jason graff


Katie just wants to rip it out. A length of string, some fortitude or, even better, a burly man in uniform, a marine or naval officer would do. Clearly, it was the eye tooth on the upper right side of her mouth that was the trouble. Why shouldn’t a stranger pull it out? How much better would a dentist be than some twine, a golf cart and a driver with a heavy foot?

She sips her iced coffee through a straw whose tip has been stained by her lipstick. She knows she wears too much but “they” say men like it thick. And today isn’t one of those days that finds in her in the mood to tell “them” to fuck off. For the last half hour, she’s been working on some young guy who’s looking to spend some of his father’s money. She’s tried to get him to see the wisdom in buying a place rather than renting one. He’s got a red crew cut, an unusually ruddy complexion and ‘Stacey’ tattooed in cursive on the side of his hand. Whoever did the job didn’t know how to do an S properly in cursive. It lacks the top loop. This bothers Katie almost as much as her tooth.

The kid leans further forward as she talks about the condos still available in the building. This guy’s no marine but she thinks about asking him for help. A great investment of his time.

She cannot be sure by the way that he is looking at her if he is listening to what she is saying. Opening her bag, she places some papers before him to show him things in print that she has already said. Katie would feel better if his eyes were elsewhere.

She furtively checks the buttons on her blouse, as though his pale blue eyes might’ve slipped one loose through sheer effort. But of course he hasn’t. Of course, he can’t help her like that either. She touches her tooth through her lip. Well, her eyes ask him with finality, are we done here?

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babak lakghomi

I KEPT LOOKING FOR IT by Babak Lakghomi

After working as a dish washer, my sister found me a job that paid more than the minimum wage. Every morning, I had to wear a wetsuit and dip my hand deep into a pool of sewage for a sample. Sometimes I had to get into tanks and wash off sludge from filters with a hose. Otherwise, I mostly sat in a control room full of screens with the other operators. I kept an eye on pumps turning on and off, numbers changing on screens. I had only dropped out of college in the third year, so this was the easy part for me.

It was a hot summer and most days the operators were hung over, or outside feeding a ground hog they’d tamed. One of them, a boy younger than me, had an infected wound he kept touching. Watching him touch the wound made me reckless. I wanted to escape that place, like I’d always escaped everything else.

When I complained to my girlfriend about the job, she thought that I was just being lazy. She reminded me of the better pay, of my similar complaints working as a dish washer.

Outside, the smell of wet grass and trees would take me back to my childhood, to our backyard where my sister and I would roll worms into little balls.

The sewage plant wasn’t accessible by public transport, and every day I took a long walk from the last bus station, walking in the bank of a river. Wild geese blocked the narrow road, and cars that passed had to honk and wait for the geese to clear the road. I would walk past the geese very quietly not to attract much attention.

One morning as I was walking by the river, I saw a little bird, the size of a sparrow, with a red tail and a long beak. I didn’t know what kind of bird it was. I’d never seen anything like it. I kept looking for it on other days, wondering if I’d really seen it.


I don’t know what happened on the night when I punched the door. I was still staring at the hole in the door when the cops showed up.

My girlfriend had called 911.

I would have never hurt her.

The next day, my girlfriend came to the station. We both cried. She’d called my sister who came in after she left and bailed me out.

My sister wanted to take me to her place, but I told her that I had to go to work, and she drove me there.

The geese were blocking the road, and as we were waiting for them to pass, I told my sister about the little bird I’d seen one day.

She pulled over and stopped the car by the river. We both sat there in silence, our eyes searching the horizon.

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troy james weaver

CALCULUS by Troy James Weaver

Calculus, 8:00 A.M.—Concentration is already an issue, even when I’m on my meds, and this asshole named Martin, who knows where I sit and why, was in my spot when I came running into class five minutes late. I took a seat in the back, deciding it was a waste to even try to pay attention. It was spite on his part, no doubt, a power play, him just being his dickhead self, probably because I’d fucked him within the first week of class then ghosted his ass, like, man, I don’t owe you shit, get it? And like most men, he didn’t get it, would refuse to get it, like, I just wanted to have some sex, no strings attached, that’s all, and he’s all wanting to tell me he’s in love and stuff. I tried to explain to him that I’ve already been through middle school. He told me he felt used, and I told him, So what? Did you enjoy yourself? That’s what it’s all about, not some gooey dating bullshit. You should be happy

After class, I told Martin to go fuck himself for taking my seat then went to meet up with Christina at the Student Center. I was starving, but had no money for food, so I drank lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup while she talked on and on about her weekend in Boston, all the food she’d consumed, all the booze she’d drank. I hardly caught any of it, just heard blips of sound and nodded, occasionally said, Damn, you serious?

That was the only class I had on Tuesday, so when Christina finally ran out of breath, I went home and masturbated to an old X-Files episode until I was tired enough to go back to sleep. When I woke up, I had a text from this guy Kevin who I met at Club X one night last semester. Took him long enough—I think he was scared of me. It was either me or my penchant for trying to get some pegging done inside those strange wide folds of a sloppy night. I tried with him, as is my modus operandi, but, trust me, there’s no convincing anybody when you’re dealing with a nerd of that magnitude.

Chelsea called me around noon. “I’m pregnant. Again.”

“Yeah, what’s new?” I said.

“It’s already grown quite a bit. I’m three months into this thing,” she said. “I’ll have to have a real abortion.”

I knew what she meant by real. She ate morning-after pills like they were candy.

“I’m sorry, girl. Whose is it?”

“That guy Kevin. The guy you hooked up with last semester,” she said.

