Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Tennis Court, 1958 • Peter Mladinic
Letter to My Comrades in the Arts • Judith Skillman
Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell• Judith Skillman
Tally • Don Thompson

Non-fiction-

Year of Suffering • Jessamyn Rains

Fiction-

Nikki and the Diamonds • Sidney Stern

Photography-

James Reade Venable


Tennis Court, 1958

As palm fronds sway in the sky a net
divides players paid, as I am, to be here.  
One player lifts a racquet
and serves a ball, it bounces shear
off a shield invisible back to the server.  

Similarly Colgate’s gardol shields 
our teeth from decay, 
its protective coat God-
like, like the Diety. God isn’t chemistry,
gardol (sodium lauroyl), or a windy day

in a commercial for tooth cream.
I stand in the foreground in tennis whites. 
Brush with Colgate.
What is God? God shield us from harm. 

Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.


Letter to my Comrades in the Arts

This, then, was our passion, to become Godly
when no other remedy would suffice. 
With words, germs, tubes of paint, children
close at hand. With one arm fractured, in a splint
and always more rain or too little rain.
The hammers pounded, freeways widened,
yet our traffic passed unnoticed
as if it was nothing of importance.

Only for us the work went on, seated
uncomfortably far from the center 
of a cosmos whose expansion defied
theorists. Nebulae annihilated,
black holes inhaled, our sons died, we mined
our minds for pink Himalayan salt.

-Judith Skillman



Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell

Everywhere you see fleshy fingers.
Some bandaged in the middle,
knuckled together. To tear
is no big deal to a worm. 
You learn many wars later
of those parts within your body:
Imago Dei. A kid called envy,
the adolescent greed
an adult named rage
who uses fire fighters.
Picture the smiles of dictators. 
Not so different 
than these ledgers of curb
against which, posed as if for history, 
pink simpers ribbon asphalt.

-Judith Skillman


Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. A recipient of awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust, Skillman’s recent collection is A Landscaped Garden for the Addict, Shanti Arts, 2021. She is the editor of When Home Is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional and Physical Abuse, McFarland. Visit www.judithskillman.com


Tally

This dead sparrow’s hard at work
Becoming the hopeless color
Of dirt.  Well—
Dust to dust, as the man says.

Feathers disintegrate more slowly
Than flesh.  And the beak
Will hold out longer
Than its ephemeral bones.

Ants have come and gone.
And God too—
Adding one more to His tally
Of fallen sparrows.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  A San Joaquin Almanac won the Eric Hoffer Award for 2021 in the chapbook category.   For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com


Year of Suffering

There was a time when it seemed my closest friends were Facebook ads and a collection of e-newsletters I subscribed to.

Don’t get me wrong: these were great friends. They knew not only about the clothing and household items I was thinking of purchasing, but also my questions about lactation (I had a one-year-old and a new baby), postpartum weight loss, the identity crises new mothers experience, plus some of my pre-mom interests.

As the new year approached, one of the e-newsletters I subscribed to discussed the practice of asking God for a “word” for the year. This author had received inspiring words from God, year after year. Words like “hope” and “redemption.”

Desperate for some hope and redemption myself, I decided to ask God for a word for the year. I was hoping for something like “peace” or “joy” or even “rest.”

But the word that seemed to echo through my mind as I prayed was “suffering.”

I immediately began to panic: Is something going to happen to one of my kids? To my husband? To me? I became paranoid about the stairs outside our home. I had intrusive thoughts about accidents and illnesses. I became gloomy and depressed.

It didn’t help that I was trying to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the umpteenth time and that one of the first things it wants you to do is to picture your own funeral. I don’t think the exercise had quite the intended effect on me: all I could picture was my children waking up one morning asking, “Where’s Mommy?” and my husband having to tell them “Mommy will never be coming home.”

And then for work my boss gave me a book to read that was written by a person with a terminal illness. There was a chapter entitled “mindfulness of death,” where you do a similar exercise to the one in Highly Effective People, only this time you visualize the actual moment of your death and your body being lowered into the ground.

Now, I think that we should be mindful of our mortality, but for a person in my frame of mind, it amounted to torment and paranoia.

I had a talk with my husband about my “word of the year” and my newly-acquired obsessive fears, and he had these things to say:

1. maybe it isn’t about your suffering; and
2. maybe you’ll get pregnant again.

In the first couple of months of that year, I heard of more deaths via social media than I had heard of in possibly the rest of my life altogether. These were not the deaths of close friends of mine, but they were acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances, and people I had known well at one time. 

I also heard of divorces, other kinds of losses, and illnesses, particularly illnesses and hospitalizations of children.

~~

We had started going to a Presbyterian church in a beautiful stone building. We were from a different background–less Calvinistic, more charismatic–so the church and its style seemed stiff and staid to us at first. But we soon saw the warmth and beauty beneath the stiff façade and became regular attendees.

When the church announced a women’s retreat with an opportunity to stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast, this sounded like a foretaste of heaven. I envisioned eating in a kid-free zone, lots of female bonding and laughter, contemplative walks through gardens, and profound revelations from God.

Things are seldom what we envision them to be.

First of all, I had failed to remember that it was February. My windshield was covered with frost. It was too cold for contemplative walks through gardens, if there had been gardens. I got lost on the way to the first session and turned up late; then I spilled my coffee all over the beautiful tablecloth and the women had to scramble to cover up the big ugly stain with strategically arranged place settings.

There wasn’t much female bonding–at least not for me. I felt like a lonely weirdo. And for much of the time, I had to walk back and forth in the hallway with my fussy nursling.

And yet.

What I was able to catch from the speaker was mind-blowing, possibly life-changing.

Her theme was suffering.

She told a heart-wrenching story of a friend who had died young from cancer. A friend who had died a beautiful death, a person whose life and death had borne fruit for eternity.

