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By Kelly Ann Gonzales

Kiki’s mother warned her to be careful when she was pregnant because the aswang was watching from the trees in the jungle. All Filipinos knew that the scariest creatures lived deep in the jungle where no one ever went, and then they walked out looking like one of us. They were shapeshifters who ate the flesh of fetuses. Kiki rolled her eyes and promised that she would say her prayers, wear black and add more garlic to her chicken adobo to ward off the aswang that wasn’t native to New York City.

Kiki met her husband, Georgi, on a Tuesday night at a Chelsea café. As a professional matchmaker, she saw the irony of needing to go on dating apps for her own dating life. She could help 40-year-old White American divorcees, and the odd 29-year-old with gout find the loves of their lives. Still, there she was on another lonely weeknight at a café instead of a bar because the guy wanted to get coffee instead of an extra dirty martini.

“Here’s your matcha latte.” He handed her a warm, recyclable medium-sized brown cup of foaming green bliss.

“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “I love matcha.”

“Is it because you’re Asian?”

She sighed. She thought because he was a foreigner that he would understand the subtleties of race in America. She wondered if he got away with being so clueless because he was foreign. She wondered how many people assumed he was actually White American because he was tall, handsome, and pale in that acceptable way.

Kiki knew that she had an easy choice of finding an array of men—some desirable, most were not—on dating apps. She was a hot, young, single Asian woman. Although most decent-looking, youngish, single men in her area called themselves liberal and progressive, they succumbed to everything from cheap pickup lines (can you love me a long time?) to, “but where are you really from?” FROM MY MOTHER’S VAGINA, YOU MILK SOPPING, OVERGROWN BOY.

She was used to years of brushing off casual racism. The comments were subtle. She knew how to wipe off their comments like she was a towel, and their words were only droplets of water. Kiki knew that men like Georgi didn’t mean any harm. They didn’t know any better. She straddled between feelings of an obligation to educate him and to chalk it up to dating as a young Asian-American woman.

Their wedding was on a Saturday afternoon on the elevated High Line, a freight rail line that became a public park. The onlookers gawked at them as Kiki and Georgi huddled in a semi-private corner of the High Line that should have been of no interest to these tourists. The corners were filled with old grass and uninteresting buildings that had changed from a hip restaurant to a clothing boutique to a bodega over the past few years.

Kiki didn’t mind the stares of the 60-year-old Midwestern couple and their detached 14-year-old hobbling along, trying not to walk into other tourists. She didn’t mind the stares until they kept staring, looking her up and down as if she was the tourist attraction. Looking at her against the city backdrop next to her European husband, trying to figure out which of them didn’t belong here. Kiki figured she and Georgi deserved the stares because they chose to have a wedding in a public venue and if they wanted privacy, well, couldn’t they have just had it in the privacy of their one-bedroom 750 square foot apartment?

The Midwestern wife from the crowds holding a DSLR camera piped up, “Are you almost done?”

Kiki and Georgi’s officiant whipped her head back and glared at the stranger, “They’re in the middle of getting married. The one picture you’re going to take of this very NYC bodega and never look at again can wait another ten minutes until we’re done here.” She smiled apologetically at the bride and groom and quietly mouthed, “Sorry.”

Kiki smiled awkwardly because she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to get mad? Was she supposed to laugh it off?

She was pregnant a few months after their wedding. It was a Sunday, January morning, before her weekly brunch date with her mother. It was the January, a few months before the pandemic came.

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Her family was sheltered in place for months. They took safe haven in their home partially because they wanted to protect themselves from the virus and because they wanted to protect themselves from the uneasy public’s reaction to the people who embodied the virus. To the average onlooker, people that looked like Kiki looked like they were from Wuhan. Because of that, Kiki and anyone who looked like Kiki were to blame for social distancing, loneliness, and disease.

She was already taking precautions as a woman. She didn’t walk down dark alleyways. She looked behind her periodically when she walked. She carried her car keys wedged in her hand like she was Wolverine to swipe at any grabby man.

As much as Kiki wanted her whole big and loud Filipino family with her in the birthing room, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had Georgi by her side and napping periodically on a red vinyl sleeper chair. She was one of the lucky ones when some other women had to be completely alone at the beginning of the pandemic. At the very least, she had her husband running on coffee and nerves, pacing back and forth around the room.

He held her hand when she gave birth. She sweated and screamed through her N95 mask. When she pushed, he pushed too. He wanted to commiserate with her. She appreciated his gesture, although he’d never fully understand. He could be an ally, and he could sympathize, but he never really understood.

She still thought about the one bad date she had during her single New Yorker years. She met a guy at a networking event, and he asked for her business card, and since she worked at home and worked for herself, her business phone was just her cell phone. So the guy had her number, and he wanted to meet her on a Friday night after office hours for a pair of old fashioneds.

“Extra ripe cherry.” He winked at her as he handed her a cold glass with one of those abnormally large square ice cubes.

“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “These abnormally large square ice cubes always wigged me out, but there’s something calming about just looking at the cherry in this brown liquid.”

“I feel like this drink represents you.” He raised his glass. “Cheers, y’know, because you’re like this little cherry in the brown.”


Before she could say another word and before he could explain any further, he leaned in to kiss her. She put up her hand. She blushed, shaking her head, “No, I can’t. We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I…I just started dating someone.” She was three weeks into dating Georgi at the time.

“And who is he?”

“I met him on Bumble. He’s nice.”

“You met him on Bumble? But aren’t you a Matchmaker? Like you can’t find a nice brown guy on your own?”

She furrowed her eyebrows, “What makes you think I’m dating someone brown?”

He rubbed his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. “Please don’t tell me he’s White.”

“Yeah. He is. Not White American, but yeah, he’s White.”

“Like from Europe? Wow, so he’s REALLY not going to understand you.”

She wanted to throw her drink at this guy. “Why not?”

He put down his glass and started waving at the bartender for the check. “Because he’s not like you and me. You’re an Asian woman. I’m Black. I can understand you in a way that he NEVER will.”

“That’s not true.”

He kept his eyes down on the check as he signed the check. “You’ll see.”

When she laid awake at night with her hand on her pregnant belly, she wondered how she was being a good POC ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. What would happen when the news cycle decided it was no longer important? Were people really going to change?

A few months into motherhood, after her young half-Asian, half-White daughter was brought into the world, #StopAsianHate bubbled to the surface. It was all over Facebook, Instagram, and her family group text messages. She wondered if her daughter was going to have to worry about this a decade from now. She wondered if her daughter would “pass” for White enough in this country or if her almond-shaped eyes were the dead giveaway for being spat at.

Kiki couldn’t be sure which was safer: walking to the pediatrician appointments twenty blocks away from their apartment, taking the subway five stops away, or spending $60 both ways to hop into an Uber/Lyft/Via and hope she didn’t get raped. Or catch COVID. Did she need to invest in getting a car? What was the point of being a city girl if she needed a car?

Whichever option she chose each time, and she switched up her options each time to not leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for a potential stalker/assailant/Asian hater, she had to be hypervigilant. It wasn’t just herself she was looking after. She was looking after a defenceless child. Then what if she and baby Bisera Del Rosario Dachkov were hurt? Who would cook Georgi’s dinner? And all that hospital and insurance paperwork. He was no good at all of that. Her husband needed her.

But then, even when her family was in a different state and their friends hadn’t seen them in months (last she heard, her best friend from college grew a philosopher’s bread), somehow she found relief in the distance. Having the time apart to drown out the noise from others’ opinions and cautionary tales of danger, real like on the news and imaginary (sorry, Mom) like the aswang, allowed Kiki the space to form her own opinions. She was one person in a city of millions.

If something happened to her, they’d call her the 28-year-old Asian-American mother and professional matchmaker because she wouldn’t just be a 28-year-old American businesswoman and mother. The world, for better or worse, would have needed to know she was an Asian mom.

All Kiki felt was fear. Some days the fear weighed down on her like a brick being thrown into her glass window. She couldn’t replace fear with hope, love, and determination, but she could make room for those sentiments.

She took a breath when she remembered to breathe. She thought that because her parents were the ones who were foreigners and because she was born and bred on US soil that she was one of us. Race in America continued to be a taut, tight rope we walked across.

Kiki wondered if she could get away with being so admittedly sad. Kiki wondered if she could get away with navel-gazing for so long until she had to do something other than feeling so sad, so lonely, so angry all the goddamn time. Kiki had to do something because she was here, and she was alive, and she was just brave enough to do something. Even if that something was small.

Even if she only started expanding her matchmaker business to include other women, other AAPI women on the fringes who didn’t just want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Even if she only started volunteering on boards and asking to be a part of their diversity and inclusion program to see more women who looked like her and more women who didn’t. Kiki had a mouth to speak, and if it were only a few words she would say that would fall upon a few choice ears, it was better said aloud than not said at all.

