It’s time! We’ll gather on Zoom to hear from our contributors, without whom we’d be nothing! Grab a glass of wine or cup of tea and join us on May 25th, from 6-7:30 PM. If you are a contributor who would like to read, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Janis Cooke Newman is the next guest in our Visiting Writers series. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She’s also published novels Mary; Mrs. A. Lincoln, an L.A. Times Book Prize Finalist, and A Master Plan for Rescue, which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of its Best Books of the Year.
The San Francisco writer is also the founder of the Lit Camp writer’s conference, the Creative Caffeine writing platform, and the co-working space Page Street.
Bring your questions or just come to listen. Join <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="https://ccsf-edu.zoom.us/j/95503052713the Zoom chat on Tuesday, May 3, 6-7pm.
Written by Susan Stone
I used to be able to smell grandma’s house walking up the back steps to her covered porch. The house always smelled the same, like cooked cabbage, even though she now only made golumpki for holidays. Christmas night was our annual celebration with the Zechlinski family. We would have already been to a Christmas celebration for my dad’s side of the family where I loaded up on mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy. But now it was time for the Polish dinner which included thick sliced ham, bright red beets with horseradish, cheesy potatoes and grandma’s beloved golumpki. She must have worked hours preparing so many of the delicately stuffed cabbage rolls. I know from my own attempts that getting the cabbage to just the right pliability takes a lot of practice. When the gently cooked leaves are ready to be stuffed with the ground beef, sauteed onion and white rice, it takes time to find just the right-sized leaf for the spoonful of stuffing. Once rolled, they lay in a pool of rich tomato sauce ready for the oven. Though my grandma always used Campbell’s tomato soup, I try to be fancy and make a homemade creation with canned crushed tomatoes and a dash of vinegar and sugar. I have made many mistakes with my trials of this traditional Eastern European dish. The cabbage has been undercooked, the meat has been undercooked and even the rice has been undercooked. I can still remember the time my effort came out as I had dreamed. The rolls were perfect and simmering in the sauce that had a beautifully thick consistency. Each roll a uniform size and the edges slightly browned. As I cut them open, a fragrant waft of steam floated in the air greeting my nose and warming up my tastebuds. The flavorful beef pulled apart gently and soaked up the right amount of sauce. If only I had remembered to put the dish in the refrigerator that night, perhaps I could have had several more meals. Live and learn. I often wonder how many times grandma had to run through the recipe to get it right.
My mother also made the classic Polish meal. Though, it was not necessarily saved for a special occasion and I would often smell the cabbage coming home from school on a regular Tuesday afternoon. She served golumpki with overcooked boiled potatoes. I used to mash them with a fork and put extra tomato sauce all over them with a dash of salt. She did a great job cooking the cabbage. Even though it was wrapped around the meat, I could tell the end of the leaf from the vein. The end was so well cooked that it melted in your mouth like pasta. The leaf vein was also cooked to perfection and did not need to be cut around to be consumed.
In the fall of 2019, I was fortunate to be able to visit the old country with my mom and three of my aunts. A full 10 days of golumpki! And to my surprise, it was not always made from supermarket beef and red sauce. It had been transformed from a daily working man’s meal to one served in the finest restaurants of trendy Krakow. I had golumpki with seasoned pork instead of beef, hearty buckwheat instead of rice, with creamy mushroom sauce, and even with decadent truffle sauce. It was often served with pillowy pierogies covered with caramelized onion or fluffy mashed potatoes loaded with butter. Every restaurant had their own recipe, and probably had their own grandma in the back cooking. Each establishment also had the familiar smell of grandma’s house. No matter where I ate the golumpkis were served with love and pride on a plate that usually looked like it had been hand-painted. And in traditional Polish restaurants, you often had doilies as your tablecloth. It was like Christmas at grandma’s all over again.
Over the years I had met others from Eastern Europe. We have a family friend who came from Serbia. They have a similar flavorful variation, except the cabbage is pickled and is essentially sauerkraut. My Russian friends have a version that uses Savoy cabbage and mixes sour cream into the sauce. The Germans also have a rendition with chopped cabbage that is engulfed in a strudel casing. My friends from these countries have similar stories of foods that elders made for special occasions. These homeland meals were the heart of the family gathering and have endured generations, new languages and new food sources.
Golumpki was part of our family for decades and it left a legacy in the cabbage odor of grandma’s house. So many gatherings, stories, laughs and celebrations happened while dishing the hearty, warm meal on our plates. Grandma’s house was purchased by the neighboring veterinarian clinic a few years ago after she passed. We wondered whether it would be used to house animals or as a parking lot. The parking lot prevailed. Somehow, I think over the asphalt you might still be able to smell the cabbage.
About the author
Susan is originally from Michigan but has been enjoying living in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco since 1996. She began taking classes at CCSF to update her skills in writing, computers, and business. Susan loves hiking, biking, and traveling with her husband and teen daughter.
Written by Carla Schick
Praise to the streets that bear footprints
indelible storm on Christopher Street
To the person in a tie, gender undescribed
who threw the first punch
To the Molotov cocktails and the tough
& tender brown & black trans women who tossed
their high heels to claw against the cops
reaching down their throats, voices strangled
Sing of the bodies freed from secret
dancings & fierce bouncers
eying street youth
Sing to the warriors, our ancestors, who roamed
alleys & markets every day to end
their own hungers
To the trans folks who fought fears
To the fight.
