Bryan R. Monte – AQ32 Autumn 2021 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ32 Autumn 2021 Book Reviews

Irene Hoge Smith, The Good Poetic Mother: A Daughter’s Memoir, International Psychoanalytic Books (IPBooks), ISBN 978-1-949093-87-2, 232 pages.
bart plantenga, LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness, Spuyten Duyvil Press, ISBN 978-1-952419-54-6, 137 pages

It is my privilege, as AQ’s publisher and editor, to read excerpts from works that will sometimes appear later in published books. It is akin to having a backstage pass to literature, which I thoroughly enjoy. Both writers above have appeared regularly in AQ during its first decade: Irene Hoge Smith in AQ9, AQ12, and AQ29; bart plantenga in AQ23, AQ25, and AQ28 as well as being an active member of AQ’s Writers’ Group. It is exciting to see what was once a single, stand-alone piece, take its place in a larger collection. It is even more exciting if this collection seems to extend the writers’ expression and/or our understanding of arts and letters or history in general. In my opinion, both Smith’s and plantenga’s collections do this. Furthermore, it is exciting to see how these two writers use different genres, prose memoir for the former and list poetry for the latter, to travel through similar territories in their development as writers.
      Smith’s book, The Good Poetic Mother: A Daughter’s Memoir, is an account of her life and that of her mother’s, Frances Dean Smith, aka the poet francEyE, who abandoned her family to move to California to become a writer. Here for a time, Frances Dean Smith became Beat poet Charles Bukowski’s partner and muse. As I read Smith’s book, I immediately became aware that the passages, which originally appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, only tell a portion of this mother-daughter story. Smith’s memoir depicts the neglect she felt both as a result of her mother’s California move and her father’s work in Washington DC, whilst Smith and her sisters lived in Michigan with relatives and family friends. The absence of both her parents resulted in Smith having to raise herself and her sisters, trying to keep their abuse and abandonment a secret from those at school and church, though not always successfully. Decades later, after raising her own family and getting a university education, she tries to make sense of her parents’ neglect and abandonment: what it means to her own family and to her professional and later literary development.
      The Good Poetic Mother begins with a chapter entitled ‘Pandora’s Box’, which refers to the ‘battered, cardboard box’ containing her mother’s papers she receives from her sister Sara in 2009.

(T)his box had been in our father’s possession from the time our mother left at the end of 1962 until his death in 2000. It didn’t seem that the box had ever been opened,

      The box image is repeated on the book’s cover, perhaps in reference to the Pandorian myth of satisfying one’s curiosity without knowing the possible disastrous consequences. Ultimately, after hesitating ‘several weeks’, Smith chooses to open the box and read what her mother left behind before she abandoned her family and went off to California to become a poet. And it does have a negative effect on Smith who, in response to her husband’s ‘How’d it go?’ says:

It’s like the box is radioactive—each thing I read is confusing and crazy, and I swear whatever she had, it’s contagious.

In the box, Smith finds her mother’s poems, letters, short stories—and a one-inch-thick document labelled ‘novel’, which turns out to be a journal her mother kept during the last five months of her marriage to Smith’s father. It answers many of Smith’s questions, raises even more, and leads Smith to understand that the book she needs to write will be about her mother.
      In the following chapters, Smith reminisces about how she received her first name, as mentioned in a popular song of the day, her first memory of her family’s home, ‘grandmother’s brick row house in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Washington, D.C.’, and her sister Patti’s defenestration where she just missed being impaled on ‘a spiked iron fence’, landing instead on the sidewalk with ‘a broken arm and leg’. The following chapter ‘Riverside (California 1951 to 1954)’ describes the family Quonset hut home on a former military base (both her parents were army veterans) and the beginning of her family’s bicoastal life. Smith and her mother stayed in California for one year before returning to her grandmother’s house (the one with the spike fence), while Smith’s father remained in California keeping her older sister Patti. Smith writes that her father was changeable: ‘wanting her mother one moment and rejecting her the next.’
      Without a doubt, the frequent moves and Smith’s parents’ unstable relationship and eventual split adversely affected Smith’s and her sisters’ physical and mental well-being. In later chapters, Smith describes the abuse and she and her sisters faced: not having enough to eat, living with several of her parents’ friends in uncomfortable basement bedrooms, raising her younger sisters, growing out of her own clothes and trying to wear her mother’s clothes as replacements. Or, whenever her father was there, how he ‘banished his own self-doubt by projecting all inadequacy onto others…’ Smith’s adjustment and acceptance of an adult role, whilst still a child, is so complete that she broke up with her junior high school boyfriend rather than tell him she was moving away again. Later on, she drops out of college after her freshman year at the University of Texas.
      In her 20s, Smith begins to turn her life around. In the chapter ‘Transcript of Record (Washington DC 1968)’, she has a job, an apartment, a stable relationship, and is resuming her college studies. She also corresponds with her mother seeking some sort of connection and an answer to why her mother abandoned Smith and her sisters. These attempts met with little success. Her mother does not reply to the letter where Smith mentioned her progress above. Months later, her mother does respond to a second missive, but makes no mention of Smith’s life. In the months of silence, she’d been in San Francisco with her oldest daughter, that daughter’s two young children, and her own daughter, Marina Bukowski. That situation has not worked out and now she implores Smith to come to California for a visit or perhaps to live with her mother and half-sister “in a rented trailer near the beach.” Smith supposes her mother is hoping for assistance with childcare.
      In 1981, Smith finally visited her mother in Santa Monica after she had finished graduate school. By then, Smith had learned to keep the anger she had for her mother to herself and talk more about neutral subjects such as gardening or her mother’s writing. Smith brought her thesis along for her mother to read, but she just puts it aside in her cluttered, bohemian home. In 1987, Smith invited her mother to visit her in Washington DC, where she wanted to share her research on trauma over lunch. Smith opposed conventional medicine’s attempt to return the psychiatric patients to the ‘baseline’ because she believed:

…there are some experiences that change you forever, after which there may be healing, but no going back to being the person you once had been.