Kiki dreamed of a world where her daughter wouldn’t become numb to years of remaining unseen. While Kiki’s mother warned her of creatures that didn’t exist, Kiki imagined warning Bisera of the real dangers. Because all minorities in America knew that the scariest creatures were the ones who told them they loved their clothing and their food and their people of caramel persuasion to push a pin into a country they never actually planned to visit. They were coworkers who went to lunch with us at Panda Cottage and asked us if the beef with broccoli or the sweet & sour pork was better. They were friends who showed us off as their token brown friend.

Kiki wasn’t going to keep rolling her eyes and saying her prayers, hoping people would change. She needed to change. She needed to say to whoever was going to listen that she had enough, that it wasn’t enough for people to love her food but hate her. When she still didn’t feel the courage to push through, she looked down at Bisera with her long eyelashes and eager coos, so she could be the Asian mom she always wanted to be. Free to love, laugh, and be angry, taking up space in their corner of our world.

Kelly Ann Gonzales is an Executive Matchmaker and Dating Consultant. Her published works include short fiction publications featured in Penultimate Peanut, Write Launch, Rigorous, Change Seven, and elsewhere.

Lead Butterflies

By H.R. Parker

She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. Dream-whispers creep past and float in the air, disappearing forever. She crawls down, down, down, spindly legs at awkward angles, down the tunnel of my traumatized trachea. Into my belly to lay her eggs. She does this nightly, and I can’t stop her. I try so hard but to no avail. When I wake, the eggs have hatched, metamorphosed. I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.

Sometimes I can ignore the lead butterflies, but they start making new slices and scrapes into my fibrous flesh when I do. They rise up sometimes, up and up and into my throat, abraded by their mother the night before. Then they begin to pull, dragging my breath down, down, down. I begin to fold back into myself and retreat. I fold in at the corners to collapse into myself. A tiny square. I’ve refolded so many times the paper is tissue-thin, like a butterfly’s wings, powdery and torn slightly around the edges.

When I fall into a fitful sleep, the lead butterflies rise back up, this time stopping in my lungs. They wrap their sticky dream threads around them, hijacking my breath. I awake, at the edge of panic, frenzied dreams still dripping from my eyelids. My heart is in my throat, a bass drum pounding out an erratic, desperate rhythm. I fight to retake my breath from these invaders, but the more I fight, the weaker I get. They flutter suddenly, all over, invading. My throat, lungs, stomach, their leg-knives digging in. The fear rushes up, up, up, from dark places and spreads.

We wrestle the lead butterflies and I. I wrestle for my breath, closing my eyes to will away these unwanted visitors. With each breath, I push them down, down, down, once again. To die in the darkness. I win, momentarily.

But in the night, she comes again. She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. And I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.

Heather R. Parker is a freelance writer, editor, and poet from Georgia. Her work has been published by Nightingale & Sparrow Magazine, Goats Milk Magazine, Analog Submissions Press, Between Shadows Press, Friday Flash Fiction, Clover & Bee Magazine, 365 Tomorrows, and others. In her spare time, you can find her doing yoga, taking long walks in the woods, birdwatching, or picking flowers in sun-dappled meadows. You can follow Heather’s writing on Instagram and Fictionate.Me.

Microwave Blues

By Doug M. Dawson

Percy Rainbow felt he’d seen a lot in his nearly seventy years, though he really hadn’t. He started life in the deep south, migrated up to Baltimore to work in its factories in the late 1950s then made his way to New York. He had an older cousin named Ellwood who started a small printing business in the Bronx and offered to take Percy in and teach him the trade. Percy caught on all right, and when Ellwood died in the early 1980s, he inherited the business. Ever since that time, Percy had kept things going, though he never seemed to be able to make the business grow. He hired one assistant and was thinking of taking on another, but that was mostly because he was getting old. He couldn’t do it all by himself anymore. He’d been married for a while in the ’70s and had a son, but both the wife and boy left in their own good time, and he hadn’t heard from either in years.

It was a lonely life, but he had his business, he had his drinking buddies, and he had his neighbours. He also had his collection of guitars and occasional gigs in bars, where he sang and played the blues. He’d spent a good part of his life listening to recordings of old-time bluesmen like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters, and he could play all their licks by heart. His singing wasn’t bad either, and he’d always felt he missed his real calling as a southern bluesman just by being born too late. He may not have had a career as a professional musician, but he did have a trunk full of original songs. He’d taken guitar lessons over the years, learned a lot about harmony and chording and studied music notation – something the great blues masters never did. He’d had many songs published, and more than a few were out there “on the circuit” – being sung by various singers and bands. He even received royalty checks – not nearly enough to support him, but enough to make him feel he was recognized. Many musicians and fans knew him, appreciated his songwriting and to him, being appreciated was what mattered.

He lived in a rent-controlled tenement building in the South Bronx. The place wasn’t great, and it wasn’t terrible. He’d never been robbed in all his years there, and he figured that was because robbers probably went to more affluent-looking places. Other reasons were the three strong locks on his door and the “neighbourhood watch” – the organized cadre of residents who kept an eye on things. He had a number of guitars that could be fenced, but he reasoned that when he carried one of his guitars to a gig, people only saw the case, never the guitar and never realized he had a whole collection of them and that several were quite valuable. Then again, they were mostly the acoustic kind, with the “f” shaped holes like a violin or the big round hole in the middle, and these were harder to fence and therefore less likely to be stolen than the much more popular electric guitars used in rock and most popular music. He called the latter “canoe paddles” – solid wood instruments that could only be used with an amplifier.

“Gas range, she ain’t workin’,”

It was Thursday, and Percy was a little more tired than usual after work. He stopped at the deli on the way home and bought several days’ worth of food – as much as he thought he could carry. He only bought a quart of milk because the half-gallon and gallon sizes felt as heavy as barbell plates. He bought a steak he planned to broil and some asparagus spears to boil on the stove. By the time the grocer piled the bread, potato salad, jar of peanut butter, canned veggies and a plastic cup of tapioca pudding into the bag, he wasn’t sure he could carry it the half-mile to his home, but somehow, he managed. Without a car, it was a long walk, but it was his main form of exercise, and as he’d never once had to stop and rest, he figured he’d be all right. As he walked, he wondered what he’d do when he couldn’t carry his own groceries anymore. Sure, you can pay people to shop for you, but one of these days, he’d retire and then who’d have money for such things? By the time he made it to the top of the three flights of stairs and started to fumble for his keys, he’d put all such thoughts out of his mind.

By the time he finally set his groceries down on the kitchen table, his hunger was dominating his thinking. He was really looking forward to the thick, juicy steak, and he put said steak on some tin foil, put it on a rack in the broiler section of the oven then turned on the gas. He dumped in the asparagus spears into a pan, placed it on the gas range and poured in some water. He turned the knob on the burner and stood there staring, waiting for the flame to come on. It didn’t.

“Damn!” he said when nothing happened. He put aside the pan, lifted the range’s top cover to see if the pilot light had gone out, then turned around, walked over to the oven, opened the bottom drawer and looked inside, hoping to see flames. He saw nothing but a pitch-black oven and decided to call one of his neighbours.

“Gas went off this aft’noon boss,” he was told.

“Anybody doin’ anything ’bout it?”

“Building super’s being sought.”

“Being sought? What the hell’s that?” asked Percy incredulously.

“I don’t know any more than you,” said the neighbour. “Being sought means can’t be found, don’t it? That what it means to me.”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to get on you,” said Percy.

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“It’s all right, man, we’re all pissed. The dude’s never done us wrong before, so he’ll show up, maybe tonight if we’re lucky.”

“But I got to eat!” said Percy, sounding like he was ready to cry.

“You got a microwave? Nuke you a dinner, man! I don’t even have one.”

“Yeah, man,” said Percy. “Talk to you later.”

Percy looked over at his small microwave oven. It looked pitiful on its small stand, nothing around it, like a lone soldier guarding a solitary post on the frontier, no one but his commander knowing he was out there. Suddenly the urge to write a song hit Percy. He was getting hungrier by the minute, but like Duke Ellington used to say, his head would already be on the pillows when that idea for a new song would arrive like the proverbial stork carrying a baby. Sure, the Duke wanted to sleep like anybody else, but when a good idea hit you had to get up and write it down before it was gone or that idea would leave you forever, kind of like the stork carrying the baby away because he thought you didn’t want it.

Percy walked into his tiny living room where sat his large, old Gibson “f” hole guitar. He picked it up and started strumming. He played it every day then scrupulously cleaned the strings with WD-40. The strings were kept so clean this way they didn’t even need to be tuned on some days. Percy went through a familiar 12-bar blues pattern centered on B7, A major and E Major chords and played a familiar “turn-around” used by generations of blues musicians. He smiled when he recalled that day in the late ’50’s when he first noticed that pattern. He was listening to the radio when Buddy Holly’s hit song “That’ll Be the Day” came on. In the middle was a guitar break that ended with just that blues turn-around. He’d never forgotten it. He thought about his current predicament and words starting coming to him. It was turning into a comical blues song – if there could ever be such a thing. It was about a fellow who could think of nothing but that juicy steak he was about to cook when he found his oven wasn’t working.

