Fiction

HOW I SPROUTED WINGS by Beth Kanter

A moth grayer than I knocked on my apartment door this morning demanding that I bake her a three-tiered Meyer lemon birthday cake topped with aster, mint, rose, milkweed, and vervain. I agreed for I know what it is to crave flowers and frosting on the anniversary of one’s own arrival. So I went to the alley behind my building and whipped, blended, and folded handfuls of dirt and dandelion stems as my grandmother taught me to do long ago. Water from a rusting hose nozzle the recipe’s only binding agent. At the stroke of midnight, I presented the birthday girl with the confection and sang to her with the force of an orchestra. We cried and ate until we fell asleep on the cold Linoleum floor. When the sun rose, the painted lady had gone and my kitchen was crawling with caterpillars.
Interviews & Reviews

TRANSMISSIONS: Books of Some Substance

Welcome to Transmissions, an interview feature in which X-R-A-Y profiles podcasts.
Books Of Some Substance can be found at the website, Apple podcasts and YouTube.David Southard reads. He’s written a book or two. Maybe he’ll write another someday. He co-hosts the Books Of Some Substance podcast from his home in South Korea.Nathan Sharp is a graphic designer, an amateur motorcycle mechanic, an explorer of sounds, a reader of fictions, a collector of cameras, and a fixer of discarded things. He co-hosts the Books of Some Substance podcast and lives with his partner and his cat in California. Rebecca Gransden: How would you describe the podcast to someone who is unfamiliar with what you do?Books Of Some Substance: Imagine you’re at your local library’s book sale, rummaging through the vintage paperbacks and the yellow-paged hardbacks, buzzing with the anticipation for your next great find, distracted by the seemingly endless possibilities before you when you overhear an enthusiastic and wide-ranging conversation about a book you realize you’ve always wanted to read.RG: Does the podcast have a mission or manifesto?B.O.S.S.: Our mission on our website is ‘to inspire listeners to deepen their love of reading and expand their understanding of the world through engaging conversations about books of substance’. Basically, we want to spread the love of literature. We aren’t scholars or professors. We don’t know all the answers. But we believe in the value of stories. We see stories as perhaps the very source of what we call ‘meaning’. With so many different things vying for our attention, it is easy to feel like there is no time for Tolstoy, no time for Proust. We want to hold space for works like this and encourage others to do the same, not out of some aesthetic or scholastic obligation, but because they are beautiful and relevant. RG: Where did the idea for the podcast come from? How did you decide upon a title for the podcast?B.O.S.S.: The podcast started as a bookclub that met in a dive bar in the Mission district of San Francisco. Our cofounder, Nick, used the phrase while we were discussing what kinds of books we would read. Something along the lines of ‘we will keep it broad, but we should only read books we think have some substance’. That evening we set up a Goodreads account and made ‘Books of Some Substance’ the name, then Photoshopped a logo onto the back of a leather jacket in a photo of a Japanese motorcycle gang. David, who did not live in San Francisco proposed that we create a podcast, something none of us knew anything about. For the first eight years the local book club and the podcast ran more or less in parallel. As of November 2023, the podcast has become its own thing entirely. RG: What episode of the podcast would you recommend to someone who is new to what you do?B.O.S.S.: Start with an episode of a book you know and have read. We don’t do a lot of intro-to or summary-of-plot episodes. These are not lectures for a course, but conversations about the language and ideas of the book, conversations which often go in strange directions. So, start with a book you read recently or something you know. RG: How do you go about selecting what to feature on each episode?B.O.S.S.: As is stated in the name of the podcast, we aim to read and discuss books of some substance. What that means exactly is open to debate, but there are a few parameters we generally follow: the novel might be found in the literature aisle of a bookstore, it might be considered to have cultural or stylistic significance, it was published between the end of the 19th century and the late 20th century, and typically the author is no longer alive (although there are episodes where this is not the case). Within those parameters, we follow where our interests lead, whether those are informed by recent events or the last book we read. We try to balance episodes on books and authors that might be found in the traditional Western canon with literature from international, and lesser known authors.With the current season of the podcast, we decided to restrict our reading to the theme of Control. RG: If you are a writer, has the podcast impacted your writing life? and conversely, has a writerly disposition influenced the podcast? B.O.S.S.: What the podcast has been for us is a regular, semi-structured conversation about books. The fact that it is recorded adds a peculiar dimension to the conversation because you must always speak, respond, and question regardless of whether you quite know what you are going to say. This performative aspect engages a different part of the brain than a completely casual conversation. The risky part is that we are confronted from time to time with parts of ourselves that we might not be the most proud of (the foolish, the naive, the arrogant), but that are nonetheless true. The podcast becomes, in addition to an exercise in reading and understanding, an exercise in confronting, accepting, and growing comfortable with and even learning to trust that voice within that speaks without thinking. This trust is prerequisite to ‘getting out of one’s own way’ and is immensely helpful when writing as well as speaking. Perhaps it is the same desire to write, to articulate the strangeness of being oneself and perceiving the world from that particular perspective. It is not only strange, it is also somehow significant.RG: For techheads, which single item of kit do you consider essential for the production of the podcast, and what would you say are the basics needed for those new to podcasting?B.O.S.S.: A decent mic, solid internet connection, a quiet space, and a loving partner who accepts you for who you are and encourages you, or, at the very least, tolerates your hobby that eats up time and space.  Books Of Some Substance can be found at the website, Apple podcasts and YouTube.
Fiction

