These neighbors you never
talk to are out working in the
yard. You remember a conversation
three, four years ago. He
said they might move one day,
pack it up, back to Houston,
when their daughter graduates
high school. It seems
strange, imagining the
neighborhood without them,
the white minivan in the
driveway across the street.
They lived there when you
moved in, 16, 17 years ago.
Your kids played together
when they were small, until
they decided they didn’t like
each other. But the adults
always got along. Still, you’ve
never talked with them
as much as you should, never
made good on the occasional
overtures of friendship. A
flimsy attempt every
few years, a dinner that was
perfectly fine, then months of
hardly a word. But when they
move out -- you feel it now like a
a hip that suddenly has gone
arthritic -- a chasm will open
and something will die, a
piece of your life gone with these
neighbors you never talk to.
I always prefer a wooden
pencil to ink. Ink is too
fast, arrogantly denying
its mistakes, believing
it is permanent.
But a pencil is of the
world, cautious and
erasable. Not the
model with its
shaft of graphite, made
to break, but the
kind that mimics a tree,
thick trunked and
dependable, its life
shortening with the
although it must be
said, the pencil
In the Oval Office, The President put out his cigar. “You can come out now,” he said, “I know my detail has been neutralized.” The North Korea Legendary Special Operations Assassins summersaulted out of the passage behind Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.” They wore cybernetic gear with vision enhancements, and carried Type 73 machine guns. The officer pointed a Smith & Wesson model 10.
“Out great leader can’t let you interfere with our glorious nation. We must terminate you.”
The President pressed the speaker phone on his desk.
In the Ryongsong Residence throne room, The Neon Delta X operative retracted his laser blade and disengaged his stealth camo. He slid Un’s severed head into the specimen bag. Body parts and blood splattered the room. He spoke into his ear piece. “Project Big Man has finalized neutralization phase. Entering extraction phase.”
“Affirmative,” The President said, “we’ll prepare for the southern wave at the DMZ.”
In the Oval office, the assassins laid down their weapons. The officer put his Smith & Wesson on the President’s desk and knelt. “Our families are free. Please forgive our intrusion into your lovely home.”
In the breakroom, an employee had fallen asleep in his chair watching a rerun of Hardball with Chris Matthews.
“Do you ever drive around at night? On your day off?” I asked the girl playing with her nametag. It still said “in training” and she’d been working for 9 months. “I almost hit a deer driving to the all-night diner last night. Them sons-a-bitches are everywhere when the hour strikes. And the cops hit the road too—looking for the drug runners and drunk drivers. So, I have to drive the speed limit and watch out for antler wielding flower eaters and pigs.”
“That’s cool,” she said. She popped a stolen sour patch kid into her mouth. “I’m going off to State College at summer’s end. No more red eyes.”
“I already graduated. Cum Laude, baby. The shit.” I took a bite of a stolen banana.
“Well I’m gonna do pre-med and if I get into the med school...”
“You don’t have to lecture me sweet cheeks. I’m gonna hit the best seller list and everything will be fine. Nothing wrong with an English Degree in Steel Town.”
“Yeah. Plenty of demand for dishwashers.”
“Can it. I gotta go scrape the ice off my mom’s car before her shift in the city. It’s dawn, you know?”
Just What I Needed
I curled up on my shrink’s couch chewing Starburst. “Things have gotten a little...different since you started here last year. You’re acting a bit strange.”
“What on Earth are you talking about?!” I asked.
“What do you think has been a little odd?” The doctor began scribbling on his prescription pad.
“When I sprinted through the mall?”
“When I binged Enya on my CD player?”
“When my grades slipped?”
“When I drove 90 in a 30 listening to trance?”
“How about when you told me you wanted to go to Harvard even though you haven’t applied, it’s half way through senior year, and you haven’t won any varsity medals on your crew team?”
“That too, doc.”
“I’m going to recommend you for some medicine. It’s called Risperdal, an antipsychotic. It’s just what you need.”
I stepped outside the office. The holiday snow was falling and the snow on the sidewalk seeped through the holes I cut into my Kung Fu shoes, making my socks get wet. I rattled the pill bottle.
“They will help you to start sleeping better,” my Dad said.
I rested in the back seat as we drove home.
Ada looked down at the tracks. In the dusk, the summer fireflies were just beginning to buzz.
“I can’t believe it’s been a whole school year since she left us.”
Tab shifted the toothpick in his mouth. “That bitch Melissa couldn't get over it. Thought she might have been the reason. All that talk on Facebook.”
“I guess when we walk the stones from now on we’ll have to remember. She lives here now. Forever. Until it’s our time too. And then we’ll meet again. I’m sure of it.”
“Forever,” Tab said. The last of the light shined on his face. He dropped the rose on the tracks. The two walked away, hand in hand.
In Ryongsong Place, Un watched Jurassic Park in his throne room. The T-Rex was chasing a theme park car down the road. His top general sat next to him.
“You know,” Un said, “it is amazing how long the dinosaurs were the rulers of Earth. For nearly 150 million years they held their reign. They were majestic creatures—far better than us humans. We’ve ruled and lasted for a mere 200,000 years. We are a petty spec in the cosmos. A stain to nature and the other species.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” the general said.
“I know why you’re saying that. Because I hold all the power in this small country. Truth be told, I always found my father and grandfather to be tyrants. So am I. And that is how it will end. That is how the game has changed up to this point. New times and new pressures. And I must live out my role as the so called Great Leader.”
A drop of sweat rolled down the general’s brow. “But you are the Great Leader!” His eyes were empty. He spoke through clenched teeth.
“Put the briefcase on your lap.”
The general followed his orders.
Inside were three red keys attached to a radio apparatus with wires and blinking lights.
“Initiate Cerberus. Lock on Tokyo, Seoul, and Seattle.”
I got off at 2 AM yesterday. The boss wouldn’t let me leave, telling me I had to finish stacking the damn cans of pork ‘n beans.
I came home exhausted as usual. It wasn’t even much of a home — a dingy apartment filled with cockroaches fit only for a failure. I took comfort in reaching for the familiar location of my old Fender guitar. I found part of the body in an old dumpster one day; I was struck at its decayed beauty, couldn’t get my eyes off of it. I took that piece of junk to my old high school friend, Lennie. He owns a music shop down the street. Said I didn’t have no money to fix it. No problem, he said, I’ll do it for free. Payment for that time you saved my ass in English. Hell, I’ll even throw in your audio cables an’ amps.
And so it was that I became the proud owner of a Fender 1976 Mustang. I wasn’t good at a lot of things, but it turns out I ain’t half bad at this guitar. Picked up a few chords, and suddenly I could strum along some basic lullabies. It’d be nice if I had a kid to play ‘em to, but oh well. I kept practicing and soon enough I got able to play some of that popular music these days. Hey, I thought, might as well make some YouTube videos. Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll get picked up by some record agency.
I got out my mic and started up the amp. I wasn’t feeling anything too rock-n-roll today, and besides, the neighbors would probably just scream at me. Damn druggies, all of ‘em. In the end, I picked an old Beatles song, “Hey Jude.” It had a nice lovely tempo and wasn’t overly stimulating.
After I uploaded that video, I checked the stats of my old recordings. A couple dozen views at max, but hey all of them were “Likes.” I beamed. In this quiet hour, this moment planted a seed of happiness that spread through my chest. Someone, someone out there watched this video and enjoyed it. And wasn’t that enough?
The next day, I was late to work. Accidentally slept through my alarm and didn’t care enough to rush through morning traffic. The boss was mildly irked, but she let it pass. My boss was an overweight woman in her 40’s with a uniform that looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. Most of the employees frequently showed up late. I suppose they just weren’t paid enough to give a damn. I checked the shift schedule; I was on cashier duty in the morning. That wasn’t so bad. I just had to stand in one place and not piss off the customers. At least I didn’t have to do the heavy lifting like in the evenings. I put on my uniform and took my place in Lane 8.
In the middle of my duty, a pale white lanky teenager appeared in line. He seemed well-adorned, with a classic white blouse and sharp black dress shoes. He unfurled the contents of his shopping bag on the conveyer belt, and a stash of frozen pizza and what appeared to be our entire inventory of soda tumbled out. Probably a damn rich kid going to one of his parties. I was a bit annoyed by his haughty demeanor, but I held my tongue like I usually do. Nothing good ever comes from running your mouth.
“You seem much older than the other workers here.” The lanky teen had the guts to open his trap. “Is our economy that bad that poor old men are forced to work in low-tier retailers?”
I was forced to respond. “No sir, I’ve just been here for a while. Job market’s hard you know. Got this job and needed a place to live is all.”
“Ah, so you chose this place willingly. Poor sod. Why though? With a decent college education, you should be able to land any entry-level professional job. My friend, dumb as rocks I tell you, is an accountant at a local bank. They don’t let him do shit, you know. But he gets paid a decent wage.”
I snarled. “I never get the funds ter go ter college.”
“My, that shows a lack of preparation above all else. If you wanted a quick and dirty job, simply go to a trade school. I hear welders are high in demand.”
His condescending tone whirled around my head, refusing to leave me alone. I was getting increasingly agitated. Who does this kid think he is? “Sir, please, I’m not smart. But I can do some things. I can play the guitar. I’ll be a musician soon, you know.”
“Please!” The teenager chuckled. “I’ve had music lessons all my life. You’re looking at the Tri-state Area Piano Champion for three years running here. You know, I’ve had plenty of electric guitars before. Threw them away. I don’t listen to this trash modern music anyways.”
The quiet flame of rage charged in me until I could hold it in no longer. I had a momentary lapse in reason and threw my fist at the kid’s delicate jawline. It crashed and I could hear a satisfying crunch.
He screamed, his hands plastered on his jaw. All the customers and employees whipped their heads in the direction of the commotion. Boss came running to Lane 8 with a flurry. She apologized profusely to the incoherent teen while panting heavily.
“I’ll habe you sued!”
“I am so sorry about this incident. All of your items are free today. I can get you some coupons for the next year.”
“I don’ care about that! It’s him.” He brandished an accusatory finger at me. “I wan’ ‘im gone!”
“Oh yes, you won’t have to worry about Dylan. He won’t be working for us anymore.”
I started protesting, “But but but, I’ve been here longer than you!”
The boss flashed me a cold stare. Shut up.
After the store manager gave that snobby kid discounts for a year, and everything was settled, my boss pulled me into her office.
“Now what the hell was that stunt you just pulled?”
“I-I don’t know. Sorry. I’m normally not like that, I promise.”
“No buts! If you can’t fucking control your temper with a single asshat, you’re not going to be able to work here.” The boss sighed. “Listen, I know how you feel. I hate it here also. I can’t stand all these damn teenagers. I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’re normally well behaved.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened either.”
“Well unfortunately for you, if you don’t have a reason, I’ll have to fire you.” Her eyes warmed up a bit. “Look, I really don’t want to slam you, promise. In fact, I quite enjoy your company. That one time you brought your guitar to work was awesome. Rock on! But I’ve got my own boss to appease. Punching random customers just isn’t good publicity. You know, I got two kids at home and their deadbeat dad is useless piece of shit. I can’t afford to lose this job.”
I hung my head, unable to look her in the eyes.
“Look Dylan, I understand your feelings. Hey, I heard Subway is hiring down the street. I’ll help you get a new job. With time, you’ll be making about as much as you would’ve made here even.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said softly. Then I promptly rose and left.
I headed to Jimmy’s Bar and Grill after work. It was a good place, except there was no Jimmy and there wasn’t a grill. I suppose the original store shut down and the new owners weren’t creative enough to think of a new name. So now it was just a pub, where the dregs of society gathered in solidarity.
“The usual, please.” I asked the bartender.
“Old Weller Antique on neat, no straw?”
“You got it.”
“Shit taste as usual.” The bartender grabbed the necessary items.
I raised my haunches. “I’m trying to get drunk, not enjoy a fine night.”
He passed me my drink. “You look like shit today. This one’s on the house.”
“Well aren’t you being nice today.” I gulped my cup down, savoring the sweet burn on the back of my throat as the alcohol rushed down.
The bartender bent over the table and leaned in to look me in the eyes. “Say, why haven’t you done it yet?”
“You’ve got a twenty-two at home, don’tcha? It’s even sawed off for easy storage. No one I know has ever fucked it up with a shotgun.”
I sighed. “I don’t know, really. I’ve always been meaning to, but I thought my videos would take off eventually, you know? That life would get better.”
The bartender shook with a cruel laugh. “Kid, you’re naive. Hell, you’re 37 years old. You’re not even a kid, just a pathetic loser.”
“Thanks for rubbing it in. Another shot, please.”
He poured my cup full again and nearly slammed the bottle on the table. “Say, I’ve got a deal for you. Wanna hear it?”
“Sure. I don’t have anything to offer though.”
At this, the bartender took on a demonic aura. His eyes shone crimson red and his tongue flitted side to side. “You have your soul. I can take that. In fact, I would love it.”
I scoffed. I was drunk enough to play along with this joke.
“Alright sure, what’s in it for me?”
“In exchange,” the bartender said ominously, “You can have any wish you want. All the desires of the world is at your feet. You could wish for riches beyond measure, kingdoms, even immortal life.”
I thought about it for a moment. “You know, I don’t need any of that. What I’ve always known was that I fucked up. I think I just did this whole life thing wrong. I want to redo. I want to do everything over again, except this time I promise I’ll make it right. I’ll take school seriously, I won’t disappoint my parents, and I’ll even get a lover. Please... Just let me do it again.”
The bartender’s dark eyes shone once again. “Your wish is my command,” he hissed.
“Another drink, please.”
Robert Smith was having a good day. He had just been promoted at work, resulting in a $10,000 pay increase. His wife, Sharon, decided to make a huge feast to celebrate the happy occasion. She spent the entire afternoon shopping for meat, eggs, an assortment of vegetables, and even a fancy wine. She headed to the local bakery to get the freshest grains. She even took the kids to an that expensive homemade ice cream shop. “Dad’s been given an even bigger responsibility, so you’ll have a lot of expectations to fulfill from now on,” she told them.
Robert Smith was a highly educated man going on his 38th year. He had a degree in Economics from Princeton and went on to get an MBA at Harvard Business School and now was working at a Fortune 500 company making six figures a year. Robert had married his high school sweetheart, Sharon, and the two had a son and daughter. The son excelled at sports and was at the top of his class. Everyone envied little William Smith. Violet Smith was the younger sibling, but he could already tell that she was going to be a beauty. She had delicate blond curls and a natural, rosy complexion. In a few years, he would have to begin warding off a hoard of boys begging for his daughter’s hand.
Robert Smith’s parents beamed with pride whenever they mentioned their son. Oh how they loved to brag about him! “He was always precocious, that one,” they would say. “He always gets his way, that Robert. God truly has given this family His blessings.”
But still, Robert Smith was not a happy man. After he had received an offer from his dream job, Robert found that he was hollow. He had no passions in life beyond beating out his competitors and receiving the higher paycheck. He could not enthusiastically make love to Sharon, seeing her as only a beautiful piece of plastic. It was true, Sharon was stunning. She was a star of the cheerleading squad back in high school, and every woman in the neighborhood was jealous of her spirit and vitality. But he was never able to passionately embrace her. He loved his children, yes, but he was distant. He did not understand what it meant to nurture them, to take care of them.
After dinner and when the kids were all set to bed, Robert confided these thoughts to his wife. She sniffled a little and buried her head deeper inside his chest. She wrapped her lithe arms around his bare skin and caressed his strong back.
“Oh Robert! If only you knew how much you mean to us, how much you mean to me! Don’t worry, I’ve been reading up on this kind of stuff online. I think you’re having one of those midlife crisis. Some of my friends’ husbands have this problem too. I think they’ve had luck with a Dr. Tufas downtown. Oh yes, I’m sure he’d fix you up right quickly.”
“I see...” Robert murmured. “Well Sharon, thank you for the advice. I will make an appointment soon. He softly touched his lips to hers and let the saliva elongate between them as he pulled back. “Good-night, dear.”
Robert checked into the receptionist bright and early. “I’m here for an appointment with Dr. Tufas.”
“Ah yes.” The girl behind the counter spun around. “He’s been having a lot of patients recently. Please sit down in the waiting area, and he’ll come get you when he’s ready.”
At last, an old man with a greying, but still brown beard appeared from behind the door and stepped into the waiting room. He had on a smart corduroy and mahogany pleats. The man looked very comfortable in his business casual get-up. “Mr. Smith?”
“Ah yes, that’s me.”
Robert Smith followed the lightly smiling man into his office. “Please, sit down,” said Dr. Tufas.
“So I understand that you’ve been having depression problems.”
“No — I mean, it’s not depression, it’s just... Well life, you know?”
“No no, Mr. Smith, I understand. This is fairly typical of a person of your age and calibre. I believe your wife Sharon called it a ‘midlife crisis’?”
“Ah, yes, why how did you know?”
His eyes flashed a brilliant red, and he whispered, “Oh, I can tell. I’ve seen a lot of patients like you.”
Dr. Tufas proceeded to ask Robert Smith his usual battery of questions — where he was born, his parents, his experience growing up... Suddenly, Dr. Tufas stopped. He curled his thin lips into a smile, his tongue reaching up and down. “I think I know what the problem is.”
Robert Smith’s heart elated. Oh good, he thought, there’s a clear cut problem, he’ll put me on meds, and I’ll be fixed in no time.
“You don’t have a soul.”
“You heard me right — you don’t possess a soul. You know normally, in this situation, I would exchange a barter. Your life for a wish! But in this case, you have nothing. Not even your own spirit to offer. You’re disgusting.”
“Listen, Dr. Tufas, I’m not here to play games. You know the last time I went to church? Twelve years old.” Suddenly, tears started streaming down Robert Smith’s cheeks. “Doctor, please, just help me.” He started begging. “All my life, I thought I had done things right. I took my education seriously, I got a good job, I got a wife and kids, my parents love me... So why then... Why can’t I be happy?”
At this point, full-fledged droplets were streaking down Robert’s face. He became unable to contain himself. “I-I’m sorry for showing you this mockery of myself. Why, the last time this happened was years ago.”
Once again, Dr. Tufas’ eyes slitted and shone blood red. “I’m sorry Mr. Smith, but without a soul there’s nothing I can do for you. Except, pray for your salvation perhaps.” Dr. Tufas laughed cynically.
“It’s okay, I understand.” Robert Smith left the clinic with his eyes glazed over and his shoulders slumped.
On his way back home, Robert stumbled upon a dumpster. Normally, he would have grimaced at such unsightly things, but today, for some inexplicable reason, he was drawn towards that grimy green metal cage. He inched closer and found the decaying corpse of a 1976 Fender.
Truth be told, Robert was always a guitar nerd. Ever since he was little, he liked to play loud rock music. Unfortunately, his mother advised him that that was unbecoming of a young gentleman, referring him to the more classical piano. However, Robert would always grab guitar magazines and ooze over all the different makes and models in secret, waiting for the day that he could play his own instrument.
Robert grabbed the guitar and wiped as much dirt off of it as he could. There was still life in the instrument, Robert decided. He knew a guy, Lennie. Owned a music store down the street. Real nice guy. He could fix the guitar right up. Maybe throw in a free amp and audio cords as well. Robert got to work.
Death to disco and its wax
remains, he determined in ‘81
so firecrackered the small batch
of 45s from ’77, ’78, and ’79,
speeding the shards into futile
skies, disposing of the dross
from those insipid years
as he followed the current trend
to which at 15 he was expert—
of course—unlike three years
before when he simply—a pure
child—enjoyed the now worst
Resist the urge to hate the art
of the artist who was a
just because you hate him/her
and cannot stand giving credit
to one so objectionable to your/our
sense that right life must marry
right art and dance the distance
in harmonious steps, one leading
then alternating to the other and back.
You must separate one from the other.
Influence is certain, but these two
are not necessarily paired. Let go
of the miscreant, the mad, the cad
and let art swing—up, away, and out.
Could only imagine a spinal column
drifting down, blown free from its flesh,
onto the standard-issue tent
as the ex-soldier told me
could only imagine the bone-assemblage,
like an untethered wind chime,
clumping, unmusical, on that fabric
torn by the blast
as the ex-soldier saw
and hoped never to, again
even as he made the vision,
just one time, clear to me
Flames over Anacostia Flats
Patrick O’Brien stepped out of the slapped together shack on the Anacostia Flats. The July morning was already hot and steamy. The Flats, situated between Washington DC and the Anacostia River, muddy even in dry times, added to his misery. His denims and cotton shirt, loose on his wiry body, were soiled and sweat seeped through. He looked around the encampment as the 10,000 strong remnants of the Bonus Army in their make shift city called Camp Marks roused from an uneasy slumber.
O’Brien, like the rest, was a veteran of the Great War. They came to Washington DC a month ago from all over the country to pressure congress to give them the veteran bonus that was due to them. It was two years into the depression and people were desperate. They were out of work, out of their homes and out of hope, except for the promise of the bonus. The bonus though wasn’t payable until 1945, and now in 1932, many felt they would be dead from hunger if they waited much longer. They wanted the money now and the Bonus Army and its leaders came here to make sure they got it.
“Hey Patrick, want some corn mush? It ain’t much but it is tasty. Might cheer you up some.”
