The hearing was at three. My aged suit fit uneasily around my belly. I organized my papers and notes to make sure I had everything. My last beer had been two hours ago. Fuck it, I thought, one more won’t hurt. It’ll calm my nerves.
I was about to attempt the impossible; represent myself in front of a judge. It was a workers’ comp case regarding income. I was facing off against an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington. I was overmatched.
I rehearsed one last time, pacing my shitty apartment, talking to myself. Empty beer cans littered tables and counters. My voice echoed off sympathetic walls.
My days of college and internship reawakened. The dream of law school flooded back. A sad sigh and a few tears escaped. I had always wanted to be a lawyer, but could never afford law school. Here was my chance.
I lived in lower Queen Anne, so I could simply walk to the courthouse in downtown Seattle. It would save bus fare. I was on comp, after all.
Thoughts turned to my then estranged girlfriend of three years. Her. The Her. Of poetry fame. Samantha. She lived a mere half block north of me. We had lived together for quite a while, had been nearly engaged twice, and had been in love. Now we never spoke. I longed for her to be in my corner. It was not to be.
One last smoke covered my breath a little. Security didn’t bat an eye. I must have looked pretty good in my suit, as amazingly attractive women gave me the look. That look. I felt a glow for the first time in months. Poverty has its’ effects.
The judge was an attractive woman in her forties. She treated me with kid gloves, glowingly reassuring expressions on her face, as she explained the prima fascia requirements.
I presented my evidence for the court’s approval. The judge sat there in silence for a time. Her eyes grew wide. She looked up at me with a broad, encouraging smile.
Despite objections, the judge accepted all of my evidence. Every bit of it. She then heavily ruled in my favor. The case would move forward. After the official, on the record stuff, she spoke to me;
“Wow. You’ve really put a lot of work into this. Good job!”
I thanked her. My nerves were settled a little, but I needed a smoke and a beer after such an ordeal. The hearing was over.
The assistant attorney general walked up beside me. She was an older woman, thirty years experience. We shared the elevator.
“Great job. I had rolled my eyes when I saw you were representing yourself, but you’re pretty good.”
We got off the elevator and walked together.
“As good a job you can do, but we’re still going to win, you know. I mean, you’re right morally, but not legally. Eventually laws will catch up to where you are now, but laws are not there yet.”
“Well, thank you for advising me of that, but I guess we’ll see how it ends up. I think I can win.”
It was then that two other attorneys came up to the assistant attorney general. She introduced us all. It somehow was decided that we should all go to lunch together.
Sitting there, in that establishment, surrounded by lawyers, it was as if I were one. I listened intently to their conversations. This was my chance.
A really beautiful brunette caught my eye. She was well dressed, sitting there at the bar, nursing a cocktail. She had a certain glow, mischievous. She seemed to keep eying me for some reason.
As the lawyers wound up their lunches, and I finished my gin and tonic, we all went to the bar to pay our bills. It was within hearing distance of the brunette.
“So, what firm are you with?”
“Oh, I’m not really a lawyer. I just play one in court.”
Laughter. The lawyers left. I remained.
“I’m Liam. Great to meet you.”
“Well Sara, what do you say we have a drink together?”
“Don’t you have to get back to work?”
“No. I have the rest of the day off. How about you?”
“I had a job interview today. It didn’t go all that well.”
“Sorry to hear. Something will come along. But that does mean we’re both free.”
“Yes, we are.”
Drinks poured and downed. The place filled up for happy hour. There we were, two outsiders in our own world, laughing and flirting. Hitting it off. Really hitting it off. All too obvious.
As she ended a humorous antidote, I tested the waters by leaning forward in laughter, glancing at her mouthwatering legs, and placed my hand on her side. Her hand grasped mine, as her face glowed. We held hands, giving each other the look. That look.
“Let’s go somewhere else.”
Her place was only five blocks. We each squeezed each other’s hands for reassurance. This was really happening. The elevator finally opened at her floor. Number 206 opened. A small, neat apartment welcomed us. She tore away to go to the kitchen. I sat on the loveseat.
Vodka and soda over ice. They both went down as quickly as the laughter. It was just too tense. We both knew what needed to happen, and it did. Repeatedly. So raw. So primal. So needed.
I awoke even more turned on than the night before. There she was. The most gentle of caresses led to the hardest of fuckings.
It was a hit. A brilliant affair was born. Amazing conversations, laughters, lovings, fuckings, making love and cuddling. Two lost souls holding each other on long chilly nights. It was brilliant.
Then came the day.
“How do you have so much time? I mean, when do you work? Are you really an attorney?”
“Like I said when we met, I’m not really a lawyer, I just play one in court.”
“What does that even mean?! Are you a lawyer or not? Who are you?”
“Who am I? Must we really define ourselves by what we do? We have great times together, right?”
“Ok, ok. But what do you do?”
“I’m on workers comp. I’m representing myself in...”
“What? I’m doing very well and...”
“You’re such a liar. Such a fraud. I should have known...”
“What? That’s not right. Not fair. Just because I am working class...”
“Don’t you dare! You let me believe you were a lawyer...”
“What difference does that make? What I do is not who I am...who we are. What we can be. Look, I really like you.”
“Get out. Just get the fuck out!”
The door slammed behind me. It was something I was used to by then. A sigh from deep within me met the world as I loosened my tie, and walked down the lively streets, going home to my shitty apartment once again.
It would go on to where I won three out of four areas of contention. A large check would come my way. Winnings are nice. The judge and the assistant attorney general would go on to recommend me for a paralegal position with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
There were no openings.
Study in Black
She is as sad
As a sunflower
With a dark cloud
That hangs above
Born from the womb
Of a maddened mother
Whose face she hasn’t
Seen for a year
And the pills that
They have given her
Fail to brighten
Her endless night
As a sharp knife
Becomes a key
To release her from
The cage of herself
For all of his life
He lived with the curse
Of someone else’s shadow
That followed him like
A dog he once fed
That would not leave his side
And as time wore on
It began to speak
While he himself grew silent
Until it acquired
A life of its own
As he faded away behind it
Last Wishes for My Disposal
it never does.
boulders keep coming
rolling down hill
knock you down
into a cartoon character
all you can do
is peel yourself
take slow deep breaths
refill with air,
plumping in all
the right places.
walk on, walk on
carry the weight
carry the weight.
such a lovely lady
wearing an oxen yoke,
carry it better
in dress and heels--
not tattered rags.
do you see rags?
or the bags
under my eyes?
no, it never gets better
so please smile over
and pluck daisy petals,
“I loved her; loved her not”
to scatter with the dirt.
place a paper
over my stone
rub the black charcoal
take me home,
where I can be
just another thing
on the wall,
till company comes.
and sing me sweet praises
though you knowed me not.
I wanted to be cremated,
but that does not matter
anymore than I did.
E. A. Danner
Early afternoon, September 3rd, in the principal’s office of a small town middle school deep in southeast Mississippi:
Dear Harvey J.,
You’d think after writing so many of these, it’d come naturally. I’d sit down on the backside of the principal’s desk for an hour and spill out all these lies about how I’m sorry for picking on you, about how I’m sorry for being mean to you, but no. I’m not used to them. I guess there are just some things that you never get used to. Everyone knows I’m going to do it again, so why waste my time with this lame bull? Why don’t I just write what I’m actually thinking, what I really feel when I hit you in the mouth day in and day out?
People believe that it’s the satisfaction, that I enjoy doing it, because seeing you in pain makes me feel good. Then there’s the bogus idea that I chose you because I’m jealous of you. You’ll understand why this isn’t true either. Of course, there’s the idea that I have to be in charge of everything. That I’m mean to show my dominance. Honestly, the truth is: all of these ideas are dumb. None of them even come close to the real reason. What do I, Bernard Lester, feel when I hit you? Relief. That’s what I feel.
I guess just saying it doesn’t make much sense. Why would I get any relief out of causing someone pain? Plus, why would I pick on you of all people? I guess the best idea would be to start with the easiest question: Why you? When I think about it, I have a whole list of reasons why I pick on you over other kids. Sure, there are other kids who would be easier and wouldn’t tell anyone, but it just wouldn’t be the same. You have to really understand yourself to know what I mean.
How do I explain you, to you? I can’t think of a decent place to start this, so I’ll just go with whatever comes to mind. You’re a year older than me, an eighth grader, a year away from getting out of middle school and into high school. I guess all this stuff would make it easy for someone to think I’m jealous.
Your dad is a lawyer or something, and your mom doesn’t do anything except sit around the house, drink wine, and gossip with the other housewives on the block. She almost sounds like my mom...almost. Obviously, your family has a lot of money, which you get to show off every day at school. You wear the most expensive designer clothes, and was the first person in his grade to get a phone. You’re practically worshiped by everyone, teachers and students alike. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, if you didn’t know that you had such a presence at the school, but that’s the problem. You know exactly how much everyone loves and adores you for your daddy’s money. You use it at every possible moment.
I swear you could get away with whatever you wanted to. You could probably murder another student and get off scot-free. I couldn’t chew a stick of gum without getting slapped with a detention slip and a call to my parents. That’s where the real punishment would be waiting for me, and, believe me, it’s a lot more frightening than anything the school could have in store for me.
Anyways, Harvey J., you know exactly who you are, and you make sure that all the students are aware of who you are too. None of the teachers, nor the principal realize this, but I’m not the only “bully” that stalks the halls of the school. In your own ways, you too are a bully, Harvey J. You have this bad habit of looking down on people who you think are...I guess lower...than you are. Basically, anyone who had the bad luck to be born into a poor family like me gets the eye of disgust and a few degrading words from you any time you’re around.
That reminds me of something the teachers haven’t figured out yet. You are the only person I pick on. I don’t pick on kids who are “more vulnerable” because they’re easier targets. I pick on you for a reason. I pick on you because out of everyone in the school I could pick on, you give me the greatest sense of relief.
This was supposed to be an apology letter, but you have more than a few of these already. All with the same bullshit apology and excuse, but you probably won’t get this one after the principal takes a look at it.
Mr. Evert this is a note for you: you don’t say much, but I feel like you probably get me better than anyone here, but you still punish me. I guess you have to. Everyone has a boss and everyone has to do what their boss says. I suppose that’s why my dad never seems to be able to hold a job, but I guess I better wrap this up. I can hear my mom’s foot tap at the secretaries desk behind me.
She’s not impatient or anything. Heck she won’t even be mad for a few hours. I guess she ran out of money or something. I’ve drug this on long enough. I’d rather not be in the car when Mom finally does get. I can’t run from her in the car. Hopefully I’ll see you again soon Mr. Evert but not too soon, and a last note to you, my wonderful victim Harvey J.: you’re an asshole and I don’t like you. That’s all. See soon “buddy”.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Bully,
Midnight, September 4rd, at the quiet home of a town drunk and his drug addicted wife. In the back bedroom where the only light was an old black flashlight their twelve year old son writes:
To Whoever It Might Concern,
I’m not sure who’s going to read this or if anyone will, but I think I need to write something down before I do...before I do something crazy. I’ll just start at the beginning or what I guess I can call the beginning.
The last time I wrote was earlier today in Principal Evert’s office. I left that nice little apology note for my good friend at school. I wonder what Principal Evert thought about my style. It definitely wasn’t what he expected. Hell, I didn’t expect it until it was on paper. I didn’t even plan to write this until now, but here I am: pen, paper, and an old broke flashlight putting down these last few thoughts before the light dies.
I left the letter on Principal Evert’s desk and got out in a hurry. What would’ve been the point of writing all of that stuff if I had to do it over again? My mom was waiting in the lobby. If you didn’t know her you’d mistake her for a prostitute. If the rumors were true she was until she married and I came along. I wouldn’t be surprised if she still did it every now and then for a little drugs or money. I’m not sure, and if my dad knows he doesn’t care. She was wearing her typical “going out” outfit, a white tank-top cut off just above her belly button showing her old dirty piercing. It’s a wonder it hadn’t gotten infected yet. Her shorts were hardly that. They were blue jeans cut off inappropriately high with fray bad enough that you couldn’t quite tell where the pants ended, even the button was long gone. She wore large black heels. I think they’re called Stilettos. The rubber was worn down to the sole. If you looked close, you could see small holes in the dark fabric from too many years of wear and tear. White stretch marks ran across her slightly tanned body. With the exception of a few old bruises and small dots on the inside of her arms I guess she looked alright.
Her foot tapped rapidly. With the irregular beat it sounded like an old typewriter. The keys slapping the paper with the appropriate letters. Her hands moved all over her body, scratching, like she was covered in bug bites. She tried to hide all the movement, but it didn’t work. I knew what was going on. I think the secretary did too.
The old secretary tried to give my mom a piece of paper, probably saying I couldn’t come back to school for a few days as punishment, but she was too lost to even notice. She kept searching around the corners of the room like there were hidden cameras watching her every move, more withdraw symptoms. I took the paper and led her out the door by the hand.
“Oh, Benny...” So far gone that she couldn’t even remember my name. No one called me Benny. “Is school out already? It’s so early...”
“No Mom, I got in trouble,” I replied.
“Oh, Billy...what’d you get into trouble for?”
“I hit another kid, mom.”
“Oh, baby...you know that’s not nice. It’s not nice to hit people.”
“I know Mom...I know.”
I guided her to the car, a ragged, beat up junker older than me with white paint chipped and rusted through, almost beyond recognition. The engine rolled over a few times before it finally roared to life, well...squealed to life. There was a bad belt in the engine that sounded like a pig caught by the ear. On a quiet day, you could hear the thing coming for miles. It’s a wonder the old thing still ran.
I need to hurry up with this. The light is starting to flicker and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, so just straight to the point.
Three hours after I got home my dad showed up. His steps were heavy. He sounded angry. I guessed that the school had already called him at work and told him about me hitting Harvey J. I hoped to god he wouldn’t call me in there, but I don’t have a lot of luck.
“Get in here boy!” he hollered.
I left my room and could see him from down the hall. He was standing in front of the door. In his left hand, a bottle of beer, hadn’t been home five minutes and he was already drinking, and in his right was his mean old leather belt. I swear that thing saw more of my backside than his. His blue jeans were stained with grease and oil, and his white shirt had burn marks. The life of tire buster sure was a tough one, but it made him strong, and it made him even meaner still.
“Oh, baby be gentle with him.” My mom giggled senselessly at nothing. Apparently she had found some forgotten gem somewhere in the house. “He’s just a little thing.” She rolled around on the couch like a kid, like I had done years ago when things weren’t so bad.
“You, hush up woman!” He returned his attention to me. “I said get in here!”
I started down the hallway, dragging my feet across the rough floor as I went.
He kept quiet until I was standing right in front of him. He took a drink of his beer and a few drops fell on my head and face as I looked up at him, but I didn’t move to wipe them away. Sweat collected his on his brow, and there was a pissed look in his eyes. He looked down at me. Hot air blew out his nose like a hot clothes iron, even his breathing sounded mad.
“Your school called me today boy.” He took another drink. “Said you hit another boy or something or another. You know anything about that?”
I learned a long time ago it’s better to just stay quiet and agree with anything he says. I’ve never avoided beatings but when I don’t plead or fight, they usually didn’t hurt as much, usually. They still hurt like hell, but a little less pain is a lot better than nothing. I just nodded my head and kept quiet.
“What’d I tell you about hitting other people? Huh? To not to, that’s what I told you!”
His hand rose and fell and I felt the sting of the belt even before I even realized I’d been hit. My leg throbbed, tears welled up in my eyes, and a sob caught in my throat, but I choked it down with a shudder. In my 12 years of existence I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of “ass whippings”. You think you’d get used to it after so many. You never get used to it. Each time hurt like I was getting busted for the first time. Maybe my dad was just getting meaner and hitting me harder. Over the past few years he’s been getting worse. He started knocking me around instead of just using a belt. That’s when things really started hurting.
“Damn it boy! How many times I gotta hit you ‘fore you learn? You don’t hit people!” Another blow from the belt landed on my other thigh. My knees wanted to buckle but I stayed standing. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, but I fought it as best I could. “Maybe I ought to hit you.” My cheek caught the back of his hand. The room started spinning as I stumbled around. I could see stars and half my face felt like it was being stung by a thousand bees over and over again. . “Oh, we ain’t finished yet boy. Come here!” He set his beer down and grabbed the front of my shirt. “How do you like being hit?” The open hand lit up the other side of my face. It wasn’t any softer. “Doesn’t feel good does it?”
The beating only got worse. Eventually, the belt was completely disregarded and he used nothing but his hands, kicking me the side while I suffered on the floor. Somewhere in the middle of it all my body had enough, and I passed out.
I’ve so many beating, merciless. Each one seems to be getting worse than the last. I don’t know how many more I can take. I don’t know how long it will be before I can’t pick myself up off the floor. I don’t know how long I have before my body gives up. Not long that’s for sure. Something has to change. Something has to happen. I guess I already know or...knew that even before I started writing. That’s why I started writing. To see if I was crazy or not.
Earlier I grabbed my dad’s .45 out of the coffee table. He hid it under old papers, but we all knew where it was. He’d pulled it out and threatened us with it on more than a few occasions when he was drunk. It’s a lot heavier than I remember. On one of the good days, my dad taught me how to shoot it, but that was so long ago. The metal is so cold, like ice in my hands. Just looking at it makes me nervous, but I have to wrap this up now. The light is dying as I write. Goodbye.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Victim,
Late afternoon September 5rd, in the cold basement of the police station on the courthouse square, just south of the railroad tracks:
White male, late thirties, approximately 70 inches tall, 210 pounds. Found lying on his back on the right side of a queen-size bed. Fresh offensive bruises occurring on both sets of knuckles. Blood alcohol level at approximately .145 at the time of death. Liver quality consistent with alcoholism and long, consistent consumption of alcoholic beverages. Cause of Death: Three gunshot wounds fired from a .45 caliber handgun. Two penetrating the upper right chest, the remaining bullet fragments lodged in ribs 2-4. The third bullet went through the throat on the right side lacerating the right carotid artery resulting in extensive bleeding. The victim would have lost consciousness within 15-20 seconds and life at 2-4 minutes.
White female, late thirties, approximately 64 inches tall, 95 pounds. Found lying on her back on the floor to the left of the bed. A pillow had been placed beneath head postmortem. Evidence of healed bruising occurs along the upper body and upper legs. The improperly healed bone fractures of the left humerus, ribs 3 and 4 on the right side and rib 7 on the left, and the right clavicle. Though there is no apparent evidence of past or recent sexual assault, evidence is still consistent with domestic violence and physical spousal abuse. Lack of fatty and muscle tissue combined with weaker internal organs lead to the conclusion of malnourishment. A Toxic Blood Screening showed traces of heroin in the bloodstream. Nasal and oral exam revealed evidence of long-term use of methamphetamine. Further examination of the throat and organs suggested the same theory. Cause of Death: Single gunshot wound fired from a .45 caliber handgun. The bullet entered through the front temporal lobe on the right side and passed through the cranium at a rightward angle and lodged in the wall. The victim died instantly due to the single head injury.
White adolescent, age 10-13, approximately 60 inches tall, 90 pounds. Found lying face down on the floor at the foot of the bed. Fresh bruising on the face and ribs are consistent with those found on the white male. Evidence of previously healed bruising of similar pattern leads to the theory of parental abuse by one or both parents. No traces of alcohol or illegal narcotics were found in the blood though lung quality is consistent with long-term second-hand smoking. Cause of Death: Single self-inflicted gunshot wound fired from a .45 caliber handgun. The bullet entered the right temple region and passed through and lodged in the wall on the other side. The victim died instantly due to the single head injury.
