Forest Alexis David
it's all just fine
Art has the power to create space. When an idea is born into the world, it has the power to radically alter everything. Suddenly there’s room for change where there wasn’t before, if we’re open to it.
This past year we saw it happen. One of the biggest moments for me was the fallout of #metoo, which created room for people to talk about experiences that had previously been taboo. Even though this change does not happen overnight, we are making room for difficult discussions. We are deciding what we want the world we live in to look like.
We are in the middle of transitioning into a new era, and there is power there.
At Smirk, we know how powerful ideas can be. They are the backbone of how we exist in our lives and in the world. What we choose to think about, to speak about, and to create has an incredible impact on the world. We quite literally have the power to create space and make change. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it involves putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. Other times, it’s light and fun and a joy.
We get both.
In this edition of Smirk, you’ll see people make choices that result in transitions. Some of them are normal, like how you should handle a wonky date or how to let someone go. Others are more paranormal, about making transitions into the afterlife. Others will talk about what it’s like to change within yourself.
We’re so excited to share this edition with you. We hope to create for you a space for dialogue and a space for discovery. Come on in, and don’t be afraid to leave what you thought you knew behind.
30 By S. Fuller
“Love is the only answer to the problem of human existence.” —Erich Fromm
I went to California for a week when I turned 30. If having a meaningful life means looking around and seeing color, my home in upstate New York had faded to black and white. In the past year, several close friends had moved away to bigger cities for better opportunities, a man I really liked had broken up with me, and I’d lost my creative drive. Instead of using my spare time to write or play music, I often found myself staring at the wall of my one-bedroom apartment contemplating the existential void, or streaming Netflix.
One day, imagining myself trudging through the rest of my thirties in this small, bleak town blasted by snow six months of the year, I impulsively booked a ticket to a state with more sunshine.
I thought maybe I’d find love in California. And if not love, the next best thing: sex. At the doctor a month or so before my trip, they’d asked me when I was last sexually active, and I couldn’t actually remember. When packing for the trip, feeling hopeful, I threw an unused box of condoms into my already stuffed suitcase.
Anyway, that’s why I went on a Tinder date in Los Angeles the night after my 30th birthday. It was February: snowing and gloomy back home; 70 degrees, breezy, and beautiful in L.A. I had a sweet little room in an Airbnb in Venice, right off Abbot Kinney and a 20 minute walk from the beach.
I swiped right on quite a few men—the options were more expansive than where I’m from. In my hometown, it is actually possible to run out of potential Tinder dates. This had happened once after two hours of continuous swiping one lonely, wine-drenched winter night in my studio apartment. Tinder told me, “There are no more matches for you to view.”
LA’s stream of possible Tinder matches was endless. It occurred to me as I chatted with several of them at once that they would probably expect sex given the circumstances: woman “in town for a few days” wants to get together. I felt ambivalent about sleeping with a stranger, but I definitely wanted free drinks and fun.
Lots of people use Tinder just for dates (I told myself), and besides, I wasn’t totally against a hook up—although I knew from past experience I couldn’t hook up if I didn’t feel an emotional connection. Still, I occasionally developed an emotional connection in less than a few hours of talking to a sexy stranger.
My date was 6’2, handsome, and nine years older than me. He was starting to bald in front, but had a nice face in a droopy, mid-90s Hugh Grant sort of way. He clearly worked out; I admired his muscular arms. Over the course of two glasses of wine, a cheese plate, and a few hours, I learned he worked as an investment banker, he’d gone to a top tier law school, he’d read Jane Austen and he’d also read 50 Shades of Grey (“my ex was into that stuff,” he explained).
I felt excited: few men can name their favorite Jane Austen character. On the other hand, though I haven’t read 50 Shades, I believe the protagonists like sex with whips and chains. Hmmm.
A little candle on our table for two kept going out; I kept asking the bartender to re-light it. Once I switched it with a candle at another nearby empty table; within minutes that candle also blinked out. My date laughed that I must be blowing it out somehow. The candle wasn’t meant to be lit.
He lived in the neighborhood in Venice, so he knew another place down the road, a little more casual, with beers. We went there next. There was dancing, loud music. Feeling the booze, I ran up to the DJ to request the song “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z and Alicia Keys. “I love New York,” I said nostalgically, looking up at my date with misty eyes. I love New York, but I was developing a thing for California.
We stood at the bar, ordered IPAs to share. I let him kiss me at the bar; “You’re a good kisser,” he said. This was like drinking water after drought. My hands strayed over his broad chest and I leaned in close, breathing in his scent.
Unfortunately, I was also starting to feel physically sick. My vision darkened around the edges, like when you use the vignette feature on Instagram. I leaned forward onto the bar suddenly, moaning, “I don’t feel good.” The last firing electrons in my brain petered out.
I woke up on the floor. Someone was holding me up, asking me questions: “Can you hear me?” and I heard another voice asking a man, “How do you know her?” The man said, “We just met, it’s our first date.”
I struggled to my feet with the help of arms, but I don’t really remember whose arms, or how exactly I stood up, or even walking out of the bar. I fully regained awareness standing on the sidewalk outside the bar. I was with my date, the tall handsome banker who had read 50 Shades, and he was on the phone with 911.
“I’m ok,” I said. “I want to walk home.”
“Are you sure?” He looked at me doubtfully. “They want to take you to the hospital.”
“Not necessary!” My brain was working again. I was totally sober; I’d only had three drinks over the course of three hours.
The bouncer at the door looked at my date with a suspicious scowl.
“Did you roofie me?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “But a lot of people at the bar thought I did.”
“I peed myself,” I spoke aloud, noticing the large wet stain that had appeared at the crotch of my favorite jeans. I felt dazed, curious and unembarrassed, like Rip van Winkle waking up after sleeping for 20 years.
“Oh,” he said with the stoic poise of a Greek philosopher.
We walked slowly back to my Airbnb holding hands. He followed me into the house. I filled us some water glasses, then we joined a group of other Airbnb guests in the outside backyard who were chatting and smoking.
“I should take a shower,” I said.
“Good idea.” He looked at me intensely without blinking. It dawned on me he still wanted—expected?—to hook up. I had just lost control of my bodily functions in a room full of strangers: I needed to be alone.