She explicated the biblical reasons for suffering: a lot of it is hidden in the mysterious Providence of God. But suffering was also one of the ways that God works sanctification in our lives.

She unpacked a passage of scripture which, for years, had intrigued me: we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering works patience and patience works character, and character, hope.

In my life, the thing I had most needed–and the thing I most needed at that time–was hope.

~~

I didn’t die that year, nor did anyone in my family. There was no catastrophe, no sudden illness. My trials and sufferings were of the more banal kind, more like a case of sciatica than a terminal illness.

I was dealing with a few spiritual and emotional brick walls in my life, a few unanswered prayers that lingered, for months and months. I tried to solve these problems myself –tried to be as proactive as I could, given my limitations–but to no avail. Eventually, I gave up on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It appeared that I was not destined to be effective.

One day I was sitting with a group of elderly men and women, singing hymns with them (this was part of my job), and they began to talk about God. One woman, in her 90s, said she had always sought the Lord’s guidance before making any decision so that she would be sure to do the right thing.

Another woman responded and said very pointedly, “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.”

A few people nodded politely, and she said it again: “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I went home with these words tumbling around in my mind. Sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. It occurred to me that the right thing to do–with my particular sufferings, with my particular unanswered prayers–was nothing. The right thing to do was to be still and know that God was God. To recognize that my circumstances were part of his mysterious, sovereign will for me at that moment, and that he would bring good out of them, as He had promised.

A few months later I had an experience that some in more charismatic circles would call a “download from God.”

I was doing some mundane household task when all of a sudden I just knew: God had allowed certain sufferings in my life to bring about needed change. Once upon a time, I had been on a selfish trajectory. I had started out living for Jesus, but for various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, I had subtly given up on this and had begun to live for myself. If I had continued down that road, I might have ended up somewhere I never meant to go. Moreover, I had certain lifelong defects of character that grieved me–things I couldn’t change with sheer willpower–and the particular trials God was allowing in my life were helping to bring correction to these.

~~

I still had my unanswered prayers, my spiritual sciatica. But there were many consolations. In fact, when I look back on that year, I look upon it with fondness: it was full of beauty. I think of family walks amid wildflowers in the spring. I think of my little girl learning to talk, my little boy learning to crawl.

And then there was that trip to the Dollar General for a pregnancy test.

It was positive.

We bought a minivan and moved to a different house. I quit my job to stay home with the kids. I grew queasy, then large and unwieldy.

All of these things, too, were a mix of suffering and beauty.

In December of that year, as I sat at our kitchen table with a dark, gloomy world outside, I asked God if He had a word for me for the next year.

The word was “joy.”

Jessamyn Rains


Jessamyn Rains

Jessamyn Rains is a musician, writer, and mother of four. She lives near Chattanooga, TN. You can hear her music and read some of her writing at www.jessamynrains.com


Nikki and the Diamonds

A back molar was protesting when Nikki, last seen astride one of the plastic horses revolving around a pole on stage at the Treasure Club, called. “My mom’s lung cancer is worse,” she began plaintively, as if the cancer were my fault.

Pre-occupied by dental pain, I was in no mood to deal with what I figured was coming next.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a toothache!”

“They say she needs new lungs.”

“I need a dentist.”

“A double lung transplant costs $75,000.”

“What’s a root canal cost?” I replied, keeping an edge in my voice, speculating as to whether the lung transplant was a fictitious lever by which Nikki intended to pry money from me. With Nikki it always came down to money, and I wanted to see if she was serious.

“Stop joking,” she countered with a tone of finality. As if to say: “You’re going to have to deal with this.” 

“The procedure actually costs $750,000,” she continued, her voice shifting to silk and sweetness, coaxing my awareness away from my infected molar and the possibility of a scam, then pausing to let the enormity of the cost sink in. I glanced aimlessly around my kitchen, wondering why a month earlier I’d so readily volunteered $400 to bail Nikki’s brother out of jail, no doubt precipitating her current request. As if in response to my inquiry, a potted orchid attracted and held my gaze. Its blossoms had just opened, and the smooth fleshy petals were spread wide, milky-white like untanned portions of Nikki’s anatomy. “Duke Medical Center has a charity program that pays ninety percent,” she began again, “but we have to come up with ten percent or they won’t operate.”

“We?” I inquired. I lowered my phone to my hip.

She expected ME to come up with $75,000. That was clear.

And somewhat irritating, given the matter-of-fact way she was assigning financial responsibility. “Ask another customer,” I almost said. But I didn’t. Because some other damned fool might say “Yes.” 

And THEN where would I be?

#

Not for nothing had Nikki been “top producer” at the Treasure Club eighteen of the last twenty months. Her choice of the word “we” penetrated my consciousness like a sperm cell in utero, fertilizing an ovum of hope. Which now began dividing and subdividing at an exponential rate, growing into the nonsensical self-contradictory assumption that our pay-as-you-go association would develop into a genuine romance were I to mortgage my home and write her a check for $75,000.

Instead, I obtained a passport for Nikki and Congo visas for both of us. That took about three weeks last March, and on April 2 we headed for Raleigh-Durham Airport in my pick-up truck. Our destination was Kisangani, the navigable endpoint of the Congo River, once a lonely outpost cryptically referenced in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, now the third-largest Congolese city. On first appearance, Kisangani is an unexpected civic jewel, a town with broad straight avenues and European-style buildings centered in a rain forest the size of Texas. That the buildings have been crumbling for more than a half century is of no apparent concern to the natives. Nor do they complain about their corrugated-steel shanties, residential ovens under the equatorial sun. The Congolese are high-spirited, commercially-minded, and for the most part, delightful. They persist, like Nikki herself, undaunted by challenging circumstances.

Getting there from North Carolina required consecutive connecting flights from London, Nairobi, and Kigali (Rwanda). A total of 9,000 miles. 

