Better Than Starbucks



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part of my heart, part of my soul

walking around the living room

sharing her crackers with the dogs

while her cartoon sings playfully in

the background

as i stare at her

captivated

enchanted

mesmerized

and suddenly feel the desire to cry

happy tears

as i do so often

ever since she arrived
kind of way
Kathleen Briggs

Experimental Poetry
northbound and plucky
clickity-clack

as it heaves me to-and-fro

tossed upon a tar-black sea

a line of light parting sky and earth

slipping between that crack

into the bombardment of frost heaves

buckling and churning

over a stark landscape of fallow fields

barbed wire and fence posts

catching the last of the light

the grain of my hands pocked

with blisters and slivers -

where the glove stops and my hand starts

is becoming more of a blur

these days
a tangle of rusty wire

ball-peen hammer

hog ring pliers and a pry-bar

rattle as I weave over concrete

each blast as a tire hits a heave

is a rifle crack

a long shadow over white
country music

torch ’n twang

competes with static

the rhythmic incessant hoar frost

mingling with a yellow hole in the sky

never above nor below

a soft white disk that pulls me along

like the bouncing ball on b/w oldies

I grew up on

my shoulder makes contact

intermittently as I dodge black ice

slits narrowed in focus on white stitches

black and white and black and solid yellow

as calming as a heartbeat


as temperate as the curl of a wave

a sea of wheat or oats or sodden black hay

or the slip-n-slide of an ice highway

lulling my disparate heart


fingers twisting as cab spins

shoulder contact on roof and steering wheel

delivering a glancing blow

topsy-turvy I go

wipers laying waste to Patsy Cline

as washer fluid spreads across

then through the windshield

sweet and stinging

flinging glass splinters through blisters

held up in surprise

my ass sliding across the bench

briefly noticing the ball-peen

shooting past my ear

work gloves doing a dance

sashaying out the window

and then white-out


an elk stands erect

his rack snagging cottonbatten

everything bathed in shadow blue

except the line of trees

black and jagged and upside down
hanging in my seatbelt

I wonder why I ever gave in

to the lonesome chant of a train whistle

northbound and plucky


electric tape and pry bar ruining

my best boots

entombing my left hand

straightening out the new bend

a leg just shouldn’t have
standing in the snow

in the space between

raindrops and the faint scent of the sea

Trish Shields



Winter Flowers
Warm cities in summer drive me mad. But not when I am with you. The rush of the cars as they fly by me only cause comfort as I watch our hair blow in the wind. The sounds of our shoes scuffing the pavement because we don’t know what a correct size is. How your basketball shorts sit just above your knee because you are so tall. How my thighs touch the circumference of my shorts but my hips do not. The way you hold my hand, no matter how hot it is because you know I find it sweet. You pull me close in dark alleyways and the concrete on my back sends shivers down my spine. You brush your fingers over my cheek in an attempt to make up for the cold months of winter we had lost. Those soft pads make the memories from long ago seem like they never existed for a moment.
But I know that in winter, flowers do not bloom like they do in spring. The winter flowers are tough and hard, protecting themselves from the harsh cold that threatens to freeze them over. For your birthday, I would not have bought you flowers. I would have shown my love for you. But for your birthday, I showed you that I am like a winter flower. Tough and hard so any ice you tried to cast over me would not affect me. But now it is summer and this city is hot. The winter flower has wilted and now I am a vine climbing up alley walls with you.
Trinity Monroe is a poetry and fiction writer from southern Pennsylvania. She writes about crappy feelings and pretty flowers. In her free time she does color guard and theater. She loves singing and dancing poorly whenever she can.

Listen, once a broken time
Listen, once a broken time

Mother and Father would tell me off

‘Cause I counted as friends gunmen,

Snipers, killers, who spent their time

Shooting dead hearts and rocks -

When done, they went for the adjectives,

Those bloody conjurers who mess up

With our judgment, those swindlers -

Nouns? Nope, they were no dangerous, no way -

Hop in, they would say, I always so ready to oblige -

What? Yes yes I know decent folks are meant

To talk love in a cottage, to joke, to quip,

All those words tripping up, falling down,

But I had to act blue, I had noticed the births -

Look, sometimes we say yes to baddies and culprits,

All that dabbling with lies makes us good at deceiving,

A noble art indeed, don’t you think so?