THE SECRET AGENT by David Hansen

After many years of covert development the CIA perfects a method of creating ghosts. It’s a huge breakthrough. The CIA feels ghosts will be the ultimate spies: invisible, non-physical, and totally disinterested, as in, not vying for personal advantage, the way living spies sometimes do. One day the department heads circulate an internal call for volunteers for “a very important mission.” All the star agents show up. Guys who are at the absolute peaks of their careers. Guys who have done it all. Wet work, PsyOps, dark ops, other stuff no one has even heard of. Company men to the core. No wives, no kids, no nothing. They’ve given everything to the agency, and here they are, ready to give more. They look at the department heads with the neutral readiness of good dogs. Ordinarily these guys would be just what the department heads are looking for. But not today. Today the department heads are looking for something else. A certain X factor. They’re not quite sure what it is. They figure they’ll know it when they see it. And in these guys, they don’t see it. Just as the department heads are about to call it quits and go back to the drawing board, a last guy shows up. Hes got very neat hair that is combed too flat to his scalp, narrow, sloping shoulders, very little muscle mass, and soft, flimsy-looking skin, like the skin on a pudding. The department heads have no idea who this guy is. They have to read his file right there, in front of him. Luckily it’s not much of a file. Mostly desk work. A few actual missions, but nothing big. Nothing sexy. He’s past his peak. Or rather, he’s never had a peak. His career is just a long straight line. “Check, check, check,” think the department heads. In the preliminary part of the interview, the guy seems distracted, or not very interested. He keeps looking around the room. The department heads point this out and he says they’re right; he’s not very interested. Not in this, not in anything. He’s bored. More than bored. Or, less than bored. Not even bored. He feels like his life is a train that he missed. Like he got to the station just in time to watch it whizz by. So he figures he might as well make himself useful before it’s all over. The department heads confer with one another silently, using just their eyes. Because this is the guy they’re looking for, quite clearly. But there’s a snag; his file says he’s got a wife, and a teenage son. That’s a problem for the department heads. They think of his wife and his son going on without him. They think of their own wives, their own sons, going on without husbands, without fathers. How incomplete those lives would forever be. So the department heads tell this guy thanks but no thanks. They don’t want to bust up a family. They don’t want that on their consciences. Because whoever goes on this mission isn’t coming back. Their voices have a faint tone of censure. Then they pause, to see if this guy has anything to say to all that. The guy is quiet a moment, and in that moment he no longer looks bored, uninterested. He looks like he’s focusing very hard, feeling a single feeling very strongly. Then he says his wife and son arent a factor. Things haven’t gone the way he’d hoped in the family department, and it’s his fault. He did everything backwards. He hoped marrying his wife would make him love her. He hoped having a kid would make him want to be a dad. But surprise surprise, it didn’t work. He’s a good enough husband and father. But good enough isn’t good enough. Not for them. They deserve better than good enough. And maybe they’ll get someone better if he gets out of the picture. The department heads take a moment to process all this. Because on the one hand, bingo. But on the other hand, they’re a little grossed out emotionally. They recoil from him despite his unique perfection. They hate him a little. They are glad they aren’t like him. They suppose this antipathy toward him is additionally perfect because now they won’t feel so bad when they do what they’ll have to do to him. But it’s a cold comfort. The department heads tell him the mission details. That he’ll die and become a ghost and do a lot of deep spy work, the deepest there is. They tell him he’ll help put America back on top. He might even prevent World War III. The guy hears these details like they’re no big deal, nodding a little, continuing to look all around the room, which is a small room with yellow-brown soundproofing panels on the walls and a two-way mirror with no one on the other side of it. When the department heads have told him everything, they ask him if he accepts this mission. He says yes and a few days later they put him on a hospital bed and stick an IV in his arm. The mood is awkward. The department heads wonder if this guy said any kind of special goodbye to his wife and son. Did he tuck his son in last night like everything was normal and tomorrow would be like every other day. Did he hesitate at the door this morning on his way to headquarters and look at his wife where she stood in the kitchen, scraping their toast crusts into the garbage. Did he have a moment’s doubt where he felt maybe he was wrong. Maybe there was still a chance for them. For all of them. The department heads look at him, trying to see in. But to do that, he’d need to try to see inside them too. That’s the way intimacy works. And he isn’t trying to see inside them. He isn’t even looking at them. He’s just looking up at the ceiling, waiting for this to happen. Finally, the department heads decide there’s no sense prolonging this further. They thank him for his sacrifice. This is what they’d planned to say, but now that they hear themselves say it, they hear how small the words are. They wonder if the same words would have sounded less small if they hadn’t planned to say them. Then they give a signal and someone somewhere else turns the IV drip on and soon the guy is dead and his ghost rises off his body, like a puff of steam in the body’s likeness. He looks down at his own body. It isn’t the first dead body he’s seen. He saw his father’s body. But his father’s body had been in a casket. An undertaker had done it up. It looked like a shoddy wax sculpture of his father. The guy’s own body, on the other hand, looks exactly like him. He feels a sorrow for himself that he usually only feels for other people. It occurs to him that he didn’t feel this sorrow when he looked at his father’s body. He was too freaked out to feel sorrow. The sorrow came later, accumulating gradually, like a carbon-monoxide leak. These thoughts linger and then pass and he floats up, up, up, out of the depths of CIA headquarters and across the American countryside, through the heartland, over the Rockies, heading west. He floats across the Pacific Ocean, bound for Beijing, for Pyongyang, for Moscow. He floats over the surface of the water, loosely hewing to its undulations. He passes oil tankers and big shipping barges with cartons that must be the size of skyscrapers. They are far away from him, and from each other. Seeing them gives him a forlorn feeling. But why? Why should they make him feel forlorn? Why should they make him feel anything? What do they have to do with him? His journey takes him several months. It takes as long as it would take someone to cross the ocean at the speed he’s crossing it, which is more or less a brisk walking speed. Once in Beijing, in Pyongyang, in Moscow, he secrets himself into the deepest, most sensitive layers of these enemy governments. He sees so much, hears so much. He feels like his head is too small to hold all this, but it just keeps filling and filling. He sees how badly the CIA misjudged these powers. Their plans, their capabilities. The