ISSUE #140: Donald Edem Quist, Tracy Kerdman, twenty-three

Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | | Labels:

Painting by Tracy Kerdman

by ​Donald Edem Quist

DaYana drops the butt of her cigarette into a dingy embankment of snow lining the cracked sidewalk leading to her residence hall. She exhales a final exasperated cloud of wet gray smoke and watches the vapors scatter in the frigid air. Glancing down at the beige stub steaming on the packed ice, DaYana considers the contribution she has made to the billion pounds of non-biodegradable cigarette ends that become toxic trash each year. DaYana folds her arms and shivers against a sudden chill slipping under her hooded pea coat and over her shaved head. She curses herself for breaking her promise to quit smoking, then curses herself for choosing to attend graduate school in New England. Shuffling quickly up the steps to the front lobby of her dorm, she chides herself for not being asleep, for coming out into the cold, and for fretting negative workshop feedback.

Issue #140 soundtrack: twenty-three “The Firm and the Yielding Displace Each Other”

DaYana pulls open one of the heavy steel commercial doors. She stomps her feet on the large entrance mats, but the squeak of her damp boots still echoes against the rubber tiles of the stairwell. Climbing to the third level, she decides to abandon the revisions she’s made over the last few hours. She forms a plan: she will use the bathroom and then head to her room to go to bed. She’ll snooze through the morning craft lectures and wake in the afternoon with fresh eyes and hopefully a better perspective on her piece and the “cultural incongruities” which her workshop leader and cohorts claim make the story feel less capital-A-authentic.

She arrives at her floor and pauses in the doorway. Darkness shrouds the halls—part of the college’s initiative to conserve energy. The only light emanates from the glowing red emergency exit sign mounted above her.

“Authentic,” DaYana says aloud to no one, letting the word linger in the quiet shadows as she slinks through the black towards the direction of the communal lavatories.

Pushing through the swinging bathroom door, DaYana squints against the harsh florescence. She recites silently the opening lines of her story.

The hardships and joys of labor make a solid symphony. Leo knew this. If you hear one of the others tell you they predicted Leo’s betrayal, do not listen. The truth: Leo worked hard, and the company rewarded him. He started at 17 in raw materials plant 6/20. He moved on to the assembly line in factory five. By 25, he had become a tester on the third shift, a very comfortable…

DaYana nearly stumbles as the tip of one of her insulated steel-toed snow boots hits a body curled on the restroom floor.

DaYana hops over the figure. Her drowsy brain struggles to process the scene. She stands for several seconds, scanning the mass before squatting down to examine. DaYana reaches out a hand and shakes the snoring carcass. The body wakes, coughing and sputtering.

“Phillip Dawkins?” DaYana hears herself say.

The distinguished visiting faculty nods. “You’re a woman?”

“Yes,” DaYana says.

“What are you doing in the men’s room?”

“All the bathrooms in this dorm are gender-neutral.”

Phillip Dawkins blinks slowly. “Jesus Christ.”

DaYana can hear the audible clicks and creeks from the old man’s bones as Dawkins sits up with a groan. He scans the restroom and asks, “Do you know what happened to the young lady that was here a moment ago?”


“You sure? She was just here. A girl. Her breasts are substantial but not gratuitous, you know? Falling from her chest but not drooping, they tug at her clavicle, creating pockets deep enough to carry sips of water between her collarbones and her long, elegant neck?”

“No. Sorry.”

“But you know who I mean, right? She’s perfect. She’s got a celestial nose, the tip turned up slightly, like her face was built to point to the heavens.”

DaYana claps her palms together. “Okay. I’m done with this. I've got to pee.”

She stands and walks to the furthest stall.

After relieving her swollen bladder, she emerges to find Dawkins swaying on his feet and gripping the sides of a sink to balance himself.

DaYana leaves a basin between them as she washes her hands.

“There was a party this evening over in faculty housing,” Dawkins explains. “Someone was kind enough to share their barrel-aged gin. As things cooled over there, I thought to cross that frozen tundra of a campus in search for warmer jubilation. That’s when I discovered that striking young woman in one of the downstairs common rooms taking shots of champagne, if you can believe it.” Dawkins’ hacking laugh is a piercing bark against the bathroom’s porcelain surfaces. He pauses suddenly to glance across the room again. “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know,” DaYana says, shaking her hands to dry them.

She moves around Dawkins to exit the room, but he calls after her. “You’re Diana, correct?”

