Space, A Preface (for The Doctor) by Benjamin McPherson Ficklin

“After death comes
nothing hoped for
nor imagined.”
Heraclitus, Fragment 122

         Before anyone labels me insane, let them be born into my head, and we’ll see the situations they find themselves in. Like, at that moment, the edge of the Oregon desert, stooping in the shade of the last ponderosa pine, glancing back and forth from the dirt road to the setting sun. I mean, haven’t we all felt naked and limbless upon realizing that we’d invested hope in something untrustworthy? Personally speaking, it’s a familiar thought: Oh, all their promises were lies easing their experience of our interaction. Or worse – some people have malefic intentions.

          I remember the tree groaning as I watched the sky spread orange on the horizon. The long shadow stretching across the desert – that wasn’t real, just another thing progressing toward disappearance. Can’t you almost see me dissolving as I slouched there in flip-flops, shredded blue jeans and a yellow bikini top? They had my backpack. They weren’t returning with beer and gasoline for the eastward drive. Considering it now, that story reminds me of the time I attended RagnaRöck. It was this festival near Weott, California, pretty deep in the redwoods. Four days of, maybe, two hundred metalheads and me listening to music beneath the giants. I awoke hungover on the second day, too much red wine. Nothing is beautiful when grappling with internal pain, right? So who wasn’t going to say yes to some cocaine with breakfast? I think I’d been planning to make pancakes. It doesn’t matter who brought the coconut. You just need to know there was a coconut in the camp I’d awoken in. One of the metalheads produced it when I verbally begrudged my headache. “Drink the milk inside this coconut.” They said something like and handed me the fruit. Isn’t it easy to imagine a gaggle of metalheads doing cocaine and growing increasingly more frantic in their application of various coconut-opening methods? Whacking it against a rock – whacking a rock against the coconut – whacking the coconut with a frying pan – punching the coconut. It wasn’t cracking, so, with a burst of excitement, I leapt up, cradling the fruit, and declared I would return with a knife! or a sword, or a dagger. Any blade. The mission: Open The Coconut. What I mean is that my hungover need for electrolytes was buried by the coke, but it felt good to have a purpose. I was proud to be a woman searching for a knife to open a coconut.

         I scuttled through the trunks, cradling the coconut like a football, just sober enough to not shout my need into the early morning camp. Laughter. I heard laughter, or maybe it was merely voices. Outside a red tent sat two guys wearing black. One of them lifted a golden dagger to the nose of his friend. The friend snorted violently. Perfection, right? Synchronicity. One of those moments where you have faith in a cosmic current upon which you’re riding. New-age people love this idea and will tell you all about it, as long as you employ their vocabulary. Me? Who am I to believe anything? Yet, here was a dagger and what appeared to be more cocaine at seven something in the morning. What could I have said to them? Some high-pitched, rapid-fire rant about my desperate need to borrow their blade. And, maybe, could you help me keep my buzz going? Whatever came out of my mouth, I still recall the gaunt redhead with a long beard asking, “You want to take a hit of space?”

          I immediately said. Like, “Do you want to take a hit of space?” “Yes!” He lifted the knife and smiled. I snorted. They both laughed. I tried to reiterate my purpose for needing for the blade, when I experienced a cessation of the corporeal form I’d inhabited for the preceding twenty-whatever years. A complete rupture in continuity. Darkness mostly. It wasn’t so much calm as it was devoid of feeling. Weightlessness is maybe a good descriptor word. Nothingness with succulent orbs scattered in the darkness. Floating freeform for some decades until coming upon themed planets that fractalized infinitely. It doesn’t matter what the planets were, as much as it matters what the planets evoked. I can say that I remember there was a labyrinthine orb that I flew into, and, upon noticing the cracks in the stone walls, I burrowed into more minute mazes. A liquid orb with water ever more blue the deeper I sunk. A flesh orb in continual orgy with itself. Heat orb burning me into nothing over and over again, no incineration any less visceral than the last. No pain though, remember? No emotion. Feelings evoked by the orbs were so distant that I could consider them objectively. Forever spent travelling the nihility of darkness; forever spent delving into orbs. Heat, fear, wetness, sensuousness, hunger – though there was nothing to feed, or I mean that I had no remembrance of body or personhood or Earth or any language taught to me as a child.

          “What’re you?” At first it didn’t sound like English. It was just a fleshy smacking that reverberated through the darkness. Years later, it became recognizable. “What’re you doing? Why the fuck are you crawling? Where’s the coconut?” Millennia in the past, I was still me and there I was crawling along the dirt path between the tents amidst recognizable things like redwood trees, ferns, plastic coolers, tents, and one of the guys from my camp standing over me. We’re all a lost people, really. Abstainers, outcasts, misfits, the abused, the neglected, the left behind, our society doesn’t make space for most people. Yet there I was, this person on the planet Earth, in a time, beneath enormous trees. Isn’t it sort of cruel that we tell little kids they’re special. We’re implying, You’re greatness is due to your uniqueness. This platitude is pervasive across The United States of America, thus I can bet all those metalheads had quarterlife crises right around when I had mine. Even the angriest portions of this country’s counterculture want to believe their individuality predestines greatness. Oh, what the fuck story am I telling? A tension, a rupture, a breaking of my mind continued all that day. At one moment I was omnipotent and capable of exploring existence unknown, the next I became a dirty human surrounded by acoustic metal. Everyone was mad at me. I’d be mad at me too. When the last hallucination of a golden plane of unfeelable joy (somehow I knew that was the final insight) left me, I returned to corporeality on a wooden stage, without a coconut, next to a man with a guitar, before a crowd of people, yelling – I was yelling, “Why can’t I die! Why can’t I die! Why can’t I die!” I was so overwhelmed by the profundity of my experience that I thought it had to climax in an expiration. But I returned to flesh. Toes, elbows, stomach, butt, ears, boobs, nostrils, mouth, language. I spent the next few years afraid that at any given moment my human reality would dissolve again. But I’ve always come back here to you. Most of us are here. What am I saying? Don’t listen to me. Anyways, sorry. And there I was, somewhere on the edge of the desert, beneath a ponderosa pine, again in disbelief of my proceeding existence and stuck with the responsibility of a body. Those that had promised me care were nowhere on the road, but, since I was no longer bound to them, there was a desert to wander through. The sun set and it became cold real quick.


Benjamin McPherson Ficklin was born in Portland, Oregon. He funds his writing addiction by working as a commercial fisherman, abstract photographer, weed trimmer, event coordinator, and gongfu team-master. Follow Benjamin McPherson on Twitter


Three Short Prose Pieces By Carrie Cooperider

Empathy

         Many years ago, I attended a lecture by a man whose stroke, he warned us, had left him language-impaired. He spoke slowly and deliberately, sometimes using the wrong word. At one point, he lurched into a tragic sentence that began, “My mother, who is still dead…”

          I hated myself for it, but I cracked up. I could not stop laughing behind my hand, even as people turned to stare. I felt terrible, let me tell you! Sorry for him, and ashamed and embarrassed for myself. Yet here it is almost thirty years later, and I still find it hilarious. Sometimes, just re-hearing the words in my head, my thumbs will go numb, that’s how serious it is. My circulation is affected by how hard I am crying with laughter. Maybe there’s something neurologically squirrely going on in my brain, too.

          Nearly thirty years later.

          I wonder if the man with aphasia is still alive?

         Or if his mother is still dead?

Got A Minute

          It’s been one of those days when everybody I want to talk to is dead. Not their fault; it’s a common-enough type of busy signal to get. I figure, okay then, I’ll drive out to the Russian place, do some shopping. I don’t know any Russians, living or otherwise engaged, so that’s nothing personal. But maybe an aisle of smoked fish will cheer me up.

         I put the plastic sack with the butter, rye bread, and wrinkly-skinned mackerel on the passenger seat. “Hey, Mack,” I say as I back out of my spot, “What do you think? Get home quick, or do we got time to take the scenic route?”

Baby Shower

         Of course I didn’t want children. They can turn out so—wrong. I mean, what if they turned out like me?

         Once, when I was bathing Mother, she looked at me, dripping and steamy-eyed, and demanded, Child, does your momma know what you’re doing?


Carrie Cooperider is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in New York City. Her work has appeared in such publications as New York Tyrant, The Antioch Review, the Southampton Review, Cabinet Magazine, and Artishock.


A Excerpt From Marc Frazier's Upcoming Memoir "Without"

           Between the drinking and the acting out sexually I was dually addicted. I felt I didn’t have control over either. I would be in my car coming from someplace and my car literally headed for the Bijou Theater for instance. I honestly couldn’t decide not to go. I could be dead tired or not feeling well; it didn’t matter. I was driven to have sex or to drink.

            I really felt I had no choice in the matter, not even what direction my car went.

            I could have sex without any alcohol in my system, but I rarely drank without searching out sex. I was was not master of my fate. I had abdicated control to these two monsters. I got inadequate sleep for many years, often only a few hours, on weekends especially. I became less dependable, even for family functions which I enjoyed attending.

            I experienced an attraction to the activities that went on in these “dens of iniquity” (my Catholic conscience coming through). I was not repulsed. At some point a version of me had developed that was non-judgmental and okay with random anonymous sex. It became a norm: the rush of adrenaline upon entering such places, the engine that kept going most of the night, the search for even more exciting sexual encounters with even more men, often small groups.

            There were moments when I felt something for someone I was playing with. We might actually kiss, and touching felt more like intimate caresses. I remember one man in this situation who picked up on my depression, on the place far away that a part of me withdrew to. I was somewhere thinking about what I didn’t get during such encounters when he asked, “Are you okay?” I even tried dating a few men I had met at these places but that never worked out. The life lived there was a dead end.

           

            One school night I went to the city drinking and whoring around. I often ran out of cash. I was coming back from the city on the tollway and realized I didn’t even have forty cents. I panicked because I didn’t want the booth attendant to know how drunk I was, and I didn’t want to ask what to do if I couldn’t pay, so I pulled my car to the side of the road, locked it, and began walking home.

            It was several miles and I was exhausted, running on pure adrenaline. It took so long that the sun was coming up. I finally reached home and immediately called in sick. It was later than I was supposed to call in, and I scrambled to get some kind of lesson plans together. After sleeping for a while, I called a taxi to go pick up my car.

            I thought I knew where I had left it but I didn’t. The driver negotiated different ramps and roadways but my car was nowhere to be seen. I began to assume it had been towed. We kept driving around until I finally spotted it. I was embarrassed but not enough to stop drinking.

 

            During this time I explored a gay subculture by going to leather bars. There was one notorious such bar called The Gold Coast after the neighborhood in which it resided. Almost all leather bars have a back bar or a downstairs bar where sexual activity takes place. These bars, like most bars in Chicago, stayed open until four in the morning, five on Saturday night.

            The Gold Coast was internationally known. The downstairs there was not for the squeamish. Such places were intoxicating to me. I became aroused just entering the dark bar; the smells were especially erotic, including that of poppers. And the anonymity of men doing such extremely intimate activities without knowing the people was exciting as well. There was an enforced dress code. You could not go downstairs unless you were wearing some leather. Serious leather. Not just a leather cap or armband.

            One warm spring Saturday night I went downstairs to explore. I really didn’t do all that much. Just watching and being there was extremely arousing. It was dark and hot and I could hear the groans of sex and the words of a rough top: “Take it like a man, boy.”

            In one corner was a bootblack stand with a burly, bearded man sitting in the throne-like chair smoking a big cigar. Sitting much lower and facing him was the bootblack surrounded by the tools of his trade meticulously laid out. He was shining the man’s heavy, leather boots. There was no conversation, just the unspoken arousal of a man being serviced.

            Men were lined up along the walls getting and giving blowjobs. In a couple of slings, bottoms were taking on multiple comers. One of them had on leather restraints, as the top didn’t want him touching himself and giving himself pleasure. It had to be all about the aggressor. A man held up poppers to the bottom’s nose since he couldn’t use his hands.

            “You call that sucking cock,” a man said somewhere in the darkness.

            In another small room a man straddled a bondage horse. He had a ball gag in his mouth and wore a studded leather collar with chains leading to nipple clamps.

            The bathroom had an old-school tin trough where men could check out the equipment easily and where a man into piss play knelt beside it. In one of the stalls a man was holding onto the toilet as he got fucked.

            Smoke was thick in the air. I let a man go down on me who was very good at it.

            “Swallow that cum, bitch,” a man not far away blurted out.

            I wasn’t really a part of the leather community or into BDSM or other kinks, but it was exciting and appealing nonetheless. My sexual activity at such places was oral only. The AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community. I saw the men wasting away on the streets, the sores from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the portable oxygen, the hollowed out cheeks.

            Other than having sex with men, what was there to being gay?

            I was confused about what it meant to be gay. I knew only the world of gay sex. I had no gay friends really. Unsurprisingly, my few attempts at gay relationships had not led anywhere. I had absolutely no sense that a gay community existed, one that had united in many ways to help those suffering from AIDS, activists who educated about the risks of contracting it.

           

            Men like myself made the circuit of a few bars in the Gold Coast area, hanging out until dawn. There was a popular hot dog and burger stand across from the Gold Coast. I ate there many nights when taking a break from drinking and having sex. There were rare moments when my public and private life met. I was really surprised when a father of one of my students recognized me at a school function and said he knew me from his burger stand in the city. He seemed totally cool, obviously knowing I was among the hordes of leather men who wandered over from the bar for a burger.

            In this neighborhood of leather bars there was also a hustler bar where men knew they could pick up a hot young guy for a price. I only went there a few times as I didn’t pay for sex. I would almost always go to more than one place when I went out, usually ending up at the Bijou.    

            There were sunny days when I was inside a porn theater’s dark, air-conditioned interior that felt like a womb to me. It was comforting. A part of me wanted to be enjoying the weather, the sun, but my addiction overruled that part. The Image Theater was in the Gold Coast neighborhood: a full-sized theater showing gay porn. It was a different experience than the Bijou Theater in some ways.

            It was not uncommon to see a man get fucked by sitting on someone in a theater seat. One of its main attractions for many men was the open area behind the last row of seats where men bent over and were entered by other men, sometimes not seeing who was having sex with them.

            There was also a large, gay adult bookstore with a back room on Halsted Street. It cost extra to go back there like most of these places. I remember hanging out on the street in front of it one night, probably around two a.m., with an older man who frequented most of the same places I did. He was panhandling for money to get into the bookstore. I let him know that I was short also. After awhile, he had enough for entrance and he gave me the additional amount I needed to enter. This should have been a bottom for me in terms of sex addiction but it wasn’t. Had I lost all self-respect?


Marc Frazier has widely published poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, Poet Lore, Rhino, and Connotation Press. He has had memoir published in Gravel, decomP, The Good Men Project and forthcoming in Evening Street Review and Cobalt. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been featured on Verse Daily. His book The Way Here and his chapbooks The Gods of the Grand Resort and After are available on Amazon as well as his second full-length collection titled Each Thing Touches from Glass Lyre Press. He has done readings and led workshops in the Chicago area for many years. His website is www.marcfrazier.org


When Angels Fall by Marc Frazier

photograph by Philip-Lorca diCorcia (from the Hustler series)

You know he’s gonna be dressed to kill.

He’s gonna find some brand-new thrills.

Whatever he’s been looking for,

they tell him there’s so much more

in Hollywood…Hollywood.

— Rufus and Chaka Khan

 

            The black whores in tight body stockings hang in doorways, prowl outside bars, snarl like wolves defensive of their territory, lip gloss glowing in the fluorescence of the city night, teeth bared. The smell of lust in the air.

            When no one calls he hits the streets, winds in and out of alleyways, hanging outside businesses watching drunks stumble past. He does some coke and hustles stoned. His body aches from a feeling of being trapped within itself. A heaviness. He has visions of being weightless, an angel, a stoned archangel in brilliantly lit stained glass. Stoned mindless. Busses whirr past. They are real. His connection. His body is real like his bottle of gin.

            He needs to remain lucid enough to make some bucks. He enters Touché’s. The smell of leather intoxicates. His mind dies in his brain and shrivels. But his body burns.

           Some know him and are blasé; others find his beefy bod extremely hot: leather jacket, curly black hair, tight Levis, practiced swagger. It takes all of ten minutes for someone to find him. In a dark corner it is all over. He is too stoned tonight to make a buck.

            Morning. Spring heavy with sap. The change of seasons doesn’t affect him much. Nothing seems to lately. As he rubs his eyes, a haze in his mind filters sunrays as he lifts the shade and sees tree branches, buds pushing themselves outward, their vulnerable tips, a phallic rising, an energy that pulses and pushes without control, despite itself, like his daily routines, his lust. He rubs his chest and flops back naked on the bed. How can it be? His body still desires as if he is apart from it but goes with its flow, like buds stretching and stirring only to lose themselves.

            Centered so in this world, he never considers how one commits unconsciously to a life, however dull or destructive. There is this feeling of something forever slipping through the spaces between his fingers. He begins to feel panic. As he smokes a joint, he realizes he hasn’t eaten in two days except for snacks at the bars. He feels weak. Sadness closes his eyes.

            Midnight. The lights of a city aglow with the energy of millions of lives, of peoples’ dramas: brilliant, miraculous, violent. He cruises into Paradise checking out the men lined up along the bar. Music pounds intensely, caught in a repeating loop like the hours of his days. Insistent. A reggae song slows things down and he proceeds to the bartender rubbing against the eager men. He stands sucking on his straw watching the men on the dance floor, the traffic to and from the men’s room, the whirling lights captivating him and he forgets.

            He hears a voice, “And another for my friend here.” A guy presses close beside him. Michael gazes at him through the smoky haze.

            “Come here much? Never seen you,” Michael asks.

            “Just got into town. Been on the road for awhile.”

            “Oh yeah, where from?”

            “L.A. Ever been?”

            The two letters enrapture him. The freedom of sun. Hollywood. Warm sand on bare skin. Foamy surf splashing shore. Sex at sunrise or on the beach in the middle of the night. No one is a prisoner there, he thinks.

            The man has a model’s well-defined features: square chin, long lashes, soft skin, and curly blond hair. His unbuttoned shirt reveals a muscular build. He presses against Michael lowering his head to his ear asking him to dance. The room pounds with vibrations like a slow electrocution. Pain and pleasure. Eyes on crotches. Hands lost in their own caresses up and down thighs. The smell of poppers.

            The man takes off his shirt. A rare slow song begins; Michael heads off the dance floor, but the man puts his arm over Michael’s shoulder and pulls him face to face. He is sweating, half-naked and insistent. They fall into and out of the rhythmic beats. Music pulses through them in waves. Michael sees the dance ball whirling, the man’s blond head, the sun on the ocean all as one. “What’s your name?” he whispers.

            He stirs to lips slowly sucking his nipples. Running his hands through Eric’s blond curls he mumbles, half-asleep. The morning has passed them by like an early bus. He hears birds. They fly like tiny angels through his mind. Traffic hums.

            “I’ll fix breakfast. Do you have eggs?” From seeing the looks of Michael’s apartment he knows the answer before finishing the question. “Well, I’ll come up with something. You never answered by the way.”

            “What?”

            “Have you been to L.A.?”

            The images reappear. The sun hangs suspended over the warm city of angels. Surf roars.

            “No, but I will.”

            “Did you grow up here?”

            “Well, we moved around a lot. My mom was always moving away from her old man. He beat the shit out of her. I moved here when I finished high school.”

            “Don’t know if I can last through a winter here, but I’m gonna try. I’m sure I’ll stay warm, right?” He kisses him on the lips wet and hard.

            It’s a slow night at Little Jim’s. Michael and Eric nurse drinks while bantering with Todd, the heavy, middle-aged queen tending bar. He is well known in New Town as a drag queen named Ida Slapdher. Michael is more comfortable than Eric with the subgenres of gay life, but after a couple of drinks, he tends to be more open-minded.

            They step outside to smoke a joint in the alley. When they come back in, they stare at Reagan on the television not listening to a word of it. Eric notices Michael eyeing a couple of men disappearing into the bathroom that is known for being “cruisy.”

            “Put on some music videos,” Eric says to Todd. “I’m sick of this shit.”

            “You okay?” Michael asks.

            “Sure, what’s not to be okay about?”

            He doesn’t even trust me not to go into the bathroom and get something started, Michael thinks. Not a great foundation for a relationship, but what did he really know about having a relationship?

            “Don’t hog the popcorn,” Michael scolds Eric as they watch All About Eve on the foldout sofa that has been made into a bed. A fire burns in the old fireplace that they are not supposed to use. This is one of their favorite rituals, watching campy movies and reciting caddy lines out loud together.

            “You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!” they mimic.

            “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”

            And there is the inevitable discussion of Davis and Monroe’s peccadilloes and, of course, historic feuds between legendary leading ladies. Eric’s cat Oscar gets wildly jealous as they touch and laugh and he jumps up and down from the bed frantic for attention. Part of the ritual is ordering pizza and eating it in bed. Eric throws bits of sausage at the cat while Michael admonishes him yet again not to give it human food.

            They watch the news and fall asleep together like an old couple, a respite from partying and having sex. But it’s something more than that too.

            Last night they had been listening to a female vocalist singing Anita Baker songs under old ceiling fans in Gentry’s on Rush. Fatigued from summer’s heat, they felt an emotional overload like a fire or riot could start at a spark’s notice. They were languid with the melding of limbs and soft touching of lips like kissing the soft spot on a baby’s head. That delicate in their approach. He had looked into Eric’s eyes and been afraid.

            One Friday after a long week on a real job, Michael comes home to a note on the kitchen table from Eric. It says simply, “Busy this weekend. We need to talk.”  Michael is a bit stunned as he didn’t know anything was up. Then begins the dragging through his conscience for his possible offenses. He knew he was doomed to continue this throughout the weekend and probably come up with nothing, for he had no idea what the problem could be.

            Boredom was dangerous for Michael. He did not feel comfortable hanging out alone for any period of time. Being with Eric had made him more social in ways he had grown to enjoy. He watched MTV, old movies, and Alice when he could find it, smoked some weed and in general felt left out and alone.

            Late in the day on Saturday he began to feel restless and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He couldn’t concentrate on anything and kept running tapes of conversations he and Eric had had over and over in his head. He ordered Chinese and fell asleep beside Oscar. He was used to napping and going out to the bars late.

            He dreams of Eric: in his own body memory—the golden down of Eric’s skin, the grip of his muscular thighs. After sex he gazes into his blue eyes as they massage one another, silent. A different kind of touch. He pours wine into his eye sockets and licks them out. The center no longer holds. He feels directionless in space, a disembodied fragment of a spaceship falling. Wheel without spokes.

            He had a few beers and chatted with old Charlie at Carol’s, hung out awhile listening to Spanish at Normandy, and headed for the Gold Coast. He didn’t want to go there and he didn’t understand why he was doing this. He didn’t understand anything including his feelings. But some part of him had had this in mind as he was wearing a leather vest and boots that he needed to get into the basement where all the action was. The bar was known internationally for its leather crowd and its no holds barred sexual activities.

            The first thing Michael witnessed when he entered the downstairs was a burly, bearded man fisting a man bent over a saddle on a sawhorse. Men were lined up along the walls giving and getting blowjobs or rimming ass. The smell of poppers and cigars was strong. Michael entered the dark orgy room and dropped his pants.

            When he didn’t hear from Eric on Monday evening, Michael tried to keep himself from appearing too needy by calling him, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a very chilly conversation during which they arranged to meet for a drink the next evening to discuss things.

            When Eric walked through the door, Michael could tell right away that he meant business. He ordered a drink and joined Michael on a stool in front of the window.

            “I just got rid of a case of the crabs,” Eric started.

            Michael was caught off guard and wasn’t sure how to respond. He was obviously being accused of giving them to him which was quite likely as Eric was not promiscuous.

           Michael had suspected he had them but had ignored the signs until now. He said something about Eric’s picking them up elsewhere and Eric had scoffed. “Next time it could be AIDS,” Eric blurted out. He looked like he regretted saying it but he had.

            “Really?” Michael responded, thinking how foolish he had been to try to make a relationship work. He didn’t deserve it.

            They sat in silence for a while and then Eric tried to make small talk. It was useless. He would never trust Michael and Michael knew this. They hugged awkwardly and walked into the night.           

            Today as he strolls along the lake he feels the same sinking feeling his stomach had felt the night before. There are small craft warnings. He stands along the pier and gazes at the lighthouse. It’s fixed like the points on a compass. This is some comfort. But he is not a lighthouse or a compass. Just a point not fixed, a grain of sand on the beach.

            People sprawl everywhere. He steps around them—mines ready to explode. Lightly. A form of prayer in his head. This delicate approach reminds him of their touching. A tentativeness like walking through a minefield. He sees waves peak and splash upon shore.

            He walks and walks, sees children playing. They’ve made a channel in the sand and diverted water to form their own tiny lake. A little girl drops stones into its center at timed intervals like a mechanized toy. He sees the concentric ripples that mesmerize. People he had loved had widened in circles like these around him and vanished. He sees everything now as suspended in time. He sees the young boy push the girl aside and splash wildly in his usurped lake. The circles gone, the spell broken.      

            Michael glances at the lighthouse over his shoulder, feels a chill even in the burning sandy heat and heads out for Halsted Street.

            After the break up with Eric some part of Michael gives in. Collapses like a building for urban renewal without the renewal. This is not the usual loss he’s known. He goes on but sleepwalking. He is depressed and doesn’t eat for days. He stares out the window, seeing and not seeing the busy street. He awakens in the night sweating and shaking. He feels bodiless, the core of his body a heavy weight apart from himself.

            Then one morning he feels better. Not the same person. He will never be him again. The part of him that had collapsed is restored, but it is hard. Made of some solid, very durable material.

___

            Michael enters the theater. As he takes a seat, he sees the familiar images of flesh upon flesh, hears the familiar sound of wet lips on flesh around him. He isn’t in the mood (active or passive) but he needs some funds. He is bored. This is part of his life like children are a part of so many adults’ lives.

            He heads into the lobby and picks up the latest issue of Gaylife. The headline reads: “Rapists Claim Fourth, Maybe Fifth, Victim.” The article is about the latest of several reported rapes of men on the North Side, in his neighborhood mostly. He has never thought of this. It takes three men and a van to do it. Why go to all the bother, Michael thinks. It is out of violence, hate. Sex is easy to get. They call the victim “faggot,” knock him over the head, drag him into a van, tell him they are going to show him what it’s like to be with real men. Afterwards, they dump him in an empty lot. Semi-conscious. If he’s lucky.

