LOST AND FOUND, fiction by Stuart Watson

Ben crashed through the back door and slammed the snowshoes onto the kitchen counter. “Check it out. Free snowshoes.”

“Free?” Ula asked. “From where? The free snowshoe store?”

“Beside the highway,” Ben said, opening the fridge, grabbing a beer and flicking its tab in one motion. “Just in a pile there. Swear to God. Pretty sweet.”

He tipped the can, sucking like a hungry calf, foam rolling past his lips and down his cheeks. He wore a dark blue zippered hoodie. Ula wore a red one. They were married fifteen years. Both had frizzy hair. They wore matching dirty dungarees. Hers had ketchup spills and his had motor oil. Someone seeing them together would say they were two halves of the same truck stop sandwich.

“Aren’t you the guy that hates snow?” Ula asked.

“Don’t matter. Don’t have to like snow to like snowshoes.”

“Do you like them?”

“I like free. Pure profit.”

Living with Ben was like watching someone in the buffet line of life. See something, try it. A little of this, a little of that. Never more than a bite or two. Six months in mechanic school, a month learning to be a nurse’s aid, wannabe apprentice carpenter until the tow truck outfit called him back. Third car he hauled, it rolled off the back. Ended up worse than when it started. Ben talked the guy who owned the car into taking him on as a fry cook. Until he sent a dozen people to the hospital with month old meatloaf. “I put tons of gravy on it,” he offered by way of defense.

The only enterprise that stuck? Running a weekend flea market booth. 

“You think maybe somebody forgot them?” Ula asked.

“I don’t think it. I know it. How else they gonna be there?”

“And maybe they might realize it somewhere down the road? And come back, lookin’ for their snowshoes?”

“Maybe. Good thing I saw them first.”

“What if they were yours and you forgot them?” she said. Thinking somebody had to teach her moron some manners.

“Thing is, I didn’t forget them. I found them. Finder’s keepers.”

In the cosmic parallel of time and events, while Ben was still on the road, about two miles south of where he found the snowshoes, the original owner of the snowshoes pulled into his own garage. Larry unloaded his dog, looked in the back of his car and realized that he had just driven thirty miles without his snowshoes. 

Stupid. 

Stupid stupid stupid. 

What an idiot he was. What a fucking idiot. What the fuck had he been thinking? 

He walked into the house and called to Dawna.

“I can’t believe I just did the most stupid thing in my life.”

“What did you do, leave your snowshoes at the trailhead?” she asked, greeting him at the kitchen door.

Was she clairvoyant? How did she know he was an idiot because he had forgotten his snowshoes? It could have been any number of things. He could have forgotten the dog, for Pete’s sake. Or left his glasses and wallet on top of the car. He had gotten really good at that, since he turned 60. He got better with every passing year.

“Maybe whoever found them was on a pilgrimage.”

“To where? Phoenix?”

“OK, maybe not. Maybe think of it as a donation?” Dawna said. “Become charitable instead of a victim.”

“What if I didn’t want to donate them?”

“We’ve talked about downsizing. This could be your start.” 

He looked at her. She always thought the best of him. Right now, she thought he was more of an idiot than even he thought he was. 

“I guess you’re going to have to drive back and get them,” she said.

Figuring out what he had to do before he did. At least he and Dawna still agreed on something.

“Of course,” he said. “Here’s the dog.” 

Earlier that afternoon, on a whim, Larry had grabbed the snowshoes and Mooch and headed uphill from the Tucson desert for a quick stroll on the snow of the Catalinas. There was just one car idling in the lot. He noticed broken glass all over the pavement a few feet from the car. Prior to the two of them being there, somebody had broken into somebody else’s car, gone now to the auto glass shop. 

All its windows intact, the idling car drove off. Larry put on his snowshoes. He grabbed the dog’s leash and they headed up the trail. The snow was solid. The days had been warm, the nights freezing, perfect for a glacial base. Whoop-ee. After about a quarter mile, he thought the snowshoes were pointless. Haystack Calhoun could walk on this snow. He stashed the snowshoes under a tree, to get on his way back. 

Mooch was probably more tired when they reached the car. He had bounced off every Ponderosa in the woods, run laps around Larry, got his tongue hanging. 

He set his snowshoes on the ground near the hatchback, stepped around the side, fumbled for his keys. Mooch jumped in.

Larry was hot so he unzipped his snow pants. Tossed them over his seat and into the back. Flipped his jacket in front. Settled in, wishing he had brought the beer cooler. 

He pulled a slow U-turn, and slipped onto the highway.

Totally forgot the snowshoes. On the drive home, Larry basked in his mild fatigue. 

He marveled at the spring clouds. He scanned the forested hills, remarking on the ugliness of the clearcuts, and the texture of the forests still standing. He thought about calling his wife, but refrained. Not safe. 

Not long after reaching home and realizing how fucking stupid he was, while he was again driving back uphill, Larry thought how he had just given his wife justification to keep an  even closer eye on his behavior. She enjoyed their life, but in quieter moments, she realized their best days were two decades behind. 

Back when bed was their natural habitat. 

Back when they were either pursuing exhaustion, or recovering from it. 

More frequently now, Dawna would remind Larry that he needed to remember to remember to remind her to remind him that he was getting old and forgetting things that he used to remember when he could remember not forgetting things. 

“Really?” he would say, giving her the look that said she didn’t really need to remind him.

She would pause in those moments. Then firmly say, “Really.” 

And go back to ladling stroganoff into plastic clamshells for the church shut-ins.

Driving back uphill, Larry reminded himself to lift his foot off the gas. He knew he was speeding, trying to reunite himself with the snowshoes before darkness. It was a dangerous stretch of road. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled it aggressively. 

If the snowshoes weren’t where he left them, what then? He thought about the hoops through which he could jump to find them. He didn’t think about the return on investment of time in such a likely idle pursuit. He might get them back at the benefit of, say, three dollars an hour. 

He talked to himself. What else are you going to do? You’re retired. The cactus garden is still dormant. Yes, you are an idiot. Yes, you left your snowshoes in the road. Yes, you would love to hear from … whomever picked them up. For now, what you have is more time than sense.

That line of thought seemed prematurely defeatist. He had a few miles to go. They might be there. The highway wasn’t that busy. And people were generally honest. And even if the snowshoes weren’t there, maybe whoever picked them up had hopes of finding their owner and creating a happy reunion like you see in news photos of kids running into the arms of their dads just back from a military deployment. 

Except in his reunion photo, the dad would be Larry and the kids would be the snowshoes.

Ben didn’t think like that. Ben fed on fallout. Like a turkey vulture. Amazing, how much stuff he found along the highway. When Ben spied the snowshoes near the road, he had just delivered a pound of weed to a cabin rented by four snowboarders on the back side of the mountain. He would get a hundred bucks for his delivery. The real money sat by the road. “Free” things that other people just dumped, like furniture and toilets and camper shells. Stacks of plastic milk crates. Things also that fell off vehicles, like skis and shoes and gloves and tires on rims and hubcaps, dozens of hubcaps. And snowshoes. Anything he might add to his flea market inventory. He was amazed how many people would buy a single glove.

Larry knew nothing of Ben or how he turned a buck. As he approached the trailhead, his mood sank. No sign of the snowshoes. He got out and walked around, looking in the snow, behind trees, down in a ditch. Nope. Nobody had even bothered to make him work for his reunion. Nobody had shown up, seen some lost snowshoes, thought it would be a good prank to hide them behind some trees a hundred yards away. Then continue on. Let the poor fool who left them figure it all out.

No such luck. They were gone.

After he got home, Larry called the sheriff’s office to report some missing snowshoes.

“What do they look like?” the kindly desk clerk asked. 

“Snowshoes,” Larry said. “Shoes. Made out of metal. Bigger than normal shoes, so they don’t sink into snow. So you can walk in them on snow.”

“Why would I want to do that?” the desk clerk asked.

“To … get somewhere?”

“And where might that be? We don’t live in Alaska. We have highways.”

“My wife and I, we walk out into the woods. Then back.”

“So you see my point?” the clerk said.

Probably gets $25 an hour, Larry thought. Just to fuck with people like me.

“You said missing? Did you lose them? Or were they stolen? Somebody pull a gun on you and heist them?” 

He gave the 9-1-1 lady his number, in case anyone phoned in a find. 

“I hope they don’t melt,” she said.

“Melt?”

“Snow. Shoes. Shoes made of snow. Get it?”

He hung up. Realizing it was all on him, he used his computer to create flyers with a photo of the snowshoes from the web site where he bought them. Wrote a headline that said “Missing.” He described them, and said they had been left by the side of the highway but weren’t there when he came back to get them. Like it was the plan from the start, and someone had messed it up. He hung the flyers on telephone poles, right alongside the “missing cat” and “missing javalina” posters. And the flyers announcing yard sales with itemized lists of junk that people were trying to unload on unsuspecting materialists.

Then he called the newspaper, for one of their free “lost & found” ads.

In the week after, nobody called. Or e-mailed. Or even sent him a message through Flipbook. Larry didn’t give up. He went on social media and posted news of his stupidity. People were kind. They wrote back and said he definitely was stupid.

One of his friends, Ron, said he had gotten a shared post from a guy named Ben, one of his friends, boasting of having “found some great snowshoes along the highway. Looked brand new. Score!” 

Larry sent Ben a message. Said he had lost a pair of snowshoes. Wondered if Ben might be able to show him what he found. 

Ben read the message and thought no way in hell am I giving the guy my snowshoes. Ben thought about his great good fortune, to find something for which he could imagine only one good use — as a flea market sale item. All these years (he was 36) and he had never even thought about snowshoeing. He just couldn’t figure out why someone who had a TV and a fridge full of PBR would want to drive all the way up in the mountains to walk around on tennis rackets. Made no sense. 

Larry didn’t hear back from Ben or anyone else. So he got Ben’s number from Ron and gave him a call. To his surprise, Ben answered.

“Not interested,” Ben said, slurping on a PBR.

“Not selling anything,” Larry said. “Friend of Ron’s. He had to leave town. Wanted me to drop something off. He’s going to Cabo to drink margaritas and eat tacos.”

“What is it?”

Now Larry was in a pickle. 

“Hell if I know,” Larry said. “It’s wrapped. In  brown paper.”

There was silence on the line. Ben was thinking it might be something he could sell. Finally, Ben told Larry he could drop off whatever it was.

Larry drove over. Ben lived in a duplex. Out front, a classic Challenger, dipped in primer.

When Ben came to the door, Larry said he was there to see the snowshoes.

“What kinda shakedown is this?” Ben asked. “I thought you said you were delivering something from Ron. Now you want to see my snowshoes?”

“I am delivering something. Me. You posted that you found some snowshoes. I lost some. I thought maybe they were mine.”

“How would I know if they were yours?”

“I could look at them?”

“Do they have your name on them?”

“No, they have the name of the company that made them.”

“I don’t think that’s them,” he said. 

“Can I see? I would recognize them.”

“If your name isn’t on them, how would you know they were yours?”

“If I had lost my kid in the woods, I would know him if I saw him. Or her. I would say, ‘Sam, it’s you! I missed you so much!’ That would be it.”

“Snowshoes are different,” Ben said. “They don’t have names.”

“These are brand fucking new. Only had them a week. I get the sense you don’t want to help me? Like you’re afraid you have my snowshoes and don’t want me to get them back. Right?”

“Look, people lose snowshoes all the time. Yours aren’t mine.”

Larry had considered how this exchange might go. A bit of a chess match, one probing, the other dodging, back and forth. 

“Where did you find yours?” Larry asked.

“Up near the Coffee Creek Snow-Trail System. Along the Catalina Highway.”

Ben immediately realized his mistake. For one of the few times in his life, he had been spontaneously honest. He should have made up another place, other than the one where he actually found the snowshoes. What a dumbshit he was. 

Dumbshit, dumbshit, dumbshit. 

He didn’t admit it out loud, though, in case Ula was listening. If she heard him cop to one of his scams, she could use it to remind him what a dumbshit he was.