Percy juggled the words in his head for a while then wrote it all down on paper, chord symbols too. He’d been playing, singing and writing music for so long he didn’t even have to play a new song on his guitar to write it down; he just heard it in his head. A few minutes later he was singing the whole song from memory. “That’s what a little musical training will do for you,” he thought to himself. He picked up his big Gibson and ran through it with guitar accompaniment – just to make sure it sounded the way he heard it in his head – it did. Then another idea hit him; he’d call some of his neighbors, all stuck in the same oven-less boat, many of them without their own microwaves, and sing it for them. They’d have a few laughs then everybody’d pitch in with the food he’d ask them to bring and they’d have a sort of pot-luck cook-in, accompanied by the blues and a microwave oven. That’s when the title for the song hit him.

It took a few phone calls and some cajoling but gradually people started filing in, ’till he had eleven people in his living room, including himself. Somehow the shared experience of being without gas brought everyone together. Finally, they were all settled down and quiet. Percy used his thickest, hardest guitar pick, the one that produced the most volume from his guitar and he started with a chord lead-in then proceeded to sing:

“Gas range, she ain’t workin’,

“‘It’s a cook-out man!’ yelled one neighbor.”

Oven conked out too.

That’s why I be sittin’ here –
Wit dem mean ol’ microwave blues.

I be sittin’ here nukin’,
Nukin’ all night long.
Hope I don’t glow in the dark
By da time I finished this song!

Whole thing start on Thursday,
When they cut off the gas.
But I still got the juice on,
‘lectric comin’ out my ass!

I say I be sittin’ here,
Wit’ dem mean ol’ microwave blues.
Might make it till Monday
But I won’t hold out to Tues.!

Wonder what I’ll cook me –
Chicken or a roast
Meat loaf or a pizza –
Might make me some toast.

“I be sittin’ here nukin’,
Nukin’ all night long.
Hope I don’t glow in the dark
By da time I finished this song!”

Percy ended the song with an improvised guitar solo, one that was pure blues. Even though it was instrumental it recalled everything from the field hollers and Negro spirituals of slavery days to the gravel-voiced “Oh-yeahs” of Louis Armstrong and the last few notes of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Percy hadn’t played anything like this in so long that even he was surprised by what came out, as his fingers flew around the fretboard and cajoled lonliness and heartache, even defiance out of his guitar. He ended his solo with guitar licks, ones that Buddy Holly’s song made famous long ago, only he didn’t play it like the slicked-up white man’s version from the record, but rather like the rendering of a blues man – someone who’d lived a long life, been around, seen it all, done it all. When he finished everyone sat in silence for a few seconds, like they’d just witnessed something rare and special. Then everybody commenced applauding and laughing, for the song and the whole get-together were more than a bit comic, an attempt to deal with one of life’s little adversities with humor.

Somebody yelled out “Got to get me some food!” as he got up and headed for the kitchen and the microwave oven. At that everyone rose and formed a line, with their food in their hands as they waited their turn to cook up a quick microwave meal.

“It’s a cook-out man!” yelled one neighbor.
Another added “No, man – it’s a nuke out!”
Still another piped up “No, man – it’s a nuke-in … with some blues.”

Doug M. Dawson hails from Brooklyn, New York, wrote extensively for the US Defense Dept. and as a freelancer had some 40 articles and fiction published by car magazines (“Vette Vues,” “Corvette Enthusiast,” “Corvette” magazine). He holds degrees in music and computer science (American University, Univ. of Maryland, UMBC) has had his short stories accepted for publication by Academy of the Heart & Mind, Ariel Chart, Aphelion Webzine, Literary Yard, Scars Publications in the U.K. (3 stories), Scarlet Review and poetry accepted by Page & Spine.

To Become the Whole Him

By Melanie Chartoff

“I always knew I wasn’t normal,” Hank thought to himself, eyes folded into his chubby baby fat face in the mirror on the visor. Even at twenty-six, he looked like a fat baby, hardly any beard yet. He never felt grown up. Maybe because he stayed back a couple times.

“Hey, wake up. We’ll be at the station soon,” said his big brother Al, “I don’t know why the hell you’re going now, Hank. You couldn’t wait till after the holidays?”

Hank sat up higher in the car seat. This was his time to say goodbye to everything familiar and painful. “Nah,” he muttered. “I gotta go now because they invited me for Christmas, and I don’t know if they’ll ever ask me again.” He ran his hand nervously through his black hair, smelled the Vitalis on his fingers. Bad habit, he knew he would have to stop doing that when he was with strangers. He’d have to stop thinking abnormal thoughts, too. “And I don’t have any friends here…I never did.”

“You got us, ya dummy! You got two little nieces who love you.”

“Fran doesn’t like me that much; the girls are okay with me,” Hank muttered out the window of the Desoto, which he’d rolled open because he was sweating out so many secrets. That his heart broke to leave the girls. He loved holding them, the way they clung to his leg, and he dragged them through the house. That he couldn’t let his big brother know he had to leave because he was attracted to men, not women, and not in a normal way.

“Ah the hell with her. I’m the boss in my house, and you are my goddamn brother!”

And mostly the goddamn brother had to leave because he’d been in love with Al since they were kids—one of the biggest ways he knew he was abnormal—and he knew he could never tell him or anybody else around here how hard it had been to roughhouse, or go swimming with him, to suffer his jibes. He cast a glance toward Al’s profile, pretty much like a movie actor’s, his shiny black hair, his strong shoulders. Soon he’d never have to look at his brother’s good-looking face or body again. And he’d be free to be whatever the hell he was supposed to be.

Maybe in California, he could become the whole him.

Hank took a long look out the passenger window as they passed his old red brick high school on Chapel Street. The high school where he got beat up by a bunch of classmates when he was sixteen. It was because he wrote that paper about sex, a subject that fascinated him. And he got an F minus. Not because the paper was bad. He did a lot of work on it at the library, knew it was good, was very proud of it. Because the old maid teacher was a prude. She was embarrassed by it, so she flunked him and wouldn’t discuss it with his mother or anybody else.

He thought about sex a lot, read about it a lot, probably since he’d never had it, and he wanted to have it, bad. Even in the service when there were lots of chances, he could never bring himself to touch anyone with the tenderness he felt so keenly. But those guys knew something even he didn’t let himself know at eighteen. They flirted and teased him, walked around with their muscled chests bared in the barracks even on cold nights, passing by his bunk more times than necessary. He hated his two and a half years in the Army.

With its snazzy white stripe on a sleek green body, the sleek Desoto, spotted with mud and rock salt around the bumpers and white wall wheels, pulled up in front of the New Haven Station. It would be great to get away from another slushy winter and feel some sun.

“Well, okay, Al, thanks a lot for the ride,” he winces and smiles sidelong at his brother, opening the car door, heaving himself over to get out fast. He didn’t want to cry in front of Al.

His brother’s face reddened. “Hold your horses! You got twenty minutes; what’s the rush?”

He kept his back to Al. “I gotta use the boys’ room.”

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“C’mon, wait five minutes! So, you stayin’ with Evelyn and them out there?”

Hank sat back on the edge of the car seat. “For a few nights. Then I’m gonna look around a little, maybe go up to San Francisco.”

His brother growled at him in envy. “California. Boy, I wish I was goin’. You can make a lotta money out there, y’know.”

“Yeah. I wonder what kind of food they have out there. No New Haven Apizza or fried clams p’rolly.”

Al jeered, poked at his gut, and Hank recoiled. “Ah, you always find enough to eat. Wouldn’t hurt you to lose a few pounds.”

“I try; it’s hard. I love food, especially at night.”

“Make sure you get back in time for Memorial Day cookout—kosher hot dogs splitting open on the grill, eh? With Mom’s sauerkraut recipe? I make it good.” Al turns off the car. “I’ll get your bag, walk you in.”

“Nah, no need.” Al, jumping out, slamming the door, never did listen to him. It was like Hank’s voice disappeared in the air just outside his mouth, never to be heard by anyone but himself. Al pulled the medium suitcase out of the trunk; Hank took his bloated briefcase under his arm and pulled himself up out of the car, stepping over a frozen drift at the curb. The two, pelted with stinging sleet, dashed into the station’s waiting and ticketing area with its monotone drone announcing comings and goings of trains on the PA over the hushed bustle of excited travellers happy to be getting the hell out of New Haven.

“So? You wanna talk about anything?”

Hank felt on the spot. “Nah, not really.”

Al sat down on an ancient wooden bench and pulled him down to sit, too. “I want you to have a good time, okay? I know it’s been hard since Mom died. For me, too. For you, the hardest”

Hank grunted “yeah,” and was suddenly overcome with tears. Al was taken aback.

“Hey, hey! I know you miss her; we all do. She missed Dad, so it was good she had you living there with her those last years.”

“It’s not just that…” snuffled Hank.

“What is it??”

“I gotta go to the bathroom, Al. I’ll see ya, okay? Take care, okay? Tell the girls I love them.” He got up to gather his stuff.