            He begins the day hanging out at a North Shore train station. Suburban men with money and a lot to hide. Fifty bucks a blowjob, often more. He tries to make eye contact, takes his cruising stance—hip thrust forward—a loitering look, but not so much so as to be noticed by an undercover cop. There are always interested men. He wonders what the rest of their lives are like to have to do this in a men’s room. For that matter what was his life like?

            Standing in the crowd he sees the woman’s open purse. An oversight. She looks wealthy. Probably usually very cautious. She probably didn’t carry much cash. He sees the sandy beaches. Feels the sun’s heat. He moves beside her. She snaps the purse shut.

            He stops by a cafeteria, eats some soup and a hot dog as he watches traffic. He doesn’t hear all the honking of horns that he hears in movies and on TV as urban realism. A grey day. He feels a tide rising in him like that at Malibu; it does not recede but continues to rise.

            Later that day he takes a trip to the suburbs. He hates them but he has a chance to make a couple hundred bucks from an old fairy with a PhD. Advertising has helped. He feigns interest. The man needs to be convinced he is somehow still appealing. He isn’t, but anything Michael can do or say will help. He wishes he had had a few drinks before this one.

            On the way back to the city a tired calm overtakes him. A beautiful, young woman in a long, grey coat sits across from him. A man of about thirty comes and sits beside her. They immediately look like a set of something. He is gorgeous. Meticulously trimmed beard. Stylish, layered hair hugs his scalp as he runs his fingers through it. His deep-set blue eyes avert easily. Both of them read books. Michael notes how the woman eyes the man, noting his beauty. The train hits some very rough track and the man pauses in his reading and raises his eyes. She smiles as she reads. Michael recognizes that look either from a lost part of himself or a movie he has seen or someone he has known. A woman will keep on reading, he thinks, but a man, well, it must be smooth sailing.

            The two of them seem to shine clean and bright like angels in a blue sky. She stands in the aisle waiting to exit. The man keeps looking at her back hoping she will turn around. She doesn’t. Even after she exits, he gazes across the aisle and out the windows to see her figure walk along the platform. He smiles in his seat alone except for his eyes. He glances back at his book. He can’t read a word and puts it in his black valise.

            Michael looks at the man as he gets off the train. For the rest of the way and all that evening he sees the man’s eyes and the woman’s smile. He thinks of Eric’s eyes and how the men at the train station had once felt about their wives. The old professor paid for such a pair of eyes, not really sex. It gives him a warm feeling to think about the couple on the train. Like a beautiful dream one thinks about all day.

            He feels anxious on the bus all the way to the Art Institute. Listless. It is the dead of winter and everyone, everything, shows it. Worn. Withdrawn. Waiting. He checks his coat and saunters through the corridors. He is early to meet him in the men’s room at 2:00 o’clock like every Thursday, no questions asked.

            Being here is like church. He looks forward to it. His life slows down. He feels serene. The echoes of high heels in huge spaces. Other sounds muffle like audio draped with heavy, velvet cloths. Everything is orderly, arranged, and clear: Renaissance, Modern, French impressionist. Some people huddle in organized groups. Others pause in thoughtful reflection, alone. He overhears the guide:              

          “The Last Judgment was painted by van Eyck, a Flemish painter of the fifteenth century.” Michael’s eyes are riveted to the painting. The background of the upper half is blue. Hands clasp in prayer. Flying angels blow trumpets. Midway down, an angel stands guard over Death’s wings, a skull with bat wings keeping those in Hell from the light of salvation above. Below unfolds a nightmare of naked, deformed bodies and writhing flesh—Hell’s concentration camp. A porcupine head on a black voodoo face. Eyes peer out of black, between bodies crisscrossing, flesh against flesh, in every direction. This bottom half haunts him.

            Above, angels rejoice. The angels he is used to seeing. He comes here to see them. They are the good in his life. His hope. But he knows buried somewhere below at the bottom of the mass of damned bodies lie the fallen angels. They will not rise triumphant; they will suffer endlessly. God didn’t make deals. Once an angel or a life falters, there is no getting over it. But they had been so holy and good, he thinks regretfully. He wishes that someone in the group will point this out, empathize with the damned, the fallen angels, buried under others who are also buried, some nearly invisible.

            No. The group sees the folded hands, the angels triumphant, the blue sky. He stares at the bottom half. He remains after the tour group departs, their sounds muffled as if receding through clouds.

            “Hello?” He stretches, yawns, collapses on the bed. “Yeah, what is it?”

            “Michael?”

            “Yeah, whatcha need? A hundred bucks a…

            “This is Tim”.

            “Tim?”

            “Where are you?”

            “At home. How about taking a trip out to the sticks?”

            Michael watches the countryside, another world, patches of green and black, as it passes by his train window. This motion is conducive to thinking. As he watches images appear and disappear, he relaxes a little, closing his eyes. The train rocks him to sleep. He dreams a city of night and perpetual darkness inside and out. Superimposed upon this sleeping vision are patches of green hills. He feels the moist, dark fields like one feels things in dreams. Is the train moving out of the darkness and into the light?

            The conductor is shaking his shoulder. He gathers his bag and walks down the aisle half awake. Tim throws his arms around Michael. His arms feel different than other men’s. This gives him the same good feeling he had in thinking of the couple on the train: warm earth, sloping green fields.

            Tim said how good it was to see him.

            “It’s nice to get away.”

            “How’ve ya been?”

            “Alright. How about you?”

            “Real good.”

            “Why don’t you move up to the city?”

            “Don’t know. Used to it here. It grows on you.”

             “Like leprosy.”

            “No, really. At first I thought I’d go out of my mind. But it’s been good for me. I’ve changed.”

            This kind of discussion made Michael nervous. What does that mean? One changed a tire. Or deodorant.

            Tim fixes dinner while Michael sits on the back porch watching the sun descend. It does not sink. Ships sink. He thinks this as he inhales. The sun is too graceful to sink. It’s a dream of harvestable fields somewhere like forgotten parts of himself. After dinner they sit and talk. The sun has warmed the room. Plants hang everywhere. Deep, dark wood surrounds them.

            They talk of old times. Michael is evasive about his life. But Tim senses immediately that Michael’s life isn’t his own. One can’t possess what one is not fully aware of. Something in Michael has been used up and not replenished. That’s why he looks older. They talk late into the night then sleep together, Tim holding him most of the night. Michael dreams, curled up, safe, the sun warm and bright in his dreams.

            Before Michael leaves, Tim asks if he needs anything. “Really, if you ever need anything, let me know. I’ve been able to save some money. I’d be glad to help.”   “Thanks, Tim.” They embrace again. Michael boards the train. The sun through the tinted window puts him to sleep. He has a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. About halfway home he awakes. It is dark. He sees a city of night in his mind’s eye. A city of perpetual dark. Inside or out. Day or night.

            It’s nearly three in the morning when he decides to give it up for the night. He shivers a bit clutching his leather jacket tightly. The surf continues to rise inside him. He will make a clean break and go to California, turn blond and wear sexy dark glasses and speedos. He is lost in thought. He has hardly had anything to drink, just a few hits off a joint. He hears a voice ask, “Hey, buddy, how about helping a fella out?”

            He turns and sees a man leaning against a building in the alleyway. Michael slinks into the alley. A voice inside tells him not to. He ignores it. “Listen, I’ll make it worth your while. How’s a hundred? Look.” The man shows him his wallet thick with bills. He must be vice Michael thinks. He is hesitant, afraid. The light from the street casts eerie shadows upon the sides of the brick buildings.

            He approaches the man grasping him by his belt. Seemingly out of nowhere appear two other men. The first hits Michael in the face. Pushes him into one of the others who knees him hard in the thigh. They drag him to a van parked in the alley and throw him inside. One of them takes off his belt and puts it around Michael’s neck. The last thing he remembers is lying on his stomach clutching the shag carpeting, riding it like a wave, grasping tufts of it like swatches of hair torn from the men’s scalp.

___

            Corridors buzz with activity as men and women in uniform scuffle. Voices on radios and scanners create a static that’s unnerving. Calls click on and off. A sense of urgency is lacking; there is a sense of efficiency, or attempts at it. He hasn’t thought out what he’s going to say. He just feels he should be here now. He is nervous and shaky. Again he has not eaten. What should he say?

            He can’t go through with it. He fumbles in his pockets for coins for the vending machines. He sits and stares at the floor. After awhile he approaches an important-looking desk with a large black woman seated behind it. What should he say?

            “Excuse me, Miss? I’d like to talk with someone.”

            “Is it regarding a crime?” She eyes his ragged appearance and asks, “Are you alright, honey?”

            “I think so.”

            “What kind of crime?”

            “Well…” He froze, hesitated.

            “Don’t be shy. I’ve heard it all. Was it a robbery?”

            “I, Uh...”

            “Honey, I can’t help you out if…”

            “Rape,” he interrupts.

            She looks puzzled. “Okay. Rape. Did you bring the victim, honey?”

            “It’s me.”

            She tries to rise above it. After all her training… She guesses him to be about 5’10”. “Rape?” She will be efficient, concerned. She calls over an officer. “What’s your name, baby?” she asks.

            “Michael.”

            “Well, Michael, Sergeant Collins is gonna get some information from you and make sure you’re alright. Okay?” She staples a couple of forms and her preliminary intake report together and heads with Michael across the huge, fluorescent room of metal desks and metal wastebaskets. He hurts as he sits among file cabinets and metal clips and miles of forms. And starched uniforms. Starched smiles. His mind begins to race. This is all a mistake. Before he realizes it, he is talking with the sergeant.

            “So, you’re reporting you were raped by three men. Sorry to hear that.” His voice betrays him ever so slightly. The starch has failed. “Tell me more.”

            “Well, I was walking along Clark Street…”

            “What time was this?”

            “I don’t know exactly—around 3 or 4.”

            “In the morning?” Michael nods. “I see.” The sergeant lowers his head to jot down a note.

            “I was walking along when a man by an alley called out to me.”

            “What did he want?”

            What should he say? A blowjob? Sex in an alley? This is a big mistake. The cop glances over the top of his glasses, waiting, a bit impatient.

            “He came on to me.”

            “I see. Go on.”

            “Well, I went into the alley…”

            “Excuse me, but what for?”

            “I… he had a lot of money.”

            “Go on.”

            “So when I got inside the alley a couple of other men came up and started to work me over.” He continues until he has told all that he recalls. The sergeant listens like he has heard it all before. The rest is routine. Descriptions of the assailants and so on. No mention of the other rapes Michael has read about. Then the cop says, “You’re aware accepting money for sexual favors is illegal?”                                                                             

           He says no more. Just goes across the room where a young officer sits working on a report. The young cop glances at Michael as the two of them have a short conversation. When the sergeant returns, he is a bit cooler. Matter-of-fact. “We need to get you to Masonic to get checked out.”

            Now the probing hands. A gentle pressing on his side and stomach. Starched people in action. The room is cold. They send him for a specimen. He overhears some officers talking… “Two-bit hustler…” The comments come in bits and spurts like an audiotape that has been erased in spots… “Bunch of fags.”

            He walks back to the examination room. He feels heavy, then light, cold and shivering. His sense of balance is off. A part of him gives in. It feels like the last part. He feels dizzy. The metal and starch all around him no longer support him. The room swirls and he loses consciousness.

            First the smell. A clean smell. His eyes open. “You must have been tired, boy.” She flattens the sheet over his chest. “Been sleepin’ longer than old van Winkle. How ya feeling?”

            “Sore. Tired.”

            “I’ll say. The doctor will be back shortly. Get your rest.”

            She bustles out. He feels odd like he has just dozed off from his life for a while. The doctor examines, lectures, and questions him.

            “Have any family or friends you’d like me to contact?”

            “No, really. There’s no need.”

            “You sure?”

            “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”                                                                                                    

            The doctor leaves. He looks around the room. White and enamel. Metal. Hard surfaces. Nothing to give way against his breathing skin.

            “There’s a reporter and policeman to see you. You up to it?”

            “A reporter?”

            “Yep. What do ya think?”

            “Send ‘em in I guess.”

            The reporter crowds in first. Harried and self important. A bag over his shoulder,

notepad in hand. “Hi, I’m Lee, from Gaylife.”

            “Hello…”

            “I’m here to make others aware that we must report these matters to the police. We have a right to be protected too. You did the right thing. I’d like to get some information.” His pedantic manner is annoying.

            The police official enters. Plain clothes. “Hey, I’m Captain Pat McCloskey. How ya feeling?” He speaks of a task force, accountability to the gay community. A good P.R. man. This could make his career. Nationwide attention. Help everyone’s image. Chicago. City of progressive, not club-happy, cops. McCloskey and the reporter get in a heated argument. Michael tunes it out. Where did he fit in? Where had he ever fit in?

            He must be stronger than the surfaces that surround him. He dozes off. The nurse peeks in and escorts the men out. He sleeps. She feels somehow solicitous toward him. One of those short-lived moments when sentiment rises high within us. She is touched as she tucks his sheet around him and shuts off the light. Doing everything softly. The kind of silence you listen to. The sound of padded-sole shoes in a quiet hallway.

            Something must matter—if not a great passion, something. After the assault he is morose, silent, even worse than in the days after Eric’s departure. The intent of his assailants is always with him and this alters something important. He knows that they viewed him as something less than themselves. Anything is then possible, he thinks.

            He goes there. He feels he has to. A kind of farewell. To himself. He presses through the crowd and stares at the painting. People bump against him, oblivious. This time he focuses on the top half, its visionary brightness. When he walks away, he is crying. It has been awhile. He goes to the bathroom and washes his face, staring at it head on. It just takes resolve, he thinks positively.

            He is glad he had told Tim he was leaving for California. Tim’s word had been good. He wouldn’t starve. He boarded the bus for the train station with his tattered luggage. He feels he has some knowledge he can use should he choose to. He had reached out. This must count for something like learning to walk again.

            He hears coins dropping. The bus is nearly full. Coins and tokens ping as people board the bus. This reminds him of someone once saying that such sounds mean another angel has gotten his wings. He would not hope against hope. He had seen. He knew.


Marc Frazier has widely published poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, Poet Lore, Rhino, and Connotation Press. He has had memoir published in Gravel, decomP, The Good Men Project and forthcoming in Evening Street Review and Cobalt. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been featured on Verse Daily. His book The Way Here and his chapbooks The Gods of the Grand Resort and After are available on Amazon as well as his second full-length collection titled Each Thing Touches from Glass Lyre Press. He has done readings and led workshops in the Chicago area for many years. His website is www.marcfrazier.org


Perdition by Dan Marovich

text by Dan Marovich

This mountain seems to keep growing, Sergeant Fox thought to himself.  Down below him, his men tirelessly ascended on their hands and knees through the ankle deep mud, often times using the buttstocks of their rifles as anchors in the deluge.  Each of them was soaked in sweat, and the effort of yesterday evidenced upon their uniforms in the form of salt stains ringing their collars and sleeves.  Each of them was panting with exertion; the hundred pound packs on their backs made them look almost comical in the mid-day heat.  Sergeant Fox sighed, laughed to himself, and then looked back towards the summit.

“We’re almost there, boys,” he whispered.

It was day twenty of their thirty day patrol.  The mission was called ‘Operation Avalanche’ and was designed to cut off the routes of egress to the extremists, mercenaries, and never-do-well’s coming in from across the Pakistani border.  The first week they had seen positive results, in the form of captured bomb-makers and their mad scientist cohorts; they were easy enough to identify.  Every bomb-maker had the hallmarks of a failed experiment; sometimes it was burns down their wrists, sometimes it was shrapnel scars across their face, but usually, it was missing knuckles or missing fingers.  But after that first week, the fruits of their labor began to dry up, and Operation Avalanche began to feel more and more like an exercise in futility.  Each night, they somehow managed to sleep a little bit less than the night before.  Currently, they were down to four hours of sleep a night, in hour long intervals, when they weren’t on overwatch guarding against what might be lurking in the darkness.

Tonight, however, they had an obtainable objective: one of the men they caught crossing the border provided intel on an Al Qaeda safe-house atop one of the tallest peaks in the Gardez Mountains.  In the basement of this safe-house was a supposed cache of mortar rounds, rockets, artillery shells and millions of rounds of DshK ammunition.  If they were able to capture this safe-house, it would be a huge victory for Alpha Company, and provide bragging rights instead of what had slowly become a shit sandwich of a mission that no one wanted to eat.  Several hours later, Sergeant Fox and his ten soldiers arrived at the first false summit of the ridgeline, the rally point for their platoon. 

No one said anything; words had become a lost art after the first week or so, in which the lack of sleep had given everyone a touch of ferality and almost instantaneous bursts of anger at the slightest provocations.  Fox sat behind them in the middle of the formation atop his rucksack, each man facing outwards, creating a defensive perimeter.

About an hour later, the radio attached to Sergeant Fox’s armor crackled to life.  *Three-Three, this is Three-Six, we are in position on the neighboring ridge.  We got eyes on you and the objective.  What’s your status, over?*

Sergeant Fox unclipped the radio, took his helmet off, and scrubbed his brow before answering.  “Three-Six, this is Three-Three, we are good to Charlie-Mike on your go, over.”

*So you’re good to proceed, outcopy over.* 

“Roger that, Three-Six.”

*Good.  Fifteen mikes ‘til we move.  We’re gonna move fast, so be ready – sun should be down, so mount your NODs.  Over and out.*

“Alright boys, get your NODs on,” Sergeant Fox called out.  “Left to right.”

The first soldier on the left side of the firing line dropped his weapon and reached to one of the pouches connected to his armored harness, and withdrew his night vision goggles.  Moments later, they were secured to the front of his helmet, at which point he nodded to the man down the line, where the exercise repeated.

*Three-Three, this is Three-Six, we’re moving time now, over.*

“Yep, roger that Three-Six.  Enroute: over and out,” Sergeant Fox remounted his radio.  “Alright boys, it’s time to kick rocks.  Leave the rucksacks here.  Let’s go.”

An hour later, they reached the perimeter of the mountaintop safe-house.  A sparse wood-line of something that looked like sage and dried up pines provided a degree of camouflage as they approached.  Each soldier took a position behind boulders and tree-trunks facing the lone structure atop the peak and waited. 

“Three-Six, this is Three-Three, we’re in position,” Sergeant Fox whispered into his handset.

*Three-Three, move into the yard,* the lieutenant replied.  That was all Sergeant Fox needed.

Giving the hand signal, Sergeant Fox’s first team stood up, rifles at their shoulders, and approached the safe-house’s back gate, lining up along its right side; a wooden door consisting of logs cut in half with a roughly attached latch on the inside.  Looking back towards Sergeant Fox, they gave the signal that the gate was breachable; Sergeant Fox grinned.  Reaching over his shoulder, he withdrew the twelve gauge shotgun from its shoulder sheath, and racked the slide.  The second hand signal was given, and the remaining team moved forward, stacking on the left side of the gate.  Sergeant Fox took position at the front.

“Three, two, one,” Sergeant Fox whispered a moment before the shotgun belched fire and flame, punching a hole through the wood of the gate and blowing the latch apart into bits of twisted metal; in a single fluid movement, the shotgun slid back into its sheath.  The first team pushed into the courtyard, weapons at the ready, bounding through the space like wolves inside a sheep’s pen.  The second team moved in just as liquidly, adjacent to the first; their eyes were on the windows, Sergeant Fox moving in behind them. 

The courtyard stank of goat shit and pickled urine.  Rags of cloth fluttered uselessly in the untrimmed grass that grew in inconsistent patches along the unpaved earth.  A doll made of straw and frayed yarn watched silently with buttoned eyes, propped up against the backdoor frame of the building.

Those motherfuckers brought kids here, Sergeant Fox thought.   

The courtyard cleared of danger, Sergeant Fox pointed at the backdoor of the house; the first team moved back into a stack on its right side. Sergeant Fox then gave the hand signal for the second team to stay put and keep the courtyard contained.  Every soldier acknowledged seamlessly, their former exhaustions extinguished and replaced with nervous excitement.

*Three-Three, take the house.  Rules of engagement: Capture if possible, kill if necessary.*

Sergeant Fox gave the command; the leader of the first team stepped back and put a boot to the backdoor which exploded inwards, shattering something made of glass inside.  The soldiers poured inwards into the unlit building, their night vision goggles giving their eyes and faces an eerie green tinted glow.  A staircase downwards was located; Sergeant Fox gave the order to descend.  A door barred their entrance to the basement; it was promptly kicked in.  Ten feet from the door, a man dressed in a white robe sat behind a desk, dimly lit by a failing lantern, cried out in sudden alarm.  He stood, and turned to face Sergeant Fox and his men as they stalked into the room. 

Time seemed to dilate, slow down.  Sergeant Fox didn’t recognize what he was doing as it happened; he saw the man and without thinking moved forward to engage, the training unconsciously taking over.  Three steps away: Fox’s eyes darted to the man’s hands; he was holding something unidentifiable – gun?  Knife?  Weapon of some kind? – and then looked up to the man’s expression: surprised, afraid, and panicked.  Two steps away: Fox began to scream.  The words weren’t chosen, but the growl in his throat gave voice to the threat of his rifle.  One step away: the man began to raise his hands upwards, towards Sergeant Fox; Sergeant Fox responded by igniting the infrared laser attached to his rifle which aimed his weapon in the darkness, visible only through the night vision goggles he wore.  The man made to rear back, potentially to fight, when Sergeant Fox jabbed the barrel of his M-4 through the man’s ivories, which exploded like tempered glass.  A fountain of red pumped out of his mouth, alongside jagged shards of broken teeth.  The man collapsed onto the ground holding his face, writhing around in the slick of his blood.  Suddenly, an overhead light turned on.  Each soldier flipped their night vision goggles up. 

“Status,” Sergeant Fox screamed.  Each of the soldiers communicated that they were “up”.  Fox nodded, leaned forward, and grabbed the man by his collar.  “Get the fuck up, shit bag, it’s time to work.”  The man was still screaming bloody murder, spitting up chunks of meat and teeth as Sergeant Fox wrenched him to his feet. 

“Hey Sarge, you’d better look at this,” cried one of the soldiers.  Sergeant Fox looked to where the soldier was pointing; it was the weapons cache they were looking for, all done up in neat piles of potential destruction.

“Well loddy-fucking daaah,” Sergeant Fox grinned, then leaned forward and into the face of the basement dweller.  “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!”  Sergeant Fox produced a pair of flex-cuffs and the man moaned, still holding the jagged slice of his mouth together, and began to mutter pleas in Pashtu through his fingers – one of which ended at the middle knuckle. 

~

“Behold: the Graveyard of Empires”, a sign read just above the concertina wire of the compound’s exterior wall.

  Sergeant Fox sat atop the concrete sandbagged bunker, smoking a cigar.  To his right sat the company doctor, Doc Flannigan, similarly smoking a cigar, while sipping from a cup of something that looked like apple juice but smelled like jet fuel.  The ice clinked harmlessly inside his glass.  Both Sergeant Fox and Doc Flannigan were absorbed in the relaxation provided by their vices, and stared into the dimmed horizon of Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.  Each had yet to take a shower despite the mad rush to clean one’s self that everyone exhibited after the conclusion of Operation Avalanche; for them, the moment of calm afforded them the opportunity to enjoy the naked pleasure of their poisons, which the mission had precluded them from.

Neither of them said a word. 

Overhead, an apache gunship circled, the beating of its rotors whipping sound across the nearby mountains like miniature thunderclaps.  There was dust, but neither Sergeant Fox nor Doc Flannigan gave a damn; they were dirty, and more dirt didn’t matter – it was all the same to them.  Beside Sergeant Fox sat his electronic leash: the radio he had to carry at all times, which chirped with static exuberance every so often like some kind of palsied bird.  The sound of diesel engines began to fade into the distance as soldiers finished the process of refueling and refitting their vehicles, tirelessly preparing for the next patrol out.  The air tasted like melting copper; somewhere, a burn-pit was destroying the never-ending accumulation of plastics and human feces.

Booted footsteps approached from behind at high speed; Sergeant Fox sighed and looked over his shoulder.  A private wearing a clean and dry uniform stood at parade rest, a rifle slung behind his shoulders.  A barrel plug adorned the flash eliminator of the private’s rifle, covering the muzzle; Sergeant Fox sneered.

“What the fuck do you want, kid?”  Sergeant Fox turned back around to face his horizon, which had begun to purple with the sunset.  It was beautiful through the wash of the heat radiation.  He took a drag from his maduro.

“You’re needed at the TOC, Sergeant Fox,” the private responded. 

“What the fuck for?”

“There’s an on-going attack on the Green House,” the private explained.

“Right now?”

“Right now, sergeant.”

Sergeant Fox groaned.  He looked to his right.  Doc Flannigan continued to stare at the horizon and smiled as he sipped his bourbon.  There was a darkness in those eyes, Sergeant Fox noted, a hollow quality that he hadn’t seen before.  He studied a moment longer before discarding the notion of saying something.

“Yeah, fuck you too, Doc,” Sergeant Fox said as he dismounted from the top of the bunker and flicked the remains of his cigar towards his feet.  Doc Flannigan laughed as Sergeant Fox was led away.

~

The Green House was the code word associated with the border outpost the Special Forces had set up with the help of the local militia groups.  It was staffed primarily of grizzled veterans from the Soviet Aggression who knew how to fight, men specifically chosen by the green berets stationed nearby at Chapman Airbase to hold the mountains.  The Green House sat on top of the most optimal route into Afghanistan from Pakistan, which was directly in the shadows of the Gardez Mountain’s tallest peaks.  Without the Green House looking down onto this route, an army of any size could easily slip into Afghani territory and wreak all sorts of havoc before returning across the border, protected by legalities and politics. 

