Connor’s room had big windows and blinds with strings that touched the floor, and which were always drifting unevenly, a little to the left or to the right, halfway up or basically closed, but always open slightly because of an interceding object or a crease in the PVC, so the sunlight was partial and unfulfilled. There were a few old trophies on his dresser and a fishbowl, forever bubbling, with two statuettes and a little red beta. In front of the bed was a large TV, and to the side was a small leather couch where he’d sit with his friend Neil. Tonight, Neil brought Girl Scout cookies. He said they were selling them off of a table outside the Stop & Shop, that there was a Salvation Army guy, but he didn’t stand a chance. “Cookies,” he said. Then he laughed. Connor asked if he’d seen anything good lately, and he said, “Different Chinese movies.” He said I’ll show you later, then they got into the cookies, which they ate thoughtlessly and with little dialogue, and which they finished in a few minutes. Fuck, they said.Neil asked if they could step onto the balcony for a smoke, then they did. The snow made things look matted out and finished. Connor’s backyard, really his dad’s backyard, had a bunch of evergreens in a circle in one corner, and whenever it snowed, it looked like they were guarding something obscure. He never mentioned it, but he actually did trudge to the trees one winter, not even when he was that young, to lie in the middle and look up. It was generative, like resting on the stigma of a big white flower, and he decided then that something could enter his life and change him from the inside. He said he liked the snow in their town, and Neil said it snowed other places, too. After they finished, Neil washed his hands and Connor didn’t, and they sat on the couch and watched a movie that Neil had in mind, one he thought they’d both like.Neil picked the movie for the same reason he always did: because he had stronger opinions about movies and, though neither acknowledged it, because he had a forceful way with his friend, a tendency to assert himself that didn’t show up elsewhere in his life. At one point, Connor noticed that he’d been tracking his time with Neil’s obsessions, like a mnemonic device—That happened when he was into Gundam, so I was working at Bagel One. The phases lasted about two years and revolved around movies, games, books, shows, anything that he could consume at night then go on his phone and read the context, build taxonomies. Privately, Neil was acting in total earnest, driven by a zeal for the new and a desire for knowledge, deep and wide. Connor understood that, and tried his best to engage with his friend’s interests, even to the point of occasional revelation, but he didn’t like feeling coerced.Tonight’s movie, for instance, was a Taiwanese actioner from the 1960s, and Neil spent the runtime explaining the Republic of China and the significance of the tropes used, eventually settling into a low-volume prattle of actors’ names and their other famous roles. Connor talked too, making jokes about the costumes and references to other movies, and Neil would grunt in assent or bob his head left and right, indicating a contention. They ate snacks from downstairs and hit Connor’s dab pen, and for long stretches, they just enjoyed the movie. At one point something happened, and Connor said holy shit, and Neil said fuck, I know. Neil had been worried to see how the night would go and was surprised to be laughing as much as he was. He thought Connor seemed better than usual: he’d been very distant lately, and he’d never been good with his phone. It was stressful to know that if Connor was mad, he’d never say it—he’d just leave. After the movie, they ate ice cream in the kitchen, where they had to be quiet, and Neil asked if he’d applied for jobs or anything. Connor pulled the spoon out of his mouth and frowned, then made eye contact: He was moving. Neil asked where, and he said Saint Paul. “But we live in the South Shore.” Connor grabbed two glasses from the pantry and filled them with water. Neil asked why, and he said he met a girl online. Wasn’t that a bit rash? Connor didn’t think so. Neil pulled a chair out from the table and sat down, then traced his finger around his cup. He asked Connor if he had a job waiting for him, and he didn’t, but he was convinced he could find one because he had someone who believed in him. “Unbelievable,” said Neil. He’d been unemployed for five years, but he’d just go out there and find work. Did he realize how stupid that sounded? Connor said he’d apply to gas stations and coffee shops, that one benefit of underqualification is the ubiquity of bad options. “So that’s that?”“Come on,” said Connor.Neil told him not to call when his fish died, then walked out of his life forever. He didn’t think it would last that long; he knew he wouldn’t reach out, but he figured Connor would. Still, he was wrong about the fish, which he thought would die within the month, and which would actually live for two more years in Saint Paul. He started buying fish for Connor when they were twenty-three because he thought it would help him build responsibility, and eventually self-respect. The program was a disaster: they flushed whole schools over the years, from goldfish to clownfish and blue tang, purely because Connor couldn’t muster the discipline, and because he eventually switched to overfeeding, unable to moderate himself long enough to keep something alive. Whenever they died, though, he would FaceTime Neil during the flush, always really hurt, sometimes on the verge of tears. Once, he paused for a moment to ask why he couldn’t do it, if there was something wrong with him, if it was obvious to everyone else and they just wouldn’t say. The move to Saint Paul, disastrous though it would be, marked a milestone in his pet stewardship. Eventually, he would get a dog. After that night, they would exist in each other’s lives as a bad possibility. Neil would block Connor on social media to keep himself from stalking his accounts, which he did for the first few months, and which gave him a feverish thrill. Connor would have regular nightmares where Neil reached out to him, a call he would have to answer, and which would fundamentally upset his life. After he left, he saw what Neil did to him: he told him what he was capable of (more than this, man), what was beyond his means (college, most women), what to be proud of (he could draw), and where to point his shame. It felt good to be who his friend thought he was, even if that meant affirming a cruel assumption. One night, after a week of abstinence, he caved and bought cigarettes. He called his friend, truly despondent, and was treated to warm, homely love. “I get it, man. It’s fucking hard.” Smoking on his deck that night, he wondered how it would have gone if he’d quit for real. No phone call, no affirmation. Neil would still smoke himself, he’d just be weirder about it.And Neil was already weird about it. It was the week after graduation, the week he moved back home, that he sniped at Connor most directly. They were at a townie bar, The Spout, that was a little further out from the rest, a little shittier, and much less likely to spawn unwanted high school acquaintances. Connor started going there when his dad stopped inviting him to the Elks, and since then, he’d gotten kind of good at darts. That night, he beat his friend handily and they ducked out to smoke. Neil grimaced, then asked if he felt bad for getting him started. Connor paused; it hadn’t crossed his mind. He’d never pressured him to do anything, and they were teenagers when they picked up the habit. Still, Connor gave him access. Left to his own devices, Neil may have lost interest before he reached eighteen, and his addiction might not have followed him, as it would, to the end of his life. Connor felt himself tearing into doubles, triples, incompatible co-parents of the truth. He felt staticky and nauseous, and he didn’t know it yet, but he felt resentment, too.“Sorry man,” he said, “It’s one of those things.” Really, Connor thought some vices waited for people. They could dodge them for decades, maybe forever, but they knew who they were, and they would always be convenient. It seemed less likely that he got Neil into cigarettes or Neil got him into weed. The causal tellings got things backwards: their mistakes were always ahead of them, tied to their waists, pulling them into each other’s lives. If they got the impression, which they shared by the end, that they were engaged in a tug-of-war, then they were correct, but they were wrong about the sides: they were pulling together, and they were losing. Neil would start reading history in a decade, and would be comforted by the way it could ignore the will. In a movie or a novel, disaster is an incitement to life, but in history, it doesn’t have to be anything. Resentments go untested, addictions go unbeaten, the rare big bads leave craters that don’t fill in. The night of the confrontation, Connor bought him a beer and they made up. Connor didn’t get his fatalism from Neil, though. He got it from his dad, and it was his dad who kept it around. The woman who brought him to Saint Paul lost interest after two months, then he was alone except for his dad, who called weekly. When he heard about the girl, he said, “That’s about right.” When he heard about the roaches or the heatless winter nights: Fucking management, fucking assholes. Connor didn’t have much to report, though, so he mostly listened. His aunts were always getting sick, his uncles gambling and buying new cars. Grandma was mad because someone made a comment about her dog, but they couldn’t apologize because she wouldn’t say who it was. When his mother died, she left his father a