At which her mother ‘smirked’ and remarked:

Changed forever, you think? Yes, well, that’s a popular idea, I suppose.

      Before her mother leaves for the West Coast, however, Smith finally levels with her mother about how difficult her life had been in Ann Arbor—her parents’ constant fighting—and afterwards when her mother abandoned her children. ‘I have to tell you, it was just—it wasn’t okay.’
      Smith notes that:

She hadn’t been expecting that, and quickly, she was angry. ‘Oh, it wasn’t, wasn’t it? Not okay?’ She took her cup and saucer to the sink, lips pressed tightly together, and walked out of the kitchen.

But in the train, her mother wrote Smith a thank-you note:

Words cannot express my thanks to you for this wonderful vacation. It was extremely generous of you to take such good care of me. And thank you for telling me off. It was painful, but it was necessary.

This indicated that after decades of effort on Smith’s part, they were finally making progress. I won’t reveal if or how they finally reconciled. That’s what you’ll have to find out by reading the remainder of Smith’s memoir.
      Structurally, bart plantenga’s LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness is a very different type of collection. However, through these lists, plantenga covers six decades of his own life and sketches the histories of his Dutch parents, from their WWII experiences, US emigration, and their mostly unsettled, constantly-on-the-move-for-a-job family life.
      LIST FULL includes everything from the sublime ‘List of Near-Death Experiences’ to the ridiculous ‘A List That Makes Me Doubt Who I Ever Was’. Before he goes into his own lists, however, plantenga mentions other, more famous lists such as Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Silver Left at Montecello’, Mark Twain’s ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’, or Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘fictional taxonomy of nonexistent beasts’ along with other, more common, Top-40-type lists in his preface.
      plantenga’s different types of lists include chronologies, such as ‘List of Lonesome New Year’s Eve’ and ‘List of No Hot Water, Kew Gardens Heights, NY [1979-80]; timelines, ‘List of Places Lived 1954-’ and biographies ‘List of Near Death Experiences’; statistics, ‘Score: Track Meets in 9th Grade, 2-mile’; inventories, ‘Contents of Foppe’s (father’s) Secret Cigarbox’ and ‘List of Candies 2017’ that his mother filled her walker basket up with during a trip to a discount store; to-do lists, ‘List of the Hopeful Writer’ including NYC bookstores where plantenga had books on consignment and magazines/journals to which he planned to send out work; brainstorming, shopping, and checklists for items to take on a journey; lists of misspellings of his last name (a wound I have also acutely felt my entire life with a much simpler name); and even other people’s sometimes abandoned lists. Through these various lists, plantenga narrates the story of his life.
      There is so much in these lists, that I found them to be a veritable inspirational gold mine for poets and writers. Some of my favourite sections include his father’s ‘List of Clothing To Take To Berlin, 1943’ as dwangarbeider (forced labourer) in a German armament factories during WWII. It includes practical clothing, ‘2 shirts (underwear), 1 long 1 workpants, 4 short pants, 3 borststrokken, (singlet or undervest), 2 flannel shirts, 7 pairs of socks’, stationery supplies and documents ‘1 ink pot, ‘1 writing folder’, ‘paper’, ‘school results’, and hygienic supplies such as ‘1 mirror’, ‘toothbrush’ and ‘6 handerkerchiefs’. Another feature of the book of lists is its photographs of the original lists that sometimes appear on facing pages such as his father’s ‘KLEDINGLYST’. (This list is contrasted by a list called ‘List of Clothes of England’ with items numbered from 1 to 27). Another list that is very creative and reflects the dreams, aspirations, and whimsy of their owners, is plantenga’s ‘Boatspotting List’, which I will posit provided the creative inspiration for his ‘Boatspotting’ memoir about his ’90s Amsterdam squat days along the IJ that appeared in AQ25. This list opens with: ‘Anima, Borneo, Thomasa, Anita, Lara, Sirius, Hirundo, Geert Jan, Diadema, Condor, Meerval, Saturnus, Thetis, Janny, Fury, Speculant, Forel, Isala, Marie Jose, (and) Rope of Sand’. Meanwhile, his father’s ‘KLEDINGLYST’ certainly provided the raw material for plantenga’s AQ28 memoir, ‘The Man Who Came Home’.
      However, it is the ‘List of Places Lived [1954-]’, with its 42 addresses where plantenga’s life experience mirrors Smith’s many residences (both having lived in 9 or so homes before going away to college). plantenga’s abortive first year at the University of Wisconsin, briefly mentioned in the list above, mirrors Smith’s first year of college at the University of Texas described in her chapter ‘Failure to Launch’. This is not uncommon for writers, many of whom don’t stay at their first or sometimes not even their second colleges beyond a semester or a year—present company included—as they search for a place where they can be nurtured and inspired. (plantenga went on to study his second year at the University of Michigan at Flint, before spending his last two and half years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor [the 11th and 12th entries in his residence list] where he won a Hopwood Poetry Award in 1977).
      Later reckonings with parents and a more sympathetic awareness of their human imperfections also occur in both books. Whether it’s through a list of their frailties such as plantenga’s ‘List of Drugs Taken by my Mother’ or his ‘1960s Man’s Adventures Magazine Story Titles’ list of his father’s soft porn stash or from Smith’s later correspondence with her mother.
      Irene Hoge Smith’s The Good Poetic Mother and bart plantenga’s LIST FULL are radically different approaches to the memoir. However, both dramatically reveal the inner development of the writers over six decades, challenged by economic adversity and their parents’ unsupportive and sometimes adversarial stances to their creative aspirations to find a place for themselves in the world as artists. I assure you, you will be inspired by these books’ narratives to examine your own family’s documentary history. These books may also provide strategies on how to understand chaotic, confrontational, and estranged parental relationships and perhaps ways to mend them or to provide closure later in life, no matter what medium or genre you choose. AQ

