Editor's Note


Rebecca Aronson
Drew Blanchard
Myron Ernst
Adam Ferrari
Carrie Green
Angie Macri
Christiaan Sabatelli
Sarah J. Sloat
Lindsay Marianna Walker
Mark Wisniewski


Daniel Browne
Michael Gavaghen
Matthew Hobson
Shelagh Shapiro


Bill Capossere


Henry Rollins
Alison Smith

Art & Photography

Gary Lanier
Jarod Rosselo
Heather Whitman

Book Reviews

Atmospheric Disturbances
Our Keen Blue House

Contributor's Notes


Before the Break

Shelagh Shapiro

“Look, this has been the worst day,” Cora says to the cop. “You can’t even imagine.”

He’s leaning against the frame of the open window, a gloved hand resting on the roof. Snow blows around his face, and he sighs and looks over the top of her car to where pine trees and naked, scrubby bushes border the road. Even though he’s wearing sunglasses, she can tell how tired he is. His face is sallow and slack, and the set of his shoulders bows in the middle, where his head—all that ambition and training—is a terrible weight. He’s heard every excuse: late to karate; great tune on the radio; miserable job; dying friend. He looks sick of working traffic, sick of commuters and pointless accidents like this. She doubts her excuses will make any difference, even—or especially—during the holiday season. She hands out her license and registration, then closes her window while he walks back to his car to study, on his computer, what he thinks is her life.

In front of her and still attached to her car is the school bus full of children, their faces so close to the wide back window they look like decals. She tries without success to imagine what a funny story this will make later. When she risks a glance at the bus, all the faces spring to life as if she’d pressed a button. Vying for her attention, they smear dirty cheeks and lips against the glass. A girl holds up a Santa puppet and tries to move his limbs. His left hand chops up and down and the right presses spastically inward. A boy in a Yankees cap points at Cora and utters something she can’t understand. His mouth is huge and dark inside. She has no children of her own, but read in the paper this morning that schools would be on break after today. So they’re on their way home for cookies and cocoa and the kind of exhilarating rush that comes with school vacation.

It’s snowing the kind of snow that makes a mess but won’t stick. The accident was her fault. Even though the bus stopped short and the road was damp, she was driving too close. She can’t remember driving too close, but according to Dale, it’s what she does. So now her bumper is hooked underneath the bus, and she’ll get a ticket she can’t afford and have to pay for any damage. She can’t imagine her rusty little Honda has done anything to harm this school bus. Hopefully, she won’t have to report it. She can’t afford an increase in her insurance. Especially now that Dale is moving out.

She’ll have to get a roommate. Images of roommates past drift into her head like ghosts. Margo, who liked to bake at three in the morning. Laurel, with the facetious smile and long chin, who sneaked cigarettes and borrowed Cora’s clothes without asking. And pale, skinny Gordon with his straggly beard and large ears, who accused her of stealing because she’d taken a teaspoon of mayonnaise from one of the many jars in the fridge marked, “This Is Gordon’s.” Cora rests her head on the steering wheel and closes her eyes.

A minute later, the policeman raps on the glass. She opens the window.

“How bad?” he asks. Cora tries to read his face. There’s a smile there, a handsome smile. She sees herself and the cop in a vague future, sharing a life together. He’ll sit with his arm around her shoulders, telling their friends how they met.

“Your day,” he says. “How bad?”

“I caught my boyfriend and our neighbor…” She pauses. “… together. On my lunch hour. He’d forgotten we were supposed to buy a tree.”

The policeman stares at her, blinks, walks away again. She wonders if her day was bad enough. They should have a meter, like for alcohol. Something that registers misery. What was her score? A seven? A nine? She closes the window.

Dale would have been indignant about the accident. It’s the first good thing to occur to her; she won’t have to watch his reaction. He promised to be out of the apartment by the time she gets home. Dale becomes righteous around other people’s mistakes, condescending. If she told him about the school bus, he would rush around the apartment cleaning things—dusting baseboards and spraying appliances with Fantastik. This would be his way of showing her all the other things she doesn’t do well enough.

He wasn’t quite as pious at noon, though, when Cora found him holding a sprig of mistletoe over Sylvia Germaine on the couch in the den. They’d both been wrapped, head to toe, in her new Frosty the Snowman gift wrap and nothing else. When Cora had shouted “Oh my God!” they’d both sat up. Dale stared stupidly and Sylvia crept slowly to the bathroom, crying, her speed impeded by the bow around her ankles. It was like the worst kind of movie. Cora finds unexpected satisfaction in this, actually. Dale has betrayed her in the tackiest way—perfect Dale, who made her feel cheap when she shopped at Wal-Mart—and she has a right to this sordid moment.

Cora tries to figure out what the boy on the bus is doing. He’s pointing at her and shouting something. It looks like the others are shouting it, too, but the boy is the leader, she can tell. It was difficult enough to ignore their stares and funny faces before she hit them, but now she’s virtually handcuffed to the bus.

