The Invisibility of Wealth

Sylvain, a man of thirty, sat at the table drinking coffee. He scrutinized the tables surrounding him on the patio, moving his focus methodically from one to the other. Several tables away, two men sitting across from one another were handed menus. One took a glance at his before he placed it down on the table and excused himself. The other continued perusing his. read more

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

The fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series turned out to be the best one so far. A retelling of the oft performed and retold The Tempest, this one is laid out like an intricate puzzle and seeing the pieces come together while reading it was pure enjoyment. It is another example of the brilliance that underlies all of Margaret Atwood’s writing.

For someone who has difficulty reading Shakespeare’s plays, Hag-Seed did me the favor of decoding the many layers of The Tempest. Her main character for the modern day version, Felix Philip, is the former Artistic Director of a Canadian theatre festival, whose total immersion into creativity led to his being thrown under the bus by his assistant Tony. He stands in for Prospero, Tony for the usurping brother Antonio. After malingering in a cave-like rented house for several years, his festering obsession with revenge burning a hole in his soul, he finally changes his name and takes a position teaching the Literacy Through Literature program at a nearby prison. There he will stage his version of The Tempest, the one he never got to put on at the festival.

The prison becomes Prospero’s island for Felix. His methods for teaching Shakespeare to mid-level criminals are inspired. I enjoyed reading about that almost as much as anything else in the novel. He gets beyond the low literacy level of some of his actors and stage crew by forming them into teams that help each other “get it.” He channels their antisocial predilections and develops a method for casting the play that manages to side step the daily potential for violence. For example, he asks them to find all the swear words in the play and then allows only those to be used in class. No f-word, no s-word, just whoreson, plaguey, pied ninny, etc.

Beyond the well-rounded characters of the various prisoners, there were two more that captured me. Miranda is all over the story. One of the reasons Tony was able to outwit Felix was that the Director lost his daughter, named Miranda of course, when she died of meningitis at age three. During his self-imposed exile she reappeared as a ghostly imaginary friend and he conjured a whole life for her as the years went by. For the prison production of The Tempest, not one inmate would agree to play a girl, so Felix located the original young woman he had cast as Miranda in the aborted Festival version of the play, convincing her to brave the dangers at his current job and take the part. Anne-Marie Greenland was my favorite character: preternaturally creative but tough, full of fun, and a kick-ass dancer. Of course the prisoner who plays Ferdinand falls for her, hard. She also embodies some of the best characters from earlier Atwood novels, especially Grace Marks from Alias Grace as well as Ren and Toby from the Maddaddam trilogy.

Finally comes the revenge. Tony moved on to politics after usurping Felix and visits the prison performance with his new buddies. They intend to shut down the Literacy Through Literature program. Felix and his students manage to get these fellows into a position where he can get back at Tony and save his current job. The scenes where that revenge takes place are over the top, clever, and suspenseful, but require a large suspension of disbelief by the reader. It had to be part of the novel but I was not completely convinced by that section.

These are only the highlights of what made Margaret Atwood’s retelling so dramatic. Not a page is without surprises and treats for the reader. It is as if she is Prospero herself, rendering an entertainment for her captive audience, that being any reader who opens the book. Not only is Felix’s story a retelling of the play, The Tempest is also performed in full, making the entire production the original play within a new play.

Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at read more

How We Die

I’m lying awake at night, again. My breaths are short; my diaphragm seems to have been lassoed in a familiar way. I dread to look at the alarm clock for the fifteenth time in thirty minutes. Those bars of orange that continue to laugh in my face, or maybe they’re red?

I can’t stop paying attention to my heartbeat. It’s a constant reminder that my life is dependent upon something I have absolutely no control over. It thuds so tumultuously; I can feel the blood pulsing through every limb. I look around my room, thinking of something I can do to distract myself from my existence. Nothing. I see absolutely nothing that can help.