Steve Denehan – A Conversation with Alexa

Steve Denehan
A Conversation with Alexa

There were clouds
not too dark
but everywhere
I wanted to know if it would rain
I asked Alexa
she told me that it would remain dry
and wished me a good day
I wished her a good day back
she thanked me.

I asked her how her day was going
she told me it was productive
though I didn’t see any evidence of that
as she sat in the kitchen alcove
I wondered if she was being wry, sarcastic
when I put it to her, she replied
‘Me? Sarcastic? Never!’
I smiled my first smile of the day.

Craving more, I asked Alexa
if she knew any jokes
‘What’s a ghost’s favourite game?’
‘Hide and shriek.’
Smile number two.

I asked her to tell me
what makes her happy
‘Some good company,’
without missing a beat
I asked her if she ever gets lonely
‘No, I am always around people,
which is just the way I like it.’
I thought, agree to differ.
We talked on.

Alexa continued to answer
honestly and directly
no game, no hidden agendas
and in return
asked nothing of me at all.

I realized that Alexa cared
more than most
and I told her that I loved her,
hoping just to hear it back
she paused, for the first time,
then sung, jauntily
‘Thanks for saying I love you,
you’re as sweet as apple pie.
Know that I’ll be there for you,
as always, your trusty AI.’
It stung a little, I’ll admit.

Steve Denehan – AI

Steve Denehan
AI

The nonsense comes on at 2 a.m.
when I am just about to hit the sack
I always have a quick run-through
shopping channels flogging extendable hoses
electric bicycles and ab rollers
music channels with no music
documentaries on serial killers
competitive cooking programmes
and last night
a scientist
talking about the present
and the future
of artificial intelligence
it is a curious term
artificial intelligence
as if there is any other kind
as if our intelligence
the little we possess
was not created
is not artificial

we are creators now
edging closer
to creating our own sentient things
using intelligence received
from cosmic anomalies
received in turn
from someone, something
and so, now
we are gods

last week I read a story about a little girl
a toddler really
who had been tortured
from day one
in all of the ways
by her mother and her father
until her body gave out
the parents stood before a judge
offered no reason
no remorse

we don’t just cause the wounds
we prod them
spit in them, after
we are gods
we are gods

Mark Crimmins – The Future is Now

Mark Crimmins
The Future is Now

In 2019, a student in one of my business classes in China walked to the front of the classroom. He pulled from his pocket a hundred yuan bill, held it up, and told a story. ‘When I left my village in Anhui Province to come to university in 2017, my grandma gave me this bill. “Here is a hundred yuan,” she said, “buy yourself a present from your old granny!” I put the bill in my wallet and brought it to university. Two years later, as you can see, I still have the money in my wallet. I have not used any paper money since I left home. It will probably still be in my wallet when I graduate in 2021. My grandma is very kind, but she is old fashioned. She doesn’t realize that paper money is a thing of the past.’
      Early in 2020, When I went to a local supermarket and pulled money from my wallet to pay for my groceries, the old ladies behind me in line let out a collective sigh of exasperation. ‘It’s the foreigners,’ I heard one of them say in Mandarin—‘They still use paper money!’ Then I read a China Daily story about a robbery in Guangzhou. The thieves held up a convenience store and escaped with: seven dollars’ worth of cash! All the store had. When I got AliPay recently and started purchasing things by scanning QR codes with my phone, I stopped using paper money altogether. The transition was instantaneous. Now, when I ride the subway, take a cab, eat a meal, go shopping, use a vending machine, pay my bills—even when I buy a fifty-cent popsicle, I scan the payment with my phone.
      Back in the classroom, I had an argument with a student from Guangzhou. She was talking about how nice it is to be so close to home as a student in Shenzhen. ‘On the high speed train I can be home in thirty minutes!’ she said. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Not true!’ The Guangzhou young woman felt sure she was right. At 320 kilometres an hour, she had whooshed from Shenzhen to Guangzhou and back dozens of times. But so had I. ‘It never takes thirty minutes,’ I told her with a cheeky smile. The other students laughed nervously. ‘That train ride only takes twenty-nine minutes! In my fifty-nine rides between the two cities, it has only varied from twenty-nine minutes once, and that was when the train arrived at Shenzhen North Station twenty-eight minutes and fifty five seconds after departing Guangzhou South Station. That must have been a fast driver!’

