Reasons to Hate the Sky

reason 1: at six or seven

we were given balloons and told

that god might enjoy them.

i cried in anger while i watched

my nephew and niece reach past the car 

window, turning palms to cerulean, releasing 

ribbons from their ignorant fingers. somehow, 

even then i felt that they would never 

reach their destination


reason 2: after feeling the sun 

after months of clouds, i welcome the rage

of having lost something


reason 3: there was a day when i felt

lilac coat my eyelids while the day

shattered in slow motion. this went on 

every twenty-four hours. sunset

sunset. sunset.


reason 4: we have enough blue 

in the world as it is. i have loved this color 

too long to blink it beautiful again. 

bluebells have raised me

to know that the farther you move 

from the sun, 

the darker you become.


reason 5: looking up i grow

dizzy. we cannot tilt our heads 

without seeing evidence of our planet 

rolling. this turning always 

feels downhill


reason 6: a flattened happy birthday

beneath a tire’s heavy print. 

all it’s good for now is burial


reason 7: how the ocean can’t be what it is

without the sky as a backbone. we must move

according to our spines. a great white

leaps, mouth up to take a seal in its teeth

and i think how fish and birds are both

swallowed against the same background


reason 8: the balloon, trembling

within the car, tail wrapped around 

my careful fingers. feeling its oxygen 

as a promise of deflation, it wonders

if i’ll keep holding on

while it withers

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

Metaphor for Lilies (Covid 19)

if it wasn’t for the old ones,

we’d be dancing through this sickness

with zinfandel wine and stacks

of rice, beans, coffee, milk,

all the necessities to survive

isolation


while making a cup of coffee i wonder

if our grandmothers will die before we are able

to buy them any more flowers.

every Easter my mother gives Grandmama

white lilies, which could represent doves, signs

of salvation, or any kind of metaphorical bullshit.

i’ll add my own metaphor: my grandmother’s face,

planted in soil. three lily faces are sleeping

inside a plastic pot


first face: she stands in blue skirt and white blouse,

brown curls gripping cheeks younger

than mine are now. did the photographer

add that pink blush to her cheeks?

does she know what is coming?


second face: she stands against the background

of dark kitchen cabinets, wearing the same kind

of white blouse but her hair isn’t brown anymore,

graying against the whole-body fever

blush of her skin in middle age.

can she feel the sickness creeping closer?


third face: she wears a pink jacket over the white blouse

and holds a birthday present, peering past pale tissue paper

because she can’t remember that she already

opened this one, so she will reopen

the truth of the future and keep

forgetting it


I wonder if she knows

that we have kept away because we love–

isn’t that the way it goes? we keep away

from what we love to keep it safe?


I bought an orchid and watched it slowly wither,

turning black, first the flowers, then the leaves,

as it sputtered dead on the kitchen stove


I’ll go to the edge

of my grandmother’s driveway, waiting

until it’s safe to see the lilies again, withered,

but still hanging on, reaching

their petals toward my waiting body

from behind the screen door,

that lonely picture frame

O’Hare is a Circle of Hell

It is December in Chicago.    

When I step off the train, there’s a palpable cold. The car pulls away, and all the air suddenly goes with it. I follow the other hollow-eyed travelers to the escalator; only small children and middle-aged women with something to prove take the stairs. When I get to the top, I dig out my paper boarding pass. I’ve never trusted the mobile ones. The few times I’ve used them, I end up killing my battery. The whole way through line, I’m terrified that the phone will die at the exact moment I reach the TSA officer, so I constantly tap the screen back to life whenever it goes black.

            Terminal 4. I squint at the sign above me, which reads Terminals 1-2-3          5. I feel my eyebrows lock in a furrow that won’t be undone. Around me, bodies mutter and part. Somewhere, a busker is playing a dirge. Slowly, the number 4 starts to flicker in between three and five, a weak neon beacon. I follow where the arrow points.