My small studio apartment is dimly lit and only partially visible because of the red—I mean, orange bars of the alarm clock. I see the books on my bookshelf I collected as a kid that haven’t seen the face of a reader in over ten years, a collection of DVD’s that lay by the T.V. that have had more playtime than a preschool; because I can’t afford cable, some dirty dishes that haven’t walked themselves to the sink, a mixed array of clean and dirty clothes on the floor, my black, non-slip work boots, and a pen and paper on the nightstand where I was going to write a note to leave on my neighbor’s door across the hall about the smell in his apartment that is slowing making residence in mine. It smells like after a heavy rain, sort of an earthy, muddy smell, with a twinge of body odor. I don’t know what he does for work, or what she does all day at home, but I do know that they must do something that destroys their sense of smell, because it is quite pungent. I don’t know how they can live in there. It’s disgusting.

Really? It’s already 3:15am?

I have work in four hours, and I can’t call in sick again. I’ve already pushed my boss’s patience enough. However, if I call out in the middle of the night, it would be easy to just leave a message without having to speak with him. Then again, I think that man is about one more call-out away from having a massive heart attack.

Richard Bailey, my boss, shows up to the warehouse every morning, at exactly 7:30am, never a minute earlier or later, and parks in the same spot. I would bet my last sixty-three dollars in my savings account that he hasn’t changed his daily routine in years. He just seems like that guy who is completely content with the way things are, despite how pathetic. He’s not bothered at all that he is a supervisor of a picking and packing warehouse at forty-two years old. It doesn’t matter that his stomach hangs past his belt, and dances up and down as he walks. He is not concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, or truth: “College”, he says, “is for liberals who don’t want to work yet, and girls who want to postpone their duties as a woman to fuck some guys while they pretend they’re out learning something for four years.”

I can’t stand watching him waddle out of his new, white, Ford pickup truck, and then huffing and puffing after his three- stair climb to the summit of the loading dock. As he approaches, I loathe his smell of cigarettes, last night’s Coors Light, and the Egg Mcmuffin he ate on the way in. Then, after we all apprehensively walk behind Richard into the warehouse, the smell of dust, industrial cleaners, and dread fill the room. After Richard has caught his breath, he typically gives us our goal for the day, typically something like how many orders need to be filled. Then, he walks up to his office and does god knows what until we see him for lunch.

I would just quit, so I can sleep the afternoon in and spend the rest of the day doing important things; like watch Netflix, eat the rest of my Mexican leftovers in the fridge, call another one of my unemployed friends to come over, or maybe I’ll apply for tech school, or maybe college? I hear HVAC techs do pretty well for themselves, besides the lung cancer and all that. But where would the rent come from? How would I eat? How could I impress pretty girls in tight outfits without saying I have a job? Unemployed guys don’t really do all that well on the dating scene, yet I guess that doesn’t make things much different from now. I just wish I could do away with the whole charade of dating altogether.

I have to stop my mind from wandering. I think I’ll get a glass of water. Maybe I’ll watch another DVD. I can pull an all-nighter. I’ve done it before, and I know the consequences in the morning: my eyes will feel like they have dimes on their lids, my stomach takes turns between growling in hunger and swishing nauseously in protest, aching bones, sore joints, and the mental agility to match my hindered demeanor. The next day, it makes things hell at work, but after a few hours it feels just like any other.

I walk over to the sink in the back left corner of my dimly lit apartment, both of my ankles cracking with every step. I got to the cabinet, pull out the tallest glass, fill it up to almost the very top, and slug it down like I had a purpose. As I take another glance around my dark, dingy, one-room apartment, where I have modestly packed everything I own into a whopping 15×15 space, I couldn’t help but notice that things seem a little smaller than usual. Maybe I’m just getting fatter? No, I just weighed myself yesterday. I’m only a trifle heavier than when I graduated high school barely five years ago, and I’m proud of that. Most of my friends by now have put on so much weight that they already have the body of sloppy, middle-aged man. Not that my steady diet of Cheetos and Mountain Dew won’t catch up with me someday, but my genes are too good for such an early decline. I can feel it in my bones that a long life is ahead of me. I’m symmetrical, no one in my family has a touch of grey hair, and everyone seems to die in their late nineties of what my mother says are “natural causes,” whatever that means. No one dies of natural causes. Dying of natural causes seems like a nice way of saying that these people are now at an acceptable age to have a normal, civilized, catastrophic, life -ending event like a nice stroke or kidney failure to round off a fulfilling life of fighting the good fight.

