Poetry Collection – from MICHAEL O’SHAUGHNESSY

Poems by Michael O’Shaughnessy

 

the weatherman

 

where is the future

that was promised for dinner?

 

where are the living structures,

the blue lights in the day?

 

our frankenstein future

 

the past is a cold front

 

i am the cold front

striking the hot future

 

 

No Sasquatch

 

california is empty tonight

i can’t tell the oranges from the satellites

the roof is coming down like the hand that needs your time

 

all the things we talk about

but have never seen

 

icebergs

pyramids

 

but we’ve seen the sun

 

how many billions of eyes have seen the sun

while the sasquatch remains elusive

 

there is no sasquatch, you say

 

yeah, I guess,

 

nor icebergs

pyramids

 

nor sun

 

 

Imprint

 

When you come of age in

a certain decade, there is

an imprint of those years

stamped upon you in

an invisible ink

later (and often) revealed in

the black light of your future.

 

 

monochrome

 

a splash

a swatch

of grey

 

a touch

a hint

of charcoal

 

a consideration

a possibility

of white

 

your life:

without color

with only

the signal

being fed

the responses supplied

before the interview

 

you are astoundingly boring.

you should be revered

for the zenith of your

blandness

 

but you’re lost

in the crowd

in the white noise

of the bulk

of culture

 

paul simon

mourns you

 

and that raises your profile

just

a

tinge.

 

 

not enough

 

20 lb sacks of rice

a pint and a half of blood

tell another story to keep them awake

sing another song to put them to sleep

 

5 gallon bottles of water

your marrow, your kidney

another cold rag for his forehead

another warm blanket for her bed

 

I step outside for a minute

hands on knees

think about how I used to hear

“ok, that’s enough”

 

I don’t hear enough of that

anymore.

***

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 Michael O’Shaughnessy co-edited a literary zine in the ’90s called Report to Hell. From 2007-2010, he and his wife wrote a gonzo cooking column called “In the Sellwood Kitchen” for a neighborhood newspaper in Portland, Oregon. He runs a semi-fictional net label called Sleeping Brothers Records, releasing lo- to mid-fi albums recorded over the last 30 years by a small circle of friends. He lives with his wife in Southern California. You can find him on Twitter at @mroshaugh.

*Featured photography from contributor Sara Codair — if I’m wrong, please e-mail me and correct me!*

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When in Roam (A Poetry Collection) – from DAN FLORE

teenage poet mating rituals

“Blood on the tracks”
skipping in the CD player
squawking geese across the street
headlights crawling the ceiling
ashing in a coke can
lying on an old mattress
poems and poems
tattooed in jagged ink stains
across moleskins and mead notepads
insanity words french kissing
in the indigo night
I hear her saab pull into the driveway
the only lines that matter now
are the ones
I will read to her


The Old Writer of Telford

He lived in a dilapidated house with shitty lighting.
He drank too much and wrote too little.
His concerns were pot and Hemingway trivia.

In the mornings,
he made fresh pots of coffee
turned on the news
had nice conversations with the cat.

With his reading glasses sliding off his nose,
his newspaper spread across his lap
and his slippers on his feet
he sat in an easy chair
as if he were waiting

for his wife and children
to come down the steps.


Looking through the top of a covered bridge

here they are returning
the words I never thought I’d write again

the kind that keep the clover deep green
that only come when head and gut
are connected by seaweed
words that are the trees that line the street
with the house I grew up in

words with no woman waiting
words that remember the top of an A-line dress
slipping down her shoulder

this is when the trails in the park go on forever
when the music is only
what you sing in a cracking voice
where every note recalls a dream
that took you to the top of the sky
and everybody kissed goodnight

the moon through your window yellow and warm
everything now is damp and drafty

whatever hallway I’m turning in tonight
it has all of this
in the pictures that line the wall

I scrape the texture of the paint
a lost heaven a blown kiss
lodged under my fingernail


Family Movie Night

Alone,watching an old vhs I found
Starman we taped off the TV
A family favorite

I’m sure my dad was excited
it was being broadcast
we’d have our own copy for free!

