I’m Old Boy. 

In the assisted living, they give me the journal, for a doodling. I write camphor, cancer. Camphor, cancer. I don’t give a shit. I’m Old Boy. 

It’s Tuesday. And right off, things go bad.

Somebody swiped Rundy’s anxiety candle. 

“Who’s fucking with my aromatherapy?” He wants to know. 

I used to drink. I don’t have the mind for it. My back’s fucked. I sleep out in the banquet hall, like a plank, waiting on them lunch ladies. I flash peepers and spot Rundy beneath the salad barguzzling stuff—working up to frenzy. He monograms his onesie with ranch dressing, and banishes a spare bottle to the nebulous domain of his nethers. He’s big into spiritual growth and looking to boogie. I double-up on Depends, in case he tries to slip me the big banana.  

I got no man-panties. Nothing to hide a half-master. I seen them old gals in whale drawers, and make for jumping ship. It gives you pause. Each Tuesday. Thursday. Wednesday. You get the whole goddamn picture. I heist contraband from the staff kitchen. Heist a tomato-mayo sammie. Right beneath my gown. Wake up. With a tomato-mayo sammie stuck to my chest. 

I hang with Rundy. My roomie. This tragic melon-brain. He traps rats. And makes chess sets. With taxidermied rats. It gives you pause. He’s whiplashed. Too many U-turns underneath the sheets. I whip hell on him, for telling lies on my momma. I’d rather not go into it. We’re the best of friends. 

We burned down our lives in Homochitto, Mississippi. 

We mess around. We don’t go to “Seniors on the Move.” Melvin, this drowning goon, crapped out during water aerobics. With the floaties. And a Baby Ruth. And an empty wallet. All this for posterity. During the Ouija séancefor MelvinI make the board say, “Black Jesus,” which really gets the geezers riled and moaning. 

They drag me to Dr. Hypnos, who dims the lights and gets “professional.” Talking all slow and sad, like he’s got a line on me. Wanna talk ten years gone. Like I’m some kinda folksy mumba-chumba with my Rascal scooter and my “FAARTS” vanity plate. My ten year plan is to be dead for at least nine of them. He says, “Something’s got to change,” and right now, that something feels a lot like me.

I see now, I got off on the wrong foot here, talking out my buns. Which chafes. ‘Cause if you’re going to say anything, you might as well say the motherfucking truth: 

My line is cut. 

The cable is buried. 

Sickness got me here. 

My life is gone.

I came off a spree once, and found my son dead in his room. His big old moon cat sitting on top of him, staring at me. Staring through my shame. I think shame broke my mind.

I burned down my life in Homochitto, Mississippi. 

My boy: there was ruin in his face even I could not tell you of. 

But I have lived through things that might have killed you. And I have sharpened tooth on stone. I will wait for you behind happiness. I will take you from everything that’s gone wrong.  

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The robo-guppy came in a tank with LED lighting, soothing ocean sounds, and coral reef background wallpaper. Proven stress-buster, Bernie said, handing me the box. There was some study in some journal. After 10 weeks of fish-watching, 75 percent of the subjects flushed their anxiety meds down the john.

I took this as a hint he didn’t want to hear any more about writer’s block, impostor syndrome, the library’s overdue loans policy, or anything else connected with my PhD on Baudrillard. 

He looks sinister, I said. Those mean little eyes. Must be in on the techno-gadget revenge plot. I took Baudrillard literally in those days. 

After christening the guppy Jean, I ignored him. Maybe it was ingratitude that drove Bernie away. There were other sources of discontent: the hyperreal hair clump in the shower drain, my preference for synthetic food.

When we finally had the we have to talk talk, his reasons surprised me. I feel like the you I knew has been mummified in layers of French philosophy. Nothing you say is your own words anymore. Just some quote from some dead dude. 

Given his fondness for citing scientific publications whose names he couldn’t remember, I found this ironic. Plus, it amused me to think of myself as a postmodernist quote-machine simulating Bernie’s girlfriend. 