“You’re welcome to wait here until your Uber comes,” I added generously.
We awkwardly hugged goodbye. And then I took a long, hot shower, and slept great for eight full hours.
A friend the next day, listening to the story, exclaimed dramatically, “What if this is what dating in your 30s is gonna be like—maybe the universe is sending you a message?!”
At first this assertion made me want to burst into angry tears. But after breathing for a slow minute, I decided: If this is dating in my 30s, I’ll take it. It’s dangerous and it’s humiliating. But it’s also fun and exciting. And more importantly, it’s what I’ve been given. Happy birthday to me, from the universe.
I may be getting old, but I’ll keep dancing into the night—until that moment when I pass out and pee myself in a room full of strangers.
* My doctor did a bunch of tests and there's nothing wrong with me, so what happened is still a mystery.
*Who technically had the worst Tinder date here, me or him? Having a room full of people thinking you roofied someone can’t be too pleasant. On the other hand, passing out and peeing yourself is also high on the scale of Terrible Things That Happen on Dates.
*I wonder if he tells this story to his friends.
*I’ve definitely told this story to a statistically significant sample of 100% of my friends.
Umbrella Alexis David
BUT THERE IS A GHOST By Ryan Wolf
“I’m not certain I understand your complaint, sir.”
“Complaint? I’ve been checked in for a week now. I’ve yet to encounter a single spirit. Is this or is this not a haunted hotel?”
“Many believe it is, sir, but we have no control over the ghosts.”
“Is it not in your advertising, miss?”
“I don’t believe we make any—”
“Is it not in your brochures?”
“It is, but—”
“A bona fide, certified paranormal hub.”
“I understand, but we can’t guarantee every guest—"
“Have you seen ghosts here?”
“I have felt things—"
“Felt things? We all feel things.”
“Sir, we can’t promise you’ll have an encounter. Many guests have, but certainly not all. We apologize if this is disappointing. Will you be checking out then?”
“No. I will not be checking out. Please don’t count on me leaving until I am many guests. Which is unfortunate for you. Very unfortunate. No reason to believe the dead come back. None.”
“As you wish, sir. But if you don’t believe in spirits, then why, if I may ask, would you stay?”
“Because I like making you squirm, miss. It’s wonderful. No, I kid, of course. It’s quiet here. Space to think. Figure out what’s next.”
“So you will be moving on from here eventually?”
“We all move on from here eventually. But not soon. Unfortunate there’s no ghost in this place. Should be a law against false advertising like that. But I’ll be waiting for what isn’t here to come by and say boo.”
For the next month, Mr. Cowles came at three in the afternoon each day to renew his room and to express his disappointment. His sagging cheeks jounced like gelatin while he castigated me. The general lack of supernatural encounters at The Bald Cypress Inn was appalling. Why did he not wake to dead children in antebellum dress seated at the end of his bed? Shouldn’t he catch the visage of an old crone in the fog of his mirror while he brushed his teeth after a shower? He at least expected flickering lights. Odd scratchings. Footsteps he could not rationally account for.
Once I knocked on his door in the middle of the night. I thought perhaps this would prove enough of a ghostly manifestation for him. He would leave then. But before I could bolt, before I could make it to the winding staircase down the hall, he came out in his silk bathrobe, yelling. I was a con like the hotel was a con like the entire spirit world was a wretched, poisonous con. A flagrant fiction.
To his credit, he never threatened to have me fired, never demanded a refund. Mrs. Pitney was providing me with full room and board. I might have jeopardized that arrangement with the pettiness of my knocking. But I was so tired of our guest.
My room was on the floor above his. I could hear him cursing through the floorboards at midnight, banging at the radiator, barking random verbs at his ceiling, my floor, like commands to an unseen servant. I practiced mindful breathing to annul the noises, to reach a calming center. Eventually, I proposed to Mrs. Pitney that she refuse to grant any further extensions to his stay. But it was the slow season. His patronage was needed.
Mr. Cowles rarely left the inn during the day. He stayed in his room, reading from a full suitcase of books he had brought with him. I saw some of the titles as I tidied his quarters, trading towels and sheets with fresh replacements while he attended breakfast. Rudimentary Accounting Principles. Contemporary Issues in Risk Management. Strengthening Supply Chains. I asked him once what he did for a living, if he was in business. He told me I was a nosy bird and that he was retired.
He was as insulting to Mrs. Pitney as he was to me, never satisfied with how his eggs were cooked or the amount of pulp in his orange juice. We always found a litter of crumbs beside the globules of grease he lovingly left on the lacy runner beneath his plate. When other guests were present at the dining table, he was eager to share his opinion of us. He would ask them if they had seen any spirits palling around the inn. If they said no, he would begin berating Mrs. Pitney and me. If they said yes, he would call them know-nothings and mouth-breathers and dopes until they ducked out before finishing their food.
We were receiving negative reviews online because of our inability to handle the disruptions. Mr. Cowles very much needed to go. Yet Mrs. Pitney was hesitant.
“He reminds me of a gentleman who visited when I was a child.”
“In what way?”
“There was a guest from a skeptical society. Always demanded evidence-evidence-evidence. He told my parents he would be writing an article. He’d expose us as hoaxers. A societal disgrace. A plague on the rational mind. He was here for a week at least before he keeled over, right in front of my sister and I. He had a heart attack in the middle of the lobby.”
“You don’t mention him in the materials. Or on the tours. It’s always the kids with cholera. The prostitute who drank arsenic. The grandmother who drowned in the bathtub.”
“I’m very superstitious about mentioning him. Won’t even use his name. He’s the only spirit in the inn that worries me. See, he wasn’t supposed to die here. It was an embarrassment to become part of the very lore he hated. Most of the spirits here are sorrowful, searching for completion in the shadows. But the Skeptic’s more than just sad. He’s positively resentful. He’s angry that he’s lingered on. You know how some people would rather be dead than wrong? Imagine being that type. Then imagine being dead and wrong and never escaping it.”
“So why not kick out Mr. Cowles before he has a stroke?”
“Because he’s good company. He keeps things quiet.”