“Wow, that is amazing,” Larry said. “That’s right where I lost mine. How many others from that location could there be. Right? I’d love to see them.”

Ben stood there, behind his screen door, looking like the king in checkmate.

“I’m sorry you lost your snowshoes. I really am. But I don’t see what that has to do with me. I don’t even like to snowshoe. Why would I care about finding some snowshoes? It’s not gonna snow, I can tell you that. This is Ari-fucking-zona. It was a fluke thing. I’ll probably give them to Goodwill.”

“Or me. You could give them to their rightful owner.”

“Possession is nine-tenths–”

“Of the law,” Larry said. “I know. But a good guy like you, I’m sure you’d love to help a brother out by erasing the results of a really stupid failure to load his gear.”

That stopped Ben. Nobody recently had given him credit for being anything but a jerk. How could he crap on that?

“Show him the snowshoes,” a woman’s voice called from inside. “Maybe they belong to someone else, and you can keep them.”

Ben looked behind him at the voice. Then back to Larry, pissed. He shuffled around behind the screen door, scruffy beard, smelling of pot. He had never worn snowshoes in his life, on the snow or to the grocery store or in the gym where he typically shadowed women in tight see-through yoga pants. 

“Give me your name and phone number,” Ben finally said, defeat all over his face. “They’re in storage. I’ll call you when I dig them out.”

So Larry did. What else was he going to do? Pull a gun on the guy and pistol whip him until he gave back what likely was clearly, possibly, potentially Larry’s misplaced snowshoes, leaning against a wall in the hallway off the dumpy living room of Ben’s really fine duplex?

On the way home, Larry pondered his choice of words. Had his snowshoes been stolen? Recovered? Abandoned? Neglected? Donated? Rescued? Salvaged? Repurposed? Kidnapped? 

Larry thought they were being ransomed.

While Larry was imagining what sort of conniving bullshit Ben was up to so he could avoid giving back what Larry had spent $62 on, Ben got in his car and drove downtown to the Last Season Sports store. The store sold old outdoor gear. Stuff that still worked, but people had given up on. 

To Ben, this was a matter of principle. Ben went through the winter gear zone until he found a bin full of snowshoes. Most were in pretty good shape. Why people got rid of them, he could only guess. Maybe their owners had children and needed space for four-wheel-drive folding dual compartment baby strollers. With WiFi. Or maybe they didn’t realize they could just leave them by the side of a highway for somebody like Ben to come along and heist. 

Ben found a decent pair and bought them. Thirty bucks. They were red. Nice snowshoe color. Then he showed the clerk the snowshoes he had found by the highway. The guy offered him twenty bucks. Ben took it, and went home. He dumped his new used snowshoes on the same counter he had dumped Larry’s.

“Nice,” Ula said. “A week ago, no snowshoes. Now we got two pair.”

“I traded in the pair I found,” Ben said. “That friend of Ron’s? Trouble. I got to show him something.”

Ben called Larry. 

“I found them,” he said. “My wife had buried them behind some stuff.”

“Asshole,” Ula yelled from the back of the house. “Tell him the truth.”

Larry heard every word, just like Ula wanted. “What was that?” Larry asked. “You call me an asshole?”

“Nothing. Just the kids arguing.”

“Boy, don’t they?”

“What … don’t they?”

“Argue. Kids. Can I come over?”

They met at the screen door. Ben opened it and showed Larry the pair of used and recently purchased snowshoes. Decent, Larry thought, but not mine. Still, social media doesn’t lie.

“You are a-MAZE-ing,” Larry exclaimed. “I can’t believe you found my snowshoes.”

“What?”

“Somebody with nice snowshoes like that, leaving them by the highway like I did, it’s almost impossible to think you’re going to get them back.”

Ben looked at Larry for a long time, not quite sure what to make of his comment. 

“Don’t mention it,” Ben said, starting to close the door.

“Uh, aren’t you going to give them to me?”

“They’re not yours, and you know it.”

“You calling me a liar?”

“No, but I know these aren’t yours.”

“And how is that?”

“I just know, motherfucker,” Ben said. “Be more careful next time.”

He slammed the door. Larry could hear voices behind it.

“I honestly cannot believe you sometimes.”

Loud. Ula again. The kind of woman who spent her whole life slouching around with a cigarette smoldering in her fingers, reminding her husband what an idiot he was. What a liar. Thief. Cretin. Mental loser. 

Woman a lot like his own wife, Larry thought, if only for her love of zippered hoodies. Nothing more. Not the cigarette part. Not the insult part. She knew what she had signed up for and had no regrets. 

Larry was staring at the slammed door, thinking about his own wife. A woman who imagined better things. She would jump up and start buzzing around, and before long, the house was festooned with flowers in small vases, with votive candles flickering to the side. 

Or she would imagine them getting hungry, and before long, aromas came from the kitchen, and then food. 

Or she would look at the sheets and see dander accumulating, and spores settling, and mushrooms sprouting where she would like to sleep, and she would remove the sheets and replace them with sheets much farther from such an imagined future. 

Just like she had imagined him going back and finding his snowshoes, or not finding them, but either way, finding an answer so he could imagine what next.

Ula? Larry figured she was having too much fun acting miserable to ever leave. It was the role of a lifetime. Emmy script. She liked her situation. Feeling superior, knowing she was, knowing Ben knew she was. Riding that horse. She needed Ben to be a numbskull, so she could remind him. She knew he needed reminding, and she was the one to do it.

Go to Cabo? Eat tacos? Drink margies on the beach? Not a fucking chance. Not when she could be here with Ben. Waiting and watching for him to fuck up.

Larry heard more garble. Larry thought he heard Ben yelling. 

“… what I got you?”

Then more back and forth. Larry couldn’t understand a thing. 

He turned and walked away. All he knew was they had his snowshoes. And each other. He would stop by the second-hand outdoor gear store on his way home, to see if they had any decent used snowshoes. He wasn’t hopeful.

 


 

On the backside of a long journalism career, STUART WATSON now devotes his energies exclusively to poetry, essay and short fiction. His work reflects a love of human diversity, and a  twisted view of reality. Watson loves writing that pushes narrative technique, everything from Raymond Carver to the  Barthelmes (Donald and Frederick), Flannery O’Connor to Joy Williams, Charles Bukowski to William Kotzwinkle, Barry Hannah to Eudora Welty. He doesn’t try to emulate them, but admits that, like all the voices in the world, they certainly must infect his writing. Watson’s writing daily decorated miles of newsprint, and has appeared most recently in The Maine Review, Two Hawks Quarterly and Wanderlust Journal.

ASTRIDE MY ATLAS, poetry by Ben Nardolilli

I saw him, and I humbly asked him,
What name did he prefer?

Dionysus, or Bacchus, it was fine,
I just had to understand

He was originally a Thracian god,
If I knew that, I knew him

He only wanted my worship
And that I knew he had an origin

 


 

BEN NARDOLILLI currently lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Danse Macabre, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, The Northampton Review, Local Train Magazine, The Minetta Review, and Yes Poetry. He blogs at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is trying to publish his novels.

The Beatles once, poetry by Corey Mesler

The Beatles once sought to buy an island,

a place to be just Beatles.

They shopped.  In the end it came to

nothing and they went home and

recorded Revolver. I still like to think

about that island: its colorful hotdog

stand, its church full of dancers, its

electronic wonderwall, and its

resplendent army of happy engineers

and trombonists, of curanderos,

wantwits, and mooks, and people just

like you and me, O, in our fierce and

jerrybuilt dreams.

 

-RJ-

 

COREY MESLER has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and New Stories from the South. He has published over 20 books of fiction and poetry. His newest novel, Camel’s Bastard Son, is from Cabal Books. He also wrote the screenplay for We Go On, which won The Memphis Film Prize in 2017. With his wife he runs Burke’s Book Store (est. 1875) in Memphis.

WHAT KIND OF HEAVEN WILL YOU FIND ON MARS, poetry by Ace Bogges

 

—Peter Cooley, “A Premature Afterlife”

 

The heaven of silence & heaven of this-

equipment-helps-me-breathe—I need

all the help I can get, suffering daily Earth-

like gravity, fog, political discourse.

 

The heaven of no-more-presidents.

 

The heaven of we-can-argue-or-survive—

O2 canisters work in mysterious ways.

 

The heaven of see-my-house-from-here &

lovely-spot-for-a funeral.

 

The heaven we make for ourselves in the heavens,

amidst heavenly bodies, our bodies

buffing up pressure suits—

 

what would sex be like on Mars? 

Cold. Suffocating sometimes. Same as here.

 

-RJ-

 

ACE BOGGESS is author of five books of poetry—MisadventureI Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It SoUltra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.

THE FIRST HUMAN SACRIFICE, fiction by Joe Giordano

The volcano Hurakan smoked, and the noxious gray cloud expanded, covering the mountain like a shroud, poisoning the grass and turning the trees to skeletons. 

Bare chested and burly, Chief Bacuba grunted. 

His wife Aquil stood at his shoulder. “Zahar says the god was displeased with your pig sacrifice. You must be removed, or Hurakan will rain fire on the people.”

“I’ll kill the priest’s ambition,” Bacuba said.

Aquil shook her head. “More subtlety is required.”

Returning to their thatched-roof village, they found Zahar in a red-feathered headdress, addressing a crowd from a stone altar. “The sacred mountain’s angered by Bacuba’s corrupt rule.”

Bacuba observed hostile and fearful faces. He called out sharply, “Priest, how will you calm the mountain?”

“We feasted on your pig. Hurakan requires a genuine sacrifice.” Zahar thrust out his chin. “One of our number must be slain.”

Nervousness rippled through the assembly. Noting the mood change, Bacuba said, “We’ve never sacrificed a human before.” 

An explosion from the mountain boomed like a hellish clap of thunder. Men grabbed their heads. Women screamed.

“Act, before it’s too late,” Zahar said.

“Which of our people do you propose?” Bacuba asked.

“Kawan, the old hunter. He waits for death.”

Tension among the other villagers eased. Heads indicated agreement.

Bacuba glanced at his wife. She nodded before he said, “I’ll do as you ask.” He directed two men to drag Kawan from his hut. The man’s eyes were as wide as moons, and he begged for mercy.

Zahar produced a black obsidian knife. Once the old hunter was spread upon the altar, the priest mumbled a chant then slit the man’s throat, allowing blood to bathe the stone.

Miraculously, the volcano stopped smoking.

Zahar declared to the crowd, “I’ve done what was necessary to protect the people. The time has come for a new chief.”

The male villagers conferred with one another before their eyes turned accusingly on Bacuba.

“Declare me chief and we’ll rid ourselves of this charlatan,” Zahar said.

With anger in their eyes, the men approached Bacuba.

Suddenly, like a giant black arrow shot through with lightning flashes, Hurakan erupted spreading gray ash across the sky. Crimson red-hot geysers of lava burst from the volcano’s crater. Simultaneously, an earthquake threw the men menacing Bacuba to the ground. Ejected boulders and pumice thudded around them. A ropy-surfaced river of orange headed toward the village, crushing all in its path. 

The people struggled to their feet, begging the god for salvation. As they fled, a billowing gray sheet of ash eclipsed sunlight, and the afternoon darkened like midnight. 

As they led their tribe away from the eruption, Aquil grasped Bacuba’s arm.

“The people will blame Zaher,” she said. “You’ve saved your leadership.”

Bacuba grunted agreement, but his face remained troubled.

“Husband, what are you thinking?”

Zaher wasn’t wrong about the pig, but he killed a useless person. Hurakan knew and was insulted. “Next time, we must sacrifice children.”

-RJ-

JOE GIORDANO’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story (2015), and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017) were published by Harvard Square Editions. Rogue Phoenix Press published Drone Strike (2019) and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember (2020).