While dreams or bare truths stay safely nestled in the rocks -

Then I changed my blue on a whim:

Whenever my names dragged me down the swamps

There I was, screaming blue murder as if colours might help. As if.

Whenever the rivers blackmailed me there I was tiptoeing ‘round water,

A safe skin and drops -

Then again, what could I do ‘cept feeding stars

Or sending candles to divas and death?

That’s how I would spend my summer.

Anyway.

So long as words grow into seeds



And weekends taste like green fruit

To better fit in the scene

There I am, standing behind my latest affairs

That stop me cold in my dreams -

Look, is the sun that very sec before they bite?

Sorry, no, just a vaulted bridge getting your goat -

See? It only happens to be red, my demise, my friend -

How come you can’t see it,

My dearest blahing yakking squawking hens ?
Gabriella Garofalo
IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY TO BE RAINING

If only I had more time, I’d do things differently. There’s too much left unsaid. Too many unknowns. Not enough memories. Not enough time. The night is over, but the darkest hour has just begun. The sky is blacker than a stupor. The air is artificial, but arthritic. I should’ve brought a heavier coat. I can’t keep my eyes open. I wish it was all a dream that I could awake from.


My mother, brother, sister and I go to the cafeteria for something to eat during his surgery. No one is hungry though. I always have an appetite like a garbage disposal, but my stomach is on spin cycle. I can’t calm the tremors coursing through my nerves.
​We return to the waiting room; the doctor appears, “Hey, guys. The procedure was successful. And you can all see him now.” No one moves, too petrified. I reluctantly volunteer to go. I walk as slow as I can, but I still get there in a matter of thirty seconds.
I wipe my eyes, I don’t want to make him anxious. He doesn’t need any more stress. I clean my hands with hand sanitizer and enter the room. He’s lying still on his back in the bed. He’s frail and small. He lost more weight and his fingers are the darkest shade of charcoal.
I’m still trembling walking closer tohis bedside. “Hey, Dad. It’s me. How are you feeling?” He can’t speak, his larynx is swollen. He just looks at the end of his bed where his legs used to be. A tear rolls down his cheek, he clinches his chipped teeth. I don’t know how to tell him that they amputated his legs, so the gangrene wouldn’t spread. I try my best to keep my pain suppressed, but it starts raining in the room.

Shamar English is originally from Santa Barbara, California, lives in Douglasville, Georgia, has an Associate of Arts Degree in film from Georgia State University, and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University.

Fiction

I Know I am Restless and Make Others So
Eleven thousand miles from Baghdad, I sat on a wood bench at an I-70 rest stop facing a furious fiancée. I measured out my life in Iraqi terms even though my body had left it three years ago. The war stays with the warrior.
Summer sun beat on my bald spot. Within eyeshot, my LA Galaxy cap remained wedged under the windshield. Heedless of my health, Ally hadn’t let me grab it before my ejection from the Equinox for the red card violation of exercising my second amendment rights.

--You promised, Sean. No guns in the front seat. You promised.

--Use another word, Ally. ‘Gun’ is an offensively imprecise term for a firearm.

--The word fits anything that explosively hurls a bullet, per the OED.


Ally referred to an I-70 incident a few minutes prior. Near the airport, a Honda Civic had come too near our six. So I’d warned it off by sighting on the driver. A standard defense posture not needing comment. Certainly, it didn’t justify a debate over the terms in a verbal pledge.

--I pointed a pocket pistol. A silly Beretta 3032 Tomcat, for God’s sake. Hardly counts.

--Does it go boom? Do they spew bullets?

--Barely. If my friends knew I’d lowered myself to subcompacts, I’d never live it down.


As if my reply left a sour taste, Ally quirked her lips. A semi huffed by. Near intersecting interstates, the rest stop supplied interim anchorage to many. Tourists ambled to the cinderblock stronghold that housed the latrines and an info desk. Kids in shorts stretched coin-laden fingers to vending machines. On blankets spread in maple shade, families ate fried chicken. Our loud dispute, though, served to mark off a zone that other humans avoided. She crossed her arms.
I stood up. Located 236 miles southwest of the Toledo Victorian that sheltered Allison’s parents, the distance to this rest stop represented less than a tenth of our journey. I leaned toward Ally. A hip squeeze followed by a half-hug quelled most of her tantrums. Before reaching Dad’s California condo, we had thirty hours of highway to put behind us.

