Yuletide by Daniel Romo

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Yuletide

I stand in the center of the store and question how I got here. Lost among seasonal blends and the past year. The baristas know my name and start making my drink, even before I pay. Is a man’s predictability worthy of pity or praise? I grip the holiday cup and Starbucks spins. Each past December is projected on the wall, mocking my current existence. A montage of smiling moments contrasting with this protagonist who sits at the coffee bar drowning his blandness in sweetened tea. One second I’m 7 and unwrapping an oversized plastic baseball bat. Then I’m 16 and it’s car keys. Neither of this happened, and this kid is someone else. Because I love punishment and don’t want to see myself happy at any age. Because I left and there’s an unhung stocking stuffed in the box, glittered with my name. My daughter will wake up early on Christmas morning with an eager smile and an absent dad. I’ll sleep in and be greeted to a few dirty dishes and a naked, plastic tree. She will wrap herself in a blanket and unwrap her gifts as the sun rises. I will drape blinking lights across my entire body to remember and rekindle any sort of warmth and illumination.


About the Author: Daniel Romo is the author of When Kerosene’s Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014) and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His poetry and photography can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, The Good Man Project, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and he is an Associate Poetry Editor at Backbone Press. He lives in Long Beach, CA and loves football, but he bleeds Dodger Blue… a lot… More and danielromo.net.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

The Cat by Jeff Fleischer

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Sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve didn’t feel out of the ordinary for David Silver. He was still unmarried, and his last relationship had ended months earlier, before there was even an awkward discussion about whose parents they would visit and how much time he’d need to take off work and what was an appropriate amount to spend on gifts. He was an only child, and had come to an agreement with his parents to take a trip to Vegas together in the spring rather than have him spend an exorbitant amount and battle transit stress to fly to Minneapolis for a few days just because the calendar suggested it.

 

That it was Christmas Eve was largely immaterial to him, since he hung out at the same bar nearly every night anyway. David couldn’t cook worth anything, and it was too cold this time of year to walk to a decent carryout place when the Ceilidh Moon Bar and Grill was located literally forty paces from the front door of his old apartment building, the kitchen was usually open until four, and the tater tots reminded him of the ones his mother fried up when he was little. He would have been sitting there, eating tots and drinking a pint of lager in his usual seat at one end of the curved bar, if it was almost any other Tuesday.

 

On top of all that, he wasn’t even Christian.

 

The one thing out of the ordinary on Christmas Eve was the crowd. The Ceilidh Moon was the kind of place that didn’t stand out in a neighborhood with more than two dozen bars. The crowd most nights consisted mostly of patrons who, while not necessarily regulars, were definitely locals. Couples who’d stop in for a quick bite, guys who would sit at the bar and banter with the bartenders about their day, second shifters taking advantage of their one chance to socialize. Most nights, the jukebox output fit the decor, with the voices of Ronnie Drew or Shane MacGowan mixing with the same kinds of strings, drums, accordions and whistles placed on shelves throughout the establishment. The mood was usually upbeat, but in an everyday, hail-fellow-well-met manner.

 

This night was different. For one thing, there were a lot more people. David wasn’t eavesdropping, but he overheard enough to know at least a few of the bigger groups were made up of high school classmates in town for the holiday, meeting as a way of collectively avoiding family obligations until the next day while ostensibly catching up on the last year. There were more drunks than usual, mostly sad-sack types consuming hard liquor by themselves at the bar, either trying to overcompensate for feeling all alone or trying to forget the people who made them wish they were all alone. The Irish couple who owned the bar and usually served the drinks themselves had taken the night off, leaving the job in the hands of an eager young man and an unsmiling woman back home between semesters of law school, and letting them close at midnight. Even the music was different, as the more transient customers had spent their quarters on seasonal staples by Bobby Helms and Eartha Kitt and Burl Ives.

 

There was also a cat.

 

The cat was directly opposite David, seated on the top of the bar. The very idea of a cat in the Ceilidh Moon was striking and rather weird, but this was also a rather strikingly weird cat. It had the look of a house cat, but was significantly bigger than any he’d ever seen, closer in magnitude to a small dog. David assumed from the cat’s size that it was a he, and he was a mostly black cat with a large, white patch on his chest. The cat sat upright with his front paws touching, and his back paws perfectly aligned alongside them, sitting so still that he could have been a statue if not for the green eyes scanning the room on high alert.

 

“Any idea where the cat came from?” David turned to ask the people sitting next to him, only to find that the two fratty guys who had been there a few minutes earlier were now occupied in a darts game, and that both bartenders were in back. David took another sip from his lager and went back to writing some work ideas on a small notepad. Still, he kept looking across the bar at the cat, who now seemed to be staring specifically at him.

 

By the time the bartender returned with his sandwich and another drink, David had grown bored and started a sketch of the cat on his notepad, figuring the animal’s stillness and focus made it a perfect model. The younger man, whose name tag identified him as Colin, hadn’t seemed to notice the animal’s presence until David asked him, “Do you know what the deal is with the cat?”

 

“No idea. It can’t be the boss’s cat; he’s allergic. Where’d he come from?”

 

“Couldn’t tell you. I just turned around and he was sitting there.”

 

“Heh. It looks like he’s waiting to order. Like he thinks he’s people.”

 

“He definitely looks like he’s waiting for something,” David said. “You could at least give him some milk.”

 

David had been joking, but the bartender took out the cream kept on hand for White Russians and poured some of it into a coffee cup. As he placed it in front of the cat, the animal didn’t appear at all skittish, though he watched Colin intently until the transaction was complete. David could have sworn the cat looked across the bar at him and nodded before starting to lap up the cream with his pink tongue.

 

After watching the animal drink for a bit, David returned to his sketch as the music switched over to Greg Lake professing his belief in Christmas stories. He was nearly finished drawing, and was starting to feel a slight buzz from his beverage, when the jukebox began playing an old chestnut about said nuts roasting on an open fire. He started to hum along, and noticed someone else was humming in the seat next to him.

 

“That’s a good drawing,” said the stout older man, who had sat down without David noticing. “I take it you like cats?”

 

“Yes. I only have one now, but I’ve always had cats.”

 

“Good for you. A lot of people say they’re afraid of them.”

 

“My great-grandmother was like that. She had a lot of superstitions from the old country.”

 

“What old country? What superstitions?” the stranger said. “I’m sorry if I seem nosy. I’m just curious about these kinds of things.”

 

“No, it’s fine. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland where almost everyone believed in stuff like that. She showed me where it was on a map once, but I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t really near Cork, but it was closer to Cork than to any other city, if that makes sense.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“She used to complain because my mother would let our cat in the room when I was a baby. She used to think cats would steal children’s souls while they slept.”

 

“Do you think she really believed that?”

 

“Definitely,” David said, thinking about his long-dead great-grandmother for the first time in years. “When she got sick, she stayed with us for a few months, and she used to lock our cat Tommy in the basement. I could play with him in there, but she wouldn’t let him follow us upstairs. He was the sweetest cat you’d ever meet, and she was absolutely terrified of him.”

 

“I’ve never understood how people could be that afraid of cats.” The stranger scratched his beard, but otherwise gave David his full attention. “They’ve always been perfectly friendly to me.”

 

“It wasn’t just cats; she was superstitious about a lot of things,” David said, surprising himself with how much he remembered. “My mother told me a story once about going to a farm with her. My mother was young, I think twelve or thirteen, and was dying to learn how to ride a horse. So she talked her grandmother into taking her to a farm that had a stable. They drove two hours to get there, and then turned right around. She wouldn’t let my mother learn to ride because the stable only had black horses, and she thought one of them might be a pooka who would carry her off.”

 

“Strange, that. I will say, you seem like you don’t believe any of this stuff.” The stranger signaled to the female bartender, pointing to David’s glass to get him a refill, but without ordering anything for himself.

 

“I’m not much for believing in mythology. I am sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve.”

 

“Surely you know that this day had nothing to do with Christianity,” the man said. “I don’t mean to offend you, but the Christians only used this day to co-opt the winter solstice. A day that belonged to those who came long before them…”

 

“I know all that, and no offense taken. I’m not Christian. I mean, my great-grandmother was, but she was the only one on that side of the family.”

 

David did worry that the stranger might be offending some of the other customers as the man continued to explain the pagan origins of the holiday, how there were and had always been metaphysical forces in the world that animals understand better than people, and how people like his great-grandmother were more in tune than others but didn’t really understand the world. One couple talking nearby left in an unmistakable huff when the man pointed to the bar’s Christmas tree next to the fireplace and called it a “particularly clever way of associating their god with the ancient symbol of everlasting life.”

 

By the time this history lesson was complete, David had finished the last of his food and the fresh drink that arrived. When he was done talking, the stranger stood up to leave. “Thanks for listening to me,” the man said, patting David on the shoulder. He started to walk away, but turned just long enough to say, “Before I forget, when you see O’Toole, tell him that O’Flaherty is dead.”

 

“I don’t know who you mean…” David replied, but the stranger was beyond hearing range, and David didn’t see any reason to chase him down. Instead, he went back to his drawing of the cat. When he looked across the bar to use his model, however, he found the animal had left that spot and the bowl of cream had been licked clean. David continued his sketch from memory, as best he could, listening to one Christmas song after another as the crowd gradually faded. The buzz he’d acquired from his drinks faded a bit less quickly. He paid his check as soon as the younger bartender announced last call at midnight, leaving a generous holiday tip.

 

As the jukebox played Shane and Kirsty singing about the boys of the NYPD choir, David Silver donned his coat and scarf and headed out of the Ceilidh Moon in the early minutes of what had become Christmas Day.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Snow was falling when David left the bar, but the night was actually pleasant. There wasn’t enough to please anyone dreaming of an alabaster holiday, and the lack of wind mixed with his alcohol consumption made the midnight air feel warmer than a thermometer would admit. Warm enough that he decided to walk off what remained of his modest intoxication and pick up a few supplies from the all-night convenience store at the other end of the block. The weather report had predicted a substantial storm coming the following night, and he thought it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

 

David Silver walked to the end of the street, listening to the sounds made by the bar’s emptying of the night’s last patrons and by a few cars vacating the area as their owners shifted to holiday preparation. In just the time it took him to cover a block, the night had gone silent. Except for one thing. As he passed the alley between the furniture shop and the bookstore, he heard a loud rustling. Turning to look, he could see something was moving in the middle of a pile of trash bags stacked next to an overfilled dumpster. Almost as soon as he turned, a shape emerged from under the pile and sprang out of the alley in David’s direction.

 

Another cat.

 

This one looked a lot like the one he’d seen in the bar, but also different enough that nobody paying attention would ever confuse them for the same individual. This cat was also black, with the same kind of white spot on its chest, though the spot was a little larger and more oblong. The animal was shaped differently than the one he’d seen in the Ceilidh Moon, long and lean where the other was bulky. Still closer to the size of a dog than of a typical cat, but more like a small greyhound in build.

 

Though it darted toward David, the animal stopped abruptly just a few inches from his feet. After his conversation at the bar, David couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how pleased his great-grandmother would have been that he avoided the cat crossing his path. He had yet to encounter a cat-related superstition she hadn’t fervently believed and warned him about in the few years their lives intersected.

 

This cat was also in considerably worse condition than the other one. Its fur was patchy, with some sections appearing sticky or mussed, and others missing as if lost in a fight with other animals. The left ear was missing the tip, and the mostly black fur had a few streaks of grey. The cat’s battle scars weren’t fresh, just signs that the feline had probably used up a few of its allegedly recurring lives.

 

“Hi there, little one,” David said, in the tone of voice he unconsciously reserved for babies and fuzzy animals. “Where’d you come from?” The cat treated the question rhetorically, simply tilting its head and not even giving him a meow. It didn’t try to rub up against him the way cats usually did, but it didn’t flee either; it just sat still and silently regarded him. When David reached down to pat it on the head, the cat reared its head just out of his reach, but the rest of its body stayed in place.

 

David left the animal where it sat, passed the furniture store and went inside the little bodega, which was empty except for a teenage clerk reading a sports magazine and watching stop-motion Christmas cartoons on a small television set. David said good evening and received a mumbled response, then began his impulse-driven shopping for the next few days. A loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk, a block of Colby cheese, a bag of chips. He went back and forth on whether he had paper towels and bar soap in his place, and was equally indecisive about whether he really needed a pint of ice cream, before throwing all those items in his handheld basket. Passing the pet food, he was sure he had more than enough on hand for his own cat, but grabbed one can for the hungry one outside, guessing the tuna flavor was the most universally beloved. The teenager said little as he scanned David’s groceries and arranged them in a large paper bag. David swiped his credit card and wished the clerk a mere goodnight, then corrected himself and added a happy but unspecific holiday.

 

The snowfall was lighter when he returned to the outdoors, and David couldn’t help but catch a few flakes with his tongue. The ground around him featured a light and mostly unspoiled dusting, in which he saw the absent cat’s oversized paw prints leading away from where David last saw it and back toward the alley. When David got to the alley, he took the can of food from the bag and pulled back the ring on top, knowing from experience that the slow scratch of an opening tin was usually an automatic draw for cats.

 

“Here, little one,” he said as he entered into the alley. “I’ve got something for you.”

 

“For me?” a voice replied. David realized there was a gaunt, homeless woman sitting near the dumpster. He couldn’t have guessed her age, with her skin and hair showing heavy damage that could just as easily be from stress or the elements as time. “I appreciate the thought, sir, but we don’t all actually have to eat cat food. Tell you the truth, the restaurants around here throw out a lot of perfectly good food.”

 

“Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” David said, putting the half-open can back in his bag. “I just didn’t see you there.”

 

“Sir, if I’ve learned anything from life on the streets, it’s that most people are experts at not seeing things that are sitting right in front of them. Especially if they’re inconvenient to see.”

 

“Please, I didn’t mean it that way. I just bought this for a cat I saw around here. Really thin, but with a big frame. Black with a white spot.”

 

“I know the cat you’re talking about. You could say she lives here with me.”

 

“Is she your cat?”

 

The woman laughed at that, but it was a wheezy kind that only lasted half a second. “As much as such a thing is possible. We can no more own a cat than we can the wind or the rain. A man can own a dog; that’s as easy as owning a table. Or a horse. A man can even own a donkey, though the beast outlives him more often than not. A cat is different. Don’t you agree?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve had my cat Beauregard for almost nine years, and I raised him from an orphan.”

 

“See, the cat sounds like your ward. You care for him, you feed him, I assume you love him and he probably loves you as well. But he’s no more your possession than you are his.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.” This was the longest conversation David had ever had with a homeless person before money was requested, though he’d already decided to give her the four bucks he had left in his wallet whenever their conversation wrapped.

 

“Look around, sir. I have plenty of time and space to think about things these days. Now, you could call the cat you saw earlier my traveling companion. Do you know the old story of Dick Whittington?”

 

“I think so. The guy who went to London because the streets were paved with gold, and he traveled with a cat…”

 

“The streets in the real world are rarely paved with gold, sir, and it can be a long way down from where we started life. Trust me. But a loyal cat always makes for good company on the journey. Don’t you agree?”

 

“Sure. Does this cat have others like her that hang out in the alley? I saw one earlier tonight that could be her brother, only he was a lot bigger.” David left out anything about that cat’s superior condition, but he was curious if there was an explanation for his random sightings of similar felines. The woman didn’t say anything, but shook her head. “What’s the cat’s name? I hate to just keep calling it ‘the cat.’”

 

“Cats have their own names that aren’t for humans to know. We name them for our own benefit, but they will always know the names they’re born with.” She continued to pontificate on how those who came before understood this better, how the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Celts had held cats in the proper esteem, and how the modern world and its conveniences were replacing this deep connection.

 

She went on like this for a few minutes, obviously glad to have someone listening. David couldn’t quite tell if he was listening to a smart woman who had trouble organizing her thoughts out loud after whatever misfortunes had befallen her, or a harmless but ultimately crazy woman who would be a cat hoarder if she had a permanent residence in which to hoard them.

 

David didn’t want to be rude, but the hour was catching up to him and he was starting to tire of this chat. He gave what he hoped was a realistic yawn, which did interrupt the woman’s train of thought. “It’s getting late, I think I need to get going,” he said, careful to avoid using the word “home” or anything else that might cause offense.

 

“A new king is born today,” the old woman said. It was the first succinct sentence she’d said in a while.

 

“It is Christmas Day, isn’t it? Well, merry Christmas to you…”

 

“No, the real king, of those who came long before. Do you know what this day really means?”

 

Rather than sit through another long lecture like the one he’d received at the bar, David just nodded. “Yes, the celebration of the winter solstice.”

 

“More than that, today. More than that…” The woman suddenly stood up and stumbled closer to him, her voice growing more urgent. “O’Flaherty is dead. You must tell O’Toole.”

 

“I will if I see him,” David replied, knowing nothing about what that meant but at least knowing it meant his two random encounters weren’t entirely random. “Here, before I forget.” He placed his grocery bag on the ground, and found the partially opened tin of cat food. He gave it to the woman, along with his bag of chips. He started to reach for his wallet, but she shook her head and told him the food was all she required.

 

As he left the alley and started walking home, David Silver paused a few times to look for fresh cat tracks in the fallen snow, but discovered that even the ones he’d seen earlier were now covered by a soft layer of virgin powder. Only his own footprints remained.

 

*                      *                      *

 

A few minutes later, David Silver was walking up the fire escape to his second-floor apartment. His arm had gotten tired from carrying the bag of groceries, so he placed it down on the wood railing while he searched his pocket for his keys. Once found, the keys dropped from his hands, and David bent down to pick them up from where they’d landed near his tattered welcome mat.

 

In case his evening hadn’t been sufficiently strange, David found a trio of other objects on the mat, placed at exact intervals. With the limited glow from his porch light, it took him a few seconds to realize what he was seeing. The thing on the left was a dead mouse, or possibly a vole, positioned with all its legs tight against the body so that it looked streamlined. The thing on the right was a similarly arranged dead bird; he assumed it was probably a young finch. In between, there was something shiny and metallic that looked like a small coin or a piece of foil, but he didn’t feel like wiping rodent blood off its surface to find out more.

 

He’d received leavings like this growing up, when he lived in the Minneapolis suburbs and had outdoor cats who would return home with similar trophies. The practice hadn’t gotten less unsettling.

 

David cleaned the mat using the broom and dustpan he kept near the back door, planning to bury the animals the next morning and assuming it was cold enough that there wasn’t a rush to do so. He wasn’t sure what cat left these tokens for him, though he had a pair of suspects. He finally collected his groceries and went inside, wiping his feet a few times on the mat’s bristles. His own pet, an orange cat with a pattern of cream-colored ribbons, greeted him at the door as always, headbutting David’s legs as he removed his shoes and socks. “Hi buddy, I’m happy to see you too,” he said as he put his bag on the kitchen counter and picked up Beauregard. “I know, it’s been sooooo long. I haven’t seen you in six whole hours.” He usually made jokes like this about his cat’s affectionate greetings, but he never tired of the animal’s reliable excitement at his arrival.

 

Once the food was put away, the mail was sorted and a restroom trip was completed, David flopped down on the worn armchair in his living room. He put his feet up on the ottoman and turned on the television, changing the channel a few times before he found Jimmy Stewart dressed in a football outfit and talking to a bush. Beauregard jumped up and wedged himself in the open space formed by David’s outstretched and crossed legs, staring at his owner and letting out a quiet meow. Knowing what the cat wanted, and knowing the neighbors both upstairs and downstairs were out of town and out of earshot, David took his tin whistle off the end table and played a few notes of “An Maidrin Rua.” His pet joined in by meowing, one of the quirky behaviors David had discovered in his kitten nine years ago and used treats to reinforce until it became a repeatable trick.

 

A few seconds later, Beauregard was voicing a different meow and looking at something in the window behind the television. David couldn’t quite see it, but his cat was staring intensely, with his body pointing in that direction like a hunting dog. David got up and walked over, the orange cat running under his feet, and saw exactly what he had come to expect.

 

Another cat. This one sitting on the railing of the fire escape, staring directly into his home. Also black, also with a white spot, also bigger than an average cat.

 

“That does it,” David said, to nobody in particular. He rushed into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes without bothering to tie them, and grabbed his coat from where he’d left it on the counter. He checked the door to make sure it wouldn’t lock behind him, then sprang out onto the wooden fire escape just in time to see the cat leap off the railing.

 

Before he could get a closer look, David noticed a strange texture under his foot and found someone had left a piece of paper on his welcome mat. When he bent down to get it, he could feel it was something thicker, some kind of strange parchment, and the stock showed a great deal of wear. The message on it, written in an elaborate script and with a fragrant ink, was something more familiar. “Tell O’Toole that O’Flaherty is dead.” He also noticed that the dead animals and metal piece he’d earlier removed from his doormat had been moved, and found them on the window sill near where the cat had been sitting, arranged exactly as they’d been when he first found them.

 

David walked over to where the cat had jumped down, and scanned the area below to see where it might have gone. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Instead, David saw a thin man pacing slowly in the alley. He wore a sweatshirt too light even for such a mild winter night, with the hood pulled up over his head.

 

“Hey you!” David yelled. “You, in the hood.” The figure turned, but with the sweatshirt hood over his head and with so little light in the alley, David couldn’t see the man’s face. The hooded man’s head moved as if he was saying something, but he pointed at his own mouth, shaking his head to indicate he either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. “Did you leave me this?” David called down, holding up the piece of parchment and growing angry when the stranger nodded in response. “I don’t know either of these people, and I don’t know why everyone seems to think I do.” He’d thought about it, too, searching his memory throughout the evening for any O’Toole he might have known in the past and recalling only a famous actor he’d never personally met and the name of a local bar that had closed years earlier. “Why do people keep telling me about this? What do they think I can do about it?”

 

Predictably, the man below him didn’t answer, only nodding to indicate that he’d heard the complaints. David continued to list details about his night, about the repeated requests to convey the death of another person he’d never met, about the cats he kept seeing, about how he was just tired and wanted to go to sleep and be left alone to enjoy a needed day off from work. The hooded figure’s body language made it seem like he was listening, but he said nothing in reply. “You know what?” David said at last. “You want to tell O’Toole your news, why don’t you find him and tell him yourself?” He was conscious that he was speaking a little loudly for two in the morning on Christmas Day, but there was no sign that anybody else in the area cared. The snow had truly started to fall by now, and David wanted to say his piece and then go back inside.

 

When David was done, the man in the hoodie raised his right arm and pointed at something on the other side of the alley, through the metal back gate of the vintage apartment building behind David’s. He strained to see what the man was pointing at, trying to make it out through both the wind-blown flakes and the tightly designed links of the gate.

