Goethe Strasse: A short story by Joseph Hirsch

Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow from the Paragraph Line Books. Learn more about him at www.joeyhirsch.com.

My two friends had already been kicked off the ICE (Intercontinental Express) after the little porter had come by and found them without tickets. I had somehow escaped the wrath of the train agent, and now I was headed to Frankfurt alone, to the red light district and its whorehouses. I took a gulp from my premixed Jack & Coke and watched the little German towns as they breezed past. Transoms and mercury vapor lamps flashed in the night, graffiti-scarred railway platforms and slumbering Hessen villages.

This was to be our last Saturday together in Germany before deploying for a year-long tour of duty to Camp Victory, Iraq. Some of the soldiers had wives or girlfriends, and children. They would be spending these last solemn hours together with their families, the atmosphere in the cloistered living rooms heavy with the weight of their impending departure, and the knowledge that they might not come back. Assuming they did make it safely through the year, they could potentially return absent an eye, a leg, a testicle, or conceivably even a mind.

I thankfully had no such worries. I had arrived late to my unit in Germany. I had spent the last few months struggling to adjust to life in the Army, to mastering my Squad Automatic Weapon, to memorizing how to safely cauterize a wound and give a saline IV, or how to tie a tourniquet around a lacerated vein. When the weekends finally came and we were released from duty, I typically wandered around the cobblestone streets, unable to speak the language and usually too drunk to even make an attempt. Thus, there was no chance to meet real women, let alone get involved in some sort of lengthy courtship, only to have the same truncated by a tearful goodbye as I left her on the runway at Ramstein Airbase and walked into the mouth of a C-17 Hercules, flying off to Iraq…

I finished my drink and struggled against my thoughts. There was a steamy hiss and then a mechanical clang as the doors of the train opened. I stepped out into the Hauptbahnhof, a massive secular cathedral built in honor of Deutschland’s true religion, punctuality.

I ignored the Turks selling hash, sidestepped a verminous claque of cooing pigeons. An African couple pushed a stroller and walked mutely past me. Love…the word came unbidden. It was a sham. I had quickly learned that no marriage truly survived the Army. I had one friend whose wife worked at the bank branch on-base. She was in charge of their joint account, and while he had been on an 18-month deployment to Afghanistan, she had burnt through roughly $20,000 of his money on Amazon.com and Ebay. Love…Another buddy was so paranoid about his wife sleeping with other men that he had come home one evening, and due to some miscommunication had electrocuted his cable guy with a stun gun, shocking the poor bastard with several-thousand volts because he thought the man was screwing his wife.

As for the rest of my friends, they were not loyal enough to even be paranoid. They called themselves “geographical bachelors,” and they had long ago resigned themselves to the fact that their wives might cheat on them, and so they usually felt obligated to cheat first. Naturally, the ring came off of the finger every weekend.

I walked down Goethe Strasse, toward the neon tenderloin already glutted with tourists, drug dealers, and perverts. Clearly paying a whore for sex was more pragmatic than gambling on something as shifty and deceptive as love. I had never been with a prostitute before, but I was curious. Money for sex: so simple, and ancient.

Steam leaked from the wet sewers nestled among the cobblestones. The fetid air wafted up toward the glass fronts of the Shisha shops, and mixed with the smell of heavily-spiced Turkish schwarma meat. There were several houses of ill-repute on either side of the street. I walked up to the nearest one, an old Hussar-style building with mansard folds on the roof. Cars honked in the middle of the street, protesting the standstill traffic. And then, as I stepped inside, all became quiet.

The smell of pine-scented floor treatment filled my lungs. The light was a low-wattage maroon, making all of the shapes dark as my eyes struggled to adjust. Men poured past me on the narrow staircase as I struggled upward. The smell of cigarettes, body odor, and talcum powder comingled and formed the unmistakable musk of sex. I came to the first floor, where several doors on either end of the room were open and women stood, waiting. Muffled groans came from behind the closed doors.

Directly in front of me sat a woman in a latex corset with a mesh body-stocking underneath. Her hair was dyed black and her skin was pale. She held a riding crop in her hand which terminated in a cat-o-nine tails. Next to her was a sandwich board which listed the various services she offered: Lights discipline-Heavy discipline-Spanking. I had already gotten my fill of corporal punishment in the Army. I kept it moving, and men continued to walk around me. They stared at the women, who continued about their daily chores with studied indifference, as if they were a school of goldfish that had grown used to being watched while they swam in their tank.  

Near the end of the hall, I saw a woman who piqued my interest. Her features were cold, distinctly eastern European. Her eyes were a wolfish, gelid blue and her expression was sullen. Something about her reminded me of an old girlfriend, from a past life before the Army had gotten hold of me and filled my head with thoughts of war.

“Wie viele?” I asked.

“Funfzig Euro,” she said.

I pulled out the bill and handed it to her. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to haggle, but I had no intention of doing so. It was certainly worth fifty Euro to bury my face in that hair, pant into the nautilus of her ear until I came, remembering for a drunken, sweaty hour that I was once a teenager and that I had been in love.

We walked into the room and she closed the door. The lights were already dim and I could see the balcony across the street, where a naked prostitute smoked a cigarette and stared down into the slum below us. There was a sound to my left, a light splashing. I turned to look and saw that the uncanny doppelgänger of my high-school girlfriend was already naked, and with one leg perched on the edge of the porcelain, she had begun to urinate into the sink.

I watched her until she finished, remarking to myself that Germany and America were two remarkably different nations. She finished up and went over to the bed, which could more properly have been called a mattress. She lay down, splayed in a glorious pose fit for a charcoal study. I began undressing, becoming increasingly self-conscious as I took off each undergarment, realizing that she held the advantage because she was already naked and scrutinizing me. It felt like I was stripping for her edification, and we both repressed a momentary smile.

I kicked off the rest of my clothes and headed over to the bed. She deftly worked a condom over my penis and we began. She was responsive, and warm, but I knew it would be some kind of sick betrayal to attempt to make genuine love to her. I pumped away, rubbing my nose into her hair and trying to recall that girl in high-school, chasing that sensation I knew I would never feel again, the one I had no right to anymore. She was as tight as a pharmaceutical bottle and I had to suppress a laugh, thinking that many a woman who would brand her with a scarlet letter had probably seen more action, and with less to show for it.

I came in short order and rolled off of her. She handed me a washcloth and I rubbed myself down. Voices from the hallway came to us now, a muttered babble of Turkish interspersed with German. She handed me a cigarette and lit it for me. I took a drag. Gauloises, Blonde. I had discovered them back in Darmstadt. In Germany there were still cigarette vending machines all over the place.

She smoked her own cigarette and tapped the mattress. “Good bed,” she said.

“Yeah…”

I wondered what her story was. Had she been impressed into this life, kidnapped by a Bulgarian Mafioso who sold girls to some sadistic pimp? I tried not to think of it, whatever kind of transaction it was that I had been complicit in, and what percentage of my soul it may have cost me to lay there with her on the mattress for five minutes. No matter how bad it was, I mused, it still wasn’t as horrific as marriage.

I suddenly stood up and went over to my pants. I dug into the pockets and came up with a ten Euro note. I gave it to her. Her eyes widened momentarily, and then she kissed me on the cheek. “Danke Schon.”

“Bitte schon.”  I said.

Then I dressed and got out of there. A week later I was already in Iraq.

A Football Tale for Thanksgiving by John L. Sheppard

John L. Sheppard is the author of Paragraph Line Books’ latest release, Escape from Mondo Tiki Island. You can find out more about him at www.johnlsheppard.com.

Editor’s Note: This tale does not take place on Thanksgiving, but it is about the orgy of violence called football, which, along with gluttony, dinner with unpleasant relatives, and celebrating our victory over the native peoples of this once verdant continent, is what Thanksgiving is really all about.

I am a native of Cleveland, Ohio, the half empty city on Lake Erie whose river, the Cuyahoga, was once so polluted it caught fire. I grew up a fan of the Cleveland Browns (the actual Browns founded by Paul Brown, not the Fake Browns that took their place) thanks to my idiot father, who, if he is still alive, is most likely standing in his front yard next to a Donald Trump sign wearing an American flag t-shirt that says on the back, “Burn This One, Hippie!” Honk if you love America!

Growing up a Cleveland sports fan means being perpetually enraged, mostly at the Browns and Indians for dashing your hopes on an annual basis.

This story does not take place in Cleveland. It takes place near Washington, D.C., in a hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. It is late summer 1991, and the Browns are in town to play the Washington Redskins (another Thanksgiving reference, of sorts) in a preseason game. Bill Belichick had just taken over as head coach, and Bernie Kosar was the quarterback, and had been for quite some time.

The Browns had had a couple of promising seasons in the 1980’s, winning just enough to tantalize (and thus enrage) me. Ask me about John Elway and the Denver Broncos, why don’t you? Watch me froth at the mouth.

As for me, I’d been in the Army for several years at that point. We’d moved to Florida when I was seven, and I had done my bachelor’s degree years in the mid-1980’s at the University of Florida, and had continued my football fandom there. I went insane and joined the Army in 1987. Ask me about Charley Pell and Galen Hall, why don’t you? Watch me froth at the mouth.

I was taking graduate courses in communication at a Crystal City hotel through the Army College Office’s arrangement with Oklahoma University. The university would fly the professors in for a week. I would read the course work over three weeks, take the course for four hours at night for a week in a hotel conference room, and then on Saturday and Sunday would spend the entire day at the hotel, with Sunday being the blue book exam. That counted for two semester hours. You got another semester hour from turning in a paper afterward.

Oh, and in case you’d forgotten, we’d just won a war with Iraq at that time. How do I know we’d won? We’d had a National Victory Parade–with tanks and planes and everything–earlier that summer. Civilians treated those of us in uniform differently after that. That’s when civilians started saying, “Thank you for your service.”

The first time someone said that to me while I was in uniform, I was waiting for a public conveyance outside of Fort McNair after a public affairs conference, sucking on a cigarette. I looked around, confused, wondering who she was talking to, realized it was me, and then blurted out defensively, “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” The civilian looked angry that I didn’t appreciate her gratitude. But I hadn’t done anything. I’d spent the entire war in northern Virginia. I probably did less during the war than before or after it. I’d watched it on TV like everyone else.

So in that context, let’s watch the soldier in his Class B’s (green shirt, dark green pants, shiny black plastic shoes, etc.) get on the elevator and realize that he’s standing next to Bernie Kosar, the longtime quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Kosar was very tall, and the soldier is not. They nod at each other. And then:

Me (angrily): Why can’t you guys win? Just once?

Kosar: Um.

Me: I mean, you won at Miami! Under Schnellenberger! I even saw you play! Wait… you sucked that night.

Kosar: Um.

Me: I went to the University of Florida.

Kosar: Oh.

The Hurricanes under Kosar won the National Championship that year even though they got trounced in their first game of the season by the Florida Gators at Florida Field. I was there that night. It was my first Gators game in person. It was a pretty good year for Florida football. Lost to Georgia though. And then Charley Pell won the SEC for us the following year, which was vacated because… let’s not go into that.

The elevator dinged, and Kosar practically leapt out of it to get away from me. His restraint, in retrospect, was remarkable. Then again, the public relations part of his brain probably told him, “DON’T PUNCH THE SOLDIER IN HIS SWEATY, APOPLECTIC FACE.”

How did the Browns eventually do that season? They sucked. Suckity-sucked. So, lesson learned: Yelling at the quarterback in an elevator does not work.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. Enjoy your Thanksgiving everyone. God damn it.

A Urinary Tract Infection is Heartburn of the Vagina by Fiona Helmsley

small-6x9-frontcover-Fiona-Helmsley-My-Body-Would-be-the-Kindest-of-Strangers-20150716 copyI’ve never had to pee so badly in my life, but I have an older woman and child to compete with for use of the bathroom, so I martyr myself, and let them go first. The pain I know I am about to feel makes it easier to wait. I know it will not be a sweet relief, but a stinging one.

I have a urinary tract infection. It came on yesterday afternoon, while I was at work, but I had no time to go to the doctor. And now I’m here at my sister’s apartment, in Queens, bladder aflame, about to leave for Long Island, for her baby shower.

A friend once told me that my spirit animal was a poodle. I think she was joking, but every time I pee and the pain starts, I close my eyes, and that’s what I see: circus poodles jumping through flaming hula hoops.

When it started yesterday–the constant urge to pee, and the accompanying burning– I told a co-worker, and she went down the list of shameful, potential causes:

  1. Sex. I haven’t had sex since the summer, and it’s February.
  2. Soap. I just opened the bar of Lemon Verbena that I got in my stocking on Christmas, but come on, does anyone besides a two year old in a bathtub get a urinary tract infection that way? I’ve known how to keep my vagina sparkling, and Ph balanced, for decades.
  3. SHIT. I got my own shit up inside myself. I am resistant to accepting this scenario, but it seems the most likely. While I don’t have a bidet at home, the bathtub is very close to the toilet, and I use it as such. Maybe I goofed.

3a. E.coli. This was a surprise, as I always thought you got E.coli from cutting boards, and undercooked foods.

So I loaded up on Uricalm, and hit the highway for New York City, with my mother and child. When it’s finally my turn to use the bathroom, my very pregnant sister pops in.

“Eww!” she says, as I’m pulling my stockings up. “What’s wrong with you?”

I turn and see that although I’ve flushed, the water in the toilet is still tinged that tell-tale fluorescent rust color from the Uricalm. New York City has notoriously low water pressure.

“I have a UTI,” I say.

“Poop,” she says. “You got it from poop.”

I think about all the times over the course of my life that my sister has said those same words to me: “Eww! What’s wrong with you?”

This might be the first time I have a concise, concrete answer to give to her.

***

The baby shower is at a bar slash restaurant, and I proceed to get shit-faced, and tell family members who I haven’t seen in years about my condition. It’s idiotic to drink so much, because it just makes me have to pee. A fringe family member who I haven’t seen since I was about four commiserates with me, and tells me that during one of her pregnancies, she had so many UTIs, she had to wear a diaper. I nod, and give her empathetic eyes. A man, who looks like the ghost of my father in middle age, comes over and joins our conversation, then takes it over, bemoaning the effects of the hors’d oeuvres on his heartburn. “A urinary tract infection is like heartburn of the vagina,” I say. “Wow,” he says with a laugh, then blinks hard. “I’ve never had one. You’ve really humanized the experience for me.”

I mostly hang out in the bathroom, peeing and taking selfies. We only have the space for a few hours, then the restaurant opens up to the public, and essentially kicks us out.

My sister’s boyfriend has been doing runs back and forth to their apartment with all their gifts, and he’s gone when what’s left of our party gets the heave-ho from the staff. It’s me, my mom, my child, my sister, her friend, and what’s left of my sister’s presents all waiting outside on a bench for him to get us.

My sister’s friend is very drunk, and has to pee, but doesn’t want to go back inside the restaurant because it’s been overtaken by bros, and we’re all mad at the staff. Of course, I have to go, too, but tell myself I am going to wait.

“Come around back with me,” she says. “I’m going to pee in their parking lot because of the way they treated us.”

I tell myself I’m just going to escort her and make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble, but when we get to the back, there’s a spot behind a dumpster, on the side of a snowbank, that’s so isolated, I decide I’m going to pee, too.

As I finish, I turn around and look at my handiwork. I’ve left my mark, like a spot of blood on the back of a woman’s pants, to anyone in the know, it should be obvious what’s gone on here: The person who peed on this snowbank had a UTI. My pee is so bright orange, you could see it from outer space. It’s like it’s communicating something to the night sky. Something about what’s wrong with me. Something about what’s right.

Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year and online at websites like The Weeklings, PANK and The Rumpus. Her book of essays and stories, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers was just released by Paragraph Line Books.

23 Must Listen Songs from Escape from Mondo Tiki Island

Escape_from_Mondo_Ti_Cover_for_Kindlejpg

Have you picked up a copy of Escape from Mondo Tiki Island, the latest release from Paragraph Line Books? If so, we have a playlist for you from the author himself.

  1. “Hawaiian War Chant,” by Martin Denny
  2. “I Like Girls,” by Porter Wagoner
  3. “Ruby Baby,” by Dion
  4. “Non Stop Flight,” by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra
  5. “Blue Yodel Number 9,” by Jimmie Rodgers
  6. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams
  7. “Barquita,” by Les Baxter
  8. “Attack El Robot! Attack!” by Calexico
  9. “Taboo,” by Arthur Lyman
  10. “Greenback Dollar,” by Nancy Whiskey
  11. “Game of Pricks,” by Guided by Voices
  12. “Wildwood Flower,” by the Carter Family
  13. “Dang Me,” by Roger Miller
  14. “Right or Wrong,” by Wanda Jackson
  15. “American Patrol,” by Glenn Miller
  16. “Harbor Lights,” by Dinah Washington
  17. “Boogie in Chicago,” by Louis Prima
  18. “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore,” by Woody Guthrie
  19. “Wreck on the Highway,” by Roy Acuff
  20. “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” by The Pogues
  21. “Mission,” by the Phenomenauts
  22. “Coronation,” by Martin Denny
  23. “Statement of Vindication,” by Bikini Kill

Out now: Escape from Mondo Tiki Island: A Two-Fisted South Seas Adventure, by John Sheppard

Escape_from_Mondo_Ti_Cover_for_KindlejpgWho will survive the wrath of the VENGEFUL ISLAND GOD when he vents his rage in a riptide of LAVA-FILLED HATE that only death can assuage?

We’re proud to announce the latest from John Sheppard: Escape from Mondo Tiki Island: A Two-Fisted South Seas Adventure!

Escape from Mondo Tiki Island is a fast-moving, good-humored adventure tale filled with oddball twists and turns, taking place at the dawn of the Cold War on a tiny island in the South Pacific. The book features bombastic bad guys, beautiful island girls and a bewildered hero — and a host of near-fatal encounters with cybernetic chimps, a submarine, mad scientists and an exploding volcano — all set in a delightfully demented exotic locale. Welcome to the untold story of Russ Russo, a Yank sea ROUGHNECK! A LUNATIC has taken control of the raft… SEE WHO SURVIVES four days of SUN-SCORCHED TERROR! Learn the revealing truth about the half-savage daughters of the CHICAGO OUTFIT! See what happens when DESPERATE ISLAND MEN attempt to defile them! Who can defeat the CASTAWAY NAZI and his JAPANESE HENCHMEN? Blood flows like wine in the SHIP OF THE DAMNED where mad French scientists unleash their LOVE-STARVED APES in an orgy of gore! Forty-eight corpses… ONE HILL! Meet the Navy’s DEADLIEST frogmen who suckered a COMMIE PLATOON! Who will survive the wrath of the VENGEFUL ISLAND GOD when he vents his rage in a riptide of LAVA-FILLED HATE that only death can assuage?

Check it out now!

Available Now: He by Jon Konrath

We’re proud to announce Jon Konrath’s latest book, He. 6x9-frontcover-he-180-20150804

According to Konrath:

It consists of a hundred short microfiction pieces. Each piece begins with the word “He.” Like my book Atmospheres, the pieces are related, but if you flipped the book open to any random piece, you could read just that and read it and then LOL and put the book back next to the toilet and finish your business.

The links:

The book is on Kindle Unlimited, so if you have that, you can read it for free and appease Jeff Bezos’s race to the bottom of authors being a worthless resource lining his coffers. It is also on Kindle Match, so if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can download the book on Kindle for free.

Summer 1994: Getting Pierced By Fiona Helmsley

Here’s another short story from Fiona Helmsley, this time about the indiscretions of youth. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

Chelsea pierced my clitoris with a piercing needle she got secondhand from a boy she’d met at a hardcore show. She’d pierced her own with it the night before, and the needle’s tip was coated with a thin layer of black soot: afterward, she’d sterilized it by flame. The year was 1994, before the piercing/tattoo craze had really taken hold of the youth community, and having a piercing anywhere besides your ears could still cause quite a stir. Though my new adornment would be hidden by clothing and mons veneris, its existence alone would make for an interesting addition to any conversation. I looked forward to the challenge of concocting the segue.

We did some heroin and Chelsea told me to lie down and spread my legs. She got to work, reaching in, pushing my fleshy girl parts aside. I felt a quick, tearing pinch followed by a threading sensation as she moved the hoop through. The soot from the needle’s tip left a flaky residue that we wiped away with witch hazel, leaving a sickly, piscine scent. Chelsea was my best friend, and we joked that our matching piercings were our version of the half- heart friendship necklaces that they sold at Spencer Gifts at the mall.

Only the skin of my clitoral hood rejected the piercing that night as I slept. I woke up in the morning and the hoop was gone, lost somewhere in Chelsea’s bed sheets. Chelsea, who had no schooling in proper piercing procedures, hadn’t done the piercing far back enough, and the skin around the puncture site had split in two, forcing the metal out. I felt like a child who had been given a coveted toy only to have it snatched away before I could play with it. I was too impatient to wait until we got more heroin. Chelsea would have to pierce me again without it. I had taken the pain so easily the night before, I had no doubt that I would be able to do it again.

I was intensely wrong. As soon as the needle cut into my flesh, my body was like a cannon ball, and I was hurtling through space and time. The quick pinch from the night before had morphed into a monstrous, burning rip–the kind of pain that invigorates you, reminds you that you are alive only because you want to die, or kill its causation. Operating on a mix of autopilot and adrenaline, my body flung itself away from Chelsea and towards the other side of the bed. Still, in a feat of grace and agility, she had somehow managed to get the hoop though. I was re-pierced and had a newfound respect for the medicinal qualities of heroin. I felt that I understood how it had earned its moniker in the trenches.

As Chelsea readied herself to go to work, I prepared for another day of loafing. My mother had kicked me out of the house for the second time in a year for using drugs. The first time had been during the school year, and the school day had taken up a good portion of my time. Once the school year was over, there were just that many more hours in the day to fill.

The beginning of the summer had held a different vibe. The freedom provided by my homelessness had been all adventure. I’d traveled across the country, done drugs, had sex, and lived the punk rock dream, free of parental intervention. But now that the summer was almost over, I was in crisis. Could I make a life out of doing these things without being the drummer of a hair band? Did I even want to? If I did, I could have been doing them much more comfortably with a stable place to lay my head at night, not the rotation of Chelsea’s house, my friend Clem’s, and the outdoors. My friends and I had always held a disdain for the people we’d known who had made a big show of leaving town, only to come back. I was turning into one of those people. No matter how embarrassing it was to be homeless in the town I grew up in, my friends and family were here, and I kept coming back. And there was Chelsea. A year younger than me, she still had to finish school.

Unbridled freedom hadn’t always been my life’s goal. There was an anti-drug PSA on television at the time that claimed, “No one says ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up.'” Whenever it came on, Chelsea and I would talk back to the TV that the voice-over person should speak for themselves. The whole trajectory of my life had changed since I’d first tried heroin the year before, sniffing it off the floor of a Subway sandwich shop bathroom. College plans scrapped, family relations scrapped, and the constant thought always there, lingering: Let’s get some drugs. Today would be no different.