The heels of her two hands bounced on my sternum. Momentum stalled by an immovable object, I staggered back. My skull snapped back when my ass smacked the bench. Sun and snow weathered, it delivered a hoard of splinters that pierced my khaki pants.

--Let’s save the rough play for the bedroom, okay sweetie? Lots of map grid to cover.

--Almost killed them.

--Had the safety on. No harm, no foul.

--Horrified them. Traumatized them. What else do you call it besides doing harm?

--An incentive for better driving.
Tilting down, Allison concentrated her gaze. Her accusing blue stare recreated the ocular oppression of the Sacred Heart Elementary nuns. Admit you drank the wine. Confess you saw her naked. The unblinking scrutiny drew more sweat than the hot sun, more pain than needle-pointed splinters. If Ally took on the task of Abu Ghraib interrogator, her stare would terrify terrorists.
Only a fool took Allison head on. Besides the stare, she deployed an assured posture and five inches beyond the 5’4” female norm in her intimidation toolbox. Battle savvy, she kept me benched to leverage her stature. I avoided the violence of her eyes by looking away.
The clock hands over the visitor center doors moved. Cokes thumped into dispenser take-out ports. Sacks of bird bones swished into trashcans. Our spat threatened to deprive us of a side quest to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a detour worth taking since the institution housed a collection of blue azurite, a semi-precious stone whose color matched the intensity of Ally’s orbs. So, despite the danger, I verbally engaged.

--Ally, c’mon. Let’s get back on the road. Don’t let one snafu wreck our trip.

--Is that the new name for a road-rage related fatality? A snafu?

--Don’t blow this out of proportion. I aimed. I didn’t fire.

--Wow. Restraint. No brains blown out. Let me do a happy dance because only attempted murder happened instead of actual homicide.

--Technically, I committed, at worst, assault. Attempted murder requires intent to kill.

Allison growled. In bed, I found this expression of her animal soul sexy. But this daylight snarl raised goosebumps. Pleasure didn’t trigger this deep-throated response. Bloodlust drove it.

Lacking other weapons to quash the threat her primal fury signaled, I again attempted the cuddle gambit. Sliding down the bench, fresh splinters added their jabs. I came within ten inches of her jeggings-clad haunches. I surged forward, but to no avail. I popped up. She shoved back.

--Stay down. You’re in time out.

--Sweetie, you’re out of control.

--I went over every inch of the car. Every inch.

--Well, that wounds me, hon. shouldn’t you have more faith? After all, we’re engaged.


Allison voiced another growl. Sweeping back Sangria hair, she cleared her view. Peeling back her lips, she exposed her canines.
While Ally reeved her anger, a late-model SUV sighed into the slot next to our crossover. From its tinted interior, a family—a dad in a guayabera, a mom in a peasant blouse, daughters in white dresses—emerged. The dad stood within five feet of my Galaxy cap wedged on top of the Equinox console. I sent desperate telepathic beams at him. Open the door. Toss the hat. Save my scalp.
What was their little boy wearing? A blue-and-white-striped jersey adorned with a FIFA-fabulous emblem? These days, soccer always derailed my attention.
My situation compared to a striker seeking a game-winning goal before the second period ended. Netted in the cinderblock of the visitor center, the clock face glowered. Each advance of its minute hand cut back on the colossal amounts of sex and THC absorption I’d included on our itinerary once we passed into Colorado’s marijuana-legal domain. Ally and I had spent the year pulling 2-2-1 quarter-term grad assistant loads. And, after grading seventy-four comma-splice-rife first-year comp portfolios, I required a massive dose of fucking and cannabis. By one means or another, I had to get my balls back in play. So I threw down the red card of pure devotion.

--At least believe this, Ally. I arm up for your sake. Crazies run rampant. It takes the push back of a loaded weapon to keep them at bay.