CIA assumed these powers were plotting against America. But they aren’t. Mostly they’re just plugging along, trying to keep their heads above water, like everyone else. Finally, when he’s seen and heard everything, he returns. But he doesn’t go east, the way he came, across the Pacific. He keeps going west, through the Mongolian steppe, over the Caucasus mountains, through Europe, across the Atlantic. It’s a much longer route, but after so much time in military and governmental spaces he wants time to decompress. As he goes, he tries to appreciate the beauty of the many vistas. The sight of fields of waist-high wheat waving in breezes. The sound of fishing boats knocking against piers in port towns. He supposes these things are beautiful, but this is more a thought than a feeling. Then he makes the long, lonely ocean crossing. The Atlantic isn’t like the Pacific. The Pacific was blue and warm. The Atlantic is gray and cold. It’s a total slog. The tide seems against him. When he gets back to CIA headquarters, he’s worn out, physically and emotionally. He floats down, down, down, into the bowels of the CIA. There, through a psychic medium, he discloses his enormous supply of military and political intelligence. This happens in the room with the yellow-brown soundproofing panels, the two-way mirror. Only this time there’s someone on the other side of the mirror. He can tell. He watches the medium writing down his words. But because of the spirit divide, she gets a lot of stuff wrong. He tries to correct her, but she bungles some of his corrections, too. He sees it’s no use trying to get everything right. Something strikes him as darkly funny about all this, but he’s not sure what it is. He laughs. The medium jolts in her chair and looks all around. Through the intercom someone asks her what’s wrong. She says it’s hard to explain. Then the guy falls silent. He’s said everything. The medium listens, her pen poised above her notepad. Then she sets her pen down. Gingerly, she lifts a cup of water to her lips. The cup is a styrofoam cup with an abstract pattern of ocean waves running around it. The waves have peaks like the peaks on a lemon meringue pie, only blue. The cup trembles in her hand. The guy realizes listening to him wasn’t easy. It was hard. She seems drained and spooked. He feels bad for putting her through that. He looks at her very closely, suddenly attuned to her many details. She is wearing a rough-knit sweater with horizontal bands of color; turquoise, magenta, green, black. The weave is loose, like the weave on his son’s hacky sack. She is sweating. The beads of her sweat are tiny, and they don’t run down her face. They just stand there, catching the light. She has her eyebrows drawn on in pencil. She has her hair braided in tight rows that have dark brown furrows between them. Here and there she has strung colored beads into her braids. The beads are candy colors; pastel pink, pastel blue, pastel yellow. He finds them surprisingly beautiful. Then the department heads come into the room. They ask her if it’s over. She says she thinks so. They take the notepad from her and review it. He sees the department heads have aged significantly. They’re thinner. Not thin like they lost some weight. Thin like how a t-shirt gets thin after you’ve worn it a long time. He can almost see through them. Then they look all around the room, wondering where he’s standing. To no one in particular they say thank you. Their thanks have the non-specific feeling of a prayer. He tries to tell them they’re welcome. But the medium isn’t listening anymore. She’s looking into her hands. That is the last thing he sees before he leaves this room for good; her hands. The skin on the backs of her hands is so brown. Her hands look so rough and worn, like she’s done a lot of hard work with them. He wonders what her deal is. How she went from manual work to this work. Whether she comes from a family of mediums, or whether she’s the only one. Then he floats out of this room, up, up, up, into the world. He drifts around and around, waiting for a destination to occur to him. He realizes he maybe didn’t think this all the way through. He didn’t think about what next. He’d thought about it for a second, when the IV drip started going and he knew it was for real. He’d assumed when his mission was over, he’d just die. Either the department heads would kill him, or he’d kill himself, or it would just happen. But he’s already dead. He can’t die again. He feels an awful feeling that is more like an utter absence of feeling. He wonders if this is the feeling he will feel from here on out. He is in a park when this feeling hits him. Stricken, he looks around. The park is bounded by a string of maple saplings. One day they will be full-grown maples, as tall as houses. He supposes he’ll be here to see that happen. When he was alive, he dreamed of living forever and getting to see stuff like that. Trees growing. His son growing. The human race getting its act together. But now that he’s here, living it, he wants to die for real and be done with it all. It occurs to him that in lots of ghost stories, the ghost “dies” when it settles some big piece of unfinished business. He wonders if that’s the way this will work or whether those were just bullshit stories. Finally, he drifts “home,” to his old house. He has no specific intentions. He’s not even curious, really. It’s just literally the only place he can think to go. He gets to his house and sees many changes have been made to it. Little changes and lots of them. The shutters are forest green now. And there’s a new mailbox. That’s good. The old one was so busted. By its mere presence the house seems to beckon him inside. He is about to go in by floating through a wall, but he stops himself at the last second. That would be wrong of him. It isn’t his house anymore. He left. He has to take responsibility for that and not try to weasel out of it. Still, he wants a peek inside. Just to see how the house looks. Just to see what his wife and son are up to. So he floats around from window to window, looking in. Some rooms have been rearranged, some haven’t. The fundamental motif of the house is the same; very modern and open, very monochrome. White floors with black shelves, white throw cushions with black buttons and black tassels, black-and-white tile in the kitchen. He goes to his son’s room’s window but the curtains are closed. He puts his ear to the glass but can’t hear anything. Maybe his son is in there, lying on his bed with headphones on, tuning everything out. He hopes so. That’s what he’d do if he was still a part of this world. Then he finds his wife. She’s in the upstairs bedroom. He floated up there effortlessly and now he stands on air just as if it were solid ground. She’s folding laundry. She’s dumped it from the hamper onto the bed, and now she’s folding it. So there are two piles; one rumpled, one folded. He watches her awhile, wondering things vaguely. Does she miss him, does she not miss him, is she happier without him, what. He wishes she would look at him. Then he’d know. But she doesn’t. She can’t. He isn’t even there. Pretty soon his thoughts fade out and then he’s just watching her, waiting. Not for anything in particular. Just the next thing, whatever it is. And the next thing is, she folds the last piece of laundry and comes to the window where he’s looking in at her and pulls the curtains shut. Behind the curtain a light comes on. The sun sets and the moon comes out. Frost grows on the panes of every window, on the leaves of every tree. A chilly wind snaps the flag that’s flying in the next-door neighbor’s yard: Fwip! Fwip! Fwip! And that’s pretty much that.
Interviews & Reviews

