Category Archives: Fiction

“Questionnaire for the Gravitron Operator Before I Ride” – Fiction by Jennifer Savran Kelly

Gravitron at Night – photo by Minshullj at English Wikipedia [GFDL or CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Should you desire an early taste of our dazzling & discombobulating Fall 2018 issue before it flies on September 22, here’s Jennifer Savran Kelly‘s curious & captivating flash fiction “Questionnaire for the Gravitron Operator Before I Ride.”

While print copies of our Fall issue won’t be on sale til Saturday, you can currently pre-order digital (PDF) copies for $3US via PayPal— and remember, for the month of September, we’ll be donating 50% of all our sales to RAICES to help provide legal assistance for underserved immigrant families.

{ X }

  1. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS JOB? Do you live nearby? If not, where do you come from? Is it better or worse than here?
  2. How many times a day do you ride? How many a week? How many minutes of your life do you spend inside a dark merry-go-round that reaches twenty-four revolutions per minute in less than twenty seconds? How can you stand it over and over and over again?
  3. What is it like to be in the center? Is gravity affected the same way? Do you spin? Or are you still as the passengers (may I call them passengers?) whirl around you at warp speed? Maybe you don’t pay attention. I see you keep your head down as you exit to welcome new passengers.
  4. Why do you keep your head down?
  5. Is the ride safe?
  6. What’s so safe about giving up control? To you?
  7. What makes you qualified to operate the ride? You take our tickets like you’re afraid of taking but know you have to, opening your fingers, too long for your hands, outstretched, waiting for our tiny permission slips to fall into them. Do your fingers always tremble?
  8. What kind of person are you? When you hold a pen, do you hold it like you’re about to cross out whatever you’ve just written? Or do you plow ahead, the pressure of your hand smudging the words?
  9. What do you think of the riders? Do you love us or mock us?
  10. What about our faces, our fear and delirium splayed wide as speed plasters us to the wall? Does it frighten you how much you enjoy it—seeing us stuck? Out of control?
  11. Is that it? Do you like to be in control?
  12. Have you ever noticed you can be in control, have control, or take control?
  13. From whom do you take it?
  14. I’m over forty-eight inches tall, but how does that prepare me for more gravity? I was under forty-eight inches when I had the health teacher who thought it was fun to play Jeopardy-style games. What is dental floss? What is tobacco? What is stress?
  15. Did you know her—Mrs. Layton, who taught about the different types of child abuse?
  16. Did you know that was something you could get quizzed on in school?
  17. Do you know what it’s like to be sitting in a classroom, surrounded by friends, when you learn the real word for that disturbing attention you get from your step-dad—the one who tells you he’s giving you a “health lesson?”
  18. What is irony?
  19. Do you know what it’s like to have your brother try to save you, to rescue you from under that weight, only to be taken away for his service? What it’s like to be left alone with the ones you need saving from? To feel that fragile?
  20. What is an egg?
  21. Is that why everyone loves the Gravitron—the Devil’s Hole? They think gravity will return them to their bodies?
  22. Does it?
  23. In physics, a rigid body is a solid body in which deformation is zero or so small it can be neglected.
  24. What is psychotic? Does it run in the family? Did you ever stop to think it was you that was spinning out of control, dreaming about setting someone on fire just to watch what it would do to the flesh, how long it would take to burn?
  25. Right after he did it, my brother, he came home, and I never would have known anything happened. Not one trace of fear or regret visible on his face, not one sense that anything was different. It was how normal everything seemed that was chilling.
  26. Normal force must be zero.
  27. Is there an equation to help me make sense of this? What is the gravimagnetic moment (GM)? What coefficient at the GM equals unity?
  28. What is dizzy?
  29. Why can’t we ride for more than eighty seconds?
  30. What is one moment in a life?
  31. Is that how long it took?
  32. To watch the fire burn? To consume him?
  33. Do you think my brother knew he would survive?
  34. And pardon me, but I have to ask,
  35. Is it possible he thought, even once, about what that would mean
  36. For me?

