Of Age by Kwan Booth

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Your hands are cuffed behind you and your world is turned sideways as you lay cheek to concrete beside the door of D’s two-toned Dodge Aries. The police helicopter spotlighting your right of passage. Your big night. The first time that it happens to you.

Shortly before you’d been leaned back in the pleather seat of D’s brown hooptie, blasting The Friday Night Mega Mix as you made the usual rounds around your small city. Now there are flashing lights and neighbors huddled on their porches, clutching 40’s of OE and fanning themselves against the muggy ass Virginia night. Watching as you’re baptized into an all too familiar congregation.

You both knew that blowing the horn at the cop car was a dumb idea as soon as D did it, as soon as the foul sound ripped from his rust bucket and hung in the air between the cars like a fart.  

You knew that on the wrong night the distance between life and death was no further than the space needed to pull a trigger.

That the distance between the truth and what made it into the police report could be as wide as the river flowing through the middle of the city. And just as likely to hide skeletons beneath the murky surface.

There was ongoing beef between what really happened and the official statement and you could rattle off the names of heads who’d been caught in the crossfire.

You knew to tread lightly. 5-0 were as regular as roaches in the hood and heads got hemmed up all the time for crimes no more serious than breathing. You knew this. These truths had been ingrained in your heads and re-enforced like scripture.

But you were 17, and it was the summer after graduation. And there were prom photos and college acceptance letters for your mothers to brag about on their bus rides to work in the morning.

Your days are all 100 degree scorchers and sweat. Your nights all possibilities and adrenaline. Your world revolved around debates on east vs west coast MC’s and lies about the girls you’d smashed after church service on Sundays.

Dumb ideas were as common as blackheads and as necessary as Air Jordans and lunch room freestyles.

And to be fair, you’d been sitting behind those two cop cars for like a whole 5 minutes. How hard would it have been to just pull one of their fucking cars to the side of the road and let you pass?

They weren’t doing any kind of debriefing. There were no updates on suspects or incident reports. You saw bared teeth and laughing as they ignored the glare from your headlights. Two cops shooting the shit. Neither even bothered to look your way as their dirty black and whites blocked both lanes on the narrow street like grimy glaciers.

After the horn and a long pause the cruiser in front of you had slowly moved to one side and D inched past as careful as a pallbearer, as solemn as a funeral.

You let out a huge exhale as you rounded the next corner and pulled in front of D’s house. You don’t mention what just happened. You knew you’d just escaped something dangerous and don’t  want to rouse the demons you were sure you’d just narrowly slipped past.

But you were black. And you were also in The South. And you knew that escape had never been as easy as running away and pretending the monsters didn’t exist.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the approximately 30 seconds it took you to go down two blocks and round the corner to sit idle outside D’s 4plex was also the exact same time that it took to call in reinforcements from what seemed like every single police station in a 3 county radius.

One second you’re taking measured breaths and venturing nervous relief, the next you’re thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Guns drawn, an army of officers searching your car and radioing in your social.

They are running your pockets and looking for reasons. They’re asking you questions and taking no shit. They are teaching you important lessons for the future and they expect those lessons to stick.

You feel what happens when your hopes and dreams are knocked out of you like the wind.   

D learns the timbres of his mother’s wails and memorizes her mask of panic as she watches her son become a statistic.

After what seems like forever you’re lifted up and released. The officer who’d moved his car for you earlier comes over and removes the metal restraints from each of your wrists personally.

He is all smiles and laughing while he uncuffs you, with no mention of a citation or court summons. His point had been made. The lesson had been learned.  Order had been restored.

“Ya’ll boys be good now.” he says as he slides into his driver’s seat, the shotgun tucked back into the wrack behind him.

And for the first time you feel true weight of the shackles he’s left you with, tightening and squeezing and making it difficult to catch your next breath.

“I’ll be watching” he says driving away. His headlights fading, the night withering and dying around you.

 


About the Author: Kwan Booth is an award winning writer and strategist focused on the intersection of media, technology and social justice. He spends his days at a big tech company teaching people how to make money on the internet. At night he writes fiction, articles and essays that often detail the dangers of big tech companies and the ridiculous ways that people try to make money on the internet. It’s strangely satisfying. He’s the editor of the anthology “Black Futurists Speak: New Black Writing” and his journalism and creative writing have been published in anthologies, journals and news sites including The Guardian, Fusion, “CHORUS: a literary mixtape”, “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the 21st Century”, the Journal for Pan African Studies and the Oakland Review. His awards include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from The Society of Professional Journalists and a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction. He recently joined the board of directors for Nomadic Press and has developed media projects for organizations including the Knight Center for Digital Media, The Kapor Center for Social Impact, The National Conference on Media Reform and The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. More info at Boothism.org

 

Preparing the Dead by Meg Yardley

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Preparing the Dead

                                                            for Jamie

To prepare the dead I dig out
one purple rubber glove
from under the kitchen sink.

The city of Oakland will take her body only
for sixty two dollars payable in person
between the hours of nine and eleven a.m. on a weekday.

Yesterday she was clinging to a sapling,
dark slit eyes in sharp pale face,
babies climbing over and under.

Today her belly quivers under my glove
as I draw her up. Wisps of hair, tough feet
sliding into a garbage bag. Sweet dusk

coming down over our heads. Your eyes are red.
Stripping off the glove, I put arms around you.
We too are bureaucrats of death:

for lack of an animal control officer
we let her die. From the deck
we could not see her pouch caught on a hook

in the tree (a hook we did not place
and did not remove). Holding fast, she weakened.
Tomorrow two of her babies will die

huddled in the rain even under
the cardboard shelter you laid out.
You’ll have to tell the children.


About the Author: Meg Yardley lives and works in Oakland. Her writing has appeared in Rattle, Hanging Loose, Leveler, AMP, and others.

Love in the Digital Age by Elison Alcovendaz

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The morning the silent agreement began started much like the last 1,095 mornings of the Peabody marriage. Beth woke up at 5am to her internal clock, rubbed the crust out of her eyes, showered, ironed, then kissed Jeff on the cheek as she went off to her job as a news anchor. Jeff had always been a light sleeper. Every morning, when Beth slid off the bed as light as a ghost, Jeff had already been awake for an hour but kept his eyes closed until he felt the familiar coldness of her lips on his cheek, heard the steps down the stairs, the garage door opening, the garage door closing.

Jeff was a novelist. He wasn’t sure if his wife’s lips really were that cold or if he had invented a metaphor for the state of their marriage. He made a comfortable living making connections like that, though his last novel had been a failure. After failing to sell half of the initial printing, and even worse e-book sales, his publisher warned a similar showing would mean the axe.

This led to the silent agreement, which Jeff considered to be one of his best ideas yet. After another quiet lasagna dinner followed by a couple of DVR’d sitcoms, Jeff rose from the couch and suggested to Beth that they not speak to each other for an indefinite period of time. Something about needing to save his words for his new book, to get back on track, to reconnect with the war and sex-filled historical romances that had made him a New York Times bestseller in the first place. No talking, he said. To Jeff’s surprise, there were no questions, no tears. Beth simply stared and nodded. They agreed to start in the morning.

It was 7am. Jeff slid on his slippers and walked across the hallway to the den. He plopped into the leather chair and flipped on the computer. The word document appeared just as he left it: empty, the cursor blinking at him from the corner of the page. Outside, the late winter rain fell, hard and cold. He wondered if Beth brought her umbrella. He minimized the screen and checked his instant messages. She always IM’d him when she arrived at work. I’m here and safe! she’d say. Or: write well today! She was signed on but hadn’t messaged him. He set his fingertips on the keyboard and stared at the blank Word document on the screen.

 

At 8am, Jeff went downstairs. A plate of runny eggs and soggy bacon strips awaited him on the kitchen counter. He dumped the food into the trash compactor and microwaved some old pizza. Beth had never been a good cook, yet the first thing she’d wanted when they moved into the house was a new kitchen. For weeks they stood side by side, laughing as they swung their sledgehammers through the rotting wood cabinets and the particleboard countertops. Soon they were building a new front porch, retiling all the bathrooms, repainting all the walls. Building their future with their own hands. In the evenings, bodies aching and coated in dust and sweat and paint, they rolled around on the carpet with no breath for words.

Jeff tossed the box back into the refrigerator, grabbed the TV remote, and clicked on the morning news. A close-up of Beth’s face appeared on the screen: light green eyes, pink lips, a pale face made paler by powder. Jeff thought she looked spectral. She reported that one in five divorces could now be attributed to Facebook… a symptom of the new world, where relationships could be forged and broken by a few words on a status update… She said this with dimmed eyes, glancing at him in a way he’d almost forgotten, as though attempting to reach him through the screen. He changed the station and flipped through the channels for a while. Then he turned the TV off and went back to his computer.

 

At 11am, the doorbell rang. A UPS driver stood in the rain with a package for Beth. The deliveryman was young and muscular and carried a large Amazon box on his shoulder. There have to be at least thirty hardbacks in there, Jeff thought. Beth detested the Kindle and refused to get one. Jeff shut the door and struggled to set the heavy box on the dining room table, wondering what would happen if he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sliced open the box. Nothing, probably. Beth would most likely break their silent agreement and tell him about all the wonderful new authors she’d discovered. Then she would go on talking, first about the affair between the meteorologist and the cameraman, then about how her father was doing much better in the new convalescent home, then about how her back pain was really starting to worsen. He decided he didn’t care what was in the box.

Back upstairs, Jeff checked his phone. Noon had come and gone, and usually he would’ve had three messages and a voicemail from Beth by then. Hope your day is going well, she’d say. Or: Keep writing! He punched HELLO? into the text box then erased it. She was probably busy with an urgent story. A ten-car pile-up. A hostage situation. The death of a celebrity. Something.

Jeff set the wireless keyboard on his lap but no words came.

 

*

Two hours later, Jeff signed onto his Facebook account and checked Beth’s page. A year ago, the station had insisted she make a public Facebook page, and since then strange men sent her Facebook messages and posted thinly veiled sexual comments. Every time Jeff would express his displeasure Beth would say it’s harmless and kiss him on the cheek and call it a day.

There was one new comment on her news feed, some steroid-freak named Dirk who stood shirtless in his profile picture thanking her for her constantly honest portrayal of the news. Beth responded with a quick thanks, he rejoined with a no really it’s amazing work you’re doing, she answered with a I really try and appreciate the compliment, and then he said you’re beautiful, and she responded with a ☺, and after that, Jeff stopped reading.

He stared at Beth’s thumbnail picture. It was one of his least favorites, a stoic, official, in-the-photographer’s-studio snapshot the station used on their website. She had been voted the second hottest newswoman in Sacramento by a local online magazine last year, but that was a long time ago. There had been a time when he couldn’t see a picture of her without getting aroused, but that time was unreachable, and he no longer felt guilty about wanting to masturbate more than he wanted to put in the work required to get Beth into the necessary romantic mood.

He took the keyboard off his lap and set it on the desk, leaned back his chair, and clicked back to his Facebook page. He had fans too, mostly middle-aged mothers who connected with his ill-fated heroines. Sometimes Jeff liked to scroll through their pictures and photo albums and concoct fantasies, some of which ended up as scenes in his books. There was one woman in particular, Julia from upstate New York, whose profile photos were filled with cleavage-revealing shots. They had emailed a few times, and though they never spoke, Jeff thought of Julia’s soft voice as he scrolled through her Facebook photo album with one hand while he stroked his penis with the other.

Twenty minutes later, after signing onto a live webcam show, then watching various orgies on a porn site, then going back to Julia’s photos, then closing his eyes tight and trying to recall Beth in the early days, when they slept naked and talked dirty, Jeff glanced down at the still limp penis in his hand and cursed at the computer.

4pm. Jeff checked his phone again. Nothing. At that time Beth was usually sitting in traffic, Bluetooth in her ear, complaining to him about how she should be on the nightly news team. Jeff googled traffic information. All freeways were relatively clear for a rainy day. He checked her Facebook page. He checked his email. Then he moved his chair to the window and watched the cars roll up and down the street.

 

5pm. Jeff dialed the station. A man answered. Jeff listened to the noise in the background, of people shouting across a room, but none that sounded like Beth. The man said hello a few times, uttered a curse word, and hung up the phone. Jeff listened to the dial tone, and when he was tired, put it on speaker to drown out the rain.

 

At 7pm, the garage door opened. Jeff quickly pulled up an old story to replace the blank screen. He tiptoed to the door and nudged it completely open, so she would have no excuse for not seeing him. He listened to the clacks of heels across the tile, the creak of the closet door opening, the familiar crack of Beth’s knuckles. Jeff banged on the keyboard, writing nonsense, so she could hear him working, so she would know he’d been right, that the juices were flowing again. He turned his ear towards the open doorway in anticipation of her footsteps, but he only heard her pressing buttons on the microwave and the familiar voices of a TV sitcom.