TRYING TO FIND SOMETHING BETTER: An Interview with Steve Gergley

Since 2022’s A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair: Stories (LEFTOVER Books) Steve Gergley has been steadily and consistently adding to an impressive body of work. The Great Atlantic Highway & Other Stories (Malarkey, 2024) is a showcase for Gergley’s specialties, and reflects the ache at the center of modern existence. Contemporary fables grounded in grit follow tales of high weirdness, and the mundane frequently threatens to be undone. A fuzz pedal is just as likely to be encountered as a strange angel. I spoke to Steve about the collection.   Rebecca Gransden: Like it always felt like no matter what I did, I could never find a way to get the words in my head out onto the paper in the right order. The above quote is taken from the story that opens the collection, “President Whitmore’s Basement.” Do you regard yourself as a prolific writer? Are there times when ideas fail to translate to the page? When thinking about this collection, do any of the stories stand out as having been particularly difficult or, alternatively, easy to write?Steve Gergley: I do regard myself as a prolific writer, but I try my best to never sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity. I just want to keep getting better, and one of the most important ways for me to do that is to get a lot of reps. So I’m always working on something. That being said, there are a lot of days when I don’t have a single idea of what to write about, or, if I do have an idea or two, I don’t know how to write those stories. Often, searching for the most interesting way to write the story I’m thinking about is more difficult than generating the idea for the story in the first place.As for this collection, some of the weirder, more high-concept stories such as “Thin Man,” “On Location,” and “Window Teeth,” flowed quite easily, while other, more “standard” stories like “All the Things You Do,” and, “A Text from Zoey,” required a huge amount of grinding, hard work, and refinement to complete.      RG: The collection frequently presents the world of work as insecure, confusing and in possession of inherent strangeness. Would you agree that a common theme of your work is the injection of weirdness and absurdity into the working day?SG: Yeah, I would agree with that, and that appeals to me because my own daily days at work are so boring and repetitive. So I’m definitely making up for the mundanity in my real life by writing these stories where interesting / weird stuff happens. But then again, I think it would be pretty stressful to be in some of these situations in real life, so it’s probably best they stay in the realm of my imagination, haha. RG: “A Face to Put on Top of Your Face” has the quality of a modern fable, taking your propensity for combining the surreal with the mundane into the realm of deep symbolism. Small, everyday details add weight to the more fantastical elements, grounding the story, and the narrative addresses fundamental psychological angsts. Did you experience discomfort or uneasiness when writing any of the stories for The Great Atlantic Highway & Other Stories?SG: It’s always uncomfortable for me to write about personal subjects like those addressed in that story, so that one was definitely difficult to write. But once it was finished and polished up into a state I was satisfied with, it was pretty cathartic. The whole purpose of any kind of artistic expression is to communicate an emotion of some kind, so it feels good to be able to do that. “Wes,” and “Thanksgiving Eve,” are two other pieces that were difficult to complete but satisfying when completed.  RG: A recurring theme for you is the inclusion of references to popular culture, most often in the form of TV shows, films and well known figures. A good example of this is “On Location” where a film shoot takes a wild turn. Why do you think this provides such impetus for your writing?SG: I include many references to those things in my writing because they have a big influence on my life in general. I love movies, TV shows, and art just as much as books, so there are so many images, characters, and lines of dialogue from movies and TV shows that have stuck with me for years after my first viewing. Also, I like to ground my stories in a world that is as realistic as possible, where other popular works of media exist. I don’t enjoy writing as much when the characters seem to exist in this weird parallel universe where TV shows and movies like The Wire and Independence Day just don’t exist. For some reason that feels a little bit phony and bloodless to me.RG: “I Smell Death on You” raises the eternal questions of life and death, meaning, and existence. Often these questions come at us from the most unexpected of places, and if we receive any answers they can be cryptic. When you look at the collection, which stories stand out to you as dealing with the ‘big’ questions?SG: I think most of them, if not all, deal with something similar to that. Whether it’s life and death, the appearance of unexpected pregnancy, the secret of a cheating spouse being revealed, how to survive during wartime, trying to re-enter society after a serious injury, the death of a family member, serious career uncertainty . . . I think all of these things are pretty big inflection points in a person’s life. RG: The stories selected for the collection vary in length, from flash fiction to long short story. How did you decide which pieces to include?SG: The most important consideration was to include the best stories. Or the ones I like the best at least. After that, I tried to sequence the collection to have a nice ebb and flow between short and long, and between surreal and grounded. I didn’t want the transitions between those two extremes to be too jarring.RG: A theme which recurs in the collection is that of chance encounters that possess a surreal quality, often suggesting a revelation or deeper meaning. Have you experienced this type of interaction in real life? What attracts you to this scenario?SG: I’ve had a number of interesting occurrences like that in real life, and I’ve always been intrigued by them. For me, it’s the possibility of an unexpected force or person stepping into your life for a short time and taking it in a direction you never could have predicted. The moment that person shows up, absolutely anything can happen. And that’s the most exciting thing any story can do. RG: Many of your characters are thinking about another life, either an alternative one or a projected future existence. Do you have any insight into why this might be?SG: I’ve worked soul-crushing retail and warehouse jobs for the past fifteen years, and during that time, I spent nearly every day trying to find a way to something better. So that struggle is something very familiar to me. The people trapped in those jobs and those lives are the ones who I know, and who I like to write about. RG: I am the hanging man. For two days I’ve hung from this elm. There’s a rope around my ruined neck. Flies walk on my open eyes. The stories “Hanging” (from which the above quote is lifted) and “Burning” act as a duo, and in their own striking ways address the profound mystery of religious experience. What part does faith, or the lack of, play in your writing?SG: You expressed it right there with the words, “profound mystery.” I’m not religious myself at all, but I am very interested in all the weird little mysteries that can be hiding in plain sight that nobody ever notices because they never look in that direction for very long. These two stories are about a much bigger, more grand event than that, but I’m very drawn to the mystery of that weird, tiny house at the end of the dead-end street with the boarded up windows and the brand new car parked in the driveway. Each time I drive by something like that, I always ask myself: why is a brand new car parked by a house like that? Does someone actually live there, or are they just cleaning it out before selling the land the house is built on? Or did they lose something in there? Or is something more sinister going on? In real life, the answer is usually very boring, but like you said, the mystery of the whole thing is endlessly fascinating. RG: “Do You Like Death Metal?”Well, do you? SG: Yeah, without a doubt, I’m a big fan. Some of my favorite bands are Nile, Ulcerate, Artificial Brain, Blood Incantation, Ruin Lust, Gorguts, and many others.RG: “Ghost Baby” addresses sadness that exists beyond death. How do you approach the use of melancholy in your work?SG: I try to make it as realistic and restrained as possible, or I try to hide it completely and have it leak out wordlessly in other ways. In real life, I feel that most strong emotions, whether it be sadness, anger, resentment, fear, or something else, are almost never expressed in clear, linear ways. They’re always hidden beneath the surface of the psyche, morphing into distorted thoughts, compulsions, and desires, and by the time those emotions do leak out, they’re warped and misshapen to the point that they’re not even recognizable anymore. And that’s much more interesting to me than something that’s clear and direct.RG: Several of the stories make reference to how religious meaning can be projected onto the physical body. I’m thinking in particular of “God’s Thumb” and “Richie’s Vacation”. What attracts you to this theme?SG: The deep weirdness of the idea is what’s really intriguing to me. It’s the practice of taking religion and religious meaning, which is something I consider to be a mental construct, and applying that to the human body, which is the basis of all physical experience due to it being the home of the senses. To me, those two realms (the mental and the physical) sit on opposite ends of the human experience, so trying to mash them together through (in the case of these two stories) painful and grotesque rituals is a compelling contrast. It’s like trying to jam the key to your front door into the lock of your neighbor’s house. There’s going to be a lot of struggle there, and if you keep pressing, either the key or the lock are going to get damaged.  RG: One of my favorite stories featured in the collection is “The Girl Who Was a Doorway,” which takes a simple but ingenious concept to unexpected places. When approaching high concept pieces, are you looking for a balance of elements?SG: Thanks for the kind words! And yeah, when working on something like that, I try to work out all the elements, no matter how weird or surreal, to make sure that the world of the story has a sound internal logic. In addition to that, I like to make sure the non-surreal elements of the story are as grounded in reality as possible. That way, it gives the reader the feeling that these reality-defying events could really be happening somewhere nearby in real life, even if they’re not front-page news stories. I like the idea of these kinds of events floating quietly on the fringes of society, being hidden away from everyone, except for the select few people who are experiencing it directly. RG: For “Howdy Stranger, This is Howser” you take on the world of online connection, and the difficulties that can arise when navigating it. How do you view your own use of online messaging and social media? Does the online space impact your writing life?SG: The online space impacts my writing life a little bit, but not too much. I don’t pay much attention to gossip or feuds or anything like that that happens in the online writing community. I just like to read the work of other writers, and if I enjoy a story or poem, I’ll highlight it and post a link. As for my own use of social media, I have a policy of 100% positivity. There is enough negativity online. I don’t need to add more to it. So I only post positive things. If I’m having a bad day or experiencing some strong negative emotions, I just step away from the computer and go do a workout or something.    RG: Clusters of bearded guys with shining, styled hair and analog watches of brushed steel joked loudly near flat screen TVs affixed to the walls. Mixed groups of men and women in their thirties sat at square tables and chatted over half-empty glasses and froth-stitched pitchers of beer. One-time acquaintances and people he had known but never met passed by with less hair, plumper faces, unfamiliar glasses, new piercings, fresh tattoos, glittering wedding rings, and grinning partners from other states. In “Thanksgiving Eve,” the protagonist Skip, having been struck by lightning and left with multiple long term problems, decides to visit a local watering hole where he’ll run into people familiar to him from high school. When there, he finds his issues amplified when faced with comparing his lot with the lives of his former peer group. There can often be an uncanny quality to a situation like this, or sudden feeling of existential dread. Is this story inspired by a specific incident? What is the role of fate in “Thanksgiving Eve”?SG: That story is heavily influenced by a night that really happened, and writing it was a cathartic exercise for me. Many elements are changed from reality and many are not, but the big takeaway for me is that every event in your life is a probabilistic roll of the dice that you have no control over, so all you can do is to keep trying to make the best of each new situation that comes your way, and continue moving forward into the future. Read more from Steve Gergley in the X-R-A-Y archives.Steve Gergley is the author of The Great Atlantic Highway & Other Stories (Malarkey Books ’24), There Are Some Floors Missing (Bullshit Lit ’24), Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23), and A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (Leftover Books ’22). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Passages North, Hobart, Always Crashing, and others. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/. In addition to his own writing, he is also the editor of scaffold literary magazine.
Fiction