A little bit of an old commercial did not get edited out
It cuts abruptly, back to the movie
At this moment
I wanted to be there then

See my father pressing pause
See the wedding band he no longer wears
See my mother with a bowl of popcorn,
laughing at his hurrying to the VCR
See myself asleep on the pull out bed
and try to wake me up


homeless
there is no alone like homeless alone
but I remember the other guys at the shelter
I remember listening to them intently
everything they had to say always sounded so important
like life and death really
they’d stand across the street in the “smoker’s spot”
(the only place you were allowed to light up,a part of the sidewalk they definitely owned)
and they’d puff and say things like
“Yeah man!”
or “I said look asshole…”
or I KNOW that’s right!”
and everything they said was mostly clichés but they were all poets to me
their speech raspy as their winter coats
but with the same clarity as the snow that fell the whole time I was there
as clear as they spoke though
I can’t remember one specific thing they’d talked about
I guess the subject matter fizzled away in my mind
because I was so busy trying to survive
I still remember their faces during bible study at night though
a circle of angels
white faces in rags beaming
all looking like they knew something mystical you didn’t
and they probably did
and I remember the social worker John at dinnertime
“Food!” “We got SO MUCH food guys!”Seriously y’all are gonna eat good!”
he said it with such enthusiasm
you’d have thought he was telling us we were all going home
I think he said it with such exuberance because he didn’t want us to worry about where our next meal was coming from
and for that I’m grateful
but what I was most grateful for
were the white sheets that were put on the couch I slept on
it was just a little touch that made things feel normal
I never knew who put them on there
but at lights out they were always there for me
clean and fresh
like they would be if you were spending a night at your parent’s house
I kinda like how I never found out who made up my couch
it lets me believe that it was some spirit watching over me
who was saying every night with them
“goodnight Danny boy”
“you must be tired.”
“you need your rest.”
“sleep well, you’ll be alright here.”


***

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Dan Flore’s poems have appeared in various online and print publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Eunoia Review, Short, Fast, and Deadly and Quantum poetry magazine. He has read his poetry throughout Pennsylvania. Dan teaches the writing of poetry as a tool for coping with mental illness. He was awarded the Florence Kerrigen memorial scholarship to the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference. Dan has published three collections of poems-lapping water, humbled wise men-Christmas haikus and home and other places I’ve yet to see. All have been favorably reviewed.

Dora’s Butterfly – by CAROLYN WARD

 

Dora’s Butterfly

 

The old woman lay still on the hard, thin bed.  They bustled in and rolled her at certain times, and she watched their blurry forms as they chatted and ignored her.  It was always the same, days as grey as the walls, the hum of the home and the smell of food with all taste boiled away puffing in when someone opened her door.  Once, on a stifling day, the blurry ones opened the window.  As eternity rolled by, the tall oak tree outside leaned inwards and the branches stretched out like curious fingers toward her angel face.

Timid spiders tiptoed along the knobbly twigs and paused at her silvery skin, probing with gentle feet.  They scuttled onto her face and wove silken webs in the violet hollows of her eye sockets.  A turquoise butterfly fluttered in and landed on her split forehead, resting a while, waving antennae and lifting its legs one by one.  Earwigs hustled along the shifting branch, marching across her puffy cheekbones and down to her tender ears, where they sheltered in the soft darkness.

With a bang a nurse came in, and tutted at the breeze.  It was the tall one, with the heavy fists.  ‘You’ll catch your death, Dora!’

She slammed the window shut.  The butterfly fluttered in alarm, and Dora’s eyes followed it across to the window, watched it bumping up and down the smeared glass, helpless and frantic.  Dora struggled to sit up, to better admire the butterfly, to maybe climb out of the bed and free it, but the nurse pushed her back down.  Warm tears buttered her face as the strong fingers gripped her arms, pushing in more bruises.

The butterfly eventually gave up, exhausted, and dropped to the window ledge, just a quiver rippling its wings as the fight left it.  Dora blinked as it blurred, and realised for the millionth time that the only escape was death.  Why was mercy so long coming?