Dr. Richard Hoffman
Early morning, September 10rd, at the small shop of a tombstone engraver. The first of three orders had just been finished on a generic headstone for a small family from a little Mississippi town:
Benjamin H. Lester
May 11, 1975 – September 4, 2013
Beloved Father and Husband
Amanda N. Lester
January 3, 1976 – September 4, 2013
Beloved Mother and Wife
Bernard H. Lester
December 19, 2000 – September 5, 2013
“You’re late again. I said to be here at 9:30,” Bill glared at his watch.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Jack panted as he quickly opened the passenger side door and got in.
“If you had taken any longer, he would have seen you.”
“Why are you worrying so much? Are you scared?” Jack asked with a grin.
“Are you kidding? The last time I was scared was when I did that job in ’88. It was crazy! I was —”
“Yeah, yeah, shut up, old man. Your stories about the glory days are a waste of my time.”
They sat side-by-side in Bill’s faded, black Porsche while Jack was still trying to catch his breath. It was another night in the city, which helped conceal their car in the darkness.
“When are we going to start?” Jack asked.
“As soon as he leaves,” Bill responded. “He leaves at around ten to go to one of his rich guy parties.” He looked out the car window at the large house to their left. “Man, I feel like this house goes on for miles.”
“All the better so we don’t caught,”
“Don’t you have any sense? There’s probably going to be more security since the place is huge,” Bill whispered.
“Do I look like I care about the details?” Jack replied. “We just need to sneak in, grab them, and sneak out. It’ll be easy.”
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s never as easy as you think.”
“Again with the glory days. Wait, shut up! He’s coming out now.”
“Now do you see why it’s important to be early?”
“I thought I said to shut up!” Jack whispered. Bill sheepishly sat back in his seat.
A tall man dressed in a black suit emerged from the house, and slowly walked to the red Ferrari parked in the driveway. He quickly pulled out, sped down the street, and drove out of sight.
“Okay, time to go,” Jack muttered. They both got out of the car and crossed the street to the front gate. “Open it,” he ordered.
Bill looked around and began to observe the gate. He quickly inspected the lock and immediately took out his lock pick. “For a rich guy, his gate’s pretty old and rusty.” In less than a minute, Bill had already picked the lock on the gate. The gate screeched as Bill slowly opened it.
“I told you this would be easy,” Jack grinned. “Ladies first?”
“Come on, let’s get serious. Just because the gate was easy doesn’t mean the rest of the house will be.”
“Calm down, I’m just trying to lighten the mood. You’re already the crankiest guy I know.”
“And you’re making me crankier. I want to get out of here as fast as possible.”
“Watch your blood pressure, old man. I don’t want to carry you out of here on a gurney.” They passed through the gate and entered an open courtyard that led to the double doors on the front of the house.
“Turn on the flashlight. I can’t see a thing out here,” Bill ordered.
“Okay. Do you know where we’re going?”
“Of course. I’ve been scouting this place for the past week. I’ll check the front door. Take the flashlight and check to see if there is another way to get in.”
“Why do I have to check if we’re going through the front door?”
“Just in case I can’t get in through the front! Don’t you know anything?”
“Calm down, old man. I’ll be right back.” Jack went around the courtyard and slipped through the small passage on the right side of the house. He called to Bill, “There are some closed windows over here, but nothing else!” He ran back to the front door with Bill.
“Will you be quiet? How do you know he doesn’t have security hiding around here somewhere?” Jack yelled quietly.
“Your blood pressure rising again, Bill?” Jack laughed obnoxiously.
“I swear, you’re going to get us caught! Why did I even agree to do this with you?” Bill grumbled to himself.
“Because you love me so much.”
“You really are delusional, aren’t you? Can you just let me open this door?” Once again, Bill worked with his pick. He made quick work of the lock.
“Your skills never cease to amaze me, old man.” Jack and Bill slowly walked through the doors. “Okay, I’ll check upstairs, you check down here,” Jack said.
“No, I’ll check upstairs, you stay here.”
“Don’t you trust me, Bill?”
“Fair enough. I wouldn’t even trust myself.” Jack then decided to check the many doors on the first floor while Bill ran upstairs. “Nothing in here, nothing in there. Another empty room,” Jack whispered to himself. “Wait, what do we have here? Is that a safe I see?” His eyes grew wide as he stared at the stainless steel safe that sat in the corner of the room.
Bill then came down and glanced over Jack’s shoulder. “Nothing upstairs. What are you looking at?”
“I spy a safe in the corner over there.”
“Well, let’s go and open it then.”
“As I said before, ladies first,” Jack said as he smiled at Bill.
“You’re really getting on my nerves,” Bill muttered as he took a small tool case out of his pocket.
“Let’s hurry this up. You aren’t getting any younger.”
“Will you be quiet for five seconds and let me focus?”
“Considering how old you are, I want to make every moment we have special before you keel over.”
“Whatever makes you happy.” Once again, Bill worked with his tools. “There, it’s open. Did you time that? That has to be a new personal record.” Inside the safe were an assortment of objects: An antique watch, two bars of gold, a few stacks of hundreds, and a small pile of papers.
“Look, we found even more than we expected. Wow, this job is probably the easiest we’ve done so far. Someone should tell this guy to get some kind of alarm system or something like that,” Jack said.
“Just makes it easier for us.”
“Whatever you say, old man. Just grab them and we’ll be a few million richer.” Bill reached in and pulled out the papers, leaving the rest in the safe. “Are you okay, old man? Do you not see the extra stuff in there? Might as well make them worth our while.”
“Suit yourself. When I sell his company’s shares on the black market, I’m going to have much more than all of those things combined,” Bill cracked a smile.
“Yeah! There you go, old man, it feels good to smile, right?” Jack began to grab all of the items in the safe. “Wait. Don’t you mean, ‘When we sell the shares?’”
“No.” Bill suddenly whistled at the top his lungs. The echo could be heard throughout the neighborhood.
“What the hell are you doing, old man?” Jack chuckled nervously.
The sound of barking slowly grew as Bill’s smile widened and turned in a laugh.
“Ha ha! Oh, Jack are you really that stupid?”
“Come on Bill, stop messing with me.”
“You still have a lot to learn. Maybe one day you’ll be as good as me. It’s always good to scout out your location before you pull off a heist.” All of a sudden, three large pit bulls sprinted into the room, all of them barking viciously at Jack.
“Turns out this place really does have security! Don’t worry, Jack. I’ve trained them not to kill, just to keep you where you are. So, I’ll just leave you four to get to know each other a little better while I alert the authorities.” Bill pulled out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.
“Bill, call your stupid dogs off! We were supposed to split the money! Come on, Bill!”
“Yes, hello? I live on Walker Street and my neighbor’s dogs are very loud. It looks like both the gate and the front door are open, too. It might be a burglary!” Bill then hung up the phone. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Old man, you better get me out of here! If not, I’ll just rat you out when the cops get here!”
“I don’t think so. By the time they begin the investigation, I’ll be in Europe. I will have already sold the shares and there will be no evidence except for your word. Good luck, Jack.”
With that, Bill took the papers and ran downstairs. “Bill! You’re going to pay for this! Mark my words! I’ll get you back one day!” Bill sprinted back through the courtyard and got in his car. He already started to hear the faint sound of sirens. He frantically turned the key and sped off down the street, where he was never seen again.
An old man sits next to me on the bench.
He lights a smoke
but I cannot smell it.
All I can smell is an odd odour coming from him.
Either it is the worst after shave I have ever smelt or embalming fluid.
As I realize I have never smelt embalming fluid
I laugh out loud
and he finishes his smoke and leaves
and the curious smell goes with him.
As I notice I am crossing london road
I see a man sat on the other side
he looks homeless
but doesn’t care.
He holds a bottle in his hands,
one holding the bottom,
one the top.
If he thrust it in front of him
it would feel like a presentation
but he holds it too close for that,
like it is the most valuable of everything he has.
He keeps staring at me
so I give him a nod
as if there is some true wisdom between us
and the more I think about it
the more I think he is right.
Plus We Saved a Thousand Dollars
The guy who wrapped me up in a great big bear hug was not, it turned out, a guy. A reasonable mistake under the circumstances—in addition to the fact that her close-cropped hair was tucked messily into a canvas ball cap, she was overweight in a way that renders a person sort of androgynously shapeless, especially when wearing a baggy T-shirt and cargo shorts, and what otherwise would have been obvious feminine features were obscured by jowls, wrinkles, and those bookish glasses with thick black frames. She was, I figured, a few years over fifty, and weighed maybe five times that. The breasts she pulled me so tightly into could easily have been those of an obese man.
“Such a wonderful thing!” she was saying, squeezing me tight. “So, so wonderful!”
After releasing me, she turned immediately to my brother, Ricky, and enveloped him just as hungrily.
“Wonderful, wonderful! I’m so happy for you two.”
You two. The words failed to register, nor did I catch the embarrassed mumble of my brother’s reply, because I had already turned proudly to my parents, who were standing just a few paces away as we took in the unexpected festivities.
“See that?” I called over to them. “Guy just came up and hugged me!”
It wasn’t until the “guy” had stepped back into the boisterous crowd jostling by that my wife, Cynthia, set me straight. She had been crouched beside us, petting the “guy’s” dog. (Apparently you’re allowed to walk your dog in San Francisco City Hall, just one of a million reasons to love that city.)
“That was a woman, dipshit.”
“And she thinks you’re marrying Ricky.”
A reasonable mistake under the circumstances—not only were my brother and I wearing suits and matching boutonnieres, we had vastly different hairstyles, and while I was as clean-shaven as I ever permit myself to be, Ricky was cultivating a vague Van Dykeish sort of thing that Cynthia had already repeatedly advised him to remove with whatever sharp or abrasive object might be at hand in a civic venue (Charisse is OK with that thing on your face? Today of all days?), all of which disguised how much alike Ricky and I actually look, almost twins. At that moment, though, we could very well have passed for romantic partners about to tie the knot, and in light of the momentous historical circumstances, circumstances we had become aware of just a minute or two earlier—that’s exactly what the “guy” had assumed.
This was Friday, June 28, 2013, the day my brother got married.
Not to me, though.
Just two days shy of my brother’s second anniversary, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its Obergefell ruling, making same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. And lo, among opponents of gay rights there was much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. But it should be remembered that however historic, the decision was merely the climax of years and years of progress by the gay rights movement, during which the outcome of Obergefell was augured by a patchwork of legislative and judicial victories that had already established marriage equality in 36 states and DC. And one of those victories, the anti-gay-marriage crowd would probably be delighted to know, very nearly derailed my brother’s—I’ll use their preferred adjective here—“traditional” wedding two years before.
But I should explain.
Berkeley, CA residents Kris Perry and Sandy Stier were the lead plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (!!!), the Supreme Court case that, back in the summer of 2013, overturned California’s ban on same-sex marriage—i.e., the infamous Proposition 8, whose passage by referendum in 2008 invigorated a Christian right that had watched with some admixture of alarm and disgust as Americans’ acceptance and even embrace of homosexuality ballooned over the previous decade. The unlikely success of Prop 8 inspired redoubled efforts to implement gay marriage bans elsewhere, efforts that Obergefell has since pretty much defanged. Notable among these efforts was the production and broadcast of “A Gathering Storm,” an ad in which an attractive, multiethnic group of people representing targeted states take turns saying things like “I’m a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK” while dark thunderheads churn menacingly in the background. There’s lightning, even.
The Supreme Court issued its 5-4 Perry ruling two days before my brother’s wedding, a small civil service involving just parents and siblings (and one voluble sibling-in-law), officiated by a San Francisco marriage commissioner. And just an hour before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved the stay it had imposed on same-sex marriages as the lawsuit challenging Prop 8 worked its way through the courts. Thus the way was immediately cleared for countless gay couples to be legally wed in California for the first time in nearly five years.
Perry and Stier, as you might imagine, didn’t waste a second.
While we, Ricky and Charisse’s wedding party, milled and chatted at the base of a grand marble staircase, awaiting our appointment with the commissioner—she would, we’d been told, emerge from the chambers at any moment to perform the marriage right there on the spot as people bustled by on various municipal errands—we became aware of a growing commotion down near the Hall’s entrance. The lower steps of the staircase pooled elegantly into the center of the Rotunda, forming a kind of low platform on which we stood. The noise intensified, other millers and chatters turned their heads, and suddenly we found ourselves engulfed by a roiling tide of spotlights and boom mikes and TV cameras. And people. Lots of people. Happy people. Cheering people. People who danced and snapped photos and waved flags. There were rainbow flags and American flags and those navy blue flags with a yellow mathematical “equals” sign on them. At the heart of the scrum were two middle-aged women in obviously coordinated light gray clothing—one wore a skirt, the other a pantsuit—holding hands and marching purposefully forward, their gravity towing the jubilant throng along with them.
Some quick investigatory Googling by members of our party filled us in on who these women were and what, exactly, was going on. My brother and I stood there shoulder to shoulder, watching.
“Looks like you picked a good day to do this,” I said. “Story for the grandkids.”
And before he even had time to respond, some fat guy walking a dog burst out of the crowd and pulled me into a great big bear hug.
They have an endless supply of objections, the people who continue to fret about the “Gathering Storm,” and no one who’s been paying attention expects a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling to muzzle these folks any time soon. We’ve heard their claims about the pernicious consequences of same-sex marriage again and again and again.
One of their claims is that traditional marriage will now inevitably suffer, which in turn will degrade and eventually dissolve the family, the very fundament upon which all society rests. Another is that gay marriage is a slippery slope. In fact, Chief Justice John Roberts’ Obergefell dissent explicitly raises the specter of polygamy, but fears of even more bizarre marital arrangements infest a certain segment of the American populace. If, the argument goes, a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman, then surely it’s only a matter of time before a man can marry his parakeet and a woman can marry her Jimmy Choos—or before, let’s just say, a brother can marry his brother.
There are other objections, of course, lots but aside from the explicitly scriptural ones, these two seem to be the most stubborn and pervasive. And however unbidden, however logically or empirically unsound I’ve always found them to be, these objections swarmed me that day like a cloud of gnats, irksome and inescapable.
Because what, I couldn’t help wondering, would the somber, earnest “Gathering Storm” characters make of my brother’s “traditional” wedding, now seemingly thwarted in a government building—a government building in San Francisco—as a wave of gay rights celebrants washed over us? Even the weakest imagination couldn’t fail to see the synecdoche of the scene, and given the various slippery slope (and other) arguments that have flitted about over the years, imagination is something gay marriage opponents have buckets of (when it suits their needs).
Almost an hour after The Hug, we were still waiting on the commissioner. The Perry-Stier crowd had receded to the back of the Hall, where paperwork was being filled out and filed and various arrangements for the ceremony were being made. I know this because earlier that afternoon we had been through the very same process, a small bureaucratic obstacle that nobody minded because we were all so excited for Ricky and Cha.
Now, though, we were bored and antsy. There was a fancy sushi dinner waiting for us down at the Embarcadero—and, more importantly, champagne and cocktails.
“They said to wait here, right? The stairs? Not somewhere else?”
“Maybe they forgot?”
“Wait, you sure it was 3:30? Hey, did everyone else hear 3:30? Who told us 3:30?”
“Should someone go back there and remind them?”
“I definitely heard 3:30. It was 3:30, right?”
“Dammit, we should be half drunk by now.”
Neither Cha’s family nor my own are the kind of people who feel comfortable imposing. In general, we’re patient and passive, loathe to make a stink, deferential almost to a fault, particularly in public.
Cynthia, however, is none of these things.
“Obviously they forgot. Can I please go yell at them now?”
“It’s not your wedding,” I pleaded. “Don’t make a scene. She’ll come soon. It’s probably just all the commotion, right?”
So we continued to stand there, waiting, which gave me plenty of time to think. And what I wound up thinking was, Fuck. They would just love this, wouldn’t they, seeing us standing here, neglected and forgotten?
Uh-huh, look it there. Barely an hour into the thing and already REAL marriage gets tossed by the wayside, ta-ta now. Got those poor kids waiting to start the kind of life all humanity depends on, just HUMANITY is all! Just a shame. Maybe they don’t even get married today. Maybe they figure, hell, why even bother. This how we gonna be treated? And that other couple there, that dark-skinned girl—what is she, you think, mulatto? arab?— arguing with her husband about should they pipe up, maybe now that there’s just a divorce in diapers. Probably so. The men outta just go find themselves another man and the women go find themselves a woman and then everyone’ll throw ‘em a big old party like for them dykes in gray. What’s that? You asking why don’t the brothers just marry each other? Hell, might as well. That’s where we’re headed.
And so now, suddenly, on a day when my mood should have been nothing but celebratory, I was instead frustrated and pissed, upset both because I knew I was probably being unfair to the whole “Gathering Storm” crowd—surely, their bigotry is rarely so free-wheeling and cartoonish—and because part of me wasn’t totally convinced that I was. Being unfair. And given the occasion, the moment, my little brother’s big day, it was a shame that I had to be thinking about this at all.
So, well, yeah, Cyn was right: the commissioner had forgotten—a reasonable mistake under the circumstances. News that Perry and Stier were on their way had set the Hall abuzz, generating no small amount of distraction and confusion among the commissioners and other civic personnel. The impromptu parade and swarming media had, of course, only exacerbated the situation.
And this is precisely where the “Gathering Storm” folks would howl about neglect and social tumult. Traditional marriage pushed to the margins. Disorder. Confusion. Brother marrying brother, for God’s sake—or something damn close to it.
But then here’s what happened.
After first extracting a promise that she would comport herself with the utmost civility, we allowed Cynthia, chaperoned by Cha’s mild-mannered brother Herb, to go inquire about the holdup. The commissioner came hustling out almost immediately, her black robe aflutter above a pair of shuffling Birkenstocks (really), embarrassed and extremely apologetic.
By way of atonement, instead of performing the ceremony there in the busy Rotunda as initially planned, she herded us into an elevator that took us to the fourth floor balcony, from which we were afforded a magnificent view of the Hall’s Baroque interior. (We later learned that a $1000-dollar fee is usually charged for the balcony’s use in weddings.) Two levels below us, the Perry-Stier ceremony was taking shape on the Mayor’s Balcony. The happy crowd, having followed them upstairs, was just beginning to settle in around the couple, its noise fading to a melodic hum. California Attorney General Kamela Harris, whose refusal to defend Prop 8 in court had prompted the law’s dissolution, would be the officiant.
As with almost all forms of moral miscalculation, the problem with objections to gay marriage is that they’re preoccupied with hazy philosophical constructs—Tradition, Natural Law, Slippery Slopes—or silly conceits whose baseness lurches fully into view only when they’re nakedly articulated: e.g., “romantic commitment fundamentally depends on a penis penetrating a vagina.” Such preoccupations put abstractions and anatomy ahead of people. Not that philosophical constructs are unimportant; big abstract ideas like Justice and Equality are at the heart of movements that produce things like the Obergefell ruling. But we often treat these values as ends when in fact they are means. As such, they matter only insofar as they pertain to immediate human experiences like joy and sorrow, and only insofar as they bring good people together (or keep them apart).
In what I’m guessing is probably a very rare statistical anomaly, Cha’s two brothers both happen to be gay—I’m fairly sure they have no intention of marrying each other—and in fact it’s through them that my brother even had the good fortune to meet his future wife.
When Ricky moved to Silicon Valley as a recent college graduate, he knew almost no one. To broaden his social horizons, he Googled up a couple recreational sports leagues and joined. It wasn’t until warming up for his first game with South Bay Volleyball Club that he realized his mistake. SBVC turned out to be a member of NAVGA, the North American Gay Volleyball Association (yes, a real thing). His new teammates, who had of course pegged him that day as a fish out of water as soon as he entered the gym, teased him duly, then became some of his first friends in the Bay Area.
On that team was a good friend of Herb and Aegin, Cha’s brothers.
