These rusted tracks

 Railways wind along mountain folds,

shifting as we grow, laying grooves in palms

and on the backs of hands. The indentations of

our rings, wringing fingers, listening for laughter.

 

What is a church with concrete windows?

When the sky falls at ten o’clock, night,

and the moon rises; when aurora borealis creep

southward, peeking into the tainted skies of

these prowling cities, we watch our walls.

 

We are looking for the shadows cast orange by

streetlight, the blue glow we cannot place above

the flickering red of the stoplight at the block.

Windows are new to us; our hands touch in the dark.

 

A freight train comes, howling under moonlight.

We hear its solemn song, warning city sleepers of

its passage, of the weight we carry

on these rusted tracks,

of the grooves in the palms of our hands.

 

Photo credit: Saja Montague
https://www.flickr.com/photos/sajamontague

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Photograph of a Naked Couple at Beauty Mountain

They stand on a precipice, pebbles between toes,

the points of dead oaks reaching up to lick the chin

of the cliff’s crumbling face.

 

Although she would only dare show it to her mother,

and he would never show it at all,

the photograph surpassed their wedding vows.

 

The sun sinks between the cleavage of Beauty Mountain,

a last golden leaf of light captured in black and white.

The exposure of their bodies on the mountain’s tongue

 

was just another ladder rung to loving her own misshapes:

the instant she understood that it is okay to feel beautiful.

For him it was release, a moment on a windy peak

 

with only the sun staring back at him.

The light lines their shoulders, winding along

the length of the legs and dimpling the crevices

 

of a jutted rock rooted by luck to graffiti-stained cliffs.

Flickering light finds her eye and she looks

At the five-by-five photo on a stack of books

 

Of poetry, genetics, and Pushcart Prize.

She recalls the look in his eyes over time

The sadness on that sorry night, the brilliance

 

Of their shotgun wedding

And anarchic public nudity

On a February afternoon,

 

When they stood naked on the cliff’s edge

Exposed by choice instead of chance

Shedding clothes like leaves at the start of fall

 

As the sunset alights the curve of her waist

And the light deflects from the tops of his feet,

She finds mountains in the shadows of his hand on her back.

My Grandmother’s Things

I am searching through my grandmother’s things in a room of wood paneled walls and plush white carpet. Curtains thin as lace allow sand-colored light to stretch across a bed smothered in three hand-sewn quilts folded in tiers along the pillow, halfway down the mattress, and along the foot of the bed. They are 70s toilet pink, denim blue, and yellowish white, respectively.

I remember when I told her, at twenty-five, that I felt old. I remember how she put her hands on her hips, always aproned in accompaniment to the smell of scratch-made yeast rolls in the oven, and told me, “Alan James, your elbows are still sharp as glass.” She would ask me to clear out the beehive under the back-porch roof while I pondered this.

She died three days ago. I am sitting on the end of her bed, which she has not slept in for the better part of a year, on a Thursday afternoon on the last week of May. Her gurney is still against the inside wall of the living room, close to the vent to help keep her warm on the unseasonably cold May nights that crept in during the last miserable week of her exceptional life.

I knew she was exceptional because she was Rhoda Genevieve Clark, an unabashed victory girl during the Second World War, a shunter of societal expectations before anyone else in our family. She was, more accurately, my great-grandmother.  My grandparents lived across the country, on the West Coast, and Grandma Rhoda knew that they would not care to raise another child. They believed they had done their job with Sam, my dad. She raised me because my parents couldn’t. They were still kids, she’d told me. They didn’t even fight for custody. I came to learn that the reasons she won custody without a fight involved opioids and some level of neglect I am capable of recollecting only through what my grandmother told me when she thought I was ready to hear it.

He is in the kitchen now, my father, and I can hear him riffling through the old recipes and batteries and rubber bands of her drawers in search of something about which he will not deign to tell me. I am holding a porcelain cat, white with blue paint in the grooves of its fur, its head cocked to the left and smiling with bright green eyes. There is a silk purple ribbon tied around its neck, and the tip of its tail is missing. This reveals a vague cavern of unpainted porcelain within the figurine. I am starting to look inside when my father calls from the kitchen.

“Al.”

I don’t answer because I hate that nickname. He calls again, “Al,” and I dig my heels deeper into the carpet. “Alan!” he calls, sounding edgy, like he needs a fix.