“That’s totally weird—he just texted me out of the blue, wants to take me out for some beers sometime.”


“Don’t worry, I haven’t responded yet.”

“What’re you going to say?”

“Obviously I’m going to tell him to get lost.”

“No, for real, you should go,” she said. “Seriously. He doesn’t know I’m pregnant. You should go, for real. Get the inside scoop.”

“I have no interest in doing that,” I said. “He got super pissed when I suggested doing butt stuff. He yelled at me. Said, ‘What, you think I’m a faggot?’ and I was like, ‘No, dude, it’s just something people do, okay, chill.’”

“He said faggot?”

“I know, right? Total douchebag,” I said.

“Probably has a tattoo of Elliot Rodger on his foreskin.”

I laughed. “Yeah, we need to get ourselves a couple of Chads, don’t we?”

“Yup, I’m tired of these incel assholes. I don’t even want to ask him for money. He’s probably one of these dudes who will try to tell me I have to keep it, you know.”

“Oh, definitely, he shouldn’t know about it,” I said.

The alarm on my nightstand went off, signifying lunchtime with dad. We had lunch together twice a week, even though I couldn’t stand him. It was just one way around not having to eat Ramen or Mac N Cheese for the umpteenth time in a day.

“Hey, Chels, I have to go. Lunch with dad. Call me later, okay? All right, love you. Talk soon. Bye.”

We always ate at Applebee’s. We always sat in a booth. My dad always ordered the same thing. I always tried something different. This time it was a monstrosity called a brunch burger—a cheeseburger with hash browns and a fried egg, loaded with ketchup. I scarfed it down while my dad told me he was thinking about leaving my mom. He kept talking and talking and I kept chewing and averting my eyes.

“Well,” he said. “What do you think I should do?”

I burped and grabbed my stomach. “Goddamn, that was a lot of food.”

He just looked at me, waiting, sipped a bit of his Coke.

“I’ll tell you one thing—I’m going to have to abort this fat-ass food baby in a minute. Hope you’re cool with that.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said, unamused. “Can’t you take me seriously for even ten goddamn minutes?”

“What do you want me to say?” I said. “You want me to comfort you—tell you it is okay to leave my mother? You’re fucked. Sure, that’s what I say, dump the bitch. Is that what you want from me?”

He looked embarrassed, ashamed, and I was good with that, even though a part of me felt sorry I’d made a scene.

He drove me back to my apartment without uttering a single word. I stood in the parking lot for a minute, wondering what in the hell was wrong with me, I mean why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut? But also, my mother didn’t deserve to be deserted like that, did she? No, she didn’t, so…what the fuck ever. Fuck him.

I went into my bedroom and sprawled on my bed, watched General Hospital on mute while texting Kevin. I told him I was not interested in going out for drinks, not in the least, not ever, and he should just up and lose my number, because, frankly, I’m way out of your league, dude.

He never texted back, thank god.

Chelsea called me later that night, as promised, and said she wanted me to go to the clinic with her next Tuesday. I told her, “Of course. I’ll be there. Hang in there. Try not to freak about it or anything.”

“I’m feeling all right,” she said. “Thanks for being so good to me.”

“Of course—I love you, boo. I’ll see you tomorrow”

I called my dad and canceled our lunches for the next couple of weeks. I said, “Sorry, dad, but I can’t handle you anymore. I’m not your fucking marriage counselor. Maybe if you want to get together sometime and ask me how I’m doing, we can do that. But for now, until that can happen, I don’t want to see you for a while.”

I hung up the phone and a sad satisfaction rippled through me. I couldn’t believe that this life we live is real, and all you can do is try to make the most of it, you know, even when everybody and everything is so fucked up, including yourself.

I had to vent, so called Christina, told her all about my shitty day, and that golden bitch, she let me.

“Wait,” she said. “Maybe your mom should peg your dad.”

“No. Gross.”

“Seriously,” she said.

“Fuck off. No.”

“I mean, you never know,” she said. “Maybe then he’d see the light.”

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danny swain

I AM A WRITER by Danny Swain

I make up symptoms to get unnecessary hospital treatment.

Because I'm a writer.

I don't bathe for years and scratch smiley faces in the dirt on my body. I photograph the faces and send them to random strangers through the post.

Because I'm a writer.

I drink booze until my soul intrudes on the secret meetings between God and Satan.

Because I'm a writer.

When my dog died I had sex with it.

Because I'm a writer.

I hang out with tramps who I only speak mock Chinese to.

Because I'm a writer.

I traveled forty miles west and tried to kill a man with a pencil.

Because I'm a writer.

I dress up as a woman and offer sex to men. When we get into an alley I take a dump in front of them and run off screaming "RAPE!"

Because I'm a writer.

I once babysat two kids and I injected heroin in front of them and just laughed.

Because I'm a writer.

I didn't touch those kids though.

Because I'm not a very good writer.

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RELAX INN by J. Edward Kruft

Pat sat in his boxers on the edge of the bed, digging into his ear with a Q-tip. When Barb finally turned off the hairdryer in the bathroom, he called to her.

“I sure wish you hadn’ta done this.”

“What’s that you say?” asked Barb, entering the room in her slip.

I said,” he emphasized, “I wish you hadn’ta done this.”

“Oh,” she swatted the air, “they’re nice enough folks.”

“I don’t even know why they’re staying here. They got that goddamn travel trailer just sitting there, wasting away.”

“Well, they’ve been on the road a long time. Mitzi said every once in a while Bob likes to splurge and stay at a motel. Besides, they like us.”