The voice was his friend Sean Ryan. They served and fought together with the 1st infantry in France and survived. Many of their comrades didn’t.
“Thanks. Don’t give me too much. I don’t want to short you.”
“When we get our bonus you can buy me a fine meal at a fancy restaurant,” said Sean.
“You know Sean, this congress and this President Hoover ain’t going to give us anything. You have been out of work for a year and I’ve been looking for work for a year and a half. The “good citizens” of those towns we passed through on the way here called us tramps and bums. They didn’t call us tramps when we marched off to war in 1917.”
“Patrick, when the Senate voted not to give us the money in June I thought it was all over. But look around you. Even though many have left there are still thousands here in our own Hooverville and more inside DC. How can they ignore us?”
“We and the thousands of others are here because we got no homes to go back to Sean, and they will ignore us or worse.”
They finished their corn mush, cleaned up and walked towards the center of the camp.
Camp Marks was orderly, with streets laid out like a regular city. Kitchens were set up to feed people, even though the food donations were running out. A library was set up by the Salvation Army. At night bands would play music and the people would dance their cares away. The dwellings of the people were everything from scraps of wood and metal found at the rubbish dump nearby to canvas tarps and tents. Some even built small replicas of the homes they no longer had. Signs on the shacks showed where they were from. “Racine, Wisconsin to DC!” said one. Another said “Washington or Bust-Bonus We Trust”. Still others flew state flags and American flags. This was their city and their country.
The people looked like the millions that were out of work and living in tent cities all across the country. Gaunt, sallow faces from too little food and too much worry. Veterans who brought their families looked worse off. Their children had distended bellies and no shoes. Mothers kept clothes together with scraps of sack cloth. White and black veterans shared food and dwellings. The segregation in the military and even in their home states was ignored here. They all had a common purpose and it kept them going.
“Hey Sean, seems to be a gathering over there. Let’s see what is going on.”
On the back of a truck a leader of the Bonus Army was speaking.
“Men, you have a right to lobby congress just as much as a corporation or those corrupt Wall Street bankers. Let us march, but keep your sense of humor and don’t do anything to cause the public to turn against us.”
With that he jumped down and mingled with the other veterans as they all began to head to a small drawbridge that led to the capital district. Sean and Patrick joined them as the mass of people chanted “the yanks are starving, the yanks are starving!”
Thousands of veterans were also camped inside Washington. They had taken over the many abandoned buildings that were all over the capital. There was an uneasy peace between them and the police. The Chief of Police was a veteran and sympathized with their plight.
President Hoover and Attorney General Mitchell did not. They considered the ex-soldiers a ‘communist mob’ who illegally occupied the nation’s capital. They gave the order to clear out the veterans.
By the time the thousands from Camp Marks made it to the capital district the police were on the move. Buildings were being cleared out of veterans.
Patrick and Sean watched with dismay as police stormed an abandoned building filled with veterans.
“Sean, did you hear gun shots?”
Veterans poured out of the building.
“They killed two of our fellows,” yelled one.
“I didn’t survive the war to get shot here. Bill Hushka and Eric Carlson were both shot dead. Now the poor bastards will get their bonus,” a disheveled vet said to Patrick as he passed by him.
The two friends nodded their heads in understanding. The bonus was paid early on one condition, if you were dead.
The police pushed the ex-soldiers away from the abandoned buildings and towards a line of trees along Pennsylvania Ave.
At 4:45 pm as veterans mingled with government employees leaving work, 400 soldiers and 200 cavalry with 8 small tanks behind them moved down Pennsylvania Ave. Off to the side was Army Chief of Staff General McArthur.
McArthur walked over to a cavalry officer. “Major Patton, I want you to clear these red insurrectionists out of this city.”
“Yes sir!” he said. Major Patton wheeled his horse around and led his troops towards the crowd of office workers and veterans.
The veterans thought the military display was to honor them as ex-soldiers of the Great War. They cheered them as they approached.
Suddenly Patton’s cavalry drew their sabers and charged veterans and government workers alike. “Shame, shame” echoed from the scattering crowd.
“Come on Sean, let’s get the hell out of here. Head back to the camp.”
Soldiers wearing gas masks and with fixed bayonets on their rifles threw tear gas canisters at veterans and onlookers alike. The vets, having tasted war before, threw the gas canisters back and fought with whatever they could pick up.
“Sean, we went through worse than this in the war. Remember your training and we will get through ok,” said Patrick, barely able to talk as he choked and coughed on the gas.
“Patrick, they are coming this way,” yelled Sean.
A soldier in a gas mask advanced through the haze of gas and lunged at Patrick with his bayonet. Patrick’s mind was now in 1918 France, not 1932 Washington and he reacted with force. The soldier in front of him was the enemy and Patrick side stepped and took him down easily. As the soldier lay on the ground, Patrick’s clouded mind reached over for a large rock, held it above his head with two hands and prepared to smash the gas masked face in.
“No, Patrick!” shouted Sean above the din of shouts and horses charging.
Patrick shook his head and his mind cleared. He ripped off the gas mask of the prone soldier. In front of him lay a soldier with a young face.
“Sweet Jesus boy, how old are you, 12?” said Patrick.
“No, I am 18,” said the soldier with contempt.
“Right lad, and when we were in France fighting, you were in shorts hanging on to your Mama’s knee. Now stay there. Don’t follow us. And maybe you should be thinking you are on the wrong side in this fight”, said Patrick as he moved away.
Sean glared at the young soldier. “You’re lucky we don’t have guns. I guarantee I am a better shot than most of you.” With that he turned and joined Patrick and other vets making their way back to the vet’s city.
The trek back was a battle in itself. Hundreds of veterans fought back as cavalry slashed at them with their sabers and soldiers jabbed at them with bayonets. Tear gas wafted over the area, burning faces and searing lungs
Off to the side Sean saw a soldier bayonet a black vet in the back. He walked quickly over to the injured man with Patrick close behind. As Sean knelt down to help the injured man the vet said “go on suh’s, just leave me.”
“We aren’t doing that, are we Patrick,” he said looking over to his friend who was eyeball to gas mask with the soldier. “We were in it together over there and we are in it together here.”
With that they helped him to his feet and took him to a group that was taking care of the injured. They sat him down. He winced with pain. “Thank you fella’s,” he said. A vet next to him coughed violently. “Gassed at the Argonne and gassed in Washington. Don’t that beat all,” he said as another coughing spasm shook his body.
They left the wounded in the care of an ex-battlefield medic and joined the routed vets making their way to Camp Marks. When they reached the drawbridge to the flats they looked back at the carnage and mayhem taking place. They couldn’t believe that soldiers had attacked ex-soldiers in the nation’s capital.
General McArthur stood at the drawbridge leading to Camp Marks, hands on his hips and chin thrust in the air. He yelled out to an officer in charge of a detachment of soldiers, “clear them out!”
Soldiers moved into the camp with bayonets and torches. One by one they lit shacks and tents on fire. Scraps of wood, possessions, flags and the homemade signs of the Bonus Army lit up the darkening sky. The books in the Salvation Army library added to the conflagration. Families were forced out of their pitiful dwellings, barely retrieving the little possessions they had.
As the flames rose above Anacostia Flats the camp looked like hell on earth—a nightmare come to life.
Patrick and Sean moved through the camp, helped people when they could, but knew they had to get out the back way.
Panicked thousands, some in cars, many on foot, once again moved as one.
When they reached the outskirts of Anacostia Flats, Patrick and Sean looked back at the flames that rose above Camp Marks. Shacks were burnt to the ground, as well as the possessions of people who came to Washington with the hope that someone would listen to their plight. Smoke billowed towards the capital district. There was a curtain of blackness between the capital and the veteran’s city.
“Well, Patrick where to now?” said Sean wearily.
“Outta here. And I don’t think we will be getting our bonus,” said Patrick angrily. “This was the last straw for me. It was bad enough they killed the economy and our jobs. Now they want to kill us. If that is what they do to veterans who just want what is owed them, what are they going to do to the rest of the country? I think what I will do is put one foot in front of the other and where I go I will tell people what I saw happen here today.”
“If you don’t mind, I will tag along with you. After all I got nowhere else to go right?”
The two friends turned their backs on the capital district, leaving flames, tear gas and chaos behind. They joined the dispossessed veterans and their families, a stream of refugees in a country lost and adrift.
I’m about to pull the trigger that kills
my father. I’m three years old. He’s sitting
in his easy chair in the corner of
the living room. It’s Christmas morning. One
of my presents is a toy rifle which
clicks when I pull the trigger. No ammo
with it, though, so I improvise: I jam
a short green Tinkertoy stick into it
and, on a long diagonal across
the room, I aim at him, aim carefully,
because he’s wearing glasses, and a corner
of the newspaper wafts with the warm breeze
from the steam heater against his wall. I
don’t know what I’m doing and nobody
ever taught me to shoot and I don’t know
why I’m bearing down on him but then I
fire and the Tinkertoy catches him right
below the right eye. This is my first time
shooting with a real projectile, though I
don’t know that word yet. I do know hungry,
thirsty, sleepy. I know what anger is.
I know the body language, though I don’t
know what body language means, of my hand
on my fly, trying to choke off the pee.
I know please and thank you but I don’t say them.
When my plate’s empty and I want more I
scream Meat! or Potatoes! or French fries! though
they’re curing me of that. Pass them pork chops,
I might say. I wan’ mo’ red stuff, I’ll say.
Sauce, I mean, but I don’t remember that.
Milk I know. Water. Kool-Aid. Ice cream. Pie.
Cake. Cookies. Candy bar. My c is bad
—Take. Tookie. Tandy. Sometimes I get them,
sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, look alive.
I never fired a gun before without
my mouth blasting the appropriate sound,
accompaniment for people I’ve clipped
—sisters, brother, mother, grandmother, dog,
cat, goldfish, invisible (but I see
them) soldiers, Indians, aliens, thieves.
Sometimes Pow. Then there’s Bam, Blam, Kapow, Boom,
Ping-ping-ping, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat-tat,
and other sounds even grownups can’t spell.
And when I’m dead I always rise again,
if not as the same person then one life.
No one can touch me even if they do.
Except for being spanked—that makes me mad,
I cry and crying makes me furious.
They lock me away. Sleep it off, they say.
I lie there and make plans and sniffle and
choke my teddy bear ‘til his rubber nose
and jowls protrude and scare me then I hurl
him against the wall and leap on him where
he’s landed, my boots on his stupid face
which never breaks expression unless I
force it and then (except for one crack where
I stabbed him with a flathead screwdriver)
it always pops back into shape. I hate
that—he’s cuter than I am and will out
-last me. Father puts the news down, rises,
pads past me like I’m one of those zombies on
Saturday afternoon TV movies
I’m not allowed to watch. I follow him
into the kitchen. I have learned to say
I’m sorry then, without being told to.
I’m thorry, Daddy, I cry. I dint
mean it. He’s bathing his eye at the sink.
You not crying, is you, Daddy? He says,
It’ll be alright, Son. He doesn’t
hit me. He doesn’t lecture me. What’s more,
he doesn’t take my Christmas gun away.
He just returns to his chair and paper
and crosses his right leg over his left
but it’s usually left over right
so maybe he’s just protecting his whizzer
from me in case I should try to outdo
myself. I’ve killed him—that must be his ghost
sitting there. I’m not sure who’s won. I feel
cheated. It isn’t fair. I wouldn’t be
happy with him dead but living kills me.
is dirty and so is the stove and I could really
stand to do something about this sink
full of dishes not to mention the leaky faucet gadzooks
who knows what other untold projects I could
scare up but ah forget it I’m gonna
drive out into the hills watch the hawks glide
back and forth all day long high above the river and
there are plenty of cemeteries that I don’t
listen to and perhaps that’s what
keeps me just afloat
they’ve run out of wine at the market
job listings today?
not even one, his reply.
hand me the vodka
What’s it Like to Be An Addict?
Do you remember what it was like when you were about 14 years old let’s say and you wanted to go do something that was forbidden by your parents? When you would weigh the benefits of sneaking out to go to a party vs. the ass whooping your Father was going to give you if he finds out. When you get that nervous excited feeling in your stomach that says I’m going to do this anyways even though I know I am going to get caught and severely punished.
That uncertain, empty, gut knotted tighter than the best double knot you ever tied as a little boy feeling that you get, when your mom finds out you stole the rent money out of her purse and sent you to your room to wait hours until your Dad got home from work to deal with you! When your only means of escaping the inevitable is to fill a backpack with your most prized personal possessions and run away from home.
But then you realize if you do decide to flee for your life, your Father will hunt you down like a wild game animal. Gut, skin, and hang you upside down from a neck hook so you can bleed out before slaughter! That all too familiar fear that grows infinitely stronger with each passing moment. Building up to the point where as soon as your Father opens your bedroom door, you will be consumed with an overwhelming, heart-pounding fear, that causes you to break down into a terrified whimper as soon as you see his face.
An all too familiar feeling that my addict behavior has allowed me to, unfortunately, become as used to as one possibly can. Like being put in a dimly lit room with your killer and hearing the door slam closeed behind you! It is fearful, frightful and fun-filled. Serious, selfish, and surprising. Hateful, happy, hurtful, and high. It is everything you ever wanted and all the things you prayed you would never get all ground together into one big, exhausting nightmare!
Being an addict goes well beyond the scope of having a bad habit that you might indulge in a little too often. Being a bottom of the barrel, gutter level, under the bridge sleeping dope fiend is a way of life. Not one you would have ever chosen mind you, not even one you would wish on your worse enemy. But one that was forced upon you to master by the very disease you have chosen to embrace.
We chose to recreationally get high at some point in our lives just like millions of others do for the first time every year. For most the substance use serves its purpose, runs its course, and the casual user will eventually grow out of it as life’s pressures to perform begin to out way the benefits of doing the drug. Or the negative consequences experienced begin to out way the benefits of getting high.
But for some, like me, the drug we decided to play around with for fun at some point decided to flip the script on us. As it decides to use us for some fun of its own. There is an old saying that goes “see the man use the needle, watch the needle use the man!” And as we at some point choose to try and fight this monster that’s within us a lot of us begin the arduous journey of trying to get clean & sober. It is for many a vicious cycle of recovery and relapse for years for some before they ever gain any long-term sobriety.
Once a person gains the upper hand on their disease though I believe that they have through that experience acquired a strength of character almost unrivaled by any other. It gives civilians a combat experience known by few, and it teaches us how to survive some deplorable situations. It is a ride that many get on and only a few get off. A roller coaster of monstrous magnitude that keeps twisting and turning your entire being. Rendering you a shell of a person who wanders about wanting help but being too ashamed and afraid to ask.
Moving forward is sometimes a challenge.
When obstacles plop down way past average.
I see the sun ablaze, but beneath I get lost
sometimes where I’m coming from.
The moonlight follows me at night and I see
the shadows that keep me up all night.
They run and they lurk within the area and within
and upon my presence.
They irk me as I walk around and slow my speed
I bend and i continue because it’s my destiny.
I’m living in the era of S women: the Saras, Stephanies, Samanthas, Selenas, and Syndneys. Sometimes even Sierras or Stellas. We don’t get a lot of Sadies, Syklars, or Savannahs in Northeast Ohio, but when I find one, she’s always a ride.
I met a Sage, once, too, in the alright part of Akron: a little strip of bars and muraled coffee shops. She had strawberry blonde hair and eyes so dark they swallowed the light. When we were drunk enough, I asked her to fuck me like a prophet. She did.
It could be just a quirk, an oddball fetish—but I think it’s more than that. I like to believe it’s something in the rhythm and noise between people, something between the syllables of the names. The way the whole package rolls off the tongue. Something in the brain, in the heart and loins, recognizing a familiar spark. It could be romantic; sometimes it is.
Just now, I hear Sabrina downstairs in the kitchen. The blender growling. A window opening. Warm air rolling indoors. Her sneakers on the linoleum. I roll over in bed and smell the hint of her perfume on the pillow beside mine. All of it holds a trace of the name, just a whisper of the person running around downstairs. Even the home noises, the creaks and cracks, that she makes underfoot carry a dash of Sabrina.
I’d think about it more, but it’s Founders’ Day. That doesn’t mean much, but here in Akron it’s when the alcoholics and their sponsors and their families and their knobby little kids go bumbling around the city. They jaw around on street corners and in little diners between AA landmarks, talking about the wonderful thing Dr. Bob and Bill W. created some years ago. And always by midday they flock to Dr. Bob’s very own house, the little white two-story across from the apartment Sabrina and I share.
So, right now, instead of thinking about Sabrina, tasting her name in my mouth, tasting her, I’m watching a herd of American suburbia and grimy bikers mingle on Dr. Bob’s lawn from our upstairs window. Soft, stooped men in high white socks, ball caps tugged over their grey heads, loose polos and t-shirts smacking around in the breeze. Others in black boots and jeans, their shirts unsleeved at the shoulder. They mill around Dr. Bob’s yard and on the sidewalk, aimlessly pointing, laughing, nodding, smoking.
Sabrina calls from downstairs.
I go down. She’s made lunch: two bowls of tabbouleh quinoa salad. I’m not surprised to find that she’s already eaten hers. I sit down and she stands, swings over to the sink to clean her bowl. In running shorts and tennis shoes, with her hair pulled back into a tail, she is a cord of muscle and tight tan. She’s listening to music in her earbuds. She sort of sways and bounces, kicking the rhythm around, and I hunt the beat springing down her thighs as she steps her weight from one foot to the other.
“Hey,” I tell her.
She hums hello.
Watching her, I know she’s already taken her pre-workout. She eats the powder like my dad used to eat cocaine. She mixes it into her cereal, her salad, her smoothies. When it settles into her system, her eyes go quick and ardent. She gets a warm, sweet flush across her neck and chest. It makes me sweat. For a while, I watch her at the sink. She attacks the dry bits of quinoa in her bowl with a brush. She bobs her head, stamps her heels into the floor mat. Her body is a spring, and all I want to do is throw myself against it.
Eventually, I stand and slip behind her. I push my hands across the curve of her waist, down past the navel, under the waistband of the running shorts. I reach the holy land and she pulses back into me—receptive, I think—until I start kissing her neck.
“Jack,” she hums, shrugging me back.
“Sabrina.” God, her name is candy.
“I’m going for a run.”
I cling to her, pleading with kisses and sighs. She whips around, snatches me by the shirt, kisses me. She dives down into my tongue. Her skin buzzes; her heart gallops against me. I could climb into her, make a throne out of her surging ventricles. Or not. I’d be happy to beg between her legs.
“I’ll be back in a bit, alright?” she says finally.
I watch her leave. I consider, for a moment, going back upstairs to stand at my window and track her down the road—not to scratch some neurotic itch, but just to carry the flows and flutters of her body with me for a while longer. I know that a bit could mean two hours, three, or even longer. During summer weekends, when Sabrina works out three or four times a day, I see her in blurs and flashes, hear her in fits and creaks. The dark tail of hair bobbing behind her as she pushes open the door. A waft of her warm, working body as she goes up to bathe. The squeak of her sneakers. The gurgle of her blender in the kitchen. Our interactions, brief exchanges in the kitchen or in the bedroom, always leave me stirred.
After I finish eating, Sabrina texts me gym and I can already see and feel the day and evening unraveling, their transition completely void of her. Often when she runs, she’ll decide to step inside the nearest gym. She comes home, hours later, flushed and ragged, panting like a horse, and passes out before I can even kiss her hello.
It’s been happening more often lately, too. Our interactions seem like haphazard collisions, our conversations like static. Love babble. Crooning laughter. Updates on each other’s professional lives. The fate of mutual friends, of our local siblings and parents. We pick and prune our future plans, the vacations and getaways that are half-trimmed, unwatered. Maybe it’s all normal. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with what’s happening. Maybe this is what happens when we grow accustomed to the rhythm of our partner’s routines. Your joined life just goes subsonic. A fall into white noise.
I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t seem like our sex were not also just another nameless mutter in all of this low, cold noise. Momentary contact when it’s convenient. Brief and fanatic collisions before we succumb to sleep and, in the morning, Sabrina races off again.
Six o’clock comes by and I decide—no, I realize—that I need to go out. I text Sabrina that I’m meeting a coworker for dinner. When I step outside, the city and all of its crowded heat and noise boils around me. Men in black tank tops roar by on motorcycles. The alcoholics and company, still milling around Dr. Bob’s house, wave at the passing bikers. I go out into the street and unlock my car.
“Hey,” a man calls out as I’m fishing my keys out.
“How’s it feel living next to Dr. Bob?”
I shrug. “Like living next to any other dead doctor, I guess.”
He laughs furiously. His gut sags and swells. All 210 pounds of his sweaty, good-natured gymnasium bulk goes ruddy. “Yeah right, buddy. You know what he did, right? Dr. Bob, I mean. The man’s a hero.”
“Didn’t he spend seventeen years performing surgery while drunk out of his gourd?”
Everything good and whole about this middle-aged, pink-cheeked man goes sour. He looks at me like I’m small and insignificant. “He founded AA,” he says. “You really should be more respectful.”
“But he did that after, right? After all of his operations, I mean.”
The man shakes his head and returns to his family across the street, a wife and child who give Dr. Bob’s home long, craning looks. I climb into my car and swing onto Main Street and find myself in a pack of motorcycles, engines ripping and growling. I drive to the strip of bars and cafés.