 

At 10pm, Jeff tiptoed to the hallway and leaned over the bannister. The lights were off in the living room, though the muted TV sent flashes of stale color across the dark walls. He could hear her in the dining room. He stood there for a while, waiting for her to pop out her head and smile. What would he say? Hi honey, how was your day? Or: who’s that Dirk asshole? He cleared his throat once, then louder. No movement. He walked to their bedroom, slammed the door. Ten minutes later, he opened it again and stomped across the hallway, stopping at his previous spot. Still nothing.

He stood there for half an hour. The same commercial played three times. A car alarm blared outside for a few seconds then died. He grabbed his phone and checked her Facebook page again. In the last two hours she’d made one new status update: Leftovers for dinner. Yum. Five likes. Was this a message for Jeff? That he should’ve made dinner? He hadn’t thought about it, but maybe he should’ve. Leftovers are the best, he commented. He stared at his phone, watching other people comment, waiting for her response. After half an hour, she’d liked every other comment but hadn’t touched his.

 

11pm. Jeff rocked back and forth in his chair, staring at his phone. He’d texted her three times. He shut off his computer and tiptoed to the bannister again. He hadn’t seen it before, but there was Beth’s phone, sitting on the coffee table, flashing in discord to the changing hues of the television. What was she doing? For a moment he thought about yelling, but he realized he’d never done that before, and maybe she would take it as a sign of disenchantment, or that he was a hypocrite for breaking their agreement. He thought about what he would say if she suddenly appeared on the steps, looking up at him in the way she had on the television, an expression he could no longer interpret. Maybe if he just said I love you, she’d forget the last year, forgive his aloofness, ignore the nights he preferred to hunch over his laptop instead of listening to her little complaints, eschew the general malaise that had settled on their marriage like mold. Jeff decided he would go downstairs.

He stepped lightly on each step, attentive to each creak. The carpet felt old and crusty underneath his feet. He reached the bottom and stopped, turning towards the dining room. From his vantage point, he could barely see the back of her body, her hair tucked into the crevices of an old hoodie. If she was aware of his presence, she made no acknowledgment. Her breathing remained slow and constant. He thought about coughing, making a sound of some kind, but she looked at peace or deep in thought, and he didn’t want to disrupt her or make her think he didn’t value her alone time. Did she want to be alone? He wondered if it had been her the whole time. No. It had been him.

He slid his phone into his pocket, then walked across the foyer and watched her from across the family room. She did not turn around. On the table, the Amazon box lay flat and folded. Beside it, in five neat piles, were thirty hardback editions of his latest novel, Love in the Digital Age.  The story followed two lovebirds in an online-only marriage—they shared an online bank account, ran an eBay business together, communicated and made love via video chat—and over the thirty years of marital bliss, never met in real life. Apparently the bodiless state of human relations scared Jeff’s readers.

One copy lay open in front of her. He stood there for nearly an hour, watching her read his words, lick her fingers, turn the page. She bent her neck side to side, rotated it in small circles, and he remembered how she would lean her head towards him when he would massage her shoulders. He listened to her bones crack. He studied how her knee bounced up and down under the table. She turned another page.

 

At midnight, he walked across the family room and stopped right behind her. She raised her head, and in the reflection of the window in front of her, they stared at each other. Her eyes looked different then they had on TV. Pulsing. Alive. And Jeff Peabody knew then that they still knew each other. He began to say many things—Beth, I’m sorry, I love you, Beth—but she raised her finger to her lips, so instead he swallowed his words and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife.

 


About the Author: Elison Alcovendaz‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gargoyle Magazine, The Portland Review, Psychology Today, and other publications. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and sometimes blogs about Justin Bieber and other important things at www.elisonalcovendaz.com.

Answering the Demand to Renounce Mostafa by Tamer Mostafa

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Answering the Demand to Renounce Mostafa

 1.

Do not assume my declarations are disingenuous,
that I have neglected the chronicle of records
and an epithet chosen for revelation.
This conviction inscribed in permanence
is existent, under the flaws of my practice,
the admission of failings skimming naked
like a wrinkled film of wax over a date’s skin.

2.

My father’s emigration began with a stage name
accommodated to a Western spelling and motif,
a mold of typecast formulas guised in his shadow,
anticipating the first film of night to surrender,
prostrate in salutation to this                  our soil.

3.

He was convulsed back to nativity, its wet heaviness,
the revival of deprivation, a fidelity for the familial.
They have not forsworn me, a memento of vicarious lore
natant through a cyclical undercurrent.

4.

There are others, universalities favored to reasoning,
the enmity of absent names from the optics of impotence,
a “Miracle Baby” dependent on rubble turf.
His name is Mahmoud, our emblem for unanimity
serenading the hands that hold him      those of wounds.

5.

I have been assumed access to this working microcosm,
my achromic skin a mute password to doorkeepers
deadened by an archival recognition of supremacy,
the progressive panic of a tempered power.
And I, with cryptic oriental vitals, will be revealed
testifying their sedated handwriting in ivory.


About the Author: Tamer Said Mostafa is an-always proud Stockton, California native whose work has appeared in nearly twenty various journals and magazines such as Confrontation, Monday Night Lit, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change among others. As an Arab-American Muslim, he reflects on life through spirituality, an evolving commitment to social justice, and the music of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.

Execute Eric Smith by Bill Carr

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The euphoria didn’t last long. In fact, it was the most fleeting euphoria of Eric Smith’s professional career. He’d just gotten off the phone with the Algogenics marketing manager. Build price: $0.79. License fee: $3.97. Retail: $5.99. Not the greatest margins, Marketing had said. But we’ll sell a ton of them.

Which is exactly what Eric had been claiming for E-retrieve all along. No more stolen cars. No more lost cars. No more lost keys. No more stolen or lost anything. Of course he hadn’t pitched exactly that to the development VP. Significant reduction in theft and loss. Should retail for almost one-fifth the cost of the original find-my-keys tile, with over ten times the capability.

So why this sense of foreboding? Everything had been going incredibly well. He’d met the love of his life, granted she’d been discovered on the second time around. Good relations with his ex. A beautiful and talented daughter who remained devoted to two parents who discovered after fifteen years of marriage that they didn’t really like each other. No financial worries. A rent-controlled, Upper East Side apartment that most New Yorkers would kill for: two bedrooms, two baths, living room, full kitchen, and, as Val liked to call it, the “everything” room: a vaulted-ceiling, twenty-by-thirty-foot room, serving as an office, conference room, and gymnasium, with a picture-window view of Manhattan and a 150-inch flat-screen TV, called a telescreen, on the wall. Always pleasant in the apartment regardless of the season, with a state-of-the-art centrally located climate control system, adjustable by the tenant for each room.

So tell me, Eric said to himself, what is the problem? There is no problem. Normal letdown after a huge success.

Chimes. His daughter Valerie on the telescreen. He clicked connect.

He had to admit he felt a little like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise when looking at that huge screen. At least the visitors were friendly.

“Hi, sweetheart. How are things in sunny California?”

“It’s sunny in Sunnyvale. Not so much here.”

The background was her office at Teraffic headquarters in Palo Alto, not her home in Mountain View. She was beautiful, just like her mother. Dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful smile. He’d never quite figured out if she was also headstrong like her mother. She certainly wasn’t with him. But what was her personality like at work? He couldn’t tell. They never discussed anything about work.

Maybe that was one problem. Father and daughter, both successful product developers, and unable to talk about their work experiences. At least not until announcement. Be careful what you put in an email. When you delete them, they don’t go away. Were telephone conversations monitored? You just didn’t know.

After getting the MBA from Stanford, she got so many job offers. She chose Teraffic, the big West Coast networking company. After three years there, her yearly salary was higher than he’d ever made.

“You’re in the office today,” Eric said.

“Had to come in for a presentation. And you’re at home in the everything room?”

He smiled. “Everything, if you don’t mind occasional rearranging.”

“Dad,” she said soberly, “you look a little pale. Why don’t you try to get out more?”

“Well, you know I work completely at home now.”

“But you don’t even get out on weekends,” she persisted. “You know, here at Teraffic, if you work at home, you don’t have to be working every minute.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you give Mitch Rayburn a call and play some tennis in the park? And think about coming out here for a while. The air is very good out here.”

“I will, sweetheart. I promise.”

After they disconnected, he realized she was right. He had trouble recalling the last time he’d left the apartment. It was over to Kristin’s place, but that might have been three weeks ago. A recent survey found that more activities were performed at home than ever before: work, entertainment, exercise, medical checkups. Maybe he was being paranoid, but in his case it seemed every time he went out, even if it was just over to Madison Avenue to pick up some groceries, he invariably developed some bug two days later that took two weeks to get rid of.

The thin, craggy, tanned face of Mitch Rayburn appeared on the telescreen. Working at home also. Mitch was one of those wiry people with boundless energy. They’d been playing tennis on and off for about twenty-five years, ever since their families met. Both couples had moved from Brooklyn to the city after the kids were grown.

“Hey,” Mitch said, “how are things at the Utopian Arms?”

“Confining,” Eric replied. Mitch and his wife Linda were one of the few couples to make a sustained effort to socialize with him after the divorce.

“Want to hit a few?” Mitch asked.

“Exactly my intention.”

“Meet you at the park in half an hour?”

Eric paused. “Problem is I don’t have time to get to the park and back. I have a meeting at two. How about some SuperPong?”

Mitch frowned. Eric knew he really didn’t like Pong. But Mitch agreed.

“King Pong it is,” Mitch said.

“Let me just move some stuff.” It didn’t matter. Indoors or out, he never got more than a game or two off Mitch.

He had the sofa bed on casters so it could easily be moved sideways against the wall and out of the way. Special tennis slippers so the downstairs neighbors didn’t complain. Sensor-equipped racquet. All set. Serves were okay because both players had high ceilings.

The avatar of Mitch wearing a white tennis shirt and black shorts appeared on the telescreen on the other side of a net. Mitch started a rally. The ball came at you almost as if you were on a real court. Sensors on the racquet calculated the pace of the ball, its spin, where it would hit on your racquet, and the direction, pace, and spin of your return shot. At last. Video games for the older generation.

“You really like this better than a game outdoors?” Mitch called out.

“No way,” Eric replied. “I just prefer the tennis slide-step to the treadmill.”

During a break, as both players sat in their desk chairs in their home offices, the screen showed their avatars seated by the side of the court as if during a changeover.

“Did you have any water damage from Hurricane Karl?” Eric asked.

“Just some stuff I had stored downstairs. How about you?”

“Nothing. I think the tenants here are getting overconfident. Some feel the flooding wouldn’t dare reach East 82nd Street.”

“They may be in for a rude—or wet—awakening.”

“I think you’re right.”

As play resumed, a horsefly settled on the rim of Eric’s racquet. He waved the racquet, but the fly wouldn’t budge. “Damn,” he muttered, turning the racquet face down and taking vicious swipes at the air. “I’m having enough trouble with my strokes without close-up spectators.” The bug flew off, but was right back as he prepared for the next point.

“Your game’s not on today,” Mitch said, at the next changeover. “Better off playing outdoors.”

“There’s this fly that’s been driving me crazy.”

Mitch feigned amazement. “A fly? That’s the lamest excuse I ever heard.”

“Did you think I was doing my world-famous interpretation of John McEnroe attacking cups on a watercooler?”

“It did cross my mind.”

A quarter to two. No time for a shower. Maybe one of the benefits of isolation. He said good-bye to Mitch and clicked the Meeting of the Minds 2.0 icon on his desktop. A hologram of a conference room, with table and chairs, appeared to his left. Holograms of his team began filing into the room. His own image greeted them at the door. Janice, always bubbly, greeted him. Robert, the best designer he’d ever had, looked dour as usual. He hated meetings, in person or via hologram. Each participant could control his own actions via his laptop. It was like making a collaborative movie on the fly.

“Okay,” Eric said. “Let’s get started.” He had to admit he was looking forward to announcing the good news.

Bud Crowley’s image filled the telescreen.

“Rick, can you excuse yourself for just a minute? I’ve got to talk to you.”

Bud Crowley. Heavyset, balding, late fifties. Seated behind his office desk. Crowley didn’t like working at home. He preferred a corporate environment. They’d worked together for twelve years. At Algogenics, Crowley was first line when Eric was a software developer. Crowley made him lead developer. When Crowley made project manager, Eric became first line. They’d always had a good rapport. Adjacent levels of the hierarchy must support each other. Crowley had an excellent reputation as a development manager who could get projects out the door, on time and under budget.