And so now here we all were, a newly minted family, the very fundament, yes, on which all society rests, and two floors below us another family was being simultaneously consecrated—not just Perry and Stier, but in a way, the scores of people who’d gathered spontaneously and joyfully because something big had changed that would allow unions like these to be replicated again and again and again, hopefully forever. These people were happy for themselves and for others, happy enough to publicly bear-hug total strangers and congratulate them for doing something that would surely make their lives better. The “guy” with the dog had been mistaken in the superficial particulars, just as I had been about her, but she was right in spirit. And though the upheaval had, true, been a bit of an inconvenience at first, it had ended up literally elevating us all, and without costing us (mostly) heterosexuals a thing.
How’s that for synecdoche? It was beautiful up there on the balcony.
The commissioner, having finally regained her composure, directed us to form a semi-circle around Ricky and Cha, then proceeded. Again, nothing fancy—just a simple, quiet ceremony to celebrate a union that had taken root long before and would continue to grow long after. And as we all stood there beaming, cheers bubbled up at intervals from the crowd below, one particularly loud burst making itself heard just as Ricky and Cha were exchanging rings so that it was easy to imagine that all the cheering was in fact for them. And really, it might as well have been.
lines eventually cross:
nothing’s truly straight
I clench my new teddy bear to my chest. It reminds me of the other stuffed animals daddy’s friends give me. My daddy loves to have his friends play with me. One gave me a new turtle backpack and said it is filled with candy for grown ups.
“Mijo, ven aqui ahora.”
“Carlos, we are going to play a game with my friend here.”
“Hey, Carlos,” daddy’s friend says.
“Now, we are going to play pretend. You like playing pretend, right?”
“Of course,” I say. “Can I pretend to be a police officer?”
“Chinga esos bastardos, mijo. You can pretend to be a delivery man.”
“Do I get to deliver presents like Santa Claus?”
“Yeah, like Santa Claus.”
Daddy’s friend invites me to sit in his lap.
“Carlos, this is going to be a super secret mission. You have to keep this a secret just like the other times, okay?”
Daddy and his friend laugh. I join in too even though I do not understand adult jokes.
“Miguel, let me talk to you for a second.”
Daddy takes a drink of daddy’s juice, and pulls his friend aside. He says a swear word to him, and looks angry too. He is scary when he is angry. Mommy always said the devil was inside of him. Daddy comes up to me, and pats my head.
“Now listen, mijo, I love you more than anything in the world. Your mother didn’t believe it, but where is she now?”
He adjusts my backpack, and tightens the straps.
“I want you to stay safe. If anything goes wrong, I want you to run. Just run for me, ok?”
“Ok daddy. I love you too.”
I kiss his prickly cheek. He gives me a hug and a kiss back. Mommy said he has no room for love, but he loves me a lot, and he shows it too. He buys me all of these toys, and lets me play pretend with his friends.
“Carlos, let’s get going.”
“Ok. Bye, daddy.”
“Remember what I said, Carlos.”
Daddy’s friend takes me by the hand. He tells me not to worry about the shot marks on his arms, but I always stare at them. His car is parked over our dead lawn. Mommy used to make it look pretty, but everything died when she moved away.
“Alright kid, you sit in the backseat.”
This car is easy to get into, and I step into the car all by myself.
“Miguel, how come there are so many skulls and naked ladies on your car?”
“Because it’s what I like.”
I join in with his laughter. Adults are weird with their jokes.
Miguel fumbles with something in his pants, so I strap my teddy into the seat next to me. Daddy tells me I should take care of my stuffed friends.
Miguel shuts his door, and the lights inside dim. The warm summer sun glistens off of the windows. The car rumbles, and the smell of gas fills the car.
I cough, and Miguel gets mad.
“Ayiyi. Stop coughing, or else you will attract attention, niño.”
I try to hold them in, but they escape once in awhile.
I look out the window, and through the vibrations, adults gather around their chipped houses, and other kids play near them. Some adults share secret handshakes with each other, and other girls walk around in short cloths.
We drive up behind another car, and wait in a line. The other cars around us have happy families in them. I remember when mommy brought me to this line, and how happy she was. People made us turn around, and she cried all the way home, and cursed at Daddy’s name.
A giant rod lifts up, and then back down. The line lurches forward and excites me with every inch.
“Miguel, look how many green-goes there are,” I say.
He is too concentrated on the line.
A woman stops Miguel, and the two talk in gibberish. I cough, and the lady stares at me while she talks.
“Little boy, where are you going?”
“Don’t answer her, Carlos.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to pull off to the side.”
The car lunges forward, and it rains glass when we pass under the rod. We hit a car, and I launch into the back cushion of Miguel’s chair.
He pulls something out of his pants, and it makes loud noises that hurt my ears. I push tears out with each heartbeat, and shield my teddy. I try to drown out the loud noises with screams. Smoke fills the car, and drops of blood fall from my nose to stain my bear.
I try to run away like daddy said. I open a door, and the woman from earlier coaxes me outside. I crawl away from her, but she snatches me up. A green-go lady steals my teddy bear. I thrash about to get it back, but I stop to look at Miguel a few feet from the car. He was laying in a pool of red with a black box kicked to the side.
The woman pops the head off of teddy, and bags of candy pour out of the body. The lady says one of the few things I learned from mommy speaking English.
Gabriel Valdez Bio (Spring 2016)
Gabriel Valdez is currently enrolled at Full Sail University for Creative Writing, and hopes to one day touch millions of hearts and minds around the world with his work. He has been published before in Down in the Dirt Magazine, and often times finds himself daydreaming, or forgetting his train of thought in favor of another.
The First Visit
“Daddy, I don’t want to go.”
“You will be fine. She has been dying to meet you.”
Jacob stood at the front door of the house with his father. “Daddy, does Mommy know about you meeting this lady?”
His father took a deep breath then got down on one knee and looked up at his son. “Jacob, you know there are some things going on with me and your mother. I’m not sure what the result will be in the end, but we are meeting with this lady tonight because I feel like you may like her. Do you trust me, son?”
His father ruffled his son’s hair and stood back up. He rang the doorbell once more. The lock clicked as the door swung open. He looked up and saw a lady dressed in jeans and a Yankees’ t-shirt.
“David, it’s so good to see you again,” she said. She swung her arms around his father’s neck and gave him a hug.
“Hello, Mary,” he replied. “This is Jacob.”
She looked at Jacob with a smile and knelt down to him. “You are so cute and adorable. I can see where you get your cute looks from, Jacob,” she said, looking up to David.
Jacob hid behind his father’s leg and looked at the lady, but he didn’t want to upset him.
“Please, come in,” Mary said.
Jacob’s dad took a step forward and felt a tug on his jeans and picked him up. “Everything will be fine, son.”
He took Jacob into the house and sat him down on the couch. Mary followed behind him and looked back at Jacob. “Do you want anything to drink, sweetie?”
“N-no thank you, ma’am.”
“He has such good manners.”
She went to pinch his cheek, but he backed away a little bit. “Daddy, I wanna go home.”
“Jacob, what did we talk about. It will be fine.”
Jacob slouched a little into the couch and pulled out the Batman action figure from his pocket and started messing with it.
“You like Batman?” Mary asked.
Jacob nodded his head.
“I think he is very brave, Jacob. Just like your father.”
An uncomfortable chill went up his back. “Daddy, why are we here? Does Mommy know about this?”
Mary stood up and looked at his father with worry. He sat down next to Jacob and looked at him. “Son, I know this is hard for you with your mom and I going through this, but you have to know that I do love your mother very much- “
“If you love Mommy, why are we here? Shouldn’t we go back home to see her?”
David leaned back and took a deep breath. “Well son, Daddy can’t go home. Mommy doesn’t want me home for a while. I have to stay here with Mary.”
“Why? Doesn’t Mommy love you?” Jacob asked.
“She does, but things just aren’t going the way we planned. Have some faith in me, son.”
“I wanna go home.”
David sighed then stood back up. “Okay,” He picked Jacob up and walked to the door. “Mary, I will be back soon.”
Jacob waved as they walked out the door.
can’t get you
I never really
liked you, but now I can’t get
you out of my head.
C. D. Wight
I cheered “Ganbarou!” with the other crisply-uniformed girls and finished up the company ritual to start another morning shift at Trendy’s Café. We all smiled and took our places; but nervousness welled up inside me. Today marked my first day of training at the cash register position, and soon hurried Tokyo commuters would be lined up for a coffee, eager to be on their way.
Luckily my trainer was hawk-faced Yuko, winner of the most employee star awards and champion of order and cleanliness in the café. Her hair was always bound in the tightest bun. The other girls mocked her supreme effort, but I held the highest regard for her at work.
The first hour was uneventful. Yuko supervised as I took orders and dispensed change.
The morning rush hit us, and some difficult customers appeared: a blind old lady, a socially-awkward salary-man, and, looming further back in the line, an arrogant-looking foreigner who probably did not care about our customs. We tolerated the stress well until Miho forgot to brew another batch of Royal Roast. Customers were delayed. My smile felt strained, but Yuko encouraged me.
In all the confusion Kanako dropped a plate of heated quiche, shattering my nerves and leaving a mess of mushy egg and broken porcelain behind the counter.
Next the foreigner approached the register to pay. He impatiently slapped down coins for a canned beverage.
His change was one yen but when the register drawer opened I almost cried - the one-yen coin tray was empty. I scrambled to break open another roll but by then it was too late: the foreigner turned and rushed for the door without taking his money!
A customer in line yelled, “Hey!” to the foreigner but his call was ignored.
It seemed that the arrogant man would get away with ignoring our custom of waiting for proper change after a cash transaction, but then something most unexpected happened: Yuko reached over, took the one yen from my open palm, dashed out from behind the counter, slipped through the crowd, and ran out the door, one arm extended, that single gram of aluminum pinched between two fingers.
I gasped and stood helpless. Employees were forbidden to leave without permission.
The entire café noticed the incident and all eyes turned to the door.
Yuko returned moments later, her task completed.
I was embarrassed for her, and ashamed of my rookie cashier mistake that had made her react.
But the crowd seemed unbothered - even respectful.
Yuko bowed politely and took her place with me at the register. She would not win star employee this month, but it was okay. We were all reminded that the customs of our people were more important than following rules of the café.
C. D. Wight bio
C. D. Wight lives with his wife and two sons in the historic beach community of Kamakura, Japan. He likes to surf, even in the winter.
This was only a
translation for trauma — and
I don’t have the words
Brandon J. Vasquez
Miguel spent many hours alone during the day, between his Mom always working and his brother going to school and doing whatever it is boys do at that age. Miguel had found a solution to his boredom in the form of a wooden guitar that his Mother gave him for his birthday. Miguel had a quick flashback of him shredding the wrapping paper to reveal his prize. His eyes lit up as his smile spread ear to ear, “Mom I love it!!!” he remembered yelling. He snapped back into reality as he caught the whiff of Hot Pockets in the air, his brother was home. When Miguel wasn’t trying to be the next Richie Valentine he watched his favorite television program, Guitaras Locas which translated into Crazy Guitars. It showcased some of the best Mexican guitar players of the time, it always captured Miguel’s attention completely. It was as if the strings on the guitar spoke to him in a long forgotten language. Each string plucked was another word flowing to his ears- “Miguel?” his brother asked standing next to him in the room. Miguel gasped in surprise once he realized he didn’t even notice his brother came in the room. “This show always does this to you hermano,” Miguel’s brother said. Miguel gave his brother a light smirk and nodded in agreement not breaking away from the television. “Hey I know things have been tough lately with you always home by yourself, but I have good news Miguel. Starting tomorrow you’re going to begin guitar lessons.” Miguel slowly tuned his head hands still under his chin and stared at his brother to see the slightest sign of his brother joking. The more seconds that passed the more his heart beat increased until he shot up on his two feet and tackled his brother with affection. “Oh my God bro! Thank you!” Miguel said. As he held his brother tight a warm sensation came over him as he thought this is the second happiest moment of my life.
“Alright men, drop the nets and let them drag. We’ve got to make sure we catch enough to make our time worth while!” “Stay sharp, stay alert!”
“Aye, aye Captain!” the first mate shouted, and then added in a subdued voice: “For all the good this’ll do.”
“Quiet, mate. What if someone hears you, or by some means our Captain can read lips as easily as he does sea currents and the wind?”
“Sure thing, mate. It’s just that this voyage has been a particularly long and disappointing one. Not much in the trawls and not much in the way of better prospects ya’ know?”
“Aye, but it’s been a good ride. I never made much money, but at least Captain has provided for us all these years, and I’m sure he’ll find a way to keep us around until we’re all old salty dogs.”
Thus the conversation between the two friends continued and drifted on to other topics.
The captain of the fishing vessel and his crew had been out at sea for months now. This was to be their last trawl before heading back to port to wait out the winter.
Once winter arrived, it became too dangerous to stay out at sea, even if there was something worth catching. However, what these fishermen were trawling for was seasonal and migrated to warmer climes during the harsh winter season.
The life of a fisherman had never been easy. Unexpected weather patterns, dangerous netting and ropes, exposure to the elements, and short harvesting seasons did not equate to a life of wealth. To make things worse, these past few fishing seasons had been increasingly unsuccessful.
There were virtually no males left to fertilize the eggs. Sure, some landlubbers believed that the creatures were hermaphroditic and could preserve themselves, but the captain and his crew knew the truth: their way of life was vanishing before their eyes. Their only hope lay in the unlikelihood of protecting their prey from illegal harvesting and stricter breeding control.
The fishermen, and their village, foresaw that within their generation there would be no more harvesting of this delicacy from the sea. Yet, what could they realistically do to prevent the eventual extinction of their food source, their livelihood?
No one had seen a male within the past decade.
———— Soon there would be no more Mermaids.
“William, hurry in to the kitchen, the governor is coming up to the house now.”
“Yes sir, Master Dixon.”
“My dear boy, how many times must I tell you not to call me that? Please, make sure the table is set and the food is prepared for our honorable guest.”
“Yes sir, right away.”
“Help yourself to a square meal as well.”
Richard Dixon, a wealthy farmer and abolitionist in rural Georgia, remains seated, looking across his plantation. William steps inside to prepare lunch for the approaching governor. The governor’s coach pulled by two mighty steeds is brought to a halt in front of the large plantation house. A tall lanky man steps down from his luxury cart, dressed in a white suit, with a curled mustache and a pistol on his hip.
“Welcome, Governor Fairchild, to my humble estate.”
“Well, Thank you Mr. Dixon.”
“Could I make any accommodations for your horses and driver?”
“Yes, send them to the stables to drink from your trough.”
“And your driver?”
“Let him drink with the beasts.”
Richard turns his head to his housemaid. “Ms. May, see to it that the driver and Steeds are appropriately accommodated,” said Richard.
“Yes sir,” said Ms. May. She waved the driver to follow her.
“Do come in, Governor. May I offer you something to drink.”
“That would be swell, Mr. Dixon. Do you know the purpose of my visit?”
“William, fetch us some tea! Yes, governor. You wish to procure some of my people.”
“Slaves, Mr. Dixon. They are hardly people.”
“Well, Governor, you have the right to your opinion. On my estate they are to be respected as Americans. For they are all born under Old Glory, and have accepted our lord and savior. They are good Christians and well educated I might add.
“What you call your slaves is your business. I am only here to purchase two score of them as fodder for the war.”
William overhears the conversation. His face twists in disgust as he prepares the serving tray. He places a kettle of tea, a bowl of sugar, two spoons, and two tea cups on the tray. William reaches into his pants pocket and retrieves a glass vial. He pours a small amount of powder into one of the empty cups. William enters the dining hall with a smile and places the tray in between the two men.
“What took you so long, boy?” said the governor.
William hides his smile and pours the tea for the businessmen. “Pardon me, sir,” said William. “One or two lumps of sugar, sir?”
“The usual two. Thank you, William.”
“Three would serve me well,” said the governor.
William spooned the sugars into the cups, and placed them in front of Mr. Dixon and Governor Fairchild. “May I get you anything else, gentlemen?”
“May I offer you anything to eat from the kitchen?” asked Mr. Dixon.
“No. Leave us to our discussion.” said the governor.
“Very well. That will be all, William.”
“Yes, sir.” William exits the dining hall and returns to the kitchen.
“I am not okay with selling my people for war. We are but simple farming folk who tend to fields,” said Richard. He then sips his tea.
“Well, Mr. Dixon, it would be a shame for me to raise taxes on your estate for having too many negroes,” said the governor.
“Do what you must, Governor Fairchild. I stand by my right to refuse the sale.”
“There is nothing I can do to convince you otherwise? I will offer you one hundred-twenty-five percent of the going rate, for your negroes.”
“Governor, as I’ve said before. My people are not for sale.”
Governor Fairchild takes a large swallow of his tea. “Mr. Dixon, I am a generous man. I will offer you one hundred and fifty percent for forty of your strongest men.
“Governor, I don’t believe I have made myself clear enough. No one here is for sale. Richard takes another sip of his tea. “And I’m not sure why you think I am so easily convinced, Governor, but I assure you—”
The governor stands up and finishes off his tea. “I am sorry I can not convince you otherwise, I bid you good day, Mr. Dixon.”
“Governor Fairchild.” said Richard “William! Call to the stables and send ready for the governor’s carriage,”
“Yes, sir,” William replied. William yells out the back door, passing on the message to Ms. May.
Richard follows the governor out the front door of his plantation home and sits in his favorite rocking chair. “Thank you for the pleasant visit Governor.”
The governor paces in front of the porch clenching at his stomach. “This isn’t over Mr. Dixon. I always get what I want.”
The wood stained coach turns the corner of the house. Governor Fairchild reaches for the kerchief in his front coat pocket and wipes the sweat from his brow. “You will see Mr. Dixon,” said Governor Fairchild. The governor climbs into his coach and directs the driver home.
Mr. Dixon stares angrily as the governor departs his property between the mossy oak trees. He turns his head when William opens the red French doors. “Yes, William?”
“Mr. Dixon, I got something I need to tell you.”
“What’s that, William?” said Mr. Dixon.
“I don’t like that old governor or the way he was speaking to you.”
“Pay him no mind, William. He is stuck in his ways.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Dixon, when you wasn’t looking I slipped some poison powder in his tea. I’m sorry, sir, he was a bad man. He wants to send us folk to die.”
The governor’s stagecoach is halted by its driver. Governor Fairchild opens his door and falls to the ground. He staggers towards Richard while gripping his abdomen.
“That doesn’t mean poisoning him makes it right,” said Richard. “This will bring about quite a dilemma for us all.”
The governor draws his pistol, aims in their direction, and fires.
Jesse Townsend Bio
Jesse Townsend is a creative writing student at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.
Combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient. Father of five, avid reader, and aspiring writer.
(thank you to JY)
I heard my mom’s dad
did odd jobs for the mob. My
dad’s dad poured concrete.
The Last Time
I told my mother I would be meeting with my new piano teacher. The ad in the paper listed an address for first-time players to visit with Miss Valentin. The last time I kissed my mother on the cheek goodbye was that Thursday afternoon three months ago. I walked with such fervor in my steps to start playing piano again. I missed the touch of the piano keys and learning melodies. I played throughout most of my life. I once won a First Place Winner ribbon at my high school.
When I arrived to the address listed it seemed odd to me that a piano teacher should be giving lessons inside of a hotel room. I proceeded anyway. I arrived well-prepared with my piano lessons book from high school since it was where I left off. I knocked on the hotel door. Room 206. Bottom floor. The woman who opened the door had a short blonde bob wearing khaki bell bottoms and a black blouse. “You must be Karen,” she said.
“Yes. Are you Miss Valentin?”
“I sure am. Come on in.”
