The Case of Blaise by Eric Miles Williamson


     Blaise called himself a full-time alchemist and part-time composer, but as far as I knew, he couldn’t figure an A from a G on a banjo, probably couldn’t play a goddamn throat warbler or a kazoo. No one ever heard him play a note, and no one ever saw a score he’d written, not until after he was taken out. He told us that he was a studio composer for the commercials we saw on television, but wouldn’t tell us which commercial jingles were the ones he composed, and so, even though he seemed to have some cash from those alleged commercials of his, and didn’t have to work like us, we suspicioned. He told us that the jingles paid the bills while he performed alchemical experiments and composed serious music, that one day he would only experiment and create art. One of those guys who thinks art can replace work. Asshole. We loved him. We loved him because he tried to do shit we couldn’t even think about doing, because we were too concerned about doing shit that actually mattered. Like eating, for fuck’s sake.
     Blaise is still alive, but he shouldn’t be. His alchemy consisted of searching for a formula that would solve a problem he’d never tell anyone about. When he met Cyndi, he didn’t know that she’d been running all over the neighborhood telling everyone that she was getting the hell out of Oakland, that she was going to get pregnant and marry a scientist, in that order. She wanted her ticket out, and every day all she heard in school was that science was where the bucks were, and so a scientist she sought, even though she couldn’t tell a scientist from a bartender. She had no idea that alchemy was an art long abandoned and dead, a relic of the Renaissance. So when Blaise moved to town—he wasn’t one of us, but instead a Southern Californian who grew up living on a hill—and he’d been to a community college in L.A. for two years, the only guy in the neighborhood, excepting Shapiro, who’d ever set foot in a real college and not just a union hall training course or cop school or refer/a-c camp. So why’s he in Oakland? Because his aunt died and left him the house. On 62nd Avenue, right in the heart of the ghetto, much to his surprise. He used to come up from L.A. summers when he was a kid and the hood was white, and that’s what he remembered, not the ornamental-iron cage with fried chicken bones on the lawn and junkies on the run from the cops hopping his fence every night like Olympic hurdlers.
     When Blaise moved to the neighborhood someone told Cyndi that he was an alchemist, and she asked what an alchemist was. A scientist, is what she was told, and then Cyndi went after Blaise balls out and titties turned upward. When Blaise met all the guys at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, he told us he was getting married and he bought us drinks, and then he stood there smiling and telling us about how this woman, his love, his angel, his mythological Celtic goddess, made him shoot his wad five times the first night he spent boning her. Pregnant, we all thought. She milked him, and now he’s had it, the poor son of a bitch. We all knew better than to go near Cyndi, and she’d at one time or another howled at most of our windows—those of us who had good union jobs—late at night and begged us for our dicks. She even called Ed the Jew and whispered to him, “Please, Eddie, please come fuck me. I’m so wet. Please fuck me, Eddie.” And Ed the Jew, the ugliest of all of us, well, he was married to a beautiful sad woman, long dark hair and eyes that were older than the world, and he treated her like shit, threatening her all the time that he’d throw her out on her ass, telling her that she was lucky, bitch, that anyone would have her. And she believed him, even though any of us would have taken her in a flat second. Ed the Jew went and screwed old howler Cyndi, not telling her—like he told us afterward—that his pecker shoots blanks, and so there was no way she was going to catch him in her baby making snatch.
     It wasn’t long before Cyndi decided that she didn’t like scientists after all, particularly scientists who are composers as well, and least of all those of the genus Blaise variety. Blaise was an Italian—Catholic, that is—and so of course he married her when, a few weeks after the five orgasm evening, she announced the arrival of the swelling zygote in her quim. Blaise owned the dead aunt’s house, making him initially double desirable—a landowner—and making him an honorary citizen and another among the whitey minority, and therefore hated and fair and obligatory game for the blacks and Mexicans. Blaise became a local celebrity at Dick’s, showing up at six in the morning when we were having our pre-work vodkas, except Blaise didn’t leave. He’d still be there at noon when we came for our mid-day picker-upper. The baby was almost due, and Cyndi was going out of her mind because she didn’t want to live in Oakland—as if any of us wanted to live in Oakland, for fuck’s sake. Why’d I marry a nerdy goofball scientist if I was just going to have to live in this shithole! But Blaise’s science, she had discovered, wasn’t the science you see on the TV, the Berkeley or Harvard dude in the white smock making a killing designing weapons that melt the eyeballs of billions of gooks and turn their bones into interstellar dust, then coming home to his swanky house with a dock and a rowboat in which he stored a ukulele that he’d play her love songs on while he paddled around at sunset. No, Blaise’s alchemy consisted of a little shed he’d built in the backyard, an ice-chest filled with cheap vodka that came in plastic bottles, a stack of paper, some pens, a port-a-potty so he didn’t have to ever come out, and a door that locked from the inside so no one could bother him, especially his new bride. What he was working on? None of us knew, and when we’d ask him, he’d just say, “Yes.” We’d push him, we’d buy him drinks, we’d try to get him drunker but he’d just smile, even when his head was hanging, and he’d say, “Yes.” He was kind of fucked up, come to think of it.
     The day after the baby was born, the blacks and Mexicans welcomed Blaise to the neighborhood, Oakland fashion, the Mexicans stopping their low-rider in front of Blaise and Cyndi’s house, parked, and a black dude was walking past on the sidewalk and they opened fire, zip guns and pistols, the black dude a mess of meat strewn all over the yard and guts and blood splattered on the house’s windows and porch. That wasn’t the bad part, though, not for Blaise. The bad part, he told us, was that Cyndi really hated him after the “multi-cultural exchange,” as he called it. Cyndi hated him because when the bullets started flying, when they came through the front of the house and peppered the walls, Blaise grabbed the baby out of Cyndi’s hands and dove, protecting himself and the baby, while Cyndi, in some kind of chick state of shock, just stood there, motionless. She just stood there and most of the bullets missed her, but one didn’t. It went through a butt-cheek and lodged right in her asshole. She screamed, “They shot my ass! They shot my ass!” and Blaise laughed. He couldn’t help it, he told us, it was just so fucking funny, at the time. Even at the hospital, when she came out of the anesthesia and asked Blaise if she was okay, if she’d live, Blaise laughed even then, and he said, “You had a bullet stuck in your asshole, but someday you’ll shit just fine again.” Cyndi never forgave him, didn’t forgive him for not helping her out of harm’s way, didn’t forgive him for laughing when she got shot in the ass, and sure as shit never forgave him for making that crack about being able to shit fine again someday. And the more pissed off she got at him, the less he gave a fuck. She’d be hobbling around complaining about her asshole, and he’d tell her that someday he’d have the money to buy her a bionic asshole, one that would be able to shoot a turd three hundred yards with the accuracy to pop a Mexican square between the eyes.
     Blaise went to work harder than ever at his alchemy, or his composing, or whatever the fuck he was up to, locking himself away in his shed for weeks at a time, never coming out except to sneak some food or dump his port-a-potty along the fence in the backyard, making a dash back into the shed before Cyndi could catch him. She was still too fat from the baby and hobbling too much from her injured asshole to start screwing around on Blaise—Ed the Jew told us he wouldn’t even fuck her anymore, not without her asshole, because Cyndi’s asshole, Ed the Jew assured us, was exactly fifty-one percent of what was interesting about Cyndi—and so what she’d do was stand in the backyard holding the baby in the air and yelling at Blaise, calling him every name she could think of, screeching, “This is your baby! Your baby, you motherfucker! Some fucking father you are!” And one time she even wedged a two-by-four under Blaise’s shack and tipped it over when he was inside.
     She left him. She left him and took his baby, took his baby away, took away his child. They do that, our women. She left him, took the baby, and told him he was a very bad father, pointing and wagging her finger at him like she was scolding a naughty child, which, of course, is the worst thing you can tell or do to one of us. Christ, we know we’re bad men, no one knows that better than us. Hell, we know we’re bad human beings, but what we hope, what we want, is to make some goddamn babies and raise them better than we’ve been raised. We want to make up for our shittiness by producing people, kids, that are better than us, that have it better, that get the toys we did not get, desserts after every fucking meal.
      When Cyndi left, Blaise lost it. He sold the house and moved into a stucco apartment building that used to be a shitty motel just two doors down. He sold all his stuff. I bought his silverware. Louie, the bartender at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, bought his velvet Elvis. “She told me I’m a bad father. She took my baby. She took my baby,” and that’s all we ever heard before he stopped coming to Dick’s. “She took my baby,” he’d say. “My flesh and blood, my progeny, my raison d’etre, my soul. My child is going to be raised by that harpy.” When he stopped making forays into public, we’d send recon teams to check up on him, and Blaise would just be sitting in the little apartment he’d rented watching CNN, mesmerized, bottle of vodka in one hand and a cigar in the other. There was no furniture in his apartment, not a scrap, just a TV on the floor and a boom-box that played the classical station even while the TV was blaring. No food in the fridge. Not even beer. No dishes. A bar of soap in the bathroom, but no towels, no washrags. What was weird, though, was the floor of his bathroom. It was lined with row after row of bleach bottles, and each time anyone pissed or shat in his toilet, he’d dump in a bottle of bleach. That was one clean fucking toilet.
      Everything that happened on the news was a sign from the gods for Blaise. A tornado would rip through some dipshit trailer park in Texas and Blaise would know, I mean he’d know, that the government was conducting secret weather-manipulating experiments that would eventually culminate in a cataclysmic weapon that would shear renegade neighborhoods from the map. Some carpet-pilot in the Middle East would mumble about Allah and then blow himself up in the market square in Jerusalem, and Blaise would have visions of angels warring in the heavens. A species of toad would go extinct in the rain forests of Brazil and Blaise would calculate the precise hour of mankind’s final breath. If a sandstorm in Egypt burned a whisker off the Sphinx, a curse had been unleashed and punishment was coming, the wrath of ancient demons rolling across the planet in a wave of sulphurous fire.
      Yeah, yeah. We’d seen this kind of shit before, so none of us was all too worried. It was a stage we all went through once in a while. That’s just the way things work. Louie, the bartender, was used to us having the occasional vision of doom. “It’s just the scaries,” Louie would say. “We all get them, the scaries. But eventually the scaries go away.” And he’d help whoever’d fallen off their stool, prop him back up at the bar, and pour him another cocktail. The scaries? No problem. That’s why God invented booze.
      We’d seen it all before, but we’d never seen a complete flipout, not Blaise-style. His ravings about gods and goddesses, his references to stuff we didn’t know shit about, his high-falutin cosmopolitical geoconspiratorial goop—well, we chalked it up to all that education he’d got himself at his fancy community college, all the crap he’d been served by his goofball hippie professors with more degrees than common sense. Hell, Blaise didn’t sound any more out there than the nutcases you could hear at any rally, in any bar, on any street corner in Berkeley, the Bay Area’s no-man’s hive of screwed up whacked-out pot-head acid-freaked zombies with degrees that were good for nothing but rolling their joints and wiping their educated assholes.
      Blaise had always talked like one of them, big words and ideas not that we couldn’t understand, but that we didn’t give a shit about. When he flipped out, when he started up his own personal Church of Incomprehensible Bullshit, when he started sounding like he’d been sucking on an exhaust pipe, we still checked up on him. But when he went over the edge, when he lost it utterly and went beyond what any of us had ever seen, we said fuckit. What’s the point? Not only was he was gone into Berkeley land, sailing away on some fumes none of us wanted to inhale, but instead of just floating away, he made a spectacle of himself, and even though we tried to bring him back down to earth, nothing we tried could tether him. He was gone.
      At first, there were merely Blaise sightings. Someone would spot him wandering the neighborhood, shaking his fist at the sky and ranting lines from Shakespeare or the Bible or some shit like that. Glenn said he spotted Blaise one time on the top of the bleachers at Castlemont High School, a piece of re-bar ten feet long in his hand and pointed like a lightning rod, and it was raining and Blaise was laughing so loud Glenn could feel the laughter rumble his feet as if a train were going past. When Tony Polizzi spotted Blaise, Blaise was face down in the gutter on 98th street, right in the heart of the darkest of Oakland dark. Not that this was a big deal, someone face down in the gutter. Hell, we’d all been there. But on that street? Where the nearest white man was miles away and where even in daylight the blacks would gut you at a stoplight if your work truck’s door was unlocked? What the fuck was Blaise doing there, anyway? Polizzi shoved Blaise into his truck and started back toward Dick’s, where people would take care of Blaise and Louie would pour him one of his fancy expensive vodkas, but when Polizzi got to the corner of 98th and East 14th Street, while the truck was moving, Blaise unlocked the door and tumbled himself out onto the street, rolling. Polizzi stopped his truck, but by then Blaise was off and running, howling and reciting some of that college shit of his, disappearing over barbed wire and into dark. After the Incident of 98th Street, we agreed to send Shylock Shapiro to Blaise’s empty apartment to check up on him, because Shapiro was the only one of us who’d been to college, some fancy Jew college in New York City, and because Blaise was obviously not right, and Shapiro wasn’t right either, and maybe they’d have some kind of college boy fucked up simpatico shit going on. Shapiro could hear music playing through Blaise’s door, some kind of classical shit, but it wasn’t quiet like classical music. Instead, it was loud, as if Blaise had hired an entire symphony orchestra and all two hundred musicians were right there in Blaise’s apartment. Who listens to classical shit like that? Only a madman. Shapiro knocked and knocked, beat on that door, and a black chick came out into the hallway and said, “You go, boy. Shut that crazy-ass honky motherfuck the motherfuck up. He crazy. And shit.” And Shapiro beat on that door, and finally Blaise answered and his eye was leaking blood, blood streaming down his cheek and neck and staining his shirt, not fast bleeding but a steady leak like a brake line or better yet like a transmission line, the red fluid oozing in visible pulses. Blaise held a bottle of vodka. He held it out to Shapiro, uncapped. “Have a drink, good sir?” he said. What had Blaise done? He’d jabbed his eye with an ice pick—Shapiro saw it on the floor, bloody—and when Shapiro took him to the hospital, dragged him there, actually, all Blaise did was rant about some dude named Glouster, about Oedipus, about how “mine eyes seeth not the evil of the world.”
     After the Incident of the Eyeball, we knew things had gotten out of hand, so we sent Owen Jorgensen after Blaise. Jorgensen was a retired Navy SEAL, and he was a serious person, Jorgensen. He worked for the Concrete Wall Sawing guys, demo—demolition. He loved blowing shit up, anything. Fourth of July he’d bring out all the stuff he’d swiped when he got discharged, his footlocker filled with sticks of dynamite and plastic explosives and detonators and all kinds of other goodies that made a statement, and he’d dance in the alley and we’d drink beers and duck for cover and laugh hysterical when he blasted a tricycle into the air or blew a crater into the asphalt. Buildings, though, buildings were his favorites, tearing them into rubble. There’d been half a dozen houses filled with Mexican gangs that’d been mysteriously blown to smithereens since Jorgensen retired and came home to the neighborhood. None of us minded one bit, because those scumbags were nothing but trouble anyway, pothead lowrider fucks. Jorgensen was the Concrete Wall Sawing explosives man, doing what he loved best, destroying. “It’s better to destroy than to create,” he’d say. “And the effects are more permanent and more sublime. Eternal.” Every time one of us had a problem, every time someone at Dick’s got fucked over by his boss, every time someone’s wife was fucking some Mexican or San Francisco lawyer faggot, Jorgensen would practically beg us to let him take care of the problem. “Address,” Jorgensen would say, and he’d put on his sunglasses and stare at us through them, expressionless. And we knew the psycho was absolutely serious, that if we would just give him that address, our problem would be solved, and solved utterly—utterly and without repercussions. And we loved him, and he loved us all, Jorgensen. He loved us, and he’d do anything for us, and he’d be able to take care of our problems without getting caught, because that’s what he’d done for a living. We needed someone tougher and smarter than us to get Blaise straightened out, and Jorgensen was the man for the Blaise problem. He’d been asking us to send him all along, telling us that he could take care of this shit, but we’d not wanted to send him, for obvious reasons. Now, though, now it was time for Jorgensen, and so we let him loose on Blaise.
     When we asked Jorgensen to take care of Blaise’s problem, of course the first thing Jorgensen thought was that we were putting a hit on Blaise’s ex, Cyndi. “About damned time,” Jorgensen said. He took his sunglasses from the pocket of his pea-coat and put them on. Jorgensen said, “Address.” Then he smiled. No, we said, it’s not his ex, it’s Blaise. Jorgensen stopped smiling. “Look,” he said, “Blaise isn’t my best buddy in the world, but he’s a buddy. I drink vodka with him right here in this bar. I have no problem with bitch ex’s, or with their new lover-boys, but I draw a line. No one I drink with is a potential target.” We were relieved to hear this, and I bought a round for everyone, and we drank together, us and Jorgensen.
     We took turns telling Jorgensen what we knew of the Blaise situation. I said, “Blaise bleaches the toilet after every piss and every turd, a gallon of bleach for every pint of piss.” Shapiro told of the Incident of the Eyeball, Polizzi recounted the 98th Street Occurrence. Glenn explained the Castlemont High Bleachers Improper Laughter Event.
      Jorgensen shook his head. “Every time?” Jorgensen said.
      “Every time.”
      Jorgensen said, “Something must be done.”
      Jorgensen told us that he’d do it right. He told us that first he’d cover the necessary intelligence, find out everything he could about the target. He led us outside to his F-150 and opened his tool boxes. They were filled with all kinds of stuff, boxes of ammo, pistols, disassembled automatic weapons, Tommy-gun shotgun cartridges to make streetsweepers with, plastic explosives and detonators we’d seen him fart around with every Fourth of July, sticks of dynamite. He pulled a cammie combat vest from the top of the pile and put it on. He checked it—pistols strapped to the inside, knives in a dozen pockets, metal Chinese stars that looked like they could mow down a telephone pole, grenades.
      He told us about the stuff. “Knee pads,” he said. “For CQB, Close Quarters Battle. A Super Lite bullet proof vest, Classified, you tell, you die.” He looked at us. We nodded. We understood. “First-aid kit for self-surgery, claymores, frag-grenades, Blackhawk assault vest, 40mm grenade launcher. A Surefire flash light with visible laser sight mechanism—hey, put the red dot on what you want to kill, maim, or destroy. Pop goes the weasel!”
      “But Jorgensen,” I said. “We just want you to take care of him.”
      Jorgensen jerked his head toward me. He stared. His eyes twitched. “You,” he said. He looked at all of us. “You, my friends, are sending me on a mission. Do you understand.”
      I said, “We understand, but.”
      “But nothing,” Jorgensen said. “You are sending me on a mission. On a mission a man must be prepared. If you shits understood this basic principle of survival, if Blaise understood this most elementary aspect of the nature of the way things work, he wouldn’t need me. And neither would you.”
      We looked at the ground.
      “Any more dumb-ass comments?” Jorgensen said. “No? Good. Now,” he said, and he continued. “Multiban-inter/intra team radio specific for spec-ops coms known as the an/prc-148, alternatively as the ‘lash’ which is the unit mounted around the neck and larynx throat-operated mike, the MSHR encrypted coms unit. I can whisper and my team will hear me like the voice of God. Flotation flak jacket configured as a raid vest with D-rings mag-pouches and accessory pouches strategically located. An LBV, Load Bearing Vest, will carry from 125 to 200 pounds of equipment. I carry one whole hell lot of shit.”
      And on and on he went.
      He tossed a grenade at Shapiro, the wimpiest of all of us. “Don’t drop that flash-banger,” Jorgensen said. He looked at Shapiro serious behind those sunglasses of his. He lifted a box and opened it and it was filled with electronic equipment. “Wiretaps,” he said, “to discern the nature of his communications and the possible effects of hostile incoming, namely, The Ex.” He lifted another box and opened it. “Night vision,” he said, patting the goggles with love. “An AN/PVS-7 and the new AN/PVS-21 see-through NVG, strobe light. If the target leaves under cover of darkness, tracking him will be as easy as trailing a semi.” From the same box he pulled a mini radar looking thing. “Ears,” he said. “His mutterings will be known.” He looked at Shapiro. “I’m counting on you to translate that college boy bullshit. I’ll provide tapes, you transcribe them, and then they must be destroyed. Audio recordings, unlike video impressions, are illegal unless proper consent is secured. That’s the law.”
      It wasn’t quite what we wanted of Jorgensen. All we really wanted was for Jorgensen to gather up some of Blaise’s remains and stop Blaise from destroying himself, scare the living shit out of him enough to make him stop acting stupid over a cunt and her deviously conceived progeny, because though we’d all been down, and were sure to go down again, we’d not seen anyone down as far as Blaise without rubbing himself out, shooting himself or gutting himself or drinking himself to death or just plain losing the will to live and letting his heart stop beating. Fucking alto, amigo. No mas, adios. We just wanted Jorgensen to slap some fucking sense into Blaise. Sure, Blaise was kind of weird, fucked up in ways we didn’t really understand, way out there because of all his college and books and big goddamn words. But Blaise was one of us, and anytime one of us went down, in a way we all did, we all dropped yet another rung down into the shitpile of life, and although none of us ever entertained any hopes of climbing any higher out of the shitpile, none of us for damn fuck’s sake wanted to go any fucking lower. We were all way to close to the bottom, and we knew it. Lose Blaise, and the next thing you know you can’t even afford Olympia beer. Lose Blaise, like we’d already lost Mike, Earl, P.J., George, Andrew, Joey Corollo, Clyde Lee, Bill Ware, Antonio—shit, lose Blaise, and it would take a lot of beers to get over it. Blaise wasn’t even bad off. He still had some money coming in from his jingles, Blaise. He’d been to college. He was nowhere near the bottom. He scrubbed toilets not because he had to, but because he wanted to, for fuck’s sake.
      We didn’t see or hear from either Blaise or Jorgensen for about two weeks, but one day, Jorgensen walked into Dick’s with a bunch of rolls of paper tucked beneath his arms. He was wearing his sunglasses and his combat vest. He looked bigger than he usually did. Really big. His chest looked like a 55 gallon oil drum, full. He was a big son of a bitch, for some reason. “Non-regulars,” he said. “Out,” he said. “Now.” Jorgensen looked at the new guy. The new guy left. I finished his scotch. Hell, it was some of that expensive shit Louie keeps only for show. No sense in wasting that stuff.
      Jorgensen said, “Clear the bar.” What, we said. “Clear. A clean bar is necessary.” And we took our beers and drinks and cleared the way. He set the scrolls on the bar and began unrolling them, grabbing cocktail glasses to hold the paper down. We sidled up to the bar to see what was the what. Blueprints, is what. Schematics. Detailed studies of all Blaise’s comings and goings, of every movement he’d made in the past two weeks. Arrows, dotted lines, stick figures, special symbols, skulls and crossbones, Spy-v-Spy little black bombs sparkling and ready to explode, color-coded indexed dated timed and stamped, notary-public. He’d coded a legend at the bottom of each scroll as if each were an atlas. “The life of Blaise,” Jorgensen said.
      We drank.
      “Blaise is a consistent person,” Jorgensen said. “Every day he does the same things at the same times in the same ways. As far as targets go, he gives any professional a hard dick. O-four hundred hours, Blaise leans out of bed, left hand on the floor followed by left foot and then right hand and foot, resulting in a four-point position resembling either a baby or a soldier, depending on one’s perspective and personal opinion. Soldier, in my opinion.” He gave us that look of his. He said, “Soldier.”
      There was a reverence in Jorgensen’s voice I’d not before heard. It was as if he were way too commiserate with psycho Blaise. Jorgensen understood something about Blaise that we didn’t, and I could tell the rest of the guys felt as funny about it as I did. Somehow I felt really small, like some fucking dwarf that didn’t understand the world of great men.
      “Purification,” Jorgensen said. “He crawls to the toilet, vomits, then pours a gallon of Clorox bleach into the toilet and scrubs with his hands, wiping the random splatters with bleach soaked toilet tissue, Charmin. After clearing of the stomach, emptying of the intestines and bladder, followed by Clorox and toilet tissue spot check. Sweat, the color and texture of cooled bacon grease, oozes slowly from temples, brow, neck, armpits, and groin.”
      “Jorgensen,” I said.
       “O-four thirteen, to the kitchen, clad in boxer shorts, plain white and uncannily sanitary. Open freezer. Withdraw Absolut vodka bottle, 1.75 liter, four gulps, Adam’s apple clicking once per gulp. Cap rescrewed, bottle reinstalled.”
      “Jorgensen,” I said. “We don’t need all the details.”
      He gave me another one of those looks of his.
      I think I might have sighed or something like that, an outsuck of breath or a shoulder-slump of desperation or resignation. “Jorgensen.”
      He, though, he, Jorgensen, he gave me a look like no one’s ever given me before or since, a look not of disappointment or sadness, no, a look of some kind of shock or disappointment or incomprehension. It was as if I’d said something or done something utterly unutterable, something so wrong that no human being, and certainly no one at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge would ever say, something so bad that somehow Jorgensen’s faith, his belief in humanity, had been shaken, had been rended and ripped and torn and shredded and stomped upon. It was as if I’d told Owen Jorgensen that his work didn’t matter, and there’s nothing worse you can tell a man who’s having a beer at Dick’s.
      “You know,” Jorgensen said. “You know, details.” He told Louie to bring him a glass of bottled water.
      “Not a beer?” Louie said.
      “A soldier,” he said, “a man,” he said, “does not compromise his clarity,” Jorgensen said.
      “Water,” Jorgensen said.
      “Water,” Shapiro said.
      Jorgensen cut Shapiro a look.
      “What?” Shapiro said. “What? What? What.”
      Jorgensen bowed his head as if in prayer, then slowly raised it. He looked creepy, like someone truly serious. His head looked fucking huge. He took off his cap. He’d shaved it. His skull looked like someone had pounded it with a ball-peen hammer. You could see dents and craters. Fucked up, that head of his.
      “You boys have called on me,” Jorgensen said. “And do you know why? Why is this. Why is because I know the difference between that which is clear and that which is not, and these two things can be predetermined by he who nourishes clarity. Know the other,” Jorgensen said. “Know yourself, and victory will not be at risk. Know the ground, know the conditions of nature. The victory will be utter. If we know the face of the enemy. If you intend to win the war, it is proper to continue fighting. If loss is imminent, it is prudent to quit. If you do not know—well gentlemen, if you don’t know, you’re fucked.”
     Jorgensen took a sip of water. “I never fight,” Jorgensen said, “if I don’t know. In order to know, one must gather, one must ingest, one must become details.”
     He looked around the room. “Details,” he said. “Details, gentlemen. If you’d paid heed to details, you wouldn’t be here with the likes of me. Fuckup motherfuckers.”
      Someone bought Jorgensen a drink.
      Jorgensen pushed the drink aside and took another sip of his water. “To continue,” he said. “The target then returns to his bedroom, attires himself in unfashionable straight-legged jeans, Puritan label—Wal-Mart—and denim button-up shirt. Florsheim wing-tips, black. Returns to refrigerator, four more generous gulps of Absolut vodka. He then makes phone calls. It is these phone calls that pose the most interesting question concerning the target and his behavior.”
      Jorgensen reached into his ruck-sack and pulled out a small plastic box. Inside were a dozen cassette tapes, each labeled. He handed the tapes to Shapiro. “A transcript, accompanied by a translation of his psycho-babble. By seventeen hundred hours. Return the tapes to me so that I can destroy them with acid.”
      Jorgensen looked at us hard. “The case of Blaise is perhaps more serious and sinister than any of us had suspected. This is not merely a matter of Clorox.”
      “He’s that fucked up?”
      “You guys remember the Chavez girls?”
      We remembered. They were two of the sexiest girls in Oakland, and no one we knew had ever gotten to screw them. They were legendary. When one of them came into the Mohawk station, everybody fought for the chance to fill their tank, to, as we’d say, give them the hose. Their cars always left with the air pressure exactly on target, the oil, water, transmission oil, brake fluid, and windshield wipers checked. We’d be readjusting our dicks for an hour after one of them came in. About six months before the case of Blaise someone had killed both of them, raped them, chopped their heads off, and, according to Eddie Martino the cop, each of them had their hands and tongues cut off. It was pretty nasty. Cutting off heads is one thing, but cutting off tongues and hands, that’s another. That shit don’t make the papers.
      “Blaise may be the killer,” Jorgensen said.
      We laughed and tipped one. Blaise? Right. Blaise might have been a nut case, but he was one pussy-ass Southern California wimp. There was no way Blaise cut a girl’s tongue out. No way.
      “His phone calls,” Jorgensen said, “are to the coroner, the police, the morgue, the cemetery, the Chavez parents, and the girls’ friends. In that order, every day. He wants all the details, and he’s writing them down, copiously and with method. The tapes will tell.”
      Jorgensen directed us to his scrolls, and he told us the rest, indicating Blaise’s movements with his finger moving along carefully drawn and color-coded lines on the schematic. Every day Blaise would leave his apartment and walk to Cyndi’s house across town, a seven mile trek, and he’d just sit on the curb across the street staring, sometimes crying when he caught a glimpse of the kid. Then he’d pull a little notebook out of his pocket and retrace the steps of the Chavez girls’ last day alive, starting at their parents’ house, going to their boyfriends’ houses, on to Castlemont High, from class to class and Blaise would walk the halls—he’d convinced the guards that he was on the school board—and then to the Mac’s Lounge where they’d had lunch together, back to school, to the football field where they’d had cheerleader practice.
     Jorgensen paused. He knitted his brow and said, “Here the target deviates from the Chavez girls’ last day. He drives to Medeiros Liquors and purchases a liter of Absolut, opens the bottle, takes four gulps, caps the bottle and places it in the trunk of his car. He then resumes the day of the girls—to their boyfriends’ houses, each in turn, as the target could not be in two places at once.” At nightfall, Blaise would sit in front of the house until the time when they’d gone on their dates, Lucy and her boy to Skyline Boulevard to make out with a view of Oakland and San Francisco spreading out like a miracle and looking beautiful instead of ugly, Maria and her boy to the San Leandro Marina, the Oakland dumps to one side, San Mateo across the water of the bay, Tony Lema landfill golf course behind them, the smell of methane rising like a fog as they fucked in the car. And Blaise went to each place, squatted and with his chin cupped in his hands, staring, crying. The Chavez girls met up a midnight in Berkeley to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and after the show they went to the bathroom and that was the last time anybody saw them, except the guy who killed them. So every night Blaise would go to the theater, and the nights The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t playing, he’d watch whatever was, then go into the ladies’ restroom at the exact time the Chavez girls would have.
     We shook our heads. We drank.
     “The ladies’ restroom excursions are not the fucked up part, nor are they the most incriminating,” Jorgensen said. “What’s fucked up is this. After the target emerges from the ladies’ room, he gets into his car and drives to Mountain View Cemetery, locates the graves of the Chavez girls—section one hundred sixty-six, row forty-five, lot thirteen, Lucy, and fourteen, Maria—and he lies down, alternately, for one hour sixteen to one hour twenty-two minutes, on their graves. After which he returns home and drinks most of the bottle of Absolut purchased during the day, leaving enough to drink in the morning, the ritual of which I have conveyed.”
     “Fuck,” someone said.
     “Yes,” Jorgensen said. “Fuck.”
     “The fuck,” someone said.
     “The fuck,” Jorgensen agreed.
     “What the fuck,” someone said.
     “I’m not the only professional on this case,” Jorgensen said. “The FBI and the local authorities are both very interested. Very interested indeed. Do you know how difficult it is to tap a wire that is already tapped? Do you know? Do you? No,” Jorgensen said. “No you don’t.”
     “Fuck,” someone said.
     “The target has an alibi. The night of the Chavez double murder, he was in the hospital with his wife, who had a bullet lodged in her anus. However, the anus alibi may be a cover for the crime. At least that is the suspicion of the law enforcement agencies interested in the case. They suspect.”
     Jorgensen pointed to his maps, took a pencil from one of his vest pockets, and drew an X over Blaise’s apartment. “The target must be silenced,” Jorgensen said. “He may be silenced through removal, relocation, or means more sure.” Jorgensen said, “In any event, the target must be silenced. Promptly, and permanently. For the sake of the neighborhood. For the sake of Blaise the Suffering Soldier.”
     He slammed his water back like it was a shot of Beam. “This briefing has concluded,” he said.
     He snapped his sunglasses to his face, rolled up his scrolls, and marched on out of Dick’s. He had to turn sideways to walk out the door, so big were his shoulders, and so much equipment he bore beneath his vest.
     We didn’t see Jorgensen for two more weeks, and so we figured that nothing had changed, or would. At Dick’s things stayed the same. I kept playing Cumbias and Rancheras and Merengue with Los Asesinos at the Mexican nightclubs and weddings and quinceaneras and parties while working days as a laborer, my most recent gig running the tar mop on commercial roofs, warehouses mostly, nasty rusted oversized corrugated tin sheds, sweating my ass off in the crude oil steam, actually getting to like the smell.
     The day Jorgensen resurfaced was not a good day. Louie, the bartender, had discovered that not only had some chick he’d banged twenty years before given him a child, but that she’d popped out a set of triplets. Three boys, now men, and they all hated him, because all the mother had done for twenty years, twenty pissed off Italian Catholic years, is train them, train them to hate the motherfucker who fucked her and left her pregnant in the Bronx, where Louie was from, left her knocked up in a roach infested walk-up, and then blew out of town to California, where all the pretty people lived. Louie the deadbeat, Louie the louse, Louie the no-child-support no-Christmas-present no-christening-card no-graduation-present no-college-fund no-count piece of human shit. The triplets had come in at lunchtime, and Louie didn’t know at first who they were, and then the awful fact began to dawn on him, the fact that there were three, that he’d knocked up a Maria and she’d had not one child but triplets. They’d come into Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge and bought a bottle of whiskey, bought the whole bottle, and told Louie they wanted three shotglasses. Louie looked at them, the three of them, huge Bronx men dressed in black tee shirts, muscles bulging, black Ben Davis work pants and even the baggy Ben’s weren’t enough to hide the huge thighs—these sons of bitches looked like they’d been working out their entire lives just for this meeting—and speaking in the old neighborhood accent and sounding exactly like him, looking exactly like him, four Louies at the bar all looking at each other, three Louies looking at Louie like they were going to kill him, talking about their deadbeat motherfucker father and how they were going to take care of his sorry ass, and just how they were going to do it, in great detail. They nailed that bottle, and they left Louie a c-note for a tip. The last tip Louie thought he was ever going to get, and he was sure that’s what the triplets had intended him to think. Louie was not in good shape. His hands shook when he poured our beers. And then, to ice it, Jorgensen walked in, and Jorgensen was excited, something we all thought impossible for Jorgensen, the levelest head of us all. His face was painted green and black. He was wearing his sunglasses. Sweat dripped down his face and smeared his warpaint. He had a big manila folder in his hand. He looked very serious.
     “Hey Louie,” Carlo Mendez said. “Hey, the scaries always go away.”
     Dave Campos said, “A triple-shot for Louie!”
     Jorgensen looked at Campos and Mendez with contempt. He said, “Non-regulars, out.”
     No one moved.
     “Now,” Jorgensen said. And he meant it truly. Something was up. Something was very wrong.
     The non-regulars were women. One of them ugly, the other a two o’clock special, suitable after a long night.
     “Don’t send out the beautiful ladies,” Shapiro said.
     Jorgensen said, “I will tell your tales first.” He said, “Would you like that, Shylock?”
     Shapiro turned to the women. “You have to leave,” he said.
     He tried to get the non-ugly’s phone number while he was helping her on with her sweater, but she’d have none of it. “Assholes,” she said as she stood. The porker was cool about the expulsion. She acted like it happened all the time.
     Jorgensen said, “The mission is complete.”
     He killed Blaise, what I thought. He tried to reason with the crazed alchemist composer, a struggle ensued because Blaise doesn’t have the common sense of a turnip, and Blaise lashed out, and Jorgensen, trained to react and to kill before being killed, Jorgensen whipped out some knife or pistol or grenade and stuffed it down crazy Blaise’s throat and that was that, end of Blaise. And now Jorgensen was human. Jorgensen needed help because he’d murdered someone without the sanction of the U.S. of A. Jorgensen never understood that you don’t get medals for killing people unless you’re killing people you don’t know and who’ve never done a fucking thing to you. Half of us had either killed someone, had someone killed, or had someone in the family do one or the other.
     “Blaise is gone,” Jorgensen said. “He will no longer be a concern.”
     He took off his sunglasses, and he looked at us, and the look was one of shame.
     “I have failed,” he said.
     If I hadn’t have known better, known it was sweat trickling from his forehead, I’d have sworn I saw a tear.
     He set the manila folder down on the bar and sat on a stool. The Raiders were not winning, Louie was all messed up, Shapiro’s wife had given him “one year’s notice,” told him that if he didn’t shape up and start making more money like a man, if he didn’t give her a real home, she was going to dump him. “And then she went shopping,” Shapiro said, “bought a bunch of expensive organic vegetables and fruits. Do you know how much that stuff costs?” It was shaping up to be a pretty rotten day.
     “Jack Daniels,” Jorgensen said, and we all knew that something was seriously wrong. No one ever ordered stuff like that except non-regulars. Why buy that stuff when Beam gets you just as drunk and costs half as much? Sure, you get a hangover, but you get a hangover from anything. Hell, if you haven’t had much to eat, you can even get a hangover from beer if you drink a few twelvers.
     Louie lined him up. Jorgensen tossed it back. “Another,” he said. Louie poured. Jorgensen drank. “Bottle,” Jorgensen said. Louie slid the bottle in front of him. Jorgensen drank.
     We just watched him, sat quiet and sipping. We knew eventually, when he’d had enough, he’d cue us in to the score.
     Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing, usually. It doesn’t happen often, because Jorgensen doesn’t like the mop-up work afterwards, retracing his steps and fixing the shit he’s fucked up, making all those phone calls. That can be some real work. Sure, when there’s women and when he’s happy, he’s a good drunk, like anyone is when he’s got a woman wants to go home with him. But when he’s going to go home alone, and when he’s not happy to start with, and when he gets drunk, and especially when someone messes with him, then, then Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing. He’s pretty quick with those knives of his, Jorgensen. He could be just sitting there at his stool, calm as ditch water, and if he’s had enough to drink, and if someone crosses one of his lines—and still no one is quite sure of what those lines are—they shift around all the time—once Polizzi ended up with a broken finger for putting cream in his coffee—if someone crosses the line the next thing you know Jorgensen has one of us on the ground, three or four knives in his hands, one of them at our throat.
     “I was posted in the park, approximately two hundred yards from the residence of the target,” Jorgensen said. “In a redwood tree.”
     And he told us what happened. “Feds,” Jorgensen said. “Stupid fuck started making house calls at the homes of kidnapped girls. Kidnapping, federal. Not good.”
     Jorgensen said he was perched in the redwood, binoculars trained on Blaise, when he saw the vans and unmarkeds silently coast to stops to either side of Blaise’s, engines turned off, vehicles in neutral, stealth mode. Two SWAT teams in full combat gear and two carloads of CO’s emptied onto the street and fanned out, surrounding Blaise’s apartment building. The exterior units used ropes to scale the walls, the interior units poised at the rear and front entrances. Then they stormed, crashing through Blaise’s door and windows. They trained their weapons on Blaise, smashed his face down on his manuscript, manacled his wrists and ankles, and carried him down the stairs, depositing him in the back seat of one of the unmarked cars. Blaise was limp, as if he hadn’t a muscle in his body, and he didn’t say a word. Jorgensen said he even thought he saw Blaise smile.
     Jorgensen looked at me. “T-Bird, I give you the remains of Blaise.” And he handed me the manila folder. It was Blaise’s symphony, scored, eighty pages, stopped mid-phrase in the ninth movement. “Is it any good, or is it as insane as Blaise is?”
     Everybody knew I played trumpet in the Mexican bands around the Bay Area, and they thought I was pretty damn good, too. But I knew I was just a first-rate second-rate player, good enough to sound badass at a wedding or in a bar, but far from being good enough to play with the pros. There are some things about creating art that cannot be learned, that either you got or you don’t. And I knew I didn’t. And on the construction sites, I worked harder and with more seriousness, because I knew that I wasn’t a trumpet player because of gift, but because of inclination. My gift was that I could labor for sixteen hours straight, keep up with the best of the Mexicans, and not pass out. My gift was that I was born to build pyramids.
     So the score? I couldn’t read that motherfucker. I could read treble clef, and only in the key of B-flat, the key of the trumpet, which meant that I could read music written for tenor sax and for trumpet, and that’s it, no mas. All that other shit, the key of E-flat, the key of what the fuck ever, bass clef, pentatonic this and mixolydian that, it was all a foreign tongue to me. I couldn’t even play chopsticks on a piano without fucking it up, and plenty of times I’d tried. Some guys, they can look at a score and actually hear the music, hear all the instruments playing, hear what the piece would sound like in a concert hall. They can look at the notes on the page scattered all over the place like some spattering of ink drops, they can see the mess and their brains instantaneously translate the gibberish secret code into a hundred and twenty musicians moaning a note, moving through a phrase, swelling to a crescendo, banging the muse. Not me.
     So here’s this score in front of me, and all the guys are there, Campos, Polizzi, Shapiro, Jorgensen, Louie. To make things even more fucked up, Pop, my father Pop, walked in. And Pop was a real musician. He’d played in the Oakland Symphony. He could play “Carnival of Venice,” and he knew his way around the ivories. He wasn’t a bar bum, Pop. He walked in and his arms were slick with grease and motor oil and his knuckles were bleeding from banging around under the hood of some fucked up Plymouth or Rambler. Pop walked in and saw the bunch of us sitting there in confused gloom and he said, “What the fuck?”
     “Blaise,” I said.
     “That bitch,” he said. “What now?”
     “He’s in jail,” I said.
     Pop looked at Jorgensen. “Well?” Pop said. “I thought you were his friend.”
     Jorgensen, steroid pumped Navy SEAL wide as a lube bay solid as a girder Jorgensen, he broke down. He choked, and then he sobbed, and his eyes glazed and got water. We looked away, but Pop didn’t. Pop stared at him. He gave him that look that none of us ever want to get, that look that says, You’re a piece of shit, asshole, and you know what? You, amigo, are not a man to be counted on. You are someone I will not call when the hour is late and the situation is critical. Fucked. You, fuckup, are on the B list.
     “Well?” Pop said.
     “You want me to kill myself now?” Jorgensen said. “I’ll fucking do it,” he said. “I will.” And he flipped out some big knife from somewhere in his vest and held it at his gut. “I don’t care. Just give me the nod.”
     “Hold off, Hoss,” Pop said.
     “Pop,” I said. “Jorg tried his best. The feds got Blaise. He’s gone. Adios motherfucker gone, bye-bye,” I said. I said, “But he left this.” And I handed Pop Blaise’s score.
     We all looked at Pop, watched him flip through the pages, watched the expression on his face. He first looked at the pages with scrutiny, brows knit. He pulled a Roi-Tan from his coveralls and lit it and puffed on hard. Then he raised his eyebrows, and he looked at us over his plastic Clark Kent black-rimmed glasses, looked at us like he’d heard something we’d said but wasn’t sure exactly what it was, like he was checking on us, looked at us as if we’d done something questionable and a bit on the shady side.
     He took his time. We drank some cocktails. It was getting on in the day. Louie’s triplets walked in.
     “Out,” Jorgensen said.
    “They stay,” Louie said.
     Jorgensen gave Louie the look.
    “They’re my sons,” Louie said.
     They looked mean as shit. Two of them were packing. They ordered cocktails, and Ed the Jew paid. Then he bought a round for the house, un Ed-like. Since cheap-ass Ed the Jew bought a round, so did Shapiro, not to be out-Jewed by The Jew. And since the Jews were buying, shit, all the Catholic WOPs and the Portugees and Danish Jorg and Heinz-57 me, we all bought rounds, and hell, we each had a dozen drinks lined up and Louie’s boys kind of liked that and so did we.
     We were getting pretty jolly. The triplets joshed at Louie.
     “Fucked our mama and left,” they said. “Made some triplets. Triple shot. Think you have one big-ass dick, don’t you?”
     “You little wops haven’t seen a dick till you’ve seen mine, boys,” Louie said. “You think you got dicks like your daddy? Triplets. Each one a third of Big Papa.”
     Louie slammed one back—he was drinking his girlie Crown Royals—and then he said, “So let’s see them, boys. Let’s see.”
     And Louie asked them if their dicks were as big as his, his big dick triplet-making Italian baby-maker. “You think you’re the only kids I have out there? I’ve probably made fifty or sixty of them.”
     The triplets stood up, all three of them and all at once and they dropped their pants and even though they all looked exactly the same in every way we could tell, drawers down they didn’t, and everybody started chanting, “Louie, Louie, Louie,” and Campos chanted a little too enthusiastically and when he saw us look at him he toned that shit down is what he did. We don’t need none of that shit at Dick’s, not even when we’re drunk. We chanted “Louie Louie Louie” until finally he stood on the bar and dropped his drawers and flopped it out, and holy shit. No question about Louie, no way. It was so big we probably all wanted to see him bone a woman we knew. He said, “That puppy’s how you make triplets, boys,” and we cheered and the triplets looked sheepy at first and then they looked really proud. They wanted to buy us drinks, and we let them.
     Pop said, “Trumpet.”
     “What,” I said.
    “You got your horn?”
    “In my car,” I said.
    “Get it.”
    “My drink,” I said. “After.”
    “Get it,” Pop said, and he meant now.
     When I walked outside my eyes blinded white. It was near sunset and the fog had coozed in and the white air was electric. Birds flipped and flitted through the mist like dark ashes. You could hear the trains. You could hear their whistles and their wheels grinding on the iron rails, the crunch and slide of metal on metal. Somewhere a pile-driver slammed rhythmic and sure against concrete, breaking a foundation. Something burned. You couldn’t make out the writing on the billboards on the other side of the street, but you could see the beer bottles and the bikinis and big fake splendid shiny tits. You could see happy white-toothed paper faces. Warning buoys sounded low and plaintive, and they sounded more like they’d lure sailors than avert them, cause sure as shit I’d go toward them instead of away from them, so beautiful and home did they sound. Come home, T-Bird, they called. Come home. On the Nimitz Freeway the semis slicked across the asphalt and circulated the air, and birds and crickets and frogs—frogs in Oakland?—even frogs belched a song in the drape of fog. Oakland is at its best, at its most beautiful, when you can only see twenty feet of it. Oakland is the most beautiful place on the planet, because I’m the one in it, and I, folks, I am a tuning fork over the asshole of beauty. Every note the city makes is tested by me, tuned by me, translated by me. It’s why I’m alive, and it’s why Oakland is alive. And I see it, the beauty, everywhere, in the dandelions on the lawn being poisoned by the suburban lawn fanatic, in the rust on the wall of the warehouse graffitied by the home boys, in the dead duck hanging by the neck in the Chinese grocery, in the fat roll of the retard Martinez boy who sacks my groceries at Pete’s Market in the hood, in the drool that hangs perpetually from the dwarf Tony Costello’s chin because his brain is so fucked up that he can’t even breathe without his sister alongside him saying in, out, in Tony, out Tony, in Tony, out.
     The fog curled and settled like some grandmother’s heartfelt Christian blessing. My navy surplus stationwagon was dewed and looked like it’d just had a new Maaco job and had been waxed, and I breathed. I breathed deep and true and splendid and full.
     I’m not being corny, and I’m not being ironic. Our beauty, our beauty in my neighborhood is in this: the world, asshole, is only what you can see of it. When you can see only very little, you see it better, you see it more true. We’re cloaked in a shroud of fog in Oakland we are, smothered. And we can’t see the next street corner. And so we examine what we can see, and we know it. We know the cracks on our sidewalks. We know who lives in what apartment, and we know the other senses—we know what it smells like when we pass the Borges house, when we walk past the GE plant. And even if the shit we see is shit other people would think is ugly, it’s just because outsiders are used to the shit they think is beautiful and don’t realize the ugliness of their own spreads, the ugliness of their maids, their gardeners, their plumbers, us. But since we are us, we can see beautiful shit they cannot see. We can see the beauty in a well-made fence, a properly poured driveway, a pregnant and fat and sad Mexican thirteen year old angel, a well demolished building. We, we who live in the ugly, we know beauty that doesn’t get into the art history books. We know what beauty is, and that’s what we got that the fancy fucks don’t. And when I stood outside Dick’s, fetching the family trumpet, which I’d been debasing, honoring, by playing in Mexican nightclubs and at bars when heretofore it had been played in symphony halls around the world by Grandpop Murphy and by Pop, been played before royalty and fancy ass rich fucks, when I stood outside it came to me that my place, my home, my Oakland, my Dick’s filled with drunken maniacal loyal and good men, my place on this planet was a good place, a good place that even though rough and harsh and miserable and awful was nonetheless a place more divine that any god the slaves could have imagined. My Oakland was mine, and it was Louie’s, and Jorgensen’s, and Shapiro’s, and the Oakland of ever other Oaklander that mattered, and we worked and we worked and in Oakland we would die and we would die beautifully and fulfilled, having done everything we were to do.
     When I walked back inside, I couldn’t see a thing except the bar lights, neon. The guys were quiet, working on their drinks.
     “Give me the horn,” Pop said.
     He oiled up the valves and he looked at me as if I’d just handed him a turd. “You ever polish this thing?” he said. “You ever grease the fucking slides? You ever empty the fucking spit-valves? You ever fucking play it?”
     I looked at the ground his barstool rested on. “Day job,” I said.
     “Day job what?”
     “Day job keeps me busy.”
     Pop shook his head slow and with a combination of sadness, loathing, and repulsion. Nobody worth a shit ever let his day job get in the way of what he was really all about. Day job. If you can’t do what you want after work, then the awful truth is you don’t want anything. Drink a goddamn beer, fuck your depressed fat wife, and sleep the good hours away, slob.
     Louie poured me another Scotch, and Pop flipped through Blaise’s folder once more, studying certain pages, whipping through others. Pop drank water. Jorgensen sat staring at himself in the mirror behind the bar, looking at himself through the bottles and post-it notes. The triplets were pretty hammered now, and they giggled like girls. The phone rang and no one picked it up. A wife, probably. They do that, even though they know where the hell we are. Shapiro and Ed the Jew were talking about money. No shit. That’s all they ever talked about, as if they’d invented it. Otherwise, they hated each other, called each other kikes and Shylocks and fuckwads. But when they were both at Dick’s, they talked cash, even though neither of them really had any. Otherwise, they’d be drinking somewhere else and not hanging out with us. Some non-regulars walked in. Jorgensen didn’t notice. They walked back out.
     “Percussion is important,” Pop said. “In this piece.”
     I nodded.
    “Who else here reads?”
     I said I didn’t know.
    “Any of you morons read music,” Pop said.
     One of the triplets did. So did Ed the Jew and Shapiro. Jorgensen said he was a mean drummer, played in the military band before he wised up to the action and became a SEAL. Weapons make their own sweet tune, he said.
     Pop said, “Make yourselves useful.”
     “I can play the trumpet line,” I said.
     Pop sneered at me. “The trumpet line?” he said. “How about the other lines? How about when the melody is violin or steel drum or oboe? How about when all the trumpet does is punctuate? How about then?”
     Tires squealed and someone screamed loud enough outside to make everyone look at the door.
     “Jazz,” Pop said.
     “Sorry,” I said. And I was.
     Pop gathered us around, and he made us rehearse, telling us what lines to read. The triplet used a spoon and a half-full water glass. Ed the Jew and Shapiro, they volunteered to play the call-drink bottles with their porcelain fountain pens, lining up the bottles in ascending order of volume like beautiful and expensive booze marimbas or xylophones. Pop told Jorgensen to use coffee cans and tomato cans and a barstool, beat upon by a spoon, but Jorg said no fucking way, he was all about the body, and would only use his hands and fingers and fists against his body, and Pop said sure without missing a beat.
     “How about me?” I said.
     “You turn pages.”
      I said, “Give me a break.”
     Pop said, “No one else here can read music. Someone who knows how to read music has to turn the pages.” He said, “And I’m playing horn.”
     Louie poured the musicians another round. We drank it. Pop said it was time. And we played.
     It was the most strange and beautiful and horrible depressing thing any of us had ever heard. We smiled, even though we thought we didn’t want to. Sometimes sad shit does that to you. I’ll never figure out why the fuck why.
     It started out with just the Jews clinking away on their marimba/xylophone booze bottles, fast and frantic, some kind of jungle melody, running up and down the bottles, the notes jumping across each other, not chromatic but instead in thirds and fourths and sixths and octaves, low-high high-low, clinking and the notes banging against the mirrors and against the linoleum floor, an echo but not a deep one, an instantaneous echo that collided against the notes and created a shrill harmony like the way sometimes the sound of a jackhammer meshes with the sound of the traffic, the traffic like clean grease, grease that’s never been working against a ball-bearing, working like that pure grease and oiling every rattle of the hammer, grating but natural, fluid, the way things should be. Then, while the Jews were playing, and they were truly playing, those Jews, playing as if they were telling us the parts of Exodus that we never hear about in the Bible, telling us about the angst and joy of Biblical Hebrew party-your-ass-off drinking and fucking and praying to a God that had the power to wipe out the Gentiles with a breath and would, while the Jews were summoning up their ancient Jew-god of vengeance and justice, the triplet WOP Italian Catholic joined in, and he wanted to show that even though his dick wasn’t as big as Papa’s, his soul was bigger, and because Louie had abandoned him and fucked him over and made him a bastard forever, he might not have had as big a dick but he had bigger balls, a bigger soul, a soul that would sing for eternity and that would redeem. That little shit played a water-glass like he was knocking on the doors of heaven, and he was going to be let in, he was.
     When Jorgensen’s part came in—and it would have been the tympani—Jorg peeled off his vest and his shirt and his pants and he stood there in his military issue tightie-whities. None of us had ever seen him in anything but a long sleeved shirt, protective cover since he worked as not only an assassin but a steel-worker, welding, showered by sparks and flame, Vulcan at his forge. First of all, he was one big sonofabitch, but we’d all seen big motherfuckers before. I’d worked with a construction worker just out of Quentin, a black dude named Fish, who was three hundred fifty pounds of iron, veins bulging through his skin like cables. Hell, Rich Kuam, who didn’t come around much around anymore because he’d finally met a hooker he liked and married her and now he was in some kind of domestic lockup, Kuam was big enough to carry a hooker on each shoulder, and we’d seen him walk into Dick’s plenty of times like that. Kuam would save his money up instead of going out on dates, and twice a year he’d drive up to the Mustang Ranch just outside of Reno and he’d get two hotties, bring them back to Oakland for the whole week, and they’d play house. He never shared. Was never broke. He always had something to look forward to. He was always happy. Kuam, he had the right fucking idea.
     So when Jorg took off his shirt we were impressed but not shocked. What startled was that he was covered, I mean covered, with tattoos. No skin showed that wasn’t inked. And you could tell that there were tattoos under his shorts, too. All the way up to his neck, down to his wrists, his entire feet, excepting toenails.
     There was nothing trendy about Jorgensen’s tattoos. They were all battle scenes, kills. None of that skull and crossbones dragon big-tittied women Celtic weave scorpion cartoon character Harley Davidson horseshit. Jorgensen’s tattoos were of himself, Jorg in the jungle breaking a drug lord’s guard’s neck barehanded, Jorg in a high-rise scoping a suit-wearing diplomat in the high-rise across the street, Jorg on his belly in the sand taking out a sheik with some kind of telescope machine gun rifle, Jorg in D.C., the capitol in the distance, slitting the throat of a businessman right there on the mall, a crowd strolling past oblivious, Jorg in scuba gear attaching a mine to a yacht, the water clear and the fish sparkling with color. Hundreds of tattoos Jorg had. We were glad he was our friend.
     His tympani part came, and Jorg was not only the best killer we’d ever known, but as he stood there in his underwear, his hands became a blur, open-palmed at first, high notes slap-clapping cupped-hand against his inner thighs, he showed us that in that military band he must have been one hell of a drummer. Then his hands flashed faster and higher, he tightening the cup of his hand and moving down his leg along his calves, pop-pop, pip, booming like grenades and gattling gunfire.
     This was all preamble, prelude, the background noise of some Los Angeles Oakland Sacramento San Diego Compton San Francisco Los Banos static of Blaise’s mind. The frenzy and rhythm of Blaise’s deliberate suck-ass life—and all of our lives suck because we want them to—the nicotine and narcotic haze of vodka and bliss, of hopes unfulfilled and a baby ripped from his womb and umbilical chord trailing along the asphalt a bloody line purpled with vein and white with curd as he watched the bitch-driven car slide away and gone and gone forever-fucking-ever and more and more permanent and ongoing, perpetual, done: the frenzy of Blaise’s life he’d claim unwanted but desired sure, the mess that was his life scratched onto the symphonic page, and us playing it, just the preamble, the backdrop so far.
     And I turned those pages, what I did. I turned them and with each turned page I felt my heart speed. My heart sped and raced and the reason it went fast like that was because I liked the music. Yeah, right. The reason it sped is because I was jealous. I was jealous and envious and I wanted to kill Blaise but I didn’t need to worry about that because if the feds didn’t kill Blaise they’d medicate him out of the voting pool, the fucks. It sucked, in a way, to be turning the pages for Blaise, for Pop, for Jorg and the Jews and the triplet. They were playing something, and I was spectating, somehow onlooking the place from where I’d sprung, somehow watching my Oakland instead of being part of it. I’d always felt this way, as if I somehow did not belong here, as if somehow even though Oakland was the only thing I knew, nonetheless I was not of Oakland. And this fucked me up sure. Fucked me up in ways that I don’t think I can even explain here, here where I’m telling everything I think because I truly don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, you fuck. I never felt part of Oakland because at the same time as I felt like I was way too smart to be bred of this shithole, and I knew I lived in a shithole, at the same time I could never live up to what was good about my Oakland, the Oakland of Pop and Grandpop Murphy, the Oakland of Shapiro and the retard Martinez, the Oakland that no matter what was my home. Here they were all playing, and I was turning pages. That was what I was doing, and even though the other guys might not have been noticing it, not with their brains numbed as mine was, I was noticing it, like I noticed everything else. Didn’t anyone else see what I saw? No, they didn’t. They didn’t because they were living in this life and not some life that doesn’t exist. Like mine. I was the guy who turned the pages everyone else in Oakland played. I turned the pages and they played.
     And then Pop played. The line didn’t sound like the line of a trumpet, and I looked at the score and saw it wasn’t. He was playing the flute’s riff, whistling plaintive through the percussive jackhammer airgun glim and scint. Pop played and more air came through the horn than note, a high note above the clink, a stream of precious metal, a wiggle cutting through sound like something sharp and narrow and tinsel through a vibrating wall of iron, of steel, of glass and girder and rail and air-compressored ripp-raff gunite wall, shimmering. His airy note cut through the near ecstatic whip of the triplets the Jews our Jorg and the clinking drinks and his note fluffed and sounding like a chapped lip bled. It bled into the air, spirit.
     The fucker. He knew, and I didn’t. He knew without having to think about it, without having to write about it.
     He played, and I listened, not only to Pop but to all of them, even to the New York boy, and listening a wash of contentment came over me like the cum of a woman, gush. It was not my job to participate in this. It was not my job to be this. It was my job—and this job had been conferred on me by powers distant and serious—it was my job to understand this, and to make you understand it. Do you get it?
     Get this: we were at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, Oakland, California, warehouses surrounding our bar, docks in the distance, cranes groaning back and forth across tracks and dropping ISO’s from ships to trains that would take them to trucks and to your fucking grocery store. We were at Dick’s and our friend Blaise, our friend, had been lost, and he’d left us something. He’d lost his baby, his wife, his perspective, his will, but unlike you, he’d left us something behind, something of substance, not just some photo album or his great-grandmother’s fucking China. No, Blaise had not left us a trust fund or a painting by a famous son of a bitch worth bucks. What Blaise had left us something was all there was of him, what obsessed him, the reason he was willing, maybe eager, to lose that kid and that wife. What kind of man is this? This is the kind of man I want to call late at night, when I know no one else will answer the phone. This is the kind of man I want to get hammered with. This is the kind of man I want to be.
     And get this: for us, this might have been the most beautiful moment in the history of the world. This moment kicked ass. None of us would ever forget it. I for goddamn sure fuck haven’t.
     Pop, bearded greased coveralled Pop, his note was not just what there was of that symphony of Blaise’s, of ours. No. There was more, and there was more beauty and more disdain. Blaise had it nailed, hammered to the subfloor. He somehow knew us better that we did. He knew, rich jingle-ad shit, he knew something about us that all of us suspected, that all of us might have been able to say in a drunk moment. He knew it, and we’d never said it. Not to ourselves or to anyone else. But Blaise was saying it, and he was saying it without words, without all the bullshit innuendo of language. He was saying it through music, something we all of us knew nothing about but that we all understood, that all the miserable company that was humanity knew inherently, with instinct and surety and certitude, rattling around in our gonads. We felt pretty damned good. Like we were part of something we didn’t deserve and that we absolutely did. And Pop, he played well.
     They didn’t make it through the symphony. Jorgensen started getting a little crazy, beating on his back and the soles of his feet, and he scrambled some phrases and couldn’t focus on the sheet music and find his place again. He’d been doing some weird shit anyway, not really reading the music but instead playing his own version of Blaise’s symphony. And Pop’s lip was giving out because it had been a long time since he’d played a horn. I couldn’t even remember the last time.
     I closed the score. Louie poured a round of shots. Blaise’s Absolut. We lifted a drink in toast, but none of us clinked glasses. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t look at each other. We drank.

About the author: Eric Miles Williamson is author of 3 novels, 2 books of criticism, and a short story collection. He grew up on 62nd Avenue in Oakland. He was named by France’s Transfuge magazine one of the 12 Great Authors of the World, and he has won dozens of awards both in America and abroad.

Artwork: B Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Epitaph by Ishmael Reed


skulls and horns
skulls and horns

About the author: Ishmael Reed is author of twenty-nine books, including his tenth non-fiction work, Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown(2012); his tenth novel, Juice! (2011); six collected plays in Ishmael Reed, THE PLAYS (2009); and New and Collected Poems, 1964-2007 (2007). In addition he has edited numerous magazines and thirteen anthologies, of which the most recent is POWWOW, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience-Short Fiction from Then to Now(2009),and he is a publisher, songwriter, public media commentator, and lecturer. Founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland, non-profit organizations run by writers for writers, he now teaches at California College of the Arts and taught at the University of California, Berkeley for over thirty years, retiring in 2005. He is a MacArthur Fellow, and among his other honors are National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nominations, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, and San Francisco LitQuake’s 2011 Barbary Coast Award. Awarded the 2008 Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, his collaborations with jazz musicians for the past forty years were also recognized by SFJazz Center with his appointment, since 2012, as San Francisco’s first Jazz Poet Laureate. In December, 2013 Ishmael Reed premiered his seventh play, The Final Version, at the Nuyorican Poets Café.His online international literary magazine, Konch, can be found at His author website is located at

Artwork: John Smiddy was born San Jose, CA in 1966. He received his BA from UCSC in 1989 and his MA from SFSU in 1998. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

Flagstaff by Tony R. Rodriguez


I pull into Flagstaff where I-17 merges into South Milton Road, just near Northern Arizona University. I think of my studies at San Francisco State University. I think of my various courses analyzing American Literature. My eyes then spy across the campus of Northern Arizona, and I see a name on one of the university’s buildings. It says “Philosophy” in large black font. For some odd reason I think of the concept in modern philosophy known as “Speculative Realism.” I was introduced to this philosophy at SFSU.
     My mind shifts.
    Feeling a bit hungry, I stop off at a Chipotle Mexican Grill near the corner of South Milton Road and South Plaza Way. I enter the restaurant and move to the side of the line before I order. I call Pearle again. No answer on her cellphone or home phone. I leave another message on her home machine.
   Grilled chicken burrito with white rice and black beans, roasted chili-corn salsa, sour cream and cheese, with a three-finger pinch of additional cilantro.
     I take my time eating.
     I ponder my entire trip thus far.
     I think about Theo and my job situation.
    What should I do now?
    I exit Chipotle and sit in Shadowfax, dazing off for a while. It’s now a little before 8:00. The rays of sun are now only spare shards of gold, a remnant of solar rays offering their last direct collection of radiant pulses. The exodus of light will soon engulf all in a beautifully poetic way, the moon providing the only brilliant light to be digested by the human eye. I take out my laptop and begin editing the twenty-three pages of prose I’ve conducted thus far in my road trip memoir. My edits are focusing on shortening my non-poetic sentences of passable length, chipping away at failed adjectives and adverbs and the laughable syntax I vomited on the screen in certain sections.
    My iPhone goes off. Theo’s calling. It’s close to 8:45. The sun is long gone. I pick up the phone and stare at the screen. I don’t think I love him. Then I put my smartphone down and stare at its screen. Theo doesn’t leave a message. I try Pearle again, leaving another message on her home phone, and then my first message on her cellphone messaging system.
     Screw it.
    I drive around aimlessly, all throughout Flagstaff: down Route 66; to South Woodlands Village Boulevard; down South Plaza Way; then up on South Yale Street; east down South Mertz Walk; then into bizarre patterns of road I’ll choose to pass on sharing. I wander stupidly.
     I find myself back on South Milton Road, somewhere near a gas station. I pull into the gas station parking lot off to the side, just near the water and air pumps. A drunken Native American approaches Shadowfax with slow, draggy steps. He’s about twelve feet away. He begins blathering incoherent nothings. I immediately wonder if I am foolishly mistaking his drivel for perhaps his native tongue. After about ten seconds of trying to comprehend his rambling poppycock, he drags his bitter legs a few feet closer. I become uneasy. This man is smashed. He then groans his inebriated nothings toward me as I choose to roll-up all of the windows. I turn away and pretend I’m working on my laptop. He then hauls himself to Shadowfax and starts tapping softly on my driver-side window, babbling out more of his dribbled words never to be recognized by coherent English speakers.
    He shows me his hands which appear to house deep lacerations still struggling to heal. They’re infected and perhaps induced by hard manual labor.
    He begins banging hard on my window, still spilling out his incomprehensible woes.
     I start Shadowfax and slowly drive away, seeing him in the rearview mirror.
    What the hell?
    It’s about 9:30 when I reach an America’s Best Inn just at 910 South Milton. I pull in the parking lot. I need a place to stay just in case Pearle flakes on me. I park Shadowfax and enter the office. I instantly become friendly with the motel manager, a young man named Malik Sharma. He tells me many things. We get to talking about politics and religion. I know nothing, so I choose to remain quiet as he lectures about our nation’s current state of affairs—national debt, foreign enemies, the Second Amendment, and on and on.
     I notice framed pictures on his wall of quasi-famous people who’ve stayed at his inn. I offer Malik a headshot and some business cards—and he promises he’ll display them immediately on his counter, then later frame the headshot and put it on his wall. He asks me to sign the headshot.
     I do.
    He then shoots me a few names of hip dives in the area.
    I’m not staying in.
    I go to one named Bun Huggers Lounge nearby on South Milton Road. One of the locals, a beautiful dirty blonde college girl, a student at the university, tells me they have great burgers. I order a beer, pass on a burger, and soon meet a guy named Henry, a decent looking fellow in what seems to be his mid-thirties, regal face. We start talking. I’m taking small sips of my beer while Henry throws back his rounds like a sexually-repressed groomsman during a Las Vegas bachelor party peep show. He’s not flirting with me. He’s just talking to me. I think he just needs someone to confide in. Something might be going wrong in his life. He stops ordering drinks for himself. We then share moments of stale silence. He then dissolves the silence and asks if I’d like to have a cigarette outside the bar to help him sober up. I don’t smoke. But I go anyway. Gentlemanly, he escorts me outside of the bar, just in front of the main entrance. He puts a cigarette to his lips and then puts his right arm around me. I push him away and tell him I have a boyfriend. He starts laughing with his unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He calls me a dirty little dyke. He tells me that I’m a liar. He says my boyfriend is stupid for letting me out alone. I get nervous. Someone may hear this confrontation. I storm directly toward Shadowfax, get in and lock the doors and drive out of the parking lot.
    I make my way back to the inn, trying to avoid being seen through the front office window by Malik. But he sees me anyway. We make eye contact. I notice he has already set up my headshot and my business cards on his counter. He quickly pokes his head out of the front office door and shouts at me.
    “Did you enjoy yourself?”
     I give him a comedic salute and wave goodbye.
    Where’s Pearle?
    I grab my duffle bag and laptop from Shadowfax and enter my room, heading straight for the bathroom where I turn on the lights and drop to the floor, my knees before the toilet—the toilet seat is down. I cry and cry. I check my iPhone and see that I have no missed calls. I open Facebook—and then close it immediately. Leaving the bathroom, I toss my body onto the queen-sized bed and cry some more, punching my fists at the pillows, wiping my tears on the comforter. I become restless. I think of many things.
    I speculate my reality.
   I flip on the television and fumble through the channels until I reach HBO, which just so happens to be showing the 1999 hit literary film Wonder Boys. Nearing the end of the film my eyes become sleepy, and I’m about to gently float away to the netherworld of dreams where I’m free to imagine that I’m a Wonder Boy type of writer, one who may get discovered by a much larger audience.
    And so I’m dreaming—again.

About the author: An East Bay native, Tony R. Rodriguez works the dance floor pretty hard. His novel Under These Stars, excerpted here, is published by Beatdom Books. 

Artwork: Destiny Silva is an artist, she lives in The East Bay. She enjoys stencil art, music, night photography & poetry.

Higher Planes of Light by Masin Persina

oil woods
Marin Oil

        Higher Planes of Light

My frantic mind entered an acre
Of sheep munching peace, and then
It stepped back, then back again
As their gazes turned upon me.
I was back with my wants, my wants
As needs that fill the space between
Thoughts, so I kept thinking,
But it petered out eventually.
To be in the day’s tiny bell ringing.
To be of that ringing is what I wanted.
The light-shattered pine trees stood
Oblivious to the K-Pop streaming
From a convertible made of mania.
The sun’s neutrinos passed through
The pines, the car, myself and we were
Equal in not feeling their passing,
But the sound, the sound.
I wanted to listen to some alpine birds,
Not air treated with antidepressants,
But the battle of decency is waged
On higher planes of light.

About the author: Masin Persina’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Barrelhouse; Forklift, Ohio; Handsome; Ninth Letter; 6×6 and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, CA

Artwork: Michael J. Caligaris

San Diego, California 1975 by Candace Eros Diaz

Night Light

     Thanks so much for the ride, she said throwing her bags on the floor of the orange pickup truck.
     No problem, Mateo said accelerating onto the 805 Freeway, where you headed?
     Trying to get to San Francisco. How far you going?
     Going to Fresno. Gonna visit my mother up there, he lied.
     At the mention of his mother any concern the woman had about this mustached man who had pulled to the side of the road after only twenty minutes of thumbing dissolved.
     Cool. Well, if I could hitch with you til then that’d be great.
     No problem, he said and with this took his first real glance at the woman out the side of his thick-framed eyeglasses. She was skinny, scrawny even, stringy blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail, no makeup. White trash, Mateo thought as he took in the details of her dirty white sneakers and pale skin.
     Since we’ll be together for the next six hours I guess I should catch your name, the woman said noticing the man hadn’t offered it up.
     Richard, Mateo said. He considered for a moment that the woman might not believe this lie. He thought if she hesitated, looked at him too closely, if he could read doubt on her face he would pull over and let her out. He would simply leave her on the side of the road and keep driving. He believed in signs. His half Yaqui grandmother warned her children and grandchildren to heed the sometimes-subtle signs the spirits put in their paths as a warning or a guidepost to go left or right, to jump ahead or turn back.
     Well, hi Richard. I’m Diane. Nice to meet you. She pushed out her open palm for a handshake.
     Mateo understood her gesture as a sign in his favor. He noticed the boney bulge at her wrist before taking her hand and giving it a firm shake. He felt the weakness in her hand and arm, thought how easy it would be to grip the narrow bone and snap it back. His mind lingered on the unnatural angle her broken wrist might make in his palm as he said, nice to meet you, Diane.
     At about twenty miles in Diane took off her shoes and rolled down her window, closed her eyes and said, I sure am lucky to have found you so quickly. I thought I might be out there all day.
     Mateo kept both hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. He didn’t hear Diane call herself lucky because he was trying to decide which exit off the freeway to take. He understood getting off would most likely cause Diane to question the detour so he had to choose carefully. He had just passed an off ramp that was a sharp loop to the right—too risky because their weight would shift in the cab, bringing attention to a new direction. Another exit was a tourist trap with lanes of drive-through restaurants and packed gas stations. This exit would likely elicit the least amount of resistance but gave no privacy whatsoever and would not do. His gripped tightened on the dirty gray Naugahyde steering wheel and Diane sighed into sleep.

     A loud crack and thud awoke them both from their dreams.
     Oh shit, Mateo yelled letting the truck weave out of his lane and regaining control.
     What the hell was that, Diane said.
     A bird. I think we hit a big ass bird.
     A single crack in the windshield ran vertical along Diane’s side, a smear of bird blood and unknown bird wetness remained on the glass.
     Diane laughed brushing off the initial shock and fear of the noise, turned around to see flopping white bird feathers in the middle of the lane behind them.
     It’s not fuckin’ funny, Mateo said shaken by the surprise of the oncoming and now dead bird, but more so by the weight of this surely bad sign. He’d never seen a pelican or a seagull or any other type of huge white bird flying along this freeway and he’d driven this freeway most of his adult life. Yes, it was bad luck and its metallic taste coated his mouth. His eyes watered and he tightened his abdomen to stop from gagging on the nickel-flavored omen. He should turn around now. He should pull over and let the white trash out on the side of the freeway. He should reach over, fling open the door and kick the skinny woman out with the heel of his steel-toed boot.
     For the first time that day Mateo thought of his wife, Beatriz, at home round and swollen with their second child. They had fought that morning about money, about not having enough of it to buy Beatriz a new washing machine she said she’d need when the new baby came. Veteran’s benefits aren’t enough, Beatriz had said. Mateo said nothing. Why didn’t he bother finding another job to bring in more, she dug further. Mateo sat at the dining room table and said nothing. Her coarse black hair was a halo of curls, wild from a restless night of sleep, a baby’s knee or elbow lodged somewhere near her ribcage all night. Enduring this pain throughout the night made her brave enough the following morning to say to her husband, I should have never married you. With this, Beatriz finally struck at something solid and ungiving. Mateo rose from his seat at the table and without a word grabbed a hold of both her wrists, boney and weak just like the piece of cheap white meat sitting next to him now. He’d flung Beatriz, seven-month belly and all, on their second hand sofa, hard.
     Oh come on, Richard. A little bird guts never hurt nobody, Diane said stifling her laugh, looking back again on the receding dead white bird. She reached over and touched his knee in an attempt to ease the tension building up in the small cab of the truck.
     It was just an accident, she said recoiling her hand, her mood flattened from the moment before. The man Diane knew as Richard had pupil-less, tar black eyes that locked with hers for an instant. The pale blue color of her eyes were no match against the strength of his black stare. It was empty, nothing in front or behind it, one days later, Diane would describe as soulless, not tethered to the man’s body. She would recognize this moment as a revelation of the stranger’s character, a disclosure she ignored.
     It was true. When the woman placed her pale hand on Mateo’s knee a piece of him succumbed to her touch so that he dared to look, really look, into her eyes. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t prepared for her small hand on his Levi’s, so was caught off guard. Her laugh at the impact of bird flesh to windshield, of cracked glass that would need costly repair made him angry. But the fear that he had not listened to a warning placed so prominently in his field of view that it nearly made him drive off the road and wreck his truck was larger than his anger for the woman. He nearly decided to ditch the girl when she reached over and touched his knee—confirmation that he did not repulse her. Her thin fingers distracted him from his more rational thoughts of abandoning his crude plan to take her into the desert. Instead her quick touch incited him, made her a compliant participant in her fate.
     And so he looked her in the eyes and knew he revealed something he was trying to conceal. His intentions betrayed his confidence and made themselves known to the woman.
     In the moment Diane would later define as the point she knew she was in trouble, Mateo gave her a thin smile and took the next freeway off ramp.

     He had no weapon. Just bare hands and clean manicured nails, his bulk from playing high school football, his precision in movements from flying helicopters in Vietnam, his failure. These all coalesced onto Diane Browers pinned down in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert just west of the Salton Sea. A moonscape, Diane would later recall, muted bone, faded cardboard colored mountains far off in the dusty horizon. The sun made its way down, the moon already up in the left side of her field of view. Her screams and the odd lapping of water on a distant shore sliced the deep silence of the landscape. The sounds of water in the desert disturbed her; the air heavy with minerals and pollution smelled sulfurous. Was she dreaming of this place?
     Diane Bowers tried to reason with Richard, you don’t have to do this, and then she begged, no, no, no you cannot do this, please, and then she fought. Thin nails tore at his flesh, fingertips attempted to gouge eye sockets because she had once seen on TV that this move would always work.
     Then that odd moment of surrender.
     The patter of desert animals at their dusk routine was loud in her ears—senses heightened when her will was rendered powerless. Gave in because she tasted blood in her mouth, and there was an ache in both her wrists and she knew they were at least seriously sprained if not broken. Then the pain of penetration, dry, forceful, tearing. Diane was a Christian and in that moment of surrender she believed in her God. She was spared from living the moment fully, absolved of experiencing the true pain it brought to her body and mind, pardoned, floating somewhere above the bed of the truck tucked into a beautiful corner of eastern San Diego County.
     It was easier than he anticipated.
     Richard, why are you getting off the freeway?
     He did not reply. In fact, he did not hear the question. He did not know exactly where he would go, but he trusted he would know the place when he came upon it.
     Where are you going? Where are you going?
     This time he only registered the higher pitch of her voice, like a teakettle rattling on the stove, it irritated him and he wanted it to cease. Perhaps it was his silence that triggered her. She began to scratch and claw at his arms, his neck, the door panel as if she would open the passenger door while the truck was in motion. As he got closer to the place he had to manage her lanky limbs with his right hand while driving fast enough with his leftso that she would not jump out of the car. He wished he’d brought a rope or duct tape, anything to control her movements—he nearly crashed into a giant boulder on the side of the dirt road. Another missed sign. She was stronger than she looked.
     Finally, he parked and forced her out the passenger door using the heel of his boot and a tight grip on her stringy blonde ponytail. He followed her out the passenger door not letting loose of her hair. He felt blood rush to the tips of his extremities when she fell in a billow of dirt and tried to scramble to her feet, screaming. With two hands, two feet and the privacy this corner of untouched flat desert land afforded he regained his composure and control. With one swift scoop and lift he slammed her body into the bed of the truck. The back of her head thudded on the rusted metal and again there was the high-pitched squeal he barely registered—perhaps it was words.
     It did not matter because to Mateo, Diane was only a weak bundle of muscles that provided just enough resistance to awaken the blood vessels in his genitals. The more she clawed and scratched at his flesh the weaker she became and the waning of her strength was an aphrodisiac like one he’d never experienced before. So in the moment when the ringing of her voice and the flailing of her arms finally stopped and she went slack beneath his weight he finally confided in her who he really was.

     Naked from the waist down and still breathing, Mateo collected her limp and filthy body from the back of the truck and carefully placed it in the cab. He deliberately avoided the woman’s pale blue eyes. Like a sleeping child, she did not resist.
     He drove once more, ignoring the drumming of an ancient Indian song booming in his skull. To its cadence he drove into the falling night of orange and red and polluted California air. Just before the sun completely dipped away from the day a signpost on the side of the thin road presented itself—Rock Mountain Quarry. At first he drove along the shallow shore of the cavernous quarry calculating how much pressure was required to pinch the woman’s breath off completely. Not much, he told himself, even with his already tired hands.
     The thing next to him stirred.
     He considered taking her again, but the spent nature of her constitution on the passenger seat did not entice him—her fight did and clearly there was none of that left. He drove further into the rich copper and clay red steps of the quarry.
     The beautiful striations of rock distracted him just long enough so he wasn’t able to see Diane Brower’s last bit of fight open the passenger door and fling herself onto the road.
     He had not expected this. Although he should have.
     In the moment Mateo heard the dull plop of flesh and bone hit earth, the white bird sent by the spirits as a warning came to him on the rhythm of native drums pounding from two generations away. He had not listened. He had not paid attention and foolishly believed he could outwit what was prescribed. He hesitated, then pulled over to the side of the road and considered picking it back up to finish what he intended.
     Mateo Flores left Diane Browers in the Rock Mountain Quarry, but not before she memorized his license plate number as the orange truck sped off into the cool summer dark.


About the author: Candace Eros Diaz (@candaceerosdiaz) is a San Francisco Writer’s Grotto Fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is the Admissions and Student Services Coordinator for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California where she also received her MFA in both creative nonfiction and fiction. She is a recipient of a Vermont Studio Center residency and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing and Huizache. She lives in Oakland, CA.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

December 20th, 2010 by Rafer Roberts


COMIC Rafer copy copy

*For a closer view, go ahead and click on the comic and zoom.

About the artist: Rafer Roberts is the man behind the comic book PLASTIC FARM and the comic strip NIGHTMARE THE RAT. His art has been seen in X-O MANOWAR and HARBINGER (Valiant Comics), LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM (Locust Moon Press), HENRY AND GLENN FOREVER AND EVER (Microcosm), and OXYMORON (ComixTribe). He has drawn DOPE FIENDS OF THE ZOMBIE CAFE and WILD WOMEN OF THE KITTY-KAT GALAXY with writer Sean Frost, and a TIGER LAWYER short with Ryan Ferrier. He currently lives in western Maryland with his wife and muse and their hoard of cats. His website is Plastic Farm Press .

Sardine Machine by Adam Cornford



(Monterey Bay Aquarium Kelp Forest)

They shoal in sweep formation, swarming gleam
with tail-flick wave through smooth curve like a wrist
volplaning pivots, wheels, quick tinfoil stream-
line motion shines a mirror-clouded twist;
upspiraling, the myriad uncoils wide
slowly to merge, a heartform of barbed glass
in ripple assembly, pours to hanging glide,
mingling of angles in bright matrix mass…
Then, turning, round side eyes, a chorus line
of sight, as startle vision multiplies–
Unarmed armada, designerless design
of silver seraph unison, you replicant rise
around no throne but hunger’s, endless flight
breeding in tiny metonymies of light

for Hart Crane

Artwork: Adam Christensen


On Escape Never Being that Simple by Phillip Kobylarz

old pic for K

from Dimestore Paperback Memories

    Winter is a mystery that can happen in a day. Never has there been a consummation or ceremony that doesn’t in some way symbolically involve snow, ice, frozen clouds of respiring weather. Virgin snow. Fresh-driven snow. Snow that at first falls miraculously, this Wonderful Life-ly, then after days and years of it, in a sheet that deadens. A white sheath that hides the corpse from what we want to see. An end to it all. What most taboos are: what we know most intimately. Great advice: paint it white. Satanicly so.
     Winter in the midwest plain sucks. Winter is a form of killing. After it’s initial planetarium laser show of making everything in the real, perceptible world all of a sudden outlined, it’s an endless, barely ebbing tide of sorrow that causes most living creatures to feel depressed, to sit back moodily, to seek the consolation of milk or ice cream, or to lay back in wooden-framed chairs whose cushions are over worn as to allow the mind to forget about the body and boringly, emotionlessly, ponder. Winter is deadsville. To willingly spend an entire winter in a place that has true winters, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is a way to torture the mind into believing that martyrdom is truly an option. Winter is expressively for to suffer the slings and arrows of mental sadomasochism.
     And it’s not like winter sports are a lingering hobby one can pursue. To what to wit: snowmobile luxuriously over the tundra, cross country ski oneself into a coronary in the woods, perhaps ice fish into ecstatic reverie all the while trembling with glee or frostbite. Although to watch a game of hockey in a dark basement tavern where they have an air hockey table and a slide-a-shuffle-board-puck-at-bowling-pins bowling game, might be near fun’s essence. There comes a time, after the appreciation of condensation arrays itself frozen and solid, that leads all that is animate to utter stillness, which leads to a letter drawer’s opening and it’s shutting to occur obsessively and the glint of the letter opener scintillate menacingly. Winter leads one to travel up and down stairs in a house repeatedly for a semblance of travel, it leads one to the damp basement to inventory a collection of soda pop cans hidden for future consumption. It leads one to stare repeatedly and for hours into the refrigerator hoping that by doing so somehow the behavior will accumulate into the appearance of a fresh, authentic Mediterranean dish. Winter also leads one to the most futile behavior of all, the one that looks most like a coma enjoyed: reading and writing.
     As in any place distant from spot lit reality, where there are horrors. Even in the spotlight, where there are televised bank robberies, suicides by cop, more murders than can be cynically considered population control, and in this great land, hourly vents of evil instantly morphed into media just as the weather is endlessly gossiped about and made out to be an adversary. Turn on coverage of your local war. Winter is the same thing. A battle that can never be won. A time beared with. Only the fools pretend to enjoy it. Never forget the core of Dante’s hell was frozen over.

     Winter brings back stories of memories better left unremembered. What the world doesn’t ever need to know about is Scotty who lived in a low-rent, colonial façaded apartment building on a hill, more of a mound of dirt behind a convenient store. It was near the gully of the always trickling crick bed, near University avenue, near Eleanor L.’s house that was built by her father out of varnished wood and weird in the style of modern architecture, like museums or gas stations are: blocky and low. Scotty lived pretty much alone because his mother was a nurse to old people. He was a kid of 13.
      The first principle irony of his situation was that his sister, who looked vaguely oriental, was retarded and confined to a wheelchair. She was really Hispanic. Her body was wracked by genetics gone cruel but not unusual. She drooled and wore the same dark blue/ white flower dress for days in a row. It was kind of cool that she always smelled like a baby. She said that it was her favorite dress, but we knew better, when we could understand her, sometimes she tried to take it off and show us, or really anybody, her clean underwear. She could kind of talk and you knew what she meant by how she made noises and faces and moved her arms about. When she wasn’t trying to talk, she mostly drooled and smiled. Not much drool.
     One day when we were eating chunky peanut butter on spoons in his apartment and watching cartoons, Scotty said that she liked to do this thing. I said what? Scotty said yeah she liked to have it done to her because she saw it once on t.v. and since then she moves up and down and makes funny noises weirder than the ones she usually makes, like cows mooing, and she tries to point and she touches herself. Scotty said that if I wanted to I cold do anything I wanted to her, just as long as he could watch, as long as I helped him clean her up afterwards. Put her dress back on right. I didn’t know what he meant but it made my peanut butter spoon taste like a mouthful of saliva just before you’re going to throw up. He said if we wanted to since there was two of us we could even take her out of her wheelchair. She was looking at me and trying to smile. Her name was Angeline. Then Scotty tried to convince by saying that she really did like to do the thing because they did it all the time. Sometimes this is how life welcomes you to the age of twelve.
      I told him I had to go home. I ran all the way there, up the hill of a place they called “Tanglewood”. I ran until I could drive a car. I ran for three years. I ran until I was enrolled in Driver’s Ed.

     There’s nothing more essential to youth than driving a car. Especially if it’s an American muscle car, the height of motorized nirvana. In contemporary society, there’s a huge selection of the exact same rounded, easy to drive teardrop-shaped vehicles, in various sizes featuring pretty much sameness on wheels. Who knows why there is a market for complete lack of style/personality, no angulation, no prominence, no rugged individuality in a vehicle’s shape anymore.
     Back when cars were cars and what a person drove was taken for granted as their commentary on what life means, rather than the status level they thought they had achieved, there was one car in particular. There was one car that defined what it meant to be young and alive in a certain era and to remember that era and drive it around a decade and a half later. There was one car that had a style all its own. There was once a midnight blue 1966 Pontiac Tempest.
     Slick, like a dark shark. Couch-like vinyl front seats, front and back. The back seat was everybody’s dream of a mobile bedroom. Its trunk was everybody’s dream of a bash in the making: big, so big that it could easily haul up to three kegs. Big enough to comfortably smuggle two people into the drive-in. Even on a hot night. The vehicle was the devil in mechanical disguise.
     Designed for the appearance of flight, it had wings that took the shape of fins or horns. Giant lightning bolts of metal that tapered into glowing jets of propulsion turn signals. It’s front looked like a portrait of a partially insane bee, or a hornet having a bad day, or a basking whale from a robotized planet, or even maybe an angry Mig-27 winking.
     Sacral, purity of chrome everywhere. Bumpers, trim, wheel covers. Swords of windshield wipers. The hood was so wide and slate-like that the car felt and looked and drove like the prow of a boat, or submarine. Sadly, it was an automatic, but it still could easily lay a patch and rush the senses with that airplane-taking-off-acceleration feel. Its straight six cylinder had enough power to impress if not to drag race. No one back then dragged anyway, except in b-movies.
     Other kids who were secretly jealous of my set of wheels called it the Bat Mobile. Nothing wrong with that. Kids with faster cars– Cameros, Challengers, Mustangs– they made fun of it because it was a cool beyond what they had learned. They’d forgotten it their cars were the little brothers of the GTO.
     It was a dream machine. Prometheus’ chariot with an AM radio. Turn signals that sang “I’m on, I’m on, I’m on.” A speedometer and dashboard that read like very old wind-up alarm clocks. So much room that driving it felt like piloting a Barcalounger made of steel. The worst thing about having owned this car, having driven it, having to have sold it when it was impractical to take it to college with me, is that when a similar one drives by every six months or so, bringing back its shadow from oblivion and rust, a headless horseman behind the wheel, the memories it leaves plowed in its in tow. The memories it churns in its tail fins. The memories a car can possess and drive away with, forever.
     Simple escape. The opposite of a wheelchair. The opposite of winter. The opposite of the aftertaste of guilt.

     It is a place called Jubilee. A series of riverine bluffs and hillsides masquerading as a park, contained. Concealed within its treelines are buildings of an old abandoned pioneer college building that’s now attended to by a few women and by some park rangers who have nothing better to do than engulf themselves in the smell of old wood rotting and stacks of Readers from the nineteen twenties, bound by string and ties of leather shoelaces, while their pages tether away like lost butterfly wings in the last full days ofany season. Women and men in their early twenties, thirties and forties who have given up on anything that might resemble success or fame. Men and women whose skin is so pale and faded, who have glass bead clear liquidy eyes, whose hands and feet are so hard-worked that their fingers and toes are permanently chapped pink. People whose job it is to tend to history, to remember and record, to whom we should ask questions but we never do. People who are the most real people of us all. And we rarely see them.
     They are in places like where what is mostly heard is birdsong. So far off the highway, the highway itself surrounded by rolly-polly farmland, and if they are not living history cemeteries these villages that call themselves cities, then the cemeteries that encircle them staffed with way too many Voorheeses to even be mildly funny, then what is?
     It is this place called Jubilee. It of course has its own turn of the century cemetery. Defined most notably by its wrought iron fence that introduces the ruin of the college’s founder’s house, wherein lived his wife and who knows how many mistresses (they have secrets that if we make them up, they had been already been true) in a typically Midwestern gothic existence. Trees, mostly oak but some cedar, dripping with vines, a tendril transplanted from a patch of green from Louisiana. Fence now tilting once painted blue now painted (badly) black, leaning in its attempt to hold down a plot of land. Failing to do so. Rolling into the netherworld of the woods.
     It is and has been a place where for centuries young people come to consummate their lust. The ritual probably originated in a spring school picnic. In sixth grade, classes from the local private religious schools were taken out to Jubilee for lunch and afternoons of baseball or hiking or doing whatever could be done while being monitored by apathetic teachers, some of them young enough to feel the yearn of the season.
     Always, every year, there would occur an unstoppable water balloon fight between boys and girls. The reason this happened was obvious to everyone involved. Amateur wet t-shirt contests. The hormonal soup we rained upon each other was a blessing with no disguises. Near strip tease shows in white button downs and Polos.
     Makes sense to return to the very locale where Lisa M. was chased into the park service’s women’s bathroom. To hunt her down for nailing you on the top of your head with a fat round light blue balloon thus wiping out your hair thus making you look like a wet dog, flat-headed fool, fag. Oh the infamy of it. Her saddle shoes a blur of zebra skin. Sweet cherub laughter when you tackled her in the crispy autumn leaves.
      Lisa M. . . . a brown-haired, olive-skinned maiden of fair-weather Lebanon. The first crusade of Prince Lionheart. We return to our victories and defeats as if they were cathedrals built over springs of emotion. Waterfalls of memory lost somewhere in the forests that surround. Look around in them and you’ll find nothing and some of its traces. Empty beer bottles, some paper burnt, the key to a house that no longer even stands. Baseball cards with their quartzified pink tongues of gum. Simple apothecaries of believing, especially ingesting anything for the reality it promises. A gram of memory, or a memory gram.
     On the hillside of the tiny cemetery, shaded place in a bed of leaves fallen last fall, above the creek that ran so clear it was believed to be a spring that paused for a moment where a tree had toppled over some rocks (or were they blocks of concrete?) into a pool. Pausing into pools of each other. Another wicked writhing.
     The innumerable number of these places in an America that is sprawling out of control. What is created is living cemeteries of strip mall mortuary. Inside of which anything can be acquired for a small fee. No one realizing that a purchase is a transaction– a form of trade– giving something for something else, bills and coinage for some equally useful or useless object, or service, or trademarked illusion. That what it is isn’t about anything at all, the sell of absence, the purchase of nothing, and the strip malls keep encroaching and promising the end of architecture as an act of aestheticism. The vision is simple and even scarier than that at the end of the Planet of the Apes. Badlands. An abandoned K-Mart, its door swinging open. From inside, the sound of clean version music. Behind it, a garbage dump of a Walden eroding into sunset.
     But before this happens everywhere, back to Jubilee. A patch of forgotten valley and woodland. Nothing special. A meadow off a small, cracked up and tarred back together blue-grey highway. Forgotten to time, it forgets time too and grows vines and vines of itself, dirt and hillock on which trees grow. And worms eat everything below. Including bones and secrets. The produce section of carnality. A branch creaking in the wind.

     On a lighter, more airy note. Driving a car at night to the weave of loose gravel white rock road in the farmlands was the perfect way to try to find and race UFOs. With a six pack on the floor ready to be opened and nursed into empty aluminum can oblivion. Unlike the mythical, government sponsored sightings in New Mexico or Colorado or Arizona where there’s so many air force bases that it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, here, in the farmlands, who knows what’s up?
     They cross the skies almost every night, especially when you aren’t looking, but then nothing escapes the corner of the eye. This was way before some idiots in England went out to fields and made landing patterns that are so totally fake. This is before that. This is when life from other realms actually used the anonymity of cornfields and forest ravines and riverbeds as rest stops for their summer vacations. Complete seclusion. Far from big cities.
     To track them all one needs to do is to drive out to the square-grided country roads of farmland, past the city’s limits, their outer limits, and keep driving, while sipping and looking up. It’s pretty hard to get lost and quite easy to not be found.
     You roll the windows down, put the heat on low, turn the radio on even if it only plays AM. Then you go get one of your best friends at the time so that he or she will open and serve you a beer while you both slowly move through the night, looking up, illuminated only by the headlights and dashboard’s dusty glow. With luck, the local police won’t pull you over on your way out of town, after having shone a light into the vehicle, having seen arms gone akimbo in an attempt to hide the beverage in question, then pull you over for a lecture and a bottle emptying party. Just in case, as a big boy scout, you must be prepared.
     Gently, secretively, as a gourmand might sip at a glass of Château Neuf du Pape 1912, you, holding a bottle between your legs pssssshsssst it open and taste in gradually larger and larger fizzy, wretched, tin-tasting gulps, and becoming slightly more and more buzzed while piloting. Incremental bliss.
     In small amounts, two to three cans of the ass-cheapest you rationalize as economical and drinkable, known as bottom of the barrel, completely overlooking the taste found in Mexican, European, or Japanese brews, you sip a liquid that tastes of bread, burnt and liquefied.
     Driving through big scary weed trees, wild roses, fields of yellowing corn in a late summer, hearing the static of 1970s hits on WIRL and laughing about anything that isn’t even funny. Driving slowly into fogginess under a clear blue ocean sky of lightning bugs and stars, looking up above in silent wonderment. What were those occasional moving lights? Falling stars or meteorites crashing out of sight like we eventually would, like our dreams and songs of illusion never brought to a boil. Looking for tracers of ourselves who have passed and are incapable of remembering their one time famous gigs as stardust.

About the author: Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris ReviewPoetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.

Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.


Flight by Daniel Romo


Birds cry and the wind replies, What of it? One by one they crash to the earth like leaden leaves. Wings become flapless and little more than diseased appendages, merely by the body’s side for show, as if to denote and condemn the futility of the soaring metaphor. Broken bodies pile like a metropolis of bloody high-rises. Floating dandelion heads are replaced by dropping flocks. Trees shake, accomplice with mocking currents designed to keep the creatures grounded. Ornithology becomes Pathology, until there is nothing left to study. Birds have three eyelids, blink, and never miss a thing. Watching your species die before your eyes is like innocence, is like guilt.

About the Author:  Daniel Romo is the author of When Kerosene’s Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014) and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His writing can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, MiPOesias, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and is the Head Poetry Editor for Cease, Cows. He lives in Long Beach, CA and at

Artwork: John Smiddy was born San Jose, CA in 1966. He received his BA from UCSC in 1989 and his MA from SFSU in 1998. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.  

The Man Who Clicked by Jake Fuchs

harry dean2
trout mask

    “Do you know how to talk?”
     I asked this question because I had just asked him another one twice, different wording, same meaning, and he hadn’t said a single word.
     “What are you doing in my driveway?” That was number one. Silence.
     So then, “Look, buddy. Just what is it that you want?”
     And thirdly, my voice rising, “Do you know how to talk?”
      But he stayed silent, this presumably homeless man who had abandoned his shopping cart on the sidewalk and shuffled halfway down my driveway, eyes fixed on the bottles in my recycles bin. Or so I presumed at first. In fact, I couldn’t quite see his eyes because of the voluminous hoodie draped over most of his face. So perhaps he contemplated bigger game. If he noticed a bike or a skateboard—my son often forgets to take his vehicles with him before returning to his mom’s—would he not take that? A grimy blanket covered the heap of crap stowed in his cart. Whatever lay beneath it made areas of the blanket stick out at odd angles. It would be mostly crap, but there might be some valuable crap he’d picked up somewhere.
     But I was here, out of my house, outside with him. Whatever he’d thought he might take, he couldn’t now, so what that might have been hardly mattered. But it annoyed me greatly that he insisted on standing there before me, neither speaking nor leaving. What did he want me to say? What was he waiting to hear? I took a step back.
     He was something to look at, this guy, dwarfed by his clothes. Everything was baggy. His brown pants, perhaps an ancient pair of Dockers, had yellow stains around the fly, and had ballooned around him as he’d shuffled down my drive. Now he was still. Under the hoodie I could see some dark skin, along with a wide nose and a narrow-lipped mouth, but he could have been anything. Though he was a little guy, it made me nervous that he hadn’t backed off. Spotting him from my study window, I’d rumbled heavily down the steps, purposely making an intimidating clatter. Then I got up close to him on the same motive, to cow him, whereupon he’d stopped shuffling. But he didn’t seem cowed.
      I felt a strange impulse to apologize for asking him if he could talk. Instead, I said, “Look. Please leave.” For a moment I despised myself. Why had I said “please”?
     He bowed slightly from the waist. Then he inclined his head. His posture was that of a suppliant. Was he being serious, or was he mocking me? I couldn’t decide. Now I was sorry I’d said anything to him. I should have stayed in my house.
     “All right, take some stuff,” I said. “There you go, up there.”
     I pointed at the blue plastic recycles bin. I noticed then that he wasn’t carrying a bag or box to put things in for transport to the shopping cart. What then had he intended? To break into the house and steal small valuables, such as my iPad? Or did he want to lie down on the grass in my backyard and take his ease? Drink from my hose? Pee on my flowers? I was sure I still had some back there. Now I thought it odd that he’d marched up my driveway so slowly and obviously, as if asking to be seen. Usually when these people come up here, that must be the last thing they want. Down in the flats, the panhandlers plant themselves before your face so that you’ll give them money to go away. But the bottle and can snatchers, the mini-burglars, drift through these Berkeley hills like smoke. Not him. Had he wanted me to catch him? But he wouldn’t talk to me.
     I pointed at the bin again. Finally he moved in its direction, taking little mincing steps. When he got there, he picked out three empty bottles, two Chardonnays, one sugarless tea. Holding them against his chest with one arm, he returned to the cart; gently folding back the blanket, he thrust the bottles in one by one, bending his head down to see exactly where he was placing them. He reminded me of a library page carefully shelving books. He stood up behind the cart, put up his hands to push it.
     “Don’t come back.” I told him. “Okay?” Damn! Why had I said “okay”? That was sort of asking his permission, hardly called for regardless of how much liberal guilt I was feeling, if that’s what I was feeling. The bulky jacket he wore, a green, army-looking thing, had its snaps snapped incorrectly. I almost told him about it, but that might have kept him there unsnapping and resnapping, and what was I supposed to say then? I could think of nothing.
     Pushing the cart, he began his slow progress down my hill. I watched him roll away from me. Neither of us spoke. He had never spoken, only me. I kept my eyes on him, curious to see if he would invade the driveway of one of my neighbors. He didn’t. I went back into my house, where there was nothing to do. Work was pointless. I knew I couldn’t write anything worth keeping. I hadn’t in weeks.
     My son was with his mother. I was alone. I walked around inside my house.
     The following morning, out for the paper, I found the three bottles he’d taken arranged in a neat line at t he foot of my driveway. I looked around, hoping and not hoping that I would see him. Had I insulted him? Had he insulted me? What was the message encoded in the three bottles? He didn’t want my charity; that was obvious, but there was more to it than that. He wasn’t there to ask about it. I returned the bottles to the bin. Back in the house, I pretended to work.
     From my study I could see the street, and for a few days I looked out the window more than I wrote. It was all just typing anyway, dead words. I listened. If there was a noise outside that might be made by a heavily laden supermarket cart, then I was sure to look. It was surprising how many of these vessels rolled past, but few ever stopped, not even on pick-up morning, when the recycles were all set out on the curb. The carts simply sailed on by, their commanders paying us landlubbers no heed. I wonder what drives them, these homeless ones, why they keep traveling, even if only in little circles within my neatly parceled neighborhood.
     Then he came. I don’t know how I could have distinguished the rumble of his wheels from anyone else’s. But I must have, or I sensed him in a manner even more mysterious. Whatever the case, when he reached my house I was standing on the sidewalk. Though I wasn’t exactly blocking his path, it must have been apparent that I wanted to talk to him. The problem I foresaw was that he would think I intended to berate him for being there, in front of my house, since I’d told him not to come back. Now I regretted saying that.
     Looking past me, he pushed his cart slightly ahead of him and halted when its prow touched me gently at my waist. Sensing no aggression in that, I said, “Do you want a job?” That was the question I’d prepared. He could bag up leaves for me or use my hose to wash off my windows. We could do it together. That would lead to talk or some other form of communication.
     But it was again the wrong question. I might have been a rock for all the attention he paid to me.   He fixed his eyes on the cargo of rubbish in his cart. When I didn’t move, he backed up a few steps, then steered the cart around me. Midway he stopped, and I found myself staring into his right ear, at a small clump of gray hair. I said nothing. I wanted to, but nothing came to me. The ear swung away. As he wheeled off, he looked back, over his shoulder. He looked at me, into my face. I felt his eyes, and knew I’d missed my chance.
     This time I didn’t look after him as he rattled down the pavement, down our hill. I went back into my house and sat at my desk. I knew I should write, I really should. It’s what I do. He got to go where he liked and when he liked, but I was stuck and it wasn’t only my sedentary occupation. Even though I disliked my present life and place, especially the snotty folks who live up here, I wasn’t about to leave. I couldn’t. It was just too much to think about. Had I been able to follow him, maybe we would have eventually . . . what’s the word? Clicked. Nice, crisp word. Maybe we could have clicked. I’d hoped we were alike, both being alone and despised by everyone, but we were really different, weren’t we? We couldn’t talk. No clicking for us.
     Maybe he wanted that, or why else stroll down my driveway that sunny day? If so, he picked an unlikely guy, since I hadn’t been clicking with anyone.   Though I grasped the dictionary meanings of the words people spoke, I kept missing things, the point of things. I could only guess what others meant, and what I said back usually seemed to hit them wrong. Before my wife gave up on me and left, she kept complaining that I didn’t listen. But I did listen. I just didn’t get it, the point of whatever she was saying. It frustrated her no end.
     I sort of enjoyed that, but it was the same way with everyone, which was like being in solitary confinement. I tried with the cart captain, I had hopes for him; but he chose to want no part of me. He never came back.
     But some six weeks after his departure, another wayfarer dropped by, and this one pounded on my door. Maybe I should have been afraid, since it was almost midnight, and I was alone. Instead, I felt a kind of pleasurable excitement. I could guess who it was, a guy who appears in our neighborhood every few months—he lives in west or south Berkeley, not up here—and does this, knocks on people’s doors at night and asks for money. I was sure he was harmless. I went downstairs and opened the door. It was him.
     This guy’s schtick rarely changes, and everyone knows about him. We beheld each other. For him I had no questions, as a normal person would have, so he had a hard time getting the shtick started. I was willing to stand there all night. I had a feeling. But, after what must have been just a minute or two, he launched into his usual routine.
     “Real sorry to disturb you sir, but it’s an emergency cause my sister is sick and my car is broke down and I need money for taxi fare to the hospital. “
     “I don’t see any taxi,” I said, pretending to look around. I was just playing with him. I got it. I got his point and purpose. His bad grammar, an obvious put-on, didn’t faze me. I knew what I was going to do, and he knew I did. He persisted, played the game. An artist in his way, he was willing to risk letting me see that he was playing, that it was, indeed, a game.
     He sighed and said, “I ain’t called the taxi yet, naturally, not having the fare. She’s real sick. Back at the house. Headache and everything. I mean like maybe a brain thing.”
     “Who’s it this time, your sister or your mom?” Sometimes he said sister, sometimes mother. Oh, I knew all about him. He was written up in our neighborhood association newsletter, which brags about how liberal we all are up here while urging ethnic cleansing against any intruder not exactly like us. You were supposed to never give him money, but I was going to.
     He chuckled. He had me figured out, just as I had him, and each of us understood the other.
     “Didn’t I say sister?” he asked. “You know, I really don’t have time to talk, what with the sick relative and all.” That was good, relative. So I chuckled. Later I found out that our neighbors heard us chuckling there, in the middle of the night.
     It was all bullshit, everything he said. Lies, but I enjoyed his lies. They fit and comforted me like one of those expensive mattresses they plug on television, the ones that adjust to your shape and weight. And since he didn’t expect me to believe him, what made them really lies?
     I went for my wallet and returned with a twenty-dollar bill in my hand. “Here you go,” I said.
     He stuffed it into his shirt pocket and strode rapidly away, heading for the car he’d stashed someplace out of sight. I bet I could do his act as well as he does. I bet he could do mine.
     In the morning, the neighbors came over, interrupting my work to ask if I’d given him any money.
     “You didn’t, did you?”
     I told them I had and how much, and they became upset. It was wrong to encourage him, they said, and they went on for a while with their newsletter stuff about keeping our little hillside paradise secure against evil forces from without. That was their schtick and it was just as much bullshit as the sick sister routine, only worse since they expected me to believe it. The cart captain was different, but I struck out on him. I got rid of the neighbors by making up an imaginary task that needed doing, also bullshit. I understood them perfectly. I could handle them.
     I’d clicked. I could do it now. Fortunate me.

About the author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter Daniel Fuchs.  He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years.  They have three children and a delightful little grandson.  From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature.  He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels.  Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries.  The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision

Artwork: Michael J. Caligaris





















Harry Dean Stanton by Lisa Douglass


Harry Dean Stanton
It was hot outside
I was working at the Grill in Beverly Hills
After work I slid up to the bar at Dan Tana’s and ordered a beer
Harry Dean Stanton was there drinking me one for one
He drank silent like me
I said, “you must hear this all the time
So I’m reluctant to tell you
But Paris, Texas is one hell of a film
And you’re great”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yeah, I hear you”
He said it like I had found out he fucked his sister
But then
I ordered us both a round
And he looked into my eyes
That someone had bought him a drink
“What was your name, dear?”
I told him
“Thank you for what you said before, sorry I’m such a prick.”
No problem, I’m a prick too
That made Harry Dean laugh like he’d found his hero
Me, Harry Dean’s hero
I told him some mean stories about how I was torturing my boyfriend
But this one deserved it
I told him about getting run off the 101 freeway
And then he knew I was telling the truth
When I showed him the papers from jail
And he asked me if he could help by calling the house
I said yes, it might just do him in
He keeps threatening suicide after the meth wears off
He agreed to take my number and call a bunch
And we laughed some more
Some other guy
A guy I didn’t even know, but wanted to
Walked by and handed me a bindle of coke
“Help yourself. Just don’t be a pig,” he said
The bartender thought I was a good girl
And gave me hatred eyes, like don’t do coke
You’re mine
But I gave a look back
One that said, who are you?
We’re friends like this
I pay you for drinks, but mostly they are free
Because you think we might fuck
But it doesn’t mean shit
So I slid off the stool and went to the can to
“not be a pig about the coke”
Then, I came back and Harry was crying
Telling me he loved me
“You don’t love me, you’re drunk.”
“Okay, I remember,” he said
Looking for love in my eyes but only finding weakness
I put my arm around him and said
It happened to me too last night, I forgot who I loved
And then I ordered two more drinks
To help us remember
Who we really were

About the author: Lisa Douglass spent her summer watching a stalker through her window and wondered if she could go outside via the roof. Only, whenever she tried there were sheets of chocolate lining the stairs and it seemed so messy. Lisa became tired and unclean. She hoped the stalker was eating well and that he had a change of clothes, adult diapers and all. Lisa Douglass was trapped, and that meant eating copious amounts of Nutella and sleeping all day under her makeshift indoor rain device. Sometimes she had visitors and they got wet, but no one knows what she did with them after. Just that during the visitations they learned to talk in baby dinosaur language and how to fashion a trap for a medium sized human being.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Las Manos De Mis Padres by John Olivares Espinoza

Mano_Edgardo Antonio Jr

         Las Manos De Mis Padres

     Once, the backs
of Dad’s hands were smooth,
like a panther’s tail, like a jaguar’s coat.
     Years of work
turned the skin into leather
that shines like polished Florsheims.
     The hash marks
left by the bramble bush thorns
are perpetually scarlet.
     Mom’s hands
wring more often to mask
the liverspots developing below
     her knuckles.
Before, wringing was to moisturize
with Jergens: her pale hands
were two lost doves reuniting.
     Madre y Padre—
their hands—when they link—
which is not often—
fit like bone and socket.

About the author: John Olivares Espinoza most recent book is The Date Fruit Elegies (2008). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, New Letters, Spillway, Red Wheelbarrow, Quarterly West, ZYZZYVA, as well as a “list” in The Believer. He teaches in the English Department at Santa Clara University and lives in San Jose, California with his wife.

Artwork: Edgardo Antonio Jr.


A Dead Man’s Name by Jesse Steele

Read em and weep copy 

Act 1: And All That Came First
There was the war and mom and 21 guns
Mom collects a flag and I got a dead man’s name
Those were the first things.
Then there was the cigarette and the other cigarette and the borrowed knife
The book and the good book, and the preacher with the soft voice
Sure, that was part.
There was a great clatter of noise that opened a hole and some years fell down it
Picked up a tail outside the liquor store, but that was just in the movies
A house and a smaller house and two apartments that looked the same
On opposite sides of town, and a few uncles came around
Mrs. Taylor smiled and talked about potential and she smiled and talked about future but then she scowled while she patched up the blood and said you had to count to ten, breathe in, breathe out, and then you just had to keep counting…
                                                                                                but you couldn’t make it
                                                                                                                                    so what now?
The fire and the guy at the gas station with the long hair and the powders
Spread legs and fair trades and unfair ones that hurt too long
The deal about the basement party
Miles and miles and miles on a map
Trade the old car for the other car that got old
Trade a lot of things
’Til the man with the kind eyes and the long hair
And the quiet, and the wind, and the way he said it.
There was believing him.
And then there was watching them put him in the ground
And then the city the city the city
Ink into your skin somehow, put the neon in your blood
Counting the tips. Then cleaning the floors. Then the alleyways.
Then it gets hard to remember.
Act 2: The Wise Man
 A light is a bulb on a live wire dangling
and it stinks like blood and sweat and mold
And just what the fuck? but it doesn’t matter does it?
“It doesn’t fucking matter even a little bit,” says The Wise Man
and who is he? and why is he even here? and all of that
He’s The Wise Man.
So open veins and bloody knuckles and maybe that arm is broken after all
But one look at The Wise Man and you know it ain’t about you
“It ain’t about you” he says, maybe.
Now the whole grand goddam show must go on when there’s no understudy for the role
No more script to be followed
Just a IOU’s where story arc should be
Broken promises for characters.
and where the grand soliloquy was meant to bring the house down and the women to tears
well, there, there is only a tattertale collection of half-hearted poetry
Full of curses at unknowable, unnamed gods
Flashes of once remembered somethings
Hints of romance, flirtations with the passions
Smiling and winking at death
And the same at life
smiling and winking
smiling and winking
and it’s just too damn exhausting.

And The Wise Man is waiting for his time machine
Waiting for his second chance
Locking up his wisdom tight for rebirth
reading up on reincarnations and resurrections
Hoping either that the easterners were right and that Christ was all a lie
or that all the easterners were wrong and he himself is the christ

 And this wise man, if you ask him
or if you don’t
He’ll tell you what he thinks he’s learned:
“You can’t ever live on what you’ve done.”
“The things you said and thought.”
“The things you loved. Left behind. Maybe loved and left behind.”
“Everything you’ve shouted. Everything you’ve built”
“Every foot and fist print you put in the dry sand and the wet cement”
“Not a single one of them will feed you tomorrow.”
“Not a single one of them will hold you tonight.”
“Not a single one will tell you it’s proud of you.”
“And all, all, will fade.”
“Because you can’t make them love you.”
“And you can’t make yourself loved.”
“Not with all the immortality our feeble memories and histories can muster.”
“Not with all the eternal libraries of genetic knowledge”
“Or the forever running waters of cosmic infinitum”
“Can you raise the subject from the photograph”
“Bring forth the builder from the monument.”
“Call back the grandfather from the progeny”
“Seed from the tree”
“Here,” he says. “Here! Here! Now! Here are your fucking dreams.”
We will now be taking a short intermission. Please help yourself to refreshments in the lobby. Please help yourself to methadone before the community college. Please make a donation to the “the world could use one more burnout bartender fund.” It’s for the kids, after all. The houselights will flash when it’s time to return to your seats.
Act 3: Once Burned 
Stage lights up and my name’s ______ and I’m a fucking addict. I’ve been sober enough months I don’t count ‘em now. A lot of young faces today so I wanna talk about where it starts. Maybe listen or maybe tune the fuck out, but you aren’t fooling anyone. Know that.
First you think you’re a rebel. That’s before you get any of it — before you’re sticking shit in your arms. Maybe some shit happens before that but I’m talking about being a grown up. A lot of you wanna come up here and talk about your childhood. That’s fine, I guess. But not today. I want to talk about being a fucking adult but before. Before you know anyone. Before you even know what the fuck a rebel is, what you’re rebelling against, and what any of it matters.
So you find the shadiest fucking person you know and you convince yourself they’re the only person that understands you, and pretty quick you turn your one new best friend into ten new best friends, and suddenly your little cohort is running around like you’re the first group of assholes ever to close down a bar and piss on the side of a building.
Someone gets arrested,
someone moves away,
someone else comes out as gay and some one else takes it bad so one of ‘em goes away,
one kid actually dies someway you can’t even remember and everyone gets a bullshit tattoo of his name somewhere
— come to think of it, everyone gets a fuckload of tattoos —
then everyone starts fucking everyone else, and before you know it you’ve convinced yourselves you own the city or the night or the scene or whatever bullshit you and your stupid friends want to claim you own, and you’re having just enough fun that these delusions of grandeur get believable and you stop caring so much about all the things you used to think really mattered. But you’re still you, just a better you, you think. The fun you. The free you. The real you. Suddenly you’re the one who knows the truth when everyone else is kidding themselves. You shoot off for the fucking moon and it’s the ride of your life.
Of course, in between is a blur. It’s fun and it’s wild and you’re getting laid more often than you’re eating and you can’t remember what you ever worried about that couldn’t be settled by a bottle of whiskey and turning the music a little louder. There’s the blow and the X and about 10 billion cigarettes, and you’re counting up your tips and trying to remember if you’re short or if you stole from the register.
There are times you think about getting out, getting a day job, going back to school, but it always passes. One good night can scare a few weeks of anxiety away. Eventually you stop worrying about what you were supposed to be and if you’re lucky, you’ll actually have a vague recollection of those few glorious years where you’re really not worried about this life you chose. Eventually, and I mean eventually, your body starts to give you signs that are too glaring to ignore, but by then you’ve bought in and it’s easy enough to sell the whole thing to yourself in a new package you’re calling “life experience,” and you rationalize something about what you’ll want to say on your death bed and feel pretty alright about yourself most of the time.
By then you’re tired, but seasoned, and you know how to turn a dime into a dollar and a smile into a few weeks of honest fun. Then, before you know it, you’re just a sad collage of tattoos and hair dye that can’t remember which side of thirty you’re on without calling your mother. You’re never alone but you’re starting to get the sense that being surrounded by all these familiar faces isn’t as BoHo kumbaya us-against-them as you thought, and dear god has it always been this lonely?
By then, you might, if you have any shred of decency and hope, if you had any kind of upbringing where someone told you that you were worth a damn, by then you might entertain the thought that maybe it’s not too late. That thought will sustain you for a little while before you think “too late for what?” and every answer that crosses your mind is a laughable little stab at whatever remained of your sense of self-worth. No — not the surface stuff. That is long gone and probably wasn’t real to begin with. When you get to that point, honey, you’re stabbing at the back of the back shelf in the back room of the storage basement stuff. You’re trying to start fires with the last lighter on earth and good god dammit can I get a spark?
You want romance, kid? Yeah, I’ll show you romance. I’ll show you romance in a flash of light and a sixth month bender. I’ll teach you about love when you’re grasping onto the ceiling for dear life trying to figure out where you left your pants. I’ll show you destiny, beauty, passion, and all the sweet, sweet beauties of life in a row of tattooed women who traded names for verbs. They don’t care what you call them anyway because they sure as shit aren’t gonna remember your name. Tell them if you want to. Tell them whatever you want. If it strikes your fancy, tell them about your dreams, about your truth, about your rebellion and the whole long shitty version of your short shitty story.
You want that? I can show you that. I’ll show you all of it, and if you’ve got half a brain in your fucking head, you’ll vomit yourself clean after a week and never come back to my part of the world again. ”
Act 4: Old Haunts
 And you…
Sitting there reading Bukowski by candlelight like it’s something to do
Your Antoinette populism
Your tightrope cancan confidence
Well, there’s a special place in hell for tourists and bad actors
      With your maps and your scripts and your interminable dress rehearsals
      Treading heavily and flapping your gums about this that look over there
                    All in borrowed old shoes.
That pipe dream of yours.
That cynical little pipe dream.
        You took it.
Whatever it was, you took it.
And you think it’s alright. Because no one asked after it. No one asked where it had gone.
Well I’m not asking motherfucker.
But I see you.
Know that I know your name.
Know that I will not forget this is what you decided to be
      When you still had the chance to choose.

About the author: Jesse Steele is a white bread bologna sandwich from the Midwest who got called a writer on some trumped up charges from a while back. He currently works in community development in southwest Virginia, and spends most of his days idly tapping his fingers on desks hoping to Morse code out the cure for ADHD. Jesse currently performs poetry readings whenever he’s had too much to drink at parties, works on his novel manuscript just hard enough to never finish it, and publishes his political ramblings not-at-all regularly on . He believes in himself and his heart can fly higher than an eagle.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.


L.R. Californicus by Tennessee Reed

drop door


It is around 1:00 PM
on May 6, 2013
I, the Mearns bobcat species
of California,
west of Sierra Nevada,
am minding my business,
hunting in the tall grass
near the Marin Headlands Arts Center
for insects, rabbits,
small rodents and deer
It is unusual for me to hunt
at this time of day
I am supposed to be resting
in a thicket
I usually hunt the three hours
before sunset to midnight
and then before dawn
and the three hours after sunrise
My prey has different schedules
now that it is the driest year
on record

My keen sense of hearing
makes me hear a car door slam
I look up and with my sharp
sense of vision,
I see two women,
one younger
and one middle aged
looking in my direction
The young woman is wearing
jeans and a tee shirt
and the middle aged woman
a brown top, khakis and a hat
I hear “What do you think that is?
Do you think it’s a coyote
or a fox?” from the middle aged woman
The younger woman
zooms in her
Nikon Coolpix p90
I sit down
and turn my head to the left
Even though I live on the urban edge,
i don’t see people all that often
My ancestors have been here
for 1.8,000,000 years
but the people think
they own the place
They build their homes
in the woods, mountains
and deserts where me
and my relatives live,
yet they want to kill me
because they think I am a threat
They dump their trash
as they take their hikes
or camp
and they even mix us
with their domestic cats
for an “exotic” animal

I hear the younger woman
in an excited voice say,
“It’s a cat. It’s a bobcat.”
My bright green eyes
blend in with the grass
My tawny face
with the white muzzle
and white chin,
and the brown striped pattern
on my cheeks and forehead
poke out
The black tufts on my ears
stick up

After I pose for the photo
I go back to hunting
I hear the women get back in the car,
turn the motor on,
and take off
I feel more at ease


I know how this bobcat feels
Our street and surrounding streets
have also been swept up
an invasion of
techies, yuppies
and millennials from San Francisco
The Blacks who
once occupied the area
are dead, priced out
or foreclosed
to other cities:
Antioch, Vallejo,
Stockton and Castro

Ever since the Bakery Lofts
were build down the street
it is hard to park the car
in front of the house
On the street sweeping days
it is worse

When I back out of the driveway
It is more complicated
and dangerous
with the big, red whale of the car
parked in front of the house
when there is plenty of space
across the street
in front of their house

A young couple
walks their
tan and white pit bull
while they push
their young infant
in a jogging stroller
A woman with tattoos
up and down her arms
walks two more
tan and white pit bulls,
one in each hand
Why so many pit bulls?
Are they four legged Zimmermans
patrolling the Blacks who remain?

An older, gray haired couple
walk their two collies each morning
They look like miniature oxen
they let their dogs
do their do on our lawn
They don’t pick it up

Our neighbors next door
ask in a panic,
“Do you know if our neighbors
have a bee hive?
There is a swarm in our backyard,
and they look like
they are coming into yours,”
a cloud of bees hover around
the rosemary bush
The beekeeper
comes to the front door
suited up and says,
“I have come to collect my bees.”

To quote Dad,
“As soon as you get rid of one pest,
another one comes along.”
these particular pests ride bicycles

About the author: Tennessee Reed is the author of six poetry collections, a memoir and a novel. She is currently working on a novel, a short story and a seventh poetry collection. Ms. Reed has read around the Continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Israel and Japan. She has received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and her M.F.A. from Mills College. Ms. Reed is the managing editor of Konch Magazine and the secretary of PEN Oakland.

Artwork: John Manibusan is an artist living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also works for a major airline.

So John Spits by Mark Rapacz


           He’s running now. He’s off like a gazelle. Or, not quite like a gazelle. There was a time in his life when he ran gazelle-like. Or, had moments where he could achieve a gazelle-like bound, but now with his age, his job, his wife demanding children, his competitive years decidedly behind him, and the financials spreadsheet not going away—
           And if it weren’t for the trick knee he really would be off like a gazelle. He’d be off campus by now, out on the open road, heading toward the hills, but instead he’s here, hobbling down College Drive through droves of bikes that look old as shit being ridden by all these rich kids heading to class or somewhere else to do youthful things with other youthful kids who wear designer clothes under frumpy sweatshirts—
           John doesn’t know designer. He doesn’t have a fashion-forward brain. He has a brain that makes him do this at lunch with his legs and his anger and his unceasing thoughts on resource distribution in his decidedly fucked community—
          And other things like:
1. How his wife, a social worker in the poor area, works with real people– Mexican people with Spanish names and immigrant problems–real problems.
2. How he’s stuck in an ivory tower and works with rich kids–WASPy kids riding immigrant bikes who take their life of luxury and flip it on its head and present it like it’s the one full of real problems.
3. How is chafe isn’t going away. He’s seen doctors. Gold Bon isn’t helping, and–
          He’s not even by the Main Quad yet—oh no—he’s still here with his shitty knee, and nut chafe, and he’s thinking that people who come from privilege get the luxury—the goddamn luxury—to go through life having to prove themselves incapable before an audience of generous supporters, while the rest of us—we office schmucks and immigrant workers—have to prove ourselves capable before an audience of hateful critics.
         So John spits.
         He hits the bright red fender of one of the rich kids’ trashy bikes and he hears this kid—this girl shout at him, disgusted.
         But it’s the rich kind of shout and John has this innate ability to drown out the rich kind of insults with his extremely loud memories of his past, living in a suburban hellhole he thought was upper-middle class, only to discover in college he was probably lower-middle class or even poor-as-shit. Or, the people he hung out with convinced him through kindness, generosity and proper upbringing that he was poor-as-shit because they had those things in spades, and he spent most of his time pretending to have those things in spades, only to go home and do his best not to mention to his salesman father that his new college friends’ dads were, like, bankers and lawyers and doctors, and most of them had two of these in their families while he had, well, Ma who did all those other jobs—coffee pourer, teacher’s aide, bank teller, house cleaner—but most of the time didn’t do any of those things but made absolutely fantastic Cream ‘O Wheat.
         “You dick! You totally just spit on me,” she says. She’s wearing sunglasses.
They all wear sunglasses. The girl looks pretty good actually, despite the draping hoodie.
          “Umm … ,” John says and he’s wondering now why he stopped. Why he turned and walked—limped—back to this spoiled rich girl with the trashy bike who is expecting an apology because they all expect, deserve—are entitled to—an apology because of the luck of where they were birthed and who birthed them and why they were birthed, which all gives them this kind of authority, this kind of privilege—
          John is looking for that other word, but he can’t think of it because he was public-schooled in the middle of nowhere as opposed to private-schooled in the middle of everything, and—
          He looks at this girl who is quite pretty and has probably contributed more good to this world by the age of twenty than John has his entire life, despite clearly dealing with body dysmorphia issues for a good five to seven years, which John wholly understands because he dabbled in body dymorphia himself for about three years while trying to run 75-miles per week on 1500-calories per day.
          This generation. They’re so dedicated and smart and tech-savvy. And John knows this for a fact because he’s been to their commencement ceremonies. He’s seen their resumes and he knows where they’re off to and how this world has been handed to them on a platter, as long as they show they have ambition and drive and a sense of fashion and go on service-learning trips to the middle of Africa or Asia or wherever to teach middle school children the intricacies of international finance in a week-long course they call a Workshop Intensive that look super good on those resumes that they hand to Morgan Stanley, now, instead of Bear Stearns, all the while waking at 4 a.m. to hit the gym for an hour of cardio and another hour of muscle toning.
           Jesus F.
          And John’s read their research papers on this shit. And he’s told them good job. That their work is really impressive, but what he’s really thinking—what he’s really goddamned thinking—
          Maybe they are good kids. She does deserve an apology, but John’s already fourteen goddamn minutes into his lunch and he’s now having to think he might have to cut his run short, do the 5.5 mile route, which is just like giving up. And would this girl just give up just like that? Throw in the towel this easily?
          And dear God this girl is pretty, isn’t she? And she’s—
          The word is in entitled. She’s an entitled rich kid who got a little spit on the fender of her trashy immigrant bike she no doubt bought at a store called a boutique which specializes in selling bikes that only look immigrant and trashy, but are actually quite dependable—
          Fuck this.
         “Sorry,” John says.
         Or maybe he doesn’t say it.
         He definitely doesn’t wait for her reaction. He definitely does not make eye contact with her either because he knows the predatory eyes this generation has—they all have it—that viper stare, the kind that feels like two sharp fangs piercing his sac and draining his testes of all his manhood.
         His coworkers do the same thing to him, excelling at things John can’t, possibly due to the generations of socio-economic struggle entwined in his family’s genetics.
         For example, his coworkers eat quinoa with beet sauce for lunch. They make it themselves and pack it in a kind of Tupperware John has never seen in a store or on the Internet. It’s a fancier kind with these air-locking lids that clamp down and are clearly proprietary and sold at a kitchenware store John could never locate in a million years because John does not have the bull-headed confidence it takes to be a person who deserves that kind of superior lunch-toting technology.
         So he does this, the running during his lunch hour, and he finally runs by the Main Quad, then the Much-Revered Computer Science Building, then around the administrative training buildings, then by a ranch—yes, a ranch—and then the golf course where a bunch of old white men laugh and hold golf clubs and practice public urination off a fairly busy thoroughfare because—
         Oh, they deserve the privilege to piss on their golf course as the service workers and immigrants drive by in their dumpy trucks and rusty vans, and these old white men dangle their wangs in the eucalyptus air and think about beautiful financials spreadsheets and green grass that shouldn’t be green, but burnt brown and dead like the hills surrounding—
         The place should be a desert or a park or something, but instead—
          It’s like this oasis where old men piss out 80-year-old scotch processed by 80-year-old, failing kidneys in front of immigrants stuck in midday traffic on a road being expanded by other immigrants so they can drive their Teslas more quickly through American hills that smell like Australian forests—
          So John spits.
         One of them sees him spit and makes a whack off motion with his club, and this is an old man wearing respectable clothing and those wrap-around sunglasses, and John is now exactly 2.5 miles into his run, and he’s on a bike path right by the tee box, and there’s this white crane walking toward him. A bird that should be in the salt marshes. But here it is, bobbing its dumb head, stuck between a man who owns half the planet and publicly exposes himself on acreage that should be a national park and another guy, who’s angry and wearing short shorts and a tech-fabric T-shirt that makes his back break out in a constellation of vicious acne, but—
         This is what John deals with. He accepts this. He accepts the fact that dumb beautiful birds will stand in the way of social justice because if that bird wasn’t there, bobbing and weaving and eating bugs, John would walk right across that fairway and jack the geriatric in the goddamn mouth because he has deserved a bloody lip for at least half a century for raping and pillaging the have-nots on most of the seven continents—
    Not to mention he probably kills whales. Or knows the men who do all the whale killing—is probably golfing with them right now—and they’re actually not all old white men—they’re like poster geriatrics for a more diverse world—but they’re all golfing and wearing those clothes, the pastels and the wind-breaker vests—just clownish shit—but, likely, they’re all more than willing to pull their dicks out and piss on newly paved immigrant-made roads and that’s the crux of it—
          The Japanese. They do the whale killing.
          “You want to kiss me or fuck me,” one of them says in the strangest accent—maybe Armenian?
          Politicians, John thinks, from one of the research centers where the real levers are pulled, or at least constructed by the Highly-Polarizing Political Figures who work there.
          One full minute, John realizes, is how much time he has wasted, standing here and staring at these old men, while that white crane bobs its stupid head looking for wood bugs in grass that should be brown and dead and ready to light up like a torch.
         They are sucking his life, his time to be on this road. He could be 1/7 of a mile further down the trail, but these fucking—
         “Why don’t you all go rape Nanking … again,” John shouts—maybe—
         He definitely says, “What?”—maybe a little aggressively, too.
        “That’s what I thought,” the man says.
         That’s what he thought? That’s what he thought, what?—
         John does not have to waste any more precious time shouting down men covered in the liver-spots of Big Oil treachery and Lobby Hound manipulation.
         So he runs.
         He runs under the overpass where there’s a biker wearing a spandex outfit that matches his helmet and clippy shoes and even his bike—the entire get-up is worth more than John’s car. He runs along a busier road that twists through the foothills, where trees reach out and try to pull the hubcaps off all the imports—
         John loves those, the trees. Even the eucalyptus—that invasive fucking species. Trees make sense to him. They sit there. They grow. They drink water. They create girth and weight and height by separating the carbon molecule from CO2—
         They actually take that one little piece of air and turn it into a thing, a cell, cellulose, leaves, branches, roots, wood, bark—the shit redwoods are made of. To think—giant redwoods become giant from taking one little tiny bit of air. They take the C from the O2 and turn it into rock hard tree. They store it, they keep the carbon on the earth where it should be—
         And that little piece of carbon came from—
         Something like a meteor or a star—
         It came from the beginning of time, from the Big Bang.
         It’s stardust.
         He—they—the rich kids and geriatrics—are stardust. They are meat sacks storing the dust of the universe while they jam through the cosmos on a mother ship they all call Earth, orbiting in a place that is itself expanding, and here he runs on gimpy legs by trees that eat air—the very air that he, himself, is made of—that every goddamned thing is made of—
         Amazeballz, John thinks—
         Amazeballz? This? From a guy who works at an institution of higher education? A really good institution of higher education?—if you can believe the hype on the Internet, and where kids come and they learn and then they rule the world—in that exact order.
          We are stardust.
          John should be smarter than this by mere proximity to intelligence. His daily thoughts on his run should be, in some way, elevated. Because he’s with the birds and the trees, and he’s in a place on the planet that some claim to be beautiful, but these people don’t have the allergies he has. It’s his Midwestern lungs. They need to be cleaned out by the cold. These people don’t see the hills ripe to burn.
          It is beautiful.
          The trees are amazeballz, at least.
          It’s impossible to enjoy these trees while running along a beautiful but busy road because the cars try to hit him. John knows this for a fact. He sees them see him, and they swerve, maybe just an inch or two. They take curves a little wide and cross the white line, and they try to clip him. They try to break his back, and John knows exactly which cars will do it, too. The Audis and Land Rovers. These vehicles place real-live human pedestrians in the same phylum as orange construction cones.
         John is a triangle. His purpose in the Grander Scheme is to be on the shoulder of the road to be crushed by Land Rovers driven by Venture Capitalists racing to a lunch at some Fancy-Ass Place in the Hills, where the people sit on balconies and are handed a real-live newspaper like The New York Times—with the print and ink and paper and the smell and everything—telling everything about yesterday’s news, while they drink—probably espresso or some kind of spring water that’s impossible to get—and make business deals based on some nineteen-year-old dork’s idea that was dreamt up near the locker room where John changes into the moldy running gear that causes his nuts to chafe before he embarks on a 7.5 mile trek of self-hatred and localized, yet internal and intense, societal shaming because—
         Honestly, Land Rovers can really go fuck themselves. The people who drive those motherfuckers probably rape mice and/or starving children in the Pan-African-Asian region while practicing public urination as they human traffick their gold bonds to the nearest World Bank.
          So John spits.
         And he hits the tire of a truck driven by an immigrant worker who’s eating an orange at lunch as he’s pulled off the shoulder of the road.
         “Hey!” this man shouts.
         John stops. He’s only 3.5 miles in. Yet he stops again. He looks back. He smells the orange. It smells delicious, and the man—the immigrant worker in what is actually a really nice truck—is looking angrily at John.
         “Oh, jeez,” John says. “That was an accident. Didn’t know you were in the truck. My fault, man. My fault,” he says as he walks toward the man.
         “Why’d you spit on my truck?”
         John realizes he isn’t going to go away. The juice drips down his hand, and it will clearly leave that sticky orange film on everything, and it goes to show—
         This man truly doesn’t give a fuck.
         “Err,” John says.
         The man gets out. He is also hobbit-shaped. Perhaps more hobbit-shaped than John. John is envious of this man who carries his hobbit shape with such confidence. He pushes that barrel chest around. His legs, which look a lot like John’s stumpy legs, look load-bearing strong—like he could lift a pallet of bricks and swing heavy hammers and defeat hunger with hard work and drive. He’s avocado strong.
         Fertile. He’s probably got kids. Unafraid to feed them.
         This man is a—
         He’s a man. A real, live man.
         He has a belt buckle and forearms and that man-look and that cut to his jaw. He’s got facial hair growing everywhere.
        And now he’s standing inches from John, and they see each other eye to eye. Maybe John stands an inch taller, but that might be because of the orthodics and high-density cushioning in his designer running shoes.
        “I didn’t know you were in the truck, seriously. I just spit—because I’m running, you know,” John says, his eyes going where his eyes always go, away and down skipping right past his small dick that’s now—
        He sees for the first time in his nearly 20 years of daily running it’s barely, just barely covered by the smallest loin cloth of ultra-light tech-fabric. The outline clearly visible and this man—
        This man has on a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate and cowboy boots with silver tips and two-inch heels, and sturdy blue jeans that cup his nuts just right.
        “You’d really spit on my truck if I weren’t in it?” he asks. “You just run around spitting on people’s vehicles, friend?” he says.
        Friend, he says.
       “I just spit. The running, you know. You get moving. It builds up. You spit when you need to spit.”
       “You just spit. I hear you right, friend? In front of other people? You don’t think this is disrespectful?”
       And this man has a point. And this man isn’t even that angry. He’s just telling it like it is.
      And this man isn’t even that old. He’s got to be about John’s age.
      And he’s got to have kids and responsibilities and projects more complicated than financials spreadsheets, and John wants to tell this man all this because John feels a kinship toward him, because John likes to see it like it is and say it like it is as well, but—
      This man gets a call on his phone, and this man answers his phone while continuing to look at John, and he has those manly eyes where the fire of life burns, where the fire of knowing how to live the fuck out of life resides. He uses that speaker thing that some of those phones have. It’s like a cop phone. Crackle, crackle, blip, bloop, and he has a quick conversation all in Spanish, and it’s clear to John that this man, who is his own age, who is similarly hobbit-shaped, who has kids he needs to support, is also a leader of other men.
       And it’s clear this man sees that John sees this.
       And John is wondering if this man has ever had to do financial spreadsheets and put those numbers in little boxes that you need to get from Jackie, who always has that yoga mat.
      “It’s not disrespect. It’s just doing what I gotta do when I run,” John continues because this is true and it is a point of utmost importance. This man should understand physical labor and the unintended consequences of an animal body excreting its excess as a result.
       The man puts his finger up to shush John while he finishes his conversation.
       John sees that his fingernails are beautiful and pearly white and so clean. Manicured. But this finger—this surprisingly androgynous finger that this man is holding up is also another command.
       Jesus this man can lead.
       And others follow.
       John is already following him.
       Because this man has his crew and his crew has got to be like John’s blue-collar uncles who call him professor
       Even when John reminds Uncle Bill he’s not a professor—
      And tells Uncle Jim he’s not an asshole—
      And shows Uncle Sal that he does for sure know how to work a wrench—
      But John knows well his immigrant uncles who worked shit jobs their entire lives. He knows Uncle Bill has to say that racist shit when he remodels his bathroom because he has that kind of know-how. Just like Uncle Jim has to say that womanizing shit about his second wife when he takes down trees and uses chainsaws. Just like Uncle Sal has to talk about how politicians don’t know fuck-all about jack-all when he takes a deer apart piece by piece with a carefully whetted blade in Northern Minnesota when the sun is down and the cold is out and the quiet of winter has finally come. Just like they all have to spit when they need to spit, and they all have to talk Polish when they drink blackberry brandy, and they all have to say those things while drunk—about being divorced and how rich bitches sound like assholes and old white men don’t deserve a dime.
      None of those fucks deserve jack—those leaders of men and rapists of mice and designers of eco-friendly but cost-prohibitive automobiles that sound like the wind.
     Like this man—this fellow hobbit—this man who works hard and leads people—
     He’s gotta understand spitting.
     You spit when you need to, amigo.
     But now this father is confronting John on social injustice, shushing him and waving his finger?
      Blip. Bloop.
      He speaks.
      “You know my father was a famous runner. You ever hear of the Tarahumara? He ran those long races and won some, too.”
      Has John ever heard of the Tarahumara? How could this man even ask that? John has read Runner’s World. He had a subscription to that shit for years until it became the beauty and fad-diet magazine it is today.
      Goddamn right, John knows the Tarahumara. He knows their mysterious dominance in the 90s, showing up to ultra-marathons and killing it on 100-mile races wearing nothing but crappy-ass sandals made out of, like, twine and car tires.
      He knows about their genetic predisposition toward running awesomness—the slow-twitch muscles that give them an edge over the competition.
       He knows they hardly train and how they just show up and kick ass.
       He knows the legend of Caballo Blanco, the white man who infiltrated their kind and ate beans and rice and ran twenty miles a day in the high deserts of northwestern Mexico, who was later found dead in a ravine.
       Died on a long run.
       Running through God’s country.
       A white man dead in a brown man’s desert.
       If John could be so lucky.
       Fucking shit.
       Oh, yes, John knows the Tarahumara.
       But what John says is this, “You do any races?”
       And the man laughs. Slaps his keg of a belly and laughs some more.
      “Races? No, no. When I was younger, I did that. We played lots of games back then, didn’t we?”
       When you were younger you played games, amigo?
       This is not a game. This is life. This is 7.5 miles of peeling off the toxic crud that congeals to the skin when primal man steps into antiseptic offices. This is man reconnecting with his roots. This is man running his hunting trails and sniffing blood.
        We should be wielding spears. We should be beating our chests. We should be taking our mates by the hair and having them in the fields.
        We should have balls the size of sheep testicles that hang like avocados.
        We should be naked and thin and brown-skinned and swaddled in the desert sunlight and asleep on the cooling rocks under the falling moonlight.
        This is why John is here. This is why he spits.
        Because the truck is not there, and the road is not there, and the eco-friendly vehicles are not there. Neither are the mouse rapists, nor the riders of faux-trashy bikes.
        Or the financials spreadsheets.
        Or motherfucking yoga.
        This 7.5 mile run at lunch is when all that crap goes away, burned by the Tarahumara sun, made inconceivable by the primal man’s brain.
        He does not sense these things. He does not see them, so how could this man, this descendent of purer humanity, who ran atop the plateaus in lands that are on the other side of the universe of Tech-Start-Ups think it’s—
        “It’s not a fucking game,” John says.
       “What?” this man says, backing away.
       “This,” John says, pointing at his tech-fabric running shorts, his small dick pointing like a gun.
       “This ain’t a fucking game. Comprende?” John says.
       “What kind of racist bull—” this man says.
        Fucking belt buckle.
        Goddamn boots.
        To think this man was supposed to be John’s Samwise Gamgee.
        To think this hobbit would go and turn on him like that?
        With his history?
        On their way to Mordor?
        The Tara-fucking-humara.
        His grandfather.
        A man with that kind of greatness in his genes?
        Living on rice and beans and wearing old car tires on his feet. Car tires that were made in the US of A, amigo. Up in Detroit, which was the Land of Innovation in its day, amigo.
        And that’s where this place will come to in the end after these hills burn, amigo. Another graveyard for hippies and hipsters and failing artists to come and reclaim the warehouse shells of success that once-was.
       And as this man backs away, his hands up, one palm smelling of orange, the other of technology and static and blips and bloops, he says, “Calm down, friend. Just didn’t want you to spit on my truck is all.”
       But John just keeps walking toward him, and he leans into him, now realizing that his entire body is just brimming with adrenaline and rage and all the primal shit that—
       He has that smell about him. The fight or flight smell. The tunnel-vision. How he returns to this place of pulsing red and surging will.
       John looms over the man—now an inch away, foreheads nearly touching.
      And, indeed, John is at least an inch taller than this man—this leader of men—and, indeed, this man is cowering.
      And he makes a joke.
      Not Ha Ha funny
      But a joke told by a weak man, cowering before power.
      “You gonna kiss me, friend?” is what this small man might have said—
      But John doesn’t hear this type of shit anyway—will never hear anymore of it. He snorts like a bull, gravels the back of his throat, and—
      Made of stardust, the cum of the universe.


About the author: Mark Rapacz is an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge and the founder of its imprint Blastgun Books. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewThe BookedAnthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet.  He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Honeymoon by John Kinhart

From Sorry Comics

*For a closer view, go ahead and click on the comic and zoom.

About the artist: John Kinhart is an artist and film director who studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art in 2001. Kinhart is best known for his online autobiographical comic series Sorry Comics as well as his first feature film, Blood, Boobs & Beast, which has shown at 22 film festivals domestically and internationally, won 6 best documentary awards and was released on DVD in 2009.