory hair came down across the sides of their face, a bit past their non-existent ears. Instead, they had little antennae at the top of their head. They were shorter than all of their friends— a bit stockier than the others, too. That day, they wore a simple black sundress that went to their knees.

Once Ode noticed her walking their way, they quickly looked up from the book they were reading. “Hello Clarissa! It’s nice to see you so early today!”

“That it is, Ode! I thought you weren’t able to come today?” Clarissa pulled out a chair and sat on the other side of the table.

“Luckily, it was fine,” they replied. “I closed the shop for a while so we could have lunch. It’s slow around this time, usually. Besides, I put a note, and everyone reads notes, right?”

Clarissa laughed. “It’s the opposite. For me, at least, I’ll disregard those things.”

Ode closed their eyes and sighed. “I know how you are, but my customers aren’t like that. They understand that running a shop alone can be stressful.”

“They do?”

“Yes, they do! My usuals are very nice.” Ode pressed down on their book and started reading again.

“Alright.” Clarissa giggled. She took a few sips of her drink and looked off to a set of doors that led into the courtyard. Hysteria walked through with another girl. They were coming closer, and…they were walking together?

Hysteria came up to the table with the other girl. “Hey, you two! Sorry to bring another person here randomly, but…this is Alice! She’s my roommate and a new student here. She’s also…” she whispered, “…a human!”

“A human? Here?” Ode looked at Hysteria confusedly.

“Mhm, the first of the kind in Fiend’s Valley!”

“Really?” Clarissa put her drink down on the table.

“Yeah,” Hysteria affirmed, taking a seat. She dragged a hand through her plum-tinted hair and gestured at Alice to sit down. “I was showing her around campus, so I invited her to lunch, too. I thought it would be a great opportunity for her to meet everyone. Being the only human here is likely terrifying. She needs some more friends than just me, you know?”

Clarissa took a good look at Alice. She was a slim girl sporting mid-length black hair with a round yellow flower pressed into it. Her eyes were a gleaming dark brown, and her skin was beige with rosy undertones. She was shorter than Clarissa, but only by a couple of inches. She wore a white t-shirt under a set of floral overalls that descended into a pair of Mary Janes. Her style was…kind of impeccable! Clarissa’s heart burned with an intense fire, rivaling that of the blasted sun.

“Of course. New friends are always welcome!” Ode chimed in, “it’s very nice to meet you, Alice! I’m Ode, and that over there is Clarissa. She’s usually pretty chatty, but it seems today she doesn’t want to say too much.”

Clarissa shot a glare at Ode, and they gave a knowing look back.

“Thank you. It’s nice to meet you, too!” Alice smiled brightly at the two of them. She seemed a bit oblivious, thankfully. All humans are the same, Clarissa thought.

The rest of the group exchanged more conversation as Clarissa sat silently, taking sips of her drink and watching the others. Eventually, she got up and went off to the bathroom. The group was laughing as she left.

There was a twinge of anger making its way into her head. She stepped into the bathroom and ran the sink. Her hands moved slowly under the water, and she cupped them to throw some water on her face.

“Get yourself together, fool,” she whispered into the mirror, “she’s only her roommate. What’s there to worry about?” The cold stung, but she kept splashing it on her face. Her hair was dripping now. She couldn’t go back like this.

She turned the faucet off and began drying her face. After a moment, the door to the bathroom opened with a quiet creak.

Ode walked in with a concerned expression. They stood next to Clarissa and spoke up. “I figured you were here. Are you alright?”

“I’m…I’m fine!” she said, casually tossing the soaked paper towel in her hand into the trash. Water kept dripping off onto the floor as she kept her head down.

“Evidenced by you running to the bathroom.”

“Hey, you don’t need to—” She stopped and glanced at them. “F-Fine. I’m a little upset.”

They smiled and put a hand on her back. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling how you do.”

“That doesn’t make it better…” She wiped her eyes. “It’s worse knowing that I can’t do anything. Isn’t it pointless to feel this way? She’s long gotten over me. I knew that already.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s pointless. If you feel horrible about it, maybe the best thing to do is to make strides on getting over her for good?”