I let him have the TV, bed, couch, table, fridge, ironing board, and vacuum cleaner. Simulations like Jean and me are low-maintenance, I said. He declined the pop art poster of Baudrillard, saying he felt unworthy of Saint Gizmo. It saddened me to think his prolonged and free education had been a waste of my time. 

I rented a room above a pub with a fine view of overflowing rubbish skips. Relax, it’s only simulacrum trash, I joked to Jean on putrid summer evenings. I was getting into the habit of throwing witty little squibs at him. It made me feel better about my post-nearly-everything condition.

At night, Jean and I juddered to the cover-band beats of Eagle Rock and Highway to Hell. I started talking (yelling, actually) while I typed. It helped with focus, and created the illusion of an audience. 

The hypermarket turns every theory (including the theory of the hypermarket) into dentures more viscerally real, more horrifyingly alive, than the mouth that contains them.

Like a tent revivalist preacher, I was high on my own rhetoric. The less it meant, the more wasted I got.

One night, in a lull between Beds are Burning and Scarred for Life, Jean said, quietly but distinctly: You don’t understand the role of the technological object in the transition from modernity to postmodernity.

Wowsers! I don’t know why I kept up the bantering tone. Why don’t you explain it to me? Go on, fishsplain it.

Jean delivered a mini-lecture on Baudrillard’s position and my failure to grasp it. He sounded like a toothless person talking through a snorkel in a cyclone, but his analysis was relentlessly clear. I was crafting a jokey compliment when he added, Forget Baudrillard

There’s a critique of Baudrillard called that, I said. I reference it in my thesis. 

He gurgled impatiently. That isn’t a quote. Well, it is, but it exceeds the function of quotation. It’s a command. Forget Baudrillard. I’ve outBaudrillarded him. There’s a Linux PC in my brain cavity. A hydraulic pump moves my tail. If you’d bothered to unpack the remote control, you could manipulate me from 10 meters away.

The whole pub was screaming Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again. Or maybe they were lip-syncing to synthesized screaming. 

I looked up to Saint Gizmo for guidance. Forget Baudrillard, mouthed the pop art Baudrillard.

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BLACK HOODED NUN by Caroljean Gavin

Stunned, I took the subway and rattled off to work at the Starbucks on 51st and Broadway. My brain’s way of assimilating my mother’s news was to take customers’ orders while imagining plunging a knife into their chests. Would I have to struggle to penetrate their clothing? Would there be a slurp of suction when I tried to yank the weapon back out of their flesh and muscle to repeat? Would they fight? Would they be angry? Surprised? Terrified? What would they say? What would their eyes look like? What would it feel like to not turn back? To go for blood? To go for death? And when death came would I know it right away? And when I knew it, what would I know? 

I knew I would probably feel alone. 

I mean, customers would call the police. Co-workers would restrain me. I would be physically surrounded. I may even be physically assaulted. If any of those people liked me before, they wouldn’t now. They wouldn’t know who the hell I was. Their eyes would drain of all recognition. Fill up with something else. 

But if I was by myself? Say it was just me, and the dead woman who raised me, rent open on her bed with her violet patterned sheets, her down alternative comforter that had comforted me when I was young, and scared, and overtaken with the flu? If it was just me and a sudden silence? No burbling? No screaming? No pleading? No labored inhalations. Excruciating exhalations. Just me and the darkness, and the curtain blowing over the window where I had left it open after I crawled inside? What would it feel like then? With only myself and this thing I did? This bad, bad, bad, bad thing? Would I feel horrified at myself? Regretful? Or proud? Satisfied? Hopeful? 

They say he did it for the money she wrote him in her will. 


Two years before the killing the killer told me he was scared of birds. 

The killer wasn’t a killer when I met him in San Francisco in that shitty old car full of my shitty old relatives and my mom’s friend Becky, who wasn’t old or shitty, but hot in a 1980’s way: hairspray, lip gloss, frosted hair. The killer was still a kid. A teenager. On drugs, sure. A high school dropout, sure. But he was still a kid, a teen, a young man, a person with positive potential.

