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Stanchion's 2024 Pushcart Prize Nominations

I welcome you to read all 6 of Stanchion's 2024 Pushcart Prize nominations in full. Below are three poems and three pieces of short fiction that represent the tip of the iceberg for the quality of writing Stanchion has had the privilege of publishing in 2023. Please enjoy all of this.

John F Duffy "Sweetie" from Issue 11

Squeezing both bags, he stared at the coffee maker. Wood County was always out of everything. Grounds. Creamer. Actual sugar. Brown water stained his fingers and dripped into the rippling tea in the styrofoam cup. When the sopping bags had given their all, he tossed them into the trash can under the sink.

“Who are you seeing this morning?” a woman asked.

Matthew turned, and seeing Candace, he smiled. “McDaniel. You?”

Candace stepped into the kitchenette carrying a tall white cup with a familiar green logo. “Darnell Lucas.”

“Is he new?” Matthew asked. He pointed to Candace’s cup, “Where’s there a Starbucks around here?”

“There isn’t. Sentenced last week and transferred in on Monday,” Candace said, then sipped her coffee.

“What’d he do?” Matthew blew steam from his tea.

“Beat a kid at school half to death.”

“Yikes.” Matthew sipped his drink and winced.

“That good, huh?” Candace asked, nodding to his cup.

“It’s awful. You know, I have been here probably every other week for the past seven months, and not once has there been any coffee. I swear that machine is just for show. That or the guards steal it all.”

“Maybe the warden owns stock in Lipton,” she joked.

“I’d kill for Lipton. This is Britain’s Best. You have to use two bags if you want any caffeine. Dry it smells like old spinach. Wet, it’s like drinking dirt.”

Candace jostled her cup. “That’s why you have to come prepared.” She moved to where Matthew stood and leaned her wide hip into the counter.

Joining her in leaning, they met eyes. “Does it say why he did it?”

“File says bullying.”

“So it doesn’t say.”

“I have my work cut out for me,” Candace said.

“Another day in paradise.” Matthew raised his cup with two hands and scowled before the liquid even touched his lips.

Wood County Juvenile Corrections was just like all the other cinder block child prisons. It was overcrowded, understaffed, and in Candace’s mind, it was exactly the kind of place that made good kids bad and bad kids worse. Darnell was already in the windowless room when she opened the door. Waiting with his head down under the UV light, his gray sweats matched the gray walls, his brown skin matched the brown table. Candace entered in her burgundy skirt and blazer, and Darnell’s eyes couldn’t help but drink in the color.

She dropped a manilla folder onto the table and it landed with a thick slap. Her chair scraped against the concrete floor, and it wasn’t until she was sitting comfortably that she said sweetly, “Good morning, Darnell.” He buried his face in his folded arms. Candace opened her folder and began flipping through the stack of white papers it contained. She slurped her coffee on purpose, and when Darnell raised his head, she smiled at him with painted lips. “My name is Candace Jackson, but you can call me Candace. I’ve been assigned to be your counselor. Do you know what that means?” Darnell raised his head a few inches, and shook it, so she explained, “It means that I am here to help you. I work for the court, but I am not a police officer or a lawyer or a judge.”

“Are you a psychiatrist?” Darnell asked.

“A psychologist, actually. And I specialize in juvenile criminology. It’s my job to help you understand why you did what you did.”

Darnell sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I’m already locked up. Why the fuck’s anyone care about why? What’s done is done.”

“Because in two years when you turn eighteen, you could be released back into society, and if so, it’s in the interest of the state to make sure you don’t ever do anything like that again.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

 Candace smiled again, “But if we don’t get to the bottom of whatever it is inside of you that made you act so violently, we can’t be certain.”

Darnell squinted. “Why’s it got to be something inside me? Why is everyone so sure it aint all about something inside of him?”

“Inside of who? Jamie?”

Darnell nodded.

“Well, Darnell, because Jamie didn’t beat you up in front of a crowd of kids at a football game. Because Jamie didn’t lift you up and slam you down onto the parking lot while other kids cheered and filmed the assault. Because you’re not confined to a wheelchair now, and Jaime is.”

Darnell’s eyes went to the open folder under Candace’s right hand. “That’s my file, right?”

“It is.”

“You read the whole thing?”

“I did.”

“What else have I done?”

Candace’s mouth parted to speak, but she restrained herself to think first. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.”

He sat forward, tapping his index finger on the faux wood surface of the table. “What other violent crimes have I committed? Or non-violent crimes for that matter?”

Candace folded her hands and kept her back straight. “According to your file, none.”