“If I could have done that, I would have. It isn’t that easy.” She sighed, lifting her head and looking off into the mirror.

“Well, maybe take this as an opportunity to focus on something new, or someone new.” Ode grabbed a paper towel from the rack and handed it to Clarissa. She wiped her face again and crumpled the paper in her hands, making a ball with her fist around it.

“That’s…you’re right.” She stood up straight and turned around, crossing her arms in front of her. As she shut her eyes, thoughts bounced around in her head for a while before she finally settled on a devious idea. She smiled wide at Ode and said, “maybe I do have something in mind that would help.”

“Really? What is it?”

“I’ll show you when the time comes!” With that, Clarissa paraded out of the bathroom.

The two walked back over to Hysteria and Alice headed to the table with their food. Hysteria held a tray while Alice held a foam container. Clarissa and Ode sat next to each other— her with a stupid grin, them with a perplexed stare.

Hysteria put her tray of charred steak and mushrooms down and pulled a chair out to sit. She stretched her arms out above her head and exhaled deeply. “It’s such a nice day today…the perfect temperature!” At noon, it was around 97 degrees Fahrenheit, a little sweltering to most.

“It makes sense you would like it.” Alice laughed as she opened up her container. Inside was a piece of crusted salmon with green beans and mashed potatoes. Fish and the smell of garlic— that meal was truly the bane of Clarissa’s existence!

“Ah, I want some of what you have…it looks really good!” Hysteria eyed Alice’s plate. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my usual, but human food seems much more delectable than demon cuisine.”

“Haha, well, salmon’s a really great dish! You can pair it with a lot of different flavors, but this type is my favorite. It’s a bit heavy with the potato, though.” She chomped down on a mouthful of potatoes.

The two girls bounced off of each other like nothing, like they’d been friends for years. It was unnatural; it was weird! What happened for them to be such good pals already? The question stung Clarissa’s mind like the sun on her fragile skin. She had to keep it together. Her goal was clear; she had no reason to be thinking like that after devising her plan.

The conversation felt like it lasted for hours, but it was really only 15 more minutes.

Ode picked up their book and stood from the table. “This has been really fun, everyone! I have to get back to my shop, though. If you want to stop by, it’s the shack at the end of Shadow Lane. It was really nice to meet you, Alice. You’re a very cool person!”

“Aw, thanks so much, Ode. You are too. I’ll try to come by some day this week, then!” Alice waved goodbye to them.

“Thank you! I always like to show off the collection of items I have.” Ode walked a bit away from the table. “Goodbye then, everyone!” They waved quickly and rushed off into the building with their book in hand.

“Dammit,” Hysteria cursed. She stood up with her tray. “I forgot. I have band practice in 10 minutes! I gotta go. It’s a bit of a walk, so…I’ll see you two later!” She put her tray back and threw out her trash a few feet away then promptly came back for a second. “Also, Clarissa, could you show Alice around a bit more? Maybe show her the auditorium, and I’ll cover anything else I missed later.”

Clarissa nodded. “Yeah, I can do that….See you, Hysteria!”

Hysteria waved at the two of them and ran off in a blast of smoke.

“Right, well…let’s get going, Alice!” Clarissa got up and motioned for Alice to follow her.

After the two girls threw out their own trash, Clarissa took Alice out of the courtyard and the main building. The auditorium was near a collection of recreational buildings at the back of campus. It was the biggest structure among them, standing at around three stories high. Marble walkways lined with flowers and grass connected each building together. The two walked toward the auditorium as Alice pointed out the flowers she liked. Despite the fire burning in Clarissa’s heart, this was the moment, the perfect time to conduct the first act of her plan!

“This is one of my favorite spots on campus. Feast your eyes on the grand performance hall, Alice!” Clarissa opened up the double doors and threw an arm behind her with her hand outstretched, showing off the room. It was a large stage hall covered in two floors and a balcony of cushy satin seating. The walls were lined with the same material and rose three stories up into the ceiling covered in recessed lighting. On the stage, a piano sat off to the side with the lid closed.

“You’re very theatrical. Do you act?” Alice asked with a raise of her brow as they walked down to the stage from the ramp on the side.