“DaYana, like DAY and ANNA.” She turns to face him. “I’m in your specialized workshop. You critiqued me earlier today, well, yesterday.”

Dawkins squints and nods. “That’s correct. I liked your story’s premise. Chinese factory worker dies trying to build a teleportation machine with smuggled parts from a microwave oven assembly line. It’s interesting enough.”

“Really? Because during workshop you said my piece was ‘static, colorful static.’ Then I just had to sit there while you asked other students to rewrite my opening and read their alternative versions with you interrupting them every few lines to say, ‘Do you see what they did there, Diana?’ It was pretty awful.”

“Does criticism of your work offend you? If you hope to be a better writer, you’ll have to be open to a little feedback.”

“Hey. I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. I’m open to constructive criticism. That’s not what that was. I mean, you barely said anything about my story beyond the first page, just vague assertions about how some of the cultural aspects of the narrative didn’t feel believable.”

DaYana pulls back her hood. She runs her cold hands across her buzzed scalp, yawns and shakes her head. “I’m going to bed. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Dawkins wobbles closer. “I apologize if you perceived my guidance as less than thorough. I can tell you exactly how you can improve, Diana. If you aren’t too tired, we can even discuss your fiction now, while your prose is still relatively fresh in my mind.”

DaYana studies the crystalized drool at the corner of Dawkins’ mouth, leading to a thin, matted line of hair across part of his bushy, grey beard. His red, vein-streaked, eyes shake rapidly behind his horn-rimmed glasses.

“Okay. Sure.”

“Great. Might I trouble you for a cigarette? The nicotine does help me think.”

“How do you know I smoke?”

Dawkins narrows his eyes. “You have a gross compulsion to nibble the skin around your fingernails. I’ve noticed you do this during workshop. You’re even doing it now. This betrays an oral fixation or sexual frustration, and although I’m not entirely prepared to exclude the possibility that you might be starved for intercourse, you’re wearing a coat and boots, your face is red, and you obviously just came in from the cold. The only thing that would compel a person to venture out into below freezing temperatures this late at night is a vice.”

“Fair enough,” DaYana says, pulling her fingers away from her mouth. “But if you were just able to figure out I just came inside, why would I go back out there?”

“We won’t be long. We’ll smoke quickly-- imbue our lungs with warm tobacco and return indoors to talk about your writing.”

DaYana senses the tug of sleep behind her pupils, but her extremities surge with excitement.

“Fine," she relents.

Dawkins beams, removing his hands from the edges of the sink and stumbling to the restroom door.

Peering out into the hallway, Dawkins gasps. “Who vanished the light?” he asks.

DaYana strides next to him. She removes her smartphone from her coat and taps on a flashlight application. The pair moves to the stairs.

“Diana, do you think that young woman resides on this floor?”

“We should try to keep our voices down. People are sleeping.”

“Should we go in search for her? Should we attempt to wake her?”


On the stairs, Dawkins’ caution surprises DaYana. He turns his body sideways, both hands white-knuckled on the railing. Dawkins continues to chat about the girl he met earlier and dubs her his “Missing Muse.”

“She reminds me very much of my first wife who was a dancer, trained in classical and interpretive, not a stripper or anything of the sort, although we did meet in a dive bar. HA!”

Again, Dawkins expels his explosive, biting laugh, filling the stairwell with the cracking phlegm in his throat and chest. He prattles without interruption until they reach the first floor and exit the building.

DaYana unbuttons her coat and reaches into the breast pocket to remove a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She offers both to Dawkins.

“Aren’t you going to smoke too?” he asks.

“I’m trying to quit.”

“Ah, so am I,” Dawkins says. He pulls a cigarette from the package, places it between his lips. He lights the cigarette, breathes deeply, and exhales. “My current wife, she couldn’t be much older than you. How old are you?”

Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate heat, DaYana replies, “25.”

“Yes, a year younger than my wife. My new bride nonplused my youngest daughter, who just turned 30. However, my spouse makes me relatively happy and keeps me young. She sincerely worries about my health and nags me to stop drinking and smoking, but breaking bad habits is difficult for men of a certain age. When I was younger, everyone smoked, at least during social occasions. We were neither fully aware, nor particularly concerned, with the physical or environmental impacts of our guilty pleasures. Did you know cigarette butts are not degradable? Huge environmental and economic burden.”

“Yes,” DaYana replies.

“It’s quite terrible. My daughter gave me one of those e-cigarette devices for my birthday last year, but it isn’t the same.”

