California Fruit by Meg Pokrass

We were transplanted Pennsylvanians who understood the value of fresh fruit. The rental house had lemons, oranges, tangelos, loquats, figs. My mother let me take the bedroom that faced the orchard.

I saw him the second week. It was the middle of summer. He lay on a striped beach towel between our two yards, near the loquat tree. I went outside to say hello. I was not exactly shy, though my voice sounded it. An elaborate coconut scent surrounded him. He smiled and asked me to join him. He was tanning, though his body was already brown.

I went inside for my SPF 50 Coppertone, grabbed a beach towel, and went out to where he lay. I asked what his ancestry was, admiring his black tilted eyes and dark, thick skin.

Sioux, he said. He was one quarter Native-American, one-quarter Spanish, one-quarter French, and one-quarter Norwegian. No surprise that he’d been exotically grafted.

He told me not to put on the sunscreen, offered me his wonderful smelling basking oil instead. He said I was pretty, but would fit in better with a really good tan.

I burn quickly from the sun, and mother had warned me not to try. My dad never told me to be careful about anything, but he was dead now. I knew that Mom’s voice had gotten too strong.

He told me not to worry about sunburns, assured me that my freckled skin would adapt, just like his. He asked me if I would be interested in meeting him again that night when our parents were asleep.

Climb out a window and you’ll make no sound, he whispered, as if there were spies in the loquat tree.

That night I put on my nightgown and went to bed. My skin was stinging and bright red. When I touched it, it turned white for a second, then bright red again. I took two aspirin. I couldn’t wait to see him again, under a softer light. I was not too young to understand what this meant.

Under the night sky, he looked as dark as a hazelnut. His eyes were thirsty. We started laughing about nothing, rolling on the ground and grabbing the grass—flicking it at each other.

It’s warm tonight, he said, unbuttoning my shirt.

He ran his hands over my breasts, my stomach.

What’s here? he whispered. He put his finger inside my bellybutton, and scooped out a small fruit seed. He laughed.

I went crazy eating tangerines today, I said. I was glad it was dark because my face felt hot. It seemed I could not get enough citrus flesh.

Juice, he said, moving his fingers inside my jeans and into a place I couldn’t believe.


The next night we met again. When we took off our clothes, he stroked my irritated skin curiously, as if offering first aid.

Soon you’ll get tan, then brown, then perfect, he said.

What is it with the tan thing? I asked. I really wanted to know.

He flinched and stiffened. My skin got cold.

Bugs, he said, swiping at the air. I realized my family’s bad fortune could slip over me like a dark curtain.

We lay silent for a while listening to the sounds of night. I decided to tell him about a friend of mine… a girl I knew, whose father insisted their family move to Alaska. He worked for the telephone company because that was where the money was.

She’s never even had a boyfriend, I said.

Or fresh fruit, he added, bringing my hands to the place above his thighs. We did things new to me that I’d never forget.


A week later, he disappeared. I found out that he’d been visiting his aunt next door. He lived somewhere in Wisconsin. I had been so sure he was a Californian… that meeting his strange expectations meant belonging.

It was our first winter in California—just mom and I. No cousins, no aunt and uncle, no grandparents to visit. I sent them postcards of my beautiful new land. Pictures of palm trees lined up like chorus girls. Huge waves and white beaches. Bikinied women the color of the dark pine furniture we left back home.

My chronic sunburn peeled in tiny pieces like snow.


The story behind the story:

I believe California Fruit is a coming-of-age story. Looking back, I had recently lost my father, my original home, and extended family. And yet, I  found fruit, and this boy.  Loquats are a delicious fruit I grew up with in Southern California. They have enormous, polished looking seeds. The boy found the tangerine seed—small, slippery and sneaky, in my belly button. It was embarrassing! I’d find seeds in my bellybutton. I was sloppy and loved fruit so much–it got me through childhood. Eating fruit that grew in our back yard was strangely comforting. In almost all my stories the main character is an emotional risk-taker. Often my stories involve a significant loss.

Meg Pokrass is the author of 7 collections of flash fiction and 2 novellas in flash. Her work has appeared in 3 Norton anthologies including Flash Fiction America, New Micro, and Flash Fiction International, and has appeared in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, CRAFT, the Best American Poetry, Washington Square Review, and many other places.

 “California Fruit” was first published in Smokelong.