second, messier family, and if he abused them to his son, it belied a real gratitude. He had a drive to observe others, a greed for behavior and judgment, judgment and acceptance. She wouldn’t need the surgery if she went to the doctor in the first place. But that’s your grandma. He loved them the way he could love anyone, Connor excluded: a mocking, back-slapping kind of love that delighted in failure because it affirmed his suspicions. With his son, though, he had all of the tolerance and none of the judgment. He loved him for the obvious reasons.It was for those reasons that, when Neil left for college, Connor’s dad embarked on a project. His son, once a laid-back and observant child, then a skilled appreciator of life, wasn’t even gaming anymore. Instead, he was on his phone or just lying there, vaping. One day, in a tone that never sounded convincing coming from him, he enlisted his help: You don’t have a choice. He was building a pizza oven in the backyard, and because of a recent surgery, he needed someone to handle the bricks. He would build the wood frame and machine the half-blocks, but Connor would deal with the adhesive, the laying, the leveling. At first, Connor was happy to have a to-do. He was bored, deep-tissue bored, even before his friend left. After, he was just material, an unmixed pile that would stick around until something better came along. (Later, pushed to failure in a Minneapolis pizza kitchen, he would remember his weeks in bed, the way he spread outward while time drew to a point.) He took to laying bricks with a newfound conviction, something real and anxious that had been missing from his life.Then it got hard. September is a summer month in Massachusetts, and he’d always stayed indoors if he could help it. “That’s a sunburn,” his dad said, “It’s a new look on you.” Because the project started with pavers, which were heavier than bricks, and which his dad dumped on the front lawn, his first task was a series of back-tearing sprints that muffled his ambition and brought home the possibility of actual, physical failure. At that point, while his dad cut some of the stones, he laid them in a small, open square, staggering their placement to ensure integrity and correcting their alignment with a wooden dowel. Between the stones, he spread landscape adhesive in ugly swirls, and after a few layers, he began to enjoy the way the bottle gripped his hand, the resistance it put up, and its give. That evening, when his dad checked his angles and he placed the cornerstone, he felt exhausted, but refreshingly so, more like something spent than gone dry. He could probably do the same thing tomorrow.His dad joked: Good job with the warm-up. Soon, they both had beers, and they were sitting on the patio, stifled by the cooling air. “Listen,” said his dad. Years ago, he had a friend at the firm: he did M&A, and his buddy did wealth management. They would lunch together and talk about the people they hated, the handies and sleights that made up their world, the soft basis of material life. Sometimes, he told his friend he’d had enough. Don’t you say it, his friend would tell him, don’t you leave me; so he didn’t. Connor’s dad stayed on long after there was anywhere to go, enduring rubbery, overcooked performance reviews and whole-team emails directed right at him. He managed the hunger of bosses that were five years, ten years, twenty younger than himself, and watched Netflix originals so he’d pick up on their references. At one point, they brought in a consultancy, and he realized that, if he had to defend his position, he would decline to comment. He wasn’t laid off, just moved around. Then his friend left for China.“Oh my God, I could have killed him.” But he didn’t. The day he got the news, his friend swaggered to his desk, rapped the edge with one hand, then led him to the elevator and down the street to ‘their’ café. The hostess told them to sit anywhere, and they laughed because they had a table. Their presence had become a joke, the way “how’s it going” becomes a joke after months, or how anything becomes a joke after years. “Nothing good in Worcester?” His friend shook his head: The offer was perfect. As he was now, he couldn’t imagine a better life than he had in Massachusetts. His wife was an angel, his kids were very happy, and his friendship with Connor’s dad felt like a final and personal principle. He wouldn’t always be this way, though, not even in a few months. Obviously, his surroundings would be different, but he saw something other than that. “Arnold,” he said, “The scale.” He set his jaw and rocked his head back and forth. It had been over for a while, Connor’s father knew that, but he would think of that moment for years to come. The night they stopped talking, Neil showed Connor Dragon Inn, a martial arts epic about a Ming dynasty eunuch who murders his enemies’ children. The eunuch trope struck him as odd, and with further viewing became “funny,” a reminder that he was watching a movie from another country. A decade later, when he started reading again, he read a little about China, then bought a book about eunuchs, which he read over a few days, and which would inform how he thought about people in time. The practice of castration was litigated throughout the Ming dynasty, but the station of the eunuch stuck around, and even exhibited a capacity for expansion. Even as the state enforced bans on non-official castrations, people cut themselves or their children, convinced it was the only option for advancement, or the best one available. At one point, twenty thousand self-made eunuchs mobbed the capital demanding work, and when they were rejected, enough killed themselves that the emperors started hiring the remainder. Neil liked that story. He liked how something built to defeat itself could change face and propagate, expand for generations. He liked that a practice, once a stand-in for death, lived for millennia, and he liked that it was dead now, ready to be studied. Neil felt that comfort when he thought about Connor, but especially when he thought about one particular memory, one of their really fine days together. The summer before his junior year, one of the few times he’d ever been grounded, Connor broke him out and they went driving in the mountains. It was late afternoon by the time they got there, so they drove through huge sloping shadows and looked at the valleys and the brightness above, and they smoked cigarettes out the windows and played shitty music very loud. He told Connor almost the entire plot of Evangelion, and he actually seemed to blow his mind. “So is she like…” She’s his mom, dude. At one point, they saw a hawk, and they both said, “Fuck, a hawk,” which they meant in earnest, but which they repeated as a joke, alternating their tone and accent to make the other laugh. The river below looked pleasant and blue, but there was no way to get down, so they just looked without mentioning it and drove along.Eventually, they pulled over to a rec area with some picnic tables and a good view. Connor grabbed a frisbee from his back seat, and they played catch for a while, lobbing big tosses and “weird ones,” diving for catches and twirling the disc on one finger. Sometimes, Connor would throw it straight and Neil would clap his hands in a great whooshing arc, slamming the plastic between his palms with his legs planted a little further than shoulder-width apart. Sometimes, Neil would throw it straight into the sky and Connor would shout, “DEFCON KICK,” and kick it out of the air. It was rare that Connor felt truly athletic, but he did here, jogging to catch the disc and throwing it with style. He felt like he was better at things when Neil was around, like there were areas he could learn from him, and opportunities to shine. They tossed the frisbee until it turned dusky and they started getting eaten. Connor shook his legs off and yawned, then grabbed their camp chairs and started to pack the car.“No but watch this,” said Neil, peeling off to climb a nearby oak. He hugged the trunk at a fork near the ground, then hefted himself up, scrambling for footholds while he swung into a straddle, then a crouch, then he chose the thickest branch and put his belly on the leaves. “Cigarettes,” he said, and Connor tossed them. He kicked his legs and took in the sky, a white pane splotched with color, nighttime settled at the bottom like chocolate syrup. There were birds up there, and clouds, and he could watch it all spill over mountains and into the valley, the water, the flood of life invisible from above. He pictured himself soaring down, cheeks puffed with wind, interminably set on the original source. He blew smoke down at Connor, and it all came back at his face. “Fucking asshole,” said Connor, but Neil just laughed and turned to lean back. Then he felt a crack in the wood and fell twenty feet to the ground. Connor said fuck, fuck, and put a hand behind Neil’s head, the other on his chest, and tried to help him breathe. He was croaking, trying to tell him something, something that wouldn’t come out: I just, I just, I just. Connor grabbed water from the car, and when he handed it over, Neil put an arm around him and smiled. He was grateful and wincing, and there was blood between his legs, where the branch was. Later, when he was able to talk, he didn’t want to say much. They drove back, and Neil’s parents gave them hell; they didn’t expect this from him, a family is built on trust, if he thought he was grounded before, he had another thing coming. It was only the next day, when Connor was cleaning his car, that he saw the stain on his seat and wondered if something more serious had happened.
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BODY AS CURSED OBJECT: An Interview with Christopher Zeischegg