She lay and dreamed of those days so long ago, when she had been a forest ranger.  The trees were so much longer of this earth than people were.  Over fifty years on the nature reserve had allowed her to watch swathes of saplings strengthen and stretch into swaying orchards.  Oaks were her favourite, sturdy and somehow proud.

The cycle of the seasons was most easily seen through the trees, the full green ballgowns of summer, turning yellow and then scarlet as the days shortened and the temperatures dropped.  Winter, where the bare branches were spiky skeletons against the thick snow, were beautiful in a different way.  Nature stripped back, pared down to the essentials.  Sleeping, resting until spring and the fizzing riot of buds.  Her team had worked hard year-round to manage the trees, planting and clearing in response to the needs of the land.

Lying on the bed, her arms were bare atop the covers.  Her skin was bronze, the veins beneath ropy and gnarled, like the trees she had always loved.  A tiny heartbeat fluttered in her wrist, showing the tenacity of life within.  The air of the home was hot, and she could hear the snores and wails of the others trapped inside its walls.  Years of listening had allowed her to discern particular voices, and she imagined the faces that matched them.  An old fellow, his voice croaky and gruff reminded her of a large silver birch, squirrels dashing about his highest branches.  A squeaky scream which sometimes floated on the air put her in mind of a more delicate cherry tree, being shaken by a vicious wind.  They were all at the mercy of the nurses, and the tall one in particular.  Dora thought of her, and her scalp tingled where she had been lifted by her hair the other day.

‘Soon my leaves will fall,’ she thought.  ‘The sooner the better, for I am weary of this perpetual autumn.  Time has stopped for me in here, in this room.’  She’d outlived all of her friends, her husband, dear old Bob, and her ancient cat Ezra.

‘Nothing holds me to this world,’ she thought.  ‘I’m rootless.  I long to go, to see them again.  Why must I be bound here, in this room?’

More days passed.  The squeaky scream didn’t happen again, and Dora prayed that the little cherry tree would find peace at last.  Her curtains were drawn, and she was lifted to a sitting position, a sign that the doctor was visiting.  She folded her arms on top of the cover, wondering again where her jewellery had gone, and wiggled her toes.  The doctor was pleasant enough, and maybe she would tell him a few truths about this place, but then again, who would believe a mad old bat like her.  She sighed.  Trees were strong and silent, and she would endeavour to be the same.  Be an oak tree, just like Bob had been.  So steady and dependable, until that horrible, awful day when he’d fallen, crashed down onto the floor in the lounge, his heart stopped dead.

Life to death was a sudden chop, she mused.  Maybe she would ask the doctor if he would wield an axe, and swipe it mercifully to help her.

The day wore on, and she wondered if they’d forgotten her.  The sun had moved across the sky, the trees outside rustling their leaves in the breeze.  She sat in the gloom, the curtains still drawn.  At last, late on, the doctor bustled in.  ‘Ah Dora!’ he murmured, taking her pulse.  ‘Looking lovely today.’

She smiled at him, and watched as he frowned at the bruises on her arms, and the healing scar on her forehead.

‘She’s so clumsy,’ said the tall nurse, who had followed him in, and stood glowering beside the door.  ‘And such a temper with us.’  The doctor looked at Dora and pursed his lips.

‘We should look at moving her,’ he said.  ‘She’s frail.  Not much appetite, Dora?’

‘They don’t often feed me,’ Dora tried to reply, but the tall nurse was banging cupboard doors and drowned her out.

‘There’s a bed on the hospital ward that’s free.  I’ll make some calls.’

The tall nurse frowned.  ‘She’s not ill, doctor?’

‘Sometimes it’s just the best thing,’ he nodded, and Dora gave a tiny smile.

The following day, she was wheeled carefully up and down ramps, wrapped in a thick red blanket and dizzy from the wonderful fresh air.  In hospital, her bed was beside a huge window which allowed a panoramic view of the park, thick with trees crowned with emerald leaves which sparkled in the sunlight.  Dora looked up though, at the sky.  She felt closer to Bob already, and thanks to the doctor her wedding ring was back in place, ready for when they met again in paradise.