{ X }

JENNIFER SAVRAN KELLY  lives in Ithaca, New York, where she writes, binds books, and works as a production editor at Cornell University Press. She has written for film and print, and her fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Souvenir LitGrist: A Journal of the Literary Arts (Online Companion), and elsewhere. She was honored to receive a 2018 grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation for her novel-in-progress ENDPAPERS.

Advertisements

“Bodega Cat” – Fiction by Tabitha Laffernis

Cats – Otto Dix, 1920

The grand finale of our Summer 2018 issue is “Bodega Cat,” Tabitha Laffernis‘ fantastically frisky tale of a young woman seeking companionship & discovering primal urges in New York City.

{ X }

THE BODEGA AT NIGHT IS LIT UP WITH AN ACID BRIGHTNESS.

She smells freshly juiced. “That’s a real injustice of a person,” the cat said, whiskers twitching. “Exquisite face and dimensions. Sharp as a tack,” still talking, like it was normal. “But the real injustice is how they treat her. See how they’re complimenting her lip color instead of asking what her book is about? She comes in here, nearly every day, and they don’t know what she’s studying at grad school. They’ve never asked.” He looked at me. “She’s just the pretty girl, to them. Not like you. You’re not pretty enough to be distracting. They asked you.”

He was right, and as I started to ask why on earth he’d be qualified to say this, the answer made itself known. He was shaggily handsome, but not awww-inducing, nice eyes, slightly scrawny limbs, a shiny, healthy coat. Not the best looking cat I’d ever seen, but well-cared for with an inquisitive stare. You, it said. Yes, you.

“Are you negging me?” I asked.

“No,” he said, and I believed him.

“What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Kayla,” I said. “What’s yours? I should’ve asked first.”

“Gus,” he replied. “You’re interesting, Kayla.”

“Thanks.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a physician’s assistant,” I replied. “Derm.”

“Derm. Which one’s that again?”

“Dermatology. Skin.” Cancer and vanity, I sometimes say, but of course that’s reductive and I don’t want to seem petty. I flushed at the thought.

“Skin. Right. I wouldn’t know.”

The joke melts the ice a little.

As the girl walked past I saw a textbook sticking out of her bag. Aleinikoff, Martin, Motomura, Fullerton and Stumpf, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. “That looks intense,” I told her, and she gave a half-smile. “Yeah,” she replied. “I’ve barely slept this semester.” The shadows under her eyes looked Sphinxy instead of tired. Her other hand held a plastic bag of potato chips, mac and cheese, frozen burritos. My moment of investigating her as a person immediately dissolved. Idiot bitch, I think. It just popped into my head, no warning. She’s skinny as a rake, except where it counts. My own basket contained some yellowing broccoli, corn popped in coconut oil, a sad but large carrot. This bodega is convenient; the produce is lousy.

“Come visit me again tomorrow?” the cat asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I will.” And I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while.

{ X }

It was innocent enough, to start. It was so hot. That night I’d lain on top of sweat-damp linens, sprawled so that each joint of my body hung as if off ball bearings. I lay there waiting for the man on the news that had been breaking into houses to steal money and stroke women, unable to sleep a wink, though I was so, so tired. I was tired because it was in my bones, that exhaustion of having to explain myself, of having to check myself at every second-guess. I was tired because I walked everywhere, a remnant from the days when I said I walked because I wanted fresh air, but really the air was fetid and I couldn’t afford a subway ticket.

I wondered if the man who was breaking into houses was maybe a nice guy. If he was just looking for something. He was just running his fingers through women’s hair; I wanted to run mine along the cat’s flexed spine, and I’m a good person, I thought.

Before he started breaking into houses my greatest fear was waking up with a mouse between my legs. Mouse shit appeared on the kitchen mantel, the vanity where my hair dryer sat, even on fresh sheets. I wondered where the cat was, slinking along a roof or a fire escape. Or if he was keeping the bodega clear of rodents, protecting it in the night, a service he hadn’t even thought to offer me.

That night, my torn underwear looked like an invitation. Not for vermin, I reminded myself. Not for the man pushing in A/C units to find sleeping beauties. And slid a hand into my knickers.

