El Rey de Lizards by Esteban Rodríguez

El Rey de Lizards by Esteban Rodríguez


Another lizard died. The second one this morning. Bobby’s father felt bad for the first family. The little girl took the lizard out of her small purse and showed it to us as though she had just committed a crime, as though we’d be the ones to hand down her punishment. Bobby’s father took the lizard from the girl’s palm, sighed, and said to both the girl and the girl’s mother standing behind her that death happens way too soon for many of God’s creatures. No, he said, too soon for the creatures of the earth. No… he said death happens, or was it shit happens… No, not in front of the girl. Bobby’s father said something about death and the girl wiped the tears from her eyes and Bobby handed the girl a new lizard, fit with one of those little cloth vests Bobby, Luis, and I had spent part of our morning making. The little girl smiled, hugged the small lizard way too tight, and she and her mother left without even the faintest memory of the lizard that had just died. Bobby’s father handed me the dead lizard, said the heat was too strong this morning.


He asked me to throw it away. I nodded, looked at the lizard and wondered if I should say a prayer. But what would a few words accomplish? What could I say that would honor this animal that didn’t live more than a few weeks and that was—from what I gathered between the little girl’s mother and Bobby’s father—left in the little girl’s purse, shut away without the slightest crack of air? Even if the purse was open, it would have been too hot in there anyways, and although I knew the body temperatures of reptiles differed greatly from ours, the south Texas heat was equally unkind to everyone and everything.


I grabbed a napkin from the table, covered the lizard in it, and placed the lizard inside the trash can beside the other table with the two waterless aquariums that held the lizards we were selling.


We also had mice, a few garden snakes, a boxful of crickets, frogs, snails, rabbits, and a creature that squealed and shook the medium-sized and scissor-punctured box it was confined to. Bobby’s father didn’t tell us what it was, but he said we should not handle the box ourselves and if we did, there was a good chance we would have to learn to love what nine or eight fingers we still had left. There was no price on that box, but there were on all the rest, and perhaps because the small green lizards were one of the cheapest, they were selling, giving Bobby’s father hope that the pet store he was planning on opening would put him on the map. Moreno’s—the only pet store in town—would be second to his, Chubby’s, and what better way to spread the word than by selling at the pulga.


This was the largest pulga in the mid-Valley, perhaps the only one, and when I was a boy, my mother and grandmother would drag me along to this one on Sunday mornings. My grandmother would go for fruit, or sometimes just to browse the booths and try to haggle down the price of a random car part or blanket or light decorations, spending ten or fifteen minutes going back and forth, back and forth, all so she could wave her hand at the man or woman behind the booth and walk away. My mother merely went to immerse herself in my grandmother’s gossip that seemed, by the way they were loudly speaking, to have become more dramatic since the previous week.


Ten years later, and nothing about the pulga seemed to have changed. I was sure I recognized the man in the booth next to us from my weekends here as a boy, and perhaps most people who were selling had indeed been selling for years. We received a few glances, long stares, the occasional just-checking- the-lay-of-the-land stroll by our tables, hoping to figure out what we were all about. But as people began to arrive, and the sun unleashed its ancient burden on our skins, we became a part of the pulga, and no one had time to focus on these newcomers. Business had to go on.


For us, business was slow at first, but after one family stopped and bought a lizard, and another and another, we found ourselves with a long line and families desperate for these lizards in little vests we made from neon-colored cloth and tied with plastic lacing string for a leash, each neon-colored as well. Word had spread across the pulga, and there were so many people crowding our tables that Bobby, Luis, and I had to speak with the customers. I spoke Spanish the way a study abroad student spoke Spanish after living a semester in South America, confident in theory, but bad in execution, and the customers could tell. They nodded politely as I strung together “cuesta cuatro dólares” with “dejame ver” and “un momento, necesito verificar.” The mothers and fathers could deal with my bad Spanish if it meant getting the right lizard for their son or daughter, if they could see a smile on their faces as I grabbed the lizard, stumbled to put the vest on its front legs without feeling as though I was breaking the lizard’s bones, and then placing this helpless creature into the hands of a child who knew full well that unlike a puppy, maintenance would be minimal.


I remember Bobby’s father saying he had never had an animal die under his watch, so when the second family with a dead lizard came, after our little rush, he thought it might have been something more than just the heat.


“Did you put on the vest too tight?” Bobby’s father asked Luis.


“No, sir,” said Luis. “I don’t even think I sold that lizard to them.” Luis went back to tying the end of the string leash to the vest in his hands.


“What about you, Stevie?”


“No,” I said.


Bobby’s father turned to the father, mother, and the little boy whose slumped shoulders and tilted head conveyed absolutely no interest in getting another lizard. He probably didn’t even want the first. He looked at the ground, then at Bobby’s father, who ignored him completely and asked the father, “¿Está seguro que lo compraste aquí?” Bobby’s father was positive that there were no other pet vendors at the pulga, but how sure can anyone be about anything?


“Sí, claro. El me lo vendió,” the father said, pointing at me. I did sell the first lizard to him, and I recalled that when I made that transaction, the father didn’t hand over the lizard to the boy, but instead kept it in his palms, looked at its scared lizard face the way relatives look at babies when they see that bundle of joy for the first time. At that moment, I couldn’t help but speculate that in his childhood he was given a dog that died almost immediately under his care, that it was full of worms or had some canine disease that ended its life in a few short days, and that he was left with his first real confrontation with death. Perhaps that’s why he wanted the lizard more than his son.


“Pues, cuando entramos en el carro, se murió,” the father said.


“¿Murió cuando ustedes entraron?” Bobby’s father asked.


“Sí,” said the father. His son looked at the ground, then turned his head and looked at the crowd, wishing, it seemed, that he was among those strangers.


“¿Está seguro?” asked Bobby’s father. The man stared at him as though he wanted to take offense, but he knew that if he did, the lie he was clearly hoping would work would be out in the open for Bobby’s father to deny him another lizard. The father looked over at me again, desperate for my help, and Bobby, somewhere close behind me, whispered mockingly, “El rey.”


