That House

By Mark Saba

I sit on a dry patch
of colorless earth, an empty lot
situated neatly between two Depression-era
brown and tan brick homes.

There is no evidence of charred wood,
nor garden of tomato and pepper plants.
The lot has shrunken from its three-story home.
Now termites have no where to go

and bees search aimlessly for phantom flowers.
Even the front steps are gone. My stroke-stricken aunt
has no handrail to guide her, my grandmother
no place to grieve for a lost son.

I have no windows to wash for her,
nor adventures in her stoic attic.
We have only the sun now
but nothing seems to grow.

I am sitting in a desert
hoping to dream up a world
but a green awning hangs over me
keeping out the elements: the storms

of summer, tilled soil of spring,
scented air of Christmas
and inanimate fire
that consumes us all.

Mark Saba has been writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for 40 years. His book publications include four works of fiction and three of poetry, most recently Two Novellas: A Luke of All Ages / Fire and Ice (fiction), Calling the Names (poetry) and Ghost Tracks (stories about Pittsburgh, where he grew up). His work has appeared widely in literary magazines around the U.S. and abroad. He is also a painter and works as a medical illustrator at Yale University. Please see

Wit’s End

“Out of the depths, I have cried.

Psalm 130

By Charlotte M. Porter

On the Inside, Moon pulls without water. Head batteries go dead, and time stalls. Angie strikes the match inside her brain. Shield the flame, she tells herself, capture the gleam. Watch wind stir sea oats by the bay. Let the seagulls wail and the engines of small craft sputter. Seek a secret place to exult.

A soul-search by first-person Angie has tanked in a wide ocean of conflicting currents. Third-person Angie needs to sort muddle from mistake in a new plan of redemption, meaning escape. She images the license-plate outline of the State of Florida. An inlet, a toe of the sea would do her fine, but here she is.

All hail the slammer, the maceration facility, the Women’s so-called Reception Center. No meet-and-greet tea parties or covered-dish mac and cheese in this fishbowl run by men, done up by men, dumbed down by men.

On quest, Angie’s mind wanders, bumps, and bounces off concrete walls like the talk radio piped-in to keep the inmates amused. In the noisy off-on, she hears a song of siren’s warning.

Adrift at sea, beware ease.
Teach your fins to walk, your mouth to please. 
Canvas empires with grander mer—
manatees in senior years. 

She composes a refrain to honor Trichechus manatus, the state marine mammal, once called the sea cow and pictured as a chubby mermaid:

Rash boaters, 
rethink speed and wake. 
Propeller blades lacerate. 
Manatees, awake!
Vacate dredged channels 
and shallow lakes.

She feels like she’s shouting Fire! in a movie theatre, but her clarion call, her angelus, falls on deaf ears. Other sounds drown her out with second-hand words—ad jingles, jive, hymns…soul-search detritus left unswept, unwept.

Boaters who hit manatees gripe about their marred hulls. No one serves time for killing s sea cow. Angie’s cell mates include baby-snatchers, check kiters, and arsonists, but most of the women are murderers, lifers like her with a twenty-five-year turn-over. They come in slick young killers and leave prison as wobbly old ladies, rank as smoked mullet. Few on the Outside remember them or the fishy details of their crimes. Cep maybe the dead man’s people, an extended family of beloved junkies who have moved their tents to the intersection of Meth and Opioids. Who wants to put a nostril to their damn straw?

Talk about bad. Angie knows the official go-low drill: Find a ditch, head down, stay in place. She also knows under is only as safe as over. What goes up must come down. Angie wants to turn back the hands of time and go home to her backwater digs. So that the man she bludgeoned to death might fall in love with her. Bashed, he’s too broken to haunt her, but she wants to haunt him, drive him wild as penal statutes have forced her to become in prison.

Skip the brake fluid, the so-called psychiatric meds. She’s not thinking to catch a ride and get high on a bestie’s dope. Her escape, tricky for the average upright biped, involves force of will, iron-clad attitude with mile markers and rest stops. She reviews the three-part plan: female human to mermaid median to finny fish finale. As needed, she will remix her dots into different energy fields, tinted flesh tone to aquamarine to golden green. 

These changes from human to poetic to feral bypass justice. Mermaids make their own rules. Fish swap out genders in crowded or polluted conditions. But who gives the ass-pass to a female convict, a felon? More than the mercury levels of the water, grammar is at issue. She can linger in first-person mer, but the odds are stacked against her survival as a third-person fish—he, she, or it. Angie has done her pronoun research. A woman isn’t a captive guppy. Or, a flounder with eyeball crossed anon as fountain fill, femme purloined.