Header Photo by Julian Myles on Unsplash

How to Leave Without Saying Goodbye by Kristin Tenor

Remember that afternoon you asked me to be your accomplice, your getaway driver, your ticket to freedom? Side by side in the front of your rusted Chevrolet—I, at the wheel and you, your parchment-thin eyelids closed in a state of ecstasy as the breeze caressed the downy fuzz upon your naked scalp. The musk of wet hayfields and decay permeated the space between us as we raced against time and the silver train bearing down the tracks. You wanted to see a man about a lawnmower, although we both knew what needed to be fixed was far beyond repair.


The story behind the story:

In his early fifties, my uncle was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. One afternoon he called to ask if I’d accompany him to his doctor’s appointment. He feared my aunt would lose her job because she’d already taken so many days off on his behalf. 

After the appointment, he said he wanted to see a man about a part for his lawnmower. He explained the lawnmower needed to be in good working order for his sons in case something happened to him sooner than later. What he didn’t tell me was the repair shop was almost an hour away.

My uncle insisted on having the car windows wide open as we silently drove past farmsteads and fields mounded with hay. Every once in a while I’d look over at him with his eyes closed, a huge grin spread across his face. I’ll never forget how completely at peace he appeared. 

A few months later my uncle passed away. To this day, I still don’t know why he chose me to be his accomplice, especially since he incessantly teased me about being the quiet one of the bunch. Why didn’t he choose one of his sons or my parents? Also, why did we travel to a repair shop so far away when there were several others closer to home? I’d like to think he knew I was comfortable enough to sit with him in companionable silence, to simply enjoy the beauty of the present moment. Writing this piece has been an attempt to keep that memory, that lesson, alive.

Kristin Tenor is a writer and editor who finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various literary journals including X-R-A-YBending GenresEmerge Literary JournalFlash Frog, Unbroken Journal, among others. She and her husband call Wisconsin home.

 “How to Leave Without Saying Goodbye” was first published in River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things series.

Header Photo by Jake Weirick on Unsplash

Erosion by Susan Hall

“Do you think our boy’s losing some things?” my husband asks. His casual tone belies the gravity of the question.

             After a thirteen-year remission, our son’s seizures had returned. This–whether or not he was slipping cognitively–had been the rarely-spoken-of yardstick against which we’d measured the seriousness of these now frequent movements, these long moments when all time stops and when my husband and I hold our breath as this entity takes over his brain: his body freezing, his arm curling up slow-motion into a paralyzed tableau, a freeze-frame display of a misfiring brain betraying a body. The only sound he’s able to make: a moan, a guttural whoa.

            From a recent EEG–the test scratching out brainwave data in thin black lines–we knew that the seizures we saw outwardly were just one symptom of the disorganization and slowing of our son’s brain waves. Still, our neurologist reminds us, we don’t treat EEGs. A seizure’s only a seizure when manifested in outward physical activity, she says.

            The seizures we’d been seeing in the past lasted only a few seconds. Sometimes afterwards he seemed drained, wrung out, spacey. We debate–sometimes internally, sometimes with doctors–how much they are damaging his cognition, halting his learning. We’d never forgotten the grave warning issued when he was a baby all those years ago, diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy: when the seizures start, development stops. These were nearly constant seizures: catastrophic to a growing brain.

            For a couple of years we’d felt he was hanging onto all he’d learned. Relatives would see him after a long absence and marvel at the display of skills and charm he’d flash. He’s doing so well, they’d exalt. He’s so smart, they’d coo. And mostly, we agreed.

            But lately we’d been chastened at times. Sometimes T–we call him this at home, a shorthand version of his given name, Thomas, even shorter than the school-name he prefers, Tom–seemed to lose a word he’d previously known, and struggle to retrieve it. He’d offer the first sound of it, nothing more, and appear to be grasping at the air around him for more. Or he’d talk around it–circumlocution–like when a speech pathologist shows him a picture of a clothes hanger and he says, “hook them up with it.”

            But most troubling, to me at least, was the winking.

            Two years earlier he’d attended the first year of what would be several years of attending a sleep-away camp for persons with intellectual disabilities. With its modern facilities and good medical supervision, it was popular with a few families from our area whose kids attended year after year. T had first gone on a mini-session of two nights, loved it, and agreed to a whole week next year.

            It was at that first session that the college-age female counselors, brimming with youthful energy, had taught him to wink. “We taught him to wink!” they’d brightly announced when I arrived on pick-up day. And indeed they had: one of them winked conspiratorially at T, and he winked back, one side of his face crinkling into an expression of shared secret.

