Me, Myself, and Eye

My earliest memory is my mother’s panicked expression as she grabbed my face and told me to look at her. I assured her, as best a three-year-old could, that I was looking at her. I had developed a lazy eye, but that wasn’t my first foray into the world of eye troubles.

When I was thirteen months old, I was a quiet baby who didn’t cry, but whose eyes darted back and forth and watered continuously. I’m told my eye pressure at the time was 40, which is extremely high. I was diagnosed with open-angle juvenile glaucoma. The lazy eye, my left eye, my weaker eye, would be a later side effect. Multiple surgeries would take place by the time I was five.

Before I knew how to spell, count, or tell time, I knew I was partially blind. I had to wear glasses long before I knew how to take care of them; even in the McDonald’s PlayPlace ball pit, where a pair still remains undiscovered. I was told for years that a field of vision test was “just like a video game." I had to bring a note on the first day of every school year that explained why I needed to sit in the front row and completely throw off the alphabetical seating chart. I know how to live with it because I’ve never lived without it.

I find it hard to write about my disability for two reasons.

One reason is that I don’t fully grasp it. For most of my life, it has been something handled for me, never by me. All doctor’s updates were directed at my mother, and most of the terms flew, and still fly, over my head. I am not an expert on my disability, which makes me feel like a fraud.

The other reason is that I have the luxury of hiding my truth. You don’t see me as disabled until I tell you. And when I tell you, when you see me that way, even when your intentions are good and your heart is pure, I become incapable in your eyes. It becomes easy for you to see me as someone who cannot achieve anything. And that’s a hard way to be viewed.

But I’m going to try to write about it. So I can see myself clearly. For once.

Explaining Myself

Loosely cup your hands around your eyes like a big pair of binoculars. Now you see what I see.

That’s the explanation I’ve used since middle school because it’s simple; makes me sound like I understand what is wrong with my eyes and I’m dumbing it down for outsiders. It was harder to explain when I was younger.

It started with a cloth eye-patch that would go over the left frame of my glasses. It was used to strengthen my right eye and alienate me from fellow toddlers. I had two alternating patches; one with an embroidered train, the other had a teddy bear. I would wear my glasses lower on my nose and just look over them.

This resulted in an upgrade: flesh-colored adhesive patches that covered my eye and stuck to my young thick Italian eyebrow. My routine became:

Have my mother administer drops.Put on a fresh eye-patch.Have concerned peers on the playground ask me what happened to my eye.Itch around my eye.Have an attendant at the after-school center rip off my eye-patch to administer eye drops.Rub my eyebrow.Put on new patch.Have my mother rip off my eye-patch before bed to administer drops.Rub my eyebrow.From a distance, you would look at me, the flesh tone of my eye-patch blending with my skin, and think I didn’t have a left eye socket.

In middle school, I didn’t have to wear the patch and came up with the binoculars metaphor. I was selective with who I told, but word got around. I was never bullied, but it did come up. It was acknowledged, but never outright mocked. Velma from Scooby Doo, a white Ray Charles, Mr. Magoo, a white Stevie Wonder, or, as a friend from AP English said, “an ancient Greek oracle, a blind prophet.” Or a white Denzel Washington from The Book of Eli.

I would laugh along, only slightly bruised, but knowing that most of the people used as references were fully blind. They didn’t have the luxury of the label and the ability to see the person pointing the finger.

Now, I mostly refer to myself as “legally blind.” An asterisk next to my disability. A technicality. Something I get to use if I need it, hide if I don’t, be ignorant about, and reap the benefits from. A privilege.

Sometimes I’ll try to look up articles about glaucoma and learn about the details of what’s happening to my diminishing peripheral vision and deteriorating optic nerves, but usually, I just get depressed.

There’s no magical eye drop or surgery that could cure me. It can be stabilized when monitored correctly, but any vision lost can’t come back. Right now, I don’t see the importance of becoming an expert. All it would give me is more acute anxiety.

You’re standing on a mountain looking at the most beautiful landscape you’ve ever seen. Loosely cup your hands around your eyes like a big pair of binoculars. To your surprise, you see the magnified details of the landscape and notice a growing darkness racing towards you. There is no way to escape. The darkness will consume you. Do you focus on the darkness for the remaining moments? Or do you put your hands down and enjoy the view while you can?


I love movies. I have felt stronger emotions toward movies than I have most people. Friendships have been ruined based on opinions about movies. And one day, maybe, my glaucoma could progress to the point where I would never be able to see a movie again.

It’s hard for a young kid to sit still in an exam room and get their eye pressure taken. You have to rest your chin on a big metal device with lots of lights and rotating parts. The doctor tells you to stay perfectly still, look forward, and don’t blink as a small blue-glowing nub comes towards your eye. Luckily, pediatric ophthalmologist, Dr. Arthur had a TV in a cabinet in the corner of his office with a VHS player.

I would spend hours as a seven-year-old agonizing over whether to bring The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King. The selection was ultimately pointless. I’d only get to see about four or five minutes before my pressure was checked. But I was always transfixed. So much so that I didn’t realize until years later that the blue-glowing nub was even touching the surface of my eye.

I’ve spent a lot of my life looking past what is happening to me and focusing on a film. Instead of focusing on an eye exam, I’ll watch “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Instead of wondering why the cable’s been turned off again, I’ll watch School of Rock. Instead of dealing with my unresolved emotions over a break-up, I’ll watch Sleepwalk with Me five times in a row.

On the nights when my mind anxiously wanders through all the possible scenarios of my life and my health and my vision, I wonder what the last movie I’ll ever see will be.

I hope it’s a good one.

Bad Habits

When asked if they brushed their teeth, it is instinct for kids to say Yes, even if they mean No. That same instinct kicks in when you ask a kid if they put in their prescribed eye-drops every morning and before bed every night. They say, “Yes, I’m taking the drops that regulate my eye pressure so it doesn’t get too high and weaken my optic nerves,” but they mean, “No, I’m ten years old with terrible aim and no concept of responsibility.”

