Thursday 30 September 2021




by Ronald Kovach

orange spice tea

 I keep telling Nelson we’re expecting too much of our new guy, Otis, who is, after all, just a dog. An empathetic animal, to be sure; a good listener who looks at us closely with sustained eye contact. A tan cockapoo puppy bursting with energy and personality who looks like a stuffed animal in the gift shop at Mount Sinai Queens, the hospital where I work. But, nonetheless: a dog. He is not, I often remind Nelson, a therapy dog, not our personal play toy for boosting our oxytocin levels. We can do our own therapy, thanks. Or hire a two-legged professional.

This is in 2019, before everything happens. To everyone. To us.

It’s after dinner, which I have prepared following a grueling day, and Nelson, as is his habit, puts his iPhone down and heads to the living room to finish the Times’ latest on Trump’s impeachment. I know I’d better speak up before he starts venting.

‘Sweetie,’ I say loudly--to Otis, I should add—'as soon as I finish clearing, Papa’s going to do the dishes and give you a walk. I’m really tired from work, so you be a good boy for Papa, OK?’

Late in our marriage, or what feels like it, and early into puppyhood, I’ve found that this three-way approach is more effective than striking Nelson with an oar.

Otis throws me that searching look with his deep brown eyes, head cocked slightly to one side, as if puzzling over us. If he were human, I would have married him immediately. Or at least dated him.

Nelson looks up and groans, as if inestimably more tired than I am from a much tougher job. I’ve just finished a twelve-hour shift as an emergency room nurse. My day has included a hysterical woman ten minutes from delivery, a fresh stroke, an industrial accident from carbon monoxide, a DIY painter breaking his femur when he fell off a twenty-foot ladder, and a whimsical, unhelmeted motorcyclist who just had to take a quick spin in the middle of winter, a portion of whose brain had been ground into hamburger meat. He kept coding. Big surprise there. Nelson is a freelance copy editor who spends his entire workdays at the computer, often wearing a purple T-shirt that screams in yellow block letters: ‘Bring back the serial comma, OR DIE!’ You choose.

‘Hey, cutie,’ Nelson says--he’s talking to the dog—'I’ll be with you in a minute. Let me just finish reading about our infuriating country.’

I want to entertain our puppy so I lean over and give Nelson a big loud kiss on his cheek, adding an extra schmooching sound at the end. Nelson looks up at me all surprised. Otis immediately intervenes, wanting to be included. I feel a twinge of guilt because I haven’t kissed Nelson in a long time except when I want to give Otis some fun. The activity has sort of fallen off our to-do list.

‘Don’t look so shocked,’ I say. ‘I’m your wife.’ I lean down and give Nelson a few more loud smooches. Otis jumps up on his lap and we flip him over for a belly rub.

‘Do you think maybe we should buy Otis some men’s briefs?’ he asks. 

I ignore this. ‘Mama’s going to take a nice long soak,’ I tell Otis. ‘We’ll play fetch later. You two have a long walk now and then get in some good cuddle time with Papa.’ I give him a nice pat on his soft pillowy side. His furry fuselage. He’s wagging his stumpy little tail. God I love the little mutt. My loyal lover.

Nelson throws me a look and sighs. He speaks aloud to the living room. ‘Oh Otis Otis Otis. Maybe, just maybe, Mama will be putting on my favorite satin baby doll pajamas tonight. Yes yes yes! Papa won’t be able to concentrate until he warms up yo mama on this ice cold night!’

At this rare energy in Nelson’s voice, Otis gives him a cocked-head look. Emphasis on cock, I guess. I sense the sap rising in Nelson, perhaps because I’m headed out of town to visit my sister, but he’s picked the wrong day and, as for the baby dolls, the wrong season. Typical. Any minute now I expect him to imitate one of Otis’ puppy modes and start aggressively humping my leg. But is this enough to sustain a marriage, I’ve been asking myself more and more.

‘Sweet boy’--I’m talking to Otis now—'you know when you have one of those real busy dog days full of fun and frolicking and all you want to do at nine o’clock is settle in for the night and call it a day?’ Otis’ big eyes look so compassionate, so completely understanding. ‘That’s where I’m at, honey. This tired woman is going out of service. Big time.’

Nelson, a tall, lanky guy with nice hair, unfolds himself from his favorite recliner and stretches. As I watch him, I remind myself that it only feels like we’re late into our marriage; that in reality we’ve been married seven years, not twenty.

He and Otis take it on out and I head to the tub. I pull open the bathroom curtain just a bit so I can keep an eye on my husband out on the street two floors below. I can just make out the eager bounce in Otis’ step, but not quite the funny wiggle in his hind quarter. I find his gait a poignant metaphor for how much he embraces life, how much we all should, how much I would like to re-embrace mine. If you want a bland pet, get a camel.