            I began using this as a secret signal with T. Often, especially in a room full of people like a family gathering, I’d look up to find him looking at me, reading the room by reading my face. I’d come to believe I was an anchor of sorts for him. In a complex or unpredictable social situation, he had me to help him decipher what to feel.

            When I looked up and would see T looking at me, I’d taken sometimes to winking at him.  He’d wink back. I see you over there, we were saying to each other. It’s okay, we were saying to each other.

            I can’t pinpoint when he stopped winking. I can’t say whether he stopped because it was too hard for him to do easily or because he didn’t want to anymore. I still try. I’ll wrench the side of my face into an exaggerated wink, and–nothing. Sometimes he’ll give a gentle shake of the head: no. I’ll try a few more times to get something going, but it’s half hearted, it’s like pulling your thumb repeatedly and fruitlessly down the striking mechanism of a lighter that’s not going to work.

            I’ll look across the room one more time at T. His expression is flat, his smile pulled into a horizontal line.


At home, the sand flies up the bluff and pools everywhere: I find it in the windowsills, mounded in the corners of doorsteps. It coats the deck, leaving behind a fine gritty wash.

            The bluff we live on is eroding. Where vegetation had once coated it–autumn olive, low and shrubby, scrub pines, occasional dots of dune grass that’d migrated up–all that had fallen away onto the beach in sheets of leafy green that lay piled below now. Waves break against these heaps of debris, washing it away to the north or to the south depending on the direction of the wind, scrubbing the trees to a bleached-out smooth whitish sheen, the exposed root systems Medusa-like, even elegant in their wave-blasted, stripped-down new life. Sometimes notable pieces–an exceptionally large tree-turned-driftwood, or a piece of a dock–would land on our beach, disappear, then reappear a few days later like a proverbial cat. Or we’d see it on one of our family beach walks to the south, recognizing it a mile or two away from where we’d seen it a few days before. 

The Big Lake, as locals call Lake Michigan, is gorgeous and fierce. One day its Caribbean-shaded pale bluish green turns inky; the next, raging whitecap-topped waves, one after another, hurl headfirst against the bluff we live on. One day the surface is glass: beneath it it’s easy to pick out fossil-veined rocks, beach glass; the next, it churns with waves crashing diagonally against each other, the usual parallel pattern broken by the deadly riptide working beneath the surface–a force that each summer pulls even experienced swimmers into a grip from which they can’t shake free.

            Two summers before T’s seizures came back, we’d bought a small local cottage that was in foreclosure. The economic crisis of 2008 had taken a few years to reach our area’s vacation home market. We’d been watching real estate listings, dreaming of finding a steal that’d let us live year-round on Lake Michigan.

            When our cottage came on the market at a price we could afford, we took advantage of the federally-backed foreclosure organization’s caveat that first offers would go to purchasers vowing to live full-time in the home, a program intended to stabilize neighborhoods, discouraging flippers and investment buyers looking to run rental properties. We made an offer and quickly remodeled it to fit our family of four, carving out modest bedrooms for T and his sister.

            We’d spend hours walking the beach as a family. A set of 75 steps led down the bluff from our front door to an expansive beach below. We pitched a tent on the beach the first summer we moved in, lulled to sleep by the gently crashing waves. We began a beach glass collection, lining our pockets with beer-bottle browns, all shades of green, white, and rarely, cobalt, their edges softened by years of lake waves. 

            T tolerated our walks, fell into a rhythm of quiet repetitive motion. We’d make it two miles to the north or to the south, turn around and backtrack home. One summer he became enchanted with the kayak and kayaked parallel to us as we walked.

            The summer after we moved in–although we would not know it until later–a precipitous spike in lake water levels began. It happened gradually. The first few years it was unnoticeable, unimportant. Slowly the lake rose and rose, the wide sandy beach shrinking by inches then by feet. After five years, the big autumn storms were crashing directly into the bluff, exposing the clay underpinnings of the sandy bluff, stealing sand, and leaving large rocks behind as beach. Then we lost our beach stairs, slowly, section by section. 

            Later the changes happened more dramatically. One day I came home to find a large chunk of our yard–the one our firepit rested on–gone. A neighbor hired a house moving company to move his cottage back from the water’s edge.

            The exposed sandy bluff face has become the target for all sorts of attacks. Bare now, the fall winds that frequently gust to fifty, sixty miles per hour not only create the waves pummeling the shore, but also blast the sand off, up, away.

            I’d like to say that our life with T prepared us for exactly this sort of change: unexpected, gradual then sudden, sometimes quiet, sometimes violent. 