“For him. You know. For the Skeptic. He hasn’t been acting up with Mr. Cowles around, which is a genuine relief.”
“I catch a chill now and then. But I was here a month before Mr. Cowles and never saw, never heard, anything unusual.”
“Then you weren’t paying attention, dear.”
I was at the front desk, studying for the LSAT exam from a large yellow workbook, full of gray sheets of paper that felt like dusty pavement from a warehouse floor. I had no interest in taking the exam, in applying to law school. But I needed to go somewhere post-college, develop some tangible trajectory. I had signed up to spend six months at a haunted hotel for the novelty, perhaps vainly hoping to gain inspiration for a book I might write in a possible future if I could ever commit to that undertaking. At minimum, I’d collect and jar the bits of fodder from these months, keep them shelved in my brain. Tell the stories one day to friends I might have or strangers I might want to turn into friends. The stories would make me interesting, if only for a moment.
I tried to untangle a logic puzzle, pencilling little lines and numbers and squiggly shapes along the margins of the workbook. If the interior decorator only arranges three bedrooms with orange wallpaper in two houses, how many houses containing bedrooms with purple wallpaper will he need to arrange at least one kitchen for if he wants to complete half of his contract by the second Tuesday of the month? None of the answers I came up with matched any of the available multiple choice options.
There was a thud from the ceiling. I looked upward at tan splotches and stains, wondering if this was what Mrs. Pitney and the others took for a ghost. I thought of a quote from a paranormal investigator I’d read in advance of my stay, Robert Baker, another skeptic: “There are no haunted places, only haunted people.”
Mrs. Pitney. Mr. Cowles. Belief and disbelief, equally haunting. It was important to stay unattached, to be unhaunted. But the fact that I was here at all. What did that say about me?
Did I want to believe? Some guests had boasted of visions of varying clarity. I spoke to one woman who swore the spirit she saw wasn’t a spirit at all — it was corporeal. She insisted she woke to a pallid woman with her throat rotted out, her larynx exposed, skin hanging like wilted string cheese over the gaping gap. The dead woman’s eyes were aglow with a green light and her lips moved, a hungry goldfish mouthing unknowable words.
I found the description too vivid for the encounter to have taken place at two in the morning in near black. The report came from a guest who also claimed to have communicated with Elvis using a ouija board and who said that both of her daughters were world famous surgeons, though she wouldn’t share their names. Did I want to discount her? Did I, in fact, want to disbelieve?
I turned to the answer key in the back of the LSAT workbook. The correct choice to the puzzle that had stumped me was D. There was no explanation given. Yet a correct answer had existed all along, waiting to be circled and selected, born from a perfect logic I could not trace.
“I see you’ve been studying for law school, miss. There’s hard truth in the law. At least there should be, if the law’s worth its name. Agreed? So how can you sleep at night here, knowing you promote a lie? Giving people false hope with all this damn ghost business.”
“False hope? What’s hopeful about wandering around an old building for a century? If there are ghosts here, they’re in despair.”
“Ah, I like that. If there are ghosts. Maybe there is honesty in you, miss. But that’s also perverse, isn’t it? Profiting off the despair of the dead.”
“You provide those profits, sir.”
“Ah, yes. True. So you admit to the con then?”
“I haven’t been here two months. No, I haven’t seen any ghosts. Not personally. But some guests have. Mrs. Pitney says she has. And I think she is genuine.”
“So she goes and pimps out the spirits for profit? No. If she believed, she wouldn’t stay here. She knows this place would’ve closed long ago if not for the lies.”
“Then why do you support her with your dollar? Go haunt another hotel.”
“Funny. I won’t be checking out, miss.”
“Oh, I figured as much.”
Every time I tried to sleep that night, I kept leaning back from oblivion’s edge. My thoughts would slip from my conscious grasp but seemed to carry on without a guide, a gray chatter of opaque content and form. The chatter would nearly dissolve when my body twitched. I would remember I was awake then. I would turn my pillow over, switch the direction I faced on the bed.
When I was finally on the shallow end of sleep, there came a rapping at my door. I jolted, pulled on sweatpants, fuzzily moved to turn the knob. There was no immediate presence outside. But as I looked down the hall I saw Mr. Cowles. I hurried after him.
“Are you a child?” I whispered.
“You began this,” he said.
“Well, we’re even now, you creep. Don’t bother me again.”
Mr. Cowles grinned. His teeth were little rocks, jutting out from a curved coast, breath oozing around them, carrying the smell of some sick sea. He placed his arm on the rail of the staircase, suspended the smile over it. It began to drift down the steps when it suddenly dropped. Mr. Cowles was hurtling backward, as if a stool he stood on was kicked out from under him.
I froze as he fell.
A fall is not an end. Our friend was barely set up in the hospital when we began receiving packages. Manila envelopes came stuffed with simplistic drawings. One showed a ghost with a thought bubble in the shape of a smaller spirit that in turn had its own phantom bubble floating overhead. Another contained a cemetery full of headstones all individually marked with the word TRUTH. One page shouted THERE IS NO GHOST, the letters composed of plump Casper-like entities. Another displayed the judgment of souls in an Egyptian afterworld, Anubis weighing a tiny spirit on a scale, pairing it opposite a feather. Next to the scales, which tipped in the feather’s favor, a creature was squatting, some crocodile-headed hybrid burping out an enormous YUM.
There was a picture of a mosquito with a skinny proboscis, slurping up the blood of the question WHERE ARE THE MOSQUITO GHOSTS? There was an image of the ascent of man from a slouched simian ancestor to an upright hominid to its final form as a bedsheet with holes for eyes. There was a sketch of a skeleton wearing judicial robes and holding a gavel, standing atop stacks of bones, cracked and criss-crossed. There was a rendering of a black book with LAW writ large on the cover. The tome was surrounded by spirits, a colorless swirl of the cartoon dead.
The bottom of that page said:
Ignorantia juris non excusat.
P.S. Study harder.
“We need a restraining order. These are clear threats.”
“Threats of what?”
“At the very least they constitute harassment. He’s not here anymore. And still. He still feels the need to haunt us.”
“I don’t like getting the law involved. We don’t want to tarnish our name.”
“We’ve been tarnishing our name online for the past month. Because of him.”