Continue reading “Bodega Cat” – Fiction by Tabitha Laffernis

“Loveless” – Fiction by AJ Ogundimu

The Lovers – Rene Magritte, 1928

This modern romance may start with a “classic meet-cute,” but things soon get all too real in “Loveless,” AJ Ogundimu‘s subversive anti-romcom from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X }

WHEN HE TELLS HIS BIG EX THAT HE MET SOMEONE, SHE LAUGHS.

It doesn’t matter where in New York they meet, but they don’t meet on Tinder. This is a classic meet-cute.

She is 22, he is almost 30. He is skinny-fat and probably white but doesn’t have to be. He is a poet or photographer who studied English or Music. She is a metalworker or essayist who studied Comparative Lit or Gender Studies. They have mutual friends, but never go to the same bars.

He has an appeal, not ugly but not Hollywood or even Sundance. He doesn’t go to the gym, but if he does he’s not a protein powder, stock-option, Alpha Male. He wears graphic tees and his hair is messy, unlike everyone else’s.

She is not conventionally attractive, but (this is important!) she is not conventionally unattractive either. She has an undercut, bangs or a half-shaved head and she wears a lot of dark colors. She is not a gym-goer. She is white, and if not she’s Korean, and if not then Lebanese, but he makes an effort not to ask or comment about her ethnicity even though he wants to know. He wanted to talk to Blonde Friend or Leggy and European. He will tell himself that it’s because he likes quirky, not because he is settling. She talked to him because of his funny and nonspecific sexual charisma.

She wears Forever 21. He shops at thrift stores. She drinks chai lattes, he drinks black coffee, she drinks cider, he drinks whiskey. He asks if she likes Edith Wharton, she says yeah. He says he’s a feminist. He won’t say he wants to fuck her. She kind of wishes he’d get it over with.

They will hang out, at parks or museums, but they won’t go on dates. They will hash out the usual questions of family and occupation, while laughing at how typical these questions are. They are unconventional people doing conventional things.

When he tells his Big Ex that he is seeing someone, she says, That’s not a good idea.

During his worn and shiny monologue, he says marriage is a capitalist institution designed to keep women in bondage by treating them as property, wherein domesticity and child-rearing are handled while the man is left free to pursue career and conquest, relegating women to second-class citizens. He says all of this in a copious breath while she tries to eat a Japanese-fusion quiche with nori and raw salmon he insisted they try.

She wants to get married, but ignores his conversation and refuses a green tea mochi ice cream taco.

He shows her his vinyl collection so she fucks him to make him stop talking. He’s goofy but earnest and book smart, and if she never fucked anyone goofy she’d never fuck anyone. His breathing is too heavy and his head game is sloppy but he’s good enough. He doesn’t kick her out even though she leaves. He makes sure to say he wants to see her again. He texts to make sure she got home alright.

When he tells his Big Ex that he fucked someone she says, Well, that’s too bad.

When he talks about her she’s beautiful, never hot. He will not give sexual specifics. I really like her, he says. I think this might be something.

She talks to friends about Shakira and Roxane Gay. She demands her life pass the Bechdel test. She throws herself into work, eats croissants or berries, and drinks kombucha.

When they ask about him, she says he doesn’t seem like a creep. She describes his dick when they ask, in detail. Critiques his sexual performance. She defends his awful text messages. He’s kind of an underachiever, she says. I still like him though…

She shows up at his job and brings him a donut. They kiss in public now. They stay over. She is emotionally unavailable and has trust issues. He is unsure of his future and willing to take it slow.

They have a soundtrack. They have a favorite restaurant (It’s not the fusion place.) They compromise on the cider/beer question by always keeping wine around. They go clubbing, or eat brunch and walk around Central Park on Sundays. They take road trips. They smoke American Spirits even though they don’t smoke.

When he tells his Big Ex that he has a new girlfriend, she asks, Does she know what you’re like?

Continue reading “Loveless” – Fiction by AJ Ogundimu

“Rating” – Fiction by Olivia Mardwig

Woman with a Coffee Pot – Jean Metzinger, 1919

Health inspections and sexual fantasies occupy the mind of a café cashier in “Rating,” Olivia Mardwig‘s realistic yet dreamlike short fiction from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X}

EVER SINCE SHE TOOK THE CASHIER JOB AT THE CAFÉ SHE’S HAD OVERLY REALISTIC DREAMS. The most frequently recurring is of her grocery shopping for the things she actually needs. Waking up, it’s an odd, unwelcome surprise to realize that there is no almond milk, there are no bananas.