 

What David saw was the rounded shape of a small headstone, too far away for him to read the inscription. He could tell it wasn’t made of familiar letters, but instead marked with some kind of symbols or runes. At first he thought this was intended as a threat, or a grim warning of the future, maybe a sign that O’Flaherty hadn’t done what he was told. A second later, however, he could see something moving toward the stone. The black shape was difficult to see against the poorly lit sky, but it soon revealed itself as a cat. Then David saw another.

 

He soon realized he was looking at nine cats, all black, all the same breed as the three he’d seen earlier that night. For all he could tell, those three were among the ones he was seeing. The cats were moving in two rows, on both sides of a black, rectangular object that could only be a coffin. Eight of the animals were pushing it, with one cat leading the procession. The sight was strangely hypnotic, but soon the snowfall completely blocked David’s view of the cats. When he looked around, he noticed that the man in the hoodie was also gone, his footsteps already masked by fresh snow.

 

Several times, David checked the spot where he’d seen the nine cats, but couldn’t see them anymore. He couldn’t even see the headstone, and began to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing. After all, he was running on very little sleep, had been out drinking, and had experienced enough strange encounters in the past few hours that his imagination could be forgiven for getting away from him. He waited a few more minutes to see if he might be able to glimpse the funeral again, before the cold and his exhaustion urged him to give up and go back inside.

 

*                      *                      *

 

David’s cat greeted him at the door, rubbing against his owner’s legs, then sprinted away and planted himself next to his food dish, meowing. Figuring Beauregard was confused by his coming and going, David relented and gave his pet a rare extra meal, filling the bowl only halfway full of kibble. While the orange cat ate, David took off his coat, his jeans, and his long-sleeve shirt. Now dressed in the white tee and boxers that doubled as his standard pajamas, he took the piece of parchment he’d found on the welcome mat, balled it up, and shot it like a basketball into his kitchen trashcan. He turned on his electric coffeepot and used it boil water for a cup of herbal tea, which he spiked with a few drops of whiskey to help him wind down before bed.

 

With Beauregard at his heels, David took his hot toddy into the living room and turned on the television, where George Bailey was now being tossed out of a once-familiar watering hole. He took his fiddle down from its usual spot on his decorative but dormant fireplace and flopped down in his chair, while the cat took his usual spot on the ottoman. Figuring a song would help him forget the strangeness of his evening, David began to play “Carrickfergus” and sing along as best he could with a throat still constricted from the cold.

 

He was only on the second verse when his phone started to ring. At first, David worried some neighbor had canceled their overnight plans and his music was too loud for them. When he answered the call, he was relieved to find it was his grandmother in Killarney calling to wish him a happy holiday, repeating her pattern of miscalculating time zones ever since he’d left his home state. She apologized when he pointed out that it was past two in the morning, but he told her he was still awake and could talk. They went through their normal phone exchange, with David explaining that work was fine, that he wasn’t seeing anyone but was working on it, that his parents were doing fine, that he was not in need of money but grateful for her offer.

 

When she asked what he was doing awake in the middle of the night, David was actually grateful to have someone to tell about his past few hours. He began his story with how he got home from work and went to the pub for dinner, explaining the cat and the stranger in the bar. He noticed that Beauregard seemed to take an interest in this part of the story, sitting upright and looking at him with the same concentration the cat usually reserved for requesting food or hearing his name called. David figured it must owe to his repeated use of the word “cat,” one of the human terms he knew his pet recognized.

 

The cat continued to focus on David as he recounted the rest of the story. He told his grandmother about the homeless woman and how he gave her cat a can of food, and about the hooded man in the alley who left him a note, though he avoided mentioning the procession of cats, which he found too strange to share. “I almost forgot the most curious part,” David said. “They all told me the same thing. They said that O’Flaherty was dead, and that I was supposed to tell O’Toole. I don’t even know anybody named O’Toole.”

 

While David’s words prompted his grandmother to suggest possible sources of O’Tooles he could contact, they got a different response from Beauregard, one David wouldn’t have believed if it had happened even eight hours earlier.

 

His cat spoke.

 

At first, it was in a language David didn’t understand, something that sounded vaguely Celtic. It was definitely speech, not a meow or a growl, in a voice much deeper than the cat’s normal pitch. The cat cocked his head at David, who had dropped his conversation and was staring in silence at his pet.

 

Beauregard regarded him for a moment, then spoke again, this time in perfect English. “O’Flaherty is truly dead?” the animal asked. David just nodded slowly, too shocked to speak. “Then I am the king of the cats.” With that, the cat leaned forward in a slight bow and then bolted.

 

David dropped the phone, though he could hear his grandmother’s voice through the speaker, asking if he was still there. Before he could even get up from his chair, his cat had run into the old fireplace and up the shaft. David followed and looked up, but the animal had been too fast, and must have gotten out of the building. He ran into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes and coat, and searched the fire escape for the cat. He didn’t see him anywhere.

 

Unsure what else to do, David spent the rest of the small hours wandering the few blocks around his house, calling for his cat and keeping an eye out for any more black cats with white spots who might provide clues. The snow was falling faster and the wind was getting strong, but he continued his search, checking every alley and driveway in the neighborhood.

 

David was still searching when the sunrise came, and the expanses of white around him reflected its early morning light. Not long after, the church bells nearby began to ring out for Christmas Day, and the quiet streets started to fill with people en route to their holiday plans. David took one more stroll around the area, wondering if he could explain what had happened to anyone else without seeming crazy.

 

Finding no clues and struggling to stay awake, David Silver felt he had no choice but to return to his apartment and wait for his unusual cat to return.


About the Author: Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

SHOTGUN CHRISTMAS by Ephraim Sommers

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SHOTGUN CHRISTMAS

If you don’t believe in heaven, what then
is holy? Before dinner, your diabetic father
punching a syringe into his belly, fill your mother
with Rockstar and orange juice, fill
a wooden pipe with a squeeze of weed,
and she will have your father leaning back
in his wooden chair, laughing the tears out
of his eyes. Your mother with a dark tooth
up front, cock-a-doodle-dooing, palming
a stray punch sent from your sister to you
over the already-been-beaten beef, and the salads
oversalted the way your family loves them,
and the television’s volume pumped. Your mother
covers your eyes with a biscuit to keep the cold
from your dreams. The eighteen-wheeler queen,
she’s the hot hand in meatloaf. Your mother
would drag a boxed-up house on a flatbed trailer
to Baton Rouge tonight if you asked her.
But you’re staying scared of the outside world.
Frost is rumored this Christmas Eve, and she’s outside
axing the kindling, singing “Smackwater Jack”
as she wheelbarrows wood up the three front stairs.
And in she whishes in a wife-beater and pink slippers
and cut-off jeans with an armful of pine. Susan or Suzie
or How-Do-You-Do-Sue, she’s got your father
kneeling, balling newspaper into the fireplace,
your sister whipping double chocolate malts
as punishment. It’s past your bedtime, and in your dream
the clouds will crack like a ceiling, will suck you over
the barbed fences and almond orchards of a strange frontier,
will grind your teeth to a white dust something
like frost. You will wake screaming. Your room nightlit,
Santa won’t arrive in your doorway, but your mother will,
barefoot, in a nightgown and curlers with a sawed-off
shotgun dangling from her right hand. It will be
the most fragile thing you’ll ever see in your life.

 


About the Author: Ephraim Sommers is a doctoral fellow at Western Michigan University where he teaches creative writing. His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, Cream City Review, Harpur Palate, The Journal, Prairie Schooner, RATTLE, TriQuarterly, Verse Daily, Word Riot, and elsewhere.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

The Christmas Party (1968) by Warren Read

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It was almost five-thirty by the time they pulled out of their driveway and onto the boulevard. The roads were already glassy and slick, and a white crystalline fog draped from the line of streetlamps. Gil held tightly to the wheel, his back inches from the seat as he hunched forward. The car floated down Firdale as if it were flying through space.

“I’m only going to say this once,” Beverly said. “Don’t you dare embarrass me tonight.” She thumbed the cigarette lighter into the dash and reached into her purse for her cigarettes. It was hot in the car. The heater was forcing air over the dashboard and drying out her face. She leaned forward and worked herself free of her wrap. “I swear to God I couldn’t take it.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it, Gil.” She tamped the pack of Pall Malls against her palm then drew one out like it was a knife. “If she’s there, I better not see you anywhere near her.”

They were coming up to the highway interchange and the traffic light was turning. A Buick punched hard to make the yellow and shot through, fishtailing as it rounded the corner, shark fins leaving a streak of read light as it disappeared. Another car, waiting at the cross street, laid on its horn. Gil tapped the brakes and came to a slow and steady stop.

“It’s a goddamned party,” he said. He turned to her, a half-cocked grin smeared over his face. It was the same look he’d given when faced with the discovered note, the note she’d carefully taped together and laid out on the kitchen table next to his morning coffee.

“I might have to exchange small talk with her,” he said, “but that’s it. I won’t embarrass you.”

The lighter emerged and she took it, pressing it to the cigarette that was already waiting in her pursed lips. Her cheeks collapsed, hungry, the cherry tip blazing the dashboard in an orange glow.

“You better hadn’t,” she said, filling the space with blue smoke. “You better hadn’t slip up or so help me.”

 

Gil pulled the Pontiac Bonneville next to the front steps, the headlights washing over the brick and illuminating the slim, copper lettering of his name.  G. E. Weaver, Office Supply. The frosted window adjacent the door blinked red and green and as Gil climbed out of the car he could hear the waves of laughter already happening inside. He looked at his watch. He was not twenty minutes late and yet they had begun without him.

He swung open the front door like a king entering his castle. With the constellation of lights draped from the ceiling and the fat tree taking up the corner near the filing cabinets, and the spread of hors d’oeuvres and liquor lining the wall outside the conference room, it was almost easy to pretend that this place was different from the one he had to force himself to embrace each day. These people—these revelers who stood oblivious to his entrance as they clutched glass tumblers rattling with ice and whiskey, heads thrown back in throaty laughter—lived their daytime hours hovered over silent telephones or pecking at typewriters that had been purchased with borrowed money, or lurking at the leased water cooler, only to scatter like pigeons whenever he came into the room. Tonight, though, it was as if he didn’t exist.

“And the general has arrived!” At last Frank McNeil broke from a cluster of accountants and crossed the room to Gil. He carried his drink with him like Lady Liberty’s torch, high over his head as he weaved through the small crowd. “I thought I’d be the only one coming stag.”

Gil looked to the closed door behind him. Beverly was nowhere in sight. The wreath hung from the hook, a ring of cedar springs that his secretary Doris had so carefully braided the week before. It had already begun to curl at the tips.

“Beverly must be taking one last look in the mirror,” he quipped. Frank had chosen to wear a polo shirt to a Christmas party, the kind of attire that might have been appropriate for a summer picnic. It was the kind of thing that got under Gil’s skin, the lack of spirit around these kinds of things.

“So she came with you.” Frank said through that horsey smile of his, the glint of gold in his molars caught by the ceiling lights.

“Of course.”

Frank looked back over his shoulder then, to the group that was crowded near the tree. They were the younger salespeople, Tom Connelly, Clarence White and Charlie somebody, the guy with the last name Gil could never remember.

Standing with them as well, facing away from Gil, was Ellie.

The tree had been dressed with a long string of red lights, and it cast a tawdry glow over the two-dozen silver balls that Doris had procured from the bargain shelf at the local drugstore and Ellie was there, her back to Gil, dressed in a mid-length skirt that almost reached the tops of her naked calves. She stood with her knee bent slightly as if her stopping to talk with the salesmen had been an afterthought, or a mere pause on her way to someplace else. In one had she gripped a slender glass, tilted almost imperceptive, her other hand cupped beneath her elbow. Her hair fell to her collar like spun gold.

“Well then.” Frank’s eyes carved into Gil, the same, stupid grin still plastered over his face. He raised his glass. “Merry Christmas.”

 

Beverly held her cigarette between her teeth as she entered, the platter of deviled eggs weighing down her arms. Johnny Mathis trilled from a Hi Fi that somebody had set up against the wall. It was too loud; people were shouting just to be heard over the music. Reams of crepe paper sagged from the walls and ceiling, layered in and over lights that dropped a glow of red and green onto the Aqua Net and Brylcreem-molded heads of everyone in the room. The cardboard cutouts of snowmen and reindeer and gold bells were the same ones that Beverly had bought from Woolworth’s almost two decades earlier, when she and Gil had put together the business with nothing but a hundred thirty dollars and a penciled plan. There were no kids to get in the way, though it was certainly not for lack of trying, and as such there was no reason to do up the house in baubles and festive gaudiness. She played the part when she needed to, though. The first dozen years she’d come in the day after Thanksgiving to drag the decorations out from the back storage room by herself. She thumbtacked each one to the walls, and then she strung the miles of garland and lights from the ceiling and when it was time for the Christmas party, she prepared every bit of food that was eaten. Now, she couldn’t care less who put the whole damned thing together.

Doris suddenly appeared and reached out for the platter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Weaver,” she said. “I can take that from you.”

Doris Sanford was a small woman who always struck Beverly as something of a squirrel, her tiny hands always snatching up things needing to be filed away or tossed or sent out with the morning mail, constantly brushing surfaces clean, straightening out clutter with the kind of nervous energy that Beverly found exhausting but admirable. She liked Doris. She had always liked her, and believed with all her heart that if it had not been for Gil’s secretary the business would have been swallowed up years ago. In fact, it was not too odd of a supposition that Gil himself might have expired years ago if it had not been for Doris and her keen ability to keep both her boss and the office in tidy order.

Beverly handed over the eggs and thanked her, then slid her wrap from her shoulders and looked around for a place she could leave it without having to worry about a spilled drink or the sticky fingers of one of the younger wives. At various turns the faces in the room looked to her, some full on, others only slightly, as if she were a bird that had flown in by mistake and had perched itself upon a desk. They glanced at her and then some of them, almost as if on cue, looked over at the clique of young people clustered around the red Christmas tree as if warming themselves by a fire.

That girl was there with them, all twenty-two years or so of her. In a schoolgirl dress cropped just above the knees, sipping a drink that she was surely barely old enough to have. She did not look back at Beverly though, even when one of the boys leaned in and whispered something in her ear. She just shook her head ever so gently and tipped the glass to her lips.

 

Gil was halfway through his second scotch when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Mr. Weaver, the checks.” He turned to see the grimace and worry lines of Bud Clifton, his payroll manager. In his hand Bud clutched a large manila envelope, and he leaned in uncomfortably close to Gil as he spoke. “Are you certain?”

Gil looked at the envelope, at the sharp edge of the sealed lip and the smooth paper so clean and promising in Bud’s chapped red fingers. Around him, people continued to talk over one another, and take their Zippos from their pockets to light a colleague’s smoke, and rattle ice-filled glasses as they rebalanced their weight from one foot to the other. He nodded his chin toward his office and the two of them slipped from the crowd, past the food table where Beverly stood with a couple of the wives, each of them with a streaming cigarette in her fingers. She glanced in his direction as he went by, but did not linger on him for more than a few seconds.

Behind the door of his office the suspension of noise was immediate. He snapped on the lamp and took a seat behind his desk, and leaned back in the chair with his hands clasped behind his neck. He tightened his brow, that mask of irritation that he worked so well. It was funny to him how easily he slid into that role, the exasperated boss, so inconvenienced at having to hear news that was unpleasant, especially from a man who had no business judging him for his shortcomings. His failings. Bud stood opposite him, hands clasped in front of him, envelope draped at his lap like it was a loincloth.

“Bud,” Gil said. “Let’s not do this all over again.”

“Of course, Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s just that—“ He ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope. “You know I have the utmost respect for you and for this company. It’s taken good care of me, and my family, for over ten years now.”

“Yes it has. I have.”

“Yes.” He tapped the envelope against his leg. “You are a generous man, sometimes to a fault, if I might say so. I only hope that you know what you’re doing with these.”

Gil listened to the words as they swirled in the room, and to the swaying music that still managed to find its way under the door. They were having a fine time out there getting oiled on gin and vodka and scotch that he had bought, that he had carried in on his own the day before. And they would be even more grateful when they opened their checks. It was Christmas and though only about half of them really deserved it, bonuses were part of the deal.

“I know the numbers have slid a bit lately,” he said, though he knew full well it was more than just lately. The entire year things had been spiraling, one more piece of fallout from the Vietnamese and their goddamn war. Offices everywhere were tightening their belts to the point of suffocation. Nobody was purchasing a single sheet of paper if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. “We can deal with it after the New Year.”

“With all due respect Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s not a matter of sliding—“

Gil stood up from his seat and held his hands in front of him. He said nothing, but closed his eyes. They stood there, neither of them talking or even looking at one another. Finally Gil opened his eyes and took the envelope.

 

 

She had overheard them talking about the bonuses, debating whether or not they might get them after all. The longtime employees, the older ones, carried a roll of thunderous doubt in their words. “It’s been a lean year,” they said. “Tough times call for tough decisions.” The younger ones had neither the experience nor the common sense to be so pragmatic. “Weaver’s a good guy,” they said. “He’ll come through.”

So when Gil came out from his office with that big envelope in his hand, Beverly expected he would very soon get hold of a glass, and he did. He poured himself a tall scotch—at least a double—and downed it like he was about to charge into battle. Immediately he took on another one, this time tossing in a few ice cubes before heading off across the room, to the small crowd against the Christmas tree.

Beverly found herself looking for the door, an escape before he could do anything that would make it impossible for her to leave with the smallest shred of dignity. Just as she turned to retreat to the kitchen, a woman Beverly had never seen before in her life stepped in front of her. She had one of those cheap, nylon scarves that she’d knotted at her throat and she reeked of whiskey, and her lipstick bled past the edges, creeping like tree branches into her skin. Holding an ice-filled glass in each hand, she shoved one toward Beverly.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you have one drink since you’ve been here,” she said.

Beverly pulled back. “I’m not partaking tonight,” she said.

“Come on, now,” the woman insisted. “A woman deserves to let her hair down once in awhile.” She pushed the glass on her again. “Have a little fun.”

Beverly stepped back again. She didn’t want a drink and she certainly didn’t want one from this woman, who was probably only positioning herself between Gil and that girl to create a distraction, a barrier that would allow the boss to sneak a comment or a ridiculous peck on cheek underneath whatever sprig of mistletoe had been taped to the doorjamb. Beverly put her hands out as a defensive gesture, certainly not something meant to be rude or aggressive. But in doing so she must have been too eager. Her hand caught the woman’s wrist, sending one of the glasses skyward. Liquid splashed over the both of them, most of it falling down onto the front of Beverly’s dress, ice cold and jolting, the glass hardly making a sound as it came to rest on the carpet.

“And there we are,” Beverly said. “Perfect.” She looked around for something to daub at herself with, but there was nothing.

“You didn’t have to take a swing at me, lady,” the woman said.

“If I’d taken a swing at you honey, you’d know it.” Beverly looked down at her dress to try and see the damage through the stuttering lights. The woman kept talking but the words seemed to be slipping under the music’s surface.

“Is everything all right here, Mrs. Weaver?” It was Doris. She huddled closely to the woman, worry creased over her brow as she glanced from Beverly’s chest to the carpet.

“Mrs. Weaver?” the woman said. Her crude lips parted, as if she might suddenly start wailing right there. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She reached up and pulled the scarf from her neck, then began frantically pawing at Beverly’s chest. “I had no idea who you were, no idea whatsoever.”

“It’s fine,” Beverly said, taking the cheap scarf. “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“Are you all right, Mrs. Weaver?” Doris asked again. Now she dropped her arm between the women.

“I said I was fine, Doris.” Her tone was hard, not what she had intended. She reached out in a kind reassurance to both women, taking each of their wrists gently in her hands. “Everything is just fine. Please. Enjoy the party. It’s Christmas.”

The woman ducked away and Beverly scanned the room. Gil was near the Christmas tree now, talking with the group of youngsters. The girl wasn’t there, at least not that Beverly could see.

Gil stood on swaying bowlegs, a hand clasped to the shoulder of one of the men, surely half his age. Beverly decided they were over there cracking off-color jokes and spewing out the latest lingo, Gil trying desperately to keep up, showing all the grace of a cripple. If it had been any other night or place she would have been over there in five strides, her fingernails sunk to the quick into his arm as she dragged him from the place.

Doris put a hand gently on Beverly’s shoulder and guided her through the crowd to the small kitchen, through the side door. The lights inside the room were harsh, and Beverly could finally see that the spot down the front of her blue dress was ample but thankfully clear.

“Thank goodness for gin and tonic water.”

 

Gil emptied his glass, the ice cubes stinging as he held it to his lips. He’d lost track of Bob Callahan’s story some minutes earlier. He felt as though there must be a point coming soon and he fought to stay focused on his voice, struggling to keep from breaking eye contact and looking around the room. Where was Ellie? It was funny, he thought, how the mere glow of red and green lights and good scotch, and the placement of time in the after hours could make the room so sexy. Ellie had almost driven him mad when he’d laid eyes on her in that skirt and in the hour since he walked in it had taken every ounce of reserve to keep from seeking her out, Beverly or no Beverly. He could see the mood in the other men’s eyes as well in the way they looked at their wives and the women who were not their wives. It was in the tight manner in which they touched each other’s elbows and gripped shoulders when they leaned in to talk. They felt it, too. Surprisingly even Beverly, bound so tightly in her own skin, gave him a kind of stir in his legs that he hadn’t felt around her in ages.

Ellie done something real for him on those first days, something in the way she hooked her finger through her hair as she talked to him, as she read off the new account numbers then somehow managed to insert a remark about the thickness of his arms against his shirtsleeves. She expressed genuine shock that he might be old enough to be her father. “That’s not possible,” she said, and even an obvious eye roll from Doris couldn’t deflate his turgid ego.

His head was swimming. It had been a good ten minutes since he’d seen either Beverly or Ellie and a swell of nausea overtook him as he imagined they must be alone somewhere, maybe outside in the parking lot or in one of the storerooms. Would they be engaged in a vicious fight over him? Would Ellie come stumbling through a door any minute, hand to her mouth, her swollen cheeks soaked with tears? Or worse. Maybe they were off in the kitchen, leaned back against opposite shelving and laughing hysterically over shared stories of him, two women finding that shared connection to a louse that was worthy of neither.

“She’s gone out the back door.” A man’s breath, thick with the smell of whiskey, brushed against Gil’s ear like a passing suitor’s. And yet as jolted as he was, Gil—liquor-soaked to the skull—could not turn himself in time to see who had offered up this sweetest bit of news.

 

“I’m really very sorry, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris said. She ran a handful of paper towels under the faucet. “She’s not been here very long, but she should know better.”

“I suppose so,” Beverly said. “I was about to call a taxi to take me home, anyway.”

“I could call for one if you like,” Doris said. “It would be a shame, though. You and Mr. Weaver just arrived.”

“I know.”

“I hope nothing unseemly happened.” She handed the towels to Beverly, leaned back against the counter and clasped her hands together at her waist. “Did someone say something to upset you?”

