Category Archives: Stories

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder by Walter Rogers

The well-dressed businessman who sat in the bar stool next to mine nudged me in the arm.

“Look at that one,” he said.

He pointed to a young, unescorted woman walking into The Wreck Room, Fort Worth’s best local and loudest local rock club. She wore two-sizes-too-small designer jeans, three inch high heels and a red halter top that showed off her ample bosom. She accessorized all of that with large, flashy earrings, 10 bracelets per wrist and an exposed pierced belly button. She had a tattoo of a rose with a knife slicing it in half on her upper arm.

“DAMN!! That is some fine lookin’ action right there, my man!! the guy said. “I want to stick my dick into that bitch’s pussy hole. I want to do a remake of Debbie Does Dallas with her. I video all of my sex with bitches using a hidden high def GoPro camera, too, and then upload that shit to TubePorn.com.”

He looked at the woman’s fine body up and down as she made her way across the low lit club to a table towards the back near the band stage where she seated herself.

Slow Roosevelt was the headliner, with Drowning Pool as the opening act, and a large crowd was gathering for two of Dallas-Fort Worth’s favorite local hard rock bands.

“There are some women who turn me on the exact second I see them and she’s definitely one of those,” he said. “Know what I mean?”

He nudged me in the arm again.

“You wanna fuck her, too, right? If not then you’re as gay as Elton John.”

“Yeah, she’s fucking beautiful, obviously,” I said. “But she’s too made up, too ‘perfect’ for my taste. I like women who have flaws. To get me interested in a woman I need to see a bent nose or hairy eyebrows. Maybe some crooked or, better yet, missing teeth. Short, stumpy legs would do me just fine, too. Acne scars, any scars anywhere on her body for that matter, are good. Personality disorders rule. Jail time is a real turn on. I’ll fuck an ex-con at the drop of leg chains. Anything wrong with a woman that disqualifies her from being Miss America or a supermodel is what I’m after. Those are the women I go for. Ones with questionable character or shady pasts. Bad reputations are fucking cool, too.”

The GQ hipster shook his head.

“Man, oh, man. I can’t believe what a fucked up dude you are. But I sorta suspected that kinda white trash redneck attitude would come from you after I told you I’d buy you a drink for being a True Detective fan like me and you go and order a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon instead of a Shiner Bock or Sam Adams. You know what I think? And I don’t mean to offend you, bro. But you’re a loser. You have bad taste in beer and even worst taste in women. Shit, you probably own a cat instead of a dog, for chrissakes. Look, no offense, but I’m gonna have to excuse myself now because that girl is driving me crazy. Look at me. I can’t take my eyes off of her. If I don’t get to fuck her tonight I’ll have to go on a killing spree in order to release the pent-up juices of my haywire libido. I’m gonna make my move right now. See ya later, pal.”

“Yeah, good luck. And thanks for the beer.”

He drained the last of his Shiner Bock and went over to the beauty queen. I watched him work his line of bullshit on her. He got to her table and said, standing over her back like Putin over Ukraine’s, “Hi, how are you doing? My name’s Jeff. You ‘come’ here often?”

He laughed. She didn’t.

He sat down next to her and whispered something into her ear. She got a disgusted look on her face and stood up and grabbed her purse. The Barbie Doll turned to walk out but Jeff grabbed her by the arm before she could get away from him.

“LET ME GO, ASSHOLE!!!”

He didn’t and pulled her back into the chair she was sitting in.

Everybody in the bar/rock club turned their attention away from the Dallas Stars-Detroit Red Wings hockey game playing on an HDTV in the front of the place to look at what was happening behind them.

Jeff told her, “C’mon on, baby, you know you want it good and nasty from a young, rich and cool guy like me. I know you wanna go for a ride in my 2014 Jaguar. Why else would you come into a place like this dressed like a two-bit hooker? I know you’re looking for some cheap sex and I’m just the guy who can give you that discount rate sex. Plus, I got a bottle full of Viagra at my condo. Look, I live just down the street at Museum Place. I got a waterbed. Dom Pérignon in the fridge. And, if you’re worried about herpes or the AIDS or other bugs, don’t worry. I have condoms. Trojans. Only the best for you, baby. Why don’t we leave this shit hole and get busy in the sack?”

People let out hoots and hollers. Some drunken barfly in a SLAYER t-shirt slurred, “Goooo feerriitt, baayybeeee!”