I took off my navy blue beret and entered into the hotel room. Miss Valentin stole my smile and endearing hope to play the piano the second she closed the door and the world. She told me to immediately take off my pink platform shoes. I obliged and sat at the edge of the orange and green striped bed. She then faced me. She petted both sides of my face as she stroked my shoulder-length brown hair and combed it through her fingers. “You’re perfect, honey”, she said with the deadliest smile. Her brown eyes studying me from head to toe. I couldn’t possibly imagine what she meant.
One night when I tried to escape, I quietly rose from the death-bed and unlocked the wide glass door to the outside. When I tried to use all my strength to attain silence, the door squealed like a frightened rodent and she jerked up like a mad carnivore, yanked the scissors from the desk drawer, and stabbed me in the right side of my back, just underneath my shoulder blade. I managed to pull myself up over the fence, but fell off before I could climb any further. She pulled me back in the room by my ear and slammed me to the bed. Then she grabbed bandages and a First Aid kit from her closet to disinfect and close the wound. When she was done she retreated back to the closet and something sharp clasped my wrists then tied me to the inside of the checkered bedpost.
There I remained as days rolled into sullen weeks. Miss Valentin invited men over to fulfill her bargain using me as the conquest. Men paid her to sleep with me. I studied the pattern of each wooden rhombus in the bedpost and the incandescent yellow that burned brightly in the wooden light fixtures right above in the center of the bed on the wall every time it happened. The monsters’ money fed me. After the robbing of my body ended, she returned back into the room, rolled up the money into a tight ball, tied it with a rubber band then stashed away discreetly in the closet. The vibrant hope to touch the piano once burrowed itself deep into my knees like a rocket launching into outer space. Now that same vibrant fuel turned into hope for survival.
Then one day a knock came at the door. And an alarming man’s voice startled us.
“Miss Valentin? Please open up.”
She quietly released my handcuffs from the bed and rushed me up and about.
“Be completely silent or your life ends today. I mean it,” she said.
The closet doors mirrored her smuggling me inside. I sat on the floor and hugged my knees together. The smell of newly pressed linen and cardigan hovering above me. The knocking remained then the sound of the latch opening.
“Hello, Miss Valentin?”
“My name is Detective Larson. I was wondering if I could have a few moments of your time.”
“Certainly. Come on in.”
“Miss Valentin, I specialize under the work of missing children. It has been brought to my attention that you checked out this hotel room nearly three months ago around the same time as a Karen Dean went missing seven miles from here. “
The sound of my name choked me up. I tried hard to swallow my nerves wallowing in my throat but the air stiffened and buzzed in my ear.
“Perhaps it’s better to continue this conversation outside where there’s fresh air,” Miss Valentin said.
The sound of the wide glass door opened and the trail of Detective Larson’s voice continued. My knees trembled furiously and disobeyed the lock of my arms. I cracked open the closet door and the white polyester chair blocked my path toward them. I hesitated for a beat then cautiously gathered myself up behind the door. I chose in that moment to rather die flocking to the arms of freedom than huddling to my knees in the dark dirty closet floor.
The moment settled to flee in my brain as a young student nervously spelling out the longest word at a spelling bee. My delicate pale hands moved open the closet door and my lower back heated up as if lying out at the beach. Possibilities to dream normal again of seeing the outside and playing the piano swarmed at me as I let out a footstep from the closet. Another foot stepped forward and the memory of the last time I played the piano shadowed my discomfort. Each step of courage pressed on as the memory of me playing lovingly on each key mastering each note, each exquisite tune of Debussy. I passed the white polyester chair when Detective Larson’s attention steered away from Miss Valentin and over to me waltzing toward him. Miss Valentin followed his gaze and both arose from the chairs outside. My hands pressed down on the last set of keys of the song. I arose and they applauded.
Andrea Lopez bio (2016)
Andrea Lopez is studying for her Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University online. She works in the bindery room part time at a printing press company, Stuart Web Inc. While not writing for school assignments, she continues her work beginning as a literary agent and continues to write in her journal.
Time To Go Home
the last bus has left
the last train has left
the last airplane has left
the bus depot is empty
the train station is empty
the airport is empty
it is time to go home
cite a mantra
Suchoon Mo Biography
Suchoon Mo lives in the semiarid part of Colorado. His chap book, Frog Mantra, has been published by Accents Publishing of Lexington, Kentucky.
We all go through hard times and heavy pressure
So from time to time I look at the mirror and believe
that things can change in an instant like a style, so with
the highest measure as I stare at my reflection I just smile
at everything because it’s temporary...we’re all just passing through...
He’d be dead in a few days. I was glad. I should have disposed of him quickly. Neatly. But I was weak. After all, we’d been together for eighteen years. That’s why I’d tied him up and locked him in the soundproof basement.
I’ve always been a bit of an ostrich. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. And it didn’t. I put him out of my mind. Latterly he’d been too dominating anyway. He never gave me any space. Always at my back. Watching me. I should have dumped him years ago. But he’d taken over the house. And I hadn’t wanted to leave the house to him. After all the time and effort I’d put into it. And I still was.
So I forgot about him. Conveniently. I’m not saying he didn’t cross my mind occasionally. Mostly when I was eating. I thought of him. Not. Not eating. Nor drinking. Getting thinner and thinner, paler and paler, wasting away. But then I’d hastily rub out the picture in my mind.
The dog knew. That’s why she was pawing the door to the basement and giving those pathetic whines. She’d watched me as I’d dragged him down the steep, narrow steps, cursing, his weight nearly sending me hurtling down there too. And she’d watched as I tied him up.
She’d known I was going to kill him from the beginning. I’d been thinking of what would be the best way and I’d caught her staring at me, her ears cocked up like she could hear my unspoken thoughts, her gaze stern and reproachful. I knew she didn’t approve. I could see I’d have to be more careful with my plans. I took out my mental rubber and wiped out my thoughts. After all, if she couldn’t read them, I needn’t feel guilty.
It wasn’t that she liked him. And he was none too fond of her. He’d often hit her as she passed him. He was big and overbearing. And she knew it. But she’d just accepted him. He’d been there when she came. He was part of the furniture.
I should have killed him outright. I could see that now. The dog was going to be a problem. Still there were ways of dealing with that.
“Stop that!” I said sharply.
She paused, her frantic scraping stopping dead at the stern voice. She started whimpering.
“Stay!” I said, turning the key in the door to the basement and slipping through without her.
I descended the steep steps slowly, uncertain of what I would find at the bottom. I turned on the light. He was still where I’d left him but he looked different. Still big, still overbearing even spread-eagled on the floor. But paler. Thinner. Weaker. I guess no food or water can do that to you. I almost felt sorry for him. But I couldn’t let sentiment get in the way.
I felt him watching me as I tied the ropes tighter around him. I was taking no chances. A few more days should do it. And then I could dispose of him.
And the dog.
I hadn’t planned on that. But there was no alternative. I’d made too many mistakes already.
I climbed back up the stone steps that led from the basement to the house, opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. The dog was cowering under the clothes horse.
She knows, I thought. She can read thoughts, even from the basement.
“Stupid dog!” I said.
I had an idea. I pictured myself in the basement untying his ropes and setting him free. It seemed to work. The dog’s head appeared slowly, tentatively, from under the clothes-horse. She inched forward, sniffing the air suspiciously. I grabbed her.
“Got you!” I shouted.
She wasn’t like him. She cried all the time I was doing it. But I was cold like stone.
One down, one to go, I thought, on my return.
The house was eerily silent. A couple of times I thought I heard her bark and once I caught a glimpse of a faint shadow as if she passed by but then I remembered.
I took my mental rubber and wiped out all thought of her.
I looked towards the basement door.
A few more days and it would all be over. I just needed to hang on.
And hope he didn’t.
The food he could do without. But the water. None of us can exist without that, can we?
I started pulling the carpet away from the wall and began rolling it up. I’d put him him in there once he was dead. Then I wouldn’t have to look at him. And he’d be easily carried out. I’d thought about cutting him up. It would be easier to dispose of him that way but I hadn’t the stomach for it. No, I’d stick to my original plan.
I didn’t sleep well over the next few days. Upstairs was quiet without the dog and downstairs? I began to picture his last moments before he expired. I hastily took my mental rubber and rubbed the scene out. It was too painful.
It had been long enough.
He had to be dead, I thought, as I descended the basement steps one night a few days later.
And he was. At last.
I unrolled the carpet which was lying there and dragged him on to it, not looking at him then I rolled the carpet up again. I tried to lift the carpet on to my shoulder but he weighed a ton. I hadn’t reckoned on that.
I’ll drag it up the steps, I thought.
I had to get him outside.
But I was weak. Always have been.
There was only one alternative. I’d have to get help. There was no other way. But it would have to wait till morning.
“This the carpet you want disposed of?” said one of the big, burly guys who had arrived, in response to my call the following morning.
“I can do it myself if you’ll just lift it into the boot of my car,” I said, hastily, looking at the well-tied up carpet.
I was safe. There was no chance of it unrolling.
“Just as well. We’re limited in what we can dispose of,” he said. “Leave it to us.”
And I did. I was that confident.
I waited at the car. They didn’t appear. Where were they? I started to get nervous.
I descended the steps to the basement. They were standing there, the unrolled carpet in front of them, shocked looks on their faces.
“What the hell’s this?” one of them said.
“You had no business unrolling the carpet,” I shouted.
“Bloody good job we did!” said the other one.
“I wanted rid of him,” I blurted out.
“We can see that, dearie, but there’s other ways to go about it.”
“It would have been all right if you hadn’t unrolled the carpet,” I said. “Why did you do that?”
“We need to cut them up nowadays and put them in the bin. Just as well, eh?”
The other one nodded. He looked at me.
“Fred’s called the firm. They should be along any moment now.”
They arrived almost instantly.
“Fine, big brute of a fellow, wasn’t he?” said Fred, looking at the unrolled carpet which the firm had dragged outside.
He spoke to me through the car window.
“I can’t imagine why you wanted to do away with him.”
“He just got in the way,” I said.
“Well, you’ll be out of the way, now,” said Fred.
“Yes, I will,” I replied.
All because I was weak. And now I would have to be strong.
I watched the men enter my house. I could see they were doing a thorough job. A few hours and it would all be over.
The new carpet would be laid.
Just as well I’d taken the dog to the kennels. She’d never have stood the upheaval.
I got out of the car. I couldn’t spend the next three hours there. Besides there was work to be done. I picked him up gently off the ground and tried to avoid looking at him. He’d been with me for eighteen years. It was going to be hard. But it had to be done. He’d outgrown the house. I knew he would have to go. Ordering the new carpet had only confirmed that. If only I’d been strong in the beginning. I could have avoided this moment.
I snapped his stem.
The once proud rubber plant hung limply, broken in two.
At least he’s dead, I thought. He’ll never know what happened to him.
I opened the dustbin and stuffed him inside.
I’ve always been a bit of an ostrich. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. I mentally rubbed out the picture of the pitiful rubber plant in his dark upright coffin.
I couldn’t let him take over the house. Not after all the time and effort I was putting into it.
First published in “The Storyteller” in the October/November December 2014 edition.
based on the 6/13/10 poem “no thank you ”
we have too many
enemies on earth to let
demons drive us mad
Aren Laure Lizardo
“A stowaway,” the robot started. “What are you doing here?”
The boy sat there in the vent, looking up to the 6 foot tin figure. His hand was holding onto a sandwich, where a soda can resided nearby. He gulped once before he spoke, the crumbs floating from his lips.
“I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I saw the opportunity to finally see space. I couldn’t afford the ticket, but please don’t tell anyone about this! I will pay any penalty fines after this. Please let me stay just for a little while.”
The robot floated where it was. It showed no signs of emotion, no body language of any kind. It was just there, watching the boy sitting in the vent. A little hum of a whir started in its chest, and then its arm came alive which reached out to the boy.
“What’s your name, child?” it said, as the boy rose from where he sat.
“Philip.” The boy patted down his clothes, and then looked at the robot as if he was comparing his own height to the robot’s. “What’s yours?”
“I was named Sheba. Please follow me; we must talk.” As soon as it finished its sentence, more sounds of whirs came about, and Sheba became alive. It grabbed the wall and pushed itself into another corridor. Philip followed close behind as the distant sound of engines hummed throughout the steel haul.
“I’m not being cast away, am I?” Philip asked nervously.
“I am sorry, but any stowaways I find, I must send them off this ship.”
“That’s inhumane!” Philip shouted angrily.
“I am not a human. I am a robot. Hurry, I must return to the console to resume my navigation.”
“Please, don’t do this. I just wanted to see the stars.”
“I am sorry, but where I am going is not safe for human beings. Not even for robots.”
“What are you talking about?” Philip asked.
“I am going to crash this ship into the Sun.”
“It was what the deceased on this ship wanted as his death wish, to be sent into the sun for it is the tradition of the humans of this time. The Grave for the Luxury, it is called, to be with God.”
“Where is he?”
“He rests in the cargo bay with all his belongings and farewell gifts ready to be sacrificed. Come now, boy, getting within five kilometers of the Sun is harmful to the living, even with the shielding the ship provided.”
Sheba continued its way through the corridor, where it stopped to turn to the left, nearing the airlock. The boy floated behind slowly with his head turned all around. His eyes scanned all over, sometimes catching a porthole with the stars moving across it. Sheba caught his act and caught up to Philip.
“I know you are not here for star gazing, Philip.”
“What? I’m just trying to find a better view of space, you see? These stupid portholes don’t let me see enough of it.”
“When I am inevitably sending you off into space, you should know that you will see enough stars to make you wonder how many there are in a galaxy. Come, follow me.”
And away the robot went to the right of the corridor where it ended up in the cargo bay. Philip came along in a hurried fashion. His gaze went around the room until it met the coffin fastened to the floor in the center of the room. Roses and tulips floated everywhere with wilted petals floating endlessly in space. Albums, books, and clothing were left on their own in the air. It was a total mess for a funeral.
“You are here for your dad,” Sheba stated.
“I came to say goodbye,” Philip confessed. He floated towards the coffin, only to stop at an arm’s length. “I couldn’t before, and then I was ready. But I thought I was too late, and here I am.” His hand glided across the surface of the coffin, the glossy finish stained with his dragged fingerprints. Philip floated there frozen in time, his hand barely touching the coffin now. His eyes began to water, but he gritted his teeth and with a shallow breath, he said his farewell and some words of his own before turning around towards the robot.
“Danger,” said a monotone voice in the PA. “Shielding at thirty percent.”
“Hurry, child, we are nearing the danger zone.” And the two went back to the airlock.
Philip was fully clothed into an emergency space suit as the door to the airlock opened to a chamber. Red light filled the whole ship as the heat of the Sun was becoming present.
“Please refrain from rapid movement and prolonged activity, as your extraction may vary from hours to days. Your suit’s built-in life support systems will last a week within a safety margin, but the liquid nutrients will only be enough for a couple of days. In exactly 5 minutes after your departure, the emergency beacon will activate and the nearest transport vessel will arrive to your location.” With a whir, the robot gestured to the airlock.
“Can I ask you question? Why do you want to do this? I mean, you’re going to die if you stay here.”
“Although I am an artificially intelligent robot, per the ratification of Asimov’s 3 laws of Robotics by the United Interstellar Worlds, I must obey human command, even if I wanted to differ, I must adhere to my programming. I am the robot for this job. Besides, there is only enough fuel for a one-way trip.”
“Thank you. I kinda enjoyed your company, even though you’re sending me off to space, but it also means you’re saving me.”
“Danger,” the PA continued. “Shielding at five percent.”
“Yes, it is shame we have to part ways. Goodbye, Philip.”
And with the door closed and a push of a button, the sound of airlock depressurization was silenced by the vacuum of space. The boy looked back, and saw the robot waving at him from a porthole.
Your cynical eyes fixated past me
cold, distant, aloof
It drew me in,
then pushed me away
along with the endless hours of fights and tears
The complexion of hypocrisy smeared
across your smirk.
You know who you are
what you do
why you do
when and how and for whatever reason you choose
A tortuous twelve months
Blinded by lies and illusions
Your heart is the ice king
and I am the queen that fell for your deceit
because with love comes the hate that shreds it apart
The hate so powerful that love becomes impossible,
But I find a reason to see past it
forgive and forget
and let go all at once
Because only then will I find my next king
And it is he who will be my only exception.
Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend
The sign said, “On the Road, Out of Food.” It was Jake’s suggestion that a sign should be simple. He claimed he had been using the same one for the past five years. Make the message short, to the point, and legible. Don’t invoke pity. Forget their pity and pretend that they’re jealous. So I trembled across the intersection under the overpass and gritted my teeth. “Smile, look like you happy out there man,” he told me. The façade of happiness wasn’t quite possible at first, but with my nerves shot, with my pride wounded, I stood on the corner of Mopac and 2222.
I was fucked. North Austin overpass, pitiful bedroll sprawled twenty feet from the train tracks, delirium tremens and nothing left to drink. Not even the ass end of a forty. I had already managed those with conviction. I had run out of the little cash I had made from a job I worked the week prior. I despised the manager and residents of the hundredth halfway home I was living in, so I chose the bridge instead. Actually I despised everyone, all I wanted was solitude and perpetual inebriation. I had no idea how to be homeless but disregarded that fact until the money ran out.
Suffering from severe social anxiety for as long as I can remember, I naturally distrusted and automatically abhorred anyone I met until they proved me wrong. On principle, asking for spare change or flying a sign were out of the question. I was too proud and too hateful to ask for help. Or maybe I was too afraid. Two days without a drink, I was hallucinating under a bridge and became convinced that the visions were real. Violent tremors and an impending sense of doom had taken hold and all I needed was a goddamned beer to stop the torture. I prayed to no one or nothing in particular for a fatal seizure, which given my medical history was certainly within the realm of possibility. So I had some hope. But I would be damned before I asked a stranger for money, help, anything. The initial goal was complete self-reliance, a hermetic lifestyle with as little interaction with humankind as possible. This goal ultimately proved to be quite naïve as it quickly became clear that my alcoholism demanded action, some way to survive that involved other people. Then came Alien Jake.
Delirium tremens were a familiar enemy. While in their throes, there are of course the tremors or “the shakes,” these are the most tolerable of the symptoms and require no explanation. There is then a hypersensitivity that takes over me: a falling leaf grazing my shoulder induces a brief panic attack. A constant dread is felt throughout my entire body. I feel dread in my bones. I feel my bones, each one. My mind, my thoughts, my body, everything turns putrid. It makes me wretch. I vomit constantly, all bile and blood. My cynicism is intensified and I cannot help but seethe hatred for the human race, hatred for myself. Then come the hallucinations, like clockwork, day two. I revert to a primordial state, a shaking mess on the ground, hallucinating image after image, acts of perversion I was unaware I was capable of creating. And they come fast. During detox, my mind moves more swiftly and creatively than I believed possible. The images it creates, unfortunately, are fucking disgusting. One after another, a split-second each, these images play out. For whatever reason I see them on early twentieth century film stock. I see close-ups of sebaceous cysts being gnawed upon by unnatural insects, lapping up the pus. Oily serpents inserted into my only friend’s vagina, she is bound and gagged by a band of nefarious, salivating men and she is gasping for air. My mother, gang raped as my father’s eyes are pried open by device and his four laughing brothers, forcing him to watch, masturbate each other. These visions will go in and out for days on end and they become increasingly real and increasingly personal. When they cease, a woman’s voice will begin to whisper in my ear. She always starts softly, I can barely hear her, soon though, she is screaming and cackling at the top of her lungs, raving of my hideous transgressions, some true, some false. Then they all become true and I long for the days of the California hospitals and their comely nurses easing me through hell.