Angie flat out rejects a portrait painted by dead white male artist, Pablo Picasso. On the Other Side, the Seated Woman will cut him bad, pay him back for her trashed face. Like she’s turned flounder, crying a river over him. Wrong weep, wrong playbill. At Pablo’s hands, poor lady endured the searing grill. Not the Fountain of Youth. Only look-space on a museum wall. What with private-hire guards and alarm systems, Seated Woman might as well be in prison. Well now, Angie could repay society as a painting, set an example, hang by a wire and, real still in fester-mode, set the gallery on fire.

But she remains soleful, ha, ha. She can shimmy fins, fan the flatness of sand. She can hope a dreamy boy will admire her mottle and, by mistake, graze her scaled skin with his cherry lips as he bends to buss his vain reflection. Perhaps, kiss-boy will toss coins—small change for immortality, bubbler bliss. Hey, money’s money—all contributions welcome.

Love, luck, charity, ah fantasy. Life in the Big House is a dim font—chamfered with no second chance, no second glance. Spring-fed to pan-fried, Angie recognizes the harsh truth of her sentence. As is, her female self is too stubborn, too persistent. To break free, she must shed the feminine and do deep-sea time wending a switchback, reminding light sleepers of lost glory. But whose eye chink can fathom steep couloir? 

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

Practice makes perfect. Come evening, Angie will slip into the sea wash and swims for miles. Come dawn, she’ll takes a breather on the return trip and turn flying fish. Picasso can like lead paint. How pretty the tourmaline flash above crested waves! 

For now, nearly merly in broad daylight, Angie tarries on the strand. Fiddler crabs, lefty maestros, rendezvous with careless clams. The sky is clear, and the sand cool under her belly. Rolling over, she tastes the sea on her lips and remembers her younger smelty self, still confident of flounce. 

Behind bars, she has become a tad near-sighted. No big deal. Stranger things have happened than a tadpole in the eye. Think moat, no, mote, motel where she, tired, tired of him and smashed his brains like spermaceti across the pillows.

From habit, she squints as fleet dots become human joggers. She bares her bosom so they’ll run in place, show out, pant. They don’t. They watch man-meet-water, that primordial kingfisher saga about tall waders and cast flies reeling lures in wide zigzags across the surface. 

Angie chides herself, sunbathing on the block, unloading human adages of self-help: 

Pack a spare beach toga 
for upstart gene pool party. 
Tamp down your cunning sea comb. 
Learn to like beach volleyball. 

She knows flirty banter is but merry pastime in the vast playground of the sea. As if mer girls cared about coastal hookers, arched back, famed snatch. Our tribal thing, she reassures herself, is certain dive to test leader, break line. 

She craves revenge, a nonstop ballad of a small-town woman wronged—her. Given adequate food and shelter, she can make a comeback. Merness will fill out her ungainly spaces and starved innards. Full-figure for her return, she can loom in his eye salt, trespass in his everyman’s dream. Nodding off, he will ache for her wavy auburn hair, smooth shoulders, firm breasts. 

On fire, he’ll gladly plunge into benthic trenches forging continents. Let him surface with the bends. Doubled over with lust, he won’t feel bliss. He won’t even feel wet. His lungs will snap like burning branches, again and again, as schools of carnivorous minnows devour his sleep. 

Let him cry to the rock for succor. She’ll dart into the shallows. No need to hold her ground and stay on scene like the last time. With luck, a fish her size can make her way north through inland wetlands to the St Lawrence Seaway. Under the stars, she can follow cod and navigate the Outer Banks to North Sea landings made magical by Hans Christian Anderson.

Angie bursts into song. She has done her dunce time on crappers without seats. On her voyage, she’ll miss springtime on the river and fringe trees abuzz with bees. Such sweet haze, the drifts of pollen. Let cell-rats twitch their whiskers with envy. Bubble-gazers will proclaim that she, the fish bitch with adipose eyelids, schools at Wit’s End, the brink trolled by monsters, sea monks and swirlpools. Wit’s End, wherein ends reasonable doubt

Angie must stay on plan. She’s worked hard to keep river green against ocean blue with silver moonbeam ladder for up and out. She checks her brain feed re: offshore breezes and sea chop. Soon she’ll be swimming past wetlands drained for golf courses downstream to the bay.  

She must wait for the riptide. In a house without change, she needs tidal turmoil at the river’s mouth She imagines discharge of 155,000, 000 gallons per day. What math! What mouth! Fish spew. Phosphenes implode.