A brawny chick decked out in tattoos and cowboy boots, who was at least 50 years old, put down her bottle of Lone Star Beer and shouted, “Hey, stud muffin, take ME to your place. I know a few tricks that young thang hasn’t even learnt yet!!”

Everybody watching yelped and guffawed and snorted their drinks through their noses…except for Jeff and the Playboy Playmate of the Month he wanted to take home and get drunk on champagne with and fuck every which way, including upside down, all night long, on his waterbed.

He still had a firm grip on her arm.

“LET GO, I SAID!!!”

The Beauty was really pissed off at the Beast.

“NO FUCKING WAY, YOU CUNT!! We’re going to my place and start fucking!!”

Jeff was horny and determined to get his way. Any minute now I was expecting him to pull out a Billy Club and hit the looker over the head with it and grab a fistful of her hair and drag her to his cave.

The tension in the room had built into a fever pitch. It was like watching a reality TV show. Everyone was glued to what was gonna happen next to this quarreling sex charged couple.

With her free arm the sex pot reached into her purse and pulled out a Beretta .25 semi-auto handgun. I liked this bimbo’s choice of defense weapon. That make and model was an accurate and deadly piece. I had heard the Arlington, Texas, cops used them as ankle-holstered backups.

She stuck the gun, after releasing the safety, into Jeff’s face. His expression turned from anger at her reluctance to fuck him into sheer terror at the prospect of dying and soon. She pulled the gun’s trigger back and put it against Jeff’s forehead. Watching her handle that gun with such ease and confidence made me think she’d gotten very good firearms training and probably had had to pull out her piece many times before to get away from other “I won’t take no for an answer” assholes like Jeff.

“LET ME GO NOW (she moved the gun down to his crotch) OR I’LL BLOW OFF YOUR FUCKING DICK AND BALLS, MOTHERFUCKER!!!”

Jeff threw his hands up into the air and backed away.

“I’m cool, bitch. Real cool. Maybe you’d have better luck with that loser at the bar (he pointed at me). He loves psychotic women like you who’re one small misstep away from an insane asylum or Death Row.”

Jeff quickly left the bar, with the patrons shouting insults and jeering him all the way out.

“Don’t come back here you Wall Street prick!!!”

“We see you again and you’ll be leaving in a body bag, you faggot!!!”

“Afraid of a girl with a pea shooter? What a pussy!! Go back to Dallas, motherfucker!! Fort Worth is where the West begins and the East ends, douche bag!!”

The Amy Adams look-alike put her gun away and came over to the bar and sat down next to me. On closer inspection I noticed a pimple about to explode on her forehead and a brain surgery scar behind her left earlobe and an ankle bracelet. I told the bartender, One-Legged Karl, to give her whatever alcoholic beverage she wanted.

My future wife ordered a can of Miller High Life.

Cool Man by Walter Rogers

coolJimmy Hoerknel was a dump-pa-dy, de-dump-pa-dy kind of goofy stupid kind of guy with his large black framed, soda pop bottle thick eyeglasses crunched up real close to his squinting eyeballs, always running into things, and people, and always making a mess and fool of himself.

Everybody in town called him “boy” even though he was a grown white man.

“Hey, boy, get over here and pick up that trash for me.”

He did what he was told.

“Hey, boy, get lost. Grownups are talkin here.”

“Boy, you better get on home. Night’s a comin’. The mosquitoes will bite you all over.”

Jimmy just smiled like a dufus and nodded and did what he was told.

The brutally mean redneck kids always picked on him after they got out of school, finding him wondering the streets with nothing to do since he was unemployable, fired from the local feed store because he kept dropping bags of dog food, spilling the pellets all over the place and causing Mrs. Spicer to take a bad fall, breaking her ankle, having the feed store owner pay for her medical treatment.

“Hey, Jimmy, you’re a retard. You’re fired.”

The local the kids piled on.

“Retard! Retard! Retard!”

They’d throw rocks at him and run away, laughing like hyenas.

The girls were even worse than the school boys. They called him a faggot.

“You’re gay. You’ll never get pussy, you fat idiot.”

Some would raise their skirts and show him their panties.

“You’ll never stick your tiny dick into me, you moron.”

He’d look down at the street, avoiding looking at their undergarments, waiting for them to leave.

“You got boogers hangin’ out of your nose. GROSS!”

They’d laugh and skip on down the street, happy at themselves for demeaning a mentally challenged man.

