The Life Within One Raspberry, Mira Winograd
In the gray light coming through the barbed wire, she saw the hazy, oily smoke lazing up into the sagging sky. She could see the lines, the endless curve, of razor sharp, dingy figures wafting up dust with the drag of their calloused toes. She could see the vacant, pinched look on the dirty faces of those beside her. Yet suddenly, she heard a forgotten but once familiar sound approach her. It was the sound of padding feet—feet with the momentum of something she used to call life—being lifted from the earth as if the owner of those feet were going somewhere, doing something that perhaps held some sort of –what was the word, happiness?—for her. Out of the haze of dust and bodies came Ilse holding her two hands clasped gently, lovingly, in front of her. She dropped down onto the grime and opened one hand above the other. Out dropped, from that ragged plane of her withered flesh, a flash of red. It was a flash of light, a bolt of heat, a gem. Later, when she would be known as Klein, she would remember something that, to those outside the wires, would seem so insignificant that it could not possibly leave even a lingering breath of memory on their being. But to her, it would remain bright in her mind, as ripe and red as the day it landed with a soft ping in the palm of her hand.
Sometime after the tangy juices had long evaporated from its crevices, her palm that had once stopped the soft bounce would scrape across the icy air as she struggled to run with whatever was left within her. She would fuel herself with nothing but that grey ice and the dread of what was to come while they forced her from their Polish labor camp to march across their wasted lands, their wasted lives, to their final resting place. Her Final Solution was to be in the Czech Republic. Later, that palm would caress the cheek of her beloved friend Ilse, a cheek that had, for one moment, lit up with a light of its own when she kneeled in the billowing ash to deliver her gift. She brushed the snowflakes—flakes they say never fall twice, that are unique and pure in form—from those closed and frozen lids for the last time. Ilse would be left to freeze and thaw with the rest of the earth in that unknown, indistinct place and time. Her palms would once again have to push the self she was left with from that frozen earth. But beneath her flesh, she would feel that red, that fire, now burning inside her and pushing her on. Ilse, her friend, whose lashes were now coated with white, had not only pressed her ruby light into her palm, but into what was left of her soul.
When the nightmare had begun to withdraw from Germany, as she sat in Czechoslovakia staring at the lines etched across her flesh, an American soldier would appear and say he had come to save her. Her only response would be: “You know, I am a Jew.” In return, he would look down at his own lined flesh, this man named Klein, and simply whisper, “So am I.”
Klein would go on to be married to the man who had come to save her, she would have children and take trips to Paris, France where she would stare up at the stars under the arches of the Eiffel Tower, but through all of that she would forever remember Ilse, her ruby friend. And she would make it so her friend’s gift, her humanity, was engraved as her depiction—as the one aspect of her experience in the Holocaust that she would want the world to know—on a shining wall in America at the Boston Holocaust Memorial. So people would not forget again and leave hope, and love, and goodness behind to be buried in the ash. Klein would make it so that that tiny spark which landed in her hand so long ago would be forever remembered. She did this so that the world, and those who shared the memories burned and etched into the walls of her mind, would thank God, or whatever magic they believed in, for the gift of life. Her friend who still remembered her humanity even though that was what was easiest to forget, would now never be forgotten . She would instead be forever remembered in these small, almost—but just almost—insignificant lines:
Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.
― Gerda Weissmann Klein
Chances Are..., Lexi Evans
There’s no place like Vegas. The combination of neon glow and shapeless music lulls you into a trance-like state all the way to the bar. By the time you realize just how much the free drinks have impaired your fine motor skills and decision-making capabilities, you’ll be too far gone to earn back the money you’ve just lost. And since you can’t decipher 2 AM from 2 PM (for the lack of clocks and windows), there’s really no reason to leave. So you might as well take your chances, because odds are you won’t be able to stop, not now. You’re in too deep, and the casino gods know it. They have you in the grips of some terrible panic, and the only way out is down. This is a high-speed chase to the depths of the American Dream. Don’t let go.