“Okay, Hank, okay. Write us a postcard when you get there, okay? Hey! Gimme a hug.”

Then Al grabbed his kid brother and pulled him chummily clumsy but close, saddened to feel big sobs coursing through that big body of his.

“Hey, hey, hey….” Hank’s face crumpled into his brother’s shoulder for a moment—it was the closest they had ever been—then he wrenched away and ran with his stuff, as if unhinged, toward the train portals and away from everything he knew. And everything that knew him.

Melanie Chartoff is a lifelong stage and screen actor residing in Los Angeles. She is a first-time author of “Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories,” rated 5 stars on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Beautiful House

By C.L. Baptiste

I wanted to be in a cave that night, so I slept in the basement. I wanted the simplicity of sleeping alone as if the absence of her warm body beside me could liberate me from the troubles in my heart. We had a fight, a big one. And for once, I was right. She was wrong. Clearly wrong. For the last several months, since completing our colossal house remodel, I have been swimming upstream, trying to make right some of the wrongs I brought into our relationship in the wake of a terribly stressful home renovation.

In our new house, there are 52 windows — 53 if you include the kitchen skylight. Even the basement bedroom has three big windows. When I woke that morning at 5:23 am, the light through the windows had turned the previous night’s cave into something hopeful and joyful; it didn’t match my mood. I had been right the night before. This morning I was steeped in vitriolic righteousness, and I didn’t want hope and joy to crush my position.

From the windows in our living room, the Cascade Mountains and Lake Washington are visible. In the very early morning light, the crew teams glide by, mist whispering beneath their shells, the faint shouts of the coxswain bouncing off the lake until they reach our house. It’s so much sensory beauty, too much whimsy for my mood that morning. To let that in would be to soften my heart.

From our windows is the Republic of Trees. The loudest are the conifers- Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, Alaskan Cedars — waving their long arms in the morning breeze coming off the lake. They stand at attention, waving, but never wavering, no question that they rule the sky — the tallest, darkest, strongest, most deeply rooted. The Cherry Blossoms that line the lake are pretty and pink. They shout at me, “cheer up, cheer up,” and then drop confetti everywhere.

Hugging our house, and visible from all of our windows lives a carousel of colour — screaming red rhododendron, pink flushed dogwoods, purple and white hydrangeas, fuchsia azaleas, the persistent lilacs everywhere, purple blooms hanging, casually off-gassing their perfume.

“By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling.”

The pungency of newly bloomed lilacs relentlessly attacks my senses. I am not in the mood. The honeyed aroma takes me to summer — sitting in the sun, eating outside, diving off the pier. It’s making me grateful, eager, expecting.

On the lake, the coots and the ducks and the geese are celebrating. The coots are captivating as they buzz in and out of formation like Pac-Man characters while the ducks stay close in, lazy, relaxed. The geese loiter at the moorage down the street from my house, leaving green poop all over the shore and holding up traffic as they cross the busy street to hang out on the grassy hill below those houses with the coveted views.

The cormorants dot every buoy along the lake, standing at the ready, alerting the smaller water birds to the goings-on around the lake. It makes me think about the great blue heron I saw while I was jogging last summer. It was just us. He was quiet, pensive, sure, and so beautiful. Long legs, neck cautiously extended delicate beak, a statue in his perfect stillness. Me, panting, excited, sweating. I don’t feel like remembering that indelible moment. It’s too beautiful, and I don’t want that right now.
I wanted to be mad at her that night. Nancy is generous, loving, funny, ethical, smart, and sexy. When I fell for her, when we fell for each other, we knew. This was it. Too often, it all seems too good to be true. When she fucks up, it’s unusual, and I wanted to relish in my victory that night, spend as much time as I could swimming in this sensation of being right in the face of her rare wrong.

We built our beautiful house together. When we bought it, it was ugly; the neighbours told us it was the ugliest house on the block. They said the woman who lived here was the meanest woman they’d ever met. There were rats in the ceiling, 50-year-old shag carpet on the floors, walls in places that seemed to be built to block instead of enhancing the lake and mountain views.

It took nine months to get our house ready. We gave it a new roof, new plumbing, new heating, new paint all over the inside and the outside. We tore down walls, replaced 50 original windows, and added three additional ones. We kept the refrigerator, the washer and the dryer, and one toilet. Nothing else from inside the old house survived.

Every day there were decisions. Where should the bedroom door go? How do you light a room with 18-foot fir-floor ceilings? Is it worth $11,000 to put in wood windows? Should we make the stairway windows opaque or frosted? Where does the bathtub faucet go? Can you really tell the difference between charcoal gray and black stain? How many inches between the vanity and the window? Is that light in the closet really necessary?

By the end of nine months, the house was beautiful, and we were crumbling. It was as if the lumber, wire, insulation, pipes, sheetrock needed for the construction of our beautiful house had been pulled directly from the framework that was our relationship. We were both skeletons with nothing left to give, like the tree at the end of The Giving Tree; we’d given it all away.

Help us keep the lights on

Nancy, prone to generosity, great love, hard work, and caretaking, poured the little she had left into my shell, trying and trying to create a path back to where we had been. I, disposed to isolating, shutting down, escaping, couldn’t produce a landing pad for her love. It was too much, all of the love she had when I felt like I had nothing to return. Feeling naked, starving, I turned away.

It’s too obvious now. Embarrassing. In my crumbling, weakened state, I sought nourishment somewhere else, from someone else, an acquaintance who superficially fed my ego, quenched my thirst, allowed me to escape into more shallow emotional waters.

I thought it was harmless and temporary — some emails, a handful of texts, a few coffees. And it was nothing until it became too much for me, for us. Like a crack in the plaster that is barely noticeable when it starts, my turning away from Nancy exposed us to a much bigger crash. The light poured in and our relationship, and what we had become, came into view. We could finally see ourselves, exposed as rubble after an earthquake. In nine months of caring for our beautiful house, we had neglected the life within it.

The wreckage — chunks of walls and pieces of doors and pipes and metal roofing and glass from 53 windows and radiant floor pipe parts and splinters from the deck railings — crashed down around us. The house was built, but we were demolished, barely hanging on. The light was everywhere, and we could see everything. Every crack. Every stain. Every flaw. Our neglect of ourselves, of each other, shone brightly, and we could no longer hide inside of the structure we had painstakingly created. 

And so, living in our finished house, we began again to rebuild. To look outside was to see the marvels of nature — — the lake, the trees, the birds, the flowers, the sky and clouds, and mountains. And inside too was so much beauty; all of our hard work — the perfectly chosen light fixtures, the precisely measured built-in bookshelves, the special 18-foot wall that magically held the letters of the alphabet constructed from carefully collected sticks and twigs. Our blood, bones, love. But deeper in the house, we were like war victims, sweeping crushed pieces of exploded brick off of our wounded bodies, wiping dust out of our eyes, dabbing moist cloths on our cuts and scrapes. We were alive but damaged, in need of love, caretaking, tenderness.

“It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice.”

We started again — rewound, retraced our path to try to find where we had made missteps and we began to repair. Night after night we slept in our room with six windows, the lake air cooling us as we tossed and turned, trying to find our way back to each other. In the mornings, the sun shone earlier every day, waking us to the reminder that we had work to do.

All of it was new — our house, our words, the way we looked at each other and comforted each other, and trusted each other. Success came in many different ways — mad, hot afternoon sex like the days of brand new lust, crushingly honest conversations that left us both feeling like repair was impossible, moments of contentment watching the cormorants on the buoys, simple agreement on what to have for dinner, me sleeping in the basement for the first time. And slowly, we started to be able to live in the house again, to inhabit it in all of its beauty.

The house is done. It’s summer now, and we are coming to the time when the light will be at its very brightest for the one day of the Summer Solstice. The windows can be open now every day, and the lake air that flows in brings new life into our beautiful house. You can feel it. The light, the breeze, all of the sounds and smells that come with remind us. We live here. We built this house with our love.

C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.


By Mark Gozonsky

My original vision for Garden Summer was pumpkins and zinnia and fuck everything else. That vision is still within reach, despite the drip irrigation system being francamente fallado, a term my wife and I heard on our honeymoon during the introduction to a screening of Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing, at an art-house in Toledo, Spain. Actually, I misheard it as francamente flujado, which is the term we have adapted over the ensuing 29 years to describe frankly flawed things. 

Fact-checking myself right now, it appears that flujado actually means not flawed but fluent. The film scholar introducing Bunny Lake probably intended to describe the movie not as flawed but rather as fallado, an utter failure. Nevertheless, my wife and I bathed side-by-side in lights of lush black and white from the early 1960s, when we were little babies. It was, as we like to say, mo-rantic.

Our love continueth; however, the simple but elegant irrigation system is defunct. This is problematic because another flaw in my gardening technique is that my wife and I leave town for weeks at a time during the summer. I keep hoping to set up a self-sustaining garden that will thrive as I hope the world will, after I die, despite all evidence that thrive is not the word you would use to describe what’s coming. At the start of this summer, the house-sitter insinuated to my wife that my hopes are unrealistic. She said, “Why does Mark keep planting things that he’s not going to be around to take care of?”  

