SO COME BACK, I AM WAITING by Marston Hefner

“You won’t see me again.”

I thought she was wrong. This is such a small city. I thought I saw her at the farmer’s market. I thought I saw her at my yoga studio. She is everywhere I go.

Her name is Leah. She is the woman who causes me mental pain.

If you asked me if I loved her, I’d say of course. I wouldn’t even make exaggerated hand motions.

It is her, driving my car down the 101 after a weekend in San Francisco. I’m in the passenger seat listening to my iPod. She puts her hand on mine and speaks, but I can’t hear what she is saying. I pull off my headphones.

“Can you stop listening to music?” she asks.

“Sure.” I put my hand in her lap. I’m happy to be with her, but I’m also tired of being with her. It’s been a long weekend. We’re always moving when we’re together. Vacations are filled with activities. We equate movement with life. “I want you all to myself,” she says.

It is her, not dying but I think she is dying in the Emergency Room in Lake Arrowhead. She has a urinary tract infection that messed with her bladder or something. I’m sitting across from her dying face. She’s pale and smiling at me. Fluids move into her veins since she’s also dehydrated. She’s dying and I’m looking at her face and she’s smiling at me. I have to be strong. She has no time for the I-will-die-for-you part of me. She has no time for my depression. So I am the strong boyfriend, holding her hand.

Or it is her, at a Halloween Party at my father’s house. She’s dressed as Dexter’s victim, and I am Dexter. Her costume is great. She is exquisite.  She has Saran Wrap around her naked body. We didn’t realize she won’t be able to pee in her costume until she was already in her costume. After a while, we go into my room so she can change. She pees and walks into my bedroom. I pick her up and place her on the sink.

It is her, watching Drunk History with me. We’ve been living at my father’s house for a few days, and we watch Dexter and Drunk History before we make love and then fall asleep. I order the usual fruit bowl for the two of us. A butler brings it in. We’re in bed, looking at a tv that seems too old to be in the room. We’re in a room with pink and white striped wallpaper. We’re in a room with light fixtures that are plastic and black. This was once my mother’s room, but I don’t recognize the room. I don’t recognize the house I’m in.

But with Leah, I am home.

Then there were those other times.

“I mean what kind of father would you really be?”

She felt the love story I wrote about her was too much.

She broke up with me for no reason and came back.

She asked, “But how can you be so certain about me?”

“I just am,” I said.

“I wish I had that.”

And if for some reason she were to cease to exist through a rare blood cancer—did you know someone is diagnosed with blood cancer every 3 minutes?—maybe she’d cease to exist in my head. Because every moment she is alive means there is an objective possibility that she will come back.

We have split 5 times. She has come back to me 5 times.

I am writing a book about my father’s death, but the book is really about Leah. Many times, I’ve written stories that have eventually happened in real life. I wrote about a man dating a woman in a wheelchair, and then I dated a woman in a wheelchair. I wrote about a man who was uncomfortable in an AA meeting, and now I’m in AA.

I wrote a book about a man grieving his father’s death as he falls hard for a woman named Leah.

When my father died, Leah sends me a text, even after I told her to never talk to me again if she didn’t want it to be romantic. She knows every time she reaches out to me, I grab on tightly. She writes her condolences. She says if I need an ear, there is hers. So I tell her I’d like her ear and to see her for coffee.

When I see her, she is shorter than I remember. It has been 4 years since seeing her face to face. She is always breathing heavy. She is always sweating. She pulls her hair from her face.

We walk. We go to an Organic Café/Dinner spot. We don’t talk about us. I am disappointed. It doesn’t seem like she feels anything for me.

But she tells me over the phone she loves me but I know she’s just in love with being in love.

The day after she breaks up with me.

A month later she texts me again.

“Can we talk?” she asks.


“I like you so much and I’m afraid how much I like you. I’m afraid of what people will think. I want to take it slow because I’m going to be all in if this real. It feels so right on so many levels.”

The day after, she forgets to call me.  When she does, she says,  “Like on an emotional level we are 100% compatible, but I just don’t see you in a physical way. I don’t think. I’m sorry.”

“Are you really, really doing this again?”

“It’s not like we were boyfriend and girlfriend or anything like that."

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Annabelle always answered her aunts accurately, as abruptly and authoritatively as an adolescent. Their ambitious attempts to addle gone awry, the astonished aunts acted aloof afterwards, averting avuncular attention.

Boastfully, I birthed a bright and bubbly baby. Belle behaved brilliantly and blossomed beautifully. The bairn boosted brainpower by borrowing books before bravely badgering bigger brothers; battling, besting then beleaguering Bobby and Billy.

The clever child collected certificates: creative calligrapher, crossword completer, chess champion. Certain with challenges but clumsy with chatter, companions cold-shouldered the classroom chief.

My darling’s dad was delighted his daughter devoured details. Daddy diarised daily, diligently depicting developments: dilemmas debated, doctrines deduced, dissertations debunked.