I don’t know if my mom knew I wasn’t taking my drops. I do know that every three or four months, when we went to an eye doctor appointment, she would give me the drops right before going into the office. I do know I grew up without facing the consequences of having a messy room, not doing laundry or dishes, general laziness. I don’t know if it’s fair to entirely blame my mother for my bad habits. Shouldn’t I be held accountable too? She never communicated the severity of my condition to me, but I never asked questions to begin with. She never made sure I brushed my teeth, or cleaned my room, or took my drops, but I never cared about myself enough to start of my own accord.

At a point, I became willfully ignorant.

At a point, I went to college over eight hundred miles away in the Western Mountains of Maine where I didn’t take an eye-drop or see an eye doctor for four years.

While engrossed in Theatre and Creative Writing classes, I neglected my physical and mental health, like a majority of college students. There was a subconscious belief that I was immortal. I could bounce back from anything. Everything.

Now a year out of college, I have to actively tell myself that I can’t eat pizza every day, that I have to brush my teeth before bed, that I should try to stretch in the morning, and that I have to face the inevitable consequences of the effect these last five years have had on my eyes.

At the time of writing this, I’ve scheduled an eye doctor appointment. I’m trying to figure out how my insurance works. I’m trying to make sure I have all the right records and information. I’m trying to not stress myself out about my deteriorating vision. From my perspective, nothing about my vision has changed, but since when have I been an expert?

I don’t regret my actions. For a brief time, I got to live without a disability. Or at least pretend to.

Defining Myself

I once had a friend ask me if he was only getting cast in productions because of his race. He was constantly overthinking things, so I gave him a stern, “No. You’re a talented actor, duh.” I thought he was crazy to assume that his race was a factor in a talent-based audition.

Then I started applying for jobs, fellowships, and gigs. To stand out on the page, I would identify as a “legally blind playwright” to hopefully off-set my checked boxes of “white” and “male.” I got a small sliver of what my friend experiences on a daily basis. Is my work being recognized as good work? Would I receive the same attention anonymously? If I get a great opportunity, is it because of my talent or because I fit into “a diverse collection of writers”?

But, walking down the street, I get to blend in. In classes and workshops, my disability is never a factor in the work I present or the notes I give. I never have to speak on behalf of a whole community or justify my right to exist. I get to hide in plain sight, only revealing the full truth when it’s convenient for me.

I’m always trying to find that balance of identification. In high school, my IEP teacher would always tell me if I needed anything, like an iPad or something, the state would pay for it. Of course, I wanted an iPad, but I never needed one for anything related to my vision. I always understood that those resources should go to other IEP students who actually needed assistance.

However, there are resources I do need. I’ll never be able to drive, so I need to live somewhere with a good public transit system. I’m currently applying to get special rates on transit because costs add up quick. And I dream of the not-so-distant future where self-driving cars give me the independence felt by every teenager with a fresh new license.

It’s a hard line to walk: advocating for myself, but trying not to take advantage. Fully representing myself, but not letting my disability define me. Blind, but only legally blind.

Right now, I define myself as Zack Peercy, a twenty-three-year-old writer who loves pizza, movies, and theatre. I don’t have a good singing voice, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. People in my improv classes think I’m weird, but seldom in a good way. I spend a lot of my time fabricating the reality that my friends hate me. That U2 album is still on my iPhone because I never figured out how to delete it. I probably masturbate too much. And I feel more comfortable sharing personal things on stage or in my writing than I do with the people I love.

My disability is part of what defines me, but it’s not how I define myself.

Am I renouncing my community by saying that? Am I doing enough with my privilege to speak out for others? Is it my responsibility as someone on the fringe to speak as or for this community? Am I writing about this for my own journey, or am I writing for you to see me as someone special, honest, real? I’ll get back to you on that.

Looking Myself in the I

My eyes, with a panicked expression, grab my face and say, “Look at us. Acknowledge us.”

And, after twenty-three years, I do. As best I can.

Listen to the audio recording of this essay on SoundCloud here.

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The terrarium has always been. It’s made of glass with a great mesh lid on top. A lamp provides warmth throughout the day. We were once scientists and art teachers and coffee baristas. Now we’re just people. Some still go by their name. Some go by titles. They call me Six because I was the sixth one to wake up here.

When the mesh lid is drawn back and The Hand reaches down from above to deliver food and presents we rush to the center, fight for our scraps despite there being enough. The youngest of us scuttle off with bread and grapes, the strongest take turkey legs and bottled wine. Often enough a quarrel ends in a draw, even the weak get a taste of luxuries like cheese and kiwi fruit.

Sometimes we’ll meet by the waterfall and talk about life before we were here. Stories are told of late night talks with friends and first sexual encounters. We like to discuss old sitcoms and favorite restaurants-- none of us know whether these are still active facets of the community we left behind but it’s all we have to remember. Stories about great canyons and tropical forests are told around fire pits. Here, we just have a couple dome houses and a giant wheel to spin around in. It smells like Home-Depot. The Doctor likes to pick up our bedding, composed mostly of shredded newspapers, and read the scraps of information out loud. We always get a kick about what’s bothering the outsiders; politics and celebrity gossip run rampant in headlines still. Imagine if they had to fight for their bread.

At first we wanted to leave, who wouldn’t? We missed our friends and families. We missed our movie theatres, our dogs, and local super markets. But eventually we realized it wasn't going to happen. Whoever wants us here will keep us here, and that’s fine. You might lose an ear or a finger, but still, once everybody is fed it’s not so bad. We have everything we need besides organized rations; friends, doctors, make-shift lovers, and even though our reflection looks at us from beyond the glass we don’t crave to be there anymore. Life inside the terrarium is fine, maybe even better. We have no bills, no appearances to keep up. There’s no pressure to have kids or get a degree. Things are simple. Primal, perhaps even evil when stomachs get rumbling, but incredibly simple. And that’s enough for us.