How do you know when you’ve arrived? Christopher Zeischegg’s Creation: On Art and Becoming (Apocalypse Party, 2024) presents the many violences we can inflict and invite, breathing breakneck life into fathomless yearning. In a series of essays and auto-fictional psycho-sexual fevers, Zeischegg delivers an examination of hunger. Appetite for sex and death, sure, but the book’s title points the way. One day will be the day of our death, and on that day we will have arrived at—something. If the fates back down and give us more time, it will be a day of becoming, like all days, like today. Zeischegg stalks this place in-between: on art, on extremity, on grace, and on coming out the other side. I talked to Christopher about the book.  Rebecca Gransden: Several of the pieces you've chosen to include in the collection address grievances of some kind. What is your relationship to revenge and atonement?Christopher Zeischegg: Regarding grievance...If I'm to poke fun at myself, I could say that most of the stories in the book have to do with me complaining. I mention in the preface that I wrote a piece of autofiction about my father. He ended up reading the story, which I hadn't considered a realistic possibility at the time.My father called me up to confront me about what this all meant, as I'd included some mean or condescending bits throughout.I tried to explain what I'd done in the context of autofiction (what that even meant), and in the context of other work I admired and was trying to reference – essentially a bunch of aesthetic jargon. At the end of our conversation, my father laughed and said that I just liked complaining. Maybe that's true.Regarding revenge...The more sincere reference comes in an essay about my last novel, The Magician. I'm not going to get into all of it here, but the beginning of the book has to do with a chaotic relationship I had with a woman during my transition out of the porn industry. Let's call her Andrea. Prior to moving in with me, Andrea lived in the guest house of an older man – essentially, her sugar daddy and drug dealer. The guy threatened to kill me on a number of occasions.In retrospect, this sounds very stupid. But I think there were some performative plans, realistic or not, to kill the guy, who I blamed so many of my problems on. Obviously, that didn't happen. And at the moment, I couldn't give less of a shit about him.The more contrived reference to revenge comes in the form of a love letter to Christopher Norris, the artist who designed my book cover. A while back, he'd asked me to write a short piece for the reissue of his experimental horror novel, Hunchback '88. I penned a short story that treated his novel as a cursed object. I thought it would be fun to expand the piece for my own collection; to be extra mean about it; make fun of him and the things we're both into but find embarrassing, like aging men who are into hardcore and graphic design or whatever.The whole story is a joke, and ends with a nameless first-person-narrator murdering Christopher Norris. He loved it, so I think the piece was a success. RG: The book's preface begins with a reference to your father. How does this presence impact the collection?CZ: I meant to draw attention to patterns in my work that no longer serve my life or relationships in the way I want. Plainly speaking, I wrote a story in a previous book that mentioned my father dying. A year later, he actually died of cancer.I don't necessarily regret the way I've incorporated friends, family, and other people from my life into autofiction, but it's often been a provocation. I'm not sure I want to keep dabbling in that world, where there's so much opportunity to hurt real people, or at least piss them off.  RG:  The body takes its part in the book in a multiplicity of ways, highly complex and difficult to decipher. One aspect I found interesting is that of the body as a signifier, that it becomes divorced from its material and physical meaning simply by bringing attention to itself in those terms. In this way, it takes on the quality of an indicator, always pointing away from itself even as it is engaged in the most intimate of human acts. For someone as versed in the body and what that means as you've found yourself, how do you reconcile your own body, that you very obviously live with every day, and what the body means for your writing?CZ: The more straight-forward reason I focus on the body in my writing is that my experience of life as a young adult was largely framed by sex work. I was a porn performer, cam boy, and to a lesser extent, hustler and so on. Most of  how I related to people, in terms of how I learned to get what I want, or my conflicts with people, had to do with my body – how others perceive me and how I perceive myself.At the same time, my interests and aesthetics were heavily defined by aggressive music subculture, like underground metal, and things like horror movies and (what used to be called) 'transgressive' film and literature. A lot of the material that shaped my youth was wrapped up in the language of violence, emotional chaos, and Satanic myth, or whatever you might call the language of early black metal.Because of my youth, I understood how to parse emotional experience through violent metaphor. I also felt that the most interesting thing about me, for a long time, was that I fucked for a living. So, most everything I've written over the past fifteen years has started with those presumptions.RG: We all invent ourselves. Your work deals with the question of facade, veneers, and the creation of persona. How have you utilized invention? Do you think about authenticity and does that have a bearing on your art?CZ: I'm very self-involved, and up until recently, have had a difficult time writing outside my own experience.Beyond that, writing has often been an act of problem-solving for me.Again, I return to sex work as this monolithic experience of my twenties, which I have a difficulty describing in black and white terms. The fact that I was best known by my stage name, Danny Wylde, a moniker given to me by some gonzo porn company, that so much of my early sense of sexuality was shaped by other people's direction and other people's fantasy... I can't help but be interested in shifting identities or personas while I try to get to the root of my own bullshit, or how I 'authentically' feel about anything.  RG: This is a necessarily reductive question, but who is Luka Fisher to you?CZ: Luka Fisher is a close friend of mine. She's also, in part, the subject of my new book, Creation: On Art and Unbecoming.We met on a porn set over a decade ago. She was an extra in a zombie parody. I was at the height of my career as a XXX performer.At the time, she was putting out a lot of collaborative zines, and she'd volunteered herself as an A&R rep for this indie label called Records Ad Nauseum. So, I think my interest in writing and music immediately overlapped with some of the projects she was involved with back then.Luka wanted to produce all of these underground films, records, and performances, but would talk about them through the lens of having idolized old Hollywood producers, people who would implement unorthodox techniques or come up with insane publicity stunts. In retrospect, we both probably had some delusions of grandeur. But it was nice to spend time with someone like Luka, who had all of these big dreams. Especially around the time I felt my life was falling apart.She and I began most of our work together on the heels of my porn career ending, which was one of the more chaotic times in my life. She was going through her own shit, and dealing with gender dysphoria and beginning to transition. I like to think that we offered each other support.I wanted to include a few essays about her in my new book, to honor her, and to explain how she shaped my life in important ways.  