The TOC hummed with the throb of dedicated electronics and communication equipment.  Thick power cables lay tangled like mismanaged cobwebs carelessly strewn about across the floor, braided with neon yellow duct-tape so that you noticed them right before you tripped.  Men sat hunched behind desks crowded with computer monitors and projector screens with thick, bulbous headphones insulating them from the din of reality just behind them.  The smell of unwashed bodies and calcified sweat filled the humid air.  Endless radio communications flooded the remaining airspace with orders and reports.  The private waved Sergeant Fox forward and into the room; in a smaller alcove, Afghani voices were screaming through a different radio network, automatic gunfire and detonations blasting in its background.

“Are you Sergeant Fox?” an anonymous voice called out.

Sergeant Fox looked around, seeking the voice’s origin.  “Roger that,” he said to the crowd of seated bodies before him.  A hand connected to the voice waved; three rows down, a short, fat man in Air Force fatigues stood up and nodded to Sergeant Fox.  Sergeant Fox narrowed his eyes and approached.

“Why am I here?” Sergeant Fox demanded.

“You’re the only squad who’s air-assault qualified in your platoon, and I hear you are the most mission ready.  Is that true?” 

“Yeah, my boys and I are ready to go,” he said. 

“Alright then.  Wheels up in fifteen.  Your commanding officer is already rounding up your men.  Head to Red Tarmac when you’re ready, the Blackhawk will be waiting for you and your boys.  Mission brief in the seats.”

Sergeant Fox nodded, turned around, and ran for the door.

~

When Sergeant Fox got to the tarmac his helicopter was on, his men were already there, looking about as pissed off as humanly possible.  Thirty days of nigh-endless bullshit only to end up on the QRF – quick reaction force – was a slap in the face.  Sergeant Fox had the sneaking suspicion that his lieutenant had volunteered them for this mission; he’d have to find out later.  The Blackhawk they were about to board began to rev up its engines in preparation, deafening Sergeant Fox’s squad.  Fox gave the hand signal; each man donned his hearing protection.  He gave another hand signal and the weapons checks began.  The third check ensured every soldier had each piece of their vital equipment: NODs, grenades, water and food.  The last hand signal he gave was to board the Blackhawk; when all of the men were inside, the rotors began to turn.  The pilot stood offset his helicopter, finishing a cigarette, before reaching out to shake Sergeant Fox’s hand.

“Hey buddy!  You Sergeant Fox, right?”

“Roger that,” Sergeant Fox shook the pilot’s hand.  “What should I call you?”

The pilot grinned; “Call sign is Archangel; I’m from the 7th aviation wing,” nodded, and climbed aboard.  Stenciled on his helmet were a lion, a leopard and a wolf, all three of which were snapping at each other in a circular pattern.  “But you can call me Vee.”

A minute later, each soldier was buckled into his harnesses, and each wore the headsets associated with his seat.  Sergeant Fox adjusted his mouthpiece.  “Radio check,” he whispered.  A stream of, “Check,” and “You’re good”’s came through in reply.  “Good copy,” Sergeant Fox said, right before yawning.  What the fuck, he thought to himself.  He hadn’t even felt it coming.  His men had seen it; each had looked away.  Quietly, Sergeant Fox reached into one of his harness pouches and withdrew a tiny bottle of Tobasco that came with almost every MRE the army offered, dripped some onto his fingers, and then wiped his face just below his eyes.  The burn of the vinegar scratched at the lines of his softer skin, but he knew it would keep him awake. 

“Alright, fellas, listen up: mission brief!”  Vee crooned over the internal radio network of the helicopter.  “The Green House is being hit by a company sized element and are pinned down.  We are gonna drop you boys off alongside some of the S.F. fellers and get you some, how does that sound?”  Everyone cheered.  “I like the sound of that,” the pilot continued, “Okay!  We are gonna hit Chapman Airbase first and then take you to the fight.  Time on target is estimated at twenty minutes, roger?”  Everyone roger’d back.  “Alright boys, sit tight.  Here we go!”  The helicopter lurched to life, jumping off the pavement and into the barren sky above. 

The landscape of the dustbowl that was Khowst might have been beautiful, once.  Sergeant Fox looked out from the nest that was the coupled minigun, pillboxed on the port flank of the Blackhawk.  Maybe it was the navy blue glow of the evening sky reflecting off the silica-infused, talcum-powdered quality of the dirt and dust on the ground, or the vibrant green of the weeds that grew like tiny hairs in random patches of depressed topography, Sergeant Fox couldn’t decide, but the land seemed to beg for a positive opinion that wasn’t forthcoming.  Maybe once, but not now, Sergeant Fox thought.  Here, along the curb of one of the few paved highways undulating beneath them was the fractured crater of a roadside bomb; there, was the blasted bowl of a fixed-wing air-to-surface ordinance explosion, which consumed half of a dilapidated building.  He wanted to care but couldn’t; the destruction was too absolute.  “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality,” Sergeant Fox whispered. 

“What was that, Sarge?”  One of his soldiers looked over at him, confused.

“Never mind, private,” Sergeant Fox answered.

He was still lost in thought when the helicopter suddenly dipped in elevation, turning a hard right on its axis.  “We are gonna land and refuel!  Time until takeoff: ten minutes!  Deboard if you want, it’s on your sergeant,” Vee screamed; Sergeant Fox looked to his men and nodded his approval.  A moment later, the Blackhawk landed roughly and began to power down.  When the rotors finished turning, Sergeant Fox sighed, took off his headset, and nodded to everyone.  Everyone unbuckled and climbed out of the helicopter.  Vee was still fussing with his seatbelt harness when Sergeant Fox leaned into his cockpit. 

“Hey, what channel you guys on for this?  I wanna listen while we wait.”

Vee gave him the frequency, and Sergeant Fox adapted his radio to it.  “Thanks,” he said as he worked.  As soon as the frequency was keyed in, all hell broke loose; Sergeant Fox turned down the volume to his earpiece so that his men wouldn’t overhear. 

*Ghost Four, this is Ghost One, get your fucking team on the perimeter wall now!*
*60mm mortars are black on ammo; I repeat, black on ammo!  Switching to 120’s!  120’s are red on ammo!  Danger close fire missions inbound!*
*Claymores are gone on the west wall!  They are through the fucking wire!  Where the fuck is our air support?!*
*Ghost Six, this is Reaper One, I’m working on fixed-wing support.  We got one Charlie on station and possibly an Alpha!*

“Jesus Christ,” Sergeant Fox muttered to himself, sitting down hard on the rim of the Blackhawk’s deck.  The shit was not only hitting the fan, but every surface of the misbegotten office.  At least the Air Force JTAC was responding; successfully directing air support in the midst of a firefight without friendly fire would be miraculous – especially given the possibility of working with two planes instead of just one. 

“Hey Sarge, check it out..!”  Sergeant Fox looked up and saw all of his soldiers pointing at the sky above: an A-10 Warthog scrambled through the air, acrobatically twisting and turning as if through some invisible aerial obstacle course.  It disappeared into the evening sky towards the Green House.  “Turn your NODs on, you can see this shit from here!”

Sergeant Fox donned his helmet, and tipped his night vision goggles forward.  Immediately, lances of light began to arc outwards from the top of a mountain maybe five miles away, tearing through the sky like unexploding fireworks; he was surprised he could see the tracer fire from here.  About a dozen different streams of gunfire had become visible, and only now had his ears adjusted to the environment enough that he could hear the report of the heavier guns pounding away like arrhythmic drumbeats.  Claymore and grenade detonations scored the mountaintop in brief flashes of light, followed closely by distant roars.

“Sarge, we need to get up there,” one of his soldiers said.

We need to get up there, Sergeant Fox repeated in his head.  Suddenly, a yawn began to form in his lungs; just as quickly, he turned his face and hid it.  When he turned back around and looked at the mountaintop, he froze.  He could see the tumble of the tracer rounds slapping through their machineguns, slamming into rocks that sent them skyward; he witnessed the flash of mines and grenades exploding, killing or maiming the men on the ground; he listened to it all through the panicked transmissions of the Special Forces troops still electrically echoing through his radio’s headset.  His breath caught in his lungs and his eyes began to burn, having forgotten to blink as he continued to stare.  We need to get up there, his mind repeated again, but when his eyes finally failed and he turned away to clear them, he noticed his gloved hands were trembling.  He balled each into fists, and the shakes in his fingers disappeared.

*Ghost Six, this is Reaper One!  Get your men behind cover!  Alpha inbound on strafe run, west to east!*  Moments later, the sound of the A-10’s fury whipped down across the valley.  The warthog’s main weapon, a 30mm autocannon, screamed

It was such a powerful weapon that the recoil generated by its bursts of fire – which were shorter than three seconds, because any longer would melt the weapon’s seven barrels – was enough to point the plane skyward if the aircraft wasn’t angled correctly; the entire plane was built around the cannon.  Each shot was indistinguishable from the last; through the night vision goggles, the soldiers saw a solid line of rippling light – hundreds of glowing incendiary rounds - generated from a point in the sky rain downwards, followed by the long throb of the weapon’s throaty growl.  A long collection of explosions followed, covering the mountainside in light and debris.  Through the NODs, several of the soldiers saw entire trees uprooted and flung cartwheeling through the air. 

Each of Sergeant Fox’s soldiers cheered.

*Reaper One, this is Gungnir, on station, your orbit.  I got guns on your position: copy danger close fire mission?  Over.*

*Gungnir, this is Reaper One, what’s your payload?*

*Roger that, Reaper One, we are C-130 Spectre gunship.  We got five mikes until bingo on fuel.  Confirm danger close fire mission time now, over.*

“Holy shit,” Sergeant Fox breathed.  His ears hurt; he hadn’t realized he’d been pressing the microphone so hard against his face. 

*Gungnir, this is Reaper One: I confirm, danger close fire mission.  We got tangos in the wood-line at grid Whiskey-Golf 3034-4521, over.*

*Fire mission confirmed.  Uh, keep your heads down, Reaper One.*

*Yeah, roger that.*

*Gungnir , this is Ghost Six, don’t hit the big building in the center of the complex. Why do they call you Gungnir?*

*Ghost Six, because we never miss, over.*

The next five minutes represented the greatest amount of destruction that Sergeant Fox had ever witnessed.  The Spectre gunship was outfitted with cannons that belonged on tanks; a 105mm howitzer cannon, a 40mm autocannon, and two 20mm vulcan guns; each gun on their own more than enough to annihilate the enemy forces on the ground.  Sergeant Fox felt each shot from the howitzer deep inside his ears as their blasts altered the atmospheric pressure for miles; through the green-tinted lattice of the night vision goggles, the Spectre gunship was like an angry dragon hurling salvos of fireballs at the ground below, their passage through the air detonating the atmosphere in bursts of static discharge.  As each round impacted, fiery eruptions bloomed from the mountaintop; the Green House looked like it was falling victim to some hidden volcanic god, suddenly breaching the surface of its peak, attempting to swallow the Green House whole.  All four weapon systems vomited round after round, dumping everything they had into the land surrounding the compound.  Plumes of smoke and ash blossomed, occluding the mountaintop until unceremoniously, Gungnir’s cannon fire stopped.  Slowly, the sound rolling down from the mountains dropped in volume, lessening and lessening until it became as a breeze, vibrating across the surface of everything. 

*Ghost Six and Reaper One, this is Gungnir: what’s your status?*

Ten seconds passed.  Thirty.  A minute idled by. 

*Ghost Six and Reaper One, this is Gungnir: What’s your status, over?* Concern painted the voice.

*…Gungnir, this is Ghost Six, we are all green and accounted for.  Looks like the enemy is beating feet back towards Pakistan; I can hear bells ringin’, over!* 

*Haha, roger that Ghost Six.  We are zero on fuel and currently Roger-Tango-Bravo, Ghost Six.  Glad to be of service.*

“Where you stationed, Gungnir?”

*Ghost Six, we are stationed in Kandahar, over.*

*If I find myself down there, first round is on me.*

*Roger that, Ghost Six.  Valhalla awaits; Gungnir, over and out.*
With zero preamble, the Spectre gunship veered a hard left, away from the mountains.

*Archangel, this is Ghost Six.  You are clear to in-fil; I’m still collecting reports, but we might still need help, over..*

Sergeant Fox blinked and looked over at his men, who were all wildly dancing and cheering.  Vee walked up and tapped Fox on the shoulder.  “The refueling is complete; let’s get your boys up in the air, roger?”  The pilot busied himself with strapping back down into his cockpit.  “Ghost Six, this is Archangel; we are enroute!”

*Archangel, this is Ghost Six, roger that.  Listen, we hurried our boys out there to the sticks, so keep your guns tight and get good target recognition before engaging.  From what I’m hearing, it’s lookin’ like we got things under control down here.  How about you make a few passes around the mountain, see if we got any squirters dartin’ off. And if you could, Archangel, fly low – see if you can wash some of this smoke out for us, over.*

“Roger that, Ghost Six.  Flyin’ low,” Vee said.

~

When the helicopter reached the mountaintop, the wash from the blades fanned the smoke out sideways in oily black tidal waves of soot and cinders, revealing the carnage below.  The small collection of trees that once existed atop the mountain were now splintered fingers, reaching up towards the blistered sky, begging for relief.  Brush fires were everywhere, consuming the vestiges of the remaining plant life and shattered wood.  Boulders and stones were cracked and burning as well; the phosphorous detonations of the howitzer’s incendiary ammunition having melted the stone in gouts of cauterized mineral flows.  The air stank of scorched earth and burning metals.

Bodies and their pieces littered the mountaintop. 

As the helicopter made its first pass, Sergeant Fox peered through the window.  The Blackhawk hovered slowly, rotating along the edges of the one-sided battlefield. Sergeant Fox began searching for survivors, eyes scanning the gigantic collection of corpses; a body lay tangled in the branches of an uprooted tree, one of its legs missing at the knee; another body, inside one of the deep craters left by the howitzer rounds, hastily thought of and used as a position of safety, cradling a broken weapon in its hands, its torso covered in fire; a third body in camouflage fatigues, cut in half, a hand reaching up into the air –

“Hey, Vee – there’s a live one down there,” Sergeant Fox spoke into his microphone.  The Blackhawk spun around.

“Well, would you look at that,” Vee said, surprised.  “He doesn’t look like he’s gonna stay that way for long, though.  One sec,” Vee flipped a switch on his dash.  “Ghost Six, this is Archangel, we’ve got a survivor directly beneath me.”

*Roger that, Archangel.  Wait one.*

Below, Sergeant Fox saw a three man team move in, the leader of which stood before the truncated survivor.  The survivor’s hands reached out towards the soldier, the other lay twisted in the tangle of his exposed intestines.

The man screamed.  Two shots rang out, and then a third. 

*Taken care of, Archangel.  Hey, it’s lookin’ pretty clean down here.  Feel free to take off, I think we got this.  I’m gonna send in my local nationals to clean this shit up.*

“Roger that, Ghost Six.  Archangel out.”  Vee banked the Blackhawk a hard right, circling back towards Salerno.  “Sergeant, looks like it’s time I take you boys home.”

White noise filled Sergeant Fox’s ears, who nodded, unable to speak.

~

The ride back was a siren’s song, whispering into Sergeant Fox’s ears.  The hum of the Blackhawk’s machines and engine were lulling him away to sleep, but he knew that if he succumbed, something, everything would happen simultaneously.  Sleep was a luxury he could not yet afford.  He could feel it, slithering across his face, pulling down on his eyelids; he felt it in his bones, cementing his joints; he heard it in his chest as it slowed his heart rate, dragging him down into oblivion.  Had he been there, on that mountaintop, what would he have seen?  How many torn bodies, mutilated corpses?  A hundred or so men, how many -

No, not yet

He looked over his shoulder, his eyes subdued.  He looked at his men, and -

“Sergeant Fox!  I need you to switch to channel two on the headset!”

Sergeant Fox gave the cockpit a thumbs up, and looked down at his radio equipment. A thumb switch later: “What’s up Vee?”

“Yo!  We aren’t gonna make it to Salerno tonight, unfortunately.  We’ve got reports of a village that was hit by the Taliban – one of the places that has a school for women.  Reports say they were burning people alive.  You’re from 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, right?  Well, Alpha is headed there now.  We’re gonna drop you off with your boys.  Sound good?”

Sergeant Fox nodded.  “Sounds good, brother.”

“Alright, letch’er boys know.  We’ll be skids down in about five mikes!”

“Roger that.”

Sergeant Fox reached into his pouch and withdrew the tobasco bottle. 

“Hey Sarge, I’ll do you one better!   Take a hit of this!”

Sergeant Fox turned around, and saw one of his soldiers taking out an old-school military canteen from his back pouch.  He gestured it to Fox, who took it, eyeing the soldier suspiciously.  “If this is alcohol, I will shake your hand right before throwing you face-first off this bird,” Sergeant Fox said. 

Me?  Never, Sarge!  Don’t worry, I got you!” 

Sergeant Fox unscrewed the canteen’s cap and sniffed the contents lightly.  The pungent aroma of some nameless energy drink greeted him, alongside the sharp stink of freshly ground coffee beans.

“That shit will keep you awake for hours yet, Sergeant Fox.  I made it just before we came back out.  Take some!” 

He drank long and deep before handing the canteen back to his soldier. 

“Thanks,” Sergeant Fox said.  The effects were almost instantaneous; he could feel his heart quicken, his pulse reinvigorate, and his lungs breathe more deeply.  The stony sensation that he was beginning to feel at the corner of his eyes faded, replaced with an anxious, manic energy.  The world shifted uncomfortably; a wave of nausea struck Sergeant Fox. He shook his head and slapped his face, and the confines of the Blackhawk stopped spinning.

The helicopter touched down.  “Alright boys, the ride is over!  Get your shit and get off my chopper!  Stay safe down there!”  Vee screamed.

Sergeant Fox and his men jumped off the Blackhawk onto solid, grassy land.  They were in the middle of a village complex, surrounded by tiny, unfortified buildings made of mud.  The men of Alpha Company were scattered around various alleyways and tree-lines, prepared for enemy contact; none was forthcoming.  Several structure fires glowed in the early morning twilight, billowing smoke up into the sky in random belches with the breeze.  The damage was already done here: three women and one man dangled from a high-tension cable strung between two of the buildings, hung by their necks by telephone wire.  Their heads ballooned with the strangled bulge of their entrapped blood vessels, which were beginning to pour from each of their skull’s orifices in a slow, pulpy ooze.  Even their scalps were bleeding; their necks hadn’t broke.

“That one there?  He was the local sheriff,” the lieutenant said, appearing next to Sergeant Fox, who hadn’t noticed his approach.  He was chewing beef jerky as he spoke.

“And this was retaliation for the school being built, right?” 

“Yes and no, I think.  Yeah, the Taliban hates women getting educated, but I think sometimes they just need to kill something because they have such a hard time killing us.”  Absently, the lieutenant picked at his teeth.

Sergeant Fox nodded.  He looked behind him; his men had already fanned out, taking up positions that offered the best defense without command. 

“Help!  Heeelp!  PLEASE!  YOU HELP!  YOU HELP!”  A voice cried.

Both the lieutenant and Sergeant Fox looked up, seeing a woman running towards them from down the street.  A dozen different rifles were trained on her until they saw she had no weapon; her clothing was smoldering.  Sergeant Fox and the lieutenant ran to her and beat the embers off of her shoulders.  Doc Flannigan arrived a moment later and draped a recovery blanket around her. 

“Help!  Must help me!  My son!  My son!”  She pointed to one of the burning buildings. 

Sergeant Fox looked at the lieutenant and nodded.  He stripped off the harness that carried his grenades and ammunition after unslinging his rifle and unsheathing his shotgun, and laid them at the lieutenant’s feet before running into the burning building.  A moment later Sergeant Fox stumbled out of the house, dragging a limp body in a blanket that was burning along the edges of its wool.  Several nearby soldiers jumped up and promptly stomped the flames out.  The body Sergeant Fox had dragged out - a teenage boy - was severely burned from head to toe.  Along his arms and legs, portions of his skin were sloughing off the meat and bones of his body.  All of his hair was missing, and every time he breathed, the boy coughed up blood and ash.  Parts of his body crackled, as if being cooked, and the air stank sweetly of grease.  The boy was screaming, but produced no sound.

“Doc!  Get over here!  Bring the interpreter!”

Doc Flannigan ran over, the lieutenant in tow, who was anxiously screaming into his radio for his interpreter to get the fuck out of his truck and over to the situation at hand.

“Ah jesus christ,” Doc Flannigan said, looking at the boy.  He kneeled down and removed his medical bag from his back, opened it up, and began unspooling a roll of gauze.  The boy’s torso heaved with gargantuan effort; blood dyed black from smoke seeped from the corners of his mouth.

“Doc, is he –“

Fuck no, sir.  He’s dead, he just doesn’t know it yet,” Doc Flannigan said through clinched teeth.  “If he doesn’t die from the burns, which he almost assuredly fucking will, he will die of gangrene, because he won’t survive me scraping all of this dead fucking tissue away from his wounds tomorrow.”

“Can you at least –“

What the fuck do you think I’m doing sir?”

The lieutenant flinched; Sergeant Fox sighed, putting a hand to the few burns he had himself.

“Alright, Doc.  Alright.  I’ll tell the mother.”

Presently, the interpreter trotted up, wearing his NATO equipment.  Bits of food were trapped in his beard, and a large coffee stain ran down the front of his body armor.  His name-tape was written in Arabic.  The lieutenant wiped the interpreter’s face free from crumbs.  “Now that you’re presentable, please ask this woman why she and her son were inside that burning building so long after the Taliban left?”  The interpreter obliged him.  The woman was still sobbing, but she spoke desperately, as if her answers would somehow repair the damage done to her son’s body.  The interpreter turned back to the lieutenant.

“She says that she no see the Taliban any more, but saw Russians, and it cause her to fear for her.”

“What fucking Russians is she talking about?”  The lieutenant said, frustrated. 

A moment later: “She say she thought you are Russian, lieutenant.”

“Oh.. I see now.  Thanks.”  The lieutenant began to shake with rage.  He turned to the mother and pointed to the American flag on his shoulder emphatically.  The rural nature of this village meant it was most likely devoid of any outside contact; they probably didn’t even know they had won that particular conflict decades ago.  Despite the war having been over for almost thirty years, the Russians were still killing Afghanis.  “Please inform her that we’re going to do our very best to save her son’s life,” the lieutenant said.

Doc Flannigan reacted as if he had been slapped.

“Fuck you, sir!  FUCK YOU!   I told you what is gonna happen here, who the fuck are you to lie to her like that, you fucking –“

“Calm down, Doc –“

“No, no, fuck you sir.  You piece of shit.  You monstrous piece of shit, you’re gonna make me have to do it, you’re gonna make me have to tell her, you cowardly motherfucker!”

“I said calm –“

For ten months you’ve had me doing this shit.  Three hundred god.  Damn.  Days.  I can’t do it anymore.  They are countless, these dead people, and I can’t do it anymore!  You need to tell her.. you need to tell her!”

Doc Flannigan began to sob, pounding his bloodied hands down onto his thighs, tears spilling onto the burnt stomach of the boy who now lay unmoving upon the ground.  When Doc Flannigan saw that the boy had died, he began to chuckle through his sobs, and then he laughed, and then he was howling with laughter, angry laughter; his voice became ragged and wet from the anger that existed somewhere between his misery and the morbid humors he hid behind. 

Sergeant Fox walked over, and helped Doc Flannigan to his feet by his armpits, as one might a sulking child.  He was sobbing still when Sergeant Fox took him by the hand, and led him over to a knee high wall made of mortared river stones to sit upon.  Sergeant Fox handed him a bottle of water from his cargo pocket; when Doc Flannigan didn’t take it, Fox opened it himself, poured a small amount over the head of Flannigan, and then held it in front of his face.  Slowly, hesitantly, Doc Flannigan took the bottle and sipped.

“I can’t do it anymore, Fox, I can’t.. I just can’t,” Doc Flannigan whispered. 

Maybe it was the smell of the boy’s charred flesh, or maybe it was the lack of sleep clenching at the dried interior of his stomach, but Sergeant Fox suddenly vomited.  A small amount of what looked like tar was trapped inside the pool of his spit.  Doc Flannigan didn’t notice.  Sergeant Fox shook his head, curing himself from a spell of dizziness.

The woman, seeing Doc Flannigan being led away, realized her son had died; she wailed, beat her chest, and pulled out chunks of her burnt hair by the fistful.  Her screams were savage and terrifying.  The interpreter did his best to comfort her but to no avail; the soldiers gave her space, scared or perhaps reminded by her grief of their own.  A search of the area found that every other person in the village had been shot dead in their homes or soaked in some kind of fuel and burned.  Each building was a charnel house, littered with corpses and stained with blood.  The mother was the lone survivor.  When her voice shattered and broke, she became calm, but was more dead than alive; alone she stalked along the street, moaning, her eyes unfocused and glazed. 

As the search concluded, the lieutenant called out over the radio.  *Alright, let’s head back to the trucks.  There’s nothing more we can do here.  Squad leaders, get your men back to their vehicles.  Three-Three, meet me at the school house.  Get your gear back on and bring Doc.*

When Sergeant Fox arrived, he had Doc Flannigan wait outside of earshot.  “Sergeant Fox.  We got a MEDEVAC bird coming in.  First, cut down those bodies; bag the sheriff’s and bring it back with you; the TOC is gonna want a positive ID. Then I want you to take your boys, scoop up that woman with Doc, and take them back to Salerno.  I want you to get Doc somewhere quiet and alone, and stay with him until I get there.  You got it?”

Sergeant Fox nodded, and then his head sagged to the left.

The lieutenant cocked his head to the side.  “Hey, you alright?  You look like you dozed off there for a moment.”

Sergeant Fox straightened.  “I’m fine, sir.  I’ll see you back at the FOB.”

The men of Alpha Company lined up along the single road leading out of the village, and marched back to their trucks down the highway.  Black smoke blew along the road, obscuring the soldiers as they left.  Sergeant Fox gathered up his men and made for the same clearing they were dropped off in after finding the mother, who allowed herself to be dragged along with them in tow.  She was still moaning to herself when the helicopter landed. 

“Everyone onboard,” Sergeant Fox coughed.

His soldiers slowly filled the seats of the helicopter, taking their time to buckle themselves in.  Doc Flannigan joined them afterwards; when Sergeant Fox went to guide the mother up the ramp, she pulled away from him and ran.  Sergeant Fox cried out to her, but to no avail; a moment later, the woman flung herself through the doorway of her still-burning home as she screamed, “Insha Allah!” 