The cop is still in his car, behind hers, and the bus driver has emerged to look at the damage again. He did this after she first hit him, but climbed back inside when the kids started going wild. Shaking his head, he leans down over the locked bumpers. He is bald and the top of his head is shiny. Long strands of gray hair fall away from where he plastered them this morning.

Cora decides she’ll get out and have another look, too. But when she opens her door, the bus driver stands and raises his hand—palm out, fingers up—like he’s the cop.

“We need your weight,” he says. She wonders what this means. He walks to her window, hitching up his jeans by the belt.

“Put it in neutral. I’m going to sit on your hood. I think, with enough weight, they’ll come apart.” His voice is low and whispery, like he never recovered from throat surgery.

“Don’t you want me up there, then?” She points to her hood. He’s staring at her, wearing an expression that looks attentive, but isn’t. He walks toward the locked bumpers.

“Put it in neutral,” he says again. She nods, like when they tell her to do this at the car wash.

He sits on the hood, and she feels her car dip like a boat in a lake, hears metal scrape away from metal. The children have opened their windows. They hang out and cheer for the bus driver. Their arms are long, innumerable, lacking only tentacles to be truly frightening. Unlike Cora, they are having a great day.

From her hood, the driver puts his feet against the bus. He pushes and her car rolls backward. She brakes so she won’t hit the police car and the bus driver shoots her a look like she’s a troublemaker. He climbs off the hood.

“All right,” he shouts, and now he’s got a booming, throaty yell. The whisper must be what he does to preserve his voice for screaming at kids all day.

He strolls back to the cruiser and the cop gets out. In her rearview mirror, she sees them talking. Why do men stand and women sit? She opens her door, steps out and stretches.

Now she can hear what the boy is saying. Singing, actually. He’s singing the words, “Oh, dumb lady,” over and over to the tune of “Oh, Christmas Tree.”

One sharp look from Cora and arms slip back inside bus windows. But the boy elbows up front, puts his sneering head out and shouts the words, “Oh, dumb lady,” losing his grip on the tune by raising the volume. He’s like her brother Mitch used to be: a scrappy kid, attracted to chaos. Mitch lives in California now. He produces a game show. She turns her back and tries to ignore the kid, but this proves impossible because he’s discovered new lyrics.

“Oh, dumb lady, oh, dumb lady, your driving really scares me.” He chokes on laughter and his friends pound his back.

Holding her arms tightly around herself, Cora turns her back to the bus, afraid of what she might say. She fantasizes about making a rude gesture at the kid, then can’t believe she’d even think of such a thing. She tries to imagine what her mother would say. Her mother loves children; she’s good with them. She’d smile and say, “Hey tough guy, put a lid on it!” and all the kids would laugh.

The thought of her mother comes up against the rest of her day, and she has the strong urge to see her, to get a hug. Cora swallows to keep from crying.

“Oh, dumb lady…” the boy sings. The Santa puppet chops madly at her.

“Hey tough guy,” she shouts, just to make herself feel better. “Put a lid on it!”

The children stare.

“Ma’am.” Standing behind her, the policeman looks like he thinks Cora might hit the kid.

She follows him back to her car.

“I’m just giving you a warning.” He hands her a pale green slip of paper. “The bus wasn’t damaged. But you might want to get your fender looked at.” Together, they turn and study her car. The Honda lists to the left. It’s silver where it’s not rusted. The tires are bald. Stuck in the grill is a single, ominous feather.

“I’ll have it checked out today,” she says. They smile at each other, and she cuts her eyes to the ground. She won’t get her car checked. Not today, not tomorrow. She sees the future more clearly, and it does not include the cop. He could never be with the woman who drives this car.

“I hope you and your boyfriend work things out.”

She recalls Dale, wrapped in Frosty the Snowman, and smiles. “We won’t,” she says, meeting his gaze. “But thanks.”

As the bus starts up again, the kid in the Yankees cap leans back out the side window and screams, “Oh, dumb lady!”

She looks at the cop, hoping he’ll give the boy a stern warning, but instead, he smiles, touches the brim of his hat, and turns back to his cruiser.

The boy’s words echo in her head after the bus and the policeman have driven away. Swallowing hard and wiping her eyes brusquely, she heads to her car. Dumb lady. What was she doing with Dale in the first place? He’s not the one for her; she knew that a month into the relationship. But new beginnings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and Cora is tired of starting over.

She decides to buy a tree on her own at the Goose Creek Farm. Then she’ll visit her mother, who lives in Saint George, just near there. Cora will get that hug. At her mother’s insistence, she’ll stay for dinner. First, they’ll take eggnog out to the three-season porch and watch the sun set over Lake Iroquois. Her mother will tell her not to worry about Dale; everything is going to work out. But then she’ll get quiet, concerned about her daughter’s future, her own ache for grandchildren. Cora will pull her chair around and they’ll hold hands. That’s when she’ll tell her mother about the school bus and the smart-ass kid who reminded her of Mitch. By tonight, it will have become a funny story after all. They’ll laugh—too hard maybe—and use cocktail napkins dotted with reindeer to wipe tears off their cheeks.