--The Honda lady in the tortoiseshell specs? The little girl in the Mickey tee? Are they samples of the psychos your boom toys protect me from? Where’d you hide it?

--Eyewear or attire choice does not reveal who’ll don a suicide vest.

--Did you wedge it in your butt cheeks? Tuck it under your balls? I won’t get back in that car unless that pistol’s in my possession. Pass it over.
--I can’t. As a military vet, firearms constitute an essential part of my identity.
With a yet another growl, Ally pounced. Aware of the reaction my refusal would likely yield, I reclined on the bench with my legs angled up. She collided with my sage green Bellville 770 boots, the remnant of my Airman Battle Uniform. Shock waves rippled through voluptuous flesh. Circulation surged, turning apricot skin to plum. Prepared by years of leg press reps, I catapulted her backward with a thrust of my quadriceps.
With a crash, she caromed off a trashcan staked to a pole. Grass stains marred the white skulls patterned on her jeggings when she rose. She moved with her usual assurance, so I’d failed to deliver enough bruising to force a truce negotiation. The pizza feeds I’d indulged her with had packed on a lot of padding.

The din of her attack, strident as the screech of a vuvuzela in this green haven, dissolved the zone of disregard that other travelers had accorded us. Along the walkway bordering the rear entrance, truckers gawked, tobacco inhalations halted. Picnickers, potato salad poised midway to mouths, gaped.

--You know, Ally, you should see someone about your trust issues.

--Advice from my boyfriend who ducks every psych appointment the VA makes.

--Not boyfriend. Fiancée. We’re engaged now, silly girl.

--Where’s the goddamn gun?


Worried about more attacks, I eyed the way Ally held herself. No tensed muscles. Face clenched by frustration, but not yet pulled into a mask of rage. Center-of-weight balanced over her heels. At her sides, her hands hung loose. No imminent threat noted. But I admit I’m fond of ogling certain bits—the spread of her hips, the breadth of her thighs—and that this tendency may have led to tragic distraction.

--The last I saw Doc Felman he gave me a mantra. Do I seem like a mantra-chanting type to you, Ally?

--I don’t know, Sean. Looks deceive. For example, some boys mistake me for a women who’ll endlessly endure their bullshit. Where did you hide your fucking pistol?

--I didn’t hide it. I concealed it. As my concealed carry permit authorizes me to do.


Turning to elude Ally’s laser gaze, I caught the exit of the SUV family from the visitor center. Daddy Guayabera held a paper cup with

Indiana’s sock-shaped silhouette printed on it, no doubt filled with coffee from the info desk urn. Waving glossy trifolds grabbed from the Indiana attractions pamphlet racks, the daughters pressed for a detour to an Abercrombie & Fitch outlet. Mom paged through a magazine that pledged 70% Hotel/Motel Discounts. In his hand, the young son clasped a crimson balloon with the slogan, “restart your engines,” under an elliptical sketch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I still could not identify the soccer club badge on his jersey, but the memory of it would surface sooner or later.


My attention directed elsewhere, Allison struck. Her hand whipped out. She grabbed the ropes of tendon that fastened my neck to my shoulder. Two tours spend lugging fifty plus pounds of gear while cased in twenty plus pounds of Kevlar had wrecked the linkage. And, blame pillow talk, my bride-to-be knew. Savvy to the chink in my armor, she worked it like Mr. Spock doing a Vulcan nerve pinch. For a brief instant, consciousness fled…
…Let me take an aside, as past-tense Sean blanks out from the white-hot pain inflicted by his fiancée, to point out that I’m aware the California Concealed Carry Permit issued by the Kern County Sheriff didn’t let me travel US roads packing holstered heat. California Penal Code section 12025 requires owners to transport firearms in locked boxes. Under the Equinox’s cargo net, the other lethal devices I’d taken sat properly ensconced in GunVault brand safes equipped with biometric locks. But 100% compliance remains a goal few humans achieve. In the interest of full disclosure, I also jaywalk and neglect to report my Lucky Loot scratcher winnings to the IRS. The details above having been addressed, I return the narrative flow to the groggy control of past-tense Sean’s resurfacing awareness…
…I shook my lolling head, jaw rolling across the disloyal thumb and forefinger that held me in a death squeeze. I suspected I had screamed since my throat felt raw. With mouths agape, the SUV family watched Ally punish my body. Call the cops. End my pain. Again, my telepathic beams lacked the amplitude to reach their minds. Circling behind them, Daddy Guayabera waved his arms, urging his flock to flee. Doors banged. Tires squealed. Distance shrank a Texas plate.
Finally, I rammed two fingers into the gap between her pinchers. Skin tore. Speechless, I deployed alphabetic force, digits spread in a V, versus her brute fury. Stress faded. Relief surged. But military service had eroded this sword. Sixteen-hour days of manic keyboarding had riddled my hands with CTS, carpal tunnel syndrome. Could I keep it up?
--Fuck, Ally. Don’t double my disability rating. Valve the pressure. Go from ten to four.