Two turquoise butterflies played in the golden light of the summer evening, resting for a while on Dora’s window ledge before flying off towards the light.

 ***

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Carolyn Ward is a mum of three and writes short stories, flash fiction and is working on her first YA novel.  She lives in Wolverhampton, UK, and eats far too much yoghurt.  She’s a Finchfield library supporter and reads anything and everything.  Follow her @Viking_Ma for pics of exceptional yoghurt and writing updates.

 

Drug Store Girl – by SIMON PINKERTON

Drug Store Girl

 

 

Pre-emptive infidelity.

I can already see her getting nailed in the bathroom,

Some close-haired, stubby-fingered delivery driver that asked for a key

and delivered me an anticipated blow.

 

Pre-mortem on our affair

and my gut says she finds me boring

Within a month.

My ascetic’s brain knows it, that I won’t be

Fun or free enough, with anything.

 

I’m not her dad.

Pre-pubescent yelling, sympathetic-browed screaming in my face.

Why? We have nothing in common.

My X and Y is gen X, her Xs Y.

She thought I would take her away

and put her where exactly?

There’s nowhere she would fit.

 

But here I am, looking at her,

Next to the plastic toys and the honeycomb smell

of the bumper-size bags of candy.

Here I am, in a suit and in a purple patch

For reasons I can’t fathom.

And she’s looking at me, looking amazing,

Languidly chewing that gum,

That must have drained to saliva and stomach acid

a long while ago, but it’s so alluring

That I think fuck it.

Let’s pretend it’s a good idea.

 ***

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Simon Pinkerton’s first love was a late 80s Cindy Crawford Calendar. He writes humor and fiction at coolio places such as Word Riot, Razed and McSweeney’s, and if you’ve got a few minutes you can find links to his published stuff on his blog, www.simonpinkerton.tumblr.com . Please tweet at him @simonpinkerton

 *Featured photo courtesy of frequent contributor, C.C. O’Hanlon*

 

I First Saw Her at School – by ROB TRUE

I first saw her at school.  We were in a science class together.  This in and of itself was a chance encounter, really, as I had no intention of studying physics.

I couldn’t write very well and read slowly, dyslexia up until then having gone undetected.

I hid it well by being naughty.

Everything I did or didn’t do was blamed on my behaviour; or laziness.  When it came to selecting four subjects to study, I had already given up.  I chose anything that I thought wouldn’t involve writing.  I could draw, so obviously art and technical drawing.  Drama was just like playing, and the teacher was wet, so that was alright for a laugh.

I didn’t take any of it seriously.  So there I ended up, bad boy at the back of a class I had no reason to spend any of my attention on.  I preferred to do my learning from documentaries in those days.  I never read a book ‘til I left school.  Studying was a waste of my childhood, when there was so much fun to be had just fucking around and playing the fool.

Sat up front with all the good girls, she was just the strangest creature I had ever seen.  She never spoke a word to anybody it seemed.  There was something very different about her, but not in an obvious way.  Mediterranean look, dark hair and eyes like Cleopatra.  She wore her hair in a sharp bob framing striking, unusual features, but I mostly saw the back of her head.

I didn’t know this little girl sitting in front of me, but I noticed that when I caused any disruption to the class, which was often, she would turn and flash me the most disapproving look.   I found her fascinating.

Sometime after that first awareness of her existence, I found myself alone with her in the art room.  We both shared an art class, but up ‘til then had never spoken.  I talked to her and managed to draw out a conversation during which we found common ground, including a love for Laurel and Hardy films.  We began to laugh at life and death and people and the ridiculousness of it all.  I’d had never seen her so vocal and it was as though disarmed by my lack of morals, standards and understanding of social taboos, she had been set free to say whatever secretly amused her.  She let go a torrent of dark and twisted humour, subversive ideas and nonsense like I’d never heard form a girl’s lips before.  I was thrilled to witness this, particularly from such a good girl and it was as if I’d discovered a mystery, a secret person nobody else knew about.  She had an undercover personality that had been exclusively revealed to me, which my mind took on a special reverence to.  A strange and intense attraction had occurred between us, a loud mouthed, mischievous clown and a quiet, well behaved girl, who somehow were the same and it blossomed into an obsessive love.