Elsewhere, emotions were elevated by the enraged ears and eyes of early equals. Envy evoked as their enthusiasm eloped. Even equitable elders were earnestly embarrassed.

Friendships faltered and feelings faded, but our family's faith was forever firm. Father felt fantastic forecasting future feats. He fuelled fate’s fires with fulfilling facts, fanned the flames with fables and fantasies.

The girl's genius grew and grew. Good at geography and glorious with grammar, she was guided to grand goals as she gathered golden grades.

He hurrahed, not hearing his heroine’s harboured hopes: her hunger for a hip hairstyle and a humble hobby. He had high hopes for Harvard, however she hankered for a horned horse and a happy home.

I was immensely impressed -- Ivy institution or not. I imparted infinite intelligence into an inspirational infant. Impossible? Inconceivable? Irrefutable.

Indecently, I idolised the incomparable intellectual; ignored the inferior imps.

My jealous juniors jostled for a jot of justness. Jovial and jolly, jesting and joking, their jubilance was jettisoned when my jewel journeyed into the joint. Their joy juxtaposed with jeering.

Kin gave no kindness nor kisses, only knuckles and knicks. The kid kept on, knowing that kudos knocks keenly for knack and knowhow, that knowledge is key.

Lessons in language and a love of libraries led to a learned and laudable lass. Not a lamentable lady who languidly loses her love of life; a listless life learnt from ladies who lunch, who laze, who leech -- not liberated, leading ladies.

My mother made me miss the modern movement: “Make meals and mend materials. Marry a mediocre man and make that man merry.” Mundane matters for madeup mannequins.

My method motivates: Memorise melodies, maintain morals, master the mind. Make men move mountains.

No numbing natter.

No novelty nuisances.

No nonsense.

Our offspring will be outstanding. One is outstanding: onwards to outdo and outlast. Others observe and obey; their optimal output is only okay. Ours outshines and outrivals, overachieves and overwhelms.

Predictably, us proud parents pushed the perfect protégé, pleased with praise prised from piggish pouts.

Pa, particularly, prioritised -- preferred, perhaps -- the prized progeny. Pushed the poor pair to the periphery.

Queued in a quiet quarantine, a questionable quagmire, a quantity of queries qualified for quick-tempered quibbles and quarrels.

Robert reacted rottenly and rallied relations to rebel. A revengeful ruse rose into a ruckus, a rough rumble as Robert raged and regretfully rushed.

The sister stumbled and slipped, spun and swirled, smacked and splatted. Screamed and screamed and screamed.

Small savages silently scurried.

She slowly stilled, sitting splayed by the stairs, saliva spilling into streams. Skin sliced, skeleton shattered, skull split.

Surgeons said she's safe but she should step slowly and skip school -- shirk strenuous science, stressful studies and simple sums.

"She's spasticated" shrieked a small scamp, sobbing sorrowfully into his sleeve.

Teachers toiled tirelessly, tutors tried tenaciously to train. They told the tricks of times tables and the tantalising tales of Tolkien and Twain. Then Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Tired and thwarted, terrible tantrums traipsed in.

Unnecessarily upbeat uncles ushered us in. Unfortunately, useless utterings were unable to undo the ugly and unwanted upheaval. The unkind universe usurped utopian understandings. University is unachieveable, as unlikely as an undergraduate unicorn.

Vindictive vengeance by vitriolic vigilantes vanquished the viable valedictorian. Vividly visualised victories vanish.

William whimpered -- "We... we wasn't... we weren't..." -- whispered what we all wanted: a world where we watched the weird and the wonderful, where we weren't wholly watching the wonderkid. A world with worth. William wishes well, but wishes won't work for our weakened warrior.

X-rays were explored by extra experts who explained the extent exceeded existing expectations.

As young as you are, you yawn. Yesterday's yardstick is youthful yore. You yap, yelp, yell. Your yokel yowls yet to yield. You yearn, yet you yawn.

Zonked and zombified. Zeal zapped and zest zithered. The zenith zoomed to zero, zipped to zilch.

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VÉRTIGO by Salvatore Difalco

Juan rose to pee in pitch darkness, his eyes fluttering. He found the toilet, but peed all over the unraised seat, splashing his shins and toes. Catching jeweled glints of chrome and glass, his eyes oriented to the darkness.

Incomprehensible, his next move—he lurched right, toward the bathtub, and not left toward the door, which led to his bedroom. The shins, bright with urine, walloped the side of the bathtub and his body pitched forward. A reflexive extension of his arms kept him from face-planting the tub.

Swollen and contused, the left shin blazed to the touch. Juan screamed and walked to the kitchen where he found an ice-pack in the freezer. It was 3:15. Thoughts of returning to sleep made him grimace. He’d need a horse tranquilizer for that.

In the living room, he switched on a lamp, and sat on the sofa, propping his left foot on the coffee table edge, next to a crystal cigarette-box that had belonged to his mother. The only remaining memento of her, all else lost or sold. He pressed the ice-pack to his left shin. The cold shock made him wince but numbed the pain.

He continued icing for a time, then got up to make coffee.