I leave her room and move through the den, also carpeted in white, with cloudy gray light pouring through a hole in the green curtains along the far wall. The couch, big enough to seat four people with room, is stacked with boxes full of papers and a duffel full of medical equipment waiting to be returned to the hospice she spent a few days in before begging to go home to die from the cancer eating her stomach.

I enter the doorway to the kitchen and lean against the wall, swallowing the urge to scream at him. It is worse in here than my hearing gave me credit for. He has torn every object from the drawers. There is Scotch tape, rubber bands, at least four whole notepads saying Thinking of You…, and a pile of paper clips directly in front of him, and numerous hand tools and silverware and who knows what else sprawled on the pale blue counter.

“Called for you,” he grunts. He has a hand on one hip and a hand on the counter, and in another universe, I might have thought he looked like Grandma Rhoda. In this one, I am livid. She was more than my great-grandmother. She was my mother and my father. I feel myself starting to cry. My dad—Sam—laughs.

“You cryin over an old bat, boy?”

“Fuck you, Sam,” I snap.

Sam gets serious, then. He is gangly and pale, old, and I like to think my days at the gym have benefitted me. I am thirty-two now, and I’m not his boy. He stomps up to me with a clenched fist and I shove him back as a preemptive strike. “Boy,” he starts.

“Don’t touch me. And get out of here. Whatever you’re after, it’s not here.”

“She was my grandmother, boy,” Sam says. His nose is beaklike and his two front teeth are gapped so that I can see the black space in between. There are track marks on his arms, bright and brown against the blue-gray of his shirt.

“You didn’t give a shit about me, you sure as hell don’t care about her. You want something. And I promise you, it’s not here.”

I’m not even trying to play stupid. We both know what he’s after. His eyes narrow, bulgy in their sockets, and he smiles. “You already have it, don’t you?”

“Me and my grandparents. There’s nothing for you or your wife here.”

He’s starting to get angry, but he doesn’t know about the police caddy weaving its way along Beckley’s streets to here. I called fifteen minutes ago. They are taking their time, but it’s worth the wait.

“You know she was a whore, right?” Sam says, throwing his hands out. The skin of my knuckles splits against his teeth and he collapses, sad and old, against the white linoleum.

“She was not a whore. She raised me when you and Mom chose pills and locked closets over your screaming baby. Get the fuck out, Sam.”

A knock on the front door from the den, and what perfect timing. I cross the living room and pull the door open to find an officer. When all is said and done, my father is in the back seat of the reversing police car with his hands cuffed behind his back and his nose and lips streaming blood. The house is mine, legally. Grandma Rhoda put my name on it two years ago. I wash my hands in the bathroom, run peroxide over the cuts on my hand.

I remember being older when I came to my grandmother’s house, but she had told me on multiple occasions that I was still a baby. “Barely tripping over my toes,” she’d said, describing my attempts at toddling. I remember doing menial tasks around the house, but never anything too strenuous for my age. I remember her fingers caked in bread crumbs and egg yolk as she prepared fried chicken on Saturday nights, the smell of corn on the cob boiling in the silver pot on the back of the stove, fresh yeast rolls in the oven.

The house smells rancid now. Like sickness. I open the windows and switch on the wax burner her daughter and son-in-law sent her ten years ago. The wax cubes smell of butterscotch as they puddle in the metal tray. I clear the boxes from the couch and place the duffel by the door. I pass the gurney on my way to clean the counters off, to remove the taint of my father’s greed and ignorance and restore this house to its glory.

When I am finished, the house is blue-gray in the setting sun. I stretch out on the couch and close my eyes, rest my hands on my belly. I try to remember what it was like to hear her working in the kitchen, the sound of her voice as she protested politics on the news, the soft whisper in her throat as she told me she was proud of me a week before she died. Some of her things are on the bed she had shared with my great-grandfather before he’d died, sometime before I was born. Others are still in the cabinets untouched by my father, still more are in the shed behind the house, waiting to be sifted through by my grandparents when they arrive back in West Virginia for the first time in thirty years.

My grandmother’s things are not just the things she owned, but the things she loved and hated, those that loved and hated her back. They are the photo albums stacked in the back-left corner of the living room, behind an ottoman that her husband, who I never met, liked to rest his feet on in the wintertime. My grandmother’s things are not just physical, they are the words and lessons that echo in my mind, the values and punishments that shaped me into the man I am today. This house is a thing of hers, a book of memories in the form of walls and foundation. My father, his mother, and I. We are things of hers.