“So why does everyone just assume all this shit with Jaime was my fault?”

“Like I said, Darnell, because he is in the wheelchair, not you.”

“He’s in the wheelchair because I happen to outweigh that little bitch by fifty pounds. He’s in the wheelchair because there ain't nothing he could have done to me if he wanted to. So if anything, I’m guilty of being bigger than him, and that’s it.”

“Are you saying that Jaime picked that fight with you?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not what any of the videos show. Three of your classmates recorded the incident from beginning to end and posted it on their social media pages. These videos were all watched by the jury over and over again, Darnell, and they unanimously agreed that you were the instigator of the conflict.”

Darnell rolled his eyes and looked away, shaking his head. He was facing the door when he said, “I guess it’s totally inconceivable to anyone that maybe, shit with me and Jaime started before I ever confronted him in that parking lot.” Laying his arms on the table he said in a low voice, “Maybe, the fucking jury only ever saw the end of something that started long before that night. Something that I had been dealing with for a long time. Something that took all of my restraint to let go on for as long as it did.”

Candace mimicked Darnell’s posture and volume. “Tell me,” she said.

He sucked his teeth. Shook his head. “You won’t understand.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean you won’t understand!” he said, his eyes widening.

“I can understand something even if I don’t agree with it. And it’s much better for your future if I write down that you had underlying motivations for your actions, rather than that you are an unremorseful person who enjoys violence. Because right now, that’s the state’s opinion of you.”

Darnell waved his hand, shooing away her words. “That’s the state’s opinion of all black men.”

“It’s not my opinion, and I work for the state,” Candace countered.

“That’s because you’re black too. You got a black daddy, black brothers, you probably got a black husband. So you know that’s all bullshit.”

Candace smiled. “I’m married to a woman, Mr. Lucas.”

He looked at his lap, then back to her. “But you're black. That’s my point.”

“Fair enough.”

Darnell leaned in. “No matter what I tell you about Jamie and me, it’s not going to convince any of the white folk down at the courthouse that I’m anything other than a fucking animal. So why should I bother?”

“Because you’re not an animal. You’re a young man who made a mistake. A grave mistake. But when I look at your records, I see a young man with potential. A young man with good grades and even respectable extracurriculars like the debate team. And talking to you now, even for just a few minutes, I can see that you don't deserve to spend the next ten years of your life inside a prison, wasting your mind, wasting your talents, growing hard of heart and turning into what you think those white folks already believe that you are. So tell me, what happened?”

Darnell looked to the fluorescent lights overhead. Shaking his head again, he sighed. “This is pointless.”

“Try me.”

Darnell’s breathing was paced, and heavy. His gaze bounced around the room as if the beginning of his story was hidden in one of its corners and he had to lay eyes on it before he could speak. He leaned his chair back on its rear legs and his hands began to gesture in front of his chest like he was conducting a silent orchestra. A torrent of emotions moved through the muscles of his face, and Candace watched as fear became joy which melted into anger and then confusion, all in the space of seconds. Thinking he was never going to say anything, Candace parted her hands and opened her own mouth, but before she could speak, Darnell blurted out, “He kissed me!”

Her heartbeat drummed in her ears. “What’s that?”

Darnell set his chair back on all four legs, and hung his head. Whispering, he repeated himself. “He kissed me. In the hallway. His friend put it up on Snapchat. The whole school saw it.”

“You crippled that poor boy, because he kissed you?” She didn’t mean to sound so aghast.

Darnell’s shame fled under the weight of her judgment. “He kissed me on the mouth! Isn’t that assault? If I don’t want to be kissed, why is it OK to do that? And to film it! Do you know what kind of shit I took for weeks because of that?”

Candace checked her tone. “You’re right, he had no business kissing you without your consent. No one is saying that’s OK, Darnell. But the ferocity with which you took your revenge was out of proportion. Like you said, you’re much larger than he is. He didn’t stand a chance.”

“He should have thought about that before making a fool out of me! Before posting it online like a big fucking joke instead of apologizing. Was that in your videos? Is it in all this fucking paper?” With a wide swipe of his arm, Darnell brushed the manilla folder off the table. Paper flipped and spun and floated to the ground. “Did one person in this whole goddamn system ever give enough of a fuck about me to find out that I approached Jaime before that night at the game, more than once, simply asking him to apologize? Was anyone there to see him wave me off with a smile in front of all his faggot friends? Did anyone in the court hear him call me ‘sweetie’ on all those videos?”

“You can’t hurt people’s bodies because they hurt your feelings. You changed that boy’s life forever.”

