“Brooklyn Royalty” by Steve Slavin

1

As someone born and bred in the borough, I am well acquainted with Brooklyn royalty. In fact, only great modesty prevents me from even mentioning my own royal blood.

Brooklyn, of course, was once part of the British Empire, and many reminders can still be found. I grew up just a block from our neighborhood’s main shopping strip, Kings Highway. Just off the Highway is a well preserved pre-Revolutionary farmhouse, the Wycoff-Bennett mansion. In recent decades, it was owned by Annette and Stu Mont, who sometimes called their home the Wycoff-Bennett-Mont house.

Annette and I met at James Madison High School and became friendly again about twenty years ago. She invited me to monthly political meetings and occasional parties at her home. She and her husband had restored the house to look much as it did during colonial times. There were even numerous oil portraits of the home’s earlier residents, as well as furniture and farm implements dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

When new guests arrived, Annette graciously showed them around.  Sometimes I could not resist telling the more gullible among them that I too had descended from the Wycoffs or the Bennetts – or even both families.  Annette smiled when she overheard me, but she never bothered setting the record straight.

Another structure surviving from colonial times was a store on Montague Street, in historic Brooklyn Heights. If you looked in a Brooklyn phone book from the 1970s, you’d find a listing for King George Pizza. It’s still whispered that after their victory in the Battle of Brooklyn, scores of Redcoats stopped in for a celebratory slice, while Washington’s army escaped to New Jersey to fight another day.

2

Three members of the royal family lived in the neighborhood where I grew up. Two of them held court in Kelly Park – and I mean that both figuratively and literally.

When we were in elementary school, our classes lined up in the schoolyard each morning before entering the building. But in the event of rain or snow, we lined up in the cafeteria. One spring morning there was a tremendous downpour, with heavy showers predicted for the rest of the day.

A scholarly-looking kid named Marty Marks made his way around the cafeteria assuring us that the sun would come out that afternoon, and he would see us all in Kelly Park. And sure enough, he was as good as his word. And though there were still some puddles, the park was filled with kids playing stickball. Smiling benevolently, Marty made his rounds, accepting thanks and congratulations. He had accomplished the impossible! And so, to this day, Marty Marks is known as the King of Kelly Park.

I was also blessed to be acquainted with the Duchess, perhaps the best handball player that Kelly Park had ever known. We were both about sixteen at the time, and though I was very attracted to her, I never was able to get up the courage to ask her for a date.

One day, she had a bandage across the bridge of her nose. Some of the other kids asked her if she had walked into a wall. But she just smiled, and they were left to wonder what the big secret was.

It must have been a year or so later when I asked the Duchess about the bandage. She laughed. It turned out that some of the girls in our neighborhood had had expensive nose jobs and she was jealous.

“But why would you have a nose job? You have a beautiful nose!”

“Why thank you, Steve!”

“So, what was with the bandage?”

“I wore it so everyone would think I had had a nose job.”

“But why, if you didn’t need one?”

“I wanted everyone to think my parents could afford to pay for one.” I guess if you’re a duchess, you do need to keep up appearances.

3

Besides the Duchess and the King of Kelly Park, there was the Countess. A very thin, pale woman in her fifties, she lived directly above my friend, Arnie, on Homecrest Avenue, just a few blocks from Kelly Park. He told me that he would often hear her pacing the floor all night.

I guess that she was known as the Countess because of her haughty, aristocratic manner and her refusal to associate with anyone too far below her station. Her neighbors believed she was married to a European count that would one day be joining her. His castle would surely be several steps up from her furnished apartment.

And then one evening, the phone rang in Arnie’s family’s apartment. It was the Countess. She was almost breathless with excitement. She had time to utter just two sentences, “Abe is here! I made him some soup.”

Royalty is part of every Brooklynite’s DNA.  One of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers was their centerfielder, Duke Snider. He was known throughout the borough as “The Duke of Flatbush.”

There was a rather absurdly titled popular song back in the 1950s, “The Duke of Earl.” Huh? There are dukes and there are earls. But wasn’t calling yourself the Duke of Earl a bit excessive? Why not go for something a little more refined like Countess, or Duchess, or perhaps even King?

4

Let the record show that until now, I have held off talking about my own royal connections. But I do prefer, at least on formal occasions, to be addressed as Steve Slavin, OBE. If you’re a Britisher, you would certainly be familiar with this title. It stands for Order of the British Empire. It was granted to me when I was just thirty years old, when I was spending a summer in Barbados.

There are tens of thousands of Bajans who have migrated from the island to Brooklyn, but I had done the reverse. Actually, I was there to research my doctoral dissertation, entitled, “The Economic Cost and Effectiveness of the Barbados Family Planning Association.”

It was while doing that research that the OBE was bestowed upon me. I had gotten to rub shoulders with many of the movers and shakers of the island, some of whom were benefactors of the BFPA. Among them was the Honorable Clyde Gollup–who held three important government positions simultaneously–and appeared to know nearly everyone. As we drove around Bridgetown, the capital, he waved at hundreds of different people, and they waved back.

“Clyde, is there anyone you don’t know?”