I find a bar, some place out of the way, but it’s still early. I find a place and have one beer, two, and then start scoping out the place as the sun comes down. People start filling the bar, packing the walls with a warm, rowdy buzz. They bob to the pop music, laugh and babble. I look hard for an S. Eventually I spot some woman in jeans and a T-shirt drinking a beer a way down the bar. She’s not gorgeous, but her body’s got enough swerve to rope me in.
I go up alongside her. We start talking, going through the rhythms. She’s an engineer somewhere, a dog-lover, an avid fan of Spanish culture. Celine, she tells me. Not an S, but it scratches the itch. I buy us another round, and we’re both getting tipsy, and then some, and we get closer, thigh-on-thigh, cooing amours in a raw, wanting whisper.
I’m half-aware, this whole time, of a flock of women a few feet away. They chatter and laugh, but there’s one, a dark-haired thing in tight jeans, the queen of the flock, who keeps telling her friends how ironic it is that we’re all here, in a bar, on Dr. Bob’s very own day. Isn’t it just so ironic, she says? Isn’t it just the epitome of irony that there are still happy hours on this of all days?
But even that melts into the background static as Celine and I start getting warmer. We bounce and roll to the wobbly throb of some pop song. We slop back the rest of our drinks and I lean in, give her the eyes, ask her if she’s got a place nearby. By now, we’re both hopelessly athirst, draped over one another, murmuring nonsense while our bodies do the work. This is my favorite part. Always. It’s like the tide starts to roll. It washes the place out, makes all its noise fuzzy and distant. We’re trapped in our own pocket of acoustics, caught up in our own buzz and babble. We’re elbowing people around us, catching eyes from the tenders and wallflowers. My hands are antsy around her waistline; hers are having a tantrum against my belt buckle. I start pushing toward the door when I hear the woman again, the queen, keening in my direction:
“Jack? What the fuck are you doing?”
Now, even a bit slurred I can hear my death knell in queenie’s voice. I consider shoving the catch, my Celine, forward, onward, out into the hot night. I consider bolting alone. But before I do anything, queenie catches up and sinks her claws into me.
“Jack, who is this? What’re you doing here?”
I turn around and get one look to confirm. It’s Sabrina’s sister. She comes at me with those eyes, pupils leaping up at me. I’m not completely shameless, so I mount a quick defense. I’m stupid, I tell her. Drunk, too. Stupid and drunk, out of my depth. I abandon poor Celine. She leaves scowling at me, swearing at me, as I stand packed in by queenie and company, hounded by promises of retribution.
In the end, none of it matters much. I escape—wading through the tide of shoulders and arms—while queenie is calling Sabrina. I push open the doors and stream out into the hot, wooly night. I bum a cigarette off some guy outside just to spite my body, my brain, my lungs. I choke it down and go along the street, trying to unscramble my head. I’m usually careful, cautious, but I’m not much of a planner. It’s all starting to go loose, to unravel, and I think, shit, let’s just ride it out.
So I head to the next bar. I’m walking along when I see this tall, filthy, yeti-limbed caveman come shambling down the sidewalk. Ragged, dirty, bearded, he’s almost Paleolithic. He hugs the curb, weaving in and out of the parking meters. I slow down to watch him. He stops alongside each one, hugs his hand against the meter head, and feeds a plastic card into the mouth of the machine. It’s late, so I know those meters aren’t ticking, but he works them like a meter maid—no, like a dancer, a lover. One step, two step. Card in, card out. One step, two step. He swivels, snatches the next head, feeds it the plastic. It’s marvelous. A heavy madman working his meters in two-time.
But wait—he’s got a snag. The machine eats the card, spits it back out, but the yeti doesn’t move on. I expect him to freak, but instead he goes in close, starts murmuring to the machine. He smacks his words around in his mouth, slops them across his tongue. I can’t make it out. For a second, I really think someone’s pulled him out of a museum.
Still slurry, I go in close. I can’t catch a look at the meter, so I go in real close. I’m lover-close now, and the yeti doesn’t smell as bad as I’d thought. No boiling rot here; just a sharp, musky zest lurking under dry mildew. A real complexity.
“Hey, buddy,” I call out.
He starts jamming the card in and out of the meter. When I crane a bit closer, I see the ERROR on the machine’s screen. It flashes this message and gives a digital whine each time the man rams the card back in.
“I don’t think it’s working.”
One, two, flash, whine.
“It’s not working, man. Give it a rest. They don’t even run after eight anyway, so I’d save the charity until tomorrow—if that’s what you’re after.”
I’m about ready to turn tail and leave the man, but I finally make out what he’s saying:
“Nineteen-seventy minus eighteen cents, then another fifteen. We get—mm—we get—aahh—we get thirty-seven. Mhhh-yuh.” But it’s all low, garbled, dragged through the gutters of his poor mind. So I shove my palm over the error message, grab him by the wrist. I feel his sharp bones and tight little sinews twitch in panic.
“Easy, easy. Just wait. It’s Founders’ Day, you know? It means you don’t gotta do this, buddy. Here. Don’t look, don’t listen. Just feed it one more time, yeah? This one’s on me, though. Don’t worry about the money.”
The yeti doesn’t give me his eyes—they’re lost somewhere out in the dark—but he manages to jerk a nod and give the machine one more two-time. I even cover the sound grate so he can’t hear it whine. I think Dr. Bob would be proud.
He turns away and shambles on down the sidewalk. I want to turn around and keep walking, but I’m stuck. I just stand there and stare at him, at this shaggy madman, and just before he disappears into the dark, I see him start lurching back toward the meters.
I manage to swivel back around, but after a minute of walking I too start to lurch. I nearly run into the bouncers outside the first bar I come across, and they almost don’t let me in. But they do. I get inside. I have one drink, then another, and then some liquor. I get sloppy with booze and cigarettes. The noise here is bad, spoiled. I can’t tell an S from a T. Hell, I can barely give the barman my next order—but I’m set on seeing this thing through. By the time I roll out of there, I’m stumbling, pawing at my gut, slurring through names.
I chamber each one, let it sit on my tongue, but they don’t feel right. What was her name again? The number in the jeans?
The night and lights and cars swing past in streaks, the colors starting to run. I look up and find I’m no longer even on the sidewalk. My leg catches on a tangle of bush. I go tumbling. For a moment, I thash around in the growth, trying to free my limbs. Then I’m out. I get up and haul myself across the street—my street, I realize, as I kick leaves and twigs out of my jeans.
Down the road, Dr. Bob’s porch light is on.
The bikers stand smoking on Dr. Bob’s lawn. They watch me, heads cocked. I cross the street, still spilling names, and climb my own porch. But I stop and hang there on the porch. I swing around and take a look at Dr. Bob’s, at the bikers there, and consider wandering over. I could just walk right over. I could shoot the shit with them. Let the night unwind. Ride this thing out. I bet they’d let me stay if I said something nice about Dr. Bob. I could tell them I helped a homeless man. They’d love that. They’d probably let me hunker down and sleep this off. Maybe afterward, I could remember the S from the bar. Her name is still buzzing around somewhere.
I wrestle with this mess, try to force it into shape, until my own porch light whines on above my head. I blink the light out of my eyes and when I finally swivel around, Sabrina’s standing there in the doorway. She’s in her bouncy running shorts and her hair is pulled back into a bun. Her eyes are tight and red and misty. She doesn’t look at me, won’t look at me.
“Sabrina,” I slur.
She swerves around me, her sneakers squeaking on the sill, and dashes out into the night. And I really can’t bring myself to chase her.
Gregory K. Eckert
I cannot honestly say why I did what I did. I’d like to think that we all—at some point in our cowardly existence—have elected to push instead of pull—or watch instead of act. We are, after all, incredibly emotional, and because of that fact, irrevocably flawed and inherently weak. If you’re viewed as a strong individual, it’s because you haven’t been watched long enough. Do you think that philanthropy is about giving? No. Hell, no. It’s how the rich absolve all that prevents the pillow from doing its job. If enough newspapers tell you you’re a good person, you’ll start to think it’s true—you’ll celebrate the person that money can buy.
But that’s not what you’re here for. You need the whole story, and I will give it to you—the unadulterated version.
The first time—and the last time—I walked into his apartment, there was a haze of cigarette smoke spread across the living room and two faded sofas stretched along adjacent walls. An all-glass chandelier hung directly above the kitchen table—massive in size—and emitting a hazy, inordinate amount of light throughout the first floor. To the left of the front door was a closet. The door was taken off its hinges, propped against the wall just before the steps to the second floor. This closet was overflowing with all colors of dirty clothing; board games were stacked haphazardly on the shelf at the top. A damp odor traveled from the closet. Jeremy clomped his way down the steps with a smile on his face and untied shoelaces swinging through the air like unburdened wind chimes.
My parents were always fine with Jeremy visiting our house, but they didn’t want me anywhere near his. My mom would be doing dishes in the kitchen and would call me over to her. “Cops over at Jeremy’s house—again,” she would balk, scrubbing an oven pan, directing my eyes out of the window with her glare. “I wonder who the center of attention is tonight. My guess is that little slut Mary.”
Her questions were, no doubt, rhetorical. Engaging my mother in battle is just something you don’t do. If you’re not with her, you are immediately in her crosshairs. Her words sought out anyone that elected a different lifestyle than her own. Jeremy, of course, according to her, did not choose his life. That’s how she arrived at the “he can visit here, but you cannot visit there” mentality. She thought that he was nice enough, always sporting a doltish smile and wearing dirty, second-hand clothing—
“Let’s go before my dad wakes up,” Jeremy said quickly. “He was in a bad mood last night.”
I shook my head and turned around and reached for the doorknob. Twisting and pulling, I couldn’t seem to get the door open. I turned the main lock back and forth, hearing the bolt awkwardly click as I struggled.
“You have to lift up and pull real hard,” Jeremy interrupted, while I played tug of war with the door.
Jeremy walked up beside me, slipped his right glove off and opened the door in one fluid, jerking motion. He motioned for me to go first, but then raced out the door laughing, playfully elbowing me out of the way as he ran into the arms of the cold winter wind. He quickly turned his head around and smirked at me. Jeremy licked his lips and used his fingertips to tuck his dark curly hair under his flap cap. He smiled and his eyes narrowed tightly below his thick black eyebrows. The lightness of his skin drew comparisons only to the fresh snow falling sideways all around him.
Dusk comes early in January. The temperature plummeted as the sun tucked behind the massive box elders that lined the western end of town. The icicles enveloped the branches, absorbing the last bit of sunlight trickling through the tiny spaces between. Jeremy sprinted ahead like an animal set free. I didn’t chase after him. I never chased after him. The truth is Jeremy is what I called a neighborhood fringe-friend. He helped me pass the time, but at school, I ignored him. We are not the same. Jeremy is simple.
I see him take a seat on the lip of the underground sewer drain that protrudes out of the ground near where the cornfield and edge of town meet. Close to the edge of our neighborhood is an above ground sewer tunnel. For two years we’ve had a competition to see how long you could stay inside without coming out. It seems to go for miles like an underground maze, occasionally providing a sewer grate where you could look up and see some other part of town. Before today, the record had been three hours and twelve minutes—set by me just last month. A few of the neighborhood kids say they broke my record, but not a single person has someone to back them up, someone to claim that it was true. I had just the light from my watch to keep me company—and Jeremy, of course. The rule has always been that the time doesn’t start until it is completely dark—just a few minutes away.
“I gotta be home by midnight,” I said. “My parents went to a friend’s house.”
“Not me. Nobody’d notice I was gone,” Jeremy responded, pulling his flap cap down to cover his ears and licking his lips. “You’re lucky. Your mom’s real nice.”
“She’s got everyone fooled,” I interjected.
“What do you mean?”
“Just . . . never mind.” I sighed and watched my warm breath travel to greet the cold winter air.
Jeremy glanced away and let his legs dangle over the circular opening, jamming his hands into his coat pockets.
I noticed two dark figures approaching from the tree line. The shadows teetered back and forth as they closed in on us. “I see you brought your friend,” said the one on the left—Adam—walking slightly in front of Kurt. Jeremy was busy running the tip of his shoe along the outline of the sewer tunnel opening.
Adam and Kurt were a grade ahead of us in school.
Adam slid his backpack off his shoulder and pulled out a bottle of vodka. There was just a little missing, and he quickly twisted off the top from its long neck and pushed it into Kurt’s chest. Without hesitation, Kurt lifted the bottle, squinted his eyes, and took a swig.
“You two—so cute together,” Adam continued. “Does he drink?”
“He’s probably the oldest eighth grader. Ever,” Kurt added.
“Kurt, give him some,” Adam interrupted, and then swiped the bottle and held it out in Jeremy’s direction. Jeremy gazed at me as if looking for approval. I shook my head decisively and watched him slowly grab the bottle and raise it to his lips. He opened his mouth and swallowed but immediately spit some back out and began coughing.
“Ha-ha-ha. He even drinks funny,” said Kurt. “You would think he’d be a natural.”
“He failed third grade twice—the whole family is trash,” Adam said, continuing to chuckle.
I stared at Jeremy, watching him cough and then try and catch his breath. He took to the bottle again—again with the same result. He tried a third and fourth time, with the same outcome.
“Ha-ha-ha. Aw, man. Look at him go,” Adam interrupted. Both laughed.
The fifth time yielded a different result. He drank from the bottle, and then it slowly descended from his lips, glancing at us with a vacant expression. He sipped again without choking, setting the bottle on the cement of the sewer drain beside him.
Adam reached into his backpack and pulled out a rock. “If you can empty the entire bottle, I’ll give it to you.”
Jeremy inspected the rock, a purple amethyst. He marveled at its intricacy, at its brightness, its uniqueness.
“Now listen,” Adam interrupted, fighting back laughter. “This rock will prevent anything bad from happening to you; there’s a whole story about it—”
“What are you talking about,” Kurt interrupted.
“I can’t remember the whole story. You hold the rock close enough to your chest, you won’t get drunk. It has . . . special powers.”
Jeremy concentrated on every word pouring from Adam’s mouth.
“You’re an idiot,” said Kurt.
“Think I’m making this up?” Adam continued. “I changed my mind. You need to drink the whole bottle and spend the night inside the sewer drain—like way inside.”
Adam leaned over to Kurt and said quietly, “Don’t worry, man. There’s another bottle in the cabinet.”
Jeremy looked at me, excitedly, holding the rock in his hand. I could feel his stare burning into me, but I refused to look in his direction. I just gazed away, focusing my attention toward Adam.
“What’s it gonna be?” Adam impatiently added.
“He’ll do it. I’ll make sure,” I responded, surprising myself at the quickness of my response. “I’ll stay here. It’s almost seven now, and I don’t need to be home until midnight. He’ll never make it past midnight.”
Adam looked at me, grinning. “Alright.” He had a look of pride or satisfaction or some mixture of the two in his eyes. “Have it your way.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Kurt said, grinning and shoving Adam with his left hand.
There was no urgency in their steps. I watched them focus their attention from Jeremy and then turn to leave. I could occasionally hear an outburst of laughing or Adam emphasizing a word in conversation. They got smaller and began to blend into falling snow and darkness.
I turned back to Jeremy and noticed that he now took to the bottle with a new fierceness and determinism. After only fifteen minutes, he had drunk the bottle to the halfway mark.
“Jeremy, let’s just pour out the rest. I won’t tell them we did.”
“I want the rock,” Jeremy responded.
“Jeremy, there is nothing special about the rock. They were just messing with you.” I began to lose my patience. “Everyone does. It’s so easy.” I paused and exhaled. “The rock is just like any other rock,” I said, with a stinging frustration. “It’s nonsense. You know he’ll never let you keep it.”
He took another sip and another, clenching the rock close to his body with his right hand. “I want it. I just want it.”
Ten more minutes passed with Jeremy occasionally sipping at the bottle. I reached for the bottle and then held it in my right hand. I refused to let him drink the rest. “Please, just go in. I’ll start the timer now. An hour is enough.”
“Okay,” he said in a nasally voice.
Jeremy stammered as he got to his feet. He rested his hand on the lip of the sewer drain and then instantly began to vomit. It came violently rushing out of his swollen face.
“Jeremy, do you see? The rock, it doesn’t work,” I said. I sighed and looked in the direction of where Adam and Kurt had disappeared. “Let’s go home. They just wanted to be cruel to you.”
Jeremy dragged his sleeve across his face and looked at me with welted eyes and smiled. He mumbled, “I’ll beat your time” and turned away from me, coughing and trying to catch his breath. I watched him crouch down and crawl into the sewer drain. I clicked on my flashlight and peered at him crawling deeper and deeper until he disappeared.
I looked up and saw a starless sky tucked behind a relentless steady snowfall. The wind began to pick up with occasional gusts that rattled the branches. After two minutes of waiting, I yelled for him but received no response. I sat on top of the sewer opening and took a drink from the bottle. At this point, maybe an inch of liquid remained. I jerked back and spit the liquid out as it felt like fire when it hit the back of my throat. It was only the second time I had alcohol. I couldn’t seem to remove the hot saliva from my mouth, emitting the spit from the tip of my tongue in rapid succession.
I almost forgot—I glanced down at my watch and started the timer and yelled into the tunnel for Jeremy—again, no response.
After rubbing my hands together and lifting my shoulders to cover my face from the wind, the watch hit twenty minutes, and I reached for my flashlight. I saw nothing as the light poured into the dark circular opening. How far could he have gotten? As I surveyed the inside of the sewer drain, the wind picked up, knocking the bottle behind me on its side. The liquid trickled out—I could not care less.
I decided that I waited long enough and bent over and made my way into the opening. After crawling for about twenty seconds, I pointed the flashlight straight ahead—still nothing. I looked back and heard the whistling of the wind swirl past the opening, almost angrily. I paused to listen for Jeremy’s movement or voice. This is ridiculous, I thought. I’ll just bring him back to my house and let him sleep it off. There is no point to this nonsense.
I crawled deeper into the tunnel and stopped. Still nothing. Awkwardly hitting my elbows on the floor of the sewer drain, I dug deeper into the mouth of the drain until I could barely see the opening from which I entered. A foul smell hit my nose —followed by a flash of rapid movement. I saw it. I didn’t want to see it. I never should have gone in. I shouldn’t be here. This was a mistake. Jeremy was lying on his side, his body convulsing. I turned him toward me and saw that his eyes were half open. I panicked. The purple amethyst lay just inches in front of him, covered in his vomit. I turned around and headed back to the opening, but then faced his direction again—his convulsions seemed more violent the more I backed away. I re-approached and placed my hand on his side, feeling his unnatural movements. His eyes were glazed over and without focus. Removing my hand, I reached for the purple rock and clenched it. I began to scuttle backwards as the smell of fresh vomit rushed back into my nose and repulsed me.
My heart galloped in my throat. My breathing quickened. I moved faster. I couldn’t breathe in the tunnel. Not a single breath of air was enough. I tried filling my lungs with air but nothing worked. I felt trapped and that the opening was collapsing around me. I could see the circular opening just feet from my fingertips and reached for it, sucking in as much of the fresh air as I could.
As soon as I reached the opening, I stumbled to my feet and ran. I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t look back. I swallowed air but choked on it as I stumbled the way to my street. I can’t even remember how I arrived.
I unlocked the front door to my house and instinctively went straight to my room. All I could think about was tearing off my clothes. I ran downstairs and ripped a black trash bag from the box underneath the kitchen sink and struggled to snap it open. Thoughts of Jeremy’s face cut through every time I would blink my eyes. Once I got the bag open, I forced everything into it. Everything. Except for the rock. I placed it on the nightstand next to my bed. I was sweating but my legs were cold and my teeth were chattering. Closing my eyes for a second, I placed my shivering right hand on my forehead. The smell of vomit hit the back of my throat and a paroxysm of pain struck me violently.
Stumbling to the bathroom, I turned the knob to the shower all the way to hot and got in. The steam surrounded me and the pain of the hot water soon pelted me. I couldn’t move from the punishment—I wouldn’t move from the punishment. I began to sob—and dropped to my knees—the water slicing me on the shoulders and neck. Seconds blended into minutes until I could stand again. Reaching for a towel, I removed myself from the water and turned off the pressure and surrendered into bed. My skin ached. I looked at the purple rock on my nightstand and closed my eyes—
The halls around me shed their dust
I know this place of de-sewn shadows,
walking the lengths of my ancestral home
while I smell the carpets hiding
their wetting greed
rolled and stacked up, I see rooms come out
of rooms, the walls shift to the forward
of my feet, more carpets, more dust,
shame hangs with their sons scaling
webs, the dust float like angry flies
over an empty plate
that is my body, shed of bones,
given to rituals
as the walls keep opening into rooms,
braver, my heart the one of a deer
on a stick
over a cooking fire, I know the finding of
nothing within something that is everything
and the walk becomes a more
the dust gathers thickly, as though by command
the walls end to a wood-latticed window –
the gates of the shadow
wherefrom it’d enter –
the road beyond a tapered racket of shops
without doors, the open faces of
which look up
telling me this is home.