Lately, Nelson has been remarking on how all the dog walks have been affording him ‘awesome!’ opportunities to meet his fellow man (and by extension, and perhaps more importantly to him, women).. When he says ‘awesome’ this breathlessly, like a star-struck eight-year-old, I want to jab a dull syringe into his deltoid. But I’ve also been keeping an eye out.

‘Lydia,’ he sometimes enthuses to me, ‘there’s such a social dimension to having a dog, I never knew.’

He has also made it understood that, as a human formerly given to hibernating inside his dwelling for days at a time, living at his computer and iPhone, or reading and Netflixing, he now perceives, thanks to his regular dog walks, that there is in fact weather outside, and that it changes daily. ‘Weather is always there, Lydia. Always,’ he says, with a touch of irony, but mostly wonderment.

‘Nelson, maybe you need to get out more,’ I advise.

This was a man who hated dogs his entire life until I persuaded him to give it a try. Otis, the first dog either of us has had, would be our salvation. Our rescue dog, you might say.

I shut off the faucets and take a look down. At the corner near the drugstore and streetlight, I can dimly see that he has already bumped into what appears to be Jill, a willowy brunette in her thirties whom I met briefly once while bending over to pick up Otis’ poop. Her Flo, a fellow cockapoo with a name out of the 1950s, is, I hope, a future love interest for our Otis. I see Nelson gesturing to Jill, as if he is enjoying himself. I seldom see the animated version of Nelson in our apartment. He has grown more low-key. He hates our place. ‘I feel like a prisoner in here,’ he often says.

‘You’re the one who had to live in the city,’ I remind him. ‘You grow up in a sprawling suburb and then decide you can live happily in a $3,600-a-month closet in Queens.’


‘So how was your walk?’ I ask later, after my bath.

‘Fabulous!’ Nelson is weirdly full of energy again. ‘I got a poop and a pee out of him. But the highlight was running into Jill and Flo. She’s looking great.’

‘Who’s looking great?’ I ask.

He looks like he’s trying to think quickly. ‘Flo…the white fluffball known as Flo.’ He raises his hands in a quick gesture that asks how I could have been so foolish as to think he was talking about anyone else.

‘I’m glad you clarified.’

‘Well, you know, I worship clarity.’ He’s hopped up over something. ‘By the way,’ he adds. ‘I look for Otis and Flo to get engaged within the next year. Be prepared. They seem to have really hit it off. They are so frisky together! It’ll be a good day when Otis gets neutered. Or at least starts wearing a condom.’

I continue to not be in a mood to be humored. ‘What’s new with Jill?’

‘She’s casually dating a moderately appealing design engineer with atrociously bad breath and she doesn’t know how to handle it. The breath, I mean. He’s sensitive--the wrong words could crash the relationship. She’s still busy applying for marketing jobs and really wants me to copy edit her applications. I said no problem.’

‘For free, I suppose?’

‘Yeah. Do you think I’m going to charge a friend?’

‘You barely know her, Nelson.’

‘It’s a quick edit. No problem. It’ll be fun.’

I let this digest. I’m headed out of town in the morning. I’m thinking.

‘By the way,’ I say finally, just to fill the silence. ‘I put some special treats in the freezer for Otis if you get a bad deadline and really need to keep him occupied. We’re trying out Benny’s Bodacious Bovine Parts. I think you have some kneecaps and a couple bladders in there.’

‘Cool,’ he says. ‘Nothing like eating body parts.’


A few minutes before lights-out, Otis comes up on our bed. Nelson and I hover over him, enjoying his dogness. It’s a nightly ritual. Otis sops up the attention and, as usual, flops over on his back, demanding an extended belly rub. He smells like he needs a good wash. ‘In the morning, honey, I’m going to give you a bath to remember. Oodles of warm water and shampoo and Mama’s strong nurse hands all over you. Then I’ll wrap you up in that big fluffy orange towel and we’ll just hug and hug. You can just sprawl all over my lap.’ I’m talking to Otis.

Nelson is unusually quiet. Now they’re both looking up at me. Otis is such a sweet boy, such a good choice.

Like I said, this is in 2019. Before so much happens. To everyone. To us.


About the author 

Ronald Kovach’s fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Carve, and Adelaide. He lives in Milwaukee, where he worked in magazine and newspaper journalism. He disliked dogs until he got his first one at age 64 and fell in love with him--a dog suspiciously similar to the cockapoo in “Triangulation.”