If I am detoxing in a hospital, these episodes are typically mitigated with a variety of wonderful medications. On the west coast it’s Klonopin, on the east, Phenobarbital, and back home in Texas, it’s both, and they might throw in some Librium for good measure. On my own however, I experience all of these symptoms at full force for a full five days. Heroin withdrawal was a five-day flu, fucking amateur hour, alcohol withdrawal is a waking nightmare that never really leaves you. It changes you on a fundamental level. It leaves you cold, unfeeling, unsympathetic. Anhedonia is common. I try to care, I want to care, but I know that I don’t. So it becomes a battle. I could go one day without a drink and while harrowing in its own way, as long as I didn’t go two days, I could keep the DT’s at bay. But why even go one day without drinking if I could avoid it? Why suffer because of my own stupid pride? I would soon learn not to want for anything. If I didn’t want to go through the DT’s anymore, if I didn’t want to go one more day without a drink, I didn’t have to. Homeless alcoholics are not rare. Obviously there is a method to staying drunk without a traditional income. That method essentially amounted to eliminating a certain part of my ego, or hell, all of my ego, and realizing the truth about who I was, or rather, who I could be. I would redefine my pride. As it turns out, considering the benefits, it wasn’t really all that hard.
Alien Jake. He was a seasoned train hopper. He travelled with two guitars (which I eventually taught him to play), a hundred pound pack and a mutt named Maggie. His pack was glorious. He had all the necessities: tent, tarp, bag. He also carried electronics: a phone, a tablet, a radio, portable chargers. Jake packed flip-flops so he didn’t have to put his boots on when he had to piss in the middle of the night. He was fancy for a hobo. To this day I’ve not met a traveler with as much gear as Jake. He was about forty and had been hopping trains since his teens. He certainly looked homeless but he wasn’t filthy. Jake was black, kept a short beard and neatly dreadlocked hair at shoulder length. He named himself Alien Jake as a play on the old tradition of hobos adopting monikers based on where they came from, like “Cincinnati Slim” or “Pittsburgh Pete”. He was alien, claimed no home, wasn’t from anywhere. Jake never got into the specifics of why he was on the road but I would later wonder why anyone wouldn’t be.
I was lying in my pile, waiting for the end when he appeared. He recognized the state I was in and offered to share his beers with me, Steel Reserves, twenty-four ounce cans. That was my drink, and he had plenty of them. He could tell that I didn’t know shit, that I was in pain and that I was pathetic. He cracked the first one open for me. It was a beautiful sound.
“What’s goin’ on with you man? You lookin’ like you ‘bout to die.”
“I was,” I managed.
He handed me the can and I downed the twenty-four ounces of eight-percent swill in two determined pulls of the neck.
“Goddamn! How thirsty were you?”
Feeling slightly better, “Not thirsty, just sober.”
He pulled up a milk crate, sat down and like a prince passed me my second beer. Again, I put it down aggressively. Maggie sniffed around my pile and coughed.
“How long you been out here man?”
I began to emerge but still shook.
“Not sure, maybe a week.”
He found this funny and laughed, “What, and you already stuck to the ground in the middle of the day?”
“I ran out of booze.”
Jake laughed. “Go get you some more! Everything you need is out on that corner.”
I thought about that corner. I thought about those cars and worse, the people driving them. I thought about fear. I thought about pride. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but near the end of my third beer, which when dealing with Steelies amounts to about ten, I was roused. Being beaten down by the DT’s then finally being drunk feels better than getting out of jail. Jake told me something at the exact moment I needed to hear it, a rule for survival. Fuck your pride, fuck your fear and get your ass on the corner for two hours a day. You will never be broke. You will never be hungry. Delirium tremens will no longer be a threat. Stand out there two hours at a time, split it up, whatever you need to do, but two hours.
I was on the verge of tears for the first twenty minutes. No kick-downs. Beat down but desperate enough, I pretended to smile, began to walk up and down the row of cars. I was going to drink tonight. Then, like running into an old friend, I saw a hand wave towards the end of the row. Too sore to run, I hobbled down to a pickup truck and a man handed me a bill, my first kick-down. I pocketed it without looking.
“Get out of the sun, go get something to eat brother!”
“Thank you sir, I will!”
Something stirred in my tiny heart. I was surprised at the lack of shame I felt accepting his offering. There was no condescension in his action. Here was a man helping another man. I didn’t feel ashamed about the other offerings I received in that first hour, or in the hundreds of hours I would end up putting in. I never felt ashamed when I bought my pack, my bag, my knife, my guitar. I never felt ashamed of the couches, beds, and floors I would sleep on in cities all over the country. Everything I needed on two hours a day.
Fifty dollars later I walked into the corner store and proudly stocked up on beer that I brought back to share with Jake. It felt good to pay him back. I would be able to buy a beer in the morning so I slept easy, and this would continue to be the case for years.
A bitter mélange of dried blood
and curled, dark petals,
the flower arrangement for
your lonely iris of a girl.
Ripped from the breast,
and dust is currency,
a paid ticket to your new nation,
a crumbling kleptocracy.
The white light of traffic
hits your rooms,
and you pull skin taut
in the mirror, exploring the past.
And talk about your paintings,
or rather your wish to paint,
clutching that brittle Polaroid,
his chestnut lock of hair.
Later, among the young mothers
you sit muttering in quiet gullah,
the diamonds on their hands
sparkle like eyes,
like the sun on calm water,
like those pictures you hold close,
the ones you tried to paint
when you were a young iris of a girl.
Mulling over life in a stripmall liquor store
Oscar looked at the small Vietnamese girl
behind the cash register
and realized she was just one of
a thousand suicides in his life.
Watching Wheel of Fortune
she handed him some nickels and dimes
without saying a word.
He saw the grim look
in Pat Sajak’s eyes.
Now there’s a man on the edge.
A man ready to blow at any moment,
He watched the doe-eyed cosmetologist
from Carlsbad wince
when she figured out there were no more
vowels to be had.
Tough luck lady.
He looked down at his hand on the
I prick my hand on something under the sofa. When I pull my hand back, I expect to see blood, but there is none. I press my head to the floor, my nose poking under the torn base of the microfiber sofa, and I see it. Right there next to my yellow, foam rocket—the one Lyle said wasn’t under there. It’s a needle. I pull it out and show Lyle.
We both sit in the middle of the living room and stare at it. I place the needle on the floor in front of me, and it settles between the thick, brown threads of carpet. My brother, being six, thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world but doesn’t know what to do with it. I’ve got five years on him, so I know exactly what we should do.
“Let’s throw it at the wall like a dart.”
“Won’t Mom be mad at the hole?”
“It’ll be a small hole. Plus, Mom sleeps most the day, she’ll never see it.”
“What about—” Lyle stops, but I know what he was going to ask. He forgets sometimes. I don’t need to tell him Dad’s not coming home. He figures it out on his own then moves on.
Turns out, needles don’t fly like darts. We can’t get it to stick into the wall, so Lyle says we should use it as a squirt gun. I tell him that’s a stupid idea. We decide to fill it with water and inject the barrel cactus Mom keeps on the front porch.
Tina comes up the dirt driveway while we’re pumping the cactus full of water. She winks at Lyle then messes up my hair.
“How you doing, Jack?” She asks.
“My name’s Jackson.”
Tina holds her hand up in front of her, shrugs, then walks into the house.
“I like her,” Lyle says.
“I don’t know.”
“She’s just a babysitter.”
Lyle takes the needle from me, shoots water across the porch, and giggles. “She’s always here when Mom’s here. And you said you don’t need a babysitter.”
I leave Lyle to keep playing with the needle and go inside to make lunch. Tina is talking to Mom in the back bedroom. Mom’s voice sounds like it’s underwater, or like she’s talking too slow. I stop trying to listen and think about last night.
She came out of her room in the middle of the night. I heard the television and saw her sitting on the couch, staring at the screen. I sat in the hall and pretended I was watching the show with her.
Sometimes, she comes and lays on the floor in my room or Lyle’s room. When she does, she makes noises in her sleep, kicks like a dog, but I don’t ever wake her. I’m not sure she slept at all last night, though.
I make a couple sandwiches for Lyle and me, then I make a few more for school tomorrow. They gave us lunch cards after Dad died, but I hate the food they serve at school. I throw the sandwiches in plastic bags, slide them into paper lunch sacks, toss in a couple apples, and I put it all in the refrigerator.
I start to pull open the front door to tell Lyle to come eat, but I stop when I hear Tina.
“He’s coming later for the money,” she says from the back bedroom. “You got it right?”
Before my mom can respond, I hear a thud. Tina laughs, and I sneak through the living room and peer down the hall. Tina is leaning against the wall Mom started painting a few months ago but never finished. She’s half-sitting, half-standing. She smiles at me before standing straight and walking past me toward the kitchen. She comes back with a spoon and goes into Mom’s room again.
“I can’t spot you this time,” Tina says before shutting the door.
I find Lyle in the backyard—a collection of weeds, dead grass, unfilled holes from the times we had dogs, and old car parts my dad used to collect.
“Jackson, I put it with its friends.” Lyle smiles at me. “They’re army men coming to attack our house.”
I cross the yard to the pile of dirt he’s standing near, ignoring his salute. “What’re you talking about?”
“Look.” He points to the top of the pile of dirt. I follow his red-skinned arm—I need to get him some sunscreen—and I see the needles. Ten of them, standing straight up.
“Where’d you find them?”
“They were here,” Lyle says. “In the hole. I stood them up and stuck them in the dirt.”
I tell him to stop being dumb, to grow up. Then, I drag him toward the house. He tells me he doesn’t want lunch, that he doesn’t want to go inside with me. He asks if he can play with his friend Jaime.
“No,” I say. “Jaime lives too far down the street.”
Lyle punches me in the arm and tries to kick away, but I hold him. I want to get mad, but the way his eyebrows crease and the way his lips stretch tight reminds me of Dad. So, I don’t say anything, and we go inside to eat.
Mom tries to cook dinner for us later that night, but she doesn’t make it past the sofa. She’s too sick, and I tell her that’s all right. Lyle tries to get her to play cars on the living room floor, but she stumbles back to her room instead and falls asleep.
Tina had brought over a couple frozen dinners when she came by earlier—chicken nuggets and pudding. I guess she’s not all bad. She likes to joke with us, sometimes she shows me how to answer a question on my homework, but mostly she’s in the back room with my mom.
I help Lyle scoot his chair in at the wooden table. When Dad bought it, the table was smooth, polished. Now, it’s dented and covered with crayon and crusted food.
“Did you get the mail?” I ask Lyle.
“No mail on Sundays, dummy.”
I throw a nugget at him. “From yesterday, stupid.”
He nods while shoveling pudding into his mouth, nuggets untouched.
“Eat your chicken.”
“Mom wouldn’t make me.”
“Yes, she would. Just eat the chicken, Lyle.”
The orange of the sunset slides down the wall near the side window until we’re in the shadows. I flip on the light and remember the three days we went without power. I don’t know what she does with it half the time, but Mom has money. The military gave it to her, but she forgets things sometimes. Like the bills.
“My face hurts,” Lyle says.
“Yeah? Well, it’s killing me.” The yellow light against Lyle’s sunburned skin makes him look orange.
Lyle laughs like he always does when I make that joke, then he narrows his eyes. “I’m serious. I want Mamma to put some of that stuff on me.”
“The green stuff?”
He nods and takes a bite of chicken. His pudding is gone.
“I’ll get it.”
I walk through the living room toward the hall when someone knocks on the door. I look at the door, waiting. It’s a heavy door, made from an old oak my dad always told me. It’s got two windows toward the top, but I can’t quite see out them. Some of the kids at school are two or three inches taller than me, now.
I pull the purple curtains away from the living room window and look toward the porch. I can’t see the man’s face because of shadows cast by his cowboy hat, but I see the gun on his hip. The man knocks again. I start to head back to the bedroom to hide, but I see Lyle standing in the entryway to the kitchen, looking at me, expecting me to handle it.
I suck in as deep a breath as I can and open the door. The man looks like he’s been left in a smoker too long. His brown skin matches his eyes. His black mustache wraps around the edge of his mouth and twitches as he moves his lips He nods his head and touches the brim of his black Stetson before walking into our kitchen, past Lyle.
Lyle holds my waist. “He’s a cowboy.”
“No he isn’t.”
“Look at him.”
“I see him, but he’s not a cowboy.”
His plaid shirt is tucked into faded blue jeans. His black and red cowboy boots ride halfway up his calf.
He is a cowboy.
The man walks back into the living room, winks, then heads down the hall. His boots disappear first, somehow. I follow him, just enough to see him go into Mom’s room. Something breaks in her room, and Lyle grabs my shirt, tugging, trying to get me back to the living room. But I watch.
“This is a start, but I will need more,” the man says.
“More what?” Lyle asks.
“Money,” I say, eyes fixed on the doorway to Mom’s room.
“I’ve got some.”
“Not your change.”
“It’s not change, it’s money.”
“It ain’t enough,” I say.
When the man leaves Mom’s room, I fall back into the living room. Lyle falls behind me. I lift him up and we stand by the couch as the man walks across our living room toward the door, crumpled twenty-dollar bills in his hand. He tips his hat once more and is gone.
Lyle sits on the couch and asks how cowboys make money. I ignore him and go down the hall. I look into the room, expecting something—I’m not sure what, but something. But Mom’s asleep on the floor next to the bed.
When I get back to the living room, Lyle asks if I want to play Nerf guns.
By the end of the week, Tina is yelling. The day after the cowboy came, she didn’t yell. Or the next day. But now, she’s yelling.
Lyle and I just got home from school, and we’re sitting in the kitchen. I hear Tina say something about cracking open the trust fund. About making sure they’re covered. I try to ignore it and make a peanut butter sandwich, no jelly.
Lyle colors on the table. I should get him paper, but I don’t.
Mom missed a parent-teacher conference today at school, but I told the teacher it’s because she had to work, reminded the teacher about my Dad. I hate doing that, but I’ve had to a lot more lately. I don’t want strangers asking about my mom.
“We should go outside,” I say.
Lyle keeps coloring, so I grab him by the arm and pull him toward the back door. “Stop, Jackson. I was coloring.”
“I know, but we don’t need to hang around inside all the time.”
In the backyard, Lyle walks to his needle army and reorganizes them. The sun has already fallen behind the mountains, but there’s enough light to last us a while.
If I stayed inside, I’d listen. I’d try to understand things that I don’t want to understand. Out here, I can just play.
I pick up an old soccer ball, but it’s flat. I drop-kick it across the yard, over Lyle’s head. He chases it but stops, looking down the side yard toward the front of the house.
“There’s a truck,” he says.
I come stand by him and see the pickup. A gray Dodge Ram with a cattle guard. I can’t see who’s in it, but I can see the person get out. Whoever it is disappears down the walkway toward the front door.
I run to the back door and stand with my back against the wall just to the side. I lean over enough to see inside, through the kitchen and toward the front door. Lyle stands in front of the back door, in plain sight. I pull him behind me.
The front door swings open, and the cowboy walks in. At first, he just stands in the doorway, hat pulled down low on his head, gun tucked in his holster. Then, Tina appears in the living room. She holds her hands out in front of her and says something I can’t hear.
The man smiles, then he slaps Tina. She falls to the floor and holds her arms in front of her face. The man picks her up, slams the front door, and presses Tina against it.
“Stop!” she yells.
He doesn’t raise his voice enough for me to hear, but I can tell he’s angry. He places his forearm against Tina’s throat and she starts coughing.
Lyle tries to slide past me to see, but I hold him in place.
“What is it?”
After Tina’s face turns red, the man removes his forearm from her neck and draws his gun. He places it against her forehead and says something.
“She’ll get it,” Tina yells. “She’s got money.”
The man starts to walk toward the hall, but Tina grabs his arm. He pushes her back against the wall, shoves the gun against her temple. He pulls back the hammer.
Tina presses her hands into her pockets and pulls out a wad of cash. She hands it to the man, and the man holsters his gun. He steps back, counts. He nods, points down the hall, then tips his hat.
When the man leaves, Tina falls to the floor again, crying.
I run to the side yard, and Lyle follows. I get there in time to hear the door slam and see the truck drive away. When we return to the back door, Tina’s gone.
I walk into the kitchen with Lyle on my heels. We sit at the table and listen. Tina’s talking to Mom. She’s crying and yelling. She says she’s not coming back here. She says Mom is on her own.
I ball my fist. Mom’s not on her own. She’s got us.
Tina doesn’t look back when she leaves. The house rattles when the door slams shut.
“What happened?” Lyle asks.
He shrugs, then starts coloring on the table again.
Two days later, the cowboy is back.
“Buenas noches,” he says as he walks through the door.
I back away and give him room.
“Is your mother back there?” He nods toward the hall, and I wonder how his hat stays on his head. His shirt is darker but just as plaid.
I shrug, but Lyle says, “Yes, she’s back there.”
The man smiles and wipes his mustache like he’s trying to flatten it.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Me?” He smiles. “I am nobody.”
Before he left for Iraq, Dad told me I had two jobs. I had to protect my little brother and I had to protect Mom. If I didn’t feel right, he told me, I should call the police. I don’t feel right. Like when I took my first at-bat during Little League, shaky and sick.
The man doesn’t go to Mom’s room. He walks into the kitchen, circles the table, looks at each chair. He taps the top of one of the chairs—the one near the refrigerator—and slides it out. He sits down then places his cowboy hat upside down on the table.
I follow him in and sit across from him. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Lyle stands close to the table and reaches for the man’s hat, stretching his arm and lifting himself on tip-toes. I smack his hand away.
The man laughs and Lyle laughs, too.
“I like you boys,” the man says. “Family is important, no? But you are right. I should not be here. Yet, I am here. And I need to speak with your mother.”
“She’s sick,” I say.
“I’m sure that she is.”
“She is,” Lyle says, climbing into the chair next to me. “She sleeps a lot and throws up a lot.”
The man nods, slides the gun from the holster on his belt. He pushes something and the magazine falls out just like it does on my pellet gun. He flicks a bullet out of the magazine with his thumb, sets the bullet in the middle of the table, slides the magazine back into the gun, and holsters it.
“I’m leaving this with you.” The man taps the table near the bullet. “I want you to watch it. Make sure it stays here. We would not want it ending up anywhere else, would we?”
Lyle shakes his head.
The man stands and looks me in the eyes. “Your mother needs help, boys. But I am not the one to help her.”
He walks back into the living room. I hear him in the hall. At first, the knock on my Mom’s door is soft, but I don’t hear her open it. Then, a boom. It sounds like wood breaking, like when I snap mesquite branches across the concrete porch out front.
“Is Mamma all right?” Lyle asks.
I ignore him and look at the phone on the wall. Lyle and I called 911 a couple years ago, just to see what it was like. I wanted to show Lyle what a real policeman looked like, so we called and asked for one to come. The officer that came to our door sat us down when he realized nothing was wrong, and he told us not to call again.
But I think I should call. It’s different this time.
I stand and grab the phone.
“What are you doing?”
I put my finger to my lips and tell Lyle to keep it down. I can’t hear the man anymore, so I start to hang up, then there’s a thud against a wall in the back of the house. I think I hear my mom cry. Then, a slap.
The voice on the other end of the phone asks what my emergency is, and I whisper about the man in our house. I give our address and hang up.
“The police are coming,” I tell Lyle.
He frowns like he does right before he forces a cry, so I go to the refrigerator. I grab a Yoo-hoo and toss it to him.
“It’ll be all right,” I say.
There’s another crash from Mom’s room. Lyle tells me to go check on her, and I know I should. But I don’t.
A minute later, the man is back in the kitchen. He picks up the bullet from the table, slides it into his pocket, winks at us. “Your mother understands now.”
“He called the police,” Lyle says, pointing at me.