RG: An idea that has lingered with me since reading the collection is that we choose to undertake relationships with those we can accept to receive hurt from. Even in the most functional relationships we will get burned at times, and when it comes to artistic partnerships, especially ones that endure, there will be incidences of wounding, whether intentional or not. Has your perspective on the connections you have to others shifted as you've matured, and if so, how is that represented in the collection?CZ: Well, the relationships in the book – aside from my real-world relationship to Luka – are mostly fantastical extensions of my transactional affairs. No one really gets what they want; the sex, for example, is a bummer, either explicitly violent or a letdown.In reality, I do feel I have the capacity for gratifying relationships, more so than at any other point in my life. At the same time, I'm less open to artistic collaboration. I simply don't have the patience to deal with other people's meanderings.I'm often hesitant to discuss my marriage in a public space, because I find my relationship to my wife sacred and don't want to exploit that as spectacle. But I think our dynamic is relevant here. My wife is probably the most ambitious visual artist I know. We both have immense respect for each other, artistically and otherwise. We also have a rule that we don't work on each other's projects, at least not in a creative capacity. If she has a technical question regarding compositing software, I'll help her out. Or she'll take my author photos. But our work is our own, and our visions are extremely specific. Any collaboration on that front would turn into a fight.More broadly, I'm getting older and have more of a sense of what I'm good at and where I'm lacking. And I've embraced a certain mentality in terms of interacting with other people in an artistic capacity. Meaning, I'm nearly 40 years old. Anyone I consider a peer, who I respect, who I think could add something to whatever I'm doing, has been working on their craft for at least a decade. If I want their help, I better be able to pay them or at least offer them something useful in return. Otherwise, I feel this will turn quickly toward resentment. RG: In 'On the Moral Imperative to Commodify Our Sexual Suffering,' you make sobering points regarding the adult entertainment industry. Here, it is suggested that the promotion and normalization of porn that has taken place at a cultural level has broken down the business model – when scarcity becomes plenty there is a downgrading of value. This has led to the situation where those who proselytize sex positivity have put sex workers out of business. Familiarity and overstimulation also create numbness and boredom for the sex act itself, where all novelty in sex is eradicated. It's a world that provokes ambivalent feelings. The issue is a wide one, but have you gleaned any lasting conclusions from your time spent immersed in the lifestyle?CZ: In full transparency, the piece is a bit dated. I think I first wrote that in 2015, prior to the popularity of platforms like OnlyFans, and prior to PornHub changing their business model to include revenue sharing with content creators.That said, my feelings haven't changed much, albeit they're less severe than what's portrayed in that story.Anyone who creates 'digital content' in 2024 probably operates with some cognitive dissonance. It's easier than ever to make stuff. But it's probably harder than ever to stand out or make any significant money from selling digital media, porn included.From my vantage point, porn as an artform is complete bullshit. It's not art. Of course, there are many examples of films that have attempted to imbue it with some kind of aesthetic or ideological significance. And every so often, I have a conversation with someone who wants to make elevated, artistic porn – as if this hasn't already been attempted a million times over. It never works.When your body is aroused, you're not interested in aesthetics, other than the aesthetics of the body (i.e. Am I attracted to the person in front of me?). Part of your brain becomes stupid. So, if you're thrust into an aesthetic environment, where you're interested in narrative, composition, lighting, etc... and then you're introduced to hardcore sex for more than a minute or so, you're either going to get turned on and forget about everything else. Or you're going to get bored.So, for me, the purpose of porn and sex work is explicitly financial.I've worked on so many 'feminist' porn sets or films where there's some progressive ideology attached to the production. It's often just as good or bad as working on any other movie. What's the actual difference in the experience? Maybe there's more progressive language used by the director. Or maybe there's more oat milk on set.Typically, the days are longer without any kind of pay bump. And I've been fucked over financially more often by directors who boast some kind of ideology, usually because their utopian vision knocks up against the reality of how few people actually give a shit.I don't have a strong grasp on how the market functions these days. I just remember having my porn career fall apart, being broke as fuck, and then going on PornHub to find a video of me having sex that racked up something like 17 million views. I realized I would never see a cent more from that scene than what I made from my day rate.I'm not special. Most people in most jobs are going to hit a point where they realize their complete and utter lack of value. You can either fall apart and get into socialist cosplay or whatever. Or you adapt.It took me about ten years to figure out a different path, and it's still a struggle. But I make more money now. And my clients aren't trying to fuck me, figuratively or otherwise. RG: The end of the collection allows for an element of self reflection, and at one point, in reference to themes to which you cycle back, you say you are repeatedly “writing myself as a piece-of-shit hooker who dies.” Looking back on the collection, the time it was inspired by, and the writing of it, what is your opinion on the repetition now?CZ: The essay at the end of the book is the most recent addition to the collection. I wrote it last year, during the summer of 2023, right before my friend, Luka, went into gender affirming facial feminization surgery. I'd talked to her about wanting to include some essays about her in the book. She suggested we take photos of her, bruised and bandaged, after surgery and use them for the cover. It's a bit hard to tell now because of the graphic element; she's separated into puzzle pieces. But her face is the main feature of the cover.This is relevant because I wanted the book to suggest a kind of transformation. Not that my experience has anything to do with issues around gender. But Luka was crucial to the book's narrative, so I found it appropriate to use her image in that context.Anyway, during my conversations with Luka, I told her that I considered it a failure on my part to write another book like this. I've published three novels, a sort of porn memoir, and now a short story collection. They're all more-or-less about the same thing. A porn guy or hustler, loosely based on me, is depressed and doesn't get much of what he's after. Then, he gets brutally maimed or dies. I mean, I hope they're a little bit more complex than that, but...It was probably important for me to write those books, to work through whatever I was feeling about those experiences. But I don't want to get stuck there, to spend the next 10 years, or the rest of my life, waking up most mornings to revisit that material, to recycle my own trauma, or even loop the stuff I look back on fondly.Ultimately, I can't escape the things I'm interested in, my thought patterns, etc... But I'm at least going to make a conscious effort NOT to write another book about a porn guy named Chris. Put him in the grave already. 
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GODSPEED by Reid Sharpless

Antioch looked good, good, good. Red crosses on white banners blazed over the citadel, framed by the smoke of smoldering pyres and the grapevines grown fat with dusty fruit on the hills outside the city—and all this on a cool summer afternoon. Sir Godfrey of Handover resolved to make note of this fine moment in his journal of gratitude as soon as the Lord’s work was accomplished.“It all looks so good, doesn’t it, Clive?”The skull Sir Godfrey held nodded half-heartedly, then turned southward toward Jerusalem. “I know, I know,” said the knight. “Patience, dear friend.” Clive, of course, was eager for the Resurrection, which required (of course) the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, which undoubtedly required the return of Jerusalem to the hands of the Saints and the reunification of many-schismed Christendom—a goal which seemed, at present, to require a certain amount of marauding. “Soon enough, sweet one,” Sir Godfrey said, cradling Clive as he torched a fresh corner of the little Muslim village. People were screaming and hurrying about as the Kingdom stretched southward, fire licking at the fields of wheat. It would all be very interesting—the Resurrection—because Sir Godfrey and his serf Clive had parted on uncertain terms the previous year. Clive deserted the green hills of Handover to go reaving in the Holy Land with the other peasants, pitchfork in hand. Another lord might be furious, but Sir Godfrey waved him on; he would miss the old peasant, but who could argue with a summons from the Almighty? Besides, Godfrey and Clive shared a special bond. When Godfrey was young, Clive had led the little lord’s pony carefully around the woods, and when Godfrey grew older, Clive had polished his armor. The serf was almost family to Godfrey. Could a more intimate friendship exist between peasant and knight? But from the high road out of town, Clive had bellowed something back at Sir Godfrey, something to the tune of “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” as if revealing some long-held resentment toward his feudal lord. In the moment of Resurrection, Godfrey would say to his serf Here I am, Clive, I’ve brought thee back, having conquered the Holy Land. Did I not do right by thee? Was I not a good lord after all? And Clive, of course, would agree.The men were galloping this way and that, clanking in their polished heavy plate, singing songs of worship. Baldwin the Hermit led them, swinging his mighty mace.Refiner’s fire! Baldwin sang. My heart’s one desire…Is to be holy, the rest of the men joined in, set apart for Thee, Lord…Baldwin: I choose to be holy, set apart for Thee, my Master…All: Ready to do Thy will… It was yet another miracle! They had pillaged another little Muslim village in the hills outside Antioch. Sir Godfrey alone counted eight (eight!) unbelievers slain for Christ. One he had slain in the Old Testament fashion, and seven afterward had given their hearts to Christ of their own free will. He’d left them embracing each other in their little hut, shedding New Testament tears of fellowship. And just when all had grown quiet, several dozen sheep and goats burst from the burning stable and streamed toward the crusaders like the animals led by the Lord Himself onto Noah’s Ark! A miracle that, on this day of bloody victory, their hearts and bellies should be so full.Such miracles were occurring with great regularity as the noble crusaders approached Jerusalem. With each step deeper into the Holy Land, the scriptures became more undeniably real. What in gray Europe had existed as invisible movements and whispers of experience—a trembling heart, a pang of guilt, blind inner brushes with the Holy Spirit—had in Asia Minor become obvious enough for even the dim-witted to see. Angels (angels!) had been sighted as bright glints of light, stars exploding in the vision of knights like sparks of struck iron. An image of the Virgin Mary had been reported in the sand, and the faces of apostles were visible in the clouds during battle. The crusaders had marched twelve circles around the walls of Nicaea, blowing trumpets and singing songs of worship, and behold, the hearts of the Turks within had softened; the gates of the city were opened to them, even while the siege engines stood only half-erect outside. And earlier that very day, as they battled the Turks for Antioch, the Lord had brought a cool breeze over the mayhem to dry the sweat from their brows as they did His work. Miracles! It was all so bittersweet, knowing that once they raised their flags over Jerusalem, history would come to an end. Life was just beginning to feel right. The men had ridden their horses into thick lathers and sung their voices ragged. Baldwin the Hermit directed the knights to a fork in the southern road, where princes were taking seats, visors raised, with cool cups of watered wine in their hands as their squires doffed their armor and the camp followers butchered the pillaged livestock. “In the next life, Clive, I shall have thee serve as my squire,” said Godfrey. The skull stared off into the middle-distance.Godfrey dismounted and set out in search of his nephew, Edfred, that they might doff each other’s plate. Already, princes and knights were showing each other what baubles, relics, and bones of significance they had gained in the sack of the citadel. Sir Gnut had found a finger bone of John the Baptist. Baron Valclaw found a stained silken glove belonging to Paul of Tarsus. Duke Gedward found the ear of Malchus (severed by the Apostle Peter) perfectly preserved in a jar of pitch, as fresh as if it had been dismembered that very day. And Baldwin the Hermit found the iron tip of the lance that had pierced Christ’s side—this discovery had inflamed Christian hearts with such zeal that the men then rode out beyond the walls of Antioch and, in a righteous frenzy, smashed the Muslim counterattack. These relics were the most celebrated to-date, but surely Jerusalem held more. “What have ye there?” said Sir Gnut, eyeing Clive’s skull in the crook of Godfrey’s arm. “The skull of John the Baptist?”“Nay sir, ‘tis my dear serf, Clive, who came here on the Peasants’ Crusade. He met his end outside Nicaea, and now I ride to avenge—” But Sir Gnut had already left, searching out other pieces of the Baptist. Godfrey didn’t blame him: the relics were a godsend. Mere days ago, Godfrey’s heart had been baffled by doubt of his holy purpose. But hearing of this, Baldwin the Hermit came to him, and from his saddlebag he produced a sack of bones safekept for Godfrey—the bones of Clive. “Thy friend is with the Lord now,” Baldwin had said, handing over a femur, “but his bones cry out for justice!”Godfrey’s strength surged within him at the outcry of Clive’s bones. For the bones of Clive he’d fought valiantly in Antioch, and would now fight on to Jerusalem. If only Baldwin the Hermit could give some fortifying relic to Edfred, whose strength was waning.Sir Godfrey found his nephew sulking at the edge of camp, looking back over the smoldering city. Edfred, of course, had joined the Holy War to assure himself of his salvation. But the boy had not once bloodied his sword in combat. Instead he’d become enamored with a group of young Muslims—a girl who washed his feet with her hair and several young men who called him friend and toured him about the city as it was being pillaged. Only at lunchtime, as Edfred sampled the delicious foods of the market square, Sir Gnut slew his friends.“I’m sorry,” Sir Gnut had said to Edfred in the clamor of battle, “I didn’t know they were yours.” Edfred muttered forgiveness and turned away to shield his fragile heart. But around the wine barrels there still circulated boasts and rumors of Sir Gnut’s various conquests in the sacking of the city.“Come, nephew,” Godfrey said, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Thou knowest we kill only in kindness.”The boy shrugged off his uncle’s hand.“Would that I had never come here,” he said. “I have not lived a life of great sin requiring such terrible acts of atonement.”“Here,” Godfrey said, “hold Clive.”Godfrey gave Edfred the skull, twisted the boy around by his shoulders, and began unstrapping his gorget.  “By the time thou art mine own age, thine heart wilt be so heavy laden with doubt that every night thou wilt lie awake in torment.”Edfred was quiet. A redness dappled his pale neck.“When our work here is done,” Godfrey said, “thou shalt never know a heavy heart.”“Is this even Clive?” Edfred asked, turning the skull over in his hands. Clive looked Edfred squarely in the eye, but feeling a great revulsion for the boy’s softness, quickly cast his gaze downward. Godfrey unbuckled the rest of the boy’s plate and wrested the skull from his hands. Edfred stood, wriggled himself out of his armor, and turned to doff his uncle’s plate.“Of course it is Clive,” Godfrey said. “See? Here, the place where his nose once was, the place where—”Trumpets sounded. Baldwin the Hermit was raising his banners around the barrels of wine. “Ye tired and ye weary,” he shouted, “we stand at a crossroads. We can press on to Tripoli…”The knights raised the tired huzzah of men who have taken what they wanted yet are met with new things worth wanting. “…or we may leave Tripoli to the laggards and instead fortify ourselves for the crown jewel, Jerusalem.” The men were silent in their consideration; surely they would have all the time they needed for relaxation once Eternity began.“Thy blades are sharp and armor gleaming, but hast thou taken the whetstone to thy Sword of the Spirit? Hast thou oiled thy Belt of Truth? Hast thou polished thy Shield of Faith, thy Breastplate of Righteousness, thine Helm of Salvation, and thy Sabatons of Peace?”Edfred ceased his fumbling with Godfrey’s leather straps to listen closer to the words of the Hermit.“I know a place that floweth with milk and honey,” Baldwin continued. “There we may purify our hearts, so that in the final moment of the broken world, Christ might say to each of us: today thou wilt join me in paradise.” At this, all the men raised a joyous Deus vult, and Edfred raised his boyish voice with them in cracking assent. Yet Godfrey could hear the bones of Clive protesting from his saddlebags. “Not south?” said Sir Gnut, lifting his gaze from his work on a nearby sycamore. He and his fellow northmen had grown fond of removing teeth from the infidel and driving them gently into trees with the flats of their blades and butts of their axes to mark their path southward. “South-southwest,” said Baldwin. “And only until Jerusalem is laid under siege.” “South-southwest is south enough for us,” said Sir Gnut. His northmen grunted amiably and returned to their decoration.Sir Godfrey thought to protest, to offer some counterpoint—he had stamina to spare and was eager to claim more lives for the Kingdom—but Edfred was now proclaiming desperately with the others that they should go at once to the place Baldwin spoke of, where they might shine their spiritual armor. Out of pity for the boy, Godfrey spoke not a word against it.“Patience, sweet one,” he said to Clive. “This delays thy Resurrection for but a little while. What is one short detour in the face of Eternity?”...Baldwin the Hermit led several hundred knights toward the sea. They climbed Mount Carmel’s gentle, chalky slopes—the northmen marking the occasional laurel, oak, and olive tree—and from there they began the descent to the glaucous coast. Baldwin pointed to a cairn. “There is the altar on which the prophet Elijah called down hungry flames from Heaven and shamed the priests of Baal,” he said. “And there,” he pointed, “is the cave where the prophet Elisha hid after summoning the bears from the wilderness to maul the forty-two young men who ridiculed his baldness.” The knights took stones from both places, and when they had filled their satchels and saddlebags the cairn was gone and the rocky hollow was picked clean, swept of all its precious dust. “And here we are,” said Baldwin, sweeping his hand toward the sea. A yellowed limestone keep stood in bright relief against the Mediterranean. Even to Godfrey’s eyes it was a relief. Men could be seen playing lawn games within the fortifications. A small harbor sheltered ships from Christian nations, and the beaches and dunes all around were festooned with palm trees and dotted with small wooden villas dedicated to spiritual replenishment. The knights dismounted and ran toward it as children might. ...Godfrey lounged on the beach with the bones of Clive, shaded by a large parasol made of palm fronds. The warhorses grazed just over the dunes, while Baldwin and the men frolicked in the waves, riding gentle swells on bits of flotsam. Friendless Edfred stood apart in ankle-deep water, gazing northward along the coastline. And Godfrey lounged there, perfectly content in the sand under that damned fine parasol. Antioch looked good, good, good, he wrote in his journal of gratitude. Thank you.“What would thy betrothed, the fair Lady Godwina, say if she could see thee now?” Clive asked, attempting to spur the knight on from his quiet repose. She’d say what she always said, Godfrey knew. Remember thy code of chivalry, keep the Beatitudes close to thine heart, turn always the other cheek, bear into perpetuity the Ten Commandments graven on thy mind, and every day write of three things for which thou art grateful. She’d said it even at the moment of farewell, as she tied her red ribbon around his arm. “Thou art a thorn in my side, Clive,” said the knight. But Clive awaited an earnest answer, and the silence weighed on Godfrey’s heart.“She’d remind me: thou shalt not murder.” Godfrey began. “To one who strikes thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. Thou shalt make war upon the infidel without cessation and without mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Whosoever joins in Holy War shall receive absolution for his life of sin. And she’d remind me to be grateful.”The skull waited.“I am grateful for the ocean, for the palm trees, and for thee, Clive.” “To be a knight is to walk a very straight and narrow path, but thou dost make it look easy,” said Clive, impressed.Satisfied, Godfrey leaned back against his saddlebag until one of Clive’s bones snapped. The crusaders were still out there in the surf, a new excitement now about them. Sir Gnut had been caught in the undertow and swept out to sea, but the Lord had called forth leviathans of the deep, which found him, buoyed him up to the water’s surface, and spirited him back to the safety of the shallows, and now all the blessed beasts frolicked playfully with the knights. A glint to the north caught Godfrey’s eye. It was an angel. No, it was a new star. Edfred was stumbling in the surf beneath it. No, it was a sword, slicing through the firmament. Edfred had hurled his longsword into the sea.Clive watched the men’s armor rusting in the salt breeze. Knicks and scrapes on the steel blossomed into crimson florets until the whole pile was awash in color. Then one morning, peasant women with children slung close to their breasts came and placed the armor in barrels with sand, and spent the day rolling them to and fro. When the armor came out it was mirror-bright, good as new.On the road to Jerusalem, Baldwin the Hermit preached to the men who followed him. Before all this crusading business, everyone assumed the speed of God to be quite fast. Faster than a sprinting man, faster than birds, faster even than wind. But with each passing year—even one thousand years—the Lord did not reap His harvest from the world. But Baldwin had finally realized: the speed of God was actually quite slow. Slower than ants, earthworms, and tree roots, more patient than rocks. It was slow because the Lord’s plan required noble, Christian hearts to speed along the end of all this misery. Of course! Their fathers and fathers’ fathers had waited a thousand years for Christ’s return, when they could have marched over to the Holy Land and brought on the Second Coming in a mere five! Red is such a pleasing color, Godfrey decided, as he charged the city’s northern gate. It was miraculous what red could wash away, leaving behind only pure white. The red of Christ’s blood. The red of communion wine. The red that soaked the horses’ ankles in the market square. Godfrey felt his heart lighten with every swing of his sword. He had always been a selfish person. A self-centered, sinful wretch. Having a self at all was an excruciating torment to Godfrey, a stain upon his soul. But with every new vermillion gash, he felt a measure less selfish. By the time he stood panting on the Temple Mount overlooking the city, his heart was white as snow. Clive smiled from the crook of Godfrey’s arm, and the two of them stood there, waiting for the Lord to take His broken world and make it great again.Only once the men had raised their banners over Jerusalem, trashed its streets and slaughtered its people, nothing happened. They inspected their fallen foes. The Mark of the Beast did not appear on any of their foreheads, nor did the knights find signs or symbols of significance anywhere else; only the red-on-white crosses emblazoned on their own banners and clothes. They’d stormed the very capital of the Holy Land, yet Christ did not come down from His high seat to walk among them, to make the broken world new again.“And then what happened?” Clive asked. The way he posed it seemed unkind.Then the knights found themselves quietly wandering the scorched city, inspecting its walls and temples, drifting through places where all those Biblical people had lived and done things and died and risen again. Sir Gnut found the Garden of Gethsemane. Baron Valclaw stood in the Shadow of the Valley of Death. Duke Gedward found Golgotha, and nearby, Baldwin the Hermit laid for three hours within the Holy Sepulcher, where Christ had laid for three days.Godfrey and Clive climbed a bluff above the city, the deep red clay sucking at his boots. They found the potter’s field purchased with the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Christ, where Judas was said to have either hung himself or burst explosively in regret. A solitary olive tree stood within it, a rotten rope hanging from its thickest branch.Godfrey sat beneath the tree. Edfred would have liked that part—sitting under the tree. From there, Jerusalem looked even better than Antioch had looked. But the boy was on a ship bound for Handover with neither sword nor relic to his name.“And then what happened?”“Then nothing,” Godfrey said. Nothing had happened. The bones of Clive did not knit themselves together with new sinew and muscle. All the dead saints remained in the ground. Fallen crusaders lay there purpled on the streets. The sky did not tear asunder. There was no clap of thunder, and hardly a trumpet was heard. The only thing that happened, really, was a collective remembering of the words of Christ: the Kingdom of God was within them, after all. From this the men forged new pieces of spiritual armor, something made of chainmail, surely, which covered all remaining chinks and vulnerabilities in the armor of God. All the armor had become quite heavy, however. Godfrey could not rise. He opened his journal of gratitude to write, but wept instead. The ground soaked up his noble tears. I’m grateful for the speed of sprinting men. I’m grateful for the speed of birds. I’m grateful for the speed of wind. He closed the book. “Tell me, Clive, am I a good person?”The skull nodded blankly, a mask. “So I am a good person? A good man? Answer me now.” “Of course,” a womanish voice said. The skull dropped to the ground.“Who art thou?” Godfrey whispered.But the headbone rolled to a stop, discharged of all magic. The knight unslung his satchel and dumped a pile of bones under the tree. Above, the rope swung limply from the bough. Bark had grown over it, wood constricted and bulging where it had been fastened long ago. He wanted that rope. He hacked the sapless branch from the trunk and hefted it over his shoulder. Then he carried it back down to the city and paraded it in front of his friends, who congratulated him.
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3 MICROS by [sarah] Cavar