WORK FROM HOME by Jenn Salcido

It’s not looking good for us, Jeremy thinks, as he opens the fridge and peers inside. A small, desiccated head of broccoli, provenance unknown, stinks up the whole place like farts. A pickle jar sits inert, nary a pickle floating inside. A sprig of grapes wilts on its vine. Jeremy shuts the door. “We don’t have any food,” he calls out to Dog, the dog. Dog barks. Jeremy makes a motion with his hands like what is he supposed to do about this, moves to the living room, and commences with his morning fretting routine. First, he backs his body up as far against the wall as he can, jamming his heels against the baseboards. Then he begins to pace. Dog eventually starts following him, whining every so often. The doorbell rings––a jangly, incongruously upbeat tune. Just as he’s about to turn the knob, the thing flings open. Jeremy was sure he had locked it but whatever. “Hi,” Jeremy says, warily eyeing his friend, Morris Beagle. He stands there, quiet, expectant, irritated, all of his usual states. Then he remembers how human people are supposed to act. “Uh, did you want to come in?” “Well, I’m already here, so,” Morris says, shuffling through the door and beginning to dismantle his scarf, coat, driving gloves, mittens, muffler, earmuffs, eye goggles, and so on and so forth, handing Jeremy a raggedy piece of neon paper.  “It’s an OPPORTUNITY,” he says, and snatches back the paper almost immediately. “I took THE WHOLE THING so that NO ONE ELSE would get to it first.” “I wasn’t done reading it, Morris.” “Oh, you weren’t reading it,” he scoffs. “Anyway, I can tell you everything you need to know. I’ve researched it. Thoroughly.” Morris ruffles the paper in front of Jeremy’s face, points at some words. He’s standing too close. Jeremy’s stomach growls and he thinks of the empty, farty fridge, and so without really understanding what he’s agreeing to, he says, “I’ll help.” Morris sits down and pats the sofa cushion next to him, wanting Jeremy to join. Jeremy perches as far as he possibly can from Morris. “So I called these people yesterday,” says Morris. “I talked to them more this morning and they’ve sent some onboarding materials to my work email.” “You don’t have a work email, Morris.” “I do,” says Morris. “I do; you just don’t email me there ever.” The room is silent for a moment save the slurps from Dog, who is licking his crotch.“Okay, Morris,” says Jeremy. The flier describes the project as being “in the tech space,” and so Jeremy assumes this is going to have to do with food delivery, transportation, or pornography. None of these things are things that Jeremy would immediately dismiss, but he does have a few questions. “You know Relations.com?” Jeremy nods. He remembers seeing commercials for the service: you spit in a thing, you pay the lab, and then they send you a report about what the spit says. “It’s not that,” says Morris. “What it is is, it’s like that, but it’s for dogs. People like your friend here,” Morris says, motioning to Dog, completely without irony. “They’re just like us. They have chromosomes too.” Morris pauses to laugh heartily at himself, even slaps his knee. Jeremy is starting to feel like maybe this is a pyramid scheme. “Is this a pyramid scheme?” “What? No,” says Morris. “Why would you say that?” “It just seems like you’re trying to give me the hard sell,” says Jeremy. “Nah,” says Morris, and Jeremy can tell from Morris’s complete lack of facial twitching or leg jiggling that he is telling the truth. “I’m just excited about it. Don’t you ever get excited about anything?” Jeremy is quiet while he thinks about this. In short, the answer is probably no. But he really thinks. Inside him there is, as usual, a numbness, a feeling of deletion. “Okay, well, this is a problem for another day,” says Morris, his eyes bugging out in disbelief at the sheer anhedonia hanging in the room. “You might want to start by getting yourself out of this house. This house is unsettlingly beige.” Jeremy blinks, looks around. He’s always lived in this house.“Anyway, so this thing––what happens is, people can send in a small sample of their dog’s blood, and the company will tell you the precise genetic composition of the dog,” says Morris. Jeremy looks at Dog, who looks at Jeremy, who looks at Morris, who looks at Dog. Jeremy can’t remember why he let Morris in, or if he let him in. “We are to help translate these reports generated by the company into layman’s terms, so that people can really have a greater understanding of the precise genetic composition of their dog,” says Morris. “But Morris,” says Jeremy, suppressing a yawn. “We’re not scientists. Did you even go to college? I’m sure you recall that I did not.” “That’s elitist and entirely besides the point,” snaps Morris. “I’m assured by the company that they supply contractors with everything needed to accurately and satisfactorily complete the job,” says Morris, who then arches an eyebrow and waves a hand toward the desktop computer as if offering a kindness, a generosity. A chance. He gawks expectantly at Jeremy. “Well? What are you waiting for?” he asks. Jeremy rolls his eyes again, heaves himself across the room and into a creaky rolling chair set too low to the ground. He feels like a child with Morris towering over him and breathing his login details in his ear in hot whispers. “The username is Morris Beagle,” he says. “The password is Morris Beagle.” What Jeremy finds in Morris’s inbox makes his vision go momentarily blurry. There’s spam, and then there’s whatever is in Morris’s inbox. It is an oscillating galaxy of nonsense so impenetrable that it occurs to Jeremy, for the first time, that maybe Morris is actually some kind of CIA heavyweight and all of his emails are encrypted. What else could it mean that he has 47 unread emails from someone/thing called Hadabadabingbong, all of which have subject lines written purely in Wingdings? “Are you reading my correspondence?” Morris barks, displeased with Jeremy’s lack of discretion. “Don’t even look at that. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it. I want you to open the email at the top.” Jeremy does as he is told, clicking on an email titled “Work From Home! Earn $.” 

*

After Morris leaves, Jeremy walks Dog down a few blocks from their development, stopping every so often to let Dog check and mark his usual spots. Spring is slowly rumbling up from the ground, the rising temperature melting down the dirty snow piles that line the street on the way to Cumberland Farms. Jeremy goes in, gets his usual (a sad approximation of an Italian hoagie). He then floats into the video rental store nextdoor, mournfully eyeing the candy he can’t afford. The plastic smell of the videotapes is so comforting, and he resists the urge to pull a couple cases close and sniff them. He runs his fingers along the spines of the Die Hard films, sighs, and goes back out to Dog. There’s $5 in his checking account; he really needs Morris’s scheme to work out this time.  He didn’t really want to quit his job at the supermarket, he thinks, chewing on the hoagie while walking back to the house. He liked it there quite a bit. Not only for the regular paycheck, but for the sense of order inherent to its universe. He remembers walking from the bus stop before his early morning shift––the air so cold and crystalline, it was like the molecules had stopped moving entirely. He remembers how it felt to come in before anyone else was there and to start stocking the place, section by section. Making sure each of the labels faced out on the voluminous array of pasta sauces. Grinding some beans to get the coffee sampling station ready. Each and every task slotted together in the most predictable, pleasant way. “I’m sorry, dude,” said Ron, his manager, when he finally came back to work after getting out of the hospital. He had essentially ghosted, couldn’t bring himself to call in and let them know what was going on. “We filled your spot. You can’t just, like, not come in.” Jeremy had nodded, sort of loosely holding his palms out and looking down at them instead of directly into Ron’s eyes. “I get it,” he said. Jeremy had wanted to tell Ron so many things: how much he needed the job, sure, but also how much he’d liked it. How much he appreciated the easy, weightless interactions with strangers. How much it helped keep the darkness at bay. Jeremy’s temples start to throb, little silvery jellyfish coming in from the side of his vision. He tries to wipe the thoughts of that time from his mind, concentrating instead on his feet in the slush, on Dog’s delicate prance. He strains his thoughts and his body, trying to root himself in the present and down toward the earth. Sometimes when he starts down this path of memories, it’s impossible to come back; he’ll spend days sleepwalking and hollow, his mind forcibly caught in a sinister time warp. Sometimes, he admits to himself, for a little while, it feels good, like scratching a bug bite. But that’s only sometimes. 