Right before the morning rush, as Bobby, Luis, and I were moving from one table to another, we mused on making bets over who could sell the most lizards. The winner would get a third of the cash that the others were paid that day—something that would amount to thirty some dollars in total—and bragging rights would continue until we returned next Sunday.


“It’s gonna be me,” said Luis, “I obviously speak more Spanish than you all.”


“But you’re the ugliest,” said Bobby.


“Have you seen yourself?” asked Luis. “There is a reason Stevie and I are the only ones who have had girlfriends.”


“You ain’t gonna win,” Bobby managed to utter, hurt by the girlfriend remark. Bobby had had flings, crushes. He liked girls from a distance.


“You know I am,” said Luis.


“What the fuck,” I said. “I can win. I can sell the most. I can be el rey de li—lang—”


Luis started chuckling at my attempt to find the Spanish word for lizard.


“El rey de lizards. I can be el rey of all the lizards,” I said, tossing my hands in the air.


Luis continued laughing. “You can be whatever rey you want, but it’s the businessman that makes things happen.”


“What the hell’s the Spanish word for lizard?” asked Bobby, aware that he was going to have to use the word soon.


“Lagartija,” said Luis. “It’s lagartija.”


The rush came, and I can’t remember saying “lagartija” to any of the families. I merely pointed at the selection of lizards and the little boys and girls shouted, “Ese! That’s the one I want!”


I turned around and looked at Bobby. His smile was ugly, and I wanted to shove him for saying anything at all to me. I turned back toward Bobby’s father, ready to explain that I had done everything correctly, that I put the vest gently on the lizard and gave it a few drops of water from my water bottle before I handed it to that eager father. I had left that helpless reptile in good hands and while my expertise in lizard health and behavior was only a few hours old—lizards didn’t like loud noises; lizards were susceptible to sudden hand movements—I was confident that every one that I held was healthy. 


Bobby’s father wasn’t naive, but he was sympathetic, too much actually, and looking back on all of this, that’s perhaps the reason why Chubby’s never had a successful run. He had the vision but not the stamina for hard decisions. Bobby’s father set the prices too low, allowed for returns without a receipt, bought dogs from owners that had long ceased to control their undisciplined beasts, thinking that he could break them and sell the newer version he trained them to be to parents who wanted their sons or daughters to learn responsibility. He was a name, not an institution, and any sense of loyalty he had hoped to build would take too long to see through. 


Bobby’s father forced a smile. “El calor hace eso.”


The father smiled back. The world made sense again, and he could quickly forget what Bobby’s father and I knew: he had left the first lizard in the car, thought that it would be fine because it was still morning and the heat wouldn’t kill it while he and his family continued their shopping at the pulga.


“Stevie, please grab a new one,” Bobby’s father instructed. 


I moved toward the box, and although Bobby and Luis were partly paying attention, I could already hear them after we had closed for the day saying that I was el rey de freebies, that it was because of me that Bobby’s father posted a loss of profits for the day, that everything I touched was one step closer to death.


I grabbed a lizard from the box, the one that looked the strongest. I tugged its arms through the vest. I could have sworn it smiled at me.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (Word West Press 2022) and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He currently lives in south Texas.

Poisoned by Jocelyn Jane Cox

Poisoned by Jocelyn Jane Cox


It’s late August. Our son is four years old. He’s at the side of the house, out of our sight. He can survive, even thrive, without us looking at him every second. Or we can at least try it out anyway. 


My husband and I are on the front porch looking at my husband’s arm. He has a bad case of poison ivy. The sores bubble across his hands and are creeping up his forearms. Despite topical treatments, he looks ravaged. Because of this, we’ll soon get our property “remediated” and peek out the windows as two men in Hazmat suits sort, one weed at a time, through the groundcover surrounding our house.


My husband is not a complainer, not a hypochondriac in the slightest, but it does obviously hurt and obviously itch. And the effect that oil from a plant can have on skin is fascinating. Our son has overheard us talking about it several times this week.


It turns out he hears everything. In his presence, we speak only in general terms about the news, politics, the president, and all the people with whom we disagree and who disagree with us. But he has seen me making the signs and even helped me color them in. We talk to him in broad strokes about kindness. We will be having all the discussions, in-depth, and sooner than we think.


He has also examined his father’s arm and understands this affliction came from our yard. He has gleaned that there is danger right where we live. Suddenly, he’s bolting toward us from the sideyard, rounding the bend, shrieking. We can’t make out what he’s saying. Time slows. My brain calculates pain math: no visible blood + running = no stitches and no broken bones.


He is sprinting with a look of shock across his face. We hear the words more clearly as he approaches.


“I was poisoned!” he screeches, now on the porch, and pointing to a welt forming in the middle of his calf. He has misunderstood, in a way, and also understood perfectly.


I hold him on my lap and wonder if he is allergic. While my husband runs inside for some ice, I hug our son close and scroll to learn what signs we should be looking for. Then we sit there saying, “You’re okay,” watching to see if the reaction escalates, but it doesn’t. “You’re okay,” I repeat, squeezing him tight.




It’s late August two years later. Our son is now six years old. We’ve been invited as guests to a charming local pool, a communal situation where the members tend to a flower garden and take turns cleaning the tiny kitchen. It’s not a country club. It’s rough around the edges, weedy and rusted, nestled in between distribution centers. But one can imagine, while there, that it’s the 1970’s and that kids really can roam free and fly high amid butterflies on the seat of the tree swing. The locker room doors are painted turquoise, the same shade as the shimmering pool. A rainbow flag flutters nearby in the breeze.


This is not our first time here; we are fortunate to get these invitations from Nika and Lila’s mom Yulia, a tenacious woman from the former Soviet Union with enviable curly hair. She has become, due in part to the state of the world, one of my closest friends. When here, though, we let all of that go. I let myself slip into the cool water and let myself slip into a dream state: away from the computer, away from my opinions, away from the town, the county, the state, the country, and the world outside this small parcel of land.


When Nika starts screaming, we see her on the sidewalk near the pool entrance, adjacent to the little garden. She is folded forward and holding her face. We jump out of the pool and bound toward her. Little Lila is there, too, eyes widening.