DaYana can feel the cold slice her lips and slap her bare skin.

“Maybe you can give me your thoughts on my writing right now, just a brief overview? Big things you noticed, and then we can talk more in-depth another time.”

Dawkins stares up to the cloudy sky. When he eventually returns DaYana’s gaze, he says, “Yes, of course. But first, before I forget, I have two suggestions for you if you’d really like to quit smoking. The first, chew cinnamon sticks. It helps sate the oral cravings, and it smells great. Number two, get yourself a boyfriend that will hold you accountable, Diana.”

“My girlfriend usually makes sure I don’t smoke. I’ll look into the cinnamon sticks.”

Dawkins’ stare widens. “Oh, I apologize. I suppose looking at you, I should have guessed you were homosexual, right?”

DaYana bites her bottom lip, resisting the urge to rip the joking smirk from Dawkins’ face.

“And about my writing?”

Dawkins readjusts his stance.

“Right, well…” And suddenly he is collapsing.

DaYana bends quickly to hook her arms around his torso, but his right knee clacks loud against the icy sidewalk.

“Shit. Shit. Sir, are you okay?”

Dawkins turns his face away from DaYana’s belly.

“Getting older is a series of indignities, Diana.”

DaYana bears most of Dawkins’ weight as he climbs back onto his feet. He pulls DaYana under his right arm. She becomes a crutch.

“Do you need to see a doctor? That sounded pretty bad.”

“At my age, impacts like this are common. I only need to get of my legs for a while.”

“Can you make it back upstairs?”

“I think its best I retreat to my own quarters. We can talk there if you like, and I will undoubtedly need your aid trekking across the campus quad. My lodgings are accessible from the street, handi-capable the president informed me, which I initially felt reluctant to accept but now am very grateful I did.”

DaYana glances across the snowy lawn. She can see the lights of the faculty residence hall, but the expanse, glowing under floodlights perched at the edge of the building facades, looks vast. In the quiet stillness, DaYana imagines that only she and Dawkins inhabit the entire campus.

She guides their first steps. They wobble before finding a rhythm.

To the crunch of packed snow under feet and Dawkins’ wheezing breath, DaYana lets her mind drift to her story…

… Leo’s work ethic is what we had most admired. When the bells ring through the factory at 11 a.m., Leo often stayed behind at his station. We would return to the dormitories for lunch while he stood eating over a machine or conveyor belt. Leo’s hard work provided him opportunities to steal from the company, pocketing spare pieces, parts, and defective products for his selfish inventions. Dawkins tries to interject an anecdote about surviving Minnesota winters as a child and urinating his name into snow. DaYana ignores him. Since Leo’s death, we found many of his contraptions hoarded in the closet of his dormitory. Despite his work ethic, Leo never understood that mature people might not always do what they want, but always what they must do. This may explain many of his peculiarities. He never sent money home to his family and never showed an interest in marrying. Leo didn’t speak much, but when he did, he spoke of places he had never visited and destinations he longed to see.

DaYana is pushing though the door to Dawkins’ residence. She reaches intuitively for a light switch, flips it on, and navigates Dawkins across the carpet. She seats him by the window on one of two matching wooden chairs, parked beneath a half-circle kitchen table.

“Thank you,” he says.

DaYana replies, “It’s really late. I’m going to go back and go to bed. You should sleep, too.” She expels a final exasperated cough and turns to leave.

“But we haven’t spoke about your writing yet.”

“It’s okay. Maybe tomorrow.”

“No, I’m a man of my word. Look, Diana, do me a favor and go into the kitchenette over there. You’ll find some plastic cups and a bottle of highland single malt scotch whiskey, Aberlour 18. Pour one for yourself. You’ve earned it.”

DaYana wants to tell him that she thinks he’s had enough libations, but she complies. She returns to Dawkins with the half-empty bottle and two clear disposable cups. She pours him an inch and less for herself. Dawkins toasts his missing muse and takes a long sip.

DaYana follows. The alcohol warms her cold chest. She chokes at the taste.

“I first tasted scotch when I was your age. My agent sent me a bottle after I signed the deal for my first novel.”

“I didn’t realize you were so young when you wrote The Native Threat.”

“I presume you’ve read it.”

“It’s my favorite.”

“Your favorite book I’ve written.”

DaYana takes another sip from her glass and winces. “Actually, my favorite book, period.”

“In our time together, I never perceived you to be an admirer of my work, Diana.”

“I was really excited to join your workshop.”

She avoids eye contact but can sense Dawkins’ focus.