“I just don’t think we should challenge this man.”
“But he won’t leave us alone. He’s a sick-sick person.”
“He hasn’t sued us. Even though he tripped on our stairs. We could be liable. I’m not sure. Why would we want to put ourselves in jeopardy? I don’t want a lawsuit. Lawsuit means much more anxiety than a bunch of silly drawings. He’s never been violent here.”
“I’m afraid right now. I’m sorry. I’m plain old freaked-out-afraid. Mindfulness exercises — they’re not even helping. Not helping at all.”
“It’s okay. It will be fine. I’ve had lots of strange guests over the years, but I’m alive. I’m here. I’m ticking along. You’ll be okay, dear.”
“You said you were afraid though too. Afraid of the Skeptic.”
“Yes. But don’t speak about that. Forget all of that. Please.”
I was clearing out Mr. Cowles’ room, packing up his personal items to ship to the hospital. His suits stank. A moist sweetness. Rotted apples, bad wine. I folded them into his case, stuffed them in with his books. I opened one volume, New Theories in Interdepartmental Communication, and found it covered in red pen. Most words had been scribbled out. The rest were circled: speak, know, act accordingly.
Taking up another, I opened to the same results, scribbles and circles. Specially selected words: enter, engage, incite, reconnect.
They were all verbs or adverbs, tuned to a motivational tenor. Did they present a new logic puzzle? A practice test for some greater trial that lay ahead? Or was it only madness? But even madness should carry some string spooling out from the brain, a trail that might be traced, a path where lanterns could be installed to illuminate what was. All the active verbs, all those signs urging me forward-forward to what-what-what?
On the back inside cover of a book about property insurance claims were more sketches of ghosts. Below them, Mr. Cowles had written:
Haunted haunters haunting haunted haunter haunts.
THERE IS NO GHOST.
THERE IS NO GHOST.
There was no one at breakfast the following morning. I ate a bowl of corn flakes at the mahogany dining table. Mrs. Pitney said she had a terrible headache, that she needed to rest more. I heard a thud from the ceiling like the thud above the desk and I tried to concentrate on my breathing, mindful-inhale-hold-mindful-exhale, though to think of myself as a breathing body, a thing that relied on air, made each breath seem pinched and panicked, as if my entire being was now funneled and reduced to its respiratory process, for I was my breath and breath alone and all else was illusory, without substance or weight. The breath seemed to twist and coil the more I focused on it, as if it were kneaded by spectral hands. Was I being choked? By my own mind? I threw my thoughts onto other objects in the room, taper candlesticks and resin cherubim along the mantelpiece, a landscape painting of wooded hills framed in faux-gold. The details of these objects were lost to me, lost within the struggle of my lungs. The lawless haze. I began reciting the circled words in my mind: speak, enter, engage, incite, act accordingly, know, know, know…
When I had finally forgotten about my breathing, when my mind had sunken fully into the mantric repetition of verbs, I was able to breathe again. So I did.
“I must have had an anaphylactic reaction to my cereal this morning.”
“How frightening. Do you need to see a doctor?”
“No. I think I’m exaggerating. Gotta be psychological. I was doing a mindfulness exercise and suddenly I couldn’t breathe at all.”
“That’s not right. Not right. Please, don’t let him inside your head, dear.”
“Shhh. Now are you certain you don’t need a doctor?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I hope so. We have another package from our friend.”
“Please don’t show me.”
“There weren’t any drawings this time. All he gave us was a red pen.”
I used the pen. I took my workbook and began scribbling out sentences, circling verbs. I checked off answers, random, careless. I started writing out of spite THERE IS A GHOST, THERE IS A GHOST, THERE IS A GHOST along the margins.
When a couple came forward to check in, I threw the book beneath the desk, kicking it near a waste bin. What did I know? What did I know about anything?
Just let me breathe and be and be. How else could I think and plan and act accordingly?
Another package arrived the following afternoon. Mrs. Pitney was beaming, though she tried to stifle her smile as she opened the flap and handed me the paper contents. There was a thud from the ceiling. What did I know about anything? What did I expect?
“Who knows? All sounds crazy to me. How did the whole thing play out?”
“I flat-out resigned. I couldn’t do it. Maybe I was a coward. I’m not sure. But I couldn’t stay there. The packages kept coming. I wanted a restraining order, but I didn’t have Mrs. Pitney’s support. She told me: If he dies somehow, all angry and bitter and upset with us, what order can restrain him?”
“It made sense to her. She seemed more than content to be receiving those packages. As if it kept her Skeptic quiet, to know Mr. Cowles was still psychically invested in us. And to know I was suffering. Instead of her.”
“Yeah, it was smart to get out of there. I would have booked it.”
“Maybe. I just couldn’t stay.”
“Yeah? That’s interesting. That’s really interesting. How did you do on the torts exam, by the way?”
“Landed a B. I didn’t get any feedback. I don’t know what questions I got wrong. Or right.”
“Yeah. Dr. Moore never gives feedback. To be honest though, I thought the exam was easy.”
“Maybe I’m just dumb then.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Sometimes it feels like no matter how much I try to follow things, to understand them, it’s like I’m getting it all dead wrong.”
“Well, you made it here. They enrolled you.”
“But am I a fraud? I mean, what do I actually know?”
“You’re fine. Just study harder.”
Most nights as I fade into my pillow, losing all sense of location, of orientation, when I could be resting at any given point in space, a propulsive snap slings me into wakefulness. I notice I am breathing. And as I notice I am breathing-breathing-breathing, I am certain a sound has called me out of sleep, rippling and resonating along the rubbery lining of my lungs. A thud from the ceiling, or a blunt rapping, is there at the door of my studio apartment.
Is the sound from within? The recurring introduction to some dream I can never enter, never begin? I must ignore it. Pretend I never heard it. Turn over my pillow, turn over my thoughts. Forget that I am breathing. Each time I have opened the door, the hallway is always empty. Always.
And so, last night at my desk, I sat with an obituary I had printed out from the law library computers. I did not know that one Mr. Roger M. Cowles was dead until I typed his name into a search bar. And then I found a photo of him as a much younger man, hung above a compact description of his life. He was the son of a stock broker and a math teacher, served five years in the Navy, owned an accounting firm, never married, left no progeny. He had passed a month ago, only age sixty-eight, “after a long illness.”