The café is on the first floor of an office building so far west of the city it’s almost touching water. On certain days, when walking from the train, in the wind tunnel of the avenue, it feels like you could be scooped up and carried away.

The only customers are the people who work in the building and in this way everyone is a regular. Some are more friendly than others, but no face stands out in the check-out line. No person, by however small a margin, are you happy to see.  Admittedly, much of that is caused by the lunch rushes, the only action between the hollow hours of mid-morning and afternoon. It’s hard to make an impression when like clockwork, they have their $6.99 turkey sub in one hand and exact change in the other.

Two springs ago she graduated college. She’s not sure what kind of day it was, and her only memory of the ceremony was an image that feels borrowed from someone else. Graduation for her meant the moment everyone threw their caps into the sun-filled sky, into a bright, blue beginning. She thinks about that image sometimes, whose experience it actually was, from what movie. But mostly she uses the blank stretches of time to fantasize about having sex with the dishwasher, the sandwich guy, the bread delivery guy, his brother. Inevitably someone takes the elevator down for an unnecessary cup of coffee and suddenly it would be here that she is.

After lunch, the day manager called the staff into the office for an announcement. She said that the following day the health inspector would visit to evaluate and issue a letter grade to the café. She looked more worried than usual. Her knee-length cardigan wrapped visibly tighter around her underweight self. Her crumb of morale was offered in the hardly audible, “We can do this”, as the wireless printer inked out next week’s order forms. Continue reading “Rating” – Fiction by Olivia Mardwig

“Anonymity is Life!” – Fiction by Sola Saar

Envy – Raphael Kirchner, circa 1900

A young writer grapples with envy & artistic integrity in “Anonymity is Life!”, Sola Saar‘s delightfully unorthodox short story from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X }

IT STARTED WHEN I WROTE “CRAIGSLIST OPERA,” a short story based on the time my sister tried to produce “La Boheme” by placing several ads online.  People were so desperate for theatre jobs they actually came to our house to apply, though lost interest in the project once they met her. Katrina, 16, was taking a vow of silence at the time.

In the story, which was somewhat dramatized because I had not been there when it happened, a local Soprano singer named Clara came to our door singing Puccini. Katrina typed “$20 per show” into her phone and shoved the screen in the singer’s face, violently turning her head in the other direction. “I am worth much more than that,” Clara belted. “No you’re not,” Katrina typed back. Clara tried to argue, still singing. My sister stayed firm with the price, and the opera singer eventually left, unnerved by the interaction.

It was the only piece of mine to be positively received by my writing workshop. The story was published in my school’s literary journal, and my mother, whose pride took the form of gloating, photocopied and sent the story to all her friends, not considering how Katrina might react. When she found out, I got an angry slew of text messages demanding I retract my “fake article” about her.

“It’s not an article, it’s fiction,” I texted her. “I got the idea from a woman I saw on the news.”

“I see, dear,” she wrote back.

My response seemed to assuage her, or so I thought. A few days later, my mom told me Katrina expressed interest in writing a novel about my life. She said she wanted to write an entire novel, because it was “much more difficult than short stories,” which I mainly wrote. A week later she updated me that Katrina wasn’t going to write a novel because she was “retired,” but her roommate Caroline was in the process of drafting my life story. Caroline went under the pen name “Anonymous.” Caroline was a large brunette doll.

Caroline wrote the novel with her own hands, not idiomatically speaking. Katrina sat Caroline on her lap and gripped the doll’s tiny webbed fingers, delicately pressing each key. It took them half an hour to write a paragraph. Still, they were a diligent machine, producing several pages a day.

I envied Katrina’s discipline. I hadn’t written anything since I’d found out I’d gotten waitlisted for an advanced creative writing class two weeks ago. Most of the time I delegated to writing I spent staring at my laptop, hate-stalking this girl Hannah Brown who was the instructor’s favorite in our last workshop. She wrote these really inane stories about getting drunk with her friends at her Beverly Hills prep school. As the only freshman who’d gotten into the creative writing course, she boasted about how it had really inspired her to finish a novel draft over the break.