Pat and Barb, Mitzi and Bob, met the day before at a craps table in Reno. Pat and Bob, self-proclaimed bourbon aficionados, got increasingly drunk trying to outdo one another, and became excessively and unintentionally chummy in the process. Barb and Mitzi looked on, neither of them surprised.

“And anyway, you’re the one that told them where we were staying,” added Barb.

“Another thing,” said Pat. “How is it we got room two, and they got room seven?”

“What difference does it make?” asked Barb, slipping into her “fancy” dress.

It makes a difference,” he emphasized, “because seven is a winner, and two craps out. Besides, their room is closer to the pool.”

“Pat, will you just get dressed?”

Meanwhile, in room seven, Bob lay on the bed, dressed and with his shoes on, watching scrambled porno on the motel TV.

“Bob!” declared Mitzi when she noticed.

“Ope,” he pointed at the set, “I think that was a boob!” and laughed.

“Come on,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Zip me up.”

“With pleasure!”

“You know,” said Mitzi, “I was reading some brochures in the tub. That lake that the restaurant is on, it’s fake.”

“Whattaya mean ‘fake?’ How can a lake be fake? Hey, I made a rhyme!”

“I mean it wasn’t always there. It’s man-made.”

“Of course it’s man-made. We’re in the desert!”

Mitzi, on route back to the bathroom to attach her eyelashes, stopped short and turned to Bob. “Do you think they really like us?” she asked.


“Who! The Krendalls. Pat and Barb.”

“Sure, why not?” asked Bob, and then took a sip of his Jim Beam, which he two-handedly perched upon his chest.

“Well, Barb seems genuine. But I get the distinct feeling Pat is all show. I mean, what did you think of the way he told that cocktail waitress at Circus Circus he was a bullfighter? I mean, really!”

“Ahh, she knew he was pulling her leg.”

“I don’t know….”

A rapid knock came at the door.

“That’s them,” said Bob, gulping down his whisky.

“I’m not ready!” cried Mitzi, closing herself in the bathroom. “Entertain them!” she yelled through the door.

“Will do!” said Bob, pouring himself a quick half-finger of Jim Beam and downing it.

Outside room seven, Bob found Pat and Barb standing on the welcome mat that read: “Relax Inn.”

“Howdy, fine people.” Pat and Barb offered their hellos. “Don’t you look nice, Barb! And you clean up pretty good, too!” he told Pat.

“Where’s Mitzi?” asked Barb. “I hope she’s not ill.”

“Just putting on her face. She’ll be out in a jiff.”

The three of them then stood in awkward silence, looking at each other, the ground, the moon, the back of a hand where a small scab rested just below the middle finger. Finally, Barb said: “I’m hungry!” and Bob agreed and Pat nodded. None too soon, Mitzi emerged, her right upper eyelash affixed noticeably higher than the left.

“I’m hungry!” she declared, and everyone agreed.

At the restaurant, they got a table on the lake. “I reserved this one special,” Pat told them. (Later he would complain to Barb that Bob took the best seat, the one that looked most fully at the water.) Pat and Bob ordered their bourbons: Pat’s on the rocks, Bob’s neat. The women each ordered a glass of riesling.

“Anyone having an appetizer?” inquired Mitzi.

“I’m having the prime rib,” said Pat.

“She’s asking about appetizers, Pat,” said Barb.

“So, I’m just saying, I’m” – he emphasized – “having the prime rib.”

“You know, that sounds pretty good,” said Bob. “I’ll have the prime rib, too. And a baked potato with the works!”

“I think I’ll start with a side salad,” Barb told Mitzi.

“Okay, I’ll do that, too,” Mitzi told Barb.

“So, how do you like room seven?” Pat asked Bob.

“Fine, fine,” said Bob.

“Close to the pool,” said Pat.

“Yeh, yeh,” said Bob.

“Seven,” said Pat. “That’s a good number.”

“Pat….” warned Barb.

“I’m just saying, seven is a good number,” Pat emphasized.

The waiter arrived with their drinks, and the table fell silent. They all sipped, and just as Pat’s lips parted to begin again, Mitzi jumped in.

“It’s fake,” she told them.

“Beg your pardon?” said Pat.

“The lake. This lake. It’s fake.”

“What she means is,” explained Bob, “is that it’s man-made. Well of course it’s man-made, we’re in the desert!” Bob laughed.

“No,” insisted Mitzi. “That’s not what I mean. I mean it is fake. You can sit here and pretend otherwise if you like, but I know perfectly well. It’s fake.”

Again, the table fell silent. Mitzi lifted her riesling and took a tentative sip. Pat looked at her from across the table. He pointed to his own right eye.

“It’s higher,” Pat said to Mitzi. “That one, on the right, it’s higher than the left.” Bob caught onto Pat’s point before Mitzi did.

“Now wait one cotton-picking moment there, Pat.”

Pat thought for a second and took a quick glance at Barb, and then stopped pointing at his own right eye and placed his hand on the table. No one said anything for a while, and then finally, Barb broke the silence:

“Boy, I tell you what, I really am starved!”