I’d like to say that we’d come to understand that the way to sure unhappiness is to linger too long on what we used to have, to cling too tightly to the way things used to be, or should be.

I’d like to say that I’ve learned not to look too far forward into the future and fear what next worst thing–with health, with the climate–may be coming. 

            But I haven’t learned any of this, not permanently anyway. Hard truths they are, washed away with a daily forgetting. And so we need to be reminded, it turns out, again and again. And I am, now. This lesson’s right in my own front yard, so close to my face I can’t miss it.


The story behind the story:

Epilepsy has been a formidable lifetime foe for my son, and watching him have seizures
and grapple with their aftereffects has been an excruciating, unexpected part of
parenthood for me. Writing has been a balm, a way to carve sense from our always-
changing, sometimes difficult life. “Erosion” tumbled out in nearly one sitting during an
especially tough period for both my son and for our natural world nearby. These days
I’m more able to focus on all my son has, and our bluff has–at least for the

Susan Hall’s other work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Insider, and elsewhere. She’s a high school English teacher who lives in rural western Michigan, where she’s at work on An Eloquent Cortex, a memoir of her son and his epilepsy. Find her on Twitter at @SusanCoolHall.

 “Erosion” was first published in Please See Me journal.

Header Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

quīnquāgintā sex by Riley Winchester


My mother looks for my father every day. Depending on who you ask, he’s in different places. He’s not lost, he hasn’t run away, he hasn’t disappeared. It’s a different kind of search. My mother looks for my father every day not in body but in spirit. She’s been looking for over five years now.


Before my father’s organs destroyed themselves with cancer, before his body was scarred with tumors and stripped of muscle, before bones outlined every angle and turn of his once sturdy, olive-skinned canvas, before his eyes were jaundiced and sunken in like ships at the floor of the sea, before his cells were soaked in opioids to kill the pain, and before he took his final shallow passive breath lying comatose in a hospice bed, he made a promise to my mother. He promised her that once he made it to the afterlife, he would give her a sign, and that sign would mean it’s all real—Heaven, eternity—and he made it there and he would be waiting for her. The sign, they agreed, would be the number fifty-six—the number of my father’s old police cruiser, and a sign random and uncoincidental enough for my mother to have no doubt that it came from her dead husband.


 Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:

Preserve justice

    and do righteousness,

for My salvation is about to come

    and My righteousness to be revealed.

Blessed is the man who does this,

    and the son of man who takes hold of it,

who keeps from polluting the Sabbath

    and keeps his hand from doing any evil.


June 2020: my mother tells me about fifty-six and her search. I had never known before. She had kept it all a secret.


My mother looks for fifty-six everywhere—obsessively, tirelessly, desperately. She looks for it on the sides of police cruisers, on public transportation, on company vehicles, on license plates, on airplanes. She looks for it on coins, on her receipts, on the price ticker at the gas pump, on the TV, on social media, on the games she plays on her phone, anywhere the number may be and my father’s spiritual presence alongside it as its harbinger. But she sees it nowhere.


Why is she doing this to herself?


I look through an old website dedicated to biblical numbers. It’s clunky and most of its links don’t work—it looks like it was created in the late aughts—but I find a page dedicated entirely to the number fifty-six. There are eighty-two comments on the post. The top comment is from an anonymous user, posted in late 2013, and titled “This can help all of us.” In it they describe how they feel as if fifty-six has been haunting them for years. They can’t seem to escape it; it shows up everywhere they look. Recently, however, they’ve turned to God and it’s gotten better.


Perhaps the waiting is killing her.


I scroll down.

A comment posted by another anonymous user, this one titled “56 ?”, reads:

So I lost my nephew and at his funeral they told us to close our eyes and let god speak to us and I swear I heard him tell me 56 and I’m not sure what he means by 56 but it’s almost been 56 days since the funeral but I’m so confused


I find a book titled The 150 Most Important Bible Verses in my sister’s bookshelf of abandoned books from her childhood. I immediately flip to the fifty-sixth verse in the book. Corinthians 4:18:

We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.


Eternal, the last word echoes, eternal.


I too start to look for fifty-six. I think I’ve been doing it unconsciously ever since I heard about the promise.


I think I do it for my mother.


Beat writer William S. Burroughs is considered the first person to believe in the twenty-three enigma—a belief in the cosmic and preternatural significance of the number twenty-three.


Perhaps she is searching for an assertion of faith.