“I feel I’ve gotten to know you well, Diana, and I can be forthcoming with you. Based on your name and background, I can assume you are familiar with Charles Marlowe’s Tales of River and the work of Benjuan and Lupope.”

DaYana squirms in her seat.

“Hemingway said, ‘From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation, but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.’”

“Write what you know.”

“Precisely! Readers are starved for ethnic stories, but why not write about your own people? It seems you would want to follow in that literary tradition, to speak on your people’s experience.”

“And what if I don’t have anything to say about my people’s experience?”

“Well, you surely have something to say about that perspective.”

“Okay. What if I want to say something else, explore viewpoints beyond my own? Should I assume you’ve always written what you know? You have personal experience among warring colonies in distant galaxies?”

“You appear to be getting emotional. If you have been offended, that is not my intention. I'm only trying to give you sound advice. Like any industry, there are expectations. When it comes to writing and publishing, readers want to know the author has authority. They might expect someone like me to write a literary science-fiction novel, whereas most readers would expect you to write about your own culture. I'm not saying it's right, but it's true. I didn't invent these expectations; they predate me. So, of course when you decide to pen genre-bending short fiction featuring Chinese characters, it immediately raises questions about authenticity.”

DaYana sucks her teeth.

“Diana, if you look at the most famous works of literary fiction, the books that become canon, they are firmly rooted in the author’s own life experience.”

DaYana gulps the rest of her scotch. She clears her throat and says, “Fuck canon. I’ve never been a fan of classics. What about stories that defy convention? What about authors that challenge themselves to write about what they aren’t familiar with in hopes of learning and sharing more about the world?”

“Plenty of authors try to inhabit another’s skin through writing, and it most always fails.”

“And that’s a reason not to try?”

“You wanted to know how to improve your writing, how to be a successful author. That is why you are here. That is why you are talking to me. I’m telling you, as someone who has been at this for over three decades, a simple story based in your own personal experience is what to do. Play the race-culture-lifestyle-cards you’ve been dealt. A gay, immigrant, woman of color; that’s a literary jackpot! You should be able to secure an agent with minimal effort if you just stick to the basics and write what you know.”

“If I looked like you, would we even be having this conversation? I could pretty much write about whatever, wherever, whomever I wanted and not have to worry about never getting published, right?”

“Yes. Again, I didn’t set these precedents. But, yes. I could write your story, and it might be more widely embraced coming from me. However, I’m sure there would be some backlash from censor-happy social justice warriors online. If you do a Chinese factory worker story, it is empathy. If I do it, it is cultural appropriation.”

DaYana grins. “Must be difficult for you, knowing that if you fail in your portrayal of another group or race, you might have to hear their criticisms.”

“But isn’t that why you’ve grown so defensive, because I’m giving you criticism?”

“I don’t think that what this is.”

Dawkins downs the rest of his drink. “Okay,” he says, “your story’s protagonist needs to have a clearer sense of longing. The narrator explains that—what’s his name, Leo? —Leo likes to talk about places he’s never seen, but that needs to be more specific. Where does he want to go? The reader needs to understand what attracts him to other places. Don’t expect the reader to assume that Leo feels unfulfilled in his life and would be happier in another place. Why? That needs to be explained.”

Dawkins pauses to belch and scratch his beard.

“And the voice of your narrator, Leo’s comrade, needs to have more condemnation. Even if Leo were dead, the narrator would feel anger, even more so because Leo died radiating himself with a machine that was bound to bomb. And there would definitely be consequences for the rest of the workers because of Leo’s actions. The narrator’s life would be upturned when the factory introduced stricter regulations. The narrator should sound at least a little inconvenienced. Change the tone, or switch to a distant third person if you want more freedom in point of view.”

Dawkins rocks softly in his seat.

“Thank you,” DaYana says, nodding. “Seriously, that’s all very helpful.”

Dawkins tips his glass at DaYana for a refill. She pours, and he continues.

“I was like you. I think all beginning writers are like you. You want to defy expectations. You want to make something new, but readers don’t like new, not really. Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Endings have to be surprising but inevitable.’ Like my last book, for example. It was predictable, nothing new, but clever enough to become a critical and commercial success. It met expectations. The truth is, I can barely stand to do readings of that novel in public. However, I had a multi-book deal to fulfill and a family to support. At a certain point in every career, even yours if you stick with it, a storyteller must decide whether they intend to live on what they write. Once you’ve done that, you must then accept the fact that the unexpected doesn’t sell.”