Praise the neglected East Village, the crumbling
edges of stone buildings turned into homes, broken
bottles of cheap wine
Praise a turning away from what is cheap
booze & syringes, a fist
that punches rather than pounds its own
body into a carcass
Praise the end of our dying.
Sing of the fires, a rattling
of prison bars, the paddy wagons bursting
into scenes, windows broken
for air that flows
into once dark & stifling
Praise to feet that float in twirl,
a round about turn, to bodies
Sing of touch.
Sing of the children who didn’t hear
the sirens that hot June night,
Call out to the breeze in the stifling air, bringing
sweat-drenched sleep, call
out to rumors
of love different
from the boys singing on a stoop
in Queens, wooing their girlfriends
on the edge of their harmonies,
Praise the child who leaves
these splintering corners, to an unbroken
body, to the sloughing off
of skin that feels too tight
Praise to a bicycle reimagined
as a motorcycle, a wall re-purposed
as a pitcher’s cage, a world disallowed
by the fact of girlness
Praise to teens who set
buildings on fire, who looked
into the eyes of cops,
who pushed against billy clubs
battering their bodies
Praise to the overturned cop cars, immobilized
Praise to our bodies, the wild
and the serene, the girl, the boy
and the circuitous paths of the in-between.
About the Poet
Carla Schick is a queer transformative justice activist who taught in public schools for 30 years. They moved to San Francisco in the late 1970’s and lived in the Mission where they enjoyed taking classes at SFCC. and connecting with the writing community through Small Press Traffic bookstore and women’s writing groups. They currently live in Oakland.
In addition to writing they are involved in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and union work, including providing workshops on intersectional LGBTQ+ topics for the California Teacher’s Association.
Their work can be found in Forum, Milvia Street, Earth’s Daughters, Sinister Wisdom and online at A Gathering of the Tribes & The Write Launch. Their work was included in the Medusa Project Anthology & 100 Lives (Pure Slush).
Written by Joel Alas
“Will God remember you after you’ve taken your last breath…!?” he cried out, “Will He…!?”
Under the faint streetlamp light, he searched for any eyes that dare look back into his. My eyes crossed his unexpectedly for a moment after he whirled around from about ten feet in front of me, so that he was now facing me. His eyes were open so wide I could see the red under his quivering eyelids. They were shadowy dark eyes, bulging and bloodshot. They contained an unmistakable look of agony, as if the question he’d been screaming out at anyone and everyone within earshot on the busy street that night was part of his own excruciating inner dialogue turned inside out.
He stood about six feet tall with a slight build, dark thinning hair, a sunken unshaven face, and a general look of waning health. His grey woolen blanket, darkened with dirt, was strewn haphazardly over right shoulder, one end dragging on the ground behind him as he drifted along the sidewalk.
He focused his gaze on me as I approached at a moderate, measured pace, and looked as if he was about to say something, but instead he spotted a half-smoked cigarette on the sidewalk there, quickly scurrying down to pick it up. As I moved past him, I caught a whiff of his stale stench, urine mixed with cigarette smoke. I felt a tinge of compassion for him, or perhaps just pity.
It began to rain.
I arrived at my destination and turned right into the narrow alcove which led to the bar entrance. “Will God remember you after you…” bellowed out again from around the corner as I stepped through the doorway into Spec’s Museum Café.
I recognized a couple of the regulars from my last visit sitting near the door. One fellow had straggly grey hair and wore a black coat, black cowboy hat, and donned a black eyepatch over his left eye. Another, a disheveled looking weathered old man of about seventy, sat at the stool next to him sporting a green corduroy blazer with holes worn through the elbow patches. His face had a pained look on it, with deep wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes mapping the years he’s displayed that same labored expression.
Before I could decide which barstool to claim, the bartender emerged out of the dark corner behind the far end of the bar with an affable, “What can I get you hon?”
She had a friendly face with piercing blue eyes, a softly faded complexion, and long platinum white hair. She, being a woman of roughly sixty-five years, was disarming due to her kind, no nonsense demeanor. She quickly wiped down the end of the bar opposite the door. I took that as my cue to sit there.
“I’ll take the beer and shot special please” I said.
“One Lucky Lager and a shot of Powers Whiskey coming up!” she declared.
As she prepared my order, I glanced over at the rain coming down, catching both regulars studying me indifferently. Rather than acknowledge my presence there, they each took a deep swig off their drinks then stared straight ahead as if looking into a great distance. I was clearly a stranger in their home away from home.
“Here you are hon. That’ll be $10” she said as she placed the beer and shot in front of me.
I gave her a ten and a five and thanked her. I was feeling generous. She smiled as she scooped up my payment, then turned and pressed the keys on the old-timey cash register behind her, popping it open with a cha-ching! She placed the $10 bill in the till drawer and dropped the $5 bill vertically into her tip jar, an old beer pitcher resting beside the register.
Next, she carefully placed a record on the phonograph behind the bar. The music began to play. It was French café music from the ‘40s, atmospheric, dreamlike. I settled into my environment, wading through the décor of the bar. The walls displayed various artifacts and keepsakes from around the globe, small taxidermy, photos, portrait sketches, newspaper clippings, and old school bar signage with cheeky sayings. A bumper sticker over the centerpiece mirror behind the bar reads, “NOT FOOLED BY THE GOVERNMENT.” Another reads, “THOU SHALL NOT WHINE.” That’s why I like this bar, I thought, it has both character & characters.
The steady rhythm of raindrops intensified. I watched for a moment as they splashed down onto the smooth pavement outside the door, savoring each gulp of beer as I did so. The sight of it, coupled with music and general atmosphere of the bar transported me to another place.