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David Tilker is a brewer located in San Antonio, Texas, and he hired me last spring to write his biography. During his vetting process he read some of my work, including two stories here at X-R-A-Y about a character named Jannick Meisner. In the second of these stories, “I Was Married By A German Expressionist,” Jannick officiates a wedding for two close friends and orchestrates a violent and spectacular confrontation with a guest during the ceremony. This guest is actually Jannick’s secret lover. Jannick’s antics intrigued David Tilker and he asked, in a hopeful tone, if the events of that purported work of fiction were based in truth and whether Jannick Meisner might actually be a real life individual.

Jannick Meisner is real, I admit. His audacity is real. The danger he once posed is real. I met him first in Lake Charles.  We were drinking buddies. And we had many mutual friends and I too was a guest at that infamous wedding, on the bride’s side. I witnessed the whole fight. For his own amusement, Jannick had fisticuffs at a wedding he was presiding over. Tilker’s immediate reaction was: you have got to find this bastard, this iconoclast, and bring him to San Antonio. David Tilker was getting married and he wanted the Jannick Meisner treatment.

The finder’s fee was considerable, enough to keep me in single malt scotch for a year, so I agreed to the preposterous task of drawing Meisner out. I first traveled to Lake Charles to search for Meisner at his usual haunt, Pappy’s Bar and Grill. According to the regulars, he had gone to New Orleans to join the Merchant Marine. So I then went to New Orleans and endured the hipsters and tourists and confederate flag wavers and the lousy goddamn smell of the place. I found Meisner’s ship, just back from Kolkata, and his captain complained that Jannick had abandoned the crew in Ho Chi Minh City, to trade in exotic birds.

That night I phoned Tilker to give him an update. He became excitable, “Yes! Follow the goddamn Bavarian to the ends of the earth, if you must.” David Tilker had become infatuated with Meisner and had even started taking German lessons at Texas State University.

So I went to Vietnam. It is a vibrant country. The people are remarkable. Meisner had gotten into trouble with the local authorities and had fled across the border into Laos. And from there he had gone to Myanmar, all the while traveling with a contingent of small, colorful, rare birds he had captured and trained to circle above him and terrorize any who might reproach him, or show any unkindness to children or defenseless women. In point of fact, he became a sort of myth on the Indochinese peninsula, protector of the innocent, that sort of mawkish thing. But like all lawgivers he had flaws, in his case an obsession with orgasm control. His partner would have to bring him to the threshold and stop, and repeat and stop, all day. The criteria for loving Jannick physically was simply burdensome. According to the people I interviewed, ranging from simple villagers to high powered businessmen in Bangkok, he never reciprocated.

In Singapore, exhausted, I confirmed Meisner had chartered a flight to Brussels, and in Brussels I tracked down an apartment he had rented. I went there armed with whiskey and diazepam, only to find that the apartment had been recently abandoned and that it contained the corpses of six murdered Interpol agents. Jannick was the target of an expansive investigation into the smuggling of endangered species.

“Jesus fucking Christ” I said volubly at a cafe afterwards, and they scoffed at me as if I were yet another Ugly American.

“I’m coming home,” I told Tilker in an email. He was not amused but he understood. Meisner had gone completely unhinged.

I flew back to the States in August of 2018, after months away. In early September, I was reading all the local Texas newspapers for the sports pages. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m a bit of a gambler and I like to bet primarily on high school women’s bowling. And yes, there is a sexual element to it, if we are being frank. Out of Marathon, I happened to glance at the Life & Culture section. There was a photograph of Jannick Meisner, though the caption read Jeff Coolbody, standing next to the sculpture of what appeared to be a deformed giraffe.

After Brussels, Jannick had come back to the States and settled in West Texas. Every day huge shipments of animal feces were carted to him on the Missouri Pacific or some other rail line and he would take the feces and shape them into the animals which produced them. This was an artistic medium that began in Russia, Jannick told me. He’d sold the birds and in turn had received enough money to afford the logistics of his art, the cooperation of the railroads and zookeepers, et cetera. I went to visit him and he welcomed me with a five course meal.

“This is my dream. I dreamt of this since I was a boy in Munich,” he said.

“And what of Tilker’s wedding? He’ll pay you handsomely,” I said.

“But I’m happy. I am at peace,” Meisner said to me and I believed him. He bid me Gute Nacht, reminding me of the spare room and the full liquor cabinet and the Wi-Fi password before shuffling off to bed.

Perhaps this will surprise no one, but the death I speak of is not literal. It is the death of an idea: the insane, cornered, malevolent, discerning German. He is no longer that person, and he can no longer be properly embellished, at least by a serial abuser like me. His artistic conceit is odd, very odd,  but he is earnest about it, like a young child coloring. Nothing to disparage there, though certainly nothing to lionize. And there is no twist, by the way. I promise you. Were this one of my usual accounts, Jannick would have died while working on an elephant. Its torso would collapse on top of him.

All I can say is that Jannick was alive and happy and real when I left him. He works under aliases obviously. He cannot stay in Marathon forever, since he is still a wanted man. He’ll be moving soon, I imagine, but follow the smell and look on his works.

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WHAT COMES ALONG by Henry Gifford

An arachnid in the corner carefully traipses through the crack, under where the baseboard just fails to meet the worn and oaky floor. He weaves himself, and step by step by step times eight he finds himself new diversions: a knot in the hidden wood or a crumb that’s been swept into his corner by the fat old man who comes and goes every morning and night and sleeps on the thin bed that doesn’t quite carry him. With these he can make a day last longer or shorter, go faster or slower, all depending on what he wants. He does not want the day to choose its length.