“Can you take her?” Yulia says, pointing to her younger daughter, and I quickly scoop up the toddler so Yulia can attend to her older child. Behind us, another mom, Kari, starts to yelp. I look back to see her by the pool swatting frantically at her long hair, dancing around.


I hold on tight to the child in my arms and spot my own in the distance, looking at me quizzically from a cluster of picnic tables.


“Stay right there!” I call out to him. “I think there are bees!” I say. I don’t want to scare him or others, but I figure I might as well bring some clarity to the confusion.


Yulia is now in the kitchen with Nika, who is bawling. Kari has stopped her frenzied dance and is now beside me on the sidewalk.


Then she glares at me with a gravity we’ll laugh about after the fact. She says my name slowly with perfect phonetics. When we run into each other in the years to come, I will do impressions of her in that moment. We will shake our heads and chuckle.


She holds out her hands for the child. “One. Just went into. Your bathing suit.”


I feel it suddenly, a light tickling on my stomach. I quickly pass Lila into her arms and bolt across the grass to do my own dance. I peel up my modest swim tank and commence the swatting. But it’s too late. 


I’m pierced: I feel the sting.


It’s chaotic for a minute there.


And then it’s calm.


Nika whimpers while they pack up the car to go home. I accept an ice cube and slather on a little blob of salt paste, a salve quickly whipped up by someone I don’t know.


Just as when our son was stung, there are 20 or so minutes when I wonder if I’m allergic.


“I’m okay,” I assure him while we drive home, but it does kind of hurt. “It’s just like when you were stung. Remember that?” I ask, and he doesn’t.


But Nika’s been stung three times today on her face: the lower part of her cheek and under her chin. Was it one bee or was it three? Was it 10 bees or a thousand? Was it wasps? Hornets? I’d seen mine briefly (was it the same as hers?) – it was furry. It was attached to me and I had to flick at it twice to detach it. I don’t think this incident is something she’ll forget or I will either.


Later, we’ll all describe it to each other and to people who weren’t there, as if it was some kind of attack or battle. We will break it down to who was where, what happened first, what happened after that, what we each witnessed, and in what order. How Lila broke free at some point in the middle of all of it, slipped in a puddle under the pavilion, and hit her head on the cement. A lot happened in the course of about two minutes.


Nika will understandably develop a fear of bees, a distrust of them, these tiny creatures with stingers who maintain all the flowers in our yards, across the land, and apparently manage to keep our whole ecosystem churning. She will have a temporary fear of that idyllic little pool. They will take a break from going, and so therefore, will we, which is fine with me because I wasn’t really scared of them before, but now, laughter aside, I kind of am as well.




It’s late August another year later. People have died for all kinds of reasons, some gripped by a virus, some at the hands of law enforcement, some from hunger, some from fear of going to the doctor, some, like usual, from car accidents, cancer, and old age. We are outside, at a park, writing postcards to voters whom we don’t know and will never meet.


Our son, now seven years old, has become an expert at affixing stamps to the upper right-hand corner. He believes, at our urging, that everything we do matters. Even minor efforts, like these slices of paper, could maybe make a difference. This time, he has even drawn some stars on each one in blue marker.


From home, I comment, I comment, I comment. I try to not back down. I wonder if they can find out where I live. Of course they can. I try to not look away. I send don’t forget to vote texts for a local candidate, hundreds at a time, with the push of one button on my computer, and receive threats in return. I am told that my whole family deserves to die in a fire. Yulia is told she shouldn’t have been born. We try to laugh it off but these words also can’t help but sting. I remind myself that the recipients don’t see our personal phone numbers through this system. I send another batch, 250 then 250 more. I schedule and attend meetings, talk about things like volunteer engagement and organizational structure. What we’re doing might matter, it might. 


When our son eventually drifts away with another little boy toward the nearby lake, I am glad. He has been so isolated, we all have, and the prospect of him making a new friend fills me with an amount of elation that I realize is not natural. From a distance, I see they have found a turtle. They are watching it walk slowly across a path, giving it space. They seem to be discussing this journey.


Blue pen, red pen, green pen, black. Each sentence a different color and scratched hastily, with hope. I chuckle with a friend nearby, listen to some remarks from a candidate, and join in the applause. I banter with someone I know from online meetings, who I have only met in person for the first time today.


Of course, we don’t know for sure if any of this will actually help. We don’t know what the results will be in November. We have no idea, yet, what will occur in DC in January. We don’t know what will come of the next cycle or the one after that. But we’re trying.


At our house, we never tune into those stations on the television. Even so, in a few short months, we will be forced to define the word insurrection for our son, though we’ll have no interest in doing so, and we won’t really fully understand what has happened or how it happened, ourselves.  


“Mommmmmmmmmmm,” he screams from across the field, running toward us. The mental math again: moving fine, no blood. “Mommm!” he’s screeching. Déjà vu, but he’s bigger than he was before, and swatting at himself, specifically at his shorts. He’s in a violent state, jerking around, panicked. I rush in his direction and meet him, mid-field. He’s hitting at himself. I pull him behind a tree and pull his pants down quickly and see at least one fly away in the confusion. I know a bit what a sting feels like now; I know now how it hurts.


Honeybees can apparently only sting once; they die after they sting. Wasps and hornets can sting multiple times. Just like at the pool, I don’t know if this was a group of stingers or an individual, but this time our son gets four stings, two on his lower legs, two on his inner thigh, almost at his underwear line. He’s angry this time. Confused.


“I didn’t do anything to hurt them,” he says.


I tell him what I’ve learned about late August. I’ve heard that bees get nervous as fall approaches. I tell him that sometimes they have nests in the grass. He may have accidentally walked over one and this might have scared them. Their agitation causes them to lash out.


At home, he balances a plate of cheese slices and round discs of salami on his lap in bed. I place a few ice packs on his legs. Then he dozes off on a cloud of Benadryl.


“Just ignore them,” I used to say when bees came around our front porch. “If you ignore them, they’ll ignore you,” I used to say. But that seems like horrible advice at this point and, even if we were capable of ignoring them, our son now has every reason to believe that method won’t work.