Gaol or goal?

Should be a picture postcard of a powerful fountainhead, right? A bold female numen, a potent avatar with red-eyed eels for hair. But doing time messes up the head poem. Sentence turns every variance into crime. 

Or pulp fiction. 

When the inquisitors arrive with stun guns and options for parole, Angie, dripping on the wet cement, proves uncooperative. She tucks in her gills and forgets how to talk. They poke, but she doesn’t wince at mention of the prince of a man she bludgeoned. They prod, she burps. She doesn’t let on that tough girl turned lifer destroyed what she loved. 

She leaves them no choice. They throw her back with the others. 

Charlotte M. Porter lives and writes in an old citrus hamlet in north central Florida. Look for her short story collections on Amazon and her flash fiction and poems in literary journals. Literistic publishes her serial novels. Her recent work, an adult puppet play, is part of a COVID anthology in press with Archway Publishing. 

Lost Souls

By Mark Saba

Light turns on and off.
Fine needles fall from the pines,
intersections of tree shadow
and broken limbs lying ashen
in the brown ruin of past lives.

The young evergreens stand dwarfed
in defiance, their roots nourished
by those who’ve come before.
There is too much music
I haven’t heard.

It’s out there in the green
of dying summer, lyrics and notes
fusing in a future wonder
of fall color. But much of it
is past, and I am a lonely atom

in a universe of beautiful souls
who have given themselves
to the art of reordering the fallen leaves
so that we see the color of past years,
peeking through summer, still warm

under a phantom snow.

Mark Saba has been writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for 40 years. His book publications include four works of fiction and three of poetry, most recently Two Novellas: A Luke of All Ages / Fire and Ice (fiction), Calling the Names (poetry) and Ghost Tracks (stories about Pittsburgh, where he grew up). His work has appeared widely in literary magazines around the U.S. and abroad. He is also a painter and works as a medical illustrator at Yale University. Please see

Pat Tillman’s Ghost

By Laurel Doud

My husband left me for Pat Tillman’s mother. You know Pat Tillman; he of the long blonde hair flowing out from underneath his football helmet before it became de rigueur. The one who famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL career to fight the bad guys after 9/11. The one who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

I never met Pat Tillman, but his ghost haunts me. I cannot get away from him. Even after all this time, hardly a month goes by that his name, his apparition, doesn’t bedevil me. My grandson wears a hat bearing Pat’s Run’s logo, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Tillman Foundation. My sister texts me that on her Facebook page, someone posted it’s the anniversary of Pat’s death. After moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area, I find myself in the same city as one of Pat’s two brothers, the name Tillman periodically conjured up in conjunction with his wife’s law practice and his children’s books. If I only watch one college football game the entire season, it’s a sure bet that some footage will show Pat’s statue at Arizona State. At least once a semester in the college library I work at, I’ll get a rush of students looking for Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which is required reading in some classes. “That’s with two L’s and one N,” I say as they type his name into the online catalogue. 

My husband had broken it off with Pat’s mother right before Pat died, but his death brought them back together. Why did he have to die just then? As far as I was concerned, my husband could be with any other woman as long as it wasn’t her, she who was a colleague of my husband’s and sat at my kitchen table drinking beer before I knew my husband had already left me emotionally, pretending nothing had changed. A friend of mine who believes in reincarnation says I’ve probably been enemies with Pat’s mother for many turns on the wheel and, no doubt, sometimes, friends as well. I suppose I could be friends with her in another life. 

But not this one.

I wasn’t gleeful when Pat died. No one would wish that on another mother, let alone a young man just starting out in his adult life. But it felt like karma, retribution. After all, I had lost someone I loved, so should Pat’s mother. The scales were in balance. 

This is hard to write, and I’m not proud of how it makes me sound. And maybe you’re wondering why go there at all? What good does it do to dredge it all up? It’s been years, you say, and, of course, you would be right. 

But that’s not how the human heart, this human heart, works.

What I’ve discovered, after all these years, is that grief isn’t linear. You don’t move away from it in a straight line. You orbit around it elliptically. The ellipses get bigger as the years pass, but sometimes the gravity of your life slingshots you back into the heart of your hurt and anger, and it feels almost as intense as it did when it happened. 

I seem to be back at the perigee now. 

I’m not sure what’s pulled me in so close this time. I’ve been pretty good lately about letting the past lie, looking at all the brilliant things in my life now that wouldn’t have come otherwise. I wouldn’t be living in this home that feeds my soul. I wouldn’t have this job that satisfies me. I wouldn’t have this loving (current) husband, wonderful (step)kids, fabulous grandkids, a whole new branch to the family tree. 

