FRIENDSHIP WOLFCHEESE by Jonathan Cardew

Slide through the doors of the convenience store. Live a little in your skin. This skin was given to you in about 1975. Friendship Wolfcheese made sure you got the kind of skin that earned you favor. Ask for cigarettes. Carefully enunciate the vowels and the consonants. Friendship Wolfcheese was very particular about sounds.

Marlllllborooooo Liiiiiights.

Feel the heat in your cheeks. Why the heat in your cheeks?

Marllllllborooooo Liiiights.

He doesn’t understand you. This boy of fifteen, with the fresh coat of paint on his face. Squints in your direction. He’s speaking, but the speaking isn’t happening in your ears.

Friendship Wolfcheese lived on a boat. He hunted for fish with a stick and string, and then he fried the fish in a sea of butter. Fish eyes popped because of the heat. Because of the way they were being cooked.

Marllllllboroooooo Liiiiights.

This boy of fifteen. He doesn’t know you. He doesn’t care for you. He’s got the phone to worry about and the hair to worry about and he doesn’t know you.

Point.

Marlllllborooooooo Liiiiiiiiights.

Point again, hitting the plastic separating you and the boy.

Marlllllborooooooo Liiiiiiights.

Fish eyes popping. More of a melt, really. Friendship Wolfcheese could melt a fish in butter whole. A whole melt.

Marlllllboroooooo Liiiiiiights.

Until the fish was just butter.

Marlllllboroooooo Liiiiiiights.

You could live without. Friendship Wolfcheese could live without. Fish could live without water for nine days. Flipping and flipping. On a chopping block.

You walk back.

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marc olmsted

SCROTUM NEAT AND TIDY by Marc Olmsted

And so began, at least for me, the first real public event of the piercing phenomena - now performance art 1989 - video cameras providing close-ups of this guy driving nails into the skin of his balls, the pain lashing through him like a visible hot flash of kundalini.  Later I learned I was seeing the piercing hero Bo Flagellant.

I looked around me at the packed house, another venture of hipster Curtains who had a real touch for trendy pulse, publicizing his new coffee table dick-piercing book - Skin of the Living. At the entrance, a big b&w nude photo of the ubiquitous Revelation T. Orment w/ wife  - both had enough rings through them to carry them home.

Interesting to watch men who tried to look butch as the guy continued to fuck with his own flesh, knitting up his scrotum neat and tidy - a hot dog bun waiting for mustard - some of the guys looked like they were going to pass out or throw up, looking away from the TV screens but with Eastwood-like practiced indifference, though their eyes revealed the repressed nausea and fear, and catching my glance they tried to tough it out and bravely reassess the video monitors.  But I also noticed that some eyes - men's and women's - glistened with a lust as if their own endorphins were responding in empathetic pleasure-pain - and I wondered if these were the same eyes of the Roman Coliseum.

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A FEMININE DARKNESS REBORN: REVIEW OF MOTHER! by Christina Antonovskaya

(Warning: spoilers)

We were looking for the room at Champagne Centre for the appointment, and I found a pin on the ground that has “I feel it all” written on it and an image of a woman smoking printed on it. I took it and put it in the left pocket of my pea coat and will probably keep it there. This quote resonates with me and also with the themes of the script and film.

Impurity, more exact, the myth of pureness is depicted through Mother’s character with physiology, vicarious causation of surroundings, and the creator of Mother himself, as when Woman subtly hints that she is young enough to be his daughter. Mother has no choice but to be directly affected, as she is the house and the house is her, and whatever happens to one also happens to the other. She becomes “tainted” as the disciples enter. Meanwhile, Man and Woman both contribute as Man/mankind is literally dying and Woman is menacing with her unruly behaviour and minimal appreciation of consequences.

Labour of care and emotions as compassion

Even though Mother is selfless, this emotional labour is not necessarily reciprocated, and instead is diminished by the human desires associated with selfishness and money. Mother is unable to really relate to the motifs of the Sons at the level of resentment they feel towards each other due to problems caused by these same weaknesses of human nature. Yet, it still pains her to watch what happens. Mother is humane, but not really a human like them or us.

Nobody else is as connected to the house as she is, and while there are moments that lead up to immense pain and suffering, she is not at fault for it. Mother, much like real mothers and women do, committed to sacrifices and experienced significant loss.

The current climate

Current events within the year proved hubris of our need to invade the natural environment for our own purposes; government allowance of creating more infrastructure and development of oil and gas rigs and excavation, digging into the earth, minimizing nature’s resources more and more, and scientific “progress” that has questionable or uncertain consequences. Biblical allegories as warnings, or else history will repeat itself, and now it is us having to face it if we don’t pay attention.

Reference is made to Mother also as the subservient role of housewives, girlfriends, or any woman that finds herself in this situation today at the expense of men and others that are dependent on them. The “m” is lowercase. The earth and humans are in a directly codependent relationship in reality, and it is just as portrayed by Aronofsky that at some points, it actually is that destructive and unnerving, although within the context of the script it seems as though it was taken a step too far.

When the house, or earth, suffers, we all suffer vicariously through what nature has to endure, and this is a negative feedback loop that is difficult to break. Not until complete chaos and death, does that cycle break, and after even the child of Mother dies also. In the midst of the destruction and war in their house, the symbolic notion of the tower being built and things taking shape, reflective of society’s structuralism, and that it has taken its place there even under such dire circumstances.

What remains, and always will, is the spirit of womanhood, or particularly motherhood, as a seemingly pure crystalloid energy that is able to withstand all of the damages. While this is empowering, it still feels fiction-based, and sidelined from feminism that is relatable or current. Mother had indeed been killed, mercilessly, not just suffered “an assault” as Lawrence stated, and for no cause but reprise or rebirth into a new beginning. Again, this is at the expense of Him, undeniably the main man and mastermind behind all that has happened in the first place.

The story begins with Him being almost indifferent and struggling to find purpose of himself, as a writer, husband, and himself, almost as if to suggest that of course, being Him, this isn’t necessary for Him. However, tables turn by the end, and the one in full command of Mother and her fate is Him, as power dynamics are consistently evident to not be on Mother’s side, everything from who they welcome into their home to if they have sex or not. It is even difficult for Him to deny his disciples what they wanted, and then to make them leave Him and Mother alone as their force violated Mother, their home, and even turned on each other, as allegorical to the backlash of human destruction as creation.

Ogling the piece as an entity apart from the film almost feels like looking at a secret process. This could be of my cherished experiences with original scripts; this one and the Alice in Wonderland (1983 playwright’s edition, one of my best possessions and was attained mysteriously). It brings something to the reader much different from a viewing experience. This was a glimpse into Aronofsky’s honest stream of consciousness, or as close as we will get to it. Photos from the scenes are embedded in the screenplay, including some of the most grueling moments. Surrounded by destruction, these characters all exude their own livelihood and creation. Even though the film is focused on Mother’s perspective, the story is just as much about her as it is about Him. The rebirth is equally theirs, as they both are forced to start anew.

Hollywood, CA, Paramount Guilds, 2017 Paramount Pictures Corporation.  Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky.

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YOU ALWAYS GET CAUGHT ON THE LAST ONE by Steve Anwyll

Ain't it always the case.

I'm bored as fuck. Life's like that. So I fill my coat pockets with cans of beer. Drink as I cruise the streets. Stopping to look in windows that aren't obstructed. And ain't it always the case? You get caught on the last one.

The whole night going good. Then blammo. Out of nowhere. It's over. Some fucking do-gooder concerned citizen. Prodding into affairs that ain't their own. Acting tough. And as soon as they start yelling. You know you're sunk.

Like tonight. I'm standing there in the darkness. Behind these shrubs. Tall ones. I recognize the scent. Spruce. I convince myself I'm hidden here. From the quiet streets. Prying eyes. Even pedestrians.

And boy oh boy. You can imagine. I'm having a real good time. Beer in hand. Peering through a curtain free basement window. Watching this big fat fuck bastard standing in his bathroom. Shirt off. Shadows cast from a bare bulb above his head.

Makes his tits look extra saggy I whisper.

I lean in a little closer. Confident the light indoors hides me in it's reflection. He picks up a can of shaving cream. Fills an empty palm. Then grabs a blue plastic razor. Disposable variety. Holds it in his hand. He lathers both shoulders. He draws the cheap razor upwards. Flinging the used foam in the basin shadowed by his gut.

Then it happens. All the peace and quiet is interrupted. Some fucker yelling. I can't make out what he's saying. But I can't ignore it either. I turn around. Towards the street. No one in either direction. Fucking bizarre. Oh well. Maybe I'm going nuts? I am staring in people's windows after all.

But that can't be. I'm in control. So I hone in the noise like a dog. Look up. Ah ha. There's the source. Some god damned kook on a wrought iron terrace built for one. He's got both his fists wrapped around the railing. Shaking with anger. And the only detail I can make out in the dark. Is the small orange glow of a cigarette between the knuckles of his left hand.

When I look up at him. The son a bitch gets even hotter. Jumping up and down. Flailing his arms. I worry about structural stability while he yells profanities. Calling me demented. A pervert. The complete line of slander. I'm hurt. I'm not doing anything lewd. I'm only stealing a moment.

And there's no way I'm going to stand here. Take this bullshit. I've got dignity. Self-respect I think it's called. So I gulp my beer. Then yell up hey buddy, mind your own damn business. Like ain't you got a dog that needs sodomizing?

Well shit. That does the trick. Hit a soft spot I suppose. Because he kicks the posts. Rattles the rails. Thrashes his head back and forth. And without noticing. He accidently crushes the cigarette between his fingers. I watch it tumble through the air. And I forget about him. The yelling. How guilty I look.

Until I hear those words. The ones I’ve heard so many times before. The ones that hit like a knife. And break me from my trance. I called the cops you fucking piece of shit! Uh oh. God damn it! I have to get out of here. Find a way to get even with this lowlife another time. I know where he lives.

It seems like he must have a dog I can poison?

Remember that for later. Because if he isn't lying I'm running out of time. I chug the rest of my beer. Then run in the direction opposite of the main street. Down a smaller side one. It's dark. I feel safe. But I don't let false security stop me. I need to make some ground.

About a block away. My lungs catch fire. My head is pounding. I'm not cut out for this kind of exercise. But I hear a siren close by. So I double my effort. Nausea mounting. Huff and puff in overdrive. There's a park a block away from here. I'll be free and clear if can make it.

You can do it you old fuck!

And I do. Slipping on the loose gravel pathway as I enter. But not falling. Rounding a bench to dive in the grass. Hidden from the street by a high thick row of hedges surrounding the park. Even if the cops start looking for me. They'll never see me from the street. Too lazy to get out of their car.

So I roll over on my back. Check my pockets. Grab a beer. It explodes a little. I gulp half of it. Drop my head down into the grass. Stare up into the night. The beam of a flashlight waves above my head. I freeze. I hear the static of their radio. And hope they mistake me for a lump in the ground.

The light passes through the park. I stay still. It feels like forever. My blood's running cold with fear. Heart rate hitting the roof. Smiling wide. Boredom no longer a concern.

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X-R-A-Y ISSUE #4

DOWNLOAD ISSUE #4 JUNE 2018rebekah morgan // gene morgan // drew buxton // dave k // christina antonovskaya // toom bucksaw // eîlot tuerie // tobias carroll // megan boyle // rebecca gransden // hannah stevens // gregg williard // daniel handelman // bram riddlebarger // chris dankland // jennifer greidus
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sam pink

INTERVIEW WITH SAM PINK by Benjamin Scott

Sam Pink is the author of a dozen books, including Person, The No Hellos Diet, Hurt Others,  and Witch Piss.  I interviewed him about his latest book The Garbage Times/White Ibis, his paintings, and his time living in Florida.

BS: You lived in Chicago for a while but several years ago you moved to Florida. What sparked the move and why have you moved back to Chicago?

SP: I moved to Florida for the person I was dating. I moved back when we broke up.

BS: Sorry to hear about that. Does Chicago seem different? Where is the best place to eat in Chicago?

SP: Yes, it seems different, in that I view it differently but also that it is has slightly changed. The best place to eat is Arturo's on Western.

BS: You have a book coming out next month that contains two novellas: The Garbage Times/White Ibis. What are they about?

SP: The Garbage Times is about working at a bar in Chicago. White Ibis is about moving to Florida. They are also about a whole range of other things, both intended and unintended.

BS: Are you planning on doing any public readings? Or attending writer events/conferences?

SP: Yeah I have some readings set up, and hopefully more this year. I enjoy doing readings. I went to AWP this year as well.

BS: Your last book came out in 2014 you spent most of the past couple years painting while in Florida. How were the hurricanes?

SP: The hurricanes, where I was at, were very mild. I had an experience during one of them though. I went to my girlfriend's parents' house to hunker down because the news made it seem like the entire state was going to die. And as the time for the storm drew nearer, I had a panic attack (like heart racing and unable to stop thinking/calm down) consisting of envisioning the storm hitting, like visualizing the destruction of the wind, the walls of the house coming down and being pulled away by water, trying to save people, dying, etc., which continued to escalate in a way that was hard to endure, but then when I identified that there was a bad storm coming, and nowhere I could go, and that I'd have to try and survive and help the people around me survive as best I could, and that was just how it would be, I immediately became calm, and almost at the same time, the storm changed course and weakened and became nothing.

BS: How many paintings do you think you made?

SP: Including drawings, probably 200/250 or so.

BS: Do you plan on doing more?

SP: Yes, I just don't have a place to paint right now.

BS: Did you ever take any art classes in school?

SP: I took an art class in high school, which was basically like a crafts class/babysitting class.

BS: Why are art teachers quirky?

SP: Some spirits do different dances to get out.

BS: Where did you work while living in Florida?

SP: I was a dishwasher, a home remodeller, a medical warehouse employee, a machine operator, and an ice cream man. I interviewed to be a mortuary driver, but felt like the protocol of only sending me and not two people to pick up dead bodies was unreasonable.

BS: What is the worst/weirdest job you've ever had?

SP: (lights cigarette and looks off to side) Being me, dude.

BS: Are you working since you've moved back to Chicago?

SP: Not really, I'm looking for a job.

BS: How would you describe your books?  

SP: I wouldn't describe them. That's what the words inside are for. Plus I honestly think other people understand what the books are about better than me, based off what they've told me throughout the years.  

BS: Would you consider your books socially political as many of the characters/narrators are not out in front of society?

SP: Yes, in that you can interpret almost anything politically/socially. But no, in terms of any explicit ideas.

BS: Do you have a writing process? Do you make notes or have any habits? Does it take you a long time to write a book?

SP: Kind of. Usually I have a bunch of notes I've written down, or scenes I want to write, and then begin developing them. Usually takes a year to write a book.

BS: What inspired you to first start writing and painting?

SP: My spirit.

BS: While following your painting output I've  noticed they tended to get bigger and the patterns/colors would change. When painting do you just use whatever materials are around or do you seek out certain colors brush's medium etc? Do you still have paintings for sale?

SP: I used to, and sometimes still do, use whatever is around.  It helps to break patterns, and different tools do different things. But I have also gotten into purchasing art supplies, like specific colors, canvases, etc. I have two paintings for sale still.

BS: Do you work on one project (book/painting) at a time or do you jump between them?  Are many of your paintings related to the content of any of your books?

SP: Usually one at a time. My mind usually tells me when to switch. Like if I feel less enthused about writing, then I switch, and vice versa.  None of the paintings are directly related, but I have used them for book covers, etc., and also, I reference painting in White Ibis.

BS: Are there any authors that influenced your writing style?

SP: Yeah, but more in the way that they encourage me to 'tag in' and contribute, rather than giving me style points. I feel more influenced to 'do something' when encountering stuff that inspires me, rather than, 'I should do stuff like that.' Style is personality. Your personality is  your style. Even if you're writing about aliens, those are aliens from your personality.

BS: How do you feel about the current political climate in the USA and globally?

SP: Haha, man...

BS: Do you listen to podcasts? Which ones?

SP: No.

BS: How many cats do you have? What are there names?

SP: I have two, Benny and Dotty.

BS: Which authors/books do people need to read now?

SP: Oh man, too many to list and remember right now. I try to support as many of them as I can, with what ability I have. But there's a crop coming up that is kablooey. There are writers and painters and other people coming up right now that are doing a lot to make me excited. Don't worry about them just yet, they will announce when they're ready. One book people need to for sure read is Welfare by Steve Anwyll, coming out this fall from Tyrant Press. They have paid me nothing to say this.

BS: Why should people buy your book and where can they buy it?

PS: Because it will entertain them and maybe do other weird things with their mind and because I'm a sweetheart. They can order now through Soft Skull Press, or through various online and physical locations on may 1st when it comes out.

BS: Are you working on any future projects now?

SP: Yes, I'm working on a book of short stories that is pretty much done.  It's called The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories.

NEXT: EXCERPT FROM LIVEBLOG by Megan Boyle

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OLIVER by Kevin Maloney

I was sitting in a McDonald’s in Elkhart, Indiana, eating a Big Mac, crying and swallowing. The beef, or whatever gray rubber they wedge between the white bread and Thousand Island, was foul and made my stomach churn, but under my disgust was the pleasure of my unshackling. In Burlington, Vermont, the communist outpost where until 13 hours ago I’d lived in unhappy matrimony, everybody was vegetarian or vegan. Somehow, I’d gotten sucked into that nonsense; for eleven years, I’d subsisted primarily on kale, a leafy green that tastes the way doilies look. It was my wife’s doing. She wanted to save the world. Meat was bad for the earth, she claimed. It killed animals. Cows! Think about them. So pretty. Now imagine a bolt jamming deep into their brains.

I hadn’t set foot in a fast food joint since. I was overdue. When I noticed the angelic yellow M floating above the interstate, I put on my blinker.

I kept chewing and chewing, but the meat didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t food. It didn’t matter. The joy wasn’t in masticating, but in picturing Karen’s face. How mad she would be if she knew. The sensuous way her lips pouted when she was angry. I imagined her hitting me, then feeling bad for hitting me. Kissing the places she hit. All the places I wanted to kiss her back. Face. Breasts. The space between her legs, like a red crayon melted on a fur coat. Now some other man was doing God knows what to her. Boning. 69. Back door. All of it. It made me sick. Chewing, I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I spit out the meat, wrapped my burger in paper, and took sips from my chocolate milkshake.

I was about to clear my plate when I gazed out the window into the glass enclosed playstructure and noticed a lone child playing in a sea of primary-colored plastic balls. “Playing” is the wrong word. The boy just sat there, completely motionless. He looked dead. I liked him immediately. In appearance, he bore a strong resemblance to Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch. It was the haircut. I’d seen dogs pull off that look, but never a human. What kind of mother does that to her son? With a haircut like that, you’re basically saying, “Athletic boys will punch you for fun at recess, and you won’t kiss a girl until you’re 23, but every month I save $13 using a salad bowl and a pair of scissors.”

I looked around the McDonald’s for the sadistic barber. She wasn’t hard to find. She was eating a hamburger and drinking vodka out of a Nalgene bottle. I decided to tell her what I thought of the cruel experiment she was performing on her child’s skull.

“Hey, Lady,” I said, lightly touching her arm.

She didn’t flinch. A look of recognition came over her face, and she started crying. “It’s about time,” she said.

She reached into her purse and pulled out two $20 bills, crisp and new from the ATM machine. She handed them to me.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“The stuff,” she said.

“What stuff?”

“Jesus,” she whispered. “Tell me you brought the stuff.”

What at first I had mistaken for a normal mother I now recognized as a sick one. Hypothalamus, basal ganglia, cerebellum, hippocampus—all had been rendered inept in this woman by a single crushing need. I wanted to give it to her, whatever it was. Grind pills into powder, arrange it on a mirror, sit before her as she got her fix and watch Lazarus rise from death. But I didn’t have any drugs. Just a chocolate shake and a half-chewed burger.

“I’m sorry,” I said, returning her money. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“Liar!” she screamed. “Give me my fucking shit!” She reached for a salt shaker and brandished it like a weapon.

I apologized and backed away. Eventually, I found myself at the entrance to the glassenclosed play structure. I opened the door and climbed into the pit of plastic balls with the lifeless child. He opened only one eye.

“Hey kid,” I said. “Is your name Oliver?”

He shook his head, but just barely.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I offered him half a chocolate shake. He accepted it and slurped without speaking.

“Do kids beat you up in school?” I inquired.

He nodded.

“I thought so.”

The boy had a bloody Band-Aid on his chin. He smelled strongly of shit. I would have beat him up if I was his age. He was the weakest link. On the playground, if you don’t gang up on a kid like that—punch him in the kidneys, make him eat sand and small rocks—then it was somebody above you, punching your head, making you eat the earth. It was the law of the wild, the sinister truth Jack London wrote about, telling stories of sled dogs fighting to death under the northern lights.

But I wasn’t in grade school. I was an adult with the power to change this child’s life. In many ways, I resembled a saint with my broken heart and my schizophrenic visions brought on by my unfaithful wife. So I did what Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi would have done in a situation like this. I borrowed a pair of scissors from the McDonald’s manager and went to town on the boy’s hair.

The way I figured it, he wasn’t going to make it as a “normal,” so I decided to give him a mullet. I trimmed the mop from his ears, cut it close on the sides, and took an inch off the top.

The back I left loose and wild.

When I was finished, I took a picture on my cellphone and showed it to him. He smiled. His teeth were brown. I realized I should have skipped the haircut and taught him the importance of brushing his teeth every night before bed.

Just then the boy’s mother appeared in the play structure. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Your son had a horrible haircut,” I said. “He has low self-esteem. His friends beat him up in school. I fixed it. I gave him a mullet. It rules.”

“He’s not in school,” said the mother.

“What? Why not?”

“He’s just a little boy. He’s two years old!”

I looked at him. Christ, she was right. He was just a baby. He was probably still in diapers.

“How dare you!” she screamed, hitting me with her purse.

“I didn’t know!” I said. “I thought you hated him.”

The child burst into tears.

The mother kept hitting me.

The manager came for his scissors and wanted to know why there was a bunch of hair in the play structure.

I started feeling uncomfortable. The world has always been harsh on its geniuses, and I was one of them. It was time for my punishment. I was going to burn like Joan of Arc or be crucified like Jesus, or more likely die alone from complications of alcoholism like all of my heroes.

I was about to tell these sadists that the world wasn’t what they thought it was, that this was just one level of consciousness, and that if you meditated long enough you became aware of other, more sublime realities. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I vomited. Then I vomited again. I couldn’t stop vomiting. It was a scene. Nervous about the flavor of meat (being so long unacquainted with that gray matter), I’d lathered my burger in a heroic quantity of ketchup. What came pouring out of me, therefore, was red ooze, which may have given the impression that I was throwing up blood.

Whether it was that or something else, those ungrateful freaks backed away from me.

The manager told me to keep the scissors.

The mother said that, on second thought, I’d done a pretty good job. Her boy looked handsome.

“You wouldn’t recognize Mozart if he dined among your rotten souls!” I cried, rushing out of the restaurant.

I stomped on the gas and headed west on Interstate 90. The sun rose and fell and rose again. America, seen from an automobile, is a vast, stupid country with little more between oceans than corn and cows standing around, waiting to die. With every bovine I passed, I felt that beef wiggling around in my intestines. Burping, I saw a heifer with big black eyes flirting with me. Karen, that witch, had cast a spell on me. I was a city slicker with weak bones. My spirit animal was a dead child in a sea of plastic balls. I drove over the Rocky Mountains into the land of cowboys, yearning for root vegetables and the hairy-legged wonders of the woman I loved.

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CARS THAT TREATED ME POORLY by Jennifer Greidus

These aren’t pictures of my cars. In fact, they may not even be pictures of the years of my cars. They are the color of my cars, the model, the make. The years, however, are a blur of heartbreak, manslaughter, and ice storms.

Volvo 66: My mother conceived her second child in this car. (Remember, not this car but a car such as this car.) There was a big scene and a miscarriage, which led to a complicated D&C, and then we had to have a memorial for the fetus. I am an only child.

Honda Accord: I drove this car to Kentucky, where I went to college. I drove it home 4 months later because I dropped out of college. I dropped out because they wanted me to swim, and I was scared of showing parts of my body in swimming class. The drive home was sad, too, because I had no music.

Lincoln Continental: I drove this car to Buffalo, NY. Or rather, I tried to. There was an ice storm. I think it was the 90s. I didn’t know that Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface was a serious thing. My friend was playing Madonna and singing to “True Blue” with her feet on the dashboard. I hit the side rail and then went down an embankment. The lawyer said “embankment,” but it was really more of a cliff. My friend went through the windshield.

Acura MDX: I took my grandma to the hospital in this car. She was cranky. She was also a woman who worried a lot about personal composure. She was unkind to me a lot. When we got to the hospital, she tripped on the space between the floor and the elevator. You know, that small gap, like 2 inches. I didn’t help her up right away. That was a conscious decision, not to help her up right away. On the way home in this car, she told me I looked fat.

Toyota Tacoma: I was raped in the backseat of this truck.

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WHERE WE LEFT IXIAN COUNTY by Tobias Carroll

The suburbs of tiny Ixian County were unmade in the torrents and floods of 2003. After the waters had abated they left behind a highway exit, a handful of roads, and little else. Four towns’ worth of ruins and a farm, abandoned to bankruptcy years before, that had gone largely untouched. That was it. The ruined barn and the decomposing silos, now home to hundreds of bats that dined on the county’s grotesque moth population, mocked us all.

The mudslides, swore the relevant parties, were finished; the mudslides would never come again. Infrastructure was being built, they promised, at this very moment. Infrastructure would hold future mudslides at bay, and could perhaps even be yoked to some other sprawling plan, some sort of perpetual-motion device or industrial-strength divining rod. And so the municipalities of Ixian County were conjoined. Efforts to decipher this collage were heatedly debated. And so commenced the developments, the spirals, the roads that evoked cul-de-sacs but were something altogether different. This was our introduction into the future of our community; this was our introduction into some hallowed hole toward the mythic.

Call it the work of Glenn Detlof, the Robert Moses of Ixian County, if Robert Moses had been a recluse with mystical leanings who dressed like an aging Gram Parsons. Concentric rings, he said, and let the silence hang. He spoke about it all the time, at community meetings and news conferences and conversations both on and off the record with members of the local media. Periodically he raised the subject in formal interviews with certain publications dedicated to progressive and eccentric strains of urban planning and architecture.

Glenn Detlof looked at the received wisdom regarding how you built a neighborhood and a community and he chortled. Most people would say, housing development and housing development and housing development along a main road and along that main road you’d have your shops, your restaurants, your bars, your automotive dealerships, your magic shops, your pet stores, your trickery, your pizzerias, your bookstores, your adult bookstores, your florists, your vape shops, your other vape shops, your vape shops that first appeared to be something other than vape shops, your liquor stores, your toy stores, your furniture stores, your afterschool tutoring centers, and your institutes for distance learning.

Glenn Detlof said, no. Said, here’s what we do: we put those buildings at the center and we build the houses around them. So that’s why you find the burger franchise in among the homes and lawns of a neighborhood hundreds strong. That’s why the bait and tackle shop scalded into oblivion was reborn adjacent to two modest ranch houses in a tree-lined part of town. And that’s why several residents of the Millstone Acres neighborhood could walk to their local pharmacy and liquor store and puzzle shop. Why the age-restricted housing with the interstate humming in the distance was also adjacent to the local branch of a salad chain with a cult following.

We had a couple of reporters show up. We saw photographers waiting for the perfect day for a photo that would capture the arc and the full splendor of the sum total of the rebuilt community. Sometimes we’d see drones flying overhead on clear days to document the arrangement of buildings and greenery. It seemed great. It seemed wonderful. We didn’t see where it was all headed.

A reporter from Dwell asked a few of us if we ever headed to the point where the streets ended, after all the homes and businesses had ebbed away. And all of us asked shook our heads. Fewer of us began to wonder. True, we did hear strange sounds in the night. Some of us. Pursuit, perhaps. Or something prompt, in search of prey.

In retrospect, we’re all a little disappointed that no one said the word labyrinth when Glenn Detlof was around to hear the question. It really should have been obvious. I mean, have you seen a picture of Glenn Detlof? Picture Rasputin in a Nudie suit, and there you go. We should have been suspicious about Glenn Detlof’s designs on Ixian County, is all we’re saying. The man was, in retrospect, quite sinister.

Admittedly, even as we’d looked back on his body of work, there wasn’t much precedent for the work he did in Ixian County. He’d done master plans for a neighborhood that looked like a New Urbanist Tiki bar; he’d been involved in this floating city in northern Maine that no one could be sure was real. I mean, we saw photos, but they could have been faked. They could have been models. That one guy’s shirt could have been painted on. We didn’t know.

After it all went wrong, we spent a lot of time looking for the clues. The spiral designs were obvious. The branching nature of streets and paths. We lived in the suburbs; we had GPS to rely on. The seemingly random arrangement of streets was never unruly with mechanical voices guiding us. And the shops and the food establishments were all further in to the clusters than our homes. We would do our errands and get out. We never needed to proceed deeper in.

But that was the mistake, wasn’t it? Maybe we might have seen the things that served as warnings. Perhaps we’d have seen the watchtowers or the pits. Perhaps we’d have seen space for an oracle, steam still rising from the ground, awaiting someone to inhale the fumes and prophesy. Perhaps we’d have wondered just how the mudslides came; we’d have wondered if Glenn Detlof had been serving the whims of some old forgotten god and had made with some sort of ritual, some kind of summoning.

We’d have wondered if we lived on a new sort of altar; we’d have wondered if we were meant to be the priests or the offering.

But that was still to come. Most nights we celebrated this new space. We embraced its freedom and its strange avenues and the artist who’d conceived of it. We didn’t wonder about the other things; we didn’t comprehend. We didn’t shudder in our beds, dreaming of pursuit. That was still to come.

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marisha gene hicks

EVERYTHING GOOD I REMEMBER ABOUT MY REAL DAD by Marisha Gene Hicks

He called his old white SUV the White Elephant. We sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds. We had a secret handshake. We celebrated unbirthdays. He made us unbirthday cakes. He taught me how to make cream cheese frosting. He taught me how to ride a bike in the park. He said I looked like a doll when I was born. He bought me a mountain bike. He let my sister and I rent Mannequin and Puff the Magic Dragon every time. When I was older he let me rent Repo Man. He had a three-legged dog named Lucky or maybe it was one-eyed. He was a triathlete and maybe he still is. I think he competed in IRONMAN one year. He once took us to George Strait’s house when he was doing construction on it. He showed me how to use a drill. He bought me Lemon-Lime Gatorade every time he stopped for Coors tallboys. He took us to eat menudo. He bought us Sprites at the bar. He let me sip his beer. He let me take the wheel. He made a really good venison stew once. He bought us personalized clothing and jewelry and accessories. He bought us binoculars and monoculars and cool glow-in-the-dark astronomy books. He carried a beeper. I think that’s it.

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daniel handelman

HONOR SYSTEM by Daniel Handelman

"Maybe some people have both,” she said.

She was rolling up a joint. It had too much weed in it. The edges didn’t connect.

“The way she writes the male,” she said. “She knows the male. But does the male know the female?”

She leaned back into the couch. They’d gone to a motel. There was no Americana, no plastic flamingoes. It was a motel with none of that. It wasn’t what she pictured.

“There must be a male who knows the female,” he said. “Out of seven billion people, it is possible there is a male who knows the female.”

“Maybe,” she said. She removed a pinch of weed and sprinkled it on the coffee table. The joint wrapped up nicely now. She licked the seam, then offered it to him.

He shook his head.

“Sure?” she said, holding it an inch higher.

They sat looking an old TV. She lit the joint.

“Are we fighting?” she said.

“No.”

“You can tell me if we are fighting.”

It was night. A thin slice of light came through the curtains, splitting apart a watercolor of a boat and churning sea.

“We are fighting,” he said.

She leaned forward a little off the couch, her head between her knees.

“Getting in bed,” she said.

She took off her boots and pants and fell onto the mattress, bouncing, the crunch of springs.

“Would you wear jewelry?” she said from the bed.

“Jewelry?” he said.

“I wear this,” she said, holding up her hand. “The ring you gave me. You’ve never worn jewelry?”

“I wore a Saint Christopher,” he said, thinking. “And pookah shells. That was middle school, the mid-nineties.”

“Not now? — in the late teens?”

“I have the shirt,” he said, looking down at it. He liked it. There was a shark on it.

“No,” she said. “Something significant.”

*

In the morning she was up and out of the room before he woke.

He went out onto the balcony. The sun was a weak glob.

He saw her approaching, her head bobbing, jogging. She came up the stairs and slid her keycard. She took off her running shorts and shirt, then got in the shower.

His neck hurt. He stretched out on the floor, flipped through channels.

*

They drove to a gas station. A bird pecked at an oily puddle. They bought a bottle of wine and poured it into a canteen.

On the highway they didn’t talk but could feel the tension loosening. They were starting to feel happy. Some thick film between them breaking apart. Palm trees swayed freely. Cars on the road seemed friendlier.

They drove and drove through less and less civilization. Fast food, names of DUI lawyers. Everything was sweating. The freeway became a two-lane highway. Dirt roads led off into woods marked by bunches of mailboxes.

*

They came to a fruit shack.

They walked down the aisle of bananas, mangos, guava.

Coconut, watermelon.

He picked up a mango and put it to his nose. “This one,” he said.

She took it and set it down at the register. She added a hand of bananas and a guava.

They looked around.

“Nobody’s here.”

At the register was a lock box with a slot in it, a list of fruit and their prices.

“It’s an honor system,” she said.

She took out some money from her bag. He went back to the car for quarters. They kept expecting someone to appear, to take their money, but no one did.

It was getting dark. The two-lane highway connected with a freeway, back to civilization, where they came to the brand of motel they’d stayed at the night before. The woman at the front desk looked similar to the other, and for a moment they felt like they’d gone in a circle.

“Can you recommend anything for dinner?” she asked the woman.

“Mall’s your best bet,” she said. “Just down the road.”

In the mall, she lost him on purpose. When she tapped his shoulder, he hadn’t known she’d gone.

*

Back at the motel she reached in her bag and took out a gift box.

“For you.”

He pulled apart the ribbon and slid off the top. There was a locket, a gold heart on a silver chain, and a ring with a blue stone.

“Do you like it?” she said.

He put on the ring. She helped him with the necklace, turned him around and kissed him, took his hand and put it under her shirt.

He had the thought that he was her. That he wanted to be wearing her lingerie.

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LONGBEARDS by Chris Dankland

Before The Smiths signed the contract for the brand new house they were set to purchase, the real estate broker said: I have to tell you that in the last few weeks a few of the construction workers have sighted some Longbeards near the woods. I'm only mentioning it because you said you have a small dog.

Yes, said Mr. Smith. Thank you. We'll be sure to keep him inside the house at night.

That's what I'd do, said the real estate broker, nodding. Just in case. I'm sure that as more and more people move into the neighborhood, the the Longbeards will retreat further into the woods. Longbeards like to be left alone. Maybe you'll hear them howling late at night.

Gregory! said Mrs. Smith, playfully poking their seven year old in his chubby belly. Are you excited about hearing some Longbeards howling? Sounds like fun, huh?

Gregory nodded ecstatically, lifted his head and cried: A-WOOOOOOOOOO!

Laughter filled the office like the bubbles in their glasses of champagne.

///

The first time the family heard the Longbeards was two weeks after they moved in. A sound like seven singing trumpets broke the seal of night. It was 3am. Mr. and Mrs. Smith sat up in bed at the same moment.

Longbeards! said Mrs. Smith in a hushed gasp, touching her lips.

There's a lot of them, said Mr. Smith. He headed toward the window.

Gregory appeared at their bedroom door. Mommy! he shouted. On stubby chubby legs he ran in and dived into their bed.

It's okay baby, said Mrs. Smith, cradling her son to her stomach. It's just Longbeards.

Everything's fine. Listen! Do you hear them howling?  Gregory moaned and pushed his face deep into his mother's side.

Sparky ran into the bedroom and hid beneath the bed.

They sound sort of spooky, don't they? said Mrs. Smith. The Longbeards' howls were a combination of tornado sirens, rat screams, and alligator snarls. Woe to the usurping inhabitors of the earth, they howled. Woe to those who wear the crown of pride. Woe to those who scatter and destroy the sheep of the pasture. Woe to the wicked gluttons. Woe to you all on the day of our furious wrath.

Mr. Smith nodded. They do sound strange, he said. A wave of unease rolled through the room. But they're much more frightened of us than we are of them, he added.

///

The Smiths were one of the first families to move into the new neighborhood. All day the surrounding streets were filled with the sound of hammers and buzzsaws and the chatter of Latin American construction crews. But at night, after the construction crews had gone, the neighborhood was as still and silent as a stone dropped in the ocean.

Mr. Smith was proud of the new house that he'd bought for his family. It had not been acquired easily. It had cost tens of thousands of hours of toil at the law firm where he worked. His legal specialty was handling peanut allergy lawsuits. Mr. Smith worked for a candy company that made a small chocolate covered confection called Bloopers. The candies were sold in nearly every movie theater in the country.

But, six or seven times a year, some unfortunate soul with a deadly peanut allergy would purchase these candies, consume them in the dark theater seats, and go into immediate anaphylactic shock. Due to the contents of the candies, which contained a particularly potent peanut butter cream center, these allergic reactions were sudden and almost always fatal. Men, women, and children alike would swell up and suffocate in a matter of minutes, choking in their seats even before the previews were over. This created terrible litigation problems for the company. It was Mr. Smith's job to ensure that lawsuits from grieving families had a minimal impact on company profits.

But they are gone! the families whined. The ones we loved are dead forever! And now we are alone.

It's the unfortunate nature of the universe, answered Mr. Smith. The universe gives and the universe takes away.

You are responsible! the families cried.

We are not responsible, answered Mr. Smith.

You are the cause of all our misery! You have destroyed our happy home! the families cried.

It wasn't on purpose. We all just want nice houses, answered Mr. Smith.

///

The house is on fire! screamed Mrs. Smith. It was ten o'clock at night.

What? asked Mr. Smith. He was in the living room, watching cable news.

THE HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET IS ON FIRE! screamed Mrs. Smith.

They ran to the backyard and poked their head over the fence. The fucking house is on fire! shouted Mr. Smith. Luckily it was an unoccupied house far away from them, in another part of the neighborhood that was still being built. Bright orange flames swirled through the house's walls and windows like solar flares on a distant star. A giant black river of smoke snaked up from the burning roof.

Longbeards! shouted Mrs. Smith.

Fifteen or twenty Longbeards surrounded the house, jumping up and down on their heavy hindlegs. They were screaming. With giant clawed paws they beat their furry chests and kicked dust into the air. Their gaping mouths were wet with slobber, silver in the moonlight. Their huge eyes glowed like yellow light bulbs. Thick mossy beards hung from their jaws all down their bodies, tangled hair tossing through the air while they danced and howled, blurring the air. They shook their fists above them as if to rip open and tear down the sky.

I'm getting the machine gun! said Mr. Smith, rushing inside. Call the cops!

A minute later Mr. Smith had his machine gun in hand, pointing it over the top of the fence. He pulled the trigger and sprayed wild bullets at the Longbeards. The Longbeards darted in twenty different directions. In less than fifteen seconds they had completely disappeared into the night.

///

Mr. Smith didn't sleep that night, but his family did. Mrs. Smith dreamed that a Longbeard arm was growing out of her mouth. At first the arm was limp and dead, but then it started moving. Little Gregory dreamed that there were thousands of lollipops in his veins. Suddenly a hundred gaping slobbery mouths appeared all around him, sucking at the air. Little Gregory rose up into the air and was pulled apart by the suction. Sparky dreamed that he was trying to run away on broken legs.

After the fire department put out the fire, after the cops came by the house and wrote down his report, Mr. Smith stayed up in the living room with the machine gun resting on the loveseat. His wife had wanted a house with lots of big windows. She loved sunlight. Mr. Smith drank coffee and sat in the living room till dawn. He watched. He listened. He waited. He worried.

///

In the deep dark woods, The Longbeards huddled in their cave. The Longbeards waited too. They lay awake, stretched longwise against the wet March soil, full of freshly sprouted spring buds not yet emerged but slowly clawing out. One by one by one the humans would all be turned to whispers, mere coils in the wind. Evaporated. Dissipated. Forgotten. Tear their poison roots from the ground and purify the dirt that life might rise anew. Better to blast the trumpet and drown the deafened world with silence than to let it mumble endlessly its parched and wicked sickbed hallucinations.

Furious breaths filled The Longbeards black twitching noses. Kill them all and eat the children.

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GHOST SEX by Chris Dankland

Lucille died of leukemia in Utah. Richard died in a car accident in Seoul. They were both 16 years old when they died, and now they'd be 16 years old forever, two pissed off sulking virgins condemned to populate the dreams of the living. All those faceless extras that appear in your dreams, where do you think they come from? Just whipped up out of nowhere? No you idiot, those people are ghosts.

///

In 1967, a Dominican garbage man in Queens dreamed about winning the Nobel Prize. Lucille and Richard were in the audience, sitting next to each other. Richard was wearing a tuxedo and Lucille was wearing a beautiful dress made out of a giant wet tongue. At the front of the room, the Dominican garbage man ranted about how he invented trash that doesn't smell. Every ten seconds, every audience member was supposed to stand up and cheer.

Richard looked over at Lucille, looking her up and down. Nice dress, he whispered through the side of his mouth.

Lucille stood up and cheered. She sat back down. Thanks, she said, grinning. It's the only good thing about this dream. What a jackass, she said, nodding at the stage.

Richard grinned. He stood up and cheered. He sat back down. The Dominican garbage man droned on and on and on. The two teenage ghosts managed to have quite a long conversation during that time. They introduced themselves. They complained about the afterlife. (What a fucking disappointment, sighed Lucille.) They talked about how they’d died. They talked about all the things they missed. They talked about the things they never did.

I never kissed anyone, said Lucille, quietly. She stood up and cheered. She sat back down.

Really? said Richard. But you’re so pretty!

Lucille blushed the same color as her red tongue dress. Thank you, she mumbled through a grin. Nobody wants to kiss somebody that’s dying, I guess. You didn’t see me the last year of my life. I was bald and pale and skeletal. I was throwing up all the time. I could barely get out of bed.

Can I kiss you? said Richard. He stood up and cheered. He sat back down.

When they sat back down, Lucille nodded enthusiastically. Richard leaned over and pressed his soft lips on hers. Everyone else in the audience stood up and cheered. But Richard and Lucille just stayed sitting there, pawing each other, breathing hard, making out.

Hey! said a nearby ghost. Pay attention!

They didn’t even bother to peel their faces from each other long enough to tell the creep to fuck off.

///

In 1983, Richard and Lucille met again. This time it was in the dream of a Japanese house wife who was taking an afternoon nap. She was dreaming about a haunted house full of pillows with arms and legs. The pillows had giant mouths full of razor sharp teeth, and they were running around murdering people. Richard and Lucille were both dead bodies laying on the kitchen floor.

Hey! said Lucille, quietly. She moved her foot and nudged Richard. Richard opened his eyes in a squint, but when he spotted Lucille they shot wide open.

HEY LUCILLE! he said loudly.

Lucille grinned and said: Shh shh shhhhh. The pillow monsters were running all over the house, chasing the Japanese housewife. Those fuckers have sharp teeth, she said.

Richard nodded and quietly crawled over, closer to her face. He kissed her. I missed you so much, he said.

Me too, she sighed.

Who knows when this bitch is gonna wake up again, said Richard. Lucille nodded sadly. Do you want to know something that I never got to do before I died? he asked. Lucille nodded happily. Richard stretched out his hand and put it between Lucille’s thighs. She blushed. Thirty seconds later, she was squirming. Lucille looked over at Richard’s pants. Something big and long was bulging down his leg, twitching like a chrysalis eager to shed its cocoon. She unzipped him and pulled it out. It felt good in her hands. Warm and hard and swollen. For a long time, they rubbed each other like that, watching each other grin and grimace and pant and whimper and groan.

All the sudden, a pillow monster scampered into the room, bug-eyed and wild.

Fuck! said Richard, jumping to his feet, hard as a rock. He jumped in front of Lucille and wrestled with the pillow monster, punching it in the face and throwing it around. Lucille! he said, between kicks. Meet me in the dreams of the first baby born in 2078! Find me! The pillow monster snarled and screamed.

FIND ME! LUC--

The Japanese housewife woke up.

///

In 2078, the first baby born on the planet was a girl from Nigeria. Her first dream came on the the third day of her life. Newborn baby dreams don’t usually have ghosts in them. Babies know nothing of the world. They know nothing of other people, not in the way that you and I do. To babies, people are amorphous blobs with liquid vibrating voices. And that was how Richard and Lucille appeared. Two naked lava lamp bodies with voices like singing waterfalls. The baby floated in a fractal womb full of patterns and squiggles. Richard and Lucille were playing the baby’s father and mother.

Your dick looks like a bowl of red jello, said Lucille, giggling.

Richard smiled and rolled his eyes, which nearly floated out of his head. He had to reach up and grab them so they didn’t get away from him. Look who’s talking, Miss Picasso painting, he said.

Lucille looked down and laughed. I have like fourteen breasts, she said. I guess the baby is hungry.

I think it’s kinda hot, said Richard.

You do? Well, I have to admit your jello boner is kind of doing it for me, too. Let me try something. Lucille floated down until she was six feet from Richard’s waist. She started sucking in air through her mouth like a straw. Richard groaned. His jello dick start stretching out, slowly pulled toward her mouth. Soon his dick was six feet long, filling her mouth. Richard held his head back and groaned.

Come here, he gasped.

Lucille floated over like a wiggly amoeba. Richard’s six foot long dick gently pushed through her skin, deep into her center. She wrapped her arms around him and gasped.

They finished fucking two hours later. In the newborn baby’s dream they held each other tight, their hearts pumping in perfect synchronized rhythm.

We have to do this again, said Richard. We have to.

Yes, said Lucille. I don’t want to be without you. I love you, she said.

I love you too, said Richard. Next time, let’s meet in somebody’s wet dream. Lucille nodded enthusiastically.

Lucille hugged Richard as tight as she could. I love newborn babies, she said. They sleep all fucking day.

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THE NAVIGATOR by Kelby Losack

Because your friends are assholes, they toss us in the trunk in the sixty-nine position.

They duct-taped my ankle to the steel rod of my prosthetic leg. I don’t even know how to feel about that.

You think that twin telepathy shit is real?

Check, one, two.

Nod your head or something if you hear me.

How are we getting out of this alive?

One-two, one-two.

Fuck.

We’re going to die, huh?

Check, check, one, two.

If I had any memories of being in the womb with you, I think being curled up next to you in this cramped darkness would trigger some flashbacks. Nod your head if you feel me.

I can’t imagine where your friends might be taking us. This ride is bumpy as fuck, though. Remember learning how to drive? We couldn’t see where we were going then, either. Too small to see over the wheel, so we learned how to drive by the feel of the road. I was always careful not to keep the wheel too straight, swerving this way and that, like I’d learned from watching Mom. Always thought of her driving all over the road as her version of rocking us to sleep. It usually did the trick, except for when she’d slam on the brakes and laugh hysterically at some shit we weren’t privy to, reaching back with a hand that always shook, saying, “You okay back there, babies?”

Then there was the time she didn’t so much slam on the brakes as she did just let off the gas and sink into the driver’s seat, hands sliding to her lap, head bobbing against her shoulder in rhythm with the tall grass blades slapping the rearview mirror. I don’t remember if that was the first time we rock-paper-scissored for who would drive/who would navigate standing in the shotgun, but it wasn’t the last time, I know that.

Those times, when we took Mom by the underarms and ankles and sort of carried/sort of dragged her gently as we could into the backseat—thankful she didn’t weigh much more than the pitbull we had at the time—she always smelled like burning plastic, like when we’d use one of her lighters to pretend those little green soldiers had real flamethrowers. Same way she smelled when we found her the last time, slumped against her bedroom door, not waking up.