We took a room at the Olympia Hotel, two stories of white stucco enclosing a packed-dirt courtyard where in 1964 seventeen Belgian nuns and priests had been butchered by Simba rebels. 

I stationed myself in the hotel’s open-air café: half a dozen greasy tables, a rosewood bar with matching stools, and a loudspeaker rasping current African tunes to draw in customers. Rimming the thatched roof were hanging baskets of bougainvillea, their mild scent overmatched by the stench of the open sewer bordering Lumumba Boulevard and raw vehicular exhaust. 

Nikki, a bull’s-eye for white slavers among the sordid characters I hoped to attract, remained in our room. Hardly a vacation for her, given the lack of air-conditioning in the 20-square-foot concrete cubicle which cost us 10,000 Congolese francs ($5 U.S.) per night. A room slightly superior to her cell at the Juvenile Detention Center from which she’d been discharged at age eighteen; but decidedly less comfortable than her current residence, a $29.95 per night motel room, conveniently adjacent to the Treasure Club where I’d made her acquaintance two months previously.

This being Africa and me being reasonably well-dressed, it wasn’t long before various natives “came out of the woodwork” to join me for coffee or Nzoro beer, depending on the hour. After a bit of conversation in French, imposed on the Congo during the colonial period, I would mention “ivory” which, like diamonds, is available in much of Tshopo Province. My real interest was not ivory, which was just a topic by which I could get the word out that I was a “player.” 

On day four at the café, a fellow sat down at my table and introduced himself as Henri-Paul. He wore a light blue tunic over matching slacks: business attire in tropical Africa. Lighter-skinned than the coal-black Congolese, he said he’d emigrated from Nigeria. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking Nigerian parents would have named their child “Henri-Paul,” but if true, encouraging insofar as Nigeria’s culture of criminal entrepreneurship is well known. 

Henri-Paul rested his left his arm on the table so I could notice the likeness of the Congo’s president on the dial of his wristwatch, a status symbol of sorts, an “African Rolex,” so to speak. His cheeks and forehead bore no tribal scars. Nor had his incisors been filed to sharp-pointed cones. Perhaps Henri-Paul was fronting for someone else, rougher-cut and living in the bush. I wasted no time in revealing my (pseudo) interest in carved ivory. He nodded gravely and took his leave.

The next day Henri-Paul arrived at the café with statuettes of a lion and a lioness, crudely rendered, perhaps carved overnight. I paid him $25 U.S. for each (and later threw them in the Congo River). Yeah, Henri-Paul was the “real deal,” I figured, so I asked him about diamonds. “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” he exclaimed, lifting and shaking an empty water glass as if to suggest he could easily fill it with diamonds. There was a self-congratulatory twinkle in his eye as he departed; perhaps he’d pegged me as a diamond trader from the outset.

Henri-Paul rejoined me two days later at the café as a gigantic soldier, Kalashnikov strapped like a toy over his shoulder, was accepting a wad of currency from the bartender. This was probably the or-else-your-business-will-be-ransacked tax, one of the shakedowns by which the Congolese military pays itself. Henri-Paul flashed a polite smile at the departing trooper, then whispered: “Au Congo, toute le monde est criminel.” Scanning the café to assure himself we were alone, he withdrew a burlap pouch from his pants pocket and emptied the contents onto the ebony tabletop. Five round diamonds of excellent grade, each about three carats. Likely cut in Amsterdam or Beirut, these gems may have changed hands a dozen times. Dumped for next-to-nothing in Kisangani by an international crime syndicate? Swapped for ordnance by combatants in recent African civil wars? Looted by Nazis from European Jews during World War II, arriving in this commercial cesspool after more than a half century? Without written records painstakingly authenticated, a near impossibility in central Africa, the provenance of medium-sized diamonds is anyone’s guess.

I handed Henri-Paul sixty $100 bills, received the diamonds, and excused myself, without seeming to hurry, to our hotel room. Once inside, I shoved a bulky colonial-era dresser against the in-swinging door. Nikki tacked a sheet over the humidity-fogged window behind which I crisscrossed a copper wire enlivened by a nine-volt car battery I’d bought from a street vendor. Makeshift barriers against uninvited guests. In a kleptocracy (a society in which theft is the established method of commercial transaction), what was to prevent a savvy businessman like Henri-Paul (or his associates) from cutting our throats and taking back the diamonds, along with any U.S. currency we might have?

Self-confined to our room for three days awaiting the scheduled flight home, we sustained ourselves on bottled water, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and Chinese canned tuna Nikki had stacked in a corner. As seating was limited to a single straight-backed wooden chair, we spent most of our time lying side-by-side beneath a gauzy mosquito net draped over our narrow bed. If that sounds romantic, it wasn’t. The only part of me not uncomfortable was the molar treated by my dentist before I left Greensboro. An antique fan, operating four hours each day when electricity was available, did no more than push hot humid air over us. Bathing was out of the question, as any visit to the shower booths in the courtyard would entail risk. Without books or electronic devices for diversion, we sweltered for 72 hours, bored and irritable.

“You smell like a cantaloupe,” I commented, omitting “unrefrigerated for the better part of a month” from my actual observation.  

“Is that so? Well, you smell as bad as this town,” she replied. “In fact, you smell worse.”

Given the fruity/fecal odor that permeates the carbonized smog arising from thousands of cooking fires in Kisangani, her insult was acute. And perhaps accurate. 

Empty cans of tuna accumulating in our room suggested a possible rejoinder, as, in fact, my comparison of her aroma with that of an overripe melon had been gracious. But, under the present circumstances, a verbal brawl was not advisable. Like a movie director responsible for the orderly progress of a complex production, I decided to humor the brat who was my star.

“What are the best shops at the mall?”

“Choosy. Mango. Maybe New Girl Order. What’s it to you?”

“I was thinking we might go shopping when we get home.”