She didn’t come back out.

“Hey, yo, Sergeant Fox!  We gotsta go, man!  Get on the bird!”  The pilot screamed.  It wasn’t Vee, but someone else; a different helicopter all together, Sergeant Fox noticed.  Slowly, Sergeant Fox climbed aboard, his hands and heart aching with the effort.  Doc Flannigan sat there watching the burning building, expressionless.  Grime had accumulated along the tear-stains of his face.

The helicopter lifted up into the sky, and headed south to Salerno.

“Hey, Sarge!  Sarge!”  One of the seated soldiers said. 

Sergeant Fox looked over at him.  “What do you need?”  His voice was mutilated.

“Haha, just wanted to say: you used too much tobasco, brother!”  The soldier pointed at Sergeant Fox’s face.  “I woulda thought my mix would’ve kept you awake, but guess not!”

Sergeant Fox furrowed his brow, confused.  Removing one of his gloves, he reached up to touch his face and wiped away a single tear he hadn’t realized had fallen. 

~

The Blackhawk touched down gently, just as the sun came up over the horizon.  Sergeant Fox looked down; somehow, his seat harness was already off.  Curious.  He reached forward, missed the side wall of the Blackhawk, and fell face-first off the side of the helicopter.  One of his soldiers helped him up, dusted him off, and then returned to the company of his fellows, all of which eyed their sergeant suspiciously.  Doc Flannigan stood there next to him, motionless and empty. 

Sergeant Fox blinked; he was down the walk way; he blinked again; he was along the aisle where his tent stood.  He yawned, his rifle slid sideways down the sling strung across his back.  When he looked down at the weapon, he left it dangling near his hip.  When he looked back up, he was inside his tent, his gear, rifle, and shotgun in a clumsy pile around his feet.  Somewhere inside, a speaker turned on and began playing music.  He sat down on his makeshift bed, and dropped his face into his hands. 

“Mail call, motherfuckers,” a voice droned from the tent flap.  “Rise and shine; it’s just another beautiful day in Paradise!  Oh, Sergeant Fox: congratulations on the re-enlistment going through last week!”  Sergeant Fox looked up.  A fist shoved three letters into his hands, the first of which was from his wife, her hand-writing was recognizable anywhere; the second was a letter in official print from the county municipal court back home; the third, a document envelope from his current bank. 

Doc Flannigan sat across him; when he had appeared, Sergeant Fox had no idea.  “You know what these three mean, right?” The mail orderly said.

“Get out,” Sergeant Fox said.  The mail orderly was already gone.  Time became lost.

Doc Flannigan stood up.  “I’ll be at the bunker.”

“Get the fuck out,” Sergeant Fox said, weakly. 

The music moaned and drawled, spilling across the inside of the tent like yellowed puss.  Sergeant Fox didn’t recognize the tune, nor where it was coming from. The lyrics felt polluted and sickly, and the guitar riffs curled inside his gut like a clutch of talons.

The sun has fallen down.                
                                                                                                                                                                 
                    And the billboards are all leering.

                                        And the flags are all dead, at the top of their poles -

When Doc Flannigan exited, Sergeant Fox looked down at his shotgun.  He looked at the worn grooves of the stock, caked with Afghani dirt and sweat.  His eyes traveled down the heat-shield of the slide all the way to the buttoned front of the sight post.  His hands reached down and picked the firearm up, and set the buttstock down flush against the ground.  He could still taste the tang of the gun-oil, muddied as it was, trapped in its mechanisms.  He looked at his gloved hands; each bore splatters of dried blood from the man at the safe-house.  He turned one over, and found skin from the murdered boy stuck to his palm –

                                                            You grabbed my hand and we fell into it,

                                        Like a daydream, or a fever.

                    We woke up one morning and fell a little further down.

For sure it’s the valley of death -

Carefully, he moved his face in front of the muzzle, staring down into the cyclopean abyss of the shotgun’s barrel. 

I open up my wallet
And it’s full of blood.

When he reached down towards the trigger well, he slumped forward and onto his side, asleep.  


Dan Marovich writes fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional work of fantasy. Born and raised in San Jose, California, Dan has travelled the world, been a soldier for the US Army, and later returned to his Bay Area home, where he continues to write while moonlighting as a student at San Jose State University.


The Father: An Exclusive Excerpt from "Patricide" A New Novel by D. Foy

He was our father, and he fucked us. — Rod Steiger

Suicidal, apt to crumple on a dime in fits, I was flown out to my father’s in his dustbowl town, where nothing was expected, said my father, the place would be all mine, take a job when you’re ready, said my father, or anything you like. I’m looking for my own work, said my father, but we’ll fix you up, and if you need it, said my father, we’ll go find it, that’s what really counts. You’ve only got to get here, said my father, that’s it. We’ll be together then, and together we’ll be good.

I stared into space at my father’s house of gloom for the days it took to find a piece of my old self, then turned into a freak, running miles at a pop and busting calisthenics. And then I was reading again, then I was rolling through the country to marvel at life in the fields of rye. I wrote foolish letters to my girl in California. I wrote awful poems and a story with no end.

Between my sadness and my guilt, taking from my father in his own bad luck—mortgage in arrears, sharks at his door—I couldn’t eat more than a taco a day and a bite or two of beans. One morning I spied a tub of cream in the fridge, and my mouth began to water. But just as I’d got the tub on the counter and cream on the spoon, ready to smear my taco up, my father, as usual, appeared.

“Put it back,” he said.

“What?”

“We’re saving that for a special occasion.”

The double take, that’s what I gave my father. He was serious, his face a stupid stone.

“You mean for the gala we’re having Friday night?” My father kept his stare. “It’s a dollop of sour cream, Dad.”

“I don’t care what it is,” my father said with The Voice he used so well at times like these. “When you’re in my house, you’ll live by my rules.”

“You have got to be kidding.”

“Next time, make sure you ask.”

Decades vanished, then, and I was a kid of seven. “But why?” I said.

“Because I said so, that’s why.”

After that, I’d have been stunned to see him roast a wiener, but a few days later my father announced our dinner that night with Suzie, the woman he’d somehow lately taken.

Compared to my mother, if just by looks, Suzie was a turd on a satin sheet. She had a mannish face and brittle hair, acid-washed jeans with blouses from Walmart and Sears. Add to these her arrogance, her coarse guffaws and filthy mouth—“You’re getting so skinny,” she said to me once, “you’re going to fall through your asshole and choke yourself!”—and you were face to face with the best of the worst, as in the best-lack-all-conviction worst.

My father was getting naked with this cretin.

My father was sticking his penis in this cretin as she grunted her imperatives.

And the more I saw my father curtsy like a dolt in two left shoes, and the more I caught my father jumping at her orders and laughing at her jokes, the harder it became to look him in the eye.

We were greeted by a waitress in suspenders plagued with buttons. There were bogus flamingos and bogus plants and tuck-and-roll banquettes. Roy Orbison-cum-Muzak sealed the mood, and stale air. Then, as the waitress told her “specials,” my father said, under his breath, “Nothing fancy, got it?” I looked at him, like before. “Chicken or pasta,” he said.

Suzie gobbled up her surf and turf, then sucked her teeth and told a joke with pitchforks and dead babies while my father used his card to pay the bill. On it, where the tip should’ve been, was a zero.

Thank God for California girl.

Three weeks later, in mid-June, she flew out for a visit. We got nice in the honkytonks on Route 66 and, for all the chumps to see, screwed at dusk in my father’s yard. And then she was gone, to our city by the bay, and I was left to stumble from my dream.

Two weeks on again, when I could take no more of my quarantine or my father, she bought my ticket home, where I let a flat with a couple psychotic Irishmen. One got me hired by a builder, then attacked me with a hammer when the boss put me in charge. The other was a creep who[JSR1]  murdered cats and stabbed his friends with darts when they were drunk.

My father was the man who never let you sleep when he couldn’t sleep, the man who came to you before the sun had risen to drive to the mountain to see it rise, then, stoned as ever, head down to the donut shop where none but old men and reprobates gripped their cups and spun their yarns through clouds from hissing batter. My father hauled you down your paper route then drove you to the creek for pollywogs and snakes. My father saw your glories and defeats on baseball fields and soccer fields, and listened to the stories of your exploits in the hills, your blacktop brawls, your reasons for loss, your little white lies and confessions of guilt, your knock-knock jokes, ridiculous, the piss-pot woes of your teenaged heart, all the while withholding his own, hidden in his beard, his buzz, the days he didn’t show, his omnipresent haze of fear—of the truth of his life, the grief he’d not tracked for what could only have been a cavalcade of losses and defeats from the childhood he’d survived himself: here expelled from the contest for his drawing of a stag his teachers judged a fraud—there bereft of the father he’d never had save in lore, dearly beloved anyway, as you knew forthwith when my father spoke his father’s name—here yet again, a man, trapped in the marriage my mother’s father had forced my father into when my mother told the monster she was pregnant at sixteen—and there again yet, blasted, with three sons at twenty-seven, his dreams on the wind and little in the bag but the hump along his path of failure and defeat.

And that was my father, now, trapped in his house, more a tomb than a home, the tyranny of his ruin bearing down.

Before I’d got out to my father’s, he was so much more than that. My father was my confidante, my cohort, my comrade in crime, my father was my mentor, my dealer, my captain, my king. And then, by the time I’d left—how can I say?—he was gone, my father, a wretch. I didn’t merely dislike my father, then. I hated him. But more than all the rest, even as I hated the man, I loved the father, still.

Denial’s the grace that shelters us till shelter is ourselves.

The truth of my father had always lain before me. And though I knew it had, I didn’t know I knew, nor could I have said it.

I didn’t want to know. It was just too much to know.

I avoided and denied the reality of my father as surely as my father had denied and avoided the reality of his own.

And nothing I did could obliterate my mother.

You couldn’t deny the illness of a woman who beat her son often, molested him in measures, tortured him a thousand ways. You couldn’t deny the illness of a woman whose kleptomania risked her family over and again, whose generally awful ways wrought disgrace in the least affair, from family gatherings and vacations to common times at bars and pools, or on a field trip to see how men made salt.

The logic of a child’s urge to flee such a woman, always, of the terror of a child made to live with such a woman, of the hunger of such a child for a spoonful of comfort and trust—none of these, either, can be denied. A child in these conditions, a child with just a sliver of will to survive, would cling fast to the human best ready to meet these needs.

For all my father’s weakness, my father was my haven, beyond which I saw just waste.

My mother tore my hair and clawed and slapped my face and neck.

My mother touched me with her hands and fucked me with her eyes, and with her words she fucked my mind, and when at last she’d finished, if merely for a time, she thrashed me with her spoons.

By contrast, punishment at my father’s hands was mild. My father whipped me with a belt sometimes, for reasons he explained: “You know why I’m whipping you, Son?”

Had these times made the whole of my harm by my father, they might have been excused. But these times did not make the whole of my harm by my father, or even just a few. When my father pressed together his first and second fingers, like a wooden dowel, he had a dowel with which to jab a chest. Equal pain, of course, through different means—accepted then for standard castigation—was brought down, too: curling, then squeezing, your son’s pinky, or with a finger thumping your son’s head, or dragging your son by his ear into banishment, the room of his exile, the corner he’d be made to stand.

And no matter the sentence, it was doled out always with The Voice of Paternal Law, The Voice of The Father, giant. My father may have deigned at times to spare these trials, but never The Voice of The Father, which alone sufficed to warn that past the limits of good faith, pain did lurk.

Still, when all was said and done, I felt a little safe knowing the worst that could happen by my father was a whipping with a belt. Some pokes to the chest? A twist of the ear or thump to the head? What were these to a beating with my mother’s spoons?

But wicked as they were, the creatures I’d seen in my father’s zoo of horror were not by far the worst. Behind the curtain behind the desk, rougher beasts were slouching yet.


D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break, and the novel, Patricide, releasing October 2016 (preorder here). His work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Frequencies, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. Visit his website at www.dfoyble.com.


Why Is It So Hard To Leave Los Angeles?

text by Keely Shinners

 

I leave the States in one week, July 3rd, the day before Independence Day. We have been joking a lot about how post-modern Americana it is, how David Foster Wallace may have used it as a first sentence in something.

When I talk or write about it, I say it differently: I leave Los Angeles in one week.

I have only lived here for a few months. I grew up in Illinois. I moved to Southern California, to a far suburb of L.A., towards San Bernardino. I have only lived in Los Angeles since May. I leave in one week. 

Still, it has become very difficult for me to leave Los Angeles. I have been crying at small things. Such as, the mention of going to Malibu. Such as, petting my editor’s cats (who actually do not like petting, but prefer spanking, the sado-maschochists).

I cry at less sentimental things as well. Such as, Billboard top 40 hip hop songs on the radio and finding a cheap cup of coffee ($1.75 at a place on Spring Street, across from the building where I have worked for more than a year).

Why is it so much harder to leave Los Angeles than anywhere else I have been?

I have a boyfriend in Los Angeles.

(I had a fiancé in Illinois.)

I have a life in California. I go to parties and I am recognized. I have writing jobs that publish my work and encourage me to keep writing.

(At one point, I believe I could have had a life at home too. A wedding in Chicago. A teaching job, like my mother. A big window overlooking Lake Michigan, with a writing desk.)

It’s warmer in L.A.

It’s warmer in L.A.? Really?

This is the one distinction between Los Angeles and other places I have been: in Los Angeles, it is easier to lie. Or at least to embellish. I have told so many lies in Los Angeles and people still believed me, respected me, loved me, even. L.A. attaches itself to a good story, whether or not the story is rooted in anything wholly true.

In L.A., I can say the words, “I am a writer,” to artists and sandwich makers and girls at bars. They nod and sip their drinks and say, “Oh, cool.”

At home, I can barely say the words, “I want to be a writer.” Let alone “I will be,” and certainly not, “I am.”

Los Angeles, city in love with good stories. And me too. I have read so much here. Didion. Bukowski. Eve Babitz.

Malibu is the most beautiful place in Los Angeles.

Malibu is at least the most beautiful-sounding place in Los Angeles because it is called Malibu, because it is attached to black and white photographs of movie actresses and screenwriters smoking cigarettes and drinking cognac on the balcony of so-and-so’s balcony overlooking the sea.

“The first time I came to Malibu, it was spring and the wildflowers had blossomed in the mountains.” I cry as I am writing this sentence. Why?

One, because it is a good sentence.

Two, because it is true. It was spring, and the wildflowers had blossomed, and it was me who was there. I plucked a white poppy flower from the canyon and tucked it in my hair, which was longer then. (I cry again at this story.)

And of course, it is reductive to say that the cats who like to be spanked are just my editor’s cats. These are the cats that posed with girls in black and white nudes, the photographs that I silently poured over when I was fifteen, sixteen, obsessed with a photographer who ran a magazine from his home in San Francisco. Now, Oliver Kupper, my editor, the man who taught me how to be a writer, in a studio apartment in Downtown Los Angeles (where you can apparently get coffee for $1.75 at a coffee place down the street).

I learned to drive here. (I tear up at this sentence too, probably at the word “here.”) I learned to stick half my body out the window when I am merging several lanes of traffic on the 10 east, to anthropomorphize my tiny silver hatchback. I learned to drive buzzed, to drive while putting on mascara, to drive at night, whipping past palm trees at eighty miles an hour. I learned to drive listening to the top 40 hip hop songs on the Billboard charts on Real 92.3, driving up and down Sunset Blvd in the middle of the night.

Sunset Blvd, a road, just a road. But a road attached to so many mysterious and fabulous stories that it has become more than itself. So much so that I remain blissful in Hollywood rush hour traffic, singing songs that I shouldn’t be singing, singing YG.

Why is it so hard to leave Los Angeles?

I will be back in six months, maybe less. Why is it still so hard to leave?

The love I have cultivated for this place permeates several layers of fiction and reality.

I fear I will come back and all of my illusions will have sunk with time, that I will have meetings and responsibilities and even more rent to pay. I will start to complain often of the ambulances and the smell of piss. And then my imagination of Los Angeles will not be so romantic anymore.

More than this, I fear the fantasy will wash over me, that I will be consumed by cognac and cigarettes on the balcony, interviews with people who are photographed often, long drives down Sunset. I am afraid that I will return to Los Angeles and there will be no time to go to the mountains or the beach, to put a white poppy in my hair, and that nothing here will feel so real anymore.

In the meantime, I will be relishing in my ability to say the word “here” until my mother drops me off at LAX and I wave all my kisses goodbye.

Tender Meat

artwork by Dash Snow

by Jennifer Love

         Me and Baby Rae like to talk about how we’re gonna get out of here soon. We both have big plans. She’s gonna be a school bus driver, and I’ll probably find Jesus or something. I just need to experience a great miracle to make me believe. Then I’m gonna be saved.

        The chili always burns black at the bottom of the pot. That’s why they’ve let Baby Rae stay here so long, because she’s the only one who’s got the sinew in her arms to scrape the iron clean again. “I’ll tell you a secret, Tiny,” she had said when I was first assigned to kitchen duty with her. “I got a deal with the cook. She always burns the food a little on purpose, gives me something to work with. Keeps me off the streets til I get going on my bus license.”

         My secret is that I watch her work out of the corner of my eye, I love to watch the rumbling muscle and fat. Baby Rae has great big folds of flesh and great big grooves around her eyes, she is stout and strong and steeped in rare wisdoms, pluckable as grapes. Like what she said before my first job interview. A shower ain’t enough, honey. You gotta go down to the Walgreen’s and pick out a 99 cent tube of lipstick. You wear lipstick, people think you got money, you know? She’s smart like that. Took a lot for her to get this way, though, living in the shelter for a record amount of time and not hearing a peep from no one about moving on. I know she had a baby boy and that baby boy isn’t hers anymore, because I guess somehow his school found out she was shooting up at home. The story’s a little fuzzy. She always gets to blubbering before long.

         I stay quiet when Baby Rae gets to talking about her son. A long time ago, I had tried to explain to her about my own experience as a mother. Tried to say, hey, I know what it’s like. To give birth. And then to lose your kid. But she didn’t understand, because my baby was born into the hands of a fortune teller named Grace who I had found in the Yellow Pages after a long night of contemplating the vast mystery of the future. And I guess to her, that isn’t quite the same.

         I reach back to the furthest tentacles of my mind, take myself out of the salty haze of the kitchen and back to that most important day. I am fifteen years old. I am wearing a sweatshirt that hangs halfway to my knees. I am on her doorstep, and then I am inside her house, sinking into the folds of her couch, breathing through my mouth and holding my hand out expectantly as she rustles through the contents of a drawstring bag. “I’d like to see my future, please,” I say.

        She makes me pay before she will touch me. Takes my ten dollar bill, then takes my hand and glides her crackled fingertips across its surface. Retrieves a stone to press into its center. Oils the fingers, a different oil for each one, from tiny bottles she produces from the depths of her bag. Stones. Oils. And a knife. This she lifts with great ceremony before running the blade along the creases of my palm, drawing bubbling red threads to the surface.

        “I didn’t know those were under there,” I breathe. When I touch them, they smear.

         She strokes my wrist with her thumb. “Are you ready, baby?”

          Her voice is barely audible. If I speak out loud, I fear the moment may break. My head nods before I know what I’m agreeing to.

          She sinks the knife deeper into my palm, angling it towards my wrist. She’s reaching for something, I know. She’s finding something important inside of me, and I feel no pain at all.

          Something bloody and gelatinous is on the end of her knife, as she pulls four inches of blade out of my flesh. She scoops it out of the meat of my hand and lays it, with reverence, across my other open palm.

           “A baby duck,” she sighs, eyes glittering. “An embryo.”

          The glazed eye of my offspring gazes up at me. Grace takes my hand again, pulls a needle and thread through the incision she has left.

          “Will it survive?” I ask. “Is it going to grow up?”

          She just nods, breaking the thread with her teeth. Taking my hand, she leads me to her front porch. She kisses the embryo, staining her lips red before she retreats into her house and shuts the door.

          “Grace, wait!” I try the door, but it’s locked. I shake the knob to make the hardware rattle. “What about my future? You never told me!”

         I bang on the door with my stitched hand, keeping my baby cupped carefully in the other. She pulses warm and wet in my palm. “Grace! What does this mean?”

          It seems as if my voice should echo, but it doesn’t. I desperately need Grace to let me back in, but she won’t. The night, unsympathetic to my situation, descends. So I just slush home.

          I named her Meatball. The little duck. My daughter. I cracked eggs over her miraculous body each day, gently massaged the yolk into her skin. Meatball was my moon and sun. She grounded me during my time of navigating life as a disoriented Canada goose, two states behind and wondering when everyone else was going to catch up. She started the thaw within me, organs materializing from the soup of my cells and groaning slowly to life. The world was becoming real with her every imperceptible breath; life could be more than something I thought about from afar, formless and alone, wondering when everyone else was going to catch up.

          Frozen, thawed, back in flight-- life could be more than something I thought about in my sleep.

          But I am not fifteen anymore. I am not with Grace, I am with Baby Rae. And she has moved on. Now she is telling me that if she’d had a man, she would still have her kid, and she’d have a job and a house and all that. Playing the game, she calls it. That’s how you gotta do life, she advises.

          She cracks her dishtowel, slings it across the wire rack. “You know, Tiny, you’re a cute little thing. I don’t know why you don’t just pick a man off the street, get him wrapped round your finger. You’d be all tucked up in a nice house in no time.”

          “It’s not that easy.”

          “Like hell it ain’t. Wait til you’re my age, see what you think ‘bout it then. You can give me a call.” Baby Rae pulls the stopper out of the drain and meanders out of the kitchen, squawking with laughter. “Cos you know if I ain’t dead yet, I’m still be here!”

          Baby Rae doesn’t know about the last time I tried anything like that. I had been scooting down the strip mall at the edge of town, a shopkeeper after me for stealing a can of beans. The bowling alley had seemed like a safe haven from the outside, with a faded sign promising fun for the whole family. Inside was dim and interplanetary, every surface yellowed by fluorescent beams. I ran for the lanes and slid down the first alley I reached, dropping my body low, gliding under the ten-pin triangle suspended and into the dark. My feet slammed into a metal grate. What the hell, a voice said from the other side, a voice that I would later know as that of my angel, my angel took a socket wrench to the grate and pulled it down with a clang so I could hop out, and I hopped.

          “Who are you?” I asked him. He had a greasy black mustache that I trusted with my life. His body was shaped like a beautiful egg.

          “I feel like I should be the one asking the questions here,” he said with something like a grunt, or maybe a laugh. I waited. I checked on Meatball. She was a fluffed-up duckling by that time.

          The man cleared his throat and puffed out his chest a little. “My name’s Dave. I’m the pinsetter mechanic.”

          He showed me the supply closet to hide in when the owner came back a minute later to bang on the door, said I don’t know man, she ran out that way, I don’t know, she didn’t say nothing to me until he left, and I asked from inside the closet if he had a wife, and he didn’t hear me so I came out of the closet and asked again, and he didn’t say nothing to me, and my insides snapped for a second and my eyes darted to the door, until he asked me hey kid, you gonna be okay if I sneak you out, and I didn’t say nothing to him, and that’s how I ended up sleeping in the musty space behind the bowling lanes, eating the food he brought me, feeding Meatball the oats and peas he brought her, spending my days plotting how I was gonna get out of there and into his house, where I could have a real bed instead of an inflatable mattress on the ground, and real showers instead of baby wipes and weekly trips in the middle of the night to the campground showers just out of town. I spent a long time on my teeth in those concrete restrooms in the cold and the dark and the night. Convinced that if I brushed them long enough, they would get sharp like fangs.

          His wife’s name was Barbara. I had to ask him four different times if she was fake until he showed me a picture in his wallet. He loves her very much, he said, but that’s why I gotta stay here. He gets it, he said, but she don’t. And he kinda likes it, he said, having a little secret to keep.

          “You guys don’t have any kids, right? Can’t you adopt me?” I asked him one day, and again. He didn’t say nothing to me. “Do you think of me as a daughter? Or more like a captive, illicit love?”

          He snorted. “Come on, kid. You’re only old enough to be my daughter.”

          “So I am your daughter, then?”

          He watches the pins through the grates, spinning, spinning, spinning into place. From where I sit on my mattress, I can see every single line in his skin.

          “Sure, Tiny. You can be my kid.”

          I could be his kid. Until the night I was woken by the sound of pins crashing against one of the grates, and his voice, and something less familiar. The voice of a girl. Younger than Barbara. I scrambled out of bed and pressed my eyeball to the grate and saw her, my age but prettier than me, pretending she didn’t know how to roll the ball so that he would put his arm next to hers and he put his arm next to hers and behind them on the plastic seats, a cherry slushie he must have gotten her from the snack shack, he would’ve had to turn the machine back on for that and then clean it again before the morning crew arrived and I knew this because he’d done it for me and until that night, for me alone, and I saw the way they were looking at each other, and I pulled on my sweatshirt and shoved Meatball in the pocket and wrenched out the bolts and pulled down the grate and ran down the line at the side of the lane, picked up a bowling ball, and they were yelling but I couldn’t hear what they were saying and they were yelling and I threw the bowling ball at her head, and I didn’t throw it hard enough, and it landed with a bone-cracking smack on the ground that I became certain was the sound of my heart breaking.

          She’s my niece, he thundered after me as I ran to the front doors, clasping another bowling ball against my chest. And here’s what happened next: first, his hand clamped down on my arm. Second, every nerve ending in my body shrieked. Third, my entire being pulled itself away from his grasp, a great surge of revulsion pushing forward so hard that my sick-mouse feet couldn’t keep up and one kicked the other and I fell, hard, on the hardwood, on my left hip. The pocket with Meatball inside. I felt her little bird bones popping against mine, the warm blood seeping through my sweatshirt, and my baby girl was dead, a mess of flesh in my pocket. A sob rose from my stomach, but I couldn’t think about it then.

          At the front doors, I threw the bowling ball against the glass and this time it worked, the glass shattered, sent the screech of an alarm across the building and into the night. It sounded like silver blood, just like me, and it almost drowned out Dave in the background, his footsteps, his voice, still yelling, Tiny, you fucking crazy bitch, she’s my niece.