Big tears balled up in Darnell’s brown eyes. They tumbled down his face as he spoke. “Do you really think I did that on purpose? Do you think I wanted him to be handicapped? Me and Jamie…” He looked at the wall as though it were a window. Fixed his gaze as if it might just break through the concrete.

“What?” Candace asked, tensing her fists under the table to keep her own tears on the inside.

Darnell’s body trembled. “We go back,” he said to the wall. “We’ve known each other a long time. A long time. He should have known.”

“Known what?”

Darnell didn’t speak.

“Known what, Darnell?”

Darnell exploded forward, his bulk lunging towards Candace, his hands finding the edges of the table. “That I wasn’t like him!” And with that, he deflated, sinking back into his chair, his shoulders and chest slumping forward as he stared into his lap.

Candace nodded, refusing to look at Darnell. “I think we’re done for today.” She pushed back her chair and moved to the floor, scooping up papers and dropping them back into the folder. Darnell was silent but for the sound of his sniffling. Candace stood, and her heels clicked on the hard floor as she collected her coffee cup and walked toward the door. “I’ll be back next week,” she said, reaching for the aluminum handle.

“I wasn’t ready,” Darnell said into his chest.

Candace froze in the doorway. “Ready for what, Mr. Lucas?”

“For people to know.”

The microwave beeped. Candace pulled it open to retrieve a white styrofoam cup and the smell of a thousand reheated lunches wafted out. She flicked the bag of Britain’s Best a few times with her finger, then lowered it into the steaming water.

“Old spinach,” she said.

“I told you so,” Matthew laughed, stepping into the kitchenette. He flopped a folder onto the table and collapsed into an orange chair.

Candace’s back was to Matthew. She didn’t see him dragging his fingers down his face as he groaned, “Ever notice that the first one of the day is always the hardest?” She didn’t answer. Her arm was robotically raising and lowering a teabag in her cup. “Your Starbucks run dry?” he asked.

Turning to him, Candace’s eyes were red and her mascara was smeared. Matthew jumped up and went to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. Softly he said, “Hey, hey, hey! What’s the matter? What happened? Was the Lucas kid a monster?”

“No. No. He’s just a boy. It’s not him. I just…” Candace was weeping. Matthew carefully took her cup from her hand and set it on the counter. She moved in and hugged him tightly, and her body heaved against his. Matthew’s embrace was that of a fellow soldier fighting a losing war. He said nothing. He was scaffolding. She found a place between her sobs to whisper, “I just wasn’t prepared.”

Dare Williams "There Were Dancing" from Issue

“Bang, bang,’ it sounded like it was a song.”- Christopher Hanson to WFTV Orlando, Florida


Tonight, I bloom 

at the shoreline of bass. 

On the floor, my neck collapses

into a shoulder, tenor of a body

strapped in and trusting. 


I hurry a kiss and leave 

the rest. 


To enact intimacy, knowing others

are watching, is true liberation. 


I’m too aware of my own 

mortality, the days I’ve wasted 

the days yet to come.  


Where do I place my femme-ness, 

where do I parade.


I set aside all that is holy. 


Dear stranger, your hands

where I drop the weight 

who else have they held. 

Bodies bellow in the pulse–

machine moving in the after

glow. When they can’t understand 

our love they 

puncture it. 

Sarah Aziz "On Chapter 93: Ad-duha/The Morning Hours" from Issue 11

for Bilkis Bano

at seven, it curled blue

-hot around my neck:

two z’s too many, a

bullet to each, or, perhaps,

a dream of the Sheba torched:

the queen watching in clothes and

air borrowed, as smooth and wizened bare

heads brushed the fiery tips of the Godhra sea

glass wedged between sweaty, sunned elbows. Which

is to say, 2002. Which is to say, the year I learnt to cry,

which is to say, you are awake. But I have known to hold

my breath, at the sound of a name;

a sister-brother-sibling, a charcoaling flood closing in on me,

screaming can you be? can you and I ever just be and be held and not be —

I have a name. Meaning: oh. Meaning: of course. Meaning:

to be tolerated.

Aziz. Uh-zeez. Say it like rain, bellowing against

rooftops. The beloved. The strong. Meaning:

Your Lord has neither forsaken you, nor is He displeased.

Touch me. Like rain licks the verdant

curves of the moon on land. Like fire. Like the opposite of

to be tolerated. Like falling, and landing at

the mouth of a spider-spun cavern gate.

Wendy BooydeGraaff "American Tea" from Issue 13

The hostess escorts us to the bistro table overlooking the Grand River and its riverwalk. An antique carousel sits enclosed in a glass pavilion on the opposite side of the river. The tinkling music turns off at 5 when the museum closes. It’s 4:55.