If I had been there to defend my francamente fallado strategy of gardening in absentia, I would have said, “The entire point is, you want stuff to grow when you’re gone.”

But I was not there to defend the foods I had planted for our own ample consideration: Early Sunglow Hybrid corn, Padron peppers, Malabar spinach, and Wando peas; Sugar Baby and Crimson Sweet watermelon. These were all wildcards, potential sacrifices to the truth that not everything you plant is gonna grow. For our four brown-to-golden laying hens, I cast ample handfuls of “Black Oil” sunflowers, buckwheat, alfalfa, and white oats. I envisioned returning to admire the grains and sunflowers swaying in the breeze and undulating in the summer light.

Of pumpkin abundance, there would be no doubt. I planted four varieties — Howden, Early Giant, Big Max, and Kakai. On their seed packet covers, each variety of pumpkin shared a magnificent dignity, like the first characters onstage in any Shakespeare tragedy. These eminences would be surrounded by zaps of multi-colour from bright pink, bright orange, bright red and yellow California giant zinnias. I broadcast many, many handfuls of seed in the hope of coming home to Paradise.    

This is not to blame our house-sitter. She did a great job looking after the chickens.  

But alas, my home garden did not thrive because unbeknownst to me – or, let’s be as honest as possible – ‘knownst but not consciously in the aware-of in the sense of doing-anything-about way — I was the assassin, for I had killed the irrigation system.  

It died of accumulated machete nicks, cuts, and gouges from my overenthusiastic de-brambling. I myself might have been a body piling up, but for that, I am pretty good at following this one piece of self-preservatory advice: swing the machete away from the body. And wear long pants. And garden gloves.  Ten cuidado con los dedos, that’s what I tell myself. Careful with those fingers. You might want to pick up a guitar again someday. Might want to write something by hand. 

Also requiring hardly any effort was the irrigation system, when it worked. It was on a timer. The brown irrigation tubes lay flat on the ground and drip-dripp-dripped for 10 minutes in seven 40-foot-long ovals; until, due to my thrashing about with my Salvadoran machete, the tubes sprouted leaks ranging from misting station to a fire hydrant cranked open and spurting on a hot sticky day.

I tried patching these gouges up with waterproof tape, which was mostly ineffective but did, in some spots, convert a gusher to a confused and angry babble. It is difficult to confuse or anger water, but I managed until finally the entire system not only stopped working but practically disappeared.

Now I cannot even find the faucet or knob to turn it back on again. Isn’t that embarrassing? Isn’t it a blow to my masculine pride, which must necessarily be predicated on the free-flowing of fluids? Well, actually, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, and I wonder what makes me say that. Hmmm? It’s easy to insult people. What’s my plan? How about instead of insulting myself upon coming home after being gone for much of June and a chunk of July to find my garden




Now I can either pout about how my bid for garden immortality has come up short, or I can come up with a plan for how we’re going to get zinnia and pumpkin to thrive.  

But why not both? Is it always wrong to complain? Who did not manage to take care of this garden while I was away – that is the question I would like to ask if I did not already know the answer is Marko. 

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So what I can do to restore the garden before I leave yet again is lay down four inches of compost around the few pumpkins that are thriving, hanging in there, or barely hanging in there from my first attempt at utopia-in-absentia.  

I had been using homemade compost tea, which I think killed my pomelo tree. I put compost in a plastic mesh bag and put the mesh bag into a bright green plastic 20-gallon tub. I especially like this tub because it is pliable, not rigid. So far so good, but you’re supposed to aerate your compost tea with an aquarium pump. That surpasses my mechanical wherewithal, so I just blew into it from time to time with a cut-off piece of garden hose.  

My daughter Claire said this was the most Rastafarian thing about my garden, and I treasured the idea that she thought there were other Rastafarian things. I clearly need to aerate my compost tea more than just the occasional out-breath; however, because a few days after I encouraged the always problematic pomelo with a good dousing of compost tea, it dropped all its leaves, gasped, and got x’s for its eyes.

Whenever they seek my plant advice, I tell all my friends that it is natural for plants to die and natural for gardeners to kill their plants and not to worry about it, just get another one. However, I still have the skeleton of that pomelo tree in the ground because I had not been able to face its mortality until I noticed the dry brown branches are nowadays embraced by the supple and thriving vines of a stephanotis.


Over the past week, I have moved ¾ of a ton of compost, five fifty-pound wheelbarrow loads per each of six rows. I’m just about out of compost. The seventh row will have to wait for its compost until the green and brown yard waste combines with the chicken poop and decomposes.  

There is a lot of exposed sycamore root back there, looking like a mouth in the ground, more specifically a hungry dirt maw, clamouring for brown and green matter, which would concern me if this was a nightmare or scary folk tale. However, it’s just normal life still, and everything is okay.

After all, once you start looking for brown matter, it’s everywhere, such as hanging from the banana trees. Those majestic green banana leaves eventually turn yellow, then brown, at which point they really have to come down because living things coming up behind them need the light.

I realized this while machete-wielding, and with all those freshly revealed sunbeams flying around, I further realized the seventh row is okay the way it is. It’s got primrose and dill entwined at one end, a wife-requested Meyer lemon tree at the other — all flourishing — and a blueberry bush in between, holding its own. Tomatillos are in the mix as well, and they will get go-go cranking as soon as the temperature cracks 80 degrees three days in a row.

If I wasn’t supposed to be leaving again in three weeks, I would plant multiple rows of tomatillos. That would be a good crop to deliver to the World Harvest Food Bank on Venice Boulevard in Mid-City. Who doesn’t like salsa verde and tomatillos are beautiful with their profuse branches and bright yellow flowers; beautiful and elegant with their paper-lampshade husks and pale green little tomato-shaped fruit.

But I am planning to be gone again in three weeks and not back again for over a month. So what I really should do is stick to the plan: zinnia and pumpkins. This, of course, is the same plan I had when I left last time, with dusty results.

Who has written of Eden after Adam and Eve? Does it prosper or become a snake pit? A few days ago, my wife informed me that our garden looks like hell before I commenced hand-trucking compost. Patchy, she said. Random. Messy. Dead. As if I didn’t know. Yet after she broke it down for me, I had to stand there on the chickenshitty porch for a while, absorbing the blow.  

 Everyone’s under a lot of stress these days. We had ourselves some back and forth about the garden’s status; no one hurt too badly to make up later. Things were said about the stress of quarantine. The upshot being, I resolved to structure the garden not to satisfy my fleeting whim but rather to grow food. I emailed the World Harvest Food Bank and said me and my backyard are at your service. They promptly replied back, “Awesome.” I’m sure they hear this all the time and always write back, “Awesome.” I’m going to have to show I’m serious.  

Meanwhile, I have tidied up the garden and, in the process, have noted that there is much to celebrate: creeping thyme filling in nicely between the pavers, blackberries-a-go-go, the unknown bush with tube-shaped flowers the colour of candy corn, oregano with purple-flowered runners leaping into the air like flying fish. Additional grapes have taken root in the way-back, where I also planted more blackberries as part of my plan to have the wayback be an impenetrable bramble.
I envision zombies and/or other marauders as these times become increasingly desperate. I am all for giving our food away but not into it being taken from us.


In one last attempt to salvage the current irrigation system, I managed to fuck it up worse so that now a row of sprinklers is going non-stop. And by non-stop, I mean, how do you stop this thing? I tried messing with the so-called control panels and got mosquito bites. I temporarily gave up, a trick I learned from recalcitrant computer printers. Give up and come back later. That usually works with printers which are wily but not as wily as sprinklers run amok.  

How do you stop this thing? I called our gardener; he was kind enough to come right over and give it a shot. I admired his urgent aspect as he set about messing with the controls and began pointing out very politely how many different ways I had broken them in my frustration. “Sí, yo he roto mucho,” I confessed.  

I finally called in Guy Marcia, the guy who’s going to install the new irrigation system. He promptly turned off the water to the house, then cut and capped the sprinkler tube. Problem solved. Thank you, Guy! He also identified the bush with the candy cornflowers as cuphea ignea or Mexican cigar plant. He said it’s a great pollinator and also congratulated me in general on having rich soil. He further identified a bush I had never paid the slightest attention to as arbutus “Elfin King” and pointed out its edible berry. “You have a food forest here,” he said. 

 I really like people who make me feel better. Thus encouraged, I continued with the pumpkin and zinnia plan, aided by my theory of crabgrass. According to my incomplete theory, crabgrass is the garden’s neural network, which considers neither what the garden might be thinking nor what the crabgrass network might be connecting.  