          Two lungs later I laid flat on the side of the highway, arms outstretched like an angel. My bones were aching like they wanted me to tear them out or something, bury them in someone’s backyard until a hush settled in. Made them docile. I thought of all those glittering fragments of glass, suspended for milliseconds before raining down on the pavement. And my body a tiny angel, fluttering amongst the iridescence, avoiding the sharp edges with the practiced bobs and weaves of someone who has felt them before. Laying far out in the dark, I considered whether I really cared that Dave had some other stupid girl with a ponytail, or if I just thought I should. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of what I’m doing is me, and how much is a hand slipping through the cracks in my skin and knotting against my spine.

          The sobs had long subsided, faded to kitten hiccups in my throat. I felt convinced that no one in history has felt as hard, as much as I do, no one else has ever laid flat on the ground on the side of the road in the middle of everywhere with their baby’s mangled body turning crusty against their hip, fucking freezing and waiting for the earth to split open beneath their back, waiting to fall, praying for a home or a hand or something to catch them on the other side. No one else has ever been so close to the void.

          I stayed like that, a bloodstained palm to the sky, until the cops came to take me away.

          But it’s okay. You know? People are always talking about how everything is okay. I’m gonna be saved. And Baby Rae’s gonna get her certificate and become a school bus driver, probably in Kentucky, she says. Where they have white picket fences and green grass, the kinda shit you don’t see round here, she says. I dig my nails into the blackened grit at the bottom of the pot, and the grit bites back. I’ll be there, too. When I’m an angel, back in flight. Higher than the sun. I’m gonna be saved. I swear. I’m gonna be saved. I’m just waiting for the miracle.


Jennifer Love is a writer, artist, and Bay Area native. She currently resides in San Jose, teaching literacy skills to ESL learners and working on a collection of short stories.


The Electric Woman

text by Tessa Fontaine

 

Dr. Frankenstein holds the hammer. He has the metal moon of a nail’s head protruding from his nostril, which he taps in a little deeper. The flat head rests one inch out from the entry to his cavity, the metal flaring the soft nostril tissue wide. With the hammer’s forked prongs, he hooks and slowly pulls out the nail. It glistens. Only the audience members right up front can see the sheen of snot coating the nail, but the rest are practiced in the art of imagination.

            “You want more?” he asks the audience.

            “Yeah!” they yell.

            “You’re sick,” he says, pounding the nail in to his nostril one more time, bowing a little with the nail inside so they can see that he is filled up, that he is real, that they may now applaud.         We are at the Wisconsin state fair, three months in to the sideshow season. Our girl, me, Tessa Fontaine, is behind Dr. Frankenstein’s curtain, down five stairs and staring out at the neighboring Crazy Mouse roller coaster, her heels sinking slightly into the softening grass. It has just started to rain. She listens for screams.

            She is the electric woman.

            “It’s entirely safe,” the Boss had said as he showed her the electric chair a few days earlier. “You won’t feel a thing. We used to have the girl light a cigarette off her body, and you won’t even have to do that. Health nuts these days.”

            Our girl nodded, always perfecting her fearlessness, the nod of the act of fearlessness.

She sees the flash of a child’s face in the front seat of the Crazy Mouse stilled in panic, snot and tears, hair plastered to his head from the rain like a useless helmet. The delight of terror. There she goes, up the first of five steps up to the stage. Rain makes a soft hush outside.

            “The only problem with the electric chair,” the Boss had said, “is when it’s raining outside.”

            “What happens then?” our girl, you, asked.

“Usually nothing,” he said. “If it’s flooding, we’ll cut the electric chair act. If it’s just raining, there can be some small surprises.”

            “Shocks?”

            “Little ones. But they don’t feel like you think they would. They’re soft.”

            You take the second and third step up the stage, hear the dim plops of rain hitting the vinyl tent, hear Dr. Frankenstein say, “This next act will also take place on this stage, where you see this fine and most unique piece of furniture. Every prisoner on every death row affectionately calls this thing Sparky.”

            You take the fourth and fifth step as you hear, “Let’s welcome Miss. Electra,” and part the curtain like this moment is your nineteenth rebirth of the day.

Scattered applause.

             The vinyl curtain has fallen closed behind you, our girl, and now you stand beside Dr. Frankenstein, forty or so people looking back and forth between you two, a handful looking at their phones, looking at the freakatorium across the tent. One is asleep in a stroller. One is crying.

            Over 8 million bolts of lightning strike the earth each day. There’s so much wattage out and above. “Do you know who invented the electric chair?” Dr. Frankenstein asks the audience. Silence. The big chair sits on stage, suggestive. “Thomas Alba Edison. Do you know how many are still in use? Forty-seven.”

            Electra, you are smiling with one eyebrow arched. You know this game. You know they know that you are about to be filled with something that can kill you. Why does this turn them on? You stand with your legs parted.

            “I wonder,” you had asked the Boss when he first showed you the chair, “if there’s any chance the electricity might stay inside you?”

            “You won’t become your act,” he said.

            Did you mind if you did? What was better, to be safe or to be special?

            “Let’s flip the juice,” Dr. Frankenstein says. I step forward, swinging my hips, wink, take four sideways steps, hinge and sit down on the electric chair on top of my flattened palm. I adjust my angle so I look like a sunbather on a ship’s chaise. My palm’s skin against the metal plate beneath me acts as a direct conduit for the electricity, might be warm and buzzing. New audience members duck into the tent and shake their wet umbrellas into the grass. Rub their eyes like cartoons.

            The rain continues outside.

            He flips the switch.

            I’m electric.

            “Will this hurt?” I’d asked Dr. Frankenstein the first time I sat down in the chair.

            “Pain is entirely mental,” he said.

At night, from space, all that is clear is the earth’s electricity. We are glowing cities. The show runs for thirty minutes, act to act, back to back, each new, identical show starting exactly at the moment the previous show ends, city after city after city.

            “Now watch Ms. Electra illuminate this bulb with the very tippy top of her little head,” Dr. Frankenstein says as he brushes the glass across my forehead. My face goes erect in tiny mountains as the glass slides across my skin. Not pain, exactly, but a sharp flick that translates internally instead of externally, a pinch that makes me feel very awake and sit up a little straighter, force my sit bones down a little firmer against my hand to be sure my full flat palm is connecting with the metal plate, soaking up every electron that is pumping into my body. I don’t exhale any of it out.

            Why didn’t she call the act off?

            Why didn’t you even call your boss out of his trailer to show him the rain?

Dr. Frankenstein walks across the stage, a voice screams outside, and I put the light bulb I’d been hiding in my shorts into my mouth. Press my tongue against the ceramic insulator, around the base, my teeth clamping around the fuse. Would it be so bad to become all the way electric? I know this may not make sense, but the rules of physics and fantasy were performed away on those stages.

Can you sell a story for that long and not believe the story a little yourself?

            My tongue connects and my mouth fills with static and my teeth shake in their skin clamps and a small peal of blood, no, water, grows from the side of the tent onto the stage and I hold the light bulb in my mouth, lighting it up bright, feeling the tickle of something great passing through me.

            Can you imagine what it feels like?

            Here’s another scene: a beach at dusk, cold wind, reeds bending sideways. A girl, me, 8 or 9, sitting on a picnic blanket beside her mother. The mother is facing the ocean. Her face is turned up to the sky where the purples are moving in, eyes closed, making herself into a painting that she might recreate later. There is electricity brewing in the sky, potential energy collecting behind the purple clouds. This is 16 or 17 years before the mother’s brain will be flooded with blood and she will no longer be able to walk or talk or know the daughter anymore, does she know the daughter anymore? The ocean has trails of thin white foam like fat through a steak and the sand lifts in thin small gusts by wind.

            “Do you feel that?” the mother asked, her eyes closed and facing the water. “Close your eyes. You can feel more.”

            I closed my eyes. Waited to feel more.

            “Mmmmmm,” she said.

             “What? Where?” I waited. Peeked over at her, and there was some sort of private smile across her mouth I’d never seen before and it scared me a little. I tried again, but I must have been doing it wrong.

             She was right beside me, we were in the same wind and our skin was stung by the same sand and she was also elsewhere, feeling more. I wondered for the first time what it meant to be living side by side with a person you loved, but also living in separate universes.

             The seagulls walked in slow circles on the beach and moved toward us like predators and the mother thought nothing of being wrapped in an old, torn coat that smelled of sweat and campfire, thought nothing of peeing mostly in view, waving and smiling as she walked away from where I sat. She winked at me and then walked off alone down the beach, turned to wave once but then walked further and further until her size was halfed and halfed again, a retreating body meeting the last light on the ocean. What I’m saying is that she already knew how to travel away. I had already lost her. I had never had her.

           The evening drops its yellow ball straight ahead. Dim stars behind already. The cold wind and the cold salt smell. I imagine that the mother sees herself swimming to the next coast. How it would feel to be inside that Pacific water for days or weeks. How far she would go.

            What I’m saying is, of all the things that happened later, of losing her, and getting her back, and then trying and failing and trying again to learn who this new, tender person was, there was this one moment on a beach with electricity overhead and a woman feeling things I could not feel. An impossible beauty. A person who I did not possess, who did not possess me, walking slowly down the cold beach, touching things I couldn’t see on the sand. I only knew her a little at that moment. I wasn’t part of the multitude she was experiencing, her ocean, her sand, her crabs, her shells, her memories of a time, perhaps before I was born, her fears, all that electricity humming its perfect, separate self. How would I ever be able to find that kind of humming?

            Where would I have to go to be filled with that electricity? 


Tessa Fontaine ran away with a circus sideshow. More essays about that adventure can be found at The Rumpus, and one recently won the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Prize in Nonfiction. Other recent work appears in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, and more. Tessa lives in Salt Lake City, where she chases her dog as he chases snakes, and is a PhD student in prose at the University of Utah. Find more work at on her website


Less Than Weirdo

Nan Goldin "French Chris at the Drive in New Jersey 1979, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery New York

text by Max Barrie

 

    The noise in my head is so loud some nights, only bashing my brains in or a power drill would suffice.  Then this Meat Robot called Max would finally know peace.    

    The delusional hemorrhoids of loneliness are consistently painful and at times paralyzing.  I’m around clients all day at work; I pass families and doggies as I stroll through Brentwood; I have a great relationship with my therapist who I see four times a week.  But at the end of the day, I always go home alone.  And there’s no good way to get home.  Any route I take, each step is cemented with sadness, as if I’m walking a long plank to my apartment… trying to avoid dog shit on the sidewalk.

    I know the worth of water now that the shower head is missing and I’m forced to bask in my own filth.  I consider getting married some day— then I think about resenting HER and trolling around LA for strange.  I imagine creating a family, and I obsess about my poor children.  I will make them crazy… then life may very well break them as it has broken me and so many others.  I refuse to create lives carelessly, especially as the planet decays and Biff Tannen takes office.  Am I better than my biology because I believe the best gift to my kids would be to never have them?

    What?  I can’t ask their permission.  “Hey buster, would you like to be born?”  Had my parents asked me, I think just based on the common cold, I would’ve rejected the offer.  Even though I think it’s selfish, if I loved a woman enough, I would probably have children with her… if she poked holes in the rubber.  That said, I’d much rather co-exist with someone who’s already manufactured rug rats or has a broken pussy.

    Don’t misunderstand me… I love kids.  I just don’t want any of my own.  To all my friends and family and the readers that have reproduced, I have nothing but respect and admiration for you— provided you’re there for your brood.  From volunteering with little ones a few years back, I’ve come to believe that life’s true meaning is fully realized when one is responsible for another life.  Also, tots are closer to “The Source” than us, and regularly teach us important lessons we have forgotten.

    The following story is one more reason I’m afraid to multiply.  I’m content with being half-baked.

    I was roughly six months sober when I moved into an apartment with George Kutter.  Everyone predicted the worst, but I didn’t see it coming.  Most likely Jewish blindness.  You know, you look in the fridge and the milk is right there, but it’s nowhere to be found.  I fuckin’ hate that.

    In high school, George’s family’s home was a large gated estate in Bel-Air, on the tippy top of a hill.  My father once picked me and some pals up there after a party in 9th grade.  I had alcohol poisoning and my old man had to pull over every five minutes so I could barf.  The cops even stopped us along Sunset Boulevard, and my dad lied and said I had food poisoning.  This was in 1998 and I was fifteen years old.

    Years later life had evolved, but I had only revolved.  I’d been in and out of posh rehabs, treatments and other programs by my late twenties.  And as it turned out, so had George.  Except POSH wasn’t the adjective I’d use to describe the joints he ended up in.  He was on his own… his father had lost the family fortune, and done time in federal prison for tax evasion.

    George and I were living in different sober livings, but kept running into one another at AA meetings around Los Angles.  At my sober living, I had a private room and air-conditioning, while at his— Georgie had rats and a vending machine.  But even without the family funds that had once propped him up, George was a straight survivor.  He was slinging cell phones to make rent and car payments… he even had a really beautiful sober girlfriend named Eleanor.

    On toilet paper his life was in the shitter, but Georgie was handsome, confident and always held his head high.  I admired that.  And even though I had gotten alcohol poisoning at his house when I was fifteen; and he had almost beat me up for making fun of his wanksta wardrobe in 10th grade, I was taken with him in a heterosexual way.  He was cool, he was likable, and these days he often included me.  He introduced me to people, took me to parties, dinners, BBQs— we even did a road trip with some of his friends.

    After about a month, maybe two— we were both ready to “graduate” from our sober living homes.  My plan was to get an apartment, which was George’s thinking too.  But he had shit credit and zero savings, so it would be difficult for him to get greenlit anywhere.  We were buddies, and naturally I wanted to help… so we soon decided to be roommates.  But looking back on it, somethin’ tells me George had decided this long before we ever broached the subject.

    If it wasn’t Daddy, it was Mommy or Grandma— when she was still around.  Someone was always backing me.  So even though I was constantly worried, I never really had to worry.  George and I soon moved into a nice two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica.  We basically split the rent and utilities, but I paid a couple hundo more for the master bedroom and a private bathroom.

    Not only was I newly sober— at this stage in my life I was dealing with some of the worst OCD I had ever experienced.  Every little thing felt like climbing a mountain.  My days were plagued by endless showers, lots of butt wiping and lengthy brushing and flossing sessions.  I would rarely shave because it took an hour and made a mess.  I was cleaner than clean, but had gone primal.  No one was allowed in my room… and I spent most days in bed watching movies I had already seen a dozen times.  Occasionally I would leave for food or to have my clothes professionally cleaned at Flair Cleaners on Montana.  I was royalty at that place— easily paying their monthly rent and land taxes with my distorted thinking that didn’t work— linked directly to my MasterCard that did.  Sometimes when I returned to our apartment, I would get paranoid about someone having been in my room and rifled through my things.  I soon called a locksmith to secure my bedroom door.

    George worked during the day, and at night we would go to an AA meeting or grab dinner or both.  Some nights his girlfriend would come over and we’d all go see a new movie or eat at Sugarfish— a place I have since deemed The California Pizza Kitchen of sushi.  Cookie-cutter menu, mediocre service… it rattles me even to write about it now.  If you wait thirty minutes for a table and spend megabucks at Sugarfish, you’ve completely bought into the bullshit.  If you know the difference between rat shit and Rice Krispies, you’ll take your clitoris over to Matsuhisa.

    My room and George’s room were separated by a kitchen and a living room, which in a few months would become a moonless den of iniquity.  Sometimes in the middle of the night when I’d grab something to drink from the fridge, I could hear him plowing Eleanor.  I’d hear her moans and the mattress give, and a light thumping against the wall.  It seemed that he fucked her hard and often, but like any good addict, it was never enough.  George was smitten with Eleanor and proclaimed to everyone that she was the only vagina in his life.  But he neglected to mention Heidi, who was a speed fuck slut freak of the week and Georgie’s side piece.

    I remember the day everything started to go dark.  Thats how darkness works in my experience.  It doesn’t flood the building immediately.  It finds a way in and spreads itself out like peanut butter.  Slowly at first, but soon the knife picks up speed and nowhere is safe.  Eventually it’s stuck to roof of your mouth and it’s hard to voice the words, “HELP ME.”  Georgie and Eleanor sat me down in the living room.  With roughly nine months of sobriety, George had apparently smoked crack earlier that day in his car, down in our parking garage.  He said the urge came on strong and all he could do was pick up the phone and call Red.  Red would soon become a character in my life and a lampshade in our apartment.

    Eleanor and I stood by George in his time of trouble.  I mean what choice did we have?  She had been hoping for a ring finger rock, and I was aiming to make good on my lease.  It was obvious Eleanor and I were thrown off track… this wasn’t part of the plan.  We were two skeptical, yet encouraging hostages.


"If you reside in and around the darkness, it’s just a matter of time until you grow fangs."


    Inside every addict lives a monster.  If you feed it, you wake it up and embolden it.  If you stay off the sauce and dry goods for long enough… it falls back asleep.  The beast lives with you and it dies with you.  I would soon learn of the depths of George’s addiction and the bloodthirsty yeti that ate his spaghetti.  It was not going down without a fight.  It was not going down, period.

    When Georgie wasn’t working, we regularly hit AA meetings and hung out with Eleanor, like nothing had happened.  But something had.  A few weeks passed and then came Eleanor’s birthday dinner in Hollywood… I noticed that George was amped that night and picking at his forearm during the meal.  Later on he appeared to be slurring his words and falling asleep mid-sentence.  I didn’t want to believe it, but he had been tuned up for days prior to the celebration.

    She broke up with him.  Thats when all hell broke loose in our apartment.  

    George began cyberstalking Eleanor on my laptop and doing drugs out in our living room.  That’s when I met Heidi.  Apparently George had been sneaking her into the apartment since day one.  Whenever Eleanor wasn’t around, he was drilling Heidi like the cum dumpster that she was.  They shot speed, fucked like rabbits and stayed awake for days.

    After a while I completely cracked too.  I was mostly alone in my room… my OCD was still off the charts… I didn’t have a job, and I was rooming with a speed junkie— now in the throes of his addiction.  If you reside in and around the darkness, it’s just a matter of time until you grow fangs.

    One night I went over to a pal’s house and picked up a bottle of booze… then the bottle picked me up— held me against the wall by my throat.  My friend was concerned.  “I thought you gave up drinking,” he said.  I told him I WAS drinking, just no longer doing drugs.  Most people who aren’t addicts always accept that answer… but the truth is— whether it’s wet or it’s dry, if it changes the way you feel, whats the difference?

    Pamphlets and Big Books can suck my Dick Tracy… if you’re not a druggie and want some insight into the monster, listen to Eminem’s song, “Deja Vu.”  It beautifully and tragically explains everything in under five minutes.

    Soon enough, I was abusing the non-addictive drug, Seroquel???  Georgie was using it to, to come down from his seventy-two hour runs.  Then one night we went to Cody’s place in Hancock Park.  It was a condo on Rossmore with a back entrance through an alley.

    When we got up the stairs— it was me, George, Red, Cody and Heidi.  The blinds were drawn and “Family Guy” was playing on the TV, but no one was paying attention… everyone was getting high on Red’s supply.  I was drinking from a six-pack of Heineken.  Cody was smoking Roxys on foil; Red was smoking crystal meth out of a giant glass pipe; and Heidi and Rusty were making themselves comfortable on the sofa… tying off and trying to shoot drugs.  They would gasp each time they missed a vein, then wiped the blood off with an old t-shirt.

    Cody eventually offered me a Roxy, but it was my old friend Xanax that I ended up visiting with.  I washed down two bars with a beer like it was nothing.  Then a little later when I saw Red smoking a joint, I took a monster hit.  As I exhaled the smoke, coughing, it clouded the air… and the next few days were erased in a matter of minutes.  I only recall my legs shaking and it being difficult to walk.  And I remember stopping by my Mom’s house to ask for money the next day.

    When I look back on my life, I can connect the dots for the most part, but I’m certainly not one of those people who says— “I wouldn’t change a thing.”  I would change many things.  The first thing I would change is, I would’ve slept with Lexi Shapiro that one night in 2008.  The second thing I would do… would be to go back to each time I put my poor mother through hell, and not do that.  There must be a thousand instances.

    I came to in my apartment days later, sitting next to Red on my green living room sofa.  I was snorting a line of coke off the coffee table and handing him eighty dollars for another gram.  Red gave me a little sack of chunky white.  I laughed at how small it was.  He said we could weigh it.  I told him no, I believed it was a gram… I just found it all so amusing:

    Paper is access granted and powder is make-believe power.  

    George walked in and told me to go easy on the blow-sheezy.  When George wasn’t at work, he was basically stalking Eleanor or getting high or both.  He would drive past her apartment five or ten times in a row.  In his deranged mental state, he had convinced himself that she had a new man in her life.  This was a delusion.  She would soon file a restraining order against him.

    I did cocaine for days… taking Seroquel to come down, but the coke crashes still landed me in some starless emotional basements.  It was a Sunday in September when I sank into a quicksand state of hopelessness and self-loathing.  I picked up my Blackberry and texted a sober actor friend of mine who lived in Malibu.  After I typed to him things that had transpired, he invited me over to talk in person.  But later that day he was presenting at the Emmy’s, so he only had a few hours.  When I arrived at his home, we smoked cigarettes on his ocean deck, while I explained everything in greater detail.  He listened to me carefully.  Often times humans just need to be heard.

    While he got ready for the Emmy’s, I lay on the couch in his den.  I think football was on the TV in the background, and soon I was asleep.  I woke up to a bottle of Fiji Water and some chicken nuggets that he had microwaved for me.  After I ate, he told me to take a shower.  He even gave me a change of clothes.  This was the only person in Hollywood, on or off-screen, who wasn’t a complete and total disappointment.  He was the cool kid who invited me to his birthday party, told me I mattered, and picked me up when I tripped and fell.

    We both left his house at the same time.  I left in my car and he left in a limousine with his assistant.  He told me to call him when I got back to my apartment, and he’d walk me through flushing the rest of my drugs.  I did as I was told, except I couldn’t dump the coke.  While I was on the phone with him, I only pretended.  He told me he was proud of me and that we’d check in later that night.  I thanked him and hung up.

    George was spending so much on drugs that he couldn’t pay the rent.  Although I didn’t find out until it was too late.  Maybe I should have suspected when he started asking me for a Benny now and again.  He also got in trouble at work, not just for being loaded, but for fucking his supervisor’s wife.  You can’t write this kind of stuff.  Well, I can… it’s true.

    I was eventually back in the treatment center I had been through several times before.  I’m not sure why I kept going back there and not somewhere else.  I guess the same reason I kept using… it was comfortable… it was familiar.

    My dad ended up paying George’s back rent, as well as to break our lease.  If I could go back in time, that’s something I would change too.  I can’t even imagine how much dough I’ve cost my father since my world premiere in ’82.

    Shortly after I checked back into rehab, Georgie’s Mom passed away.  After that, the word was that George took off with some druggie chick named Christian Weinstein… wait, what?  As for Eleanor, she moved on and I would see her from time to time around the sobriety scene.

    I remained in treatment for two months and then sober living for another fourteen months.  After a year and a half of hard work, abstinence and a job in recovery, one day the urge came on strong… all I could do was pick up the phone and call Red.


Max Barrie is a writer and artist currently based in Los Angeles. The son of screenwriters, Michael Barrie and Sally Robinson, Max was born and raised in Beverly Hills, California. With acerbic wit and self deprecating humor, Max documents his life growing up in the shallow, superficial depths of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood machine. In his multiple part autobiographical series, entitled A Trendy Tragedy, Max will explore his bouts with addiction, prostitution and his search for identity in a landscape that is rife with temptation and false ideals. FOLLOW AUTRE ON INSTAGRAM TO STAY  IN TOUCH: @AUTREMAGAZINE


An Excerpt From Matthew Binder's Debut Novel "High In the Streets"

 

          There is a neatly folded blanket and pillow for me on the couch. I lift the pillow to my face and give it a sniff. Remnants of Frannie’s vanilla-scented shampoo cling to its case. A wave of gut-wrenching emotion passes through me, and I stand there crippled by a combination of tenderness and confusion. I walk from the living room to the kitchen in a daze. It’s a struggle just to place one foot in front of the other. I pour myself a whiskey and drink it down. It doesn’t feel sufficient, so I pour another and then another and another and so on.

          I awake in the morning with Frannie standing over me. She’s speaking to me, but I don’t understand any of her words. My head is dull and pulsing, and my body is shaking violently. There is a small puddle of blood all around me, and the ground is littered with flower petals. I wonder what has happened: Am I injured? Is Frannie trying to kill me? Did I attempt suicide?

         I struggle to my feet. Every glass, vase, bottle, and shoe in the house is spread out across the kitchen, overflowing with haphazardly arranged bouquets of both exotic and regional flowers. I turn myself around in a circle to take in the sight. It’s the single greatest bounty of pinks and reds and blues and yellows I’ve ever seen.

          “Is this your idea of an apology?” Frannie asks.

         “Do you love it?”

          “You’re impossible,” she says, pointing her finger toward the front door. “You need to go outside. The police are waiting to speak to you.”

         “The police?” I ask. “What for?”

         “Go find out for yourself,” she says.

          It’s a terrible struggle to walk. My limbs aren’t under the control of my central nervous system. The legs keep splaying out to the side, and I can’t manage to coordinate which arm is supposed to swing forward with each step. I stumble from one support object to another. At the front door I’m greeted by two lawmen. One is old and grey and grossly pot-bellied. The other is fresh-faced, with very closely cropped hair and an imperious look in his eyes.

         “Good morning, officers. What can I do for you today?”

          “You the home owner, sir?” the fresh-faced cop says.

          “Yes, officer.”

         The older cop looks at me questioningly. “We’ve had complaints from several of your neighbors that their gardens were ransacked during the night. We came out to investigate, and it seems every house within a half-mile radius has been affected but yours. You know why that might be?”

          I glance over my shoulder, back into the house. There are several conspicuously ill-placed flower adornments positioned on the ground in the foyer. I step outside and close the door.

         “I don’t know anything about that. That certainly is odd, though.”

         “Come see for yourself,” the younger officer says, holding his hand over his eyes to shield the sun, looking out toward the closest neighbors’ front yard. “The Millers’ prize rose bushes are in ruins.”

         “Hmm…” is all I manage.