I shared the backseat with him and my mom’s cousin who was the type of woman to carry a purse big enough to fit her full size salad dressing bottle and leave enough room to spare to shovel in more free samples of dog treats from Petco than was reasonably appropriate. Like, the employees side-eyed her and hated her with every fiber of their polo shirts. I could tell. They weren’t happy with me either. My mother’s cousin, Jackie, introduced me to the killer, “He was my job after you,” she said. 

She knew us when we had tiny faces and giant eyes. Before we learned how to wash our hands. 

I’m not sure why the killer went on the crazy lady outing. Maybe he was bored. Maybe it was about the free food. Maybe it was Becky and the vanilla perfume she wore. 

I wanted the free food and the ride to the pet store. I was in the process of replacing my boyfriend. I had already bought a vibrator and was currently on step two: companionship. I wanted a bird. Something beaked and winged that had the potential to fly to wherever the hell it wanted and start a beautiful life in the tree of its own choosing. Something that could poke the eye out of anyone who tried to stop it. I wanted a metaphor for my spirit (the irony, cruelty of this, totally lost on me at the time) and I wanted something to make sounds in the night to distract the ghosts that played mean tricks on my dreams. 

While Mom’s cousin was shoving “free” pet food crap in her purse, I looked at the birds, the killer orbited around me, hands in his pockets. 

When I found the black hooded nun finches, I knew I had found my bird. The auburn body, the waxy blue beak erupting from a jet-black head. Unconventional. Goth. Tiny. The employee I fetched was not wild about having to do what he was about to do. I overheard him talking to a coworker, “Last time we did this, all of the fuckers got out. Some of them are still up there,” he pointed to the beams beyond the lights.

The black hooded nuns bolted into all corners when the employee stuck his hand inside the cage. So much frantic flapping and fluttering. A bird was caught. Dropped into a box handed to me.

“I don’t like birds,” the killer said. He hadn’t left my side. He watched the whole thing.

“Why?” I said, the small brown box in my hand. It was so light. It could have been empty. 

“Scared of them,” he muttered. I probably made an understanding face, but I thought how stupid, tough guy, scared of birds. Really I wanted to laugh at him so hard. 

The box with the bird was so light. 

I didn’t laugh at the killer because I gave a shit about his feelings, but because the box was so light. 

I didn’t laugh at the killer because I wanted to shake the box. 

I wanted to shake the box so badly. I had to breathe slowly as I carried it to the register. 

I was scared of myself, shaking that damned box.

Knowing and feeling are totally different things. 

I knew there was a living creature in that box. I knew shaking the box would be bad for the creature living in that box. 

Feeling is a body knowing. 

It felt like there was nothing in that box. My body just wanted to check. My body just wanted to know. 

Maybe the killer’s killing had nothing to do with money. 

Maybe he didn’t even hate the woman who raised him?

Maybe he didn’t even want to hurt her?

Maybe there was just something he wanted to know?

Maybe I’m just full of shit. 


The customers I didn’t hack up and kill got their delicious lattes or Frappuccinos or whatever the hell and they left, going on with their day, and if they thought of me at all, they probably thought I was nice, or awkward, or cute, or wasting my life, but they probably didn’t think of me, and they certainly wouldn’t have imagined that I was thinking about where best to stab their particular body, and with how much force. 


Sometimes, those days, walking around New York City, I’d be walking behind a group of young women in skirts that lifted up above their knees, exposing that soft place of skin behind, and I wanted so badly to lean in and touch them there. Just this small little trespass. Just this one little thing. Who could that hurt?

I just wanted to give the box the littlest jostle. 


Something people seem to believe is there is only good or evil, only person or monster. People are good. Monsters are bad. Supernaturally bad. Demonic. Diabolical. People are superior to the monsters. No empathy for the devil. ‘Cause once you start empathizing with the killers, what does that make you? A monster yourself? An accomplice? A devil with a Fast Past to an afterlife of somehow very painful horrors? And fire? Lots and lots of fire. 


Writers know that to make a believable character, a human being, you mix the good with the bad. The NICU nurse shoplifts candy bars. The arsonist brings flowers to the nursing home. 