Burroughs claimed he knew a ship captain named Clark who bragged that he had sailed for twenty-three years without an accident. Then on that very day Captain Clark’s ship got into an accident, killing him and everybody else aboard. Later that evening Burroughs heard on the radio that an airplane had crashed in Florida. The captain of the plane was also named Clark, and the flight was flight number twenty-three.


I Google “flight 56” out of curiosity. The first result is Azerbaijan Airlines Flight 56.


Azerbaijan Airlines Flight 56 was a passenger flight from Nakhchivan to Baku. Fifty-two people died when it crashed on the night of December 5, 1995.

The date sticks out to me.


My father died December 6, 2015.

Almost twenty years to the very date.


An investigation into the crash determined that it was caused by defective spare parts used on the plane’s engine mounts.


And even if he did die on the twentieth anniversary, what would that mean? He had no connection to it. He’d never been to Azerbaijan—probably couldn’t even spell it or spot it on a map.


It would have only been a coincidence of dates and numbers. Nothing more.


I read more comments on the biblical numbers site. In a comment titled “56 demonic dream” a user named Jen writes:

I had a dream last night. In it I was running and some was saying Kill all 56 and get that bitch (me) to [sic]. I saw a bloodied evil looking dog (unsure of what type) on a leash and he was trying to get off the leash to get me. I am a little afraid of this dream but not enough to stop me praying to God. I have this battle between God and the devil my entire life. God pulls me to the right and the devil to the left. So far God has always won but I have often wondered what and who I was.


Since my father’s death I’ve had only one dream about him. When I woke from it, I was so stunned I went straight to my journal and wrote down every detail I could remember. The date of the entry is January 9, 2020.

I was at the front of the neighborhood that I grew up in, where the entrance to the neighborhood and the road meet. I was with a group of people, but I couldn’t make out who any of them were. They all sort of looked like specters or just blurry silhouettes of people who looked somewhat familiar to me. We were all drinking and doing things that people do when they drink—mindless things that one would not do sober because of the mindlessness. I had a decent buzz but still had my wits about me—at any moment, if needed to, I could take a couple deep breaths and become adequately sober enough to handle just about anything. Then my dad—who, mind you, is dead and has been for over four years now—drove from the direction of my house to the entrance of the neighborhood (so he was leaving). He was confused and didn’t quite know what he was doing, where he was, or even who he was. It was how he was in his final days, when he had been administered so many painkillers and sedatives that his mind was a morass of blankness. I stopped him and tried to get him to go back home. He assured me he was fine and that he was just going to run some errands. I then sat in the car with him and continued trying to persuade him to let me drive him and the car back home and put him back in bed. He resisted and assured me that he was fine and didn’t need my help. All the while, the faceless figures continued to party and drink around us. They didn’t seem to care about anything going on between my dad and me. My mom showed up out of nowhere, and I tried to recruit her help to get my dad back home. Once again, my dad resisted. And without a fight, my mom acquiesced and said he’d be fine on his own—he didn’t need her, according to her. I tried one more time to get him to let me take him back home. But he got very serious and said, “You’re having fun, aren’t you? Let me be. Go back and have fun.” And I told him I wasn’t. I wasn’t having any fun. All I wanted was to take care of him and go back to his room and spend time with him and talk to him until he fell asleep. And even if that was the last time he ever fell asleep, I would know that I spent the final moments with him, the moments before the end, the moments that stick with us forever and seem to haunt us for the rest of our days if we spend them the wrong way. I don’t know how or why, but I eventually just stopped. I got out of the car and left. He drove off and I didn’t even bother to watch him drive away. I turned around and walked back to where I had been before. When I got back, one of the formless figures handed me a beer. I drank it. That’s the last thing I remember from the dream.


When my father’s cancer weakened his body and spirit, he was bedridden. My mother lay alongside him for hours and hours during the day and slept alongside him every night. Their bedroom door stayed closed most of the time. During the day, they talked. What they talked about, I don’t know. But I could always hear the soft silhouettes of their voices through the walls, never quite able to discern any words. Sometimes at night I could still hear their voices over the hum of my father’s oxygen concentrator.


On one particularly bad day my father was admitted into hospice care and put into a medically induced coma.


I never heard my mother and father speak to each other again.


No matter where I look, I can’t seem to find fifty-six. I’ll admit, I was incredulous when my mother first said she never saw it anywhere.


But now I understand. It’s nowhere to be found.


7 X 8, I punch into the calculator on my phone.

            There it is.