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nick farriella

NOOSE TATTOO by Nick Farriella

When my uncle showed up at my door unexpectedly, he had a noose tattooed around his neck and carried a long rope bundled up in his hand. Over the few days he lived with me, he’d toss the rope over the counter when coming in the door. He’d sling it over his shoulder out in the yard when doing what he called, “Jailareobics;” propane tank bicep curls, cinder block shoulder presses, push-ups with his feet three stairs up. When I said, “Uncle Frank, what’s up with the rope?” He said something about casting his own judgment, that the rope was a reminder. “Reminder of what?” I asked. He lowered the collar of his shirt revealing that crazy tattoo.“That we’re born with our heads in the noose,” he said.On Monday, I called my dad and told him about Uncle Frank’s tattoo and that he’s carrying a six-foot rope around with him.“When did he get out?” He asked.“He just showed up on Saturday,” I said.“Keep an eye on him, will you?”“He even lies down with it stretched out next to him on the couch, like it’s a snake,” I told him. The next morning, I awoke to the smell of pork roll and heard it crackling in the pan. There was Uncle Frank, shirtless and completely tattooed, leaning over the stove, rope bound up like a scarf around his neck. He asked how I slept. I asked if he did at all. He held a can of beer in his left hand. It was 6:45 a.m.“Hey, I got the paper,” he said. “Read me the front page, will ya?”I read him the front page of the Times, some story about the governor getting locked up for tax fraud. He let out a manic laugh and said, “He’s not going where you think he is. He’s going somewhere with tennis courts.”“Is that where you were?” I asked.“No, no,” he said. “I was in a hole.”He clicked off the burner and scooped up the pork roll, egg, and cheese and slapped it on a split bagel on the counter. He took a sip from his beer then dropped the plate in front of me and said, “For you.” When I asked what he was having, he lifted his beer, smiled that jackrabbit insane smile, and said, “I’m good.” It was Tuesday. I had to call out of work from my late shift at the warehouse to give Uncle Frank a ride to a meeting with his parole officer. The meeting was at two o’clock, so we spent that morning digging trenches in the yard to lay some ties down. Frank wanted to make a garden. When he showed up a few days before, I didn’t know what to think. He was always carrying some unforeseeable hook with him, that came around when you didn’t expect it. Like this past Thanksgiving. He had disappeared all afternoon, missed the Giants game and everything. We started dinner without him. He turned up halfway through, burping and stinking of the bar. He told me to follow him out back, that he got something for me. It was a new Huffy mountain bike with shocks on the forks. He was so proud. The elation of the gift carried over into the living room where we watched the highlights of the game, ate pie, drank some beers. I thought things would be okay for a while. That maybe this time, he’d stay for good. Until there was a knock at the door and Uncle Frank fled to the basement like a dog in a storm. It was the cops. He had stolen the bike. They took him away with pie cream still on the cusp of his mustache. So when he turned up again, out of the blue, talking about building a garden in my backyard, carrying that long rope, I didn’t reject the idea that he might consider burying somebody in it. Near the George Street exit, Uncle Frank told me to pull over. He had the rope twisted around the entire length of his arm. I asked him what was the matter. He said that if he went to his PO meeting he was going to get locked up—he owed  $120 that he doesn't have and that they’re going to test him for alcohol, which would be like testing his lungs for air. I had a decision to make. His hands were shaking in his lap. I watched the panic rise in him and course through his veins up to his neck as he took quick short breaths. He squeezed the end of the rope with both hands.“Yeah, the noose is getting tighter,” he said. “I can feel it.”I didn’t know what to do. Trucks blew by us, making my car rattle. For some reason, in that moment I remembered something that my dad once told me about Uncle Frank. It was after my tenth birthday party. Someone stole all of the cards with the money in them. Everyone blamed my uncle because that’s the kind of guy they took him for. Tattooed, biker, drunk. After they accused him, he left the party, went to a bar, got roaring drunk, and laid down his motorcycle going 90 miles an hour on the turnpike. His handlebar ripped through his spleen. On the way to the hospital in my dad’s truck, he said, “My brother will be paying for his sins with his body for the rest of his  life.” That really stuck with me, cause every time he’d show up, he’d have a new injury to report; a bum knee, broken fingers, missing teeth. I never did tell my dad that a week after that, I found my birthday cards in my cousin Nicky’s car, with no cash in them. I think he had used my birthday money to shoot heroin. I decided to not drive Uncle Frank to his parole meeting. I said, fuck it. We kept going on Rt. 18 all the way to the shore. He turned up the radio, Black Sabbath was blaring. He drum rolled on the dash and let out dog calls. Ow Ow Owww! He even tossed the rope into the back seat. I thought maybe he had some sense of freedom back, which I felt pretty good for giving him. I couldn’t knowingly drive him to that meeting. It would have been like dropping him off at the prison gates.In Asbury Park, he asked me to stop at a liquor store. I said, cool, and asked if he needed money for some beers. He said, “You kidding? I’d never take money from my nephew.”He was in there a while, so I smoked a cigarette on the outside of my car and watched two crows walk along a telephone wire. They were the biggest crows I ever saw and they moved in unison. I had the feeling they were watching me. Perhaps, it was me feeling guilty for breaking the law and technically aiding a wanted criminal. I thought, what if the cops were able to use birds for intel? Just use some sort of chip that makes them follow and report crime. So, I looked up at them and flashed my middle fingers. I said, “Fuck you, crows.”My uncle rushed out of the liquor store with his hands in his pockets.“What, are you talking to birds now?” He said.We got back in the car. I put on my seat belt and backed out of my spot, looking both ways. Uncle Frank said, “A little urgency please.” It was then I realized the store clerk rushing towards us waving his fists in the air. I sped off.“Frank, what the fuck? You just rob that place?”“I borrowed,” he smirked, sliding a few tall boys of Natural Light and shooters of Jim Beam out of the inner lining of his denim jacket.We went to the beach and got drunk. The weather was shit since it was April, but it was nice to have it all to ourselves. Heavy clouds rolled over. The sea looked angry. The sun came in bursts; one minute it was there, the next it wasn’t and all was cold and gloomy. We sat near the jetty, drinking and smoking. Uncle Frank told me stories about his days with the Hells Angels, running guns and crank. What a life. I threw French fries at seagulls. It was the best damn day I ever had with him. I figured the memory of that day would stick forever. He was so much like that sparse sun, that when he came around, you had to appreciate the shine and warmth of his presence. He was kind of electric like that, full of energy. I told him that I felt pretty bad about not taking him to his meeting.“What’s going to happen next?” I asked.“Another warrant, probably.”“You know you can’t stay at my place anymore, right?”“I know. I never stay in any place for more than a few days, anyway. You take care of that garden.”I told him, I will.A strong wind came over the beach. It was bitter cold and whipped up sand in our faces. The problem with memory is that I’d like to imagine he was crying instead of wiping the sand out of his eyes, because if I saw some tears, that would have been an inkling to the sort of pain he was in. Instead, I couldn’t see shit, just sand.We drove back with the radio off. He kept to himself, not saying much, just staring out the window, watching the signs on the parkway blow past. I wondered what kind of movie was playing in his head. I hoped it was something nice, like those old westerns he used to love and make me watch. The ones where the bad guys always got away. I thought he would figure something out, he always had.He told me to drop him off at Edison Train Station, so I pulled right up to the awning to let him out. It was raining. He gave me a hug and told me to take care of myself. He said, “Thanks for a great day, nephew.” When he walked off, I rolled down the window and yelled, “Uncle Frank, you forgot your rope.”He said, “No I didn’t,” tapping the tattoo around his neck.” The next morning, I awoke to a phone call from my dad. He asked if I saw the news. It was all a blur from there. The family had a wake and a funeral and no one knew what to say. My aunts made up reasons for why and my cousins didn’t want to talk; they took shots of Jameson in the parking lot of the funeral home. That’s the thing about a suicide; it’s like a bomb that goes off in a family with shrapnel blowing through the rings of whoever was close enough to feel the blast. No one knows how to cope. The survivors are left removing shards of guilt and anxiety from what is left of their defenses, trying not to bleed out, with one lingering question: Why? I knew why. I told myself the noose around his neck got so tight, he felt like there were no other options. I always thought my uncle would be the type to chew through the rope, but the noose was a part of him all along, like the damn tattoo.After it was all over, I told my dad about our day at the beach. He said it wasn’t my fault.“I know,” I lied.Then I sat on the porch of my parent’s house, smoking cigarettes, and watching crows take off and land on a telephone wire. Nothing and everything had changed. 
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THE FLASH FLOOD by Gregg Williard