“No! I’m simply a musical artist.” Crossing her arms, Clarissa looked off at the piano. “It’s quite offensive you would suggest I’m a girl of the theatre…but I would say I’m a connoisseur when it comes to the act of flirtation.”

Alice blinked a few times. “Huh? What do you mean…?”

A moment of silence passed, and Clarissa’s face would have been pink if it had any circulation. She cursed under her breath then burst out into a fit of laughter. “Ahahaha!! I didn’t mean…” She struggled to find more words and stammered, “R-right, you see, Hysteria and I used to date. She’s the loveliest demon I could ask for, really.”

Alice smiled wryly and tugged at one of her overall straps. “Oh, I see! So, you mean…she was your girlfriend.”

“Yes. We wrote songs together, sang duets….that kind of thing!”

“And this is your favorite place because of her, huh? That’s so cute!” Alice seemed to smile at that thought genuinely. “Though, she doesn’t seem like the type for classical.”

Somehow, Alice had ruined her gay gushing. Another pang of rage stabbed Clarissa in the neck.

“Well, sure…! Her style is much more rock-punk, but she’s a sweetheart at her core.” Clarissa cleared her throat. “Anyway, this is also the place where plays and orchestral processions happen, but I would say those are much less important than her presence.”

She laughed a little at Clarissa’s comment. “Can you play something? I’d love to hear, if that’s alright.”

Oh, she would give Alice a show, alright.

“Of course! I can’t promise it’ll be better than what she could do.” Clarissa sat herself at the bench and opened up the cover to play, cracking her knuckles before she began. “After all…” Clarissa snickered, “…she’s much more masterful with her fingers.” Her glare of glowing red shot through Alice like a bullet. She exposed her fangs with an open-toothed grin.

“H-Hm!” Alice coughed into her hand forcefully and took a step away from the piano, slowly descending to the audience. “You know, I really should get going—”

“Ah, ah! You’ll miss my performance!”

A sapphire glow took hold of Alice, sitting her in a chair as Clarissa’s audience. She was locked in place.

“Now then, Vivaldi’s Summer ‘Storm.’” The first notes echoed out into the hall; powerful chords struck the piano with such force it shook the entire thing. Her voice sank low and boomed out through the hall as the song escalated into arpeggios of tempestuous bolts. “Well…get running!”

Alice shrieked and stumbled on a bit of frayed carpet before she frantically ran towards the front doors. Clarissa laughed with vigor after she bolted from the stage. The song was left unfinished, but her first act was complete.


It had been about a month and a half since Clarissa’s first act. Occasionally, she would play smaller jokes on Alice that were much more lighthearted in nature.

While Alice was sitting in the courtyard, she dug around in her pocket for the note that Clarissa had sloppily planted a minute earlier. It had a very poorly drawn picture on it. The drawing depicted Clarissa smiling and holding hands with Hysteria as a crying Alice was in some kind of vehicle. Alice got up from under the tree she was sitting by and went to check the one that Clarissa was very obviously hiding behind.

Alice spoke up as she turned, put a hand on the tree, and pulled out the note. “Hey, is this supposed to be a car?”

Clarissa jumped audibly and stuttered, “W-what? Of course it is.”

“I was just thinking. Do you want to learn how to draw?”

“Why are you asking? It’s a perfectly fine drawing.”

Alice laughed a little at that. “You could spice it up a bit more, though. I promise I can help you if you want to learn.”

“Hm…p-perhaps I could use a little help.” Clarissa was, again, flustered. “But that’s all! Only so I can…make…better—”


“Exactly! That’s all!”

Alice laughed some more.

Dammit! She had to kick it up a notch if she was going to get anywhere! How in the world was she supposed to get her to leave when she was so…infuriating?!

Despite Clarissa’s grumbling, the two ate lunch together. After getting their food, they sat next to each other under the tree with their respective lunches— Clarissa’s usual blend of blood and fruit and Alice’s bowl of lettuce and vegetables. It looked absolutely abhorrent. Tasteless!

Clarissa sipped her drink. “Why are you being so…” She stared at the window, watching the students inside walk down one of the halls.

“So…?” Alice put her fork down.

“…Ugh. You weren’t even afraid of me, were you?” Clarissa groaned and turned to look at her.