            28 X 2.

            37 + 19.


It only shows up when I create it.

            It never occurs naturally.


I read three books on Numerology in an attempt to understand fifty-six and what it means, in an attempt to understand my mother.


The books are nothing what I expect.

            The number fifty-six is never once mentioned.


Delusions of reference are when someone experiences a coincidental or nondescript, quotidian event and believes it has some significant personal meaning to it.

            Like seeing fifty-six and believing it confirms the existence of an afterlife, and that your husband or your father are there.


But what’s the opposite of it?

            What does it mean when someone doesn’t experience a coincidental or nondescript, quotidian event so much to the point that they think that is the significant personal meaning?


My family wasn’t religious. We didn’t go to church, never really talked about it.


This all changed when my father started dying.


We started going to church every Sunday and I hated it.

            I hated sitting in the stiff, suffocating pews and bowing my head and pretending to pray and looking around the room as everybody stood and sang along to the lyrics projected on the front wall. I hated the prayer requests. I hated how every week there was one dedicated to my family. I hated being the center of attention for that brief moment as everybody closed their eyes, bowed their heads, and asked the Lord to look over my family and me, to give us strength, to help us find peace.  


56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56


I understand it all now.

            I understand it all now and I feel selfish and horrible for how I thought back then.


“There is an order in the universe, from the atom to the solar system,” one of the Numerology books begins.

            This order, according to the book, is found in numbers.


Another book claims that Numerology is a part of your “spiritual awakening” and will help you get in touch with your “higher self and true purpose.”

            “Are you prepared for an exciting journey… a journey that will take you to the heart of your inner self?” the third book asks.


I wonder the first time my mother looked for fifty-six.

            I can recall, with detail, the moments surrounding my father’s death.


My mother and I left hospice after staying in the room with my father for five days and four nights. He lay comatose during those five days. A hospice nurse told us that sometimes patients subconsciously hold onto living if someone is in the room with them—they don’t want to die in front of someone, so their body keeps fighting, decrepitly, and it prolongs the suffering.

            So we left.

            We went home for the first time in five days. My two sisters were there, too. We had been home for no more than an hour when I was sitting in the kitchen and the phone rang. I watched the screen on the phone light up and display “Identifying.”

            I waited for the second ring, when the caller ID would come through.

            On the second ring it read, “Trillium Woods Hospice,” the name of the hospice care facility my father was in.

            I knew what the call meant.

            And I answered the phone.


The funny thing about grief and the moments right after a loss is that they’re never what we want them to be.

            They’re never as deeply and darkly poetic as we’d wish, as we’ve seen in Hollywood and in fiction.

            Perhaps the boy, after seeing his father’s corpse in the hospice bed, steps outside and the rain clears and a rainbow appears and paints the sky off in the distance and it glimmers off the boy’s eyes and it reminds him of some metaphor about something beautiful after something ugly and tragic.

            Or when the widow is spending her final moments with her husband she sees a chickadee outside the window land softly on a frail little branch hanging from a snow-coated sugar maple, and a small plume of snow dusts off it and falls whimsically to the ground, and the bird rests there so serene and so at ease with the world, and the widow takes it as a sign that the bird represents her husband and how he’s at peace now in someplace beyond.


But it’s never really like this.


We were in a McDonald’s drive-thru.

My mother, two sisters, and I had just visited my father for the last time. We visited only his body. He had been dead almost an hour before we finally saw him.

            After we said our final goodbyes to the last remaining vestige of my father, we left hospice to let the nurses take care of his body. Outside, the snow was pushed into uninspired little piles that had splatters of gray matter on them. The sky looked tired, and the wind was flapping just cold and just hard enough to wet your eyes and piss you off. Everything about it was so gray.  

            I don’t know who said it, but someone finally broke the silence of the car ride and said that they were hungry.

            We all sort of nodded, tacitly said, “Me too, yeah.”

            There was a McDonald’s up ahead.


We waited at the second window for our food to come out.

            “Dad’s dead,” my younger sister said, “and we’re at McDonald’s.”

            “Not our fault he died around lunchtime,” my mother said. “Besides, who says what we should be doing? There’s no manual for mourning.”


I wonder if she looked for fifty-six on that McDonald’s receipt.


I wish she had found it in that moment.


Little did I know Numerology mostly deals with birth dates and single digit numbers.

            Death is of little significance to Numerology, and so is fifty-six.  

The books only serve as a distraction.

             I start decoding myself using Numerology.