There is no more family for the spider. He finds this funny, and sometimes laughs about it. He webbed them all up one day in their sleeps, and though they resisted, first by pulling then by biting then by a linguistic attempt, fruitless without their six spinnerets and their lovely thread, though they resisted in these three ways, our corner arachnid relentless did nothing, and only laughed at them. Now they are mildewing, rotten, and covered in cobweb. He is getting old, like the man, and thin, though every crawler that comes creaturing into his web is his for the eating. He grows, he grows, he grows thinner and thinner.

The old fat man has never had a woman with tits in his room. The spider would like to see tits, he thinks. Sometimes the old fat man goes out in the morning determined to meet a woman, a nice supple one with the tits of an actress, the spider can tell because the man says a thing like today today I’ll have my way, in fact makes songs of them. But then he comes back at night with his penis still trying and failing to harden, not even nearly succeeding, he has not even nearly succeeded, and he noodles his noodle for the night and then goes to sleep with the thing hanging out, the limp old wrinkly.

But when the old man goes out the spider does something peculiar that he does every morning when the old man goes out. He hears for the click of the door and the click of the key – click, exhausted suspiration, singular silence, click — and then skitters out frantically, seeing the light of day from the window that opens into the courtyard the man has not even yet reached. He is still walking down the four flights of stairs, down four, three, two, one, the click of the door, the click of the key, the man bursts into the courtyard into which the light liquidly pours and reflects off the front and then into the man and the spider’s house. By the time the old fat man, who has jowls, has reached the courtyard’s front step, our spider has stopped his skittering, has made his way to the cater-cornered corner, leaping over the gaps between the dry sheets of wood or fording them, refusing to nestle or drown in their depths, and crawling right out, depending on their size and his particular feeling.

Then he is at the opposite corner from where he lives, where his family doesn’t, and he begins to skitter-scurry up the old paint-thickened wall to the cornice, which is the old fat man’s favorite thing about the room. And there at the tip of the cornice, where one of its horizontals meets another, the corner arachnid, who feels no more guilt for the good old filicides than he does for not eating their dinners, it had to be done, you see, he is, after all, a filthy spider, there, at the corner of the cornice, he lets himself fly.

No — he does not jump, though he feels for a solitary moment that the air is the only thing keeping him groundless. He splays his legs, but his instincts always and do now get the better of him. His old and functional spinners do spin their thread the moment he drops from the out-jutting ledge, so that he has only a second of freedom from contact with anything, only one measly jumping second where he is finally, truly alone. Then he feels it tauten and he is dangling.

The reason for all this is really to dangle, to dangle very specifically. This way he calls warding off the fatness. Like the fat old man he does not want to be fat. So every day he weighs himself in this manner, by jumping from the cornice, by feeling himself free, and then by dangling. He releases more thread and more thread until he can see through his eyes the top of the bedframe, which maybe, he has to admit to himself, has changed its height over time as well, with seasonal swelling and an old fat man’s weight, but it’s surely not such a significant change. There he lets himself stay, in any case, directly across from the top of the bedframe, and then he gives himself a bounce, and however much further he goes, well that’s how fat he is. Today he is not so fat. He has not eaten for a week.

The spider is proud of himself, he has dangled so high that his hunger strike must have gone well, yes, he must look really weak and unpleasant now. He must look awfully frightening. He does not, because the fatter the spider the more frightening, it seems, a thick old body on thin legs, that’s where the fear comes from. He looks now more like something to be flicked away than smushed, and to be flicked is a not very pleasant thing. Sometimes it means even death, as it did once for the corner arachnid’s poor mother, and sometimes it means only divorce from everything and, pity, no time to prepare for or appreciate it. The spider does not know what makes a man want to flick, though, and he has seen thin spiders before, and found them distasteful, and he wants to be thin and distasteful and frightening, just like the others. He wants to walk on water, with only the tips of his legs dipping under the tensile surface.

He raises himself, zips himself up, brings himself back to the cornice, around which he crawls, this time he may as well stay at the top, instead of racing across the bottom of the floor, with all those gashes gaps and knots and cavities, he likes the ceiling and the cornice, the vantage point and the smooth bevels, which the years have not aged even nearly as much, in fact it was the fat old man who had the cornices installed, they did not come with the apartment, why would they have, the place is old but not that kind of old. He liked something to look at, to run his eyes over.

The spider scurries four legs after the others, step by step by step and so on, across the smooth new wood, and comes to a conclusion in the cater-cornered corner to where he once was, to where he jumped and spun his thread. He crawls down the not-so-nice knobbly plaster wall that he’s climbed up before, and doesn’t lose his grip or his balance, oh no, he continues on down with a firmness and surety. He is a very talented spider, though he is thin and old and when at the bottom, when he crawls back under the baseboard crack, his family looks tucked into bed. Despite all that he is very good at being a spider.

The spider has been waiting and sleeping and even a little bit starting to worry, yes, he’s even starting to worry that the man won’t come back. The bed will go, though not the mattress, and the desk will go as well, and that’ll be the end of it, an empty room will stand where the spider can still skitter, and he’ll still be able to go up to the cornice, but he won’t be able to dangle there, will he? No, because there won’t be a bedframe anymore, those damned parasites will have taken it.

Well, he has come back, and the spider hasn’t heard him this time, and the spider doesn’t know to scurry back under the baseboard. He doesn’t hear the click silence click or its next iteration; he doesn’t hear the piss or the flush, he doesn’t hear anything at all, he’s fast asleep, the poor spider is, but he does hear when the man says EH? over the bed, seeing this nasty spider, this murderous nasty hungry fat thin spider, this won’t do it all, no, and he’s on his bed, this is the same damn spider that skitters across the floor, isn’t it, teach him a lesson, and the spider’s too thin to be smushed, so here he goes, the spider’s awake, he lifts his finger, he curls his finger, he brings his finger down to where the spider sits and quakes in his final fear, he flicks.

