THE END by Zac Smith

The seasonal jobs came back to town aboard a gleaming, diesel caravan. We all stepped up to carry water and dirt and to do all the other things that would be asked. Brought our resumes, our lunch boxes, our good gloves. Someone was going to see us, buy our labor for a week or month—see something useful in the junk, like Giacomo did as a dropout teen, buying a rusted-out chainsaw to bond with mom and get it running again. And just like that ideation, we’d take off for somewhere else full of better promises. This we knew, believed, felt, etc.

Giacomo had his old hat, the lucky one he first fucked in. He used it to wave down men and women in their shiny white trucks. I spat in the dirt. Same difference, same result. Whatever happens is inevitable. Giacomo never believed in fate. We got picked up, taken to tryouts. Giacomo wanted to swear so bad when he saw all the if-onlys and why-nots pass us to hit the exit ramp last minute. We were heading further out than everyone else. What sun would beat us down then, way out there, we wondered.

They grouped us out, saw favorites quick. Barked like big dogs except we all knew what kinds of barks meant what and how and when and how much. He pushed the crates and I held the hoses. We both considered it best. I heard him try to angle in around the edges, get some networking in, as people liked to say, get some human decency out there in the good spring heat. Sweat in his eyes made him squint like a little bird, one of those no-feather ones, just skin and slime. I tried counting to ignore my present self and state—rocks, steps, crates, yards of hose and stacks of coil, counting everything and anything just to pass through the tautly pulled time we floated in. We heard buzzing off in the distance, something making sawdust, or something like it. 

Giacomo huffed and chattered behind his crates. Hush up, waste your breath on better things, I thought. Push your crates to make the bosses feel the things your words can’t make them feel. They are in their own way illiterate like us, like mom, like everyone else who would care about any of this, but the language of cost and control is better to know than the language of push and carry. I imagined horses cutting down trees because of something Giacomo said years ago.

His hat lay twisted on his head, beguiling, wringing laughs when he passed the foremen and their kids. He didn’t see them chortle over the tall crates, though, or maybe just over his old stubborn spirit. He breathed in our stinking huffs of exertion and sighed out hope. I liked Giacomo and didn’t want to see him spoilt anew. We were small moons in orbit of something pretty which harbors life. We were not the show. I wanted to push him back, somehow put legs on the crates, watch him dance and distract himself to keep them lined up, dunk us into the irrigation trough, rise up laughing like a couple years ago when we thought it best to rinse off the sawdust.

We talked scrapes and cuts before sleeping in the grove under the stars out there by the end of the highway. We talked about distraction, old technology. I was bored and thus unclear, hoping to chisel out some new thing by vagueness, bring our thoughts into a new space, maybe knock him back down off his prideful course, back down to me, where I was. Giacomo was never as down as I even though he slept in the deepest hole on the worksite. Something about initiative, action, teamwork, sacrifice, leadership. I ate my bad food in silence while he buzzed on about these foreign words he found somewhere, something about coffee. I thought then and continue to think that work is work, is the same thing as last year, next year, the very beginning times, the very end times. I considered the stars pretty enough where we lay out in the gravel, but he had thoughts of strange rooms out in the grassy hills with windows as big as our tar-paper ceiling where one could somehow see even more stars, though I didn’t ask for detail.

We worked as hard as needed, but Giacomo caught heat stroke before catching any attention. His mom said to keep your head down and she said it literally, although Giacomo somehow thought he could improve the way deep channels wind through the earth. I don’t think they make a saw big enough for that. 

I saw him lay in the shade while the owner’s son wandered through the stacks and stores trying to devise new things to array and bundle up and sell. It was bad timing, caught recovering in the dirt, hat over face. The boss boy ripped it off and tossed him out. Where to? We held our breaths and worries so no one would think us human. We pretended to be delicate machines in the industrious frontier instead, things just brought in to wring together pretty bundles or rip apart nature. Giacomo got canned, hat in hand, just like he was when we climbed aboard that promiseful truck. Canned is a euphemism for the gorier details of our rumpled-up contracts, as you might imagine.