Fragments

Too small for her cigarette.

A raw nerve, meant to touch but be untouched.

She smiles in passing, but there is a hollow in her eyes

Whose wintered trees bend over holey roads

Whose sides are flecked with snow like marginalia.

 

When asked where she comes from,

She doesn’t know the difference between where she’s born

And where she’s born again.

She doesn’t speak softly; the words are weighted in metaphor.

The words are fragments of broken dreams and stitched history.

Play

           Thirty-six-thousand, five hundred days had passed when time resumed. Jan knew it was a contradiction: after all, how can days pass if there is no time? Yet she had tracked the passage of days carefully on one hundred calendars of varying styles: some with cats, others Norman Rockwell paintings. Some were painted carefully in oils of waterfalls and mountain ranges. Others were cartoons that might have gone extinct by now, if the rest of the world had been aware of a century’s passing. Jan crossed off the last day of the last calendar, pushing dirty—not the color, but literally dirty—blond hair from her pale green eyes. Her mouth was turned down in one corner, as if the muscles had learned to stay that way after a century of frowning.

            She remembered Oren, a man who had annoyed her into loving him through interrogation. He would still be by the lake, in the tent, balanced on one elbow with sweat licking his brow, dark blond pseudo-curly hair over one eye and his hand still balanced in the air where her lower ribs had been when she lay there looking up at him all that time ago. His lips would still be open in the form of a question he had been asking, which she had forgotten.

            “Jan, right? What’s your real name? Janet? Janey?” he had said upon their first meeting. She had seen him on a dating app, and had sent him an invitation while her girlfriend slept beside her. She was not disappointed at his face, just the questions. They were at a bar in downtown Beckley, West Virginia, whose title, Foster’s, reminded her of a childhood spent in homes that were not her own and troubled siblings of varied birth. Oren reminded her of one of them, an older boy of twelve years whom she had liked intensely at eight years old, before her foster parents had caught her sitting on his lap behind the trailer one day in summer and sent him away. For all she knew, this could be him. But she knew it wasn’t. She knew she would know that boy, even though she did not remember his name.

            “It’s January, actually,” Jan had said, bending the tiny black straw from her mixed drink between her fingers. The bar had hardwood floors scuffed, sealed, and scuffed again, a reddish brown color that she always seemed to remember differently, despite how often she was there. It was mid-afternoon, brilliantly bright outside, and he wore a suit jacket and slacks with a white V-neck and black hi-top Vans. Her top was too tight, a white sleeveless vest buttoned tightly over a black camisole with black skinny jeans and flats, and she had stared into her Irish cream whiskey and peppermint schnapps and tried not to smile at the fact that they had color-coordinated their outfits without talking about it.

            She didn’t like Oren too much at first. He was attractive, but he joked too much, and he asked too many questions that didn’t matter, like “So were you born in January? (she was born in November),” “You’re named after a Bond girl, right? (no, her father just liked New Year’s Eve and wanted to name her after a fresh start),” and “do you come here often? (a hybrid joke and probe to make sure she was single: she was not, but she would be soon, and he didn’t need to know about any of that). Oren had plagued her with questions over three weekends spent at Foster’s, until Jan had finally been drunk enough to take him home the same day she had finally worked up the gall to break it off with the beautiful woman who had not been working out. Maybe it was because he looked just enough like the boy from foster care, or maybe it was because she was lonely and liked his questions as much as she hated them, but one hundred years later, she could not figure out what on Earth had led him to her.

            The most disappointing thing about a century, Jan had come to realize, was that it did not feel like a century. Sure, if she looked back at that moment when, wrapped in a foamy blanket in a sweaty tent on the unexplored edges of Lake Stephens, she had wished that time would stop for only a hundred years so that they could do the things they wanted without the pressure of obligation, it felt distant. But in the present, she felt like that had been yesterday. Or never.