“Can’t I get with you in an hour, Bud? We just began this meeting.”

“It’s important, Eric. It won’t take long.”

He sent Robert his notes. “Robert, take over for me, please. Just follow the agenda on your laptop.” Good managerial strategy. Let the guy who hates meetings run the meeting. Especially with good news.

The hologram disappeared. On the telescreen Crowley looked edgy. Still wearing the ever-present vest. “I need to schedule a mid-year with you,” Crowley said.

Did you really interrupt my meeting for that? Wait a minute.

“A mid-year what?”

“Evaluation.”

“Evaluation? I just had one four months ago.”

“That’s why it’s called a mid-year, Eric.”

Chills ran up Eric’s back.

“Bud, mid-years are for people about to get the boot.”

“Eric, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I really don’t know what this is all about. There’s a new VP of development, and he wants mid-years.”

“Did you get a notice for Callahan?” Callahan was the planning manager, the weakest of all Crowley’s first lines. Crowley had spoken to Eric about replacing Callahan and returning him to staff.

No response.

Eric felt his anger rising. “Did you get a notice for any of your first lines? Did Jameson get one for you?”

No response.

“Eric, you know, even if that happened, I could not share that information with you.”

But there was a time when he shared all information like that. When Eric still worked at the corporate offices, Crowley would review with him who had to go in response to the latest round of cuts. He remembered Crowley escorting some poor slob who had worked all his life for Algogenics back to the guy’s cubicle. One hour to clean out your office and surrender your badge. Everyone else trying not to look, their expressions like they were attending a funeral. “This is tough on everyone,” Crowley had whispered to Eric as he passed by.

“Can you show the notice to me?”

“Eric, you know I can’t do that.”

“Can you at least give me some idea of what the issue is?”

Reluctantly, Crowley studied his desktop screen. “It doesn’t say much. There’s one interesting word, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Goddamn it,” Crowley exploded, “if anyone’s monitoring this call, and they probably are, I could be shit-canned myself for telling you this.” Crowley slumped back in his chair. “I’m sorry, Eric. That was a poor choice of words.”

“What’s the word in the notice?”

“Associations.”

It was Eric’s turn to become furious. “Valerie,” he muttered. “Let me tell you something. If someone’s concocted a story that I’m leaking confidential data, I will sure as hell file a wrongful dismissal suit. Val and I are painfully careful about never discussing anything about our projects. We can’t even have a normal father-daughter conversation. ‘Did you work on anything interesting today, Dad?’ ‘Can’t tell you that.’”

“Calm down, Eric. It’s not your daughter.”

“Then who is it?”

“I honestly don’t know. We’ve got a little time before the review has to occur. How about trusting me to get to the bottom of this.”

Eric turned off the telescreen, monitor, and computer. Not sure whether the quiet was good or bad. He sat at his desk, leaning forward, hands on his chin, watching the blank screen.

His smartphone vibrated. He clicked on the computer and the telescreen. Kristin’s image appeared on the telescreen. No sense in telling her yet.

“Eric! What’s wrong?”

So much for concealment.

Wisps of blonde hair down the sides of her face. Soft, soothing. So different from Meredith, who was glamorous and intense.

“It’s probably nothing, Kris. Crowley called before and said he had to schedule a mid-year evaluation for me.”

Did she have to go through that bullshit? Probably not. She was a tenured associate professor of sociology at Columbia.

“Don’t you usually do pretty well at those?”

“I do. At least I did. I just had a real good one four months ago. But mid-years are usually for guys on probation.”

He really didn’t want to say canned, fired, given the boot. And he realized how much he needed to be with her tonight.

She looked worried. “Eric, that’s bizarre. There must be some mix-up. Did you ask Crowley about that?”

“I did.”

“We’ve got to talk about this,” she said quietly. “I’m coming over tonight.”

“Don’t come over, Kris. You’ll just have to go back uptown tomorrow. I’ll be okay.”

Maybe it was just a mistake. A transposition of serial numbers. Effuse apologies tomorrow. How could you think it was you?

“Eric, listen to this,” Kristin said. “Maybe this is fortuitous. Instead of class, we had a speaker today.”

But the way Crowley described it, a mistake seemed unlikely. New jobs were really hard to find now. How could he afford to stay in this apartment? He’d get a severance package for sure. How long would that last? He’d have to move in with Kristin. Well, that’s what they said they both wanted. Solve the problem of living apart.

“Did you ever hear of Sterling Davis?”

Sterling Davis. “It sounds familiar.”

“He’s the publisher of the Sentinel.”

Of course. New York Sentinel. Good reporting, little advertising. Not a major player in publishing.

“He’s very, very interesting,” Kristin said. “I mentioned your name to him after the talk. He knows all about you. And he wants to meet you.”

“I’ll get him on the telescreen.”

“That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that he wants to see you in person. He said he’d be available tonight at five.”

* * *

The offices of the New York Sentinel Publishing Company were in a gentrified section of the Lower East Side, not too far from the New York City Tenement Museum. The building was brick and glass, located near the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. Eric heard that apartment rentals in the area were closing in on $3,000 per month, although the steep rise had abated somewhat as a result of the latest flooding. Three thousand a month, Eric mused. In the early twentieth century, with the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, tenements used to rent for $10 a month.

The layout for the New York Sentinel Publishing Company seemed normal enough, with the presses hidden behind a reception area, and the news and editorial areas on the second floor. The only abnormal thing was the location of the office of the publisher. A receptionist directed him one flight down.

As he descended the carpeted staircase, Eric realized he had no idea what this meeting was about. The secretary with whom he’d made the appointment simply said, “We’ll see you at five.” Maybe he should have tried to get more information from Kristin. But he had the feeling that was all the information there was.

This pretty much had to be a job interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have something in reserve, something temporary, in the event of a worst-case scenario at Algogenics. What would I do at a newspaper? Probably write a technology column. I could handle that. Best not to mention the situation at Algogenics. It’s been a long time since I went for a job interview. Always easier to get another job while you’re still employed at the old one.

The lower level of the New York Sentinel publishing offices had a small reception area with no one there. The room was furnished in various levels of brown: tan carpet, dark mahogany desk, and walnut paneling on the walls. Secretary must have gone home, Eric thought. Through a half-opened door to the main office, he saw floor-to-ceiling bookshelves cluttered with papers and books; there was a large black man seated behind a desk and reading a report. Among the papers and books on the desk was a black computer monitor. Eric quietly approached the entrance. Above the doorway was a sign with large black block letters: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Not very welcoming for job seekers, Eric thought as he approached the doorway. This was going to become nothing more than an amusing adventure to talk about with Kristin. The shelves on the far wall contained mostly books on the upper shelves, and stacks of reports and old newspapers on the lower ones. Piles of other papers were on the floor surrounding the desk. When the man behind the desk rose to greet him, Eric saw that the Sentinel publisher, Sterling Davis, was even larger than he’d imagined—about six-foot-seven, but with a soft, rounded face. Davis wore a wine-colored warm-up suit.

“Mr. Smith, I presume,” Davis said, looking down from glasses perched on his nose. He extended his hand. “Right on time.”

Eric shook Davis’s hand. “I had no trouble getting here,” he said. “The sign above your door stunned me a little.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Davis said. “We’re moving part of our operation upstate. Some of our senior editors have complained about having to give up their plush New York apartments.”

“Well, my apartment is utilitarian but not plush,” Eric replied. Stupid thing to say. He hasn’t even offered me a job yet. I’m not even sure this is a job interview. Change the subject. Quickly.

“Kristin—Professor Meyers—thought your presentation today went quite well.”

Davis smiled. “Ah, Professor Meyers at Columbia. Lovely woman. Now, is she your wife?”

There was no good term to describe their relationship. “Partner,” Eric said. He wanted to make a joke about their not getting married because neither wanted to give up their rent-controlled apartments, but decided against it.

“I thought the talk went well,” Davis said, “in spite of the usual harassment.”

“From students?”

“Not the students. Horseflies.” Davis studied Eric. “You look intrigued.”

“No, I mean there must be an infestation of them,” Eric said. “It’s very unusual for them to get into our apartment building. Yet earlier today, to get some exercise before a meeting, I played some indoor tennis. This horsefly just settled on my racquet and wouldn’t get off.”

Davis smiled. “I can understand that, although your situation is a bit different from mine. You’re so squeaky clean that the handler probably got bored, and tried to goad you into using your racquet as a flyswatter.”

“What?” What was this guy talking about?

“It wouldn’t have worked. You can’t swat the damn things. If you trap them they’ll self-destruct. Poof, like matter meeting antimatter. I actually managed to disconnect the receiver on one before the handler could send the signal.”

Puzzled, Eric stared at Davis.

“NAV 5,” Davis said. “And that’s not a mutual fund price. Nano Air Vehicle 5.”

“A drone?”

“Exactly. But they can’t hurt you. They’re just there to snoop.”

“You’re saying the government is using drones to spy on its own citizens?”

“Oh, not the government,” Davis said, “although I wouldn’t put it past some congressmen doing it in return for large campaign contributions. Besides, the government has largely become a bunch of fund-raisers. They spend most of their energies trying to get elected. They don’t have time to devote to legislation. So who do they hire to write the laws? Companies like yours. No, I suspect the little emissary perched on your racquet was from your own company.”

Eric seriously considered the possibility that Davis was nuts.

“But let’s get down to business,” Davis said, leaning forward. “I’m going to make you a job offer.”

An offer, Eric thought. After a very brief interview.

“I appreciate that,” Eric said. “But, you know, I’m still employed at Algogenics.”

“Mr. Smith—Eric—can I call you Eric? I’ve been accused in the past of being insensitive. I can be the diplomatic Davis or the straightforward Davis. Which do you prefer?”

This was definitely the weirdest job interview Eric had ever experienced. “The straightforward Davis,” he said.

“Your job at Algogenics is finished. Kaput. History. I feel guilty about that, because I’m probably the cause.”

“That’s impossible,” Eric said, before realizing that this could be a trap. “I mean, there was some mix-up at work, but that was before I even met you or knew anything about you.”

“Tell me, in this ‘mix-up,’ did the word ‘associations’ come up at all?”

Eric could not believe what he just heard.

Davis looked genuinely concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes the straightforward Davis is not appropriate.”

“No, no,” Eric rallied. “But how did you know that?”

“It’s not complicated. They’ve got horseflies, but I’ve got human contacts.”

Eric tried to remain calm. “Let’s assume you’re correct. Let’s assume I’m about to get fired. How is that your fault?”

“Associations,” Davis replied. “Your company, and virtually all other major companies, have a morbid fear of associations. I give talks on what is really going on in the world. Professor Meyers is one of my biggest supporters. And Professor Meyers happens to be your partner.”

To Eric, it just seemed too bizarre.

“Look,” Davis said, “let me give you some background on what we’re up against. Our institutions began as instruments. At least, that’s what Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s old sociology professor at Georgetown, called them. They were entities created to fulfill a societal need. Weapons manufacturers who produce arms that enable the country to defend itself. Oil and gas producers to provide the country with energy. Doctors to keep people in good health. Banks to help companies get started and individuals to buy a home. Unfortunately, at some point, these entities deviate from their original intent and take on a new primary goal: their own survival. At this point, Quigley claims they become institutions, and once their survival seems assured, they strive to become more powerful, subverting their original purpose. Arms manufacturers don’t care how many innocent people get killed, as long as their companies sell more guns. Gas and oil producers don’t care how much they pollute the air and water, as long as people buy more of their offerings. Health maintenance organizations care less about the welfare of their patients and more about increasing their profits. Banks develop complex schemes to bilk other institutions and individuals out of their money.”

“It’s almost like you believe they’re alive,” Eric said.

“Quigley didn’t think so, and neither do I. But in their struggle for survival and then to become more powerful, they certainly exhibit lifelike characteristics—with their life-blood being money. The problem is because they are so gigantic and indistinct to us, their bodies—their corpus—are difficult to deal with. Especially when they incorporate us as their cells. The sad part is we created them as corporate structures, with the idea of their protecting us as individuals. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We’ve created these primitive behemoths who shit all over the globe, corrupt our democratic institutions, and really don’t care whether we live or die. We are all just another cell that can be replaced.”

Davis turned to his desktop monitor. “Take a look at this,” he said.

A scholarly-looking paper entitled, The Growing Sophistication of Corporate Scams: from S&Ls, to Enron, to Goldman Sachs, appeared on the screen. “It establishes a link between financial scandals centered around sophisticated financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations,” Davis said. “I show it to you because this paper had about as much effect on the public psyche as the exposés I ran in the Sentinel.