“Well, that’s not entirely untrue.” She smiled.

“Then what was it?”

“It was fascinating. Well…you are.”

If any one word could describe Clarissa’s face at that moment, it would be stunned. “What does that mean?”

“That scene at the auditorium…it was really fun, honestly! It was a little terrifying, considering you were…I don’t know? I think you were trying to threaten my life? But it was still kind of…exciting. You are a vampire, after all. It was a little flattering that you felt…threatened by me, too.” She laughed.

“I-I did not! I’m not…” Clarissa pouted at her.

Suuure.” Alice teased her and continued eating.

Clarissa glared back after taking another sip of her drink. “…Why did you come here, anyway? How?”

Alice put her bowl down again. “…I had been thinking of colleges to apply to for a while, so I planned to search again one morning to finally get some applications in. Instead, there was …  some kind of glitch on my computer. It showed the website on my screen when I opened it up one day.”

“Huh? That’s not possible…is it?”

“Apparently, it is. It felt like it was almost made for me. I’ve always been really interested in monsters and mythology. So, it was really weird to find it sitting there in front of me. And it was totally free, too? It was perfect.”

“Hm…that’s one of the best parts. It’s very nice to not have to worry about worldly economics.” Clarissa sipped her drink again.

“It was all I worried about at home.” Alice laughed again.

Clarissa joined her. “I can’t imagine having to deal with money anymore. I had a hard time of it once, too.”

“Yeah. My family was strapped for money when I was younger, so I had to get a job as a teenager. And it kind of carried past high school. So even when things weren’t tough anymore, I still didn’t want to burden my parents. You’re much older, being a vampire and all, though. I’d assume that your experience was a lot different than mine, being that you’re from…when were you born?”

“That’s a very personal question…” Clarissa crossed her arms. “…but I’ll answer! Just because I’ve enjoyed this conversation.”

Alice giggled. “I’m glad!”

“Well, I was born in the mid-1800s in England. You’re not getting anything more specific than that.”

“Still, that puts you at almost 150, at least.”

“H-hey now…let’s not put a number to it. Vampires are sensitive about that kind of thing, you know? Consider me the age that I turned, alright?”

“What is that, then?”


“I won’t ask how it happened.”

“You wouldn’t have gotten an answer if you had asked. Thank you…for being considerate.”

“Don’t mention it. I’m…sorry about my comment, earlier. I just thought…” Alice grabbed at her arm.

“Hm. It’s fine. I…apologize for my behavior at the auditorium, too. It was rash and unnecessary, really.” Clarissa sighed and looked down at the grass. “But don’t get the idea that this is over, alright?” She glanced back up at Alice.

“Hehe. I’ll keep that in mind.”

The two continued chatting until they finished eating and both went their separate ways to plan their next attacks.


On the week of Halloween, Clarissa devised her second act. It was much less intense than her first, since the two had all but made amends in the way of threats. That week, Hysteria and Ode were planning to host a karaoke night before the night of the university’s own festivities. Being that Ode was the only one who lived outside of campus, their house was a perfect location to sing loudly and horribly. Not only was karaoke fun, but it was a great opportunity for Clarissa to impress Hysteria and leave Alice in the dust.

As Clarissa got to Ode’s house, she noticed that Hysteria and Alice were already there, greeting Ode at the door. She took her time to get there, since she didn’t want to waste all her energy on teleportation that day.

“Hey, you two! It’s nice to see you both again. I’m glad we could set this up!” Ode stood at the door and held it open. Hysteria went in with the karaoke machine in hand.

“I’m glad too! I wish we could do this more, but I know you’re busy,” Alice said.

“Oh, yes, but it’s alright! These rare opportunities are much better that way!” They smiled and glanced out at their front yard. “Oh, Clarissa! Glad you could make it, too!”

She walked up to the patio and grinned. “Of course! I wouldn’t miss it. Karaoke is always so much fun.”

“I’ve never done it before, so I’m kind of nervous.” Alice laughed as she went through the entryway.

“Don’t be nervous! I’m bad at singing, myself, so if you’re not the greatest, it’s alright!” Ode reassured her.

