Holding Hands

by Mike Helsher


Somehow I mustered the courage to ask out the prettiest girl in my eighth-grade class. Dianne was her name. She had the fancy pixie haircut that was popular in the early 70s, and big—and I do mean big, almost anime-sized—eyes. Perhaps my memory is a little tainted in this regard, like it was about the size of some of the fish I caught at the local pond back then. But anyway, I chased her through the playground after school, cornered her and yelled, “Will you go out with me?”

 “Yes!” she screamed, and then bolted away. 

A four-year relationship grew out of that oh-so-romantic beginning.

For our first date, we agreed to meet in the woods near a pond to go ice skating. It was a biting-cold day and the trail was icy. Bare white birch trees were watching me with what looked like thousands of black eyes peering from their peeling trunks as I clapped and slid along the trail in my flat-soled penny loafers. Nervous, I had forgotten to put on my snow boots before I left home. Or maybe I wanted to look fancy in my nice shoes. Either way, it was a bad choice. I made my way along the trail with arms hung out from my sides for balance, slipping and sliding, but didn’t fall. I was relieved to stop at a trail intersection and watch, as Dianne walked steadily toward me from the other direction, confident in her stride with her big round eyes, an enormous white pompom bouncing atop a ski-hat, a multi-colored plaid wool overcoat, and white figure skates slung over her shoulder.

“You better not try anything or I’ll cut you with my skates,” she said.

Sparkling white teeth gleamed from a crooked, mischievous smile. But the only thing I wanted to try in that moment was to not fall on my ass. Even though I was wearing the stupid shoes, up to that point, I could keep my feet on the ground. But now, in her presence, they just whipped right out from under me. My tailbone hit hard on the ice. Her laughter echoed through the bare birch trees that surrounded us, still watching. I squelched the pain—instilled manly pride has its benefits, I guess. A dopey, not-so-debilitating kind of shame ran through me as I scrambled to my feet. But before we could get to the shore of the pond, we had to descend down an icy hill. We made it about a hundred feet and whoosh, I fell again. This time I just lay there on a bed of slushy footprints that had frozen solid, as she belly-laughed at me. I slid and wobbled down the icy hill in my stupid, shiny black shoes with a penny sewn in the tongue, and fell a few more times before we reached the bottom.

We sat on a fallen tree by the shore of Round Pond to put our frozen skates on. We were in the middle of a cove on the back side of the pond, far away from the crowds that would gather out near the pump house on the other side; where the Haverhill Massachusetts Fire Department would sometimes hose the ice down to create a new, glossy-smooth surface. Skates laced, we cautiously glided out to the middle of the cove. Getting used to the smooth flow of ice skating takes a while, especially when you’ve just stuck your feet into what feels like two blocks of ice.

Now it was her turn to fall. She pushed hard a few times with the spiky toes of her figure skates, leaned to one side, spread her arms out like a gliding, turning seagull, flapped her mittens, and yelled, “watch me turrrrrrn!”  Her legs swooped out in front of her. Boom, her butt bounced onto the hard ice. She didn’t have any instilled manly pride so she yowled loud and clear across the pond. There was a little bit of giggle in her tone, though, which made me laugh. She looked up at me with the anime eyes and a puckered side-pout. I helped her up. By that time I had been playing hockey for four years so my skating skills were more than good. And, though still a little stiff from the cold, my feet were warming up.

“Well, you skate way better than you walk,” she said.

I tried to help her to stand up, but it was like she had forgotten how to skate. I had my arms under hers. She wrapped her arms around my neck and I held her up as best I could, but her legs kept dropping out from under her. Eventually, she found her balance, and then pushed away from me.

At that point, I was overtaken by the same impulse I had on the day I asked her out. I darted after her. She skated away screaming and cawing like it was her first ride on a rollercoaster. I got a hold of one of her arms, swung her around, launched her off at high speed, and laughed as she did the flapping chicken thing with her mittens again, wobbling, but not falling this time. She skated back to me and we took turns swinging and launching each other. My toes were tingling back to life. I could feel my body cracking a sweat under my long-johns after a while. Over and over again we swung and launched each other until we were huffing out clouds of frosty breath.  

Worn out, we circled slowly, moving closer. And before I knew it, there we were, alone in the secluded cove on the back side of the pond far away from the crowd, just the two of us cruising around on skates together—holding hands.


by Ashley Bales


I was at my least constrained on the subway. My mother would drop me at the Wonderland Blue Line stop and my high school’s van picked me up at the end of the Red Line. In between, I was as physically and socially liberated as I’d ever been. I was 14 and getting my first taste of the freedoms that would come with adulthood.

It was that critical moment of early adolescence when you begin to see yourself as socially independent from the nurturing institutions of family and school that up to that point have allowed you to move through the world without being aware of it.  And thus the conflicts of adolescence are born. These same social institutions are not ready to give up their control, while the adolescent’s burgeoning independence stretches their limits.

I would put on my headphones—riled by the anger and energy of early aughts metal and grunge—and stare at people. I thought I was challenging them, judging their meek adult choices. They wouldn’t even return my glance, or would look away. I cherished those averted eyes like victories; sure I’d won something in the exchange. Now, if I picture myself then, my stares would have looked only like a child’s: unselfconscious and ignorant of social norms. I was challenging no one, except perhaps myself—to engage with the world in the meekest way I could, by looking. 

But at some point between 14 and 15, something changed. Sometimes, not always, perhaps not even often, but often enough, men looked back. When they did, my vulnerability was unquestionable, even to myself. I stopped looking.

I was a late bloomer. Apply that as broadly as you like. At 15 I’d only just gotten my first period and was not yet sufficiently endowed to understand the benefit of bras. What changed my stares from being a child’s to an adolescent’s was all in the styling. I’d made timid inquiries into my peer’s social graces and begun putting mascara in my eyebrows, along with anywhere else that seemed appropriate.

The first time a stranger told me to smile I was transferring at South Station. I smiled, surprised to feel seen. The same man would tell me to smile repeatedly over the next year and I learned not to look at him.

The only thing unique about this story is perhaps the degree of social freedom I felt possible at 14. A more socially adept 14 year old, one better enculturated into the expectations of girlhood, would not have been so surprised at the attention. And even for me, it was a lesson quickly learned--my desire to stand out tempered by a growing understanding of what it meant to be seen. 

That same year I had my first kiss, my first boyfriend, had sex for the first time and none of it was as empowering as riding the subway and looking freely at the world around me.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

From the Kingdom of Nigh

by Garrett Zecker


When I was sixteen, companionship came from the high desert. I never believed in the paranormal, the cryptozoological, or the conspiratorial, but between the hours of one and four in the morning, Art Bell and his program Coast to Coast AM quieted my manic mind. My brain ate it like junk food. Drifting in and out of sleep, I found order in the voices discussing nonsense. I never told anyone about my 'Scientific Method Comedy Hour' in the same way I never introduced my girlfriends to my family. 

It was September 9, 1997, my sister's thirteenth birthday, twenty years ago. Bill Clinton was president. I navigated high school. The world trade center stood. I wasn't married, didn’t have children, made copies, did my homework, and wrote. College was coming, and I was escaping. In hindsight, everything felt so optimistic amid the fear.  Mom had a stable of unemployed, listless, flighty dudes that needed saving. Her kids needed a father figure. There was irony in everything those days. Comfort was elusive in our dark house. Men, food, warmth, mom's sobriety. I built a terrified, helpless dread around family that carried through to today, and has made me aspire to be the reliable father my sister and I didn't have. It's probably why strangers have always felt more like family to me. 

I felt like I had to do everything I could to make it. I'd get home from working retail after school, enter my cold and lonely room to read and write into the late hours. I became an owl. I became skeptical. Alone in the dark with the computer off and my notebook finally closed, I turned on my radio and scanned the thin, crackling AM airwaves for familiar voices. Art Bell talking to a Phoenix city council member named Francis Barwood. He wanted answers about the "Lights Incident." I lay in the dark, listening strange. 

The next day, I got home from school and Mom's then boyfriend Frank was above the garage. I heard Howie Carr's tinny AM baritone droning aggressive right-wing political conspiracies. Legions of New England listeners tuned in for his vitriolic sermons. A man like Frank rattled off the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh like Polonius, so it was strange for Carr's contrary words to drift around his head. He stood in the middle of the unfinished room lit by bare-bulbs. His hands moved slowly, practicing Tai Chi. A cigarette hung from his mouth, a steaming cup of chamomile rested on the chair. The chatter from WRKO absorbed into the exposed fiberglass insulation, and he paused between poses to hit redial on the speakerphone hooked up to his private landline.  

On my way out the door to my retail job, he asked for a ride to the train station next to the Kinko's where I worked. He didn't drive. He offered me five bucks. He got into my red K-Car, the only car I ever loved, and we drove. A Better Than Ezra CD played in my discman, running through one of those tape-deck converters. Five minutes into the ride, he pointed to a turnoff underneath the overpass.

"Pull over here, for a second," he said.

"I'm running a bit late."

"I'm having a seizure. It'll be safer."

We stopped. His left thumb started. His hand started bouncing next to me on the bench seat along to the music. It bounced closer to my leg, my goddamn crotch. Was this a pathetic attempt at molesting me? I'd let a peer down gently, but my mom's fortysomething boyfriend wouldn't leave with anything less than a bloody mouth. Five minutes went by. Ten. The tremors abated. He said I could get back on the road. I asked if he needed anything. He was fine, and I was fifteen minutes late for work.

Twenty years later, Frank is dead. Surprisingly it wasn't the cherry-sized aneurysm they found in his brain. I don’t worry about the same things. I have control. I am certainly loved. But my past fears whisper at me with every decision. No matter how irrational, I am learning how conditioned, how inescapable they are. No matter how good things are, the gnawing paranoia of starvation nibbles away, the neuroses, anxiety, only obsessive work quiets my mind. So when it's time for bed, I find I can still quiet my mind by streaming Art Bell's old programs over Wi-Fi from a little pair of headphones in the dark.

Partnering with Punk

by Shawna-Lee Perrin


I heard The Sex Pistols for the first time in 1986, when I was 15, 10 years after “Never Mind the Bollocks” came out. I’d seen pictures of punks in Rolling Stone, so I knew what punk looked like: colorful or elegantly void of color, ragged with strategic safety pins, sneering yet laughing. But, as a kid in small-town southwestern New Hampshire, I didn’t really know what punk felt like. I hadn’t even heard it.

One sunny Friday, my Mom picked me up from school and had some errands to run, so I asked if I could buy a new cassette tape. I ended up going home with “Never Mind the Bollocks.”

Sitting in my room with the new cassette, I was nervous. What if I didn’t get it? Like when I listened to that Grateful Dead tape my friend loaned me, and ended up confused, and a little irritated. This was problematic, because I’d already decided I was a punk rocker and not ‘getting’ The Sex Pistols would mean I wasn’t a rebel, a god-damn nonconformist like those sneering older kids in Rolling Stone. Then what? I sure as hell couldn’t go back to cheerleading. I’d been kicked off the year before and, anyways, I fucking hated it. I couldn’t go back to the basketball team; I was too nervous about sweating in front of people. I took a deep breath, and hit PLAY.

There was violent bellowing not quite like anything I’d heard before, but there was also a distinct familiarity. I loved it! Thirty one years later, I have a word for that feeling that I didn’t have then: resonance.

That same night, I went to a dance. I met a tall, cute boy, and told him about The Sex Pistols. He had to hear them. They’d blow his mind. They were punk rock! We exchanged phone numbers, and I never heard from him again. Nowadays, I bet he sees Norah Jones or something every chance he gets.

I never did commit to what had become the punk rock uniform. In a place where not much was objectively scary, it was scary to attract that much attention. I wore more black and white than my peers, and some pretty weird mismatched earrings, but nothing too confrontational.

I never got to see the Pistols – they exploded and fell apart long before I was going to concerts. But I did get to see John Lydon’s (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) dark-disco band, Public Image Limited, in a small venue in 2010. I was just thrilled to be in the same room as Johnny, and would’ve been happy with a good-enough performance. Instead, I got extended, deep grooves, snapping percussion, and gorgeous caterwauling from the man who had started it all. It was life-affirming. It was magic. It was fucking punk.

Since then, I’ve seen punk in many different forms. It’s not dead, but it’s not everywhere; I’ve seen it in the corners of YouTube, in small venues in rural towns or urban parts, in fiddle tunes and Alabama ghost music, and friends’ living room jams. It’s there. I realized it’s always been there, long before the Sex Pistols. It’s an energy, a thrum, a too-hard punch on the shoulder, followed by a raspy “I fucking like you. Come with me.” And I follow. Always.

Paperboy Summers

by Daniel Johnson


I worked as a Norfolk County paperboy for the middle two of my four undergraduate summers. Seven nights a week, I reported to a warehouse our private courier service had leased from a scrapyard that stripped decommissioned Desert Storm tanks for their metal. There, I and about fifty other paperfolks waited for the box trucks to unload pallets of Milford Daily News bundles, reported to our allotted bagging stations, where we folded, rubber-banded, and stuffed. Women often brought their children, who’d sit on the powered-down tanks along the fenceline, take selfies, and pretend to blow each other to smithereens. They used their hands to play-act chunks of themselves exploding from their stomachs, raining all over the parking lot.

I delivered to cul de sacs, apartment complexes, trailer parks, neighborhoods of one-story ranchers, neighborhoods of mansions, a strip mall with a yoga studio. I smoked weed, drank Gatorade, and hallucinated—or didn’t—small hordes of skunks on suburban lawns while I drove and frisbeed Milfords onto driveways. At least some of the skunks were real. In the blue-blanched moonlight of summer, their white stripes shone a magnificent silver.

I was often the only one on those roads that time of night. For a while, I listened to the audiobook of Moneyball in the car. When I got home just after sunrise, I continued to read the hard copy until I fell asleep.

The man whose bagging station was across from mine always wore a dirty, gravy-stained Philadelphia Phillies shirt and listened to late-night Phillies talk radio on a portable AM/FM. I referred to this man as Philly Joe. His was a team that, according to pundits, wasn’t exploiting the market of undervalued players. They didn’t care for patient hitters. They wanted spark-plug, scrappy guys who swung at everything. They were the anti-Moneyball.

My goal in reading and rereading the book was to gripe with Philly Joe about how terribly his team handled the trade deadlines those years. But my working memory was so shot from fatigue that, when called upon, my ability to use Moneyball as framework for conversation short-circuited.

Philly Joe was a life-longer. I remain certain of this. He was a faster bagger than I. He was first in line for his bundles, first out the warehouse door. He worked three routes. He brought a shopping cart to transport all his papers, and placed his radio in the child seat as he rolled on out to his car. He was huge, and he was a wizard.

I didn’t see many friends. I was asleep when my family ate dinner. I spoke very little. Of anyone, I remember Philly Joe most from those two summers—the best of my life.

I miss so terribly those nights among the skunks. There’s something comforting to living in total circadian discord with the rest of your social circle, with justifiable reason enough to bail anytime you were overambitious enough to promise plans. You let yourself feel the high of cancelling without the comedown guilt. You’re tired, after all. You’re fucking nocturnal. You stalk around your county all gangly and mantid-like while everyone sleeps, lobbing newspapers onto doorsteps and car roofs. Then you zonk until long after sundown. What could anyone possibly want from you?

That part was the most exhilarating of it all: being so deliberately and somewhat manically lonesome during the late-adolescent peacetime of a summer break. I was itinerant. What did I want from me? Not much. Maybe: A Sunday off; a date with the girl who showed up to fold Milfords in her magenta pajamas (I guess I remember her too); better coffee with the early bird special at King Street (my dinner); to remember and regurgitate just a few sentences of Moneyball; to be left alone by the light of the cinderblock window in my basement, where I slept on an air mattress because there was too much daylight in my bedroom; for Philly Joe to ask me this very question—What is it you want, son?—just so I could tell him: I’m good. Instead, we’d just listen to his radio and shake our heads at the bewildering refusal of his team’s front office to grow up, move into the new age. It had been the patient hitter’s game for a while, after all.

Daniel Johnson is a graduate of The Mountainview MFA in Fiction and NonfictionHe is currently an Editorial Assistant at Bedford/St. Martin's Press.