I walk over to the T.V. to filter through the DVD’s that are stuffed sporadically through the bottom shelf of my T.V. stand. In my diligent search, I came across absolutely nothing I want to waste my time watching, so I decide to just put on my alarm clock radio to the overnight jazz station. I put the music on a low volume and stare at the ceiling; lit barely enough by the light of the clock, that I could see the little cracks in the plaster. While staring at these cracks, and trying to forget that it’s almost 3:30am now, I notice the earthy smell coming again from the neighbor’s apartment. I sat up, turned to my night table, and finished writing the note for them that I’m going to tape on their door in the morning.

Hello Mark and Chelsea,

This is Evan from apartment 2-B, across the hall.

If you have any time tonight after work, maybe around  6 o’clock, could we get together and talk about matters concerning a smell coming from somewhere in the building?

Thanks Guys

After writing, I lied back down and somehow feel a lot more at ease. I was happy that I would finally be able to talk to Mark and Chelsea, and banish that smell back to hell. I guess it was the feeling of relief after writing that note, or maybe the smooth jazz, but somehow I felt tired and began to nod off. One of the last thoughts I remember before falling asleep was how much smaller the room felt; it seemed like it was slowly closing in on me, inch by inch.

I awake to the sounds to Duke Ellington’s cover of “Take the A-Train.” I’ve become fairly jazz -savvy since I figured out it helps me sleep so well. I look over at my alarm clock; it was seven. I feel particularly ill today. I have all my usual symptoms of a poor, or minimal night’s sleep, but something feels incredibly off. I’m freezing cold, which doesn’t make sense because it’s late April, and I’m inside my apartment. Despite how small and unattractive this apartment may seem, from the inside and out, the one thing this apartment does well is insulate.

Even on some of the coldest January nights, the old, thick, masonry construction, that isn’t built much anymore, in favor of cheaper, faster, lumber framing, really does its intended job. It seems like the buildings built eighty or so years ago were intended to work, and stick around for a while, unlike today’s. Now, it seems like they are built as quickly and slapdash as possible with the intent of driving out people who feel entitled to a decent, warm home, and in favor of people desperate enough to take whatever they can get.

My chill is so terrible. I quickly rose out of bed, and shuffle in a decrepit manner over to my closet. I threw on a black t-shirt, and a black hoodie that smelled of industrial cleaner. My dread of going to work increased. I thought about Richard Bailey and his uninformed, loud mouth, and feel a need to just call it quits and look into being an HVAC technician, or College. I stumble into my jeans, turn around to the night table and pick up the note for Mark and Chelsea. I tore off a piece of scotch tape, and turn around to leave. As I am leaving, I take one last look around the room on the way out to see if I forgot anything. I look back over my shoulder with one hand on the doorknob, and survey the apartment. I forgot nothing, but oddly enough my windows seem much smaller than they usually do. I guess I really need to start sleeping more; it is starting to affect me physically and mentally.

Instantly, my heart fluttered. I felt a rush of ice in my veins, and I could feel a presence behind me looking just over my shoulder. When I turned around, expecting to see another tenant, there was nothing. I wanted to go back into my apartment. I wanted to stay home, I didn’t know why. I hate being cooped up in there with the smell of the neighbor across the hall, the unusual cold, and the feeling that the room was perpetually shrinking, yet I wanted to stay.

I lumber my way down the stairs and open the door to the parking lot. I felt in a haze. I rubbed my eyes vigorously as I walked over to my car. I curse the sun for another beautiful day. I think to myself if I actually hate sunny days, or is just because I have to spend these wonderful days inside of a warehouse? I’ve always preferred rainy days because it makes me feel like everyone is doing what I’m doing: imprisoned at work, or imprisoned at home. I hate watching people from work, or my apartment window, enjoying the day. It makes me feel bad that I don’t share the same enjoyment.