“Well Steve, surely you noticed we have a very small country.”

During my stay, I was introduced to Lady Adams, Sir Frank Knight, and dozens of other luminaries. While they were all quite gracious, I felt that my status as an impoverished graduate student put me at quite a social disadvantage.

Once I’d received my doctorate, of course, I’d have a recognizable title. But what could I use in the meanwhile? It didn’t take long for me to come up with Order of the British Empire, an honor that the Queen had been handing out quite generously. So from that day on, I introduced myself as Steve Slavin, OBE.

Did my ruse actually work? Well, it was pretty hard to tell, because everyone was so polite. If some had their doubts, they kept them to themselves. But then one day, the manager of the Barbados Family Planning Association referred to himself as “a Britisher.”

“Lionel,” I pointed out. “You’re a Bajan, not a Britisher.”

“Oh, is that true?” he replied. “And since when does the Queen grant OBEs to people from Brooklyn?”

5

Despite having rubbed elbows with Brooklyn royalty for so many years, I had never even heard of the Queen of Brooklyn. Then, one evening, I actually met her.

I didn’t realize straight off that she was a queen because we met at a Halloween party. She happened to be dressed like a queen, so I had no way of knowing that she was one.

How can you spot a queen? And what’s the difference between a queen and a mere princess? Their years of experience ruling their subjects? Maybe it’s that old noblesse oblige, if you get my drift.

Whatever it was, this lady had it! She simply expected everyone to wait on her. Indeed, she was, by far, the laziest person I had ever met. I mean, yeah, there were energetic queens like Elizabeth I and Victoria, but then there was Queen Sheila – Queen of Brooklyn.

Pushing fifty, Sheila confided that she never worked a day in her life. She got by, it seems, on a monthly “stipend” she received from her father, whom of course, she detested.

“You do take his money,” I pointed out.

“Trust me, Steve, it’s guilt money. The man has never done a thing for me in my entire life.” I was too polite to say anything about the “stipend.”

We never actually dated, but just had a few casual get-togethers. One of those times was having dinner at my friend Barbara’s house. After dinner, when Barbara was doing the dishes, Sheila offered to help. As theatrically as possible, I fell to the floor.

They both smiled as I lay there, doing my best to maintain an expression of great shock.

Then Barbara thanked Sheila for asking, but said she was almost finished. I told Sheila that I was truly amazed by her generous – and highly uncharacteristic offer.

“Well, I knew Barbara would say ‘no.’”

Another time, Sheila asked me to escort her to a wedding in Brighton Beach where a Russian woman she knew was getting married. She was looking forward to stealing the spotlight, as that certainly was her queenly due.

She wanted me to drive her to the wedding. No problem. But she also wanted me to wear a suit. I didn’t own one. So I would have to miss the wedding – and she would need to find someone else to drive her there–and, of course, to play a supporting role when she made her grand entrance.

As things turned out, Sheila almost missed the wedding. She had made a blind date with someone she had met through a computer dating service. He was supposed to pick her up in front of her building, but he never showed up. So Queen Sheila had to call a cab and be further humiliated by having to make her grand entrance without an escort. Luckily, by the time she arrived, few of the guests were sober enough to take note of this embarrassing detail.

A few weeks later Sheila again needed me to give her a ride. She was having a medical emergency. Would I please drive her to the hospital?

“Of course,” I replied, “but wouldn’t it be better to call the EMS, since they’re trained for these occasions, and you might need medical attention on the way to the hospital?”

“No, Steve. I need you to take me. You’re the only one I trust.”

When I got to her apartment, I needed to half-support and half-carry her to my car.

“Which hospital should I take you to? The two closest are Community Hospital and Kings Highway Hospital.”

“Either one is fine.”

“OK, we’ll go to Community because their emergency entrance is more accessible.”

“Steve, I need you to change my will.”

“What?”

“I might die tonight. I need to cut my father out of my will.”

“Look, Sheila, I know you hate the man, but we can’t just stop now to change your will. First things first!”

No!”

“No? Are you nuts? I’m not going to stop the car now. I need to get you to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

I couldn’t believe we were having this argument. Then she amazed me.

“Can’t you do both?”

“No, Sheila! I can’t drive and alter your will at the same time.”

Then, to change the subject slightly, I asked her why she wanted to cut her father out of her will considering that he had given her every penny she had.

“It’s a matter of principle.”

“And what principle is that?”

“That he should have given me a lot more money. So is it fair that he ends up with still more of my money?”

Thankfully, at that very moment we pulled up at the hospital, and a couple of orderlies rushed out with a wheelchair.

I parked a few blocks away and went back to see her. A doctor had just finished examining her. She then had Sheila walk the length of the emergency room and back again.

Sheila seemed fine. The doctor told her that she could go home, and then asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, doctor. Do you know anything about wills?”

Steve Slavin

A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math
and economics books. Over the last seven years he has also published four volumes of short stories, but he expects the pace to slow somewhat over the next seven years.