            I’ve only brought a single backpack, and I wonder if it looks suspicious. But I’m only traveling from Chicago to St. Louis—a mere 30 minute flight. Lesser beings would have driven, but when December in the Midwest is a choice between abject misery and utter misery, you take your chances. The security line snakes around to the accursed Spirit Airlines “service” desk. Bodies looking for human assistance and bodies waiting to be stripped of their shoes, hats, boots co-mingle. Three drug hounds patrol lethargically.

            As soon as I get in line behind a family of four, I begin to strategize: Liquids, laptop, Kindle, shoes, coat. But over the course of an hour, which is how long it takes to get to the part of the line where this process begins, things start to go wrong. There’s so many people that more and more get shunted to the metal detector, which you think would make the line go faster. But it seems as though no matter which line I’m in, there’s an abundance of things that make it move more slowly: A man’s taken all off his coat and shoes even though he’s clearly over 80 and is slowly and painstakingly folding them to lay into a tray. A kid gets loose and runs through the backscatter machine, so it has to be recalibrated it several times. A TSA agent opens a bag and finds a forty of Mickey’s in it. “Sir,” he says without emotion, you have to toss this or drink it.” Without hesitation, the gentleman in question drinks half and throws the rest away.

            When I finally get to the backscatter machine, I spread my feet and hold my hands up over my head as though I’m at a stop and frisk. “Higher,” the TSA agent says, and I raise my shoulders, feeling my t-shirt start to hover above my gut.

            The agent beckons with a skeletal finger. I lower my arms and walk through, but he holds up a hand for me to wait. I should have put on more deodorant or at least used the stuff that says its made and tested in laboratories. The clinical smell would be fitting in this labyrinth of which I am but one rat waiting my turn to access the cheese cubes. After a few moments, he waves me through, several blessings be upon me. Other passengers are furiously pawing at items, as if everyone’s flight is in exactly ten minutes. I shoulder my backpack and gather my various detritus into my arms like babies. I redress myself, but I’ll never regain any sense of pride.

            Where is terminal 4? I go from person to person to ask this question. I even Google “Ohare help” and manage to find some sort of hotline, but am told that there is no information for terminal 4.

            “As in, it doesn’t exist?” I ask.

            “As in, I can’t help you,” the operator says tersely, hanging up on me. By now, I’ve sweated straight through my Led Zeppelin tee, but I’m trapped inside winter apparel until I die of dehydration or get to my gate, whichever comes first.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4.” That voice. At once familiar, unnerving. Many decibels too loud, strained as though the speaker had never heard of an “inside voice” or at the very least, had always had to compete with a screaming crowd.

            I turn to see a man—an 80s Adonis really, blonde hair teased out like a halo around his head. He wears a tank top tucked into tight stonewashed jeans. And he’s tan and glistening. So very tan and glistening. In addition to his strange appearance, the man has absolutely no luggage and no coat. I try not to stare at his nipples, erect from either cold or perhaps it is simply that his skin was too tight and muscly to contain itself.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4!” he yells again.

“Me?” I say like an idiot.

            “I’LL TAKE YOU,” he says.
            This seems strange, but I’ll be honest reader—I am desperate. Before I arrived at O’Hare, which now seems to be days ago, even years, I imagined what it would be like. Sure, the TSA lines would be long, but once inside, I’d make my way to my gate with an hour to spare, then order a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (1 cream, 1 sugar, perfectly mixed by a machine designed to do exactly this), drink leisurely, take a PPP (pre plane poop), and get back to the gate as they start to call for passengers.

            “FOLLOW ME,” orders my overly energetic guide. 

            I do as he says. He leads me past the Cinnabon, where the line stretches beyond what I can see. All the nearby tables are crowded with patrons who chomp the sweet buns mechanically one after another. We pass the lactation room where a crying woman is trying the door, which appears to be locked. She’s knocking, pressing her ear to the door, waiting. She walks away, circles back, and repeats these desperate motions. We walk past restaurants where people are eating expensive hot dogs and flavorless pizza that costs $25. A teenager almost runs me over as she walks briskly with her head down staring into her phone, then looks up desperately. She’s searching for an outlet that will never appear. As we pass the Sunglass Hut, an older woman is trying out one pair of glasses after another, never satisfied by what she sees in the tiny mirror she has to squat to look into. She can’t find the right pair even though her flight to Florida is in an hour and she needs to, at all costs, protect her eyeballs.