***

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***Rob True was born in London 1971. He left school with no qualifications, dyslexic and mad, in a world he didn’t fit into. He got lost in an abyss, was sectioned twice and spent the best part of a decade on another planet. He returned to earth just in time for the new millennium, found a way to get on in life, married a beautiful girl and lived happily ever after. She taught him how to use paragraphs and punctuation and his writing has been a bit better ever since. Find him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/robjtrue  ***

*I believe the featured photography is courtesy of contributor Gee Charlie Middleton–Please, feel free to write and correct me if I’m wrong!*

Mother Knows Best – by ROBERT BOUCHERON

 

Mother Knows Best

from the Diary of Nero, 53-54 A. D.

     I am fifteen years old today, December 15. Life is much the same.  I study, I ride, I attend meetings of the senate and law courts, and I dine with the imperial family. Life in the palace follows a routine, the calendar of public sacrifices and ceremonies, punctuated by a scandal now and then.

Mother harps on my brilliant future. On my lessons, she has shifted from criticism to congratulation, since the first approach reflects as much on my teachers as it does on me. She cultivates them—Seneca, Burrus, and the rest. For herself, she maintains a steady pace of work.    She is always perfectly groomed and dressed, in the timeless style of a Roman matron. She even moralizes in the tradition of the great mothers like Cornelia.

“I am merely helping the emperor discharge his duties. Like any wife and mother, I worry. Claudius is elderly, and his health is uncertain.”

Is it wifely care or fear of what will happen after he dies? Her latest tactic is to hurry my marriage to Octavia. The girl will soon be thirteen, which Mother feels is an appropriate age for a princess to marry. Never mind that she and I never talk, though we live under the same roof. Are we unsuited? Are we too young to marry? The political advantage is all that matters.

*

Saturnalia is that time of year when everyone lets loose and gets a little crazy. They eat too much and drink too much and talk too much. They do things they will regret later. That’s what makes it so much fun.

This year, Britannicus overindulged at dinner. He was laughing and talking in a squeaky voice, and he jumped up to demonstrate something, a kind of dance. His movements became jerky, his eyes rolled, his tongue stuck out, and he fell to the floor. The servants rushed to help.

“The important thing is to keep him from choking on his own tongue,” they said.

Claudius and Mother carried on as though nothing happened. They have seen it before, and they did not want the guests to think it was serious. Octavia stayed immobile, watched her brother twitch like a fish on a hook, and pretended to yawn.

“How tiresome,” she said. “I hate it when he does this.”

The fit passed, they took him to his suite, and dinner continued. I thought it was funny, the spasms and gurgling, like Britannicus was an idiot.

*

After the ceremonies marking the new year, Seneca comes to talk to me.

“Strap on your sword! Training is about to intensify. This year will see your introduction to public life. Not just honors and appearances at the games, but speeches and court cases. We are getting down to business.”

I am tired of mock debates and endless repetition drills, but the prospect of speaking before the senate or pleading a lawsuit is daunting.

“What if I make a mistake?”

“Not to worry. We will practice, step by step, with speeches before small groups, the advisors, and the emperor and empress. You have the height, the voice, and the stamina.  The charisma will develop.”

*

Octavia is thirteen years old today, March 1. While she usually gets little attention at court, her birthday was an occasion. There were entertainers and presents at dinner, and she was invited to sit with the emperor. She wore a new dress, and her hair was arranged in an elegant, mature fashion. Mother fussed over her, as much as Octavia would tolerate, while Claudius was affectionate.

“You grew up while I wasn’t looking,” he said. “My little girl turned into a princess.”

Pale and angular, she dropped the sullen look and basked in the attention. That made her more attractive, which made me wonder what her mother Messalina was like. She paid no attention to me, hidden in the children’s alcove, but that hardly matters. I know what she does not, that Mother is behind this. The girl is a calf being readied for sacrifice. The wedding will be next month.

*

Coached by Seneca, I have started giving speeches in public. He writes the speeches, which I rehearse and memorize. While I stand at the podium, I have the text in front of me.