“Come Here Often?” by Patty Somlo

Kevin O’Rourke had been a fixture in the bookstore for longer than anyone in the neighborhood could remember. At one time, the famous poet and owner of Left Bank Books had stood behind the counter, mostly chatting with up-and-coming writers, but occasionally working the register. When the store closed at ten o’clock, or even later on nights there had been a reading in the dark cramped space at the back, O’Rourke climbed the stairs to his spacious flat, where he’d lived going on five decades.

O’Rourke had never married. He was rumored to have been involved with many women, some famous and some not. On the list of his lovers were writers, as well as artists, actresses, and even a handful of models. As a younger man, O’Rourke’s hair had been thick, wavy and black. He wore it stylishly long. His blue eyes were the first thing women noticed, and then his smile.

He no longer stood behind the counter, but some days could be found in a worn upholstered green chair, situated in a quiet corner of the shop. The chair rested in front of a scratched oak coffee table, with other once-comfortable seats that had long ago lost their support. The chairs were meant to encourage customers to linger.

Everyone of a certain age had read O’Rourke’s poems in high school, which put the bookstore on a list of places to visit when in San Francisco. Since Left Bank Books was located in an area far from tourist attractions like Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the cable car line, a trip to the bookstore was considered daring, even a step on the wild side. Usually referred to as Upper Market, the neighborhood sat halfway between the predominantly gay Castro and the once mostly Latino, but changing, Mission District, filled with low-rise apartment buildings and some scattered Victorians, restaurants, and a few small stores.

As far as most people knew, O’Rourke didn’t write much anymore. He had taken up painting sometime after turning sixty. Every so often, he exhibited his paintings, all acrylics, in shows. Past eighty now, he didn’t have the energy to do a lot, other than come downstairs and walk around the store. At some point during the day, though, he usually stepped outside for a walk.

In recent years, his six-foot-two frame had shrunk. Miraculously, his hair remained thick, but had turned white. The eyes were still a deep, almost unsettling, blue, even though the skin surrounding them had become wrinkled and dry.

The neighborhood had changed in O’Rourke’s time living above the bookstore. When the shop first opened, working-class Irish-Americans and their families filled the flats and Victorians, including in the neighboring Castro. Gay men started moving in, painting the outsides of the homes’ elaborately carved facades scores of bright colors. Longtime residents decided it was time to head for the suburbs.

Inexpensive places for working-class families to live had vanished over the decades O’Rourke lived and worked in the neighborhood. Even when young people crowded into flats, turning dining and living rooms into bedrooms for more ways to split the rent, it still took high-tech salaries to live there. O’Rourke used to run across an occasional panhandler sitting with a sign alongside the sidewalk, asking for spare change. Now, entire tent cities existed, sheltering people who had nowhere else to live.

On his walk this day, O’Rourke found himself writing verses in his mind, about the unjust nature of life. Feet from the encampments, people were sitting in restaurants, sipping ten-dollar glasses of wine and eating dishes ordinary folks couldn’t pronounce. O’Rourke mentally scribbled words, tapping out a rhythm with the cane he’d started to use.

Instead of continuing to walk at least thirty minutes, which would mean he’d gone over a mile, O’Rourke was tempted to stop into a café down the street, where the Mission District started. He hadn’t been there for years, he realized. No, the more he thought about it, decades had passed since he’d been inside. Now that a vision of the place, La Roca, had come into his mind, O’Rourke pictured the air smoky and dark. Yes, at that time, the poets, artists and musicians, and the political activists, would still puff away in there, something the city banned ages ago.

O’Rourke was in his forties then, younger, though he’d felt old. There were all those poets and painters from Latin America, their hair long, smoking and talking, arguing about politics and writing and life. Some of them seemed to live in the café, each in his special seat. The memory brought tears to O’Rourke’s eyes.

In that moment, O’Rourke almost forgot his way, as he debated with himself whether or not to stop into the place. Was the cafe even there, after all these years? If it was, who might possibly still be sitting inside? No one he knew, he felt sure. With all that smoking, many of them had probably died.

O’Rourke spotted the sign, a white background with red lettering, after he passed the corner. “The alley,” he muttered quietly, spotting the dark narrow passageway to the left and recalling how the café appeared outside. As he got closer, he could see that someone had painted a brightly-colored mural on the alley wall. Unconsciously, he quickened his steps.

“Well, what do you know?” he said, his gaze fixed on the mural as he smiled.

It was, he could see, a picture of the café’s interior, with some of the regular crowd seated at their usual spots. Before this moment, he’d forgotten some of their names. But seeing the perfect likenesses, the names came back now. Daniel, the poet from El Salvador, sitting in the back corner by himself. And there was Alejandro, the singer with the sweet voice, holding his guitar.

O’Rourke was not expecting to find himself on the wall. Instead, he searched for patrons he hadn’t seen or thought about in decades. As he stood there picking out one after the other, recalling their names and certain qualities, he began to feel as if he’d stepped right back into the past, enjoying the feeling washing over him, a quiet contentment, being with the familiar crowd, but never sure what might happen. Yes, Rodrigo could suddenly climb atop his table and recite a verse he’d just scribbled there in the dark corner and everyone in the place would applaud. Or Alejandro would strum a new song and sing the words in that sweet tenor voice.