Dawkins finishes the liquor in his glass. He reaches for the neck of the bottle. DaYana snatches the scotch from the table and stands.

“You should sleep. So should I.”

DaYana returns the scotch to the kitchen area and then moves to exit the apartment.

“Perhaps you could stay for one more drink?”

“I’m tired. Maybe another time.”

“I’ve enjoyed our intimate salon. You’re decent company. Are you sure you have to leave?”

“Good night, sir.” DaYana pulls open the door, and the cold rushes over her.

“Diana, what do you think happened to my missing muse?”

Turning around to face Dawkins, DaYana lingers in the doorway.

“I think she’s somewhere sleeping,” DaYana says.

Dawkins nods. “Did you read my last book?”

“I did. I’ve read all your books.”

Dawkins’ chest swells. “What did you think?”

“I thought you could have done better.”

Dawkins leans back in his chair. He gazes up at the ceiling.

“Sometimes I feel like that opening line to Ellison’s Invisible Man. I'm turning into some kind of phantasm. I'm vanishing, but when I try to sit down and write about it, I bore myself.”

“Maybe you should try writing for other ghosts.”

DaYana closes the door behind her as she leaves. Outside, it has begun to snow.

She buries her hands in the pockets of her coat. As she trudges across the campus to her residence hall, DaYana contemplates how to incorporate some of Dawkins' feedback. She thinks about his adamant recommendations and the basics of plot: a character, different but not unlike herself, moving from conscious into subconscious, from life to death to life again, on a journey from order to chaos to retrieve some great boon or personal insight. DaYana wonders if a good story can strive for innovation and still carry depth. She considers the possibilities of defying convention and bending form and becoming successful without having to follow a restrictive template or parade herself as other.

Maybe instead of dying predictably in a failed attempt to build a quantum teleportation device with pilfered microwave oven components, Leo succeeds in his experimentation.

Will this revision make Leo’s story less authentic and therefore less marketable?

“Maybe,” DaYana says to herself, “I won’t be for sale.”

Wind blows fat flakes of snow across her face. Squinting through the precipitation, DaYana can almost see Leo in his navy coveralls… He stood beside an unkempt gravestone on a white hill overlooking building 6/20, the raw material processing center where he started working as a teenager after his parents had died.

Seconds earlier, Leo had been tinkering with his device in the closet of his dormitory and then an invisible hand had reached through his belly, gripped his spine, and pulled him forward through space to here, now.

For several minutes, kneeling in the snow to closely examine the columns on the headstone, Leo struggled to comprehend his own name etched in granite between the dates of his own birth and death. Rereading his home province on the top of the stone, Leo began to realize the significance of his invention. His mortality had never felt more apparent and also irrelevant.

Leo smiled, contemplating how the pursuit of something unfamiliar revealed a discovery greater than anything he could have anticipated.

And DaYana, finally on her way to dream, grins, too, against the barren New England chill.

Donald Edem Quist is author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich and the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, Knee-Jerk, The Adroit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, The Nervous Breakdown, Slag Glass City, Publishers Weekly and other print and online publications. He is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize and a winner of the E.L. Doctorow and Peter Matthiessen Authors Competition from the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. He is creator of the web project PAST TEN, co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast, and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He received a fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction and earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at

Tracy Kerdman is a painter based in New York, NY. She graduated with a BA in Studio Art from the College of Charleston in 2009 and studied at the National Academy Museum and School in New York. The execution of her work is direct and strong, yet the figures are fragile and vulnerable. The pleasure of painting coexists with the uncomfortable nature of the subject. The viewer is haunted yet delighted. Tracy has exhibited in museums and galleries across the U.S., Canada and Germany. For more, visit

twenty-three is the moniker of percussionist Andy Kivela. He began the project in 2003 as a way to experiment with electronic music, soundscapes, and loops of ambient sound. The project has evolved into a way for him to experiment with Brian Eno's ideas of Generative Music as well as Erik Satie's "Furniture Music." The offshoot group, 23 Ensemble, began in 2009 as a vehicle for free expression of musical ideas in the vein of the free jazz loft scene of the 70s and 80s. He lives in Easthampton, Mass., with his partner, Nikki Beck, and their pug, Lexi. For more, visit

ISSUE #139: Caralyn Davis, Vrinda Zaveri, Eliot Wilder

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2017 | | Labels:

Illustration by Vrinda Zaveri

by ​Caralyn Davis​

Sena is a one-woman production line. She scoops mayonnaise out of a jar with two fingers curved into a makeshift spoon, plops the mayonnaise onto a slice of white bread, and straightens her fingers into a knife to spread an even coating to all four corners. Complaints will be lodged if anyone bites into a glob. Same for a dry spot.