Joe was among one hundred Italian American authors honored by Barnes & Noble to march in Manhattan’s 2017 Columbus Day Parade. Read the first chapter of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/

TWO POEMS by Timothy Dodd

Television Light

 

In the autumn forest I could

not find the screech-

owl that night, rotating neck 

in the moonlight, the fool’s 

gold pupils hunting in the crypt 

of darkness. So I headed back 

at the usual time, ready for a cup 

of tea and the warmth 

of furry blankets. 

My sister was up, her leg 

hurting again, changing

channels on the TV. “Only movies

on are ones I’ve seen before.”  

Our father came down 

from bed, needing an Alka-Seltzer.  

“Stop staying up so late.” He turned 

and left, squinting, in his white, holey 

underwear, showing crack, and sister 

asked why I had a lizard leg stuck 

in the corner of my mouth. On 

the screen two grouse pecked 

in a thicket. I heard hands feeling 

around in the foggy hallway, 

searching for the switch.

 


 

WORKADAY

 

My teeth are mine, and I remind myself 

every day looking closely into the mirror.

 

Even tired from a day of breaking wings

at the chicken factory, I tell Brandy, too, 

 

when she calls. Sometimes she gets a bit

curious, or pries and pecks without getting

 

at the real seed. Is that what your doctors

said? Makes my knee ache like someone 

 

twisted its cap off. When her mother came 

over last week and removed her old Hush

 

Puppies, there was a funny smell. Like glue

and ancient pottery. “I forgot your creamed

 

corn,” she said. Don’t matter. We all took

some Tylenols. Out of the corner of my eye, 

 

that tiny mouse shot under the oven. I heard

a little squeak. A visitor might have thought

 

it came from the vermin. But Brandy says

there’s always more than one way to dance.

 

-RJ-

 

TIMOTHY DODD is from Mink Shoals, WV, and is the author of Fissures, and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press, 2019). Cave-based and 71% Luddite, he’s still punching a few social media buttons: find his artwork on Instagram @timothybdoddartwork, and his writing on his “Timothy Dodd, Writer” Facebook page. Bring a cupcake and dill pickle ’cause you’ll probably be the only one there.

A STRUCTURALIST POETICS OF JAMES DICKEY’S HUNTING CIVIL WAR RELICS AT NIMBLEWILL CREEK, a critical essay by John Timothy Robinson

     In this particular poem enigma and fact become blurred, not necessarily as a matter of communicated fact, though essentially through an absence of historicity.  There was no battle at Nimblewill Creek, Georgia.  In our contemporary time, this body of water is a popular fishing location.  In 1830 gold was discovered there and the North-Eastern portion of the state was populated by Southern sympathizers.  One source claims the Dahlonega Mint was located in this area from 1838 to 1861 and made Confederate coins for 26 years.  James Dickey lived from 1923 to 1997 and was a prolific Southern writer of legendary repute.  His son Christopher Dickey, himself now a respected literary figure, has commented on his father’s tall-tale bravado.  The fiction of Nimblewill Creek has been created in dramatis personae as the setting for this work.  The context created by the poet in this sense plays upon and perpetuates a mood of uncertainty, political tension and the sheer pointlessness of division.  A great complexity permeates the reading of this work to such a degree that one could argue, only certain types of people are supposed to read it and dwell on its meanings.  The poem takes up themes, though only communicates them to those who are familiar with the history of warfare or those divided by its senseless death and suffering. 

     Since this poem is narrated by one of the assumed brothers searching for Civil War relics, Dickey has utilized a personal deictic in conveying the narrative to the reader.  The illusion of reality is not broken as the work of art communicates from stanza to stanza the events that take place in this setting.  The younger brother observes his older brother in the context of searching an old battle site.  Throughout his account, the reader also gathers a sense of tension through the manner in which facts are conveyed.  The poem culminates in a transcendence of emotion for the narrator as the original publication of the work juxtaposes it historically with the early Civil Rights era, yet serves as a double counter to the opposition of sides taken in the Civil War.  Because of this, I would also argue that the work takes on a temporal aspect as the conflict implied is one in the historical past of our nation.  The characters presented exist in a contemporary setting and the work constantly shifts back and forth between the present and the historical event of a battle which took place during the Civil War.  A spatial aspect is also created by the historical nature of warfare in this particular time period as place-names were typically associated with battles.  

     “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” illustrates a more typical kind of poetic parallelism among various stanzas of the same work and is an illustration of a more subtle way to establish unity of theme and subject.  Dickey achieves this through the use of the same or similar words and phrases by careful placement, repeating them every other stanza of the work.  Culler defines Samuel Levin’s linguistic concept of “couplings” in language in chapter eight of his Structuralist Poetics.  According to Culler a coupling is the use of “…metrical or phonetic patterns…in which parallelism in sound or rhythm begets or passes over into parallelism of meaning” (SP 185).  There is only one example of phonetic coupling in Dickey’s poem.  At line thirty-five, Dickey likens the word “Nimblewill” to the call of a Whippoorwill.  He spends the previous lines twenty-seven to thirty-four describing the call, confusing it at first as two separate bird-calls.  The phonetic quality of the word serves three different purposes.  First, as a pun on the actual sound and name of the bird.  The name of the bird itself is a phonetic allusion because it sounds like, “whip poor will.” Knowing this, when the reader then sees the word “Nimblewill,” there exists another phonetic play on words as this operates as a reversal of punning where the name bears connotations of having a strong spirit.  The more typical variety of phonetic couplings are found in nursery rhymes where the rhythm of the lines imitates the action of the characters portrayed.  As well, we can only say that Dickey has used “…a phonetic or rhythmical figure as a way of stressing or throwing into relief a particular form and thus emphatically its meaning,” only in reference to what could be called a controlling metaphor of the poem—the Whippoorwill (Culler 185).  Phonetic and rhythmical patterns are more or less absent due to the work’s strong free-verse qualities.  The convention of “unity and symmetry” will serve as a better means to “justify the formal features” of this poem (Culler 186).  Dickey has chosen to use a very common poetic convention in a highly selective and complex way.  

     “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” embodies formal unity through binary aspects of generational political opposition, dialectical resolution, use of the four-term homology and a series with a transcendent final term.  Dickey’s poem has been constructed of seventy-two lines in six stanzas of twelve lines each.  The primary binary oppositions which exist in the poem pertain to political opposition of the Union and Confederate armies of the Civil War, the term itself being an oxymoron, though composed of unlike elements.  The main characters of the events described in the poem are brothers and it only implied that one is older and the narrator, the younger one.  Other binary oppositions are illustrated through the work such as visual and audible, the physical and spiritual, the living and the dead, past and present as well as formal and free-verse qualities of the work.  Every binary aspect of this pom creates or serves to maintain tension of opposition, though eventually becomes unified and resolved through the shared activity o searching for buried war relics, if only through the mind of the narrating brother.

     The inherent dialectical opposition is implied in the title and the quality of Dickey’s description of the brother’s relationship to each other.  The poem’s title bears the term “Civil War,” which is historically known as a war between the North and South, the Union and the Confederacy.  The speaker says in stanza two, “The battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill…” which suggests the brothers have possibly taken different sides on how they think about the war (L 21-23).  The speaker uses the phrase “appallingly close,” to characterize the bird-call he describes in stanza three.  In stanza four, the bird-call is described as if “…two birds fight / For a single voice…” (L 40-41).  Opposition is also conveyed through descriptions of the metal-detecting brother.  The older brother has “clapped ears” and a “clamped head” (L 16 and 44).  These phrases carry connotations of auditory and psychological obstruction.  These types of phrases characterize him as stubborn and unlikely to change his ways or views.  With the argument known and its parallelism played out through the expressed emotion of the bird-call stanza, its dialectical oppositions become resolved in the fifth and sixth stanzas.  The simile Dickey uses in the next-to-last stanza is a renunciation of war: “Like that of a sniper / Who throws down his rifle and yells / In the pure joy of missing me” (L 56-59).  This image is followed by one in the last stanza of supplication: “I fall to my knees,” as if to make a greater, humanistic gesture of compassion (L 62).  The speaker characterizes himself as “…a man who renounces war…” (L 68).  The final lines draw all humanity together as the speaker transcends his own family and identifies with all people.  He says he is “…one who shall lift up the past, / Not breathing ‘Father,’ / At Nimblewill, / But saying, ‘Fathers!  Fathers!” (L 69-72).  Here, the argument of political opposition has been resolved through a generalized, spiritual unity for all humanity.  Even the poem operates in a dialectical manner, the model of “…thesis, antithesis and synthesis,” as in the English sonnet tradition, for example, is not present (Culler 172).  Instead, “Hunting for Relics at Nimblewill Creek” in its shifting from opposition towards one of transcendence moves beyond “…the realm of feeling and judgment into one of faith” (Culler 173).  Because of these coexisting features, Dickey’s poem illustrates a dialectic opposition which becomes displaced through the speaker’s thoughts and feelings at the conclusion in a way which resolves the opposition, if only from the narrators point-of-view.

     A four-term homology is illustrated through the dialectic opposition suggested by the author and illustrated in the traits and ideas associated with each brother.  The first two terms are established by the fact that the brothers have taken opposing sides on the issue of the Civil War, though Dickey is not explicit in conveying through the younger narrating brother what those differences are, only that “The battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill” (L 21-23).  Other traits organize the sides, though only implicitly.  The older brother is stubborn, not open to suggestions, preoccupied with detecting, listening only for signals and never communicates with the younger brother narrator unless he finds something.  The younger brother follows, digs for the located objects, identifies with nature and narrates the account to the reader.  The narrator’s transcendence in stanza six becomes the authorial message of renouncing war and hatred for one’s fellow man.  Because of this, Dickey’s poem also illustrates the series with a transcendent final term.  The speaker falls to his knees to dig and raise the relic, though what he yields is a vision of humanity through the actions of one who realizes the humanity in other people. 

     The author’s controlled use of repetitious words and rhetorical figures establish a theme of discovery and a transcendence of conflict.  This is created in the work by the fact that both are involved in the same activity—searching for civil War relics in an old battlefield.  Eventually, through this unified action, historical conflict becomes resolved through a more humanistic vision of society.  Thematic meaning serves as a way to heal political conflict, if only for the narrating brother.  The four interpretive operation help to clarify this.  Binary relations of opposition have already been discussed, though figures of speech and literary elements, rhetorical figures, play a central role.

     Some rhetorical element play a central role in the work, while lesser features serve to heighten effect or detail.  The core group of repetitious words, parallelism, simile, oxymoron, metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche and phonetic word-play all take central roles in the work.  The title, “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” contains five aspects which shape the interpretive context of the work.  “Hunting” is a sport that involves killing.  “Civil War” is both a historical reference and an oxymoron.  “Nimblewill” also has a double connotation of meaning moving quickly and lightly as well as having the ability of making well-reasoned choices or controlling one’s destiny and actions.  The word “creek” grounds the work in a rural, Appalachian landscape emphasizing humanity, located away from the institutions of society, though the soldiers having died representing those old, fallen structures, it is the humanness of the brothers that becomes emphasized.  Structural repetition of  a compressed range of syllables per line, figurative descriptions, uniform stanza structure and line-count, anaphora, symbolism, allusion, connotation, slight refrains and even the complex model of opposition for each stanza establish lesser elements of the poem.  The core group of words consist of; ‘war,” “brother,” “battle,” “dead,” “cry,” “light,” “ground,” “bird,” “voice,” “buried,” “metal” and “smile” (Hall 97-99).  This repetitious word-play creates a similitude within the subject and lends itself to rhetorical unity of the entire work.  The binary aspects help to establish parallels within the poem, drawn between past and present because of the implied difference of political stances of each brother.  A second parallel between the Whippoorwill and the younger, narrating brother operates as a way to emphasize his psychological conflict within himself and its eventual resolution at the poem’s end.  The first type of parallelism can be thought of as contextual, providing a logical frame-work for the conflict of war.  The second type is a personal, psychological parallelism which serves to dramatize the narrator’s conflict within himself.  