I shove Lyle’s chair so hard he nearly tips over. I look up at the man who has narrowed his eyes. His eyebrows look thicker, shading his entire face. He rubs the handle of his gun, the he grabs his hat.
“I wish you had not done that.” He places the hat on his head and touches the brim with a slight nod. “Enjoy your night, niños.”
The man leaves and shuts the front door behind him. I walk into the living room and pass photos of Dad on the wall, some with him in uniform, some without. I pass the sofa and walk down the hall. I stop outside Mom’s room and take a deep breath. Lyle is right behind me, but I don’t turn around. Mom’s door is open, splintered pieces of the door frame on the ground. We go in.
The nightstands are flipped on their side. Mom’s jewelry box is smashed on the floor. The sheets are crumpled next to the bed, and all the pillows are torn open, stuffing dusting the carpet like that time a few years ago when it snowed.
And Mom is crying in her bed.
It didn’t take the police long to get there, but we’re not waiting on them anymore. Lyle and I are back on the sofa, waiting for someone else.
He taps me on the elbow. “Do you think I can get the other soldiers and put them outside tomorrow?”
“The ones from Mom’s room.”
Mom had stayed in her room while we waited for the police, said she needed to clean up. I didn’t see how she was going to clean the bruise on her face, but Lyle and I went to the living room anyway. When the police came, they took Mom out of the house with her hands behind her back.
She screamed for us. Lyle screamed too, but I held him close.
Now, Lyle’s holding Mom and Dad’s wedding photo. The police officer who spoke to us earlier is in the kitchen talking to other officers. We’re supposed to wait for someone to come talk to us, to take us somewhere else.
Lyle frowns. “I want Mamma.”
I tap him on the shoulder until he looks up at me.
“Does your face hurt?”
“Well, it’s killing me.”
Lyle fights back a laugh, then his face cracks. He sets the photo down and hugs me. I hug him back and don’t let go.
Justin Hunter is currently working on his MFA at Arcadia University. He lives in Dallas with his wife and two boys. When he’s not writing, Justin is probably buried under a doggie pile of children and, well, dogs.
Ode to a Life I Forgot to Live
Ken Allan Dronsfield
Looking into a crystal ball at my life;
rummaging through my minds attic
searching cherished moments that
brought a smile to a rose, a giggle
to the jello, and warm feelings of joy
within the ballad of a Bluebirds song.
Excited whispers at the spying of a
small baby fawn in the peaceful wood.
Clipping playing cards onto bicycle
spokes; so proud to make ‘em loud.
Many wonderful memories, but I do
not remember other things, like my
first day of school, or my graduation.
I remember my home phone of almost
50 years ago, but can’t remember my
wedding anniversary. How very odd.
Time goes on as your memory forgives,
it’s just an Ode to a Life I Forgot to Live.
Ken Allan Dronsfield Bio
Ken Allan Dronsfield is a Published Poet and Author originally from New Hampshire, now residing in Oklahoma. He enjoys thunderstorms, walking in the woods at night and spending time with his cats Merlin and Willa. He is the Co-Editor of the new Poetry Anthology titled, “Moonlight Dreamers of Yellow Haze” available at Amazon.com. His published work can be found in Journals, Magazines, Reviews and Blogs throughout the Web including: Indiana Voice Journal, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Belle Reve Journal, Peeking Cat Magazine, Dead Snakes, Bewildering Stories and many others.
The Hole Inside the Hole Inside the Hole
Everywhere I step
there is a hole in the ground.
there are holes strewn across
these grounds where I step.
the Earth is made of holes.
the Earth is made of Earthquakes.
the Earth is slowly
there is more hole than ground.
soon I will be able to walk to China
with one simple step.
one step right through the entire Earth.
toxic air looms like poisonous heirlooms on both sides of the planet.
through the hole toxic air will be traded for toxic air.
Heath Brougher bio (2016)
Heath Brougher is the poetry editor of Five 2 One Magazine. He has published 2 pamphlets with Green Panda Press and his first chapbook A Curmudgeon Is Born is forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press. His work has appeared or is due to appear in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Chiron Review, SLAB, Crack the Spine, BlazeVOX, The Seventh Quarry, Riprap, Main Street Rag, First Literary Review-East, Of/with, eFiction India, and elsewhere.
Personification of the Dog
“There is no such thing as no such thing,”
came fast in the wind spoken through razor-sharp teeth.
“Our world is a transient organism
in the midst of a greater cluster.
One day we’ll be mystified and less sentient than ever
and float around usefully unknowing of almost anything,”
spun a web of thought through dark red-orange eyes
shimmering within a skull bearing potent nostrils.
Forcing smile, I tried not to notice and kept on walking.
“I am nothing but what I perceive.
I am nothing more or less than a Sense,”
emitted from dog-fangs that could tear a mailman
to shreds. “There is no such thing
as what you call ‘Reality’” brushed against my ears as I looked
toward the yard and saw him propped upon a picket fence
standing on his hind legs inquisitively staring right back at me.
“Reality is nothing more than an arrangement of atoms
producing an effect just as oxygen feeds fire,”
stung my mind as I looked arrogantly away,
and continued on, not wanting to waste my time
listening to such impossibility.
And as I left I heard in the distance as his conclusion,
“There is no such thing as no such thing,
for no such thing is such a thing, in a Sense,”
slipped eloquent and barkless from his mouth.
Heath Brougher bio (2016)
Heath Brougher is the poetry editor of Five 2 One Magazine. He has published 2 pamphlets with Green Panda Press and his first chapbook A Curmudgeon Is Born is forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press. His work has appeared or is due to appear in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Chiron Review, SLAB, Crack the Spine, BlazeVOX, The Seventh Quarry, Riprap, Main Street Rag, First Literary Review-East, Of/with, eFiction India, and elsewhere.
King of the Jungle
When new acquaintances ask about the lion’s head above my fireplace, I lie. Many of the facts are the same: I did go on safari by winning an essay contest hosted by my once favorite magazine with my piece “Soul of the Season.” I did travel to East Africa. And I did kill the lion. The rest I make up; lots of great white hunter stuff; the kind of thing people want to hear. This is the real story.
It took three flights and 26 hours to go from Salem, New Hampshire to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. To cap off the journey, a driver took me two and a half hours from the coastal urban chaos of the city, out past the expansive shanty town, to the rural high plains pinned with thatch hut villages among the marvelously varied countryside somewhere deep in Morogoro Province. Left alone to crunch down a dimly lit gravel path that was lined with waves of elephant grass, I knew my adventure had begun.
Night was just scaring away twilight at Ujasiri Ranch as I was let me through a set of large, iron gates. The guard’s rifles and militant green uniforms: black boots, berets, black leather belts and chest straps should have shocked me, but I was too tired to care. Once my identity was confirmed a bag boy swooped in from the shadows and ran my things off to my room as the guards escorted me to a bonfire. A concierge greeted me, his face flickering in the fire light. I focused on his half-moon smile as he explained the details of my schedule, the basics of the ranch, and other amenities: gym, pool, stables.
When this was over I slunk in with the hunters and their families, taking a seat on a worn hunk of rock to watch the staff showcase some traditional Gogo music. A conductor with a tribal stick and a dark, horse hair wand swatted the air with his tools, directing the dancers encircling him as they performed a simple jig: stamps, claps, and a series of upbeat chants set to the beat of hand drums and rustic lyres.
When the Gogo music was finished the staff served us Ugali and Nyama Choma: a thick slab of porridge that we were instructed to roll into little balls served over kale and beans in a sweet tomato sauce paired with a semi-spicy grilled chicken and banana skewer.
After my meal, the loud chatter from our happy group began to bother me. My eyelids fluttered. I shuffled to my room and was soon down to my boxers, enveloped in cotton sheets, haloed by a mosquito net. The last thing I did that night was wander my eyes along the intricate pattern of falling leaves carved in the faux ceramic arabesque that covered one of the walls of my suite. I can’t remember ever sleeping so well.
In the morning our group met Will, the head of the ranch. Will, a burly, older gentleman with an air of divinity about him who dressed in olive drab fatigues and spoke with an English accent, led a safety seminar before we hit the trails for the day. The one mantra that was bored into our skulls was an easy one to remember: never leave your guides.
I have to admit, I bought into it. From my pith helmet down to my above-the-knee khaki shorts and canvas gaiters that protected my ankles from whip scorpions and baboon spiders, I looked, and must have felt, like every other middle-aged joker who was still holding onto their childish adventure-dream of stalking and conquering one of the world’s most seemingly ferocious beasts.
My skin prickled loading up the jeep after shaking hands with my two guides, Omary and Noel, a pair of lean yet muscular young men. Omary was easily distinguished by a short scar that ran from just above his right eye to just below it in an almost perfectly straight line. Noel could be picked out in a crowd due to his comically oversized ears. While the pair went through a final equipment check, I tried to impress them with handfuls of stunted comments based on the research I’d done concerning the region. Omary and Noel were all smiles and pretended to pay attention, well aware of the fantasy they were a part of and how they were supposed to fulfill it.
Now, all of this wasn’t new to me. I was an avid hunter for most of my life. Next to my lion’s head are all the bucks and mallards I’ve accrued throughout the years from all over New England – each as prized a trophy as they are a memory. This trip was different though. Over four thousand miles from home, in a place I’d never imagined I’d visit; the sweltering heat coming off the Serengeti, the smell of white Thumbai stamens stuck in my mustache, the sound of pipits rustling off baobab trees as our bygone military jeep bungled along the bumpy spider web of trails that led deep into the unknown. It was fierce. It was raw. It was primal. I loved it.
Sadly, the first day was all foreplay and no sex. We’d rumble along as if at random, stop for Omary and Noel to examine some detail of the scenery, perhaps march a few thousand yards to follow a track I could never see, at which point we’d hump it back to the jeep and continue on our way.
The day ended around three, well before the danger that darkness brings to the highlands. The thrill of the hunt had faded slightly after a day without so much as spotting a concrete sign of our prey. Omary and Noel were optimistic though and convinced me they found evidence that would give us better chances the next day.
The three of us hit the trail at dawn the following morning. Things got off to a slow start again, and my backside began to get irritated from the rocky roads. To try and remedy this, I lay down in the back of the jeep and ended up falling asleep.
I was thrown awake when we came to a sudden stop. Omary and Noel were all apologies as they helped my boots meet the dusty earth.
“Why did we stop?” I asked.
“We think they are nearby,” said Omary. Pointing, he added, “Look.”
I followed Omary’s finger and saw a big pile of droppings in the road, flies swarming. I yanked the rifle out from the back of the jeep. The hunt was on.
Two hours later, the hunt was off. I tried my best to keep up with Omary and Noel as they ambled like gazelles across the alternately bush or grass filled plains, Noel hacking away some thicket when it got in the way. As the brush we traversed thickened, my guides had to continually stop their progress and wait for me to slug up from behind.
As morning gave way to noon, the sun menaced my sweat glands to spit every ounce of fluid from my body. Noticing I was dehydrated, tired, and hungry, Omary and Noel stopped our pursuit in a shaded grove. Between sucks from my water skin, I dove into a bag of Doritos and a tuna sandwich while Omary and Noel studied the golden flatlands.
As I was finishing my lunch, Omary spotted something in the distance and pointed. Noel shot up and whacked Omary on the shoulder to action.
“Please, wait here,” Noel commanded before they sprinted out of the grove.
The last of the Doritos crunching in my head, I carefully stood up and questioned the thicket they vanished into.
Nothing. Only the intense hum of the insect cacophony that was always present.
I hollered at the brush: “Omary!? Noel!?” expecting them to suddenly pop from the thicket with a laugh. All that returned was more quiet; just a whimper from a peaceful hush of wind against the insect chorus.
Remembering the mantra Will had explained back at Ujasiri: never leave your guides, I made a decision and bungled headlong into the brush.
The tall grass only lasted a moment, and removing a briar thorn off my safari jacket, I emerged on an open plain dotted with shrubs and saw my guides under an umbrella tree.
Trying not to cramp up, I began to jog over. As the heat waves off the plains settled and the scene came into detail, I saw that Omary and Noel weren’t alone. Omary was pulling another man from the bottom branch of the tree. With a big, final tug, Omary yanked the man to the ground. The earth coughed up a puff of dust. The man was pulled to his feet by Noel who then shoved him up against the tree. Omary clawed a hacksaw from his hands and tossed it aside.
Moving closer I could see the man was just out of his teens. He had a frizz of wild, black hair, a gaunt face, and wore dirty, cut up jeans that were several sizes too big, a ratty tee-shirt, and tire scraps tied with red and white cord for shoes.
As I came within earshot I could hear Omary and Noel scolding the young man in Swahili. Any time he would look up Omary or Noel would give him a smack on the cheek that kept his eyes on the ground. I watched from a safe distance, unsure what to do.
After a few seconds the young man tried to burst past my guides, throwing his hands in their face as he pushed off the umbrella tree. As quick as a vulture being tossed a scrap of carrion Noel had the man in a headlock and forced him over a nearby stump. The young man began to cry out. I stepped back, frightened by the shouts.
Omary pinned him down with his knee, and with one of his free hands, covered the young man’s mouth. With his other hand, Omary stretched out the young man’s arm. Tentatively, I started to signal my guides. Noel removed his machete from its hanger on his cargo shorts. Fear danced through my body. I coughed past it and yelled out a warning.
Looking over at me with wide eyes, Omary lost control of the young man’s arm. In the same moment Noel raised and dropped the machete. The young man’s arm flailed and his hand found the blade. The metal dug deep into his paw between the middle and fore fingers, splicing his flesh past the wrist. Noel yanked the machete free. The young man’s arm splayed apart in either direction like a torn piece of paper. Omary jumped off the young man’s back allowing him to riot and wave his injured arm – an animal sprung from its trap. A slap of blood thwacked against the shimmering, yellow short grass as pained shrieks bleated from the victim. Noel stepped back to avoid the blood but was struck across the chest and face regardless. I went to one knee and began to vomit up my lunch with a few big heaves.
Blowing wisps of sick off my mustache Omary and Noel ran to my side as quick as spirits. They started to haul me back toward the jeep like their drunken friend. The screams of the young man carried on the hot breeze as Omary and Noel yammered in Swahili. I didn’t try to catch a hint of what they could have been saying. Instead, I stared at the bloody machete swinging from the hanger on Noel’s shorts.
That night a rainstorm dowsed Ujasiri Ranch. Holed up in my suite, I sucked down my mini-fridge’s supply of Ndovu beer and watched the downpour in the scarce light outside my suite’s backdoor; the gruesome event running over and over in my head like a looping film reel: the screams, the blood, the deliberate nature of it all. Toward morning I managed to sleep for a few hours.
A banging woke me up what seemed like moments after I closed my eyes. Hung over, I trudged to the front door and turned the knob to reveal Will standing broad-shouldered, puffing out his chest. He had a plate of eggs, bacon, and cup of mint tea.
“Hello Mr. McElerey, I hope you slept well,” Will said in a tumble of words and big strides as he entered my room, “have I got good news for you this morning.”
“Oh?” was all I was able to force out as I sat down on the bed.
Will placed the tray of food on my lap. Putting his hands together like a beggar he said, “Certainly. Such a rare thing, but trackers were out this morning and found some beautiful specimens just a few miles outside of camp. And Mr. McElerey...”
His words hung in the air for a few seconds before I realized he was waiting for me to answer. I looked up.
“They’re beautiful. Real trophies Mr. McElerey.”
I didn’t respond, and instead, went for the food.
“Well, I see you are hungry. But get ready, get cleaned up, and meet me outside in an hour,” Will said with a smile and a clap of his hands that caused my head to pulse.
He used his big strides to move to the door, open it, and begin through. After a beat, Will turned and looked back at me.
“Real trophies Mr. McElerey. Real trophies.”
An hour later Will and I were speeding down one of the many trails that led away from Ujasiri. This time we traveled inside the comfort of an air conditioned SUV.
As we rattled along I began nodding in and out. Will worked to keep my eyes open by telling me animated tales about his greatest hunting trips, like the time he tracked and killed half a herd of water buffalo in Uganda to feed a starving village, or the time he hunted down a twenty foot rock python just north of Port Elizabeth that had tried to constrict a boy in his sleep.
After a lull between tales, Will’s tone grew more serious.
“About yesterday Mr. McElerey.”
“I know that, well, what your guides did, you have to understand Mr. McElerey that...”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh, right Mr. McElerey. I just thought you might want me to explain what you saw. See, this is their land too, not just mine, and they have a right to protect it. It’s not the states out here you have to understand,” he said, finishing with a chuckle.
“I don’t want to talk about it Will.”
“Right, of course you don’t, I apologize.” And then, a beat later, “We’ll be there shortly.”
But I couldn’t let it rest.
“Why did they do it?” I asked.
“The man was a poacher.”
“What was he poaching?”
“He was actually just a spotter. He cuts down the branches in the area where the animals are.”
“And they just cut his hands off if they feel like it?”
“Like I said, it’s their land. If someone came into your home and tried to take your things what would you do? This land, the animals, it’s their livelihood. And not just theirs, but their villages.”
“They do it to send a message Mr. McElerey. When that man returns to his village, the other poachers know he has been caught and not to poach on Ujasiri. Really, he got off lucky. Sometimes the punishment can be much worse.”
“And you approve of it?”
“It’s not up to me to approve or disapprove. It’s the way it’s done.”
I was lost for words. All the questions I had no longer seemed to matter.
“I don’t expect you to understand Mr. McElerey.”
We rode in silence for the next half hour. The monotony of the drive was only broken when Will pointed out a dazzle of zebras galloping through a patch of sodden, muddy grassland.
Eventually, Will pulled the SUV around a tight bend and was stopped by a dozen or so guides standing in the road. I followed him out as he greeted the trackers in Swahili.
For the next twenty, Will and his small army of trackers led me at a calm pace through some even plains. We came upon a sunny clearing where a pride of lions was lazing on top of some flat rocks under a gathering of knotty trees. A mangled cow carcass was nearby. Will quietly motioned at a male lion set off from the rest. The lion flicked its tail as it yawned and stretched its bloody paws.
Will and a guide set up a tripod and attached a rifle. When they were finished, Will put his eye to the scope.
Stepping back from the gun, Will whispered something in my ear: “There you are Mr. McElerey.”
He patted me on the back as I peered through the scope. The rifle was aimed center mass – a kill shot.
Breathing heavily I hesitated and watched the lion preen and slap its tail. I was astounded by the creature’s size. Viewing it in such detail I could see the beauty of its fur, the thickness of its paws, the little, black speck in the middle of its large, green eyes. I started to sweat. My stomach churned and my head began to pound.
“There you are,” whispered Will – he was right in my ear, “take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and squeeze.”
Following Will’s instructions, I took in a deep suck of hot air and let it out peacefully, thinking about how far I’d come for this moment, both as a traveler and as a hunter. I swallowed hard and squeezed the trigger.
The shot rang out over the plains. Birds blew off their trees. The lions scattered.
“You got him!” Will said with a jump and a laugh. The guides, all smiles, came over and shook my hand.
As I stepped back from the rifle Will grabbed my shirt at the shoulder and gave me a playful shake. My pith helmet fell off and rolled in the golden tall grass. Will was quick to snatch it from the ground, dust it off, and place it back on my head. I heard the chatter of walkie-talkies crinkle back and forth and smelled the sulfuric odor from the smoke that twisted up from the rifle.
I waited with Will as he talked about the specifics of the lion, details I can’t recall, and tried to mime his joy. He offered me a cigar and I accepted. Smoking, we watched the guides fan out and scare off the remaining lions with whistles and chimes. They roped the dead lion’s hind legs and then unceremoniously tugged it over to where Will and I were sitting.