Isn’t it better for us to acknowledge what could happen?


I tell our son: don’t flail, don’t swat, don’t risk provocation. I tell myself: don’t comment. I instruct him to stand up calmly and walk away then watch from afar to see what they’re up to. I read, but I don’t type. Now, I send texts to people I know, but not to people I don’t. I pay attention, knowing that there are aggressors among us. I wonder when we’re going to be poisoned next.  


“There’s no reason to be afraid,” I used to say to our son. “It’s okay,” I used to say to him. I don’t say this anymore.

Jocelyn Jane Cox holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is working on a memoir about her mother passing away on her son’s first birthday. Her essays, short fiction, CNF, and humor have appeared or are forthcoming in Slate, Shambles Literary Journal, LEON Literary Review, Brevity Blog, Roanoke Review, Five Minutes, Newsweek, WIRED, NBC Think, The Independent, Belladonna Comedy, Little Old Lady Comedy, Frazzled, Slackjaw, and Chill Subs. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives near Nyack, NY with her husband, her son, and her antique eyeglass collection. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynjanecox and Instagram @jocelynjanecoxwriter

Some People Search For A Door by Bradley David

Some People Search For A Door by Bradley David


This music has my hips bumming tangos off the sink. I should paint with yellow or anything that grabs a laugh. Own a crazed shanty on the end of a wharf. All baubled with glass floats and starfish freckles. Stacks of lobster traps and fork twirls of nautical rope. You can’t find the entrance to a place like that. Well, anyway, the roof leaks and you’d be humming with improvements. So just imagine what colors excite my flute of charming buckets. Look at how you listen to the tune of their drips. You held it within you all along. You were only snooping my magical yard for your quick mystery. A bread bowl chowder and a green striped ferry and…


…I should live inland with a sliver-view of the sea. Blue reason for my defiant pink dump elbowing turnkey bulkhead mansions. Gray, gray, gray—thump, thump, thump. I wouldn’t even have enough shelf space to board their hoarded oxygen. I’m gaudy behind my crocheted chain-link web of course. Soft-snaring rabbits to join me for tea. Think I don’t grab at everything? Ask the opossum in my palm too cozy to close its eyes for dead. Tonight I think that’s better than some patented city cheesecake. A compact parking space. A soured man barking fuck you to his somebody. Friday night risk looks good on you but I’m not going near it. Let’s play flashlights under bat sonar clicks. Meet me in the middle. Pull up to my blanket and eat ironic cheeses. Let’s look at how we feel when we squeak a yellow curd. Let’s ear to the ocean where memories clink cavern floors like crystals giving way from the dome. They’re diamonds now, all charcoal and penniless. Taking light like greed. Shine up. Shine up for a minute…


…Do you ever watch that tiny light inching across the evening sky? Do you ever nudge an argument into a shoulder that it’s a satellite? Or an airplane? One hundred and sixty seats stifling red-eye sneezes and punishing delete keys. Anyway, do you ever look up at their freedom? Call it possibilities lined up in a tin can? Look at them wishing you could get strapped in to such getting away? From being chased by that nagging feeling you deserve another inch on either side. Oh, me too much of the time. But nudge a little closer. It’s something about this night music and tartan plaid. Because granted a wish for a day, I’d want to be a sweetheart. Just living and handing it out by the bucketful and nothing will ever run out.

Bradley David‘s poetry, fiction, and essays appear in Terrain, Allium, Exacting Clam, Stone of Madness, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fatal Flaw, Unstamatic, and others. His work can be found at chillsubs.com/user/BradleyDavid, on Twitter @StrangeCamera, and on Instagram @mystrangecamera. He lives in Southern California by way of the rural Great Lakes Midwest.

Sunflowers by Kris Hawkins

Sunflowers by Kris Hawkins


There was a field of sunflowers at this park I used to frequent. I say a field because that’s what it felt like, but really it was more of a patch. A yellow fifty-yard dash through the green Bermuda grass which was itself perforated with dainty three-prong shoots. Chunky dragonflies with translucent wings hovered through it all around sunset. In late spring, I developed a habit of visiting the park after work. After spending the better part of the sun’s rays in a boxy concrete-beige office building, seated in a similarly boxy fabric-beige cubicle, staring at a flat bright box with tiny boxes checkered across it, blocky numbers populating them in rhythm with the weighted click of boxed number keys beneath my fingers—well, I’d investigate the patch for anything that breathed. I mostly saw stalks and leaves, but sometimes behind a scamper I’d glimpse a tuft of brown fur, a glossy eye, a loopy ear. Wings slapped through the patch as well, gray or white, and they made the broad, droopy sunflower heads bob and sway like they had begun boxing.


Then one day, the sunflowers were gone.


But, before I talk about how the sunflowers disappeared, and what I did when they did, it’s important to understand how they ended up there at all.


See, I first started going to Celestial Park because it was mostly empty. Apart from a well-kept spaceship-themed playground satellited off at the far end, where families took their kids to pretend they were rocket ships, or astronauts, or rogue meteors, there was just a long concrete meander of a trail bisecting fields and forest. The fields were wide, three-inch tall swaths of green; the forest a dense, stately tangle of darker green. The trail looped up and around the fields for about a half a mile I’d say. On days I was struggling, I looped along with it, seven times, precisely. I’d read somewhere seven was a holy number, so I thought if I looped it seven times it’d help things.


By the time I’d finished the last loop, I was easing apart like the clouds overhead, breathing in the scent of soil-rich grass as it flitted along breezes pregnant with the laughter of children. Somewhere in these early visits, I discovered a kind of holiness in emptiness. I’m not religious, and I always thought the sacred was something imagined; yet if the sacred is real, and I think it is now, a part of it must be tucked inside the sound of sneakers scuffing on pavement.


The seventh time I visited the park was also the first time I saw the sunflowers, was also the last time I had a coherent conversation with my mom. Years of flooding her liver with alcohol finally broke the dam.


Cause and effect.