I threw myself down into the car seat and fumble for my keys. I start up the ignition and look in my rear view mirror. I jump back in my seat and wallop my head against the headrest in terror. My face is hollow and sunken.

My eyes are blackened and porous, and filled with hundreds of maggots wriggling through the pinholes. My nose was enlarged and resembled a plaster mold. My jaw is unhinged and dry rotted through to the base of my neck and skull. My hair long, thin and grey. Parts of my face are dark and covered in a mossy, earthy substance. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing came out. Pure silence. My heart is racing and my vision is tunneled. In my panic I rip my head around to see if anyone is around, and when I turn back to the rearview mirror, I am myself again. My heart is firing, and my hands are completely soaked. “I must be hallucinating from hardly sleeping the last few days,” I reassure myself. I drive to work, my knuckles white with fear, gripping the steering wheel. I park at work at 7:25am and take some time to deep breath and compose myself before walking into work.




I awake to the sound of Richard knocking on my car window. I gaze up in the haze that has not left yet, and I can see his eyes, livid and unjust. He is holding a thermos full of coffee and sporting biscuit crumbs on the front of his shirt. His double chin multiplying as he rears his head down to look at me. Before I get out of the car to listen to his reasoning as to why I will never become a good supervisor, I glance at the clock; it was 8:38am. I hesitantly glance up at the rear view mirror before opening the car door.

“Do you know what time it is, Evan?”

“Richard, I got here at 7:25, I’m—I’m sorry—I had a really rough night and—and I hardly slept. I was here—sitting in my car, and next thing I know it’s—well—now.”

“I don’t give a shit why you’re out here sleeping in your car. All I know is that you’re not inside working. I don’t want to hear anymore about your problems, Evan. This has been going on too long. This has to be the fourth or fifth time that you’ve fallen asleep in your car and I’ve had to wake you up. You’re a sloth at work, you don’t take pride in your job, and frankly, all the guys say you’ve been smelling really bad lately, and I agree.

“Richard, It’s my neighbors, they have this weird smell in their apartm—“

“Excuses! Always nothing but excuses!”

“Richard, I—things haven’t been right recently—I don’t feel right—I don’t know if my heart is in this anymore. I think I want something thing more than what is in my life right now. I feel like I’m being locked in a box here.”

“You’ve got it all, man. You have a car, a job, and you’re young. I wish I were young again! You don’t know how good you got it! You, and your whole ungrateful generation!” You’d rather work somewhere that you love, or not work at all, than make money! I’m a supervisor, I have a brand new truck, and I make way more money than you. Don’t you want to be like me someday? The only way is to put in as many hours as you can, so that you can work your way to the top. You need to be serious about your job and what we do here. You have to stop having fun with your friends. Stop doing other activities outside of work that prevent you from working to best of you abilities here. Most of all, you have to start thinking about how you’re going to impress me into not firing you. Do you really want to lose everything you have because you are a lazy ingrate?”

“Rich, I don’t really have much. This car only brings me back and forth to here, and what does it matter that I’m young if I’m spending all my time here?”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at, but I know you’re late and you need to get inside and start filling orders.”

I walk a slow, deliberate, slave-like walk of defeat across the parking lot. I Look up at the warehouse and feel an immense sense of anxiety as my eyes meet the loading dock and the doors to enter the assembly line. I reluctantly traverse through the parking lot, up the loading dock, and to the doors. Despite my snail-like pace, I still beat Richard to the door. I watched him nearly drown on dry land; walking up the steps, hacking and coughing, his hand on the rail to help himself steady his gelatinous frame.

“Who was he to tell me I smell?” I thought to myself. He reeks of Marlboros and that yeasty, sweaty, smell that all fat people seem to have. He might be right though; this job is really all I have, and maybe will ever have. I’ll never go anywhere else or do anything remarkable. I’m just an average guy with no idea of how to do anything of mastery. Plus, I’m too scared to leave my safe spot. There are too many what-if scenarios.

