A Review of Len Joy’s American Past Time

Len Joy's Novel, American Past Time

A Review of Len Joy’s American Past Time

by Jody Hobbs Hesler

Len Joy’s debut novel, American Past Time, is part time capsule and part baseball love affair. The title itself promises this (baseball is considered an America’s pastime, and this novel takes place in America’s past). It hearkens to the American hunger for the major leagues and the good life, spanning twenty years in the lives of the Stonemason family – from the post-war world of 1953 all the way to the summer of 1973.

Readers might expect such a nostalgic look at America to take a too-narrow, Mom-and-apple-pie approach, but Joy avoids this pitfall. What readers get instead is a steady-on account of a gifted ball player, Dancer Stonemason, first as he is poised on the brink of what might be a glorious career in the majors, next as he reckons with the more tortured day-in, day-out existence of a factory job in the 1950s American South, and beyond.

The first section of the book belongs to Dancer. The point of view shifts to his wife, Dede, in the next section, and finally to that of their two sons, Jimmy and Clayton, in the third and final section of the novel. Joy chose a pivotal twenty years to cover in his work. His characters reckon with pressures at the workplace from the Ku Klux Klan, the shocking (especially at the time) discovery of a wife’s lesbian lover, stories of the Civil Rights Movement,= and evidence of the slow changes it brings, a son going off to Vietnam, cancer, and more.

The Stonemasons’ many struggles, failures, and triumphs parallel the challenges and changes of the nation throughout these same times. But we start simply, with Dancer’s pure love of baseball: “He had a hand built for pitching – a pancake-sized palm and long, tapered fingers that hid the ball from the batter for that extra heartbeat” (2).

One bright day in Maple Springs, Missouri – a week before Dancer is scheduled to sub for a major league pitcher and get his chance at the big leagues – his wife and son come to watch him pitch. Everything he loves is in one place. Even the weather cooperates with Dancer’s optimism: “The sky was great-to-be-alive blue” (18).

Before the game, Rolla Rebel team owner, Doc, advises Dancer to go easy on his arm to keep it fresh for next week, and they plan to pull him after a few innings. But as the game promises to become legendary, fellow Rebel and veteran catcher, Billy Pardue, tells him, “You want to stay up in the Bigs, remember this – respect the goddam game. Play every game like it’s your last” (17), echoing Dancer’s own desire to honor his love for the game and continue.

As the innings progress toward what will become Dancer’s one perfect game, the community watching seems to unite in awe of him: “As he walked out to the mound for the seventh inning the crowd was eerily quiet, as if they were afraid the cheering might upset the baseball gods” (20-21).

Afterward, clouds roll into that “great-to-be-alive blue” sky. Doc lets Dancer know he can’t fill in for the major league pitcher anymore because he exhausted his arm, but surely he would get another chance. And Dancer takes heart. “It was a perfect game. No one could take that from him. … No matter what else happened they would always have that game. That moment. And Doc was right. He was young. He’d get another chance” (27). That innocent trust in the future sets up the disappointment and aching nostalgia that follow Dancer, and really all of us, after a peak moment we never know will be the last of its kind.

Dancer’s legendary game buys him a few years of low-level local fame, but we learn soon afterward that “the problem with his arm had developed the spring after the perfect game” (29). Dancer takes a better-paying job, pouring steel at the Caterpillar foundry, and the weight he gains in muscle mass, according to Doc, “might have thrown off his mechanics” (29). Whatever the cause, clearly nothing will be the same for Dancer again.

Soon Dancer is nobody’s hero anymore, and the work is hard and unrelenting. On the job, Dancer faces pressure from the owner’s son to attend Ku Klux Klan meetings. At home, his wife and two sons need more than he seems able to provide. He starts drinking with his best friend, staying out later and later. Everything starts slipping. Eventually, his wife Dede fears, “Things were never going to be normal in Maple Springs. Dancer was broken. … [E]very time she got a little bit ahead, Dancer would end up knocking that rock back down the hill” (199). All evidence seems to doom Dancer to ultimate failure. But sometimes, when second chances happen, they don’t look a thing like what you would expect.