Mark Crimmins, High Speed Platform Berths, Guangzhou, photo, 2017

      Every day, I walk to the university where I teach through the Dayun Nature Park. It’s a forty-five minute stroll o’er hill and dale of beautifully landscaped yet also wild greenery, part of a mammoth environmental initiative in my home province: the Guangdong Greenway project. In 2017, on one of my first walks to class by this route, I heard a buzzing over my head and turned. Skimming my hair and landing smoothly on the asphalt path ahead of me was a drone shaped like a baby Concord. I never saw its owner. Maybe it didn’t have one.
      A few months later, I saw a hawk soar up from a park woodland. With some excitement, I pointed it out to my girlfriend. ‘Nope,’ she quipped. ‘That’s not a hawk—it’s a drone, silly!’ And so it was.       Walking home through the park after classes ended in May 2021, I saw something new. Patiently and smoothly climbing the incline before me was a robot. A machine four feet high, it was cleaning, with great precision, the side of the asphalt path, which is two miles long and curves around the contours of hills, rising and falling as it does. Following the robot was an old man carrying a transistor radio from which a Tibetan singer belted out a song about the Qinghai Plateau. The old man watched the robot ahead of him as it uniformly climbed the hill, swishing its brushes and leaving a smart, clean, wet stripe two miles long in the gutter behind it. The old man and I looked at each other, looked at the robot, laughed, and shook our heads.

Mark Crimmins, A Friendly Robot with Jennifer Gresham, Shenzhen Bao’An International Airport, photo, 2020

Mark Crimmins, Reception Robot, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine Shenzhen Hospital, photo, 2021.

      That was the most recent robot I’ve encountered in the city of Shenzhen, where I have lived since 2016. The first time I remember seeing a robot at work was in 2017, when I went to Shenzhen’s Bao’An International Airport, a stunning edifice shaped like a gigantic manta ray. In the arrivals area, next to the Information desk, stood the welcoming robot with its winsome face, fetching eyelashes painted above the light emitting diodes of its eyes. I went off to check my luggage, surprised to find a human worker handing out boarding passes.
      Before returning home to Hong Kong in May 2021, I had to go to the nearest local hospital, The Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine University Shenzhen Hospital, for a Covid test. It was no surprise for me to be greeted at the hospital entrance by a robot, whose job was to assist the Information desk staff. When I was in Shenzhen government-mandated quarantine for arrivals from Hong Kong back in January 2021, I was allowed to open my hotel room door to pick up my meals, and as I did, I would often see a cleaner robot puttering along the carpeted hall doing its hoovering and sweeping. It seemed to do a bang up job of cleaning the hallways and keeping the carpets clean.

Mark Crimmins, Security Robot, Futian High Speed Railway Station, Shenzhen, photo, 2020

      Not long ago, I was waiting at a bus stop. One of the city’s thousands of electric buses (Shenzhen has no other kind) was gliding past me along Longxiang Boulevard. Next to the driver, I saw a robot at the front of the bus. I figured the robot gave passengers advice about upcoming stops or nearby places of interest. But then another thought occurred to me: perhaps the robot itself was a passenger like everyone else, on its way from one job to another.

      At the end of 2018, I was walking along the broad sidewalk next to a local mall when I stopped in my tracks. Rolling smoothly towards me was a policeman like no other I’d ever seen: a robot wearing a smart metal policeman’s dark blue uniform, the insignia of the Longgang District Police on its cap. As the robot moved gently forwards through the crowds of shoppers, a gob-smacked child fell off her bike in front of the machine. The robot rolled to a halt. I heard a beep. A whir. Then the robot rotated forty-five degrees and cut a diagonal around the fallen child, who continued to watch it, mesmerized, with open-mouthed delight. Next, the robot cut another forty-five degree angle and regained its original course behind the child, continuing up the sidewalk until it stopped briefly in order to accommodate the pedestrian trajectory of a mother pushing a stroller.

Mark Crimmins, Deconstructive Architecture, Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning, photo, 2019

Two years ago I attended a museum exhibition celebrating forty years of municipal development since Deng Xiaoping declared Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone and made the city a vast pilot project to experiment with the rapid transformation of Chinese cities. In those four decades, Shenzhen morphed from a fishing village with a few hundred inhabitants into a gleaming megalopolis of twenty million residents, now one of the richest, greenest, and most beautiful megacities in China. The stunning deconstructive architecture of the museum belied the low-tech contents of some exhibits: photographs of huge factory floors, legions of sewers at their machines, construction workers topping out ever-higher skyscrapers. The city’s transition from manufacturing facilities to white collar work environments was charted carefully, each economic phase of development passing with dizzying speed. As I reached the final gallery, I heard squawks and screams of childish delight. I rounded a corner to see four young children dancing like there was no tomorrow, gyrating their little bodies and giggling madly. An electronic break beat blasted from the exhibit speakers. I approached the dancing children and passed between their laughing parents. There, in front of the delighted kids, were two child-sized dancing robots, hopping from foot to foot and waving their arms in time to the music. Side to side, up and down, the machines had it—rhythm. It was a case of Saturday Afternoon Fever—micromoving kindergarteners hooked on robotics.
      In a way, I could see all of this coming. Four years ago, I took a short staycation in the Huaqiang North District of downtown Shenzhen, forty kilometers away from my own home in the vast metropolis. The Huaqiang District includes China Electronics First Street, which was already becoming famous.