Jimmy always waited patiently as they insulted him, taking it with that big dumb smile on his face, showing off his yellowed and missing teeth, from being punched for no reason at times by the bigger high school boys who played on the football team.

The folks in Cool, Texas, got quite a knee-slappin’ time from watching ol’ porky dorky Jimmy Hoerknel walk his way around the small, sleepy town between Mineral Wells and Weatherford, both bigger towns with their own dump-pa-dy dumps like Jimmy Hoerknel, but not like this Jimmy Hoerknel because this Jimmy Hoerknel, the absolute original of the species known as rural town nerd dufus, went off and did something real strange one night that nobody ever knew about, except the whole town knew, as did the Parker County Sheriff’s Department, and all those media people from those cable TV news shows like The O’Reilly Factor and Anderson Cooper 360. They rushed to Cool and set up their TV cameras and their reporters and started asking the dumbfounded local yokels why such a horrible thing could happen in such a seemingly nice, quiet place like this.

But nobody bothered to ask dump-pa-dy dump Jimmy Hoerknel, the one person with the only expert opinion on what happened to Jed and Nancy Thomson, that quiet middle-aged couple with their three children off at college, two at Tarleton State University and one at Dallas Baptist University.

The Thomson couple lived in the double-wide mobile home that sat right off of Farm to Market Road 113. One night they got chopped up into itty-bitty tiny pieces that were scattered about for their one goat and several roosters and chickens to play with and consume while with their two cows and one bull calmly chomped on hay before a nearby neighbor caught wind of something smelling awful, figuring it was yet another dead cow that was mutilated by aliens, what with all the UFO sightings he’d heard from hushed conversations with ranchers, who lost livestock in weird ways, at the local breakfast place every Saturday morning that served damn good gravy and biscuits with Texas toast and delicious slices of ham.

The Thomson’s closest neighbor, the kindly rancher Fred Lyle, ventured over to the Thomson’s place and found a foot and the top half of a head with a nose half attached near the couple’s septic tank.

He quickly got into his pickup truck and scooted on over to the Mineral Wells newspaper’s office after realizing the Parker County Sheriff wasn’t in town and informed its new and green around the ears, TCU-educated editor, Cain Fenner, that he had seen many scattered and bloody body parts that were strewn about the Thomson’s place. Cain gave old Fred, sweat droplets all over his head and running down his many wrinkles making it look like a bunch of overflowing creeks, a hanky to wipe his face and a glass of iced tea, seeing that this was the middle of July and it hadn’t gotten below 100 during the day for the past two weeks.

Cain used his cellphone to call for Parker County Sheriff Tommy Johnson. His secretary answered the call and informed Cain that the Sheriff was at lunch with some politicians buying them chicken fried steak dinners at the Weatherford Downtown Cafe in an effort to woo their support for an addition to his jail house, which would take a property tax increase for funding, which was always a tough sell in small Texas towns like Cool.

“We got some body parts all over the place out here at the Thomson’s,” Cain informed the secretary, her name was Myrtle, and Cain heard a big gulp at the other end, and he said, “If you don’t mind telling Sheriff Noonan about this situation we’d appreciate it. Seems some animals are feeding themselves with those body parts and the evidence of who the victim or victims are is disappearing as we speak.”

Cain heard Myrtle scream, “Oh, Lord Jesus”, before the phone went dead. He figured he’d better go out to the Thomson place and see what had taken place, making doubly sure his Nikon D700 digital SLR had a charged up battery and an extra SDHX card before locking the newspaper office’s only door behind him.

Cain followed Fred’s ramshackle 1965 Chevy pickup out to Farm to Market Road 113, passing a field of huge wind turbines that slowly circled the air like white plastic dinner knives cutting holes in the clear blue sky. After traveling a couple of miles down the dusty road he saw the white paneled double-wide mobile home the Thomson’s. The red markings spewed onto its outside paneling must have been the victim’s blood haphazardly splattered about by the frenzied killer and not house paint, Cain thought, because these strange markings were way too abstract and surreal in their design for simple people like the Thomson’s to like or appreciate.

“Looks like a Jackson Pollock painting to me,” Cain thought.

As Fred parked his pickup along the roadside Cain drove his 2003 Honda Civic down the Thomson’s driveway, really it was a gravel way, and he heard a crunching noise underneath his tires not at all like gravel and figured he’d for sure ran over a bone of some magnitude, maybe a pelvis. Cain stopped and got out of his car and immediately pinched his nose shut and stood there in awe, slowly surveying the macabre scene, taking in all of the ripped up body parts littering their yard.