            It had been exciting at first: all electronics functioned as they should. Her 2002 navy blue Ford Explorer ran as usual (terribly, with a sound like forty tin cans tied on strings bouncing off the road as she drove) right up until it didn’t, at which point she rode her bicycle to a nearby dealer and found the Honda CR-Z she had always wanted. Filling the backseats with strangely expensive garments from stores she would only shop in on special occasions or nervous impulses, she had spent the last hundred years in every state, in new homes fitted with expensive furnishings and smart refrigerators. Jan did not like the homes in which people already lived, because the people were frozen in myriad positions. Most had been sleeping when her wish had come true, so that many were out of the way, and most stores were empty. She had seen a crime in the middle of occurring: a man holding a gun at arm’s length in a back alley in Seattle, and a woman was crouching away with her hands in front of her face. She had pried the gun from his hands and thrown it into a green-tinted lake an hour’s drive away, and tried never to think about it again.

Jan had found peace in a small, lightly furnished house for sale on the shores of North Carolina, enjoying a beautiful summer night with no wind and perfect warmth, the dark, dead silence of a paused ocean stretching out before her. It was relieving at first, seeing so much beauty on hold for her, like walking through a painting. Thirteen years ago, she had moved back to Beckley, returned the car (a similar model; the one she had originally taken was long dead by the side of the road someplace she’d forgotten) to the lot and rode her bicycle to gather food and clothes as she needed and wanted. She’d thought more and more about Oren in the tent by the lake and loss prevention and confusion and wondered what the world would be when time resumed. Did others know the time had passed, or was it a second? Was it perceivable at all, or was it like a lazy day when the time seems to drag until you look at the clock and realize that you’ve spent eighteen hours sitting on a single piece of furniture?

“Hi,” said one of the veteran bartenders at Foster’s, a long-legged beauty with black hair in a tight bun on the crown of her skull and bangs cut straight across her eyebrows. She wore red lipstick and had a geometric half-sleeve tattoo spreading across her right shoulder and tapering off at her elbow.

“Hello,” Jan said, knowing that her stare would be confusing, but unable to stop trying to understand whether this woman knew how much time had passed. Jan looked no different: she had not aged a bit, had cleaned herself and styled her hair, which had not grown, and wore an outfit that was slightly tighter than was comfortable: a white, sleeveless vest with a black undershirt, black skinny jeans, and black flats. She felt beautiful, but also exhausted.

“You look a little tired,” said the bartender.

“You have no idea,” said Jan.

“The usual?”

“Absolutely.”

The woman smiled and began the musical process of shaking a brew of Irish cream whiskey and peppermint schnapps together with cubes of ice. Jan smiled and stared down at the scarred bar, at the carvings patrons had snuck over the years, and wondered if some of the initials paired together had survived the promise of commitment that was carving your name beside someone else’s in the severed limb of a dead tree. The door whined open and she turned her head, as she always did, looking for someone to walk through the glass door and change her life.

The man was tall, the light from outside casting his front in shadow, the deep blond hair outlined in a halo of curls unsure whether they wanted to be straight or not. A slinky gait, swinging hands, the left bearing a watch that reflected a ray of light into her eye. Her stomach seemed to fold over on itself, her heart to trip over its own arteries. It was him. It was him, after all, over all this time and space, despite the distance, despite the division of influence outside her control; he had found her, was walking toward her, was sitting beside her at the bar in a black suit jacket and a white V-neck and slacks and Vans, and was saying,

“Jan, right?”

Back to Basics

So it’s been two years since I last posted here. Not sure how that happened. Well, I’m pretty sure. I became intensely focused on a novel I’d been writing for five years. I completed it in December 2016. I read it and realized I needed to learn how to build plot and develop characters. Essentially: I needed to learn how to write.

Luckily, thanks to a handful of incredible writing classes at Marshall University, I have learned a lot about writing. I have all but abandoned my novel (for the time being, at least) while I explore more intrigant and intricate aspects of the human condition.

I’m going to be posting my short stories here from time to time. No more Jukepop – one of many lessons which taught me I needed to improve my writing skills. In the coming weeks, you will find short stories about the human condition. Some may be whimsical. Some may be boring. But all will be the result of my journey toward becoming a better writer and a better explorer of the world around me.

If you should feel a desire to leave me feedback, I would love it. I love constructive criticism (or whatever kind of criticism suits your fancy – I can take it). If you want me to read your work, please send it to me or tag me, or anything. Let me know.

That’s all for now. Happy writing to my fellow writers, and happy day to the rest.

-J. Humphrey

Calamity Road – Link and Chapter One Preview!