Maybe Richard is right? It’s not my job that’s killing me, or Richard and his ignorance, or even my dingy, smelly apartment; it’s my inability to conform, my inability to be satiated, my inability to be content with my life as it is. I have to just accept it. The sooner I do, the sooner things will be easier to become a happier, more productive me.

I walk into the warehouse filled with a new sense of something. It was something like pride, just not quite as concrete. As I work the day through, processing orders and packing boxes, I kept thinking about the horrifying face I saw in the car this morning. I continued to remind myself that it was just from the poor sleep I’d been having, and tried to keep it out of my mind.

When I got out of work today, I felt great zeal. I’m sure that I am going to fix my attitude so that I could be a better worker, and get myself out of this rut I’m in.

I get home around six o’clock and decided to check in with Mark and Chelsea to see if they read my note. I walk up the steps and knock on the door to their apartment. I could smell the earthy, muddy, decaying smell from the hallway and it solidified my eagerness to eliminate it.

Mark opened the door, and he seemed a little put off that I was there. I asked if he had received my note, to which he replied yes, yet he seemed confused.

“What are you smelling, exactly? He said. “Because we haven’t been doing anything out of the ordinary and haven’t changed anything in the house that would protrude any foul smells.”

I met his statement with a bewildered look. “Well,” I said, “have you not been smelling this muddy, decaying, outdoorsy smell in the building recently?”

He shrugged his shoulders, and had that look that people give when they have had enough of what you’re saying: a slight frown with protruding lower lip, nodding his head back and forth.

“Ok,” I muttered in discontent. I mention that I’ll take it up with the landlord, and I turn around and walk into my apartment.

I immediately take off my boots and stinking work clothes, and begin to make my way to the shower. Once I get to the bathroom door, I look back at my bed and realize it only took me a few steps to get across the room. I look around the room and see things were bunched so closely on the walls, it seems like the apartment has shrank greatly since I left. I tell myself that it’s just the sleep depravation. I’ll just take a hot shower, relax, and get in bed extra early tonight.

I finish showering, and the bathroom is filled with steam. However, the steam is so incredibly thick that I can hardly see through it; it is far more steam than the usual hot shower. I step gingerly over to the medicine cabinet and wipe the condensation from the mirror.

The face! Again! Staring back at me, cackling! This time it didn’t go away and I wasn’t in control of it, it shrieking and cackling at my fear. I panic and fall out of the bathroom and onto my knees. When I open my eyes, the entire room is filled with fog. I can hear the cackling of the apparition behind me. I am completely dumbfounded at the turn of events. I can very slightly make out the windows on the walls now, which are now as small as my hand and closing quickly. The earthy, muddy, decaying smell is in full form now, and seems to embody me.

The walls are shrinking rapidly and I’m doing all I can think to do. I make my way in the direction of my bed to hide under the covers, just like I did when I was a scared child. As long as I had the blankets over my head, no evil could touch me. I am cold as ice now, and when I look at my feet, the ground had been turned into grass and moss.

As I look up from my feet, the walls were only inches away, and then everything went black.

When I come to, it is entirely dark, and entirely silent. I was lying on plush bedding and I can feel that I am entombed. I move my hand slowly around to feel the box I am encased in. It is also soft and smooth, and I have only a few inches of room between my face and the top of the encasement. I scream, kick, claw, and fight, but all to no avail. After I realize it is impossible to escape, I stop and lay in complete solitude. I can smell nothing but mud and decay. I feel my ice-cold body, it is completely emaciated and I can hear the clanking of bones every time I move. After a great, long silence, I hear a tiny whisper. It is inaudible the first time, but the whisper repeated itself:

“Set yourself free.”

In my near-muted horror, I only whisper back, “How?”

“Set yourself free,” it repeated, as it seems to fade in the distance.

I panic again after my question is left unanswered, so I kick, and claw, and scream my way to exhaustion.