And he knew, the arachnid in the corner, he knew from day one that one day he’d be flicked. He’d always known, and by the fat old man? So be it. That’s just fine. He knew one day in the end he’d be flicked, and you can’t prepare for a flick better than he’d prepared, so let him go loose, the spider flies. The air bears him aloft, he cannot shoot, he will not spin his thread. The ground is so far away from him now. The ceiling is so far away. Every wall is so far away and the spider, for just a fraction of a fraction, is in the center of the room. He sees from his eight half-blind eyes that the walls are nowhere near him. The cornices are so far away, and so is the baseboard, his family, and was this how his mother felt? It is how he feels right now. He feels that he has nothing tightening round him, that he is in this fraction alone. Then down he comes, to the floor he goes, but it’s okay, there’s nothing to be done. He doesn’t want to touch the floor, but it’s too late now. He touches the floor, he hits the floor, the floor with its gaps and knots is a weight on his body, the spider flattens-squashens, and finally, after all of that being alone, the spider, forgotten already, is dead.

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THE LIGHT AND STARS by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

A couple of days ago somehow I wrangled an OK Cupid date to drive down an hour from Virginia to come sit with me on my porch. And he read me Merwin like he’d never read Merwin out loud to anyone before. If you don’t know who Merwin is, that’s okay. It doesn't mean you ain’t as smart as me- I just went to writing school. But Merwin is an old ass prolific poet who lives in Hawaii and likes to translate other languages and talk about “light” and “stars”.

And while this OK Cupid date was reading ol Merwin to me on the porch, talking about the light and stars, the man with the huge tumor stomach, looks like he’s pregnant with a watermelon, walked by. He lives down the road, sells weed, maybe heroin.

Then the kid with his hood on who mumble raps to the wind like always. Then the little girl whose daddy just died at home, rotted away from cancer, she starts swinging and swinging so high the ends of the swing-set come out the ground.

And I see this but my OK Cupid don't stop reading Merwin, he’s caught up in the “light” and “stars.”

My town is a mile wide. It’s name is Woodland, North Carolina. Each street’s named after a tree. I grew up on Hemlock and live on Chestnut now. There are 3 churches, a Dollar General, and the gas station’s The Duck Thru. There isn’t a stop light or a bank or a grocery store.

But this is common for my county. I saw all the old abandoned things falling apart when I was little but thought that was how everything everywhere was. After my liberal arts education in the city is when I came home and saw rotting-maybe-used-to-be-homes-sitting-alone-way-back-in-fields, can’t-tell-they’re-so-old buildings. Everyone-who’d-know-anything-about-it-is-dead-already-kinda feel. Hard-to-shake-the-sad-feeling-kinda-feel.

My town was founded by Quakers. There used to be 3 factories. They made baskets, zippers, and caskets.

Now all the things in yards- couches, trucks, mattresses, pots, pans, buckets, refrigerator boxes, plows.

And now (as an adult as someone who has loved and lost and will only keep losing) all the dead things in the road, the ditch, deer, possums, owls, cats, sometimes dogs. Once even an eagle. When you drive by the wings fly up, can’t tell if it’s still moving.

But my town does have the best Sunday buffet in the county with collards/cabbage/fried chicken/catfish/cornbread/frog legs/tomato pudding/corn pudding/country ham/livers/gizzards/chicken pie/snaps/candied yams/beets/deviled eggs—want y’all to feel this abundance.

And this OK Cupid date is a poet, reads philosophy, has spent time backpacking Europe, etc. etc. maybe y’all know the type. Has college degree holding parents, joins them at protests, doesn’t eat meat. “I’d love to try the Sunday buffet,” he said, “but don’t they season the vegetables with pork?”


It’s fat back, side meat, hog jowl.

So instead of getting food, me and my date drive 30 minutes to get a beer at the new and only brewery in the history of Ahoskie, North Carolina. We were the only people there and the beer was expensive for what it was. The waitress looked at us like we were out of towners cause of the way we were dressed even though I talked liked her, told her I was from Woodland. And yeah, this hurt my feelings.

“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place,” she said, “A man from over there, last name was Barefoot, he was in AA with my brother. Always came and picked my brother up and took him wherever he needed to go- was good as gold.”

Me and my date sat outside on Main Street during the setting sun. There were shirtless men straddling their bikes on the corner smoking weed and talking like yelling like laughing, doves were flying in and out of the abandoned theater across from us cooing, the high windows of the buildings around were all busted, insulation coming out of them like internal organs, a throbbing pink. Look down and it’s like this the whole street. Except there’s a broken train and if it would be running it’d be going far out from here up to Virginia somewhere with pretty windows- new and clean.

But for some reason the train’s sitting there starting to ding like crazy.

And that’s when my date said, “This is a strange place. I’ve never been anywhere quite like this before.”

As if that were possible.

As if him going on about how it reminded him of some town he'd been through in a Pennsylvania mountain winter once was supposed to make me feel closer to him.

First of all I’m from a very flat place.

And he was saying everything he could to not say “poor.”

A recitation of a memory he had once being for the first time in a place that wasn't like the clean neighborhood cul-de-sac, he learned to ride his bike in circles like that, seeing the same thing.

I learned on the swamp path puddles, had to look out for snakes, briars.

He wanted me to hear him say where I was from was all okay, he’d been somewhere like this before, he could come down again and visit. He wanted to. It wasn't that bad at all.

But walking here we weren’t touching but I could feel him tense up when we rounded the corner, came up on the men and their bikes.  I asked them how they were doing and they said “Mighty fine.” My date looked at me like I should have been scared.

After beers he wanted to walk up and down the street “take in the scenery” he said, instead of just going to walk around in Walmart where I could get things I needed— won’t often I drove to Ahoskie and that’s where the nearest thing other than Dollar General to get things is. But we walked down the street and I watched him stand outside the abandoned music store, staring at the two rotting organs displayed in the full dusty ass windows. Probably trying to think something Merwin-like to say about it all to impress me.

But I didn’t care. Because Merwin would never come down his Hawaiian mountain to have a beer in Ahoskie, North Carolina to listen the men here on their bikes, to try to translate their language, find within it the light and stars.