--Really? This feels like a ten? Only using like a third of my grip strength. Is that what’s up with the little wiggle tickle? Hoping I’ll let up if I catch the giggles?

--I’d settle for a reset to pre-blackout intensity. Cerebral trauma threatens my wellbeing.

--Want me to stop, Sean? Say where it is. Spill the details. Then we can move on.


Relaxing her firm stance, she brushed my cheek with her breast. Our overlap of personal space sent opposed cues. Nearness had coaxed lewd arousal despite the cargo of hurt her touch brought. The press of a taut nipple, which prompted thoughts of how her flesh now spilled out of all bikinis and bras, worsened my erotic confusion.
Agony arcing shoulder to temple, I broke contact with Allison’s F-cup bait. Picnickers sought safer shade, repositioning blankets. An orange-vested groundskeeper kept his distance, edging the same border over and over. Stalled in the pet walk, a woman in a floppy hat linked by a pink leash to a three-legged poodle raised her binoculars. Did Allison and I count as bird not yet marked off in her Audubon guide?
Without a warning, the pressure held off by my interposed fingers ramped up. Perception blurred. Neuropathic fire blazed in my hand and wrist. Through gritted teeth, I wailed.

--Does the lack of letup annoy, Sean? Bet it’s like having a gun-crazed bae. The fear he’ll shoot someone always stays. The hope he’ll change always betrays.

--I’m an American. Son to minutemen and cowboys, bred to the musket, bred to the six-shooter. No change needed. Like that poem says, love accepts the traits a beloved brings.

--What are you talking about? Gunslinger genes don’t exist. What damn poem?

--The poem you want for our vows. That Shakespeare sonnet. What’s the line? ‘Love is not love which…bends with the remover to remove.’

--How dare you! Throw the bard in my face. In the face of a lit major? Fuck you. Time to up pinch pressure.


The knuckles of the two fingers crammed in the tightening vise of Allison’s grip creaked. Did the noise signal disaster? Would they crumple like weather-blasted rock? Snap like sticks of chalk. For the moment, they held.
My tongue, though, unfastened. Out spewed a howled litany of anatomical impossibilities starring Jesus and Saint Mary, a pain-driven spasm of parochial school blasphemy.
The boosted torment sent anguish further into my sad meat. My gluts convulsed, flailing khaki-covered thighs over the bench’s warped planks, collecting new splinters. A sudden tremor, a hint of the fits fresh nerve damage promised, drove the heel of my free hand into Ally’s hip. My neck twitched left.
Out on the pet walk, the floppy hat lady dropped her jaw and flung her liver-spotted paws to her cheeks. But she didn’t make another move. Stop the abuse. Call the Indiana state troopers. Call 911. The tripod poodle strained its leash.
Grabbing my chin, Allison returned her Sangria-maned visage to my view. She grinned, the afternoon light making her incisors gleam, while her satanic massage netted new groans.

--Enjoying hurting others. Better check BDSM on your next Fetlife update, Ally.

--You’re trying to distract me. But it won’t work.

--Limiting the list to feederism and cock worship results in a flawed map of your libido.

--Will the squirrel tell me where he hid his nut? Or do I dial up my grip strength?

--I housed it in a holster like any safety conscious owner would.