Nevertheless, I like my theory and keep thinking about it whenever I tug at a tuft of crabgrass and either pull up a satisfying string the length of a shoelace or only a dissatisfying bit of thin, brittle blade — in which case I come back with a hand shovel and dig in, determined to show that crabgrass I am the boss, even though this is clearly a delusion. Crabgrass is obviously the boss. It has my garden surrounded and will take over as soon as school starts, and I shift my attention from attempting to nurture plants to attempting to nurture students.

School starts in three days. Fortunately, I have refined my theory over the past few weeks of planting and transplanting pumpkin and zinnia. I know what the garden is thinking: “Let’s grow some calabasas gigantes and get these zinnia popping too!” That’s not all. From the good old days of me planting whatever I felt like wherever I felt like it, the plants that thrived not only think but state boldly, “Here we are, milkweed! Here we are, pineapple sage! Here we are, Mexican cigar plant, lavender, primrose, tomatillo, chives, oregano, heliotrope, African basil, blackberries, creeping thyme, bananas, Meyer lemons, Valencia oranges, finger limes.”  

I am happy to report that not only plants announce themselves. The compost has also spoken. Turn over a hand spade of soil in my garden, and you will find white powdery mycorrhizae, prized for helping roots draw nutrition. Turn over another hand spade, and you will find worms squiggling ecstatically. Nitrogen announces itself in the form of atmospheric funk. My garden has the atmosphere of bases loaded, tie game, full count; heightened in these sad times of unattended baseball games by the hot dog and mustard aroma of chickenshit. My garden is thinking, “We are here,” which is what you are supposed to say in the presence of God. הנה אני. He-nay-nee. I am here.   

I have also figured out how the neural network of the crabgrass is connected. My friend Jimmy taught me. He said about things growing in the garden that aren’t what we planted, “It’s all beneficial, it’s just a matter of what else would you want to be growing there.” 

Now every time I encounter crabgrass in the garden, it declares, “This is fertile soil.” Furthermore, it asks me, plainspokenly, “What would you rather have growing here?” I answer, “Pumpkin and zinnia.” 

And this is how I came to realize that the neural network of crabgrass is connected to me.  

Mark Gozonsky (he/him) frequently writes for The Sun, where his essay “Gritty All Day Long” appeared before being featured in Best American Sports Writing 2020. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Lit Hub, The Santa Monica Review, and The Austin Chronicle.  He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches high school English. Poke him to see if he moves at gozonsky.com or on Instagram.

The Anniversary Dinner

If there is a vacuum, fill it with your imagination.

By Ian Douglas Robertson 

“Hello! The Old Forge. How can I help you? …Lord Hamforth! How nice to hear your voice. How have you…and Lady Hamforth… been since last year? …That’s very good to hear… Same time? … Yes, number thirty-two. By the window overlooking Arle Street… I’ll have it set for two as usual … Yes, I’ll inform Jean-Claude. He’ll be delighted …Rimauresq Cru Classé? … I’m sure we have some in the cellars. If not, I’ll have a case delivered. 2015? … Yes, it was a very good year.” Clive laughs politely. “Quite right! Every year in Provence is good. Well, we look forward to seeing you… both. Goodbye for now.” Clive puts down the receiver and writes Lord Hamforth (for two) 7.30 in the ledger on the mahogany table.

Jenny enters with an armful of immaculately ironed and folded table cloths. 

“What are you brooding about?” she says, with a slight arching of the eyebrows. 

“It was Lord Hamforth. He rang to confirm the booking for their wedding anniversary.”

“It’s the 25th already. For two as usual?”

Clive continues to stare pensively at the ledger. “A bit sad, really, don’t you think?”


“The way he sits there chatting away ten to the dozen. She couldn’t get a word in edgeways, even if she tried.”

“I think it’s very romantic.”

“If you say so. I wonder what he talks about.”

“Their holidays in Provence, no doubt.”

“What’s the point of talking to someone when they don’t reply?”

“I’m sure he knows what the answers will be.”

“Why on earth should he?”

“After you’ve lived with someone for so many years, you can virtually predict what they’re going to say.”

“How tedious? Do you always know what I’m going to say?”

“More or less,” she says.

“Why bother talking then?” 

“It’s called communication, my dear… Not that you’d know much about that,” she appends.

“I feel rather guilty, not to say a little ridiculous, colluding in this pretence.”

“Why? As long as it makes him happy.”

“Is life just one big sham then?”

“Sorry, darling, much as I’d love to discuss the meaning of life with you, we’re rather busy at the moment. Can I leave Lord Hamforth in your hands then? Don’t do anything silly now, will you?”

“Jenny, how long have you known me?”

“A lifetime.”

“And have I ever made a hash of things?”

“Not often. But you find Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary somewhat unnerving.”

“Well, don’t you?”

“I suspect it’s the highlight of his life.”

“But it’s just a charade.”

“And we are merely the players.”  

Recognizing the reference, Clive sculpts a half-smile. 

He places the pen back on its stand. “No time like the present,” he mutters and heads towards the kitchen. 

“Clive is unsure whether his lordship is trying to be funny or not, so he chuckles ambiguously.”

He hesitates for a moment in front of the swing door before entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Old Forge. Jean Claude is belligerently territorial about his kitchen. 

The place is abuzz, sous chefs and assistants dashing hither and thither, recklessly carrying sizzling saucepans and flaming frying pans. Clive tiptoes between the stainless steel benches, dodging personnel seemingly unaware of his presence.

Jean Claude is busy working on a creation, his brow creased and slightly moist with concentration. 

“Bonjour, Jean Claude, ça va?”

Jean Claude does not answer.   

“It’s Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary. Thought I’d better remind you. Bouillabaisse for starters, followed by Daube with polenta for him and ravioli for her.”

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose,” says Jean Claude dryly.

Clive isn’t quite sure what Jean Claude is getting at. Is he making some profound philosophical statement? Or doubting the worth of his profession? 

Watching him bent over the bench, a look of manic intensity in his eyes, Clive envisages Jean Claude as a medieval alchemist on a quest to discover the elixir of life. 

“So, can I leave it up to you then? 7.30.”

Jean Claude throws a fractious glance in Clive’s direction. 

Just as Clive is about to turn, Jean Claude straightens up with an audible creaking of his spine. “It’s a terrible waste of haute cuisine,” he mumbles.

“Not at all,” says Clive, though he secretly agrees. 

“I burst my kidneys to make a creation pour épater le monde only for it to be left on the plate.”

“The customer is always right. You know that, Jean Claude.”

“Oh, you and your customers!”

Clive smiles. Jean Claude has a somewhat deprecating view of the customer. “Comme jeter des perles aux pourceaux,” he once uttered in a fit of rage.

“Has Lord Hamforth ever complained? He has nothing but praise for your culinary skills. What more do you want?”

“Someone to eat my food.”

“You can’t have everything.”

Stefan is laying the starched tablecloths Jenny brought up from the laundry room.

“Stefan, a word.”

“Yes, Mr. Clive.” 

Why does he insist on calling me, Mr. Clive? Mr. Montford or just plain Clive would do.

“Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary. Table 32 as usual. You remember the drill, I presume.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Clive. He will be with his wife, no doubt.”

Clive does a double-take but instantly regains his composure. “Yes, absolutely.”

“Lady Hamforth will taste the wine first. Right, Mr. Clive?”

“Right, Stefan. And you will wait an appropriate length of time for her to express her opinion before half-filling the glass.”

“Of course, Sir.”

“Now, everything must go swimmingly.”


“Seamlessly,” Clive clarifies, immediately realizing that Stefan probably doesn’t know that word either. 

“Please remind me, Mr. Clive. How should I address her?”

“Your ladyship, Stefan.”

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“Yes, of course.”

“And how many times should I ask her if she is enjoying her meal?”

“Once is sufficient. Well, maybe twice, just to be on the safe side.”

“Right, Sir.”

“And don’t forget to comment on how beautiful she is looking. That always goes down well with his lordship.”

“Of course, Sir. How wonderfully beautiful you are looking tonight, your ladyship!” says Stefan woodenly.


It is seven o’clock. Tension is mounting.

Clive is aware of feeling edgy as if he is about to perform in a play that has been inadequately rehearsed. He dreads the thought that he may have to improvise.

Through the front window, Clive recognizes Lord Hamforth’s Mercedes as it pulls up outside. Bob Rollins, the liveried chauffeur, gets out to open the back door for Lady Hamforth to get out. Allowing some time for this to happen, he then goes around to the other side and opens the door for his lordship.

Watching them mount the steps to the entrance, Clive can’t help noticing how happy Lord Hamforth looks, his long white hair shining silver in the subdued evening light, his back as straight as a rod. Clive rushes to open the front door. “Good evening and welcome!”
Lord Hamforth waits for his wife to enter and follows closely behind.

“You are looking splendid tonight, both of you!” says Clive gushingly. “And may I say her ladyship is looking especially stunning.”

“Yes, she is, isn’t she? It’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary, you see, Clive. Very special. Do you like the gold necklace I bought her?”

“Magnificent! Magnificent!” says Clive, making a show of admiring the opulent piece of jewellery. “Well, we shall have to make this a night to remember, won’t we?”