And the way Doris looked at her, with her stretched, penciled brow, cherry-red lips drawn down at the edges, Beverly knew she was talking about the girl. That apple-cheeked bobbysoxer who liked to drink her cocktails with cola, and write notes with loopy penmanship, with words like “handsome” and “smart” underlined, who tossed her hair over her shoulders while the men around her circled like wolves.

“I don’t know how you do it, Doris,” Beverly said, daubing the towel over her dress. “All these years.”

“Do what?”

“Put up with him. This place. You get no credit, as far as I can see. He takes it all. But that’s all fine and good, because it won’t be much longer before he’ll be taking all the blame as well.”

Doris bowed her head, and Beverly could see the curl of a smile forming. She drew in a breath as if she was might say something, but she stopped.

“What is it, Doris?” Beverly put a hand on her shoulder.

“Nothing, Mrs. Weaver.”

“Tell me,” she said. “You know, don’t you?”

Doris looked up at Beverly. “Know what?” she said. “About the girl?”

Beverly waved her off. “Oh please,” she said. “Everyone out there knows about that. They’re all just pretending it’s the biggest secret in the room, when they haven’t the slightest idea what you and I know.”

“This party?”

“It’s the last one.”

Doris nodded, her smile one that struck Beverly strangely as one of relief. “I thought as much,” she said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure this one was even going to happen.”

“It shouldn’t have,” Beverly said. “But here we are.” And when Doris bowed her head again Beverly said, “I don’t want you to worry, though. We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, somehow.”

“Oh, I’m not worried, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris smiled. “I’ve been working since I was old enough to vote. I’ll land on my feet.”

“Of course you will. I envy that about you. Your independence. You could walk out that door and keep right on going if you wanted. You have the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“It’s true. Anyone would be a fool not to hire you right off.”

Doris shook her head. “In that case there’s nothing standing in your way, either.”

Beverly laughed. “I’m a forty five year-old woman who hasn’t held a job since the counter at a soda fountain. What have I got to offer?”

“Everything. This isn’t 1920, you know. The world is a big place.”

She laughed again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?” And it was then that Beverly noticed on the far countertop, beside the shared refrigerator, a sizable manila envelope, precariously hanging over the edge as if it had been hastily set down and carelessly left behind.

 

He didn’t think of the temperature when he slipped out the door to the back alley steps. It had been cold when he and Beverly arrived, of course, but he’d been wearing his overcoat. Now he’d somehow reduced himself to shirtsleeves, and the still December air took hold of him like it had been waiting for him all along. He took the ice-encased stairs slowly, gripping the iron railing as his mind swam, his body swaying like he was a marionette.

The parking lot for his employees lay on the other side of 4th Street, kitty corner from the building. It was a lot shared with a neighboring attorney’s office and it was fairly well hidden behind a row of junipers. Still, he could see that the space was half as full as it was during the day, and the windshields were chalky and sparkling under the high moon. He slid across the street and slipped through a pair of trees, moving down the open center as the ice crunched under his heels, each step carefully and meticulously put down.

The previous July, Ellie had bought a used Volkswagen from Atlas Autos down on Highway 99. It was one of those little bugs that the California surfers and college kids were always driving around. At first Gil had tried to talk her out of it, encouraging her to get into something sturdier, safer. But she’d been so eager about it so he instead decided he’d go with her to look it over and to manage the deal for her. He knew how salesmen were with girls like her. Things had been more or less over between them by then, at least the heaviest of it had subsided. “Let me do this for you,” he’d told her. “No strings.”

“There’s always strings,” she said in return. But by three o’clock she was standing at his office door with her handbag and that look that always made him want to give her his entire world and then some.

 

He moved to the far end of the lot, keeping his body close to the cars and touching the cold, hard edges of fenders as he went. Each pass between them was a treacherous divide, his shoes unable to find a single ounce of traction and it was only when he sat hard on the bumper of an Impala, his pants leg catching against the rusted exhaust, that he had to admit to himself that that little blue Beetle with the Mexican blanket draped over the backseat was nowhere in sight.

He reached down to his leg and slid the fabric over his calf. A stripe of blood glared back at him, the shock of cold air giving a healthy sting. “Gil Weaver you are the punchline to one big, fat joke,” he said aloud. Across the street the flicker of red and green blurred over the side window as, inside, people laughed and raised drinks, probably to him and the hopes of another year. God willing, he’d make it happen but in the meantime he needed to get his head together because he had a part to play. For his employees, for his wife. And he had to find where he’d put that damned envelope.

He stood and shook the snow from his hands and made his way across the street to the rear entrance. He seemed surer of himself now than he had earlier, as if he’d finally figured out the correct placement of rubber soles on ice, the distribution of his body’s weight. He imagined reappearing from the back hallway, most everyone not even noticing he’d been gone. Perhaps there would be a few—Beverly included—who would mention how they’d lost track of him. But he’d have been in his office, or splashing some water on his face in the lavatory.

So when he took to the stairs this time he failed to recall how important the iron railing had been on his way out. He forgot the way the frozen steps had seemed to roll beneath his feet and how his arms had operated more or less as stands to prop his unstable body up. His foot landed fully on the third step, the weight of his body and the complete absence of any reasonable level of traction causing his legs to yank back as if pulled by a rope. His body lunged forward, his forehead squarely striking the step’s edge with a crack that began and ended with a glorious white flash of light.

 

He awoke to the sound of a horn blasting somewhere in the distance. The cold ache of gravel pressed his back as he lay flat at the base of the stairs, one leg curled beneath the other. He pressed his hands to the ground and attempted to push himself upward but there was not enough strength to make it happen. It was like all the wires inside had been cut. His head throbbed and he had the keen sensation of warmth streaming from his hairline down to his ear. At the same time a cold burn rolled over his groin and he glanced down to see that he had in fact pissed himself. He reached to his forehead. Just over his eyebrow was the wet, deep chasm of a clean slice, viscous and flowing.

“Help!” He lay on his back and shouted up into the sky. He sucked in a deep breath that laid fire to his throat, coughed until his chest pinched back and tried again. He continued that way, clouds of steam billowing from his face and quickly dissipating, vanishing into the bitter night air.

 

 

“I honestly don’t know where he’s gone Mrs. Weaver.” They stood just outside Gil’s office, Doris holding Beverly’s eyes, face like stone, refusing to give up anything more than the obvious. Of course the girl hadn’t been seen either, not for well over an hour.

“Please don’t, Doris.” Beverly held the envelope against her breasts. “We might not know where he is, but we know what he’s doing while he’s there.”

Doris’ shoulders dropped. She looked down at the manila envelope then back to Beverly. “What do you want done with those?”

“Hand them out,” she said, passing the packet to Doris.

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want you to hand over every single one with a smile and a ‘Merry Christmas from Mr. and Mrs. Weaver’ personally. And then I want you to turn up that music and make sure that they have the best, damned Christmas party this place has ever seen.”

Doris straightened up and smiled and nodded, just as she always did when given an impossible task. Then she cocked her head. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it yourself?” she asked. “It would sure mean a lot to them.”

Beverly took her wrap from the coat rack and circled it over her shoulders. “I’ve a taxi waiting,” she said. “When and if he comes back just tell Mr. Weaver that I suddenly developed a splitting headache. Tell him I said, ‘Have a wonderful time,’ and that I made my way home on my own.”

With that, Mrs. Weaver disappeared out the front door, and Doris did as she was told, making the rounds from partygoer to partygoer, thumbing envelopes and rewarding each person with his or her personal gift and greetings, as well as a stern warning against using the back door to the alley. It was dangerous on a night like this, she insisted. And besides, there was an abundance of food and drink, and many hours left in the night.

 


About the Author: Warren Read is the author of a memoir, The Lyncher in Me (2008, Borealis Books) and his fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, and Switchback. He received his MFA in 2015 from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

Bad xmas by Courtney Leigh

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Bad xmas

#hungrybutnotlooking: A Charlie Brown Story

Xmas is the emptiest time of year. Charlie Brown’s been eating chocolate santas all month in an attempt to stay warm. From cherry hat to toothache, he gorges on the supple little santas & kisses Lucy with bleeding gums & molars. She cums & goes home to her parents a vampire—such a pale Xmas miracle! They dress her in a gold funerary gown & put her in a coffin full of wilting hollies, covered in a coaled despair. May she rest in pieces, thinks Charlie Brown plopping another chocolate santa into his poisoned gut. He barks wildly the night searching for blood, maddened, stomach churning. A jovial toxicity swells as the santas form an insatiable hunger within him. He serves the bodies at Xmas dinner, stuffing every bit of bone & tendon down his throat, each psychedelic moment rip-roaring then swiftly fleeting. & when there are no more bodies lying in smithereens, Charlie Brown digs up Lucy’s snowy corpse & carries her home where he slides himself in her to keep warm, despairingly consumed with chocolate santas.

 

 


GRANDMA got EATEN BY #ZOMBIEREINDEER ON HER WAY HOME FROM

THE BAR ON XMAS EVE

Grandpa & I are cocking rifles, Santa’s here to plague us all.

Grandma got shit-faced on margs at O’Delles last night, didn’t want to pay for a cab, so she decided to walk home in a blizzard. It was like every other December in the North, her eyes were blinded by whiplashes of icy shards, tongue & lips dried out from the salt. Death was a distinctive taste in her mouth—she had felt it before the only way to cheat it was to vomit & as she expelled lime juice & tequila, every synch of warmth she held, death would not let her. A chariot of blood came plowing down the path pulled by a voracious herd of reindeer, skin liquescent & eyes paled. One sight & sniff & Grandma was being violently eaten by the reindeer, gnashing & gnarling over her floral gown, Santa bellowing a cold hard laugh.

Grandpa & I are wearing black & cocking our rifles. We’ve boarded up the cabin & we’re ready to war, Grandma’s pie covered in corpse flies at the windowsill. A football game roars in the background, the players are eating each other on the field—the referee calls a penalty for the home team. The channel turns to an emergency broadcast, but the newscasters are eating each other on screen. The radio hums through static—the voice on the other end, gargling madly. Grandpa hands me more bullets & nails. He’s going out to look for Grandma.

Grandpa returns with her, bungee cords wrapping throat, fishing pole pulling her behind. I’m not about to celebrate Xmas with the dead. I put my rifle to my shoulder & take a shot, missing her by an inch. Grandpa yells STAAAHHHPPP, but I take another shot & break the fishing pole. Her mouth collides with Grandpa’s throat & blood splatters the snow. I take a third shot & pop her blank in the forehead. Grandma falls beside Grandpa, slowly dying in his own gurgles of blood—

[a picture of two morbid snow angels on a greeting card.]

Merry Zmas & have a Happy End of the World.


#UNDERTHEMISTLETOE: A CHEMICAL WARFARE

The Earth is turning on us. She no longer wants human inhabitants—we are the cruelest. We tear down, we dig up, & bury the secrets of our resource & burn it all to hell. We endanger other species, we murder each other over & over again, a man-made cycle of death. We are no longer the natural order of things, no longer dwelling in this organic illusion. Mother Nature is out for revenge. She has grown chemical fangs & we gave them to her. In holiday spirit, she mixes blood with mistletoe creating a deadly swirl of toxic breath. Mother Nature is releasing her own apocalypse, her own deadly narcosis, expelling her own dramatic disease. This is how we die in the interim. One by one, slowly picked off like the lives on the ground we step on. As we kiss each other under doorways, hallway arches, beside the epic Xmas trees—she spreads her antibodies. This Xmas, we will die with the roses & fall with the bees. This Xmas, our Earth will mourn with us. This Xmas, we will re-discover lost hope in the violence of trees. We will open our throats to the moon, we will polish our ground in mourning.


About the Author: Courtney Leigh is the author of “the unrequited <3<3 of red riding hood & her lycan lover (Dancing Girl Press, 2016)”. Her work has most recently appear in Rogue Agent & Gone Lawn, & is forthcoming in Bird Pile. She resides in Arizona & is The Bowhunter of White Stag Publishing.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

How Much Do You Tip by Sean McCollum

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I stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly cornfields, the barns with their hex signs. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and my folks and I were headed out to pick out a Christmas tree. Feliz Navidad blared into my ear from the stereo speaker directly behind my head.

“Anything you want to do tomorrow?” my mother asked from the front seat.

“I can barely hear you,” I yelled. She turned the music down slightly and twisted around to face me.

“You haven’t changed your mind about seeing your grandmother before you fly back, have you?”

“I told you, there’s no point. She’ll just prattle on complaining about her health and the Puerto Ricans like I’m not even there.”

“She’d be happy to see you.”

Don, my stepfather, stared straight ahead, tailgating every car into pulling over to let him pass.

The gravel parking lot of Unangst Tree Farm was nearly full. Screaming children ran around everywhere. My stepfather muttered to himself as he circled the lot, finally screeching into a spot and leaping out of the car as if it was about to burst into flame. My mother and I hurried to catch up with him as he marched directly toward the section of Douglas Firs. He pointed to the third one in the row and looked at my mother.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Spin it around,” my mother said. I took it and turned it slowly around, my hands instantly covered in sap. She looked at it critically, then nodded. “Looks good. Stay here and guard it while we go pay.”

Back at home, she put on the radio while we strung the lights. I counted six versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside within an hour.

“This song creeps me out,” I said.

“It’s not my favorite,” she admitted.

“Where’s Don?” I asked. “I thought he was going to help.”

“Oh look, my mother made these for me last year,” she said, holding up a pair of leering wooden Santas with feathers for beards.

“Good God.”

“I know. They’re supposed to be earrings I think. I should just throw them out.”

She handed me one and we hung them both around the back of the tree, facing the wall.

*

After dinner I got a call from Sarah, whom I’d known for years but never been close to, though I’d always had kind of a crush on her. She’d told me to look her up when I was back in town. I’d left a few messages for her when I’d arrived, but she hadn’t gotten back to me until now.

“You busy?” she asked.

“Just finished trimming the tree with the family.”

“Great, we’ll come pick you up.”

An hour later the car pulled up and I climbed in to the back seat. A stocky man with glasses and a crew cut was driving.

“Hey buddy, long time no see,” Sarah said. She jerked her thumb at the driver. “This is my buddy Gabe.”

“Hi, Gabe,” I said. Gabe said nothing. A sign on the back of the passenger seat read “Hi, I’m Gabe, thanks for choosing me as your Uber driver. Help yourself to bottled water from the cooler, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your ride a pleasant one!”

“So where we going?” I asked.

“Strip club,” she said.

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be fun,” she said, patting my knee from the front seat.

I opened the lid of the cooler. It was empty.

*

“Eight dollar cover for a Monday night?” I muttered. “This better be good.”

“It will be,” Sarah said. “That is if I don’t get kicked out again.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry, it was a long time ago. They won’t remember me. Probably.”

I watched her from behind as we stood in line. Even in a baggy shirt and jeans she looked good. I forked over my eight bucks and looked up at the purple neon sign. “I think my dad used to come here when we were kids.”

“I think everyone’s dad used to come here when they were kids.”

Gabe bought beers for Sarah and himself and they both walked off, leaving me to fend for myself. The only whiskey they had was Jim Beam, so I ordered one and followed them to the rail. There were a few scattered people in the place, mostly guys with dates. A young woman was onstage in a black leotard, strutting to the techno music. A man’s voice started yelling something over the PA system and the woman snatched up the few bills lying around and vanished into the darkness. Another woman appeared in her place and started twirling lazily around one of the poles. She didn’t come anywhere near us or look in our direction.

“Aren’t they supposed to take their clothes off?” I asked. Sarah shrugged and took a slug of her beer. Two dancers had approached Gabe and were laughing at everything he said. I looked at Sarah. She was staring straight ahead with those huge, beautiful eyes that always looked a little sad, though right now they seemed more bored and unfocused.

“So what have you been up to since last year?” I asked.

“Well, my back’s fucked up so I’ve been out of work since June,” she said. “I go in for surgery after Christmas.”

“Shit, that sucks. You scared?”

She shrugged again. “I’m planning on developing a good painkiller habit.”

A new dancer got on stage. This one actually approached us, smiling. Sarah leaped up and shoved a few dollars down her top. The woman thanked her and looked at me expectantly. On her thigh was a tattoo of an old fashioned sewing machine.

“Nice sewing machine,” I said.

“You’re the first person to ever notice that,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised. I tucked a dollar into her panties and she blew me a kiss and shimmied off, once again without removing a single item of clothing.

“Where’s the men’s room?” I asked Sarah. She pointed to a glowing doorway way in the back of the room. I wove between the tables and ducked inside. By the door was a man wearing a red waistcoat and Santa hat. A small table was covered with mints and lotions and cologne samples. A glass fishbowl was stuffed with bills. Shit, I thought. Do I really have to tip this guy? Will he be pissed if I don’t? How much are you supposed to tip? I felt awkward just having him in the same room as me, and it took me a while to go. Finally I shook off and zipped up and before I could make it to the sink the man rushed over and squeezed a blob of soap into my hands from a dispenser. When I was done washing he handed me a paper towel.

“Thanks Santa,” I said, and dropped a dollar into the bowl.

“Thank you and a very merry Christmas to you, Sir,” he said.

I grabbed another drink on the way back. The woman with the sewing machine tattoo was chatting up Gabe. “He’s going save her,” Sarah said. “Just watch.” She took a long swig and leaned closer. “He wants to fuck me but he never will.”

“Well, there they go,” I said, as the dancer led him off into a back room somewhere.

“Told you,” she said. “God I’m tired.”

“Me too.” I wondered how much a cab ride back to my mother’s house would cost. We sat there in silence for a while. I couldn’t help but notice that Sarah was prettier than any of the women working at this place.

“You still talk to any of the old gang?” I asked to fill the void.

“Eh, they’re all pieces of shit. Except Troy. God I loved that guy. He’s married but he still calls me when he’s all coked up.”

“I know, everyone’s married at this point. Me, I can’t even get a coffee date. Just wait, you hit your forties and you turn completely invisible to the opposite sex.”

“Maybe you’re secretly afraid of commitment? Women can pick up on that stuff you know.”

“No… I mean, sure, I used to be when I was young. But I think at this point in my life, I’m ready to be with someone. It’s just there’s nobody out there.”

“Huh. Here, look at me.”

I looked at her. Her face was lit blue red blue red by the flashing strobes; it was as if she was standing beside a crime scene. She gently took my face in her hands and kissed me, one long, open-mouthed kiss on the lips. She pulled away and looked into my eyes and nodded, then sank back into her seat and stared straight ahead.

I felt like I had just failed some sort of test.

Just then Gabe and his dancer friend reappeared and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

We all walked out to his car, where the dancer gave him a long, lingering kiss before heading back inside. Sarah insisted that I ride in the front seat. She sat behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. I took her hand for a moment before she pulled away. When I looked back she was passed out, her mouth open. I tried making small talk with Gabe but he merely grunted and eventually I gave up and stared out the window at the strip malls and fast food places.

*

“Someone had a good time last night,” my mother said with a smile as I shuffled over to the coffee maker. “Want some eggs?”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting heavily down at the kitchen table.

“Any thoughts on what you want to do today?” she asked.

“You know, I was thinking it would be good to go see Grandma. I mean, if you don’t mind driving.”

“Oh honey, of course I don’t mind. I’ll call to tell her we’re coming.”

“You know what, why don’t we let it be a surprise?”

*

I’d only been to the nursing home once before. The place was crammed with wreaths and wooden angels and all kinds of holiday crafts. The couches and loveseats were littered with tiny, frail bodies wrapped in blankets, staring at the televisions. When we got to my grandmother’s door, I hesitated.

“Go on, knock,” my mother said. I knocked.

My grandmother opened the door. Her look of bewilderment changed to recognition and she smiled. “Oh my goodness, would you look at who’s here!”

I bent down to hug her tiny, hunched frame and said, “We came to surprise you!”

Eh? You’ll have to speak up, kiddo, I’m just about deaf. Come in, come in. I’ve been working on the tree for my door.” She held up a jagged triangle of green construction paper. “All you grandkids’ names will go on the lights.” She spoke in a strange squeak, like a cartoon character.

My mother sat down with her on the bed and I sat in a little rocker splotched with magnolias.

“You probably noticed that my voice sounds funny,” she said. “The doctor said my spine is pressing against my voice box and from now on I’m going to sound like this. Ain’t that something?”

“I need to use your ladies’ room, Mom,” my mother said, patting her on her hunched back, and disappeared into the bathroom. My grandmother and I sat there in silence. She had a huge grin on her face. Piles of paper and knickknacks covered every surface of the room. Above the bed hung a tapestry of a lighthouse, its beam shooting out over the choppy waves that exploded against the rocks.

“How much do I tip a men’s room attendant at a strip club?” I suddenly asked her. I’m not really sure why I asked. It just kind of came out.

“What’s that?” she asked, the grin still frozen on her face. Just then the toilet flushed and my mother came back into the room.

“What did I miss?” my mother asked. My grandmother looked up at her, still smiling. My mother sat down and squeezed her shoulders.

“You’re such a good son,” my mother told me later in the car, patting my hand.

“I know,” I said, and stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly fields, the barns with their hex signs, stared out at the specks of snow that floated aimlessly through the air, too light to ever touch the ground.


About the Author: Sean McCollum

Artwork: Sean McCollum

Fruitvale Is by Rohan DaCosta

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Fruitvale Is

I know a place held together
By a level stretch of road
Two expressways
And a perfect myth
Where the houses are pastels
Broken Easter eggshells
Scattered about the chewed up hills
I know a dog named Bunny
That gets loose and chases pigeons
On the downward slope of Manzanita
I know a woman named Jackie
With a voice like a secretive canary
That bird only knows one tune
She hobbles over fissured slabs
Through the “murder dubs”
With a light in her heart
And Jesus across the chest
Fruitvale is on fire
Like that car melted in half
Clothes spilling out the back of an exit wound
Like every hunk of metal
Every gold-toothed grin
Like that temple riveted on high
Just briefly tanned in an tangerine syrup
At the breaks in conversation
The BART hums a thing soothing
Sings a note familiar
Wails a tale wretched
At the top of one hill
Live three wise men
Pacing well into the evening
A witch whose cauldron bubbles over
The finest solvent for miles and miles
I know baristas quite like Paul Revere
That tell me the skittish are coming
We won’t shoot until we see the apples on their Macbook pros
But Fruitvale is on fire
Like glow in the eyes of JKF
Like coal in the throat of PCR
I know a neighbor with an electric chair in her living room
I know a food truck like a medic
Like an answer
Like a second chance
I know a woman who whenever a seam came loose
Out of being either too wet or too damn reckless
She made it a rope to tie this place together even tighter
Dropping and rolling means stopping
And none of us can afford that
Fruitvale is on fire folks
Who the fuck is gonna put us out?