Perhaps the coronavirus triggered it. Maybe it’s the fact that my (current) husband and I are snapping at each other, worn down from months of working from home, sharing broadband and printer time. (I still think of my (former) husband as my husband, and both of them are just my husband in my head.)

It might be because my subconscious is playing havoc with my sleep. I’ve been dreaming crazy lately: intense, sometimes violent, occasionally lustful, always anxious and featuring my (former) husband. The dreams are so confusing. Sometimes we’re still together and in love, and sometimes we aren’t. The pendulum swings from profound sadness to vicious hatred and, when I wake up, those feelings are roiling in me still.

I’m having a rough time of it lately, and I’m exhausted.

I’ve written about that time in my life many times before, trying to make sense of it, to find some epiphany, some tidy resolution, a way to corral it into a container and box it up. I’ve fictionalized it. I’ve written essays. I’ve created PowerPoint on it. Seriously. I’ve even written pretty pathetic poetry—with amazingly awful alliteration. But the peace hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying. And, as I try, I am always reminded of a line from a made-for-tv movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the “Last of the Belles,” I liked when I was a teenager. Zelda says to her husband, “Seems like no matter who you start out writin’ about, it always turns out to be about us. Poor Goofy. I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough, maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending.”

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

I think I’ve been writing for that happy ending for a long time.

I need to go deeper this time. I’m trying to be as honest to my feelings as they were then as I possibly can. I tell myself I need to get this shit out in the open, turn it over, and maybe it will finally compost into fertilizer, feed something good, and Pat can leave me alone. I will have exorcized him. And everything else. 

Anger, I find, is so much easier to deal with than sadness. With anger, you have the crust to protect you from the core, but with sadness, you’re just split wide open. I think I’m scared to find out how much hurt I still feel because of them. 

Them. There I said it. Not him.

So why is Pat Tillman at the center of my rage? He’s a goddamned national symbol. He didn’t have anything to do with my husband leaving me for his mother, yet somehow his spectre has come to symbolize it. 

Pat was a defensive player, and I think I’ve got him protecting his line, his mother in the backfield. But I can’t go after her. Her son was killed. I spoke of karma before. I’ve got children I would be devastated to lose as well. It’s just too close.  

Of course, the primary target’s deeper down the field than she. My husband. But I can’t go after him either. My children, my grandchildren, love him. I loved him once too. He was my best friend.

He was my best friend, and he left me. 

And there it is, the molten core of my anger and the pith of my sadness. 

I’m getting frustrated because dredging up these feelings isn’t helping. So, yes, I unearthed them, but some things are too tender to expose. 

It doesn’t matter how deep I make myself go; I can’t change how I felt. 

I can only change how I feel.

So, instead of being annoying, maybe these hauntings are my mind’s way of getting my attention about these emotions—not necessarily to do anything about them, but just to acknowledge that they exist. Maybe all the anger and hurt wants is to be seen and heard, and then maybe my subconscious will be appeased; I’ll have executed an effective end-around.

I’ve been sleeping much better as I write this, my dreams benign, so maybe I’m on to something. I’m watching the planet of my pain recede in my rearview mirror as the trajectory of my orbit pulls me away. I’m headin’ out—until I lose the tug-of-war between inertia and gravity, past and present, and get catapulted again around that corner, heading back on in. 

But maybe I can lengthen the duration it takes for that to happen.

Life has no ending, happy or otherwise. It’s life that moves on, moves forward, and you need to go along with it, or it will just go along without you. These reminders that pop up in my feed, the memes of my previous life, I’ll just have to look at them differently. Feel them differently. Embrace them, if you will. 

Yesterday I was texting my daughter, and I mistyped until and my phone’s autocorrect replaced it with I Tillman. There’s no way I could make this stuff up. But it made me laugh, and that made a difference. 

It seems I’m going to be stalked for the rest of my life by Pat Tillman, for good or for ill, right or wrong, literally or figuratively. He’s never going to leave me alone.

But when I hit that next point of apoapsis, and I head back in towards the pain, I hope I’ll know how to deal with it better. When Pat Tillman’s shade appears again, I hope I’ll be able to say, Hi, Pat. Thanks for checking in. I’m doin’ okay.

It may not be peace, perfect peace, but maybe it’s a start.