* Previously published in Danse Macabre, 99
The sounds of loneliness sing
through the eyes,
hear them in the slow sweeping
of oars in still waters,
the overlooking moon’s breathing
like a wolf behind a bush,
a faint whistle of a white winter
owl on a barren bough;
there is a song playing on repeat
in my head
about love’s conquers, happy
melodies in your smile,
your grim stare of a hunter’s,
the sound of wind
between your fingers as your run
them through your hair,
the drop of my heartbeat
in the lock of your look,
the shovelling of sand
under our toes as we walk,
the whimpering of foams
as the water writhes,
the gentle thumping of the pier,
you urging me towards the sea –
* Previously published in Danse Macabre, 99
It has become quiet
thinking up a line of soul,
there is a sparrow
outside circling the tree
at this hour of night
unusually, its feet can
barely grip the thin,
woodless twigs it has been
much like the veins
in my body right now
like a lump of entwined
noodles in a cup of plastic
soaking up water as they swell
over each other
cooking over a slow heat;
the sparrow is soundless
behind its beak
while my veins clamp in
their muddled nest.
Joey Kellog was born twenty five years ago in Fresno.The End
His father Gary was and still is a real estate salesman. He had been a three sport letterman in high school and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs upon graduation. He got as far as Triple A baseball, but had inadequate speed for someone who was not a power hitter to make it to the bigs. The disappointment gnawed inside him, but outwardly it showed in his belittling the accomplishments of others.
Gary’s relative success in sports made him the leader of the guys in the neighborhood. At work, while hunting, fishing or golfing, or at the local sports bar he was deferred to. His opinions on sports, politics, sex, art and metaphysics were given great weight by his peers. They did not question his beliefs that ancient astronauts had created the art on the plains of Peru, or that Atlantis had not been colonized by Lemuria. Gary was not smarter than his friends, but his early success had given him an aura of assurance.
His mother Mary was a minor league (and below Triple A at that) trophy wife. Unfortunately for Gary his greatest successes had been early in life so he had not been able to upgrade. Mary dabbled - her interests included drinking, cards, volunteer projects (her part of the work always involved the phone) and an antique boutique which Gary hoped would make money some years and qualify as a write off in other years. Gary had better luck with the write offs than the profits.
Their marriage was a success because each was self involved and tried to ignore the other. Their unspoken road to marital contentment, if not bliss, was to keep anything controversial out of sight. Mary did most of her drinking, beauty treatments and phone marathons when Gary was gone, and Gary’s cigar smoking, poker and pornographic movies were always enjoyed with the boys. Their partnership was the envy of both men and women, and who can say they are wrong?
Gene was Joey’s younger brother. Since he was significantly taller than both Joey and Gary and had different skin tone and eye color, there was some good natured debate about his parentage. Gary had no problem with any such conjecture since Mary never broached the subject and Gary secretly believed that Gene was better than he could have conceived, so to speak. If Gary had dwelt on the subject he probably would have suspected that Gene’s father was one of his better ex ballplayer buddies.
At twenty two Gene had made it to the bigs. He was only a utility player, but his looks and quotability had made him a favorite of sports writers and fans. His inability to change a tire, locate Argentina on a map, find the square root of 16 or spell “cache” was not held against him, in fact it added to his charm. He did know the important things - Don’t show up the umpire, always wear a condom during sex and then only with unmarried females over 18, have someone else drive after you are unconscious, get a good agent and financial manager (not the same person) and don’t spit on fans regardless of how bad a day you are having. Having a father in the business had helped a great deal.
Joey was the odd man out in this household. He was the brightest, but intelligence did not impress anyone in the family and education was not encouraged. All of them knew that success was not dependent on a college education. Looks and motor skills suffice. His mother made him good meals and would tend to boo - boos, but he did not really fit into any of her interests. His father had spent a lot of time with him until he quit youth baseball for high school wrestling which was more appropriate for his build and skills. By that time, it was obvious that Gene was the one with the most potential so the family got behind the more likely winner. Gene had tagged along with Joey in order to play with the big boys, until his talent made it clear that he was better than his brother. Then he started to hang out with the even bigger boys. By the time Gene was a freshman in high school, he was a better ball player than Senior Joey, who had already quit ball in favor of girls, wrestling and wrestling girls.
Because of his illustrious, if flawed, family, Joey was deemed a loser. This was in spite of his successes in wrestling (not a big sport locally) and weightlifting. A good wrestler of the legitimate or the show business variety must have a combination of strength, speed, technique and endurance. Joey was only better than average at everything but strength. He built on his naturally superior strength with hours of weightlifting with the football players. At 145 pounds he got so he could lift with some of the linemen. He aided his quest for strength with a nutritious diet and supplements which had not been generally outlawed.
Because Joey was not really good at baseball, his father never gave him much advice. Therefore, he got herpes which limited his social life to some extent. Aside from that handicap, his perceived inferiority compared to the rest of his family made him somewhat inhibited. He mostly hung out with other wrestlers.
He had average grades in most subjects, but was good at logic and got good math grades. His family saw no reason for him to go to college, and he did not disagree. In any case no financial support was offered by the family, nor did he qualify for any good scholarships based on grades, athletics or other extracurricular activities.
After graduating from high school, he got a series of jobs including furniture moving, video rental and the like. He liked the physical jobs best because they allowed his mind free rein, but they paid barely enough for his small apartment, meals and a ten year old Corolla. Now he always used condoms and occasionally got lucky at closing time at the local bar “Drown Town”. By mutual agreement, his entanglements were mostly NSA. During the early years after high school he fooled around with weight lifting and was surprised to see steady improvement in his ability.
To find out how good he really was, he joined a local group which trained at the best gym in Fresno. To his mild surprise he rose to rank second or third nationally, depending on the meet, in his weight division. That was good enough to get him a little notice in the local news and some “Attaboys” from family and acquaintances. His mother used him in bragging to her friends that “Joey is very strong and won something or other”, his father was pleased that, as he put it, “Everyone in the family has had some success at something” and his brother told him “I might not be the only star in the family”.
After about a year of holding steady in the rankings, he finally got a break or lost his brakes. He was driving alone outside of town on a rare rainy day when he ran off the road. A friend, Garfield Travis, who was following him took him to a nearby clinic where his legs below the knees had to amputated.
Although he was not exactly famous, he was well enough known that he was showered with best wishes, presents and money. The local tech school “Better Than McJobs” paid his way through programming school while he recuperated. He got good, lightweight prosthetics which while not as good as the original issue, never got athletes foot or ingrown toenails.
To the surprise and amazement of most, Joey was as good at weightlifting, albeit a bit more mechanical, as ever after he finished physical therapy. Fortunately, style doesn’t count as it does in body building and synchronized swimming. Better yet, the light weight prosthetics lowered his weight enough to put him in a lighter division where he could be the best in the world.
When he began winning competitions, two things happened. First, some competitors and fans said that he had an unfair “bionic” advantage. In this case, he was the $5,432.50 man - the cost of the prosthetics as donated by a sympathetic citizen. The reaction to the criticism was being lionized by editorial writers and opinion makers around the country. Politicians of all stripes and dots rallied to his defense as did various athletes who had gone through similar difficulties. He was compared to the gymnast who completed her routine in the Olympics despite voluminous and noisy flatulence. His picture was put on the front of the breakfast cereal of endorsers. He became the actual poster boy (not the figurative or metaphorical, but actual) of the Disabled and / or Disgruntled Political Action Group.
Or so it seemed except for those 7 or 8 people who knew differently. Joey had “issues” and he had a lot of information. Agents had told him number three would get him nothing, but number one would pay off. Brian Silver was ready to represent him if he could move up. Before drinking to excess and past remembrance (what did they do later that evening - he didn’t know) with a physical therapist named Jane Lane he had learned a lot about the prosthetics and physical therapy involved in lower limb amputations. When he was sober he found that Jane knew an emergency clinic Quick Fix that would provide services not sanctioned by the late Hipocrates (who was, after all, far beyond approving or disapproving).
Garfield and Joey ran Joey’s car off the road close to Quick Fix. Under anesthesia, Joey’s lower legs were amputated. Brian Silver did all of the public relations from the sympathy campaign, through the protests against his competition and ultimately the overwhelming support he received.
How do I know the whole story? I was assigned to what appeared to be a normal public interest story about Joey by Sports Deified. One of the people I interviewed for the story was Jane Lane. The interview started at Drown Town, but ended at her apartment. I don’t know if it was my charm, good looks (not likely), the aphrodisiac qualities of Budweiser, or the fact that I was from a national magazine, but we ended up in the sack. The next morning, when I woke up she was quietly weeping. I have gotten that reaction more than once and I know that it can represent either an emotional release or fornicator’s regret. When I asked her why she was crying, most of the Joey Kellog story came out. I later pieced together the rest.
Is Joey crazy? Is family to blame? Should I run the story as is, or the sugar coated version? Maybe I should have another beer than ask any more questions.
The Fire Inside
I never thought I would lose someone I loved at a time like this.
Neil had bought tickets to see my favorite band Iron and Wine in Philadelphia. The venue was small for their popularity. Their album Our Endless Numbered Days had just turned ten and they were playing it in full. I had been feeling depressed lately, and Neil decided to bring me to this concert as a pick me up. No matter what struggles we endured, he always showed me he cared at the end of the day.
Neil and I arrived at the venue somewhat late. Neither of us knew the opening band, so we intended to purposely skip their set. His first priority was to go to the bar and get a drink.
“Do you want a beer Chyanne?” he asked.
“No thanks babe. You know I don’t drink.”
“How about a Coke or Sprite?”
“Really, I’m fine. Thanks though.”
Neil shrugged his shoulders and went off to quench his thirst. As soon as he left Iron and Wine came onstage. Their lead singer Sam Beam came onstage and waved at the crowd before beginning to sing their song “On Your Wings.” My heart began to flutter as I sang along. The song was over a few minutes later, and their song “Naked as We Came” began to play. As my favorite lyric “I lay smiling like our sleeping children/one of us will die inside these arms” was sang, I noticed Neil had come back from the bar. The house lights came down and he got on one knee. I turned to see the spotlight being turned from the stage to Neil.
“Will you marry me?” Neil mouthed.
I shook my head up and down as tears streamed down my cheeks. The crowd went wild as Neil got up and kissed me. As our lips touched, two things happened: he slid the ring on my finger, and fireworks went off and touched the ceiling. What no one was expecting was for the ceiling to catch fire. The tiles lit up like my eyes had when Neil asked me to be his wife just moments ago. Several of them came crashing down and landed on several concertgoers, squashing them like a bug under a shoe. Attendees began screaming and flailing around as the venue broke into mass chaos. Neil grabbed my hand as we ran to one of the exits. When we arrived at the exit, there was a sign on the door. It read “Staff: Please ensure this door is locked at all times. Since this is not an emergency exit, it does not need to remain unlocked. YOUR paychecks will suffer if people continue to sneak in. Management.”
Neil cursed under his breath and we ran to the back of the venue where we had come in. There were not many people left in the venue, as most of them had either been crushed or had already left. Bodies littered the floor as pools of blood flowed from the mangled remains of attendees. The fire was getting worse as the building became engulfed in flames, shining like the diamond ring on my finger. I began to think that the ring would mark a short-lived promise rather than a long-term commitment.
The doors to the venue were wide open when Neil and I got there. We ran towards them as more ceiling tile fell, this time directly in front of the doors. Neil fell to the ground and I cried out. We both knew that we were not going to make it. I got on my knees beside Neil and we held each other. Neil spoke to me.
“Chy, I love you more than anything in this entire world. I wanted this to be the perfect night, but look at us now. We’re going to die in each other’s arms.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way. Just know that this essentially was the perfect night to me. I would rather spend my last few minutes on earth with you than anyone else.”
Neil smiled and laid his head in my arms. I ran my fingers through his hair as he started to cry. He then looked up at me.
“How many kids, Chy?”
“Two. A boy and a girl.”
“What are their names?”
“Bonnie and Clyde.”
A chuckle came from Neil. As he chuckled, a fire axe came down on the debris in the doorway. Neil and I jumped up immediately, hoping our end was no longer inevitable. A fireman chopped his way through the debris and motioned for us to come to him. Neil grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the exit. A feeling of relief washed over me much too quickly. I watched in horror as a ceiling tile fell and crushed Neil. As it landed, his hand was ripped from mine. Blood sprayed my face as I screamed in horror. Neil’s legs flailed around under the flaming ceiling tile. I fell to the ground in agony as the fireman pulled me away from Neil.
I was placed onto a stretcher as I had suffered some minor burns and had breathed in carbon monoxide. None of that mattered to me, though. All I could think of was Neil and how I had lost him just when we had really found one another. I knew from that moment on I would see him in everything I did, as well as everywhere I went. I had lost the best thing to ever happen to me. As I was put into the back of an ambulance, a thought crossed my mind: Neil proposed to me as Iron and Wine sang “one of us will die inside these arms.” I never thought those lyrics would come to life.
About Tyler White
Tyler White made the journey from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida to enroll in a creative writing program. He has been working on self-publishing his first novel, “Cigarette Burns”, as well as taking advantage of on-campus facilities for writing. You can follow him on Twitter at @regretthebroken.
Je dois aller a la lune
A tall woman marched through the rain and up a dark mountain, underneath a perpetual cloudy night sky. The puddles danced around her ankles and weighed down the hem of her dress. I had no intention to stop for anyone, since I was on my way to my son’s birthday party, but there was no way I would let this woman wander through the rain in the middle of the night.
“Do you need a ride?” I asked as I pulled over, I had just sent a text to my wife to let her know that I was on my way but there was a random woman wandering alone.
“If you have the time.” She grinned. She was a young asian woman. “My motorcycle broke down a few miles back.”
“Oh my,” I said. “Where are you headed? I was just on my way to my son’s birthday party, but I can take you wherever you need to go.”
She climbed into the truck, while water from her dress oozed all over my leather seat, and slammed the door behind her. “The moon.”
“Today is Dragon Day, if we get to the mountain on time something good will happen.”
“Like what? Where do I drop you off?”
“At the top of this mountain.”
“In the middle of this storm?” she must’ve been on drugs because I’ve never heard of a “Dragon Day,” but I didn’t live too far away so I could still get to my son and drop this woman off. I led the car cautiously up the steep and dark mountain, and made a right turn through a tunnel of coniferous trees. My house was right up the road, as yellow lights poured from the windows and onto the muddy grass.
I made the woman wait in my truck, while I gave my son his present and brought a tiny slice of cake for the woman to eat.
“Let’s take your son to the moon,” the woman offered, with awe in her voice. “It would be my gift to him.”
I didn’t want my son anywhere near this lady. “I’ll ask if he’s interested.”
I ran back into the rain and inside the house, and I told Lee that we were going to take a woman home at the top of the mountain, and he obliged exuberantly, anything to avoid bedtime. I eyed my wife and gave her a brief summary of the woman I encountered on the road and that she wanted to go to the moon, right before I took Lee out the door and through the rain.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Lee. What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name. My dad said you wanted to go to the moon.”
“Not the actual moon, but close enough.”
“Do dragons really exist?”
“Of course they do. This dragon comes by every year and when you catch its gaze it takes you somewhere special.”
“No they don’t.” I said.
“You should open your mind.” Luna picked her fingers. “You’ll miss a lot of opportunities.”
“Where are the dragons?” Lee asked.
Luna shrugged and said, “I’ve never visited before.”
“Well, today’s your day,” I added. I turned up another street and we were at the top of the mountain.
It had suddenly stopped raining. Well, not really, but there seemed to be an imaginary circle that kept the rain from invading the flat land we stood on. I left my high beams on so that we could see... something. There was no moonlight or street lights to guide us. I stepped out of the car and carried my son on my hip as I studied the ground. It was completely dry and untouched, even though the rain still roared against the pavement on our perimeter. Luna sat on the dirt right before the car lights and waited patiently, as Lee and I watched.
“Come on, Lee.” She patted the ground beside her. “Any moment now.”
I held onto Lee but dawdled to Luna’s location.
“We really should be going,” I mentioned and focused on whatever cloud she was smiling at.
However, there was a break in the dark clouds and a strong burst of white light entrapped us in its spotlight.
More of the clouds dispersed and revealed a yellowish full moon with craters that shown and a slight outline of a face. The longer I stared the more prominent the face became.
A Dragon’s face.
It had sharp features and long wispy strands of fur that flowed past the jaws and behind it. Even sharp teeth that hung out from its closed mouth and scales that framed the face. Even though the face was just an outline placed on the moon, I felt that the dragon would’ve been a green color, the same as its gentle green eyes.
It gazed down at us in a majestic way, but I don’t think any of us were frightened. My muscles relaxed and my breathing wasn’t so forced. I was like a feather and I could’ve sworn that Luna and I were floating all along as if we were on the moon. Lee giggled and reached for the dragon, while Luna opened her arms in acceptance as the dragon glided towards us with a hearty smile and embraced us within. Soon enough Lee started to cry and the woman began to run away as the teeth of the dragon began to close around us.
Why to Fight
Johnny shouldn’t have gone to the tournament that night. He thought he was prepared for anything. He was wrong. He stumbles down the empty two-lane highway under the light of the quarter moon, cheek swollen, blood caked on fist, face, and shirt. His limping gait and appearance attract the attention of a middle-aged man driving a red Ford 150. The truck pulls alongside Johnny and the man asks, “Mister, are you alright?”
Johnny turns to face the truck. “No. Can I get a ride?”
The man hops out of the truck, runs around, and helps Johnny inside. “Let’s get you to a hospital.” At the ER the man says, “I’m Daniel. So, what happened to you tonight? You took a hard beating.”
“Thank you, Daniel. I’m Johnny.” He explains, “There is a tournament for fighters. To compete in the State Finals, you must win in the preliminaries. One of the preliminary fights was tonight. Behind the lagoon bar down the highway you found me on.”
“I assume you did not win this round,” Daniel says
“Nope. The problem is there is a lot of tougher competition. The finals begin in a few months. I need to train more, and quickly.”
Daniel shifts his weight on his feet. “What are you fighting for? What is the benefit of winning this competition?”
“For respect and pride. To prove I am strong. That is why everybody fights.”
Daniel sighs and says, “Not everyone. You are young still. You have a lot to learn. I could help you with your training.”
Johnny tilts his head and raises an eyebrow. “How? Are you a fighter?”
Daniel chuckles and replies, “I know someone who used to fight and win tournaments. I think he will help train you.”
“A’ight, when can we start?”
“You will need to recover. Here is my phone number. Call me when you are ready.”
A nurse appears at the reception desk. “Johnny?” she calls.
A week passes when Daniel’s phone rings. “Hi. It’s Johnny. I am ready to go. I am staying at the Ridge Inn on 27.”
Daniel picks up Johnny from the hotel and drives west out of town down a long two-lane highway. When he turns onto a dirt road Johnny looks around. “When do we meet this great fighter of yours?” Seeing a wood sided farmhouse and barn he asks, “Who lives out here?”
“I do,” Daniel says. When they get up to the house, Daniel tells Johnny, “Before we start, how about we eat and get to know each other? I will prepare while you fetch lunch. Go grab one of the chickens from the yard over there.”
“You are going to train me? You look a little old to be fighting,” says Johnny.
“I am not going to fight you. I am offering to teach you martial arts. Now, let’s begin with that chicken.”
Johnny comes into the house an hour later sweating, panting, and carrying a struggling chicken. Daniel laughs and says, “Lunch is ready. You can let that chicken go now.”
Eyes popping, Johnny huffs and says, “I just spent the last hour chasing that chicken all over the yard, just to let it go? What was the point of that if you already had lunch?” He tosses the chick outside.
Daniel stops laughing and replies, “You just spent an hour improving your reflexes and learning to anticipate the chicken’s movements. Those are important when fighting.”
Johnny opens his mouth to speak, but closes it, and sits down to lunch. After lunch Daniel and Johnny go to the barn. There are haybales everywhere. Some bales lay sideways leaning against others. Most are on the ground floor rather than the loft. The system of pullies and levers that hang from the rafters can slide along the ceiling. Daniel shows Johnny how to hook up the haybales to the pullies and stack them.
“Begin by stacking the hay along the side wall.”
Johnny works steadily until the hay is stacked on one side of the barn.
Daniel returns as Johnny is loading the last bale. “Good. Now, get some rest. Tomorrow I will train you some more.”
“Train more? You haven’t trained me at all. All I have done is work on your barn.”
Daniel smiles. “You have trained well today. I have an extra room you can stay in tonight.” The next morning. Daniel take Johnny outside. He starts setting up the work to do around the farm.
“I am not working for free here,” Johnny says. “When are you going to start training me?”
Daniel says, “I am training you the way my sensei taught me.” Daniel explains, “Everything can be turned into a karate lesson. You will learn many fighting skills from the work you do.
Jonny asks, “This training will help me fight in the tournament?”
Daniel replies, “This training will help you become a better person.”
Johnny says, “Why did you stop fighting?”
“My sensei trained me for a tournament to keep me from getting bullied. I fought in the tournament for a couple of years. I did not learn to fight for glory or to prove I was strong. The first rule of karate is to defend yourself or others only.” He smiles. “The second rule is see rule number one.”
Over the next two months Daniel trains Johnny the way he was taught, having Johnny work around the farm. He continues to teach Johnny other lessons he learned from his former sensei, most importantly not to fight people except when necessary. When Johnny is ready to leave, he says his farewell on the porch.