I saw no pattern, no implicit lesson from a life distilled into a few terse paragraphs. Nonetheless, last night, with the red pen that Mr. Cowles gave to me, I circled the verbs in the printed obituary. The words were all in the past tense, a clipped series of transitions. Standard stepping stones to hop through, slide next to next to next. Born, attended, graduated, served, managed, owned, retired, buried…
There was a manila envelope on my desk, addressed to The Bald Cypress Inn, 7836 W. Piankeshaw Road, Murdoch, Indiana 46189. I’d let this be a final favor. For Mrs. Pitney and her unnamable friend and for Mr. Cowles himself. May they all rest in permanent peace.
Before I placed the paper inside the envelope, I flipped it over, drew a ragged sheet with holes for eyes and a creased smile. Below the figure, I set down my farewell message in block letters, wavy lines:
Haunted haunters haunting haunted haunter haunts.
THERE IS NO GHOST.
THERE IS NO GHOST.
City Creatures Alexis David
THE ACCENT By Baroness Von Smith
Hey Garrett, you need more wine? Yes, it’s very good. The wine, the music, the food: it’s all just great. I've been told Chelsea throws a good party, and now that I'm at one I see that it's true. Oh, lighten up, Gar. There's nothing wrong with a party on a Wednesday.
Tomorrow? Oddly, I’m not nervous, no. I’m more relieved to have this damn dissertation over and done with! The use of DNA as semi-conductors. Oh, c’mon! You’re an engineer: it’s not “beyond you.” It’s generated a lot of interest, so I’m also hoping to get this grant, which would let me… Sorry, what?
Oh, that’s Chelsea! The hostess. She is cute. She’s lovely. Oh, she’s from England. Her accent is neat, I agree. Worldly? That, I don’t know about. This is her first time outside of Britain. From school? No, she’s not a student. I don’t think college would suit her really. She’s… well, let’s be kind and call her undisciplined.
No, I wouldn’t say we’re close. We've had each other over for coffee, backyard barbeques… you know, next door neighbor stuff. She was in my book group for a minute, but she quit. She enjoyed the wine and cheese part but had no real use for the reading and discussion, lolz.
What does she do? I don't know that she “does” anything, really. I mean do we have to always be doing? Maybe sometimes we can just be? That's what I think. She's here on vacation for a couple years while her husband does a stint at the American branch of his company. She's just here in the States being lovely.
Em, hi! That dress is perfect. Pockets! What's that? Oh, Garett, Emma says it's not her husband she's here with— it’s her boyfriend. This is Emma, by the way. We went to high school together. Now we’re both PhD candidates! But she’s Physics, so we don’t see each other except at this pottery class.
Before I forget, Em: It’s at three tomorrow. What’s at three? Very funny. You’re serious. My dissertation?
What’s a make-under? A British makeover. Well, it’s important I guess for graduate students to be made-over. Chelsea’s belated birthday present? That was nice of her. Oh, your present to her? Says the girl who couldn’t afford to buy me a card. No, it’s okay. I mean, I’m disappointed but, it’d probably be super boring for you anyway, honestly. I expect you at graduation, though! No, really, it’s fine. Have fun. I'm sure you are, Em.
Thanks, Ben. I was just getting up to get more. Garrett here is nearly out. Right, from Kung Fu. And he's mad I stopped at green belt in order to marathon train with you. Speaking of which, where were you Saturday? The run is weeks away.
Here? Like here, here, as in this house? I didn’t know you knew Chelsea that well.
Oh, yeah, Dominic, that's the husband's name. Boyfriend, sorry. So he was out of town? Lonely? You should invite her running with us. She could just run the first—oh, Chelsea doesn't run. Bad back, poor thing.
Oh, of course Garrett, go talk with her. I'll find you.
Hannah, bring me some cheese, too, would you? No, I don't think it's British cheese. I'm pretty sure she bought it at Tops. Well, Tops has good cheese. You can eat as much as you want: it's not going to give you a British accent, sorry.
I love the new house, yes. Great neighbors? Well, Dominic's a great neighbor: he's never home! Sometimes when he's away, she can get a little loud with her parties. This is the first one I've been invited to. No, Dominic didn’t buy the house. Chelsea's house? Ha, ha, ha, pardon me. Oh no, no, no, they rent. He rents.
No, she hasn't got any job that I know of. She and I both live “sooo near the campus,” but yes, I'm sure she'd love to have lunch with you sometime.
Where'd you get that tiny little sandwich from? I haven’t made it to the kitchen yet, so I didn’t see them. It's a nice house. I don’t know about beautiful. She's done a very nice job decorating, yes.
No, not laid out anything like my house. Not since I renovated. Well, I paid cash for the house, so I could afford to renno.
Inheritance? I wish! From the royalties. Remember those songs I wrote as an undergrad, back when I thought I wanted to be a composer? I know, we all had a good laugh about it. But I wrote three hit songs, and they earned me a house. I guess that's something.
I think I'm going to head out actually, you know my dissertation is—which car? That's her car. Tesla, yes. Very cool, I agree. Christmas present, you know, from the husband. Boyfriend, right. I keep forgetting.
You can ask her yourself, she's right over there. I wouldn't think you’d need an excuse to talk to her, but sure. See you at game night. Invite her? I mean, sure you can ask her but I doubt she'll come. She doesn’t do much.
Oh, pardon me Professor Herrington! No, I was just leaving. Getting ready for the big day tomorrow. I'm hoping the grant people come too so that—sorry, what? Oh, Chelsea's right in there. Your first invite, too? You'd think we'd have been invited before now, being that we both live on her street.
No, it's not all British people in there. Worldly? I think it makes her sound snobby if you want to know the truth, which is ironic given that she doesn’t do anything to be snobby about. She's basically here on vacation. I mean, who has a party on a Wednesday?
Dominic? No, I haven't seen him all evening. He may be out of town again or something. Yes, she's certainly very pretty. She apparently gets made-under regularly.
No, thank you. I was just leaving.