     Dickey’s use of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche and phonetic word-play also operate as important rhetorical aspects.  A stanza-by-stanza discussion of these features will help to clarify their contextual roles.  The contemporary-historical context has been established by the title as the first stanza develops the situation and clarifies the environment in which the search takes place.  Use of the term “mine-detector” instead of “metal-detector,” implies the volatile nature of the political aspect of division suggesting that these divisions are still present.  The second half of the first stanza exhibits an odd rhetorical-conditional phrasing: “For I can tell / If we enter the buried battle / Of Nimblewill / Only by his expression” (L 9-12).  This extended, grammatical construct places importance on the older brother, though stresses the conditional quality of the experience of history only in finding artifacts.  The narrator says in more formal diction, “For” and “If we enter,” then “Only,” which connotate a different level of meaning compared to mere description of literal action.  Ideas are either challenged or reified by the presence of other people.  This one gesture is vital in Dickey’s poem because it reduces the social situation to its most fundamental element of agreement.  The brothers are the people in the poem.  As such, they serve as catalyst of the dramatic conflict which plays through the mind of the narrator.

     The second stanza illustrates the use of several primary rhetorical figures.  The narrator describes his brother as “…parting / The grass with a dreaming hand” (L 13-14).  Here, “dreaming hand” is used as a metaphor for anticipating discovery of a relic.  Reverse personification can be seen in the phrase, “No dead cry yet takes root” (L 15).  The dead are inanimate and cannot cry, nor do they have the qualities of roots.  The phrase “clapped ears” is particularly clever for it plays on onomatopoeia, though “clapped,” in this context, has the opposite quality of having your hearing obstructed and only listening through the instrument for a noise.  This is especially meaningful in the context o conflict because it also implies the older brother cannot hear the younger brother.  The idea that something “…can be seen in his smile” is a figurative allusion to the fact that something has been detected through the headset because this is what causes him to smile (L 17).  The lines, “…but underfoot I feel / The dead regroup” seems to be a rather open metaphorical statement (L 18-19).  They could implicate both the historical battle and also indicate objects are about to be discovered, though “regroup’ carries the connotation that the brothers could actually share the same political view and that the conflict itself is with those who have been dead; soldiers, relatives and as we see more specifically by the conclusion of the poem, possibly, ‘Fathers.’ The lines which state that “…battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill” is a more specific allusion that the brothers themselves share the same division, though this is only implied as the reader never knows which brother takes either side (L 21-23).  These basic literary elements provide a curious opening context for the development of material.

     Stanza three represents one of the most intricate and symbolically important parts of Dickey’s poem.  The speaker narrates their movement across the creek and struggles to describe the call of a Whippoorwill.  He uses the metaphor “A bird’s cry breaks” to describe its startling tone and pattern of “…two, and into three parts” (L 27-28).  Use of the words “weapons” for “shovel and pick” carries further connotations of warfare and reinforce themes of search and conflict (L 26 and 24).  Further description of the call characterizes the noise as being two birds instead of one as “…the cry / Shifts into another, / Nearer bird,” which I argue is metaphor that conveys the fact that the cry sounds like it is two which blend together, yet it is still only the one, three-part call of the Whippoorwill (L 29-31).  The writer then characterizes the call further with three similes; “Like the shout of a shadow— / lived-with, appallingly close— / Or the soul, pronouncing / ‘Nimblewill’” (L 32-35).  All three similes are intended to describe the call of the bird.  The first two attempt to characterize its tonal qualities, while the last is a qualitative blend of simile and personification.  The call is so sudden it is like the “shout of a shadow” or something that makes one uncomfortable as the use of dashes, here signal the speaker’s difficulty with this experience.  Further word choice of “appallingly close” bring to mind the notion of having to live in a situation that one does not desire.  The writer only relies on context to guide the reader’s interpretation of his words, though being associated with the younger brother and the description of the Whippoorwill call only guide us generally in the direction of connotative phonetics and the generalized idea of political separation.  There exists a colloquial saying that if two people are usually together often, one is referred to as the other’s shadow.  The situation of brothers would be no different.  Dickey here connects the soul with one’s will—the normal, human drive to make one’s own decisions.  The mimetic word-play of the name of the bird counters this because the name is also what the call sounds like.  As a statement, the phrase would be, ‘whip your will,’ or as the name literally is arranged, “whip poor will.” The narrator then links these comparisons to the idea of the human soul personified through the place where the battle occurred and further compares the call with his own qualification, likening it to the sound of the name “Nimblewill.” The last line is a metaphorical description of its effect on the younger brother.  All of these literary devices  are intended to suggest generational conflict on the issue of the Civil War, or at least political issues in a generic sense between brothers.  

     If stanza three can be referred to as an emblematic stanza of psychological conflict and identification of the younger brother with this struggle, stanza four could be called the discovery stanza because this is where something is detected in the search for relics.  The younger brother says, “A faint light glows on my brother’s mouth,” which metaphorically indicates that he hears a signal from the metal detector (L 39).  The younger brother is still listening to the bird call and describes it with metaphorical conflict as “…two birds fight / For a single voice” (L 40-41).  This is the clearest statement of conflict in the entire poem.  Still, what the younger brother thinks is happening is not taking place.  This again characterizes his confusion in deciphering the call of the Whippoorwill.  The narrator uses metaphor to describe the older brother as “…hearing the grave, / In pieces, all singing,” which means that he has a stronger signal from the metal-detector (L 42-43).  The negative connotations of the “clamped head” of the detecting brother and the last four lines clarify the conflict of the brothers as generational.  The narrator says, “For he smiles as if / He rose from the dead within / Green Nimblewill / And stood in his grandson’s shape” (L 45-48).  The “He” in line forty-six refers not to the detecting brother, but to a dead relative who was involved in this battle.  It is not logical, even metaphorically, to say that one of the characters in a work have risen from the dead when they are alive in context and performing routine, human activities.  Dickey’s intentional blurring of a binary opposition here creates a parallel between past and present cultural conflict which plays a central role in its later resolution.  The idea of resurrection, virility, “Green,” and resemblance of a relative all connotate a new beginning.  As such, this is the first sign of healing from the conflict implied by the language of the poem.  

     Stanza five constitutes the narrator’s emotive realization and renunciation of conflict.  The phrase “buried war” metaphorically refers to this past and present conflict (L 49).  The narrator then makes an allusion to the dead in the previous stanza.  He says, “For the dead have waited here / A hundred years to create,” as if through this personification such longing for resolution could be purged (L 51-52).  If one subtracts the year Dickey published this poem in Sewanee Review, 1961, from 100, the resulting number is the same as the very year the Civil War began: 1861.  The first line expresses the idea that this division has ended.  The narrator says, “No shot from the buried war / Can kill me now,” as an emotive expression of a change that has taken place (L 49-50).  The other brother has found something and both minds are now focused on the same objective, forgetting their differences.  The narrator then compares himself with one who has renounced war: “While I stand, with / The same voice calling insanely / Like that of a sniper / Who throws down his rifle and yells / In the pure joy of missing me” (L 54-59).  This simile concludes the emotional situation of discovery, drawing both brothers together in the same cause.

     If stanza three can be thought of as one of psychological conflict, stanza six is best characterized as the emotional resolution of that conflict.  The last stanza is structurally similar to three because Dickey uses many of the same rhetorical devices to create an expressed closure for the narrator.  This stanza is one of the most interesting because the poet is very skillful at creating the figural from the literal, yet using a literal image as a symbolic one.  The first lines mention the detecting brother’s “…long-buried light on his lips” (L 61).  Dickey continues the theme of discovery as unifying action and plot resolution as the narrating brother’s figural-literal actions take on spiritual connotations as he says, “I fall to my knees / To bring up mess-tin or bullet,…” (L 62-63).  This stanza is composed of ten figural statements and two literal.  The lines, “To dig” and “At Nimblewill,” as if communicating short-hand in their own way, convey the literal actions of the brothers.  All other lines are metaphors or similes.  One does not “fall” to the ground, one kneels.  The three lines illustrating anaphora are composed of one literal and two figural.  “To bring up…,” meaning to retrieve, and “To go underground…,” meaning to dig again, creates the first half of the six lines composing this somewhat formal stanza (L 63-65).  The next three repetitious lines form an extended comparison of the narrator with one who has resolved his conflicts.  Comparison with the Whippoorwill alludes back to stanza three as the narrator says, “Still singing myself, / Like a hidden bird,…” (L 66-67).  The narrator extends the comparison of himself to one who has “renounced war,” or one now preoccupied with history, as he says, “…one who shall lift up the past,…” (L 68-69).  The last three lines of the poem express the speaker’s emotional transcendence of generational conflict.  Dickey again characterizes the closeness of such ties with the word “breathing” rather than ‘saying,’ as if in refrain, “‘Fathers!  Fathers” (L 70-72)!  The poet again plays on the ambiguity of the literal situation.  In poetry, to refrain means to repeat, yet the literal meaning is to resist doing something.  Here it refers to the sins of the fathers of generations past.  The word “Nimblewill” appears as the eleventh line of every stanza.  Dickey’s use of these primary rhetorical figures provides a gesture of closure concerning the narrator’s struggle with generational conflict.  

     The lesser rhetorical figures buttress the poem and reinforce its formal nature as these concepts create structural aspects which reinforce the primary rhetorical figures of the work.  Dickey utilizes six stanzas of twelve lines each as a basic scaffold for the poem.  Beneath this, figurative description, syllabic compression, enjambed stanzas, symbolism and refrain serve as a subtle means of creating heightened effect and unity.  However, dickey has deliberately characterized this work deliberately as one of indeterminacy because it lacks the complete set of final, qualifying elements which would make it strictly a formal or a free-verse work.  In one sense, the poem’s stanza structure and line count remind the reader of the formal ode form.  Compressed lines range mostly from three to nine syllables, range mostly from three to nine syllables, though have no strict pattern.  The lines themselves are not metrical and the author only uses enjambment twice as a means of drawing thematic material together, between the second and third, and the fifth and sixth stanzas.

     The idea of Reception Theory in literary criticism did not exist in 1975.  Therefore, when Jonathan Culler authored Structuralist Poetics, discussing the idea of resistance and recuperation of the literary work, this valuable source of scholarly writing was not available to him.  However, it would seem to be a logical move for any critical writer to assess the reception of the work in question.  “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” is typically given anecdotal treatment in scholarly literature.  The poem is not as popular as “The Firebombing” or “The Lifeguard.” James Dickey’s son, Christopher Dickey, recently deceased, refers to the poem as “…a moving poem…about (James) searching with Tom (his brother) through a forgotten killing field…” (Daily Beast).  In the readerly sense, however, the resistance factor would not seem very significant.  The work has been written using common diction explaining common actions.  The figurative gestures and formal features exert a complexity which exists just beneath the surface of the writing.  They do not confuse or complicate the reading process.

     If one were to examines the concepts of plot, theme and character in “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” the work would seem to exert strong narratological qualities.  The poem establishes a clear context through its title which describes the activities of the characters.  The poem has been structured with a beginning, middle and an end, roughly in pairs of stanzas.  One and two establish exposition.  Three and four illustrate conflict and establish an emotional quality.  Stanzas five and six can be thought of as climax and resolution.  The plot of this poem mirrors the binary qualities of the characters.  As I said earlier, there exists a political opposition which can be communicated as generational.  The brothers may or may not share the attitudes of the soldiers who had died on this battlefield.  Description of the plot in this sense is what tells the reader some form of opposition exists.  The plot of searching for relics is more or less a superficial plot created to facilitate the deeper plot conflict illustrated in their actions and the speaker’s emotive expressions.  The characters take on symbolic import as they are both literally brothers, though figuratively they represent all humanity whoever warred over anything.  Emphasis has been expressed through the younger, narrating brother and as such he becomes a catalyst of resolving the problem.  The central theme consists of the unifying activity of the historical search for relics.  Only through this sense of shared goals has the division between sides become less important.  