It’s what she told me as she lay there in her hospital bed, puffy-faced and distended with plastic tubes for veins. Each tube was, to me, a metaphor for a separate year of her life. The one puncturing her forearm, that was her sixteenth year, the same year I was born, pumping with life. I could tell because my birth year was tattooed on her wrist. Her nose tubes, which hung like a cheap bull ring from her nostrils and skirted around her rubbery jowls, up past her thinning, close-cropped red hair, those represented the year she decided she needed room to breathe and be alone, and that having a husband and son at twenty-two wasn’t conducive to that. The large tube poked into her thigh was the year she learned to drink her demons away. I pitied her, and I loved her. I also blamed her. Greatest to least, in that order, but she could always see the least in me.


“It ain’t nobody’s fault. It’s just cause and effect, Michael. I knew what I was doing baby.”


“If you knew, then why’d you keep doing it?” I asked.


Mom stared at the azaleas drifting outside her hospital window like that was some sort of answer. Or maybe she was hoping they’d give her one. I’ll never know — ten seconds into azalea pondering she was seizing and shuddering, and as the nurses ushered me out I watched everything from above like it was my spirit that hatched from the corporeal, was now free to roam the open air.


So eight hours later I was sore-eyed at the park, wondering if azaleas could grow in Bermuda. I noticed these wide green leaves pushing up from the field like glossy platters in a fifty-foot line. I thought they were weeds, and they angered me. I wanted to yank them, roots and all, but the thought of seeing them lying there afterward, pale roots exposed and covered in dirt, left to rot, made something in me feel like it was starting to rot, so I kept walking and imagined that maybe they were azaleas after all.


My mom passed a week later.


Cause and effect.


A week after that I had finished funeral arrangements, and I wanted some fresh air to clear my head. The sky was violet and swirly, and the sun was a dim enough orange to stare at for a beat without it hurting. The playground was vacant, and mosquito-hawks scudded over the low fields, avoiding a swooping flock of sparrows. I watched the bugs zig-zag into refuge beneath the waxy leaves that I thought could maybe be azaleas. By now, they had grown into stalks about a foot tall. I was glad I hadn’t yanked them, proud of my accidental wisdom. Like I’d known somewhere deep down they’d save lives one day. Also, I was pretty sure they weren’t azaleas.


A few weeks after that, my mother was buried and obsequied, and I was certain the weeds were neither weeds nor azaleas, but sunflowers. They’d grown into three to four foot stalks now, their glossy leaves staggered along the stems, and a few had crowned into spiky-soft brown and yellow heads. I stopped and stared at one of the sunflowers and wondered how they ended up with that name; to me, they looked nothing like the sun. But they were bright. And maybe that was the connection. Behind them the sun swayed, auburn and white. Their petals glowed with golden veins. Yeah, that was the connection.




In the month that followed, I retreated from any semblance of a social life. Being with people made me cramped and short of breath, and besides, it was hard to hold a conversation when I just kept wondering whether they would look the same way my mom did in their caskets. Sunflowers, though, they didn’t speak, at least not in words. When they died, it was from natural causes, and they retained a dignity even in their wilting. I visited the sunflower trail at Celestial Park every day.


One time I saw a baby rabbit munching on one of those three-pronged stalks of grass. We held each other’s gaze as I crept past. The baby stopped chewing for the brief second we were parallel, twitched his haunches like he was prepping to bolt, but when I kept walking he kept chewing and I smiled. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d smiled since my mom passed. When I looked back, the baby was next to a bigger rabbit, and I watched them both saunter into the sunflower shade.


I came back the next evening with some rabbit feed I’d picked up from the local pet store on the way home from work. The woman who directed me to the feed aisle had purple-dyed hair with an undercut, and a left ear railroaded with shiny piercings. It made her look younger than she was, which if I had to guess she was pushing twenty-eight, same as me. When she handed me my receipt at checkout, small font at the top read ‘Cashier: Frank G.’ I knew that was incorrect, so I followed the flora inked along her extended forearm up to a nametag that read ‘Elaine’.


“Thanks Elaine,” I said, my pulse kicking up a notch.


“You’re welcome, sir. How many bunnies do you have?”


“Two, at least,” I said, and hurried out when she cocked her head with her manicured eyebrow, because I was nervous and embarrassed and intimidated all at the same time.


Back at the park, I went to where I’d seen the rabbits entering the patch and clicked my tongue. Nothing. Of course; they’re not dogs. So I sat cross-legged and let the grass prickle and settle beneath me before I reached into the bag and tossed a handful of feed into the patch. I waited a few minutes to no avail. My fingers crunched around more feed, flung it a little deeper into the patch. A fuzzy brown shape sidled into my peripherals. Without moving, I glanced over to see the baby rabbit stepping tenderly past me, within arm’s reach, toward the feed. It clenched tight when it was far enough in front of me for there to be a miniature me in the sheen of its eyes. His pink, wet nose twitched as I swallowed to stay still. Then the baby rabbit unclenched and caterpillar-walked over to the bed of feed I’d laid. While he ate, I thought of what I could name him, and how long it would take him to eat all the feed. How long until I could head back to the pet store and tell Elaine what my rabbit’s name was. He ate while I thought of Elaine and what a rabbit’s name might mean to her, until a pair of long-shadowed bikers passed by and scared him into the patch. I stood and decided to name him Shadow.




Another time I watched a few pigeons bounce in and out of the base of the patch, angling and pecking at things I couldn’t see. About twenty feet past them, a heavy-set woman in pink sportswear was staring at the sunflowers. When I passed she turned. Her brow was a high shelf, balanced sturdily atop two dark, bouldered eyes, and was capped off with a tied-back mess of red hair. She reminded me of my mom. We nodded together, then turned our attention to the sunflowers. They were nodding too. I carried on, and as she fell further and further behind me, I looked back. I could tell by the way her posture mimicked the sunflowers that she loved them the same way I did. It made me love her the way I loved them, as something sacred because it was simply what it was.