What I want is a glass of prosecco and oysters, but I’m with my mother-in-law and she doesn’t approve of me. It’s okay, I don’t approve of her, either. Still, I was raised to be polite. I order tea and scones.

“Well, this is different.” My mother-in-law fingers the blue linen tablecloth. Last time we went out, it was BBQ ribs, corn-on-the-cob, and waxy napkins. Lynn’s wearing the same light pants and bright turquoise blouse she wore then. She shifts on the small iron bistro seat.

The tea comes in tall sculpted glasses with ice and lemon wedges. After twenty years in America, I should know better than to expect a cup and saucer, especially in late August. I take a sip and my face revolts at the saccharine assault. I suck on the lemon wedge. “You don’t like it?” Lynn asks. I shrug. “It’s perfect for me,” she says. “A nice summer day like this? Course, I don’t need it in a fancy glass.” She stirs her iced tea with the straw, the thick sludge of sweet at the bottom clouding the amber.

“A fancy glass makes everything better,” I say. I don’t take another sip. The scones crumble onto the plate, flaky bits of pastry and macerated peach. It would be better with real tea, hot tea, they call it here. I can’t, won’t send back the iced tea, not in front of her. Lynn licks her finger so the crumbs stick, then licks her finger again. She repeats the process until her plate shines.

“Did you know,” I say, to fill the space between us, “that this river used to have rapids in it?” Lynn makes a noise, some sort of acknowledgment in the back of her throat. She’s sipping her iced tea in long gulps. “They dammed it up, years ago, when that was the thing to do.” Lynn’s outright staring at the two men being seated beside us. I keep talking. “There’s an initiative to bring back the rapids—restore the habitat for the fish and mussels. Sturgeon, too.” Lynn shifts and her eyes track the server, a young curvy woman with snug black pants, climbing the stairs back into the restaurant. She has to contort her body to do this, as we are both facing the river. “Apparently, there will be whitewater rafting and picnic areas. Skating along the river in the winter. The plans are beautiful. A revitalization project.”

Two birds sweep over the water, fly under the blue bridge, then high into the sky. Traffic hums over the 131 and the 196. A child shouts from the path by the river and I watch a shadow of a person with a stroller follow an animated figure dancing and pointing.

Lynn sees the child, too. “Now that’s work, having two kids,” she says. “No need to go to the gym if you have little ones.” She stares at my biceps, the gentle curve of them, my toned shoulders exposed in my halter dress. I flex and watch her eyes widen.

“I always bring a sweater along,” she says. “Don’t want to catch a chill.” Today is a humid 86 degrees.

“I’m working on a new project,” I say. “You’d like this one. It’s for a gardening center.” Lynn’s eyes are flat, no spark of interest. Her place has blue mop-head hydrangeas pressing up against the siding. She feeds them coffee grounds daily, waters them, talks to them.

Lynn scrapes her chair against the concrete patio, rises half-way out of her chair, waves one arm as if hailing a cab. Her face glows. Russ arrives at the table and she sits back heavily in the chair. “Well, hello,” she says in a voice I don’t recognize.

Russ kisses my cheek, says hello to his mother, and orders wine and pasta. He squeezes my hand under the table. The salads arrive, and I listen to Russ’s monologue about his office, his triathlon training, while I eat and watch Lynn fumble with the larger pieces of lettuce. She nods, a tomato seed stuck to her lower lip, and her tongue pops out and licks it away.

The server is at the next table, and the whole group bursts out laughing. Russ turns to look, and Lynn draws him back with a question about a lake house he’s had on the market for two years. “Strange it’s taking so long,” he says, “since it’s a great house, and the housing market’s been going gonzo.”

I laugh because it’s a funny term, especially when applied to financial matters, and Russ and I share a look because he knows what I’m thinking. Lynn stutters and coughs a bit of lettuce into her hand, wipes it on her lap. “Remember Gonzo from The Muppets?” I say to her, gently.

“No,” she says. “I didn’t watch that.”

“Mom,” Russ says, “we watched it every Sunday night, the whole family.”

“Well, I didn’t pay attention,” she says. “It was for you kids, we did that.” She shoots an angry look at me, me who picked her up, drove her here so we could eat dinner scandalously early. I had to skip lunch.

“Remember how I’d pretend to be Animal, playing the drums?” Russ plays the air drums, a wild grin on his face.

“Stop that!” Lynn hisses, looking around, but I laugh louder. The tables around us stare at Russel, and he hams it up a notch until they, too, laugh. Lynn’s face changes, looking at Russel, and she cackles hoarsely. “He’s a comedian,” she tells the server, who is placing steaming tagliatelle in front of each of us.