The flash flood made it impossible to drive home. She had to leave her car in a Walgreens parking lot and walk the rest of the way. Later she heard that someone was washed away when he left his car. She’d been guiding her boyfriend home, trying to avoid the worst streets, though she didn’t know what was and wasn’t impassible and could only describe the google street map of the area. He made another turn but couldn’t see the street sign. Then his phone died. Before it gave out he thought he saw something big and white bobbing in the water rushing down another street. What is it, a body, she asked, laughing nervously. He didn’t answer and she said, what are you going to do? I’m calling the police, he said. She said, I’ll call, where are you? But he wasn’t sure. There were flares at the top of the street that made the water red. No, yellow. But he couldn’t read the sign. She gave him more directions and the white thing moved out of view. Never mind, he said, and then his phone died. In his mind, he thought about the best way to get back, and the best way to tell this story to her and other people. The water glowed red. Green. Green red. The white thing was this big. This big. When he came to the next intersection, it was completely submerged.  He saw the white thing floating in the water again. It seemed to be snagged on something and was bouncing against the current, very much like a little flailing man. There were no other cars and it was very dark and had started to pour again. He would have to turn around again. What a story. The thunk of the wipers and the rattle of the rain on the top of the car. He wasn’t afraid. He felt a mounting fear. Mounting dread. If the water kept rising at this rate, it would wash over the street. Rise over the hill. Mount the hill. He started to turn around, then peered out at the white thing again. He got out of his car to try and see it better, but it was raining too hard. He got back in and wiped away the rain from his face and inched the car forward, trying to bring his headlight beams closer to the white thing. The street seemed to be on high ground, but there were only a couple of houses and they were dark.  At the rate the water was rising, it could come over the hill behind the houses. He had to turn around. But the white thing kept bobbing in front of him, clearer now in the beams. Judging from the submerged stop sign the water directly ahead looked like it might be about six feet, not so bad, but it was moving fast. He imagined wading into it, then diving into the water. He was a good swimmer. What if the white thing were his girlfriend, or his mother or father. A person, any person would look like this in a flood. Drowned, or almost drowned, and white, even a black person would be white under these conditions, an Asian person or Latino/Latina, or maybe that would sound weird. Anyway, anyone would be just such a bundle, turning, worthy of rescue. Would it make a better story to speculate about, not who it could be but what it could be, and then lead up to who it could be, and then, boom who it really was, and boom, it tolls for thee kind of thing, that he actually goes out there and tries to get it and boom, the person who was washed away was him and you’re hearing the story from a ghost kind of thing? He could go step-by-step:  the white thing could be a white garbage bag. Then a white garbage bag of ransom money for the kidnapped kid in the trunk of the car over there abandoned in the water, (go to the car or go to the bag for confirmation that the kid’s in the car?) or a white duffel bag off a Brink’s truck, loaded with payroll, the robbers ironically drowned. Then the bitter irony of wading in and being washed away trying to retrieve the white thing that turned out to be a white laundry bag, from the hospital nearby, maybe the one where his recovered white body lay on a gurney being worked over by desperate paramedics, but the bitter, more bitter, irony part because the laundry bag was stuffed with sheets (like one of his students who had worked in a hospital laundry had once described to him) filthy with shit, blood, vomit and apocryphal secret abortions or organ thefts gone wrong.