Or, and this only happened once in a while, a beautiful woman O’Rourke had never seen until that moment could walk in the door. She would stand there, waiting for her eyes to adjust, after the bright sunlight outside. O’Rourke would will her to come and sit at his table, close to the front door. Sure enough, a minute after he turned away, she would be standing there saying, “Is anyone sitting here,” her fingers resting on the back of a chair across from him.

As he faced the mural, O’Rourke lost all sense of time. By now, he’d forgotten about going into the café. Instead, the old poet returned to the years when so much seemed possible.

He was writing early in the morning then, before leaving the flat for the bookstore. If a woman was in his bed, he slipped out while she slept, brewed a cup of espresso in the small silver pot on the stove, and sipped it black, while sitting in the living room with the door closed. Words formed so quickly in his mind, he had trouble keeping up with his pen.

Of course, he wanted to know what had happened to the whole La Roca crowd. He moved his gaze from the mural to the café’s front door, debating again whether to go inside or not. What if none of the old crowd was there? What if the place was all spiffed up, as so much in the city had become? Wouldn’t that ruin the memories he’d unearthed, looking at the mural and its depiction of all the regulars?

The woman had come to stand next to O’Rourke at least ten minutes before. She hadn’t said a word, as she didn’t want to startle him or interrupt. She often came by the café, checking on the mural’s condition, to make sure none of the neighborhood kids had tagged it with graffiti. Interestingly, the taggers seemed to respect the art, even though they probably knew nothing about the café’s history or the people depicted on the wall.

Sometimes when Miranda, the artist who’d painted the mural, came by here, she ran into tourists admiring the wall. More often than not, they were foreigners, usually young, and often European, though she’d met Australians and occasionally visitors from Brazil or Argentina.

This old man did not look like a tourist. He must live nearby, she thought, probably out for a walk. It suddenly occurred to her that he might have been part of the crowd that hung out in the café, in the old days when the neighborhood was filled with writers and artists, and revolutionaries, whose lives weren’t dedicated to making gobs of money, because they didn’t need much to get by.

Miranda cleared her throat, to let the old man know she was standing there and avoid startling him. Lately, there had been attacks on the elderly, robbing them of anything valuable – a watch, a cell phone, a purse or wallet. The man suddenly turned to her. She could tell by the look on his face that he was a bit confused.

At the moment O’Rourke heard a sound that caused him to turn his head, he was sitting in his usual spot by the café’s front door, and a woman he’d never met had taken a seat across from him. She had long, straight dark brown hair, with a trace of red. Her eyes were green and he wondered if she might be Irish. O’Rourke enjoyed looking at her, and in his imagination now, he thought how much he would enjoy painting her. Maybe if things went well, he could make a suggestion for her to come back to his flat. Right before he turned his head, that thought had made him smile.

“Do you like the mural?” Miranda asked, a question she usually reserved for tourists.

“Oh,” O’Rourke said, surprised, as he hadn’t considered whether he liked it or not.

He didn’t answer at first, but instead thought about what he wanted to say. The pretty woman with the long dark hair was looking at him, waiting for a response.

O’Rourke wanted to say that he’d like to paint her. He would capture the light in her eyes, the shadows below her high cheekbones, and the slight space between her two top front teeth. Before inviting her to his flat, though, he knew he ought to ask something about her.

So, rather than respond to the woman’s question, O’Rourke posed a question of his own.

“Do you come here often?” he asked.

On hearing the question, Miranda realized the man seemed a bit senile, perhaps suffering from dementia. He might have wandered away from a caregiver. Someone could be frantically searching for him now. She wanted to help, so, instead of answering his question, she asked, “Do you live around here?”

Hearing the question, O’Rourke smiled.

“Yes. Just up the street and around the corner. Would you like to see my place?”

Miranda smiled now too.

“Yes, I would,” she said.

So, threading her right arm through the old man’s left, she let him take the lead, as O’Rourke began to fantasize the wonderful time he and this woman were soon going to have.

Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.

“Lost Chicago” by Joshua Ginsberg

This will be the only key now
to the map that leads back
to that place I left –

All other directions take me
somewhere I don’t know,
down endlessly defeated rows
of broken, boarded windows
and too-quiet streets
beneath the lonesome
shriek of wind.

Empty towers lean shadows
over every intersection
of is and was,
like a just-finished necropolis
of glass and steel

waiting to find
new use.

Joshua Ginsberg is a writer, entrepreneur, and curiosity seeker who relocated from Chicago to Tampa Bay in 2016. He is the author of “Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure,” (Reedy Press, 2020), and his poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has appeared in various print and digital publications. He maintains a blog, Terra Incognita Americanus and has been a business proposal and resume writer for over 10 years. He currently resides in Tampa’s Town and Country neighborhood with his wife, Jen, and their Shih Tzu, Tinker Bell.

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Two Poems by John Grey

On the Way to the Job

Another morning.
Traffic’s where I live.
It moves. It stops.
It stops some more.
Only traffic can freeze the scenery.
Only traffic can reduce the world
to the bumper stickers of the car in front,
the face of the driver
in the rear-view mirror.
Luckily, I’m going someplace
I do not wish to be.
This is my preferred speed.
It almost doesn’t get me there.