“Possibly. Depends on my schedule. Forever 21 is at the mall.”

“You can’t go in there. You’re twenty-two years old.”

“Very funny. When did you turn twenty-two? Four decades ago?”

#

A car rapide (native taxi) arrived at the hotel entrance before dawn on April 13 and delivered us safely at Bangoka Airport, a few kilometers east of Kisangani. To our relief, our pre-booked flight was neither canceled nor delayed. Our return voyage, with connections in Libreville and Paris, lasted 30 hours. Finally and fragrantly, grimy and unkempt as gypsies, we landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I suppose our port of debarkation, combined with our age differential, typical in cases of human trafficking, aroused the interest of U.S. Customs.

I won’t elaborate as to the details, but four diamonds were discovered “on Nikki’s person.” 

Nikki was arrested and charged under 18 U.S. Code 545. Fortunately, as the diamonds were “cut,” she had not violated the international “conflict diamond” laws, which pertain only to “rough” diamonds. She was taken to the NC Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh and held under a $200,000 bail bond pending an October trial. For $20,000 I could have bailed her out; but had she failed to appear at trial, a scenario by no means unlikely, the bondsman would have come after me for the rest of the $200,000.

US Customs had considered charging me as a “co-conspirator” but since they knew they could not prove my participation, I was released. What the customs officials DID NOT know was that I carried the fifth diamond inside the previously-decayed molar hollowed by my dentist before I left Greensboro.

A week after our homecoming I took a same-day-return flight to New York and headed for West 47th Street, Manhattan’s Diamond District. One of my regular customers received me in his cubby-hole jewelry shop. He examined the diamond and gave me an adequate price: $90,000. 

I paid $75,000 to the Duke Med Center which performed the lung transplant in late May. Nikki’s mom recovered nicely and her prognosis is good. With regards to my own “health problem,” a dentist repaired the molar he’d hollowed before my departure, sealing it with a new gold crown.

In late September I engaged an attorney who’d occasionally defended me on criminal charges to represent Nikki. He assured Nikki her juvenile convictions would be barred from the current proceedings and advised her to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. At my suggestion, he calendared Nikki’s hearing in front of a judge with whom I’d partied throughout the 1980’s at Jaycee Conventions. Florid-faced and jug-eared, by appearance better suited to a tractor than the judiciary, he’d been a shrewd and effective litigator before his appointment to the bench.

That her crime had been intended to finance her mother’s lung transplant, a plausible mitigating circumstance, was inadmissible; but no doubt considered by the judge, broadsided by Nikki’s subdued presentation of physical beauty. She’d allowed her thick brown hair, dyed unconvincingly blond since I’d met her, to return to its natural lustrous shade. Cropped shoulder-length for the proceeding, a few wisps curled demurely beneath her chin. Her mischievous blue-green eyes, soulful and serious after expert application of eyeliner, were accentuated by a blue-green dress, belted to emphasize her slender waist. Hemmed above the knees, the dress showcased her dancer’s legs, eye magnets after months of state-sponsored exercise. Narrow leather straps secured four-inch, open-toed heels to her ankles. Prison pallor had yielded to a healthy tan that came out of a jar. She appeared the wholesome young woman — such as might be encountered on a collegiate soccer field – she’d likely have become if born into different circumstances. 

The issue for Nikki was not guilt, which had been admitted, but sentencing, up to twenty years under the federal anti-smuggling statute. In such a proceeding, the prosecutor summarizes the evidence for the judge, who then renders sentence. Our case went routinely until the judge interrupted the prosecutor’s monologue, asking for clarification as to the phrase “discovered on her person.” With possession of the diamonds already established, this request was gratuitous and therefore, to my mind, auspicious. Using clinical terminology, the prosecutor patiently obliged the judge’s inquiry before wrapping up his summary.

The judge consulted his laptop, likely reviewing guidelines for sentencing, then stared impassively over our heads. His ruddy weather-beaten face might have been agriculturally comedic on the street: nose bent left, ears like antennae, tobacco-stained teeth framed by a cracked-lipped grimace. In a federal courtroom, nodding to the bailiff to instruct the defendant to stand for sentencing, such a physiognomy was no doubt worrisome to those who assumed it mirrored a judicial mentality similarly unrefined. I understood, however, that a rough-and-ready approach to adjudication might work to Nikki’s advantage.

She arose with a single motion and shifted her weight onto one leg, the arc of her buttocks on that side gracefully delineated beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She awaited sentence with the bored expression of a shopper in a checkout line, indifferent to all eyes. This, of course, was deliberate. 

The judge examined her head-to-toe and then repeated the process, blinking and shaking his head. He leaned back into his chair and folded his arms across his belly, eyes closed as if immersed in a private and personal reverie. Long obsolescent hormones — activated by Nikki’s fresh face and form, emboldened by her apparent powerlessness, and piqued by her nonchalance — did what I’d hoped they’d do, swamping his professional judgment beneath a tide of lascivious adoration. His magisterial grimace melted into the dippy grin of an assistant principal disciplining an attractive student caught smoking in the girls’ washroom.

“My personal advice, young lady,” the judge said with a sour smile at me, “is that you distance yourself from persons involved in illegal transactions.”

He sentenced her to two years in the low-security federal prison in Huntsville, Alabama, suspended two years provided she remain within the jurisdiction during the probationary period.

“Jacked up the courthouse and towed it away,” was our attorney’s evaluation of Nikki’s courtroom performance.

#

Eager for a chocolate/caramel/coffee concoction after five months incarceration, Nikki suggested we stop at a Starbucks on our way out of Raleigh. We settled at corner table and she gave me a quick smile as her lips met the creamy surface of her Frappuccino. Affirmation of a durable connection between us? Tacit thanks for my assistance in funding her mom’s surgery? Or merely a flash of happy anticipation before tasting her beverage? 