Moose Alexis David
THE SEE-THROUGH By Laura Bowen
Paula holds the invisible thing between her thumb and pointer finger. We can't see it, but we can see the indentations it makes in her skin.
Can I touch it? I ask.
Sure, says Paula. Careful, she says.
I use one finger to poke at it, finding a solid object in the empty place between her fingers. I stroke the side of it and scrape it with my nail. Hard and cool to the touch, like a smooth rock.
Is it a rock? I ask.
Dunno, says Paula.
Lemmee hold it! says Thomas.
No, says Paula. You'll only wind up losing it, she says.
Thomas bats at Paula's outstretched hand. She recoils too slowly. Her arm swings back, palm open wide.
And it's gone.
For a few seconds I am aware of nothing but my own blood sloshing slow motion in my ears. Then the soft swoosh and thud of the invisible stone, or whatever it was, landing in a swath of tall brown grass beyond the bike path. There is another long second of sloshing in my head, before the sound of crickets and killdeers, a lawn mower and a distant motorcycle cascade to fill the void.
Even before we start looking, I know we will never find it.
Thomas is the most enthusiastic at first. He covers a lot of ground, and fast. Not because he feels sorry, but because he wants it for himself.
Finders keepers! shouts Thomas.
Paula has a tiny black pouch on a long shoelace around her neck. She keeps giving it a light squeeze to make sure it's lying flat. As if she expects the object to return to its place of origin of its own volition. She opens the pouch and puts her finger inside, digs around feeling deep into the corners.
Thomas is the first to give up. It's been ten minutes. He gets on his bike and rides home for lunch like it's any ordinary day. He says he will return, but doesn't. Later, when we are sweaty and scorched, we know that he is sitting in his air-conditioned rec room playing video games and eating a popsicle.
But Paula and I search all afternoon without rest. We shuffle back and forth through the same tall patch of dry grass until it is mowed flat. We crawl around on our hands and knees, using our eyes as much as our bodies, out of habit. We resort to rolling around, as if we are on fire. There are numerous false alarms. All sorts of sharp pokey things, like non-magical rocks and sticks and bits of plastic and even shards of glass. After we stop looking, we lie there, unable to pull ourselves away from this place, until dark.
When we can't see our hands in front of our face, it's time to quit. Not because we need the light to find it - we know we can't see the invisible thing, anyways. And not because we are tired - our interest in finding the magical stone surpasses physical discomfort. We only go home now because, according to our parents, when the streetlights come on that means curfew.
Mom and Dad are used to me missing dinner in the summers.
All Mom says when I walk in the door is, Where is your bike helmet? I saw you coming up the driveway without it! And, Peanut, you look like you've been rolling around in dirt!
That night I have that dream I've had since I was real little. Where I drop something that I love down into a deep dark hole inhabited by a monster. I've lost my baby blanket, favorite stuffed animals, and even a few friends to this abyss. This time it's a whole dresser full of my clothes. I can't see anything down there, but I can hear the beast, chomping and tearing everything to pieces. As usual, I wake up screaming. Heart racing. I'm too old for this.
In the morning I hear a sharp tap on the side of the house.
I know it's Paula trying to throw wood chips at my bedroom window and missing. She likes to emulate the movies in that way. Always climbing in and out of her second story bedroom window and scooting down the ladder she leaves propped against her house. Even though she doesn't have to sneak out. She'll do anything to avoid using stairs. At my house she tries to slide down the cheap narrow handrail that is screwed to the wall. I have to admit, I also wish we had a banister. Mom scolds us for scuffing the paint in the stairwell and shaking the handrail loose. I always hurt myself doing it.
This is the first time we've had anything like a real adventure happen to us. And all because of Paula's grandpa.
Paula tells me he lost his marbles. Upstairs, like. He had taken to wandering around the neighborhood in his underwear, muttering about the coming apocalypse and how the dry-cleaners damaged his favorite pair of slacks. Stuff like that.
So they moved him to an old-folks home where Paula visits him most Sundays. And when they were emptying his house, Paula found that pouch in his sock drawer, with the magical rock or whatever, inside. At least, I assume it's magical. I don't know what its purpose is, but what other explanation could there be for an invisible thing like that?
Now we will never know.
Peanut, says Mom. Would you please tell Paula to stop taking the wood chips from the garden bed? She's making a mess out there on the lawn.
I'll tell her, I say. Knowing that I will not.
If only she knew there are more important things to worry about in this life.
Mom is spying from the kitchen window, so I make sure to bring my helmet today and walk my bike down the driveway carefully, giving a wide berth to both the car and our newly sided house. When I buckle my helmet under my chin I have an irrational fear of catching my skin there, so I take a moment to loosen the straps. But as soon as we get around the corner we take off our helmets and stash them in the neighbor's bushes. I pause to re-do my squashed ponytail.
Hurry, says Paula. I have something really important to show you.
Did you find the...
SHHHHHH!, she says loudly. Follow me, she whispers.
So I do.
I know Paula is making a show of riding all around the neighborhood for dramatic effect. We weave up and down every street of our allotted boundaries - and also up and down many streets where we are not, according to our parents, allowed to go. We make sharp turns and take short cuts through narrow passageways. Paula glances around with a faux nervous expression as if we're being followed. After what seems like forever we ditch our bikes behind the low hanging branches of a weeping willow tree, and walk a little ways across a field to sit on the bleachers alongside the baseball diamond. As usual.
It's 10am and it's already hot hot hot. We burn ourselves on the aluminum benches, but soon the skin of our own legs cools the metal until it is comfortable to sit on. We once tried sitting in the shade below the bleachers, but the grass there is too high, where the town lawn mowers can't reach and where it's littered with wrappers, cigarette butts, empty cans, and bottles - things discarded by the parents of little league players.
Look, says Paula.
This better be good, I think, after all that riding around.
And it is.
Paula holds out the pouch for me to squeeze. There's something hard in there, a solid object. But when she opens the pouch for me to look inside, nothing.
It's back! I gasp.
No, says Paula. Even better.