         “And over there,” he says, pointing in the opposite direction. “The MacGregors are devastated over the loss of their hydrangeas.”

         “They had quite the botanical wonderland over there.”

         “So you don’t have any theories on why someone would destroy all the gardens of all the homes around you, but spare yours?”

         An intense bout of nauseas strikes me, and I vomit at everyone’s feet. The fresh-faced cop reaches for his gun and the fat cop rushes between us. “Take a walk,” he says to the younger cop.

         “I’m sorry, officer…” I squint to read the fat cop’s nametag, “Boyles. I’ve been sick as a dog all morning.”

         “You mind if we take a look inside?”

         “In my house?” I say. “Of course I mind!”

          The cop moves closer to the front door. “Sir, if you have nothing to hide, there shouldn’t be any reason for you not to let us in.”

          I move between the door and the cop. “I know my rights,” I say. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a very busy day ahead of me.”

         “This isn’t over. Someone must be held accountable for the damages.”

         I open the door enough to slip inside and then poke my head back out. “I hope you catch your crook, gentlemen, but I really must be going.”

         I move from window to window inside the house, drawing the curtains shut. Peering out, I can see the two men arguing. There is a lot of gesticulation with the hands, culminating in the fatter cop reaching out and removing the gun from the fresh-faced cop’s holster. Finally they get back in their squad car and leave the premises.

         Frannie is waiting for me in the kitchen. She’s got the sternest of faces on. I’m feeling positively jubilant about my victory over the police.

        “You don’t really think you’re going to get away with this?” she says.

          I plant a kiss on her mouth, and she bristles. “Those guys aren’t going to do anything.”

         I keep attempting to get close to her but she rebuffs my advances, using the classic football stiff-arm technique. “You really think you outsmarted them?”

         “If those men had any intelligence at all, they wouldn’t be police officers.”

         Frannie’s face softens and then in an empty, hollow voice she says, “You’re already in enough trouble. Why would you do something so foolish?”

          “You don’t think it was a romantic gesture?”

          “You destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of people’s property.”

         “I did it for you.”

          “You need to get rid of all these flowers.”

         “Get rid of them?”

         She picks up a wine bottle I’ve stuffed with tulips. “Have you noticed all the bees flying around the house?”

         I listen carefully and my ears detect the ominous drone of buzzing. 


Click here to preorder "High In The Streets," which will be released April 29, 2016 on the Roundfire Books imprint. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Romantic Love by Greta Bellamacina

There is no disagreement in this seduction,

30 weeks in post-porn scarlet resting breath

drying over agreeing chased minutes, lake driven eyes which water over

protected studying mementos of unthinkable girls, damaging the yellow and

making other stories which drip off sleeping cherry fingers. Buried blonde

strokes in between inner thighs and stunning pubes. No uterus just a diary of

sand laid over the sheets, over and over the same type of pale sand, old stone

sand extending the sea and the last of the English coast. Replicating

everything from the sky and the length of permitted rain cutting off your toes.

(Inspired by - Lucian Freud’s – Naked Portrait 2002)

Click here to watch the video of Greta Bellamacina reading Romantic Love in a short film

Her Tongue is History, Her Body a Mystery by Max Barrie

Text by Max Barrie

            This is gonna be a fun story to squeeze…

            My life gets better everyday… because everyday it gets closer to being over.

            And I have an Ab-Fab setup… so why am I constantly twisted up like a bag full of pretzels?  My brilliant parents love me and still bankroll The “Maxccident.”  I have a genius younger sister who continues to raise me via SMS text.  I have friends… HAD friends.  They’re all gone now.  Dead or grown-up or missing.  I’ve had two girlfriends in my life… they both married doctors oddly enough— one still believes I’m a homosexual.  She never really explains.  Maybe she found my bodybuilding mags?!  I kid.  But she suspects I’m closeted.  And believe me… if you saw her - and I told you I broke it off - you might think I craved the ol’ calzone too.  I’ve never made love to a better looking woman than the one who took my virginity at 19… this girl robbed me of my wasted youth on a brown leather sofa.  It was all downhill from there.

            I was once hanging out with a very famous Playboy Playmate and her husband in Sherman Oaks around 2002.  This was before Playboy got dressed and Hugh Hefner legitimately became a bowl of oatmeal.  Anyway, this Playmate’s husband was talking to me about internet porn… and jerkin’ off.  I was in SHOCK because his wife was the hottest woman EVER— what’s this clown doing WWW-ing pussy?  Eventually I would know the truth about people… and certainty says— everybody gets burnt out on everybody.  More so guys growing tired of girls from what I’ve seen.  And that’s a sad fact.  This couple eventually divorced… Que Sera, Sera… the future was mine to see.

            And while I’m not letting women off the hook, I believe in many ways they are more evolved creatures than us.  If you have a penis and you want to build a life with a woman you “love,” you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself— “Am I ready to be better than my biology?  Do I LOVE this person enough to go against my nature from this day forward?”  I’m not really sure what women need to say to themselves in the mirror before they settle up.  I’m not a woman… so I won’t comment.  Being a man has not been pleasant… to say the least.  But from my perspective, there is no greater challenge than being female.  If you “survive” life as a man, in the next life God might give you a vagina.  “You are ready my son, here comes the sideways slice-a-roo.”

            I’m lonely… a lot of us are.  I’m a lonely tortured car-less Beverly Hills toad.  And I miss booze… it was always there… my white knight grinning from across the room.  I can’t say the same about life or people… or Madison Grendel.

            Nobody had seen Maddy at the rehab I had recently checked into.  She was a ghost then and she’s a ghost to this day.  At the time, she was sleeping off a meth binge.  I think it had been nearly six months that she was shooting the snappy stuff into her veins.  LATER THAT YEAR at an Omakase lunch, a mentor of mine said— any person who injects meth into their body truly hates themselves to the very core.  A lot suddenly came clear.  Madison Grendel hated herself and she wanted to leave earth… and I don’t mean in a rocketship.  But like in 1989’s Batman… The Joker created Batman long before Keaton dropped Nicholson into that vat of acid.  A small town and a strict family in Arizona had created Maddy, long before the trouble started.  A product of her environment… aren’t we all.

            One night I was sitting in the living room of this rehab watching shit TV.  This was before Netflix and Hulu muscled their way in.  Suddenly, a tall, thin, black-haired Japanimation character crept into the room in her bare feet.  She was so thin, that she almost didn’t exist— like a shadow.  I watched this 20-something girl grab snacks from the nearby kitchen like she hadn’t eaten since Tuesday.  She probably hadn’t.  She was wearing earbuds to avoid any possible communication.  I didn’t know then, but music marinating her mind would become her signature style.  I would eventually learn that she was so twisted and so tortured, songs temporarily kept her from the darkness.  In moments she disappeared down the hall with her goodies and I didn’t see her again for a couple more days.  When I asked a rehab tech about the mysterious junkie, he told me her name was Maddy.

            Maddy’s hair hung down to her lower back… and she wore clothes that concealed every inch of her body.  Mostly long sleeve shirts and hoodies and sweat pants.  She was on holiday from a hell I couldn’t possibly imagine.  Madison had big beautiful almond shaped eyes and was very soft-spoken, but rarely spoke at all.  She mostly listened to her music, doodled on scratch paper and chain smoked cigarettes.  She would go back and forth between Marlboro Reds and Camel Lights, but never said why.

            Everybody in rehab has a roommate… at least they used to.  It was a common practice to keep people from isolating and to put more heads on beds— fill the joint up.  My roomie was a kid from Manhattan named Conner.  He was probably 19 or 20 at the time.  Anyway, he was immediately taken with the mystery that was Maddy— which was funny because I had assumed he was gay.  Something feminine about him.  Anyway, he started talking to her in free moments, and one night while I was elsewhere, they made out in our room.  Later, Conner found me outside smoking and his lip was bleeding.  Maddy had apparently bitten down a little too hard during their sesh.  But he didn’t give a shit, he was hooked— love at first bite.  After that it was like Maddy had rescued a Labradoodle… she couldn’t get rid of this kid.  But they both seemed pleased with each other’s company and I was pleased that they were pleased.

            In treatment addicts love to hook-up.  Everybody humps in life.  But you throw two dry drunks or sober druggies in a room and they’ll smoke each other, ya dig?  Most everyone who works in recovery or has time in sobriety frowns on sex in the beginning… I don’t.  I used to buy into the bullshit of— you’re either using a dick fix or a magical box as a binky— OR you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  I was always told I needed to focus on myself, YET I was ALSO TOLD service work was important in sobriety to get me out of myself.  Blah, blah, blah… meanwhile it’s perfectly acceptable to be a pharmaceutical induced chain-smoking zombie.  That’s cool and won’t have any negative consequences.  My point is, people are going to find each other and bang each other… it’s in our nature.  And rebellious anti-authoritative personalities are gonna enjoy doing it that much more in a broom closet.  The whole game of hide-and-fuck is a high in itself.           

            That said, I couldn’t see what was happening to Conner… he was coming apart in Maddy’s hands like stale Play-Doh… day by day… bit by bit… piece by piece.  She didn’t do it for me, so I couldn’t yet understand.  In this life, tunnel vision and lack of insight are a double-barreled shotgun.  At the time neither she nor Conner were really on my radar.  He was a love sick kid and she was some mute popcorn hoe.  In our room at night, Connie would tell me how beautiful Madison was and how her big mouth and long tongue would swallow his lips during their dry hump sessions.  I found this mildly amusing and thought of a cow.  I also learned that Madison would occasionally play with his pecker, but her clothes never came off.  He had never seen the goods unwrapped.  I just assumed she was all scarred up from shooting drugs or that she had caught fire in a meth lab. 

            By the time Maddy left Los Angeles, I had never seen her without her clothes off either.

            Connie looked up to me.  I’m not sure why.  Admiring an older drunk in rehab seems like a step in the wrong direction.  But I was funny and friendly and we would talk shit, and I would make him laugh about sad truths in life— like waking up in the morning.  At the time there were probably fifteen patients total in the facility, and I made some lifelong fans during that stay.  This was my third time in drug rehab and fourth time is treatment. 

            I’m not bragging… believe me, nobody hates Max Barrie more than Max Barrie.  I’m not my taste.  But I often did well in these contained therapeutic environments, especially having been there before.  There was little pressure and lots of downtime— giving me the opportunity to find friends.  I’m often agreeable, empathetic, and usually giggling about something.  And during this particular stay, I wasn’t heavily medicated— which was always a personality plus.  For years the street drugs and booze weren’t the problem.  It was this crap that was prescribed to me by professional nudniks.  Creeps.  My “get well story” was an artist’s journey, but it was often handled like a science experiment.  I would however like to give a special shoutout to Ritalin, which helped me flip the switch on eleventh grade… until I started snorting it.  Feel the burn.

            I didn’t know it yet, but Maddy started to like me.  She began taking her earbuds out and talking to me.  And during group therapy she would say nice things about me.  She knew I was a writer and she showed me some of her journaling and scratch paper doodles… a few times she even wrote me three to four page letters detailing her day and the evil circus between her ears.  Conner didn’t seem to mind that Maddy had taken a liking to me.  He liked me just as much, if not more.  And the fact that he thought I was cool, probably fueled any tiny flame that she felt for me.  Women love noise.  I liked Madison too, but didn’t think about her sexually.  Not really.  Something about her spooked me… maybe the intravenous drug use?  But there was also a lack of emotion.

            Maddy seemed sad right before it was my time to leave.  She shared about it in group.  I was kind of touched, listening to her talk.  I didn’t know that she had felt that much of a connection with me.  Maddy had another ten days left, but would remain in LA for aftercare and sober living.  By this time, she had started to transform a little.  She had gained some weight from all the junk food… there was color in her face, and layers to her skin.  One day she visited a hair salon… and when she came back, that’s when my troubles started.

            She had short black hair, down to her chin now… and with those big windows and full lips… she looked like a “1990 Demi Moore,” but hotter.  Four weeks earlier she was a paper thin pale-faced junkie with bad skin.  Her body even looked better.  The right stuff popped out, everything else stayed in like it was supposed to.  She reminded me of a broken rose.  At last I saw the lovely.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."   —Confucius                                                                                         

            Like most men, I usually know if I want HER within seconds of meeting HER.  But with Maddy, I had to wait a month.  And Conner, I didn’t care.  I did care for him, but I was more interested in myself… and now even more interested in Madison.

            I checked out of the rehab and rented a private room at a sober living.  It was basically a three thousand dollar a month closet, but it was all mine.  I soon started getting calls from an unknown number.  When I finally decided to answer, it turned out to be Madison calling.  She wanted to know where I was living and what I was up to.  Then I started running into her at our outpatient program.  She would also phone me more frequently.


"I used to think that ready money made a man, and I wanted to stick out my green prick whenever and wherever possible.  In Hell-A, if you have cash, people smile when they see you.  But they’re disingenuous little devils.  A man is made in the storm of life, once he stops doing childish things and starts helping others. "


            Just like in a book, Maddy was from a screwy strict Catholic family.  And after spending enough time with her, my best guess is she also had a genius level IQ.  She once mentioned in passing that she had been accepted to Harvard, but went to a state school because of a boy she followed… and this boy eventually broke her heart.  She wasn’t street meat off the sidewalk grill… Maddy was well read, well educated and even played the piano like Beethoven.  I mean it was creepy to see this punk chick in a hoodie go at it like a concert pianist.  Bit by bit, piece by piece… some of her story surfaced.

            Her state school sweetheart dumped her sophomore year, and after a long battle with depression, Maddy dropped out.  She was in so much distress, she couldn’t really focus on her studies.  So like all great alcoholics and addicts in training, she said “fuck it.”

—to her strict family

—to her formal education

—to religion, which she never bought into anyway.

            Her parents stopped communicating with her and she started using now and again.  A few pills, some weed, a little blow.  All in the name of a good time and passing the time.  And I empathize.  If you get under the covers with booze and dope, they will eventually turn on you, but unlike a boyfriend or an unforgiving family, a substance will never turn it’s back on you.  And that my friends is the drug rub.  So Maddy started playing around… but more of an opportunist than an addict - at this point - she began selling to pay her way, and to afford the bad habits she enjoyed.  Everyone loves a pretty girl… and one who’s HOLDING trumps a bitch on the runway any day of the week.

            In order to sell more, she became tight with some very bad people and started bringing in real money.  She had contacts in Texas, Arizona, and across the border.  I know what you’re thinking— is this girl for real?  Is Max Barrie full of shit?  And who the hell is Max Barrie?  Honestly, I can’t effectively answer any of those questions.  I’m telling you my version of things and what Maddy conveyed to me during the time that I knew her.  But she could’ve been taking me for a ride, entertaining me, spinning stories that never were.  According to her, she started selling heroin.  She lived alone in an apartment with 3 handguns, 1 shotgun, and a safe full of drugs, just like in the movies.  She even had a pit bull.  And for a few years her life was moving, but never moving forward.  Money kept coming in… but eventually she had to pay the fiddler.

            Any possible tall tales aside,  I knew for a fact that Maddy would meet with a team of attorneys regularly, and I also listened to a few threatening voicemails she got from old “co-workers” back home.  She finally changed her number.

            Both in different sober livings, I picked her up one night and took her out to a birthday party in Hollywood.  The bouncer wouldn’t let us in at first because I was wearing sweatpants.  Never mind that they were seven-hundred dollar sweatpants from Maxfield.  So I did the unthinkable… I told the gatekeeper who I was and who was celebrating their birthday that night.  A few minutes later we got in.  After the party, Maddy and I went to see some awful horror movie in Century City.  Like we were in 7th grade, I took her hand during a spooky Scooby-Doo moment.  We kissed.  I finally understood what Conner had been talking about.  Her mouth was the Batcave and her tongue nearly took me down.  I didn’t mention anything that night, but I would eventually call her on it.  Still, she would always refuse to display her big pink taster.  I asked to see it many times.

            Like Conner, I gradually started to become infatuated with Maddy.  Part of it was that she soon became hard to reach, which is always exciting.  Speaking of Conner, he found out I was fooling around with Maddy.  He asked me why I would do something like that?  He thought we were friends.  I felt bad, we were friends… sort of, but isn’t this how friends treat each other?  It was how most “friends” had always treated me… as an afterthought.  Conner soon flew back to New York.  I heard he relapsed, but I can’t be sure.  He changed his number and wasn’t on Facebook.  Anyway, fuck him.  No, fuck you, Max.  I’m sorry I hurt you, Connie.  Women have always been so few and far between that when one gave the go-ahead, I didn’t think about anything or anyone else.

            I had some funds at the time… maybe my sweatpants gave it away?  I had been working before I landed in treatment, and had recently inherited six figures.  So I was spending a lot, acting like a big shot.  I used to think that ready money made a man, and I wanted to stick out my green prick whenever and wherever possible.  In Hell-A, if you have cash, people smile when they see you.  But they’re disingenuous little devils.  A man is made in the storm of life, once he stops doing childish things and starts helping others.  If you’re lucky enough to strike gold, like I did at birth, be very careful, but be generous.  If you’re blowing money left and right to feed your fickle beasts, you’re missing the point.

            I took Maddy to Nobu for dinner, as well a handful of other pricey establishments.  I bought her a birthday necklace at Chrome Hearts.  She even got a little emotional, saying she couldn’t remember the last time anyone bought her anything.  We both lived in sober livings, so I wasn’t allowed to play with her ass indoors.  There was a lot of making-out in my car.  Up front in a donut shop parking lot… in the backseat, parked along PCH.  I kept trying to toss it in, but she would never get undressed.  I still hadn’t slept with her yet.  Now don’t I look silly?  Thats my specialty.  A lot of embracing one another and intense drama and even a couple mediocre blow-jobs.  But that about summed it up.

            I eventually got us a suite at The Beverly Hills Hotel and we ordered room service and crawled under the covers to watch a movie.  Surely, this would be a thigh opening experience for her.  But she refused to get undressed… and sometimes when I touched her, she would tremble.  Because I’m an asshole, I cracked jokes about her having a cock that she didn’t want me to find… that’s when she told me a horror story.

            Last year she was robbed, beat-up and BRUTALLY SEXUALLY ASSAULTED by two guys she knew back home.  I can still hear her say those three words to me— “Brutally Sexually Assaulted.”  And even though I didn’t have CSI evidence, I believed her.  Talking about it, Maddy looked like her insides had been kicked out through her stomach.  She wouldn’t say much more… other than she knew the two guys who robbed and raped her, and she didn’t call the police because of the line of work she was in.  She also mentioned that since it happened she couldn’t get undressed without having a panic attack.  So showers were quick, mirrors were covered, and sex was difficult to say the least.

            After the attack, Madison’s addiction really took hold.  “Casual” became “tragical.”  She started regularly smoking meth, didn’t sleep for days, even got sloppy with work… eventually she started shooting the drugs.  All pookie and no cliche makes Jack a dull boy.  This went on for months.  Maddy was originally only trying to cope, but eventually it became a kamikaze mission.  She canceled her insurance, stopped paying bills, gave away belongings… like when Nick Cage’s character went to Vegas.  But before her credits could roll, the DEA knocked on her door with a number of charges.  Possession, distribution, trafficking, you name it.  However, the authorities told her it could all be a bad dream if she helped them.  That’s when Maddy lawyered up, flew out to Cali, and landed in rehab with me.

            I started to have nightmares and daymares about the guys who attacked Madison.  I replayed a brutal assault in my mind that I knew nothing about, over and over… I pictured horrible evil Pulp Fictiony things.  Whatever images you conjure up while you’re reading this are sufficient, as mine certainly were for me.

            I started to lose myself, and only think and breathe about Madison… rescuing her and avenging her horrible attack, then the two of us running away together.  I soon told her I loved her and she told me the same.  And in some warped and twisted reality, we probably did love each other.  It just wasn’t the kind of love that came with a white picket fence or stood the test of time.  And then she’d disappear more often, or not return my messages… so I’d break things off… and then she’d come back crying and give me head… and we’d start over just as soon as I finished.  When Maddy was around I would only think about her leaving, and when she wasn’t around I would wonder where she was.  During the worst of it, nothing helped.  I was stone cold sober and emotionally invested in the wind.  It was a lot like being on drugs.

            Anger, shame and selfishness gripped me in it’s tiny claw.  I was furious with those two guys who raped Maddy.  I also was angry at her for “letting it happen???”  I was upset that I couldn’t fuck her because what did that say about me?  And then I piled on the shame for thinking such selfish disgusting thoughts… and what did THAT say about me?!  If I could have shot fireballs out of my eyes, this would’ve been the time.  Also, fuck the DEA for arresting her.  Fuck the lawyers who were billing her.  Fuck the recovery community for making us sneak around.  Fuck Conner for being a butt pirate and relapsing. 

            Wherever I pointed my finger, it didn’t really matter.  There were always three pointing back.  Oh, ok, maybe this is why the recovery community frowns on newly sober people dating?

            When the new year arrived, Maddy and I had officially stopped getting together.  And that’s when I melted into a pile of clothes and slime.  I thought about suicide and I even thought about homicide… however anything I thunk was in bed.  I could barely get up to take a leak.  My version of a Porta-Potty was some of those red plastic keg cups on my dresser.  I rarely left my sober living, but when I did come up for air, I’d get horribly paranoid.  I would think I saw Madison nearby or that her car was following me, or that my friends were fucking her… or not fucking her?  I’m not sure what’s worse.

            You go to rehab to stop drinking and using drugs… at least I did.  Pretty much everything else is none of anybody’s business as long as I’m not hurting myself or someone else.  You could certainly make the argument that Maddy and I were hurting one another.  Because even though we grew into each other, we were the last thing each other needed.  But whether the sobriety scene put their guns in the ground or not, this relationshit happened… and so will others.

            The best advice I got in the middle of all this was from a certain compassionate witness who always wore a hat.  He had seen it all and been through it all.  And he didn’t talk at me, he sat and listened to what I had to say.  And when I finished, he paused… then spoke, “I’m not Nostradamus and can’t predict the future, buddy.  Any Rehab and Juliet romance will either work or it won’t… this may be a good thing OR it may not.”  And that was all.  There was no judgement… so I could hear him… and because I could hear him, I could digest.  He then explained how common rape and trauma were… he threw out frightening statistics and said that many female victims knew the men who assaulted them.

            My very first girlfriend I met in a drug rehab.  She’s the one who took my virginity at 19.  We were together for nearly three years.

            The only difference between rape and murder is— with rape, the victim bleeds out over a lifetime.  Madison went back to Arizona and I never saw her or spoke to her again.  At some point we texted… maybe a year later… and I learned she had a legitimate day job and had relapsed again on meth.  Don’t know what happened with her legal problems.  She wouldn’t say. 

            I burned a kid who looked up to me and soon after I became a caricature of him.  With time, I snapped out of my love sick craziness and it morphed into something else… I also started fucking Alexis— a tiny tattooed grunge girl who lived in my sober living.  She granted me vagina access, and was great at sucking cock and even better at swallowing, if that’s possible?  The antidote really is the poison.


Max Barrie is a writer and artist currently based in Los Angeles. The son of screenwriters, Michael Barrie and Sally Robinson, Max was born and raised in Beverly Hills, California. With acerbic wit and self deprecating humor, Max documents his life growing up in the shallow, superficial depths of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood machine. In his multiple part autobiographical series, entitled A Trendy Tragedy, Max will explore his bouts with addiction, prostitution and his search for identity in a landscape that is rife with temptation and false ideals. 