In my exhaustion, I don’t know why, but I began to think about Richard Bailey, and the berating he gave me this morning in the work parking lot. I think about it over and over and over. I begin to think he wasn’t right. Why would I want to be like him? I never wanted any of this! The only reason I started hating life, and having sleeping problems was because I couldn’t stop thinking about the prison that I had to go to every morning. I think about how I wasn’t like Richard. I didn’t want his truck, I didn’t want his job, I didn’t want his ignorance, and I didn’t want to be around anyone who wanted that.

All of a sudden, I can feel my body getting warmer. But I still can’t think about anything besides Richard Bailey:

His ignorance, his gluttony, and his foolishness. I twist and turn at the thought that there were millions of Richard Baileys out there. I can feel my strength returning. I can see a thimble of light! I could smell the clear air! I look at my body, and it now resembles a man of great strength. The light is growing larger and larger, as I shatter through the sides of my entrapment with ease. I feel a full breath of air pass in and out of my lungs. I penetrate through my coffin and stand up waiting to be engulfed by the white light. I feel no fear, I embrace the unknown, and as the light engulfed me, I feel nothing but peace.

Everything seems to have reset; the light dissipates and reveals my apartment.

It is enormous! It smells of fresh spring air! My windows seem much larger than usual and I have a longing to be outside and enjoy the beautiful, sunny weather! I feel whole, strong, and able-bodied. Everything seems organized and well kept. I look over at the books on my bookshelf with a wondrous glee of what new adventures are bound inside. I can feel myself bursting with a sense of pride and purpose; something I forgot existed.

I look in the mirror and I smiled to myself in my newfound enlightenment. I look down on my nightstand at my alarm clock, laugh, and set the morning alarm in the off position.

Joshua Smith is an English major, with a concentration in creative writing, at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. read more

A Worn Mattress

What care you where he seeks to lay his head
Only the imprint of a man remains
Restrained, restricted, weighted down with chains
In that space alongside you on the bed;
At least he is living that once was dead
His few losses are far offset by gains
For he no longer feels those longing pains
Rejoicing to be more alive than dead.

Why enquire after this refugee
Why speak his name or seek his attention
Why conjure his image from memory
He cares not about your situation
And he wishes he had never reclined
On the worn mattress of your temptation.

David Subacchi lives in Wales (UK) where he was born of Italian roots. He is a graduate of the University of Liverpool and has published four poetry collections in English: First Cut (2012), Hiding in Shadows (2014), Not Really a Stranger (2016) and A Terrible Beauty (2016). He writes also in Welsh and Italian. read more


Declan planned to have a nervous breakdown. He had studied the DSM-IV and ICD-10 and knew that there was no formal definition for a nervous breakdown or a mental breakdown, but the terms were synonymous. Some ideas struck like lightening. Other ideas took time to construct: they built like skyscrapers in your thoughts and cast long shadows.

Randy at the restaurant had brown teeth stained from tobacco. He said, “Five years of university and you’re mopping floors.” Declan didn’t respond because it wasn’t funny. He had been helping Randy learn English for the past three years and at that moment considered imposing a fee.

He mopped around the dish area. The head dishwasher was Johnny. One of the first things Johnny said when Declan met him was that he was on DISH (which is, Disability Insurance for the Severely Handicapped). He received a check from the government for $1700.0 every month. Declan gave Johnny rides home from work if they were off at the same time. He charged five dollars every ride. He didn’t feel guilty over charging Johnny for gas and Johnny never complained. Declan felt guilty over not imposing the same fee on his friends.

The smart lady at the employment center who edited Declan’s resume told him that one of her friends was on DISH and she had her master’s degree. She was going for her PhD and used DISH as a safety net. Who said a university graduate couldn’t be severely handicapped?

With Declan’s previous trips to the psych ward already on record, another breakdown might qualify him for DISH. Guaranteed, tax-free income in this economy was hard to deny, especially with student debt and a minimum wage job. He could go for his master’s. He could do anything within the limits of his purchasing power and that safety net would always be there, every month.