*

Morris promised he’d come back a few days later, and now it’s a few days later, and Jeremy hasn’t opened the folders. The mail truck signals that it’s late morning, and finally Jeremy flips open the first folder, looking around the room for some kind of inspiration or assistance. Dog is stomping on his smelly sleeping cushion, curling around and around like an ouroboros. He cannot help Jeremy. Inside each folder, a stapled sheaf of papers awaits some kind of translation. As Jeremy feared, it’s entirely inscrutable: strings of numbers and letters, percentages and probabilities, an occasional bolded set of symbols. He opens the document that he downloaded from Morris’s email, the so-called onboarding information from the company. It’s pretty simple, just a word document with a list of steps. Step 1 is to open the folder. Step 2 is to read the file. Step 3 is to fill in the DNA report template with the findings. Step 4 is a black-and-white sideways smiley face.Jeremy closes his eyes, counts to ten, and tries again to make sense of the paper. He realizes with some relief that, on the second page of each packet, there’s a copy of a questionnaire filled out by each dog’s human. “Your name, dog’s name, dog’s age, breed,” he reads aloud to the room, Dog’s ears perking up at the two mentions of dog. He flips back and forth between the second page and the first, the one covered in a cipher of hard science. Then, manna from heaven: a third page, which is just a printout of one to three photos, some of them even in color, different angles of the dog as chosen by its person. This first packet belongs to a dog named Godzilla, and Godzilla looks to be 100% chihuahua. Jeremy checks the second page to be sure; yes, Godzilla is, in fact, a chihuahua. Jeremy flips back to the third page, holding it close to his face as he squints, trying to discern if there are any subtle traces of other breeds to be found in Godzilla’s countenance. He heard once that all domesticated dogs are descended from the Gray Wolf. He looks into the pictures for evidence of the wolf, looking occasionally over at Dog, a pug mix. Dog is asleep on his cushion, his paws flicking gently back and forth as he loses himself in dreams, probably rolling in something stinky and dead. After what feels like hours of staring into the flattened eyes of Godzilla, Jeremy opens up a second file that he’s downloaded to the desktop, the one called DNATEMPLATEFINAL-FINAL(3).DOC. He is pleased to find it’s pretty basic. He can work with this. He starts by filling in the identifying information on the second page, a small spark of comfort starting to glow inside his heart, one he hasn’t felt since his days stocking cans and shuffling jars. This could be it, he thinks, this could be the thing I do. Buoyed by the notion, he slides through the rest of the data entry for Godzilla, feeling something continue to unclench deep within his body. But then he gets to the part where he’s supposed to populate a table connected to a pie chart, and this is where things get hairy. Godzilla is 100% chihuahua, he thinks again. But when he types “Chihuahua” into one column and “100%” into the other, the pie chart fills in all blue. The full circle of it looks menacing, final. Jeremy wonders how much each well-meaning soul paid for these files. He feels bad for the people on the other end, feels that he owes them some sort of more detailed information. Not just contractually––which, of course, he does––but in the broader, more relational sense. What were they hoping to find, sending in a precious vial of blood from their dog? Jeremy begins to experiment with the table, adding different percentages and breeds. He starts with feasible selections from a pre-set drop down menu in the file: dachshund, beagle, terrier. He futzes with percentages and watches other colors pop into the pie chart, notices the pleasing interplay of bright primary colors as he assigns varying values and breeds. If he wanted to, he sees, he could make a pie cut into four for Godzilla and it would have all of his favorite colors: blue, green, yellow, red. Just then, Jeremy has another idea. He opens up his web browser. Typing “dog” into the search bar, he waits for the slow roll of information to come back from the ether. Once the screen refreshes, he quickly loses himself in a never-ending stream of professional photos of dogs. Minutes pass, then half an hour, and he’s imprinting on the dogs, tilting his head to the side to match theirs. He clicks on one photo, then the next; he clicks through so many photos that when he emerges he feels slightly seasick when he looks around the room, washed ashore in reality. Tom, the next dog in question, is more promising. His photo is a side view, for one, so Jeremy can see more of him. Tom is long and fat, his belly straining towards the ground. His butt has one of those truncated tails, like it was vestigial instead of integral to the composition of the dog’s spine. Tom’s feet splay out comically in front of his low, broad body, almost like the webbed flippers of a duck. His coat is kind of a brindle color and smoother looking than you’d normally expect from a corgi. The head is all wrong, though, Jeremy thinks. Tom has little ears that flop over themselves triangularly, echoed in the striking geometry of the head itself. It is blocky, heavy-looking, like a pit bull or rottweiler. Then a lightning bolt. Jeremy clicks back to his browser and types “corgi” into the search bar. He clicks on a photo. Then he hits print. Then he types in “pit bull.” He clicks on another photo. He hits print again. Aligned with the whirring of the printer, something comes to life inside him. Even Dog notices, lifting his head up from his bedding to watch Jeremy rifle through the desk drawers for some scissors and glue. He makes some quick cuts, then slathers the pieces with glue. Proudly, he arranges them together on the backside of Tom’s photo printouts. It is rough, true, but it works: clearly, Tom was the result of a corgi and a pit bull who had made love. After pushing the pieces around a little bit here and there, and after he is satisfied with the alignment of the head on the body, and after taking a good, long look at the actual photos of Tom, Jeremy opens up another report file and starts typing. His fingers fly with a surety he feels in his very marrow. But then he is confronted by a new issue: the math problem of the pie chart had effectively stopped him in his tracks. Does a dog’s body account for 50% of its composition, the head being the other half? Or is the head merely 25%, due to the relative length of