As he drank the black brew by the balcony window overlooking the courtyard, something dark and bulky fell past his balcony—bizarre, as his unit was on the topmost floor of the eight-story tenement. He stepped out on the balcony to inspect.

In the darkness—the courtyard lights long ago stoned—grainy lumps and bulges dominated. A dog barked from a recess of the courtyard. The ringing acoustics obscured the dog’s location.

After bandaging his shins, Juan dressed, took the elevator down, and limped through the shabby lobby, with its dead banana trees and ruptured red couch, and exited the front doors.

The cool, excremental air reminded him that spring was near. A time of hope. Maybe things would improve. He hobbled across the broken concrete slabs and rutted grounds of the courtyard. An almost full moon loomed behind a screen of smog, bearing a bizarre resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock. A few trees planted last spring had not survived winter and stood against the graffitied buildings in skeletal silhouette.

Juan approached the area where an object falling from the roof or sky would have landed, in respect to his balcony: nothing but clumps of sod and stone garnished with garbage. An old-fashioned sewing machine, half-buried in earth and dog excrement, drew a second glance, but its presence there preceded the incident.

He looked up. Most units were dark, but a few glowed with lamplight or flickered with the cold blue of flat-screen televisions. He surveyed the area again and, seeing nothing untoward, decided to head back.

Then, in the charcoal disorient of shadows, he detected a flicker near a concrete bench. He gingerly stepped toward it on the uneven path. When he drew closer to the bench, he observed, with a start, a pale face floating beside it, the eyes darkly luminous—apparently disembodied.

No sound issued from the face, yet it seemed to be mouthing words, or at the very least drawing breaths. He moved closer. The head wasn’t disembodied; someone was buried to the neck. Did this person fall from the roof or the sky? And land so precisely as to be buried—and still alive—up to the neck? He walked closer to the small, round head, the black hair flattened on the skull, the inky eyes gazing nowhere.

“Hey,” he said, “are you okay?”

The face continued mouthing silent words or gulping air. The dilated pupils evidenced signs of shock.

“Miss? Sir? Buddy?” Nothing. Juan stepped closer for a better look.

When he saw a thin gold hoop in the left ear, he figured it was a woman, but upon reflection decided he could not draw that conclusion: some men wore earrings. He touched the dark hair. It felt normal, perhaps sticky from product. Provoking no reaction, he let his hand fall squarely on the scalp. It was warm.

“Yo,” he said, “how did you get in this predicament?”

The head twitched, almost in irritation at the pressure of Juan’s hand, but he held it firm. A survey of the balconies revealed no peepers, at least not so far as he could tell.

He fronted the head and bent down so that his nose came close to its nose.

“Why don’t tell me what’s going on and I’ll go get you help?”

The face opened and closed its mouth, the eyes throbbed darkly, but no words emerged. It was a woman, he determined, or a man with delicate face bones. He touched the cheek. Despite the mud streaks, it felt soft and warm. Now the eyes regarded him. Perhaps the senses, after suffering a terrible shock, were slowly regathering.

“Did you fall from the roof?” he asked. “Did someone throw you?” he asked before hearing a response.

The mouth moved, but the voice box must have been blocked.

“Okay, just nod. Did you fall?”

The head nodded.

“Did someone push you?”

Again, the head nodded.

“From the roof?”

Again, the head nodded.

Using a small end of two-by-four he found by the bench, Juan dug away some of the surrounding dirt, so tightly packed around the neck it proved difficult to turn over. Sturdy shovels or machinery were needed to clear enough dirt to free the victim.

“This is unusual,” Juan stated.

The head nodded.

These days so many things defied logic and credibility that you never knew where you stood. He bent and studied the face.

The mouth spat up dirt. Juan wiped the lips with the back of his hand. He stroked the cheek. How warm to the touch, that cheek—and soft. He smiled. Then, for reasons he could never explain, he opened his hand, drew back his arm, and slapped the face hard enough to rock the head back. The sound reverberated through the courtyard.

Juan jumped up and looked at his stinging hand as if it belonged to someone else.

“I’m so sorry I did that,” he said, horrified at himself.

The dark eyes moistened. Juan felt terrible. What was he thinking? He stroked the cheek he had slapped. The eyes shut, and the face leaned warmly into his hand.

Afraid he had crossed some line, he stood up, heart racing, and headed to his building. He took the elevator up to his flat and called 911.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“Someone’s buried up to their neck in my courtyard.”

“Did you say buried up to their neck?”

“I think she fell off the roof.”

“Have you been drinking, sir?”

“I have not been drinking.”

“How do you know she fell off the roof? Did you push her?”

“I didn’t push her. I’m not sure she fell off the roof—I’m not making this up.”

The dispatcher took the address and said paramedics would be there shortly.

“Sounds like she’s in some pickle.”

“Yeah,” Juan said looking at his hand, “it’s unusual.”

He rang off. He took the elevator down to the lobby and was headed to the courtyard when he ran into the super, Mr. Greenwood, standing there with his right hand locked in an involuntary half-salute.