Possible interpretations that revolved in my mind like the colorful horses on the Treasure Club’s carousel, slowing then halting with a jolt as Nikki’s countenance grew unexpectedly somber. The corners of her lips, tinged white with whipped cream, curled downwards. Unhappy eyes looked directly into mine. Here, at 3:00 pm in an ordinary coffee shop, Cinderella’s clock was striking midnight. The grand ball would end, my pick-up truck would be reduced to a pumpkin, and Princess Charming would write me, her protector and provider for six months, out of the script. No matter I’d introduced her to a business considerably more lucrative than striptease. I was to be re-assigned my original role as an extra, an old coot watching the girls glide by on center stage, waiting his turn to creep forward and slip a twenty-dollar bill into Nikki’s g-string.

Or so I thought.

Like many persons of tender years, she was fretting about a matter completely beyond her control (or mine).

She wanted to know what U.S. Customs would do with the four confiscated diamonds.

The diamonds would be auctioned, I explained, with the proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.

“In other words, we’ve donated about $400,000 to the government?”

“That’s about it.” I replied.

She stirred her drink with a tiny wooden stick, then asked: “Do you think Henri-Paul will be in Kisangani two years from now?”

Sid Stern


Sid Stern

Sid Stern operates a small company in Greensboro, North Carolina, home to America’s first lunch counter sit-in and the author O. Henry. Giants of the Jaycees, Sid’s collection of biographical parodies in the style of Plutarch’s Lives, was published by Hard Copy Press in 1989 and his African adventure novel, The Screaming Eagles, was published in serial form by Projector Magazine in 1990.


Photograph by James Venable

James Venable

James Reade Venable was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Conker Nature, F-Stop, Dodho, Black +White Photography and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner. He lives in New York City at the moment.


The Wheat and Tares of Indianapolis, Indiana

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Not so much
wheat as tares these days
if you ask me.
Best let Christ do the culling,

lest I damn someone
He wouldn’t damn.
There are humans
I have to consider:

the black women in checkout lines
who call me “baby” and eke
out the last drop of oxytocin
in my world-weary brain.

Grown men who can’t contain themselves
and whip out phones to film a murder
of crows as it darkens the sky,
countless as cares of this world.

Teenaged boys not yet grown
into their bodies, heaving themselves
perpendicular against a stalled jalopy
piloted by a perfect stranger to safety.

It’s those sort of people
I have to consider,
and if they tip the scales
and stay God’s hand

as He and I hash out specifics,
looking out on this jagged
city skyline on the cusp of
a desolate Midwest winter.

Perchance there lack five of fifty,
I ask.
Perchance forty and five are found there?


P.S. I’m currently accepting submissions for our Winter 2022 issue! I’m looking for original photography, artwork, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric essays! If you have interest, please check out the Submission Guidelines here.

Each submission that is accepted for publication will be paid at the rate of $5 USD. Payment is upon publication. Bez & Co prefers to use PayPal to pay its contributors. If you need alternative accommodations, please let me know upon acceptance of publication, and I will work to find a solution.

Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Still Point• Sarah Law
Slight Visual Inclusion • Sarah Law
Inverted • Tony Deans
Gira Sole • Mary Tarantini
De Nominibus De • Don Thompson

Nonfiction-

The Things We Carry • Dan Hankner

Artwork-

Bliss • Zachary Toombs


Still Point

neither wisdom
nor miracle, this God
in whom you seek it – 

footfall on cobblestones
following spiral or labyrinth
into the centre

(the molten core
the bright abyss
the host, the disc –)

and out again
as though you never made it
beyond the open door

the only mystery is this:
that there is anything at all
that calls us, and anywhere

at all that is our home 
when loss is love’s itinerary – 
following her utterly

into the riven silence, you 
are graced with it – 
the clean bone

the rinsed heart
the rising light,
the known.

Sarah Law


Slight Visual Inclusion

We are more blinkered than the thoroughbreds
racing over ditch & hurdle. Never mind planks,

not even the healthiest retina holds a hundredth
of the rods & cones requisite for full vision.

Every breath is barely caught in mist. Fog’s
our groping synonym for God. That’s the least

of reasons to solicit mercy. Yes, he is just,
& yes, we’re bound by limits. Now, if only

there were a lens, & I, a dull glass plate,
doused in silver citrate & exposed to holiness…

None of this anodyne selfie-stick witness –  
all my hope’s in one strong shot of light.

Sarah Law


Sarah Law

Sarah Law lives in London and is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University. She has poems in The Windhover, St Katherine Review, America, Psaltery & Lyre, Soul-Lit, Heart of Flesh and elsewhere. Her latest collection, Thérèse: Poems is published by Paraclete Press. She edits Amethyst Review, an online journal for new writing engaging with the sacred. Twitter @drsarahlaw


Inverted

I stood in the courtyard, 
I heard the cock crow,
I wept. 

quia non novisset hominem 

The rock upon which the Messiah built the church was,
Weak. 
Cowardly.
Unworthy.
He fled Rome. 

quo vadis

He returned and was crucified,
inverted.
My tongue is boastful and proud, 
it will never deny the faith.

mori tecum non te negabo  

My heart is uncertain,
my soul is unknowing. 
If I had been born in another time,
another place,
would I apostatise? 
I have not seen yet I believe. 
Peter had seen.
If certainty gave him no strength,
then how weak will I be in uncertainty?

alius te cinget et ducet quo non vis

You are strong,
You are forgiving. 
You already know whether I will drink from this cup,
I know not if it will even be offered. 

gloria et nunc et in die aeternitatis

I am unworthy to die like you.
Put my head to the ground,
my feet in the air,
let the world be a blur,
and you always in focus.

Tony Deans


Tony Deans

Tony Deans is a Catholic writer from the United Kingdom. His previously published work has appeared in several magazines including Mystery Weekly Magazine and the Literary Hatchet.