Just then, with hurried footsteps she came rushing through the door in a heap. She was sopping wet.
“It isn’t supposed to rain tonight!” she protested playfully with a hint of a smile on her face, while attempting to shake the water from her clothes.
Despite her discombobulated entrance, she was clearly relieved to be out of the heavy rain. She carried no umbrella. She wore a flimsy jacket with a hood. What she did have was a presence that changed the feeling in the room. She was alluring, even in her tousled state. Maybe because of it?
Her red lipstick and dark mascara lent her a mysterious appeal. I realized I was borderline gawking when she looked over at me. She glanced my way inquisitively, as if she might know me, while methodically squeezing water out of her medium long black hair. Her almond-shaped brown eyes scanned the room, searching for a place to sit.
“Come sit here sweetie. It’s warmer on this end of the bar” the bartender suggested, motioning her over to the stool next to me, farthest from the door. “What can I get you?”
“One shot of Jameson…no two shots of Jameson!” said the mysterious woman as she glanced my way.
“I’m good. I already have a drink here but thank you.” I said politely.
“Who said one was for you?” she deadpanned, staring back at me. After an awkward half moment of silence, she began to laugh. The bartender and I joined her in laughter as her shots were poured into two big shot glasses.
“Cheers…” she said lifting one of the filled shot glasses up.
The bartender and I quickly joined her, tilting back our drinks simultaneously as she made short work of her shot.
“Talia, here you are! I was waiting outside. I thought I’d get here first” he said as he entered the bar, approaching the end of the bar where she and I were seated. He looked older than her, had a round, bearded face, and wore round-rimmed glasses too small for his face. He had a wet umbrella in his hand.
Talia explained, “I ran over here from the restaurant because it started pouring as soon as my shift ended. I got pretty drenched.”
They embraced. Then they kissed. The intrigue I was feeling evaporated and was gone.
“I can move over for you guys” I said as I slid my beer down one spot, taking the next barstool to my right so they could sit together.
“Thank you” she said, touching my forearm then reaching out her hand to introduce herself. “I’m Talia and this is my boyfriend, Todd.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Talia. Nice to meet you, Todd. I’m Nigel.”
I gazed outside at the rain falling again, as Talia and Todd huddled close together, conversing privately. Both the regulars by the door were looking at me again, only this time with wide smiles on their faces that seemed to say, That’s a tough break for you buddy ha-ha!
I could hear sirens wailing in the distance. A citrusy aroma of burning cannabis terpenes wafted into the bar. I pretended not to be disappointed. The sirens increased in number, getting nearer and louder now.
“Are you going to have another beer hon?” the bartender asked, snapping me back to the moment.
“Sure. One more round.”
“Another Lucky Lager with a shot of Powers?”
She brought the beer and bottle of Powers Whiskey over to me and poured my shot, then with a knowing smile said, “The shot’s on me. Just $5 for the beer.”
I downed the shot and slowly polished off the beer. I left a five for the beer and two more dollars in tip, then made my way out the of the bar. Surprisingly, it stopped raining in the time it took me to finish my second round. I exited the alcove the bar is tucked into, turning the corner and heading up to the busier intersection where I could hail a taxi more easily. I could see a crowd of people gathered around the crosswalk, as well as police cars, and an ambulance. There was a firetruck in the middle of the intersection diverting traffic around the accident.
Not in the mood to rubberneck, I made my way through in such a way to avoid the busy scene and cross to the other side of the intersection where I could find a taxi. As I stepped off the curb, I saw a police officer photographing a blanket in the street. It was lying just outside the crosswalk close to where the crowd gathered. After looking more intently I could see it was the same grey, woolen, darkened with dirt blanket. The first responders were talking to each other in a hushed, somber manner. I doubled back to get an even closer look.
There the victim rested, surrounded by EMTs and firemen. It was him. His eyes were wide open like before, but they weren’t quivering anymore. They were perfectly still. Blood leaked from his ears. His head and neck were contorted in a strange, unnatural position, with his left cheek resting on the asphalt, while his shoulders and body twisted more to the right. I peered into his eyes once more. There was no look of agony there. In its place was a cold, vacant stare that was, in this case, finality. The coroner’s van pulled up to the scene as the yellow tape was unrolled around the perimeter.
I heard one bystander say, “I don’t know what he was doing? I saw him crossing the street then he stopped all of a sudden and reached down–he must’ve dropped something and went to pick it up.”
He pointed to a black Prius sedan double-parked and straddled by police cars approximately one hundred feet farther down to the right from where the body lie dead in the street.
“That car right there came speeding around the corner and baaaaam! When I heard how loud the sound was, I knew it was gonna be bad. I doubt he saw it coming. That’s a fucked-up way to go out.”
I turned away, a little shocked at how sinister the night had become. I crossed to the other side of the intersection continuing on my way. I walked for blocks, forgetting to hail a cab and in a kind of strange, withdrawn haze. A tepid wind whipped up sweeping through everything around me, leaves and debris, scattering it all along the now dank, empty street where I wandered.
A taxi with its roof-light lit sped by me without slowing down. I didn’t see it until it was already gone. I just kept walking—didn’t really care. His words repeated in my mind:
Will God remember you after you’ve taken your last breath…!?
Raindrops began to fall.
About the author
Joel Alas recently completed his Creative Writing Certificate from CCSF.