Fred poked a stick at a mangy hound dog that had showed up from behind the couple’s cow pen in an attempt to make the dumb thing drop an ear firmly entrenched in its mouth.

“Here, dog, let that be,” Fred barked.

He poked its side a couple more times but the dog stood his ground, growling. Fred got flustered and finally whacked the dog upside its head. The mutt let out an angry yelp like it didn’t want to lose such a tasty morsel but another head smack on its snout by Fred’s thick switch made it open its mouth and let go of the ear, the bloody pulp of flesh falling out of its mouth. Fred picked it up and dropped it into one of the many pockets in his overalls.

“I’ll give this here piece of evidence to Sheriff Noonan personally,” Fred told Cain.

Cain took a photo of Fred holding the ear thinking it’d make a good front page picture and might just get picked up by the national news website services, like the Huffington Post or Fox News, thinking this awful story might be his big break into the big time and getting himself out of such a typical Texas one stop sign town where the paper had more ads for feed stores and gun shows in Fort Worth than actual news since nothing ever happened except for church announcements, funerals and which high school students were taking the cows they had raised from birth to the Fort Worth Stock Show, with the aging and dwindling population barely capable of reading above a 4th grade level.

“I can’t be in this shitty hick hole my whole life,” Cain thought. “A spot at the Dallas Morning News could catapult me into writing stories that could win me a Pulitzer Prize and then I’m on to bigger and better things.”

Cain smiled after taking the photo and patted Fred on the shoulder.

“This must be hard on an old man like you, seeing all of this mayhem out here where nothing bad like this ever happens.”

Fred shook his head.

“Oh, you young fella don’t know a damn thing,” Fred said in his slow Texas drawl. “I served in the Army in World War II and I saw my men blown to bits, much smaller pieces than these here. My soldiers were trying to say things to me before they died even though their heads weren’t attached to the rest of ‘em after stepping on land mines when we stormed the beaches in Normandy. I’ve seen the worst. That Saving Private Ryan movie got real close to it but not close enough. This here ain’t nothin’ to me. Some damn fool got mad at the Thomson’s and did what evil thing was inside of him; took out his frustration on’em, you might say. Probably just over their bull somehow getting off the property and knocking down someone’s fence to go hump a neighbor’s cow. People do stupid stuff like that all the time in Texas.”

With that Fred got back into his squeaky old pickup truck and drove off but took the time to throw the ear out of his hand, tossing it at Cain’s feet in disgust.

“Take a photo of that, paper boy. Maybe it’ll get you more advertisements for hearing aids.”

Before Cain could bend over to pick it up the mangy dog, still there with blood and hunger on its mind, pounced on it and swallowed it whole.

“You dumb ass hound dog!” Cain shouted.

The dog growled angrily and bared its blood stained teeth.

But he had a quick shutter finger to capture a photo of the dog swallowing the ear.

Then Cain reared back and kicked the dog right in its ass with the sharp end of his cowboy boot and it finally ran off, yelping the whole way, headed straight for a torn up arm completely separated from one of the Thomson’s shoulder blades.

Cain felt like walking around in the carnage taking more photographs but decided it would probably be better to let Sheriff Noonan and his deputies survey the grounds because he didn’t want to accidentally disturb the ape shit crime scene. So he leaned against his car and began snapping off pictures of the blood stained mobile home. He also got shots of the family’s goat and some coyotes who had showed up, all of them fighting over lips and toes and fingers and legs and feet, and the goat, a scrawny beast, its hide tugged snug around its ribs and a long, scraggly goatee that gave it some cherished character, chewing slowly on a clump of what looked like a piece of scalp with bleached blonde human hair, obviously the wife’s.

Sheriff Noonan arrived with several of his deputies, followed by an ambulance, a few minutes later. The tall Texan got out of his squad car, looked all around and started shaking his head and said to Cain, who had a voice recorder in hand, “This is shame. A god damned shame. We’re gonna catch the son of a bitch who did this for sure and we will personally watch him put to sleep on death row down in Huntsville or else just shoot the son of the bitch on site.”

He ordered his men into position and they carried out their plan, chasing away, and sometimes shooting the evidence eating coyotes. He didn’t bother putting a 9mm bullet into the goat’s skull, which had now started chewing slowly away on what appeared to be a thigh bone.