            My guide notices me watching these events and says, “DO NOT TRY TO REASON WHY. THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THEM. WE WALK. I NEED FUEL.”

            My brisk walk turns into a gallop to keep up with him.

            We stop at a Starbucks. The sea of people part before my oiled-up guide. I attempt to meet their eyes in apology, but they are shriveling away from us like the sad seaweed people in The Little Mermaid as Ursula’s shadow passes over them.

            “MACCHIATO. CARAMEL” my guide booms at the barista who honestly doesn’t seem shaken. Maybe he’s used to the ever replenishing supply of weirdos here.

            “Name,” the barista asks holding a sharpie over the cup.

            My guide replies, “I, HULK HOGAN, AM THE ONLY ONE.”

            “Pick it up over there,” the barista says.

            Later, a voice calls out “caramel macchiato for Hoke!” My guide picks up his drink, inhales the steam deeply, and booms, “SMELL IT, WARRIORS.” I honestly can’t say who he’s talking to, but I realize we still haven’t made it to Terminal 4. He seems to sense my unease and places his giant hand on my shoulder like a lead weight. “THANK YOUR CREATOR, LITTLE SQUID, WE ARE NOW GOING TO TERMINAL 4.”

            Minutes later, we round a corner. The lights are flickering in this hallway like a David Lynch movie. It seems relatively abandoned for O’Hare’s usual bustle. We’ve run out of restaurants: A solitary Quizno’s sits at the entrance to Terminal 4. Years of neglect have not been kind to this forlorn sandwichery: Faded etchings depicting demonic hamster-men decorate the walls. The stench of roasted porcine flesh fills the air. This terminal seems oddly narrow: A series of dark arcades. A wall monitor comes into view: Abandon all hope, you who enter here. My guide shouts, “WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER PARTS UNKNOWN.”

            Although we have entered the place that I had thought was my destination, the feelings of loss and despair do not leave. And my glistening guide shows no signs of ending his guidance. He keeps striding along into the terminal with purpose. And so I follow him into the darkened hallway. When he finishes his drink, he crumples the paper cup, arm veins bulging, and throws it to the ground.

            “Hey,” I start, about to scold him for littering, but the cup rolls toward the wall and disappears into some black, endless abyss that swallows his transgression.

            He sees me staring and shrugs – at least, I think he does, for it is impossible to distinguish his shoulders from his neck. “I HAVE ACCEPTED MY FATE, TRAVELER, WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU ACCEPTED YOUR FATE?”

            What had the fates dealt me? It is then that I do start to smell it (Warriors). I taste it—that hunger for a $30 sandwich gnawing at my bones, but I feel I must press on. I turn back to look behind us, but my guide grabs my arm with his tyrannical grip. “YOU SEE NOTHING,” he simply states. Existentially, the words stung. But he was right. If there was anything back there at all, it was only endless bathroom lines, drinking fountains whose filters were always on red alert and needing to be changed by a night janitor who never appears. Indeed, there is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.

Although the journey here had been harrowing, nothing prepares me for the sights of terminal 4. As I follow on the heels of my steroidal guide, things start to look more familiar, but uncannily so. There are now gates on either side of us, but I shudder looking upon those waiting there. A group of ragged travelers have built a trash can fire to keep themselves warm, but the sprinkler system periodically erupts to extinguish the flames, so they continually throw items out from their carry-ons to stoke it back to life. “Why don’t they just move the trashcan?” I ask my guide, watching the Sisyphean scene.

“THE SCREEN,” he yells, pointing to the flight status monitor, which shows that the flight has been delayed five hours, but continuously updates to say it will only be five minutes more. I now understand that they cannot move for fear that their flight will leave without them. So, they huddle together in their misery forever.