Declan factored student debt payments against the minimum wage and wasn’t surprised that it would take a couple decades to be debt-free. He imagined having a conversation with a psychiatrist. It didn’t matter if the cup was half-full or half-empty, what mattered was the size of the cup. The size of the cup indicated desire. For example, if Declan looked at his financial situation with “optimism,” with the hope that the economy would “get better,” as Ashley liked to say, the bigger picture concerning the Trans Pacific Partnership came to mind and destroyed every idea of democracy that he clung to. The Trans Pacific Partnership gave private corporations the ability to sue governments for potential losses in revenue. Declan had these imaginary conversations about injustice all the time, especially while he mopped floors at work. He wondered to what degree his previous nervous breakdowns were affected by his knowledge of everyone’s inevitable servitude to capitalists and central bankers.

Declan asked Johnny if he liked to read.

He replied with a vehement, “No.” His intonation was probably equivalent to the common person’s reaction to something like animal cruelty. Declan had never witnessed animal cruelty. Where did these similes come from? He pulled up to Johnny’s house. Johnny slapped a five in Declan’s hand, “See you tomorrow.”

Everything seemed to be on sale at the grocery store. All the prices marked down. He had quit smoking cigarettes two years ago, but Ashley and him still had to resort to the food bank every other week. The line outside the food bank was growing every year. Conversely, the quantity and quality of donations was atrophying.

Ashley had been very supportive of Declan’s previous nervous breakdowns. She didn’t care that he was on medication that made him tired. The sex was still great.

Of course she opposed his plan. His ingenious, scheming, conniving plan. His plan was a skyscraper: a symbol that had been growing since graduation.

Declan told Ashley that with his past breakdowns—and one more—he could qualify for the monthly checks. On top of that, if he worked, he might actually stand a chance of getting out of student debt at some point in life. He could help Ashley with her debt, too.

“Pretending to have a nervous breakdown to get on DISH is criminal,” she said.

Declan showed her the receipts from the grocery store. He asked her if she liked going to the food bank and finding only tomatoes and bread. He told her not to forget about the ever-increasing scarcity of jobs. “The market is evaporating like freshwater in California.”

Ashley didn’t need to say, “I don’t want people to think that my partner is severely handicapped,” because Declan thought the same about her and was ashamed of himself to admit this.

“It’s government mismanagement, that’s all,” said Ashley.

Declan didn’t reply.

She said, “I agree that DISH checks should not be more than a full-time worker makes earning minimum wage, but rather than sulk or fake a breakdown, why don’t you aim to change the policy?”

Out of nowhere he was horribly reminded that if minimum wage increased, so would the prices of everything else.

“I forbid any staged nervous breakdowns you might be planning,” declared Ashley.

He asked her how she would know if it was staged or not.

She walked away, her footfalls reverberating off the walls.

The causes of a nervous breakdown were ambiguous: divorce; problems at work or school; financial problems.

The ambiguity was to Declan’s advantage because all of the causes could be distilled into the phenomenon of stress. Some stress he was unconscious of: this was also to his benefit in reverse-engineering a nervous breakdown. He planned to tell the psychiatrist of the nightmares. What about daymares? He Goggled the word, surprised that it was in fact a word. provided two definitions: “1. a distressing experience, similar to a bad dream, occurring while one is awake 2. an acute anxiety attack.” Declan had daymares all the time: his life was a constant daymare so long as he was earning minimum wage, was expected to pay off debt, and Johnny made more than him and almost everybody else in the kitchen. Declan knew that he was letting this bother him more than it should. But what really bothered him was that he knew that he could qualify for the checks, but the fact that he sort of needed them and sort of didn’t made him twitch.

The bank called. They wanted to know why Declan was missing his payments. He opened his mouth but words failed him in the daymare. He tried telling whoever was on the line what everyone told him about education and the job at the end. The phone was shaking as he stuttered those disparate things. No, the phone wasn’t shaking: it was his hand. The daymare reached a climax in unforgiving irony because Declan honestly didn’t know if he needed DISH or not. But nothing that he said or did mattered: no debt with banks would change with a nervous breakdown…unless he had one in front of a psychiatrist.