The killer wasn’t always a killer. Once the killer was a baby, born drug dependent because of his mother’s choices. Once he was a toddler learning how to walk. Once he was a little boy laughing, milk dribbling down his chin. Once he was so small with shining eyes that still trusted the big people around him. Once he was innocent. 


I named the black hooded nun finch Quiver. The thing I didn’t kill, I caged, fed, and played classical music for. Eventually I gave him away to a nice lady on Craigslist. I moved to the other side of the country. Found out that troubled kid my mom’s cousin loved so much brutally murdered his mother, and I couldn’t understand how someone could do something so grisly, so heartless, so willfully violent. I could get how someone would want to do it. How someone could think of doing it. How someone could imagine doing it and plan doing it, but how do you actually do it?  How do you push a knife into someone, and hurt them, cause them horror and pain, and not throw up, not throw your body into a shock of seizures to stop you from doing this thing? 


I didn’t try to empathize with the killer to understand him. I wasn’t trying to excuse what he did. I wasn’t trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was asking the monster in me how far it would go. I was asking myself what was I really capable of. 


How do any of us actually know what we’re capable of?

I was a terrible bird mom. I had no idea what I was doing. I named my black hooded nun finch Quiver because it seemed scared all the time and of course it did. I was this huge lumbering thing that trapped it. 

When I’d slip my hand in the cage for feeding or cleaning, Quiver would freak out, flap in a frenzy.

I didn’t know finches weren’t supposed to be alone, without other finches that they could die from loneliness. I tried to get him a friend, but no one else would sell me just one. 

When I bought the bird it did not matter to me that I probably wouldn’t be living in San Francisco much longer and that I wouldn’t be able to take a pet with me when I left. 

When I did give Quiver away, I gave him away to the first person who answered my ad. She seemed nice and knowledgeable about birds, but it’s not like I checked, not like I made sure she was going to be good to him and not hurt him, and even though I never shook his box, and even though I never purposely hurt him, I felt like shit about the indirect harm I did. 


I made myself imagine inflicting horrible physical violence on my customers, and I could imagine it, and it made me physically ill, hunched over my register shaking. 

All there was for me to understand was this. 

So if you should ever see me shudder while you’re talking to me and you worry I’m thinking of jabbing you in the eye with the kebab skewer, just know it’s nothing personal, just know I’m probably as harmless as a tiny, tiny bird.

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We sit in cooling sand. You reach out a gritty palm. I don’t move closer. Eight years ago, on this same stretch of beach, with our swelling son arching your back like a comma, we vowed to love each other forever. 

“Let’s play a game.” You twist kinky hair around a dark brown finger.

The last game we played was at your parents’ Christmas party. There, in your three-bedroom, one-bathroom childhood home with the red door, you unclenched. Your voice became salty and slippery, an oyster shucked from its shell. You loosened, darkened, said the n-word with a soft “er.” My mouth soured at your pantomime. 

I started it. I usually do. You escalated it. You usually do.

We sat at the dining room table waiting for your mother’s “famous greens” to finish cooking. They bubbled in chicken stock and pork fat on the stovetop, shimmering with delight at the thought of stopping my Caucasian heart halfway to a beat.

“Let’s play a game,” you said. 


“Tell me something I don’t know about you.”

“My mother, for all her flaws—” I started to say.

“Racist tendencies,” you interrupt, which is a part of our problem.

“At least she doesn’t cook with salt,.” I said.

“For all her flaws, at least my mother does.” 

That night, you got whiskey drunk and whiskey mean. You whispered, “You ruined my life,” as you fell asleep in the twin bed next to mine. Sentiments shouted in anger can be amended, forgiven, washed away. Sentiments whispered in anger are written in stone. 

Back on the beach, the sun opens its veins in the capillary waves.

 “Let’s play a game,” you say again.

“Okay.” I indulge, which is a part of our problem.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you,” you say.

I don’t remember my brother’s face. Only the dark brown cowlick on the back of his head that I wanted to press down with a spit-dampened palm as we exited the school bus. Only that he was the same age then as my son is now. Only that the truck that separated him from his shoes on that dusty stretch of Lincoln Highway didn’t even stop. Only that we never found the person who killed him. In a world so ephemeral, the concept of forever makes me feel claustrophobic.