On the ride home from Ahoskie it was dark dark and these roads here don’t have reflectors. Nothing but fields on either sides of us and woods and woods beyond that until we got to my town. My car was hurling us through the darkness when my date said, “Don’t you get so lonely here?”

I waited to answer him. I was looking for deer, eyes shining.

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I live with my best friend in a mansion. My room is a small box. Sometimes we go swimming in the mornings, other times only I do, in white underwear that's small and classic and only gets caught up sometimes on the insides of my thighs. It's purple outside when we finish swimming, and I use my grey towel to dry up so I can have wheat thins inside. We close all the windows and watch tv on my best friend's tv set while we sit on hard wood benches. Then we go to sleep before the Sun comes, in a big bed, and I'm always on the outside, looking at the wall. My best friend gets close with her whole body and no sheets. She wraps her arms around me and whispers I'm her little spoon as I go to sleep. I pretend the walls are glass, and I can see the people outside with strollers pass our mansion's grass while they go for walks, jogs, in sweats or jogging pants and with their hair tied up in pony tails. When I fall asleep I dream of my best friend's hands wrapped around me, tight because she wants to show me that she's there. She is always holding so tight that I am almost red from it.

We have to keep close in this big, empty house where we live alone. It's so easy to forget everything and wander into a dark corner. I wake up almost every day to knocking above us, like there are people walking on another floor. “There are 89 rooms and 5 stories in this house,” my best friend says, “And there is never any knocking.”

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ASSASSIN by Colleen Rothman

Between bites of avocado toast, I tell her first. She sucks her breath and smacks the table, rustling the ridiculous pussy bow on her polka-dot blouse. Despite her vow not to cry, mascara clumps her lashes in betrayal. It must not be the waterproof kind I talked her into during our last mall pilgrimage. Better than sex, the glistening pink tube bragged, as though it knew something we didn’t.

She asks what’s on my bucket list. Watching The Bucket List, I tell her. I’m on my third Bellini. She asks whether they have Make-A-Wish for grownups. Yeah, why should sad little kids have all the fun? She asks what I want to do, as though I have a choice in the matter. All I want to do is to sit in this chair, so that’s what I’m doing until I don’t feel like doing that anymore. As long as I sit here, we’re just two basic bitches brunching on a three-season patio. She asks how Dan is handling it. I tell her he’s golfing. I figure I’ll fill him in eventually. I haven’t known him as long.

The sprouted-grain toast forms a gummy bolus in the back of my mouth as she scolds me for not understanding marriage. Paul would be furious if she withheld such information, she says. Of course he’d be furious. He rants about the N.S.A. archiving his emails to anyone who’ll listen, while making no secret of reading his wife’s. You know there’s no escaping a man like Paul.

I swallow hard and shout over the nearby bus, beeping as it kneels, that I haven’t told Dan yet because he’d tell the kids—who, at six and three, can’t quite grasp the bitter karma of Mommy having slept around before she met Daddy. Without looking, I can feel the faces of the diamond-draped biddies at the adjacent table swivel in our direction, then turn away, newly quiet. We have an audience.

“Oh, god. The kids,” she says. Sometimes she forgets they exist. She never asks to see pictures. It used to bother me.

We chew in silence and watch a police cruiser sail past without a siren. My tongue glides over the slimy chia seed embedded in the molar I chipped last year, a casualty of grinding. I don’t want a warm-up, but I let the waitress fill the mug anyway.

Shit or get off the pot, something in me blurts, letting my tongue find the words. “If I got a wish, it would be to wake up next to Ben one more time.” Saying it out loud is easier than I’d expected, though harder than the other thing. Saying it out loud means admitting I’ve been lying to her for years.

“Christ. That’s still happening?” Her face has the serial monogamist’s mask of pity, like it did those mornings I’d stumble home to our three-flat wearing the previous night’s bandage dress. I’d make her swear not to judge me as I peeled off that fetid layer of skank and crawled under her comforter, my hair reeking of smoke from some 4 a.m. bar. I preferred to sleep off my mistakes while spooning her in a Blackhawks jersey from some forgotten boyfriend as she thumbed through a gossip rag. I would have been content to hang out there forever, but then came Paul. “He’s in private equity,” she gushed as she packed her share of our belongings and moved to a neighborhood by the lake that I still can’t afford.

“Only every few months,” I say. “Trade shows, mostly.” A hidden perk of work travel. My editor sent me to trend-scout at the Fancy Food Show, where I sampled Ben’s artisanal marshmallows. Days later, I could still taste the fine dusting of his sugar on my lips from our glancing connection. I pictured him toiling on his Vermont farm: kind brown eyes behind clear plastic frames, cuffed denim revealing inked forearms, leather apron. I contacted him for a follow-up interview for an article I only pretended to write. Our first emails were professional, until I sent him my number one evening, after an accidental bottle of rosé. Now we text photos, though never anything that would appear explicit: artfully plated charcuterie, his pug Belinda in dog booties, elaborate knots. A safe escape from the life I hadn’t known I’d need to escape from.

I haven’t told him yet, either, in case you’re wondering.

She crosses her arms and tells me it’s a terrible wish, that a genie would scold me for being a ho-bag. “Not to mention the kids,” she says.

“Exactly,” I say. “I’d prefer not to mention them.” I promise her I’ll come clean, right after I tell Dan about my chitchat with my obie-gynie to discuss the biopsy results. I hear I get a free pass on everything that comes after. Though, frankly, I’d rather wipe my phone on my deathbed and croak while Dan still thinks I’m a saint.

The waitress reaches under the propane heater’s canopy to flick it on, blasting my face with an uncomfortable warmth as the lecture continues. “I can’t believe you held this for a week. I’d be texting you before I left the doctor’s office.” She’s right. We took personality tests once, while job-searching. Her suggested careers were for people-people: gallery assistant, art teacher, hairstylist. I gawked at her soft skills in envy; my results included pilot and assassin. I still owe her for those months of our rent from the gap between her landing a dream job as a floral designer and when I started writing news briefs for a trade publication devoted to food service equipment. There’s something catchy for my tombstone—Here lies an expert on stainless steel.