She picks a blade of grass and drops it into the pouch. When she fishes it out, I see nothing. But she drops it in my hand. So light I almost can't find it, but then there it is. I hold the invisible shoot, feeling that faint ridge that runs all the way down the middle, the sharp tip, and the way it gives and bows out when I stab myself with it. I tear it to pieces out of habit and feel a strange rush as I let them float away, never to be seen again.
It works for anything, says Paula. Makes it see-through. So long as it can fit in this pouch.
She's already made invisible her house key. And her wrist-watch, which she's wearing.
I didn't really think it through, she admits.
Where did your Grandpa get this thing? What did he use it for? I want to know.
Dunno, says Paula. He used to wear a hearing aid though, and then one day he wasn't wearing it anymore. I bet he put that in here.
Soon Thomas pulls up on his bicycle, but keeps his distance.
Paula shouts, Catch!
She whips an invisible rock at him, hard. It misses, but he flinches and turns his back. He rubs an imaginary wound on the soft skin of his arm and stifles a small sob. After a few moments he approaches, knowing he is forgiven.
Before I can stop her, Paula plucks an ant off the bench beside us and throws that into the pouch. She dumps the invisible bug onto me and I scream when I feel it zigzag up my leg. I shake it off. Or at least I think I do.
Could probably fit a frog in here, says Paula. Or a baby garden snake.
You can make bees see-through! says Thomas.
He is excited about this new development, and has only tried pulling the pouch off Paula's neck once.
The possibilities are endless. And it's making me queasy to think about it.
Let's make a pact, I say. To only use this thing for good.
Because it feels like something that kids would say in a movie - something Paula would be on board with. And because I am suddenly afraid of finding a real life invisible creature in bed with me.
That's boring, says Paula. But okay.
We waste a few nickels and dimes before we realize that money isn't a fun thing to make disappear - unless we can find a way to reverse the effect, later. Jewelry - pointless. I wish I could make my bike helmet invisible - but it's too big. Thomas fails to fit his eyeglasses into the pouch. What about homework and tests? We decide it would be a good method for disposing of report cards, folded up small. But it wouldn't be very novel to inform a teacher that our assignments have gone missing.
On Sunday, instead of complaining about visiting her grandpa at the nursing home like she usually does, Paula is begging her parents to go. She asks them if I can come along too, even before she has asked me if I want to. I am not too eager, until Paula mentions that they always stop for ice cream after.
I had only been to a nursing home once, to visit my great-grandfather. I was too young to remember, but there are photos of me sitting on his lap, while he sits on a wheelchair. In the photo he is wearing a yellow sweater, and I am wearing a yellow dress. The walls are yellow. Even the blanket on the bed is yellow. So I imagine nursing homes to be sunny, happy, yellow places.
The nursing home where Paula's grandfather lives is mostly beige, and a little scary. There are elderly people everywhere, all seated in wheelchairs. Some line the halls and others are in clusters near televisions.
One woman shrieks, They took my baby!
The nurses seem cheerful, at least.
I remember Paula's grandpa from family parties. The thing I remember most about him is his sparkling blue eyes that seem to light up when he talks to us kids. So I am surprised when I see that his eyes are now a foggy, dull shade. Paula says it's because of cataracts. I wonder if he isn't totally blind because he doesn't seem to notice us when we walk in the room.
Paula's parents do most of the talking. They tell her grandpa what the weather is like outside and about which of the grandkids have birthdays coming up. Paula's grandpa doesn't say a word. He stares in the direction of the opposite wall without blinking.
Paula waits until her parents are in the hallway, talking to a nurse about medications, before she mentions the top-secret thing we came here for.
Grandpa, she whispers. I. Found. The. Magic. Powwwwch. In. Your. Sock. Draaaawer.
I wonder if Paula has noticed the way the fog has cleared from his eyeballs. He grabs ahold of the pouch, dangling from her neck, and tugs on it with just enough force to startle us both. Her eyes are opened wide, and I see for the first time how very like his they are, a brilliant blue.
Careful, he croaks.
He is barely audible over the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a flushing toilet.
A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind. Beee. Carefulll.
Paula's mouth hangs open, but before she can think of what to say the grey fog has swept across his face, and we are forgotten. Her parents call to us from the corridor.
We were not careful. Instead, we used it habitually. Eating endless invisible candies, all mystery flavors. Paula began throwing invisible wood chips at the house, so they wouldn't make a mess on the lawn. And pretty soon we all had an assortment of inconveniently unseeable objects in our pockets: chapstick, pencils, hair bands and bobby pins, pocket knives and lighters. The best thing that came of it was when we made a few pairs of invisible earbud headphones to wear in school.
But eventually the novelty wore off. Whole weeks and months would go by without anyone coming up with a single new thing to put in the magic pouch.
Paula still wore it around her neck always, but we lost sight of its power.
I don't remember whose idea it was to turn the thing inside out. Looking back, I can hardly recall. I imagine we all thought of it singularly, during the night. And met in the field the following morning to execute the plan, unspoken.
Paula did it. The inside of the pouch was unremarkable like the backside of any ordinary fabric. There were loose threads where the seams were stitched in there. And little crumbs and lint stuck in the bottom, just like the inside of my jeans pocket.
Our thinking was, whatever magic it held could be reversed. Put one of those invisible objects in the inside-out pouch and maybe they'd re-appear.
So in the field, one day in October — a whole fall and winter and spring and summer and fall and winter and spring and summer after Paula had first discovered the thing — it happened.
We sat on the bleachers as Thomas and I watched Paula recklessly do what we were all suddenly moved to. She scrunched the little pouch over her thumb and pushed it inside out.
It was the last thing we ever saw.
Sheep Love Alexis David
SOMETHING LIKE CASY & JOAD
By Brenna Mar
At some dark party we find ourselves
drinking gin and biting our tongues again.
I believe at any moment she may levitate
right in the middle of the room
and save this cold town.
It is April and all is thawing.
We make our way to the street,
sit one-on-one on a stoop
like two flies by a street.
With a stick
she paints circles and stars
on the wet concrete
under porch light.
the beginning will come back as the circle does
and the beginning will come back as the circle does
I can picture where
she comes from.
I see a certain pattern
traced in circles and stars
on the graylag slobber.
She tells me how she has wandered.
She tells me how other cities have their deities.