Morning in the Alley

Sunrise seizes on those
already with cheap gin on the tongue
like a slow, non-violent reflex action,
sets aside some shadow for the alley
but shines a thimbleful of light
on gray eyebrows, malted hair.
The world is busy elsewhere
but these men sit still
for whatever the sunshine brings,
everything patient about them
except their thirsts.
The day seeks out trembling lips.
shaking lingers.
a bottle passed around like gold,
a few cuss words
and an itching of the groin,
Dawn knows where to get a drink
at this time in the morning.

John Grey is an Australian poet and US resident. He was recently published in New Plains ReviewStillwater Review and Big Muddy Review with work upcoming in Louisiana ReviewColumbia College Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review.

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“Notre Dame” by Patrick Vitullo

Was its best face seen from
the Quai de la Tournelle,
Pont de L’Archeveche,
or Square Jean XXIII?
Whether the proboscis of facade
or the gothic grey body worded
and etched from the bookseller’s stalls
on the Quai de Montebello,
every look was different.
 
An arch of neck brought one up
its twin towers and shunned down 
the spouting gaff of gargoyles.
Its rose window bloomed before the Seine
while pigeons peripatetic gathered
en masse before a statue of Charlemagne.
 
A man bedecked in the
beauty of his language
asked for francs, a baguette,
and then, when none were offered, 
simply said, bonjour.
 
Like the countenance of its people,
that lean church beveled 
its spire to the sky.
As Emmanuel tolled
solemnly the moment when
Christ died, the Elysian arms of 
Our Lady buttressed 
the man’s tired hands.
And all Paris
foamed in the wake of a bateau-mouche.
 
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Patrick Vitullo is a writer, poet, essayist, and world traveler who lives in Havertown, PA. He was awarded the 1979 John T. Fredericks Prize in Literary Criticism by the University of Notre Dame where he graduated with a B.A. in liberal arts. He also has a law degree from Villanova University and limits his law practice to representation of injured workers. Patrick has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Antigonish Review. 

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“Predications of the Municipal” by Colin James

Your wrecking ball smashed into
my theater’s old brick walls
past a surprised audience,
onward through the stage’s
painted canvass backdrop
releasing a cast of amateurs.
The Rimbaud posters
in the dimly lit dressing room
peeled at the edges.

Colin James has a couple of chapbooks of poetry published. Dreams Of The Really Annoying from Writing Knights Press and A Thoroughness Not Deprived of Absurdity from Piski’s Porch Press and a book of poems, Resisting Probability, from Sagging Meniscus Press.

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“9/11” by Pete Mladinic

In Cather’s story, “Paul’s Case,”
after the coach rides, the baths,
the tortoise shell brushes, mirrors,
satin sheets, chandeliers,
plush carpets and ornate tables,
after the champagne and caviar feast,
Paul takes his baggage of flesh
draped in soft clothes
onto a final coach
into final woods, and down to the tracks,
and hurls himself into the path
of a locomotive,
choosing this form of death over poison,
pistol, or rope.  It seems
he wants nothing to remain of Paul,
wants Paul himself obliterated,
wiped clean from earth’s map,
no corpse, no likeness for mourners
to view and close the lid on,
and lower into an earthen hole.
Now, a hundred years after Cather’s Paul,
a father named Paul bids his family
goodbye,
not knowing it’s his final goodbye.
A farewell in the dark:  he leans
to kiss his wife’s cheek,
and then to the room of his sleeping son,
also Paul (an only child of an only child),
and leans and kisses his son’s brow
and, with light approaching from the east,
walks out his gate and leaves
his familiar street, not knowing
the finalities of these minutes
of September 2001, and to others
“on floor” when the plane crashes
through, and the sky falls
and turns into a celestial inferno.
Nothing left of September Paul
and those on his floor, nothing left
of the floor, or the shoes
he was wearing, or his teeth,
his wallet, nothing left there.
How could he have so much, one moment,
and then not even his teeth, his hair,
his family.  How different his case
from that of Cather’s brooding protagonist.

Pete

Peter Mladinic’s poems have recently appeared in Neologism, the Mark, the Magnolia Review, Ariel Chart, Bluepepper, and other online journals. He lives, with six dogs, in Hobbs, New Mexico. 9/11 originally appeared in Academy of the Heart and Mind.

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“Lips Boudreaux” by James Knipp

The fat guy at the bus stop reminded Leonard of Tug Rooney.  He didn’t especially look like Tug.   The fat guy was tall and white and had the well-fed jowls and loud, bright voice of a suburban Rotarian, while Tug was short and gimpy with ashen skin and an asthmatic wheeze brought on by breathing decades of smoke.  It was more in the way they both could spin into a tale, the way the audience leaned in expectantly, especially the ladies, and how each always ended with a flourish, riding a wave of laughter through the finish.  Leonard had once asked Tug how he did it, how he commanded such attention. 

Tugs had put one hand on the back of Leonard’s neck and drew the younger man closer so he could smell the stale beer and cigar smoke that seeped from his pores.  He pointed at Leonard, the ever-present stub of cigar wedged between his fingers and said in his broken, sibilant croak, “Lips, you believe in what you say, people will follow, understand?”