I rejoiced every time Hannah looked sloppy or dehydrated in a photo on social media. I knew I was being petty and mean, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I felt much more compelled to do this than write. I don’t know why I was so obsessed with her success. I wasn’t really threatened by her. Her stories were bad. I was certain they were bad. I knew my writing was bad also, at this stage of my life, but her writing was hopelessly, irredeemably, numbingly bad, and it would never get any better. I could tell because of the kind of human she was.

Whenever I saw her out at parties she had this stumbly air about her, it was more than tipsiness, it was a lack of composure that was almost embarrassing. I like to drink but I had a lot of composure, too much composure. I was like a fucking mannequin. Most close friends told me they rarely knew what I was thinking. But I knew the lack of composure she showed in public translated to how much writing she produced. She had what I didn’t, not talent, but a lack of self-consciousness that allowed her to sit down and fucking write.

Less than a month after Katrina declared she was writing a book about me, I got a PDF of her novel, Midget Utopia, via email. It was going to be self-published that week. The book wasn’t about me; it was about Katrina’s family of dolls, whom she referred to as “midgets” because of their inability to grow. I was scarcely mentioned in the index: a compendium of characters featured in the novel that included our family, her dolls, imaginary friends, and every person she could remember encountering in her life.

Vera Gunarsson, age 19: Vera is a pale human with long black curly hair and brown eyes. She is 5’5” and 105 or maybe 110 lbs. and is somewhat of an online writer. She is the sister of Katrina and godmother to Marissa. Vera lives in Northern California. 

She waited until I returned home for winter break to throw a book party. I told her I didn’t know if I could make it, but congratulations on finishing a whole novel. She reminded me that she didn’t write the novel, Caroline did. She had, however, translated the book into Russian, I assume using one of those free computer-generated translating websites.

My mom’s entire family and some of our neighbors came to the Midget Utopia release.

“I thought you were the writer,” my aunt said to me at the book party. “I didn’t know your sister wrote.” She looked at the cover, which had an image of Katrina surrounded by her dolls on the bed, and opened it to the first page and began reading.

December 8, 1996: Kat Zlovesney is born in Russia at the Moscow Presbyterian hospital. She weighs 8 lbs. and 5 ounces and is 13 inches long with dark brown hair. She is immediately adopted by an American family and brought to Los Angeles.

“Russia!” she cackled. “I love it! Where’d she come up with that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s so creative.”

My mom announced it was time for the reading. We gathered around the couches and waited as Katrina fuddled with her phone. Her vow of silence remained intact; she wasn’t going to read the selection herself. She had an app on her phone that robotically read her typed words aloud. It sounded like Stephen Hawking reading the dust jacket cover:

My name is anonymous

Why be named? Not all people will remember you nor each other

Most people forget names anyway

Names are arbitrary and some people do not like their names or feel they were

Given the wrong name

 In reality, we are destined to remain anonymous and not be forced to have a name

 Anonymity is life!

 Everywhere I go I will remain anonymous

I will remain anonymous in peace

I remain anonymous on internet

When I do my individual job or working at an

Organization, I remain anonymous

When I write, I remain anonymous

I pledge to be anonymous everywhere

anonymous and ageless in timeless life

I was born to be anonymous. I die to be anonymous

I forever to be anonymous

  Continue reading “Anonymity is Life!” – Fiction by Sola Saar

“A Blond Joke” – Fiction by Addy Evenson

A young woman experiences some dark and stormy times during a Florida hurricane in “A Blond Joke,” Addy Evenson‘s hauntingly surreal short story from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X }

SHELBY, HONEY, YOU’RE THE WORST WAITRESS IN THE WHOLE WORLD, Dad told me. He said, A monkey could do better. So I’m sending you away to visit your Gramma Kay.

That was up in Key Largo. Gramma Kay lived in a three-story blue house under palm trees, and next to a canal. It smelled like seawater, sawdust and stone. I hadn’t been there since I was seven. My mom had taken me out of there one night.

She said, No more drunk-madness.