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Goldbricks by Robert Lopez

 

Text by Robert Lopez

 

We are in a boat but there’s no captain, no crew of any kind. I do know bow and stern and starboard and port and I know the hull and that the captain always goes down with his ship but you have to know navigation to be a captain and I don’t know navigation. I couldn’t navigate a toy boat from one side of a bathtub to another. I have no sense of direction other than everything is always going to hell. You don’t have to study navigation at the naval academy or own a compass to know this much about the world, to know where everything is always going. I’ve never owned a compass myself but my father did once. He never let me touch it, said I wasn’t responsible enough. I lost his pocket-watch is why he said this about me, why he never let me touch the compass. He said he hated my guts because I lost his pocket-watch and that I’d rue the day. I never did rue any of the days but I always regretted losing my father’s pocket-watch, which turned out was given him by his grandfather who fought in the great war. He said that his grandfather held onto that watch through many a hard fought battle and it was good luck and a family heirloom. He said that watch survived the Germans and mustard gas but couldn’t last five minutes in my feckless hands. I didn’t know what feckless meant back then and I still don’t think I know what it means, but I used to look at my hands to try and figure it out. My hands are small and smooth and offer no clues. My father said I was delicate, called me a daisy. I don’t think my father ever had anything good to say about me, at least not after the pocket-watch. I’m not sure how I lost that pocket-watch but I’ve always suspected my brother stole it. My brother was no good and a common criminal but even still he always outsmarted me. I think my brother is in prison now, which probably serves him right. I heard from some relative that he tried robbing a liquor store but it didn’t work out, that his accomplice gave him up during questioning. It seems right to me because our father gave up on both of us long ago and my brother and I gave up on each other shortly after that. Our father always wanted the two of us to enlist but neither of us ever did. This is another thing I regret. I think I would’ve done well in the service. I’d probably have joined the army because I don’t much care for water. This is another reason I’m no captain. I’m probably not qualified to be a crew member, either. I don’t know what the crew is responsible for on a boat, but one assumes it’s the grunt work. Toting barges, lifting bales, things of this nature.  I’ve never been good at anything physical. I can’t even mop a floor properly. I always leave swaths of floor streaked and un-mopped. Our father used to admonish me for mopping the floor this way. It was the same whenever I mowed the lawn, which was only that one time. My father came outside and said this is what you get when you ask a daisy to mow a lawn. He was referring to certain lanes where the grass was still knee-high. This is why I’d do better as a field general behind the front lines or in front of them, drawing up battle plans on a blackboard, barking orders to subordinates. I suppose field generals are out there in the field, though, inside tanks, looking through periscopes, but I don’t know if they have periscopes in tanks. Surely there are periscopes in submarines, but probably not tanks. I have no idea how they see from inside a tank. I don’t know how they can steer from inside a tank or how they know where to aim the cannon. I don’t even know if that’s what they call the guns that sit atop tanks. To me it looks like a cannon but I’ve never seen a cannon in real life so I don’t know what one actually looks like. Another thing I don’t know is if they had tanks during the great war or if my father’s grandfather ever rode in one. The only thing my father told us about his grandfather was that he fought in the great war and had a lucky pocket-watch. My brother said that our father made up these stories about his grandfather, that he never did fight in any war, let alone a great one. He said our father probably bought that watch in a pawn shop. I almost felt like arguing with him, but realized I agreed with him. I’m not sure how many people ride in a tank though I’m guessing there has to be at least two, one to steer and the other to shoot. I’d probably want to do both, but not at the same time. It would be too much to do both at the same time. My father always told me that I had to concentrate on what was right in front of me, the floor, for instance. He wanted to know what kind of daisy couldn’t mop a floor properly. He would grab me by the scruff of the neck and point my head toward what I’d done or left undone. He would say, look at this, Daisy, are you blind or something. Not long after this my brother started calling me Daisy and it got so that everyone started calling me Daisy. I didn’t mind it then and I still don’t. I might be the only full grown man in the world called Daisy. Not every man has that kind of distinction, being one of a kind. I try to think about this whenever I have a job to do, concentrating on what’s right in front of me. I remember my father showing us how to make French toast step by step as an example of doing this, from cracking the eggs to pouring the milk to sprinkling the cinnamon and vanilla and the rest. He said you can’t think about the vanilla until it’s time for the vanilla. He said this is what it takes to be a man, to be a leader. It’d be the same with the tank. One drives while the other shoots. There’s a division of labor. I think it would be nice to take turns so that on some days you are driving the tank and on others you are shooting the gun but I’m not sure if that’s how they work it. There is no cannon on this boat, which is just as well. I’m not sure who we’d be expected to shoot if there were a cannon on board. There’s no captain to tell us where to steer or shoot, which is something I think I’ve already said. This is something I do from time to time, repeat myself. My father used to hate this about me. He used to ask what was wrong with me. I’d ask him to be more specific. He took me to the doctor once but they told him they couldn’t find anything terribly wrong, no more than anyone else. They said something about a vitamin deficiency, but my father scoffed at that. He called them a bunch of quacks, said vitamins can’t help daisies. If you ask me I don’t think I’ve ever had a vitamin deficiency, though I do think something isn’t right. I’ve always had a hard time remembering facts, names and dates, what happened and in what sequence along with concentrating on what’s in front of me. Maybe everyone has these problems. Maybe everyone has a hard time remembering things but they’re better at pretending otherwise. There are planes flying overhead. This is what’s currently in front of me and I don’t have to pretend otherwise. Perhaps if there was a captain or a cannon we’d be instructed to shoot at the planes. I have never once been on a plane but when I was a child I thought I’d grow up to be a pilot. I thought it’d be a good job to have but it turns out I can’t see out of my left eye and they won’t let you fly a plane if you’re half blind like that. I found out I was half blind after my father took me back to the doctor and insisted they were mistaken the first time, that there had to be something wrong. I didn’t realize I couldn’t see out of my left eye until they told me. I can’t remember what my father said when they told him I couldn’t see out of my left eye, but he probably said something like it figures. So this is how my career as a pilot ended before it even began. I didn’t have to fill out an application or sit through any interviews to know that much. My brother and I sometimes pretended to fill out applications whenever our father told us to go out and get a job. He called us free-loaders and goldbricks and said we were good for nothing which was only true if you looked at it a certain way. So my brother and I would run out to the other side of town during working hours so that we could come back and say we’d pounded the pavement but came up short. This was right before my brother turned to a life of crime, I think. Maybe he’d already committed a few crimes by then, but I’m sure they were petty. My brother was always a nickel and dime operation. It wasn’t long after whatever happened next that our father disowned both of us and everyone went their separate ways. My brother’s name is Omar so you knew it was hopeless right from the start. No one named Omar ever amounted to anything. I’m not sure why our father named him Omar but that’s what he named him. One of our relatives said my father’s grandfather was named Omar but we never heard this from our father. I don’t think anyone on this boat is named Omar. I haven’t heard anyone get called Omar and no one here looks like an Omar, but neither did my brother, so that means nothing. The passenger next to me has his hands in his pockets like my father always used to do on account of his arthritis. This is why he said he couldn’t enlist himself, he said he was 4-F, which is another thing he never explained to us. I used to wonder if his hands were feckless, too, but his hands weren’t at all like mine. They were bent and crooked and had lines shooting out in all directions. He’d point a bony finger and wag it at me whenever he was explaining how to concentrate on what’s in front of you. He’d even make up signals for me to do certain things around the house but I never understood them. This is another reason I’m no captain or crewman. I’m no good at signals and you have to be if you want to be a captain or crewman. You have to know how to send a distress signal and you have to know Morse code. If the boat starts sinking I hope someone knows how to send out a distress signal, but it probably won’t matter. We’ve been sailing for hours and I’m sure there’s no one around to save us if it comes to that. I’m sure I’d drown before help arrived as I don’t know how to swim. There are life preservers tied to the rails here, but that’s usually for decoration or to trick people into thinking there’s hope. I don’t know these other people in the boat with me, but they seem fine. I’m not particular about who it is I drown with. I guess my brother wasn’t particular about who he robbed liquor stores with, either, which feels like the bigger mistake. My brother did ask me to pull a job with him once and I agreed to it initially but then feigned a stomach flu when it came go time. My brother said it was only nerves and I had to buck up from the other side of the bathroom door. He said, be a man, Daisy. I told him some other time maybe. This is when he said our father was right and that I was good for nothing. I’m not sure if he tried to pull that job without me, but he was gone in the morning. My father didn’t even notice until the following week when he asked me where my good for nothing brother was. I told him Omar enlisted and was at basic training. My father laughed in my face, said that was a good one, Daisy. He was in the living room when he said that, wearing a bathrobe and drinking a beer. Turns out that was the last thing my father said to me in person so maybe I was wrong about him not ever saying anything good. He sent me a postcard a year or two later, told me to concentrate on whatever was right in front of me. The postcard was sent from some city in Texas I’d never heard of and it made me think that maybe Omar was there, too. I don’t think he was, though, and I haven’t thought too much about Omar since. I do wonder what prison Omar is in from time to time and what would happen if I were to visit him. I wouldn’t have much to tell him myself, not that he’d ask. I suppose I’d tell him that I’ve done okay for myself, that I’ve managed to feed and clothe myself most of the time and even had a girlfriend once. But that probably won’t ever happen and what’s in front of me is an everywhere sky and the open sea. The boat is big enough so that you can stand up and walk around and so this is what I do. I look at the other people on the boat and I am not impressed. They are a collection of misfits and goldbricks and if I have to drown with these people then so be it. I spot a young man who looks like he thinks he’s in charge, that he can save us. I see him gesturing and pointing. The people around him are paying attention. They seem ready to follow his orders and it looks like they think we might make it out of this if everyone does his part. This is when I go up to the young man and say, you don’t have a brother named, Omar, do you. He tries to sidestep me but I maneuver in front of him. I do this like I expected him to move to his right, which I think I did. There is something about this young man that says he moves right whenever he is cornered or confused. My own brother Omar did this very thing and this young man resembles him if you look hard enough. This is when he says he doesn’t. Actually, how he phrases it is, no, I do not. I don’t care for this formal tone but I decide to let it go. So I say, are you sure about this, young man, and he says I do have a brother but his name isn’t Omar. I ask, what’s his name then. He answers Barry. I say do you expect me to believe this and he says I don’t care what you believe. I say, listen, young man, this doesn’t have to be adversarial, this business about your brother. I extend a hand in front of him and wag a finger while I say this, like I’m teaching him a lesson, which I am. This is what our father used to do whenever he called us goldbricks except his finger was mangled from arthritis so you had to keep yourself from laughing. Right now no one is laughing. The young man isn’t laughing and neither are the people who think he can save us. The young man says I have to go now, I have things to do, someone has to take charge. I say we all have things to do and your brother, Omar, is no exception. I tell the young man that he is lost at sea and everything is going to hell. I tell the young man this is on you, he’s your brother after all. The young man says, listen, mister, and I say you got that right. I say do you think your brother Omar denies having a brother like you do. He and I stand toe to toe and I can tell the people around us are nervous. They probably think this is some kind of mutiny. They probably think we’re about to have a fistfight on the deck here. The young man takes a step back and crumbles. I tell him I’m here to speak about his brother, Omar, and that this business can’t continue. I tell him he is good for nothing and a goldbrick but everything will be fine because I am taking charge of the boat. I walk over to the bow, find a short stool to stand on. Then I turn and face the crewmen and passengers. I tell them to follow my lead, do exactly as I say. I tell some to tote barges, others to lift bales. I tell them I have taken over.


Robert Lopez is the author of three novels, Good People,  Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, and a collection of stories, Asunder. He has taught at The New School, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University and is a 2010 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Fiction.


An Excerpt From The Unfinished World And Other Stories by Amber Sparks

         Of all the women his elusive father maintained boisterous and public affairs with, Set liked the principal ballerina of the Ballets Russes the best. His father took him to see her dance in Prince Igor, elbowing Set each time her skirt flared high over her shiny pink thighs. She was very kind to Set afterward, tousling his hair and smiling a dimpled smile for him. She smelled like melted sugar and rose petals. And she gave him gifts: candies from Paris and furs from Moscow, little wooden dolls from the Ukraine that nestled inside one another like a puzzle. He sat in the corner of her dressing room and released the dolls, one by one, while his father whispered something to the ballerina that made her laugh. Set was in awe of this ability that adults seemed to possess—the creation of mirth in another human being. His father wasn’t good for much else, as Pru wryly observed from time to time, but at this, he excelled. He could pull a coin from behind a child’s ear, or tell jokes that even Cedric fell about laughing over, or make a pretty ballerina shake with helpless giggles. In the carriage on the way home, his father turned to Set and asked him what he thought of the dancer. 

         She seems like a very generous lady, said Set, after careful consideration. His father liked this response. 

         She is, he said. She is full of generosity. And—Set thought he winked, but it may have just been sunlight hitting his father’s monocle—she’s soft in just the right spots. 

        It wasn't until Set was almost a young man that he realized she was his mother.

        Or rather, his almost-mother, as he came to think of her. After all, Cedric said, it was hardly genetics alone that made one a parent, and in Set’s case (and Cedric’s, and Constance’s, and Oliver’s) genetics had failed rather spectacularly or at least had been a one-sided affair at best. It was widely understood (but never spoken of) that Pru was uninterested in the business of having children, though she was very much interested in the business of raisingthem. She was a children's book author, and as such she had very firm ideas about the way to bring up useful adults. Her books were the sort of moral tales disguised as anthropomorphic animal stories that were so fashionable then, and whenever one of her children behaved badly they were forced to learn the appropriate tale by heart. Osmosis through story. Pru had similar ideas about genetic inheritance; she had hoped her children would be artists, musicians, dancers—but none of them showed the slightest leaning toward their birth mothers’ talents.

         Set was the last hope—Pru paid for dance lessons as soon as he could walk—but he was bored by dance and Pru's plans for him were dashed. Like everything else, she took this setback in stride. She summoned her eldest, Cedric, and arranged for Set to go with him on his next expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Set, said Pru, was finally old enough at twelve to travel with Cedric. You’ll have a real adventure, she said. You’ll get a chance to see the heathen up close. Set was disappointed. He wasn’t sure what heathens were, but he supposed they must all be children, very careless indeed with their souls—since the sour-faced ladies at the church were always trying to save them. 

         Cedric was much older than Set, and in those heady days of Antarctic exploration—the age of men like Amundsen and Shackleton—Cedric, too, had distinguished himself. He’d been in high demand for his survey work, and led several expeditions to map the Antarctic coastline between Cape Adare and Mount Gauss. Before the family moved to Long Island, he’d dined with the great men of science at 1 Savile Row, had given lectures in London for the Royal Geographical Society. 

         But that was before the world was laid bare, the last dust blown loose from the darkest corners. Now there were no strange places, only strange peoples, and the demands of the public for their secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the exoticism of the east, the hot wilds of the south, the strange remoteness of the north. Cedric, who’d lived among the native people and depended on them for guides, for trade, and often for protection, did not like way the so-called primitives were often portrayed in newsreels and print. He wanted to introduce Westerners to the complex societies and customs of these peoples, to show them in what he called a “humanistic light.” He became fixated on this notion. And so he took a three-week film course, bought a camera, and began making documentary films about these far-flung inhabitants of the earth. Set could hardly believe it; to Cedric, mechanical marvels like film were anathema. Ced had scorned Oliver’s dreamy love for this new art form. Oliver, he said, only wants to surround himself with shiny objects, like some kind of magpie. But now Cedric saw it as a way back to the past. He told Set this wasn’t about the new or novel: this, he said, was about preserving the oldest ways of living. 

         This was Cedric’s fifth trip north, to the Canadian Arctic. A certain segment of the public was wild for his films about the Innu people there. And the big fur company, Northland Trading, was happy to bankroll his efforts. But there was another reason he spent so much time with the Innu: he was trying to pin their legends down to history, to track down the ruins of a great northern city, lost and hidden. Of late, he was fixated on it. He spoke to Set constantly about it, his chance at a real discovery.

        There couldn’t possibly be a city here, Set said. Who would have built it?

         Cedric shook his head. No one knows. The elders of the tribe speak of a place somewhere on the north coast. They say the people who built it abandoned it long ago. 

         The coast was a barren tundra. No trees, no rocks, just frozen ground and sea. What would they build it with?

         Cedric smiled. Earth and whalebone, he said. The natives say these people built an entire city in the frozen ground, and stretched hides over the bones of whales for roofs. You see why it will be bloody difficult to find—an ancient city, buried in the cold earth. 

       Set was not sure how he felt about the Arctic. He had longed to see something of the world, to seek out a place in it, but here he felt entirely removed. He was always cold and they were always on the move and the dogs smelled bad and the humans worse and the food was dreadful and unchanging.  His brother was traveling with a small film crew and a few very rough men from the fur company. Once they were in the Innu village in Labrador, the fur men settled down to hard drinking, and complained about the slow pace of Cedric’s work. They refused to help with the camera or the lighting equipment, so Cedric instead trained the natives as his assistants. 

       Set liked the natives much better than the fur men—they taught him how to kill and skin a seal and how to start a fire and how to build an igloo properly. They seemed strong and self-reliant and not at all in need of saving, despite what the church ladies at home said. His friend Agloolik, a boy about his age, taught him how to fish through the ice. They sat companionably around the ice hole, as Set fidgeted and Agloolik laughed at his impatience. Agloolik asked Set what his name meant, and Set shrugged: nothing, he supposed. The Innu looked disappointed; his name, he said, was that of a spirit who lived under the ice. The spirit helped men to fish and hunt, and—he slapped Set on the back—so wasn’t it right he was helping his friend to catch fish? Set pointed out that they didn’t seem to be catching much of anything. Agloolik put a little fish down the front of Set’s parka and rolled around, shrieking with laughter, as Set jumped and scrabbled and shouted that he would be tickled to death.  

       But then Agloolik became serious and sad. My people, he said, they say you do not have a soul the same as other men. Set was uneasy. He remembered, but did not mention, the words of the Japanese lady long ago, the argument between Cedric and Oliver he’d overheard.

       Well then, he said, how do I get a soul?

       I do not know, said Agloolik. But you will need one when you die, to lead you back to your body. 

        The fur men offered Set whisky and roared when he choked on the burn it left behind—though he did enjoy the way it warmed him from the inside, like a little candle. Pru was dead set against drink, and she always warned of its destructive powers. After that first sip, Set waited all night with dread for the signs of destruction to begin. He wasn’t sure if his toes would drop off, or his face burst into pustules, or his insides collapse like a tent in the wind. He wondered how he would find his way back without his soul. 

       Cedric caught him staring into the fire and shook him roughly. Listen, you can’t go trance-eyed out here, or you die. 

       But aren’t I already dead? Am I my own ghost? askedSet.

       Cedric’s eyes narrowed, and he did not answer the question. Take off your gloves, he said, and put your hands over the fire like this. This cold, why, this is nothing. Not like sailing through solid ice. Did I ever tell you, he said, about how I filmed the pack ice on the Intrepid

       Set shook his head, even though Cedric had told the story many times. He liked to hear Cedric tell it. 

       We made a little wooden seat, said Cedric, and we tied it below the jib boom. And there I hung, furiously filming the ship as we rammed that ice. We’d ram it once, just enough to put a wedge in it, to weaken it. Then we’d fire engines and drive full speed into that wedge. We’d break that ice apart with a great, groaning crash, boy, and me hanging on for dear life with that rope around my waist, cranking my camera like anything.

In the weird and wonderful tradition of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Amber Sparks’s dazzling new collection bursts forth with stories that render the apocalyptic and otherworldly hauntingly familiar. In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” two orphans translate their grief into taxidermy, artfully arresting the passage of time. The anchoring novella, “The Unfinished World,” unfurls a surprising love story between a free and adventurous young woman and a dashing filmmaker burdened by a mysterious family. Sparks’s stories―populated with sculptors, librarians, astronauts, and warriors―form a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Purchase here


Amber Sparks is the author of The Unfinished World and Other Short Stories, as well as the collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author of the The Desert Palaces. She lives in Washington, DC with two beasts and two humans, and she lives online at www.ambernoellesparks.com or @ambernoelle on Twitter. She's almost certainly seen more Godzilla movies than you.


Maneesh in Los Angeles by Shane Jones

photograph by Daido Moriyama

text by Shane Jones

       On Saturday mornings Maneesh tells Sarah things. They have lived together for six months. Sarah refuses to define their relationship, so Sarah is just Sarah and she lives her life saying she has a cold. Maneesh doesn’t understand why Sarah always has a cold, but she says she does and she likes to talk about it. Once a week Sarah works for a veterinarian who makes house calls. The only reason he makes house calls is to put dogs to sleep. The only reason he employs Sarah is to have someone in the house if the dog is too big. 

       Maneesh wants to marry Sarah. He feels embarrassed that he desperately wants to marry a woman named Sarah who has a cold all the time and puts dogs to sleep. Back home his parentsquestion their non-arrangement. They call Sarah “The Sahara” and when Maneesh asks what that means exactly they go silent. Regardless, they send money every month and are happy to do so. His mother places dried flowers, from their backyard, intothe envelope, and during the trip they become dust. His father sketches clouds in pencil across the top of the envelope and the mailman once used a black pen and drew some slanted rain. 

        The worst thing Sarah has ever said to Maneesh he has written on a purple post-it note. This one mean thing, so heartless, he holds onto, and before taking a shower, he unfolds the purple post-it note, reads the question, and tries to answer it. What the mean thing is never seems as mean as when he first heard it. They were arguing about money. They always argue about money because money is the most important thing in the world. Sarah said that he could never make it alone because he had no friends in LA. She narrowed her eyes and said, “When was the last time someone asked you how you were?” 

         Maneesh is on a job interview at The Dick Motel. His resume is completely blank, there is absolutely nothing on it. The man sitting behind the desk, Mr. Dick, feels required to interview a person with a name like Maneesh. Mr. Dick has a framed picture of his five children. All five children are dressed in North Face jackets and Under Armour pants. Maneesh looks at the picture and sighs. 

        “Tell me about yourself,” says Mr. Dick. 

         Maneesh describes the field of flowers back home and the spice market and the golden temple and the cows that produce toxic milk because they eat street garbage. To some of the people who interview him his life seems exotic. Sometimes the interviewers talk about Cancun and Maneesh smiles and nods. 

        “But who are you really,” says Mr. Dick. 

          This has never happened before. Such a question! Maneesh lists off adjectives, none of which accurately describe him, most of which he’s not sure the definition of. Still, it sounds pretty good. 

         Mr. Dick doesn’t speak for five minutes. Finally, Mr. Dick says, “What’s your favorite animal?”

        “Dog,” says Maneesh. “Simple and noble and they give you everything.”

         “Let me clarify. Any animal in the world. That includes jungle.”

         “Definitely dog,” says Maneesh. 

          By the end of the interview Maneesh isn’t sure he has the job. A salary is discussed, so it seems like he has the job. He’s not even sure what the job is. But Maneesh will return the next day at 8 a.m. and see what happens. He needs a job so he can marry Sarah and be happy. 

         It is raining outside and too dark for a summer evening. Waiting at the bus stop Maneesh isn’t sure if he should celebrate or look for more jobs. He sits on the metal bench inside the bus stop and with both hands he holds the purple post-it note. 

       “Doctor’s are now saying you should squat on the toilet,” says Sarah. “To get your shit out.” 

       “What?” says Maneesh, amazed. “Is that news?”

       “Maybe it would make me have fewer colds,” says Sarah. “Seems kind of funny though, squatting on the toilet and not sitting, like a normal person.”

       “Right,” says Maneesh.

       Sarah is in the suburbs at the Dick’s house. She is with the veterinarian and the dying dog’s owner, Mrs. Dick, who can’t stop crying. She is going through a divorce and now this. The Dick’s dog is so large Sarah is startled every time she leaves the room and comes back into the room. The reason she leaves the room so many times is to text Maneesh. She says things like, “God, I am so sick today, not sure I can make it,” and “My cold is so bad I think I might pass out.” Nothing Maneesh texts back is good enough.

        The veterinarian likes doing mushrooms and reading horoscopes. Putting dogs to sleep has made him into a weirdo. He used to wear a hemp necklace until Sarah told him to stop. On many occasions he has refused to put down any other animal besides a dog because he believes other animals aren’t as close to God. He said this years ago while on mushrooms, but even sober, he believes it. 

        When he’s on mushrooms he tells Sarah by texting a picture of a palm tree. This was a mistake the first time, but it was funny, so now the palm tree is a running joke. Today the veterinarian is not on mushrooms. Sarah’s job is to hold the back quarters of the dog still while he injects the dog with the chemicals that will kill it.

        “It’s a nice dog,” says Sarah. “I’m sure you gave him a wonderful life.”

         Mrs. Dick is on the living room floor, about ten feet from Sarah and the vet. She looks like she is praying but she is crying so much.

         Once, Sarah and the vet had to put down a German shepherd named Brutus. Brutus hadn’t been groomed in ten years and his tongue never stopped bleeding. For Halloween, the owner’s daughter went as Little Red Riding Hood with Brutus. On first entering the house Sarah had hated the dog. When Brutus was injected with the poison he swept his paw down and on top of Sarah’s hand.

         Once, the veterinarian called Sarah for an emergency job, it had been a few weeks, and when she hung up she said, “I love you.” She didn’t mean it. She only said it because she had a fear of saying “I love you” on the phone to a stranger. And now, it had happened. After the emergency job – two dogs in one visit – the vet texted Sarah a palm tree and a purple heart. 

        When all the poison is inside Mrs. Dick’s dog the vet has Sarah hold the needle so he can get more poison. Some dogs are so big they need more poison to put them to sleep forever. Sarah feels the need to keep talking to Mrs. Dick who is now flat on the carpet with her face pressed into the carpet. She’s not that upset about the dog. “You gave him everything,” says Sarah. “A life of love.”

         Sarah and the vet place the dog inside a purple bag. It’s purple because black is too morbid. This is the vet’s idea and he is proud of it. Even in the driveway Sarah hears Mrs. Dick crying. The vet needs his money. Before he comes out and gets into the car he texts Sarah “j/k” and a palm tree. A second later he sends a heart. 

         They began having sex several times a day shortly after their first date. Maneesh was surprised by this. It was a lot of sex! The only other girlfriend he had ever had while living in LA was a woman who liked sex on Thursday only, which she deemed, “Sophie’s Day.” But Sarah was different. Sarah was insatiable because she couldn’t love anyone. Maneesh was a careful lover and for cologne he wore rosewater which Sarah liked to smell off his shoulders. Sarah enjoyed fast humping. Maneesh increased his humps per minute and felt ridiculous. He wanted to be married so he humped until it hurt. Sarah told Maneesh to put a hand on her throat. He refused. Maneesh loved Sarah by telling her everything he would accomplish in his life. Sarah thought that a person who does this accomplishes nothing. 

         For ten days Maneesh goes to his job. He’s not sure he has the job because he hasn’t been paid. When he showed up the following morning after the interview, Mr. Dick seemed surprised. 

       “You came back,” said Mr. Dick. 

        “Ready to work,” Maneesh said. 

         Mr. Dick waited a while then smiled. “Favorite animal is a dog.”

        “We had discussed money, so I assumed,” said Maneesh. 

        The job is guarding a small swimming pool behind the motel. Maneesh is not a lifeguard. He has no such training. He just makes sure no one is to go swimming. Mr. Dick doesn’t want anyone in the water. The Dick Motel is performing poorly on the financial spectrum. A boy drowned last month. He went down the slide and became so shocked by the cold water that he had an anxiety attack in the deep end. So Maneesh, from sunrise to sunset, watches the pool and points people away from the water. 

        At the end of his tenth day Mr. Dick hands Maneesh five hundred dollars in cash. It is much less than employing a lifeguard and letting people have fun. The motel now charges 35 cents for a bucket of ice. In the future the motel will have one resident and it will be Mr. Dick.

       Sarah can’t sleep because it’s too hot. The air-conditioner is on but it’s not strong enough. Their bed is a mattress on the floor. Next to her on the floor Sarah keeps her phone and when it goes off a little light blooms in the room. 

       She gets a text from the veterinarian. This has been happening more frequently. Sarah rolls onto her side and squints into the light. The screen is all palm trees and hearts. She doesn’t respond. He sends more. 

       They are out drinking coffee at Sarah’s favorite coffee place. It’s called Starbucks and Sarah likes to sit outside under the green umbrellas so people can see her. She has a headache and says she can barely open her eyes. Her throat is raw but the coffee soothes. It’s a very bad cold this time around and she needs to take time off work. 

“But you only work once a week,” says Maneesh. “For an hour.”

“Exactly,” says Sarah. “I need to clear my schedule. I need Sarah time.”

“I’ve been saving money,” says Maneesh, smiling. 

“Don’t smile,” says Sarah. “You look pervy.”

Maneesh lowers his chin and bites his bottom lip.

         “Men shouldn’t smile so much at women. It’s oppressive.”   

         “I’m saving for our future,” says Maneesh, not smiling. “I have great plans.”