     The semantic and actional codes pervade the title of Dickey’s poem.  The multiple, colliding connotations of the words create a barrage of meanings that the reader gradually becomes aware of as they read the work.  Whereas “hunting” normally implies killing for sport, here the term has been used in the same sense as the domestic synonym for searching.  “Civil War” clarifies the historical, contextual focus.  Use of the word “relics” is an archaism which may signal the author’s attitude towards the warring attitudes of North and South.  “Nimblewill Creek” conveys the immediacy of the local, grounding the work in past and present, though as the author’s son said, is one of the lesser, forgotten battle sites of the Civil War.  As such, the title is immediately cultural-referential as well, drawing up notions of notions of early nationhood and sacrifice.

     The actional code is illustrated in twos senses in Dickey’s poem; first as a type of controlling action through the search for relics and all the routine actions associated with this activity, though also through the speaker’s internal actions as he conveys his thoughts pertaining to implied conflict.  The idea of the search, “hunting,” consists of the controlling actional code of the plot of the poem.  Each stanza contains a group of actions which can be thought of as controlling the mood of each one.  The first stanza illustrates actions which stress physicality; “moves,” “float,” “I come into this war,” “watching” and “enter” (L 1, 3, 5, 7 and 10).  The second stanza expresses actions which seen mostly visual and contemplative; “wanders, parting,” “dreaming hand,” “cry,” “seen,” “feel,” “regroup,” “burst,” “drawn” and “carry” (L 13-15, 17-21 and 24).  Stanza three consists of the most emotively vocal actions due to its centrality as an expression of the narrator’s psychology.  Here we see actions such as “bore,” “cry,” “cross,” “shifts,” “shout,” “pronouncing” and “changes” (L 26-27, 29-30, 32, 34 and 36).  Stanza five can be thought of as the turn of the poem, the rising action which precedes the transmutation of the speaker’s character.  The actions in this stanza predominantly shift perspective from the horizontal plane to the spiritual, alluding to the speaker’s vision of greater humanity; “climb,” “glows,” “listen,” “fight,” “hearing,” “singing,” “smiles,” “rose” and “stood” (L 37-38, 40, 42-43, 45-46 and 48).  Stanzas five and six being the emotive climax of the poem, both illustrate resolution of conflict and transcendence.  In stanza five the actions are “shot,” “kill,” “waited,” “create,” “stand,” ‘calling,” “throws,” “yells” and “holds” (L 49-52, 54-55, 57 and 60).  In stanza six, the actional elements return from the past connotations of the fifth stanza, returning the ‘light’ to the horizontal, human plane which characterizes its final transcendence.  The poet re-grounds the work within the search, an activity he personally shared with his actual brother, in this culminating resolution; “fall,” “dig,” “bring up,” “go underground,” “singing,” “renounces,” “lift up,” “breathing” and “saying” (L 62-66, 68-70 and 72).  The actional codes in this respect, operate as a way to characterize conflict through binary oppositions and then illustrate its resolution.

     Some actinal qualities are communicated through figurative gestures of poetic language, such descriptive elements operate as semantic codes.  Because they describe and are not literal, they are rhetorically semantic in that they add connotative elements to the context they are describing.  Such uses of figurative language are often ambiguous and metaphorical.  As such, they bear strong hermeneutic qualities because they conceal meaning through a literary enigma which forces thought, attention and reflection upon specific material.  In stanza one, “come into this war” is not literal, it is figural because there is no war taking place, only the conflict that exists in the psychology of the narrating brother (L 5).  The same connotations exist in the phrase, “…enter the buried battle” (L 10).  In stanza two, “No dead cry yet takes root” (L 15).  This line is doubly figurative in that “dead cry” cannot logically be conceived since only the living cry.  “Takes root” is figurative because qualities of voice do not have the organic traits of plants.  They cannot literally take root.  The idea that “The dead regroup…” expresses figurative action because the dead are inanimate (L 19).  The phrase “…battle lines be drawn” is figurative because in one sense the phrase is metaphorical, alluding to an undisclosed conflict among brothers, and in another sense, there is not battle to serve the purpose of using the phrase even n a figurative sense, unless to serve the author’s purpose of narratological conflict.  The war no longer exists and has become historical fact.  For the same reason, “…to include us,” operates in a similar way though it is not n action but a gesture of thought alluding to an action (L 22).  In stanza three the word “breaks” suddenly interrupts silence (L 27).  Silence is an idea, not a physical object which can be broken.  Use of the word “shifts,” here means changes audible form (L 30).  The phrase “shout of a shadow” is figural as inanimate objects cannot speak (L 32).  Equally literal, though used as a simile, “Lived-with, appallingly close—” describes the call of the Whippoorwill, though completely uncharacteristic for such a description, signals an ambiguity of inner conflict (L 33).  The phrase “…soul, pronouncing / ‘Nimblewill’” is figurative since it implies closeness or proximity to the idea being described, though souls cannot speak in the conventional sense of phenomena because they are a psychological construct (L 34-35).  The phrase, “…your being changes” is figurative description of the sensation of hearing the Whippoorwill call, though the phrase is used in an actional sense (L 36).  Nothing changes except in the mind of the speaker.  The figurative phrase, “A faint light glows / On my brother’s mouth” is stated, literal action, though implies that he has detected something (L 38-39).  The phrase, “…hearing the grave…,” is figurative because it is not possible to hear a grave (L 6).  The simile, “…as if / He rose from the dead…,” is equally figurative because this is scientifically impossible (L 45-46).  The idea of familial resemblances characterizes the phrase, “…stood in his grandson’s shape” (L 48).  The deliberate ambiguity here extends from the two brothers to include past generations (L 48).  It is deliberately not clear in this line whom is referred to, the brother detecting or a past relative.  Stanza five refers to the ‘buried war,” though wars as events cannot be buried (L 51).  This is merely a double-referent to the pastness of the war and the fact that proofs remain buried in the soil due to the passage of time.  Equally so, a phrase such as “the dead have waited here / A hundred years” is a gesture of historical unity and referential literality due to 1861 being 100 years prior to Dickey’s publishing the poem in Sewanee Review (L 51-52).  This is figural because the dead cannot wait in the same sense as the living wait.  The phrase “…create / The look on a man’s loved features,…” is figural as nothing dead can cause something to happen to the living in an actional sense (L 52-53.  The gesture merely means that relics are buried and that it is their discovery that causes a reaction on the detecting brother’s face.  The transitional lines of sixty and sixty-one express the figural, “…holds / A long-buried light on his lips” (Hall 99).  You cannot bury light nor hold it on your lips.  These line refer to the time which has passed without a response between the detecting brother and the narrator.  One cannot literally “…lift up the past” as no psychological concept can be physically touched (L 69).  The phrase “Not breathing, ‘Father” is a metaphor of transformation (L 70).  You cannot breathe another human being.  

     If the semantic code pertains to the descriptive elements of characters and setting within a work, then those of “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” mostly convey subtle qualities of the local and those nuances which communicate the human longing for resolution of political conflict through the experience of the narrator.  The title grounds the work within the context of the local.  The poet subverts this title through the various connotations it conjures.  The dramatic action tells a brief narrative of two brothers searching for historical artifacts in a battlefield of a past war.  The name “Nimblewill,” carries connotations of resilience.  However, this was not a decisive battle and it is not clear which side won the skirmish.  This may be Dickey’s point, though as the name of a battle it would seem to support the view of the surviving spirit of mankind.  To have a nimble will would be to possess a positive human trait.  One would have the ability of making quick-witted decisions, reasoned choices and self-control in battle.  The poem’s theme suggests this war divided the brothers and that this search for war relics acts as a catharsis for them to overcome the conflict, even though the dramatic actions of the poem take place in the contemporary setting, then, 1961.  The connotations of lines fifty-one and fifty-two imply that the political differences represented by the war is the origin of the conflict between the brothers as 1861, one hundred years prior to 1961, is the beginning and not the end of the Civil War.  From stanza to stanza, the connotations shift back and forth between brothers to illustrate their differing natures.  

     In the structuralist sense, “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” is a masterpiece, primarily because of Dickey’s skillful manipulation of language and his tactful placement of features which evade and affirm formal qualities.  The hermeneutic aspect illustrated in this work does not necessarily operate to conceal features of the text and has been used by the author as a subtle, yet intricate device which conveys poetic feeling.  When the hermeneutic code creates readerly confusion through ambiguity and a usage of language which is different from that of enigma commonly found in the application of the language codes to fictional narratives,  this as well is an illustration of attention.  Typically these involve employment of rhetorical figures, which I include in a broader sense in my conception of the function of the hermeneutic code in the study of poetry.  It is this sense of figurative language which makes poetry what it is, beyond merely being beautiful language or colorful description.

     The stanza structure of Dickey’s writing leads the reader to conclude it may be a formal poem, perhaps an ode.  There are six stanzas composed of twelve lines each, creating visual unity on the page.  Every eleventh line is a refrain of “Nimblewill,” the location of the setting of both the initial Civil War battle and the poem’s contemporaneous dramatic action.  The name is also associated with the Whippoorwill call described in stanza three, which Dickey uses to express the speaker’s emotions.  The phonetic qualities of the name of the bird are used to establish thematic unity.  Evenly spaced apart for structural unity, the sixth stanza communicates the resolution of dramatic conflict.  Enjambment between stanzas two and three, then stanzas five and six function to draw concepts together toward a specific end.  Here, the hermeneutic serves as a rhetorical device which pulls the stanzas together as a way to place emphasis on material.  The first time we see this is before the emotional confusion of the narrator witnessing the call of the Whippoorwill.  This tells us the catalyst of the conflict is the speaker and how he thinks of the historical-generational implications of the events taking place.  The sixth stanza being highly figural, signals the psychological spiritual transformation and epiphany.  Another hermeneutic aspect Dickey uses in this regard pertains to placement of character descriptions within each stanza.  There always exists an equal ratio of character reference in every stanza.  The first moves back and forth between brothers, one to another and back again.  The second illustrates a one to one comparison.  The third describes only the narrator’s psychological conflict.  The fourth has a focus on the detecting brother.  The fifth stanza illustrates a one to one comparison.  The sixth shows them also one to one, though unified in a different way.  In stanza five they are literally separated, one referenced in line forty-nine and one in line sixty.  In the last stanza the poet places them side by side in two successive lines in sixty-one and sixty-two.  The last configuration of this polarity of separation and unity is through an image of supplication.  Attention shifts back to the narrator in stanza six as he says, “I fall to my knees / To dig wherever he points” (L 62-63).  This last image of unity serves as an emotive resolution of the conflict, though a third term is introduced at the end, “’Fathers!  Fathers!’” (L 72).  The last four lines represent the culmination of the speaker’s awareness of his own feelings of conflict, smothered by the views of generations past, now resolved through this humanistic gesture in relating the experience to all people.

     How the speaker describes events, observations and emotions through figurative diction create some of the hermeneutic aspects of the poem.  The title and opening description of the brother holding a “…mine-detector’ suggest volatility and the idea that the conflict suggested in the title may still be present (L 1).  Equally so, “…into this war” has been used as a way of bridging both past and present, though in a language that includes the brothers as participants of some sort (L 5).  In fact, throughout the poem it is the connotations of Dickey’s language that suggest in a very protracted manner any of the clues which serve to guide the reader’s awareness.  Every stanza contains some reference to an aural feature of life.  The older brother is listening for a signal in stanza one and the contrast of little or no aural quality in stanza two.  The third stanza is the highly emotive bird-call scene which continues more or less in the background of the fourth stanza, shifting back to the signal listened for in stanza one.  Stanza five conveys the shout of the narrator given at the moment of discovery, though he parallels the experience with an act of renunciation.  His descriptions here are joyous; “calling insanely” and “yells in the pure joy of missing me,” seem especially suggestive (L 55 and 57-58).  “Watching his face grow deep / Between the earphones” is an indirect way to imply that the brother is listening (L 7-8).  Other aural words are scattered throughout the poem; “cry,” “bird’s cry,” “Nimblewill,” “voice,” “yells” and “singing” all suggest an aural quality (L 15, 27, 41, 55, 57 and 66).  It is also important to note that the very first aural quality is not mentioned until line twenty-seven when the narrator hears the call of the Whippoorwill.  The last sound in the poem is an implied call, though one with strong spiritual overtones as the narrator refrains, “’Fathers!’” (L 72).  Sound and silence, perhaps form an indirect binary opposition within the poem.  