Written by Allyson Baker
My mother baked a cake for my seventeenth birthday. I remember it well because it was the first time that I had eaten gold. I had asked for months to try a gold flake from her bakery, but she always refused. “Gluttonous bastards” was the phrase that she used to describe the people who requested her gold-laden cakes. On my seventeenth birthday, I suppose she’d had a change of heart.
As my friends harmonized “Happy Birthday,” my mother carefully carried out the three-tiered masterpiece, adorned with yellow buttercream sunflowers and matching golden flakes, artistically placed around the circumference of the cake. I watched the red wax of the seven-shaped candle drip down, threatening to tarnish the smooth, vanilla frosting if I didn’t make my wish fast enough. Squeezing my eyes shut, I blew the flames out, forgetting what I had wished for just as soon as the thought had appeared in my mind.
As my mother sliced the first piece of cake for me, a fresh, berry medley oozed onto the plate. Turning back to the cake to serve more slices, the maroon mixture slid from the serving spatula onto her sundress. She swiftly scooped it up with her finger and wiped the berries onto a napkin, leaving a remaining red stain, reminiscent of the wine she poured for herself every night.
“My sweet, sweet dancing queen,” she had called to me after I walked the last guest to their car that night. I snuggled into the blanket next to her on the couch, letting her stroke my hair the way that she often did when I was much younger.
“Would you like to try some?” she asked coyly, holding out her glass of wine. She had wanted to show me that she thought I was mature enough to have my first taste of alcohol now. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that my friends and I had gotten into the wine cabinet last month and finished an entire bottle. I accepted the glass that she held out to me and took a sip, letting the warmth of the moment consume me.
“I’ve been thinking about what you asked me a while back,” she started, “and I think that you’re ready to come catering with me now.” My mother’s words caught me off guard. I had pleaded persistently for months to accompany her on her bakery’s extravagant catering events, where she frequently served her cakes to the rich and famous. “They’re not as magical as you think they are,” she always responded to my pleas. This time though, unprompted, she offered me the invitation to join.
“Next Friday, I have a large gala to cater for at the Palace de la Reine, and I could definitely use two extra hands to help me out,” she said, taking both of my hands into hers. She must have already known that my answer was yes, because she handed me a golden name tag with my name engraved. Tracing over the cold, metal letters with my thumb, I turned to smile appreciatively at my mother. A tear guided itself from the corner of her eye down her cheek. She realized I was now looking at her and hurriedly brushed it off of her face, as if the visual culmination of her sadness was just an itch that she had to scratch away. I pretended like I didn’t see the worry on her face and hugged her goodnight, taking my new nametag down the hall with me, feeling too awkward to ask my crying mother what was wrong.
I counted down the days leading up to my first catering event with her. Sneaking into her office while she was at her bakery, a quick perusing of her emails had told me that a handful of my favorite celebrities would be at this gala. The host of the gala was a new kind of celebrity at the time; he was one of the world’s first trillionaires. That first group of trillionaires had a handful of villains, but he appeared to us as promising and formidable as Batman. He made headlines for donating to wildfire relief efforts, with Time magazine putting him on their cover, pictured in a charred forest, one hand on his hip, the other hand wrapped around a firefighter’s helmet. His wealth seemed to give him superhuman qualities, with the Time cover nearing the territory of iconography.
The night of the gala, I sat on a wooden stool in my mother’s bakery, rocking its uneven legs back and forth as I eagerly watched her inspect the twenty finished cakes for any impurities. She cared more about perfecting her own craft than she did about feeding socialites. I imagine that if she actually gave any thought to her clients, she wouldn’t have created the masterpieces that she did. She separated her art from its consumer, the only way that she was able to wake up and bake cakes for trillionaires everyday.
“You’re quite the helpful assistant,” my mother said to me sarcastically, not taking her eyes off of the chocolate ganache. “I mean, if you’re going to just sit and twiddle your thumbs, can you at least put on some music for us?” she said with a wink. Tinny sound filled the air as I played her favorite songs from the compacted speakers of my phone. I admired the way she moved gracefully, even in an ankle-length apron. She waltzed over to me, whisk in hand, a makeshift microphone in her kitchen. With her encouragement, I sang into the whisk until she was satisfied. Giggling at our impromptu duet, I noticed my jaw was no longer tense, and my brow had become unfurrowed. My mother had successfully attempted to ease my nerves before the gala; and so we went, loading the cakes into her van.
The twenty gold-covered cakes that we had finished assorting on the buffet tables no longer seemed as magnificent as they were an hour before when they had covered every spare inch of counter space in my mother’s kitchen. Surrounding the cakes on the buffet tables were four different types of chocolate fondue fountains, accompanied by dishes of fresh fruit, each juicy slice beckoning to be skewered and slathered in sugar. My mother noticed my salivating gaze at the dessert table and shook her head in response. “We’re not here to eat. We’re here to serve,” she told me.
The guests filed in slowly that evening, filling up the main hall of the gala with their floor-length silk dresses, which I noticed dragged across the floor in an almost liquid-state, although the wearers moved quite rigidly themselves. Most of the men wore golden pins secured to their lapels, each pin identical to another. I looked down at my own golden nametag and smiled, happy to feel like I had something in common with these guests.
These guests, with their flawlessly manicured nails and extravagant diamond rings, never reached for the delicious assortment of fruit and fondue, or even my mother’s cakes for that matter. Glued between the fingers of their left hands were champagne glasses. As soon as they finished one, another waiter was just as soon by their side with a silver platter of a dozen more. The guests were careful to keep their right hands free of anything at all, except for, of course, the hands of the other guests. Handshaking was constant. Although some ladies greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek, no one embraced for a hug. The mere thought of intimacy was taboo.