All constitutional bullshit aside, the American Dream is about money. In America, freedom is equated with the right to ownership. The more money you possess, the more you can own, the more freedom you have. That’s the theory anyways. But money is valued so much that it has become a value in itself, above and beyond its ability for expenditure. According to crime analyst Steve Messner, the American Dream centers on the goal of material success, yet offers few legitimate means of obtaining that goal. This translates into the high crime rates prevalent in the U.S., and it’s no coincidence that the murder rate in Las Vegas is 34% higher than the average murder rate in Nevada, and 120% higher than the national average. Las Vegas began as a haven for gangsters attempting to defy convention, with gambling at the forefront. As ‘gambling’ became ‘gaming’, the social stigma all but vanished, allowing people to rebel against societal standards for obtaining money, all the while remaining within the constraints of supposed legality. When the day comes when a ‘professional poker player’ is as respectable and mundane as the CEO of the corporation who owns the casino, then Vegas will no longer be the second most popular destination in the U.S.—people love Vegas because it allows them to escape the confinements that have told them how to earn money the right way. For a country whose core value is materialism, this seems like the most painful of paradoxes—people go to Vegas to capitalize on the American Dream of private ownership, then recklessly blow their money in the process of trying to reach a financial status equated with freedom.
Overindulgence is a product of the desire for monetary success, and the two together are lethal. When people find something they want, the tendency is to take it as far as it will go, and then a little bit further. There’s a reason people can’t spend more than three days in Las Vegas: the American Dream self-destructs before it has a chance to materialize because consumption can’t be maintained at that level forever. And in a place where the suicide rate would surpass the murder rate if it weren’t for multiple homicides, Las Vegas is foolproof; it knows what the odds are, and it’s willing to take that chance.
The Stop, Richard Montoya
I am a writer, or at least I like to pretend I am. I wear sweater vests and scarves, thick-framed glasses and even shirts with clever little sayings like Plot—It Builds Character. At one time, words flowed from my fingertips and through the nib of my pen, conceptualized contractions consisting of concentric scrawl, intersecting lines parallel to each other and to the page and to the ideals they represent, or at least seemed to.
And that worked for a while, the coffee shops I patronized knew my order by heart-
Yes, let’s see here. Can I get a large cup of Half and Half? Oh, you call it 'venti' huh? Very metropolitan of you. Well then, in that case let me get a venti Half and Half. And do you have Irish Cream? Okay, I'll do that. Three pumps is just fine. Do I want you to leave room for creamer..? You bet your fine ass I want room for creamer.
-and they knew that once I had my drink I shifted into writing mode, not to be disturbed and not to be flexed with.
They say good things can’t last forever, and, I admit, I ran out. Ran dry, so to speak. Not literally. I’m a rather moist individual actually, which is not an adjective I’d readily submit myself to, but there it is.
In my darkest hours I never imagined that I would run out of things to say, or rather, to write, but there I was head in hands, pen tucked behind ear, without even so much as two independent clauses to rub together.
I don’t know what that would do. I only know that I wanted to do it.
I chewed through pens trying to solve my little writerly impotency, and, after that, I spent hours wondering what Freud would have to say about that.
But that was counter-productive.
Then I heard what I needed to hear. I don’t even remember who said it or where, I might have even imagined it all together. I needed to quit sitting in front of a blank piece of paper waiting for inspiration, and I need to start living.
And some small part of me knew that I could start at The Stop.
The night starts typically enough. I’m sitting in the living room before an empty word document waiting for a bootleg copy of The King’s Speech to finish downloading when inspiration strikes in the form of my confidant Viz. Twenty minutes later we’re in the chilled beverage section of King Sooper’s trying to decide between Amp Energy and Red Bull. I decide on Amp, Viz goes for Red Bull, and the cashier does a double take when we ask for sixty dollars in ones. I explain slowly (he is working the graveyard shift after all) that I need the dollar bills because I have to send fifteen birthday cards with four dollars in them apiece. He doesn’t ask if I want to buy stamps.
Following a short drive, we see the sign: that beacon of greatness heralding our arrival to the North Boulder Center for the Performing Arts. We are greeted at the door by an awkward man whose beard hair is longer than his head hair. He addresses us as “gentleman” tipping me off right away that I am entering a classy establishment. A voice booms from somewhere above, notifying the room that a young woman named Stormy has taken the stage. I make a crack about Sycorax being a more fitting name, an obvious allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In response, the bearded man informs me that he once dated a girl named Stormy who tried to electrocute him in the bathtub. Toaster? I ask. No, he says, an iron. I ask why she was trying to iron his clothes in a bathtub, but he doesn’t laugh.
Awash with blacklight and mind numbing neon, we three shared a table: Viz, myself, and my pithy inner monologue. There are small circular tables scattered about with cheap red upholstered chairs surrounding them. One long runway with a metallic pole cuts the room in half, and the walls are made of mirrors. The ceiling is reflective tile, and the illusion works: the cramped space is almost doubled, tripled even in the massive mirrored walls. A young lady on stage, Stormy I presume, clicks her heels together as we both yearn for home.