“Morning, Mr. Greenwood.”

“What are you doing here at this time?”

“Long story.”

Silver-haired Mr. Greenwood, mustachioed, fond of Tartan cardigans, suffered from early onset dementia. He rarely slept beyond 4 a.m. if he slept at all. His face evidenced the softening and slackening signs of gradual and irreversible stupefaction.

“I’m going to walk the dog,” he said.

Despite knowing Mr. Greenwood had no dog, Juan scoped the lobby.

“So what’re you doing here?” Mr. Greenwood said. “Up to no good?”

Juan balked. “What do you mean by that?”

Mr. Greenwood’s silver moustaches shook as he laughed. His right hand shook as well but remained raised as though in mid-salute.

“A girl’s buried up to her neck in the courtyard,” Juan said.

“Do tell,” Mr. Greenwood said.

“Dunno know how she got there.”

“Kids these days are animals.”

Smiling mirthlessly, Juan exited.

As sirens approached, he hastened his step. He wondered if someone had buried the woman to make a point. People do all kinds of crazy things to make points.

He walked to the bench, but when he looked for the buried woman, he discovered, to his chagrin, that she wasn’t there. Indeed, the hole where she’d been buried was filled in. He stood there glancing left and right. He’d been gone no longer than a few minutes.

When he stepped on the spot where the woman had been buried to her neck, the ground looked undisturbed. He glanced at the sky and its smog-dimmed Hitchcock moon and shuddered.

The sirens intensified. A dog barked. Juan’s eyes searched the courtyard, but shadows prevailed. Then, on the verge of tears, he saw something glinting in the ground. He stepped to the spot and kneeled.

He pulled a gold hoop out of the dirt, blew it clean, and held it in his palm. At that moment a flashlight beam shone in his eyes, blinding him.

“Put your hands where I can see them,” barked a voice behind the beam.

Juan raised his hands.

“Don’t fucking move,” said another voice.

Before Juan knew it, two uniformed police officers seized his arms. He demanded to know why they were manhandling him.

“Someone reported a prowler,” said the officer with the flashlight, beaming it at himself and casting a large ghoulish shadow against the tenement.

“I called 911,” Juan said. “There was a girl.”

“What girl?”

“She was buried—”

“You buried a girl?” said the other officer, tightening his grip.

“I didn’t bury her,” Juan protested. “I think she fell from the roof.”

Both officers looked at Juan.

“Where’s the girl now?” asked the officer with the flashlight.

Juan shrugged. Tears filled his eyes. He tried to exhibit the earring left behind to the officers, but they ignored him.

“Show us,” said the officer with the flashlight.

“What do you mean?” Juan said.

“Show us where the girl jumped off the roof,” said the other officer.

“Yes, take us up to the roof and show us.”

The officer with the flashlight led the way through the courtyard, the other officer close on Juan’s heels.

They passed Mr. Greenwood in the lobby.

“He’s no good,” Mr. Greenwood cackled. “He’s no good.”

“We need roof access.”

“Follow me,” Mr. Greenwood said. “And don’t mind Rexy, he don’t bite.”

The officers exchanged a glance but kept mum. They took the elevators up to the eighth floor and then walked through a door opening into a shaft with a set of metal stairs. Juan had always wondered what lay behind the door. The stairs led to the roof.

The four men stood on the roof with Alfred Hitchcock sizing them up.

The officer with the flashlight blazed it in Juan’s face. “Show us,” he said.

“But show you what?” Juan said.

Mr. Greenwood sat on a steel duct, right hand raised, whistling, as if for a dog.

“Well,” said the flash-lit officer, “if you don’t show us, maybe we’ll show you.”

“That’s a perfect idea,” said his colleague, grimacing. He removed his cap and jacket, and then slipped off his shoes and socks.

The officer with the flashlight followed suit.

Then, they faced each other in their shirts and trousers. They slapped each other on the shoulders. The officer with the flashlight turned and tossed it to Juan.

“Illuminate us,” he said.

Juan did as requested and shone the flashlight on them. They looked bloated and unhealthy. Then, the officers locked arms and in total silence leaped off the roof, down into the darkness of the courtyard.

Juan dropped the flashlight.

“Rexy,” Mr. Greenwood whispered. “Rexy. Bad dog. Bad dog.”

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PUNKER by Kevin Bigley

Leslie stalked the stage with the palpable anxiety of a mountain lion locked in an exhibit. His shoulders were hunched, guitar still echoing the final chord from the previous song, his face bleeding rivers of perspiration. He slithered from end to end, fighting existential hysteria.

“Play ‘Ready to Go’!” cried a fan near the lip of the stage. “Come on, dude. Play it!”

Leslie ignored the fervent fan, wiping his damp forehead with his already drenched t-shirt. He sweat profusely, battling his intense flu-symptoms. He had a fever of one hundred and two degrees. His stomach flipped like a rabid circus chimp, gargling the indigestible street tacos and Budweiser. He looked out into the crowd of thirty-or-so punks with exhaustion and hatred. He was bored with them and he was bored with himself.

