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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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Spent Grains

by Kent Kosack

 

Once it was salvation, that

First cold sip, the bitter notes.

So bitter!

The malty sweetness.

The bubbles in my nose.

The sun playing across the

Lot, shimmering with heat,

The empty chairs, the

Barrels of spent grains.

Once it was just so.

Then, things went astringent.

Bad end notes.

So bitter.

The way you stormed out,

Theatrical, past the grains,

Spent.

So bitter.

 

 

The attic

 

Youth is what you loved.

Yourself too. And maybe the

Margaritas we used to drink

Naked and close, in front of

An old air conditioner. Our

Own world, that patch of

Cold in an otherwise

Sweltering attic.

 

 

Your hair

 

Close-cropped it falls,

Thick and full and defiant,

Escaping through my greedy,

Searching fingers.

No one likes

Goodbyes.

 

 

Commute

 

Barreling down the hill towards (a job, I’ll say it, but who cares? It’s not me. It’s life in the cracks that counts) downtown, a piston, Barry Allen, a demi-god.

Yelling, straining more with the song of it than anything else, a half-remembered tune (from the Muppets?) humming inside me somewhere.

Approaching now, the road narrowing, options narrowing. The winnowing of a day. I, the chaff. And silence. Waste. A day-long suffocation.

Stepping heavily up each stair. Each. Stair. A change in atmosphere. Pounds of pressure per square inch, pressing, bearing down. Like astronauts in training.

Astonishing. A vast wonder. Lost in it. You can hear it—or not. What is it? (a tether to an unseen weight) All about, the void.

 

 

BIO

Kent Kosack teaches English and writes poetry and prose. He lives in Seattle.

 

 

 

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John Tavares

Skinny Sister

by John Tavares

 

Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.

After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.

The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.

“How much coffee have you been consuming?”

She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.

His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”

The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.

At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.

After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.

“I need to speak with my mother first.”

“I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”

She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”

“Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

“Sudden cardiac death?”

He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”

After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.

By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.

Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.

Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.

“She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.

The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.

Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.

“What a waste.”

“The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.

Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.

Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.

“This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”

“I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”

“Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”

“You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
“You’re just being bossy. You love power.”

“Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”

Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.

The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.

“Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”

Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.

Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.

“I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”

“You’re still in the right age group.”

“I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”

“Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”

“Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”

On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”

“And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”

“Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”

“They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”

“But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”

“Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”

“Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”

“And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”

“You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”

“She was the head nurse.”

“You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”

“I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”

“Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”

“Mom, I want out.”

“No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”

“I don’t care about school anymore.”

“You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”

Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.

After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.

She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.

As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?

“Do you want some speed?”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”

“You don’t look like a narc.”

His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”

She glared at him.

“Do you want to mess around?”

“No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”

“I’m having my period.”

“Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”

He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”

A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.

The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.

 

 

BIO

John TavaresBorn and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.

 

 

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Ain’t Got No

by Claudia Putnam

 

In grade three Scotty said I ain’t got no
lunch money. We were delighted.
We crowed, That means you do.
If you don’t have none, then you have
some. Mrs. Cole, otherwise kind,

had just taught us the double negative.
But Scotty, one of those kids always
moving, dirty, in trouble, starved for food,
kisses, laughter, anything and everything,
still had no money for lunch.

Some languages would let Scotty
have his doubled poverty. Russian,
for instance, negates everything.
U nevo ne bylo nichevo. Literally:
In his possession nothing of anything wasn’t.

U nevo is interesting. With him, beside him,
near him, in his possession, in his situation,
in his position, he is characterized by.
Most common English translation: he has.
U nevo nichevo. He has nothing.

English gathers round Scotty, jeering.
Don’t you know how to talk? Haven’t
you learned anything? Can’t you think?
Russian isn’t concerned with that logic.
Russian is concerned with nyet.

Nikovo nikogda nigde nichevo ne bylo.
No one never nowhere nothing was not.
A person with no lunch money could say,
U menya nichevo, ni deneg, ni obeda.
I am characterized by nothing,

nothing of money, nothing of lunch.

 

 

This Isn’t Really Happening

 

My black bird was bigger,
my mountains were burning.
The snows stopped coming

sometime around 1999. The wells
dried. The shower sputtering
with soap in my hair

so I was always late. That tame crow
someone set loose spying
through the skylight, jeering.

How many ways is that? Each year
the river running thinner,
fleeing its shrinking glacier.

The Arapaho said the thunderbird,
black as any bird
gets, lived just west of here.

Someone must have seen it,
the day it flapped away.
We don’t get regular afternoon

stunners the way we used to.
You could set your heart on
those 2 PM monsoons. Biblical

lightning, all that water. Now: rusting
Ponderosas, centuries old,
disrobing. All good things

must end. Perhaps nightmares
also end. Not perhaps
in our lifetimes.

Poor lost crow, these are not
the best of times
to be falling asleep.


 

Sync

 

A few months with other women,
a woman bleeds.

Ten years’ time, a woman synchronizes
with her man.

Over thousands of miles, your arousal
brings my body astir.

Men make movies, you said—now they loop
through my head.

Golden locks on our dark headboard,
naked ass raised.

If I were making this up, I’d be watching you
both; the camera’s on her.

Your currents churn through my body;
don’t think I don’t know.

 

 

 

BIO

Claudia Putnam’s work appears in I-70 Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, Literary Mama, Barrow Street, Artful Dodge, Cimarron Review, Confrontation, and in many other journals. A chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World, came out last year from Finishing Line and is available from Finishing Line Press and on Amazon. In 2011-12, she had the George Bennett Fellowship. In 2015, she’ll be at Kimmel Harding Nelson. www.claudiaputnam.com

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mitchell Grabois

Transparency

by Mitchell Grabois

 

Wasps colonized my attic. I had to grab a can of wasp spray from my wife’s hand. She was a farm girl and stronger than me. She grabbed the can back and hit me in the head with it.

Our love was being overwhelmed by our differences. I found the wasps’ buzzing comforting, consoling. I heard messages in the drone, messages designed for me alone, telling me about the true nature of the universe. My wife said that if the droning didn’t stop, she was going to fall off the wagon—was I too stupid to understand?

Yet now that she’d hit me with the can of wasp spray, she couldn’t use it. She had created an inner barrier that she didn’t understand, but was unable to surmount. She went outside without saying anything, got into her old Pontiac, and headed down the road. She was going to the meth house. Whether she was going to do meth or just fuck the meth maker, I didn’t know. But I couldn’t pursue her. I was too engaged in listening to the wasps’ messages.

 

After I’d learned everything I could from the wasps, I went out on the front porch. I sat in my rocker and pretended to speak with my wife:

The world is corrupt, and pain closes us off to each other. We crave injections of transparency. We want to become floating windows, our religion Windex.

I see right thru you, girl, as if I were a psychologic genius. And you see thru me as well.

Crows and robins fling themselves thru the air, but part of what they think is air is us. We are annoyed, they are annoyed. It is significant, one of the downsides of transparency.

 

 

 

 

 

Angels

 

It’s a nice piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve written—I can’t tell the difference anymore. I’ve hypnotized myself and can’t undo it—this is the creative process. Creativity has confounded reality. It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s at stake. It’s just words on a page.

It’s not my adult son’s maid vacuuming his carpet while crying over what’s happening in the Ukraine, where she’s from, and where her parents and sister still live. She’s thin and has a lot of prominent veins in her arms and shoulders. She has a firm grip from working hard. She can’t find her business card in her purse. She tells me I know a lot about women.

It’s not kidnapped girls in Nigeria, raped and traumatized. The difference between their conscious minds and unconscious minds is also blurring, but not in the service of art.

I want to use my wealth to buy them, all of them. I want to educate them and put them to work in my restaurant, in my factory, in my amusement park. Wherever they want to work, that’s where I want them to work. I will pay them $15/hour, well over minimum wage. I will bring their parents here. I will get them medical treatment for their poor and neglected bodies.

 

But, despite all my good intentions, I ended up getting too close to Heaven. Angels melted my face. It’s not that they lacked compassion or had a cruel streak—they were just following the laws of Physics. Even angels must follow the laws of Physics.

 

 

 

 

 

Rubber Crumbs

 

My father escaped the Nazis, went to NYC to his Uncle’s tenement, looked around and said: Holy fuck! This fucking place is going to kill me sure as Hitler (or whatever the equivalent was in Yiddish). So he went west, stopped in Colorado, got work on a ranch, learned Spanish. He was Rumanian, but easily passed for Mexican.

This morning I wake in my armchair in the living room of the ranch house he built by hand. A book of Yiddish poetry has slipped from my grasp. I pick it up and go wash my face. Today I’m putting down rubber crumb infill in my corral. The granules prevent flyout, splashing, migration of base, and promote traction and drainage. Shock absorption is maximized. The rubber absorbs more impact than sand and reduces the repeated concussions horses sustain from being ridden on hard surfaces. It’s easier on the horses’ joints and the crumbs don’t freeze in winter. And it keeps dust down. I like a dustless arena.

My father never knew anything about this. It wasn’t available while he was alive.

 

I try to focus on rubber crumbs and whatnot, but I have to put some focus on Green Energy, because placed too close to my home, these turbines are black as the soul of the energy company’s greedy CEO, with their noise, shadow flicker, and subsonic vibration.

I might have expected my sensitive wife to develop Turbine Syndrome, but me? I was a Marine, born to fight and conquer. Nothing bothers me, but I’ve also been felled by Turbine Syndrome. After all the armed enemies I’ve faced for my country, it is turbines that have defeated me.

I pray I won’t become a slave to sleeping pills, but I know I need sleep—I need to care for my stock—and this is the only way to get it.

 

 

BIO

mitchell GraboisMitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over seven hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver, CO.

 

 

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Kelly Thompson poet

Legacy

by Kelly Thompson

 

My mother always said
(Giving me a look)
“You’re just like my mother.”

I see Grandmother’s ghost
In the corner of my eye
At the supermarket again today
Rounding the bend of an aisle, she
Pushes her shopping cart in rage
Her wet heart calls – Escape! I follow her
Path among the produce; she steals a grapefruit
Offers me an illicit berry – “Here take it”

Mother washes a dish, sighs
“My mother was not domestic.”
Dries a plate, “You should never get married.”

Back at the supermarket, Grandmother runs, crazy
Through the aisle, throws jars of pickles, relish, capers
Crashing to the floor. She screams, “No more!”
I bend down among the vinegar, the rolling
Olives, pick up the red pimientos.

“You’re just like my mother,” she would say.
My mother, dusting the piano, looking off
In the distance, wistful.

The chill air prickles my arms, sleeveless
The condiment shelves empty, price tags
Intact as if to remind us of the cost
All the jars
Smashed – ketchup and mustard, salad oil, peppers –

Grandmother and I bend
Reaching for the same jagged shard of glass
Her eyes my mirror, I kneel
Before the shadow of her early death
Her aborted
Passion.


 

Colorado

Denver is the capital city of Colorado. My heart is the capital of a small frozen pond.

All of the “Beulah red” marble in the world went into the Capitol. It cannot be replaced.

Flower – Rocky Mountain Columbine (1899)

Left on my porch in Blue Jay, California for my 42nd birthday.

Colorado was admitted to the Union August 1, 1876. I was admitted to schools, hospitals, psych wards.

Tree – Colorado blue spruce (1939)

Hunkered down in Alaska, blue spruce between me and the neighbor.

Colo. is the abbreviation for the state. My mind abbreviated by grief.

Bird – Lark Bunting (1931)

Sorrow my sparrow, as soon as I left: a murder of crow, a kindness of raven.

The area of Colorado covers 104100 square miles. Circles I made in the snow.

Animal – Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (1961)

Exposed on the cliffs the day I got up from the table. The world’s largest flat-top mountain is in Grand Mesa.

Colorado was the 38th State to be admitted to the Union. I admitted, at last, only to failure.

Gemstone – Aquamarine (1971)

At the western base of this ancient chain of granite peaks was once an inland sea. Still,
I kept trying to get out of the boat.

The three largest Cities in Colorado are Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora. Minus 47 murdered in Denver.

Colors – Blue and White (1911)

I said yes to the stretched out hand and walked on water.

The Colorado State Motto is “Nil sine Numine,” translated as “Nothing without Providence”
And just it is that I should pay the rent.

Song – “Where the Columbines Grow” (1915)

I shall already have forgotten you when the river runs red.

 

 

Shape of a Song

 

Who stole it from me father?
Fear of the water is inborn in some.
Your great-grandmother was a witch. You’re just like her.
Her power lay in the words she controlled. She had a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, a murder Of crows.

Father said she read his fortune in tea leaves but when she looked into Gene’s cup she turned, Refused to tell.   She wanted a pair of silver shoes.
It’s a gift, she told him. You’d have to sell your ____ to the devil.
But even she was afraid of the dark.

The witch’s daughter told the great-grand-daughter how it would be. She sang her into the shape Of a song.
She lived so long that a little girl could outwit her.
Father would not spill the water though the creek ran high.
The Wicked Witch of the West was destroyed by water.

The place we would step into the current will not come again.
But first, she starved the Cowardly Lion.
In the wagon they carried their most prized possessions, a guitar and a fiddle.
The witch’s daughter rode shoeless.

The witch foretold that men would land on the moon.
She saw the writing on the wall.
She named their firstborn but they declined the gift.
They preferred a new rhythm.

In time and space, they gave their children something blotted, blank, something human,
Where before, a melting witch lay steaming on the floor.
Father, said the daughter, I still carry her bequest.
The remnants of fires lay banked around them.

You were born without a ____, he said. Consequent bastard, he said.
The silver shoes I have thrown in the ocean.

 

 

BIO

Kelly ThompsonKelly Thompson’s writing has been published in 49 Writers, Manifest Station, Metrosphere, Limp Wrist, and Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping. She has won awards for her poetry from Writer’s Digest and was awarded funding to attend Key West Literary Seminar based on her short fiction. She is currently working on a memoir entitled Oh Darling Girl. Just as the narrator gets sober, one of her two barely adolescent daughters descends into addiction and rebels against her mother’s new found lifestyle of recovery. As the narrator struggles to save her daughter and face down a transgenerational legacy of violence, addiction, and shame, the lives of grandchildren hang in the balance and heartbreaking choices must be made. Kelly is also currently working on a chapbook of poetry focused on the themes of ancestry, transgenerational trauma, and legacy. Besides writing, Kelly is a psychotherapist who primarily works with soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado, in the sunshine of the spirit. You can follow her on Twitter @stareenite.

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Laura Wang writer

Synesthesia

by Laura Wang

 

 

It is September, three feet away

Stalking each of my footsteps

With each stomp, I hear tickles

With each sip, I taste glass

This cold coffee hums middle C

And C is green and green is three and three is an isosceles

 

Your eyes flit between 5 and M

Depending on the light

Your blue fingers often curl to form a pure G#

When you leave, I feel 4

3 lips taste of rectangles, velvet on my fingertips

Sorbet plus sorbet equals U

Your name is turquoise neon yellow lavender coral mauve

But I call you my September

 

*  *  *

 

The Synesthete

She points at our microwave. Her eyes are a bit glazed; her head cocks to the right; her fingers point at the number “1.”

“It’s kind of a whitish yellow,” says Melia. “Two is pink. Three is red. Four is yellow. Five, blue. Six… light green. Seven, dark blue. Eight is a magenta-pink color, probably closer to magenta. Nine is purple. Zero is white… or clear.”

She puts a pen in her hand and writes out her name on a piece of notebook paper. Her handwriting is precise. She spells her name green orange black blue yellow.

In Greek, “synesthesia” means “to perceive together.” It is a psychological phenomenon when a person perceives two senses to be linked when they are not. Melia sees numbers and letters in colors, the most common form of synesthesia, but there have been reports of tasting in color and hearing in color. Some think of abstract concepts, such as time, in terms of spatial distance. Others, when they hear sounds, feel sensations on their skin.

When Melia was younger, her mother, with handwriting even clearer than Melia’s, would write in bubble letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. She and her sister, Tia, got to color them in to celebrate.

“Tia, why can’t you just color them the right colors?”

Tia, purple crayon in her hand, stared at Melia. “What?”

“It’s an ‘H.’ Why can’t you color it pink?”

“Why can’t you be less bossy?”

Tia scribbled purple all over the “H,” not minding that it got outside of the lines. Melia sighed and quickly colored the “P’s” red, as they should be.

Melia and I were randomly placed to live in the same dorm room during our freshmen year of college. I’ve lived with her ever since. One night when we were white-years, we stayed up particularly late talking. She mentioned that she had synesthesia. My eyes widened and mouth gaped when she told me. She shrugged it off.

Today, Melia sits before me, sipping hot M tea in a 7 plaid skirt.

“I wouldn’t say that I found out that I was a synesthete. It was more like I found out everyone else wasn’t. When I was in eighth grade, a girl asked me what my favorite color was, and I said ‘yellow.’ She asked me what things I liked that were yellow and I gave her a list: lemonade, daffodils, and the letter ‘A.’”

Melia’s realization that she had synesthesia is actually similar to most other synesthetes. According to Boston University’s The Synesthesia Project, synesthetes almost never consider that their perceptions might be unique until they realize that there’s a discrepancy between their experiences and their peers.

Around the time that Melia discovered she was a synesthete, she was in a chemistry class and trying to keep up in her extremely competitive Silicon Valley high school. After discovering that she had synesthesia, she looked for ways to use it. Soon, elements and chemical compounds became blocks of color. NaCl, sodium chloride, was green yellow red lightish-yellow, but mainly just green red because those were the capital letters.

She retells with more difficulty the only time she ever remembers cheating on a test. After a particularly stressful week, she had a math test that she didn’t have enough time to prepare for and was panicking. She avoids my eyes as she tells me this story.

“I couldn’t remember the formulas, so I drew little colored dots on my hand. It didn’t work as well as I thought it would. When I see letters, the colors are vivid, but it’s not as effective the other way around. It was more like I remembered that the colors and letters were linked when I looked at the dots, instead of actually seeing the letter when I saw the color. I felt so bad afterwards. I thought I was sick.”

The only other synesthete Melia has ever met was the star flute player in their high school band. The girl heard in her color. She had perfect pitch, and with each distinct note she heard, she saw a differently colored orb-like blob. Melia, always the over-analyzer, tries to piece this out for me.

“I don’t know if her natural perfect pitch helped her develop synesthesia, or if synesthesia helped her develop perfect pitch. I don’t know which one caused the other, or even if there’s a causative relationship. I just think it’d be really cool to listen to music in color.”

“I think it’d be cool to read in color,” I tell her.

She laughs and nods. “That’s fair.”

Other than pneumonic devices and her one-time cheating attempt, Melia doesn’t use her synesthesia as a tool all that often.

“It’s like a party trick. It’s something I could bring up during an icebreaker or get-to-know-you game. I’ve actually written personal statements where I tap into that quality, but that’s about it. I don’t notice it most of the time.”

In truth, synesthesia is everywhere. The Synesthesia Project says that some scientists consider phantom limb as a type of synesthesia. Phantom limb or sensations sometimes occur when one gets a limb amputated. Even after their arm or leg is gone, they can still feel it, experience pain where their limb used to be, and even “move” it. Unlike Melia, whose had her synesthesia since she was born, people with phantom limb develop it later in their life and, with therapy, can overcome it.

The link between taste and smell also seem synesthetic. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All of the flavors we perceive in a vintage wine, apple pie, or yellow curry are mainly due to the sense of smell. The nerves in our eyes and mouth, not taste buds, are even linked to our sensation of taste when we eat spicy food. Each time I take a bite of a spicy hot chicken wing, I simultaneously experience seemingly unrelated senses, the smell of barbecue, the watery of my eyes, and sensations that create one, unified flavor.

Melia and I have a Star Wars poster on our living room wall. The poster is printed in Technicolor-bright ink, and its graphics appear vintage but I bought it at Target for ten dollars a year ago. It’s the largest poster in Melia’s and my apartment. As I sit talking with Melia, my head tilts to the side, studying the poster.

“So when you see that,” I point and she turns her head with me, “and you see ‘Star Wars’ written on there in red, what does your synesthesia do?”

“I don’t have colorblindness, so if something is written down, I don’t have trouble distinguishing the ink,” she tells me. “But on top of it, almost as a shadow, I see the colors that are associated with my synesthesia.”

I remember once when I was eight or nine (I’m not sure what the context was), my brother mentioned that spoken language is really just sounds. When people speak, all they’re doing is making noises and sound waves with their mouths and vocal chords. There’s no inherent meaning in any of it; we, as people, just attach significance to particular noises. It seems obvious, but this was a revelation for me at the time. Any word is only a word to me because I’ve learned to recognize it as such. When I hear someone say “Laura,” I can only understand that the combination of an “l” sound, with an “o” vowel, followed closely by a hard “r,” and closing with the neutral vowel, “uh,” is referring to me because someone taught that to me. If I heard someone say “hey woman” or another term of address in a foreign language, there would be no meaning, no “Laura.” I’d just hear sounds.

As we look at the Star Wars poster, Melia comments on the atypical font. “You know, out of context, I don’t know if I’d recognize the ‘S’ and ‘T’ as ‘S’ and ‘T,’ but as soon as I realize that that’s what they are, I simultaneously see my colors for ‘S’ and ‘T.’”

I ask Melia if synesthesia has ever brought her anything negative. She thinks about it, collecting her thoughts, before answering.

“You realize how subjective words are when you have synesthesia. Any sensory perception is a very subjective experience. I could say ‘color’ or ‘shape,’ but I don’t even know if you think of the same thing as I think of when I say those words. There are so many different ways of perceiving different qualities in our world that it’s difficult to describe something that, to me, is specific but to someone else is not.”

I immediately think of the way everyone seems to question, at least once in their life, whether people see the same colors. What if my yellow is your blue? And your blue is my white? The thought used to bother me quite a bit. I remember asking my mom about it when I was in eighth grade.

“They know.” “They” meaning scientists. She told me, “They’ve done tests for it before. There are differences between each person, but it’s not a big difference. People might see different shades or tints of the same color, but it would never be a different color entirely.”

My mom’s a scientist, but I’m not sure that she actually read any study on this because to me, Melia’s right. A researcher could run as many tests as he wishes on Melia’s brain and see which sections of her brain are triggered when she sees a letter or number and understand what causes synesthesia and why, but how could he ever know what her synesthesia looks like for her? Questions like this used to drive me crazy. A world in which the understanding of color was up for debate seemed a world that was far too unstable.

And yet, when Melia sees the letter “A,” she sees white-yellow, but she also understands that it’s an “A,” the first letter of the Roman alphabet, just as I understand that an “A” is an “A.” And when Melia sees “Star Wars” written in red, she also sees a handful of other colors, projected on top. I see the same “Star Wars” Melia sees, but I also see the ten dollars I spent on the poster. I see the Ewok my brother bought at Universal Studios when we were kids. I see my father, whose all-time favorite movies are the Star Wars movies. I see him thirty years ago, going to a movie theater to watch A New Hope, and I see a smile on his face because for the first time since he’s moved to America, he finally feels that he, at least a little bit, gets American culture. I see his excitement pulling out our VHS tapes, playing the movies for my brother and me. But I also see, “Star Wars” written in a sans-serif, wide font, printed in a vibrant red.

 

 

BIO

Laura WangLaura Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying English, Creative Writing, and Chinese. Laura was an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates Summer Fellow, in which she worked with the International Writing Program to translate Chinese literature into English. She has participated in readings throughout Iowa City and presented at the Upper Midwest Region Honors Conference, Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities, and the UI Fall Undergraduate Research Festival.

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Lowther

Selections from 555

by John Lowther

 

*

You know, this stuff you put four drops in a pot with boiling water and feel like a koala bear goin’ wild on drugs.
And even more starkly, there’s a very clear trend in the data, where each step up in waiting time results in a higher risk of death.
It all looks more than a bit scruffy; there is nothing along the road to soothe the eye, no riots of flowers to cheer the heart.

I get off where thought addresses the unthought and articulates itself upon it.
The occasionalist argues that all events are radically independent of one another.

*

Only through communism can we come to experience our bodies again.
Despite the title this is not about finding your soul mate.
The preamble explains why this matters and where this is going.
This is non-reg, but the cops have better shit to worry about, especially when it doesn’t impact the corporati.
Death is a black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate.
Frosties are just corn flakes for people who can’t face reality.
If the tweetstorm is right, this is a pretty grim situation.
The ego is the theology of free enterprise.
All theory of knowledge has sexual connotations.

*

I welcome the dead into my soul.

It uses many of the genre tropes, little kid, estranged family, nobody who believes, creepy house in the woods.
The world is its own best model.
The problem with all of my dreams is that I don’t speak the language.
Here’s some Swiss cheese and some bullets.
Don’t fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here.
It’s a fast-paced sci-fi trip.
The ride to complete the loop from the mine was on a diesel engine, which blew out lots of debris.

But what about those things out there.

*

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
They were too close to the door to close it.
In the back seat was a fur coat, and in the street was blood mixed with car fluid, nail polish, lip gloss, baby booties, a toy piano, condoms, and a collection of music on compact disc by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Vacuous suavity remains the abiding deficiency of self-consciously ‘good’ writing.
One is always responsible for one’s position as a subject.
Thus, by building robots, our intention is to learn something about intelligence, and not so much to build technologically sophisticated robots.

*

Judging from your pictures, you hate facts like poison.
The wind tunnel tells them all the same thing.
Sometimes I text myself a little pick me up.
I like knitted hats and I like vinyl records.
This is the traditional modus operandi of the sophist.
Without judgment, because it is judgment that defeats us.
Please try to stop shaking now and just breathe.
Don’t ever be yourself, it’s the kiss of death.
Let’s talk about spout fluid beds, fundamentals and applications.

Desire is the crucible within which the self is formed.
If you’re on board you’re on board all the way.

 

 

BIO

John LowtherJohn Lowther’s work appears in the Atlanta Poets Group’s anthology, The Lattice Inside (UNO Press, 2012) and in Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (U of Alabama, 2003). Held to the Letter, co-authored with Dana Lisa Young is forthcoming from Lavender Ink in 2015. John also works in video, photography, paint, performance and other mediums as the need arises. He’s writing a dissertation to reimagine psychoanalysis had intersex and transgender lives been taken as foundational for understanding subjective possibility. He blogs as Lowtherpoet at WordPress.

 

 

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Where Erasers and Wastebaskets and I Am Kept

by Gerard Sarnat

 

I work for two desks.

One overlooks the sea, the other the forest.

The former is Lucite. Uncluttered. It’s all about open water.

The latter’s socked in by zealous woods plus sentimental photo fog.

On holidays overlords undo my chains, force me to go outdoors.

 

 

BIO

gerard SarnatGerard Sarnat is the author of three collections, 2010’s HOMELESS CHRONICLES from Abraham to Burning Man, 2012’s Disputes, and September 2014’s 17s. He is now working on Patriarchs. Harvard and Stanford educated, Gerry’s set up and staffed clinics for the disenfranchised, been a CEO of healthcare organizations and a Stanford professor. For Huffington Post reviews, future reading dates and more, visit Gerard Sarnat.com. His books are available at select bookstores and on Amazon.

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Ctrl + A

by J Hudson

 

He’d spent the night. She awoke before him and made coffee and toasted an everything bagel for him and was now typing on her laptop at the table.