The flash flooding started up again, and water from the next street banked over the little hill behind the dark houses and came crashing down, washing over his car as high as the windows, moving so fast his story couldn’t keep up with the waves.

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cary stough


I grieve that grief


Today, when I was being caught up on the news of whether or not my cousin Brian had accepted therapeutic treatment upon being released from the White Oak Psychiatric Hospital, my mother called him a “stubborn soul.” Today was a week after he had called every member of his family speaking of ending his life. A week before when I had spoken to her about the calls every member of my family received I was sitting in a black wooden chair in my partner’s apartment in Allston, Massachusetts, which is about a twenty-minute walk from Harvard University. I had previously been walking around and suddenly came upon a red-brick building not far from the premier art museum on campus stamped with the word “Philosophy.” I knew this to be, then, the building that had housed the Harvard Philosophy Department for however many years it had stood there after being built. The building was stamped with another word, which leads me to believe that the building isn’t as old as the University itself, and the word is the surname of perhaps the University’s most famous exponent—at least in the United States—Ralph Waldo Emerson. The building, as it is referred to on syllabi, is called “Emerson Hall,” denoting that at some time in the past the building, whether or not it had already been built, had been dedicated to the late philosopher, who, at the time of his death, no longer lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Harvard University is located, but west of the University in a town called Concord, where the first shot was fired.

According to Google Maps, the precise distance between Emerson Hall and the Ralph Waldo Emerson House—that is, the last house the philosopher occupied before he died—is fourteen point one miles. If I were driving my car, which is a tan Chevrolet Blazer manufactured ten years after my birth, it would take me, approximate to traffic, twenty-three minutes to drive the distance between the two buildings. Emerson, along with many other eminent early American thinkers such as William Greenleaf Eliot and Horatio Alger Jr., had graduated from the Harvard Divinity School some time in the past, long before I was born, long before I would read in a high school classroom in Missouri the words that would—as I tell myself—set into motion my life as a writer. It was a dictum that spurned me into writing, made me conceive of myself as capable of writing. What were these words? They happened to be every single word from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” which I read in a heat, one evening, before the other students and I were to discuss its implications as they related to our lives as high school sophomores. Or it was the phrase found in the essay’s final sentence—“nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles”—that finally did me in the direction of turning my life of uncritical youth into a life of education, of self-searching.

Without knowing it I had been searching for words like these, which felt cut raw out of the hide that religion had made to congeal over my skin. It felt as if someone had dug in a knife and split me into body and shell. The thing I realized then that I would next need to search for was an identification with the type of person I would need to be to discover principles, let alone those to which I would—if I was able to maintain the curious spirit that inaugurated this search—adhere. As a result of the aforementioned splitting, I had the intuition that, not only had the body I now possessed been hidden under the crust of so-called principles—which were only rules that I had been made to follow on behalf of others—but that I was now in a position to question with what capacities this new body could act.

My mind, I haven’t mentioned, was pretty much the same. I hadn’t yet contemplated throwing this body down the middle of a stairwell, or repeatedly temporarily sought to numb the division between these two aspects of my being—intention and extension—through the influence of alcohol. In college, my favorite beer was Stag, then brewed independently and only available in a number of Midwestern North American states, now incorporated, part of a larger corporation. Like so many other once independent beers, Stag is brewed by the conglomerate Budweiser Brewing Co., out of St. Louis, Missouri, and is, ironically, less easily come-by. The reason Stag was by favorite beer was because it tasted golden, it was in a golden can. Stag has, I think, the greatest logo of any beer: the silhouetted head of a stag, or a deer buck, whose antlers almost exceed the confines of the rectangle it’s drawn in, and likewise, seems almost to exceed the two-dimensional confines of its being a logo.

When I drank beer I would change. When I say I would change I mean that the ways in which I interacted with the world, let alone other people or my environment, changed. I began to see things differently. Even before I took a sip of the beer I had grown accustomed to drinking in large amounts throughout the most memorable years of my life I would feel a passion not unlike sadness, and though my body in so many other instances cried out for joy, it was understood that this lowering of my capacity to act in a way joyful, to make joyful judgments regarding the world, was what I deserved. Why was it what I deserved? When I was just beginning to live a life I could call “on my own”— though I didn’t want to live alone at the time, I didn’t know what I wanted—I began entertaining thoughts that would have scared my only living parent if she would ever find out about it, because they were thoughts of suicide. I thought I deserved to be sad and so I thought I deserved to be killed.

I would define thoughts of suicide as thoughts that take as their subject the completion of a flow of intention, brought about by a delusory state, which allowed the thinker to identify with a belief that one could reify one’s being, and from there separate one’s life into multiple perspectives based on an arbitrary and always socially mandated value of worth. From there, the thinker determines whether life should go on, or whether it, this particular life, should end. Some philosophers have attempted to describe life as a flow of processes—binding together linguistics, mathematics, literary impulses, film studies—which either goes on endlessly, connecting to other “lives,” or—as in the case of the suicide—is by some violent slight of the hand neutralized, flattened, water poured on a burner. Brian’s mother is my aunt. Brian’s aunt is my mother. Genealogy is one perspective humans have enjoyed viewing themselves in order to draw out the contours of their materially-bounded identities. After a month of deliberation the only means I thought adequate to the task of killing myself was a set of stairs. More specifically, I intended to drink a carton of beer and throw myself down the central corridor of a set of very tall spiraling stairs that led to my dormitory room, in college, on the fourth floor of the building known as Dogwood Hall at the University of Missouri. I had come to the decision to kill myself by throwing myself down the center of a flight of stairs, down to the floor of the basement, down to the dappled grey concrete that, from so far up, looked like water. If it isn’t already clear, I’ll tell you now: I had come to occupy the position of one who felt trapped in a life without extension. I had come to the end of a life I thought others wanted me to be living.