He hated playing in Sacramento. It called itself a capital like someone calls themselves an “Assistant Manager” at an Arby’s. It reeked of overcompensation, a city arguing with you, attempting to convince you that it was substantial. It was a half city, half cow-town that was easily driven through in under two minutes. The people were peculiar, but not enough to be interesting. Many of them had tinges of southern accents. What was that about? Why was the city fighting to be southern? Even so, you wouldn’t find the same edge here as you would find in a Memphis or New Orleans. No, Sacramento was a homogenized south. These people were as southern as Leslie was Irish. The Sacramento bars were always the same: honky-tonk vibes with elk horns on the walls, filled with accidental audience members who, as he began his sound check would perk up with curiosity. “Oh, is there music here tonight?” “Hey look, a live band!” “Cool, is this a cover band? Is it 80’s night?” Leslie would target these people, usually playing the most uptempo, abrasive song he had within his is catalogue. He’d lock eyes with them, watching as scowls flooded their faces when they realized they hated him. “Oh, maybe we should go,” they’d mouth to one another. He loved to watch them drift out the door.

“Mickey! Come on, Mickey,” the fan cried out to Leslie. “Come on, Mickey, you motherfucker. Play ‘Ready to Go.’ Play the T-Mobile song, Mickey!”

“Ready to Go” was originally a throwaway tune. It was immature, caveman punk. Three chords the whole way, two minutes in length. But somehow it had found its way onto a Grand Theft Auto soundtrack and garnered the attention of T-Mobile executives. Just like that, The Morons had their first and only hit (the term “hit” is used relatively, of course, as this is as close to a hit as an indie punk band could ever hope for). The fact that the song was a throwaway reinforced Leslie’s disdain for the chaos and injustice of the music industry. Nothing makes sense. He was chained to his vapid hit just as he was chained to his angst-ridden, alter-ego “Mickey Moron” of The Morons.

Presently, The Morons existed only in name. The original members, with the exception of Leslie, had all left. Matilda, his ex-girlfriend, had gone solo with great success playing power pop. Roger, the drummer, had left music altogether and was finishing up his associate’s degree. Leslie was the last spinning plate, and even he wanted to bring it crashing down. He had been experimenting with a new sound, a sound the gratuitously-pierced audience presently standing before him would despise. He was going for something slower, less fuzz-induced, with actual singing. Something Roky Erikson-esque. He always admired Roky, a reverb prophet who sang haunted tunes that were more American than Springsteen, with intricate picking, and nuanced lyrics about complex themes. Of course, Roky was no role model. He had been in this business for so long that he had nearly drank himself to death to the point of being unable to speak. The only working component left in his brain was the music part. He still toured, still sang, but couldn’t converse. Now going on thirty-three and still playing music for a living, Leslie was beginning to wonder if Roky’s cautionary tale would be his own.

“Play ‘Ready to Go,’ Mickey!” shouted the peevish fan. “Play it, motherfucker!”

Leslie sneered, smacking his lips as his mouth over-salivated. His stomach was beginning to bubble and boil, rejecting the beer and street food. He was pale, paler than normal. His jeans no longer fit. He pulled them up, trying to get them to a sticking point. He had grown a potbelly sometime after turning thirty. The fat cascaded over the front of his jeans and love-handles ballooned over the rear edges. His face was bloated and tired. He still had his long blonde hair, a tribute to Cobain. But these days, his hair resembled his fraying psyche: a delusional gun fighter who was outnumbered and outgunned, but had stubbornly convinced himself that he could still shoot his way out of anything.

He was staying with Katy, an old music friend he knew from their days of starting out. She lived in Sacramento with her husband Chris, a real estate agent. They had a lovely home and had just welcomed their second little girl. Katy used to be a punker, playing in a three-piece industrial hardcore band; she was lead vocals and bass. But her shaved head had been replaced by bangs, her piercings were now scars, and her tattoos were merely conversation pieces at block parties. She was nursing Leslie through his flu, providing him with homeopathic medicine, which was a huge help as he didn’t have health insurance. Chris was a nice guy, funny too. He and Katy had built a nice life, filled with picnics in the park, vacations to the coast, and a budding wine cellar. Leslie envied them.

“Ready! To! Go!” chanted the fan. “Ready! To! Go! Ready! To! Go!” Leslie stared into the crowd as if it were a placid surface of a still pond. His mind wandered.

He was wrought with the cliche musician crossroads of The New Stuff versus The Old Stuff. What do you play? Either you’re a dinosaur who can’t adapt, or you’re a fool who thinks his new shit is any good. He stared at the audience with festering acrimony. He’d heard stories of Dylan saying “fuck it” and turning his back to the audience as he played. Kim Gordon staying as still as possible so as to deprive them of even the slightest bit of “show business.” Cobain throwing his frail body into the drum-set, hell bent on destroying himself before he plays “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one more time.

As he sipped his beer, he suddenly felt light-headed and stumbled, almost falling on his face. He could feel the audience holding its collective breath. Camera phones floated into the air. They wanted to watch him fall apart. They wanted a show.