“Aren’t they all,” the server says.

“No,” Lynn says. “They aren’t.” She pushes away the pepper grinder before the server can ask if she wants any.

“I’ll have pepper,” I say. I smile at the server.

“Makes me sneeze,” says Lynn.

“More,” I say, nodding to the server, and then, as if to prove herself, Lynn sneezes, grabbing at her napkin, clanging the silverware.

“A refill,” she says, shaking her glass at the server.

Russ and I exchange a glance. We’ll leave the server a better than generous tip tonight.

Russ talks about the river, bringing back the rapids. Lynn leans forward, pasta dripping from her fork, her eyes bright in their red-rimmed sockets. “How will they do that?” she asks, and stuffs the pasta into her mouth.

The server returns with another glass of iced tea.

“Thank you,” I say, and Lynn glares at me.

“I asked for a refill, not another glass,” she says.

“They don’t do refills here,” I say. “It’s unhygienic.”

The pasta is good, very good. The noodles have been finished in the sauce. I can always tell when the chef pays attention to the important details. Russ talks about sturgeon, mussels, salmon—the same list, different order. He mentions white-water rafting.

Lynn listens, rapt.

The carousel lights come on across the river, though it’s not nearly dusk. A wedding party poses in front of the river, then enters the glass doors. The wind-up music of the carousel wafts over, old fashioned notes warble tinny and fake. The hand-carved horses, giraffes, and tigers rotate on command.

When the server comes by with the dessert menu, I ask her to bring prosecco and oysters. She conveys mild surprise with her eyebrows. “You sure you don’t want the chocolate torte?” she asks.

When the oysters arrive at the table, diaphanous jiggling globs in their silvery shells, Lynn says, “Are those raw?”

“They’re delicious,” I say. I make a show of squeezing lemon, dabbing the smallest bit of sauce, slurping loudly.

“It’s like swallowing a loogie, Mom,” Russ says. “You’ve done that before. Everyone has.”

“I don’t pay to do it.”

“You’re not paying for this, Mom,” Russ says. She already knows this. We always pay for dinner. Lynn has never paid for anything, not with money and not with kindness.

I sip my prosecco. I wait until her gaze flits to me. “They taste like the sea.” She looks at Russ; he’s looking at me.

I imagine telling Lynn oysters are an aphrodisiac. That I eat things like oysters and seaweed and I’d eat slime from one of those toy eggs if it was seasoned properly. I want her to cringe, to make her disgusted, to know I am so completely different from her, that I do all of the things she has said no to over the years. “You don’t have to eat them,” I say.

Russ and I reach for oysters, and there’s her hand, snatching the last Bluepoint from my hand’s trajectory. She clangs it against her teeth. She tips her head back and pours the oyster in. She sets down the shell. The oyster’s in her mouth. We hear it swishing around. She reaches for her iced tea. She swallows and swallows, like a big pill going down. She takes a Malpeque, and a Kumamoto. She takes another. And another. Each time, she gulps the iced tea, forces down the oyster. We order more. The lime sorbet here is divine, but we get more and more oysters. Lynn has not seen the menu since the scones. She doesn’t know the gluttony we are performing. She slurps and slurps.

KJ Shepherd "Florida People" from Issue 13

1994: lunch

“You’re such a beautiful girl—you know, you really could be a bikini model.” Kenneth pulled a threadbare twenty from his wallet. “Now how about you go to the back and see if you can help me out a bit.”

The young woman shook her head just enough for her bangs to rustle. “Okay. Let me check first.”

I sat two chairs away, tilting the last puddle of melted soft serve into a nicked metal spoon. All eight cousins had dashed to the ice cream station after obligatory vegetables to churn out cups filled with waxy vanilla, all while the adults lamented not choosing the smoking section. The station also had pumps for syrups, but I was afraid of the ungodly red stream they called strawberry—or, perhaps, was worried my mother would make me toss it out for being overly indulgent. “Plenty,” my mother would say at every turn ever since we started suddenly attending Saint Bernadette’s, tongue heavy with the Miami dark L. Rather than invoke Catholic mathematics on my final dish, however, she was too busy trying to figure out why her own father was attempting to get a to-go box at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“Dad, they don’t let you take food from here.”

“No, Judith, you don’t understand—you just have to ask them directly.”

My mother looked around for backup and found a third-grader eating dessert and her sister in a pill haze. “Dad, it’s a buffet, that’s not how any of them work.”