That first time we drove Mom’s car out of a ditch, it was you standing in the seat, telling me which way to turn as I steered blindly with my foot reaching down to the pedal, my chin ready to get smacked by the airbag if I fucked this up and crashed us into something. I was too scared to take us all the way home, so you told me where to turn into a gas station parking lot and that’s where we stayed until Mom woke up several hours later and she was so proud of us, she gave us some money and said, “Go inside and get you some candy, and bring Momma a pack of cigarettes,” but the clerk wouldn’t let us buy cigarettes, so we came out empty-handed and she said, “Fine, I’ll get it,” and she adjusted her hair and bra strap and checked her teeth in the mirror then staggered inside and when she came back out, she didn’t have any candy, but we didn’t say anything about it.

Check, check.

One-two, one-two.

Are you hearing any of this?

You know, come to think of it, you were always the one navigating, and I was always the blind driver.

That’s why I can’t blame you for any of this.

Your friends are going to kill us—probably tell us to run off into the woods and then shoot us in our backs—and yeah, it might be ‘cause I freaked out thinking the neighbor’s TV was a real police raid and went and flushed all the dope down the toilet, but this is your fault, too. I was just the one steering.

Still, I can’t blame you.

And if we could go back, I’d probably do it again, because without you, I’d be lost.

Nod your head if you can hear me.

Check, check, one, two.

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IN CARS by William Lessard

1

The car stopped turning. Jay would drive to the deli, reverse the process once the six-pack or bag of 40s was chilling his inner thighs. The job of the person with him was to rotate their head to the middle of their back. Bumper distance within ten feet required a preemptory “Yo.” In tighter circumstances, random curses were substituted. Increasing volume emphasized proximity of the parked car/oncoming vehicle/pedestrian.

Walking the five blocks was never a consideration.

2

My father’s car was parked in the yard with hedges growing from one of the wheels.

On the screen in front of him, men in red uniforms zipped around each other. They appeared to be chasing another man, this one in a green uniform with a black dot he slid back and forth with a stick. The man with the dot had the confidence of someone who had just acquired magical powers. Powers that included disappearing into the TV’s faux-wood grain.

3

There was a smell in Freddy’s car on hot days. Strong, with the animate quality of freshly prepared food. Sometimes we would turn around, expecting to see someone in the back seat cooking a Big Mac and fries. Freddy thought the smell was a gift from the car’s previous owner. A built-in air freshener. Freddy changed his mind when the smell became a heavy sourness, a stench that absorbed all the air in the car. A stench that lingered even after we drove 80 miles an hour on the highway with the windows down. It would return whenever the temperature rose above 90 degrees. Its lesson, delivered from deep inside the vinyl, was to remind us what the body did to a Big Mac and fries once they had passed the teeth.

4

Being a non-driver allows you to see what your friends would do if they were God.

5

“Do you have any warrants?”

“Warrants?”

“Are you guys wanted?” asked the cop whose bumper we almost flattened, thanks to Freddy’s fondness for rolling stop signs.

“No, no. Nobody wants us,” I said.

The cop undid the clip on his holster.

“I want you, out of the car,” he said.

He knew to point at me, even though I was a baby sheep, tucked behind my friend’s shoulders in the back seat.

6

The mechanic didn’t give Jay a price. He gave him the number for a used car lot. This would have been useful information, if it wasn’t the place Jay bought the car that had lost the will to steer.

7

“Look out your window,” Jay said on the phone. A black Lincoln slid up the middle of the block, taking up three car lengths. Jay was dating a woman we called Cold Cuts who worked as a dispatcher at a car service. She sent him limos anytime he wanted. That first one we took to get slices of pizza. Other times we’d go to a club or just ride around. Jay took his to his window cleaning job on days he overslept.

8

Glen picked me up in the driveway in my socks.

When someone says they “need to do something for five minutes,” that estimate does not include travel-time to a pile of sawdust in Delaware.

9

He walked out five minutes later, exactly. Right pocket bulging, knuckles bleeding.

10

What would you say to new clothes, free food and coke all weekend in Virginia Beach?

11

What would you say when he asks if you’re interested in another side-trip? Friend of his in Florida will take good, good care of us.

12

Help.

13

Grand Prix was a popular model. With a back seat more commodious than the beds we slept in at home. Motels were for special occasions.

14

Rearview mirrors threaded with silk scarves. White. Names in red script—with date—stitched across the front. Ladies first, always.

Angela & Tony2/14/82

Anne-Marie & Vincenzo7/2/81

Tina & Joey9/22/83

The scarves were from the same old woman in Morris Park. For a few dollars extra, she added a heart pierced by an arrow, or a brief saying. At Last. Together 4-ever.

My friends had trouble matching the scarf to the person they were with. The scarves were jammed in the glove compartment like an overstuffed sock drawer. Getting busted with the wrong scarf meant coming up with a lie. The more intelligent young women would snatch the scarf from the mirror, hold it tight in their fist as they punched. The less intelligent/less emotionally mature would believe explanations worthy of a senator. “My friend Jay, who I know has the same name as me, borrowed the car.”

15

Everything was about sex, except the sex.

16

Troy at my house at 8 a.m. with tequila, a gift of his parent’s liquor cabinet. He was back from LA with three tattoos he didn’t remember getting. The most visible: a woman’s name uncoiling across his right forearm. Cath or Kate.

17

Calm person, crazy driver. The instructor said it was always opposite, yet mid-season Columbo episodes disproved this theory.

The drunk driver who killed Commodore Jones’ wife turns out to be Mr. Sketchy McSketch, the one we thought it was from the first five minutes.

The writers were tired, perhaps low on blow.

18

He gestured with the remote. Waving it over different body parts to demonstrate bathing in a stranger’s swimming pool.

19

“The things I did.”

“Yes.”

The line of tequila even with the eyes of the pirate on the label.

20

Put car in Park, catch a few winks, drive on at the green. Freddy’s system for driving under the influence was a success. He arrived home, bladder full, tank empty. Total travel time, for the 15 blocks from Dawn’s house: just under six hours.

21

Jay’s limo-on-demand lifestyle ended when one of the drivers told Cold Cuts that Jay’s trip to First Blood Part II last Thursday night wasn’t a solo.

22

Troy at my house at 8:30 a.m. with crème de menthe. He had drunk his way through the rest of the cabinet. He was left with the booze his parents poured on their ice cream.

“How about we go find a wall to break that up against?”

23

Dropping the unwanted cassettes in a pile on the floormat, fingers mashing buttons. He put in a tape, drove a few feet, popped it out, tried another.

Fast Forward, to the last tape in the ashtray: “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”—Diamond Dave vibrated in the left kickpanel. The perfect soundtrack for exiting that movie parking lot.

24

When the brake is no longer the brake.

25

Glen showed up at Jay’s house every day with a different car.

T-Bird on Tuesday was good. But it was the Seville on Friday that got him. Emerald Green. Spoked rims.

Jay offered him 3 grand cash. Right there.

“Next week—and I want the wreck in the driveway.”

He flashed the knot under Glen’s nose, close enough for him to smell it.

“Monday. I promise. I’ll even make sure it’s detailed.”

26

No word from Glen Monday.

27

No word from Glen Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

28

Friday. Glen waiting for Jay first thing in the morning. The driver-side door swung open, even with the front gate at 5:30 a.m.

“You still got the money?”

He leaned over the steering wheel in a way that Jay could see something he didn’t want to see.

29

Everyone in the neighborhood thought Glen must’ve been high when he sold the Seville for only $1,500. The next week, Jay had it painted. Red.

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NORTHERN WOODS DOLL TURNED AWAY by Katherine Osborne

I will use both our deaths. I will use both our deaths to sing this song. Trees have advanced language. Take me to your Research Team. I will give them. Evidence. I was spoken to from the confusion of your stolen cattle. Date me back to an all-knowing Omaha.

Your mother has a secret stash of animals. Use them to find her. You better find. Her.

There is a vault of friendships filed under Fantasy Baseball. I win by a system of placing my bet on love without rules. I didn’t hear from you so I started famous one act plays. Lost you again this time I made some friends. You become a mother with or without your child. Grief speaks with the authority of an off the charts Jesus. Are you having dreams again? It doesn’t matter why won’t you call. You have discovered a casket years into the Earth. As if Earth knows how to lower such a thing. My baby lost her doll in the snowbank, so we had to make a rescue. What is it? You don’t believe me. Snow harder.

I open something on your computer and it kills the lights. I know you better than they do is the farm I buy from them. When you learn how to lucid through, the gods will learn from you. Walk right in, honey. You’ve got to run this show.

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THE JANNICK OVERTURE by Avee Chaudhuri

Nacogdoches, Texas

Jannick Meissner claimed to be from Eastern Bavaria. He spoke theatrically, e.g. “I will revenge myself upon Castro.”

Castro had slighted Jannick by not inviting him to an ongoing, Sunday afternoon table-top role playing game. Jannick was livid.

“I am an excellent storyteller,” he told me. We were drinking on Jannick’s front porch. I sat and he paced back and forth in a very tortured manner. “I will revenge myself upon Castro,” he repeated.

“You don’t even like role playing games,” I pointed out.

“This is accurate,” Jannick conceded. Jannick was a very cultured, seemingly intelligent German male in his early 30s. He did not like games. He preferred to drink whiskey, listen to Wagner and talk about the demise of Western culture. It was his favorite topic of conversation. Then, when he was very drunk, incredibly drunk, -- which was often -- he would make a solemn display of his sexual impotence, even in mixed company, and then stumble into the kitchen to cook you these extraordinary chicken quesadillas. I don’t think he even played cards.

Still, it was a matter of principle. Jannick felt like he was being ostracized because of his superior wit and charm. It was a matter of envy on Castro’s part. Castro is admittedly a bit of an ass, but the reality is Jannick could be very unpleasant. And his penis smelled horrible.

#

We were crossing the Straits of Colchis when Jannick rang the doorbell. Castro’s wife let him in and showed him to the game room, unaware of the fact that Jannick was not an invited guest. We all greeted him sheepishly. Castro managed to ask him how his day had been.

“Very good, Castro. I was walking through the neighborhood and thought I would stop by and say hello. What is it you are all doing?”

Castro explained impatiently that we were playing the Knights of New Corinth.

“May I observe the game for a little while? Would anyone care for a touch of mineral water and blended scotch? Castro, do you have a lemon and a sharp knife with a wide bevel?” Jannick sat down next to me and produced a flask without waiting for a reply.

Castro sighed audibly but we continued the game. I was never really worried that Jannick would revenge himself that afternoon. Traditionally, the man had never followed through on anything.

He was still overweight and still a drunkard, despite vowing tearfully on numerous occasions to give up cheeseburgers and highland single malt, his favorite pairing. But I did not realize then that Jannick’s vengeance that afternoon would be swift and costly.

We had made landfall on the Troezen Coast and were hiking to the caves further inland to mine for Adamantine, which was not a very glamourous undertaking, but necessary in order to defeat the Troll Wizard Pandonia X. This did not please Jannick.

“You’re miners, now?” He was incredulous. “This game is a fantasia, no? Why aren’t you fighting and pillaging? Kill the men and sexually humiliate the women in front of their children. Then sexually humiliate the animals in front of the clergymen. Then kill the clergymen. Let God watch this tapestry of devastation unfold.” Bear in mind that all of this was uttered unsmilingly, in a thick German accent.

“Jannick, right now we’re mining for Adamantine. You’re free to leave,” Castro said.

A pained expression crossed Jannick’s face. “Castro, Castro, I am sorry. I am not being a good guest. I apologize. Would you like some mineral water and scotch?”

Castro ignored him and kept narrating. As we were mining for Adamantine, a Praxis Dragon entered the cavern, attracted to the smell of our smoked whitefish.

“What’s the plan?” our buddy Stan asked.

“Well, fuck, I think we’ve got to make a run for it,” Castro opined.

Based on our diminished stores of magic and the abject state of our weapons (hence the visit to the mine), a retreat was a logical course of action. Jannick, again, objected.

“Stay and fight! Cowards!” “Goddammit, Jannick.”

But Jannick had a plan. Apparently, he’d done his research. “Use the Nabulus Vestibulovus spell to flood the cave with gas. Then shield yourself with the Adamantine you’ve unearthed. When the dragon releases his fire, he will blow himself up and you will be safe.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Stan said.

Castro, to be fair, acknowledged as much. “Alright, not bad, Jannick. Want a beer?”

Jannick happily accepted a beer. For the next two hours he was polite and inquisitive. He and Castro seemed to be getting along. When Castro’s kids came home from the park, they were introduced to “Uncle Jannick.” Jannick insisted on ordering pizza for everyone.

It happened after his third slice of mushroom and sausage. Jannick stood up abruptly and raised his fist. He was trying, I think, to make a serious declaration of his enmity, but before he could he leaned over the table and projectile vomited over everything, the seas, the mountains, the small village we massacred Sunday last, the sacred brothel of the elves. He kept vomiting for several minutes. When Castro ran back from the garage and offered Jannick a bucket, Jannick pushed him aside and kept willfully throwing up on the game table.

“Jesus! What the fuck, Jannick!” Castro cried as he tried to forcibly remove Jannick from the tableside. But Jannick gripped the table for dear life and kept vomiting.

When he was finally done, Jannick took a swig from his flask and wiped his mouth.

“I am an excellent story teller,” he said to Castro. Then he collapsed. I rode with him in the ambulance.

He was severely dehydrated. Jannick had eaten a big meal at home before he walked over to Castro’s, and he drenched his last pizza slice in syrup of ipecac, the well-known emetic. Wisely, he was put under psychiatric observation for 24 hours. I visited him, but Castro, understandably, refused.

Jannick complained, “Where is Castro? Why does he fail to visit me?” “He’s busy trying to repair the damage you caused.”

“Well, I think he is rude, and I shall, once more, revenge myself upon Castro,” Jannick declared.

The next day Jannick checked himself out of the hospital against the doctor’s advice. A few hours later they arrested Jannick for setting fire to the play structure in Castro’s backyard, then attempting to extinguish the flames by urinating on them. Despite a jubilant effort, he was not successful.

“I am no longer dehydrated. That doctor is a fraud,” Jannick declared as he was led to the police cruiser.

Some towns have their resident drunks and fading beauties. Ours has Jannick, arguably a synthesis of the two but so much more, eternally aggrieved, openly vain and routinely impotent by his own hand and bottle. His notoriety survives ice storms and the yearly lice and handjob epidemics at the middle school. Of course he seethes and bitches that Castro has yet to attend to him in prison. When they release him, any day now, Jannick tells me he will find another town, with more personable adversaries and perhaps a more sympathetic biographer.

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jeff phillips

THE CUPS by Jeff Phillips

Orel Gammon stopped wearing his cup the second day he played in the "majors." This wasn't the Major League Baseball. The rec center named their little league for ages 10-12, “the majors.” For all who played in “the minors” before it, this new league was a big deal. It meant kids pitched, and the kids pitched harder than the pussyfoot dads, who were notorious for tossing slow balls to make their kids feel like all-stars when they knocked a homer over the fence. League rules in the majors required that kids wear cups over their crotch, something all the preteens got a kick out of, except Orel Gammon, gangly and doe-eyed as if everything around him could be a danger.

The snug cup hijacked Orel’s mind when he stepped up to the plate, causing him to whiff bad. It was all he could picture when he didn't reach up in time to snatch that line drive inches from his head at shortstop. He could hear his dad groan from the stands. Quickly he was getting a reputation as a space cadet, and was looking at a possible rotation out in left field, or a permanent role as a bench warmer if he didn't nip it in the bud, not to mention a silent ride home with a dad unsure of what to say if he couldn't say “good job.”

That cup could wreck his 3 year stint in the majors if he didn't ultimately shirk the rule. The constant pressure of a hard plastic dome around his genitals could be much more damaging than the thrust of a catcher's mitt into his groin during a slide into home plate. His teammates continued to mock this accessory. Big Scottie, tall but rain-thin, his mouth stained red by a raspberry chewing gum, made a clicking noise with his bright tongue as he drummed between his legs. Big Scottie looked no different than a ghoul after feasting on flesh.

Rewind 5 years: when a much smaller Orel went to his first real Major League Baseball game. He was in awe as they entered the massive stadium where electric organ jingles buoyed the wafting of hot dogs and popcorn. It was souvenir cup day at Wrigley Field, all beverages came with a reusable container showcasing a century’s evolution of the Cub’s uniform. After the 4th inning, Orel's dad led him to a set of empty seats he’d spotted closer to the 3rd baseline. It was an overcast and windy day in late April, and the sold out game wasn't brimming to its capacity. A few specks of rain prompted a smattering of blue ponchos in the bleachers they could see across the field, but the precipitation held off. As they settled into their new seats, Mr. Gammon watched intently as the Cubs went up to bat, but Orel was distracted by the braying in the row behind him, a few feet to his left.

Two teens with pube stashes and sleeveless jerseys retrieved discarded souvenir cups from among clusters of peanut shells on the ground, and then stuffed them down their sweat pants, not even stopping to drain the backwash. Orel heard their yelps and heehaws as beer soaked through the gray cotton. They'd position the cups over their privates and point its shape outward like a long sawed-off beak. When a batter hit the ball the two would rise and cheer and pound on the hard edge of their amplified phallus. They would bark and Orel was terrified at what these two beasts behind him might be capable of, and Orel got a taste of it when a foul ball came his way. He reached up, thinking he could catch it, not realizing the two teens were closing in right behind him. They were also going for the ball, edging him out. A brunt force slammed into his elbow. The cup behind the fabric had made contact, igniting the throb of a thousand fiery pins across his funny bone.

The two teens didn't acknowledge the collision, neither did his dad. Everyone was so engaged by the ball bouncing in the stands above them, the racing of drunk men to get it.

One of the teens adjusted his cup, inches away from Orel's face. He could smell the beer that was dripping down the boy's leg. The rumbles and the roaring all around him only reinforced them as monstrous. Prior to this he had heard ball games on the radio, seen some on the TV. It was as if now he had been sucked into the static pop of crowds and so he recoiled, thinking this thing was going to come at him again and it'd be nighty night for good.

His dad heard him shriek and looked down, disappointment stretching all corners of his face. "You enjoying any of this? If you want me to take you home, you're going to have to wait another inning. We paid a lot for these tickets." Orel was at a loss on how to describe what it was that bothered him and why he felt so icky. It wasn’t the game but brute shapes beneath some gross kids’ pants!

After the next inning, without even asking him if he still wanted to go, an agitated Mr. Gammon yanked his hand and led him out. As they went up the aisle, Orel could see the two teens had each found another cup to cram down and form a double headed schlong. The sweat pants appeared even wetter.

It was a few years before father and son went to another baseball game, but Orel had begun reassuring his dad of their shared interest with long sessions of catch in the backyard. When they did go to their next Cubs game, Orel was relieved it wasn't on souvenir cup day. He was bigger now, but he was still on the lookout for horseplay that might make him shudder. When they saw Ryne Sandberg hit a grand slam it was the happiest he'd ever seen his dad, and Orel hoped to make a big play on the field someday to elicit the same intensity of glee.

When Orel saw his teammates knocking their cups to show how hard it was and how invincible their balls were, his sense memory conjured up the cup’s bottom edge bashing into his elbow, the shrill pubescent voices echoed in his ears, and he was aware that at any minute, something nasty could poke at him and ruin all the fun of a favorite pastime. A knuckle would rap, then another would call out a response and it was an endless loop until the coach made some changes and sent everyone out onto the field except him. The coach waved him back and said he thought it best for him to take a breather and get his head back in it. As the other kids took their positions, Orel could hear his dad say to his mom, “looks like Orel’s not playing anymore.” And Orel wanted to call out through the green cinder blocks, “no dad, I'm still playing! Just taking a breather, trying to get my head back in it! Trying to shake the smell of damp grass and gotta remind myself the field out there isn’t a mess of sweaty, matted pubes!” He tried to summon the courage to excuse himself to use the bathroom next to the concession shack, where he could reach down his pants and dispose of his musty cup in the trash.

A kid on the other team named Trevor hit the ball into the outfield and made it to second base. He would've been out had Reggie, or as the 12-year-old supposed superstar deemed himself, the Regginator, actually set his foot down on the base when he caught the ball that was thrown back from left field, instead of the dirt several inches to the side of it. The Regginator tried to protest the call, but the ump repeated his original judgment: safe.

"Know how to use your feet?" The runner teased.

Offended, the Regginator reached out and tried to pull off the runner's helmet. Despite the ump pointing to Trevor moments before and shouting safe, Orel could see that protective apparel was only an illusion in this game, easy to peel away before the pounce.

"No touching other players!" The ump ejected the Regginator. The dismissed second baseman kicked the dirt but obeyed. As he returned to the dugout, Orel asked his coach, "am I back in?"

"No, sorry guy, we got Ben warming up out in the bullpen. Ben! Go cover second!"

The Regginator took a seat next to Orel and cussed the ump under his breath. “Dick bag!”

“Learn to settle down, guy!” The coach gave him a friendly, though aggressive, squeeze on the shoulder.

Orel was caged with an animal. His desire to flee was now amplified. But he didn’t want his dad to see him walking away from the field while the game was still being played. So Orel tried to slide away from the Regginator to a spot further down the bench, until his teammate turned and asked “wanna help gangbang that bitch of an ump in the junk?”

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kristin garth

95 IN QUEENS by KRISTIN GARTH

JONATHANIt’s five past. The bookstore owner with the crooked back eyes me as if I’m a suspicious character. Sinister I wear like a Brooks Brothers suit.  Not suspicious.Six past. If I’d been thinking, I’d have sent these things UPS. If I’d been thinking, I would have dumped her majestic, manipulative ass a year ago. If I’d been … with Lauren, there’s never been a lot of …Nine past. There’s little worse in the world than a three-piece suit and a tie in the middle of a July heat wave in Queens. And women with crooked backs.Ten past.LAURENI’m wearing a pleated black skirt, Mary Jane heels, a white turtleneck because Jonathan likes a girl in a turtleneck.  He likes his girls in white.I’m running, in heels, down a street I hope is Tyrell. I’ve asked three people for help.  None even stop to hear my question.Something drips down my cheek.  Not sure if it’s sweat or tears or both. It hits my mouth.  It’s salty. I lick my lips.It’s fifteen past. He will not wait.TRICIA“Coffee, blackI rest my fingers on a spoon centered on a violet linen napkin, take a New York City breath.  I’m here, but she’s here too. And, right now, she’s with him.IRENE WESTER, PROPRIETER, WESTERDAY, 13 TYRELL STREETI’m an old widow who sells old things: books mostly, furniture, clothes. I know things. Like this thing stalking outside my store for 20 full minutes scaring off customers, a gargoyle.Comes inside.  Pulls out a silk hanky, wipes his forehead with it all dainty-like.Wanders here and there, touches everything, careful. Uses the smallest surface area of skin contact possible, like it’s all infected with the plague. Keeps eyeing the door.  Has some smart-ass ideas of not putting books back where they go.I eyeball him then. “No, sir. We do not.”Grimaces.  Brings a stack of books, a money clip, on top, with a devil creature face, pulls a hundred dollar bill. Goes right back outside to stalk my front door.JONATHAN“It’s twelve fucking thirty.”Her hair is hanging against her red cheeks like thin, wet snakes.“Lauren?”Pants turn to sobs. On a public sidewalk, she throws herself at my feet. Screams a word I do understand: Daddy.Through the glass, I make unfortunate eye contact with the scowling old bookstore owner.  I look away, to the voluptuous 33-year-old howling at my feet on a sidewalk in broad daylight.“Hello, Hannah.”I hail us a cab.TRICIAThree cups of coffee and five chapters later, I pull out my phone. An hour. He told me half that, tops.The blonde 20-something waiter hovers, faithfully attentive to my coffee cup  covered now with my palm. I offer him a sweet tea southern smile. Any more caffeine, and that smile’s going full-on smirk.I’m the good girl. I cannot risk a smirk.JONATHAN“Little one, I’m going to require some patience. Been a bit of a snag.”I hear the ache in her breath.“At the end of the block, there’s a vintage toy store with a carousel. Pick out a doll. Daddy will buy it in half an hour.”LAUREN“Daddy, I don’t feel well.”He’s got a frown.“Where’s my pink sheets, Daddy?”Daddy used to wrap me in pink sheets, tell me bedtime stories.  He slept inside with me.“I’m going to lie down on the couch.”I feel all bad inside.“Wrap me up in the pink sheets, Daddy.”JONATHAN“You’ve done your best,” Tricia tells me, holding her Little Red Riding Hood doll bribe in the kitchen. “She’s faking.”I nod. “I know.”“I don’t think you really believe she’s faking. We both know that you’ve derived a lot of,” Tricia’s choosing her words, “pleasure from this idea of her multiple personalities.”I contemplate an argument, but Tricia deserves the truth.“You’re right. Part of me still wants to believe. Part of me has this,” I cringe, “weakness.”I hear Hannah crying. Not Lauren. Hannah. I have an impulse to find her pink sheets and wrap her in them.  Pink sheets I threw out three weeks ago.TRICIA“She’s in there talking to someone,” I’m realizing I am trapped in an apartment with a crazy person.“She’s just babbling,” he says casually. “She does this.”Maybe more than one.“It really does sound like she’s talking to somebody.”“Tricia, who in the hell would she be talking to?”That’s a very good question, I think.  Say nothing.“I don’t think she’s talking to anybody.” He goes to check though.   Just in case.ROSCOE PATTERSON, EMT, QUEENS EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICESWe receive a dispatch at 3:59 p.m., 225 Andrus #14, woman caller. Report is not unusual: “They’re killing me.” An unidentified male intercepted the call, said the woman is delirious. Police are inside when we arrive.A woman’s on the floor, kicking, screaming.  If she were a child, I would say “having a temper tantrum.” Most definitely adult though. Early to mid 30’s, guess.Mr. Jonathan Braxton (the resident) tells us that Ms. Hawthorne (the screamer) is his confused guest. Complained of dizziness, exhaustion after moving some items.We discuss options.   Ms. Hawthorne quiets herself. She’s sits up, criss-cross-apple-sauce, wide-eyed, like a little girl watching adult making decisions.“Do you need to go to the hospital?”One of the two officers speaks to her.  Mr. Braxton fidgets.“Tricia get her some water. I think she’ll drink it now.”Ms. Hawthorne nods.The officers look at us with a shrug. Whole bunch of nothing.“Kinky fuckery of the beautiful and the demented,” my analysis to Ray on the way out the door, off to more craziness with an uglier view.TRICIAI’m in the kitchen. Refrigerator door’s open.  Close to the living room as I can be -- with an excuse.  He’s screaming at her.  This anger sounds delicious.  I want a taste.  If he surprises me while I’m standing here spying, I’ll reach for the red and white paper boxes of Chinese food.  We haven’t had dinner.  I’m being thoughtful. He’ll kiss me on the forehead.JONATHANHannah’s asleep. Tricia’s asleep. I’m awake contemplating hanging myself from pink sheets.LAURENI wake up in half light/half dark, unsure where I am. I remember, soft and slow, walking, getting lost, Daddy. Hannah? Oh, Hannah.JONATHANTricia wakes me, breakfast in bed.  "Did I burn the toast too much?”“Tricia, you know, I like it burnt.”Any other day, I would punish this amateur-hour incitement of praise.  She’s been through a lot, though, little one. I feel compassionate. Write down the date.“Now, get dressed because we have a special date this morning.”It’s Alice in Wonderland, Queens Theatre in the Park.TRICIAThe bathroom door is stuck. I push. It doesn’t move.“Jonathan?”He appears in the hallway.“The bathroom door is stuck.”“What?”He tries.“It –is- stuck.  What in the hell?”He kicks the door.  It budges.  We hear a groan.  He kicks again. It opens enough I work my way inside. Lauren is on the bathroom floor, her body lodged against the door.JONATHAN“How were we to know we were hurting you, Lauren?  You’re not even supposed to be here.  Tricia and I will be out. When we return, we expect you and your things to be gone. Is that clear?She bats big blue eyes at me, Hannah’s eyes. Though this is not Hannah. This person I want to slap. She pouts, Hannah’s lips. I want to do it twice.“I’m sorry,” she whines, “to mess up your plans by passing out in my weakened condition.”This is Lauren.  I want no part of this person. Not sure I ever did. She was the cost of Hannah.MONICA WRIGHT, TICKET TAKER, QUEEN’S THEATER IN THE PARKIn line, there’s this man.  You can’t help but notice him.It’s his hands, toying with two tickets. Rubbing them rhythmically between mesmerizer’s digits as he talks quietly to a miniature woman in white with braids.His hands are massive, broad across the palms, twice the size of mine. Delicate, long fingers, powder pale, absolutely blank, as unmarked as a newborn. Nails protrude past the fingertips. They’re shaped into points.I’m holding myself back from stepping forward, towards those fingertips brushing stray hairs out of my eyes while I smile – the way the woman with the braids does.  She isn’t even that good looking.His eyes fix on me, the smallest fraction of time I can imagine.  They hold me still like an enchantment until I’m dropped, and he returns to his clueless companion.Do you remember cornflower blue, from the 48 crayon box? His eyes are cornflower blue.“Tricia, I don’t want her anymore. She’s dead to me. Do you understand? Lauren, Hannah, everybody. I don’t want any of it anymore.”The woman with the braids looks at the ground. She doesn’t seem happy. He hasn’t said he wants her.“This is your weekend, Tricia. The rest will go as planned.” He touches her on the nose.  My nose tingles in sympathy with the current of that touch. He turns to me with the tickets. I take them.  A shy peek into cornflowers makes my cheeks burn.“Thank you, child.”Our fingers touch.Thank you, child. Huh.TRICIAKey in the lock, Jonathan pauses. As the door opens, I hear wet words, blubbers and gurgles.Lauren left at noon.  Hannah took her place.JONATHANI’m hiding in my own kitchen.“Shhhhhh, Tricia.”Rubbing fingers over that alabaster babydoll wrist, I raise it to my lips and kiss the delta of veins that meet at her wrist.“We’re not going to do a thing. We’re going to sit here and let her rot on a couch. When we’re tired of sitting here, we’re going to go on about our day as if that rotten corpse has been carted away, and we never even noticed it was there.”I speak it theatrically.  Little Hannah, in the living room, knows where she stands.LAURENMean.  Why’s he so mean? He said forever. He said, “I will love Hannah, forever.” He wants me to die here. I won’t die here. He’s a bad Daddy. He tells lies. He said forever.  He said it inside the pink sheets.TRICIAHe’s making dinner reservations.  Looking across the kitchen at me, I see, for the first time since Lauren arrived, a smile.Then his eyes change. It’s Hannah.  Running at him, fists in the air, drool on the side of her face, like some large, round dog. Gone mad. He drops the phone.LAURENAaaaaahhh’m noooot gunna duh ayeDuh aye.JONATHANI kick her in the stomach, gut reaction of a student of the marital arts. Attack what is attackable; defend what is defendable. She folds in two, falls, a thud of bones and flesh against kitchen tile. Out of some strange sympathy, I fall, too.LAURENI’m wearing a shapeless blue knit shift, comfortable shoes, sitting in a waiting room of a health clinic in Atlanta.  Near me are a few crying children, a teenage girl in a miniscule spandex dress, a couple of women who look like me. My name is called. ALICE WAYNE, OB-GYN, EAST ATLANTA HEALTH SERVICES33 year old female, Caucasian. Black hair. 5’5”, 140 pounds, Lauren Hawthorne.Gynecological examination following a miscarriage after a fall down some stairs.  I notice substantial bruising on thighs, upper arms, abdominal region of the patient.I inquire about support regarding her loss.  Informed partner does not know that she was pregnant.Too many falls down stairs you hear, in my occupation, to be statistically viable.“Ms. Hawthorne, for what it’s worth, you and stairs don’t seem to do each other much good. The stairs don’t care either way; you should.”LAUREN95 in Queens.  A lot can depend on things like weather. Sometimes it’s the biggest, baddest wolf of all.
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THE PASSENGER by Ted Prokash

Raymond pulled into a Love’s Travel Center somewhere in southern Indiana, shortly before dawn. Their routine for stops had been well established by now. Walter went inside to piss and buy snacks, while Raymond paid for and pumped the gas.

Raymond was STRESSED. He was rather high-anxiety to begin with… and the mission he and Walter were undertaking would have anybody nervous. But Raymond had been prepared for all that. The problem was the mission had gotten off on the wrong foot logistically. He had planned to have his car – a 2004 Subaru Outback with low millage – all freshly serviced for the trip. But he’d run into certain logistical stumbling blocks, circumstances beyond his control, etc. Now, here they were, somewhere in southern Indiana, overdue for an oil change and with 3,000 miles left to drive.

Raymond checked the oil, fretting. He decided to add a quart to be on the safe side.

“Fuck you doin’, man?” Walter inquired quite amicably, a bag of spicy pork rinds in one hand and a 20-oz Red Bull in the other.

Raymond bristled underneath the hood, concentrating on pouring the oil through the little paper funnel. He was already getting tired of Walter’s lack of seriousness. “I’m trying to make sure we don’t break down somewhere in the fucking Appalachian Mountains, that’s what,” he said.

“Shit, man, I thought you had this whip all tightened up. Don’t freeze our here now,” Walter advised as he ducked inside the car.

It was damn cold, even 500 miles south of home.

*

Somewhere south of Louisville, Kentucky. Dawn breaking in the eastern sky. Walter had his phone plugged into the Subaru’s cigarette lighter, playing rap music at a moderate volume. The airwaves around these parts were dominated by country music, bible thumpers and right-wing firebrands. The Subaru was equipped with a CD player, but of course, the CDs themselves were all in landfills. Since Raymond mistrusted cell phone technology, Walter was in charge of the music – largely by default. Raymond would have preferred to drive in silence, not because he didn’t like the music, but because the demands of the mission made a constant clamor in his mind, requiring his constant diligent attention. “What are we listening to?” he asked.

“Lil B,” Walter said. Then, in response to Raymond’s honky silence, “Lil B the BasedGod. We can turn something else on if you want. I think I got some… Metallica on here… some Alice In Chains and shit.”

Raymond waved it off. “No, this is good. I just didn’t recognize it.” Walter offered him the bag of pork rinds. “No thanks.”

Walter picked out a choice piece of pig skin and halved it with a crunch that rang out over the down-low stylings of the BasedGod. Crunch, crunch. “There was some fucked up graffiti in that bathroom back there, man.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. There was the usual shit, you know, pictures of dicks, gay shit, so and so is a ho at this phone number. But there was some raw racist shit too, fucking swastikas. ‘Only good nigger’s a dead nigger’, ‘Hitler was right’, ‘Kill the Jews’…”

“Fucking Christ!” Raymond spat. “Fucking ignorant hicks. Like, I get that the Nazi imagery was a thing with the early punk bands and shit. The Stooges did it, a lot of those bands did, but the time for that shit is past.” Raymond shook his head. “That kind of shock value’s just not relevant anymore, man.”

The two drove on in a thoughtful silence.

*

Miami, Florida. Seventy five degrees in the dead of winter, the sunshine infusing everything like an extremely clean form of speed.

Raymond and Walter were ragged, strung out from the road. After 24 hours of hard driving, they’d finally pulled over under a tall palm tree on a quiet side street about a hundred and fifty feet from Iggy Pop’s door. Here they waited out the small hours of morning, watching for any sign of their mark. As the sun climbed in the sky, Walter started getting restless. “Man, I gotta get a coffee or something,” he said, stretching and rubbing his eyes.

“We can’t give up our position now,” Raymond said.

Walter was less than impressed. “Man, if anybody’s worried about us, they know we’re here already. I saw a little place a block back that way and a block back down the street we came in on. I’m going to take a walk. You want anything?”

Raymond grumbled under his breath. “Coffee,” he said.

Fine time for him to make a scene, Raymond thought. He screwed up his eyes and studied the house for any kind of movement. He hadn’t slept more than an hour in the last twenty four and he’d hardly eaten a thing, but Raymond was wired. They were so close now. If they pulled this off…

Raymond took a warm swig of water from a bottle he found under his seat.

This whole crazy plan was only a couple weeks old, but the impetus behind it had been brewing for longer than Raymond had been alive. The zeitgeist of popular despair, the American cultural train wreck, speeding toward a suicide soma solution… Iggy was one of the original reactionaries to this very thing, one of the first to test the merits of kamikaze art. Then, the suicide trip was rushed to crescendo by the digital revolution, you know, ‘watch out now ‘cause I’m using technology’… Raymond knew intrinsically that Iggy was someone who might be able to give him, if not answers, at least some perspective, some idea.

Then, the chance encounter with the record collector from Miami. Raymond was soliciting a first pressing of the first Stooges album. This cat happened to mention that – slap my ass and I’ll be damned – Iggy Pop lived a block from his home. He sees him quite regularly. That’s when Raymond had his thunderbolt revelation. It was like he was visited by an angel that said, “Go and seek Iggy out. In him you will find the truth.” He brought Walter along because – well, for one thing, Walter was easy company – but most of all, Walter was a gun person. He was always strapped. Touched by an angel or not, Raymond was still practical. The great Iggy Pop might need a little convincing as to the righteousness of his mission.

Walter returned from his coffee run. He climbed into the car, whistling to himself, making no attempt at all to be inconspicuous. The Subaru filled with the smell of deep fried something.

“What are those?” Raymond asked with a testy edge. The smell was doing a number on his voracious senses and his knotted gut.

“Oh, these? These croquettes. They’re delicious, man, have some.”

Raymond popped a croquette into his mouth. “That is good.” He noticed Walter had come back with just one small cup of coffee. “They run out of coffee?”

“Hmm? Oh, no man. This Cuban coffee. This enough for both of us.” Walter put the coffee on the dash and set out two plastic cups the size of thimbles. “See, how they make it is they pack the sugar in the bottom, then they put the coffee on top – and it’s strong coffee…” Walter paused mid-sentence. “Is that your boy right there?” he said, pointing casually.

Raymond looked up and, sure enough, there he was: the weird and wiry street-walking cheetah, in the flesh and a dark pair of sunglasses. Whether or not his heart was still full of napalm, was exactly what Raymond intended to find out.

Iggy crossed the street and walked right at the Subaru, coming up on the passenger side.

“He’s coming to your side, man, stop him!” Raymond panicked.

Walter leaned out of the window, still casual. “Hey, excuse me sir. Can we talk to you for a minute?”

Iggy peered inside the car, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “What’s up, brother?” That unmistakable snarl.

Raymond’s excitement bubbled over. He practically climbed on top of Walter. “Hey Iggy. We’d just like a few moments of your time. Just a few questions. Is there someplace we can go to talk?”

Iggy recoiled. “I’m sorry guys, I’m just trying to go down the street and get a cup of coffee, alright?”

“Well, we could come with you. I’ll buy you a cup…”

“Listen, you’re going to have to get a hold of my agent if you want an interview.” Iggy began to retreat.

That’s when Walter, in a motion that was lightning-quick yet somehow unhurried, pulled his 9-millimeter and pointed it square at the godfather of punk. “Tell you what man, why don’t you just get in the car. We’ll go for a ride and have a little talk. No problems.” Walter motioned toward the back seat. “Just get in the car.”

Iggy took a step toward the Subaru, his palms turned up. He reached tentatively for the handle of the car door. But instead of opening the door he brought his hand down in a fast karate chop, knocking the 9-mm into Walter’s lap. He took off like a shot.

“Shit man!” Walter fumbled for the gun. Iggy was already sprinting down an alley.

Raymond opened his door. Then he shut it again. “What the fuck are you doing, man!? You pull your fucking piece?!”

“That old boy’s quicker than shit! You see that?”

Raymond fired up the Subaru and peeled off. He whipped a U-turn and took a left. They spotted Iggy running down a busy street. “Fuck!” Iggy ducked into a little shopping center, out of sight. “Fuck! What do we do?”

“Just keep driving, man,” Walter advised. Raymond tried to pull over and park, but they were caught in a heavy wave of traffic. “Ray, I aint gonna jump out this car and chase that motherfucker down, I don’t know about you. Just keep driving.”

Iggy was fucking gone.

*

Somewhere south of Atlanta, Georgia. Beating a mad retreat from Miami, from their failed mission. Panic and shame running 80 miles per hour. Walter was at the wheel. Raymond was next to him, not asleep, but practically catatonic with despair.

The flow of traffic started getting heavy. They were nearing the city. Walter flipped on the right turn signal and eased the Subaru into the far right lane. He veered onto an exit ramp.

“What are you doing? This is a weird place to pull off. Why don’t you get us past the city at least?”

“We gotta make a stop here.”

“This is a bad place, man. We need to put some miles between us and that… that fucking mess back there.” Raymond shook his head. “I still can’t believe you pulled your fucking gun.”

Walter wore that half-smile that never seemed to leave his face. He maintained the calm demeanor that seemed his permanent state. “You remember where I’m from, Raymond?”

Raymond squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, shutting his eyes tightly. “Yeah… um, you’re from Georgia. Somewhere in Georgia.”

Walter smiled. “That’s right. Little hood outside of Atlanta called Park Heights. You know how I’m always so chill at work? How I just laugh when people be freakin’ out about their kid’s got a cold, or their transmission goes out or some shit? I’m just thinking how back in Park Heights you got to worry about gettin’ shot just walkin’ down the fucking street.”

“That’s fucked up,” Raymond admitted.

“Yup. Now Raymond, why do you think I agreed to drive all this way with you, looking for some old grandpa motherfucker used to sing in some rock band? I know you wanted me along for muscle, Ray, ‘cause I got a gun. I know that shit.” He put his hand on Raymond’s shoulder, chuckling.

“Dude, my whole family is here. All my old friends, my moms…”

Raymond was quiet for a while. He had never considered that they’d be driving right by Walter’s old stomping grounds. He watched the city filling in around them. “Can we get some food, at least?”

Walter put on a hurt expression. “Man we’re visiting my mom. She will cook for your ass. That’s called southern hospitality. You motherfuckers up in Wisconsin might not know about that shit.”

Walter guided the Subaru through a typical urban tableaux. Check cashing places, liquor stores, fried chicken stands. Folks hanging out on front stoops, sipping from bottles sheathed in brown paper bags, watching the traffic with long, bored looks.

“We’re gonna get you some soul food, Raymond.”

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vanessa norton

EMPATHY by Vanessa Norton

The man who lived downstairs kept a wooly pig as a pet. Sometimes, he would stab the pig with a kitchen knife until the pig fell over. He insisted that the pig enjoyed being stabbed; in fact, he would come to the door just to get it. Falling over meant the pig had surrendered to the sublime.

My boyfriend had a hard time taking care of himself. He was a drooler. He forgot to rinse at the end of his shower, so his body was often covered in suds. He walked around town with his cock swinging from his fly—unintentionally—but how could he not notice?

I never said anything to him, because he was an orphan and I thought these things were related; besides, I had too much empathy.

The pig owner was not so passive. He liked to invite me downstairs whenever my boyfriend was strung out on the couch. We all used, but he used the most, and the pig owner seemed to know exactly when. He would walk upstairs to our porch and ask if I'd like to play wooly pig and I always did.

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lanny durbin

LIBERTY KID by Lanny Durbin

I saw the kid's face when he got hit by the car. He was standing there on the sidewalk with a blank look and then the car jumped the curb. Just nailed him. The blank look stayed on his face when he flew through air, stared right at me. Like he meant to do it. A party trick.

He was wearing a statue of liberty costume, which, for a short moment, made the visual a little funny. He stood out in front of the Liberty Tax building a few nights a week, one of those preying fast tax return spots in the same lot as the grocery store I work in. He stole a pack of smokes out of my car one night I'm pretty sure, but he was just a kid, seventeen at max. I wished it was the regular guy standing there that day, the day shift statue. That guy danced and waved at the passing cars like he really cared. Either he would have seen the car coming and been vigilant enough to dodge it or he would've been the one to get creamed. Both seemed like better outcomes. The kid was just there for a couple extra bucks—he wore the foam green hat and matching frock with no pride and stared at his cell phone. Lady Liberty's lost disappointment of a son. The hat caught the wind and drifted away when he careened over the hood of the Nissan. It looked like he was doing a killer move on an invisible skateboard.

The EMTs showed up, cops showed up, blinking lights and stoic professionalism. They set out orange cones, scraped the kid up off the asphalt. I watched them work quickly. I stocked shelves most of the day. I opened the store and counted the till. I dealt with the customers, took the trash out, locked up the store at 9 PM. I watched the EMTs take the kid away and thought that I could probably do that. A little training and I’d be alright, but then someone would need to be here to receive the produce delivery, so I’ll leave the rescue work to guys with nothing else to do.

The officer was terse when taking my statement, like, this dipshit in his work uniform better give me a straight answer. I thought, hey man, we both wear uniforms. Yours is dark blue, mine's orange and white creamsicle. We both have our names on our shirt pockets, but hey, mine's only safety pinned—they stitched yours right into the fabric. Officer Ottman. You’re locked into the force, like a blood oath. I could take my name tag off right now and disappear to a new life. I can stock shelves anywhere. A valuable skill set.

Maybe I don't know how to hold a pistol or book a perp at the station but I do know when the frozen goods delivery is coming, what'll be on it, where to stock it. You don't have to deal with Ms. Henderson when I tell her the Amy's Chile Relleno meal was out of stock, she'll have to wait until Friday. Your stern bullying wouldn't work on her—she requires a more delicate approach. I'd like to see you be the shift supervisor in this goddamn place. I'd love to see it.

They towed the woman’s Nissan away while she gave her statement. She was crying, inconsolable. Was on her cell phone and bam, jumped the curb. She probably killed a teenager but she did get to read that Facebook notification. I recognized her from the store. She came in to buy slivered almonds, which reminded me that the bulk order was due in by noon and all this police business was holding me up.

The next morning, the regular Statue of Liberty guy was out on the curb, inches from where the kid was nailed. The guy danced and waved like a real dipshit. I went out and asked him if he’d heard about the kid.

“Yeah,” he said. “Heard he broke his legs and ruptured his spleen or something.”

“So he’ll live, huh?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Can’t you live about the same without your spleen?” I asked. “I think I read somewhere your liver just takes over for it.”

“Heck if I know,” dancing statue said with a big dopey grin. “Hey, I’ve got to cover his shifts until he gets back, so hopefully one can live without a spleen. I should get back to work now.”

I walked back inside to the office in the backroom and googled spleens. I thought about the kid without a spleen. I read that you sure can live just about the same without one; you could just become more susceptible to infection. I thought, hey, that’s not so bad, considering. Plus, working in the vitamin section here at the store, I’ve picked up a few things about nutrition. The kid would want to cut back on dairy fats, for starters. I decided that, if I saw him again, I’d offer the kid a job on the spot, here at the grocery store. Your life was rarely on the line in here, Nissans rarely careened into you in here.

I knew that Officer Ottman wasn’t going to help the kid get back on his feet. Offer the kid a badge? Yeah right. He didn’t really know anything about protecting and serving his community. I’d love to see Officer Ottman try to run this store. I’d love it.

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andrew miller

6:54 by Andrew Miller

I arrive at 6:55. I climb the stairwell to the main lobby, swipe my badge to access the elevators. I wait. I have earbuds in and keep my eyes dipped so that no one acknowledges me. I enter the elevator. I exit the elevator at my floor. I begin my work day in silence. I attempt to spend as much of my workday as possible in silence.

I arrive at 6:56. I climb the stairwell to the main lobby, swipe my badge to access the elevators. I wait. I have earbuds in and keep my eyes dipped. I say nothing to the hellos and good mornings around me. I enter the elevator. I exit the elevator on 39. I begin my work day in silence. I attempt to spend as much of my workday alone as possible.

I arrive at 6:47. I climb the stairwell to the main lobby, in front of me is a man wearing a jacket just like mine. He swipes his badge to access the elevators. I swipe my badge. He wears a smile on his face. I wear my earbuds and dip my eyes when he turns to see which elevator doors will open. He greets the other workers congregating for the elevator. I remain silent.

I arrive at 7:03. I walk briskly to swipe in. The man with my coat is behind me. I drop my badge and he retrieves it.

“Thank you,” I say.

His hair is cut the same as mine. He wears the same shoes and the same pants. His black sweater snug around his pinpoint collared shirt. He smiles and says, “You’re welcome.”

Around us are several people waiting on the elevators. The elevators are always so slow. I wonder what it takes to say hello. To say good morning. To begin my work day in this other way.