Note: Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The initial report from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon was that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the enemy. Five weeks after his death, it came out that Pat was killed by his fellow Rangers, and officials had gone to great lengths to keep the circumstances secret. Six investigations were conducted, but none entirely satisfying all the contradictions. Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a memoir, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, that details those proceedings.

My husband and Pat’s mother are still together.

Laurel Doud is an academic librarian at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.

On Reading the Death Certificate

By Mark Saba

On reading the death certificate
of my father, aged 29, my brother said
What do you make of the interval

between onset and death?
What do I make of the tiny cells
that stood ready to multiply

in the deepest part of his brain?
How long did they wait there?
In the interval between onset and death

he hopped the rooftops of a Pittsburgh
neighborhood with his cousin Ralph.
In the interval between onset and death

he sat diligently in a high school
political theory class, wondering what part of him
reared by Italian immigrants

might allow him to speak. In the interval
he sat with our mother in the booth
of the drug store soda fountain.

In the interval they found each other’s bodies
on their wedding night, amazed.
In the interval he drove over snowy roads

to pick up our grandmother from the 54C
streetcar, a boxful of pizzelles in her hand.
He measured out pills, elixirs, and ointments

in a profession that allowed him to find order
in a senseless world. In the interval
he forgot who he was, his senses slowly dulled

as he lay breathing in a hospital bed
surrounded by blinding lights, remembering
reels of home movies of us he’d shot

wondering what might have been real.

Mark Saba has been writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for 40 years. His book publications include four works of fiction and three of poetry, most recently Two Novellas: A Luke of All Ages / Fire and Ice (fiction), Calling the Names (poetry) and Ghost Tracks (stories about Pittsburgh, where he grew up). His work has appeared widely in literary magazines around the U.S. and abroad. He is also a painter and works as a medical illustrator at Yale University. Please see

Old Shirts

By Mark Saba

My beloved T-shirts, worn ragged,
washed to the color of dust, yet
imprinted with my scent

carry everything I’ve witnessed—
their first days of my rejuvenation,
trial period of comfort, and final stretch

of willful obscurity—
as I met with triumph and despair
watching the orioles return,

my mother die, the sunlight of seawater,
my daughter admitted to rehab.
In the end I retire them

to the taboret of my painting studio
where, one by one, I use them to collect
excessive brushstrokes, unplanned arrays

of cadmium color, as I create new worlds
on a blank canvas, and those second skins
provide new comfort, their abandoned lives

awakened to new purpose.

Mark Saba has been writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for 40 years. His book publications include four works of fiction and three of poetry, most recently Two Novellas: A Luke of All Ages / Fire and Ice (fiction), Calling the Names (poetry) and Ghost Tracks (stories about Pittsburgh, where he grew up). His work has appeared widely in literary magazines around the U.S. and abroad. He is also a painter and works as a medical illustrator at Yale University. Please see

Tabula Rasa

By Mark Saba

Three of my books lie unopened.
My wife lies absently on the couch
gone to a digital novel world.

A fire heaves in its designated hearth.
I am in and out of it,
in and out of my thoughts

as my body grows older.
Lacking the courage to write them down
I flounder in semi-sleep

remembering the title of a news article
proclaiming the latest discovery: that
in our universe, present and future occur

simultaneously. I think about
the poems I’ve written, love letters,
fiction. It all comes back to me

yet future plans delete them
from my list of accomplishments.
There is too much death on the horizon,

a triumphant tabula rasa that will have
the final say, that I will remember
even when nothing is written.

Mark Saba has been writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for 40 years. His book publications include four works of fiction and three of poetry, most recently Two Novellas: A Luke of All Ages / Fire and Ice (fiction), Calling the Names (poetry) and Ghost Tracks (stories about Pittsburgh, where he grew up). His work has appeared widely in literary magazines around the U.S. and abroad. He is also a painter and works as a medical illustrator at Yale University. Please see

Learning How to Breathe

“There is a way of breathing that’s a shame and a suffocation and there’s another way of expiring, a love breath that lets you open to infinity.

– Rumi

By Barbara Janoff

When he was 70, about the age I am now, my father taught me how to harness the power of breath. He had been an athlete in his youth, a welterweight boxer. That must be when he came to know, although I think he’d forgotten it for many years.

I was floating in the pool at his Florida retirement complex, keeping myself from sinking with lots of kicks and strokes.

“You don’t need to work so hard,” he called from his poolside chaise. “Use your breath. Watch what happens when you inhale.”

I inhaled deeply, and my body began to rise to the surface of the water.

“Now exhale,” he called, and that made me sink so that I had to splash to rise back up.