Elephants think they are the size of dogs

Who can fault them, outwitting their great heft? And I am the size of Grammys voice at the burnt crack beneath her knife. Her grandmother, mème, would eat two toasts per day, no grease, between her prayers alone. Face against the floor. Grammy takes hers with coffee and a camel. An earlier version of this piece contained incriminating information on           but I got rid of her. An earlier draft of this piece contained incriminating information on           






                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Grammy once described clothing as forgiving and I imagined a wardrobe built only by resentment. She spoke between smokes of her deathdream: a forest, a fuck, a rainstorm, alone. I can’t breathe around you, granddaughter tells her fore. Now you are a featherbed. Now I am a rib. Who can fault me for outwitting my body. 

____________________________________________________1 having gone the distance as it were from the scene

2 of which dried up carbon, or perhaps the sound of scraping

3 hitherto unknown but as measure of license

4 and perhaps local to the knife or even the greed



Joan: A Eulogy  Dear Joan, 

The spaghetti went cold in my mother’s mouth. You stood there with your hand raised and ready to fire, like a petty tower. 

I promise I will not be reasonable about this. 

 Dear Joan, 

Your place has no toys. Four items under the television: a holey tennis ball, an old book, a pen, a key. The children’s place, you called it. You speak to my mother with your oblivious. Goodness is a series of good acts / I stab the ball with the nub of your pen. 

 Dear Joan, 

Your fat old cat is afraid. My father tempts her with soft wet tuna. He wears gloves in the basement with you. With her. It is difficult to know who is when, this memory. You, aching and raging from the bed. Afraid is a dangerous animal. 

She is upstairs these days, a dark trace at my mother’s feet. Frightful bastard. You are.




If I were the person I thought I once was this spring evening I’d walk miles in my mother’s old sweatshirt not out of hatred for my body but out of sheer sick cold. I would smell manure familiar to me and invented by the dairy midway between my home and the school where I learned I was fat. In that story, I become thin the way others grow up: gradually, adding with patience restraints, compunctions, ligatures, weights; steel where once was air. In my hometown is a correctional facility, another word for prison. When inmates escaped we kids hid in a dark corner of the classroom as in active shooter drills. Afterward we ate lunch. Today is any other March Wednesday. My arms with bumps or perhaps goosegrief                         I am feeling perhaps even grief for the girl whose few words concerned the grief I mean the geese of her sister: good geese, kind. At the correctional facility she wound mandalas into ink at her bed while I, adjoining, jogged in place. You see there is a point that you get to when you forget to be hungry and begin to run into traffic. Sometimes I grieve that feeling the way my mother has tacit-promised to grieve me, if                      At present the sun is melting and I am about to bike from this place to the the apartment in which I keep my sad food and sometimes food for strangers. When I reach the traffic light I will consider my bicycle, legs, white shirt, bare arms now thick with ink. Being disordered is a manner of being out of order, that is, insequential, that is, inconsequential. I think of my mother. I love you. Your sweatshirt is in my closet.