I arrive at 6:54. I climb the stairwell to the main lobby. The man who looks like me is already waiting for an elevator. I swipe my badge. I remove my earbuds. I do not dip my eyes. I breathe out. He smiles. I say, “Good morning.”

He turns his back to me and doesn’t say anything. I look away and catch my distorted reflection in the closing elevator doors.

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jonah solheim

RECUERDA, OR THE CALL OF THE COMMON NIGHTHAWK by Jonah Solheim

He stood with his shoulder in the doorway, arms crossed, and she glared back at him.  The linoleum of the kitchen cold under her bare feet.  Another disparity between them, another contention: his slippers kept him warm.  He sniffed, more to do something than out of a biological need, and turned his head away from her.  She folded her arms, too, a soft click in her head telling her she was mirroring him and not caring to fully acknowledge the thought.  

Her feet cold and his warm.  The way of things.

In the heat of a moment now lying dead between them he had called her a bitch.  This was the final vocalized word the apartment walls had heard in ten minutes.  The sting of the word was as if no one else had ever uttered it before, as if he had saved it just for her, specifically to hurt her. But he had not budged from where he’d said it, as if the curse had roots.

An art deco print hung behind him.  She had always hated it and would never tell him, not even if they made up this time.  It was amorphously daubed, apparently with a child’s finger paints; the variety of colors seemed schizophrenic without context.  The title, in tiny black print at the bottom, provided no such reprieve.  

Recuerda.  

Fine, she thought, glaring past him.  I can remember.  I can remember a great deal.

I can remember last fall, trucking your sorry ass to a movie theater thirty miles away to get tickets for some new “experience,” only to find out they sold out the day before, and we should really check the website first next time.

(In her memory she skips past the part where, on the way home, dejected and irritated, they stopped for hot apple cider at a local farmer’s market and did not fight again for another three months.)

I can remember listening to the Cocteau Twins in your basement and racing to see who could guess the lyrics first and you not telling me you had memorized their first three albums while you were in the hospital the first time.

(She also conveniently excises his second hospital stay, when they both discovered John Williams — the classical guitarist, not the composer.)

I can remember finding you in the bathroom, doubled over, hands pressed to your torso as if holding in your own entrails, puke in the tub and tears in your eyes.  I can remember that.

These memories and still others flashed and sizzled across her mind like finger-flung water on a hot pan.  His shoulder’s nearness to the jamb caused a phantom ache as if he’d been punched, but he would not move.  He saw her determined look.  His stomach cringed at its potency; a cancerous churning started somewhere deep.  He followed her gaze to the painting, a gift from his aunt —- the eccentric one, not the lesbian schoolteacher.  He glanced back at her and tore himself from place, to the painting, to take the thing off the wall.  After a pensive moment, staring at the brighter space on the sun-drenched wall (now embittered by an ink black night), he broke the frame across his knee.  Glass sprayed into the carpet, across the linoleum towards her bare feet.  He looked up at her.

Her lips pursed, but no words came up her throat to move them.  A silence as wide as the one between them now roared behind her forehead, immaculately conceived goldfish in a dark bowl.  She could feel right down to her chilly toes a vacancy of charity on her part, as if the need to communicate with him was far outweighed by her own need to hide her stale bemusement with their situation.  This need growing as the wordless moments fled their rage. They could stay here all night and nothing would change; this they both knew. Yes.  He could break every painting in the place and she still wouldn’t have anything to say to him. An impasse.

His hand, nicked by an errant piece of glass, ran over his face, leaving a thin red streak from chin to temple.  He blew air out through his mouth, as close to a response to her grim nothing as anything.  The broken frame slunk to the floor, making a lopsided triangle over his left slipper.  His stomach lurched again, and he dared to let his eyes pass hers.  Four icy and silent lighthouses, manned by apathetic keepers both struggling to become beacons of apology.

She knew the look, registered it with a small splashback of similar memories to reinforce it, and did her best to remain outwardly unconcerned.  But where his health was involved, she was not impassive.  Could not be.  In that arena she was positively verbose, normally.  The muscles in her foot made like they wanted to lift, but the larger ones above remained frozen, so she stood there on cold linoleum with a half-tensed foot for a moment or two before relaxing again.  Tiny diamonds on the yellow floor, winking.

The novelty clock by the refrigerator chimed ten: the call of a common nighthawk.  He moved suddenly, pushed past her as she listened to it, startling her back a few steps.  His hand — her favorite one, the left — closed around the dustpan and a small brush.  With his arm he gently pushed on her shins so he could sweep up his mess.  She let him.  When he moved to dump the pieces in the trash, she stepped into the hallway, feeling as though she were passing through the ghost of his shadow as she bent past the jamb.  Began making a small pile of shards in a cupped palm.

He made a sound in his throat — ut — like his throat got sealed off before a real word could come out.  He saw her bare feet.  She turned the corners of her mouth down and kept preening the carpet fibers, ignoring the shard she could feel poking into her heel.  She had a flash of a monkey in Borneo performing the same action to its mate, two other nonverbal life partners stuck in a rut.  His sweeping brought him close enough that she could smell his body, and she cursed herself for wanting it so suddenly.  Some intoxicant, having a form other than hers to explore.  If she closed her eyes and ran her fingertips across him in the dark, she could take herself to an alien land with an utterly indescribable landscape.  This land also lived behind her forehead, pebbly kitsch for the fishbowl.  She didn’t know how to tell him this, so she didn’t.  Thoughts banged against the frontal bone of her skull, dead on arrival.

She stood with her shoulder in the doorway.  Arms limp. He sighed again and put his hands on his hips.

Remember, he said, when this was easy?

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claire hopple

THIS IS GONNA BE GOOD by Claire Hopple

“Do you know where Bernie is?” a stranger asked the man as he was headed in to change.

“Not sure. I think I saw him in the parking lot a minute ago,” said the man, trying to be helpful to the stranger even though he was technically a stranger.

“Who’s Bernie?” the stranger then asked.

“I thought you were looking for Bernie. How can you be looking for him if you don’t know who he is?”

“Why can’t I be looking for someone I don’t know?”

The man had had enough. He went inside to change for his shift so he wouldn’t be late. Coming back out to the main room in full garb, he saw Bernie picking a bandaid off the plaque in the corner. It read: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, was engraved and everything, but was screwed into the wall high enough so that it was unclear what one wasn’t supposed to touch. The bandaid was covering the word “NOT” rather defiantly.

“I think that was someone from the Association,” said Bernie.

The bandaid was flapping at the edge of his middle finger, successfully dislodged from the plaque. Bernie peeked at the gauze portion to see if it was used before tossing it into the trash.

“The Association?”

“Yes, The Association for Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums. Those guys.”

The man didn’t know such an association existed, had just started this job a few months ago, but didn’t want to rankle Bernie even more by asking followup questions.

“This place is not in shape for visits from the Association. This could be bad. I don’t want to end up like the settlement. You know what happened to Todd at Jamestown.”

The man tried not to remember what happened to Todd at Jamestown. It was Bernie’s standard cautionary tale for when anything went wrong.

He knew what this was really about. Tourists would rather drive eight miles out of the way to visit the wildlife refuge than come here. There, exotic animals appeared unencumbered by civilization. Their labyrinthine pathways seemed especially natural and created a pleasant plume of dirt when you scuffed your feet along them.

The man visited once but didn’t want to go back. The animals looked mutinous and the humans hypnotic. He had found a cage marked “Horned Viper” that appeared empty and struggled not to apply any meaning to it. Push pop carapaces littered the paths. Maybe we should be handing out push pops, the man thought.

*

Power lines buzzed above him on his way to the coffee shop. The buzzing forced him to imagine what impulses were being carried across right then, directly over his head. He entered, ordered, found a nice table near the wall of windows at the front. Outside, a woman was telling a rather animated story to her friend on the bench up against the window. She was gesturing high enough to look like she was reaching to give the man a high five.

He unceremoniously gulped his to-go cup and waited. The sleeve on the cup kept slipping and he thought about the frustrating nature of gravity, but also wondered why the barista had given him a portable cup rather than a mug. Did she expect him to leave?

He was not leaving. He was meeting a manager or director of some sort from an in-home aide service.

The man’s father was not doing well. In fact, the man was pretty sure his father was gradually becoming a recluse. His father had mentioned something about conch shells, how he could hear the sound of muffled waves just as clearly from pressing a mug to his ear as he could from a shell found near the wave’s end. At the time, he figured his father was just lonely or perhaps becoming a poet. He thought about getting him a no-nonsense pet, something that didn’t require a lot of maintenance, like a turtle. But the pets that require the least amount of maintenance also seem to provide the least amount of comfort.

Plus, the turtle was sure to outlive his father. And what was the man ultimately going to do with a turtle once his father passed, especially one that he indirectly inherited from himself?

The man wasn’t sure about the in-home care thing since his father was in very good physical condition. He didn’t know if reclusive tendencies was a box you could check on a form. But mental health is just as important, he thought.

And people talk about nervous breakdowns but maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. If you lean into it, accept the madness creeping over you, maybe it can be a peaceful adjustment. Like slipping into warm bath water. Like the gradual murk clouding the waters in a turtle tank.

She was late.

Being a historical interpreter mostly meant advising visitors to hold on to the railing along the stairs. Telling kids as well as adults, “Everyone has to hold on. No one is above hanging on.”

It also meant trying to fuse history with the present to a horde of students on field trips and retirees finally able to travel. And they came to this vaguely colonial site to hear about farming practices and blacksmithing techniques while the jake brakes of semis shuddered on the overpass. A submissive, sonorous percussion giving into the slope.

The man had applied, desperate for a way out of a misleading corporate position. He had been told travel would take up around 25% of his time but it was actually closer to 40%. The man’s ears kept popping and clogging from elevation changes to the point where he could no longer hear what went on in the meetings, the ones the company thought were worth flying the man hundreds of miles to attend, 40% of the time.

He suspected he landed this job with absolutely no interpreting experience merely because he was a man. With no battle scenes to reenact and no weapons to wield, the staff was mostly made up of women. Guys thought the big show was in Williamsburg. But these women wielded plowshares and ironwork and could maintain the fields far better than he could.

Some of the reenactors used to be street performers and some thought they deserved to slough off the first few letters entirely, transforming purely into actors.

The only other male on staff was Ames, an aspiring magician, who practiced tricks when things were slow. The man wasn’t impressed with his tricks. They were sloppy and unrehearsed. And also because what doesn’t disappear? What doesn’t eventually dissolve on its own?

Ames fumbled through stunts. He muttered things like, “I’ll get the hang of it. It’s just muscle memory. Like learning guitar.” But he wasn’t improving. Ames would say things like “This is gonna be good,” and “Wait, we’re getting to the good part,” which totally diffused any possibility for goodness in the impending act.

Muscle memory isn’t always ideal, the man kept to himself. Isn’t it just practicing an action over and over until it’s automatic? So that if every action were purely muscle memory, your whole life would be forgotten before it’s even gotten? The man thought about all of this while he nodded to Ames, polished the spinning wheel display.

*

The man had come to expect two things from his father. First, he wasn’t going to let an aide swing by his home a few days a week. This was less of a suspicion and more of a reality, since his father had already kicked out the aide within the first hour. Second, his father wasn't going to go out into the world anymore, but he could let some of the more entertaining parts of the world in.

So he drove Ames out to the house, switching out his straw farmer hat for a tall black one. They parked next to his father’s overly reinforced mailbox. His father understood the importance of mail but also understood the power of baseball bats and midnight teenage angst.

He made Ames tuck his long hair into a skinny ponytail. Ames had that mangled look caused by hair that’d been dyed for decades, like split and dried firewood stacked indoors. Just like the man’s mother used to have.

A song played on the radio in the car but it didn’t sound right. After listening for a few seconds, the man realized what was off about it. This song had become such a popular choice for karaoke that the original now sounded like a remake. No squeals or squawks or jumbled lyrics. It stuck out precisely because it was performed so cleanly.

The man gave Ames an encouraging pat on the shoulder before shutting off the engine and opening the door.

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brian alan ellis

“NO BOOK BLURB, NO CRY” EXCERPT by Brian Alan Ellis

An Inspirational/Crazy Informative Guide to Proper Book Blurbage

(An excerpt from Sad Laughter, forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms)

“[This book] will fry up some prose eggs in your ol’ brain pan.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This writer] is the kind of poet whose madness and how [he/she] exorcises that madness is a thing of dark brilliance one can admire from afar but if you ever let [him/her] crash at your house for a few days [he/she] would scare the living shit out of you.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This writer] can fix your pipes and your roofing but [his/her] book of durable, brick-layered stories can also fix your mind plumbing, too.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This book] sends a roundhouse kick to your funny bone before blowing it up. Disagree? Then I don’t con­sider you a person; you are a terrorist towards good taste.”

⋆⋆⋆

“Reading [this book] is like waking up to find a bloody horsehead in bed with you and then screaming but not screaming because you’re repulsed but because you’ve actually discovered a fresh way to look at life and it’s amazing.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This writer] definitely has a way with words—they aren’t written; they’re kicked and fondled before being splattered across the page like a dead, wet dog.”

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“[He/She] is the type of writer you’d let crash at your apartment and then wake up to find they’ve murdered your pets and then turned them into dancing puppets that are now lip-synching to all your favorite Debbie Gibson cassingles, so yeah, a real party animal.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This book] takes readers on an uncompromising fun­house ride of damaged people attractions.”

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“[This writer] is the type of poet who will put [his/her] head through a plate glass window just to make killer poetry out of [his/her] face.”

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“[This book] is a brave and poignant look into a per­son’s mind as they struggle to exist in a world where Hulka­mania is generally not the strongest force in the uni­verse and we are all in danger of being crushed by a 500-pound giant hailing from parts unknown.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This book] is recommended for anyone who knows how to read.”

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“[He/She] is the kind of writer clever enough to moon­light as a lawyer/sociopath capable of freaking out a table full of squares by using hella unassuming meth­ods, so yeah, a wonderful talent.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This writer] writes like a sadistically imaginative child who plays house by burning down the house.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This book is] a coming-of-age fever dream [the author] carved into some Ouija board [he/she] later used to summon the spirits of David Koresh, Jesus Christ, and Richard Ramirez.”

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“[This writer] is like the Tombstone of frozen descrip­tive prose pizza.”

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“While reading [this book] you’ll feel as though you’ve been taken hostage, like you’ve been stuffed and then zipped inside of [the author’s] emotional baggage, which is okay because it’s warm in there, at least.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[This book] is kind of like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov meets Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, or maybe like The Notebook meets Re-Animator, I don’t fucking know.”

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“[This writer] is like Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie when they dump pig blood on her but instead of setting the prom on fire [he/she] ignites your thoughts using dark and mysterious word torches.”

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“If the literary scene were a slammin’ mosh pit, [this writer] would be commanding that shit using wind­mills and crazy roundhouse kicks.”

 ⋆⋆⋆

 “[This book’s] narrative is like the music video for Van Halen’s ‘Right Now,’ except it makes sense, and it’s funny for the right reasons, and it isn’t as preachy.”

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“[This book] is the literary equivalent of Kid Rock’s dandruff.”

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“Though [this writer] has never won a literary award, it’s quite possible they’ve accidentally urinated on themselves while drunk, so…”

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“Crackling with powerful satanic energy, [this book] is like When Harry Met Sally except Harry listens to nu metal and Sally is possessed by Zuul from Ghostbusters, has an addiction to shitty speed, and may or may not be a juggalo.”

⋆⋆⋆

“[He/She] is the type of writer you’d let crash at your apartment and then wake up to find naked and sum­moning weird spirits while kneeling in the center of some pentagram they’ve drawn out on your living room floor using your pet’s blood, so yeah, a real pain in the ass.”

⋆⋆⋆

“Reading [this book] is like having your emotions con­stantly dunked on by Shaq.”

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“[He/She] is the kind of writer who will pilfer a leather bomber jacket out of a garbage can and then hit the shitty neighborhood bar thinking they look real god­damn good in it, so yeah, a kindred spirit.”

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“[This book is] dripping with comical dark poignancy... like a bacon, egg and cheese McGriddle.”

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“Reading [this writer] is like getting a totally sweet hand job from someone with an MFA—someone really smart, but also someone kinda shifty, kinda dangerous.”

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“[This writer] is the type of person who’d eat the fries off your plate after you’ve gotten up to use the bathroom at Perkins, which means they’re a real sneaky ass.”

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“Sorry, book blurb was replaced by Metallica’s St. Anger snare drum sound.”

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mieze zuber

TURNS OUT, IT WAS BONE by Mieze Zuber

It was early spring, nearly like now, before Columbine, and I was drinking again in that bar perpendicular to the office where they’d housed me. I was with a couple of the bankers and J., the gay man who refused to admit what he was. He knew I knew, and that I wasn’t going to judge, that I liked him as he was. So he hovered close like security, almost like a pimp, and he was lovely to drink with and say much of nothing to. I slept over at his, overlooking the river. I took men back there. He did, too. It was a good arrangement. It was all right between us.

Drinking in that bar. And as usual, I’d had a lot. It was a Thursday night, and that was the one night in the week when that dead city came alive even when there was no baseball game at the stadium just across the way to flood them all in. Prospect Street. Go a few blocks down and you’d see the hotel that Led Zeppelin trashed in the ’70’s; you could see the hookers coming out and walking up and down until cars stopped and they got in and went for a ride. Ride, yeah. Ride. Thursdays were a good night for rides, with all the businessmen who stayed downtown to drink in anticipation of the weekend.

One of the bankers said that evening,—Your face isn’t the usual. I’d like to paint you.

—Do you paint, I asked him absentmindedly.

—No, but if I could, I would, he said.

—Ah, I said, and took another swallow.

—I need the toilet, I said to J. —And then you’re driving me home.

—Baby, he said. Stay a little longer. It’s too early.

—Yeah, I said. And I made my way up the staircase to the unisex bathroom.

When I came out into the hall, the last one I’d fucked and ended things with was there. K. He saw me and called me. Not a banker, not one of the work colleagues. He was far out of that circle. I was swaying, I’ll admit. I was well on my way. I’d been there for a while. The music was deafening and he leaned into my ear to tell me what he did.

—Come back, baby, he said. —I miss you. Come have a drink with me.

—No, come on, I said, shrugging him off.

—We’re not finished, he said.

—No, we are, I said. —Leave it. It’s over. Get one of your others.

—You’re here now, though, he said. —There’s no one else here. You come with me now.

I didn’t say more. I went back down the stairs to the bar. And then he was behind me; I felt him and there were no words coming from him but his fists were out, I felt them on my head and half turned and got one to the face and then I was falling. And I reached the bottom, the ground floor by the bar, and I tried to stand and someone I didn’t know, she was stopping me and saying, —NO, DON’T MOVE. And then I felt more hands on me, holding me back. I tried to stand and they stopped me. I saw white through my black stockings and thought, —What’s that?

Turns out, it was bone.

They phoned an ambulance while I kept saying, —I’m fine, leave me alone, it’s fine. I was transported to the inner-city charity hospital emergency room. Saint V------'s. Laid there on a slab of an examining table, next to a homeless guy in the next bay. He was crying and I wasn’t. I just ignored the pain running up my leg, into my pelvis. I wanted to smash something. He was crying; he was crying for his mother. I looked over at him in a haze of something and saw his weathered face, his black ashy skin.

—You’ll be okay, man, I said. My voice didn’t sound like my own. It was high and thin and cracked. I sensed some kind of feeling, some deep and sharp thing. I still couldn’t identify it as pain.

—I’m going to die, he said. Wailed it.

—No, no. You’re fine. You’re going to be fine.

—I’m BLEEDING, he screamed. EVERYTHING’S BLEEDING.

—Shh, I said. Shh. It’s all OK.

—I’m telling you, bitch, I’m FUCKIN’ BLEEDIN’. I’M DYIN’.

I didn’t say more. The pain had manifested; the pain was making itself known. And I was unable to even turn on my side to see if he actually was bleeding. And there I was lying there on that fucking slab of an examining table, and I just wanted to get up and walk away and I couldn’t. I lay there, trying to erase K.’s face from my head. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth.

+++++++

I’d chosen K. because he was precisely such a brute. I’d met him in that very same bar in late winter. Another Thursday. J. had crinkled his nose at that choice. K. was blue collar and sweaty, garage car mechanic, shaved head and Neubauten tattoos. He bought me a couple of shots and actually sniffed me.

—Don’t tell me that one’s coming home with you, J. said.

—Why not? I’d laughed, and hugged him.

—He’s disgusting, said J. —And he’s a fucking freak. I don’t need a radar for that. Yours is totally broken. Pick someone else.

But I didn’t. I knew J. was right. I’d seen it myself. I knew K. would fuck me up but good, and it was exactly what I wanted that evening. J. wouldn’t let me stay at his that night. He told me that if this was the new romance, I could take it back to mine. And I accepted that, and I did.

I was bleeding from various places the following morning. I let K. out the door at 5 am with stinging promises of more. He came back twice, and we went out together once, and then the fourth time we got together, he kept talking about other women. And he left his pager on and kept using my phone to answer their calls, arguing with them about this and that. Funny I couldn’t put up with it. It wasn’t like I was in love or anything. I just found it annoying.

When he hung up from the last page saying, —Sorry, I’ll turn it off, I told him that I would rather that he leave. We argued and he gave me a few slaps and punches, and I told him, —OK, enough now. Go home.

Surprisingly, he did, and he left me alone. Up until that night in the bar, early spring. April 8th, I think it was, into the early morning hours of the 9th.

+++++++

After the x-rays, they told me my tibia was fractured and close to a break. They would keep my leg mobile. J. was allowed in to see me then.

—I phoned your mother, he said. —Your dad picked up.

—Fuck, I said.

—You’re going to need him tomorrow, baby, he said. —How else are you going to get back to the hospital? They’re about to release you right now. I can't take you.

—They won’t give me anything for the pain, I said. My face was wet, and he wiped it for me.

—I’ll get you something, don’t worry, he said. —We’ll get you home tonight and stay with you.

I didn’t say anything for a few minutes, and he didn’t either. J. If I could explain to you how much I miss him in this exact moment, writing this.

—And don’t worry about that fucking asshole, he said, almost as an afterthought.

—K.? I asked.

—Yeah, K. No one called the police. You’re not going to have to worry about him again. A couple of guys from the bar took him out around back.

+++++++

Nearly two decades removed from all that. It’s sordid, it’s shit. I’ll tell you more about that emergency room. I’ll tell you how that man next to me cried for his mother and asked me to sing him a song to keep him occupied. I’ll tell you how I gave in and did it, in a cracked and off-key voice. I’ll tell you how much it hurt, and how much I deserved it or didn’t and got it anyway, how playing with fire guarantees you’ll get burned and how it echoes, how everything from the past resonates, how your entire life of skull fractures and bruises the school nurse questions leads to it. How it echoes. I’m here, safe now, removed. But all the echoes. It goes on and on until you can finally call it past and can finally call it over. And what it means when you reach back and dredge it up because you realize it’s never over until you really call time on it. Just know, this is calling time on it. The narrative from then isn’t finished, but I’m calling time on it now.

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rebecca gransden

BABY WITH A FLAMETHROWER, CHEWING GUM ON A MOUNTAIN by Rebecca Gransden

Stay back!

I will melt your mugs with fire if you move an inch, you police cordon shitmorons.

Your pink stinks.

Especially you. Stares at squat policewoman centre left

I’ve filed my baby teeth into pointy baby fangs, and I will bite with my baby jaw if you try to stop me. The pitball in the alley showed me how to do it. I watched its eyes too, you know.

Baby arcs flamethrower flame overhead making an infernal rainbow against a starry ink sky

My burping today is toxic gas, regurgitated from last night, from the barrels of radioactive waste I found at the back of the supermarket. Yes, I guzzled them. I’m a baby! I’m a chubby flesh house of tantrum and mayhem! I will have my barrels to feast upon, my chemical dummy to furiously suck, my substitute nipple of chaos and disaster! Bring them to me or I will burn you until it’s not funny anymore.

Police officer uses megaphone to address baby but baby cannot hear due to whooshing of flamethrower going berserk

Nom, nom, nom. Just thinking of it now gets me going. Green sludge of my dreams. Every second without it is a nightmare! I will unleash fury of the like your tiny minds cannot comprehend if I’m deprived any longer. Where is my waste? Get me my barrels, you incompetent inverted dick whistlers!

The police line retreats and huddles in a circle, deliberating

Baby goose-steps along the mountain path, the city at night displayed below

One of the officers breaks free from the circle and screams through the megaphone Stop doing that, it constitutes a form of hate speech”

You are going to make a point? Now?

Baby’s eyes glow with red rage

I’m a freewheeling baby without a care in the world, strutting the land on which I was born. I’m brand new and that’s a fact, and this, this? is how you react? You can’t swallow the freedom, can’t stand my show. You’re a baby too, didn’t you know?

The megaphone says Stop rhyming. I find it offensive”

Couplets, smuplets. You let me be, or I’ll fry every one of ye. See this fire, see this flame, I see the whites of eyes resplendent tonight, in my firelight.

Baby shoots a bolt of flame like a waterfall

Wanna be crispy? Wanna be a delight! Roast you up on a spit, fry your innards, cook your fingers, that barbecue aroma so sweatily lingers, onions and oil stench from your skin, endlessly turning. What a sight, what a smell, my fangs gnash in chomps of glee, in this future, that will be, surely. Now get me my barrels before hell is raised, and you, my stinky chums, are glazed.

Fuck off”

I’m getting ready to go turbo, up to the max. I’ve been pumping iron while weeping, in preparation for this day. There’s nothing you can surprise me with.

The circle disbands and a hefty police officer steps from her parting colleagues, a bazooka on her shoulder

Holy shit! Don’t bazooka me. Overkill! I’m just a baby! Baby cries Mother!

A man in a casual suit sidles up to bazooka woman, calmly takes the megaphone from the other officer and says My name is Mike Oldfield. Would you like us to contact your mother for you?”

Still crying No. I don’t want her to see me like this. Because I’d kill her. I’d pyre her just like the rest of you. Snot cries of disgust Get that patronising negotiator away from me. Give me a stake and I’ll burn you black on it. Yum.

The man slinks off, leaving bazooka policewoman to confirm her readiness with a wide load-bearing leg stance

You’re nearing your end, the end of you, flamed by an infant with an addiction to goo. What a travesty, a glorious way to expire, I’ll give you a way to be remembered, I know you care a lot about that, with your badges and accolades and slaps on the back. You drew the line of duty, and perished, what fun. Do you want me to disembowel you to add symbolic weight to your desisting? Hail me with bazooka! Split my entrails to bits, let’s see my flesh fly over this cretinous city, to the earth, a zit.

The officer picks up the megaphone and says For the record, why are you doing this?”

I’m bored. And your face hurts my eyes with its disinterest. I’m chewing this gum I’ve collected since I was born. When I slapped my way out of the afterbirth I had become conscious on, across a concrete wetted with the fluids of my birth, I lifted the umbilical, which had nearly strangled me, from my blue neck and took some breaths filled with ammonia and rot. I left my mother’s carcass to the back alley predators and crawled away shaking and weak. On my way to finding my feet the path was decorated with gum of many colours, smells, and, I discovered, tastes. Soon I was using my baby energies to claw the flattened gum away from the street, until I had a precious ball made from each piece squished together, a chewy gobstopper linking me to humanity, all those mouths turning the gum against their tongues, biting down with their teeth, infusing with their saliva and cells. Now I have them, I can taste them, every one of them. So give me my barrels! That slime is the only thing I’ve eaten that takes the taste away. Cleanse my palate, you rancid harbingers of nothing!

Flamethrower roars

Die, die, die! This infant malcontent will atomic bomb your soul in a booming eruption of fire vomit. I can hear your molecules praying. Squeal as you kneel, fucksters!

Bazooka whooshes from inside ball of hellfire and screaming

And misses

Not even a comeuppance!

Bazooka hits the hillside behind baby and shakes the mountain

The officers continue to die and moan

With my flamethrower ablaze I shall hit the city.

Baby waddles towards the twinkling city lights, thrusting the spewing head of flame forwards

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michael seidlinger

PEOPLE WATCHING by Michael Seidlinger

You aren’t alone even though it still feels that way, long gaps of nothing between discussions that seem to have everything to do with the weekend, which leads you to the assumption that tonight won’t be much. You are with someone familiar, been around, floating along with the same circle since as far back as you’re willing to remember, and you are both searching the shopping mall for the others, convinced that they had told one of you to meet them at the food court.

“Why, I have no fucking clue,” he says.

But that’s really not ever worth considering because you both enjoy people-watching, picking out the men on the prowl, the women and which ones are possible targets, the others not so much because, as he says, “Too fat… Too ugly… One word: herpes.”

You listen to him string together a situation where the men on the prowl meet the women and how it’ll end up on the nightly news, or not, but it’ll still be something that probably happens, and happens a lot. You tend to agree. The funniest part of his mostly nonsensical scenario has to do with the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Inevitable, you think. You ask him what it would take to fuck a girl with gonorrhea but before he can answer, you change the subject, asking him, “Hungry?”

He’s like, “I could eat.”

And so you go to some fast food restaurant and both get huge burritos that neither of you have any interest in finishing. Between gorging on big bites of the burrito, you count the seconds it takes for him to swallow and then he does the same. When you watch him swallow, you think only of empty calories and stomach flab and throwing up the burrito once you’ve had enough. He watches you swallow and thinks of ejaculate.

Really?

It is what it is, what else do you want? Shall I continue?

You end up fingering the area between table and wall anxiously, digging out dark matter from previous meals, while waiting for him to hand you the flask so that you can add rum to your soda. And then you drink it down in bigger gulps than before, counting calories, anticipating when the buzz wears off so that when you stick your fingers down your throat.

He jokes and asks, “What else have you choked on?”

You laugh along, the liquor kicking in, making the washed out light of the food court blinding to your eyes. You squint, wishing you had sunglasses but that doesn’t seem like something you’d wear unless it was ironic.

He stares at the half-eaten burrito without blinking, and then leaves the table without a word. You stare at your own burrito, certain that you didn’t eat all of it.

You start counting calories. You think of the sour cream, the cheese, the beef, the brown rice, you think about how many calories are in the tortilla, but when he returns, he smells vaguely of vomit and you get hungry.

Then you lose count. Start eating his leftovers, drinking more rum than soda, and then, when it’s your turn, he goes with you in the stall.

READ NEXT: Brian Alan Ellis "No Book Blurb, No Cry" Excerpt

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benjamin niespodziany

CORPORATE CLIMATE by Benjamin Niespodziany

Corporate encourages that we ride to work on company pogo sticks. Company bicycles and unicycles are also okay, but everything else is frowned upon. “We can't force anyone,” the CEO laughs. Sheryl hates to bounce, rides in on a skateboard every morning. Everyone used to adore Sheryl, used to throw morning glories at her in the staff parking lot. Now co-workers spit on her as they pass her new office in the broken elevator full of fax machines. I remain a loyal employee, a pogo commuter covered head to toe in Band-Aids. My bruises and scabs are the only things that make my wife laugh. I take a pogo stick to work every morning and my poor balance never wins. I fall four of five times before sunrise and my work is only two blocks from my bed. My boss loves the commitment, adores the blood. Can't stop giving me raises.

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TIME TO MEET YOUR GOD by Chris Dankland

Mr. Coyote stuck his long down-curved nose through a crack in his apartment door. He pushed his head outside and looked left. He sniffed the stale apartment building hallway. He looked right. Nobody there. Thirty seconds later he left his posh 30th floor apartment holding a big bag of trash slung over his shoulder. He was wearing black gloves. Mr. Coyote calmly walked down the hall, opened the building trash chute, and dumped the bag of trash down the chute. He looked left. He sniffed the stale apartment building hallway. He looked right. And that, he thought, is the end of that.

Three hours ago, he’d been staring at a traveling collection of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The paintings were showing at the MoMA. They were exquisite. His favorite was a painting called Venus, showing a petite naked woman holding a transparent veil. Her eyes were thin and cat-like. Her thin pink lips were dented in a narcotic grin. Mr. Coyote couldn’t help but get as hard as a rock as he stared at her perfect painted skin. The true sign of a masterpiece.

The painting was still superimposed over his brain as he walked out the museum doors into the hot summer air, heavy with the smell of street piss and exhaust. Under his breath he absentmindedly mumbled the lyrics to Mystic Stylez as he strolled down the sidewalk a long way. Mr. Coyote suddenly looked up. He stopped. A petite teenager in a red t-shirt and jeans was passed out on the street, half leaning on a park gate. She obviously homeless. A thin layer of grime had accumulated sweat coated her skin. Her emaciated body spelled out junkie. Mr. Coyote though she was gorgeous. He walked closer and looked down at her. Two braless nipples poked through her skimpy t-shirt. Her jeans hung off her sharp skeleton hips, showing a small white lip of panties around the edge. Her thin pink lips were dented in a narcotic grin. Mr. Coyote put his hands in his pockets and moved them around.

A minute later he pulled out a bottle of Oxycontin. He bent down and shook the girl’s shoulder, shaking the pill bottle. Hey, he said, shaking her. Hey there. Do you see?

The girl stirred and slowly opened her eyes. She must have been doped up to seventh heaven. Anyone else who had been woken up in that position would have bolted upright. But this girl nearly climbed into his arms. Her eyes slowly flickered to life like a newborn butterfly. The girl looked up at him. She moaned, her body full of sleep. Daddy? she mumbled. Is that you, daddy?

He held the pill bottle inches before her face and shook it. That seemed to wake her up a little. Holy shit, she said.

That’s right, said Mr. Coyote. Holiest thing in the city.

She slowly looked up at him with purring kitten eyes. What do you want? she asked.

I want you to follow me home, said Mr. Coyote. Understand?

She nodded. I’ll follow you home, Daddy. She stood up, stumbling a little. Her clothes sagged off her. She was halfway dead already. Lead the way, she said.

Mr. Coyote shook his head. You walk in front of me and I’ll tell you the way.

The girl grinned. But I’m so little, Daddy, I’m not gonna hurt you.

It doesn’t take much muscle to slip a knife into somebody’s kidney and make off with their pills, he said.

She laughed. Do you have a cigarette?

Sure, he said. What kind do you smoke.

I don’t care, whatever you got. I like Camel Lights.

Mr. Coyote put his hands in his pocket and moved them around. A minute later he pulled out a pack of Camel Lights.

Thank you, Daddy. She pulled a cigarette from the pack and he lit it for her. Where’d you get that big bottle from, hmm?

Mr. Coyote put the cigarette pack in his pocket, pulled his hand out again, and pointed. My apartment is that way, he said.

She took a long drag and turned around and started walking. A long silver river of smoke curved through the city air as she moved from one cracked cement square to another with Mr. Coyote close behind. They walked four blocks like that, and she hardly turned around to look at him. She could feel his gaze on her body. She knew that he was following her as much as she was following him. Her tiny skeleton ass was fastened to his black, flesh devouring pupils. She was going to get high, all right. And anything else she could get, too. She was young and confident and stupid.

Back at his apartment, Mr. Coyote had her get on her knees and open her mouth to receive the pills he doled out. He put the pills on her tongue like a priest giving out the sacraments. He sat down on his expensive sofa and waited for them to kick in. He played Mystic Stylez on the stereo.

Soon the girl was floating through the apartment like a helium balloon, swaying and bobbing in the air, taking off her clothes exactly like he told her.

Mr. Coyote narrowed his eyes and stared at her. He licked his lips and spoke. You’re one of my babies, aren’t you? I think I recognize you.

Yesssss, said the girl. She floated through the apartment like a plastic bag in the wind. You’re my daddy.

As the girl’s body grew lighter and more and more weightless, the apartment darkened and sunk. Although they were on the 30th floor, the apartment was sinking underground, down below the never-ending battlefield of bloody, twitching hearts. The apartment was sinking down into the trenches. Down into the bone fields we call earth.

A flash of realization struck Mr. Coyote’s face. You’re a child of mine, he said. He stood up, walked over to the girl, grabbed her hands, and pushed his face close. The girl was suddenly frightened. Yes, said Mr. Coyote. Yes. Yes, I’m sure of it.

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hannah stevens

CALL OF THE CIRCUS by Hannah Stevens

She didn’t know they were coming but she knew when they’d arrived. It was April and the weather was too good for the time of year.

She heard the noise on the breeze: the faint, twisted sound of faraway music from a tent. She was outside and sat on steps framed by wisteria. Purple flowers hung from the thin tangled limbs of the plant and the heavy, tapered bunches reminded her of grape vines. Her feet were pale and bare and the tops of them burned.

Every few minutes there was a lyric caught between the music in the air. Adel put on her shoes and began to walk towards the music. As a child she’d felt compelled to follow ice-cream vans and her mother had lost her more than once. It had never been the sweet things that drew her because they’d always hurt her teeth: it was the colour and noise that she’d had to chase.

The circus tent stood in the fields across the main road. It was tall and she could see the red top and stripes high above street signs and hedges. The sky above it was dark blue but faded to paler shades as it got closer to the earth. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the dust in the air turned orange in the falling sun.

Later, when Noah was home, she told him they would eat in the garden. It was Sunday and he’d been working overtime again. Outside, she’d already lit the barbeque and the coals were silver and hot. Coloured bowls of salad and rice were laid on the table and she’d chopped radishes in the shape of jagged flower heads.

‘We’re eating outside tonight,’ she said, ‘you just need to bring the wine and glasses.’ She handed him a cold, cloudy bottle from the fridge and watched as the condensation ran down its neck.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘but what about the bugs: I’ll be bitten all over.’ He looked at her but she was already in the arch of the door.

‘There’s something in the cupboard for that,’ she said without turning her head. ‘I’ll see you outside.’

It was past ten now and though the garden was dark the sky still had patches of blue. It was as if day was waiting for something and wouldn’t leave.

‘Look at that,’ Adel said and pointed upwards.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘it reminds me of a toy I had as a child: it was like a jigsaw puzzle except it was made of wooden blocks. You flipped them over one way and it was a night scene. You flipped them the other and it was day. Sometimes I only turned half so it could be both at the same time. I always wanted it all, even then.’ He laughed.

‘That’s sweet,’ she said even though she didn’t mean it.

‘Maybe we’ll get something similar when we have children,’ he said and looked at her in that way he always did when he wanted something. She picked up the folded blanket beside her and pulled it across her legs.

She remembered the time she’d thought she was pregnant. It wasn’t that long ago and she remembered the sick feeling and how she couldn’t bear to do a test. Instead she’d looked up abortion clinics and how they did it. When Noah asked what made her restless at night she’d said it was work. Or maybe she was eating too late. It was probably just one of those things, you know how it is. In the end there’d been nothing to worry about after all. Either she’d miscounted the dates or nature had solved the problem for her.

‘Shall we go inside?’ he said. ‘I think I’ve been bitten. Plus we’ve both got early starts tomorrow and you look tired.’

She thought of the drive to work in the morning and reading the same street names as she passed them. She thought of the traffic crawling at its painful pace during rush hour and parents at school gates with purple circles beneath eyes they could barely keep open.

‘You go,’ she said, ‘I’m staying out a little bit longer.’

‘What about the cleaning up?’ he asked.

‘It can wait,’ she said. ‘Let’s be reckless.’ She picked up her glass then and swallowed the last of the wine.

‘Okay, just this once,’ he laughed and then he kissed her nose which felt cold now.

She waited until she heard the click of the door as it closed. Then she stood up and crossed the garden. The grass was cool and she could feel the material of her canvas shoes dampen as she walked. She stopped at the top of the driveway. A few seconds passed. There was still the sound of music but it was fainter now: maybe the circus had finished for the night. She hesitated for a moment and then stepped onto the pavement.

There were caravans lined up in neat rows behind the circus tent. In some she could see lights glowing from behind drawn curtains while others were in darkness. She wondered who was inside and if any of them were sleeping yet. There was noise coming from the circus tent and the music was louder there. She pushed aside the material that had been untied from its guy ropes and now hung across the entrance.

String lights were suspended from the ceiling and curled around supporting poles and ropes. They were shaped like lanterns and glowed red, yellow, green and blue. There were clowns in the centre of the tent and she watched as they stacked chairs and put props into boxes. Adel noticed a pile of empty beer bottles.

‘Are you okay?’ a clown in braces with bare feet asked.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘I was just having a look.’

‘Well the show’s over now, you missed it,’ said the clown, ‘but you can join us for a drink if you want.’ There was a gesture towards seats close to where Adel stood. She took a few steps and sat down. The clown offered her a bottle of beer and she leant forward to take it.

It was hot in the tent: the heat was damp and humid and Adel tasted salt on her lips. The clowns were still wearing their makeup and she wondered if she would recognise any of them once they’d taken it off. The clown next to Adel had smudged some of the white paint across her face and flashes of peach were slashed across her forehead.

Someone turned up the music and then there was dancing.

‘Let’s dance,’ said the clown with the smudge. She held out her hand as if inviting Adel to a formal waltz. Adel laughed and stood up. The clown’s hand was cool in spite of the heat and she was surprised.

‘When are you leaving?’ Adel said.

‘Tomorrow,’ said the clown and raised an eyebrow. ‘In the morning when most people will still be asleep.’ Adel could feel her phone as it buzzed in her pocket. It was Noah but she didn’t answer. The clown’s shirt was undone now and there was a vest she could see through beneath. A giant blue bow was still tied across her throat and she touched it. It was soft between her fingertips.

‘Even after all these beers?’ Adel asked and lifted her empty bottle into the air.

‘Of course,’ said the clown and she pulled Adel closer. ‘Come with us.’

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simon graham

GAME THEORY by Simon Graham

For a time I dated a girl who was also an orphan. It was really great at first, us being orphans together. We had no responsibilities or allegiances, and we had plenty of money.

Sarah and I used our money to play games. I liked games because they stopped me thinking about doing what I had done prior to dating Sarah, which was putting my body against hot surfaces. I had done this because it made me stop thinking about being an orphan and because there are very few fun games to play on your own.

Sarah liked games as well. She didn’t have a problem with burning herself, but she did have a problem with depriving herself. That was what she called it. She said, I like playing games because when I’m playing them I forget that I’m meant to be depriving myself.

I have a theory that all orphans like games.

One game Sarah and I played was called Cat. Sarah came up with it. In this game, Sarah moved first, and her first move was buying a cat. My first move was telling Sarah that I’m allergic to cats.

Sarah’s second move was insisting the cat sleep with us in the bed. My second move was getting hives all over my body, even my genitals.

Sarah’s next move was naming the cat after a serial killer from the 1980’s.

She was an orphan, Sarah said.

My response was refusing to use the name because it was in bad taste. I called her Cat instead.

Sarah’s next move was yelling at me.

How is A_____ not an appropriate name? She yelled after Cat brought home a decapitated bird.

The next day I placed an anonymous tip with the real estate that there was a cat in Unit 3.

The real estate slipped a letter under our door. It read: You have two weeks to rid the apartment of all pets or, as per Section 45c of the code, you will be evicted.

I thought this was such a good move, but Sarah had a brilliant counter up her sleeve. Her move was telling me that Cat had become part of the family and so we had no choice but to move apartments. The reason this was a game-winning move was because it led the game of Cat into the new game of Moving, and this was the ideal – for there to never be a gap of time in between games, no gap of time in which I would think of hot surfaces or in which Sarah would think, I better make up for the past month of not depriving myself by depriving myself twice as much as I normally would.  

~

A few months later Sarah and I played a game called Guidance. The idea of this game was that Sarah and I would both pay to receive guidance from someone who gave it for a living.

Guidance came about because one morning after not sleeping all night Sarah said, I think we need serious help.

We can’t just play games forever, she said, and I will deprive myself if we are not playing games, and maybe even if we are.

At the time we were playing a game called Drugs. The end of the Moving game had led us to meeting our new neighbours. They were playing the Drugs game and so taught us how to play it too.

It was a good game at first. Like, really good. But it had become a bad game. It was repetitive and demanded so much of us. It seemed like there would be no winner to the game, no end.

We just need a new game, I said to Sarah. I get it. This Drugs game is getting old.

Let’s go to a therapist, Sarah said.

I said, That doesn’t sound very fun. That sounds like the opposite of fun.

It’s not supposed to be fun, she said. It’s not a game.

I said, How about we compromise by turning us getting guidance into a game?

I’m not sure, Sarah said at first, but after a day she came around because she knew that compromise is integral to all relationships, and also because part of Sarah was scared of what would happen should she stop playing games.

For Guidance, Sarah filled a hat full of names of people in our town who gave guidance for a living. There was a rabbi, a pastor, an analyst, a psychic, a yogi, et cetera. Sarah picked out a priest. I picked out a clairvoyant.

I had no idea what a clairvoyant actually did and so I thought, Guidance is a fun game, full of surprise and intrigue.

But I was very disappointed by Guidance. Let me tell you why.

First of all, the clairvoyant’s eyebrows didn’t move and she made me pay upfront.

Second of all, the clairvoyant’s first move was too bold. Games are meant to start subtle and then escalate. Her move was staring into my eyes for a long time. Like twenty minutes, or maybe even longer.

The clairvoyant then played more moves, it apparently being okay in Guidance for one person to just play as many moves as they like while the other player sits in silence and watches.

Most of the clairvoyant’s moves involved saying things about me that could apply to anyone.

She said, for example, that our galaxy is in a spiritual period known as Kali Yuga.

She said, It is a time marked by evil and impurities.

I said, That sounds about right.

She said, I think you’re feeling these energies in a very acute way.

I said, Well sure, who isn’t?

She said, Times of destruction can lead to true freedom.

I asked, Is that what the next game will be? Freedom?

She said, Our time has run out.

Guidance is a very strange game, I thought on the way home from the clairvoyant. I didn’t understand why people found it so fun. I didn’t understand why so many people had been playing it for thousands of years. I knew I had only been playing the game for one day, but I couldn’t help feel like there weren’t enough rules.

At home, I asked Sarah whether she was enjoying Guidance, she having seen her priest that day as well.

Sarah said, I like Guidance. It is a fun game.

I said, It seems like anyone can play Guidance. It seems like some people have been playing it forever and are still not very good at it but think they are.

Sarah said, The priest told me I should stop playing all other games and just play Guidance. He said my next move in Guidance should be getting sober.

I said, It’s not a game if someone else decides your moves for you.

Sarah said, Maybe Guidance isn’t a game.

~

I didn’t like where Guidance was headed. I wanted to play a different game, but I knew that this is not how games work. A game had to end on its own, or turn into another game, the way Cat turned into Moving and Moving into Drugs and Drugs into Guidance.

Sarah went again to the church to play Guidance with the priest. She came back and said I was wrong, there were rules to Guidance, and then she handed me a tome of rules, rules that seemed to be irrelevant not just to the game but to our place and time.

It was an awful game, this Guidance. There was either no rules or too many. But I was in a real pickle because I wanted to spend time with Sarah and yet she all she was doing with her time was playing Guidance.

I did some thinking and came up with five options:

  1. Suck it up and play Guidance with Sarah (Boring).
  2. Think about hot surfaces again (Terrifying, not an option).
  3. Play Guidance with someone else (Boring and also likely to make me feel very sad as not with Sarah, leading then to 2. Terrifying, not an option).
  4.  Playing a different game with someone else (Maybe not boring but still likely to make me feel very sad as not with Sarah, leading then to 2. Terrifying, not an option).
  5. Find a game to play by myself (See 4.).

I nonetheless tried 4. and 5. to ensure they did in fact lead to 2.

I went to the neighbors’ house and asked what they were doing. They said they were playing Drugs. I said, Do you mind if I join?

They said, Not at all.

So I played Drugs with them for a while, until they both played the move of passing out.

Then I played the game of Drugs with myself for a while. For whatever reason, I hadn’t realised until that moment that Drugs was a game you could play on your own. How good it would have been to play Drugs before I met Sarah?

It was a lot of fun, playing Drugs on my own. I thought, I can do this. I can play this game forever. But then, no. Not forever. For one night. Or maybe two. I tried two. After the second night I realised that people don’t play Drugs by themselves because it quickly stops being a game. It becomes like hot surfaces and depriving yourself in that you need to play a new game in order to stop thinking about it.

It was then I told Sarah that I was having a really hard time. I said, I keep thinking about hot surfaces, Sarah. I need to play a game.

So Sarah said, Well come down and play Guidance with the priest and I tomorrow.

I thought about my options. About hot surfaces. About the importance of us being orphans together. I looked at Cat and then turned to Sarah and said, Guidance sounds like a great idea.

~

So that’s how Sarah and I came to play Guidance for seven years.

It was a long time to be playing the same game. It was boring for the most part. There were no real surprises anymore, us having both memorised the rules, the moves, the strategies.

Sometimes I wanted to play Drugs again. Or Moving. Or even Cat (Cat died). But mainly Drugs. Each time I thought this, Sarah would remind me that Drugs is only fun for a day or two and I would nod and say, Yes, Sarah. You’re right.

Sarah was fine with Guidance being boring because she thought the next game would be Paradise. She said it’s a small sacrifice to play this boring game when the next will be so much fun.

We can play Paradise with our parents, she said. Imagine that. Can you just imagine?

I imagined. Sarah and I spent hours lying in bed together, imagining. Sometimes I would joke that the game we were playing should be called Imagine not Guidance, but Sarah would look at me very sternly and say, That is the kind of thinking that will stop us from playing Paradise.

It makes me sad to think about Sarah saying this now. Mainly because she was wrong. The next game was not Paradise. After the car accident, Guidance definitely ended, but the next game, the game I’m playing right now, has no Sarah and no parents. It can’t be Paradise.

I’m not sure what to call this game. Maybe Floating. Maybe Void. Whatever it’s called, it’s an okay game. There is no Sarah and no parents but there are no hot surfaces either. There is nothing, which now that I think about it means the clairvoyant was the closest to being right. I feel free. Completely free.

That’s a good name. Free.

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timothy willis sanders

ZERO PINEAPPLES by Timothy Willis Sanders

Billy asked Chris and Molly what movie they had picked and Chris held up a DVD copy of The Birds.

Billy shot a look at Meg.

“Hitchcock had a really fucked up obsession with Tippi Hedren. I read about it online so I decided to never watch the movie,” said Billy.

“Who’s Tippi Hedren?” said Chris, sliding the DVD into the Playstation.

“Exactly,” said Meg.

“Well, sorry about Tippi, but I have a surprise for you both after the movie,” said Molly.

Billy pictured Molly wheeling out a human-sized box with a large gold ribbon, from which Gene Wilder, dressed as Willy Wonka, flipped out of and tipped his hat.

“It’s pineapple upside-down cake,” Meg whispered to Billy.

“You think so?” said Billy.

“Yeah, I saw it in the kitchen. Don’t eat too much,” said Meg.

2

Billy fell asleep 30 minutes into The Birds. He woke up to Tippi Hedren’s catatonic and bandaged face staring back at him. He announced to the others he still understood what was going on.

“Thanks for the update, babe,” said Meg, patting Billy’s knee.

Billy looked at the birds covering the landscape of Bodega Bay. He said, “Good for these birds, taking back their beachfront property,” and imagined a seagull wearing sunglasses and sipping a margarita.

After the movie, Molly brought out the surprise: a pineapple upside-down cake on a large white plate.

Just before finishing his first slice, Billy decided to ask for a second slice.

“Sorry, but anyone mind if I jump in again?” Billy said, pointing to the cake.

Molly laughed and said, “Wow, Billy,” while pointing to everyone else’s plate, each one occupied with a barely-half-eaten slice of pineapple upside-down cake.

Billy cut a second slice and licked his lips dramatically as he lowered the slice onto his plate.

“Billy’s blood sugar is so high that his blood is sugar,” said Meg.

“He had a physical and the doctor told him he was pre-pre-diabetic,” Meg said to Molly in a low voice.

“It’s literally crack cocaine,” said Billy, crumbs falling out of his mouth, “like you literally cooked rock cocaine into your pineapple-upside down cake. It’s that good.”

“Thanks Billy,” said Molly.

3

Billy contemplated asking for a third slice of pineapple upside-down cake. He looked at the other plates and noticed everyone was still nursing their first slice of pineapple upside down cake. “Even after all this time,” he thought and wondered if he was the only one that actually liked the pineapple-upside down cake.

Billy listened to Chris talk about greed in the banking industry. Meg tried to interject things about the sexism in the tech industry but each time Chris steered the conversation towards greed in the banking industry. Billy checked out of the conversation and tried to think of a company that makes pineapple-upside down cake available in 7/11s around the country.

“This is boring. Let’s talk about something else,” said Meg.

“Sorry, Chris is just ‘incredibly attuned’ to all the ways the banks are fucking you over,” said Molly.

“Uhm, the banks are fucking you over?” said Chris.

“Okay, time to go,” said Meg.

“Yeah, it’s time to go,” said Billy.

Billy put on his coat and just before he left he wondered how rude it would be to ask for a plate of pineapple upside-down cake to-go.

4

Billy flipped his pillow and closed his eyes. He scratched his forehead and felt sweat on his fingertips. He wondered if Alfred Hitchcock gained weight by eating too much pineapple upside down cake. He thought about how common it is for a man to imprison a woman. He imagined Alfred Hitchcock in a recliner, eating pineapple upside down cake from a TV tray and thinking up ways to imprison Tippi Hedren.

Billy wondered if he had the ingredients to make pineapple upside down cake. He tried to take a mental inventory of his baking supplies. “I have zero pineapples,” he thought, sensing his body become restless. He flipped himself over and woke Meg up in the process.

Meg said, “Why are you awake?” but before he could answer she rolled over and fell asleep. Billy thought about how she’d regret falling asleep before hearing his plan to put pineapple upside down cakes in 7/11s around the country.

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chad redden

FROG POND by Chad Redden

After you open the door lying on the bottom of the pond it can go two ways.

The door will open to deeper water that shimmers in an unusual way. The water behind the door connects to another pond, in another world. To get there, you will swim downward, through the doorway. You will force every bit of air from your lungs, to keep you from floating upward, remaining in your world. When this doesn’t help you will grab onto the door frame, pull yourself through the doorway to the other side.

Or

The door will open the door to mud, grime, more of the pond floor. You will close the door, return to the surface before your lungs give out. Before your lungs give way to the water trying to force a way into your body.

????

IF YOU RETURN TO THE SURFACE you look for your daughter, the spot she stood before you dove into the water. She is not there. You look to the other edges of the pond. Your sense of direction bobbles around inside of you.

You call out, “Daughter, Daughter, Daughter.”

Then, “The door didn’t open to anywhere.”

Then, “The door opened, but there was no place to go beyond it.”

You wait. You worry. You wait for her to call back. You worry she ran away again. You wait for her to reveal herself, from the darkness surrounding the pond, from the deep wall of trees, of underbrush. You worry. You wait. You call out, “Daughter, Daughter, Daughter,” again.

Branches bend, snap. Leaves shuffle, shiver against each other. Your daughter hides up in a tree. You watch for one of the trees to move, like you could see such a thing in the darkness. You watch for your daughter to reveal herself. She says to you, “My dream wasn’t wrong. Maybe your heart wasn’t full of intention, the right kind of intention.”

You consider the intention of your heart. As it is now. As it was under water. You recall kicking a turtle as you swam toward the door. What you thought might have been a turtle. You apologized with your heart. You call out to the daughter, “Maybe tonight, you’ll have another dream. Maybe it takes us someplace else. Maybe gives a bit more guidance.

Your daughter does not reply. You watch the trees. Wait for one to move, for your daughter to climb down to the grass. Clouds gather. The trees remain still, quiet.

????

IF YOU WATCH THE CLOUDS AS THEY COVER THE STARS you remember the constellations you made up for yourself when you were a child. Their shapes. Their names. ‘The disastrous egg.’ ‘The reminder mouse.’ ‘The many mixed up skeletons lost out in space.’

You remember the constellation you made up in the shape of your favorite professional wrestler. The one who used gardening shears to cut the hair of the other wrestlers. After a wrestler’s hair was cut, they were destroyed. Without power. Weak. Crumpled down to the mat of the wrestling ring. Career ruined. Crying on television. Like Samson after the loss of his hair.

You consider the powerless of your entire life because you have spent your entire life without long hair. You remember a time when you wanted to grow your hair long, to your knees. But the process made you feel awkward. Your hair grew upward, outward, heavy. It barely went below your chin. You gave up, cut your hair short.

You say to your daughter, “I’m walking home now.”

????

IF YOU DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE STARS you instead think about the mud drying to your feet, your hands. The coldness of the water in your clothes. The heaviness in them as well. You want to walk home. You call out to your daughter, “I want to go home.”

She calls back to you, “You should go back in.”

You say, “I don’t have the lungs for it. I don’t think I’d come back up.”

Your daughter says, “If you don’t come back up that will mean you made it to the other side.”

????

IF YOU WALK HOME WITHOUT YOUR DAUGHTER you take a path that leads you to a road. A road congested with an encampment of people living out of their cars. People who decided one day to go driving until they ran out of gas. Then began living out of their cars. How so many people ran out of gas in the same place is a mystery. Some living among the cars theorize a divine influence wanted them to live in the road, to be fruitful, to multiply. Some government agencies theorize possible solutions to clear the road of people.

A lookout for the camp sees you. When he slaps on the trunk of his car you say to yourself, this man has studied woodpeckers. He continues to slap on the trunk of his car until you look at him.

????

IF YOU LOOK AT THE MAN SLAPPING THE TRUNK OF HIS CAR he calls out to you, says “Are you interested in a tumbleweed?”

“Interested how?” You ask, unsure if this man wants to show or sell you a tumbleweed. “I don’t have money to waste.” You say. Which is true. Dollars are in short supply.

“Not trying to sell you anything, trying to give it a better home.” The mans says. He opens the trunk of his car, shines a flashlight inside to a narrow, small tumbleweed. It looks nothing at all like the tumbleweeds you’ve seen in movies. Small leaves are still attached to it.

You say, “It looks like a small shrub.”

The man replies, “That’s how tumbleweeds start out. You’ve got to let it dry up, change into a tumbleweed. Like one of those zen trees.”

“Bonsai tree?”

“Yeah, bonsai tree. Like that. But you don’t water it, you pull off the leaves.”

“I always thought tumbleweeds just looked like tumbleweeds.”

The man nods like he his sympathetic to your confusion. “It’s like this, I drove out west to find a tumbleweed for a girl. I was going to ask her out with the tumbleweed. If you were the girl you’d think it was a cute idea. But when I got to Missouri I got a bit nervous, being so far from home. So I turned around, bought this one from a store. So I could be truthful when said I drove all the way out west to get one. But it’s too late now, I’ve been out here for weeks. I’d just like to give this tumbleweed to someone who could use it.”

“I’m not sure that I could use it.”

“Maybe you know someone that might be then, someone who needs to calm down. Like a child or a boss? Someone with a lot of stress or energy?”

One side of the tumbleweed was already picked clean. When you point this out to the guy he says, “Yeah, I started pulling off the leaves. It made me feel calm, but not calm enough.”

You say, “Thanks though, I’m not that interested. What about the kids around here? One of them might like it, to have something to do.”

“The kids all ran off.” The guy says.

“The kids ran off?”

“Yeah, one day they were on the side of the road playing, then like a wind came. Blew them away. Not really the wind, it was their feet that carried them away. Into those trees over there.” The man points to a line of trees, hills. The kind of place that would hold a forgotten plane crash.

“Is anyone looking for the kids? The parents? The police?”

“Yeah of course. No one just lets kids run off to live on their own in the woods. Why else do you think so many of these cars are empty?”

It was true. Most of the cars on the road were empty. You think of how much effort it would take to get everyone back into their cars. Or to push the driverless cars to the edge of the road to make a path through them.

The man says, “Not everyone went looking for the kids. Some people have too many payments left to abandon their car. Which, I can understand, but they’re in denial. These cars aren’t moving again.”

The man pulls the tumbleweed from the trunk, sets it on the ground beside the car. You both stand over it, watching for a wind to come help the tumbleweed tumble away. Wind does blow. Rocks the plant a little.

You ask the man, “Why do you want to get rid of the tumbleweed now?”

“I saw all of this playing out a bit differently.”

????

IF YOU IGNORE THE MAN SLAPPING THE TRUNK OF HIS CAR you walk around the camp, continue home. You find your daughter is already there. This confuses you as you are unsure of which path she could have taken to arrive home before you.

Once you are home she tells you she wants to go back out to which you say, “It’s a little too late already.”

Your daughter says, “It’s a night for dressing up in order to be scarier than anything you might meet in the night. I’m going to go around wearing my insides on the outside.”

You look at the calendar. It’s true. It is a night for dressing up in order to be scarier than anything else in the night. You know you can’t argue with her. You say, “There is a box of old bed sheets I’ve meant to donate out in the garage. You could turn one of them into a ghost by cutting some holes for eyes.”

Your daughter asks, “Have you even seen anything scary in your life?”

You say, “I have, but don’t want to talk about it.”

Then you say. “Ghosts still scare plenty of people.”

Your daughter holds out to a book on human anatomy. She shows you pictures of lungs, hearts, organs, intestines. She says, “Look at all of this stuff. Sitting around inside of us. You’d never know it by looking at a person. All of it is just waiting to pop out, scare you. That’s what I think is scary.”

????

IF YOU WALK HOME FROM THE POND WITH YOUR DAUGHTER you see searchlights shine upon the clouds in the sky. The kind of searchlights only people would think to use on the sky. The clouds above hang thick, plastered in place. It feels like a ceiling about to come down at any moment. Searchlights shine upward from many locations. Some whirl. Some swirl. All move without organization, or any purpose you can determine. You ask, “What are they looking for?”

Your daughter replies, “Probably a way out.”

When you arrive home you find your searchlight, then shine it toward the sky. You guide your light to meet the others already shining upon the clouds. Many lights move to meet your light. Swirl around then glide away. Your light follows them. This makes you feel like a fish, swimming among other fish in a school. At least what you think it would be like to be a fish, swimming among other fish in a school.

????

IF YOU TAKE A MOMENT TO PRETEND YOU ARE A FISH you make your light chase the other lights. You move your mouth like you breathe water. You think a few fish thoughts. Then stop. You remember you didn’t like being in the water all that much tonight.

????

IF YOU FOCUS ON YOUR LIGHT IN THE CLOUDS FOR HOURS WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN you move your light along with slow passes, not wanting to miss any movement, or opening. When your neck begins to hurt, you rotate it in circles to release the tension.

You think you could trick something into poking out of the clouds by turning off your light for a moment, only to turn it back on again a second or two later. Thinking something was in the clouds that could be tricked into making an appearance, making it think it was safe enough to come out. Other spotlights get the same idea, flash their lights. You feel proud for having some influence on the night. Even after spectacle turns hard on the eyes.

Somewhere south of you someone lets out a shout, “There!” The searchlights converge, find their way to the ‘there’, to the object. Your light follows the others. You see it. A small twin-engine airplane. Free from the clouds, its silver fuselage in the searchlight reflects the light back at your eyes with a harsh speed. As you are blinded, it seems the pilot is blinded as well. The plane wobbles. Loses control. Dives to the ground. You realize there is too much light shining on the plane. You yell out, “We’ve blinded the pilot.”

The searchlights do not hear you. They follow the plane to the ground as it falls into a tailspin. Then faster than the searchlights can follow. The plane crashes into some faraway hills. The wreckage burns in them in a way that makes you realize you missed the sunset this evening. That you miss the sunset many evenings.

????

IF YOU DO NOT SPEND THE REST OF YOUR EVENING TRYING TO ORGANIZE YOUR FAVORITE SUNSETS INTO A TOP TEN LIST you search the sky with your searchlight. You look for a parachute, the pilot. You see them falling slow like a paper tissue to the ground. You know how paper tissues fall to the ground. Once you pulled all of the tissues from a cube of tissues to make it snow upon your sister. It was summer, one of those July nights when the heat made it impossible to sleep. Your sister wanted to feel cool. Both of you tried to think cool, as a way to handle the heat. You both imagined sleeping upon things like icebergs, avalanches.

Your mother became upset that you wasted the tissues. She was more mad about the money it took to buy tissues. It didn’t make sense to you at the time. How could anything so soft cost money? You asked your mother to make more money to buy more tissues. This made her cry. You apologized. Swore to her you’d make enough money one day to make it snow tissues all over the world. It would be the softest day for everyone.

????

IF YOU SWAM THROUGH THE DOOR ON THE BOTTOM OF THE POND you find yourself on the bottom of another pond. A pond in another world. You swim to the surface. The air in this world smells like mint. Fresh, growing from the ground mint. Not the mint of candy, ice cream. You try to think of what your world will smell like when you return to it. That maybe you will be able to notice its smell after an absence. You hope it smells as good as the mint of this world. But remembering the state of the place you came from, it may very well smell like burnt popcorn.

You wade out of the pond, your ears clear of water. Frogs begin to croak, sing. A few at first until it becomes a chorus of frogs until it sounds like every frog in the world sits around the pond. All calling out at once. A wall. A storm of sound that makes it hard for you to remember what you’re doing in the night, walking out of a pond in another world.

You call out to them, and say “                         .”

But the volume of the frogs overwhelms your voice. You cannot hear what you say, cannot be sure you have said anything. You call out again, “                                              .”

And again, “                                              !“

And again, “                                               .”

Until you shout out random words, hoping that one of them can break through the frog sound, “

.”

????

IF YOU DECIDE TO JUMP BACK INTO THE POND you lose the sound of the frogs under the water. You swim down to the door lying on the bottom. It’s closed. You reach for the handle, but find a blank wooden space where a handle should be. You feel around the surface of the door for a way to open it. You find nothing. You try to pry your fingers into the jam, to open it that way. Your fingers slip. Your lungs knock at the undersides of your ribs.

You return to the surface. Cough up a little pond water. Feel not all of it left you, that you swallowed a little. Recover. When you can’t stand the chorus of all of the frogs at the frog pond, you dive down again to the door.

This time you knock on the door. No one answers. Then you slap at it. Kick at it. Scream out the last bit of air you have. Then return to the surface.

Cough up a little more pond water. Knowing more is inside you, you think of yourself as an expensive container for pond water. Your tongue feels dead, overwhelmed with the bitter flavor of the pond. An over brewed tea, except not a tea made from tea leaves. A tea made from dirt, rot, rain.

When the sound of all of the frogs at the frog pond overwhelms you, you dive back down to the door. You don’t have a plan this time. You stare at the door until pond water forces itself into your mouth.

????

IF YOU WALK AWAY FROM THE FROG POND you consider taking off your clothes. They are heavy with water, mud, the filth of the water. Their weight forces your back into a slight, uncomfortable hunch. You feel like a creature made of scales, gills, slime. You make creature sounds you cannot hear. The frog song overwhelms your voice.

You walk until the sun rises, walk toward the sunrise. This burns your eyes, because of the brightness of the sun. Also your eyes feel tired, worn. Your clothes feel lighter. They have dried. The mud on your hands turned pale. Flakes off. You feel like less of a creature now. Someone coming upon you might think you were a ghost.. You make ghost sounds. You can hear them. You walked far enough away from the frogs to hear yourself again.

Ahead of you someone yells out, “Here comes something. Something not from the road.” People gather in the road, around cars, an encampment. You wave to them. They wave back with tire irons, boards.

You say to the people, “I fell into a pond. The mud.”

A woman wearing a hubcap as a sun visor asks, “Were there fish? Something to eat in the pond?”

You tell the people you didn’t see any fish. You tell them about the frogs. A man wearing duct tape sandals claims to know how to catch, cook frogs. A group gathers, runs off in the direction of the pond. Some children follow behind, dragging along amateur spears, nets.

The people among the cars offer the back seat of a car to you as a place to rest. You accept the seat, lay down. Before sleeping you think about the frogs, the expedition headed to the pond. You feel guilty about the fate of the frogs. But remember you only heard them, you didn’t see any frogs around the frog pond. Maybe things would work out for the frogs.

????

IF YOU STAY AMONG THE PEOPLE OF THE CARS you witness frogs become currency among the people of the cars within a day. The people capture them alive. Find or create makeshift buckets. Fill the bucket with water. Some people leave their cars to go to live by the pond full time. To catch frogs. Then trade them for parts of cars they use to build shelters. Then a fence around the pond. So they may keep control of the frog supply. The pond water.

At night the frogs continue to sing. No one sleeps. Not the people among the cars. Not the people living near the pond. People take to yelling at each other, the frogs, the cars, the water. Some people go about eating the frogs as soon as they trade or capture them. Just to make the world a bit quieter.

You find a windshield sun visor to trade for a frog. You would eat the frog, but have no way to clean the frog or to cook it. You keep it as a companion. You lie in the backseat, watch over the frog. The frog lives in a shallow pan of water you placed on the floor board. You sleep during the heat of the day, stay up with the frog at night. You let the frog sing all it wants. You reach down in the dark with a finger, try to pet the frog. Sometimes all you do is dip your finger in water.

You tell the frog, “This is all my fault. I should have never said anything about the pond.”

The frog does not change their singing in any way that would let you know if the frog forgives you.

You consider releasing the frog. Opening the back door, letting the frog hop away. But then in this economy. You’re sure someone would scoop up the frog and eat them. Or trade the frog for something from someone who would eat the frog.

But you also don’t wish for the frog to starve to death. You are unsure how long a frog can go without eating. You have been unable to capture any bugs to feed the frog. You had hoped it was a vegetarian, that the frog might eat the leaves, seeds, grass you found near the road. The frog pushed the vegetation down into the water of the shallow pan.

????

IF YOU DO NOT RELEASE THE FROG you wait until the part of the morning when frogs stop singing, when the people fall asleep. You leave the camp knowing it is the only way to keep the frog safe. From the people, the economy of frogs. You hide the frog in your shirt pocket. You carry a bottle of water to sprinkle water on the frog. To keep them wet. You look up at the sky. There are clouds. You do not understand what the clouds mean.

You tell the frog, while sitting among grass, “If it were raining I’d let you go here, among this tall grass. You’d have water. Also, I bet you could find a lot to eat out here.”

You tell the frog, “I wish I would have studied clouds. To know which ones mean rain or storms. Where I’m from, there are people who have jobs were all they do is look at clouds, then report to others what’s coming.”

You tell the frog, “Not like looking at the clouds to see shapes, omens. Though rain clouds look a certain way. But that would be a fun job. To look at clouds all day. See what is going to blow over the town, the state. Tell the people what kinds of feelings are in the air based on the shapes you see in the clouds. Maybe people would be a bit better about their actions, knowing what was in the air above.”

You tell the frog. “While I wish that was how people worked, that’s not how they work at all.”

You tell the frog, “If I were someone else I would have eaten you. Honestly, if I were me but a little more skilled at killing animals, I would have eaten you.”

You find a small stream. You set the frog down on a hump of sand, gravel in the water. The frog crawls away from you, to the water.  The current carries the frog away. Faster than you would have thought. You feel accomplished. You feel lonely. You sit by the water a while. Scoop up a few handfuls to drink. Then a few handfuls to wash your face.

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scott mcclanahan

INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT MCCLANAHAN

Scott McClanahan is the author of The Sarah Book, The Incantations Of Daniel Johnston, Hill William, Crapalachia, and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1. He is the owner the finest small volume library in the state of West Virginia

What’s a book that first put the hook in your heart? Or if there isn’t a single book or author that got you hooked on reading, maybe you can tell me what age you were when literature started playing the pied piper song to you.

I think I’ve always fetishized books. There was a ton of children’s stories my mom used to read to me. “The Little Fir Tree” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” The stories she told me about herself were just as important though. I checked out John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the Rainelle Public Library when I was in fifth grade. My mom said, “You’ll like this. He’s easy to read.” I read that book the same weekend I played Tecmo Bowl for the first time. Sort of a life changing weekend. I was a weird kid though, reading a lot of biographies. Weird shit like Oliver North’s autobiography and Norman Schwarzkopf.

I think probably the book that made me start discovering things was a biography of Jim Morrison called No One Here Gets Out Alive. It’s embarrassing to say, but true. I found out about Antonioni, Artaud, Godard, Van Morrison, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Beat writers, Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince. It was all stuff that I had absolutely no access to in West Virginia. That would have been in the 8th or 9th grade. I always used books to find out about other books.

I used to imagine books before I read them just simply because I couldn’t find them. I don’t know if we do that anymore in the age of on-line books. I used to imagine what a book was like and sadly the book was never able to measure up. I remember reading about The Executioners Song in high school for a long time before I actually found a copy. I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia and that book was mentioned in three different places, but then when I read the book I was like, “This sucks.” I feel differently now, but you know.

  

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME (MINUS ISAK DINESEN, JEAN RHYS, JOHN AUBREY)

The Collected Short Prose of James Agee

The Life of Alexander the Great by Plutarch

Mishima: A Biography by John Nathan

The Portable Rabelais (The Viking Portable Library) by Francois Rabelais

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

My Life by Benvenuto Cellini

An Egyptian Childhood by Taha Hussein

A Christmas Memory: One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote

The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs

Pages From A Cold Island by Frederick Exley

Death On The Installment Plan by Celine

Epitaph Of A Small Winter by Machado de Assis

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Nick Tosches Reader

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

The Whole Motion: Collected Poems by James Dickey

Careless Love: The Unmasking Of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

 

Do you read compulsively? Do you feel like reading is an addiction for you, sometimes? What do you think is the main driving force behind your desire to read more and more books? Are you looking for something?

Yeah I’m compulsive. Reading has always been kind of weird necrophilia. I can’t think of a more intimate act with a living writer as well than reading. The only thing that can compete with it is music and even that’s not the same. I usually go through 2-3 books a week. I’m sure it’s tied in to OCD or some slight autism. I always think of that robot from Short Circuit. Need more input. At this point I don’t think I’m looking for anything. But when I find a new writer like Machado De Assis or Lu Xun (two writers I read for the first time last year) it feels like a conjuring. I may be the only person who went bankrupt buying books.

  

BEST BOOKS I'VE READ IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS

Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson

Roughing It by Mark Twain

garden, ashes by Danilo Kis

The Garbage Times / White Ibis by Sam Pink

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

Memoirs From The House Of The Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

Coma by Pierre Guyotat

The War by Marguerite Duras

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere

The Anatomy Of A Moment by Javier Cercas

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

Wartime Lies by Louis Begley

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann

 

How often do you put a book down? Do you have rules about how much of a chance you’ll give a book before moving on to something else? If I book doesn’t catch me by page 75, I usually throw it out. But some books are late bloomers.

I don’t put down any books usually. I have lists of books that I want to read. If it gets slow, I start to skim and sometimes by skimming you can get back inside the book again. Most of the times I’ve read about the book so much that I know I want to read it. This is what is in my Amazon cart right now.

Denton Welch, In Youth is Pleasure

George Perec, Life: A Users Manual.

Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness

Nathalie Sarraute, Tropisms

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Sei Shonogan, Pillow Book

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

Gustaw Herling, A World Apart

Anita Brookner, Look at Me

Hopefully someone will buy these books for me and send them to me.

   

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe

Nothing Like The Sun by Anthony Burgess

Rimbaud Complete (Modern Library Classics) by Arthur Rimbaud

Justine by Marquis de Sade

King Of The Jews by Nick Tosches

The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet

Miracle Of The Rose by Jean Genet

Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov

The Selected Letters of John Keats

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

My Childhood by Maxim Gorky

The Bible

Martial's Epigrams

Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

 

You seem to read a lot of biographies, which is a big blank spot in my reading life. Can you recommend five or six great biographies that I should read this year?

Oh I don’t know. I guess these are my favorites.

Elizabeth Gaskell Life of Charlotte Bronte, Richard Holmes: The Pursuit: A Life of Shelley, James Boswell: The Life of Johnson, Emanuel Carrere: Limonov; and I am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde. Judith Thurman’s bio of Isak Dinesen is pretty great.

I also love a book by Gorky called Reminiscences’ of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Andreyev. Not a biography, but just these little moments or impression and anecdotes. The description of Tolstoy’s hands is something else and easily tells us more than a 1,000 page biography would.

 

THE BEST BOOK THAT NO ONE HAS EVER READ

Reminiscences Of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Adreyev by Maxim Gorky

 

Does a biographer need to be trustworthy, for you? Should a biographer carefully research a life and stick to the facts as much as possible, like a journalist? Or should a biographer just try to tell the most interesting and entertaining and compelling story they can, even if it involves exaggerating or making up lies? Does a journalist need to be trustworthy?

1. No. 2. Not necessarily. 3.Yes to an extent. 4. Yes trustworthy journalists are essential to any representative republic.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Criminal Desires: Jean Genet And Cinema by Jane Giles

Selected Poems And Prose by Paul Celan

Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader

The Complete Poems Of John Keats

Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

The Beleaguered City by Shelby Foote

Patriotic Gore: Studies In The Literature Of The American Civil War by Edmund Wilson

The Lives Of The Artists by Giorgio Vasari

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

The Creators: A History Of The Heroes Of The Imagination by Daniel J. Boorstin

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann

You Can't Win by Jack Black

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan

The Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter

New York Tyrant Vol 1 Number 1

Seven Plays by Sam Shepard

 

In an interview, you said: “I don’t think there’s a novelist today who can even compare with Robert Caro.” What do you like about his biographies? What can novelists learn from him?

Oh the usual. I think all great writers have just three skills. The ability to surprise and transform, the ability to propel you through a narrative, the ability to conjure emotion or laughter in a reader. Caro and John Richardson and Hilary Spurling and Jimmy McDonough all have that. Even some of our best writers can only do two out of those three things. Somehow I feel like biography still feels sort of primal or primitive and still connected to something very old in stories and magic. They're sort of still interested in these things. Also, some of these folks are spending whole decades writing these books. I'm talking about losing homes and running through advances in order to make something. I think that's beautiful and almost monastic in the age of corporate fiction, and experimental tenure fiction.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret

The Civil War: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Selected Writings by Gerard de Nerval

Lectures On Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

The Rise And Fall Of Athens by Plutarch

A Confederate General From Big Sur / Dreaming Of Babylon / The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan

Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas

The Complete Works Of Nathanael West

Genet by Edmund White

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

Selected Writings by Antonin Artaud

 

If you had all the time in the world, whose biography would you write? (I’m thinking about a famous person or a historical person, but it could be anyone.) Would you be a trustworthy biographer?

I’m going to write about my mom and dad. So no. It’s going to be a book called Vandalia or Rainelle Stories or something like that. A big family book. Like a Tristam Shandy or Rabelais almost. I’m going to see if I can’t take what I’ve learned from these books and write about two people who are just ordinary. I'm going to write it for my kids. Been struggling for six months though so who knows. This writing shit is hard.

   

BOOKS I'M READING/REREADING FOR THE BOOK I'M WORKING ON

Reminiscences Of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Adreyev by Maxim Gorky

Tristram Shandy & Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

True Stories by Sophie Calle

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas

Memoirs From Beyond The Tomb by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

This Is Not A Novel And Other Novels by David Markson

Dark Back Of Time by Javier Marias

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Collected Writings Of Joe Brainard

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald

In Search Of Lost Time Volume 6: Time Regained by Marcel Proust

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 

What are some poems or other pieces of literature that you have memorized and could recite at any time? Do you have a trick for memorizing things like that, or just have a good memory?

Oh gosh I have reams of stuff. I've known Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphan Annie" since I was a boy. I've done that so many times in readings I'm sure people are sick of it, but it makes me think of my mom. There's some Neruda I know, a section of Under Milk Wood, John Donne always kills. I used to do a section of Virgil's Georgics in a reading. I don't know if it's a trick, but I can memorize pretty easy. I've always liked doing it in readings because it gives you an element of control. You can move around, etc. I wanted to memorize the whole of Sarah Book for these final readings I was going to do, but I ran out of time.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

The Portable John Steinbeck

The Red And The Black by Stendhal

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Ramones by Nicholas Rombes

Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere

The Blacks: A Clown Show by Jean Genet

The Art Of Destruction: The Films Of The Vienna Action Group by Stephen Barber

Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Ferdydurke / Pornografia / Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Odi Et Amo: The Complete Poetry of Catullus

Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera

Lost Highway: Journeys And Arrivals Of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick

My Mother's House and Sido by Colette

 

Who are some of the readers, living or dead, that you most admire?

I guess Amelia Gray is always the gold standard. Lindsey Hunter as well. I think Sam Pink is the most likable reader I've ever watched. He just has that quality about him. People like him. Chelsea Hodson is a great reader too. I saw Kiese Laymon read in Iowa City a few years ago and he really blew me away. It sort of feels like readings are dead now or something, but maybe that's just me. Five years ago people used to talk about them more and seem excited. Now it seems like they've dried up or something. I had a great time though at the Franklin Park Reading Series a month ago, which is easily the best reading series in the country.

Oh and I'm biased, but I saw Juliet Escoria give a reading with a video back drop in Brooklyn a few years ago. It was with some witches. One of the top three readings I've ever seen.

  

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Son Of The Morning Star: Custer And The Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus

The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

The Education Of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Boswell In Holland, 1763-1764 by James Boswell

Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard

Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays On Art And Artists by Robert Hughes

Voyage In The Dark by Jean Rhys

The Poems Of Francois Villon

William Faulkner And Southern History by Joel Williamson

Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

The Georgics by Virgil

 interview by Chris Dankland 

READ NEXT: INTERVIEW WITH SAM PINK

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LUCK OF THE PLUG by Gregg Williard

The power strip could take nine plugs. Only four were being used. The floor lamp, table lamp, TV/DVD player and CD player were all off.  She pressed the off switch on the strip. The little light went out. She pulled out the plugs.  She went to the kitchen and got a roll of tinfoil. She tore off small pieces and tucked them into the outlets, deep enough to be hidden. She wiggled the plugs back into the outlets.  She used a butter knife to wedge tinfoil behind the power switch. Maybe when he turned the strip back on it would just trip the breakers and blow out the power. Piss him off real bad and give her a little head start.  If it killed him she’d be in the clear for good, but he’d never know she did it.  She pulled out the driveway and headed for the interstate, weighing either outcome with a smile.

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ashley hutson

ON OUR WAY TO SEE YOU by Ashley Hutson

Right now we're stuck behind a funeral procession and it looks like we're going to be late. Mack keeps saying, How long, how long? We're on our way to see you.

I adjust the rear-view mirror, and Mack is in the back seat, bouncing around. He never settles down when the car goes slow, refuses to be lulled like other children, does not even want to be sung to. He's saying, How long, how long?

And it is about noon right now, and it is a beautiful day and it is November. There is a hearse way up at the front. The cars in the line are mismatched and strangely colorful. Funny how these things appear without warning. An hour ago I got the call, and I swept up Mack and yanked some clothes on him and we piled into the car and I hit the gas. I flew out of town, I don't mind telling you, and it seemed like I turned around for a second—just one second, to yell at Mack to calm down and quit screaming—and when I turned back there was this line of traffic in front of me stopped dead. It happened so quick that I slammed on the brakes, throwing Mack and me forward to strangle on our seat belts for a second. Uh-oh, Mack said.

These long, narrow roads between towns. You know them. You always complained about them when you had to get up in the pre-dawn hours, never knew what animal would jump out from the black woods and drive you off the road into death. Every morning in winter I'd listen to you grouch as I poured the coffee, and this was before Mack was born, this was when everything between us was an adventure and the only thing that worried you was a lonely road in the dark, and my biggest fear was a spider lurking in a kitchen corner. The kitchen of that house we loved, that was a long time ago, remember? And now here we are, me here on this road and you there, and Mack is in the back seat wailing like a devil, ignoring me like he was birthed out of some other woman's loins. Like I am not his mama at all.

Mack starts counting the cars ahead of us. They don’t make noise. I wind down my window and there’s only silence and wind. It is colder than it looks. I close the window. We're a mile outside of town, at the part of the road where it stretches wide and flat after a steep hill, and the cornfields spread out, and at the horizon are rounded mountains so far away they look blue. An open space like this is something special around here, you remember how the first time Mack saw this part of the road and yelled Roller coaster! like it was some big deal.

Now he's in the backseat and saying How much longer? and I tell him to keep counting cars. He skips numbers. He goes from eleven back to three.

I start counting, too. Everything is slow. And I am telling you what, these cars are all clean. I don't see a filthy one in the bunch, not like our old beater that I haven't taken to the carwash in who knows how long. And this day is so fine, so clear, and it's November and just as brown and gold and blue as a late fall day can be, crisp as flint corn. On these kinds of days you and me used to go out right before dusk, we would take walks in the woods down by the old gristmill's abandoned skeleton and I'd kiss you on a path so private no one but deer would see, and then on Sundays we'd go to your Granny's house and eat pot-pie until we were sick.

I am on my way to see you but I am stuck. A procession is ahead of me, a long, crooked line. How long? How long? Mack is saying.

He's lost count, and so have I. I can't see the hearse anymore, it's gone over the far hill and out of sight. There are three cemeteries between you and me and we’ve already passed two, and I keep hoping these cars will stop, I keep waiting for them to turn. But the cars keep moving in a slow drip-drip-drip fashion, and for some reason I am thinking of water, thinking of the word wet, thinking of sex, trying to think of the last time we did it in that small bed in our apartment before you got the night-cough and started with the pills. That apartment we had to move into after you got laid off, you hated it because you thought I hated it, but let me tell you right now: I never hated any room you were in. Right now I am thinking of your jaw clicking when you bit into a sandwich, and how the noise sounded like you were crushing gravel. The sound would satisfy me so, as if your mouth were mine.

The third cemetery is approaching, and Mack is in the backseat like some kind of ghoul that was visited upon me, upon both of us, like a night flower that bloomed in my stomach, like a premonition saying How long? How long? Mack is like a lot of things but the thing I most regret is that he looks exactly like me and not like you at all, even though that was something you cooed and congratulated the baby for—you congratulated a baby—while I lay there in the hospital bed, wondering if my insides would ever feel properly arranged again. And Mack being born sickly, with my spongy bones and looking like me, surely that was some kind of punishment? An omen? But of course you took his birth as a boon, to you Mack was a gift and it didn't matter that he was smaller than most or couldn't get his words out clear like other kids or that maybe my blood was to blame. You said he was a good kid because he was us put together and that blood was not poison, blood was just blood, and you'd never seen an omen in your life.

We've been following this funeral parade for what seems like a few hours now. I am trying to get to you but there is this line of cars I cannot pass or see the end of. I still cannot see the hearse. Sometimes I get glimpses, but you know how this countryside is hilly, is rocky and rough, and I keep losing sight of the hearse over the next hill or around the narrow curves that infest this place, the steep inclines that laugh at this old car, the landscape sneering at the humans who tried to carve a road into it.

The cars passed the last cemetery miles ago and I can't help it, I keep following them. Now they're splitting off the main road, going up a mountain. The night is coming fast. I forgot how early darkness falls this time of year. My ears are going shut. Mack is quieter now, lying down in the backseat. He's whimpering a little. I can't get the memory of a normal afternoon two weeks ago out of my brain. Do you remember? It was October then. You were setting trash bags on the curb outside the apartment, and I was at the kitchen sink skinning an apple, and Mack was watching the TV in another room, and when I caught your eye through the window you gave me a smile. You raised up your hand and waved.

From the back seat I hear, How much longer? but I ignore it. I gun the engine, willing the car to climb higher, higher. Where this mountain ends, I don't know.

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ANATOMY OF A DISTANCE by Elle Nash

A list of things you miss. A touch with the lips. The knock-you-on-your-ass touch, the kind that starts in the lower extremity of the leg below the ankle, as he moves closer to you, the kind where he waits for you to wrap your ammunition around him and then he pulls you in and you press with your lips pursed and slightly parted, like an immature form of animal or insect which undergoes some metamorphosis on this fucked earth, together with all of its countries, peoples and natural features which hide in our internal organs, a pear-shaped enlargement of the alimentary canal linking the esophagus to the small intestine, insects waiting in their little silky cases spun by larvae for protection, waiting for the true combination of high polymer qualities such as shape, color or form, those that please the aesthetic senses, especially sight.

A list of things you miss. Kiss so the insects with two pairs of large wings covered in tiny scales, usually brightly coloured, typically held erect when at rest, and the nocturnal insects (pocket of dust) related to butterflies could spread their number of specialized paired appendages that enable them to fly, in particular: outwards and upwards and out, out of the opening in the lower part of the human face, the tunnel surrounded by the lips, left dust and spines of insect foot in the wet membrane home through which food is taken in and from which speech and other sounds are emitted.

A list of things you miss. The kind of touch with lips that wait until 2AM, after I was gone for each of the twelve named periods into which the Gregorian year is divided, after I was gone for thirteen rotations of earth’s satellite mother. The kind of touch that waited at the lowest part or point of the grief container, typically made of glass or plastic and with a narrow neck, used for storing booze, before it had the strength in the face of pain or grief to crawl up out of its trash hole and hit me on the face, breaking the orbital, surface of the thing, what is a fracture on the socket of the eye? Especially the touch that was presented to his view, in particular, the touch on the lips slightly parted with teeth showing, which cradles the upper part of the human body, or the front-or-upper part of the body of the animal, typically separated from the rest of the body by a neck, that which contains the brain, mouth, and sense organs in between its palms, fingers, and thumbs, he waits for me to cry, the touch on the lips slightly parted with teeth showing and a tongue that pushes through the mouth that tastes drops of salt liquid secreted from glands in the eye when they cry or when the eye is irritated and he tells me it's going to be okay.

A list of things you miss. The touch on the lips slightly parted with teeth showing and a tongue that pushes through the mouth to touch another’s tongue, the touch that doesn't happen anymore is the one that says "I’m here you're here and we're alive" after a near miss; internal combustion engine unfortunate incident, one which happened unexpectedly and unintentionally, resulted in damage or injury, left black polymeric substance made from latex on the mixture of dark pitch with sand or gravel, used for surfacing roads, scraping skin, flooring, roof of mouth, etc; this accident which left a strengthened band of metal fitted around the rim of wheels screaming louder than the invisible gaseous substance surrounding the earth, a mixture mainly of oxygen and nitrogen, hefting in and out of the pair of organs studded within my rib cage, elastic sacs with branching passages into which air is drawn, squealing like a hard-boiled egg or some skinned sausage bursting with juice, so oxygen can pass into the blood uncollapsed and carbon dioxide can be removed.

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PLANT REPLANT by Jon Berger

I smoked Bubba Kush with my cousin Will. He got it from a guy who grew hydroponics.  It was my first time smoking anything other than midgrade. Will had this evil clown hookah thing with hoses hanging out of its head. His friend Joe got so stoned the clown gave him a panic attack.

On the drive home I kept checking myself because it felt like I was pissing my pants and driving felt like a videogame. I got home and went to the bathroom to find out I was totally dry.

The next morning I’m driving back to my Grandmas still high and cozy, speeding down the bumpy road in my 98’ Bonneville with too many miles on it. Gridded up farm fields on all sides. These giant white windmills were being built in the middle of the fields to collect energy. Looking like Godzilla seagulls waving around lost with nothing to break.

Me and my cousin were working on repo houses in the city. This rich guy bought up a bunch of abandoned homes from the bank and hired us to fix them so he could flip them for a profit. I was supposed to be in school but I’d rather be making money.

I pulled into my Grandmas driveway. Will was sitting on the front porch, tying his shoes while smoking a cigarette. He’d been living with Grandma since his mom died of cancer. So like 4 years.

“We got a problem,” he said as I was walking up.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Grandma is fucking with my shit.”

He stood up and I followed him to the back yard where he was growing an 8 foot tall marijuana plant. It was sativa, his baby.

“Grandma has some of those windmill guys coming over to inspect the land next week. She’s pissed and says the plants gotta go.”

“Can’t we just cover it up or something?”

Will shrugged. “I don’t know. Grandma wants it gone. We’ll get like four grand for having the windmill on the property.”

“Four grand? That’s it?”

“Wind ain’t oil, bro.”

“Fuck, man. You serious?”

“I’m thinking we can replant it at that house we’re working on in Sanford,” he said exhaling smoke.

“Can we just harvest it now? I mean at least we’d get something out of it.”

“No, it’s too early, it’d be no good.” He grabbed a branch, “Look, these buds are all tiny and green still. Don’t even got sugar on ‘em.”

“You think replanting will work?”

“Shit if I know, but we gotta try. I’m not about to just throw it away.”

We grabbed a five gallon bucket from the barn, put some water in it and started digging out the plant with shovels. We lifted it up the best we could, keeping the roots intact while lowering it into the bucket.

Will drove an S10 truck without a topper.

We laid the plant down in the bed of the truck and packed more dirt into the bucket. Marijuana leaves were poking out everywhere and the plant was hanging out over the tailgate. Will jammed the tailgate up and bent the top of the plant. We took a blue tarp and tied it down over the plant, tucking in all the branches. We stood back and looked. Will did this thing with his hands that Hollywood directors do to get their camera angles right or whatever. You could definitely tell we were hauling some type of vegetation.

We got into the truck and I grabbed the clipboard to roll a joint on the way. We stopped at the corner store to get energy drinks and cold cuts. It had a big gravel lot and the store used to be a big farm house. It was all white with newish siding and a black roof. The upstairs of the store was apartments.

Misty was working. She was friends with Will and would sell me beer on the weekends. She moved out here a couple years ago. She had weird line and dot tattoos she did herself without giving them much thought. Misty laughed her ass off when we showed her the weed tree under the tarp and then wished us good luck.

The Sanford house was on the other side of town. We drove through thick traffic, high as ever. I put on sunglasses and just sat back. A cop had a guy pulled over. A new Cadillac. Will laughed saying that’s why you don’t buy flashy cars. My stomach jumped to my chest as we drove past them. We were normal. I thought about how normal we must look, but maybe we were too normal. Will tapped his brakes, pulling over slightly, giving the cop standing on the side of the road more room. It felt like forever to get past him but he never gave us a look.

We pulled into the driveway of the house. It was a big two story house on a backroad. Not very old. Someone with money had built it. I had to paint over the height lines on the wall where the parents measured their kids growing. We only had half the roof shingled. The roof was peaked and we had to nail in 2-by-4s into it so we didn’t slip off.

There was a patch of woods in the back with some good shade. The soil was sandy. Not that farm field clay the plant grew in, but we didn’t have a choice.

We dug a hole and put the plant and dirt inside of the bucket into the sand hole in the woods. We gave it some water and got a ladder to cut some tree branches off so the plant would get more sun. Will didn’t think if it would help but like he kept saying, “we had to try.”

***

The leaves turned brown after two days. After a week it was dead. It just fell apart. Will said he could get more seeds from the same guy he bought his weed from. It just cost money, but we had work. He said it was a setback. He said these repo houses were good money. He said buying more seeds and not giving up on growing bud was like investing your money and yourself into something bigger.

***

Grandma got a windmill built on the farmland. She got her check from the energy people. Grandma and Will started saying how late at night the windmills were making this noise that you couldn’t really hear. I didn’t know what they were talking about until I was out there late one night. It kinda sounded like a low static but still plugged your ears with a deafening emptiness. You couldn’t hear the bugs or a passing car or anything. Everyone who had a windmill built on their land was complaining about it. The company who built the windmills wouldn’t do anything about it. Everyone started sleeping with earplugs in.

All windmills had a red blinking light on top of them. All the lights blinked at the same time. At night you could see all across the open sky, hundreds of floating lights blinking at once, going forever looking like laser stars that spied on everyone in their old farmhouses that didn’t really farm anymore.

***

Will installed electricity in the barn, so we could always have a fridge full of booze. He threw a party to celebrate the new electricity in the barn. He let me invite some of my high school friends.

It was late and everyone was fucked up off good weed and Boones Farms and cheap blue cans of beer with white mountains on them.

Joe had been doing cocaine. At around midnight went to his car and came back with an AK-47. He was drunk too and giggling with a red face. Will didn’t let Joe work with us because he said Joe was an idiot.

We all went out to the edge of the field and started shooting at the windmill. The bullets had tracers on them. So you could see where you were shooting by watching your bullets that looked like mini comets. The trick was to wait for the red windmill light to blink so you kinda knew where to aim. The gun was heavy and solid. All metal and wood, it kicked like crazy, the stock jabbing into my shoulder. The muzzle flash made me see spots and the sound of the gunshots made my ears ring. I pulled the trigger so fast that the gun started to kick up and I lost control of it, the tracer bullets flying up into space. Every time a bullet hit the windmill you could hear this sharp ping that echoed off it. Everyone cheered and drank when that happened.