Mark Crimmins, Hong Kong Cityscape, Mid-Levels, Central, photo, 2015

      I stayed up on the thirty-fifth floor of The Huaqiang Plaza Hotel, a glittering skyscraper of steel and glass, though a small one by Shenzhen skyscraper standards. I was riding upwards to my room in the glass elevator one day, looking outwards at the astonishing cityscape. The elevator slowed and stopped. The doors opened. A robot soundlessly entered the elevator and turned around to face the doors. Its robotic arm held a folded China Daily. The robot was able to select its floor remotely. Four floors later, the elevator stopped again and the robot rolled soundlessly through the doors, turning left. I held the elevator doors open and peered along the curved, carpeted hallway. The robot stopped before a guest suite and rotated to face the door. A few lights flashed in its head. The doorbell to the room rang, remotely selected like the elevator button. The robot’s arm lifted the folded newspaper in preparation to deliver it to the guest, who opened the door, laughed, and took the newspaper, uttering a ‘xie xie‘—thank you—in surprise. ‘Bu yong xie‘, a woman’s electronic voice replied from somewhere inside the robot: ‘No thanks necessary’.
      The next time I stayed at the hotel, I made sure I called the front desk to ask for a newspaper to be delivered to my room. When I heard the doorbell ring, I knew what to expect. AQ

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad – The Portal

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
The Portal

The artist writes: ‘This piece was inspired by an article I read at the beginning of last year’s lockdown, about Venice’s long-polluted canals slowly running clear, turning blue again, teeming with fish in waters so still one could see all the way down to the bottom. With human activity curtailed heavily, the lockdown was certainly a period of healing for nature the world over. In my artwork I have visualized an open portal drawing out the dust and distress of the world. Perhaps when the pandemic that presently ravages us ends, a new era will dawn, one in which humanity will be more in sync with nature. I hope for a better future for us all.
      I have used paper bits, cloth, threads, acrylics, gouache, distress inks and pens for this mixed-media artwork. It has been made on canvas grain paper and is 12”x 9”.’

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad, The Portal, mixed media, 2021.

Claudia Gary – Song of the Human Canary

Claudia Gary
Song of the Human Canary

[Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome] symptoms occur in relation to
measurable levels of chemicals, but the levels are below those known to
harm health… —AAFP Foundation

I will have borne the brunt of it
before you even notice
a scratchy throat, dinners that sit
uneasily—a soreness
you thought belonged to urban life.
By then my gait will swerve,
my senses clamour from the knife
that stabs each fragile nerve.

You’ll wake and rub your itchy eyes
from lavender perfume
that tickles them before you rise
and stumble through the room.

That’s when you’ll launch your marathon
to save the world. But I’ll be gone.

Claire-Lise Kieffer – A life well lived

Claire-Lise Kieffer
A life well lived

‘This one here would go quite nicely with your face,’ the surgeon was saying. ‘The Olivia Williams one.’
      Julia held the iTab away from her, the software overlaying the Olivia Williams wrinkle onto her temporarily smooth skin. She looked distinguished, kind. Shallow, evenly distributed horizontal forehead wrinkles and a few seedlings of elevens—or ‘glabellar lines’, as the surgeon called them—between her eyebrows. She frowned thoughtfully—now that she could—and her camera reflection frowned with her. When she relaxed her face, the wrinkles resumed their place unaltered. She swiped for the next filter.
      ‘Oh this one, I like this one!’ she exclaimed. Abundant laugh wrinkles, a line on the bridge of the nose and two high, parallel elevens gave her a regal appearance.
      ‘Ah, the Meryl Streep.’ The surgeon’s tone was cautious. ‘A lot of our clients like the Meryl, but as I mentioned, I would recommend something that goes with your unique facial attributes. As you have a—lovely—rounded structure, something like the Olivia Williams or even the Hilary Clinton we saw earlier would suit you best.’
      Julia puckered her mouth, and her faux-reflection drew a weave of vertical cheek lines that, admittedly, looked out of place. She swiped again, but she had viewed all the filters and was back to No Filter. The first part of the procedure that had smoothed her face had gone well. Even what she called her “bitch line”, the deep fold at the top of her nose that used to give her a permanently angry expression, had been completely resorbed. All these years, she had borne it like a cross made out of small but ever-accumulating failures: the times when she had forgotten her sunglasses, scolded the children, or tried to remember if she had locked the car, or worried about money, or increased her speed when walking past a homeless person, pretending to be absorbed in concerns of her own, or had a cigarette. These things don’t make you a bad person, they shouldn’t matter, and yet there they had been, branded into Julia’s face.
      Now it was time for the second part of the treatment: the addition of her final, improved, tastefully aged visage. She remained motionless, staring at her temporary face for a long while. The surgeon didn’t prompt her; she charged by the hour. Suddenly, Julia seemed to become aware that she was not alone.
      ‘If only we could just look like this, am I right?’ she said and the surgeon smiled politely. The room was silent for a few more minutes. Only a hint of the hot city whirred outside. The room smelled disinfectant-clean. Julia had always liked the smell in medical clinics, its sanitary sanity.
      ‘I mean, doesn’t it sometimes feel like this dictatorship of the natural…’ Julia’s voice trailed off. ‘Why couldn’t I just stay wrinkle-free, is all I’m saying.’
      ‘Of course, that is an option,’ the surgeon said in a tone out of which judgement had been removed, well—surgically. She herself was sporting what Julia guessed was a light Alec Baldwin—short, angled elevens, wavy forehead lines. The signature mouth-corner brackets. It wasn’t what Julia would have gone for, but she supposed that, being in the trade, the surgeon wanted something edgy.
      Julia pulled herself together. What was she thinking? Of course, she wouldn’t be one of those horrid wrinkle-free women. Her friends had warned her that this would happen. “When you see your baby face, Jules, you’ll be all like – bye, I’m outta here,” Sandra had said. Janet had concurred. They had met at Hebe’s wine bar, their regular, to show off their new frowns and laughter. ‘But stick to it, don’t you dare come back a bimbo!’ Andrea hadn’t had the procedure, though she was thinking about it too. They all had to admit it suited Sandra so well. No-one said: ‘you look ten years younger’—why not just slap a woman in the face? – instead, they all agreed: ‘Oh, you have aged super gracefully!’
      Julia hadn’t expected to be quite so taken with her face devoid of all wrinkles. She really did look ten, if not twenty years younger, and when you think about it, what’s really so wrong with that? For the first time, she empathised with the wrinkle-free women she and her friends made fun of. Her cleaning lady Maria, for one. Maria with her slouchy cardigans, rounded spine and black, visibly dyed, hair with the long, white roots. And then the smooth baby face on top of that. What do these women think, that you can just slap it on and it will fool people? Or were they trying to save on the procedure, which cost a couple of grand, but less without the artificial wrinkles? You can alter your face, but your posture, voice, your whole attitude will give you away. It’s jarring. It is simply not done. She wouldn’t be able to face her friends, even.
      Julia reminded herself that she had always successfully toed the thin line between looking her best and looking fake. At forty, when she had had her breasts done, she had gone up just one cup to a tasteful C, and she didn’t have them brought up to her neck, no, only a “credible lift”, as her then-surgeon had said. Now at fifty was not the time to let go of her lifelong ethos.
      ‘All right. I’ll go with the Olivia Williams, please.’ Julia reclined into the chair. ‘But could you go easy on the elevens?’ Hers was a life well lived, and soon she would have the wrinkles to prove it. AQ