Issue #139 soundtrack: Eliot Wilder “L'Avventura”

“Food!” shouts her 13 year-old stepson, Kase. He flicks her a glance from the living-room sofa where he’s sitting with his twin, Ty, and their father, Sena’s second husband, Luke. The three of them are taking a video game break to kill zombified alien warriors or some such nonsense. Sena’s 15 year-old daughter, Hannah, and her best friend, Bristol, are still outside looking for hot guys as they work on their tans and try to keep their hair dry. The two older kids didn’t make the trip, staying with the respective exes to work summer jobs.

Sena is making lunch at the white laminate table in the adjoining kitchenette of their two-bedroom bungalow. Family vacation. They are at Wond-R-Land, a cut-rate south Georgia water park distinguished by slicks of suntan oil, chlorine haze, and dancing alligators that wear board shorts and gold neck chains. But the faux Cinderella lifeguards are the park’s crowning glory. Those sun-crisped young women, sporting hot pink bikinis and rhinestone tiaras, lounge in packs by the water features and scan the crowds for victims. Their attributes have inspired leers and muttered “Look at those knockers!” and “What an ass!” comments from the less discreet males in the family.

“Not long now,” says Sena. No response. No one’s listening. She uses the edge of her thumb to scratch an itch near her mouth and keeps working. Luke paid for the trip, everything from the gas for the minivan to the accommodations and the park passes. He balked at eating in the main lodge’s dining room — a waste of money since the bungalow has a bar fridge, and an ice machine is positioned halfway down the path to the lodge.

“Sena, the food! I’m hungry from giving these boys an ass-kicking.” Luke echoes his son and laughs like it’s not a demand. Sena has long since realized that Luke believes he never demands anything. He has reasonable expectations, and as an adult male, he has every right to express his concern if those expectations go unmet.

“Eat some chips.” Sena tosses a bag of kettle chips to the sofa, hitting Luke in the shoulder when he won’t release the joystick. She could ask for help from the boys, but how many hands does she really want in the mayonnaise?

“Christ, Sena, cut it out!” Luke picks up the bag with one hand and rips it open with his teeth.

“Sorry,” she says. “Lunch will be ready soon.”

By virtue of twelve pieces of bread for six sandwiches twice a day (lunch and dinner) for three straight days, Sena is close to the middle of the jar. Past the top third, getting mayonnaise on her knuckles and the backs of her fingers has proved unavoidable. Sena feels sure her wrist will be well-greased by the end of this seven-day/six-night excursion. Not necessarily a negative. Mayonnaise has significant moisturizing properties.

* * * * *

From the time she was six until she turned nineteen, Sena spent two weeks of the summer vacation with Mee-Maw, her mother’s grandmother. Mee-Maw lived in an asbestos-clad farmhouse on 25 rolling acres near Cuthbert, Georgia. When Pa-Pa was alive, the homeplace had been a semi-working peanut farm. It returned to that world, swallowed by a peanut conglomerate, after Mee-Maw died.

During the years of Sena’s visits, Mee-Maw’s land was a vast wilderness where Sena and Mee-Maw hacked forts out of the brush and had picnics on chipped china in fields of Queen Anne’s lace, rabbit tobacco, and cornflower. On rainy nights, as the water striking the tin roof filled the house with mesmerizing swells and squalls, they sat at the kitchen table in their robes and had what Mee-Maw called beautifying sessions. They glopped egg-white-and-oatmeal masks, with a vinegar chaser for clarifying purposes, onto their faces. They rolled up their sleeves and painted their hands and arms with buttermilk to fade Sena’s freckles and Mee-Maw’s age spots. And always, always, they slathered their heads with a cup of mayonnaise to make their hair soft and shiny.

“Dippity Do be damned,” said Mee-Maw in one of their sessions. “You don’t need to spend that kind of money on a setting gel if your hair’s in good shape in the first place.”

“I’d love to have some. It’s pink and bubbly, and the girls in the ads have such fun,” said Sena. “But Mama says we can’t afford it.”

“That stuff stinks like a chemical dump,” said Mee-Maw. “Wise up, girl. Use it every day at your age, and you’d have babies with flippers for feet when you grow up.”