Then, a silky hand reached up into my chest cavity and crushed something. It was like an egg was jammed deep up inside my chest cavity. The egg must’ve been there for a long, long time, laid by some distant hurt. It must’ve been old because I’d never noticed it—even in that moment, I only recognized it had ever hurt because it stopped. The crushed egg suffused a warm, liquid-yellow peace through my entire body. It made its way to my eyes, balming them so they released some of the water they’d been holding onto, just in case.


That night, I swung by the pet store and asked Elaine if she wanted to meet Shadow. She said yes.


Little by little, the sunflowers had brought me back into the world.


I thanked them in my own way. I’d never drawn before, but I bought a recycled-paper sketchbook the next evening. I sat on the grass and practiced drawing the sunflowers until the air was darker than graphite. Before that, though, I tried my best to capture their sway, their dignity. I even circled out little critters in between them, tucked them together like happy little families. Shadow’s family was in there somewhere. As I drew, I heard a mother rounding up her kids at the park. In one of my last sketches, I drew my mom lilting through the center of the sunflowers. Her head lolled upwards with a single curved line for a smile. She watched a bigger smile-line pushing a rocket to the moon.


A couple weeks later, I showed my sketches to Elaine while we swapped stories over wine at my place. She said she had an idea. She tore the sketches out, folded them into origami shapes—rabbits, sparrows, pigeons, sunflowers—and took me to Celestial Park to bury them in the moonlit sunflower patch. When we were finished, she tried to wipe the dirt off her hands but couldn’t, so she wiped it on my cheeks instead, then ran. I chased her all the way to the playground, to the top of the biggest rocket ship of them all. When I caught her, she was reclined against a metal guard rail and looking over her shoulder at the sunflower patch, her hair riding the breeze. Her ear-piercings drank in the pale moonlight and made it brighter. I put dirt on both her cheeks as I pulled her lips into mine.




The day the sunflowers died, I was going for a run instead of walking. I’d decided I wanted to be healthier, to grow myself into someone that could protect and feed and nurture things the same way the sunflowers did. I figured I’d start with my body since it was closest to home. I was so focused on the heat and rhythm of my thighs that I didn’t notice they were gone at first. But as I padded along the sidewalk, I got that feeling like I’d left a door or window ajar back home. My stomach fluttered for a moment just before it was swatted down beneath my feet, to be trampled over.


I noticed then, the sunflowers were gone.


Broken stalks occasionally jutted out of the ground, at best six inches tall, set at awkward, unnatural angles, like bones splitting through flesh. Some stalks weren’t entirely broken; they hung on by waxy sinews, swaying in the stillness. I kept running, like I could keep going until I got to my sunflower patch, the one with Shadow, the pigeons that sent the pugilist blossoms nodding, nodding — surely they would’ve fought back, right? They would’ve protected their patch, sticking and moving, weaving away from the rotary blades churning and chopping so loud and low to the ground, jabbing and hooking into the face of whoever pushed the blades, until their sunglasses flew from their face along with a spray of spittle dotted with blood and salty with sweat.


Instead, I ran across the riding motor where the trail hooked. It hunched into itself next to the sidewalk like a giant, sleeping crab. It glinted there, motionless, lifeless, dingy red with darker rust splotches all along its framing. A slight haze shimmered off it, the fresh heat of its work. If I had any mechanical touch, I would’ve dismantled the thing then and there. Stripped its plugs, yanked all the veiny blue and yellow wires so strands of copper poked out the ends. I imagined breaking open its crab shell frame just to yell and point and prove to it that it wasn’t alive because it had no meat, so it had no right to mow over the pith and fur and feathers that breathed.


A thicket rose up behind the mower, with a small shady clearing hole-punched in the center. A man stood there, dripping with sweat. He must’ve picked his shades up because they were back on his face, black and reflective, and he must’ve had a good corner man back somewhere in that thicket because his bruises and cuts were so doctored up I couldn’t tell they were ever even there. Still, they’d given him hell, the sunflowers. I could see it in the way he heaved, his tanned skin lean and dirty beneath a drenched long-sleeved shirt, a Mickey Mouse sweat pattern imprinted across the front.


Now, since you understand how the sunflowers grew out of absolutely nothing, became resplendent, only to be brutally returned to absolutely nothing—now, I can talk about what I did when I saw that man.


I imagined running in there to shake him at the shoulders and scream and point at the faux-crab’s husk, broken open with its innards strewn along the sidewalk. I’d tell him he’d been jipped, duped, that he’d used the dead to kill the living to make more dead. He’d shudder and repent, and we’d vow to never forget what had happened, this tragic mistake. The shredded sunflowers would spread their seeds, triumphant in death with the promise of continued life.


But I knew that wasn’t how it would go.


For one, the faux-crab still sat pompously intact.


For two, I knew the man would just shrug, wipe his brow as he looked past me.


I’d see the sun burning like a small white pupil in his reflective shades, and I wouldn’t know if he was looking at me or even anything at all when he said, “I’m just doing my job, man.”


Cause and effect.


A clicking keyboard, an undulating throat beneath an upturned bottle, a casket lowering into the ground, a random spruce of sunflowers, a parks and recreation employee mowing down the sunflowers for probably less than minimum wage. None were immune.


So I ran back to the patch. I preened through the debris until my fingers brushed something small, dark, and oblong. A sunflower seed. I ran back to the man, still heaving in the shade. When I approached, he stepped back, startled. I can’t blame him; if a shirtless, sweaty, mildly overweight man who also happened to be crying approached me with a clenched fist, I’d be concerned too. He relaxed when I turned over my fist and opened it, revealing the seed.


“Can you grow it?” I asked.


He plucked it from my hand, rolled it between his fingers. “I can try.”




“My daughter loves these things,” he said as I turned to leave.


I paused. “The park over there is a lot of fun. You should take her,” I said, nodding toward the spaceships.