Over the loudspeaker, Styx’s Come Sail Away plays. My guide tenses, and I wonder if he too has always thought that Styx was too hardcore of a name to be responsible for such a lively song celebrating the following of one’s dreams.  Perhaps this infernal dichotomy is why the song has been banished to Terminal 4 and karaoke bars. At the next gate, I see a man watching advertisement after advertisement waiting to use the free wifi. Each ad is increasingly more annoying. The man starts to sing jingles to himself, occasionally letting loose a maniacal laugh, his eyes never leaving his laptop screen.

We pass by the chair massage place where the cries of passengers rise up in an opera of pain (I assume because their 30 min massages are $100), children with soot on their cheeks chew on the foliage of decorative plants. I look at my boarding pass, crumpled in my hand and damp with sweat. Gate X8. I am here. I look up at my guide, who begins to launch into a speech as though he has a camera trained upon him. He begins with a loud and vigorous snort. “AS YOU TRAVEL BY CONVENTIONAL MEANS, THE NORMALS YOU TRAVEL WITH EXPERIENCE MALFUNCTIONS. ALL THAT IS LEFT IS TOTAL SELF-DESTRUCTION…”

I stop listening. My stomach is growling like a hellbeast, and I want nothing more than to get on the plane and eat my pittance of dry pretzels or, if I am blessed, speculoos cookies. Will I leave limbo today? The worker behind the desk wears the navy blue of American Airlines, the scarf around her neck a river of deep red. She picks up the intercom and puts it to her mouth. My own mouth is dry; I am neither dead nor living. I am in some kind of eternity. Praise be upon Group 9, I silently pray, those behind families with small children, active military, and those of the endless large carry-on. May we again behold the stars.

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

My Mom’s Trip(s) to the City Jail

Can you see the future 

like you feel the wind

in your hair-sprayed perm

and under your young knees, 

pedaling your bike through 

a red Memphis evening 

because brother Kenny stole another go-kart? 


When you pass the 32nd pothole from the trailer park 

across from Pop’s “pretty good” liquor store, 

do you envision log cabin countrysides, 

or have you always known about

the cigarette college fund? 


Braking at the crosswalk, 

do you peer over your padded shoulders,

or do you focus on the possibility of baby powder

in the dry flowers by the bus stop? 


Did you know

you’d find your mother years later

in the bathtub – a martyr for watercolors – 

and did you know you’d say to me,

“Take whatever you want. 

You can have it.” 

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

The Girl

            “Hi beautiful angelfish! Have you had a mermazing day?” The words vomited out of her mouth as if she rehearsed them religiously before my brother and I arrived. 

            “Yeah it’s been pretty good,” I tossed in to the stale air of that apartment room on the second floor. I was taught to treat everyone with respect. Had my mothers’ voice not have been disturbing my quiet thoughts, I would have walked right through the door without hesitating to ignore the girl. That’s what she was to me. The girl. 

            I dropped my things on to the carpet next to the couch. It was a dull couch, smelling as if it was something they got for free somewhere, maybe sitting at the end of a long driveway with a “please take, it’s free!” sign leaned against it. Cigarettes, cheap ones, and the stench of a litter box protruded my nose. They didn’t have a cat. I had no other options, being that the living room consisted of the couch, a small tv on a stand, and now my stuff, so I sat down. 

            “So glad you could make it baby, where’s Daniel?” The words fell off my dad’s lips in one long breath, slurred together as if he was talking in cursive. 

            “He was right behind me, should be in here any time now.” As I glanced around locking my eyes with anything other than my dad’s, the door opened and my brother walked in. I could tell he didn’t wanna be there. I couldn’t say a thing though. I didn’t either. The corners of his smile stayed pointed down, just like they were stuck. And he never lifted his head completely straight up anymore; he just lifted it high enough to see you. 

            I stayed put on the couch for a while. I had nothing more to do other than find something interesting on my phone. There was a boy I went to school with. I threw myself all over him even though his hair and his voice bothered me. I didn’t mind; I took what I could get. You would think a 12 year old girl would be getting lost in a diary or in a game. I was getting lost in people, creating versions of the ones around me that were better than they really were. It was easier that way. 