Standing behind the pastry table, I busied myself most of the night by watching wealth interact with itself. My mother stood next to me, serving decadent slices of cake to the few people that eventually asked. Once receiving their porcelain plates of cake, they took a few nibbles and abandoned the remains on a table, where a waiter, seemingly immediately, collected them and moved them out of sight.
The room performed in this reflexive, mechanical way until the host finally walked in. Conversations quieted, then, stopped entirely, and as he made his way to the platform on the opposite side of the room, a roaring applause filled the space between the four walls. I couldn’t see much of him from where I was standing at the pastry table, but the spotlights above him illuminated his statute with a golden glow. I squinted my eyes to make out his appearance, which was met with a firm tug on my wrist from my mother.
“Do not stare at them,” was all she said. I looked down from the brightly-lit figure speaking on the stage and turned my attention to the entrance of the gala hall instead. Two wait-staff stood on either side of the heavy glass doors, with a sheet of tint that made it impossible for those on the outside to see within. Those inside the room, however, could clearly see the marble steps outside that led up to the hall. Stumbling up them at that moment was someone I recognized as the host’s son, a tall, messy-haired boy only a few years older than me. He was famous in his own right, starring in films, known for always playing the compassionate, romantic lead.
As he clambered through the entrance of the hall, I had a difficult time picturing him as his stereotypical, charming character. Although guests turned to stare at him noisily stumble to the bar, his father paid no mind, and in fact, did not even stutter for a moment during his speech. The guests turned their attention back towards the stage, the host’s presence captivating and demanding our full attention once more. My mother, however, kept her focus directed at the host’s son, with an aura of uncharacteristic fear as if she was staring at Lucifer himself.
“There’s a dark shadow hanging over that poor child,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head solemnly. I glanced over at the bar, careful not to stare, to see him slouched over in a velvet chair in the corner, a glass of dark liquor in his hand, tempting the escapades of gravity.
There was a small plastic bag on the table next to him, and I turned away just as he began to drag his nose across the white, powdered surface. The orchestra, as if on cue, began to perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Summer, concluding the host’s speech and commencing the chaos of the cocaine-consuming boy in the corner. An excited, cheering, “Woooo!” came from where he sat, and in my peripheral vision, I saw the boy leap up from his velvet throne to make an attempt to mingle with the crowd, exhibiting a newfound energy. Most people cringed back into themselves as he approached them, only tolerating the boy in the hopes that it would earn them a private minute with his father to speak about business.
The boy, seeking stimulation like a stir-crazy dog, inevitably approached the pastry table. I felt my mother stiffen next to me, one of the only times I had ever noticed her stressed. He reeked of whisky from seven feet away, and I understood why the guests all inched away from him as much as possible. My best friend was going to be devastated that the heartthrob on the poster above her bed was actually a drunken slob.
“Is there any ice cream cake?” he managed to slur out at my mother.
“No, I’m sorry. The labels in front of each cake tell you which flavor they are,” she responded.
The vein in his neck constricted itself and bulged out again, like a python swallowing its meal whole. Towering over us, he was noticeably much taller in person than in any of his films, and I began to feel my palms sweat.
“What? You think I can’t read the labels or something?” he interrogated, pointing a finger at my mother’s face. He had a layer of black dirt and grime caked under his fingernails, which complemented the white dust that was powdered around his nose.
“I know you can read. That’s why I’m suggesting you take a look at the selection,” my mother said, her patience evidently wearing thin.
“My father doesn’t pay you to be a bitch. Just give me a damn piece of ice cream cake,” he bellowed down at her.
“Like I said, we don’t have any ice cream cake. If you’d like, I can slice you a piece of this truffle cheesecake, and you can let me know if you want more.”
“Don’t patronize me! You don’t think I can slice the cake myself? Give me the fucking knife!” He yanked the knife out of my mother’s hand, launching his elbow into the three-tiered cake next to me. Knocking me onto the floor and covering me in a sticky berry medley, I noticed that this was the same cake my mother had baked for my birthday the week before.
“What are you doing?” my mother yelled at him, still trying to maintain her composure.
“Cutting my own cake – I earned it! And I don’t care what any of these assholes think of me,” he announced, waving the knife around towards the other guests. “I can do it on my fucking own!”
“I know you can, but let me just do it for you,” my mother said anxiously, reaching for the knife in his hand. “Here, let me just-”
“Get off of me, bitch!” he screamed, driving the knife into my mother’s stomach. She looked down at her stomach, now oozing a deep red, and stumbled onto the floor. I crawled over to her and kneeled by her side, waiting for her to tell me what to do, to give me a plan of action, to tell me that it was going to be okay, to tell me that she was going to be okay.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” she choked out, “around these monsters. Get out before they notice you, my love.”
“Mom, I love-” I started.
“I know you do. Run out of here now. Trust that my love is with you always,” she said, caressing my cheek. “Most importantly, Amelia, you must avoid what appears to be golden.”
I kissed my mom on the forehead, my tears rolling off of my face and onto hers. She assured me with a nod, and I turned around to face the buffet tables, crawling underneath in the direction of the emergency exit. The white, satin tablecloths provided coverage for my escape underneath the table, allowing me to slip out inconspicuously.
“What the hell is this?” the host of the party asked. I stopped in my tracks under the table. His shoes were inches from my face.