     All rhetorical figures previously discussed can be thought of as hermeneutic effects of the poem, though structurally, stanza three and six, along with the refrain “Nimblewill” and “Fathers” constitute features which give the poem unity.  The first trait that strikes the reader’s awareness is odd, conditional phrasing in stanza one when the narrator says, “For I can tell / If we enter the buried battle / Only by his expression” (L 9-12).  The use of “For,” “If” and “Only” seem unusual and formally conditional usage.  This arrangement and choice of words forces the reader to question their use.  One would normally omit the word “For,” as an instance of economy of usage.  The word “If,” would normally be “when,” or some other word which makes the phrase grammatically correct.  One could also omit this phrase and the line would convey equal logic: ‘I can tell / We enter the buried battle / Of Nimblewill / By his expression.’ Logic remains in tact, though without effect.  These two, important stanzas offer counter effects of each other having opposite results.  Stanza three characterizes the narrator’s psychological conflict where the poetic devices connotate having one’s will subdued or coerced into submission through associational effects, such as one’s family members or locality.  During the Civil War, loyalty to either side was predominantly a geographic phenomena.  The three similes of stanza three have their emotional counterparts multiplied in stanza six, first in the form of anaphora in lines sixty-three to sixty-seven and then three more similes in lines sixty-seven to seventy-two.  Structurally, the return to the same material both, places emphasis on the previous stanza and what the speaker communicates, drawing attention to the narrators resolution of his feelings.  

     The cultural-referential aspects refer to the language and culture of the text.  Nimblewill Creek as an actual location of battle in the Civil War is difficult to verify.  Perhaps this is the reason Dickey places the hundred-year reference in the poem, both to ground it at the beginning of the war in 1861 and as a deliberate blurring of historical clarity.  This is one particular example where recuperation can help better understand authorial motives, though only if there exists a modification of the Structuralist method for this particular code.  Knowing the writer’s background and habits informs a reader’s awareness of the culture of the text.  James Dickey and his brother Tom, a Civil War munitions collector, often hunted for such relics in their actual lives.  Knowing this clarifies two aspects of context; one, the origin of writerly material, and two, the emotional center of what is communicated.  Knowing these facts, the reader would align Tom with the character in the poem described as listening for signals from his metal-detector.  James dickey would be aligned with the narrator of the poem.  This only changes a degree of the depth of one’s readerly perceptions.  Knowing correspondences does not effect the poem’s meaning nor how it operates as a work of art.  However, knowing these biographical facts slightly changes the reader’s understanding of conflict which is central to the poem’s plot.  Instead of understanding the political division as existing between brothers, the accumulation of those connotations in light of these authorial, biographic facts transpose the conflict and characterize it in a general sense as a political division of generations.  

     James Dickey also published an important essay in 1961 titled, “Notes On the Decline of Outrage,” which is an essay about Southern attitudes toward race-relations in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement (Babel to Byzantium 257-278).  Dickey attacks the idea of “Southern” identity that many among the populace claim, saying that they are not even aware of their own history as people.  Here, the poet makes direct reference to “Hunting Civil War relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Dickey describes the white Southerner as “…a collector of relics.  Accompanying his brother to the battlefield sites that surround the city, as well as to some others farther off in the country…” (BB 263-264).  The criticisms leveled at Southern society are also turned back on the writer’s family.  The essay attacks the psychology of living through emblems of war as a kind of neurosis of nostalgia for cultural supremacy.  Dickey criticizes the Southerner saying that he “…knows that the continuing power of the Civil War is not in those things but in its ability to dramatize and perpetuate a feeling about a way of life.  It is actually a symbol of his people’s defense of their right to be Southerners, and as such is more effective now that it has been at any other time during his own life” (BB 264).  The essay can therefore be understood historically as a simultaneous, literary effort to set forth a political polemic which magnifies the problem of racial conflict during that time in American history.  

     Symbolically, the theme can be characterized as generational, political conflict.  The use of brothers as a controlling metaphor of the poem is also used as synecdoche for the pair of brothers represent all humanity.  Psychologically, digging for the object associated with past division signals the narrator’s need to resolve conflict associated with the object.  In another sense, the symbolic action narrated through the work is restorative.  The brothers search together, representing the need to emerge from the experience being rid of the division of warring views.  The poem takes on a spiritual aspect in this regard because the writer characterizes the aspects of his transcendence with religious gestures; resurrection, humility and epiphany culminating in catharsis.  After reading the essay, the reader feels as if “Notes On the Decline of Outrage” is a criticism of Dickey’s own life.  Knowing that he and Tom literally participated in searching for relics shifts the notion of general, symbolic association to a more direct, autobiographical quality.  It is not clear from the essay if there was a conflict between actual brothers James and Tom, though Dickey’s words are a scathing indictment of the then prevailing Southern attitudes of the time.

     In his book, Structuralism in Literature, Robert Scholes outlines five indirect ways that Structuralism can play an educational role in the future practice of literary criticism.  First, Structuralism can enable scholars to have a clear sense of poetic discourse and its relations to other forms of discourse.  In the beginning of the end of Structuralism in its height of influence, there came to be a growing awareness of the text and process of reading as a detached literary activity.  Structuralism espoused the premise of having a preoccupation of attention as to how a literary work was constructed as well as the nature and character of the relationships of its parts.  Thus, the “post” structural shift moved toward the then new idea of Deconstruction, a discourse which tended to accelerate the analysis of the construct, mostly did away with discussion of relationship of parts and tended to focus on attacking the weaknesses of the grounds of the constructed literary object.  Therefore, one great correction a Structuralist poetics can offer the systematic explication of poetry is the examination of relationships among the parts of the literary work of art which make it what it is.  

     Scholes claimed that Structuralism can refine our descriptive terminology and our sense of linguistic process.  This is true even today because we have found in the attempt to develop a method for using a Structuralist poetics, the terminology and concepts of Semiotics were too confusing and unclear in their application for the explication of poetry as demonstrated on Riffaterre’s comparison between his own reading of “Le Chats” and that of Roman Jakobson’s.  if in my own application of a slightly different Structuralist theory on applied poetics partly based on the reputable work of Roland Barthes and his language codes as well as the work of Jonathan Culler, this different method helps others understand a little clearer the structural aspects of the work in question or the place of discourse itself for the future, then this particular poetics has made a significant contribution to literary history.  Our sense of linguistic process itself will have been altered especially in this regard because Culler chose specific linguistic concepts which clarified and further developed the true nature of Structuralist discourse as well as the role of the reader in all future discourse.

     Next, Scholes claims Structuralism can provide us with the best framework available to aid in the perception of an actual poetic text.  In the initial application of a Structuralist poetics, I cannot say that every subsequent application became easier or that I developed the literal writing in the same manner.  In writing explications of the poetry of Donald Hall, William Carlos Williams, James Dickey and Terrance Hayes, I developed sets of notes and outlines of concepts in a fairly consistent and systematic method, though none of them ever evolved as written products in the same way.  Each of them are unique contributions to the application of literary theory to the study of poetry.  

     Scholes also said that Structuralism can give new life to the oldest aspects of our discipline by aiding in the creation of a new philology and a new literary history.  Perhaps new literary historical dimensions can be revealed in new applications of these concepts for Structuralist poetics because they were never applied to poetry when they were first developed many years ago.  Each of the essays I have written using and developing this Structuralist poetics discourse engage the literary text in different ways and also reveal their qualities as uniquely individual.  Some of the aspects which result have similar qualities, though in each case I cannot say that one is ever a duplicate of the other.  

     Finally, Scholes says that Structuralism makes us keenly aware of the communicative aspects of the entire poetic process.  As Culler says of this aspect, writing does not exist in a vacuum.  Each writer and critic have their own motives and beliefs which in turn influence and shape the results of their applied methods.  In the process of explicating the text through other historical methods, Culler found one common problem as an exclusion of the reader’s experience of reading as a valid response to the text.  His concerns were outlined in his text, Structuralist Poetics, though are very different than the popularized version of a similar, more generalized discourse called Reader Response criticism.    

————-

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan.  Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature.  

     Cornell university Press, 1975.

Dickey, Christopher.  “Confederates in the Blood.” The Daily Beast, 21 July.  2015,     

https://www.thedailybeast.com/confederates-in-the-blood.

Dickey, James. “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Hall, Contemporary American  

     Poetry, pp.  97-99. 

—.  “Notes On the Decline of Outrage.” Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now.

—.  “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Sewanee Review, vol. 69.  No. 1, winter.  

     1961, pp. 139-141.  Universal Library, 1971.  pp.  257-278.

Hall, Donald.  Contemporary American Poetry.  Second Edition.  Penguin, 1971.  

Scholes, Robert.  Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction.  Yale University Press, 1974. 

-RJ-

JOHN TIMOTHY ROBINSON is a mainstream poet of inwardness from the Kanawha Valley in Mason County, West Virginia.  His 161 literary works have appeared in 111 journals throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Poland and Germany.  He is also a published printmaker with ninety-seven art images and photographs appearing in journals, electronic and print in the United States, Italy, Ireland and the United kingdom.

ARISTOTLE’S AFTERTHOUGHT, fiction by John Waddy Bullion

We were at Aristotle’s, waiting for our to-go order, when the woman spotted my father. She was standing on the other side of the restaurant’s main dining room, chatting with two men who looked young enough to be students at the university, and sipping beer from a plastic cup emblazoned with the Aristotle’s logo: a muscular cartoon Greek god, sawing into a steaming slice of pizza with an exaggeratedly large steak knife. Just then one of the prep cooks behind the front counter twirled a disc of dough so high it nearly skimmed the pressed tin ceiling, drawing hoots and whistles from the mostly college-aged crowd, and when the woman turned toward this commotion, her eyes—which I could tell even from a distance were much, much bluer than my mother’s—settled not on the pie-hurler in question but directly upon my father.

The woman slid one of her suitors aside and began threading her way through the clots of customers bunched near the main entrance. “Hey there, Professor,” she said when she reached us. “Long time no see.” Her voice was low and cool amidst the racket of chatter bouncing off the brick walls, which were the same buff gold color as the building on campus where my father had taught English for nearly two decades.

“Yes,” my father croaked, a bewildered expression passing across his face as the woman playfully pinched the elbow patch of his corduroy jacket with her red-tipped fingernails. She opened her mouth to say something else, but before she could speak she was interrupted by a loud cheer that rippled through the restaurant. The Cardinals were playing the Astros on several TVs mounted high from the ceiling. John Tudor, the Cards’ ace during the previous year’s World Series run, had been scuffling all season, but on this late August night he’d not only managed to out-duel the legendary Nolan Ryan, he was even contributing at the plate; the instant replay now showed several different angles of Tudor legging out a bases-loaded single. The woman tucked her beer cup under one armpit and clapped her hands vigorously, the golden liquid inside sloshing but never spilling.

 “Been following their fortunes this year?” my father asked, the knot in his voice loosening slightly.

The woman gave him a wry smile. “You know me,” she said, moving the beer out from under her armpit. Her body was hard and rounded beneath her white cherry-print dress, and she wobbled a little in her tan heels, flexing her softball-sized calf muscles. Two clumps of pastel-painted toenails peeked through the openings at the tips of her shoes. 

“Still listen to Jack Buck call every game on KMOX?” my father asked.

“Best background music there is,” the woman replied. She blew a loose strand of bright blonde hair off her cheek and locked her startling blue eyes onto his. 

They stared at each other like this for several more seconds. Then the two of them turned to look at me.

“This yours?” the woman asked my father, like it wasn’t patently obvious. Same egg-shaped head, same baby face, same part in our hair, although his had more grey. 

“Definitely mine,” my father said.