“I can’t very well shoot their personal property,” he said.

One deputy walked around and shot digital video of all the body parts where they were left by the animals or by whoever did this horrible deed. Some parts were chewed into literal pulp by the hungry beasts and would never be identified as to what they were or whose body it they had belonged to. All the parts, once documented by digital video, were carefully picked up and placed inside evidence bags.

Forensic personnel came along and scraped dried blood samples off of the mobile home, with one guy dusting spots on the mobile home with a brush in hopes of finding usable fingerprints.

The deputies that ventured into the mobile home came right back out shaking their heads, with a few of them puking up their Blue Plate Special lunches.

“I’ve seen photos of the Manson family murders no one has ever seen and, Jesus H. Christ, this is helluva lot worse than that,” one of them told Cain.

A couple of the deputies walked over to a neighboring field and started crying because they were so disturbed by it all. Cain made sure he got photographs of them balling their eyes out but Sherriff Noonan walked over to him and knocked his camera out of his hand, saying, “If I see a photograph in your fucking newspaper of one my deputies crying I will throw your ass in jail and let you rot in there for a week, you fuckin’ soulless cocksucker.”

Later, as the day wore on, Sheriff Noonan stood there at the roadside scratchin’ his bald head answering questions asked by a gathering media horde, pleading with the TV folks to not shoot video of the body parts and to keep their descriptions of the murder scene to a minimum seeing that this story would fall nicely into the 6 O’clock newscast’s time slot, telling the TV crews he didn’t want anybody, especially parents’ children, upchucking their suppers and having God who knows what kind of nightmares.

Outrage filled the community as the news spread that Jed and Nancy Thomson had met their end in a most gruesome way, all chopped up like in a supermarket meat grinder and how it would be impossible for anybody to get to pay the dead couple decent last rites at the memorial and funeral because both caskets would be closed.

Just ain’t right to die like that, the town’s people told each other over and over all week long. They all said the same thing to those nicely dressed up TV news people from Dallas, Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles.

Sheriff Noonan quickly enough got sick and tired of the questions from the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Megan Kelly and Nancy Grace and barred the media from his office and sent out his department’s statements on the unsolved case through a Sheriff’s office spokesperson. He wasn’t saying much in his statements anyway, what with there being practically no clues to disclose and really nothing else to say except to comment that the killer would be brought to justice, no matter how long it took to find the sick son of a bitch.

A reward of $10,000 for any information that led to arrests and convictions was started at the local bank in Weatherford for the person, or persons, who did this inhumane crime but nobody had yet showed up to collect that money and in a week’s time things began to simmer down, the mystery of who had killed the Thomson’s at a dead standstill, with Sheriff Noonan putting the case file into a filing cabinet full of unsolved crimes, frustrated at the lack of clues of who had killed one of Cool’s sweetest couples.

The TV news people soon got wind of a bigger, better story near Broomfield, Colorado, where a student had gone insane and shot a bunch of classmates and several teachers to death before turning the weapon on himself.

So funny looking, loony and goofy Jimmy Hoerknel, the town clown, with food crumbs always hanging off of his lips, or cheeks, or chin, the stupid fat boy without a lick of sense, even though he was a grown man in his mid-40s, stood around looking dumb as usual, smiling, waving and saying hello to the same people who had laughed in his face for all of his years growing up in Cool, Texas, always keeping to himself, friendless, and walking around the streets getting more insults shouted his way by everyone, while late at night nobody would see him and nobody gave a shit where he was, or what he was doing, but maybe they had better start to.

Walter Rogers is a white trash Texas redneck whose grandfather, after emigrating from Russia in the hopes of becoming a championship boxer, worked for the North Side mob in Chicago in the 1950s. Walter’s favorite authors are Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, Franz Kafka, Ferdinand Celine, Knut Hamsun, Kurt Vonnegut and Friedrich Nietzsche, among many others. He’s twice divorced and lives alone with his cat, Oscar, in Fort Worth, where he was born in 1960. He says, and his friends agree, that the two best lines he ever wrote were, “Feminism stops at heavy lifting,” and “Humanity is an ongoing parade of relentless motherfuckers.” Besides writing, Walter enjoys photography and uses a Nikon D700 and various Nikkor lenses. He sold a photo to NEW YORK MAGAZINE for a cover shot in 2008. 