            My dad came near to me, falling into the space to my right. I didn’t want him to get close; that’s when I cold see his eyes. They were foggy and shadowed like when you’re driving late at night in the rain.  The car headlights uncover only a few feet in front of you. The rest is hidden and dark and not a place you want to shine a light. 

            I could tell when he opened his mouth. The smell still assaults me and it’s been 8 years. I can’t smell alcohol without feeling as though I need to tie my heart together with a rope to prevent it from falling apart all over again. I smell alcohol once and then I smell it everywhere. I create the smell when it’s no longer there, determined to find someone new to blame. Marsala wine. He was drinking Marsala wine. I could tell because he made Chicken Marsala all the time. I could never forget the way he cooked the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme in a blend that tasted better every time I put it in my mouth.  His favorite part was the alcohol. 

            He placed his left hand on my legs for far too long. He laid his head on my shoulder, “I love you baby. I loveyou, I love youIlove you. So glad you’re here baby. You’re here, on Christmas, Eve. I love you.” He spoke to me in a tone that made it hard to understand who he was trying to convince. I knew he loved me, but the more he said it the less I knew. 

            The girl stayed off in the corner of the kitchen for a while. My eyes would catch her pacing during commercial breaks of River Monsterson Animal Planet. I really didn’t care to see some guy catch the world’s most venomous animal by hand, but it put my dad to sleep. 

            The interruption of her shrill voice woke my dad from his nap. “Rheanie, let’s play a board game or something.” 

            The 4 of us made our way to the kitchen table. It was bigger than I thought it would be. It filled all the space allotted for a dining room. I couldn’t tell you how long we played Pirate’s of the Caribbean Yahtzee, or what we ate for dinner that night. But I remember the girl’s face. She was 21, barely. She appeared as if she was 13. Her glasses were brown and the frames were thin. Her hair was pulled back in to a low ponytail containing her stop sign strands. I was a child and even I was judgmental of her Sleeping Beauty t-shirt. Her mermaid-scale pants. Her purple shoes. It didn’t make sense. 

            She would bite her nails starting from her thumb to her pinky and back again. My body knew she was nervous before my head did. I couldn’t shake off my thumping heartbeat and my bouncing leg. 

            “Come here baby, come here.” I hesitated but obeyed my dad’s command to come sit on his lap. The closer I got, the faster I wanted to run. I didn’t want to smell him again.                   

            I sat across his legs, our bodies making an x. He laid his hand on my legs for far too long. He pulled the hair off of my right shoulder, and tucked the locks behind my ear. His breath was warm and rich. His lips lined my ear and his new catchphrase started as a whisper.

            “Renee, you are so selfish. You are so selfish. You are so selfish. I want you to know that. Daniel, you know your sister is selfish? You are so selfish Renee.”

            “Dad, enough, Please stop.” My brother released the words I couldn’t. It didn’t change a thing. 

            His whispers grew in strength. “You are so selfish. You’re such a butthole. Why do you have to be so selfish Renee? I want you to know you’re a selfish butthole.” 

            I ached. I had never ached before. I also froze. I caught a glimpse of a passing car outside the living room window. Where were they going? To dinner? Home? I wanted to go home.

            “Renee you are so selfish.”

            “Dad let her go. Renee come on, Renee come on, Dad stop, let her go.”

            I tried to stand in reverence to my brother’s wishes. I couldn’t move. My dad had his arms wrapped fully around my chest and back. He was squeezing, and tightening, and fixing his grip. He was holding one wrist with the other hand, using his joints as support. 

            “Dad, that’s fucking enough!” 

            I shook and bent like a fish in someone’s hand. I leaned forward and back, and forward and back. 

            My dad soon released, as if he was unaware that he had a hold on me for so long. I stood and ran with sights on my brother’s long arms. 

         “Dad. What the fuck! I’m so, damnit. I can’t do this!” My brother slammed his hands to his temples, running them along his head. His fingers gripped, pulling so tightly on his hair that his head lifted. His eyes pointed to the ceiling but they remained shut. 