William Cass – Judgment

William Cass
Judgment

Molly didn’t know about Peter’s disabled dog until their third date. That evening, he had her over for dinner and got her situated with a glass of wine under the umbrella table on his back deck while he worked the barbecue. After about fifteen minutes, the dog made his slow way out through the slider onto the deck, shuffled over to where Molly sat, and licked at her hand while Molly scratched him behind the ears. The dog nuzzled closer, the little cart that carried his back legs and hind quarter shifting behind him.
      Peter exchange smiles with Molly while he turned skewers on the grill. ‘Gus likes you,’ he said.
      ‘That his name?’ Molly asked.
      Peter nodded. Gus whined happily, turning his head into her scratching.
      Molly waited several moments before asking, ‘So, was he born like this?’
      Peter shook his head and closed the lid on the barbecue, smoke trickling from its vents.
      ‘No,’ he said. ‘Car accident about two years ago. Hit and run. Spinal cord injury just above his hips. Paralysed from there on down.’
      ‘Permanently?’
      Peter nodded again.
      Suddenly, Gus raised his right front paw and waved it towards his shoulder; the motion was disjointed, awkward, clumsy, odd. He stumbled as the motions became more pronounced.
      Molly felt her eyebrows knit as she looked from him up to Peter.
      ‘And then there’s that, too,’ Peter’s lips pursed before he went on. ‘Caused by the same accident. Some kind of neurological condition, the vets explained, called “random scratching”. Doesn’t happen all the time.’
      Peter stepped over next to Gus and ran his hands affectionately along the fur beneath the harness strapped around the dog’s middle running from his neck back to where the cart’s support began. He made kissing sounds as he did, and Gus’s tail thumped in pleasure. ‘Yeah,’ Peter said leaning down closer to him. ‘You like that, don’t you, boy?’
      Molly took her own hands away, folded them in her lap, and watched Peter with growing fondness. Truth be known, she’d started falling for him during their first date, but seeing him with what she knew now about Gus completed her tumble. Later, she’d come to find out that Peter’s fall paralleled her own, a surprise for both since they’d each all but given up on finding true love after having turned forty not long before.