* * * * *

Now 43, Sena is past child-bearing, and Mee-Maw has been dead for a quarter-century. Sena follows a beauty regimen for her face and hair: lab-created foams, exfoliants, elixirs, serums, primers, oils, and mists filled with parabens, sulfates, and other unpronounceable tidbits that are the modern-day equivalent of using arsenic as face powder.

Mee-Maw would understand, Sena tells herself.

Or maybe not. Mee-Maw liked her lipstick, but she thought wrinkles were a living roadmap of strength and survival, not scars requiring facial reconstruction. Unlike Sena, Mee-Maw had never been found wanting compared to toxin-injected, acid-peeled actresses who subsist on juice cleanses and vinegar-dressed gourmet lettuce mixes. Sena is reasonably certain Pa-Pa would have lost a finger in an unfortunate farming accident had he ever poked Mee-Maw in the stomach and said, “You’re packin’ it on, babe. Time to hit the gym,” or, during movie night, rolled out a “Demi Moore is still hot. Why can’t you pull yourself together like that?” Two years into this marriage, Sena arms herself against Luke’s digs with silence, her growing arsenal of beauty products, and solitary drive-bys for tacos or milkshakes gulped down in the gym parking lot.

Finished with the mayonnaise, Sena wipes her fingers on a washcloth and grabs the squeeze bottle of yellow mustard. She starts drawing squiggly ribbons of mustard across each slice of bread.

Luke’s not trying to hurt her feelings. Sena knows this. He’s just thoughtless and delusional. A runner, he leaves the boys with Sena every Saturday to go on dawn-to-dusk marathons through the swamps and scrublands outside Albany, where they live in suburban comfort thanks to Mee-Maw’s legacy. So Luke is lean and rangy at 46, and he doesn’t realize that his once-lush ponytail has turned seedy with the onset of male pattern baldness. He therefore believes he’s entitled to a wife with the waist size and wrinkle count of an NFL cheerleader.

* * * * *

On the drive over three days earlier, they’d gone to a box store about 20 miles out from Wond-R-Land to pick up groceries. The kids stayed in the car listening to music on their iPods while Luke and Sena went inside.

“Let’s get it done,” said Luke, finding a cart and orienting himself for half a second before he strode toward the deli meats.

“We’re not in a race, Luke. Slow down.”

“What? Are you ready for the nursing home? I didn’t sign up for a little old lady.” He kept his pace steady.

“Your legs are longer.”

“Excuses, babe.” Luke stopped to avoid crushing an old man who sailed around the corner of aisle nine to block their path.

Sena silently thanked the man for his unwitting bravery as they inched forward, then said: “We’ve been in the car for a hundred miles without a break. My hips need to warm up after two kids.”

“I’ve told you, you should start yoga and get bendy. That’d be good for us both.” The cart traffic in the opposite lane cleared. Luke gunned it to move around the old man, at the last second snatching Sena’s hand to pull her along beside him.

“I don’t have time for yoga,” she said mid-jog. Sena works a full-time job and does all the cooking, cleaning, and chauffeuring. Luke has a full-time job and a new pair of premium running shoes every 300 miles. He spends his non-working hours training or reading about new training techniques. Running is his passion; it requires sacrifice.

“Make the time.” Luke stopped the cart and started tossing in packages of roast beef and turkey.

Sena clutched the rail of the cold case. Tried not to gasp for air.

“We need bread, cheese, mustard, mayonnaise... What else, babe?” said Luke.

“Knives and forks, plates, napkins.”

“We’re not having a tea party. We’ll be fine without that hoity-toity crap.”

Luke and Sena circled the store like bicyclists speeding down the banked curves of a velodrome — gravity, centrifugal force, and common sense at their mercy. They picked up sandwich fixings for lunch and dinner and apples and muffins for breakfast. They bypassed every plastic utensil and paper good in the place.

“What about cups? Or knives and paper towels at least.” Sena made a last-ditch appeal for sanity in the soda aisle.

“They’ll have complimentary cups with the ice bucket. Stop with the doom and gloom. Let’s have fun.” Luke headed for the checkout, Sena trailing behind.

* * * * *

Sena’s on the fourth slice of bread with the mustard bottle when the front door slams open. Bristol breezes by. Hannah pauses long enough for a smiling “Hi, Mama!” and a frowning “You’ll spread out that mustard, right?” before she joins Bristol in a flop on the love seat.

“Get the lead out, babe! You’ve got starvin’ people in here,” says Luke. He smiles at Bristol and offers to show her how to play the game.