I’m a ruling number eleven, which means my life’s purpose is to “guide humanity into the emerging age of awareness.”

            Other ruling number elevens include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Prince Charles, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sir Edmund Hillary, and John Glenn.

I’m a day number six, which is the number of creativity.

My life path number is two, my destiny number is seven, my soul number is three, my personality numbers are four and twenty-two, my attitude number is three, I have no karmic debt.


Has this been about me the whole time?


There’s a warning at the back of one of the books that reads, “I encourage you to observe numbers everywhere, but know that Numerology can become an obsession. Always use Numerology to complement your life and offer divine insight and guidance.”


 It was the summer of 1993 and my mother was standing on a pier in Lake Michigan when she first saw my father. He and a friend were coasting through the channel in his piddly little speed boat when my mother’s friend turned to her and said, “Those guys are cute, we should get on their boat.”

            My mother hesitated, let out a nervous laugh. She was innocent, demure, didn’t take many chances in her twenty years of living.

            “C’mon,” her friend said, and she jumped into the channel and started swimming toward the boat.

            After a couple seconds of trepidation, my mother rushed over to the ladder on the side of the pier and descended into the water. She swam after her friend, after the boat, fighting to keep her hair—a delicate almond curtain that hung just past her shoulders—out of the lake and dry for when she met the two mystery men on the boat.

            By the time she reached the boat, her friend was already on and talking to my father’s friend. My father helped my mother up on to the boat.

            “I’m Randy,” he said.

            He was tall; she only came up to his chest. She looked up at him. His face was sharp and faintly reddened by the sun.

            “I’m Tara,” she said.


Sometimes we create our own signs.


The story behind the story:

After I learned about my mother’s search for fifty-six, I thought I didn’t think much of it. But, as evidenced by the essay, I was proved wrong. It seemed to creep up on me unconsciously: I too couldn’t find the number anywhere. In a half-hearted attempt to find meaning, I dove into books on numerology. I found nothing relevant to fifty-six. With no leads and no meaning, I knew I had to write about it. Before I did any writing, I filled pages with research. Numerology, numerical symbolism in religion, the afterlife, historical obsessions, historical numerical obsessions, the number fifty-six itself, my parents, my father’s final days. I excavated all the information I could. With each thread of research and personal memory, the essay started to find its shape. I found more questions than answers, which I think is the chief role of the essay as a form.
From there, I knew I wanted to write a segmented essay—a form I’ve never used—as I thought it best reflected this loose, schizophrenic search for a random number. The segments, to my surprise, didn’t see much reordering. I moved some around for balance between research and the personal, but for the most part segments remained where they were originally drafted. It seemed to come together naturally, a rare feeling. In the end, of course, nothing was answered. But I’d ike to think it provided some clarity into my mother’s search. It’s not crazy; it just needed a structure.

Riley Winchester is from Michigan. His essays and stories have appeared in various publications. 

 “quīnquāgintā sex” was first published in Ligeia Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart.

Header Photo by James Homans on Unsplash

At Sea and Soaring by Kim Steutermann Rogers

At Sea and Soaring

It’s mid-February on Kauaʻi, long past time the two albatross eggs in a nest should have hatched. I know the truth of these eggs, and my heart aches for these two diligent birds who will see another year go by without a downy ball of fluff bursting from its egg home. Like them, I’ve dropped a number of eggs in my lifetime. One managed to get fertilized but didn’t stick.

I pass by every week, noting which parent sits on the nest. One week, it’s KP747, a female. A couple weeks later, it’s KP708, another female, returned from filling up on squid far out at sea. By the first of March, the two are still dutifully alternating shifts, awaiting a chick that doesn’t exist. This steadfast devotion is one reason albatross have become my favorite bird.


Birding runs in the family. My mother’s favorite bird was the Canada goose, once nearly hunted to extinction where she grew up on a farm outside St. Louis. My grandmother’s favorite the Northern cardinal. From Tennessee, she called them redbirds. As a child growing up in a suburb of Chicago, my favorite was the American robin. In grade school, I remember carving a linoleum block of this large songbird—its round body, long tail, and orange belly—and made prints as Christmas gifts.


When I celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary at 30, my doctor asked about children. Did I want them? How many? Why was I waiting?

I wanted children. I grew up planning to have them. I married thinking we’d have kids. Two, maybe three. I took my husband’s name, so our family would all share the same identity.