“I’ve been busy—working on my bucket list,” I say. Time to find the little girl’s room. I stand and toss my wadded napkin on the table. A yellow ginkgo leaf spirals down into my empty chair, where it fans out comfortably, as though I were never there.

Nineteen-dollar cocktails mean that each toilet gets its own walk-in closet, adorned with throwback peony wallpaper and a heavy door that locks with a thud. I try to summon a shit, but nothing comes, a waste of the soundproofing behind the wainscoted walls. Instead, I break the seal, thinking as I do every time of when I first learned of this concept: that night we got giggly on the loose Zimas I’d smuggled in my kitty-cat backpack as we watched a group of New Trier boys play GoldenEye.

I hold my hands under the waterfall faucet until my fingertips go numb, then splash my face, leaving cakey smears of foundation on a rolled washcloth that smells like gardenias. In the gilded mirror, my face looks like raw pork tenderloin. My handbag holds emergency makeup, but what’s the point. She’s seen every worst part of me, and she’s still here.

From the lounge-stall, I taunt Ben: I think I’ll be a little tied up when you come next weekend. Instantly, a gray bubble materializes—a screen shot of a Burlington Bowline. One of the safest ones to use, it leaves behind no suggestion on the skin that a rope was ever there. My lips curl upward into something that almost feels like a smile.

I aim the dirty washcloth toward a homely wicker basket that looks out of place, but I miss the shot by a foot. I don’t bother to pick it up. If you tip north of twenty percent, you can get away with anything.

At the table, her phone is on her ear. She’s frowning. Our eyes lock as I brush more fallen leaves from my chair. She thrusts the phone at me. Her screen, larger than mine, feels heavy in my palm, like an old rotary. “It’s Dan,” she says. “He’s between holes. He knows you have something to tell him.”

I stare at the mug’s steam, still rising, and spit the loosened chia seed into the faux-dish-towel napkin, faint streaks of last year’s lipstick shade staining its striped border. I’d always thought she was someone who knew the shortest path to destroy me but would never take it. Here I’d mapped it out for her and loaded her with ammunition. So much for asking her to do the eulogy.

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TALONS by Ran Walker

Her story went like this: When she was three years old, she was playing with her brother in the backyard, when an enormous hawk swooped down, latched on to her, and lifted her from the ground. The only thing that stopped her from being carried away was her brother grabbing hold of her legs and snatching her from the bird’s grasp. The only evidence the incident had even occurred were the parallel, permanent scars left on her shoulders.

We had been dating for a month before she told me that story. I smiled and tried to play it off, but the whole thing disturbed me. For some reason I just couldn’t shake the notion that my girlfriend was almost prey, that she could have been pecked to death by birds, her flesh stripped slowly from her small body.

The idea haunted me, even as we made love that first time. I could feel the slight raise of her skin when I scooped my hands around her shoulders and pulled her closer. Once I felt her scars, I was unable to remove my hands.

Each time we were intimate I’d rest my hands on those scars, sometimes imagining wings were beginning to sprout from them.

One night I awakened to find her straddling me, the darkness masking my ability to see clearly. I reached for her shoulders, but she eased my hands away. She made love to me, her hands gripping my arms like talons, pinning me in place. When she climaxed, I swore I could see wings unfurling from her shoulders against the night.

Not long after that, I realized I was not cut out for a relationship with her. Much of our relationship had been spent in the dark, and while I was unsure if what I thought I had seen was true, I could never overcome my fear she would one day clamp onto me and carry me off, somewhere deep into the night, where I would be devoured by a family of hawks, not unlike those who awaited her many years ago, my skin pecked from my body strip by strip.

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AND THEY WERE ASHAMED by Paul Corman-Roberts

Uncle Draco the dragon rolled on down from the star pool to get a gander at his brother Joe’s fancy new terrarium and visit with all his nieces and nephews so freely frolicking, feasting and fucking among the shimmering foliage of their world without a care or concern as to how or why they should be so lucky to do so.

After a week had passed, Uncle Draco quietly led the kids to the grove of apple trees, which Papa Joe hadn’t really mentioned anything about other than to say it was still “under construction” and therefore “off limits.”  Uncle Draco pulled down two apples; one red and one blue. He presented both of them to his nieces and nephews, and said:

“Your Father hasn’t explained to all of you that the world is bigger than just this garden you live in. And why should you wonder at why the world is a bigger place when your bellies are always full, when your thirst is always quenched by the dizzying ambrosia that pours from the fountains your father built for you, when sleep is always warm, and there are always arms to hold you when you fall?

But all is not as it seems, for being here, I have seen those times when your beautiful bodies stand, nay strain; against the boundary which your father told you not to cross. I have seen many of you staring at the harvests of the forbidden forests while you thoughtlessly explore and caress each other’s Chakric coils.

And why shouldn’t you know the taste of the Earth’s pungent sweet?  Why shouldn’t you come to know all the strange wonders which inhabit the whole of the world of which your terrarium, in which you are essentially well fed slaves, is but a small portion?

So here, as your uncle who loves you as much if not more than your father, I give you this choice: feast upon the blue apple, and you shall never have to wonder again what lies beyond the terrarium and you shall spend the rest of all existence in the only perpetual dream you have ever known.

Or instead feast from the red apple and you will find the knowledge which will allow you all to reach beyond the terrarium; that will allow you all to undertake the glorious adventure of your freedom.”

Uncle Draco was so warm and charming and generous with his offer, that all Papa Joe’s beautiful children feasted on all the red apples on all the red apple trees in the terrarium and it was as great and golden and orgiastic a feast as had ever occurred in this dimension; a cornucopia of sticky sweet amber juices flowing down beautifully curved bodies; soft pillows of rich light condensed into flesh melting among a sudden convulsion of savagely gnashing teeth, biting, touching, hitting, caressing, copulating and consuming until satiated, and afterwards while lying together in a great, huddled, post-coital mass, knowledge came to the children of Papa Joe, and in turn, they were able to see everything their father had been able to see the whole time, and they knew he had lied to them.

With this realization everything the children had ever known began to transform. The colorful fruits throughout the terrarium were suddenly overtaken by molds and fungi.  The trees petrified and crumbled to dust before their eyes. For the first time in their lives, air pressure driven wind poured into their realm, building into a screeching howl that caused the tree dust to obscure the light. In this wind, other foliage began to writhe and dance like serpents in perfect time with the whipping back and forth of Uncle Draco’s tail, while the fountains of ambrosia became vats of distilled sludge.

Day became night. Four enormous walls of pitch darkness surrounded the children in their new found freedom, and with that dark came a condensation and chill that brought a new, excruciating agony that pushed out from within their hearts, as well as crushed their spirits from without by the great twin weights of carbon and gravity, suffocating them between icy jagged sheets of loneliness.

Thick blankets of frozen existential doom covered the children. From each and every one of their newly formed orfici their rose a great keening wail, slowly at first, but building gradually louder and louder until the sound became its own screeching, hollow gale of black, the wind that fills the passages between this world and the underworld.

When Papa Joe finally woke from his nap, he discovered this horrific dissonance; found his precious creation had mutated beyond his control, and this sent him into such a despairing rage, that he lashed out at his children and sent them all packing to a permanent time-out in the desert world beyond the ruined terrarium. And for this, they were ashamed and have remained so ever since.

Then Papa Joe looked at his brother, cut his legs out from under him, so that he would never look so charming and handsome again without the stigmata of his belly betraying his worldliness. Then Papa Joe said to Draco: “get the fuck out.”

Draco laughed as he slithered out the door, but not before hearing his brother moaning “why?  WHY?” to which Draco paused, looked back over what used to be his shoulder and said “shoulda paid me my money bitch.”

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This man who’s in love with you, he’s married. You play in the symphony orchestra together. He’s a second violin. You play the oboe. What he likes best about you, he says, is the purse of your lips when you play. He is sharp elbows, good posture, freckling of gray hair at his temples. His hands are very soft with you.

His wife used to be a dancer when they met. She doesn’t dance anymore.

You know how it is, says the married man. How there were things you used to do and now you don’t, you know how it is.

I love you, he said once, tipping your head up, kissing you on the chin. Looked at your face. I love you.

Thank you, you said.

You saw the brief flicker of his face. You can’t remember the last time you wanted something.

He spoke to you the first time after a concert, said something clever about Chopin. You thought it was charming, how his flirtations all involved dead composers, how his fingers trembled when your hands brushed.

You meet the married man for furtive dinners at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town. You always order the lasagna, pick at your salad, let him select the wine. You sit across from him, generic strings playing on the speakers overhead, reapply your lipstick after you’ve shared breadsticks, liking the way he watches the color spread across your mouth.

Did I smear any?

He says: I can’t tell.

He says: Let me get closer. Leans across the table, wipes at your lower lip with his fluttering thumb.

There? you say.

There, he says.

This is what he tells his wife that nights he meets you: rehearsal ran late. You don’t know if she believes him, don’t care if she does. You would like to have known her when she still danced, would like to have watched her onstage, legs shuddering with effort, beautiful. You wonder what he loved about her then, cleft of her knee, pigeon-toed walk, tendril of hair escaping a ballerina’s bun.

Do you love playing the violin? you ask him.

He tilts his head. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.

You nod, dab at the corner of your mouth with your napkin.

You love the oboe, of course, he says.

Of course, you say, flick your eyes to one side.

You always get to the restaurant early. There is something romantic about the waiting, you think, in a restaurant you don’t like, for the man who loves you. The hostess is always the same hostess. She knows your face, knows your table. Doesn’t offer you a menu anymore, doesn’t make small talk. You like that about her, and the way, once, you found her in one of the bathroom stalls, tissue wadded in her hands, balanced on the lip of the toilet, crying.

Sorry, she said, sorry, I’m sorry, so sorry.

You didn’t think her apology was for you, pulled the stall door closed on her. Left before it came open again, relieved yourself in the men’s room, one finger tracing graffiti on the wall, for a good time, call, wondered if it was the hostess’s number.

When you met the married man again the next week, neither you nor the hostess mentioned it. She didn’t even blink, just took you back to your regular table, poured two glasses of water.

Have a good dinner, she said like she always did.

You never finish your lasagna, let the waiter take it away with the remains of your salad. They used to box it up, but you left the box behind, again and again. The waiter smiles blandly when you order your lasagna and side salad. The married man is always trying new things, always offering to split dessert.

What’s the special? he asks, selects a wine that pairs well. You leave traces of your lipstick on the rim of your glass, rub at it with the broad part of your thumb until your skin is stained too.

When dinner is over, you let the married man walk you to your car, let him put his arm round your waist.

You say: Dance with me.

Above you, the moon is half hidden by clouds, and you think how much larger it is, really, than it seems, and how hard it is to believe that anyone has ever touched it.

You say again: Dance with me, and the man who loves you pulls you close to him, desperately, you think, the way your oboe teacher used to kiss you, sways you back and forth to the sound of music playing from your car radio.

The lights go off in the Italian restaurant; you have the parking lot to yourselves.

You’re a terrible dancer, you say, keep your voice kind. How can your wife stand it?

The married man stiffens, tries to smile.

I guess, he says, she can’t.

The hostess comes out the side door, a bag of garbage in her hand. You smile to her, tiny cat-smile, and let the married man tilt your head up, run his mouth along your throat. You stare up at the moon until you hear the latching of the restaurant door.

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