About the Author: Rohan DaCosta (MHDA) is multi-disciplined creator and curator out of Chicago. His work includes photography, clothing design, literature, and music production. Rohan DaCosta is the founder of GRACEGOD The Collective. You can see more of his work at gracegodcollective.com

Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé by Alvin Orloff

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I couldn’t find a boyfriend, so all I could do was eat – mostly strawberry ice cream glacé, my own invention. I made it by pouring ruby port wine very slowly over ice cream so that it froze a little. A small drizzle created an elegant glassine crust, though I often ended up with something more akin to a Slushie as I’m exceedingly fond of wine. A bowl or two of the aforementioned magically allowed me to forget – if only temporarily – the crushing absence of boyfriend following me around like a malevolent void.

One morning my alarm snatched me from the arms of a particularly delicious dream-boyfriend and I decided to break my no-booze-before-sunset rule by enjoying a bowl of the aforementioned for breakfast. I was drinking strong black coffee too, so my mind began doing backflips and loop-de-loops even as I slid into the soft, pink, painless cocoon of inebriation. I felt so good I put on a record and sang along – So what difference does it maaaaake? Then I had to stop because the lady next door started banging on the wall. I didn’t let this unconscionable infringement of my personal liberty upset me since it was time to leave for work anyway.

Getting to work meant trudging half-a-mile up the gravelly side of the highway to an ocean-side hamlet and aspiring tourist trap by the name of Saint Dymphna. I used to drive, but I’d lost my license three years previously. I’m actually a better driver once I’ve steadied my nerves with a few drinks, but try telling that to the killjoys of the California Highway Patrol. Normally I resented the extra half hour walking added to my commute, but that morning I felt too good to care. A delicate ocean mist kept the temperature mild, the air smelled pine-y fresh, and sunshine fell on my body like warm honey – a favorite, if unexplored, sexual fantasy.

The first part of my shift, waiting tables at the Sandpiper Cafe, passed painlessly thanks to the aforementioned pink cocoon, but by mid-afternoon I felt even more wretched than usual. The retirees with their unquenchable thirst for iced tea, the road-tripping families with their demonically bratty children, the college boys I dared not look in the eye because they were so damn sexy, all of them worked my nerves. I desperately needed a nap – and a job that didn’t involve quite so much repetitive groveling. A few discreetly pilfered glasses of rosé helped me endure until quittin’-time, but the prospect of my long trek home had me longing for death… and not just my death. I craved death for my slave-driving manager and boring coworkers, the penny-pinching under-tippers at the Sandpiper, my acoustically over-sensitive neighbors, my miserly parents, everyone I’d gone to school with, the California Highway Patrol, the Internal Revenue Service, all politicians and titans of industry…

“Spare a dollar?”

I glanced down at the sidewalk to see who’d interrupted my misanthropic ponderings and beheld a young man, maybe twenty or twenty-two, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of a wine bar. His hairless, sun-browned body was so lean you could see every muscle (the exact opposite of my own hairy marshmallow physique) and he would have been perfect if not for some serious acne scarring on his cheeks. My loins stirred, my nerves prickled, and – I’m fairly sure – my eyes bugged. Then came the familiar panic. Everyone’s pretty tolerant around here, but there are still straight boys who’ll call you faggot and want to punch your face if they catch you ogling. Then I took a closer look at the kid and un-panicked. His long, sandy-blond hair was braided into a pair of pigtails and he wore a tangle of necklaces supporting a dharma wheel, a green ceramic pot leaf, and a crystal. Clearly a peace-mongering hippie.

I usually ignored requests for money – I can only afford groceries, booze, and rent by shuffling my obscene debt load between several nearly maxed out credit cards – but the boy had me mesmerized. I pulled a mass of tips from my pocket and handed over a dollar bill, then another, and then another. The boy flashed a smile, revealing small, ferret-like teeth, and said, “Thanks.” He lifted a tiny, pink origami crane out of his lap and held it out. “For you.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking the crane. “I’m Dwayne,” I added, unable to help myself.

“I’m Truthstar,” said the boy, flashing a guileless smile.

“Truthstar?”
He chortled good-naturedly. “Yeah, you got it.”

“Cool name,” I heard myself say, though I was thinking the exact opposite.

Truthstar’s lapis lazuli eyes, which had been focused right on me, defocused. “Well. See you around.”

Trudging homeward I experienced a nauseating wave of self-reproach. What kind of fool was I? The sort of forty-two-year-old man who drools over guys half his age, that’s what kind. And how loser-y to be walking home with a crushing hangover headache! Perhaps starting the day with strawberry ice cream glacé hadn’t been such a brilliant idea. Perhaps I was the world’s biggest loser. Perhaps it was time to suck it up and sober up, take night classes to become a dental assistant, web designer, or CPA. Then I could move to some city, find a boyfriend, adopt a couple wiener dogs, and live in a nice apartment full of Ikea furniture. I could picture this glorious future in my mind ­– could see the boyfriend, the dog, the apartment – but somehow I couldn’t see myself in the picture.

Back at my apartment I collapsed on my bed for my usual post-work nap, but couldn’t sleep for thinking about Truthstar. What a guy like me could do with a kid like that! I hadn’t had sex in four years and my libido was getting antsy.

I – WANT – SEX! it commanded.

“But libido, nobody wants me! I’m a fat, ugly old queen and a pauper to boot.”

MUST – GET – SEX!! countered my libido.

“I live in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have a car,” I explained.

SEX – SEX – SEX!!! roared my libido.

Of course I hadn’t always been a pitiful celibate. Throughout my twenties and thirties I’d often made the ninety-minute drive down the coast to the gay bars in Guerneville. Even back then, before I fell in love with strawberry ice cream glacé, I was chunky. Still, I was popular enough. I had my share. But… as the rosy bloom of youth faded from my cheeks, I started becoming a bit invisible. Then a lot invisible. I’d sit around with my back-slapping buddies drinking myself happy and ogling boys, but the hookups and dates became fewer and fewer. As sex disappeared from my life, I replaced it with cocktails (as one does), which led to that unseemly business with the California Highway Patrol.

For the first few months of my carlessness I stayed home and caught up on my internet browsing. There are a lot of pretty, pretty boys on the internet. Then I started catching rides to Guerneville with Kyle and Zack, the polyamorous bear couple who run Cakeaters Bakery, next door to the Sandpiper. Driving down the coast they were good fun, joking and gossiping like real party boys, but at the bar they became terse businesslike as their eyes scanned the crowd for someone to drag home for a three-way. If they scored a date, their jolly demeanor returned for the ride home. If not, they’d stare morosely out the window or snipe at each other.

One night after striking out they lured me to home their house with the promise of a nightcap, then pounced on me. I was feeling horn-dogish so, despite misgivings, I tried to get into it. Tried and tried. I blamed my sexual dysfunction on the demon alcohol, but in truth the guys were just too old and hefty. My sexual equipment only becomes operational for waifs. Being men of the world we all tacitly agreed to forget the incident, but I still quit riding with them and determined to find romance in the modern fashion with phone apps and dating websites.

Disaster. As a youth, I’d made up for not being sexy or successful with bubbling vivacity. Unfortunately, bubbling vivacity doesn’t translate well onto the internet. I did my best, but the guys who hit on me were always either senior citizens or super-freaks. The former just didn’t flip my switch; the latter were incredibly flakey. They’d show up three hours late, or on drugs, or not at all, or – this was the worst – they’d show up and lose interest on seeing me in the flesh. It was obvious why. I was by that point, as one rude young man put it before fleeing my door, “Hella blubbery.” After that little humiliation I swore off men. Once I’d resigned myself to spinsterhood, my life became quiet. “Drama free,” I told myself, as if that were a good thing.

But the day my eyes chanced fall on Truthstar, my libido would not be denied. I spent two hours trolling for dates on Adam4Adam, Grindr, and Scruff… without luck. In desperation I phoned Kyle and Zack to suggest a trip to Guerneville, but they were busy redesigning their pumpkin empanadas. Defeated and demoralized, I spent the rump of my evening alternating between strawberry ice cream glacé, self-love, and season four of American Horror Story, none of which satisfied.

The next few days I took to wandering around Saint Dymphna after work. I saw the spare-changing girl with an angry pig tattooed on her neck, the boy who walked around wearing socks but no shoes, and the guy who talked to his dog like it was a child (That’s a postbox, Scout, that’s how humans mail letters), but I didn’t see Truthstar. This wasn’t too surprising. The dozen or so scruffy, wayward youths who loitered around town appeared and disappeared at irregular intervals. I tried to put Truthstar out of my mind, but he had a way of popping into my fantasies unbidden and doing the most wonderful things.

Several weeks later, I was just leaving work when a police car pulled up to the curb several yards in front of me. A cop leaned out of the window and exchanged words I couldn’t make out with Truthstar, who was sitting slumped against the front of Cakeaters beside a giant, grubby backpack. Truthstar said something back to the cop, then stood and hoisted the backpack onto his thin shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless tie-dye tee shirt that hung loose on his lean torso, cut-off denim short shorts revealing long, deeply tanned and moderately hairy legs, and muddy hiking boots with thick socks. I hadn’t realized it at our first meeting, but he was at least six feet tall (being only five-five myself, I always notice other guys’ height) and slender enough to look weedy. I half expected the backpack to topple him over. As the cop glared, Truthstar sauntered down the street with an indolent slowness that seemed like a rebuke not only to the cop, but all of Western Civilization with its manic pace and neurotic uptightness. As the police car drove off I quickened my step to catch up my quarry. When I finally did, I found myself struck dumb because the only words echoing around my brain were “I love you.”

Truthstar turned to me, his pretty face contorted with grievance, and said, “I just got evicted from what is supposed to be a public sidewalk.”

“That sucks,” I said, hoping the “sucks” didn’t make me sound like I was trying too hard to be hip and young. Nothing’s more ridiculous than wrinkly middle-aged men aping juveniles.

“If I were black he probably would’ve shot me. Because of my white privilege I just get told to ‘move along.’”

Without forethought I asked, “Where are you move-alonging to?” Miraculously this came out like a perfectly natural question rather than a pick-up line.

“I’ve been staying with an old buddy over on Birchwood, but his girlfriend’s giving him grief about my being around so much, so…” His voice trailed off.

“I’m heading back to my place. Want to come over and hang out?” I wanted to kill myself. Surely I’d moved too quickly and scared him off. And did kids still say, “hang out,” or had it gone the way of “groovy” and “gag me with a spoon”?

“Where do you live?”

That Truthstar hadn’t recoiled in horror filled me with hope. “Just south of town. Like, a twenty minute walk.”

“You don’t have a car?”

“No,” I said, fabricating quickly. “You know, the environment and all.”

“That is so cool! Most people around here just slap a ‘Save The Earth’ bumper-sticker on their gas-guzzler and leave it at that.” Truthstar looked right at me and smiled.

I panicked. Could the boy detect my roiling excitement? Could he tell I was gay? Was he gay? Were his legs not the most beautiful legs that had ever strode God’s Green Earth? Had he noticed me staring at his legs? I hadn’t spoken in twenty seconds. I had to say something, preferably something environmental. But what?

“Oh, I recycle and everything.”

Truthstar kicked a small rock off the sidewalk. “Actually, nothing any of us do as individuals will make any difference as long as governments set policy based on the needs of corporations instead of people.”

I nodded vigorously. “Right.”

“Kropotkin says that humanity will eventually get rid of private property and competition to embrace the ideals of mutual aid and cooperation, but I wonder if we’re going to do it fast enough to save the planet.”

The name sounded familiar. “Is he the guy who ran for lieutenant governor on the Green Party?”

“Nineteenth-century Russian anarchist,” said Truthstar without condescension. “Prince Peter Kroptokin.”

“He was an anarchist and a prince? Is that even allowed?”

Truthstar smiled at my quip. “He wasn’t a Romanoff, so his title was mostly just a formality, and anyway he didn’t like people to use it.”

I hate politics and If I’d been with a friend I might’ve made a joke about “Crack-pot-kin.” Instead, I just switched subjects.

“So are you from around here?

“I was down in the Emerald Triangle for the harvest, then I went to visit a friend up in Eureka. Now I’m heading down to Oakland where my buddy Pete is setting up an intentional community based on Kropotkinism.”

“But you grew up where?”

Truthstar giggled. “Grown up? Ya got ya boy Peter Pan right here, yo!”

We walked in silence after that, but it didn’t seem to bother Truthstar. Eventually I felt calm enough to pry some more. “So your friend in Eureka…?”

“Kind of a girlfriend,” said Truthstar. “Though not really ‘cause I’m Free Love all the way.”

My heart sank at the mention of a girl friend, but the Free Love business sounded promising. “Don’t want to get tied down, eh?”

“I have a lot of love to give,” said Truthstar with a silly, randy little grin. Then his brow knit. “What’s it like being gay in a small town like this? The hetero-normative atmosphere must be totally oppressive.”

It didn’t shock me Truthstar had clocked me as gay – I have one of those voices – but “hetero-normative” took me by surprise. I hadn’t taken him for a college boy. “Well, yeah. A lot of people, guys especially, get locked into their role as heterosexuals.”

Truthstar nodded. “Sure. It’s a privileged identity.”

“They’re afraid to express the homoerotic desires that everyone has. I mean… we’re all bisexual, right?”

“We’re all divine sparks of cosmic consciousness operating meat-machines on a blue marble spinning through an infinite universe,” said Truthstar. He looked heavenward. “Fuck!”

Then I felt it too. Raindrops. “’Fraid I didn’t bring an umbrella.”

“I got a poncho in my backpack, but it’s way at the bottom. Let’s just hurry. It’s only a drizzle.”

We quickened our step so that Truthstar was puffing mildly and I felt like I having a heart attack. Then, just as my grimy tan stucco two-story apartment building came into view, the sky let loose. “That’s my place, run for it!” I hollered. We both ran, Truthstar so bent under his backpack he looked like an ant hauling a giant crumb. By the time we’d scurried under the building’s narrow awning we were both drenched. This felt lucky to the point of miraculous. I well knew (from back when porn movies still had plots) that wet clothes are more conducive to gay sex with random straight boys than anything except possibly pizza delivery or swimming pools. Trudging up the exterior cement staircase I was already rehearsing the obvious lines in my head. “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes!”

We burst into my apartment and I flipped on the overhead lights. Truthstar shut the door, wriggled out of his backpack, and looked around. I live in one room with a kitchenette, but it’s fabulously decorated with mid-century modernist kitsch: boomerang coffee table, orange swag lamp, queen-sized bed covered by an op art bedspread, purple butterfly chair, and not one but three Margaret Keane prints of big-eyed waifs adorning the electric orange walls. Ignoring these treasures, Truthstar beelined for my vintage stereo console.

“Whoa! That is freaking awesome! Does it work?”

“Sure.”

Truthstar went over and lovingly ran his hand along the console’s dark wooden surface. “This must be from, like, the nineteen sixties.” He opened the console’s center door and saw my records. “Oh my God, I love vinyl. Can I put something on?”

“Sure,” I said. “But first wouldn’t you like to get out of those wet clothes.”

Ignoring me, Truthstar fell to his knees and flipped through albums, reading aloud as he did. “The Human League. Echo & The Bunnymen. Culture Club. Adam & The Ants. The Smiths. Who are these people?”

“I collect album from the 1980s,” I said, not mentioning that I’d also collected the albums in the 1980s. “Have you really never heard of The Smiths?”

“Well, I think maybe,” said Truthstar. “What should I put on?”

“Try the Smiths. Perfect rainy day music.”

Truthstar reverently removed the disc from its cover and placed it on the stereo. As Morrissey crooned “Reel Around The Fountain” he cocked his head and closed his eyes like a serious aficionado before delivering his verdict. “Interesting.”

I re-popped the question, “Wouldn’t you like to get out of those wet clothes?” This time it came out like a corny line of movie dialogue. I expected Truthstar to laugh in my face, but instead he looked down at himself and nodded.

“Yeah, I better. Actually, could I take a shower? It’s been a couple of days…”

The mental image of water streaming down Truthstar’s lean, naked body hit me like three slugs of whiskey. “Of course.” I pointed to the bathroom. Truthstar picked up his backpack and went in. Following him inside felt intrusive, but I did. “There’s shampoo and body wash there,” I pointed to the plainly obvious items on the side of the tub, “and if you need aspirin or, uh, anything else, the medicine cabinet is there.” I pointed to the completely obvious medicine cabinet.

“Gotcha,” said Truthstar. His rigid posture implied he was impatient for me to go.

“Would you…” What to say next? “Uh… how about I fix us some snacks?”

“Absolutely,” said Truthstar. “Thanks.”

I left the bathroom and changed out of my own wet clothes into an oversized tee shirt (to hide my paunch) and a pair of gym shorts (to look athletic). Then I went into my kitchenette and downed a shot of bourbon. Thus fortified, I prepared two bowls of Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé, set them on the coffee table, and draped myself over the couch in a casual, dude-ly position. Then I waited. And waited. As five minutes became ten, I put the ice creams in the freezer so it wouldn’t melt. As ten became fifteen, I flipped the record. As fifteen became twenty, I considered knocking on the bathroom and asking if everything was OK. Would that seem creepy? Before I could decide, the shower stopped. I pulled the bowls from the freezer, set them back on the coffee table, and resumed my casual position on my sofa.

What would Truthstar imagine I’d been doing all this time? I picked up the Barbara Stanwyck bio I’d been reading from coffee table and tried to look engrossed. A minute passed, but still no Truthstar. Another minute. What was he doing in there? If it was something sexy I wanted to see. I stood with the intention of peeking through the keyhole, but suddenly felt repulsed by my own lechery. I sat back down and picked up my book just as a damp Truthstar emerged from the bathroom.

I looked up with an un-lecherous smile. “Hey there. All clean?”

“Yup. Thanks.” Truthstar now wore jeans and an oversized long-sleeved plaid shirt, but his feet were quite bare and as beautiful as any feet I’d ever seen. The boy could’ve been a foot model, if such things exist.

“Fixed us a little something,” I said, gesturing to the Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé, which I didn’t name for fear of sounding un-sexily bourgeois.

Truthstar plopped down on the sofa next to me, put his beautiful bare feet up on the coffee table (had he been raised in a barn?) and picked up a bowl. “What the hell is it?” Without waiting for an answer he took a bite. “Ugh!” He put his bowl down. “Sorry, don’t think I can eat it. I’m a little hypoglycemic.”

“No worries,” I said, whisking our bowls into the kitchenette and stashing them in the freezer. I inventoried my cupboard. “Do you like Mac ‘n’ Cheese? Tomato soup?”

“Both would be excellent. And if you happen to have any sandwich fixings….”

“Sure thing.” While I assembled our snacks Truthstar pulled out his phone and began texting. Was he one of those kids who can’t stop fiddling with his phone? Who paid his bill? Who was he texting? When I brought the food in, Truthstar put his feet on the floor and assumed a civilized position for dining. He did slurp his soup a little, but only a little. I sat beside him and we ate in silence, both of us staring at the wet, green world outside my window. There’s nothing more melancholy than eating soup alone in the rain, but a second person makes it cozy.

When Truthstar finished he leaned back with a big, relaxed smile. “Thanks, that was awesome.” Then he leaned forward and peered at the framed photos on the wall directly across from him. “Is that one on the left your mom? You look just like her.”

I laughed. “That’s me.” He was looking at a shot from a few years ago when I’d gone down to SF Pride dressed as 1970s Cher in a satin-y dress with a plunging neckline and suede thigh boots.

Truthstar looked genuinely interested. “Oh, are you gender-fluid?”

The answer was no, but in case Truthstar found gender-fluidity sexy I opted for ambiguity. “Well, that depends how you define the term.”

“The whole binary gender system is so medieval,” said Truthstar. “Just an invention of patriarchy. Male… female… what does any of that shit even mean?”

I nodded in agreement. “Nothing. It’s all nonsense. Male, female, straight, gay… we’re all just animals with animal thoughts and animal needs.”

Truthstar turned from the photo so that he faced me. His eyes were the frosty blue of arctic glaciers. “I was gonna hitch down to Oakland this afternoon, but it’s getting late, and what with the rain… D’you suppose maybe I could crash on your couch tonight and take off tomorrow?”

“No problem whatsoever,” I said. “But you don’t need to stay on this lumpy old sofa. I’ve got a queen-size bed…”

Truthstar examined my face with a quizzical expression that turned slowly into resigned disappointment. “Yeah, well, if that’s part of the deal, I guess that’s cool. We can get it over with right now if you want.” He plumped himself onto my bed, sitting at an angle so he wasn’t facing me, and started unbuttoning his shirt. The forlorn look on his face dampened my ardor a bit, but as his shirt fell to the floor, the sight of his taut, golden young torso rekindled my animal passion. While he shimmied out of his pants and dingy underwear I flipped off the overhead lights, lowered the window shade, and turned on the blue Christmas lights I’d strung along my ceiling for mood lighting. Then I gazed down with reverence at the blue-tinted body splayed out on my bed ­­–­ a porn star, a mysterious drifter, a brave rebel, a wild animal, a Greek God.

I sat on the bed gently and lifted my hand with the intention of running it across Truthstar’s perfectly formed chest. Then I froze. I willed my hand to land on him, but it refused. My conscience was in open revolt against the whole proceeding.

You’re taking advantage of him. He won’t enjoy your pawing. To him you’re just a lecherous old geezer.

“I won’t hurt him,” I told my conscience. “He might even enjoy it… at least little.”

Probably not, replied my conscience. And even if he did, forcing someone into sex he doesn’t really want is still sort of rape-y.

“I’m not forcing him.”

Maybe you’re not. But circumstances are.

“We’ll just see about that!”

I spoke aloud to Truthstar. “You’re very, very beautiful, and I’d do my best to make you feel wonderful, but if you’d rather we didn’t… I mean, no pressure…”

Truthstar sat up and smiled with a warmth that enveloped my soul like an electric blanket. “I think maybe I’m not in the mood.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek, then started putting his clothes back on.

An awkward moment of silence followed during which I felt terribly noble and absolutely miserable. I expected Truthstar to leave, a prospect that filled me with dread. Another lonely night would be insufferable after such a close brush with human intimacy. Once he’d dressed, though, Truthstar plopped himself back onto the sofa with a clear intent to stay put. “Do you get Netflix?”

At Truthstar’s suggestion we watched a long documentary about environmental degradation in the Amazon. When my friends and I watch movies we chime in with witty commentary and sexual innuendo, but Truthstar remained seriously mute throughout. Bored and frustrated, I consumed both bowls of Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé and a bottle of Merlot. Instead of a pink cocoon, however, the booze plunged me into a blue funk. Truthstar’s days were filled with the freedom and adventure on the open road while I spent mine chained to a dull routine of exhausting and humiliating wage slavery. Where had I gone wrong? What could I do about it?