“Indeed we will. Thank you, Clive. You are always so willing to please.”

“Just doing my job, your lordship.”

“No, I would not hesitate to say that you go beyond the bounds of duty. And I want you to know that her ladyship and I greatly appreciate it.”

Clive ushers them to their table, pulling back her ladyship’s chair to allow her to sit.

“May I get you and her ladyship an aperitif?”

“As long as it’s from Provence.”

“Of course, your lordship!”

“What do you say, my dear? Shall we be devils?” Lord Hamforth looks across the table expectantly and waits patiently for a response. “I think it’s a yea, Clive. What do you recommend?”

“May I suggest the RinQuinQuin, a delicate flavour of peaches and peach leaves? I think it’s just up to her ladyship’s street.”

“Her cup of tea, you might say.”

Clive is unsure whether his lordship is trying to be funny or not, so he chuckles ambiguously. “Stefan will be here shortly to take your order, your lordship.”

As Clive withdraws, he hears Lord Hamforth strike up an ardent conversation, if it can be called that, with Lady Hamforth.

Stefan arrives with the bottle of Rimauresq Cru Classé. “Good evening, your lordship,” he says, and then turning in Lady Hamforth’s direction, adds, “I must say you are looking wonderfully beautiful tonight, your ladyship.”

Lord Hamforth beams with delight and pride. “I told her so myself, but she is so modest, Stefan. I am so glad someone else appreciates her beauty.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, your lordship. We shall miss you.”

Stefan is slightly stuck for words, so he holds out the bottle of Rimauresq Cru Classé, “Slightly cooled, isn’t that right, your lordships?”

“Perfect, Stefan. Exactly as her ladyship likes it.”

Stefan uncorks the bottle and pours a small amount of the pinkish wine into her glass. He waits patiently, as he has been told, eyes expectantly wide in anticipation of her approval. He counts the seconds, but before the time is up, his lordship intervenes. “I think she likes it, Stefan. Thank you.”

Stefan breathes a sigh of relief and half-fills her glass. He then goes to the other side of the table and fills his lordship’s glass. 

As Stefan places the bottle in a cooler on an adjacent table, he hears Lord Hamforth say, “Here’s to us, my dear!” 

Ten minutes later, Stefan brings the bouillabaisse and serves it into two bowls.

Bouillabaisse. We first had it on our honeymoon, Stefan. It’s been a favourite of ours ever since.”

When it looks as if they have had enough soup, Stefan removes the plates. “It was to your satisfaction, I hope, Sir, and your ladyship.”

“Oh, most definitely, Stefan. My wife wishes to send her compliments to Jean Claude.” 

“Most certainly, your lordship. I know he will be very pleased.”

Stefan brings two plates of Daube, with ravioli for her and polenta for him. 

“Oh, the aroma,” exclaims Lord Hamforth ecstatically, breathing in deeply and allowing his eyes to half-close for a fraction of a second. “It brings us right back to Toulon, does not it, my dear? You remember that little bistro just off the quays? Now, eat up, dearest. We don’t want Jean Claude to think we’re not appreciative of his culinary brilliance.”

Stefan pours a few more drops into Lady Hamforth’s glass. “Are you enjoying your meal, your ladyship?”

“Oh, indeed she is, Stefan. Thank you for asking. We could very well be in Aix itself, the Mediterranean air wafting in through the open door.”

Stefan quietly sniffs the air, but all he can discern is a slightly unpleasant odour of boiled fish, which has somehow escaped from the kitchen. 

When he is aware that they are nearly finished, Clive approaches their table. “I hope you and her ladyship enjoyed the meal, Lord Hamforth.”

“Thank you, Clive. It was exquisite, was it not, my dear? Jean Claude has really excelled himself tonight.”

“He will be elated, I’m sure.”

“Now, would you be so kind as to get us our coats, Clive?”

“What? You are leaving so soon, your lordship. Won’t you stay for dessert? You must try Jean Claude’s latest creation.”

“Thank you, Clive, but I think not. Her ladyship is rather tired. She has been very silent tonight.”

Clive brings Lord Hamforth’s coat and helps him on with it.

As they approach the door, Lord Hamforth turns. “I wish to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. But we won’t be coming back next year. Her ladyship and I have agreed that enough is enough.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, your lordship. We shall miss you.”

“Yes, indeed. And here is a small token of our appreciation.” Lord Hamforth discreetly thrusts a wad of notes into Clive’s hand. “It’s for all the staff, you understand.”

“Oh, yes, of course, your lordship.” 

“Well, you’ll have to get over it quickly. We’re drowning in here.”

Clive suddenly feels awkward. He is going to have to improvise. “Well, it was a pleasure indeed to have you both. Good night, your Lordship.” Then, turning and bowing gracelessly, he adds, “And a very good night to you too, your ladyship.” 

Clive stands and watches as they descend the steps to the waiting car. Bob is in attendance with the back door already open. He withdraws to allow her ladyship to get in but is visibly taken aback when his Lordship gets in instead.  

Clive can just hear Lord Hamforth’s voice through the open door. “It’s all right, Bob. Her ladyship won’t be joining us again.” 

Clive watches as the shiny Mercedes moves off into the night with a marked air of finality.

A wave of melancholy sweeps over Clive. 

“Did it go all right?” says Jenny anxiously, sticking her head into the hall.


“Well, what are you looking so glum about? You look as if someone’s just died.”

“They have.”

“Who, for goodness sake?”

“Her ladyship.”

“Her ladyship? She’s been dead for eight years.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Well, you’ll have to get over it quickly. We’re drowning in here.” Jenny turns and hastily re-enters the dining room.

Like a tourist on a foreign beach, Clive stands in the hall, looking in at the sea of faces. He allows the waves of chatter and laughter to wash over him for a few moments before taking the plunge. 

As he moves towards the dining-room door, he recites to himself, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their entrances and their exits and one man in his time….”

Ian Douglas Robertson is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and has lived much of his life in Greece, where he works as a teacher, actor, translator and writer. He recently co-authored Larger Than Life (Karnac London) and Before You Let the Sun in (Sphinx) came out in May 2018. In Search of a Father’s Footsteps and other dramatherapy stories, his latest book will be published in August 2021.

Electric Love

By Fannie H. Gray

Most mornings, I awaken sweat-soaked and coverless. A lumpen heap of pillows and blankets amasses in the vacancy where Patrick, my husband, used to sleep.

I go to the kitchen, followed by a menagerie of animals I began accumulating shortly after the quarantine began, a few days after Patrick’s death. The thought of being alone has always terrified me. Asked the ubiquitous question as a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up? I always answered, married. Perhaps I was a halved zygote and have yearned a lifetime to feel complete. 

Three once feral cats, a possum recovering from a head wound, and a one-eyed dog follow me into the kitchen. I fill five bowls with Kibble and then sit contentedly amongst the animals, drinking coffee that I boil on the range. When the animals are done, Walt, our dog, follows me into the pantry, and we discuss which pasta we should have today. Penne? Walt barks. Excellent choice, I tell him. Soon, the wine berries on the back fence will be ripe. Fresh fruit pleases everyone. Occasionally, Walt gets wild hair and eats grass, but he always regrets it.

Later, I open the wooden front door, and we six sit behind the glass stormer to watch for any weary souls who might venture out. We wave at the masked citizens who look up while plodding along. There have been fewer coming out. Last week, an angry mask-less young man gave us the middle finger and grabbed his crotch. He took a menacing step onto the front walk, but Walt bared his raggedy teeth. The possum and I laughed as the miscreant ran away.

Sometimes, the power sputters on for a few minutes. Lights and fans, blinking clocks, once the blender I forgot I was using, roar to life. We rejoice, run around the house, turning lamps off or on. Music for the masses, I will yell, and we gather in the study to dance to Lucinda Williams.

Not long ago, perhaps on a Tuesday, there was rain. A menacing sky lowered to the lawn, and Walt refused to go out and relieve himself. The possum and the cats morphed into a fuzzy ball on the sofa. I stood alone at the bay window and watched the rain wash down the abandoned street. A single child–size shoe sailed down the gutter. I suppose that is when I got the idea.

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Before Patrick died, before anyone was sick, when power was a given and socializing was normal, we had electric outlets installed on the façade of the house so we could light it up at Halloween and Christmas. Our house was a beacon for trick-or-treaters and carolers.

So, the day after the rain, I find every power strip we own. I plug outdoor extension cords into the exterior outlets. Then, I gather the lamps and the portable fans, the digital clocks. I pick up the blender and the food processor and set both to On. Walt, the only family member, allowed outdoors, follows me into the yard. The cats and the possum watch dutifully from the storm door. Walt chases his own tail as I plug the appliances in, but I know he keeps his eye wary for any strangers. When I am finished, I sit on the front stoop as Walt rolls on the walkway and survey my handiwork. We have a veritable barricade of electronics ready for our defence. I ask Walt to come inside, and then I let the gang know about my surprise. The animals wait politely at the door as I run down to the basement. He is a little unwieldy, but I manage to get Santa up the stairs. Patrick, who dabbled in welding, made him a few years ago from chicken wire. I painted him and wove the fairy lights into his form. For good measure, I grab a Santa stocking cap Patrick used to wear on Christmas and mash it down over Santa’s chicken wire hat. The animals step aside, and I muscle Santa onto the front porch, where I plug him in. There, I say to my assembled furry family: Walt barks and the possum smiles. The cats never really have much to say, but one weaves in between my legs, so I interpret that as applause.