“That lady didn’t want to-” his son began to explain through sniffles.
“Save it. I’m tired of you embarrassing me at my events. When are you going to grow up? You say that you want to prove to me that you deserve a stake in my company, but time and time again, I’m cleaning up your messes and covering your ass when you get involved in these kinds of scandals,” the host’s shoes now turned to face the opposite direction. “Take care of this,” he directed, and I heard several pairs of feet shuffle over to where my mother’s body was, picking her up and moving her out of sight, like a piece of unfinished cake on the table.
“Was there anyone else who saw you do this?” the host asked his son.
“Yeah, some girl. I didn’t see where she went though.”
“Go upstairs, and get security to check the footage. Figure out which door she left through, or if she left at all. She might be in the building still.”
The host’s shoes walked away from where I was hiding. Taking a breath of courage, I summoned my mother’s strength: “Three, two, one.”
I sprinted out from underneath the table and through the emergency exit a few feet away, finding myself on a crowded city street. Ripping off my golden nametag, I immersed myself into a group of pedestrians and disappeared into oblivion, unsure of what to do next.
Written by Austin Lui Mello
History is deep and
outside my reach; but
In the trench,
hungry fossils connive
in absolute obscurity,
trailing silken notions
from vane or spine,
carrion falling, freezing,
stirs abyssal appetites,
a toothy shifting in the murk;
not far from where i flew
home from the hospital to
learn to bob and toddle on teak;
not far from the territory where
my great grandma was
swept up by an airman;
not far from the woody
studio where my ex-pat dad
broke glass, learned to speak;
not far from the corrugated
quonset avalon where my
grandpa dick kept watch
windows adorned in
Now, little more than
below the threshold;
felt, but not heard.
Written by Aniah Hill
A screamed escaped out the small window
above the ivory toilet
where she had tried to hide after breaking free
from her closet prison
He slammed her against the door frame, again and
again, until she stopped struggling. Then he slapped her
across the face, into another state
of mind where everything was ringing warnings and
all of existence was spinning out of control.
She was tossed in the closet like a rag doll,
her bones collapsed into scraps and fragments of
spent fabric, unable to weaver herself
back into an action figure
Wanda heard her neighbor, who sometimes sold tickets
to PTA events, slam her window against
the commotion. Glen was raging between rooms, ranting
about how he was God, and man
of the house. Down the hall her three small children were crying.
She heard her husband yell at them, scold them
as if they were to blame, then yank the door closed to lock them
in their room. In a way, the best place for them.
The safest place in what was unfolding.
It had been hours since he had found the divorce papers, downloaded
from online, and dated two years prior. Stuffed in a Bible
she was so sure he would never open, but did
while searching for verse to support his distorted self-concept,
releasing the secret intent that had been brewing
for six of their ten-year union.
Leaving him was always on her mind. But the children
needed a father, who they love, no matter how bad he behaved,
it’s better than none, or so she had read
in an award-winning parenting
book. So, despite the despair,
she couldn’t make the decision to leave
her husband who was her high school sweetheart,
she couldn’t swallow the fact that
fairytales of endless love don’t exist in real life and
even if it did it wouldn’t whack you
across your tender face
Glen kept checking on her to make sure
her will remained beaten into submission
Any sign that she stirred inside the darkness
would bring him back for another slap or
slam against the wall, making sure not
to leave any bruises, a lesson he learned early on
to avoid evidence that he was more than just
At any sign of resistance Glen used the weight
of his 5’7’’, 225-pound body against the door, sealing
it shut. He would sit, for hours, leaning back
grinning in satisfaction.
Wanda was mostly rolled in a ball, sobbing in a corner of cluttered
old clothes. Forced into conversations with her gray suit and
worn out dark shoes. Inhaling the musty smell of closed spaces,
pondering how it all got this far,
how her true love could turn out to so abusive,
how her life could be a gaslight.
Glen was a star
on the football field. Cheerleaders from both teams chanted
his name during games. He was BMOC, big man
on campus. So Wanda was surprised when his eyes turned
toward her quiet science, a nest of nerdy high functioning
autistic connections. Her small frame and underdeveloped
bust made her less desirable than most of her more formed
high school classmates. She had blushed just to be considered.
Her face flushed at his touch.
She was his queen, at first. He bowed
to her every wish. Kissed her hand
when they would meet. Lavished her with
gifts and praise. Promised they would be together
But worship fell into resentment, suddenly and without warning
when Glen woke up angry, the day of the wedding
and even though Wanda’s favorite cousin flew in from Milwaukee,
Glen wouldn’t allow anyone to attend, so it ended up
an unwitnessed ceremony
performed by a justice of the peace in a windowless
home –turned- into -office on Clement St.
Up the long, narrow staircase of an old Victorian
apartment building, they had come to purple and
blue stained glass working as window, beautifully blocking
out all light, leaving them standing in darkness. The couple
were led into an equally dim room to wait for the Justice, who appeared from what was probably remnants of the kitchen. She was
of a manly frame, with broad shoulders and a heavy gut
There was not much emotion
as she read what was legally required only, before making
the bland pronouncement that they were now man and wife
That day marked a change in Glen that became
his truth, an angry ooze of abuse
slithering slowly, until the viscosity breaks
and the flow escalates. A lot of movement around
immobilization, holding her down while hissing
humiliation into her face. Slaps for minor offenses like
talking out of order. Kicks and drops
for forgetting groceries. A head first
trip down the stairs after asking the wrong
Ten years later Glen had morphed into a monster. An unstable
mangle of mania, flipped on and off like a light switch
that randomly chooses to flicker between reality and
insanity. And this day the switch was flipped to manic.