Leonard, not quite a whisker past twenty at the time, didn’t, but he nodded all the same.  That was just how he was with Tug, when he asked, you nodded.  He had that way of making you agree.

The Rotarian at the bus stop finished his story and the ladies around him cackled laughter.  A bus growled up to the stop, belching diesel, and he strode away.  The ladies watched him leave with bird-like avidity, their eyes bright and admiring.

“He’s so nice,” one of them whispered.  The others nodded approvingly.

More buses came to the stop.  Brakes bellowed mournful whale song.  One by one, the ladies folded behind hissing pneumatic doors to be carried away to kitchens and dinner tables in Cherry Hill and Collingswood and Washington Township.  To husbands and children and houses that would soon grow dark and quiet as the winters night settled slowly around them and their day came to an end.

Leonard pulled his coat tighter and shivered. It wasn’t as cold as it should be, not for January, but it was cold enough.  He should head to the shelter.  They would put him up for the night, make sure he had something warm, but the bench held him fast.  The traffic along Broad Street thinned.  He watched long shadows stretch from the giant paintbrush, a silly and gaudy thing that sat next to the Fine Arts Academy and thought of Tug, and the club, and how he used to make that trumpet say things he never could in his own voice.

“Lips, you wouldn’t say shit even if you had a mouthful,” Tug would holler from his seat by the bar.  And Leonard would nod, and then Buster would start plinking that piano, and Milo tap on that snare, and Leonard would raise that trumpet to his mouth and he would disappear, and Lips Boudreaux would fill his spot. Only then would he speak, the wailing notes letting everyone at The Trap know about pain and loss and redemption.

“Don’t listen to him, hon,” Billie had said.  “That old fool been talking shit so long, he don’t know how to shut up.”  They had been naked when she said that, wrapped together under dingy sheets in his apartment above the club. The flickering neon sign cast them into discordant reds and washed out white.  Tug owned the sign, the club, the apartment Leonard rented.  Hell, he owned Leonard himself, courtesy of the contract Leonard signed the day he arrived in Philly, a battered, all-but-empty valise in his left hand, his trumpet case clutched in his right.  Tug had heard him play, had taken him out to buy a steak, and a new suit, even a woman; and then he had laid the crispy, white contract before him and urged him to sign.

Leonard had read it, or tried to.  The words swam before him, blurred by liquor and obscured by the promise of $50 per week, a king’s ransom back in Holmes County.  “What does ‘perpetuity’ mean?” he had asked.  Tug fixed him with rheumy grin, clapped him on the back, and said, “It means until you don’t want to play no more, son.”  Leonard had nodded and signed.  He had his doubts, his mother didn’t raise a fool, but to not sign meant getting back on that train to Mississippi and he couldn’t do that.  He had failed in New Orleans, he damn well wasn’t going to fail up here.

Bright light pulled him from the past.  A police car pulled to the curb, its searchlight speared the darkness and pinned Leonard to the bench.  He stiffened, and remembered a time when this might lead to billy clubs and beatings, even in the so-called enlightened north.  He never got caught up in that, and when the earnest young men would appear at the club and urge him to lend his voice to a cause, he simply demurred. People were people, and nothing he said could change that. Milo went to the rallies, sometimes came back with blackened eyes he wore as a badge of honor.  “What’s right is right, Lips. And this ain’t right.”  But Leonard would just shrug, and play on.  He supposed the abuse still happened today, at least that what the papers left on his bench said.  The light flicked off and a voice called from the darkness

“You’re not planning on sleeping here?”

Leonard jumped.  The voice that called out from the cruiser was Milo’s.  He’d know it anywhere.  Then he remembered that Milo was in Jersey, buried next to his wife.  He tried to peer through the open window of the vehicle and a face swam out of the void.  Not Milo at all, just a young cop making the rounds.

“Sir, you can’t sleep here.  Snow’s coming.”

Indeed, flakes had already begun to fall, coating the bench in a thin layer of cotton.

“Yes, sir,” Leonard called. His voice cracked in the frozen air.  He pointed towards city hall and the shadowed bus that lumbered around the corner. ‘I’m just waiting on the 400.”

The cop shrugged.  The car pulled away.  Tug, dead these passed forty years, stood beneath the giant paintbrush across the street, nearly obscured by the falling snow.  Leonard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and Tug disappeared, replaced by the plastic dollop of paint that completed the sculpture.  Oldenburg’s Paint Torch they called it.  Milo would have called it a giant pile of Day-Glo dogshit, and laughed that crazy laugh.

Milo had been the one to introduce him to Billie.  She was his wife’s cousin. He brought her in to watch them play, and when their regular singer that summer – some college girl who had run off to get married and left them hanging like forgotten laundry – Billie had stepped in. She stopped the world that night, her voice a huge and living thing that filled every corner and made people forget their drinks, their conversations, to turn their head and just listen.

Tug had been there with the contract before she even finished that first set, that same rheumy grin he laid on Leonard four years earlier.  Billie had taken one look, and laughed that smoky laugh that singed every nerve ending in Leonard’s body.