Clarissa walked in after Alice, and Ode closed the door behind them.

As the machine was getting set up, Ode offered to get the three drinks. Alice decided to have water. Clarissa picked out some orange soda, and Hysteria chose to have some alcohol.

“Weird, I didn’t know you liked alcohol,” Hysteria said, sipping on her small cup of vodka.

“Oh, I absolutely hate it. I just got some because I know you like it. I’ll bring out some snacks in a little bit!” Ode went back into their kitchen as the TV turned on.

Hysteria stood up and grabbed the remote to turn the volume up. “Alright! Let’s get this started, then! This machine has just about any song you could think of. It’s the power of the internet, really. Aaand for my first song, I’m picking one that might shake the house a bit!”

Ode called in from the kitchen. “Be sure you don’t scare the ghosts too much! They’re very friendly neighbors!”

“I won’t, I promise!” Hysteria replied. She stood by the television and selected her song of choice. “It’s one of my own songs, anyway. This is my drummer’s favorite, called ‘Wrath of Poison.’”

The instruments started off quiet and quickly led into fast-paced drumming and guitar strumming. As the melody slowed down, Hysteria belted out the first phrase. It was a brash song filled with profanities and violence against worldly governments. This was certainly a song that Hysteria didn’t write. She likely made the arrangement, while her drummer wrote the lyrics. It was a great song by punk standards, but it was still really crude in the way of expletives. Since Hysteria was singing, it was still beautiful in that way, at least. Once the song finished, there was a pause before eruptions of oohs and aahs came from around the house.

Hysteria set down the mic and breathed heavily. “Woo! Now, who wants to go next?”

Clarissa wondered whether she would go then or wait until after Alice’s performance. It just so happened that before she could decide, Alice got up and stole the mic away from the coffee table.

“This is…a little nerve-wracking, but I’ll give it a go.” Alice used the remote to search for the song she wanted and settled on one that Clarissa was all too familiar with—it was off of The Scary Jokes’ BURN PYGMALION!!! album—“Death, Thrice Drawn.”

The electronic synths came in and flooded the room with their cheery blips and melodies, but at that moment, they felt more like knives that sank straight into Clarissa’s heart, stabbing it relentlessly. Alice’s voice lilted with the intro. “‘Hotshot, have you got a clue how long I’ve been pining for you? Spent so many sleepless nights in unbaptized decline, but in our parallel minds, we were just killing time ‘til our collision catalyst.’”

This wasn’t happening. Clarissa gauged Hysteria’s reaction at the couch. Hysteria was smiling, cheering Alice on. Did she notice it? Or was she just enjoying Alice’s performance?

“‘The awful truth has eluded you for too long. Uh oh, everything you know is all wrong.’” Alice closed her eyes, but despite this, Clarissa felt that this phrase and its subsequent verse were directed right at her; Alice was certainly staring into her soul.

“‘There is no substance left for the wyrm to eat itself. Such callow uncertainty in these pantomime end times. Sucks to be an optimist in this listless dissolution. It’s just a triptych in decay. Yeah, yeah.’” This was the awful truth that she knew would come. The previous phrase was sung again.

With the chorus came an overwhelming sense of despair. This was the end!

“‘I hope you know that you can trust me, baby, it’s just me! I hope you know that you don’t owe me, oh girl you own me! I hope you know you’re really special; you’re so next-level. I hope you know just how much I believe in you.’” Alice moved over to Hysteria as the instruments mellowed out and turned into the song’s outro. She was looking directly at Hysteria, who was wide-eyed with her mouth agape. “‘It’s quiet now; I doubt if any thoughts will ever come again, but there’s a sense of some lone consequence wheezing down my neck. It’s fine. We’re fine. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. I’d burn it all; I’d set the world on fire just to be with you.’”

As the song ended with a few final notes, Clarissa’s mind was swirling into the depths of some long-forgotten void. What was this? Was this really happening? Her eyes stung; her head was pounding. She burst from the room, passing Ode, who was just then bringing the platter of snacks into the living room.

“Clarissa? Where are you—” They were cut off by her exit through the backdoor and out to the yard.