Fuck Sacramento, he thought. But at least it wasn’t Los Angeles. He hated playing in LA even more. Clubs that were CBGB wannabe’s with crowds of hipsters who were there to sponge up art. They stood with their arms folded in the back, slowly nodding as if they were members of an indie rock jury. They quietly formulated bullshit opinions and their own, personal Pitchfork ratings. They were too cool to mosh, too cool to show emotion, and too cool to interact with one another. And there was always a musician friend Leslie knew, someone doing much better than him. Someone who had successfully transformed, evolved, waiting for him by the bar. Afterwards they’d buy him a beer and give him an empty compliment, “What a show,” “Man, you guys really went for it,” “Super loud, dude.” But he knew what they thought. He was a thirty-three-year-old playing music he wrote when he was twenty-one. He was pathetic, and there was a tacit tone to make sure he knew that.

He paced with is beer, his band staring at him, waiting for his signal to continue. But Leslie would have none of it. He drank the rest of his Budweiser, gulping it down and virulently throwing the can into the audience. They cheered at his outburst. His gut was folding in on itself, queasy and disturbed. His senses were alert, taking too much in all at once. What if he just gave up? What if he just dropped his guitar and walked off the stage never to be heard from again? The myth of Mickey Moron would spread. Where is he now?

“Fuck you, Mickey!” cried the fan in front. “Play it, Mickey! Fuck you!”

All this time he thought he was the smart one. He thought he had it all figured out. He pursued the thing that he loved, got really good at it, shared it with the world, and made money. It was all so simple. He used to pity the people he knew from high school who became accountants, salesmen, teachers, etc. They had failed and he had succeeded because he had it all figured out. But as time passed he realized that he was the fool. He had convinced himself that he could make a living out of a hobby.

Heat rose in his intestines, a warning that something was on the rise. He closed his eyes and concentrated. He had to continue. He thought about the next song, the chord changes. He was a teenager trying to suppress a boner with desexualized thoughts. As his mind focused on the next song, he felt his nausea subside. He had thwarted it for the moment. He took a deep breath.

“The T-Mobile song, Mickey! Come on, dude! Play it!”

Out of nowhere, Leslie thumped power chords with ferocity. “Ready to Go” was music a monkey could play, but it was catchy as hell. The whole song is made up of three chords (A, C, and G). He started at A for four beats, then changed to C for another four, then G for three with a quick finishing beat at C, then back to A. As he came to life, so did the crowd. They began to jump, push, and jostle. He had infected them. The drums pounded their repetitive 1, 2, 1, 2, standard punk beat with heavy snare and kick drum. The fan that had badgered Leslie writhed with primal joy.

But instead of the opening verse, a stream of vomit erupted from Leslie’s maw. Tacos, beer, Katy’s homeopathic medicine, and other undigestible rubble spewed from Leslie’s oozing face and onto the truculent fan. The fan, shocked and disgusted, was too horrified to move. Once a tough-as-nails punk, he transformed into an humiliated child. Finally, his jaw trembling, he dropped his head and slinked away, heading for the bathroom.

The band slowly ground to a halt, looking at Leslie to make sure he wasn’t about to pass out. Leslie nodded and tossed them a thumbs up. He felt instantly better. He moved to his pedals and turned off his SuperFuzz, and instead shifted to a high-toned, reverb-heavy, tremolo SkySurfer pedal. He strummed an a-minor chord that resonated throughout the small, western-themed bar with the haunting sounds of neon beer signs, Roky Erickson, and the San Fernando Valley at midnight. He picked slowly, allowing the tones to paint every corner of the space. He smiled as he watched disappointment spread, spider-like, as it crawled across every punker’s face. He delicately unleashed his new sound and watched as bar patrons mouthed “Oh, maybe we should go.” They settled their tabs, and drifted into the night.

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Pennies are spilling down my throat. I can feel the copper pieces smelting as they pass through my lungs, pooling at the bottom of my guts. Something cold and sharp is waiting there to greet them.

It takes some effort to peel my head off this hot pillow. I've never slept on a pillow this big before: it's as big as the bean bag I had back in my dorm room days. My cheeks are burning and a strange scent has hooked its fingers into my nostrils, like the way a cooling pie on a window sill can hoist cartoon hobos into the air. That smell must have shaken me awake: the smell of burning popcorn.

The light around me is liquid, flowing and congealing and dissolving into shapes. I see a gas dial, a key, a tree with a cherry at its heart. They disappear in the swirling light, replaced by stars and flickers of arrows. The click-click-click of a turn signal. And a familiar voice floating above it all: Ric Ocasek.

An unfamiliar voice, out of the frame, asks if I'm okay. I say no, of course not. I've mistaken Ric Ocasek for Benjamin Orr. This is his song, the best Cars song. I show the voice I know what I'm talking about by singing:

“Who’s gonna tell you when/it's too late.”