My mind drifts as I sip on the $5.50 ginger ale I so wish was a gin and tonic. I scribble pensive little notes in my moleskine, feeling like a cross between Dashiell Hammet, Ernest Hemmingway, and the sort of pervert that hangs out in a strip club on a Monday morning. I struggle to word an introduction fitting for such a grand establishment. There is something inherently right about starting a story with and then a group of us went to get some strippers. With a certain amount of clarity, an entire epic can be written off the back of such a seemingly lowly sentence. It would seem that most epics start similarly anyway; memorable lines such as, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” evoke images of prostitution, dereliction, and damn good times.
The sudden tipping of a chair in my general vicinity breaks my neon-induced reverie. His name is Alex, but I like to call him blacked out and he’s come over to stick his face in my personal space. Two fist bump-brograbs later, and he’s offering to buy a round on him. It would seem he has managed to procure the phone number of the girl on stage who, pulling out of an oblivion-seeking nosedive, reminds me of some sort of striptease falcon. He pulls out a small baggy of something that could either be chalk dust or cornstarch.Teacher or pastry chef? my inner voice asks knowingly. I pretend to tie my shoe and wait until he forgets where he is. It doesn’t take long.
I take a chair before the stage and remind myself of the social experiment I am undertaking. To properly glean a sense of place, one must partake in all the place has to offer and, besides, Viz reminds me that the women are not actually naked if they’re wearing heels. She’s a nice girl, I’m sure, and I like her eyes. It isn’t until her ankle is behind her head that I notice a tiny whiskered face smiling at me from behind her ear. Extensive research (i.e. Wikipedia) tells me it’s a maneki neko tattoo, one of those lucky cats you might see on a Chinese takeout box full of syrupy orange chicken and friend rice.
Thinking quickly, I engage her in meaningful conversation about her bracelets. She is wearing silly bands, plastic jewelry common amongst middle school girls that reveal a shape when they’re not around your wrist. She strips them off, in a non-seductive manner, and displays their shapes to me. Most are phallic rocket ships and bananas, and I ask her if I can have one that doesn’t look like a penis. She gives me two, actually, a star and a little man. The little man looks like a penis. I think we’ve bonded just now.
She eyes my tie. I’m not the type of man to typically wear a tie but sometimes I wish I were, if only to have a piece of patterned cloth secured round my neck with which to wipe my careworn brow. If there’s one thing ladies love more than anything in the world it’s ties. Or maybe one dollar bills, I’m not sure yet. She crawls across the stage and gingerly pulls me by my red tie so that we are face to face.
I maneuver to whisper in her ear and she leans over so I can impart my message. You know, I breathe pausing for emphasis, I usually don’t pay for this sort of thing.
I haven’t stopped writing since, but I think this is as good a place as any.
If Worse Comes to Worst, Lexi Evans
I knew it was risky. But then again, when you’re 22 years old and a female, everything is risky at night. I was doing it because the day before, I had seen a magnet at Barnes & Noble. It said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” And this scared the shit out of me. If worse came to worst, I would blame Eleanor Roosevelt.
“My life is fucked up…” His voice reaches me from a far off place, as if it’s muffled underwater. When it reaches me, it’s calm, controlled just barely above a whisper. The words scratch against his throat as they come out, comforting me like a grandfather with cigars and leather couches. “…so I write.” He motions to his left, and I see a black, Five Star spiral notebook resting on top of an army green pack. A single pen lies on top of it. “Writing is my social life. It’s how I cope. With a notebook, I can be completely honest. I can try to find hope.”
Josh grew up in Lafayette, only miles away from this very Starbucks where we now sit. “I was raised in a strict, hypocritically religious, and abusive household with my mother. I never knew my dad—he died when I was just a kid. Growing up, I was the nerd. My mom wanted me to be an engineer, and I was always trying to live up to other people’s expectations, but nothing I could ever do was good enough. I used to get my face shoved in the gravel at elementary school; athletics were the only way I could get respect. In high school, I ran a 4:38 in the mile and was a 4.0 student.” Josh was being considered for a track scholarship. That is, until, a genetic spinal disorder fractured his lumbar vertebrae. Now, he limps when he walks.
“My junior year of high school, the walls caved in on me.” He’s sitting slightly slumped over in his chair now, elbows resting on his knees, fingers clasped lightly, eyes fixated on something deep in the floorboards. “It was October of 1998, and I was possessed by demons. It set the tone and pace for the next 13 years of my life: I was removed from my home by social services and moved into a Christian dormitory. But I smoked cigarettes, and Kurt Cobain was my God, so I got kicked out for rebellion.”