The thought of carrying on with such a life felt more like dragging a corpse through a hallway, dragging a corpse through the doors of an elevator. In my life I have known several people who have come to occupy this position, the position of one in possession of a knowledge beyond death, such that it will set them free of a life lived without the triumph of principles. All of them have lived and died a million times and I’ve watched them come back to me like real people I’ve grieved for.

One of them tightened a hoop of rope around his neck and stood on top of a chair. And I only heard of this when he told me the story. How he escaped his own end, narrowly, when the rope snapped, and awoke sobbing on the wooden floor.

One of them slipped into a lake, hoping the drivers of the boats wouldn’t notice her as they sailed into her, cracking her sternum. It would eventually be one of those drivers, though, who would pull her out, wet, shaking and irascible.

One of them wears two watches now. At one time, he was a mentor. Due to several classifications of distance, we have since fallen out of touch and I only think of him briefly, now and then.

Another sits alone in a North Canadian wilderness, the unanswered letter I sent him growing warped on the table. It soothes me to think this because, in reality, I have no idea where he is. It’s been over four years.

Finally, another, on a particularly bad night, took with him a bottle of anti-depressives—also known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, MAOIs—and laid down at his father’s grave. Intending the ingestion of the contents of the bottle of pills would put him fast into an endless sleep, he opened the cap and fell asleep anyway due to his heavy weeping.

This was my brother, who was sixteen years old. Shortly after this episode, which didn’t conclude in his death, Brian had spoken to him over the phone and said something to the effect of “The Devil wants you dead. Capitulation to these demands, surrender to those fatal seductions, is a failure.” A failure of what, I wondered. He always talked like a spy. When my mother, over the phone, was telling me about the phone-call Brian had given my brother at the time and she came to this part of Brian’s speech I asked my mother, Failure of what? She didn’t know, she said. “Or,” she said, “a failure of faith.” Of faith in what, I asked. And she said, “Don’t be silly.” I knew that the answer that I would be given, had I not asked the question facetiously, was God, that my brother had failed to have adequate faith in God and had slipped into the position of those who, bereft of faith, find themselves drawn into the darkness of death.

When I kill myself it won’t be because I have finally occupied some position legible to others. Nor will it be the result of a succession of logic. Nor will it be because I have forgotten about God. It will be done with a gun in the hand of a child, and just as the barrel is pressed to a pre-designated spot below my ribs, and as I’m laying there, as I’m bleeding out, I will craft my fiction, which will have been the story of my life without dread, without the threat of anyone I love throwing themself out a window or locking themself in their car in a smoky garage. It will be without the threat of love, in fact, which is jealousy of another’s life without you, which is to say me, the author of my own beginning, like a golden branch let off into a creek, the currents of which are flowing in search of higher and higher triumphs I won’t ever reach. Angels, come bear me away.

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sara chansarkar

NOT FOREVER, SNOWMAN by Sara Chansarkar

You be my Christmas, Snowy. Keep me company this holiday season, that’s all.

No Forevers for me, now.

Forever lasted only four years and 17 days and left me with this I-am-sorry-note on a neon post-it stuck under the coffee machine, this black-and-white check scarf hung between my coats, and a weight pulling me down like dumbbells attached to my body parts.I’d seen that little minx and the sorcery in her mascaraed caramel eyes ─ the liquid ones made to steal ─ as they bore into his. She’d smiled at me wicked as she sized up my full body.

But, she was not the first to have caught his gaze.Soon, my dinners ran cold and I slept, head on the table, waiting. Foreign smells danced in the closet. The succulents on the kitchen windowsill started to wilt.I worried, but not much. Forever had enough sinew and tendon to survive her. But, I was wrong: she was a force and Forever was still a child with brittle bones.

Now, I keep the sorry-note in my size-40D bra, a weighty lesson: never again.

You, Snowy, just be outside my window till New Year’s. That’s all. Watch me undress and dress and brush my long hair and paint my lips. I’ll gouge your eyes out if they stray.

I’ll wrap the check scarf around your neck, and let me take a picture of us to send to the happy folks who keep flooding my mailbox with their arms-around-each-other holiday cards.