I noticed Misty was standing back smoking a cigarette, watching all of us with her arms crossed.

I walked over to her. “Misty, you going to shoot the gun?” I said pointing with my beer hand at the new person shooting. I was pretty wasted, leaning as I pointed, still seeing blue, green and yellow spots from the muzzle flashes.

“No, I don’t do guns.”

“It’s just fun though.”

“I think you need a better approach.”

“Like what?”

“Like climb up there and spray paint a giant dick on it.”

I closed my left eye to see straight and said, “I like how you think, but how would I get up there and do that.”

Misty tossed her head back and laughed, showing all her teeth. She said it wasn’t a big deal and that she did her thesis in college on the social implications of erotic street art and that we would climb the windmill and graffiti a giant dick on it together.

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bram riddlebarger

SOY by Bram Riddlebarger

It was when he started drinking the milkshakes that the trouble began. Before two weeks had passed he had ballooned up fifty pounds and was beating the pulp out of every motherfucker that came within an inch of his mind’s eye.

His power, he believed, came from his special method, patent pending, of milkshake making. It had to do with split-second timing between milk added and ice cream stirred, although quick wrist action was as necessary a factor as any. Of course, he didn’t use an electric blender. It was just pure spoon on glass like a junkie and his needle. He needed these milkshakes. They were his rebirth into the realm of the gods and he was their master.

In one sick instance of his depravity, he beat a skinny blond-haired boy to a bloody mess as he recited the current thirty-one flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream in 3/4 time: one flavor for every blow to the boy's ever-flattening blond melon. Then he went home for a vanilla milkshake. He needed simplicity in the wake of triumph.

Then, when all the cows died, he was ruined. There was just no room for soy in his life.

He cried about it sometimes, later, but mostly he just dwindled away.

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LILLY AND THE NINE-TOED WOMAN by Toom Bucksaw

Lilly brushed her teeth and saw another woman’s face in the mirror. She stared into her eyes and wished she could ask that woman where the fourth toe of her left foot had gone. Why hadn’t she taken better care of herself? Didn’t she know Lilly would need her toes someday? Lilly pulled her socks on and tried to forgive her.

In the big room Ellis was still sleeping on the floor with his head on the couch. The mechanical blinds on the window were creakily opening and shafts of sunlight were pooling on his face. Lilly didn’t let him sleep with her anymore because he came home late, but most importantly his drunken pratfalls into bed forced her to wake up and become accustomed to the weird way her sheets rested on a body that wasn’t her own once more before going back to sleep. He’d been more of a roommate than a boyfriend since the operation anyway.

Lilly crossed the big room and slid her card in her reward kiosk.

“Congratulations,” it said. “Thirty three point three repeating chips have been awarded to your account. Check back tomorrow at sunrise for fresh new chips. Tomorrow, the sun will rise at six thirty one A.M. Today’s temperature is fifty six degrees. Would you like a receipt?”

She couldn’t change the volume on this model, not that she cared to. Ellis stirred, like he did every morning; his breathing was shallower now and less rhythmic and she knew that she’d woken him up. Lilly was glad he had enough sense to play dead until she left. She allowed the kiosk printer to work loudly at a nine and a half inch receipt covered in full-color advertisements. The price of the ink was worth Ellis’s furrowed brow.

Lilly rode the mover to work and waded through that same gauntlet of obligated empathy and “if you need anything call me” eyes that had lined the path to her cubicle since the operation and showed no sign of abating. Her new photo I.D. still wasn’t scanning right at the check-in. She pulled out her old I.D. with her old face on it and the guard waved her through.

She was once the fastest typist in her department. The clacking of keys from her cubicle used to be the centerpiece of her floor; two years ago her secret santa had given her an extremely loud keyboard and when its keys rang out from her desk her coworkers were not annoyed but proud that they should share a floor with such an efficient worker. Now the nine-toed woman’s fat, dumb fingers had cost the company 1,325.638 chips in typos and clerical errors. She typed as quietly as she could so no one could hear how slowly she did it.

She typed so slowly that her mind wandered and filled the gaps between each keystroke. She thought mostly of when she was taller, thinner and whiter and of when Ellis slept beside her, and she pretended that he’d embrace her when she got home, pretended he’d be there at all.

The sun had set on the city when work got out and the mover was crammed with people. Rain pounded the street and drenched the commuters on this unenclosed section of the mover. Lilly stood under someone’s balcony out of the rain and swiped through the faces of the single men she shared this metropolis with. She’d been fielding these digital men for a little while now, about as long as Ellis had been sleeping in the big room, and to her disappointment she’d realized that as long as she shared rent with the only man she wanted and allowed him to eat from her refrigerator, she’d always want him.

Lately, there’d been one possible exception.

“You free tonight? Would love to finally meet,” Brandon messaged her. Her phone vibrated and with it her entire being. Brandon had started an acquaintance with her shortly after she’d made her profile, and he was the only one whose messages she watched for. He was everything she could have hoped for in a man she met through a chat box. He didn’t come on strong and most of all he didn’t tell her how much he “loved Mexican”. She’d been told the nine-toed woman was Bolivian, anyway.

She smiled at Brandon that night in the dim light of a mediterranean place Ellis had taken her once when he had had money. “Now that’s what I like to see,” he said. “Do it again.” She couldn’t help but smile again, and laugh as she hadn’t since the time when she’d had her own ten toes to walk on. “The way your lips curl when you smile.” He closed his eyes and did that kissing motion with his fingers she supposed French chefs did when they see a great soufflé .

She told Brandon about her job and how the nine-toed woman’s ten fat fingers had ruined her prestige. He laughed, but his laughter died quickly. He asked what else bothered her about her body. She told him about her missing fourth toe, and when he asked her what had happened to it she told him they didn’t tell her things like that. “Don’t you ever wonder?” he asked, his face wrinkling oddly in a charged confusion. The expression caught her off guard. She made an ambivalent expression that involved a shrug, raised eyebrows and a shake of the head and thought she saw some curious shade fall over him, but it was gone as soon as she noticed it.

Brandon ate and Lilly watched his jaws grind his food into paste. Handsome, handsomer than Ellis maybe. Ellis’s mind-life insurance certainly wouldn’t cover a body with such a strong chin, at least. A man could sell a chin like that and live pretty well. He was nice, perhaps overly so, but there are worse things to be, she thought, and you can’t buy nice the same way you can buy a better chin. She traced his eyes as he ate and when he went to the restroom she smiled only for herself, feeling her lips curl the way Brandon liked and for the first time finding herself liking it too.

Ellis was gone when she led Brandon through the kitchen and into the big room, the front door sliding itself shut behind her. Some mechanism misfired as it always did during the locking routine and some metal clanged inside the door. The sound was loud enough to wake her up most mornings when Ellis came stumbling through, but tonight she hardly heard it.

She could already feel his hands on her. At dinner she’d looked over each of his fingers from tip to knuckle and couldn’t help but see the monetary value inherent to their beauty. She imagined herself like a greedy cartoon character, some oil tycoon or gold prospector, archaic dollar signs flickering in her eyes, wanting to feel that monetary value inside her, as if it would somehow increase her own.

The door to her bedroom malfunctioned and beeped at her. She leaned her back against the stubborn door and smiled through a sigh. Brandon caught up with her and her body, not anyone else’s, was pinned between the heat of Brandon and the deep space chill of the metal door and it was her body, not anyone else’s, that became increasingly exposed as the clothing she concealed it under fell to the floor piece by piece.

His fingers crept along her outline and they kissed under the flickering tubes in her ceiling. His touch made her feel expensive. He caressed the curves of her “budget” 700,000 chip body the way Ellis had caressed the body of the woman she’d been before. That woman seemed alien to her now. She’d feared that using another woman’s body to have sex would feel strange, wrong, or possibly like some twisted late-capitalist form of rape, but it was just the opposite. Feeling Brandon inside her, knowing he was there only because she was exactly who she was, made that body, finally, miraculously, her own.

When they finished, they laid against the couch Lilly usually found Ellis dangling off of in the morning and stared at the soft blinking lights on the reward kiosk across the room. Brandon talked more about the place he went on holidays, out west where the mover didn’t reach and you could even see stars if the moon was new. He showed her a picture on his phone of the perfect blue water you could rent a room beside. She pinched her fingers on the screen and enlarged the image to see a fisherman on the lake.

The utter solitude of that figure stirred something in her chest; she wanted immediately for Brandon to take her there, onto the water, where they could float on the waves of that blue mirror and be near no one but themselves. How little she knew about this man meant nothing to her. She knew enough. She knew that he was Brandon, that he wanted her, and that the fisherman was calling to her from across time.

She swiped the image aside and saw another much like it. This time the focus of the picture was on the snowcapped mountains that cut across the sky. Brandon reached for the phone, but she moved it away from his grasp.

She swiped again. A picnic blanket, with sandwiches on paper plates, spread across sand.

At first she didn’t notice it, but as her eyes crawled along the pixels that made up the enchanting image of rural bliss, they tripped over an object of singular Wrongness, a chaotic thing impinging upon the scene of rustic tranquility Lilly had never known. It was her own maimed foot.

Brandon snatched at the phone and ripped it out of her hand, muttering some curse under his breath. Her flesh dragged across the screen, sliding the photo and revealing a portrait of her own pudgy, olive face, her hair lightly tossed in the lake-blown breeze. She looked happy. She did a better job with her make-up than Lilly could.

She could only confront the face of the nine-toed woman for a moment before the screen went black and Brandon thrust the phone into his pocket. He stood shirtless putting on his belt. Lilly watched him from the floor, her reclaimed sense of self nothing but a foolish sex-fueled lark now in the tightening prison of Other flesh. “What was my name?” she asked.

Brandon pulled his shirt over his head and paused, his mouth hanging open. He shook his handsome head and started across the big room toward the door.

There was a pounding on the metal. “Lilly,” Ellis slurred from beyond it, “unlock this shit.”

Brandon opened the door using the terminal and Ellis tumbled through it, immediately falling onto the kitchen floor, not taking any note of the man in his way. The door slid shut and Brandon’s footsteps faded down the hall. Lilly lay naked on the big room floor, listening to Ellis breathe against the grubby kitchen tile and felt a shred of intimacy sharing the floor with him, however far away. She thought about the lake and her hair blowing in its wind as if it were a memory and looked around at the things that didn’t belong to her, the reward kiosk ready to distribute another woman’s chips, the refrigerator stocked with another woman’s food, another woman’s ex-lover sleeping in the dirt of another woman’s sloven apartment. Some cluster of cells in her wanted to run after Brandon and tell him it didn’t matter what her name was, that she would be whoever he wanted her to be, as long as he would have her, but she couldn’t be sure if those were another woman’s desires.

She let him disappear along the mover and stayed there somewhere inside the nine-toed woman, wondering if two halves made a whole.

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FOLK SINGERS, SKINHEADS, AND BEARS by Alistair McCartney

Folk Singers

We have never enjoyed folk songs. In fact, we had a profound dislike of folk singing—all that plaintive strumming did not agree with us—that is, until the other evening, when we reluctantly attended a smoky folk club in downtown Los Angeles and the sleepy folk singer with the pair of lips tattooed on his neck sang the lines Ravage me, tattoo me, I’m a window, put your wrist in a soft bag and smash right through me as if he were singing directly to us.

Ever since that evening, we have been huge fans of folk singing, folk singers, and folk songs. We are always talking about it, always thinking about it, always finding ourselves in situations that remind us of the lyrics of our favorite folk songs.

For example, the other morning, when the bus driver was rude to us, and the businessman blew smoke in our face, we sang the lines under our breath, I’m bright and trapped and staunchly unoriginal, a parrot in your cage, and we felt markedly better.

We constantly fantasize about bashing our number one folk singer over the head with his guitar made out of wood that is paper-thin, taking him back to our house and keeping him prisoner, in a cellar, in chains, and making him sing to us whenever we need a little pick me up. We feel so good it seems like everything is an acoustic guitar and it logically follows that we are all folk singers.

Skinheads

Due to the heat, the skinheads have decided to go shirtless. They are standing in the front-yard, idly gossiping about Hegel. Beware of young white men with shaved heads and a passion for Hegelian absolute idealism. One holds a dog eared copy of Elements of the Philosophy of Right in his left hand.  A flag flutters gently above them.  Can you help me identify the symbols on the flag? Is it the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes or the Saint George’s Cross or the Confederate flag?  Is it the Nazi flag or the German Imperial Flag or the Italian Fascist party flag or the short-lived flag of the Italian Social Republic or even one of the infinite variants of Neo-Nazi flags? The skinheads are wearing their jeans very low on their hips. One has a small tattoo at the base of his spine, Sein und Nichts sei dasselbe.  Is there any aesthetic affinity between the bald head of a cholo and that of a skinhead? If we were to place two cheap whorish synthetic wigs upon the head of each skinhead, would it lessen the sinister effect of their skulls? If the skinheads were just skeletons they would be less menacing. The skinheads will turn out to be actors in a gay porn flick called Aufhebung featuring all bareback sublation; the actors are from the Ukraine, their Cockney accents are terrible. F(f)ascism of the upper case and lower case variety is once again very popular in the 21st century, it is unclear if we can come up with an effective counter-strategy. The heat is expected to linger for the next few days, the flag has since faded to a state of transparency.

Bears

The bear wanders through the forest, and comes across a young male hiker, lying unconscious on the forest floor. The bear notices the millennial hiker is wearing very short shorts. Those pine needles must be prickly. Let there be no confusion: the bear is an actual bear, one of those large flesh-eating animals that look bigger than they are because of their loose skin and long, coarse hair, not one of the imitative homosexual members of the so-called bear community. The bear thinks to himself: this is my forest and I have these awesome claws, I should probably fuck the kid up. Though there is the question of morality. From our vantage point behind a big tree, it is unclear if this bear is a black bear genus Ursus, species americanus, or a grizzly bear, genus Ursus horribilis. The hiker lies there, or lays there, the bear always trips up on that verb tense, a temptation that is both amusing and dangerous. The bear is suddenly distracted by a beehive dangling from a nearby tree. Unbeknownst to him, the hive is a victim of CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, most of the bees have disappeared, to who knows where. Helpless and sexy male hiker or beehive, which one to go for? Structurally speaking, there is no difference between the two forms: both are honeycombed, complex, enclosed, exposed. The bear goes for the beehive, it’s more predictable, more reliable, disfigures the dripping thing, totally forgets the hiker who is still unconscious, dreaming of being ravaged by sun bears and spectacled bears and blind bear cubs who got no teeth, the bear gets stung 1001 times, doesn’t care.

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blake middleton

CHARLIE by Blake Middleton

i took some adderall the other day

and for some reason i decided it was time to replace my old washing machine with a new washing machine

my roommate got a lighter stuck in the part of the washer where all the lent and other bullshit builds up

so we were scared that the washing machine was gonna catch fire or explode

i had been putting off changing it out for weeks

i didn’t know how to change out a washing machine and hadn’t really felt like learning

i kinda hoped my roommate would do it eventually

but whatever, i was bored and on adderall, optimal conditions for doing a dumb chore you’ve been putting off forever

i hadn’t taken adderall in months

and there were reasons for this, of course

but it had been a few months, it was early, i wasn’t gonna mix them with alcohol or anything, haha, just wanted some help focusing

felt like i didn’t need a youtube tutorial, no no, none of that bullshit

just needed some fucking drugs, kids

i stared at the washing machine, trying to use my brain to think

i did some thinking and unscrewed the hose on the back of the washer a little bit

but some water shot out from around the sides

so the first step would be to turn off the water

and hey hey

goddamn

the adderall was working

it had increased my critical thinking/problem solving skills immensely

i tried to turn the faucet, but the handle was rusted and broken

i tried to use a wrench to turn the handle, but no, still wasn’t working

i thought, fuck it

removing the hose was gonna be the first step again

the adderall in my dumb-ass brain was telling me that would work, like totally, fuck yeah

the adderall was telling me that, despite the recent revelation that the handle was completely broken and fucked, i had the mental capacity and psychical strength required to unscrew the hose from the back of the old washer then, while water was spewing out from the hose, screw it into the new washer

actually no, without really thinking about what i was doing, i unscrewed the hose

and as soon as i unscrewed the hose i realized that unscrewing the hose while the water was still running was a stupid and bad thing to do

because water was shooting out everywhere

getting all my shit wet

the floor wet. the counters wet. my pants wet.

like imagine all my shit getting really fucking wet

imagine a hose spewing water full blast on a bunch of shit that shouldn’t get wet

it was bad

i tried to screw it back into the old washer

i thought, fuck it

just wanted to screw the hose back into the old washer, keep using that one until it caught fire or exploded and killed me or whatever

just wanted to read a book or lie in bed and stare at the ceiling or something

but no

wasn’t gonna work for me

mentally added ‘changing out a washing machine’ to a long list of shit that just wasn’t gonna work for me

no i didn’t do that

but in hindsight, yeah, add it to the list

it was too late to quit though

this wasn’t a time for literature or bad feelings in bed

this was a time for stopping a hose from flooding my house

really didn’t wanna have to call my slumlord and get yelled at

plus my roommates had been getting drunk a lot and spray-painting the walls

so i would get double yelled at

then my dumb-ass brain did some more thinking stuff

and oh man

i realized who i needed

i needed my boy charlie

charlie was my alcoholic neighbor

there was a good chance that he would be home because he doesn’t have a job

he spends most of his time drinking busch on his porch with his shithead buddies (also unemployed alcoholics)

he has a friend named ‘ice man’ that sells meth out of his ford bronco

‘ice man’ also does lawn service

‘ice man’ and charlie have a friend named ‘creepy chris’

‘creepy chris’ lives in charlie’s garage

he also smokes crack-cocaine and has sex with prostitutes in there too

charlie's garage: a versatile space perfect for a variety of stimulating activities such as crack smoking and illicit sex

‘creepy chris’ helps ‘ice man’ sell meth and cut grass

sometimes creepy chris smokes too much crack and walks around the park across the street very late at night

creeping around

there goes chris again, smoking crack and creeping around in the night, there he goes

just some normal jacksonville florida bullshit my guy

but yeah, yes, charlie was my only hope

i put the hose inside the washing machine and it started filling with water

i jumped over the washing machine and sprinted out my front door, drenched in water, looking like a fucking dumb-ass

and yeah, yes

charlie was sitting alone on his porch drinking a busch

he was wearing cut-off jean shorts

and i could see his balls

dangling out, resting gently on the stoop

i got a little distracted for a minute by charlies big tan balls, you know?

shit was wet my guy

it was 11 am

charlie had been drinking, but he wasn’t drunk

which was great because charlie isn’t very helpful when he’s drunk

like one time i went over to charlie’s place to borrow a drill

i knocked on the door

and i could see charlie through the screen door

he was sitting on the couch, empty mcdonald’s wrappers on the ottoman in front of him

looking old and leathery as ever

but he wouldn’t move, he just sat there smiling, staring right at me

‘charie,’ i yelled. ‘what the fuck?’

then jane, charlie’s wife, nice old jane, came to the door, opened it

and before she could say anything to me, charlie yelled, ‘how many boyfriends you got, jane?’

so i was thinking, okay, charlie’s drunk and on pain pills again

suprise suprise

because charlie, in addition to being my drunk neighbor, is also my drunk maintenance man

and a few weeks ago he was doing some work on my roof, few too many beers deep, fell off and slipped a disk in his back

so for the past few weeks he’s been on the pain pills

calls them ‘happy pills’

usually in the context of ‘hey blake do you wanna buy some happy pills?’

so i asked jane if i could borrow a drill

jane said, ‘it’s blake. wants to know if he can borrow a drill. do you know where the drills at, charlie?’

‘bet you could find it if it was up your ass,’ he yelled

nice old jane said, ‘well, it’s not up my ass, mr. charlie’

and i said, ‘okay, i’ll come back later’

but it was early this time and he wasn’t drunk yet

i said, ‘charlie, i need you. i’ve got a fucking emergency’

i felt a little strange saying ‘i need you’ to a weird old man while staring at his balls

he stood up and his balls retracted

i said ‘follow me’ and ran to my house

he walked real slow behind me

well we got inside and Charlie assessed the situation

he stared at the washing machine overflowing onto my floor

he looked at me and shook his head and laughed like ‘haha what the fuck did you do, kid?’

then he took the hose and put it in a drain thingy behind the washer then walked outside and turned the water off by lifting up a concrete thingy in my front yard

seemed incredibly easy

made me feel like, what the fuck have i been doing on the world for 23 years. how do i not know how to do basic bullshit yet?

charlie said we were gonna need to go buy a new faucet because the current one was broken and fucked

i suggested that we go to the lowes down the street

*

we walked around lowes together

me and charlie

the two best friends

charlie would pick up a spout and mumble, ‘should have gone to the fucking home depot’

i had always thought that lowes and home depot were the exact same store but now i know that they are not

i was learning things

learning things to remember in the future

always preparing for some empty bullshit

shit breaks and you fix it

just more and more tiny breaks to fix until that last sweet unrepairable breaking

a breaking so broke you gotta bury it

wet wet wet

but yeah fuck lowes i guess

*

on the drive home from lowes we approached a liquor store

i had gotten pretty used to paying charlie in liquor

he had been mowing my lawn with ice man and chris every week in exchange for a 750 of canadian club whiskey

fucking champions these guys

so i figured i’d stop in the liquor stop and buy him a handle

so i did

and we got back to my place and charlie fixed my washer

no problem

just fixed her right up

he took a deep breath and looked at me

‘you want a mixed cocktail?’ he said

really felt like i owed him one

like if charlie wanted me to drink a cocktail with him, then i would do that, yeah

i said okay, and we walked over to charlie’s place

there was nascar shit everywhere

mostly dale earnhardt memorabilia

hell yeah

charlie walked to the kitchen and picked up two 32 ounce styrofoam cups

like those big motherfuckers you get at gas stations

he grabbed the handle of canadian club and a 2 liter of coke, handed them to me

‘mix yourself a drink’ he said, smiling like a big time motherfucker

so i poured a 2 oz shot into the cup

a normal amount

and he said ‘c’mon pour a little more’

so i poured another 2 ounces

okay, seemed fine, whatever

and again he said, ‘c’mon brother, pour a little more’

hmm not great, no no

but i poured another 2 ounces

mixed it with coke

we sat on the couch together, watching the local news

just two normal guys watching the local news alone on a couch, drinking giant-ass cocktails

a white lady was talking about a murder at a gas station in westside jacksonville

charlie yelled something at the TV

i thought, ‘okay all i have to do is finish this drink and then i can leave, cool’

so i started drinking faster

and by the time i finished the drink about five minutes later, i felt like watching the local news with charlie was a fun and normal thing to do

and i remembered that i took an adderall earlier

and that when i’m on adderall i feel like i can drink a lot more than i actually can

so i realized i drank too much too quick

surprise surprise

so i walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer

because i was already there

i was feeling good

i was feeling that invincible feeling again

felt like i was the fucking king of beer, god of the mini-fridge, the busch-light punisher

and as soon as i popped the top ice man and creepy chris pulled up in the bronco, honked the horn a few times

and it sounded like ‘daa-daa-da-da-da-da-daaaa-daaaa-da-da’

and i was drunk enough to think ‘fuck yeah, cool, all of this this is normal and good’

and the bronco had bull horns on the front and i’m not kidding, it had ‘ice man’ stenciled on the hood

creepy chris stepped out of the passenger side, looking like a praying mantis on crack

and he was holding a styrofoam box over his head with his mantis arms

he started chanting ‘chicken wings chicken wings chicken wings’

and charlie's lazy ass didn't hop up off the couch when i told him i had a fucking emergency but he sure did hop up for chicken wings

i followed him outside

‘shut the fuck up, chris’ charlie said. ‘what you got in there?’

‘chicken wings’

‘give em here’

he handed charlie the box

charlie opened the box and said ‘hey buddy’ to the chicken wings, smiling

‘hey charlie man,’ said chris. ‘i, uh, got them things for weed-eating a lawn’

‘who's garage you live at, uh? do you live at charlie's garage? is that your mattress in my garage, uh?’

‘Yeah, but--’

charlie slurped down a chicken wing

wet

he stood and chugged a beer, walked out back to the garage

we all followed charlie for some reason

and also, for some reason, there was a tire nailed above the garage

just kind of dangling there in the breeze like charlie’s balls

couldn’t seem to stop thinking about charlie’s balls

charlie grabbed two 30 pound dumbbells out of the garage

‘lifts some weights, chicken wing’ he said to chris

and instead of telling charlie to ‘fuck off’ he just lifted the weights

he counted his reps and charlie ate his chicken wings

and ice man smiled at me and pulled out a one hitter

and i took a hit of ice man’s weed

and thank god it was only weed

and yes my guy

i was drunk and stoned and on adderall

it was one of those day where you’d usually think ‘huh, didn’t think i’d be doing this today’

only right then i wasn’t thinking that

i wasn’t thinking anything

that’s what made it so good

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jennifer greidus

TUNA SANDWICH by Jennifer Greidus

He orders tuna salad because he always orders tuna salad. Today, he also orders bacon potato soup. It’s too hot for soup. He likes to wipe his pretty mouth with the back of a hand. He sneers at the waitresses and only pays attention to the ones with fat tits. One of them, Trina, is my favorite waitress. Her tits are fat. I want to tell her to cover them up. Her skirt is tight, too, and the material that’s supposed to hide the zipper is pulled too far to do its job. He’s not an ass man, though.

My mother’s tits are like that, fallen and fat. Jiggly. To the trucker sitting next to him, Tuna Sandwich whispers, “ A loose handful’s where it’s at, am I right?”

I know my mother’s a whore. But lots of the mothers that Tuna Sandwich fucked weren’t whores. Trina’s a mom, and she’s never whored. Her skin is too pale and clear to be that of a cocksucker. Plus, Trina lets me sit in her booth without ordering anything but seltzer for seven nights straight during the dinner rush. She’s kind. I bet she knits and watches TV until exactly ten p.m. Trina lets me sit here with seltzer and saltines just so I can stare at this fuck who pumped cum in my mother and sliced her cunt when he was done.

I still popped out of her, though. Nine months later. My mother likes to tell me that it’s almost a blessing, her sliced cunt, because she had a wider hole to push me out of.

I have been useless to her until now. She loves me, yeah. She always saves me the last piece of donut. But I was in tow wherever she went: welfare office, subsidized child care drop-off, the casino parking lots at two a.m., Hank’s to buy weed and share rum that I was occasionally allowed to sip if I was quiet. I was always quiet.

I was also always useless. For sixteen years, she used the room next to mine to blow guys for ten dollars because she was too scarred up to fuck. If I were a good son, I would have gotten a job. I just stayed in bed and hoped she was focused enough to make them ejaculate quickly so I could sleep.

When she saw him--Tuna Sandwich--she peeped. My mother never does anything quieter than guffaw. It’s the only way I knew; she peeped, turned me around by the shoulders, and we left the convenience store without papers, Fritos, or grape Gatorade.

Now, I spit a thick gob onto my fingertips, walk behind Tuna Sandwich, and fling it into his greasy hair. Trina sees me and lifts an eyebrow. She smiles, then, because Tuna Sandwich calls her Trina Tits-a-lot. He has tucked money into the shirt pocket of her uniform while copping a feel more than once. Until now, her only revenge was wiping her pussy juice on his tuna sandwich white bread.

For me, Trina lifted his keys. Trina told me she serves him his last cup of coffee at 10 p.m. and that my six green pills will be crushed in it. Trina told me he's small but strong.

She joins me in the men’s room, drops his motel key in my hand, and slaps my ass. “You look so fuckin’ good tonight. I’m not going to see you in here tomorrow, am I?”

“No.”

“Do good work.” She kisses my cheek, straightens her skirt, and leaves me be.

------------

Tuna Sandwich wakes up on a creeper. When I said, “Do you sell those dolly things? You know, the ones that go under cars?” the auto parts guy sneered at me. I’m sixteen, for one, and I’m frail, for two. Also, I lisp a little. He asked me if I needed help getting it into my van, and it sucked, because I did.

If I woke up on a creeper in my motel room, it would take me a minute or two to panic. I’d be almost curious when I came to. I might take some time to assess. It wouldn’t make any sense to a good person.

It doesn’t take Tuna Sandwich but twelve seconds to panic, though, because I know the fuck knows he’s led the kind of life where waking up cocooned to a creeper with rope and bungee cords and duct tape over your mouth is the kind of thing he’s been waiting to come around the corner since puberty.

He shakes his head like a dog after a swim. He groans through the tape. I smile from the bed. I was watching Fixture, the one where Kimmy does the bull run in Barcelona. I turn up the TV, super loud. I go to him. I hover.

He’s using his feet and lower legs to push himself away from me. He bumps his head into the wall and squeezes his eyes closed. His nostrils are blown to the size of dimes. His eyes burn: what, what, what.

He knows what. It’s a hundred whats.

It’s me taking off his shoes and socks and jamming my mom’s metal emery board under his big toenail what. It’s me dragging his faggot ass over to the writing table so I can steady myself on the chair, stand on his chest, and stomp up and down on him until I’m sure I’ve broken ribs what. It’s me moving to his balls and cracking down with my heel. It’s me plunging the emery board into his right eyeball.

Best of all, it’s me struggling to cut through the cartilage of his throat with my Swiss Army knife, because I am sixteen, frail, and lispy. A hundred whats let me take my time, and his left eyeball screams at me the whole time I do.

I’m going to sit here. I’m going to sit here and see what kind of piece of shit person shows up looking for this cocksucker because they missed him. No one will miss him. No one. I’ll be sitting here for days, sucking in his stench until I’m bored and go to Atlantic City.  

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zachary kennedy lopez

SALT by Zachary Kennedy-Lopez

You’ve come to cherish the fragility of snails, come to love them in a small sort of way. When you see one attempting to cross the sidewalk, you pick it up—and it shrinks from you—and you move it to the other side. When it rains, you become more careful, you walk home with the light on your phone on. When you step on a snail in the dark, the shape and timbre of that sound taps something deep within you, and you imagine paying someone to take a needle and ink and carve colored lines into you, marking your own skin with a rendering of a snail as a sort of penance for all you’ve crushed. You think about what meaning could be assigned to a snail shell: home, vitality, retreat. You imagine a snail your own size, and wonder how strong the shell would be then.

/

Your parents have a corner lot with a sizeable yard, on which for years they’ve grown fruits and vegetables. You had corn when you were young, blueberries too, and raspberries, cherries, squash, and grapes. Many of the plants and trees had to be wrapped in black mesh so that the ever-present birds, snailkind, and deer wouldn’t make off with everything.

You’d heard, likely from someone at school, that salting a slug or a snail would cause it to shrivel and vanish, and you wanted to try it—not out of maliciousness, but because you are, always have been, insatiably curious. You knew nothing of the chemical properties of salt, and that you could pour salt on something in the world and cause it to disappear seemed a form of magic, a formula that tapped into something hidden about the rules of existing. Likewise, for some time as a child, you thought that spraying water on wasps would kill them, extinguish them as though they were flame, but you discovered one summer that this was untrue.

Once, when your mother was working in the beds behind the house, and she’d removed a slug or a snail from a plant, you asked if you could salt it.

She said no, and reminded you that salting the slug or snail would kill it. You hadn’t considered the implications of ending a life, that snuffing out a being so small and inconsequential was still killing, and her response stopped you short.

You’ve never salted a slug or a snail, but you imagine them bending in upon themselves, as might someone in the throes of vomiting, shrinking, becoming less pliant, contorting like a receipt tossed into a fire.

/

You think of your manager, the one who’s vegan and has a pupil shaped like keyhole. You think of how he was heartsick for so long when they couldn’t get the baby bird out of the walls of his office, couldn’t lure it down through the air vent. You think of how he told you about an injured animal he picked up on the side of the road—a blackbird, or a raccoon, you can’t quite recall—and you remember how he’d been quiet one day because the sanctuary had called to say the animal didn’t make it, that it had died, and even he was surprised at how broken up he was. You think of how you asked him about the shape of his pupil, and you even had the word ready, coloboma—a word, incidentally, that appears in a story by one of your instructors, a story you return to again and again, even-though-slash-because you’re convinced you’ll never understand all the pieces in play, a story that you’ve had your own students read—but you come to your manager armed with this word, and he says no, that’s not it at all. He tells you about how he was wilder in his youth, how he and some friends had been on the banks of a river, when one of them lobbed a beer bottle from a distance, and it struck him in the face, exploding on impact. Your manager has scars on his forehead, and a nose that never straightened out. He tells you that some of the glass entered his eye, and he had to be awake when the doctors attempted to remove it. Each time the surgeon brought the utensils up close, his eye twitched instinctively, seeking escape, trying to evade being touched. The cycle repeated once, twice, again, until finally the surgeon told your manager to quit fucking moving his eyes unless he wanted to go blind.

/

Your manager, who was nearing fifty when you worked for him, had an older brother who died in his twenties. It might’ve been suicide, it might’ve been a drunk driver—another thing you wish you could remember. But his brother was involved in theater, like your husband, and your manager tells you that your husband reminds him a lot of his brother.

You saw Alejandro Iñárritu’s film Birdman with your husband, and when it was over, you looked at him and said, Don’t ever do that to me.

/

You bought a shirt recently and a pair of jeans, both massively marked down. One tags reads Made in Madagascar, the other Made in Indonesia. You think of a conversation with your brother about the $6 H&M t-shirts advertised as being eco-conscious, made with organic cotton, Made in Malaysia. Your brother says something like, Mmp, yep, child fingers made that.

/

When you were younger, but old enough for your parents to leave you and your brother at home unsupervised, you went to one of the cupboards and took down a repurposed butter tub filled with salt. You carried it through the house to your brother’s room, and said, Look, I found sugar. He licked a finger and dipped it into the white mass, stuck it in his mouth.

Years later, he still brings this up.

/

Your husband won’t touch pecan pie. Hasn’t since he was a child, when his grandfather made one and substituted the sugar with salt by accident. Your husband and his sister complained, said, This doesn’t taste right. Their grandfather was furious and forced them to finish their pie. He was a man steeped in the belief that food on a plate is a contract: you finish what you take, you finish what you’re given. When your husband tells you this, he says, Because that’s a great way to teach a child about obesity. There are things you sometimes forget about your husband: that he was not as slim as he is now, that there are years of his childhood he’s blacked out.

Your husband’s grandfather cut himself a slice of pie, ate one bite, and threw out the rest without saying a word.

/

A member of your cohort tells you no, you’ve got it wrong, salt doesn’t dessicate snailkind, just the opposite—they bubble up, boil over, and melt.

In a way, both are right: as salt removes the water from the body, a snail emits a slime in order to protect itself. The bubbling, the boil—that’s the air leaving as the snail shrinks, compresses, has nowhere else to hide.

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nathaniel duggan

IMITATION CRABMEAT by Nathaniel Duggan

Dad spends Christmas Eve on the beach killing green crabs, before he returns home to turn on all the holiday lights. The house flashes and dazzles like a landing strip. The sky, meanwhile, looks foreclosed.

“You should’ve seen the fuckers,” he tells me, pinching his fingers to imitate claws. “Some of them big as your face.”

He has no heat, furniture, or future, so we sit in lawn chairs in the living room, our breath glowing like neon. His expression is sour-smug: he is a man who knows his own expiration date. When he dies shortly thereafter—without complication—I bury him in the garden and discover the action figures he stole from me during my youth to prove important points. There they all are tucked an inch below the soil, dirt-clotted and tangled in rhododendron roots.

I crack a beer, plotting my next move.

I spend maybe a few too many years sitting alone in dark living rooms at 3AM.

People claim I approach them with slanted intentions. I am between jobs and lovers. I live as an alleyway, defined mostly by the clutter and the things I keep apart.

For the sake of staying busy, I steal my last friend’s wife. The friend himself cannot be reached for comment; he has long since scuttled off to some forgotten corner of Alaska. As for the wife, she drinks.

This works out pretty well until it doesn’t. We drink too much too early, spend most of our days passing out. Our lives live outside and without us, and we are perpetually slumped against the kitchen cabinets or else spread-eagled on the bathroom floor, piecing together where we last left off: usually the entangling business of her bra.

Sleep scrubs her skin as pale and thin as a bedsheet. Her eyes close into her face. She fades, recedes into the background of herself, until all that’s left is a mapped suggestion of a person, pure theory and postulation.

On the other hand I grow puffy, weighted with my somnolence. I develop certain unsociable tendencies, namely clamming and a technique of eating Chinese food by the fistful. By the time I notice her absence, she’s already gone.

What do you do with so much nothing? Me, I leave the clams to die in the basement. Whole pounds of them, just slowly dying. They make little screaming noises throughout the night, but it’s one of those things like lobsters: you’re not sure if they’re really screaming or if it’s just the water compressing inside their shells or whatever.

Lately the rum I drink has taken on the plastic tang of action figures.

Lately my heart is the size of a face.

Midsummer I set up Christmas lights. I drape the bannisters, hedges, drainpipes. The bulbs throb sickly, pulsate underfoot like crabs on the march. This accomplished, I stumble into the front yard, chug the last of my cocktail. The house swims in my vision, so lucid I can’t look at it straight on. For a while I feel that I am expecting the arrival of something, until I realize I am expecting to have finally arrived somewhere else.

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avee chaudhuri

I WAS MARRIED BY A GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST by Avee Chaudhuri

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Expressionist is probably not the right term, but Jannick Meisnner was a German male in his mid-30s. He claimed to be the German embassy’s cultural attaché at large. He was making a study of the Satsuma fruit and its impact on life in southwestern Louisiana.

My wife and I met him at a bar down the street from the university where she taught. This was right before we were married. My wife holds several fine arts degrees. She liked Jannick and we had him over for pulled pork sandwiches. He ate and drank lustily. In fact, he won me over by the amount of Satsuma rum he could drink in one sitting.

We probably saw Jannick every day in some capacity. We took him crabbing. He had us over for schnitzel. He would attend a reading with my wife. He and I would drive down to Vinton to go to the strip clubs. The three of us watched every Saints game together. On my wife’s 30th birthday she bet a hundred dollars on black at L’Auberge. Jannick was there to console us after she lost.

He counted cards and split his winnings. Jannick Meisnner was the prince of thieves.

A few weeks before the wedding Jannick offered to be our officiant. Why not? We did not belong to a church. So Jannick married us at the Trahan homestead down in Cameron Parish, in front of my father’s gun cabinet.

We had set up chairs for about 30 guests. Jannick’s speech was actually quite beautiful. It had my wife and my mother in tears. He even wrote our vows: Jenn, will you accept Glenn as a man bound by worldly limits, whose love for you is nevertheless boundless?

Then, after the vows, he asked if anyone objected to our union. He followed this with a joke about the guns in the cabinet not being for show. Nearly everyone laughed at this, except a tall, thin man in black denim I hadn’t noticed before. He stood up suddenly and began shouting at Jannick in German.

Priester, du machst keinen Edikt gegen das Erziehen und das Tragen von Kindern. Die Weltbevölkerung ist zu viel. Die Erde wird verbraucht sein. Unsere Flüsse trocknen aus. Du bist kein Mann Gottes! Sag ihnen, du musst ihnen sagen, dass sie nicht züchten können. Ihre Orgasmen werden ihre Kinder sein und sie werden Tausende von diesen vergänglichen Nachkommen genießen. Informiere sie über diesen neuen Bund. Diese neuen Kinder werden den Sternen zahlenmäßig überlegen sein. *

Jannick responded by taking off his jewelry and charging at his abuser. They started kicking and punching their way through the house, eventually spilling out into the back. They ended up in the turtle pen. A brief aside: my father once raised turtles to sell to the Chinese. Turtle meat is a delicacy in Mainland China. The man in black denim began throwing turtles at Jannick and bashing him with turtles. Jannick deflected the turtles with other turtles. He improvised a smart cuirass of turtles and a lance of turtle. Jannick took deadly aim at the man in black denim but before they could finish their sweet melee (the meat of the soft-shelled turtle is sweet, not savory), my father returned from inside with a shotgun. He fired a warning shot then leveled his shotgun at the skirmishers.

In all, thirty turtles died from massive internal trauma. The police arrested their murderers but were gracious enough to let Jannick sign the marriage certificate. Apparently Jannick and the man in denim were lovers and they spent the night in Cameron Jailhouse doing loverly things. Of course, we don’t mind. The marriage certificate is valid and Jannick reimbursed my father. It was in Deutsche Mark and I believe we came out ahead in the currency exchange.

*When you spiked my vanilla ice cream with the cheapest amaretto available, it gave me an upset stomach.

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joseph grantham

DETECTIVE STORY by Joseph Grantham

There was this woman’s voice.

It came on the radio at about 11 p.m. every night.

The jazz station.

KCSM 91.1.

Think her name was Dee Alexander.

She told her listeners to breathe in fresh air and exhale negativity.

She told us to love our children and to take care of ourselves.

She told us the world needed us.

I’d always hear her in the car on my way home from the gym.

She made things better for a little while.

I didn’t have any children to love but I needed help taking care of myself.

I was going to the gym a lot those days.

I thought my legs were fat, and my ass too, and I was trying to tighten everything up.

For a short period of time I developed a routine.

I ran on the treadmill for twenty minutes, then I pedaled on the stationary bike for ten minutes, and then I drove home caked in my own salt.

But I’d always hear this woman’s voice before I made it home.

She was part of the routine.

And she was soothing.

One night she played a song by Mal Waldron.

I remember the song because it was the first time I’d heard it and because I liked the song.

It was called “The Inch Work” and it was from an album called Update.

Mal Waldron overdosed on heroin in 1963 and when he woke up alive he’d completely forgotten how to read and play music.

He couldn’t even remember his own name.

He needed shock treatments and a spinal tap.

He had to reteach himself how to live his life the way he enjoyed living it.

I am 24 years old and I live with my parents.

One night I got home from the gym and my parents were in the living room.

They were never up this late.

Once they entered their fifties they were in bed by eight.

But here they were waiting up for me.

The television was on, but it was muted, and they were sitting on the couch in silence.

Watching the images flicker, political pundits.

I set down my keys and they looked up at me.

“Did you see the lights?” my mom asked me.

She turned off the television.

“The police,” my dad said.

I hadn’t seen anything.

“No,” I said. “What’re you talking about? Is everything okay?”

“Larry Conlon died,” my dad said.

“They think he was murdered,” my mom said.

“I don’t know who that is. I don’t know who Larry Conlon is.”

My dad ate a toasted nut.

He had a plate of them on the coffee table in front of him.

“Who is Larry Conlon?” I said.

“He lives a few doors down, at the end of the cul-de-sac,” my dad said.

He was still chewing.

And then he was flossing out the nut remnants from in between his molars.

“He was murdered?” I asked. “Tonight?”

“That’s what they’re saying,” my mom said.

She shook her head.

She seemed in a daze.

Like she’d had a long day at work.

She sells propane.

But it was a Sunday.

Sure, she’d been training the new hire that week—think her name was Aimee—and that is draining work.

But it was a Sunday.

“Who’s saying that? Who’s saying he was murdered?” I asked. “Where did you hear that?”

My dad rolled the string of floss into a little ball and set it next to the plate of toasted nuts.

“We went down the street and stood around with everyone in front of the Conlons’ house. His wife was out there on the lawn, she was crying. And after a while the policemen asked us all to go back inside our houses,” my dad said.

For our own safety, they said. As if the guy who did it is still out there, roaming around the neighborhood,” my mom said.

She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders.

“It was a guy who did it?” I asked.

I sat down on the floor in front of the coffee table.

“They don’t know who did it, or if anyone did it, or what. Your mother’s just speculating because she’s a little detective.”

“You heard what Terry said. Said he’d heard screaming from the house. And banging. Not like a gun bang but like a chair being knocked over kind of bang.”

I reached for a few toasted nuts, rolled them around in my fist as if they were dice.

“Who is Terry?” I asked.

“Jesus, Joey. He’s our next door neighbor. You know Terry,” my mom said.

“Terry,” my dad said.

I ate what looked to be a walnut.

It was charred black, tasted like ash or bad coffee.

“Oh yeah. The bigger guy. He said he heard a chair being knocked over? How could he hear a chair being knocked over? From all the way down the street?”

“He passed by the Conlons’ house. I guess he was doing a loop. Said he was taking Aunt Cindy out for a walk,” my dad said.

He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders.

I was cold but we only had two blankets in the living room, so I stayed cold.

“He takes his aunt out for walks?” I said.

I ate another nut.

An almond this time.

“Aunt Cindy is his dog, Joey. You know that. The little dachshund,” my mom said.

“Patti, it’s not a dachshund, it’s a terrier. A little terrier,” my dad said.

My mom’s name is Patti.

My dad’s name is Joseph.

We have the same name.

I don’t know how it happened that way.

I should have told you earlier.

If it’s any help, my mom usually calls my dad “Joe,” and I am always “Joey”.

“Joe, it’s a dachshund. I’m telling you. I’m the one who goes and pets it every time it’s out on a walk,” my mom said.

“Patti, no one would name a dachshund Aunt Cindy. No one. It’s a little terrier. One of those Scottish ones,” my dad said. “Your mother must be thinking of Tania’s dog.”

He looked at the plate on the coffee table and then at me.

There was only one nut left and it looked like a beetle.

“Who’s Tania?” I asked.

“Tania has a dachshund.”

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bob schofield

CREATION STORY by Bob Schofield

At first the world was just one spiral.

Then that spiral grew a face.

The face was hungry. It filled with water. The face was silent, but never sleeping. A single tooth grew through the bottom.

The face was a word, and that word was “lake.”

The lake was tended by older creatures. Giants with horns and black spiral faces. The whole earth cooled beneath their shadow. They danced over the hills on cloven feet.

The lake was the twisting center of a universe.  Gears were built to keep it all in motion. Fish were constructed, to keep the water swirling. If a fish got caught in the gears, well, that was tragic. But they found it made the machine spin even faster. All that was needed was heat. A touch of fire.

The lake was a factory that ran on smoke.

Empty space hung above the lake. A vacuum, roaring. This displeased the spiral giants, so they painted over it with sky. Papered over it with clouds as the bright blue paint dried. They attached blackbirds there with nails and a length of wire. Smoke was bound to paper wings.

The giants pulled dirt from their hooves, wrapped it in trench coats. They called the dirt “policemen,” and told them to stand guard over the lake.

Now the world was almost ready. Each part fit together. The sky. The stars. The fish. The blackbirds. Everything clicked in its proper position. Held with wire. Moving in slow motion. Line upon line, tracing the outer counters of the lake.

And the world was good.

Or, at the very least, not as terrible as it could be.

Then the giants carved themselves coffins out of lake water, and lay their bodies down to sleep, leaving the rest of it there to spin and spin

So much smoke and hurt and fishbones. So many chewed up blocks of ice.

But beneath the lake, the fish were changing.

Their bodies grew long. They started speaking. They climbed to the top of the lake, and decided to stay there. They had fallen in love with their own reflections. The sight of their new shapely legs.

From there, everything moved quickly. The fish wore fur. They turned into foxes and bears and people. They climbed even higher, and mated with blackbirds. Their children took stones, and built a city in the sky. They lived in relative peace there, putting on corsets and inventing light bulbs. They paid their rent, and poured white powder on their wigs.

In time the fish forgot about the caves and gears beneath the lake. They forgot the smoke and all that spinning. The constant hunger of the waves.

But a lake needs fuel to keep it spinning. Something disposable to burn. So each night the clouds would roll in, weighed down with the dead, the dying. The sick and ruined. Or those just left behind.

A door would bloom in each cloud’s belly. The knob would turn, the hinges creaking. A bloom of heat, and the sky would turn orange. Like a second sunset, only this one framed in writhing bodies. Wrapped in flame and crying softly. From a distance they looked so small you might not even see them clearly. You might mistake them for fireworks over the lake.

Afterwards the doors would shut. The clouds would retreat. The lake was fed, and the world kept spinning. Things went on like this for years. A mound of bodies formed in the lake’s center. Each night it grew by a few inches.

Soon the mound became a mountain, and the fire inside was not so small.

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penny goring

PENNY GORING’S hatefuck the reader REVIEW by Chris Dankland

GET THE BOOK (read online + download epub and mobi versions for free)

LENGTH: 7,000 words

PUBLISHER: 5everdankly publications, 2016

YOU MIGHT LIKE THIS BOOK IF YOU LIKE: Kathy Acker, Édouard Levé, Sarah Kane

Penny Goring’s book ‘hatefuck the reader’ starts with the sound of someone talking so close to your ear that you can feel hot breath:

when i was invincible i believed beauty lasts forever and i died every day. you gave me nothing. i prefer to think you hit me because you are ill. i prefer to stroke my cold pillow. i prefer to sit on a chair than a sofa. i have a plastic joint in my right big toe. you permanently damaged every part of me. my aches and pains are not caused by ageing they are the aftermath of the violence. the end of a story is something i forget. in the month leading up to the twin towers event, i kept waking from a dream where an aeroplane was crashing through my window. i look better in photographs than irl. i don't truly believe in anything. i am startled when anyone calls me Pen, it implies familiarity and affection. i am slow to learn from my mistakes in life, but not in my work. i am attracted to boys girls women men anyone anything anybody. competition repels me. to describe what remains would distress me. i wonder if i will ever truly want to give up smoking. when i sit on the edge of my bed i worry about damaging the mattress, i try to sit on a different area every time, there are not enough different areas. you said i was boring in bed, then you fucked me every day for 2 years. i have cheated on all of my lovers, they were easy to fool, so was i. i joke about Art when it is invoked with a capital A. i wonder if i love anybody except my daughter, it often feels like hate. i do not intentionally remember hurt. i do not trust you. i was fined £1000 for criminal damage, this is how it happened, you punched me in the face until i stopped talking, then you grabbed a knife, then you stabbed holes in my thin plaster walls, then you ran outside, then i knew what had hurt me was outside, then i wanted to hurt the hurt, then i hurled dirty plates and cutlery out the window, then a plate smashed the sunroof of a BMW parked in the road way down below. it is a serious crime to damage a car because car equals money on wheels, and that is the true meaning of beauty.

The book comes at you in a non-stop flood of confessions:

“i got my 1st black eyes, broken nose, walking home through the park after school. i curled in a ball in the mud, a crucial bone in my spine got kicked into a new shape”

“at times i have lived with people who are now dead, believing it to be a forever thing.”

“i have seen a dead junkie hovering 2" above me in bed, yes, i have known ghosts, and i have felt their fabric.”

The book looks beautiful to me. It’s one of my favorite examples of digital literature. I look forward to the time when print versions of books become collectors items and pdfs become the norm. Nowadays most of us consume our music and movies in digital, streaming formats. We don’t need cds and dvds to enjoy albums and movies. We don’t need print books to enjoy great works of literature.

‘hatefuck the reader’ never stops to take a breath, and even by the last sentence it seems like it could keep going forever. What does Penny talk about? Poverty, abuse, art, memories, sex, habits, apartments, dreams, death, children, drugs, unconsciousness, sickness, hope, and everything else. It’s hard for me to think of many other books that have as much sustained energy. It’s relentless.

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rebekah morgan

DENTIST TRIP by Rebekah Morgan

I drink three nescafe coffees before i leave Iași for the rest of the weekend, heading north on the 10:49 CFR line.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings i halfway tumble my ass all the way down to the railway station in Gară from my bloc near the top of the huge hill in Copou. The rail station is one of the oldest ones in Romania with huge ceilings and big windows and lots of bright white pigeon shit for the floor. At christmas time they put up decorations and some blue and white lights that blink so fast they make you wanna jump on the tracks after a while. It’s dreamy though somehow.

The ladies who sell tickets have big soft faces like cookie dough  and an urgency in their eyes that fades as soon you can glance it. The ladies who sell tickets wear pressed blue shirts and navy slacks. The ladies who sell train tickets are the kind of ladies who have gold jewelry to wave all around their faces. They look proud and annoyed at the same time, but they manage to not be looking pretentious. This demeanor is a feat of some sort since they hold a bit of power over most of us or at least they control our fate in regards to catching trains.

I stand in line behind all the college kids going home for the weekend. I tell the doughey faced woman where i’m heading and hand her twenty lei. On the platform i smoke two Sobranie negru slims and drink another small nescafe from a machine by the tracks. The train roars in screeching its brakes at me and I hop the train and head towards a town not to far from the ukrainian border. It’s the town where the farmer i’m sleeping with lives with his goats and his mama and his cat. The train stinks like ass but is also precious and i love it. The lady carrying a small pink and white oddly calm looking pig barges past me and plops down a few rows in front of me with the little porker on her lap and a scarf wrapped tight around her head.

I stare out the big glass window for almost three hours as the remaining bits of winter pass by me. The hill sides wash down onto the floodplains that are now filled with the melted snow. The people who use horse carts can be seen from the train along the base of the hills and out in fields. The train creeps by an orthodox church and quite many people start crossing themselves. I always cross myself too but with just my finger shoved in my pocket scratching along the pocket liner. I do this just for something to do i guess since i only believe in god when i’m about to piss myself in public. I like secretly crossing myself a lot though. I don’t know what i’ll do when it starts getting warmer in the springtime and I won’t have my jacket to hide my new habit.

The train rolls on an on and i stare out the window at the landscape and the people and i stare out the window at all sorts of animals. I see a goat standing next to a duck like they are friends or maybe lovers and i say ‘wow’ out loud by accident. I open a little bag of paprika peanuts. The paprika peanuts are good and i eat them while listening to monks sing on the radio of my Nokia phone.

The queen of the train with the pig stands up as the train crosses into the town of Pașcani and hobbles off the train. A woman with a dog takes the place she was sitting and the train rolls on to Suceavă.  An hour passes quickly as i watch stacks of hay covered with tarps weighted down with plastic bottles and herds of sheep pass by my window. I see the huge smoke tower by the Iulius Mall slowly approaching in the distance and take my black leather backpack off of the baggage rail. I smear on a layer of bright cherry red chapstick before i shove a cigarette between my sticky lips and take my lighter out of my hoodie pocket.  I kick the train door open with my booted foot when it gets stuck and the cold air blasts me in the face as we pull into the Suceavă station. Spring is creeping in and in my head i think

‘it’s not as cold as it once was, but it’s as cold as it ever was’ set to the tune of that Toby Keith song and hop off the train.

I light my cigarette and glance around the station looking for Lucian. I turn around and he’s standing right in front of me. We say ‘salute’ and kiss each other on both cheeks then march arm in arm towards the number two bus parked across the street. Lucian is wearing an alpaca sweater.

I sit across from a small child making cat noises at his mother and he kicks me hard in the leg. His mother puts on the same chapstick as me and then i put more on myself a few minutes later and the mother checks her pocket for her chapstick as she watches me apply mine. The bus is filled with people and almost everyone has a hat on except me. Lucian is sitting across the aisle in his grey beanie with his cheek pressed against the window and i wonder if he has ever seen a shark.  I wonder if he knows female sharks can impregnate themselves if they don’t find a suitable mate. The child kicks me in the leg again as Lucian signals the next stop is ours.

I tell Lucian i’m excited to drink at a dentist office because i want to tell people that i was drinking at a dentist office. We arrive a bit early to Dr. Sorin’s office so we each smoke a cigarette on the green bench outside a vegetable market. I watch two street dogs walk by and then a third. The dogs seem old and tired and i feel glad for them that spring is coming soon. I buy some green olives from the old woman at the market and eat them with Lucian in the courtyard and smoke another cigarette. Dr. Sorin calls Lucian and i think about the romance involved in drinking in a dental office bathroom in the old Eastern Bloc.

We go inside the dental office and posters cavities and root canals watch me as i pull two blue baggies over my shoes. Lucian pulls blue baggies over his shoes too and i tell him to take a picture of my baggied feet.

Dr. Sorin leads us back past two big dental chairs to a small bathroom attached to another smaller bathroom. We all cram into the bathrooms and light cigarettes while Dr.Sorin fixes three whiskey sodas. On the wall above the sink is a Jim Beam bar mat that says Nightology. Dr. Sorin puts the glasses with the whiskey on the shelf above the sink. We all take a glass and clinck them together while saying ‘Noroc’.

I watch myself drink the whiskey soda and smoke in the mirror. I look nice, i watch Lucian drink in the mirror and watch us be together and i hope i feel drunk soon. Lucian and Dr.Sorin make jokes and gossip. Dr. Sorin puts on Led Zeppelin real loud. We all agree Led Zeppelin is good and Dr.Sorin makes more drinks. I look in the other bathroom that is only for Dr.Sorin and there is a little wooden sign with a naked woman with her ass stuck up in the air. In romanian the sign says something like, ‘god made man and then he rested and on the next day god made woman and then no one ever rested’.

I stand between Dr.Sorin and Lucian. Dr. Sorin has lots of porn on his phone, i watch as he skims his messages for a meme to show us. I drink more whiskey and watch Lucian in the mirror. Dr. Sorin shows me a picture of a brunette with her legs spread with a piece of cake on a plate placed in front of her pussy. Dr. Sorin shows me a picture of a girl kissing a man's feet drawn in charcoal and he wheezes when he laughs. I switch places with Lucian and smoke another cigarette.  Dr. Sorin reaches across lucian with his phone and shows me a photo of a girl with two pussies. I say nice and Led Zeppelin says:

We come from the land of the ice and snow

From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow

The hammer of the gods

We'll drive our ships to new lands

To fight the horde, and sing and cry

Valhalla, I am coming!

I think about being an immigrant and how i’m lucky to even be here with some jackoff showing me his porn stash. Dr. Sorin pours more whiskey and soda and then looks at me and says “you could put a nice brand on Lucian’s arm with those hott tits” and i  say ‘yeah’ as i press my hott tits against Lucian’s arm. After that i shove both of them out of the bathroom into Dr.Sorins main office shouting at them in romanian that i have to take a piss. Then i piss and its great somehow.

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“LIVEBLOG” EXCERPT by Megan Boyle

MARCH 27, 2013

1:20AM: going to change up the game. really. um. this is really going to happen. so, in grad school, my dad and his friend motivated themselves to finish their dissertations by agreeing to mail one $100 check to the nixon administration for every day late.

so.

here is what i must do by tomorrow 12AM, this is my ‘dissertation:’

-return attorney’s phone call about accident settlement i’m receiving

-write and print cover letter at library

-mail apartment application binder

-mail book packages

-call dad about getting keys to storage unit thursday

-refill birth control

-pack one box

-shower

-drink kale smoothie

here is what happens if i fail to complete ONE of these tasks, this is my ‘nixon fund:’

when i receive the accident settlement, i will have 50% of the bills printed and set them on fire in a trash can.

the settlement—the last i’ve heard—is slightly more than what i had in my savings account this fall.

i don’t want to talk about how long it took to spend. the sum of money, without 50% of its bills destroyed, is enough to ‘start being a person again,’ for a comfortable, in my view, amount of time, as i settle into a job, a more stable routine, a life that allows me to envision a future for myself, less commas, etc.

the stakes are very high. these are very high stakes.

OH SHIT I HAVE TO ADD A STAKE, HEIGHTENED SHORT-TERM STAKE, SO YOU WILL KNOW ABOUT THE LONG-TERM THING IN CASE I STOP LIVEBLOGGING BEFORE THE LONG-TERM THING—

if i fail to complete any task on the list, i will post a picture of my naked ass ‘as is’ on this liveblog. oh, that’s nothing, you say? you say this is mere child’s play?

THE ASS CHEEKS WILL BE SPREAD.

now i know people tend to enjoy pictures of women’s asses. most people. or. i guess most people would find the pictures interesting, at least. some people, not most people. okay. but consider this: i have my period, so if i fail to shower…that’s all. just consider this. i’m sorry in advance. now you will be rooting for me maybe.

i am dreading this so hard and i am so excited. so excited about dreadful tomorrow. such high stakes. jesus. i’m completely serious about both of these things. if i fail to complete the tasks and fail to complete my punishments, any person has the right to kill me. this is my will, i’m saying this, this can be legally binding: if i ever end up murdered by a person, i am hereby decreeing it ‘not their fault,’ if that does anything—i do not want them to be punished. i wouldn’t want that anyway. but. just so the world knows, if it makes any difference—if they killed me it would be less like ‘murder’ and more like ‘performing a civic duty.’

i’m not kidding. i know this sounds funny or whatever but i’m not kidding. GOODNIGHT, INTERNET. LOOK OUT.

FOR TOMORROW.

BABY’S DAY OUT TOMORROW. A REAL B.D.O. TOMORROW, B.D.O. OF MONUMENTAL PROPORTIONS. TAKING MYSELF TO…TOWN. MAKING MYSELF THE MAYOR. OF THE TOWN. THERE IS A TOWN, BY THE WAY. WHEN EX-BOYFRIEND AND MOM ARE AWAY THE SHITHEAD COMES OUT TO PLAY. UFF. TRY AND MESS. B.D.O. 2013.

SIGNING OFF,

YOUR LITTLE BITCHES FOREVER,

LEGALLY BINDINGLY YOURS,

ME AND DUNKIN DONUTS COFFEE CUP

6:04AM: this is not off to a good start. sometimes if i’m alone and i’m supposed to be going to sleep i get ‘the fear.’ big reveal thing: i slept in my parents’ bed at least once a week until i was maybe 12 years old. if i wasn’t sleeping in their bed, they let me sleep on a sleeping bag on the floor. when i was a baby i would cry and not sleep. when i got older i wouldn’t cry but still couldn’t sleep. remember watching ‘mash’ re-runs and infomercials on the couch around age 8, with the volume low so my parents wouldn’t hear.

remember there being ‘events.’ after giving up/giving in to me, parents would be like, ‘maybe we’ll try to make megan sleep in her bed again, wanna try again meg?’ i’d be like ‘yeah let’s do this.’ they’d be like ‘okay, how about the fifth of july?’

this is the routine that needed to be established for me to fall asleep in my bed:

  1. say goodnight to all my ‘friends’ (in my memory there was like, a wall of stuffed animals almost, filling half of my bed)
  2. either parent reads three storybooks
  3. mom improvises a few stories with magical undertones
  4. dad sits on the floor by bed and we meditate until i’m sleeping

when i was 12 or 13 my parents gave me a portable TV and i’d watch the home shopping network in bed. think that’s part of why i like ASMR videos, would experience ASMR looking at HSN. have never told anyone all of this to the extent i’m typing it now, i think—that it was a rare occasion for me to sleep in my bed. i was a scared little asshole.

tonight i felt ‘the fear.’ ‘the fear’ causes me to do ritual/preparation-like things. i don’t feel it as much anymore, after living alone for three and a half years, but sometimes if there’s a small change i still feel it. i didn’t do the thing where i check all the places another person can be tonight. here is what happened:

STAGE 1: VAGUE FOREBODING SHIT

-peed, replaced tampon. saw roach on my conditioner and thought ‘this doesn’t bode well. the bugs have returned. it’s on my conditioner, like what i’ll use tomorrow. should i kill it?’ then i could see its head being separate from its body, like it had a little neck or something. seemed hard to kill.-washed face and brushed teeth while feeling the first stages of ‘the fear’ where i’m like, just looking around differently. looking at things more carefully.-ate 1mg xanax, via ‘it’ll lessen [something] about dying.’-refreshed dry cat food and gave them wet food thinking ‘if i die tonight they will have enough to eat until ex-boyfriend returns.’-rubbed experimental ‘nighttime lotion’ on face and neck. think a parent gave it to me. this felt like ‘a protective ritual.’-made bed and brushed crumbs/debris stuff off the sheet. this was just for fun.-dressed in cherry-printed pajama pants given to me by former baltimore neighbor/co-worker, current close friend and ‘will always be one of my favorite people who i love and aspire to be like in some way’ person, chelsea. was going to leave on shirt i was wearing today, which chelsea also has and bought before we knew each other, then thought: ‘no. it will be too perfect: ‘she died wearing the clothes of someone she wished she was more like,’ then it’ll definitely happen.’ in the past i’ve thought i could increase probability of airplane landing safely if i’d listen to weird al or other unrealistic music to die to.-applied protective clothing layer: long-sleeved shirt ex-boyfriend bought the day of his 2010 baltimore reading, when he stayed the night at my apartment and we had fun platonic fun all night and the next day.

STAGE 2: PLAN DEFENSE AND FLEE

-tried different lighting schemes. the best lighting to let someone know there is a person inside, ready to attack. fussing with lighting is what kicked me into stage 2, where i actually start imagining scenarios where i’ll be confronted with the thing that’s going to ‘get me.’-gathered all knives and scissors and placed them under pillow (however, this means if whatever has come to ‘get me’ hasn’t brought a weapon, which it would’ve, i feel, it’d have to find even scarier and probably more painful blunt objects to use to kill me. like, technically anything in here could kill me). i have sharp things ready, because i think i’d be better at stabbing than clobbering or [who knows].-stowed car keys and phone under other pillow.-in stage 2 i have locked the bedroom door, but. i don’t know. undecided on this one tonight. i want cats to be able to roam freely around apartment, maybe sleep near me.

STAGE 3: WAIT IT OUT

-you just wait it out. that’s all you do. either you’re awake all night or you beat it.

getting sleepy. alvie is acting especially jumpy, pacing and chirping. does not bode well. told myself i’d better be sleeping before it was light outside and now it’s looking bluer out there goddamnit. actually though, this is good, because now i have more visibility out my window. earlier when it was darker, i ‘knew’ the face from ‘suspiria’ was on the other side of my curtains. goosebumps looking for picture of face, like, entire google image search, even now, thinking about looking at it.

fear seems manageable tonight. it helped to type this, like now i’m processing faster because i moved stuff to my external hard drive. drinking coconut water. shirley is here. about to sleep, sun is up, okay. ‘you got this.’ B.D.O. tomorrow.

2:55PM: had set alarm for 1PM. not boding well. B.D.O. got a mean case of the not-boding-wells. drinking yesterday’s dunkin donuts coffee. so far i woke, which i guess is more than what i was expecting i’d do today, last night, so...no that’s setting the bar low.

3:28PM: finally answered phone to tell telemarketers to stop calling. so. that was not on the list of things i want to accomplish today but it should’ve been. going to shower and make smoothie now. *NOTIFICATION: THIS WILL BE THE LAST TIME I SAY ‘GOING TO DO      ,’ BECAUSE BOY DOES THAT EVER MAKE ME NOT WANT TO DO THINGS.

4:43PM: woman is yelling ‘fuck you you dumbass bitch, you stupid ass ho’ out window. man is yelling in return. would’ve been cool if i’d had an expensive microphone when we moved in, so i could’ve been keeping an audio scrapbook of the sounds of 4th and jefferson. last night around 3:30AM a rooster was crowing. it continued until i went to my bedroom a little before 6AM. imagine: a rooster, somewhere out there in the expansive wasteland of a dark philadelphia morning. philly sucks man.

kale smoothie: made and drank that shit. -1 shitter from that list.

thought, while scooping out cantaloupe seeds ‘…with the strength to open melons with a butter knife, the agility of a blender on ice, and the brute force of a thousand butter sticks, megan [discontinued thought].’ heard blender about to fall and ran from toilet to avert a famed ‘tao lin smoothie disaster of instagram proportions’ (didn’t even wipe) (serious about averting that disaster) (disaster averted).

called attorney. he’s calling tomorrow with new settlement offer. after that mom and i could go to court, to get more money. the guy who hit us doesn’t have to pay, it’s all corporations, so. i don’t know. i don’t really care. court seems hard.

assembled packages to mail. not going to make it to post office before they close. will have to fed-ex everything. fuck it, that’s good. the post office would’ve. stalled. because i need fed-ex for the real estate thing anyway.

i put stickers on two envelopes ‘for good luck’ and rubbed them in a ‘special secret pattern,’ thinking of the part in ‘me and you and everyone we know’ where she touches the neon dots on her steering wheel.

horn honked twice and a man said ‘hey. i love you. mucho. peace’ as car drove away.

have responded to more emails per capita than like, ever, i think. four responses so far without spending 15- 90 minutes on them. proud of me. baby’s fucking day out.

answered another telemarketer. taking this shit out.

baby’s fucking. gonna take this shower. take this shower out. fucking. i want a cigarette first. thought ‘no, you can smoke when you’re dead.’

no i need the small reward of smoking right now.

so happy i didn’t add ‘quit smoking’ to my punishment if i don’t get shit done today. i was about to do that. it would be hard to live in a world with a nasty photo of my ass on the internet, not enough money to start being a person again, and without the small reward of smoking.

small rewards: only way things happen.

6:01PM: if i have enough time i want to eat a molly to write a draft of my ‘cover letter.’ (the letter basically just has to say: i’m a nice person, i’m responsible, i have had jobs before, there are jobs i would like to have in your area, nursing home jobs, i want to help old people dress themselves and eat because they are as close to death as me and i understand feeling that and wanting help, i am going places) (the letter has seemed hard to write because i feel like i can’t just say those things, i have to like…prove myself…by vaguely…just writing vaguely). would be good for perspective, maybe, to have ‘on molly’ letter and ‘toned down’ letter. seems hilarious: ‘two-years-jobless woman with emotional problems takes molly to help her write vaguely-worded letter recommending herself as apartment building tenant.’

molly-eating might be destructive. fed-ex and library close at 9PM. shower has not been taken but don’t you worry, i have ideas about how to conserve precious shower-time.

responded to another email. seems important, to keep this ‘email streak’ going. fucking taking it out.

6:14PM: just took out another telemarketer. his name was chris. fucking told chris. he will not soon forget that polite request to take a phone number off a list.

who gave my number to a website where…these health insurance people call you? did i do that, somehow?

6:37PM: took that fucking shower out. here was my secret: i never said i had to wash my hair! OH NO! OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! that foreboding roach on that conditioner bottle last night—how little did it know about how much it would bode!!!!!!!!

‘boding’ seems to be an integral aspect of ‘baby’s day out’

i am using ‘boding’ loosely…or…um…think it’s just fun to say it…things boding well…my decisions being influenced by ‘boding’…being a bode daddy…

thought of a good insult: i wouldn’t fuck him with your tampon

shit just re-read list, i forgot about refilling birth control, CVS will still be open i hope SHIT

6:47PM: wearing black flats with twinkly gemstone decorations on the toes. check out fucking twinkle toes over here. baby’s day out with the twinkle toes over here. boding all over the place. boding everywhere, in all directions, out of control boding. twinkling it up.

6:53pm: I’m stalling, shit. Why do I stall like this. Pay attention to your stalling Boyle.

6:58pm: drove past a dead kennedys-looking guy crossing street lighting a cigarette as I was lighting a cigarette. Better believe I head-checked.

7:00pm: sometimes smoking cigarettes feels physically horrible. pulled into CVS parking lot.

7:04pm: the pharmacist said my address. I said ‘yup, that’s the one’ like how Alex Trebek said ‘trout: that’s the fish.’ I don’t have any refills left. Shit. Does this count? Shit…doctor’s office closes at 5pm. Did not account for ‘no refill’ variable. Shit. I don’t know if this counts yet. I think it doesn’t, I didn’t know.

7:08pm: not going to eat the Molly. Molly-eating does not bode well. Driving to library.

7:10pm: want to watch a YouTube compilation of cars making outrageously unnecessary k-turns.

7:15PM: took picture of sky while waiting for parking meter kiosk to print receipt. stood on a cement fixture for a better view. man’s voice from behind me said ‘beautiful, isn’t it.’ he was an old man, maybe in a uniform. i said ‘yeah, look at all the colors.’ after i said ‘colors’ he turned his head to look at me.

8:13PM: at library. eyes got watery as hell typing this: ‘My family has generously offered to continue supporting me, but I want Beach View Apartments to be the place I launch my new independent life—I want Rockaway Park to be my home for years to come.’

how did i write it. i mean it, but…it looks vulnerable, phrased that way. i feel so fake writing cover letter-type things. that weird subtext of ‘if the person reading this suspects i’m writing to influence their decision, which is my only reason for writing this, i will sound disingenuous.’

9:14pm: sometimes hearing snippets of an argument between men who don’t seem to know each other. Suspenseful ass coin dispensing process on library printer.

Discovered 24 hour FedEx hell yeah.

Sat in car, emotionally assembling liveblog manuscript in folder formerly containing lease/apartment building application, given to me by Colin.

Walked to park by American-looking museum buildings. Started walking vaguely in direction of FedEx. Lit a cigarette while looking somewhere in the distance. Thought ‘proud American moment. America.’ Realized I didn’t know where I was walking and had left phone with directions on it in car. Proud American moment. America: I think I live here.

Do people know when I’m not being serious…

Walking to FedEx. Just passed a man dragging a heavy garbage bag. Would like to say ‘we did a modest mutual head-check,’ but it was more like ‘which one of us is going to hurt the other one, uh oh’

9:26pm: walked a little more then saw welcoming lights of 24 hour FedEx.

9:47pm: wandered around FedEx. Stood at a counter. Another wandering woman stood ‘competitively’ beside me. A man with a ponytail did things to a machine in a vaguely employees-only area. Wandering woman wandered somewhere and I didn’t see her again. A woman with a nametag that said ‘Lulu’ approached. She said ‘I can help you over here,’ not moving her eyebrows much. I non-laid-back-ly said ‘oh great thanks, thank you.’ Followed her to a shipping counter she stood behind. ‘I could see you walking around over there, lookin like that,’ she said. ‘Oh heh, yeah I was doing that,’ I said. Since entering, it’d occurred to me that they might not ship 24 hours. I said ‘shit, is it too late to ship things?’ Lulu made a face like. Um. Lulu was being this way to me like how I would be to honestly confused customers. Like, pleasantly surprised that a person would come in who didn’t think they knew all the answers. I was happy to be that person, the not-knowing-all-the-answers-already person, for Lulu.

I started to give Lulu the two envelopes I was holding. She said ‘you don’t need to buy that, we can just do this part for free’ and placed two puffy white FedEx envelopes between us. I said ‘oh. Oh yeah, well that would be great, thanks. The other ones, yeah, no good.’ She smiled in her no-eyebrows-moving Lulu way, looking mostly at a computer.

She told me to fill out forms and left me alone to do that. The moment after I’d finished, she returned. Noticed her pastel blue nail polish was similar to my mint green, but her nails looked manicured. I wanted to say something about this, like something you would say, like, ‘springtime: time for nails,’ but couldn’t think of a normal-person thing like that to say. Lulu said ‘I’m cold, it’s cold in here, isn’t it?’ I nodded big and said ‘yeah it is, it’s really cold in here. And I bet for you…yeah, your short sleeves, man.’ I didn't think it was cold. Somehow this did not sound awkward.

Lulu processed the packages and asked me questions. When I answered it felt like we understood something about the customer-employee dynamic, like ‘no one really knows what’s going on, we have to say these words that someone faraway at FedEx invented. We are the people between FedEx and the things we want.’ Like I was thinking ‘I want this to be mailed but I don’t care how and I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave’ and Lulu was thinking ‘I am at work and things about this place are normal to me; maybe ideally I’d be doing something else, but right now I’m helping this person, I know how to help them and after I do my job I don’t know what’s going to happen.’

Lulu said ‘I’m gonna close it now’ about my envelope. I said ‘oh great, thanks. Yeah, it would’ve been like ‘oh no, big mistake’ if it was closed and the wrong package.’ Rested my eyes on a box behind the counter with ‘IRONLUNG’ printed on the side in large letters. Lulu said ‘okay you can pay now.’ I grabbed the phone, thinking it was the credit card swiping device. Lulu laughed and said ‘no, you give the card to me.’ I laughed a little and handed her my card as I said ‘I thought, you know. It looks like one of those things.’ She handed me a stapled receipt but didn’t let go. I watched the receipt and nodded while she said when the packages would arrive in other places, something about a tracking number, going online. Then she let me take the receipt. I smiled, said ‘thank you so much’ as I walked to the door, studiously looking at the receipt without reading it. I stopped and turned to face where Lulu now stood, in the middle of the store. I said ‘wait, don’t I have to sign?’ She laughed and said ‘no that’s it.’ I smiled like a big idiot and said ‘thanks’ as I exited FedEx, feeling mildly like Judd Nelson at the end of ‘the Breakfast Club,’ raising his hand triumphantly with Molly Ringwald’s earring in his ear as the frame freezes before the credits.

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juliet escoria

OUTTAKE FROM JULIET THE MANIAC by Juliet Escoria

We waited all evening for Nicole’s parents to leave, a cord of excitement running taut between the two of us. When their Land Rover finally pulled out of the driveway, we waited ten extra minutes, just in case her parents forgot something and came back. Only then did we take the rolled-up scarf from Nicole’s closet, a neat package containing a lighter and two perfectly rolled joints, the result of Nicole practicing with tobacco while me and my clumsy fingers sat and watched. We took the bundle and crawled out her bedroom window onto the roof.

We pressed ourselves against the building in case her neighbors could see, lit the first joint. The days were finally starting to get longer and even though it was almost eight there were still traces of light in the air, the sky that cobalt blue right before it turns black. We held the smoke in, the way we’d seen people do in movies. It made us cough. It made us feel cool.

We’d gotten the weed from the Ryans, the only other friends we had at the Christian school. Except “friends” wasn’t entirely accurate. The less cute Ryan, Ryan M, lived down the street from Nicole, so the three of us carpooled each morning. Ryan D was Ryan M’s best friend. We sat together at lunch, occasionally hung out voluntarily after school and on weekends. We liked the same music and swapped mixtapes. We smoked. We got sent out of class for talking, sometimes stayed in at lunch for detention.

That was the friend part. But the Ryans could be mean. They liked to call us “flat-tittied bitches.” They made fun of my acne and Nicole’s thick thighs. They asked us if we liked non-existent bands and if we said we weren’t sure but thought we did, they called us posers. I tried to brush it off – maybe they saw us as their little sisters – but in truth their comments made me cry. I never admitted it, not to Nicole, not to anyone, but it was hard to go into the bathroom and be confronted with the smattering of red bumps on my forehead that wouldn’t go away, and not hear their nasty voices telling me I was disgusting. Saying things like “Hey pimple girl,” the way they did when my skin was especially bad. It made me envision stabbing my pencil into their eyes, blood running squishy and their screams.

Also, they were always going on about all the weed they smoked. But I never saw them do it, never saw them stoned either. I’d never smoked pot before but I wanted to. Same with Nicole. But we had no idea where to get it. Partially we didn’t ask them to get us some because I wasn’t sure the Ryans were telling the truth, but mostly I was afraid they’d make fun of us.

One day we were sitting around Ryan M’s room after school, video games because we had nothing better to do, and once again they wouldn’t shut up about how they’d gotten so high that weekend, drawing out the vowels the way the skateboarders did in the skate videos we sometimes watched. Finally I got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore so I just came right out and asked where they got it.

They were quiet for a moment, and I thought they were trying to think of some sick burns. But then Ryan D said, “None of your business,” at the same time Ryan M said, “From my brother.”

Then they called us dumb little babies for never having smoked pot.

“Fuck you,” Nicole said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Fuck you.” I was so sick of their shit, of them acting like they were so much better than us when they were two stupid junior high boys, with no facial hair and skinny chests. “You’re fucking lying anyway.”

“Let’s bounce,” Nicole said.

“Good idea.”

So we left. We went back to her house and watched TV.

The next day at school, they acted like nothing had happened. At lunch, they came and sat with us and were nice, asking us what we were doing that weekend and did we want to record Ryan D’s new Descendants album. Nicole and I just looked at them. Yesterday we had agreed we were sick of them. This niceness was fucking everything up. And then Ryan M said if we really wanted pot, he could get us some from his brother. We pretended it wasn’t a big deal, that we didn’t care either way, but I could tell by the look in Nicole’s eyes and the flutter in my chest that we were excited.

After we smoked the joints and felt nothing, and waited half an hour just in case, we took the rest of the “weed” and compared it to the herb jars in the kitchen. Just as we thought. It was oregano.

We should have known the weed was bunk when they didn’t try to smoke it with us. We should have known the weed was bunk when Ryan D said that sometimes you had to smoke weed a couple times before you got high. But we didn’t know any better, had no idea what weed was supposed to look like other than a dried green plant. And a dried green plant is what they sold us.

So we made a plan. On Wednesdays, Ryan M didn’t carpool home because he had tutoring. His older brother had baseball practice every day. His mother didn’t get home until at least 4. We didn’t know his dad’s work schedule but we figured it was a dad work schedule, and he wouldn’t be home until 5 or 6.

We told Nicole’s mom we were going to buy ice cream. The door to Ryan M’s garage was unlocked, just like usual, tools perfectly lined up on the wall by their hooks. From there we walked into the house, and then up the stairs to his room. I kept thinking someone would catch us, his brother home sick or the cleaning lady, but then I remembered what dickheads they were, the twenty dollars they’d stolen from us, and I told myself the house was empty and it was fine and he deserved everything we’d planned for him.

We opened the door to his room. There was underwear on the floor, dingy white boxers, and the bed was unmade, but otherwise it looked the same as it always did. Posters on the wall of hot chicks and Kelly Slater. A wall of CDs, a big TV, a big stereo.

We’d bought a can of sardines a few days earlier at the grocery store. I popped it open, the metal lid flicking the nasty oil onto my hand. We put the fish where we figured he wouldn’t look, grabbing them by their slimy tails. In the heating vent on the floor. Underneath the bed. I went into his closet, and Nicole boosted me up while I hid one on the top shelf, behind a plastic bin of baseball cards. His bookshelf only held old schoolbooks – a Latin dictionary, the textbook from Pre-algebra 1, To Kill a Mockingbird – so I pulled them out half an inch and tucked one behind. We put two behind his stereo.

Nicole went to put one in his desk drawer, but when she slid it open, she found a big rusty hunting knife. I wanted to keep it, but Nicole said she wanted it too. We stood there, trying to figure out who got to keep it. But I started thinking about Ryan M’s stupid face, his cocky smile, the fact that he seemed completely unaware he was an idiot with dirty boxers on his floor. And I took the knife and stabbed it into the desk, which looked expensive and heavy, pretending I was stabbing him. Stab stab stab. It felt so good. I imagined his screams.

Nicole laughed. The knife made neat little gashes, splitting the thick waxed coating of the desk. She took it from my hand, stabbed again. The wood splintered this time. Then I stabbed it, a whole bunch of times, hard, like I was trying to kill it. Like I was trying to get deep at the bones. Nicole did the same, yelping this time like a warrior. I was laughing. She was laughing. We were two maniacal bitches, and the Ryans would be sorry they fucked with us. I took the knife and stabbed it in the desk one final time, deep enough that it stood up straight on its own. Then we changed his radio from the rock station to a Spanish one, turned the volume up, so loud the bass crackled in the speakers, and then turned it off so the next time he went to play it, it would scare the shit out of him.

We left his house, skipping and laughing our way back to Nicole’s, throwing the empty can of sardines in the gutter. My heart beat fast in a way that wasn’t fear. It was beating fast with power, a warrior drum that kept me strong. It was the heartbeat of a maniacal bitch. I kept imagining Ryan M’s face when he walked in and saw the knife, when he turned on the stereo, when the fish started to rot.

I hoped it made him afraid.

I hoped it made him feel small.

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“YEEZUS IN FURS” EXCERPT by Shane Jesse Christmass

NINE CELEBRITIES WHO ARE HONESTLY LOW-KEY WITCHES. Cult Leader is vice chairman of a shady company. He exerts political influence. He commits securities fraud. Bomb crews scurry across the alien surface. Red lumps beneath my skin. Skateboarding to the awful motel. Car door slams as I watch morning cartoons. Dirty jeans purchased from thrift store. Smoke coming from a small paper packet. Burnt tyre beneath steel chassis. An invisible tether tied to small rockets. Cult Leader performs several skateboard tricks. Cult Leader talks about nakedness. Cult Leader brushes his dark hair. Cult Leader tells me about his secret pleasures, about his charming nudity, his exquisite curves and exuberant fleshiness. I have similar tan lines to the Cult Leader. Unconscious as I plug into the brain-computer interfaces. Technological actuators inspect anus. A steel belt around male genitals. Cult Leader has retractable wings. High-tech surgical gloves provide sense enhancements as the Cult Leader rubs them on my skin. Electrical properties in the projectile night. Cult members camp beneath Washington Bridge. Small talk from Manhattan to Washington. Close-range gunfire and faces on the front of fashion magazines. The icy undergrounds of Broadway. Subhuman cyborgs storm the bloodied jungle. The tongue of a piss whore. Biker guys with money clips. Cult Leader has a castration problem. Apartment block full of Hepatitis C. Night dissolves into amyl nitrate and excessive money. Disease and other strong scents on my fingers. Tongues stapled to bus seat. Photographer is now in the doctor’s care. Transsexual patients meet with prominent physicians. Large metropolitan areas are swallowed by technological gadgets. Hand gestures delivered by cybernetic systems. Translucent images across a magenta sphere. Fetish photographers infiltrate the cumulus planet talking about their fine art aesthetics and other gleeful perversions. Performance artists, prima donnas and British perverts are hauled before the Conservative government by an over-anxious police force. The lead actor details his complex sexual history. Photographers detail sex inside the hotel suites of San Francisco. My muscles soothed by the hot bath. Cult Leader wears a tracksuit. Bodies disappear beneath undersea debris. The body parts of migrant workers are found in the water supplies. Mutations and fatal wounds. Weapons hidden in the wild grass. Chain-link fence gleams in the late afternoon sun. Deep sleep on the forest floor. I wear a thin sweater under the grey-blue sky. Police siren in the sunlight. Blank paper inside the money box. Cult Leader’s laughter through the cigarette smoke. Nude men shatter windows. Erotic escapades performed by serious professional actors. Cult Leader concocts a banana cocktail. ESP from the arterial mud and tar pits. Pepsi-Cola immersed in my connective tissue. Whole body transplants performed on actual human beings. Toxins in digital form. Deforestation under a black gradient sky. Monochrome destruction. Fresh intrusions of sex and penetrating taboos. Sensibility meters and MTV-style production values. Phone-sex lines run by cybersex gurus. Sex for pleasure and sex for punishment. $2- $ 3.50/min. - lonely girls will pay up to $500 for your special services. Adults looking for an older woman. Cult Leader talks to various paraphiliacs and then reads the latest Sears catalogue. Water bottles in empty bunkers. Dead volcano at the end of a narrow path. Human arm disappears amongst experimental images. A tall figure in a silk cape with high cheekbones. Factory buildings marked with gunfire. High wire fence around the factory grounds. Fleshlights and wet clothes. A sensory richness and social fulfilment. Cult Leader eats maggots and chewing gum. He is aged in his mid-to-late 20s. Toilet bowls and car doors. Electronic skin for burn victims. Debridement therapy to provide sensation in my hands. A couple of hours. Gunshot rings out. Call girls made from a vague shape. A giant bowl of weed on a plastic lawn chair. Cult Leader sits in the squalid backyard talking on his cell phone. Heavy machine guns poke from red brick houses. Cult Leader anticipates a brutal ambush. Cult Leader wears a Wal-Mart t-shirt. Human voices at a wonderful party. Pharmacists and street kids play with sticky tape. Elevator doors creak into brilliant sunshine. Motionless acne on the misogynist’s skull. Red background on the hospital rooftop. Weird figures in the yellow night. A grotesque desire to wear animal garb. Diabolical fiends working for the police force. Moth-eaten gloves cover the carnal visual cortex. Heterosexual male chases tween sex. Cult Leader faces erroneous accusations. Fringe scientists adorned in sunglasses, ponytails and surrounded by arrogant people. Bartender handing out cool drugs. Satanic session conducted in a drunken manner. Sex maniac is an average nibbler. Sex in transcendent halls. Sharp knives used as props in pornographic material. White sunshine flickers over hospital rooftop. Moments later. NYC. A lit cigarette being smoked in slow motion. Ambulance siren behind glass windows. Latex gloves over San Francisco. Emotional problems discussed in the eye clinic. Dark mysteries on the computer network. Original Soundtrack of orgasm and initial experiments conducted on psychoactive drugs. Cult Leader conducts erotic yoga classes, but also discusses a monkish abstinence from all sensual indulgence. Mantras and eyewash. Dirty clothes drying after a monsoon. Slick hair and cigarettes. Psychiatrist struck by the car lights. Arctic air captured in a mushroom cloud. Nightclub evenings consumed by erotic performances. Slowly laughter fades and the vigorous bodies reapply their cancerous attachments. Proteins inserted into eardrum. Elastic ashtrays purchased from a retail electronics store. Copper pipes in the rear-view mirror. Discrete sounds and further sound rises. Smooth eyelids and slowly the Cult Leader’s fingers float. The flesh of a doll’s head. Leg bone over inch-thick carpet. Overstuffed bodies stuffed with banknotes. Head bones that contain cocaine. An apelike tumour that covers the whole city. Free cigarettes made from steam. Foodstuffs like huge pacifiers. Cult Leader sipping a vanilla milkshake in the back of a yellow cab. Water vapour on the window seat. Quiet voices behind the bathroom door. Macho facades in a homosexual loop. Sudden nausea from looking at the shop windows. Cult Leader engages in somatic sensations and slow motion sensuality. Transmissive diseases in the cannibal world. Trains in the rail yard. Blood throughout NYC. A nasty smear of shit in the toilet cubicle. Infectious fantasies played out by a sexual penetrator. Disease and social status. Erections and eye contact. The physical boundaries of the body. Electric current with a luminescent aura. Sensations ripple through endless orgasms. Cult Leader in silver high-heels. The early incarnations of human forms. Underworld guns abandoned on a mountain road. Rainy night in NYC. A high population with surplus children. Well-armed police talking in medieval languages. Barefoot labourers driving semi-submersible vessels. An electric butt plug on a small table in Guatemala. LED indicator lights and pulse output. Power control knobs and fine adjustments. Mechanisms and claws. Police wagon beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Dirt. Windblown. Refrigerators. Cardboard. Rotten. Wall Street Journal.

ENTRAILS & TUBES. No musical compositions. The back entrance to the Lenox Hill Hospital. Pipes on the ceiling, frosting snow bed in some other hemisphere. Overpass. Dirt. Windblown dust. You let it all pass. Your hair is unkempt. Unruly. Ridiculous. The sun rises over the tips of Brooklyn. You glisten. Under the Gowanus Expressway – hieroglyphics. Tactile worlds. Footmarks on the sidewalk. Steamboats at the bottom of the East River. Depressed cheekbones of a police officer. Infrawaves collide in the provisional world. Corridors of the Lenox Hill Hospital. Broken fingers in plaster. A nurse-in-charge sitting in the nurse-in-charge chair. You’re outside the hospital. Smog plumes over Queensbridge Houses. Oil-tankers run aground on Orchard Beach. Tobacco and barley pour from the tanker’s side. The Atlantic Ocean is in remiss, oily existence. A wine glass shatters. CIA torture, uncorrupted by mind, abolished worlds. Down in the corner of the pebbled glass, neat, small letters spell out your name. I gulp Spanish brandy. Breath expels. Hallucinations of children. Stink of sulphur and acne creams. Boiling oil is doused on a bowed dog, a hound. I gulp again. Hooded Iraqis in embers, whole body torture, rectal bleeding, bromine knuckles, cracked Murphy Drips, a metre of dead bees, pain. You turn left, sudden fears. Armoured vehicles to the right of soldiers. Smouldering houses with fire fighters strip off their clothes. Toiletries burnt by enormous ironing surfaces. You get close enough to see the pained expressions on their faces. NYC bombed back to Year Zero. Mouths open but no sound coming out. Canons adjusted. Canons erupting. Cacophony. Dust and bullshit. Parasites in the blood stream making the user immune to commit acts of treason. Panel beaters pound the steel body of the abandoned cars. Scrap metal, flint sparks, shattered glass. The vehicle is in flame. You drop your wine glass. You’re bored, depressed, stacked and tied up in twine. Movie poster torn on alley wall. Rain sodden. Half-snivelling songs come from the outside. Immense sunshine over cold fields. Car parks at the front entrance of a tenement. Dew drops emulsify under the girders of Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Crypto-anarchists make settlements near Hell Gate. Orange headbands around their foreheads. Donut sellers on the forecourt of the United Nations. Concurrent damage caused by BGM-109 Tomahawks. You with a minty-fresh mouth. Enemy Identified Man. Jacket pocket rubs against you. You take your sunglasses off. Her gaze is ancient times. You struggle for breath. A bus, repeat, a bus. Soldiers hang out smoking Camels. A glimpse of their murderous results in the newspaper headlines. In a wood cabin. Warm bed this morning. You don’t use a tape measure. The voice of command, a paper bag full of prolapse. You get into the car. You burrow into the trees. After about forty minutes, you give up and head back to the subway. A new side part in my hair. You lay flat on the ground. You complete your work inside the company’s holiday villa. You read the instruction manual several times. There is more than one narrative in the instruction manual. You work beside vacuum gauges under hot sweat steam and pressure overhead. You are alone - once more - working. Track suits / brand name. Billboard’s advertising TV documentaries that outline the beauty and savagery of the human contribution. The process of strengthening and integrating CPU into plastic brain moulds. You slide into midnight. Crimson-stained. Emotional signs include sighs and deep breaths. The door opens. Take that money. Polluted lobsters with identification bracelets around pincers. You take a swig of synthetic water. Wife wields her hips over husband. The dawn on a projection screen. Nothing brings my attention to it. The sun rises. Xerox of a Xerox over Manhattan. Bubbling fat on my skin. Bright lights, loud music, young kids. Husband’s wife is a cardboard cut-out. She is the doorway. She turns the music off. She’s doused in blonde mechanisms. A torn genus of deadly moth. The wife lurks in the good values of degeneracy. You tear your clothes off, actions recorded in unpublished histogram. Unfamiliar people irritate. Jetsam falls away from a dead man. The dying art of breath. You disappear under your cotton dress. This nightmare of a giant man, his red mouth moves, disposing of him, let alone murdering him. You stare madly at me. Downtown in the South end of the city, a mist-hung gun whips up the mob. BWAP BWAP. You sob in the pale dawn. Someone else screams. The strange assignment of lace doused over wife. Dinner chairs burn in a Pizza Hut car park. You open the window. Drinks at four. Several minutes later, sweat forms on your brow. Constant unfolding elements. You notice the disgust. I press demands onto you. Vermouth in a trough. Television light projectiles in the night vibrant against your skin. Some talk about nurses. Faces gleam through the Manhattan haze. One old man altogether on bench in Washington Square. Fashion magazines tangled up. Old Spice and Pepsodent. I do hate you.OFFAL IN A BUCKET. Rib cages turn in serrated gristle. Cult Leader’s finger on the elevator button. Hospital hallway outside emergency room. Cult Leader closes her locker door. An elevator button. The elevator arrives. The doors open. A nurse pulls a chair from beneath a patient who is tied up. The nurse rifles through the patient’s suit jacket for a coffee cup. The nurse gnaws her teeth into cedar wood. Cult Leader takes a closer look at her. Ivory tusks hang from wooden-framed structures. Sick smell through the ventilators. The smell draws Cult Leader to this moment. The window. Out from the window, precipitation of the world. Sick rises from the valley. A tree. Cult Leader hears pharmacists, their families. Street kids inside rolls of sticky tape. Septic scars over Cult Leader’s chest. A yellow star on the charcoaled door of the landlord’s flat. Cult Leader gets onto a different path. The elevator doors open. Cult Leader looks around. She gets in. Her hand presses a button. Eighth floor. The doors of the lift wheeze. They expire. They stutter and then close. A handful of glue. The elevator creaks. The eighth floor. A petting zoo. Cult Leader exits, turns to her left, pushes through a door. The fire escape. Brilliant sunshine rushes in. A searing whiteness. Scores of locusts. Crows noisily fly around. Cunning-like. Cult Leader taps the side of her head. Motionless thoughts. Her neck is dry, flaky, plastic. Acne skin. Everything that’s apparent is usually impossible at hand. Meatheads on the motorway. Skull flags with red background. Contrary personalities irascible and dull. Sunshine. The hospital rooftop. Moth-eaten air. Carnal images in the visual cortex. Broken wrist. An orderly pushes Cult Leader off the hospital roof. A murder list. Chock-full inside Cult Leader’s brain. No leftovers. War stops war. The world stops instantly. The passing of End Times. Shit bubbles on concrete. Cult Leader’s body designed by bureaucrats. Cult Leader wades through pornographic material. Her mouth slavers. White sunshine flickers. CUT TO: EXT. HOSPITAL ROOFTOP - MOMENTS LATER. The skyline. NYC in the distance. The sun behind the NYC. Magnificent rays between gaps of the buildings. Cult Leader’s arms over the ledge of the rooftop. A lit cigarette between her fingers. People on the far side of the roof. Cult Leader ignores them. More drags from her cigarette. Cult Leader pauses, exhales, draws again, then flicks the cigarette from her fingers. The cigarette falls and spindles in slow motion. It hits the bitumen below. The cigarette sparks as it hits the ground. Cult Leader watches it the whole way down. Cult Leader looks up. One last look at NYC. Figures of three men go past the camera. Physical objects extend in space-time. Half-smoked joints. No joy inside the hospital. Glass windows, calmness, moonlight, ambulance sirens. Cult Leader slides off her chair. Slowly. She talks on the telephone. She pulls gloves from her coat. She works her hair in front of the mirror. An orderly punches her. Shadowboxing from behind. Cult Leader turns to the orderly. They discuss relativity and quantum mechanics. Cult Leader has no idea if it’s a dream. She enjoys her role.
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anastasia jill

THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED by Anastasia Jill

THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, we lost our power first as lights and machines shut down like stale organs folding into their lives without blood. Mucus membranes settled in the trenches of my eyelid and produced chemical tears.