“We need ice for the drinks. Can you fill the ice bucket please?” says Sena. She adds festive swirls and curlicues to the mustard.

“I thought you did already.” His voice is irritated. His eyes stay on Bristol, who’s taken control of the third joystick and is playing against the boys with help from Hannah.

“The ice from this morning melted,” says Sena. “It’s 101 degrees outside.”

Luke rises with a groan and walks into the kitchenette to grab the ice bucket. “Who knew I’d spend my vacation making love to this thing instead of my wife?” The door slams closed.

Sena doesn’t know how he expected anything else. Their bedroom amounts to a cardboard box, and they are marooned among a tribe of children with nocturnal body clocks.

* * * * *

They’d met at a party thrown by a mutual friend. Dating followed. Middle age wasn’t particularly kind to Luke, giving him leathery skin and outmoded fashion sense in addition to thinning hair. He also droned on about running, but he said Sena was pretty and asked for second helpings of her pot roast, which she served him weekly. Sena wanted adult company, someone to talk to and kiss in the dark. She hadn’t planned to marry him.

Then one Saturday she took her mother to a circle luncheon — a church group for old ladies, not “The Secret Circle” of sylph-like teen witches whose actions Hannah and Bristol spent hundreds of texts decoding before they swore off television forever when cancellation struck. Sena had been sipping iced tea, glancing around the table as the ladies chatted, when she noticed that a luxurious bearded fringe of white hair, fur almost, bordered every face.

White women turn into albino gorillas when they hit 75. I’ll be a gorilla, Sena thought. And alone. A damn albino gorilla with no man in sight.

Less than a week later, Sena and Luke were sprawled on the sofa watching a movie on a rare kid-free Saturday night at her house. To the terse beats of semiautomatic weapon fire, popcorn bowl in his lap, Luke said, “We should get married. We love each other, and we make a good team. Let’s make this legal, babe.” He put the bowl on the coffee table and dusted off his hands before taking hers with a gentle squeeze.

“Married?” Serena heard her voice tremble but couldn’t stop it. The fear of solitary gorilla-hood had festered. In possession of this proof that she was worthy of a life partner, Serena shut down the part of her brain whispering that she’d turned an appreciation of pot roast into true love, that he’d mistaken her willingness to impersonate a 1950s housewife while they were dating as a core characteristic of her personality. “Yes. Oh, yes, Luke.”

Two months and 57 gym sessions later, Sena married Luke at a Mexican beach resort. They celebrated their first anniversary before they finished paying off the wedding package.

* * * * *

Luke returns to the bungalow, setting the ice bucket on the table.

“They’re sandwiches, not cordon bleu,” he says. “Are you trying to take forever? And wipe your face. You’re covered in mayo.”

“Thanks for the ice. Where ..?” Sena stops talking. Luke’s already in the living room, congratulating Bristol on making it to the next level of the game. Sena finds a clean spot on the washcloth she’s been using as a napkin and rubs it over her face.

Sena’s at the twelfth slice of bread. She writes in block letters: ASS- on the first line, HOLE on the second. After the E, she draws a little star and gives it a comet tail that runs down and around the sides of the bread to frame her creation.

“Food!” The roar of the crowd is somewhat garbled by flakes of fried potato, yet the message is clear. Sena slaps turkey and lettuce on six slices of bread and then starts throwing on the top slices to finish the sandwiches. When she reaches the final slice, she pauses.

He wants the best for us, that’s all. I can’t be alone. Not again. A damn albino gorilla with two ex-husbands. Mee-Maw would understand.

Sena places the slice over the last mound of turkey. This time she is careful. She uses a light touch so her art, her statement, won’t be obliterated — it will soak into the bread and marinate. She picks up the sandwich and holds it aloft.

“Lunch is ready,” she says.

Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., and works as a freelance writer/editor for trade publications in the healthcare and technology transfer fields. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, and other journals. For more, visit and follow her on Twitter.

Vrinda Zaveri is a San Francisco-based artist who creates mystical illustrations and animations of forests and creatures. Inspired by science fiction and nature documentaries, her GIFs create a visual blend of magical realism and adventure. Her studio practice is about storytelling through motion with humor and observation. With a focus on minimalistic fluid motion and surreal environments, her work relies on vivid colors and fantastical settings to generate mystery, curiosity and delight. For more, visit

Eliot Wilder is a Boston-based musician and writer. He notably authored DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, part of Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 book series. For more, visit