“Thank you for training me, Daniel. I feel strong enough to beat anyone with the skills you’ve taught me.
“You still intend to fight in the tournament?”
Johnny sits down on the porch steps. “I don’t know. That was the original point of these last few months. I feel better about myself. I understand what you are saying about fighting only when needed. I still want to make those other guys respect me.”
“Are others’ opinions of you so important? You feel stronger than when you came here. Must you prove that by fighting?”
“If I do not prove it by fighting, how do I show them how strong I have gotten?” Johnny asks.
Daniel replies, “Are you proud of your abilities? Even though there is no one here to see you? If you know you are good. There is no need to prove it to others.”
“I think I understand why you stopped competing. I guess I won’t compete either. What are we doing sitting around here for? There is work to be done.”
About Chris Niemi (2017)
Chris Niemi is a US Army Veteran of eight years. He is a student of Creative Writing in Orlando Florida. He is an avid reader primarily knowledge related.
battles and struggles —
your worst enemy through life
is always yourself
Robert E. Donohue
Snow fell on Christmas Eve. It covered parked cars, lined streets, and drifted through tree branches over paths in the city parks of northern Manhattan. It swirled against apartment building faces, piled high in crystal mounds on fire escapes, and froze at the corners of casement window panes.
By six o’clock Father hadn’t come home. Green peas simmered on the gas stovetop. Mashed potatoes had clumped and gone cold. Mother turned off the burner and placed fried pork chops in a white china casserole and added the potatoes and peas. She covered the dish with an aluminum pie plate and slid the whole into the oven.
“Thoughtless man,” she mumbled.
We sat at table and waited. Owen fidgeted. Patricia sat opposite me; Deidre at the far end—her usual place. She called the distance from us “forced exile” though none of us ever suggested that she remain apart. I was seventeen and the eldest. Patricia and Deirdre, twins, were sixteen months younger. Owen was not yet three. We were Irish-Americans, our parents both immigrants.
I’d long ago set the table. Plates, cutlery, and slightly stained cloth napkins sat on a yellow plastic tablecloth. There were gouges at the edges of the wooden tabletop Owen had gnawed when teething.
I knew that Mother, seated in her chair nearest the stove, was anxious to get to our cousins’, the Dolans, for our family Christmas eggnog celebration.
“Enough!” she said. “Patricia, please serve.”
Pat nodded and filled our plates.
Deirdre rolled soggy peas around a tiny mound of potatoes. She wore a gray wool cap with earflaps tied at the top. She had knotted the cords and secured their frayed wool strands with a safety pin she’d taken from Mother’s Infant of Prague statue. Her hand pressed at her face; her blue polo shirt, with faded white lettering, was several sizes too large for her slight frame. She twirled ends of her hair with thumb and forefinger.
Patricia trimmed gristle and fat from Owen’s pork chop, setting the center bone aside. She cut the meat to small pieces as he waited, barely contained, staring at the plate. He kicked wildly and clutched his toddler spoon and fork in his hands.
“Be still, darlin,” Mother said.
A florescent bulb buzzed above our heads. Mother rose and went to her room. It was understood Patricia would mind Owen, who grimaced, knowing he would be in her firm care. Deirdre’s potatoes and peas congealed to a marble-like solid. She poured ketchup over the mix. Patricia placed bits of meat in Owen’s hand, which he shoved into his mouth.
Shortly after Mother left, Patricia lifted my brother, and he raced to the living room. She called to him, “I’ll be in to take you for your bath when I’m done here, Little Itch, so don’t get into that toy box of yours.”
Deirdre drifted away.
Patricia and I cleared the table and began washing dishes. The plaintive sound of Percy Mayfield slid along the narrow hall from a record player Deirdre had won at a church bazaar near Tenth Avenue the previous summer. I washed and Patricia dried. She spoke of a book report she had prepared on Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. We kept an eye on Owen, who lay on the floor next to Mother’s parlor chair, drawing with crayons onto the pages of a speckled notebook Deirdre had purchased for him. I heard the clatter of our rotary phone dialing from outside my parents’ bedroom.
Years ago, when my grandmother had lived with us, the telephone company had fitted our phone with an amplifier to compensate for her loss of hearing. After she died my father neglected to have them remove the piece. Calls made, or received, in our home could still be heard throughout the apartment.
“Hello.” I recognized my cousin Gwen’s voice. “This is the Dolans’ residence.”
“It’s Aunt Ceci,” my mother said. “Will you put your mother on, dear?”
Ten months separated the sisters, Maeve and Cecelia Ahearn, who had been locked at the hip since infancy. Mother was the elder; Aunt Maeve was the more grounded, given to romance novels and Sunday sherry tastings. She was also a master at Times’ crossword puzzles. Mother, the more restless, was prone to anxiety, convinced life presented risks that needed constant attention.
The sisters had married on the same day at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. Aunt Maeve had wed Walter Dolan, a Fordham University graduate, and my mother had wed Timothy O’Dwyer, an A&P Supermarket clerk six days a week and piano player at Sheehan’s Pub on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Maeve, has Michael come home? I called Tim at his job and the girl said he left with Michael hours ago.”
Patricia stacked plates in the metal sideboard cabinet, making a racket. I shushed her. She glared, but quieted her work.
“Mike’s not here. When are you coming for the eggnog?” Maeve said.
“We’re not ready to do the eggnog. I told you that Tim and Michael left work together.”
“Well, they’re not here.”
“Tim knows we’re to do the eggnog. I hoped maybe he had Michael drive him straight to your place.”
“Maybe they stopped at O’Rourke’s,” Maeve said.
“Tim wouldn’t dare. Frank O’Rourke knows Michael’s underage.”
“He’s served him before.”
“Oh dear, Maeve, if I call O’Rourke’s Tim will have Frank deny that he’s there. Can you send one of the kids to the corner?”
“Kevin! Go up to O’Rourke’s and see if Uncle Tim and your brother are there. Tell your uncle that Aunt Ceci’s here and she wants him.”
“Mom, Aunt Ceci’s not here.”
“Kevin, just do as I say!”
Seconds later, Maeve continued. “Kevin’s on the way. Did you know today was the A&P Christmas party?”
“Christmas party? They’re at that party and getting drunk then, the two of them. They’re not at O’Rourke’s at all. How will they get home in this weather? That man’s a fool.”
“Michael is driving, Ceci, not Tim.”
“Michael will drink when he realizes his uncle’s too drunk to care. Where is the party?”
“Michael told me last week. Yonkers—the Pink Elephant, by Getty Square. But it started at 1:30. It’s long over by now.”
“In Yonkers? Can Gwen drive me? I hate to ask with the snow and all, but I can’t let that man do this.”
“She’ll be there in ten minutes. But Cecelia, before you go say a prayer and take some Phenobarbital.”
“He never got the tree, never bought Owen’s Matchbox cars. The lights are still in the basement. No tree in the living room and he’s getting himself and your poor boy drunk. There’s no Christ in that man’s Christmas whatsoever.”
“Prayer and Phenobarbital,” Maeve said.
Mother called me to her room. She sat on a tufted bedcover, her ample hips sunk deep in the mattress. It cradled her as she stared at her feet, or perhaps the linoleum. She raised her head. Lips set pencil-line straight, a writing pad on her lap, the words Yonkers and stewed written out.
“Francis, get the statue of the Virgin. Take your sisters and brother into the living room and the four of you say the rosary until I’m back.”
A framed print of a dolorous Madonna and infant Jesus hung above my parents’ bed. The Virgin’s eyes gazed off at some vision I always wondered at.
I asked where Father was, though I knew.
“Never mind! I’ll be back in an hour. You and the others say the rosary until then.”
“This isn’t good, Mom, you popping into bars, looking for Dad by yourself. I’m going with you.”
“You can’t,” she said.
“I’m not asking. Patricia will watch Owen. Deirdre is fine alone.”
She placed the pad on the end table and turned the lamp off. The room darkened. She went into the bathroom and ran water in the sink.
I heard Deirdre shuffle down the narrow hall. We met near the kitchen. She sat on the floor, her back braced at the apartment door. She fitted galoshes over her flip-flops. A green threadbare scarf was wrapped around her neck; the gray wool cap was in place.
“We having Christmas this year?” she asked.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I said. “Dad’s not well. Tell Patricia that when Owen is out of the bath she’s to watch him until we get back. Mom wants you all to say the rosary.”
“What about the eggnog? The whole family hug affair?” She smirked.
“No eggnog, or Christmas. We may be having a wake if it’s as bad as it sounds,” I said.
“The old man shitfaced?”
“Stop talking like that,” I said.
Deirdre stared over my shoulder. Her eyes glazed, moist, but without tears. Her lips formed a puzzling smile.
A muffled car horn beeped three times outside.
“I’m coming with you,” Deirdre said.
Mom was at the door. She stared at Deirdre. I thought she would object, but she did not. She lifted a handkerchief from her dress pocket and wiped sweat from her chin. She took a scarf and gloves from the closet and handed us our coats.
“Both of you are to remain silent unless spoken to. Pay no attention to anything that’s said, and stay in the car unless I say otherwise.”
I nodded. Deirdre was still. I wondered at the ease of Deirdre’s sway. How was it I needed to plead with Mother where Deirdre asserted? How was it she merely appropriated what it was she wanted?
Patricia appeared, holding Owen, his wet, wiggly body wrapped in a bath towel. I could tell she knew what was up and what was expected of her.
“Patricia, you take the child to the Rosens’ after the rosary. Ask Ida if you can stay there until we return,” Mother said.
She opened a window in the kitchen and called to the black-and-white Ford idling in the street below, “We’re on our way.”
We left the apartment building and walked carefully to the car, which was parked just outside the lobby door in six inches of snow. I helped Mother into the front passenger seat.
“Hi, Aunt Ceci,” Gwen said.
“Hello dear. Thank you so much, I really appreciate . . .”
“No, it’s fine. I’m glad to do it,” Gwen said.
My sister and I stood huddled in the cold, Deirdre shivering as we waited for the rear passenger doors to open. I tapped the passenger window, and Gwen flipped the locks.
“Hi Frankie. Hi, Dee.”
Deirdre nodded. I smiled. We slid onto the mammoth rear seat. Deirdre sat close to the far door, her legs folded beneath her. She opened and closed the armrest ashtray cover repeatedly. The noise of the aluminum against the tin base grew more irritating as the taut spring attached to the lid snapped and screeched. When I looked at the rearview mirror, I saw Mom’s eyes like slits, her face rigid in feigned calm.
“Do you know where we’re going, sweetie?” she asked Gwen.
“Broadway all the way to Getty Square.”
“Yes dear. That’s right. You’ll need to take care though. It’s looking dangerous out there—the snow and ice and all,” Mother said.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Ceci.”
“I don’t remember this car. Is this your father’s?”
“No, it’s Billy Whalen’s—my boyfriend. He’s at college. Can’t drive in freshman year, so he asked me to—”
“Do you know where Getty Square is?” Mother interrupted.
“Yes. I promise I’ll get you there. Sit back and relax.”
“Thank you, honey. I’d close my eyes and pray a little, but I’m afraid of the icy roads, so I’ll keep them open and be quiet. Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Try to relax.”
“You two okay in the back?”
She did not turn. I nodded. Deirdre continued to flip the ashtray lid and I felt sure the spring would break, or I would scream. But this wasn’t the time for argument. For a moment I wondered when the time ever had been right for arguing with Deirdre: never.
“I’ll sit quiet. I’ll just sit and say a prayer,” Mother said.
We drove six miles along Broadway to the bar. The radio played Christmas favorites mixed with popular songs. I noticed how comfortable Deirdre seemed, looking at whatever it was she saw out the car window as we drove through the night. Was it the holiday store lights, the gray-white sameness of snow-covered cars, the spray of slush thrown off by the occasional sanitation truck that passed? I suspected there was something vivid going on in her head—something I would never grasp.
“It’s just up ahead, Gwen. Let me off in front of that neon sign and I’ll be right back,” Mother said.
She turned and stared at us. Deirdre avoided her gaze.
“You two stay here. Francis, watch the front door and I’ll wave if I need help.”
“Be careful getting out. Watch the curb,” Gwen said. “The snow’s piling up—sidewalk’s icy.”
Mother inched across the pavement and entered the Pink Elephant through a lacquered black door fringed with blue plastic holly leaves. A red Bristol board sign that read Makin It Merry at the Elephant was attached to the door. She soon reappeared and waved to me. Gwen sat on the front bumper, smoking a cigarette. Deirdre remained in the car.
“I don’t like what I see in here one bit. Stay close and let me talk,” Mother said.
I opened the door and stepped into the overheated space. A smell of beer and whiskey and the pinched odor of urine flooded from inside. As dark as it was near the door, the barroom seemed darker. Several men slouched at the bar. Shelves were stacked with liquor bottles. Draught taps sat at the center of the bar. A dim glow behind the bartender offered little light.
Mother’s breathing was audible. She spoke to the bartender, a bald stout man. The sweat on his forehead glistened. He wore a green collared polo shirt and red striped apron. His stomach bulged. He appeared childlike—facial skin smooth and blemish-free—he looked like a sweating baby in an overgrown man’s body.
“Excuse me, where is the billiards room?” Mother asked.
“In the back.” He pointed. “You looking for someone?”
“Thank you. I’ll see for myself.”
I saw a beam of light down a narrow corridor. A door swung open and a small man in a tattered, red-hooded pullover stumbled forward. He hurried past. Other men were visible through the door.
“He’s there!” Mother said.
“Lady, you looking for someone?” the bartender asked.
He muttered to the men at the bar, who were focused exclusively on their drinks.
“Somebody’s in the shitter for sure,” one of them mumbled.
Mother moved quickly. I followed. I saw my father, his right leg lifted at the edge of a pool table, his left leg settled on the floor. The heel of his hand rested on the felt cover; a pool cue draped across the fingers of his right hand. His body was stretched as he readied himself to take a shot.
“Tim?” Mother said.
He thrust the cue forward, missing the ball, and turned, startled. He fell back and rolled from the table, bracing himself and avoiding falling to the floor. As he struggled to right himself, he smiled.
“Ceci! Ceci! Cecelia!” He sang, “Does your mother know you’re out Cecelia? Does she know that I’m about to steal ya?”
“Tim, stop it. Get outside. Where’s Michael?”
Father placed the pool cue in a corner and stared, as if he didn’t recognize me. He gazed down the long hall at the backs of the men at the bar.
“Cecelia, why don’t you and your friend have a drink? Remember Bear Mountain Lodge? Remember how much fun?”
“My friend? He’s your own son, you idiot! Get outside, or I’m calling the priest. Just get outside this minute! It’s Christmas Eve—for God’s sake, Tim. Christ’s birthday. Where’s Michael?”
“Your nephew, you old fool.”
“Oh, you mean Michael Dolan. See you didn’t use the lad’s surname. There’s lots of Michaels out there, but there’s only one Michael Dolan. You forgot the Dolan part. Men need respect. You sure you won’t have a drink, Cecelia? I could . . .”
Mother shouted toward the barroom, “Bartender, help us here, please!”
“Right there, Ma’am.”
My father leaned against a cigarette machine; his knees buckled. The barman took hold and twisted him about.
“Okay now, Timothy, outside like Mother says.”
“Am I cut off? Cause if I’m cut off . . .”
“You, Tim? Cut off? Never. It’s Christmas is all. The family needs you to put up the tree. Get the kids’ presents ready. You know like you said before, Christmas is all about the kids, remember? You got to be home with them.”
“I love my kids. I love my kids. Anybody says I don’t love my kids . . . What’s your name?”
“What? Guenther? What the hell kind of name is that? You a Kraut?”
“Tim, shut up, for God’s sake!” Mother said. “Show some respect. Thank you Guenther, I appreciate . . . Francis, give a hand with your father.”
“Where the hell’s Frankie? Time he was tossing back a few with his old man. Can’t spare the time to have a drink with his father? When I was his age I’d . . .”
“Francis, hold him steady,” Mother said.
Then she added, “Guenther, will you kindly see if my nephew Michael is in the men’s room and tell him we’re leaving?”
“Yes Ma’am, of course.”
The outside was bracing cold, but I felt free as we stumbled toward the car.
“Hi, Uncle Tim,” Gwen said. “In the back with you—nice and warm there.”
“Gwennie! Where’s Billy? Were you and Billy at the party? I didn’t see your Billy at the party. You kids getting married? Is he mad at me too? Is Billy mad, Gwennie?” He sang, “Who’s sorry now? Who’s sorry now?”
Deirdre sat, her back pressed at the inside of the car door. She began flipping the ashtray lid again. Her eyes bore into Father’s and his were fixed on hers. His face went slack, with a turn at the corner of his mouth as though sadness had suddenly taken him. I thought he might cry. He had one knee on the back seat and a hand on the rim of the door entrance, unable, or unwilling, to move, staring at Deirdre, as Mother shoved from behind.
“This one of your girlfriends, Gwen?” he asked.
“For God’s sake, Tim, will you shut up!” Mother gave a forceful push at his rear end.
Deirdre grinned. Father’s hand came free; his body twisted and he dropped into the back seat. Deirdre stood in the floorboard well. She watched as Father fell across the bench. Mother and I propped him to a sitting position. Mother sat on his right. I was on his left, and Deirdre, half on my knee, wedged herself against the door.
My cousin Michael appeared. The bartender held him beneath his armpits and shoveled him across the icy sidewalk.
“Mush!” he shouted as he moved Mike to the car. Gwen grabbed hold of her brother, and he tumbled into the front passenger seat. The bartender took the pool cue Mike had removed from the bar.
“Tim, you’re going to hell for what you did to that boy,” Mother said
“Me? Never gave the boy a drop.”
He stared at Deirdre, and she at him.
Mike turned to Mother. “Aunt Ceci, I am sorry. Did I miss the eggnog?”
“Michael, where are your car keys?”
He fumbled in both pockets of his bomber jacket until he found a metal loop with keys and a Saint Christopher medal attached.
“Give those to your sister. Now, we’re taking you and Uncle Tim home.”
Gwen opened the glove box and thrust the keys inside. She started the engine. The heater motor roared and the windows clouded at once.
“Oh God, Aunt Ceci, does my mother know I’m drinking?”
“Hey, Einstein,” Gwen said, “I hope you enjoyed yourself at the Elephant, because there’s a special Hell waiting at home.”
“Does your mother know you’re out Cecelia?” Father sang.
Deirdre cleared a circle in the condensation of the rear window with the end of the sweater sleeve she bunched about her knuckles. My father’s gaze remained on her. Her grin widened. She turned and stared at the rear window and the night outside. She untied her cap’s knots. The flaps fell about her ears and the sides of her face.
“Does she know that I’m about to steal ya?” she sang.
* * *
It was eleven at night when Patricia’s husband, Ed, called to let me know. Deirdre was gone. She died at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. When the phone rang I knew what I would hear, and though relieved at the end of her suffering, and my own, I feared I hadn’t done enough.
Countless treatment centers and rehabs, run-ins with police, stolen family valuables, novenas and rosaries, petitions to every conceivable support group. Her spiral lasted five years from the day our mother died.
“Pat said you’re not to feel it’s your fault,” Ed continued. “She’d tell you herself, but she won’t come out from beneath the bedclothes. Is there anything you need, Frank?”
“No. Thanks. What does the hospital want from us?”
“Nothing for now. I’ll take care of the funeral people in the morning. They’ll need to know about visiting hours and if Deirdre’s to be buried with your parents and brother?”
“Mom would insist on a wake. If Patricia agrees, tell them Deirdre’s to be with Mom, Dad, and Owen. I’ll convince Father McMahon to come to the funeral parlor and pray with us. Thanks again, Ed. I have to go—I need time and quiet. Tell Patricia I’m heartsick for her. She knows she has my love. Good night.”
I sat, my feet frozen to the floor. My hands shook as I clasped my fingers together and buried my face in them. Whatever held me intact to that moment vanished.
* * *
I last saw my sister early one morning, months ago, as I walked to the subway. Spotted her through the window of Daly’s on a stool, arms flailing as she regaled her bar mates. Her hair was matted—filthy. Three glasses of beer and as many shot glasses before her. The dissolute look of her I’d come to know frightened me anew. She wore a tattered blouse that had been Patricia’s. It was torn at the collar and shoulder seams. Her lower teeth were gone. As she noticed me, her smile dissolved. She slid from the stool and stumbled toward the window. I recognized her rage, but as she screamed at me the windowpane muffled her venom. I understood the feeling though. I cast my eyes to the ground, turned, and walked away with a knot in my stomach and a ringing in my ears that lasted for blocks.
Those were her final words to me. God knows what they were.
about Robert E. Donohue
Robert E. Donohue writes fiction—short stories, and novels. After forty years in International business, he resigned to focus full time on writing. He has an MFA from the University of New Hampshire in Fiction Writing and is currently at work on a novel. Robert lives with his spouse and their extended family in Bolton, MA., USA.
Deidre Jaye Byrne
Had she been aware, even remotely, of the passage of time, she’d have roused herself from the near-catatonic state of the past six hours. It was the end of February, a month of pervasive dark and striking cold which had worn the patience of winter enthusiasts and had gone completely unnoticed by Kerlynn.
Around her the kitchen walls, a crisp, soft, pistachio green, set off cherry cabinets, flecks of grey from the countertops echoing the faint tint of slate that brought the green to sage, and were now nearly olive in the first light of day. Days ago the clock stopped ticking, its battery worn down by time’s insistent march, yet Kerlynn took no notice. Heat in whispering crackles tiptoed around the room’s perimeter while the hot water cycled through the baseboard heat. Once or twice each day the tomb-like stillness of the kitchen was disturbed as the refrigerator stirred, moaning and keening, running through its defrost cycle. The sink held a few dishes. The slow dissolution of rotting food and still water resting in assorted neglected bowls and cups, a fetid smell warning that time had slowed, but not yet stopped. Decomposition haunted the atmosphere around her.
In the midst of the stillness decay tempted the future; the new widow sat, rusted in place by tears and time. Anchored to her chair, a too big sweater provided warmth, and comfort also. Her arms in the sleeves once worn by her husband, this weakly knit hug all that remained of him for her comfort. Unaware, or maybe unfazed, she was uncaring of the days passed since the last of the mourners slipped away, the ritual of chatting and prattling around trays of useless food and unhelpful compassion completed, leaving Kerlynn here at the table where she sat staring at nothing. At her whole life.
Between her hands a mug, hand-thrown by an artist she and Tom met on vacation last month. Or a hundred years ago. Or maybe, never. The mug was cold, its contents still, the coffee having long surrendered its heat to the room, faint stain of milk congealing atop the coffee’s surface. Kerlynn had no intention of drinking it; she knew as much when she’d poured it that morning, cold from the coffee maker and then reheated in the microwave. Twelve cups in the pot a few days ago, fewer now. It didn’t matter; Kerlynn didn’t drink coffee, never had, though Tom did. She only liked the smell, and once the steaming was over and aromatic coffee scents finished serenading her senses she remained there, clutching the mug, which, finally having reached its coolest point, she believed would change no more.
In the midst of all that had changed since Tom’s death, the spinning, tilted, remote senseless events, this one mug with its cold coffee was the only thing Kerlynn could grasp. Dawn came, tentative light showing itself shyly in the window, reluctant herald of this new day. Stoically, as dawn gave way to faint sun, pulling dusk along, until night had finally announced its impending arrival, she sat. A dramatic play of the sun’s arc crossed the sky and all Kerlynn knew was an unsettling uncertainty born of withdrawal from the workaday world. Taking dim notice of the receding light, she was unsure whether the day was done or had refused to begin at all. It didn’t matter; her days and nights were without distinction, one and the same. Still she sat. How long would she stay? Grief with no timetable.
It had been almost two weeks since word came of Tom’s death.
Their house overlooking the bay gave testimony to Tom’s success and it formed the center of their lives together. Easy summer parties with friends lounging on the deck and cozy insulated dinners in winter marked the weeks and weekends of their lives. Kerlynn loved Tom, and loved their life together in a way that enlarged her spirit and filled in all the gaps. A wholeness of place and purpose grew from her life with Tom and allowed her to believe the future would just unfold, in whatever time the universe intended, peacefully and purposefully, with Tom by her side. Always with Tom by her side. If she dared to look at the future now it was like an old photo where one person was torn away, leaving the picture ragged and incomplete.
He’d been a successful salesman for years and had recently switched from selling pharmaceuticals to artificial hips for replacement procedures. The training had been intense; six weeks in Chicago and then another few with a more experienced rep. His first week on his own in the city he walked out of a surgeon’s office as a cab jumped the curb and crushed him against the side of the building. One instant, one error, one miscalculation; one life over and a yawning, tearing wound had been slashed forever across another’s whole world.
It was evening before Kerlynn heard from Tom’s boss, four dirty martinis under his belt, liquid prelude as he prepared to deliver the news. His voice was thick and distant, a man reading a script he’d never seen before, in a language he’d been taught but never practiced. Kerlynn asked him to repeat himself four or maybe five times; it seemed to her near the end of the call that he was becoming annoyed by her failure to absorb the news. Certain Tom’s boss was mistaken, she settled for the name of the hospital and set off on her own. A mistake. He must have meant to say, “dead tired,” was all. She’d just need to get to the hospital, sign Tom out and bring him home.
But it hadn’t been like that. The entrance to the emergency room was crowded with police, a news crew, and onlookers everywhere. Another ambulance pulled in and released its portly occupant, sitting nearly upright on the stretcher, alert as an actor waiting for the director to shout, “Action!” before lying down to begin his part. Kerlynn felt herself swept unwillingly into the confused scene and further on into the triage lobby before she was able to find someone to ask about her husband.
At the mention of Tom’s name two things happened at once. The nurse stretched one hand across the counter and while, picking up the paging phone with the other, grabbed Kerlynn’s gloved hand, “I am so sorry.”
It was a weak bridge and it did not sustain her. That was the one thing, as she was later to recall it. The second thing: Kerlynn felt her knees wobble, the room swirl and darken; a whoosh of wood-patterned Formica rushing past her as the floor approached. The rest did not matter. Time passed. Her friend and colleague, Casey, along with Tom’s brother, Steve, came through the haze. There were papers for signature, and people talking in warm slow voices. Sympathetic voices in tones that confused her, though she didn’t know why. A switch had gone off in her brain. Why she was there? Where was Tom? Who needed these papers she was signing? At no point did Kerlynn ask; to do so would be to volunteer for a part she did not wish to play. In dreams we are a part of and not a part of the unfolding events. Kerlynn felt that separation, that detachment, and found herself caught.
Then there was a warm car where Kerlynn tried to understand why she was in the back seat and why there was no sense to be had of anything else, her head in soup, her chest cleaved in two while her heart beat limpingly along, a faint throb with each passing streetlight. The streetlights appeared as rays from heaven; she looked past the front seat, through the windshield and saw each beam of light fasten upon the hood of the car, drawing them onwards through the black night until the next streetlight’s beam reached out to pull them further still. In silence she rode, passive passenger, as light beams drew her toward a future she’d not anticipated and away from the future she’d had.
The radio proved insufficient distraction for Bethany, driving to work alone for the ninth day in a row. In the domino aftermath of Tom’s death Bethany’s entire morning routine had become unstable, uncertain, and left her feeling fragile in a way she recognized as both unaccustomed and undeserved. Nearly two weeks of riding solo should have become, or could have qualified, as a new routine; yet she made herself believe it was temporary. To consider the alternative, that Tom’s death would impact her own life, change her world in some permanent way, was to entertain the idea that her security would not hold.
Kerlynn, Tom, Bethany, Max—how long had they been together? How long had they been colleagues, neighbors, friends? Ten years? Fifteen? Bethany wasn’t sure. Long enough to have assured her that this life was real, permanent, secure. And security was very, very important to Bethany, whose consciousness occupied a fragile plane, perpetually balancing fear and caution on a fulcrum of the unknown. Security was the counterweight to her chaotic and frightening childhood. This world, she believed, held only a fixed amount of happiness. Bethany hoarded what she perceived to be her spare allotment and would not risk her portion.
Caution defined Bethany. As a religion practiced daily, her devotion was a rigorous, visceral thing and it allowed her to maintain a façade of confidence as a monk displays his affect of calm in the midst of worldly calamity. Bethany kept chaos at bay by being prepared, ready for all emergencies. A fully stocked closet of supplies was her church, preparation a religious virtue, a prayer made without ceasing.
Max’s unwavering support of his wife, even at her most eccentric, led him to build a large storage closet in the garage containing all the emergency supplies Bethany expected to need for almost any situation. Bottled water, powdered milk, canned goods, batteries, a hand cranked emergency radio, a go bag, plastic ponchos, a first aid book, a first aid kit, flares, a small shovel, iodine tablets, photocopies of important family documents were all secreted away as was a substantial amount of cash. Each item an amulet or totem she believed would protect her and Max. Now she was faced with a different kind of emergency.
The random, unaccountable fact of Tom’s death challenged all Bethany had believed in, worked for and clung to. Did she mourn Tom’s death or the death of something else, something she could sense, but not yet name? Sadness unsettled her and she could never be still long enough to consider what the difference might be.
Tom’s sudden death— not from illness, not from carelessness, not from lack of care and exercise— was a shock to her sensibilities. A random force from a too wide and chaotic world. It wasn’t that she didn’t know such things happened, it was there in the papers every day; it was that she’d never allowed that these things might happen within her sphere. She’d created for herself the illusion that she could keep a bubble of protection around them all, never considering that a bubble would almost certainly burst. Her illusion of security now was shattered into an uncountable number of shards. A massive mallet the force, the weight of it, the directness of the blow, the scatter pattern of its spent energy destabilized her world and left her grieving: for Tom’s death, for Kerlynn’s loss, for her own folly in thinking her efforts could hold back the tide.
This thing that happened to Tom was a catastrophe Bethany had never imagined, and in being forced to take it on, to add it to her list of things to ward off, she found the task to be of a magnitude whose challenge she was unable to articulate; it sent a chill up her spine. No one announced when a train would go off the rails, no one announced when the plane would crash and now she learned, no one announced when a cab would jump the curb. She just hadn’t thought of that before, always putting her trust in seat belts and air bags, security checks and constant vigilance.
Now she tossed and turned at night, anxiety teasing her from dreams and the dark allowing her imagination to morph out of control. Night after night she’d lie in bed trying to soothe herself, a supplicant at the altar of stability, reciting the catechism of her precautions, preparations, and prayers.
The days passed but still her anxiety, her fear of the next unknown thing grew within her, haunting her nights and stalking her days; she tossed and fretted and clung to Max so fiercely, so unrelentingly, that in the mornings her exhaustion was outpaced only by Max’s eagerness to be gone from the house, from the grief he did not understand, and away from the suffocating, arresting force of Bethany’s fears.
As if Tom’s death had released a contagion of danger and unpredictability, Bethany fell into a state of total distraction. The several days after Tom’s burial had been marked by sleeplessness and confusion of an order which in and of itself began to constitute an emergency. Max could not assuage her distraction. All manner of unforeseen tragedy lurked within her timorous, terrified heart. She began to believe she recognized dangers previously unnoticed emerging now everywhere. She plunged headlong into mourning far beyond anything equal to Tom’s death, its manner or its suddenness. Sitting across a table from Max would send her mind wondering in a downward spiral: how would she cope without Max? How could she bear a table set for one? Who would hold her in those hours when neurotic needs made her frantic and afraid? What would be her reason for living? Max tried over and over to assure her all was well, but to no avail. Now she saw death everywhere. Daily she was drained.
What she did not know, could not know, was that in six months’ time she’d come home to find Max gone, dead of an aneurysm, hidden predator, enlarged and ruptured, a silent ticking time bomb undetected, stealthily preparing to steal away her last illusion of security. Grief with no timetable.
Casey closed her classroom door against the undisciplined noises from the room across the hall and sat down to grade the spelling test she’d given earlier that morning. Kerlynn’s substitute was really no substitute at all, just an inexperienced child with a degree in education hoping for a job. Casey had tried to help, to show her how Kerlynn had set things up, and give her some tips to control the children. They weren’t a difficult class, but they saw their teacher’s absence as both a holiday from the usual rules and routines as well as a chance to toy with the youthful surrogate, much as a cat might play with a ball of foil. Unlike Bethany, whose life’s work was to ward off all possible threats to health and happiness, Casey’s ambition was to bore in on one issue, one cause, one problem, and fix it. And by her methodical labors she planned to save the world—or at least her world. Casey was a fixer; a perseverator with the ability to analyze a problem, isolate its component parts to their most elemental state and then dissect even that bit of minutia until all that remained was dust. And her ulcer. Larger problems, more pressing problems could require her attention and clamor for resolution, but if it was not the problem Casey had in her sights it simply did not exist.
Kerlynn’s complete withdrawal since Tom’s death had become the focus of Casey’s concentrations. With each day that slid by the distraction took up more and greater residence in her heart and her mind.
Once at home, alone on her sofa, tumbler in hand, Casey worked to consider the problem at a distance; a way to get a clearer look and also to still the selfish heartbreak brought on by Tom’s death. Not because of any particular affection for Tom, but because he was the locus of all Kerlynn’s joy and strength; without him Casey had also lost Kerlynn, her most dear and cherished friend, a soul mate in a life of loneliness and struggle, a life she had been trying to fix herself for so long.
Surely one cannot grieve forever, or else all the world would have stopped a million years before. Now Casey took the dilemma of Kerlynn’s refusal to rejoin the world and snapped it out before her with the force of a charwoman shaking out a rug, determined to loosen whatever was clogging her friend’s brain. A tiny voice in Casey’s mind tried to tell her that Kerlynn could be moved from her entrenched place of sadness. She’d not plummeted to despair; she was just stuck in place with her grief. Yes, but for how long, Casey asked herself. The question circled through her brain unsteadily, uncertainty shifting the trajectory so that each time the question rebounded from the walls of her mind, with a harsh and callous echo that informed her that this time, maybe, she was defeated. Kerlynn had not returned a single call since the day of Tom’s funeral. Maybe, Casey thought, this was finally the place where she could not make a change. Maybe at last life had handed her something she could not fix. But if she could not do this one thing for her friend then what good was she?
How to help? What to say? The physical part of comforting and caring for a broken and hurt friend, that was easy enough for Casey to play out in her mind. What Casey could not figure out was the words. What words could possibly be useful now? Must some words be spoken or is it the silence that courts the grief, accentuates and extends the places cracked open in the wailing heart? What stops the clock of grief? What are the magic words that call for a time out? What calendar tells us when grief will have run its course?
Engaging the problem more deeply, Casey pushed herself to think about the forces that fed grief, the unravelling of a life, tattered bits of memories never fully formed, thrown away into a burned out future never to exist except in dreams. Grief, Casey saw, was a bleeding wound in reverse, all the pain coming in, not pouring out. And so the healing cannot be seen, there is no scab slowly forming over the injury, no way to measure whether or not the wound is closing and how much more time may be needed.
Casey remembered when her mother had returned home after surgery for a ruptured appendix, the incision still open. The risk of post-surgical infection prohibited the incision from being stitched closed. Daily a nurse came to cleanse the wound and change the dressing, every few days measuring the depth of the healing incision. The wound was open, it’s inner place visible less and less. As time passed layers of skin closed in upon themselves. Maybe Kerlynn’s grief was like that, Casey considered. Maybe it just opened you up and you had to heal on the inside first, lest too much sadness be trapped below the surface to fester.
The only thing to do, Casey decided then, was to put an end to the space between them, the time out she had allowed Kerlynn needed to be over. Kerlynn had to come back to the living. Casey needed her, needed their friendship. The plan took shape. The fix emerged as a vision Casey played out while filling her tumbler a second time. All she had to do was go to Kerlynn’s house and ring the bell or knock on the door until Kerlynn finally opened up. She’d stand there all night if need be. And when Kerlynn finally opened the door, Casey would just walk in and hug her friend, just stand there, for as long as needed, hugging her. Casey could already imagine the magic healing in that hug, could feel the way she would softly rock her friend back and forth while they stood together in the front hall, crying together and rocking back and forth. Solace in the movement, solace in the tears. Casey could see herself leading Kerlynn to the sofa, bringing her pillow and blanket from the empty bed, tucking her in. Heating up some soup and cleaning up the mess she knows will be in the sink. She knows, just knows, Kerlynn has probably done nothing more than drink tea and maybe think to eat some toast. Casey would sit in the big chair, next to the sofa, a chair too big for the room, but a piece Kerlynn would not part with. Kerlynn liked its kilim pattern; it made her happy to sit and trace the patterns with her fingers on nights she stayed up late waiting for Tom’s return from a business trip.
Propelled now by her carefully plotted solution to Kerlynn’s problem, Casey drained the tumbler, grabbed her coat and keys and, filled with the comfort of knowing at last the fix for her broken hearted friend, headed out the door.
She drove along the highway, a road she’d traversed a thousand times. Her mind continued reviewing her plan: what she’d say if Kerlynn said this, what she’d do if Kerlynn said that. This was Casey’s strength, this drilling herself to the finest point of whatever she was concentrating on. She’d separated herself from the attention the road required, trusting memory and instinct to give her mind free range. Her thoughts had taken her past the exit for Kerlynn’s block. Casey surrendered to her detached auto pilot, paying little heed to her surroundings, her thoughts unfolding the problem, rehearsing her words, reviewing and reparsing each single day since Tom’s death. As she drew closer to her destination Casey began feeling lighter at the chance to bring back her friend. That hope fired her as she pushed toward the solution. Rain and wintery sleet mixed and assaulted the front glass but as her wipers dragged across the windshield the road dirt smeared. She swore and drove a little faster, impatient to reach her friend. Now she had a plan. Now she was ready for action. Charged with the certainty of her decision, elated at having figured out the fix, she needed only double back across the service road to retrace her path, compensating for the missed exit. She glanced over her shoulder and accelerated as she changed lanes, unaware of the truck merging on her right until the horn and shrieking brakes shocked her, until her car collided with the rig and burst into flames.
The outrageous, obscene screeling of metal and brakes as the truck and the car met: no one would know who screamed louder or what frantic maneuvers Casey hoped would right the situation; it was only an instant, the car hydroplaning across the black space between the broken white lines, bouncing off the high concrete wall and catching against the back half of the tanker as it’s driver, unable to find the car in his mirrors, fought to control the truck. More screeching: brakes, metal, tires against the asphalt, metal and glass on concrete; a cacophony of disaster and death.
The windshield lost the battle with the concrete divider. The impact locked the seat belt, the air bag snapped Casey’s head against the back of the seat as the tanker tipped on its side, pinning the car against the retaining wall, knocking Casey unconscious. Casey never felt the flames that overwhelmed her car, never heard the screams of the truck driver, crazy with shock and terror, who would never again able to get behind the wheel of a truck or even a car for the rest of his life. One moment a life; one moment a death. Grief with no timetable.
For an instant something inside her stirred and Kerlynn thought she might get up, maybe turn on a light, maybe, finally pick up the phone and call Casey, her poor, dear friend Casey, whose repeated entreaties had only now begun to pierce the stultifying haze of her sadness. A flutter of life seemed about to take hold, the barest of sparks, but that impulse died too and Kerlynn retreated once more. Her hands held on still to the mug she’d alternately gripped and caressed since morning. The clock still silent. Whispering crackles of heat; faint fetid smells arising unchallenged from the sink. Kerlynn sat, stared. Too tired to make the call. Too uncertain of why she should. Another sun set, another sun rose. Grief with no timetable.
Abandoned Railway Line, photography by Olivier Schopfer
James N. Thomas
I stare at the fresh mural on the wall with an admiration that I wasn’t anticipating. In the flesh, the man has incredible ears, and the artist really nails it here. Impressive for a teenage shithead with a rattle can. I follow the lines and the wrinkles and the excited, nervous eyes. Cartoonish beads of sweat trickle down the ten-foot tall face and his mouth twists into a scowl. Beside his mug are two dates crossed through with Xs—one from twenty years ago, and one from three months ago.
“Motherfuckers,” I say to myself.
I sigh and force my thumb and forefinger into my eye sockets and rub back and forth, trying to scrub the image from my mind. This is not going to come off. We’re going to have to paint over it, which means we’re going to have to coat the entire building for consistency. I can’t even imagine what maintenance will say when I tell them. The donations have reduced to a trickle since the latest bungle. Missing the rapture once is bad enough, but at least it happened in the nineties before the internet could bounce it around. People forget, and people move on. Now, however, the entire world is laughing, and there is a ten-foot reminder to greet you as soon as you pull into the parking lot. I turn my attention to the security box and walk over.
Ricky, the enormous night watchman, has already fallen asleep again, and I can hear the gurgling from his sleep apnea a good ten feet away. Worthless.
I survey the surrounding land. Loblolly pines and small, rolling hills everywhere. I wonder why people would drive across states or hours from the nearest airport to such a shitty little town, but the faithful are always willing to fork over cash to watch depictions of the damned writhing in torment. I am here because I was born here. My parents would drag me every Sunday to that same place, back when it was just a church and the engineer-turned-reverend, Josiah Arlington, had not yet taken over and turned the place into Six Flags Over Jesus. His ministry centered on a divine calculus he claimed to have discovered in a book written in a time when understanding basic arithmetic would’ve been a luxury.
I peer to the east towards the blacktop road cutting through the trees and over the center of the hilltop. The sun throbs and boils over from behind it, fuming a red veneer over the morning sky. A woman steps out onto the blacktop in front of it and seems to stare at me and into me. She wears a simple black dress and wrapped around the sides of her purple-gold hair I can see a headdress of antlers. No longer able to hold my gaze against the light I snap my eyes closed, leaving an imprint of the scene shimmering in shades of green and gold behind my eyelids. When I open them again she’s gone, and a doe is standing in her place. I shrug.
To my right, I see that my boss, Mr. Whittle, has pulled into the parking lot. There goes plausible deniability. With Ricky snoozing in the security box I could have gotten away with claiming that I hadn’t yet heard the frantic voicemails, and this could be somebody else’s mess for a couple of hours. But really, where else am I going to be? I’m sure as shit not in the mood to go home to my parents and their post-rapture mania. They believed Arlington when he said that the rapture had occurred on schedule, but it had been a spiritual event, and the end is still coming, right on schedule. And there I was, looking forward to being caught up in the air. Personally, I sometimes wonder if maybe it really has already happened, but it was so long ago that no one remembers and such few people were worthy that no one even noticed. This is our tribulation, to make sense of it all.