At 36, Eric and I moved to Hawaii, where we’d honeymooned. Without 80-hour work weeks and the stress of running a fledgling business, we hoped maybe I’d get pregnant. We’d sold a four-bedroom house, gave away most of our belongings, and put the rest in a 10-x-10-foot storage unit.

In Hawaii, there was much to do. We hiked miles of trails to hike into rainforests and bogs and arid canyons. I joined a canoe club and paddled in a 42-mile race from one island to another. We snorkeled with manta rays, sharks, and eels. We celebrated New Year’s on a remote beach under the stars with ahi steaks seared over an open fire. And we tried to make a baby. But as we settled in to our island home, month after month, our hopes for a family ebbed away.

One day Eric passed me the newspaper and pointed to an article. “You’d like this,” he said. The headline read: Volunteers Wanted at Wildlife Refuge. That’s when I got to know albatross.


At 40, I started walking the coastline, recording data on albatross—the GPS coordinates of where they lay their eggs, the numbers on the bands circling their legs.

Laysan albatross are long-winged birds, graceful ballerinas in flight, males and females with air-brushed faces and engaging eyes. Everything about them is extreme. They fly the whole of the north Pacific Ocean, gliding up and over waves with just a tilt of their six-and-a-half-foot wings, soaring for days on a few flaps while sleeping “on the wing,” as ornithologists say. The oldest known living bird is a Laysan albatross. She’s 70. But the thing that really gets me is albatross devotion. They live independent lives at sea, but the commitment to their partners can last a lifetime. They show up every year on nearly the same day on the very same patch of ground to pair up and raise a chick. Their highly-evolved devotion extends to the egg in their nest, each taking incubation shifts that can last three weeks—three weeks of sitting in meditation, three weeks of no eating, no flying, no stepping away from the nest. Once the egg hatches, both parents will clock upwards of five-thousand-mile roundtrips, filling their bellies, returning to their chick to regurgitate a meal. After a few hours rest, they’ll head out to sea and do it all over again. And again. From mating to chick’s fledging, some nine months will have passed.


Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Laysan albatross—the species and individual birds, identified not only by the uniquely numbered bands ringing their legs but also by their behavior. I know KP803 and KP787 are usually the first to arrive, kicking off the November breeding season. That KP202 and O949 like to nest in the shade of an ironwood tree. Because females only lay one egg per year—an egg the size of a 12-ounce soda can—and there are two in their nest, I know KP747 and KP708 are a female-female pair.

Every year, I watch as these two females show up, scratch a nest cup out of dirt and leaves, and lay their eggs. Then, they take shifts, waiting for a chick to pip its way to freedom. But it never does. There are no chicks. The eggs aren’t fertilized.


At 55, I have no more eggs. No children, either.


By mid-March, the girls are still stoically tending their nest. Other nearby chicks are already a month old. “It’s okay to give up,” I encourage KP708. Her face has thinned. She needs to abandon her egg and head back out to sea to replenish her lost energy stores. After recording her band number in my yellow rite-in-the-rain field notebook, I take one last glance at this beautiful bird, her dark eyes like mine. But hers are punctuated by a streak of eyeliner à la Cleopatra and some of my favorite vintage Hollywood actresses.

Some of us don’t have children. And we live happy, satisfied lives.

The next time I walk by the nest, its eggs are exposed, punctuated with exclamation point-like leaves from a nearby ironwood tree. The dedicated albatross females have chosen life at sea, their true home, and I imagine them wings outstretched—and soaring.


The story behind the story:

I write often about albatross. Mostly, because I’m awed by them. Their grace. Their beauty. Their curiosity. Their devotion. In a recent memoir workshop, Kathy Fish provided a prompt about moments–something once seen or witnessed that was never forgotten, something small that shifted insight in some way. For me, that moment and shift was when I observed the female-female pair of Laysan albatross featured in this essay. The moment inspired the start of this essay, but in writing, the moment became the ending—the moment of insight. It was a fun writing exercise, especially because the essay got polished by the graceful editing of Rachel Laverdiere at Atticus Review.

Kim Steutermann Rogers spent a month in Alaska as a fellow at Storyknife Writers Retreat in 2016 and, again, in 2021. She was recognized for her “Notable Travel Writing 2019” in Best American Travel Writing. Her science journalism has been published in National GeographicAudubon, and Smithsonian; and her prose in Atticus ReviewBending Genres, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and 15-year-old poi dog named Lulu in Hawaii. Read more of her work at and follow her on social media at @kimsrogers.

“At Sea and Soaring” was first published in Atticus Review.
Photos are courtesy of the author.