When I got home, I showered and sat at my dining table with my pencil and empty sketchbook. I thought of my mother, rotting in the ground, her poisoned liver feeding the earth. I thought of azaleas and sunflowers, of sparrows, rabbits, pigeons, mosquito-hawks, of people moving in sweaty sheens beneath the sunset. I drew each of those things, and after I drew them I interconnected them with lines. I tried to see how it all fit together, like if I could just get the configuration right then I’d unearth a causal chain that explained why we lived in ways that led to death, and why death plumed back into seeds of life to do it all over again. If I could grab that chain, trace it link by link back to the root, I could yank the whole thing out once and for all. In the pattern’s center, I drew my mother in bold, heavy strokes. I realized then, the shape of it all, it looked vaguely like a sunflower.


Cause and effect.


Elaine and I visited that park for our one year anniversary. The dark tree line behind the spaceships was dotted yellow with sunflowers, brighter than the stars above.

Kris Hawkins teaches Special Education English & Reading in Plano, Texas. If he’s not teaching, reading, or writing, he’s probably either spending time with family and friends, playing bass guitar, digging into a sweet video or board game, shoving overly buttery popcorn into his mouth during a movie, or exploring the natural and human-made worlds greeting him at every turn.

2022 Poetry Contest Second Place Winner: American Pastoral by John Sibley Williams

American Pastoral

by John Sibley Williams

Again, the wind sings the laundry from the line. 

Bleached of our stains, baptized by soap & sun, 


by a once mighty river gone arroyo & a handed- 

down washboard bartered for a grandmother’s


dreams, what we’ve worn to keep the world 

from our bodies eddies out over the barbed


fence between neighbors, severing the gray  

halo plumes of not-distant-enough factories, 


all these empty pallets of shorn meadows,  

deerless wood, clapboard churches & the holy 


specters of fathers roped to stakes to terrify 

the crows—all that hay & newsprint a symbol, 


I’m told, for something: maybe witness, maybe rusty

hinge, home—maybe like contrails the t-shirt my brother 


killed himself in & the overalls he once carved angels 

into snow with & the wild whorls of my mother’s  


chemo wig & the tutu my daughter whose body 

thinks itself a boy’s cherishes like prayer; all 


the houses we’ve built around the house we live in 

my socks & underwear & regret & love just keep 


whistling past like a hymn, a migratory bird, like 

light before we divvy it up into ours/yours; before 


piecing our myths back together into a history, there’s this 

tender wind I tell my daughter she can hold in her hands. 



John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). His book Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming in translated form by the Portuguese press do lado esquerdo. A twenty-seven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.

2022 Poetry Contest First Place Winner

They Buried Him In The Sand

            For John Henry the man and all the unnamed men buried

at the Great Bend Tunnel, Talcott, West Virginia


Ghosts graze

the land,

and the grass—

it tumbles off the lip

into that old

roadside tangle

barbed wire


caution tape

soft sinkhole muck


What the ground 

holds where

the ground collapses—


Sun lifts up

bright, bright


Down the road

a flat

space of gravel

stones raked

stones ordered


An amphitheater


in its maintenance


And a whole army

of little signs


Sudden signage


I hope you enjoyed the doves


What the ground holds

crawls all over

my skin

in the sunlight


Does my breath catch

from the knowing

of the body

or the already-knowing

of the story


they buried him


but it is after I know it

that I see it—this

hole in the ground

with its slump

of old concrete

is a gravesite


The sun lifts

the spirit—

sun-summoned spirits

rising out of

the blanch-white

of gravel dust

            (but there’s no sand here,

                                                            no sand)


Past the gravesite

the world gets groomed


and then by the tracks

his statue



of a Black man



to death


John Henry died from a race


song says

he hammered his fool self to death

sign says

hero of the working class

song says

I’d die with a hammer in my hand

sign says

the real truth is of a man who stood up for his convictions against technological advancements

sign says


John Henry died from a race


sign says

I hope you enjoyed the doves


sun bright

on the quiet ground

says nothing




                                                            the man

they buried him in the sand


                                                            the myth

stood up for his convictions against technological advancement


                                                            the legend

this statue was erected in 1972, by a group of people with the same determination as the one it honors







and the signs

take pains

to make clear

that even

if he isn’t 

buried here


Quite a few of the workers had an abject fear of working where someone had just died. It was in the contractor’s best interest to downplay these deaths and accidents as much as possible. Rumor has it that mass graves are located on each end of the tunnel and at the fill before the old trestle where it crosses Hungards Creek “where they buried men and mules.”




His statue

looks over these 


with their

pointed stakes


the railbed

the picnic tables

chalky chain link

dull beneath the sun

groomed gravel

the amphitheater

back towards the fill

back towards the creek

back towards the buried

who were driven

by a confederate

who would

work men to death

but on his honor

refused bankruptcy

as ill suited to a 




His statue

looks back


the gravesite


Maybe his own and




It is irrelevant if the story of John Henry is true or a legend


His statue

holds a hole 


someone shot

a bullet

right through 

his chest








On my walk out

I am still a while

in the thick part

of the trees


far from the sun

cold here,

cold     green      low to the ground


still til

nothing sees me

that isn’t

being still with me


I can hear the man

in the yard just

over the hill


I can see the backside

of the welcome sign

where a woman 

just pulled up 

and grabbed 

a carefully hidden

plastic bag


I can hear

next door


Someone keeps hollering


One minute he’s singing


and the next minute

he’s right back to


his shot



Ella Latham is a writer from South Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SoFloPoJo, miniskirt magazine, and the Peauxdunque Review, where it was selected as the creative nonfiction category winner in the 2021 Words and Music Writing Competition and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and works in the North Carolina mountains.


Praise from Asiya Wadud for “They Buried Him In The Sand”:


The fan-folds of American history diminish the distance of the past and instead creates one, contiguous field between past, present, and foreseeable future. Seemingly ancient ghosts remain at the center of our imaginary, animating our mythology; haunting the landscapes; wending their way across the distance.


What astounds me in “They Buried Him In The Sand” is the proximity of the utterly quotidian and foreboding violence. This closeness belies the myth and formulation of a distant past and instead we are asked to contend with the ways that “ghosts graze/ the land”. These opening lines are instructions for how to enter this piece. As such, we enter with the knowledge that the ghosts have gone nowhere. Their sturdiness is uncontested. They float up, they graze and hover, but they don’t dissipate. 