the head versus the body entire? Or should he technically be subdividing more––assigning a percentage to each leg, each paw? The tail? At this thought, Jeremy’s left shoulder starts to twitch. Noticing the twitch, his other shoulder twitches, then the original begins to twitch again, each twitch exponentially reflecting the next twitch and the next. This is a side effect of Jeremy’s medication, one he takes for anxiety, which is then exacerbated by his anxiety, multiplying infinitely. “FUCK,” he screams, pushing himself away from the desk. He was doing so well! Everything that had unclenched within him has gnarled itself up again like ancient tree roots. He shakes his hands loose. He inhales, holds it, and exhales. He looks at Dog, no longer sleeping, up on all fours and alert, the worried pathways of his forehead wrinkles on full display. “I’m sorry, pal,” he said, calling Dog over with a clicking noise. He scratches under Dog’s chin, feels himself release and relax a little when Dog closes his eyes and points his snout up. Jeremy lies down on the floor and tries to affect the effortless cool of a fish in a clear, cerulean sea. But his mind is on another trajectory, sinking towards shipwrecks of impossibility down below. More than anything else, this is what had led to the logical conclusion of the hospital last time: the idea that possibility was beyond him, not necessarily because of any moral failing or inherent weakness, but just because it was in one realm, and he was simply in another. Trying to explain it to the doctor at the hospital, he had likened it to standing in front of a full cupboard of food and being unable to eat, being unable to comprehend the meaning or purpose of food. More than that, even, he felt physically unable to reach into the cupboard, to comprehend the feeling of wrapping his fingers around any one item, much less pulling it down and preparing it. At least this was the closest he could come to making any sense of it, and he could tell from the doctor’s expression that it had not, in fact, made any sense at all. At the conclusion of this thought, Jeremy’s mind clicks into a familiar track, and he is thinking in pictures: the carton of Camels his roommate let him filch from, the woman who left on a Monday looking triumphant and hopeful and returned on a Friday looking like a crumpled paper bag. The ginger ale from the dayroom. The thoughts come faster and faster, the twitch traveling to other extremities. “Are you okay?” Jeremy opens his eyes. The light in the room has changed. He’s not sure how much time has gone by. Dog is in his bed, snout on paws, watching him intently. Morris, above him, peers down. “Yeah,” he croaks, realizing from the cobwebbiness in his throat that he may have actually fallen asleep, his body shutting down as part of a well-oiled dissociation mechanism he’d honed long ago. He gets up slowly, feeling dizzy. “I was just taking a break.” Without his usual machinations, Morris puts down his ever-present briefcase and goes into the kitchen. After a few minutes, he comes back with a glass of water. He opens his briefcase, extracts a small bag of trail mix, and hands it to Jeremy. “Here,” he says, “why don’t you sit down for a little bit and I’ll take a crack at it.” Jeremy is too tired to argue, and slides with relief onto the sofa, appreciating the cool water and the snack. Appreciating Morris. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought I had a good thing going, but I got a little hung up on some things.” Morris nods, assessing the papers spread out around the computer. “This is great,” he says, almost softly. “I don’t know what you’re worried about.” Jeremy explains it to him, most of it anyway: the process, the math, the frustration, the lack of possibility. He leaves out the twitch but knows better than to think he can hide it. Morris has been onto him for a long time, not so much about the twitch, but what lies beneath, deep down in Jeremy’s nervous system. Morris has been with him for so long, Jeremy thinks. Morris might be the kindest person he knows. “I think we can solve this,” says Morris in the voice of some primitive authority figure, trying to galvanize himself and Jeremy, potentially also Dog. “I really do.” The clouds (the screensaver is clouds) part as Morris wakes up the machine, his fingers flying with assurance whereas before Jeremy had only ever seen them hunt and peck. Jeremy finishes the crackers and feels a little trickle of life enter the base of his spine, understanding that the future is not entirely out of his grasp. Just for a second. It is enough. He gets up from the couch and hovers behind Morris, watching magic unfold. Morris is searching and zooming and cropping and printing. The high-pitched whine of the printer is getting to be a little too much for Dog, who galumphs out of the room like that’s enough of that. “What are you doing?” Jeremy asks, not in the usual tone reserved for when people ask Morris Beagle what he is doing. Then Jeremy feels as though he is in the company of a secret genius, even though he has no idea what’s happening. Isn’t that how genius is supposed to work, he wonders, thinking about all the movie montages that felt just like this very moment. “I think you’re not looking closely enough,” says Morris. “I don’t mean this as an affront to you or anything, let’s be clear.” Jeremy lets a smile creep across his face. “No, no, never.” “This is what I am proposing.” Morris gathers up the printouts and starts cutting, printer paper clippings flurrying around as he does it. Jeremy watches intently as Morris assembles a jigsaw puzzle with a glue stick: there’s an ear from a French bulldog, another ear from a Boston terrier. A muzzle from a petite German shepherd puppy, the worried eyes of a Vizsla. “This is truly unholy, Morris,” says Jeremy, in awe more than anything else. “I don’t think it’s going to work with the pie chart, either.” “Oh, fuck the pie chart!” “But, like, the pie chart is for the people who are paying us?” Morris waves this off with one hand like it’s truly some insane suggestion; the other hand stays on the mouse clicking print, print, print. “If they don’t see that this is a million times better than a pie chart, I don’t really want their money.” “I kind of do, though,” says Jeremy, thinking less of the food and more of all the Die Hard tapes he had to leave behind in the store. “We have to think bigger.” Morris smiles at Jeremy. Jeremy returns the smile, gestures at the screen, invites Morris to continue. There is no twitch left in Jeremy’s body now, only readiness for what comes next.
Fiction