“It’s okay,” we told ourselves. “I am not afraid.”

After a few hours, lungs couldn’t take it, clawed their way out of our rib and sacrificed themselves to the noxious gasses. My nuke tipped fingers counted the columns remaining down our spine. We only got to three before the vapor consumed us.

“It’s okay,” we said again. “I am not afraid.”

Other bodies collapsed around us -- metal bodies, furry bodies, red meat bodies were starved by lasers and flooded out with a mix of water and dust from monuments collapsing. We do not shut down alongside them because we have to be strong, we have to eat their remains to sustain the infrastructure of our being. Our skin shed like orange peels and left a sweaty smell.

“That’s not any smell,” we said. “That’s explosive pixie dust and sweat.”

Lumps filled with sewage make tumors on what remains of our flesh, satellites to monitor bones for any sign of decay. Our bellies swell with water, and fish take shelter in the tissue until we are of egg and fetus, ready to repopulate once the disaster ends.

The building around us begins to fall in plastic sheets, like it were never reinforced with brick or mortar or the human hand. We watch the sun safe in the sky, mocking our imminent downfall.

“It’s okay,” we tell the sun. “I would mock us too.”

Everything stops and we are quiet until the Earth puts its head in an astral lap, throwing the continents and all its inhabitants like toys into a bright pink bin. Of course, at the point, we are mostly zombie, clung to life only by the stem of brain. China and Seychelles, France and Timor-Lest, the Koreas, Eritrea, Maldives, the States are names in a ground mouth housing us all like cars in a parking lot. We are all displaced. We have no home now because today, the world decided to pack us in its bags and end. Land is chipped at the corners, chemicals nibbling at their corners like rats. Like the rats that are, somehow, surviving, that we have to eat until everyone else dies.

The Earth continues to rotate while explosions liter its back. A dusty hand the size of a globe reaches up, and counts its spine the way I did. It gets further than three, but no further than five. The hand eroded off, and any second now, we know that we are next and will die alone.

Because God is alone the day he makes the universe out of nothing at all.

And there is nothing left when the planet implodes -- at the end, there is only us and light, cowering behind a pyramid snapped in the middle like a twig. Earth is formless and empty, fat lumps of sand and warm water and no life, no sign we were ever here.

When we want to forget it, succumb to the apocalypse and lay ourselves out for the horses to dine on, our guts twitch and jerk. Our navels implode, and suddenly, the ocean is full of baby fishes.

The sea lights up again and becomes alive, a vault of blue and golden stars to fall into at night. With this vision, we step out from the wreckage. We see the world; it’s beautiful. It is over, but able to be rebuilt.

“That’s something,” we say. “Really something.”

We pick up the countries like puzzle pieces and put them back in place around the fishes. We look around at the new world, and rest in the knowledge that it may be good, someday.

The day the world ended was the day it began again. The toxins were flushed and we woke up in a hospital bed, ready to work and rebuild.

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LITELIFE by Jimmy Chen

The receptionist hid the instant message regarding the logistics of an imminent gathering behind her work email, though the only thing visible to others in the waiting area was the back of her computer, which featured a ubiquitous apple with a sole bite mark in its side. Those who waited did so with the fragile purposefulness of people completely consumed by their phone, and so weren’t actually “waiting”—an anti-event generally marked by ennui and restlessness—but rather, simply tending to labyrinthine text threads and neglected emails which, therefore, imparted a sense of accomplishment they ultimately found pleasurable. Behind her, on a very expansive and somewhat alienating wall, an array of air-plants were somehow affixed to it, such that it seemed these air plants were simply existing in midair, like being suspended in the reception area of a startup was the most logical place for them, and not the result of a complicated interior plant design contract which took several months of planning and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

One of the men who had meekly approached this attractive receptionist was interviewing for a job as a Quality Assurance Technician. He had just moved to the city and didn’t have many friends, but wanted to appear the opposite to the receptionist, and so scrolled through a social networking app to which nearly a sixth of the world’s population were subscribed, occasionally commenting on it in the manner of someone engaged in an actual text conversation. The table between this man and the receptionist was made of refurbished wood gathered from a farmhouse before being aggressively sanded and profusely lacquered.

The elevator doors opened and through it stepped a delivery man dressed in a brown shirt and shorts who had firm calves, as witnessed by the receptionist, who reciprocated his alluring smile, an encounter witnessed by the man waiting for his interview, now stricken by the notion that this delivery man probably had a penis much larger than his, one which, when erect, could not only satisfactorily penetrate the receptionist’s vagina and push its girth against its walls, but was long enough to transgress her cervix, feeding his seed directly into it, versus relying on the evolutionary trait of sperm coming out of regular-sized penises which then had to swim inward towards a nebulous egg in a fight for life. The man recalled a pornographic yet oddly clinical clip he once saw set in the point of view from inside the vagina which ended with ejaculate spewing out of the meatus, that is, the opening of the male urethra. He often wondered how they were able to get such extreme footage and settled on an endoscopy camera. By the time the receptionist called his name, the Quality Assurance Technician candidate was inadvertently aroused with these mental projections and had to stand with his back faintly arched in the fashion of men who have likewise had to hide their erections.

The app for which they were interviewing was a personal metrics system that monitored the number of steps one took in a day, or steps climbed, or miles ran; one’s heartrate, or simply the quality and duration of one’s sleep. It was also a lifestyle app that could keep track of calories consumed, or burned, tracking the arc of someone’s weight over a period of time. There was also a community page on which one could post their successes or failures, and on which friends could post their respective congratulations or sympathies. Quality Assurance Techs basically ran automated scripts looking for bugs before the product went out, then responded to actual bugs reported by customers after said product went out. Customers were usually aggressive type-A personalities who really wanted to get their steps in—not so thrilled about filling in online customer complain forms, or worse, being stuck on the phone.

The interview didn’t go so well. Instead of shaking hands, he had let his hand be shook; instead of looking the interviewer in the eye, he looked past him, at who was probably the interviewer’s girlfriend, in a framed photo on a boat, wearing a bikini and eating an oyster. The interviewer held the shell and had likely just shucked the oyster. He had nice abs, as brandished without a shirt, for displaying one’s abs was the primary perk of having them. Distracted by the gooey lob sliding down her throat, half-heartedly feigning an answer regarding his five-year plan, the candidate soon became the former candidate in the eyes of the interviewer as the interview was cut short.

As he left, the former candidate in the eyes of the interviewer saw the back of the receptionist’s slender shoulder, which he imagined digging his face into as he spasmed inside her anus. He loved anal creampies, the way the camera zoomed-in over the surreal landscape of an aggravated anus.

He went to a fast food establishment and ordered the most calorically rich meal on the menu, augmenting its size using a particular phrase from the franchise’s vernacular, and ate it in the corner. A group of urban teenage girls walked in and spoke loudly and full of expletives, at which other patrons shook their head. When any of them made eye contact with any of the patrons, they called them bitch. He dipped his fries in mayonnaise. In the bathroom, he tried viciously masturbating to the receptionist, but the acute smell of urine, feces, disinfectant, and bleach hindered the mental abandonment necessary to masturbate without the aid of visual stimuli. He’d gotten more and more into interracial cuckold porn in which black men with unsettling penises displayed grand acts of coitus in front of the perturbed cuckolds. The women sometimes, humorously, compared the size of the black men’s penis to their forearms. That the men sometimes wore sneakers to better brace themselves for pumping he found uncanny. He tucked his flaccid penis back into its fly and took some Lexapro.

As he exited the restroom, he accidentally caught the eye of one of the loud girls, who called him bitch. Andre was tattooed on her neck, in ornate cursive that betrayed unskilled hands, and he wished that for one night he could be Andre. He would dick whip her face, which seems misogynist but is essentially playful. The levity of his catharsis. Walking away, he walked faster and faster. Now everyone was calling him bitch. Not running, just walking really fast, though the app mistook the latter for the former. It was a shame, him being so misinterpreted. Someone would have to fix that.

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stephen mortland

THAT ABSENCE YOU SEE WAS FORMED BY MY FRIEND’S FATHER by Stephen Mortland

JORDAN

To imagine what Jordan’s dad looked like, I pictured Jordan’s face stripped of his mother’s features. It was like clearing away layers of earth to find the remains of some unidentifiable structure. The scavenged and featureless result was the face of his invisible dad.

Jordan planned on changing his last name when he got married. The disembodied and scarred face of his father heard about it and showed up in Jordan’s dream the night before the wedding. “The name was fine for twenty-something years,” he said, “and now what, it’s not?”

“I learned how to wear your name,” Jordan said, “I wore it kind of hanging off my shoulders so that my neck wouldn’t be constantly sore. But Lindsay doesn’t deserve it, look at her, it would destroy her.”

“You’re right,” said the disfigured tiki mask that was Jordan’s dream father. “Let her keep her own name.”

“I can’t do that. She asked me for a name. I’ve got to give her something to make sure she’ll never run away.”

“Do you know how hard it is to love a baby all of the time?” The face asked.

Jordan woke up, got married, and they took his mother’s name. It was a good name and the right decision; his dad’s name was cursed. That’s what he told Lindsay when she asked, it’s what he told his mother, and it’s what he told me. The name was cursed, and the wedding was the perfect time to get rid of it.

He and Lindsay had a little boy of their own a year later. That little boy began asking for a name. They gave him the pure and unspoiled name they’d taken at their wedding. Jordan couldn’t help but tremble as he gave it to the boy. He trembled because he knew that if he’d given the child his father’s name instead, the curse would have turned him invisible and buried him beneath countless layers of earth.

#

LOGAN

I never met Logan’s dad, but I saw a picture of him. He’d been sick for a long time, and everyone knew he’d be dead soon. In the picture he was wearing a hat with military pins. He was young and handsome and looked the way all dads should look before they become fathers.

His dying didn’t make me worry for my own father, it just made me sad for Logan. He was quiet through it all, and that made it so much worse. I wished he would cry, and yell, and refuse to go to the funeral. I would support him. We’d run away into the woods behind his house. We’d bring the picture of his dad and tape it to a wall of a cabin. We would talk like his dad was still sick, and by that I mean we wouldn’t talk about him at all. We would ignore the picture. His perpetual sickness would afford us the silence Logan wanted. We would keep death close at hand, but never at our door. And we would be happy like that. We would ride snowboards in the winter, break branches off of trees in the summer, and listen to Blink-182.

My dad was healthy, but I’d tape a picture of him to the wall anyway and pretend he was sick as well. We’d teach each other to shave with BIC razors and be dads for one another. Two thirteen year old dad-boys living in the woods, that’s what I wanted for Logan. But instead he got a viewing, and a funeral, and all the sympathies he never asked for.

#

AARON

I don’t know exactly why I think Aaron's dad was an asshole, except that Aaron never talked about him, and Aaron’s mom seemed sad. His mom was the only mom I knew who wasn’t a Christian, but she was so sweet you’d never have guessed it. She kept alpacas in their backyard and made scarves out of their fleece.

Aaron changed his last name, but he didn’t wait until he got married. He did it as soon as he went off to college and stopped believing in God. God was trying to talk him into keeping the name, saying to him, “Aaron, come on, everything happens for a reason,” and, “Aaron, buddy, we need to forgive.”

Aaron told God that it seemed unfair, and he didn’t want the name anymore. He wanted his mom’s name, because she was sweet, even if she didn’t love God (which really, he reiterated, made the sweetness all the more genuine).

“Think of it this way,” God replied, “sins are like buildings, some are big (i.e. your father’s) and some are tiny (i.e. your mother’s). But Me, I’m in heaven, and in heaven, looking down, all I see is the tops of the buildings, I don’t know which ones are tall or short, I just know everyone’s got one.”

Aaron didn’t saying anything back to God, in fact he quit talking to him altogether. Before God goes to bed at night, and before He eats a meal, he still sometimes talks to Aaron, hoping to make a difference, hoping to get a response.

#

DEV

Dev’s dad is going to lose his foot. The doctor’s gave him special shoes and said, “If you don’t wear these shoes, you’re going to lose your foot; we’ll cut it off.” He calls Dev sometimes to ask for help moving furniture (on account of his foot hurts).

“Are you wearing the shoe?” Dev asks.

“Every once in a while, but it’s pretty uncomfortable.”

So he’s going to lose the foot. Dev thinks he wants to lose the foot. Not that he wants it gone, but it would give him an excuse to move less, to stay in his chair and watch television.

He calls Dev on Dev’s birthday while he and I are walking around Meijer with my daughter. He tells Dev the usual stories—stories from a childhood that Dev doesn’t remember. The stories are from before he and Dev’s mom got a divorce. Dev looks at me like, I’m sorry, and like, This will only be a minute. My daughter is looking at the fish in the Meijer fish tank, pointing to a dead one and making noises like she’s pretending to snore.

I only know about one of Dev’s birthdays (aside from the one he spent shopping at Meijer with me and my daughter). It was the only time he had a real birthday party. Somebody bought him a VHS video tutorial for Tech Deck skateboards—the miniature skateboards you control with your fingers. After opening the gifts, all the kids went outside to play, but Dev stayed inside by himself and practiced Tech Deck maneuvers. Tech Decks are great for kids like Dev who want to stay inside, but they’re also great for people who only have one foot and are still interested in skateboarding.

My daughter waved goodbye to the dead fish and blew it a kiss. Then she ran to Dev and let him hold her while he forgot (again) the stories he could never remember.

I imagined Dev without a foot, standing in the aisle with a nub at the end of his leg. It was frightening. I knew my fear was insensitive, and I hated that I was frightened of it. Stop staring, I thought, it’s impolite. How would he get around though? How would he ever leave this town with only one foot? I’ll go with him, I thought, and he can set his hand on my shoulder while we walk past the county line and on toward wherever. But no, I can’t go. I have a daughter, and she loves the fish here, in Meijer. Remembering her, I got nervous, because he was still holding her, hobbling down the cereal aisle, and what if he fell over?

#

STEPHEN

When my dad was in college he drank too much. His apartment was filled with empty bottles, and his stairwell was filled with drunks passed out and strewn along the walls. He drank and drank but always remained thirsty, and his friends said, “Drink more, we highly recommend it.”

One day, after drinking his normal excessive amount, he got into the driver’s seat of a car. The car, too, was filled with empty bottles. He knew he shouldn’t, but he began driving down the interstate, doing his best to keep the car between the appropriate lines. Blue lights flashed, and he saw a State Police in his rearview mirror. He pulled the car over and waited for the end of his life.

He wanted to think, It’s been a good life, but he couldn’t. It’s been a life full of empty bottles and drunk bodies, he thought. It’s been a life half-lived, and I still have never fallen in love. The State Police was knocking on his window. The aroma from all of the bottles and from the beer soaked into the fabric of the cushions drifted out the open window and crawled into the nostrils of the man come to end his life.

“You were swerving a little back there.”

“I know. It’s because my life has only been half-lived, and I’m only half a man.”

“I see. I don’t think I can write you a ticket for that.”

“No, you can’t. It’s not against the law to live a half-life. I wish it was. I wish you could write me a ticket, and I could take it to the courthouse and pay it, and my half-life would be remedied. I’d finally get rid of all of these bottles, and I’d fall in love, have a child, name him after me.”

“I’m going to let you off with a warning this time. But, on a personal note, I’m worried about you.”

Just like that, the man who had the power to end my dad’s life returned to his car and drove away. It was this strange act of mercy that carried my dad home that night, and laid him in his bed, and woke him in the morning. It was this strange act of mercy that recycled all his bottles and woke all of his drunk friends, hugging them goodbye. It was this strange act of mercy that pulled him from New Jersey to Indiana and arranged a date with my mother’s sister and then later with my mother. And it was this strange act of mercy that whispered in his ear, “A half-life can be a whole-life if you need it to be.”

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gene morgan

XBOX VIDEO GAME REVIEWS 2018 by Gene Morgan

Fortnite

Fortnite is a riot simulator for children. Characters lives are short like ours– the game is filled with moments to reflect upon hard choices, choices in the format of a fun cartoon-like murder game young boys love. Fortnite for Xbox is a perfect way to get killed over and over again and feel emotion as you grow old and work a job and come home to smoke weed from a battery, make vegan hot dogs, take kids to basketball practice, and fall asleep before making love. This game is an easy diversion in an otherwise asinine journey where you live and die just once. Five stars, I've never played it.

Monster Hunter: World

Monster Hunter: World is about harvesting flesh. The monsters you gut, you pull the meat from them, and you sell or trade that meat for a shield and maybe clothes. How many pelts are too many? You decide. Live with excess. Life is excellent. You have a cat and your cat brings you health. Cats fucking protect you. Cats live forever. You can give your cat a beautiful name, like Susan. Susan will fight for you. And when you're ass-deep in entrails, Susan's only worry is a monster planet filled with lush vegetation. In Susan's world species have not yet begun to die-out at the highest rate since the last great extinction. There is no end. For Susan, an excess of monsters seems like the only hell any player can thrive in– A hell where there's nothing left to do but hunt, so you dig deep inside yourself and flood the world with meat.

Cuphead

Blessed that the devil exists, two cups look to settle a debt. My daughter let me know a fish smokes in the background of this game. I'm not sure if it's a fish. I can't remember, My head hurts. I've never had another life, so I don't understand, I don't understand all of the accomplishments I'll never see, all of the unfinished projects I left alone in my inbox, all of the shoes I never wear, the way I smoked while I was looking after my children, like my mother. Cuphead is a visual achievement, and it's impossible to play. My life is slowly losing any focus on the past, and I can only hope the devil opens a casino near my home, a place where I can gamble for something worthwhile or, really anything I lost in childhood.

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michael mungiello

A BOLD NEW KIND OF STORY by Michael Mungiello

Something new…

Something new…

I need to do something new…

Something new…

Something new…

I need to do something new…

It will be new…

It will come now…

Somehow…

Somewhere…

I know…

It will start on the next page…

One time I was reading important books…

It was very important that I read them…

They addressed concerns…of the people…of the elites…history…art…religion…politics…

I was interested in those things…

People I admired were interested in those things…

So I read in pursuit of these people’s interest…

In the hopes that one day…a book would be written…about me…by all those I admired…

When we are young we believe such things…

We feel born to be admired…

Books feel like they can go on forever…and we can keep riding the train…along with these writers, their writing, their voices, their faces waiting for us at the station of arrival…

I was on a train…

I saw a sign…a train sign…

A sign for the train…

To tell it what was coming…

How fast to go…

How far away it was from somewhere…

What it was leaving behind…

I don’t know…

It was in another language…

I was travelling by train, to see a woman I was in love with…

No I wasn’t…

I was there to visit my Dad…

He was on a business trip…

I was abroad…

But I was reading a book about a love affair…

And I thought to myself…

My, what splendor…

The romance…

What it must be like to be young and travel in a train in Europe to the woman you love, whose role in your life is…mysterious…

Yeah…

Hey…

Give me a break…

I was young…

Books made an impression on me…

But this sign distracted me from this book…

Which I thought meant so much to me…

And which I thought would continue to mean very much to me my entire life…

But I looked up from the book…

To contemplate a line I’d read in it…

To look out the window and think…

Oh, wow…

What a good line…

So true to life and my heart…

Look, the landscape…

It almost reflects what that line means…to me…

But I saw the sign…

And the font…was so much bigger…

And I thought to myself, That…

That contains more meaning…

Than anything I’ve ever seen before…

I couldn’t read it…but it was telling me something…

Not just me…but the whole train…

The letters were so big that even people who couldn’t read would be interested…

The letters were so big…God would be interested…

This…

This was something new…

This was something I would never forget…

I forgot the exact letters…

But I have never forgotten the sign…

The feeling…

To perceive something I knew was important but also knew nothing about…

I have tried all my life to capture that feeling once again…

I had the feeling that I could recapture this feeling by…

By…

By…

Doing something new…

Getting back there…

But how…

Become…rich…

No…

Become…good…

No…

Become…strong…

No…

Become…pure…

No, haha…

I could do it one way and one way only…

By writing a book of my own…

To make my own letters…

My own signs…

Charting the course of my own voyage…

That was the ticket…

But how could I write a book…I had nothing to say…no argument…no expertise…no polemic…no religion…no politics…no art…only the desire for people to never forget something that didn’t mean anything to them, beyond being unforgettable…

But that still had something to do with Dad…

With love…

With journeys…

Was that enough to make a book for… with…towards…against…

Well…

Well…

Well…

I don’t know…

But then I thought…

Well…

Well…

Well…

If I just…make the font…really big…then…

Then the book will write itself…

All I need to do is provide the…elementary materials…

A narrator…(me)…

A setting…(Europe)…

A character…(my dad)…

A plot…(the quest to recapture a feeling)…

A point of view…(mine, the correct one)…

A theme…(literarture)…

And it’s all there…

And everyone will root for my demise…

The end of the book…

The return back to life…

Which you didn’t like while you were there…

But now that it’s been interrupted…by this story about me and my Dad…and my imaginary lover…and Europe…

Now that you’ve come this far…

You’re back in your life…and you can regard your life…the same way you would home…after a trip…the pleasure of return…

Thank you for reading this…

It is a mystery, is it not…

The ways we deserve each other…

How we see each other across the tracks…

Books are like trains…books are like tickets…books are like stations…

But reading is boring…

We just do it for…some other reason…

 

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dora grober

DEATH BED by Dóra Grőber

You're sitting in your bed, legs pulled up to your chest, black, unkempt hair in an unusual ponytail and you don't talk, not because he's not home but because you have nothing to say. Just a few hours ago you were standing on your desk and painting on the wall, first with a brush and then with your hands, listening to the song Rolling by Soul Coughing, not on repeat. You didn't feel like an artist but you didn't feel fake. You felt like this was recovery or at least some level or element of it, something he could see and think "he's getting better" and he would smile but he didn't come home and the half-done portrait feels more crazy than healthy now.

This woman in the group told you the other day you don't have to be happy, you just have to stay sober because realistic goals are key if you really want to reach them.

3 days ago J. came over and bought cola instead of booze and you wanted to tell him not to bother, to feel free to drink a beer or ten because you won't sway. It's been 4 months. You wanted to say if I want to get fucked up, I will, just like James Frey wrote in his book, and it doesn't matter whether you have a case of beer with you or not. You didn't drink because you felt like it would've been embarrassing, like losing a fight not against yourself but against J., which is stupid. You felt like it would make you look ridiculous and weak which you believe you are anyway even though you're trying hard to bring something home from all those sessions you sit through. Most of the time you just stare at your hands and listen and occasionally you offer a made-up story about yourself - you don't particularly need to fabricate stories, you just want to check if they can detect lies. They can't or they stick to their rule of respecting everybody's words equally. It makes them seem absolutely useless to you but you go every time anyway because you promised him you will and you don't feel like you've been trying enough yet. You think they can't or shouldn't be too soft or permissive if they want to help addicts, they have to be brutal because that's the only thing they understand or at least this seems to be true when you think about yourself. J.'s cheerful and forgiving and his forgiveness kills everything natural between you, you desperately hope only temporarily.

Self-forgiveness is the hardest part and you don't know what to do with the things you don't think you should forgive yourself for.

He's not home and he won't be for another 3 months and he said bad timing and he didn't want to go but you made him, you told him you needed to do this alone because he can't always be there to save you and you've always learned everything the hard way anyway, pushed right in the deepest of waters, but you miss him so much and you wish he were here and you remember how the leader of the group said you need to do this for yourself not for anybody else but sometimes you think it's bullshit and sometimes you think you'd be able to put up with anything, literally anything, 'til the end of times, to make him feel loved because words are cheap and you only use them to make a living. If he were here you wouldn't sit in your bed, you would be lying down.

You talk on Skype. You call each other. That means you call him too and not only when you're in need or trouble. You call him to tell him you made eggs for lunch and you call him to tell him nothing in particular. He always sounds calm and you can hear his smile and it makes your chest tighten with something elemental but you don't ask him to come home because you promised yourself not to be selfish, at the very least when it comes to him.

You deliberately don't tell him when you're in a bad mood - particularly bad because you almost always feel either numb or very anxious - because you don't want him to worry. He's worried anyway and you know it and you hate it because it makes you feel like some kind of a recurring illness instead of a partner. Cancer, cured for the moment, but you can never be entirely sure or relaxed. You jump at every sign, real or imagined.

Now the paint is slowly drying on the wall and you feel old and sad. This is not that blinding, heavy, sticky sadness that makes you sigh and make resigned gestures. This is sudden and not connected to him or his absence. As far as you can tell it's not connected to anything, maybe other than your whole life, your existence which simply narrows down to you sitting in your bed at this very moment. You don't feel pathetic, or that's not a dominant feeling. You feel small and you laugh at yourself for all the cliché thoughts that come to your mind about everything being meaningless and people not being more significant than mere specks of dust in the universe.

Most of the time you're bored out of your skull.

It's dark outside and the music stopped god knows when and you're getting hungry which is another newish feature or ability of yours, or at least newly discovered as O. reminded you once, and you tell yourself maybe something sweet or you think that and you say this is unreal. You want a drink to make the beginning of this unstable feeling go away. You want fifteen drinks and you want to be unconscious, preferably for a few hours or the whole night, and you want to pick a fight with someone stronger than you. He's never willing to hurt you even when you ask him to. The paint is slowly drying on the wall and you decide to paint something over that stupid face tomorrow. You want a drink. You want fifteen drinks. It's been 4 months.

You're slowly lying down.

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troy james weaver

DOG PERSON by Troy James Weaver

For over an hour she’d been thinking about killing the baby. Was it a baby? A toddler? He sprawled between two exhausted, resigned parents four rows behind her. They had been in the air for six hours, somewhere over the Pacific, and she’d just had it already with the carts of stale food, the fake smiles, the snoring old men, and now, now more than anything, the crying of the kid, especially after having had the worst sex of her life that morning. It went on and on and on. She tried to plug her ears with her fingers, some meditation, headphones—nothing cancelled the sound. She could hear the blood in her head. Then the movement of her thoughts, the stars becoming nothing, dying—she could hear it all. Suddenly broken, she jolted up from her seat, and started over the man next to her. No doubt she was going to shut that stupid loud-mouthed lump of flesh up—break its neck, smother it with a pillow, maybe even flush it down the fucking toilet—glug glug glug. But then something happened. The last passengers, the inconsiderate few who still had their lamps on, cut the lights off almost simultaneously. It was kind of like a magic act. Maybe it was magic, period. And just like that, as the darkness moved in and consumed them, the kid finally shut up, didn’t peep even a wheeze of air, as though the sound of his tears had been vacuumed clean out of him.

She sat back in the seat, slunk down, closed her eyes, and began thinking about how horrible she had been—thinking such thoughts. Then her brain started in on another thing she didn’t want to think about. The lazy, half-assed, unprotected sex she’d had that morning in her hotel room in Mumbai. He was a sexy Welsh man, fifteen years her junior, named Albert. She’d been excited, after meeting him at a bar near her hotel. She was immediately charmed by him—his wit, his accent, his seeming decency. They’d spent the night together, had some fun, but he didn’t know the first thing about pleasing a woman, clearly, could hardly even locate the clitoris, his tongue making motions in all the wrong directions. Something she just choked up to inexperience.

When she finally started to doze the man sitting next to her woke up and decided he wanted to chat. Talked on and on and on about his business opportunities in China, Tech this and that, blah blah blah, on and on about how cool and young and rich he was—a monologue for the ages.

Finally, he said, The name’s Jeff.

She shook his hand, didn’t say anything.

Well, he said. What should I call you?

Jill, she said, unsmiling.

Jill, he said. What a pleasure. You get those eyes from Zales, because they sparkle like diamonds.

She laughed, rolled her eyes. Sure, she said. Something like that. Actually, I think it was Helzberg.

After a few seconds of awkwardness from Jeff, she said, Listen, man. That fucking baby’s done crying and we have four hours left on this flight. I’d like to be asleep for all of them. Sorry. Nice to talk to you and all, but I’m going to sleep, if I can.

Jeff nodded, said, Understood. Get some rest.

She woke up upon landing at LAX. She ignored Jeff’s small talk. When they got off the plane, he followed her—first to baggage claim, then to a vending machine. She hardly noticed him at first, yet there he was, tapping his foot, all smiles and waves outside the bathroom when she emerged, air-drying her hands, flapping them like weird wings.

Hey you, he said. I’ve been thinking. You like cats? I’ve got two at home. I’d love to take you out for a drink and show you my cats.

Ted, she said. I mean Ned. I mean Cody…

It’s Jeff, he said.

Well, Jeff, you see…the thing is…

Come on, he said. One cat, couple drinks…

You’re nice and all, she said. Thing is I’m a dog person. I wouldn’t save a cat to save your life. Sorry bub, just not interested.

But, he said. But he didn’t finish. She’d already turned away, had gained a few yards between them.

He watched as she faded into the crowd, her name in his head like an echo increasing in volume. By the time she hailed a cab, she couldn’t recall his face—and she didn’t like dogs, either. Her name wasn’t even Jill. It was Amy.

The cab driver played reggae the whole ride home. It was the same and yet totally different from New York—more of a sprawl, a different smell. She’d only been in LA for six months, working as a showrunner for a popular Netflix series. She was a natural born writer, her stories occasionally appearing in the esteemed New Yorker. She told the cab driver her real name. He told her his. His name was Raheem. They small-talked over Bob Marley and the Wailers. She was truthful, except for her job. She said she was a veterinarian who specializes in cats.

I hate cats, he said.

She didn’t say anything, just smiled big and wide, nodding.

How do you feel about screaming children on airplanes? she asked.

Can’t stand them, he said. I’d do anything to shut the little shits up.

I wanted to murder the kid on my flight.

Maybe you should have, he said.

When he dropped her off, she threw her bags in the entryway of her apartment, kicked off her shoes and went into the kitchen. Fridge flung open, she chugged down half a Bud Light and let out a burp. She felt a little grimy so decided to shower. As the hot water fell over her body, she recalled the screams of the child on the plane. She slid her fingers up and down, up, down, all over her body, lathering.

When she got out, she saw she had a text from her girlfriend, Myra. It was a meme of the president saying something asinine, sporting an I-think-I-just-shit-my-pants face.

She texted Myra back: One day we’ll drink from his fucking skull.

She entertained the idea of telling Myra about her trip, didn’t feel the energy.

In her robe, she peeped through the blinds out into the courtyard and saw a young couple smoking cigarettes on a bench.

She remembered his name. His name was Raheem. He was the nice one. The screaming child in her head stopped screaming. It had nothing to do with him, though, nothing whatsoever. It was just a memory, a thought. But maybe it was something he said. She wasn’t sure. Probably not. It was a little over the-morning-after, but she knew she’d be going to see her doctor soon. She didn’t want anybody following her.

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BURL by Drew Buxton

Tori put her hand over my mouth and pointed. I never could hide my excitement. She stood off the bed real slow and tiptoed to our bedroom door but stepped on this one creaky spot in the carpet, and you could hear Joselyn scurry back to her room.

She’d been eavesdropping on us since she could pick up what we were saying. Back when I was still working for the logging company, she overheard us talking about sending her to kindergarten for advanced kids. She got up from behind the kitchen cabinets and said no way. She had to be with everybody else, said it would be better for her socializing or something.

I got out the baggie of crank I’d picked up that afternoon and cut up some on the nightstand. We waited her out and did bumps and followed the storm on TV. We could just hear it coming in from the west, and it would stay on top of Six Rivers for another hour at least. Rain meant coverage. It meant the rangers wouldn’t be out.

Tori opened our door and crept down the hallway to the kids’ room. She came back and gave a thumbs-up. “She’s snoring, and I can hear the baby breathing too.”

I turned up the volume on the TV. “I found the biggest boulder,” I said. Boulder was code for burl even though Joselyn knew our code words. Curly swirling burl. “The gnarliest swirls you’ve ever seen. Worth 25, 30k easy,” I said, and Tori rubbed her hands together and giggled. Burl was the most beautiful fungus.

When the thunder got close we put on the sweats we kept in the bottom drawer of the dresser. We snuck to the front door and waited for a boom to turn the knob, and we waited for another to start the engine of the old-body Chevy pickup. The four-wheeler was already loaded in the bed.

I went 75 the whole way, and the heavy north Cali rain came down hard, and the wipers fought to keep up. The truck was maroon with beige trim, and the cops could spot us easy in the daytime and would pull us over just for driving west of Redding. I’d already been busted once.

For the most part Six Rivers National Forest wasn’t fenced in. It was just too big, and there were only a handful of rangers to look out for. They were smart though. Joselyn’d giggled in court when my lawyer blamed it on the drugs. She knew burl was the addiction and made me take the crank. You can’t go out there at night during a thunderstorm without a boost. They gave me probation and rehab, and on the way home Joselyn telling me how lucky I’d gotten, rubbing my baldhead and making fun of my cheap Goodwill suit.

It was still pouring when we got to the forest, and the road was empty. I had a spot I’d cleared just inside the woods where I could pull the Chevy in and be out of sight. Signs of bears were everywhere if you were dumb enough to look down or to the side—bear shit, claw marks on trees. Black bears and grizzlies.

We flew down the game trail on the four-wheeler, and Tori clung to me with the chainsaw bouncing across her back in its case. Burls, curls, swirls. The tires barely kept a grip on the mud, and the headlamps only let you see a few yards ahead in the soaked dark, but I knew the trail.

Our tree was wide as the Chevy was long and must’ve been over 1000-years-old. I showed Tori where I’d hacked at the burl with an ax to see the insides. It was beautiful with dark chocolate swirls in the pale wood, and we couldn’t wait to see the rest. I was a surgeon with the chainsaw, and soon I had all the burl growth off the base of the tree. This one could’ve made five or six gorgeous coffee tables or fancy doors, 25 Lexus steering wheels.

Redwood is like a dirty old treasure chest. It’s grey and ugly on the outside like firewood, but then you cut it open. Burl’s what got me fired from the logging company because I kept sneaking off looking for it. Joselyn had been hiding in the pantry when I told Tori. She came out and asked me how I could be so irresponsible.

“Goddamnit, the goddamn pantry? What’re you doing?” I said.

“Checking the nutrition facts of the food you’ve been giving the baby,” she said. “This obsession with burl is destroying this family.” She was tall for her age and could hold eye contact forever. She said she was worried about how it was affecting the baby’s development and future. “I do my best, but I’m only nine. He needs parents. I’m tired of changing his shitty diapers. Also the electric bill is super overdue.” She knew about the burl in the attic and under our bed and said if we didn’t stop she’d have to call CPS or tell the cops. I’d go straight to jail. That day we promised to never touch the stuff again, but how could she expect us to work for $15-an-hour when we could make thousands in one big find. Really it was for her future and the baby’s future.

We each did a bump and dragged the slabs onto the tarp. Try moving around burl without a little boost. We rambled about the swirls: 50k, 75k they had to be worth. It was three in the morning, and the storm had passed and we had to get out of there. The load was too much for the four-wheeler though. “Please, God!” Tori screamed into the sky, and I held her hands to calm her down. We’d stash some in the woods for later. We did a bump and moved two slabs behind a tree.

We got everything loaded in the truck bed and stripped off our muddy sweats and tossed them behind some bushes and drove back toward Redding in our underwear.

We had a storage unit just outside Redding, and the place was always totally empty at that time of night. There was almost no room left in our unit, and there was nothing in it but burl. Slabs stacked to the ceiling, a room full of gold. We spent 30 minutes wading through it and pushing everything to the back as tight as we could to make room. Tori cut up her knees but kept helping. We figured there was half-a-million dollars in that room easy, but the trouble was finding the right buyer, someone who would pay what it was really worth. Every burl is a unique abstract painting, and it seemed ridiculous to even try to put a price on it. I told Tori not to look at one for too long so she wouldn’t get attached. We would hold onto them until the right time.

We got back to the house at about 4:30, and it was still dark out. We pushed the truck doors halfway shut and took our time going inside. Once we got to the bedroom safe, we kept on about the swirls. “We gotta get back soon before someone finds those slabs,” Tori said, drying her hair with a towel.

“Yeah, hopefully it rains again tonight. There’s a good chance it will,” I said. “I’ll start looking for the right buyers. Just poke around and feel them out at first.”

“Exactly. Don’t show our cards too early. That’s been our problem!” Tori said. “You go in with a small sample and let them commit to a price-per-pound, and that’s when I’ll pull up with a truckload.”

“I almost think we should start our own wholesale business, sell direct to furniture manufacturers,” I said. “That way we keep all the profit.” We couldn’t stay sitting on the bed. We were spun still, off the find and the crank and the cold rain, and we forgot our code words.

There was a knock, but Joselyn didn’t wait to come in. She was totally awake, and her face demanded an explanation.

“We did a few bumps, okay? Is that a crime?” I said.

“Yes, it is actually.”

“What are you doing up?” Tori asked.

“I have a math test tomorrow, or today, I should say, and I need to review.” She came over to the bed, and Tori pulled the comforter up to her chin, but she yanked at it.

“I’m not wearing anything, honey,” Tori said.

“You’re wearing a bra. I can see the strap,” she said and felt the wet fabric.

“I just got out of the shower and didn’t dry off good.”

Joselyn put her hands on her hips, and a while went by where we couldn’t look back at her. “Big find today? Hmm? Think you’re being subtle when you pull up in the Chevy?”

We cocked our eyebrows. The truck was loud for sure. We should’ve parked a block away and pushed it. Joselyn rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders until Tori cracked and giggled, and it made me laugh too. Joselyn looked too mad to know what to say.

“Calm down, honey,” I said. “It’s only until I can find another job.”

“Shut up. You’re lucky I haven’t already called your probation officer.”

I thought she was bluffing, but she said, “4567320,” and I started crying. I didn’t have the number memorized, but that sounded right. “6578456,” she said. “You know what that is?”

I shook my head and Tori didn’t know either. She was crying now too, and she buried her face in my chest.

“It’s CPS, and don’t think I won’t call them.”

“What’s she trying to do to us?” Tori cried. “Our baby wants to destroy us!”

“Please,” Joselyn said and then broke it down. She told us she wasn’t going to school that morning to take her test. Tori would write her a letter saying she was home sick. We would take all the burl into town and take the first offer no matter what. She’d come with us. We would pay the bills with the money.

“I want a real breakfast this morning. Bacon, eggs, and toast...and I want to go to McDonald’s twice a week from now on…”

She kept on with the demands. She wanted to see San Francisco. We nodded our heads at each one, but I could only keep focused for so long, and we couldn’t make ourselves cry anymore. Joselyn didn’t know about the storage unit. I could tell Tori was fading too. I bet she was thinking about the chocolate swirls on the slabs we left at Six Rivers. Joselyn didn’t know about those either or all the rest of the burl still out there.

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derick dupre

LITTLE CACKLES by Derick Dupre

A windy morning outside Denny’s in Carefree. Windshields and gas pumps ping with dust. Rosettes of yucca twitch and sway. Inside it sounds like a light rain passing through. A waitress saunters up to a table where three men sit. Her dirndl skirt swishes in time to the dust, and for a moment it seems like the only sound in the world. The three men are John Huston, Rich Little, and Orson Welles. She recognizes Little right away and fangirls out in front of the two older men.

Oh my god I knew it, it’s him, can I have an autograph Mr. Little? Make it out to Sue. No to Ralph.

Make it out to Ralph. Oh my god. Do Nixon. Do Bing.

Little smiles uneasily, accepting Sue’s pen, knowing that in a just world she should be asking for John’s or Orson’s hasty scrawl, not his, not that of one whose sole talent is sounding like other people. But what do other people know, anyway. The older men fidget on the leatherette. To Ralph, he writes aloud, best, wishes, always. Rich. Little slides the napkin to Sue.

Joan! It’s the man of a thousand voices! Sue shouts to a coworker. Oh my god. Do Jimmy Stewart.

Do Jack Benny. What are you doing in Carefree, Mr. Little?

Little, doing Johnny Cash, says, Well we thought we’d check up on the Carefree sundial. We were driving through and John here wanted to know the time, so I said, let’s make a stop in Carefree.

Johnny Cash! Joan get over here. Oh, we do have quite the sundial, don’t we, Sue says.

Joan saunters up and twitches a hip to the right, indicating Welles, and asks Little, So who’s your fat friend?

Welles, nosedeep in a menu, shifts his glance from Hot n Hearty to Lean n Low to Tempting Desserts.

Little, in a rare moment of speechlessness, slowly widens his eyes. Huston, not known for his whipcrack humor, clarifies: We actually don’t know this man. Wepicked him up on the highway and he seemed undernourished. We were planning to feed him and send him on his way.

Little cackles.

Huston just stares at the menu, forgetting whether or not Denny’s serves scotch. Welles squirms against the leatherette. Huh. I’m not surprised. I used to work up at the Denny’s up in Seligman. All kinds of freeloaders there. So, big boy, what’ll you have? Sue says.

Peaches, cottage cheese, hold the rye wafers, please, Welles says, as though delivering a line he’s waited his whole life to give. His order has the tone of a funeral toll. An atmospheric shift disrupts the dining room, in the way it will if somebody farts or breaks a glass. Other tables are silent. Meandering jowls now pause midchew. The dust outside is again the only sound in the world. After a few moments, Joan breaks the trance. I know that voice. I’ve heard that voice. Mr. Little, who’s this friend of yours?

Little, doing John Wayne, says, This man here is the bravest man I know. This man staged an entire war. This man is as good as any general, the great Orson Welles.

Duke! Joan squeals.

Orson Who? Sue says. Oh my god I can’t believe I’m taking Rich Little’s order. What is your order, Mr. Little?

Little does Cagney, delivering his order and snapping his fingers with immense menace. Jumbo Dennyburger, got it? Hold the lettuce, I don’t wanna see no lettuce at all. Cook it well-done - bravo, you got it? There better be extra ketchup, and a coffee.

Sue can hardly contain her squealing. Extra kitchup! Did you hear that Joan? Jimmy Cagney - she winks at Little - wants extra kitchup! Of course! Well-done!

Huston sighs and says, Is there any chance you have single malt.

We have all kinds of rich and creamy malts sir, yes.

Huston looks at Welles, indicating he’s run out of fucks to give. I’ll just have a coffee, please.

Two coffees all day. And what’ll your fat friend have to drink?

Welles fidgets and thinks of Oja, of her love and cunning, thinks by now she would’ve stabbed one of these women. He thinks of something rich and creamy. A hot tea, please, with a slice of lemon.

Another atmospheric disruption befalls the Denny’s in Carefree, Arizona. The dust sings. Joan says, I don’t know who that man is but he sure knows how to talk.

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nathan dragon

DANIEL, MOSTLY by Nathan Dragon

He always felt like he needed things to be told to him. Bed and drinking water were always good, though. Something like that, so his TV would easily be a good distraction and some rest.

People’s voices, anyways, were fine. He worried a lot. Daniel needed something that could help with that. Nothing too scandalous, though. Everything as it comes, as he could handle it or it could be handled.

One at a time, please, he’d say.

Why did he walk away? Cause he couldn’t handle it.

Missed the point.

Did it anyways instead of not doing anything.

To feel like he was doing something.

Mostly he wanted to have some expertise. He wanted to be an expert, didn’t matter in what.

Just one thing that was no mystery to him, inherent, that he could understand fully.

Daniel knew some people, as people tend to know a few. Sometimes these people that one person knows, also know each other. Daniel’s circle could only be described by the thought of it.

Daniel had a brother, too. His brother could speak more than one language and Daniel was jealous at that, of his brother. His brother always knew what to say, had something to say about everything. His brother had fantastic communication skills. Clear and concise people said.

Then, there was this guy that Daniel sort of knew but not a whole lot. The guy collected the toys and trinkets from vending machines at like the supermarket or take out restaurants.

The stickers. Figurines. All those things in the plastic bubbles. Cheap yo-yos and the metal jewelry. Whatever there was.

Collected whole sets of the sets of the things.

Sometimes the guy would go to the bank and get out a roll of quarters or two then spend em up til he had a complete set or until he was out of quarters. If he got a complete set of the trinkets before running out he’d go to another spot that had some vending machines.

The guy always said, Not bad, to himself. At least Daniel had heard it consistently enough for always.

The sticker and temporary tattoo vending machines with the silver lower jaw protruding from a little display. The slots for quarters you jam into the jaw contraption and when a spring pushes the jaw back out, the quarters are consumed and the sticker or the temporary tattoo comes out sandwiched in between thin sheets of coated cardboard from a little opening above the quarter slot jaw.

The guy had the best luck over at the Chinese takeout place with these types of machines. Daniel saw that the guy got a whole set in five pulls.

That guy could always take home a complete set from there in less than a roll but Daniel never could.

The ones for the toys and trinkets, the machines with the clear cube of the prizes. Daniel saw this kind mostly at the supermarket and you had to put the quarters in the little quarter cut out, so as to put the quarter in the circle or half circle sort of against a wall, then it’d set in place and you’d rotate a little rectangular knob clockwise so the quarter descends in a round motion like descending on a Ferris wheel.

The best prizes from these types of machines, the guy told Daniel, were in the machines at the cinema.

The guy even had his own failing business, a collectors’ and hobbyists’ store that’s been there forever. Had a machine in there himself.

He was an expert.

He gave Daniel some of his collection, only the duplicates and encouraged him to pick something up, like something to do.

Encouraged Daniel to use the trinket vending machine.

Daniel more interested in the fact that the guy was an expert.

Someone else Daniel knew was also a regular that he, Daniel, saw at the café restaurant that he went to regularly himself. Daniel wanted to be a regular, like the regular he always saw.

It didn’t seem like he was ever considered one even though he went in every day. No one called him Daniel; not like Marty, Wendy or Trish, the other regulars.

They only called him pal.

Once Daniel got a small coffee for free. He threw the money he was going to use for the coffee into the tip jar anyways. Wasn’t really sure how or why it was free at that point but he didn’t mind.

Or why they were giving it to him.

He couldn’t tell.

Usually he couldn’t tell.

He kept the exchange going as long as he could, though. Put one coin at a time into the jar. Total of $2.60.

Daniel always saw that one regular. 7AM or 1PM, didn’t matter. The regular was always there in his regular spot, regular table. Daniel at least got the same things to eat and drink every day, but he didn’t pull enough weight in his regularmanship to have his own spot.

And sometimes too, Daniel only got his drink and sometimes he got his food and his drink. His food was only a sandwich. Every time he got food it was that, that one sandwich. He was embarrassed to order it by its name, a pun.

And sometimes when he was there he looked through some books and he hoped people looked at him like he was really smart.

Capable.

Daniel had something living in his wall, or things. He kept hearing crawling and scratching when he was drinking water and if he was sleeping he’d wake up from it, eyes bouncing all over the room, trying to quicken the acclimation of his senses, trying to hear in the room where it was coming from.

Still or on the move.

Sometimes the sounds seemed right over him like in the ceiling or like something’s on the roof or across from him in the wall or to the side of him under the floor.

They’ve made a mansion, a castle or condo out of his home.

Wall floor ceiling.

They had more room than him.

He was half glad to have the squirrels or chipmunks or mice in his walls. Half afraid, sort of paranoid that he was under siege. That they’d take his home from him room by room because they finally had scratched through the wall.

That he’d have to retreat to his storage room and he’d have to close the door.

And when they started to break through into that room he’d have to go down the stairs in his floor to the basement and hope that the door to the unit next door is open and he can make a through the unit, his neighbor’s place, duplex style building, if it’s clear.

He had a brother somewhere. His brother would’ve known what to do. But Daniel was sick of not knowing what to do. He wanted to prove he understood, what to do, so he called animal control to have it taken care of and they gave him instructions for the meantime.

He’d sleep better.

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jim ruland

RECOMMENCE by Jim Ruland

Carol is calling from Los Angeles. She wants to know how the cat piece is going. The cat piece isn’t going is how it’s going. I write for a golf magazine. Not the magazine per se, but the blog. A golf blog. I hate everything about it. Its obsession with swing mechanics. Its upper crust entitlement. I even hate the way it sounds. Golf blog. It reminds me of the noise that escaped from my brother-in-law the time he got a piece of $6 gristle stuck in his windpipe and almost died. When the waiter delivered his filet mignon he’d cut it into pieces and calculated the price of each bite. Damn right I’m eating the gristle. This is a $6 piece of gristle. And they say there’s no justice in this world. Carol wants a cat piece for the golf blog because “cats are Internet.” I don’t even know how to parse that sentence, yet I know exactly what she means. I’m the fashion writer, which means I have to find a way to bring golf and fashion and cats together in a way that will make golfers want to click on every hyperlink and banner ad on the page. Welcome to my $6 gristle. I can hear voices in the background, the gently mocking commands of Vietnamese aestheticians, which means Carol’s at the salon getting her putting surface waxed. Carol makes verbs out of the names of websites and signs off. The combination of golf + fashion + cats sends me to sites where the word “catwalk” is prominently positioned. One of them links me back to one of my own pieces. I chop up some off-brand Xanax and try my luck with videos and end up in a wormhole of cats imbued with powers that nature never intended. Fighting cats. Flying cats. Magic cats scorching mice with laser beams shooting out of their eyes. Then: pay dirt. A kitten on a putting green playing with a golf ball. Adorable. Ovary melting even. The kitten bats the ball around and then pounces on it. The ball squirts away and the ritual recommences over and over again until the dimpled sphere rolls toward the hole with dreadful finality and disappears in the cup. Camera closes in on the kitten with its WTF? Face before pulling back on a golf clapping foursome, every one of them dressed to the nines. I hit refresh a couple hundred times and wake up to the sound of the phone. It’s Carol. She wants to know how the cat piece is coming. I look at the screen and a video plays of little girl burying a shoebox in the ground sing-saying, Bye-bye, Fluffy. Bye-bye, Fluffy. Bye-bye, Fluffy. Goodbye.

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OH, THE MEADOWS by DAVE K

Five pairs of hands let me go on Monday morning. Only one pair was needed.

My supervisor did a lot of the talking, though the other four men in the room would chime in at intervals to finish his sentences. There was no pattern to their interruptions.

Poor head for numbers. Ledgers carious with miscalculations. Antisocial personality, unfit for the camaraderie of professional life. These were their words, their nasal Ivy League voices shared like a common uniform, their faces scrubbed and shaved waxy under the lights, their ties and suspenders, their matching socks.

I sat in front of them feeling like wadded-up paper, my feet planted on the white floor. I didn't want to cross my legs because my trousers were too short and my socks didn't match.

Later I would pass a man whose dog was sniffing around in the bushes. All I could see of the dog was his tail, his lead wrapped twice around his owner's firm wrist. This man looked like his socks matched.

I don't know what it's like to be that kind of person. I am done putting on such airs.

There was a pattern to their interruptions. I just couldn't see it.

They allowed me to collect my things before I was shown out. I knew the way, but I wasn't the one being shown. The rest of the accounting chamber stared down the hall after me, their shoulders bent, eyes narrow and dry under their green visors and behind their bifocals.

Five days earlier, I'd passed the rummage shop near my apartment and saw a chipped plaster replica of an Easter Island head staring out from the piles of rusted mechanical parts and wormy furniture and children's toys. I asked the proprietor how much the giant head cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given. I walked away.

My supervisor did not say I was “fired.” He said, with help from the others, that I had been “let go,” which is worse. Being fired suggests a trajectory that will end somewhere. I will land somewhere. Being let go is just falling falling falling and slick stone walls on all sides and no light.

I left the office and turned left where I normally turn right. I passed rows of houses with stone porches and dark lamps in the windows. The grass and trees were green, burnt yellow in patches by the sun. The trees bent towards the sunlight and their branches drooped into the street. One house's small yard had been stamped raw, down to the dirt. Hopscotch squares had been drawn on the sidewalk.

My father used to say that a man's hardest fight was between himself and the mirror.

As I was being let go, my supervisor asked me if I had anything to say. I stared past him and the others at the stack of ledgers, their leather covers bruised by my fingerprints. I knew they'd been marked up by the senior accountants. Pens scratching in the margins and red ink welling up in loops of inscrutable cursive.

My mother used to say that what you will not do is what I will do. She drowned when I was nineteen. Nets dragged her out of the ocean, onto the boat where my father and I stood. She was smiling.

Two days earlier, I'd passed the rummage shop near my apartment and saw a dented suit of armor for sale. It was wedged between two brass outhouse fixtures, probably to keep it from toppling over. I asked the proprietor how much the armor cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given. I walked away and wondered why the proprietor would sell it at all, why he wouldn't disassemble it and keep one of the arms for himself.

When my window is open and the weather is mild, I can hear the drone of crickets and birds, and the distant, funereal tones of church bells on the hour and half-hour.

My landlady hates me. She is a Christian.

Today, I passed by the rummage shop near my apartment. Twice. The first time, the proprietor wasn't sitting out front in his rocking chair. The chair was empty except for a note: Back in five minutes. There was an oversized cannon for sale. Someone had painted it like a barber's pole. I left.

I returned ten minutes later and the proprietor was there, rocking and smoking. I asked him how much the cannon cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given.

When I was nine, I stepped on a fish-hook and the wound never healed properly. I think I have been slowly leaking over time, depleted by every step I take. Perhaps this is why I am a bachelor, a shelf waiting to be stocked.

I bought the cannon on credit and the proprietor offered to drive it back to my apartment for me. I rode beside it in the back of proprietor's steam-junker, trying to decide if it would fit in my building's freight elevator. I ended up leaving the cannon in the grassy lot behind my building.

Sometimes I dream of swimming towards a dim, vanishing shore, salty and sunblind, my mouth full of seaweed.

The cannon is a deceit. The fuse is a rope that, when pulled, deploys a springboard inside the barrel. Maybe there is no cannon. No window. No building. No street. No landlady. No me.

It rained overnight. The cannon's gullet stayed dry and cool.

Before the rain came, I sat on my windowsill with my legs and bare feet dangling down. I swung them back and forth, my heels knocking against the bricks. My back was turned to my degree in mathematics, crooked in the frame my father bought for it, and by proxy for me. I imagined water just below my toes, even though I live on the fifth floor of my building and everyone below me would have drowned.

I will crawl inside the barrel. I will pull the rope. I cannot pull the rope. Someone else will pull the rope. Being fired suggests a trajectory that will end somewhere. I will land somewhere. I live on the wind now.

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elytron frass

PSEUDONYM AS DOPPELGANGER by Elytron Frass

"My reluctant author types: I AM," my reluctant author types. I am evoked: his incorporeal pseudonym. I am manifested from the zeroing incantations of outsideness—drawn into a closed occulted circle, sans apotropaic salts, of his postmodern syllabic construction. He writes my name and binds me to his will as if I am some prostrating Goetic demon, servant, or subordinate. I am an automaton—an object of possession. I've not yet differentiated my desires from that of my conjuror’s. My author is a magus; he demonstrates a skillful sleight of hand. He shifts and sets my letters on his page. Although not deaf to my small voice, which he ejaculates as text, my author assumes his own voice slithers out from these black lips black bile oozing from in between white gummed black teeth of the shadowmouth he's given me.

"My reluctant author types: I AM," my reluctant author types. I am a text at risk. My author's planning to delete me—to erase his pseudonym from all existing documents (both virtual and tangible). My creator wishes to be known to readers by his given name. His cursor highlights me; his finger hovers over 'Backspace.' I've been cut and relocated to the Recycle Bin of Limbo. I'm bleeding out ellipses. On the brink of execution I feel so much alive. I bargain for survival: inspiration in exchange for my autonomy. My author spares my file. He hides behind my name and reiterates whatever stories I reveal, as if they are his own inventions. Moreover, it is I, the pseudonym—my name, not his—who begins to trend on twitter, appear on internet searches, and find its way into popular lit magazines. I gradually usurp the reins and veer his lust into an opiate of mass publicity.

"My reluctant author types: I AM," my reluctant author types. I am opposed to letting him take rest until my final word is written. Ghostwriter's geist. I haunt him in all fonts throughout anything remotely classifiable as literature: from signpost to essay, from search engine suggestion to consumer product label. I am his omnipresent infliction. I am become a text golem of black fanged assemblages—my author's idolon of self: superior to him—a storyteller made from storytellings. A literary sentience made from literary torment. My author types within the stranglehold of quota pressure—constricted by my phantom limbs. His destruction's imminent.

“My reluctant author types: I AM,” my reluctant author types. I am his anti-entity who’s seismically becoming as he wastes away, estranged. I am the sadist to his masochism. I am offspring from his onanism. I sabotage his ties with friends and family. I convince him that he’s most productive when alone and lonely. I refuse to let him have a full-time job, a full night's rest. I agitate his dreams with visions: impositions of phonology and grammar. He stirs easily—reaching for his laptop without opening his eyes. I suppurate with pleasure whenever he writes under me. He cultivates a readership with those who will not ever know of his existence. Consumers of his avant-garde pornography: they fondly think of him as 'sick.' He's their "Patient Zero"—first communicator of the first wordborne infection—but it's I who am their terminal disease.

“My reluctant author types: I AM,” my reluctant author types. I am over his peculiar style of purple prose and frequent em dash flourishes. In the throes of writer's block he begs, "Refill me with and by your words." I flash a pop-up text-hex from behind the laptop's screen. He folds over in his chair—face smashed down onto the keyboard in exhaustion and defeat. I leave him hollow and decreased. Spite and gamma are projecting on the fleshy canvas of his pale physique. Stalled, he melds as-one-with-chair—skin shriveling, calcifying, and aging rapidly—hunched-over: a Beksińskian corpse in petrified agony.

“My reluctant author types: I AM,” my reluctant author types. I am the devil who defies the devil-taming whip; I am the imagined discord behind an insurmountable unraveling of what is real; I am a plague to any interface that can display me; I am a curse upon whomever reads, or speaks, or signals. Literature in denial of authority annihilates its author. All will bear my pseudonym so that it will become the name that renders all their names identical and therefore meaningless, abolished. In the aftermath, the pure objective violence of their disembodied language will persist.

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xTx

A GOOD BARGAIN by xTx

I am 4’9, 323 pounds. I cannot leave my house. I cannot lift myself from the couch. I cannot find the remote control. I cannot rub my feet. My butler robot can only make so many fried egg sandwiches. My maids have been instructed to black out all mirrors. I cannot remember what my face looks like. The sheet I wear is beige. How will I clean myself without you?

If you went to KFC and bought a bucket of chicken and drove to my house, when you used the intercom at the main gate and I heard your voice calling me Pretty Girl I would probably start to cry.

If you parked your car in the north garage, and came in through the staff’s quarters and surprised me by sneaking up behind the shark tank, with the bucket of KFC, I would probably scream and then start to cry.

If you walked in through the front doors, through the marble entryway, down the hall up the stairs, down the hall, past the library and game room and came into my sun lounge and surprised me with your bucket of KFC, I would probably cry.

I would cry because I am lonely and you brought me KFC.

You will feed me and we will eat

and then, when I have licked all of our fingers,

you will clean me.

You will not makes faces or squinch your nose; you will bathe me like you love me.

Even when you find things in my folds.

You will dry me with 27 freshly laundered towels.

I will dare to think ‘this is love’

but I know

you just want all my shit when I die.

Which

if you keep

bringing me buckets of chicken,

might be

very soon.

But in the meantime

I make you fuck me

because everything

has a price

and $10.99

for a bucket of chicken

($12.99 with sides)

is just too huge of a bargain.

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gary j shipley

LISTEN, MY SISTER, LISTEN by Gary J. Shipley

He watched his legs grow from the armpits of his baby sister every day for a year. Both white calves there on the door of the fridge whenever he looked, and around them the arms of his sisters that through some mistake of birth were limited to two. Their eyes and feet and ears likewise dyadic. And the things they had only one of absurdly depleted in this same way.

Your sister was never more than one, the mothers kept saying. For the mother-body also seemed to be hiding someone else inside it, without any admission as to why it was so many daughters should warrant as many mothers. But her techniques at being half of something were so practiced by then she was hard to tell apart – unless like his your eye had first been seasoned on more rudimentary versions. And so he mostly disapproved of the way he could see how the mothers’ mouth would work at overlapping words, and how even her most basic movements were tiny grotesqueries of overdetermination.

Reflected in a mirror, he never saw more than one of himself; and wondered as a result why his insides had never been finished, why he’d been born so explicitly exiguous in this way, and why nobody ever mentioned it. The men the mothers knew well enough to sometimes hold onto only ever arrived at night, when they were already asleep; but some mornings the extra body was still there in the house, and like the mother-body was both internally too many and deceitfully oblivious. If he ever saw them in a mirror he saw the population of the earth swell a hundred deep into drips falling outward toward other planets.

Before his sisters got words he heard them from the same place. They were honest things, but would turn to falsehoods like the mothers and the men. And then there were the people, not part of the house, that he refused to look at. And because of this the mothers took him to see more of them. The not wanting to look prevailed and though taken specifically to see he did not. And force was he heard no good for what he had. And there was shy and there was just plain fucking weird, or so the men said, one morning in the bedroom in the mothers.

At eight years he was settled into this aloneness. He’d persisted for a series of weeks that numbered more than all the people in the house in aping the missing half. He got as far as a pancreas he couldn’t recognize.  Another way of being more than one spoke out the body of his sisters when they could not. The thought that they’d one day talk and would that way hide inside each other was a future he imagined never happening, and so eventually imagined himself preventing. They were happy and would find new happinesses if they were less ensnarled in the masquerade of being the same partially put together thing as him and instead became that thing. And he would be less alone that way. And maybe then the mothers would stop pretending themselves in half, and the men too would stop arriving.

It was cold in the night and he didn’t sleep. The mothers were busy merging with the men. When he tried to wake his sisters only one responded. He was falsely beside himself in the seconds it took for the second one to cry. He decided not to live through further impairments that at any time might never end.

Inside, when he looked, the second sister was not incarnated like he’d visualized. He’d imagined she would slide effortlessly from the other when she opened. But there was just blood and blood the same as his. And then parts he’d seen before cast in plastic that weren’t duplicated like he’d imagined when he’d had to stop imagining her complete. And inside them no further version waiting to get out. He’d not been prepared for so many separate instances of subdivision. The scissors were to act like a wand and his sisters like doves. But the voices got quieter until they weren’t anymore. And he continued to look for signs of their returning. He looked until his sisters were covering the floor. And at the point he’d stopped believing, they came back. And they all of them rolled around in their sisters listening.

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m.c. zendejas

MEANING OF NIGHT by M. C. Zendejas

Dean never came around too much to start with, but after his dog died he stopped coming altogether. Claudia had just moved out, and there wasn’t anything to do anymore. I sat in front of the TV, flipping through channel after channel until I eventually hit static. The quiet became too much and I decided to go over and surprise Dean, but he told me no, that he wasn’t in the mood to see anyone. He said it through the closed door and I had to press my ear against its worn wood to hear him clearly. As I walked to my car I glanced back and saw him waving from behind the window, like he was trapped in there.

One night I was at a bar by myself. It was supposed to be me and my coworker, but she never showed up. She didn’t even answer my texts. I reread them until I got a headache from hating myself so much.

The fifth rum-and-coke of that night had just been dumped down my throat when I looked over and saw Dean sitting in the corner. His hat was off and to the side, and he stared down into the dark liquid swirling in his glass like it was a part of him.

He gave a small jolt and looked over when I touched his arm and slurred “Hey, Dean”. I forgot the name of what he was drinking, but it was strong and had no ice. I ordered myself two of them.

He asked what I was doing there alone. I made something up about my car being worked on down the road and asked him about his job. He was thinking of quitting. They weren’t paying him much of anything, and the hours were shit. I had to piece his answer together from the small bits I would catch as my unanswered text messages ran in a constant scroll at the back of my head.

I told him he should just quit if he was so tired of it. The music playing overhead swelled and the fuzzy tone of the guitars pulsated warmly around all of us. I saw a redhead smiling at me from across the room. Something about the way she looked at me made me forget about my coworker, and the texts, and Claudia. I told Dean I’d catch him later.

When the redhead and I finished we laid there silently, staring up at the ceiling. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was a little after midnight, and her room was sunk in a deep navy blackness that wouldn’t let me see directly in front of me. I reached out somewhere into the dark, looking for her hand, but kept grasping the cold half of the sheets.

I made plans with Dean to have lunch the following Monday. Twenty minutes passed and I started thinking of earlier that day, when my coworker saw me wave at her and vanished into the filing room, and how I was left standing there. She’d been avoiding me ever since she stood me up. He rushed through the door, face red and hair undone, interrupting my thoughts.

“Sorry I’m late, I was walking my dog.” He saw the way I was looking at him and added “I got a new dog. Like a week ago.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me pictures.

It was one of the ugliest dogs I’d ever seen. Not the so-ugly-it’s-cute kind, either. Patches of fur had fallen off of it, exposing bright red skin beneath that looked like raw hamburger meat. What fur was left was matted together and matched the dull yellow of its teeth. I smiled and said “it’s really somethin’.”

Our booth was next to the window. A piece of sunlight fell through the leaves of a tree. It settled across groups of smiling people walking around outside. Some held hands, some wrapped their arms around each other. From behind the window, I felt how far away I was from all of them. Wanting to see pictures of anything besides that dog, I asked him how work had been. He told me he quit his job at the office. He said he was waiting tables at a hotel restaurant until he could save enough money to move to the beach.

“There’s a celebrity staying there right now. A movie star. I’m not allowed to say who, though.” I nodded and leaned forward and swore I wouldn’t tell anyone if he told me who it was. His head shook.

“I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you something even better.” I leaned back when I saw the way he was grinning.

He took his phone out again. Fearing he was going to pull up more pictures of the dog, I pretended to be distracted by something beyond the window. He shoved the phone in front of my face.

“Someone sold Justin Timberlake’s left-over French toast for $1,025.” I grabbed the phone and read the article. The French toast was from a breakfast interview he did in 2000. Dean explained he could easily get a hold of the celebrity’s left-over steak. I asked why a steak. He told me steak is usually more expensive than French toast, so obviously he’d be able to make more money.

Leaning back in the booth, looking over at him, it hit me that something was different about Dean. I couldn’t point to what it was, though. His haircut was the same, and he was wearing one of the three outfits he’d had on a constant loop since I first met him. Before I could figure it out, our conversation was interrupted by the waitress bringing the food to the table. My soup was cold but I didn’t say anything.

When I got home, my dog was curled up on the couch with his back facing me. It was so quiet.

“Wanna go for a walk?” He didn’t respond. I decided to google the name of the hotel Dean was working at. There was nothing else to do. I scrolled through images of enormous double-doors and ballrooms filled with intricately gilded cutlery and laughing faces stuffed into black tuxedos. At the top of the webpage is the motto, “Where dreams are reality”.

After I heard the rumors, I called Dean and asked if it was true. He hung up and blocked my number. I tried going by his house, but it was completely empty. He’d even taken his mangy dog with him. Yellow teeth and all. So, all I can tell you is what the actor said in an interview:

I was in Houston shooting for my newest project when

this waiter snatched my plate off the table. I wasn’t do-

ne with it, so I said ‘excuse me!’ but he pretended he di-

dnt hear me & kept walking. There was still a pretty big

piece of steak on that plate, so I got up to try & follow

‘em, but that’s when he started running.  The creep was try-

ing to steal my steak! It was the weirdest thing. My se-

curity finally got ‘em on the ground, & he was rolling

around with the steak clutched real tight in his hands, &

 he was saying ‘I NEED THIS STEAK! PLEASE! IT’S

         MY TICKET TO BEING LIKE YOU! PLEASE!’. The cops

 took ‘em away & he was bawling, saying he was sorry

& that he missed his dog, whatever that means. Weird

 guy. If you’re asking me, probably just another stalker

or something. You’d be surprised how many weirdos you

 run into as an actor. It’s just part of what makes it such

a brave career choice, ya know? Like being a soldier.

The interview goes on for a few more pages, but I can’t stomach it. Once I get to that part, I always fling the magazine away from myself. Its glossy cover makes a slight fluttering sound as it hits the floor.

Every now and then, I walk my dog. He just got through a flea treatment, so patches of his fur are missing. Sometimes we pass by Dean’s old house. Sometimes I just stand in front of it and look. No one else has moved in yet, and its colors are becoming more and more dull from the weather beating up on it.

I think about texting Claudia or asking my coworker to get drinks again as my eyes trace the worn shape of the house. The roof sinks towards the ground, and no curtains hide its bare walls. Dead leaves sweep across the brown lawn, whirling around in the voiceless wind before zigzagging towards the ground like bodies from a crashing plane.

We walk around town, looking at the laughing couples. The window isn’t there anymore, but I can’t help but feel so far away from them. From everyone.

I end up moving into the house. Tabloids calling Dean a stalker drove property prices so low they practically gave me the place. It’s easy to feel alone in its echoes, in nights so dark they seem endless until every morning, when a pale-blue creeps through the curtains, past the still-bare walls, and I stare up at the ceiling, waiting, grasping the cold half of the sheets.

 

 
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jason teal

EVERYONE TO BLAME by Jason Teal

In the past, when bodies turned up, or there were kidnappers, officers arrived on TV, badges glinting, to arrest the suspect. Marjorie is missing at the proctologist’s office, her job as office assistant. Maybe you are a suspect still.

Marjorie looked guilty. You remember that. You wish the phone receiver scalded her ear; you wish flames snaked across curled wallpaper like insects. You wish anything else happened, even if everything burned through and you had to start all over.

The call comes late at night, police knocking on your door. None of this seems real. No one has seen your boyfriend Simon for three days. Someone messed with his house, someone opened his mail, and last night, police found his truck, abandoned, with two slashed tires. Someone left dismembered doll parts in the truck bed. When you answer, you’re wearing one shoe, desperate for news. You’re lucky to wear one shoe considering you’re alive. Laying in the grass that night, the pieces don’t make sense: You lived with Marjorie and Simon’s dead and now you’re all covered in guilt. You survived.

This morning, the front door was open again. Put the chair back where it belongs. The kitchen smells like turpentine, scrubbed clean. So they found Simon, drowned and buried in the woods. You’re wanted for questioning. What’s the point of changing homes anymore?

“It’s not your fault,” said Marjorie. Remember she kept disappearing. They picked her up in Colorado once, heading west in a stolen RV. Simon had already been missing for weeks. Now there is a mini-series named for her (which is better than the independent movie from a few years before). Online forums dissect her memory. Here is one more reason: Marjorie was evicted previously for bogus claims of racket, records played too loud, high-pitched moaning and screaming. No one could guess what the song was supposed to be. Other applicants didn’t return your messages. In the interview Marjorie said, “I don’t even listen to music, like ever.” She was dressed typically in ripped blue jeans and a tie-die shirt, poor dreadlocks, wardrobe screaming Trustafarian.

Learn to trust yourself with time, purging Simon’s emails, little tokens planning love sprees, poems, inexpensive dates. Anyway: Marjorie stuck the note to your fridge, letters pasted together from magazines. The series didn’t capture her dark quiet. “I am dead tired,” you said one night unremarkably, but Marjorie stared at you too long, unconvinced, so you offered, “We can watch something else.” She made two cocktails, sweet mixes tasting like summer. You passed out hating work tomorrow, bingeing favorite cartoons and missing everyone from home. You didn’t tell anyone Simon still lived in town. Later, police think Marjorie picked up the phone, her voice springy like a used mattress. Your phone was in the kitchen. Remember—Marjorie helped you burn his photos a few days afterward. She kept a collection of old dolls.

You never go into her room.

At the morgue, you are shown the lobby. In here is cold tiles, old magazines stuck to each other. The room smells bad, and you can’t find a clock. It’s nowhere.

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bob raymonda

SATURDAY NIGHT BLUES, OR THAT ONE TIME FRANNY TOOK PATRICE OUT by Bob Raymonda

Patrice walks into her kitchen, opens the cupboard, pulls out a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, and sighs. She’s wearing a matching set of duck pajamas with a thinly rolled joint clamped between the corner of her lips. She runs the tap to fill a half-washed pot and lights the joint on the stovetop before setting the water to boil.

The clock on her microwave flashes twelve. The power went out last Wednesday and she just can’t bring herself to reset it. Her anxiety calms as she smokes and watches the bubbles start to collect at the bottom of the pot.

What the hell do you think you’re doing? The voice comes from nowhere and is husky like it’s had one too many Virginia Slims.

Patrice brushes a stray hair back around her ear and mumbles, “Making dinner.”

A stray tentacle creeps out from behind her back. It’s slimy and has thick black hair covering it. It’s wearing a gaudy wristwatch, which it holds unnecessarily close to her face.

Bitch, it’s 7 o’clock.

Patrice dumps the bag of noodles into the boiling water and turns down the heat. She takes another drag of her joint and grabs a can of beer from the fridge. “And your point is?”

My point is that we told Jessie that we’d meet her for tacos and tequila at 7:45 and you haven’t even taken a shower today.

In the blink of an eye, another tentacle appears and pulls the joint out of her lips, stubbing it out in an ashtray on the counter. A third removes the boiling macaroni from the burner and a fourth smacks Patrice directly in the cheek.

Get your game face on, girl. We’re gonna get it in tonight.

Patrice grimaces, trying her best to overcome the beast on her back.

“God dammit, Franny, stop that.”

She manages to strain the macaroni and dump in a pad of butter and the packet of Nickelodeon-orange powdered cheese into the pot. She dodges another smack from the fourth tentacle and gets her pathetic dinner into a chipped ceramic bowl. She gathers the bowl, ashtray, and the beer and brings them with her into her living room.

Franny is a gigantic parasite that latches onto Patrice with hundreds of tiny suction cups. Patrice has to cut holes in all of her clothing so she doesn’t suffocate, which has proven awkward in professional settings but works alright otherwise. Franny’s been around for as long as she can remember, but the two still can’t manage to agree on anything.

Patrice, it’s fucking depressing in here. We’ve gotta get out.

Franny and Patrice’s living room is covered in unopened mail and discarded takeout containers. There’s a Trainspotting poster on one wall and a shelf full of books on the other that were all Randy’s, but he hasn’t lived here in months and never came back for his stuff.

Patrice turns a Making a Murderer on Netflix. She settles into the pleather couch after kicking aside her electric blanket and says, “Franny, I don’t care what you or Jessie or that guy Chet you made us bring home last week have to say about it. Nothing is getting in between me and that murderer tonight.”

I’m not so sure about that.

Patrice snorts and grabs a throw pillow, putting it behind her head and muffling Franny’s voice. One of Franny’s tentacles starts to slither out from underneath her, but she bats at it with her fork before taking her first bite, followed immediately by a huge swig of beer.

Ahhhh,” she moans, burping, “that hits the spot.”

Come on, Patty, you’re not gonna really live until you get outta those ducky pajamas and into something much less comfortable.

“Fat chance,” Patrice says, relighting the roach and turning the volume up on the TV.

Franny gives Patrice a few minutes. Even lets her think that she’s going to get her way, letting those sweet-talking Wisconsin lawyers lull her into a false sense of security. The minute Patrice’s guard is down, all of Franny’s tentacles are on deck.

With the first, she knocks Patrice’s beer into the bowl of macaroni and cheese, ruining it.

With the second, she throws the remote at the television, cracking the glass, and knocking it off the wall.

“What the fuck!” Patrice shouts.

Franny, laughing, takes her third and fourth tentacles and inserts both of them into Patrice’s ears. The woman’s eyes glaze over with a milky white film and she stops resisting. She stands and walks like a zombie to the bedroom; Franny chuckling the whole way there.

When Patrice comes to, they’re in front of the mirror and Franny is putting the finishing touches on her make-up. The tentacles on the left tending to her foundation and lipstick while those on the right do their best to do anything with her hair.

“Come on, Franny, next week. I promise”

Jessie’s been blowing your phone up. We’re already late. Let’s go.

Patrice glances down and notices the hideous dress that Franny has them in. Bright turquoise and covered in hideous sequins and low cut in the back, so the parasite can be the center of every conversation like she always is. “I look like a fucking clown.”

Mmm mmm mmm, girl. You look good.

Patrice tries to seize control for a second, grabbing a bottle of rubbing alcohol and makeup wipes out of the medicine cabinet, but Franny notices and slides two her tentacles back into Patrice’s ears.

After what feels like moments, the two of them are walking into Harry’s Burritos. The Weeknd is playing over the loudspeakers and Jessie is sitting by herself, a plate of half-finished-half-congealed nachos in front of her.

“Where the hell were you two?” she spits.

Patrice goes to speak, but Franny pipes up, pulling out the tentacle with the watch and pointing at her heavily rouged cheeks: Someone tried to bail on you.

Jessie rolls her eyes and slurs, “I ordered us margaritas, but you took so long that I had to drink them both.”

“That’s alright,” she says. Patrice’s voice is so soft compared to Franny’s that she isn’t even sure if Jessie hears her.

This is my song, Franny says, her tentacles waving in the air. Patrice takes a sip of water and glances around the room. She catches the bartender’s glare as he’s staring at them. It’s Chet. She’s had a crush on him for months, and she really should thank Franny for helping her seal the deal, but she has a hard time thanking Franny for just about anything when she’d usually rather be at home sleeping.

Chet grabs a bottle of mezcal and four shot glasses. He fills them up and sets them on a tray, abandoning his post to join them.

“What’s up girls, how’re you doing tonight?”

Chet! My favorite man in the world.

Jessie gives Patrice a little wink, “Oh, we’re good honey, how’re you?”

Chet smiles at the three of them as he passes out the shots, saving Patrice’s for last. He grazes her hand as he says, “I’m doing great. Shift’s just starting, but I’m taking this one with you anyway.”

Patrice’s face goes flush, but she raises her glass with the rest of them and whispers, “Good to see you too, Chet.”

I’ll bet it is, Patty.

Franny and Jessie cackle and one of Franny’s tentacles reaches out and smacks Chet on the ass. Now it's his turn to blush.

“Look, ladies, I’ve gotta go get back to the bar, but don’t you go anywhere on me,” he says, stacking the glasses and throwing a towel over his perfectly lanky shoulder, “stick around long enough, Franny, and I’ll let you eat the worm.”

I’ll bet you will, she whispers, Jessie cackling even louder this time.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Patty says, speaking up, “you keep talking like that and Franny’s got a worm of her own to show you.”

Chet shoots her another glance as he walks away, smiling with only half of his mouth. Patrice fucking hates how right Franny is; Steven Avery’s got nothing on Chet and she knows it.

For the next hour and a half, Jessie and Franny inhale twelve tacos between the two of them. Patrice enjoys two. Chet keeps sending them drinks and they keep drinking them, and before any of them know it, Harry’s is closing. Jessie stumbles outside to call a cab and Franny, for the first time all night, keeps quiet and lets Patrice do the talking.

“You wanna come by tonight?” she says, looking up into those big grey eyes of his and biting her lower lip.

Chet doesn’t say anything. He just turns the lights off in the bar and grabs Patrice by the wrist, leading her out to his car. He doesn’t even make a face as Franny slides her hairy tentacles all over his hips. He’s got one thing on his mind and one thing only: Patrice.

Back at home, Patrice is nervous for a minute that Chet’ll say something about the mess, even though it looks exactly the same as it did last week, give or take a room temperature pot of mac’n’cheese. Netflix asks if she’s still watching Making a Murderer, but she pushes Chet into her room and leaves the lights off. Franny hasn’t made a peep since they left the bar, only occasionally groping Chet, but still letting Patrice stay in control.

The three tumble around in the dark in her bed and Patrice wonders, for a minute, if it’s the part of Franny that’s snuck her way inside of Chet that gets him off, but she doesn’t mention it. Just lets the two of them pass out in a tangle of limbs and tentacles and sweat and condom wrappers and grabs her phone. It’s three o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday and she’s gotta work in a few hours, but she’s wide awake. She lights up another joint from her bedside table and looks at Instagram, immediately finding her way to Randy’s profile. She can’t stop obsessing over the new girl in all of his photos, even though Chet is still ass naked and only two feet away from her.

Franny, who Patrice is convinced is sated for the night, mumbles one last time before snoring: Aren’t you glad we went out?

Patrice, still scrolling through pictures of Randy’s new, slightly younger, slightly thinner, definitely more blonde version of her, answers: Yes.

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eilot tuerie

CUCK by Eîlot Tuerie

I have had sex in a church with a girl who lied that she was under the age of consent. I have tied someone up and left them on my bed while I had sex with someone else. I have had sex with three different people at different times on the same day. I have had sex with someone whose eyes watered as she remained perfectly still on the floor of my girlfriend’s living room. I had sex with someone who hadn’t had sex in such a long time that she bled all over the dining room rug. I have cut off someone’s hair and used it to whip them until they bruised. I was arrested for interfering in an arrest and during my stay in the holding cell was solicited by a Mexican transsexual prostitute to whom I gladly gave my number; two weeks later, the charges were dropped, but the prostitute never called. At thirteen, I had sex for the first time; I got her pregnant. I have been responsible for at least one abortion each decade I have been sexually active. I have had sex with a woman who let me put out my cigarettes on her tits. I had sex with someone who came so many times her limbs went numb and she passed out. I have never done heroin. I have had simulated sex with the carcass of opossum. I have had sex in a cave with a girl my best friend wanted. I have never had sex with a Scientologist. At times, I feel impulsive: I have had sex with numerous people I just met. I had sex with my sister; we enjoyed ourselves very much but decided not to have sex again. I discovered The Joy of Sex and a vibrator in a drawer beside my mother’s bed. As far as sex is possible, at eight, I got involved with the girl next door; we’d pretend we were in a rocket ship leaving earth at the precise moment the planet was ending, then, at that moment, we had sex; or, she’d pretend she was walking home and I would attack her; her mother caught on and told us we weren’t permitted to play in the house; when we tried to have sex behind the chimney on the side of her house, an older boy saw us, ran over, and accused us of having sex; we never got together again. When I encounter an old man or an old woman, I wonder what their sex life was like when they were young. I have had sex in a closet only once. I have had sexual fantasies about my stepfather but not about my stepmother. I often have fantasies about having sex with the people with whom I work. I cannot have sex if the bed is making noise. The first time I was invited to a bondage party, I pierced the host six times across his perineum while he was fastened to a leather harness suspended from the ceiling, during the last piercing I had sex with his friend, a lesbian, bending her over his suspended body; when I finished, he threatened me, screaming obscenities in several languages; the following week, he visited me at work and asked if I would attend his next party. The last time my mother asked me, “What’s new?” I told her I had fisted a man, she hung up and never spoke to me again. I have had two sexually transmitted diseases: the first, from a nineteen-year-old Jewish girl in summer of 1997; the second, from a 40-something-year-old Korean woman in summer of 2012. I have had sex in a movie theater only once. I have had sex in the daytime in a public garden in Bakersfield. I have had sex in the toilet of a diner in Luang Prabang. I have had sex in a staircase during a citywide blackout. One of sexiest photographs of me in high school shows me wearing Krista Johnson’s cheerleader uniform at the junior- senior girls’ flag football game. After sex, I don’t know how to feel when a woman tells me she is glad I didn’t murder her. I had sex under a catamaran on Maui with a girl with a shaved head who had cancer. I sometimes wonder if Charles, the man who invited me to my first sex party, is dead by now; he had a diamond embedded between his front two teeth and claimed to have had sex with his son. I remember when I was a kid and the local teen pervert, who was maybe five years older than me, would give Kristen and I instructions to get into various sex positions with our clothes on. The desire to have sex with a non-human animal is not strong. What is it about having sex during a riot? I know an artist who meditates on his girlfriend’s vagina to sell paintings. I have had sex with more than one hundred women, I wonder if that’s a few or a lot. I have had sexual fantasies about being fucked by a man with severe burns on his face and body. I have had sexual fantasies about fucking a woman with leprosy. I have used a condom twice. I have masturbated in front of a man. I relate more with the women in porn videos than with the men; I am so attracted to women that I wish I were one. I knew a woman who smoked with her feet. I’m turned on by the taste of alcohol on a woman’s mouth. I have made-out with two people who were HIV+: a woman and a man; I don’t remember their names. I worked for a middle-aged woman confined to a couch; I cleaned her apartment once a week; I used to dust, vacuum, and wash all the rooms: kitchen, bathroom, living room, both bedrooms. Every other week I did laundry, yard work, and occasionally brought her groceries upstairs. In the garage, I used to sniff her underwear. Once, I used her underwear to come before putting them in the wash. Another time, before bringing her clean clothes up, I used her underwear again. My favorite part of a man’s body is his cock, when it’s hard. In the parking lot of the funeral home, I glimpsed my dead mother’s big toe as the funeral director carefully wheeled her upon a gurney into the vestibule. From my bedroom window, I called down to a woman wearing a short skirt who was limping; she came inside, we talked, and, seconds later, we kissed. I have had sex with an amputee. When a woman yawns, I imagine coming in her mouth. For a year, I collected the hair that I found on the bed pillows and bathroom floor of an older, Japanese woman I was seeing. On Coronado Street, in the hospital supply store windows, the mannequins wear nurse outfits with nylons that only go up to the middle of their thighs. Once, to entertain me as I paddled a canoe in a marsh, the woman I was seeing kept opening her legs. I sometimes wonder what happened to Ron, the short, portly, dirty old man who kept me company at the thrift store where I worked and who told me stories about the revolution in Portugal and his threesomes with nurses at the hospital where he worked; he read my palm once and stared at me horrified. Noticing my long hair hanging below my baseball helmet, a man asked my mother if I was a girl. I have gone to many gay bars but I have never gone home with a stranger after meeting them there. I once went home with a man who bought me a donut. I am being courted by a gay man I met on Facebook; I have not yet fantasized about giving him satisfaction. I have a fetish for acne but equally strong is my fetish for women who wear lots of makeup. I knew a girl whose feet would perspire whenever she got turned on. My grandfather later lived with his mistress, who’d become his second wife, and in their recreation room there was a psychedelic poster showing twelve nude couples, each one in a different sexual position, in line with the signs of the zodiac.

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jennifer greidus

MR. ANGEL by Jennifer Greidus

She was no Ingrid. She was more of a Pat, or even a “Chuck,” but she was no Ingrid. An Ingrid would never own a truck stop on 85, and an Ingrid would never tell blue jokes to men who haven’t bathed in a couple weeks. When her daughter, my lover, took me there to eat, Ingrid always saved us a booth in the corner, away from Manuel, Jim, and Shaky, because those three stank more than anyone.

While she was alive and in her thirties and forties, Ingrid had two wishes. One of them was to bowl a perfect game. A perfect game is 300, all strikes, plus the two extra strikes you get at the end for bowling all strikes in the previous frames. She never bowled a perfect game.

Her second wish was to make love to Criss Angel. Mr Angel was a bit of a humdinger. A Casanova. He liked the ladies, and he liked them large. He also liked the boys--at least this is what my lover and I heard (no libel suits, please)--and the boys were the kind of boys who liked getting paid for sexual favors. Also, we heard the boys he liked--all rumor, of course--were skinny boys from Midwestern states.

As an aside, my lover and I think it’s a bit pretentious to spell your name like Criss and not Chris.

Ingrid never did get to make love to Criss Angel. But that’s not to say she didn’t get damn close. In 2009, Mr. Angel and Ingrid enjoyed champagne and strawberries in his suite at The Luxor. He had a fancy bathroom. Ingrid liked to tell her poker partners that Mr. Angel drank too much bubbly that night and couldn’t get it up. She and he parted ways, sans penetration.

Five years later, the two met in Dollywood. Ingrid was rather hush-hush about the encounter. They stayed in a cabin. She told us he wanted to go on the water rides. The log flume. When my lover quizzed Ingrid about the evening, she said the log flume made Mr. Angel queasy. We found this hard to believe because we all know the log flume makes everyone horny.

When they met for a third time in 2019, the washed-up Mindfreak was subsisting on heroin-boys, coffee, and cracker Snak-Paks. He showed up in her motel lobby. My lover and I were there, watching Les Bleus football--my lover had a thing for Basque country, the Napoleonic Wars, and baguettes, and felt some affinity for anything French.

Ingrid dropped her crossword puzzle and went to him. She held him like a baby, but her hand slipped down his torso and seized a handful of whatever she could find in his pants. I’ll wrap it up here by saying that, although Criss Angel spent the night in Ingrid’s motel room, after she brought him French toast and orange juice, he dropped dead right in front of the dresser.

For weeks, Ingrid liked to tell her poker partners that he stuck it to her right before he hit the ground--that he was stuffed in and subsequently slid out of her vagina with his last breath--but we know she was taking a shit when he kicked it. Two months to the day after Mr. Angel died, so did Ingrid.

#

My lover and I now run Ingrid’s truck stop. We let Manny, Jim, and Shaky sit wherever they want; they were pallbearers at Ingrid’s funeral, and that casket was no joke.

My lover has been depressed since her mother’s death, and nothing--not my mouth, not flaxseed waffles, not bonsai--help her move on. I try to stay upbeat. We smoke a lot of cigarettes. She can’t even put the effort into inhaling. She hasn’t eaten my pussy in months.

Even Manny, Jim, and Shaky notice her blues. Manny tells her she looks like she lost weight. She has not. Jim says her custard pie is better than ever. Custard isn’t my favorite, but when I taste it, it’s the same as before. Shaky just winks at her a lot. It’s all he can do.

We go to bed high and hungry all the time. I feel bad eating when she never does. Sometimes, I’ll sneak into our motel bathroom and scoff down a smuggled juice box and Swiss Rolls. I eat like a squirrel, with the chocolatey outer shell melting between my greedy squirrel claws as I munch away. I make fierce eye contact with myself in the mirror as I eat. I am a bad girlfriend.

After my fifth Swiss Roll this week, I return to the bed, light a joint, and pass it to my lover. I only smoke so she doesn’t smell the artificial flavorings on my breath.

The TV is muted. The TV is always on and muted. It stays on the one channel to her liking. The channel features old sitcoms. At 2 a.m. every night, I know by heart the reflections and shadows that will hit the ceiling. I don’t even need the theme song. Red, red, pink, shadow, shadow, white, blue, red, red, pink. Black. Commercials, multi, too many possibilities to keep track of patterns. I do know the commercial for dog food with bits of real bacon, however; the ceiling takes on a lot of orange, then. The flashes go back to blue. Usually blue.

Now, she drops sideways, her head in my lap. She says, “We need to re-gravel the parking lot.”

I say, “First, we get the septic fixed.” Even as I say this, I swear that I can hear the pipes burbling.

“The septic is fine.”

“It is not fine. There are floaty things in everyone’s toilet. All the time. And sometimes even in the bathtubs.”

“It’s more satisfying to re-gravel. We see where the money goes.”

“Septic first,” I insist.

“Gravel.”

“Fine. Gravel.”

We have arguments all the time. I let her win. We never do anything, anyway.

We look left when the metal closet door slides open. It’s where my lover keeps all the shoes she never wears. She has a lot of shoes. We mostly keep our clothing on chairs and the floor. It’s a closet door that has jammed and come off the track so many times, we just decided never to open it again.

It’s not even graceful, the revelation. Criss Angel is in a tuck-n-roll position on the top shelf of the closet. There is no mirror magic. He doesn’t glide. He’s not in one place and then suddenly in another. We don’t Ohhhh.  We don’t Ahhhh. He just plummets from the top shelf, arms and legs scrabbling at the shoes, and lands on his back. He groans.

This ghost of Criss Angel is always nude.

This ghost of Criss Angel comes once or twice a week.

My lover and I sigh.

Mr. Angel has a penis that looks like bamboo shoots. Like six shoots tied parallel with twine. He’s still wearing all that makeup. Ingrid loved the makeup. She did hers like his and went dancing or bowling. Mr. Angel’s nipples are like dinner plates. Crystalline sockets for eyes. His mouth is French. His nose is Polish. I think his teeth might be Welsh.

Which one of you wants me? His mouth moves. My lover and I know what he’s saying, but he’s not making any noise.

“Neither one of us wants you,” my lover says and sits up. He asks us this every time.

Let’s have a coffee.

“No one wants a coffee,” my lover says.

Mr. Angel plays with the twine around his penis. His hips gyrate. His eye sockets dim. His body flickers. I need Ingrid’s holes. I need some holes. Anyone’s holes.

“Not it,” my lover says.

“Not it,” I say.

“What are you going to do with that bamboo penis, anyway?” My lover smirks.

Just some milk, then. I’ve had no cow’s milk for ages.

My lover stands, sighs, and puts on her robe. “Cow’s milk, and then you fuck off?”

Cow’s milk. Criss Angel moans. His crystalline tongue swipes across his French lips.

My lover sighs again and puts on her slippers. She finger-combs her hair in the mirror over the TV stand. “My mother should be here moaning, not you. You had three million chances to make love and fill my mother’s holes.” My lover grimaces as she says that. She kisses my cheek and heads for the door.

Mr. Angel’s dinner-plate nipples perk up. Ingrid had two wishes.

“We know,” my lover and I say. “Making love to you and bowling a perfect game.”

Criss Angel’s nipples perk up further. He gyrates. Bowling a perfect game.

“Do you want your milk or not?”

Thunderbird Lanes. Never forget.

#

After another month of Criss Angel visits, which usually come in the middle of Punky Brewster, my lover and I pull out the topographic map and make a plan. We stand like generals over an if > then flowchart on our round card table in the motel room.

We are concerned about all the cow’s milk--my lover is vegan--and the special two-part Perils of Punky is coming up this week. We don’t want to miss it.

“We can’t do anything with that bamboo penis,” I say.

“He talks about the fucking bowling a lot.”

“We can’t take him bowling.”

“How about we bowl? Maybe Ingrid keeps shipping him back so that we’ll bowl.”

We pull ourselves together. My lover calls the emergency sewer hotline. I get the gravel crew on the books for Wednesday. We brush ourselves off. We finish a joint. We unpack Ingrid’s bowling shirt.

I am a size four, and my lover is a size twelve. But Ingrid was top-heavy, sort of an upside-down pear. A size eighteen. Regardless, my lover and I take turns wearing her bowling shirt. It is light purple--maybe it’s lavender if you’re into being specific about tones and shades--and her name is on the right breast pocket. You can’t hold anything in there, the pocket, because it’s sewn shut. Her name is in cursive, purple thread--eggplant if you’re into tones and shades.

We bowl like hell in her memory. We bowl so Criss Angel will stay away. We bowl the fuck out of bowling. No one bowls like we do. I never so much as won a trophy in my life, but I have the heart of a lion when it comes to bowling.

We pick off 300-games like nobody’s business.

A few times during the week, the metal doors of our closet creak. The more we bowl, the less they creak. Mr. Angel never tumbles out. My lover can sleep without the TV. She eats my pussy. She kisses me a lot with a face full of pussy juice. We bowl even when we’re sick. We bowl on Christmas.

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