How he met with the psychiatrist is he provided the bank representative on the phone with a storm of hyperventilation, tears, and a runny nose. He conjured an onslaught of suicidal dialogue. The scary thing was that Declan himself didn’t know to what degree he was genuine. He certainly wasn’t suicidal, but it was necessary to sound like he was so that the bank representative would follow the law. That meant calling the cops.

The officers knocked on Declan’s door. He stepped out to meet them wearing a bathrobe and the most saturnine of expressions. They seemed almost bored as they drove him to the psychiatric ward.

The psychiatrist commented on Declan’s history of nervous breakdowns. She didn’t say anything about daymares. She might not have known about them. Declan was put on medication. The daymare was still present, but he was detached from reality. He told the psychiatrist about the symptoms on the DSM-IV and ICD-10 which plagued him and were getting worse every day. Chronic stress and anxiety made him psychotic.

Declan said that he had to work tomorrow, but he didn’t know how—and the lack of grammaticality in his statement was the whole point because it meant at least two things.

The psychiatrist said she didn’t think that work was a very practical idea—not only tomorrow—Declan needed an extended leave. The daymare started to stop for the first time in years because a golden dawn replaced the skyscraper. He needed DISH. Ashley couldn’t possibly hold anything against him. She was concerned about her image in the eyes of others if he went on DISH, but she would look conceited if she abandoned her partner while he was suffering. By virtue of the impasse that Declan had posed to her concerning the difference between fake and legitimate nervous breakdowns, neither he nor her could say anything to the contrary concerning his condition. Eventually he was released from the hospital and was approved for DISH.

Declan felt guilty over accepting the five dollars from Johnny, but he didn’t know why. Carrying around large amounts of cash wasn’t smart, but he couldn’t bring himself to deposit or spend the five-dollar bills. He continually accepted them, saving them in a single stack in the glove box. It felt as though the currency belonged to someone else.

Some ideas struck like lightening. One morning he woke up and kissed Ashley on her cheek. He drove to the grocery store, loaded a cart with non-perishable goods, and spent all of the fives at the till.

Declan told the grateful volunteers at the food bank, very firmly, they didn’t need to thank him.

Jason Elford writes short fiction, poems, and novels. His work has appeared in Foliate Oak, The Worcester Journal, The Machinery, and STOPGap. He lives in Calgary, Alberta. read more


You will run back into burning buildings,
of course you will, despite all the pleas not
to- you will feel your skin shrink into itself
as you breathe in the heat, your lungs will
protest against the anger in the air, they

will beg you to stop, to turn around, folding
into themselves, constricting, to stop you
from going in. You will hear the sizzle of
hair on your face, your eyebrows falling off
like exclamation marks punctuating each

step you take closer to the flames, and they’ll
reach out to you, welcoming, holding their
arms out, and flicking their tongues against
your legs, whispering to you the little details
of every little evocation they consume and

steal- the curve of the alphabets from the
letters your sister wrote to you (you never
got around to replying in hand), the taste
of the vinyls you bought for your best friend
(right before he married the woman jealous

enough to keep you apart), the smell of the
dupattas your mother gave you before you
left the house (you always meant to get
something pretty stitched with them), the
texture of the shrivelled rose nestled in

the pages of a book hidden under your bed
(it was from the man whose heart you broke,
and whose memory broke you, again and again),
and the way home felt when you walked in
(you were drunk, and angry, the last time you did)

The flames will continue to sing, and you will
dance, till your face has melted off, and the
soles of your shoes cling to yours, you will
keep rushing back till you can’t, till you’re
forced into an ambulance, oxygen mask on,

empty handed, broken heart, fingers fried
into question marks, and you ask yourself
again and again, ‘Was it worth it, was it worth
me, was the house burning, or was it me,
burning the traces of half forgotten memories?’

Harnidh is a 21-year-old student, currently pursuing her Masters in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. Her first collection of poetry is called ‘The Inability of Words’, because, for all that she’s written, she hasn’t found the exact words she’s looking for. read more