“Inhale,” he prompted, and I rose again. It was all in the rhythm. Sink a little. Rise a little. Rise a little more. Playing with the timing, I was in control.

I learned to love floating that day, the ebb and flow of water rocking me while my mindful breathing played its counterpoint, holding me from inside. Facing the sky, I watched the glide of a long-limbed bird in shadow, then tilted my head poolside. My father nodded and held my eyes for a moment before turning back to his newspaper.

Now, whenever I remember to take a deep breath, especially during my yoga practice, my father comes to mind. This is strange because he wasn’t always one to bring on calmness and peace; quite the opposite. He was given to violent rages when I was a child.

Things had changed between us, changed for the better, ten years earlier. It was on Thanksgiving. That was when he and I began to clear our way. But before that could happen, the English boy had to bring me the message.

My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity.

I was leaving my Wednesday afternoon Foundations seminar at Columbia on the day before Thanksgiving. More than half of the students had been absent. That’s how I found myself walking out with a boy I didn’t know very well. I call him a boy even though he was an older student, like me. Something about his effect made me think of him as younger than he probably was. He had some sort of posh British accent, which made whatever he uttered in class sound intelligent, whether it was or not.

We walked across campus towards the gates on Broadway, and I asked him what he was planning for the next day. He shook his head, “Nothing. Home is too far away for a long weekend, and besides, it isn’t really my holiday.”

I laughed. “I know that.”

I might have invited him to come with me to my parents’ house in New Jersey if I had known him better and had different parents. Mine wouldn’t have welcomed a stranger, holiday or not, particularly not a male stranger. My own home had never been warm or welcoming to outsiders. My mother didn’t like surprises, and she’d had enough surprises in the last year. She and my father had been making quite an effort to adjust to my new divorced status and move to Manhattan.

“Besides,” he burst out, “I hate going home!”

I looked at him questioningly.

“They tell me that what I remember from my childhood never happened, and it makes me feel like I’m crazy!” His voice shook with suppressed sobs.

I kept a respectful silence, thinking, so it’s the same in England. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was just then reaching out to a larger worldview, and I was only beginning.

I didn’t ask him what happened. It was a short walk to the gates; we were going in different directions, and I still needed to pack and catch a late Port Authority bus home.

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

That Thanksgiving, the first since my divorce, was going to be awkward. My divorce perplexed my parents, almost as much as my move to New York and dedication to studying literature. They were practical people. The only graduate work they understood was vocational—medicine or law—and that was for men. Girls married; they didn’t become. And in their eyes, I had married well—a medical student. Unlike my father, whose long hours and night shifts tending bar had been the only way he knew how to provide for his family, my husband’s intense dedication to his studies promised delayed gratification in status and money. How do I explain, even now, decades later, why I needed to get out? I remember nights when I’d leave the rowhouse I lived in with my husband, climb into my car and drive onto the empty New Jersey highway, shove the gas pedal to the floor, and scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing catastrophic happened; I guess I was lucky. After a while, I’d slow down and head back home. The door to my husband’s study would still be closed, his desk light seeping onto the hallway carpet from underneath. I doubt he’d noticed I’d been gone.

My mother was in her element early Thanksgiving morning, all burners lit plus the oven, cooking, stuffing, baking, filling their little ranch house with all sorts of wonderful smells. I followed her orders and fell back on years of routinized holiday procedures. In the den off the kitchen, my father faded into the background. Not quite sixty, he had retired the year before and gone on disability, the result of a bad fall that had shattered his heel. I had never seen him so relaxed. Occasionally I heard the rustle of his newspaper and his murmurs as he read aloud to himself or his snores as he napped.

My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity. We immediately took our places at the table, my father at the head, my brother-in-law at the foot, my niece and nephew on one side, my mother, sister and I on the side closest to the kitchen. My sister and I carried in course after course, giving my tired mother a chance to rest. The family ate in silence, knives and forks scraping on my mother’s good china. Some music would be nice, I thought but knew better than to say. That would be getting above myself.

“What happened out there?” she whispered. 

We ate fast. We always did, vectoring towards dessert. My sister brought in the apple crumb and I carried the pumpkin. The two of us sat back down, all set to dig in. My father looked around the table and barked, “Fran! Tea!” My mother quickly pushed herself away from the table and began to rise. 

I put my hand on her arm to stop her. “I’ll get it Dad,” I said, “Mom’s tired. She’s been on her feet all day.”

He frowned and nodded, his eyes on his plate. My mother sank back, and I went into the kitchen. My sister followed me and stood beside me at the sink where I was filling the kettle.

“I thought Daddy was going to smack you,” she whispered. I looked sideways at her. She had a half smile—part confident, part rival. 

“What do you mean?”

“When you talked back to him.” 

Surprised, I responded without thinking. “He’s never going to raise a hand to me again!” 

After a slight pause she responded “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Even now, I think of the different ways I might have reacted. I might have snapped back with “Talk back to him—what are we, eight years old?” Or challenged her by asking “Why would you think that?” But we were locked in the distant past, where sudden rages were commonplace and instant denials a given. 

An image of myself as a little girl flashed through my mind. No older than four, I had run into the bathroom, the only room with a lock on the door, to hide from my father and his strap. But that bathroom lock was built for privacy not safety. He broke through with a few good slams and dragged me out from my hiding place where I had crammed myself between the toilet and the bathtub. 

To this day, I don’t know why my mother used to wait until after a beating began to scream, “Stop Ben! You’ll kill her!” Why not before? Maybe shock. Maybe to save herself. Maybe to close the windows first so the neighbors couldn’t hear. How confusing it was for me to be forsaken by the same cuddling woman, my mother, who read me to sleep every night of my young life. Little Women. Little Men. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. As for my sister, three years my elder, I don’t know where she was, hiding probably. Anyway, she was too small to help back then.

Now herself the grown mother of two, my sister methodically stacked plates in our mother’s sink. Some bad memory of her own had forced its way to the surface of her mind long enough to be spoken and whisked back into hiding. Nothing. It was nothing. Now you see it, now you don’t. What lingered was her denial. She still had that half smile pasted on her face.  All’s well; now and always. A year or two earlier, before I’d left home, I’d have tried to connect through our eyes, but I no longer had the desire to bond. As I watched her toggle between truth and lie (only one could exist at a time)—I wondered how my sister could keep her skull from exploding, but of course she’d had a lifetime of practice. We both had.

I thought of the English boy back in New York. “It makes me feel crazy,” he had said. It—the thing that must not be acknowledged, that was denied in plain sight. What collective will exists in some families—my family— to be able to conjure and maintain a lie over the years. I’d admire their strength if they hadn’t been so destructive.

I set the kettle on the stove without turning on the flame and walked through the dining room towards the front door. I had to get out of there. No more seeking validation from the women in the kitchen. Was that my original thought or something I’d read in one of my literature courses? I still don’t know.

In families like mine, you learned to feel danger before it happens. We three women could pick up an atmospheric shift at ten paces. My mother had not left her seat near the kitchen, and yet she was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she called urgently as I sped past her.

“For a walk,” I said, jamming on my coat. “I need some air!”

“You can’t go out now! It’s dark! Ben—go with her!”

My father rose obediently from his chair. He moved slowly, contentedly, his appetite sated, his family around him. With his limp, a faulty heart and emphysema, he was no longer a physical threat to anyone. The only scary aspects that remained were his bass growl and resting scowl face. 

I didn’t want to walk with him, and yet I waited, still submissive under the influence of family. And silent, even though I was thinking that the street outside was perfectly safe. Margate New Jersey, a nice ocean town, safe night and day. It had been inside our house that wasn’t safe.

My father put his arm around my shoulders as we walked. It felt like an unbearable weight. I was still fuming from my sister’s denial and resisted the impulse to shrug off my father’s arm. “It makes me feel crazy,” the English boy had said. My breath caught in my throat, and my mind was racing. This was a moment to speak; they don’t come often. But what if he can’t take it? His heart? 

“Dad,” I said tentatively.

“What sweetheart?” 

Sweetheart? When had he ever called me Sweetheart? I took a breath and searched for the right words. “No one here will admit what it was like when I was a kid.”

“What do you mean?” he responded, still in the throes of contentment. I was sure his tone would change any second. 

“I mean no one admits how hard things were.” I couldn’t get the words right. “How angry with me you always were.” I was sidestepping the physical violence, but it was the best I could do, better than I expected. He didn’t take his arm away from me. Our pace didn’t change. I was still afraid he’d drop dead, that his weak heart wouldn’t withstand my words. We walked a little way in silence.

“It was my fault,” he finally said. “I had a rotten temper.”

Rotten was a word from his fighting days. Who used such a word anymore unless you were describing spoiled food? Me. I did. 

“I thought I was a rotten kid,” I found myself saying.

“No. No. You were a great kid!”

“I wasn’t great. I wasn’t terrible. I was just a kid.”