“I bought a bus pass and started sleeping on the bus during the day when I wasn’t at work. At night I would go to Tom’s Diner, where I would stay awake all night. I was too afraid to fall asleep. They [demonic possessions] always happened at night, when I was trying to fall asleep, and when I was alone. Eventually, I couldn’t stay awake at work anymore and was fired. I had nowhere to turn. My grandma kicked me out. My aunt kicked me out. It was always the same story: it would be nighttime. I would be trying to fall asleep. Then the terror would overcome me—I was scared of what was waiting for me in my dreams. So I would ask my grandma or aunt if I could sleep in her room. They got freaked out.”
He only wanted what every child wants: to feel safe. But after a certain age, the monsters in your closet are supposed to disappear. I can see his childhood drowning in his eyes.
Josh stands up without warning. He takes a step backward. “I need a cigarette.” I nod and jot down the last few sentences feverishly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the navy blue pants poised in front of the counter. I carefully trace them up from the floor. It’s a uniform. Perfectly blue. Two of them. I spot the guns and look away quickly, continue writing. Seconds after the blue uniforms pass through the front door, Josh enters from the back patio. I can see the outline of his bony frame through his sun-faded blue jeans. Sweat is beading on his upper lip. He gently falls into the wooden chair and slumps over again. He sucks in a pocket of air quietly.
“Demonic oppression is totally humiliating; you have to fight for your equality and your significance, and it completely ruined me. It bruised all humanistic ambition and aspiration I had. I lived on and off the streets for three years, staying with whoever would let me in. Then, in 2001, I got married. She was really pretty—I didn’t understand why she loved me. In 2002, the demonic possessions subsided and later that year we had a son. I became a truck driver. We made enough for an existence but not a living. So she became a stripper. We developed a cocaine problem. Then we had a daughter…and my wife left us. The kids and I moved into rural housing in Kansas, and I was working 60 hours a week. But my mom didn’t trust me around the kids, so she took them. I eventually moved to California.
“I started using meth when I was in California. There’s no reward for mediocrity or poverty, but drugs provide a reward—a way out. Meth gives you pleasure like nothing else can compare to. It also gives you hell like nothing else can compare to. And once it hooks you, you’re fucked. It’s a scary thing, to wake up one day and realize you’re half-dead, and you’re 27 years-old.
“I eventually got clean, and enrolled in some classes in San Diego. I got an A in every class I took and never had to crack a book—my thing is school, it’s the only thing I’m fucking good at. But in 2009, I started experiencing demonic possessions again and had to withdraw. And now I have heart palpitations from drug use and every time my heart beats, it reminds me that it could be my last…Hellfire is just a heartbeat away.
“My mom called me when I was in California and told me she wanted to put my kids up for adoption: ‘I don’t want these kids, I’ve never wanted these kids,’ she told me. I came back to Colorado to try to reconcile things with my family, but San Diego, man, that’s totally the life I wish I could live. They’re all gods and goddesses out there. It’s like dangling a steak in front of a dog and not letting him have it. That’s reality. I just want what everyone else wants: I want to be happy.”
A small, boyishly shy smile slips out of the corner of his mouth. His grin is reflecting in my face and once he realizes this, his lips sink slowly. He stares at his palms, hiding from his fragile smile. In Josh’s weathered face I can see the pain of a thousand lifetimes—all mottled and wrinkled and tear-stained, but tough on the outside, like a hide. As I put my fingers to my own face, I realize there’s not even ten years between us.
“You know, there are some people who think homeless people are worse than cancer, that think they should be euthanized because they have no value, but it’s…it’s not true.” His voice rises for the first time all night. It’s lost its smooth calculation; it’s desperate and panicked, and I can tell he’s pleading. But then it drops off sharply, and it’s a low, cool whisper again. “I’ve met some of the most intelligent, talented, enlightened, and fucked-up [homeless] people. I met a published poet from Naropa, and a PhD from Vanderbilt who was bipolar. Homelessness can happen to anyone and the longer you’re in this position, the harder it is to get out of it. There’s no potential for you to be accepted, and it hurts so much to be cut off from society.
“Homelessness is a lesson in humility. If there is a God, and I’ll make a case that there is, it gives people a chance on both sides of the fence to exercise humanitarian impulses, to see if they have compassion.”
For a split second, everything fades out and the only thing left is the gentle scratch of pen against paper and the feeling that the world has been made right again. “Well, I should get back to my writing.” He tilts his head toward his notebook. He begins to push himself up, but he stops. He looks me dead in the eye. “Thank you. Thank you for this.” He’s not thanking me like you thank someone when she buys you coffee; he’s thanking me like you thank someone when she looks you straight in the eye, and she doesn’t look away.