            The girl sprung from her chair as if she was chained and they finally broke. “Let it out, Daniel, let it out. It’s okay.” 

            I looked at the girl. Her eyes swelled and her face became the color of her hair as if they had bled together. There was no longer a line to separate the two. The girl was red. Red. 

            “We come all this way to see you, dad, and this is what you do? You act like this? I’m so fucking done dad.” My brother paced the tile floor for so long a pathway began to form. Like years ago when travelers made their way through the forest in the same spots leaving trails of where they had been. 

            “You’re drunk. You’re so drunk, you’re always drunk. I can’t stand to be around you anymore, I can’t do it.” 

            It was in this moment I witnessed what it looked like to watch someone lose themselves. My brother was collapsing under the weight of all that second floor apartment kept concealed. I wanted to stand there in awe of him yelling at my dad for hours. I didn’t want him to stop.

            I turned to face my dad, preparing myself to see him retaliate. But, he remained in the chair. He sat there unaware. Daydreaming, probably, about when we would finally leave. If we left he could get in his car in search of something stronger than Marsala wine. He could approach the girl again, and he could shower her in affection and assault, compliments and attacks, sex and abuse. She was already red.

             I didn’t care for the girl, so I was ready to leave.

My father turned his head in my direction. His face was pointed toward my feet, but his dirt eyes lifted and landed right on mine. I couldn’t look away. I forgot how. 

            I saw myself being carried out of Walmart on a summer afternoon. I was being held as if I only weighed 2 pounds. My dirty blonde hair was flowing over the back of my father. I was almost asleep, getting lost in his arms and tangled in his Jesus tattoo. I felt heated fingers press against my cheek. My father brushed my hair off of my right shoulder, and he tucked the locks behind my ear. 

            “Renee, we need to leave now. We can’t stay, can’t stay here like this. I don’t care if we leave before we planned to. It’s really time to go.” 

            I broke the daze between my father and I and turned to gather my things. I hadn’t stayed long enough to take anything out, so it was accomplished in an instant. 

            “Here, take all of yall’s gifts. Please take them I’m sorry we couldn’t open them.” The girl hurried around, throwing a stack of presents in to one larger cardboard box. Did she think that’s why we came? Did she think that’s what we wanted? Was she jealous that we could leave that place and she was stuck?

            My brother approached me, enclosing my baby hand in his. His hands were wet and balmy and safe. We exited the second floor apartment, fleeing toward the steps, skipping 2, and then 1, and then 3. We were running and rounding the corners of the buildings. His blue car was lost in a field of others who were unlucky enough to call the vicinity around that second floor apartment home. I wanted to keep running until my ankles disintegrated. I wanted to run out in to the street alongside the cars. I wanted to run through the red lights and back again. I wanted to run back in to that apartment building and break my dad in to a thousand shattered pieces. And then I wanted to run those pieces of him to the bridge above the interstate and release them. 

            But my brother and I got in his car and we went home. Neither of us said a word.

            I still feel my dad’s arms around me. Tightening, squeezing, gripping. I’m always reminded of how I can find security in his large arms but I have yet to fully trust them again. How am I supposed to be held by the man who gives me the reasons to need an embrace?

            I still feel my dad’s hand on my legs for far too long. Never crossing the line but coming close enough that it’s only blurry now. He tells me I look beautiful and it makes me feel violated. To wear a crop top, a swimsuit, or a tight dress is something I try not to do around him. He fell in love with the girl and got turned on when she would come home in her Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and Ariel hair. Why should I expect him to look at me like I’m just his daughter and nothing more? I know he would never take anything too far. But, has he thought about me the same way he thought about the girl when he saw her for the first time when she was 17? Does he look at his daughter and see the same thing? 

            I still feel my dad’s hand brushing back my hair. I feel it maneuvering the locks in to place behind my ear. I hate the way I look with my hair behind my ears. I feel like a doll. I don’t feel like a daughter. I don’t want my hair pushed back anymore. 

Art by Sarah Simic

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN