Johan Alexander

Belinda (Melody 3)

ISH Muhammad

dear girl

Belinda (Melody 3)

Johan Alexander

Why so forlorn, Teddy Bear?

An old woman stalked by, fanning her rumpled face with a newspaper, sucking sticky air through pointed lemon lips. Bruce grinned at the sight and then took up his son’s fingers.

We’ll be back before it rains, Teddy Bear. And then you’ll be comfortable. And then the hot clouds above will puncture and we shall be transformed with an inundation of showers.

Earlier hours hadn’t warned of this slack fog, so Bruce had thrown his arms into his bomber jacket sleeves and had puffed that ‘do and tied on a scarf for good measure before they had stepped out. He was now all melty inside these clothes.

Kid kicked along in his bright green galoshes and tried to pull away from Pop’s clammy grasp.

But I want the rain now.

Particles drifted above the bricks of the block as a wave of residue whipped after the abuela with the paper. Bricks at angles, bricks lining the sidewalk, hot bricks rising from the pavement.

So, what now, son doesn’t hold Pop’s hand in public?

And past those bricks, more bricks; over those hills, more bricks. Bruce straightened his aviators and looked at the child stomping along next to his boots. Teddy made a face at Pop.

Come on, son. Let’s pretend that the sun is shining and that your favorite-wait-our favorite song is bouncing up and down and over and under the sound system and drumbeat music is flying all around this wretched town.

The dry scowl cut deeper into Teddy’s cheeks.

Bricks spinning around doors, bricks holding up lamp posts. Cool bricks, hot bricks, set to rot bricks.

Perplexed, Bruce kneeled in front of the child. Beside those galoshes, Teddy was in a new raincoat and had gotten his hair trimmed yesterday. A sharp part sliced through his high-n-tight faded just right: his little flattop was chunky and perfect. Bruce held the child’s shoulders and tried encouraging him with another grin.

You’re a star, my little Teddy Bear.

An oversize bus clanged to a halt. Exhaust chugged and a puff of petrol hit Bruce right in the teeth. He ran his tongue along his lips and grimaced. The little kid scowled and kicked at a broken bottle.

Pop sighed. Hands still on Teddy’s shoulders he allowed his head to fall and his eyes to close. For just one moment he lifted himself into a time before: the same place, a different space.

There were more trees. Less bricks. Everything was greener. Everything was charming. And although these surrounding walls had not yet been built, the sense of freedom and nourishment had not yet been lost. Shouts and rhythms and marches rattled down his spine, and his fingertips and earlobes resonated hot with memory and drumbeat.

But now: this brittle air. This cracked pavement. The souls of folks with no choice but to remain, though to remain meant a different home in the same town. Outer parks were continuously swallowed by construction of quick boxes for everyone pushed far from downtown.

Let go of my jacket.

Pop looked up and met an incredulous scowl. Clutching Kid’s shoulders just a little too tight. He released the jacket and stood. Teddy used this moment of freedom to scamper a few steps ahead. Bruce raised his hands and opened his mouth but then the ragged slap of sandals splintered the bricks at the back of the block.

And look who it is.

Bruce turned to see neighbor Ernesto standing behind him, Ernesto who lived across the street. These days they crossed paths almost never, but that didn’t stop the friendly antagonism: the block had its style. Ernesto was carrying his case. Bruce eyed the case and Ernesto eyed Bruce. Then Ernesto turned and eyed Teddy.

Look at the kid’s boots. Nice.

Ernesto turned back and eyed Bruce’s own shoes and then his scarf. His gaze wandered up to Bruce’s hair. Ernesto leaned in, lifted his glasses, whistled, and made to fix his own hair and smooth his mustache in the reflection of Bruce’s aviators in satire. Bruce was not impressed. Teddy stayed a distance away, stomping at an imaginary rain puddle in his galoshes. Nonexistent drops splashed onto the sidewalk and spread toward the gutter. Teddy laughed.

Going to practice, Ernie?

Coming over later?

Nah, I got to go in later.

Ernesto shrugged and set down his case and wiped sweat from his cheek. The black leather rectangle radiated and shone upon the bricks.

Look at that kid. Looks like Belinda more and more to me.

Every time, man, every time.

Another monstrous bus rumbled at a distance, tumbling, towering over the miniature traffic below, belching bent abuelas from its cavernous insides with tiny atomic explosions at each stop. Motor noise boomed and Bruce cupped his hands, shouting. Teddy looked up and frowned.

Teodoro Bear, stay away from the street please and thank you!

Ernesto chuckled as Bruce pressed his scarf to his peaked forehead and shut his eyes.

It’s true, Brucey. Can he sing like her yet?

He’ll be tall, too, Ernie, taller’n me.

Belinda was taller than you, Brucey.

Sure, true, but you can start leaving the Brucey at home. Told you that before, too.

Come over and practice again with us soon, though. Hey, Teddy Bear.

Kid wandered back, kicking at every piece of trash in his way.


You say hello to Señor Ernesto, please and thank you.

Kid with the new flattop glared at Pop and stomped his galosh.

He wants it to rain.

The adults chuckled at the tepid aggression of the surly youngster. Ernesto bent to take up his leather case but decided to open it instead.

Don’t worry about that, Teddy. Nice haircut. Come take a look at this horn.

Kid sidled up. The hooks and keys gleamed. He reached over to touch his reflection in the bend of the bell.

Hands off, son.

Go ahead, my friend.

Kid closed his eyes. His fingers moved along the bell and the bow of the precious axe. Ernesto bent down, thick glasses perched over his brow, pressing and demonstrating and explaining everything, mustache twitching with enthusiasm. Teddy put his fingers on his chin in his thoughtful way. He asked important questions like -what’s that- and prodded the sheet paper stuck to the bottom of the case. The inside of the case was lined in patchy velvet. Teddy ran his fingers over the crushed black. He looked up at Pop, pupils expanding in juvenile melodious desire.

Pop laughed.

Sometime, son. Maybe sometime we’ll get you one.

But can he sing? If he can do that you needn’t spend money on anything else.

Y’know, he can hit a good Do Re Mi, actually, Ernie, he really can.

Just wait ‘til that little voice drops. Give him a couple, three years tops and you’ll hear it. He’ll hit those harmonics good. Get him on those scales now, though.

Another bus suspended its croak across the street within a guttural blast. Another duo of ragged abuelas shuddered through the clang and started their crooked bustle toward Teddy and company. Traffic paused its motion but continued its blaring and sputtering.

The men grabbed the worn elbows of the wrung-out dames and helped them up onto the curb. As the bus vomited itself into motion the abuelas mumbled their thanks and marched back into the hurricane of exhaust left by the lurching transport machine.

Well, Ernie, we’ve got to make it over to Abe’s Records and then back home.

I hear you, Brucey. Hey, Teddy, maybe we can set up a time to teach you the horn a little. How’s that sound?


Ernesto chuckled. His case clicked shut. He straightened back up and settled his glasses on his nose. Reached out, held his neighbor’s shoulder.

You know, come over after work. Don’t need to tell you. It’s Belinda’s birthday, isn’t it. Must be if you’re headed to Abe’s. Listen, come over after work tonight. We miss you; let’s muddle up a jam.

Thanks, man, you know, probably not tonight. Kid’s got to be in bed.

His gran can look after him. You sold your kit, didn’t you?


Pity. Gregory would have bought it from you. Really, that is a pity. Well. We miss you.

Thanks, Ernie. Ready, Teddy Bear?

Kid had been still, staring at the space between the two men, listening, fingers on chin.

E and B shook hands again and collapsed into an awkward hug. Ernesto bent and twitched his mustache at Teddy, then took up his case and started up the block. Bruce took his son’s hand and they paraded the other way. At the corner, Kid raised up some bashful eyes.

Can I have a horn?

Bruce stared through the traffic to the other side of the street, shuffling under his sticky bomber jacket. He held his son’s hand and Teddy didn’t pull away.

Do you really want one?

I don’t know.

Then we will see. If you know for sure, that’s different. Look, here’s a break. Go, now, step quick!

Teddy didn’t move.

Did mom play the saxophone?

No, no. No, she didn’t play the saxophone. You know that.

That incoming layer of rain, finally visible, over the new hotels of downtown. Brick paths worn and torn but always a song to sing. Bruce reached to maneuver his aviators up the bridge of his nose.

But I’ll tell you again, and I’ll keep telling you, and this is the truthiest truth, Child: your mother was the best singer in the entire history of the whole wide world. You know that, too.

dear girl

ISH Muhammad

for a singular Patricia Ross

oh dear girl,
oh you, you dear
what era of mom was
programmed into you?

was it her grim practicality
that came with age
that hard set to her chin
that you took on, way too young
way too young

the way you
bite your tongue
and furrow your eyes
that single hair on your chin?

all the parts you said you
wouldn’t grow, present
as a phantom limb

what era of mom
has coded itself
into the stone testament
of your DNA,
poor girl?

is it the fire of her youth?
the young wife who’d
cast off all of her golden bracelets
and bangles and dangly earrings
emptied her box of fineries into the
salt of the sea, “just for you to stand on, my child”

is it the little girl, the giggling toddler,
you never really met
the girl who might’ve or might
not have been your friend,
if all those trains that cross at night
un-crossed some space, some time for you
to be close, be born-again, as sisters,
as best friends, as dear neighbors

would you recognize your own mother?

barrettes in her greased-down plaits,
loose-toothed and free?

I think a lot about mothers
and my own mother
and my grandma, and my
grandma’s mother
and grandma’s mother’s mother

I watched God unspool my grandma.

I walked along an endless beach
in the unraveling purple
of an evening sunset

I saw my grandmother born into a chrysalis
I saw the path that she must now walk.


Johan Alexander:

This piece grew from a specific lyric of a simple song, written some time ago. I left it full of grace notes, sharps and flats, sort of like a lullaby being tossed at the wind. I think ISH wrote the perfect response.

Johan Alexander has received support from Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, and he was a Periplus Fellow and a Maine Lit Fest Fellow in 2022. He moonlights as a writing coach to foreign-born and first-generation teenagers with The Telling Room, a non-profit which facilitates creative writing spaces for students from minority and marginalized backgrounds within the Portland, Maine, community. His words appear in LatineLit Journal, Unstamatic Magazine, Roi Faineant Press, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. Born in Medellín, Colombia, he lives in Portland, Maine.

ISH Muhammad(they/them) is an emerging Afro-Futurist poet and playwright based in Philly. ISH has a B.A. in English from Howard University and found much inspiration for their writing in their Classics-Latin studies. ISH is a member of the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive Program; a PERIPLUS Collective Fellow under the mentorship of the poet Yona Harvey and epicist Carolivia Herron; a Voodonauts Writers’ Workshop Fellow; a Lin Manuel Miranda Family Fellow; an alum of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Advanced Playwriting Program; and a recipient of the Lighthouse Writing in Color Scholarship for [margins.]. Their work has been published in the online publication, Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. ISH’s patron saint is the twice cursed sea-hag Sycorax.

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