This novel is a paean to the American Dream, not the showy upmarket commercial full-of-promises version, but the sort of dream you gain through trial, error, toil, and endurance. In Len Joy’s American Past Time, Dancer Stonemason rebuilds his dreams against the backdrop of a country doing the same thing.

Len Joy, American Past Time. Hark! New Era Publishing, LLC, 2014: $5.99


Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, Charlottesville Family Magazine, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, and others. You can follow her at jodyhobbshesler.com or on her Facebook writer page: Jody Hobbs Hesler – Writer.


Jackie Trieber

from ‘A DANCER’
By Jackie Treiber

And from eternal life found in the eyes came the truth: she was one witch. She was from Atzlan. Of Avar, wore the bridal relic, sat at the heels of mother fire. Mary A. of Massachusetts, little unclear Mary. Celine of Normandy, sick on milk. Joan of Arc. Strega. Lost in the woods in her red shoes. Caught in the rain at the base of a mountain. No survivor of death, survivor of transcendence. Torched, entombed, excised. Acrid climate, cupidity, war, drought. In lieu of an oral lineage, in lieu of explanations, there came the gift of death to her. When death was collective, she was anonymous. When death became individual, she died with little handfuls of dirt on her chest, thrown with purpose and care. Her conclusion was more than physical death now, and her body nothing more than a reed carved to sing its masterful song. This is why she stood resolute—she had known a thousand floods of death. This, out of all of them, was nothing.

Today’s excerpt appears here with permission from the author.

Jackie Treiber writes, reads and edits in Portland, Oregon. She is drawn to conflicted and damaged characters. Dualities such as profane/magical, masculine/feminine and stability/chaos thrill and inspire her. Her poems will be published in an anthology of Kansas City poets in Spring 2015 (UnHoly Day Press). Her most recent work was featured in Smalldoggies Reading Series Chapbook (2011).

Editor’s Note: Today’s excerpt is part of a larger work of fiction, though it stands on its own as a poem, blurring the line between prose and prose poetry. From within its almost choral narration (despite its third person narrative perspective) emerges one woman who is also every woman. She is a witch, a bride, Joan of Arc. She is our collective suffering, our recurring death. And yet her story is epiphanous. Because she has suffered, she knows that she can rise above. She has lived—and died—often enough to know that death is nothing more than metamorphosis.

Want to read more by Jackie Treiber?
Work poems
How Do We Look?
#11 Socially Acceptable Cannibalism
We burned John Wayne’s favorite yacht

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat

Lena Divani Seven Lives

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat
Translated from the Greek by Konstantinos Matsoukas

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous internet cats. Put aside the grumpy one, the cross-eyed one, the dwarf one with extra toes, the one who slides through empty boxes. Let’s get the hard part out of the way: This is a novel from a cat’s perspective, offered up at a time when cats have gone strangely viral. But unlike so much hipster-cat culture, this work takes itself seriously.

Indeed, Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat (translated by Konstantinos Matsoukas)—smart, earnest, and not without a healthy dollop of  whimsy—comes closer to anthrozoology than anything to do with a cheezburger.

Welcome to a world in which humans are given names like Madam Sweetie or The Damsel, and our protagonist—a stark white stray on the last of his lives—is called Zach. Cultured and articulate enough to merit entry into the feline intelligentsia, Zach leads the reader through his consciousness with the cadence and tone of a Liam Neeson or Jude Law, something deep, whisky-stained, and British. Perceptive, literate, and not so subtly arrogant, our narrator understands from the moment he’s born into a feral cat colony that he’s destined for greatness, and in his first breath decries his mother and his siblings as lesser-than.

Zach sees himself as a muse in the making, seeking to position himself as the newest entry into the canon of cat/writer relations: “According to all credible sources, all writers, great and small, talented and mediocre, have been good friends to us. Edgar Allan Poe, Colette, Balzac, Patricia Highsmith, Emmanuel Roides, even the demented Philip K. Dick, they all drew inspiration from us.” His literary aspirations lead Zach to accompany two well-to-do writers in their Athens flat, where he attempts to edge his way into their hearts and writings.