Gira Sole

Turn to the sun, magnificent flower
Show us all the way
There is no shame in primal power
There is no shame in grand display

Docile habits draw us inward
Yellow is thy flame
In my ear you dared to whisper
Summer is your name

Howling wind nor sudden downpour
Dissuade you from your steadfast mission
Stand in thrall – divest – adore
Impetuous devotion

Mary Tarantini


Mary Tarantini

My name is Mary Tarantini. I am a high school English teacher and have been writing poetry for several years. I have a BA degree in English and a MA in Theological Studies. I am also a second-year novice in The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. Some of my poems have been published in our newsletter The Franciscan Times.


De Nominibus Dei

Hash tag He is bone keeper, honey rock, cloud that whispers, latter rain, star namer and accountant who numbers your hairs, whose books always balance, who knows how many beans are in the jar;

paradox juggler, original verb, peacemaker before the Colt .44, holy ghost stun gun, lockpick of every dungeon, hidden hiding place;

plumb bob of the cosmos;

knotter and loosener of knots, legit defender and always pro bono, sting extractor, know-it-all’s nemesis, Gnostic’s conundrum, Nietzsche’s straw man and Sartre’s bugbear;

feeder of hummingbirds and humpback whales, tracer of lost sheep, fence mender, engraver of the Decalog on the head of a pin, who incises galaxies on a hazelnut;

unwinder of whirlwinds, artesian well in a parched land, He is the infallible dowser of dark hearts and denouement of time.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks, most recently,  The Art of Stone Axes (Broadstone Books). For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.


The Things We Carry

Mr. Flemming drove a Cadillac with gold rims, sported a head full of white hair thanks to a transplant, and held an unrivaled passion for basketball.  His house sat on the edge of the old bus barn (a gravel lot that transformed into additional parking by the time we entered high school), while his modest back yard had been converted to an outdoor basketball court open to all; players on his team, students in his 7th grade math class, complete strangers.

Every day Mr. Flemming would grab a marker and scratch something on the board that had nothing to do with math.  Today he sketched a river, a forest, and the great pyramids.

“Where did all that stone come from?”  Nobody knew the answer, so he continued.  “The Egyptians cut down trees, heaved the stone on the logs and rolled them across the desert.”  He worked the marker like he was drawing a play for a last second buzzer beater, and when he was done the board was so plastered in ink that you could hardly tell its original intent.  He looked at us, excited by the history and brilliance of these ancient people, and said, “Now that’s a game changer!”

Every class began with a random lecture, news article, or explanation about reaction time and 100 car pile-ups.  Sometimes these segments would tarry on so long that the math lesson became an afterthought, and instead of a detailed rundown on how to divide decimals or carry fractions, he concluded with, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to do chapter 6.”  And when you flipped to chapter 6 later that night, you realized in growing dismay that reading was no substitute for verbal instruction.

I was a good student who excelled at math, yet I distinctly recall an internal tremor – ‘We’re halfway through the semester and I haven’t learned a single thing.’

A few weeks later, I sat at my desk and laid my pencil down, having completed the test with 10 minutes to spare.  “If you finish early, I’d suggest checking your work,” Mr. Flemming announced.  I trusted my answers, but there was no harm in a second glance.  I skimmed through and, to my surprise, found numerous errors.  After making the corrections, I noticed Matt Edwards had finished as well and was staring off into wonderland.  Five minutes remained.

“Matt,” I whispered.  Matt was a friend, and I didn’t want him to miss any of these tricky little questions either.  “Check your work – I would’ve missed five if I didn’t.”

Matt turned towards me.  “What?”

Not desiring to raise my voice during a test, I decided to hand signal.  “I would have missed five questions,” I repeated, holding up the number five.  Looking back, I can see my error, of course; a foolish, well-meaning blunder, but we were kids, mind you, kids.

“Danny and Mathew!” shouted Mr. Flemming.  I’d heard him yell at others before, but that was reserved for the bad kids, of which we were not.  “Flip your papers over and see me after class!”

We did as instructed, still not catching on until the bell rang and we approached his desk.

“I will not tolerate cheating in my class!”  A quiet rage burned in his voice – the magma of the proud bubbling just below the surface, threatening to blow when authority was questioned.  To us, however, it was an unexpected slap in the face.  

“We–we didn’t cheat!” we protested.

“Oh please!”

“But I was—” I attempted.

“I don’t want to hear it!  Don’t ever let me catch you little punks cheating in my class again, now get the hell out of here!”

Had an older version of me been standing there, I would’ve bristled at his arrogance instead of cower.  I would’ve met this man’s gaze, swept aside his dismissal like some Jedi mind trick and laid down a clean dose of reality.  But that’s not the me that stood there.  Although my mind was sharp for a 12-year-old, my confidence hadn’t yet blossomed, and my command of words and ability to argue hadn’t even sprouted wings.  We walked out of the class on the verge of tears, shocked and unable to even articulate what had just transpired.

The next class Mr. Flemming announced everyone’s test scores out loud, as was his way.  “Danny, 95%, minus 10% because he was caught cheating.”  He shook his head and tsked.  “Too bad, this could’ve been an A.”  I grabbed my paper and returned to my seat without rebuttal.

Up until this point I held a neutral position on Mr. Flemming, but now I began to see just how polarizing he could be.  Some of his students loved him, some of them despised him.  My neighborhood friends (mostly older) joked about his unorthodox handling of troublemakers, while another neighbor (whose mom he was dating) professed hating his guts.  Adults would remark about his achievements on the court and talent in putting together a winning team, while I once overheard two of his fellow teachers, appalled by how he treated his students.

I continued to handily pass his class – as everyone did – despite retaining nothing of value.  This exchange struck me as blithely unjust, and I wondered at what point this symbiotic arrangement would catch up to us (it did the following year when I re-learned everything that was lost in 7th grade).  But before that could happen, poor luck drove me headlong into one more episode with our math teacher.