Gramma Kay, like a lot of stewardesses, loved her margaritas by the pink sunset. When I was little, Gramma Kay used to take me for rides in her convertible car. She was bottled blond, like me.

So I wrote Gramma Kay a letter. It said,

 

Dear Gramma Kay, I know it’s been years, but I’d like to visit. Well, I don’t really have much choice. Dad is sending me there in less than a week because he doesn’t know what to do with me. He says that I’m flighty and a drunk like you. I promise that’s not all there is to me. I think that you’ll find if you take the time to get to know me that I have a lot of your good traits in me.

 

Love,

Shelby

 

So I headed out to see her. I took economy class. I didn’t have enough cash to check both of my bags, so I kept my favorite one. When I got to the curb, the yellow-cab driver looked at the address and said, You’re really going right in it, aren’t you? I said, How do you mean? And he said, The hurricane. He looked at me like he thought I was dumb but truly I didn’t have cable because cable makes people slow. So I just didn’t hear anything about it.

He stopped by the gravel road, and then got in a big hurry to drive off. I guess it was pretty windy there. And empty. I stood there on the cement, with my aquamarine suitcase. I wore flamingo-pink heels. I walked.

I knocked on the door.

Gramma Kay, I called. It’s me. It’s Shelby.

I heard music come down from the kitchen. Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…

I went upstairs.

A man sliced a lime on the counter.

Oh, I said. Am I in the wrong place?

Are you Shelby, he said.

That’s me!

I’m Keif.

He was kind of handsome, but looked a little bit like leather. He was pale and had pale hair.

I’ll be here, at your service, he said. I’m the housekeeper. I’m here to watch Enchilada while your Gramma and Grampa are out for the hurricane.

What’s that you’re making, I said.

It’s a key lime pie.

A key lime pie! Oh, God, I love it!

Good. It’s for you.

How sweet. So, they knew I was coming?

Yes.

I’ll just put my things down in the guest room.

I came out again.

Oh my god, nothing has changed. Nothing at all, I said.

The lights flickered.

It’s horrible weather, I said.

That’s Maria, Keif said. It’s the worst of its kind.

Are we safe here, I asked.

Well, someone has to babysit Enchilada, he said.

Enchilada, my darling, my darling!

I ran to his cage and opened the door.

Oh, I cried. What is wrong with him? He’s not moving.

Oh, no, Keif said.

Oh no. He’s dead!

Oh no, Keif said. I’m so sorry.

I don’t understand. It looks like you’ve been feeding him.

I have.

But Gramma Kay got him because she said he would live longer than she would, I said.

We ate the key lime pie. It was real good, with home-made whipped cream and graham cracker pie crust. Keif took out the rum then, and I gave him a look that my ex said makes me seem up to no good at all.

Oh, I want some of that, I said.

We drank.  Continue reading “A Blond Joke” – Fiction by Addy Evenson

“Snapshot from the Revolution” – Fiction by Perry Lopez

Our Lady of El Cobre

Our Summer 2018 issue won’t rise from the deep until June 21, but should you care for a preview of what’s to come, here’s Perry Lopez‘s historical & horrific short story “Snapshot from the Revolution.”

{ X }

THE NIGHT WAVES WERE ROLLING TOWARD CUBA, beating their steady pulse against the hull of the yacht. A rhythmic skip and crash in perfect blackness, and all our bodies leaning together. A jump and plunge amidst the rattle of ammunition, the dishing of gasoline in drums that we had lashed to the handrails because the tank would not hold enough to get us there, the sky that was starless, pure blackout, and pressed down upon our heads. Petroleum and sulfur and potassium nitrate, human sweat and nervous breath, the various agents of conflagration—all inert for the moment, jostling together. My finger was on the shutter release. Across my chest there was a double-bandolier full of flashbulbs. Magnesium, the smell of magnesium powder, which burns with near the same quality as sunlight: 5500 Kelvin.