Wednesday 29 September 2021

The Vivarium


by Kathleen Wheaton 

Irish coffee


Mackie was responsible for his mother’s death. Of course, nobody blamed him—he had to get born! How did a baby come out of its mother’s body? Through a special door. This he learned from his nurse, Molly. It was 1918 in Oakland, California. Mackie was four. He lived in a dark-shingled house with long windows, along with his twelve-year-old brother, Henry, his eleven-year-old sister, Ida Belle, and their distracted, grieving father. The garden overlooked an arroyo and was fragrant with lantana, jasmine, roses.

            Clara, a friend of their father’s, had found Molly. Back in Ireland, Molly had lived in a castle, where she took care of Lady Jane and Lady Anne, two silky-haired English girls who never spilled their tea.

            On her first afternoon in Oakland, Molly made a pot of tea and carried it upstairs to the nursery on a tray with four cups. Mackie wanted tea, with milk and lots of sugar. Ida Belle, reading in the window seat, said ‘No’ without looking up.

            Molly didn’t scold her. After a while Ida Belle said, ‘No, thank you.’ Molly nodded.

            ‘Oh, all right,’ Ida Belle said, and flung her book down as if Molly and Mackie had been pleading with her for hours. In her stockinged feet she padded down the hallway to fetch Henry, who was in his room with his king snake and the mice he raised to feed it and his pet raccoon in a cage. Henry came along but stood in the doorway, refused the tea.

            ‘I killed our mother,’ Mackie said, to start the conversation.

            ‘Why, Mackie, you didn’t mean to!’ Ida Belle exclaimed.

            ‘Maybe he did,’ Henry said. He was smiling, which meant he was kidding.

            Molly would answer any question you asked. What was Ireland like? Lovely, soft green. Not like California, so brown it made her thirsty to look out the window. What happened to Lady Jane and Lady Anne? Republicans set fire to the castle, so the girls had to return to England, leaving Molly lonely as a unicorn.

            The three children, also Republicans, glanced uneasily at one another. Molly kept on talking: In Irish, unicorn and lonely are the same word. The boat to America was full of ruffians. She didn’t care for men, particularly.

            Me neither,’ said Ida Bell,who over her long life would marry four times. 

            One night, having his bath, Mackie asked Molly how babies came out of mothers. He pictured a small, round door with a brass knob, like in Peter Rabbit’s burrow.

            Mackie could read. Nobody had taught him. At his request, Molly read Beatrix Potter to him every night before he went to sleep. Then suddenly he could do it alone—it was like being pushed in a swing.

            ‘You’ve just memorized it,’ Henry said. But no, Mackie could pick out words in other books, even in the newspaper.  

            He read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to Clara after dinner. She came every couple of weeks to see how they were getting on. ‘Oh, my stars,’ she said, and hugged Mackie sideways. Her dress rustled like dry grass.

            ‘He’s a prodigy,’ said Mackie’s father, who was an architect. He sat across the room in a wooden chair he had designed, with whiskey in a heavy glass.

            ‘There’s your special door, Clara.’ Mackie pointed to the picture in the book.

            ‘My door?’ Clara said.

            'For a baby to come out. All ladies have them. Molly told me.’

            ‘Oh, dear,’ Clara said. ‘I am sorry, Roger. She came so highly recommended.’

            His father shrugged. ‘She’s a country lass. You must admit it’s funny.’

            ‘I’ll find you the right person to raise the children, I promise. I’m so fond of you, Roger. I’m fond of all of you.’

            ‘I know,’ his father said. He looked into his glittering glass, then at Clara. ‘Thank you.’

            A week later, he was dead, too, of a golfing wound. It said so in the newspaper. Later Mackie heard someone say that his father had been cleaning his gun. Cleaning it on the golf course? Henry had a .22 rifle which he cleaned on the floor of his room, after putting down newspapers to protect the carpet. The shells were kept in a box on top of the bureau. Their father had said that if he ever walked in and saw the gun and the bullets stored together, Henry would receive a walloping he’d never forget.

            You’d think that Mackie, the prodigy, would never forget the funeral of his own father. Five hundred people attended. For the rest of his life, Mackie would sift through his memories, but it was gone. What he retained was their last morning in Oakland before the children took the ferry to San Francisco, where they were to be raised by their aunt. Three suitcases lined up on the gleaming redwood floor. Clara smiling with red, puffy eyes. Henry opening the cages and tipping over the glass-fronted vivarium, the snake and the mice and the raccoon crossing to the edge of the lawn in a row, as if their journey to the arroyo had turned them into temporary friends. 


About the author  

Kathleen Wheaton grew up in California and worked for 25 years as a freelance journalist in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Bethesda, Maryland. She is the author of the collection, Aliens and Other Stories, which received the Washington Writers Publishing House Fiction Prize.