--I remain uncooperative the bald squirrel says. Fine. Goodbye seven. Hello nine.
I tried to block the anguish Ally induced by adopting the detached outlook urged by Doc Felman. Neck arched in pain, I willed myself to meld with the sapphire sky. While she wrenched new wails, I subvocalized the mantra the goateed gnome had bestowed. But serenity didn’t work any better on an Indiana bench than on an Ohio couch. So I passed out…
…Just because an ego fades doesn’t mean a brain sleeps. Living brains always record, but trauma can repress data. Trauma can permanently wall off particularly troubling entries. Others it returns
after brief blackouts. Past-tense Sean lost some facts. Amnesia now lifted, I provide them below.
On the pet walk, the lady in the floppy hat at last moves. With half circles of the arm not holding the leash, she makes gestures that end in curled fingers pointed at herself. Join me. Ally nods. Floppy hat lady juts her head at the visitor center. Meet me there. Ally winks.
On the bench, released from Ally’s grip, past-tense Sean twitches. She could have frisked him and found the pistol. I don’t know why she didn’t. But I could not have searched her without passion soon turning the task into something else.
Also in this pause, my brain finishes comparing the kid’s jersey logo against its stored FIFA badges. It tags a match: Argentina. Even passed out, I think of soccer…
…When I came to, the planks of the bench grooved my face. My brain ached with a foul mix of heat exhaustion and heart overload. Shock swathed, numbness radiated from my ruined tendons and fingers.
Arms spaghetti limp, I pushed up. Unfeeling flesh shuddered, its penalty for daring to sit. In the coming hours, after the shock passed, I’d pay for her abuse. Worse than a pummeling from the steel walls of a flipped Humvee, recovery would require weeks.
My spirit felt worn. Released in my blood while I writhed, some bleak hormone darkened my inner weather. Why did I continue to delude myself? I couldn’t win this fight. I could not win any fight anymore. With a pinch, she’d unmasked me for the broken man I was.
A tear traced its course down Allison’s cheek. Her chin trembled. Did her pity present a new tactic? The need of macho man to fend off possible attacks had failed to convince. Would she respond better to an injured individual who required comfort? With a sniffle, she wiped her arm across her eyes.
--Thank God. Thought you’d stroked out. Thought I’d have to Google an ER.

--Funny. You had a bunch of thoughts. I stopped having any.

--Stubbornness caused this. Your refusal to act normal.

--Since Iraq, normal feels abnormal, Ally. For your sake, I wish I was different.

--For our sake, do therapy. If Felman’s a boob, find another doc.

--I will. But, for this trip, a request. Can’t see a doc on the road. Not with VA wait times. And, with no weapon, I freak out. Can I keep my pistol until California?


I spoke true when I said normal life tripped me up. I still ducked if a stateside noise—a breeze, a backfire—recalled a mortar. Pre-war Sean went to concerts, a chance to party with five thousand fellow fans. Post-war Sean relied on his phone for tunes, shunning the risks that mobs posed. Old Sean yearned for the road, mind shaped by Walt Whitman to expect adventure. New Sean feared traffic, body tensed for surprise attacks. Disabled vets deserved accommodations.
In my current state, driving caused gasping anxiety. But I didn’t demand a license plate that told other vehicles to keep back a thousand meters. I came back with the desire to watch any sport but soccer burned out of me. I didn’t insist on free ESPN in compensation. I only asked for a security blanket, for a pistol to hold.
Allison sighed. Near us, bystanders took advantage of our lull. The groundskeeper, edger idling, found fresh lawn. The floppy hat lady hefted her poodle and strode to the parking spaces the visitor center’s bulk hid. With a flick of fingers, Ally adjusted her wine-colored plaits. Then she locked her laser gaze on me once more.

--No, Sean. No negotiation. No front seat Beretta. No roadside corpses scattered between Indianapolis and California. You could have killed that little girl.

--But I didn’t. My military training and experience won’t let it happen.

--So, it’s both trigger and circuit breaker, this programming that morphs my man into a killbot if he spots a tailgater? Don’t believe it. Won’t risk it. Pass me the gun. Do it now.

--I need it. You can’t have it. I stood down. I read the situation clear. I read it clean. No one who should have lived died. Warriors never forget the lessons war teaches.