I try not to hear the Giant’s voice, but there it is anyway. Words which he never spoke but instead I gave to him and believed in absolutely, there in that moment of body-terror and doubt, seminal blindness across the Atlantic, which was the power he had over all of us. Have spirit, brother Gusano. We do not need the heavens to steer by, not when we have pinned fresh constellations to the roofs of our minds. Would the man himself have said that? I can see his face speaking the words clearly enough, but cannot say for sure. I have written far too many speeches for Fidel Castro in my thoughts, and now he is dead—idol dead, paper dead—heartbroken at the age of ninety and buried beneath a kernel of corn, as you already know.

So instead take my clearest picture, the only one I know for sure was captured with my own senses. Everything afterward will be lies: Graffiti on their monuments. I remember salt on my lips. Body salt, sea salt, and an accordion crush of lungs fighting for space to expand. The deck was not meant to hold so many bodies. A compression of moncadistas and stark-ribbed exiles on the pleasure boat that had seen happier voyages. Eighty-two men in total, all packed to the gunwales, hustled aboard the North American vessel with its engine that stalled and stuttered like my own flawed heart, sending up the first oily smoke of our revolution, some of them sitting upon the very edges and holding onto the shoulders of their comrades so that they would not fall into the sea. An orgiastic colony of sweaty limbs and whispered confidences—Sierra Maestra, José Martí, the Latifundia, Our Lady of El Cobre, Castro, Castro, Castro—the germ of a new country caught between two great slates of emptiness, the sea and the sky, and a few brave ones sitting atop the crates of grenades packed in straw. A man coughed up vomit to my right and another leaned over the side to dribble his empty stomach across the midnight rollers. From somewhere close to the bow a voice was singing out in a bold, solemn spinto: Cuba, oh Cuba, a bright red flower for Cuba / One which smells not so sweet / Nor which bears aught to eat / Yet will bloom on from Gitmo to Bauta, as his words were sucked away by the wind. Where in all this was Fidel? Where was Che? Which of these darkly groping forms were Raul and Camilo and Almeida? And whose voice was that singing? Never mind. It is wrong to ask. Let them be for an instant like what was promised. A hum of bodies and voices and futures converging.

But in this polyrhythm of heartbeats they had their guns and I had my camera. A 35mm Zeiss that would be the eye through which the world watched our revolution (Castro’s hopeful thinking) and the tool we would wield against Batista’s newspapers. It swung from its strap and knocked against my chest so I raised a hand to hold it still. Already a bruise had begun to form there, a distinct green and yellow impression of the metal case stamped upon my skin. Your press card, brother, said Raul the day before, giving the bruise a rap with his knuckles. Now they will know not to shoot you. A painful blemish that would only grow with time. But for the moment it was best not to take the camera from my neck, I had decided, because if it somehow got lost or broken they would give me a rifle to replace it. One of those old American Nazi-killers we had bought in bulk off the Mexican black market. Rusty barrels with warped wooden stocks—M1 Garands and weathered carbines, Springfields as likely to explode in your hands as kill anyone, a few German Mausers with their dull metal luster—weapons whose history I wanted no part of, yet I think the others were eager to see me burdened with.

Some of the men had already urged as much. Their spirits took a vicious turn after four days at sea in the cramped vessel and several of them had cornered me in the back of the yacht. Open spaces are bad for revolutions, and in all that vacant water and cloudless atmosphere they had turned their eyes away from the horizon and found me there with my camera. Why should Gusano’s burden be so little, they asked. Why should he have to do none of the killing? Is he a coward? Their faces drew close as they took the Zeiss away from my neck, passing it from man to man and judging its heft against the weight of their weapons. I thought for a second they might throw it into the waves and that would be that; I would have to become a Guerilla too. But it was Fidel himself who came to my rescue. “Leave Gusano be,” the Giant said. In the noon scorch our Comandante stood high upon the flying bridge with his body like a stain against the sun and all of us squinting up at him, his wolfish nose and wolfish eyes directed down upon his militia, his arms held out cruciform and his fatigues snapping in the breeze, saying, “The purity of our Mexican must be preserved at all costs. A steady hand and a steady conscience. How else will he take good pictures of us?” This had quieted them and I was left in peace, or at least what passes for peace aboard a boat crowded with barbudos trained to kill their own countrymen. So I waited for the nighttime when we would all be blinded together again.

Continue reading “Snapshot from the Revolution” – Fiction by Perry Lopez