I dug the ditch he lay in then, and I laid the soil thereafter. It was only natural that I not feel the need to test his boots, swap our hats, turn his pockets—I knew how they fit and what they held. This showed promise to someone, they mistook my sadness for integrity or some other obscure thing they considered good. They gave me a bundle of his things, including a book that seemed impossible to read. I flipped through it and saw things we had together, neatly lined up in little lines.

The company asked me if I had anyone or anything to keep me back in town instead of going elsewhere for more work and more money. I told them no, tamping the dirt with the company’s spade. I told them to take me away.


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Emo Phillips stands on a train. He thinks about all the fucked-up people he knows and wonders if people think he’s as fucked-up as he thinks other people are. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and thanks everyone for riding the train. Emo Phillips feels like he has never been thanked for riding public transportation.

“Hey, am I fucked-up?” Emo Phillips asks.

“What,” says Dan Brown. Dan Brown is looking at an advertisement for furniture. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and apologizes for the slow pace of the train. Emo Phillips takes off his mittens. The advertisements for furniture are very sexually explicit–in one advertisement, there is a picture of two men having passionate sex on top of a dresser–and Dan Brown feels incredibly unloved. He doesn’t want to be on the train anymore.

“Like, am I weird, I guess,” Emo Phillips says. “Like, is there stuff weird about me. To people”

“Yeah, dude, uh…I guess. Or not,” says Don Brown (easier to type than Dan Brown). The furniture advertisement seems really fucked up. “But yeah, probably.” He imagines himself making love on top of a dresser for a photoshoot. He imagines himself being paid $7,000 in twenty-dollar bills for the photoshoot. He imagines not telling his lover about the photoshoot and using some of the money to buy a new dresser because of how good it was to be fucked on that kind of dresser during the photoshoot.

The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and suggests that more people should get off at the next stop so the train can go faster, because of the weight of the people. Almost everyone on the train checks to see what the next stop is.

“What?” asks Emo Philips (one l, spell check seems cool with this). He is looking at the advertisement. The man penetrating the other man in the advertisement has an Emo Philips tattoo on his right shoulder. The man being penetrated has his head flat on top of the dresser, looking away from the camera.

Emo Philips feels worried. He remembers that the furniture store from the advertisement is at the next stop. 

don brown (no caps) clarifies that he doesn’t know what Emo is asking. They are lovers, and they are on the train, and The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom (copy pasting this now) and begins to cry into the microphone thing, pleading for everyone to leave.

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I was 250 miles from the nearest streetlight, and my shoes were covered in horse shit. In the centre of the barn was this dude standing on the stacked hay. He was foaming at the mouth and shouting at overfed livestock.

Zac was watching these chickens try to kill each other and they were making all this noise, but over the top of it, you could still hear the poems crashing against cracked red paint. 

The chickens were the stuntmen from Die Hard, and I was reaching into popcorn between my legs. I was sweating. The bigger chicken was digging its face into the other one (which now wasn’t moving or making a sound). The bigger chicken relentlessly pecking into fleshy feathers, and Zac was doing these little hops on the hay with a Cheshire grin.

It was all red and gore, and the hay was clumping up with chicken blood. The horses eating around it, drool and yellow teeth scraping the dirt for lines of hay. 

I think about this day in the barn with Zac, and I think about how it wasn’t actually a barn, it was at a reading in Brooklyn, and how the cops were called and the bigger guy was dragged out the bar. The other dude melting into the floor with a face full of beer bottle. How fucked up it all was. How Zac and I couldn’t stop watching the grey mop pushing brown glass in puddles around the smaller guy while we waited for an Uber to take him to the hospital.

Okay I lied, we were never in a bar watching someone get murdered.