“Don’t bury your nose in it. An orator looks directly at the audience or slightly over their heads. He shows them his face. This technique requires knowing the text backward and forward, so that a glance will remind you what to say.”

During the past four days, I gave four speeches, one in each senate meeting. My debut was on behalf of Troy, which petitioned for tax relief. I reviewed the illustrious history of the city, the ancient legend that Aeneas fled to Italy after the city fell to the Achaeans, and his foundation of Alba Longa, where Romulus and Remus were born. I quoted from the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coast of Troy . . .” As the founder of Rome, Troy was voted permanent freedom from tribute tax.

Next, the colony of Bologna, which suffered a devastating fire, asked for financial aid. The senate voted to send ten million sesterces. Next, Rhodes petitioned to regain its freedom. The Rhodians have a checkered past, alternately siding with or against Rome, but the current regime is sound. The senate granted their request. Lastly, I spoke for the city of Apamea in Phrygia, which was flattened by an earthquake. To help them rebuild, the senate voted remission of taxes for five years.

Despite a few flubs in delivery, I was successful in all four cases. Seneca was pleased. Mother listened to the speeches behind a curtain, as women are not allowed in the senate, and she was pleased. Beryllus is proud, as my tutor for so many years. Even Claudius mumbled something at dinner that sounded congratulatory. I feel victorious, confident, and ready for more.

*

Octavia and I were formally married today, in the great hall of the palace. She wore the traditional veil, and we observed the other ancient traditions. There was a chorus of girls and boys to provide music, and a select audience of family and nobility. There was only one set of parents, since my father is dead and Octavia’s mother is dead. I was glad to see my aunt Domitia from Campania. There were some relatives of Claudius that I had not seen before, now my relatives.

The bride and groom held hands on the bench, and I lifted her over the threshold. We did not proceed to the nuptial chamber.

“At your age,” Mother says, “that is going one step too far.”

We will wait a decent interval, a year or two. We will keep our respective suites in the palace. In matters of ceremony, Octavia now has the status of a married woman, but in daily life nothing much will change for us.

*

In the middle of the day, the servants vanished from my suite, and Mother slipped in alone. She looked less formal than usual, her hair was loose, and she wore perfume. As always, she got right to the point.

“Since you are isolated from other young people, I decided to supplement your academic education with a course in sex. You are a married man now, and there are things you must know. I will be your teacher.”

Caught by surprise, I was nervous, but she proceeded to kiss and caress. In short order, clothing was removed, I was aroused, and Mother was insistent. The experience was new and interesting. I had no trouble conveying my delight. Anyway, I prefer this version of her to the stern empress.  As I lay spent and happy, she tidied her hair.

“Roman mothers often initiate their sons in this way. And it is true that Caligula had sexual relations with his sisters, including myself. You cannot refuse an emperor, even if he is your brother. Still, I want this to remain our little secret. People can put the wrong interpretation on any action, no matter how innocent.”

“Would they call it incest?”

She laughed.

“Will Octavia be as good as you?”

“A girl’s body is firmer but not necessarily better. Someday, you will judge for yourself.  Meanwhile, when it comes to foreplay, experience counts.”

*

Britannicus is only thirteen, but Claudius wants him to start wearing the toga—legally to become an adult—a year early. The emperor also asked the senate to put Britannicus’s portrait on this year’s issue of money, on a silver coin, and they did. Since money is distributed throughout the empire, this is a form of advertising, of letting the people know who is in favor. Mother brushes these things aside.

“Britannicus is a puny boy, while you are a strong, healthy man.”

“My portrait has not appeared on a coin.”

“All in good time.”

*

Life returned to normal, more or less, until a comet appeared several days ago. Its tail quickly grew, and it dominated the night sky. As the hot days begin, with the threat of disease, people are afraid. And as Claudius sinks into old age and apathy, everyone is uneasy about the future. A comet means the birth or death of a ruler. Public opinion leans toward the latter.