“The problem is, how many people read and understood this? I think my own post-2008 analysis in the Sentinel did better as far as readership was concerned, but both were after the fact. Each scandal occurs, worse than the one before. Sometimes the perpetrators are sent to jail, sometimes not. The institutions don’t care. These cells can be replaced. Governments struggle to recover. New regulations are put in place. Gradually the economy does recover. Then the most interesting phase occurs. The industry starts calling for less regulation. They can’t function with this stifling oversight. The economy is growing too slowly. It should be expanding faster. That marks the birth of the newest phase of financial disaster. The problem is we’re always playing catch-up. And that,” Davis said, “is where you fit in.”

Ah, Eric thought. The exciting climax to this interview.

“We need a program that, information-wise, keeps us ahead of the curve—very similar to the way the FBI tries to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. This program must be able to handle multiple streams of input data and alert us to impending financial disaster—a kind of economic warning system. As you may gather, I have a wide range of information sources. Usually their data is quite accurate, but sometimes not. Financial reports from various government agencies tend to be more incomplete rather than inaccurate. They get only what the financial industry wants them to see. Your software must enable us to determine what is the truth.

“A starting point is a recent article by a financial analyst named Paul W. Ackerman. Its title is ‘The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters.’ Unfortunately, copies of this report have been disappearing from the cloud—and even from personal computers.”

“Really?” Eric said skeptically.

“That seems to be the case. But I have a printed copy, and I’m making duplicate copies upstate.”

“Is that where I’d be working?”

“Yes. The air is much better there, and I have an expert team of exterminators to handle the horsefly problem.”

Eric smiled. Corporate information drones? I don’t know.

“Here’s the offer,” Davis said. “Both you and your partner would be very valuable additions to my company. Even though when I spoke to her she deferred to you, I think she’s interested. I can’t quite match your salary at Algogenics, but I can pay her more than she’s making now. As for E-retrieve, I’m sure you’re aware that everything you’ve developed belongs to your company. You will get a small monetary reward for your accomplishment, which I’m willing to match as a sign-on bonus. Think about it, discuss it with your partner, and let me know.”

They shook hands as Eric rose to leave. “One more thing,” Davis said. “I would not try to get the Ackerman report off the Web just yet. I should have my printed copies available tomorrow.”

In the cab going back to his apartment, Eric tried to make some sense of what he had just experienced. Sterling Davis is an evangelical kook. Kristin seems to have a lot of respect for him, but Kristin is a hopeless idealist. That’s one thing I love about her. I’m intrigued at how much information Davis has access to. But I’m also intrigued about the case of the disappearing report.

In his apartment, he found the low hum of his computers and the air-conditioning relaxing. It was seven o’clock. Should give Kristin a call. First, let’s see what I can find out about Mr. Ackerman’s report.

He used the desk monitor. Let’s see. “Paul Ackerman tsunami financial disasters.” Well, there they are. All sorts of links. Try one. Hmm. “404 message not found.” Try some others. All the different variations. “Oops! Page not found.” “You 404’d it, gnarly dude.” The links were all there, but the content was gone.

Of course it may not exist in the first place, he thought. Time to break out my own mega-browser. Not that much better than standard browsers, but it does have the ability to access remote crannies of the Internet. The name I’ve given it, Eric_Smith, is somewhat narcissistic. Let’s give it a try. Execute Eric_Smith.

He saw one entry that he hadn’t seen before in the list of links, and clicked on it. Voilà! There it was. “The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters,” by Paul W. Ackerman. He clicked on “Print.” Pages started spewing from the printer on the small table next to his desk.

He grabbed the first couple of pages and started reading. Powerful. Really powerful stuff.

“Mr. Smith, this is an emergency. Please turn off your printer.”

He had no idea where the voice was coming from. He looked around the apartment. No one there. He looked toward the door. Locked. This was New York. You always locked your apartment door. His monitor still showed the print window. He hadn’t turned on the telescreen, and it was still blank. He physically disconnected the system speakers.

No effect whatsoever. “Smith, this is an emergency. Turn off your printer!” The tone was more urgent.

A man was in the room, not on the telescreen, but in front of it. If someone were sent to break into his apartment to prevent his printing a sensitive document, Eric expected that person to be a cross between someone from the Mafia and an FBI agent—fiftyish, dark suit, dark glasses, muscular. This person was muscular, but younger. Early forties, no glasses, light tan sport shirt and dark brown slacks.

“I don’t understand,” Eric said. “How did you get in here?”

“I’ll explain that later. Now turn off that printer!”

The man, so realistic, still had a gossamer quality. “Hologram!” Eric realized. The unannounced accompaniment to Meeting of the Minds 2.0. He can’t hurt you, and he can’t actually do anything, Eric told himself. It’s just light and air. That’s why he tries to scare you into aborting that print. Still, it’s best not to challenge him.

“Smith! Turn off that goddamned printer!”

“All right. All right,” Eric said, rising from his chair. The print had to be almost complete. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, stumbling forward toward the printer table. The flop hurt him more than he expected. As he tried to get up, he heard a deafening crack, like lightning had scored a direct hit on his apartment. The room went dark, all humming sounds ceased, and smoke began to fill the room. He staggered toward the door, unlocked it, and stumbled into the smoke-filled hallway.

All his neighbors were in the hallway, stunned looks on their faces—shadowy faces he could not recognize. Some pounded on the elevator button; others started streaming toward the stairwell door. Smoke alarms squealed all over the place. A siren sounded from outside. Strangely, the exodus was orderly—no real panic. What the hell caused this? “Probably some knucklehead left his stove on. They should kick him out of here before he gets us all killed.” The descent down the stairwell was almost robotic.

Call Kristin when I get out. Is it all right if I spend a few nights at your place? She may just want to cast our lot with Davis. This may be a first. Driven from homes for reasons other than accidents, natural disasters, or military madness. He felt fortunate knowing he had somewhere to go. He studied the faces around him. Probably true of everyone else—for now, anyway.

 


About the Author: Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College and currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.

Artwork: Deanna Crane

Warmth by James Croal Jackson

Untitled


Warmth

I want to fold the dog
into an origami pipe
smoke it
and forget this
was ever a dog

later I will want
this dog nestled
next to me
asleep
fire lingering

instead I
fold creases
into blanket
wrapping
out the cold

I can’t shake
but for what
it takes
to sleep
through dawn


About the Author: James Croal Jackson‘s poetry has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Rust + Moth, Isthmus, and elsewhere. His first chapbook is forthcoming from Writing Knights Press. He is the 2016 William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest winner in his current city of Columbus, Ohio. Visit him at jimjakk.com.

Boy on a Rope by Julia Poole

Untitled


 

Powell woke to the sound of knocking. Disoriented, his eyes flicked around the murky room. He zeroed in on a lava lamp, the source of the empurpled veil covering everything. His body detected the comfort of a mattress, the softness of a blanket and comforter. Mouth dry, the sweet taste of alcohol-laced fruit punch lingered. He licked his upper lip. Strawberry. No, cherry.  Kristina’s lip gloss. Techno music reverberated from a room below. Booming bass matched the throbbing in his head. The room smelled of perfume, pot, and sex. Familiarity. Powell sat up, reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. A couple of used condom wrappers – one chocolate flavored, one ribbed with lubricant – lay amongst a pile of wadded tissues on the floor at the side of the bed. After wiping his belly, he dropped the sticky clump, adding to the pile.  

Knocking resumed, louder, urgent.

“Hey, whoever’s in there…time’s up already,” said a guy from behind the door, voice pleading. Powell imagined a girl clung to him, hands playfully feeling him up, giggles turning into groans, maybe her tongue tickled his ear.

Powell stood, pulled on underwear and jeans. Nothing new on his phone. He flipped through a few birthday messages from yesterday. Seventeen. Fuck, he was old. No message from Lauren, Powell’s twin. He tried recalling last year’s message. Some funny shit about how she had struggled hours to make his passage into the world easy. “Happy BD, lazy ass! Party w/me tonight?” Lauren always reminded Powell she was the first-born by two minutes. He swallowed hard, twice, and put the phone in his jeans pocket.

Twenty, maybe twenty-five, minutes had passed since he had closed and locked the bedroom door. He spotted Kristina at the end of the bed, topless, curled up like a kitten, purring atop a furry blue pillow. Crouching low, Powell gently brushed long, blond strands from her face that reflected a soft purplish glow. She looked pretty good. The contour of neckline, flushed cheeks, delicate hands with slender fingers that worked him a bit quicker than he liked. Her breath warm against his skin. Green eyes, attentive, accepting. He liked the way she looked at him with approval. Voice soft, asking what he wanted, telling him she wouldn’t go all the way. Apprehension vanished. He no longer thought it foolish to be in a bedroom with a stranger just a week after Sonja had screwed him over. No guessing, no frenzied, awkward race to climax typical of hook-ups. Instead, a weird sensation, one that rushed through him the way he imagined currents traveled through wires. It was like that. Electric. Blistering. An unexplainable awareness, like she connected to him – Powell, the person, not just his body. The urge to accept this unspoken invitation overwhelmed, but it disappeared after he came and she withdrew her hands and mouth.

Strange, that feeling. It filled something absent, an emptiness. No, wrong word. It was bigger, vast, something that affected everything. Epic-void. Was that one word or two? Since Lauren’s death it was as if a part of himself no longer existed. Briefly, with Kristina, that spirit, that something was alive again.

Powell straightened and adjusted his jeans.  Not a stunner, Kristina, but unblemished, attractive enough. Yes, his friends would agree, she was attractive. A comforting realization. Like eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, filling him with warm. yummy gooiness. Calm. Peaceful. Satisfaction. He couldn’t remember the last time Mom had baked.

The guy in the hall pounded and shouted, “Get the fuck out!”

Startled, Kristina opened her eyes, legs unfurled. She propped herself up and for a second appeared unaware of her surroundings, fearful, ready to pounce. Her vulnerability was tangible, refreshing. Averting Powell’s gaze, she covered exposed breasts with one hand while fumbling through pillows to locate her bra and top.

Powell turned his back. The space in the bedroom now seemed smaller, confining. Air stagnate. Too hot. He resisted the urge to fling the door wide. Instead, he cracked the window and breathed. Autumn coolness. City noise. The fryer smell of a nearby restaurant. More door thumping, muted. The sound grew louder, the rhythm faster, a husky groan, and a high-pitched pant. God, couldn’t they wait? This house was Tyler’s. A guy Powell knew from playing lacrosse. A few days ago, Tyler posted the rager on Facebook. Everyone welcome. Parents out of town, probably in the Hampton’s. He wondered whose bedroom this was. The lava lamp perched atop a desk strewn with pamphlets from Planned Parenthood, Environmental Defense Fund and PETA, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a stick of pink deodorant, a few Hershey’s kisses and crumpled up foil wrappers. Draped on the desk chair was an Obama t-shirt, inscribed Hope below the presidential candidate’s red, white and blue striped face. Tyler must have a sister. Bohemian. Probably a tree hugger. Maybe Tyler’s sister was the girl grinding with the guy on the other side of the door.

Above the desk, a poster hung on a slant. Powell tilted his head and read aloud, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

“Kurt Vonnegut,” said Kristina.

“Yep.”

Powell’s stomach growled, a reminder of his earlier plan to meet Max tonight. It didn’t seem fair to leave Kristina so soon after hooking up. Such a consideration had never crossed his mind before. There had been lots of party hook-ups – blow jobs, hand jobs.  He often listed hook-ups in chronological order. Tallied faces and bodies, pleasing images that frequented his dreams. The race to fill every moment of the day with something had left Powell exhausted.

The hallway bonking intensified. The door jolted. Hinges rattled. Powell piped up, “We’ll be right out.” Too late. The bam-bam crescendo ended with one freaking intertwined moan. Animalistic and uncontrolled. Sounded like every post-coital scream he had heard. A sly smile curled. Whiffing out sexual acts from behind closed doors was an instinctive gift that began years ago, when, as a child, he used to sit, sometimes huddled in a blanket with Lauren, to listen to his parents screwing in the shower. A frequent occurrence given Dad’s healthy libido and Mom’s propensity for cleanliness.