Orr is far ahead of this part of the song, but it feels wrong for me to not start at the beginning. I try to sing the next line but there are pennies in my mouth and that sharp coldness in my gut feels like it's spreading.

“Who’s gonna tell you things/aren't so great,” the invisible voice sings to me. A hand, soft and gentle on my shoulder.

I can't hear Orr anymore. All I hear is sirens and small metal wheels spinning and a door wrenching open and panicked voices and calm voices and a sound that throbs like the whole world is being squeezed and released squeezed and released and it's my heart I know it's my heart beating but it's in my ears now and that can't be right it doesn't belong there I don't belong here.

“Oh, you know you can't go on, thinkin’/nothing’s wrong.”

I don't know if I'm singing those lines or if it’s Benjamin or the hand on my shoulder. All I know is that I love this song. I love this song so goddamn much. And I hope I’ll get to hear it again soon.

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TO BE OR NOT TO BEFUDDLE by Brad Baumgartner

Drowned out, like an ant’s ear drums (having not yet “ears to hear” in order to “listen and understand”), as it sits, uncertainly, on a twig placed atop the crevice between a washing machine and a dryer, is our consciousness of Consciousness. The twig is also a razor’s edge, on which the ant balances itself, and in which lurks the seed of the failure of gravity. On one side of the razor’s edge the ant enacts faith upon its future, knowing in full measure that it will not fall if it maintains (via will) the clarity of balance. On the other side of this razor’s edge, however, sits the unknown permeability of caprice, the strange undoing of the twig by the unevent of the opposite of sound, a gone-poof where the ant’s lack of ear drums has nothing at all to do with anything.

This caprice lets loose the will’s nonsensical parody of itself and asks skeptical questions of it pertaining to hidden biological functions, hereditariness, what happens inside a vessel of blood, etc. This nothing at all to do with anything is actually a something, but a sum-Thing that does not require one’s active thinking of it to be anything. Is this something then a nothing? And could it not also be said to be the wyrd relationship an individual might, quite unsuspectingly, that is, ignorantly, have with oneself, as one peers into the tilted mirror of being to see something so bewildering that the experience of this being-fuddled becomes a comico-frightening endeavor, one which promises nullity but secretly vows erasure?

Ultimately, one must balance oneself on this twig, but in such a way as to simultaneously remove the twig’s being-as-precept, to exhort the blurring of the gap between oneself and the world and of the crevice’s acosmic blurring of world and world. Blurring the gap dispels the incisive derision of identity, of the plugging up of the ineffable, of the fear of falling. Make not love with the succubus that indicts and invites the mirror of being’s reflection, but rather with the one that calls it into question.

If one would only realize that one is always already the deaf ant…. that our ear drums resign us to a certain mode of consciousness in which fear itself is the ultimate, illusive sound….


The elders in the community often spoke of an old dreadlocked sage who was brought into prison. He never said a word to anyone. But one night, as the sage slept deeply in his room, a guard heard these words being whispered from the sage’s unmoving mouth:

“I know a room, a room you cannot enter. I know this room from the inside-out. It took me a long time to find my way into it, and now that I’m there, I wish not to leave. It is so cozy; at once intimate, comfortable, and yet large enough to fill a universe. But just as you see this room from the outside-in, not yet able to walk in, I have a restraint as well. I cannot open the door to the outside. That door must be opened by one who has found the key. Until then, I will keep the windows clean, so that an onlooker’s gaze can view the inside of this beautiful room. At this time of year, the windows will surely be dirtied by sandstorms. But they must. What else can a window be other than itself, an eternal passageway that, like Janus, looks inward and outward at the same time, beckoning the senses to become what they were meant to be, instruments of divinity.”

The guard continued his service until one day, long after the old sage had passed away, he earned his retirement papers. The people in his community were surprised when he opened up a small shop fixing windows. It is said that he charged no one for his services.


As a young man, the old dreadlocked sage once came across an unsightly Thing in the woods. The Thing whispered to him:

“Have you ever known that all of your words are completely useless if you cannot attribute to them the non-experience of a divinity so vast that its own incommunicability becomes its manner of suspension (of dis-belief), where the love of its lostness and the lostness of its love combine to form one ubiquitous, auto-flagellating Word, the Word, the One to which your lofty unborn gaze draws itself. This cataclysm of utility marks your dereliction from the divine, that ontological slaughterhouse in which you place your trust, confining you to the horizon where cosmic thought is banished by your own reptilian nature.

Think about this, and then swiftly forget it: non-thinking is the only way out of this reprehensible hologram of yourself. The world is purely world until it becomes other than itself, just as you are merely you until you are other than yourself, which is to say, not you and not-not you, but rather what is you when the is is not. You are dwarfed by your own incomprehensibility. Step outside, which is really inside, and then reverse the outside to be inside and the inside to be outside. This Outside-Inside is the negativity of the All, and once you reverse the reversal you may be granted entrance into the eternal darkness that is your shimmering light.”