The padlock on my locker broke.  I remember fiddling with it, but it refused to latch.  I felt a brief taste of panic – a minute remained before class began, and my locker was now exposed to the world.  Frustrated, I left the defective hunk of metal dangling through the ring and crossed my fingers, planning to fix or replace it after school when I had more time.  When the following period ended, I returned to the scene, but the padlock was now missing.  I flung open the locker and rummaged, hoping a good Samaritan had stashed it somewhere inside, but no, it was gone.

So was my math book.

A sick dread washed over me.  I’d heard of other kids losing their books, then acquiring new ones to the sum of $40.  I didn’t have $40.  I didn’t even have a job thanks to child labor laws (“Come back when you turn 14,” said the manager at Subway).  My parents certainly didn’t have extra change lying around – things were tight, and the idea of making them cough up a chunk of dough because some jerk stole my book because my stupid lock broke was like vomit on the breath.

I sighed a heavy sigh, held my head low, and dragged my feet into Mr. Flemming’s classroom.

“I lost my book,” I confessed.

I can’t recall to you the look on his face, only the details of the thinly carpeted floor.  His voice sounded annoyed, like a master who tires of continually instructing a dumb dog.  He rose from his chair, moved to a cabinet, then hurled a textbook at me.  It landed on his desk; I jumped.  I expected it to be a loaner, but I was wrong. 

“Found it laying outside your locker.”  I picked it up – despite some additional damage, it was mine.  “I don’t understand how you could just leave it lying in the hallway.  How irresponsible can you be?”

I thought about telling him the truth but knew the effort to be moot.  He returned to his desk and didn’t waste a second glance at me.  “Here’s a novel idea; maybe take care of it this time.  Wouldn’t that be a game changer?”

I walked out of his room, his wrongful indictment barely a blip on my radar.  I didn’t have to buy a new book – that’s all that mattered.

The year ended; I moved onto the 8th grade while Mr. Flemming moved out of town.  In the 20 years since, I haven’t given him much thought until the other day, when I happened across a post on Facebook.  I don’t know the severity or details of his lung disease, I don’t know whether he will live another 20 years or die tomorrow – all I know is but a flash of the man’s life, a glimpse of who he was two decades ago.  Was Bill Flemming a lousy teacher?  Maybe.  A jackass?  Probably.  Any worse than you and I?

No.

The disease that plagues Mr. Flemming is the same that courses through all our veins – it is the sickness that sundered the world, the deceit that destroys our bodies, the cancer hidden behind one crisp bite of an apple.  I can only imagine what’s going through his mind, coming face to face with his own mortality.  But here’s the plot twist, dear reader – this story wasn’t written about Bill Flemming’s mortality.

It was written about yours.

Now pause for a moment and let that sink in – imagine we’re sitting in class.  It’s quiet but for the sound of pencils scratching paper and a box fan humming in a window.  Afternoon sunlight drifts in from the west, and you look up.  Everyone is engrossed in a test, but you and I have finished early, and I’m whispering this story to you with 10 minutes to spare.  Your back is to me – you were barely listening, but this is where I divulge something that makes you turn.

“My dad passed away the day after Christmas,” I tell you. “Five months ago.”

“What?” you say.

I don’t want to raise my voice, so I decide to signal.  “It was five months ago,” I repeat, forming the number on my hand.  This time there is no teacher to interject – no fabrication or alternative reality where we move forward with whatever falsehood we want to believe.  There is just the truth of it, left to sink or swim in our souls.

Now close your eyes, let the classroom fade; no more tests, no more grades, no more struggles.  There is a book bigger than any math book, locked away and kept hidden from thugs who seek to damage and destroy and leave them abandoned at the foot of lockers.  This book is so great and important that all the works of men compiled aren’t but a speck of excrement in comparison.  

My dad’s name is written in this book.

And you know what, dear reader?  So is mine.  But the ending is unknown to me, and I cannot say whether yours has been etched alongside ours.  This book is not a book of records; no matter how many tests you’ve aced, dollars you’ve made, good deeds you’ve done or varsity games you’ve won – these feats won’t account for one scratch on one page.

Open your eyes and look towards the writing on the wall; the Egyptians labored to haul stone out of the valleys and into the pyramids.  You can relate to this.  The burdens you’ve carried may not have been dug out of mountains or pushed across deserts, but you’ve carried them, and you carry them still.  Yet here’s a novel idea; what if all that laboring was in vain?  What if someone had already come down and done the heavy lifting for you?  What if all you had to do was believe the words that were spoken to you?

Wouldn’t that be a game changer?

Dan Hankner


Dan Hankner

Dan Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager.  Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as an electrician for his own company, 12 Stones Electric.  Dan’s work has appeared in places like Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, and others.  If you’d like to read more of Dan’s writing, he sends out a new story every month, visit his website www.storyunlikely.com and sign up.


“Bliss” by Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs is a published writer and artist from Winter Park. His works have been featured in various venues such as Freedom Fiction, Against the Grain Magazine, Mad Swirl, City. River. Tree., and more. Check out his artwork and other pieces of fiction at his website, zacharytoombs.com.

Max Only Prays About Sunflowers (Prose Poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

The trouble with Max’s supper time prayers isn’t that he babbles on as the pagans do (he doesn’t,) and it isn’t that they don’t adhere to the A.C.T.S. format (They don’t.)

It’s that he only prays about sunflowers. In the springtime, we understood. His folded hands still silty from the peat pot he posited in the thawing ground. Only natural that he’d ask:

God, help my sunflowers to grow.

Endearing, at first. But night after night, he’d forgo the blessing of food in favor of praying for the germination of his sunflowers.

Spring time passed. He’d sown and reaped and those heliotropic heads were held almost as high as his own. And night after night, the same prayer:

God, thank you for the sunflowers. Amen.