Powell decided Kristina would never act so whorish as the anonymous girl in the hallway. At least, this was what Powell wanted to believe. Kristina’s sexual experience was of no consequence. He imagined a future moment with his arm wrapped around Mom when he reassured her that Kristina was a virgin. Mom would believe it, just like Mom believed Powell’s sexual experience consisted of a few PG-rated make-out sessions. When Powell turned fifteen, Dad had supplied him with a box of condoms. The good kind, Dad whispered, speaking with that tone of voice that declared he knew what he was talking about.  Only the best for Powell. Life broken down into a few simple rules. Sex was an experience not unlike getting the oil changed on the Mercedes every three thousand miles or drinking a dry Pinot Gris with salmon salad. The box of condoms, unopened and probably long expired, laid in the bottom of his underwear drawer. Mom followed the rules and expected others to do the same. Mom seethed about Powell’s transgressions – he knew by the exaggerated sighs, the cupboard slamming, the way her lips pursed forming a thin, pink line – but she never spoke harshly to him. Never argued about the late hour he returned from parties or questioned his study habits. Never mentioned the wet dream underwear messes. She provided Kleenex and hand lotion on his nightstand and picked up the cum-filled balls of tissue from his bedroom floor, sometimes yelling at Cheetah, the scruffy mutt terrier for carrying the stinky wads around the house.

Powell looked over his shoulder and caught sight of Kristina smoothing out her hair and sweater. She tugged on a loose string of yarn, but it wouldn’t give. To conceal it, she twisted the string around her index finger. Her attempt to right what was out of place seemed innocent, almost sweet.

“Parker…just wanted to say…that was nice.”

So she wasn’t the smoothest person. Powell could live with that. The positives outweighed the negatives. Kristina would make a perfect first girlfriend. It was a moment they could look back on someday, laugh together, like it was an amusing part of their story, one just beginning, one he hoped lasted a long time. He tossed her the tissue box. “Better wipe your face.”

 

Powell hustled from the NYC West side home toward the Lincoln Center subway stop. Sprinting by Church of the Blessed Sacrament, he heard the pipe organ, thunderous and low, playing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” He thought of attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he was a child and how freaked out he was by the sound of the organ. Even more frightening was the ringing of the bells. Grandpap tried to calm him, tried to tell him the bells were holy, blessed. He said the bells had names like St. Joseph and St. Michael. Powell had envisioned men stuck inside the bells. He screamed. Mom carried him from the pew leaving Lauren on Dad’s lap looking sad and confused. It wasn’t the first time the twins were separated. It wouldn’t be the last. It was months before Powell could sit through mass without shrieking, and only later, with Lauren’s hand in his, would he avoid a fuss.

Powell sidestepped to avoid a pile of dog shit. He always left Cheetah’s poop on the sidewalk or on the grass in Central Park, where he knew the dog preferred taking a dump but he rarely took the time to walk her there. He was pushing it, breaking the poop law. Fact was he took pleasure from getting away with breaking rules. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t. Who would admit such a truth? No one he knew.

Powell skipped down the steps into the entrance of the Lincoln Center subway station, swiped his MetroCard as he had done a thousand times before, pushed through the turnstile and paced the platform waiting for the downtown train. A few people – goth teens, middle-aged couples, and a few shady-looking characters – stood around or leaned against the mosaic wall. Powell loved that mosaic. The Nefertiti-like goddesses and lithe dancers formed by small, brightly-colored tiles. The gold ones shimmered in the otherwise dank tunnel. Powell imagined Kristina as his Queen Nefertiti and the words flowed:

How did it come? Feeling attracted from the first look on.

Be united, though free, like each other, though free!

He repeated his inventive prose aloud. Poetry, his secret passion. He remembered one night lying under the covers, rubbing the silk trim of his red blanket. The nightlight glowed, spreading a fan of honey-gold against the wall. Grandpap hummed as he entered the bedroom, the edge of the mattress dipped when he sat on it. Gray stubble dotted his chin, and he smelled of pipe tobacco, smoky and sweet. He cradled a poetry book, thick, the spine cracked in several places. Grandpap pushed the horn-rimmed readers up his nose and read, his voice soothed and rolled like faraway thunder:

I was in the darkness;

I could not see my words

Nor the wishes of my heart.

Then suddenly there was a great light –

“Let me into the darkness again.”

Who was that poet? Keats? Frost? The downtown train approached. Powell smiled, waiting to hop on the train.

At Columbus Circle, Powell transferred to the C Line. Plenty of seats on the train. He slid into one and closed his eyes. Doors shut. The train chugged forward. “Next stop, 50th Street,” said the bored conductor’s voice. Powell reviewed Saturday night’s events thus far. It started with swigging his parents’ vodka to get an early buzz. If Mom knew, she expressed no disapproval. Arrived at Tyler’s home on the Upper West Side an hour after the party started. Grabbed a drink, thanked Tyler for inviting him. Surveyed the plentiful array of girls. Powell considered himself above average in the looks department. On a scale from 1-10, a solid 8.0, maybe 8.25. He always targeted girls for hook-ups who scored a notch lower – never lower than 7 and never, ever above. Stunning babes were almost always stuck-up bitches who didn’t put out with guys like Powell. No use pining over what he couldn’t have. Number 7 girls, thankful for the charming, attentive interest of a Number 8, put out in the hand and blowjob department.

Next stop, 42nd Street, Port Authority.

He had spied Kristina chatting with a small group of girls. She wasn’t as tall as Powell liked – he didn’t look good dancing with short girls – but there was something about her, the way she laughed like she meant it, the rhythmic motion of her hands when she spoke, a flair for the dramatic, he didn’t quite know. After grabbing a fresh drink, he entered their conversation. Learned the girls were sixteen and seventeen, from the same school as Tyler. Within 15 minutes, Powell coaxed Kristina to a corner of the dining room. Engaged in small talk. Fetched her a fresh drink and inched closer. She was unattached, hinted that there was someone interested, played volleyball, a vegetarian (surprise, not a vegan), liked Coen brothers and Wes Anderson movies (who didn’t), Broadway shows, English Lit, but math and science not so much. Her style was a bit frumpy: oversized sweater, cheap boots, too much drugstore perfume. She emigrated from one of those funky sounding Russian countries when she was eight. Her English perfect, he detected no residual foreign accent. Mom would hate her. Kristina lowered her chin, looked up at him as if he were the only person in the universe and batted her eyelashes splotched with too much mascara. Powell made his move, his favorite part of the hook-up prologue. He brushed a kiss across her cheek, and she snuggled closer. His arm snaked around her shoulder. A few playful tugs and she nestled into his embrace, melting. He whispered in her ear, his rugged nose nudged her cheek. Body heat merged, lips locked, tongues danced. Unspoken negotiations over, Powell led Kristina, giggling and tipsy, to an upstairs bedroom.

Afterward, they exchanged phone numbers. For Powell, uncharted territory. Not typical modus operandi, but a necessary step if he wanted to see her again. They hugged and kissed before parting. Reckless, kind of exciting, dizzy-like. Shit, when was the last time he felt happy? He couldn’t remember.

Next stop, 34th Street, Penn Station.

Powell shifted, spied a piece of lint on his jeans and picked it off. It was possible, hell, why not? He imagined a future when he and Kristina trusted each other well enough to say anything. Intimacy on a whole new level. Free to say whatever you wanted. Knowing you would be heard, understood. The way Lauren always treated him. Hadn’t she known how much she meant to him? Hadn’t she trusted that sometimes his words meant nothing, that teasing her was just a joke? He teased because he loved and trusted her.

Indescribable trust. That’s the quality he most wanted in a girlfriend. It was part of the epic-void. It was a quality he thought he had shared with Sonja. A line by Neruda came to mind: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” A lie, all of it. There had been no love with Sonja, and if he lived a hundred more years, he wouldn’t forget. Powell grimaced and looked at his watch. One block to the Starlight Diner. He was fifteen, maybe twenty minutes late. Max would be waiting. The train screeched, jerking to a stop. His headache ratcheted a notch higher. Powell stood by the door, and before it opened completely, he dashed through, next climbing the stairs two at a time.

 

“She wants me to bang her,” said Powell. He had taken a seat in the booth across from blond, blue-eyed Max, who, as usual, looked tidy. Clean-shaven. He wore slim jeans and a black t-shirt. Slouchy clothes were too hip-hop. His hair, Max’s crowning achievement, was styled with just the right amount of gel to appear like you could run your hand through it without spoiling the look. Hair nirvana. Max swept bangs off his forehead and sighed. He pulled a few paper napkins from a dispenser and placed them elegantly in his lap and tapped his fork on the Formica tabletop further adding to the cacophony of thrumming in Powell’s head. Countless drinks aside, Powell blamed the hanging lime green lights that stung his eyes like lasers.

“Where’s our server? I’m starving,” said Max. He picked up his phone and scrolled. Powell hated when Max ignored him. There was a lot about Max that Powell felt pissed about, the new friends he chose to hang with, his new habit of smoking cigarettes and joints, the way he spent much of his time alone. Truth was, Powell envied the way Max chose to do nothing as if being alone took no thought at all, like breathing, eating or whacking off. Powell worked hard filling every day to avoid being alone. He equated alone with the possibility of the epic-void opening beneath him, sucking him into the abyss. Since Lauren’s death, being alone was fucking hard work.  

“Back to Kristina. She wants me. Isn’t it great?”

“Surprised you know her name,” Max sniffed, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, I never let a girl blow me unless…”

“Unless you know her name. I know, I know.”

“I’m serious. I’m going to grant Kristina’s wish. She’s the lucky one. My first. I’m gonna do it with Kristina.”

Blow jobs and hand jobs were just making out. It meant having real sex. It was a rite of passage, a decision to take seriously and remember with a smile for years to come. No more hook-ups, no time wasted finding somebody to do something with, no more loneliness. Max had done it last summer with a girl he’d met at summer camp. The sketchy details left Powell doubting.

Max waved to a waitress busy wiping a counter. Looking at Powell, he said, “I don’t get it. Why mess around with the party hook-ups of the world when you’re so tight with that senior, Sonja? Heard she loves dicks,” Max’s eyes narrowed. “Even one like yours.”

Sonja.

Powell didn’t tell Max everything. Some things you don’t say aloud. Like how Powell thought Max a pussy for letting his mom cut his fingernails.

Sonja.

Like how Powell masturbated while watching Penelope Cruz movies.

Sonja.

Like when Powell, invited by Sonja, showed up at her house last Friday night after hanging at an Oktoberfest party where he downed vodka shots because it took too long to get buzzed from drinking beer, so drunk he couldn’t feel his sneakers touch the black and white marble tile in her family’s foyer and she kissed him, and he kissed her back, fantastic, like shooting up with 4th of July sparklers, and the solitude faded, disappeared. They ended up in her bed, clothes on the floor. She giggled, said she had never seen one like it and started licking. Powell told her he loved that, please don’t stop. He was on his way to getting the best blow job of his life with the hottest-looking girl.  They were friends. Powell trusted her.

That’s the way it could have ended. Should have ended.

But Sonja inched higher, body slithering over him until her eyes, hungry, greedy stared into his. Chocolate with flecks of bronze that glowed. Those eyes. He hadn’t seen that look before. She slid atop what she had been kissing. No accident, she closed her eyes, stole control and shut him out as if he were no longer there. But Powell was there. He felt a surge of adrenaline. His heart raced, like the time he stole a Prada scarf from Saks and a security guard followed him, nowhere to run, but Powell kept cool and walked out, escaped. There was no exit from Sonja. He tried turning, attempted to brush her off, but she wasn’t drunk like him. Her hands clamped down on his elbows, hard, her weight and determination crushed. He groped to speak but he was too fucked up, mouth dry, words shriveled. Everything moved too fast. His dreams of having sex for the first time, his way, the way he had dreamed about doing it a thousand times, died. Sonja’s groans grew louder, quicker. The bed spun. Powell fixated on the round ceiling light, dimmed, which reminded him of the moon and his speck of existence on Earth, because if he closed his eyes he would fall into a dizzying spiral, the epic-void yawned wide. Uncontrolled pleasure couldn’t mask the humiliation of being used. Fists clenched, he fingered the smooth ridge of scars that crisscrossed his right palm. This moment was real, like when he smashed the bathroom mirror after Lauren died. His eyes moved slowly from the ceiling to Sonja’s face, and he watched as she fucked him like she was proud of getting everything she wanted. Powell came, and it was a relief because, at last, he knew she would be off him and in his mind, he screamed, Stop, get the fuck off, you didn’t ask, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.

Sonja.

There’s a price for not saying words aloud. What if I had been sober, what if I had told her what I wanted, what if I had said no clanged like a gargantuan church bell rung by a boy, inexperienced and naïve. There weren’t any saints in that tower. Only Powell, weak, hands grasping, burning and chafing as they slipped on the prickly, thick rope. Powell no longer heard his thoughts. Max’s face snapped back into focus.

Smells, a comforting mixture of coffee and grease, hung in the air. Top 40 tunes floated from ceiling speakers. Taylor Swift sang about some guy. Sweet love gone sour. Same crap. The waitress arrived and poured coffee. Powell listened to Max give his order: gyro, no onion, tzatziki sauce on the side, fries, extra crispy, diet Coke, no ice.