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It happened fasta small wound opened in his side one day and soon his eyes were sunken, his mouth black. The doctors seemed to know even less than I did. He’d been so lively when they’d seen him, writhing as they placed him on the scale, lapping up the stale smells of the exam room. He tasted the air like a child in snow, curious, eager to devour the world. How could I make them understand? I had seen the sickness enter through his cut, the flicker of his being suffocated by pain. The pink infection crawling up his belly: too far, too fast. I couldn’t. He died. I found his body that night. It was never easy to tell whether he was sleeping; it was the empty limpness in my fingers, the stillness of the skin and the illness swimming in the pus beneath that told me he was dead. This was how we had always communicated: in slithered Ss and Cs spelling out a secret language. He never smiled. Sometimes I could read hunger in the anxious loops he drew around his tank, or intelligence in the considered script with which he scaled a bookshelf. I wondered if the disease had begun before the cut and I had simply failed to read the signs. Only now could I be certain of what he was saying: I am dead, I am dead, IIIIIIIIIIIII. But where to take him? The ground was hard and frozen, too cold a resting place for subtropical remains. The trash seemed unceremonious and sad, the rats greedy for a chance to turn the food chain on its head. The first few places I called laughed at me on the other end of the line: We do cats and dogs here, sir. Anything less domestic was too weird, too far-flung on the cladogram for funerary rites. Finally I found the number of a former veterinarian with four stars online who said that, for their feline rate, they would ‘process’ himthough when they mailed him back to me he would arrive in a little wooden box adorned with balls of yarn and mice and fish skeletons. That was fine, I said. He did like mice.I wrapped him in a garbage bag, and we took the train to the outskirts of town. Out the window I saw factories spewing smoke that slithered up the sky and dissolved into the gray clouds overhead. No one else had ridden this far out on the line; the only other people on the platform were disinterested ticket-takers, warm and drowsy behind the fogged glass of their climate-controlled tanks. Huge, faceless trucks rattled past me on the street, shining their headlights in my eyes. I kept my hands in my pockets, the garbage bag tucked under my arm, my lips turning rigid in the blistering wind. At the address I’d been given I found a small office with a man who was surprised to see me. Behind his desk hung a posterboard filled with faded polaroids of border collies, tabby cats, and corgis posing with teary-eyed humans in the entryway I’d just come in. He accepted the bag and offered his condolences; he seemed tickled to have something to burn beyond his regular kindling, and asked me questions about reptile care and cuddling. As I turned to leave I noticed that one of his ears was missing—mangled, as if bitten off.It was dark when I walked back onto the street. It had started to snow. One by one the streetlights flickered on; a pale shimmer appeared to glow upon the factory walls. Scales of silver spray paint under spray paint, shining with the names of those who’d vandalized this place before they left it. I looked up at the great smokestacks pouring chemicals into the atmosphere and the fat flakes falling down like ash and thought about the world. How all of this is a letter being written on a burning piece of paper. An empty skin, left behind.for Royal
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CLARIBEL by Karen Laws

The woman I had become accustomed to thinking of as my future daughter-in-law has taken off her white satin shoes but still wears her wedding gown. My son left her at the altar. I don’t know why she’s surprised, why she even went to the church—she keeps saying everything was arranged. I suppose that’s part of it. I’m grateful she has chosen to come directly from the church to the apartment, to me. She paces and cries out in her rage, the dress billowing. The wedding’s off. It’s clear that the rest of the family, the couple’s many friends, the officiator, all the invited guests have gone. He’s gone, she wails. I can’t pretend to share Claribel’s grief. Procumbent on the floor, I continue watching mukbang on the 65-inch TV. The open-plan apartment, with its luxurious furnishings, was supposed to be my gift to the newlyweds. Turkish carpets, new lighting fixtures, sectional sofa. No one has ever fucked on that sofa. Not yet. From the side of the room where romantic dinners will one day be prepared comes the soft whistling of a tea kettle. From the TV, at very low volume even though I love the audio component of mukbang as much if not more than the visual, come the smacking and slurping sounds of someone enjoying her meal. Between bites the pretty girl onscreen describes what she is eating—dumplings—and how they taste. I know what she says thanks to the English subtitles. (I’m keeping the volume down for Claribel’s sake.)She goes on weeping and shouting. I understand her need to vent. Memories of her and my son engaging in public displays of affection compete for my attention with the mukbang. When the mukbang loses, I turn off the TV. I look up at Claribel. In her eyes I see a scintilla of awareness that it’s going to be just her and me now. I’ve won. For months, I’ve been calling my friends by her name. Like when we spent the weekend at Lisa’s beach house. Claribel, I’d say, is there any soy sauce? Claribel, I mean Lisa, I’d correct myself, are you ready for a Boulevardier? All weekend, I kept slipping up like that. You’re obsessed with this woman, said my friends, laughing as they pointed out such mistakes. I couldn’t resist talking about Claribel. Saying things well within the bounds of normalcy, such as: She’s got a good job in hospital administration. She’s plus-sized and body-positive, she loves her body the way it is. She likes me, I told my friends. We’ve gotten close, so close that we have pet names for each other. She calls me Ducky, I confided. She defends me against her parents and other detractors. She even scolded my son one time when he called me a virago to my face. There’s an erotic element to your obsession, my friends warned. I suspected they were right. I may have taken advantage of my son’s fiancée’s affectionate nature. All I know is that I wanted to give Claribel my attention, preferably over a sustained period of time, and that I acted on that desire. My friends would never believe I could do that to my son. My friends—they’ve known me for a long time. They think of me as a loving mother. I, too, once thought of maternal love as unaffected by the passage of time. But as my son grew from infant to child to adult, he needed me less and less. My love shrank accordingly. Imagine a funnel. My love started out big and gradually decreased in size until it became as short and narrow as the human throat.  I faced the consequences of my transgression only today, when my son entered the apartment unexpectedly at 9 a.m. It was the morning of his wedding day. His bride-to-be was stretched out on an antique silk rug, under the chandelier. She had come here because she needed to be alone. With me, she can be alone. I know how to give her the mental space she requires, even when we’re close to one another physically. When my son walked in, my head was resting on Claribel’s capacious ass. I was naked, as was she. My son looked at us and we looked back at him. He slammed the door on his way out. Claribel told me not to worry. She seemed to have no doubt the wedding would take place exactly as planned. I said I hoped she was right, and after she left, I meditated on love as a funnel-shaped object. I imagined refilling a small bottle of olive oil from a large can and how a funnel would make the job easier. I used to love my son so lavishly—I was a good mother. I hope I was.Now, except for the softly whistling kettle, it’s quiet. Claribel is no longer sobbing. She has run out of things to express regret about. If I were you, I say, I’d change out of that dress and into my going-away outfit. Claribel shakes her head at me in a disbelieving sort of way, but she goes out of the room and returns wearing a short, sleeveless dress. The tattoos that looked silly on a bride are now an adornment. All in all, Claribel looks better. Calmer. The tea kettle is still whistling. I say, Do you want chamomile or mint?
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