She wears jaguar spots and wolvesteeth
as mementos of the places
the beginning will come back as the circle does
and the beginning will come back as the circle does
I tell her once I hid
in a bush & the bush was on fire.
I tell her I’ve crouched like a jaguar.
I’ve cried like a wolf
(the wolf cries silent).
I tell her how a little boy once
told me I have eyes
the color of God.
& offers me verse
I half remember.
tick tock motion
what is prayer?
the beginning will come back as the circle does
and the beginning will come back as the circle does
We are flies in the street
we are preachers on an altar
we drink our gin, we lick our teeth.
Vache Alexis David
WOOL IN THE SUN
By Brenna Mar
Annie and I shared
a carton of blueberries.
We sat cross-legged in her living room
as the tin fan buzzed, kitties purred.
From somewhere other
Aretha's voice melted through a radio
as it often did those days.
August listened in as rain lingered above Annie’s house
like whey through a cheesecloth sky.
I told her how a new man
had hugged me Friday night—
I told her how he wrapped his arms around my torso as if
I were a lamppost in a hurricane.
Annie and I spoke of pushing on after love.
We lamented the bitter bite and the sweet moments of reprieve.
“Acceptance does come,” I say to Annie,
“but it is not steady.”
At night crickets harmonized their mighty song.
The whole round earth sang for Aretha as she slipped back to it.
I thought about the jasper composite I kept in my pocket.
I thought about the so-so-ness of that carton of blueberries.
I thought about the way the new man hugged me.
In late July Annie and I drank coconut water
on her porch.
The sky was flush with stars
and the red eye of Mars peered
down on us as we discussed love.
Annie calmly told me
how she was going to fill the tub with cool water
and bathe her man when he got home.
On the porch I professed that I was done healing fully,
that I had chosen to forgive the one who left—
Mars in his backward spiral laughed
as we added ice to our drinks.
That same night I birthed
cries more guttural than any
in all the months since he had gone.
I was found by dawn
coiled in new anger, drenched mad.
On the day Aretha died
I went to lie outside.
I dragged a winter blanket from the closet
and in a fit of surrender, I spread the wool
on a patch in the sun.
Lying on wool in the sun
tall zips of sweet grass poked through knit holes.
Bugs hummed, the heavy air swelled.
I sighed sweaty on my belly
as Aretha made her journey to heaven.
I thought about Annie’s carton of blueberries.
I thought about the way the new man hugged me and I thought
of the jasper resting in my pocket, reminding me to be soft.
On the day Aretha died, lying
on a wool blanket in the sun,
it felt alright, it felt alright.
I accepted what was- what the whole round earth
had prepared for me.
Catsquid Alexis David
ALEXIS DAVID loves visual stories and likes to make collage comics out of forgotten paper. She has her MFA in fiction from New England College and was an Art Scholar in creative writing at Hobart and William Smith. She's currently transitioning from short sleeves to sweaters, from strawberries to butternut squash, from light evenings to dark. You can find her class on forgotten paper here: https://skl.sh/2lV6y5G and her blog about being the most fake French person ever here: https://lpisn.com/
SMIRK is a seasonal, online literary magazine that features stories about things that matter, presented with an upbeat attitude. We know the world is flippin' bonkers, so we're doing our part to put some positivity out there, but without ignoring the "shit." We present well-crafted stories, poetry, comics and art that deal with serious issues, but in a positive and hopeful way.
Amanda is a writer and performer based in Buffalo, NY. She has appeared in theater and award-winning short films around Western New York. Her first verse novel, AND WE CALL IT LOVE, is set to release in 2019. To check out her current activities, go to www.amandavink.com.
Poetry and Flash Fiction Editor
Caitie lives for stories. She’s pretty lucky to write and edit for a living, working on hundreds of children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, for audiences from cute kindergarteners to angsty teens. Outside of work, she writes everything from plays to prose to poetry to verse novels. She believes everyone has a story. For more, check her out at caitiemcwritesalot.com.
Graham fancies himself a movie buff. By his claims, he's seen 90% of all movies. SMIRK has fact checked this and found that he has actually only seen approximately .04% of all movies. He loves dogs, Nintendo, Rock n' Roll, and draws comics in his free time.
Jennifer would rather be traveling right now. She was lucky enough to land her dream job as a nonfiction editor and apparently she just can't get enough. She lives in Buffalo, NY with her 100-year-old grandfather and her cat, Chip, both of whom are endless sources of amusement and frustration.
Seth is a talented designer. Does other awesome art stuff too!
Please note: Not accepting submissions at this time.
For LITERATURE, Amanda, Jennifer and Caitie are looking for:
-Flash fiction (up to 700 words)
-Fiction (up to 5,000 words)
-Nonfiction (up to 4,000 words)
-Poetry (up to three poems per submission or one poem with up to 5 parts)
None of those listicles (you know, “10 Things You Learn When You Die”). Unless you have a really good idea for a satirical one.
Submissions that include attacks on or jokes at the expense of a particular group will not be accepted. (Basically, don’t be racist, sexist, homophobic . . . use your brain organ.) Politicians, celebrities (except Our Lord and Savior Beyoncé), and other public figures are fair game. They knew what they were signing up for.
The submission must be a never-before-published original work.
The file name must be the title or subject matter of the piece. Please don’t make us try to remember what “litmagfinal01.doc” is about.
Due to the limitations of our computers and our patience, the file must be in PDF (.pdf) or Word doc (.doc or .docx) format.
For COMICS, Graham and Seth are looking for:
Comic can be one panel to one full page. (We're not super strict here. Comics are punk rock.)
Comic must be self contained (no excerpts).
We shouldn't have to say this, but the comic must be original work. (Parodies are excepted.)
The name of the file you give us will be the title we put above the comic.
Files should be in .jpg or .pdf format.
For ART, Graham and Seth are looking for:
Three to ten JPEG or PDF images at 72 dpi. (Final images should be available at higher res.)
Please include a link to your website if you have one.
Again, shouldn't have to say it, but original work only.
Please include the title of the piece and the medium ("Mixed media" will be ignored. That's just like saying "I used art supplies." Tell us what the eff you used!)
Email all your submissions and questions. Please include the title and category
of your submission in the subject line.