THE SENTIENT, BUDDHIST TOMATO GREETS ITS DESTINY by Christy Tending

We have 100 words for green, none of which they are privy to, and all of which are an essential part of this process. We reach our way toward the sun, our skin stretching to accommodate the water in our bellies, surrounding next year’s seeds for next year’s tomatoes. It is not insignificant to remember that we hold infinite life. That there is our finite purpose, and there is the part of us that, invincibly, will live on in every year to come, so long as this land exists, so long as someone is willing to accept volunteers.She runs her hand along my leaf and inhales. I do not know what this means except it points to aliveness and a temporary season, and our shared duty. For me to grow; and for her to nourish and then to pluck. There is dignity in the plucking, in the careful washing, in the careful selection of the knife.It is not pain but dharma to be sliced over a salad, skin still warm, or tucked into a tart for dinner, to feed the people she loves around the little aluminum table in the shade that I can see if I crane my stem just so. Sometimes my leaves flutter in the breeze that carries their laughter east, so that I might hear it as it reverberates against the tiny flowers that will become fruit and then a part of everything. They will bite into us, laughing as juice drips onto their chins and all of the stretching and wind and slurping up water will be worth it. The way we have all turned our faces to the sky to know that we are here, before all of us surrender to what it is we came to do. 

by Benjamin Niespodziany

Perfect bound | 100 pages
Paperback | Die-cut matte cover | 6×6″

Read a page before sleep and thou shalt dream insanely.

–Alex van Warmerdam
Director of Palme d’Or nominated film ‘Borgman’