But humans are a challenging breed: We overcomplicate, we go against nature, we don’t open ourselves to others. “Your delusion that you are masters of this universe has become plain ridiculous, already,” Zach tells us. “You have made your life unlivable. You’ve become suspicious. You are scared to touch humans in case they bite your arm off. You are friendless. And thus, you have need of us. Whereas we once approached you for food, you now beg us for some sustenance for your deprived soul.”

Yet Zach has mythologized these complexities in such a way that he wants nothing more than to earn human love. He indicts mankind in one breath, then romanticises his particular human in the next.

And therein lies the heart of Seven Lives: That to love is to observe, often without understanding. To let those observations not interfere with affection but to strengthen it, to challenge its simplicity, to acknowledge imperfections as a part of the adored. That perhaps those we love most are always a foreign species, in one way or another, subject to study and examination through the curious act of loving.

The cat’s love in Seven Lives is pure and fearless, but never uninformed. We readers could take from this a lesson or two: how the smallest of encounters can mark others in profound ways; how we may judge in abstractions and love in specifics. In its quirky, unapologetic way, Divani’s novel is a lesson in considering the needs, the wants, and the perspectives of those utterly unlike ourselves, and how that consideration makes us yet more capable of empathy, more capable of becoming increasingly attuned to our own experience. And ultimately—if we may say so without insult to our feline friends—more human.

Lena Divani, Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat. Europa Editions, 2014: $15.95.


Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiotNerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Brenda Hasiuk’s Your Constant Star

Constant Star_Hasiuk

A Review of Brenda Hasiuk’s Your Constant Star

by Will J Fawley

Brenda Hasiuk’s YA novel, Your Constant Star, opens the first of its three sections by introducing readers to Faye. Adopted from China by a Polish mother and a Scottish father, Faye is “pretty much happy ho-hum.” Still, she possesses a lingering feeling of displacement in light of being adopted, especially in regard to the frequency and state of child abandonment in China. Faye provides many lovely cultural details throughout her narration, such as the Chinese story of lovers being connected, however far apart they may be, by a red string. These details make Faye a believable and compelling character.

Next readers meet Bev, Faye’s self-proclaimed sort-of friend. Bev is pregnant and has decided to give her child up for adoption. She has recently returned to Winnipeg after living in Vancouver for many years, and is reconnecting with her childhood and with Faye. Much of the novel’s second section follows Bev in her attempts to choose the right adoptive parents for her baby, with Faye tagging along for the ride.

The third section is dedicated to Mannie, the father of Bev’s baby. He seems completely lost, though readers learn that he has given up carjacking and dealing to make pizzas in order to earn legitimate money that will help support his future baby. Bev doesn’t want him to know who the adoptive parents are, and part of Mannie’s quest concerns his efforts to contact Faye and learn of the whereabouts of his son after the adoption takes place.

There is a gravitas about the book that is still with me. I enjoyed the first two sections, but the third was a bittersweet sucker-punch that made it all meaningful and terrible and beautiful. We are left with the idea that “what’s most beautiful and what’s most brutal are just two halves of the same whole.”

Overall, this is a book caught in liminal spaces – between beautiful and brutal, between cultures, between times, and between genres.

As for the cultural divide, there is a clear focus on globalization. It seems like no two characters in the novel have the same background. They are Chinese, Polish, Scottish, Métis, Russian, Argentinean, Pilipino, and they are all, with one exception, Canadian. Characters are constantly being whisked around the country and around the world to China and Russia, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver. Still, this is a very Canadian novel, a very Winnipeg novel. It is a novel about Canada and how the country, and Winnipeg itself, is a melting pot of cultures from around the world.