Around midnight, Truthstar dropped off to sleep. Then he began snoring like a chain saw. Unendurable. I only refrained from smothering him with a pillow because I could still feel his kiss, soft as rose petals, on my left cheek. I think he really meant that kiss. Knowing sleep wouldn’t come naturally I popped a couple of pills and quickly drifted into a narcotized slumber. When my alarm beeped me awake the next morning I leapt out of bed immediately instead of lying under the covers groaning for ten minutes as usual. Truthstar wasn’t on the couch. I checked bathroom. Nope. Then I saw a note on the coffee table. In chicken-scratch handwriting it read, “Thanks for letting me crash here. Take care! Truthstar.”

“You’re welcome,” I said aloud to no one at all.

 


About the Author: Alvin Orloff is three novels: I Married an EarthlingGutter Boys, and Why Aren’t You Smiling? He is currently working on a memoir about the impact of the AIDS crisis on shiftless no-account queer club kids during the 1980s & ‘90s.

What is Male Entitlement? by Meg Johnson

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What is Male Entitlement?

Please give this poem a chance
even if you despise the title.
I love men. Most guys are superb.

This poem is not about a first-rate
guy. This poem is about my ex
boyfriend masturbating in the
woods and ejaculating on a tree.

Imagine the serenity of nature
and then Once I was by myself

out here and I was horny.
I walked up to this tree
and lowered my pants. It felt
great coming on the tree.

 The bark transforms into
a sad pair of eyes, a head
in hands, a stone.


About the Author: Meg Johnson is the author of the full length poetry collection Inappropriate Sleepover (The National Poetry Review Press, 2014). Her second book, The Crimes of Clara Turlington, won the 2015 Vignette Collection Award and was recently published by Vine Leaves Press. Both books were NewPages Editor’s Picks. Meg’s poems have appeared in Hobart, Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Puritan, Sugar House Review, Verse Daily, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in BUST and Ms. Magazine. Meg started dancing at a young age and worked professionally in the performing arts for many years. She received her MFA in creative writing from the NEOMFA Program. She is the editor of Dressing Room Poetry Journal and has taught writing at Iowa State University and University of Akron. Visit her at: www.megjohnson.org

An Apologia (For the Beastliness of Carol) by M.J. Nicholls

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PART ONE: REUNION

On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A screening of Françoise Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine was taking place inside and up to four people had arrived for the event. The salival softening of popcorn and hushed swallowing was the only perceived sound, inaudible beneath the film’s frenetic dialogue. Having abandoned her firstborn and taken one hundred footsteps towards the bridge, she attempted a crossing as the panic buckled her knees and rendered her incapable of walking or breathing. She staggered back to the video shop to find her firstborn and bath towel gone. Interrupting Truffaut: “Where is he? Where’s my son?” David, bulbous with surprise: “What? You have a son? I never knew you were pregnant.” Carol: “Give him back to me, you psycho, or I will outright fucking murder you.” The unwanted firstborn had been taken and remained untraceable for the following five years.

Her brother Bill was teaching a class on strategic Twitter-bombing as part of his marketing broadsweep programme for the Media Studies MA at Canberra University when he received an SOS text from his mother: YR SIS ND HLP. CM PLS. Reluctant as ever to interrupt his important teaching duties (how little she knew), she had used the same all-caps telegramese as when his father had passed: YR FTHR HD HRT ATTCK. DID NT SRVVE. PLS CM HM. Carol had been in a state of post-traumatic shock since the incident and had been subsiding on a diet of citalopram, vodkatinis, Lion bars, and Natrasleep, attending public roundtable mope-and-grope sessions where she discussed the various short-lived suitors that squirmed under her sheets and the ghost babies that visited her in the night with their sobbing faces and spumes of sick. His mother’s text was a plea that he return and help drag her from the metaphorical ledge upon which she was dangling (and the literal: she had moved into an old fisherman’s cottage that was sinking into the water below Bridgeloch Hill).

Bill left his condo in Canberra and the class of cooing co-eds burning love poems into his fragile heart, and returned to the village of Bridgeloch whence he was whelped. He had dropped his childhood friends to forge a sham living in the land of mid-summer winters and bouncing bandicoots, and from his condo viewed their woebegone Facebook photos: freezing in their shorts at rain-logged football matches, holding their plump offspring to the camera, posing in seven inches of slap in nightclubs, each status ribboned with Martian lolspeak and childish emoticons, bearing no emotion or sentience whatsoever. Sometimes the faces vanished into football insignias, as if their fanatical and pedestrian attachment to The Game had absorbed their personalities in toto, leaving little left except a sequence of short-wearing ball-kicking kid-squeezing nobodies from the sad and trivial past.

He hadn’t spoken to his sister since the loss. Her intolerable drama and dependence on his stable and yielding heart had been one of his prime reasons for buggering off. Apart from the mutual exchange of platitudes in Xmas cards (spiked with the usual barbs—“hope the shrimp are simply delish this year”, “have a GREAT Xmas on the beach”) and his mother’s telephone updates on which local sucker she had bumped and dumped, what medications had misfired this month, and her latest sexually provocative anti-Labour tattoos. He respected her through fraternal obligation, hoping for the sake of the bloodline she might find an end to her torments, although his resentment was too strong to permit real concern. Their relationship had been antagonistic from the beginning. She had hogged the parental limelight, nudging him aside with dismissive remarks on his dim-witted nature (he had been smarter and more talented), his revolting face (he had been handsome from age seven up), and his dependence on her love (he had never loved or depended on her for anything).

In the absence of an upper hand, she used her working-class local-girl status as a bludgeon. She claimed to pride herself on being “Bridgeloch born and bred” (no sane person would use this as a boast), and default defended all Bridgelochers in spite of their long and impressive list of idiocies. She had supported a purse-snatcher, citing his skill at algebra in school as a testament to his character, and among her other defences: a serial groper—his well-turned out appearance; a heroin addict and robber—his persistence to pursue his passions; a neo-nazi convicted of a double murder—his careful planning and moral convictions. There was no bent Bridgelocher she wouldn’t leap to defend.

He returned on November 28th. Apart from the repainted post office and the pawn shop’s expansion (a self-checkout corner had been installed where a computer would scan and value the pawned tat), the village was the same as in 2009. An unexploded bomb had taken out the optometrist’s office in 1987—this had been the last change to its infrastructure since the war. He walked along the pavement where strips of moss burst through the slabs, and performed his childhood ritual of remaining within each paving slab and never letting the moss touch his shoe. Bob the barber offered the same nod and question: “How’s your mother?” Bill blinked. “I haven’t been here in over five years.” Bob nodded in response and asked after her, even though she lived four minutes away.

Carol resided in a building with an expelled member of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle, whose revenge tapestries hung from her windows bearing the message SOD YOU ANNE AND LESLEY; Vice President of the Depressed Teddies and Assorted Moping Mascots Club, whose suicidal koalas and pandas sat in the kitchen and bathroom windows clutching razors and knives; lead singer in a Blonde Redhead tribute band, whose rendition of ‘The Dress’ earned a round of applause at the YMCA; and a balding late-middle-aged man who cleared his throat over two hundred times an hour and masturbated to episodes of the sitcom New Girl with an abstracted and melancholic air. She buzzed him indoors and appeared with a headdress made of barbed wire around her beehive coif. Her outfit aimed to provoke: she had a T-shirt reading I ATE MADELINE MCCANN, sported tats of violent executions and murders, and wore barbed wire necklaces on her wrists, drawing trickles of blood down her arms. Her first words: “What’s the shrimp like down under, mate?” She flopped on the couch and and plunged a heroin-filled needle into her arm. Bill said: “Hello, Carol.” She replied: “Do your pet bandicoots disapprove of recreational drug use?” Bill said: “If I ever see a bandicoot, I’ll be sure and ask him.” Carol vanished into her pleasure cloud.

He returned twelve hours later.

Their first face-to-face conversation in half a decade encompassed her new fondness for German thrash metal bands The Bremen Bukaki Boys and Thongclamp; her selection of Cthulhu back tats; her assorted nipple and lip rings and the volume of her screams during the perforation procedure; and her fondness for porridge oats. An hour later she opened the file of recriminations, accusing him of hogging the rubber duckie during their infant baths, spooning overmuch mash at Xmas dinners, and overshadowing her Kylie Minogue karaoke by reading P.G. Wodehouse in the corner. She was explosive on the topic of her lost child, flinging a cup at his head after the first insinuation. He suspected not-knowing to be the root of her berserk behaviour—had an infant corpse presented itself she might have taken the sacraments and signed up for membership of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle—so planned to stop in later at the library (pared down to two bookshelves and a computer) to conduct research on the thin but relevant history of infant losses down the decades.

“Sister! Might we attempt a civil confab for our third meet?”

“How’re the dingos?”

“Humorous!”

“I was being civil. You poked a vinegar-soaked stick into open wounds.”

“Mother sent me here. I can’t have the death of a sister on my conscience.”

“You have a conscience now?”

“Tell me the real reason for this lunacy.”

“Listen, my roo-riding brother, I am beyond saving. You can’t help a woman chained to a starving sabretooth.”

“And you can’t say why?”

“It’s a matter for me to ponder in the pits of Hades.”

“Christ. Overegging much?”

“Nope.”

“I will endeavour to find out.”

“Don’t tell mother, ever.”

“You making me swear to that?”

“Yes. Even if I die.”

“Please don’t die.”

“I can’t swear to that.”

 

PART TWO: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHICAL RAMBLE IN EXPLORATION OF LOST PARENTAGE

 

The Bridgeloch Inn

 

The three fathers: Tom Green (59), who in 1977 during the minor cultural eruption (a Slits tribute band performed two numbers in someone’s garage before the police arrived and put an end to punk), conceived a child with a Catholic girl whose morals had fled when she saw a picture of Sid Vicious. One night the kid was left in an ice-cream truck during an all-night Teenage Jesus & The Jerks marathon, and had disappeared the next morning. Gerald Harper (39), who in 1997 during the minor Britpop eruption (a Pulp tribute band had performed on the grass outside someone’s house before Furious Freddie arrived with his rottweiler and ate Jarvill Cocksure’s blazer), conceived a child with a girl terminally indifferent to the direction her life was heading, up until the point she realised she was pregnant and this was not the direction in which she wanted her life to head. The child went missing after being left on the bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Ian Kirk (19), who in 2013 asked a girl he liked up to his room and impregnated her. The child vanished from its mother’s arms as she slept.

All three mothers had left Bridgeloch soon after to eke out lives of regret and recrimination and vermouth, while the fathers had remained to eke out lives of bewilderment and vagueness and lager. Bill brought the fathers together in the pub and after four pints of bitter suggested an exploration around the sites of their respective losses, and a deeper excavation of the region’s missing infants in history, with the hope that some detective work might unearth a pattern around these disappearances. He sketched a walking route around the village and the three fathers agreed to meet on Sunday.

 

 

Bridgeloch Close—The Stone

 

“I left school aged sixteen to sell paperclips in Troon. I went door to door asking semi-comatose housewives in their dressing gowns if they wanted to purchase high-grip paperclips to bind their documents or favoured the bendier plastic to twist into all kinds of exciting curves and straight lines. No wonder I longed to dress in cut-offs, sprout a mohican and tell Ted Heath to go fuck his sister.”

The Slits tribute band had performed at 3 Bridgeloch Close in Simon Quinn’s father’s garage. Gina Marsh dressed as Ari Up and Fiona Bright as Viv Albertine, while two lads in drag provided the bass and drum support. Tom and the nine others tried thrashing to the various semi-reggae and jangle guitar numbers, finding relief when the band covered ‘God Save the Queen’ and brought the bite of punk. The house was now owned by Paula Dunne, a schoolteacher who lived for her cheese and nibble evenings at the Castle Hotel, whose Nissan sitting in her whitewashed garage hid the one remnant of that evening—a large dent caused by Gina swinging her guitar and cracking the wall’s cavities. The dent had been re-filled several times and an unsmooth cloud of Polyfilla was still visible.

The walk wound along Bridgeloch Close, past the prefab houses with their council-splashed cream licks of late and their reverse-louvre windows that permitted rain and refused air. The stone-chip facades had lost ten percent of their stones, and new stones had been added during the repaint process to combine an off-puke colour scheme, a depressing aesthetic throwback to the seventies, and random stones plastered to the walls for kids to break their skulls on. The street curled round in the shape of a policeman’s helmet, prior host to large bulb of grass on which the kids amused themselves, now a car park crammed with Mum’s Ford and Dad’s Nissan and Eldest Son’s Skoda. Behind these houses, the large pitch for football matches and Bridgeloch gatherings, including the fair and the gala day, had become water- and bog-logged. At the centre, a sump of mud had formed into which people flung their unwanted furniture and deceased pets. In the rainiest season, cabinets, chair legs, cat paws, and hamster heads could be seen bobbing about the sump that became a swamp.

Gregor the Ice Cream Man used to park overnight on the grass if business was to be resumed in the morning. Ian’s girl had left her unwanted child there, placing the swaddled bundle beneath the milk lollies and, having failed to tell Ian she was pregnant up until her panicked change-of-mind and frenzied run back to the van, left him no chance to rescue his never-seen son after the never-seen birth or before the never-seen theft. The local priest Father Him (short for Himm) insisted that women shouldn’t spoil young men’s promising careers with their pregnancies, and to raise the children themselves until the fathers had a stable income, at which point the father might offer to support the children (but also reserved the right to refuse help due to the girl’s looseness in the first place). Father Him had held the moral reins for over six decades, and had died in 2013 aged 93. A swift funeral followed. At the end of the pitch was a large rock with the misleading local moniker The Stone.

“Lovers used to carve their names into The Stone with a hammer and chisel. We should be on there somewhere,” Tom said. Bill and Ian checked The Stone while the others fiddled with their phones (promises of beer and lunch were all that kept them), finding a well-chiselled if faded TOM & ANNA. Beneath, someone had chiselled VANTOS and underlined. “Who the fuck is Vantos?” Tom asked. “Might be that van rental place,” Ian said while zapping space-weasels on his latest app. “That’s Van-Tows,” Tom corrected. “So-called because the owner ran over some dude’s toes and thought that providing a towing service might increase his revenue and help the compensation payments.” Other theories were that two lovers had mashed-up their names to save time and effort chiselling—Vandross and Tossle? Vanuatu and Toshiba?—or that the names were a mash-up of their initials.

 

 

The Stone—Darling’s Chippie

 

“I had embarked on a nightclub romance with a coke-keen tearaway named Pauline Gert (most of the Pulp-cult had been Gert-stuffed), who intended to complete her HND in Ethical Hacking despite the drug love. She came from Troon, so viewed herself as the upper-class equivalent to me as in the song ‘Common People.’ We would visit supermarkets and she would pretend to be poor, laugh, and then try to fuck me on the sprouts.”

The group headed for Main Street where the shops were, passing into Scott Avenue—an interzone that had been burned down in a wartime Bonfire Night prank (one ex-soldier added several blocks of TNT to aid ignition and one hundred were incinerated). A complex network of weeds had overgrown the old tributes and flowers. A sign read Please do not litter. Be respectful of the dead. This did nothing to prevent teens from hurling crisp packets and Irn-Bru bottles into the weeds, or from urinating on the memorials after nights out. The interzone also acted as a venue for street brawls and various neighbourly duels. Criminals used the space to deposit their weapons or the intended recipients of their bullets. Two corpses had been found in the weeds, one from a gangland whacking in Weymss Bay, another from a local firm that operated out a boarding house for two weeks before the owner turfed them. (She ate a bullet and her corpse was dumped in the weeds).

The Pulp covers were performed in a flat above Scotmid (a supermarket that encompassed both Scottishness and middling produce), with Gerald’s friend Mark as Jarvill Cocksure, and three people from school he never spoke to as the other members. The setlist comprised material from Different Class until Furious Freddie and his equally unpleased rottweiler arrived to cap the encore. Gerald dived with Gert into the bedroom as the dog feasted on Jarvill, where they had swift and painful sex on the loo cistern. Gert had her child and left the bundle on a bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Quite why a bench had been placed facing the chip shop was a matter for debate—few people in life liked to watch drunks queuing up to order battered fish and chips—but the bench was used for eating and drunks slept there after forcing down their food and depositing the upchuck on the pavement beside. Gerald had carved their names into the bench with a pen. He checked again. GER & GERT 4 EVER, and below again VANTOS. “Fucking hell—Vantos again!” Tom said.

Bill bought the lads fish suppers and speculated on the nature of Vantos. He was surprised that no one had noticed these carvings. The lads explained that they had jobs (except Ian who had been weighing his options since leaving school and concentrating on his game-playing) and didn’t have time to inspect stones and benches. The owner of the chippie, Dick Darling (a name that had earned him derision and mockery from the youngsters, to which he responded by threatening to fuck off—after that they referred to him as Sir Dick), had seen the name Vantos carved onto the bench. “I seen that name carved onto the bench,” he said, adding: “Is there anything else you wanted to order?” Bill blinked. “No.” Dick made a motion that he fuck off out the door in that case and he’d have their custom again he hoped.

The last of the lads to lose their child was Ian. The loss had been welcomed by his girl Cass and himself (Cass sought to concentrate on her career in the sportswear industry). Their kid had disappeared from Cass’s arms as she slept in his bedroom. A quick check behind Ian’s bed revealed the word VANTOS.

 

 

PART THREE: BACKSTORY

 

On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A VANTOS operative in a civvies arrived a moment later, scooping up the bundle and laying him a pre-prepared crib in the back of a Transit van. He drove away after scoping the streets for witnesses or onlookers, leaving Carol alone where she lost her nerve and made a scene with the father in the video shop. The next morning she met the VANTOS operative as agreed at the rendezvous point (a disused café) and quizzed him on the fate of her discarded kid.

“Goes to Azerbaijan. Or Kabul.”

“To do what?”

“Put into foster homes. Learns, erm . . . becomes a Muslim.”

“Safe?”

“Yeah.”

To bring her in some ill-perceived way closer to her son, she applied with success for a post in the VANTOS organisation. Their purpose was to remove for a fee unwanted children from doorsteps, having been instructed where to collect the bundle by the abandoner, and rehouse them in safe untraceable locations (removing chance of reunions or last-minute regrets). Having struggled with her conscience, not wanting a soul to know (accusing the father to avert suspicion), she shared a deep empathy with indecisive mothers, those forced to have their babies (either through religious beliefs or leaving it too late to abort), ones left by the fathers, or those unable or unwilling to raise their produce. She helped with the administration and practical care aspect, helping keep the babies fed and watered before being shipped abroad. She worked at the West Highland office, where the “abducted” children in her area were stored before being flown overseas to their new homes in Asian countries.

After nine months working at VANTOS, Carol fell for shipping clerk Adams Grantham. She was attracted to his insouciant manner, native Northumbrian banter, and beautiful thick lips where she found a new home inside the beaming folds of his soothing smile. She began an erotic odyssey, helping her to forget the ever-nagging dismissal of her unwanted child the year before, making love on desks, mantelpieces, and ping-pong tables, until the passion cooled and she felt comfortable in the arms of her Anglo-Saxon lover enough to impart her secret. He reacted in horror. “My God, how could you do that to your own child?” he asked. “What do you mean?” Carol snapped. “You know where they send them, don’t you? They are sold into slavery in child labour camps, as workers or helpers, and treated as expendable.” Carol was stunned. “No. I was told they are rehoused with wealthy families. Given a fresh start.” Adams was silent for an unacceptable period. “And do you really believe that?”

Carol poked her nose a little deeper into the firm’s paperwork. She was unable to consult her son’s shipping documents, as information was not retained past two weeks per child in case the parents tried to track their kids or police sniffed round. She opened strangers’ files, read the names and addresses of the new parents. Names such as Mr. & Mrs Jung-Il or Mr. & Mrs. Eun-Jin appeared, although the locations seemed suspicious, e.g. 2 New Harbour (Street), or Old District (Street)—“street” appeared to have been added in brackets in order to present a false image of security. A quick look on Google revealed these places to be on the outskirts of town, nowhere near the cosier suburbs as advertised, but warehouses blurred from Google street view, so more likely to be places where the sold worked to make trainers and toys for western kids on a diet of rice and water for sixteen hours per day.

She took to vodka. One day, sneaking into her boss’s office while he was out to lunch, she logged onto his computer, accessing a spreadsheet that contained the name, precise location, and year of abduction for every client. She knew a police confession was death sentence, the firm having strong connections in organised crime syndicates at home and abroad, so she took to staggering around the town drunk, carving the company name at the abduction spots in the hope someone might do the detective work. It was this chronic alcoholism that would end her life prematurely some years later.

 


About the Author: M.J. Nicholls is a writer from Glasgow. He is co-editor at Verbivoracious Press, and his novel, The House of Writers, will be released in 2016.

For Jake: by Hanna Pesha

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For Jake:

energy flows like a blue dragon through your life
snaking through the time of your days
fast and bright as fireflies

magic birthright
blocked only by unwillingness
to feel the anger that is yours

nothing is wrong with plunging
a knife violently
into a lie


About the Author: Hanna Pesha lives in Oakland, CA. She has been published in Arcata Free Press and Steelhead Special. She has been a teacher with California Poets in the Schools, artist in residence at the Mendocino Art Center and has taught a workshop through Poets and Writers with domestic violence survivors. She has read at the Crow Show and Bay Area Generations.

Brunch by William Auten

 

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One of the things he loves about his cousin is her out-of-the-box, unique approach to life, novel things to try and novel places to go, most often spurned on by reviews she’s read in the Post or on the Web, especially the food and drink reviews. And lately their get-togethers coincidentally happen when their respective lives change, either signaling what’s ready, what will be, a harbinger, or what has been, what has happened, a celebration. Rachel invited Mikey to a Mad Men–themed party in a former dry-goods warehouse in Falls Church, where, in the middle of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” her then-boyfriend, now fiancé, proposed to her on one knee. Last month, just before Mikey was laid off from his job, it was One-Eyed Billy’s near the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, serving over thirty microbrews, including Barack’s Not Quite Bock with its floral, dry, bitter hops; complexity of bready malt flavors; hints of banana and cloves and honey swirling in dark amber; and pairing well with goat’s milk cheese, roast chicken, and Mexican food. And in September when they got together before Rachel went off to her first real-world job working for a private consulting firm near Pentagon City, she and Mikey ate dinner at The Shire, a Tolkien-themed restaurant and pub, complete with a map of Middle Earth and compass in the bottom right corner, under which lay the words There and Back Again gilded in calligraphy on a tan-green scroll, Smaug flapping his thorny wings in the distance behind the mountains, all hand-painted on the main wall upstairs, the menu chock full of beer from local breweries, including an oatmeal stout from One-Eyed Billy’s, wild-game meats, and multi-colored starches, as well as lasagna, pizza, and chicken nuggets for the “real hobbits.”