She walked down to the weeping willow tree that was growing next to an adjacent creek. The serenity of the scene didn’t calm her roaring thoughts. Even as she sat with her back against the tree, looking out at the quiet stream, she felt like her endless life was over. The countless wispy leaves rustled in the wind; some fell to the grass beside her and others fell upon her hair.

She knew Hysteria was going to leave her forever. It was certain death to her heart.

The door at the house creaked open slowly and shut quietly. The person’s footsteps were subdued by the grass, but they crunched on the willow tree’s fallen branches. Clarissa continued to stare out at the flowing water. She breathed in deeply and exhaled the same.

Hysteria sat down in front of her. She set a hand on one of Clarissa’s and took hold of it gently. “I’m sorry. I…didn’t expect that, either.” Her expression was soft, relaxed, solemn.

Clarissa’s eyes stung again, and she sputtered out, “Did…what did she say?”

“I don’t think you’ll like it.”


Hysteria hesitated, then spoke, “…she confessed to me. I didn’t get back to her yet, but…you know.” She looked away for a moment, then stared back at Clarissa.

“Ah…” Clarissa covered her face with her other hand. “I knew it. I knew this would happen.”

Hysteria opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She tightened her grip on Clarissa’s hand.

“Don’t…don’t go. Don’t leave me, please.” Clarissa’s voice was cracking.

Hysteria let go of Clarissa’s hand and took hold of the one on her face. She moved it away and stared into her eyes, still gripping that hand. “Clarissa, I would never leave you. I’ll always be here.”

Clarissa stared back, feeling a thump in her chest with a wish floating in her head. She just wanted Hysteria to kiss her awake and tell her she was having a bad dream. There was no point trying anymore. “What did I do? Why did you…last year…why did you break up with me…?”

Hysteria sighed. “…You never did anything wrong. There’s not much more I can say that I already haven’t said. I still love you and care about you, but…not romantically, like I told you back then. I promise, I’ll always be your friend and your partner in crime. We’ll always be together somehow, even if it’s not like we used to. I don’t want to get your hopes up by saying things can go back to normal…” Hysteria cupped her hands around Clarissa’s face and caressed it lightly. “…but I believe in you. One day—I promise you—you can love another. You can grow from this.” She smiled so warmly that it made Clarissa melt. “You already have been, Clarie.”

Tears had been collecting in Clarissa’s eyes long before then. It was at that moment that they rushed down in streams, searing marks into Hysteria’s hands. She whimpered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and with another short breath, “I love you.”

Hysteria pulled her into a long and loving embrace. Her heart ached more and more every second it lasted. She thought back to all the times her emotions got the better of her, all the times she was trying to protect a love that no longer existed to the one it mattered most. In the end, her envy-fueled outrages were futile attempts to give herself some kind of reprieve from the pain she was feeling. None of it was right. None of it gave her any relief, either. It was all a huge mistake; regret filled her endlessly.

All she wanted was to be loved. She knew she was looking in the wrong direction, but she didn’t know where to turn next. Maybe moving on from their relationship was a concept she hadn’t fully grasped until now. It was painful. Moving on— it wasn’t what she had been doing at all. She was just avoiding the issue, acting like it wasn’t even there. In reality, she wasn’t at all trying her hardest. Maybe it was time to start that process. Truly, this time.

The two entered the house again a few moments later. Hysteria gave Clarissa another hug and lingered a hand on her back before she left to go to the living room. Clarissa’s eyes were still puffy and bloodshot. Luckily, her head felt a little better after she blew her nose and let the rest of her tears out.

Ode rushed over to Clarissa as Hysteria left her. “My gosh, are you okay? What happened?”

“I…” Clarissa cleared her throat and rubbed her eyes. “I’m okay now.”

“You don’t seem it.” Ode worriedly grabbed her a tissue.

Clarissa wiped her wet face with the fabric. It felt a little coarse, but it was comforting to wipe away her sorrows and throw them out. “No, I am. I was just…waking up.”

“I see. Did you rub your eyes enough?” Ode stared at her with a smile.

“Yeah, I did. I was being…quite insane.” Clarissa grinned back and started to laugh.

They laughed, too, and gave her a brief hug. “It’s okay. You’ll be okay.” Ode kept a hand on her back.