It took some time, but the trackers eventually positioned the beast so its head was turned over its shoulder and it looked at rest. Will took a digital camera from one of the guide’s rucksacks.
“Now, get behind it Mr. McElerey, here comes the best part.”
I obliged, forcing out a grin as I knelt over my kill.
“Say Ujasiri Ranch.”
I don’t know why I didn’t tell the whole truth behind my safari when the magazine called and interviewed me. I suppose I didn’t want to remember what happened, so I simply focused on what I thought they wanted to hear: the shock of a new and exotic culture, details about the African wilds, and of course, the thrill of downing one of the world’s most deadly predators.
When my family and friends asked many of the same questions as the reporter, I answered the same way. Both parties were enthralled. And once I began telling the story this way, I couldn’t go back.
After a few weeks, everyone I knew had been let in on my adventure. The pictures from Ujasiri were posted and liked on Facebook, and the excitement of my courageous battle of man versus beast became just another piece of people’s memory. I even stopped thinking about the young man with the frizz of wild, black hair, his heinous shouts, Noel’s bloody machete swinging from its hanger on his cargo shorts.
The only sign things weren’t what they seemed, was that I stopped hunting all together. Although this was easy to cover up too, because those I’d always gone on treks with assumed that since I’d moved on to big game, bucks and mallards no longer did it for me.
Weeks passed. I thought I’d put it all behind me. Then, one day after working late, I came home and there it was: the lion’s head above my fireplace between all my other trophies - the most opulent jewel in my crown as king hunter. My wife explained that it arrived in the early evening and the delivery driver was instructed to hang it for us. My wife could think of no better place than our living room.
And there it rests to this day. Taking it down would mean I have to tell everyone the truth behind my safari. No, it’s easier just to leave it up and keep the fantasy going.
“When they eat one of
you, word get around,” the an-
imal said, pleading.
Baggage from Rustling Pines
“Funny thing is, ghosts need an audience, an inner circle of admirers so to say, people who will vouch for them. Take them out of their comfort zone, and voila, they have an identity crisis.” I twirled my fingers happily over my belly, and slid my toes out of the slippers to feel the cool sand in Daniel’s backyard as he opened another beer for me.
We liked the new neighborhood already – a lot younger, but livelier, with the happy patter of baby feet and trike bells all day. Not the gloomy abode of sullen pensioners as in the previous one. Nancy, my wife, was on the porch giggling with her new friends, helping add rosemary and garlic seasoning to the rib racks and briskets on the Weber water smoker. We men sat under the starlit sky drinking what else – beer. This was a little welcome dinner organized for us by the immediate neighbors.
“So, were the spooks for real,” asked Danny, the banker guy staying across from us in the house with the blue roof with a corsage of houseleeks – brilliant yellow-green rosettes with amber colored tips.
“No one can say for sure, these are discarnate residuals, probably don’t even know they’ve passed on. It all started when...” I waited for Brian to unpeel the oily wrapper on his Del Mundo cigar – he stayed to our left, in the house with the Ferrari in the porch.
“Started when?” he said finally, puffing out thick clouds of rich cedar wood scented smoke.
“When the windows and doors on Mrs. Jankovic’s house began banging all of a sudden one night.”
“A wild animal?”
“One that can slide rusty bolts and turn door knobs? – Quite unlikely. A prankster maybe – but who would think of upsetting a lady with the husband out on combat duty in the Middle-East?”
“What was it then?”
“First she thought it was someone stalking her – it’s so scary reading the papers these days. So she and her kids put out talcum powder on the porch before turning in for the night. But the rattling and hullabaloo continued, with no footsteps on the powder on the floor.
Then she began to feel eyes upon her as she slept – burning ones – like red-hot coals. She was soon having chills and nightmares, and funny odors began to come from the house.”
“Oh my,” someone gasped as the ladies too joined us and sat around in a little agog circle.
“Yeah,” I licked my mustache clean and waved the empty can. Someone quickly fetched another one. “So she calls over the local priest. He mumbo-jumbos some prayers, sprinkles holy water around the house, and finds nothing. Telling her to find a better detergent and be more regular at Church, he promises to be back in a week.”
“Did it help?”
“For a couple of days, yeah. And then it returned, much louder – she said she felt she was in the front row in a sledge metal rock concert.”
“What’d she do then?”
“She called me in.” I cleared my throat and puffed out my chest. “She called Nancy actually, and asked her for my help.”
“Why you...” some doubter in the circle asked.
“Because I was a clerk with the Mayor’s office, that’s why.” I searched the gathering for that cynical aspect but found only innocent curiosity. “And I happened to be the only man around.”
“You see, “ Nancy quickly cut into the politely stifled titters, “ there were only four houses on that row: Mrs. Jankovic’s husband was away in Kuwait; Mrs. Wruck was a divorcee; Mrs. Algafari, a widow, was a Syrian refugee; and then there were we. The houses across our road had been burnt down in a fire some twenty years ago. The next lot of houses was miles away.”
“What did you do then, Max?”
“Well, I tipped the cops. Had them set up a vigil around her house for a couple of days – night visits ... surprise checks – just to make the lady feel comforted. Nancy told me how thankful Mrs. Jankovic was.
I thought things had been well taken care of but when I reached home for lunch-break one afternoon, I found my own house locked up from outside!”
“I‘d heard some movement outside the house,” Nancy chipped in. “So I thought it must be Max – he comes home most days for hot lunch you see – he hates carrying tiffin and microwaving it. Food tastes so damn rubbery he always says. So I come to the door and find I’m locked in – I think it’s Max playing pranks on me – he does it all the time,” she said, smiling coyly and patting down her bun of auburn hair.
“Yeah,” I butted in, just in case Nancy got carried away. “We got only each other to fool around with. The kids are abroad – working with multinationals. I told her I would never scare her like that. Maybe it was a plumber, or an electrician, a Good Samaritan who might have rung the bell, and finding the door ajar – we let it stay open in the day mostly – closed it.”
“But I got scared,” Nancy added. “I’d just got over the phone with Mrs. Jankovic – I knew how terrible it’d been for her. So I asked Max to check with people – just to make sure.”
“I did check. A Good Samaritan is about as hard to come by as a square basketball. No one owned up to coming to my house – I think more out of embarrassment,” I said.
“But I really got scared – in fact I began to check my door every now and then to make sure it wasn’t bolted from outside,” Nancy added.
“It began to freak me out,” I confessed. “Things really came to a head when somebody destroyed Mrs. Wruck’s organic kitchen garden. She loved her veggies and made it a point to share her super foods with all of us.
We tried to tell her it must be some wild animal, but she wasn’t convinced. She claimed animals would eat the plants, but in her case row upon row of kale, goji berries and kiwis had been systematically uprooted, as if the garden had been put to rest for winter.”
“Yeah, she was inconsolable; her plants were all she had for company – they said she sang to them and loved them like her own children.
Then one day Nancy called me up when I was in a meeting with the school committee – she said it was urgent and I must rush home.”
“What was it,” asked Janice, the real estate agent who’d found us our new house, after we’d moved over from Rustling Pines.
“That was exactly my question when I found the ladies huddled in my house. Mrs. Algafari was beating her breast and wailing like a banshee – she’d found her clothes neatly packed into suitcases when she returned home after grocery shopping. She thought some evil man wanted to return her to her country!”
“Not so funny when you realize that she found the house locked exactly the way she’d left it – no tampering of the locks.”
“Did you call in the cops,” someone from the group asked – I didn’t remember all the names as yet.
“That of course. But then we decided to do a little bit of introspection ourselves. Mrs. Jankovic became convinced that maleficent spirits haunted the place – she asked me to check the municipal records if any unnatural deaths had taken place in the area, or if any old burial grounds existed below our houses.”
“Bad for property valuations,” Janice said.
“True. I asked Herbert from Revenue to check – he came up with nothing. The houses across the road had been burnt after a forest fire, but they had been evacuated well in time. The property owners decided to move out rather than rebuild in the middle of the wilderness. And the terrain was too rocky to bury anything.”
“The idea of a haunting was still far-fetched for me – a man of scientific temperament. Normally, we tend to give undue credit to paranormal phenomenon when none is deserved – I guess we just try to make sense of irrational things. I had another hunch though; with women there are always a lot of undercurrents – and when you have many of them who have never had to work a day in their lives bunched together, there are bound to be ilka elves playing quietly under the surface.”
There was light laughter and a clackety clack of tongues from our small group. “That’s not fair,” somebody piped.
“Pardon me – I meant in a way that women are a complicated lot – they’re deep, like still waters. So I asked this set if any inter-personal dynamics had changed of late... I mean if there was no other explanation, then it had to be a handiwork from within.”
“You mean the girls were spiting each other for nothing better to do?”
“I dare not hold the worthy women of Rustling Pines, my loving wife included, in such poor esteem. No madam – I meant if anyone had moved in or out lately from our tiny, secluded community.”
“And was there?”
I could see Nancy nodding, and about to speak up. I silenced her by holding up a hand. “Yes, apparently an old maid, a Filipino, who worked all the four houses, had recently been replaced. A good worker but had a mind of her own, and fond of talking back to the mistress of the house, which was not highly appreciated. The new maid was a Vietnamese, not so good, but a silent worker who’d replaced the Filipino.”
“So what are you saying – the maid had something to do with it?”
“The Filipino had enjoyed absolute monopoly over the small colony. These Asian women always carry some old baggage – never see eye to eye – slit to slit with each other, I should perhaps say. Naturally some bitterness had to be there at losing lucrative employment.”
“So it was the Filipino disturbing the peace!” There was a general sense of disappointment at the anti-climax of my story – some sighed and some made to rise, to add water and wood to the grill.
“That would be a rather simplistic explanation of the whole thing,” I declared, sweeping my arm and bidding the gathering to remain seated. “We called the Filipino to our little council – naturally she acted very offended, and refused to own up to any mischief that had been plaguing us.”
“Then you went back to the ghost?”
“Not so fast. Some of the ladies were unhappy with the new maid, and there’d been some murmurs about bringing the old one back; hints that were sometimes indiscreetly dropped within earshot of the new maid in the hope it would spur her to improve.”
“So now it’s the other maid?”
“She was also summoned, and she too went into denial. The general mood was in favor of holding the previous maid as the culprit. So to nab her, I suggested we keep a close watch on her movements. “
“Did you catch her then?”
“Regrettably no. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jankovic nearly had a breakdown – her front gate had been torn down from its iron bolts, and there was shattered glass everywhere in her house. Enough was enough. I suggested we plant a CCTV near the entrance to the Filipino’s servant quarters. You see, Mrs. Algafari out of kindness had allowed her to stay put till she found new work. Throwing out a network of cameras in all the houses was impractical, and would have become obvious. But a single camera could always be put on the quiet.”
“And the camera nailed her?”
The ribs seemed done with taking a luxurious bath in vapors. A delicious smoky smell wafted in from the grill evoking strong atavistic memories. Daniel, our host, scratched the crusty grill with a fraying wire brush so that the black flecks sprayed on his baggy khaki shorts. “Smoke,” he declared, “is the sixth taste of food: after salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.”
He picked up a slab with tongs and bounced it slightly till it bowed to the point of breaking. “It’s done, here, try,” he said. I could pull the ribs clean off the bones with my teeth. Daniel reached for another slab but his wife, Debbie, slapped away his hand with an oven mitt. “Leave something for the guests.” She laughed, her pearly teeth catching the glint of fair moonlight. She put sauce on the meat and let it sizzle some. “Go on, finish the story, I’ll hear it from Daniel tonight,” she said. We grabbed some more beers from the icebox and passed them around in the group.
“Where was I,” I asked when people had clicked open the cans. Some ladies got up to help Debbie with the servings.
“You put up a camera...”
“Oh yes. Nothing changed though. The Syrian woman receives a call from the train station one day that two of her suitcases, with nameplates, packed, were found by the Station Master with an outbound ticket pasted on! She was terror-stricken and refused to step out of her house.
Mrs. Wruck found slabs of wild boar meat, still bloodied, in her fridge. A sworn vegetarian – it was like blasphemy to her. And let me tell you – it’s not easy to kill wild boar.”
“And what about you Nancy...nothing went on in your house,” asked Janice.
“Well,” Nancy replied, “ I found the new maid’s three-month old baby in my living room one morning – how it got there, nobody knows. The maid was hysterical, and so was I. I screamed at Max to get me out of that place.”
“I felt I had a responsibility to make the women feel secure.” I added. “I felt they were on my watch. And I had failed. The cops assembled everyone in my house and checked the footage on the CCTV. Alas, the Filipino maid had never stirred from her quarters – she was laid low with the chills and malaise. They called in the new maid then – who would believe a woman would dump her own baby in someone’s house just to spite the competition.
But after sustained interrogation – the cops have their methods; they managed to extract a confession from the woman that she’d probably forgotten the child after working our house! She still denied any wrongdoings in the other houses though.”
“What did you do then?”
“Obviously it was a very convenient explanation, too feeble a defense even to imagine. She was lying; she was sacked, expunged from the neighborhood post haste.”
“Thank God! Surely it was all calm thereafter...why did everyone leave then, Max?”
“True, it was calm: the rattlings ceased; Mrs. Wruck’s green leafy salads topped with juicy red tomatoes, diced peppers and crisp young cucumbers flourished again; and the Syrian was at peace – no one made any more moves to evacuate her. Nancy, my darling here,” I said, ruffling her mop of unruly hair, “ was no longer immured within four walls of the house against her wishes.”
“What women will not do to have their way?” Daniel chuckled, poking Brian in the ribs with a rib licked clean.
“Nothing, I think,” I replied. “ A month later, Herbert – you remember him from the Revenue records – called. He said one servant family was still sleeping in when the forest fires started. They couldn’t make their escape – they fell unconscious with the CO2 f umes. The couple perished in the flames.”
“But you said he’d checked the records – and there had been no deaths recorded?”
“Exactly what I asked him. He said they had a daughter with a domicile at Minnesota. She applied for the death certificates in that state because of some insurance issues, and had the municipal records transferred there. He happened to notice it only when the blanks were thrown up during an audit when town archives were being transcribed into automated records. He remembered I’d been making inquiries and how anxious Nancy had been. Nice of him to have told us.”
“Are we back to ghosts now,” Debbie asked, and suddenly shivered. Daniel wrapped her in close embrace.
“Utter baloney, I assure you, friends. I told Herbert to rest easy because we’d found peace after the deportation of the new maid – the matter had been fully settled.”
“That’s a relief to know.”
“Mrs. Jankovic though, on learning of the new development, managed to convince the others to fence the plot and give some kind of a decent burial service to the departed souls – just in case.”
“What about the property valuations?” Janice pointed out.
“Smart people think alike,” I replied. She made a small bow and spread her arms in acknowledgment.
“That’s what I told the other folks. You see; we were done with that place. My retirement was coming up in a few months, and the others seemed fed up too. Mrs. Jankovic was the least affected because she would have moved out once her husband returned from his tour of duty. Mrs. Wruck found only rock below the topsoil and was finding it harder to rejuvenate her garden with each passing season. Mrs. Algafari was the hardest to convince. But I knew once singled out, she too would go along with the others.”
“Still you managed to sell the property?”
“I told the others if we fenced off the land or did anything emotional, it would sink the market rates. And I won’t be lying if I told you that this developer had been hounding me on the quiet to have the complete plot vacated so that he could take it over. He wanted to build warehouses and a solar power plant on the property. “
“Was there an incentive involved?”
I cleared my throat. “Let us say there was good in it for everybody – in proportion to the efforts involved. With the power transformers toasting overhead – I assured the others the dear departed souls, if there were any, would get a lifelong last rites service – a proper cremation free on the house. And that was it – we kept quiet, we all sold off to this developer, and moved to different places – listening to the jingle of spare change in our pockets. We made a great deal.” Looking around the tony locale, where I now belonged, I smacked my lips in satisfaction.
“Not bad – you saved the day for the others – old women by themselves wouldn’t have been able to salvage such a good value from a bad deal,” said the banker.
I chuckled and patted Danny warmly on his back; I felt like Moses who’d led his people across the sea.
With that we rose. The night was still, the wind had died, and the stars had dimmed in the deepening twilight. Somewhere a wren shivered, and the soft lilies bowed on the stem, still half closed, while the dewdrops paled in the creeping frost. Suddenly the quietness was disturbed with rising, anxious voices. I stepped over to the small circle gathered around Debbie who was trying to wrench open the porch door so that she could fetch cutlery from the kitchen.
“I swear I left this door open,” she was repeating hysterically. Others peered through the window into the house. “Damn! The house is locked from inside!”
Daniel, who’d gone round to the front, emerged from a corner. “Even the front door is locked from inside – we are locked out! There’s no one inside – how on earth could this happen?”
Slowly the people turned towards me. The look of admiration and envy of a few moments ago seemed to have been swept aside by plain loathing, fear.
Toast the ghost, will you, smartass Max? Ghosts need people to vouch for them – didn’t you say so yourself? You’ve hauled in unwanted baggage from Rustling Pines and heaped it upon us – their seething eyes seemed to crackle and spit.
I wondered if someone would be ready to build an expensive shopping arcade here. This land was too precious to be wasted on street parks and urban farmhouses.
The End Table
There’s a rustic end table at the corner of the room. It’s very simple and heavy, molded from a single oak three. Innumerous decorative objects once sat there, but now only sun marks remained. It used to be such a beautiful piece of wood. Another couple wanted it when we arrived at the store, a long time ago, but he took his credit card out and bought it for twice the price. Spending money without thinking is his favorite activity. I wonder if the young couple that wanted the table deserved it more than us.
“Please, we saved for this table for weeks,” the young man, said to me, tears in his eyes.
“Please don’t talk to her,” he answered. “I’ve already decided that we are buying it, not you.” His tone scared me a little bit, but stupid as I am, I stayed and agreed.
He’s been very busy since January. I can’t feel his presence anymore, and his scent left the house. I woke up after my daily dose of daydream. Its been too long, and too much for me to handle.
I enter the bathroom to wash my face. I wonder who is she. I wonder if she even knows about me. Probably yes. He’s too old to be fooling around with a random, innocent girl. There’s only one innocent in this whole situation, and after all this time, I’m not sure who is it.
His boots no longer sit in the closet and all his jackets are gone. He moved out piece-by-piece, and I didn’t realize it until now.
Shame on me.
Shame on them.
Shame on us.
I took care of the table like I would my own son. By that time, I needed something to hold on to. The table sat in different parts of the house, and every time we moved it, we ended up scratching it more than before, most of the times due to his lack of care for both the table, and me.
“Please honey, be careful. I don’t want to scratch it again,” I said once, while moving it from the living room to our bedroom.
“It’s scratched because you have zero sense of space, and a really bad vision,” he replied. Normally this would sound like a couple joking, exchanging insults. But I knew better, I knew the subtext.
The apartment always felt empty. Now it will be completely empty, only furniture, no people. I only wish to see his face when he gets home after his 32-hour shift, and find the apartment without me. I wonder if the tears will be of sadness or happiness.
I turn around before heading out to glimpse at it once more. The image of a brand new table still haunts me. I should try to find the humble couple and give the table to them. But they wouldn’t want it. It is now old and scratched. It is too late for it to start again, as it is for me.
*Mobile and Me
At my age
and not maintaining
a mobile are unwonted.
The aware have alerted
themselves not to mention
the M-word. But keitai
is a recent cobble up.
Even the refined are unable
to seize their surprise.
An unsure laugh trails.