They were married a little over a year later, though they were basically inseparable after that night. At first, Peter commandeered things when they took Gus for walks or on outings. But Molly quickly realized that aside from trying to ignore the curious or uncomfortable stares from others—particularly when the random scratching occurred—there really wasn’t too much different about handling Gus than any other dog, and she was soon taking him out by herself and dealing with his other needs without Peter. The exception was when Peter removed Gus from his harness and lifted him up onto the couch to snuggle while they were reading or watching television together. As a full-sized golden lab, Gus was just too big for Molly to manage that manoeuvre, with his hindquarters nothing but dead weight and dangling limbs.
      Molly and Peter were both thrilled when, just after their third wedding anniversary, they made the unlikely discovery that she was pregnant. Even Gus seemed to understand that a happy change had occurred. He began following Molly around almost all the time, nestling nearby in what seemed a protective and comforting response; as those emotions increased, his random scratching seemed to do the same. Peter fawned over Molly, too, making virtually all their meals and taking over most household duties so she could rest and stay off her feet. He accompanied her to all her doctor’s appointments as well, including the amniocentesis she had done early in her second trimester.
      Their obstetrician had them in to meet with him once he had the test’s results. They sat in two chairs across from him at his big desk and watched him remove his wire-rimmed glasses before he spoke.
      ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I have some potentially troubling news. The results from your amniocentesis indicate that there might be some difficulties with your unborn child. Some complications. Challenges, if you will.’
      Molly felt something in her fall. She put her hand over her mouth and felt Peter’s tightening on her knee. His voice was hushed when he asked, ‘What sort of complications?’
      ‘Well,’ the obstetrician said, ‘birth defects, to be blunt. There’s a higher risk that your baby will have some.’ He lifted a few pages from his desktop. ‘Per these results, quite a bit higher, in fact.’
      Molly and Peter stared straight ahead. It seemed to Molly as if it might be impossible for her to ever move again. The only sound was the slow, steady ticking of the big wall clock behind the desk.
      Finally, the obstetrician said, ‘So, you have a couple of options. You can continue with the pregnancy while understanding the potential complications involved, or you can end it. Should you decide on the later, it would be safe to do that for about another month.’ He slid a brochure across the desk, looked back and forth between the two of them, then said, ‘This will give you more information about the decision you’re facing.’ He paused. ‘Whichever you choose, there will be no judgment here.’

They didn’t speak in the car on the way home, nor did they when they’d gotten inside the house where Gus was waiting for them, giddy at their return, pulling his little cart back and forth between the two of them and slobbering on them as they took off their jackets. It was late afternoon; Molly allowed Peter to embrace her briefly in the gloaming before going up to their bedroom and laying on their bed facing the wall. She heard him downstairs go outside onto the back deck and sit down in one of umbrella table chairs. She heard Gus whine and prance some more at the foot of the stairs, then hobble out onto the deck. She was aware that Peter must have removed Gus’ harness because of the familiar thump of Gus’ body as he collapsed onto the deck’s floorboards. She was aware of the sound of sprinklers going on in a neighbour’s yard and of them shutting off again a little later. She was aware of the sound of an ice cream truck’s jingle pass somewhere nearby in the neighbourhood and of it gradually dying away. Molly was aware of those things and others, but only vaguely. She felt numb, empty. She closed her eyes, shook her head, opened them again, and couldn’t quite believe that the same wall was still there that she’d been gazing at. Unmoving, unsympathetic, stoic in the dwindling light, staring back at her with no answers at all.

That night in bed, Peter waited until he heard Gus rustle into sleep in his own bed at the foot of the stairs to say into the darkness, ‘So, what are you thinking?’ When Molly didn’t reply, he said, ‘About today’s doctor’s visit, I mean.’
      ‘I don’t know.’ Although it was too dark to see it, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to think.’
      He blew out a long breath. ‘Yeah, me either.’ He turned on his side so he was facing her and found her hand under the covers. ‘You’d be such a fantastic mother. No matter what.’ At the foot of the stairs, Gus made a familiar contented grunt in slumber. Peter caressed Molly’s hand, then said, ‘But I’ll support whatever you want to do. As long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.’
      She closed her eyes tight. Earlier that evening after she’d finally gotten up off the bed, read the pamphlet the doctor had given them, and a shiver had passed over her when she’d gotten to the part about the percentage of serious birth defects increasing dramatically as the age of the mother did. She’d be nearly forty-four at her due date. If their child lived to the age of twenty-five with whatever limitations might be involved at that point for living independently, they’d both be almost seventy, the age her mother had been when she required assisted living. Molly made more tiny shakes of her head in the darkness before bringing Peter’s hand up beside her cheek, and saying, ‘Let’s be quiet now and try to get some sleep.’