“You were great. It was me. I had a rotten temper,” he repeated. He never took his arm away from my shoulders, although I kept expecting it. He didn’t drop to the ground either, the way I’d feared. 

Slowly, I became aware of our surroundings, the crisp, cool November air, the darkening bay water at the end of the block. With his admission, he had come through for me, had shown up, steady and clear. It would never excuse his violence against me when I was small, but I felt freed to make my own sense of that childhood trauma. To hold it up to a clear light and untangle my memories from family myth. 

We continued our walk around the block in companionable silence. I kept my eyes straight ahead. There was no need to look at him. I felt him by my side, and I knew that it felt good to him too after all those years of isolation while we women protected him from himself. When we got back to the house, he walked directly to his recliner, picked up his newspaper and scissors from the end table, and started cutting out supermarket coupons for the weekend. 

My mother was waiting for me by the kitchen door and motioned for me to follow her into her bedroom. She didn’t bother with the light. “What happened out there?” she whispered. 

 “Dad and I talked about the past.”

She searched my face for a moment and then shrugged. “You should have asked me. I would have told you.”

“I know,” I soothed. “I know.”

Barbara Janoff recently retired as an associate professor in the department of English and Communication Studies at FIT/SUNY, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her essays and poetry are published in journals and magazines, such as Columbia: A Women’s Journal, Communication Arts, and The Berkshire Review. The Widow’s Log reflects on end-of-life caretaking and survivor’s healing. She lives and writes in upstate New York.

You Consider the Apples

By William Doreski

Your apples never ripen but 
drop green and hard from the tree.
A lack of confidence? Spraying
the flowers to fend off the deer
may discourage the fruit that later
dangles like Christmas ornaments.

Too much thinking. Like you
pondering childhood in Poland,
your father repairing scruffy 
autos from the Soviet Union
and your mother nursing children
abandoned by unwilling parents.

You breached the university
in a thunder of competing tongues.
You graduated with such triumph
it deflated the stark old regime,
leaving a wreckage of heroes
in foolish historical poses.

Now you consider the apples,
their small tough size, their weak
hold on the tree. You suspect
that capitalist norms disfavor
the old varieties of apple,
modest but firm, subject to worms.

Under the full moon of summer, 
you swear a vegan allegiance
that should move any flora to tears.
Meanwhile deep in the wormwood
the eggs of subversive insects
hatch with a tiny private sound.

You return to the house with a sigh
the color of rotting newsprint.
Those freshly hatched subversives
are plotting mindless tactics,
their instincts thicker than night,
advantaged by lack of language.

William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He has taught at several colleges and universities. His most recent book of poetry is Mist in Their Eyes (2021). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in various journals.


By Ross West

My beloved, crazy, generous, funny, bawdy, loopy, glamorous, tragic Aunt Ruth died and was buried at a Vancouver cemetery in a downpour. Most of the gathered mourners huddled beneath a canopy erected for the graveside service. I was among the two-dozen or so who didn’t fit under the shelter and stood nearby clutching our umbrellas, a patch of black mushrooms. To the sound of the drops popping on the stretched fabric of my little protective dome, I craned my neck to take in the rite—the solemnity, the mumbled words, the rain-bright colours, and most of all Ruth’s body, once so vibrant, now lifeless, inert, boxed up for eternity.

The memory from many decades ago, my twenties, welled up recently while I was in a department store shopping for a new umbrella. The one that caught my eye throbbed with a tie-dye pattern of swirling rainbow colours—a wink of whimsy to bring a little cheer to our soggy struggle with Oregon’s ceaseless rains and oppressive monochrome skies.

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

Umbrella in hand, I took my place in the long line of customers waiting to check out. My mind began to wander . . . what if I’d had this umbrella at Aunt Ruth’s funeral? The rebellious young man I was would have delighted in popping it open, delivering a technicolour manifesto of my individuality, freedom, and style, loudly advertising my unwillingness to conform to colourless convention.

How anxious and uncertain I was about my identity in those days so long ago. How desperately I tried to carve myself a face.

The line moved, and I shuffled forward one place closer to the cashier.

Today when I look in the mirror, I see my face and its many familiar flaws, but I also see the faces of a hundred others too—family, friends, colleagues. We stand together, temporary survivors, protected from the rain under our flimsy nylon domes. We play out for one another our parts in the rituals we’ve created to salve the pains of our inevitable loss. We remember, we mourn; we howl with grief for the one whose number has been called.

And we’re damn grateful we have not yet moved to the front of that inescapable line.

Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as a text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.