We were in this barn though, and the chicken was totally fucked. I held the chicken in my arms, my hands getting all sticky. I was feeling pretty anxious. Zac stepped down from the ladder in the middle of the barn and said he’d light up the BBQ. 

I was feeling stressed out about how to pick out all the shards of glass from the meat, and the bar was closing up. The cops were asking us a bunch of dumb questions like “Did either of you know the stuntmen?”, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” and “My favourite type of open-door building is a barn.”, which isn’t even a fucking question. Cops man, they’re dumb as hell. 

The other writers had left the reading after the guy’s head had cracked open. They had taken all the horses, but we had both forgotten our boots anyway. Zac took a couple dozen copies of the books which were left behind the bar. We burnt them under the stars. The chicken was soft and fell apart in our mouths. I picked Zac’s teeth with hay, and we walked together to the subway. Our feet caked in the beer and blood from the floor, we dragged them through the muck to clean them up. At Zac’s stop, he turned around before the doors shut. The match caught against splintered beams. It was all so warm as the train screeched through the tunnels back home.

[caption id="attachment_5444" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] AVAILABLE NOW.[/caption]

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BUGS by Zac Smith

Every day I went outside to find new bugs. I found bugs on the ground. I found bugs on the street. I found bugs in the garbage. I found bugs on a dead skunk on the road. I found bugs writhing around the inside of a tree that had split in half during a windstorm, in the middle of the night there was this incredible cracking sound, like thunder, but there was no rain, it was just the tree snapping in half and then it crashed onto the ground. The inside of it was a network of narrow passages and wavy, warped wood, all the way through, like a tall, dense sponge. I imagined that it had been filled with bugs for weeks, maybe months, maybe over a year, the bugs slowly burrowing through it, setting up colonies—a colony of ants, a colony of beetles, a colony of wasps, a colony of aphids, a colony of termites—and moving around, digging into the wood, boring holes in the bark, scooping out the wood and replacing it with mush and larvae and piles of their own dead. And finally the windstorm came and it was enough to bend the tree so much that it buckled under the weight of itself, the bugs only having colonized so far high so that the bulk of the rot and hollowed-out wood was near the bottom, right at head height, so the rest of the top of the tree with all of its branches just got too heavy, the wind pushed it and that was it. The bugs were still writhing around inside. I could see the chambers they had eaten out of it in profile. I could see the bugs that had been split in half when the tree buckled, their sticky, mangled bodies lay smeared onto the tops of the serrated striations of the inside of the tree. It was like they were crawling around inside the mouth of some terrible monster that had rows and rows and blunt, wooden teeth and finally it snapped shut to eat them. Most of the ants that had been split in half were still twitching, and all the other ants ignored them. The ants that were split in half were still mostly alive, just like the tree—split in half but still alive. They must have been like that, split in half and twitching, for hours, since the tree had snapped. And I saw the chamber with the queen in it and all the larvae she had produced, piles of terrible little half-bodies in the hollowed-out nooks of the tree, and a beetle was also in the chamber, picking up the larvae and snapping them in half and eating them, and there were ants trying to tug at its legs and the legs of the other beetle that was crawling into the chamber, now that it was all exposed and open. I could just reach in and grab all of them, the queen ant, the larvae, the beetles, the ants tugging at their legs, scoop it all out in one hand. I thought about the time I was a little kid in my grandparent's backyard in California and I was sent out to clean up the overripe avocados all over the ground under the trees while my grandparents cooked dinner for everyone. My parents were coming to pick me up after the three weeks I had stayed there, and we were going to have a big dinner in the backyard and my grandparents didn't want anyone stepping on a mushy avocado. I picked up maybe twenty or thirty and threw them one by one over the fence and into the easement that butted up against the concrete drainage area, and sometimes I threw them hard enough so that they cleared the easement and I could hear them puck wetly onto the concrete. I picked up a small, leathery one from near the compost bin that was squishier than all the others and when I squeezed it, the skin split and bloomed open and a wad of maybe thirty red wrigglers poured out, I felt them pinch and squeeze between my fingers and gush out a hoary, stinking juice into my hand and down my wrist and arm. I threw the mass toward the fence, brown gunk and dripping, writhing worms exploding in the air like a plume, or spray, before smacking against the wood, the pit thumping dully, worms clinging wetly to the pine boards and then flopping down onto the grass. My hand smelled like the worm juice the entire dinner, night, and subsequent two-day car trip home, I would wash my hands, scrape bars of soap with my fingernails and let the soap stay there, then later soak my hand in hot, soapy water, but nothing helped, nothing got rid of the smell, every time I scratched my face or picked my nose or rubbed my eyes, I would smell it, the same sick, fetid smell of bile and rot. That was what I thought of when I saw the beetles and the larvae in the tree, I tried to conjure up the smell of it, but I couldn't remember exactly how it smelled anymore, all I could smell was pine sap, tacky and raw—some of the ants were stuck in the hardening sap, wiggling their antennae and mandibles in little tiny death throes. So I did, I put my hand in, scooped out as much as I could, the ants, the larvae, the beetles, the sap, the splinters. I felt it all as a mass, squeezed it, felt it gush and congeal, felt the beetles crawl out onto my hand through the mangled everything else. There are bugs everywhere. Everywhere there are bugs. It’s better if you go looking for them. It’s better if you go looking for them and find them first and know what will come when you squeeze.