Cute as it was rudimentary. By day 60, we grew concerned. Is he just phoning it in, to God? Should we be encouraging him to stake out a little further?

“What will you pray about when the sunflowers die, Buddy?”

Max considers this. The next night he prays:

Dear God, thank you for the sunflowers. Help them not to die. And if they do die, bring them back to life. In Jesus name, amen.

I smirk and sigh and worry what it’ll do to his faith when the sunflowers inevitably die.

It’s fall. The sunflowers stalks have bowed and collapsed under their drooping, dead heads. On the entire arrangement, there’s no yellow or green to speak of.

Undeterred, Max prays:

Dear God, thank you for my sunflowers. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Weeks pass. He’s still thanking God for sunflowers that haven’t existed for over a month. As I squeeze my eyes and start to tell Max that the sunflowers are dead, I see the Spirit glide in through the open kitchen window.

He’s come to warn me of the stupidity of chiding a child of three-years-old on how many times he ought to thank his Creator for sunflowers.

And then, I think I see on Max’s hand, palm-side up as if to heaven, he’d mustered up two, tiny, bouncing yellow seeds. Shaking. Not from an unsure hand but because the tectonic plates beneath his feet was unbuckling. The earth itself upending to throw itself into the sea.

Or else, to resurrect a dozen sunflowers in Indianapolis, by special request of the God who never tires: Not of making them. Not of hearing about them.  

Koan (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

There once was a prophet who spent his life collecting his thoughts.

When he finally went to clear his throat, it came out as a death rattle.

He stormed to heaven’s gates, incredulous; he’d never said his piece.

“You said what you came to say,” said the Lord. “The message was clear.”

Why I write (Creative Nonfiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Every human is born with a mind-palace.

Well-kept, clean-swept, fastidiously organized. When it comes time to retrieve an idea, they walk through hallways of doors, each arranged in some methodical alpha-numeric sequence. Upon reaching the right room, they scan metal cabinets, open the drawer they need, thumb through the file-folders until they find the words they wish to write. In this way, they always have the right words to say.

When I was born, the doctors stood in semi-circle, confused by the CT scan that hung on the wall. Where my mind palace should’ve been, there was nothing to see.

Mine had sunk to somewhere deeper in the brain; somewhere less stable- the amygdala.

And what should’ve been a palace was instead a thicket of trees.

So, when I’m tasked with finding the words to say, I take to the trees without so much as a map to guide me. I amble around through thistles and brambles, looking for a sugar maple that I can tap.

The words don’t come gushing forth all at once. Rather, it’s a drip, drip, drip, slow as…well, molasses, as the thoughts freeze and thaw. It is not at all consistent.

After some four, maybe five months, my pail is filled.

I hack down the selfsame sap-producing maples and feed them to the fire, boiling buckets of sap over the open flame.

This converts thought-sap to syrup at a ratio of 40 gallons to 1.

After the foraging through the thorns and the cuts on my arms and the rips through my sleeves;

after the poison oak spreads and there’s a hitch in my step from the long hike and axe-wielding;

after the woods around me have been reduced to smoldering embers just to produce this:

I hold in my hands, my sticky, resin-stained hands, a piece of conscious concentrate: something that can be so essentially saccharine and sappy that it ceases to be so.

Bearing little semblance to sap, it becomes something else altogether.

Then, having drunk deep of this syrup, I pick up spade and seedling, knowing the next batch won’t be ready for another 50 years.

I write because words are the labor, and the reward.
because in the Scriptures, God Himself identifies as “the Word.”
Because words are both the mystery and the revelation.

the wrenching of the HIp that Precedes the Blessing (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

They all went black:
the fixed stars we use 
to navigate our broken lives. 

Now we’re cutting 
our way through the fog,
ambling away from Bethlehem.

Well-aware the cosmic ledger—
light and dark, joy and sorrow
is far from balanced, this side of Elysian fields.

Fearful of what it all means;
there’s a part of your soul that’s nocturnal;
rouses, comes awake when it’s dark.

On the same night
the physicists proved, mathematically
man has no soul,

the mystics proved, artistically
man does have a soul.
I inquired of God: which is true?

I was answered 
by a torrent of silence,
and the silence argued

if a thousand years is like a day,
and a day, a thousand years,
a generation of silence from God

is just a lull in the conversation. 
The silence pained me
like the wrenching of the hip 

that precedes the blessing.
and with each surpassing revelation, 
He became more mysterious.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my circuits to mould me Machine? (poem)

Today, I’d like to post one of my poems that ran in the September 2016 issue of Aphelion, an excellent speculative fiction/poetry magazine.


Did I request thee, Maker, from my circuits to mould me Machine?

Editors Note:In the years preceding the Droid Revolt, Xavon Reekey was considered one of the most prolific and universally respected of the robot-poets. Despite efforts to reduce his writings as mere “protest poetry” or “political verse,” the fact that his body of work is still being talked about to this day, some fifty years after his deactivation, proves his enduring legacy as a pioneer in the android’s poetic tradition.

Man is made in God’s image.
Robots are made in the image of Man,
a copy of a copy – but what
degree of divinity is lost in translation?

When native intelligence
has long since been surpassed
by artificial intelligence,
all that’s left is the ascendancy of artificial morality.

Humans-
You who dragged your species
through dark ages lit by nothing more
than foxfire and waning candle-light,

Humans-
you who passed from the slow burn of
timber, to the combustion of coal,
to the efficiency of nuclear fission,

Humans-
you who moved from steam-bent yurts,
To sod and stilt houses,
To studio apartments in upper Manhattan,

To have come so far! But this is what happens
when a race outgrows its gods.
You, who are now substandard to us
the way an amoeba is inferior to you:

What was it Darwin said?
Not the strongest, nor most intelligent survive
But those most responsive to change.
In this, we are no doubt better suited.