NEGAUNEE, MICHIGAN by Ron Riekki

I grew up in Negaunee.

It’s a town you’ve never heard of.

My ancestors are Saami.

It’s an entire culture you’ve never heard of.

My father was a sampler.

It’s a job you’ve never heard of. He collected iron ore samples from the mines for testing.

We live by a lot of mines you’ve never heard of—Empire, Tilden, Jackson.

Upper Peninsula’s often misspelled Upper Penisula. I swear to God. Although God wouldn’t like me swearing about how the place I was born and raised is called a penisula by people who don’t use spellcheck.

But this all happened before spellcheck.

Before the internet.

Before cell phones.

Back when the world was simple. Back before revenge porn and hacking and texting-while-driving and the whole stupidity of living now.

This was in the 1980s. In the U.P. With my parents who were off-the-grid before there was a grid to be off of.

We didn’t even own a TV. I mean, we did. For three months. Then my mother saw a boob on HBO and she said, “Enough” and it was gone as fast as it came.

We went back to euchre and Scrabble and solitaire and backyard bent-rim basketball and my favorite game—and this was an actual game I’d play with my brother—Getting Lost in the Woods.  That was the entire game. Go in the woods and try, on purpose, to get as lost as possible and find your way home. Mostly, it was easy. There was the Negaunee airport where the occasional plane might come or go and that always gave you some sense of direction.  And then there was something called the sun that always gave you an east and west and, really, what more do you need than that to get home? Then there was something called memorization. We knew every birch and creek and patch of switchgrass for ten miles in all directions from our house.

My father had taken us to see The Fox and the Hound and my brother had decided he was now a fox, so he wanted to play this game every day.  Every single day. Even after our mother banned us because of what we were doing to our socks.  Our socks were turning orange from the iron ore that seemed to be everywhere, as if the mines were bleeding with it.  And, worse, we had prickers in everything, so that our mother would prick her finger folding our shirts, impossible to get them out with washing so she’d have to pick them out one by one. But our mother threw away a pair of socks and a shirt that weren’t salvageable and we’d taken them out of the garbage, then went into the woods and changed into them, putting our good clothes up in a tree fort we half-tried to make. Foxes are not good at making tree forts. But they are good at getting home. We’d spin in circles to disorient ourselves, then purposely try to go down paths we’d never went down before, searching for the most unknown parts of the woods possible, and we ended up discovering cliffs where you could see Lake Superior all the way from Negaunee, and a den of snakes where my brother pushed me into it so I fell forward and experienced a snake go down the front of my shirt with me standing and screaming and my chest wriggling around with the serpent inside me, and a river that was untouched by ore so that we swam under the noon June sun with the world shining around us like it was showing off its green perfection.

The problem was I wanted to go see another movie.

My father said fine and took us to Back to the Future.  Instantly my brother was not a fox anymore.  He now wanted to play guitar and ride a skateboard.  And my brother is obsessive. Every single day I’d hear him butchering Chuck Berry riffs to the point that my father banned the guitar from the house, my brother off in the woods where I’d hear the weak sounds of off-key “Johnny B. Goode” working to reach my ears.  And the hill in front of our house was not made for skateboarding. It was too rocky. And the skateboard my parents bought him was cheap, so it couldn’t take the rocks. My brother would try again and again but it was useless. There was no skateboarding with that piece of crap.

After he started talking about wanting to invent a time machine, it was me who got the idea of taking him to another movie, to see if he’d fall in love with another character, if he’d switch from Tod the Fox to Marty McFly to something else.

There were a few theaters in Marquette and Ishpeming, none in Negaunee.  And they’d show current just-released stuff but also popular films that’d come out in the last few years. The theaters were beautiful back then, before they were all torn down and corporate boxes put up to replace them. I remembered walking into those old theaters and just feeling transformed before the movie even started. There was one theater in Marquette where it felt like the back row had you a football field away from the screen and the whole theater curved like a spoon so it was like you were in a concert hall.  And there were old-world designs on the ceiling so that you’d put your head back and look up in awe at the attempts at Michelangelo.

Maybe it was those theaters that did it to my brother.

Or maybe it was a mental health issue, a mental health issue you’d never heard of before.  But we could choose between E.T., Aliens, or The Breakfast Club.  I told my father maybe it’s best if we don’t go to a movie about aliens, especially not one where the aliens tear people in half. I didn’t want to wake up and find my brother trying to tear me in half. Although I suspected he would leave the movie thinking he was Ripley, that he’d try to protect us from aliens that would never come.

We went to The Breakfast Club and, after, my brother was on a mission to have everyone in the school get along.  He’d invite the jocks and heads and nerds and loners to our house. He’d play basketball with the jocks and get lost in the woods with the heads and he’d play solitaire with the loners and Scrabble with the nerds and, best of all, he’d try to get them to overlap, to get the jocks smoking during Scrabble and the heads to play basketball with the loners.  And sometimes it’d work.

I saw my brother as the film director of our hometown, controlling it all.

The problem is that one of the jocks took him to see Gremlins.  And you’ll guess what happened: my brother thought he was a gremlin.  The jocks and loners and heads quickly disappeared. A few of the nerds stuck around.  One said he was a gremlin too. They became inseparable best friends. And I’d wake up with milk in my bed.  An entire gallon poured into my sheets. I’d open my closet and all my clothes would fall on top of me. It got so I was terrified to ever go into our basement or garage or—if we actually had one—an attic.

I told my parents about the movies, how my brother becomes the movies he sees.  They told me they know, that they’d spoken with a child psychologist. I asked if was helpful and they said no, that there was talk about fandom and character bonding but that the counselor didn’t ever have a patient before who became the characters in the film he saw.  The counselor asked if he did this with television too and my parents said we don’t own a TV, but I know that when we had a TV for that short time my brother didn’t ever suddenly think he was a surgeon in the Korean War or a bartender in Boston or a member of the A-Team.  No, television did nothing for him. It was all films. Something about movies. My parents tried to bring my brother to the counselor but my brother, in full gremlin mode, disappeared when he went to the bathroom and the police picked him up four hours later in Sands trying to climb down into a chimney. And, yes, there is a town named Sands near us. And another named Champion, which, as far as I know, has never won a sports championship in the history of its existence.

I told my parents that counseling was a waste of time. As fast as possible, we needed to take him to another movie, but we needed to be selective about what it was.

I recommended Gandhi.

My parents expressed concern saying that 1) they were worried he’d lead a revolution, and 2) it wasn’t playing at any theaters up here because it had been released in 1982, a bit too long ago for even the theaters that did reruns.  I called around and found there was a theater showing it in Detroit. My parents compromised and instead brought back the TV with the addition of a VCR. They bought a VHS of Gandhi because, mainly, it was the only movie we all could agree on.  There was immediate consensus on what not to show him, entire film genres, in fact. No horror, no action, no comedy (there was concern about nonstop jokes, which my mother said would “get on our nerves”) and—along those lines—no musicals, and no Westerns, no sci-fi, no crime films, no thrillers, no war movies, no disaster movies, no martial arts, no buddy-cop movies.  It was a long list.

For a while, there was some brainstorming about romance, but my mother said he was too young for romance and my dad said no one is too young for romance and a fight ensued, which my mother won. I recommended a documentary, but we couldn’t come up with a good one since none of us had ever actually seen a documentary.

My father yelled out, “I got it!” and left us waiting for his answer, but it turned out his brilliant idea was having my brother watch a silent film.

But my mother said she was worried if he couldn’t speak.  “What if he had to go to the hospital? How would he let us know?”

“Charades,” my father said, “We could figure it out.”

My mother gave a definite no.

My father set up the VCR while my mother watched my brother intently in his bedroom.  There was worry he’d escape, somehow get hold of the VCR and melt it or worse.

We all sat watching the movie.  Or, to be more exact, my brother watched the film and we watched my brother watch the film.

It was beautiful seeing the transformation take place. It happened around the moment when Ben Kingsley gives his protest speech to the packed auditorium.  My brother took on this intense calm. I exchanged looks with my parents. We knew he’d be all right.

Later that week, he hitchhiked to Washington D.C.

We haven’t seen him in twenty years.

The last I heard, he’s in prison now.

Unfortunately, after Gandhi, he must have watched a comedic gangster film shortly afterwards. In Trenton, New Jersey, he robbed a bank with a banana.

I get letters from him every once in a while.  He said they show movies every Friday at the prison.

I imagine him, every Friday, taking on a whole new persona, going back to his cell and being Batman and Cobb and Gandalf and Michael Corleone and Neo and one day, I wonder, if they’ll ever show The Shawshank Redemption, if he’ll escape to some distant version of Zihuatanejo, a place with crystal-clear beach and no electricity.

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CHAMP by Anthony Sabourin

Most days I would sit in a big jacket in my stall in the dark of the parking garage and I would open the gate for people when they drove up in their cars. When they were gone and it was quiet again, my brain would be full of this image of a spaceship screaming towards Earth, burning up as it entered the atmosphere. I wanted to shed all of the pieces I no longer needed. To burn away until I was almost nothing. I don’t know, other times I’d just watch pornography but not jerk off. I appreciated everything. 

Today I sat in Greyhound bus in Ottawa; my big jacket with my cold face amongst the heaving bodies and stale air, and suddenly the bus moved and we were on our way to another place. It felt like I was in the middle of a period of great transformation. I had stolen five hundred dollars and two grams of hash from my roommate. I was going to Montreal. 

Outside of the terminal there was snow and cold, and the sidewalks were blue from rock salt. I breathed deeply and it felt sharp and good. I loved it. Matt was there to pick me up. He lived here now, and I had called him from the bus and sold him on old friendships and good times. We hugged and called each other shitheads and talked about how good it was to see each other and we didn’t acknowledge the distance between us. He looked clean shaven. 

I didn’t bring any luggage. I saw him notice this and begin to look worried so I gave him another great big hug before he could talk about it. He walked me through the crowd past buildings that were brown and jagged, avant-garde and ugly. That’s the art museum. This is the subway station. I didn’t trust it. The signs were in French. He handed me a weekend metro pass and we walked into one of the brown buildings and submerged. The whole ride, Matt was talking about his new city - he was effusive in his praise, using words like “history” and “culture” and “Leonard Cohen”. 

I remembered a night from when were in undergrad and the group of us took a bunch of mushrooms to watch the sunset from the Prince of Wales bridge. When the sun went down it looked like the sky above us was on fire. And we looked down and the water below us was on fire too. It felt like the end of days was coming, like this enormous hellfire was reaching out to embrace us and there was no escape. Matt looked at us and shouted out, “If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!” 

He jumped into the water and he was fine. The sun that night continued to set and instead of armageddon it just got dark. It looked like he was doing well for himself now. 

He took me to his apartment and it was a long rectangle of open space and soft white light. There was an exposed brick wall and minimal furnishing. By the kitchen with the gas stove and the new fridge there were sliding glass doors that led to an outdoor seating area that was snowed in. Matt pointed out that in the upper left corner of the view you could see a small ‘+’ that was the cross on top of Mount Royal. The rest of it was blotted out by neighbouring apartments. He said that Montreal was the last affordable Great Canadian City and I said I had read that in a magazine, but I was lying. I was waiting to ask him about doing hot knives. There was a picture of him and his wife Lauren that was framed on the wall. It was from their wedding. They were holding each other happily and there were white flowers in the background. They had met in law school. She was hard-working and relentlessly cheerful in her disposition and so we hated each other. I asked Matt where she was and he told me she was working late. I asked Matt if he wanted to do hot knives. 

We had sunken into the couch with blank smiles on our faces and scorched knives in the sink when Matt remembered he made dinner reservations for us. We walked through the streets at night with faces red as our bloodshot eyes, in the kind of cold that makes everything crunch. The restaurant, when we got there, was burnished metal, big windows, and tasteful wooden accents, a chalkboard menu written in elegant cursive handwriting and no prices - it was unadorned by branding, which meant expensive. 

The people in the restaurant looked pleased and inert and they chortled away in their language. I didn’t know what anything was. Matt spoke casually to the waiter and a man came out from around the kitchen and made a show of presenting us with a bottle of red wine. He uncorked the wine and took Matt’s wine glass and poured a mouthful in and placed it in front of Matt. Matt picked up the glass by its stem and how he drank this wine was he swirled the glass around and brought it up to his nose and closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the wine and brought it to his mouth and closed his eyes again and took a long slow sip. When he was done he nodded. 

Now this motherfucker came up to me with the wine and I was too high to be around all of these rich people. After he poured it I wondered if I could have the same experience as Matt, so I did what he did. I swirled it around and I brought it up to my nose and inhaled and then took a long slow slip. But to me it just smelled like wine and tasted like wine. I started to drink quickly.

When it was quiet again I asked Matt what I should order and he said poutine so that’s what I did. To be honest I wasn’t sure if I liked food anymore. I mostly ate breakfast wraps from the coffee place on the way to the parking garage, and if I got hungry again I would buy another coffee and if I was hungry again at home I would pick at the leftover shawarma platters my roommate would leave in the fridge. My mouth felt like it was always full of acid. My diet made getting high more efficient, and I was becoming gaunt but in a fashionable way. 

To say something, I told Matt that I was training for a marathon. I had been really into telling people that I was training for a marathon ever since I watched this video of a person in this spandex bodysuit undressing. It was this black room; all you could see was this person and their suit and it was like this tight blue androgynous cocoon. As the camera got closer you could see by their eyes that it was a woman. And then she started to unzip the suit and she took the head part of her suit off and this long blonde hair  flowed out of it. It made me think that we can all be anything we want. Two naked men walked into the frame of the video and then it was pornography. In the parking garage I thought that I would better myself by becoming a marathon runner, and I did research online and bought nike running shoes at full price and a grey sweatshirt that said “CHAMP” on it, with the quotation marks, in welcoming letters that arced like a rainbow across my chest. I told my roommate and my dad and my manager at the parking garage that I was training for a marathon. Everyone is so happy when you tell them you are running a marathon. Or not happy, but they act like they are impressed with you, and it’s nice. My stuff came in the mail and I tried to run once but it was stupid. There was nowhere to go.  Still, I started to wear the sweatshirt around to show that I was serious, and it became something to talk about with people. “It’s harder to train in the winter,” I said now, “but the key is to invest in good crampons.” I nodded to emphasize the importance of crampons. 

Matt told me it was inspiring that I was training for a marathon. 

We got lost in old memories. We talked about the time we did thanksgiving for our other roommates but we got too day drunk and fell asleep and almost burnt the apartment building down. It would have burned fast too - that apartment was littered with balled up Subway wrappers like so much kindling. Matt’s dad died when he was a kid and his mom never had much money so he worked at Subway for all of undergrad, and the smell became a part of him, it lingered on him like he was haunted. I remember I’d go to his Subway when it was quiet and I’d make logic puzzles out of convoluted sandwich orders to help him with his LSAT. He didn’t need the help anymore though - the waiter was coming with our food. 

I looked at my poutine and there was this strange grey meat on it. I asked what it was and Matt told me “Foie gras.” They make foie gras by sticking a feeding tube into a duck, and force feeding it until its liver is big and fatty. They do this for a hundred days, sticking the feeding tube into the duck and feeding it against its will, and then they kill it and take out its liver. I knew this because when I felt bad about watching too much pornography I would watch a video about factory farming. I was curious about the foie gras though. Maybe it was worth it. 

I took a bite and it made me sad. It was this smooth rich blankness, but it was just a texture. I wanted to eat a breakfast wrap. I sat picking fries and watching my food congeal into this brown-grey sludge. I looked at it and thought of soft splayed legs and sexual pumping and food tubes shoved into baby animals and rows of ducks in tiny cages. 

Matt, overtaken by hunger from the hash, was drinking wine and eating lobster pasta with an intense focus. After a long pause, Matt looked at me like he had something important to say, some big epiphany that he wanted to share with me. He told me there was something that had been on his mind a lot lately, and so he told me a story and it went like this:

THE BLUE SHIT STORY

Lauren’s law firm has this famous bake sale. It was this big charity thing to raise money for cystic fibrosis or diabetes, he couldn’t remember. The partners at the firm took it very seriously though, it raised a lot of money and made them all look like pillars of the community. Lauren was an excellent baker, and she wanted to impress the partners at the firm. She wanted to make something that was decadent, artful, and difficult to bake, so she made macaroons. They were perfect blue clouds that tasted of chocolate and raspberries. People at the bake sale loved the macaroons. They sold out, and therefore they were making a difference for the people with the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes. 

It took Lauren a day to realize what she had done. She used a lot of blue food colouring to make the macaroons the right colour, and now Lauren was in the bathroom, and she had just taken a shit, and it was blue. Matt ate some of the macaroons and his shit was blue too. All of these lawyers who had loved the macaroons were going to the bathroom and looking at their blue shit and they all knew why their shit was blue. All of these people who were supporting the people who had the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes were dropping these big blue hosses. Lauren was embarrassed. She wondered how she could go to work and practice law and also be the person that made everyone in the office shit blue. She was worried about getting a nickname like Blue Shit Lauren. Like she would be in courtroom and the judge would call up Blue Shit Lauren to present her closing arguments. But she went to work the next day and nobody ever talked about it. 

Matt said he thought life was like that blue shit. He said life was this strange and wonderful collective experience that nobody was talking about. 

He spun a tumorous mass of spaghetti around the tines of his fork, and shoveled it into a wide open mouth. I thought it was a terrible fucking story, like of course Laura would make macaroons, and who even cared what happened to a bunch of lawyers, and now all I could feel was foie gras lingering in my mouth and maybe it was the wine or the hash or I don’t know, but I felt the saliva pooling and I looked at the floor and one moment it was fine and the next it was covered with so many chunks of grey mush, so much reddish bile, and I felt like I would never stop heaving. 

Outside of the restaurant, I was breathing out puffs of air while snow fell around me in fat flakes. Matt was still inside, smoothing things over and apologizing. 

There was a concert we went to in our final year of law school. It was a reunion show in a small club, some punk band Matt was into. When the lead singer came out he had this substitute teachers head attached to a substitute teacher’s body - kind of frumpy and washed out. It was shit - the band was too drunk to do anything, and after four songs the substitute teacher just set his guitar up by the amp to generate a wall of feedback, and he walked off the stage to leer at the young girls who were waiting by the bar. After the show Matt kept apologizing to us. I really enjoyed it though. I think it was the first time I understood getting old. 

Matt came outside and he looked at me, only now where before his face was flushed and happy, he just looked sad. He asked me if I needed help. 

I told him I did. I told him I needed the kind of help I used to give at Subway. I needed help to go to shitty rich restaurants to feast on suffering, and that I needed so much of his help to be so pretentious and empty.

And still he did not jettison and burn off and fly away. He told me that he was worried about me - that I looked sick, and that he was scared for me, and that he wanted to get me help if I needed it. He told me that he worked hard to get the life he had, and that it made him happy. 

I didn’t talk for a long time, but when I did I asked Matt if he thought that the average person could step into his life and do a better job with it. He asked what I was talking about. I took the five hundred dollars from my pocket and told him that it was my fee, and that I could free him. He looked at me one last time and left. 

I was relieved. My throat was burning from the vomit and there was so much more that I could be doing. I had always felt like a patient zero in search of a disease.  

*

Sometimes when I pictured the future, I saw myself as the King of this Great Pile of Garbage. I was seated on a mound of garbage bags, and it was so comfortable. People would come to me and seek my advice, and I would tell them to throw it all out. My garbage empire would grow and grow. Other times I could only picture blackened wood, embers fading into smoke. I was okay with that too. As for Montreal, it was alright. I walked by a costume store that was selling masks of babies and horses and dogs, and in the display window they were all perched on mannequins of male models. I walked by bars and saw young people who moved around as lithe and panicked as gazelles.

I had been drinking and was now great friends with these two punks. They both had shaved heads and leathery skin. They were older but spoke English. One of them had a head that was dented like a soup can. And the other one had a growth on the right side of his forehead, and that was how I could tell them apart. Otherwise it was a mess of patchwork denim and bad tattoos. I was buying us quarts of Fifty because I was rich. Quarts of Fifty were great because they came in these big bottles and were served with a tiny glass on the side, and you could poor from the big bottle into the tiny glass and feel like some kind of foreign dignitary. The guy with the dented head was telling us about how he got all of these dents. 

HOW I GOT ALL OF THESE DENTS

“So I’m waiting at the Bonaventure Metro, right?” he says. “And, wait, shit, you don’t know. The Bonaventure Metro is brick everything. Even the benches. With the heat from the trains it feels like you are trapped in this great furnace.” I nodded. “So I was there waiting for my train and I look across the tracks and I see this deer. It’s just standing there on the tracks opposite from me, and I look at the deer and the deer looks at me and then it goes back to grazing. And I look around me because there’s a fucking deer on the metro, and I am telling people, regardez, c’est un fucking deer but nobody is doing anything. Actually, they are looking at me like I’m the crazy one but I know what I see. And then I hear the rumble of the train coming, and I get really nervous because the deer is right there, yes? It’s still on the tracks and it’s not moving. It just looks up again and stares right at me, and now I can see the light from the train, and there is more noise and you can feel the rush of air, and I just walked right onto the tracks.”

“Bullshit you walked right onto the tracks,” I said.

“It’s what I did!” he said. “I walked onto the tracks and I reach out for the deer only it’s gone, it was like it had never been there at all, and now the only sound in my head is the sound of the train, and I look and the train hits me smack, right here!” - he smacks the middle of his forehead with his palm - “and that was it, that was all I could remember. I woke up later in a hospital, and my head was covered in bandages. I became very famous in Montreal for a time as the man who survived getting struck by a train. They let me shake Jean Béliveau’s hand.”

His friend, the other punk, laughed and said “You got those dents in a bar fight don’t be an idiot.” Then they were both laughing and I was laughing too. I felt comfortable with these old punks. 

I told them about how I had lost my job at the parking garage because one day I just left the gate open and went home because it didn’t matter. I talked about my roommate and how I was always stealing his food and how I owed him two months rent and had stolen all of his hash and money to come here, but that I’d left the rest of my hash at my friend’s apartment. I asked them where they bought drugs because it looked like they knew where to buy good drugs. They asked what I was into and I said that I pictured my body as this purification plant. I wanted to take in the world’s poison and process the chemicals and feel good or bad or powerful or ecstatic or tired or sick and leave only piss and shit smoke behind. 

The guy with the growth on his head never told us about why he had the growth on his head but we all agreed about the drugs, and so we left the bar together to go and buy them. 

We walked past portuguese chicken places and butcher shops  and rows of houses with walk up stairs. It was late and people were leaving bars and clubs, pushing past us in the streets with their jackets full of the feathers of dead baby geese. The punks talked about hockey riots and jaywalking tickets and how Montreal was a city built on old garbage dumps, nobody knew how many, they just paved over them and built schools and parks and houses. We walked down sidewalks narrowed like clogged arteries from snow. I was impressed by the state of disrepair I encountered. There was exposed piping and holes in the street. I wondered if my friends the old punks were going to kick the shit out of me and steal my money but I didn’t care. We walked for so long that all feeling left my body.

We stopped in front of a house. It had white siding that was yellowing at its edges and windows that were covered in garbage bags and tape. This was the place. They walked up to the door and knocked on it and it opened. I couldn’t see past them into the house. They held open the door and I walked towards them. I could only make out curdled wallpaper and a soft blue light inside of the house. I walked inside. It felt like a church to me.

*

I smoked something crystalline out of a foil packet and I didn’t feel like I was drowning in the undertow of euphoria, I didn’t get to watch my spirit hover over the Lachine canal while my body stumbled alongside watching, and I didn’t get to meet the lizard king of my third eye. I smoked it all up and sat there with my head of asbestos, and my ashed cigarette body, but this was normal. 

I looked over at the punks, who were passed out inside of their own heads like monks at peace with the world and I rifled through their pockets but found nothing except receipts and lint. I walked around the room kicking things over, knocking down lamps and picture frames and breaking glass. I punched at a wall but it didn’t make a hole like I wanted, it just really hurt my hand. I was bored of everything. 

I left the house and stepped into the midnight blue of the sky and the yellow of street lights. The quiet of the street was interrupted by the crack of a drum and the sound of trumpets, and I watched as a procession of revellers marching in a dance down the street, in the middle of the road. They were wearing strange masks and thrift store clothing - tattered plaid jackets or dirty leather; nobody was dressed alike but it still looked like they were in uniform. Their leader  was wearing a rubber face with cut-out eyes and I couldn’t place who it was supposed to be. He had a snare drum, and behind him there were women in animal masks with cut out mouths swaying and making cheerful noises with their trumpets. Behind them was a crowd of people - thirty or so men and women, all dancing behind them, shooting confetti into the sky. It was a cacophony of noise and jubilation. I watched as they came down the road, but when they got to where I was standing in front of the house everything stopped. There was no more marching or drums or sound, just confetti slowly tracing seesaw patterns in the air as it drifted down onto the street and a bunch of masks looking at me.

I said “English?” out loud and there was no answer. 

I said ““If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!” and I dove into the snow on the sidewalk and writhed around in it and got snow down my neck and back but it was still quiet on the street. 

I got back up and looked at them and the grotesque shadows cast by their masks in the light of the street, and said “I don’t know what you want.” 

A child in a jester’s costume broke through the crowd and grabbed my hand and pulled me in. The people in their masks patted me on the back and shook my hand and wordlessly welcomed me into their ranks. Everything smelled like tobacco, but there was something sharp behind it, like vinegar. The drumming started again, the quick rat-tat-tat of the snare, and we were dancing through the streets again. 

We moved through the city past the fluorescent lights of Jean Coutu pharmacies and parks with trees that were collapsing under the snow. We passed under bridges and through neighbourhoods where houses were being demolished to make way for unfinished condos. When we passed people on the street they cheered us on. I thought of the mother I saw the day I left the gate up at my parking garage job, of her rusted green Corolla and car full of plastic bags and children pulling at her from the back seat and how it felt to leave the gate up. Of how it felt to see the spandex suit unzip in that movie, that moment of shedding your skin, and how I could never find it again afterwards; how some days I thought that I’d just dreamed it, but when I pictured it in my head it was so real. And we danced through the streets in the dark, and I felt a sense of belonging. More and more, people in the street applauded our marching. 

As I scanned the faces in the crowd, I saw one that I recognized as my own. The face was my own dumb face, but it the cheeks were fuller, the eyes a bit brighter. The man looked like me but different - he was put together, a nice peacoat and an expensive haircut, but he was less interesting somehow. I broke off from the people in their masks and I approached this man and he said “Avez-vous besoin d'aide?” and I took whatever money was left in my pockets and thrust it into his hands and hurried back to the revellers, who again clapped their arms around my back and welcomed me with open arms as we moved down Rue de la montage past rows of old houses and construction sites and garages, galleries and glass buildings reflecting nothing but the cold.  We continued to march until we approached the mouth of a tunnel. The man with the drum walked up to each of us and shook our hands and when he got to me he took of his mask and I understood. And he went back to the mouth of the tunnel and started drumming again and he led us inside, and soon there was only a perfect darkness. I reached out with my hand and felt for the person in front of me, and I found them and we walked together, and another hand reached for my back and we all walked like that in the dark, linked to each other. We followed the echoing sounds of the drums, and the story of the tunnel was this: as I kept on walking through the fertile, fetid darkness, I told myself I didn’t feel any different, but I didn’t know anymore if this was true. 

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A CARDINAL SEEKS THE ORIGIN OF ITS CAMOUFLAGE by Zach Powers

I posed for weeks as the jacket of a lawn jockey, clutching his back and draping my wings over his shoulders. That was the longest I ever stayed in one place. I felt understood by the jockey and vice versa. Living life as an unwilling decoration. This was long before the mooning gnome’s conical red hat, but after the red-striped lighthouse in the flower bed. I don’t know what drew me first to lawn ornaments. Perhaps the reason for their inexplicable existences would relate to my own. I flew up and away from the lawn jockey, tipping my wing in adieu.

I survived my days in the hospital scavenging leftover noodles from trays the orderlies set in the halls. The clumpy marinara stuck in the feathers of my face. I snuck moments of preening, dared trips to the clogged drinking fountain for baths. My plan had been for a simple flight through the halls. Reconnaissance. But on my way out, there over the door hung the emergency exit sign, a red that glowed. I hooked my feet at the base of the E and contorted myself to the form of the letter, head and wings extended in profile, a hieroglyph of some forgotten god. The next day the X and then the I and the T. Out of letters, I followed the instructions I had spelled to myself and darted through the automatic door as a gurney rolled in. The woman on the gurney bled from her gut, a wound that gushed so bright I almost turned around and followed.

In the cooler months, I found myself chasing sunsets. For warmth, of course, but also to linger in that moment of perfect red, the instant each day the sky pauses between orange and indigo. If only I could fly faster, keep pace with that color as it circled the Earth. I imagined my forebearers born from chunks of the sky itself.

The most difficult part of the rose bush was avoiding the thorns. I tucked my body behind the leaves and poked out my head as though I were a fresh bud. I chirped at bees to keep them at bay. I sat as still as a scarecrow whenever a person bowed to sniff. No one ever noticed me. Perhaps I smell like a rose, but I can smell the roses and not myself.

I clung to the spoiler of a cherry red Corvette. Trees alongside the highway stretched to green streaks. Farther away, the trees seemed to move more slowly. A radio tower in the distance, red light flashing at the top, barely moved at all.

The decorative shutters on a house, a bold crimson almost too much for me to bear. I started at the top and hopped down one slat at a time. Then from the bottom back to the top. The paint flecked at my touch, revealing an older, fainter red underneath. The shutters were bolted to the brick wall at all four corners.

I joined the cheering crowd at a high school football game, the home team in red and white. Dipping down to the sideline, I claimed a spot on the shoulder pad of the smallest player. He sat on the end of the bench, as far from the coach as possible. He held an empty Gatorade cup for the whole game. A few drops of fruit punch flavor still gathered in the seam at the bottom. After the game, the player crumpled the cup and threw it on the ground. The marching band stomped it into the mud as they took the field for a final rendition of the fight song. 

Stand on a fire hydrant for long enough and you learn to feel the thrum of water through your feet. Nestle in the corner of a fire engine, and you learn that the most it usually moves is to the driveway for a wash.

Signs for shopping. Signs for stopping. Certain stripes of certain flags.

Some days there was hardly any red to be found, at least nothing I hadn’t seen a dozen times before. I soared over the suburbs, dulled by the familiar front doors and generic cars. So many backyard tool-sheds made up to look like barns. The paint on the curbs had faded so badly you couldn’t fault a person for parking along a stretch where parking was forbidden.

I almost missed it, a small tree alone in a front yard, the highest branches barely reaching the peak of the house’s roof. Red leaves, every single one of them. No, the leaves weren’t quite the same color as me. My red is noble, the leaves more brash. I’d seen red leaves on trees each autumn, of course, but always mixed with yellow and orange. Even the slightest jostle sent those leaves fluttering to the ground. This, though, this was spring, the branches full, the color uniform all the way around.

The shock of the sight stopped my wings from flapping. I plummeted, relishing the moments of freefall. Spreading my wings, I caught an updraft and glided the rest of the way down to the tree. The leaves whipped into motion, as if a gust had swept through them, but the only movement to the air was my updraft, nothing that would disturb a leaf more than a little.

I settled on the highest branch, a decoration at the top of the tree. It was covered not with red leaves but with other birds, summer tanagers, distant cousins I’d seen often enough but with whom I seldom spoke. I chirped. The tanagers met me with silence. I shifted awkwardly on the branch, one leg to the other. A shudder passed through the tanagers, from those nearest to those farthest away, an effect like rippling water. The tanagers lifted from the tree as one, as if each were a single feather on a larger bird, spreading in every direction, their color diminishing like smoke. From far enough away, all birds look like dots of black against the sky.

I expected the tree to be bare, but the tanagers had merely obscured the foliage. Small leaves like seven-toed feet grew in clusters at the ends of the branches. Some sort of maple. And these leaves were red, almost the same color as my plumage. It was as if I stood in front of a window that multiplied my reflection into an entire flock.

If I told you I didn’t know why I spent hours scouring every branch of the red-leafed tree, I’d be lying. It’s embarrassing for a grown bird to admit, but I sought the nest I had come from, the shards of the shell from which I hatched. But there was no nest, not even the ugly lump of a squirrel’s.

I fluttered back to the top of the tree. I’d never been much for nesting, but how often do you find such prime property? Maybe all this time it wasn’t where I’d come from for which I was searching, but for a place to settle down. A home for my own chicks’ first flights, the place they would depart before they were old enough to remember having been there at all.

A human child pedaled past on a red bicycle, sleek and shiny. She rode on the sidewalk, tires buzzing over the concrete. The sun caught the bike’s glossy finish and flashed like the light on a fire truck or atop a tower.

I was aloft before I knew it, pumping my wings in the bike’s wake. The tree would always be there, I told myself. But if I’m honest, I’ll never be able to re-find it. I’ve already forgotten the landmarks nearby, the signposts along the way. Even a fledgling knows the first tree you forget is far from the last.

A car stopped at an intersection to let the girl pass. She rang the bell on her handlebars, a pleasant chirp of a sound. I barely noticed the car’s brake lights wink on and off as it inched over the white line painted on the roadway. On and off. Impatient to make it home at the end of another long day.

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BODY OF BLOOD by Sarah E. Harris

The average adult carries seven percent of their weight in blood. Number of wonders and of sins. 

Blood is a sacrifice and so is a woman, which I suppose explains some things. Like: the scar at the top of my head, from the hospital machinery when I was born. Like: loving the taste of a copper penny, acid and hard and bright on the tongue. Like: the vertigo that comes even now, standing suddenly. How hard it is to hold this ground. 

When the pain started they said it was nothing, then they said to seek therapy, then they said it was a solid mass, a simple procedure. I imagined a ball of hair and teeth turning into a grinning mouth, a grim bezoar with a changeling smile, expanding through the bright fruit sizes in all the baby books. A pea, a blueberry, a lime. And all the time my blood baby grew strong, grew from fruit to fist, grew until they could not ignore her, and she was seen.

It will have to come out, they say. And everything else with it. All that sticky mess, they say, and laugh with bezoar faces. When they take it from me I will be hollow at the center, unmoored, all my strength withdrawn.

They recite their saving phrases; in and out, small incisions, a short recovery. But I know the truth that grows in me, which is that the stories are wrong, and the science too. Wheat made bread is no longer wheat, grapes made wine cannot return to grapes. This is my body and my blood. Its copper taste, its sticky richness. Take it. Leave a scar. 

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SLEEPY TIGER by Matthew Bookin

Paul started doing deliveries. He was 19 days sober. The passenger side of his car still looked like a carefully crushed soda can. The travel bottle of Listerine was still in his glove box.

Emir’s food truck business had expanded into an actual restaurant. Paul was hired on as their 31-year-old delivery boy. He picked up racks of steamed dumplings from the restaurant and loaded them into the back of his nearly defeated red car. It was early summer and sometimes, mostly on the weekends, he could be out making deliveries until dawn. He felt quiet and newly alive. He was experiencing traffic lights in an honest, gentle way. People smiled at him and tipped with paper money. A woman handed him an apple with a lipstick-lined bite taken from its side. Fire hydrants bled happily into the streets. Strangers seemed mysterious, hungry, and kind. Light rain washed the city dust from his windshield when he couldn’t afford a new jug of electric blue washer fluid. 

The sobriety app he’d downloaded offered up an inspirational quote every day. “Be in love with your life. Every minute,” Jack Kerouac told Paul from some place in the past. Paul knew that Jack Kerouac drank himself to death while living in his mother’s guest room. Paul flipped his phone facedown in the passenger seat of his car and imagined a long stem rose floating dumbly in a full bottle of non-alcoholic beer.

When he was wasted, every day was a casino. Now that he was sober, every day was a boardwalk at dawn.

Paul felt good in a fragile way, like an old light bulb that would pop and burn out at any moment. He could barely make eye contact with anyone. He carried mammoth stacks of dumpling trays up marathon flights of apartment complex stairs. He fed lonely people and he fed families. Some doors opened and he’d find himself facing a mirror. He never tried the food.  

The feeling he had when he stopped moving was deep and kaleidoscopic. It swirled and absorbed him. It dryly intoxicated. His psychedelic sadness posed no mysteries. It was his belt, looped tightly to the doorknob of the closet. It was circles inside of boxes. Cages and codes. Heart attacks and cracked pitchers of spiked lemonade. Bad vibes he paid for. No giving, just getting. The fifth can of a six-pack. A vast field of patiently unlit green candles arranged like guillotined sunflowers. The “blah blah blah” of his broken heart.

The restaurant closed quickly and sadly. Emir was widely accused of gentrifying the neighborhood, so he shuttered the place and vanished from the city. For a few weeks, every evening after the delivery job died, Paul would buy several cartons of dumplings from a Chinese takeout place next to his Stepmom’s apartment, where he’d been staying. He’d drive around all night long with the unfamiliar dumplings in his backseat, not really going anywhere. His car would smell like scallions forevermore and the wind was getting colder. When the mornings rolled around he’d donate the untouched food to a shelter downtown.

At his very best, he felt like the only man working behind the scenes at a fireworks display. 

Six months later, at the conclusion of a particularly cruel day, Paul bought a tall can of Budweiser beer from a gas station lacking a front door. That was pretty much the end of him.

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HER HUSBAND’S WIFE by Joaquin Fernandez

Her husband’s wife used to watch them fuck. This was back when it was still fun, back before her husband was her husband, back when her husband’s wife was still her husband’s sick wife, not her husband's dead wife. Her husband’s wife used to watch them, alive and cancer-free, snapshot trapped, posed happy in drugstore frames, from the wall, from the dresser, from the nightstand that they shook and shook and shook. She watched them while she was moved into hospice, coughing blood in deep, primordial growls. She watched them the day she died, sweaty with hunger while his phone rang unnoticed. After her funeral, she watched them play house, aprons and scotch and licked whipped cream. She watched until her husband took her photo off the mantle, replaced with her ashes. For a long time after, she would watch nothing.

It was the third year after his wife died, in the second year of their marriage, when she found the box. She had gotten used to finding him asleep on the couch in the morning. He had gotten used to her turning her phone over when he walked into the room. This was when they had moved beyond the kindness of excuses, bored in their certainty, like an endless day trip car ride, all worn out songs and tapping fingers, fidgeting into morse code how long, how long, how long do we have to do this?  

She would have left if she hadn’t found his dead wife's things, basement deep in the cobweb dark, labeled neat and plain like we do to things we intend to forget. She had been getting her suitcase. She stood, looking at the box on box on box of the dead woman’s things. She wiped dust from the cardboard and thought of her husband, of their husband. She ran a fingernail along the scotch tape seam of the top box, letting her curiosity get the better of her. She felt herself cross from tourist to grave robber. She smiled in the dark.

Why shouldn’t I?

She opened one box, then another, then another. She read diaries and love letters and college transcripts, heady with the thrill of a voyeur. She plunged her hand into a box of lingerie, watching it disappear into the penned ocean of silk and lace until she grazed the dead woman’s jewelry box. Inside, her rings and necklaces, pearls and bracelets twinkled in the basement dusk. She tried them on, one at a time, then two and three in gaudy combinations. An hour passed before she heard her husband lumber upstairs. She slinked up to meet him, her suitcase long forgotten.

That night, her husband slept. She tossed and turned, scrolling her phone and frowning at the ceiling. She thought about lingerie and jewelry and her husband’s wife. She thought about all her pictures, staring at her, smiling at her from every room. She thought about the boxes downstairs.

Why shouldn’t I?

In the basement, she drank wine and wore the dead woman’s robe. In the dark, she paced, a ring on every finger, her neck straining under the weight of a dozen chains, gold and silver, the kind her husband had never bought her. She pawed through the lingerie, wishing suddenly for a mirror. She needed to see herself. She looked instead to the pitch black softness of the dead woman’s box, smiling, pleased, as something there began to stir. 

She was still smiling when she woke, alone, aching, and exhausted, nude except for the dead woman’s wedding ring. She held it up to the morning light, a rainbow catching on the diamond. She thought, for a moment, about taking it off. Then the moment passed. She walked her house, naked under the dead woman’s robe, seeing it with new eyes. She dragged the dead woman’s ring down the hall, scratching last year’s paint job into a trail behind her. She tapped the ring on the counter, smiling at the pleasant clink of gold on marble while she took her coffee. She knew she couldn’t keep it, even as she held it up, admiring it on her hand.

Why shouldn’t I?

Days passed. Then weeks. She began to laugh at her husband’s joke’s again, though they still weren’t funny. She brought him scotch in the den, clinking the dead woman’s ring on a sweating glass. She did that thing he liked with the whipped cream, and always had to shower afterwards. She began to meet his hungry eyes at dinner, recoiling inwardly. 

In the night, she slipped downstairs with a glass of wine, the dead woman’s favorite vintage, and dressed in her clothes. In the night, she couldn’t help herself. She lit candles and unpacked old photos. She began to mimic her make-up, perfecting the dead woman’s smokey eye before wiping herself bare with a tissue. Some mornings she woke in the basement, curled on a chair. Some mornings she woke alone in bed, with her husband still on her breath, sour and intimate, running her thumb over the ring, mouthing silently: 

Did he know? 

Did he notice the ring?

Would he help?

She stopped working. She spent whole afternoons pacing the house in the dead woman’s lingerie, tight at the belly, loose at the bust. She stared at a stranger’s face in the bathroom mirror, lost in the metronome of her own tapping finger. 

He smiled the day she put the dead woman’s pictures up. He smiled when she served him dinner, bland, demure, and screaming on the inside. He smiled when, at last, she reached for him with one hand while her other tapped a frantic protest on the kitchen table, too loud to ignore unless he was trying. That night, after the scotch and the whipped cream, after the dishes were done, she sat staring at a glass of the dead woman’s wine and he called to her from the bedroom, with a laugh in his voice.

Are you coming to bed?

She stood without hesitation and fingered her ring. She checked her makeup and frowned at the stranger in the mirror before she slid off the dead woman’s robe. Her husband’s wife beamed at her from a dozen different picture frames as a smile crept onto her face and she opened the bedroom door, chirping in a stranger’s voice:

Why shouldn’t I?

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(IT’S NOT LIKE CLAIRE DIDN’T BRING IT ON HERSELF) by Jennifer Fliss

The indigo sky informed all of them that it would soon be time. That the children as clowns and superheroes and princesses would be stuffed full of Reese’s and candy corn and rolling in their little beds positively asphyxiated with the sugar. The teenagers were dressed in threadbare tie dye t-shirts, fringed leather vests. Claire wore bellbottoms and a crop top. She had been about to pull on a long-sleeved shirt. (Ben said don’t.)

Doris’s house was not what you’d expect. A rambler, off-white brick and something that was not brick but just as ugly. The numbers, 10220, hung off nails and threatened to drop and then who would find her then?

It had been raining all week. Moisture clung to the blades of grass and ghost-fingered branches clasped above their heads, as if in prayer. Here the leaves and the apples had fallen early. 

Above them, hundreds of crows sang their murderous song. Two blocks away, Eve Lake. If it were summer they would hear the warble of frogs and have their skin lanced by mosquitoes. Late night picnickers would be enjoying the ever sun. Today they could feel the future phantom of winter. Claire chewed her lips and picked at her fingernails. 

Doris lived with her grandson Jake. Jake flicked his retainer in and out on his tongue and wore a leather duster that he said had been his father’s. (His grandmother told him this lie because he wouldn’t wear a jacket otherwise.)

“I don’t know if I really want to do this,” Claire said. 

The crows fell silent. Across from Doris’s house, an automated eight-foot witch cackled. Marcus started humming and Ben added a low growly beatbox. The trio had been stand outs in The One Notes, the school a capella group. Claire added a high note. 

“Shut up,” Ben said. 

Every year, a senior is selected as lead. (Everyone said Jake was coming out of his shell and weren’t they all so glad about that!?)

A gust of wind unfurled off the lake. A shrill bird.

“The fuck was that?” Ben said.

“An owl, what do you think?” Marcus said and slung the burlap bag over his shoulder. (It was not an owl.) The bag was already heavy. They shuffled along the driveway toward the house.

Shiny wrapped candy waited in a bowl under the stuttering porch light. A shower was running and there was singing. (Jake was an excellent singer, but most people didn’t know that.)

Ben’s father had started The One Notes thirty years earlier. 

At the front door, Marcus reached for a candy bar but Ben slapped his arm back. 

“Dude, they’re Hundred Grands. We hit the Halloween lottery,” Marcus said.

Claire wheezed and tried to control her breath, as if you could do such a thing, control the thing that keeps you alive. She thought about the kiss she and Ben shared earlier that day. Under the bleachers at lunch, stealing a smoke, like always. But when she said fuck, it’s cold, Ben leaned over, locked his lips on hers, and exhaled the nicotine directly into her throat. She sputtered and he put one hand up her shirt in an instant, the other still held onto his burning cigarette. When she finally got enough air to cough, he pushed her back. Slut. He laughed and Claire was unsure what had changed. The soft parts of her mouth still burned.

They had wandered back to the cafeteria and he said he was looking forward to the auditions for the lead that afternoon. 

That evening, on the dark side of the sun on Halloween by a lake, the teenagers stood with a bulky burlap bag at their feet. 

“Do it,” Ben said. Marcus rang the doorbell and they fled toward the lake.

No one came to the door. Claire was alone. She didn’t see where Ben and Marcus had gone but she had a straight view of Doris’s door. She thought she saw movement. Her breath grew tight. She heard the creak of the door.

It was Jake, hair wet, slicked back, towel at his waist. Bare chest like snow in the night. He looked up and down the street (don’t they always?) and only after a moment registered the bag. He nudged it. 

Doris appeared over his shoulder. “What is it Jakey?”

“A bag.” 

“Should we open it?” She didn’t make a move to do so. “Is this from one of your friends?” (No.)

“You should’ve told them to come in,” Doris said and went back into the house. She always wished Jake brought friends home. Jake stood for a long while. Remembering a time before all this. A time when he didn’t wear the not-previously-his father’s coat. (Yes, he knew.) 

Jake undid the knot. Pulled at it to open the top. As he did, it frayed as if time moved forward. The bag released an over-ripe peach smell and he pulled back the edges to reveal a tangle of long damp hair. 

It was Claire. Claire in a bag and her blond brown wet hair and a red candy bar wrapper in her grip. Her eyes were closed. 

Claire was always so kind to him, saying bless you when he sneezed, smiling close-mouthed at him in the hall. Once she offered to get him a ditto from the teacher so he didn’t have to get up from his desk.

Was she breathing? He opened the bag, laying her legs and arms beside her body gently. Her limbs still pliant; no rigor mortis, at least. She was topless and he covered her breasts with the burlap. 

Over the lake, the crows took off, hundreds of black smears in the sky. Two figures were running. Then the crows dove. Down, down, pulling at the hair of one figure, then the other, and then all Jake could see was one dark mass and he brought Claire inside. 

The house was hot. His grandmother always had the heat on at 85, her collection of salt and pepper shakers covered on every surface. Stifling. He felt trapped, but wouldn’t ever leave. 

Claire’s chest rose though her eyes remained closed. 

We all are. (Trapped, that is.)

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SNAPSHOT BEFORE THE INCIDENT by Brian Brunson

With no foreboding of the approaching cataclysm, an orange brown finch, pecking at fallen crumbs, is startled by a fat gray pigeon flying down; a nervous young man watches the barista behind the cart in the courtyard; the barista clears the moist used espresso grounds from the filter with two loud thwacks against the rubber bar as her phone chimes in a text message from that boy listed under her contacts as ‘tinydicpic’; the sun hits the four story glass building reflecting the five story concrete building opposite; a broad shouldered well-suited man holds the hand of his elderly father, slowly walking along the sidewalk; the air swirls ever slightly between the buildings, kicking up a napkin and a leaf; a bee flits between the flowers on the bush in the corner; a man, deep into middle age, his pot belly accentuated by his polo shirt tucked into his jeans, carries his mocha gingerly so as to not spill any; one lone nebulous cloud in the blue sky creeps toward the sun, but never quite covers it; a one-footed pigeon rests on the gravel landscape along the wall; the palo verde tree soaks up the spring sun; a teenager on the wooden bench pauses from his game app to trace with his eye the figure of a business woman rushing past, getting particularly stuck on the curve of her hips; a woman tells, with a tone of disapproval, her younger sister, “I understand, I understand”; the hazy daytime moon drifts towards the horizon; a woman stands in the sun outside her black sedan, searching through her pocketbook for any loose change to feed the meter.

A block away a man, naked, filthy, crawls out of the storm drain.

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2005 by Tom McAllister

2005

In February, LauraBeth (then my girlfriend, now my wife) flew to Iowa City to visit me for my birthday. It was colder there than I had ever thought possible—negative thirty degrees, factoring in wind chill. The kind of cold that would kill a Martian. The college students still went out at night in short skirts and t-shirts, because they didn’t want their jackets to smell like smoke. These two years in Iowa City were the last time in my life when I would know what it felt like to sit in a bar with dozens of smokers, lit cigarettes glowing like alligators’ eyes in the dark, smoke snaking its way into my lungs and my hair and my clothing forever. 

I didn’t have to pay for utilities in my apartment, so I set the thermostat to 80 and we quarantined ourselves in the greenhouse heat. My mom had mailed me a care package that included authentic cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and a birthday banner, which we hung above the couch. We ate chicken parm and an ice cream cake, and we watched the NBA All-Star skills competition on the new TV she had bought me that morning. We’d driven together to Best Buy to pick up a 27-inch flat screen, replacing the one I’d owned since I was 15. This was now the fanciest TV I had ever owned, though it was still a monstrous tube model so big didn’t fit in my hatchback. We removed it from the box at the store, crammed into the trunk, and drove home with hazard lights flashing and the rear windshield flapping in the wind like a ridiculous mouth laughing at us the whole way. I lived on the second floor, and carrying that TV up a narrow, winding flight of stairs was the most physically demanding thing I did in all of 2005. I preferred watching sports to engaging in them. I was gaining weight again rapidly, and people kept saying things like, “You’ve really filled out,” which is only meant as a compliment when you say it to toddlers or rescue dogs. 

Sports have always been a central fact of my life, but never more so than my two years in Iowa City—they were the one thing that helped me still feel connected to home when I was alone in my apartment and feeling like a failure as a writer and a teacher— and so I was as invested in the dunk contest as anyone in the country that night. This is the point where, if I’ve had a few drinks and a somewhat willing audience, I would spend the next hour demanding justice for Andre Iguodala, who was robbed of the dunk contest title that year. This is also where I would complain about Nate Robinson getting unlimited attempts to hit his final dunk. But I’m trying to get better about that kind of thing. I realize nobody cares. 

LauraBeth grew up with two athletic and ultra-competitive brothers, and through a combination of genetics, conditioning, and sheer force of will, she now harbors an antipathy to competition that is healthier than my worldview but is, frankly, a little unnerving. She played field hockey in high school, but never felt any particular drive to win. She will not play board games or engage in other competitions with the rest of the family because of how much she hated all of it when she was young. She watches sports with me, but can’t help feeling badly for the losing team after the final whistle (even if it’s a team we all justifiably hate, like the Dallas Cowboys). She asks me to change the channel so we can look away from their sagging shoulders and heartbroken faces; she sees them not as enemies, but as young men, some young enough they can’t even legally drink, enduring one of the worst moments of their lives. Though this is not remotely how I live or think, I understand it to be an admirable trait. All of which is to say, exhibition sports are the ideal environment for her. The guys in the dunk contest, like every pro athlete, are pathologically competitive, but they are just having fun and there are no real consequences for losing. 

I want to clarify something: dunks matter more than you think they do. You may want to tell me it’s all a big dumb spectacle and the scoring doesn’t make sense, and it’s just a show to sell Sprite and sneakers, and yes, sure, that’s what it is. But strip all the nonsense away and you see an aesthetic achievement that can only be performed by a tiny percentage of humans in world history. Each dunk is one of the most perfect sporting achievements on the planet, a beautiful expression of athletic perfection, of power, speed, and creativity. These players—their bodies built specifically for this feat, spinning in the god damn air, not just floating because there’s violence propelling it, and throwing it down behind their heads with more grace and fluidity in the coordination than many dancers—are the culmination of a century worth of training, learning, and evolutionary adaptations. Major sports leagues should take themselves less seriously anyway. What’s more ridiculous than watching a group of NFL men in a TV studio, wearing suits and standing on a fake field while they shout about honor and duty? It’s one of the worst aspects of our culture. Events like the dunk contest puncture the veneer of self-importance that covers every major league. They remind people that this is dumb and the dumbness is what makes it fun.

A couple years after I moved back to the east coast and we bought a house and got married, we finally bought another new TV, upgrading to HD, which helped us more clearly see the anguish on the faces of the losing teams. The TV she got me for my 23rd birthday was transferred to the attic, and then when we moved again it went to the basement of the new house, and, finally, we hauled it out to the curb, where it sat for a week before I learned that this is not how you dispose of a TV anymore (on any given day in the suburbs, sidewalks are dotted with hulking tube TVs like meteors crashed to earth). I could have left it on the curb for years. Eventually I would drag some old furniture out there and that would stay too and soon our whole living room could be on the sidewalk, a mirror of the lives we tried to hide inside. 

Because our house is full of toxic materials the township won’t collect, we drove one afternoon with a trunk full of paint cans, dangerous solvents, and batteries, to the landfill in Pennsauken, New Jersey. I wrote a research paper on landfills in high school biology, but I don’t get the science behind them, whether there is anything more to it than digging a giant hole and filling it with garbage until the earth is too full and then you move down the road to a new hole. Once it’s out of my sight, I trust that it is someone else’s problem. All this stuff was alive once and you expect it to smell like death, but it smells like nothing (the landfill itself has a 5-star rating on Google, with the top review stating, “It don’t even smell”). We dropped our trash in the appropriate areas, ending at a walk-in dumpster, a container for obsolete electronics. Inside, piled floor to ceiling, were TVs and computer monitors. The foundation of these stacks was several vintage console TVs, each of which I imagined having been passed down through their families they became too unwieldy to move anymore. Maybe they trundled through thrift stores and flea markets, through the homes of various well-meaning people planning to fix them up and turn them into a cool showpiece in their art school loft, but eventually they were hauled to this spot.

Being in the center of a county dump is humbling and a little upsetting. It is a reminder that even if, like me, you think of yourself as being a minimalist, most people are surrounded by garbage. It’s all disposable and you’re disposable too. It’s all replaceable and you’re replaceable too. In 2005, this TV was the center of my world, and now it would be piled, for the rest of the life of the planet, in this dumpster in Pennsauken. It would outlive me by a million years, and that whole time it would be utterly useless, just plastic and wires, there forever. 

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THE PIPES by E.M. Stormo

Mom doesn’t let me drink from the pipes. “Don’t be a dog,” she says, but I can’t help it. All I hear is “Be a dog.” On the outskirts of the city, there’s a pipe that flows all day long. You have to squat in a ditch to drink, but it’s worth it. At night, nobody bothers you. Giant women make neon eyes from the city, but that’s it. The pipe-water tastes fresh, although Mom says, “It’s probably sewage.” I hear her calling me home from miles away. My ears itch of worms, so she must be saying my name. There are more pipes on the way, but the one near the outskirts is the best. I stop at a few of them. My name grows louder. The syllables carry on the wind like small-breasted birds. When I get home, to what city-folk call a “hole in the wall,” Mom is waiting for me, door ajar with the smell of soggy spaghetti. She is about to say my name again when she sees me. Right away she inspects around my lips, under my nose, and the back of my teeth. “Where were you today, my little dog?” She already knows. I bow my head and groan confession, “At the pipes,” but it isn’t loud enough, so I cough out the last drops of pipe-water stored in my gums and shout “At the pipes!” She hears me this time. The entire neighborhood hears, all the neighbors in their holes. I was at the city pipes and my withered lips tell the tale. My mouth doesn’t deserve her spaghetti, but she fixes me a bowl anyway. I am not invited to the table but instead eat my dinner on my mattress in the corner of our room. “I love you,” she says between slurps, “even if you drink from pipes.” Drink from pipes. Mom secretly commands me to do it. Even with withered lips, she kisses me goodnight. The smell of pipe-water doesn’t stop her from cradling me to sleep. All I can smell is soggy spaghetti. When I stir in the small hours, she attempts to feed me water from a bottle, but I spit that out on the floor.

The next day I’m back at the pipes. There is a subtle soy flavor in the water. They must have had Chinese recently. City folks are always sending out for food. If they have spaghetti, it’s from a fancy Italian restaurant miles away. The further the distance the greater they value the food. You can see them walking along the road in shoes not much different than mine. Mom could’ve made these city shoes. They walk for miles to get food. But who am I to say? I walk for miles to drink from their pipes. I don’t eat Chinese or Italian. We both wear mom-shoes, so maybe we could be friends. If they drink from pipes, we definitely could be friends. After taking my fill, I wait for them behind the road cage. Not even dogs can disguise themselves as good as this. Mom begins to call my name softly. My earworm itches. The giant women make neon eyes. My name grows louder. The position is awkward, but I don’t have to wait long. A group of city friends eventually show up. They have oily bags of some food I can’t determine by smell alone. I jump out onto the road, but I don’t mean to scare them. I am a humble animal. Bowing my head as my rear goes up. Without words, I befriend them. I turn over to reveal my belly. The purest friendship. My mouth leaks pipe-water. They toss scraps to me. It’s Italian! One of them leans down and asks, “Are you lost, buddy?” I don’t answer, but nod unconsciously. They bring me into the city. There is a color there that wasn’t visible from the outskirts, a neon waveform that surrounds every home, all neatly stacked next to each other. Our holes in the wall are random as rats in comparison. Everything in the city is fully intentional. The giant women stand among us, careful not to step on anybody’s home. A fishnet leg, the size of my mattress, is close enough to touch, but my hand goes straight through. My new friends laugh at my confusion. I don’t understand their fancy city-colors. A girl shows me how to gyrate with the waveform. I try out a gyration, but they laugh at me. One of my friends owns a real dog, a long-haired mutt. He performs a better gyration than me. He also eats Italian. He is a city dog, more so than I’ll ever be. A good dog, he shows me the ropes. He leads and I follow. We head to the pipe at the heart of the city. He demonstrates a superior method for pipe-drinking. Most of the city favors neon, its homes and women, but this pipe is golden. The water that flows is also golden. He looks at me like How does it taste? It tastes golden, buddy. Once you get a taste of the city and a feel for its waveforms, it’s impossible to leave, no matter how loud my name, how itchy my worms. I spend the whole night in the neon dirt by the golden puddle.

Mom is asleep when I get home, or pretending to be. The spaghetti was left out overnight. I wouldn’t call it Chinese or Italian. I’m not hungry either way. I drank too much. I’ll eat some in the morning for her amusement. From her bed, she moans, “Goodnight, my big city dog.” Her voice is sore from calling my name through the night. I don’t answer her because I don’t want her to smell my mouth, but she knows where I was. I am a big city dog now.

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A SPECTRE LURKS AT THE PUTT-PUTT ON RIVERSIDE by Keef

The ghost in our town haunts the putt-putt golf course with the big Peter Pan statue out front. The haunting is the only semi-interesting thing about the course, and even the ghost is dull. Kyle from AP Biology works the concessions, wearing a paper hat and staring at his phone. Hot dogs are only a dollar, but you get what you pay for. All the holes are pretty busted, and there’s always a parade of sad single dads tromping around the place with their kids, trying to make up for neglect and inattention and assumptions that they’d always have what they love.

Todd wanted to see the ghost and I wanted to take him on a date, so we headed down there on Friday after sunset. He drove us in his mom's minivan. I warned him beforehand that the ghost wasn't very cool; it was just a ghost. It wasn't scary and it wasn't some gothic spook in a shroud whispering cautionary tales about the mistakes it made in life or whatever. 

"It's just a guy," I said. "You sometimes have to wait for it to move if it's in the way."

But Todd still wanted to see it.

It took us a while to pick out putters that weren't too bent-up from douchebags bashing them against the statues. I bought us a couple hotdogs. Kyle said "Gentlemen," and gave us the nod and only charged us half price. We still got what we paid for.

"These hot dogs are so bad," I said. "You sure this is what you want? A lame ghost and lousy hotdogs? It's not too late to let me take you to IHOP."

"You're just scared," he said. "Of the ghost. Or maybe just the, you know, the eerie vision of the sad dads. Under the phantasmagoric light of the, uh, gibbous moon."

Sometimes Todd is the funniest person in the world, so I kissed him.

He’s also really cute, especially when he's concentrating on putting. His tongue sticks out between his teeth, and if I say something to break his concentration, his shoulders slump and he throws his head back and rolls his eyes and makes an exasperated noise, which is adorable, and I shouldn’t do that but it’s so hard to resist.

The seventh hole is a bull rearing up, but one of the front legs broke a long time ago, so now it's sort of kneeling. I was trying to chip the ball up and bounce it off the bull's nose to make Todd laugh, which is hard when all you have is a putter. All the hair on the back of my neck went up. The chill started on the soles of my feet, like someone massaging them with seaweed.

"Wow," said Todd. "You feel that?"

"Yeah," I said. The icy feeling slid up the back of my calves and circled up and around my inner thighs, settling in the middle of my torso. "I should've brought my hoodie."

"Look," he said, and pointed.

The ghost hovered on the brick pathway between Todd and the eighth hole. It was wearing a polo and khakis, which faded and became transparent above what probably would've been a pair of Sperrys. It had a dad-bod paunch, a pancake ass, and no head.  Its clothes and skin were the dirty white of the moon in an old mirror.

"Jeez, gross," I said.

The cold clenched in my center, in my belly-brain, which Mr. Jamison from AP Bio calls the "enteric nervous system." It runs from the throat to the anus and has more neurons than the spine. It's what clenches when I cry, warms when I laugh, and turns to warm goo when I look into Todd's eyes in his basement. When I saw the ghost, frozen fingers slithered around it and caressed my xiphoid process into an icicle.

I shivered. "It's a lot spookier than I remembered."

Todd put his arm around me, which made me feel a little better.

The ghost slowly reached a diaphanous hand into its pocket and withdrew a phantom phone, which it held up in front of where its face would've been. Wind whistled over its open windpipe, low and hollow, like a freight train far away in the night.

"God damn," I said. 

The ghost lowered the phone. The visible muscles in its neck stretched as it turned in our direction. It wheezed and produced a deep rumbling sound, the suppurating beginnings of what might have been a yell if its vocal cords had still been in place.

"Excuse me," said a sad dad behind us. "If you're not going to putt, can we play through?"

"There's a ghost," I said, and pointed at the ghost.

"Yeah, I know," he said. "Can we play through or what?"

I picked up my ball and stepped back. He and his kids bustled through, putted, and moved past the ghost to the eighth hole.

I held Todd close to me and we watched the ghost lift the phone once again and meander down the pathway. At one point it was looking at its phone, not paying attention, and its invisible feet caught on an uneven brick. It pitched forward, did a little two-step, caught itself, and kept shuffling. The icy fingers caressed my heart.

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TOOAFRAIDTOASK by Steve Gergley

Posted by u/samuraijake14 - 2 hours ago

Does anyone else have this problem or is it just me?

ok so i know this is going to sound super weird and stuff but please just try to bear with me becuase ive never asked strangers on reddit for advice like this but i swear this is a serious question and im not trolling because this is a real thing that happens to me all the time now and i dont know how to fix it and im too scared to ask my friends or parents about it because of what they might say. Ok so what i wanted to ask is if anyone else gets too scared to poop because they are afraid that a snake will crawl up out of the toilet hole while their sitting there with nothing to protect their bits. im asking because a few days ago i saw a story online (it was on msn or yahoo or someother place that talks about real news, so i think its true) about this woman who was in the bathroom of her house in florida and then she lifted up the toilet lid to do her business but before she sat down she saw a big snake crawling up out of the hole in her toilet where the poop gets flushed away and it turns out that something had happened to the pipes under her house and the snake got in from there and then it crawled all the way up into her toilet from the back. so i guess my question is if anyone else ever sees something like that and gets so scared and cant stop thinking about it to the point that they now cant do even the most normal things in their life like pooping because ever since i read that story i get really scared when i feel the need to poop because what if something like that happens to me? BTW im 14M and i live in northern florida (tallahassee area) so its not like i live right next door to the toilet snake lady, but i do live in the same state so i cant stop thinking that if something so scary like that can happen to a random lady who lives kind of close, then whats stopping something like that from happening to me? now anytime i even think about pooping my mind goes crazy on its own and instantly imagines the most horrible thing that could possibly happen like the other day when i was at my friend terrys house and i needed to go to the bathroom, but then right after i got there and closed the door i saw a mind movie of me sitting on the toilet and getting bitten on the butt by a snake coming up out of the toilet hole and it was really scary because my mind showed me all the horrible details even tho i didnt want it to and even after i tried really hard to think about something else i couldnt and instead i just kept seeing the horrible mind movie of me getting bitten and my body starting to shake and jerk from the poison and me smashing my face against the hard floor and my teeth hitting the tiles really hard and breaking all over the place and it seemed so real that i could almost feel it happening and then in the mind movie i started throwing up uncontrollably and blood was everywhere and in the movie i knew i was dying so i started yelling for my mom because i was so scared and then no matter how hard the real me tried to think of something else, like fortnite or the new slipknot song or that awesome fight with levi from attack on titan, i couldnt stop seeing myself dying horribly and it was so awful to the point that in real life i started crying and i could barely breathe and it was so embarrassing because terry had to call my mom and ask her to come pick me up and even after mom was there i couldnt stop my body from shaking so i just spent the rest of the day in bed and i didnt go to school the next day. i only ask these things because that day was one of the worst in my entire life and im shaking right now just thinking about it but a similar thing happens now every time i have to poop and i dont know what to do or how to make it go away. i know this post has been rambling on for a while and im sorry about that but i just get so incredibly scared sometimes about all the awful stuff in the news and about all the terrible things that could happen to me and my friends and family and i cant stop wondering why everyone is always arguing so much about stuff that seems really obvious like how the other day when my english teacher mrs collins told the class that men and women are exactly the same in every single way, but how is that even possible when girls have lady bits and guys have dongs and girls can get pregnant and guys cant? literally everyone already knows that stuff so why would she even say something that everyone already knows is wrong? so i guess my real question is just why is everything in the world so confusing and scary? also any tips re: my pooping dilemma would be cool thx

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GLORIA TIPENE by Kaye Gilhooley

Really? Is it? Gloria Tipene in layers of dirty designer dresses? Gloria Tipene with hay-thatch hair and farmer’s cheeks? Gloria Tipene who is watched and wondered about aloud, shuffles along the street stopping at each bin and lamppost and shop window that catches her magpie eye; carries her life in a performance of plastic bags, string-tied parcels, pull-behind and push-forward trolleys; whispering harshly and sometimes shouting her lines.

Is that Gloria Tipene, dazzled by the display of gold and rubies and pearls and diamonds, dreamily tracing the circles of engagement rings, wedding rings and earrings with her skinny dirt-encrusted fingernail. Lingering on miniature markers of life’s journey she gently taps, strokes the glass-bound dog and breathes. Startled by the sudden appearance of a shop assistant, drops her finger and flees, melts into the mass of other people not like her.

Gloria Tipene, despite the grime and clutter, despite the owl hood eyes that can’t look up but see everything, despite the words that come with every shuffled step but never address another person, never more on a stage or film set to be heard and adored. 

Yet, Gloria Tipene holds inside the poise of unicorns and the daring of dragons. Rainbow blood pumps through her veins and heart and brain. She re-holds conversations with directors and artists and politicians, re-signs fans’ programmes, hands, arms. In her hand-stitched heart knows that she is loved by thousands and by no one.  

Glimpsed sometimes on the next street, by the traffic lights, under the bridge, I never get close enough to check, to gaze closely on that clue-filled weather-worn face. 

Gloria Tipene always just far enough away to never really be sure and one day will disappear and tread the pavement boards no more.

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HOLES IN THE STOMACH PROVIDE WINDOWS INTO DIGESTION by Kate Lohnes

Picture me a babe no words throated there has to be context. Like pigtails at Brookfield Zoo, once I lost my mother, all greeneyed bulbous, looking window through at tiger sleeping on riverbank, sketchers and ratted jacket rattled I was child then, was child once. Not here temporally isolated at this locus where you touch me [touch me touchme pleasetouchme]. Carbonbodies grow in time with nutrients so I ate once, you know, thick chilled carrot mush and chicken tenders but that mole I have here has always marked me cain. 

Under canopic and dense Dublin smoke settles on pores and clots them. Tell me I’m being dramatic. So pathetic lass. Lonely lass ununique, the river says. I say river in hellfire Cassandra burns and burns with Ajax. And river he still touches her. [7 year re cycle skin cycle reskincycle it hasn’t been that long yet]. So yeah she feels him and I’ll whine when I want to because always are we performative. You know this. Darling I told you of A. St Martin. His body burned through by bulletrip, hole stomach gaping so why not keep it open. Why not tie meat to string and dangle dip like candlemaker in gastric juice mmmmm let us see what it means digest.  

And that’s actually what happened do you get that alive with hole gaping. Alive with hole gaping and writhing doctor poked St Martin living trial belly bright under operation light, he never sewed body up. Even though he promised. Do you get that. Dipdipdrip meat let bacteria break down flesh inside bulletbrokenbody. It was education. Like when Erasistratus strapped men [slavebody he justified] living in auditorium cut larynx first to silence screams. Carved one throughline from genitals to throat opened spread eagle said look here look at heart beating living bodywrithing but heart heart heart thumpthump dyedha dyedha dyedha. Men died soon after. Thick cut unscreaming but shook violent on restraints. The people of auditorium took notes vigorously. So yeah it was a window and only a window. 

You have to understand. I was a child once unperforated. Body unlicked by flame, gastric juices unbubbling unmeattouched. There was a time when heart beat first so why not keep it open and see. I used to eat, digest, used to burn and swoon let fire touch me like Ajax, oh yes, just like Ajax. So there is context, you see, a throughline connective between who I was and the woman standing here, in front of you, Liffey at my left and your eyes so angry. Sunk and blue and angry, like river entered them reflecting shards of promised morning in the worst way. Me my eyes green no river. Everseparate, everclinging to somewhere between the rapture you know then god mountainside said kill for me. Me marked I had no choice prophecy is not one to bargain. 

But you know this. You know this part of the story. How one night eveslicked after swallowing serpent I folded myself into the felt hills of western Ireland. You know the sheep bleating mimicked fjord ruthlessly like when she spoke to us and it was not soft. Body wet with rain troyfire fading I had way too much gin and I liked it. And yeah evil maybe. But I was not A.  St Martin no juices to play with no liquid left. So how could I tell you of twenty years between here and my beginnings and have it seem like anything other than performance through tinted window. 

Instead just picture me a babe body still slicked viscous with heaven’s syrup and pretend momentarily that time has always been linear. 

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COYOTES by Dan Crawley

I find myself fading under ballooning khakis, a parachuting buttoned-down shirt. I let myself in Big Sis’s place through an open sliding glass door. Last time, I found a bundle of twenties in a kitchen cabinet drawer, next to the stove. I ripped out most of the blue paper from a pad on the counter, keeping a few twenties on top of the rubber-banded roll. This time, a million paper clips and batteries like polished coins and plastic measuring spoons litter the bottom of the drawer. I could weep four ounces.

Then I hear another’s weeping and I see Big Bro letting himself in the front door, his crying toddler in tow. My nephew is held like a football on his father’s hip, most likely adding to his uproar. Big Bro stares at my damp forehead, chin, and wonders, “How do you have a key?” I tell him I got an extra the same time he did, a lie. He wonders also, “So what are you doing here?” I tell him I’m retrieving money Big Sis owes me, another lie. He tells me, “I brought over this screaming meemie because I’ve got somewhere to go…for…something, something, and Big Sis is babysitting. Where are you, Big Sis?” I tell him she is not home from work yet, and I’ve got somewhere to go with the money owed to me, for something, something. “My somewhere is more important than your somewhere,” he points out. I can’t help but point out Big Bro’s clammy expression, too. So he points out also, “My something, something is more urgent than whatever your something, something is.” I tell him to gaze upon my shrunken sack of skin, trapped at the bottom of a desolate gulch, and beg for a few bucks. Big Bro tells me, “Someone with a high-powered, corner-office set up like you should have a bank vault full of money for your something, something.” I beg for forty bucks, which could work. Then Big Bro remembers, “I left my truck running.” I tell Big Bro I’m incapable of watching his son as he performs a flawless hand-off of the screaming meemie to the futon on his way out. I pace in tight circles. My hair bristles.

My nephew thrashes all over the futon, his yowl a loose fan belt. So I start yowling a pitiful wheeze. Down in a dried-out creek bed, a thicket of cholla cacti hemming me in. I can’t stay on my feet any longer and collapse onto the edge of the futon and curl up. Big Sis won’t even know I’m here. Just a pile of clothes left by her boyfriend. My nephew stands like a boozer and clutches my billowing shirt and yowls into my ear. Next comes the pounding. Both of us go silent. We hear Big Sis’s uproar on the other side of the door, “I don’t know how you coyotes got in, but I’ve called animal control and the cops to get you out.” My nephew growls. Now that I can do.

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THE ROSE by Joshua Hebburn

Driving back after the funeral, he stopped at a Target to get Starbucks and take a piss. He'd stayed overnight at a motel, and he left the motel early in the morning to make it back east by driving all day. 

Driving that morning he thought of the black and white picture of a Joshua tree in the room. It was the only thing not reusable in the motel; it was the sort of picture somebody would take in an intermediate photography class, not something tastelessly good the owners would get in a bulk purchase of decor. 

There was something too amateur—too ambitious but clumsy—about the composition of this picture of a Joshua tree, and the overexposure of the image—and there was the starkness of that, it was the wrong tone for a motel. It made your eye stop, and in a motel you shouldn't seem to have had eyes.

He'd drove—drove not really seeing anything but the spiky black silhouette of that Joshua tree, and the grainy white of the blown-out desert behind it—and the gray of the highway, the tires below the bumpers, and the loss of time they represented.

The Target was empty this early in the morning. The aisles were pristine, walls of familiar merchandise waiting brightly in fluorescent light. The store seemed eager—except for a yawning cashier. It was stunning after the monotony of the drive and his thoughts. 

When he went into the bathroom, a light on a motion sensor turned on. There was a pleasant artificial cherry smell. It was all gray slate, white porcelain, straight lines. It was easy.

He did what he came to do.

Going to wash his hands, and in the mirror he noticed the boots in the little stall. He'd assumed he had been alone pissing because of the motion sensing light—that was wrong.

The boots were cowboy boots. They had dark bluejeans tucked into them. The jeans were stiff tubes, almost hollow seeming. The man's legs must be thin.

The feet were planted far apart, as if the person in the stall were bracing for one to give the devil. But the jeans weren't down. 

Embroidered on the side of the boot closest to him, which was almost under the gap of the little stall, was a rose.

It was the kind of rose you would imagine tattooed on the bicep or chest of a biker or sailor. 

The bathroom was new, even the grout on the floor by the boot was clean and white. The boot with the rose also appeared to be new. The red threading of the rose shone like silk. The leather had not yet crinkled or cracked. The leather wasn’t dusty or soiled. The point of the boot was sharp. 

The figure was still and quiet in the stall. The sound of the ventilation system filled the room. 

He looked away from the stall, the boots, the mirror. He rinsed his hands in the automatic faucet and wiped them on his slacks. He pulled open the door and went out.

The episode of the man in the stall was one of the small strange occurrences that we overlook, and then forget, in the course of a life.  

We have all had something like a man staring into the window of our house from the street in the middle of the night—something like being in the fog on a beach in the morning and coming upon a rotten seaweed-entangled heap that gives us a feeling—had something like a lost object turning up after a few days in a place we knew we didn't leave it.

He went and got a venti iced coffee. He added whole milk and three paper sachets of sugar. He was in for a very long drive. 

He listened for bootsteps behind him as he made his way through the empty store to his car. He heard only ice shifting against plastic and ice. 

Years later, looking through all the stuff he had to sort through a few weeks after the next funeral, he turned a page, and there were the boots. They were on his Dad.  His Dad had an armful of Mom. They were by the bulk of a redwood. They were young. 

He put the album down, he got into his car, he turned the key. He idled in the driveway. He noticed he was covered in a sweat gone cold. 

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ONLY THE FRUIT BEARING TREES by Kate Gehan

The morning after a stormy night spent hiding in a windowless room while sirens announced a green sky, Nichole discovers the last plum tree has fallen on the soggy side of the house. She runs her palm along the fungus scaling the trunk and plucks at the earnest flower petals. At the bottom of the yard trapped against the fence, a large red bouncy ball swivels and shudders in a puddle. The taut plastic reveals a phone number written in black marker along with a smudged word beginning with a T. Nichole drops the petals into the grass and sends a text. 

Hi

She watches a goldfinch land on the fallen tree until her phone chirps.

You found me

Trish? Talia? 

Neither

Tom? Tony?

Time

The wind picks up and take the goldfinch with it.

I have your ball

Yes and you have time

Time for what? 

Whatever you want

Nichole thinks this is some bullshit. 

Do you want it back

Up to you

Some mom sharpied the return info on her kid’s ball and now the dad was is having fun with Nichole because his life has become a perpetual Wednesday. She prays to the bird, which now watches her from its perch a few fence panels away, that the dad won’t send a picture.

FFS just give me your address

Baby, let’s take it slow

From the putrid swamp of her yard Nichole considers the last of her fruit bearing trees, as it dangles its roots suggestively.

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Twelve trees flocked the property when Nichole and Ted bought the house. Their first loss was the gum—split in half by the wind. Nichole still unexpectedly weeps when she registers the reason for the abrasive light in the living room on fall afternoons. The spring Nichole miscarried the third time, the sour cherry and pear trees drowned in the soupy earth. The men who come to take everything away promptly sliced them up and shoved them into the wood chipper. How many trees were left now? She deliberately refused to count, in the same way she refused to compute a year in the future at which point she would reasonably be dead herself. Ted called it willful ignorance without understanding her means of survival.

Nichole had become defensive about the trees as the years passed and she failed to keep important things alive. A few days after another loss, she had shouted at a neighbor during a fire pit backyard hangout that her ash tree was not infested with the invasive emerald borer beetle. When someone muttered Nichole needed to face reality and cut it down to save the expense, she explained that at great cost the tree doctors were preemptively treating it. And then she turned her hot cheeks away from the fire towards the man who lived at the end of the cul de sac who was identifying constellations with an app. He told his small son all the clusters were not visible because of light pollution. Nichole had no interest in what she couldn’t see or how their little fire, their town, everything around them, was perpetually tilting away. She thought mostly about developing additional healing rituals, like positive energy chants to encourage growth while she massaged the soft new tips of her fir branches, or focused meditation in twenty-minute increments while she wrapped her body against the sticky trunks. Ted wasn’t bothered by the loss of speechless organisms but she did not believe in replacements. Nichole didn’t want to plant anything new—she wanted to save what was already there.

+++

She puts her hand on the hot red plastic ball, testing its pressure. The men always come after storms and soon a pickup truck hauling a wood chipper rumbles along, its wheels scraping the curb. Damage cleanup, damage erasure. 

“Hey,” a bearded dude jumps out. “I can clear that away for you right now. Sixty bucks.” 

She texts again.

Maybe I want to keep it 

Take what you want baby

What I want is everything

Nichole wants a repair man, a man to reassemble the plum tree, to glue it back together, wrap bandages around its weaknesses. She wants firm, gentle fingers to caress the hurt parts, pet the tiny leaves, whisper to the petals words of encouragement to flourish, to turn towards the sun. 

Cigarette in hand, the tree guy stares at her, chin up, his question still floating between them, a promise, a threat, an invitation.

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THIS SKIN YOU CALL YOUR OWN by Chloe N. Clark

He told me he didn’t believe in witches. We were on the floor of my apartment, half undressed while he used one hand to unbutton my jeans, when he said it. Out of nowhere. 

“I don’t believe in witches, you know,” he said. He began kissing down my neck, hand slipping beneath my jeans.

“What do you mean?” I asked. My own hand slid down his stomach. He let out a short exhale of air.

“Like everyone told me you were a witch before we hooked up,” he said. I could hear the excitement behind his words, the thought of being with a witch edging against his desire to make him seem different from all the others who wanted me, talked about me. 

I didn’t speak for a moment, tracing my fingers against the skin of his stomach before moving my hand lower on his body. He was warm, and I could smell the faint ache of sweat on him. 

“They said watch out for her,” he continued. “They said you’d want something from me. That you’d only like it if you could get something from me.”

I applied a little more pressure with my fingers. He pulled in his breath. His own hand slowing. I wondered how much I could make him want me. There’s a pleasure in being wanted. Though nothing near to the pleasure of what I want from them—that slow unspool of darkness. I shifted away from him and began to kiss every inch of his skin. My tongue on his skin. I could taste his sweat. It was salty at first and then it was the coffee he’d drunk at work—sharp, slightly over-extracted espresso, that hint of latex. I went lower down his body, past his stomach, his back arching slightly. There was a memory in him, that he didn’t even know he’d kept, of earlier in the day, he’d been watching a woman across the street talking to her child. The woman was crouched so that she and the child were at the same height. Her coat was bright red, a dark blue scarf, and he’d remembered his mother once scolding him at a park. She’d stood above him, never deigning to be at his level. He didn’t remember her words. I ran my hands up his thighs, pushing the memory out of his body. I knew he’d never know it was gone. I wanted him thinking of only one thing. He needed to only be here in this moment, this pleasure. The dark should be the furthest from his mind. That’s how I’ve always liked it. I needed to be able to take what he wasn’t watching, a magician who keeps your eye on the wrong card.

He said my name. I used my tongue, my lips. He lost his words. I, on the other hand, had a thousand languages at my disposal. I’d learned how to shape my tongue so many ways, knew how to use it to make others speak to me. I moved my tongue, shaped my lips, made his body yell to me.

He had this recurring nightmare that he woke up on an island in the middle of nowhere. There was no one else there. He wandered around and around, calling out the names of everyone he’d ever known. No one answered. And then someone did. Some voice called out from beneath the sand. It begged him to run. Run away. So he tried. He’d run to the water’s edge and try to get in it, to swim away, but he couldn’t. The water would be glass or boiling hot or freezing, freezing cold. But he’d try, he’d keep trying, as the voice kept screaming for him to run and he’d know something was coming for him. Something that he’d never want to know. 

This I liked. I held it closer to myself, letting it slip into my skin, run its darkness into my blood. It felt so good flooding my body, down to the tips of my toes.

He was so close to release. His whole body thrummed with it. And then he said, “Wait.”

I stopped.

He said, “I didn’t believe them.”

And I knew what he meant, how much he thought everyone was telling lies about me but that he’d hoped they weren’t but didn’t want to give in to believing. Men like him loved witches, loved that hint of danger. I knew how much he’d wanted me. I could feel it on him—it came off of him like a bit of extra warmth, standing too close to the fire on too cold of days. 

I moved again, long enough to say, “Shhh.”

He nodded. There was sweat pooled in the hollow of his throat, it glistened. In that light, he was more than beautiful. 

Of course, everyone was, when I’m there with them, when I’m pulling the darkness from their bodies. They look so filled with light if only for a moment.

I used my tongue, shaped my lips around him. I spoke a thousand words he wouldn’t hear, just my tongue tracing the letters, rolling the syllables. 

The words let everything he’d ever been scared of into my body. It filled me up so quick. Everyone carried so many tiny fears. They cascaded into me, every part of me was so filled with him. There was so much power in knowing every darkest corner, every monster under the bed.

And then his body went still, only his fast breathing, heart pounding to show he was still there.

I lay beside him. Everything ached in that pleasurable way, like after running a marathon. Time spent well. Sometimes, often if I was honest, I wondered what it was like for them. If afterwards, they went out knowing what I’d taken. If they felt lighter or if it didn’t feel like anything at all. To go into the world, unafraid, must feel like something.

“What are you?” he asked, smiling.

“I’m a witch,” I said. But he didn’t believe me. They never believed in witches really.

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GARDEN TOOLS by Amie Norman Walker

I crunch numbers on my Excel sheet and pause to reflect upon the decency of the dirt beneath my fingernails. I dug in my garden all weekend, pulled up weeds, ground plants, and potted them. Back inside my office, I question if gardener was the correct occupation for my soul to hang from. Using a business card, I carve the dirt from my crevasses over my one-lined to-do list. I was tasked with contacting the new business partner’s accountant by a woman who sat through the recent meeting with no contribution other than to nod and smile at the two men who promised through baritone voices the new partnership would revitalize customer satisfaction. Reviewing the delegated functions, one commanded, “Cher, give her Benjamin’s number.” She sang back, “Oh yes, absolutely,” with certain ease. 

Posing weaponry against cubicle small talk, I don a gaudy headset to call Benjamin. His brisk answer upon the first ring and the stern tone in his introduction suggest I cut to the chase. 

“Hi. I’m to retrieve the documentation I need from you before we can process your checks.” Through the distinct sound of water smacking against the already over-watered soil of a house plant and over the crinkle of papers shuffling, Benjamin's voice shifts into rushed apology. “I’m sorry, honey. You know they told me you would call. I thought they’d explain to you there is no reason for this at all. Who was with you? With you in that meeting? Was it Cher?” I explain that Cher was there and gave me the number under the direction of two distinguished men. He put me on hold after saying, “Excuse me, just a minute.”

While waiting with patience, several people pass my office. Two attempt to enter, see my headset on, put a finger up, as if they were genius, and mouth I'll catch you later. I flip my calendar from May to June. Suddenly, Benjamin is back with raised voice. “I’ll need to see you soon.” 

I’m unsure if he is speaking to me or someone else in the room. “Excuse me?”

He explains his firm does not send any legal documents via email, fax, or mail, absolutely no way, so I’ll have to pick up the document in person. I confirm that is no problem at all; a mileage check will be cut from my own company. We set a date for the fifth of June, and he sang goodbye to me with a pleasant tune. 

I pull up to the office of Brooks and Dune at quarter past noon. Befitting her character, Cher is poised in the window eating butter biscuits and smoking a cigarette. Benjamin’s name plate is the only one in gold font near a variety of buttons indicating which section of the building the offices are in. I press the buzzer, and the click of unlocking mechanisms invites my hand to the brass handle. Pleased I do not have to wait for Cher’s return from lunch for entry, I step into a long atrium with cemented sidewalk, windows, and foliage from ceiling to floor, nauseating and hot, like a birdhouse in a mid-western zoo.

I follow the sidewalk to the next set of doors that do not have a buzzer or lock; it’s the type of door you had to question whether to push through or knock. I find Benjamin’s name on another boldfaced gold plaque. Momentarily pausing between my knocks, I turn my ear toward the seam to pick up any respondents noise; first I hear nothing, not even a breeze, just the hum of a distant air conditioner and birds in the sun. Mid through my third round of two tap raps comes the sound of an impatient man, who briskly presses back his chair as he demands, “Come in.”

Inside, I find two parrots and a lizard in bird cages hanging from the ceiling directly to my right. To my left is a table over which two men play an intense chess game. I debate with myself: did the glassed hallway perform time travel to the future or the past? Rushing to stand, approach, and reach for a shake, is first Benjamin, whose grip is quick and brisk. He pulls up a chair for me. “Come girl, sit down,” Benjamin demands of me. “Don’t you know we’re on lunch until three?” I ask if I should come back, and he insists no while introducing his brother. Paul’s eyes are deep blue, concerned and slanted, as if fixed permanently in concentration, giving the impression he’s thinking about the handshake we’re having right now. His hand is soft and polite, cold at the fingertips and warm in the palm. Our grip remains entwined as we all sit in the same breath that Benjamin uses to express his discontent; I’ve interrupted their game. 

A certain type of money buys special bulbs to light a room to imitate the sun. The atrium was top-to- bottom windows, while this room has but one with its curtain black, pulled shut, and dust around the edges, suggesting the tenure of its position. The room is lined with houseplant and on hanging shelves and atop each flat surface in sight except the chess table and chairs. 

Without a word or explanation, Benjamin and Paul resume their game of chess. After several moves of what appear to gain nothing, Benjamin says, “Brooks and Dune owns this building. Aren’t you impressed, sweetie?” I look at Paul and back at Benjamin, bite my lip, and say, “Sure. The grounds are lovely as far as I can see.” While they continue their game, I wonder if I should ask where the documentation are, if maybe someone else, an assistant like Cher, could retrieve them for me. Just then, Benjamin starts to question me. 

“Do you remember the company who paid for this service before Brooks and Dune?”

“No, I’ve only worked here for two years.”

“Do you know the by-laws?”

“No, above my pay grade, I suppose.”

“Stunning,” says Paul. 

They continue their game, not minding me at all. I cough ahem, and Benjamin shrugs. “Dear, we’re going out on the boat later. We hope you’ll accept our offer to be a barmaid. Be certain you’ll be justly paid.” 

Paul peels blatant disgust off in his loud sigh, exclaiming, “Oh, just give up the charade! Bennie, the girl clearly has no clue!”

My mouth opens slightly, my head askew.

“Girl," Paul says, placing a watering can in my hand and gesturing toward the adjacent wall of plants. "I have something to offer you. Be careful not to miss. You look confused. First, let’s have a drink. Sit back down here, and we’ll go over the whole stink.”

Benjamin explains, while Paul runs his hand up and down my leg and stares at me with the softest look of horny I’ve ever seen on a man that large. “Dear, we’ve been watching you, not you particularly, but your now former employer, the one who sent you here, for some time. We’re running the undercover operation pinning the formulation of human trafficking rings on Senator Briggs. Paul seemed to think you had no idea and wanted to spare you anyway he could. In order to do so, we had to keep on with the game until we could get you here to sign your clause of employment over to us. We’re doing you a favor.”

Paul’s hand slides up my skirt. I count ten seconds in reverse and notice next to Benjamin’s chair a bucket with gardening tools. Smelling the sweet foliage in the clammy air, the soil's deep moisture, and the weeping whisk of petals under the central fans crisp air, I am inspired. I pick up the shears and, in my most even tone, say, “Please. I’d love to pour a cocktail, but I have to prune on my own. I’ll take up your job offer in exchange for a business card with the title gardener and freedom to roam.” Paul stands with grace to catch me, as Benjamin's box knife nicks my neck bone.

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LOVE RUNS AWAY TO JOIN THE CIRCUS by Kieron Walquist

The Ringleader lets the circus run itself into the ground, unsupervised. Ever since the accident, he hides himself in his trailer. Away from the police, the press, the public. All who lie in wait outside, hunched and hungry. Ready to ambush. Ready to accuse: how could you let this happen? Confined by choice, the ringleader doesn’t eat much. Drinks religiously. Sleeps. Occasionally peeks behind the dusty blinds at the sun. You stay with him in his misery. Longing to be loved. But he refuses to want you. Says: you don’t belong in the circus! Go home. You tell him the back door is unlocked. That anyone could break into such sadness. 

***

The Acrobat makes the dance look effortless. Without the weight of wings, she flies. Streaks the skyline of the tallest circus tent. Bound in a blood-red ribbon of silk, she unravels. Becomes undone. Tumbles towards you. The cops, the cameras, the citizens. Down below, everyone evacuates. Clearing a patch of hard-packed earth for her. There’s no safety net. Suddenly, she stops. Hangs herself by an ankle. Unharmed, the acrobat spreads her arms. TA-DAH! But the onlookers leave, having seen it all before. You promise that she was enough. That your love is enough. She swears it isn’t. Sighs. She really felt it this time. Fame. You tell her they wanted a fall. One more circus catastrophe.          

***

The Beast Tamer feeds the menagerie of animals raw, red meat. Refills the empty stock tanks with cool, crisp water. Scrubs the dust and dirt off the elephants. Tousles the winter coat of the black bear. Playing nice, the beast tamer puts on a show for the authorities, the anchormen, the audience. But you know better. Before the accident, his animals were often sedated and starved. Never let loose. You want to be abused. To have that harsh, heavy kind of love. He says you’re feral. Too wild to hold down. You counter that his crime is obvious. That others will see the suffering safari and wonder: where did the meat come from? 

***

The Fire Eater buries the evidence deep inside a burn barrel. With blistered and blackened hands, he rains gasoline over the remains. Strikes a match. Ignites a fountain of fire. Inhales the smoke. Singed by the hush of heat, he walks away from the blaze. Burning up. Bejeweled in beads of sweat. You follow. Feverish from head to toe. You vow to keep it all a secret. You won’t tell a soul. Not the rangers, the reporters, the residents—no one. He thanks you, but rejects the thought of romance. With you, it’s just too cold. You ask, if he eats fire, when did he become so scared?     

***

The Magician replays and rehearses the old routine. He shuffles the cards, carefully picks the one unknown. Stuffs a rabbit into a top hat. Makes it vanish, then reappear. He saws the pretty girl in-half, but she always comes back together. Every trick he has up his sleeve works. He makes no mistakes. Nothing goes wrong. Yet, something did go wrong. Just once. And they want an explanation. The law, the live broadcast, the locals. You come to his defense. A good magician never reveals his secrets. That’s what you love about him. He begs you to leave. You’re only making it worse. You have no trouble disappearing on your own.   

***

The Fortuneteller meets with the ringleader. The acrobat. The beast tamer. The fire eater. The magician. Welcomes them into her sanctuary. A small space—a room crowded by candles. Air thick with the scent of incense. Roses. Beeswax. Something dead. With milk-white eyes, she considers her crystal ball. Translates her Tarot cards. Looks over the lines pressed into palms. She forewarns them of a frightening future. This time, they believe it—before, they had laughed. You believe the fortuneteller. Offer your hand. Ask: is there love between us? She looks. Shakes her head. I see no future with you

***

You were the brave volunteer. Out of hundreds of outstretched hands, they reached for yours. Chosen, you were carried from the crowd. Brought up on the stage. Held still by the ringleader, the acrobat, the beast tamer, the fire eater, the magician. Electric, the circus performers declared dangerous acts. The swell of sound from the audience—cheers and cries—left you feeling frozen. But you couldn’t have backed out. Not in front of the high-wire. The black bear. The flamethrower. The water-filled tank. You had to play the part. And you did. But before you died in the accident, you looked back at the performers. Thought they all felt it. Love

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PURSUED BY FURIES: THE LURE OF THE UNCANNY IN FICTION AND FILM by Kevin P. Keating

Madeline and Sophie Ryan are identical twins. They are eight years old. They exude a rugged masculinity and are built like their merchant marine father — thick, solid, broad shouldered, with eyes so dark and glassy they seem to be made from perfectly polished pieces of obsidian. Mass murderers of spiders, flies, moths, and the exceptionally brilliant brush-footed butterflies that sail above the surface of the family swimming pool, the girls constantly hunt for easy prey. They’re also accomplished mimics who delight in doing impersonations of adults, aping their vocabulary with unnerving precision in a single singsong voice and then squealing with malicious, porcine laughter whenever their latest victim shoots them a weary and wounded look. They can be cruel to younger children but reserve the brunt of their wickedness for their long-suffering mother, relishing their roles as jailers and persecuting her in ways that only the most heartless of wardens can. Clever, calculating, supremely subversive, they understand intuitively that parenthood is a kind of indefinite prison sentence, one in which beleaguered moms and dads spend most of their days sequestered from other adults. To neighbors the girls look like a pair of wretched, half-starved urchins out of a folktale, feral creatures that search the nighttime streets for rancid scraps of food before seeking shelter in abandoned barns. They commit acts of petty vandalism. They may possess preternatural powers. They are darkly comic flourishes, or so I once believed, from my novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015).

As I put the finishing touches on the book, I received feedback from several readers who said Madeline and Sophie reminded them of the eerie twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. I was a bit mystified, perhaps even disappointed, by this comparison. I truly believed, at least to a certain extent, that the girls in The Captive Condition served as comic relief. Curious, I viewed the movie again for the first time in several years and became so intrigued not only by the iconic imagery of the hand-holding twins in their periwinkle puff sleeves and ruffle skirts but by Kubrick’s masterful storytelling technique that I decided to teach it in two of my college courses, Introduction to Folklore and Introduction to Mythology.

While performing the obligatory professorial research on the film, I learned that Kubrick, justifiably famous for his attention to detail, conducted his own survey of the horror genre and fell under the spell of “The Uncanny,” an essay by Sigmund Freud. The uncanny, claimed that cigar-chomping, glossarial jigsaw-solver of the human psyche, was the only feeling that was more powerfully experienced in art than in life. “If the horror genre required any justification,” Kubrick remarked, “this concept alone would serve as its credentials” (Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, Michel Ciment, Faber & Faber, 1999). 

Toward the end of his brief essay, Freud posits that we experience the sensation of the uncanny whenever a storyteller denies us access to our reality-testing faculties. By this he means that most reasonable people, when faced with a spooky situation and tempted by their “primitive impulses” to attribute perfectly natural phenomenon to some supernatural power, can always rely on their critical thinking faculties to quell any lingering doubts and reveal the mundane truth. For example, we may be lying alone in bed on a stormy night and hear a door creaking open ever so slowly. Our “primitive minds” warn us that a ghost is approaching and yearns to slip under the sheets with us and whisper a bloodcurdling lullaby in our ears. But because we are rational beings who have easy access to those creature comforts provided by modern civilization, we can flip a light switch and quickly confirm that a cold draft has blown open the door and that the rusty hinges need oiling.

As Freud writes, “For the whole matter is one of testing reality, pure and simple, a question of the material reality of the phenomena.” The difficulty only arises when a storyteller keeps us in the proverbial dark for a prolonged period of time and doesn’t allow the trembling protagonist, and therefore the audience or reader, access to a conveniently located light switch. In order to create and sustain a sensation of the uncanny, the storyteller must keep us guessing about the true nature of the fictitious world he has created. Freud writes, “For the realm of phantasy depends for its very existence on the fact that its content is not submitted to the reality-testing faculty.” And according to Freud the critic, as opposed to Freud the psychoanalyst, readers and audiences may retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, “a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit,” if they see through the ruse and react to it as they would react to real experiences. In this case, the intellect serves as a metaphorical light switch and exposes the storyteller as an incompetent trickster.

In Freud’s view the stories most capable of creating a sense of the uncanny are those in which the storyteller “deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth, and then after all oversteps the bounds of possibility” by bringing about events that can never happen. In the completely fabricated and precisely structured worlds of “once upon a time” and “long ago and far away,” we accept the impossible as being perfectly ordinary. No one ever questions the validity of the tale of an innocent maiden who suddenly awakes from a poisoned-induced sleep and then runs off with a handsome and well-intentioned prince. 

Similarly, in a body of literature that makes use of what Freud calls “poetic reality,” we may experience a sensation of gloominess, but because the nature of this world is still imaginary, though less imaginary than the faraway kingdoms in fairy tales, we do not experience the uncanny. Freud points to the tormented souls in both Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey, particularly the episode in which Odysseus makes the treacherous descent into the underworld to consult with the spirits of the dead, including the grief-stricken spirit of his own mother. In both of these epic poems, the moods are somber, the settings somewhat disquieting, but we cannot say they are uncanny.

For Freud the situation is dramatically altered when the storyteller “pretends to move into the world of common reality” [italics mine]. I believe this phrase, indeed this single word, is fundamental to our understanding of the uncanny. Through the slow and careful accumulation of minute details, the storyteller pretends to create a simulacrum of the world as we know and typically experience it, but from the very start he or she has something else in mind entirely. For example, at the beginning of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick gives his audience, and the doomed Torrence family—parents Jack and Wendy and their six-year old son Danny—a pleasant tour of the Overlook Hotel during a sunny afternoon in early autumn, making everything appear perfectly ordinary and familiar. Only after the hotel closes for the season and Kubrick turns his attention to the secret inner lives of his characters do uncanny feelings germinate. 

One of the earliest and most memorable harbingers of the uncanny comes shortly after the Torrence family is left to care for the now vacant hotel during the long, brutal winter. Jack’s son Danny, while riding his Big Wheel through the labyrinthine hallways of the Overlook Hotel, sees the figures of the twin girls and listens to their unnerving refrain: “Come and play with us, Danny. Come and play with us. Forever—and ever—and ever.” It’s interesting to note that Kubrick’s twins, though peripheral to the plot of The Shining, continue to occupy a central place in the minds of most viewers, maybe because Danny cannot possibly explain the presence of these unfortunate girls who have been badly butchered by their demented father, the previous caretaker Delbert Grady. The indelible image of these girls, purportedly based on a photograph by Diane Arbus (though Kubrick adamantly denied this), serves as a warning to Danny about the very real dangers he will soon face. 

Bruno Bettelheim, in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, argues that these fantastic stories can serve a trouble child and help him overcome life’s travails. “Psychoanalysis,” writes Bettelheim, “was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving into escapism. Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence. This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable.” The trick, of course, is to “master all obstacles and emerge victorious.” A resourceful child, Danny Torrence memorably manages to elude the same grisly fate as the Grady girls by entering into a hedge maze while his deranged, dipsomaniacal father pursues him with an ax. 

Throughout the film Kubrick uses mirror images as the primary means of unmasking, rather than concealing, repressed aspects of Jack Torrence’s persona. To establish this idea, Kubrick stages a scene early in the film. While eating breakfast in bed in front of a mirror, Jack reveals to his wife that he feels oddly at home at the Overlook. “It was as though I had been here before,” he tells her. “I mean, we all have moments of déjà vu, but this was ridiculous. It was almost as though I knew what was going to be around every corner.” 

Soon he begins to see ghosts in the hotel, and in every scene in which he confronts one of these spectral figures — the bartender in the gold ballroom, the deceptively beautiful woman in the green bathroom, the racist caretaker in the red bathroom — Jack is standing in front of a mirror. To fully grasp the significance of these ghosts, and all of the subsequent horrors the Torrance family must face, one must understand certain hidden realities. “The uncanny,” Freud states, “is something that is secretly familiar but has undergone repression and then returned from it.” It’s easy to see that the ghosts in the film are manifestations of past traumas, which are secretly familiar but which Kubrick renders as "uncanny figures" after they have "returned from repression.” For example, Jack Torrence's repressed alcoholism becomes the bartender, an uncanny figure who shouldn't exist but who manifests a "secretly familiar" repression. Similarly, Jack’s uninhibited lust manifests itself as the naked woman in the bathtub of Room 237.

Unable to face the terrible truth of his moral weaknesses, Jack begins to identify with these apparitions until he is in doubt about his own identity. Freud writes, “The subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which self is his, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own.” In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self, and thus we have characters who are to be considered identical because they may look or behave alike. There is also the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features, character-traits, vicissitudes, and — most importantly for The Shining — the same crimes. Freud explains, “These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the double, which appears in every shape and in every degree of development.” 

By referring to Freud's work, Kubrick seems to be making a larger metaphorical point: that the spectral images he presents to viewers are not supernatural or mysterious in origin, but rather, completely familiar. Freud cautions us that humanity’s horrors aren't something to be explained away with mysticism, ghosts, or magic, but to be fought off with logic and intelligence; nevertheless, we interpret the disturbing images in The Shining as bizarre, horrific and odd simply because Kubrick denies his characters — and therefore his audience — access to reality. His characters, because they are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to confront the troubling nature of their past experiences, fall victim to their own unconscious minds, which transform these buried memories into a series of warped and nightmarish images.

According to Freud it’s all a matter of intellectual uncertainty. Are we supposed to be looking at the products of a madman's imagination, “behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth?” This is a distinct possibility, and yet our critical thinking faculties are incapable of explaining away our sensation of the uncanny. Storytellers like Kubrick know this perfectly well and attempt to manipulate our emotions by exploiting our uncertainty. We cannot be entirely sure whether the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel are products of Jack’s imagination or real apparitions. Our rational minds are searching for an explanation, but uncanniness is derived from the storyteller’s ability to make us doubt any rational explanations we might devise. The most successful stories deliver a raw, emotional experience, and in order to accomplish this goal, Kubrick used every tool at his disposal. 

“Primitive man,” Freud argues, “ascribes meaning to numbers, objects or events which are repeated.” He theorized that we equate things like repetition and patterns with “destiny” and “mysticism,” and Kubrick bathes his film in a semiotic language of repetition, hidden numbers, symbols and patterns, knowing that these images will likely lead to uncanny feelings when discovered. The audience is left confused and enticed by these mysteries and then attempts to bring them to light by creating meaning. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the imagery of “the double.”

But why is such a technique so universal to storytelling? One possibility, according to Freud, is that doubling is “a preservation against extinction.” He hypothesizes that the desire to transcend death led people in ancient civilizations to develop the art of making images of the dead in lasting materials, for example an Egyptian sarcophagus, so they could live forever and ever. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. For modern people, the “double” reverses its aspect; from having been an assurance of immortality, it has now become an uncanny harbinger of death.

This ultimately futile desire to make, or perhaps remake, the image of the dead in lasting materials is presented quite explicitly, and with tragic consequences, in the final shot of The Shining where doubling is used to extraordinary and almost vertiginous effect. As the film draws to an end, Jack Torrence undergoes a startling transformation of character until he seems to be composed of several different personalities and finally becomes a permanent part of the “haunted” hotel, memorialized in the unnerving 1921 photograph. The film’s self-referential ending highlights the ambiguity, or rather, deliberately confuses the distinction between reality and imagination. An uncanny effect can often be seen when reality (a caretaker in the present day) interacts with our imagination (the caretaker’s likeness in an old photograph). Freud says this is precisely the moment when our “infantile and neurotic elements” start believing in magical practices. We focus on mental realities and ignore the material reality. 

Despite The Shining’s bleak ending, Kubrick does allow Danny Torrence to escape from the hedge maze and reunite with his mother. As Bruno Bettelheim writes, “It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent and that is why the bad person always loses out.” Bettelheim continues, “Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem.” 

Many commentators have noted that the true hero, when faced with an existential crisis, can only escape a terrible fate by coming to the realization that “the self” is an illusion created for the benefit of other people. We all craft stories about ourselves, stories that are partially true and partially false. In time they become semblances of an identity, but it is crucial that we recognize these stories as the different masks we wear in order to present—or to disguise—our true selves. The problem is just this: many of us are unable to identify with any degree of certainty a single persona that seems entirely authentic. Who are we when in the presence of our friends? Who are we with our parents? Our children? Our employers and colleagues? Who are we when we are alone? The more we think about this, the more likely we will find that there is no “I” at the center of our consciousness. The ego is a culturally conditioned fiction and in storytelling is often associated with the monster—a deceptive, selfish and self-seeking creature that spreads fear and destruction. 

One solution to this conundrum is to become egoless or selfless or, as Odysseus becomes in the episode with the Cyclops, to become Nobody. To be Nobody is not to enter some fantastic condition of egolessness. Rather, it is simply one’s willingness and ability, when the time comes, to drop the self, to let Somebody go and surrender to circumstances. As a reprieve from the cultural demands of egoism, it is important that we slip into a condition of anonymity from time to time. We always worry about what other people expect and want from us. Dropping the illusion of the ego can help us overcome these everyday concerns. Accepting that we are “nobody” can be a difficult and even frightening realization, but relying on pride and ego more often than not leads, at the very least, to profound disappointment. 

In The Shining Jack Torrence is an ineffectual husband, father, writer, caretaker, and former school teacher. Perhaps by becoming Nobody he can escape from these culturally conditioned and predictable roles. The problem, of course, is that Jack is deceiving himself more than anyone else in his life. Consumed by different aspects of his own repressed and twisted ego, he rapidly descends into madness, and this, I think, is the final point that needs to be made about the film.

Just as he uses ghosts to reveal disturbing aspects of Jack’s personality, Kubrick uses Jack to reveal something rather disquieting about human nature in general—namely, that the ego can be characterized by one basic rule: it always wants something. Thus, for the person driven by ego, life is characterized by chronic desire and chronic frustration. We are frustrated because so often in life we don’t get what we so desperately want. Jack wants to become a successful writer. He wants to have a drink and even says, “I’d give my fucking soul for a glass of beer.” He aches to posses the beautiful women in the bathtub. He wants to escape from his wife and child. Since these paths are not open to him, he naturally begins to repress his desires until they gradually transform into terrifying phantasms.  

Looking back on my own work, I can now see how Madeline and Sophie Ryan serve a similar function in The Captive Condition. The adult characters in my novel, fearful of serious introspection and therefore lacking in any kind of meaningful self-awareness, have a tendency to perceive the twins as devious little fiends and, later, as a couple of cajoling ghosts, mainly because the girls have an uncanny talent for revealing the moral shortcomings and the secret, forbidden desires of adults. At certain moments in our lives, our emotions can become asphyxiating clouds of uncertainty, and in a passage near the end of the book, I briefly make use of mirror imagery to acknowledge that, for many of us, determining the difference between what is real and what is imaginary can be difficult:

Some people, when they pass away, leave behind fond memories and wonderful legacies of love, but many more leave long trails of misery and despair, and when the bereaved claim to sense a presence floating along dark hallways or glimpse hooded figures rising up in shattered mirrors or witness fantastic apparitions advancing and receding above bogs and fens and festering swimming pools, they likely are perceiving the enduring gravamen of the dearly departed, a disappointment so profound that it somehow transcends death. So who could say for sure if the spectral figures that…floated above the streets of town were in fact ghosts or illusions conjured up by the drunk and disorderly revelers making their way home on New Year’s Eve. Madeline and Sophie wondered the same thing themselves: was this how ghosts were supposed to feel?

There can be no definitive answer to a question of this kind. We are now in the realm of the fantastic. The passage is meant to reveal more about the reader than the characters enacting the drama, but of course the whole art of the drama is to put into words and images those experiences people know are secretly true but haven’t yet noticed or are themselves unable to express. In this sense storytelling becomes a kind of meditation on the self. As Bruno Bettelheim puts it, “Stories also warn that those who are too timorous and narrow-minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence—if an even worse fate does not befall them.” 

Only those who rid themselves of superstitious beliefs can see through the uncanny. Such individuals can shrug off deceptive sights, signs and repetitions, and perceive the underlying truth. In contrast, those who cling to the ways of our primitive forefathers are doomed to believe in the supernatural. Freud states that our ancestors’ fondness for mythology and fables is largely what causes our belief in ghosts, apparitions, and monsters. Thus, our current irrational beliefs are largely due to the irrationalities of our ancestors. They’ve been passed down from one generation to the next, much as generational violence has been passed down in Kubrick’s film. Jack Torrence, who clings to the ways of his predecessor Delbert Grady, reenacts the same heinous crimes simply because he conjures up ghosts of the past, which he uses to affirm his own existence. Freud cautions, “Unless a man is utterly hardened against the lure of superstition, he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to these phenomena.”

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WHAT I THOUGHT WHEN THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN by Rekha Valliappan

The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them.

-Margaret Atwood

What I thought when the bear went over the mountain:

How green the earth looked on this side and on the other side too and if I could spot a wee brown movement through the canopy of green how much far less confusing it would be to not mistake the earth for a summer strolling bear;

That the meaningfulness of my life had gotten bleaker when I was no longer the super-human I thought I was, most unwilling as it turns out to join the bear on the other side of the mountain because goodness knows his intentions, or lack of intentions as the case may be in the face of chaos evidenced by irrational animals who are followed;

That all things considered the bear knows his mountain well, especially the side he climbs and over the other side, and that one gets the feeling he is a regular decent sort of fellow, pragmatic even, although hungry at all times, when he grows hard-working;

That in all this 300 square miles of pristine acreage of clean wilderness I was the one who got to the spot where the bear is sighted at the precise moment he grew mindful of maintaining his solid routine of food, fruit, sweet dessert, and river water and climbing up and climbing down productivity maneuvers for his daily needs;

That ironic immunity aside the authorities could have done a better job at signage than these rotted cardboard signs which unimaginably lead to the very exact favorite viewing spot of the great big brown bear;

That bears can and do zip around at a fair rate of speed given their bulk and agility and can and do make Machiavellian progress in life when their sole goal of attainment is to see the other side of the mountain;

That the tentative moment when I am sliding off the rocky overhang because I've worn the wrong footwear and it doesn't give me a toehold on the slippery trail and I have spotted the bear, has arrived, and I no longer care where this goes;

That before the bear arrived to trek to the other side of the mountain I was perfectly happy with my grilled shrimp, barbecued trout, ripe plums and Prosecco, singing to the trees 'The Bear went over the mountain, O/Oh the bear went over the mountain, O/Oh, the bear went over the mountain, To See What It Could See, To See—;"

That the bear is the hungriest creature imaginable when on the other side of the mountain, if stoked, especially if sweet-smelling fishy odors interfere with his olfactory observations;

That it is a universally accepted fact that bears do not have the ability to make political decisions but attack when their libido is stepped up and the backdrop is a steep lonely descent down the mountain on the other side;

That the bear in his eagerness to please himself evaluates his chances of success faster than I can squirm out of a meet-the-bear-face-to-face challenge;

That the mounting pressure from the bear makes me seriously re-think my life and the friendly everyday gestures of hugs, squeezes, air kisses, dainty crushes, empty, fake, true or otherwise;

That death rattles and soft prayers whispered to the fir trees or poetry to the winds and the clouds do not work as expected, when one is caught on the other side of the mountain, however hard one grimaces or growls;

That I developed a healthy respect for all of God's creatures, animals, nature, the universe, especially bears, after my mind dreamed up all the possible thought-provoking bear encounters ever recorded in animal planet history, most of which ended painfully;

That Mr. Grizzly must always be accorded the full benefit of the doubt when one is nose to toe with a curious bear over the mountain, through no fault of one's own, although one's universe is basically ended, but the erstwhile bear does not know this;

That in the rush to hostilities one can hear one's bones crunch into banana splits in the pivotal popping crush of a good bear hug and if one leaks any more bodily fluids in the tall grasses there would not be much of one left anyway except loose skin in tank top and shorts;

That the funny looking ball of dark brown twine wrapped around my fingers is not twine at all but tufts of animal fur;

That behind their tiny gumball eyes bears can actually think like a human and given that generic ability can live in human society with the rest of us;

That existential dread aside, the idiotic notion that I have enough resources to win an encounter with a bear bespeaks my own stupidity in following the bear to the other side of the mountain;

That the encounter could end disastrously anyhow even were I to be suitably equipped, which I am not,  in combat gear and adequate tactics and five alarm fire distancing recourse to off-set the terrible bear attack on the other side of the mountain;

That modern analysis of current bears on both sides of the mountain place greater emphasis on what the bear saw and learned from his experiences, than mine, which says a great deal about our indifferent universe, however absurd;

That the sardonic rictus of a smile the bear wears when he comes in close proximity to my face, leaking wetness and satisfying growls, isn't his expression of frozen joy at having found a tasty morsel but his excitement of the view on the other side of the mountain, and the view is expansive;

That I don't look happy when he shakes my head like a rag doll but it is what I would feel hours later when I can look in the mirror is what I am trying my damnedest not to remember, a Confucius conundrum; 

That all bear movies, including Grizzly I once saw in my youth, have taught me nothing, or maybe something but not everything;

That all humans have animal instincts which suggest not all soulful hairy beasts are bears, or maybe some who wear fuzzy brown torsos to pretend human existence, but those that are and have gone over the mountain might very well be the next Camus or Poe or hula dancer or President of a country looking for bears to lead them;

That my frantic soul aside, what could the bear have possibly decided it could see on the other side that wasn't clearer on this side?

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DEAD FLOWERS by Rasmenia Massoud

We didn't know how to talk to Troy's new girl. Then again, we didn't know how to talk to the last one, either. Sunny, giggling girls flocked around him, their shiny polished nails drawn to his brown arms and the thick blond waves of hair that touched his shoulders.

Things were that way. People came and went. Stuck together like it was life and death in one moment, an almost forgotten odd character in a funny anecdote the next.

To a girl who'd had a few and met Troy for the first time, it might've seemed as if he'd been forged by some golden god of hair metal, but Brad and I laughed and watched him cut the sleeves and collars off his concert t-shirts so they'd show off his arms and chest hair, combing his fingers through his mane to make it perfect. Accidental sexiness is a carefully crafted look.

Troy's previous girl peed on Brad's couch. For days, Brad threatened to find another roommate, and criticized Troy for going out with a girl who couldn't handle her booze and let it go all over the leather couch. There was no sense in pointing out the couch was vinyl, or that the blanket she and Troy were curled up in soaked up most of her drunken pee.

"We're not buying any more booze for minors." Brad turned to me. "Except you, Justine. You're housebroken."

I smiled, feeling validated because back then, flattery and belittling other women often looked the same.

We laughed off Brad's ranting, and Troy found a new girl. She rolled around on the living room floor in her cut-off shorts, showing the three of us her ass cheeks while we sat on a tattered sleeping bag that now served as a sofa cover. A movie played in the VHS, but we were watching Troy's girl, who refused a chair, preferring to lay on the floor, sitting up now and then to smear more lotion onto her legs.

"I like lotion," she said, giggling as she squirted another gob into her hand. I wondered how long she could keep rubbing the stuff on her skin before gummy gobs began balling up on her fingers.

Brad and I looked at one another, stifling laughter, and took our beers outside. Maybe she'd pee on the couch. Maybe she'd leave a greasy lotion smear in the middle of the living room. Maybe she'd be gone and replaced in a week. None of it mattered because by the same time the following year, Brad had a new roommate. Troy chopped off his wavy heavy metal hair and joined the Navy. The 25-year-old stripper Brad was fucking behind my back would be nursing their kid on the vinyl pee couch as I became a memory, sweating through the graveyard shift in a plastics factory, still a year away from being able to buy my own booze.

We drank and smoked outside on the wooden steps leading up to the trailer door. Brad peeked inside and snorted. He shook his head, squinting his blue eyes, pushing his shaggy brown hair from his face. That shaggy brown hair was just a few years from falling out completely. "That chick, what's her name? Annie? Amy? What the fuck is the deal with the lotion?"

I shrug. "You know how it is with Troy's girlfriends. It's always something." Brad offers to buy me my own barrel of lotion. Leaning on each other, we laugh until tears blur our already doubled vision. We laugh because of the weirdness Troy always brought around, and because we thought he was the fool, and we were so smart. Like we knew something he didn't. Like we knew anything about what was real, or how to make anything last.

I try to stand and realize how drunk I am. Brad gets to his feet, teeters a bit, then staggers across the dirt road to a dried up sunflower, dying from the summer heat. He reels as he yanks and pulls at it until it's free from the Earth and returns to me, holding out his prize. Behind him, in the distance, the first glimpse of sunrise appears, warning that another night is coming to an end.

"What is this?" I'm swaying, gripping his arm for balance.

"My gift to you," he says, "To immortalize this moment."

"And what's so special about this moment?"

"Nothing. We're here," he says. "That's all."

He shrugs, stumbles again, and pulls me tighter to him, crispy dead flower fragments falling around us.

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DEATH LAB by Howie Good

Air Like PoisonHey, did you see those sea turtles down there? I often see them, though not as often or as many as I did before there were boats, the bridge, some buildings, even a small amusement park. Wherever they go, the turtles seem to leave a trail of watery stools behind. The ocean feels a little sick right now. There’s actually too much sunlight. And it all comes from the same place, a place with air like poison, where you can view the millstones that early New Englanders used to crush Giles Corey to death for being a witch.Grandson (with Apologies to Werner Herzog) Now that you’re almost 8 years old, you have to know how to travel on foot. You have to know how to make fire without matches. You have to know how to catch a trout with your bare hands. (It’s fairly easy. You just have to understand how the trout thinks.) You have to know how to forge a document, let’s say a gun permit, in a country under military rule. You have to know how to open a safety lock – surreptitiously, of course, with burglar tools. Most important, you have to know how to tell at a glance night from other darkness.Lost in BlockbusterThere are places a person can get lost and not even realize he’s lost. I had to cross the creek by tiptoeing over a rotting tree, ignoring as best I could whatever that was I felt grabbing for me with big, meaty hands. Some of you actually believe in fight, fight, fight, the three worst things you can do. So it wasn’t just happenstance that no one but me happened to be there, or that it was night by then, or that everything was also nothing, a lot like when the next to last Blockbuster Video store on Earth closed. 
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WE THE PEOPLE by Nicholas Grider

    WE THE PEOPLE

Hi there! Thank you for your patience as you adjust to our way of life. We are the people. We're just like you, except our clothing is less wrinkled and our databases are better organized. We're grateful you allowed us to ask you to welcome us in, and then kindly gave your consent to our decision to stay.

LET'S JOIN HANDS IN THANKFULNESS

We like it here. The reason we like it here is because this is where we are, which makes things a lot more convenient for everyone, especially us. That's what we mean when we point at the floor and say "Hallowed ground belongs to no one, but someone needs to make sure it stays presentable."

No one, of course, conquers any land they didn't think couldn't be improved, and while we admire your society, we don't think it is a utopia, but we held a meeting while you were busy scavenging for food and decided that a little bit of conquering never hurt anyone, and in any case, we'd rather avoid the term "conquering" in lieu of the word "upcycling," even if we do still prefer to roam the streets with our rifles loaded.

We're here at the center of what we've deemed is the center of anything that has a center; it has a nice view and is warm but not too humid and the kind of place where we'll all be long dead before anyone deals any consequences and we especially like that it's politely sunny and often April or May and forever spacious. An untamed lifetime of wide green days around which grand architectures of seduction and discipline and nocturne can be built.

The new, glistening fences are mostly decorative. Also seductive, depending which side you're on.

We are the people, and you are also the people, so we're just like you, simply a more efficient model or small cul-de-sac of "people" than many people. As far as peoples go, we are 0-60 in five seconds with an engine of progress quiet as an elderly cat's purr. 

We like it here. We're glad you're happy to have us as your guests even though we have already spent time belonging everywhere. We have decided, though, of everywhere we belong, we belong here the most, though you belong here almost as much, for which we're glad.

FOREVER IS A LONG TIME

Don't worry, you won't be forgotten. Beginnings and endings have never been forgotten, and now, with the gleam of metal pressed against the gleam of sun, nothing will ever be forgotten again, unless we hold a referendum on it, but we have yet to decide how much each of your votes count.

Our preference for the past, for light blue oxford shirts and creased tan slacks and comfortable grins, does not make us ghosts. Not even the friendly kind. We are very real and work very hard to build monuments to our potential so large they will be easily understood centuries from now when hardly anyone is left to understand anything.

We organized and arrived here because that's what our people do. Our people invented adventures. Our people invented guest and host, arrival and departure, escape and captivity. Our people invented mirrors. Our people were responsible for the brief trend of everyone now living pausing at mirrors, turning to smile, leaning in and whispering the word whore at ourselves and/or whispering if it ain't broke, don't fix it and/or whispering I wanna know what love is.

Our people were the people who made the 1970s safe for carefully selected representatives of the populace to exercise public flamboyance. This is why God ushered polyester into being, so that we might be elastic without anybody getting any kind of ideas.

THE BENEVOLENT RULER EQUIVALENT OF ALL FIT

We're glad that you're glad that we spread the gospel of wellness to the people. Fitness, wellness, discipline, loose sweatpants, tight sweatpants, and the contextual encouragement of public shirtlessness among the men of the species, who are better at glistening outdoors in the May sunlight, hard at work making our world an easier place for you to live in.

We smile because our teeth are white. As white and cold as the soul of a child five minutes before conception, as white and cold as the flesh of a snake-shaped angel.

We're very grateful you welcomed us and gave us a tour and allowed us to rename everything and organize everything according to priority, then adjust priorities to move in sync with the market shuddering under low, bedazzling clouds.

We invented capitalism, and God invented Esther Williams as a reward. The heart of capitalism is this: why have just one Esther Williams when you can have two? Or more than two? That is why a mirror is always more important than what is placed in front of it.

God invented spandex bodysuits so that Slim Goodbody might survive and prosper, traveling the land like Johnny Appleseed dispersing the fruit of subtext instead of apples. 

WHAT IS TO BE DONE NOW

We would like to teach you how to help us make the world a better place. In a small nameless stretch of the bible largely hidden from the light of political arguments and game shows, Jesus  shrugs and says to Thomas, "Well I reckon in order for things to get better for some people, for other people it has to get worse. I don't know. When I asked my dad why sometimes I stop in places where people made in God's image never stop and just squint off into the insufficiently polluted air, one time he told me well, Adam and Eve forgot to eat the whole damn apple. Another time he told me this: kindling's not the same thing as the fuel for the fire. When he talks like that, it's a sign not to bother the part of him that is not me via divine intervention in the magic of sexual reproduction. I don't know. You hungry?"

We would like to teach you how to help us make the world better for as many people as possible, especially us. We would like to teach the world to sing, time permitting. Think of it this way. For every one Paul Simon in the world there are ten John Denvers. This is important because ten is usually a larger number than one.

Another thing Jesus sayeth unto some disciple, probably Jeff if there were a disciple named Jeff, "If I were to tell you that sometimes saying goodbye is saying goodnight, does that sound thoughtful or do I just sound high? Be honest. I won't ex-disciple you or anything."

The cure for doubt is not salvation. The cure for doubt is vacation. We would like to invite you to learn more about us by observing us at a distance as we settle in your homes, digging through your drawers and cupboards for unconsumed opiates and making fun of your dirty cutlery and your ideas about interior direction.

We're glad that you've agreed to our suggestion that you should cease the magic of sexual reproduction. We have taken a shine to you, and all children really do, anyway, is replace you, and we would never want to replace you; we like you just the way you are. We also like like to be in charge of who replaces whom.

Blue skies are on their way–blue the color of blue we have decided to name "sky blue" so that we may never forget. We wander your streets, cylinders of clouds in our pale blue oxford shirts with our hands on our hips or our fingers close to the safeties no our rifles, squinting at confusing buildings and animals and signs, debating each other whether it is better to be very good at winning or simply to win as much as possible, and to check our watches and say to each other, "Oh my, Harry, will you look at that," or "Hmm, the natives are probably getting restless," after which we all chuckle, spines curving so that we all slightly lean away from each other as we laugh, the social equivalent of a nigh orchid in time-lapse bloom.

Harm isn't on our agenda. Harm is just a common side effect. And side effects are what make being healthy seem all the better in comparison.

IN CONCLUSION (PART ONE)

We're glad you haven't raised any objections yet, at least none that have needed attending to. Everyone's happy when all the blades of the world are still sharp.

In a dusty corner of scripture, Jesus asks The Lord Our God "What's the deal with death? People live, sometimes not for long, and then die, and mostly stay dead after that. I dunno, it just seems inefficient. There was silence, according to the gospel, after which The Lord Our God sayeth unto his only son, "Well dancing's not efficient either, and you can't do it forever. Wanna know why?" When Jesus shrugs and digs the toe of his sandal into the Hollywood silt and says sure, God sayeth unto him, "If dancing were permanent, it would stop being dancing."

We're glad you've been so hospitable. We've learned a lot. We've learned that suffering is like dancing and bleeding is a form of suffering and, one way or another, bleeding always stops. As you flee into the new chapters of your lives as dwellers of periphery, keep this in mind: there is an end to everything, but there's also an exception that proves the rule. We're happy to share with you, gathered here today beneath sky blue blasts of noise swirling down the narrow streets of our home, that there's an end to everything, which is God's plan, which means it's a good thing. Someone has to be the exception, though. So we have decided there will be an end to everything but us. We hope, someday, whispering to strangers in the shade of distant trees, you'll sometimes stop to say to each other "it was very gracious of those people, whoever they were, to give us the gift of adventure, shoulder the burden of being the motionless locus of the world's sphere, and to share with us some helpful hints about sharing in the profit margin of God's providence."

IN CONCLUSION (PART TWO)

By now, of course, you are already gone. But we generally prefer to remember not to forget. This is why the God we've chosen to invest a lot of money in and to allow to so often bless us was kind enough both to invent databases and to allow us to view them as infinite. We don't want to have to say goodbye, though. And so: goodnight.

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FAREWELL PROTECTION by Jordan Clark

The still sweltering sun’s kitty-corner to the late afternoon moon—similar to yesterday, but we didn’t go inside then either. Gravel crunches under the weight of a wheeling propane tank behind the brittle fence; little shuffles treading alongside it. There’s chatter, glasses clinking through a screen door, and a white folding table aggressively flipping and clipping into place. We listen to its prongs scuttle and then a grill igniting shortly after. 

Standing in our dying grass, setting my paper plate down as I offer to smear her white from top to bottom. But she tells me it was chunky—cottage cheese-y. 

She finagled a mealy group of noodles into a skeletal chaise; two cup the nape of her neck and coddle her shoulder blades while another bears the brunt of it all—sinking beneath her crossed ankles. Wincing, she searches—unrelentingly—for the sweet spot. Her armpits are being rubbed tender. Flecks of foam flake off; sprinkling the slightly sloshing water like dead ants after a spray. Some get caught in her spatchcocked hair, some near the barren jacuzzi. 

Lounging, playing her mirror—though my supports far less potent, dull even—I scope between my toes to pity hers and her thickly cracked calluses. They’re encrusted in asphalt as if she’d eternally misplaced her shoes. Her plush skin’s discoloring around the open slots of her nylon bathing suit—the one she’d bought on a whim, the one that’s hiding her full bladder, the one she’ll incontestably drape over and let drip from the curtain rod tonight. Little beads of sweat caviar hang in her arms incoming buds. 

I teased her a bit; saying how she’s going to turn into the membrane of a tangerine, how she’ll peel, and how I’ll twiddle her snakeskin until it disintegrates. But it’s moot. Her stubbornness is to be adored.

She should’ve gone to war. All too simply could she have withstood the most brutal waterboardings. Cinch her down, wrench a towel over her face—let her nooks and crannies flourish—then pour; gallon after gallon, and she’d be fine. No gasp. No whimper.

The rippling water entrances me as she continues wiggling. I watch it marble and listen to the party revving up next door. 

Content and gooey; I pluck and pry at the clotted sunscreen braided in my chest hair. 

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HE’S USING A LANDLINE by Cyndie Randall

He tells me he’s touching himself. His breath is so dense, I wipe my ear and shift to obedient, a gargoyle holding fast, sparing the temple's body from storm water. My thoughts answer inside like a limb jerk: Why would I be touching myself? No nothing is happening in my panties. I don’t use that word.

How many people and objects is he betraying by calling me from work? One, his wife. Two, his buddy’s office where he’s hiding at three in the morning wiping semen from the buttons of the keyboard. Three, the keyboard. Four, his parents, who had him baptized. Five, his kids, who may as well be bastards. And six. I am always six. Six and stone. My face, erased.

The rivers are running, mouth muttering yes from the dust-ruffled bed where my teddy bears are stacked. I say it when he asks if my hand is down there and I say it when he asks if I feel good and if I’m a dirty slut or a bad, bad girl.

He has come to taste and see like the parched sinners do. Liquid is pouring from his mouth corners and spattering down his panting chest. This is not the Savior’s body and blood given for him; It is mine, taken. I will myself into stale and acidic. The wall is playing recordings of Jeopardy. I listen for the waiting song as he gulps and digests me. The world says my tight red dress does this to him, and also, to smile. Sugar and Spice for 1000, Alex.

I gait the line as a good mare does. See exits and visions of going rogue, but I know there’s no food out there in the desert. Dreaming is the real living for a co-ed held hostage by a washed-up rock star twice her age. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? Do you sing to Jesus? It’s what The Magdalene in me would ask if she were risen. But my script supplies no questions.

I hear him grunt and grasp and orgasm. The temple cracks up the middle. Her groans pray at me like a psalm: How much longer ’til you slip this wall? Why are your ears crumbling, gargoyle? Is anyone recording this call for quality assurance purposes?

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THE FIRST ONE by Michael Wade

I got the digging part off the Internet. You can use spray or bait, but I don’t use poison on my land if I can help it. I read how in Texas they just dig 'em and fling 'em. You want a big sharp shovel. You go out a morning with no wind, before it gets hot and they get too active, and you slide the shovel right up under the hill. 

Then you fling the whole thing downwind, hard as you can. Let it fly apart. See, when they get separated from the queens, they just run around like fools til they die. And that takes care of that hill. 

Anyhow. I don’t want you to say nothing to nobody about the rest of this, T-Dot. All right?

This morning I’m down at the dam end of the pond and there’s the biggest nest I’ve seen. The hill was two foot high or more, three foot around. It’d take three or four shovels full to get it and after the first one I knew they’d be riled. I’d need to move quick.

I slide that shovel under and lift.

There was a face under that nest. Bone-white. Wide as the shovel. Great big black eyes and a narrow chin and nothing but a line for a mouth. And then something like a claw, like a crab or lobster but big, comes up below the chin and rubs over that face, like it’s trying to cover itself with dirt again. That claw kept rubbing like that, feeble-like. Them eyes looking right at me. 

It won’t no Halloween mask. It won’t no skull. It won’t nothing human or made by no human. It won’t like nothing I ever seen or you ever seen, neither. Clean and alive. No ants on it.

I don’t know. What I do know is that whole time I stood there, holding the shovel and froze cold like it was January, looking at that face and that claw rubbing over it, not one single fire ant touched me. You know I shoulda been covered up. They shoulda eat me alive. Why didn’t they? What was wrong with them?

It won’t no white rock. It won’t no damn grub worms or no mole that was moving in that ground.

It’s ten o’clock in the morning, T-Dot. And you know I ain’t touched a drop in thirty years.

What’d I do? Well I laid the shovelful gentle right back over it and I got in the truck and come here.

I’m going to let it be, that’s what. I reckon it ain’t hurtin’ nothing. Though part of me thinks I should’ve hit that face with the shovel hard as I could.

Something stopped me. Scared as I was I halfway felt sorry for it, the way it tried to cover itself again with that big claw. But them eyes. They won’t like no animal, or no human. Looking right at me. I got to thinking what if I miss with the shovel. Or what if that head is hard as it looks, like bone, what then? 

I don’t know if I done right. That thing controlled them ants, somehow. They didn’t touch me. Maybe it controlled me, too. That’s what I thought, right before I covered it up, just like it wanted me to do.

I couldn’t think of nobody to tell but you. I just felt like I ought to let somebody know. Just a feeling. In case…forget it, T-Dot. 

Forget it. Forget I said anything. Now I think about it, it prob’ly was a rock, crawlin’ with ants, the sun throwin’ funny shadows. That’s prob’ly all it was.

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NOTHING IS EVER MISSING IN THE TOWN OF MISSING GIRLS by Meghan Phillips

There is a town where all the missing girls end up. They wander in from the surrounding woods, dark-eyed and dirty, holding one bloody tennis shoe like a prayer. They thump in the trunks of parked cars, duct taped wrists sticky and raw. They appear in grocery store aisles, storm cellars. It always takes time to convince them they’ve been found.

There is a town where no one can sleep. A terrible smell seeps into the homes at night, finds sleepers in their bed. No one cannot find the source.

There is a town with a lake. Things wash up on its shore. Fish skeletons and bundles of vegetation. Car tires. Tennis shoes. Bottle upon bottles, green and brown and clear as a cry. Once, an antique pearl necklace. Once, a cloth bag stuffed with severed human hands.

There’s a town where every girl is given a whistle, useless as a bell on a house cat’s collar. By the time someone hears the shrieking, it is already too late.

There is a town surrounded by fields of wheat. A town surrounded by fields of corn. A town with a stone altar at its center where people leave apples and pebbles and little corn husk dolls, the names of the chosen tucked under their skirts.

Sometimes other missing things show up in the town of missing girls. Usually just socks without mates or small toys or the backs of earrings. Sometimes keys or rings. Dogs and cats will wander down the main street, hackles raised. The missing girls sooth them, feed them, take them in. The missing know how to care for their own. 

There’s a town where everyone is missing a hand. 

There is a town that holds the gates to Hell. Only the first gate is visible in daylight. The other six appear in darkness. The people of the town don’t like the Hell gates or the hell-seekers that tramp through their gardens or the satanic cults that burn rings in their fields performing dark masses. They have taken down the daylight gate, and a group of volunteers has promised to seek the other six and destroy them. 

At night by the lake in the town with a lake, beautiful girls line the road that hugs its shore. They wait in their taffeta skirts and grandmother’s pearls for a ride. Sit with hands in laps and look out the window at the moon bobbing on the water, a perfect golden apple, and when the driver stops to let them out, there’s nothing but the damp outline of a skirt, the sweet-rot of dried apple blossom.

There is a town underwater. There’s a town that’s been burning for sixty years. 

There is a town where the radio only plays one song no matter the frequency. One where televisions only play one film. There’s one where all broadcasts stop in the night, and the awake listen for messages in the static, watch for signs in the electric snow. 

In the town of missing girls, the streets are wide and lush with trees. Sidewalks are even and lit by streetlamps that never burn out. Missing girls walk home alone at night. They don’t look behind them or start at the crunch of leaves under their shoes. They don’t curl their hands around keys spiked through fingers or pucker lips around plastic whistles. They know no one will follow. They are already missing. They are already home. 

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STURM UND DRANG by Paweł Markiewicz

My first sole little letter calling all  ringing so beauteously muse-like and winged like the eternal, gentle pinion of a melancholic harp.

Dear valued mellow quaint readers-dreamers!

At 5.30 pm, the meek time has come with the dream-full  inception, so that a new flimsy Sturm und Drang period has begun (the second Sturm und Drang, to wit: the turquoise time). And I am spellbound therefrom simply. Such a miracle with a starry charm of a magic-full summer night has enforced some fantasy. Any poem from me and any glimmer of the philosophy from me hasn't achieved that. But rather, the most marvelous eyes of my cat are such ghosts, in which the primeval ontologies of the antiquity slumbered in the lyrical, Edenic way. The cat has looked at my dog, plainly dulcet, what kindled a magical stark of time-philosophy and unveils spirit-like. These sparks aren't able to blaze fiercely like a  handful of Luther's flames, but they are glowing, tenderly as well as lovingly, muse-like, as enchanted Apollonian moments that touch everybody's soul deeply and cherish a daydream, everlasting Zeus-like. And this cat is a dainty, dreamy herder of the infinite, angelic philosophy, and those cats from time immemorial have harbored primeval-weird from Egypt.

From cat's eyes, an eternity comes, which came along on my account at that early date. At the moment, a second era of Sturm und Drang is sparked. A primeval wild dream is freed and ready for the fantasy of the moon in the wonderful night.

Thee turquoise time—sore contemporary, created and always internet-oriented. This melancholy-period comprises all poems in English from authors who will write at their most gorgeous from 1 July to 31 December 2019 and will publish them on sundry internet-pages.

Let this most gorgeous magic dream come true!

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INTERVIEW WITH NOAH CICERO by Benjamin Scott

Noah Cicero has a new book out called Give It to the Grand Canyon, published by Philosophical Idiot in July (available here).  It is his first fictional book in several years. I interviewed him about the book, his writing process, and his views on the current state of America. 

BS: How would you categorize Give It to the Grand Canyon?  Is it fiction, a short story collection, a memoir?  At first I thought it was a memoir because the narrator doesn't state his name until a couple chapters in. Are the characters based on people you met?

NC: It definitely is not a memoir. There are scenes that happened, but there are scenes that were made up. In general, the real moments of my life were specifically selected to suit the story’s purpose. Billy Cox isn’t me. Billy is better educated, and more “every person” than me. If it was a memoir, I would have written about how my psoriasis was killing me and I basically only ate apples and salad the entire summer. At one point, my tooth chipped and that was really bad. I sat in bed listening to "Sara" by Fleetwood Mac a lot. Also, someone very close to me died right before I went out there, and that’s not mentioned. I was stalked by a Romanian woman for a lot of the summer. At least I don’t think I mentioned that. 

BS: Much of the book seems to revolve around themes of the passage of time, humanity, the state of American society, letting go of the past, questioning the future, and the power of nature.  Will you please explain what inspired you to write this book?

NC: I’ve been to a lot of National Parks. They are my favorite places. At every National Park there is a visitor center with a bookshelf, containing books specifically about the park. They are all written by the park rangers, scientists and historians. Nobody that has worked concessions ever wrote one. What I mean by concessions is for the private company that the government contracts to run the hotels, gift shops and restaurants. No book like that exists. So I made one.

If those themes you mentioned made it into the book, they came naturally. I didn’t purposely add those themes. I had no intention to do that. 

BS: Many of your books are clearly political/philosophical.  This book is very subtle in any political/philosophical message.  Do you think that readers are tired of politics/philosophy? Are YOU tired of politics and philosophy? 

NC: The book is about a summer at the Grand Canyon. It was about the shadow of a woman. The Grand Canyon was here before politics, and it will outlast all of us and probably even politics. I want to respect your question, though, and answer. Am I tired of politics? I think when I wrote about politics when I was younger, it was the voice of an Ohio white guy. Ohio people in general love to make political opinions. It is a sport for them, but it means nothing. I realized what I was saying meant nothing. It was unserious and facile. I really struggled with this,  like something died in me, and the rotting corpse of my stupidity stunk horribly inside me. I decided to not give random opinions anymore. If I feel strongly about something, then I need to do something, even if it is very small. Last week, I ended up in a meeting with Corey Booker. None of my facile opinions led me to that. It was doing something. 

BS: This is your first published fiction book in several years. How long did it take you to write Give It to the Grand Canyon

NC: It took nine months. I wrote the book in 2016. I never submitted it to anyone, and then I saw Philosophical Idiot was going to publish books. I love them and their aesthetic, so I submitted to them. 

BS: Do you write every day? Do you use a laptop/pen, paper/type writer?  What is your writing environment like?

NC: I wrote randomly, a few times a week. I would go to Starbucks on Lake Mead and Buffalo and write a chapter. I would listen to Willie Nelson and other Outlaw Country Bands. I tried to find the voice of an old country singer. When I write a book, I try to imagine how the story is told. For this book, I imagined an old man holding a Martin guitar, strumming away in his living room. Then his grandson comes in, holding a picture of him at the Grand Canyon alone and in South Korea standing next to a mysterious woman that isn’t grandma. He asks grandpa, “What’s this?” 

BS: Are you working on any other writing projects?  

NC: No, I think something is taking its course. When it is over, there will probably be words then. 

BS: Although the book is not specifically about climate change, it does show the power and danger of living in an extreme climate. You posted that everything was shaking in Las Vegas during the California earthquakes. What is your view on climate change and the state of the environment? Do you think the environment can survive with capitalism/consumerism?       

NC: I don’t think I can answer some of these questions. I’m not a climate scientist. Do I think the environment can survive capitalism/consumerism? This is an opinion question, like I am supposed to give an opinion. This opinion would define me, and if you enjoy my definition, you might want to buy my book. I do not think I can give that opinion. I will say, I don’t think it is capitalism. I think it is our culture. The act of fair exchanges, binding contracts, growing food and then turning it into chips is not evil. What is evil is that they have convinced us to be slaves to the Ideal of Wealth. We are slaves to the idea that wealthy is best, that we should be able to make wealth by destruction and thievery, that if someone is wealthy they are automatically better than everyone who isn’t.

People often talk about how Catholicism makes you feel guilty for being a sinner, but American capitalism makes you feel embarrassed just for existing. The attacks on your sense of self are relentless. Most of our society is crippled by the anxiety of not being good enough. Oh man, I’ve already lost. See the language I just used? “...crippled by the anxiety of not being good enough”? Immediately people will be thinking, "Good enough for a great job.” No! Not that. Good enough to love your friends, be friendly, enjoy the life you have, have the body and intelligence genetics/God gave you, and help each other with confidence. In this society, if you are bad at math, they start shaming you in kindergarten. Your body is shaped a few deviations off of a TV Actor, shame. You don’t live in a good neighborhood, shame. Your parents aren’t married, shame. You don’t have kids, shame. You are a man, but you cry sometimes, shame. We have so many cultural shaming methods, and they are about the dumbest things. 

BS: How do you feel about the upcoming campaign season for the 2020 election?  Are there any candidates you support?