Then you can squeeze.

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GARGOYLE by Zac Smith

I sit on the front porch to get out of the apartment, to watch the children practice soccer in the field across the street. My neighbor comes in and out with his dogs. Every time, I pet the dogs while he tries not to make eye contact.

He is out of shape. Tall, but bloated. I see this. I remind him by looking at his body. When he looks at me, I look at his stomach. His gut, how it pokes out between the drapes of his flannel shirts. As I look at his gut, he looks at my gut. He thinks about his health, my health. Our health. He thinks about my heart surgery: quadruple bypass. He thinks about my recovery: slow and pitiful. He thinks about the future. His future, my future, our future.

I’ve seen him with junk food, bags of takeout, six-packs on the weekends. I leave the dregs of my own takeout meals on the top of the trash can out front, piles of styrofoam and foil and leaking sauces the first thing he sees when he stashes the remnants of his own sad refuse.

I pet his dogs. I can find all their sweet spots with ease, they wag their tails, they stare at me lovingly, ignoring him, ignoring the walk he is trying to take them on, and I tell him how I used to have dogs, how they slept in my bed, how we used to go on walks on days like this, and I describe their illnesses, their deaths – I describe putting them down, and I describe my loneliness thereafter, the sadness that came, and how I never got another dog, and how I came to only have cats, which I hate, because they are horrible things that stay inside and ignore me.

But I shrug, because what am I going to do? Nothing – there is nothing I can do.

I pet his dogs and I tell him about my first cat. It was my daughter’s – she moved in with me for three months, brought her cat, taught me how to care for it, then she moved out, left the cat, and I haven’t seen her since, no contact, not a word, for years, it’s been years and I don’t know why, and sometimes all I do is wonder, I wonder why she’s gone, because she’s gone, she’s a ghost, but I still have her cat, at least, I guess, and I ask him how his wife is doing, because I know she’s pregnant, it’s their first baby, it’s beautiful that it’s happening, I’m so happy for them, and I pet the dogs while he watches the kids play soccer in the field across the street, thinking, worrying, about to tug on their leashes and try to escape, so I let him go with a smile and he wanders off into the sunshine, dogs pulling in all directions because it’s so nice out, just a perfect day, I am going to keep sitting here and enjoy it.