The woman hunched down to my level, leaning in so close that I could see the spots where the thickly-applied coat of red lipstick went outside the natural boundaries of her lips. “Does he have a name?” 

“Gaylord,” I told her flatly. The name did not embarrass me yet. The official line was that I had been named after a beloved relative of my father’s—a long-dead uncle that just happened to share a name with his all-time favorite baseball player. 

The woman beamed as she raised up out of her crouch. “After Perry, right?” 

“Bingo,” my father nodded.

“The knuckleballer,” she said, with delighted recognition.

The Spitballer, I wanted to correct her. Phil and Joe Niekro, the other old farts still kicking around the majors, those were the knuckleballers. 

“Hardest pitch to learn,” said my father, one side of his mouth twisting upward. He knew she was wrong, too, but he was making himself believe her.

“But once you figure out how to throw a knuckleball,” the woman said, “it’s the hardest pitch to hit.”

Their conversation was exhausting to follow, slipping in and out of hidden codes and charged glances. My parents communicated this way sometimes, but only in the midst of an argument; instead of screaming at one another, they would flash small signals of disgust and aggravation, postponing the real fight because I happened to be standing there, bearing witness. But whatever was going on now between my father and the woman was different. I could feel myself fading in and out, present one minute, completely invisible the next.

“Can I have my quarters?” I asked my father.

He did not remove his eyes from the woman’s. “May I.”

“May I have my quarters?”

My father heaved out an exasperated sigh. “As I told you on the ride over, whatever loose change was in the cup holder you could have.”

“There was just pennies in there.”

Were just.”

“What’s he need quarters for?” the woman cut in.

“He wants to play arcade games,” my father told her. “That’s the only reason he comes here with me.”

“Well, I don’t have any change,” the woman said as she reached down into the top part of her dress and extracted a dollar bill. “But you can hand this to the nice man behind the bar in the other room and he’ll give you something shiny in return.”

The bill had been folded over four times, with a faint indentation from where it had nestled in the warm curve of her cleavage.

“What do we say?” my father prompted. But his cheeks were flushed, and his voice had been drained of all authority.

    Dollar in hand, I hurried away from my father and the woman and approached the mahogany-trimmed bar, wedging myself in between two coeds sharing a medium sausage-and-onion, twirling hot gooey mozzarella around their forks like pasta. My mother hated the way Aristotle’s legitimized eating pizza with utensils, but my father believed this was the way it was meant to be consumed, cheese and toppings sliding off sirloin-thick dough like molten lava. He always had to have a slice there, at the restaurant; he claimed it just didn’t taste the same once you brought your cooled pie home. My mother remained dubious. “You only go there to drink beer and hit on college girls,” she had declared one night earlier that summer, as my father and I were leaving the house to pick up our extra large black-olive-and-pepperoni. At first, I thought she was serious. But her eyes, the color of an old pair of blue jeans, were playful and mocking as she looked him up and down in ruthless appraisal. For all the grief she gave my father, my mother never stopped us from schlepping off to pick up our pizza, because she couldn’t refuse the nearly two hours of blissful solitude that a trip to Aristotle’s always involved.

The bartender took my offered bill without a word. While he worked the register, I eavesdropped on the two college girls seated on either side of me. Neither one of them noticed me; the TV above the bar occupied their full and undivided attention. John Tudor was back on the mound to start the fifth.

“Tudor hasn’t been the same since he sliced up his hand,” the first girl said, between mouthfuls. She was referring to an incident that had occurred after the final game of the World Series the year before, when Tudor, despondent and furious about his poor performance in the loss, had punched an electrical box fan in the clubhouse, badly maiming his pitching hand in the process.

“I read somewhere that one of his old teammates called him up after a game in May,” the second girl said, scraping all the toppings off her slice, then nudging them into a steaming pile with her fork. “He had noticed something in Tudor’s pitching motion—Tudor used to let his leg hang in the air for half a second, but now he’d started dropping it immediately.” Her golden-brown leg made a soft ripping noise on the stool’s cushion as she pantomimed the wind-up. “Tudor never even realized he’d changed his mechanics. So he let his leg hang again, and he won the next twenty games in a row.”

The first girl got a sour look on her face, as though this information—not the pizza—had given her heartburn. “Okay. Then what’s his excuse this year?”

The second girl shrugged. “Maybe something else he shouldn’t be doing?”

“Maybe,” said the first girl. “Or maybe he shouldn’t have punched that motherfucking fan.”

These were the women my father should’ve been flirting with, I thought, not some dolled-up ninny who couldn’t tell the difference between Gaylord Perry and the Niekro brothers.

The bartender reappeared and sprinkled four quarters into my palm. “Here you go,” he told me with an affronted frown before shuffling off to take another customer’s order.    

There was a bank of arcade games along the opposite wall—a shoot-‘em-up, a driving game, and two pinball machines—all surrounded by a pack of preppies who were laughing and toasting one another with cups of beer as they rotated turns on the coin-ops. I had no trouble picturing these Joe Colleges in my father’s classes, skimming used textbooks that someone else had already underlined and turning in papers with tweaked font sizes to meet his page count requirements. But the woman in the cherry-print dress was a different story. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t form an image of her in any kind of academic setting. But my father spent his every waking moment up on campus, so the woman had to be involved with the university somehow. She must’ve been support staff, I finally decided, one of those happy worker bees who brought donuts on Fridays and made sure that all those absent-minded humanities professors got their pay stubs twice a month.

I gave up on waiting for a turn at the arcade machines and set off wandering aimlessly past rows and rows of crowded booths. In the summers, Aristotle’s became a faculty hangout, a place for professors to buy pizza for their kids and bottomless pitchers of beer for themselves. Now, with fall classes starting up, all family units had been exiled to this back room, where parents and children huddled around narrow, graffiti-bombed tables, hacking away at their slices with forks and knives, holding conversations that would’ve registered as shouting matches in virtually any other setting. 

At the end of the long line of booths was pair of flaking, crooked saloon doors with a letterboard sign bearing the message WE COME TO THE AFTƐRTHOUG T ROOM propped next to them. Pushing the doors open, I entered yet another dining area, this one gloomy and badly-lit, with no knick knacks lining the walls, just industrial shelves buckling under the weight of cardboard boxes gone fuzzy with dust and neglect. Somewhere in the darkened room, a crackling radio had been imprecisely tuned to KMOX. Jack Buck’s warm, belchy voice bobbed in and out of the static. 

At first I thought the hulking black box at the far end of the room was a busted piece of kitchen equipment, an oven or a fridge, some unwieldy slab of an appliance that had been put out to pasture, its warranty long expired, until I spotted the faded Galaga logo on the side of the cabinet. A secret arcade machine, positioned with its screen facing away from the entrance—Aristotle’s staff members probably snuck back here to blow up space aliens on their smoke breaks. Perhaps they treated the Afterthought Room like a secret club, and you had to toss a thousand flat circles of dough into the air before they told you about it. 

I zigzagged through the haphazardly arranged tables, which were crammed so close together I could’ve walked straight across if not for all the chairs stacked on top of them. But as I rounded the corner of the machine, I nearly bumped right into a black boy who was hunched over the controls, slapping the fire button with the palm of his hand. I stopped in my tracks, my sneakers making a high-pitched squeaking noise on the bare concrete floor. The boy turned to face me and the game continued behind him, the spaceship darting and shooting on its own.

“The hell are you?” the boy demanded. His voice was a gravelly gurgle, as though this was the first time he’d spoken out loud in a while. Bulldog jowls bracketed his mouth, which was set in a grim pucker. His ears were tiny twists of skin, little balloon knots on each side of his round head, and his hair was shaved so close he was practically bald. He wore greasy-looking high tops, jean shorts, and a plain white t-shirt with a large hole in the shape of a smiling mouth on the collar. There was a sour odor coming off of him, undercut with a faint aroma of mothballs.

“Me?” I plunged my hand into my pocket and gathered the quarters together into a tight disc. 

“Don’t see nobody else around,” the boy said. “What’s your name?”

I told him. 

“Gay Lore?” he repeated, a puzzled look on his pudgy face. “What kinda name is Gay Lore?”

Lord.”.

The boy chuckled savagely. “Lord is right. Lord, I ain’t never heard a name like that.” He nodded at my pocket. “What you gripping so hard, Gay Lore?” 

I took out my clenched fist and reluctantly displayed the four quarters. The boy peered at the coins in my palm. His lips split open in a crooked grin. “We can play for real now!” he exclaimed.

“It’s my money,” I said, yanking my hand away.

The boy’s face clouded with fury for a moment before settling back into a sneer. “Then I guess you going first, Gay Lore,” he told me, “but soon as you lose, I’m playing.” 

I brushed past the boy and fed a quarter into the slot. The game snapped to attention with a bright burst of digital fanfare and a tiny, jagged spacecraft materialized at the bottom of the screen. The boy took up a position just over my left shoulder, his hot, stale breath fogging the back of my neck as brightly-colored alien insects began their attack. 

I hammered the fire button, spraying out a barrage of shots. Soon all of my enemies had vaporized into little pixelated plumes. 

The machine issued a peppy chime.

Shit,” the boy muttered. I couldn’t tell if he was impressed, or angry. 

In stage two, a half-dozen stray bugs managed to avoid my errant gunfire. They regathered in rows at the top of the screen and began to float down as if they’d been winged. One made a swooping maneuver and slammed into me from behind.

The machine blurted out a sound of computerized annihilation.

“Next man up,” said the boy, jostling me aside with a hip-check. Something hard and knobby in his pants-pocket jabbed into my pelvis. 

“I’ve still got one life,” I grunted, holding on to the joystick and fire button as his hands smothered mine. His rough palms scuffed at my knuckles like sandpaper. My ship—our ship, now—had magically repaired itself after the backdoor kamikaze attack and was wobbling back and forth as we battled for the controls.

Almost instantly, a big blue alien horsefly zoomed in and sucked our rudderless spacecraft into its deadly tractor beam.

“Goddamn!” the boy bellowed. “We just lost because of your dumb ass!” He took his hands off mine and shoved me so hard that I tumbled to the floor. 

“It was my game,” I said, pain swirling through the part of my hip where I’d been poked by the object in his pocket.

Right then, a bomb of distant applause went off in the main restaurant, and Jack Buck’s voice broke through the fuzz on the hidden boombox. “Another nifty bit of hitting,” Buck exclaimed, “by John Tudor, of all people!” The game, which I hadn’t exactly been following all that closely outside, now seemed to be taking place on another planet, a feeling that only grew stronger as the radio’s ambient ballpark sounds—the crowd’s rhythmic applause, the jaunty organ music, the hum and pulse of the stadium—were reabsorbed, one by one, into the sizzling static.

The boy thrust his hand into his pocket, where it began grinding away like a small rodent at whatever was inside. “You still got three quarters left,” he said, gesturing toward me with a bent elbow.

“No,” I said, my voice firm.

The boy took a step closer, leering above me. “What’d you say to me?” he snarled, eyes bulging.

“No,” I repeated, but less emphatically this time, just quoting myself.    

The boy withdrew the object from his pocket, displaying the serrated blade of one of the restaurant’s plastic-handled steak knives. He started moving in my direction, his bulldog face cold and stubborn. I sat there frozen to the spot on the concrete floor, watching the knife drift toward me until it was almost level with my neck, so close I could make out a blot of dried dishwater on the silver. 

That’s when my father came bursting through the saloon doors. 

He looked strangely rumpled, grey-brown hair askew, shirttail hanging out, corduroy jacket loose around his shoulders. The boy dove behind the arcade machine, dropping the knife on the floor between us with a clatter. My father squinted into the darkness, but he couldn’t see the two of us through the thicket of upturned chair legs. 

The saloon doors swung open again and the woman in the cherry-print dress entered the room. Within seconds, she and my father began kissing, not in the brisk, official way that my parents kissed, but hungrily, greedily, furiously. Then my father hoisted the woman onto one of the tables, wobbling a pair of overturned barstools like struck bowling pins, and the hem of her skirt peeled up, her bare thigh kneading against the tabletop as she wrapped her legs around his hips.