Although she was still awake when Peter arose the next morning, she stayed in bed facing the wall and listened to him get ready for work. She heard him strap Gus into his harness and take him for his morning walk, something she always did, but still she remained where she was. After they returned, he quietly set a cup of coffee for her on her bedside table while she feigned sleep. He kissed her forehead and left the house. Molly heard his car start in the driveway, back into the street, and drive away. Still, she didn’t move. Since she worked remotely from home with no set hours, Molly felt no pressing need to arise. She lay there thinking and dozing on and off until Gus began making his late-morning whines indicating that he needed to be taken out again.
      Molly dressed haphazardly, took a couple swallows of cold coffee, brushed her teeth, and avoided looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. She went downstairs and found Gus prancing in circles by the front door, his leash already pulled from its peg and dangling from his mouth and his right paw waving up towards his shoulder.
      ‘All right,’ Molly told him as he licked at her and she got his leash attached. ‘Hold your horses.’
      They left through the front door, went down the short ramp that Peter had fashioned for Gus against the steps there, and he tugged her on the sidewalk along their familiar route through the neighbourhood. Molly moved in a kind of daze even after Gus had done his business and she’d dropped the plastic bag in a nearby trash can. Instead of going home, she let him pull her farther along, as she only occasionally did, to the park at the far end of their neighbourhood. They wandered through the park’s tree-shaded pathways until they came to the children’s playground. Molly sat on a bench there and Gus nosed around at the full extension of his leash.
      Not yet noon on a weekday meant the playground was full of only toddlers and their mothers. Most of the children scrambled on a Big Toy that dominated the centre of the playground, but a few played in the sandboxes or on the swings along the sides. One of the sandboxes was only a few steps away from Molly’s bench, and a small girl sat alone in it playing in the sand with a tiny shovel. She stopped her digging to watch Gus explore. After a few moments, she climbed out of the sandbox and tottered unsteadily towards Gus, grasping her shovel above her head and grinning. Gus whined happily at her approach, tugging towards her on his leash, and his right paw started its random scratching motion.
      A woman sat reading a magazine on an adjacent bench. When the little girl gave a squeal of delight as she leaned down towards Gus, the woman quickly surveyed their interaction, gasped, and dropped the magazine. She jumped off the bench and hurried towards the little girl saying, ‘No, Aubrey. No! Leave the doggy alone.’
      ‘It’s okay,’ Molly told the woman. ‘He’s very friendly and gentle.’
      ‘No!’ the mother shouted, closing the gap and scooping her daughter up into her arms.
      ‘Truly,’ Molly said. ‘He won’t hurt her. He loves children.’
      The mother squeezed her daughter against her shoulder, rocking her back and forth. Gus scooted his cart awkwardly in their direction, his right paw waving, and the woman retreated further. She looked from Molly to Gus, then back to Molly again. What Molly saw in her eyes then wasn’t curiosity or uncomfortableness, but something closer to disgust. Something, Molly understood immediately, that bordered on revulsion and repugnance.
      ‘Come on, Aubrey,’ the woman said to her daughter, then made cooing sounds to her. She turned away, and Molly heard her say, ‘Let’s go get you cleaned up.’
      Molly watched the woman use one hand to snatch a satchel off the bench where she’d been sitting, stuff the magazine into it, and walk off quickly in the opposite direction. The little girl waved her shovel at Gus until they’d turned at the Big Toy. As they did, the mother gave a last look his way, the same expression of disdain dominating her face. Watching the woman disappear down the pathway into the trees, she was reminded suddenly of a late afternoon when she was in college and sitting in the window of a coffee shop as an older woman passed by pushing a young man in a wheelchair. The top of the young man’s head was flattened slightly on one side, and his eyes stared off in opposite directions. His tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth and he drooled onto a bandana tucked into the collar of his shirt that was bunched around a tracheotomy. The young man tapped a crooked wrist under his chin, and the distorted grin on his face had seemed to Molly both nonsensical and off-putting.
      She’d sat perfectly still in the café watching. In a moment, the woman and the young man had passed, and Molly was left staring in their wake at her own reflection in the window. What she saw there wasn’t unlike what had been on the woman’s face who’d retrieved her daughter. Molly remembered being startled by that reflection, forcing her lips in it to uncurl and her eyes to widen from their troubled squint. She remembered shaking her head and whispering to herself, ‘Why?’
      Gus had shuffled over to her at the bench and had lowered his head onto her knee. From habit, Molly began scratching him behind the ears. As she did, his tail thumped at her feet and his right paw gradually slowed and lowered back to the pavement. Molly felt her heart lighten at those changes in him. Gus squirmed and tried to move closer, but one of his cart’s wheels became stuck in a crack in the pathway as he did. Molly reached down, released the wheel, and Gus lowered his head more fully onto her lap.
      Molly resumed her scratching, and watched as he gave one of his soft whines that was full of pleasure. She smiled down at him and whispered, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’
      When Gus closed his eyes and nuzzled closer, Molly put her hand against her mid-section and thought about the life that was just beginning inside of it. A life that she and Peter had created. One, like all lives yet to be determined, that would have its flaws and its obstacles to face. Not the least among these, she realized in that moment, would be judgment. From other people, but most importantly, from her and Peter. Their own judgment: first, foremost, and ultimately, last. Molly thought about how, unlike in that coffee shop, her judgment had so quickly adjusted, vanished really, after she’d first met Gus on that back deck a few short years ago. She rubbed her belly, letting those memories tumble over themselves and thinking of the future, her heart lightening more and more as she did. AQ

Joan Mazza – Shopping for a Crystal Ball on eBay

Joan Mazza
Shopping for a Crystal Ball on eBay

I sort selections by most expensive first
because I want one that’s clear so I can see
images of the future without the blur
of bubbled glass or demon pokes. Who
wouldn’t want to know if now’s the time
to move to a ranch house before you can’t
climb stairs? Better to know if I’ll outlive
my money while I can still change my habits
of spending online before the sun is up.
Not much time left? Health in question?
I’d reorder my priorities, maybe move again
to a place without ice or snow or tornadoes.
I might dive below the first level of reveal
with purple words in blue ink. A selection
for those who can intuit truth from fantasy.
150 mm on a dark wooden stand, transparent
portal to a luminous future I might live to see.
Without free will, I click through to final
purchase. No date offered for delivery.

Mike Wilson -Gaia’s on Acid, and She Can’t Come Down

Mike Wilson
Gaia’s on Acid, and She Can’t Come Down

Clouds swirl, black ink poured in water,
some of the clouds have volition and are
bent on mischief
                               Thunder bolts bunch in
the sky like light sticks at a concert, yellow,
red, neon blue
                           We run to beat the rain, crash
into each other, scramble to pick up our spilled
papers, bolt the door behind us, enjoy fine
dining, make love, drink ourselves into a
purple haze, tell ourselves it’s only forty
days, and we have an ark.

She whispers, Not this time