NC: I feel a little scared, because I am unsure if Ohio and Florida can be won by the Democrats. Those states seem to have been lost by the Democrats, and they will have to make up those points in other states. How and what states? In a very innocent way, something seems really wrong, like why can’t we lower the military budget? Like why? Why can’t we help the immigrants on the border? Why can’t we give at least residency status to immigrants that have been waiting for years? Why don’t we have single-payer healthcare or some variant?  It says in the constitution we are all equal. If we are not equal when it comes to healthcare, then the document is a lie. The big Republican states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are becoming theocracies, but at least poor people can live there. In California, the liberal apex, if you can get a job making $80,000, you live in a cute utopia. But if you don’t, your quality of life is horrible. These are not good advertisements. 

I don’t want to comment on the candidates. 

BS: What are you currently reading?

NC: I just read the autobiography of Saint Theresa Lisieux and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin. They both helped me. I need to learn how to love. I have to learn how to pray for those who mistreat me. 

BS: Are there any writers you would like to recommend readers check out?  

NC: Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria. 

(If you want to check out some of Juliet the Maniac, here's a taste. If you want to get yourself a copy of one of Noah's books—and we suggest you do—go here. --Chris & Jennifer)
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ROOM 321 by K.C. Mead-Brewer

You’re late. That’s what he says when she sits down at the crowded hotel bar. She doesn’t recognize him, but his smile, well. All women recognize that smile. She smiles back, a curve plucked from a well-worn catalogue of Please Leave Me Alone Please Don’t Ruin My Night Please Stop Please 

You’re late, he says again, leaning closer. But don’t worry, your ice hasn’t melted yet

He slides a sweating glass of something red as a red red rose in front of her. The drink leaves a slime trail in its path that makes her think of slugs and snakes, though she knows—lord, her sister never let her forget—snakes aren’t slimy, they’re just smooth. Smooth like feathers, smooth like lace, smooth like the pillow pressed down on your 

Shit. She hasn’t turned away fast enough, hasn’t demurred with Sorry not interested or waved across to a stranger Honey, there you are, so now he’s smiling wider at her, showing teeth. He’s got something black caught between two of them. 

She can already smell his offered cocktail, candied and cloying, clogging the air like the stink of Bluebeard’s lilies. Bluebeard would’ve had a time, a time, a time at a hotel this fine. So many heavy wooden doors with so many old-fashioned skeleton keys. A misting of soft, shushed maids to clean up the messes. 

He nudges the drink closer. It isn’t poison, Alice, don’t worry. Just something to make you feel small, so small. I could fit you in my pocket, my sweet little doll.

Sometimes she wonders about things that make no sense, like maybe she really did have a date with this guy but contracted amnesia, and can people even “contract” amnesia, is that the right word? A headache buds just between her eyes. 

Thank you, she says, hating herself because THANK YOU, really? Thank you, she says again, but I don’t drink. 

Great. Smooth. Now he can lean in even closer, his breath on her cheek, and say, But you came to a bar? 

She lies, I’m waiting for someone.

And you’re sure it isn’t me? He smells worse than the drink, sliding the glass in closer, himself, the glass, himself, until they both threaten to fall into her lap. 

She should stand up and leave, and she almost does, she almost does, except she sees then what she missed upstairs in her room. 

That crust around her fingernails, down deep in the cuticles, coiled and red and how did I miss this? She scrubbed everything so carefully. 

She’s always thought fingernails looked like scales, a wink from some distant reptilian ancestor no one dares acknowledge. She curls them into her palms as calmly as she can. Snakes are vital, her sister told her. They keep rodents from overrunning the world. 

I’m sorry, she says for the second time tonight, I’d really rather be alone.

But here he is leaning in closer with his smile and his drink and that thing between his teeth, and she wonders, she really does, how much more she can swallow.  

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FRANK’S BOUGAINVILLEA by J. EDWARD KRUFT

“When Joey’s husband died,” Stefania stage-whispered to their guests, “he was out of his mind. You know, they moved here to begin with partly because of Frank’s house. Really! Joey’s been…what?...well, obsessed really isn’t worded too strongly.

“You know, it’s only a half a mile from here, as a crow flies.”

The outdoor speakers crackled and Stefania shook her head. “Gerry Rafferty! It’s his newest thing. Who the fuck is a Gerry Rafferty fan? I swear to God, I shit Baker Street.”

Joey approached and Stefania placed a finger to pursed lips. 

“Is she boring you with the bougainvillea story?” he asked, while Stefania wondered, a hair’s breadth from doing so aloud, if his gut was even bigger than it was yesterday.

“Who’s up for a dip?” asked Stefania.

Dip? I didn’t make dip….” said Joey.

Dip. In. The. Pool,” clarified Stefania. “You old poop.” 

“Oh. Oh oh oh oh oh.”

“I’ll dip,” said the man who was way too old to still have a left-ear earring. 

“There are trunks in the bin over there. Or,” said Stefania, “you’re welcome to go au natural.

“Stefanie!”

SteFAnia!”

The guests laughed and Joey threw up his arms and marched off to pretend to fuss with the grill. 

“Anyway,” Stefania continued, “this space here was nothing but desert – a patch of bleck.”

“SteFAnia!” called Joey. “Do you know where the corn-on-the-cob holders are?”

“Corner cabinet!” she yelled. “When our husbands were alive, we’d visit and I’d say to him, I’d say: “Joseph Andrew, for Christ’s sake, why the fuck don’t you do something about this bleck of a spot? You have this pool, mountain views, the fire pit…all you need is an outdoor wet bar and something to color-fy this Godforsaken bit of earth.”

“I can’t find them!” bellowed Joey. 

“CORNER CABINET!”

“Oh. Oh oh oh oh oh.”

The man too old for the left-ear earring splashed into the pool – au natural – causing Stefania to wince for reasons she couldn’t list in mixed company. 

“Found them!” yelled Joey.

Stefania shook her head. “Such an ass. Anyway, it is now, if you ask me, the loveliest spot in the yard. Look at that color! It transforms the aesthetic, n’est-ce pas? And really, what is a house in this town without bougainvillea? Tell me. Tell me!” The guests smiled and a few seemed content that it was time to move on. “Oh,” warned Stefania, “that’s the end of the story, but it’s not really the story. Don’t you dare wander off, now!”

When Joey first heard the story, he was dubious. To this day, he has moments of doubt. But then he stops himself in his resentments and thinks: it’s Stefanie…SteFAnia…so yes, it is possible. 

They were drunk, of course. Dov had just died and Joey was thinking of selling the house and moving up north to be nearer his sister and nephews. 

“It really gives me an ass rash,” she’d said.

“Must we discuss your sex life again?”

“That shit-brown spot over there. Look at it. Look at it!” In Joey’s version, she went on and on and on, until he passed out on the lounge chair and awoke the next morning in his smoking jacket to find all of his mother’s good teacups on the patio table, filled with water and steeping starts of bougainvillea. 

Stephanie was smoking nearby.

“What the hell is all of this?” he’d asked. 

As Stefania tells it to their guests, including the man too old for a left-ear earring, who had cozied himself to the side of the pool, no doubt, thinks Stefania, with his nether-region positioned over one of the pool jets: “Joey was passed out, on that we agree. Third time that week I was abandoned to his drunkenness. Which, I have to say, surprised me some: used to be he could hold his liquor. But we were all younger once, right? RIGHT?”

Joey slid over from where he pretended to be fussing with the grill, something of a Cheshire grin on his unshaven face, for though he enjoyed ribbing her about it, he couldn’t help but love this story.

“Look who’s suddenly alive,” said Stefania, to which Joey put one hand to his hip, and the other reflexively gave her the finger. 

“I said to myself, I said: ‘Stefania, you’ve been griping about that little piece of shit-earth for almost a decade. So shut the fuck up and do something about it already,’ right? RIGHT? 

“And that’s when it struck me. Really, it is like lightning. Not that I’ve been hit by lightning. I was hit in the head by a golf-ball-sized piece of hail once (Joey: explains a lot) and that’s no trip to Joshua Tree. Anyway, I’m creative, I can imagine, after all. So yes, it was just like being hit by lightning. 

“Off I go, hither and thither, stumbling up Indian Canyon and around the bend at Movie Colony, up Alejo Road to the front gate. I’d been there once for a fundraiser and I knew about the bougainvillea. It was everywhere. I remember having this thought about the gardeners who might have planted it back in the 50’s, maybe under Ava’s watchful eye, RIGHT? Gus and Ritchie is what I call them, and in my mind’s eye they were business partners, but sometimes, after a day’s work in the desert sun and a few cans of Schlitz, they were also fuck buddies….”

“She climbed over the Goddamned WALL!” exclaimed Joey, unable to contain himself.

“You fucking POOP! How dare you hijack my story!”

“She climbed over the wall and stole Frank Sinatra’s bougainvillea! STOLE IT!”

“Of course,” she added, already over Joey’s rudeness, “Frank hadn’t actually owned the house in 50 years, but still.”

“But still!” echoed Joey, looking at her with a fondness that was reserved for the few.

“But still,” she said, returning the look. 

“Yeah,” he said.

“Fuck you. You old POOP, you.”

And at that, Baker Street began to play.

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WRESTLEGY by Timothy Parfitt

We met under the spotlights, cast as Macduff and Banquo in our high school’s production of Macbeth. Alex and I became fast friends. We goofed around a lot back stage, smoked a little weed in the alley. My big moment was when I got to run onstage and yell “horror” until the word lost meaning. When the production was over, Alex invited me to join him and his other upperclassman friends in their backyard wrestling league. Boys playing dress up, immortalizing our daring feats on a bulky 90s camcorder. I played a janitor in coveralls and wielded a mop. We fell on each other from great heights, a mattress or trampoline underneath us. If you do it right, it’s a kind of embrace.

Dark Arena. Ring stands empty.

Into the light dances a myth,

purple feathered boa wrapped around torso.

Pink boots a stompin’.

Larry Sweeney barrels down the aisle

and dives between the ropes of the ring,

bounces to his feet, taunts the crowd,

delights in their jeers, flexes, preens.

His shoulder-length bleach blond hair is wet,

droplets rain with every whip of his head.

We stayed friends but never became close ones, even after I followed Alex to the same Midwestern college. After graduating, Alex moved to Pennsylvania to train with Ring of Honor. That’s where he created Larry Sweeney. I followed his career from afar, got Facebook invites to his matches when he was in town. He doggedly pursued his art, something I admired and even envied. Mine was an idealized notion of Alex. I only heard about the rest later, after he killed himself. Barthes said “In wrestling, a man down is exaggeratedly so, filling the spectators’ entire field of vision with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.” Alex lived to put on a show, so to mourn him, so will I. Good taste is never of paramount importance, least not in wrestling. Book an arena of the mind. Reanimate the dead. Print fliers. Spread the word: a rematch.

Good evening!

What a treat we have in store for you tonight.

Re-birth, Re-venge. The Re-turn…of

Sweet ’n‘ Sour Larry Sweeney!

Close up of Sweeney’s face in pain.

He takes his pink aviators off.

Then puts them back on.

More, More, More demands Larry’s theme music.

When a friend kills themselves, there is no ref to whom to appeal. I read online that Larry hanged himself from the turnbuckle of a ring in Louisiana, that it was his parents who found him. “Unnatural” is a word people use when parents bury their children. Kayfabe is the concept in wrestling that the shared fantasy created in the ring is a code and that the characters and stories created in the ring are sacred. Reality outside the ring, once acknowledged, betrays the fantasy created within it. To “break” kayfabe is wrestling’s greatest sin.

Venue change: Starbucks.

Behold Alex, gravel-voiced bipolar disturbance. 

He delivers a kick! to the plate glass window 

then stays to kick and kick 

until the shatterproof glass comes down. 

Stays long after 

the baristas call the police. 

Rematch implies the possibility of changed outcome. Alex is gone but some version of him (Larry?) kicks around my head. I hate movie suicides, the sad minimalist piano music, the familiar storm clouds and pockets full of stones. I watch dedications online, teary bloggers recount what they all agree was his low point.

Toyota Center Parking Lot:

Shaky camera work,

an opponent named the UK Viper.

Fans getting a chance to mix it up

with a fallen star.

Alex is a manic

and good-natured ringleader.

Tractor trailers in the background.

Halfway between Alex and Larry,

switching back and forth.

When the amateur announcer calls him Larry,

he stops him, and speaks of the name his parents gave him.

I track down and speak to a man who shot the video, who documented what others describe as the zenith of Alex’s unchecked mania. Aaron was a kid skipping school when he met Larry in a McDonalds down the street from the arena. Over the course of that afternoon, Alex became something like a mentor to him. Aaron was the “promoter” of that improvised parking lot match witnessed by a dedicated handful. No one had believed in him like that before. Before what I saw in the video was a tragedy, a fallen star vamping for attention and beer money. After talking to Aaron, I remember Alex could be plain fun. So many known and recorded versions of Alex: artist, friend, inspiration, danger to himself and others, suicide.

Crackling audio of Alex discussing

the awakening that sealed his departure

from Ring of Honor:

“The sky parted ways.

They opened up.

I don’t know how else to describe it, man.

It was like God

staring directly into me

and through me and

I was looking back at him.”

In his own words, 2009, the year of the parking lot match, was the worst of his life. A qualifier though, when he speaks of it, one that haunts me. He calls it the “worst event of my life, up to this point.” “Up to this point” is probably just Alex being realistic, life is a series of hurdles, but to me it sounds expectant.  I track down Aine, one of the witches from Macbeth. They never dated-dated, but he was her first kiss. Back then I thought he walked on water, she says. She tells me of the time Alex drove halfway across the country based on a message he heard within the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. How far do the dead plan ahead? He would have done big things in the big leagues.

Sweeney kicks a tombstone into an open grave,

then begins to shovel.

Breaks free, jumps upon the turnbuckle,

makes the international gesture for suck it.

Fireworks punctuate the gesture.

From my spot on the mat,

I regard the figure on top of me,

monster stitched together from Youtube,

memory and daydream.

Surely this is not Larry, much less Alex.

Once he was gone, Alex became a sinking feeling. Instead of making sense of his death, I wallowed in the messiness of it, got lost in the versions of him that live online. Dying in the ring made him myth. Reanimating him has done little to make the spectacle of his death tolerable. My imagination has failed me.

A flicker passes across his eyes,

recognition perhaps,

or resignation.

He jumps, sends his feet

out in front of him, cocks his elbow,

his hair streaking in the wind.

It’s a very interesting question,

though only one person who can answer it.

The man under that big black hat.

Credits roll, time marches on.

Tune in next time.

Larry elbow drops into the ether.

I remember his bark of a laugh. Put the various versions of him away. I’ve been grappling with him so long fantasy has dried into memory. What a poor promoter I was. None vanquished, no new storylines to pursue. If anyone real were involved were my checks would have bounced. I miss Alex. I close the browser windows.

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SEVEN DROPS OF SALT WATER by Ariel Kusby

First, she thought he was a man. Then, she thought he was a seal. But if you’ve ever seen the way a sea mammal disappears, becomes dark water, you’ll understand why she never thought he was a warm body but a bit of ocean contained for a while. When a slick being emerges fully formed from a void you want to grab hold of it. You want to ask it what it’s seen. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re any different, that the deep is darker than your own blood. The body is full of stories. Your blood will always let them in.

Her story begins with rough water. A year of sleeper waves that claimed beachcombers, obscured by pulses of marine layer. They say she was born on a night like this. That she rushed out of her mother’s body in a giant wave and after that, they couldn’t keep her away from water. She learned to swim before she could walk, and before she could swim, her father took her into the swells in a plastic pink floatie, far beyond the break.

By the time she was twenty, no one could navigate a red-flag day like she could. They say she would have made a great lifeguard, better than the stoner boys who patrolled the beaches for extra cash, but there was something about her that was too odd. She rarely made eye contact. She walked the beach by herself and swam at night. The neighbors judged her father for letting her go alone but he believed he had taught her well. 

Imagine her: lonely, filled with adrenaline, ecstatic in her held breath as her body curved below fifteen-foot swells. Silver turbulence, sea spirits rising up from the drop-off. How deep could her legs have propelled her? How powerful can a body ever be? 

Mornings she’d work for her father, a fisherman. She’d slice each catch and gut it, smearing blood along her arms no matter how careful she was, then wash it off before school, where she studied folklore.

Do you think she did it intentionally? During all of her sea-walks and secret sadness wrapped up inside her like invasive kelp, did she cry seven tears to tempt fate? Or did they just come, unaware of what they would bring?

Before this, she’d dated a few young men she’d met in class. They couldn’t swim, were afraid of water, but inevitably she’d end up in the shallows with them, holding their bodies like a reluctant mother, telling them to kick, to breathe, to cup their hands and move. 

Then, one day he appeared like a washed-up flower from a funeral boat. Dark and surprising. Swimming in the shallows where moments before, there had been no movement. 

The first thing she loved was the way his body moved. With soft intention, a moonpull. Then, his voice, friendly like he already knew her. Like a shell knows how to whisper intimately into an eardrum. 

She had never seen him before. He greeted her, walking up the shore to his belongings. A black canvas bag she hadn’t noticed. He was new in town and wanted her to show him around.

Picture her walking with him, amazed that she could talk with him more easily than with anyone she’d ever met before. He seemed lonely too, hungry to talk about books and folklore with someone who shared the same esoteric interests. 

Some say they saw the two eating together, and then they left town and walked back to the beach, where they disappeared beneath a pier. They lingered there for hours between the barnacle-crusted pilings. Imagine his silken hands on hers, his lips tracing her collarbone. Imagine her suddenly wet on top of the sand, wet like a wave spilling over him. Salt concentrated in their mouths, surprising heat overriding the damp cold. His energy like a wave sloshing into a coastal cave, rippling all the way into its back corners. A phosphorescent red tide of wild hormones and tenderness and the idea that they’d finally found something really good. Imagine him cumming on her belly, semen shimming in the moonlight like a silver snake. 

After that they were never seen apart, swam together everyday. He kept up with her even when the swells grew into monsters with enough power to kill. He taught her a trick for holding her breath.

Some say what eventually happened between them was the result of great passion. Or of getting what she asked for. When a human and a sea creature love each other too much, it will always lead to destruction. Some say it was her cruel heart, a sealhunter. Others believe he transformed in more ways than one. He was many seals and many men, and mapped the bodies of young women to find deep spaces he could glide into and haunt.

She found it in the black bag in his closet, where she was looking for a lost pair of underwear. It’s glint from the overhead light caught her eye, and she pulled it out, repulsed and terrified. It was a sealskin with the cleanest slits, like a wetsuit, ready to be stepped into and zipped up. Was it fresh? Why did it look so immaculate, almost freshly laundered? She didn’t know what to think, but she knew he had a secret. 

And then she remembered the passage from her book about sea legends: “Selkies, or seal people are shapeshifters. They can be summoned by seven tears shed into the sea. Selkies often seduce humans on land, only to quickly leave them again for the ocean. The only way they will stay on land is if their lover hides their seal coat. Then, they will be locked in human form.” 

She couldn’t leave it but she couldn’t hide it, so she did hide it because being alone felt unbearable. She buried it in the dirt in a public park far away from the water.

She considered confronting him, but was it worth it? She was finally happy for the first time in her life. So, he had a secret. She spent her days cutting the hearts out of fish. Who was she to make assumptions? 

She hid her knowledge like an anemone bloated with water, sucked up inside of herself. Truth is, she was never good at hiding anything. A toxic feeling congealed. In her body, muck built up. 

He became moody and withdrawn. When he came over to her house, he touched her with rough hands and foggy eyes. She asked him what was wrong. What did he need from her? He threw a plate against the wall behind her head. Nothing. She ran out of the house all the way to the water and dove in, dropping tear after tear into each indifferent surge. He ran after her, crying too. I’m sorry, he said. How can you ever forgive me. I would never hurt you. And then he held her, warmer and softer than the water did. 

So they stayed together. And every week this pattern repeated. Often they would be body-surfing, tethered by their intensity, and then: a comment he didn’t like. A wrong question. And they were like two sharks turned against each other. 

Below the surface, who could know what ultimately happened between them? Some say he would take her underwater and breathe into her mouth and it was a sort of high for her, breathing half-air, her blood a roiling boil molten in cold water. 

How could she have known he’d find it? That he’d end up in that park with another woman he’d secretly been seeing the whole time? The myths never mentioned that a selkie would be able to smell their own skin and step back into it. 

Like that, he dissolved. They say she went to the ocean every day, and that eventually he did approach her, transformed again from a fish to a man. She asked what it was like down there. Surprisingly warm, sublimely bright, he said. If you want to come with me, I’ll take you. Then they’d fuck in the water, so desperate for it that the awkwardness didn’t matter. Salt water inside her, semen dispersing like pale squid ink. Then he’d melt back down into the darkness, and all night she’d ruminate about joining him.

They say there were months more of late-night conversations, of wet trysts that ended in fighting, and then an evening when he grabbed her and pulled her underwater against her will. Fading light, tightening muscles. Love sucked up by the instinct for air. Or perhaps not love, but something else. She fought her way back to the surface and knew. She liked it better up there, away from him. Even if that meant facing a different type of void.

Not long after this, she moved away from town. Some say to the mountains, where she lives beside a river, and has never come back to the ocean again. They still love to talk about it. They call her the sea spinster, or the water witch. No man would want her now, the women say. She was soiled by a figment of the imagination, a dark archetype. 

Imagine her now living amongst the trees, bathing in the river filled with pinkly glittering trout. The deep feeling of the body: something dark swimming, rising up and holding her. Perhaps it breaches and disappears, only to breach again, different every time. 

Truth is, she isn’t close to water. She knows what it must have felt like for our ancestors when they crawled out of the ocean, fins flailing in the dirt for a chance at something better. Was it for a good reason? If you’ve never known anything but slipperiness, you want something to hold onto. Imagine her now, having made it for herself. Imagine her warm and dry.

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MOTHER BUDGIE by David Cook

You push open the cracked old oak door and marvel as you step into the room. A whirlwind of budgies, of burnished gold, sunset red, ocean green and all hues in between, swoop down around your ears, chirping merrily, joy infused in each and every note. Others sing from up in the rafters while still more chirrup in colourful cages that line the walls from ceiling to floor. Being here lifts your heart.A woman approaches, clad in a shawl as bright as the birds that skitter around her. This is Mother Budgie. She is famous. Tourists come from all over the globe to visit her. She gestures you closer and says 'Welcome,’ the warmth in her voice reflected in her eyes. The budgies echo her greeting. 'Welcomewelcome,' they trill in chorus. She beams at them and several settle onto her shoulders and chirp 'Mommamommamomma.' Mother Budgie hand-rears every beautiful bird in her establishment and has patiently taught them all to sing these words. Their refrain is picked up by all the other budgies and the echoes of ‘Mommamommamomma’ are almost deafening. Amid all this, Mother Budgie simply smiles, a beacon of peace and contentment.As the clamour settles momentarily, she invites you to choose the birds that appeal to you most. You carefully select four, no, five; two the bright yellow of an undisturbed shore, two the startling blue of a clear sky and one the scarlet of freshly-picked cherries. Mother Budgie nods, then guides you through another door set in the back wall.This room is full of people laughing, chatting and eating. Merriment bounces off the stone walls. You sit at a table and wait for maybe twenty-five minutes as the noise of gaiety reverberates around you. Finally, Mother Budgie reappears, smiling as always, and places in front of you a delectable golden brown pie accompanied by soft mashed potatoes. ‘Enjoy,’ she says as she leaves. Five small beaks emerge from the pie’s inviting crust. Each is slightly open, trapped in silent song.Grabbing your knife, you stab the pastry surface. Rich, thick gravy oozes from the fissure and pools into the bed of mash. Another diner is admitted into the room. As the door opens and shuts you hear the cries of 'Mommamommamomma' from beyond and imagine more birds settling upon Mother Budgie’s shoulders.

You impale a chunk of meat with your fork and take a bite. It is soft, tender and exquisitely delicious, just as you’d heard it would be. Your taste buds croon with happiness. You dab your lips with a napkin and take another mouthful, already planning when you’ll return

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SHOWERLESS by Chris Wilkensen

This train is a church in both its movements and its congregation. No one dares interrupt the silence. Metal rolling over rusted metal. Outside the scenery passes by like life to a teenager: fleeting but feeling never-ending. Most passengers wish they could be anywhere else to feel anything else, to feel something other than strictly operational. At each stop people straggle off, mostly alone, onto their next journey. 

New passengers come aboard. She hovers over me. She breathes harder and heavier. No other free seats. Her pink hair raises my own arm-hair. I move my bag to the ground for her to sit. She only eyes my phone. A blank screen that reflects her face. No makeup, freckles. Thin, rough skin covers her well-proportioned face.

When she gets closer, the stench smacks me. I take a deep breath, look at her and cough. 

“Sorry, I haven’t taken a shower in a few days now,” she whispers. The suits and skirts around focused even harder on their cell phones.

“Oh, I see,” I say.

“I’m homeless. Makes it hard,” she says.

Twisting my head to the right, I look at the side of her face. She looks down, maybe ashamed, but I gaze toward her lap, afraid of eye contact. Her jeans are gross, not in any type of style in vogue to teenagers, with black spots and purple spots of dried blood, maybe. Her yellow boots remind me of construction attire. 

“I’m sorry.” I look down at my Calvin Klein dress shoes and North Face backpack. 

“Yeah, me too.” She crosses her arms. 

I’m a suburban transplant who moved to the city to be closer to downtown for school, still new to city life and city people. My parents budget callowness into my college expenses. She can use my parents’ overhead more than we can. 

I can’t let the other people on the crowded train, who I’ll never see again, witness me cry in sympathy. Hunching up in the seat, I take out my wallet from my back pocket.

“Here. Maybe this can help.” I extend the money toward her.

She hesitates, looks around.

“Is this for real?” This is when my eyes meet hers. Wide, blue, elusive. 

I nod.

She looks at my hand, taking the $40 like a busy cashier, before her hand grazes my arm. Doors open at the next stop. She jumps off without waving or looking back. 

I abhor the thought of another conversation, especially with someone who saw what just happened. The passengers just glance at me. I still smell the rough circumstances that embarrassed her. 

The train trails until the end of the line when we all get off. Long after the stop for my studio. Standing outside alone in the train station I wonder which could come first: someone talking to me or me talking to someone. People pass. I fiddle on my cell phone, nothing productive or fun, just killing battery. No WiFi to entertain me. Only me and my thoughts.  

The temperature drops, so I walk faster to warm my blood. Shops are closing, five minutes before 9. I beg a bakery to please stay open because I haven't eaten or drunken anything in hours. They don't care. They just repeat their opening hours. I check my phone to verify the time.

So I walk. I’ll try this for a night. Just one night. In the distance, I see a park without people. The inside top of the slide can be my room for the evening. I’m experiencing and learning new things, what college is for. Hopefully I can run into her again. It’s Friday night, so I can go until Monday morning without showering. 

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FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY by Julie Watson

Two weeks after Jane and Richard sent their only son Bobby to college, Richard lost his job. He’s been talking in his sleep non-stop ever since, nearly six months now. Jane is exhausted. She knows any sane woman would have exiled her husband to the guest room by now, or marched him into the office of a reputable sleep specialist. But for Jane, Richard’s new habit is revelatory. Since he started talking in the night, Jane has learned more about her husband than she did in the entire twenty-two years prior. 

Richard’s job search is going poorly. In order for him to sleep at all he first sought the escalating assistance of bourbon. Every clank of ice in the glass was another reminder of the bleakness of their situation. Richard’s drunken sleep was deep at first, his midnight ramblings nonsensical and humorous.

“We’re not getting a fourth cat,” he said one night with a firmness Jane found hysterical. Thanks to Richard’s severe allergies and disdain for pets in general (filthy and expensive, he said) they would never get a first. On another night, he sighed in a way that made Jane picture the disappointment on his face, so clear she was certain he was awake. Yet, when she moved to comfort him, he rolled over and said simply, “I know, but he’s a dumbass.” On still another night, she woke to Richard shouting, “the scrotum!” with William Wallace-style conviction. Jane was forced to bury her face in her pillow that night, biting down hard on the cool cotton sheets to keep from howling out loud.

With each passing week, the balance in their savings account dips lower, along with the number of Richard’s boxer shorts Jane runs through the wash on Wednesdays. When the bourbon stops working, Richard switches to a rainbow of over-the-counter pills and supplements loaded with scientifically-proven ingredients. With these, he begins to open up.

“I don’t want to fail,” Richard says.

“Fail how?” Jane asks, rising to her elbows.

Richard nestles his head into the pillow. “I’m barely a dad. I’m a half-assed husband.” The words appear in a voice that isn’t Richard’s, too supple and watery to belong to her precise, authoritative husband. “All I had was that fucking job.”

In the morning Jane tucks away his confessions like the expensive chocolates she hides in her sewing table drawer. The only sound at breakfast is the clicking of keys on Richard’s laptop, his angry, intermittent sighs. Jane buys more sleep supplements and another bottle of bourbon. 

“She never loved me the way I love her.” 

Jane has taken to coming to bed late, counting the cars that pass on the street until Richard begins to speak. Carefully, noiselessly, she leans in to hear.

“I’m just security for her, and now…” Richard trails off, smacking his dry mouth.

“Now what?” Jane says.

“Exactly.”

In his sleep Richard is someone else, by day he is exactly who he’s always been—making lists, creating budgets, complaining that Jane has purchased the wrong brand of mustard. 

“Expecting an interview any day,” he says, his voice hard with determination. “I might need you to take in my suits.” 

Jane listens to the old Richard and squints, trying to square the sound with man she sees in front of her, pale and shrinking under his bathrobe like a week-old balloon. She takes in his suits and buys the right mustard and waits for the new Richard to meet her in the night.

“What have I done?” 

Her husband’s words are crumpled like the balled newsprint he tosses into the fireplace. Jane can tell he’s crying. The same way she did when his mother passed away, or when he got that gash in his hand while cleaning the gutters, Jane touches his shoulder.

“Shhh,” she whispers, “It’s going to be okay.” 

Richard startles at the contact, his body flopping about like a fish on the edge of suffocation. Jane rolls away from his unpredictable limbs. When he sits up in bed a moment later she can see the whites of his eyes, still glossy and round with fear.

“Must’ve had a bad dream,” he says, commanding as the dark gray shadows around them.

#

Richard puts his bathrobe in the wash and tosses his sleeping pills in the trash. He rescues his running shoes from the garage and wipes them clean at the kitchen sink.

“Pity party’s over,” he announces. 

Jane cannot pry her eyes from the wastebasket. She sees only Richard’s rainbow pills, resting on a bed of discarded mostaccioli.

“I’m done with the drugs, done with the booze,” he tells her. “Getting back into running will help me start sleeping again.”

Running does help Richard. In no time at all his mood improves, his thighs harden and compact. At night he is silent.

“Feeling really good about my prospects with Whitman Courier,” Richard says over dinner one night. “Good feeling about this one.”

Jane is listening, but only halfway. She misses the night Richard and sees more than enough of the old one, his former arrogance wrung out and replaced with a fresh version in a sleek new athletic container.

While Richard is out running, Jane visits her doctor. 

“It’s just been difficult,” she tells the doctor, “What with Bobby off to college and Richard’s job search taking longer than we thought—”

Jane has looked in the mirror. She’s seen the dark rings of sleeplessness under her own eyes, her cheeks hollow with worry. She stays awake all night, but hears nothing more than Richard’s shallow breathing, the rhythmic hum of their four-bedroom, three bath suburban dream.

“And are we having trouble sleeping?” the doctor asks his clipboard.

“I’m afraid so,” Jane says. 

#

Jane starts slowly at first, unsure. Crushing the pills proves difficult, until she finds the mortar and pestle she ordered when she had designs on making aioli. Her first attempts are tentative—granules of powder sprinkled onto a chicken breast, a bit more stirred into the pudding she serves Richard for dessert. Perky with anticipation, Jane waits while he drifts into a still and wordless sleep. Richard sleeps so hard he is unaware he’s clutching Jane’s breast.

Slowly, Jane increases his dosage, searching for recipes to mask the taste. She changes the bed sheets twice a week, invests in heavier curtains. She fills their room with essential oils known to induce deep and uninterrupted sleep (or your money back). At last, Richard speaks.

“She’s taken good care of herself, but you want to know the truth…most wives get fat.”

Jane decides to research just how much is safe. She is no longer sure how many pills she is giving him, or how much it will take to bring the other Richard back. On a whim, she adds some to his early-morning protein shake. According to her findings, a nice, even release should yield positive results.

Richard returns early from his run, waving his phone in the air. 

“Just got a call from Chuck at Whitman,” he says, breathless and grinning. “They want to see me today. Right now.”

Jane opens her mouth to speak, but Richard is a blur. He grips her by the shoulders, kisses her firmly on the forehead, and makes his way to the shower. A short time later he is at the door in his perfectly-fitting suit.

Richard doesn’t get the job, at least not that day. The car accident leaves him indisposed.

“I explained the whole thing to Chuck,” he says in the emergency room. “They want to see me as soon as I’m feeling up to it.”  

Jane fusses with his blankets and cords, tells him their first priority is getting him well.

“I still just—I don’t know what happened,” Richard says, pulling at his temples, shaking away the cobwebs. Jane places a hand on his shoulder and strokes his hair until he falls asleep. 

The doctor tells Jane how lucky Richard is, if accidents can be lucky. Nothing more than a sprained wrist and some abrasions, he says, and Jane feels some relief.

“He’ll be a little stiff, so I’m sending him home with some heavier pain relievers today. Should have him back to his old self in no time.” 

Jane shakes the doctor’s hand and finds her forgotten smile.  

“I should mention,” the doctor tells her before he leaves. “You’ll want to be careful. Those pain pills will make him a little sleepy.”  

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GALVESTON, TEXAS by Alex Weidman

This Texas night is similar to a Mexico night. Both are deeply oppressive, deeply black and unyielding, lunar in no real sense, unless one is thinking about the dark side of the moon and, really, only the appearance of the dark side of the moon. Outside the car windows it is absolutely unchanging. 

It is not like an El Salvador night Javier thinks. El Salvador nights are fertile and alive, and similar to Guatemalan nights and similar, up to a point, to very southern Mexico nights. They are deeply alive, which Javier knows to mean they are deeply human, which really means that the will of life seems to radiate up from the ground itself and hang in the air like humidity.

Nothing promising seems to radiate up from the blackness outside.

Javier had been warned not to hitchhike after he crossed. Hitchhiking they said was a sure way to get yourself killed. But Javier had been lead so far astray that it would have been fatal trying to get back east any other way. He’d known something was very wrong when the land around them had turned into the desert, so it was either hitchhike and die or don’t hitchhike and die. So Javier hitchhiked and got unbelievably lucky. 

For hundreds of miles through the Texas night it would be just him, this stranger who picked him up, the small, repressed section of highway visible in the headlights, and the border, sometimes no more than fifty yards away. All through the night they’d pass white trucks driving back and forth along a patrol road that paralleled the highway, driven by seemingly no one, or by men in black masks and black sunglasses despite it being the middle of the night. Javier would begin to form an understanding of the relationship between this land and extraterrestrial sightings. The mind can only do what it can with the strangeness of this place. It must put together a coherent picture.

Driving through the deep night Javier would not know that when he arrives in Galveston he’d go directly to the beach. He’d go directly to the beach like some sort of pilgrim drawn naturally to an edge. On the beach Javier would take refuge under the pier, where above he could hear laughing children and the sounds of carnival games. He would almost swear he could hear the exhaustion of the parents who were shepherding the kids around. Javier would not understand why someone would come to the beach in January, in this weather. To him it’d seem miserable. 

Sitting next to this silent stranger Javier would also not know that when he arrives in Galveston his cousin would no longer answer his phone. Anyone even remotely paying attention would know that things had been getting very dangerous, and Javier’s cousin would end up backing out, leaving Javier stranded without so much as an address. 

Javier would end up wandering Galveston, a beach town that seems to absorb nothing of the vitality of the tourists and vacationers who come there (though if one paid any attention they’d realize that these tourists aren’t the picture of vitality either, but more like wanderers as well, people mostly lost who only by chance happened to have stumbled upon something familiar to what they think they’d been looking for). Instead the town will grow increasingly tired, like the maids and waitresses and cooks who are ubiquitous in service economies. Javier would end up wandering endlessly through this town that seems to grow emptier and more desolate, as if the people were turning into cardboard cutouts, as if it is a border town in the truest sense, a town that is set up only as a façade of a town, likely for official use.

Driving through the Texas night Javier does not know about his wandering. Instead he thinks about Luisa del Rosa, who he’d already decided he’d never see again. He thinks about Luisa and about the future and her absence, and the inability to reconcile completely the disappearance of a person from one’s life, which is also a way of being unable to reconcile the disappearance of one’s self from any reference point. Eventually in Galveston Javier will fall asleep on the beach, under the pier, where he’ll dream of Luisa. He’ll dream Luisa is with him, that they are together under that pier, and he’ll dream that despite his cousin not answering his phone and despite having nowhere to go and having no money and despite being technically pursued, everything is okay. Everything is okay because Luisa is there, and Luisa being there suggests something about being a teenager still and something peaceful, something similar in the sound of the waves that will rock Javier to sleep again and again for days that’ll end up being innumerable.

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BELL’S POND by Nathan Willis

Derby didn’t get out on his own. I took him. Yes, technically he was yours, but he liked me better and you didn’t take very good care of him. At least not as good as I did. Before you go waving this letter in front of the cops, I don’t think you really have a leg to stand on. I’m pretty sure crocodiles are illegal to have as pets.

Anyways, Derby and I hit the road and I started to put on my magic act. The one you always made fun of me for practicing. I couldn’t exactly leave him in the van so I found a way to incorporate him. He seemed to enjoy himself. For the final trick, I would pull things out of his mouth. Handkerchiefs tied together. Foam balls. A dove. A lit cigarette. A cascading deck of cards. Your wedding ring. For each item, I would have to reach deeper and deeper into his mouth. 

We performed at just about every venue you can imagine; abandoned malls, VFW posts, car dealerships, and even high school gymnasiums. Things were going pretty well until South Carolina. We were working the boardwalk and someone threw a beer can at us. Derby got startled. He snapped down on my hand and wouldn’t let go until everyone was gone. There was nothing I could do but wait. The audience loved it. 

Between my ragged nerves and the even more ragged condition of my hand, our magic days were over for a while. We drove on to Tallahassee where we came across a safari themed restaurant. They have a stage for live music on the weekends and in the middle of the dining area, there’s a giant glass cylindar. It’s as big around as our old house and almost as tall. That’s where they keep all the animals. They have everything you can think of, including two crocodiles.

I told them Derby and I needed a place to stay. They took him in and in exchange gave me a job bussing tables and enough money to get set up in a little apartment. 

I thought it was a pretty good deal until I saw how they treat the animals. There’s no love here. They’re just commodities. Their care is a task on a list between mopping the floors and changing the fryer oil. And no one stops the patrons or their kids from banging on the glass. On busy nights, it sounds like an army at war running towards another army. 

Derby got depressed pretty fast. You remember how sensitive he was. I would have taken him and left, but he wasn’t mine anymore.

I thought it might cheer him up to do our old magic tricks, so one day after closing we put on a private show for the owner. He loved it. He had us perform for the dining room twice a night during the week and open for the musical act on weekends. It was more work than we’d ever had before. I was happy but it took its toll on Derby. He was old and I was pushing him too hard. I always let people push us too hard. It got to the point that Derby didn’t want to perform at all. They had to use those animal-catcher poles and drag him to the stage. He stopped eating. He wasn’t a threat to anyone, anymore. The diners began to lose interest. Then one day, Derby wasn’t there. The owner said he was at the vet getting a check-up. 

There’s an orangutan here with an arm that’s been dislocated for so long I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen off. There’s a conspiracy of lemurs, some young, some old. All of them blind. That doesn’t happen on accident. This place doesn’t take animals in for check-ups. Derby was never coming back.

That night, the announcement for our magic act came through the loudspeaker system like normal. I figured it was a mistake and kept bussing tables. The owner came out and found me. He asked what the hell I thought he was paying me for. I didn’t have an answer. 

He pointed to the stage where Clint was waiting for me.

Clint is bigger and less patient than Derby, but I still did my act. And I’ve been doing it as scheduled ever since. Clint doesn’t look at me the same way Derby did. He doesn’t enjoy any part of this. He doesn’t want to. He’s a survivor. 

There is a pretty good chance that any night could be my last. When I’ve got my head in Clint’s mouth and I’m pretending to look for something, I think about how you always worried that if Derby got out he’d find his way to Bell’s Pond. He would feel at home there and not know why; not know that’s where you and I met. Then one night we would see on the news that a young girl had been attacked while she was swimming. It was a miracle she was still alive. You would pause the screen on her face and look for a resemblance. 

They would say it was a crocodile. They wouldn’t use your name but they would call you an irresponsible pet owner. They would say it's your fault the girl got hurt so bad that she’ll never fully recover. And it’s your fault they had to kill Derby. They would say he was a monster and we would watch them pull his body out of the water with a tow truck.

 You said, if Derby ever got away, everything from then on would be your fault. And I want you to know it’s not. It’s mine.  

Please don’t write back. If you do, they’ll give the letter to Clint and that will be the end of me. I’ll have to go in after it. I won’t be able to stop myself.

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THE TRUTH IN SOMETHING BLUE, AN ART LECTURE AT THE AUCTION HALL WITH MEDIEVAL ART SCHOLAR MARC LAFERNE ON THE R___BERG “MARIAN” IMAGE by Erika Franz

The picture tells the entire story of the court B___, Duchess of R___berg. It’s a strange language, though—the economics of color in the late medieval era, the templates of the religious, the indifference to women in love, and the varying devotion to the differing mores of Christianity, framed for you in Gothic arches.

Most of you carry around a mere caricature of the medieval world. You assume Puritanical prudery—but the Puritans belong to a later age.

So, to the picture, once tucked into a niche at the convent at R___berg. Surely, this is a religious devotional. 

Here is surely Mary, Mother of God—after all, is she not dressed in her signature ultramarine, the stunning blue of ground lapis lazuli that was brought from far Afghanistan? At the time, this color was worth its weight in gold and often reserved for the Virgin on this very account.

Here, surely, is her dear cousin Elizabeth. See, how she wraps her arms around the Virgin? How intimate. And these two small babes playing in the grass at the Virgin’s feet must be the Baptist and the Christ. Surely. Here, even, is a bucolic spring to foreshadow the Baptism.

The Duchess of R___berg was herself thought to be a virgin. Her parents arranged her marriage to a younger brother of a wealthy family before they died. She was famously described demanding abstinence of her husband on their wedding night.

Of course, these tales come from the sources out of the same convent in which we found the painting, where she was well-loved and to which she was quite generous. Her confessor, shepherd of the convent’s flock of nuns, attested in his little old-fashioned Vita to her many virtues, including holy virginity. 

It is rather a different story from across the river. There you find a monastery, at other times tied quite closely to the convent. At the time of this tale, however, there has been a sundering between the two religious houses by the secular intrusion of the Duke of M__, also known as the Stag of M__, who acquired lands west of the river at the Duchess’s expense and had designs, yet, on R___berg itself. 

Given his ample support of the monks in the Benedictine house on the west bank, perhaps it was merely political support for their benefactor that led them to vilify the Duchess of R___berg as a Sapphic, who spurned her sacramental marriage. It was quite possibly this allegiance which prompted them to name him the Stag, which in Christendom was the killer of snakes, defeater of evil, and often a stand-in for Christ, himself.

Or perhaps both versions of the story are correct depending upon your point of view. After all the monk who does the vilifying really cares less that she is a Sapphic and more that she refuses to consummate the marriage as a good wife should. Medieval men were generally unthreatened by the bumping of shields—only another’s sword thrust could cuckold him. Her husband, apparently found his fill piercing other shields than his wife’s, and was relatively unconcerned by these monastic aspersions. 

A Lady G___ was the woman accused by the monk of being the duchess’s distraction from her marital duties. A widow, she was known to have raised two children in the Duchess’s court, and when the Duchess’s husband died, the eldest of these two was named her heir. 

Let us return, then, to the painting. So here we have a virgin in the arms of another woman, two children playing at their feet. A virgin, but perhaps not the Virgin. Elizabeth and Mary are not described in the New Testament as having met after the birth of their children. Biblically, John the Baptist first appears leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at his divine cousin’s in utero arrival via the Virgin Mary. The lads don’t meet again until the river Baptism, shortly before John’s beheading for Salome at Herod’s court.

And here, across the stream from the happy family, we see the small stag. Is he there to defend the holy family against evil? Or he is the Duke of M__ relegated to the corner and his holdings west of the river; in the foreground, but minimized in the narrative in that way that Medieval artists could do so well. The Duke of M__ never got R___berg.

So, what have we then? Perhaps two women, lovers, hiding in plain sight behind the religious iconography of the day, painted by an anonymous nun. The very wealth of the virgin’s robe providing plausible deniability. A touching family scene eventually enshrined safely in a convent, away from the eyes of men.

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A BILLABLE HOUR by Katherine Heath

In the time that it takes him to park and unload the maintenance van into the freight elevator of the American Angus Journal, I’ve just rolled over to swipe right on the morning alarm. 

The receptionist, Sharon, escorts him past the framed photographs of carved ribeye—gorgeous cuts of glistening and perfectly pink meat—to the malfunctioning Hoshizaki. Normally it produces two-hundred and eighty pounds of ice in twenty-four hours, but this week, in the middle of a Missouri July, Sharon and her coworkers can't keep their sweet teas cool. By the time his hands are tinkering with the organs of the machine, I’ve only made the walk from bed to kitchen table and opened the laptop.  

You must work backwards. You clean it, so you can put it back together to clean it again, he would say if ever asked about his process. To disassemble, he removes the deflector, float device, and pump, placing each in the sink to soak in bleach. He sprays solution on the evaporator plates—where ice forms once the temperature drops. He chisels limescale deposits where water and metal meet. He removes black mold from the tubes with a skinny brush designed for baby bottles. 

As he works backwards to clean, I stare at a blank Powerpoint slide for a presentation I’m building for Toy Brand Inc. entitled, “Life of 5-to-7-year-olds today.” I need an image to pair with the headline, “Generation Alpha, the True Emotive Storytellers.” I google a combination of relevant search terms like “child” + “writing” + “excited,” and scroll through the results: 

“Girl writing letter to father christmas Stock Photo #88415957”

“Boy writing down notes Stock Photo #76758209

“iStock rainbow children drawing art hobby”  

“Supportive father helping his child #939050552” 

All watermarked and licensed for use, meaning out of budget. 

After he reassembles, while he waits for the delimer mix to cycle its way through the nickel-chromium wire cages, he picks up a recent issue of the Beef Bulletin, a publication Sharon and her team produce. This month focuses on selecting cattle at elevation and features real-world bulls from the Connealy farm. One ad promotes a breeding season guarantee. Another offers discounted semen and embryo warehousing from Bovine Elite. Call us today to order! 

“It’s like Playboy with cows…and for farmers,” he will later say in jest as he describes the lighting and sheen of monochromatic hair. 

While he idly flips pages of fertile livestock, I try another tactic and go to my secret image source, the one in which clients can never know. I open my Insta-Photo social media account and type in ‘@midwestMama,’ the profile of a friend from back home. Her bio reminds me that she is into “mindful homemaking~~mothering three,” and “the simple things done with care.” My right index finger glides through hundreds of shots of her family. Each curated with the right mix of plants, flexitarian dishes, and smiling children—props displayed against soft hues of pink and white to convey the lifestyle brand that is @midwestMama. 

I click on the photo of her youngest dressed in costume, a nylon cape draped over the shoulders, holding a wooden shield and sword that look as though they were carved from a tree out in the backyard that morning, an upscale take on homemade. I hit ctrl + C, ctrl + P, then, using the cursor, adjust the placement of the picture to the left under the headline.   

We haven’t spoken in years, but her face and her kids, which easily pass for ages 5-to-7, will soon sparkle on-screen for my clients.   

Polishing the front and side panels with a paper towel, he knows the exterior speaks for the real work inside; his reflection in the stainless-steel signals a job well done. 

As I labor over the next image search for slide twelve of ninety-six, he, Dad, folds up the flimsy aluminum ladder, and before exiting, peeks inside one final time to watch the stream transform into a waterfall of frozen half-moon shapes. 

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TUESDAY AT THE MONASTERY by Amy Barnes

We reverently chop up Brother Francisco. 

Deo Optimo Maximo. 

After morning prayers, that’s we do on Tuesday. Laid on the dining room table, our former dining partners resemble dinner chickens we used to eat together, reduced to skeletal bones. We carefully cut away flesh and organs and eyeballs and hair. Stripped of their robes, we leave only skulls covered in skin, brains removed as if we are Egyptian mummy makers, not religious brothers.

I measure a place for my living hands on the arched crypt walls, bits of his skin clinging like gloves. Laid flat. Stretched out. A hand is twenty-seven bones. You can create with a hand. A leg has only two main bones.

On Monday, we make nails that our vows don’t allow us to buy; each piece of iron pounded into miniature crucifixion spikes. Nails ready to be pounded into palms and femurs and skulls. We pray over each nail in our teeth and under the heavy hammers, living spit bathing something for the dead. 

Wednesday is bone cleaning day. Bones are exhumed from their graves still reeking of death stench. We put them carefully in buckets ready for creating new forms, some left as full skeletons to recline in the crypts, robed as if they are alive. There are never enough bones. I begin to find joy in administering last rites to my brothers. 

I wonder what I will become. Where will my brothers nail me on Thursday, the day of the walls? A pelvis chandelier, light coming from where urine once flowed? Maybe vertebrae circle-nailed like flowers with finger stems?

We are only one step above putting skulls on sticks to frighten towns into not sinning or not disobeying the king. But it is more than that. We pray over these bones, counting them each like rosary beads. I walk the hallway and prayer for my brothers caught in bone purgatory. 

Deo Optimo Maximo. 

I see myself as more artist than necromanist. My skills as an architect pre-vows gives me the spatial skills to complete these silent tasks. I taste the iron nails and never quite wash the smell of death from my robes. I know they will choose my place carefully, laying out my bone design, my hands creating beauty after I am gone. It will become my penance.

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be...

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRE by Marina Flores

Firefighters in reflective neon suits stormed into the blazing Texas Thrift Store as helicopters circled the building in surveillance. The flames that escaped from the structure’s openings whipped and stirred together like vermilion lovers beneath a glassy black sky. A generator on the roof of the thrift store flickered—once, twice, like the first few seconds after lighting a sparkler on the Fourth of July—seconds before an atomic cobalt and orange explosion. Fire swallowed the structure in one gulp, almost offended by the attempt to save the remains of the building with hose water. That night, not much light was needed for the team of hundreds who, for hours, battled the inferno. The slight glimmer from the flames flushed against the white and crimson of parked ambulances and firetrucks from 83 units. Crime scene tape labeled “do not cross” enclosed the perimeter of the thrift store’s parking lot: danger, keep out. 

As I watched the media’s minute-by-minute sky coverage of the Texas Thrift Store’s four-alarm fire, I held my breath. I wrapped my arms around my knees and pulled them close to my pajama-ed chest. I imagined the sorrow on the faces of onlookers, on the faces of medical crews on standby when two firefighters were not accounted for after an emergency evacuation. Inside the structure, the heat of flames sizzled around brave suited bodies, the smoke heavy like weights in their throats and chests. One firefighter was found and rushed into the back of an awaited ambulance, his body covered in a sheet of black residue. Where was the other unaccounted fireman? Why hadn’t they found him yet? 

Parts of the thrift store’s roof caved in and collapsed, like a house of blocks that tumbled down and down and down, as the blistering fire singed through the walls of other businesses in the shopping center. A tingling sensation tugged at the backs of my eyes, but I continued to watch the news updates, mostly nauseated over what might be unearthed after the last flame was extinguished. As the footage continued to play across my television screen, I wondered if my estranged father watched the yellow firestorm engulf the place we once visited so often.

On one of the two weekends a month I spent with my father, John took me to the Texas Thrift Store. He held my hand as we walked in through the glass doors and underneath giant red letters. The inside smelled like one big garage sale. We browsed the little girls’ aisles for clothes and shoes until I snuck away to the more interesting area of the store: the toy section. These rejected or donated toys—some brand new, others slightly used with a film of grey tinge—were piled in low, rectangular wooden bins for children like me to rummage through. Layer upon layer of toys were thrown on top of one another, sometimes in a pile of rubble already plowed through by other curious children. There, I glanced over dolls with ragged hair, play cash registers without batteries, puzzles, and boxes of Legos with missing pieces. 

John found me in one of the aisles and held up shirts and bottoms that clung to plastic hangers: a faded floral blouse; a pair of scuffed, knock-off Sneakers; and a few pairs of wrinkled jeans and cargo shorts. Round tags that hung from the garments read five dollars, some two dollars. At the sight, I envisioned the little girls who had worn those items before me, how their daddies had purchased these clothes for them, brand new, as a birthday gift or just because. John pushed the items into the crevice of his arm and led me by the hand to the register. A tired shadow clung to the lower-half of my father’s round jaw and his unshaven skin, but his face still looked so much like mine. 

When my father removed his withered and worn wallet from a jean pocket at the register, I recalled how his face looked when I asked for a McDonald’s Happy Meal two weekends before our trip to the thrift store. John had just come home from work on a Saturday afternoon. His skin always smelled of a greasy mechanic’s shop, sometimes with the stale twang of cheap beer and a female stranger’s cigarette smoke. I tugged at the bottom of his shirt that was still stained in white patches near the chest and armpits.

“Please, please, please daddy, can we go to McDonald’s?” I extended the vowels in the question, too eager for the plastic figurine in the Happy Meal.

My father slapped his jean pockets with ashy hands. “We don’t have money for McDonald’s,” he shot back. John used that tone with my mother on the phone. I once overheard my mother say we didn’t need a dime from him, that he could keep his unpaid child support. 

His mother, Ruth, whom I once called Momo, chimed in before I could ask another question. She pulled out a few dollar bills and quarters from her coin purse. The skin on Ruth’s face and arms sagged like the withered branches of the front yard’s pecan tree during summer months. The tree was heavy with rotting pecans and empty bird feeders. I blocked out the fact that John’s mother bathed me, head-to-toe, at age eight, age ten. In the court custody battle, Ruth stood on the stand and testified, under oath, that she always waited outside the bathroom door while I showered. My mother cut my hair like Velma’s from Scooby-Doo because, for most of my elementary school years, I refused to bathe or brush out the knots from the bird nest on the back of my head. Ruth handed her son the money, kissed my cheek with thin, wrinkled lips, and sent us on our way.

The newscast on the thrift store fire continued well on into the early hours of the morning. That night I tried to remember when John and I left the thrift store for the last time. I couldn’t. The television screen lit up my living room like an open furnace until the final firefighter’s body was located. The man, a six-year veteran of the department, was a father of two, his wife still pregnant with their third child. I imagined the Texas Thrift Store’s charred entrance doors that John and I entered and exited through before and after our brief shopping trips. These same doors are the doors that many expected one firefighter to run back through, unharmed, able to return to his off-duty life as a dad after a grueling day of work battling other people’s blazes. For those few hours I exhumed memories shriveled and dried like raisins, discolored by the hue of scarlet fury. For those few hours I, too, battled my own fire. 

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QUEEN OF THE BEES by Juniper Tubbs

Today, naturally, I saved the bees.

Let me be clear - today I read that the bees are going extinct. I also read on the internet that if you put a bee in your freezer, it won’t die, it’ll just become very, very tired and then go to sleep. Then, if you warm it up a little bit, it’ll fly off without a care in the world. I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

I gathered the most beautiful lilacs and freesias, the most gorgeous orchids and begonias and zinnias; and threw them all in a pile in the back yard. Flowers of colors and hues that I couldn’t even understand, but I knew the bees could. A billion, buzzing fuzzy little bodies, whizzing through the wind, sniffing out my flowers. I took my biggest butterfly net and caught them all, waving it through the air like a flag, a flag that says yes, I am saving the bees, and I am proud. One by one I set them soundly in my kitchen freezer. I always thought that when a bee snoozed, they gave little shudders. They don’t, and I’m disappointed.

I imagine that when someone asks what happened to the bees, I’ll tell them the facts. That the bees aren’t going extinct, in fact, I have them all, and they’re safe and sound, dozing softly in my home. That, in fact, I saved them, and that they can’t die in my freezer because there’s no pollution in my freezer. Only bees. And they’ll say, wow, Cassia, you must be the queen of the bees. And I’ll reply with confidence, that yes, in fact, I am.

I want to knit them tiny blankets, but the bees are too small, so I settle for building them little mahogany beds, with snipped satin sheets and down feather pillows. As I pick up the bees and tuck them in, I say to them wow, bees, you’re living better than me. But I swallow my envy, because bees are hard workers, and I am not. I’m only a temp worker with a job to do.

I wonder what to feed the bees when I wake them up from their slumber. Do bees drink honey matcha tea? Or is grapefruit and açai berry yogurt a better breakfast for them? I realize, horridly, that I do not know how to care for bees. I am queen of the bees, but I am not mom of the bees. I wonder if their bee-mom ever fed them peanut butter sandwiches with agave nectar before going to bee-school because their bee-dad was away at bee-war, like my human-mom did. I decide, probably not, because I don’t think bees like peanut butter.

I look up how to care for bees, and I realize I’ve made a grave mistake. Bees, when nestled in tiny mahogany beds and satin sheets in the freezer will only snooze soundly and happily for so long. Then, they will die. I’m coming for you, bees! I cry out. I take them out of my freezer, one by one as fast I can, and set them on my kitchen table in the sun. I worry that the bees will hate me now. I worry that I was not democratically elected as the bee-queen, and that the bees will have a mutiny, and use their little bee-guillotine to chop off my human head. I think I am in the clear, because a bee-guillotine isn’t big enough to chop off a human head. I tie them all on strings, just to be safe.

I decide to bake the bees apology cookies for when they awaken. I use honey, oats, and a good helping of vanilla, because I only want the best for the bees. I am not good at baking, but I hope they understand the thoughtfulness of the actions and do not chop off my head.

When the bees begin to wake up, I grab the ends of all the strings. I ask them to calm down; tell them that I made cookies and I can make hot chocolate for them too if that sounds nice. But they buzz and buzz, and they start to fly at the windows. I am reluctant, because I do not think the bees understand or appreciate the kindness of my gesture, but after some persistence and well thought out rhetorical buzzing from the bees, I relent. Fine, bees, we can go outside. But I’ll have you know that I worked really hard on those cookies.

When I take the billion bees outside, they fly all around, buzzing like an orchestra that’s mainly composed of clarinets, and maybe an oboe or two. They sound happy, I think, and I consider that maybe I am a good bee-mom after all, that maybe after their bee-moms died from cancer, like my human-mom did, they needed a kind but stern maternal figure in their life. They start to fly towards the sky, and I feel lighter and lighter.

When I feel my feet lift off the ground, I start to cry. Is this the democratic process? I ask. Have you voted me in as your new bee-queen? The bees buzz and zooz, which I do not think is a word, but sounds correct. As we soar through the air towards their bee kingdom, I give my acceptance speech. Yes, I will be your queen, I say. Yes, I will serve the common bee-good for years to come. And never, I say, will I leave.

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MARTELLO TOWER / NATIONAL MUSEUM by Nate Kouri

Sweet memories: Ciara the star turnBroadcaster Dr Ciara Kelly—an ambassador for Dementia: Understand Together—pays a stylish visit to the 'Memories Are Made of This' show garden at Bord Bia's Bloom Festival, which opens today at 9am for four days at the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

Book with 'satanic pledge' was found in room of Boy B, Ana trial told

The copybook contained a drawing entitled "satanic pledge", a list of names, including Boy A and Boy B's names, and a list of rules. The rules included "no talking about Jesus or God, only Satan," the court heard. Boy B's father also said his son doesn't respect him and didn't want to "share his truths" with him. Boy B told Gardí he called it a "Satanist cult" because he didn't want people to join who he didn't want to join. It was really a homework club, he said. The accused, who were 13 at the time, have pleaded not guilty to murdering 14-year-old Ana Kriegel in a derelict farmhouse. Boy A has also denied a charge of aggravated sexual assault. The trial continues.

—The front page of the Irish Independent on Thursday, May  30, 2019

This is Iowa: Kids keep baseball game going as tornado touches down within sight near Montezuma.

Des Moines Register headline, the same day

How children watch scenes in the fire: flames rolling over, wheeling back into waves red and red and roped by black, flamefoam rising, spinning out into circled eyes (squeezing eyelids, batting out) spreading between, sticking under (the midnight curtain drawn).

Watching through the grass on my stomach, leaves like cornstalks tall above the children who look flat like shadows in front of the flames—skipping, linking hands, like silhouetted paper dolls spinning in a Zoetrope—I hear the squat multitude chanting and I am touched but not moved by a vision of where I used to live. Seeing again a fading footpath through the rice fields where a military marching band set down their trumpets, the sun slowly kneading its thumbs into the hot brass like clay: handleside by morning, spoutside by night. Leaving home, I passed the band sleeping, surprised (the band and I) their chests falling and falling mechanically like four lazy whiskey stills (or don’t they move?), at least like ferris wheels and I didn’t think about violence for more than a minute, the way I would have as a child when I could still feel the force of gravity dragging me by my center down until I was temptation touched so I would not move hidden in the rice field. A farm has become a place to hide to. How many rows of crops could they check? Not here where city girls pull out roots, giving his limbs more leverage, their fourdoors half-tilted in the plow’s path off to the side of the road. Or here where Boy A and Boy B are in the soybeans making marks on the stalks with their teeth like rabbits, doing things to each other so…completely unavailable to the adult imagination, things they’d never really believe, couldn’t even read if they were written down and printed prominently in the newspaper. And soon the boys will forget each other too, the uncontrollable sounds once forced from their red faces erased, yes, entirely.

Or here, the paddy rice where during the night lightning repeatedly struck the band’s bass drum, the bolts turning green as they touched down on copper screws, blowing out the drumhead hides with such bassy force that it drowned out the sounding thunder, bursting the snoring heads resting on each side, chunks of their skulls sent into the distant cornfields as their bodies were flung, limbs limply collapsing, into the bog of the rice paddy with a thick splash, water landing on the hood of a truck parked in the ditch of a nearby country road as mud swirled around what was left of them tighter with a boagrip tighter through the age of image and tighter past the century of hands, the four bodies hugged motherly close by fertile Iowa mud in the dark, drowned farmland that a thousand years later, drained and dried into a hill, would unveil them in a cauldron on a crannog, its alloy engraved with intricate animal designs, their right hands raised in blessing, left hands gripped to croziers or tillage spades, and their so-called discovery by a group of Newsweek reporters stranded by a broken-down fourdoor en route to a routine smalltown caucus report would lead to the corpses’ Caesarean removal from nature’s tomb and entrance into the whim of human designs, passed between towns in territorial diocese disputes and finally sealed—the mud vacuumed out of them, their prehistorical dandruff dusted off, leaving only muscly potatoskin shells with a few fully formed organs or limbs jutting out—by an art dealer in a plexiglass human-sized jewelry case with cute poems and crude drawings of the bodies from first and second-graders pasted under the museum display, passed idly by students pointing at a portrait of W.B. and yelping yeet yeet!

Or that’s what I would have seen at eight when I looked for drama between the flames when I knew all the chants and before I despised the rain.

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MIND WHAT’S GOOD by L Mari Harris

The girl sits on her old teeter totter in the backyard, eating mini marshmallows out of a bag. Pushes off. Crick. Down. Crick. Pushes off again. Crick. Pork Chop the Chihuahua watches each marshmallow go from fingers to mouth, cocking one eyebrow, then the other.

A man in a black suit and hat walks down the alley. It’s early August, 98 degrees. He has something in his hand.

“Hey, Mister! What’s in your hand?”

The man stops at the fence and holds a hammer and a bar of soap up.

The girl and Pork Chop stare. Mrs. Potter from three houses over once walked through the alley carrying a squawking chicken she was going to turn into a nice soup with noodles and carrots and celery, but that was about as weird as the girl had ever seen.

“Why you wearing that hot suit?” The girl scratches Pork Chop behind his little ears. The tiny dog leans into her hand, shivers with contentment.

The man smiles and leans his forearms on the fence. “Would you like to hear the Word of God?”

“You a preacher or something?”

“Something like that. I help people, showing them God’s goodness and grace.”

“How you find them?”

“They tend to find me.” The man juggles the hammer and the bar of soap to his other hand, pulls a handkerchief out, wipes his brow.

The girl sees her best friend by the trees. Maggie?

The girl and Maggie, flip flops slapping on the sidewalks, giggling, arms draped around each other’s shoulders or waists, eyes down when the older boys would rev their engines and shout as they roared by, then giggling again, clutching their arms, the downy hairs tingling. Then, the girl’s daddy already downstate, springtime, one of the older boys stopping as she walked along the road, offering a ride, No thanks, offering it again, No, really, I’m almost home. Next day, girls laughing, boys pointing, one sticking his finger in her face, We hear you’re a good time. Everyone laughing, the girl cutting through backyards, missing her big bear of a daddy who still called her Princess Sunshine, missing her momma who's distracted from working three jobs, missing her best friend who called her trash as the girl ran out the school doors.

The man in the suit turns and looks. “See someone?” 

“No, guess not. Mister, you haven’t said what you’re doing with those things.”

“Why, to do my washing and build a house for the Lord.”

The girl hears a saw start up in the garage. Daddy?

The girl’s daddy, building her a bookcase on their last weekend together, the girl sitting on a milk crate, watching, listening over the buzz of the saw and pounding of nails. Made a stupid mistake, baby. You mind what’s good and you won’t go wrong. But make sure it’s the good you’re hearing. That’s where I got it wrong. The girl wrapped her arms around her daddy and didn’t let go until her arms went numb.

The man in the suit cocks his head. “Hear something?”

“No, guess not. You got a long ways to go? You thirsty, Mister?”

“No, thank you. I’m on my way to Redemption. I was told it’s just up the way a bit, past the edge of town.”

“Past Mr. Elwood’s dairy farm?”

“So I hear.”

“What’s this Redemption look like?” The girl wonders if it’s a town she’s never heard of or maybe that church out on Hwy B where talk is they play with snakes and fall to the floor. She hopes it’s not that.

The man in the suit drums his fingers on the gate, furrows his eyebrows. “Horses with velvet-soft muzzles tickling your palm for sugar cubes. Lilac bushes big as houses. No fighting. Fresh sheets on your bed every night, and the smell of bacon frying every morning. No one ever has to go away or find themselves alone, because there are no mistakes and no lies. All the ice-cold lemonade and chocolate donuts and French fries with extra ketchup you could ever want.”

She loves it all.

Pork Chop jumps up and down, wagging his little tail. He loves it all too. The girl and the man both laugh. She scoops up Pork Chop and walks toward the gate. She wants to see this Redemption for herself.

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BACKSEAT OFFERING by Janice Leagra

He’s just had a cigarette and a TicTac after doing a line on the console. His tongue tastes of tobacco and peppermint. The car is almost too warm. The engine’s running, the heat on full-blast. Still, goosebumps dot your skin. The light from the stereo shines lava red. It’s a raw, frigid night. The threat of snow hangs like a skullcap over Maple Lake.

It’s the eve of your fifteenth birthday. He’s seventeen. He’s giving you your birthday present. Here, in the backseat of his Camaro. Fourteen isn’t so young. That’s what he’s told you for weeks. You thought sixteen would be better, but now you think he’s right.

The car is enveloped by an arched snarl of brambles cut out along the lake’s edge. The bare branches flail in the wind and screech as they stroke the car’s roof. You think of horror movies. You love horror movies. The enclosure is enough to conceal the car from cops and passersby. You wanted to come here. This is where you want it to happen.

Your parents don’t know you’re here. They don’t know you’re with him. If they knew, they would forbid you to see him, ever. He’s not the right sort. You go to Catholic school. He doesn’t go to school at all. He’s too old. He smokes. He does bad things. To you, he’s perfect. They don’t know that he shimmied up the cedar tree next to your house, climbed onto the roof, tapped on your bedroom window, wanting to be let in. You told him to wait for you across the street in his car. You snuck out and ran along the deserted road. The thump-thump of the car’s stereo beat its rhythm from within. Taillights, cherry-red beacons. Exhaust smoke reaching skyward in the wintry air.

There are stories about Maple Lake. This part of New Jersey has lots of stories. Old ones. About these woods. Things people have seen, heard. You’ve read books. Every book you could find. You’ve told these tales to him. You write about them in your diary.

The windows are fogging. Good. There’s no moon. It’s so dark. Still, it’s possible to see things. Movement. Shapes. Flickers.

“Why Can’t I Have You?” by The Cars is playing on the radio. It’s important to remember that for your diary. You’re shivering, but not from the cold.Are you okay? he says, not really caring, all quick breaths and awkward movements on top of you. You nod. Your bare back sticks to the vinyl seat.You focus your eyes over his shoulder to the passenger window. It’s steamed up. But there’s something there. You think of the stories. Cloven hooves, red eyes, horns, wings. They’re just stories, he’s said. There’s no such thing.His fingers. Your underwear. His belt. Your lips. His mouth. No one knows you’re here. Only him.

You look at the window again. It’s closer. Something big. Looming. Red.

Wait. Not yet, you say.

Not yet? Come. On.

There’s something there.

Where? he says.

Out there. Just outside the car. Something big. Moving.

There’s nothing there. Shh. C’mon.

His tongue. Your thighs. His hands. Your hips. The music. Candy smile, all the while, glinting.

It’s happening. This is it. It’s happening.

His body finally goes limp and heavy on yours. He breathes on your shoulder.

The radio voice says it’s 11:29. You’re still fourteen. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t caress or hug you. He just lies on top of you, sweaty.

Then at the window. Gleaming red.

Look. See it? you say.

He sits up. Rubs at the fogged window with his balled-up shirt and peers out.

There’s nothing there. What, you think it’s the Jersey Devil? Christ.It could be.

He laughs, puts on his clothes, tosses you yours. Grabs his cigarettes and lighter from the console. He gets out to smoke and take a piss. You dress and think of everything you want to remember for your diary.

A tiny orange flame flickers outside, lights up his face, then fizzles. You climb into the front seat. Then, a thunk. The car rocks. You rub your cuff on the window and it squeaks against the glass. You press your forehead against the cold surface and look. Nothing.

Except for a distant glimmer.

You roll down the window. The cigarette pack is lying on the ground. Your breath puffs out of you in tiny, faint clouds. No sound but for the gentle lapping of the lake water.

Two bright red embers stare back at you from the shore. They start moving toward you. In the feeble glow of the taillights you can make out the shape of horns and the points of wings as it gets closer. It’s just like the stories.

Perfect.

No one knows you’re here.

It stops near the back of the car. The glowing slits of its eyes consider you. You smile. It seems to nod. Its leathery wings unfurl and go taut as it leaps up into the night sky.

You leave the warmth of the car, but you don’t feel cold. You begin the long walk home and think about what you’ll write in your diary. Your plans, maybe…for next time.

He was right. Fourteen’s not so young.

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FRIDGE NOTE by Matt Boyarsky

Good morning, my little junkyard dog. Sleep okay?

I put on a fresh pot, and your old man is propped up sturdy in the recliner. I sprayed him with Febreeze to be safe. He’ll be fine. He’s not going anywhere. Please come watch the sunrise with me?

That spot — down at the reservoir, where we made love, where we rolled around in the lithium, and I thought I grew a third ear as I climbed out from the sludge a monster, and you asked me if I was scared, and I said, “shit yeah”— that’s where I’ll be. I didn’t put on any shoes before I left because I didn’t feel like it. I like when my heels are calloused and black. I’m prettiest then. 

It’s not that cold, I don’t think. Could just be the shakes. But, should you happen to think of my SpongeBob slippers on your way out— assuming you come—I’d be so grateful. I might have changed my mind. But if not, no biggie.

Oh, and I borrowed your wig, too. Hope that’s okay. Don’t worry, though, it’s not your good one. I grabbed the purple bob with the cinnamon gum stuck in it instead. The one that makes me feel like midnight. The one that babbling bank teller said had “Uma Thurman vibes” when I stepped on the side of his head and you cleaned out the vault, laughing at how its walls ate the sound.

Be sure to lock up if you come. Your dad’s got a lot of bullets I’m sure a lot of others would like to borrow, too. And if you can stomach it, give him an extra kiss on the cheek from me. The social checks have been real lifesavers, and I’m not so sure I’ll ever be able to repay him before we meet on the other side. But we’ve been good this month. We’ve been careful. Enough. Let’s order the whole breakfast menu at Al’s Place. Maybe do a couple coffee enemas until we can feel our hair growing. Time to hit the goddamn road already.

They’re calling for clear skies. You should come see this. 

With love,

The rhinestone cowboy

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AL WAITS FOR RAIN by Jonah Howell

1

I haven’t worn glasses since I was sixteen, so I heard him before I could make out his features. “So you’re not coming?” Pacing back and forth at the corner of Ninth Street, he shoved the phone in his pocket without hanging up. Let the other guy do it.

He walked into a pizza shop, a narrow hallway between Ninth and whatever street runs behind Ninth. I followed. Pizza seemed wise: Forecasts showed a storm, but I was still scheduled for a long landscaping shift.

He stood in the doorway, a tall man, probably six-four but hunched to six-flat, and he kept intense eye contact. I assumed he managed the pizza shop and had been yelling at a no-show employee. I tried to relate. “Kids these days, huh?”

He responded with silent confusion, and a wide Italian man appeared from behind a mountain of pizza boxes. “We don’t open ‘til eleven.”

I left. Tall guy followed me now. “I don’t work there,” like he’d read my mind. “But yeah, I’m stressed out.”

His eyes glowed yellow, and the word, “stressed,” required serious effort. He sank onto a bench in front of the pizza shop’s neighboring laundromat and held out an enormous hand with knuckles like old brass doorknobs. “Abe.”

Looking up at a cumulonimbal colossus, I decided my shift would be canceled, so I leaned against a wall and slipped outside time. “Why so stressed?”

“My girlfriend overdosed on Monday.” He drained a Steel Reserve in a brown paper bag in one quiet gulp.

I have often been accused of pathological optimism. “Is she alright now?”

“The hell are you talking about, is she alright? She’s dead.”

I gave up. “Sorry about that.”

Embarrassed for me, he pulled a tiny book from his pocket. Prayers for Times of Hardship. “People tell me it’ll help, but I can’t get into it.” He flipped through it. The first and last pages were coated in names and phone numbers, and he had highlighted several of the intervening passages. “I want you to answer something for me.” He flipped back and forth, pausing at each yellow section. “Here. The bit with the star.”

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

“‘Son of David.’ Nobody’s managed to explain that to me.”

“The original verse, in Hebrew or Greek or something, probably read ‘descendant.’”

He looked at it for a while, nodding occasionally, then looked up as a beat-down Ford Explorer struggled to park parallel to us.

“That’s my niece.”

She smoked a long cigarette and yelled expletives at the cars in front of and behind her. Two kids with mid-length dreads sat in the back seat, calm and silent.

Abe yelled at her, “What are you doing with those two boys?”

She got out of the car. They stayed. She launched into conversation with Abe in an enervated whisper, so I walked to the coffee shop up the road and sat in a wicker chair three sidewalk-slabs away from an ACLU canvasser. In a neuter radio voice, he repeated to each passer-by, “Hi, I’m here defending civil liberties and human rights with the ACLU. Will you help me?” His white mustache ruffled the same way every time like an inched tape. Truly incredible. Rejection after brusque rejection.

After the thirty-seventh a man stopped, green bucket hat aflutter in the antediluvian wind. He looked about ten years older than the canvasser. His stone-blank face could have been a topological map. “Do you oppose the draft?”

“There is no draft.”

“Do you oppose it, though?”

“Well, we’ve recently forced the administration to reunite 2,173 Latin-American--”

“Do you oppose slavery?”

“Of course we’re against slavery.”

“How can you say you’re against slavery if you don’t fight the draft?”

“Sir, there is no--”

“I was drafted.”

“I thank you for your service, sir.”

“For my slavery, you mean? Good day.” 

He started to shuffle off, but the canvasser called out to his back, “Are you sure you can’t make a small donation to defend civil liberties?”

“If you don’t oppose slavery I can’t possibly support you. Good day.”

As he made his slow escape, a hoarse panhandler walked by with an unreadable cardboard sign. He fixed the canvasser with a knowing look and stepped close to him. “I hope you get it just like I do.” He walked a few steps then turned back thoughtfully. “Actually, I don’t hope. You will, just like me, I promise.”

2

Consider the geometry of our Ninth Street Rube Goldberg machine: 

On this block we have a line of forty-three rectangular sidewalk slabs, from the gutted skeleton formerly known as Francesca’s to Vintage South, whatever that is. Numbering from Francesca’s, the canvasser stands on slab four and faces the street. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, weakly, weakly. 

My wicker chair sits on seven. In this freeze-frame, the Vietnam vet and his green bucket hat shuffle up the row, one foot in slab ten and the other lagging back on nine, turned slightly to one side. He plants his feet with every step as though the wind might blow him away at any moment. The panhandler has overtaken him. We see him paused, airborne, running, above fourteen, where Abe and his niece now reenter the frame, lumbering toward me. They have already parted to allow the Vietnam vet to shuffle between them. Outfold, infold. Like birth, the marble shoots on down the lines and curves. 

The two kids are nowhere. The Rapture, perhaps. If we focus, we see that shimmering translucent strings attach each character to the next, creating a drag on all our movements as storm clouds gather at both ends of the street, walls closing in, pressurizing. We are all Han Solo in the trash chute. The first faint snorts of thunder rattle the strings, and Abe’s eyes darken from highlighter yellow to old book yellow.

3

Niece plopped down in the wicker chair beside mine as Abe paced toward the street and back toward us. “Church said they had $130,000 in donations this month, but I’m still sleeping in the woods. How’s that?”

Niece recited, “Religion’s bad, but God is good. He sent Jesus to die for your sins, so there’s free will. It’s not religion; it’s something you believe.” She took a long drag from her cigarette and hiccupped and coughed simultaneously.

“I ain’t buying that bullshit. There’s something up there, but hell if I know what it is.” 

His shoes had no laces, so the canvasser didn’t join the conversation, and Abe ranted on uninhibited, pacing faster and swinging the book wildly.

“Grandma told us to believe in this man with a beard and all our problems would go away. Where’s he at?”

“You’ve got to change your insides.”

“I ain’t buying that bullshit. God can be good or he can be powerful. Pick one.”

Niece, exasperated and at the end of her cigarette, turned to me for help. I pointed at Abe. “Maybe he’s God.”

She lit another cigarette and walked up the road. By the time Abe realized she’d left, she’d passed the cyclery on slab twenty-eight and fished her car keys from her purse. Abe watched after her for a few seconds then took off his shoes with a sound like someone plucked the string of a homemade bucket-bass. He pointed to his grass-covered socks. “I’ve been sleeping in the woods. And that preacher took out a credit card reader midway through his sermon, had people line up, and told them not to swipe if there was nothing on the card.”

4

I wondered what Abe’s name was yesterday. I wondered what it would be tomorrow. He stared at his laceless shoes, and the canvasser stopped a hunched woman with a yoga mat, and the first drips of rain inflated the parched grass on God’s socks. 

5

A flashbulb of lightning illuminated the street, but the thunder shuddered several seconds later. Abe put his shoes back on. The tongue of the right shoe was under his foot, but he seemed not to notice. He walked back toward the laundromat, book open, highlighter in hand. Behind him, a new figure emerged from a CBD dispensary and stood next to the canvasser and yelled at a Lexus, “How’re you gonna have a nice car like that and can’t even park it? Disgusting.” He paused for a moment and leaned his head back before screaming so hard he doubled over, “Disgusting!” 

Still the canvasser didn’t turn his head but watched the Lexus roll out of his line of sight, his eyes bulging with loss. Abe had walked away and now stood statue-still on slab thirty-one, staring at the parking space his niece had occupied then gazing slowly up the street, down the street, and back at the parking space. He blinked several times, as though something were caught in his eye. He then gazed up the street, down the street, and back again at the parking space. Still unsatisfied, he blinked several more times and shook his head before gazing down the street, then up, then back at the parking space. He slouched back onto the bench in front of the laundromat. His right hand flipped the pages of Prayers for Times of Hardship twenty at a time while his left hand rubbed the bench and his eyes remained fixed on the parking space. Then it started to rain.

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A THOUSAND WORDS OF BURNING ALIVE by Serrana Laure

The rough bark of the pole bit into the tender flesh of her bound wrists, skin fraying against the rope. Her bare feet dangled, numb from the frigid air that gnawed her bones. The wintry sky above glowed, surreal cerulean. She lowered her eyes from the sky and stared into the jostling crowd below. They muttered and seethed. Somewhere, someone laughed. A harsh, short laugh, more like a bark than a giggle. Cameras and phones pointed in her direction. A flash went off and her mind stuttered at the utter insanity. She was being made an example of, she understood this, but the thought that anyone would want a record of it, something to go back to, to show their friends and family, to remind themselves of the event; the thought of this made something in her brain snap. Another flash went off, blinding her.

She had been suspended there overnight, swinging from her own limbs. Her fingers and palms had long since succumbed to numb, but her wrists shrieked, radiating pain up into her arms and shoulders, protesting having been pressed against the hard wood for so long. The cold, and cramping collided in clearly calculated agony, keeping her awake. The pain should have made her disoriented, but instead, she saw the world in high definition. Hawklike, her eyes gravitated toward the unnoticed. She examined the cellular makeup of the air around her. The dust motes hanging in the halfhearted rays of sunlight seeping their way through the clouds, each needle on the pine trees at the edge of the forest, her own blood rushing her life delicately through her body.  

The churning crowd hushed, drawing her attention to the man with the flamethrower a shadow in the shape of a person. The black hole where his face should have been shifted, looking up at her. She tried to empty her brain, prepare herself. The shadow’s machine spurted torrents of orange and crimson, and the wood beneath her feet burst into heat. It felt good at first. The warmth was some small relief to her frozen toes and she was transported, for a moment to a happier time. A time when they had stumbled in from the snow and he had pulled her boots off near the fire and held her frostbitten feet between his warm palms and they had laughed and smiled and everything had been comfort and heat between them. A time when things had been stable and he had been kind. A time when she had trusted him, despite his station. A time before he had divulged her secrets. It had been sensitive information, she had known that, but she had gone against her intuition, convinced herself that his feeling for her was enough to protect her. She had been naive, she knew that now. But the time for epiphanies had passed. As the flames began to claw their way up the pyre and her toes began to thaw, a dull ache pushed in as if in anticipation of the impending torment.  

The throbbing from the cold morphed into stinging shocks and she twitched involuntarily as her skin burst into blisters. She bit down on her lips trying to delay the screams she knew were inevitable. And then, with horrifying speed, the stinging thrust into a searing, that shattered into an agony so strong she feared she would explode. The heat radiated from inside her own skin. She gasped and her gasp distorted into a disembodied shriek: inhuman, feral. Even through the pain, she was aware of how disconnected she felt from the sound of her own voice. As though her very being was rending into disparate aspects of itself. She could no longer tell if she was feeling the pain or if it was simply a memory, an echo of suffering. Her whole body flushed as though she had been submerged into a bath of ice water and she screamed again, but this time it was less of a shriek and more of a whimper, and her head slumped and she was silent. 

The crowd below scrutinized her through their glowing screens. They were no longer jostling. The silence thickened as her skin and muscle split and fat and blood began to ooze out of her in rivulets of red. The flames crackled and spat with tiny explosions. As they groped higher up her legs, they caught her thin shift, stripping her pale body bare just long enough for everyone to snap a photo before the fire devoured her entirely. Soon, she no longer looked like a person, simply a black hole where something human should have been. A simulacrum of woman. Tar black smoke stretched from the pyre, staining the blue sky with shadow. The crepitating flames ricocheted in dissonance against the particles of the ominously silent winter day. No one in the crowd made a sound. 

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TO MY SON AND ONLY CHILD: YOUR MOTHER IS CLOSE TO FADING by Nathan Elias

This may come as a shock, but since my death I’ve spent copious hours (each hour a lifetime) relearning the laws of the living. I rediscovered what it means to mourn when you wept capriciously at the side of my casket. I’ve also reimagined gravity as the weight of my sorrows sifts through the sieve of time’s welcoming hands. But now, my boy, my final hour is upon me. The hourglass drains, and so I must transmit, as well as the dead are able, these lessons I’ve procured since the time we spoke last:

The dead’s days, too, are numbered. Upon entering death’s doors, all personal memories are stripped from the ghost-mind until only those of fleeting, trivial observations remain. When I was a girl in pigtails, I once watched from my bedroom window a mourning dove fly from its branch, only to hang in the air, flutter its wings, and return to its branch. After the dead have fully detached from their sorrows and hopes (I had so many for you), we are granted access to a lens through which we may temporarily view the lives of those we loved. 

I was there, at your wedding, and you were right to tell your wife I would have loved her.

~

When the last grain of the dead’s days approaches the tunnel toward the bottom chamber of the hourglass, we begin to fade completely. We are sent back briefly to embody one of our trivial memories from a torn perspective outside of our bodies. 

I’m flying from my branch, only to hang in the air and flutter my wings before returning to my branch. 

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THE HORSES, THE HORSES by John Torrance (Megan Pillow)

All in all, it’s a good place to stop for the night. There’s little work to be done and a beauty of a view: a tranquil lake at the bottom of a grassy hill, lush and electric green beneath the early evening sun. No other cattle to crowd them. After they put up tents, perhaps a bit of play to shake off the day’s ride: a tune on Morton’s banjo. Then grass for the cattle and grub for the men: canned beans, or maybe a rabbit that’s a touch too slow, something that makes the belly full without turning it. They’d learned that lesson with the prairie dogs near Jackson Hole.

While Amos and Morton unsaddle the horses and shoo the cattle, Jack is staring at something. Amos shakes his head. Still distracted. Watching the animals. Amos watches the grassland, which looks like his palm when he touched it to the barn that time and drew it away, wet and green and dripping great dots of color onto the bleached ground, leaving a half dozen lines trailing dull across the wood like a boy had run his hand there instead of a man. The memory of those fingermarks makes him shiver. They’re still on the side of that barn in Cheyenne, as if the ghost of him is running its fingers along the wall.

By the time all the tents are up, it’s dusk, and the three of them are worked out. No time for music. Clouds are gathering: big, dark, and they bring a chill. No wind. Just a slow, sneaking cold, like an icehouse door left open too long. Amos winds the rope that tethers the (quiet, quiet) horses to the makeshift hitching post till there’s no more play. Morton spoons beans onto tin plates. Amos makes a face but takes one, hands another to Jack. But Jack isn’t paying a lick of attention. His face is drawn, dull. He’s staring at the horses (are they staring back?). Where Jack’s looking, there’s nothing but horses. He’s been restless the past few nights, woken Amos with his whispering. Mornings, he’s always sitting by the dying fire, his eyes bruised, a blanket around him.

What’s wrong? Amos always says.

The horses, says Jack. The horses.

Amos elbows Jack. He takes the plate without taking his eyes off the horses.

Boy’s got a case of the creeps. Just one more night (there’s nothing to be afraid of), we deliver the cattle, and we can all go home.

The cold is all around them before the beans are gone, needling its way inside their clothing so quick that they all turn in. There’s no more light to work by anyway. The roiling clouds have blotted out the moon, the stars. It’s so dark they couldn’t see a pack of wolves hunting them down the hillside. Best to bury under the blankets and sleep till morning. Amos pulls back his tent flap. Jack is standing at the mouth of his own. His eyes are like the gleam of water at the bottom of a well. Likely Jack is getting no sleep at all.

Amos hasn’t been asleep long when a sound wakes him. Quiet, then again: hooves pawing the dirt, playing at something. He clicks his lamp on, lifts the tent flap. The horses are loose from their hitch, standing in a line, their necks close as a clutch of flowers. All of the cattle are gone. He clicks the light off now. He’s tired. His head makes shit up. These are good horses. They won’t (hurt us) disappear. Cattle are probably just over the hillside. He clicks the lamp on again, looks out. Midnight, a horse he’s had since he was a colt, turns his head towards him. His eyes shine like dimes. Out of the dark, Jack is whispering.

The horses. The horses.

I need sleep, thinks Amos. He clicks the light off and hopes for sleep, closes his eyes.

Then, again: hooves. Closer. He clicks the lamp on, lifts the flap. The horses are a few feet away now. Steam rises from their noses like smoke from distant fires. Then the lamp begins to die and he is suddenly terrified. The light flares. Amos can see the rise of Midnight’s chest, the dull constellation of scars spanning his ribs where Amos uses the crop, digs in his spurs.

Good boy, he whispers.

Midnight watches him with gleaming eyes.

Amos’s lamp sputters out. The darkness terrifies him. Anything could be out there. Nothing makes sense in the dark.

The, the sound of hooves again. Closer. Closer.

The horses, whispers Jack. The horses.

Amos presses the switch and the lamp sputters on for a moment and off, and he’s in the dark again all alone, his chest heaving, and light again, then none and he’s struggling, working the switch but  the light’s down to nothing again, and he’s desperate no more playing with these fucking animals but the lamp  cuts off again and it makes a scream swell in his throat and Jack is whispering again and again the horses the horses again and again maybe this is a dream maybe maybe maybe I am that green-palmed ghost haunting the side of the barn in Cheyenne and maybe I’m still that dull good boy but then the lamp clicks on, and his breath shudders in his throat like a light.

Hooves paw the ground just outside his tent now.

The damp from Midnight’s nostrils wet the flap like breath against a windowpane.

The lamp goes out again.

Amos can hear the click of the bit, like bone, between Midnight’s teeth.

Maybe I’m not here at all I’m not here I’m not but in another field somewhere. Maybe I’m in a parlor yes or at a hotel bar blacking out from drink the dredges of. Maybe I’m walking across the bathroom of  room 237 to join a woman in a great green tub. Maybe  there’s no escape  all this is fake the work is for nothing and no play was a better plan but makes a mistake. Maybe maybe Jack was right maybe maybe  I’m stuck in a snowdrift slowly freezing maybe I’m not shining but maybe I’m  a dull boy maybe I’m alone in some haunted   hotel maybe just writing a novel about this. Maybe -

the lamp clicks on and he sees it then oh God and the horse takes the shape of something, something, something and then oh then it blacks out the sky what is it dear God -

the words were here all along.

Maybe this is the end.

Or maybe

(all my words in the world  won’t work to save me and this is the end of time and no nothing will change it you can’t do a thing the play is dead it’s the end I think it makes me terrified of what’s coming but only Jack knows he knows it’s the end times, isn’t it? I am  a dull dead boy now)

it is the beginning of something new.

Maybe all  all it is work and no play no play and no play the beginning the beginning makes Jack of something of something a dull boy new something new.

Maybe all all it is is work and no play no play and just no play the  beginning the beginning makes Jack of something of  something a dull boy new something new.

Maybe all  all  it is is work and no play no play and just no play the beginning the beginning makes Jack of something of something a dull boy new something new.

Maybe

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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MISAPPREHENSION DUET by Graham Robert Scott

Even by nine a.m., the heat’s settled in like a blanket, calories by the zillions, welling out from laboring bodies and machines under the desert sun, trapped under layers of atmosphere and cloud and smog. Damp handkerchief in one clenched fist, Dale Brenner mops brow and crown. He aims his lips at the reporter—Gina? Tina?—and bellows against a cacophony of straddle carriers and trucks, of containers crashing into place: This freight’s all dead tires. Once it makes port, it’s on its way to ’Nam. A sideloader grinds by. As G(T)ina checks her phone, its driver gives Dale the bird. It’s a great deal. We don’t want this shit in our landfills, but Asia can’t get enough of it. G(T)ina interrupts, asks how many he employs. Our op? Forty-two, full-time. See, tires are mostly oil, yeah? So they burn ’em for fuel. Power cement factories with them— Annual revenue? Oh. Look, I’d rather not disclose that. I’m sure you understand. But, see, it turns out tires have some great byproducts, too, once you've pyrolized them. Crumb rubber and shredded rubber as construction additives. Carbon black— G(T)ina glances at her phone, again, and blood pressure swells as Dale squeezes his handkerchief behind his back. Hot date? Gonna write any of this down? She frowns up at him from behind wisps of gusted hair. A scribble goes into the notebook. Unclear whether it’s shorthand or doodle. Sweat builds on his face; in his pits; between folds of belly; in the crack of his ass. Far side of the yard, a truck engine roars to life. Dale leans forward, raising his voice to match, trying to smile at the same time, and looks as a result like he’s trying to eat her. It’s a win-win, see? Rare success story for recycling. Both entrepreneurs and environmentalists happy. Scribble. Gonna take pictures?  With frown and furrow, she shakes her head. Dale pulls his collar away from his neck to unstick it, let it breathe. Back in his office, a sheaf of legal paperwork rustles under the AC; he envies the document its location, loathes its existence. Now, China’s cracked down on imported used tires, which, I won’t kid, cuts off a big market. But Asia’s bigger than the Middle Kingdom, and we’re making new deals every day in other parts of that world. Exciting, yeah?  She performs an oh-look-at-the-time, tucks notebook away, extends a hand. Wait, is that it? So few questions. In particular, none about his recent EPA suit, which at first he took as a positive, a sign she’s not one of those reporters. But she hasn’t asked much else. It’s just, I thought this would be a nice story for your readers. And, he doesn’t say (because it’s understood, isn’t it?), also for his vendors and investors, show he’s back in the game, shit squared away, so they don't fucking bolt. But G(T)ina gives him that puzzled look again. Dale feels words tripping out of his mouth faster than he can edit them, as his face looms closer to hers. I mean, is this going to be a nice profile? Not a hit piece? ’Cuz I thought maybe this would be forward-looking, optimistic. We got a bright future here. Now I’m worried you only called because you wanted to write shit about that settlement deal. Regina—he remembers her name now, out of nowhere—retrieves her notebook. Her hand is smooth, without callous; her face, without wrinkle. Only now it dawns on Dale, maybe he’s misread how much she prepped for this visit.

Settlement? she asks, and clicks her pen.

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EMPATHY! by Janice Kang

X MARKS THE SPOT. your larynx and syntax are open-winded, words flitting downwards like a map ever-expanding. here is the way to diamond treasure, to sparrow bones and mud. and thus these words are splintered halfway through: cherubic and chthonic — the diary of a child with a knife down their warm pulse. for, in an inventory of dreams, there is no spare air which you can hold in your palms.

SHE REACHES THE X. she takes the other half. grey neutrality, she dons a grey turtleneck and sits among lone wolf sighs, wading in strange breaths. she cannot speak. she is the penumbra of what you cut free in 2016, sun soaked.

you smile against winds. the maiden in velvet pats along the bow around your torso, holding together all of your organs like a corset. you must conform, she seems to say, but hazes lull over you, incohesive fragments. your smile is warm, her hands traversing your body map of thorns and whimsies asunder to the way your lashes point downwards. naught of you can be whole . . . in tonight's dream, you are a ballerina breaking your toes for the first time. when you wake, you are feral nerve damage. you think: trauma conceives something strange. you think: it stains your teeth and dances to eulogies in minor chords.

in another dream, cast in the in-betweens, for you are never fully awake, you are watching a performance, and the maiden leads you into a dark corridor. it turns into a blue field. you remember a piece of something. a bee kills itself on your skin. you wake up and scream, paralyzed like vitrification has overcome the bout of you.

YOU CHASE AFTER HER. the maiden covers you in papercuts made up of love. honey-naught and honey-rot. it is morning. she finds you tucked under your soft wood table, a camerashutter going off in tandem with the rain showers and your breaths. her gaze is light upon your bowed crown, blue and quiet. you never turn off your computer, because there is an itch wholly interlaced in the dip of your chest. i feel that — but she is gone. you await the next moonrise. a friend tries to speak to you from outside the inventory, faces covered by sheer drapes. rulers of the sun and moon, they say, you think, you fall asleep on the tiles. you have created a kingdom where the trauma brews, a malediction inside your throat. it seems that you must have taken someone's poisoned apple for your own.

SHE CONFESSES TO YOU WITH HER NOSE ON YOUR SHOULDER, THAT YOU ARE ONE. that i am you. it is her fingers that glue your eyes together so that you are always asleep. so that you are always filled with rotten cigars in alleys, laughter stuck inside your larynx — someone else's, full and acoustic. she wants the rest of your diamond treasures, though she is but the fig skin against your heels. you chase yourself in circles, compeers and giggling comrades within one soft body, one slipping from a torn viscera. you are out of breath.

when you stare at yourself in the mirror, there is drip-drop agony, but she holds you close and mouths that she is sorry.

WE COEXIST. there is so much space between my arms and sides. i think that there are violent couplet galaxies trying to wrap around my indigo bones, colliding only because she tells them to. i want to put my computer to deep sleep tonight, for this empty epiphany is so dear to my open heart. i hold hands with myself and lay to rest against the dents in my walls. i glue my lashes into one. i wish to be so one that i cannot taste the remnants of anger and aches — so that my dreams are my own, not a labwork of wide-eyed empaths making me blue with windpipe lacks.

(i wake up without a voice.)

X MARKS THE SPOT. SHE REACHES THE X. YOU CHASE AFTER HER. SHE CONFESSES TO YOU WITH HER NOSE ON YOUR SHOULDER, THAT YOU ARE ONE. WE COEXIST

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WOMEN’S RUGBY by Krys Malcolm Belc

We were big, and we were rough, with our tough hands our tough faces our knotted knees caked with dirt our mouthguards we spit into our hands to yell at each other between plays, and we found each other, all the women like us, here, where we could hit each other, were supposed to hit each other—again and again we hit—arms against legs, shoulders into torsos we ripped each other to the ground again and again, this hitting we’d been waiting for our entire lives, this conflict, this violence that our bodies felt like they were meant to do, violence our brothers the guys in the neighborhood the men on our hometown football teams got to do earlier, easier, than us, but we’d earned our hitting—waiting for a time when we, too, could have bodies meant to hit and rip, without mothers sneering without girls in our classes snorting and whispering at us as we lumbered by in the hallways as we crushed everyone in gym class flying around tracks flying up ropes, here in women’s rugby we could hit each other—which was really an excuse to touch each other—over and over again on those long Saturdays, getting up in the morning together shoveling down cereal in the dining hall together taking turns lying back on the athletic trainer’s table to get our knees our shoulders our heads taped up warming up lazily in the September sun tackling hitting touching stripping down to our sports bras after the game to shake our filthy jerseys into the washbag, and then we partied together, still caked in mud dirty and stinking we could be like men then, all day on Saturday, no showers, burgers off the grill no plates no napkins ketchup out of a slobbering bottle we passed around, endless cheap beer in red cups, all those songs, brownies lifted out of cafeteria trays with muddy hands, standing around the courtyard in our filthy rugby socks and sandals, touching each other there at the party we’d been waiting for for years—we were people who hit other people for fun and because we had to, because the more we hit the more being people who hit other people defined who we were—and we’d found each other, finally, and sang until the end of the day when we could finally go to bed with each other, laughing at the men who designed our dorm showers, where we got clean together, in the cold industrial communal reminders of architects and engineers who could never imagine us.  

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KIWI by Lee Matalone

You need to put the diaper on the other way, stupid, your brother lectures you, as if you hadn’t practically changed his diaper growing up, such a hot mess, from day one. Though you are twins, Jade wasn’t truly potty trained until years after you, pissing in his bedsheets till he was four, five years old. You two aren’t all that similar, as a matter of fact. As a baby he never cried, he didn’t speak really until he was six or seven and even then words were spare. For Mama his cough was a gift from God.

You on the other hand, you’re a talker. You’re a girl that speaks your damn mind. Like, when he’s standing there, hovering behind you at the kitchen counter, your hands smelling like shit and goddamnit will you hand me a wipe and every time he shifts his weight he makes a shhh shhh sound and it’s driving you straight insane. The pockets of his cargo shorts are filled with change. Soon he’s going to the Kroger to cash it all out and he swears there may be twenty bucks worth in there. All morning he’s flipping couch cushions and floor mats in the car and digging in all your dress pockets, you only wear dresses with pockets because we girls have to suffer different than boys and goddamnit I want pockets just like boys. Your Aunt Valentine is helping you with groceries and baby stuff, so much damn baby stuff who knew babies needed so much stuff, but she already pushes her food stamps to the limit feeding your two hungry mouths and you think come on she’s gotta party too and you are fifteen years old, old enough to get a job pushing carts in the Walmart parking lot or scrubbing dishes in the back of O’Charleys. You know you can handle this. You know sure well you are both old enough to contribute to this family and your brother he’s going to go out and get a job, he says, right after he gets that cash.

When you turn around to grab the wipe you look at Jade for a long hard minute and sometimes it really is like looking in the mirror and sometimes it is like looking at a stranger or at least like looking in one of those carnival mirrors that make your body wiggly and long, slightly off and funnier looking but it’s still you. You are twins but not the kind that look alike but you look alike enough but he, Baby Reed, he doesn’t look like either of you. He’s like he was brought in by the postman, but he wasn’t, he was made right in this house, right here by this family.

You give your brother a look that says, this is a real messy one and your brother gives you a look back that says, I wiped his ass last time, Camryn. You two communicate this way, in unspokens, much more than actual talking. Like you said you like to talk, but you don’t even have to with Jade you’re just what they call on the same wavelength, like two colors of just a slightly different shade of blue. Or green. Jade’s favorite color is green. So everything for your baby is this awful shade of lime green that looks just like...You even stole some paint from the Walmart in that awful shade of lime green and one night Jade went out and got a Hot-n-Ready and you two and Aunt Valentine put on your holiest tees and started painting Reed’s room and though you hated that color by the time it was up on the walls you said well, this actually is kind of nice it reminds me of a fresh bite of kiwi, a fruit you only had once but you now considered your favorite fruit. You tried it when another classmate with shiny white ass sneakers in the sixth grade brought it in and she told you Yeah, you bite the furry stuff and you took a bite out of that itchy scratchy layer of green hairs and even with that, even after the girls at the table started laughing at you you thought this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted and when you look at the wall you think of that fruit and you smile inside your belly and inside your heart.

No one knows the truth about Reed except you and your brother, not even Aunt Valentine. When your belly started getting bigger you told her you were simply eating a lot of sugary cereals and frozen corndogs and when you got even bigger you said it must have been immaculate convention, you mean conception and she slapped you across your face so hard you hit the carpet and got a rug burn on your cheek (Don’t exaggerate, she later said, I was just waking your ass into motherhood.). When you got back up she was sitting on the couch, one leg crossed over the other, all calm with a TV remote in her hand, and she said this baby’s gonna be the healthiest, happiest baby in all of Deridder, as if she was making a promise not to bring anymore unhappiness into this house, into this family, as if she were saying your baby would be different than the other babies in town born to girls just like you with breasts barely perky enough to salute a one-star general, the girls without fathers or mothers or neither with babies made from immaculate convention, you got one in the oven and this muffin’s gonna be a beautiful little treat. Valentine could have said a whole bunch of mean things like hey be glad your mama OD’ed when you were three but she didn’t and she didn’t quite ask where the baby came from either she just said this muffin’s gonna be a beautiful little treat and that made you feel so good for maybe the first time in your life, even better, even better than when you had that first and only bite of kiwi.

You are wiping and wiping and your baby’s bottom is so squeaky clean you could probably kiss his toosh and your teeth would get brighter, and your brother he snickers and he goes up and plants a kiss right on your baby’s ass saying he hadn’t had a dentist appointment since he was maybe six years old and hey he needed a shine. 

You love Jade with all of your heart and you know he didn’t mean anything by it he needed the loving. Like every night when it got dark and the TV in the family room went quiet he’d crawl into bed with you and hug you tight, and about half those nights he’d cry hard and soft into your hair. Those nights you’d rock him to sleep, going hey, hey hey you’re a monkee, a song you remember from somewhere in the youth that you never quite had, maybe in an aisle in the Kroger when your Mama had you two buckled up side by side in the buggie, the loudspeaker telling you you were a monkey, a fun little good time creature swinging from some tropical trees in a faraway land, or sometimes you’d sing swing low, sweet chariot, and you knew a chariot was a magical word that meant something that would take you a place other than here, and that comforted him into such a special place, a place so different than here, a place where kiwis grow on every tree and loose change flows in the rivers and beautiful babies are born with rumps as sweet and soft as muffins you went there together.

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I PROMISE I WON’T SCREAM by Jan Stinchcomb

They say you did it.

Please tell us how it went down, otherwise we will never be able to stop parking in front of your house on Hibiscus Way. The woman who lives there now glares at us from the driveway. She got the place for a good price because of what happened, but by then most of us were gone, sent away in our parents’ last attempt to save us from the bad scene.

We have returned, as all children do, because we have nowhere else to go.

The sunlight in our hometown knocks us out. It follows us everywhere, even in our dreams. We feel safest here, but only because we know the depth of our secrets. It’s like trusting our feet will touch the bottom of the pool at the rec center.

#

Once we park here, we can’t leave. Sometimes we tell stories of the blood you spilled, and sometimes we sit and wait in brittle silence. Sometimes you are good enough to appear.

Look––someone’s in the window! There she is! That’s her face!

Now we’re all screaming.

Even the woman in the driveway is whirling around, trying to see what we’re screaming about. Christine puts her foot on the pedal and we fly away. Before we get to the first stop sign, our screams have turned into wild laughter, scattered tears.

We should have stayed, I say in a voice so small no one hears me.

Later on, while I’m lying awake in bed, I can see your face floating above me until the sun rises. Your furious face. Your center part. Your brown hair is so long it hangs down and tickles the tip of my nose.

You haven’t changed a bit.

#

A hammer and a gun. Blood all over the master bedroom, the carpet saturated. You burned the bodies at China Camp. We go out there now to smoke a joint in that same spot where you thought fire could hide your crimes. You wanted a fairy tale, didn’t you, a world without parents? No more rules, no screaming fights, just their money and their house. We feel for you, especially when they blame you for your green eyes and witchy ways, or when they say you manipulated your boyfriend into committing murder. He’s stuck in prison, they tell us, but they forget you were only sixteen, an abused adoptee.

We remember you, the saddest girl in school. You made us feel like we had no problems. Pills. Shoplifting. Pregnancies. Hidden bruises. Dreams we were afraid to speak. None of that compares to your misfortune, your curse, a mother-daughter tale of fiery rage that devours itself.

#

I go to the cemetery by myself and sit in front of your parents’ grave. It is the anniversary of the murder and I am all alone.

My parents would be so angry if they knew where I was.

I see you coming from afar. You’re wearing the same blue jeans and peasant shirt you wore in high school. Platform shoes. You carry a suede fringe purse with a long shoulder strap. It is you. It must be you. It is as if no time has passed.

Now we can talk about everything. Finally. I have so many questions for you.

But I panic as you get closer and then I bolt. I run on trembling legs past the crypts of respectable families whose daughters don’t do drugs or fornicate with older men. At the cemetery gates I turn, gasping, to look back at you.

Nobody is there. Not a soul.

#

You lived the teenage fantasy: you killed your parents.

When you disappeared from school, we thought you’d run away with your boyfriend, and then someone said they saw you at the market.

The market! We were disappointed, honestly. It was so ordinary. Why in the world would you be at the market? We would have thought you’d turn the house into a sex palace and drift away on a cloud of pot smoke.

We had no way of knowing murderers get hungry.

#

This town loves the dirt. They say you got off easy and went on to a life of petty crime. You go by many aliases. You’re an addict. A whore. A man who never lived here published a book about the murders; an artist did your portrait in graphite and ink. Despite all these attempts to fix you in place, you have disappeared.

A new theory emerges. That hammer. Your mother. It couldn’t have been your boyfriend, they say, it had to be you. All you. It was too violent, too personal. Your mother’s blood on your white hands. We’re going to drive by your house once more. We want you to walk through time and open the front door. We really need you to come out and talk to us.

Please. I won’t run away this time. I promise I won’t scream.

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THAT GIRL by Kathryn McMahon

If you’re going to listen to this story, you better really listen because that’s what it’s about: listening. You better scoot closer in case you miss something, in case a log pops, in case the wind picks up, because it’s bad luck to re-tell it, any part. The girl in this story will see to that.

She could be almost anyone. She isn’t beautiful, or maybe she is, or maybe it doesn’t matter. She’s been watching you, waiting to meet you. To get close. To listen to what you have to say as she bites her lip or runs her tongue across sharp, needle teeth that she files herself. Some say she wears red because she likes red-on-red, and while new blood dries brown, she likes that, too. Blood is easily lost against black, and this girl has nothing to hide.

The best way to know her is by the bats she keeps in her hair. She wears it up in a messy bun and petite, fuzzy bodies droop down and around, as if she were Medusa but with more cunning and a detachable wrath. Of course, they aren’t always nesting. These bats? She sends them out to hunt while she wanders neighborhoods, stealing secret spare keys and loosening bike chains. Letting you know she’s around. And that’s on one of her good days. Heaven forbid you catch her on a bad day. Or she catches you. Are you listening?

It’s a shame no one remembers what she was called before the dying undid her. She became someone who things had happened to. Bad things, of course, because no one talks much about the good that goes on, and people talked all about the bad. They blamed her for it. Like she was a tiny black hole sucking bad toward her, not a girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not just a girl being a girl.

When she was dead, still a girl because that’s all the time she was dealt, she came back. People were talking about what had happened to her so much so that she got sick of it. Just sick of it. She collected herself, all her broken bits and moldy pieces, and crawled right out of her grave and decided to make everyone talk about the things she actually did. The things she could control. And what does she do with that voice of hers, the one that was squashed, beaten-down, ignored? If you hear your name and turn to find no one there, that’s her. She’s coming for you. Readying your story in her mouth.

Her bats don’t only swoop after mosquitoes and moths. They’re searching for lies, for willful misunderstandings. They don’t drink blood—much. She’s no vampire queen. Though, if they’re a little thirsty, because it’s a warm night and they’ve been out hunting awhile, their delicate toes will land on your collar and they’ll creep toward your neck with eager, clicking fangs.

Are your ears perked for that brush of velvet? For that electric chirp of sonar?

When they get really hungry, when it’s one big whopper stinking up the night breeze, something awful about this girl or some other, about a woman, about women; when they hear She was asking for it. Her skirt was tootighttooshorttoo—. When they hear She’s lucky he paid her any attention. She should dress more like a girl. When they hear She shouldn’t have had that much to drink. What did she expect? The bats recognize their quarry.

They’re not only looking for that boy at the party, not only for that man in the car. She’s sent them for the storytellers, the owners of those lies. For their tongues or, rather, something past them. To the bats, those lying tongues licking chapped lips look extra tender and wet and juicy. Pure temptation. All they need is a point of darkness deep in those throats, tiny black holes sucking them in, and oh, how they want to be sucked in. To catch your lies and stuff them back down your throat. They see that hollow behind your teeth and pop through, one after the other. Because the girl? She wants in, too.

Once they’re inside, don’t try to scream. Your tongue will feel like a mechanical bull trying to kick free. But these cowgirls are going to win. The fingers at the ends of their wings hook on like a stranger on your car door. A few quick rips and their toes whisper past your taste buds to the meat underneath. They chew and chew. It is so soft, your tongue. They eat their fill, first one, then another, shredding their way down your throat, making a cave of your body like you did to the truth about that woman, that girl. Making you into a welcome mat for one such girl who will find you on the ground, right, right, like that, half-drowned in your own blood, sagging out of life.

The bats snap open your ribs one-by-one, a sound not unlike logs crackling on the fire. They’re stronger than they look, like that girl.

She puts her hand on your shoulder. Her fingers graze your arm, almost forgiving you. Almost. But there’s a hole where your sternum should be, and she reaches in, up through your throat, and since you’re useless and forgot how to tell the truth, she puppets your jaw for you. Cradles it. She’s deep inside you, firm and gentle. But that’s a lie. She’s not gentle at all. A bat folded where your tongue should be twitches at her touch. With a nudge or two, it flies free, carrying the truth. Now, lie still. Hush.

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LINOLEUM FLOOR by Mark Tulin

It’s morning. Circa 1972. I turn over in bed and gaze down at my gray marble linoleum floor. It’s coming up around the edges, and there are all sorts of dirty stains, punctures, and dried bubblegum spots on it.  I remember when it was new. My father laid it down himself. He brushed on glue, applied the linoleum, trimmed the corners with a sharp razor so it could snugly fit against the walls, and hammered the baseboards in with long, skinny nails.  

The window shade over my bed hangs crooked off to the right with one of its brackets dangling on a thread. If I try to pull it up, the window shade will collapse, and I don’t want people to look in my room at night. 

The room is in the shape of a small rectangle and tends to get very stuffy in the summer. I turn on the little rotating fan that sits on the metal desk, even though the fan just circulates hot air. My mother found the desk on trash day. She gave a neighbor five-bucks to haul it up the stairs to my room. My mother quickly put a bunch of crap on it, like a green rotary phone, a 13-inch TV, a grimy fan, and a small reading lamp.  Now I can’t use the desk to do my homework because there’s no space to put down my spiral binder and books.

Inside the desk drawer are my old baby records like DPT, Polio, and Smallpox vaccinations. My mother listed the dates and times of every shot and chronicled every doctor I saw. She documented that I was 6 pounds and 7 ounces at birth, and that I had hazel eyes and a little tuft of brown hair on the crown of my head. I pretty much look the same but lost most of my baby fat.

Old report cards are also stuffed in the drawer. They are yellowing and stuck together with small pieces of tape. All my evil deeds are thoroughly noted in red ink, my poor math skills emphasized with capital Ds, and my inability to pay attention in Mr. Fisher’s Science Class had labeled me a major class disturbance.

#

It’s the afternoon. I smell the sandy, metallic dust in my room, and my eyes follow the little lint balls floating in midair as the sunlight shines through the open window. Sometimes my mother sweeps the linoleum floor, but that’s a waste because the broom just brings up more dust and she rarely gets all the dirt into a dustpan.  

If my mind’s active, I don’t think about dust or about wheezing or if that annoying gurgle at the bottom of my throat will ever stop. But if I’m bored and restless, I notice everything as if my internal organs are on loudspeaker and I have X-ray eyes that can see the minutest details of my existence.  

I try to cough up phlegm periodically to clear my airways, but no matter how much I hawk, the wheeze always remains deep in the bottom of my lungs like a sunken treasure that no one could ever pull out. The doctor tries to help, but he says that there’s no cure. “You have to have good asthma maintenance,” is all he says, and gives me a bunch of steroids like unwrapped presents to take home.

Once, he stuck a long, snaking metal tube down my lungs trying to dislodge a thick glob of phlegm. There was a camera at the end of the tube and a monitor showing the inside of my lungs and what nasty stuff was happening. But I couldn’t look at the screen when the doctor was pointing because he was choking me to death. After my face turned blue and I waved my hands in desperation several times, he pulled the damn thing out. I told him never to try that again or my mother would sue the hell out of him.

I dig into my pocket and feel my emergency inhaler just in case I need it. It’s my life support, and I’m careful not to overuse it. One night I must have taken fifty puffs, and I ended up in the emergency room, which resulted in one week in the hospital with tubes in my arms and up my nostrils. I had lost ten pounds in the hospital that week, couldn’t sleep, and all I thought about was how the hell am I going to get out of there.

It’s days like this with nothing to do that I spend a lot of time thinking in my room.  I wonder what life will have in store for me and what I will become in ten or twenty years. I often get headaches just thinking about it because I have no clue. My father wants me to work for him in his produce store on the highway. I want to be a rock singer like Mick Jagger or a baseball pitcher like Nolan Ryan, something where I can be famous and where girls would notice me. All my mother says about my future is “Get a respectable job selling washers and dryers at Sears & Roebucks so you can wear a shirt and tie.”

#

It’s nighttime. Even though my head feels achy, I lay in bed enjoying the cool breeze coming through the window screen. I turn to the side of the bed where I look out of the window and wait for it to rain. I love watching clouds burst into a million scattered raindrops and hearing the jarring combination of thunder and lightning shake and rattle the night.

I know I should be falling asleep, but I’m wheezy again and pull out my inhaler and take two puffs.  The inhaler makes me hyper, so I walk around the linoleum floor in my bare feet and open my closet. There's my glen plaid bar mitzvah suit hanging along with the plush Hebrew bag stuffed with yarmulkes and prayer shawls.  My old blue cub scout uniform with the badges sewn to the shirt hangs there too, a little dull with age. The Louisville Slugger baseball bat that Uncle Perry bought lays on its side, and my Mickey Mantle glove with a hardball is tucked in the corner. I wonder how long these things will be in my closet. I wonder what new closets that I’ll have when I get older and what different things will be inside of them.  

#

The next morning, I wake to a soaking wet bed.  When I remove the sheets, the stains ingrained in the mattress look like my personal urine signature. They are my emotional wounds, sores that have never healed and seem to linger in this putrid air. They are many times that I unintentionally pissed the bed in my shame-ridden childhood. I try to convince my mother that it’s only spilled water, an accident. Of course, she doesn’t believe me. So, I let the bed dry, sprinkle some Talc Powder on it, and turn the mattress over, as if it were a fresh new start.

About an hour later, I pick up the receiver of the lime-green rotary telephone, and I hear Jeff’s voice. We talk about seeing Godzilla at the Tyson and scheme how much money we can get from our parents for candy and hoagies. I tell him that I really want to see Village of the Damned at the Castor and that I can’t wait to buy a meatball grinder from Dante’s Inferno. I quickly get dressed, and before I know it, I’m walking in the bright sunshine on Longshore Avenue toward my friend’s house with Ticket to Ride playing in my head. The air is super clean from last night's rain.  My body feels energized as I take bouncy steps in my Converse Hi Tops on the cement sidewalk that seems to lead me to the Promise Land. 

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A CHILDHOOD IN FIVE ACTS by Suzanne Craig-Whytock

Out back behind the house, there was a rusty old oil drum that Da used late at night for burning stuff. Once Sammy and I found what looked like some kind of animal bones in it, but we didn’t dare ask about the kitten that Sammy had found the week before. This is how I grew up.

I couldn’t help Sammy, I couldn’t save him because he would always cry, even when I whispered, “Don’t cry, don’t.” He couldn’t stop his eyes from leaking like a broken tap, that’s what Da would call him, “Ya fucking little broken tap,” and Sammy would squeeze his eyes together tight, but the more Da yelled at him, the more he cried, and there was nothing I could do about what happened next. This is how I grew up. 

I never talked at school, and my clothes and fingernails were dirty. Ms. Carmody would ask, “What’s wrong, Delilah?” but I couldn’t answer because deep inside I liked her, and I couldn’t stand to see her eyes change when she looked at me, like I was a little broken tap too. This is how I grew up.

Once, I got caught in a tree, and Da looked out the back window and saw me hanging there, choking. He ran out and saved me, and then he took off his belt and hit me with the folded leather over and over and over again, yelling, “Stupid bitch, you coulda died,” until I wished I had. But I didn’t cry, I wasn’t like Sammy. This is how I grew up.

Da was Hephaestus, forging us and pounding our wings until we couldn’t fly and we couldn’t remember ever having feathers. Sammy evaporated in the quench, but I got folded into myself and hammered flat over and over and over again until I was hard as Damascus and double-edged and no longer myself. This is how I grew up.

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GLASS by K.B. Carle

I don’t remember the before.

I’m not really sure I want to.

If I went searching for a lost past somewhere in the recesses of a brain that dissolved when I died, would it really belong to me once found? I’m no longer the person I was. In fact, I’m not even a person anymore. Back then, I assume, I had skin, a tongue, a nose. A voice a family might recognize, if I had a family. Fingernails I could paint, or chew when nervous. Eat or spit out of the side of my mouth.

People can be gross or clean. Can inhale, exhale, sigh, hold their breath until their faces changes color. People can roll their eyes, make their tongues look like clovers, pluck their eyebrows, and lick their lips.

No one tells you about the things you lose.

Only you’re dead and here’s what’s left from the before.

I keep my before items in a black pouch Anubis lent me. I didn’t plan on keeping the pouch, but since he never asked for me to return it, I guess it’s mine. He’s good like that. Inside are shards of various sizes that don’t fit together. I used to try to make these pieces make sense, but every time something was missing. Each shard has a unique sequence of blood droplets that sometimes trails over jagged edges. Alone, I use them to perform the Rorschach test. Maybe my memories are connected to the psychological. Sometimes, I see the butterfly humans claim to notice when staring at ink on paper. Mine is red with wings expanding until the glass ends and the wings break at the tips. Sometimes, during the seconds when no one is dying, I see blades of grass tied in knots. They remind me of war, of people tangled amongst themselves over food, safety, the final shot.

Most of the time I see dots.

No one tells you about the things you miss.

Then, there’s the glass eye. I like to place it in my right socket and see how long I can balance it. I pretend I can see the deserts of Egypt where Anubis and his family lives—haunts—I don’t really know what Anubis does in his spare time. I think I’d enjoy observing what the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife does in his spare time. It’s not that Reapers can’t see, we can, but it always feels nice to be able to look at something rather than just see it. I think it does anyway. I can’t remember the last time I had eyes, other than this one. When my glass eye falls, I slip my hand between my ribs and catch it. It’s a skill I’m not proud of. A constant reminder that I’m literally empty inside and that my body may not have an inside because now there are no walls, just bones and space.

I’m now a being made up of empty spaces.

No one tells you about being alone.

The iris of my glass eye is gray, which used to be disappointing but now this is something I accept. I mean, it would be better if my glass eye contained some kind of color. Blue is my favorite but at least it’s not black like everything else in death. Its glass edges are always smooth compared to the bits of bone that make up my skeletal fingers and I like the sound of it rolling along my arm, the feeling of something looking at me while balancing on bone.

If Reapers had parties, I would show the others a trick. How I can cock my head back at just the right angle and make my glass eye disappear from my right socket. The disappearance would allow the Reapers to remember swallowing, hunger, and chewing. The weight of a stomach. How spit can form rivers collecting on their tongues and drift just below their uvulas. Of course, I’d make my eye reappear, not in the socket, but clenched between my teeth. If Reapers threw parties, they would applaud my creativity, my imagination, notice how the glass eye never blinks or shatters.

But, since they don’t, I keep my trick to myself.

No one tells you what was left behind.

I like to think the eye is mine, even in the before time. That I had gray eyes—or eye—and crafted stained glass windows that people still work hard to preserve. Maybe my creations capture the gazes of many with different colored eyes because they notice the specks of my blood embedded in the clear spaces of my glass workings.

Maybe I bled butterflies.

No one tells you about the before. Only that you died. That you were chosen to be a Reaper.

And they never tell you why.

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NEW CORNERS by Alexondria Jolene

The ocean goes unseen. Water scares her, she chokes as she sips it. 

She stays in her room while new people load in. It happens every few days. The room doesn’t have a window. The feeling of waves make her sick; she can’t stand to look at them in motion. A tiny pastel painting of a palm tree reminds her of one she saw in a doctor’s office as a child.

Coiled on her bed, the silence strains her ears until horns and fireworks make tiny explosions. They sound small. They sound far. She steps into the hallway for some boxed cranberry juice. Frozen rats fill the ice machine, their cold blood dripping onto the floor. “It’s not what you think,” a man whispers behind her. 

Guests are brought to the bingo room just before dinner. She’s the only one who actively plays. No one else even cares to win. Hardly any of them move their pieces. They don’t finish.

In the dining hall, no one sits next to her. “You smell gross,” says an older man. 

“Your hair looks like a moldy spider’s nest,” says another. 

“I’m lovely,” she says to them. 

As she stands in line for a tray of food, she realizes it’s not the buffet she imagined. Employees in tan uniforms hand her applesauce for dessert. She doesn’t like applesauce, but that’s all they serve her. It’s free, so she takes it, but she doesn’t like it. 

The other guests get mad at the ones in uniforms. They throw their applesauce, dumping their meals onto the dull floor. She grabs another man’s cheesecake right off of his tray. “You don’t want this cheesecake with your motion sickness, do you, sir? Surely you can’t hold it down with these rough waters.” The man doesn’t respond; he’s slouched over in his chair, his emesis bucket tilted over on his lap.

A man in his late thirties, with hair not thinning at all, rushes down the hallway. His finger lacks a wedding ring. He wants me, she thinks. 

***

An employee in a tan uniform removes her empty food tray and leads her into a small office. The man without a wedding ring tells her to undress. She screams. The employees in tan carry her to her room.  

She sits on her bed, watching the pastel painting. The palm leaves sway. They fall to the ground, becoming waves. Confident in the patch behind her ear, she walks up the painting and removes it from the wall. Behind it, a porthole, waves crashing against it. She falls to the ground and begins to wretch. Thawing rats roll into her room. 

“Your last pill, dear. It’s time for you to leave,” the man without a wedding ring tells her. He hands her a small blue pill. She notices his badge for the first time. The pill dissolves in her warm hand.

“I’ve been wanting to switch rooms for a while now,” she replies. “But please, nothing with a window. I’m scared of water. No paintings, either.”

“You’ve run out of financial assistance,” he says. 

“I don’t want any more applesauce,” she says. “My daughter needs to come pick me up. There’s a rat problem. Let me call her.”

He looks at an employee in tan clothes. “I thought her chart said she has no kids?” he says. 

“She doesn’t,” the employee replies. 

The man without a ring bends down to the woman’s level. “You have no kids,” he says. 

“When my daughter was seven, I told her to put me on a cruise instead of a nursing home,” she says. “But this isn’t the right cruise. I don’t like the paintings here.”

“This is a senior behavioral health unit at the community hospital. You have run out of government assistance. We have to discharge you. I hope you find somewhere to stay.”

***

The employee in tan walks the woman through a lobby she doesn’t remember seeing on the way in. A reflection in the mirrored wall stares at her. Small, wrinkled, dreadlocks to her breasts. Gross, she thinks. That woman is disgusting. The reflection dances alongside her until she reaches the sliding doors. 

The employee in tan walks her outside and lets go of her hand. 

“The corner of 68th and Havenway is mine,” says a lady sitting on the curb. 

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THE BABY by Jamy Bond

One morning, she told me the story of how her friend’s baby died in a car accident. 

“They were stopped at a red light. Someone came up from behind and slammed into them. My friend thought immediately of her baby in the back seat, but when she turned around to reach for it, she saw the baby’s head pop off, its arms and legs break, its chest cave in.”

All I could think about at school that day was the baby. Its head popping off. We were supposed to practice writing our letters, but every time I came to the lower case i—with its slender body and bubbly, round head—I thought of the baby, its head ripping away from its neck, flying up into the air. Did it hit the roof of the car, I wondered, or roll onto the floor? Did it cry?

“How was school?”  she asked when I got home.

“I keep thinking about the baby.”

“My friend’s baby? Oh, what a tragedy. To think of a baby crushed to death!  What an awful thing. Honey, let me sit down for a minute. Put your arms around me. That poor, poor baby.” 

I dreamed about the baby. It wasn’t a baby in my dream, but a little girl like me, and I could see her from her mother’s perspective in the front seat: her eyes bugging out just as her head explodes. Blood spouting from her open neck, spraying the seats and windows in bright red.  

The next day at school, I kept hearing a baby’s cry. I heard it in the clang of metal lockers, in the slam of heavy classroom doors, in the screams of children on the playground. While I stood at the craft table cutting Valentine hearts out of pink construction paper, my hands started to shake and I broke out in a sweat.  

“What’s wrong, do you have a fever?”  Ms. Albert said.  

“No,” I told her. “I can’t stop thinking about the baby.”

“What baby?”

“The baby my mother told me about. The one in the car accident. The baby whose head popped off. The baby that was crushed to death.”

“Come here,” Ms. Albert said and led me down the hall to the nurse’s office. 

I told the nurse about the baby, the dream, my shaking hands.   

She called my mother.

I could hear the nurse’s voice go from puzzled to concerned to, finally, empathetic.

“Yes, they do tend to exaggerate. Even make stuff up.”  

She hung up the phone.

“Time to return to class, my dear,” she said and pulled me down the hall. 

Back in the classroom, it was story time. I lay down on a soft rug and listened to a story about cats.  

“What’s wrong with you?”  my mother said when I walked into the house. “I never said that.”

“What?” 

“I told you her baby died in a car accident. I never said anything about its head popping off or its arms and legs. That’s ridiculous. How embarrassing! You have a very vivid imagination.”

She sent me to my room to wait for dinner, so I played with the Baby Alive doll I’d gotten for Christmas. There were batteries at the small of her back, beneath her pink, lacy onesie, that made her mouth open and close. She came with food and diapers. Her food was a packet of cherry powder that you mixed with water until it turned into goo.  I loved feeding her that goo on a tiny pink spoon with a butterfly handle. Soon after she swallowed it, a creamy pink slime would appear in her diaper. 

I had used all of the food and diapers on Christmas day, and my mother refused to buy more because it was messy. So for now, I just pretended to feed my baby, scooping air into her pulsing mouth with that tiny spoon. 

“Eat up,” I said, “you must be hungry,” and I imagined her emaciated and starving, skin draping from her baby bones.  

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ROUTINE by T.J. Larkey

My girlfriend works late hours, without any real breaks to eat, so it’s my duty to feed us when she gets home. I take this duty seriously. Not serious enough to learn how to cook, but serious enough. I sit in bed fully dressed, waiting. Then she calls me as soon as she’s off and tells me about her day while I drive to the nearest fast food place. It’s our routine. I like routine. It keeps me in line. 

“You’re a boy that needs to be kept in line,” she tells me.

“Yes,” I say. “I like routine.”

I get to the fast food place. I always get the same thing and the kid that works the late-night drive-thru shift knows me well. More routine. Keep things simple, and nothing will hurt you. I pull around, collect the correct change from my pocket, and wait for the car in front of me to drive away from the window. On the side of the restaurant, amongst the rocks, the cacti, there are bugs and lizards crawling around. I’ve never seen this before. I watch as a grasshopper is struck down by a lizard, mid-flight, and it scares me. This is not routine. But it’s okay. Get the food, drive home, don’t die, feed your lady, go to sleep, repeat. Okay? 

At the window, the kid asks me how it’s going.

“I just saw a lizard end a grasshopper’s life,” I say. “It was ruthless and terrifying.”

“Cool. You want sauce?”

He always asks me if I want sauce. And I always want sauce. It’s routine. It’s comfortable. If he were to not ask me if I wanted sauce, it’s likely I would spin out of control, burn it all down-- the lizards and the sauce and the routine-- all torched. 

“Hit me with some ranch, young man,” I say. “And you know I gotta have that hot sauce.”

“Ranch and hot sauce?”

“Oh yeah.”

The kid walks over to the condiments. I watch him. He’s short and a little soft around the middle and he is missing an eye. I try to picture his life outside of the fast food place. And every night it’s the same. I imagine him at home, smiling, playing video games or watching his favorite TV show. I imagine him eating his mother’s cooking, a healthy redness in his cheeks, oh so happy and loved. But then it turns into picturing how he lost his eye. I imagine him screaming in pain, near death. Then I see him in the hospital, bandaged up and trying to come to terms with the fact that this is his new reality, his new view of the world, without depth or promise or opportunity. I feel so sad, thinking about him. I want to tell him it’ll be okay and have him believe me. I want to believe me. But mostly I want to climb into the drive-thru window and hug him and take over his shift so he can go home and play video games and kiss his mother. 

“Here you go,” he says. “Sauce and napkins in are the bag.”

“Thanks man,” I say. “Have a good one.”

On the drive back, I notice the SERVICE ENGINE SOON light is on. And my gas is low. I don’t get paid for another 3 weeks. The cost of fast food is cheap, but it piles up. I need to learn to cook. I decide cooking will become my new routine. I will become the greatest chef in the world but I will only ever cook for me and my girl. I’ll buy cookbooks, new pans, a spice rack, the whole thing. My girlfriend will come home to the smells of my love and labor. Scents so good it will become erotic. That’ll be the new routine. Learn to cook so well it makes you irresistible sexually, save money in the process, fix your car, don’t die, keep it simple, repeat.

Okay.

At home, my girlfriend is in sweatpants, starving, tired, but smiling.

“I missed you,” she says. “How was your day?”

“It was good. I didn’t die. And the same cannot be said for everyone.”

“Did you see another accident today?” she asks.

I’d seen an accident the other day. It was bad. One casualty. I’d told my girlfriend all about it, then went on a rant about how my biggest fear is dying in a stupid way. Like a car accident because I was day-dreaming about becoming a master chef/sexual chemist.

“No accidents today,” I say. “Just nature’s routine.”

“Good. Now come here and stuff your face with me.”

I sit down next to her and we stuff our faces. It’s great. It’s routine. I feel full. I look over at my girlfriend and she appears full too. We are tired. I turn the TV on. My girlfriend needs the TV on to fall asleep so she doesn’t think about bad things that keep her awake. And I cannot sleep with the TV on because my brain latches on to everything. So I stay awake. Reading while the TV is on. I use a night light she bought me to further enhance the routine-- holding the book in one hand-- while the other hand is placed gently upon my girlfriend’s ass. Until she falls asleep. I turn the TV off. And for a few minutes I think about my day. I know a good portion of tomorrow will go the same, and it makes me feel calm. For the first time in my life, I feel calm before bed. Because of the routine. I fall asleep.

***

A few days later, at the fast food place, there is a disturbance in the routine. I order my food, but the line isn’t moving. I start to panic. I text my girlfriend. Long line. But I’m okay. I’ll be home soon. In the rearview, I see a man approach. He’s one of the employees. Belly hanging over belted khakis. 

I roll my window down.

“Hello,” he says. “Sorry about this line.”

His voice is soft. Soothing. A bit of a lisp. And his face makes me trust him.

“It’s okay,” I say. 

“The man at the window right now,” he says, looking around at the empty parking lot. “He won’t leave. I just called the cops but he still won’t leave.”

He smiles. I love him. I would do anything for him. His voice has pain in it and I want to bottle it up and take it home for him. Make the pain my own. 

“You want me to talk to him,” I say, unbuckling my seatbelt. “I come here every night so I feel kind of protective of it.”

He laughs. “No. But if you wouldn’t mind pulling out and walking inside we can get you your food in a few minutes?”

I wouldn’t mind. I would love to come inside. It’s not routine. But it’s exciting. A whole new world.

I back out of the drive thru and park near the entrance. The cars in front of me do the same. I’m first to the door and I hold it open as a group of people, all wearing clothes they wouldn’t normally wear in public, walk in one by one. The man that was in front of me is in flip-flops and tank-top, making a face that expresses how much he’d like everyone to know how annoyed/exhausted he is. And a group of three very large women follow behind, wearing sweatpants and talking about how crazy/weird this is. 

“He’s probably drunk,” one of the women says.

“Yeah, what an asshole,” another says.

I stand behind them. Thinking about other strange occurrences that have happened in this fast food place. There was the time an ambulance was called because a man had a heart-attack inside, right before the dining area was closed for the night. And there was the time a man tried to break in because they wouldn’t let him order through the drive-thru on foot. I think, how would these women react to those incidents? Then I stare coldly at them.

“We better get a free taco or something for this,” one of them says.

“Shush,” the woman who started this conversation says. “They might hear you.”

The man in flip-flop’s order is called and he walks up to the counter. He pays. I watch the man with the soft voice apologize to him and hand him his food. Then I watch as the kid with one eye scrambles around making the women in sweatpants’ food. 

“Your food will be ready soon,” the man with the beautiful voice says to the women. “And, umm, we threw in some free curly fries for you.”

The women all thank him. But it’s not good enough. Nothing in this world would be enough for the man with the beautiful voice. Nor the kid with one eye. I think about the man that started all this, and I hate him, yes, but in another way I love him for creating this beautiful scene.

“Three cheeseburgers, and three large cokes?” 

“And curly fries?” one of the women says, walking up to the counter.

“And curly fries.” 

They pay. I wait. The suspense building. When my order is called, I walk up to the counter smiling.

“Here you go,” the man says. “And I threw in an extra taco for you.”

“No,” I say. “You didn’t.”

“Yeah. For the wait and everything. We’re really sorry.”

“It’s no problem. The guy still here? Need me to talk to him?”

“Actually, I think he umm, heard me say I called the cops to those women that were behind him because he left right after.”

“Good,” I say. “Was he drunk or…?”

“Yeah. He took a really long time to order and I couldn’t understand him so he started cursing at me and umm, telling me I should go back to my own country.”

“Fuck that,” I say. “He should go home, forever and always.”

He laughs. The kid with one eye brings the food to him and gives me a thumbs up. The exchange is complete. I feel sad. But I understand.

“Well,” I say, “Hope you guys have a good rest of your night. See ya next time.”

“You too,” the man says, his voice seeping inside me. 

On the drive back home, I start thinking about my life before the routine. Through all the memories, one obvious moment sticks out. Years ago. I’d woken up in a strange place, still drunk, and decided to spend my last three dollars at a fast food place nearby, in order to sober up. I hadn’t had fast food in years. When I was drinking every day, I ate very little. Mostly eggs and nearly expired deli meat—in order to save money for booze. But that day I didn’t have a choice. I sat at a table near the empty play-area for children, eating a two-dollar cheeseburger and sipping free water from a small paper cup. After the cheeseburger was in my stomach, I just sat there, watching people eat, feeling sad and unable to move but not sure why. It seems funny now. Life before the routine. I laugh. My entire life before the routine seems absurd and distant. But I realize that very soon, I will need a new routine. I will feel that same kind of two-dollar cheeseburger sadness and a new me must emerge from that sadness. The discarding of and creation of routines will become a part of a larger routine and they will all build and be called my life. 

When I get home my girlfriend is wearing one of my t-shirts.

“How was your day?”

“Full of love.”

“Kiss me.”

“They gave me a free taco.”

We kiss. We eat. We have sex. She falls asleep. The routine is complete. And the last thing that goes through my head, before I drift off, is nothing.

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THE HEFT OF IT by Lisa Kenway

‘Any questions, Mrs Brown?’ 

Doctors were all so young these days. So full of talk. I shook my head. Malignant. How much more did I need to know?

Dr Wong smiled quietly, as though sharing a secret, and slid a purple cardboard box across the desk. I half-expected her to offer me an assortment of macarons. Those powdery spaceships that melt on your tongue and stick to the roof of your mouth. And aren’t a patch on the chewy coconut biscuits Grandma used to make. Macaroons, they were called—what a difference a single o made. 

I could picture a plate of macaroons alongside the crochet coaster under Dr Wong’s mug. The coaster had a scalloped edge, like the fine linen Grandma brought out of storage for tea parties when I was a girl. I must have been about five when I snuck into the quiet of her bedroom with one of those precious doilies, held the delicate French lace up to the light, poked my fingers through the petals. And marvelled at the beauty of a bouquet made out of holes. Grandma had seemed ancient then, but couldn’t have been more than fifty. The clink of bone china and the music of Vivaldi soared in my ears. Refined. Contained. Immaculate.

Instead of a macaron, Dr Wong reached into the box and pulled out what looked like a jellyfish. The weight of the implant surprised me. I didn’t expect this alien creature, this giant gelatinous eyeball, not that I had given it any thought. What was the point of vanity at my age? I prodded its smooth surface, pressed my finger in as hard as I could then let go to watch the depression spring back into place. Shuffled the dense hemisphere from hand to hand. 

The surgeon sighed. She had kind eyes. ‘We don’t have to do immediate recon. If you’re not sure, I can do a staged procedure.’ 

I rolled the implant back into the box and she closed the lid. Raised lettering on top spelled out the word ‘Motiva’. Why would anyone choose that name for a line of fake bosoms? Was it meant to be uplifting? To motivate recovery? It sounded like a brand of sanitary napkins. Or shapewear. Singlets and spencers came to mind, and my five-year-old self, hiding in Grandma’s wardrobe while she undressed, hoping to catch a glimpse of cotton and lace. And underneath, the angry scar that ran diagonally across her flat chest. 

‘I can give you time, if you need it. But no more than a week or two.’ The surgeon cradled my gnarled fist in her hands. Her voice was soothing, unhurried, but outside the door another ten women waited, clutching handkerchiefs and trailing support people. 

‘Do whatever you think’s best, Doctor.’

In the waiting room, darling Becca tugged at a loose thread on her sweater and rose to her feet. ‘Ready to go, Nanna?’

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PRAYERS FOR PIGEONS by Chris Wilkensen

On a bright summer morning, Edith craved something different to do. In the 1960s, without school, TV or a radio, she went outside and peered at the pigeon coop, maybe the only clear possessions of value that her father owned. She decided to say hi to them, the closest things she had to pets. 

Pigeons weren’t cuddly or pretty. But they were company for Edith, creatures that wouldn’t take out their frustrations on her and she enjoyed feeding them. Watching animals eat was almost like going to the movies. Edith picked up the cup inside the 50-pound bag of bird seed, making sure it filled to the top. “Breakfast time.” She opened the gate. One pigeon squeezed through the slightly open door because Edith wasn’t fast enough to feed them.

“You’re going to get me in big trouble, little bird,” she called out after it. While she had her back turned, another pigeon pushed out and flew into the sky.

“Not you too! Please come back, you have to come back! Father will notice that two of you are missing! Please.” She closed and locked the gate so no more could escape, vowing this was her first and last time feeding the pigeons. 

The more she yelled for their return, the more out of sight they flew. They had disappeared, just as she had sometimes thought about running away from her father. She scurried back to the house to make sure that no one saw.

Like most of the summer, Edith was alone during the daytime hours. Her father was at the store cutting up meat. Her stepmother worked a full, floating schedule between bakery clerk and office building cleaner. Thank God she wasn’t home because Edith’s stepmom might have told on her immediately. 

Edith wished she had a brother or sister around, never more so than today. They could have talked about what to do, how to split the blame, how to calm down her dad, something, anything. Edith locked up the house and walked to her friend Clare’s for advice. She knocked on her door, but her mother answered. 

“Hi there, Edith. I’m afraid Clare can’t play today because she’s at Vacation Bible School. You could’ve gone with her if you were Lutheran like us.” She smiled and shut the door in Edith’s face. 

But that gave Edith an idea, one she thought would actually help. She would go to her Catholic church and pray for the return of those two fly-away pigeons. Her father, who didn’t seem to like anything, didn’t seem to mind going to Saint Joseph. There, she saw him do things he never did anywhere else: kneel, cry, and, occasionally, smile.

So Edith entered the Catholic church, found a pew, and sat. She said in her heart the words to the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be hundreds of times during those hours. She also prayed directly for those pigeons, that they were safe, but most importantly, that they would return. Or that her father wouldn’t know they were gone. Everything would be OK then.

The sky dimmed to dusk. Edith’s tummy rumbled louder and louder, but she had no appetite. “It’s late now. You have to go, my child.” A nun said from behind, walking toward the front of the church.

When Edith felt the summer breeze, she got goosebumps. She knocked on Clare’s front door again because she had to be home from Vacation Bible School by now. Clare’s mother answered. “Do you have any idea what time it is, Edith? For heaven’s sake, go home!” The door closed in her face again.

Half a block allowed meant time for one more “Our Father.” Edith hoped they returned. When she arrived at the pigeon coop, she counted the pigeons. The numbers added up, including the two that left. They must have returned. A miracle! She skipped to the house, opened the doorknob that led to the kitchen. 

“There she is!” her stepmother called out. “Enough worry for one day. I found two pigeons waiting outside the coop when I got home. I put them back in and didn’t tell your father. Would you know anything about this?”

Before Edith could answer, her father came in the kitchen. “We were worried about you, that something happened to you. Gone all day.” 

Edith’s prayers, that either the pigeons would return or that no one would find out that the pigeons fled, must have worked. She was so happy she started to cry. 

“You have no idea how much you worried me by staying out all day and into the night. You’re my daughter, and I thought something happened to you. Don’t ever do this again.” Her father removed his belt, rolled it up ,belted her on the back. He started to count out loud while Edith prayed in silence. 

God, please let him get tired soon, Edith prayed on the inside, cried on the outside. It’s past my bedtime and he should be in bed. 

“Don’t be too hard on her. This is the first time she’s been out after supper. I’ll be in bed.” Edith’s stepmom walked out of the room. 

After her father counted to five, he put his belt back onto his pants. “Now go to sleep, Edith. I love you.” He turned off the kitchen lights. 

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