I am a gargoyle. I am a bad omen, a shadow that haunts our front stoop, and I will wait for him to come back, for him to let me pet the dogs some more, to let me tell him more things about what comes next; I want to tell him about the cats I have now, how they yowl at night and crawl on me in the dark, how they were my ex-wife’s cats, how I never asked for them and she just left them here when she left, and tell him about my ex-wife, about her leaving, about all the things she left behind when she did, about how the unwanted cats just pile up, how everything just piles up, up and up and up and in any case I don’t think I could even climb all the stairs right now, God, there are so many stairs, I’m out of breath just thinking about them – I have to go slow, I have to halt and breathe and wheeze, I have to balance on the last stair and squeeze in through the door so the cats don’t get out, and then I have to sit in the stale air, sit with all the cat hair, with all the bills and old gauze and medicines in their little orange jars, with the old boxes of old things, the bad memories, the bad things to come and the sun just feels so nice, it’s so nice to be outside, it’s nice to walk the dogs, to watch the kids play soccer, to talk to someone, to be somewhere else, to get out, to get out while you can before you can’t, and there, there he is, I can see him now.

Here he comes.

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FLIPPED by Zac Smith

Brad flipped his car after hitting a fire hydrant, right downtown, right on Fifth Street, right near our old apartment, the prefurnished one with the broken window and the red wall and the kitchen that had bookshelves instead of cabinets, he was driving, something happened, who knows, he hit the hydrant and the car went upward, upward, from the height of the hydrant and the height of the curb, and the car veered upward and over the hydrant, and the hydrant's base cracked under the weight and pressure of the car and the angle of it, and the cracked base gave way so that the water could come out, and it came out, one huge spray into the underbelly of the car and out into the street below while car ascended into the air itself, at an angle, fast and strange, twisting, up and around, the body of the hydrant lifted, dislodged, entirely broken free, the water coming out as a geyser, up and out, the body of the hydrant rolling away, or more tumbling away, bouncing under the force of the impact, the force of the water, the car's wheels spun and the engine roared freely, the tired no longer struggling against the friction of the road but against nothing, free air, spinning madly, the engine just bellowing as the car veered upward, the clanging of the hydrant as loud as the screaming of the engine and the roar of the water, all three a unified cacophony on Fifth Street near our old apartment, right in front of the convenience store where people would gather to smoke and scratch off lottery tickets and ask for change and sell weed and catch up with the other people who lived on the block or around the corner, and who we would sometimes buy forties with and scratch off lottery tickets and talk about what the other people on the block were doing, who they were with, where they had been and what they planned on doing, who was leaving town, alone, or leaving with someone else, people we knew or didn't know or had only heard about, or people who we saw buying beer but who never hung out, and right next to the laundromat where someone died once in the bathroom, then they closed off the whole place with police tape, and everyone was crowded around trying to see who it was, if it was anyone we thought it would be, anyone we expected to die in a bathroom, or who always hung out in the laundromat for whatever reason, but it was just some nobody that no one knew, it was right in front of that laundromat where he flipped the car, his foot still on the gas, the car in the air, the tires spinning, engine screaming, water spraying, hydrant rolling off, and when the car landed it was the loudest of everything, a real crashing down, the whole car coming down from the air with its full weight, just a huge crash, the windows crunching into a million tiny bits and the hood crumpling in and the engine letting up, finally, a big groan into nothing, but the water still spraying up and wide, less murky now that it was finished clearing out the old silty pipes in the neighborhood and pushing in fresh clean water, spraying all over the upside down car, all over the street, the curb, like the car, car half on the curb, half in the street, Brad pinned between the wheel and the seat and the roof of the car but able eventually to wrench himself out through the busted-out window, on his back, coming out like a baby covered in glass and blood and just staring at the water coming up and spraying out everywhere while the radio kept playing, louder than almost everything else except for the water spraying out and splashing down, louder than Brad muttering “shit, goddamn," over and over again, louder than him just muttering the same thing over and over again, wondering when the cops would come, whether anyone would call them, whether he would have to call them, wondering what would happen if they came, what would happen if they never came, all kinds of shit, over and over again, the same shit just over and over again in his head.

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