Congratulations to our four
Scintillating Starts Winners
Frank Joseph, Susan Keller,
Chris Muniz, and Deborah L. Stauton
and Honorable Mention Winner, Julie K. Royce
Suggestion: Enjoy these stories.
Bookmark this page. You may want to come back and reread this collection.
TO DO JUSTICE
By Frank Joseph
Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS
Ever since I’m little I be wondering who my momma is.
It ain’t Jolene. Jolene been raising me but I ain’t her blood. She remind me of it every chance she get. Picked me out of a trash pile one day, that’s what Jolene say. Like a maggot out of a garbage can.
If I be trash, I say, why you done it? Jolene say she just teasing, I be worth real money, check for $102.80 on the first of every month. Call it her Pinkie check. Long as the Welfare keep sending the Pinkie check, that’s all she care about, Jolene.
Jolene just laugh when I ask about my real momma. One day I be finding her though. See if Jolene laugh when that day come.
Jolene don’t treat Bettina no better than me even though Bettina be blood and flesh to her. Bettina ask who her poppa were but Jolene pretend she don’t hear. Poor little thing, Bettina, bumping into things like she do. Jolene say Bettina born with a caul, that be why she so clumsy. I know better though. Bettina can’t help it. Be something wrong inside her head. She plenty smart all right, just something inside there don’t work how it supposed to, like a doorbell is busted or a toaster don’t pop.
All Jolene care about be the money though, $102.80 a month for me and $94.73 for Bettina. And Bettina be worth more when she turn nine, Jolene say, worth as much as you gal, $102.80 a month. Then when you turn twelve, you be worth $106.35, and Jolene grin.
No wonder Jolene so happy when she talk about the money. We her most valuable property. That’s why I got to protect my baby sister best I can. Bettina be my most valuable property. Till I find my real momma, Bettina be the closest thing to kinfolk I got.
Should of protected Bettina better though, the day things got turned upside-down.
That day, must of been a hundred degrees out. Jolene say Gal, you ain’t seen hot yet. Wait till it get August, then we’ll see about hot. She sitting in the window all the while, electric fan blowing in her face.
Pinkie she say, you feel all that hot, go cool off in the hydrant with Bettina. That’s what folks do in hot summer, open a fireplug so kids can play. Can’t go to the Taylor Pool, been closed years. Hear they’s city pools open in other parts of town but not on the West Side. City of Chicago don’t spend no money here. Trash sits in garbage cans till it turns ripe. My school, Galileo, it got holes in the roof. Walk down the wrong hallway while it be storming and you get wet without never leaving the building.
Be too hot to watch TV even. I put on flip-flops and cutoffs. I can play in the hydrant if I want. I ain’t twelve till September.
Outside, sun be like a furnace. Fireplug be spraying every which way, onto the cars, grownups too. Plenty grownups on the street. Some’s cooling off they own selves, laughing like they kids all over again.
Bettina sing out Pinkie! Come on in! I slipslipslide on the street tar. Don’t care if I slip and fall, the cold water on my hot neck feel so good.
Bettina go chasing a Frisbee. I shout out Careful gal, don’t get yourself hit by no truck, but it so much fun splashing around I forget to keep an eye on her. Forget about Bettina altogether till I hear the siren.
Be a squad car, blue cherry spinning around. Cop call Bettina over. He one of them greaseball Italians run things around here. Walk around smoking cheap cigars and acting like they own it all. Hear the Irish and the Polish got the cop racket sewed up in other neighborhoods but around here it be the dagoes. Doubt if the colored be in charge in any part of town.
Don’t know why this fat pig go bothering an eight-year-old colored gal though. I walk on over, ask what’s up.
He say, Who you?
He say to Bettina, That so? Sure don’t look like you two be kinfolk. Tell me little girl, what for you got a white sister?
“She colored too,” Bettina say, sticking up for me.
Cop look me over. Maybe you is at that he say. Little bit at least.
I ask what Bettina did. Cop say he just trying to get information.
“Then ask me,” I say. “I be twelve in September.”
Cop turn from Bettina and smile down. I seen all kind of cops in my life – angry cops, tricky cops, cops that act friendly till they get what they want. Think this one be the last kind.
Been complaints about the hydrant he say. Going to have to order it closed.
“It’s a hundred degrees out Mister.”
Cop say be against city law to open a hydrant. Say you leave a hydrant running, ain’t going to be enough pressure to fight a fire. Say anyhow the fire marshal want it closed so he done called in a fire truck. Going to close it whether you kids like it or not.
Cop ask who opened it in the first place. I wouldn’t tell and get someone in trouble even if I knew though I surely don’t. I say we just trying to stay cool on a hot day. Cop say baloney, everyone on this street be knowing everyone else so tell me who opened it if you know what’s good for you. Give us one of them cop looks. Bettina, she scared, but I know better. He just a wop in a cop suit, throwing his weight around. I take Bettina by the hand and walk her back home.
Half an hour later the fire trucks roll in and things start going crazy.
As a newsman in the ‘60s, Frank Joseph covered the Detroit riot, the Democratic Convention disorders and many street explosions in Chicago. His first novel TO LOVE MERCY won the Eric Hoffer Award. Stories and poems have been published in Oyez Review, Scribble and elsewhere.
By Susan Keller
Image provided by Susan Keller
Like a distant constellation, my CAT scan only glowed with a scattering of malignant stars. So dim compared to the first images—four months earlier—fearful in their blinding brilliance. Today, the cancer had been eclipsed. But what good is remission in a lymphoma that spins back into a single-minded orbit to retake what it once nearly destroyed?
There was little time to find a donor to save my life.
Known affectionately by her staff as the 007 Girl, my Ukrainian oncologist’s voice wavered.
“I’m sorry. Neither of your brothers’ stem cells are a match.”
I swallowed hard against the panic rising in my throat.
“What can we do?” I whispered.
“We will search the international database for an unrelated donor.”
My jaw tightened. I could die from the transplant of a non-sibling’s stem cells almost as readily as I might without them. But I didn’t have a choice; a donor had to be found, fast.
Days later Dr. Greyz, the beautiful 007 Girl, phoned: There were no matches in the database.
“Fuck it,” I thought. Anyway, I was sick to death of the chemo, the nausea, the needles, and the hospital rooms. I hated the whole damn thing.
“We will find someone. Without a new immune system…” Dr. Greyz trailed off.
I took in and then let out a long breath. “I have another brother.”
“What? A third brother?”
“Yes, but I don’t know where he is.”
“Oh. Find him. You must.”
“Johnny dropped out. He’s off the grid.” I wasn’t sure if she understood “dropped out” or “off the grid.”
I hadn’t seen Johnny in thirty years.
When he was born, our parents’ marriage was not only on the rocks, it had washed out to sea. When they brought him home from the hospital, he didn’t have a name. We called him Baby. The afternoon the hospital social worker telephoned, needing his name for their records, I pressed the receiver against my belly and shouted to my mother barricaded in her bedroom.
“The hospital is calling. They need a name for Baby.”
“I don’t care.”
“What should I tell them?”
“Call him John.”
John was the new name my father used. I didn’t know why he went from Bill to John, but people now referred to my dad as John or Jack. Calling her new son John was anything but a term of endearment. Perhaps the name was meant to punish my father for the horrible night when I’d seen him on top of her. He’d pushed her down on the kitchen table. She was yelling for me to get a neighbor. I was too humiliated to move.
However Johnny came into being, his childhood was drowned in her loathing. She didn’t touch him except to hurt him. I never saw him sit on her lap. Never saw her kiss him. Or even smile. He didn’t speak until he was five. He was shy and guarded. For years, I tried to shield him from her blows and disgust. She glared and told me I didn’t know anything. But maybe I did.
My mother claimed Johnny was rebellious and secretive. Likely true, especially as he got older. As a teenager, he hid snakes and grew marijuana in the garage until she discovered them and threw him out, just days after he’d graduated high school. He left for Huntington Beach. We didn’t see each other; but I called and wrote. His responses were infrequent. Meanwhile, in my twenties, I also struggled: To go to school. To support myself. To not get fucked over by life and strangers.
The last time I phoned Johnny, the void between us was palpable and painful. He surfed, meditated, and took drugs. Lived somewhere, somehow rent free. I didn’t want to know. He shocked me by talking about illicit, back-street dealings with people I would never, ever want to encounter. I loved him, but his life deeply saddened, frightened, and alienated me. He was gone. It was way too late to help him anymore.
How could I tell him that I’d graduated college, was happily married, adored my daughter, and owned a house? Unwilling to revisit how our wretched childhood had warped me too, we quickly ran out of things to say. Convinced that I needed to be the wise, elder sister, I couldn’t share my own ineffective ways of coping with the past: being a job-and-stress-driven insomniac, drinking too much, exercising fanatically to undo the effects of alcohol and sleeping pills. I still wanted to protect and guide him, but didn’t know how except by being strong, capable, and ultimately distant.
In that last conversation, he’d mentioned an ashram in Oregon and said he might move. Months later, I phoned him. The number was disconnected. Now, only he could sustain our relationship, and he didn’t. We had grown so far apart that there was no way to know each other anymore. To be sister and brother. Family. When I thought of him, I felt grief-stricken and guilty. I suspect it was the same for him.
I was now fifty-five and had been sick with a rare, aggressive, and frequently fatal lymphoma. My current remission was a brief respite after which even bigger guns would be aimed at me. Bigger than the chemo I’d endured. Bigger than the septicemia that almost killed me. Bigger than the steroid-induced psychotic break. Soon, radiation would darken those last malignant stars; and chemicals would dissolve my immune system. Only compatible stem cells could restore it, and me, to life. Johnny was my only hope for a nebulous chance of survival.
Truthfully, after all this time, I was afraid to find him and be preyed upon yet again by our shared heartbreak. Why would he want to see me either? Too many cruel memories. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can bear to be in the same room with them. But I had no choice if I wanted to live.
Susan Keller’s poetry has won prizes in local and national contests. Her story, Daisy Chain, was published in The Reading Hour; and personal essay, Foodie, was published in Ray’s Road Review. She is currently completing a memoir and a novel.
By Chris Muniz
Image provided by Chris Muniz
When it was dry and shriveled and colored like the stem of a mushroom, Grandfather took the umbilical cord from the boy and buried it beneath the horse corral, wrapped in cotton, sprinkled with the pollen of corn. Even though it was winter, the ground frozen and the air dry and full of pain, Grandfather shoveled as deep as he could, his sweat rising like a mist beneath the orange moon, the horses watching from the safety of their stalls, night-eyes patient and calm. Later, in bed, with the wind and coyotes wailing at the stars, Grandmother would ask why he didn’t bury it with the sheep like the others, and he would answer, “I think he’s going to be a wild one like his daddy.”
“Don’t say that,” she whispered, as if there were spirits who might overhear and change their minds about whatever fate they had in store for him.
“It’s not up to me.”
The boy was born with the pale Spanish skin of his grandmother, his hair and eyes black and coarse. They called him Michael and many nights Grandfather would whisper stories to him as he held the child against his chest, waiting for the calm of sleep. He would whisper about their people and their clan, the tinde, bear people and the power they had as such, people who understood medicine, who knew mountains and streams and canyons, plants and trees, animals. He would whisper visions of the boy’s future. Visions Grandfather would share with no one else. He told the boy that witnessing the beginning of a child’s journey was like witnessing the birth of a god.
Later, in the same year he was born, the boy would find himself face down in a patch of cold earth, blood on his lip, the grit of sand against his skin. He was trying to cry like an animal but his voice was too soft and the sky too empty and wide; he looked confused, big eyes and bald head moving with the wobble of new muscles, looking as if he were struggling, attempting to piece it all together. He lay across the arm of his mother in an abandoned cornfield, a prairie of broken yellow stalks trembling and whispering the chant of some forgotten ritual. His mother lay next to him, a tangle of hair and shadow, arm over head, leg flung to the side. She’d been hit with a sledgehammer of a bullet and it had knocked her flat, eyes glossy wide, unfocused.
Behind them stood a man in a shooter’s stance, his legs spread, arm outstretched, handgun for a fist. The barrel was smoking and the bullet-crack of the pistol was clapping its way downriver as the man held his pose in a way that seemed as if he were exhaling all that had come before him. And he was exhaling, a long drawn-out breath of grayness curling off the barrel of his mouth as if he burned with some inner fire inexplicably hidden until now. He stood there like an uncoiled snake, a sculpture of stone pride and power for all the world to see, his face angled towards the flat horizon, autumnal light falling to the south.
But these details, these images were things the boy would never know. He would grow older and would be forced to imagine the man who killed his mother and in his mind he would see a man with the wiry, tight body of the hungry, muscles of rope, tunnels for eyes, a cow-skull jaw. There would be the image of closed fists, clenched teeth, an emptiness near his ribs. The boy would dream of a man haunted by ghosts, gnarled roots and crooked skeletal figures rustling in the trees wherever he went, a metallic taste in his throat, a buzzing in his head, war dreams and restless ghosts trailing him the way they had his father.
But these things would come to pass much, much later. Instead, all he felt lying there beside the stiffening skin of his mother was a sense a coolness he’d not felt before, an emptiness beyond hunger, an ache to be touched, held, spoken to. He had no words for these feelings, only the urge to cry out in baby-pain and a primal fear of human shadows.
Chris Muniz is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California in the Literature and Creative Writing program. His critical and creative work center on the intersection of race, identity, and culture in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and American West.
LIKE A KNIFE IN MY HEART
By Deborah L. Stauton
Image drawn by the author’s daughter.
“Mama, wake up, wake up Mama!” The bright September sun cuts through the room from the skylights above the bed.
“Ok Honey, just a few more minutes. Mama’s tired.”
“Mama if you don’t get up by the time I count to ten, I’ll get a knife and cut you.”
The sleep instantly retreats. Clear-eyed and focused, I report for duty immediately. But she is already gone, her defiant little steps echoing across the cold kitchen tiles. I blink and she’s back, standing in the doorway gripping a steak knife in the same hand that created the rainbows and butterflies that hang on the fridge in the same kitchen that houses the knife now gleaming in the morning light of my bedroom.
I inhale slowly, swallowing hard over the un-nameable emotion in my throat and stride with false confidence toward my daughter and the knife. My arm moves swiftly as I snatch it from her small hand. Her grip loosens, her jaw slackens, she surrenders.
“Go get ready for school now” I tell her.
She obeys, the damage is done, her need temporarily sated. She sings as she zips up her backpack, a little girl getting ready for school like any other. I watch her through wary eyes, questioning everything I’ve ever known.
And later she watches me through the small, rectangular window on the bus, peering out with something akin to satisfaction tinged with regret. I am grateful for the respite as the bus lumbers down the street carrying my child into someone else’s consciousness. But even the respite has a price. Heading back into the empty house I prepare myself for the next step.
Sophie’s therapist has been coming to the house once a week for almost two years. Before that we drove an hour each way to see her first therapist who was funny and down to earth and who assured me that there was no need for concern. When I saw the colorful business cards in my pediatrician’s office a year later, I decided it was time for a fresh perspective. If therapist number one was not serious enough, therapist number two proved to be much too grave in her assessment of Sophie’s issues. Almost every session included the grim words, “She’s a very ill girl.” Sophie wasn’t yet in Kindergarten and I was being “reminded” weekly of just how “ill” she was. Another red flag was the response I had come to expect and dread whenever there was an improvement. Each time I reported something positive, I was advised not to get my hopes up because it wouldn’t last. I internalized her negativity and approached each interaction with her with a pervasive sense of anxiety. Today is no exception.
I dial the number and attempt to keep my shame at bay. The therapist’s voice immediately weakens my façade. My own voice falters as I bear my soul. She is all professionalism. Any trace of camaraderie a faded memory.
“You need to take her to the psych ward today.”
I blanche. “She did it for a reaction,” I tell her. “I’m certain of it.”
“You need to take her to the hospital,” she repeats without hesitation.
“But I know my child best,” her own words form my desperate plea.
“Are you saying you know more than the experts?” she asks.
“No,” I tell her, “ but I know my child best.”
“If you don’t take her, I will have to call Child Protective Services.” The tenuous thread between us snaps.
On the way to the hospital my cell phone rings. Alerted by her therapist, Sophie’s psychiatrist has no words of comfort or support. She simply says, “You have two choices. Take her to the E.R. or check her in to South Oaks, the local psychiatric hospital.” I inform her that we are on our way and hang up. My natural instinct toward respecting authority fades with the sound of her voice
The familiar pediatric E.R., a place of empathy and concern, no longer brings the sense of relief I felt upon entering its doors with a feverish infant. The long, cold hallway leading to the psych ward is quiet and spare, the nurse’s plain, gray scrubs a stark contrast to the colorful, teddy bear-themed ones worn by the bubbly and perpetually smiling nurses in the “regular” children’s E.R. She stops at the end of the hall and three large men with short hair-cuts and muscled biceps emerge from a door on our right. Sophie clings to my leg. Dom takes my hand.
One of the men asks, “Is this the six year old?” The nurse nods and the men, like a pack of pit bulls, step forward in one slow, deliberate move. Sophie’s grip on my leg tightens, her bravado stolen by “hospital protocol.” The men try to engage her but she pushes her face into my thigh, willing them away and triggering every mothering instinct I ever imagined I could have. Their massive hands gently peel her miniature ones from my body, guiding her toward the door. When she looks up, her eyes, like a Margaret Keane painting, singe my soul.
A meaty arm points to a door across the hall and a male voice says, “Go in there,” the only words we’ll hear for the next 2 hours. The room is a small, rectangular windowless box. We sit in near silence, the image of those three hulking men with my tiny girl, a continuous loop playing in my mind like an old, silent movie.
When an older woman opens the door and beckons us to follow her, it is nearly ten p.m.. A young male psychiatrist and female social worker greet us with smiles in a well-lit office. Relieved, I immediately sense that we are no longer “suspects” and proceed with complete transparency, eager to be heard. As Dom and I catalogue the day’s events along with all pertinent psychological and behavioral history, it becomes apparent that they not only understand but agree with our perception of the situation. Ten minutes later they bring Sophie out and tell us that we are free to return home. She is neither a threat to herself nor anyone else.
Sophie bounces into the hallway with her shoes in her hands. She appears completely unfazed by the evening’s experience and oblivious to the trauma it has caused us.
“Mommy, they gave me pizza and let me play video games. Oh yeah, and they took my shoes. Let’s go home now.”
“Yeah Soph, let’s go home.”
The following day, I call her therapist.
“We were there for hours. They told us that she posed no threat. They sent us home.”
The smile drains out of my voice when she says, “You know, the only reason they didn’t admit her is because they didn’t have enough beds.” And then, as if to affirm her own assertion, she adds, “She’s a very ill girl.”
Deborah L. Staunton’s work has appeared in The Sondheim Review, Writers’ Journal, Sheepshead Review, Mothers Always Write, Meat For Tea, The MacGuffin and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She has written child development materials for Harcourt Learning Direct and is currently working on her memoir, Between Love & Madness.