So today, on this sunny Sunday in April, the first after a series of heavy spring rains that, along with the slow melting of a recent snowstorm, keeping the sky grey, the flowers and cherry blossoms delayed, and the ground soaked, they are off to one of DC’s favorite drag-queen brunches at Heads and Tails, an open-air sports bar and grill for open-minded people of all walks of life. Mikey is ready for anything, and the more they walk in the light that is charging the morning air, the clouds having moved on, the more he’s pulled into it, a hamster stepping into a wheel.

Brunch in the District has become cutthroat, a Darwinian mode of survival for many of the establishments, as competition and the number of restaurants serving brunch have multiplied over the past few years, and specialty brunches, such as rustic French countryside, Cali fusion, or surf-and-turf, have started to emerge as brunch offshoots scrapping their way to the top. Comfort food and home-style cooking to signal the end of the weekend and to usher in the start of the new workweek isn’t enough anymore, and drag-themed brunches have become the most talked-about and most popular destinations. But H&T has decided to turn it up a notch: The ladies perform and serve, and the positive online reviews are increasing as word spreads about this unique twist. According to Yelp, it’s the best place for laughs, memories, and pie. “A bit pricey,” Katey L. from Dorchester, MA, reviewed, giving it four stars on her trip earlier this year, noting the $45/person reservation for brunch, “but so worth the free first round of mimosas. And the ladies are ah-ma-zing. I loved Madonna, she brought back so many memories of my childhood, and I loved Queen Mary, the only one who sang Broadway classics. She said she ‘blew in’ from Long Beach. LOL. Deffo check it out if you get the chance. Will be back for sure.”

Situated on a corner a few blocks down from a Metro stop, with its neon purple and yellow sign, upstairs outdoor deck, bright white, tear-shaped lights strung from the large canvas canopy’s posts, white painted exterior with exposed red brick and the old rafters from the days when it was a salon in the mid-1800s for DC’s intellectuals, the restaurant’s glass front bustles with activity and glows along the street’s homeless population and LEED-approved buildings starting to pop up between the Afro-Caribbean bookstore, Syrian grocer, and Eat Your Greens farm-to-table salad shop, the second location in the metro area.

Mikey pauses a little longer in the light, feeling it cling to him. He stops outside the heavy oak front door to look at some fliers next to the menu and drink list, both of which are affixed to the outside wall. The Federal Triangle Triangles Sports Club and DC Roadrunners have partnered for a training program for all runners at all stages for a July 4th 10K. DC United midfielder Bart Gomez and goalkeeper John Jordan will be there signing autographs after the home opener on April 11th, and on May 24th, both Jane Ire and Mad Maxie Pad from Capitol Headache Roller Girls of the Atlantic Division will be manning a table out front, providing information, answering questions, and promoting the All-American Roller Girls League. And Don’t Forget Our Delicious Apple Lime Pie w/ Real Key West Limes says the front door’s broad neon-green-and-yellow-letter banner flapping in the wind under the American, District of Columbia, and rainbow flags, all three translucent with the morning light shining through and onto the damp road and the metal grates of the gutters rumbling with thaw.

In they go: Rachel; her fiancé Captain Patrick, Iraq War vet finishing his undergrad degree at American U; Sarah, grad student in international affairs at Georgetown and Rachel’s friend from a summer internship at Dolenz & Hill; and lagging behind but hoping for a real tasty treat this morning, Mikey, Mike, Michael Dennis Tucchi, second-gen Italian-American, hoops fanatic, having lived, breathed, and played basketball for the majority of this life, often being the only Caucasian on a team. Nicknames included White Mikey, M-Dud, and No Game. He had one semi-serious girlfriend between the ages of seventeen and eighteen: Bethany Abrams, Jewish princess. Great hair and body, super smart, but big nose, he always thought of her. Mikey told her he loved her during the last slow dance at the senior prom. Dru Hill’s “These Are the Times.” He never saw her again after she went out of state to Princeton, but that didn’t matter, and neither did her nose in that dress she wore. And today, pushing thirty-five and not exactly dangerously obese, but medically overweight, certainly not zipping around life with lean muscle mass, stuck like a ball between the rim and the backboard, Mikey is four months into his Thanksgiving announcement that he and Melinda have separated, which didn’t surprise his mother, and that he now earns slightly above minimum wage as a sales associate hanging and folding, folding and hanging, and helping customers make cool artistic decisions at Urban Outfitters after a company-wide layoff at BridgeOver, a startup software company in NoVa’s tech corridor that will continue to grow without Michael Tucchi’s computer science degree and three-fourths of the developer department. His supervisor, who maintained his position, helped fuel Mikey’s exit with an increasing concern that Mikey was easily distracted, that a three-step process, mediated by HR, of (1) having Mikey take initiative (“own it,” the report encouraged) and self-track his work vs. personal (i.e., Internet) time; if this didn’t rectify the situation, then (2) having this time automatically monitored by IT; and as a final tactic, (3) removing Internet connection all together from Mikey’s computer did not resolve Mikey’s focus or to create, as Bob Huggins wrote in last quarter’s write-up, “a serious atmosphere of sacredness and ritual at Michael’s work station.” Mikey wouldn’t have put it that way, and after those words sunk their stingers in for a few below-freezing days, he understood it but still didn’t appreciate that Bob threw Mikey under a bus that Bob was riding, helped motor it towards and flatten Mikey, and then drove off into the sunset, paycheck and job and stock options firmly in hand.

So after hitting this series of new lows, he’s doing everything he can to make his life feel that it’s an open suitcase waiting to be filled again with new journeys, the two halves snapped shut, and carried away in another direction, preferably back up, but leveled out at the very least. This is also draining for him, and having hit play again on his once-paused Catholicism, all the prayers and hopes and pleas and asking God or the saints or even the search engines and message boards on CareerBuilder.com tire him out, so much so that he’s reached a point of enjoying what he cannot change at the moment, that he can’t fix everything all at once. Besides, adulthood for Mikey has remained like a giant magnet swinging between his actual life on one side and the heap of movies and sitcoms and pop culture on the other side; picking up scraps from each side as it oscillates; and solidifying fictional and nonfictional events into one giant mass of images, characters, outcomes, and songs.

What’s left of Mikey’s receding hair is brushed back, limbs of dark chestnut brown here and there, a once-thick forest peeking through flesh-colored fog, and he’s a little grumpy this morning, partly because of his hangover. A few hours of solo time after closing the store and five Presidente margaritas at Chili’s did him in last night. The skillet-fresh fajitas and warm tortilla chips with gauc did not soak up anything in the añejo tequila–soaked vat that quickly became his stomach. His liver and sludge-filled intestines feel hand-twisted like a balloon animal, and he’s hoping this morning’s nosh and entertainment will lift his spirits. The warm, bright light flooding the waiting area of the restaurant seems to be helping.

But he’s mainly grumpy over a text from Sean Weinman, his longtime college pal and go-to buddy in their fantasy basketball league, who said that with OKC’s win last night over the Knicks and the triple-double put up by Durant moves Wein-n-Dine81 past WarEagleInTO for the current standings. Booyah! says the text. How’s first place feel? Just ask me. Mikey’s dry tongue claps on the bottom of his dry mouth and behind his fuzzy, dry teeth. Mikey starts to text back, but Sean is beating him to it, the ellipsis bubbling in the bottom left of Mikey’s phone. You talk to Mel this wknd? bursts the next line, which is fine on one hand because Mikey has always confided his marital and personal joys, fears, and problems with Sean ever since they roomed together at Maryland and came close to defeating Kappa Sig at the beer pong tournament two years in a row, the two years they had to work at Beltway Plaza Mall in College Park after graduating and lived across the street from the frat.

Mikey grimaces at the Melinda question before re-texting. No. She said she was ‘in a mood’ w/ the divorce option but willng to talk “soon” bc I’m a really good example of a country song right now.

Dude, the phone buzzes back, we got that couch in the b’ment. Just say when, Im your huckleberry

will think about it, Mikey replies. R wants me out but wont say.

She still hot. Legal in the South, Sean quickly texts.

GI Joe wants me out like yesterday

ROFL hang in there

In addition to the framed photos of Heads and Tails’ ladies and patrons enjoying a birthday or brunch or a Nats or Orioles game, the interior décor is heavy on sports memorabilia and flat-screen televisions, and all the plastic and glass surfaces sparkle with the morning light, which, as the day has lengthened, has become the centerpiece, a sun in the middle of the room around which the crowd orbits.

The pager in Rachel’s hand rumbles and twinkles, and the greeter leads to them to a long table angled along the main floor. “Your server will be here soon,” she says, as she turns back towards the front door where, seconds later, a group of six has arrived, more behind them.

Several tables are full, and the barkeep is prepping an assembly line of mimosas, pouring OJ, pouring champagne, topping off the glasses with tiny floral umbrellas. Mikey looks around and is, at first, disappointed, because the young Asian woman who greeted and showed them to their table wore a lot of foundation on her face but was not in drag. But then he sees Marilyn Monroe sauntering up to the bar and loading her tray with a mimosa, two bloodys with celery stalks floating inside, and an Irish coffee, and he is pleased. Beyoncé makes her way to the chrome counter separating the dining area from the flame-lit kitchen. She leans on the counter and throws her hands up in the air, one of them gripping an order ticket. “Come on,” she exasperates to the short-order cook re-reading the ticket and shaking his head, steam rising in front of him.

Mikey watches Sarah bend over a chair to pull it out, her empire waist pushing up and expanding her cleavage, and from underneath her blue-smoke eye-shadow, the grad student catches him looking at her two bulges. He smiles, blushing, “Yeah, Sunday brunch,” he croons in a raspy voice and says to her, “I’m technically still married.” By that point his eyes have at least reached hers, and he’s aware that last night’s festivities remain camping out on his tongue and no amount of mint toothpaste or mouthwash could dissolve the odor drifting towards Sarah’s smooth, blunt face. The brunette with square-frame glasses nods, lifting the pencil-eraser-sized mole on her chin into the morning light, a humpback whale coming up for air, and makes a slight snarl on the left side of her mouth. Quickly covering her upper torso with her red sweater, standing up, and moving towards another empty seat, she sits back down, further from Mikey, scoots towards the table, turns to Rachel, her shoulder and arm blocking any and all space between Mikey and her, and asks if she’s heard about Lynanne’s news that Raytheon not only renewed her analyst contract but also promoted her. “No, I haven’t,” Rachel responds, her eyes opening wider as she leans closer to Sarah, but then her eyes give Mikey a look of reproach baked inside disappointment. “She did, so awesome too,” Sarah chimes.

As silverware clings on plates and Liza Minelli and Bette Midler appear at two tables on the other side of the room, the fog in Mikey’s head breaks apart a little more, and the bits of broken-up sentience floating in his head float a little closer together, touching just enough for him to realize he’s now directly across the table from Captain Patrick Ochester, six-feet tall, hazel eyes, dirty blonde, twelve percent body fat. Mikey sighs, assuming where and how this’ll end, but his attitude is picked back up by the arrival of the pint-size drink of Diana Ross, welcoming them all and saying she’ll be their server for the first half of brunch, but following that, she and the other ladies will be performing.

Mikey sits up straight when Ms. Ross hands him a menu and tells the table about today’s brunch specials. “How about huevos?” Mikey asks, smirking and hoping for a witty reply.

Honey,” Ms. Ross exhales, “have we got huevos…rancheros, that is,” and Ms. Ross spins in a tightly wrapped ball of purple sequins towards the coffee pot that her Crossfit-defined arms cradle. “Coffee?” she asks, and all of them say yes to this. “Room for cream? I’ll top you off. Just say when,” she winks at Mikey, who smiles back, blushing and huddling over his menu and downing his first mug.

As Rachel and Sarah pass some breakfast ideas back and forth between them, the Captain drowns himself in the three-tiered menu handed to him by Ms. Ross. Cutting through the eggs, sweets, specialties, a la carte, gluten-free and vegan options and knowing exactly what he wants (2 x 2 x 2), Mike closes his mouth and tries being chipper with fake small talk. “So…Pat…what’s new?” He asks this but then the synapses in his brain reach full connection, firing one clean shot before relaxing again under the weight of residual alcohol and a douse of mimosa, and he realizes he lives with the guy who’s engaged to his cousin, thanks to whom he is not homeless. “I mean, since you know…school or whatever…this week,” his voice fades into a mumble.

The Captain keeps his hazel eyes scanning each line item. After a few seconds, reaching the lower part of the menu, he scratches his baby-face. “Not…too…much,” his staccato breath breaks apart each word. “I had that paper I had to write…turned it in Friday afternoon.”

“Right…” Mike perks up, leaning into the Captain’s hospitable reply and the image popping into Mikey’s head of the Captain riding his official Le Tour, all-carbon Felt on the way to campus in order to drop of this research paper before hitting the road for a fifty-kilometer bike ride before dinner. “Got it all done, huh?”

“Yes, sir, I did,” which the Captain says with more vocal force and rhythm, emphasizing “sir,” looking up at Mikey, and slapping the menu shut. “Hard work pays off.”

“What the f…,” Mikey catches his words and quick-fire temper.

Rachel casts a blue-eyed buoyant look towards Mikey, and smiles.

“Here we are,” Ms. Ross sashays minutes later.

The table nods their heads in approval, as the light pouring in through the windows balloons the room’s brightness.

Mikey looks up at Ms. Ross as she slides his sunny-side-up eggs, two chocolate-chip-banana-walnut waffles, two sausage links, and OJ fresh-squeezed in front of him. Diana Ross made me breakfast, he texts Sean. In bed replies his buddy.

“Cheers, everyone,” Rachel lifts her mimosa, and their glasses clink. “So glad we get to do this.”

“Did you hear back from anyone this week, Michael?” asks the Captain, not looking at Mikey, scooting toast off his plate, and handling it like it was pulled from underneath wet garbage.

Sighing inside himself, but not defeated, Mikey shrugs. “No, but I folded all the Bob Seger shirts when they came in on Wednesday. Had a day to it and got done early.”

The Captain smirks as he slathers his steak with a butter cube and plops his eggs on top, keeping the roasted veggies in their own little circle of oil and crushed pepper. Fork in mouth, the Captain looks at Mikey, sets his fork down, stares a little longer at him and then stares at the edge of his plate, and finally nods, shrugging his shoulders at this information and carving out another piece of steak. “You can do better, Michael,” Captain says. “I believe in you, and I’m not the only one.”

Rachel makes eye contact with her fiancé, wiping her face with her napkin and cutting off her conversation with Sarah. “Something will catch…if you go after it,” Rachel mediates between the two simmering men.

“Look, at this point I’m just happy I have something,” Mikey sighs. He leans back and looks at Rachel who is stirring almonds into her oatmeal. “Actually…,” the synapses in his brain reloading thanks to a fresh batch of caffeine, his second mimosa, and a burst of warm sunlight on him, “I’m all right where I am. I’ve accepted that this is just how it is for now.” Mikey grins, cutting into his layer of eggs, sausage, and pancakes, chocolate chips and maple syrup oozing down. Behind him the window shades buzz as they are automatically drawn, and the artificial lights over them dim. The greeter leaves her podium by the front door and tightens the window shades more, as best as she can, but the light finds it way into the room through the narrowest of openings.

“And now,” booms the PA speaker, “let’s welcome the loveliest ladies in the District, starting with a classy lady everybody knows, Miss Marilyn Monroe! Any birthdays out there?” One hand goes up in the grey light, a pudgy middle-aged man with glasses, and Ms. Monroe points her ballroom white glove to him and sings happy birthday like he was JFK, eventually sitting in his lap and kissing him on his cheek. The man claps and laughs, turning back to the rest of his table, who are snapping photos, clapping, and laughing along with him.

“Let’s give it up for Marilyn Monroe!” After the crowd’s clapping dies down, the PA continues, “And now how ‘bout a lil’ country for your morning meal!”

And out she saunters, tall, disproportionately top-heavy, and says, “Hoo-ee, I think need a partner for this little number.” And Dolly Parton shakes her perfectly manicured shape in her yellow dress and tapping the tips of her bedazzled cowboy boots to her song’s intro that’s looping until she is ready.

“I so know this song,” Mikey says loudly but not rudely, buzzed, confident, unaware of how loud he says it, but proud that he knows it, facing his cousin and the Captain and nodding to Sarah who refuses to acknowledge his existence.

Ms. Parton glances over at him and drifts his way, a canary sparkling in the spring light, humming and laughing and glowing. She puts her hand on Mikey’s shoulders that are pumping up and down like a pumpjack. His brown eyes grow large. “What’s your name, good lookin’?”

“Uh, Michael. Mike. Mikey,” he qualifies one more time.

“Lots of names there,” she giggles, teeth aglow. “You know this one?

“Yeah I do,” he replies, almost offended that Ms. Parton would even ask such a thing.

“Well, come on then, good looking, sing with me,” she beams and shares the mic with him in this light that continues to break into the room, the sun nearly at twelve o’clock, pouring in over them all from the open-air deck above, this light that can’t be ignored so that the things within it are glowing like buds on trees, that the eyes cannot look anywhere else but into that bright space. And they begin to sing about something going on that can’t be explained, pain going away because peace is becoming known, so much love and connection that it requires no conversation, the world rolling along, no one in between, nothing standing in the way, islands in a stream.

Is this it? a small hopeful part of Mikey sits up inside him. Are you my angel with a sign? he wonders, looking at Ms. Parton who, at this point, wrestling back the mic, completely ignores him as she retakes command of the song, her over-bleached hair curling and lifting like wings in the light behind her. Have I found you or have you found me?

And the light expands in Mikey’s thoughts of what could be, what could happen next, what could come of what’s happening in front of him, suspended in this very moment, that he could quite possibly make a career as a Kenny Rogers impersonator, moving to Atlantic City or Vegas or wherever he needs to be, or that he could start a Kenny Rogers–themed restaurant featuring the best brunch on the Eastern seaboard, thanks to The Gambler, a cheeseburger omelet with all the fixings and seasoned hand-cut sweet-potato fries on the side. He looks at Ms. Parton again out of the corner of his eye, squints at her, can’t help but wonder if she is indeed a messenger, that maybe she’s bringing something just outside of food and drink to him, something just for him that won’t change much but will change a little over time, once he finds its purpose and gets it going, something that won’t make him happy but happier, that he’s this close to precision, a minimal requirement to begin, and it is everything.


About the AuthorWilliam Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (Black Rose Writing, 2016), and his work has appeared in District Lit, Drunken Boat, Notre Dame Review, Origins, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, Sliver of Stone, SunStruck Magazine, and other publications. He has work forthcoming in Red Earth Review and Sequestrum and has read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review.

Control Group by Heikki Huotari

jimi-evins
“Painter” by Jimi Evans

CONTROL GROUP

The ingredient in question
is extruded, pressed into
the shapes of animals
and offered to the criminals,
but not the kind we like.
The kind we like are put up in hotels
and given new identities,
careers and social skills. They can
have anything they want delivered
to their doors for their last meals.
Their catwalks are square circles
so whichever way they turn
they’re headed home.


About the Author: Heikki Huotari is a retired professor of mathematics. In a past century, he attended a one-room country school and spent summers on a forest-fire lookout tower. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Poetry Northwest and Crazyhorse. A chapbook is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Artwork: Evins paintings are filled with vibrant colors and shapes that are alive with energetic movement. Evins states that his works are created to convey the acts and joys of “making marks”, what he calls the signature of the artist.

Jimi graduated with High Distinction in painting from California College of Arts (Crafts). Since then, his work has been influenced by his travels to Nigeria, Jamaica, Mexico, and Europe. He has been a multi-year CAC Artist in residence, worked on various collective mural projects in the Bay Area and was the site coordinator and lead artist for the initial phase of 100 Families; Arts & Social Change Project in Oakland.

Jimi has been awarded the Jan Hart-Schueyer Achievement Award, The Ebony Museum Pioneers Award, California College of the Arts Center for Art & Public Life Community Arts & Education Award, and the Alameda County Artist Leadership Award. Jimi recently received an Individual Artist Grant from the city of Oakland Cultural Arts Program.

Jimi has exhibited at the High Museum in Atlanta, GA., Oakland Museum of California., San Francisco Art Commission, Oliver Hyde Gallery at CAC., Canada College in Woodside, CA.,

 

 

Pickwick Bowl (Burbank, CA) by Justin McFarr

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“I’m sorry, Vernon, I really am. I just wasn’t… you know, expecting it to be that much.” The father opened the door to the Pickwick Bowl. Light streamed into the darkened entryway as he led his son toward the service island forty feet down the carpeted hall.

“It’s okay, Dad. No big deal.” The boy walked a few paces behind and to the side of his father. The sound of crashing pins and upraised voices joined together to drown out the boy’s words.

“Horses, seemed like a good idea, a fun thing for us to do together. Jesus, it’s so expensive, though.” The father’s shoes still carried dust from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center that sat across the street from the bowling alley. His mind lay scattered back there, where the money he’d earned and the money he now carried was not enough to see his son hoisted up onto the back of even the most basic training horse. The embarrassment, the humiliation, brewed slowly and methodically into an unnamed and cruel anger.

“Dad, I don’t mind. Bowling is fine. It’s—”

“It’s not fine! Dammit.” He paused, caught himself. “Let’s just… I’ll teach you how to bowl, okay? Your mom never took you bowling, did she?”

He shook his head no, then said, “But I want to learn.”

“Then I’ll teach you everything I know.”

The father led his son up to the counter where an overweight, fiftysomething man with a dark blond mustache and a weathered smile rented them shoes and charged them an hourly rate on the lanes that was far more affordable than an hour on horseback.

 

#

 

Vernon Taylor Gray was barely six years old when his father Nathaniel Bryce Gray packed his old high school football duffel bag and walked out of the boy’s life with no intention of ever coming back. Nate left the pink slip of his fifteen-year-old Honda next to a half-assed farewell note, written with an unsharpened pencil, on the kitchen counter. He removed half of their joint savings from the branch two blocks from where the boy’s mother, Sandy, worked, and hopped a bus to a train station two cities over that offered destinations anywhere and everywhere. He disappeared, the overall shock of his decision not hitting the thirty-year-old until the Amtrak was halfway across Arizona on its way to North Carolina.

There was no one moment that helped form his decision to abandon them, merely a slow, insidious building of resentment and anger for his wife and for their only child together. He felt physically suffocated, unable to breathe at intervals that became increasingly frequent. Conversations between himself and Sandy were strained to the point of monosyllabic exchanges. “Yes” and “no” and “uh” formed the majority of their vocal interactions. Both of them knew their relationship was in trouble, had been faltering for some time now, yet neither one had the intellectual or emotional means to do anything remotely constructive about it.