I walk over to Mr. Whittle, trying to force a smile, but I’m just too tired.
“Jesus Harold,” he says looking at the masterpiece on the wall. “What a shit show.”
“You’re telling me,” I respond stupidly, wishing I’d not said anything.
“We have a way bigger fire to put out,” he tells me, frowning.
I glance around over the fence, wondering if the animatronic First Angel had malfunctioned overnight and set something on fire with his fiery trumpet again. It was always acting up, but that one was a real crowd favorite and brought in too much money to shut down for repairs. Then it hits me that he wasn’t talking about an actual fire, and I feel like an idiot.
“What else could possibly be wrong?” I ask him.
“It’s Arlington,” he says. “He’s missing.”
Mr. Whittle fumbles with his keys at the lock, cursing. He tries six or seven before the correct one slides into place with that familiar bone-on-bone grinding sound. We step into the portable building, and immediately the scent of sickness floods my nose. I choke down the urge to gag. In the middle of the room sits an empty hospital bed, and a braid of discarded tubes and wires hangs from the side, pooling on the floor.
“The man’s been unconscious for a month,” I say, wishing I could evaporate on the spot. “Where the hell is the overnight nurse?”
He throws a meaningful look my direction. It isn’t exactly a secret that Mike, the kid who plays Tortured Man #24 on the weekends, sneaks past Ricky at night to hop the fence and slip one in with her. But really, who else are we going to get to sit with his heap? We can’t exactly fire her, lest she tells the world what the ministry elders have been hiding out here in the back forty. And she knows it. She pulls a better salary than mostly everyone except for Mr. Whittle.
“Right,” I say. “I’ll track Tanya down.”
“Aaron,” he says to me, gripping my left shoulder in his meaty paw. The dried-bark flesh of his finger looks as if it is trying to spill over his gold wedding band the way a tree does to barbed wire. “We need to figure this out quickly. If word gets out, this’ll be the end of everything. Just think of the good we do here.”
I try to conjure up in my mind exactly what exactly it is that we have left to offer. Josiah’s whole schtick was trying to win souls by hanging a looming deadline over everyone’s head. Haven’t gotten right with God yet? That’s OK, there’s still time to become a new creature in Christ, but supplies are limited, so act now. But the horse is already out of the barn, and the only people still buying tickets or sending donations are the ones with Stockholm syndrome, the ones like my parents. Then I think of the people who work at the park, most of them I grew up with. With the sawmill closed last Spring, there just aren’t any jobs left.
I nod, and he half pats me on the back, half pushes me through the door. I start walking towards the gates of New Jerusalem.
Arlington was especially proud of New Jerusalem. It’s designed to be the centerpiece of the park, and just like Rome before it, all roads eventually lead back to it if you just follow them long enough. He built it at the zenith of his movement and it was meant to serve as a beacon of God’s glory in the coming world. I figure if it’s a good enough hideout for the night crew to sneak off and smoke pot, then it’s more than adequate for a wayward nurse to boff her boyfriend.
I pull open the gates and the hinges moan, sending puffs of blood scented, carmine colored particles past my face. Walking down the cobblestone streets, I note the sticky feeling the gold paint is leaving on the soles of my shoes. If there’s anything good about fewer visitors, I think to myself, it’s that we’re saving money from not having to repaint the streets as often.
Standing on top of the little bridge that crosses over the river of life—a creek we rerouted to run through the park—I can see the distorted image of two people running through the temple of the Throne of God. Through the clear jasper walls, their bodies bend into carnival mirror shapes. I walk around to the entrance, and they nearly knock me over on their way out. A bleachy smell still oozes from their clothes and my nose wrinkles up.
“Tanya,” I say to her. “Arlington is missing. You’re supposed to be watching him.”
Her eyes widen. “Missing?” she asks incredulously. “The man has been catatonic for months.”
“Did you notice anything that may help us find him?” I ask her.
“Well, he did say—”
“Say? He spoke? He was awake when you left him?”
“No,” she says. “People with catatonia still mumble stuff from time to time, but it’s just gibberish.”
“Just spit it out.”
“I don’t know, something about a sign.”
After unsuccessfully combing through every possible corner of the park I can think of, I sit in the parking lot, counting the cars. Three, and we’ve already been open for four hours. In the months before the rapture failed to make an appearance, this place was so pregnant with the faithful and the curious that the fire department made us start turning people away for safety reasons.
The security cameras are no help. As head of security I had protested to both Mr. Whittle and Reverend Arlington that if anything serious ever happened at the park, our camera coverage was so bad that we’d be lucky to ever really get anything useful from them. Arlington just smiled and told me that this was a place of God, and that would be enough to keep such things from happening because the Lord provides for the faithful. I can’t help but laugh when I remember this, turning the key in the ignition.
It takes me all of fifteen minutes to drive across town and outside city limits to Josiah’s home office. As I slow down, looking for the red dirt of his driveway, I notice the familiar sign on the side of the road. JESUS IS COMING, it says on one side. Passing it, I glance in the rear view mirror and notice that painted over the normal text of ARE YOU READY? are the words LOOK BUSY. I nod in approval at the change. At least they had the decency to maintain the palindrome quality of the sign.
His house is a total disaster on the inside. Ricky is supposed to come and check on it once a week, but it’s obvious that no one has set foot in the place in months. Glass from the busted patio door litters the floor, and the moldy carpet already looks like it’s trying to compost. I don’t bother to contemplate who among the thousands with cause might have wrecked the place.
I walk around inside of his office, looking for anything that might give me a hint that he’s been there or what kind of prophetic sign he was mumbling about in his delirium. I lift a fallen bookcase back against the wall and push the books around on the floor with my foot. No longer in a heap, I can see a timeline of the evolution of Christian thought. At one end of the spiral is the Bible, this particular copy is thick, printed in the original languages and in English. Then comes commentary on Paul’s letters, then Ignatius, Augustine, and Aquinas, and at the inner end, modern evangelical authors. Crouching down, I flip through one and turn to a page with a painting of a seven headed abomination rising from the ocean.
I try to retrace the steps in my life that lead me there. It would be too easy in hindsight to say that I was just looking to please my parents, or it was the job. The truth is I was looking for something, and I had taken the easy way out, taking a prepackaged platitude instead of doing the hard work of really searching for myself. And this is where it had gotten me. I shut the book and stand up with it in my hand, ready to toss it through the red stained glass window in front of me and curse the good Reverend’s name, when I catch the sound of something moving in the living room.
I push the door open slowly, unsure of what to expect. A doe stands in the center of the room, her ears twitching and rolling over while she stares at me through two enormous orbs of onyx. I stand there, staring back at her—the prospect of moving from the spot seems to me as ludicrous as anything I can imagine. The evening sun is sliding down the Western sky, casting the room in flickers of purple light through the pine needles. She looks outside towards the tree line, and bolts out of the house through the empty frame of the patio door and towards the woods. She stops and cuts her head towards me, almost beckoning, and the wind blows the tangy perfume of her camphor around the room.
In Mr. Whittle’s office the next morning, I stand in front of his massive mahogany desk. I inhale deeply and hold it in, expecting his normal abuse. He heaves an enormous hock onto the desk and exhales a wheezy plume of stale breath as he reclines in his chair.
“These could be the end times, Aaron,” he says to me. I’m not sure if he’s trying to be funny or not, so I default to not. “We’ve got to get this under control or everything we’ve built here is doomed. You know how difficult it is to find a job around here, and with your name forever carved into this fiasco...” he tells me, trailing off at the end.
I try to think of things I can add to my résumé. My parents don’t have anything tucked away for rainy days anymore, and without my income, we would probably lose the house long before I could find another job. I nod to him. I’m at a total loss for what to do next, but I need to say something so that he doesn’t fire me on the spot. “I’m going to search the bayou to see if he got lost or, God forbid, he fell in,” I tell him.
“Good boy,” he says, shooing me away with a few swipes of his elephantine hands.
The bayou is actually on the land adjacent to ours, but the threat of being homeless supersedes the slim possibility of getting shot by the ancient rancher who owns it. I step over the fence and start walking in what I think is the correct direction towards the bayou. I crane my neck side to side as I walk, looking and listening, hoping for any sign that Arlington has been through recently. I shudder when I consider the possibility of him turning into alligator shit. The thought of being eaten alive is bad enough, but the prospect of never getting any answers causes a dark swirling pit to sink to the bottom of my stomach. I picture him in my head, out in the void beyond, laughing and leaving all of us bewildered and beggared.
At the edge of the green, sulfurous water, I scan through the cypress trees and the swollen trunks sunken into the sludge. One of the trees is swallowing a prehistoric-looking NO TRESPASSING sign that’s nailed to it. A few egrets stalk around, looking for frogs and skinks. No signs of Arlington, but no alligators either. I wipe sweat from my forehead with my palm and sling it to the ground. I tilt my face towards the sky, the cool breeze of early Autumn rolling over me. The pines above my head sway like the outstretched arms of spirit-drunk parishioners, exalting an ancient force, older and truer than any imagined by man.
I start making my way back, hoping to find somewhere out of sight to hide for the rest of the day.
On my way to the park the day after, a doe bolts across the road in front of my car in a streak of red. I force my foot down hard on the brake pedal, and my car skids straight into one of the park’s giant billboards. The saccharin smell of antifreeze steam floats in through the open windows. Tears well up in my eyes, and I am at my most degraded. I curse the deer and Arlington and my parents and even the morning sun. I try to kick the underside of the dash, and with my limited range of motion, even this seems pathetic.
I get out and walk around my car to take in the damage. Directly above me, I pick up the sound of a voice mumbling. I look up through the perforated metal floor of the platform running the length of the billboard and see the shriveled, sunburned face and wild eyes of Josiah Arlington staring down at me. He’s wrapped up in an ad hoc robe made from bed sheets. I take a few steps back to let it all sink in. The billboard reads: 000 DAYS LEFT UNTIL THE RAPTURE — WHERE WILL YOU BE? The sign, I think to myself with a pitiful laugh.
I retrieve the Reverend and we head back to the park in my ruined car, the temperature gauge pegged out in the red the entire way there. On the main stage, Mr. Whittle is delivering the bad news to the staff: in light of recent developments, the elders have decided to shut down the park. Some people are groaning; some are crying. He sees Arlington and develops a sudden case of aphasia. The sea of people part as the Reverend walks onto the stage. Mr. Whittle steps down and stands with the others at the front. Arlington lifts a shaking, leathered hand to his chest and lets out a laugh that cuts right through the center of my chest. He doubles over, cackling. Confused faces and murmurs spread through the audience.
Stage left, I hear a pneumatic hiss and the First Angel of the Lord hoists his massive trumpet in his metallic hands. Arlington turns his head and stares straight into its bell as the bellows within bathe him in flames. The crowd looks on in silent horror until someone near the front screams: “Look! He’s laughing and dancing, just like an angel of God!”
In front of me, the crowd surges forward, planting their feet in each other’s spines to rush towards the fiery spigot. Through the laughing and crying, I can hear people speaking, saying things in a language not meant for human ears, tapping into something so arcane that words fail to frame it.
I run straight through the front gates and across the parking lot onto the blacktop. My legs pump like pistons and the breeze carries the greasy, sweet scent of burning barbecue. In front of me, the morning sun rolls through shades of green and pink. I try to force reason onto it all. In front of me, a familiar figure steps out, a dark silhouette against the great luminous disc. My eyes adjust, and I can make out antlers wrapped around her purple-gold hair.
She reaches out and places a hand against my chest, and a powerful heat grows within. The world spreads out before us like a great ring, smooth and golden. I can see the cord that penetrates everything and hems the world together—the light that shines not only upon the world but in all things, just beyond the periphery of human knowledge. I extend my hand and clasp my fingers around this thread of light. I see now that Josiah, like so many failed prophets before him, had simply set himself on a hopeless quest; understanding the world is impossible without first grasping this thread. My anger melts from me in globs, sliding into the ether. I realize that this is our lot in life. Such knowledge was never meant for man, and its possession means personal annihilation.
My body trembles, separating at the seams, and I return to the wellspring of life.
James N. Thomas short biographical statement
James N. Thomas is a student originally from Texarkana, Texas currently living in Shreveport, Louisiana. He has worked as a photographer for the last decade and is currently pursuing a degree in Computer Science. When he’s not reading or writing, he prefers to spend his spare time outdoors.
A lifetime of entwined paths
In separate ways
The Rhythm of Bees, third verse
Julie A Martin
Truth is a potion outlawed
Section 1 controlled substance
You see what I tell you to see
You think what I tell you to think
Heresy is using your own mind
It was supposed to be the perfect crime: A heist in an art museum, meticulously orchestrated by the night groundskeeper. Richard made his nightly rounds. Sweat poured from his curly mane. He looked like Robert Plant after belting out a high note. In and out of each exhibit Robert went, marking in his brown leather notebook which pieces of art would no longer grace the hallowed walls of the museum.
The gong from the nearby clock tower struck at midnight, ricocheting through each room, creating a symphony of doom. Like clockwork, Richard heard a faint knock on the window at the emergency exit. He raced to greet two men, Yorkshire and Cabot. Yorkshire, a respected art collector from New Hampshire, peered through the glass, wide eyed. His white hair, bright as snow, was perfectly combed as if he were preparing for a photo. His associate, Cabot, was taller and more muscular. He stroked his mustache as he checked his flowing, greasy hair in the glass. Richard barely had the door open as Yorkshire pushed through.
“We haven’t a moment to lose! Point me in direction of ‘The Sea of Galilee,” Yorkshire said, marching through the halls.
“I thought we were only jacking Rembrandts?” Cabot asked.
“Whoa, guys...it’s all marked here in my book,” Richard said.
Cabot snatched the notebook and tossed it to Yorkshire, who acted as if he’d just scored a touchdown at the Super Bowl. His eyes bulged as he flipped through the notes.
“Yes, professionally done, Richard! Looks like we’re starting in Exhibit B, second floor,” Yorkshire said.
“I’ll go get the crowbars,” Richard said.
“No need. Cabot came prepared,” Yorkshire replied.
Cabot opened his black trench coat, revealing crowbars fastened to the inside. A toothless grin formed on his face.
“Remember our deal...the Vermeer,” Richard said, wiping the geyser of sweat from his forehead.
“Yes, yes. ‘The Concert,’ correct?” Yorkshire asked.
“Correct. The one with the crimson blanket in the bottom left corner. It was my grandfather’s favorite,” Richard said.
“Save the sap for the squirrels. Don’t forget your end of the bargain too. I get any eleven paintings I want, no questions asked, and you don’t say shit. Got it?” Yorkshire said.
“I have no qualms with that. But I have one question. How the hell are you going to sell stolen originals?” Richard asked.
“The buyers don’t give a fuck where it came from. In fact, they’d probably pay more if they knew we lifted them,” Cabot said.
Yorkshire lunged into the doors of Exhibit B, shining his flashlight right onto Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
“There it is. My white whale,” Yorkshire said.
Cabot brushed past both, and unhinged the painting from the wall with one of his crowbars.
“Careful, Cabot. She’s fragile,” Yorkshire said.
“Any way you can be a little quieter?” Richard asked.
“Nope,” Cabot replied.
Yorkshire patted Richard on his head.
“There, there Richie Rich. Just remember that you’re here for the Vermeer. Oh, and Cabot is taping you up in Exhibit F,” Yorkshire said.
“There’s nothing to worry about. You’re dealing with Grade-A professionals here. Not a strike on my record,” Cabot said, ripping the Rembrandt from the wall.
“Ten to go,” Yorkshire said, drawing a line through the first painting on the list.
Richard laid on the cold, Italian tile all night, hands and feet bound with duct tape. He groaned throughout the night as his body became more sore with each gong of the clock tower. Cabot added insult to injury by taping his eyes and mouth, too. This discomfort would only be temporary, and it was worth it knowing that the Vermeer was all his.
A Good Death Makes a Good Life
I was knee-deep in digging Charles Foster’s grave when he appeared before me with that cocky grin everyone knew so well. His sparkly teeth seemed to emit a reflective flash no matter the light conditions, so much so that you could practically hear them ding.
“This is Charles Foster from KLI News wishing you and your loved ones a good night, and a great life.”
I nearly fell backwards into his grave and cursed myself for leaving the manual labor for last again. His body hadn’t even been buried yet and already he was haunting me. I flicked the switch on the tombstone to make his hologram disappear.
“Your slogan doesn’t work so well during the day,” I said. “Now shut up and rest in peace.”
I finished digging the hole and took a break under the yew tree with beer in hand. It was something of a tradition for me to sit there around noon every day when the sun was shining brightest, the air was standing still, and the shade staved off the glare that might have prevented me from seeing straight into Rebecca’s office inside the main building. Although her job seemed stressful to me, I found it relaxing to watch her work.
She worked as a death planner. Now that aging had been cured and people could live as long as they wanted to, death became the biggest event in a person’s life. Forget weddings or century-long anniversaries. The real money was in making someone’s last day be the best day ever. Ironically, though, it usually just meant one of several party packages depending on the budget.
A couple sat on the other side of her desk. The man’s arms flailed about as he animatedly described his dream death, while the woman indulged him with simple smiles every now and then and Rebecca nodded enthusiastically, pressing him to splurge on several upgrades, I’m sure.
I took a swig of beer and looked up towards the leaves and branches. It must have been nice, I thought, to be able to afford to die like that. For someone like me, I could barely afford immortality. I would have to work for hundreds of years before I could afford a good death, and even then, who would be there to attend? It had been years—decades even—that I had a night out with friends. It wasn’t that they had all died already and I was the only one left. Nothing like that. People just tend to drift apart over the years. I think that was true even before immortality.
A squirrel caught my attention and provided a welcome distraction from those thoughts. It scurried up a branch and foraged for food. How long do squirrels live, I wondered. Would it choose to live forever if given a choice? Probably not. I think eternity is a young person’s dream, and although we’re all young forever now, we still get tired of working to survive. Trees had it best, I thought. Just give them sunlight and give them rain. There’s no desire, no suffering, no pain. I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep.
When I opened them, Rebecca stood next to me puffing on a cigarette.
“Sleeping on the job,” she said and shook her head. “You’ve got it so easy, you have no idea.”
“Says the one with air conditioning,” I said.
She smirked and coughed. A puff of smoke burst out of her mouth.
“Those things will kill you, you know?” I said.
She raised her eyebrows and continued staring forward. “Those must have been the days.” She smiled wistfully and took another drag.
A few moments of silence passed between us, but she kept stealing glances towards me and I could tell there was something she wanted to say. I decided to help her along.
“That couple you were talking to earlier. Seemed pretty one-sided about the party.”
She shook her head. “I could tell the guy was all about it, but his wife didn’t seem so sure. Some people, they make these plans to live their whole lives together but don’t seem to realize that it doesn’t mean you have to die together.” She sighed and took another puff, angrily blowing out the smoke. “Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about that right now.”
I shrugged and checked if there was any beer left in the bottle. “There’s something you want to talk about,” I said. “I can tell.”
“How long have you worked here now?” she said.
“Kinda lost track after thirty years. It’s all the same, every single day.”
“Me, too,” she said. “Every damn day. I remember you were already here when I started, and you know what?”
I took a swig of the remaining beer and frowned. It was warm.
“Next month will be one hundred years for me,” she said. “One hundred years of planning people’s deaths, but do you know the really sad part?” She closed her eyes as if preventing tears from falling out. “No matter what I plan for mine, I know no one will care.”
I smiled and resisted the urge to roll my eyes. She got this way every ten years or so. “You know I care,” I said. “Hell, at this rate, I’ll be the one digging your grave, and then who will be there for me?”
She smiled and sniffed, wiping away a sole, mutinous tear. “You’re really lucky, you know that?”
“How’s that?” I said.
“There’s nothing expected of you. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
I know she was just being emotional, but the words still stung. Perhaps to her, I was no different than the tree. Trees had it best, I thought, but only if you give them sunlight in addition to rain.
Enough to Make an Accordion Hungry
Bertha cooked breakfast and lunch:
cream of wheat with chunky pineapple,
or grits and butter laced with thin strips
of fatback and French green beans.
Man, that’s enough to make an accordion
hungry! exclaimed Lenny, an Iraqi vet
whose arm stump resembled the homer
end of a baseball bat. Every sharecropper
from the Tennessee cotton fields ambled
into Home Cookin’, and Bertha blushed
watching customers swoon at the smell
of her rabbit stew. One time she tried
to train Lenny, but he couldn’t sling
burgers or pancakes. Hell, I said,
you couldn’t ride a tricycle-motorcycle.
You wanna try cookin’, banana head?
Bertha asked. I withered in a haze
of stovetop smells. Later that day
Bertha found her lost Bernie,
who marched in like a porter,
and she shouted in shock, You came
back, cupcake! The ageless man
carried a Remington typewriter, sang
Dixie, and non-sequitered, I won’t
judge you, my love. Bertha draped
her apron over Lenny’s bat, growling,
Come here, cupcake, don’t mingle
long, and I won’t judge you, either.