“I hope so.” She glanced at the other room.

“You will! I’m here for you. We all are.”

She thought about Alice’s karaoke from before. “…Alice caught me off guard, but…it’s alright. I’m trying…to move on.”

“I’m proud of you. I know it’s been tough, but I always knew you could do it.” Ode smiled at her and pulled her into another hug.

Clarissa smiled softly and leaned her head against their neck. “Thank you, Ode. I know I haven’t been by much lately, but…”

“I understand, Clarissa. There are other duties to attend to, sometimes! Though…please visit me again, soon.” They let go and stared at her.

“I will. I want to.”

“Good! I have a lot of new things in stock. I mean…I love spending time with you, in general, too.” Ode flustered a little and wrung their hands together.

She laughed. “Me too. Now, do you mind if I talk to Alice?”

“Of course not. Don’t let those snacks go to waste, though. I put some out for you, too!”

“I’ll get to them soon. Now…Alice!” She spotted Alice in the other room. Alice was scrolling through the songs again. “I’ll get you back for that rude comment about my art!”

Alice looked in at Clarissa and laughed heartily. She shouted back at her with a playful intonation, “I’d like to see you try!” At that, she dropped the remote and mic onto the carpeted floor and ran out into the front yard.

Ode grabbed Clarissa’s arm as she prepared herself to run after Alice. They looked at her with a pleading yet light expression. “Don’t hurt her, at least?”

Her grin widened. “If it comes to that, then she should consider herself…lucky.” She tapped their nose with a finger and zipped to the door in a flash. With both Ode and Hysteria in tow, she bounded out of the front door.

As the sun set below the mountains, their collective laughter filled the autumn air.

About the author
Janus C. is a senior at Rider University, majoring in Game Design. They hope to craft all kinds of stories that will bring people joy.

Beach Musings

Lauren Fedorko

the gossamer silhouette 
of a 13-year-old boy
trudges across the inlet 
of the bay
he walks carefully, as if the coast
is sprinkled with shards of glass
his chubby cheeks
are still prevalent—even
at the cusp of manhood
his fishing net,
parallel with his ribs

today, he’s figured out
a piece of himself
he is more of a man
than he was this morning

he takes the blood-red sun
in and lets
it fill his lungs
hot breath on a windowpane

I think my father
was this way in the summer
of 1966
where the sand and the
crashing waves met
below an endless
periwinkle sky

I picture him
becoming more of a man
as he reels in
a largemouth bass
something he’ll later clean,
gut and
cook for himself

I remember the first time
I caught a softball on that beach—
my father slung
the ball at my face
“Catch it, baby! 
It’s the only way you’ll learn!”
my 9-year-old body leapt 
in the air
as it made a loud clap
into my glove
my father ran for me
swung my body
around his
in circles

About the author
Lauren Fedorko, M.Ed., is an Adjunct Professor of writing at Rutgers University, teaches AP Literature and Creative Writing, and advises the Gay Straight Alliance for her students. Her passion for writing is longstanding and ongoing, composed mostly of poetry and creative non-fiction. She enjoys exploring, good company, and traveling the world every chance she gets. Her work has previously been published in the Kelsey Review and The Inquirer.

Retired, I Read the Latest Scenic Artist Union Newsletter

Steve Smith

as if it were just a moment ago that I was
on the new members list, young and eager
to paint Broadway backdrops.

Then my eye focuses like a spotlight
on a stage curtain as I read the names
of old colleagues; Carla, Cheryl and Arnold
in the recently deceased column.

Forty years ago we met on movie sets,
theatre stages and studios, solved crosswords
together during coffee breaks, celebrated
birthdays, new babies, romances, consoled
divorces, mourned the deaths of parents.

Now, they are shooting stars falling
and disappearing in the sky. I see their faces,
like candles blown out on birthday cakes.

About the author
Steve Smith earned a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Steve’s poems have appeared in The Kelsey Review, US1 Worksheets, The New Jersey Journal of Poetry, The Paterson Literary Review, Nerve Cowboy, The Barefoot Muse, as well as The Mid West Prairie Review. Steve resides in Pennington with his wife Fran.