“What size font should I use for my resume, ten or twelve?”

“It depends, what typeface are you using?” He didn’t look up from his iPad.

“Calibri.”

“Calibri isn’t professional; use eleven point Times New Roman. It’s the generally accepted typeface of business.”

“New Times Romans is boring.”

“It’s Times New Roman and Business is boring. But that’s life.”

“I want to use, Garamond or Calibri. I like the look of those fonts.”

“You mean typeface. When discussing the aesthetics of letters or numbers or punctuation styles, you refer to them as typeface, not fonts. A font is a collection of tools.”

There was a sense of recitation in his definitions of typeface and font. He sounded like a robot parrot. She chuckled and said, “You’re a collection of tools.”

“Really? That’s not funny.”

“You’re not funny.”

“Good come back. I guess that’s why I have a job and you don’t.” He sipped his coffee and went back to reading the Times online.

She hit Ctrl + A and changed everything on the page to Times New Roman. She examined her vitae and then him, lounging on the couch and his white tube socks resting on her glass coffee table. She selected Comic Sans MS from the drop down menu, saved the document, exited the program, closed the lab top and sat back to enjoy her hazelnut coffee.

 

 

BIO

J hudsonJ Hudson is a local food and arts organizer from Akron, Ohio. He is a member of both the Kent Zendo in Kent, Ohio and the First Congregational Church in Hudson, Ohio.

 

 

Photo by Ash Adams Photography

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I Spy Cameras:
Intriguing Cameras of Intrigue

Story and Photos by Paul Garson – Cameras and documents from the author’s collection

 

francis x bushman

 

Shoot Bullets and Photos

Sometime in 1933 the famous screen actor/director Francis X. Bushman seen here came up with the idea of melding an actual gun with a camera that could shoot bullets as well as still and motion pictures as an aid to law enforcement. The idea was even if the bad guy escaped the bullets, he couldn’t avoid getting his mug shot taken and thus sealing his eventual captured. Something smaller and less noisy was needed by real world spies which prompted inventors around the globe to search for the perfect spy camera. As a result untold variations were created, a few literally shaping the history of nations and wars, cold and hot. As an offshoot, “spy camera” compact design eventually entered the consumer market, some basically toys, others hi-tech wonders. Here are a few from the author’s collection of vintage cameras, but only touching upon the tip of the spy iceberg.

 

TheHitwasit

The HIT – Was It?

If you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and read comic books, you saw an endless flow of ads, small ones, for The Hit…and you just had to have one because it was so “spyish” and cool. Your parents probably tried to explain that it was a toy and you couldn’t photograph a barn door with the Honey-I-Shrunk-a Real-35mm Camera. But no doubt you pressed on as I did until you had one. Okay, so it took 40 years before I added a Hit to my current collection and now you many find many for sale on the Internet, some with their original cases and even film. In any case, The Hit seems to remain on the hit list of spy cameras even if no self-respecting agent would use one.

The Hit was the product of the Tougodo Optical company founded in Japan in 1930 and named as things often were at the time after a military personage, in this case Admiral Tougo of the Japanese Navy. The camera relied on 14x14mm film.

Actually there are several variations of sub-mini 1950s cameras from Japan, the prices ranging from $10- $3,000 depending on their level of rarity. This one cost me $3 at a garage sale.

 

mec 16 camera

MEC-16 SB – History Maker in Miniature

The MEC 16 was produced by Germany’s Feinwerke Technik around 1957-60. This example, an SB was updated in 1960, and gained milestone status as the first TTL Camera (Through the Lens Metering system) by incorporating a Gossen Selenium Exposure Meter in its subminiature design, no mean feat as the camera in closed position measures only 4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches. It utilizes a high quality Rodenstock f 2 22mm lens, making it one of the fastest subminis ever made. Its “Cats Eye” pupil diaphragm is adjustable f 2.0 to f16 with focal plane shutter speeds from 1/30 sec. to 1/1,000 sec. with a range of focus form 1ft. to infinity. Considered a top of the line “mini,” they are considered rare, prices reaching $250 and beyond.

 

universal 16 mm

Universal Minute 16

Produced apparently for only one year, 1949, it was designed to mimic the shape of a movie-camera. While certainly spyish in appearance and size and all metal in construction, the optical performance of the f6.3-11.0 Anastigmatic fixed-focus lens with a fixed shutter speed of 1/50 second, was mediocre at best. It did sport a pop-up viewfinder, flash synch and provided 14 exposures per magazine. A later version included an f8 lens and a slightly fast single speed of 1/60 second. Boxed sets include the camera, flash and spare bulbs, negative holders, tripod and film and still have good cool factor.

 

mamiya super 16

Mamiya Super 16

Post-war Japan produced a slew of high quality cameras of various formats and sizes. One major company, Mamiya, made 16mm subs from 1949-62 and judged as exceptional in design and performance. This model, appearing in 1959, was its built-in selenium meter is actually larger than the original Mamiya 16 that came without the meter. As far as being “automatic” it was actually a matter turning various dials that provided for a quality image. The lens was either an f2.8-16 25mm with speeds up to 1/200 sec. It was also the first Mamiya 16 with a flash shoe.( I got lucky and found this one for a grand total of $18.10. It pays to stay up to 3 in the morning scouring the Web.)

 

true spy camera

True Spy Camera

Popular with the KBG and other international espionage organizations up until the 1990s when digital took over, the incredible Minox was actually designed and first built in Riga, Latvia, then later in Germany. This example, a Minox-B literally fits in the palm of your hand at least without its various attachments as shown here including flash and binocular mount. Production started in 1958 and ran to 1969 when it was replaced by the improved Minox C, but it never surpassed the popularity of the Minox-B.

The Minox B features a Complan 15 mm f/3.58 4-element lens with shutter speeds of 1/2 – 1/1000 seconds with a focal range from infinity down to eight inches. A special braided metal chain allows for precise distance measurements for documents being photographed. The Minox B is capable of producing up to 50 photos using a single cartridge and still a highly usable camera, film and processing available, though not cheap.

 

norton univex camera

Norton/Univex/Universal Micro-Mini

There are miniature cameras, sub-miniatures and micro-miniatures…all based of course on size and weigh though not necessarily quality of images produced, such is the case of this camera that wore several brand names.

Founded in New York City in January 1933, The Universal Camera Corporation was the brainchild of loan company exec Otto Wolff Githens and his partner, taxicab insurance agent Jacob J. Shapiro, both believing Americans needed a very affordable camera. With that idea in mind, they approached the Norton Laboratories requesting they design a small Bakelite camera, simple to use, and cheap to manufacture. Naturally, seeing a good thing, Norton started selling the camera under their own name. Not giving up, the original Universal company went on to manufacture the Univex Model A themselves as well as several other cameras.

Although most people have no recollection of the camera today, Universal eventually sold more cameras per year than any other company in the world, at least for a time. Keeping to their prime directive of affordability, the Univex Model A sold for 39 cents with over 3 million purchases in the first three years. Boosting the sales was the inexpensive six-exposure rollfilm that was packaged in Belgium and sold for only 10 cents in the United States. 22,000,000 rolls where sold in 1938. However, it was the monopoly on the special Univex film that contributed to the collapse of the company in 1958.

 

micro 16 camera

Whittaker Micro 16

Described as the size of a deck of cards, it was actually much smaller and could be concealed inside a pack of cigarettes, apparently a popular combination with detectives of its day. Using 16mm film via a 24 exposure cartridge, it appeared on the “spy camera” scene in 1946, just after WWII’s end, the design of a Hollywood, CA concern named after its founder, It relied on an achromatic doublet f6.3 lens with fixed focus and a single speed although the aperture could be adjusted for lighting conditions and color film usage via 1:11 (bright), 1:8 (dull), and 1:6.3 (color). Production ended in 1950, a short run for the popular mini that sold for a relatively expensive $30 in the 1940s, about what people were earning on a weekly basis at the time. Today prices range from $25 to several hundred for very rare editions.

 

last camera

In closing, if you’ve got the bug for vintage cameras, small or larger, remember condition, condition, condition….and keep both eyes open on the Web, at garage sales and swap meets. You may just find that treasure. But remember, the value is in the history, the quest and the kinds of cameras that open wide your own apertures of interest. Do your research by surfing the Internet or purchase a couple quality camera collector books as resources. Happy hunting!

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

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The New Spring Issue is almost here…

In just a few short weeks, we will publish our new issue of The Writing Disorder—featuring some of the best new writers and artists.

We can’t wait to show you their work. Keep checking back. You won’t want to miss it.

 

 

 

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CORNERS

by Sarah Katharina Kayß

 

Corners Series 1

 

The World

we are surrounded by it
though
we sometimes forget
it is not only in front of us,
to our left and right, or behind
it is also above

 

Corners Series 2

 

Corners Series 3

 

Corners Series 4

 

Corners Series 5

 

Corners Series 6

 

Corners Series 7

 

Corners Series 8

 

Corners Series 9

 

Corners Series 10

 

Corners Series 11

 

Corners Series 12

 

Corners Series 13

 

Corners Series 14

 

Corners Series 15

Photography locations: Bremen (Germany), London (UK), Vienna (Austria), Bochum (Germany), Oxford (UK), Bath (UK) and Dresden (Germany)

 

BIO

Sarah by Ian ForknallSarah Katharina Kayß is winner of the manuscript-award of the German Writers Association for her poetry and essay collection Ich Mag Die Welt So Wie Sie Ist (Allitera, Germany 2014). She edits the bilingual literature magazine The Transnational (www.the-transnational.com) and works on her doctorate at King’s College London. Her artwork, essays and poetry have appeared in literary magazines, journals and anthologies in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

WEBSITE: www.SarahKatharinaKayss.com

 

Photo of Sarah by IAN FORKNALL (London)

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Ninon Schubert author

Day Three is the Hardest

by Ninon Schubert

 

 

Stay away from triggers

Barb turned off the alarm. The lingering smell of beer, frying fat and sweat took her breath away. The craving was back instantly – just arrived at work and already on the verge of cracking.

She left all the doors wide open, hoping there‘d be enough wind and sun to flush out the grime. But the wind was no more than a trickle and any natural light was swallowed up by the plush carpet and the nervous flicker of colours from the poker machines in the gaming room.

She would feel empty and restless, the leaflet had warned, today was day three and day three was the hardest. Barb dug into her pocket and got out her bad-effects list:
– dried up and shrivelled in the mornings
– headaches all the time
– clothes stink
– money down the drain
No relief.

It didn’t help that she’d had a dream about Sergei. In the dream his features were pulverized to gravel and blasted into her eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Barb had woken up with a violent fit of coughing and spent the next few hours trying to resist the urge to light a cigarette. She got up, prowled around the house and emptied the fridge waiting for Sergei to move out of her head and the craving to subside. But the moment refused to pass. Around her the darkness ground to a complete halt, leaving her stranded in the middle of the night, blaming herself for everything.

Keep yourself busy and breathe deeply, the leaflet said. As the cleaners arrived and started vacuuming, Barb walked around gathering the dirty glasses that had been left by the evening staff. She checked the gaming area, her movements weaving and folding into the liquid gloom and the flashes of green, yellow and red from the poker machines – her routine creating a thin, protective membrane that shielded her from the outside world.

“Hi, how’s it going?” a woman’s voice called. It was Mandy popping in on her way to work. “I got you some of that nicotine gum.”

Barb turned and was suddenly unable to say anything at all; her eyes filled with tears, her hands shook.

“You okay?” Mandy came up to her holding the gum.

“Knowing me I’ll get addicted to that, too.” Barb took the packet.

“Go easy on yourself,” Mandy said, “just take things an hour at a time and buy that inhaler if it gets really bad – that even worked for me.”

“D’you think it’ll get rid of Sergei as well?”

Mandy laughed, “You never know – try putting him in the mouthpiece and burning him.”

“I’d have to burn him out of my head first.”

They walked back to the entrance and stepped out into the glare of the Melbourne summer. It was still morning and already the bitumen was wilting in the sun. The outside world curled and broke in a massive wave over Barb’s head. She could feel its eddies and flows and treacherous currents mingling with the weight of a sleepless night: heat, light, cars and voices all crashing down on her.

On the other side of the street people were going about their business. One woman stopped and looked at something in a shop window. It was Olivia. The wave churned and foamed around Barb’s legs, dragging her down into its undertow.

Mandy grimaced. “She’s my first customer today.”

Barb stared at her.

“God knows what she wants,” Many added.

A tram came hurtling down the road, cutting through Barb’s field of vision and wiping the street clean in its wake: when it passed, Olivia was gone.

Mandy stepped out on the road and turned back briefly. “Don’t forget to use that nicotine gum!” She waited for the next tram, dodged the oncoming traffic to the other side and hurried up the road. Before she disappeared around the corner, she waved.

Go easy on yourself, Mandy had said. Stay away from triggers, the leaflet recommended. What a joke – the whole day was turning into one big trigger-happy trigger.

 

Learn to chew the gum

Just as Barb was about to go back inside, she saw old Theo coming out of the supermarket with his shopping. He shuffled up the road, leaning and creaking like a derelict shed, two plastic bags flapping at his sides.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she shouted.

Theo turned, swaying slightly. Barb beckoned to him. His face lit up as he shuffled towards her.

“Ferguson won’t be in today – he never comes two days in a row,” Barb said as Theo drew level.

Theo hesitated, then grinned like a little kid, “I’ll just drop these bags off at home then,” turned and creaked back up the street.

The minute Barb went inside, the artificial light and the smells wrapped themselves around, calming her down. No chance of Olivia materializing in here. As Barb walked past the entrance to the gaming room something caught her eye. There was a dark shadow near one of the poker machines – the one where Sergei always used to play. Someone was hunched over peering into the corner. She broke out in a sweat.

“Hello?” She stepped into the room and paused, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. The lights of the machines threw blotches of colour onto her skin.

“Sergei?”

What was he doing?

When she finally worked up the courage to go over, there was no sign of Sergei or anyone else. It was just the plastic tree, half hidden in its corner. Time to have some of that gum. She tore open the packet and read the instructions:
– chew on gum gently for approx. 1 minute
– park gum in cheek to let lining of mouth absorb nicotine
– chew gum again when taste fades
Chew and get a grip.

What an arsehole Ferguson was. People had complained about Theo hanging around the machines. One woman had accused him of harassing her and someone else had claimed Theo was trying to interfere with his game. All he did was talk to people. Barb stuffed another piece of gum in her mouth. Ferguson had frog-marched the old man out with everyone watching. Who would do that to an eighty-two-year-old? And yesterday had been her second day. The day that nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak, the leaflet warned. She’d have murdered for a smoke. Instead, she screamed at Ferguson and almost lost her job. In the end he’d been content to take her into his office and taunt her by lighting up a cigar and puffing the smoke in her face as he gave her a lecture on how patient he was.

She spat out the gum and started rifling the back of the bar for a packet of cigarettes. Just one drag and everything’d be okay. The evening staff always kept a packet stashed away somewhere. She imagined herself outside, leaning against the wall, inhaling deeply, feeling the sun on her skin and the rush of smoke in her lungs.

Theo arrived just in time to save her with a packet of biscuits. She ripped it open and demolished one after another in quick succession.

“Plenty more where that came from,” Theo said, beaming at her.

 

Understand your habit

A couple of hours later a few people were dotted around the poker machines but none of them were regulars. The rest of the day staff had arrived and the smell of food drifted in from the kitchen. Theo was perched on a stool at the bar trying to peer into all corners of the gaming area.

“Forget it,” Barb told him.

He put on his innocent face.

“You‘re not going in there. If anyone complains to Ferguson we’re both done for. Wait for Jack or Christos.”

A plate of chops and mash was brought in from the kitchen and she put it down in front of him. “My shout.”

Barb ate the last of the biscuits while Theo tucked into his chops. He’d started hanging around when his wife died, but he never played, never drank and never smoked. He was drawn to the flickering lights like an insect to a bed of flowers, fluttering from machine to machine to strike up conversations, telling people the most personal things completely out of the blue. Like how his son Nick had just taken off one day to spite his mum, and if Theo hadn’t tracked him down in Western Australia when she was dying of cancer, she’d never have seen him again.

As Barb brushed away the biscuit crumbs she realized her craving for a cigarette had waned slightly. You should keep a smoking diary for at least a week before you quit, the leaflet said, you should understand your habit. Barb hadn’t bothered – she knew that smoking boosted her self-confidence and helped her relax. With Sergei, her intake had doubled.

Jack, the laundry owner from up the road, sauntered in and, as usual, surveyed the place for women. Apart from Barb there was only one other woman in there, although she must have been at least thirty-five, well over Jack’s usual cut-off point. No matter. At the sight of women he went into automatic. Like a poker machine: throw coins in the slot and it starts whirring, flashing and making funny noises. Barb had seen through him the minute she clapped eyes on him. Unfortunately, she’d fallen for Sergei instead. Mandy, who’d almost lost her beauty salon paying off her husband’s debts, had warned Barb over and over, stay away from him, he’s bad news. But Sergei gave Barb one of his paintings and she loved it so much he promised to paint a whole series for her. He told her no one had ever appreciated his paintings the way she did; no one inspired him more.

 

Build your resolve

The door opened. Christos, who owned the wedding shop next to Jack’s laundry, took one last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out before coming in. He walked up to Barb and blew the smoke straight at her. It skimmed her cheeks and set her skin tingling. For a moment it felt like Sergei running his fingertips down the side of her face, lightly touching her lips, her chin, her neck.

Christos was looking at her. “Sorry, did you want one?”

“No thanks.”

“Sure? You’re allowed to have a break, aren’t you?”

“I said, no thanks.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You know bloody well I’m trying to quit.”

Christos put on an air of being hurt. “Just offering.”

“Yeah, right,” Barb pushed his beer across the counter.

Suddenly he grinned.

“What’s so funny?” Barb asked.

“Why are you in such a bad mood? No wonder you’re always being dumped by your boyfriends.”

“Since when have you been sober for long enough to keep track of my boyfriends?”

Christos looked as if she’d just punched him in the face. Theo tugged at his sleeve and pushed him towards the gaming room.

Christos downed his beer, slammed the glass down on the counter and the two men moved over to the poker machines. They greeted Jack, who by this stage was teaching the woman how to press the buttons rhythmically for maximum effect.

“I’ve got a bit of celebrating to do,” Barb heard Christos say.

“Good news?” Theo asked.

“We won that court case – my lucky socks won the day,” he pulled up his trousers to reveal a mass of blue and white stripes.

Theo gave him the thumbs up.

Christos seemed to remember something, turned around and called to Barb. “I saw Olivia on the way here. She was having a laugh with your mate Mandy outside her beauty parlour – I didn’t know they were so pally.” He grinned.

Jack, who now had his arms around the woman as he stood behind her and operated the machine, winked over at him.

Bastards, Barb thought, but her craving was back with a vengeance. What was it the leaflet recommended? Set your quit day and make sure you tell your family and friends so they can support you. It conveniently failed to mention what to do about the Christoses of the world. Or the Sergeis.

Why had things gone so wrong?

She had meant that evening to be a celebration but Sergei never came.

Everything had been fine up till then. They’d even set the date for him to move in – the spare room would be his studio. Instead, Barb found herself leaving endless messages on his voicemail, trying desperately not to sound desperate. She’d never found out where he lived – he was in between places, he said – so she wandered around hoping to see him turn a corner, leave a front door, step out of a car, go into a shop or just hesitate somewhere for one brief moment long enough for her to re-enter his life.

Weeks later she came home to find a message from him saying that something had come up and to stop ringing – he’d get in touch with her. Famous last words.

 

Reward yourself

In the afternoon, when Theo had gone and Jack had generously offered to accompany the woman back to his place, Bernie came in.

Fat, squat Bernie who threw money into three or four machines and then ran around in a frenzy trying to work them all simultaneously. He got into such a sweat that his permed hair stuck to his forehead and the dark patches under his arms grew till they joined up on his back. When he came to the bar to get a drink his body odour was so pungent it made Barb shudder, but she developed the knack of leaning away to scan the room as they spoke. She got to know him better when his wife kicked him out. He told Barb he’d come home one day to find his things strewn all over the veranda and the front door fastened by a sparkling new lock. His wife had worked long hours at one of the local supermarkets and Bernie had promised to take her on a world tour – they would stay at all the best hotels. But she got tired of waiting and lending him money. After they separated, Bernie put in even longer hours at the machines, scrambling around, never far from total meltdown. It was healthier than drowning his sorrows, he claimed. At least it kept him fit. He reckoned he ran about five miles a day and that it was a great way of losing weight. He told Barb about a system he’d worked out that involved complicated sequences when pressing the buttons. It was guaranteed to turn him into a millionaire and win his wife back. As it happened, she’d met someone else and wanted a divorce.

“How’s it going?” he asked Barb.

“I keep thinking I see Sergei.”

“I used to come home at night and I’d think Liz was lying in bed,” Bernie paused, “it looked like her head was on the pillow.” For a while he was lost in thought. “You’re too hard on yourself, you should try playing, that always works.”

“I don’t know, Bernie.”

The leaflet recommended trying out new activities when you quit smoking – give yourself the feeling that you’re gaining a whole new life. Somehow she didn’t think that included gambling.

Bernie started his usual routine of throwing money into various machines. Christos went outside for a cigarette. Barb watched him leaning against the wall, smoke curling upwards, twisting and turning, developing a life of its own, beckoning and full of promise.

A group of men came in and headed straight for the gaming room. One of them started an argument with Bernie for hogging so many machines. Barb was too busy trying to overcome her craving to pay much attention. She breathed deeply. The craving didn’t go away. She went over her bad-effects list. Still no change. Then she tried to think of all the rewards that came with quitting:
– grumpy
– unhappy
– getting fatter
It was useless.

 

The new you

Late afternoon and who waltzed in? Barb felt a sudden silence descend around her and looked up. Bernie was staring at something near the door and Christos was grinning.

It took Barb a moment to realize what was happening. By that time, Olivia’s smile was hovering somewhere between the entrance and the bar, floating through the room completely disconnected from her person and making its way over to Barb. When it got there, it hung in mid-air and broadened.

“I had a wonderful facial at Mandy’s, she’s very good, and I was thinking – she could do with a bit of publicity so I offered to help with some brochures. Sergei’s doing the artwork.”

Barb’s mind scrambled to connect the smile to Olivia’s voice and face.

“I just wanted to let you know that we’re expecting a baby.”

Barb felt a rush of air and a door slamming shut with a soundless bang.

“I wasn’t sure if Sergei would tell you but I thought you’d like to share the good news with us,” and with that Olivia turned and walked out, still smiling.

From the kitchen came the sound of shattering glass.

Some more blokes came in wanting drinks and change for the machines. When things had calmed down, Barb was dying for a cigarette and this time she knew she’d crack. She’d kept it up by telling herself, just one more hour, just till lunchtime, till Theo leaves, till the next customer arrives, the next plate of food, the next beer, the next coin in a slot. Now there was nothing left to keep her from hitting rock bottom.

How could she have been so stupid?

All that talk of feeling hemmed in and wanting to leave Olivia to focus on painting. Barb had gladly offered to fill the void – she’d given him money for exhibition space, a vernissage, invitations and ads in all the right magazines. She’d refused to believe Bernie when he told her that Sergei had used her savings to pay off a money lender who’d lent him money to pay off gambling debts.

“Barb … Barb!” Mandy‘s voice interrupted her train of thought.

Barb looked up.

“Are you okay?” Mandy asked.

“I need a smoke.”

“Go get yourself that inhaler. I’ll hold the fort here.”

Barb hesitated.

“Go on,” Mandy insisted. “I’ll wait.”

The sun beat down as Barb waited for a gap in the traffic. Mandy was right. She shouldn’t be caving in now.

By the time she got to the other side of the road, Barb knew what to do. She’d have Mandy over for dinner, she’d apologize for how cranky she’d been lately and together they’d make a list of new things to do:
– dancing lessons
– cookery classes
– finding the right man
A whole new chapter. You’ll be gaining a new, healthier life, the leaflet said. That was it, Barb thought. They would make plans.

When she came out of the chemist’s with the inhaler, there was a tram at the top of the hill slowly making its way down. Barb crossed the road and hesitated, catching a few moments of sun before plunging back into the gloom and the fluorescent lights. She didn’t know what made her turn around. On the other side of the street people were going in and out of the shops: a woman with a pram losing her patience over a dawdling kid, a man in a business suit, and another man hurrying away. All Barb saw was the back of his head but she knew immediately who it was.

“Sergei!” she shouted.

Instead of turning around he walked away even faster. Or was that just her imagination? She hardly knew what she was doing. She bolted back across the road. A car screeched to a halt. The driver blew his horn furiously. Barb kept running. It wasn’t till she heard the loud clanging of the tram, saw it looming above her and the horrified face of the driver as it shuddered to a halt, that she realized what she was doing. She jumped out the way. More cars slammed on their brakes on the other side of the tram. Shaken, Barb made her way to the kerb. People were staring at her.

When she looked around, Sergei had gone.

 

 

 

BIO

Ninon SchubertNinon Schubert is from Melbourne, Australia, but currently spends most of her time in Germany and Ireland. She has been writing screenplays for films and TV for a number of years. In 2010/2011 she wrote and co-produced the feature Sleeping Dogs which screened at international festivals and received a number of awards and nominations. One of her short stories, An Hour to Kill, was shortlisted for the Writers’ Forum (UK) short story prize. Day Three is the Hardest is her first short story publication.

 

 

 

 

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We Don’t Sweep At Night

by Suzanne Ushie

 

When I first saw the slender girl in Dad’s Passat, I asked Mum if she was our new housegirl. But Mum said, “No. That’s your cousin, Agwukiwhun,” in a low and grave tone, as if I’d said something unforgivable. In truth, Agwukiwhun wasn’t my cousin. Our late grandfathers were best friends. They’d fought together with the Nigerian troops during the Second World War. If Mum was telling the story they were stationed in Kenya, and if it was Dad they were stationed in Burma, and if Mum corrected Dad, he said the story involved his father not hers so he was right.

I didn’t know what to make of Agwukiwhun. When we were introduced on the veranda she said, “How are you? I’m happy to meet you,” without mixing up her tenses. She looked me right in the eye. Her fair skin had an uneven tone, darker on her face than her body, suggesting frequent sunlight. She had a brittle jheri curl and wore an ill-fitting dress. After I put away the sack of corn her parents sent to thank us for taking her in, Dad told me to show her around. She said little in the kitchen while I explained that the fridge prevented food from going bad. In the living room, where I turned on the television with the remote control, she said they had a black and white TV back home. I felt silly, yet grudgingly impressed. Our red brick house, with its chintz sofas and high ceilings, didn’t seem to awe her. She didn’t stare at the King Louis XV-style desk in the hallway. She was nothing like the other village girls who had come from our hometown Bedia to live with us in Calabar.

In the past, those village girls, essentially housegirls, slept in the room beside the garage. Sometimes, just before Mum left for work at the Ministry of Agriculture, she carried out raids and found cubes of Maggi and packets of salt they’d stolen. Afterward she gave a long lecture, solemn-faced, that often ended with the housegirl weeping. Sometimes Mum wept too. “They steal because they have so little,” she often said. Her ideals were marred when our last housegirl drained half her Chanel No. 5 with a syringe. “Common thief! You’re leaving this house today,” she’d said as she smacked her. That was months before Agwukiwhun came and flung her frayed green wrapper over my closet door. I didn’t like sharing my territory with her. The wrapper weighed on my mind and one day, while she showered, I slipped it under her pillow.

When Agwukiwhun returned I watched her search the closet, fling open the drawers, fiddle with the paper garland draped over the dresser as if her wrapper could possibly be there. She picked up the notebook where I had doodled Udoka’s name. I quickly said in Bette, “It’s under your pillow,” not wanting her to know I had a crush.

“You should have told me to keep it somewhere else if it was disturbing you,” she replied in English.

I wanted to slap her. What stopped me was the fear that she would slap me back and my brain would turn to mousse. Something about her toned arms convinced me. Besides, she was sixteen, two years older than me, though it was hard to tell since I was taller than her. None of this mattered to Mum. She didn’t want me to be a spoiled only child so I cleaned and cooked with Agwukiwhun. On humid afternoons I chopped fresh green ugu, lumpy carrot sticks, dry fingers of okro for ushaw soup.

“Those slices are too big,” Mum would say to me.

Agwukiwhun knew exactly how to curve the knife, to cut the okro into jagged pieces. I tried to mimic her motions but mine lacked the effortlessness of hers. By the afternoon she wrote the poem, my slices were almost perfect. I had just stepped back into the kitchen after lunch when I heard Mum sobbing. She stood by the granite-topped counter, a sheet of lined paper in her hands, Agwukiwhun’s body pressed against hers in a haphazard embrace. The poem itself was rather banal: stanza after stanza of praise for my parents, a sun and a star in every other sentence, Thank you spelled as Thenk you. I hoped—prayed—it didn’t mean Agwukiwhun would attend Canaan Model School with me. It would have been a travesty for my parents’ charity to stretch that far.

“Oh my God! She has so much potential,” Mum said to Dad, breathless with discovery, when he returned from a conference in Benin. He told her everyone had an innate potential so that word itself, potential, was meaningless. Sometimes when Dad shared one of his numerous self-made theories, I was certain he would have been better off being a philosopher instead of an engineer. To my relief, he wasn’t moved by Agwukiwhun’s affection-winning tactics. Still, he enrolled her in Holy Child, the all-girls secondary school on Marian Hill, altering the order of her destiny. She was spared from the commercial academy with its broken louvres and bumpy floors.

All Holy Child students wore their hair short and natural. As Mum chopped off Agwukiwhun’s jheri curls, I subdued the urge to shred the dark tufts and fling them far away.

* * *

I was sitting in the backyard when Mum called me from her bedroom. I pretended not to hear. I knew she wanted me to clasp her bracelet, or do up her zip—another mundane task to help prepare her for the usual evening outing with Dad. I glared at Agwukiwhun when she leaned out of the kitchen to say Mum was calling me. Surely Agwukiwhun knew I had ears.

Mum looked chic in a floral print dress. I fastened her necklace and she did a mock twirl in the middle of the room, smelling of Shalimar, coaxing Dad to change out of his tweed blazer into something more cheery. I had dinner after they left. A tumbler slid out of my hand while I did the dishes, the foam-covered splinters splashing across the terrazzo floor.

Agwukiwhun walked in as I picked up a broom. “Our people don’t sweep at night,” she said, her voice laughingly ominous. “It’s against our culture.”

I rolled my eyes and began to sweep. She pried the broom from my hands, tossed the splinters into the bin. I disliked the way she was looking at me. Mum had given me the same unflinching look during our last trip to Bedia. “Don’t embrace anyone apart from your grandmother,” she’d said with no further explanation. The holiday morphed into one of avoiding strangers and sidestepping relatives. When an effusive aunt succeeded in embracing me, I tottered on the cusp of despair. I went into the bedroom, took off my clothes, and examined my whole body. Because I didn’t find anything strange, I didn’t tell Mum. But this was different. I had knowingly defied a warning, probably brought on some cultural curse.

The next day, I waited until Agwukiwhun had left for the market before going in

search of Mum, plotting the best way to share my unease without sounding crazy. Mum was reading Homes and Gardens in the living room. When she saw me in the doorway, she straightened herself and removed her feet from the leather ottoman. “Aha! I was just going to call you. Please get me a Fanta from the fridge.”

I placed the frosted bottle on the side stool and left. I should have known she was the wrong person to talk to anyway, especially when she was planning to plant another vicious shrub on the lawn.

I found Dad unscrewing a lamp holder on the porch. I asked him if it was true that we don’t sweep at night.

“What do you mean by we? Our family?”

“Not just our family. All Obudu people.”

“I see. And where did you hear this?” He didn’t wait for my response, for which I was thankful. “Well, some of our people believe that when you sweep at night, you sweep away your family’s wealth. Absurd, of course.”

“What if it isn’t?”

He turned to me, his serious face in place. I knew he was about to say something interesting and mystifying. He removed his glasses and smeared a lens with his fingers. He told me to wear them and I did. He asked me to tell him what I saw. I could barely see anything. It was like looking out of a window on an early harmattan morning. I told him I could see the bougainvillea on the fence through the lens he hadn’t touched, and through the other, a cluster of blurry shapes.

“We can either decide to view the world clearly or decide to complicate it for ourselves,” Dad said. “People usually choose one over the other because that’s all they’ve been taught to do.”

Did he mean Agwukiwhun was right? Wrong? That I shouldn’t be frightened? I didn’t get it. I was just pleased he thought me high-thinking enough for one of his little nuggets of intellectualism. I memorized those words and waited for an opportunity to show them off.

Days later, Mum and I were watching Quiz Time. The presenter was wearing a tight white shirt and bright red shorts. Mum said he resembled a capsule in that outfit and what was he thinking when he got dressed? I repeated Dad’s words. Mum laughed and laughed, and when her mirth quietened to soft pants, she said I must have been spending too much time with Dad.

* * *

At the end of the term, Agwukiwhun’s report card arrived, cluttered with As and Bs. Mum stopped hovering around the kitchen. Her conviction that Agwukiwhun was different, that she wouldn’t mix pepper into chin-chin dough or pour salad cream into groundnut soup was sealed.

The first time we took Agwukiwhun to Akpe, the monthly get-together of Obudu people, Mum showed her off to the other women in identical bouffant blouses.

“This is our new girl,” she began, beaming.

As always, one of the women commented on how big my breasts were while Mum smiled a small, victorious smile, as though she were responsible for their growth.

Agwukiwhun and I sat under the awning with the other children. A group of them were playing musical chairs to a Remedies song on the stereo. Someone asked me to join in and I mumbled something about being tired. I had outgrown the phase where I could dance around white plastic chairs without looking dim-witted.

A surly-looking girl laughed. “Don’t mind her. She has no brother or sister yet she feels she’s bigger than all of us.”

In spite of the music and the laughter, the mood turned grim. I should have told her she had mosquito legs but I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Agwukiwhun got up and pulled the girl’s ears in a swift, experienced motion.

“You better say sorry now or I’ll deal with you.”

“Sorry oh. I’m very sorry,” the girl said, sounding as stunned as I was. I had never really had anyone fight for me, with me, and it brought on a new lightness.

Agwukiwhun and I were silent on the drive home. Even Dad noticed. He glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if we were still in the car. I thanked Agwukiwhun later, not only because I felt that by defending me she created a bond, but also because I owed it to her. She shrugged and said, “That girl is stupid,” and continued unpegging her clothes from the worn twine by the water tank.

We didn’t speak until the next week when Dad and Mum travelled to Eket for a wedding. I sat before the mirror and redid my plaits. Agwukiwhun said I wasn’t doing it properly. She collected the comb, parted my hair, and made a neat cornrow.

“Hey!” I pulled the unbraided section of my hair together. “Doesn’t it look like a big bunny bum?”

Agwukiwhun said nothing. I realized then that she couldn’t possibly know what a bunny bum was. When we watched Friends that evening, it became clear that she waited for me to laugh before laughing.

I told her about Udoka. My exact words were this: I think a boy in my class likes me. He sat two rows away from me, good looking in a non-threatening way. The kind of boy who could be your best friend or your boyfriend. Every so often I pictured his long arms wrapped around me—of course I never told Agwukiwhun this silly part. She gave me her forthright look. “How do you know he likes you when he has never spoken to you?” she asked, chuckling in a way that made me long to prove her wrong.

She was right, though, about one thing: menstrual periods were a nuisance. She would rush out of the bathroom, a forgotten blob of foam at the back of her neck, water from her body dripping onto the Berber carpet, just in time to wear a sanitary pad. I wondered how it felt to do that.

“Show me your pad,” I said after watching for the fortieth time.

Agwukiwhun stopped. “What?”

“Show me. I want to see what colour the blood is.”

“Your head is not correct. You better enjoy yourself now.”

I had no idea what she meant. Until the day I felt my intestines constrict. In the toilet I found a map of blood, the weak red of ground tomatoes, spreading across my panties. Mum embraced me as if I had come first in my class and said I should behave myself since I was now a woman. My stomach hurt so much I could hardly focus.

“I told you to enjoy yourself,” Agwukiwhun said when I moaned about the pain.

* * *

Late one night, in the deep yellow flicker of a candle flame, Agwukiwhun taught me the Lord’s Prayer in Bette. Soon I was singing the mournful, stirring lyrics along with her.

Mum peered into our room, a hard white mask applied to her face. “Your Bette

is improving,” she said admiringly to me. But by the third straight night, her tone grew blunted by irritation. “If I hear a single sound from this room again I’ll knock common sense into both of you.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t laugh along with me after Mum left. I thought it a bit too respectful.

“Come on, laugh,” I teased. “Mum doesn’t really mean it.”

“I don’t feel like making noise,” Agwukiwhun said.

“Weren’t you singing just now?”

It was then that she told me about the woman she had lived with in Port Harcourt. She kept her voice low at first, gaining momentum as she went along, stumbling over English words when it would have been easier to tell the story in Bette.

Her parents were reluctant to let her go. But the woman was her mother’s second cousin, recently widowed, and needed help with her three-year-old twin sons. The woman told Agwukiwhun to call her Mummy. And Agwukiwhun did, even with the contrivance in the woman’s easy acceptance, in the unassuming way the woman sent her to the community school and gave her torn novels to read. The twins ate only if Agwukiwhun fed them, sulked if she scolded them. The woman regarded their closeness with an exaggerated fondness. “Go and share this with your big sister,” she told the twins whenever she brought home oily packets of boli and fried fish.

On the day the younger twin called Agwukiwhun Mummy, the woman was disturbingly silent. When it happened again, she said she would show Agwukiwhun who the real Mummy was. She emptied a pot of beans, filled it with water, and ordered Agwukiwhun to drink up. After Agwukiwhun retched, the woman regarded the mess and said, “Now see what you’ve done.” I could just hear it. Her tone would have been pained.

“Did you go back home?” I asked.

“No. I stayed with her,” Agwukiwhun said. “I kept on calling her Mummy even after she started beating me. Then I went home for Christmas. I was annoyed when my parents started touching the Hollandis wrappers she sent to them. They said God will bless her. I didn’t go back to Port Harcourt. How can I live with somebody who disgraces my parents like that?”

“How about the twins? Do you miss them?”

“Small.”

I mulled over her story long after. It seemed to me that something in my head had dislodged and no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t fix it back in place.

The next time I saw one of her poems on the dresser, I read the melodramatic lines about the sun and the stars without laughing once, and then put it away.

 * * *

At first, when Udoka dropped a note in my locker, I didn’t tell Agwukiwhun. It never occurred to me that the universe could do as I bid. On languid afternoons, after all, I had lain behind the sofa and played FLAME with his name and mine. Despite all my scheming it had always ended on the E: Enemies. So when I read the slanted writing that declared his affection, I tried to ignore the pause in my breath. But he caught up with me right after assembly.

“Did you get my note?”

I said yes, suddenly shy, aware of alien sensations taking anchor inside me. He gave me a jumbo pack of Mars bars the next day. A trinket box that purred as it slid open the following day. I returned them all. I just want to get to know you better, he wrote in another note. I smirked at his unoriginality, and then he stopped sending me gifts, leaving me strangely flattened by loss.

I showed Agwukiwhun the notes at home. She said I should be glad he had given up. “Boys will say anything just to touch that thing between our legs,” she added.

I evaded her eyes.

“So you like him.”

I didn’t deny it.

“Well, you can kiss him if you like. But if he touches your lap…” She switched to Bette for effect. “You’re finished!”

“How do you know?” I asked. “Has anyone touched your own lap?”

“Yes, of course.”

Was that a way of saying she had had sex? I couldn’t believe how casual she sounded. Anyway, who knew what else people did in those murky village streams apart from bathing and urinating and fetching water? I wished for some of her clear-eyed confidence. I wished I could say ‘yes’ but not ‘of course’ if Udoka asked me out. But a week went by. An uneventful week of nursing a tension headache that intensified each time I saw him.

“Stop thinking about your chewing gum boyfriend,” Agwukiwhun would say whenever I didn’t answer a question immediately.

Boyfriend. In it I heard the sound of a beginning. In it I saw a sign that me and Udoka were united. And when Dad said “some stammering chap named Udoka” had phoned while I was at the salon, I found out I could still walk and talk when I wasn’t breathing normally. I hadn’t given Udoka my number; he must have looked it up in the phone book or got it from someone. The implications of this thrilled me: he would not have bothered if he didn’t care. As I made to leave, Dad gestured at the diary in the alcove. Udoka had left a message. I nearly laughed. Dad had written the name of the caller and the time of the call and the purpose of the call: to seek clarification on a class assignment. At least it had been Dad who answered the phone, not Mum. She had begun to stare at my breasts, a tentative smile in place of the victorious smile, perhaps in fear they would grow bigger with her approval.

I practised what I would say to Udoka. I would tell him I knew he really hadn’t called because of an assignment. I would reach out and caress the soft fuzz above his lip while the tiny space between us crackled with our own kind of magic. Only when we were finally alone, in an empty classroom after a physics lesson, all I said was a limp, “I heard you called.”

He stood by the desk next to mine, his pale blue school uniform crease-free, his voice a little too shaky. “Yes,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”

He gazed at the floor. I glanced away for a minute or two. Then I felt, on my cheek and neck, the sudden heat of his mint-edged breath. I turned. He was moving closer with his eyes half-closed. My nerves lurched. My courage dissolved. Not once did I look back as I fled. I smoothed my hair in the girls’ bathroom, leaned against the sink to steady my heartbeat. An odd tightness filled my chest.

I wouldn’t have told Agwukiwhun if she hadn’t brought up his name on Saturday afternoon. We were playing Ludo in our bedroom. I threw the dice, another wasted attempt, and Agwukiwhun said some people couldn’t focus because of their chewing gum boyfriends. I told her to leave me alone. It must have stunned her, the acrimony with which I spoke, because she said I should have known that she was just joking. She asked me if I had quarrelled with Udoka. I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I left out the girls’ bathroom bit.

“It’s just like a film,” she said, pronouncing ‘film’ as ‘feem’.

“You’re not serious.”

“It’s good that you didn’t kiss him. All that saliva.” She grimaced. “Don’t worry, you hear? Your chewing gum boyfriend will talk to you on Monday.”

“I don’t care.”

“Liar.”

“Is kissing that bad?”

She said, “I don’t know oh,” in a sing-songish tone, and I wondered if indeed she had kissed anyone before.

“You’re the liar,” I said. “You know.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t reply.

“Show me how to do it. Or is it against our culture too?”

“You’re talking nonsense again.”

“Dare me,” I said, illogically bold.

“Shut up.”

I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers. She moved sideways, giggling, toppling everything from the Ludo board to the multi-coloured tokens. I’m not sure who shifted closer first. What I’m sure of is that I gulped when we felt the slippery warmth of each other’s mouths, because her saliva tasted very much like mine. I glanced at the doorway—nothing else to look at, after all—and there was Mum, her mouth opening and closing with no sound. This went on for another moment or two. And then she walked towards Agwukiwhun, who had already crouched, a hand raised above her head. A hard slap, a harder knock. A punch. A kick. At some point Agwukiwhun pulled Mum’s sleeve, enraging her more.

I got up and stood between them. “Mum, please stop.”

Mum narrowed her eyes as she struck me. My head grew so hot, so heavy the sounds that had finally begun to come out of her mouth were indistinguishable. Foolish g…Thwack. Idio…Thwack Thwack.

“Aunty, please forgive,” Agwukiwhun said. Mum paused. I ran into Dad’s study and locked the door. I didn’t come out until Dad returned from work. He examined the welts, pinkish-brown like earthworms, streaked across my arm.

“Good grief. They were just curious,” he said to Mum. “It’s normal for girls their age.”

“Normal?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh. Is that what they call sin these days?”

Dad sighed in a way that said, “Let it go.”

Again, Mum lifted an eyebrow.

“It’s my fault, Mum,” I said. “I kissed her first.”

Mum winced at the mention of ‘kiss’.

I nudged Agwukiwhun who had been silent and sullen throughout. “Tell her.” I could hear the desperation salting my voice.

Agwukiwhun looked away, sublime in defiance.

The palpable presence of an ending settled in the room. Mum threw Agwukiwhun’s clothes into a blue Ghana Must Go bag. Dad stood by and went on and on about the importance of mercy. Not that it worked. The next morning, Agwukiwhun left for the motor park, waving off my feeble sorrys. They were trite, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else suitable for the situation. The moment was too surreal for a proper goodbye. When I said I would visit, her smile was hesitant, somewhat mocking, as though she knew, even then, that we would never see each other again.

 

 

 

BIO

Suzanne UshieSuzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Open Wide Magazine, Conte Online and Gambit: Newer African Writing. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, England where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

 

 

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Jacqueline berkman author

The Amino Algorithm

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

Drop Cap The cameraman counted down from 5, the lights went up, but it was only after the host crooned “You’re watching Dr. Morgan” and the Caribbean music was cued that Jordan Bickwell’s lower back really began to sweat.

He had not felt like this on the ride over. On the contrary, his confidence had inflated like a balloon with each skyscraper that blurred past, and by the time he arrived curbside in front of the studio he was bloated in his assurance that he had figured this whole mess out. He was nothing but show tunes and smiles in line for his VIP badge, and after receiving the message that Josephine was in hair and makeup, he strode over to the green room with adrenaline-fueled purpose and a head full of vague sports metaphors: he was the coach and she was his star athlete, stakes were high but they had prepared extensively, and all there was left to do before the show went live was to have one final “go get ‘em” talk and a recap of everything they had worked so hard to prepare.

But as soon as one of the distressed hairstylists let him in he could see that Josephine, hopped up on caffeine and gesturing excessively at no one in particular, was in no mood to rehearse. In fact, she didn’t seem in the right mind to be out in public, let alone on live television. And so he left the green room and made way his way to his assigned seat third row from the front with the sinking feeling that the only thing gained from the impromptu meeting was a behind the scenes look at his author at her truest and basest self: hysterical and doused in layers of hairspray.

It was for a few anxious moments that he sat like this until that damn Caribbean music was cued and Dr. Morgan, hands behind his back, leisurely made his way across the stage amongst the uproar of applause. Once he arrived at a spot deemed suitable, he stopped and stared into the camera, in a way that could only be described as soulfully. “Hello, everyone,” he said, the wave of his voice rising up against the cacophonous amount of applause. His timing down to an art, he waited until it died down to resume speaking again. “Hello, and thank you for joining us today. In today’s episode, we are exploring an industry that we encounter regularly; yet neglect to truly reflect on. The self-help industry: how helpful is it? The launching point for this discussion will be the newly released self-help title The Amino Algorithm by nutritionist Josephine Williams, which makes the controversial argument that much of the obesity and weight issues in this country are the result of cravings which can be curbed by amino acid supplements.”

Jordan took a deep breath, the buzz of an incoming text jolting him. The message said, only, “Let’s hope Dr. Morgan doesn’t mispronounce the names of any of the supplements.” Gritting his teeth, Jordan put his phone back in his pocket. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, he now carried the additional burden of knowing full well that among the thousands of viewers tuning in to catch the full story behind The Amino Algorithm, a book he had once been proud to call himself the editor of, his father, Dr. Richard Bickwell, was among them. The main difference was that unlike the rest of the viewership, who in Jordan’s mind remained faceless entities solely representing TV ratings, his father was a visceral presence, without a doubt reclining on his leather couch in his monogrammed pajamas, invigorated by spite and reveling in the chaos that was about to unfurl. And also unlike the rest of the viewers, Jordan had to take the train up to the suburbs directly following the show and face his father at his 75th birthday party.

“As many of you have likely already heard” Dr. Morgan said, cutting into Jordan’s reverie, “The Amino Algorithm was brought to national attention by Stuart Jimenez from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose qualms with the medical advice herein has gone viral. With a twitter page that surpasses 100,000 followers and a blog drawing nearly 300,000 unique visitors just this past month, Stuart has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Jordan shifted in his seat. The rehashing of the statistics and the mention of Stuart’s name prompted another wave of panic. He took a deep breath and tried to reassure himself, once again, that he and Josephine were more than prepared for this. But the self-soothing that had been so effective during the cab ride no longer worked under the harsh glare of the studio lights, because the fact of the matter, no matter which way you sliced it, was that Stuart Jimenez was a profoundly unsettling creature. A self-employed electrician by day and a savvy social media strategist by night, Stuart’s qualms with The Amino Algorithm had originated with a negative Amazon review less than two months before and, in the handful of weeks that followed, catapulted into a full on anti-self help social media campaign, throttling Jordan’s life in a way he had been wholly unprepared for.

“Without further adieu,” Dr. Morgan said, “Let’s bring Stuart on stage to tell his side of the story. “Stuart?”

The applause rose again, and in Jordan’s flustered state it took him longer than it normally would to register the physical presence of Stuart himself. Immortalized through his fiery tweets and blog posts, Stuart in person was, quite simply, a disappointment to the imagination. 5’6 was a protruding stomach, receding hairline and wire-framed glasses, Stuart did not look like the media titan that he was, and when he waved at the crowd with a gentle flip of the hand Jordan tried to reassure himself, momentarily, that the man’s physical mediocrity surely diminished his online potency. It had to. People were visual, if nothing else.

“Welcome, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said, gesturing to an empty chair on his left. “Have a seat.”

Stuart settled into his plush leather seat and waved once again at the crowd, a wide grin plastered across his face.

“So,” Dr. Morgan said, settling into his standard repose, leg crossed at the knee and right hand scratching his clean-shaven chin. “How’s it going?”

“Doin’ alright,” Stuart said, his voice booming with a self-righteous gravitas. And Jordan was struck once again by the randomness of it all, thinking of all of the books he had worked on that had seemed far more viable candidates for the Dr. Morgan show than this. Well, really one in particular. Sensible Slimdowns.

Sensible Slimdowns had gone on sale only eight months before, and had gnawed at Jordan in a way that, given all of the current drama rocking his world, could only be seen as a kind of foreshadowing. A cookbook written by former supermodel turned new age foodie Moonflower Jardine, Sensible Slimdowns had received a noted amount of flak from a Galaxy Post columnist who made the claim that having a supermodel pen a cookbook “only continued to perpetuate the female psyche’s troubled relationship to food.” The comment, pretentiously academic and lacking in sources, had ignited a debate in quite a few feminist blogs, and the whole experience had thoroughly gotten under Jordan’s skin, as it was the first time he had dealt with the wildfire of the internet and its potential to burn him.

Though perhaps what stung even more was the subsequently spectacular argument he had with his father about it. The two, out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in Soho, were always contentious on topics of work anyway, as his father repeatedly insinuated that he didn’t approve of the “new age hogwash” Jordan brought into the world, and Jordan, though he never said it aloud, constantly found his father, with his clinical asides and constant gripes about insurance companies infringing on his personal space, to be out of touch and condescending. Why they ever even got together in the first place was unclear except to say that, in those gaps between conflicts there could sometimes be a shared joke, a common reminiscence, something resembling closeness between them. But it managed to get obscured and tossed aside easily, as there were so many catalysts that could spark discord again. And Sensible Slimdowns was certainly a catalyst.

Jordan recalled their dispute clearly: after describing what the Galaxy Post columnist wrote and the negative coverage picked up by the feminist blogs, his father guffawed between sips of sake and said “This is what you spend your time thinking about? For Christ’s sake, there are actual problems out there,” before going on to say that he sided with the writer, supermodels had no business writing cookbooks, and what was his son doing publishing this crap anyway. “Is this the value of a Yale English degree?” he finally said, and the comment, though not entirely surprising, threw Jordan off balance, and in a reactive outburst of spite he threw a wad of cash on the table and left without saying goodbye. He hadn’t spoken to his father for at least a month after that, waiting for his anger to diffuse in much the same way he waited for the snarky comments surrounding Sensible Slimdowns to dissipate.

It had been a trying time, and who could have possibly known that it wouldn’t even compare to the tidal wave of problems that would plague him when he moved forward with the The Amino Algorithm?

Back up on stage, Dr. Morgan got down to business. “Stuart, let’s begin by mentioning your latest YouTube video, ‘Amino Acid Supplements and Other Dieting Failures,’ which has reached nearly one million views. Can you tell the American public, some of whom haven’t been following the saga, about your rising status as thought leader?”

“Sure,” Stuart said, clearing his throat as he segued into his presentation. “Look, let me just begin by saying that I’m not perfect,” he said, with the confidence of someone who had recently graduated from a media coaching program. “I like Jack in the Box, and some nights I can get through three beers easy. Which was all good and fine until my wife started complaining about my gut, telling me I needed to get in shape. So I started jogging and dieting but it wasn’t really doing much, if you want to know the truth, and it’s hard to keep that up if you’re not even noticing any results to begin with. So anyway, that’s kind of how things were going until a couple months ago, when I heard Josephine Williams being interviewed on the radio about The Amino Algorithm. When she described how people would benefit from her program, and how all of the supplements she advocated for were totally natural, something clicked in my head, like, wait, maybe this could actually help me.” Stuart paused for a beat and took a breath, looking earnestly into the camera, before continuing. “So I went out and bought the book and started talking one of the recommended supplements and within just a couple days I start feeling sick.”

Jordan’s phone beeped again with an incoming text. His father. Well, what was the poor guy expecting, to get better? Jordan sighed.

Following their month long separation after the Sensible Slimdowns blow up, tensions between Jordan and his father subsided as his father’s critical focus turned away from Jordan’s line of work and more towards bemoaning the state of healthcare as a whole. As the majority of his colleagues switched from private practice to take jobs in hospitals, he spent many a dinner conversation ranting about how, as the insurance companies came crawling in like so many soul sucking tax collectors, all of the autonomy of private practice was growing obsolete, how thank God he’d get to retire before he’d have to call himself anyone’s employee. And while it had been a welcome relief to no longer occupy his father’s number one grudge with all that was wrong in the medical world, the chasm between the two of them had noticeably widened again in the last couple of weeks leading up to the Dr. Morgan taping, his father’s clipped asides about his son’s foolishness aligning himself with a half-brained pseudo doctor appearing by the dozen in passive aggressive text messages and emails. Jordan could only wonder what the live show would provoke in his father, and how he would likely be the brunt of it as soon as he came over for the birthday party.