--Damn it, Sean. I know your weak spot. I know how to make you flop like a fucking fish out of water. I don’t want to do it again. But I will.

--Go on. Prove you’re a bitch. Spit on my service. I won’t surrender who I am. From my cold, dead—
Before I could put up an arm to block it, Ally clamped onto the frayed tissues that she’d already expertly tortured. The length of this blackout exceeded the first two. Maybe the span let the past replay in second-by-second fidelity. Maybe our feud, which tread so close, had urged the memory to rise and take possession. Or, I could blame the boy. In any case, the ocean of eternity caught me in its riptide, dragging past-tense Sean to a deeper past…
……Adrenaline. Flop sweat. On my belly in the dirt, the butt of my M-16 rocks against my bicep. Behind me, the stink of diesel and hot metal wafts from an overturned Humvee. I send bouts of suppressive fire down range while the Army fire team nears the dun-colored compound where our lead spotter saw movement right before the IED detonated.
Behind the berm that fronts the compound, a shadow shifts. A threat? A sniper? Did the fire team see?
In my sight picture, the post of the front circled by the windage-and-elevation adjusted rear, the profile of a head that bops behind the berm seems oddly tiny, small. Are the insurgents hiring midgets now?
I drop a magazine. I seat a fresh one. The shadow bops up. Bops down. Behind me, static crackles over a radio—a call sign, a map grid, a cry for help. My rifle spits bullets, spits bullets, spits bullets.

The fire team nears the compound gate. They don’t seem to notice the midget. What’s the runt monkeying with? Another IED? A mortar? Stay down, asshole. Stay down.


I send a three-round burst of suppressive fire down range. Three-round burst. Three-round burst. The fire team approaches within forty yards, a quarterback’s toss, of the compound. And the berm midget won’t stay down. Won’t stay suppressed. Up it bops again. So I engage…
In the report that cleared me, the investigators set the age of the little boy I killed at five years old. They suspected he’d sought a soccer ball that had rolled into the ditch facing the berm.
Since then, I’ve bought three hundred soccer balls for thirty AYSO teams. I can’t help myself. I see the kids in their jerseys. I write another check. Univision or Deutsche Welle, Real Madrid versus Barcelona or Hannover 96 versus Dynamo Dresden, I watch the games he can’t. No one knew. It’s my guilt. My penance.
On the third tab of the report, the mortuary officer provided an image of the new third eye my 5.56 millimeter round had left. Moist wound oozing, he punched a tether ball when I passed a school. On TV, he sat in the seats just out of frame. He bled in my nightmares.
In my dreamscapes, he turns to me, the aquamarine eyes life gave him glazed with death. Third eye becomes second mouth, the wound edges moving like lips. Why didn’t your military mind read small as probable kid? Why didn’t you give me a chance to grow up?
This time, Ally beat any ban or bar invoked by pity. Her palms patted my sweat sopped clothes. Poking my splinter-pricked rear, warm fingers searched its cleft. I felt their touch, after the bruising wrought by the last seizure, as a sweet massage.
When I could move, Allison knelt by my feet. Unlacing a boot, she freed a pants leg, exposing my holster. Her focus on the Beretta
pleased me. It meant she did not pay any attention when I wiped away my tears.
Ally might understand me better if I told her about Iraq. Her love might grow if she knew even clerks raised rifles. But I can’t tell the story of that awful Abu Ghraib trip. Not to therapists. Not to friends. Not to the one person I cared for most. Its truth destroyed. No one could know.
She undid the holster’s strap. Blood pulsed into numb flesh. Opened capillaries throbbed. Like a dropped weight, the loss of tension let muscles relax.
The loss of the pistol’s fourteen ounces, though, redoubled my sense of fear. I felt naked. Castrated. Threats filled the world. Without warning, an explosion mangled a soccer-field-sized chuck of road. Without warning, everything you knew about yourself flipped like an overturned Humvee.
Allison slapped the top strap of the rig against her calf. Tugging on clasps, she gauged the adjustments demanded by longer legs and a thicker body.
If she knew my story, she’d know taking my weapon was wrong. I lied about training. It can fail. What I learned about reading hostile situations failed me. But remorse never does. What it teaches lasts forever.
Ally stared at the holster rig. Lifting a heel to the bench’s backrest, she stretched the cuff of her jeggings. She furrowed her brow. It seemed the task of stuffing a firearm under a spandex sheath perplexed her.
--Different get-ups call for different rigs. I brought other options. The way your blouses fit, under the armpit seems the best bet. Let me up. I’ll show you.
--Don’t move. Stay put. Don’t make me hurt you, again. I’ll find an outfit to go with the gun, thank you very much.
She strode to the Equinox. With a swish of rayon, the flared edge of her teal peplum top swayed this way, that way. I’d asked this woman to marry me. Her mind sparkled with a strange electricity. After sowing hate, I yearned for her appetite, her desire to fill her lover’s arms. After reaping death, I craved her capacity to punish. Beyond these traits, she supplied skin peach soft and apricot hued. The hatch of the Equinox hissed up.
A wheeled duffle and two totes, the extent of her luggage, thudded to the asphalt. I had to find a way to east her anger. By a word, by a deed, I had to signal my willingness to continue on despite our irreconcilable opinions. Let us stay together. Let us watch each other grow old. With a bag draped from each shoulder, she marched toward the visitor center with what seemed far too many choices for a costume swap.