Sandy, to her credit, had tried to explore the root of their problems, had shown the insight to recognize the oncoming collapse of their marriage if something wasn’t figured out between them soon. But she was blindsided when, two years ago, she came home to find that her husband had discovered that he was unable, or unwilling, to break the cycle of abandonment that his own father had brewed up inside him. It had taken six years for the patriarchal genetic code to be activated, but despite the delay of time, the result was ultimately the same. Another fatherless child, soon to begin wondering what he’d done to make his daddy leave him. To begin blaming himself, hating himself, but never quite knowing why.

 

#

 

“All right! Excellent. You’ve got them all set up for a spare. Now just… wait for your ball to come back and finish them off.”

The bowling alley was crowded now, an hour after Nate and his eight-year-old son Vernon had arrived. The lanes were taken up by league players and Saturday afternoon amateurs, with teenagers playing video games in the entertainment hall and early drunks haunting the bar. The noise of the pins exploding into the back wall of the lanes whenever a player hurled an eight- or ten- or sixteen-pound ball down the center of the buffed parquet floor could be deafening. Which is why Nate found himself speaking so loudly at Lane Twelve to his only child.

“Here comes the ball. Grab it and do just like I taught you, okay?” Nate took a pull on his bottle of Bud as his boy shyly nodded his head in acknowledgement.

The Day-Glo-decorated eight-pounder swiveled and swirled at the gaping mouth of the ball return, before slamming onto the track and flowing down the narrow chute until it rested in the U-shaped middle. Vernon pushed at the ball with his heel until the three finger holes appeared, upright. He nudged his father’s sixteen-pounder over to his right, allowing room for Vernon to fit his fingers into the ball and wrench it upwards onto his lean, bony chest.

The boy—dressed in a button-up, starched and pressed white shirt, tucked into black slacks with creases down the middle, and outfitted in the Pickwick Bowl’s size five-and-a-half two-tone shoes—took a step up onto the alley floor. He planted his feet, his chin chucked under the ball. His eyes moved swiftly back and forth between the 8-9 pins at the end of the lane, his feet, the ball, and the middle-aged guy creeping up to his own lane on the right. Then he registered the young, pretty mother staring sweetly on his left, scanned back to his feet, the ball, and finally, squarely, on the pins.

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m not sure if I can hit them.”

Nate paced a few feet behind him, pulled on another sip of the beer bottle. Wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just concentrate,” he said, his voice raising in volume to compete with the noise of the place, “you can do it.”

Another ten seconds of contemplative eye-balling of the pins, then Vernon took three steps, his right arm arced behind him, came up again, and released the ball just behind the painted line where the lane began. It hit the parquet floor with a loud thump, traveled single-mindedly straight down the middle of the lane until it got about three-fourths of the way down. It slowly began to veer to the right, where it skimmed but failed to knock over the nine pin before colliding with the hard wall at the rear of the lane.

As he turned to walk back towards his father, the young mother, now on his right, sent a smile his way. “It’s okay, baby, you’ll get her next time.”

Nate stood behind the computerized scorekeeper, one hand resting on the back of a red plastic chair, the other wrapped around the top of his long-neck. He struggled to find words for the boy. “Good try, Vern. You know, you tried. What counts, right?”

Vernon sat on the small bench behind his father, his eyes pointed downward. “I did it like you taught me. What did I do wrong?”

Nate stared at his son, whose eyes were focused far beneath the floor, into some unknown chasm of disappointment and shame.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I just… I just taught you wrong.”

#

Nate’s father, Big Nate his mother always called him, never taught his son anything. He had married Nate’s mother on what seemed later as just a lark. The burly, gruff, uncultured man stuck around long enough to see his son take his first steps, then he vanished without a word or a care. His mother did the best she could for her son—nurtured him, kept him fed and clothed, in school and out of trouble—but it wasn’t enough. The father had left a mark that wouldn’t rub out. A burned spot in the middle of the young boy’s psyche that had tried to camouflage itself first with denial and later through muted acceptance, but it was always lurking, waiting for those emotionally delicate moments to come undone, emerge in anger.

Nate the boy promised himself that when he was Nate the man, any child he had would be loved, cared for, and never abandoned. It was the promise of a scared, hurt, righteously-inclined child who ached to be normal. Ached to have a mother and a father, both. A child who became an adult who discovered how to create rationalizations that would negate those promises, twist them into just and acceptable alternatives to doing what was truly right. As a man, he knew he was doing wrong by everyone involved, but he convinced himself otherwise. They were both better off without him.

#

The day waitress from the bowling alley bar leaned over the rail above Lane Twelve and got Nate’s attention. “I get you two anything else?”

Vernon looked up from his seat, where he chewed on a piece of ice from his empty glass of soda. “Can I have another Coke, Dad?”

“Nah. If I send you back to your mom with a major sugar-high, I’ll get hell for it.” Nate turned to the waitress, Peggy it said on her name tag. “Bring him a water, will you, please? And I’ll take another Bud.”

As Peggy straightened up and moved down the carpeted floor to the next lane, Nate stopped her. He eyed Vernon peripherally, saw a look of dejection in his face. More disappointment. “Um, Miss? Another Coke would be fine. And, uh… how about you bring me two Buds instead of the one. No telling how long it’ll take you to get back by this way. Okay?”

Peggy nodded, jotted it all down on a damp writing pad that sat in the middle of a slightly wet serving tray, then moved off. Nate finished the beer in his hand and looked at the scorekeeper in front of him.

“So, Vern, that makes three games. I got you two to one, but I see you improving with every frame. No lie. I figure we go best of five, this could be a nail-biter. What do you think?”

Vernon didn’t respond, but scratched his neck, a gesture that Nate had seen enough in the past few weeks to recognize as one of Vernon’s nervous tics. Why he was still nervous around Nate, when they had been bowling together like a true father and son for the past two hours, the older man couldn’t understand. A tinge of anger hit him at that moment, the word ungrateful came to the front of his mind and he looked quickly away from the boy before he gave voice to the thought and ruined the whole day. He had worked too hard to blow it now.

#

Nine weeks ago, over two years since he had left without a word, Nate appeared at Sandy’s job unannounced, his figurative hat in hand with a desire to see his son again. To try to repair what he had damaged. It had taken so little effort, so little thought or intent to turn Sandy and Vernon’s life upside down, sideways and all asunder. It would take a monumental effort in order for all of them to move on, move forward. A flood of apologies and mea culpa from the once-husband and father. A steady job and residence in the same town as his son. Hours and hours of phone calls before even face-to-face contact could occur, then only as supervised visits at their apartment. This outing at the bowling alley was their first together, alone, and Nate had had every intention of making the day as special as he possibly could. No matter what might happen or how he might manage to fuck it all up.

#

Nate took a pull on his fifth beer of the day, the evidence of the empties hauled away by Peggy the day waitress on her semi-frequent rounds past Lane Twelve. It was almost three p.m. according to the position of the blazing red hands on the blue neon clock that hung over Lane Fourteen. The boy had to be back at his mother’s apartment by five at the latest. Twenty minutes’ drive time, tops, from their current spot in Burbank to her place near downtown Glendale. That gave him an hour and a half to either sober up completely or keep drinking until the decision to bolt again—this time for good, no more allowances for a guilty conscience and some sense of patriarchal duty dragging him back a second time—was made all the easier.

Fear, Nate had found over the course of his life, was a much more powerful force than love ever could be. Love was strong, he thought as he watched his son roll his eight-pound ball down the lane on its way to a perfect strike, but fear was invincible. It had a force that demanded not only obedience, but full devotion to its sonorous calls of fight or flight. The call to anger, etched out of fear, was answered without thought. Immediate and destructive. The flight took courage, took denial of a better self, a greater moral foundation, and fewer men could give up the constant offerings of the stand-and-fight in exchange for the ultimate sacrifice of the cut-and-run.

But Nate had done it. Doing it a second time would, in a way, be easier than the first. The pain, however, would be greater—somehow he inherently knew this—for both of them. If the pattern was repeated after the promise of permanency had been presented and accepted, neither one of them would recover from the betrayal.

Nate saw Vernon’s feet leave the floor, a wild and impulsive jump of triumph after the last pin dropped and the strike registered on the computerized scoreboard. The boy turned away from the lane, a wide smile on his face directed toward his father.

“Dad, did you see it? You didn’t miss it, did you?”

“That was amazing, Vern. You really knocked the snot out of those pins.” He placed the half-full bottle of Bud on the seat beside him. Looked at the clock. Measured the weight, the power, of the fear at that moment.

“How you holding up?”

“What do you mean?” Vernon was still standing in front of his father, smiling from his recent triumph.

“I mean, how’s it going, you know. Between you and me. Today. Right now. How are you feeling?”

Vernon’s smile faded. He scratched at his neck. Looked off into the distance. Away from his father.

“I want you to be honest. I want us to be honest with each other.”

“Can I… Can I ask you a question?”

Nate looked at his son’s face. Glanced down at the beer by his side. He made eye contact with Vernon. Nodded.

“Why did you leave? Was it because of me?”

Nate’s left hand fell to his side. Grazed the long neck of the bottle. “What did your mom say?”

“She said it was because you’re a selfish… well, she used a bad word.”

“I can guess the word. You don’t have to say it. Did she tell you that we had problems? Me and her?”

“I guess. Kinda. She said it wasn’t my fault why you left.”

“And do you believe her?”

“I don’t know. Was it my fault?”

The hand gripped the bottle. Brought it up to Nate’s lips. He took a quick swig.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. Blame me. Never blame yourself.”

“I don’t blame myself.”

“Trust me, you will.”

Nate finished the rest of the bottle, got up from his seat and placed it between his sixteen-pound ball and his son’s eight-pound ball, which had just rolled back from the return and onto the holding track. “Let’s go play some video games. I’ll grab us some quarters.”

#

Vernon was positioned inside a racing game, his arms moving wildly as his hands spun the hard rubber steering wheel and his foot pumped the gas pedal. The on-screen Ferrari went into a tail-spin and crashed against a concrete wall at the same time the timer ran out. A scroll of text alerted him that the game was over.

Nate leaned down beside Vernon. Gave him a handful of quarters.

“I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Don’t go anywhere, just stay here and play. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll go with you, Dad.”

“Do you have to go? You have to pee?”

Vernon paused. “No.”

“Then just stay here and play. I’ll be back.” Nate straightened up and walked out of the entertainment hall, knowing that Vernon was watching him leave.

Inside the bathroom, Nate finished at one of the three urinals, zipped himself up and took three steps to his left, meeting his face in the scratched-up mirror over the sinks. He washed his hands with the powdered, chalky soap that came from the dispenser by the towels. He dried his hands, wiped his face and then stared into the mirror and through his own reflection.

Minutes passed before his eyes pulled back focus onto the glass and registered his own face. He looked back, over his shoulder. Saw that the two stalls were empty, the doors open and swung wide. He entered one, locked it behind him and put his feet up onto the half-eaten-donut-shaped toilet seat and crouched into a sitting position over the bowl.

The fear was thick in the stall, surrounding Nate in a hot blanket of suffocating responsibility and duty. The beer that remained in his system did little to dull the anguish he experienced, the shame and regret and sense of disgust he felt all over. Could he just walk out on his son again? How could he walk out, just leave an eight-year-old boy alone in a bowling alley playing video games until the realization that his father was never coming back to get him finally struck him and he was forced to find his own way back to his mother? What kind of a morally corrupt, selfish son-of-a-bitch was he? Had his own father’s abandonment taught him nothing?

It had taught him everything. It defined him, formed him, corrupted him. And now it was set to do all of that and more for this little boy—with his love and trust and an abundance of forgiveness—who had given Nate a second chance. The cycle would continue, the arc of Vernon’s life would follow predictably as Nate’s own had. Painfully, uncontrollably. An unstoppable future of repetitious acts of unkindness handed down from father to son as legacy. Nate fought back tears and tried to find courage from his intoxicated state.

He heard the bathroom door open and a tentative voice call out. “Dad? Dad, are you in here?”

Nate froze. Stopped breathing.

“Dad?” Crying. Fear. Pain. “Dad?”

Nate listened to his only child, his son, crying outside the door of the stall. He listened and struggled against his own fear. The fear that expected obedience, that demanded fidelity.

Vernon was crouched under the sink, tears streaming down his face, when Nate spoke to him. “Vern, hey, I’m right here. Your dad.” He picked him up. Awkwardly pressed the young frame against his own.

Small but strong arms latched around Nate’s neck. The father lifted his son off the cold tile floor and tenderly draped his own arms around the lean back.

“I thought… I thought…” Vernon struggled for breath. For words. “I thought you were gone. That you went away. Again.”

Nate felt the fear, but he refused to let it take over. He felt the sadness of a boy without a father, a man without a conscience. He forced back his own tears and found a reserve of strength that he was surprised still existed within him.

“I’m not going away, okay? I care about you. I’m going to look out for you.” He stroked his back. Firmly. Gently.

“I’m sorry, Vernon. I really am.”

 


About the Author: Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. Prior work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, and Verdad. His story “Aggressive Fiction” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The East Bay Review. His novel about 1970’s-era Berkeley, The Bear Who Broke The World, will be published in 2017 from Wheeler Street Press, followed in 2018 by a collection of short work titled Controlled Chaos.

COURTS-MARTIAL AND INCARCERATION: THE TRAVIS AFB ECSTASY INTERDICTION AND ITS AFTERMATH by Charles Von Nordheim

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COURTS-MARTIAL AND INCARCERATION: THE TRAVIS AFB ECSTASY INTERDICTION AND ITS AFTERMATH

Midnight is when we cast our net at the base’s main gate
Seeking hints of a pill with an X from a Berkeley rave
Every third car popped with a written golden flow order
Unless dogs provide cause by alerting on an odor

Seeking hints of a pill with an X from a Berkeley rave
First sergeants arithmetically tag schools of airmen
Unless dogs provide cause by alerting on an odor
Emitting from cannabis ashes beneath the back seat

First sergeants arithmetically tag schools of airmen
Flop-sweating court-martial should their debauch be detected
Emitting from cannabis ashes beneath the back seat
Gleaming from non-consensual semen stains on panties

Flop-sweating court-martial should their debauch be detected
Young airmen detour to vacuum rugs and burn evidence
Gleaming from non-consensual semen stains on panties
They forget the golden flow order’s specified timeframe

Young airmen detour to vacuum rugs and burn evidence
Consequences of discovery making them tremble
They forget the golden flow order’s specified timeframe
OSI agents duly databased their tardiness

Consequences of discovery making them tremble
Even though only their pee sample could betray them until
OSI agents duly databased their tardiness
Suspicious that missing gaps spoke of a guilty conscious

Even though only their pee sample could betray them until
The minutes spent at their cover-up attempt made the cops
Suspicious that the missing gaps spoke of a guilty conscious
Raising enough doubt to justify more investigation

The minutes spent at the cover-up attempt made the cops
Collect witnesses who recalled the girl’s hesitation
Raising enough doubt to justify more investigation
The Oakland girl only spoke if not asked how much she toked
Collect witnesses who recalled the girl’s hesitation
In front of a panel of young commanders, even if
The Oakland girl only spoke if not asked how much she toked
Guilty without exception is the board’s finding

In front of a panel of young commanders, even if
Military lock-ups overflow like clogged toilets because
Guilty without exception is the board’s finding
Equals three months for bad pee plus assorted repentance

Military lock-ups overflow like clogged toilets because
Every third car popped with a golden flow order
Equals three months for bad pee plus assorted repentance
When we cast our net at the base’s main gate


About the Author: Chuck served in the US Air Force for 22 years as an F-4 radar mechanic and a paralegal from 1987 to 2009. His duty stations included Clark and Kunsan Air Base, a TDY stint at the US Embassy in Baghdad, and stateside assignments at Eglin, Edwards, and Travis Air Force Base. Currently an MFA candidate at CSU San Bernardino, his work has appeared in Poetry Quarterly, the Five Two, Illumen, Northridge Review, and Statements Magazine.

The Escaped Air by Natasha Patel

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Shaila paused at the door before entering the hotel room. She leaned against the frame to prevent it from closing, letting only the tips of her toes cross the threshold. The Lovely had upgraded them to the Honeymoon Suite, as a token of gratitude for the six hundred and eleven wedding guests she had brought.   Even the florist had provided an extra hundred marigolds at no cost. Only the catering staff expressed displeasure, particularly when the older guests failed to use utensils during their meals. No hotel in city had ever booked such a large wedding. Special caterers were hired to cook the distinctive curries, tandoori chicken, and rice-milk sweets. The hotel’s profit margin for the quarter had been achieved by this single event.

Ravi had already taken a tour of the suite and settled comfortably into the sofa, his legs propped on the glass coffee table. Shaila surveyed the room from her perch at the door. It boasted eleven-foot French doors that opened onto a terrace overlooking the pool. The king-sized bed, though draped in down pillows and silk sheets, appeared intimidating.   Ravi perused the twenty different movie offerings on the gleaming fifty- inch flat screen television. Papayas, mangoes, and kiwi, flown in from Australia and arranged to look as if they had accidentally spilled out of a basket, decorated the dining table.   A bottle of Dom Perignon glistened in the silver ice bucket on the cocktail bar. Shaila presumed the card tied around its neck by the velvet red ribbon read, “May your future be filled with everlasting happiness. Best Wishes, The Lovely.” Even with every luxury the hotel had to offer, she thought the room was missing the essentials.

“You’re letting the cool air escape,” Ravi said to her as she continued to hold the door open. The city was in the midst of an energy crisis, and to conserve, the hotels only cooled the interior rooms. Acquiescing to pleas by Shaila’s mother, the management had agreed to keep the air conditioner running in the banquet hall throughout the day. In spite of their assurances, though, the air was turned off during the reception, turning the room into a pressure cooker. While her father and sister attempted to pacify the complaining guests and her mother argued with the manager, Shaila had watched in amusement as the guests attempted to cool themselves with floppy fans made from dinner napkins.   Now, standing at the door, she preferred the warmth of the hallway to the coolness inside the room.

“Let’s open the bottle,” said Ravi and raised the champagne bottle high in front of him like a trophy.

“In a little while,” she replied, finally relinquishing her position from the doorway. “Let me change first.”   The door lagged for a second, as if giving her a moment to be certain of the decision to walk inside. Then it shut behind her, securely.

“Good idea,” still admiring the bottle as he set it down. “My shirt is soaked. Do you mind if I shower first?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked into the bathroom.

Shaila sat down at the dining table and stared into the lacquered table, unable to see her face. Her countenance had been replaced by the portrait of a newlywed; a woman wrapped in all the elegance India had to offer. The red and white sari draped over her head exposed only the luster of dark lashes and ample lips. Her thick black hair, for most of her life cut just below the ears, was grown long for the occasion and pulled into a low bun just below the nape of her neck. Carefully arranged ringlets swept over her eyebrows and gave the demure suggestion of innocence.   With one pull of a pin, she unraveled the bun that had taken an hour to wrap, and ironed the ringlets with her palms until not one flirtatious curve was left.

From the bathroom she heard the sound of Ravi reciting material for his dental school final exam next week, the reason their honeymoon was a weekend at The Lovely Hotel.   Her disappointment had virtually passed. In college she backpacked with friends through Europe and only two summers ago she had gone on a safari in Tanzania.   But while she had initially imagined that she and Ravi would have sailed from one Greek isle to another or hiked the trail to Macchu Picchu, Ravi’s allergies made it impossible to travel far. She was married now and understood that this yielded a new life of compromise—a simple, relaxing weekend without the hassles of delayed airplanes, lost luggage, or uncomfortable accommodations was probably fitting.

One by one, Shaila removed the pieces of wedding jewelry bought during a trip to India taken especially for the wedding. She had never worn more than a pair of small silver hoop earrings before and the nearly ten pounds of gold weighed on her frame. The extra weight had made it difficult for her to circle the fire four times during the ceremony and her body sighed with relief as each piece was removed.   The two silver and gold-plated rings slid easily off her middle and forefinger, leaving only the wedding band on her hand. The diamond was almost unnoticeable, she thought, feeling cheated and yet relieved. She rubbed her arms with soap and water to remove the arm bracelets nearly glued to her skin. With a quick tug she took all twenty off at once. She then unfastened the gold anklets adorned with little bells that had pinched at her heels during the first dance. As a child she would wear her mother’s pair at every opportunity, even to perform menial chores, just to hear them clink while she dusted or swept.   But as she grew older, to her mother’s disappointment, she refused to wear them even to Indian dances and celebrations. The chimes had grown into a nuisance; she found them unnerving, as if they were intended to announce her arrival before she was prepared.

The infection in her right ear had nearly subsided, alleviating some of the pain as she unscrewed the gold earring weighted with rubies and diamonds. She traced the outline of its exquisite double teardrop shape with her thumb and stopped at the precious half-carat in the middle. “The piercing needles these people use in the shopping malls are not large enough for our earrings,” her mother had said when she doused the gold screw with Vaseline, allowing it to glide into place. Gravity prevailed as the ceremony commenced that morning, and the precious family jewel, ordinarily a privilege to wear, became the burden she had borne until now. Shaila began to rub the diamond, gently first, then with increasing speed, as if hoping to wake a genie from his slumber, only to be disturbed by the ring of the phone instead.

“Hi mother,” Shaila answered, knowing it was her before she picked up.

“Beta, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Can you hear me?” her mother repeated. “We are finishing downstairs and will be leaving soon. Do you need anything?”

Amid the clamor of the last wedding guests’ farewells, Shaila could hear the robust laughter of her father in the background. As a child she had been embarrassed by its resonance, particularly at school musicals when it echoed at inappropriate moments, like Dorothy’s invocation of “no place like home.” True, in a Hindi film a plea for the return to domestic life might be considered amusing, but home in West Eatonton, Georgia meant something delightful and gratifying, especially to the audience at West Eatonton High School. Now, though, the dissonant rise and fall of her father’s laughter brought her comfort she had not realized she needed.

“Mother, I’m fine.”

“And Ravi? Does he have his allergy medicine? ” A reminder she had someone else to think of.

“Yes mother. I packed it myself. We’re great. The hotel gave us a bottle of champagne and we’re just about to make a toast.” Shaila stared at the uncorked bottle still in its holder.

“Okay beta, I will talk to you tomorrow. Good night.”

“Was that your mother?” asked Ravi from the bathroom door. The towel wrapped around the lower half of his body revealed a broad, brown chest and defined shoulders. His wavy black hair had thickened due to the humidity.

“Yeah, she wanted to make sure you hadn’t forgotten your medicine.”

He grinned appreciatively. “I love how the Darshan ladies take care of me.”   She thought to clarify that it was her mother who had remembered and not she, but realized the distinction might be lost. Instead, she watched as his sinewy frame, in its usual confident saunter, approached her from across the room. Standing just above six foot, Ravi towered over her five-two frame.   While many women found his build dashing and strong, in the past she had usually preferred someone closer to her own size, lithe and agile. Ravi’s bulk and strength often swallowed her, making her feel barely even five feet tall. “He resembles a God,” her mother had exclaimed when she first saw his smooth, sculpted face with dark, wide-set oval eyes and high cheek bones, likening him to Lord Krishna or Rama. The excitement on her mother’s face had been palpable, knowing that her grandchildren would be tall and handsome.