“That’s just a common misperception.” Kenneth pulled out his pocketknife and began to clean the underside of his fingernails. “By law, all restaurants have to let you take home food if you request it. It started to ensure shitholes like this wouldn’t scrape their food back into the serving trays and give everyone food poisoning.” He wiped the schmutz from the tip of his blade onto the laminate tabletop before putting the knife away. “Besides, there were twelve, thirteen of us here today and I think they owe us a little something as a thank you. Basic decency.”

The young woman returned, having already known what she had to say. “Sir, we don’t have any boxes at all in the back.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not for me.”

“Sir, Sadie’s doesn’t carry any to-go boxes because we just don’t allow to-go orders.”

“It’s not for me—I swear on my life!” He opened his wallet again, pulling out a photo clearly in front of any of his grandchildren’s. “This is my beautiful dog, Brownie. He’s getting old—just like me! I like to spoil him with just a little bit of leftovers whenever I can afford more than dog food.” I had never been allowed to see this dog. My mother said he bit several mailmen and almost got shot when he tried the same move on my father. Brownie allegedly spent his days in a narrow patch of lawn in the thick of Miami Beach, facing an Orthodox temple.

“Again, sir, it’s just Sadie’s policy that—”

“Look, is it that you need more money?” He rifled through his wallet. “Are you taking classes right now or something? You know, a girl like you really could bikini model if—”

“Let me grab my manager.” She finished the sentence fully jogging.

We sat in a thoroughly unamerican purgatory, having paid for a meal but unable to leave. Kenneth’s youngest daughter, who was a bikini model, touched up her lipliner. My brother and I watched as our other six cousins ran back to the ice cream machine, assured that this demilitarized zone acknowledged the shared common good of extra sweets. I looked at my mother, who was busy giving my brother a barely audible preemptive strike: “You little mister man, have had plenty—and if you even think about getting up, I will beat your ass into next week.” I, in kind, preemptively stopped fidgeting with my fork and began doubling numbers in my head until the familiar buzz of a headache showed up.

A balding sweaty man in a white polo walked alongside our server to the table.

“Hey there folks,” the man said with pre-exhaustion. “Well, it seems like we have had a bit of a misunderstanding here, but I hope we can get things settled. So, it is Sadie’s policy not to allow customers to take home food, since we are a buffet. But, as a token of appreciation, I’d like to give you these meal coupons for nex—”

“No deal, man! No deal!” Kenneth began to pound the table with every thought. “You have disrespected my family and my dog! No!” The shmutz flew off the laminate. “I did not patrol the streets for twenty years to be disrespected! No! Not to my family.”

The manager remained unbothered; this was likely only the third-worst customer interaction he had this week. “Sir, you and your family have two minutes to leave or I will call the police.” He turned to the server. “Debra, let me know if they don’t budge.”

Kenneth waited until the man was out of sight before acting. “We could’ve made this so easy, Debra,” he said to the waitress before pulling every plate on the table towards him. Fork in hand, he assembled a mound on the table, a heap of instant mashed potatoes laced with overcooked beef and undercooked onions, eight grandchildren’s worth of half-assed salads and green peas. The pile grew higher as he layered on abandoned cobbler and aborted dumplings, the hill weeping with various oozing glops that refused to merge. When he ran out of scraps, he took to the silverware itself, shoving in cutlery until the display resembled an irradiated hedgehog. He fished the twenty from his shirt pocket and wove it in the topmost fork’s tines before commanding his dozen progeny to leave, many with ice cream saucers still in hand.

My brother and I clambered onto the sticky vinyl of our family hatchback. There was no air conditioning, let alone rear windows.

The heat was even thicker than strawberry syrup, exhaust sitting on our iced cream tongues: plenty, plenty, plenty.

2000: breakfast

“Believe me—you’re going to love this place. There’s nothing like it.” Kenneth’s green van slugged along a Lake County road in search of Eustis and its handful of restaurants. At the turn of the century, most of the area was still citrus grove, acres upon acres of grapefruit on repeat. Kenneth continued to list the selling points as we crept down 44: “They have the biggest chicken fingers you’ve ever seen! And you can get any kind of ice cream–any kind, even a sundae that looks like a smiley face!” I stared out the window, hoping a full morning without food would immediately kickstart the end of my puppy fat. The low Florida sun left the road piss yellow, lapping by at ten miles under the speed limit.

On our street we had banana trees better than the piss yellow shit from the grocery store.