Throughout the piece, “S’s” nimbly slide across the page, creating a reverberation and reverence all at once: “song says” is followed by “signs says” which is followed by “song says.” Elsewhere, we have “the sun lifts/ the spirit—/ sun-summoned spirit.” 


Against the backdrop of violence are moments of transportive clarity and radiance as well as reminders that “nothing sees me/ that isn’t/ being still with me.” The subterranean brutality abutting attempts at order, jostling for space and attention, though it is in the space of their prolonged tension that the poem exists. As the piece notes, “Past the gravesite/ the world gets groomed.” This poem instructs its readers to peel back, to look past the neat exterior to see what exists under the veneer of uncleaved space.


2022 Poetry Contest Third Place Winner: whisper & smoke by henry 7. reneau jr


whisper & smoke

by henry 7. reneau, jr

after “The Urban Wild Coyote Project” by Mandy-Suzanne Wong


old man coyote   //   demigod/shape- 

shifter   / 

dons a missionary’s collar/   & snakeskin boots//   

cocks his head/   a God engine of whisper 

& smoke   //   a politician’s wink & a grin/   sound

/byte filtered honey/:  incognito amongst 

the People of Hope   


//   coyotes   //   the symbolic chaos of disorder 

in white myths/:  the illegal indigenous 

colonizing their cities/   mercilessly shot/   

& tortuously 

caught in traps/   their progeny/tear-gassed 

inside their dens  


//   but wild things are wild/   not a rib 

to be subserviently yoked/   because the walls 

we build to contain them/    mean nothing 

to them   /& their Other-ness 

is the filth/   that makes them feel   // 


coyotes are entangled/   live under constant 


in many Amerikkkan urban networks/   

where the native tribes who venerated them 

were ousted or exterminated/   

but coyotes survived   (trickster/   finagler/& 

taboo breaker)


/:  in Chicago/   radio-collared coyotes work 

as civil servants/   hunting rodents 

in the city center   /

but gunshot splayed if they overstep their place 


//   their refusal to lie down 

& die/   their adaptability/   tenacity & 


their uncanny staying power 

even as white folks/came a-slaughtering   /& 

Progress swallowed up the land/   the guns & 


& asphalt of Manifest Destiny/   

in the name of ‘sivilized/:  a self-

generating meta-

phor vermin   // 


we are people from shithole countries   /kid-  

napped in tall ships   /Atlantic crossing 

into the Gloaming/   between bated breath 

& the muted silence of dread   //   


now/   we root ourselves 

in tribal birthmarks/   & blooms 

of bruises of old blood/   remake ourselves 

from jaw bones/   gri-gri wishbones/   & 

backwoods ham-

bone Blue(s)   /like blood diamonds  

ground down   /to whispers on the color line   /

the comet in us   /

fur-sleek over sinewy muscle/   our 

multi-Colored chanting Jubilee   //   we 

were told we no longer belonged/   

as our endeavor to persevere/   marched 

on Baltimore/   Ferguson/   & Sanford, Florida/   

seething to the surface irides-

cent in hoodoo magic/   & pixilated 


to replicate ourselves/:  as many 

as They can count   /plus one more/   

like schools of  minnow 

glimmering gunshot celestial neon with galaxies   

/or Mason jar caged 

electrical ball lightning of fettered fireflies /   

phoenix up-

risen/   to roar again/   

singing mighty protest songs   //    


Note: Philadelphia, Denver, Toronto, and the Gotham Coyote Project in New York City boast research organizations devoted to metropolitan coyotes. In Chicago, radio-collared coyotes work as civil servants, hunting rodents in the city center. In Tucson, biologists found that 50% of the city’s human residents enjoy seeing coyotes in their neighborhoods. Up to 85% believe coyotes pose no threat.  


henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience—is the spontaneous combustion that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, like a discharged bullet that commits a felony every day, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, his collection, A Non-Violent Suicide Poem [or, The Saga of The Exit Wound], was a finalist for the 2022 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Zone 3; Poets Reading the News, and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. 


Spring 2022 Images

Poem by Maxwell Stenson

Poem by Maxwell Stenson

This morning we will be simple.

We will collect splayed

seconds, our fingers

anticipating caffeine.


We will offer nothing

in way of robinsong

branches, motions

Aeolian about them.


There’s little time

for casual sublimity,

for drowned blues

beside a broken river.


Steel offices, shield,

crucible or desktop: for these

today will we be simple.


And for twenty minutes

a war can end which

trumpeted never truly

for us, for twenty minutes


we can taste

simple salt, curtailed

lotus, the dawn rolled back

along a lover’s tongue.



This premature light lingers,

lances through limes

and disassembles the mourning chariot.

Maxwell Stenson currently lives and works in Sacramento, California. His poetry has been nominated for Best New Poets, has appeared in Thrush, The Blue Route, Sijo: An International Journal of Poetry and Song, and is forthcoming in The Elevation Review.


Thompson: Submachine Gun or Seafood House by Henry Cherry 


The cable to helium,

the lightning mustard,

corded in excelsior.

Wings spun of caramel,

fellow witnesses to the

descent, beyond the linens.

Disrupted in popped corks,

unstrung tennis racquets,

woods layered with pine needles.

The sweeping falter of arrhythmia

pursed in ruby painted

lips, a dank basement.

I have the purplish-blue color

from architectural prints,

from duplicating ditto machines

embroidered in a pillow case

with English alphabet letters

and Arabic numbers up to 10.

Big block memorials by the

golf course, shrouded in

plastic cups lined with citrus

flavored ideologies. Clacking

hooves, five-foot high fences

and wide brimmed hats.

I have a DeCarava print on the wall, and a

metal table underneath collecting

dust and fingerprints.

Hymnals open to the last

number of the epilogue

where God gets a little swinging.


Henry Cherry worked as a cowhand, a chef, and is now a journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles. He has been nominated for the Pushcart and the Orison Award. Featured as a reader at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at Litquake in San Francisco, his work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Cathexis Northwest Press, Australia’s Cordite Poetry Review, The Louisiana Review, and the recent pandemic collection, Hello Goodbye Apocalypse.