It is while Walt and I are picking wine berries and gathering dandelion leaves in the backyard that we hear the ruckus. The possum, which we have decided to call Elmo, is scratching at the screen door, smiling at us. Walt and I enter the kitchen, following Elmo, who makes his crooked little way to the front of the house. All three cats are poised on the back of the sofa, fixated on the scene in the front yard.

Every fan, lamp and clock has roared to life. The blender, in a buzz of activity, has fallen onto its side. Santa is divine. Even in the bright, hard light of the midday sun in summer, sheltered as he is between the rhododendrons which flank the front porch, Santa is alive in his electric glory.

Here is the interesting thing, though; if I had thought I was constructing a barricade, I was indeed quite wrong. It turns out our assemblage of appliances has beckoned our dormant neighbours. Little clusters, pods of families and friends who hunkered down together, have gathered in the street. Walt makes happy yelps, and Elmo and I wave as everyone marvels at our display. Most wave back. A few brave children break away from scolding parents and run up to Santa, tap him to make sure he is not an apparition, I suppose.

After 30 minutes, most of the groups have dispersed. It seems the power is back on for good. I turn off all my toys, unplug them and bring them in except for Santa. Walt and Elmo agree; Santa should remain to remind everyone that faith and love are electric.

Fannie H. Gray lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children, Mac the Boston Terrier, and Neo the Tuxedo. Her poem The Trick was included in Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Langston Hughes Tribute Issue. Her fiction can be found in The Tatterhood Review, Sledgehammer Lit, Sad Girls Club and K’in. She prefers coffee with chicory and a damn fine Rob Roy.

Candy Girl

By Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick

“Your bones are made of sugar because you’re just so sweet!” my mother said the first time I was sent home from school. I was seven years old. My wrist had snapped during recess, the jagged bone jutting out of my skin and into the air. It was amber-coloured and slightly sticky and smelled sweet, like solid honey. My mother had to keep pushing the dog away so she couldn’t lick it.

“Don’t cry, love,” she said, wiping tears from my cheeks. “We’ll fix you up in no time.” She sat me at the kitchen table, still cradling my wrist. Then she pulled out a small saucepan and added sugar and water to it. She put the pan on the burner and turned on the heat, stirring the mixture until it began to bubble. I could smell the sugar cooking, a sweet, burning scent that matched too closely with what wafted up from my wrist. It made me hungry and nauseous. After a few minutes, she pulled the pan off the stove and brought it over to me.

“My candy girl,” my mother said lovingly as she forced the fragment of sugared bone back into the skin of my wrist. She whistled as she poured the molten liquid into the wound. I blacked out and, hours later, awakened to find myself in bed. Clawing at the bandage on my wrist, I ripped it off and saw how the sugar had hardened, attaching bone to bone again. The skin would grow back in a few weeks, and it would look exactly as it always did.

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It’s not so hard, living in a body like this. I like to tell people that I’m sweet to my core. I always laugh. They rarely get the joke.

I had a boyfriend once who was obsessed with the idea of my bones. When I told him they were candy, he said he didn’t believe me. But he couldn’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes he would spend whole weeks barely touching me, as though I would snap if he held my hand too tightly. Other times he got rough out of nowhere, gripping my arm or the back of my neck as though he could crush me into sugar granules with his bare hands. I imagined him fantasizing about turning my bones into crystals and stirring them into his coffee.

Once, when he was drunk, he got on his knees and grabbed my foot and sucked on my big toe like it was a lollipop. He gently, so gently, bit down. He begged me to let him eat one of them, just to see if it were true. To see if my bones would crunch like candy between his teeth. 

I stopped telling dates about my bones after that. There are a lot of weirdos in this world.

“My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die.”

Do you ever think about what your skeleton looks like? How it sits inside you, gleaming and perfect as a Halloween decoration? I’ve always been a little jealous of people who can walk into museums or rob graves and get a look at their future. It sounds dreamy to know exactly what you’ll look like when you’re dead and gone.

I haven’t seen my bones since I was seven. It’s not that I’m careful. In fact, I’ve been trying to break myself for years just to get another look at what’s inside me. No luck, however. Apparently, candy is quite hard.

I think my skeleton must be beautiful, like some macabre confectioner’s masterpiece. Every Día de Los Muertos, I look at sugar skulls and think, that’s what I look like, underneath all this. I hope I’m decorated just like that, a riot of colours against my caramel bones. I will be the loveliest skeleton at the cemetery one day, even if no one will be able to see me. My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die. But I think I’ll keep these sweet bones to myself. I’ll be a treat for bugs until the day I melt, leaving only some sticky earth to mark that I was here.

Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick (she/her) lives in Philadelphia with her husband and black cat. Her fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Ellipsis Zine, New Gothic Review, and Coffin Bell Journal, among others. Find her on Instagram at or on Twitter.

Your Mother and her Technicolor Idioms

By Connie Millard

“I caught him red-handed, that bastard,” your mother wails during her nightly call to your grandmother. 

In your room, you sprawl on a mattress on the floor and remember the night she confronts your father about his affair, her small frame wobbling from alcohol and momentary triumph as she waves the damning picture so close to his face, it slaps him across the cheek. 

She rails into the receiver that life is unfair, that a tramp with crooked teeth stole him, that she is stupid for marrying him so young.  Well, now she’s stuck with you, and who’s going to want her now.  She drones on like a half-dead bee trapped in a house, lumbering and erratic, but her stinger still sharp.

You slip on your headphones and jack up the volume.  The pulsing bass matches the thumping of you heart as you work to ignore the familiar tang of stomach acid in your throat, bitter and meaty, filling you up like the dinner you miss that night.

“No way.  You’re like apples and oranges,” she claims the time you ask to move with your brother to your father’s house.   

“We are the girls; they are the boys.  He belongs with him.  You belong with me,” her arm chops the air, severing you from them in desperate authority.

“Remember, it’s you and me against the world.  It’s our anthem,” she pleads, fixing you with a wild stare, her watery blue eyes partially hidden by her hair, once a stylish auburn crop, now shaggy and gray.  She and grips your hands in an unescapable vice as she sings the Helen Reddy hit, her slurred voice cracking,

“When all the others turned their backs and walked away,
You can count on me to stay.”

You do stay.  Because you have never been without your mother before, not once in your twelve years.  

“You yellow-bellied brat.  Get out here and talk to your grandmother,” she shrieks, shards of her wrath hitting you like shrapnel.

Your bedroom door explodes, and you throw the covers over your head, burrowing under the blanket to hide from the monster, praying that if you squeeze your eyes shut and chant, she’ll disappear. Like an exorcism. Go away.  Go away. Go away.

“You ungrateful slob. I said, get over here.”

You say you are tired. You say you have a stomach ache. You say you will talk to Grandma tomorrow.  

Please, Mommy.

But she is strong with vodka and rage and rips the blanket off like a band-aid of an unhealed wound, leaving you raw and exposed.  She grabs a fistful of your shirt and yanks you from the bed, where you hit the floor with a thud.  She drags you along to the kitchen and reach the phone to croak, Hi Grandma.

“Oh, so you think the grass is greener on the side, Missy?” she says when you explain that you called you father while she was in the bathroom.  You cannot look at her face.

You are leaving, you say.  He is coming for you

But, you are afraid.  Afraid of your father, who does not speak to you in the affair aftermath.  Who does not contact you when you move hours away to your aunt’s house to make a new life, only to be evicted six months later thanks to your mother’s drinking.  Who does not leave an address, so when you return, you wander the streets for days, an inept but dedicated stalker, until you finally spot him, and he gives you a hug and his phone number.

“I begged him to stay, begged him until I was blue in the face.”  She sobs and squeezes your arm so hard you know it will leave an angry bruise, a black and blue imprint on your skin and on your heart.

“Fine. Go.  I don’t need you.”

But she blocks the stairs and, when you slip under her, throws her short, plump body against the door.  You use your bags to pry her away, and she latches onto your sleeve and tugs, sucking you back in, to stay, to imprison. Fueled by adrenaline, you wrench the door open.  The gush of air shocks you both. And now she kicks and shoves you outside, out of her life.  Into the rain.  Into the dark.  Into the waiting headlights.  And you rejoice because you are free, and you are no shrinking violet.

Connie Millard is a full-time working mom of three who once made it to the final callbacks for the reality television show, Worst Cooks in America.  After much practice and perseverance, she now spends her time writing stories in between stirring risotto.  Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Potato Soup, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Ink Fiction Drabble Anthology, among others.