“I’ll have two packs of aspirin, a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. More coffee, too, please,” said Powell.

“Sure thing,” said the waitress.

Awkward, the lack of conversation with Max. Powell uncrossed his legs and planted both feet on the sticky linoleum floor. He wanted to kick a hole into it. He wanted to bury himself. Maybe he’d drag Max with him. Maybe there, secreted away, he could tell Max what had happened and not be judged. How could he explain what he didn’t understand?

Powell surveyed the people in the restaurant, a compulsion he shared with Mom. And there she sat, he couldn’t believe it – Sonja, sitting in a booth with her besties near the front of the restaurant. How could he have walked right past her? His heart pounded as if it were trying to bust through his chest. He checked his watch and breathed. Powell imagined Sonja’s entrance: her hair styled the same as the others, long, sleek, parted down the middle, shaking her mane as if to say, Hey, look at me, I’m here, I look good, I’m hot. Sonja, her perfect breasts shimmying with every slinking step, her perfect pink lips framing perfect white teeth. Sonja, her ass sashaying just so in her perfectly fitted jeans, flopping into the booth with a bounce. Sonja’s eyes locked on Powell. Grinning, she tossed a quick wave. Her tribe stared at him and laughed. Powell acknowledged them with a nod.

Max droned about some dumb Netflix movie. A waitress wearing tight yoga pants zipped passed. She carried a tray loaded with breakfast food – eggs, bacon, waffles with melting dollops of whipped butter – and dinner food – cheeseburger with fries, matzo ball soup, liver and onions with boiled potatoes, and a gyro so loaded with fixings a large toothpick barely held the sandwich together. Wearing yoga pants was a privilege, not a right. After a second look, Powell decided she was privileged. He imagined Kristina in yoga pants, embracing her, his hands squeezing her ass.  

Max, Kristina, yoga pants, there was no diversion big enough to eliminate thoughts of Sonja. Gorgeous Sonja. Funny Sonja. Smart Sonja. She was a full nine, bordering on nine and a half and Powell had felt flattered by her attention. Sonja, older, savvy, a person plunging into adult life with all the confidence he wished he displayed. The intimate conversations, the way Sonja detailed her many sexcapades. She favored beefy, athletic types, liked experimenting with positions and places. Powell had listened, fascinated by every tryst. He dreamed of having sex with her but realized he didn’t stand a chance – too skinny, young and inexperienced. Mom said, “That Sonja, what a delight. Beautiful and so polite. Comes from the right family. You two have so much in common. Why don’t you ask her out sometime?” How could he have missed it? A proclivity for virgins, Sonja was like an express train barreling down tracks. He should have known. He should have kept his pants on. Hadn’t he tried? Not exactly. He said yes. At first. But hadn’t he said no? Powell seethed.

The waitress brought the food. Powell ripped open the aspirin packets, popped the four pills into his mouth and swallowed. The pounding in his head paled to missing Lauren, the ache constant, no matter what he did to fill the hours. Powell wanted to tell Max how much he missed Lauren, how sorry he felt for yelling at her that day. Stop complaining about your weight. Cut out the bag of chips you scarf down every day, and you’ll be fine. Repeating the awful words to Max wouldn’t change a thing. Like reverberating bells, Powell would forever hear those final words.

Max finished the gyro and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Half the cheeseburger and most of the fries remained on Powell’s plate. His headache reduced to a dull throb, Powell gulped the last of his coffee, lukewarm, bitter. Loose grounds grazed the bottom of the cup.

“You boys want anything else?” said the waitress.

Max and Powell shook their heads. For the last ten minutes, Powell had hoped Sonja and the girls would leave. They hadn’t. Sonja gestured a hearty come-on-over. Powell looked away and caught his reflection in the mirror that hung over the booth. The profile of his nose looked big. He feared, later in life, his nose would appear grotesque. The way old men had shrunken faces with gigantic noses and cartoonish ears. He noticed a few stray hairs, dark and pointy, the beginning of a unibrow. He made a mental note to pluck them later. He smiled, and for a moment Lauren’s image blurred into his. Tell me everything will be fine begged Powell. She dissolved. Alone again.

Powell estimated the walk to Sonja’s table would take fifteen steps, eighteen at the most. Dad advised proper asset management. Know your risks. Don’t overestimate your potential for gains. Evaluate losses. Most importantly, plan and execute with confidence.

Powell pictured himself moving, one foot after the other. The diner was quiet. Half of the tables were empty. The door bell twinkled. Four guys wearing Rangers gear sauntered in and took seats at the counter. Hockey game must have finished at Madison Square Garden. The men’s subdued demeanor signaled a loss. No surprise. Powell ran his hand through his hair and stood straight. Head high, he breathed. Be cool. Max faced the front of the diner, waved at the girls and walked. Powell followed, eyes locked on the door.

Sonja had posted on Facebook how great Saturday night had been, mentioning his name, crazy bitch, how he was like an erupting volcano. Powell responded with some positive shit he knew she would like. Thanks, Sonja! Great night! Fanjizztastic! A few days ago, in the school cafeteria, Powell had met Sonja and said, “Let’s be friends. No sex.” Whatever it took to get himself back from her, to get far, far away from the sad, pretty thing in front of him named Sonja. “Too bad, we get along so well,” she said, “could be a nice way to celebrate your birthday.” Her fingers, cool and soft, stroked his forearm. She whispered, “I know what to do, you know, to not get pregnant.” Smiling, she blew a kiss and walked away.

And now, Powell heard Sonja giggle. He wished he didn’t know her laugh so well. He fingered the scars in his right palm. He hoped Kristina would answer his text, the one he planned to send after he left the diner. She really was attractive. He imagined a time, soon, he hoped, when Kristina would spend the night with him in his bedroom. If she were a serious girlfriend, Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind.

Max stopped at the girls’ booth. Powell stopped, too. Sixteen steps. The voice of Lady Gaga crackled “Poker Face” through a damaged speaker. Powell looked at the girls. Their words and giggles pelted like freezing rain: went-to-Connor’s-party-you-shoulda-been-there-it-was-so-hype-Jack-did-a-bong-hit-Alice-puked-on-the-carpet-she-was-so-turnt-haha-Maranda-hooked-up-with-a-college-guy-you-shoulda-been-there…

Powell concentrated on the reflection in the window. He saw Sonja and the girls and Max talking, laughing. He saw a peek of Sonja’s fuchsia bra as she leaned across the table and flirted with Max. He saw himself, smiling and joking, elbows pinched, unmoving, a man suspended, like the suspended luminosity of the green lamps in the diner, like the suspended moonlike glow of the ceiling lamp in Sonja’s bedroom, like Lauren’s suspended hair floating above her submerged body in the claw foot tub. Like the boy in the bell tower, bells smashing metal on metal, deafening. You’re so difficult. I hate your drama. Why can’t you be more agreeable, like Powell? Mom’s last words to Lauren. Staring deeper into the reflective mirror, Powell sensed this could be the beginning of a fall into oblivion, an unknown place where Lauren may be, where the coveted and elusive something may exist. Fearful, he leaned, slipping. Yet something rose – a blaze of light, searing, but at the same time – calm, Almighty.

Max nudged Powell’s arm. Powell blinked and searched for the dazzle of light. The reflection had vanished leaving night’s muted darkness and the soft glow of a street lamp, the post of which appeared tilted like a car had struck it. Something had been there. My light. I saw it. A surge of relief enveloped Powell.

“I said, see ya around,” said Sonja. The girls laughed.

“Yeah,” said Powell. Like fucking never.

And then Powell was through the door, inhaling deep, the city’s oxygen pure and new.

Powell and Max walked east on 34th Street toward Penn Station.

“God, that Sonja is screaming hot. Remind me again why you don’t want to be with her?” said Max.

“I think she likes sex too much. I’d rather take the lead with someone like Kristina.”

Max nodded; he didn’t question. It felt like the old days when he and Max understood each other and life seemed predictable, almost easy. Powell’s strides were long and quick. His body relaxed as the distance widened from Sonja. Everything about tonight meant something. First, Kristina, and then the light, and then moving past. Powell felt empowered by an unexplainable peace. It was the same self-possessed calm that blanketed him as a child when Grandpap tucked him in at night and recited poetry. Grandpap said poems were as good as prayers. Powell was a whiz at memorizing. Once he heard a poem, he could repeat the lines word-for-word, even though he didn’t understand them.  

Powell and Max waited for the light to turn at 9th Avenue. A bus cruised through the intersection. A poster on the side of the bus advertised: “West Side Story – See the Broadway Revival of the Leonard Bernstein – Stephen Sondheim Tony-awarding winning show!”

“Stephen Crane,” said Powell.

“Who’s Stephen Crane?”

“A poet. Grandpap loved his poems.”

Max nodded. The walk light appeared. Crossing 9th Avenue, Powell wondered if Kristina had seen “West Side Story.” Even if she had, maybe she would go with him. He typed a message to Kristina, pressed send and out it traveled into the epic-void.

 

 


About the Author: Julia Poole is a speech-language therapist and writer of fiction, memoir, and essays. She has published in MOON Magazine, Dime Show Review, and Motherlode – Essays on Parenthood. To learn more, visit her website at JuliaPooleWrites.com

Rubber Love by Karen Petersen

Untitled


Rubber Love

Miss Tina, resplendent
in stilettos and fishnet,
lace-up black bustier,
size 38c,
cracks her whip
and he trembles,
waiting
for the pleasure
of her key
in his lock.
He’ll roll over
and play dead,
bark like a dog,
croak like a frog.
Whatever she wants.
You see,
on a bad day
she’ll give even the devil
the blues
But on a good day
she knows all
the right moves.


About the Author: KAREN PETERSEN, adventurer, photojournalist and writer, has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, she was published in The Saranac Review in the USA, Antiphon in the UK, and A New Ulster in Northern Ireland. Her work has been translated into Spanish and Farsi. In 2015, she read “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe and at the KGB Bar in NYC. She is currently at work on Four Points on a Compass, a collection of her short stories from overseas. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

Sex Worker by David Stromberg

Amnon Ben-Ami, Woman with Two Heads, oil on paper, 2008


 

It was a miserable April in Paris. The temperature hovered just above freezing and there was a constant threat of rain. I’d flown from Boston for an academic conference asking scholars to present “notions of proliferation” in “historical pragmatics.” Someone on the organizing committee had read my article on “tragic foresight” in Harold Laski’s Liberty in the Modern State and invited me to speak. The organizers had a “global vision” and welcomed any American that would fit their agenda.

At the reception, the evening before the conference, I ran into Thomas Neuerdorf, a recent doctoral graduate I’d met at the last pragmatics conference in Norway. I found him less self-important than the other so-called scholars and went over to say hello. He smiled when he saw me and raised his wine glass.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said to him. “I’ll have someone to drink with at the end of these boring days.”

He laughed.

“Why do you bother crossing the Atlantic for this?”

“The department pays for my ticket.”

As we clinked glasses one of the keynote speakers, Rolf Gerhardt, came and greeted Thomas in German. Rolf was wearing a shiny light gray suit and sporty black-framed designer glasses. Thomas and I wore muted pants and sweaters. I’d seen Rolf at the conference in Norway too—a hotshot from Tübingen who’d coined the term “irrecorded history.” It was supposed to describe histories that had been first “recorded” then “wiped out.” I’d argued two years ago that we had plenty of words that already said the same thing: suppressed, censored, erased, denied, revised. But the term caught on and there was no way of dissuading anyone from using it. I’d told Thomas that I hoped it would go out of style by the time we met in Paris. Instead Rolf was giving a plenary talk on the continuing evolution of “irrecordedness” in pragmaticist theory.

After a few German pleasantries Thomas introduced me to Rolf – who merely smiled from behind his black framed glasses and nodded with his round cheeks before going off to say hello to someone else.

“What a jerk,” I said to Thomas as Rolf walked away.

“You didn’t like him in Norway either.”

“What’s to like? He’s trapped in his own ideas.”

“You think so? I’m not so quick to judge.”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “He’s trying to convince you of something he barely believes himself.”

“Are any one of us really convinced of what we have to say?”

 

The reception ended early and most people went back to their hotels. The conference was at the Cité universitaire at the edge of the city but I’d rented a small room in the center of the Latin Quarter—so I could experience a little bit of Bohemian Paris. On the way back, watching people on the metro and streets, I thought about what Thomas had said. In a way, he was right, and none of our ideas were really convincing. Tragic foresight was actually no better a concept than irrecordedness since no one in the real world cared about theories. So-called experts like us were as ignorant as anyone else. It’s just that we pretended to know more than we really did. The least we could do was to admit that history wasn’t about the hidden meaning of form and syntax—that it was about human experience.

The next morning I decided to scrap my prepared talk and focus on what history was really about: people. After a long day of lectures, about everything from Mongolian Tengrism to postcolonial expansionism, I got a chance to present my position. I used my panel to say that if we, super-educated professionals, couldn’t find a way to connect to a larger part of society we would kill the humanities for ourselves and for generations to come. I said that we had to rethink our entire methodology and put the human being at the center. We had to find a language that would preserve our scholarly integrity while making it accessible to people who really cared about history. If we were so smart, I said, we had to find a way to speak about all these important events without losing the interest of those we were serving—the public.

Of the four aging professors who’d come to hear my presentation only one deigned to respond. He told me I was missing the entire raison d’être of scholarly investigation and said my intransigent blindness was an obvious symptom of American ignorance and hypocrisy.

“May I ask when you last visited the insignificant and inferior American continent?” I asked him.

“I wouldn’t waste my precious research time,” he said. “It’s enough to hear the echoes of arrogance from every American publication that reaches me right here in Paris.”

I politely suggested to him that as a rigorous researcher he would perhaps recognize the value of seeing things for himself.

That more or less ended the session. Everyone went out to the hospitality table to pour themselves coffee. I went out into the hallway thinking about how things always got mixed up. I’d spoken from the heart—and all it had done was instigate hate and anger.

I looked up and saw Thomas holding two paper cups.

“Coffee?” he asked.

I took the coffee and said the session had been a disaster. He apologized for not attending and explained that his doctoral adviser had been speaking at the same time. I told him it didn’t matter—the whole thing had been a shouting match. He asked what I’d said and I explained the gist of my presentation.

“You came to a conference on historical pragmatics and said that theory doesn’t matter?”

“I said what I believe. I’m a person. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Not at a scholarly conference.”

 

Thomas and I went to the day’s last panel together. As we came out he said he was having drinks in the Latin Quarter with a few conference participants—mostly doctoral students and postdocs—and asked whether I’d like to join. After my presentation I wasn’t sure I could contribute to any conversation. But since it was on the way back I figured I’d tag along for a quick beer and then call it a night.

We ended up going to an English pub just next to the Panthéon and by the time we arrived the others had already grabbed a booth in the back. The place was crowded—it was happy hour and the cold evening brought everyone inside. I sat at the end of the booth next to a German doctoral student who introduced herself as Janne. Thomas sat across the table next to a Dutch postdoc named Marleen. There was also a French research assistant named Jacques who’d helped organize the conference, a British postdoc named Lawrence who’d suggested the pub, and a young American professor named Betty sitting in the far corner.

“I didn’t know there were any other Americans at the conference,” I said across the table.

“Either way,” Betty answered, “we’re surrounded by Continentals.”

“I’m not Continental,” Lawrence said, “and I’m also not American.”

“So you basically don’t have allies,” Jacques said.

“In our country,” answered Lawrence, “we call that a state of distinction.”

“In ours we call it independence,” Betty countered.

“In my country we don’t really think those things,” said Marleen. “We keep to ourselves and try to respect others.”

“And expect others to keep to themselves too,” said Thomas.

“Naturally,” said Marleen. “Don’t you?”

“We’re not really in a position to decide about others,” said Janne. “We’re focused on respecting people’s rights.”

“In the most efficient way,” Thomas added and started laughing.

 

At some point a waitress came over to take our order. I asked for a beer and I remember that Thomas did the same. I don’t remember what everyone else had except for Janne—who ordered white wine. I also remember that the drinks arrived quickly.

Janne asked me what I’d presented at the conference and I told her about my speech. She laughed and said she’d heard someone at the hospitality table complaining about me. Apparently they said I’d ranted incoherently for twenty minutes and then insulted the only person who was trying to give me constructive criticism. I said that to me it felt like I’d tried to present some personal beliefs about the future of the humanities and had been attacked for my national affiliation. She laughed again and said it sounded like my interlocutor and I had attended two different presentations.

Most of us had finished our first round and Betty suggested we stay for dinner. I was hungry so I agreed—as did the others. We ordered our food and Betty said we should all do shots together. Without really waiting for any response she told the waitress to bring us seven shots of rye whiskey—which she said was what they drink where she came from. When the shots arrived she stood up.

“I want to make a toast,” she said. “I think it’s only fair that we all acknowledge, together, what makes us historical pragmaticists. And that thing, I believe, is our shared instinctual tendency to face history where it really happens—not on the level of extraordinary worldly events, which are all outer show, but in the internal realm of language, which is always soft, engulfing, and mysterious. It’s what brings us together and also what will change the way that history is taught and understood. Cheers!”

Betty raised her drink, downed the whiskey, and slammed the glass on the table as she settled back into her seat. The rest of us followed suit—raising our shots, crying Cheers, and drinking. The whiskey burned and I was glad we’d ordered food.

 

I asked Janne what she was presenting at the conference. She said she’d spoken earlier that day and that her research involved rape testimony, specifically the way that linguistic structure reflected trauma. Her main claim was that the way women spoke about rape—and not only the things they said—could tell us about their experience. She believed her research would be relevant to police investigating assaults and to psychologists working with domestically abused women. In her opinion too much attention was put on the details they told and not enough on the language they used to convey those details. Her hope was that this research would introduce language analysis into rape historiography across the world.

I was bowled over by the compassionate and thoughtful tone Janne used to speak about her research. I’d have expected someone working on a topic like this to be angry at the very existence of the crime.

I said this to her and she smiled faintly.

“I do get angry,” she said. “But I’m not a policewoman. I focus on ways that I can help—and I’ve found that after something like this happens women need to be understood. That means that the people listening need to be more familiar with how women talk about their experiences.”

“I’m very sorry I missed your talk,” I said.

 

We finished dinner and had several rounds of drinks. I looked at Janne—she had pale skin, straight dark hair pulled into a short ponytail, and piercings up and down her ears. There was a tiny black star tattooed onto the nape of her neck. Her brown eyes projected a combination of strength and caution. I was about to ask her whether she would be willing to email me her presentation when Thomas waved his hand to catch my attention.

“Betty says she has some wine up at her hotel room. She invited us to come up. What do you think?”

“It’s just around down the street,” she added from the corner.

I hadn’t planned on drinking into the night—but I was enjoying Janne’s company and didn’t really think I’d go back to the conference in the morning.

“Do you feel like joining?” I asked Janne.

“I’m staying across the hall from Betty,” she said.

 

Everyone paid their bill and we all went outside. At the door Lawrence and Jacques said they wanted to get some sleep before tomorrow’s long day at the conference.

“Sleep when you’re home,” Betty said with the ring of alcohol. “This is Paris!”

“I happen to live in Paris,” Jacques said.

Lawrence raised his eyebrows.

“And I happen to like sleep.”

They left and the five of us headed downhill: Thomas, Betty, and Marleen walking up ahead and discussing something loudly while Janne and I lagged behind. She asked me why I’d decided to change the topic of my talk that morning. I told her it had to do with questioning myself. I said I wished I could think in more practical terms, like she did, but that my mind worked differently and always made things abstract. She said she didn’t think one way of thinking canceled out the other and that they were both important. I thanked her for indulging me but insisted that there her project was probably more convincing to most people than my mad hatter speech.

“The mad hatter isn’t supposed to convince anyone,” she laughed. “He’s supposed to make people ask questions.”

“Which makes him annoying.”

The others had reached the hotel and Betty turned around.

“Come on you two!”

We caught up with them and entered the lobby.

“So which would you rather do?”

Betty was looking at us waiting for an answer.

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about so I glanced at Janne—who seemed to also be lost.

The five of us packed tight into a tiny elevator and started going up to the third floor.

“Do about what?” I asked.

“Did you miss the whole conversation?”

“It seems we did. “

“We’re asking a hypothetical question,” she said. “If you had to choose between begging on the street in the middle of the day and working as a prostitute at night—which would you choose?”

The elevator stopped and we all tumbled into the hallway toward Betty’s room. It was a small space with a bed and two chairs. I stepped inside and stood next to a window overlooking the street while Thomas walked over to the sink to uncork two bottles. Janne went to her room to bring a few extra courtesy cups. Once the bottles were open, Betty, Thomas, and Marleen spread out across the bed while I sat on a chair in front of the window. Janne came back and sat in the second chair next to a small writing table. We filled our cups with wine and toasted to the success of our conference.

“So!” said Betty. “Which would it be?”

I’d forgotten the question.

“Prostitution or begging?”

I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. I wasn’t sure it was worth answering. I looked over at Janne and hoped to find her as disinterested as I was. But she seemed lost in thought.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’d prefer to be a prostitute.”

I was taken aback by Janne’s answer.

“And you?” Betty asked.

It felt like a trick question.

“Can I have more than two choices?” I asked. “Can I be a street musician?”

Betty refilled everyone’s wine glasses.

“You have to choose one of the two,” she said.

She lay down on the bed next to Thomas and began caressing his leg with her hand.

“I’m not sure,” I said and turned to Janne. “Why would you choose prostitution?”

She shrugged.

“It’s less humiliating,” she said. “You’re not on the street in the middle of the day.”

Her answer didn’t seem to fit with everything she’d said about trauma.

“What about you?” I asked Thomas.

“Definitely prostitution,” he said with a smile.

There was sarcasm in his voice—he clearly wasn’t taking the question seriously. I also noticed he had his arms around Betty’s waist.

“And you?” Betty insisted again.

I wish I could have taken things lightly too—producing a wry comment and making everyone laugh. But something stopped me. The same thing that had made me change my topic that morning. It was a sense that people should stand up for what they believe matters.  

“I would never choose prostitution,” I said.

Betty produced a big grin and took gulp of wine.

“Why?”

I took a deep breath. I knew that I should probably not tell the truth. I could see from the faces around me that whatever I said would be misconstrued. And yet I just couldn’t stop myself from saying what I believed.

“It’s simple logic,” I said. “You’re pushed into either prostitution or begging because of some extreme difficulty. You need a way out but you want to avoid public humiliation. So you choose prostitution. You think that this way you won’t feel ashamed in front of others. But you haven’t really solved the problem of humiliation. Because you’re a person too and you can’t hide from yourself. The shame’s still there.”

Betty gulped the rest of her wine.

“And what if you have a baby that you need to feed?” she asked.

“Then you probably shouldn’t be putting yourself in compromising situations,” I said.

“Who do you think you are?” she said and slammed her cup down on the table.

“Excuse me?”

“You think you can dictate what’s shameful to other people?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “It was Janne who said she’d choose prostitution to avoid humiliation.”

“So you appropriated her answer and turned it on its head for your own moralistic purposes.”

“No,” I said. “I simply pointed out the oversight in that particular logic.”

“Because you obviously know what feels more humiliating to someone else.”

I looked at Janne hoping for support but she had a strange expression on her face. It took me a moment to realize it was disappointment.

“You agree with her?” I asked.

“Your attitude is a little patriarchal,” she said.

“She asked me a question. I gave her an answer. I was just trying to be logical.”

Janne looked over at Betty.

“I think he’s trying to put himself in someone else’s shoes and saying that prostitution would be humiliating for him.”

“What he’s trying to do,” said Betty, “is put his shoes on someone else.”

I looked at Marleen sitting silently on the corner of the bed. She was the only person who hadn’t said anything.

“Do you agree with them?” I asked.

“Actually I don’t know if I’d choose prostitution either,” she said. “But your logic isn’t very considerate from a feminine perspective.”

I looked at Thomas—whose legs were entwined in Betty’s.

“I wasn’t thinking about feminine and masculine,” I said. “I was thinking about human.”

“Your human,” Marleen said, “is male.”

Betty sat up on the bed and pointed her finger at my face.

“As a former sex worker,” she said, “I would like to assure you that your perspective is anything but human. I got myself through graduate school showing men how I masturbate online—and it also put food on the table for my daughter. So don’t talk to me about shame or logic. Talk to me about responsibility.”

Betty lay back down on the bed and Thomas caressed her shoulders and head. Marleen sat silently in her corner. Janne crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. Whatever affinity had grown between us over dinner was obviously extinguished.

I looked at my wristwatch. It was nearly two in the morning and I suddenly decided that I didn’t want to skip the last conference day. I’d come all the way here and managed to alienate just about every person I’d met—the least I could do was to go and listen to my colleagues talk about their work.

“I think I’ll go,” I said. “We have a long day tomorrow.”

Thomas looked surprised.

“Already?”

“There are some panels I wanted to hear.”

“What for?” Betty asked. “You’re learning more here than you ever will at the conference.”

I got up and started putting on my coat.

“We didn’t mean to gang up on you,” Janne protested. “It was just a conversation.”

I finished the wine in my cup and put it down on the table.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” I said. “But I think I’ve had enough.”

As I got up I saw Thomas raise his hand to get my attention.

“Wait for me,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

For a moment I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. He and Betty had their hands all over each other. They were already in her bed. I’d assumed he’d spend the night.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Wait for me downstairs,” he said.

Betty scowled. Not only had I offended her honor but I’d also ruined her seduction.

I lowered my eyes and walked out of the room without looking anyone in the eye.

 

I took the elevator downstairs and waited in the lobby. I was about to give up when I heard the elevator called upstairs. A few seconds later it came back down and when the doors opened Thomas stepped out.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t you want to stay?”

“I’d better go,” he said.

We walked out of the hotel and stood in front of the building.

“Aren’t you staying somewhere nearby?” he asked.

“On the other side of the hill,” I said.

“I’ll walk you.”

We headed up back toward the Panthéon in silence. The streets were deserted. The air was cold and dense. Paris held none of its famous charm. It was just a cold city at night. I looked over at Thomas and saw tears streaming down his cheeks.  

I didn’t know what to say so I put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted to reassure him that he wasn’t alone.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

I removed my hand and we walked in silence.

“What happened back there?” I asked.

“I was being passive,” he said, “to see how far it would go.”

“Did you want anything to happen?”

“I think I just wanted a little attention.”

A few minutes later we reached my building. I offered Thomas to sleep on the futon. It was nearly three o’clock and his hotel was near the conference venue at the edge of the city.

He shook his head.

“I like to walk alone at night.”

He’d stopped crying and I shook his hand goodbye. Neither of us had gloves and the handshake was cold.

Thomas continued down the street and I went into the building. As I began to climb the staircase it suddenly occurred to me that he was mourning someone he’d loved dearly. And I couldn’t explain the feeling but the higher I climbed the stairs the more I got the sense that whoever it was had killed herself.

 

In the morning, despite myself, I went to hear Rolf Gerhardt’s talk on the evolution of irrecordedness. When I got to the main auditorium I looked for Thomas. But he wasn’t there. I took a seat in the back where there were less people. Looking toward the front I saw Janne sitting with Betty and Marleen. Someone nearby smelled like old sweat and I considered changing seats. Instead I took shallower breaths.

After an enthusiastic introduction and round of applause Rolf got on stage and began his talk. He spoke with a serious and pleasant voice—measured but not too heavy. His ideas were simple and clear. There wasn’t anything risky about what he said. He gave an overview of what he’d proposed in his early articles and then surveyed how those ideas had been applied by others in their work. The whole thing lacked any controversy. With each word he preserved and extended his place in the scholarly community—making himself one of them without challenging anyone’s position. He managed to get up in front of a hundred people, say very little, and elicit a sense of common purpose that earned him another round of applause. It was brilliant.

When the talk was over I went out to the hospitality table. Janne was standing there pouring herself a cup of coffee. And so was Thomas, who noticed me walking over.

“You’re here!” he said.

“I looked for you,” I answered. “Were you inside?”

“I was up front,” he said, “just next to Janne.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“Join us for coffee?” Janne asked.

“I guess so.”

She and Thomas stepped over to one of the round bar tables while I went to pour myself a cup of coffee. When I rejoined them they were talking about the presentation.

“I was just telling Janne about our conversation at the reception,” Thomas said.

“Which part?”

“About your assessment of Rolf,” she said.

“Listening to him today,” Thomas continued, “I suddenly understood what you were talking about. His ideas don’t exactly come together. He has one or two insights into the way that history is told, and then he gets lost in generalities. When you criticized him in Norway I didn’t understand what bothered you so much. Even at the reception I thought you were being harsh. But after hearing him today I realized you were right. There’s something fraudulent about his brilliance.”

I sipped at my coffee and looked at Thomas, suddenly remembering the tears that had flowed down his cheeks the night before. He seemed cheerier now, less bothered, but in the corners of his eyes I could still sense the loss that had appeared on his face.

“I’m not sure I was right about anything,” I told him. “And if I was, I’m not sure what good it does.”

 


About the Author: David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons, including BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), which  The Los Angeles Times called “fantastic.” He has published translations in The New Yorker, Partial Answers, and Asymptote, and fiction in Ambit, Atticus Review, KGB LitMag, and Chicago Literati. He is author of Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (University of Delaware Press, 2017) and editor of In the Land of Happy Tears: Powers of the Yiddish Soul (Delcorate/Random House, 2018).

Artwork: Amnon Ben-Ami

Music Swells By Zephir O’Meara

Untitled


Music Swells

I tell my kids don’t worry
You’re not the ones
That gentrification is there
It’s happening
We’re not forcing anyone out of their homes

I want a big tent daddy, like the homeless ones have
I want one of those

We warm this house
You’ve never really been hungry
You’ll never really be hungry
Not if I can help it under this roof you eat
When they don’t finish their plate
When they casually demand breakfast
When we’ve been playing at the park well past dinner time

What part of the movie is this
Are we at the end
Has the redemptive bit happened already
Or is this part of a training montage
Where nothing we say really matters
As music swells to determine mood

Circle back around again it’s always food
For good or ill
Sitting around a table
Breaking bread is important
Systemic institutional ritual
Politics makes strange bedfellows should ever be discussed at the table

Is there anything more wondrous than smashing something
A bottle on cement
Priceless ming vase
A dropped pint
If you don’t know maybe you need to smash something
Maybe you need time to slow down
Think about what you’ve done
Think about what you’re going to do next
Because at this rate you might never catch up


About the Author: Zephir O’Meara’s writing has appeared in the Oakland Review, Be About It, sPARKLE & bLINK, Naked Bulb Anthology, and other secret places. He has three cats, two kids, and a dog.

Second Act by Chad Koch

Untitled (ohgodi'msosorry)


I’m unzipping my pants when it really sets in that I’m about to have sex with a furry. The man I’ve met on a furry dating site stands in front of me adjusting the Velcro on the crotch of his fur suit. He’s dressed in what looks like a Mickey Mouse costume except softer, like one of those giant stuffed animals won at a carnival. I studied biology in college, but I can’t recognize what animal he’s supposed to be. I think some sort of gazelle, but the fur is purple, so it could actually be a fantasy animal like a kirin or one of those unicorns that have psychic powers.

“I’m going to do your back first,” he says and has me lie on the massage table. He removes his paws or hooves and struggles to pour oil onto his human hands without getting any on his suit. His studio apartment is freezing and all I can think about is draping his animal body over me. The suit even has the smell of fur, a mixture of BO and steamed rice.

For my part, I’m dressed-up in a fluffy tail that represents a Siberian tiger, a t-shirt with a tiger face on the front, and my baby blue boxer-briefs, which have nothing to do with tigers. I’m just a beginner. If I knew when I started exploring the furry scene that I’d be here two hours later, I would’ve at least bought white mittens beforehand, like I’ve seen on the internet. All I had in the apartment was one tarnished gardening glove under the sink, and when I put it on I looked like a Disney Afternoon cartoon parody of Thriller era Michael Jackson.

“Remove your shirt,” he says, and then reassures me with, “I won’t bite.” I don’t have a response that involves an animal-based pun, but I’m trying. I slip out of my shirt, and the hair on my neck rises when the oil touches my back.

“How’s that feel, Toby?” he says in a Barry White deep voice, obviously not his voice, his fursona’s voice. Toby is my fursona name. Toby the tiger—I thought that was pretty clever. Fursona is like the inner spirit animal they talk about in yoga class, but is enhanced in that you are the spirit animal. He rubs the back of my shoulders, the oil heating with friction from the opposable thumbs he shouldn’t have.

“It feels puurrrrfffect.”

As he makes his way over my shoulder blades, I think about how I ended up in half a furry costume whispering animal noises to a complete stranger. The short answer is that I have begun my second act. You know, the second part of your life. The thing parents say to you when you’re thirty-two and still working at In-N-Out Burger—“don’t worry son, you still have your second act!” But my second act isn’t as interesting as having arrested development and playing Call of Duty in my parents’ basement.

My second act began when the partner of my life, the man I graduated college with, the man I got my first real apartment with—the one with the dishwasher and laundry—left me for another man. My second act began when the man who taught me how good a tongue feels between my toes, the man who stayed overnight on our first date telling me “I’ve been waiting for you all my life”—appeared at the bathroom doorway ten years later and said instead, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” My second act began when the love of my life left just one of his work shirts when he moved out, and I wear it, even though it’s two sizes too big and has a coffee stain on the cuff. It smells like him, not the cologne he wears, but the thin smell of his skin, of his life—faint, but enough. That’s the kind of second act I’m in.  

“A little harder,” I say to my playmate. “I want to feel some pain.” It sounds awkward as it echoes off the unpainted walls. It sounds like porn which eases my shoulders so that they rest on the table. For a moment I think I’ve chosen wisely by trying out this furry thing. That my desires to be with someone decked out in soft fur, something warmer than my lonely body, is the perfect remedy, the safe haven where only pleasure is allowed. For a moment, there’s total relaxation, and my jaw slackens, a bit of drool slips out, and a soft grunt escapes my lips. I’ve finally found something I can enjoy again.

At least until he starts punching my spine. I wonder if I’m being a bad playmate with this stranger. I wonder if being new to the scene is making me selfish and naïve and only concerned about my own orgasm. So I moan out his name. “Ooohhhh.” But I don’t even know his name, so I stop moaning. He moves to my side and lights four small candles on a table in front of me, like a birthday cake.

My ex never forgot my birthday. He planned it months in advance, and took the day off to clean the apartment and get me little gifts—a chocolate truffle, movie tickets, some sexy underwear—like the twelve days of Christmas. On my last birthday, I’d gotten an email from my ex. I was so surprised I couldn’t open it until lunch. It didn’t say happy birthday or, as I’d hoped, I miss you. Instead he asked me to repay the security deposit.

“You need to get out of your headspace,” my furmate says. The kneading of his fingers is intense now like the weight of a steaming iron as it smoothes out a twisted bed sheet. The kneading hits something, like a bruise, or a pimple, or cancer. I imagine him continuing to rub this spot. He’ll say “I feel tension here” or “this is the center of all your pain.” I’ll think back to when I returned to an empty apartment with a pile of keys on the table, a plastic cup flipped in the sink, a single stray button. I’ll say “yes” to my furmate and the pain will cause my eyes to well with tears, an obvious metaphor for the disintegration of, not just my relationship, but my life. Then he’ll press down hard on the tumor, I’ll beg him to press down harder, until there’s a sharp pop and we share a long sensual howl.  

But it doesn’t happen. He passes over it a second time and then moves on to my ass. He asks me to lower my underwear and slaps my rump. And then he pauses. I feel his breath on my ear and he says, “I’m going to do your thighs now. Lift up your tail for me. Let yourself go.”

And I really do try. I growl and grind my thighs against his polyester covered chest, hoping to create a static charge that flashes through us both and sets off wild orgasmic ecstasy. He thrusts back giving me everything he has to offer. But the shock never comes. My arms give out from under me and my voice breaks into a whimper.

 


About the Author: Chad Koch is a founding editor of Foglifter, a queer literary journal. He recently received his MFA from San Francisco State University, where he was editor-in-chief of Fourteen Hills. He’s the recipient of the Leo Litwak fiction award from Transfer Magazine. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Transfer Magazine, Sparkle & Blink, The North American Review, The Madison Review and Eleven Eleven Journal.

Post-Industrial Idyllic by Natasha Dennerstein

post industrial


Post-Industrial Idyllic

 

East 12th Street, Oakland, the decaying light industry
harmonizes with the warehouses, alongside the BART line,
the disused freight train tracks, the bridge to Alameda.

The signs are a song: American Emperor,
Overseas Asiatic Coalition, Union Meat Company,
Five Harvest Wholesale and Fidelity Packaging,

where cheating-ass boys in unsmogged cars
get side-eye from their side-bitches in the back-lane
or get BJs from CDs on the DL.

East 12th Street, where the pot-holes hum in B minor
and the gas-stations and auto body repair yards
sing a chord with the discount furniture warehouses.

You find your tune again, by the meccano drawbridge
under the overpass, over the railway crossing,
fantasizing better days to come.


About the Author: Natasha Dennerstein was born in Melbourne, Australia, to a family originating in Belarus. She worked as a psychiatric nurse for many years, which gave her an interesting perspective on the human condition. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University. Natasha has had poetry published in many journals including Landfall, Snorkel, Shenandoah, Bloom, Transfer, Red Light Lit, Spoon River Poetry Review and Foglifter. Her collections Anatomize (2015) and Triptych Caliform (2016) were published by Norfolk Press in San Francisco, who will also be publishing her novella-in-verse About a Girl this Fall. Her recent chapbook Seahorse (2017) was published by Nomadic Press in Oakland.