We had set out from South Florida to see extended family at seven, which was already an hour later than my mother wanted. Kenneth showed up with a van he had clearly bought at a police auction, leaning on his old work connections to score a barely air-conditioned vehicle designed to transport some version of derelict. Kenneth’s youngest daughter had left her children in his care, and our cousins remained as confused as my brother and I were about the idea that there was some part of the state without too many people, let alone a beach. Even the towns I had read on the MapQuest printout sounded phony: Mount Dora, Howey-in-the-Hills, Grand Island, Umatilla. Worst of all was Eustis, which sounded like a kidney disease.

Every year they find another citrus farm in Florida using slave labor.

After five hours of driving in the right lane, my grandfather had relinquished control of the van to my mother, who could barely reach the pedals with the balls of her feet. Even in mid-October, the Florida sun had left us in our own sweat before nine. I sat on my hands to dampen the slick feeling, only to be stunned into hours-long silence by the realization that I already had hair on the back of my thighs. My cousins launched into as much as they could remember of “Bombs Over Baghdad” off the radio for fifty miles before making up the theme song to a cartoon that may not have existed. By ten, the older of the two began to read, stopping after every few sentences to stare at the unchanging scenery. Towards the end of the turnpike, the younger one began squirming and whimpering, vinyl unsticking and resticking to his jostling legs. Around the time we reached the outskirts of Orlando, he unbuckled his lap belt and started to pace the back-back row.

“Grampa! Anthony is standing up!”

Kenneth rotated from the passenger seat, more fluid a motion than I would ever see from him again. He pointed as if he could split wood on touch alone. “You goddamn miscreant! You ungrateful creature!” My mother retreated into a lisp, a familiar crutch whenever a man raised his voice: “Dad, don’t thay that—juth tell him to put on a theatbelt.” Kenneth remained possessed, jabbing his finger into the air with unseen electricity. “Goddamn you! May God damn you, you mutt! You goddamned cur, you will sit down now!” Anthony made clear that he had to piss, which was reasonable considering we last stopped in Jupiter and had been driving an average of maybe fifty-one miles an hour since. This only made Kenneth angrier. “What did I tell you, you goddamn wretch! What did I tell you?” My mother began to dissociate while keeping her hands at ten and two. Kenneth tossed an empty Gatorade bottle toward the back. “You know what to do.” The grapefruit stands looped and looped by as a pathetic little stream filled the derelict van air.

Around half past noon, my mother realized that she had been on County Road 44 instead of State Road 44, lurching us closer to DeLand than the other lake-riddled shithole we meant to find. We spent the last twenty miles backtracking in silence, even the detuned radio failing to make static. Soon after hitting city limits, we found the restaurant with white gables and phony cursive font. “There it is!” Kenneth cheered, unbuckling his seatbelt before we even pulled into the parking lot. “You’ll finally get to have a Friendly’s.” The windows greeted us with posters of unsightly sundaes: a banana split colored as only a toddler could; a bowl of mint chip decorated to resemble a field mouse; an upside down ice cream cone transformed into a nightmare clown. My mother looked at the ashtray outside the entrance, clearly regretting she had quit smoking that year, before tossing the half-filled Gatorade bottle into the trash.

2011, dinner

“You know, I cannot stand it here barely,” Carla said under the fluorescent light of her kitchen. Forty-odd years outside of Cuba left Kenneth’s second wife with neither-nor patches in both languages. “The ones with the red necks have no class whatsoever. Do you know what they wear to dinner here? No, guess!” My mother and brother and I could barely be fucked to shrug. “Blue jeans.” She kept her penciled eyebrows raised over her glasses for an extra five seconds to underscore the criminal offenses at play in Volusia County.

After thirty-something years of marriage, Carla and Kenneth had left Miami Beach for the town of DeLand five hours north—or, rather, moved to DeLand so Kenneth could get his mitts into the nearby psychic community at Cassadaga. The only other time I had seen Kenneth at this new house was to buy his old car off of him half a decade prior, a champagne PT Cruiser that went through three batteries a year. Before I had left with his old whip, he handed me his new business card advertising services in “spiritual massage.” I spent the entire drive back trying to determine how much touching that involved.

Cassadaga now offers “absentee healing” once a week for anyone who can’t make it to Central Florida. I have asked them to pray for Tonya Z. of Zip Code 33024.

Kenneth emerged from the bedroom in brown slacks and a polo, resembling an Ernest Hemingway lookalike beginning his court-mandated community service. My mother and brother and I had stopped here on our way to a wedding in Daytona, and so I had on some desperate outfit usually reserved for teaching community college. My brother wore blue jeans. My cousin tiptoed out of her room, sporting a lackluster infant and improperly toned platinum hair. Carla looked somewhere between Cristina and Sally Jessy. The six adults stood silent in the kitchen, looking ghoulish in its shitty overhead lighting, until one of us realized the only way through this was to actually eat dinner.