“Take that thing away, Mr. Rooney.  You want me to sing for you, I’ll sing, but I ain’t signing my name to nothing that don’t involve records.”

The contract disappeared, never mentioned again.  And Billie King became their regular singer.  For seven years she belted out the favorites.  For seven years she brought people in, from Philly, of course, but also from Jersey, and New York, and Baltimore.  Leonard didn’t remember exactly when they became lovers. They got along immediately, fell into each other’s cadences and rhythms.  He instinctively knew when to let the horn fade, to let her voice carry the song, and knew when it was time to step forward and let the horn do the talking.  And then one day they shared a bed.  That simple.  No pronouncements of love or devotion, they just slid into place, like they belonged.

“You know the best thing about you, hon?” She often said, while his head lay on her breast and her fingers traced fiery trails through his scalp.  “You know when to step back and let a girl shine.”

That was of course before the big fight.  Before the record man came with his promises and lured her away to California.

“Come with me,” she urged.  “You can play horn out there, too.”

He had gone to Tugs.   Told him he didn’t want to play for him anymore and was heading to California.  Tugs pulled open the drawer of the decrepit filing cabinet crouched in the corner of the office behind the bar.  Metal scraped against metal in a discordant screech and Leonard winced.  Tug retrieved the contract, slapped it on the desk, and stabbed one stubby finger into the center.

“See this word, ‘perpetuity’, it means ‘till I don’t want you here no more.”

By then Leonard had known what it meant.  Until then, he’d had no reason to care.

 “You can’t stop me from leaving, Tug.”

Tug had grinned, and Leonard knew in that moment he’d lost.

“Sure I can’t stop you, but I can sue you.  No one likes a contract breaker, Lips.”   Tug had paused, clouded eyes fixed to Leonard’s face.  He shook his head.

“Ah, hell, Lips.  I don’t care about the goddamn contract.”  Tug sat back in the chair.  The springs squealed. He blew smoke towards the ceiling.

“Billie’s going to be big.  Too big for you.  She’ll leave you in a year, and then what will you do?”   He turned back toward Leonard, pointed towards him with the cigar.  “And if she don’t, you’ll hold her back.  You gottta see that, right?”

Leonard had nodded.  Of course Tug was right.  Billie King didn’t need a second rate trumpet player to back her up, not when she could have a Kenny Dorham or a Chet Baker, or even a Miles Davis.  Leonard was small time.  He had failed in New Orleans, and had no guarantees he’d do anything good in California.  Philly was where he belonged, and in Philly he had to stay.

A bus stopped.  The woman sitting next to him, a shapeless shadow bundled against the cold, hurried towards the open door.  She paused and looked back, and in the warm inviting light spilling from the bus he saw Billie’s cocoa skin and aquiline nose.  Soft trumpet emanated from within the bus, a little Stella by Starlight. She smiled, stepped onto the bus and disappeared behind the polarized glass.

“I should have gone with you, Billie,” he murmured.  The snow fell harder and he pulled his jacket tighter.  Miles’ trumpet continued from somewhere in the darkness, echoing off silent buildings.  Stella had always been their favorite.

He had brought her few small bags to the car the record company sent.  They looked lost in the cavernous trunk of the new Eldorado.  She had waited for him by the back door, silent, eyes damp, beseeching.  She touched his face.  “It’s not too late.”

He put his head down. “I can’t leave.  This is where I belong.”

 Billie sobbed softly and slid into the back seat of the Cadillac.  The car pulled away and he watched until it disappeared down Broad Street.

Her first record came out a year later.  Then a second and a third.  He had bought them all, filled the apartment with her voice.  Some nights he pulled out his horn and played along.  She never got to play with Miles, but the trumpets that accompanied her were accomplished enough.  He saw her once, briefly, on the television, her hair done up in a style she’d never worn back here, some outlandish fur draped around her shoulders.  She had been sitting with a man he did not recognize and they both laughed uproariously as the camera caught them.  That laughter never touched her eyes though.  In that brief moment, it seemed to Leonard that something essential was missing.

And then she was gone.  Stolen by a demon that lived in a needle. Ruined by men that drained every last drop of spirit from her and cast her empty shell aside. That night at the club he launched into the solo they had worked into Stella by Starlight and kept going, his horn shouting over that year’s singer.  She muttered “Lips, Christ” but he continued.  One by one they stopped playing around him.  Buster’s piano tinkled to a stop, Milo gave one last hissing tap on a cymbal.  Silence fell over the club and he felt the weight of four dozen eyes fall upon him. He kept blowing, pouring everything into the horn, lamenting promises broken, wailing into an indifferent world for everything lost and forgotten.  And when he was finally spent, when the last note faded into the smoke-tinged darkness he had stood, panting on the stage, and thought that one is for you, Billie.  Always for you.

“You played beautifully that night,” Billie said from beside him.  Leonard started, snow sliding from his shoulders.

“Best I ever did,” he answered to the empty bench beside him.