Back on stage, Dr. Morgan’s eyebrows arched in response to the not-new news that Stuart had become sick as a result of taking these supplements. “Stuart,” he said, “tell the audience what some of your symptoms were after you started feeling sick.”

“I just felt like garbage,” Stuart said. “I was getting dizzy spells, feeling super lightheaded. And I got painful cold sores on both sides of my mouth.”

“That sounds terrible,” Dr. Morgan said.

“It was terrible,” Stuart said. “Once I finally was able to get in to see a doctor, which, let me tell you, was no easy feat, he told me that I had had a herpes outbreak induced by the amino acid supplements.” The audience gasped. Stuart, undoubtedly versed in the importance of timing, gave it a few beats before he pressed on. “Apparently, the supplements so heartily endorsed in The Amino Algorithm can speed up or worsen viral outbreaks.”

“And there was no mention of that in the book?” Dr. Morgan said, glossing over the potentially awkward backstory of Stuart’s longstanding struggle with herpes.

“No,” Stuart said. “I mean, there was a general medical disclaimer, but nothing about these side effects.”

Dr. Morgan nodded vigorously. “So,” he said, “Would you say that’s when you started reaching out to express your opinions via social media channels?”

“Yes,” Stuart said. “I mean, I was mad that Ms. Williams could leave out so many important details, that the entire marketing team promoting the book could leave out so many important details. As a customer looking to lose weight and without much knowledge into the world of diet supplements, I felt that I had been manipulated, and that using social media was the only way I could really get my two cents in.”

With that, the audience burst into a hearty applause. Jordan craned his neck on both sides in an attempt to identify the source, but it was futile, because it came from everywhere and all at once.

“You present a compelling case, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said. “But in order to gain a well-rounded perspective on the issue let’s bring Josephine Williams, author of The Amino Algorithm, up on the stage. Josephine?”

The transitory Caribbean elevator music was cued up once more and Josephine walked onstage, her frizzy hair coiffed with hairspray and her body turned away from the cameras as if they were unwanted paparazzi. There was a much lighter level of applause upon Josephine’s entrance, and, to Jordan’s mortification, several boos. Jordan thought back to all of their conversations, to her nervous state in the green room, and he held his breath and desperately hoped that she would not crack.

“Welcome, Josephine, and thank you for joining us,” Dr. Morgan said.

“Thank you for having me,” Josephine said as she took the seat on Dr. Morgan’s right side, her teeth clenched into a small, hard smile.

“Now, Josephine, I’m assuming you’ve been hearing the discussion that has been raised out here, in which Mr. Jimenez recapped his unfortunate side effects after consuming amino acid supplements endorsed in your book, as well as his frustration about the larger implications of the book itself. Do you have anything to say in response to all of this?”

Although she looked composed enough, Jordan saw Josephine intake a massive gulp of air and could practically feel her knuckles turn white as she gripped onto the arms of her chair. Seeing her like this, every effort to remain placid despite signs of bursting like a rattling tea kettle, made Jordan think back longingly to the year before, when the book had only been a question mark of a proposal, still ephemeral enough to dismiss. Why had he insisted on it? Why had he proclaimed to the editorial team that Josephine Williams was a genius, that The Amino Algorithm was the next big diet revolution? Why did anyone actually listen to him?

“To answer your question, Dr. Morgan, I have a lot to say in response to Stuart’s qualms,” Josephine said, her back ramrod straight as she rotated between looking at Dr. Morgan and the camera. “First, I want to thank Stuart here for purchasing my book, and I apologize sincerely for any unfortunate side effects that he experienced. But I can assure you that all of the claims made in my book have been extensively researched, fact checked, and meticulously edited, thanks in large part to my editor sitting right over there, Jordan Bickwell.”

Jordan had not expected that. The spotlight beamed down on him, aggravating his back sweat once again as he silently fumed at the thought that his face was now on thousands of television screens all over the country, not the least of which his father’s. In that moment, Josephine was not his hapless author but Lady Macbeth, a dreadful, conniving bitch determined to sink him down to tragic Shakespearian depths along with her. As soon as the lights swung away from him back onto the main stage, he drooped into his chair, bitterly recalling the half brained epiphany he had way back in high school when he decided he wanted to be a book editor in the first place.

He had been fourteen, on summer break before tenth grade, sitting in the beige waiting room of his father’s medical office, of all places. He had begun going there during the long, blank stretches of his summer days because he enjoyed the lunch breaks when his dad took him out for cheesesteaks or gnocchi and the car rides home when they listened to Presidential biographies on books on tape, those rare windows of time when his father didn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. And it had initially given him a flush of admiration to sit in that waiting room and observe the people sitting around him, reading outdated copies of Golfers Digest and biting their nails, all united in their quest for his father’s advice. But like the gentle shift of a changing season, his admiration began to give way as he noticed that many of the patients seemed as agitated leaving their appointments as they had walking in, their hands clutching prescription requests and their eyes on the carpet, as if tracking the pattern for the answer to an unresolved question. This was only confirmed one afternoon returning from the bathroom when he overheard a woman on the phone in the hallway saying, “Dr. Bickwell just gave me another round of antibiotics,” before chuckling and adding “well, let’s hope he knows what he’s doing this time.”

The comment, though undeniably tinged with annoyance, seemed innocuous enough, and yet when Jordan returned to the office he felt that things had somehow changed. That the waiting room, once a beacon for legitimacy and answers, had transformed into just another place where people bided their time and accumulated more questions. Any thoughts he had entertained of pursuing medicine began to dismantle as he unconsciously drifted towards a professional path that was low risk, and concrete, with results he could instantly and indisputably see. Which was right around the time that he discovered medical pamphlets.

Up on stage, Josephine, eyes still squinting against the harshness of the studio lights, cleared her throat. “Anyway, before I fully delve into Stuart Jimenez’s concerns, I want to emphasize a point which I believe to be very important,” she said. “I want to reiterate the importance of medical disclaimers.”

Dr. Morgan nodded tentatively. “Medical disclaimers,” he said.

“Yes, medical disclaimers,” Josephine said. “Every book that promotes any kind of medical advice has to have one. If you look at the copyright page in my book, you’ll find it. It reads as follows: ‘this book contains advice and information relating to health care. It is not intended to replace medical advice and should be used supplement rather than replace regular care by your healthcare provider. It is recommended that you seek your healthcare provider’s advice before embarking on any medical program or treatment.’” Josephine looked up at the camera, her face rosy with a defiant flush. “What I’m trying to say is this: my book is based on extensive research, but whenever you propose some kind of medical solution, someone will inevitably have an adverse reaction, and I can’t assume responsibility for every individual experience. I never intended for my book to replace the advice of a medical professional.”

Jordan took a deep breath. This comment was the hook, the baseline for the rest of the rhetoric that he and Josephine had worked to cultivate. They had prepared for this, and all they could do now was see how, on live television, people would react to the stream of logic that followed next.

Though his attention was divided, because even though he knew this moment was crucial, he found himself preoccupied by his memory of first discovering medical pamphlets. He had been sitting in his father’s medical office on another afternoon when he saw them, squashed in between outdated copies of The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping. They were gray and drab with a bold Helvetica typeface on the front that read: “5 Smart Ways to Avoid the Flu During the Winter Season.” Inside, the pamphlets contained practical if not slightly rudimentary tips, such as “Wash Your Hands” and “Get Enough Sleep,” and, after reading them, Jordan felt his stomach churn with acidity and his hands begin to tremble. What bothered him, what irked his fourteen year old heart, inflamed by the possibilities of honors English and George Orwell, was his profound belief that the pamphlets’ idiotic title and depressing presentation was preventing anyone from picking them up and reading them. Back then, nothing could have possibly seemed more preventable.

Suddenly invigorated, he left his father’s waiting room and ran to the drugstore across the street and bought a composition notebook, returning to the medical building once again only to jot down ideas for alternative titles, including ”5 Essential Flu-Fighting Tips for the Winter Season,” “The New and Improved Flu-Fighters Guide,” and “10 Surefire Flu-Fighting Immune Boosters.” He started carrying the notebook around everywhere as if it were an appendage to his arm, jotting down ideas whenever inspiration struck him. He began to cultivate the stance that words were powerful, something he would continue to hold onto as a staff writer for his high school newspaper, while pursuing his English degree at Yale, and throughout his fifteen year career thus far as an executive editor at Birch Tree Publishers. It was a career that, despite the disapproval of his parents, had proved quiet and largely comforting, the conflicts largely contained to the insular world of editorial board rooms, books churning through a predictable nine month cycle only to be released from the womb of their imprint to the increasingly indifferent outside world. It didn’t call for much self-reflection, and Jordan liked it that way.

But all of that changed, of course, when Stuart Jimenez came along.

Under the harsh glare of the studio lights, Dr. Morgan was intent on keeping the conversation on track. “Stuart, I’m curious as to what you think about Josephine’s point regarding medical disclaimers,” he said, turning his head to a precise 90-degree angle to face his guest on the left.

Stuart shrugged. “Honestly, I think it’s crap. Pardon my French,” he said, above the dim laughter of some of the audience members. “I mean, it just seems like something you say on the spot when you’re in a bind.” He furtively looked over at Josephine before continuing. “All I know is, when I was sitting in my car that morning, listening to the promotional interview about the book, the supplements were really positioned as an ‘all natural’ solution for weight management that you could handle on your own. That was the whole appeal for me, that I could manage this on my own without the hassle of seeing a doctor. But, as you know, I did have to go see a doctor. And it was a huge hassle. So that pissed me off.”

This sparked a hooting applause from the crowd. One person yelled ‘hell yeah’ and another yelled ‘I feel your pain, Stuart!” Jordan turned next to him and saw a woman cram a bonbon into her mouth, her face contorting with brain freeze as she licked the remaining pieces of chocolate off her fingers.

Dr. Morgan raised his hand to quiet the thundering applause on the set, and Josephine, straightening her Ann Taylor blazer, cleared her throat once the riotous applause died down. “Look,” Josephine said, her voice muffled by lingering applause, “Look,” she finally said again, her voice firmer. “I’m not a therapist, but after listening to Stuart’s complaints and hearing the vehement response from the crowd, I can’t help but wonder if the real source of everyone’s frustration is not the advice in my book but the state of healthcare in this country.”

With that, as Jordan had predicted, there was a perceptible shift in the air. He leaned forward in his seat, wondering how the crowd would react, how his father, sitting at home, would react. He looked at his phone as if it was a guiding compass, but there were no messages. He dropped it in his pocket, cradled his hands in his chin, and looked intently at Josephine.

Dr. Morgan cocked his head, surveying Josephine as if she were a very engaging pet. “That’s a very interesting claim you make, Josephine,” he said. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“Certainty,” Josephine said, adjusting in her seat so as to get comfortable before her epic diatribe. “When I read Stuart’s original Amazon review covering his grievances with my book, I couldn’t help but notice how it took a couple weeks for him to be seen by a doctor after his symptoms began. And after following him closely on his blog, I was equally disheartened to read about his actual experience seeing a doctor.” Josephine picked up a piece of paper. “I’m quoting Stuart’s blog describing his experience with his doctor at the local medical clinic. He writes, ‘the kid, basically straight out of medical school, just smirked at [me] like [I] was some sort of sucker.’” Josephine turned to Dr. Morgan. “Now, this statement is troublesome for a few reasons. One, it took too long for Stuart to be seen, two, the doctor he saw was young and inexperienced, and three, he was treated with a lack of respect. Now, I would probably attribute this lack of respect to being rushed. In light of our current healthcare system, doctors are increasingly strapped for time as they are pressured to tend to more and more patients, which probably accounts for this young doctor’s brusque manner.” Josephine turned back to Dr. Morgan. “I can’t help but feel that the reason Stuart’s sentiments are resonating so much with the crowd is because many people feel like Stuart, that going to the doctor has become a confusing, bureaucratic hassle, and are therefore shifting their medical needs away from doctors and towards self-help books, like mine. But I have to emphasize once again that no book can replace the advice of a medical healthcare professional. If anything, I hope our discussion today reminds us it is imperative that we as a nation keep checking in about how all of the recent healthcare changes are working, or not working, as a whole.”

At that, a moment of silence washed over the crowd. Even Dr. Morgan, known for his composure and camera-ready retorts, looked caught off guard. And what began as a slow clap from one audience member slowly ricocheted into full blown applause, and Stuart, before secure and composed, likely growing into the idea that he was a beloved media figure, seemed to grow invariably tense as he realized that his moment of glory was slipping away from him. Dr. Morgan cleared his throat, turning his back on Stuart as he faced Josephine. “Well,” he said, his voice raised several octaves, “this conversation has certainty taken a very interesting turn. It’s time for a commercial break, but when we get back, we will continue the discussion, examining self-help within the larger context of healthcare as a whole, and then we’ll take a Q and A from the audience. Stick around. You’re watching Dr. Morgan.”

The Caribbean music queued up again, and Jordan sprang up as soon as he had the chance, simultaneously elated at what was most definitely a strategic victory and infuriated at his author for calling him out on live television. And it while he was en route to the green room for a check-in with Josephine that he nearly collided into Stuart, who looked very agitated, a line of sweat etched across his foundation-pancaked forehead. A moment of eye contact passed between them, and in that moment a flicker of recognition seemed to cross Stuart’s face, though his expression was burdened and unreadable. And Jordan, expecting a relieved pride to wash over him, instead felt his stomach cave in with nausea as he checked his phone, waiting in vain for feedback.

 * * *

After the show, there were hours of celebratory drinks, time blurring by in an Irish bar while Jordan and Josephine knocked back gin and tonics and blurrily monitored Amazon for The Amino Algorithm’s massive upswing in sales. Jordan’s boss dropped by for a round, sloppily promising Jordan a raise despite the questionable profit margin of Birch Tree Publishers during the last fiscal year, and when Jordan finally excused himself to catch his train at Penn Station he collapsed in his seat with a drunken relief that had lasted all of 30 minutes before giving way to the familiar dread of the suburbs.

Upon arriving at his parent’s stop, he dropped by the only local grocery store that had not yet closed and bought a lemon meringue pie because he couldn’t remember anybody stating a blatant aversion to it. Dessert in hand and a vibrant headache throbbing in his temples, he walked three extra blocks and up the snaking driveway of his parent’s home and rang the doorbell, surprised to see his father open the door in a neck brace.

“Well what do you know, it’s the man of the hour,” his father said. “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you’d be celebrating your victory in the city.”

“Mom told me about your party weeks ago,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. What happened to your neck?”

“I sprained it a few weeks ago reaching in the back of the pantry for wheat thins.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish,” he said. “But that’s what happens when you get older. The little things become more consequential. Until you can’t even reach for a box of wheat thins without paying some sort of price.”

“Christ.”

His father shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Come in, won’t you? Your pie can join all of the others.”

With a sheepish grin Jordan walked in and hugged his mother, waving to the rest of the small group, including the Rubenstein’s, the Anderson’s, and the nosy widow Doris Bukowski, who filled in the gaps of her loneliness with useless information about everyone else.

“Ooo, the local celebrity has arrived,” Doris said when she saw him. “Straight off the heels of the Dr. Morgan show. How does it feel?”

Jordan shrugged. “I think it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be fending off paparazzi,” he said, humoring Doris, who in turn laughed too heartily, her full-throated chuckle revealing several missing teeth.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you very well hit the nail on the head with what’s going on out there,” Mrs. Rubenstein said. “Michael here is going to start working at a hospital soon because the insurance companies have made his private practice too unaffordable to maintain. They’re driving all the doctors out, and it’s a big confusing mess for them and the patients alike. And then you’ve got all of these HMO plans trying to maximize patients seen per hour, treating doctors and patients like cattle in the process. No wonder everyone is trying to turn to self-help for answers.” Mr. Rubenstein, a long time colleague of Jordan’s father, acknowledged his wife’s grievances with a humorless nod, his face stuffed with apple pie.

Jordan’s father yawned. “We live in troubled times,” he said, “and this is all great fun but I’m about to fade.” He looked directly at Jordan. “Why don’t you come have a chat with your old man before he hits the hay?”

 * * *

They made their way to his parents’ room, with its musty smell and floral comforter and medical plaques and awards propped up on the walls. His father, waddling like a confined chicken, peeled off his sheets and climbed slowly into bed so as not to provoke any sudden movements in his neck.

“Comfortable?” Jordan said.

“Enough,” his father said, sighing against his pillows as he looked at Jordan, his expression unclear.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you hurt your neck,” Jordan said.

He shrugged. “Why burden you with unnecessary information?”

“So you can email and text me nonstop about how I’m always making dumb career choices, but you can’t tell me you hurt yourself?”

“I only tell you what you need to hear,” his father said, a grin spreading across his face. He coughed. “Anyway, I have to hand it to you. How you and Josephine handled that today. You took all of the weight off the book in a way that made perfect sense. It was…” His voice trailed off, lost in thought. “Well, Christ, Jordan, it was brilliant. There’s no other way to say it. The way you turned things around out there today was god damn brilliant. You could have made a great lawyer.” He shrugged, laughing to himself.

“What?” Jordan said.

“Just, watching the show. Hearing about all of this social media stuff. Twitter followers, blog posts going viral. It’s a different world. Makes me feel old.”

“Well, you did strain your neck getting wheat thins, so maybe that’s not totally off the mark,” Jordan said.

His father laughed “Touché.” He said. “Can’t argue with that.” He sighed, looking straight ahead, his expression unclear. To his side, Jordan noticed a tall, opaque purple bottle perched on his nightstand.

“What is that?” Jordan said.
“What’s what?”

“That bottle on your nightstand.”

“Oh.” His father tentatively turned his neck to look over. “It’s an Agave Nectar Protein shake. From that health food pharmacy a few blocks away.”

Jordan laughed. “No kidding,” he said. “You, drinking an Agave Nectar Protein shake.”

“Of course I’m not going to drink it,” he said. “But it’s got a lot of antioxidants, which your mother is very concerned about these days. She’s convinced that if I drink it I’ll live longer. I keep it on the nightstand to make her feel like I’m listening.”

Jordan nodded, smiling at his father with his puffy neck brace and resolute expression and accepting, in that moment, that this all made perfect sense. “Sounds like a win-win situation,” he said.

 

 

BIO:

Jacqueline berkmanJacqueline Berkman is a writer living in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. Her short fiction has also appeared in The East Bay Review. 

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Writer Samantha Stier

Plugs

by Samantha Eliot Stier

 

We started wearing earplugs to help with the insomnia. Well, for me it’s insomnia, but for Carl it’s just that he’s a light sleeper and I keep him awake with my insomnia, or so he claims. The real truth, I tell him, is that he keeps me awake with his snoring. The neon tennis-ball colored rubber bullets are like sleeping pills; a few minutes after we pop them in, we’re both out. Carl keeps saying we should be careful, that it might get to the point where we can’t sleep without them. What would happen if we were staying somewhere where there were no earplugs, he asks. I tell him that’s ridiculous, we haven’t stayed anywhere but our own house in years, except for that one horrible trip to visit his parents in Michigan last spring. He says we shouldn’t be relying on the earplugs to sleep. By then I have mine in, and I can hardly hear him. It feels like we’re underwater. “What?” I say. He tries to keep talking but my eyes begin to close as I watch his lips move. “What?” I say again when he stops. He just sighs and pops his in. Then we sleep. It’s so good with the plugs. It’s deep sleep. I feel like I’m making up for years of not sleeping.

 

In the morning, the alarms go off, first mine, then his, eight minutes apart. The cat starts pawing and then clawing us. I never want to take out the plugs, but I do, pop-pop, and for the next few moments, the world is loud and ugly in my ears. The cat is meowing. Carl is snoring. His alarm is still going off. Outside the window—open, how Carl likes it—cars zoom by, screech, honk, blast music. I lie absolutely still, letting my ears readjust, wanting more than anything to slip back into the quiet of the plugs and sleep.

Carl gets out of bed to feed the cat. I hear him murmuring to her in the kitchen, nonsensical lovey-dovey-baby-talk in a voice still gravelly from sleep, as he pours her dry food into a dish, then cereal into bowl for him. He eats breakfast without even washing the cat food off his hands. I can tell because I keep listening for the sound of the tap, but it never comes on.

I get up finally and brush my teeth. I face my side of the walk-in closet, now filled with clothes that are suitable for work: starchy blouses that require strategically invisible bra straps and rigid skirts that keep my knees prudently trapped together. Slippery black heels that make the arches of my feet ache. I miss the days when I never left the house, when I never changed out of sweats.

 

We started wearing the plugs about a month ago. Our friend Ronnie suggested it. We were at a barbecue at the condo he shares with his girlfriend, Laura, and somehow we got on the subject of my new job, and I said that I had been having trouble sleeping ever since I started it. I think it’s the waking up early. I used to work from home selling my jewelry online and I’d do most of my work at night, crawl into bed around three or four in the morning. Then the money stopped coming and I had to get a real job working in an office for an actual company, something to do with social media—I can never remember the exact title—where they expect me to plan my day around them. I would get so stressed at night thinking about waking up at 6 the next morning and driving on the freeway, it would take me forever to fall asleep, especially with Carl snoring in my ear. I kept him up, too—he’s a light sleeper, so every time I moved around he would heave this great sigh that I suppose was meant to make me feel guilty. Carl denied that, of course, since I said it in front of Ronnie and he hates it when I make him look bad in front of Ronnie, who, he always likes to remind me, he’s been friends with for years, since grade school. I think he likes the idea of having an old friend from grade school better than he actually likes Ronnie.

Anyway, Ronnie went into his bedroom and when he came back he gave us each a little plastic-wrapped set. A sample. “Laura doesn’t get it,” he said. “But I swear these things will change your life.”

Ronnie’s an EMT and he gets giant bags of the plugs for free from the ambulance. Every time we go over there, he gives us a little baggie. Last time I didn’t even want to go, but we were out of plugs so I went with Carl anyway and listened to Laura blabber on about the joyful little fourth graders she teaches. At the end of the night Ronnie gave us a bag and I figured it was worth it. We got some good sleep that night.

 

When the plugs are in, I sometimes feel like I can’t even hear my own thoughts. If I stand up, I feel like I’m floating. I’ve started doing this thing, where if I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, I slap the bathroom walls with my hands to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming. I’m always dreaming about trying to find a bathroom because I have to pee. I’m worried that one night I’ll pee the bed. It’s starting to become a real problem, but not so much so that I’m going to stop wearing the plugs.

The cat likes the plugs, too. She plays with them when we leave them out, chewing them to a pulp and pawing them across the floor till they’re black with all the dust and grime I haven’t had time to clean since I started the Job. In the mornings, she’ll bite them right out of our ears. We have to explain to Ronnie that part of the reason we run out so quickly is the cat.

* * *

One night Carl tells me I get a dreamy look on my face when I put the plugs in. I tell him he always has a dreamy look on his face, to which he replies “What?” and I see that his plugs are in too, so I shake my head and turn over to sleep.

It’s true, though, about him having a dreamy-looking face. Carl has very droopy brown eyes, a heavy jaw, and shaves his head because he thinks he is balding, which he really isn’t, except maybe his hairline is receding a bit. He’s sort of dopey-looking, the kind of person you wouldn’t stand behind during checkout at the grocery store if you were in a hurry, or someone you’d be extra nice to, because with the shaved head he sometimes looks like a cancer patient. I told him this once and he was very insulted. Carl is just a slow-moving person. I’m always waiting for him. He takes forever to get ready in the mornings—devotes ten full minutes to applying Rogaine—or on the rare occasion we go out and he can’t decide which of his three outfits to wear. He gets distracted easily, usually by Google. He googles everything. If we walk by an apartment for rent, he googles the listing to see how much it is, even though we have a house and a giant mortgage to prove it. He googles all the gross stuff that goes on with his body. We’ve been more than an hour late because of Carl’s googling.

 

Carl and I have become one of those couples that has a routine so solid, if we miss even one thing we do, we fight about it for hours. One Sunday, I suggest we skip Ronnie’s, and Carl gets very huffy. He claims I never liked Ronnie and I never give Laura a chance. I tell him Laura is a painfully dull person, and she always wears bikini-style underwear that cuts diagonal creases across her butt cheeks, which you can see through the yoga pants she insists on wearing even though she’s not doing yoga. Carl asks why I’m looking at her ass anyway, and I say it’s hard not to since she’s always sticking it in our faces, but that he probably likes it. He gets mad when I say that and leaves, slamming the door. I hope he’s going to go to Ronnie’s by himself, but not thirty seconds pass before he comes back in and says he’s sorry. And even though I’m mad, I feel obligated to forgive him, because the couples’ therapist we went to (only one time, a complete waste of $120) said I should try to be more forgiving.

At Ronnie’s, I try to get Carl to look at Laura’s panty-creased ass, which he refuses to do. Finally I give up. While Carl recites a list of googled facts about the beer we’re drinking, Laura tells me a story about a colleague with an eating disorder, which I think is meant to be a funny story, so I paste a smile on my face and laugh here and there, but the whole time I’m thinking about that baggie of brand new neon earplugs Ronnie’s going to give us at the end of the night.

I think dreaming is sort of like tripping on drugs. And it’s addictive. I never craved sleep like I do now.

I tell Carl this. He says dreams are nothing like drugs. He did acid one time in college, and he always holds it over me, the fact that he has had this drug experience I never had. He thinks it somehow makes him more worldly, more mature. I say that dreams are probably more trippy than an acid trip, and he gets very upset. He wants to know how I could possibly say something like that, having never done acid. He looks like he might cry. He starts to say something else, but the plugs are in already. “What?” I ask. I wish I could wear plugs all day. I want to wear plugs whenever Carl starts telling me what he googled. I could hide them with my hair.

It’s going on a solid three months of the best sleep I ever had.

 

There are some side effects, though. When I use the bathroom in any unfamiliar place, including at work, I have to smack the walls to make sure I’m not asleep. I try to make sure no one else is in there first. I’m afraid I’m dreaming and I’ll wake up in a puddle of urine if I don’t do this every time. When I eventually dream about smacking the walls in the dream bathroom, I have to add more to it in real life; I slap my cheeks, the walls, and say something out loud; a sentence detailing my observation of the bathroom. Carl can hear me doing this at home. He immediately googles it; he tries “fear of wetting the bed – adult,” “slapping bathroom walls,” “obsessive compulsive behavior during urination,” but nothing that applies to me comes up. He says I need to talk to a therapist. Carl always talks about seeing a therapist for every little thing, but he never actually does it himself. He likes the idea of having a therapist better than going to one, which was one of the reasons we never went back to couples’ therapy.

This is the kind of person Carl is: he still has the business card of the banker who helped him open his account at Wells Fargo about a hundred years ago, all the ink rubbed off by his wallet, and he calls the guy any time there’s a problem with his account or he has a question. He calls the guy his “banker.” I tried to tell him that this guy is not his personal banker because this is not 1952, that he’s just another employee at Wells Fargo and it ultimately makes no difference which stiff-suited, oily bank employee he talks to, none of them actually work for him. Whenever I tell Carl this, he uses it as an opportunity to point out how I am always trying to cut him down. I tell him not to be an idiot.

 

Things are getting bad at work. My boss says my behavior is “disruptive” and that I have an “unenthusiastic” attitude. In our next conversation, after a presentation for a client who is impossible to please, he says my attitude is “bitter” and “offensive.” A coworker hears me doing my obsessive bathroom thing and tells my boss, who seems to agree with Carl that I might need professional help. He even gives me the name of his wife’s therapist.

 

I worked at this tween fashion clothing store when I was a teenager and I hated it. I hated it so much I tried to get myself fired, since my parents wouldn’t let me quit. I rang up the customers wrong. I stocked shelves wrong, putting the XXL size pink skinny jeans in the XS section. I showed up late and took hour-and-a-half lunches. I was rude to everyone. My boss was a forty-year-old Asian man named Phillip, and he thought I was just about the greatest thing to walk into his ugly linoleum-floored store. He was always reprimanding me, then smiling and saying not to take him too seriously, he wanted us to be friends. He bought me cake on my birthday and clothes from the store that were too small and pink and sequined. I realized eventually that he would never fire me. The minute I turned eighteen, I quit. I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina.

 

Carl says I am too cynical. I ask what that means and he says I am disenchanted with life. I laugh, which makes him puff out air. He’s trying to have a serious talk. He thinks I don’t love him. I tell him he’s being ridiculous and I want to take a nap. I start to roll the plugs between my fingers until they are thin enough to slip in. They expand with a slow whooshing noise in my ears. Carl is still talking, so I say “What?” until he sighs and leaves.

 

I have these recurring threads in my dreams. One of them is that I’m having an affair with Ronnie. In the first dream, we are both in his car, which has been abandoned on the beach. It’s half-submerged in ocean water. Ronnie tells me that the doors are locked and we’re eventually going to die when the water fills the car. We mutually agree to have sex—for the last time. When I wake up, I wonder why we didn’t just roll down the windows.

 

I get fired the next day, and go home to nap. My dream continues as if I never woke up, never went into work, never got fired. I dream that Ronnie and I have somehow escaped from the car, and he’s helping me find a bathroom because I have to pee. In this dream, Ronnie wants to tell Carl about the sex, but I say he can’t. Ronnie says Carl will understand, because we thought we were going to die, and it seemed like the natural thing to do.

It’s getting more and more awkward when we go see Ronnie and Laura on Sundays. Eventually I stop going altogether. To my surprise, it doesn’t even cause a fight.

 

I have developed an ear infection. There’s no way around it. I have been trying to get the plug into my left ear for a full ten minutes now, and it just hurts too much. Tears are streaming down my face. I am sobbing. Carl comes home and asks me what’s wrong. I tell him I might possibly have an ear infection, and he puts his arm around me and whispers that it’s okay, just don’t wear the plugs tonight, we’ll go to a doctor tomorrow. This makes me cry harder. I keep trying to get the plug in, and it feels like I’m driving a pickaxe into my ear. Carl pulls my arm away. Stop it, he’s shouting, you’re going to hurt yourself.

But I can’t stop. I want that earplug in. I want it in so bad.

Finally he gets me to drop the plug. It rolls onto the ground and the cat pounces on it instantly. I can’t stop crying as I watch her destroy it with her claws.

Carl doesn’t understand why I’m so upset. A couple nights without the plugs won’t kill me. When he looks at me, I see pity in his eyes. Pity, and a tiny bit of something else, like fear.

I lie down with the one plug in my right ear, which makes me feel lopsided. Carl lies down next to me and puts in his plugs, which seems very unfair; I feel like he should sleep without them in solidarity.

I wait until they’re in before I roll onto my side and look at the spot on Carl’s neck that he missed while shaving. That little uneven patch of wiry black hairs irritates me so much I want to punch him, right in the neck.

“Carl,” I whisper. I dig my fingernail into his arm until he yelps.

Irritated, he points to his neon yellow ears. “What?”

I lean close and drop my voice to below a whisper. “I’m having an affair with Ronnie.”

He doesn’t hear me. I roll back over. I think about when I was eighteen and I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina. Maybe I’ll do it for real.

 

 

BIO

Samantha Stier Samantha Eliot Stier’s  stories have appeared in many literary journals, including The Faircloth Review, Black Heart Magazine, Infective Ink Magazine, Mojave River Press & Review, Citizen Brooklyn, Drunk Monkeys, Gemini Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Blank Fiction Literary Magazine, and were featured in L.A.’s 2014 New Short Fiction Series. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Venice Beach, California. You can visit her at http.//samanthastier.com/.

 

Kyle Mustain

The Opposite of Suicide

By Kyle Mustain

 

DropCapMrockSmally first day as a substitute was six weeks after the second worst mass shooting by a single person in US history. This one took place in a school building, as many of them do anymore. There was a point during my second block, just after I had sent the students to work on their news-gathering quizzes in the computer lab—a secluded room off a small hidden hallway on the second floor of the building—when I asked myself, What would I do if there was a shooter?

I looked around the room, which had not changed much at all since I had gone to school here fifteen years ago. There was still a tube television hanging in the corner, a relic from when Channel One donated TVs to all of our public schools in the early 90s. The computers are all connected to the Internet, something perhaps less than a dozen computers in the school could do when I went here.

In this computer lab and the traditional classroom adjoining it, there seemed no obvious way to protect ourselves. We’d have to come up with something clever, like barricading the desks against the door, which swung out, not in, but the desks could block the shooter or shooters from entering the room, I guess. We’d have to hide along the walls, out of visibility from the door. But if the shooter came in from the door on the computer lab side, we’d be sitting ducks.

Maybe we could devise a way to climb down to the courtyard. The cord from the air conditioner—would it hold? It doesn’t seem too far a drop. We would have to risk broken legs just to get down to the courtyard, where the doors are locked, but made of glass. We’d have to break through them, then run out the front entrance to safety.

But how would I know it was safe on the first floor? There could be several intruders in the building, some of whom could be stationed at the front door to prevent us from escaping. Or the front entrance could be booby trapped. I wouldn’t know anything in that situation. I wouldn’t know what to do besides wait and hope the shooters don’t come into our room.

What if they did? I ask myself if I would stand in front of a gun for these young people.

 * * *

The problem was the scenario I was running through in my head was the one I’ve played out hundreds of times: two shooters, running through the hallways, tossing homemade bombs, firing sawed-off shotguns. I was eighteen when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their high school one Tuesday morning and proceeded to kill twelve of their classmates, one teacher, and injured twenty-four others.

The Columbine massacre was the first mass shooting of its kind. Not the first school shooting, by any means. Those happened quite frequently in the late nineties. But Harris and Klebold’s massacre was the first to play out over live TV. In real time. It happened on April 20th, which just so happens to be a pot-smoking holiday. Eric and Dylan’s attack on their high school and 4/20 was purely coincidental. So is the fact that Hitler’s birthday is April 20th. None of these things had anything to do with the other.

Harris was the brains behind the operation. He had been planning the massacre for eighteen months. It was supposed to happen on April 19th, the Monday after Prom. Eric and Dylan had to wait one extra day, though, for their friend to come through with one more box of bullets, and perhaps they also, understandably, had a case of cold feet. If the massacre had occurred on April 19th instead of April 20th, there would be no inclination of the media to speculate it had some cryptic link to Nazism or Weed.

Eric picked the date of April 19th, 1999 because it was the fourth anniversary of the largest domestic terrorist bombing in US history at the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The Columbine massacre was never meant to be a school shooting. Eric and Dylan were equipped with guns just in case they had to shoot people, but their intention had always been to blow up the building. They wanted to outdo the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. They hoped the bombs inside Columbine would kill hundreds more.

  * * *

After my first day as a sub I learned to relax. My teaching style, or “subbing” style, more accurately, is laid back. I moved back to my hometown during my last semester of grad school, and started doing this because the school district was hurting for subs. I never thought I would go into teaching, in fact I had terrible anxiety about it, but not seeing how else I was going to make a living, I registered. All that registering requires is a college degree, a $149 fee, and a background check. Criminal background check. They did not check my school records.

Just after that first day, I somehow came to be known as the “cool sub.” Probably because I’m young. Although I don’t consider 32 that young. It’s probably more because I act young. But I wonder if maybe it has something to do with my experience in high school.

I was outed when I was seventeen. I had only told a handful of friends and my immediate family about my sexuality, but after a few months, that little bubble of people could no longer contain such a large secret. My best friend told his other best friend, and then he told a group of guys who decided to use it to hurt me. They showed up to school early one day, approached several gossipy girls, and enlisted them to spread the word around school that my friend Chadand I were gay for each other. I knew about this ahead of time because they phoned me the night before to inform me “the whole school” was about to find out about me.

I don’t remember that day very clearly, as I’m sure no one under such duress would choose to hold on to such an experience. The only details I can recall are that by second period I started noticing people looking at me differently. By third period people who I usually said “Hey” to every day looked away from me. That much was to be expected, I guess. But what really took me by surprise was how the faculty reacted, which was exactly the same as the students—whispers and funny looks. From that day forward I was not taken seriously as a student anymore. That was how the remainder of my high school experience played out. This whole school turned its back on me.

I started skipping school. I got high all the time. I got in fights. I got suspended. I called a teacher a bitch to her face. I quit all my extracurricular activities.My grades didn’t just slump, they plummeted. After the first time I was arrested, the rest of my teachers were pretty much done with me. I became a pariah. My friends’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with me. I graduated early my senior year.

The thing is, I wasn’t alone. My class held the record for the most studentsto graduate at midterm from my high school. The school district responded the next year by changing the requirements for graduation, rendering it harder for students to graduate early, because it looked bad that so many of us wanted out of school. They did this instead of asking themselves why we fled.

My teenage years were a lot of seriously undue stress and bullshit. They really didn’t have to be. I was so disaffected by mine, I was on antidepressants from the age of 16 to 25. The other day I had to yell at a class to be quiet after the bell rang, and it dawned on me that ten years ago I would have been so numb from meds, raising my voice like that would have been a herculean effort for me. What I’m getting at is it took me years to become an adult. I spent the first half of my twenties getting over shit that happened to me in high school. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  * * *

The next time I subbed at the high school was two days after one of the senior class members got in his car under the influence of drugs and alcohol at eight-thirty in the morning on a Sunday and drove his car kamikaze-style down one of the busiest streets in town. Witnesses said he had to have been going over a hundred miles per hour by the point he lost control, ran off the road into a vacant parking lot, hit an embankment, went airborne, rolled and was ejected from the vehicle. He was declared dead four hours later at a nearby hospital.

Everyone was calling it a suicide. It had to have been. But why so close to graduation?

That was only my second time subbing at the high school, and it was for the same teacher. The first thing I did when I got in that morning was check to see if the young man who died had been in any of the classes I had subbed for. He hadn’t been, but the teacher had circled the photos of the students on the class roster who had been friends with him and left instructions that they had each taken the past couple days off school, that they were to be excused if they asked to go to the nurse, no questions asked. I noted to myself how they all kind of looked like him. Long hair, jaded. I mean jaded to the point it is humorous how unmistakable it is.

Who’s taking care of these kids?

  * * *

Eric and Dylan went into the building with their guns only after the large bombs they’d planted in the cafeteria didn’t detonate. Ideally the explosions would have caused the commons area over the cafeteria to collapse, burying the inhabitants inside. The bombs were supposed to cause structural damage and start fires throughout the building, killing hundreds within minutes. Eric and Dylan were going to perch themselves outside with their guns, and pick people off one by one as they tried to reach safety outside of the burning building.

Reading about Eric and Dylan, I see a lot of similarities between them and some guys I grew up with, who beginning in middle school started becoming outcasts. By the time we were in high school these guys and other guys and girls like them came together and they all gradually got into punk rock, thrash metal, death metal, hardcore hip-hop, hardcore techno, industrial, etc. Although these sub-genres of rock have their rivalries, they share the core emotion, which is anger; deep-seated anger that seeks to expose the injustices and hypocrisies of the system within which we live. That kind of cynicism is something that comes about once a person has been thrust outside the status quo.

This group of guys I knew started wearing black leather jackets. They decided since they were social outcasts, then their clothes had to be in open defiance of what our classmates wore.

In retrospect I realize they were part of the popular clique in the beginning of middle school, but as time progressed and cliques began to solidify, these guys were phased out of the clique. They used to get invited to all the popular parties, sit with us at sporting events, but then something just happened. A turn came about in middle school when these guys were no longer invited to things, and it totally wasn’t by their own volition. It was the popular kids deciding to not ask them around anymore. I think it was because they were considered not as good-looking, and a little too awkward around members of the opposite sex. Their tastes in movies, music, and popular culture were not as “advanced.” They were still into comic books and toys when other guys were making the shift to popular music, gold necklaces, and cologne. These guys got left behind. That scorn manifested into rage.

They acted out violently, but it was subdued. They started drinking at a younger age than everybody else, and drank more often. They mostly hung around each other, didn’t have much interest in traditional courtship rituals such as “going steady,” “Homecoming,” and “date rape.” They were just punks. A typical Friday night for them would have been a shared bottle of cheap vodka and some petty vandalism. Telling the world to go fuck itself.

That’s how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their group of friends were. That’s how they were treated by their peers, and that’s how they came to be that way. I see that all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. People who go through that kind of ostracism from their peers, while they do suffer severe angst, it builds them into the people they will become. Many of these outsiders will use that pain to branch out from their peers. We need the radicals. We just need a better way of showing them they have a function in society. By we, I mean teachers. We must not make enemies of our outsider students.

  * * *

At the beginning of the new school year, a teacher requested for me to be his substitute for a week while he went out of state for his daughter to have a lifesaving surgery. I had by this point gained a glowing reputation with both students and teachers alike. It meant a lot to me that he thought to ask me to take over for him during such a sensitive time for his family. It was a weeklong subbing job, and I decided I was going to really devote myself to being an almost-full-time teacher.

Before the morning bell on the second day of the job, a student came into my classroom and asked me if I found his shirt offensive. It was brown-orange—the color of a basketball—and said in black letters: BALL EVERY DAY. A Nike Swoosh hung at the end of the sentence like a punctuation mark.

I thought it over. Testicle every day? I asked him in a protective way, “Are people calling you gay?”

He answered, “No.” He clearly didn’t see how the shirt was offensive, either.

“Then I don’t see anything wrong with it,” I told him.

Then he told me it was a teacher, not a student who was offended by the shirt. She told him to turn it inside-out. He asked me if he had to. I told him as long as he was in my class he didn’t have to. Then I rolled up my sleeves and told him an anecdote about the same thing happening to me when I was his age. I had worn a shirt that said WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING AT? to school several times, without bothering anyone. Most teachers didn’t even notice it. Some even thought it was funny. But all it took was one teacher who disagreed with the word “hell” and I wasn’t allowed to wear it to school anymore.

“So just lay low for the rest of the day,” I told him, “Make sure that specific teacher doesn’t see you again.” We had a laugh about it. I felt like we had established a bond.

As the first warning bell was sounding, the door at the back of the classroom swung open. The teacher from the next room was standing in the storage area that connected our classrooms. She’s a middle-aged woman I had found very accommodating over the past two days of the job. We’d even palled around a little between classes. She waved me over.

When I got to the back of the room, she leaned over and whispered, “Your student Diego is wearing a shirt that has a double entendre on it.” She sounded like she felt smart for using the term double entendre, like we were using some kind of secret adult code.

“Yeah, I saw, it,” I answered, “BALL EVERY DAY?”

“Yes!” she inflected outrage through her whisper-voice, and looked at me like I was supposed to feel outraged too.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see it,” I told her.

She assured me, “It’s a double entendre. You’ve got to make him turn it inside-out.”

I couldn’t help making an annoyed face, because this was truly annoying. I knew she was wrong. But I nodded and said, “Okay.” I sent the poor guy to his counselor because it’s my job. I don’t have the authority to go up against an actual teacher.

A minute later I was suffering through the “Moment of Silence” and “Pledge of Allegiance.” Anyone with eyes and ears can scan a classroom and tell who is into it and who is not. The girl with the blond ponytail and the shirt with 1 JOHN 4:14 looks severely into “The Moment of Silence,” belts out “The Pledge.” The boy with the dark circles under his eyes and the CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS hoodie puts his head down reluctantly during “The Moment,” yawns through “The Pledge.”

Sometimes I look down during “The Moment,” out of respect for whatever it is I’m supposed to be paying respect to. Other times I walk silently about the room, handing out papers. I’m not in any violation. “The Moment of Silence” is not mandatory. I usually do “The Pledge,” although I don’t know why. Partly to check if I still have it memorized after all these years, but also because I like to analyze how aesthetically unappealing of poem it is—Is it even a poem? “The Pledge,” in its staccato cadence has a braiwashy vibe to it I didn’t catch onto when I was younger. Forcing people to say it every day sounds like something out of a Hitler Youth manual. Even if we don’t have to say it, the words get into our brains like a bad pop song.

I don’t remember having to say “The Pledge” after the fourth or fifth grade. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in it after the turn of the century. There was no such thing as a daily “Moment of Silence” when I was student, either. These poor young people. I had it so much better than them.

All these two rituals do is create two minutes of awkwardness for the two thousand people standing in the school, parsing us into our ideological groups before we even have a chance to begin what should be the impartial process of education. They only take about two minutes, but these are the two minutes that start off our day.

I scanned the shirts people were wearing: Duck Dynasty, Sons of Anarchy, Monster Energy Drink, DRIVEN TO WIN, AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT, SWAG OVER EVERYTHING. One girl was wearing a memorial t-shirt for the student who committed suicide the previous spring. The shirt of the boy next to her said NO TURNING BACK. Another had a drawing of a dog with a musical note coming out of its behind. The musical note was upside-down.

I located The School District’s Dress Code hangingon the wall behind me. It is posted in every classroom. And it’s vague. I’m guessing intentionally so. What constitutes pajamas? There was a girl right in front of me wearing a teal hoodie and gray sweatpants, which are essentially what I wear to bed in the winter. Should I bust her for looking like a slob? Why would someone do such a thing to someone else? To exert my power over her? Be an asshole just because I can?

The boy who had the BALL EVERY DAY shirt came back in with a shirt that had the high school mascot on it. It was creased like it just came out of a package. I gave him a sympathetic look. Oddly enough, just fifteen minutes before the incident, Diego and I had bumped into each other on the way to school. He had yelled out to me, “Hey, Mr. Mustain!” as he was crossing the street adjacent to me. We biked together for half a block. He asked what we were doing in class that day. “Just watching a movie,” I said, then apologized that I had to speed ahead because I was running late.

He seemed like a cool enough kid. I’m guessing his shirt meant he likes to play basketball every day because he enjoys it, even though he isn’t good enough to play on the school team. Plus he bikes to school. Hardly anyone does anymore. I’ve never seen more than ten bikes on the rack in front of the school. Ten people out of two thousand bike to school. Diego isn’t lazy.

I was pulling the TV cart away from the wall and putting the MythBusters DVD into the player when the vice principal showed up outside my door. I feigned a smile at her, and gave a, “What can I do for you, Ms. Fra—,” then corrected myself, “Mrs. Bennedetti.” I almost always call her by her maiden name, the name she went by when I was in school here.

She waved me over without making a sound. That’s a surefire way to clue everyone in on the fact that she has something to say to me that the students aren’t allowed to hear.

“I just received an e-mail from Mrs. Frega telling me that one of your students was wearing a T-shirt that has a double entendre on it.”

FUCK MY LIFE

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you make him turn it inside-out?”

“He asked to go to his guidance counselor. When he came back he was wearing a different t-shirt.”

“Okay, great! Thanks for helping out!” She always tells me, “Thanks for helping out!” whenever she sees me. It makes me feel like I don’t actually work here.

She came from the office, in the front of the school, to the science hall, which is in the back of the building, just to make sure I, the substitute, was following orders.

After Vice Principal Bennedetti left, I turned on the Mythbusters DVD, and headed to the back of the room with my coffee thermos and notebook. I started recording everything that had just transpired because I was fuming pissed. I put two things together from Mrs. Bennedetti’s visit to my classroom. Number one, Mrs. Frega must have e-mailed her with concern that I was not being compliant. Number two was that Mrs. Bennedetti might have come to dig up old grudges with me.

I sat in the back of the room so the students couldn’t see how tense I was. I was holding myself back from overturning the table, screaming, maybe even bursting into tears. Instead I sat and stewed and couldn’t help but stare at the back of a young girl’s bright orange t-shirt saying to me: WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

  * * *

Eric Harris was a psychopathic murderer with a god-complex. Dylan Klebold was a depressive who sometimes lashed out violently. Eric was a charismatic manipulator who told people exactly what they wanted to hear. Dylan wanted to be noticed. He wanted to fall in love, got his heart broken over and over again. Eric wanted to fuck girls. Eric hated everyone, probably even Dylan. Dylan planned to commit suicide. Eric wanted to annihilate mankind. Dylan had brown hair. Eric was blond. Dylan was good at a lot of things, among them writing stories. Eric was a genius.

I was a depressive. I laid in bed for hours at a time listening to sad songs on repeat. I was addicted to sadness. All I wanted was for someone to understand me. Every time I reached out to someone I thought maybe did, it ended in more disappointment. I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

The night after the whole world found out I was gay I went up to my room, turned off the lights, unplugged my alarm clock and VCR to make the room the darkest it could get. I laid under the covers, crying in cold sweat. I wanted to kill myself. But that wasn’t really anything new. I had been having that fight with myself off and on since the age of twelve, and I’d gotten quite good at talking myself out of it. Although this time the pressure was more extreme, more public. I guess it would have made a statement if I killed myself, but that felt too much like what people would have expected from me. Like, oh god, the guys who outed me would have to live the rest of their lives with that terrible thing hanging over their heads. But who would be the real loser in that situation? Me! I still wanted to fucking live, damn it! That would have sucked for my family too, but really at that moment I was probably thinking my family could go fuck themselves, too. All that mattered was what was going on in my life, at that very moment, and how I was going to get out of it alive.

I probably spent at least an hour fantasizing about taking guns to school. My dad has several. I knew where he hid them and where he kept the bullets. That would have been really fucking easy. In fact, it would be so fucking easy to shoot up a school it’s a fucking joke. I laid there going over the fantasy in my head, playing it over and over in different scenarios. Which door should I go in? Which hallway would I see the most people I hated? Was I going to kill just Nate and Scott, or should I go all-out and try to take out as many people as I could? I would have to—just have to—take out the administrators. Otherwise what would be the point?

Every time I went over it, it got more and more complicated. There was no way it would have transpired as good as the way it worked in my dark little day dreams. I knew how that all worked out, the fantasizing of things. The two times I’d had sex were revolting, awkward affairs, nowhere near as good as the hundreds of suave, silky scenarios I’d been masturbating to for the better part of a decade. The two times I’d had sex were so bad I never thought back to them, pushed them far into the deep catacombs of my mind. I understood that fantasies are idealized realities. Perfection is a fantasy. That’s what makes fantasies so special over reality: we can perfect them, easily. Reality takes hard work if you want to realize your fantasies, or at least come close.

In bed that night I understood shooting up the school was going to take a lot of hard work and planning. I’d have to learn to use a gun, build bombs, rehearse, and get my body in shape and shit. I’d have to enlist some friends to help out, and all that seduction over to the dark side shit would have taken a lot of mental preparation. It was a long term solution for a short term problem.

As I was still lying in the pitch dark of my room, I forced myself to start thinking more positively. There had to be a better way out of this; a way to knock those bastards on their asses and dispel the rumor about me. It’s hard to explain sparks of inspiration, where they come from. I think lying there in bed and going through all the bloody scenarios, the really dark shit, was necessary for me to gradually climb up out of and find the positive solution.

As the plan started to come together in my mind, I sat up in bed, after what was probably two hours of sulking. I switched on the lights, plugged my appliances back in, and got to work.

  * * *

Nearing the end of the first block it dawned on me what the boldest, most fitting course of action should be: I should ask Diego if I can buy the BALL EVERY DAY shirt from him.

Do I put it on right then? No, I better take it home and wash it. Wear it tomorrow? No, I have two more days on this subbing job. I need this whole paycheck. Friday. I’ll put it on just before first block begins. The students will love it. By second block they’ll spread it around. “Mr. Mustain is wearing a t-shirt that a teacher told a student he couldn’t wear!” How fast will the teachers start reporting me? Will the principal come during second or third block, or will I make it all the way to fourth? Will he pull me out of class and replace me with a faculty member or an administrator? Will they bring the police? Will I be led out of school in handcuffs?

I don’t put anything past them.

There will be an article in the newspaper. Reporters will call me for a statement. Will it go beyond the town? National news? Bill O’Reilly? Rachel Maddow?

Before anything like that happens, I’ll have to deal with the town. Immediate firing. That I can count on. But then there would be the public shunning. I’ll probably have to cancel my membership to the YMCA after all the scornful looks and fathomable vandalism to the things in my locker. I know those gestures won’t hurt me or bother me as much as the looks of sympathy I’d get from other people; people who agree with me, but don’t want to stand by me; not what I did.

I can’t do it. I need this job too badly.

I resign to push it down. Think of the money. Pick your battles. Forget about it and think about the lesson plans for the next two days. I’ll look for another job. Maybe this frustration is a sign it’s time to move on. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

The back of that girl’s fucking shirt keeps asking me:

WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

            * * *

All three of us were journal writers. Eric called his “The Book of God.” Dylan titled each of his entries individually, and were structured like mine: name, date and title in the righthand margin, then title again, centered above the text. I titled mine, “Final Thoughts,” a morbid joke that they all would add up to one epic suicide note.

I want to say we just wrote about the same themes, that I didn’t go to the extreme Eric did, but the thing is I explored my dark side thoroughly. So did a lot of my friends. In fact I’m willing to bet most adolescent boys have secret projects. One student showed me YouTube videos of some BMX ramps he and his friends built. That reminded me of when my younger brother and his friends made improvised horror films and one summer even built a wrestling ring complete with ropes in our parents’ backyard. Some of my friends in high school found a bunch of dead squirrels and made a funny video of a hand puppet beating them up. They would show it at parties. Those are all ways we burned off some innate hunger for violence. Sure some of them were unsettling, but they were within the bounds of reason.

Eric was really into the German hardcore techno band KMFDM[1]. Eric and Dylan may have listened to Marilyn Manson, but his music had nowhere near the influence over them that the media made it out to be. That gives Marilyn Manson way too much credit. Come on. Eric and Dylan were too smart to buy into that.

I’ve been listening to the early KMFDM albums Eric and Dylan would have listened to. The lyrics seem very pointed. If I had to hazard a guess, the lyrics of their first album must be directed at a handful of specific individuals. The same as Eric or Dylan’s journals would have been. The same as most people’s journals are at that age. When a person writes a love poem, it is generally towards one person, right? We’ve all had unrequited love, right? So when one writes rage poems, they must be no different. They are probably very often towards a specific target. Can we call it unrequited rage? How about unfulfillable rage? Somebody you never got to kill or do some kind of terrible harm to, whether physical or psychological. I don’t see this as being indicative of psychopathic behavior. I think it’s venting. It’s channeling rage into creative energy. It’s sublimation. Isn’t this is why we create art;to feel like we have obtained things which are unobtainable?

Because I am a writer, I wrote. Because I am a depressive, I didn’t share my stories. But I wanted the world to end, thought everyone needed to die so I could start humanity over again, my way. I just never took it to the next level. I wanted to kill people, but I have never killed anyone. I never even got as far as plotting a murder. I grew out of it. It wore off. Somehow. But what I can’t help wondering about, sifting through all the information I can gather about Dylan and Eric, is what series of events could have possibly led to me deciding to make my fantasy a reality? What would have pushed me over to fully functioning homicidal artist?

  * * *

In the hall the other day a young man walked by me, mimed like he was holding a shotgun, took aim at me through his sites, then threw his shoulders back from the imaginary gun’s blowback. His lips puckered, let out a “poof.” This is not even a student who I’ve had to discipline. This is one of the ones I get along with.

Some students joked about finding their Math teacher’s house and toilet papering it. He joked back, “If you do find my house, let me warn you, I do support the Second Amendment.” He more or less told a group of 14 year-olds that he would shoot them if they came on his property and threatened to ruin his Saturday.

The school secretary and Bennedetti were excited, describing the reconstruction of the high school in the next town over. These two were gawking out, jaws agape, eyes wide. I asked what the big deal was. The secretary answered, “All of the hallways are going to be curved.”

“Well that sounds pretty fancy,” I said, expecting this to be a discussion of the artistry of interior design.

The secretary added, “It’s so the shooters won’t have a straight shot at anyone.”

I looked puzzled.

“So when people are running from them, they will be going along the curve instead of straight. They’ll keep turning and it will be harder for the shooters to aim.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day wasted 5-10 minutes of every class in the entire school district. It came off as a shameless PR ploy by the School Board in the weeks following the George Zimmerman verdict to proclaim: “We’re not racists.” The school board is composed of middle-aged, upper middle-class white people.

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

When teaching a shop class a student asked me in front of the entire class what kind of cigarettes I smoke. I made a snap judgement, decided that I admired his boldness, and gave him an answer. Then I asked him which brand he smoked, and everyone in the class announced which brands they liked. We discussed the qualities of all the different brands. I urged them if they had the extra money, to get American Spirits because they lacked the harmful additives other tobacco companies put into their cigarettes, but I understand how expensive they are. The rest of that block went smoothly. I won them over by not pretending to be something I’m not, something above them. They respected me for my candor.

I noticed a boy texting one day. He asked what my cellphone policy was. The school’s cellphone policy is gestapo-esque. Something like I’m supposed to seize it from him. Second offense is automatic suspension. Each teacher has her own policy, though. We had just taken a test and had literally nothing to do to fill up the rest of class time, so I really didn’t care. Why not let them play around? Why jump to the assumption they’re doing something sinister with them? I’ve seen just as many students reading the news on their phones or exploring Reddit as I have playing video games. I have never caught a student watching porn.

Then he said to me, “I’m actually texting my mom.” That seemed unexpected, but it was better than his buddy waiting outside with the artillery.

What was he texting his mom about? That morning on his drive to school he thought he saw his friend out of the corner of his eye, sitting in the shotgun seat next to him. He had been friends with the boy who killed himself last spring.

He had hesitated telling me, but for some reason decided I was someone he could tell this to. He had hair down to his neck, black baggy jeans with a chain wallet, and the emblem of some alien-themed band on his charcoal shirt. He told me he sees his friend all the time and it freaks him out. “What does it mean?” he asked me.

I told him, “Just the other day, I thought of something really funny that my good friend and I used to say. An inside joke we had, right? Well, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and I was just about to text him when I realized I don’t even have him in my contacts. He committed suicide twelve years ago. He died before there even was such a thing as text messaging, and yet the other day I tried to send him a text. I guess what I’m saying, man, is it never really goes away.” I gave him the best possible answer I could give him, which was the one that was not fully thought out.

I haven’t talked to him since that day, but I see him in the halls every now and then. He usually looks pretty happy. A young person’s mood can switch on and off like a light bulb, though. I remember that. I have no way of knowing if what I said that day helped him. I just wait for moments like that to happen.

            * * *

Brooks Brown was Dylan Klebold’s best friend until Eric Harris moved to Columbine in middle school. For a while they were a threesome, but Eric didn’t like Brooks, and a tug-of-war was waged over Dylan. Brooks remained on-again, off-again friends with the pair in the intervening years, but it was clear Eric had won Dylan.

After the massacre, Brooks was contacted by a young journalist named Rob Merritt, who felt empathetic to Brooks’ plight to get his story out about Eric and Dylan. Three years after the attack they published a book about Columbine from his point of view. It’s a fascinating dynamic these two have. Merritt is four or five years older than Brooks, Eric and Dylan, so he was not far removed from the experience of high school when the attack occurred. And he seems to have the same taste in popular culture and worldview as them (Insane Clown Posse is mentioned a lot).

Merritt’s teaming up with Brown doesn’t feel exploitive. Instead the book reads like a better-educated, better-connected older brother, just a few years more mature than the younger brother, coming in to lend a hand and help him tell his story in a structured, presentable manner. It’s biased as hell, but how could it not be? Brooks was indirectly involved in the massacre just from being good friends with Eric and Dylan. He was notoriously the only person Eric told to leave before they planted the bombs in the cafeteria. Eric spared him because he was a kindred soul.

If you want a clearer picture of what was going on with Eric and Dylan, then you cannot ignore what Brooks has to say:

 

“The problem was that the bullies were popular with the administration. Meanwhile, we were the ‘trouble kids’ because we didn’t seem to fit in with the grand order of things. Kids who played football were doing what you’re supposed to do in high school. Kids like us, who dressed a little differently and were into different things, made teachers nervous. They weren’t interested in reaching out to us. They wanted to keep us at arm’s length, and if they had the chance to take us down, they would.”

  * * *

He describes a school where teachers got swept up in the jock-nerd-normal-freak-popular-unpopular-cool-uncool paradigm, and argues that while Eric and Dylan were responsible for their own atrocious actions, “Columbine [was] responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.”

Brown and Merritt spend a lot of time speculating about “The Basement Tapes.” The police confiscated videotapes with approximately three hours of footage of Eric and Dylan outfitting themselves, testing out their weapons, and leaving behind testimonials explaining why they were going to attack the school. The Basement Tapes—named because most of the footage was shot in their basements—have never been released to the public. Only select members of the press have seen them, and Brooks Brown’s mother and father, who were not invited to the screening, but barged their way in, threatening court action if they were not allowed to watch.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s department’s transcripts of The Basement Tapes can now be found online, but the entire footage still remains locked away. This is a description of part of the second Basement Tape from the Rocky Mountain News “War Is War,” December 13, 1999:

They explain over and over why they want to kill as many people as they can. Kids taunted them in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. Adults wouldn’t let them strike back, to fight their tormentors, the way such disputes once were settled in schoolyards. So they gritted their teeth. And their rage grew. “It’s humanity,” Klebold says, flipping an obscene gesture toward the camera. “Look at what you made,” he tells the world. “You’re fucking shit, you humans, and you deserve to die.” … They speak at length about all the people who wronged them. “You’ve given us shit for years,” Klebold says. “You’re fucking going to pay for all the shit. We don’t give a shit because we’re going to die doing it.”

  * * *

Eric and Dylan planned to die in the attack.

This is Brooks’ description of the video, secondhand from his mother’s account of it:

Dylan asks Eric if he thinks the cops will listen to the entire video. Eric replies that he believes the cops will chop the video up into little pieces, “and the police will just show the public what they want it to look like.” They suggest delivering the videos to TV stations right before the attack. After all, they want people to know that they feel they have reasons.

“We are but aren’t psycho,” they say.

Dylan promises his parents that there was nothing they could have done to stop him. According to the Rocky Mountain News article “War Is War,” “You can’t understand what we feel,” he says. “You can’t understand, no matter how much you think you can.”

The Rocky Mountain News quoted Eric as offering praise for his parents. “My parents are the best fucking parents I have ever known,” he says. “My dad is great. I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I don’t have any remorse, but I do. This is going to tear them apart.They will never forget it.”

According to police reports, Eric expresses regret on another tape as well. He recorded one segment while driving alone in his car. “It’s a weird feeling, knowing you’re going to be dead in two and a half weeks,” he says to the camera. He talks about the co-workers he will miss, and says he wishes he could have revisited Michigan and “old friends.” The officer who viewed this tape wrote that, “at this point he becomes silent and appears to start crying, wiping a tear from the side of his face…[H]e reaches toward the camera and shuts it off.”

Their final tape is less than two minutes long. Eric, behind the camera, tells Dylan, “Say it now.”

“Hey, Mom. Gotta go,” Dylan says to the camera. “It’s about half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as [inaudible] or something. Just know that I’m going to a better place than here. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happier wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone.”

  * * *

They sound as if they had reached enlightenment. They believed they were dying for a just cause. I believe the reason the Basement Tapes have never been shown to the public is because Eric and Dylan show remorse for what they are about to do.

  * * *

Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want a boyfriend?

That’s the string of questions I get, an algorithm they’ve designed to figure out what kind of a person I am. I know it isn’t designed specifically to discover if I’m gay, but that is one of the possible outcomes. I like to think Brad, a student teacher who is 10 years younger than me, has it easy because he’s engaged to a female. But then I realize their algorithm would just lead to dozens of annoying questions about his fiancé. So maybe I am better off.

Note to self: Come up with clever, condescending answer to the question, “Do you want a boyfriend?” I get extra points if the answer is condescending because if my answer makes the question seem silly, it will cause everyone to laugh, thus putting an end to the line of questioning. I get asked about my tattoo and earrings on a daily basis. It took me six months to come up with this: “Is that a tattoo?” “No, it’s an ink bracelet.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone wises up and asks, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I don’t know what I would answer if a student asked me that. Do I wait to cross that bridge when I come to it, or do I prepare an answer? Why am I putting off coming up with an answer? WHAT KIND OF A PERSON AM I?

A student asked me straight-up if the teacher I was subbing for smokes pot. I told him I didn’t know her that well. When I recounted this story to my mother, she said what she would have said was, “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” I don’t like that answer—even though it did pop into my head—because it implies that I do know. I think if Ms. X does smoke pot, then there are very few colleagues who know about it, if any. A teacher busted with marijuana would be an automatic firing, likely a career-ender. Whereas in my case, being gay is no longer a crime, but the ice on the slope upon which I tread is both thin and slippery.

I read a recent story about a cross country coach in Colorado who came out of the closet to his school board. They told him he could keep his coaching job, on the condition he no longer go into the men’s locker room while the male team members were dressing. This coach was forced to change in a men’s room separate from the locker room until the assistant coach, who identified as straight, came to tell him all the male team members were fully clothed.

I don’t understand things like that. If I go to the YMCA they don’t have a separate locker room for gay men and women. I have had to teach gym classes, and it has been expected of me to watch over the men’s locker room. Every time I think to myself, If the people in charge knew about me, they wouldn’t want me doing this. At the same time I’m also thinking, I’m not a pervert.

Young people have changed, I suppose. Highlights, earrings, hipster attire. All of the things that elicited catcalls of faggot in my day, that only the brave dared adorn in the name of fashion and individuality, are now commonplace and perhaps even worse, crafted by moms. Sure the adolescents now have been brought up in the “information age” and therefore “interface” with the world more than they experience it. They’re exposed to more sexually graphic and violent media than any generation before them. If you just talk to them, though, you’ll find out they’re not that different than we were. I don’t think anyone looked at my class in the 90s and said, “Yep, they’re exactly like the students in the 80s, 70s, 60s. Not a single thing has changed.”

The generation I am teaching have been watching Glee for the past four years, were brought up on reruns of Will & Grace. It’s not uncommon for students to come out as early as middle school. Teachers have told me to “keep an eye out” for same-sex couples holding hands, that if I catch them kissing I’m supposed to enforce the same rules we have for everybody. These teachers roll their eyes about it, say these students are simply going through “phases;” trying to get attention and piss off their parents. It’s the equivalent of what was said about interracial couples when I was in high school, which is now much more common.

I just don’t know where my place is, as a substitute. I’m not going to run into classes and announce I’m gay. But what if something gay comes up, topically, during class? Can I talk to them about my experiences as a gay man? Can I point out gay subtext in books? Or when I know an author is gay? Or historical figures? No one has ever had this conversation with me.

Let me explain how my job works. If a teacher has called in sick during the evening or early morning, the school district’s personnel coordinator will call me between six and seven-AM and ask if I am available to sub that day. We also schedule ahead of time, if a teacher has requested time off. The more I answer my phone in the morning and show that I am reliable, the more the personnel director will continue calling me. The more I teach and have favorable comments made about me from students, teachers, teaching aides, and front office workers, whomever it is I work with, the more I get called for work. My job is dependent upon my performance.

I feel good about giving back to the community. I find it immensely rewarding to help educate young people. What frightens me is ever losing my job for censorship reasons. For misspeaking. For my sociopolitical and religious beliefs, and having those misconstrued as trying to spread “perversion.”

I have a gay friend who was a teaching aide in this district just ten years ago. Some students found his online dating profile. He had listed himself as “Interested In Men.” This profile did not say anything about looking for sexual encounters. There were no photos of him naked or even shirtless. Simply listing himself as looking for a relationship with another man was enough for the school to ask him for his resignation. I just don’t know if I could handle that. Or maybe coming to that is the inevitable conclusion for this job.

I’ve heard of two high school teachers telling their classes extremely homophobic things. One told her class that homosexuality is a perversion equal to bestiality. Another told her students that homosexuals go to hell. Teachers who know well enough that many of their past and present students are gay. Some of them screaming-gay.

To the best of my knowledge, I only had one gay teacher. This individual stayed in the closet for his/her entire career. It wasn’t until the last two or three years before retirement that he/she finally opened up his/her private life to some of the faculty. Up until that point, I had always been led to believe it was an open secret. We all knew it, both students and faculty. It was just never directly addressed, unless we were making fun of him for being a fudge-packer who liked getting his fudge packed by other fudge-packers.

I get standoffish with my male students. Let’s say one takes a liking to me, wants to get to know more about me, during periods of downtime in class will stand next to my desk and want to chitchat with me. I become evasive. I’ll suddenly have other things which require my attention. I’ll act like I’m not interested in talking to him. This is because I don’t want anything to be misconstrued, even retroactively. Say like two weeks or two months or two years from now, the student finds out that I am gay and he could start to reform his memories of our chats and hear words that were not said, inflections that were not inflected.

I guess I’m afraid of the rumors starting again. How good are people’s memories, anyway? Not many of the teachers here were teaching when I was in school. Nobody has said anything to me about it. What happened to me fifteen years ago.

  * * *

The rumor Nate and Scott spread around the school was that my friend Chad and I were gay for each other. If I was going to retaliate, I had to include Chad in my plan because they slurred his name, too. Thing was, while I was actually gay, Chad wasn’t. We had been seen flirting, sure, so that was a reasonable conclusion for Nate and Scott to jump to, but Chad and I both knew it just wasn’t his thing. But, still, the rumor included him, and therefore any retaliation had to include him.

The easy way to go about fighting back would have been to spread an equally nasty rumor about Nate and Scott. Not only did I not have any dirt on them, I felt spreading more rumors would only exacerbate their animosity toward me.

What I really needed was a way to dispel the rumors about Chad and me that would also call Nate and Scott out on their shady tactic of attacking us with gossip. I wanted to call bullshit not just on the rumor, but on gossip in the grander sense. They could say anything they wanted to about me. People talk, but it’s everyone’s choice of whether to listen to gossip. The only way to know a person is to talk and interact with him.

I called Chad and pitched him my idea. We had to throw this back in their faces. Yeah, it would blow over in time, but if we were going to do something about it, now was the time. We had to strike. I wanted to do something that would get the whole school to pay attention. I wanted to make a statement.

I went out and bought two white T-shirts, and a big black marker.

The thing that surprised me was, everybody got it. People were running up to me in the hallways, asking to see the shirt, telling me to turn around and show the back. High fives, hugs. If we’d had digital cameras back then, people would have been taking photos with me. I was the most talked-about person in school for two consecutive days: one that branded me a pariah; the next I was a brave, clever, funny kid with a positive message to give the world. I walked the halls with my head held high. I smiled so much that day I could have died.

A few teachers stopped and asked to see my shirt. Most shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me. Some said they thought it was great, high-fived me. A couple of them stood together, deliberating what they should do about it, but I kept winning. The only teacher I thought I had to worry about was Mrs. Loomis, my Trigonometry teacher. We had been butting heads all year. She called me to the front of her class and asked to see the shirt. Of course I took the opportunity to show it off to the room, and gave my little speech. In large letters, covering the entire front it said: I’M STRAIGHT . . . and on the back it said . . .  CHAD ISN’T.

Mrs. Loomis asked, “Does this ‘Chad’ person know about this?” I assured her he did, and in fact he was wearing a shirt that said: I’M STRAIGHT. . . . . . KYLE ISN’T. I told her we were demonstrating against rumors. She looked annoyed, but couldn’t find anything offensive about the shirt, so she left me alone.

If I had written on the shirt, “I’m not gay…Chad is,” the word “gay” might have been too shocking. I had learned from my experience sophomore year with the teacher telling me to turn my shirt inside-out because it had the word “hell” on it. There would likely be a faculty member who found the word “gay” to be dirty, so I flipped the phrase. Also, Chad and I wearing shirts that said the same thing about each other had a canceling effect. We were both in on the joke, not attacking each other.

  * * *

Author Dave Cullen spent ten years writing Columbine, the most comprehensive account of the before, during, and after of the massacre. The book follows the stories of Dr. Fuselier, an FBI investigator whose son attended Columbine High School, and went on to put together a massive report on Harris and Klebold; Dave Sanders, the one teacher killed in the attack, who saved countless people that day; the brave principal Frank DeAngelis, who has remained at the school and retired in the spring of 2014; some of the injured students; and of course the killers themselves. But there is a conspicuous lack of teacher’s impressions of Eric and Dylan. Many moved after the massacre and understandably wanted to put it behind them.

Brooks Brown’s role in the story is underplayed by Cullen. This may be because he didn’t want to cover too much of what was already in Brown’s memoir, but there is unmistakable tension between Cullen and Brown underlying the text. He makes Brooks out to be a tattletale. When Dylan was unsure whether he wanted to go through with the bombing, he leaked information to Brooks because he knew he and his interfering mother would go to the police. Nothing ever came of their many attempts to get the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate Eric. After the massacre a search warrant for Eric Harris’s house was discovered, made out in full, but was never taken to a judge to be signed. Cullen mentions this, but doesn’t pay much respect to the Browns as the only people in the community who identified Eric as an unstable person, ready to blow any moment. Instead Cullen makes Brooks Brown out to be a media whore, overplaying the “bullying” factor in the killers’ motives.

Fuselier was fascinated with Eric’s journals. They were used as the primary documents to diagnose Eric as a psychopath. Cullen doesn’t question this diagnosis in his book. It is the popular conclusion the psychological community has signed off on. This is preposterous to begin with because how can you diagnose a person with such an extreme personality disorder without having met him? I have not been able to find anything suggesting Dr. Fuselier did any outside research. Did it ever occur to him to listen to KMFDM, and to analyze their song lyrics?

To get you to the point I’m trying to make, let me illuminate for you one more similarity between Dylan and myself: We were both big fans of the industrial band Nine Inch Nails. Dylan especially liked The Downward Spiral, which is bandleader Trent Reznor’s concept album about a protagonist contemplating, then ultimately committing suicide.

If you read my private writings from when I was a teen through my early twenties, I seemed to have adapted the style of Reznor: bleak, melodramatic, self-obsessed, yearning to find a connection to the outside world, while keeping it at arm’s length. That’s how Dylan felt. Of course the music did not cause us to feel that way. He and I were drawn to Nine Inch Nails because we already felt that way. Music helps us explore emotions that we are already experiencing.

If you were to read Eric’s journals and KMFDM’s lyrics side by side, you would find a lot of similarities. Yes, these were Eric’s original thoughts, but he was copying the aesthetic of KMFDM. His journals take on similar structure and themes, the same as Dylan and I were copying Trent Reznor’s.

A person of average intelligence will memorize a song, may write out the lyrics verbatim, the way they were given to him. A person of above average intelligence will emulate the style of song lyrics and structures to write their own.

I am in no way endorsing the theory that violent music is responsible for Eric and Dylan’s actions. If it hadn’t been KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails, they could have just as easily been reading Dante’s Inferno, Faust, or could have found violence within the music of Beethoven or Wagner. To attack art would be to attack a mirror. What I’m trying to say is Dr. Fuselier came up short for not having caught onto the fact that Eric’s rantings were invoking a style of lyricism. Eric was writing poetry. He was creating art.

Was Eric truly a psychopath? Why do I have such a hard time labeling him that? It’s because the more I look into it, the less I believe there even is such a thing as psychopathy. A recent article in Scientific American caught my attention. It’s about a new school of thought about the Belief in Pure Evil (BPE), and how it affects a person’s ethics:

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

  * * *

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

  * * *

Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder which includes antisocial behavior, diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, little control over behavior, and superiority complex. They say psychopaths (which is interchangeable with “sociopath”), while lacking the human emotions of sorrow, sadness, empathy, learn at an early age how to imitate these in order to live alongside fellow human beings. Doesn’t that describe everyone?

Eric was not a psychopath until after he had already killed thirteen people and himself. Before that he was just a boy. With a strict father he loathed but respected. A mother he loved tenderly, but also found annoying. He hated the world. Hated everyone except for people who agreed with his worldview. There weren’t any, really. He probably didn’t even like Dylan that much, but knew from the start he could manipulate him. In a way Dylan was his first pipe bomb. Did Eric believe in God? I know he did. He thought he was godlike and that only he and God truly understood the world.

Eric wanted anarchy. He wanted us all to start killing each other, to arm ourselves to the teeth, to suspect our neighbors of trespasses against us, to prepare for war within our own borders, against each other. That message was received, loud and clear. Well done, Eric.

Empathy is a learned behavior. Some people may be harder to teach than others, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say it’s pointless to try. That’s the current philosophy of our education system. We target those who are good at subjects and those who are bad, and set our focus on them, leaving the ones in the middle alone. We don’t put forth the intensity or the manpower it would require to teach everyone equally. A system that should be a stronghold of egalitarianism has been rendered a socially Darwinistic and paranoid-survivalistic state.

We need to quit being afraid of each other, to show our children how to be fearless. Instead of fortifying our schools to keep people out, we need to start letting more people in.

  * * *

After that day Nate and Scott buried their grudge against me. I heard through the grapevine that Nate decided if I was willing to go that far, then it wasn’t worth his time to mess with me anymore. Things settled down after that. People sifted through the rumors, though, and eventually came around to the truth. Nate, Scott, and the friends I’d come out to assured people I really was gay, but they had been mistaken about Chad. The rumors about Chad going away were also aided by the fact he was going around telling people I was the gay one and he didn’t know how he got roped into the rumor. He even got some of the girls he had slept with to “vouch” for him.

Eventually I realized that on the day of the t-shirts, I hadn’t seen Chad at all since I gave him a ride to school and we put the shirts on in my van. He had taken different routes to his classes to avoid me. Later I got it out of him that, “It was too cold to wear just a t-shirt that day.” He had covered it up with a sweatshirt. He still “technically” wore it. Like that meant anything.

Things did not get better. People quit inviting me to parties. The mutual friends I had with Nate and Scott had to decide who they were going to hang out with. It wasn’t so much a question of loyalty as it was whether they wanted to hang out with the cool guys, or the gay guy who took things a little too far.

The rumor happened about three weeks after I had come out to my family. When Scott called me to warn me “the whole school” was about to find out I was gay, I told my parents about it. We discussed possibly dropping out and getting a GED, maybe going to live with my uncle and enrolling in school there. I decided I would brave it out. I didn’t want to “run away from my problems.” But now when I think back, returning to that school day after day did something to me.

The next fall I went back to school a broken person. I quit all of my activities. Classes were a joke to me. In November I was arrested for possession of alcohol and five counts of drug paraphernalia.

The next morning I went to swimming class early and told my teacher, Mr. Tobias about my arrest. I wanted him to hear it from me before he read about it in the paper. He was the only teacher I had left whom I felt like I got any respect from. He gave me a short, impromptu speech about how this was going to be a “dark mark” on my life and I would have to work hard to restore people’s faith in me.

The next day, after it was in the paper, I saw my sophomore year biology teacher, Mr. Levin in the library. He yelled, “Get over here!,” put me in a headlock, said, “You’re going to shut up and you’re going to listen to me. You fucked up. You know that, don’t you? Nod your head if you understand. Now you’re going to quit fucking up, right?”

Those two were the only teachers who said anything to me about it at all. It was hard to live up to either of their advice in the short term. I made a swift decision to graduate early.

My swan song to high school was my final report card. It read: ABCDF. I orchestrated that. I knew exactly how much effort to put into each class to get the grade that I wanted. It was a joke I’m sure at the time only I found funny. A joke on how arbitrary grades are. A joke on my younger self for my goal to get straight-A’s all through high school. My goal to be valedictorian, to earn a National Honors Scholarship. Goals that had at one point all been well within my reach.

It got worse. After I graduated I got arrested again. Alcohol again, but this time I also had marijuana in my possession, not just paraphernalia. I lost my job as a lifeguard. My employers had overlooked the first arrest because I went to Teen Court, did community service, and proved I was clean by passing a drug test.

At the end of my first semester of college I flunked all of my classes, dropped down to two classes my second semester, and just barely passed those. I was so jaded by my high school experience that I lost all work ethic and still held onto hostility toward educational institutions, even while I was attending a completely different, much more accepting one. This behavior continued well into my twenties, as I slowly built myself back into a semblance of the student I used to be, albeit a deeply scarred one.

I know I’m being maudlin about my experience, but keep in mind I’m telling it to you the way I have told it to myself over and over again. I want to take full responsibility for my fucking everything up, but I know it wasn’t completely my fault. The school failed me. My parents noticed all of this as I was quite oblivious to where the school was not doing its job. The year after I graduated my father even wrote a letter to the school board, urging them to scrap their oppressive Secondary Code of Conduct:

[Kyle] went from being tied for first in his class at the end of his freshman year to 94th ….the administrative support for students at the front office does not exist except for scheduling and discipline. What appears to be so obvious a need and so simple to implement keeps on going unattended year after year! All that happens is progress in making new rules to discourage kids or get them to drop out or graduate early.

My daughter has recently started working for teen court. In the short time she has been there she has noticed a pattern of kids in trouble with the law. A frequent beginning is a kid getting into trouble at school. An example is too many tardies resulting in ISSP[2] and sometimes the punishment has been 3 ISSPs. During ISSP many teachers do not cooperate in giving homework or make-up work. The result has been in many cases the student going from B – A student to D – F. Once that happens, the student is discouraged and the risk of dropping out increases. After Kyle was arrested, my review of the facts of the arrest led me to the conclusion that he could have easily prevailed in criminal court because of many factors based upon his constitutional rights and the statutes. Basically, the arrest should not have occurred. We chose not to fight the charges. Nonetheless, Kyle, a kid who needs help and encouragement, was suspended for 30 days from all activities. When receiving his sentence from the school district, I asked what suggestions the district representative had for helping Kyle get back on track. The school representative’s response was “Kyle is trying to find himself.” No suggestions were offered i.e. that is your problem not ours.

  * * *

I’m not trying to say school officials had to cater to my every need. But what my dad and I are trying to understand is what good is coming from what they are doing?

I didn’t need to be medicated. I know that much. I needed someone to take an interest in me. I needed a support system to check up on me, to let me express what I was going through.

A couple years ago I got together with my freshman year English teacher. We spent three hours one afternoon, talking over coffee. I told her early in the conversation that I was gay, and that I am very concerned about the nation’s recent spike in teenage suicide. Then I brought up the weekly journals she assigned, that were an open source for all of her students to write about things that were on their minds. My parents saved all of their children’s important schoolwork, and I had recently gone through all of mine. I read through all the journals I had written for Miss Schneider, even transcribed them to my computer.

Reading them as an adult, it was clear to me that what I was looking at were the guarded confessions of a gay teen. Although I did not come out directly to Miss Schneider in them, I was trying to clear a path to that process. You can see me working through these questions on the page. My intense feelings for one boy in particular were the subject of many of these journals. There were entire entries about my frustration with friends who made gay jokes about me at overnights, more so than the any of the other guys in our group. They caught onto it very early. Earlier than I did.

I told all of this to Miss Schneider, in a long, multipart question I had forming for her, because I was sure she must have had some dilemma of her own, about where her place was in this matter, knowing she could lose her job if she suggested to a fifteen year old that he might be gay. Did she think about trying to simply foster me in some way, to guide me so I would figure it out for myself, all the while suggesting her classroom was a safe place for me?

Her answer disquieted me. She never had a clue. She said she doesn’t look at people “that way.” I didn’t have the spirit left to ask her what she meant by “that way.”

  * * *

I look at what Eric and Dylan did and what I did on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the very worst possible thing a person can do: mass homicide; killing innocent people. Next to that would be suicide. I’m somewhere over on the other side of the spectrum. Coming out probably would have been then best possible thing I could have done, but I didn’t quite do that. I made a statement, but it was the wrong statement. I addressed it. Kept going to school. Survived. Didn’t kill anybody. Although I wanted to.

I did the thing that was right for me in that moment. I don’t know if at the age of 17 I was capable of coming totally out. I did go to high school with people who were out. Some of them had been out since grade school. They told their families. They all had time to prepare for the stormy future. Those early ones, the proud ones, they were the ones whose property got vandalized. Who got the harassing phone calls. Who went out to the parking lot every day hoping their cars weren’t vandalized again. Who couldn’t go up to the front of the classroom without hearing someone pretend to cough and say the word “dyke” or “faggot.” Who people quit making eye contact with in middle school. Who felt unsafe every day of their lives.

I also have friends who came out later than I did, who waited until college like my parents would have liked for me to have done. I also have friends my age—early thirties—who are still not out. And yes, I have known people who were out to only a few people, and decided to kill themselves instead of trying to live their lives out in the open.

The morning of Columbine was the day after my grandmother’s funeral. My family had buried both of my father’s parents in less than one week from each other. They died one after the other, within days. Bang Bang. My grandfather was my best friend. We became close over the past seven or eight years since his wife started losing her mind and was in and out of nursing homes. He died without knowing I was gay.

I had come out to my parents and older siblings a little over a year before his death, just weeks before I was outed at school. My parents instructed me to not tell my grandfather and to wait for my younger siblings to get a little bit older before I told them. In fact, my parents asked exactly how many people I had told, suggested maybe that was enough, and to refrain from telling anybody else. They were pissed this embarrassing secret had gone outside the family. To them, my belief that I was gay was something that should go through a test phase with the family first, because what if I didn’t feel the same way in five, ten years? Because then I would wish I could go back and unsay the things I had said.

How little straight people understand about what the closet is like and why we feel the need to come out. For years I debated whether my grandfather died without “knowing the real me.” I hear so many gay men say being gay is “the least interesting thing about them.” I cringe at the cliche of it, even though I agree. There are days I don’t even want it brought up in conversation, but we all know those people who always have to make it part of every conversation they have with us. No, it is not the most interesting thing about me, but I will say this: It is essential information about me. Anyone in my life who does not know it, up until the moment I tell them, our relationship has been predicated on a lie.

I feel like I am lying to my students every day. They could learn from knowing the true me. I feel like I am hiding myself from my colleagues, who could also learn from knowing the true me. Perhaps they won’t even mind that much. I haven’t given them the chance to have that discourse with me.

  * * *

My mother looked at me like she didn’t know who I was anymore. My words exactly to her were: “Don’t be surprised if this happens more often.” I said that the morning she told me there were kids shooting people at their high school. The day we now refer to as “Columbine.”

She and my father were mortified. “What do you mean?” she asked, like I knew something she didn’t. Like us teenagers were using the Internet to organize this sort of thing.

“I just mean kids are really pissed off nowadays, Mom. There’s a lot of hatred in the air at high schools. You can sense it. It doesn’t surprise me that a teenager would take a gun into his high school and shoot up the place. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”

I followed that up with, “I’m going to TJ’s.” The Columbine massacre happened on April 20th—the holiday of pot smokers. Graduated early from high school, I was living in my parents’ attic, a sexless gay eighteen year-old who had just broken up with the girl I had been dating to try to assimilate to hetero-normativity, and I had just put two of my grandparents in the ground. I was going to get high as fuck that day.

My friends and I bought a lot of weed and had a longterm plan in place for that day, but it got interrupted for the first few hours because we were watching live footage on CNN of this atrocity. We were back-and-forth watching it, trying to pull ourselves up out of it and have a good time, but at the same time acknowledging how terrifying it was and how we hoped people would survive, although we were mature enough to realize there were going to be casualties. I remember the whiteboard up against the window: 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.

We also understood that it could have been happening to us, that one of our fellow students, somebody maybe we never even would have suspected, some kid who you never even knew his first name, could pull something like this. And that’s who we suspected these kids were.

As we watched the footage I said something even more macabre to my best friend, Mark. In complete confidence I solemnly said to him how I really felt about the massacre taking place before us on live television.

The more I sat there watching it unfold on TV, I thought back to that night, lying in my bed in my pitch dark room. How badly I wanted to do what those kids were now doing at their school. And the more I thought about it that day in 1999, I had to let it out to somebody. I leaned over to Mark, told him in total confidence, and just out of a place that I needed to let this thing out, I said, “You know those two kids in there, shooting up their school? They’ve got to be having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.”

  * * *

The first attack on a school in the US was in 1927. There were none between then and 1966. Between 1966 and 1999 there were 46. That is 1.39 a year.

Since April 20th, 1999 there have been 75 attacks on schools. 5.35 a year. Meaning one every 68 days. That’s one every two months since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. That’s 3.85 times the frequency they occurred before April 20th, 1999. Attacks on schools have quadrupled in frequency since Eric and Dylan.

Overheard during the Columbine massacre: “This is what we always wanted to do. This is awesome!” “Who wants to be killed next?” “Peekaboo!”

They were laughing a lot, joking back and forth to each other from across the halls as they tossed bombs and blasted their firearms. They questioned victims, laughed sadistically at whatever they answered—everything was a joke to them by that point. There were no correct answers to save your life. Some they shot, some they left alone. Everything was random—because they still wanted to blow up the school. They picked people off for fun as they made their way to the cafeteria, where they tried to detonate the bombs manually. This failed, so they retreated to the library, where each shot himself in the head. On the count of three.

Dylan’s shirt said WRATH. Eric’s said NATURAL SELECTION.

They split a pair of black gloves. Klebold wore one on his left hand. Harris wore one on his right. No one can explain why they did this.

  * * *

Will and some of his friends and I are standing at that strange nexus between the doorway and the hall, that little space of freedom students are always inching towards at the end of a period, and it’s up to me to draw my own version of the arbitrary line they are not supposed to cross. I’ve subbed for Will four times by my count. He’s the kind of student who tries to push the boundaries in the student-teacher relationship—he was the one who asked me if the teacher I was subbing for smoked pot. Will is tall, blond, cute in an Anthony Michael Hall way, and I think he knows it. He’s smart, but hip, and his shirts are always conspicuously slogan-free.

Will asks me what my tattoo represents. I give him an honest answer: it’s an infinity symbol wrapped around my wrist. He presses, “But what does it mean to you?”

I launch into how it represents my belief in an infinite number of parallel universes. I explain: “It used to be science fiction, but now it’s a widely-accepted theory. And they even say that when parallel universes come into contact with each other, a new Big Bang occurs and a new universe is created. So Big Bangs are happening all the time all around us, but we just haven’t figured out how to detect them yet.”

“You don’t believe in God, do you?”

That clever little shit stopped me in my tracks.

I hadn’t prepared an answer to that one yet. I was immediately uncomfortable and answered, “I don’t think I should be discussing that with you.”

“Come on,” Will said, “We’ve grown past that.”

“Okay  . . .  I’m an atheist,” I said it like it was a bad thing. I almost sounded ashamed of myself. I thought about “The Moment of Silence.” I thought about the stupid fucking “Pledge of Allegiance.” I decided to clarify for Will: “Actually, I’m a hardcore atheist and I think the world would be a much better place without religion. That’s how I really feel, William.”

His little friend asked, “What’s an atheist?”

Will answered, “Atheists are people who don’t believe in anything.”

“No, no, no, no,” I stopped him emphatically, “That’s totally not what an atheist is. I just don’t believe there is such a thing as a god. I do believe in lots of things. I just told you I believe in parallel universes. I believe in quantum mechanics. I believe in science and I believe in people.”

  * * *

These are places where we spend a lot of our lives. Although these institutions tell us they are “Helping Students Achieve Their Dreams,” they tend to garner hostile, cold associations. People dread being in these places, either from the terrible things they have heard of taking place within the walls, or from the terrible things that have happened to us while we were there. Facing our horrors every day and learning to coexist with people we hate and fear is part of growing up. But it does take its toll. While they may form some of us to be strong, they render many of us weak. These environments unwittingly cultivate anomalies like Eric and Dylan.

People who lack empathy. People who spend their days telling other people what they cannot do. Don’t wear that shirt. Don’t wear so much makeup. Don’t say those words. Don’t think those things. Don’t be that way. People who live their lives upon a foundation of doublespeak. People who say they have “A Commitment to Excellence,” while they perform the exact opposite every day, as if it’s their job.

I am qualified to teach college, because I hold a master’s degree, but I am not qualified to teach K-12 because I lack the all-important degree in Education. To become a qualified teacher I would have to go back to school for two or three more years. At thirty-three I am not in a rush to do that.

At times in a classroom when I have gotten students to cooperate with me and each other, in moments of triumph, I ask myself, can I do this? Get up early every day? Make compelling lesson plans? Lead discussions and be engaged with every student? Live off a small salary? I am capable of all of it.

Will I give my life over to it?

 

 

[1]    KMFDM is an initialism for Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated as “No pity for the majority.” False interpretations of the band’s name have been “Kidnap Madonna for Drug Money,” “Kylie Minogue Fans Don’t Masturbate,” and the one I was led to believe by my friends, “Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode.”

[2]    In-School Suspension

 

BIO:

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s MFA program for Creative Writing, where he specialized in nonfiction.

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john oliver hodges author

Ethel’s Mountain

by John Oliver Hodges

 

Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”

Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.

Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.

Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.

Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?

In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.

I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.

Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.

“Outside?”

“I can dig you a hole,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

“I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”

“I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.

Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”

“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

“Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”

“I’m a woman of the new world.”

“The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.

“The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”

“Funny?”

“Don’t listen to me,” I said.

“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

“What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”

“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.

The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.

It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.

“They bit you?” Ethel said.

I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.

“You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”

The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.

“No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.

“It hurts,” I said.

“I know.”

“They attacked me. I was just—”

“You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.

“Careful,” I said.

“The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”

“I remember Uncle Stanley.”

“Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”

“He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.

“I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes, but I do. I mind.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”

Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.

Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.

“What?” I said.

“I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”

“Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”

I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”

I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.

Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.

Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?

Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.

“Can’t say.”

“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”

“Is that Rumi?”

Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

“Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”

Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”

“Nix?”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”

“I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”

“So what would you like to do with your life?”

“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

“No, really,” I said.

“The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”

“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.

“When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“She wants to be a queen,” I said.

“You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”

The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”

We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”

“Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”

“What?”

“Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.

What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.

“Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.

I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”

“You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”

Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.

My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.

As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.

“There you are,” Ethel said.

“The one and only.”

“Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”

“Sleep sounds good.”

“Wait a second,” Ethel said.

“What, what is it?”

“I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”

“No, uh uh.”

Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

“Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”

“No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”

I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”

I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”

“That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”

“Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.

“Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.

Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”

Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.

But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”

“Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”

“I’d like to give you money.”

I thought about it.

“To talk,” he clarified.

“I see.”

“You look dead broke,” he said.

“You wanna talk about what?”

“I just need voices in my life is all.”

“My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.

“Ouch,” I said.

He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

“I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”

Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.

“For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”

“I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.

I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”

Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.

“Pain,” Abby said.

I sat up. “What?”

Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”

“For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”

“Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.

“You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”

Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

“I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.

Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”

“Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?

“Do you know what a scumbag is?”

Please don’t do this, I thought.

“A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.

Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.

The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.

My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.

 

 

BIO

john oliver hodgesJohn Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.

 

 

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Venus Awaits

Venus Awaits!

by Charlie Brown

 

When I heard the news that Gerhard de Shannon had died, it threw me into a time warp. News being a medium of the now, as opposed to history as a medium of the then, imparts feelings ranging along the whole spectrum of available time. That report made the seventeen-year-old inside of me ready to cry.

But let me back up, for you probably don’t know who de Shannon was. You aren’t alone, because very few people knew his name.

He was a science fiction writer, author of many novels. I can’t put an exact number on it because De Shannon’s name graced no hardcovers. His purpose in the literary scene was to be the hand crank on the pulp machine. It didn’t matter what subject he chose, his publishers would plunge into his work to feel up the curvy breast of the least common denominator. His rumination on humanity’s isolation “One Stands Still In Time” came out as “She-Pirate of the Nazi Space Cruiser,” the cover featuring a leather bikini clad woman who did not appear in the book. And since Black Out Press’ main distribution point was pornography shops, it didn’t matter.

Hopefully, few of the self-love aficionados were driven to existential despair when they actually read the book.

 

Now, in 2010, my favorite childhood author is as anonymous as the person who coined the phrase that’s the point of this story: “The golden age of science fiction is 13.”

 

But now I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, he was my favorite writer, but I didn’t find him first. That would be Joey Greenbaum.

Joey found a collection of de Shannon’s novels at the bottom of his father’s underwear drawer, each missing the cover. So he actually read them and was inspired by the prose. The books’ illustrations were later found between his parents’ mattress and box spring. They didn’t excite him as much.

But that was true for most things. Joey only had two passions in life: sci-fi and computers. Back in Cleveland in 1976, when we met de Shannon, you would have said they were the same thing.

Joey would become one of the first programmers at Atari, working on those blocky video games that, when we saw them in the 1980s, felt like an “Amazing Stories” cover come to life. He’s a millionaire many times over, but whenever I see him, he wears a clip-on tie, insisting the common hand knot “does not compute.” And, yes, he says things like that.

 

But in the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, people like Joey didn’t have regular access to programming terminals. So, when he had to leave the high school computer lab for home, he spent his free time breaking the spines of paperbacks.

His eyesight teetered on blindness, so he had to get extra close to make out the words on those pulpy pages. This didn’t diminish the speed of his reading, usually passing along the book in under three days.

Joey and I, as well as our small group of friends, read the classics first. Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke hooked us, but soon any book with a robot or spaceship on the cover sang its siren song, the 75 cent price tag falling within our allowance’s borders.

 

I was the only one not in the computer club. I was in the band. Being the geek within the geek group led to loneliness, especially when your best friends would sometimes only speak FORTRAN (Jesus, Esperanto would have been easier for me), but it worked out alright.

I would go on to be a drummer in one of those New York post-punk groups who’ve come back into fashion. We were never big, as we crammed too much jazz into our guitar-drum duo, but I got to see some of the greatest music ever made while few people were watching.

Once Joey told me he was disappointed I wasn’t Devo’s drummer. I said I would have rather been in Pere Ubu. He said he didn’t know what that meant.

 

But back to de Shannon and why he was in Cleveland. Because we read so much sci-fi, Joey decided we should also create it. After all, with a few weird ideas, some faster-than-light travel and a couple of laser gun battles, the story would just write itself.

We incorporated the Shaker Heights Galactic Writers’ Group, the meeting hall Joey’s basement. It was incumbent upon each of the members to help decorate, so I went to the used record store and bought Yes albums strictly for their covers. Tony Maselli, who ushered at a grindhouse downtown, had some old horror movie posters. And, after Joey worked out the design grid on graph paper, Dave Pulaski glued them to the wall, then painted a space scene around the paper. We weren’t cool enough to splash out for a black light.

 

It occurs to me that you may not know who Pere Ubu is. Just listen to “Songs of the Bailing Man.” You’ll either love it or hate it. It makes no difference to me.

 

Three months after forming the club and two months after the basement’s nerd psychedelia was finished, Joey found the de Shannon books. They didn’t just excite us; they ripped open the fabric of time and space, revealing a hidden universe way cooler than anything we envisioned.

All of the issues kept to the side in the Golden Age, like sex and drugs, came front and center in de Shannon’s work. But beyond that, there was an overarching darkness, the main theme being an inevitable, doomed future for the human race because of interstellar forces beyond our control. Pure ambrosia to the high school sophomore who can’t get laid.

Each of the back covers featured this endorsement: “From the author of ‘Venus Awaits!’” But when we asked for it at the Walden Books in Russel Park Mall, we got blank stares. Asking them to order it, we found it was out of print.

As spring turned to summer and the heat of the coming Bicentennial celebration ratcheted up to simmer, Pulaski provided the breakthrough. Dave wanted to go to art school, convincing his father to take him to New York to scope out campuses. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of attending, as five minutes in the city would have his union-dues dad screaming about animals free in the streets, but he wanted a shot at seeing the city and some of the museums.

 

Pulaski never came to visit me the whole time I lived in New York. He settled into a job illustrating ads for local newspaper and TV. He told me one Christmas when I visited one trip was more than enough.

“Christ, how can you live with those freaks? They’re just being weird for weird’s sake.” I told him most of those cats were my friends because they liked the music I played. He told me he started listening to Yes because of those albums I bought and he preferred Styx and Kansas to my band. The blue collar never fades.

 

Pulaski came to the Galactic Writers’ Club giggling after his Manhattan run. When we asked him about the big city, he said nothing, unfolding a wispy paper. Greater New York City phonebook, Desplas to Devigne. There, misspelled with a capital D, was Gerhard de Shannon and his Lower East Side address.

I thought we should call him, but that seemed too immediate to Joey. As club president, he decided upon a plan: a writing workshop lead by de Shannon. We would pay for his train fare, plus an honorarium. A phone call to Amtrak priced the ticket at 50 bucks. We would offer him another $150 for his time, also requesting one copy of “Venus Awaits!” It took another three weeks, but he sent a letter of acceptance.

He would come in mid-June for a weekend and stay in the meeting hall, because Joey’s basement was the only one that could house a guest.

 

I don’t have to imagine what went through de Shannon’s head when he got the letter. When I moved to NYC, I looked him up at the old address. He had been committed to Bellevue and, after a few days of working up the nerve, I went to visit him. He recognized me right away and we talked once a month for a few years, until I started touring and didn’t have the time anymore. When I got back from one road haul, he had checked out of the hospital, but hadn’t returned to his apartment. I never saw him again.

When I first visited, I asked him about that weekend and his amber teeth spread into a smile. Here’s the thing about young writers: de Shannon hated them. Obviously, you’re thinking his lack of success made him frustrated at the boundless energy and high self-delusion of the initiate scribe. But you’d be wrong.

Yes, writers bothered him. The company of his peers left him breathless as they consumed all the oxygen in a room. The hard blowing wind of self-importance made him seasick.

But it was the young part that bothered him most. While true that de Shannon could barely tolerate a room populated by more than five people, twenty bottles and a jazz-filled jukebox, the under-25 set triggered the rusty fishhooks of regret stuck in his back. Youth was wasted; it was his only real philosophy.

But the money we offered would cover the rent, assuring him one month free from hustling the netherworlds of the publishing industry. And he had never been to Cleveland.

 

He obviously meant the last part as a joke. When I tell people where I’m from, they always say some version of “that’s too bad.” I mean, how can you explain the inside joke of the USA was actually a great place to live? It wasn’t, but I have to defend the city. I need to pretend I’m making my parents proud.

 

The initial rush of a guaranteed paycheck was replaced by fear of not being able to locate “Venus Awaits!” He called the used book places, The Strand and all that, to see if there was a copy floating about. He gave them the alternative titles: “The Raft to Pleasure,” “Of Alien Bondage,” even “Venus’ Hairy Delta.” Nothing.

That meant a trip to Times Square, the old 1970s “Taxi Driver” Square before Rudy Giuliani washed his cultural bleach over the streets and stores. He decided to go during the day, mostly so solicitation from prostitutes and pimps would be a trickle, not a spurting hose. The bustling hub wrapped its sleazy neon in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotism, vendors hawking cheap polyester flags next to spank mags and dildos. Some of these silicon johnsons were star spangled for the holiday.

“Made me goddamn proud to be an American,” de Shannon told me between puffs of a cig.

He crapped out on the first two stores, but Friendly’s, one of the back alley joints, proved to be a virtual archive of Gerhard de Shannon’s oeuvre. But he had to keep within the budget, so the 35-cent copy with the cover title “The Voyage Between Her Legs” (a translation of the German title) would come to Cleveland.

 

In Bellevue, he reminisced about that edition of the book. He had sold it to Black Out as a value-added reprint so they would also publish “Ozone Nights.” They would retitle the new book “Steamy Moon Stories.”

He remembered what Black Out’s publisher, Martin Blandiss, who de Shannon described as a thin, balding man who always wore a vest but never a jacket, told him that day. “Gerhard, if you could write a sex scene, I’d triple your pay.”

“I responded, ‘Martin, I’m touched. I didn’t know you actually read my books.’ We laughed for years over that one.”

 

De Shannon pulled the novel down, noting the address of the store in case he ever needed more of his work. But, as he started towards the counter, his inner voice started yelling at him, wanting him out of that shop pronto.

Tucking the book into the back pocket of his jeans, de Shannon sprinted out the front door. The guy behind the counter, a piggy 23-year-old with stringy blonde hair, chased de Shannon to the street, running full-on into a vice squad phalanx about to raid the place. The cops didn’t stop de Shannon and the author had his prize for the Shaker Heights boys.

 

The voice in his head is not a metaphor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

**

Joey went with his father to the train station to pick up de Shannon. I look back now and can only imagine what this man saw when he descended into the basement that Saturday. It may be hard for you to remember, but the teenager feels grown up, that adults should treat him with the respect of a peer, when all the elders see is a bubble of youthful gas.

So this man who had lived a half-century walked into a room with nine kids sitting on the floor. Fashions of the time meant we were wearing ringed t-shirts with blocky letters, candy-striped jeans belled at the bottom and thick, black plastic glasses. Yes, each and every one of us had the same frames. Only the prescription varied. Worst of all, seven of ten had hair cascading over our foreheads.

When I asked de Shannon how he saw us, the writer’s instinct took over: “I looked upon da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and it smelled like Clearasil.”

 

Maybe there is something to biology determining our lot in life. How many self-described nerds fall into that visual? I don’t understand the haircut thing, but I was blessed with back-flowing locks. I could have had the perfect feathered middle-part cut when the ‘80s turned, but by then I was too punk for that.

But the glasses? In the Middle Ages, Joey would have been considered blind and would have had to beg for food. But his eyesight, which prevented any sports acumen, led to his intense studies. Remove Michael Jordan’s eyesight and he could’ve been a prize-winning scientist.

But what amazes me is the people who look like this now made it cool. When my old band mate and I went on a reunion tour, we saw all sorts of women sporting this look who, bodily, were more attractive than our original fans. I preferred the first set, as both them and me were pleased as hell someone actually found the other desirable.

 

When de Shannon joined us in the basement, I immediately felt his presence. His hair was ghostly silver and hung to his collar, sideburns and goatee still flecked with black. He wore a patterned polyester long-sleeved shirt despite the season and his bell-bottomed jeans covered thin, Italian leather zip-up boots. Whatever he was, he was different from our parents and I wanted to be him.

I saw my friends felt the same awe. Except Joey. He had the whole car ride for the aura of hip to envelope him. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed and head bobbing, a stance that hip-hoppers would eventually make iconic. Joey told me in the ‘90s “it was the coolest I ever felt.” And he knew Steve Jobs.

The only seat was a hot pink beanbag chair which was offered to the guest of honor. De Shannon sank into it, assuming a half-lotus position. He held out his hands, open-palmed. “What’s on the agenda, cats?”

We delved into our writings. It was rough going for most of the guys. I had no delusions what I was writing approached readable, much less would soon be featured behind a four-color cover on a dime store rack, but the rest of the guys thought they were creating decent prose. De Shannon destroyed these thoughts.

But he said it in an encouraging way. He used a red pen to scratch out wide swaths of unnecessary exposition, tired dialogue and bad ideas. But a few of us got hand-drawn five-pointed stars indicating de Shannon liked a phrase or idea.

Morty Sherrod got three such stars and, when de Shannon handed him back his typed pages, he cried with joy. De Shannon told us, “Don’t think you’re all doing badly. I threw away five novels before I sent one out. You just have to learn at what point you stop being mediocre and begin actually writing.”

 

Morty was the only one of us who went on to be a writer. He went to the University of Southern California, studying screenwriting. Coming out of college, he got hired by Roger Corman to write and direct sci-fi and fantasy exploitation films. He once told me that de Shannon’s words kept him going when he was looking for work. “I knew eventually I would begin writing, just like Gerhard said. I guess Roger didn’t care if I was mediocre.”

When I saw him in 1987, he looked like an extra from “Miami Vice,” wearing a white sport coat and mirrored sunglasses, although he still had a pudgy waistline. He summed up his life this way: “I still have all those perverted thoughts of a fifteen-year-old geek. I just get to turn them into movies.”

He would marry three C-list actresses, dumping each wife when they turned thirty.

 

When the carnage of the workshop ended, de Shannon looked drained. It was closing in on seven o’clock and he rubbed his face with both hands, then shook out his arms and fingers. “Let’s get a beer.”

Teenaged heads darted from side to side. Nine sets of eyes eventually landed on me, as I once went to a bar to see The Ramones. I cleared my throat as de Shannon stared me down.

“There’s a liquor store close by. My dad always goes there.” I had no idea if my dad went there or not, but I did to buy Utz’s chips.

“Perfect. Who’s driving?”

The heads swiveled to Joey, who had to drive his kid sister to ballet. He slunk upstairs, returning with keys to the Chevelle station wagon, chin tucked in his neck. “We also have to pick up the pizza?” He ended on that questioning note soon to be how every young girl would speak.

De Shannon opened his arms. “Groovy. It shall be a feast.”

The pizza place and the liquor store were within a block of each other, so we split into two groups. Joey flew solo to grab the three pies and I brought de Shannon into The Cork’N’Crate for the liquid portion.

This was long before Americans cared about the quality of their booze, so the store was four aisles of bottles and a buzzing fridge unit. The best wine was Gallo. Beef jerky on a clip rack by the register was probably the best-tasting thing in the whole store

De Shannon went straight to the refrigerator, stopping in front of the Genesee. I saw him counting on his fingers, then he turned to me.

“Guess we’ll need a case.” He grabbed the suitcase of beer by the cardboard handle and walked up to the counter. The pudgy counterman, close to sixty and grey flat top standing at attention, swiveled his head to look at me.

“You ain’t buying this for him, are you?” He had that scratchy, high-pitched whine of the Ohio native. “Cause we got plenty of pop is he’s thirsty.”

“No, sir. My nephew’s just giving me a ride down the road. Got a card game in a few and needed something to lubricate the night, if you get my drift?” Here, de Shannon put his arm around my shoulder. I felt this weird pride, as if we were actually related. “He’s a good kid. You ain’t gotta worry about him.” De Shannon mimicked the counterman’s voice, but the guy didn’t notice.

“Okay, then.” He accepted a ten dollar bill from de Shannon and watched us walk out the door.

Joey sat in the driver’s seat as de Shannon slipped into shotgun. I rode next to three cardboard cartons wafting tomato- and pepperoni-scented air.   Joey’s eyes narrowed behind his thick glasses. “That’s a lot of beer.”

In five minutes, we were back in Joey’s driveway. Mr. Greenbaum was watering the lawn and the stream of water ceased as he released the metal pistol grip screwed to the top of the hose.

“What is that, now?” Joey tried to block the case of beer from his dad’s sight, but Mr. Greenbaum cut us off from the front door. “That’s a whole lot of beer, son.”

Joey looked like a flower trying to close its petals, while de Shannon maintained a blasé demeanor. I looked at Mr. Greenbaum staring down his nose through his own thick glasses. It took a few seconds, but de Shannon broke the stalemate.

“Well, there are ten of us, Eugene.” De Shannon lifted his eyebrows. Mr. Greenbaum’s face erupted with a toothy grin.

“Aw, hell, Joey. I didn’t know you even liked beer.”

“I don’t!” Joey’s head popped out of his collar now.

“Now I know why the six pack doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.”

“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Mr. Greenbaum elbowed de Shannon in the ribs. “When I was their age, jeez. We would do anything to get our hands on some of these. The hard part was finding an opener. With these pop tops, it’s just too easy, right?”

“Better get these in fridge, boys. Also, let’s eat before the pizza cools off.” De Shannon walked through the front door and Mr. Greenbaum went back to the hose. Joey grabbed my arm as we walked inside.

“You know I don’t drink beer. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Joey, jeez, cool it. It’s okay.” I opened the door to the basement. “Your dad wants you to drink.”

Joey shook his head, but he accepted it as we set up for dinner.

 

I had never drank beer before either. There was no reason behind it. We just didn’t think about it. I know the teenage years are supposed to be a rebellious time, but I didn’t feel that way until I got to New York. There I pulled a 180 and tried everything put in front of me. I’m not proud, but it’s true.

I laughed in Ian MacKaye’s face when he told me about his whole straight edge punk thing. I said, “No sex, no drugs, no booze, huh? I did that at fifteen, just not by choice.”

I like Minor Threat’s music, but come on. Most punks were nerds anyway. Let them have some fun.

 

After the pizza was gone, de Shannon loosened up. He had drunk three beers, telling us about meeting Isaac Asimov. De Shannon introduced himself at the Hugo Awards and Asimov refused to shake his hand.

“He told me, ‘You cheapen our art, Mr. de Shannon.’ I told him ‘Nightfall’ was the worst story ever written and he responded that it had been reprinted many time. ‘Now who’s cheap?’ I said and walked away.”

“But I love ‘Nightfall,’” Pulaski said.

“In five years, you’ll see it for the hack work it is.” He finished his fourth beer in a big gulp and laid out that old chestnut. “Remember, guys, the golden age of science fiction is 13.”

“Wait, you mean the stuff we’re reading is bad?” Joey looked angry because he hated wasting time. He thought he was investing in something by reading so many books and now one of his heroes had told him otherwise. But de Shannon softened.

“Not all of it. The thing is those older sci-fi guys have great ideas, but they don’t write very well. They see their stories as a way to get across a vision of the future, not as an exercise in literary excellence.” He popped the top on a fifth can. “When you get older, you’ll want to read something at a higher level. Maybe it will be the New Wave guys like Ballard or Morcock. Hopefully, you might read some Joyce or Faulkner. Or Hemingway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. But you will outgrow the boom-pow stuff, because it’s for kids.”

“Are we wasting our time reading your books?” Joey’s face was boiling red.

“I don’t know.” He pulled on the beer, receding into the bean bag. The room quieted for a whole minute and some of the guys looked ready to leave. I opened a second beer, facing de Shannon directly.

“You said sci-fi guys have great ideas. Where do they come from?” This focused all my friends. Even Joey looked curious again. We had been struggling with finding stories to tell and now, maybe, this guy could give us some insight.

 

Of course I know this is a standard question to any writer and one no professional wants to answer. I have been asked a million times how to write a song. I usually say put words on paper and your hands on an instrument and see how they go together. Nobody ever likes this.

 

But this hoary question caused a metamorphosis in de Shannon. His lips slumped into a frown and his eyes bagged. Maybe it was the beer, but he was upset.

“How many times I’ve wanted to answer that question. They always ask it and I never say anything. Well, fuck it. Right here and now, I’m telling you the truth.” He went to the wall where Pulaski had drawn our solar system and de Shannon pointed to Venus. “After World War II, I was stationed at Okinawa. In the middle of nighttime guard duty, a great light blinded me and I awoke in an alien spaceship.

“They said they were from Venus and I was chosen to be their herald. In 2010, they would take over Earth and I was to prepare the human race for their eventual slavery. They implanted something in my brain, I think it must be like one of those computer tapes, and I should transcribe their messages for broadcast.

“From that night on, I heard the voice in my head prompting me to write. It also looks out for me, like when I was buying this.” He went to his overnight bag and handed me the book he stole from Times Square.

“What’s it saying now?” Joey sounded afraid. De Shannon turned and faced the corner like a misbehaving fourth grader.

“To kill all of you because you know too much.” His voice caught on his words and he sobbed.

The meeting ended quickly after that. De Shannon slumped in the corner weeping was too much raw emotion for kids who fought to keep theirs tamped down. I was the last to leave, as Mr. Greenbaum came to take de Shannon to the train station. Joey said later he was too scared to have that crazy person staying in his house overnight.

The writer looked at me, his face like an off-kilter Comedy mask as Mr. Greenbaum pointed him upstairs.

“Kid, it’s a good thing those Venus guys are terrible writers. Nobody could believe the shit I wrote. And, most importantly, nobody wants to read it.” He yelled out, “Venus awaits!” He laughed finally, but it was cold and froze my insides.

 

When I saw de Shannon in Bellevue, the first thing he told me was the voice was gone.

“I don’t know if the tape broke or if they gave up. But the messages have stopped and I don’t have to write them down anymore.”

“Then why are you still in here?”

“You think that was the only thing wrong with me?” His smile made me laugh and I promised to sneak in some beer. I could never get it past the front desk.

**

What bothers me is that de Shannon’s death came in the year the Venusians said they would cause the end of Earth. My brain knows this is a coincidence, but my heart wants to scan the sky. Should I look for the bright lights? Or should I just go on living without worrying about impending doom?

I re-read that tattered old pulp book he gave me about once a year. Now, I’ll have to look at it again and search through it carefully, just in case Venus awaits us all.

 

 

BIO

Charles BrownCharlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, recently receiving his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where he runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions.  He has made two feature films: “Angels Die Slowly” (to be released by Ytinifni Films in June 2015) and “Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band.” His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine as well as the anthology “The Portal In My Kitchen,” due in 2015.  He teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

 

 

0

The Waiting Game

by Lou Gaglia

 

We had trouble at the golf course right away because Tommy didn’t wear a collar shirt. The tee-time man behind the desk gave him a look and pointed in the direction of shirts for sale, but Tommy said from the rack, “Twenty bucks? For a shirt?” My dad frowned to himself and eased over to the racks and picked out two shirts. He held the maroon one up against Tommy’s chest and said, “This looks pretty sharp.” Tommy dug into his pocket but Dad held him off and bought both shirts. “First beers are on you,” he said while Tommy gave a sour look to the miniature man hitting a golf ball on his shirt pocket.

Jesse already had a collar shirt on, and so did Dad and me, because we knew the subtleties of golf etiquette, but Tommy didn’t know a thing about golf customs and changed right there in front of the tee-time guy, who gave Tommy a from-under stare. When he stopped minding Tommy’s business, he filled in his oversized tee-time book with our names, and then we were free to walk sideways out of the wee office door where our clubs waited. Dad had lent Tommy his old set and Jesse had borrowed his father’s, and we strapped them to our rented hand carts and hoofed it up the long hill to the first tee.

Two days before, after I had met Tommy’s friend Jesse, Tommy explained to me that Jesse was really quiet, and not to take personally that his only two words to me on first meeting had both been, “Okay”—first after I told him I was going to ask Tommy to play golf, and then after I asked him if he wanted to come along. The next day, when Jesse passed me in front of my building, he muttered, “Tomorrow will be my second golf game in the history of my life.” He continued down the block without breaking his stride, and left it at that.

While waiting in front of Jesse’s building in the morning, Tommy warned me offhand that Jesse was a shy guy and to just leave him alone about the talking thing, that Jesse talked when he felt like talking and no more. He had been traumatized at an early age at a ventriloquist show or something, Tommy said, and if Jesse spoke two words in one day it meant he liked you, and if he said three words then he wanted to marry you. “I think I’m in trouble, then,” I said, and we laughed, but Tommy added that even when Jesse wasn’t talking at all he was still a fun guy to be around. He could sing exactly like Elvis or Bing Crosby whenever he wanted—he chose one voice or the other, depending on his mood—and he sang at some strange times, too. He was super shy, though, especially around women, and hardly ever talked—let alone sang—if there was a woman in sight. I told Tommy I could relate to that one, since I was already pushing thirty—at a whopping twenty-seven and a half years old—and that my happiness clock was ticking away, so to speak. Tommy told me he didn’t even have a happiness clock and that he was already thirty and to stop reminding him how much life stank.

At the top of the hill Dad warmed up by swinging his driver over and over again. He was trying to swing without accidentally dragging his back foot around to join the front one, but he had a hard time of it. Jesse stood there leaning against his driver like a pro and looking off at the field while four guys in front of us were busy teeing off. Tommy had an iron of some kind, maybe a three, and he was off to the side whacking at the clover. My father asked him what the hell he was doing.

“I hate bees,” Tommy said.

“You’re gonna piss them off,” said Dad.

The starter sat in his cart looking holier than thou, all official-like, with his little pad and pencil and his watch. He held up his palms to us, like the Pope, after the last of the foursome had finally teed off and walked toward their beloved balls, which were all scattered everywhere on both sides of the rough. His holy palms indicated that we had to stand off to the side, not on the tee box, and wait. Tommy rolled his eyes at me. “This is already bullshit,” he mumbled. “Too many of these Long Island rules…”

Dad came over and said to Tommy out of the side of his mouth, “You got to wait for them to take their second shot before you tee off. Otherwise you’re going to plunk them in the head.”

“I’m already teed off,” said Tommy. “This is a hell of a lot of waiting.”

“This game’s all about waiting,” Dad philosophized, and Tommy smirked. He edged his way onto the tee box as the last holdout from the group ahead of us set up his fairway shot by swiveling his hips and then backing off his ball and then going near it again to swivel his hips some more. The starter eagle-eyed Tommy who had gotten too close to the tee area, and then, out of the blue, Jesse began singing, sounding almost exactly like Elvis.

“Hey, don’t, don’t do that,” the starter warned Jesse.

“What’s the name of that song, Jess?” said Tommy with a laugh.

“Uh…‘Don’t’.”

“I coulda guessed that.”

“Well, why’d you ask, then,” my father put in from behind and then turned to the starter. “Isn’t this guy ever going to hit? He looks like he’s going to take a shit out there.”

The starter looked down at his little book and then at the group coming up behind us in fancy riding carts. It was a foursome of two men and two ladies, maybe in their forties. The ladies wore white shorts and white sneakers or golf shoes. The men were all decked out in golf shirts that they hadn’t bought from the office. They gave me and Tommy a look as if to wonder what was holding us up.

“Some fun, Frank,” Tommy said to me but loud enough for everyone else to hear. “One guy’s wiggling his ass at us out there, and these four are on the pro tour.”

I almost kept myself from laughing, and the wiggler had finally hit his ball about fifteen feet to the right, so it was time for us to tee off. Tommy stepped up first, about to hit his first golf ball, but he acted like it was going to be no big deal.

On the train he’d told me that maybe golf would be a good way for him to get his mind off that Karen woman. He was crazy about her, he told me—no, he loved her, he corrected himself—and it was all so much like riding a roller coaster because he couldn’t control what was going to happen or not happen, that he just had to wait. I didn’t tell him my own story, partly because my story was short—that I had no one at all—and partly because Jesse sat across from us reading the newspaper. He’d given no hint that he heard or cared about anything Tommy had told me, or maybe he’d heard it all before, but I didn’t want to talk in front of him, and probably couldn’t have talked to Tommy about it anyway. Tommy was crazy for Karen, but I was crazy on a roller coaster for different reasons, the main one being that I couldn’t talk in the first place, which sank in at the end of my Jeannette era during our last ditch disaster of a pizza lunch. I’d given her up for real, for good and all, and I was free of her at last and pretty happy about it when I got back to Brooklyn that night. I slept like a baby (waking up crying every few hours), and for the next day and the next week I missed her like mad, even though I couldn’t stand her. Then, to chase her out of my mind, I made the mistake of deciding to ask out every woman I liked and some that I saw on sight, just to force myself to talk.

First, I marched into the library and asked Kelly out for a simple coffee, but she smiled and said no thank you like she was doing me the biggest favor of my life to tell me to take a hike. I knew I shouldn’t have started with her again, because I’d already written to her and was embarrassed enough. I felt like a schlep—whatever that is—even worse than when I’d read the letter back from her that asked God to bless and keep me. But after her no, I couldn’t stop. I asked out the girl at the nail place, but spotted the ring on her finger too late. Then I took off work, over the heated objections of Rob, and went out to the Thursday afternoon Mets game, just to watch baseball and look for strange women to ask out, figuring it might be easier to ask them if I knew I didn’t have to face them again around my neighborhood. I had a book of Rilke poems with me, and glanced between innings at the poems and the women, but every nice-seeming woman in the seats around me was occupied with a boyfriend or a husband or whatever they were. I was pretty down after the game, walking among hundreds of women up the stairs on the way to the El train. Ready to forget my stupid idea, I held the pole and tried to read Rilke. But in between lines, I caught sight of a woman alone, reading a book too. She sat on a seat closest to one of the doors, reading Dostoyevski, and she looked up at me for just a second, so I went over to her, and amongst the crowd of other Mets fans frowning their way home, I said, “Dostoevski’s pretty good,” but she didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes on the book, and I wound up turning around and holding onto the pole, my face burning up. Some of the riders standing around me and sitting next to her glanced at me. And at the next stop she got off, raced ahead along the platform, and went into the next car.

In the morning on the way to work, I usually stopped on Market Street for breakfast after crossing the bridge, and talked a little with this girl Tracy, who was maybe a few years younger than me. She was nice, but was probably just being friendly because it was her job to sell coffee and buns to slobs like me who were on their way to stack books all day. Anyway, her mother owned the place, and she looked like a neighborhood toughie, like nothing scared her, and Tracy acted the same way, but only when she talked to her mother and some of the regular neighborhood customers. I tried not to look at her much, unless she was walking away with her back to me completely and no one else was looking. My asking days were over, I brooded.

So all of that—from God’s pipeline, Kelly, to the nail girl, to the train woman, to Tracy and her tough mother, to being twenty-seven and a half, to not being able to talk about any of it to Tommy—left me in a sour mood, on top of which I still had to testify at that trial not long after my rejection spree. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, I got a nose bleed right before I was called in. I had a tissue up one nostril while I answered questions, and then I had to get up and point my shaky finger at a diagram board of East Broadway and show everyone where I was and where the shooter was. There were two Chinese guys sitting at the defense table, and I glanced over once. They looked like lost little kids in their brown suits, and I couldn’t tell which one was the guy who shot the little girl because his back had been to me. Then when their defending lawyer, from the back of the room, asked me questions, she wondered why I’d told the police the shooter was five foot eleven when he was only five foot seven. “Well…” I said, “a guy with a gun looks pretty big to me.” Everyone got a laugh out of that, even the judge, and I took the opportunity to unplug the tissue from my nose.

Anyway, after I was all done, I had to leave the room without knowing what happened, guilty or innocent, and I headed straight out and into the street. I cut through Columbus Park but didn’t stick around, because every teenage kid or guy in his twenties looked like gang members to me. At home I expected to be shot every time I left my building, kind of wincing as I came out. I felt better off on Chinatown streets, because there were so many people around that I could be anonymous, like a speck, and I always walked different routes to work, and sometimes took the bus. It helped to pretend I was Richard Kimble, turning my face away from those who looked my way. Tracy’s coffee shop was the one regular place I went to besides work and home, and I got to talk a little bit to Tracy, even though it was only about how much butter I wanted on my toast or ask where the cream was. I liked to sit there and sip coffee and take half-second-glances at her shoulders when she went by and her mother was occupied or talking tough with some customer. It felt like the only place in the world where no one could shoot me.

But Tommy didn’t know any of that either. When he hooked his tee shot along the ground all the way to the fence through the woods, Dad told him he’d just killed some more bees. Tommy smirked and motioned for me to go next but I motioned to Dad and stepped behind Jesse. I wanted to wait and go last.

Our balls were spread all over the course for our second shots, so we walked in pairs on either side and then branched off for the ball hunt. Alone, I had a chance to wonder about the future possibilities that had been racing through my mind since my last pizza meeting with Jeannette. One after another, images of my future raced by. I tried and failed to slow them down and think about each one, starting with my working for Uncle Eddie at the race track as a hot walker or as a groom. I’d be around horses and horse men and sniff manure all day, so I didn’t like that idea. Then I pictured myself sitting in a classroom at the community college, doodling in the back while a professor type droned on from his notes. I saw myself living back on Long Island and married to Jeannette, my face in my hands and shaking my head over having forgotten her two-timing ways. Then I imagined staying in Brooklyn after all, saying no thank you to Jeannette for good, and then coming out of some Chinese take-out place and being shot by a thousand bullets and eventually going down in a dying heap near some garbage bags. Finally, I dreamed of forgetting all of that and escaping back to Italy and staying there this time, where I’d meet some nice Italian girl and bake bread all day or lay bricks or have my own pizza and ice cream stand. I’d write poems, my precious poems, on the side. The baker or brick layer or pizza vendor job would be enough for me, because I’d be living with her big family of uncles and cousins and parents, and eventually I’d learn to speak some Italian. I’d play with our seven or eight kids and otherwise roam the countryside with my notebook in hand.

A whining cart rolled up beside me. It was the golf course Pope. “Come on, come on,” he said. “You have to play faster.”

“Oh.” I looked at him. “Okay, thanks.”

He turned around in his cart and peeled out just as I smacked the ball in a hurry, slicing it wildly and just missing the back of his head. My heart jumped and I covered my eyes, but luckily he was too busy hurrying off in a huff to notice that he’d just escaped being killed.

Later we were all on the green together. The foursome behind us waited in the middle of the fairway while we putted our balls everywhere but near the hole. I was still thinking of my future, but even though I smiled at Tommy’s comments and at Dad’s jokes and laughed when Jesse sang something, each foggy future that stretched out in front of me was a lonely one, because none of those guys would be there. That moment—of laughing on the green together—would be gone, and so it felt lonely there too because my thoughts were inside myself.

On the second hole, Dad stuck his tee into the ground just as Jesse sang again, this time from Bing Crosby’s “My Buddy”. I swore he was Bing himself for a second.

At that point Dad hit a perfect shot dead center of the fairway. He picked up his tee and laughed. “Keep singing there, Jesse.”

Tommy stepped up. “Sing for me too, Jess,” he said, but Jesse got shy about it and clammed up.

The starter rolled up in his cart just after Tommy teed off into the woods. The people behind us, he said, complained (he counted on his fingers) about our slowness and our singing. “Who’s singing?” he wanted to know.

“What is this, Catholic school?” Tommy burst out. “Can’t a guy sing?”

Dad shushed Tommy, but Tommy and the starter still scowled at each other for a while. “You have to keep things moving along here,” the starter said, slowly, like maybe Tommy couldn’t understand. Tommy smirked at him and Jesse winced and said he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. The starter still glared at Tommy and then raced off like a bat out of hell.

“Jesse,” Tommy said, as I stepped up to the tee box, “you keep singing, whenever you want.”

“No,” Dad said. “Just play. We’re gonna get tossed if we keep this up.”

“He can’t throw us out. We paid.”

“Oh, yes he can. They got rules.”

“Too many,” Tommy said, looking steamed, and I stuck my tee into the ground.

Meanwhile the group behind us had caught all the way up and parked their driving carts right alongside our walking carts. They were waiting to tee off already, and I hadn’t even gone yet, or Jesse either.

Along the fairway I watched Dad help Tommy search for his ball, then talk to him while waiting for Jesse and me to find ours on the fairway. Pretty soon Dad had Tommy doing all the listening. Whatever he was saying wasn’t about golf, because they both leaned on their clubs and didn’t move while waiting for Jesse and me to swing. The people behind us were right up our backs waiting to try their own fairway shots, having already teed off. One of the balls rolled right near my feet, so I kicked it a little. Another landed near Tommy and Dad, and Tommy tossed it backwards. Then one of the men in the group must have said something because Tommy turned all the way around, but Dad held Tommy back and stepped in front of him. He talked to the guy himself and then waved for me and Jesse to move off to the side and then wildly to the group to go on ahead. After they all took a whack each, we gathered together, and Dad told us we had to let them play through. “Fair is fair,” he said. “The heck with it.”

There was another group farther behind us, but they were still finishing the first hole.

“Look, they got a kid with them,” Dad said, “so now we can play without people up our asses…at our own leisure,” he added.

At around the fifth or sixth hole, Tommy walked with me because our balls had both landed out of bounds in the same area, and he told me I was lucky to have a dad like my dad.

“He’s a gentleman,” Tommy said. “I wish I could be like him.”

We searched in the high grass for Tommy’s ball first. “My dad,” he said, “he didn’t play golf with me, but he hit me with a golf club once, right in the back of my legs.”

I stopped chopping through the high grass with my club and looked up. “What for?”

“I didn’t move fast enough, something like that. Anyway, your dad is all right. My dad, I love the guy, you know, because—out of respect, I don’t know—but he hated me. Maybe he doesn’t now. My mother keeps calling me lately. Our old dog died, so…” Tommy found his ball and threw it out onto the fairway, and we started looking for mine.

“Your dog died, huh?” I said, to keep the conversation going.

“More than one dog. Another one when I was a kid. Anyway, he’s all broken up, I guess, so I’m supposed to go see him.”

“Maybe bring that girl, that girl Karen.”

“Not a chance. Not in a million years.”

“Maybe later then,” I laughed, and found my ball and threw it onto the fairway too.

“Maybe never. Anyway, me and her, we’re just friends, just friends. I don’t even want to think what’s going on. I told you that on the train, it’s like riding a roller coaster, so I’m just waiting. Anyway…” He took a hard swing at his ball but it went straight up and down about fifty feet away. “Anyway, you know, she’s a nice girl, and she thinks I’m good, for some reason. But after one meeting with my father…geez, forget it.”

“Friendship over,” I said.

“Right, gone. And he’s prejudiced against the Chinese. You think I’m letting her near him? Every word out of his mouth is about the blacks and the Chinese and whoever else. When I was a kid—go ahead and hit your ball first. That kid and his parents are catching up to us.” I hit my ball and he went on. “When I was a kid, I saw my father and his friends beat the crap out of this guy outside an apartment building. I don’t even know where. I was pretty young. Anyway, they kicked the crap out of him and threw all his stuff out of his apartment window—a mattress, a bunch of clothes, a table, everything. He was a black guy. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I just sat in my father’s car watching the whole thing. They were kicking him in the back.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m not letting him near her. I don’t know, Frank. I want to be different, and she’s the first nice thing—” Tommy caught himself and stopped talking. “All right,” he said, “let’s catch up.” We were quiet while we hit our balls and then walked after them. When we got within sight of Jesse and my father, we heard Jesse singing like Bing Crosby and saw my dad twirling his club with a smirk on his face.

“There he is, your dad,” said Tommy. “He’s a wise guy but he’s a good guy. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he makes some wise-ass remark when we get to him.”

“I don’t want to bet that,” I said.

“What are you two trying to do, let the little kid play through too?” Dad said when we reached him, and me and Tommy just smiled to ourselves.

The starter came around on the 7th hole because he said someone complained about Jesse singing again. “Yes, sir, sorry sir,” said Tommy, and after the starter left, Jesse sang from, “Don’t Be Cruel,” but not too loud, while Dad smiled and Tommy cracked up, hands on knees.

I watched Jesse. He played quiet, and walked quiet, and looked out at the field quiet and hunted for his ball quiet. He was quiet and shy, just like Tommy said, and just like me, except at least he could sing and get people to laugh. I was feeling down just being around him, and even though he was a good guy, I began to hate him, especially when we reached the 8th hole next to four women who were teeing off on the 5th, and without seeing them yet, Jesse sang the first half of Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You…” The girls looked back at him and laughed and Jesse got all red. I stood off to the side, quiet and mad, while Dad and Tommy and the girls laughed at the red-faced Jesse, who immediately clammed up. Not one of those women looked or smiled back at me once during the entire hole, only at shy Elvis.

On the 9th and last hole for us, I popped my tee shot into the air toward the woods and it hit a lady on the head or shoulder, I don’t know which. Her husband took up the ball and whipped it underhanded at me along the ground before I could explain that I didn’t have time to yell fore. I fielded the ball, though, and with all my madness and aloneness and quietness steaming inside me, I threw it overhand right back at him. It sailed over his head. “Don’t you throw the ball at me!”

I fumed my way along the fairway, and didn’t even play the rest of the hole, just watched Jesse and Dad and Tommy play it out. Tommy looked over at me sideways a few times.

After the last putt was sunk, Dad sidled over to me. “Let’s see,” he observed, “you hit a guy’s wife, and then you throw the ball at her husband.” I didn’t say anything.

Near the clubhouse, the guy himself appeared, right in front of me, and he said sorry and held his hand out. “I didn’t mean to throw the ball at you, I’m really sorry,” he said. I shook his hand back.

“No, no, it was all my fault,” I told him, and when he’d gone, before we headed inside for our beers—Tommy’s treat—Dad added, “And then the guy apologizes…”

Tommy laughed and swatted my shoulder with the back of his hand. “What a tough guy you are,” he said in a low voice, and I winced without a word.

 

 

BIO

Lou GagliaLou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Brooklyner, Prick of the Spindle, Waccamaw, Eclectica, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Hawai’i Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches in upstate New York after many years as a teacher in New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

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