The comet faded as quickly as it came, and it disappeared yesterday. The people may be relieved, but the palace remains on edge. Unlike most people Claudius perks up in hot weather, which eases his joints. His public appearances are more frequent, and he is seen walking around the palace. Happening to meet Britannicus in a passage the other day, he impulsively hugged him. According to servants who were present, he was close to tears.

“Grow up quickly, my son, so that you can set things right.”

*

Narcissus announced his retirement today. The reason given was to regain his health at the seaside town of Sinuessa on the west coast. He says he is worn out after so many years in the government. Whatever the reason, it means that Claudius loses his most loyal advisor. The balance of power shifts to Pallas and his group. For the moment, Seneca takes the lead.

As in past years, we do not leave Rome for the summer like most of the aristocracy. The emperor prefers to stay close to home, and he likes the rambling, old-fashioned palace. Mother claims to like it too. Probably, she feels safer here. Safety is a theme. She looks as grand and imperial as ever, but she constantly checks to see who is around, and lowers her voice.

*

The emperor is 64 years old today, August 1. The dinner celebration was subdued, compared to previous years, but he enjoyed himself, drinking and laughing. Mother was at his side, laughing with him, and doing her best to charm and be charmed. She does not drink wine, but she simulates festivity. The company consisted of old friends of Claudius and high officials, and they took their cue from him. To outward appearances, then, it was a jolly good time. In our corner, Britannicus and Octavia whispered to each other and ignored me.

*

The autumn games were as exciting as ever. As a family, we attended the races, and Claudius did the honors. This year, I was not pushed forward, but we all shared in the public attention. Britannicus looked confident, and Octavia smiled, though she never says much. Mother looked proud and splendid.

Behind the scenes, she is anxious. The palace is full of whispers, and the advisors argue. Only Seneca and Burrus continue to work as a team. They consult with Mother more often than with Claudius. She visits me every day, and she is up to something.

“The emperor’s health worries me, especially his digestion.”

*

Locusta, an old woman with a bad reputation, has been spotted in the palace. She was accused of poisoning about a year ago, but nothing was proved. In general, people of her class are not allowed entry, so the servants are buzzing. On the other hand, poison is often suspected when people die of natural causes. The gossip may simply mean that she is disliked.

Stertinius, the emperor’s physician, is more in evidence, too. He was seen entering Mother’s suite. That is unremarkable, except that no one can recall seeing it before. Claudius is old but not ill, unless you consider age to be an illness. Once the hot weather passed, he returned to his shuffling, sleepy manner, like a tortoise who draws back into his shell.

*

At dinner tonight, Claudius ate something that disagreed with him. He loves mushrooms, and he ate a large helping of them, cooked in a sauce. His taster Halotus was beside him the whole time. A few minutes later, Claudius complained of stomachache, and went out to relieve himself. He returned, continued drinking and eating, then complained again. Mother was there, paying close attention. She did not eat the mushrooms, since she says she does not care for them, though she usually shares food as part of etiquette. Claudius groaned loudly, and she ordered the servants to take him to bed. With the emperor gone, we all left the dining room. The actors and musicians packed up.

Rumors flew that the emperor was poisoned, and the palace is in an uproar. The guard is doubled, and no one can move around without an escort. Stertinius was summoned, and he is with Mother and some advisors in the emperor’s suite. I was summoned, and I just returned from there. Claudius was propped up in bed, wrapped in a thick blanket, with a poultice on his forehead. His eyes were open, but they did not focus, and he did not talk. He looked pale. While I was there, the doctor bent over him and stuck a feather in his mouth to induce vomiting. Nothing came up. Mother took me aside.

“The emperor’s condition is serious.”

“Is he already dead?”

“Nonsense. Still, we must be ready for anything. Stay dressed, and wait for word from me.”

*

This has been the longest day of my life. It is impossible to describe everything that happened, so I will skim.

I was summoned again to the emperor’s suite. This time, Britannicus and Octavia were there, the top advisors, Mother, Stertinius, and many servants. Claudius looked the same as before. The senate had been notified that he was ill, and they sent a message that they were offering prayers for his recovery. Mother kept a firm grip on the situation and on Britannicus. She conferred with Seneca and Burrus. At one point her astrologer entered and showed her a chart. After that, Burrus left to supervise the guard, and Seneca left on other business.