“I’m no longer a Darshan. It’s Shah now.”

“Yes. Yes it is.” He nudged her into an embrace and kissed her lightly on the mouth. Then he began to caress her back, his hand moving up and down her spine, gently massaging the tightened muscles. But her body remained rigid and apart, and its response went unnoticed. She wanted to squeeze him tightly in return, to reach for the towel and pull it off his body. For a moment, while she played with the threads between her two fingers, the idea that she could muster the passion, the impetuous excitement every bride should feel on her wedding night, seemed possible. She gently tugged on the towel, watching as it began to unravel, the downy whiteness floating its way to the floor like a snowflake, light and transparent, and not made to be caught.   But it fell into her open hand just before its final drop to the floor. She tucked the edge of the towel back into place.

“You should get dressed,” she said and unlocked his arms.

“And you need to get undressed,” he teased.   She searched for a clever response, but her mind went blank.

It had been easier with David, she thought.   She could still visualize the neon lights from the Cactus Shade Lounge that had shined brightly into their Super 8 motel room. They had strung a bed sheet over the window to block the intensity of the orange and blue, which unexpectedly filtered the neon into a hue of soft violet. Lubbock, Texas had been the fifth rest stop on their drive from Boston to Los Angeles, and the sweltering August heat forced them to sleep with wet towels to compensate for the lack of an air conditioner.   The humidity had been oppressive, and in the few moments David had stood in the bathroom doorway after showering, his thin, lanky body had already become wet with sweat. Shaila thought she had never seen anything sexier.

When she first began to date Ravi, there had been no physical affection. That wasn’t strange, given that the first few months they spent together had been only on telephone. A relative, maybe a cousin or aunt of Ravi’s mother, she couldn’t remember, had seen Shaila at her sister Rina’s wedding.   At her mother’s urging, particularly her emphasis on “he was born here in America, raised here in America, like you,” she had let her mother provide the relative with a number. A few weeks later, Ravi had called. The conversations were awkward at first. Having always favored the concept of chemistry and first attraction, she had never thought of herself as a person who could date someone she hadn’t met. Yet, her sister had married her husband that way, and because her relationship with David had ended the summer before, she decided to oblige her mother this one time.

After a few conversations, she found out that it was not unusual for Ravi to begin his relationships over the telephone—Shaila was his third attempt at telephone courting. She had been a first year internal medicine resident in Bakersfield, California, and the grueling hours left her no time to meet anyone. Even if she had had the time, though, Bakersfield had a dearth of prospects. Ravi called with a persistency to which she was not accustomed, every day at the exact time he said he would. At the beginning, she was annoyed, finding him too confident and assertive for her taste, but after a while, she began to look forward to his phone calls, and eventually rely on them.

Her roommate Alice had been confused about their relationship. The night before she drove to Los Angeles to meet Ravi for the first time, Alice expressed surprise that she didn’t even know what he looked like.

“Why didn’t you ask for a picture?”

“I wanted to see him first in person. And besides, pictures usually lie.” He had had the courtesy to not ask her for a picture, and she would extend the same.

“What if you don’t feel anything when you do?”

Shaila didn’t answer. After three months of daily conversations, Ravi had suggested they meet. She knew from her sister’s experience that this was an important turning point in the courting ritual; a first meeting set them on the path to engagement.   Later that evening when she returned, Alice peppered her for details as to his appearance—the name of the restaurant where they ate, the music that played on the radio as they drove around the city, even the sound of his laugh. By the time she got home, she had forgotten these particulars, not even sure whether she had noticed them in the first place. Now, watching him pull a sweater over his body, she tried to answer the questions Alice had asked over a year ago. Her memory still refused to cooperate.

Only the memory of her first encounter with David seven years ago grew more vivid with time. It was a cocktail party at the student center thrown by the professors for all pre-med students. She had been reluctant to go, as she wasn’t friendly with the other students in the program, but Alice wanted to meet with a particular professor over a grade in Biochemistry and thought an occasion where alcohol was to be served was just the right forum. David had approached her towards the end of the evening as she was gathering her coat. He claimed to have noticed that she never spoke up in any of their classes, and asked why. His voice was so soft and unsure, and unlike any she had heard from a man. Later she found out that he had noticed her on the first day of class, but couldn’t think of a clever opening. They talked for a few minutes, ordinary small talk between two people who had just met. When he tried to pour her a glass of wine, he fumbled with the wine opener, accidentally letting the cork drop into the bottle. They drank the flecks of cork in wine for the remainder of the evening.

“Shaila, honey, aren’t you going to change?” Ravi asked.

“Yes. Yes I am.” She kissed him on the mouth, ashamed that her thoughts had wandered to another man.

“I’ll make us something to eat while you shower.” As Ravi strode into the kitchen, she observed how he moved with ease. He sliced a loaf of French bread into perfect symmetrical shapes. In the refrigerator he found various cheeses and sampled each one.   “They even gave us a slice of brie,” he reported. “I’ll bake it for us,” he added, placing it in the oven. Next, he lightly scrubbed the skins of the papayas and mangoes, smelling the aroma of each fruit and tossing those that didn’t pass muster. Then he began to juice them. With each half cupped by his large hands, he squeezed every bit of pulp from the skins until not one fiber remained.

As she slid into the warm water of the bath, the images of the squeezed mangoes drifted from her mind and her thoughts traveled to a pleasant place, where tiny bottles of lavender oils lined the edge of a tub. The smoothness of the bathroom’s marble tiles soothed her aching feet, and the porcelain tub wrapped her body like a blanket. She rested her toes on the opposite edge of the tub and leaned back against the bath cushion. Her family adored Ravi. There were many reasons why, but she knew his enthusiasm for the enormous family gatherings was high among them. He actually looked forward to them.   The nieces and nephews were always charmed by his card tricks, the Hindi film star impersonations, and his own children’s version of the Ramayana. He had even taught Shaila about India’s ancient history, explaining nuances from the Mahabharata that she had never bothered to learn. Even now on occasion she would converse with her family in Hindi, a language she had not spoken since childhood, and while her pronunciation might be off, her mother’s beaming face would make it clear that it didn’t matter. She dribbled a few drops of the lavender oils and lay back. Perhaps a warm, soothing bath was all she needed to relax.

When she returned to the sitting area she found Ravi shaking on the sofa, beads of sweat outlining his face. He glanced up at her and pointed to a prescription bottle unopened on the coffee table. “It’s the wrong medicine,” he muttered. “There were pine nuts on the fruit.” The brown face turned redder, but her legs stayed rooted, instead of rushing towards him. A dream or nightmare, she couldn’t tell which, was being staged before her eyes and the performance was not to be interrupted.

“Where’s the Lymocane?” Ravi gasped. His eyes pleaded with her. His lips had begun to swell. She wanted to answer, but her own throat felt swollen and no air could pass, as if she was the one with the allergic reaction.

“Shaila, where’s the Lymocane?” he repeated, this time louder. She could hear him wheezing and sensed the urgency in his voice, but the phone, which lay just on the side table, seemed out of reach. Her arms betrayed her as she tried to lift her them, growing numb themselves. Sweat began to stain his shirt at the heart pocket and she watched, mesmerized as it enlarged into a near perfect circle.   Ravi continued to call her name, but her eyes remained focused on the stain.

“Shaila, honey, find the damn Lymocane.” She touched the back of her hand against his face. His damp face felt refreshing against her dry hands.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” He managed to muster before he slumped towards the ground.   The sound of the oven bell broke her reverie. The brie was baked. Ravi’s toppled frame finally came into focus.

“Oh no!” She threw his arm around her neck and supported him from the sofa. “I’m so sorry. So sorry. Sorry.”   His legs shuffled across the hotel floor and his eyes were half-closed. “What happened? What just happened?” This time it was her who pleaded and Ravi failed to respond. By the time they reached the car he fell unconscious.   She knew that he had one hour to be resuscitated. She arrived at the hospital in less than 10 minutes.

The emergency room attendants responded quickly and admitted Ravi to the ICU. She paced in near empty hospital waiting. Why hadn’t she responded as quickly as these complete strangers? She was his wife. His wife!  Wife. She continued to repeat the word, slowly as if she was learning it for the first time.   It rhymed with knife.

She noticed the vases at the nurses’ station were filled with wild flowers. This was in stark contrast to the hospital that she had grown accustomed to during her residency, with its institutional white walls and spotless linoleum floors. Here, however, her nose did not itch from the lingering smell of bleach. A young man, probably not over seventeen, was her only company. He inserted coins into the coffee machine, one by one, waiting until each one dropped to the bottom before inserting the next. Finally, a paper cup fell into the holder and bitter, watery coffee spilled into it. She thought he was too young to be drinking coffee. Her own habit had not developed at least until medical school. His shorts rode low and unbelted around his waist and his white t-shirt was two sizes too large. The dark circles under the eyes and a slightly furrowed brow suggested a maturity belonging to someone at least twenty years older. As he walked back to his seat he gave Shaila a smile, one that seemed to recognize her transgression.   She turned around to avoid him.

At the nurses’ station two women bickered about the possibility of a marriage proposal on a popular television show.   The blonde nurse recited statements made by the bachelor in a magazine interview as support for her position. The other refused to listen.

“Excuse me?” Shaila asked the blonde when she approached the desk. The nurse tossed her magazine to the floor and stood up from the chair.

“Yes?” The brassiness of the blonde hair pulled tightly into a ponytail was a result of home care coloring and the premature wrinkles around the corners of her eyes and lips revealed a smoking habit that probably started in her teens.

“Is the Doctor nearly finished with his examination?”

“I’m sorry. But who are you here to see?” replied the nurse.

“Mr. Ravi Shah.” The nurse flipped through the papers on the clipboard.   As the only other person in the waiting room, Shaila thought it was surprising that the nurse had no idea who she was.

“Oh. Here it is. Mrs. Shah, is it?”

“Yes. Well, actually it’s Dr. Shah.”

“Dr. Shah.” She continued to stare at her clipboard and twirled a pencil between her fingers. Suddenly the twirling stopped, and the eyebrows perked in a flash of memory.

“Dr Shah!” she repeated, with greater enthusiasm. “My mother’s doctor’s name is Dr. Shah. Do you have a brother in Canton, Ohio? Is that your brother?”

“No. I don’t have a brother. It’s a common last name.”

“What is?”

“Shah,” she explained. “It’s just like Jones or Smith.”

The nurse appeared confused.   Her blue eyes turned a shade grayer. She sat back down in her chair, turned to the other nurse and from the corner of her mouth said, “The doctor will be out to see you shortly. Why don’t you just have a seat in the waiting area?” She resumed the discussion with her colleague about whether Amber or Jessica would be the ultimate winner on the show.

By now it was nearly 2:00 a.m. and Shaila knew she would be at the hospital for a while. She scoured the bottom of her purse for enough change to get a cup of coffee. Ravi had always told her to organize her money. He would explain that how she treated money reflected her respect for it, and each time, to his annoyance, she would agree.   She caught a glimpse of the young man in the corner. He rested his legs over the back of the chair in front of him and leaned his head against a rolled-up green sweater supported by the wall. He’s been here before, she thought.

She stood in the entryway to the waiting room on lookout for the doctor. Ravi had to be in stable condition by now, if not nearly fully recovered, she thought. The sound of the young man blowing bubble gum began to grate on her.

“Who are you waiting for?”   The young man asked.   She wanted to avoid answering, but realized a response would end the conversation quickly.

“My husband.” she replied. The words flowed from her mouth with a surprising certitude. This was the first time she spoke those words aloud. My husband, she repeated to herself. She had thought she would never get married.   She and David always spoke of living together as life partners, without the need of a ceremony to solidify their love or cement their commitment.

“Why’s he here?” He continued to blow bubbles. This particular one eventually hid his entire face. She resisted the urge to come over and pop it. Did she really need to confess that she was the reason her husband laid in a hospital bed? Did she have to explain how she had just watched as he gasped for air and called her name? How his eyes had pleaded with her and she couldn’t even move?

She slumped in the chair across from the young man. His face appeared more empathetic than before. He looked as if he would wait as long as it took for a response and that he would understand whatever the response may be. She tried to speak, but instead shook her head and just glared at the coffee machine. She had had dreams too; she wanted to say. Only her fantasies were different from those of most women she knew. Hers involved a man who was clumsy and insecure, and who made her laugh with impersonations of cartoon characters she’d never heard of. A life with two dogs, a greyhound named Marlo and a dachshund named Buddy, and no children.   A small Spanish bungalow in the hills outside Los Angeles and a pick-up truck for carrying antiques.   The fantasy differed from those of others: children, a big house in the suburbs, and a four-door Honda.   Had her dream blurred with that of her mother, sister, aunts and cousins? The two dogs morphed to two children, a boy and girl to be precise; the Spanish home enlarged into a five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Atlanta; the pick-up truck upgraded into a four-door Lexus. Or, had she just borrowed their dreams?

“Mrs. Dar-shan?” The doctor asked. He was a distinguished man with neatly trimmed gray hair, the type for who even the elderly gave up their seats. He had pronounced her name as if it was a hybrid of two unfamiliar words rather than one.

“Yes.” She rose immediately from the chair and felt comforted by her quick response. “Actually it’s Shah now and, well, it’s Dr. Shah.”

“Dr. Shah, your husband was touch and go there for a while, but he’ll be fine now. We’ll need to keep him under observation for the night, though.” He quickly thumbed through the papers on the clipboard, as if looking for the next person he needed to speak with.

“It was just an allergic reaction, right?”

The papers fell from his fingers and he looked up at her. “Yes, but as you are probably aware, the reaction was exacerbated due to the delay in bringing him in.” She felt his eyes scrutinizing her for the reason her husband was lying unnecessarily in a hospital bed.

“I know.”

“It’s a good thing your husband noticed it was the wrong medication. Otherwise it would have been much worse,” the doctor added.

“Yes.” Ravi always made the right moves, especially in important situations.

“Mrs. Dar-shan? I mean, Dr. Shah.”

“Yes?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know when you can see him?” He suddenly appeared much taller.

“Of course I would.”

“We are moving him from the ICU and he’ll be ready shortly.”

The chair felt colder when she sat back down, despite the lingering body heat from her occupancy. It was her fault Ravi was in a hospital bed. It was her fault David had left. She had let him walk out after telling him their relationship had no future. He was never able to fully comprehend her need for seeking her mother’s approval, or her reluctant desire to live in a nearby town, or her obligation to attend every family event even if it was the first birthday of a baby she’d never seen. In spite of her parents’ tacit approval, she knew that their passion would not be enough to sustain them in the years ahead.

David had been upset with her ambivalence, especially when he sought a commensurate response to his grand gestures of affection.   He regularly questioned her feelings, and although she would assure him there was no need to worry, the assurances were often directed at herself.   It was only while on her first date with Ravi, as she watched him cut into his roasted duck, that the words flowed from her mouth so quickly and unconstrained, like a waterspout that had been unplugged after a long winter. Within an hour of meeting him in person, she had told Ravi she loved him and he had not questioned its authenticity. He never did

She noticed the young man’s chair was empty. The nurses’ argument had turned to the wedding dress the chosen bride would eventually wear.   Names of designers went back and forth—Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley, Donna Karan—though neither could properly pronounce their names. Shaila’s mother, in turn, never understood why American brides wore only white.   “White is the color for funerals,” she said.

This time the doctor returned and explained that she could now see Ravi.   Nervousness consumed her, as it had during the drive to Los Angeles before her first date with Ravi.   She treaded down the corridor two steps behind the doctor. He paused at the room on the right and he glanced at his chart. “Wrong room.”   She patted the sweat from her forehead and continued to follow him around the corner. He stopped again and scanned the chart. This time he pushed open door and allowed her the first walk through. “He’s sleeping, but is stable and will be just fine.” She met the doctor’s eyes, whispered

“thank you,” and walked into the room without hesitation.


About the Author: Natasha Patel is a writer and counselor living in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s studied writing at Sackett Street Writers Workshop with Julia Fierro and Ted Thompson and an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She writes fiction and plays, when she is not serving as an adjunct professor at Mercer University. Her short play “Diaper Relay” was produced last summer at Onion Man Productions annual summer harvest festival. This year Onion Man will produce her feature play “Cul-de-sac.”

If Grasshoppers Could Shoot Me by Nancy Kangas

 

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If Grasshoppers Could Shoot Me

or bite me venomously I would
not cut off their heads with scissors
as I currently do


About the Author: Nancy Kangas writes a poetry column, “Slides (Interpreted by Nancy),” for the online journal Ohio Edit, and a monthly humor feature for the children’s magazine Muse. For over a decade, she edited the internationally distributed Nancy’s Magazine. Organizations that have sponsored her poetry residencies and workshops include the Ohio Arts Council, The Thurber House, and The Wexner Center. She is currently producing a series of short animated films entitled “The Preschool Poets,” based on poems composed by the four-year olds she wrote with in a recent poetry residency. Nancy is also a librarian and flower grower.

The Ride Back Home by Kimberly Reyes

 

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I prayed the thin white wires hanging from my ears would serve as sign, a signal saying: “Better to ask someone else for directions, or for the time. My time.” As a native New Yorker, I’d learned at a very early age how to erect invisible boundaries.

 

I was studying the Eiffel Tower through a scratched Metro window. With the Seine in clear view, a warm, marmalade light entered the car as the train surfaced from below. This was the first time I’d spotted the calm river and its flanking tower since arriving in Paris. Although this wasn’t my first time visiting the city, my heart raced just as it had exactly ten years earlier.

 

The Parisian riders seemed coolly unaffected, the way I was when the D or N train rattled over the Brooklyn Bridge howling at our pointy and sparkling brown and silver city. I smiled and nodded to this territorial ambivalence as the train doors opened and closed, and I collapsed into the Chili Peppers throbbing through my earphones.

 

Taking in my surroundings was always easier this way, with bass and separation. Plus I was about to move to California when I got back to the States, so it was fun to fantasize about Anthony Kiedis, and what we might do together in Paris if I was his Dani California. He was so creative, excitable, unstable, conflicted, scarred, addicted, recovering, and, more than likely, emotionally detached. Sweet imperfection. Just like my last love in Paris a decade ago.

 

The train filled at the next stop, Trocadero, where we’d found that addicting, orange-filled macaron café years ago. My nostrils flared, and I flashed back to the citrusy zest as I dropped my head against the window.

 

I didn’t wonder if he was happier now as much as I wondered what that meant.

 

Ready to disappear into melancholy and the anonymity of the crowd, I felt two sets of eyes on me. A couple, brunette, in their twenties, carrying a large bag that read “Paris” in a serif font mimicking the design of the Eiffel tower. He was holding the center car pole, and she was grasping onto him for balance. Both studied me. Wide-eyed, not communicating to each other or to me why they were staring, but eerily fixated.

 

This would’ve driven me nuts back home, and I would have returned a squinted, slow and deliberate gaze to show my annoyance. But this wasn’t a NYC-subway stare. This was nonthreatening and innocent, friendly, even before our wide eyes met and they simultaneously cracked half grins. They were happy to see me, giddy almost. Their excitement and concentration were so palpable that I almost smiled back, but my reflex to turn away kicked in first. Their four brown eyes were so glued to my movement that the mouths below them automatically started to mirror my grimace.

 

What was it about me that caught their eyes? They were obviously American, with their eagerness, blue jeans, Chuck Taylors, and tourist tote full of travel bounty. But what made me stand out as familiar and amiable to them on this busy train?

 

This wasn’t Tokyo or Melbourne, where my copious melanin and head of exploding curls always gave away my alien status. There were people of every shade and design on this train, so it had to be more than that. Was it the way I was dressed: a black, peplum-collared raincoat, black leggings and black ballet flats? Doubtful. This was Parisian camouflage.

 

It pained me to consider, but I wondered if they’d recognized, in me, the fresh-faced naiveté I detected in them? Or maybe the distinct American tension that comes from the compulsion for companionship mixed with the juvenile need to be exceptional, to stand apart?

 

I’d come to Paris to embark on a vision quest of sorts, alone. I wasn’t committed to staying that way, and hoped to meet like-minded people, maybe even give the love thing an honest try again, but I was proud to walk the streets without the armor of constant company.

 

At least I thought I was. Had they seen through my ruse, sensed my insecurity? Felt the terror they’d just awoken, or worse, the long-dead hope?

 

As the train stopped they moved toward two matted cloth seats, unbalanced, clinging onto each other for dear life. I felt exposed, fraudulent—and immediately grateful the two open seats faced opposite mine.

 


About the Author: Kimberly Reyes began her transition to creative writing after receiving her MA from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2013. She’s since been a post-graduate journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation in 2013, a Callaloo fellow in 2014, a Watering Hole fellow in 2015, and she is currently a William Dickey Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at San Francisco State University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Jane, Honey, NY1 News and The Best American Poetry blog. Her poetry has appeared on The Feminist Wire, The Acentos Review and in Belleville Park Pages.

I Want to Drink Like Don Draper by Alison Moncrieff

 


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I want to drink like Don Draper

—from an Old-Fashioned glass, all day long and a TV hangover. Safe in my starched white shirt, soft & thick in the shoulders. Easy in my creased American pants with their careless power, my missing self gently folded behind this drama-mask hairline, behind my 5 o’clock shadow & my gorgeous boredom at business as usual.

I do not mix drinks anymore.
since I left the children alone one night
to drive up the hill for a pale blue bottle of gin
that deadly hot summer when I pegged the laundry
on the line in rainbowthetical order
and waited to have my skull sawed open.

I filled their bright, shallow pool,
replenished their stacks of practical sandwiches,
stirred cans of tap water into concentrated fruit juice
while hovering police helicopters ate
the neighborhood’s weekday peace,
and 5 o’clock came earlier & earlier.

There’s nothing quite like pinning down a whole life
using just a glass & some liquor.
Nothing like watching antennae lose their signals
and panicked wings struggle less and less
against the heavy edge.

Everything’s more awkward now
since I ran out of drink tickets,
and I say the privilege of knowing that
and other feelings is a kind of power.

Still, when I watch him pour a fat glass of rye at any old time of day — he’s riled, victorious, bored. He’s broken-hearted with being — when I watch him rushing numb from his car-crash afternoon, his decent body, his fake freedom, and another brand of freedom moves in to stake its claim in the space of his heart, that’s when I want to drink like Don Draper.


About the Author: Alison Moncrieff writes and raises chickens and children in Oakland, her home of 30 years. Her work appeared most recently in Bay Area Generations, and she has a poem forthcoming in broadside from Little Red Leaves Textile Series. She is currently developing a series of sacred garments to boost the superpowers of 21st century people. Find her playing in the intersection of stitch and poetry at woolontheradio.tumblr.com.