With his eyes bulging wide, sweat dripping from his forehead
down to his chest, every word expressed as spit, sprayed
through tight lips
He pressed his body against hers
pinned her between his hot sour breath and the
wilted black dress with a cowl collar, reserved
for funerals, wakes and graduations. Then Glen grabbed
her scarlet silk scarf and quickly wrapped it around her neck
slowly tightening it into a knot that kept slipping
as he maintained a deep gaze into her glass eyes
tired eyes about to across a line
Then, she ignited
Glen was so caught up in intimidating Wanda
into a breathless death that he forgot he had
testicles, vulnerable to frustrated kicks attacking
his loin with vengeance. He went down
to the floor and she leaped but tripped
over his flailing grip, her ankle planted
by pain that was rapidly burning into rage
But she still had one leg that was free and flexible
at the knee. She drew it back, towards her chest
then let it fling forward, ninja fashion
an arrow striking his bullseye of a face, forcing
away his grip, freeing
Wanda, who fled to the kitchen.
She was waiting for Glen in the kitchen. Armed with
Christmas china and crystal wine glasses, she pelleted
his head as soon as it peaked around the corner. Service
for six blasted against body and walls, creating
a mist of fragments floating on fractured sentiments. When it settled
both were still standing, facing each other, panting
Glen, piercing sharp eyes darting back and forth
Wanda, eyes steady and straight, her will wrapped around
a butchers knife
She reached the thin at the end
And the breaking point shattered
into a place where nothing mattered
it didn’t matter if he killed her
it didn’t matter if she killed him
it didn’t matter if the children witnessed their parents kill each other
it only mattered that he would never strike her
This was the end.
She lunged at him, tried to stab him in the heart
but he reached around and grabbed her missile wrist,
in the process sustaining a superficial scratch
then he disarmed her and she fled,
flung open the front door to find the police
responding to a call about a domestic disturbance
Wanda immediately broke down into tears, became almost
hysterical, barely able to put together a coherent statement
Glen flipped into the picture of composure, collected himself into
rational, courteous and polite
He pulled the policemen to the side
where they had a man conference and shared
stories of irrational wives that lose control,
spitefully slash tires and arms but never
They handcuffed Wanda’s unexploded wrist behind her back
and led her past the whispers of nosey neighbors
to a waiting police care, parked behind three ambulances
that had been called to put a band-aid on Glen’s arm
The police and firemen shook hands with Glen
then the policeman with the pending divorce proceeding
gave Glen pamphlets and a form so he could register
as a victim of domestic violence
The police car took off with Wanda, still speechless, in the back.
About the Author
Aniah Hill is a native San Franciscan, creative artist and aspiring author. Much of her written work is based on lived experiences expressed as poetry and can best be described as creative nonfiction poetry. She has earned a Creative Writing Certificate of Achievement from CCSF, which laid the foundation for exploration into a new, second career in the literary arts. As a visual artist, she creates custom gemstone-based jewelry, crowns and crafts.
Written by Corrine Hickey
It is a summer afternoon in Westwood, Southern California, and I am 19 years old. The air is hot, no hint of a breeze under the broiling sun. I walk downhill over jagged sidewalk, terraced by roots, to Ike’s Place, a sandwich shop. Sunlight streams across persimmon colored tile as I enter the store.
In cut off shorts and a black t-shirt, I could be a customer, but I walk with authority past the register’s hungry line to the employee-only area behind the counter. First an apron. I pull a clean one off the rack and slip on the informal uniform of Ike’s Place. I tie the apron strings into a snug bow, double knotting for good measure. Next, a hairnet. I slip it over my ponytail exchanging smiles with a coworker as I smooth around my temples to tuck in loose frizz. Then I tell the iPad to start counting my $12 hours. Dodging my manager and the Dutch crunch roll on her spatula, I beeline towards the sink for some hot water, soap, and meticulous scrubbing—all 4 planes of each finger, hand, and wrist. I rinse then pat dry with paper towels, moving proximally from my fingertips—overkill for sandwich-making, but good practice.
I pull on a pair of gloves and slide into place at the toppings station, another cog in the sandwich making machine. The air is warm and thick with tantalizing smells, toasting bread and melting cheese, which fade to aromatic background noise in about 10 minutes. Between sandwiches, I wipe my bread knife with a rag dipped in sanitizing fluid. Someone orders a gluten-free sandwich, which calls for rigid, food allergy protocol. My manager takes full custody of the order with rewashed hands and fresh gloves. To avoid contamination, I give the gluten-free refrigerator a wide berth along with the special counter next to it where my manager assembles the sandwich alone with deliberate movements, brows furrowed above her glasses.
On the steps of the froyo shop next door, a coworker and I chat over cigarettes. Back in the sandwich shop, we gear up again with hairnets and aprons. I repeat my ablutions over the sink, pat my hands dry (starting at the most distal point), and pull on fresh gloves. I head towards the prep table in back and narrowly miss a puddle on the floor. My shabby Converse are saved from the disgrace of smelling like pickles for a week, and I am spared a talking to about the importance of regulation, non-slip shoes. On the prep table, in a metal bowl, is a whole chicken, recently boiled and still steaming. Steadying the round mass with one gloved hand, I poke and prod my fingers into the squishy flesh, systematically shredding every inch of the gray-white meat. Across the room, someone mops up the pickle puddle.