--Hey Ally, keep the Beretta on the down low inside, okay? Folks from all over make pit stops here. Wouldn’t want to freak out some liberal from a no-carry jurisdiction.

--Advice on appreciation of the viewpoint of others. From the man who deems it okay to brandish pistols at lousy drivers who come closer than two car lengths.

--More a local advisory. Indiana has a thing about firearms in public buildings. Chatting with the state police might take hours. I want us to have time for more than sleep tonight.

--Do you think I’ll still put out tonight, Sean? After all the bullshit you’ve pulled?

--I always hope for that, Ally. No matter how we fight. All the cornball clichés come true in our bedroom moments. That dolphin position you want to try? I think I’m up for it.


Allison, one hand on the duffel’s handle, pulled down her lip with the pinkie of the other. I recognized the gesture. Travelers, circling where she’d paused on the walkway, sought latrines, and trifolds about malls, and free balloons. Ally pulled her lip like that whenever I told her how beautiful she was. Or how happy she made me. Or how our kids would look. Around us, vending machines dispensed Coke to the thirsty and maples offered shade where the hungry could enjoy their meals.
Shoulder lowered by her pose, the right tote slipped. The edge of the bag struck the grip of the Beretta, her sneakered toe, the ground. Strap left unsnapped, the pistol cartwheeled out of its holster and joined the bag with a clatter.
Allison sighed. Looking down, she shook her head. She squatted, gathered the items. Bag back on her shoulder. Pistol back in its holster. Then, with a soldier’s preciseness, she executed a right face and disappeared into the visitor center.
The hour hand on the clock set in the cinderblock above the entrance has since added five notches. In that time, past-tense Sean caught up with present-tense Sean.
I have been an obedient fiancé. Per her directions, I stayed on my bench. Allison, though, hasn’t been so loyal. She has not returned to me. She has not emerged from the visitor center.
The orange-vested groundskeeper offers me a coffee from the info desk. The temperature drops. Crickets chirp. Part of me knows Ally took off with the floppy hat lady. But, just like part of me can’t let go of Iraq, a part of me can’t let go of our relationship. So I sit.
Future-tense Sean will get off this bench. Go to the latrine. Pull the splinters from his ass. To open the GunVault safe under the Equinox’s cargo net, he’ll use a thumbprint. To drive, he’ll choose a new pistol. To hide it, he’ll put it in the under-the-armpit rig Ally rejected. Then future-tense Sean will drive to California and tell his dad to forget the wedding. Because unlike Iraq, he can talk about the impediments stupid men raise to love.
I’ll do all those things. But for now, I can only watch the light fade from world.
A northern Los Angeles County denizen, Chuck Von Nordheim lives where the land shifts from chaparral to desert. An Honorable discharge recipient, he marches with Iraq Veterans Against the War. A Grateful Dead devotee, he endorses the healing power of tie-dye. An MFA graduate, his work also appears in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 5, Dime Show Review, and Theaker’s Journal.

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