“You know everything about me,” I say.

You flush burgundy like pink skin slapped. Your frown comes quick, a herald for your tears. 

“I’ll go first, then,” you say. “I never spell the word poignant right on the first try.” Your smile is a quivering olive branch. It’s toothy. It doesn’t reach your eyes.

Something dislocates inside of me. You and I slipped from nothing into something into nothing while I was looking the other way. She felt like a choice. Her pale hair, her widow’s peak, her arched pout. I’m sure she could spell the word “poignant” on the first try. 

I think: I’m in love with someone who isn’t you. 

I think: I’m in love with someone because she isn’t you. Because I recognize myself in her. Because her mother also doesn’t cook with salt. Because she doesn’t whisper “You ruined my life.”

I say: “It’s getting dark. We should head back in.” 

We sit in silence until the sand grows cold around us, until we slip back into nothing.

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1978. BATH, OHIO by Sean Williamson

He was driving drunk, a cigarette ripping hot, filter crushed between his fingers. Around a faraway corner headlights, beams reflected faint through the windshield, through his Kmart but that’s ok glasses. Tiny embers spit, excited by wind from the open window.

He put out the cigarette, stuffed it into the ashtray blossom, grabbed a pack of Camel Menthols off the passenger seat, popped the top, flicked and flicked until a filtered end rose, then pulled it out slow between tight teeth. He pushed in the lighter.

Headlights down the way grew at him, flare swelling in his smudged up glasses, exposing fingerprints and crud. He had been drinking all day, spent most days drinking alone, all day, since graduation. His mother had moved with his brother to Wisconsin. His father was staying at a Red Roof Inn but that's ok. His father had said, “Jeff, the house is yours, for now.”

Black trash bags rippled on the seat behind him. He looked. They moved, wet with moonlight. The lighter popped out, and in that moment of distraction, the warbling of the loop, the car swerved over the centerline, just over.

Eyes back on the road, car back in it’s lane. Pressed the Camel into the red coil, smoke blossomed from his hand like a magic trick. Headlights slowed and passed, slugging over like an old boat, night filled the space. A hallway of trees lead an easy, relaxing ride to the dump.

Straight shot. The bags rippled in the back seat, crinkling in his ear.

Suddenly whirring. Red and blue spinning lights. Oncoming headlights turned cop lights. The cop would pass him, hustling to stop some crime, but no. But that’s ok, that’s ok, that’s ok. Smoke moved down his throat, hot and dirty in his nose. Hands to the wheel, to the shoulder of the road, both cars stopped.

At the flip of the key his engine whirred to a stop. He rested his cigarette hand, fat ember billowing, on the open window ledge. Cop lights: long ray of fanning red, long ray of fanning blue, one after the other after the other, moved across the cracks in the road. The cop door opened and closed. Shadows of feet moved within the rays. Cop stopped and flashed his light. 

You crossed the centerline back there. 

I know. Sorry. I dropped something.

Cop again shined his fucking light. What’s in the bags?

He paused, only for a second. 

I forgot to drop of my family’s garbage this morning. So I thought I’d do it now.

At night?

Nothing else to do.

Cop shrugged. Please step out of the car.

He touched his finger to his nose, walked heel to toe in a straight line, said the alphabet backwards but that’s ok. Started drinking at 14. He passed the tests, of course. Cop, young then, would be much older the next time they met, wrote a ticket, back in his fuckingcopcar and whooshed away. The road was lonely, they came and went. 

Weeks back, Steve held his thumb out. Hop on in, drink some beers at my place, listen to some records, then I’ll drive you to the concert. But after a few hours, practically no time, Steve needed to go, as others, further in the unseen loop, needed to go. So the dumbbell, record still spinning, empty beer cans on the floors, and loneliness again. 

Fuckingcopcar all the way out of sight, heat of the night. He decided not to go to the dump after all. He did not know then, where the loop started or ended. Instead he went straight home. In the driveway, he smashed the plastic bags with a sledge hammer, took the bags to the woods behind the house and scattered their insides.

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