When I had last seen Kenneth, he sang to me all four verses of a song he wrote entitled “Gonna Ride my Harley to Heaven” through the window of the PT Cruiser. We did not eat that day.

We went to some nameless bistro where they could charge ten dollars extra for any dish because they called themselves a bistro without having anything on the menu typically found in even a rinky-dink bistro. My brother in his blue jeans ordered a beer and Kenneth in his slacks ordered one, too. My mother scolded one or the both of them before ordering some dish only someone eager for disappointment would order at a non-bistro bistro. I don’t know what I had. I can’t remember everything.

Within a few minutes, Kenneth’s speech began to warp, each of his sentences taking off without ever landing. His forehead grew damp as he sweated into his steak dish, fork moving in his hand yet not really doing anything. Carla and my cousin continued in a conversation with the rest of us that made clear they had stopped listening to Kenneth soon after the turn of the century:

“So, and when I–? When I wanted to do a, yes I wannated when–”

“But then this was another problem on my arm. Yudit, remember when I said my brother is a doctor in Venezuela? I said to him ‘You know the doctors here are not good at all’ so–”

“And whennid the camp? The smarked under the walk and then under–”

“He said to me, ‘Carla, I know the doctors in America are no good, but you have to go in for a bioxy anyway,’ so I made him promise he would also look at the results–”

“Gramma, do you think I can give the baby some of this chicken?”

“Just blow on it, Yessica. And avoid the muxrooms–babies can’t have them. So then I tell my brother on the telephone–”

“Unnid the wanntah busin my gorbun. Myscusinin!”

Kenneth bolted upright like a man half his size only to toddle toward the emergency exit, fiddling with his zipper as he wandered toward the red light. My mother hissed, “Get him, now” to my brother, who was able to chaperone Kenneth to the actual bathroom in time. Carla and my cousin continued to eat their not-quite alfredo while the three of us tried to figure out at what point we should call an ambulance. “I feel like we should see if he gets out of the bathroom on his own first,” I suggested. “Well, then it’s your turn to see if he can do that,” my brother said, convinced he was the person who suffered most in this and any other family interaction.

Eighteen of the thirty-eight mediums currently at Cassadaga use the title “Reverend.” Five indicate they hold a doctorate of some sort. One–Sydney–uses only her first name.

Deciding eight minutes was long enough for any senior citizen to take a leak, I walked to the john and knocked on the door. Fifteen seconds later, I knocked again. Before I could rattle the handle, I heard a mindless groan followed by a potato sack thump. My peripheral vision turned into slime. My thoughts began to warp, each of my sentences taking off without landing: Clearly your grandf–Kenneth is no lon–And then! Ken–Grandfath, and you have to say. Go bactale antell everrb–Lookit! Have saythin, An jusoo you thinjer is denn. May wallside keepon gon. And then!

Comparatively speaking, it was a miracle: there was no corpse and there was no shit.

Eventually, Kenneth was able to crawl to the door to unlock it, drawers up but slacks around his ankles. By then enough senior citizens, some probably psychic healers themselves, had needed to use the john that the restaurant manager came to see what was wrong. As we’d learn, Kenneth was taking some medication that should never be combined with alcohol. Don’t ask me what he had. I can’t remember everything. The rest, all of it, stayed warped: how we paid for dinner; how we made it to Daytona; how Kenneth came back from the hospital; whether Kenneth ever practiced in Cassadaga proper or remained outside camp limits; who will pray for Tonya Z.; how long the non-bistro bistro stayed open; what the bioxy results were; how long Debra was told she could’ve been a bikini model; how long it took to hear from a probate lawyer that my grandfather had died; how long it has been since I’ve stepped in Florida, not for a buffet, not for an ice cream sundae; plenty plenty plenty.

Rachel Jeffcoat "The Problem with People" from Issue 12

The Problem with People

is that we say we want life to be 

one thing at a time, then burn 

something sublime from a crucible 

of grief. To our surprise we find loneliness 

shot through what we’ve longed for,


as though we haven’t always been a mystery 

to ourselves. Still, the oldest of our impulses

is to name things. At the end of the world 

we’ll still be there, sky falling, trying to cram


complexities into stories small enough 

to hold. Say, instead, that alive means 

yes, and, 

and also, this –

that nothing is ever one thing

which is how we know it’s real.


Say instead that it’s funny, but

when I think back to my worst time, 

I can still see how beautifully 

the bus lights swayed in the dark. 

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