Tuesday 28 September 2021

Don’t Trust the Apples


by Ellen Marcantano


  I walk to the rear of Weller’s grocery store, stand online, and get weighed. My palms are wet even though I’m skinny. My neighbor, Doris, cries. She tipped the scale. An officer slaps a red plastic wrist band above her right hand and drags Doris towards the Weight Control Camp truck behind the store.  Mandatory government weight checks once a month, keep track of every citizen, and excess body fat is now a crime. The smiling officer rewards me with a bag of McIntosh apples for weight compliance. Doris is screaming. I rush home and tell my husband, Jeff, who scoffs. “We’re Americans; they can’t do this.”

      He works at Home Depot and wears an American flag on his shirt. Button- holes stretch over his piggy pink belly. “They can Jeff, and they are. ”He grabs the vinegar and salt chip bag and crunches his anger with chipmunk cheek defiance. “Sara, if I step on their scale there’s no bag of apples for me.”

“If you cooperate and promise to lose weight, they might give you a second chance.” Doris’ screams wail in my brain.

“I’ll hide in the basement, and you can tell them you haven’t seen me. If I stay out of sight, they won’t find me.”

“Jeff, that’s not a good plan. I’ll get taken away too.” I hold myself.

“Got a better one? Screw' em, Sara, they can’t do this. I have rights. Not your problem, you’re skinny.”

“I can’t live without you after thirty years of marriage. They’ll take you away.” I wipe wet eyes with the back of my hand. Jeff doesn’t come to bed and shuffles up and down the basement stairs. He’s building a bunker.

     It’s early morning. I leave the window shades drawn. Closed eyelids protect me from the world.  Jeff is in the basement sprawled out on the plaid sofa that once held a proud place in our living room. Black garbage bags filled with cookies, Twinkies, fruit roll ups and other sweet pantry goodies spill out onto the floor. Candy wrappers crunch under my feet. A pickax glares at me from behind the couch. He watches me stare. “I need to protect myself if they come for me. Go upstairs and shut the door.

The phone rings. “Mrs. Lawson, I’m Mr. Bloss with the Weight Control Camp, and we’re looking for Mr. Lawson.” The phone slips in my hand.

“He’s not here.”

“Listen up Mrs. Lawson, if we find out you’re lying, we’ll take you in his place, and charge you with lying, a character defect, until he complies with the weigh in rule.”

I open the basement door and bolt two steps at a time, my eyes as big as yellow yokes at Sunday breakfast.  His shirt’s wet with stinky sweat from physical exercise, something he hasn’t done in thirty years. There’s dirt on the axe and cement crumbles create a scattered pattern on the floor in front of the bookcase.   “Jeff, go to the supermarket today and get on their scale, and if you don’t, they are coming for me, and will charge me with character defects.”

“Stop ranting, Sara, don’t get your bloomers in a bunch. They can’t take you anywhere without a search warrant, and they have no reason to call for one. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Oh, yes, I have; I lied to protect you.” I sway as my knees buckle and I grab a chair back. 

“I’ll fight for you Sara, I’m not an army veteran for nothing. He pulls the brim of his Vietnam baseball cap towards his nose and puffs out his chest. “I’m the best tunnel man they had over there. I crawled through those little gook tunnels like a slippery hog. I’m craving meatballs and pasta. Forget those salads you’ve been trying to force feed me. Yeah, cook meatballs and pasta.”

After lunch, the doorbell chimes. My body shudders. I pull my sweater around me and step aside as a skinny Mr. Bloss enters, followed by two police officers.  “We are here to escort Mr. Lawson to a weigh in center. If you don’t cooperate, Mrs. Lawson, we’ll search your house.”

“Go ahead,” I say with a hint of defiance.  

He writes something on his tablet. My feet follow them as they head to the basement door in the kitchen. My bag of apples sits on the counter.

A scowling officer turns the knob and sprints two steps at a time down the stairs. My heart slams inside my chest and I wait for them to drag Jeff up and out of the house. Silence. No scuffling. No screaming. The officer bellows, “No one here.” Mr. Bloss walks towards me. “Mrs. Lawson, you need to come with us in your husband’s place.”

Whisper words pop out of my mouth before I can stuff them back in my throat. “He’s in the basement.”

“No, he isn’t.” He slaps a tight red plastic band on my wrist. The bag of McIntosh snickers.  

About the author 

Ellen Marcantano is a former psychotherapist who now writes fiction. She currently shares her small farm in upstate New York with a dozen Buff Orpington chickens and a stunning German Shepherd named Oliver. Her  previous publications include: Dime Show Review, magazine and print publication, Helen A Literary Journal, and Potato Soup Journal