The old man never told the Thing that he was in fact deaf, and just nodded. Though one day, many years later, after many trials and tribulations, he watched himself (as if from atop a hill) pass his younger self on the street. The man stared, bewildered. His younger self winked, mutely mouthed hello to him, and walked off into the sun-lit city. At that moment, the old man heard and understood exactly what the Thing had told him.

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THE RESCUE by William Falo

The sirens wail and I howl along with them. My human sleeps. I lick his face and feel coldness. Why doesn’t he get up? I bark and lick. He doesn’t pet me. Something is wrong. My tail hangs low and I whimper. I spin in circles, but not happy ones.

The door is banged open and two men come in with a bed on wheels. I stand in front of my owner and growl.

“It’s okay.” One says while the other one grabs me. I am small. He puts me in another room and shuts the door, but I stick my nose in at the last second and it doesn’t shut tight. They wheel my owner out and I follow onto the street. The truck drives away with sirens and lights flashing.

My small sore legs can’t keep up and I am lost. I lose the smell and can’t find him. My tail hangs low and my legs hurt. I find home. A woman there says words that sound bad. I recognize two of them.

“I’m sorry.” She picks me up and takes me to a building with a lot of cages. Barks fill the air.

I whimper. “Sorry,” she says again.

She is gone. Another person puts me in a cage. It is cold, but there is water and I drink for a long time. A blanket in a corner is not a bed. Tiredness overcomes fear and I sleep on it. My owners face fills my dreams and I whimper through the night.

People come and bring food. Once in a while, a kind hand is extended and I lick it.

The cage has an outdoor opening and the sun is shinning, but I stay inside on the blanket.

My hearing and seeing are not like they once were, but I see people come inside. Some pet me, some read the papers on the cage, while others shake their heads.

Days go by. Dogs that I recognize from smell vanish. Others leave on a leash with people, some are led toward the back of the building and never return. I whimper.

My bones are sore and a chill is inside me. I can’t live much longer.

The coldest day that I ever knew feels like it could be my last. The door opens and someone walks toward me with a crate. They smile. I know when someone is happy, but are they kind.

They stop and reach out a hand. “You’re a good girl.” The woman opens the door.

I back away, but she is quick and scoops me up in her arms.

“We’re taking you out of here.”

Inside a crate, I whimper and my legs start to shake. I can’t stop them.

A hand occasionally reaches in and rubs my ears. It’s not enough to take my fear away. I remember the dogs who vanished.

Before long, I am inside a house. A woman opens the crate and lets me out. I shiver, but the house is warm. There are other people here too. Some have uniforms on and others stand by themselves. The woman picks me up and brings me over to one of them.

His hands shake and he doesn’t try to pet me.

“Jake,” she says. “It’s okay. This dog has been through a lot. Her owner died and she was left at a shelter.”



He reaches out his shaking hand and rubs my ear. “She’s not too bad for a dog.” He gives a slight smile.

Another man came up and pets me too. He has only one arm, before long I was in the lap of a man in a chair with wheels.

“Anna. Thank you.” He says to the woman who brought me here.

She takes me to a woman who stayed away from all the others. Her dark hair covers her eyes and she doesn’t look at me.

“Emma, I have a dog here.”


“I know you used to like them.”

Emma looks at me. She isn’t happy. I sniff toward her and smell blood. A line of recent cuts covers her arms and I try to lick them, but she pulls away.

“Take him away,” Emma says.

“She was living in a shelter alone for a long time. Her owner died. They were going to euthanize her soon.”

“You saved her?”



“Because someone needed to and I’m going to bring her here every day.”

“A therapy dog? Will I be able to take her home?”

“Maybe, but first I got to teach her.”

Emma reached out and I was put in her arms. She rubs her hands through my fur. Tears fell down and she wouldn’t let go of me for a long time.

“Will you bring him back tomorrow?” Emma hands me back.

“Yes. I promise.”

“I’ll be here.”

“Great.” Anna walks out with me in her arms.

“You made a great impression tonight. This place is for people suffering from all kind of mental disorders including PTSD and depression. Someone told me Emma was suicidal and we got her in here. She was abused and refused to talk to anyone before, but I knew she had a dog once. I hoped.” Anna stops and wipes her eyes. “I think she will look forward to seeing you tomorrow. You may rescue her.”

She drives to her house. Inside, I lay down in a soft bed.

“Tomorrow I start training you to be a therapy dog.”

Before she finishes talking, my eyes close and I see my owner’s face and feel his hand going through my fur. I hear him speaking.

“You’re safe now. You’re a good girl.”

When I open my eyes, he is not there, but I notice that my fur is ruffled. I close my eyes and drift back to sleep. I am safe now.

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

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

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

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

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

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I KEPT LOOKING FOR IT by Babak Lakghomi

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

My girlfriend had called 911.

I would have never hurt her.

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

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

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

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

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CALCULUS by Troy James Weaver

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, what’s new?” I said.

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

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

“I’m sorry, girl. Whose is it?”

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

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


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

“What’re you going to say?”

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

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

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

“He said faggot?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never texted back, thank god.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Gross.”

“Seriously,” she said.

“Fuck off. No.”

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

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