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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

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The Drawings of Hilda Daniel

 

Willie Mae Thornton by Hilda Daniel

Willie Mae Thornton by Hilda Daniel

 

Martha Promise by Hilda Daniel

Martha Promise by Hilda Daniel

 

Gladys and the Infant by Hilda Daniel

Gladys and the Infant by Hilda Daniel

 

Willard Mayes by Hilda Daniel

Willard Mayes by Hilda Daniel

 

Ike Zinnerman by Hilda Daniel

Ike Zinnerman by Hilda Daniel

 

Big Maceo by Hilda Daniel

Big Maceo by Hilda Daniel

 

Clifton Chenier by Hilda Daniel

Clifton Chenier by Hilda Daniel

 

Vernon Presley by Hilda Daniel

Vernon Presley by Hilda Daniel

 

AP Carter by Hilda Daniel

AP Carter by Hilda Daniel

 

Otis Span by Hilda Daniel

Otis Spann by Hilda Daniel

 

Gid Tanner by Hilda Daniel

Gid Tanner by Hilda Daniel

 

Artist Statement:
These drawings were inspired by the music, stories and photos I’d seen of the subjects in them. They were all made with charcoal, graphite, chalk, eraser and masking tape on paper. I used eraser almost as much as charcoal and graphite, and the masking tape used in service of sharp edges, flatness, and graphic effect added an element of chance – which was often a total joy. There was a point in working on each of these when likeness was achieved – verisimilitude, though, was not something I was going for, ever (it always felt empty, exhaustive, enervating, sinkingly depressing when it was just likeness). I find there can be far more pathos in a bulge or curve or a movement or sound or the voluptuous blackness of a charcoal line. In this way, the drawings usually didn’t feel right until they looked “wrong” (as portraits, right as drawings). Working on these was intensely arduous but intuitive and completely immersive in an uncanny way that, when completed (and despite my being covered in charcoal dust), often made them seem more like alchemy than the result of hard work (I think this is an experience familiar to most creative people).

 

About:

Willie Mae Thornton – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a rhythm and blues singer. She taught herself to play the drums and harmonica when she was a young girl.  She and her sisters sang with her mother in church, where her father was a preacher.  Hound Dog, later made famous by Elvis, was written for her and she recorded it in 1952, with her friend Johnny Otis on drums.  Her rendition is definitely worth seeking out.   Ball N’ Chain, written and recorded by Willie Mae, was later made famous by Janis Joplin. Willie Mae often dressed in men’s clothes and her performances often subverted the traditional roles of women in the blues industry.  She died at age 57 in Los Angeles in 1984, going from 350 to 95 pounds, suffering complications exacerbated by alcohol abuse. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984, Ball and Chain into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Willie Mae Rock Camp for girls ages 8 to 18 was named after her.

Willard Mayes (Pete’s brother) – Willard was the brother of Pete Mayes (here pictured behind Willard), and a blues guitarist and singer.  Willard and Pete were raised in Double Bayou, Texas, a town with a dance hall (something significant in the young lives of so many musicians of the era). The brothers likely taught themselves to play.  There was little information I could find about Willard, but he has a credit as the bass player on one of his brother’s recordings.

Gladys Presley and the Infant – Gladys Love Smith eloped with Vernon Presley in 1933.  She was Elvis Presley’s mother.  Here she is pictured with the infant Elvis (it is perhaps too macabre to say I sometimes think of the infant in this picture also as Jesse Garon Presley, stillborn 35 minutes before Elvis – I find it haunted in that way….) At the time of her pregnancy with Elvis, Gladys was earning $2 a day at the Tupelo Garment Company.  Elvis and Gladys had a very close relationship and she remained at the center of his life.  She died at age 46.

Vernon Presley – Vernon Elvis Presley was Elvis Presley’s father.  He eloped and married Gladys Love Smith, Elvis’s mother, when he was 17.  Vernon was a deacon in the Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo and worked at various odd jobs.  He has described his life with Gladys and Elvis as close and happy, despite their struggles with poverty – “There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water.  But we always had compassion for people”.  He remarried after Gladys’s death, to Davada Stanley with whom he had three stepsons, who Elvis always considered brothers, and not stepbrothers.

Martha Promise – Martha Promise was the wife and widow of Huddy Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and known to be the inspiration of some of his songs. In a Life magazine feature about Lead Belly, Martha is identified in a photo as his manager.  She performed with Huddy at his final concert in 1949 at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ike Zinnerman – [Ike Zimmerman] taught Robert Johnson to play guitar, and harmonica.  He was born in Grady Alabama, spent his early life as a farmer, and eventually moved to The Quarters, a small area in Beauregard, MS by a crossroads and the Beauregard Cemetery.  As a boy, Ike played in juke joints in surrounding towns.  He taught many people to play – many of them women, one remembered as being as good as Robert Johnson.  He met Robert Johnson at a store.  His family took Robert into their home, where Robert learned from ike. They often practiced in the Beuregard Cemetery. Ike later gave up the blues – but not the guitar – and became a pastor in Compton, California. His children remember some of the songs later attributed to Robert Johnson, being played by their father in their home before Robert ever came to stay.

Big Maceo – Maceo Meriweather, born Major Meriweather in 1905, was a self-taught blues pianist and singer. His song, Worried Life Blues was later recorded by Chuck Berry, and among the first to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He made over 30 recordings and is considered one of the most influential blues pianists of the 1940s.  In 1946, Maceo suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He died in 1953.  In 2008 an event was organized to honor Meriweather and raise funds for a headstone for Maceo’s grave.

Clifton Chenier – Clifton Chenier is a Creole French-speaking musician from Opelousas, Lousiana.  He is known as the King of Zydeco (a highly infectious (joyously danceable) mix of Cajun and Creole, R&B, Jazz and Blues music (it is one of my favorite forms of rock and roll).  He is also credited with redesigning the tin washboard, a staple of zydeco bands, into a more easily playable vest frottoir.  “What I did was to put a little rock’n’roll into the zydeco to mix it up a bit. You see, people been playing zydeco for a long time, old style, like French music. But I was the first one to put the pep to it.” Chenier toured extensively throughout his lifetime, until his death (brought on by diabetes and kidney related illness).

A.P. Carter – Born Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter in Poor Valley, Virginia, AP was an American musician and, along with his wife Sara Dougherty, a founding member of The Carter Family.  AP suffered from physical tremors as a child (which his mother attributed to nearly being struck by lightning during pregnancy), but was an active violin player and singer in church choir.  AP expected to live as a farmer (like his family); he also worked on the railroad, and traveled the country selling trees (when he met Sara).  He is known for collecting folk songs, particularly Appalachian ones, during these travels.  Despite being among the very first to have made recordings of “country music”, The Carter Family’s seminal influence in the form, being posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame, and his image appearing on a postage stamp in 1993, he died in relative obscurity.

Gid Tanner – James Gideon Tanner was a fiddle player.  Along with his band, The Skillet Lickers, he was an early country music star, making some of its earliest recordings. He learned to play the fiddle at age 14 and was known as one of the finest musicians in Georgia.  Gid worked as a chicken farmer for most of his life.  He stopped making records in the 1930’s but continued performing.  His grandson and great-grandson continue to play in the Skillet Lickers; they host an open jam session on Friday nights in a refurbished chicken house on the family farm in Dacula, Georgia.

Otis Spann – Otis Spann was a blues pianist. He began playing piano at age 7.  His father, Friday Ford, was a pianist, and his mother a blues guitarist who played with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, among others.  Otis replaced Big Maceo Meriweather as Muddy Waters’ pianist.  He had recordings in his own right, working with other greats such as Howling Wolf, and worked as a session pianist. He died of liver cancer in 1970.  He was buried in an unmarked grave until a fundraiser in 1999 raised money for a headstone.  This drawing was inspired by a very moving account by Peter Guralnik of his visit with Otis just before his death, in which he recounted that the walls in Otis’s room was covered with dog pictures.

Information on these subjects was gleaned and paraphrased from verbal histories, books and internet sites (including Wikipedia, Elvis.Wiki, biography.com, coldbacon.com, aaregistry.org, tdblues.com and as very beautifully related by Peter Guralnik in Lost Highway and other publications, among others).  No copyright infringement is intended; absolute gratitude for sharing the history is. While I was familiar with the music of most of these people when I made these drawings during the 1990’s, information on these people at the time was much scarcer – the obscure seemed much more obscure.  In researching them again today at Editor’s request for some additional bio information, I find so much more information is available, and that those that seemed to be living in relative obscurity are now written about very differently, their influence and life’s work perhaps finally given its due.

 

 

 

BIO

Hilda Daniel is a multi-media artist based in New York City.  Her work has been exhibited in New York, London, Berlin, Oslo, Marseille, Dublin and other cities in Europe, the US, Canada, Mexico – including the Anthology Film Archive, NYC, the Oslo Screen Festival, and most recently in the MoMA’s curated SoundCloud site for its exhibition on John Cage’s 4’33” and in Kinokophonography at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. Her work has also been written about in The New York Times, Performance Art Journal, New Art Examiner, artnet.com and other publications.

 

 

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Amita Murray

Marmite and Mango Chutney

by Amita Murray

 

Auntie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms.

“Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.”

The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or, “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience, or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever.

“The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch, she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite, then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question, she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and rolling them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing.

 * * *

Veronica works as a relationship blogger, under the pen-name Dadi Ma (or Grandmother), for a successful e-magazine for the under-forties Londoner, the female professional looking for love, shoes and weight loss on her morning commute. “Love, shoes and weight loss – that’s all they ever want. I’m not very good at this advice stuff, am I? Am I?” Veronica would ask me. “I’m not very good at anything. Why am I so pathetic?” Dadi Ma is supposed to be perennially sixty-five-years-old, her birthday, for no particular reason, on Halloween, and she gives funny and old-fashioned advice to women who write in. She is very popular. Veronica has worked in this role for five years, ever since she was twenty-seven. Ironically, for most of those five years, she was miserably single.

It was a thing with her, this lack of a significant relationship. At the time, it didn’t matter to her that she was a successful writer. As I was crooning my way through the pub circuit on the dodgier outskirts of London, mournful, soft-boiled tunes to go with my cello, that I penned feverishly in the middle of the night, and that no one wanted to buy, Veronica was already working for a lifestyle magazine. She lived in a studio flat near Holborn. While I lived in this six-bedroom gig with Australians and South Africans and Kiwis, and a pet iguana with uncertain antecedents, but knowing eyes and an uncanny ability to be in the Now. No one even had a bedroom to their name, and no one knew with any accuracy how many of us were living there at any given time. If you found a bed to sleep in at night, it was taken as enough. If it was empty of foul-smelling, travelling strangers, it was practically a Christmas present.

Whenever we met up, I was determined not to let Veronica’s lack of relationship become the main topic of conversation. I came with lots to talk about, my shoulders squared and my eyes fierce with resolve. My flatmates. My “voluntary” work as a singer and cellist. My various pointless dates with married men, unavailable men, stupid men. I talked fast and furiously, in a rush to make the silence stop. My words spilled out like people who worked in office jobs, at five o’clock, anxious to get out of the door, paranoid of staying a minute later. But Veronica’s “thing” hung over us. It was the thing That Must Not Be Named. It was the body in the library. It was like nothing else existed. We could never talk of anything else in those days. If I talked of anything else, Veronica sat there looking sad and accusing. It was like her eyes were telling me I was selfish to talk about anything other than her love life, or lack of it. In the end, I would always give in, and ask her how it was going. She would tell me in great detail, great globular words that would rise and rise till they exploded all around me, spilling their hunger for love, so I was drowning in them, flailing like a fly stuck in honey. She would tell me how it was all hopeless. How she was doomed to be one of those women. How she would never find love, and love would never find her. “It must come from not knowing who my father is, you know? You will always have that,” she would say, as if this was my chief fault.

What was wrong with her, she would wail. What was it stopping her from having what everyone else had? But it was not a rhetorical question. She wanted answers from me. When would she meet someone? Could she improve her chances by losing weight, getting a haircut, reading the Hitchhiker books, sitting in the Tate, looking cool and hip? Was it that she came across as too independent, or was she too clingy and needy? “It’ll be alright, there’s nothing wrong with you,” I would say. “You’ll definitely meet someone. Definitely.” I smiled reassuringly, I gave her hugs as she left, I gave her all my optimism, and returned home sapped and dry. Veronica read horoscopes obsessively and took them personally. She read between the lines, she read them over and over for some hint that today would be the day she would meet someone. At times when I was in a relationship, she would hate me. I just knew it. “I could have been a singer,” she would say. “It just never attracted me so much. I need a challenge, you know?”

  * * *

When Veronica brings Gary home for lunch for the first time, Auntie sits hunched in her wheelchair, a frown etched on her forehead, a drab brown sari wrapped unresponsively around her. She is usually the master of organizing dinner parties, making sure that she makes her numerous relatives feel culpable if they don’t make an appearance, by saying things like, “People forget their family,” or “You’re so busy all the time, I thought I’ll only have to make an effort, no?” or “I’m too old for you now, is that it?” But today, relatives are conspicuous by their absence. She does not think the occasion demands a dinner party. It ranks somewhere beneath contracting chicken pox in her estimation.

Gary reaches out and touches her hand – a courageous but fool-hardy move. Veronica and I hold our breath. What will Auntie do? More importantly, what will she say? Her hand is unmoving, as if the stroke has wiped out the feeling in her right hand, or she wishes it had. She stares at him for a long time. But Gary stands his ground, and just stares back. She reaches out slowly to the teacup set in front of her on the coffee table. It takes her five minutes to pick it up with a shaking hand that is roughly the look and size of a dehydrated prune. She finally brings it to her lips. The stroke has had no effect on her arms or hands, but this doesn’t stop Auntie from making the most of the situation. But in any case, Gary doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look away, doesn’t try to rush her or help her.

“What do you see in her?” she says in the end, after she’s taken a slurping sip and let a drop of overcooked Red Label tea trail all the way down her chin.

Veronica and I let out a collective breath. Of all the things she could have said, this is not the worst. Not by far.

“She’s feisty,” Gary says.

Auntie snorts. “I know your kind. Men have their fun, then leave.”

“Not all men,” Gary says.

“Men of your kind,” she says. “You have no family values, you here in the West.”

“We must find a man for Aisha,” Veronica says, intervening, nudging me in the ribs. “Since only an emotionally-stunted married man with six children will do for her, that’s where we should look.”

I turn away, smiling through the stifling rage.

“You be nice to her,” Auntie says to her. “Young people,” she adds, shaking her head. It is not clear who she is speaking to, since she doesn’t approve of any of us this precise minute.

I turn back to see Auntie playing with the ring of her finger, round and round, staring at nothing. My mother left her the ring, with the understanding that Auntie would leave it to me. Gary has moved out of earshot, as has Veronica. They are huddled over a cup of tea, in that intimate way people have. “You mustn’t mind her,” she says to me, as I stare at them. “She didn’t have a father growing up, like you did.”

“I know. I don’t mind,” I say. “Of course I don’t.”

She is staring at me. “You mustn’t. You mustn’t mind. Okay?”

I do, of course I do. I hate Veronica. I hate how I have to make her feel okay about herself. I hate how it’s my job.

Lunch is a scary business, and Veronica and I are barely breathing. Auntie has given Seema (who she persists in calling her servant, though we try to tell her Seema is an employee, a cook even, but not a servant or a maid) instructions to make the biryani as hot and spicy as she possibly can. Seema has outdone herself. There are hard little pepper pods hiding under the chicken like landmines, the rice is boiled in cayenne, and skinny green chillies are chopped up into bits that are precisely the same size as the green beans, so you can’t tell the difference. Gary is sweating within minutes, wiping his upper lip and his forehead. I see a tear escape all the way down his cheek. But he perseveres. In fact, he keeps on serving himself more and says how he’s never eaten biryani half as good. Auntie’s eyes glitter. She mumbles something about how it is surprising that a mixed-race man like Gary can handle Indian chilli. She watches and waits. She is waiting for him to do something stupid. So far, he is managing not to. But it can’t last forever.

“Maybe if you’re so good for her, you can help her get a proper job,” Auntie says to Gary, as she nibbles on a mini Mars bar after lunch. It is her favourite dessert. She uses her index finger – now surprisingly sure and stable – to blot the little crumbs of chocolate that fall on her sari. She blots them, then licks the finger, leaving melted streaks of chocolate on her fingers. She sucks on these as she talks. “What is it with Westerners? Freelance, freelance, we’re going freelance. Going mad is what. Going up Chowringhee Lane.”

“It is a proper job,” I say. “Veronica’s a successful writer. Not like me, singing half-heartedly in pubs that no one goes to.” I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that. It’s hardly as if Veronica’s life needs embellishing. It seems kind of perfect to me. A creative career that pays. A flat. Gary.

“You have a beautiful voice,” Gary says, turning to me.

I am not sure if he is making fun of me. He and Veronica have seen me play at a pub. They were the only two people there that night, except for an ageing gentleman with no teeth and leather elbow patches, who follows me on my ‘tours’ and always kisses my hand afterwards and tells me he loves me. I always thank him. He is about ninety years old.

“If it didn’t sound quite so sad,” I say.

“It has heart,” he says. “It makes you long.”

I am startled. I turn to Auntie, to make a joke, to make the moment disappear. But her eyes are full of something I have never seen in them before as she watches me. Fear. I have always thought she is beyond fear.

  * * *

When things broke down with Gary after a year of marriage, Veronica disappeared for a while. She was still in London, we knew that much. But she never appeared at family dos. Or met up with any of our numerous cousins that were spread like linseed all over London. She couldn’t bear to be confronted by what she, of all people, must believe was a colossal failure.

When we meet at Auntie’s funeral, I have not seen her for over a year. Not her, and not Auntie who refused to see me after Veronica disappeared. I try to catch her eye through the service, but she refuses to look at me. She is wearing a black skirt, tights with snowdrops on them, a jacket that is tailored for her. Despite the bad couple of years she’s had, she is as successful as ever, and is now writing for other blogs and magazines. I see her name everywhere. Even when I am not looking for it.

Over lunch, I walk over to her. I stop at the table, laid with Auntie’s favourite food, that no one else likes. “I am sorry, Veronica,” I say.

She shrugs. “It was a matter of time. After the stroke.” She bites into a roulade, then spits it out into a paper napkin. She looks thin. “How’s Gary?” she asks.

“He’s fine,” I say. “He wanted to come, but I thought it would be better if he didn’t.”

“She knew, you know,” Veronica says. “Mummy knew.”

My heart beats painfully. “How do you know?”

“She stopped inviting you to things. Even before it happened with you and Gary. She knew before you knew. She watched you like a hawk.”

It’s hard to hear. But yet the last year I have been free of Veronica and the familiar guilt. I have not had to take care of her. That is something.

The will is read later on. Auntie has left me my mother’s ring. This is not something I expected. I roll it round and round on my finger. I thought she would leave it to Veronica. There is a note with it. “Take care of her,” she says. “She only has you. She didn’t have a father growing up. Family is all we have.”

And I am not free. “It will be alright, Veronica,” I say as I leave. “It really will. Definitely.” I give her a hug.

 

 

 

BIO:

Amita Murray is a writer, based in London. She has published stories in Brand, Inkspill, Front View and others. She often writes about the comedy and tragedy of clashing personalities and cultures. Short story magazines tell her that her writing is talented – publishing houses regretfully add that it continues to defy a clear market. So her writing life is an on-going see-saw between agony and ecstasy. Her novels Confessions of a Reluctant Embalmer and The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress are available on Amazon. Get in touch @AmitaMurray and amitamurray.com

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David Armand Photo

Dixon Hearne Interviews David Armand

 

THE ART OF WRITING

A Conversation with DAVID ARMAND

Author of THE PUGILIST’S WIFE, HARLOW, and THE GORGE

David Armand author

DAVID ARMAND was born and raised in Louisiana. He grew up in the small village of Folsom, where he lived on twenty-two acres of pine-wooded land with lots of dogs and a few horses. He has worked as a telephone operator, a dishwasher, a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He now teaches creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, was released by Texas Review Press in September 2013. He has spoken at the Tennessee Williams Festival and the William Faulkner Society’s Words & Music Festival in New Orleans, as well as the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. David now lives with his wife and two children and has recently completed his third novel.

 

THE INTERVIEW

Dixon Hearne: Thank you for meeting with me today, David. Can you talk a little bit about your new book, The Gorge, and how you came up with the concept for the story?

 

David Armand: Sure. The Gorge takes place in the Bogue Chitto State Park in Franklinton, Louisiana. The book takes place in the mid-1980s, though, before the land was a state park. At the opening of the novel, a young girl’s body is discovered in the brush near Fricke’s Cave, which is sort of a geographical anomaly in southeastern Louisiana. The young man who discovers her body is accused of killing her.

 

Dixon Hearne: What is Fricke’s Cave?

 

David Armand: Fricke’s Cave is a sandstone “cave” at the head of a giant gorge there in the park. It’s not really a cave, per se, but it’s just an odd formation that stands out among everything else around it. When I first saw this place a few years ago, this persistent image of a body being discovered there just wouldn’t leave me alone. (This is how all of my books start, by the way, with this image that just won’t go away. This one was so strong that I started writing notes on some receipts that were in my car’s glove compartment as soon as my family and I left that place.)

The odd thing is that as I was working on this book, I started reading Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and learned that a body actually was left in Fricke’s Cave back in the early eighties. The character that Sean Penn played in the film version of Dead Man Walking was actually an amalgamation of several killers, one of them Robert Lee Willie, who was accused, along with his friend Joe Vacarro, of killing a girl named Faith Hathaway and dumping her body in the cave.

But The Gorge is not a retelling of that story. Instead it is a fictional story of a young man, Tuller, who finds his girlfriend’s body and then gets accused of her murder. Most of the book is told in flashbacks of Tuller’s and his girlfriend, Amber’s, relationship. It’s a love story more than anything else.

 

Dixon Hearne: Are any of the characters in your book based on people you knew and grew up with?

 

David Armand: Sure. I think that’s inevitable.Most of the characters in my books are amalgamations of people I know or once knew. No character in my book is an exact replica of a real person, but there are certain traits that I borrow and use for my fiction, absolutely.

 

Dixon Hearne: Your prose is so careful and precisely written. It’s almost as if every word is carefully chosen. It’s very beautiful the way you write.

 

David Armand: Thank you for saying that. Being initially trained as a poet, I learned a lot about the economy of language and the importance of using precise imagery and description. I’m also very aware of pacing. Sometimes I will spend hours fretting over a metaphor or an image or the right way to say something. It’s worth it, though. I prefer quality over quantity, for sure.

 

Dixon Hearne: So how long did it take to write this book?

 

David Armand: This book has taken me about two and half years to write. I started it on February 17, 2012. I’m still working on edits, but it’s pretty much done. My first two books took about the same amount of time to complete.

 

Dixon Hearne: Wow, you remember the exact date when you started writing this book? That seems kind of remarkable.

 

David Armand: Well, I keep very precise records as I work. It’s so important to stay organized as a writer. I know the word count I make each day, when I start a book, when I finish one. I finished writing Harlow, for example, on February 14, 2012.

Harlow book

Dixon Hearne: Valentine’s Day?

 

David Armand: I know. And strangely enough, the last image and line of that book says something like, “keep it there where it is written: in your heart.” That definitely wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think it was certainly a subconscious decision.

 

Dixon Hearne: And then three days later, you started writing your next book? You must write all the time.

 

David Armand: I think that’s how I stay sane. How I keep from falling into total despair. Faulkner said that if the writer’s demon-driven with something to be said, then he’s going to write it. That might sound melodramatic, but I think you must be a little bit tortured in some way to want to be an artist. It’s hard work, and the payoff (if any) is few and far between. But of course we don’t do it for the payoff: we do it because we have no choice.

 

Dixon Hearne: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?

 

David Armand: It definitely happens along the way. Making books can often be like riding down a river: you can never see the end from where you start off. I think it’s good to work like that, though. It requires utmost faith in your craft and your ability, but this approach also adds an element of mystery and suspense to the work that ultimately translates to the reader. If you start to outline or plan too much what you’re going to do, the reader will be able to sense that later on, and it can be the death of your book.

 

Dixon Hearne: How did you come up with the structure for your novel?

 

David Armand: I’m glad you asked about that.Structure is so important to me. The Gorge, like my previous two books, is told out of chronological order. To me, a novel is never really interesting unless it experiments with time and also with language. The true artist must be fearless. To me, it would be pretty easy to write a straightforward realistic novel, told in plain language. But that would also be boring. Nothing new. I don’t like post-modern “experimental” stuff like Borges, though: to me, that’s just gimmicky. But I do like writers who take chances, just not those who take stock in nihilism or this idea that we have to be self-referential in order to be interesting. I hate when people try to be too interesting. To me, you either are or you aren’t, you know?

 

Dixon Hearne: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?

 

David Armand: Well, I live here; I live among the people I write about and, in a way, I’m one of them. I don’t participate in some of the depraved things my characters do, of course, but I can definitely relate to some of their desperation. Sometimes I will write a certain scene or about a certain event and I’ll have to literally recover from it: it’s like witnessing a horrible crime or something, I don’t know. Some people ask me why I write about such dark things and dark places, and I tell them that it’s not something I set out to do, at least not consciously. I think it’s just being honest. Things like this happen, unfortunately, and it’s the artist’s job to record those things as he sees them. Not for shock value or to capitalize off of them, but to be truthful to the reality you know about and have grown up around.

There’s a scene in The Gorge that takes place in a scrapyard that comes directly from an experience I just had: I had to change out my water heater a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to take the old one to a scrap yard by my house. When I got there, I could tell that so many of the people there were selling scrap to either buy food or pay a bill or buy drugs, or maybe all of the above. There was all this protocol you had to follow just to go in and sell your junk. I was thinking of James Dickey’s poem “Cherrylog Road” and when I sat at my desk the next morning, about 3,000 words just erupted: the whole scene I wrote that day took place in a junkyard. I was amazed.

 

Dixon Hearne: When did you first start writing?

 

David Armand: You know, as reluctant as I am to say it, I think I was born to be a writer. I have always paid close attention to the mundane details around me (people’s facial expressions, colloquialisms they used, sounds, smells). I suspect a lot of us do this, but I just had an obsession for these things ever since I can remember.

I loved being read to as a small child and I have fond memories of this. I loved the way words looked on the page and the way they sounded when combined in certain ways. I used to try to mix words up or intentionally mispronounce them when I was younger to see what effect it had. I still do this, play with words and sounds.

Once I learned how to read, I read everything: street signs, logos on people’s shirts, you name it. My family would tell me to shut up I would do this so much. But it just felt magical to me, like I found a key to unlock something that I couldn’t understand before. This feeling of magic has never gone away, even to this day.

When I was in third grade, I started drawing comic strips. It was my first real effort at storytelling. I entered a comic that I had made in a contest for the “Just Say No” campaign, which was an anti-drug campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan back in the ’80s when I was a kid. I don’t remember how long it took, but eventually I learned that my comic won first prize. I received one-hundred dollars, and my comic was displayed at the Parish Fair. I can still remember what it looked like hanging up there on the bulletin board and the way the hay on the ground smelled and the sounds of the livestock in the same covered building and the feeling I had as people walked past my story and read it. I wish I still had a copy of it, but it’s long gone. That hundred dollars didn’t last long either, I’m sure, but I felt rich.

After that, I started writing little sketches in an old ledger book that my grandfather gave me for collecting stamps. I remember peeling out all of the stamps (probably a really stupid move, as I’m sure those stamps were worth far more than what I was writing in that book) and then writing these little horror stories, à la Edgar Allan Poe, in there.

In high school, I wrote songs and poems. I re-wrote the ending to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for a class assignment once and the teacher read it out loud to the class. She didn’t read anyone else’s. Mine was pretty offensive, but thankfully she didn’t say it was mine and neither did I.

When I was about fifteen or sixteen I wrote this long stream-of-consciousness narrative in an old blue notebook and showed it to one of my friends (she was a girl I was trying to impress) while we were riding home on the school bus. She was sitting in a different seat from me and when she finished the story, she got up and came to sit by me. The bus was nearly empty by then and I remember being so nervous that she was going to dismiss my story or dislike it, but to my surprise she seemed genuinely blown away by it. I’ll never forget that. The next day, I showed it to another girl in one of my classes and I remember watching her read it; she was completely focused on it and she was ignoring the teacher’s lesson, and then she just handed the notebook back to me when she finished. She didn’t say anything but I thought that she liked the story since she was unusually nice to me from then on. I don’t know though.

Other than those two girls, I never showed my writing to anyone. I don’t think my family knew I was writing stories or that I was interested in that. I read a lot, they knew that much, but I don’t think they knew I was interested in writing until way later. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started getting support from my teachers.

Unfortunately, I burned those old notebooks along with a whole entire box of writing that I did on an old electric IBM typewriter that my grandfather gave to me (I can still smell the grease on the inside of that clunker). A part of me wishes I still had that old work, but in a way, I’m glad it’s gone.

 

Dixon Hearne: So how is life for you now, compared to when your first book was published?

 

David Armand: Well, I’m still teaching. I have to pay the bills. But I have definitely appreciated the attention my work has brought to me. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from readers telling me how much my books have meant to them, particularly Harlow. I think they can relate to the pain the characters experience in the book, probably because it’s pain that I’ve experienced in my life as well. That translates onto the page. But those emails have meant so much to me. Writing can be a lonely job, but when you can communicate with readers and other writers, it makes it more bearable.

 

Dixon Hearne: You’ve had several book signings, I’ve noticed, like at Octavia Books in New Orleans. And you’ve been on a book tour. How has that been?

 

David Armand: It’s been great. Like I said, writing itself is lonely work, but when you get to meet with people who care about books and can understand the characters in your own work, you can’t ask for anything more. You really can’t.

 

Dixon Hearne: What books did you read growing up?

 

David Armand: I read so much when I was a kid. The first book I ever read in its entirety was Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. After that, I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then I started reading Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe. I loved reading The Hardy Boys, too. When I got a little bit older, I started reading Stephen King. I think I learned a lot from everything I’ve ever read. Even the bad stuff.

 

Dixon Hearne: Who else influenced your work?

 

David Armand: Definitely William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier, Daniel Woodrell, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown. All for different reasons.

I also had the great fortune of having some really good teachers when I was in college. Particularly my writing teachers Jack Bedell, Norman German, and Tim Gautreaux showed interest in my early efforts and all were more than generous with their time and support. Their kindness and willingness to share what they knew with me, just a young kid, will never be forgotten.

 

Dixon Hearne: Your work has been compared to a handful of those writers you mentioned. How does that make you feel?

 

David Armand: Yes, I have been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point-of-view) to be compared to those writers I mentioned. These are all of my favorite writers, so on the one hand, it’s a great honor, but on the other, I wonder if these comparisons are detrimental to me. I mean, I think this is what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, and I don’t want to work under the shadows of these great writers and simply be a copy of them. I would like to have my own distinct voice. I suspect that Cormac McCarthy literally moved from Tennessee to New Mexico (or wherever he lives now) just to get from underneath Faulkner’s indomitable shadow. I think McCarthy’s first books are great, but they were often criticized for being too reliant on Faulkner’s models, so I can’t help but think he moved somewhere new just to get away from that. His first “Western” book, Blood Meridian, clearly got him out of that rut, if you could even call what he was in a rut, in the first place.

I was at a reading recently where one of the audience members asked the author if it made him feel good that his work was compared by reviewers to all these other great writers and he said that he didn’t really pay much attention to that, that the reviewers had to say something, and often our only outlet for description is comparison: that’s why we use metaphor. Because we just can’t put our minds around a good enough description, so we make a comparison. It’s human nature, you know.

One time I was in a bar and a girl came up to me and told me that I looked like Matt Damon just because I think she wanted me to buy her a drink. I know that I don’t look like Matt Damon, but I bought her that drink anyway, and it cost me twelve bucks. But it was worth it.

So people can compare my work to whomever they want to so long as it gives someone else a good point of reference and maybe makes them want to read what I have to say.

 

Dixon Hearne: Has there been any talk of turning your books into a film?

 

David Armand: Not that I know of, but one can hope (laughs). Of course, I would love to see any one of my books turned into a film. If for no other reason than to help me pay off my mortgage. I’ve seen some great film adaptations of books and of course I’ve seen some disappointing ones.

But if Harlow were ever made into a film, I would love to see Tye Sheridan play the boy Leslie. Sheridan is about eighteen (the same age as Leslie), he’s got that gritty look about him, and he’s a phenomenal actor (he played in Terry Malick’s last movie, and more notably he was in Mud with Matt McConaughey). He’s in an adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe with Nick Cage, which was written by Gary Hawkins. I just think this young man would be great for this role.

And since he had such great chemistry with Matt McConaughey in Mud, I would be happy to see Matt McConaughey play Harlow, Leslie’s father. McConaughey has that great Southern drawl and that gritty look about him, too. Yeah, I could see him playing Harlow Cagwin, for sure.

 

Dixon Hearne: What is your writing process like, or what is a day of writing like for you?

 

David Armand: Writing novels is a lot like laying bricks, carefully placing one square at a time and adhering those bricks together with mortar. But every novelist’s process is different, you see.

Personally, my process goes like this: I read all the time. When I’m reading a book that is particularly well-written (one, say, by Cormac McCarthy), I keep a pen and a piece of paper or an index card and I write down every word that resonates with me. For example, when I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for the first time, I had about six or seven note cards with words like “spurtle,” “piggin,” and “scarp” written on them. Those words resonated with me, had a certain feeling attached to them, a feeling I knew I wanted to have in my work-in-progress at the time. Those words become the bricks that started to make the wall of the novel. Too many writers today seem to forget the utter power that a single word (and the right word) contains, and therefore they miss the mark because their focus is too heavy on story or gimmick or idea that they forget why they came to the page in the first place: language and the fearless worship of it.

While I don’t write every day, I do feel as if I am writing incessantly, as I am always thinking about stories and how to make them.

While working, I keep my index cards and notes close by, referring to them for the right word or image as I go. Then I start to think about structure and how the story is told. I print out hard copies of the novels and mark them up with a red pen, then a black pen, then use a highlighter to mark off the changes.

 

Dixon Hearne: Do you ever write with a pen and paper?

 

David Armand: Sometimes I do. I keep a stack of yellow legal pads in my desk drawer and I will write in them a lot. I find that when I hand write a section, it makes it easier when I type it up to do the editing as I go along. There’s something kind of romantic about handwriting a novel, even though it’s definitely less convenient.

 

Dixon Hearne: Who reads your work first?

 

David Armand: I have a couple of readers with whom I share my work. The great thing is that each of them reads for different things, and I can count on them for honest feedback. Some of the best advice has come from my close friends.

 

Dixon Hearne: Do you write any poetry?

 

David Armand: Not so much anymore, but as I’ve said, I started off my training as a poet, and I think that has really helped me as a novelist. Faulkner used to say that all novelists are failed poets, and I tend to agree with that. I do have a handful of poems that I might work on a little bit one day and send out to a magazine or two.

 

Dixon Hearne: Have you written any short stories?

 

David Armand: Yes, after I wrote a lot of poems, I moved up to the next longest form, which for me was the short story. I really worked on that craft for a while, making a handful of stories that I collected in my graduate thesis, Mae’s Blues, which I had the pleasure of working with Tim Gautreaux on. I published a couple of those. I also like to try to pull out sections of my novels and publish those as stand-alone pieces. That’s seemed to have worked well for me, too.

 

Dixon Hearne: How did you go from writing your first book, to getting it published?

 

David Armand: After I finished writing The Pugilist’s Wife, I submitted it to agents and independent presses for about two years. I also submitted it to several contests. One of the contests I sent it to was run by Texas Review Press over at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. My novel went through the rounds of blind judging and made it out on top. Then the day that changed my writing life was November 8, 2010, when I received a phone call from Paul Ruffin, the director of Texas Review Press. He called to inform me that my novel had won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize. The novel was published the next year. Two years later, Ruffin published my second novel, Harlow.

Pugilists Wife book

So that is why I always suggest to authors who are spending years of their lives trying to find an agent first and then go that route to a publisher, just submit your work to contests. Winning or even placing can get the attention of agents, or even land one a publishing deal with the sponsor of the contest, if that happens to be a press, as it was in my case.

 

Dixon Hearne: What are your plans for the near future?

 

David Armand: I recently learned that I was accepted to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. So I’ll be going there at the end of the summer. I have a couple of book clubs I’ll be meeting with this summer as well. If I get an advance or something for my next book, I’d like to buy a boat. I think that would be a good way to celebrate. I’d love to teach my kids how to fish, and to just spend some time on the water.

 

Dixon Hearne: Great, David.Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure meeting and talking with you.

 

 

BIO

Dixon HearneDixon Hearne is the author of a textbook, three short story collections and editor of several anthologies. His fiction has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and winner of many other awards. Other work can be found in Louisiana Literature, Mature Living, Wisconsin Review, Louisiana Review, Cream City Review, New Plains Review, Roanoke Review and many other magazines, journals and anthologies. Visit: www.dixonhearne.com and Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixon_Hearne

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jj anselmi

Entering the Moment

by J.J. Anselmi

 

I heard the rumble of Steve’s Bronco when he pulled up to my parents’ house. Two months earlier, I’d started my junior year of high school.

“Ok mom, I’m going out to Jared and Bryan’s to ride.”

“Alright baby,” she said, looking up from her Anne Rice novel. Mom didn’t care if I came home super late from Jared and Bryan’s house or, oftentimes, not until the next day. When I was with my friends, she knew I’d be Ok. Our obsessive focus on BMX kept Jared, Bryan, Steve and me from fucking around with drugs or booze.

“I’ll call if I stay.”

Jared and Bryan lived seven miles outside Rock Springs, in a small community called Arrowhead Springs. Kenny and Tammy, Jared and Bryan’s parents, let my friends and me build ramps in their large garage. Within two years, we’d turned it into our own skate park. They also let Steve and me stay at their house too many times to count, basically adopting us into their family.

The fact that Dad had worked for Pacific Power for over twenty years seemed like a feat of manliness to me. In high school, my male classmates constantly talked about customizing their trucks and working tough jobs. I tried to follow their conversations, pretending that I knew what it was like to endure long shifts of backbreaking labor involving machinery that could eat you alive. But I felt like the world these boys inhabited would always be foreign to me. Building ramps with Jared, Bryan, and Steve helped me feel like a man in a town where I often didn’t.

Over the years, my friends taught me some basics of construction. Although he’d worked in a power plant, Dad was a mountain man, and he’d never been mechanically savvy. I hated the only woodshop class I’d ever taken because I constantly worried that the teacher and other boys thought I was a pansy. But, in Jared and Bryan’s garage, I loved to cut plywood and two-by-fours with an electric saw while listening to old school metal. My friends were patient when they taught me about ramp building, and their jabs about my lack of mechanical sense were mostly playful.

A gust of wind blew hair into my mouth when I walked outside. The October nights had become frigid, and the first snow of the year coated the sidewalks. Seven months of harsh Wyoming winter loomed. My breath snaked into the air, getting sucked from my throat by the wind. I looked at the plywood quarter pipe on the edge of my parents’ driveway, its bottom corners curling up from being left outside.

During the previous summer, I’d bought the ramp from a rollerblader. My friends and I hauled it to my parents’ house in my truck and set it up on the left side of the driveway. A few days later, I spray-painted ‘Six Six Six,’ ‘Destroy,’ and ‘Hate’ on the ramp. I didn’t believe in god or the devil, I was just an asshole metal head, and I loved to piss people off. Dad had spray-painted black boxes over my tags, but I could still see my words beneath thin coats of paint. He hated the tags for the same reason I thought they were badass: anyone who drove by our house could see them.

Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill pulsated my eardrums when I opened the back door of Steve’s Bronco. I lifted my bike in, careful not to scratch my Metal Bikes frame. We drove uphill, passing Uncle Mark and Keith Hay’s large houses.

On Highway 430, wind pushed against Steve’s Bronco, making it more difficult to pick up speed. Icy snow danced across the cracked asphalt. Steve and I didn’t try to talk over the music. “Suicide Note Pt. 1”—an acoustic ballad on an album that mostly consists of southern rock-infused thrash—drifted from Steve’s speakers. Phil Anselmo crooned, Would you look at me now?/ Can you tell I’m a man?

We passed SF Phosphates, a chemical plant that marked the turnoff to Arrowhead Springs. Large concrete and metal cylinders emitted sickly white smoke into the air. The chemical plant, with its flickering green and red lights, looked like a tiny, diseased city.

A cottontail suddenly darted across the road. The rabbit sounded like a plywood plank slapping against the Bronco’s wheel well when Steve hit it. “Those little fuckers,” he said. “It’s like they’re on a death mission.” We usually ran over at least one rabbit during the nights we drove to Jared and Bryan’s house.

After we parked in the driveway and got out of the Bronco, I heard plywood and two-by-fours slap against concrete, punctuated by a tink of coping. Light seeped under the tall garage door, which Steve lifted up for us to walk under. Metallica’s Kill ‘em All echoed off the insulated walls in the garage.

“Get the fuck out of here you fucking peter-eaters!” Bryan yelled. We’d started calling each other ‘peter-eater’ after Jared and Bryan’s dad drunkenly mumbled it at Jared one night.

Bryan pedaled at a quarter pipe on the far end of the garage. A three-foot wooden ledge sat on the deck of the ramp. Bryan jumped from the quarter pipe and stuffed his shoe between his fork and front tire, stalling on his front wheel on top of the ledge. With seeming effortlessness, he jumped back into the quarter pipe, landing an inch or two below the coping. Above the next ramp, Bryan planted his left foot on the wall while holding his bike above him. His back wheel spun, freewheel ticking like a manic clock, before he dove back into the transition. Throughout the rest of his run, Bryan performed similarly difficult tricks with the precision of a mathematician.

When Bryan finished his run, Steve shot out from his spot next to me. After airing a quarter pipe, he made a sharp turn and rode up the adjacent vert wall—a super steep ramp we’d pushed against Kenny’s tool room. Coming down, Steve pushed his tires into the transition to gain speed. He launched over the nearby hip and tilted his bike past ninety degrees, executing a perfect tabletop. Steve zipped around the garage, turning and spinning his opposite direction without a hint of awkwardness.

Steve’s smooth riding contrasted with his chaotic home life. His parents were divorced, and he switched between staying at their houses. Once, during a fight, Steve hit his step-dad in the kneecap with a hammer. Scared of getting his ass kicked, he rode to his dad’s trailer across town. Watching their big-screen, chain smoking, and blasting Motley Crue, Steve’s dad and step-mom got drunk every night. A pack of children with popsicle-smudged faces always seemed to be running around the trailer.

Like my dad, Steve’s dad—who Jared, Bryan, and I called Old Steve—was super supportive. He used to ride BMX himself, and, every once in a while, he’d hop on his old school Haro and ride with us. He’d also tell us stories about riding with his friends back in the day. They’d sharpen their pegs and do kick-outs into the doors of cop cars, which I thought was rad.

I can’t count how many times Old Steve fixed my car or truck. He was an amazing mechanic, and he knew most of the auto shops in town would rip me off. He never called me a pansy or dumbass because I didn’t know how to work on cars. Even though he spent forty-plus-hours-a-week working in an auto shop, he never seemed to mind helping me out.

But, like all of us, Old Steve definitely had his shortcomings. He and Steve’s mom hadn’t planned on having Steve. They were only kids themselves—both around seventeen or eighteen—and Old Steve didn’t want to force himself into a monotonous adult life. Although he loved his son intensely, I think he wanted to be Steve’s buddy instead of his parent. Steve only mentioned it to me a few times, but he and his dad had also gotten into a few fist fights, and I think this violence loomed over their relationship. When Old Steve teased his son as if he was his drinking buddy, Steve usually looked like he was trying too hard to smile. Riding fast and pumping each transition for momentum in the garage, Steve’s mind entered a place where only the present moment existed.

Starting my run, I ice-picked the ledge above the quarter pipe. Unlike Bryan, Steve, and Jared, I didn’t rotate my opposite direction during my runs. It felt awkward, and I didn’t have enough patience with myself to learn. At this point, I felt too embarrassed to go back and learn the foundational tricks my friends had all picked up in junior high.

I rode straight up a different quarter pipe, slamming my back wheel into the adjacent wall while squeezing my brake lever. I stalled in an over-vertical position for a fraction of a second, my front wheel hanging over my head. I hopped into the transition backwards, back-pedaling and then quickly flipping around. I loved the sensation of going down a ramp the wrong way. Most of my tricks consisted of variations on these two maneuvers—a fakie wall ride and an ice-pick stall—whereas my friends’ riding was much more varied.

“Yeah, J.J.,” Jared said. He, Steve, and Bryan clapped, although they’d all seen me land this trick several times before.

Jared pedaled toward the quarter pipe furthest from where we sat. Launching off the ramp, he spun a 180 and landed on the three-foot ledge. His sprocket dug into the wooden edge, and his front wheel hovered just above the quarter pipe’s coping. Jared used to tell me that this trick, called a disaster, is about overcoming the mental picture of flipping over your bars on the way back in and smashing your face on the ground. He hopped back into the ramp, tires adhering to the transition as if magnetized.

Riding, each of us pushed beyond fear. Momentarily floating in this space, we disconnected from thoughts about our fathers’ flaws and how much we hated Rock Springs. Even though I mostly did variations on the same tricks, overcoming fear was always part of the equation. You can’t ride without getting injured, and riders often get hurt doing routine tricks.

BMX constantly fucked all of us up. My injury list: separated shoulder; two broken feet; broken leg; countless gashes—one on top of my head that had to be closed with staples—scrapes, and bruises; fluid build-up behind both kneecaps—my right knee used to swell to twice its normal size after bumping it, even lightly; and one concussion. And my BMX injuries were minor compared to a lot of other riders’. I remember getting around school on crutches after I broke my foot or leg. Most kids and teachers knew how I’d hurt myself, and I felt like a badass as I crutched through the halls.

We rode for about an hour and a half before going upstairs. Jared and Bryan’s mom had bought KFC for us and set it out on the counter.

“Hi guys,” Tammy said. “J.J. and Steve, have some dinner.” Steve and I’d long gotten past the point of politely refusing food from Tammy, knowing she’d just tell us to eat anyway. On her way upstairs, she exhaled and stopped. To Jared and Bryan, she said, “Your dad won’t be home until late.” We all knew what this meant: Kenny was going to get shit-faced and drive home.

Bryan had recently ordered a new BMX video, Manmade Chapter 2. He put it in the DVD player while Jared, Steve, and I piled greasy chicken onto our plates and sat down in the living room. Filthy, tar-soaked riffs of Floor’s “Assassin” play during Dave King’s section, both of which made me feel giddy. Dave flies over huge dirt jumps, doing picture-perfect tabletops and turndowns—classic, style-oriented tricks. There’s a tough, manly beauty in his riding. He and his bike become one entity, and I wished that I could ride like him. A rider usually needs a background in racing to attain this level of smoothness, and I’d never raced. As Dave rides, Floor’s Steve Brooks, one of the few openly gay metal musicians I know of, sings Crazy for the boy in a weirdly soothing, off-kilter melody. This song perfectly fits Dave King’s stripped-down riding.

An energetic From Autumn to Ashes song plays during Chase Hawk’s section in Chapter 2, which follows Dave King’s. Chase floats in the air, whipping his back end to the side over steep dirt jumps as if his bike is an extension of his body. He doesn’t do circus tricks like double back flips, but, to me, his effortless flow was much more beautiful than the riding you’d see in contests like the X Games. You can hear the zip of his tires as he flies off the lip of a dirt jump, the whoosh of wind as he zooms past the camera. Over each jump, he performs an acrobatic dance that exists somewhere beyond human emotion. As I did with Dave King, I wished I could ride like Chase. About two years after this night, I’d hang out with Chase and Dave in Austin, discovering their bisexuality, which seemed terrifying at the time but now makes perfect sense.

We heard Kenny pull into the upper garage in his vintage Jaguar, a car he’d rebuilt himself. Like most nights, he’d driven home after getting hammered at a bar in downtown Rock Springs. During his early 20s, Kenny, driving drunk with two female passengers, had gotten into a gnarly accident. One woman died and the other would never walk again. About fifteen years later, Kenny flipped a four-wheeler onto himself, breaking his neck and back. Now, to turn his head, he had to turn his entire body, and he usually wore a neck brace.

Kenny shuffled in from the garage. He grabbed a plastic bowl of salad from the fridge, eating lettuce and vegetables with his bare hands. My friends and I laughed hysterically. I waited for Jared or Bryan to fuck with him.

“Dad,” Jared said. “You’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.” This phrase sent all of us into hysterics.

Kenny chewed a piece of lettuce, smacking his lips. Between incoherent mumbling, he said, “No, you’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.”

Laughing at Kenny, we told ourselves that we would never be like our fathers, even though we’d all inherited our penchant for recklessness from our dads. Although I laughed, I also knew that Kenny’s drinking was a yawning pain for Jared, Bryan, their older brother Jesse, and Tammy. We never said this, but my friends and I all wished Kenny wouldn’t drink anymore.

He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. With short brown hair and a trimmed beard, he was perpetually hunched over from his back injuries, and his lips always curled up in a smartass grin. Like a stereotypical Irishman, his cheeks were deeply ruddy. I still can’t believe that he let us fill his work space with ramps.

Instead of telling us to be careful when he watched us ride, Kenny would try to get us to do crazier shit, often yelling, “Do a 360!” When Steve and I came over, he never made us feel like mooches, even though we routinely raided his fridge and slept on his couches. He always told us to think of his expensive tools as our own, and his tool room became the go-to place when we needed to fix our bikes. Almost every time I saw Kenny, he asked me how my parents were doing. He and my dad had known each other for a long time, having a mutual friend in Joey Hay.

It was this mix of deep-hearted kindness and selfishness that made our dads so perplexing. Beneath our anger and sometimes-sarcastic view of our dads, I think we worried that they were constantly on the verge of killing themselves.

 * * *

During high school, Steve, Jared, Bryan and I became friends with Josh, a Rock Springs BMX hero who was seven years older than us. When Josh moved to Salt Lake, he offered us an open invitation to sleep on his floor. He lived with Mike Aitken, a legendary BMX pro. Like us, Josh was straight edge.

When he visited Rock Springs, he usually rode our garage ramps. One weekend, we were listening to the Ramones’ self-titled album as Josh walked his bike into the garage.

“Fuck this pussy shit,” he said. He grabbed a Pantera CD from his truck and put it in the garage stereo. Phil Anselmo’s anger on Vulgar Display of Power sent ecstatic pulses through my veins. I’d listened to Pantera a few times, but this was the moment when I fell in love with the band’s dirty southern thrash.

Josh’s lips curled into a tight frown while he rode. He went faster than any of us, and I always thought of the term ‘balls out’ when I watched him ride. He launched at a wall above a quarter pipe, planting his rear tire at least three feet above the highest point any of us had reached. He glided back into the transition, his freewheel roaring like a table saw.

Between Josh’s runs, I stared at his tattoos—tire-treads on his right bicep, and a bike company logo on his left wrist, both in black ink. Sweat glistened on his closely-shaven head.

Around Josh, I often felt embarrassed and frustrated by my riding. Still, after I landed a trick, he usually said, “Yeah,” or whistled.

  * * *

During the summer before senior year, my friends and I finished our BMX video, which we’d been working on for the past two and a half years. Bryan and I edited the video on my parents’ computer, teaching ourselves about editing as we went along. I loved feeling like I could control tiny snippets of reality.

Just a few weeks away from starting school, we watched our video at my parents’ house one afternoon. I wished my section had more trick variety, but I also felt like it captured my personality. Megadeth plays while I ride full pipes, street spots, and skate parks in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, and Oregon. I was proud of my editing in the video, especially in this section. During the intro to my part, snippets of me riding, wrecking, and the tags on my quarter pipe flash, on beat with Megadeth’s high-energy death rock in “Skin O’ My Teeth.”

One of my favorite clips was of me riding a metal cylinder that Steve and I’d found earlier in the summer. Driving along a highway just outside Rock Springs, one of us noticed rows of huge metal pipes, all lying on their sides in an industrial yard. The gate was open, so I just drove in, passing three or four ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Barbed-wire-topped fencing lined the perimeter of the yard, and massive equipment that I didn’t even remotely understand surrounded us. I stared at metal teeth, intricate piping, and humongous tires, knowing that each machine in the yard could’ve swallowed me.

With some maneuvering, we were able to get our bikes through a small opening in one of the cylinders. Rust coated the inside of the pipe, and it took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust. The cylinder was hard to ride. Unlike a half-pipe built for riding and skateboarding, there was no flat-bottom, which would’ve made it a lot easier to accumulate speed.

I positioned myself at the bottom of one transition, then, pushing off, quickly rotated a bit less than 180 degrees on the other side. I spun on each side, then put pressure on my handlebars, pressing my front wheel into the transition’s curve to gain speed.

The pipe amplified sound. A metallic roar replaced the usual zip of my tires.

Steve and I filmed some clips of each other. In the clip of me riding the cylinder in our video, rust rises from the pipe’s surface, swirling around me as my tires touch the point where the transition curls over itself. Watching this clip now, I remember how rust particles floated into my nose and mouth, sticking to my teeth. I also remember how powerful I felt during these moments. The pipe weighed thousands of pounds, but it shifted, slightly, against my weight and momentum.

Breathing in rust became too much to handle after twenty or thirty minutes. The cylinder also magnified the dry Wyoming heat. A large work truck pulled up right after we got our bikes out. The driver, a middle-aged woman with short hair, said, “You guys should get out of here. I just called the sheriff’s department.”

Whenever I’d drive past the yard after riding the cylinder, I remembered the weightless feeling I experienced as I carved the pipe. I never found out why these cylinders had originally been built, and I didn’t care. In Rock Springs, I usually felt alienated by the industrial machinery surrounding me. But repurposing industrial objects gave me a sense of control. After I rode one of them, the cylinders seemed like they were made of something softer and more malleable than industrial-strength steel.

My friends and I finished watching the video and then decided to ride the ramps in front of my house. We’d put our bikes in the garage, where the rancid air made us all gag. Fishing poles, reels, nets, coolers, boat oars, spare tires, rope, disorganized tools and other random shit cluttered the garage floor. Bryan, Steve, and Jared covered their noses with their shirt collars as we picked up our bikes and went outside.

“Jesus Christ,” Bryan said as we sat on our bikes on the walkway that cut through the front yard. “What’s that smell again?”

“I think it’s those hides on the rafters. I don’t know why the fuck my dad still keeps them.”

We rode the quarter pipe for fifteen or twenty minutes, mostly just fucking around. Although we often rode seriously, we also spent a lot of time doing joke tricks that were either out of style or just plain ridiculous.

Dad pulled up in his truck, parking on the sloped curb next to our house. He grabbed a fishing rod and cooler from his flatbed. “Honest question,” he said, walking toward us. “Which one of you guys can do the baddest trick?” He set down his cooler and took off his one-piece sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot slits. In his deep monotone, Dad said, “Let’s see a mobius flip,” referring to an old-school skiing trick. During the 70s and early 80s, Dad used to ski off twenty-foot boulders, extending his legs into huge spread-eagles, of which I’ve seen a few pictures.

After each of our tricks, Dad said, “Hell yeah,” or “Right on.” He watched us for a few minutes, cracking us up with filthy jokes. Suddenly, he said, “Seriously though, you guys don’t ride this thing much, do you?” His tone became gravelly. “You know you’re going to have to get rid of it soon. I don’t want this bullshit in my driveway anymore.”

An awkward silence momentarily hung between my friends and me after Dad went inside. Jared pedaled across the walkway, toward the ramp. As he rode up the quarter pipe, I yelled, “Do a mobius flip you fucking peter-eater!” Laughing, he steered off the side of the ramp so he wouldn’t eat shit. Steve and Bryan’s high-pitched laughter echoed off the retaining wall behind the quarter pipe.

  * * *

A month or so later, Steve and I drove to Denver to see a Metallica concert, which I’d constantly been thinking about since buying my ticket. Black Sabbath, Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica—I felt like I could depend on these bands in the same way as each of my friends.

Driving through Wyoming in my Tacoma, we passed towns that seemed like smaller and larger versions of Rock Springs—middle-class neighborhoods, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and motels, all divided by large, empty lots and surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. We listened to Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, Ride the Lightning, and Kill ‘em All.

To me, everything Metallica recorded after The Black Album was bullshit. I liked The Black Album itself—the album with “Enter Sandman” that sent the band into super-stardom—but it didn’t come close to capturing the same energy in the first four albums. Together, Lars’s crazy double-bass drumming and James’ and Kirk’s gnarly guitar riffs form an aural assault.

I also loved the songs that move from delicate acoustic sections into crushing walls of heaviness—songs like “Fade to Black,” “Battery,” and “One.” The movements in these songs reminded me of classical music, sans pretension. Listening to early Metallica, I felt deeply connected with the young, death-obsessed and socially alienated brains of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Cliff Burton, and Kirk Hammet. James, who, like me, had gnarly acne during his adolescence, sung lyrics about death as the only true escape from hopelessness.

Steve and I left a day before the concert to ride skate parks and street spots in and near Denver. On Sunday evening, we drove to a southern suburb, Aurora, trying to find a cement spillway called the hook that some local riders had told us about. As we drove on I-225, Steve spotted the structure, which sat on the edge of a golf course.

I parked at a nearby apartment complex. An empty drive led into the golf course. Steve and I walked our bikes under a chain with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign attached to it. We looked around the chain-link fence-enclosed golf course to make sure no one saw us. After Steve climbed the fence, I lifted each of our bikes over the top and into his reaching hands. When I jumped off the top of the fence, my shoes sunk into marshy ground beneath waist-high reeds and grass.

Painted dark green, the hook looked intimidating—fifteen feet tall and about one-hundred feet wide. Imagine a full pipe cut lengthwise, down the middle. The concrete monolith loomed above the grass of the golf course.

A dust-and-gravel-covered runway led to the massive transition. Before I even thought about mustering the balls to ride this thing, Steve pedaled at the hook. His tires crunched on gravel, then zipped when they hit the smooth cement of the transition. He reached the point where the transition curled, becoming over-vertical.

A pool of black muck sat about twenty feet away from the hook. Horseflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, and gnats buzzed above plastic bags, beer cans, and other trash in the sewage. Immediately after gliding down the transition, Steve skidded to avoid this sludgy mess. The drone of nearby traffic echoed off the concrete wave.

I thought about Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” to get myself psyched. Steve, Jared, Bryan, and I, like other BMX riders, often referred to riding as destroying. To me, destruction was an act of creating beauty.

“Seek and Destroy” features raw, punk-infused guitar riffs, pushed by Lars’s drumming and Cliff Burton’s manic bass playing. During the middle of the song, the band pushes boundaries of control with tempo. These sounds echoed in my brain as I pedaled toward the hook.

Climbing the transition, my tires zipped. At the height of my ascent, my right arm grazed cement that curved beyond ninety degrees.

After I carved it, the hook didn’t scare me as much. It was a humongous, unmoving cement structure, but I’d found my own way to use it.

BIO

jj anselmi 2J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His work is upcoming in Weber: The Contemporary West, and has appeared in Word Riot, The Writing Disorder, Obsolete!, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. Along with “Living Through Pantera” (published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Writing Disorder), this piece is part of J.J.’s book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. A regular contributor to Splicetoday, J.J. loves beating the shit out of the drums for his doom band, Hymns to the Stone. He also just bought a new BMX bike.

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Welcome to our new issue of The Writing Disorder | FALL  2014

We hope you enjoy the big new issue. It’s one we’re all very proud of — featuring a diverse group of writers and artists.

Our fall edition includes some writers whose work has never been published before. We feel lucky that we found them and they found us.

Enjoy our new issue, and enjoy the cool fall weather.

—C.E. Lukather, Editor

 

FICTION
Suzanne Hyman Joshua Sidley Ellen Mulholland Scott Stambach
Bruno Barbosa David Hicks Anna Isaacson Amita Murray
Cheryl Diane Kidder Jessie Aufiery Aurora Brackett Richard Hartshorn
POETRY
R.A. Allen Christopher Suda Kim Suttell Robert Lavett Smith
John Ronan
NONFICTION
J.J. Anselmi Paula Panich Daniel Carbone Melissa Palmer
 ARTWORK
Allen Forrest Hilda Daniel
INTERVIEW
by Eric Vasallo  by Dixon Hearne

 

LOOK FOR OUR WINTER ISSUE, PUBLISHED AROUND DECEMBER 20, 2014

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Robert Lavett Smith

Robert Lavett Smith

 

SABLE

       “Out of darkness, to begin again…”
Charles Simic

W. B. Yeats, the story goes,
young and impecunious in London,
rubbed lampblack into his stockings
to hide the rends in his boots.
Barely a century earlier, sailors
burned cauldrons of pitch on deck
to keep water-sprites at bay,
and I’m assured the India ink
generations have counted on
is nothing more than midnight’s tallow
fat with the leavings of guttered fires.
In the middle ages, sable showed—
dare we say it?—its darker side:
blood pooling beneath fevered skin
lent a name to the scourge
that tested the piety of saints.
Notwithstanding, I trust the darkness:
moist flannel enfolding a summer night,
stars pinned like disappointments
to its unblemished mystery.


 

AFTER THIRTY YEARS

        Helmer’s, Washington Avenue, Hoboken

Carved wooden bar darkened by the weight
of a ponderous century, ornate scroll work
to which the grime of the late Victorian era
still clings: how little changed it all seems
since I lived nearby decades ago, although
the pert, twenty-something bartender says
everything was refurbished after a fire upstairs,
smoke and water having scarred the walls.

I savor again familiar smells of old varnish
and sunlight. The same elegant antique mirror,
silvered crystal brimming with shadows,
runs the length of the counter, behind the bar.
But whose is this stranger’s face, skin wrinkled
and loosening, that peers incredulously back
through the glittering bottles of aged whiskey,
imported tequila, Fernet and Tanqueray?

 

 

AN ACCIDENT OF WEATHER

        A.T. S., Oberlin, Fall 1977

Try, if you must, to persuade me
that this street so slick the asphalt
shouldering the morning mist
shines as it might after rain,

this street where a cataract sky
is mirrored, featureless
as though it secreted some meaning
beyond an accident of weather,
cannot possibly lead us to any future
save for the one that you foresee.

I will listen to what you tell me
without speaking, perspiration chill
on my face in the breaking dawn.
I will contradict nothing.

And when you’ve said your piece
and turn to go, I will study the way
your footprints linger an instant
on a film of oily moisture
before they disappear, healing
behind your retreat like wounds.

 

 

BIO

Robert Lavett SmithRaised in New Jersey, Robert Lavett Smith has lived since 1987 in San Francisco, where for the past fifteen years he has worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional. He has studied with Charles Simic and Galway Kinnell. He is the author of several chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections, the most recent of which is Smoke in Cold Weather: A Gathering of Sonnets (Full Court Press, 2013).

 

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David Hicks

The Romantic Traveler™ presents
Your Customized Guide to Narcissa

by David Hicks

 

Preface

Narcissa, California, is an idyllic place. Its location, well over an hour from either Sacramento or San Francisco, is a deterrent for most tourists, but for its residents, this is precisely the appeal. Off the beaten path, largely unaffected by the economic downturn, natives of this quiet burg live in peaceful obscurity—to the east, the majestic Sierra Nevadas; to west, the grand Pacific.

Native Narcissans — or Narcissists, as they playfully call themselves — live a life of comfort and self-reflection. For most, having flourished in the dot-com boom of the late ’90s or the housing-speculation market of the early 2000s (or in some cases, both), Narcissa is their Shangri-La, a reward for their hard work. They reside in stately homes well-stocked with original art[1] and surrounded by verdant pastures and vineyards, content to linger in the privacy of their backyards, luxuriating in their swimming pools[2], ensconced in floating lounge chairs with cold drinks at the ready, gazing idly at their reflections in the well-filtered water.

 

Personal Background

You met the Narcissist at a book signing in Indianapolis. You had recently left your wife, and you were perhaps “a bit needy” and “more than a little desperate for female attention.” (We at the Romantic Traveler do not judge our clients. We are simply quoting from your profile.) Afterwards, you approached her, and told her that you found her talk riveting. You told her that as a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, you envy her the richness and excitement of her life — for she doesn’t simply write the news or report the news, she becomes the news; she immerses herself in significant global events. You realized you were gushing like a schoolgirl, but no matter; you were smitten.

Upon her departure, you wrote to her. Emailed her. Texted her. Skyped her. No matter the medium, the message was the same: She was captivating. She had it all, beauty and brains. When she told you she wasn’t feeling very beautiful, that lately she’d put on some weight, you told her god no, she was curvaceous and sexy, was she kidding? You’d consider yourself fortunate just to get a date with her.

When she told you the same stories she told everyone when she wanted them to fall in love with her (the time she flipped in a Class-6 rapid on the Zambezi because of her river guide’s bravado; the time a Swiss mountaineer first made her cry and then made her fall thirty feet off a cliff, dangling from a rope; the time she talked her way out of a potential gang rape while covering the uprising in Syria), you fell in love with her. Instantly. And you told her so. Far too soon. But you’d been trapped in a loveless marriage for years and you were absolutely ready for this. (Actually, according to our records you are still legally married, but it seems you neglected to inform her of this important fact.) In other words, you went for it, because to this point you had never gone for anything. And she invited you to Narcissa for a visit.

Which brings us to your trip, and this customized interactive e-guide.[3]

How to Talk to a Narcissist

Echo her.

When she picks you up at the airport, drives along the coast, gestures out the window and says, “Isn’t this so beautiful?” look around in awe and say, So beautiful!

When she cooks you dinner and says, “Oh, this is delicious.” Nod your head with your mouth full—Delicious!

When you have sex and she says, “I’m going to come, I’m going to come!” say I’m going to come! I’m going to come!

Alternatively (because, let’s face it, echoing can grow tiresome), you may simply say, “You’re kidding.” For example, on that first visit, when you accompany her to a speaking engagement in Sacramento and she says, “Can you believe they misspelled my name on the hotel marquee?” don’t remind her that her name, which is Middle-Eastern, is hard for Americans to spell. Instead say, “You’re kidding.”

“Did you see the program cover? That is not the photo I told them to use!”

You’re kidding!

If you tire of either strategy, feel free to alternate or combine them. For instance, when she says, “Did you hear that guy introduce me as a reporter!” you can say, “A reporter? You’re kidding!”

If you have the opportunity to speak for yourself, be sure to focus your comments on her. She certainly deserves it. She’s strong and curvaceous and looks like a lioness, whereas you have a concave chest and view yourself as something akin to an emu. She’s a special correspondent for an international news agency, whereas you are a features writer for the Indianapolis Star. She is the author of seven books, including three best-sellers, whereas you have had an idea for a book, about the failed administration of Benjamin Harrison, the only U.S. president from Indiana. She walks into a room like Mussolini; you walk in like Jimmy Stewart. She flips back her hair and holds her hands out expressively, as if her every move is being photographed by Life Magazine; you smooth back your hair to cover your bald spot, and are constantly finding poppy seeds between your teeth.

So: tell her what a superstar she is. Tell her how much you admire her. And above all, tell her how beautiful she is. Tell her this several times a day, remembering to use different words each time. (“Beautiful” certainly works well, but you’d be pleasantly surprised at how she reacts to “sexy,” “gorgeous,” or the aforementioned “captivating.”) Avoid using words like “cute,” “pretty,” and “adorable,” or phrases like “You look so nice!” because to a woman like her, such terms are insulting—indeed, pejorative.

On the occasion of your second visit, you may feel free to communicate some specific information about yourself. But be aware that she will be listening only for details that apply to her, and for signs that you will or will not be a suitable partner. So tell her what she wants to hear, while remaining somewhat evasive. Tell her, for example, that you are absolutely ready to commit to this new relationship, even though you are absolutely not. Tell her you recently left your wife, but leave out the word “recently.” Tell her you lost custody of your kids, but don’t tell her you’re still not legally divorced. Tell her you love your children, but don’t tell her how much you miss them, how you ache for them, how you cry every night you’re not with them because your (soon-to-be) ex-wife is preventing you from seeing them.

However, when you talk about her, do be specific—as well as complimentary. Tell her the white streak in her otherwise dark hair makes her look simultaneously dignified and sexy. Tell her that her report on the Syrian children victimized by a chemical bomb was so moving that you posted it on Facebook and showed the video to your friends at the newspaper. And her exposé on the latest U.S. drone attack gone awry? The very model of hard-hitting Western journalism so lacking in the mainstream media these days.

During your third visit, when she cuddles with you after sex and wonders aloud why you don’t just quit your job and move out to California to live with her, tell her you were just mulling over the same possibility, but the only matters giving you pause—and these of course are minor considerations—are that you like your job, you like where you live, and her quaint little hamlet is almost two hours from any major airport, which would make visiting your children rather arduous. But when she says something about your industry being a dying animal you’re fastened to, your state being smack-dab in the middle of the Dead Part of the Country, and how you’re already being prevented from seeing your children and in any case they will eventually perceive your ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend as their new father and your desperate attempts to see them are only giving your ex-wife more power, think it over for a while and tell her she’s probably right; in reality nobody will be reading newspapers in five years, and now that she mentions it, Indiana is really boring (it actually ispossible, you suppose, for people to be too friendly), and to be honest, your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s boyfriend is a good guy, probably a better role model for the kids than you are. Thank her for helping you to see all that. Then excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, where you can sit on the edge of the tub, put your head in your hands, and imagine your daughter calling another man “Daddy.”

A few weeks later, when the Narcissist calls in tears to tell you she is pregnant, quit your job. And move to California.

 

Travel Tip: Indiana is Well Worth Leaving
When traveling to a beautiful place to visit a potential soulmate, you will inevitably fantasize about living there. In most cases, this is a bad idea—your experience as a visitor is vastly different from that of a resident. But if you are from Indiana, then the reverse is true. Because anywhere is better than Indiana.

 

Local Accommodations

When you arrive at the Narcissist’s ranch and she informs you there’s not much room for your belongings but she has cleared three dresser drawers for you, tell her you appreciate the accommodations, you’ll do your best not to disrupt her life or in any way impede her success, and yes, you totally understand why you can’t just put your stuff in the spare room, after all, she needs that room for the house-sitter when she’s away (which is quite often, given the demands of her job and the frequency of her speaking engagements), and in any case she will soon be re-purposing the room as a nursery. Just set up an old desk in the basement,and start looking for a job. Be glad you’ve gotten out of Indianapolis, and don’t worry about missing your kids, because your ex-wife is so pissed at you for leaving your marriage she’s decided you will see them again only over her dead body. Instead, start worrying about the new kid you’re about to have.

While looking for a job, you may find a shortage of positions at the county weekly (staffed by four people). The newspaper industry is going down the tubes, remember? Find some other part-time work so you can stay home and care for her dogs and horses while she’s overseas filing reports, or while she’s off making another appearance, or while she’s doing another book signing. How about waiting tables at one of the quaint restaurants in town? There’d be nothing wrong with that, would there? She’s friends with the manager and will give him a call.

After you get that job, which you quickly realize will bring in about $800 a month, pick up some freelance editing work and tell her you’re doing so to have some spending money with which to buy her presents or take her out to dinner or help pay for the new baby—even though in fact you’re swimming in debt from your ongoing divorce proceedings and you will soon need to file for bankruptcy. Do this work, along with some freelance writing, from the living-room couch whenever she is working at the kitchen table. (When she is not working, don’t do anything. Be present and available, perpetually ready to do house repairs, chores, or some outdoor recreational activity, depending on her mood. And when she is working, don’t sit at the kitchen table with her. She needs that space, and having you at the same table might distract her. It’s how she’s always worked and you don’t mind, do you?) When she shuts her Macbook, comes to the couch, plops down on the opposite end, takes off her boots and socks, puts her feet on your lap and asks you to rub them, remember your priorities. Immediately put aside your Dell laptop, say “Of course!” and rub her feet. Do not blurt out, “Jesus Christ, again?” since it’s the second time that day and the sixth time that week she’s asked you to rub her feet. If you do happen to blurt out, “Jesus Christ, again?” then retract that statement over and over while earnestly rubbing her feet, which by this time in the day are pretty sweaty. Don’t say you were only kidding, because she knows you weren’t. Instead, admit you were feeling selfish, and yes, she’s right, you do tend to build up resentment instead of telling the truth about your feelings and it’s just that you’ve been working hard on this article that the Sacramento Bee has expressed interest in but it’s hard to get your work done when she makes constant demands on your time like rubbing her feet and drawing her bath and making her coffee and filling the water trough for the horses and pitchforking the shit from their stalls and fixing the porch roof and skimming the swimming pool and taking the dogs to the vet and  . . . Oh boy, now you’ve done it. There’s no way you’re getting out of this one. There’s nothing left to do now but watch her lift her feet from your lap, stand up, and stomp into the bathroom, where she will take a one-hour bath.

 

Deferring to Local Customs

When in Narcissa, always remember that you are a visitor in another culture and you should respect the way things are done there rather than imposing your Midwestern values on them. For example, when the Narcissist is away on assignment and you call her to let her know you were thinking of asking Daryl and Mark, two of your favorite guys in town, to come over for a beer, maybe play cards, and watch a ballgame, and she says, “But Daryl is my friend; Mark is my friend,” do not say, “Wow, you’re kidding me, you mean they can’t be my friends too?” Instead, quickly change the topic. And don’t invite Daryl or Mark over. Just understand that in Narcissa, one’s friends are just that, one’s friends, and there is no such thing as sharing. Instead, pop open a cold one and watch the game by yourself.

When she comes home a week later and informs you that while she was away she had an abortion, take a breath and count to ten before you react. Tell yourself this must have been a very, very difficult thing for her to do. Don’t ask why, don’t ask where, and don’t ask how. Just give her a hug and suppress your own emotions, whatever they may be. And when she tells you that she’s going to tell her friends she had a miscarriage and that you need to back her up on that story, reassure her that of course you will; you’ll tell everyone she miscarried your child.

And don’t even think about asking her if this means you can move back to Indiana.

 

Nightlife in Narcissa

While lying in bed with her one night after living there for a few months, it will dawn on you that she had sex with you with great frequency before you moved in with her, but ever since then she has not wanted to, not even once. Do not bring this up. That’s just the way things are in her world. Sex happens when she decides it will happen. Keep especially quiet about this when she’s in Crimea and she calls you at three in the morning, even though that’s what you had been thinking about before you wound up masturbating again (first shutting the door on her dogs so they wouldn’t stare at you). In fact, that would be the absolute worst time to bring up anything related to your selfish needs. She’s in Crimea, for crying out loud.At a five-star hotel, yes, but still, in Crimea. So keep your bodily urges to yourself. Feel free to speculate, though. Hypothesize. There’s nothing wrong with that. For example, in theory, a woman might have sex with a man just to gain control of him, and then withhold sex as a way of keeping control. In theory, being in a relationship with a minor celebrity may be less about physical companionship than it is about taking care of her dogs while she’s away. In theory, it’s possible that when she met you, she was not, as she said she was, feeling “all swoony” from your blue eyes, but instead taking your measure as a potential replacement for her alcoholic boyfriend, who, you heard from a shopkeeper, moved out the morning of the day you moved in. But keep these speculations to yourself.

Remember: talking to a Narcissist often means not talking to a Narcissist.

Don’t say anything even when, months later, you give up trying to initiate sex because being put off tends to make you feel unattractive. Did you know she had an abusive father? Sex is a very sensitive issue for her and she’s working all that out with her therapist, who actually recommended she abstain for a while—a year, two years, whatever it takes. Sex is an intimate, vulnerable thing, and it has to feel right. So be patient. Besides, the less you say, the more relaxed she will feel, and the better your chances will be of actually having sex.

 

Travel Tip: Silence is Golden
To sum up: If you find that you cannot echo her or compliment her, the best thing to say to a Narcissist is nothing at all. You know how to do this, right? You’re from Indiana.

 

Pet Care

Same principle, different application: When she decides to buy an Irish wolfhound because she has learned that they are bred to sit dutifully at the feet of royalty, don’t say a word — just love that dog for the big goofy animal he is. And when that 110-pound wolfhound sleeps in bed between the two of you, again, not a word, even when you wake up with dog hair in your mouth.

And when the Narcissist’s friend gives her a Tarot reading and the Queen of Wands comes out on top, don’t point out, as the Narcissist claps her hands and regally tosses back her hair, that the queen is all alone, with only her wolfhounds to adore her. And when she jokes to her Tarot-card-flipping friend that she prefers sleeping with dogs to sleeping with men, again, say nothing; it’s just a cute joke she’s told many times. And when she pays almost a thousand dollars for a second wolfhound, again: bite your tongue. That’s right, just bite your tongue. And head on out to the feed store for another economy-sized bag of organic dog food.

Keeping quiet like this—stifling your natural impulse to say something in defense of yourself and your needs—will be a very, very difficult thing to do. Especially when she buys a new horse for $11,000 (a stable and reliable quarter-horse, as opposed to the two skittish Arabians she already has in the stables) and tells you a month later that according to her therapist, her relationship with this new horse may serve as a model for her relationships with men. At that point, you will naturally feel quite compelled to say something. You will feel quite compelled to say that for her therapist to compare a relationship with a horse to a relationship with a man — and let’s face it, that means you — is ludicrous, if not downright irresponsible and unprofessional. And when her therapist tells her that the relationship between the two of them (that is, between her and the therapist) is also a good model for her, at that point you may almost lose it. At that point you may at the very least feel compelled to make the (glaringly obvious, right?) point that the therapist is being paid to listen to her and that every hour they spend together is all about her. “The kinds of relationships he’s holding up as models,” you’ll want to say, and here your voice may crack like a pre-pubescent’s, “are completely one-sided! That’s the ideal?” But you shouldn’t say that. In fact, you shouldn’t say anything. Because if you do, she’ll look at you sadly, as if taking mental notes, and say, “He didn’t mean it like that.” And for days, you will see the back of her more than you’ll see the front of her.

So, remember: Silence. Golden.

 

Dining In

During dinner preparations, keep in mind that your role is that of the sous chef. Never presume to suggest improvements to the meal, and never begin a meal without her. Simply chop what you are told to chop, when she wants you to chop it. Be sure to get specific instructions. If you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for embarrassment. Remember what happened when she asked you to cut up some garlic and you asked how much and she said, “Whatever you think‖” so you chopped up a lot (because you love garlic), only to have her apologize to the dinner guests later (Daryl and Mark among them) for the excessive garlic in the sauce?

While dining, keep in mind our mantra: assimilation is everything. You might, for example, philosophically object to hunting, and therefore object to taking meat from a friend of hers who shot a moose in Alaska. Or you might, on principle, object to eating lamb or veal, because they’re baby animals. But remember the one and only time you said something about this? Remember the crinkly nose, the involuntary glance at your crotch to make sure you had testicles? You don’t want to see that look again, do you?

Keep your objections to yourself, then, and eat. Remind yourself that you’re a hypocrite. You eat meat all the time; just because it’s shot or young makes no difference. Would you rather eat meat from those disgusting cattle factories? Or are you still under the spell of your ex-wife, who doesn’t eat animals or animal byproducts, who refuses to wear leather shoes or eat cheese, for crying out loud?

 

Travel Tip: On Being a Man
Being a man requires the ingestion of meat. Red meat. Preferably with potatoes of some kind (fried, mashed, or baked, or better still, twice-baked with Cheez Wiz and bacon bits). When the waiter asks how you like it, don’t worry about e-coli—what are you, a college girl? Grow a pair. Be like your father and order it rare.

 

Out and About with a Narcissist

When the Narcissist asks that you accompany her for part of her book tour—she’s already told the restaurant you’ll be gone for a week and made arrangements with the house sitter—don’t tell her you’d rather not. Don’t explain that even though you love visiting different cities and ordering room service without having to pay for it, you’d find it unbearable to be so invisible for so many days on end, and for that matter sleeping in a hotel bed while nothaving sex with the one you’re in the hotel bed with; moreover you need to keep working double shifts at the restaurant and continue to edit the horrifically bad manuscript you’ve been working on (the first volume of a young-adult fantasy trilogy sent to you by a woman in Cleveland who saw your ad in Poets & Writers magazine) because your lawyer bills are piling up, collection agencies keep calling you, you have no spending money, and you’re tired of having her pay for everything and giving you that look that means you’re a cling-on, a mooch, a parasite, she should claim you as a dependent on her taxes. But whatever you do, don’t tell her the real reason, which is how much you relish being at her ranch all by yourself, alone with the horses (there are four now) and dogs (five, including three wolfhounds), with the beauty of the Sierras in one direction, the Pacific in the other. Because you know how she’ll take that.

So just go already.

In Portland, when she assumes you’ll be attending her reading at Powell’s, don’t tell her you’ve heard her read the same chapter six times already, you’ll just explore the city for a while and meet her back in the room. If you do accidentally tell her that, listen attentively (stop looking at the floor—eyes up!) as she reminds you how much it has cost her to take you on this part of the tour and how important your support is to her. When you are sure she’s finished speaking, clear your throat and apologize. Tell her you didn’t mean to neglect her needs; you were just thinking of yourself again. Come to think of it, you really would love to be there in the audience; you’d be delighted to serve as her focal point in the back of the room.

Then go with her.

At the reading, remember your place. You are the celebrity’s boyfriend. Therefore you should not smile wryly when the woman sitting in front of you turns to her friend and says, “Journalism Lite,” nor should you guffaw when a man next to you looks first at the Narcissist, then at the photo on the book jacket, and mumbles “When was this picture taken, during the Carter administration?” Do notraise your hand during the Q&A and ask the author how she’s been able to write a best-selling book about international relations when it’s becoming clearer and clearer to you that she can’t even manage domestic relations. No one will think that’s funny. And do not even consider flirting with the cute bookstore employee who introduced the Narcissist to a packed house. Because if you do end up flirting with her, you can’t imagine the look you’ll get. You can’t imagine how long your night will be.

In Seattle, the next stop on the tour, you may be surprised when you meet one of her friends at Elliot Bay and the Narcissist invites her to stay in your hotel room with both of you. (She has driven all the way from Spokane; you don’t mind, do you?) When you remind the Narcissist there is only one bed in the room, and she says yes, she is aware of that, and then asks sweetly if you wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor so her girlfriend can get a good night’s rest after that long drive, tell her that would be fine, you wouldn’t mind at all.

While you are lying on the floor, wrapped in the spare blanket and seething with resentment, beware: who you are, what you are doing with your life, and how you are living it, may suddenly become clear to you, and your resentment towards the Narcissist may unexpectedly perform a perfect backflip into self-loathing. You may realize that nothing, not a single part of this, is her fault; the problem is you. You’re the one who put yourself in this situation; you’re the one who has no control over your life. You’re the one who has clearly lost his balls. You’re the one who lacks the courage to fight your soon-to-be-ex-wife for visitation rights. You’re the one who is constantly feeling sorry for yourself, constantly putting yourself in situations where you can feel sorry for yourself, constantly feeling wounded and put-upon, constantly thinking of your own pathetic needs. So guess what that makes you?

 

Travel Tip: Rollaway Cots
Did you know that most hotels have rollaway cots available for a nominal fee? They’re perfect for unexpected visitors. That way, you wouldn’t have to lie on the floor like some pathetic, self-sacrificing martyr.

 

Travel Tip: On Being a Man II
Being a man means getting into bed with the two chicks, telling them to make out with each other, and then taking over from there. Not sleeping on the floor.

 

Checking Out

Upon your return to Narcissa, pack your bags. It’s check-out time. It’s time to accept that this whole experiment has been an “epic fail.” Granted, it seems like you just got there, but to be honest, visitors to Narcissa never last too long. In fact, let’s face it, you have clearly overstayed your welcome. But how to check out after six months when you’ve booked a lifetime stay? We offer the following instructions.

First, don’t be nice. Do not “feel out her mood” or “wait for the right time” before approaching her with the utmost contrition and saying that if she’d be “okay with it” you’d “sort of like to break things off” or “maybe take a break for a while?” If you do, get ready for some Old-School hysteria: screams, sobs, then more screams, in the middle of which it may occur to you that you need to change the way you exit (and enter!) relationships. When all of this happens, just walk away, knowing that nothing you can say will fix this problem.

What’s that? You can’t walk away? You feel too strong a sense of obligation?

 

Travel Tip: Breaking Up is Hard to Do.
Nobody in the world can break up with someone nicely. Nobody can simultaneously break up with someone and make it feel okay. How old do you have to be before you understand that? Is this an Indiana problem? Do you not remember what happened when you told your wife you were leaving? Do you not see that scar on your shoulder from where she stabbed you with the kitchen knife?

 

Take some time, a day or two perhaps, to regroup. Then, try again. We recommend the tried-and-true method: Tell her it’s not her; it’s you. (Which in this case is actually true. She is who she is. It’s you who has become a sniveling sycophant. It’s you who likes yourself more when you’re not with her, who recognizes you have unresolved issues from your failed marriage, and who needs to become a stronger person on your own.) When she agrees that yes, you’re right, it is you and not her, but she still doesn’t want to break up, primarily because the timing would be terrible for her (the European leg of her book tour is coming up and she needs you to care for the animals), you may be tempted to say okay, fine, let’s wait until you get back—because you realize you’d have the ranch all to yourself for a month, and you could take the dogs to the ocean, you could hike the mountains, you could ride the horses, and in all that solitude maybe you could get your shit together. Maybe you could call the divorce lawyer to set up a payment plan and get him back on your side, so that when you do return to Indiana, he could help you to take your soon-to-be-ex-wife to court for the right to see your kids.

But don’t.

It won’t work.

You really, seriously do need to go. Now.

So try again. And this time, be firm. Say, “Listen. I don’t love you anymore. I was probably just drawn to you because you are this super-self-confident person and I have zero self-confidence, but ultimately that’s not a good reason to be in a relationship. So I’m leaving.” And when she unexpectedly collapses, admits she’s terrified of being alone, and looks suddenly frail and vulnerable, resist. It’s a trap.

Who will take care of the horses and dogs?

I don’t know.

Who will watch the house?

No clue.

These are not your problems. She’s the one who bought the house. She’s the one who collected all those horses and dogs, knowing her job takes her overseas all the time. But. . . oh, now she’s crying.

And look, you’re totally caving.

Quick. Pay attention. Lift your head. No, don’t touch her on the shoulder, what are you doing? Step away from the Narcissist. Back up, man. Stand your ground. Look at me.

Now then. Listen.

You need to stop explaining yourself. A Narcissist will never, ever understand your point of view. Instead—again—try silence.

I don’t understand. What have I done that’s so wrong? What can I do to keep you?

Shhhh. (Remember: Silence. Golden.)

Is there any way I can change? What can I do differently?

Don’t do it. Don’t say, “Well, for starters, you can try thinking of someone else’s feelings, even for just thirty seconds,” or “Have you ever realized that you begin almost every sentence with the word ‘I’?” or “I have never in my life met someone who is biologically incapable of empathy, so I don’t know, maybe you could take a class?”

Just keep quiet. Nobody in Narcissa is capable of change.

After a while, if you find this impossible, if you can’t just shut up and resist responding to her questions and entreaties, then return to our original strategy:

Echo her.

When she says, “You’ve betrayed me!” say, “Me? You’ve betrayed me.”

When she says, “I’ll never forgive you!” say, “I’ll never forgive you.”

When she says, “This is so sad!” nod and say, “This is so sad.”

Or — remember? — just say, “You’re kidding.” Like when she says, “I can’t live without you!”

You’re kidding.

“Is sex the problem? That’s it, isn’t it, you just want to have sex. Well let’s have sex right now!”

You’re kidding.

“You’re so selfish! You’re the most selfish person I ever met!”

You’re kidding-kidding!

Then, turn on your heels and leave. Leave, and don’t look back. When she cries out, “I don’t even get a hug goodbye?” say “Hug goodbye? You’re kidding.”

And don’t believe her when she screams (when you’re getting into your car) that she is going to kill herself if you leave her. (She would never kill what she loves most.) As she runs up to the car, starts pounding on it, and curses you out, don’t defend yourself against her insults. (After all, most of them are true. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.) Just keep the windows shut, start it up, pull out of her circular driveway, ignore the clatter and cracks of the rocks she throws at you (it’s not a great car anyway; the back windshield will cost only a hundred or so to replace, and some touch-up paint will hide the scratches), and drive away. Drive away from the ocean, drive over the mountains, drive away from the pretty trees, and head back to Indiana where you belong—and where your children are waiting for you.

And when you get there, for heaven’s sake call a therapist.

 

[1] A little-known fact: the homes of Narcissa house some of the most impressive portrait collections in the country. Indeed, one may find more portraits there per capita than in any other U.S. city.

[2] Another little-known fact: Narcissa also has the highest percentage of swimming pools per capita in the United States (104%).

[3] At the Romantic Traveler™ our mission is to design and deliver customized, on-line, interactive travel guides, real-time narratives, and relationship advice for lovers visiting their potential soulmates. In these emotionally and economically volatile times, with people divorcing on a whim, defining and redefining their sexual preferences, and moving from place to place, our international staff delivers reliable updates and advice directly to your smartphone, 24/7, with ongoing camera and microphone activation to more immediately and efficaciously narrate your activities, advise you on appropriate strategies, and attend to your needs.

 

 

BIO

david hicksDavid Hicks’ work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Saranac Review, South Dakota Review, and other publications. He lives in Wheat Ridge, CO.

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John Ronan

John Ronan

 

Every Day is Garbage Day, Somewhere

 

Garbage Guy
Stops, spots
A red sticker
And hauls off
The wasted week,
Full remission
A buck a bag:
The usual suet
And newspapers,
Bluster, bromides,
Embarrassment
Of bottles, rinds
Of every kind.

 

 

Hanky Panky

(A love song.)

 

Loopy looks,
proximate hips,
a clumsy hook,
insisting lips.

        Mannered mores sum with tact:
        hanky panky, the marriage act.

Slip of tongue,
Jack-in-the-box,
A lecherous yawn,
“Ahhh” at the doc’s.

        Mannered mores sum with tact:
        hanky panky, the marriage act.

Frantic round’s
lust abrupt,
pleasure-bound,
headboard butt:

        Mannered mores sum with tact:
        hanky panky, the marriage act.

Second’s affection,
lazy play,
aging attrition,
slow matinee.

        Mannered mores sum with tact:
        hanky panky, the marriage act.

Impeach of reason,
love apart,
gender’s engine,
driven heart.

        Mannered mores sum with tact:
        hanky panky, the marriage act.

 

 

 

BIO

John J. Ronan is a poet, playwright, movie producer, and journalist.  He has received national honors for his poetry and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for 1999-2000.

In 2009 John published a new book of poems, Marrowbone Lane.  He is also a former poet laureate of Gloucester, MA, and remains committed to the importance of civic poetry. Also a playwright, his works include The Yeats Game and The Tease of Eden.  A pioneer in electronic publishing, in 2002 he introduced Damned If I Dotagea humorous e-book on the trials of turning 50.

John is also the founder of the media production company American Storyboard, a teacher of film, and host of the cable talk show The Writer’s Block with John Ronan which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in the 2014-15 season.

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Bruno Barbosa

The Almond Trees

by Bruno Barbosa

 

1

I knew Tyler was coming because of the almond trees.

Everyone was on the edge of their seats as soon as Tia Lu introduced him to our 3rd grade class. No one knew what to make of him—he was thin, extremely tall and pale. His eyes were dark like roasted almonds and his hair black like the mountains at night. He looked like nothing we had ever seen.

He didn’t speak any Portuguese, so everyone in our class asked him silly questions like if he was gay or a woman. He answered yes because he didn’t know what we were saying and didn’t know what else to say, and everyone laughed. But we all followed him around at recess and liked him because he was an American, so I guess it was okay.

The night before he came to our school, the almond trees were shaking their leaves like dogs shaking off water, and that’s how I knew he was coming. They were shouting: He’s here! He’s here!

I opened my window, which looked down at the beach where the almond trees lived, put a finger to my lips and shushed them as loudly as I could.
They must’ve heard me, because they stopped their shouting, and I went back to sleep.

But when I got up the next morning and left for school, they were still shivering with excitement.

2

Vó told me about the almond trees long before I could hear them. One hot day when we were sitting out on the sand, she said through two straws coming out of her big green coconut, “One day you will be old enough to understand what they say.” She laughed, the funny way she did when she said something wrong or she thought of something unrelated to what we were speaking. “And then one day you will be too old and you won’t listen to them anymore.”

“Who?”

“The almond trees.”

I gathered that one day I would be old enough to make sense of anything my grandma said, and then one day I would be too old to listen to any of it.

“They talk?”

“Of coooourse—you can hear it, no?”

I listened. I didn’t hear anything worth hearing, but it may have been because my senses were overcome with the smell of cigarettes that followed Vó around. She didn’t smoke anymore, but she always had a cigarette hidden somewhere on her body.

“It sounds like leaves.”

“That’s a good start.”

“To what?”

“To understanding them.” I grimaced. “Don’t worry, bonequinho, you will understand all of it one day. At first it won’t all make any sense. But they hold on to your memories and talk about your dreams; and then they guide you to them—maybe to a beautiful girl who you will spend the rest of your life with.” She laughed.

“Vó, you’re crazy.”

She shrugged, pursing her lips. “Yes. But I am never wrong.”

It turns out she was wrong about a few things…

3

I first heard an almond tree speak the day of Vó’s funeral. When we came back home, my mother went to her room and my father lay on the couch reading a botany book. I walked across the dusty cobbled street where the almond trees stood, waiting for me, on the beach.

The salty breeze was cool and calm that day. The big green and red leaves were barely moving, barely whispering. I figured the almond trees were sad for Vó, too. She spent so much time with them.

My body felt empty, as if the breeze could lift me up to the branches, and the only thing I could think to do was talk to the almond tree closest to my house.

“Where is she?” I whispered, my voice trembling.

Nothing. Just the sound of the waves washing out the shore. Everything around me felt empty without Vó, and the silence was unbearable.

“Where is she?” I shouted up to the trees, tears blurring my vision, as salty as the sea. “Vó?”

And then a little wind blew, stronger than a breeze. The almond tree began to sway gently, waving its paddle-like leaves.

She is well, it whispered. She is here. She is us.

My body shook, that way it does when you see something really painful happen to someone else.

The other trees joined with the coming of the wind: We’re here—she is here. She is us.

I pressed my face to the trunk of the tree and wrapped my arms around it as tightly as I could.

I cried so much I forgot to breathe for a while. But the more I started breathing again, the more I could smell Vó’s cigarettes, wherever she hid them now, and that helped calm me.

4

When I came home from school the day I met Tyler, I ran across the street to the almond trees before even thinking about home. I stepped firmly on the sand and looked up to the leaves, where the little almonds were hiding.

I had that feeling in my stomach, like when your father slams on the brakes so suddenly you fly into the back of your mom’s seat, so I knew what the almond tree’s answer would be. But still, I had to ask.

“Him?” I asked. I took a deep breath, my eyes condemning the almond tree. “Why him? Of all the weird boys at school why do I have to be the one to like a boy?”

A breeze came; the tree shrugged. It said nothing, as if to tell me this was just the way it was. I looked at it hard and long, and it just stood there not saying anything. It wanted me to just get over it, I guess.

I looked around at all the other almond trees lining my street. Nothing from them, as well.

I took a deep breath, exasperated with the trees, and turned around to cross back to my house. I had nothing left to say to them, and they had nothing that I wanted to hear.

Before I crossed back to my house, I waited for a car passing by. From one of its windows I saw Tyler’s face, looking out onto the water as his parents drove to the end of the street, where they lived.

It gave me a start, and I turned to the almond tree behind me as if it too had seen him.

Now of course trees can’t smile, and I don’t want you to think I am crazy, but I could feel it smiling at me.

5

Tyler and I became best friends. I was the only one in my class who spoke pretty decent English, which my father taught me, so I was the only real option he had at first.
We would play on the beach every day before and after school. We ran about the sand pretending we were brothers, ghosts and ninjas and vampires and all kinds of things. We even pretended we had a dog once.

“You know what I was thinking?” he said one day after school.

“What?”

“It would be cool if we could make a huge sandcastle here, and live in it. Just us two. No parents, no bedtime, no school. We could get one of those big car batteries and plug in our video games and a TV somehow, and play as much as we want.”

“And what would we eat?”

“I don’t know. We could learn how to fish…get a stove, and buy a nutcracker for the almonds. We would be set. We could grow old, fishing and playing video games. We would be the coolest old people ever.”

I could feel a warm breeze fill my lungs. “How did you come up with that?”

He shrugged his bony shoulders.

“Can I tell you something—a secret?” he said after a moment.

It took me a few seconds to realize a huge smile had bloomed on my face. “What?”

He took a deep breath. “I really hate going to school in Brazil. I miss The States. I am trying to convince my parents to move back. It sucks not being able to understand half the stuff anyone says.”

“But…” I started. “So you don’t like it here?”

“I like you. And the beach. That’s how I came up with the sandcastle idea.”

I laughed. “It will get better once you learn Portuguese better.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He smiled again. “Now you have to tell me a secret—it’s only fair.”

The wind blew.

I didn’t want to tell him what the almond trees had told me. I could hear them, every single almond tree on the beach, telling me I should do it, every time we played outside. But I was too afraid—it was too weird. I hadn’t told anyone.

So I decided I would let the almond trees tell him themselves. It was all their idea anyhow.

I signaled him to follow. The very tip of the sun still lingered behind the mountains as if it too wanted to see this, leaving the sky red and pink and gray.

We sat down under the almond tree closest to my house. “Listen.”

Tyler froze as if something awful was about to happen. “What?”

“The trees. Can you hear them? They are talking.”

He laughed. “What?!”
“Just listen! You can hear them talking amongst themselves. This one has something it wants to tell you.”

He looked up at the leaves, where I was looking.

A cool wind blew in from the water. It blew through the branches of the almond tree, but the leaves didn’t move. It was as if they were frozen.

I stared at the almond tree with pleading eyes.

I guess the tree was afraid to tell Tyler I liked him, just like I was. My heart sank, and I glared at the leaves.

I looked around at all the other trees, helpless.

Nothing.

Tyler turned to me, knitting his brows. “You’re crazy.” He jumped up. “Let’s pretend we’re turtles!”

And he ran off to the shore.

6

Vó did leave me with more than just the smell of cigarettes that lingered with the almond trees.

When my parents were digging through all of her dusty junk a few days after the funeral, they found a letter addressed to me.

On the envelope, printed in my grandma’s gnarled handwriting that looked like branches, was written: “To my Bonequinho, to open only when you don’t listen to them anymore.”

My parents laughed when they handed it to me, said my grandma was crazy and that I should just open it now.

But I said she wasn’t crazy, and rarely wrong, so I would wait.

I knew I was going to need it if for some reason I stopped listening to the almond trees. They would have to do something really terrible for that to happen, and I was going to need something when that time came.

I hid the letter in my underwear drawer, hoping I would never need it.

7

Tyler came running to my house one Saturday morning. It wasn’t very early, but I was extremely tired. The almond trees had been very agitated the night before, whimpering all night, and they didn’t let me sleep. I was still a little angry with them, so I just ignored them.

Tyler barged into my room as if he had found a giant squid stranded on the beach and he wanted me to come see it before it was gone.

I sat up, torn away from my dreams. “What?”

His usual half-moon smile was gone from his face.

“What?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Leaving what?”

“Here.”

I froze as if a giant squid had made its way to my room. “You’re going back to the States?”

“Yeah, my parents said so.”

“Why?”

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “I don’t know. My parents said so.”

I sat back on my bed. I suddenly felt nervous, and I didn’t know why.

“Are you excited? You always talk about how much you miss it.”

“Yeah … I do. But there I won’t have the beach to play on every day, and you to play with. And school there starts very early in the morning, so I won’t be doing much of anything before school.”

“But you have snow.”

“Snow’s not the same.”

I shrugged. “I guess, yeah. It sounds fun, though.”

“Will you come visit? Your parents have to come now that they have friends there. You can come in spring; it won’t be too cold for them.”

“Yeah, sounds fun.”

“Maybe we can go to New York, and we can look around for one of those cool little apartments like we see on TV. We always talk about how cool that would be—to just live there and do whatever we want. Let’s make it a plan: when we are done with school, that’s where we’ll be. Together. It’s no sandcastle, but still. Promise?”

“Yeah. Promise.”

“Why are you so quiet?”

I thought about it. “I am still sleepy. That’s all.”

“Spring,” he repeated. “Tell your parents. We will see each other in spring again after I leave.”

I forced a nod. “Okay. Spring sounds fun. When do you leave, anyway?”

“Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?”

“No, this one. So we have to play as much as possible before then.”

My throat closed up, but at least I managed to smile.

8

The night before Tyler left, our street had a going-away barbecue for his family out on the beach in front of our houses. The wind was cold and strong that night, but the trees were saying very little. I hadn’t talked to them since Tyler said he was leaving, so I didn’t know why they were so silent. I was too angry with them for letting him go. I thought maybe they couldn’t speak now that their leaves had turned brown, but eventually they spoke.

Tell him, they kept urging me feebly, as if their voices were weak.

I had already decided I would, so my stomach felt like I had swallowed three whole fish that were still cold and alive in my belly as we played outside.

We were only alone when we went back to my house to make some hot chocolate while our parents drank and laughed and talked loudly outside.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I said, once we were in my kitchen.

“Yeah?”
I wanted to just blurt it out, but the fish in my stomach were thrashing about, and I couldn’t say anything at all. “Can you close your eyes?”

He laughed, squeezing his eyes shut very tightly. “They’re shut!”

Still, nothing came out.

“Hello?” he called out to me.

I put both my hands on his face, just like they did on TV, and I pressed my lips to his. It felt weird and warm, but he pushed me away very quickly.

“What was that for?” he yelled.

I stood there paralyzed, my eyes fixed on his, and I still couldn’t say anything.

He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. “What is wrong with you? Why’d you do that?”

I opened my mouth to speak, and still nothing came out. My eyes started burning. “I love you.”

He looked at me as if the fish had crawled up my throat and fallen out of my mouth.

He ran out of the kitchen.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go after him.

Eventually I came to my senses and went upstairs to my room. I lay in bed, still unable to piece together anything that had happened.

What I had done played over and over in my head as I listened to the laughter outside on the beach, and I regretted it more and more.

Never had the almond trees been so silent, but still I couldn’t sleep.

9

I was still awake when everyone had gone back to their homes. I was still awake when the sun came up, finding its way through the slats on my window. I opened the window to let it in, as if it could keep me company. I looked down at the almond trees.

I guessed all their leaves had died, because they weren’t saying a thing. And then again, I didn’t want to hear it if they did. They made all of this happen—I would never forgive them, or myself for listening to them.

I lost my best friend because the almond trees made me hope for something that could never happen. It’s a good thing I didn’t go talk to them before Tyler left, or who knows what they would’ve had me do. What I had done was stupid enough.

I was old enough now, I thought, just like Vó warned me. I didn’t need the almond trees putting silly thoughts in my head. I walked over to my underwear drawer and dug out Vó’s envelope.

I held it for a few seconds, as if it could slip away from my grip and fly out the window into the horizon.

I opened it and unfolded the paper inside of it.

Never stop listening, I read.

I looked down at the tree branches that made up my grandma’s handwriting. The words, as if they too were covered with dead, silent leaves, left me feeling more empty and alone than before.

10

He left the next morning after I had closed my window, and though my parents knocked on my door so I could come out and say good-by, I pretended to be asleep.

And once he was gone, I did fall asleep.

My parents didn’t bother me for the rest of the day, and by the time I woke up the faint moonlight found its way into my room.

I was turning in bed, not wanting to get up yet, and I saw a note on the floor that had been pushed under my door. I got up slowly, confused, and walked over to it. It didn’t say who it was from, but I knew Tyler’s handwriting too well.

Come visit.

I slowly remembered everything as if it had been a distant dream: what I did, what Tyler did, what Vó said in the letter.

I thought about it more and more.

I left my house and crossed the street to apologize to the almond trees.

The leaves had fallen from the almond trees, leaving only a few red leaves on their branches. The brown ones were all crunching underneath my feet as I walked on the sand.

I looked up at the naked branches above my head, waiting for a breeze. They had nothing left to say for now; they couldn’t if they tried. It was all dead, everything they had said. I couldn’t even smell Vó’s cigarettes anymore, and I couldn’t help feel I did this to them.

But Vó’s words were still here, alive, as if the little waves carried them on their moonlit tips as I looked out at the horizon, at the dark water, the burnt mountains and the moon.

I was all alone.

I sat down on the sand and covered my legs with the dead leaves so they could keep me warm. I leaned over and rested my head against the trunk of the almond tree, and placed my hand on one of its roots, caressing it with my thumb.

I fell back asleep, waiting for spring.

 

 

bruno barbosaBIO

Bruno Barbosa grew up in São Pedro d’Aldeia, Brazil, and moved to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. He survived the move and the many moves that followed, and now is a student at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is working towards a BA in English and a BM in Vocal Performance.

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Kim Suttell

Kim Suttell

AS A SKINNY GIRL

My father showed his love
with Indian burns
on a dish-rag arm I pretend to pull away,
a downy chicken-foot arm wrung raw
to even the ulna.

To love him back I perched
dollish hands in a struggle grip,
scrunched all my weight for nothing.
His skin stanch against my tiny twists
while his love for me still stinging pink.

He finds fun this ineffectiveness
and makes me run away.
Eventually I skirt his reach,
learn the feebleness of trying.
I wait for many years
to match his earnest clench.

 

PIERRE

Wet and fine weather depend on him now.
Or so it seems to me and my feet.
I have such trouble with boots

that are never warm enough. He’d demand
my coat unzip, his suede grip
accord weightlessness to me,

with free, spreading toes and flaps of coat.
I’d look down on leaded clouds
begging to rain.

Daisies and hot grass sway above.
There is nothing
like the heat of grass
that is still so cool
I pull my coat closer.

 

ACCEPTANCE

She doesn’t need you now.

She has a mesh bag for razors
and facial scrubs,

a comforter set, and

hooks affixed with
removable adhesive.

 

PIECES

Teeth, tongue, gums, gullet,
palate, lips, spit. Kiss.

Palms, arms, muscles, knuckles,
nails, wrists, pits. Hug.

Skin, kidneys, knees, nerves,
veins, brains, breath. Love.

 

 

 

BIO

A poet for the pleasure of it, Kim Suttell lives in New York City where she likes not having to drive.  She writes poems in the subway.  Some of her poems have found homes in Right Hand Pointing, The Cortland Review, Forth Magazine and other journals. They are compiled for you at page48.weebly.com.

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Scott Stambach

Mr. Bertrand Avery, Owner of Todos Tempos

By Scott Stambach

 

Set and Setting

Untangling the folklore from the fact—and trust this narrator—there is no paucity of either—is precisely what makes this story so impossible and, presumably, why it’s taken so long for it to have been rambled off by anyone at all after all these years.

Then again it had to be me–the only hotel contemporary gutsy, esteemed, formidable, and, of course, varonil, robusto, y fundido enough to tell its story. I mean, the reasons are plentiful, too many for this exposition, but to name a few: 1) most of us are dead, 2) most of us just wanted to forget the whole damn thing like a dream that takes away something precious, 3) the Universe swoons to poetry.

First, some facts: The hotel was in Rio. The Rio. The river of January. The only metrô-pole with the selfdom and bolas for this particular hoteland this particular storyto fit inside of it. Another fact: The hotel was sticky. Does sticky not work for you? Any synonym will do: gummy, gluey, glutinous, tacky, tenacious, agglutinative. Yes, things stuck to it: stories, myths, souls, ghosts, dreams, fantasies, personas, chimeras, phantoms, nightmares, and, consequently, it grew as wide as it was tall. Which brings us to fact three: The hotel was the tallest physical structure on the planet during its time. And, if you could pardon me prematurely—a dose of myth: no one, not even Rio’s mayor (at the time Marilia João Carolina), its city council, or the most revered urban planners or architects knew exactly the height. Again, for an onslaught of reasons: 1) the origins, and concomitantly the records and blueprints for the hotel remain obscured in a mixture of bureaucratic entanglements and pseudo-psycho-spiritual mythology, 2) perspective has its limitations (just as horizons do), and 3) the top floors were always off limits (speculation suggests even to Mr. Avery himself).

Another fact: Mr. Avery’s full birth name was Bertrand Solis Avery-Higgins (the Higgins was legally removed from his name when he was nineteen for unknown reasons). Fact six: City documents reveal the official legal name of the Hotel to be Hotel de Todos Tempos, or just Todos Tempos, or for the true regulars, just Tempos or Todos, but rarely both.

Those inclined to portuguese might ride the foreshadow straight to fact seven: there was no Hotel like Todos Tempos before, and there never will be another like it. But, before I explain, a warning: as I break this story, you will likely refuse it, send it back wrapped, refuse to swallow—choose your idiom, makes no difference here. Just be reminded: we are still, in fact, in the fact section of the story and I would not have gone through the pain and effort to filter fact and fiction just to tangle the two up again. Transitively, it follows that you can trust the following: Todos Tempos held all time. Each floor sat inside a different year, consecutive floors rendering consecutive years.

 

Q & A

And now to take a few questions:

            Do you expect me to believe this twaddle?

Yes. Next.

            How many years (floors, I guess?) did the hotel have?

As suggested above, and please listen carefully, not one damn Tom, Dick, or Harry knows. But, here are facts eight, nine, and ten: Any time of interest to a human being could be visited by a guest (conversations with regulars suggest a span of at least 10,001 years had been visited by clientele during the Hotel’s tenure), the Hotel went at least as deep (into the past) as it did high (into the future), and as hinted earlier, the top floors were were accessible but off limits, on directive from Mr. Avery himself, after the Hotel’s only accident resulting from the fact (eleven?) that these floors correspond with post-apocalyptic time.

            How is it possible for a Hotel to contain all of time?

This is a contentious matter. Several theories had been floated by various cliques, extending into both the circles of regulars and casuals. Leading theories include: 1) a reasonably large constituency believes the Hotel simply always was, much like God or death, however, to expend with asinine explanations first, these assertions cannot be seriously entertained, 2) Portuguese explorer, Guillermo Vasquez, returned to the Guanabara Bay settlement after exploring an island off the Kathiawar peninsula, or some such place, with stone and timber exhibiting alchemistic tendencies, which was then activated by Tupi shamans, and later found and exploited by Mr. Avery himself, who built the Hotel using labor from early African slave trade, 3) the site of the hotel was proposed by Lucifer in the fourth millennia BC to be the original setting for Gehenna, but these plans were later forsaken for a site with greater human access.

Deep nights in the Hotel cafe were made out of debating these positions—participants including several sizable existentialist names like Sartre and Heidegger—but who the hell knows if any progress was actually made. We rate this question: unresolved.

            Can you tell us a bit about the architecture of the Hotel?

Simply put: A Neus Bauen Art Deco Masterpiece. Un-gothic: as much so could be conceived at the time. Sleak, linear, practical. Later renovations were designed and executed by van der Rohe, at the direction and discretion of Avery, of course. Post renovation, the concrete facade (and this may fall into the category of myth) had been mixed with gold flakes, creating a metallic shimmer that could be seen as far as Buenos Aires. This made it the most expensive engineering and structural undertaking of the time. Several contemporary architectural critics provided laudatory commendations for the design: 1) Huxtable once commented that the Hotel “exhibited the bravura and grit of the Flat Iron and the divine mandate of the Eiffel,” 2) several years later Mariana Van Rensselaer noted that it was “the only physical structure ever to render her speechless,” 3) Hawthorne goes so far as to suggest that “without the prescient influence of Todos Tempos, North America might never have known Chrysler or The Empire State.” (note bene: even this narrator finds that calculation to be flawed and hyperbolic).

            We’re all quite impressed. Now about Avery: How old was he?

The owner of Todos Tempos was ageless.

            Did he have any secrets?

Rumors flooded the Hotel community that Avery never once stayed at his own hotel. When asked why by O Globo reporter, Nina Otero, he simply responded, For what? I’m happier right now than I’ve ever been.

            What did he look like?

Sleek black hair (as if fashioned in a mold), cerulean ultramarine eyes (as if tattooed with southeast asian dyes), a modest concave scar under his left jaw (firm and angular) and an unflappable charisma—all wrapped in a Brookes three piece and bowtie. And could it have been any other way? Todos Tempos, as a business, could not have percolated under anything less than a hypnotic leader—any hint of the contrary is absurd. The Hotel required, no: requested, no: demanded, perfection.

            How do you mean?

Well, couldn’t you just imagine?—it was a bubbly boiling pot (bubble, bubble, bubble) of viscous autoschediastic energy, a tick’n time bomb (boom, boom, boom) if left to its own design. If you still don’t understand, another analogy: Todos was bigger than itself, camel back ready to snap any second, with its own saga and the personalities brimming out of it. The task of the man that managed the affair was bigger than itself too; it was a job of psychological precision, requiring not merely awareness off, but mastery over, human instinct, business savvy, interpersonal ego manipulation, group theory, leadership, salesmanship, posture (Alexander Technique especially), economics, etc.

            Could we have an example of Mr. Avery’s particular skill set?

Fair enough: an anecdote. Smack-dab Todos heyday: Rio attorney general, Sylvester Pissara-Alvito, decides he would like to spend a night on floor P34, the year of his extravagant marriage to twenty-two-year-old Mostarda Capitão® heiress and former Miss Porto Alegre (not to mention Senorita Brasil seventh-placer), Iliana Silvério, and relive some of their tenderer moments. As lore goes, Miss Silvério died three weeks earlier when her scarf became caught in the wheel axle of the car that was transporting her to a factory inspection. Well, instead of entering room 3471a (the accommodation containing his wedding night), Pissara-Alvito mistakenly entered 3417a where, in the same hotel room, six weeks prior to the wedding, he found Miss Silvério in passionate throes with a young married man, later identified as Tito Tomé, who thirty-two years later would become governor of São Paulo—and Mr. Pissara-Alvito’s brother-in-law. Pissara-Alvito landed seven good shots before security escorted him out the back door coughing on sobs. Just in case the gravity of the situation doesn’t add up for you this is what we have: Angry widower (and prominent public official) ready to reveal extramarital affair (concerning even more prominent public official) and—to add to the fiasco—rattling off about assassination plans right in Todos back parking lot. Seven minutes.

            Seven minutes?

That’s all it took. Seven minutes for Avery to talk Pissara-Alvito down. In seven days the trio was gambling on a boat to St. Kitts, laughing over liters of cachaça 61. This narrator would, personally, be flabbergasted if there was another man alive, or dead for that matter, during the Todos tenure who was privy to the same set of skills. Which explains, dearest jury, why it all imploded like a waterbed with a bullet wound when Avery himself became a casualty.

 

Testimonials

The hotel was a socio-cultural phenom. I cannot overstate this. Leaving the reader unconvinced would mean the failure of its story: Lives were changed. Citizens made whole. Souls healed. A few illustrations:

Fábio Gavino-Gàsio’s mother, Patrícia, died in childbirth. His poppa, Fábio Gavino Sr. popped his bubble, most pop-psychologists might say a bit early, at the fragile age of eight. By nine, Fábio Jr. managed to convince himself absolutely that he caused the red river that happened when he squeezed his slightly large, but certainly not dangerously so, head out of the birth canal (glancing comments from Fábio Sr. might have played a part). In all actuality, it was just your standard placental abruption mixed with some ineptities (word?) on the part of the hospital staff. Fábio, broken to pieces on the inside, created the cliche but impenetrable persona: Fábio Fresco, the she-dallying, powder-sniffing, silver screen sensation. Twelve years later, in possession of three million Real, and at least as many addictions, Fábio Fresco met with Bertrand Avery, who set him up for the night in room P2537f. There he found fresh sheets, 24 channels, and his 18-year-old mother Patrícia Gàsio at the end of a pier in Maranhão. Fábio Jr. never publicly commented on his stay at Todos but two weeks later he announced his departure from acting, jettisoned Fábio Fresco, and moved to the beaches of Maranhão.

Cláudia Cládio led Brasil in Samba in both style and technique (no pé and pagoda for the curious), idolized by fourteen-year-old girls and fawned by forty-year-old men. On her twenty-fifth birthday her back was broken when estranged boyfriend and Jogo do Pau champion, Claude Carrão, went at her with his Pau. For the next seven years, Cládiotaught dance in São Paulo from her wheelchair. Outside of the studio, she was sullen and reclusive. Two years later, an Os Tempos de Rio arts reporter ran a story describing Ms. Cládio’s transformationas unprecedented and postured her Rio’s garota-propaganda de resiliência. The story, however, failed to mention the weekend visits to room P1277v, where she relived her first radio broadcasted national championship over and over until her death at age eighty-eight.

Nuno Ardérius, affectionately dubbed the “seer of São Paulo”, could read the Brazilian stock exchange like Cleopatra read powerbent men. At one point, Mr. Ardérius alone owned ten percent of the South American market. CEOs, industrialists, and government bureaucrats levied every insider trading charge they could rally, none of which stuck. Eventually, the secretary of treasury, Rita Verão, simply remarked: He’s just that good. By thirty-five he met philanthropist and socialite, Tatiana Felix-Ferrão, and in one short breath he cashed in his investments and syphoned all his energy into funding various NGOs including, but not limited to, Estudantes Contra uma Europa Fascista, A Tuberculose Gratuito Nigéria, and Onde as Mulheres Dormem Fácil. One year later, Nuno received two pieces of news on the same day: Tatiana was expecting, and Nuno had a guava-sized growth butting up against his occipital nerve. Even with his unlimited resources, Brasil’s Best gave the seer of São Paulo a month before he was completely blind, and three months before he was dead. Forlorn and bitter, Nuno bought an opium plantation in Rondonia and smoked himself stupefied. Tatiana filed for divorce, but later dropped proceedings after Nuno visited rooms F188k and F723dd, the former containing a hospital room where little Hugo Ardérius-Felix wasbeing delivered via Caesarian, the latter accommodation holding a random day in the life of little Hugo.

The is the iceberg tip, as it were. Todos’ reach went well beyond Brazillian borders. The fever trickled into Europe where Heisenberg and Bohr came to pay homage to Newton as he carved out the Principia Mathematica; India, where fakirs came to be taught Vipassana by Siddhartha himself; Celestine monks came to watch the crucifixion; two American presidents attended the first Continental Congress; Egyptologists watched the pyramids assemble; Sufis sat with Mohammed in his cave; Jews witnessed Abraham put his knife away; lovers reunited; lonely outcasts found soulmates who died before they were born or were born after they died; dying men cheated death.

All one needed was a dream and a few thousand Real. Todos did the rest.

(cash only, Avery’s policy).

The Summer

An entomologist, a Todos regular named Dr. Alberto Albartino, was the first to attribute the early sounds of that summer to Cicadas (locustas to the simpler of our readers, cicadoideas to the more sophistrotic). Os dezessete anos tempestade!, he called it—the seventeen-year tempest: a black storm of infinito-circo haunting cello hum, a fuzz-blur of flapping saran wings with gratuitously conspicuous veins, bulging eyes, and pitch black wire-haired legs. The first admonitions kicked off in the last week of September. By the first week of October, any passerby could find a dozen to fifteen of them lining skewers on food carts, glazed in some Pimenta Caseira, or thoroughly deep-fried; why?, I never understood—the exoskeletal crunch was already unbearable, at least to me. By the second week of October the city was swallowed, entirely whole (no hyperbole here) by a cloud sixty miles long, and forty miles wide. The metropolis itself, as many of you know, is only thirty miles edge to edge. Midday felt like dusk with all the flutter-wings boxing out the sun. Streets were clogged with glassy swarms. Those without cover? Well no umbrella could hold back the skin pelting.

Bertrand Avery was the only man to benefit from the plague of locusts. Even food cart vendors’ sales plummeted when six inches of exo-carcass-massacre amassed on the streets and sidewalks. But the hotel was different. That summer, stars aligned for a cash haul that occasionally made Avery overdrag from his Doña Flor and cough out the excess. Beaches—a grizzled wasteland of anthropod parts (what sand?)—were off-limits. Clogged streets kiboshed long distance travel. Carnaval: a bust. Samba, Bossa, Choro, Zouk: amphitheaters closed until further notice. This left O Hotel de Todos Tempos: The perfect excusefor the Rio citizenry, at least those of bourgeois coterie, to bring any dead dream, fantasy, or curiosity back to life.

 

O Hotel de Todos Tempos: Summer Advertisements

It seems proper to present a few of the marketing slogans that could be found that summer in newspapers and flyers collaged with job opportunities and missing puppy pleas:

 

O Globo

Fuja dessa Locust Pocus e desfrutar o Tabu de Todos!

(marketing: every great leader has one weak heal)

 

 

Os Tempos de Rio

As únicas coisas que rola em Todos Tempos são os

condicionadores de ar

 

[generic flyer]

‘Era uma vez’ não é mais reservado para os contos de fadas.

 

 

A Fly on the Wall in the Lobby

            On any given night:

Ultra-luminal neon facade, adhesive coating of Rio humidity, two revolving doors, two impeccably dry-cleaned bellhops manning, red-carpeted lobby, to the left a bar, every brand of every spirit of every nation, to the right a pianist (accompanied by reputable samba rhythm section) floor shimmers with names and personalities and repartee, million-armed chandelier floating over (cost disputed), Oh and there is Avery in the center of a circle of ten to twelve, martini glass in his left, right saved for shaking, always a quip ready (never anything too funny, just funny enough). Inside heads: You can almost hear all the internal monologues strategizing; how to leave this circle, and join that one (in reality it’s all predetermined before the night even begins). Avery pays more attention to the ones on their way out. Another great stay, Mr. Avery, is room [x] available next week, say the [n]th of [y]? And always the same response: para você, sempre.

As shrewd a businessman as he was, Avery was a romantic, a humanist, and most definitely a narcissist (though as likable as a narcissist comes); he enjoyed knowing that Todos had value in itself—value separate from the piles of Real notes meticulously arranged in the ballroom safe at the end of the night (as evidenced by the occasional complimentary stays offered to particularly needy rural corn farmers and factory workers).

 

The Hotel and I

It was me; I spoiled everything, ruined the party, brought it all back up for the poor chump like last nights dinner. And could it have been any different?

Of course not.

The Universe swoons to poetry.

I suppose you’d like to know the shit storm that tore through my brain when I swiped away some locust limbs from a littered copy of Os Tempos de Rio (out of pure boredom to boot) and found my very first advertisement for Os Hotel de Todos Tempos. The tagline Retornar ao Seu Momento mais Feliz! is what caught the eye. My twig hadn’t twitched in two decades and suddenly there it was (as it is now I confess) a concrete cairn (Gaelic blood). That’s when I pulled a thoroughly used tissue from the pocket and helter-skelter wrote down the address given at the bottom of the page.

At first, I just swooped by, giving a casual glance, careening the scene, before returning to my room at the O Velho Brasil (in those days I was just a visitor in Rio with more money than God). There, on my overpillowed (word?) undulating bed I dreamt of each of their beautiful faces. I only knew the names of a quiet few—not even my favorites, they were accidents (I never wanted to know the names)—but their candied sacchariferous (word?) faces I remembered perfectly, every bitty detail, from the drugged drooped lip drip to the way they sequestered behind their eyes as I got close.

            You sick fuck, why?

            I asked myself this question a thousand times and every time I came to the same answer: It was the retreat, the ebb; the shrinking, the vacating; the folding, the departing; but the inability to do so in a physical way, leaving them no place to withdraw but behind their eyes where they were trapped and I could have everything.

That is why.

The next night, after a lovely day of watching every gear palpitate to every next second on my watch, I confidently walked into the lobby in my own Brookes three-piece. O sangue fresco! A beaming Avery’s right hand outstretched to me in less than sixty. E onde gostaria de ficar esta noite, senhor? Vinte e sete anos atrás, por favor. Seemed as good a place to start as any. P27 imediatamente, senhor. Aqui é a chave. E boa noite!

There really is no substitute for one part feverish obsession and two parts process of elimination. I endured nights of stale board meetings, rehearsed dinner conversations with old casuals (a few were nice to re-bullshit with), and mostly sleepless nights of sweaty self-loathing, as defined my twenty-seven-years-ago. In spite of the thrill of the hunt, it all sent me deep and dark, touching all the places that made me who I am to begin with (not to dispense with the responsibility—there’s no doubt I’m a sicklittlefuck, irrespective of intervening environmental factors, for example: on two of those nights I watched myself carving Wilde quotes into my inner thigh).

In six weeks or so the gamble paid off—I found the proverbial needle in my haystack. It was a Friday, maybe a Thursday, or a Saturday, whatever, doesn’t matter. I opened the door and there he (who? not the faintest.) was tied to the bedposts all sweet and lamb-like, prone and peeled of his clothing. He may have been my third, possibly fourth, but this night he was my first. As I moved in, heart and cock all rampant, hand sliding down the inside of his leg, I thought about how he’d just been here, waiting so patiently, in this room (P2792g), for the last twenty-seven years, just for this moment.

In twenty minutes it was over.

Back in the lobby I was. A mixture of guilt and glow I suppose. Avery approached. I don’t remember (how could I?) what we talked about, but I do know something transpired: at the time I liked to call it a symmetry, possibly a resonance. He ditched the circle of gosling courting him and settled on a couch with me, where he fanned bellhops for Mango Martinis, and correctly guessed the details of my life (birthplace: Belfast, occupation: business, etc.) The lobby dwellers fired eye-arrows with trailing banners that read: Quem diabos é esse cara?

Not the faintest, gentlemen. Really.

In the next weeks, I lived at Todos. New room, new lamb, every night.

(As it was, as it will always be).

After and always, stumbling sedate down the thirty or so red stairs leading from the elevator to the lobby the same ritual ensued: At roughly 12:10 am, Avery would appear from behind a wall of less important residents and find me at the bar (complimentary drinks all night). The attention was baffling, but I was charmed. Topics included: global economics, the futility of birthing children, South American literature, the rising tide of the circus, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, karma, the Yukon, and the pros and cons of unimaginable celebrity. Topics not-included: why I suddenly lived at Todos, or the events that transpired after a door clicked closed behind me (I respected the restraint), antarctic penguins, and Avery pre-hotel—the boy played his cards close.

Eventually, I understood: I was being seduced—the man was my dearest (perhaps my only) friend, Mr. Enigmatic himself. And, yet, at the same time it was all a pure mind fuck.There was something so divergent about our wooing. In a way, I feel like I never knew him. Regardless of how many hours we spent inebriated and swapping gooey-eyed stories there was a side of him that was untouchable, unknowable. So much so that I would catch myself wondering if he was an invention of himself. But, just as intensely, I felt an intimacy. So deep it was like we shared the same blood.

The conflict between these superimposed states haunted me.

But, hey, at least I made a friend.

 

The Night Everything Changed

I thought I’d re-lived them all.

Truly, I thought there were no more.

But the Universe swoons to poetry.

There was another. One more. I found him, like most things, out of boredom. The others, beautiful as they were, were getting stale (three months deep now). So I spent a week or two exploring every nook and cranny of that floor, in the hopes, dim as they were, that there was another, someone I’d forgotten about, someone trying particularly hard not to be found.

It was New Years Eve. The lobby was cacophonic with noise and celebration and every flavor of inanity. Avery was a ghost. I was seething (tongue tied, cock curious). So I left. Took the elevator to P26. Picked a random room. The room: P2689r.

New Year’s jackpot.

I opened the door to a slim one, olive-skinned, bound and gagged, eyes blue but firm, soul not yet sequestered behind them (but so ready for it). There’s something so exciting in that second when it all comes together: when what you’ve been looking for is laying right there for the taking.

I mounted him. Kissed his neck on the right. He craned left. Kissed his neck on the left. He craned right. Skin is so blurry-fuzz up close. So maybe it was the subtle change in the contour of that soft neck velvet (as experienced by my upper lip) that first notified me. The boy had a scar. A familiar one. An unhealed piece of concave tissue that I’d spent much of the last three months careening carefully with my eyes and fabricating stories about.

I think I sequestered behind my eyes.

That’s when the boy, whose hands were only disingenuously tied together, wiggled free from the ropes, and grabbed my Bolas with brutal-tight little vice-fingers teaming with twenty-six years of pent up acrimony. Before I could fully soak in the nausea that jumped from the sac to the stomach to the brain, I noticed an acute pressure on my throat, which as it turned out, was a metal wire (piano string maybe?) being swept around my neck from behind.

My head was jerked back like a cotton doll, eyes to the ceiling, counting the beads on the Charleston lamp shade to soothe (1, 2, … ) before I get too far I’m interrupted by Bertrand himself from above (have you noticed how strange eyes look when viewed upside…). He pulls the two ends of the wire to jolt me out of any more distracting thoughts. Can you guess what he said?

            O Universo adora poesia.

Then he motions to the boy, and, as if every detail had been priorly rehearsed, the boy begins to pull off my Brookes, piece by piece, jacket first, onto the pants, with a knife he cuts open my undershirt, does the same to my white briefs, slowly, as if savoring (you’d think he’d been waiting twenty-six years). Young Avery opens up a drawer in the night stand and pulls out an anonymous black canister, which he opens, sniffs (I can smell the bathtub pine needles), and pours generously over my genitals. Old Avery tightens up a bit on the piano string. I can see the sweat building on his palm, but looking at his solid eyes, it’s only a form of liquid anticipation. With my tassle thoroughly soaked, the little one pulls a matchbox (from the same drawer), and strikes one. I couldn’t help but note the perverse look (frolic, revelry, solace?) in his eyes as he drops it in all the gin. (I always sort of wondered what torture…)

Old Avery tugs up on his wire.

            Voltar, puto!, he tells me.

Okay then.

I’m back. Long enough to start screaming bloodyfuckingmurder. Beating the bed with both hands, then clawing at Old Avery’s hands, then back to beating the bed again.

I may also have thanked them.

            Obrigado. Minha doença é fixada.

Young Avery (speaking for the first time): ainda não.

Eerie-like.

He then pours the liquid pine needles over my stomach, extending the trail of fire from my genitals to my chest. He stops for a moment (presumably to give me some time to appreciate this next level). I try (again) to escape into my head, but more tactfully so Old Avery doesn’t notice.

(If I can tell when they fell behind their eyes, so can…)

            Aqui!, Old Avery yanks.

Young Avery continues his masterpiece, extending the trail of fire up onto my neck, and then onto my lips. I open my mouth and try to syphon as much as I can into my stomach (anesthesia) before the little one slaps it all out of my mouth.

Now my face is on fire. And the two just watch intently, while I listen to my skin bubble behind my howling.

The most unsettling part: Their eyes never once question the plan.

Old Avery breaks the silence: diga-me quando você está prestes a morrer.

Now.

            Agora mesmo.

            What did you feel right then?

Relief. SweetSimpleNothing. I just wanted everything to turn black. Of course that would have been too easy for me.

Old Avery must have seen the New Year’s wish in my eyes, because:

            Não é fácil, puta, he said.

I had to admit, in the chaos of the moment, even as the skin was melting off my face, that their planning was impeccable. Old Avery and his piano wire dragging me by the throat from the luxury of the two thousand count Egyptian sheets, Young Avery hanging onto my thrashing feet. Into the bathroom we go where they’ve prepared an elegant ice bath (and look: rose petals). Seconds from my SweetSweetNothing: splash. And I’m extinguished.

Blurred and fuzzed, the duo exits.

I’m just floating in hypothermic water. Movement a luxury I can’t conjure. I can only see a few things. Examples of those things: 1) The buoyant remains of my cockerel, charred and useless, undulating in the ice water, 2) a few globs of skin bobbing and weaving through cubes and rose petals, and 3) my new, posh, novotextured (word?) face in a mirror generously left at the foot of the tub by the Avery boys.

Last thought before things turned black:

            Had Mr. Bertrand Avery only ever built the hotel for me?

 

Aftermath:

The Hotel and I (Part II)

Someone (let’s just say Avery) must have alerted Hotel security that there was a fire on the twenty-sixth floor, because I only had a couple of minutes to explore my fresh new face before the front door imploded and a possy of uniformed men flooded the bathroom, lifting me out of cozy bath, and into an ambulance en route to Hospital Petrópolis. As the doors closed I noticed a single cicada slip in and buzz away its vile hum—mixing with sirens, chaotic português directives, blood pressure machines, stethoscopes; my brain spewed spontaneous cartoons, taking me to all the hidden places Avery blocked as I was being burned alive.

(I, at least, had the decency to let my boys escape leagues-deep in their heads)

I was jostled back to present time when I felt my locust friend get knotted up inside the gauze that was being wrapped around my charred neck.

(The puto squirmed for days).

I woke up two days later with fourth degree burns on ninety-two percent of my face, the fingers of my right hand fused together (a humbling writing experience this has been), and a crater where my manhood used to be (good riddance). I left the hospital with a three-thousand Real bill and a complimentary white mask.

But enough about me, you’re dying to ask:

What happened to Avery?

Witnesses saw him and a young boy, allegedly dressed in some black slacks and a handsome cardigan, walk right out the front door. Everyone just expected he would be back with a bottle of Vermouth, puffing on a cigar, wondering what all the fuss was about. That never happened.

And the Hotel?

The body lives for a bit before the head dies.

I watched the whole thing from behind my mask, sitting on a park bench across the street. Things started tranquilo; business as usual for the first few weeks. No one stepped up to fill the vacuum (no one expected him to stay gone (and who could’ve?)). Then the regularswaned. The first to go was a man from Manhattan; then a boy from the San Francisco bay.

            Where did they go?

Would you believe me if I told you?

            Yes.

They walked into rooms and never came out.

            Why?

There is no agreement on this point but here are a few theories: 1) Some believe that people return to Todos when the world is done with them, 2) Others believe that patrons began to settle into the only moment of bliss they ever found, and 3) I, personally, believe we all came from Todos and just started coming home.

The next year Os Hotel de Todos Tempos was boarded and condemned. Six months later it was leveled to build a mall outside of Copacabana.

            And could it have been any different?

Of course not.

            The Universe swoons to poetry.

 

 

 

Scott stambachBIO

A physicist, turned activist, turned educator, turned raconteur. Scott plays with words every night to neutralize his left-brain, which overflows all hours of his mathematical day. When he sleeps, the different personalities throw parties and commingle over cocktails, though the details are always murky in the morning. This cycle has left him with dozens of short stories, several of which have been published in both online and print journals, including Wild Violet, IdeaGems, and Blood Moon Rising.

 

 

 

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Joshua Sidley

Finished

by Joshua Sidley

 

 

Abruptly one day my ex-wife stopped speaking to me in any recognizable way. What came out instead in our weekly discussions, which were centered mostly on our eight year-old son Charlie, were breathless musings about his unique style of speech toward adults, mindless philosophy regarding his silence toward other children, and a claim that something special was waiting for them both. Just when I started to grow attuned to it all, a new voice emerged, an articulation of a secret unhappiness that felt every bit as false as my wish that she remarry.

My son had warned me, or tried to. “I think Mom needs help, or something. It’s because she’s lonely. She misses us.”

I nodded and sighed. “Did she tell you that?” I asked, hating the sound of my (father’s) voice in that instant.

“No—I mean yeah. In that way she has. I told you.” And he had, he had.

Unfortunately, I had been half asleep—dreaming—at the time.

 

In the dream Kathryn stood folding a bed sheet and staring at her swollen belly. She signed and clamped her teeth as an unborn Charlie, a week overdue, spoke to her, inside her. Asked her questions, all kinds. His voice in her mind was perfectly clear but if she did not reply immediately she would forget what he had said, his words dissolving in her bloodstream. Blinking tears, she claimed that Charlie was making it happen. He was not giving her enough time to answer him, causing her to unremember his most recent inquiry, and yet she always knew he had said something. Sometimes she called him spiteful and a hypocrite. If the little brat’s that impatient, what the hell is he doing still backstroking in there? she asked me eventually. What does he expect me to do?

I pretended to think about it. Catch up, I said.

 

Before the divorce, when Charlie warned me about Kathryn I barely heard him. And after, when his warnings persisted I thought he was merely getting back at me, making me think what happened was my fault. I told him it wasn’t and he responded coolly, “She knows that. Everybody knows that.”

How strange, that I hadn’t known that.

 

What I did know: the difference between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown. Before the divorce, during our very worst arguments my wife had experienced intense panic attacks, acute rushes of adrenaline when it became clear her side of the argument was lost. And one week after, in another state, she had a nervous breakdown in a barricaded room somewhere, alone.

 

The first thing I ever noticed about Kathryn was her fingers, tapping absently against the side of her head, just above her cheekbone. She saw me and her fingers stopped tapping and her lipsticked mouth formed a grin. Months after we were married I had a dream about this initial encounter; except in the dream, when her fingers stopped tapping, one of them came away bloody.

 

Life is a beautiful and hideous thing, she had told my father once, and from what I knew of her childhood, I’d thought her declaration entirely reasonable. It irked him the way most things had when he wasn’t soaked in alcohol. “What is that even supposed to mean?” he challenged.

“It means that every flower has its mound of shit from which it sprang,” she said, looking directly at me.

My father was stunned into silence, and I into the profoundest love I had known; until then at least.

 

Her arms around my neck, pulling. Always in the oddest places, a smile of mockery, of premeditated impulsiveness. Daring me to object, knowing it would only encourage her more; and knowing that, I’d object strongly.

 

Eighteen months of marriage. Then seeing Charlie for the first time, Kathryn in an epidural-induced fog and myself more awake than I’d ever been in my life, wanting to speak, knowing it would only reveal how unprepared, how truly uncomfortable we both were. Knowing that, I said nothing at all.

 

Charlie was an uneasy child, his sleep ravaged by every sort of nightmare. Sometimes he would run from his room and out of the house before either of us could stop him (though it seemed like each time Kathryn tried less and less). The reason for these nightmares was not something Charlie was ever willing to discuss. No one who knew him could understand or help him, he said. When I asked him why, he replied, exasperated, “Because. That’s how nightmares work.”

 

Soon there was always a day in the week that each time the doorbell rang, it was him. A stranger, recommended to us by neighbors who’d heard Charlie in the night. A stranger hired to observe, speak, listen closely to what our son said (and would not say). For a while the stranger’s day was Tuesday. Since there was no choice but to open the door, one of us did while the other stared tensely at the floor. Feeling emptied out, inadequate. Trying not to think of ourselves as failures, of Charlie as victim.

 

Three months later Kathryn told me the stranger wasn’t coming back. “Why not?” I asked, halfway knowing what she was going to say.

“Asshole wasn’t helping,” she muttered. “So I fired him.”

I nodded, shrugged. “Okay. Now what?”

“Now what what?” she spat out, then softened after a moment. “Honey, Charlie is not the problem. Never has been and everyone knows it.”

How odd, that I hadn’t known that.

 

But it was Kathryn that had led me to take a closer look at Charlie, calling him a highly peculiar boy not long after his fourth birthday. “Did you know he actually asked me if I was his mother once? He wasn’t sure!”

I bit my lip, anger welling up in me toward Charlie.“When was this?”

“I can’t remember,” she said and made a dismissive gesture. “Ask him.” And when I did, Charlie couldn’t remember either. But he assured me whatever doubts he’d had were gone. “Don’t worry, she’s definitely Mom.

I wanted to force him to say more, what he had meant by doubting his mother’s identity at all.

Fuck it, I thought instead.

 

“I’m not responsible for what he says or does! Why must anyone look at me?”

I told her that she was not responsible—we both were. That more and more she was withdrawing from Charlie and from me, and that if she wanted to be freed of all culpability concerning our son’s odd conduct (on that day he’d asked several teachers if hate actually existed or was it merely the absence of love, and was outraged at all their answers) then she knew what to do. “Just as your mother did right in front of you. Or have you forgotten?”

Stricken, hiding her face in her hands, she rushed to the bathroom and vomited.

 

Some days Kathryn would arrive home later than others, some explanations were better, more likely, than others. I was slightly suspicious perhaps, but I hid it well. Even when she finally admitted to a brief affair with another man whom she barely knew, I hid my hatred for her surprisingly well.

 

A hospital administrator two states away called nearly a month after the divorce (of course Kathryn’s medical records still had me listed as her emergency contact). In a lowered, urgent voice the administrator politely informed me that she had caused a disturbance in a local motel, had barricaded the door to her room after the manager tried to gain access. The poor man, in his early seventies, was simply responding to complaints from other guests. Screams, they said. Objects thrown against the walls, broken. The police came and arrested her. They were accompanied by an emergency services team which included a physician who, after failing to calm her, had her committed to an area hospital.

“So what exactly do you want me to do about this?” I asked in disbelief.

Catch up, a voice inside me said.

 

In three months Kathryn’s treatment team determined that she no longer needed inpatient care and handling. She had suffered an acute psychological collapse following a long period of stress which had not been adequately dealt with, according to the doctor who’d admitted her. Through psychotropic medications, therapeutic interventions and rest, she was restored to her previous level of functioning; though I wondered how exactly could they know that. Yet after speaking with her about why our marriage ended and where we could both go from there, I had to agree—so did Charlie. Kathryn was herself again.

This was the dangerous time.

 

Because Charlie began to feel threatened in Kathryn’s company. Because during his bimonthly weekend visits to her new apartment—less than a mile away from us, her idea—she would become drenched in perspiration if he asked a question she could not answer instantly. Because she followed him everywhere, into the kitchen, the bedroom, even the bathroom—almost. Because she refused to answer her cell phone in his presence, as though he would object to the distraction, talk that may or may not include him. Because she questioned him closely if he had left her sight for more than a minute without warning. Because she recoiled if Charlie expressed any irritation with anything at all.

One day Charlie called me to ask if I could come and get him a day early, saying he was not feeling well, saying Kathryn’s behavior was making his head spin and his stomach hurt.

“Why are you acting like this, making him so uncomfortable, making him sick?” I confronted her at the door, “What the hell are you thinking?”

“I’m not thinking anything!” she cried. “He won’t let me!”

I looked over her shoulder and saw Charlie waiting for me in the car, his head in his hands.

 

A week later, a handwritten letter from Kathryn arrived in the mail. It read:

 

I’m sorry for what I am.

I love you so much.

K

 

I carefully folded the letter and looked up. Through a teary haze the face of Charlie stared.

 

The telephone rang the next day, near midnight.

They—she and Charlie—had come to a decision, Kathryn was telling me.

“Okay. When?” I asked, and stepped lightly into Charlie’s room. He was sprawled across the bed, sleeping soundly on his stomach. “When?” I asked again.

“Now. Just now,” she said.

I wanted to embrace her. “All right. Why don’t you wait until the morning and we’ll talk about it then?”

“I can’t. I’d like to but Charlie says it has to be right now. This second.”

Goddammit, I thought, holding back tears. “Well, wh-what is this decision?”

“It’s my best option. Charlie will tell you,” she answered, sounding hopeful and sad. “I love you so much.” Then she hung up.

I stood very still, listening. And somehow I was absolutely sure that I would not see or speak to Kathryn ever again. Moments later Charlie woke up, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He yawned and looked at me and blinked.

“Don’t be mad,” he pleaded.

“Why?” I asked him.

He smiled thinly. “I finished,” he said.

 

 

 

BIO

Joshua SidleyA graduate of the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Joshua Sidley has published short stories in the online journals Fear and Trembling, Kaleidotrope and Bewildering Stories, and the print journal Down In The Dirt Magazine, as well as the online publisher bookstogonow.com. He is currently at work on his first novel.

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Cheryl Diane Kidder

Objects in Limbo

by Cheryl Diane Kidder

 

 

George and Doris were in the backyard having coffee at the picnic table. The weather had just warmed up enough for them to take their breakfast outside before George headed out to work.

“What was that?” George heard it first.

Doris looked up from her English muffin and sniffed the air a bit. “I didn’t hear anything.” She looked at the back fence, expecting another sound, maybe those coyotes trying to get in the yard. Good thing they didn’t have a small dog. “If it’s those coyotes again, I say we get the shotgun.”

“Wasn’t coyotes,” George said.

They sat very still on the two opposing redwood benches, the morning warming up around them. It was too early for Mrs. Betts next door to be out and about yet and the young couple on the other side were late risers as well. The sound had either come from directly behind their house, or where?

“Sounds like somebody threw a TV out the window,” George suggested, pushing the bench aside.

“Oh, you’re not going out there are you? We don’t need to get involved, whatever the hell it is.” Doris tried to keep her seat but she was up on her feet and right behind George.

The two of them tiptoed through their own house, both silently making their way to the living room. Luckily, Doris hadn’t opened the blinds yet so they were both able to walk right up to the window then carefully fold back one vertical blind, Doris on one side of the window and George at the other. They had to experiment a minute before each found a blind that gave them good access to the drama unfolding across the street.

“Good God, what have they done over there?” Doris said.

“Maybe I should call the police?” George suggested but made no move away from the blinds.

“Yes, I think you should. Someone could be hurt over there.”

“It looks like he drove straight through the garage door,” George said, still not believing it.

“Yeah it does. But where is she? Can you see him? Is that a body slumped over the wheel?”

“Ok, I’m calling the police.” George still didn’t move.

All the drapes were open across the street. Doris could see directly into the house, but she saw no movement at all.

“Do you think the children are still in there?” Doris said.

George didn’t answer. He found the cord to the blinds and yanked it hard. Doris let out a little scream. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“I can’t see properly. If I’m going to call the police, I want to be sure what I’m reporting.”

They stood in their robes and pajamas in the picture window staring across the street. The garage door was certainly in pieces and the little navy blue Saturn Mr. Mulligan drove to work every day was sitting in the middle of the pile of wrecked lumber. She just couldn’t tell if anybody was in the car.

“Can you see in the car?” Doris asked.

“No, can you see anything?”

“Nothing at all. But now we know what that sound was.”

They stood at their window. Doris pulled her robe tighter around her body.

“Well, are you going to call the police, or what?” she asked George.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it’s none of our business.”

“If it was me, I’d want somebody to call the police for me.”

“Well that’s fine but it would never be you. I’d never drive through the garage door.”

“Yes, but that’s not the point.”

They looked back across the street. Two people had just walked through the front room very fast. Then their front door opened and Mr. Mulligan appeared.

“Quick, close the blinds, George. For heaven’s sake.” And she jumped back behind the drape.

“They’re not looking over here. Let’s just see what happens.”

Doris peeked out from behind the drape. Mrs. Mulligan appeared at the front door, hands on her hips. She was in her nightgown and her hair was fuzzy and ratted out.

“She’s yelling at him,” George said.

“Can you hear anything?”

“No. But I think he’s just going to get in the car and drive off.”

“How can he do that? He just wrecked his house. His wife is standing in the front door yelling at him.”

They watched as Mr. Mulligan got into his blue Saturn and pulled fast out of the driveway. Planks and pieces of board fell off the car as he backed out. Mrs. Mullligan started running down the front walkway.

“She’s going to try to stop him.”

“I can see that, Doris.”

They watched Mrs. Mulligan run down the sidewalk after the disappearing Saturn. She didn’t get much past her own driveway though and stopped. She hung her head, turned around and walked back to her front door, stepped in and closed it behind her. George and Doris waited a moment and then kept watching as, very slowly, the drapes were pulled shut.

“Well, that’s that.” Doris said.

“I’m glad I didn’t call the police.”

“You might have to one day. I still didn’t see the children.”

“Doris,” George had grabbed the rope pulleys of the blinds and let the blinds fall back into place, “you’re just too nosey. It’s none of our business.”

And now George was back pretending to prune her apricot tree. Doris walked out onto the front porch. She could tell George was watching the Mulligan house again, just like before.

“Just come in now, George. Nothing’s happening anyway.”

George pulled the sheers back from the apricot tree and let them hang at his side. He looked down at the cut limbs on his lawn and regretted that he’d now have to pull the garbage can around to the front and break up the wood.

Doris was at his side. She took the sheers out of his hands. He let her. He was late for work anyway.

“I know what you were doing out there, George.” Doris gave him a bad look as he headed for the car. He took the sack lunch she held out to him.

“Yeah, well, you never know what goes on in another person’s house, do you?” He was a little sad. He probably should have called the police before the Mulligans had the garage door repaired. Now he’s most likely missed his chance.

“You better jump, mister. Coming in late every day isn’t going to get the bills paid.” She put her hand on his back as he turned away.

“I should have retired last year. Then I could prune the trees anytime I like. What’s for lunch,” he asked, opening the door to the garage.

“Tuna sandwich and strawberries.” She closed the door behind him. Sometimes she found it hard to believe he was a civil engineer. She imagined he was a good enough civil engineer, but when he’d brought up retiring last year she had to set him straight.

“We are in no position to retire from anything, George,” she told him. He made her promise that they could discuss retiring next year. They were both past retirement age but every time George tried to bring it up, Doris poo-pooed him.

“What would you do with yourself all day? Might as well keep bringing a paycheck home if we’re still able to.”

George scrunched up his face at her and walked away. He could think of a few things he’d like to be doing.

That night they watched an old movie on TV instead of the usual talk shows. Doris loved the old movies. They reminded her of when she was a kid, rather of when her mother was a kid. Her mother was always telling her about movies she’d seen. Doris had grown up watching Shirley Temple movies and then musicals. Her mother would buy the entire score of her favorite musicals and learn how to play them on their old Steinway. She wasn’t a great piano player but she could read music and once you got the melody line you could sing the words. Doris knew the words to more songs than anybody she’d ever met.

Every night when she turned the bedside lamp off she looked down at the framed picture of her mother on the bedside table. The picture was taken when her parents were courting. Her mother is young and slim, her head is thrown back and she’s laughing wildly. Doris thinks if she looks at the picture long enough she can conjure up a memory of her mother like this, but it hadn’t happened yet. She remembers her mother very differently, but loves the picture just the same.

George seemed tired and not thrilled with a movie, and once he laid down and shut his eyes, he was out. Sometimes Doris saw this as a betrayal or an abandonment. She hates not being the first one asleep, but more and more George falls asleep first and Doris must make do with the company of the TV. On this night, she stayed up late after watching an old Ethel Merman musical with Jimmy Durante and then watched The Thin Man. Mostly she loved watching Asta, their little dog. She had always wanted a little dog but George would always nix the idea so she became a connoisseur of film dogs.

Halfway through The Thin Man, George started snoring like crazy. She pushed his shoulder, he turned over and stopped. Her last thought was, “I should turn off the TV.”

Next thing she knew her eyes were open, the TV was still on, some guy trying to sell exercise equipment. She reached over for the remote and saw the other side of the bed was empty. She patted the empty space just to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

“George?” she called out, then got out of bed, put on her slippers and tiptoed out into the hall. She looked in the bathroom, nothing. She walked into the kitchen, no lights on. She flipped on the light switch. The refrigerator was humming as usual, but no George. She flipped the light off and walked into the front room. She turned on the little lamp at the side of the couch, just enough light to see by. Nope, no George. Then she heard it. The snipping again, just like this morning. She went to the blinds. There was George, out in the light of the moon, snipping at her apricot tree again. She went to the front door, yanked it open and walked right out onto the front lawn, “George Johanson, what in god’s name are you doing out here? Do you have any idea what time it is?”

She put her hand on his arm to stop the snipping and looked into his face. He turned his face to her. His eyes were wide open but he wasn’t there. She took the sheers out of his hands and threw them on the ground a few feet away.

“George?” She shook him a little. “George, are you awake?”

George looked at her and said, “Mali con nomey, burn a bunny.”

“What?” she shook him again. “Wake up. Wake up.” She pushed the hair off his forehead.

“I’m awake.” He said simply.

“Well, what are you doing out here?”

“Money come happy, cars. Doors.” He said sincerely to her and looked across the street.

“Oh, no you don’t. No more cars or doors. You have to come into the house right now.” She took his arm and pulled him a little at first. Then he followed her until they got to the front door. He tripped over the front step.

“There you go.” Doris pulled his legs back up onto the bed and then pulled the covers over him. He put his head on his pillow and smiled up at her.

“Vinnie con tuo.” He nodded at her and closed his eyes.

She got back into her side of the bed and stared at him, afraid at first to not sit up and watch him, afraid he might do that again. He could have been hurt, anything could have happened. She sat there watching George, the light of the TV illuminating the room. She picked up the remote and turned the sound up a little bit. It wouldn’t hurt her to make sure he got back to sleep soundly. She surfed around until she found My Man Godfrey, another William Powell movie,then sat back against her pillows. George hadn’t sleepwalked in years. The doings over at the Mulligans must have upset him more than she realized.

* * *

That night George dreamed about when he was a boy and had wanted to get away from his parents and seven brothers and sisters. He’d gone down to the lake, not the end of the lake where all the boats were tied up and where all the tourists go every summer, but the complete opposite end of the lake. It wasn’t easy to get to either. He happened upon it by chance one summer when the whole family had driven down for a short weekend vacation.

The cabin his parents had rented was only two rooms, parents in one room, his three sisters in the other bedroom and George and his brothers sacked out in the living room in sleeping bags. The price difference between the two-bedroom and the three-bedroom probably would have put his father too much in the hole so instead of not going at all, the boys agreed to rough it by sleeping on the floor.

Well, George had about had it with roughing it after the first Friday night. Mikey kept rolling over and kicking him in the face and he wasn’t asleep at the time either. George was the second youngest so Kevin and Patrick were always picking on him and Mikey could only pick on George when they weren’t at home and he knew George wouldn’t hit him back or cuss him. George did his best to keep the peace. It wasn’t always easy.

So, since he was wide awake anyway, he got up in the pitch black, put on his jeans and grabbed an apple and his pack with his fishing gear and took off in the complete opposite direction of all the people and all the family and everything that had any mark of civilization on it.

For a couple hours he really thought he’d gotten lost. He’d lost all sight of the lake but could still smell it. The dawn came up early which was good. He tried to get his bearings by the sun, but the trees were so high and so dense that it was tough to do. He cussed himself out for leaving the compass behind. He knew it was right there in Kevin’s pack too. But soon he came upon a small trail that led him straight to the water’s edge.

Once he got back to the water he followed it along until he couldn’t go any further. A sandy beach opened up and he set his pack down. The sun was at his back. The campsite and cabins were directly across the lake. All he could hear was an owl sometimes, far off. Even the birds had quieted down. The clear lake water lapped gently on the sand and then retreated. It had its own business and wanted nothing from him. It wouldn’t kick him in the head or punch him in the arm. He lay back and set his head on his pack and looked up at the sky. There were clouds whisping about, nothing much and a little breeze. He closed his eyes.

When he woke up the sun was directly in his eyes, heading fast down the opposite end of the lake, behind the tall pines. It looked like he’d slept all day. He sat up and looked around. There weren’t any boats on the lake, none that he could see or hear. The water was just as clear and calm as when he’d fallen asleep. After his initial panic he started wondering what his hurry was. He was pretty sure his parents might not even notice he was gone so he headed back, but he headed back slow.

He hadn’t been back to his beach in probably more than twenty years. Although he visited it every time he took a family trip there and a couple times when he was in college he took a drive by himself and hiked out to his beach and sat there watching the sun set. He never wanted to take anybody else there. It wasn’t a large beach, really only enough room for one person to comfortably sit or lie down anyway. He never saw any footprints on the sand. And there were always the most beautifully colored, sand-polished stones just at the edge of the beach, just under the water. He never picked one up. He tried to memorize their position once to see if anyone had moved them the next time he visited. If he had a paper and pencil right now he could still map them out just as they were then: two round blue stones, six multi-colored in a rectangular formation and one flat stone with a red hue to it. If he concentrated on the colors of the stones and the sound of the water breaking over them, even now, he could hear the water falling between the stones, onto the beach, almost up to his bare feet.

* * *

“George, get away from that window, I’m serious.”

“Shut off the light, would you?”

“I will not shut off the light. You get away from that window and put down those binoculars. I swear. You’d think you were eight years old.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy curiosity.”

“Your curiosity has been the death of my apricot tree.”

“That tree was on its last legs.”

“It was in better shape before you took the pruning sheers to it.”

“Every tree needs a little pruning now and then.”

“George, you’ve pruned that tree every day for a month. There’s nothing left but a stump. It’ll never grow back. You know I got a book out of the library that says you’re not supposed to trim fruit trees down to the stump. You just do that for roses.”

“Maybe I’ll buy you some rose bushes tomorrow.”

“What, so you can prune those for me? No thanks. Why don’t you buy a nice evergreen that we don’t have to do anything to but water.”

“Too boring, too predictable. I want something that might die immediately but for the care I give it.”

“We could always get a dog, George.”

“Dog’s are messy and they die on you. No, a dog’s no good.”

“Ok, then a cat? A parakeet, a hamster, anything. I’d love to have another living thing in the house.”

“No, no rodents. I refuse to share my house with rodents. Hell, we pay people to come get rid of pests like that.”

“Cats aren’t pests, George.”

“They are to me.”

“Now give me those binoculars.”

“No, wait, I think I see a light on.”

“There’s nothing to see there George. Let’s go to bed.”

“You go on ahead, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“I’ve heard that same thing for a month George and every morning I wake up and another bush or tree has been pruned to the point that I’m going to have to take them out.”

“Well, we need some new landscaping anyway.”

“Come to bed, George.”

“In a minute.”

“I’m not going in without you this time. I’m waiting right here so you might as well finish up. There’ll be no pruning tonight.”

“God, you won’t let me have any fun at all. You know at my age, fun becomes very difficult.”

“Spying on the neighbors isn’t fun, George. It’s probably criminal. You could go to jail if they reported you.”

“The only person going to jail is you for forcing me to give up the only pleasurable thing I have.”

“I can wait all night, George.”

“I’m almost done.”

“Hand over the binoculars.”

“In a minute.”

“Hand them over, George.”

“All right fine. Here.”

“That’s better. Now let’s go to bed.”

George followed Doris reluctantly out of the living room. Never want anything you just can’t do without, he reminded himself.

* * *

Doris refused to go to Wal-Mart. At first it was a political thing, the way they would always build them right on the outskirts of poor communities, forcing all the downtown mom-and-pop stores out of business. She read in the paper about how Wal-Mart was the biggest employer in the US and she just figured that was wrong.

But more than that was that awful smell of old popcorn. George loved it. They’d hand out miniature bags of popcorn, red and white striped bags with ruffled edges, overflowing with yellow popcorn. Yellow from all the fake butter and George would munch on it as he walked down all the hardware aisles. First Doris would go with him and just wander off by herself into kitchenwares and usually pick up a few different size Tupperware containers. But then she put her foot down.

“I’m not going to Wal-Mart any more,” she told George as he dangled the keys in front of her.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t like the way they do business.”

“Since when?”

“Since forever. I always felt this way but I just didn’t think about making a big deal out of it but now, now I think I found my principles after all.”

George thought it over for a minute. “Well, will you go to K-mart then?”

Doris thought back to the last time she was in K-mart. No popcorn smell. The aisles were wider, not so many poor families with snotty nose kids hanging off of the shopping carts.

“Yeah, K-mart’s OK. Target would be better.”

“You just like Target because it’s in that ritzy neighborhood.”

“Nothing wrong with that. I like looking at the big houses.”

George grumbled to himself all the way out to the car, his face all creased up like he was thinking about some math problem but what he was thinking was that Doris was wanting a bigger house, a bigger yard, a different neighborhood. He wasn’t going to bring it up, but every time Doris even got close to suggesting that some other house was so nice, or maybe they could spend Sunday morning some time driving around looking at model homes, George crinkled up his face and Doris immediately dropped the idea.

“What’s so bad about dreaming big, George?” she’d asked him once after he’d nixed a Sunday outing.

“I got all I need right here. There’s no reason for a bigger house. Bigger house just means bigger mortgage and more cleaning and more lawn to mow. More work.”

“But wouldn’t it be fun to move, to experience a different place, maybe meet new neighbors who were more, you know, like us?”

George crinkled up his face. He liked the neighbors just fine. They stayed in their houses and he and Doris stayed in their house. No uncomfortable social sessions out on the sidewalk, no potlucks on weeknights, and no kids riding bikes and skateboards up and down the street. That was a plus.

“I like it fine right where we are. I thought you did too?” He looked over at Doris, with the most agreeable look he could manage and was surprised when she dropped the subject entirely.

K-mart wasn’t like Doris remembered. They walked in together through the automatic doors, the a/c hitting them square in the face. Doris looked up at the mirror and watched George’s bald spot walk away from her toward the hardware section. She stopped for a minute to get her bearings. No popcorn smell. That’s good. Off to her left the cash registers rang. Every sales station had a big line of people in it, their shopping carts bulging with purchases. It made Doris want to go right back outside, maybe drive to a park, take a walk, anything but spend money.

Sighing heavily, she headed off toward housewares, as usual. She got to the head of the aisle with the Tupperware and stopped. She thought back to her cupboards at home that were already chock-full of Tupperware and fake Tupperware. She had Tupperware containers and Tupperware in the shape of Jell-O molds and popsicle molds she’d never even used before. She turned around and headed instead to the lingerie department. It was the one place she was certain she would never spend any money.

When they got back home, George went out to the garage to hang up the new tools he’d bought. Doris took her bag, which she purchased without George’s knowledge, into the bathroom and locked the door. She turned the bag upside down dumping the contents out on the counter then picked up each piece separately and laid it out so she could get a good look at it all.

She’d decided to go all red. A red thong, red push up bra (she guessed at the size, it’d been years since she bought a new bra), a short red nightie and something the sales lady said was the piece de resistance, whatever that meant: a garter belt and of course the red stockings to go with it. She’d never seen so much red lace and polyester before in one place and just looking at it all laid out on the counter made her laugh.

She avoided looking at the garter belt and left the stockings in their package. She held the thong up and could not figure out which end went where even though the sales lady had practically drawn her a map. She hiked up her dress and stepped out of her normal white cotton undies. She laid the thong on the ground trying to get a better look at it but she still couldn’t figure which way it went so she just picked up one side and the other and stepped into it and pulled it up.

She looked in the mirror. “Oh, this just can’t be right.” She said to her reflection.

* * *

The first time George got a look at the red lingerie he’d just turned the TV off and had stood up from the Barcalounger after several hours. Doris walked in all in red and he had to sit right back down.

“What the hell is that?” he asked her, his voice a little loud though he tried not to sound too scared.

“What do you think?” she was smiling. She held out the lacey edges of the red nightie and slowly turned around giving George the full three-sixty.

“That’s a lot of red.” He stretched back into the Barcalounger, not sure he was ever going to get out of it now.

“I thought I’d pick up a little something different,” Doris giggled then caught herself.

“They run out of Tupperware?” George asked hesitantly.

Doris put the sides of her nightie down and stood in her kitten-heeled red silk-like slippers in the middle of the living room, TV off, the lamp over in the corner the only light.

“Is that all you have to say?” she asked him.

“Well, it’s different all right.” He put his hand over his mouth. He just realized what she reminded him of. One Halloween when he was ten or so, Millie Bates down the street had dressed up all in red, from head to toe and put a green felt hat on her head. She claimed her mother had made the outfit and that it was supposed to be an apple and certainly her chubbiness aided the illusion, but now all George could think of was fat Millie Bates in her apple costume carrying a pillowcase asking for candy up and down the street. For a second he forgot himself and laughed out loud. Once he heard the laugh he clamped his hand back over his face hoping Doris hadn’t heard.

“Really, there’s no need to laugh,” Doris hung her head. Her arms hung at her sides.

George leaned forward and squinted. “What’s that you’ve got on underneath there?”

Doris looked up at him. “It’s called a thong and this other contraption’s a garter belt. See?” She lifted her nightie up to reveal the complex web of undergarments, all still red.

George sat back in his chair. “Is it comfortable? Are you going to sleep in all that?”

Doris stepped over to the couch and sat down. The nightie blossomed around her like a little red cloud. She kept her knees together and her toes forced into a point due to the shape of the slippers.

“I don’t think this is for sleeping actually,” she said.

“I thought you liked those cotton nightgowns I’ve been buying you all these years.”

“I do like them. This was just something, you know, different, something new.”

“New is not always a good thing.”

“You don’t like it.”

“I like it fine, but do you like it?”

“I kind of like it.” Doris managed a little smile. “Makes me feel, different.”

“Different how?” George’s brow crinkled. This was not like Doris, not like Doris at all.

“Just different. I don’t know how yet. I guess I have to wear it around a little more to see.”

George got up. “Well, I’m going to bed. You coming?” He paused by the lamp, ready to turn it out, not wanting to leave her in the dark.

“I think I’ll just sit here for a while.”

“Now, Doris, come to bed. You know I can’t get to sleep until you come in.”

“I’ll be in. I just want to sit here for a while in my new things.”

“All right then.”

George walked into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. It was no use even putting on his pajamas, he’d be wide awake until she got into bed and if she got into bed in that contraption he might never get to sleep. What was she thinking? All these years, he’d never seen that much red lace in his own house. What was he going to do? Maybe he could make her take it back. But she seemed to really like it.

George remembered the time he’d bought the fishing waders from that Angler’s catalog. They’d taken six months to arrive and when they did he pulled them right out of the box and stepped into them. Granted, they didn’t exactly feel natural but he could totally imagine standing in the middle of some great trout stream in Montana in those babies, cool, dry and comfortable. When Doris had walked in on him and started laughing he had to wait for the explanation.

“You look like you’re about to go get on a motorcycle or something.”

“What do you mean? They’re waders. Aren’t they great?”

“Your butt’s hanging out of the back just like those guys who ride motorcycles.”

“It’s not the same at all,” he’d argued at first.

“And why the camouflage? Are you planning on going to war?” Doris had laughed all the way into the kitchen.

George had thought the camouflage was cool, made it all seem more serious somehow. But he couldn’t stand to be made fun of. He’d gone into the bathroom and stood on top of the toilet seat trying to see what they looked like in the mirror over the sink. He still didn’t think they looked so bad but he’d put them away that night, back into their box and stuffed the box under the bed and had never gotten it back out even though he’d gone fishing just last summer.

Doris sat at the kitchen table idly flipping the pages of the morning paper, trying not to pout. She wriggled her bottom in the plastic seat, trying to get comfortable with the thong. She needed something to take her mind away from her failure to impress George. She never used to read the science section but then the headline “Faded Star Defies Description” grabbed her attention. She unsnapped her garter belt, adjusted the thong again, leaned closer to the table and read further.

“Some stars take, some give. Then there is the tortured relationship in EF Eridanus, where the smaller of two stars gave so much to its larger companion that it reached a dead end, scientists reported. Doomed to orbit its more energetic partner for millions of years, the burned-out star has lost so much mass that it can no longer sustain nuclear fusion at its core and has become a new, indeterminate stellar object.”

 

“A new, indeterminate stellar object,” Doris repeated. Could it be there was something up there that hadn’t been defined, named, labeled? This interested her.

“Now the donor star has reached a dead end – it is far too massive to be considered a super-planet, its composition does not match known brown dwarfs, and it is far too low in mass to be a star. There’s no true category for an object in such limbo.”

 

She had to remember that one, no longer a star, but something new, undefined. In that moment a world opened up to her she hadn’t thought of in a long time. Sure, she took astronomy in high school and she used to study the stars as a kid, but she barely remembered the names of the ones that were labeled, and now this.

She imagined herself all new again and got up from the table. She stretched her legs out in front of her like a ballerina and did a couple of twirls as she walked over to the light switch on the wall. Her red nightie flew around her like an encircling moon or Saturn’s rings. She just might keep this nightie after all.

* * *

The next morning George stepped outside to pick up the morning paper. He left the front door open to let in the breeze and sat on the couch, spreading the paper out in front of him. He flipped the edges until he found the sports page and wriggled it out, sat back into the deep cushions, licked his thumb and opened the pages directly to the fishing section, sounds of Doris in the kitchen slapping pans around for breakfast.

“Hello?”

He heard the voice and looked up, the paper shielding his face from the front door.

“Hello?” he answered back.

“It’s me, Sara Mulligan from across the street.”

George dropped the paper. So it was. The very woman he’d had framed in his binoculars day after day. He sat up straight, aware he was in his pajamas, his hair mussed, his teeth unbrushed.

“Ah, please come in?” He had to pause before he stood up. Was he decent? Would he be exposing too much by standing up and stretching out a welcoming hand?

“I don’t want to bother you,” she paused as well just inside the front door.

“No bother at all. We’re just getting up. I mean, we’re just here, reading, early morning, no bother.”

She stared at him. He was sure she was about to cry. Good God, not tears, anything but tears. He jumped up and moved the papers away from the couch, forgetting all thoughts of decorum.

“Please, sit here.” He waved his hand to include the entire couch and backed off a little while she decided what to do.

“I really don’t want to bother you.” She dropped down onto the corner of the couch at the same time dissolving into a mask of tears, her head hung down, hair obscuring her face.

Now is your chance, George. Comfort her, say something, be a friend, a father figure, a brother, a potential lover. No, scratch that. Sit down, say something, touch her hand.

“You have some trouble?” He sat down on the couch next to her, an arm’s length away, and reached out his hand, but he was too far away to touch her.

Her crying had quieted. She nodded her head and looked up at him.

She had the clearest blue eyes he had ever seen, her tears coloring them almost sea green and when she blinked, back to blue. He tried concentrating on her mouth.

“How can I help?” He reached his hand out again and touched the couch near where her knee crooked over the edge. He was aware of how her jeans fit and the soft leather of her boots.

“Do you have any Kleenex?” she asked.

George laughed. “Kleenex? Of course, Kleenex, yes I can get you Kleenex.” He jumped up to run into the half bath off the front hallway and tripped over the coffee table, bashing his knee directly into the corner. He hardly noticed it.

Back, he handed her the box of Kleenex with the crocheted cover. It was pink with a black poodle on it. The poodle had a rhinestone collar. He was instantly embarrassed.

“My wife’s aunt makes those things for Christmas. Have to have them out, you know, if they come over.”

“My husband’s gone,” she said.

George nodded. It didn’t surprise him. Her husband had been leaving for months. He’d watched him leave for days at a time before. How could she be sure this time he was gone for good?

“You think he’s gone for good then?”

She nodded and blew her nose, a dainty and delicate maneuver in her hands. She tucked the used Kleenex under her leg.

“The children?” he asked her. His mind was racing. Why was she here? What did she want him to do about it? Maybe she should be speaking with Doris.

“They’re at his mother’s in Oklahoma.”

“I see,” he told her, though he saw no such thing.

“I think,” she started and then the tears began to flow again. “I think he’s gone there to take them away from me.” She lowered her head, buried her face in her sobs.

George moved closer to her, took a Kleenex out of the crocheted box and touched her chin. She looked up at him. He smoothed her hair back and wiped the tears off her cheeks. He saw how young she was, no long held grief or disappointments showed on her face. He knew just by looking at her that she was someone who dared to ask for things and that things would be given to her. He couldn’t tell her no, he would never tell her no.

She sniffed and looked into his eyes. “You’re very kind.”

He could smell her breath. She’d had some sugary cereal for breakfast, maybe Lucky Charms or Captain Crunch. He caught the sweet smell as she opened her mouth to speak. He leaned closer to her.

At that moment the kitchen door opened and a red nightie-clad Doris came through the door, plate of eggs in one hand, glass of orange juice in the other.

“George?” She stopped midway between the door and the couch when she saw George leaning over the young woman from across the street.

George immediately stood up and faced her. “Doris, this is Sara.” He stood in between the two women, crumpling the wet Kleenex in his hand, surreptitiously pulling his pajama bottoms closer around him. “Sara from across the street.” He looked expectantly to Doris and then really looked at her and saw that she hadn’t changed out of her red ensemble.

“Oh, oh dear.” He turned his back on Doris and stood directly in front of Sara to shield her from seeing Doris in her nightie.

Sara stood up and leaned around George. “I’m so sorry to invade your home like this.” She stepped away from the couch.

Doris stepped over to the coffee table and set the eggs down. “Your eggs, George.” Then she took a couple of swigs of the orange juice herself.

“It’s quite all right,” Doris sank down onto the opposite end of the couch. “I always knew it would come down to this.”

“What?” George was jumbled by the vision of Doris all in red and the woman he had so long watched being in the same room, the one on his left hand the other on his right, only a couch separating them.

“I knew I couldn’t hold onto him any longer. I’ve known it for a long time.” She looked sadly out the front window. “Look at what lengths,” she held out the corner of her red nightie, “I’ve gone to. Made a clown of myself and for what?” She laughed. “It happened any way.”

“George?” Sara Mulligan looked to George for guidance.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Doris.” George said.

“That’s all right.” She got up and ran her hands through her hair to straighten it. “I’ll pack my bags and be out by lunch time.”

“What?” George fell back onto the couch, both hands on his head.

Sara stood immediately and took a step toward the front door. “I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood,” she said.

“Doris, Sara’s husband’s left her.”

Doris turned around, a wise smile on her face. “Well, that will make it all the easier for you two.”

“Doris, Sara’s afraid her husband has taken their children and she came over here for advice.”

Doris stopped walking to the bedroom and turned around again. “But he’s left you many times in the past.”

Sara shook her head vehemently. “No, he’s never left us. Never. We’ve had some quarrels, some disagreements, but this is different.” She teared up again.

“You’re not here to run away with George then?” Doris asked her.

“Doris,” George said, trying to stop the words before she said them.

Sara looked over at George. “George has been kind enough to listen to my troubles. You see, I don’t have any family here and you two always seemed so perfect in your perfectly kept up house, perfectly manicured yard.”

George looked over at Doris and raised his eyebrows. Doris frowned at him.

“So you’re not here to take George away?” Doris repeated, unclear how an over-pruned yard could be mistaken for a perfectly manicured one.

“No, no of course not,” Sara answered her. “I’m here for help. Any help. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

Doris walked back over to the couch and sat down next to George taking his hand. She took a big breath, looked at Sara, looked at George. George smiled at her sheepishly.

“Well, I guess we could give her the name of our lawyer?” She looked at George, willing herself not to cry.

George looked at his wife, at her soft brown eyes, the face he knew so well, and pushed back her hair letting his hand brush her cheek for a moment. Doris smiled up at him.

* * *

Later that day they drove out to the Garden Center just beyond the interstate and walked down the rows of star jasmine, pyracantha and fruit trees until Doris found a medium sized elm she liked the looks of. George bought it for her and they planted it just outside their big front picture window.

The light filtered through the leaves and hit their front curtains that they generally kept closed at all times except of course when the new family moved in across the street. Then George had to hunt through the hall closet to find his old set of binoculars as well as Doris’s new set. Doris moved the two armchairs next to the window and pulled the curtains open just enough for the two of them.

“Flat screen TV,” George was the first to notice.

“Two dogs,” Doris yelled.

“Oh god, not dogs, anything but dogs.”

 

BIO

Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: Able Muse, CutThroat Journal of the Arts, Weber – The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, decomP Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere.

For a full listing see: Truewest – http://cheryldkidder.blogspot.com.

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daniel carbone

In the Details

by Daniel Carbone

 

Carl believes he is Jesus. Not a metaphorical or a pretentious “fuck you” kind of Jesus. He believes he is the real thing. I want him to prove it, to show me what the son of God is like, but I’m worried he may stab me or set me on fire before the night is over if I upset him. I don’t try convincing him that he is a delusional psychopath who is no more like Jesus than I am like sour dough bread. Then again, I’ve never met Jesus. I don’t know anyone who has, and I think that perhaps Carl is exactly like him. Jesus was all into self-sacrifice too. Maybe when I watch Carl through the window in the backyard biting a tree, he is sacrificing the bark, the enamel of his teeth, for some reason other than obscurity. God works in mysterious ways.

He comes back into the house, grabs the glass pipe from Ella and takes a hit. He looks at me. “I used to bite my arms, my legs, sink my teeth into my skin until I would bleed, but it hurt too much. That’s why I bite the tree now. It hurts less,” he says, “but, but it’s less intimate.” He rubs his hands up and down across the hair and scars on his forearms. These are his public displays of mutilation.

I nod my head. I’m concerned that the wrong reaction will send him charging, sinking his teeth into my flesh instead of his own. Ella asks me if I want another beer or some wine and when I say both, she starts pouring the wine into my tall plastic glass. I indicate with my eyes to keep going when she is about to stop. I just met Carl, I just met Ella, and the alcohol makes what they say more believable. I enjoy the warm buzz it creates in my head. It makes it okay to become one of them.

Carl says he’s going to take a nap before we go to Maynard’s Cafe and he skips back into his room and I hear him close the door, slowly, trying to make the sound of it clicking shut seem as if it’s happening within a vacuum. “That’s your roommate?” I ask Ella.

“Yeah, that’s Carl,” she says. “People give me a hard time for taking him in, but Carl has a good heart. I couldn’t possibly turn him away.” Ella tells me she pays his rent. He looks homeless. If he really is Jesus, he traded in his seventies rock star look from his crucifixion days for a badly executed crew cut with large sections where he had completely buzzed off his hair. The well-kept goatee that Jesus displays in pictures and paintings had been replaced by a badly shaven face covered with cuts, and now he kind of looks like Popeye, the sailor. Carl is forty-four, Ella is twenty-three.

I am not interested in Ella. I thought I was while reading her online profile and talking to her, but I was impatient. I wanted to meet. And Carl—I didn’t even know he existed. Cut to the present and the only thing that keeps me from running out of the house and towards the ignition of my car is curiosity. These people—their relationships—fascinate me, and I think if I make it out alive, I’ll have plenty of material for whatever I write next. I no longer look at the night like a traditional date. It’s a date for information, a date for details, and Ella and Carl and whoever else participates in this evening are the characters that will illuminate the pages. I smile; more excited about the night than before, when I thought it would be a romantic night, when I had hopeful expectations.

It’s just Ella now, standing with her shoulders hunched forward with an old lady’s posture in the kitchen. I want to talk about Carl, about how unattractive she is to me, how repulsed I am by the whole situation yet strangely excited to fill empty pages with the little that has already happened. Instead, I ask about her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend, who live upstairs, Leah and Chris, who she says will be joining us soon. “Where did you meet them?” I ask.

“I’m training Leah to be my replacement at work. And Chris—I met Chris on an online dating site too, but of course he had a huge crush on Leah. He only kept coming back for her,” she says. “It’s bad enough they hooked up. Now I have to hear them having sex above me every night.”

“Wow,” I say. “I promise I won’t have sex with any of your friends.” I can’t help thinking that would make an interesting story too. I put down the tall glass of wine I am holding and ask Ella where her bathroom is. I don’t use the filthy toilet, but I notice stains running up and down the walls by its side. I don’t wash my hands. I rub my eyes and look at myself in the mirror. Then I take notes in my phone. I’m already drunk. I don’t care if it’s rude. Ella just told me she was moving, that she got a job offer in Washington—that her old job ended and she wouldn’t be sticking around. I see no reason to perpetuate a lie, no reason to return her affection, when before we met I told her I wasn’t into short-term dating. She lied to me. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy myself and get something out of this misadventure, even if it comes at the expense of what she thinks of me.

I come back from the bathroom and I realize I have no idea what Ella does for a living. She told me before but I couldn’t comprehend the profession, forgetting what she told me almost immediately. I should ask Ella why she is still friends with Leah and Chris after they started dating, but I think it will be more interesting if I meet them and let the relationship play out for itself. Like a movie or book I’m experiencing for the first time—the details will be more vivid and exciting. I don’t really care about Ella’s feelings, but she is a part of this group, a part of the story, and I push her off to the side, willing her, forcing her to become the flat character I have already decided she is.

I chug the rest of my wine and she asks me if I want some more. She empties the bottle into my cup and I hope we leave for the bar soon before my buzz wears off. I take a seat on the recliner in the living room and she sits down across from me and picks up her banjo.

“So—do you know what you’re playing tonight?” I ask.

She tunes the banjo and strums different chords and strings while she talks. I shift my gaze towards Carl’s room. I wonder what he’ll do next, when he comes out. “Well, yes and no,” she says. “I think I’m going to read the poem “Pinocchio” by Shel Silverstein. Maybe one song. I’ve never played the banjo live before.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I’m excited.”

Leah and Chris barge through the front door with their arms wrapped around each other, dragging the strong smell of marijuana into a room already soaked with the scent, and Leah screams out a war cry of excitement that makes the panda hat she’s wearing look like it’s dying on top of her short-cropped red hair. The sound she makes is a loud-pitched wail, her hands high in the air and her eyes closed towards the ceiling.

If Carl thinks he is Jesus, Chris is John Lennon. Lennon’s glasses sit on his nose and the circular glass in the frames magnifies the pupils in his eyes. He’s tall and skinny and has an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder. I look behind him to see if Yoko Ono is following. I introduce myself to them and hand Chris one of Ella’s beers. I tell him to drink up. I make it a personal goal to make sure there will be no sober people tonight.

I met Ella on an online dating site. I wanted to meet alone. I wanted a personal introduction at a coffee shop or a bar or in a third world country, surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes—anywhere but here with a bunch of her friends whom I’d never met. They constantly stare at me. Leah keeps asking if I’m having a good time. She says I look like I’m bored, like I don’t like them. I don’t tell her that I’m studying them intensely, that my looks aren’t judgmental but perceptive. Ella told me her friends are cool, her friends are interesting, her friends are awesome. If she would have only added weird, I would have completely agreed.

“Chris, we need to practice this song,” Ella says. “Did you hear me, Lennon? We need to be at the bar by seven, and I haven’t practiced yet.” Chris doesn’t lower his beer. He raises the bottom of it higher to force the alcohol down this throat faster, dragging the oxygen away from the corners of the can by his lips, and I want to tell Lennon to wait for me to grab a beer so I can join him. I use the distraction he creates to write in the note sections of my phone, “Lennon,” over and over again, all in capital letters. Then besides that note, I write, “Goofy, Leah and Chris, hippy hipsters.” I hope what I write makes sense to me in the morning. When Chris finishes his beer, he swings the guitar over his shoulder and goes behind the counter of the kitchen.

“You should have practiced. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“If you got the weed earlier,” Ella says. “How was I supposed to practice without you, exactly?”

“I’m going to get a private show, then, huh?” I say. Ella smiles and plugs in her keyboard.

“Ready,” Chris says. “One, two, three, four.”

They play the song “We Are Young” by Fun a few times, never making it through the second stanza. Ella doesn’t hold notes down long enough during the chorus. When they finally get their timing right, they play through the song, and Leah and I listen, happy spectators. I can’t help but smile in her direction more than in Ella’s. I don’t find either girl attractive—Ella is a liar and a hippie and physically unattractive and boring. She has nothing interesting to say, nothing interesting to offer, and I don’t know what I saw in her when I messaged her on the dating site for that first time. I think I was just looking for something to do, a distraction from the feelings I had for someone else I couldn’t be with. Leah has something to offer me, though—a panda hat. A comparison to Ella, the girl I follow for the story, like a reporter following a soldier in a war zone, not for the solider, but for the action he will ultimately lead her to. And I hope Carl is an active Jesus who will help the story, and me, along. I hope God really does help those who help themselves.

“I’m just here for moral support,” Leah yells into my ear.

“Huh? Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on,” I say, and smile. “I’m just trying not to get in the way.” They play through the entire song, Chris singing like any proper Lennon would, without disturbing the excitement in the room, and the song seems nostalgic and perfect for the evening. I write the song’s name down in the notepad of my phone, having never heard it before, but knowing I’ll want to listen to it the next day.

When Chris strums the final chord Leah throws her hands in the air. “And the crowd goes wild!” she says.

“You guys are awesome,” I say. And I think I mean it.

Ella goes back into her room and changes her clothes. When she comes out of the room, she is wearing a tight tie dye t-shirt that shows her weight spilling over the side of her jeans and hugging the fabric of the shirt, stretching it beyond its designed size. I’m glad she pulls her jeans up high above her waistline—it prevents her stomach or her backside from popping out into the open where they’re not welcome to be seen. Closely behind her, Carl is following her into the room, shirtless. The circus is in town.

“Carl’s not coming to Maynard’s,” Ella says to Leah and Chris.

“Why not?” Chris says.

“He’s sad,” Ella says. Carl grabs a beer and lights a cigarette. “He’s upset that I’m moving.”

“No, Ella. It’s that neighbor. I swear, when you move, I’m leaving too. If these people don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here.” He takes two slices of pizza from the rack in the oven.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Our neighbor called the cops on him. He was trying to record Carl speaking, so Carl went and took a shit on his car, and then the neighbor, he called the cops.” I feel guilty, for a second, and realize I need to be more careful about my note taking. I don’t want to have to clean feces off my car. That neighbor has access to Carl and these people on a daily basis, and whatever other odd people lived in the area. He had the idea before me. I just hope he’s a poor writer.

“I’ll tell you what—Dan? You said your name’s Dan, right?” Carl says. “Dan, these people don’t understand. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. They’re all ungrateful. They don’t appreciate me. What did I tell you, Ella? Huh? I told you. What did I say? Yesterday I said there was going to be no more bad weather and what happened?”

“Today was beautiful.” Ella turns her back towards Carl and looks at me and rolls her eyes into the back of her head. Carl is serious. He believes he is Jesus. A bitter Jesus disappointed about the ignorance and weakness of his followers. You’d think he’d understand, I mean, after being crucified and all, that humans are imperfect.

“That’s right, Ella. If these people don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Leah and Chris are sitting in the living room that connects to the kitchen. They aren’t paying much attention to Carl. I notice the guitar of Carl’s that Ella showed me earlier. Carl made it himself. Ram’s horns have been morphed into the frame of the guitar, wrapping around and protruding out of the edges of the solid dark wood, ending where the frets begin. It looks incredibly intricate and detailed, beautiful in a horrific way, but it doesn’t seem saintly. I can’t remember if it’s “God is in the details” or whether the saying is “The Devil is in the details.”

“Ella, do you have any cigarettes. I’m out,” Carl says. “Ella, do you think you could buy me cigarettes?”

“I’ll buy you cigarettes if you come watch me play.”

“Okay, Ella. For you, darling. I’ll go for you. Call me when you are about to go on. I’ll walk over.”

I shove Ella’s keyboard in between my body and my arm and we are getting ready to walk over to the bar, Maynard’s Café, a few blocks down the street. Chris leaves his guitar strapped around his shoulder and Ella brings a laptop bag and video camera. Leah is carrying a large beach bag, which she fills with beer.

“What are we going to do with this?” she asks.

“We can just hide it outside the bar,” Chris says, “or you can bring some of it in your bag. We’ll just go outside when we want a beer.”

“Okay, but I can’t carry that much,” Leah says.

“We’re only five minutes away,” Ella says, her glasses slipping down her nose. “We can just run back and grab more. Come on, let’s go. We’re already late.” I hold open the door for the three of them and they start walking down the dark streets crusted in the smell of ocean and the decay of the beach town of Margate just outside of Atlantic City.

We pass a Wawa convenience store and cross streets without looking both ways, and Chris starts singing the song they played earlier. Everyone joins in, and even though I don’t know the lyrics, I attempt to mouth the words of the stanzas and sing what I know of the chorus. When they finish singing the song, they start over from the beginning. Ella puts her arm around my shoulder and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t lean in. She leaves my side and walks close to Leah and starts talking to her, leaving me in the back, playing follow-the-leader, where I can observe them without fear of being caught recording.

I see the bar and it’s a dive. It is one of those outside bars with a roof and four walls giving the illusion of a building but not the heat or insulation. I walk into the bar and see that it’s worse than I thought. People are smoking cigarettes and the air is cloudy with tar. In each corner of the small bar is a fake fireplace emitting heat, and we claim a spot in the corner by the stage near the heater. I look around the bar and see a world I’ve only seen in movies. A tall blind guy sits behind the bar, clutching the reins of his Seeing Eye dog. He must be running the audio equipment. Either that or the owners of the bar let him run his fingers through the dozens of wires and play with the knobs of the equalizer before the show begins. It gives his dog something to do, as he is trying to untangle himself from the wires that the man has shoved the dog into. The sign on the bar says beers are two dollars for a draft, and I can’t believe we went through the effort of dragging a twelve pack of beer into the bar in our bags and pockets. I see the guitarist Ewan Dobson, who lives locally and occasionally plays free open mic nights to hone his skills. He is relatively famous and I wonder if I could add that detail to whatever writing comes out of this night, but I’m not so sure. Then again, I know sometimes a writer jots down a lot more than he uses, and I take note of his presence.

After a few hours, Ella is spending most of her time talking to other patrons of the bar, and Leah and Chris are making out. Dobson is playing a twelve-string guitar and he plays so quickly that my eyes fail to follow his fingers dancing up and down the fret board. I close my eyes and let my mind get lost, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to remain silent, and I think this is exactly where I want to be, away from everyone, alone, but feeling more connected to the life of the town, the setting, the characters that I am creating in my head for my next story, than I could have in an empty room.

Eventually, Ella rests her body beside me. She inches close to me. I keep my arms in at my sides and my hands on my lap, and I don’t turn in her direction. I wonder if my next online dating experience will be this productive. I’m excited to find out. We don’t talk much and in between our conversations I find myself texting my roommates—who are excited by the prospect of me spending the night with Ella—about the date and taking more notes in my cell phone for further reference. I tell my roommate no, that I’m not into her, that I’m out late because this is too interesting to walk away from, that I’m having a good time, a good experience, and I have a fun story to tell her tomorrow, and I snap my phone shut, but it’s too late. Ella catches me.

“Are you texting, right now?” she says.

“My roommates were worried,” I say. “I just wanted to let them know I’ll be back later.” She looks down and lets out a nervous laugh and shakes her head. She isn’t pleased. I shrug it off in a conversation with myself. A few minutes later, still sitting beside me, Ella starts texting random people religiously. I think she is trying to do to me as I have done to her, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not jealous. I’m happy she has a distraction.

We run out of money and the three of us want to drink some more before Ella and Chris’s set. I think more alcohol could lead to a more interesting set, and I encourage the idea, telling Ella that she will be a lot less nervous if she drinks a little bit more. We go outside and pull the beers out of their hiding places. Leah pulls one from her back pocket and Chris untangles one in the webbing that lines the inside of his jacket. Everyone else grabs one from the beach bag. Then we walk around the corner of the building and attempt to chug some beers, but all of us fail. It is cold. We are shivering. When we are about to go back inside Carl shows up screaming and yelling in the parking lot of Maynard’s and Ella runs over and pulls him away. The second coming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to run over and help, to grab some insight, to find out how the world will end and if I have time to publish this story before it happens, but Ella tells me to wait with Leah and Chris. She comes back a few minutes later, having pawned Carl off on an older woman whom I don’t know. Ella leaves again to talk to Carl and doesn’t come back.

“So what’s with Carl?” I ask Leah and Chris.

“He’s crazy,” Leah says. “Ella always wakes up to him screaming or banging his head against the floor. She says he cuts himself and beats himself to represent what society is doing to itself. He thinks he’s some kind of martyr.”

“Yeah,” Chris says, “one time, he said he was going to make flowers grow, and the next day Ella got a call from her parents that there were dandelions outside their house that weren’t there before. Sometimes she buys into that garbage.”

“I heard the story about the weather,” I say. “I didn’t have the heart, or maybe not the courage, to tell him I knew that too. The weather channel can be useful. The least he could have done was made the night warm as well.”

Leah and Chris are shivering as one, so I lead the way back into the bar and we take our seats next to the glowing television-like fireplace. Ella is inside setting up her keyboard, getting ready to play her set. Carl is in the back of the bar, apparently calm now, standing against the wall, talking to the older woman.

“Ella, do you know what you’re playing? I think it’s time to decide,” I say.

She shrugs and tells me the poem by Shel Silverstein and the folk song “Circles of the Sun” by Sally Rogers. The owner of the bar introduces her and she sits on the stool with the banjo strapped around her neck, red in the face and clearly drunk, and she trips on her own feet and almost falls off the stool, despite the fact that she is sitting. She recites the poem, but I only hear the first stanza. “Pinocchio, Pinocchio, that little wooden bloke-io. His nose, it grew an inch or two with every lie he spoke-io,” she says, stumbling. Jesus leans against the wall and watches his roommate, his provider, embarrass herself, and I think it’s ironic. Someone could pull her off the stage after the poem, to prevent further disaster, but Jesus reincarnated in Carl form doesn’t do anything. If he’s not going to do anything, the merciful one, I decide I certainly can’t either. What would Jesus do?

Once she finishes the poem, she sings the short folk song, and the few people left in the bar clap unenthusiastically. Then Chris goes up and he plays the song with her that they rehearsed earlier, and then he plays a few songs by himself. After they kick us out of the closing bar, we walk back to Ella’s apartment, with the equipment in our hands. When we get back, Carl is already at the apartment in the backyard, sitting in the tree he had bitten earlier, playing a banjo. God is in the details, I think. The saying is definitely God is in the details. I wonder if I should protect the tree from Carl, or maybe just patch the dozens of empty areas where he has bitten off bark. We walk past him and into the house and Ella fills her glass pipe with more weed and hands it me. I don’t typically smoke, but I take a hit and hold the smoke in my mouth before blowing it out into the room, refusing to inhale so I don’t get high, and pass it to Leah, who takes one hit and falls to pieces. Ella and Chris call her the “one hit wonder” and within minutes I understand the name when her eyes get bloodshot and she becomes the clown version of a catatonic person, unmoving with an enormous giggly smile on her face and a set of red circles in her eyes. Chris, concerned, wants to put her to bed, and he takes her by the hand and leads her out the door, outside, towards their apartment on the second floor.

“It was nice to meet you both,” I say, and shake Chris’s hand.

“Yeah, it was fun. I hope to see you again.”

Ella packs the rest of her drugs into the glass pipe and hands it to Carl, who has walked back into the apartment. He finishes off the entire pipe in under a minute. He says she should have known better. Then when he asks Ella if he can borrow money so he can run to Wawa and buy milk for coffee, she tells him no, that she has no money left for him. He starts digging pennies out of drawers, picking them up off the floor, and fishing them out of little nooks all over the apartment. He collects a little bit and says he has about a dollar, but he’s not sure if that will be enough. Ella refuses to give him any money, but watching Carl, Jesus, crawling on his hands and knees and collecting pennies for milk makes me feel sick. I don’t know who I feel bad for; Carl, Ella, myself, or the attendant who will have to count the pennies, but I decide to give Carl the money. It feels like charity, but he doesn’t refuse. He acts like he wants it. When I hand him the money he shakes my hand and cups the hand he shakes with his other hand, like he was getting a peace treaty from the president. He looks me in the eyes when he does it and holds onto to my hand tightly. His smile terrifies me, but I don’t know if it is because of the way he looks at me and says “thank you” or if I’m terrified at the thought of this man being Jesus. What if he really is Jesus? I could never really know the truth.

“Okay, this has been fun,” Ella says, “but I need to go to sleep. Dan, you can stay here with Carl if you don’t think you’re okay to drive.”

“No, no. I’m fine.” I walk around the kitchen counter and hug Ella. “It was nice to meet you. I had a great night.” There is no romance in the hug, but I mean what I say. I avoid shaking hands with Carl, but I tell him I had a good time, and that I’ll see him again soon. I don’t mean it, but I don’t feel the need to explain my desire to leave.

When I get to my car I sit in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes contemplating the night I have just experienced—the people, Ella, Carl, the odd romantic triangle between the friends—and how I should interpret the evening and the characters I have created. Lennon, Jesus, the stereotypical Hippie Ella, and Leah, who I think forms a subcategory within the hipster demographic. I can’t help thinking that it was one of the least successful romantic experiences of my life, but all I can do is smile and laugh. I’m laughing, alone, trapped in my car, away from people at four in the morning, and I enjoy every second of it. But then, I begin to cry. I don’t know exactly why I am crying. I am drunk. All I know is that something is missing, that the characters aren’t as complete as they could be, and I want to go back inside and talk to Carl and Ella again. I’d like to sit down with Carl and interview him, gather his entire life story, but I still don’t think the character and the person could ever become one and the same. I look through the notes I took in my phone. I didn’t realize how diligent I was during the evening with my observations. There are over twenty separate notes, literally pages of notes, but I have no better sense of who Jesus and his friends are. The notes are snippets, fragments of a person, and the story itself is only a series of short moments in time, forming an evening. It’s not complete. The story, the characters, never will be. I drive away with the notes in my phone, knowing they, the notes, the events, and the people will make a great story, but that I will never see them again, that whatever I write, the full story, will still be my creation. “Jesus H. Christ,” I think.

 

 

BIO

daniel carboneDaniel Carbone was born in Howell, NJ. In 2012 he graduated with an academic standing of magna cum laude from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and accepted a scholarship to the Rutgers Camden University School of Law shortly thereafter. He has served as an editor for Stockton’s Stockpot literary magazine and published his first short story under the same title in 2011. While busy studying law, he continues to find time to write for readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to satisfy his need to tell thought-provoking stories. He resides in his hometown with his Fiancé, Stephanie.

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Jessie Aufiery

Diabolo Menthe

by Jessie Aufiery

 

He took the metro to the Place de l’Etoile, and walked from there to the Centre de Yoga Iyengar. Today an old man was in the back corner sweating through Trikonasana and Downward Facing Dog, his knobby limbs creaking and straining through the postures, a miracle of determination, however futile. A dark-haired girl with smooth thighs and yellow shorts looked to be in her mid twenties: at least a decade younger than Ludo. Acrid fingers of cigarette smoke floated through the open window along with traffic’s beeps and quick accelerations and the steady chug of diesel engines. Sweat poured from his brow. As usual he had to marshal the sum of his physical and mental forces just to keep up with Jean-Luc’s barked commands. The slight man was a barefoot Napoleon, dark eyes flashing as they scanned the room. “Lift the kneecaps!” he shouted. “Kneecaps in!”

Ludo contracted the fronts of his thighs and wondered what his wife would make of the teacher. Compact and sleek as soap, the little man oozed sexuality even as he recalibrated sweating students with nudges of his fingers and toes. He and Jen made love only a couple of times a week, and for that she had to be cajoled, but every day he felt his body’s demand for release. Sometimes he suspected her of pleasuring herself on the sly while he dealt with traffic and ball-busting clients, keeping the leaky ship that was their family afloat.

After class he pulled on his street clothes. People changed quickly and didn’t linger in the Center’s one changing room. The girl in yellow shorts, her small breasts barely concealed under a sports bra, was trying to untangle a barrette from her dark curls.

“Shit,” she said, looking up at him. “I can’t get this out.”

His hands trembled as they freed the trapped strands from the thick silver hinge. A scent of apricots clung to his fingers.

“You could keep things in there,” he said, gesturing at her thick spiraling hair. “Your wallet, keys…”

“Oh my God,” the girl said, eyes wide. “I blow it dry, iron it. It does what it wants.”

“Think of it as an advantage,” he said. “This way if you get kidnapped you just pull out a screw driver out and jimmy the trunk.”

“Or a pillow,” the girl said. “For a little nap.”

“A cigarette to smoke before your execution.”

The girl smiled, a blush creeping up her neck.

“You have beautiful eyes,” she said.

“They come from a rare eyes dealer,” he said, feeling a jolt at his groin. “He’s at the flea market behind the carpets and copper pots…”

She put a hand in front of her mouth and laughed. He grinned and slung his backpack over one shoulder. Halfway to the door, he turned and said:

“I should get your number.”

Her eyes, surprised, flickered over his left hand. He thought she would pretend she hadn’t seen the gold band but she smirked and asked: “What about your wife?”

“I don’t think so,” he said with a grin. “My wife doesn’t give her number to strangers.”

Outside he found the metro, jumped on a train, and waited for his connection at Champs Elysees. The train thundered up, brakes whining. A dark skinned black teenager wearing headphones, sweat beaded on his forehead, stood on the other side of the car. The train rumbled on. Ludo felt a tugging of eyes, an oppressive sensation of being observed. He glanced to the side and was startled by his reflection in the glass. Not bad for forty. He hadn’t flirted in ages and the great feeling was only a little marred by the fact that he was riding on public transportation. As the train eased into Varenne station Rodin’s The Thinker, a ragged hole in its hollow right thigh, glided into the window like a snapshot. The hydraulic brake-release hissed and the train rolled forward again. At the next station a group of fifteen or so high school students crowded into the wagon. A tall boy with a Catholic medal, one of the newcomers, said loudly in French: “Whoever’s doing that, you’d better stop pinching my bum.”

A few beats of silence and everyone laughed. The boy’s shirt was open to the third button and he wore a silk scarf loosely knotted over his bare chest. Amazing how people continued to accessorize, even in this heat. Ludo noticed a crucifix dangling alongside the medal and he briefly loathed the handsome, dark-haired kid though he couldn’t think why.

He arrived home to find his wife’s portable easel set up in the living room next to the French windows, a portion of floor covered in newspaper and tubes of paint. The easel had that just out of the box look, all unblemished pine. Boris must be at one of his activities. Monday was Judo, or perhaps Drama. The living room reeked of stale coffee and turpentine rags, and his wife’s canvas was heavy with slabs of saturated color. Looking at the thick globs, he thought of the money she spent chasing fantasies. She’d started hesitantly introducing herself to new acquaintances as an artist. The first step in making something happen, she tentatively said, was in believing it couldhappen. He wanted to hold her from behind, work her pants down with one hand while unclasping her bra with the other and playing with her breasts. Where was she?

The drapes were yanked to the side and the windows open. Across the street the neighbor’s curtains ballooned against his wrought-iron balcony. The man often appeared with disheveled hair, a kimono knotted at his waist, sniffing the air with his large Roman nose. Ludo had noticed him on the town square in a velvet jacket reading a paperback. Waiting, he supposed, for salvation to appear out of the ether: a girlfriend, a job, a spaceship to the moon. Now through the gauzy curtains he recognized the man’s gray-streaked mane and discerned a familiar figure sitting on the couch beside him. Putain de merde. Fucking shit. Last time it was a grungy Scotsman with a six-pack. She had introduced herself in the grocery store just because the guy and his girlfriend were speaking English. This absurd reaching out to strangers was unbearable! Why did she do it? He pictured the scene: his wife at her window, the neighbor at his, each trying to catch a breeze in this stifling heat, it was natural to exchange a few words of neighborly greeting, and then, very casual, Oh—do you paint? Did you catch that marvelous Lucien Freud retrospective at the Pompidou? I bought the book. If you like you can come over and have a look…

He squinted through the window, grimacing, and saw two wine glasses and a bottle, heads bobbing in animated conversation. His wife complained about the difficulty of adapting, the emptiness of her days when he was at work and their son at school. She dropped her painting class despite the non-refundable fee because she said the other students were all doing boutique art and she wanted to do something real, maybe even start making installations. It was boredom, he knew that, a lack of purpose. She was too proud to try to get in with the other mothers as they gathered at the café each morning, never inviting her, and there was no one else to talk to. If they had stayed in New York, she said, she would have a job and friends. Her parents would be within driving distance. She could shop at the co-op.

He thought with pleasure of the girl in the yellow shorts, young and smiling. Through the window he saw his wife waving her arm, the neighbor’s vigorous head nodding. The fraud! As if he gave a damn about what combination of words came out of her mouth. Ludo did a quick run-through of his options. He could call to his wife through the window, or ring up her cell phone, or pound on the fraud’s door… All of which would make him look like a jealous fool. He couldn’t let his wife find him here seething: couldn’t confront her until he’d settled on his revenge.

He slammed out of the apartment and stormed down the street to the Café des Sports. In three gulps he downed a 1664 lager, releasing a hissing belch behind his hand, and then signaled the waiter for another. He finished that and ordered a third, which he sipped while looking at photos of Carla Bruni and le president de la république in the pages of an abandoned Paris Match. As dusk settled he felt a pinching in his heart. He’d drunk the beers too fast and was now a little drunk, but at least the alcohol had numbed the pain in his shoulder. Beside him the window winked its cool eye. He thumped his chest and looked at the dour silhouette of the town’s city hall, a concrete slab wedged against a darkening cobalt sky. A yellow clock illuminated the building’s façade and, several yards in front of this, the grim trickle of a fountain, a cement rectangle whose only whimsy was its spray of municipal water misting the heat-flushed faces of passerby.

Ah, familiar faces! Mothers in fur vests and dark denim bending towards children who prattled relentlessly about the latest trombone lesson or judo slam across the dojo floor. Bureaucrats trailing the ghost of their thirty-five hours. A blue-suited city worker manning the wheel of a small truck while his partner, high above on a wobbly mechanical ladder, screwed light bulbs into street lamps. A drunk with his pants at half-mast struggling with the door to the public toilet. Children kicking balls and jumping rope. All these frenetic silhouettes—actors in a shadow play—reminded Ludo of his wife laughing it up with the bachelor across the street, of his bank account filling and emptying in a cyclical tide. Outside, friends and neighbors plodded forward as if this shadow life was real, buying houses, businesses, investing their lives…

He took out his cell phone and dialed. Upon hearing his voice she said a happy Oh, hello! and he felt a wonderful galloping like horses over roses. Her name was Natasha, and she agreed to meet him tomorrow…

 

He arrived early and ordered an espresso. The café, a few steps from her apartment, she’d explained, was of Natasha’s choosing. Two young men, kids really—from his wizened four-decade perch he could call them that—sat at a nearby table. The bearded one with elbow patches stood up and attempted a chiropractic manipulation that involved pumping his friend’s arm. Next to Ludo a man in a leather porkpie hat kissed his tattooed girlfriend. The soul of pretension! Ludo writhed in inner discomfort. Everywhere he looked, he saw stupidity, ugliness.

Conscious of his suit and tie he drank his espresso and manipulated the keys of his Blackberry. Last night he’d lain awake horny and sweating in the terrible heat while she refused to come to bed. And still not so much as an SMS! As if his display of anger when she returned flushed with wine and accomplishment made him the bad one.

“But I invited him to dinner Saturday,” she said.

“Well, uninvite him.”

He remembered coming to this very café with his son, Boris, after they sailed a rented toy boat around the fountain at Luxembourg Park.

Looking like a small man in his black pea coat and scarf, Boris had stridden in and announced to the girl with the nose-stud behind the bar:

“I’m having a diabolo menthe!”

The girl had laughed and brought over a glass with two-inches of green syrup, and a bottle of Sprite.

“At last!” she said as she set it in front of Boris, who was sitting as straight-backed as a miniature Mao Tse-Tung. “Enfin! A man who knows what he wants!”

Ludo had loved this generalissimo moment, and guarded the memory of it like a jewel. His son—the bright child of a spoiled, overeducated, but endlessly encouraging American mother, and unblemished by the filthy trailing weight of Europe and France—would know how to command. When he recounted the story at a dinner party no one seemed impressed so he added another detail. He told everyone that as they left the café he, Ludo, spotted twenty Euros in the gutter. He picked the money up and put it into Boris’s pocket. It felt like a benediction, a sign of good things to come. “Spend it any way you want,” he told everyone he had said to his son. “Buy a giant bag of candy!”

The café door opened and his heart flew.

No. This person was in her forties, a woman trying too hard in stilettos and a tulle skirt. Her friends leaned toward her admiringly, exclaiming: “Wo-ow.” The place was crawling with artist types. His wife could bring the neighbor and look deep into his fraudulent, Neanderthal eyes.

A head of dark curls was moving toward him. Natasha. Wearing a tight sweater and Converse high tops. Away from the yoga studio, she looked different. She dropped a textbook onto his table and grinned. He felt an icy sliver of disappointment.

She’s a student.

Her thick brows slanted in a way that reminded him of Renoir, of Renoir’s soft-faced Michelin nudes, and he briefly visualized a thick muff of dark hair between her legs.

“Coucou!” she said, tapping the table with the big ring she wore on her forefinger.

“Sorry,” he smiled, standing to kiss her cheeks. “Seeing you makes me think I might do something I’ll regret.”

“Regret?” she said with a laugh, raising her hand for the waiter. “Coming from you, that sounds funny. Come on, let’s order some drinks…”

 

Walking to the metro he stopped to gaze at a lumpy bronze statue of a soldier, Capitaine Dreyfus. Dreyfus stood with a broken-off sword was in one hand, and a pigeon fluffed on his brimmed cap. At the statue’s base a plaque in French said: ‘If you wish me to live, have them give me back my honor.’

Ludo picked a bottle cap off the ground and chucked it at the pigeon, his shoulder igniting with a burst of pain. The pigeon flapped to a nearby branch, dust motes spinning in the silvery light.

A jogger thudded past.

American, he estimated, as her firm buttocks and pink thighs wobbled past, a baseball cap tucked low over her eyes. Who else would run down the middle of the street?

Massaging the painful shoulder, he descended into the metro. In California everyone wore baseball caps and jogged. His own memories of a childhood trip to the Golden State were foggy, though he retained the image of waitress setting a miraculous stack of fluffy pancakes topped with maple syrup and a cloud of whipped cream in front of him. Ludo felt that if he returned to California—now, today—the state’s sunshine would wrap itself around him like a long-awaited homecoming embrace.

His train arrived and he hurried on. As it lurched forward he lost his balance and stumbled over a girl’s white sneaker. The girl—a sallow, lank-haired Parisian—glared at him like he was an assassin. He smiled, thinking of Natasha, who, in hindsight, seemed almost more American than his wife. In California he and Natasha could wear baseball caps and go jogging. They could politely ignore the movie stars who were also jogging, and when they had jogged their requisite five miles, they could stop at International House of Pancakes and order a tall stack with bacon, after which they could sit on a beach and watch the golden afternoon roll in…

The train slid into Varenne station. Ludo noted that a too-small metal patch had been soldered over the hole in The Thinker’s thigh, leaving a thin uncovered strip: an entrance for a family of cockroaches. Even people repairing master art works in this country were incompetent! As he stood there swaying in the overcrowded wagon, his mood plunged. All he wanted was a feeling of fulfillment, a relaxed body and mind, yet his wife, instead of helping him reach this goal, chatted up the neighbor and pushed him, her husband, away! She was a good one for complaining about a lack of marital solidarity, but wouldn’t lift a finger for the benefit of their team!

At home he swung open the door, his keys jangling in the lock. His wife was perched in front of her easel, and did not greet him as he came in. Her sharp little profile made him want to slam the door over and over until it fell off its hinges. But this was his home and not a monkey house, even if his wife insisted on acting like an ignorant ape. He pulled the door to until it gave a soft click. He dropped his briefcase, shed his clothes and showered, the hot water drumming his tight, painful shoulder. The pain was now radiating up into his neck. Afterwards he slicked back his hair, poured a tumbler of Bailey’s on ice, and walked towel-waisted into the living room. Jen was still working away, and it occurred to him, dim hope igniting in his chest, that she might be inspired to strip away his towel. He dropped onto the couch and pointed the remote at the television, his body radiating a moist heat.

“Do you mind?”

“No,” he said, flicking past CNN and the 24-hour airport channel.

She sighed and squeezed out some white paint. Through his peripheral vision he noted that the curtain was closed, and that she looked pinched and pale. This was deeply satisfying: perhaps, for once, she felt chastened. He found a UFC match, turned up the volume, and took a long swallow of his drink. Two guys beating each other bloody. His wife smeared a gob of paint onto her canvas. The sweet icy liquid flowed down his throat, and he propped a cushion on the coffee table and positioned his feet, adjusting for maximal comfort. He noticed that the nails of his big toes had been molded into claw-like points by his lace up work shoes. He retrieved the nail clippers from the bathroom, returned to the couch, trimmed the nails and gathered the slivers into a mound next to his drink. It felt good to be clean. It felt good to begin to relax.

His wife stared at him, her mouth hanging open.

“You’re a pig—do you know that?”

He held her gaze for a long moment, chuckling and watching her face redden as it became apparent he wouldn’t dignify her attack with a response. Finally he broke eye contact, gathered the clippings into his palm, and dumped them into the ficus. Amidst the hoots and applause of the UFC crowd, the boom of the American announcer’s voice, he dressed and walked outside into the heat.

 

The sky drooped. Three workers with grit clinging to their bare arms were installing maroon awnings above the Monte Carlo pizzeria, tools scattered across the sidewalk. Massaging his burning shoulder he walked to the metro, imagining the relief of a cold beer flowing down his parched throat.

On the train an old man suddenly grabbed at the air and tumbled at Ludo’s feet. Ludo stared down in bewilderment while a woman leapt forward and crouched at the man’s side. His white-headed wife gaped from several feet away, her hands clutching shopping bags. The old man convulsed briefly and opened his eyes, very blue, looking confused.

“It’s the heat,” someone said, and the man was ushered out at the next station, I’m all right, I’m okay, flanked by his wife and the female Good Samaritan. As the metro pulled away the two old people were sitting on molded orange station chairs staring straight ahead, white-faced, backs erect. Ludo looked at his shoes, the ridged floor where the man had fallen. I should have done something, he thought. Shown initiative, taken control… He wanted a drink, to lie down, to feel the coolness of fingers in his hair…

Outside it looked like rain. He found the blue door and the name: N. Bontemps. She rang him up on the third buzz, he climbed the stairs, and a wave of apricot incense rushed his nose as she opened the door.

“Were you standing there long?” she said, touching his arm. “I had the stereo on.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink.

She led him in and locked the deadbolt. His eyes began to itch: somewhere in this stifling studio was a cat. The couch beneath the loft bed was scattered with fur-coated cushions. They sat amongst them.

“I’m boiling,” he said, tugging at his shirt collar. “Do you have anything to drink?”

“Sure,” she said with a smile. “Tap water okay?”

“Anything wet,” he said, disappointed, picturing the gently sweating bottles his wife stocked for him in the fridge.

The water was filled with tiny bubbles and tasted tinny. He drank deeply. Her brows jumped as he drained the glass, his throat clicking.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She laughed behind her fingers. He wiped his mouth and set down the glass. Outside the window a sparrow chirped, and a motorbike could be heard bombing at top speed around a corner, its tires squealing. A tremor flickered across one of her eyelids, her gaze steady on his face. Quiet descended. He leaned in and kissed her. She curled into him, climbing his calves with her toes. He was suddenly charged up, light and strong. He pulled her close, tilting his head to change the angle of the kiss, and his neck made a soft ominous click and blasted him with pain. Damn it. He jerked forward, a gesture she seemed to misinterpret.

“Come,” she said, slithering up the ladder to the loft.

He followed, his shoulder and neck electrified: stage-one of a searing discomfort he knew from experience would last for days. The sheets were rumpled, a large white cat luxuriating across the pillows. Staring at him, Natasha removed her shirt. He moved toward her on his knees, head bumping the ceiling, and reached for her small firm breasts.

“Lie down,” she commanded.

He did and she removed his pants, caressing him through his shorts. He lay back and tried to concentrate on her fingers’ light touch, her lips moving down his belly. His eyes and throat itched and pain radiated from his shoulder up through his neck.

She took him into her mouth and he stared at the greasy marks on the ceiling, feeling himself shrinking, lifting his gaze to catch a glimpse of a glistening pale mushroom poking out of his black pubic mound. He felt a flash of anger and pushed himself into a sitting position, his neck leaping in agony.

“Stop,” he said, her mouth a crumpled O. “My neck—”

“Relax,” she said, tousling his hair. “We’ll get it to go up…”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “What?

The cat stood and stretched the length of its back, rattling its fluffy tail. Natasha gazed at Ludo in silence, her legs folded neatly beneath her. An unpleasant feeling squatted on his chest. He felt the tedious necessity of justifying himself, explaining… Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a mighty yawn. This must be very dull for you, he wanted to say. Forgive me for boring you. Heat shimmered from his torso and limbs, hovering, trapped, at the ceiling.

“Unfortunately, I really have to go,” he said, with an unpleasant tightness in his throat. “I only stopped in to say hello, but now—”

She gave a nervous little laugh: “Oh, come on. You have to stay!”

But he was already halfway down the ladder.

 

He sweated through Trikonasana, and his shoulder, better after a week of ice packs and gentle stretching, sang with joyous release. Jean-Luc walked the room, tapping his slender toes against students’ feet to nudge them into alignment. Ludo examined the teacher’s slightly bowed shins as the man lingered, eyeing him for fault.

“This shows an understanding of the posture,” Jean-Luc finally said, and Ludo’s blood surged with vindication.

In the changing room, Natasha’s yellow shorts showed half-moons of sweat beneath each buttock. She glanced over as he walked in, and then quickly averted her eyes and made a show of rummaging around in her bag. Relieved, he pretended not to notice her.

At home he found his wife working on a watercolor. The carnival-like beeping of a video game drifted in from their son’s bedroom. The watercolor—pastel clouds on creamy paper—was weirdly soothing.

Ludo crouched and placed his head on Jen’s lap. He felt a slight shift in her posture and the weight of her hand, tentative, on the top of his head.

 

 

Jessie AufieryBIO

Jessie Vail Aufiery has lived in Miami for the past year and a half after more than a decade in Paris. She is World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, and lives with her husband and twin daughters.

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The Room

The Room

by Aurora Brackett

 

There was a treacly smell in the room, something on the way to rot. The walls were yellowing. There were no windows. There was only the door that I had long since stopped hoping would open and the chair where I sat, riffling through children’s books, memorizing the texture of fluff on the down of an ugly duckling. The metallic spines holding together thick cardboard pages. Why children’s books? I wondered. The room wasn’t so much silent as it was stuffed, like cotton balls in the ears. Plugged up with nothing. I was waiting. I had been waiting. I waited. I came here to complain and now I am waiting, but I have forgotten my complaints.

Once, there was a front room – a small office with wood paneled walls that ended abruptly a foot from the ceiling, giving way to visible joists and crumbling sheet rock. There was a brown carpet that did not reach the walls, around it the cold tile floor where I stood and cleared my throat. A woman sat behind a desk in the middle of the room. She held a calculator in her thick hand and poked at its buttons with the top of her thumb. A wide face, a smudge of dirt across the forehead, fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. A farmer-secretary. She didn’t look up.

I have combed over this moment hundreds of times. I took the bus. I walked from the corner (A bus stop bench. An empty cup on its side rolling back and forth.) to this building – a brick building, a state building, a school or a business office or a department of something or other under the undersecretary of someone dash someone, someone. I stood on the cold white tile and waited for the woman to notice me. I looked for a chair. There was nowhere to sit. I cleared my throat. “I want to complain,” I said. She looked up and said nothing, stared like she was still waiting for me to speak, her eyes saying, Yes may I help you? but without much interest. I had spoken. I heard myself. “I want to complain,” I said again. Again those dull eyes, the color of dirt. I know that I spoke. She looked at her calculator. I took a step closer. “They told me to come here,” I said. The woman stared. Her face was too round for that metal desk, those sharp bright edges. Swollen feet in pinched heels swung toward my legs. “They told me to come,” I shouted. “On the phone. They gave me this address.”

The farmer stood up and gathered her crops: her clipboards and stacks of paper. She walked to a door behind her desk, pulled a key from under her sleeve and gestured for me to follow. A long white hallway: no pictures, no marks on the walls. A white paneled ceiling, a dull gray floor. At the end of the hall, another door opened and the stack of clipboards were pushed into my chest. “Wait here,” she said. A voice that I heard just inside my head and then it was gone and the door closed.

But what kind of voice? Bored would be too easy. A misplaced voice: wadded up closed fisted politeness barely hiding a solid squawk.

It isn’t metal, but a thin gold paper that covers the spines of these books. Pictures of barnyard animals stamped on both sides float down the length of the spines. I’ve been peeling off the paper. Sometimes I can get a good long strip in one solid piece: a cat in shoes, a cow on the moon. I spent some time yelling. The yelling makes me thirsty, and though I hear my voice fine, I can feel it being swallowed by the stale air as soon as it leaves my throat.

I had an apartment. A refrigerator and a sink on one side of the room, a bed on the other. I had a window that looked out onto a supermarket parking lot. During the day, I sat in my chair at the window and took guesses at what people had in their bags. I watched vagrants steal shopping carts. An old woman in a stained green quilted coat pushed a cart away from the store, ducked beneath my window, and thinking she was alone, began to empty her pockets. Every few minutes she stopped her work to push the palm of her right hand at her face, first one cheek and then the next, a light slap, grinning as she did it. Nearly half of what she poured into that cart – pennies, stones, scraps of paper – fell through the metal bars onto the pavement below. The woman wheeled her cart away leaving half of herself behind. I had an apartment. The telephone rang and I answered it. Often there was a pause, static over the line as I said hello, hello? A high-pitched nasal voice, a language I couldn’t understand came through the static and I listened to the voice worrying for me, worrying with furrowed brows, a clicking tongue. A question followed by a pause in which I cleared my throat, prompting another question. I’m sorry, I whispered, I don’t know.

I could see from my window, the old woman, a bald spot and heavy gray hair matted at the forehead, yellowing fingers gripping the cart handle as she pushed it away. Wait, I yelled. Paper folded in the front child seat. The old woman paused and moved a front page to the back. She touched the page now revealed, shocking white against gray sky. It was about to rain. There was an old woman who lived in a… Wait! I say. You forgot!

 

The ceiling panels are pinpricked. I don’t look for patterns. Nothing can be done with the ceiling, the floor. I don’t touch the walls but already the smell has seeped into my clothes. I can’t imagine the room into anything other than what it is. I can’t leave, not even in sleep. If I close my eyes I see walls; my thoughts hit against them. I form words to curse but the moment my anger begins to build, it flattens. Sometimes I stand up and think I could climb up onto this chair and leap from it. At least a bruise, a scrape might give me a temporary break from stillness. I think if I fell to the floor I would be making use of the room. But in the next instant, I exhale and sit down. I open a book. I only want to remember.

I had an apartment. An old woman walked towards my window wearing a cape, carrying a basket. She hummed as she wheeled away, turning pages. And when I couldn’t hear her anymore, I looked down at what she’d left behind. The small things that no one can hold onto anyway. Pennies and thread, blotches of color. An alphabet swam in newly formed puddles; letters sank under the weight of rain. The phone rang and I answered it.

The phone rang. It was some kind of bureaucrat, a Mr. So and So. I could hear his frowning and grimacing over the line, a fat-choked voice. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he said. But there never were any questions. “We’re terribly sorry,” he said, “we’re backed up. Overwhelmed. Please call if you need anything.”

He called and on the days he didn’t call, his secretary called. “How is your little boy doing?” she’d ask and when I told her I had no boy, she’d laugh and ask about the weather and hang up the phone. Or she’d tell me about her children, how they kept her awake. “Hard to manage everything,” she’d say. Her ceiling fan was broken. She was busy too. So many phone calls, she didn’t know what to do.   The fat man changed his tone from day to day. I liked it best when he shouted. I could always hear him sneering through his niceties, but when he shouted, then I knew we were in business. “I have six hundred and fifty-seven files on my desk,” he’d growl. “Who in the hell are you? Why did I call this number?” If I interrupted him to tell him my name, he’d yell, “No more names! Fuck you and the fucking mother that named you!” This always made me laugh and hearing me laugh the fat man would chuckle, sensing that we had something in common. He would then clear his throat and mumble apologetically about a hernia that had been giving him trouble, paperwork moving through improper channels. And then caught somewhere between choking, laughing and telling the truth, he would hang up.

If I ever found out what they were calling about, I don’t remember. He never got to his questions and so perhaps it does not matter. I believe they were the only people I talked to, and so I looked forward to their calls, especially to the fat man’s angry days. “Fucking mother,” I’d laugh, and I could hear him slapping his thigh in some tiny, hollow office. “My mother didn’t fuck a day in her life.”

“Your mother lived in a clock and sang cuckoo,” the fat man would shout.

“Your mother was a walrus,” I’d sing.

“You’re an idiot,” he’d say, and clear his throat and quietly belch, apologizing for his ulcers, his bad breath, his tumors. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he’d say.

 

I have spread the contents of my wallet across the floor. The woman left me with forms but no pen. I fixate on the image of her face: the lips swollen and overpainted, the forehead wide and smudged, a sneer, blotched skin, a drinker’s nose. A sour taste forms at the back of my mouth. Good, I can use this. I draw it backwards: see myself climbing the steps of this building, my thin shoes on wet pavement, a lame pigeon teetering on the sidewalk’s edge. I see myself sitting on the bus. My knees shake against rumbling floorboards.

One moment serves as backdrop for the other. I stitch them together clumsily. I hear the slow indifference of her feet, click-clacking against the tiles as I sit on the bus and wait to arrive. In both places, and now in this room, heat rises to my jaw.

She leads me down the hall. Keys clatter on her wrists.

I look out the window as the bus passes through an industrial landscape: an open warehouse door, a metal gate making diamonds of empty space. Behind the gate, a man works a blowtorch. The bus rocks at a stop and the brakes hiss, letting out thick rasping breath. I look for street signs. Across the aisle a teenage girl is kicking her feet against the seat back, drawing stars on her legs with a black fingernail. Her shirt is loose across her chest and when she bends over I can see etched patterns filling the space between her breasts. Her chest is green lines. She looks up as I’m staring, gives me the finger and throws a pencil which hits me in the neck.

The sound of high heels on a tile floor.

The girl on the bus is a bird. She’s all bones and matted hair, her clothes torn and feathery. The pencil lodges in my jacket pocket. I let her laugh. The brakes release a burst of air, a sigh, and with it my jaw slackens and again I’m losing the thread.

The secretary locks the door behind her. I can hate her for this.

On the bus I don’t recognize street names and the driver’s announcements are two blocks off. I don’t know this part of the city. There are alleys every other block, men lurking in doorways alone, standing as if about to move, staring at the facing walls as if contemplating crossing a river. Their eyes see a world of danger. Worry floods the corridors. I touch the edge of my wallet. The young girl laughs at me again and throws a penny. What is the world coming to? I’d like to ask her. The secretary locks the door, the keys clatter against her wrists, but those hands, they give me pause. I have sympathy for the hands – thick fingers and dirt beneath the nails giving lie to another kind of life. The girl on the bus is singing (rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief). Rain hits the window sideways. Raindrops pick up dirt and turn the glass to mud. And I remember the windows of my room when I was a boy, a basement apartment – quick moving feet kicking the city against the panes, walls so thin I wanted to push through them. The girl turns her head. “There used to be more,” I say. There were photographs on the walls of our living room. Pictures of a house built from the ground in flat planes of mud. A few new trees on the horizon. There was an old woman, holding her shoes and skirts in her hands to cross a stream, her eyes wide from the shock of water. Someone outside the frame holds her arm. The bus comes to a stop. The girl is already gone. The woman closes the door behind her and I don’t hear anything after she goes.

In the middle of the night, or what I imagine to be night, I open my eyes to find a man sitting on a low stool in the corner against the door. The stool was not here before. This is my first thought. The man perks up when I open my eyes. I notice my position, slumped against the wall, and quickly stand. He is immaculately dressed – a smooth blue suit, not a trace of lint. He rises and extends a hand, which I take, the palm warm and damp. “Excuse me,” I say.

“Not a problem,” the man smiles. His voice has been polished, organized to reflect a hint of sympathy. He meets my gaze without wavering, ready for anything.

“You locked me in,” I say. The man tilts his head to the side. The smile makes me uneasy. “The lady gave me forms and no pen. I’ve tried to yell.” He nods. There’s no break in the smiling. My throat is swollen. “How do you explain this?” The man tilts his head to the other side, like he’s examining a rare flower. He sits down and takes from his pocket a small notebook and an equally small pen, both red. He has the face of a superhero: glossy, with perfect angles.

“We’re sorry about the wait,” he says. He smoothes his eyebrows with an index finger. I look down at my wrinkled pants and sit, ironing my pant legs with my hands. I notice my smell, the smell of the room mixed with sour sweat, against his cologne. When I look up again his brows are knitted, a paternal frown of concern. “I’d like to ask you a few questions,” he says.

“I’ve been locked in here for days,” I say.

He looks at his watch. His face grows even more serious. It’s a careful deliberation. “Two hours at most,” he concludes.

I shake my head. “Much longer,” I say. I don’t own a watch. My eyes are red and stinging. I haven’t slept. My clothes stink. “I have proof,” I say.

“Now,” the man says again, “a few questions.” I look at the stool he is sitting on, strong wood, oak or maple, no nails visible. I think: This is the stool that carries the man…

            “I need you to answer everything honestly, of course.” He smiles again, as if we have an understanding. “While at the same time, taking into consideration that every question I ask is of some import. Consider your answers carefully.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“Shall we begin?” He touches the bridge of his nose, pushing up invisible spectacles. The seriousness of the gesture frightens me. The man glances at the contents of my wallet, spread across the floor like a game of solitaire. As he bends to write, his tie swings back and forth across his lap. “Understand?” he smiles. The walls behind his head are unchanged, yellowing, peeling in places. The man seems out of place here. He’s much too healthy. “Understand?” he says again. I nod.

“Do you have parents?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “They’ve passed.” A scratch on the pad.

“Are they living?”

“I just said they’re dead.” Another scratch. This is the man who buried the cat who chased the mouse who lives in the house…

“Siblings?”

“No.”

“Are you employed?”

“No.”

I think of the bus again, the windows washed clean by rain. I’m looking out at the city. Two young men stand half on, half off the curb; one holds his hand to the other’s shoulder. They’re staring up at the skyscrapers, their necks craning. It is raining into their eyes. The tops of the buildings sway close together, closing in the sky. There must be a gate for the rain to enter through. When the light changes, the men open their umbrellas. Sewing machines on desks line the sidewalk, women and men hunched over needles, the cloth growing wet. The umbrellas pass them, sheltering each for seconds at a time. The girl on the bus has gone back to scribbling on herself, now with a pen. She hums.

The man makes a note. “What is your family history?”

“History?”

At the front of the bus, a woman stands up and grips the metal pole, wobbling in her shoes. As she bends to lift her child, the bus lurches and she stumbles. The little boy laughs. The driver apologizes. The woman sighs heavily through her teeth, brakes releasing air. She walks off the bus, each step loud, the boy slung at her hip.

“Family history. Where you come from. Medical history. That sort of thing,” the man says.

“I’m trying to remember,” I say.

“Good, good.” The man’s lips are a line. He nods his head.

“We came here in order to build something,” I say.

“Of course,” the man says.

A foundation of mud and bricks. Pine split and shaved for beams. “My grandfather made his own house,” I say.

The man scribbles in his book.

My grandfather rode a horse, his feet were caked in dust.   “He and his brothers raised up the sides, carved the supports.”

“Staked a claim too, I imagine.” The man smiles wistfully.

“Yes,” I say. “A claim for the land. You remember?” I have a photograph in a drawer. A house half-finished. Unmade beds under an open roof. Ohio? Idaho? Where was it?

“Do you mind if I continue?” he asks, writing as he speaks.

I look at the contents of my wallet on the floor. The man taps his pen against his thigh. “Now,” he says. “What do you want?”

“Excuse me?”

“As I said before, be certain your answers are clear,”

Why did I come here?

Out the window, buildings blurred together in my peripheral vision, whites and greys and metallic lines. At the bus stop, blood rose to my cheeks. The rain overflowed in puddles at my feet, buoying the smallest things to the surface: scraps of paper, splinters and nails, a letter or two. But the old woman was long gone. She had marched off into the rain, victorious, her cart spilling scraps for me to follow.

“Sir?”

“Yes?” I say.

“Your answer.”

“I came here to tell you something.”

I remember standing at the bus stop, looking down at the puddles. I remember leaving my apartment, my mind full of words. I was building an argument. I was readying my attack. Perhaps then it was concise, but now it has overtaken me, spread out in every direction. Standing on the bus, the open door letting in grey light, the odor of exhaust, an empty paper cup rolling back and forth across a bus stop bench. The slick granite steps. The woman who touched my hand accidentally as she opened the door to this room, history under her fingernails, rough hands built for work, a back that rises from its bent position at the end of the day in a wide muddy field. She stands and looks out at the horizon, blues and grays in fading light. The air smells of horses, sweet manure, rain in the dirt. Her boots sink in the mud. She holds a hand to her head to shield her eyes, though the sun has fallen. It is an old habit. She looks out into the distance; the fields stretch for miles. She turns and glances at me and then through me, to the house where her children are waiting. So many children. The future, she calls them. She doesn’t know what to do. Her hand has left a streak of dirt across her forehead. We walk carefully around the furrows. The old woman holds her skirts in her hands and I hold her arm to steady her.   The house is almost two-dimensional in the distance; our feet are heavy with mud. She sings a song to pass the time, a thin lullaby. The tune is familiar.

 

BIO

Aurora Brackett lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she is a PhD fellow in fiction at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute. She is a recipient of the 2013 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence,  the San Francisco Browning Society’s Dramatic Monologue Award, the Wilner Award for Short Fiction, a nominee for The Pushcart Prize and a 2013 Sozopol Fiction Seminar Fellow.  Her work has appeared in Nimrod Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills and other magazines.  She is currently fiction editor of Witness Magazine and was an associate editor of Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives published by Voice of Witness/McSweeney’s in 2010.

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New Work by R.A. Allen

 

      Disclaimer

 

the objects of your desire
may be more distant
than they appear

across-the-room eye contact
holds no guarantee
of future performance

levels of requited attention
are subject to change
without notice

your views on life and love
are not necessarily the views
of this attraction,

who assumes no responsibility
or liability for your stunned hopes
or lovelorn suicide

play at your own risk.

 

      Future Bright

 

Dying at the sidewalk’s edge
beneath the Tuscaloosa sun,
the young entrepreneur
is persuaded by mom & dad
to man a lemonade stand.
Old Mrs. Grandberry
from next door
bought one glass,
but proclaimed it piss
and poured it into
the gutter.
His aunt Candy sent him
to buy sanitary napkins,
—whatever they were. Death
may have snickered at
Prufrock, but that’s nothing
next to a hooting chorus
of Jitney Jungle cashiers.
For confessing to onanism
the penance from Father O’Grady
was ten Stations of the Cross.
The sarge always put him on point.
A shrink triple-charged him
for a visit to his inner-self.
He was cuckolded by
his cable guy’s wife.
Browsing bookshelves for the answer,
he considers at length
The Power of Positive Thinking
but ultimately settles on
The Wit and Wisdom of Charlie Manson.

 

 

      Side Work Sonatina

 

Afterhours
I water down a top shelf Bourbon
with speed rail hooch
while watching you
marry the condiments—
mustard to mustard,
the salt, and the pepper,
respectively.
(Heinz is the only ketchup
worthy of the term.)
You roll your flatware
in black linen napkins.
Your waitress legs ache for me, I like to think,
but then, they might just be tired,
or maybe you’ll be wrapping them
around someone else tonight
in the TV light
as it dulls into
dawn.

 

 

BIO

RA AllenR.A. Allen’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Night Train, Mantis, RHINO Poetry, Gargoyle, The Recusant (UK), and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis for the humidity. More at http://poets.nyq.org/poet/raallen

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Ellen Mulholland

Clothed in Flames

by Ellen Mulholland

 

Publication permission granted from the author, Ellen Plotkin Mulholland

 

 

What if you could change a moment in your past before the future catches up with it? Kathryn Clark believes anything is possible. The voices in her head tell her so. After a mysterious letter inside an old “Back to the Future” lunchbox links Michael J. Fox to her birth father, she begins a secret hunt for the actor and a time-travelling car. When the actor comes to town for a fundraiser, Kathryn learns the real message in the letter. 

 

When Jenna returned to her family home fourteen years ago, just a few weeks before she’d shift from being a single gal to a single mom, she asked for one thing. She wanted to live in the downstairs basement so that they’d all have some privacy. She didn’t want to feel like she never left home. Didn’t want to be seen as some teenage failure, the girl who slept her way through high school only to end up a single mom before she turned 19. Her parents never saw it that way. Fred didn’t. Hard to say what Irene really thought. Still, Fred and Irene respected their daughter’s wishes. They agreed that physical boundaries would help them all get along. During the next two weeks (13 days to be exact), Fred and two fellas he hired from the local hardware store set to work sanding, painting walls, laying carpet, and finishing bits of plumbing.

It’d be two months before the bathroom was completed with a shower and proper sink. In the meantime, Jenna would fill a bowl with water and leave it on the table for small wash-ups for herself and baby Kathryn.

It wasn’t until fall that Fred and the boys finalized everything for the small kitchenette and hooked up gas for the heater. By Christmas, Jenna and her little girl had everything they needed to live. “I’ve got the basics, Pop,” she told her dad the Saturday he showed her how to operate the thermostat. “I’ve got my shelter, warmth, food, a way to stay clean, and most importantly, I’ve got my family, my love. What would I do without you and Mom?” She wiped a tear.

Fred pulled her close, nestling her small frame into the crook of his underarm. Brushing back her soft ginger strands with his other hand, he told her in so many words that there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his family. He paused and added one condition.

“You know, baby girl, now that you’re a momma, you need to pay attention to that Watson family bug.”

Jenna pulled away. “The what bug?”

“You know. Momma. She’s been battling those demons upstairs for years. It started with her mom, and, well, it doesn’t seem to want to skip any generations.” He pushed his hands into his front pockets.

Jenna watched as the sun’s invading rays painted jagged stripes across the low-pile carpet, poking its warmth over baby Kathryn who lay dreamily in her white wicker bassinette. “You mean her depression? You think I’m gonna get that, too?”

Fred smiled. “Baby girl, you already got it. You know that, right? Why do you think you ran off right after graduation and came home a few months later with this little doll.” He motioned over toward the tiny baby. Her belly rising and falling. The sun and shade playing games across her face and blanket as a quiet fall breeze pushed through the raised window and rustled the lace curtain.

Jenna turned from her father to adjust the baby’s blanket, protecting her delicate skin from the afternoon sun. “Well, hmm, I mean, I guess, maybe. I mean, well, sometimes, yeah, sometimes I kinda feel, I dunno, blue. Course now with this little gal, I feel so blessed, Pop. Really. She’s just the best thing.” Jenna raised her hands toward her chest and clasped them together as if taking hold of the girl’s own precious little heart and placing it next to her own.

 

That was 14 years ago, and in that time, Jenna has wallowed in the blueness, never fully lingering for too long. Until recently.

She’s never forgotten her father’s warning that day in the basement apartment while the sun finger-painted her floors. She considered her mother. Yes, Irene carried the family curse, the Watson family gene of sadness, sorrow, a sort of angst, an existential shoestring that winds its way around your soul, gripping the interior of your heart, puffing and whooshing a gray fog inside your mind.

Jenna watched her baby girl grow bigger, crawl, walk, run; talk, yell, cry. But she never saw her smile. Never. Not until that summer morning at the yard sale when Kathryn was 10. She’s seen a few more smiles since, and she can recall the day and time of day of each. She can count them on her fingers.

So as Kathryn grew, Jenna couldn’t help but feel the tug at her heart, the yearn, the pull for that infant warmth, that baby smell, that needful gaze. Kathryn’s father has never been in the picture (not since he created it). Jenna never expected anything from him after that night. Never asked, pleaded or begged. She didn’t want money, didn’t want help. It was a moment of passion. When the yearn for another baby bubbled like indigestion in the deep hollow of her gut, Jenna found a new man to plant a seed. She and these babies were all the family she needed. The babies and her Pops.

Finding another dad wasn’t going to be a problem. This has never been a problem for Jenna Clark. Men are drawn to her like bees to a flower. And like a bee that gathers what it needs, it moves on to the next flower, never lingering beyond the time necessary. This doesn’t bother Jenna. So she says. She only craves the warmth, the temporary distraction, the energetic release. The buzz.

Alex arrived in their lives just a few years later. Again, the father unknown to the family, only to Jenna. Gone. Unaware of his creation.

Jenna does not desire a long-term relationship. She realizes that it’s struggle enough to maintain her own life. To find the courage each day to rise from bed, tend to her family, smile at work, eat, bathe and manage good health before the sun sets deep beyond the sea, so she can climb back inside the comfort of her soft, springy bed, beneath the warming cotton layers.

Once back within this cocoon, Jenna prays. She prays nightly that her own little girl will skip that matrilineal gene, will make it through this life without the dark ooze that can encase one’s being like jelly, keeping the joy at bay, placing one’s whole self in a sort of static state, unfeeling, uncaring, neutral to all that happens around, apathetic to all that is to come.

The pills help Jenna, but she wants more than a pill to deaden what is already numb. Her. Jenna wants a life normal. She wants what she has pushed away. She wants love, a whole family, a future, a purpose. As night grips her, and the darkness encases her, Jenna observes the internal movie of anger, fear, and self-loathing rise up along the interior workings of her body, adhering to the mucousy membranes, tissues, and cell walls. She waits, anticipates that crossing, that bridge that connects the bad to the good, the conscious to the unconscious. Ether fills her awareness like a rich fog bank creeping up along the Thames.

Then it comes. That moment. That instant before sleep overtakes her. Before she forgets what could be. There it is. Static. Lightness. Detachment. Untethered to all that weighs her down, Jenna Lee Clark floats in the lightness of her being, in the possibilities that are yet realized. She rests within the weightlessness and waits. The fog dissipates as Jenna rises, carried on the wings of her own gentle thoughts, lifting higher up and away, not on the ground, not in the heavens, attached to nothing, a balloon without a string granted permission to be free and float on its own path, directed by nothing and no one, adrift, untethered, light and carefree, lifted without being held. Then the darkness moves in, silent, no landscape. And she is asleep.

 

 

BIO

ellen mulhollandEllen Plotkin Mulholland grew up in San Bernardino, California. After earning her degree in Journalism and English Literature at the University of Southern California, she moved to London and wrote her first novel. Today, she parents, writes and teaches in Northern California. She is the author of two YA novels: “Birds on a Wire” and “This Girl Climbs Trees.”

 

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Allen Forrest

Graphic Artist and Painter

 

 

raymond carver

Raymond Carver

 

 

Berlin in the 1920s - Taxi Fare © 2013

Berlin in the 1920s – Taxi Fare © 2013

 

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

Lillian 2010

Lillian © 2010

Berlin in 1920s - Dancers © 2013

Berlin in 1920s – Dancers © 2013

Berlin in the 1920s © 2013

Berlin in the 1920s © 2013

Real Characters - the Days © 2013

Real Characters – the Days © 2013

Old West Gunslingers - Billy the Kid © 2013

Old West Gunslingers – Billy the Kid © 2013

New York Noir © 2013

New York Noir © 2013

ARTIST STATEMENT

Painting is a cross between a crap shoot, finding your way out of the woods, and performing a magic act. Each time I begin to paint I feel like I am walking a tightrope—sometimes scary, sometimes exciting, sometimes very quiet, and always, always surprising; leading me where I never expected to go. Doing art makes me lose all sense of time and place and go inside one long moment of creating. Whenever I feel a painting in my gut, I know this is why I paint. The colors are the message, I feel them before my mind has a chance to get involved. Color is the most agile and dynamic medium to create joy. And if you can find joy in your art, then you’ve found something worth holding on to.
Website: http://allen-forrest.fineartamerica.com/

 

BIO

allen forrestBorn in Canada and bred in the U.S., Allen Forrest works in many mediums: oil painting, computer graphics, theater, digital music, film, and video. Allen studied acting at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, digital media in art and design at Bellevue College, receiving degrees in Web Multimedia Authoring and Digital Video Production. Forrest has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications: New Plains Review, Pilgrimage Press, The MacGuffin, Blotterature, Gargoyle Magazine, his paintings have been commissioned and are on display in the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh creating emotion on canvas.

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Zamar Hammock

An Interview with Graffiti Artist, Zamar

by Eric Vasallo
 

 

 

Graffiti, the Original Facebook

 

“Art is a demon, a demon that drags along. It’s not something you can stop, even if you should. Maybe you go insane, maybe your wife leaves you or your kid runs away. You throw yourself away to be an artist.”
—Ushio Shinohara from Cutie and the Boxer
.

 

The cave art at El Castillo is the oldest cave art on the planet, dated to 40,000 to 100,000 years old. The paintings are made up of disks, dots and hand stencils, yet no one knows what they mean. The Ancient Egyptians were the most communicative, completely covering their walls, ceilings and sarcophagi, with brightly colored hieroglyphs as visual prayers to attain enlightenment and ensure safe passage from this world onto the next.

Flash forward to 2014; mankind still has a visceral need to mark events on walls and express emotions in an artful way. Only nowadays, it is illegal.

Forget what you know about graffiti or graffiti artists and keep reading.

Graffiti has evolved into a more sophisticated art form, gone are the days of gangs marking their territories with tags and the violence associated with it. Graffiti has turned into a pro-social art form, and a catalyst to rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods. In the words of the two female street artists and creators of the In Pursuit of Magic, project “I believe art will change the world.”

Those are ambitious goals for an unsophisticated urban art form. While the art form has evolved, sadly, the laws created to curb it are as antiquated and primitive as the cave art in El Castillo.

An article from July 2014 in the San Francisco Examiner, describes it as a 20 million dollar a year “problem.” The debate is as alive and polarized as the slow move towards decriminalizing marijuana in the United States. Each city has a different attitude, from hostile to welcoming, towards it.

A recent transplant to San Francisco, I immediately became captivated by graffiti artist, Zamar’s squid\octopus meme, which eventually became my muse and secret friend in a place where I had yet to make any. He was my first friend in the city. I would see him everywhere, on my way to the gym, on my way home from a bar, in the bathroom mirror, when I would jump out of a Lyft, I would almost step on the ever jubilant, little guy looking up at me. His googly eyes and mystical scrawled notes like “who knows?” “It could be?” “sunguishguish” were all taunting me to decipher their deeper meaning. Being a screenwriter, I became obsessed with finding out the back-story of who Zamar really was. I was convinced that there was a story, and that whoever created this character — and brought so much intrigue to so many — had to be special.

After weeks of putting up flyers, searching online for “Zamar” or “Mar” (I wasn’t sure what his real name was), digitally stalking other graffiti artists’ Instagram pages, enlisting local Zamar fans to keep their eyes peeled, I finally found the masked avenger. After more weeks of back and forth Instagram messages, he cautiously agreed to meet with me.

I wasn’t disappointed.

In a dream come true moment, I’m walking with Zamar through Oakland on a Saturday night and his face lights up whenever he shows me a tag, explaining this subculture to me. When he sees a perfect spot to leave a tag, he stops talking, crouches down and with a laser focus, tags four petite Zamar’s, each one drawn on the bend of a water pipe. His face transforms into a serious and meditatively quiet state as if he were a pregnant octopus giving birth to his larvae. My heart beat faster just to be able to witness this moment of creation.

Graffiti artists or “writers” roam wild and free in Oakland. The walls, sidewalks and empty spaces are covered in graphics like a multicolored playground for cartoon artists full of mythical characters and three dimensional letters that jump off the wall like a zany Roger Rabbit parallel universe. Here taggers are more destructive and brazen but their work is more artful. There are more crews or teams of taggers here in Oakland as well. One prominent one is “PTV” an acronym for Punks, Thugs and Vandals. There is also less enforcement here so the tags are a bit more “wild” and pervasive, covering almost every abandoned building’s walls.

Grower Broke Zamar

Crews are like any club; their membership pushes you to go higher with more competition in play. The “vets” mentor the “newbies.” Most taggers aim to join a crew. For some, the ultimate goal is to be a part of these dominant urban tribes with the goal of visual supremacy to each urban territory. Zamar likes to go it alone, and requires anonymity.

Zamar tells me graffiti is an art form created by youth. Zamar also started young, honing his talent by selling drawings he would make of dragons in grade school so he could buy extra chocolate milk.

PEN graf

I notice his hands bear the marks of a painter, albeit a street one … his nails stained with white paint and dry from using different media to bring his character to life with whatever he can find; old cans of paint, liquid paper pens, gorilla glue and the traditional mainstay can of spray paint.

We happened upon another tagger in the midst of tagging his name “Koosk” onto a light pole and I throw a question at him, “Is what you do born out of ego or a desire to create?”

“I believe they’re a bit intertwined. I feel the need to create from the shadows. I don’t want people to know its me because it allows them to create a mystery and a story in their head of who made them and what the strange characters represent.”

Zamar tells me these street writers created the original Facebook, networking via real walls not virtual ones. They would know what each other was up to by noticing updates on the “wall” and literally reading the writing on the walls that they would “tag.” You could know which crew they were a part of or not and what their territory or main area was and what they represented.

Today, Instagram has become the new social media of choice for grafers or writers. It’s a temporal platform and there isn’t much chatting, so it maintains anonymity which taggers require for obvious reasons in their constant game of hide and seek with local authorities. There is also an online community of graffiti artists at where you can view profiles and samples of their work, with an option to upload photos to the site of work you happen to appreciate.

Writing can become a huge business for a choice and select few like Shepard Fairey of the Obama campaign, “Hope” image fame, who has his own clothing line where legions of hipsters sport his “Obey” hats and clothing *available now at Urban Outfitters. Then there’s the anonymous guerilla artist like Banksy, who is known as a sort of masked Zorro and so desired that a local graffiti writer stole a Banksy on Mission, carving the concrete right from the wall. The intrepid street art entrepreneur makes a living going all over the globe, stealing and selling other artist’s work and making good “bank”.

But even those high profile artists aren’t immune to law enforcement. The New York Post recently published they were hunting for Banksy after several of his installations popped up all over the city. Mayor Bloomberg was quoted saying graffiti is a “sign of decay and loss of control.”

banksy Hunt NYC

List of Graf Terms:

One liners — a tag made with one continuous line, a form of graffiti that’s hard to do without dripping paint or mistakes.

Slaps — slappers draw or print their tags on blank stickers, FedEx or USPS stickers and slap them all over the city. They are easier to apply and usually easier to remove.

Scribing — taggers use a pen with a special tip that engraves on random hard surfaces like granite columns, stainless steel elevators, wood paneling, mirrors, etc.

Ground work — line work at street or eye level.

Writing to heaven — more established artists write closer to the sky, not to be closer to god but because it’s the most visible and dramatic artistic statement and ensures their legacy will remain longer since it’s very difficult for a city worker to scale the walls like the writers do in order to buff or grind it out.

Wheat pastes — pre-painted or printed images on wheat paste panels easily applied to surfaces with glue. These are easier to apply and decrease chances of getting caught in the act.

Hand styles — transcend national boundaries. For example: San Francisco hand styles can be found in Paris.

 

ZAMAR INTERVIEW

 

E.A. Vasallo: How did you come up with your animated squid\octopus creature that has haunted and noticed by so many across our city?

Zamar: I grew up in Baltimore moored on a Crystal Channel Cutter sailboat with my parents and I was home schooled until about 5th grade. We would travel south to Key West in the winter so I fell in love with the nature and beauty of the Florida Keys. When we’d take our dinghy boat to get supplies, I’d sit and wait for them and look up at the sky. I wanted to represent that peace in my tags. That feeling that all was right with the world while on the ocean. I also consider the octopus as one of the smartest and craftiest creatures of the ocean realm that I’d often fantasize about. Zamar came through that connection with the sea I had as a child.

Zamar is a compound name joining the letter Z, which I love for its aesthetics combined with the Spanish word “mar” which translates to “ocean”. I looked it up to see if the word existed and coincidentally the word means Hebrew for “praise God.” I believe something happens when you write for so long, it becomes kind of like a mantra that you repeat over and over again, each time you tag your chosen name. I can’t really explain scientifically what happens but there is a sort of transcendence that happens. Which seems to explain why some artists do it until they die. They sort of become possessed.

E.A. Vasallo: What is your motivation for creating Zamar? Does he have a mission?

Zamar: I sat at the park at Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley about a year ago and realized how everyone was on their smart phones and no one was looking at each other at all. Everyone was disconnected. I wanted to create something that would help people connect and feel connected with something. I thought that the ground was the best place for Zamar, below eye level. It’s a natural line of sight for people always looking down at their phones. I try to do things for the public. I am very aware of Zamar’s impact. That’s why I like to tag him near anything that water flows through, like drains, pipes, and sewers.

For some writers, graffiti is like a void you throw so much time and energy into it and it goes nowhere. But for me, I’d like to make a name for myself eventually. Some writers have built a reputation over the years building interest and buzz slowly.

My mom was a teacher for the public school system; where she would often try to help kids out from troubled homes. I was in the United Nations club in high school and the Aquarium as a guide for school children. She instilled the ability to look beyond myself and to help others. That’s what is most exciting for me to be in San Francisco because it seems to be a city that cares for it’s own more than any other city in the U.S. It seems like so many people are planting seeds here. Zamar is my seed.

zamar graffiti 2

E.A. Vasallo: Are you afraid of getting arrested for doing your art or graffiti?

Zamar: There’s nothing that will stop me. The day that Zamar stops, is that day I stop. There’s a tagger that has a phrase he uses in his tags, “Can’t stop, don’t wanna stop.” A local writer got “wrapped” which means he got caught, got two nights in jail for a tag in the Tenderloin. I talked to him when he got out and he said he’d keep going because that’s what the true writers do. I feel that way too. It’s a whole world within another world, another dimension and I’m totally stuck in it. As far as going to jail, I feel it’s like when a soldier dies in combat. It’s his ultimate experience. If you really want to take it to the next level you have let stop being afraid and the rules and all the structures that confine you.

zamar graffiti 3

E.A. Vasallo: Obviously, not all street artists are as benign as you or altruistic in what they are doing but how do you feel about being called a criminal or a vandal and see your little guy on the cover of the San Francisco Examiner?

Zamar: It’s amusing how institutions use words to easily demonize those that aren’t in line with what they want. We are not all criminals, or vandals. We are aware and informed citizens. Not all are like that, there are darker ends of the spectrum and some play the line, taunting police.

Protest Tag Poetry

I do have a tiff with the institutions that I’m angry at and this is my way to stick my thumb at it all and it doesn’t require all the bureaucracy to protest it. A lot of writers also use the medium to protest things they don’t like about the community. For example, there’s a writer named “Khy” who’s from the Mission and it means, “keep hoods yours” which is a protest to all the evictions going on these days. A lot of these guys have grown up in the Mission and they are upset about how they are being forced to live elsewhere because of skyrocketing property values. That’s why you see tags all over walls when a new store is being built, they will tag the hell out of it in protest because that store pushed out a mom and pop store just so the landlord could get higher rent. Art and vandalism do intersect. Some artists are focused on being a vandal. I am on the other side of the spectrum.

Some artists are on the side of destructive art and some choose walls that are abandoned or blighted and they put up a large piece, which in their eyes will beautify the public space.

It sucks that some people have a notion that it’s bad. I think we forget what public space is. We forget what sharing a space is because it gets painted every day. We forget how to really interact with each other. So when you see graffiti, it comes off as shocking because it’s a ripple in the system -a glitch in the matrix of sorts. It’s there and it’s not supposed to be. It causes panic and feeling of loss of control.

The penalties don’t seem to be effective at stopping it and I don’t believe it’s justified that someone should go to jail for this. There has to be a better way to deal with it. Some writers can get up to 3 years jail time and a $50,000 fine. If they are caught with another person it can be considered a gang and those charges are a felony with an increased sentence. Recently, the city has tried to pass a new law to charge artists or as they like to call “vandals” the cost of clean up. The problem with that is these kids usually don’t have any money.

E.A. Vasallo: Are there rivalries or violence amongst writers?

Zamar: In the past, graffiti used to be more gang related. It was kind of incubated there because it was used to mark territories. That’s where most of the stigma for the art form was created. Today it’s not like this. The taggers are a little bit thuggish but it’s mostly a look worn by young kids that don’t have anything to do and are artistically inclined. They don’t really hurt each other. Lots of them work at coffee shops or local markets. It’s not like Al Capone tagging “Al Capone” and killing people. Taggers have gotten killed in the past but its rare and usually just people at the wrong place at the wrong time like any other murder. There is an unwritten rule that you should never tag or post a slap over anyone else’s tag space. No other tagger or writer has come after me but shop owners have. I had a woman throw a trash can on my head while I was finishing up a tag on wet concrete and an Asian shopkeeper chase my down the mission with what seemed to be a samurai sword yelling “f**king bin rat” at me. That was my all time, harshest diss but I got away both times and finished my tags. In honor of that man, I occasionally tag “bin rat” on recycle bins. One guy named Jade, that did a lot for graffiti died about a year ago. Every now and then taggers will tag his name in honor of him, so there is definitely camaraderie.

E.A. Vasallo: What is the ethnicity or age group of most taggers in the city?

Zamar: Most are white guys, mostly young, under 30. One up and coming kid is “Staner” he’s about 14 and really into graf or writing. Back in the day, Asian writers ran San Francisco and they were excellent at what they did. The most prominent Asian tagger was “Tie” and his real name was Jonathan Lind who started writing around 13 and stopped around 18. He ended up being shot and killed in the 90’s while climbing down someone’s fire escape after finishing a tag. The landowner used a justification similar to the Trayvon Martin case and got off scot-free. Tie would tag with another white guy named “MQ” started really pushing graffiti here in the city and they really made “bombing” or “throwies” popular here. It was based on NYC wild style where the letters are slanted or leaning and filled in with a different color.

E.A. Vasallo: How long have you been tagging in San Francisco?

Zamar: For about 4 years now. It started with a little urge and now it’s become a fire that I can’t put out.

* * *

Altruism and artistic pursuits aside, the local government lumps all this graffiti into one category—vandalism. For city officials, it is a major nuisance that costs taxpayers and property owners that are fined to clean up what is for the vandal, an irresistible and natural form of expression. It’s a never-ending battle equivalent to Sisyphus trying to push that darn rock up that steep San Francisco hill. Sure, there are education programs for youth and advisory boards and mural programs but the graffiti clean up still sucks up a huge chunk of the city’s yearly budget that can be better spent elsewhere.

cant stop color antwerp

The challenge is how do we address it so it’s copasetic, where both parties get what they want? Bearing in mind that you can never stop people from having the desire to “write” or “tag.” How can you get them to not only express themselves but to nurture that talent to higher art forms that benefits the city?

Many citizens view the whole graffiti subject as a healthy and normal subculture that’s been around as long as humans could paint hunting scenes and shamanistic visions on cave walls and will probably be with us for as long as we are around on the planet. The goal of a city should be how do we get these creative individuals to move up from the destructive street art level to the productive artist or muralist category that will enhance the city instead of leave unsightly blemishes.

Progressive communities have gotten creative with the problem and the initiative has helped to improve blighted neighborhoods as well as help bring the artists some positive press and notoriety. StreetSmARTS and SF Beautiful programs try to do this by commissioning half of the cost of murals created by their roster of approved local artists. The image design goes through multiple hoops to get final approval, involving city officials, property owners and the artists. Property owners get their walls beautified and mostly graffiti proof as well as save money on fines and repainting costs. The city spends less money on clean up and enforcement. It’s a win-win situation. However, many proposals fail because property owners don’t want to pony up there half of the cost, which is at least $2,000 per mural.

Hayes Valley Art Coalition is on the same mission but with fewer hurdles to jump over. They recently commissioned a mural by Zio Ziegler on Linden alley across from Blue Bottle Coffee. The coalition plans on installing many more murals as they work to gain permission from owners in Hayes Valley.

Zio Ziegler Mural

Cities like Miami, Philadelphia and even Bogota, Colombia are also commissioning their local street artists and artists abroad to rejuvenate their blighted neighborhoods or up their coolness quotient. Montreal has upped the ante by hosting and commissioning the most celebrated muralists from around the world through a mix of private and public funding for its yearly city-wide mural fest, now in it’s second year which has attracted thousands of people to visit during the festival and millions of dollars in tourism income.

One suggestion could be accepting this art form as a human condition that like pot smoking or skateboarding, won’t ever go away. Give them a way to legally do it, in an acceptable and regulated form. The millions saved in clean up costs can help fund local graffiti parks. If they want to paint on walls, give them walls to paint on. The city’s StreetSmARTS program has tried this with one sanctioned wall but the taggers’ graffiti inevitably spilled over to private property near the allocated walls. Possibly a more extensive and permanent graffiti park would do the trick? Part of the cost could be covered by companies to help foot the bill in exchange for free advertising on public spaces? Primary Flight in Miami has accomplished this with companies like Levi’s and Sharpie.

The Precita Eyes Muralists Association in the Mission District is one of only three community mural centers in the United States. The organization sponsors and implements ongoing mural projects throughout the Bay Area. It also offers a once a year mural contest and four weekly art classes for children and youth (18 months through 19 years) and other classes for adults.

As we have already witnessed in the move towards marijuana legalization, once cities find a way for street art to generate revenue for the city coffers and boost tourism, what was once a foe can quickly turn into a friend.

The main gripe city officials have with graffiti is if you want to make murals, it is welcome by the city of San Francisco, however get permission to do it in the appropriate manner and through the various programs set up for that expression. It is vandalism when you don’t have permission to tag or paint a mural on someone else’s property. Period. Property owners will get fined if they don’t pay to clean up the graffiti, so it is an unfair burden for a tagger to put on them.

Are these just lawless hoodlums refusing to obey laws or is our definition of public and private property warped? American Indians believed our land was shared and incredulously look on as the white man began selling land that was considered for all, since time immemorial.

“My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away” —Black Hawk

The original Americans lost that war so now we are stuck with a new set of laws. However, as time goes by and societal norms shift, laws are inevitably revised. Is it time for us to revise the laws created to curb the enforcement of this age-old problem?

See in A new Way

When you get right down to the nuts and bolts of it and define why these vandals and/or artists do what they do, its option D- all of the above. It is primal, guttural, childish, altruistic, unifying, uplifting yet offensive to an eye that demands order and everything to be in its place.

However, what would our cities look like without any graffiti? We would have blank-page cities with blank walls; all perfectly clean with no trash or homeless problem or anything that isn’t aesthetically pleasing. We would have the opposite of natural, a fake obstruction of nature’s flow that these lone madmen can’t resist the urge but to let it flow out of them, through their fingers and onto a wall. That disobedience inspires us be conscious of our human condition and for a moment look away from our smart phones to a three dimensional reality.

Zamar Tag up

While the rest of the good people of San Francisco scuttle about their normal, ambitious lives, those that dare can veer off onto a dark side street and perhaps be lucky enough to spy a graf writer lurking in the shadows, looking for a place to leave his temporary legacy, to mark his life for us to discover like a modern archaeological treasure buried just underneath our busy feet.

What were the ancient cave painters trying to tell us? What are the modern day ones trying to tell us? What aren’t we “getting”?

Large Mural END

You’d be lucky to find a clever, colorful tag, you’d be even more lucky as I have been to get to know one of these artists, that are just good people but with an uncontrollable hunger for expression, and a knack for being wily as roadrunners. They prefer to avoid the limelight or sell themselves; there is no fee to see their work. Their only desire is for you to see the crumbs they want you to see, taunting you to discover their real treasure, which is their talent and ability to manipulate lines on concrete walls, challenging our concept of what a city should look like.

Some call it a crime, others call it vandalism, you can call it what you want … I call it magic.

in pursuit of magic

NOTES

The San Francisco Department of Public Works helps manage the city’s Graffiti Advisory Board, which advises the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on graffiti enforcement, cleanup and prevention strategies. Anyone wishing to offer new suggestions or solutions to the enforcement of graffiti can attend their open meetings held once a month.

A local fan, James Hargis, was inspired to create a video compilation of Zamar tags, called Tentacle Shift -over a year in the making.

Wrinkles of the City- an innovative, mural Project in major cities around the globe.

Piece By Piece: San Francisco Graffiti Documentary.

 

 

 

BIO

eric vasalloE.A. Vasallo – Archaeologist, young adult fiction writer, screenwriter and blogger. Awarded best screenplay 2014 – New Media Film Festival Los Angeles, California. Currently seeking publisher for novel. Bachelors of Screenwriting for Motion Pictures and Archaeology, UM. Resides in San Francisco.

 More info about E.A. Vasallo

 

 

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