I never dreamed I would commit murder, however much it occurred to me over the years. What occurs to me now, in the aftermath of stealing my first life and under the promise of anarchy without consequence, is to do it again and again, to see how far it will take me. To build my repertoire of lives stolen until I am fearless, until the hunger is too much, and then I will eliminate the source of my hunger. I may burn in the end, but so will he. 

Above is the synopsis for Calamity Road. Previously, when it was known as Murder in the First, it was over very quickly and did not have much depth. Where a mighty explosion of character and excitement might have been, Murder in the First even wore a title that made you want to make a sandwich instead of reading it. But, like all people whose goal is to master something meaningful in life, I had greater hopes for this story. I’m going to cut short the chatter and share a segment of Chapter 1 with you guys! If you like it, follow this link: http://jukepop.com/home/read/5894?chapter=1


It’s too quiet. I am violently shaking, blinking slowly in hopes that the blood does not drip into my eyes. It is everywhere, that precious elixir. I haven’t moved an inch since I stood up from her broken corpse, but the blood still creeps along my skin. It is relentless. My senses falter at the abomination of mutilated human flesh below me; my sense of smell seems to have given up and my mouth tastes of copper. The blood and sweat trapped between my palm and the plastic knife handle fade in and out of my awareness as I stare at him across the small space between us. The deadly sharp blade in my grip could cleave the tension that is filling the sunlight-stained air.

His breath heaves in and out. He looks terrified and excited staring down at her. One would not think that they are husband and wife. I open my mouth to make a smart remark; something along the lines of “Why don’t you just kiss her, already?” formulates in the base of my throat, but somewhere on their way through my larynx, the words are shredded into tiny, half-crying gasps. I grip the knife tighter. A single drop of blood seeps into my tear duct and I blink furiously instead of trying to swipe it. A final middle finger to her murderess. My stone insides are softening now and my knees feel increasingly as if they are about to lose their ability to hold my weight. I open my mouth again, this time in an effort to whisper his name, but she seems to have stolen my voice in her final moments as well, and only more shuddering gasps escape.

“Jesus, Claire, stand there why don’t you.” He snaps. “God forbid you rush out of here like you just, I don’t know, murdered my wife.”

A tornado of hot and cold fury begins tearing apart my nerves. “Remember who’s holding the knife, Logan.” I growl, before I can stop myself. The cyclone stops immediately, as if it has met its end at a pesky mountain peak. A mountain peak of love, that is. “I—I’m sorry, I just—”

“Whatever. Just get out of here. I’m calling the police in two minutes.”

The sunlight glares hideously as I peek out of the back door that conveniently found itself left open. There are no vehicles parked outside of the garages at this end of the cul de sac, but I’m taking no chances. I dash across the flat backyard and lunge through the open gate of a privacy fence. Her screams echo in my ears as I sprint to my car, parked just feet from the fence on a small dirt road which is the only separation between a well-financed neighborhood and a swollen, rushing river. I open the car door and start to get in, but something stops me. Instinct. The knife remains coddled in the palm of my hand, its black handle a stark contrast to the rivulets of blood and remnants of flesh that have begun to dry on the blade. I look back to the river. It seems to be reaching for the pregnant sky, clawing and crying to smoke-grey and white undulating clouds in hopes of tasting what they contain. Past them, I can see the seedy outline of the city beneath a lazy smog of pollution.

I glance back down at the knife, seeing past it to the streaks of blood on my pale legs. Why did I wear shorts, again? All of those CSI shows talk about dead skin cells and this and that. Whatever. It’s not like I’ve killed before. I can’t do much in the way of my legs, but I remove the once off-white slouchy sweater I am wearing and wrap the knife in it. With one full swing and a grunt like I’ve never emitted, I launch the bundle toward the river. The bloodstained sweater sails through the air, one sleeve waving goodbye to me before the hard evidence of my crime disappears beneath the choppy waves. I am hypnotized by the oblivious hurry of the water before a nagging pull begins at the base of my stomach and my mouth begins to water incessantly. I am going to throw up. But not here. I dive into the car and drive as carefully as I can to avoid leaving tracks before disappearing into the afternoon traffic.


If you liked this, please feel free to follow the link to Chapter 1. From there, you can create a free account, +vote, shelf, and leave feedback if you want. I won’t bite. If you write as well, I urge you to follow me! I will read your stories and +vote them as well. Here is another link, and thanks for reading!

http://jukepop.com/home/read/5894?chapter=1&sl=8