At 8pm, we close up shop. While we consolidate and saran wrap ingredient tubs, my manager entertains us with descriptions of the pornographic tattoos she hopes to add to her already extensive collection. After cheerful farewells, I retrace my steps back to the room I’m subletting. The sun’s disappearance has done surprisingly little to alleviate the stifling heat hanging in the air. I arrive home covered in sweat, sit on the concrete steps outside my room, and light a cigarette, admiring the view behind my building. In patches of streetlamp light, I can see asphalt webbed with cracks, the hint of chainlink beneath a tangle of morning glories, and a nearby house that I adore because it’s painted an eye-singeing shade of nuclear-waste green that never fails to amuse me. At 2am, I lie in bed, enveloped in the sweltering heat of my tiny, airless room, listening to the whir of a dilapidated fan.
The next morning is warm and bright, though the sun has only just poked its head out. I walk down the same cracked and uneven slope of sidewalk but on a shorter route to the UCLA hospital building. In pale blue scrubs, I could be an employee if not for the word “volunteer” on my badge. I walk with authority past the lobby’s empty chairs and take the internal elevators to the employees-only second floor. First a scrub jacket. I pull a clean one from a stack and slip on the informal uniform of surgical staff, trying not to explode with pride. Next, a hair cover. I slip it over my ponytail, exchanging smiles with a nurse as I smooth around my temples to tuck in loose frizz. Then I pull on a mask. Unwrapping a fresh sponge from sterile packaging, I beeline towards the sink for some hot water, soap, and meticulous scrubbing—all 4 planes of each finger, hand, and wrist. I rinse then pat dry with paper towels, moving proximally from my fingertips—overkill since I’m not scrubbing in, but good practice. Fluorescent light streams across the bone white linoleum as I enter the OR.
I may have risen before the sun, but the surgical team never went to bed and are already well into a heart transplant operation. The room is icy and thick with caustic odors, burning flesh and acrid chemicals, which fade to aromatic background noise in about 10 minutes. The raw meat charring and an open ice chest in the room evoke momentary barbecue associations that are disturbingly at odds with the rest of the hospital scene. The donor heart is already on sterile ice in a sterile basin on the sterile back table. To avoid contamination, I give the sterile field a wide berth by skirting around the center of the room. Leaning over the body cavity, my mentor cauterizes an incision with deliberate strokes, his brows furrowed above his safety goggles.
I pull on a pair of gloves and station myself in a corner, staying out of the way of two nurses who have more legitimate claim to this territory. A surgeon scrubbing in offers me the back of his sterile gown, and I tie the papery strings into a snug bow, double knotting for good measure. The surgical team removes the bunk heart and starts implanting the new one, painstakingly stitching donor blood vessels to the patient’s existing plumbing. For hours, my mentor labors over the body cavity, statue-like in his stillness, apart from the slight movements of his busy hands, until a resident scrubs in to relieve him. My mentor steps away from the body cavity and comes back to life as the mask of concentration lifts from his face allowing personality to flood back in. He glances around the room as though just waking from a dream and notices me for the first time, standing 15ft away. With his eyes and a jerk of his head, he signals me over to a different corner of the OR. I head for the rendezvous spot and narrowly miss a puddle on the floor — blood from a detached suction hose. My shabby Converse are saved from the perils of bodily fluids, and I am spared a talking to about the benefits of protective shoe-covers. A safe distance from the sterile field, my mentor stands next to a table. On the table, in a metal basin, is a human heart, recently extracted and still pink.
“Pretty cool huh?” His eyes are laughing above his mask.
I struggle to keep my composure, afraid my head might just pop off from the excitement fizzing through my body. He points to different chambers and blood vessels, quizzing me on anatomy and explaining visible signs of disease. Steadying the bloody mass with one gloved hand, I poke and prod my fingers into the supple organ, systematically investigating every inch of the still warm heart. Across the room, someone mops up the crimson puddle.
In the physician’s lounge across the hall, my mentor and I chat over cups of coffee. Back outside the OR, we gear up again with hair covers and masks. I repeat my ablutions over the sink, pat my hands dry (starting at the most distal point), and pull on fresh gloves. While they suture and staple the chest cavity shut, a nurse entertains us by showing off the tribal tattoo he just added to his already extensive collection.
At 8pm, I call it quits. My mentor’s scrubbed into a mitral valve repair, so I leave without formal farewells and retrace my steps back to the room I’m subletting. The night air feels like an oven set to defrost after so many bone-chilling surgical floor hours. I arrive home fully thawed, sit on the concrete steps outside my room and light my first cigarette of the day, deciding that the view is somehow even more spectacular than usual. The green house in particular is looking extra pleasantly radioactive this evening. At 2am, I lie in bed, enveloped in the sweltering heat of my tiny, airless room, listening to the whirr of a dilapidated fan.
About the Author
Corinne Hickey moved to San Francisco in 2019 to study web development and find a tech job. Disliking the startup lifestyle, she quit her job and spent the last year working as a freelance and contract writer. Working on creative assignments for clients inspired Corinne to try writing her own stories in a Creative Nonfiction Writing course at CCSF. Originally from Ventura County, Corinne graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She has a wide variety of interests and would like to continue trying out different careers throughout her life. Most of her free time is spent reading fiction, but in between books, Corinne also enjoys gardening, coding, portraiture, piñata-making, and other arts and crafts. Recently back from a trip to Thailand, she is currently couch surfing in the outer sunset and applying to software engineering positions.