You might say I have cabin
fever, the way I squat and huddle
in my overcoat. I need to sweep
the dirt floor, behave myself,
and cut firewood. I owe myself
that, but this renegade winter
rushes forward too quickly,
and the snow drift is a huge loaf
of bread I have no appetite for.
I don’t even own a blanket, much
less a quilt. Food? Three or four
bags of corn and some fatback,
but at least I can smoke my Cubans,
and my Old Crow is plentiful.
I’m glad, too, for the corner
bucket, and the antique
chairs and benches I can use
for my last campfires. I guess
the widow Morgan is in hell
by now: man, she sparkled like
a drunk raccoon in a midnight orchard!
Maybe the crops will flourish
this Spring and I’ll be able to outfit
a regiment with okra and potatoes.
I admire the resolve of soldiers,
wish a couple would meander up here
and save me, because my chairs,
whiskey, and cigars ain’t gonna
last forever, and I’ll be damned if I
pray for the second coming of Jesus.
Reunion (noun) – 1) An act of reuniting; the state of being reunited. 2) A reuniting of persons after a separation.
—— # —— # ——
So why—you may wonder—am I standing in one corner of a Greyhound bus station with my ex-wife’s severed head in a canvas tote bag at my feet?
I am standing because there’s no place to sit. The station is an obvious afterthought; small, tacked onto the side of a laundromat, barely large enough for two battered vending machines, a timeworn counter, and a pair of plastic benches—all lit by harsh florescent overheads and a soft, blue-neon Bus sign in the window. One bench is taken up by a sleeping derelict in a filthy trench coat over sweat pants and sockless shoes, clutching a ticket to somewhere in one grimy hand. His snoring form is being studiously ignored by a heavy-set Hispanic woman and three pre-school aged children who occupy the other bench. She is either knitting or crocheting, I’ve never been able to tell the difference, and the children are busy with coloring books and candy bars.
We are on the poor side of a poor town, its main street offering as many abandoned and boarded-up buildings as actual businesses. Across the narrow street is a rundown tavern with its own neon sign, this one red and spelling out Cold Beer.
—— # —— # ——
Lexi had called me on my burner phone. She had the number, but no location. As soon as I answered, she said, “I think they’ve found me.”
“You know who. I’m scared to death.”
“What makes you think they’ve found you?”
“A guy’s been following me, two guys actually.”
“What does Nichols say?”
“Nichols is gone.”
“Gone as in out for milk, on a fishing trip, what?”
“Gone as in gone, Riley. As in no longer here.”
“What about the money?”
“He took most of it with him. Left me a little to tide me over—his words.”
“Nice guy, huh?”
“Nichols was a mistake, I know that now.”
“Too bad you didn’t see that before you divorced me.”
“That was a mistake, too. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“Water under the bridge. Why call me?”
“I told you, I’m scared. I think they’ve found me and I don’t know what to do.”
“Where are you?”
She told me. I google-mapped it, a small town outside of a much larger city. I did some calculations. I wasn’t thrilled, but she was my ex and we had a history. I didn’t owe her a thing. Still...
“If I drive straight thru I can be there late afternoon tomorrow. Pack a suitcase. Stay inside. Don’t answer the door, not for anyone—not the landlord, not the mailman, not a delivery guy, not even the paperboy. Clear?”
“Uh huh. Jesus, you’re giving me the willies. I’m afraid they’ll kill me. You’ll take care of me, right?”
“No, but I will come get you so you can settle somewhere else. Think about where that will be. Oh, and Lexi...?
“This is the last time.”
—— # —— # ——
I live on the outskirts of a city larger than hers. I packed a few things in an overnight bag and took a cab to the airport. I wandered around the long-term parking lot until I found a nondescript sedan with the parking stub on the dashboard. A slim-jim opened the door and my car-boosting-day’s expertise hot-wired the engine. It’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget how.
I drove the speed limit, stopping only for gas and fast food. I reached Lexi’s house the next day just before sunset. It was a small frame bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac in a sub-division of tract homes. I parked under a leafy oak tree down the street and watched the place for half an hour. Traffic was light and I didn’t spot a spotter. If there was other surveillance, it was too good for me to see. I drove around the block and parked the next street over, then walked back, stepped onto the concrete-slab porch, and rang the bell—no answer. I knocked—again, no answer. I tried the door and found it unlocked. Inside, I stood in a small living room and listened—not a sound. I called Lexi’s name softly—no reply. I could hear a clock ticking somewhere in the back. The place felt deserted and smelled faintly of hot copper.
I found her decapitated body in the bathtub. I knew it was her because of the tiny birthmark under her left breast. Blood had congealed around the drain. Her torso was bruised and battered where someone had beaten her before cutting off her head. Seeing her incomplete from the neck up was eerie, almost surreal. Sometimes they take the head as a trophy, sometimes as a warning, sometimes just for the fun of it.
I searched the bedroom, but found nothing other than some of Nichols’ left-behinds in the closet and a couple of thousand bucks in a nightstand drawer. An open suitcase was on the bed, half full of neatly folded clothes. Nothing of interest in the living room either. That left only the kitchen.
Lexi’s head was in the refrigerator, sitting there wide-eyed next to some Romaine lettuce and a couple of green Bell peppers. She had a surprised look on her face and that silly, lop-sided smile I had once thought so charming. I looked at her and sighed. She deserved better, but then don’t we all? I remembered seeing a canvas tote bag in the bedroom closet. I fetched it and a towel to wrap her head with. I didn’t know then why I took her with me. Some sort of closure maybe, or just not wanting her to be alone, not wanting some stranger to find her like that.
Regardless of the why, I did take her. I sat in the stolen car with her on the passenger seat while I decided what to do next. I couldn’t risk driving, couldn’t afford to be in a fender-bender or stopped by some cop. The nearest rail and airline services were in the city, but I hated trains and there was no way I’d get a severed head thru TSA at the airport. Then I remembered the bus station I’d passed on my way into town. Thus, I ditched the car and found myself standing in the Greyhound waiting room with a derelict on one bench, an Hispanic family on the other, Lexi’s head at my feet, and a ticket to New Orleans in my hand. Somewhere along the way I had decided not to go home yet. Instead, I was going to find Nichols.
—— # —— # ——
The backstory is simple. Nichols and I knocked off a drug house in Houston. It was a Saturday night and they were counting and banding the week’s take. The kitchen table was piled high with cash; three guys counting it and a couple more guarding the place. Surprise was on our side and it went off without a hitch. Shotguns kept the five of them in line and duct tape kept them from following us.
We crashed at a Marriott hotel where we divvied the money and planned to split up the next morning. We ordered room service and a bottle of scotch to celebrate. They must have spiked my drink because I woke up midday Sunday with a headache and a cotton mouth. Nichols and Lexi were gone along with all the cash. There was a post-it note on the bathroom mirror, ‘Sorry about the money, ol’ buddy. I never was good at sharing.’
I flew home wiser for the experience. Six months later I heard thru the grapevine that Lexi had divorced me, that she and Nichols were somewhere back east. The word on the street said the drug guys were looking hard for whoever ripped them off. That didn’t worry me much. They didn’t know who I was and, even if they did, they had no idea where I was or that I had a new identity. I assumed the same was true for Nichols, but it turned out his face must have rung a bell for somebody, or maybe he talked too much, or maybe Lexi did. Regardless, it seemed the drug guys had tracked them down. What I didn’t know was whether Nichols leaving Lexi was by luck or design. Maybe he just got tired of her and took off. On the other hand, maybe he felt the hunters getting close and left her on her own. What I did know was he had my share of the money and I had Lexi’s head in a tote bag.
Losing the money hadn’t bothered me much. I had money and the Houston heist would only have added to the stash. I was pissed at Nichols, but not enough to go looking for him. Lexi had gone with him voluntarily and I told myself I wanted nothing more to do with her. I took on a new identity, moved to a new town, and chalked it all up to life sometimes being a bitch. Now though, with Lexi dead, I wanted something else, something was eating away at me—even if I wasn’t sure what it was.
—— # —— # ——
No matter how large or small, all towns have an underbelly, a seamy side, and New Orleans’ was seamier than most. Think of it as a two-layer cake. The top layer is where the civilians live—the regular folks, folks like you; people who work their jobs, pay their bills, take the kids to church and the dogs for walks. They live in modest houses or apartments. They cut their lawns and wash their cars, barbecue with the family and pay their taxes. Their occasional contact with the seamy side is the rare occasion when they get mugged or burgled or carjacked, beat down or held up, ripped off or accosted on the street. They are vulnerable, and invariably surprised when faced with proof that not everyone is law abiding and relatively honest.
The second layer is the underbelly, where the criminal element lives; grifters and burglars, dopers and loan sharks, fences and hold-up artists and strong-arm guys who will whack you for a price or sometimes just for the helluv it. They live in bars and strip clubs, pawn shops and alleys, single-wide trailers, rooms-for-rent and hot-sheet hotels. They run scams and cons, prey on the civilians, and would rather rip you off than take a regular job.
—— # —— # ——
Fat Mike wasn’t fat and his name wasn’t Mike. Go figure. However, the neon sign outside the seedy strip joint two blocks off of Bourbon Street flashed Fat Mike’s Pink Pussycat for all to see. The last three letters of the sign were burnt out so that it obscenely advertised what was on display inside. In my experience, all pussy is pink; white girls being the color of carnations, brown ones a darker, rose color, and black ones the same red as a slice of ripe watermelon. I’ve never seen an Asian stripper so I can’t attest to their inner shading. All I know about them is that contrary to adolescent belief their pussies are not on a slant.
It was 3:00pm on a Wednesday. There were only four customers at the stage rail where a bored brunette with silicone tits and a flaccid ass did her bump and grind. Each time she squatted and spread her knees one of the men stuffed a bill into the garter high on her right thigh.
Fat Mike and I were at a cocktail table near the bar. We had tumblers of scotch, his neat and mine over ice. It was good scotch from his private bottle. We both sipped and looked at each other blandly. Finally, he said, “What can I do for you, Riley?”
“I’m looking for Nichols.”
“Nichols? Now there’s a blast out of the past. What makes you think I know where he is?”
“Don’t insult me,” I said. “Tell me to fuck off if you want. Tell me I can’t afford to pay the freight. Tell me anything, but don’t insult me. If you don’t know where he is you know who does.”
He drained half his scotch, said “I might know a guy,” and waved to the scantily-clad waitress. “Tell Diamond to get her ass over here,” he said flatly. “Tell her I got needs that need attending.” Then back to me, “Something I always wondered about you. Is Riley your first or last name?”
I shrugged and answered, “Both.”
“No shit? Your fucking name is Riley Riley? Talk about weird.”
“Not Riley Riley,” I said wearily. Just Riley. Now, about Nichols?”
“Just a minute,” he said as a chunky blonde with double-D tits and good legs made her way to the table and wordlessly dropped to her knees the better to crawl underneath. I heard a zipper unzip, then the slobbery sound of some serious slurping. Fat Mike’s eyes narrowed and he slouched in his chair. I looked at the brunette on the stage and guessed her age at somewhere around thirty. A couple of minutes later Fat Mike’s hands disappeared under the table and I knew he was holding the blonde’s head. He stiffened, grunted, closed his eyes, and let out a pent-up breath. A few second later I heard a zipper zip and the blonde reappeared. She swiped dirt off her knees and licked the corner of her mouth. Fat Mike asked me, “You want some? She sucks like a Dust Buster.”
I shook my head and waited for Diamond to walk away before repeating, “About Nichols?”
“It’ll cost you, Riley.”
“Money is not an issue.”
“That’s what I like to hear. I’ll give you the name of a guy who knows a guy who knows.”
—— # —— # ——
I had rented a room in a rundown hotel that catered to Lake Pontchartrain barge workers and retired railroaders. I checked the small refrigerator to ensure Lexi’s head was still inside. I drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup and ate an oyster po’boy while I cleaned and oiled my .22 revolver. I know what you’re thinking, a .22 is a sissy gun, the pussy of firearms. But it’s relatively quiet and still gets the job done if you know how to use it.
Fat Mike’s guy who knew a guy did indeed know a guy who knew. For the money I shelled out I could have sprung for a nice vacation. Instead, I bought a second-hand car and started driving west.
—— # —— # ——
I’d been to Padre Island before, but not recently. It’s the world’s largest barrier island, the north end sparsely populated and the central part a National Seashore preserve. Once known as the Redneck Riviera, South Padre had become an upscale resort town now that the Texas oil business was booming again.
I had Nichols’ alias and the name of his hotel. I cornered the concierge and fed him a line about wanting to surprise an old war buddy. He pretended to believe it, selling me a room number and a passkey, making me promised to return the key after the surprise party. He pocketed the cash with a conspiratorial grin and a two-fingered salute, saying he hoped I enjoyed the reunion.
The room was spacious, with a railed balcony and a view of the beach. There was an empty suitcase in one corner and clothes in the closet. I found car keys on the nightstand and a decent brand of scotch in the mini-bar, pocketed the first and poured the second into a glass tumbler. I arranged two chairs across from one another before settling into the one facing the door. I placed the canvas tote bag between my feet and closed my eyes. Waiting is an acquired skill and I do it well.
—— # —— # ——
Nichols came in wearing sunglasses, swim trunks, and flip-flops; a hotel towel around his neck and a cold beer in his hand. He was tall, taller than me, and wider thru the chest. His curly black hair was damp and he froze when he saw me. Although his expression didn’t change I knew that behind the sunglasses his eyes were darting around the room.
“You’re the last guy I expected to see,” he said causally.
“I came for my money,” I said flatly.
‘Well, that’s too bad. I’ve already spent your money. Now I’m spending mine.”
“Then I’ll take it.”
“I like to live large. There isn’t much left.”
“I’ll take what there is.”
“Jesus, you’re a pushy bastard. What makes you think I’ll give it up?”
I waggled the end of my revolver for effect then said, “Don’t be stupid. Unless you’ve changed habits it’s in the trunk of your car under the spare.”
He settled into the chair across from me and removed his sunglasses. His eyes narrowed slightly when he glanced at the nightstand and saw his keys missing. He shrugged as if bored.
“You know you won’t shoot me.”
“Not once upon a time maybe.”
“But you will now? Bullshit. Why?”
“You abandoned Lexi.”
“Abandoned her? You make it sound like I left her lost in the woods. Look, Riley. I felt those drug guys closing in so I took off.”
“And left her holding the bag?
“Hey, she’s a smart girl and very convincing. She can’t give me up because she doesn’t know where I am or how to locate me.”
“They didn’t believe her.”
“Who didn’t believe her?”
“The drug guys. They found her.”
“So what? She’s good at talking her way out of shit.”
“Not good enough . . . and stop using the present tense.”
I looked at him for a long moment. “I brought you a gift,” I said, nudging the tote bag with the toe of my boot.
“Oh yeah?” he asked. “What is it?”
I loosened the drawstring and pulled out Lexi’s head, holding it up for him to see. His face turned a ghastly shade of green and he bent over enough to not puke on himself. I didn’t know what he’d had for lunch, but there was a lot of it.
“Jesus,” he hacked, wiping vomit from his lips. “Did they do that to her?”
“No,” I said. “You did it to her. They were just the instrument.”
“Jesus, man, that’s brutal.”
“It’ll be something for you to think about in Hell.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
I shot him twice in the forehead—*Pop!*Pop!*—the sound of the .22 no louder than the clapping of hands.
—— # —— # ——
I placed Lexi’s head face-up on Nichols’ lap, their sightless eyes open and staring. She had been my wife and a good one most of the time. Forget that she had left me, run off with Nichols and my money. They say love will not be denied, nor sometimes even explained. It’s also said that in every man’s life he has only one true love. Lexi had been mine.
I wasn’t big on the afterlife and didn’t know where Lexi was. Wherever it was I hoped the sun always shined, the humidity was low, dogs never bit you, and the crawfish etouffee was spicy. Looking at Nichols should have made me feel better somehow, but I didn’t. All I felt was a hollowness inside, a wistful longing, a sad realization that nothing would ever be the same again.
I wiped the room for prints and left the two of them there. Downstairs in the lobby I stood by the elevators and took a deep breath, rearranged my face, put on the sunglasses I’d taken from Nichols cold, dead hand. Then I went looking for his car in the parking lot. On my way out I handed the concierge his passkey. He flashed me another friendly grin and asked how the reunion had been.
“About like you’d expect,” I told him. “He was real surprised to see me.”
Jim Farren Bio
Born and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, Jim has lived in ten states and three foreign countries. Currently retired somewhere in the Ozarks, he has a passion for his wife, blended (not sour mash) bourbon, Hawaiian shirts, anything fried in bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet, stray dogs, and whatever vegetables are in season with the exception of Brussel sprouts and eggplant.
A Happy Ending To Everything
every time I look at my hands when I go out now
I look at the rings on my middle fingers
and they’re reminders of your jewels
you gave to me
when you found out you were going to die
it’s not as though I need reminders
of what’s happening to my mother
but now, someone compliments me
on the huge blue topaz stone on my center ring
and I smile, and say thank you
and say “my mother gave this to me”
and not explain why
I don’t bother with the details
because you want everyone to think
there’s a happy ending to everything
as well there should be
a Crack in the Glass
how many times would we sit like this
have a meal, have a drink
not understand the language of the people around us
and not mind
and we would sit and eat our food and drink our drink
and everything would be just fine
and every time our friend would come with us
and every time we were here for food and drink
there was always a nick in your glass
not mine, yours
or there would be a crack in the side of your glass
and it was never a bad thing in the glass
it couldn’t cut us, it couldn’t hurt us
it didn’t leak any drink to the table or to your chin
and our friend would always tell us that we could sue
and you know, we never though of suing
and we were never injured
and it wasn’t an expensive place to eat anyways
and it always happened there when our friend came along
and the irony is that he is a lawyer
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. 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. Starting at this time Kuypers released a large number of CD releases currently available for sale at iTunes or amazon, including “Across the Pond”(a 3 CD set of poems by Oz Hardwick and Janet Kuypers with assorted vocals read to acoustic guitar of both Blues music and stylized Contemporary English Folk music), “Made Any Difference” (CD single of poem reading with multiple musicians), “Letting It All Out”, “What we Need in Life” (CD single by Janet Kuypers in Mom’s Favorite Vase of “What we Need in Life”, plus in guitarist Warren Peterson’s honor live recordings literally around the globe with guitarist John Yotko), “hmmm” (4 CD set), “Dobro Veče” (4 CD set), “the Stories of Women”, “Sexism and Other Stories”, “40”, “Live” (14 CD set), “an American Portrait” (Janet Kuypers/Kiki poetry to music from Jake & Haystack in Nashville), “Screeching to a Halt” (2008 CD EP of music from 5D/5D with Janet Kuypers poetry), “2 for the Price of 1” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from Peter Bartels), “the Evolution of Performance Art” (13 CD set), “Burn Through Me” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from The HA!Man of South Africa), “Seeing a Psychiatrist” (3 CD set), “The Things They Did To You” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from the DMJ Art Connection), “Hope Chest in the Attic” (audio CD set), “St. Paul’s” (3 CD set), “the 2009 Poetry Game Show” (3 CD set), “Fusion” (Janet Kuypers poetry in multi CD set with Madison, WI jazz music from the Bastard Trio, the JoAnne Pow!ers Trio, and Paul Baker), “Chaos In Motion” (tracks from Internet radio shows on Chaotic Radio), “Chaotic Elements” (audio CD set for the poetry collection book and supplemental chapbooks for The Elements), “etc.” audio CD set, “Manic Depressive or Something” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from the DMJ Art Connection), “Singular”, “Indian Flux” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from the DMJ Art Connection), “The Chaotic Collection #01-05”, “The DMJ Art Connection Disc 1” (Janet Kuypers poetry to music from the DMJ Art Connection), “Oh.” audio CD, “Live At the Café” (3 CD set), “String Theory” (Janet Kuypers reading other people's poetry, with music from “the DMJ Art Connection), “Scars Presents WZRD radio” (2 CD set), “SIN - Scars Internet News”, “Questions in a World Without Answers”, “Conflict Contact Control”, “How Do I Get There?”, “Sing Your Life”, “Dreams”, “Changing Gears”, “The Other Side”, “Death Comes in Threes”, “the final”, “Moving Performances”, “Seeing Things Differently”, “Live At Cafe Aloha”, “the Demo Tapes” (Mom’s Favorite Vase), “Something Is Sweating” (the Second Axing), “Live In Alaska” EP (the Second Axing), “the Entropy Project”, “Tick Tock” (with 5D/5D), “Six Eleven”
“Stop. Look. Listen.”, “Stop. Look. Listen to the Music” (a compilation CD from the three bands “Mom’s Favorite Vase”, “Weeds & Flowers” and “The Second Axing”), and “Change Rearrange” (the performance art poetry CD with sampled music).
From 2010 through 2015 Kuypers also hosted the Chicago poetry open mic the Café Gallery, while also broadcasting weekly feature and open mic podcasts that were also released as YouTube videos.
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&d 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. 2017, after hr October 2015 move to Austin Texas, also witnessed the release of 2 Janet Kuypers book of poetry written in Austin, “(pheromemes) 2015-2017 poems” and a book of poetry written for her poetry features and show, “(pheromemes) 2015-2017 show poems” (and both pheromemes books are available from two printers).
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