“The emperor is resting,” Mother announced. “We will all remain here until morning. Let the musicians play softly, to soothe the sick man.”

I managed to get close enough to see that the sick man was not breathing. Still, the servants fussed over him and changed the poultice. There were sounds of marching and voices outside. After daybreak, Mother ordered the servants to fetch my full-dress regalia, and I got dressed under her gaze. Seneca reappeared, holding a paper on which the ink was still wet. It was a short speech to the troops, which I immediately started to memorize. Pallas came. Mother wanted to know the current state of the treasury, cash on hand, and so on. The astrologer made another appearance. He and Mother discussed timing, and they settled on noon.

They marched me out to the courtyard, where the guard going off duty was assembled, and Burrus gave orders. One or two men looked around and asked where Britannicus was. Burrus ignored them. At the stroke of noon, the main gate was flung open. Burrus escorted me out, and presented me to the change of guard. At his signal, all the soldiers saluted me as emperor. As always, there was a crowd of people looking on, and they cheered. I climbed into a litter, and the troops carried me to the Praetorian camp, where I was again saluted.

I delivered the speech I had just learned. It included a money donation to the guardsmen, the same as Claudius made when he became emperor. That prompted more cheers.

We moved on to the senate, which had hastily gathered in the Curia in the Roman Forum. I spoke again, this time without a text, a few sentences about our mutual trust, the good of the state, and my wish to serve the people. It was the sort of thing that has been drummed into me for years. I thought I did rather well off the cuff.

The senators listened politely, voted to suspend debate, then made speech after speech in praise of Rome, the divine Augustus, Tiberius, the recently deceased Claudius, and myself. In the end, they voted me the same powers and titles that Claudius had, and the emperors before him. I refused “Father of the Country” because I am so young. It was now evening. I got back in the litter, and we marched up the slope of the Palatine.

By this time, Claudius’s corpse was decently covered, and his bedroom was cleared. Mother organized a feast, invited the leading figures, and somehow got the dining room cleaned and decorated. I presided, with Seneca at my elbow, and other high officials hovering nearby. The scene was chaotic, wonderful, and hysterical. Everyone in the palace had been awake the night before and was exhausted. The wine went to our heads. Only Seneca remained steady, like a bull among a nervous flock of sheep.

As a bereaved widow, Mother could not celebrate, but her superhuman energy made her glow. She flashed me a look of triumph, then returned to scolding the servants.

As the guests departed, the captain of the guard asked me for tonight’s watchword.  I spoke loud enough for everyone to overhear.

“Mother knows best.”

***

Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, New Haven Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Short Fiction

Rebecca – by PREWITT SCOTT-JACKSON

Rebecca

 

I ditched wallball for

hand-holding in the mesquite grove

 


Saved for pegs and

converted my bike into a two-seater

 


In the face of my pagan upbringing

I learned Bible verses for her

 


Even the Jesus bracelets she adorned failed

to deter my love

 


Rebecca

 


She sang in the church choir,

the school choir, any choir that would have her

 


The choir boys worshiped at her alter,

as did I

 


And me?

I was no choir boy

 


We ’90s children of divorce were engineered to rage:

 


Fights after school behind Albertsons,

tweenage bloodied loading docks

 


Shoplifting compact discs from Circuit City,

cheating every arcade at Tilt

 


I never met a fire alarm I didn’t pull

I never met a wall I didn’t spray paint

I never met a bottle of MD 20/20 I didn’t take a swig from


Somehow she found me

Somehow she liked me

Somehow


 

I


 

loved

 


her.

 


Rebecca


***

PSJ Bio Pic

Prewitt Scott-Jackson’s work is a mutation of sorts, a tripartition of poetry, prose and flash fiction. The University of California Santa Barbara alum grew up on Southern storytelling prior to achieving degrees in Native American Studies and Religious Studies.

*Featured artwork courtesy of the brilliant Toby Penney; to learn more about her, check out our interview here: https://sicklitmagazine.com/2015/12/04/art-with-toby-penney/ *