This is also a novel that spans not only distance, but also time. It is full of flashbacks and daydreams. Present events always seem to be fuelled by memories. Hasiuk weaves a web of time that pulls the reader through these characters’ lives, giving us an intimate look at their complexities. The flashbacks are so many and so smooth that the present becomes a bridge between memories, the reader scarcely realizing they’ve crossed it until they are on the other side, looking back. Though this could be confusing or slow the pacing, Hasiuk handles these instances beautifully, successfully adding layer upon layer of depth to these characters and their histories.

And as for the genre divide, Kirkus Reviews published a piece in which the book’s YA classification was questioned, because so much depends upon the teenagers’ parents and situation in life, leaving them little room to act. And while these characters may be affected by the past, they feel liking living, breathing teens in the present. Certainly it’s important to remember that people are a culmination of their pasts and their families, and therefore what Brenda Hasiuk provides in Your Constant Star is an honest look at young people’s lives.

The novel reads very clearly as one for young adults, a book about the struggle of young people finding their place in a complicated, globalized world in which they have been displaced since birth. Each character is halved by culture, by distance, by borders, and is searching for their true self at the other end of the red string.

Brenda Hasiuk, Your Constant Star. Orca Book Publishers, 2014: $12.95


Will J Fawley is a writer and blogger living in Canada. He blogs at The Wildest Edge.

A Review of Patrick Lawler’s Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds

Patrick Lawler Rescuers of Skydivers

A Review of Patrick Lawler’s Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds
by Jennifer Dane Clements

Not long ago I saw a photo collection: Two brothers who took one picture every year in the same month, the same pose. They did this for decades, their entire lives distilled in these portraits. In 1994 they wear matching sweaters. In 2001 they look unkempt. Each photograph asks the onlooker to imagine what happened between each set of images–why did he lose weight, why wasn’t he smiling more. The positioning grows expected, even stale: older brother here, younger brother here, chair, table, lamp. Except, as we grow closer to the now, we see the paint has started to chip on the wall, and the lampshade was replaced, and somewhere, somehow, two young boys grew into men.

The framework remains unchanged, the details shift in the smallest of ways. But the overall effect creates nostalgia for suggested things, unseen things, palpable just beneath the surface.

It’s a difficult thing to accomplish, and it’s what Patrick Lawler’s first novel, Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds, spends its pages exploring: The spaces between and underneath. The economy of storytelling. The onus on the viewer to participate in unpacking questions, and meanings, and movements.

Composed in a series of tightly wrought chapters–some a mere three sentences long–the story follows a young narrator and his family, in a small, anonymous town, with small, anonymous descriptors. They seem to both live in and hover over the landscape. The important things are named and renamed, redefined as they change–or as the narrator’s perspective on them changes. Those named things become the notable landmarks of the novel, their evolution or transformation or renaming emblematic of the narrator’s own journey and perspective on those around him.

Lawler says it explicitly: “Our stories repeat themselves endlessly around us–ultimately revising who we are every time.”

It feels at once like reading the same chapter over and over again with certain words replaced, but this heightens the effect of those changed words and phrases. The same photograph, with things just a little older, a little changed. We begin in “the year they named the streets after the elements,” moves into “the year my parents began speaking in a strange language” and “the year we practiced for emergencies.” By the end, the repeated frameworks have become as nostalgic as old photos — in them, we see the history of all the shifts the narrator and the reader have together experienced. And in the rare deviations, we see the narrator looking beyond, departing: “‘This is where we are,’ he said, but his mouth was filled with uncertainty.”

The reader is forced to consider her own story in patterns and revisions, in names and malleable perspectives. I consider my own: The year that smelled of pool water and talcum powder. The year our neighbor’s daughter asked Santa for a penis. The year I drove in circles hoping to get lost, and failing. How best to crystallize time and experience in ways that approximate truth.

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds is a poet’s fiction, but it’s an artist’s fiction too—because the brevity and economy of language makes the act of reading this novel something beyond reading, because the entire work seems to meditate on how we live in words, how we cohabitate with them in our daily routines and use them as mile-markers for landscapes past. How eventually, we become symbols of the lives we live, and how the uncertainty of detail grants us room to explore.

Patrick Lawler, Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds. University of Alabama Press, 2012: $15.95.


Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. She has been published in WordRiot and Nerve and her plays have been produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Recipient of the John P. Anderson Award for Playwrights in 2004 and of a 2006 Fulbright fellowship to the Slovak Republic to teach English at the University of Constantine the Philosopher, Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. She lives with her husband in Washington, DC.

A Review of Delaney Nolan’s Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans


A Review of Delaney Nolan’s Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans

By Christopher Lowe

Early in the title story of Delaney Nolan’s chapbook Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, the narrator describes winter in New Orleans as “barely a bruise.” As I moved through the collection, I thought again and again of that metaphor. I thought of bruises and winters that leave a mark. Nolan’s New Orleans is a bruised place, and it is inhabited by bruised people.

The pain of a damaged place is there in the eight stories of this collection. Physically, the New Orleans of Shotgun Style is still marred by Katrina. There are leveled houses and FEMA trailers, and the pain of those physical realities is at play, but the real pain, the pain that gnaws at the reader, is in the characters themselves. It is a pain that is rooted in loss. One of the best stories in the collection, “Little Monster” brilliantly illustrates Nolan’s skill with handling this loss. In the story, the main character finds a small monster in the gutter, takes it home, feeds it, cares for it. When it dies the next morning, she buries it by the river. The story is short, just three pages, but there is a fully formed narrative movement in that space, a shift from the strange allure of finding a monster to the graveside mourning of the final paragraph. “Little Monster” is a story that doesn’t reference Katrina, flooding, hurricanes, or even New Orleans. It is simple and direct, but there is an undercurrent of pain that throbs below its surface.

Nolan frequently pairs pain with desire. The characters in Shotgun Style yearn for something beyond themselves, something that they can’t articulate, something that may not even exist. In “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil,” an unnamed narrator takes a job where she must contact people who have taken out classified ads and convince them to let her video them while they show off whatever it is that they’re selling. Her company will air these videos on public access for a portion of the sale. At first, she struggles with this, unable to connect with the people she calls. Eventually, she learns how to get a foot in the door. Once she’s inside their homes, watching them through the camera lens as they describe their possessions, desire takes root. She wants something from life, and she can see it, just out of the corner of her eye, as she’s videoing these people. She says, “I was looking for something. You would have been looking, too. I hadn’t found it in my family, in my sister… But I almost found it on that tape….” There is something out there in the world – call it connection or love or friendship – that she wants to grab hold of, but the only tool she has for accessing it is a camera.

There is a frustration, too, that mounts for the characters in Shotgun Style. It is frustration born from loss, from blocked desire, from lack of that “something” that the narrator of “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil” is searching for. The beauty of the collection is in Nolan’s ability to take that frustration and pair it with a something more complex, something that hints at the possibility of healing, the possibility of connection, the possibility of “something.”

The final story in the collection, “Ninth Ward Hunters” is a brief piece, set during Mardi Gras. The narrator dances alongside a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. She moves with them, tries to keep up. By the end of the story, her dancing has become something new. It is part funeral dirge, a lamentation for what is lost. As they move closer to the Ninth Ward, she says, “…now there’s nothing to see. Just government trailers. A bunch of overgrown lots. Just a bunch of empty space where something used to stand.” They are dancing toward this emptiness, and there is remembrance for what was there and for what was lost, but the other part of the dance is something else, something more complicated. A resurrection. “So we dancing towards it to fill it up,” she says. There is pain in that filling, but there is determination as well—a ferocity of intent. When she says, “Me, storm-wrecked, land-drowned, teeth out sharp like the right kind of animal: come to defend what’s mine,” we can see how it looks when the bruise begins to fade.

Delaney Nolan, Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, RopeWalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize, 2012.


Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.

Andreas Economakis


by Andreas Economakis

(It must have happened while I was asleep.) I awake suddenly, short of breath and out of sorts. The dream I was having flutters away before I can grasp its meaning. I look around the dark room. It is still night. Or is it? The neighbor’s dogs are barking, the birds are singing, the Mexican lawnmowers are mowing the chemical green lawns, I can hear the din of morning traffic filtering into my small West Hollywood cottage bedroom. That’s when I realize that it is day. Heart pounding wildly in my chest, I rub my eyes and slowly open them again. Darkness. Electrical darkness. It’s as if someone has placed a couple of dark grey blinders in front of my eyes. The blinders pulsate constantly, a lightning storm that refuses to budge no matter how hard I rub my eyes. Nausea and fear quickly creep their way into my every fiber of my being, my intestines twisting into a sickly knot and forcing their way up my throat. I struggle out of bed, swiping spasmodically at my cat who is rumbling on my chest. I close my eyes and smack my skull with my hand, hoping to dislodge the blinders. I open them up again, slowly, tentatively. Nothing. What the fuck? Tears of panic stream down my cheeks, down my invisible frozen cheeks.

I feel my way into my small bathroom with urgency, flicking the light switch on instinctively. A ring of yellow light appears in my peripheral vision. Like a halo. Like a big neon zero. I splash water on my face, hoping, praying. Nothing. I stare into what must be the mirror. The same dark pulsating electrical storm stares back it me. Mocking. Oh god…

Backtrack. Did I do something wrong before I went to bed? Did I drink too much or smoke too much or maybe eat something bad by mistake? Did I insult someone or something I shouldn’t have, thus unleashing a wrath upon myself? What have I done to deserve this?

At a loss for what to do, I crawl back in bed. This is obviously a bad dream. I will wake up from this nightmare and everything will be okay. I click my fingers furtively, pleading for the cat to come back and keep me company in my distress. The cat doesn’t come. I close my eyes, convincing myself that things will be all right when I wake up. The lights will be on, my girlfriend will be home, my cat will be purring at the foot of the bed. Life will be normal again. Glorious, visible life. I drift back into a restless dark sleep, drift into the dark, drift…

–Andreas Economakis

This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.

Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.

For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.

Andreas Economakis

A Strange Omen

by Andreas Economakis

I click the light on.  The metal-caged light bulb sputters to life, scattering velvety brown moths into the musty darkness of the cement basement.  The smell of petrol, rot, old magazines and damp dirt fills my nostrils.  I take a halting step down into the urine yellow light, concrete pebbles crunching under my sneakers.  I can feel the dampness of the room on my bare legs, the blackness of the room’s corners and cavernous depths, monsters hiding in my subconscious, hiding their evil from my fragile eyes.

Behind the dusty green boiler, a ruffling sound and the delicate crying of kittens.  Tiger pokes her head around the corner and looks at me.  She emerges with a trembling tail and dangling pink teets, swirling about my legs with nervous affection.  A cobweb dangles from her ear but she doesn’t notice it.  I kneel down and pet her, peeling the delicate cobweb off of her ear.  She hurries back around the boiler and I follow. Slowly.  Six tiny kittens squirm in a furry ball on an old rag between some bricks and a cinderblock, their necks craning toward their mother.  Next to the cinderblock, a dead lizard with caved-in eyes stands silent watch like a dehydrated sphinx, a tiny vent hole under its armpit a sign of where the worms must have entered. A strange omen.

I pick up one of the warm kittens, his little claws ticking my hands, his nose leaving a tiny cold wet spot on my cheek.  His eyes are sealed shut and his mouth is bubblegum pink.  He won’t stop squirming in my hands.  Tiger bumps into my feet constantly, eyes glued on her kitten.  I hear footsteps by the door and quickly place the kitten amongst its brothers and sisters and mommy, moving the dead lizard accidentally.

“Go back upstairs,” I hear from behind me.

I turn and see her stumbling through the darkness, a bag in her hand.  She is dark, almost black, the open basement door backlighting her.  As I walk past her, the smell the wine and cigarettes mingles with the other smells in the room.  I think of turning back but am too chicken.  I turn for one last look and see her kneeling down by the boiler, Tiger swirling about her anxiously.

I enter our quiet house, aware of the sound my footsteps are making, aware of the emptiness all around.  I walk into my bedroom and go to the window.  The narrow street down below is still.  The silver-green olive trees are not rustling and the dark grey clouds that are threatening a storm seem frozen in the sky.

She emerges into the yard, the plastic bag heavy in her hand.  She trickles down the stairs, spilling out onto the street.  She walks to our station wagon and places the bag down by the hatchback.  She walks to the driver’s side door and pulls out her keys.  I can hear the muffled tinkling sound of the keys as she opens the door.  She gets in, turns over the car and gasses the engine, metal gears and pistons groaning, straining.

She gets out and walks around the back.  I watch from the bedroom window, the glass wavy and imperfect.  Dread fills my lungs, my heart, my veins, my eyes.  She kneels down by the exhaust and ties the wriggling bag to the tailpipe.  The bag struggles violently and then goes suddenly limp. She unties the bag and tosses it in the garbage.  She turns and walks back to the running car.  I walk to my bed, burying my head under the pillows.  The wet pillowcase feels cold, cold like the kitten’s nose.  I clamp my eyes shut, and breathe hard. I must not forget to keep breathing. I must not let the worms enter.

–Andreas Economakis

This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.

Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.

For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.

Andreas Economakis

Greek camel (photo by Andreas Economakis ©2011)

Camel Man and the Airline From Hell

by Andreas Economakis

Few things in life are worse than bad breath. Ever been trapped in a confined space with someone who has halitosis? I think jabbing a souvlaki stick under a fingernail is less painful. Ever stop going out with somebody or not ask someone out on a date because his or her breath could kill your cat? Do people with bad breath realize they have bad breath? I suppose they don’t, because if they did they would do something about it, kind of like fixing a flat tire for the first time ever while trying to learn how on TreadHunter.com or pulling out a cactus thorn from their big toe. One thing is for sure: it is virtually impossible to tell someone that they have bad breath. It’s akin to offending one’s newborn or insulting a dead granddad or telling someone that a booger is stuck to the tip of their nose. We all just gulp and breathe through our mouths, praying to God and the high seas and the yellow flowerpot to get us through the encounter without turning blue. My Uncle Ric once wrote a poem about this very issue; he mentions leaving pieces of Dentyne gum around his house every time his halitosis-afflicted friend dropped by for a visit. He said it was like dropping “Dentyne hints” and, frankly, it’s not such a bad idea. Unfortunately people with bad breath don’t generally chew gum or candy. If they did, well, there wouldn’t be a problem would there?

Like most people, I always try to put some distance between people with bad breath and myself. But sometimes there’s just no choice or way around it. And so it was that I found myself flying to Greece one day, on that savage Dutch airline whose fiscal belt-tightening has practically given all its passengers gangrene. They may have cheap tickets but they sure make you pay for it in other ways. They pack you in like death row sardnines and their 747’s seem to be the oldest in the world. I arrived at LAX early, hoping to get a choice seat, bulkhead window or aisle, a seat I could stretch out in for the 12 hour first leg of the trip to Amsterdam. No such luck. The lines were huge as per usual and the cops were jittery like angry navy seals. By the time I made it to the check-in counter all that were left were seats between other seats. Damn. Oh well, I decided to drown my sorrow with a ridiculously overpriced beer from the terminal. (Man, they really stick it to you in airports, don’t they? If I wasn’t so traumatized by all the security I would have snuck in a couple of tall boys and a brown paper bag before the flight, like the good old days before 911…).

When I finally arrived at my seat assignment, my heart sank. Seated by the window was perhaps the world’s fattest man. We’re talking Guinness Book of World Records big here. This mountain of a man was sweating buckets just from the exertion of breathing and he was spilling over into my entire seat. When he saw me looking at him like a deer in headlights he kind of sucked his gut in a bit, trying to reduce the hostile takeover. Now he only spilled over into 3/4 of my seat. I stood there, wondering what I should do, when the stewardess walked by and kindly asked me to take my seat. I squeezed into my seat and became instantly slap-glued to the fat man, who started sweating even more profusely, obviously ill at ease with my dilemma. The man’s unease didn’t last for long. Remarkably, he turned his head to the window and fell into a deep, wet sleep. Like a nervous oyster stuck to a huge rock, I looked over to the empty seat on my left and prayed and prayed that it would remain empty. I even prayed for calamity to fall on the occupant’s head – anything, so long as the seat remained empty. That’s bad, and so providence punished me with a cruel trick in the end. A very thin old man approached and indicated that he was the seat’s occupant. I became instantly enthused by the prospect that at least I could spill over into his seat to avoid the perspiring mountain to my right.

The thin old man slowly sat down, arranged his affairs and reclined in his seat. All was well. Or was it? First thing that hit my nostrils was that all too familiar smell of stale tobacco most smokers have lingering about them. I then noticed the soft pack of Camel Cigarettes in his shirt pocket, kind of like an exterior pacemaker in reverse. Who smokes Camels? The man was obviously terminal. Camel Man then turned his head toward me to say hello. That’s when it happened. First came the long nicotine yellow camel teeth, large like primitive fossils desperately clinging for dear life in deathly grey gums. Camel Man unleashed an unreal nuclear blast of bad breath my way. Halitosis central. My nose hairs shrieked, curled and then dropped dead out of my nose, dusting my shorts. I pressed myself into the wet fat man fearing for my life, like in those cartoons where Daffy Duck becomes paper thin against a wall to avoid a killer car that’s trying to run him over. I became one with wet man. My eyes were watering when I introduced myself to Camel Man, half-gagging. To my horror, he smiled and then fell instantly asleep, head tilted my way, mouth agape, deathly Camel fumes blowing my way like mustard gas. I must have passed out, because I don’t really remember the rest. When I finally got home the next day, my t-shirt was still wet with the fat man’s sweat, white fat-man salt crystals forming wave patterns up and down my shirt. I could still smell Camel breath in my brain. I was a war victim. Would I ever recover? I vowed to never ever take that Dutch airline again.

Two months later, there I was again, a passenger on the same dreaded airline (they sucker punch you in the wallet every time). I had to return quickly to LA for a job and Kyriakos, my travel agent, could only find me a cheap ticket on the cursed airline. I pleaded and pleaded for something else but it was high season and I was out of luck. I would once again have to endure that clog-wearing, holier than thou, why do they all speak fluent English (?), tulip gathering airline. I got to the airport early, fingers and toes crossed. Middle seat again! If there weren’t so many Greek cops with machine guns lounging about (these guys are arguably more relaxed than their American counterparts if all the coffees and cigarettes and jocularity is any indication), I would have leapt up on the ticket counter and done a self-immolating voodoo dance in front of the smiling blonde wooden clog-wearing stewardess. Defeated, I shuffled onto the plane and arrived at my seat assignment.

To my good fortune, the two people on either side of my seat were young, thin, and, I realized upon seating myself, freshly tooth-brushed! Hallelujah! Smiling like a jackass with a fresh bucket of hay, I laughed and settled in for the long ride. The plane took off and just when the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign went off, I tried to recline my seat. Nothing. I pressed the button harder and pushed backwards. Nothing. I jammed and jammed, pushed and pushed harder. Nothing. I looked around for a stewardess for help. By this point everyone in the entire airplane was fully reclined and some had even fallen into a comfortable sleep that would last 12 hours. Desperate, I finally flagged down a stewardess who, after trying what I had tried, apologized. I asked for another seat and she shrugged with a satanic smile. The plane was booked to capacity. “Holy shit,” I thought. She smiled and walked off, leaving me bolt upright, my face millimeters away from the oily bald spot of the man in front of me. Dude was fully reclined and already sawing wood. I could practically smell his dandruff. I swallowed hard. Maybe there is something worse than halitosis after all.

–Andreas Economakis

This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.

Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.

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