I couldn’t blink or move or even breathe. All I could do was watch my father’s back, grateful that the hem of his corduroy jacket went far enough below his waistline to partially obscure the strange business that his hind parts were engaged in.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the encounter was over, and my father, his back still facing me, was tucking himself back into his khakis and the woman was smoothing her dress over her hips. They embraced once more, and the woman clasped her hands around my father’s neck, standing on tiptoe as if to whisper a secret to him. Instead, she bit his earlobe and giggled. Then the woman smiled and blew my father a quick kiss over her shoulder, her blue eyes flashing like ice as she stepped through the saloon doors.

My father fished out his pocket watch and stared at it, mouthing off the seconds. I counted with him, silently breathing out the numbers, my heart romping in my ears. When he got to fifteen, he slipped the watch back into his jacket and left the Afterthought Room.

“You see that?” said the boy in a hoarse whisper after what seemed like forever. “They just fucked.” He crept out from behind the arcade machine and hopped up onto one of the nearby tables, idly dangling his legs in mid-air. For the first time it dawned on me that he was just a child—he might have even been younger than me. 

“You ain’t never seen fucking before, have you, Gay Lore?” he asked me, more observation than question.

I didn’t say anything. The inside of my head was howling like the static on the radio. I stared at the spot on the floor where the boy had dropped the knife. If I lunged, there was a good chance I would be able to grab it before he could. 

“This girl came in here one time,” the boy was saying, “she had on these little short-shorts.” His once-gruff voice was suddenly full of warmth and fondness, like he was speaking to a younger brother, or like he was in love. “The dude she was with had her bent over that table, right there.” He pointed out the exact spot with his index finger. “The girl, she pushed them shorts to the side and that old boy just went after it.” He shook his head, marveling at the memory. “Pussy got lips, like a mouth. Bet you never even thought about pussy before, have you, Gay Lore?” 

The boy slid down off the table, walked up to the knife, and sent it skittering across the floor with a swift kick, burying it beneath one of the shelves with a sharp metallic clang. “You post up in here long enough,” he told me as he made his way back toward the arcade machine, “you gonna catch somebody fucking. Trust me, I’m here every day. So stay and chill awhile. Play some more Galaga with me. Hell, you ain’t even need money. I figured out how to play for free. Wanna see, Gay Lore?”

I got up off the floor and tried to brush the grit off my arms, but my hands felt heavy and clumsy, like I was wearing gloves. I had no absolutely no desire to see whatever the boy wanted to show me, but I also didn’t want to go back outside—not yet, because for all I knew my father was lingering just beyond the saloon doors, dawdling at the bar or chatting with a colleague he’d recognized at one of the tables in the back. I needed to give my father time to return to the main dining room, so that when I went looking I would find him waiting in his customary spot beneath the TV by the front entrance, with a piping hot pizza box—extra-large black-olive-and-pepperoni, one slice missing, like always—balanced on his fingertips as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. 

“When it’s in demo mode,” the boy was saying as I stood beside him, “you not supposed to play. You supposed to just watch. But the fire button still works.” He tapped his finger on the button. Sure enough, the ship fired. “Whoever made this game left that mistake in there by accident. You can shoot all you want to during the demo.” He blew up a few bugs to demonstrate, not even bothering with the joystick; the spaceship handled all the movements on its own, swerving gracefully to avoid enemy fire. 

“That ain’t even the best part,” said the boy. “Watch what happens when the big blue fly tries to suck you up.” 

After about half of the enemies had been cleared, the blue horsefly banked down toward the craft and unleashed its tractor beam. “When he does that,” the boy said, “you start shooting like crazy.” He launched a frantic volley of shots and the fly exploded into smithereens before it could ensnare the spaceship. The boy’s hand flew to the joystick and the craft responded—when he moved left, it moved left; when he went right, it followed.

“See?” he said excitedly. “Blow that bitch up, and you get to play for free.”  

But he was only able to play for a short time before the images on the screen jittered and then exploded into neon hieroglyphics, before going completely dark.

“Don’t worry,” the boy assured me, hooking his thumbs into the stretched-out belt loops of his jean shorts. “It does that every time. Sometimes the game lets me play a real long while, other times it crashes after a couple seconds. But it always starts back up again. Just gotta give it a minute.” 

The boy stood there with his chest puffed out, and a goofy, snaggle-toothed smile plastered across his face. Who knew how many hours he had spent in the Afterthought Room to gain this useless bit of knowledge, this hollow feeling of outsmarting the world. Stealing steak knives from the silverware bins and catching random adults in the act might have helped him pass the time, sure, but the real reason he camped out in here, day after day, was to play a broken-down old video game, to see how far its glitch would let him go. And suddenly I knew that the longer I stayed in that room, the harder the boy was going to try to make me his disciple—he needed someone he could share this lonely, lethal boredom with.

“I have to go now,” I said, breaking into a run.

“You can’t leave,” the boy shouted after me as I stumbled through the dark maze of tables and chairs. But he made no move to chase me down. By the time I reached the saloon doors, he was still parked at the game’s controls, leaning his bulldog face around the corner of the machine and yelling at the top of his lungs, his voice harsh with desperation and menace. But his raspy screams now fought for purchase amid cross-currents of outside noise from the restaurant: peals of laughter, clinking utensils, garbled PA announcements, and the reverberating echo of half a dozen televisions all playing the same Anheuser-Busch commercial at once. 

I was halfway through the doors when I glanced down and realized I’d been unconsciously balling my right fist in my pocket. I took out my hand and unpeeled my fingers; the three remaining quarters had embedded themselves so deeply into my skin that I had to pry each one off with a fingernail. I pinched the coins together into small stack between my thumb and forefinger. Then I turned and flung them back into the Afterthought Room, like I was tossing them down a wishing well.

My father and I drove home in silence, the Cards game murmuring on the radio, our pizza cooling in the back seat. As he steered our Volvo down Jacomo Boulevard, a wide, blighted strip of cracked pavement and faded lane lines, I stared out the window at all the downtrodden homes, their dead grey lawns studded with children’s toys, car parts, and office furniture. I wondered whether the boy lived in this neighborhood. I tried to imagine his life. Would his house be clean, or grimy? Would the showers have curtains? Would the doors have knobs? Would the lamps have shades? And what about the boy’s family? Did he have a mother, a father? Did he have brothers, sisters, cousins? Did he have anyone that cared about him? I didn’t know the answers, couldn’t fathom them. Maybe it was better that way. 

My father brought the car to a stop at a red light, pulling alongside a bus shelter where an old black man, his hair as white and fluffy as cotton, sat on a bench, gripping the leash of a dog that looked part coyote. The man stared at us bitterly. So did his dog.

You’re here now, their eyes seemed to be saying. Don’t pretend otherwise.

After a moment, the man stood up and tugged on the dog’s leash, and the two of them hobbled down the buckled sidewalk going in the opposite direction.

The driver’s seat squeaked as my father relaxed. The light had been green for a while, but he hadn’t seen it change. I turned to him to catch his attention, so we could get moving again. 

That’s when I noticed the smudge of red lipstick on his right earlobe.

“Dad?” I said. “You’ve got something on your ear.”

My father glanced up at the rearview mirror. “Ah,” he said, as if lipstick was exactly what he’d been expecting to see there. He licked his fingertips and patted the stain away. “Thank you, son,” he told me, smiling flimsily. 

He goosed the accelerator and we continued down Jacomo, through a pitiful-looking commercial district full of salvage yards set back behind high razor-wire fences. Dusk was settling in, and as lampposts began to flicker tentatively up and down the street, my father leaned over to boost the volume on the car radio. Todd Worrell had come on to start the eighth, and Jack Buck was going on about how John Tudor had derailed the Ryan Express on the mound and at the plate, throwing seven strikeouts and notching two RBI singles. Now Tudor sat on the bench, with a hump of ice strapped to his shoulder. 

“Tudor’s hand got all the coverage in the offseason,” my father said, “but that shoulder’s been giving him trouble all year. Bet you anything his pitching adjustment is what caused it. Cards might have to shut him down soon.” 

“Yeah,” I mumbled.

My father chuckled abruptly, a sudden spurt of friendly laughter. “Maybe Tudor should learn to throw a knuckleball,” he said. He fiddled with his seat belt, adjusting it with his thumb. There was a dark slash of sweat across his shirt where the shoulder strap had been. 

“Maybe,” I said, after a moment. “Or maybe he shouldn’t have punched that motherfucking fan.”

While I waited to find out whether I had said that last part out loud, I reached down into the cup holder and grabbed a handful of pennies. All that time spent beneath sweating sodas and steaming coffee mugs had left them slick and scummy. I nudged the coins around my palm with my index finger, and as the car passed beneath a streetlight, in the brief gleam I noticed that one of the pennies had an Indian head engraved on it, next to a date that read “1903”. That had to be worth something, I thought. 

-RJ-

John Waddy Bullion’s fiction has appeared previously in the Texas Review, Five Quarterly, and Cowboy Jamboree. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife and daughters.

LET ALONE A FATHER, fiction by Cody Sexton

The change was gradual.

At first he didn’t want to believe it. But now he was unrecognizable even to himself.

He had what appeared to be a fungal network of hives growing just underneath the skin and his body had become amorphous, almost translucent.

Already his vision was beginning to blur. He could barely make out the shape of his own daughter as she stood before him.

He could feel his mind beginning to go as well. He was having trouble remembering things. At odd times he would become aware of being in a room he didn’t know how he got into or why. Large chunks of time would even go missing altogether.

His daughter had been supportive in the beginning but she also knew that before long he couldn’t be trusted. He wouldn’t even know her. He would only know hunger. He would be left with only the most basic of instincts. Survival would be all that mattered then.

He too knew that eventually he would become a danger to her. He knew he would be a creature that would only wish to consume that which is smaller than itself. 

And then one day it happened.

Her father was gone.

At the time she couldn’t have known the danger she was in as she entered her fathers room to help him greet the day as she had done so many mornings before. But there she found him slithering up the wall near the window. 

“Dad?” She whispered.

Suddenly, as if based on sound alone, it noticed her in the room and came after her before she had time to articulate a response.

It wrapped itself around her like folded paper and began to digest what was contained between its folds.

Soon she would become nothing but a green pool of liquid spilled out onto the floor of her fathers bedroom. Sooner still, would what remained of her father, make its way out into the world. 

-RJ-

CODY SEXTON is a book critic and lead writer for athinsliceofanxiety.com where he chronicles his lifelong obsession with the written word. He has been featured at The Indie View, Writer Shed Stories, The Diverse Perspective, Detritus, and As It Ought To Be Magazine.

4-HOUSE, prose poetry by William R. Soldan

Everybody’s got a role / a gig / a hustle / to get them through this / guys scrubbing sneakers with a toothbrush  / or riding the iron / keeping you creased / pressed & fresh for when you see your girl / tatt man shooting / laying lines down the row / another making soot & mixing ink / another collecting / one on each corner spitting 6-5s in code taps & whispers / guys at the microwave / fixing up a break just to get a taste / ‘cause the state stripped their books naked / chow hall boosters crotching loaves & cake / sacks of sugar packs & rotten fruit / to brew up a batch of lockbox hooch / psychotics in the med line / stocking up like rocks for a speedball foxy on Friday night / ones who get a visit / downing or stuffing a rubber glove / packed with smoke & dust & rainy day sunshine / every other week brought in off the street / even guards got their game / this & that / & then there’s the little ones / baby-face boys / turned into shower toys / the ones that like it / & the ones that don’t.

-RJ-

William R. Soldan is a writer in the Rust Belt. He is the author of the story collections In Just the Right Light and Lost in the Furrows, as well as the forthcoming poetry collection So Fast, So Close and two more books of fiction. His work has been published widely online and in print, some of which can be found at williamrsoldan.com if you’d like to read more. He currently resides in Youngstown, Ohio, with his wife and their two children.