         "A Sarah day,” says Sarah. “Once a week where I get to do whatever I want.”

        “Hm,” Maneesh says. 

        “Today’s good,” she says and finishes her coffee. “Now let’s go home and do fast humps.”

         “You can’t act this way when we’re married,” saysManeesh. “Back home they won’t allow such behavior.”

        “What are you talking about?”

         “This is my proposal,” says Maneesh and he falls to one knee. There is a five hundred dollar ring in his open palm. It is beautiful. 

         “I thought this would happen,” says Sarah. 

         Maneesh is unpopular at the motel where there is a guy who says he designs airplanes so he spends all day writing mechanical equations on his body. There is a woman who hides beer in the ice machine. There is a guy who calls himself Morphine Man who spends more time in his van than his motel room. There is a stray dog named George that everyone loves but no one will take responsibility for. They all dislike Maneesh. They don’t care that a boy drowned. Visible water you can’t enter in LA is torture.

       Maneesh sits inside the gate at a patio table next to the pool. A car pulls into a parking spot. A woman is inside. Ten minutes later a pick-up truck parks three spots from her. A man gets out, walks to the front desk, and enters the motel room closest to where the woman’s car is parked. Five more minutes pass until the woman leaves her car and opens the motel room door, which is unlocked and left slightly open. An hour later the man leaves. The woman leaves ten minutes after. Maneesh holds his face with his hands. 

       Every night before it becomes dark and the little yellow motel lights come on outside each room, Mr. Dick appears in his Chevy Cruze. He parks on the side of the motel where there is an entrance. From his trunk he unloads a dozen black trash bags. A woman, much older than Mr. Dick, helps him bring the bags inside. They are huge bags, and the old woman is very small but very strong and she takes three bags in each hand and she can barely fit through the door. One night, Mr. Dick left his car right there and in the morning his car was still there. But most nights, Mr. Dick leaves. He comes back in the morning to work the front desk because he has fired everyone but Maneesh and a maid who is into heroin and skinny dipping in the dark. 

         If he’s in a good mood Mr. Dick brings Maneesh a coffee in the morning. He hands him a clipboard and paper where Maneesh writes down when and who tries to swim in the pool. Soon, he will have enough for the plane tickets back home. 

       “Do you like America,” says Mr. Dick. 

       “You are going to have to be more specific,” Maneesh says. 

        “Our way of life, our food, our manner of moving through the world.”

        At the ice machine is the woman who hides beer inside the machine. She has the flap open and is kneeling in front of it. Her eyes are closed. “Doctor Franks,” she says. “You are needed in the recovery room.”

         “I like the flag,” says Maneesh. 

          Eventually, Sarah agrees to marry Maneesh. She stops complaining about her colds. She’s not even sure she had a cold before, she just liked talking about having a cold. It’s a way to complain and get sympathy for a while until the other person has nothing to say and then she can still keep talking. Sarah realizes she just really likes to talk and have no one talk back to her. She doesn’t necessarily like this about herself, but she accepts it. 

          The engagement is a great success for Maneesh. He looks at the purple post-it note with the mean thing on it and puts it back in his pants. His parents seem thrilled. They stop calling Sarah “The Sahara” which is a nice thing to do. They will have the wedding there. They will invite one hundred people. 

         It is all so strange and exotic. Sarah spends less time looking at her friends on her phone. None of them have children so they have dogs they take pictures with. Sarah has to like each picture. But now Sarah thinks about being married and having a child. She doesn’t tell Maneesh this. Her likes on her friend’s dog photos become random. Her friends are offended and happy for her. The colors of the wedding will be white and turquoise and long beads will be on every neck and wrist. Rose petals will lead them everywhere. Marble, thinks Sarah, is a nice name for a baby girl. 

         Maneesh collects his last five hundred dollars and lets everyone into the pool. Mr. Dick is furious. It’s a small pool to begin with and there are too many people in it. They fill the pool shoulder-to-shoulder and on the slide are half a dozen people drinking Bud Light. One person wears a clown wig. 

“Why are you doing this?” says Mr. Dick. 

          “To make the people happy,” says Maneesh. “I am embarking on the most joyful part of my life and I want to share it with everyone.”

         “Half of these people are child molesters,” says Mr. Dick. 

         “I am in love and you are not,” says Maneesh. “So we see the world differently. I couldn’t be more happier than I am now.”

         Mr. Dick waves hello at a motel resident slapping his belly, seemingly, in his direction. “I didn’t ask how you were feeling,” says Mr. Dick. 

        “On top of the world,” says Maneesh. 

        They are back at Starbucks drinking coffee. The ring on her finger is perfect and a passing man in all gray sweatpants and shirt gives them a thumbs up. Maneesh tells Sarah that the flight is 17 hours. 

“Oh my God,” says Sarah. 

“We can play games,” says Maneesh. 

“Games?”

         “On our phones,” says Maneesh. “Like this.” He shows her his phone with a squirrel running from one side of the screen to the other side of the screen catching falling acorns from an autumnal tree.  

        “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all,” says Sarah. 

        Maneesh does the pervert face. “I am King Love. You are Queen Bee.

        “For the wedding,” says Sarah. “How many elephants can we have?”

        Maneesh stares at Sarah. 

         Sarah quits her job and the veterinarian has a coughing fit. He wants her to stay. He has never directly confessed his feelings so he will destroy everything around him. They are outside in his car. They have just finished putting down a Doberman Pincher. Sarah feels nothing. It is her least favorite dog in the world. The owner is a physical therapist who showed her an entire room filled with Bruce Springsteen memorabilia. 

“I’ll be gone for a month, maybe more,” says Sarah. “I’ll come back a married woman.”

“I’m on mushrooms,” says the vet.

         Through the windshield Sarah sees the physical therapist filling out the paperwork at his dining room table. His forehead is supported by his index finger and thumb. Sarah imagines him listening to depressing Bruce Springsteen songs.

“Can you see me,” says Sarah, “being a wife?”

“Not really,” says the vet. “How about some mushrooms.”

“But isn’t that a bad sign?” says Sarah. “You’re into astrology. Doesn’t my horoscope say what I should do?”

         “Sarah,” says the vet. “I’m afraid we have come to the closing chapter in our shared experience. We came together in death, laughed together in death, and now, we leave together in death.”

“But I’m getting married,” says Sarah. “In India.”

“The stars are overrated,” says the vet. 

          The day before the 17 hour flight Maneesh buys a coffee for everyone at the motel. He knocks on each door, leaves the coffee on the ground, and then moves to the next door. 

“What is this about,” says Morphine Man. 

“Victory,” says Maneesh. 

       A few residents open their door, look at the coffee, then close the door. Mr. Dick is asleep in his Chevy Cruze with the old woman knitting in the passenger seat. 

       “From lottery winnings,” says Morphine Man. 

        “No, not at all,” says Maneesh, smiling. “I’m going back home to get married. I’ve met a woman and we are going to have a life together.”

       Morphine Man drinks his coffee. He stops drinking his coffee but keeps the coffee cup against his mouth and nose while looking at Maneesh. Then he lowers the cup and says, “Talk about a dream and try to make it real.”

       Sarah isn’t sure how she got everything so wrong in her imagination but the wedding ceremony isn’t in a church but at the home of Maneesh’s parents. It is lovely. They have decorated for weeks. There are two chairs colored gold in the living room on a riser. Maneesh wears a perfect white suit that is so soft that Sarah cries when she touches it. There is the backyard full of flowers. She looks at the backyard full of flowers and they are married. 

         There is cake. On the cake are one hundred candles. This is a tradition. Every person at the wedding takes a candle and walks outside where they form a circle with Maneesh and Sarah in the center. She knows no one. Everyone has a dog sitting next to them as they stand. Everyone makes their wish for the couple. They don’t blow the candle out. Rather, they put the candle out with their fingertips, nod at Maneesh and Sarah, and then, the next person goes. The ring of light dials down to dark. The sky is a light blue, almost white, with both the sun and moon visible. Sarah believes she can smell sand in the breeze. Then it’s just Maneesh and Sarah standing in the center with their candles. They make a wish for each other. 

        There is great applause and cheering. The dogs sit still. A weeping man hugs Maneesh around his thighs that Sarah is pretty sure is his father. Another person holds a small dog against his chest while spinning and looking at the sky with his eyes closed. Maneesh and Sarah run into the house so people can throw things into the air. 

        “Tell me,” says Sarah, in Maneesh’s childhood bedroom. “Come on, tell me what you wished for.”

        “It’s sacred,” says Maneesh. “You wouldn’t tell me your birthday wish at Applebee’s last year.”

         “We should do fast humps,” says Sarah. 

         “My family is outside,” says Maneesh. He points out the window and his uncle nods his drink at him. The dogs haven’t moved an inch. They remain in a circle. 

         Sarah pushes Maneesh against the door and kisses his neck. Maneesh puts a hand on her throat. She feels scared so she laughs. Then she tells him to keep going. He squeezes her throat and kisses her on the mouth. He kisses her forehead. She coughs. Everyone outside is happy. But they are not as happy as Maneesh and Sarah. How could they be? He lifts her dress. There really are flowers everywhere. He slides his fist across her stomach. “What the hell are you doing?” says Sarah. He slides his fist into his pocket. The purple post-it note remains because they are in love. 


shanejones4.jpg

Shane Jones (b. 1980) lives in upstate New York. His first novel, Light Boxes, was originally published by Publishing Genius Press in a print run of 500 copies in 2009. The novel was reviewed widely, the film option purchased by Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are, Adaptation), and the book was reprinted by Penguin Group in 2010. Light Boxes has been translated in eight languages and was named an NPR best book of the year. In August of 2012 Penguin released a new novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane. Shane is also the author of the novella The Failure Six.


The Pollinator by Kate Wyer

photograph by Nobuyoshi Araki

text by Kate Wyer

We are all migrants here. Working with our thumbs and hands in the organic orchid field. We are all brown with the sun and some from family. We do not all speak Spanish. I speak some, enough. I dream it and can tell when I’m the butt of another’s joke. To know  slurs and insults, to roll with the subtle, confusingly slow brushes against my backside as I lean into the plants. 
 

"Do you shave your eyebrows?"they ask me. 
 

I don’t know if this is some kind of come on, if it meant something other than a literal question. My eyebrows are huge and black with a natural arch to them. I was born with them. Sometimes I have an urge to neaten, but not often. I do not tolerate a beard or mustache though. Even the slightest scrape of stubble against the back of my hand gets my gag reflex going. What’s that about, right? 

I am most drawn to the creatures who hang out with the Hare Krishnas. I’ve heard they don’t believe in sex unless you are trying to procreate. There is one in particular. She has a shaved head. I think she’s a she. There is something masculine in her shoulder. I  see them all after rain storms. They appear after the clouds have gone and the sun is shining as they beat their drums and step around the mud puddles in the street. 

 I like to watch the dogs line up behind the grocery store on my way home. It is dark and their shadows move through the streets with mine. I would like to beg the way they do. I would like to kneel and ask for food, have it handed to me directly into my mouth. I can sit. I can stay. Instead, I go home and cook beans and rice with some of the discarded vanilla pods and a little red pepper, a lot of black pepper and salt. 
 

Home is very full. I live with the men of the fields in all the outcroppings of semi-permanent homes. There is a shared kitchen, but no one cooks very much. Except for me. The bathroom is shared too. We have single bedrooms that are linked in an open hallway. There is plastic over the walkway, but rain still gets in, even if it isn’t windy. The room is carpeted with remnants. 

If you were my guest, I’d have you leave your shoes next to the door. 
I have to say, I always wear a hat when I’m working so the sun won’t age my face. I use some turmeric and mix into a face mask to give myself a little color. It stains my skin a slight golden color and is good for inflammation too. I know why I confuse some of the men and disgust others. There is something they don’t know how to read. I don’t know how to read it myself. It’s all very crude and approximate. 

I decide to piece my nose. I found a small earring hoop in the field today and pocketed it immediately. All day I thought it over. Yes, it should be easy enough with my quilting needle, although my standard needle may be too big. As soon as I’m home, I think, I’ll look. 
 

I have a small carrot that about the size of my pinky. It fits up my nose. I wash my face and hands, stick the carrot up the right nostril and then with it hanging out of my face, run the end of a needle through a flame a few times. In the mirror I test a few places with a marker and then select the dot furthest back on my nose. Grabbing the carrot to hold it in place, I then press down through my nose with the needle. My eyes immediately water a lot, but really, it’s not that bad. 
 

Oh, I think, I should have washed the hoop first. With the carrot and now the needle sticking out of my face, I walk to the kitchen to wash it before trying to loop it through. 
 

Fero is in the kitchen.  What the hell is that?, he asks. 

I blush, or at least flush. I can feel the blood in my chest rising up my throat. 
I’m piercing my nose. 
 

Are you crying?


No, it made my eyes water. I’m not crying. It doesn’t hurt much at all. 
He makes a move like he’s going to get up quickly. If I grab it, it will hurt. 
I move back and he laughs. 
 

Whatever, he says. I’m not going to touch you. 
 

I don’t turn my back to him as I wash the gold hoop under the hot water. 
 

You need to clean the hole with saline. Or soak it with salt water every day for a couple of months, he says. My sister had hers pierced in the 90’s. I still remember her sitting in front of the TV holding a washcloth to her face every night. 
 

How long do I soak it?
 

I don’t remember. I just remember it takes a few months to completely heal. 
 

Why did you pierce it? The nostril too. You could have at least pierced through here, he says and pinches the septum. You have the ring, like the bull. 


I don’t answer him. I want to get the needle out of my nose because it is starting to throb. 
 

Thanks, I say, and exit hurriedly to my room. 
 

Once inside I twist the needle a few times and then bend hoop open. If I had a stud it would be so much easier. 

The needle is stuck into the carrot and I can’t get it to slide out without pulling the needle out of my nose. I should have picked something harder that wouldn’t be penetrated. 

I watch his eyes as they scan me. I wonder what he notices. 
 

The longer he holds my face the more blood moves, the more quickly it moves. Despite this, I worry about breaking out where his oily fingers linger on my chin. I haven’t yet tried to wiggle out. 


He moves his torso closer to mine, closer until it is just a fist’s distance away. I feel his heat and can smell his supper on his breath. 
 

His eyes finally move onto my face. There is mild surprise across his eyebrows. 
 

I don’t know if I wanted him to drop my face or crush it. Or kiss it. 

His hand goes to my crotch. He gives a strong squeeze and then releases, steps back. My hand finds his waist and I attempt to pull his body towards me until his crotch is against mine.  
It’s clear the moment is over though. 

He resists and moves to open the door. 
 

Don’t steal my goddamn avocados, he says.


Kate Wyer is the author of the novel Black Krim, which was nominated for the Debut-litzer from Late Night Library. Her manuscript, Girl, Cow, is a semi-finalist for the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest. Wyer's work can be found in The Collagist, Unsaid, PANK, Necessary Fiction, Exquisite Corpse, and other journals. She attended the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania on a fellowship from FENCE. Wyer lives in Baltimore and works in the public mental health system.


Fat Kid

Text by Matthew Vollmer

         The kid was fat. Like really fat. Obese, I guess, is the word. Not morbidly obese, I don’t think, but I can’t say for sure. I’m no doctor. I can’t observe the particulars of a body—human or otherwise—and tell you whether or not it may or may not be teetering on the verge of extinction. I do, however, have eyes. I like to think—and in fact I feel pretty confident in saying—that I know overweight when I see it. So, like I said… this kid, he was fat. In fact, I’d say that he belonged to a specific category: the kind that elicits pity. The kind you look at and say, what chance does a kid that fat have? It’s terrible to think, I know, and worse to say. And it’s not like I have a lot of room to talk. I could stand to lose a few. But still. This kid? His fatness? Whole other story. Wherever he went, the fact of that fatness was, if you’ll pardon the expression, the elephant in the room. I’m not saying he was like those thousand pounders whose corpses have to be airlifted out of their bedrooms, just that this kid’s fatness was something you would’ve had no chance of not noticing. You could tell yourself that you weren’t going to judge, but I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut you couldn’t help wondering how could someone, specifically a child, could get that big. Was it the fault of his parents? His pediatrician? Was he somehow genetically disposed? Was his problem—supposing you wanted to distinguish it as such—glandular in nature? What and how much did he snitch when nobody was looking? Did he get in trouble for raiding the pantry or refrigerator? Did he sneak out to the nearest convenience mart, where a raspy voiced woman with bloated eyebags and a diamond ring on her finger rang him up and called him “Hun” when she asked for the total, and if so did this make the fat kid feel good, if only because it seemed to him then that in the cashier’s eyes he was a regular person like anybody else, living in a world where all people were potential “Huns,” and did he then give her a handful of quarters and say, “Keep the change,” and ferry the snack cakes to his room where he stuffed each one whole into his mouth, not eating as fast as he possibly could, but with a steady consistency that still might have been accurately described as “wolfing,” little beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead and air whistling through his nose as he chewed,  not even really enjoying it except for the fact that he knew he shouldn’t do it, but fuck it, who was he to deprive himself of this one joy in life, not that he didn’t only have one joy, but this was one only he knew about, a secret joy, the way his teeth cracked the brittle icing and then squished into the yellow cake and the gooey filling and maybe he had a chocolate milk to wash down each massive bite, who knows? Maybe all he needed to do was get through the eating and emerge on the other side.

         But maybe I’m getting it all wrong. Maybe the only thing to say about any of this is that it’s wrong to see a kid and think first and foremost the word “fat,” wrong to imagine that said kid was somebody who lacked the necessary willpower to be not fat, the kind of person who couldn’t control his desires. Aren’t we all guilty of indulgence? Don’t we all practice our own singularly ludicrous acts of self-sabotage? And might the only difference between our sins and his be that the consequences of his supply more physical evidence? What if, for instance, every time we got angry, our bodies started, ever so slightly, to balloon? What if we evolved somehow so that we grew what scientists would later dub on the cover of Time magazine, “the fat gland,” and that every time you lost your temper, every time the Dream Team lost to the Sacramento Kings in NBA2K14 or if your spouse washed something that shouldn’t have been washed and dried or if your kid took too long finding a jacket to wear because he’s pathologically slow in the mornings and the bus will be here any minute, what if every time you got mad this little gland secreted something, like fat, maybe, or cellulose, or whatever, and what if bodies started metabolizing—or not--anger or sadness or lust? In other words, what if you could get fat in ways other than eating too much and not exercising enough or having the wrong kind of metabolism? What I’m saying is, what if it had to do with something other than metabolism or genetic dispositions or food? Might you change your tune? Could you then eavesdrop upon our fat young friend as he confesses knowing how to make a “mean” spaghetti sauce without wondering what the everloving fuck he was doing making spaghetti sauce, regardless of said sauce’s intensity or flavor profile, or what hole he’d been living in that would have prevented him from having heard that he, as a person of extraordinary girth, should be avoiding carbs and instead be subsisting mostly on a diet of nuts and fruits and vegetables and grains? Then again, do you have any room to talk about willpower? Do you know a thing or two about deprivation? Do you assume it would be no big deal to survive, say, on a diet of apples, just as a man I know named Junior once did, a guy who recently arrived to de-branch the trees in my yard, a guy who was certainly not, by any measuring stick, slim, but who, having learned that a person can eat as many apples as he or she wants and still lose an extraordinary amount of weight, embarked upon such a diet, and so for days and weeks ate nothing but apples, one after the other, just and only apples the entire livelong day, and that by doing so he shed—“burned it up,” is how he tells it—an extraordinary amount of body fat, and is now lighter on his feet than he’s been in years? Could you imagine a world where people like Junior took stock of their lives, and of what they might stand to lose, and then lost it? Is it too much to think we could teach ourselves to look at a person without inserting “fat” or “thin” or “black” or “white” or “straight” or “spiny” or “sticky” or “bedraggled” or “clean”? Might we learn to relinquish our hold on our qualifiers? Might someday we see a kid of a certain size and circumvent the adjective altogether, going straight—as we ought—to “person”? I’m tempted to say—sad as it sounds—that the premise sounds preposterous. But then I think of Junior, a once ground-bound body who regained, through sheer will, his mobility, and who now scampers nimbly up tree trunks with a chainsaw in tow, and once he gets high enough he begins what he climbed up to do, which is to say he chooses which limbs need to go, lops off the excess, making trees lighter, opening them up so that more sun can shine through to the yard down below, so that the grass there can grow once again richly green.


Matthew Vollmer is the author of the story collections Gateway to Paradise and Future Missionaries of America, as well as inscriptions for headstones, a collection of creative nonfiction. He edited the anthology A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects everyday invocations from over 60 writers, and with David Shields co-edited Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. He teaches at Virginia Tech.


            

Teenager for Free

Text by Michael Bible and Kelsey Bennett from a working manuscript called Big Naturals


Teenager for Free

Summer everywhere. The gymnasts tan beside the marathon. Lucy writhes in the backseat of her father’s Jaguar. Coach gets his hormone treatments early. Forcefield, book report, hourglass. Always remember this world owes you nothing. Oh, and homework can suck my dick.

Your Sister Was Wiccan Webcam Girl

Touchdown rainbow downward dog. Broken hoodie zipper. Skittles and blowjobs. Fourth of July. I was on the swim team, she played trumpet in the band. The fever was everywhere. Cadillacs and skulls on her avatar. Men with lubrication fumbling in the dark.

California Urgent Care Julias

The magazine cover is men on horseback late for a hanging. Their shadows make giant octopuses in the grass. The falconer's falcon flies to the sun and fire ants build a raft with their dead. Is it Julia C. or Julia S. that I’m in love with? All I can think about is my landlord’s ballet slippers. An article on how wild algorithms might explain away desperate love. I dream of listening to 8-tracks driving west on Sunset toward the sea.

What It’s Like to Be From Nowhere

At the parade the debutantes blow their best kisses to delinquents. The policemen don snuggies and paper crowns. God bless America, whatever the fuck. The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders white water raft on a big screen. Feather boa, rain stick, back massagers are two for one. Donut trucks do donuts in the eye of a hurricane. The banana car drives off a cliff. You have that Sunday night feeling everyday of the week.

Neo Nazi Paparazzi

Adolf was a lightning rod salesman in a time of drought. A very big, surprising man on a tiny bike. You never know where the next blast will come, was his opener. It isn’t long until we’re invaded by beautiful light. Before you know it, strange atmospheric pressure. Wise up, son. It’s Christmas where you’re from.


Michael Bible is the author of the novel Sophia (Melville House). His work has been published in the Oxford American, Paris Review Daily and New York Tyrant. Kelsey Bennett is an artist and curator who has shown work in New York, LA, London and Miami. She has been featured in VICE and Interview. Bible and Bennett's collaboration Sorry Saints will be exhibited at New York's Spring Break Art Show. They live in NYC.



[PART ONE] Enter Row

High Lining

"ENTER ROW"

by Jacob Beam

i


           I am a poet of this world. I look around most of the time and observe the happenings. But one day I decided to stop with the normal and make a change. So I wrote a book of sorts. Now settle in and engage the particulars of choice.


Enter my mind my resting place.

Where demons once claimed the taste.

This lives a troubled story it’s yours to read.

But change of mind I’m sure you’ll see.

The music of line swells with power for us.

Beat with patterns it’s the ball you can’t trust.
 


Enter Row



         Childhood. Oh the wondrous memories I could sing of those moments. I had fallen. I had been trampled. But I was moving. And moving fast. I wanted the lime and the light and the electrical outlet that supplied the magical green aurora power. But I was small. I was a red light lost on the switchboard that turned on the light. I knew my purpose, however, and I was finally set on making it known.  

“I want to write for a living.” I passed the cockroach. That sticky brown bug, man.

“Go for it.” He was lazy in his response.

“Be inspirational, or discouraging. Give me some attitude dude. Jesus.”

“I’m beyond comprehension at this point, man.” Finally, some attitude from the guy.

“I didn’t want to hear that. I want to be pushed into this one way or the other.” I usually spoke with intent.

“You already did that.” God. What game was he playing?

“And how is that?” He was trying to outwit me. It was inevitable.

“By getting emotional you’ve already shown your hand.” It came all over me.

“I suppose.” I was willing to lose but not to bow.

“Do what you want to do man. It’s really that simple.” I changed.

The steps following that conversation pounded hard deep into the cement of my life path. And I wore flat-soled shoes for the pain. With purpose.

Turn on the flash.

I have a friend that loves to create with his mind. He is crazy. Peach-skinned with a deep passion for music. But wild music. Music that fills the ears and skips merrily down to your heart, moving fast down to your feet. Dancing with life I partake with him.

A change of space.

The hill was masterful. Clinging to life given off by the sun and the spirit of the people. It had a soft slope. One a child could run playfully down without running the risk of tragic death. Or worse, a knee scrape.

“Oh my god.” Stretching out my hands behind my head and melting playfully into the side of the hill.

“It’s so beautiful out today.” Such lyrical profoundness. But still right.

A daughter of mother earth, undoubtedly, sat beside us and breathed in motion. Her hands moved out of her space and back in. Something was going on. Something wild.

“Can I sit with you?” A sister asked.

She nodded. I looked away.

To our right a band of fits that missed the cut. Tourists. Get off of our hill, my resting place. Pollute elsewhere my fellow man. I wanted to remove them but I knew this was all to share. At least in this moment.

“Why?” The question had to be raised.

“Because it’s the thing to do I guess.”

“No.” It’s all I could muster.

Down the hill and to the left a bit a wiry man came skating into the scene. Jeans dirty and cut. No home and no worries. Just a random equation floating around the whiteboard of life. Carefree and in the breeze. Joyous, if I’ve ever seen it. He disappeared into the brush.

The sun was warm with heat that could be tasted. Sweet but bitter. A hint of poison if I had to guess. Just a hint though. The grass beat down to a yellow. Blades flat from feet. But still ever present. Still making its case. Still beautiful.

A suit and tie moved into the brush. The beauty of the moment never lost. Hiding in secret and exchanging the goods.

“What time is it?” So many secrets lay around the place. Always hiding but always known.

“3:12.”

“Interesting.” The journey was done. But the journey of my life was about to turn.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO


I received my education from The University of Texas-Tyler. I dig art, green tea and traveling. I live in Austin, Texas. I'm really enjoying the freedom from the terrifyingly backward thinking that only East Texas can bring.