Tug died the following spring, the cancer that had sprung from his throat spread through his body like the kudzu back in Holmes County.  Leonard sat by his hospital bed and watched captor and friend disappear beneath a confusing array of tubes and wires.  Milo came by several times and together they talked about twenty years of shouts from the corner of the bar, of singers come and gone (After Billie, Juanita had been their agreed upon favorite), of the places the music had taken them.  Tug’s sons, sober young men without a note in their soul stopped by, checked in, and left, often without saying a word to the two old musicians sitting bedside.  Leonard often wondered if they even saw him.

The boys sold the building and The Trap joined the parade of jazz clubs that disappeared from Broad Street –  Zanzibars,  Checkies, Suede – all buried under concrete and glass monstrosities that urged people to buy, buy, buy.  Drugstore chains and clothing stores piping ersatz music that spoke to no one, and concert halls that no one could afford.

He sometimes stopped on the corner, using his trumpet to tempt loose change into the old case, until someone – a manager or a cop – told him to leave.  He found jobs, especially in the nineties when the Jazz scene began to make a comeback and the clubs sprung up in the North East, but work was sparse now.  No one really wanted a tired, old horn player.

A flourish of trumpet and light flared from the empty convention center behind him.  He turned, amazed at the crowd of people, sitting in twos and threes around tiny tables that had sprung out of nothing.

“I hope you ain’t sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, sugar,” Billie said.  She grabbed his hand and placed it against her warm cheek.  “You’ve had a lot of good, too.”

“That’s right, Billie,” he whispered.  “And you was the best part of it.”

“Hey now,” Milo laughed from beside him.  “You and me had some times together too.”

Leonard whirled.  Milo leaned casually on a column, cigarette tucked beneath his lip, a spare drumstick wedged behind his ear.  Tug stood next to him, a trumpet case in his hand.  The convention center doors stood open. A quartet stage set up and waited for the music to start. Buster already sat at the piano.  Milo flicked his cigarette and sauntered inside, his long hands beating a rhythm against his narrow chest.  Billie gave him a lingering kiss and slid away.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Sugar.”

Tug remained outside, his head cocked, cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth.  He raised the trumpet case towards him.

“What do you say, Lips.  You gonna honor that contract?”

“That was never a fair contract, Tug.  You know that.”

Tug grinned and shrugged. Leonard took the trumpet.  The old club owner waddled away in an acrid cloud of cigar smoke.  Leonard unclasped the case and found his old horn, the good one with the pearl-inlaid buttons that Billie had bought him before she left.  He had sold it for rent money.

Inside the convention center, Buster plinked on the keyboard.  Milo beat a light staccato on the snare.  Billie scatted some scales, something she loved to tease the crowd with before each set.  The audience murmured its approval, and Leonard felt sudden warmth blaze in his chest.  His heart pounded, his lungs filled with air and he felt it, the music, coursing through him, waiting for release.   He placed the trumpet to his lips, let the horn wail, his fingers jumping nimbly through notes, making them dance like fireflies in the Mississippi twilight.  Billie gave a primal shout and opened her arms and Lips Boudreaux strode up to the stage.  It was time for him to do some talking, and he had a lot to say. The snow fell and grew into a shroud, covering Leonard in white that would remain undisturbed until morning.  Somewhere from the darkness, a horn wailed, and for a moment the few remaining souls who wandered Broad Street stopped and marveled as the note spoke to them of love and hope and the knowledge that all things lost will someday be found again.

James Knipp is a graduate of Rutgers College with a BA in English. He is the creator of the humor blog KnippKnopp and a frequent contributor to the pop culture site Biff Bam Pop He has had work published in Crypt-GnatsPhilly Flash Inferno and the anthologies Long Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey and In a Flash.  Jim’s first book, Everything you Need to Know About Being a Grandfather (Quirk Books) was published in 2019.

Two Poems by Danny P. Barbare

The City of Charleston, SC

I like the old city. It fills me full
   of ghost.
How the horses still clop on the
   cobblestone.
A clipper ship floats in the harbor
   as if it has cross and bones
when the only lantern seems to
   be
   the moon
as steps draw nearer, between the
the shadows and the Spanish moss.

The City at Christmas (Greenville, SC)

These buildings are a little
   smaller
the sidewalks no longer run
nor the lights so many and
   magical
but I know they are there
somewhere in the
moonlight’s little coat.

Danny P. Barbare resides in the upstate of the Carolinas. His poems have recently appeared in Blue Unicorn and Ethel. And his poetry has been nominated for Best of Net by Assisi Online Journal. He has been published locally, nationally, and abroad.

Please note: Poetry is compressed to fit smart phone screens. If you are reading this poem on a phone screen, please turn your screen sideways to make sure that you are seeing correct line breaks for this poem.

“Man Sold Separately” by Danielle Keiko Eyer

It was one of those houses that had been dumped on the side of the street, meticulously equidistant from the houses on either side. It was one of those houses where the hot water never ran out in the winter and the air conditioner never broke down in the summer. The neighbours in the similarly-shaped houses shared gossip and borrowed cups of flour and pretended to like each other until the door closed and the lock clicked and their sincere thoughts came to light. It was a neighbourhood with the level of superficiality typically found in the suburbs.

Continue reading “Man Sold Separately” by Danielle Keiko Eyer