*In a developing economy
possession of mobile phone
is first expression of selfhood.
about Sanjeev Sethi
This Summer and That Summer, (Bloomsbury) is Sanjeev Sethi’s third book of poems. His poems have found a home in The London Magazine, The Fortnightly Review, Ink Sweat and Tears, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The Galway Review, The Open Mouse, I am not a Silent Poet, Otoliths, Off the Coast Literary Journal, Literary Orphans, The Peregrine Muse, Café Dissensus Everyday, Section 8 Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Jawline Review, and elsewhere. Poems are forthcoming (as of April 26 2016)in Meniscus, The Helios Mss, Amaryllis Poetry, Right Hand Pointing, Futures Trading, First Literary Review-East, Drunk Monkeys, Harbinger Asylum, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Yellow Chair Review, The Corner Club Press and The Bitchin’ Kitsch. He lives in Mumbai, India.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I am also a survivor of excruciating nightmares. It is because of this abuse that I suffer frequent and near crippling bouts of insomnia. The memories and my dreams bleed into each other, blending cause and effect into an awful and sleepless collage of misery.
The root cause of my sleep disorder lies in the way my abuse went down. It was always at night. I was always in bed.
During the day, my abuser, a seemingly perfect surrogate father, doted on me and gave me gifts. He took me places that my mother did not. During the day, we would venture out to Maymont Park in the city of Richmond where he lived. We walked through the park during daylight so that we could admire all its splendor. But at night, when it was time to sleep, he would lay in the dark, waiting for me. In his single closed room he pulled out a cot for me. It looked like couch cushions crafted from coarse, harsh, hairy material. I itched wherever it touched my exposed skin.
I hoped that I could hear him asleep in our room. I hoped I could hear the transition from slow rhythmic breathing to snores. That would signal a night free of terror and embarrassment. It hardly ever came. Instead he crept over to me while he thought I was sleeping and committed unspeakable acts, whispering to me of the size of my “endowments” and how much he enjoyed them.
I lay perfectly still. I had no idea what would happen if he knew I was awake. Instead I lay paralyzed with fear. This was the ritual inflicted that made sleep impossible.
At age eight I was riddled with terrible nightmares. The dreams were so intense that upon waking I would call out and run screaming into my sister’s room for solace.
The dreams I had lay obscured by time. My tenuous grasp of memories became partially forgotten. I remember their intensity. I remember their effect on me and the fear that came with them. The dreams were haunted by a figure blackened like coal with no head. They showed me something beneath my bed. Although that terror is common for a young child, the vividness of my dreams were horrifically blown out of proportion.
One dream in particular still haunts me to this day. In my childhood bedroom sat a table, lined with food like a feast. In my dreams, my family and I sat eating. The corner of the room had a small child hanging from a noose, eyes open and clearly glazed with death. I was terrified.
Sleep paralysis happens when a person is aware of their surroundings while in a state of rest. They find themselves unable to move. Often visions of horrific situations or creatures attack them. Many nights throughout my childhood, shadows danced along walls, taking on unnatural forms and appearing impish, yet very much alive. I could not see a way out from under these nightmares.
Insomnia can often times come as a voluntary act. If night terrors are too much, an individual may not want to sleep.
Under normal conditions my post-traumatic stress is like a minefield in my brain. One false step and I’m triggered into remembering terrible things in widescreen and technicolor. The memories themselves, recalled in my weakest and most tender moments, come flowing back in a place most find respite: the bedroom, specifically, my bed.
I choose to live with insomnia because I choose to avoid the bitter pall of unrelenting nightmares, of pain unremembered, and lingering memories all too real and excruciating. Insomnia is my rest.
Zachary Jarrett has published with the women’s initiative. He currently lives in Charlottesville Virginia.
He’s been writing since the age of 16 and is thoroughly devoted to his craft.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett Bio (20150720)
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist of almost fifty awards. She was the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of the Year in 2013. Eleanor’s photography has been published in British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has been displayed around the world consistently for six years since the age of thirteen. This year (2015) she has done the anthology cover for the incredibly popular Austin International Poetry Festival. She is also featured in Schiffer’s “Contemporary Wildlife Art” published this Spring. She is an art editor for multiple international publications.
I believe the words coming out of his mouth, every single one. Not because I think it’s the truth, but because I wish it was. Like Catholics believe in Jesus despite evidence to support that he wasn’t real, I choose to believe that the honest man that I love is buried beneath the new man this city has created, despite the overwhelming proof that the man I fell in love with is gone. It’s easier for me to love him if I pretend like he’s still a good person. Afterall, I’m in New York, and New York is where people come to pretend.
“I’m using her, nothing’s actually going on with her. I’m trying to make her think something will happen so she’ll promo the band. You know I only love you, babe. Come on,” he says.
I’m almost offended that he can’t think of a better excuse. But still, I nod and go along with it.
“Please don’t leave.”
As he says this, for a second, he looks like the boy I fell in love with. His eyes, for a second, have life behind them again. I know that I’m looking at this new man, but I see the boy I love trapped behind this mask. So I stay.
It gets harder and harder to stay as the night goes on. I drown out the urges to run with alcohol and cocaine and eventually, he and I are far gone and wandering around the city. Tonight, we walk quietly around Brooklyn, and the city feels different. I do not see the same beauty I once did in the blinding lights and tall buildings.
“Wanna watch the sun come up on the bridge tonight?” I ask. I am desperate to feel something other than complete apathy. Watching the sun rise on the Williamsburg Bridge was the first thing he and I did when we first came to the city, and in that moment, I while I don’t remember exactly what it felt like to see, I know it was something great. I crave that feeling again.
“Sure,” he says, and there is no excitement in his voice.
As we walk the city streets, it occurs to me that New York is one of those cities that is full of empty, vapid people. It’s a shallow place, I think as I pass the endless neon signs of the endless bars, all full of people on their phones, taking pictures of themselves with masks of happiness, posting those pictures on to the Internet, to convince strangers that they are completely satisfied with their lives, and that they are important. New York is a place that unique individuals come to die. Not in the literal sense of the word, but in the sense that once you enter, you are no longer an individual. You disappear, and suddenly, you are part of it all. You enter this Neverland, and you never grow up. The man I love, he’s Peter Pan.
We get close to the bridge, but it’s only four in the morning so we go into this bar that’s open until five and hang out there until they kick us and the other stragglers out, and while we wait we do shots and get more wasted, and we take turns going to the bathroom with a small vial of coke that he wears as a necklace, where we do lines. When it’s my turn, I pour a decent amount of power out of the vial onto my phone, and cut it into four thick lines with a credit card. Inhale the powder through a rolled up twenty dollar bill. My head snaps up from the sting, and I see my reflection. I stare myself in the mirror as I stop my nosebleed, and I think back to the innocent girl I was. I feel sick. When I leave the bathroom and re-enter the bar, he’s flirting with some girl, who he sends away when he notices me. How typical.
When they do kick us out, we walk a few blocks and we reach the bridge. We walk along the path meant for bikes, until we get to a spot with a great view of the Manhattan skyline. He films the sun as it comes up.
“This is my favorite thing about the city,” he says.
I struggle to find beauty in the reflection of the orange and pink sky in the metallic buildings and the sparkling water. It no longer fills me with hope. I feel nothing. As he edits and posts the video online, quoting some song lyric about New York being Babylon for the caption, I try my hardest to remember what it was like when I found New York beautiful when I was eighteen, and he and I ran to this city from our small town. I look over at him, and he’s texting someone, probably that model, and I struggle, too, to remember what it was like when I found him beautiful. He’s too different, now. When we fell in love, he was a sweet boy with messy hair and a guitar and a dream that, one day, we would make it. Now, he’s just some other good looking, but vacant, guy - just an echo of the boy from long ago. I need to leave this place. It is poison.
As he’s looking down at his phone.
“Goodbye,” I say.
He doesn’t respond, too involved in whatever bullshit he’s doing.
“Goodbye,” I say again.
He still doesn’t answer.
I grab him by his shirt collar, and pull him down into one last kiss. I feel nothing.
“I’ll remember you,” I say.
He looks confused.
I walk towards Manhattan. He doesn’t follow me. I don’t look behind.
J Ash Gamble
The waitress must feel
terrible, her face an open
wound of hostility.
It’s not that she isn’t
beautiful. It’s just, no matter
what you might say,
you can tell she would
not believe it.
She’s been through the
day one too many times
About J Ash Gamble
J Ash Gamble is a late-in-life writer. He lives in Ft Myers, Florida.
They were clamoring on top of him now, flowers in pale hues and splotches that blanketed the room. He seldom considered the somber, muted wallpaper of the apartment, but now he found it abhorrent as it seemed poised to consume him. The room was almost comically claustrophobic, a taut four corners of various debris that scarcely accommodated the couch he languished upon, which, in turn, scarcely accommodated him. His ample frame covered it end to end, left arm lazily outstretched to manipulate the television remote. As well, the TV was small, a non-descript black box from a bygone age. Its poor reception carved dark, hovering lines through every picture, but his tear-swollen eyes could no longer discern them. It had been exactly one hour since the argument, an explosive volley of poorly chosen words that sent her packing. Once the door had conclusively slammed behind her, he caved. All language left him and he collapsed where he was, accompanied only by the dull, blue glow of cathode rays, rays that reached out to him like phantoms. He lowered the volume as some long forgotten noir played out on the channel, reducing its whip-smart dialogue to a barely audible Morse code of muffled banter. Atop the tiny set stood a remnant, perhaps the sole reminder of her ever having occupied the same imploding space. It was a mere toy, a childhood possession of hers that, in her violent haste to exit, she had forgotten to collect. The odd thing, dog-like with wheels for paws, stared back at him. It appeared judgmental, albeit expressionless, and its red felt exterior was worn and threadbare following years of her affectionate handling. He’d have given the stars in that moment to trade places with it, if only to know the benign caress of her slender hand once again. A series of dissonant cracks split open the evening sky as a tepid rain began to fall, its evocative fragrance arriving through an open window. He conjured her delicate features in his mind, and sleep took him.
exhaling toxic fumes
so he and his friends
bring me to some party
in some stranger’s house
and one of his friends
says to me, “I’m buying
a balloon here. Wanna hit?”
and I’m guessing it’s
a whip-its balloon, but
I’m not even sure
if it’s laughing gas or what,
but wait, isn’t nitrous oxide
the teen party gas of choice?
But I really wasn’t sure,
so I thought I’d be safe
and say I’ll do it
if my friend does it
(and I really thought my
friend wouldn’t do it).
So his friend turns to him
and asks, and he says,
Oh. So that backfired...
and I never got the chance
to ask what on earth
it was I was inhaling
before his friend came back,
inflated balloon in hand.
They told us to to
on the couch. So we did.
“Just take a hit,
lean back and close
your eyes,” he said.
So my friend went first,
handed me the balloon,
and like a good student
I did as I was told.
And it seemed that
the party music slowed,
even the conversations
that echoed around me.
And that’s when he hit me —
wait a minute,
it’s not like that,
he was next to me
and he just tapped my leg
with the back of his hand. So I
did the same thing back.
Then he brushed his hand
against me leg again.
So again, I reciprocated.
And my eyes were closed
and he just kept doing this,
just kept tapping my leg.
So it had to happen
like twelve times,
and then it occurred to me
that the music stopped.
So I opened my eyes
to look over at him,
and he was just staring
at me with saucers for eyes.
After a moment I asked,
“You weren’t hitting me,
were you?” And he said
So I just looked around
realizing I may be better off
grounded in reality instead.
One and Six
Sixteen’s an important number
at least that’s what I hear.
Sixteen’s when my birthday came,
that’s when I cried, alone.
And looking back on my home town
I wonder what it means —
is the number of bullets that they found
in a boy in my home town.
It’s become a mantra in my head
of justifying death —
I saw the video of the first shot
that spun the man to the ground.
They call this the Chicago way
while too many people die.
I remembered the sirens loud
when I’d lay awake at night,
Sixteen’s not a reminder for
death — it should be life.
I know I complain I had it tough
when I turned that fateful age,
I’ve died a thousand times inside
instead of being shot dead.
And now I try to count that high
when I think of death nearyby.
bullets made it clear to the world
how everyone thinks of you —
just to be on the safe side
So we’d take turns.
One of us would stay
fifty feet away
with a cigarette in their mouth
and the other guy
(half the time that was I)
would shoot the ash off the cigarette.
You think this is dangerous.
But we could shoot that distance
within about three inches.
we always made sure
the cigarette was new.
just to be
on the safe side.
or my happiness,
or my life
What I have too much of
is beyond my control.
And that’s not good
for the control freak
These things I have,
these things that happen to me
leave me trying to repair the damage,
leave me trying to improve
on the disaster they caused.
it’s the economy, stupid.
I lose more money
by selling what little I have
after the market has tanked
to pay for a second home,
in a town I was moved to
against my will,
though I was told
it was for my own good.
I have a house
to finish paying for
that i’m nowhere near;
that I cannot live in
and cannot sell
without my losing
what was supposed to be
I have a debt
that’s weighing me down,
and I swear,
I didn’t make these choices
before being shoved
into this hole.
The light’s getting dim
from within this hole
as I feel the soil
falling over my head. *
Not that that matters.
I’m learning that.
I can do everything right
and someone else
will make some mistake
and it will cost me my finances,
or my happiness, or my life.
I once turned the wheels of my car
to save a motorcyclist from being killed
by a speeding car,
and my specific act
of kindness and concern
led me to the E.R.,
as half the staff
in that hospital
waited for days
‘til I could start breathing
on my own again.
That’s what I get,
for having too much
concern for life.
I’ve learned this.
that over the course of my life
the battles just keep coming,
and just when I think
I should get a break,
who am I kidding.
My soul gets worn
having to protect myself,
from everyone else’s wrongdoing,
have too much
That’s what I get.
At this point in the game,
I should change my mantra to myself.
Life may hurt less
if I keep repeating it,
until it becomes second nature.
The good things aren’t meant for you.
You should have learned this by now.
* “the soil falling over my head” is from “I Know It’s Over” by the Smiths.
Janet Kuypers has a Communications degree in News/Editorial Journalism (starting in computer science engineering studies) from the UIUC. She had the equivalent of a minor in photography and specialized in creative writing. A portrait photographer for years in the early 1990s, she was also an acquaintance rape workshop facilitator, and she started her publishing career as an editor of two literary magazines. Later she was an art director, webmaster and photographer for a few magazines for a publishing company in Chicago, and this Journalism major was even the final featured poetry performer of 15 poets with a 10 minute feature at the 2006 Society of Professional Journalism Expo’s Chicago Poetry Showcase. This certified minister was even the officiant of a wedding in 2006.
She sang with acoustic bands “Mom’s Favorite Vase”, “Weeds and Flowers” and “the Second Axing”, and does music sampling. Kuypers is published in books, magazines and on the internet around 9,300 times for writing, and over 17,800 times for art work in her professional career, and has been profiled in such magazines as Nation and Discover U, won the award for a Poetry Ambassador and was nominated as Poet of the Year for 2006 by the International Society of Poets. She has also been highlighted on radio stations, including WEFT (90.1FM), WLUW (88.7FM), WSUM (91.7FM), WZRD (88.3FM), WLS (8900AM), the internet radio stations ArtistFirst dot com, chicagopoetry.com’s Poetry World Radio and Scars Internet Radio (SIR), and was even shortly on Q101 FM radio. She has also appeared on television for poetry in Nashville (in 1997), Chicago (in 1997), and northern Illinois (in a few appearances on the show for the Lake County Poets Society in 2006). Kuypers was also interviewed on her art work on Urbana’s WCIA channel 3 10 o’clock news.
She turned her writing into performance art on her own and with musical groups like Pointless Orchestra, 5D/5D, The DMJ Art Connection, Order From Chaos, Peter Bartels, Jake and Haystack, the Bastard Trio, and the JoAnne Pow!ers Trio, and starting in 2005 Kuypers ran a monthly iPodCast of her work, as well mixed JK Radio — an Internet radio station — into Scars Internet Radio (both radio stations on the Internet air 2005-2009). She even managed the Chaotic Radio show (an hour long Internet radio show 1.5 years, 2006-2007) through BZoO.org and chaoticarts.org. She has performed spoken word and music across the country - in the spring of 1998 she embarked on her first national poetry tour, with featured performances, among other venues, at the Albuquerque Spoken Word Festival during the National Poetry Slam; her bands have had concerts in Chicago and in Alaska; in 2003 she hosted and performed at a weekly poetry and music open mike (called Sing Your Life), and from 2002 through 2005 was a featured performance artist, doing quarterly performance art shows with readings, music and images.
Since 2010 Kuypers also hosts the Chicago poetry open mic at the Café Gallery, while also broadcasting the Cafés weekly feature podcasts (and where she sometimes also performs impromptu mini-features of poetry or short stories or songs, in addition to other shows she performs live in the Chicago area).
In addition to being published with Bernadette Miller in the short story collection book Domestic Blisters, as well as in a book of poetry turned to prose with Eric Bonholtzer in the book Duality, Kuypers has had many books of her own published: Hope Chest in the Attic, The Window, Close Cover Before Striking, (woman.) (spiral bound), Autumn Reason (novel in letter form), the Average Guy’s Guide (to Feminism), Contents Under Pressure, etc., and eventually The Key To Believing (2002 650 page novel), Changing Gears (travel journals around the United States), The Other Side (European travel book), the three collection books from 2004: Oeuvre (poetry), Exaro Versus (prose) and L’arte (art), The Boss Lady’s Editorials, The Boss Lady’s Editorials (2005 Expanded Edition), Seeing Things Differently, Change/Rearrange, Death Comes in Threes, Moving Performances, Six Eleven, Live at Cafe Aloha, Dreams, Rough Mixes, The Entropy Project, The Other Side (2006 edition), Stop., Sing Your Life, the hardcover art book (with an editorial) in cc&d v165.25, the Kuypers edition of Writings to Honour & Cherish, The Kuypers Edition: Blister and Burn, S&M, cc&d v170.5, cc&d v171.5: Living in Chaos, Tick Tock, cc&d v1273.22: Silent Screams, Taking It All In, It All Comes Down, Rising to the Surface, Galapagos, Chapter 38 (v1 and volume 1), Chapter 38 (v2 and Volume 2), Chapter 38 v3, Finally: Literature for the Snotty and Elite (Volume 1, Volume 2 and part 1 of a 3 part set), A Wake-Up Call From Tradition (part 2 of a 3 part set), (recovery), Dark Matter: the mind of Janet Kuypers , Evolution, Adolph Hitler, O .J. Simpson and U.S. Politics, the one thing the government still has no control over, (tweet), Get Your Buzz On, Janet & Jean Together, poem, Taking Poetry to the Streets, the Cana-Dixie Chi-town Union, the Written Word, Dual, Prepare Her for This, uncorrect, Living in a Big World (color interior book with art and with “Seeing a Psychiatrist”), Pulled the Trigger (part 3 of a 3 part set), Venture to the Unknown (select writings with extensive color NASA/Huubble Space Telescope images), Janet Kuypers: Enriched, She’s an Open Book, “40”, Sexism and Other Stories, the Stories of Women, Prominent Pen (Kuypers edition), Elemental, the paperback book of the 2012 Datebook (which was also released as a spiral-bound cc&d ISSN# 2012 little spiral datebook, , Chaotic Elements, and Fusion, the (select) death poetry book Stabity Stabity Stab Stab Stab, the 2012 art book a Picture’s Worth 1,000 words (available with both b&w interior pages and full color interior pages, the shutterfly ISSN# cc& hardcover art book life, in color, Post-Apocalyptic, Burn Through Me, Under the Sea (photo book), the Periodic Table of Poetry, a year long Journey, Bon Voyage!, and the mini books Part of my Pain, Let me See you Stripped, Say Nothing, Give me the News, when you Dream tonight, Rape, Sexism, Life & Death (with some Slovak poetry translations), Twitterati, and 100 Haikus, that coincided with the June 2014 release of the two poetry collection books Partial Nudity and Revealed.
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