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The chain-store you were employed at made so many bad decisions that you pictured board meetings full of cross-eyed and drooling executives, giving power-point presentations that were actually crude finger-paintings rendered in their own feces.And it was there, at the end of things, that you met Ricky. He first showed up wearing faded acid-washed jeans and neon blue cowboy boots, with fluffed and teased hair pulled into a pony-tail. He walked right up to you, stationed in the cafe slinging shit coffee and stale snacks for every third customer that didn't ask where the nearest Starbucks was.Standing in front of your register he pleaded into a giant mobile phone."Hello? Hello? I swear if the weather turns south this damn thing just goes kaput."In this act, he looked like a failed country heart-throb purged from Nashville circa 1991, three parts Ichabod Crane to one part Billy Ray Cyrus."Excuse me, sir, but you got a place I could plug this damn thing in back there?" he asked. "I got some business I need to sort out on this hunk of junk, and it just went and dogged out on me.""Sure, no problem." This was a phrase you used multiple times a day, trapped in a ghost town mall filled with bare drywall. The coffee shop was the lowest level within the hierarchy of the store's dwindling skeleton crew. You were put there because they wanted you to leave, not deeming you worthy of sticking around for the meager severance package that everyone knew was coming.The only co-worker who bothered talking to you was the guy from the music department, who broke store code by playing heavy metal on the overhead. But, there was Ricky, who would come in with his phone and have long conversations littered with random business jargon and silver-tongued negotiations."This is ground floor I'm offering here, Randall. And I just happen to be offering you the honey spot in all of this. You read them numbers? Sweet as cake, baby. Sweet as cake."On these calls, he carried a folksy charm and confidence. But between the calls he would look around the cafe nervously, getting up to pace while carrying a worried look. He would sit back down, and stare at his phone planted like a monument on the table. He would then pick the device back up, this time with a weariness."Hey, baby. You sleeping? Ah, you shouldn't nap so much. How you feeling today?"He would wait for answers within these exchanges like a man walking a tightrope, his expressions changing from anxiety to relief within seconds."I just got off the horn with Randall. I'm telling ya', he's as tight-assed as they come, but you'd think I was trying to sell him on bricks of shit. I know. I've pulled in harder cases before. You take care now. I miss you too, baby. How much? Like a man in need of savin'."He would hang up, let out a long breath of air and sit with hands and elbows propping up his brow, his eyes closed, twitching in place as if electrical currents were sending tremors through his body.You found yourself anticipating these visits. He never ordered anything, just setting up camp in the corner, pouring himself a glass of ice water. His phone never rang, but he'd eye it for long pauses as if he was sensing it to spring to life. Eventually, his patience would give out, and he'd pick it up and hammer in a call. Suddenly he would beam with new blood, taking clients through the various virtues of what he was offering, the benefits weighed against the pros and cons.But towards the tail end of his second week, more and more his eyes would flicker with the pain of recognition that he wasn't going to land this one. After such a call he wandered up to the counter, eyeing the daily specials on the lunch boards."Man, I'll tell you what. They say it's a rough go out there, but that ain't hardly the half of it. I just spent the last week getting strapped over the barrel only to end up with squat to show for it. Any of these sandwiches any damn good?""In a pinch, they aren't too bad. But nothing you would want to write home about.""Those the real prices? What the hell is an aioli?" When he pronounced aioli, he butchered it horribly, with a sour look like he just took in crop-dusting of fresh methane."It's just a fancy word for seasoned mayonnaise.""Now why can't they just say that? Why they have to put on airs just to sell a damn sandwich? I don't mean to talk down on your place of employment, and I'm sure you had nothing to do this aioli business. But goddamn there's a bunch of stupid shit in this world I'm never gonna understand."He looked dead tired like he was just about to collapse in place."I'm sorry for my use of language, partner. I've just had one hell of a week, and I'm dreading having to call my lady-friend with the shit news. Speaking of, you mind charging this thing for me?" He handed over his phone. "It's just about bone dry on juice.""Sure. No problem. No problem at all."For the first time in what felt like years, you meant it, and once he sat back at his table, you slipped him a roast beef sandwich, some chips, and a Dr. Pepper. When you put the food down, he grinned up at you wildly."Well, I'll be. A gesture fit for an angel."He ate like a man who stumbled on food after nearly starving in the wilderness. Looking at his gaunt frame and pale skin you wondered how long it had been since he'd actually taken the time to eat. Once he finished, he thanked you and asked for his phone back. He reached out for a handshake and asked your name. Usually, you lied to customers about it, but this time you gave it up. As you shook his hand, he looked deep into your eyes with a warmth that felt so pure you almost had to look away. "Ricky, the name's Ricky," he said. "Always good to meet a new friend."He went back and sat at his phone, trying to muster up the nerve to call and inform on his failure. "Hey honey, it's me. Oh, I've been doing right rotten. Yeah, in all his divine wisdom Randall is taking a pass. Well, there is no cure for stupid, so they say. Just trying to do best as a breadwinner. Now speaking of breadwinner, this fella in the cafe I'm working out of gave me one of the best damn sandwiches I've ever had. That's right. Been working out of a fancy cafe since I got here, in the biggest goddamn mall I've ever laid eyes on. God, I wish you were here to see it."You were wiping down tables, taking in Ricky's conversation when the music department guy walked in on his way for a coffee refill."Checking out Mr. Headcase Chatterbox over there?"You found yourself feeling defensive. "Come on man, he's OK.""OK, huh? This is what happens when you geezers shut out technology." The music department guy was only eight years younger than you but fully immersed in new social mediums, while you stubbornly paid your monthly phone bill for a landline. "When was the last time you saw anybody use one of those things, outside of an episode of Miami Vice?"You wouldn't see Ricky again until the home office delivered the news to liquidate inventory before closing the doors for good. Bargain bin shoppers descended like a biblical mob of locusts. Ricky showed up the second to last day of business, with a middle-aged woman that might have been his mother, but just as easily could have been a paid handler. He had gained about twenty pounds, his hair cropped short and uneven. He was wearing purple sweatpants and a stained t-shirt sporting the main alien character from the tv series "Alf."Shifting through the store with his companion, he stared at the racks of priced-to-move items like he was on the terrain of a distant world, weaving through the throng of shoppers with heavily medicated eyes, silently mouthing an unknown language. You tried to remember the Ricky from before, immersed in conversations through an archaic phone. You tried to remember you and Ricky, right before the end of things.
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