On the Cockaigne Guignol (an excerpt from Among the Arbiters) By Joseph Hirsch

“What the hell are you doing here?”

I looked up. There was a man who looked to be in his late thirties, drinking a big gulp-sized iced Slushy. A plastic straw protruded from his sixty-ounce drink, and his lips were stained red from the cherry food coloring. He wore a ribbed wife-beater, and little tufts of black and grey hair protruded up along his collar bone, terminating in a salt and pepper five o’clock shadow on his face. He wore pinstriped boxer shorts, and his ample gut bulged over the space between his boxers and the wife-beater.

“I have no idea what I’m doing here.” I stood up, and rubbed the lump on the back of my head, where Craic had cracked me. Had he perhaps hit me so hard that I time travelled? Was I still on the moon colony?

The guy shrugged. “Some limey cocksucker brought you in here. He said you were going to stay here for a while and observe.” The man shrugged again, took another drink from his big gulp. “That’s no skin off my ass, except you better not try to take my girl.”

I looked around. We were in what looked like a wood-paneled basement bedroom, the kind of den where a ne’er do well son-in-law might crash, out of mind and out of the sight of the parents he was sponging off of. The floor was oatmeal shag. There were neon light fixtures arranged around the room, one for Miller and another for Silver Bullet.

I stood up and dusted myself off. The guy gave me a thorough onceover. “You’re dressed like a limey, too.”

I ignored that. I wanted to know where the hell I was. “Where are we?”

“The Alien Moonlet, experimental chamber number thirty-seven.” He drained the last of his Slushy, chewed a few bits of crushed ice. “You know, you hear the horror stories when you’re in holding, about all the weird shit they subject us humans to. But me?” He pointed a beefy thumb at his exposed chest hair. “I’ve been banging one supermodel after another for the last month. This ain’t bad, not as bad as that fruity Christmas Carol cloud I hear they got you guys stuck under.” He pointed at my doeskin trousers. “Christ, those things would make my balls chafe.” He sat down on the edge of his pullout bed, which responded with a springy creak, as it accommodated his large girth.

“I don’t even get fully dressed anymore. I mean, I spend so much of my time fucking down here, what’s the use in putting on a whole outfit?”

A door opened off to our side. “Holy shit,” he said, and I thought the same. A blond with hard, surgically-enhanced features pranced into the room. Her tanned, high breasts jiggled with every step she took, making our eyes pop as she performed her catwalk. Her scarlet corset cradled her perfect hourglass form, improbably sculpted with the inhuman dimensions of a Barbie doll. She was all bust and no waist, and though her beauty lacked imagination, it worked its magic on us.

Her collagen lips pressed together in a soft pout, thick and warm, and her eyes were an azure that could have been achieved with contact lenses only slightly less ersatz than the eyelashes she batted as she walked over to the slovenly man sitting on the edge of the bed.

She pushed me away, and I went over to the other side of the room. The man shrugged at me. “Sorry, buddy. She’s a one woman guy.” He shed his wife beater, exposing a freckled mass of pale fat on his front, and a gorilla’s mane worth of back hair crawling up his spine. The bombshell registered no alarm or disgust. I was tempted to ask this asshole if he had won the lottery.

She straddled the man, entreating him to hold his arms down. He responded by allowing his arms to fall limply out to his sides, as if he was being crucified. She shed her corset, giving me a perfect view of her golden bronze back which wound down to a teardrop-shaped ass, a perfect half-sphere like the dayside of a planet warmed by the rays of a bright yellow sun. She held his arms down and began fiercely thrusting her body into his.

“Oh god!” He moaned. The neon lights from the beer signage beat a weird tattooed chiaroscuro onto their mated forms.

“The beast with two backs.”

A voice came from behind me. It was Craic. “Hey, what the hell?” I asked. “You didn’t have to hit me over the head.”

“I didn’t see how else to get you off the ship.”

The entry of a fourth didn’t slow their congress any. Both were sweating, grunting fiercely. I was grateful that no requests had been made for a ménage-a-trois. The woman was beautiful, and it had been a long time for me (and certainly the last time hadn’t been with someone who looked like her), but I didn’t want to be anywhere near the slob currently being ridden for all he was worth.

“What’s this about?”

“You’re about to see.” Craic pointed the copper tip of his cane toward the ravenous hellcat on the verge of her orgasm.

“Oh God! No!” The throes segued from those of ecstasy to horror, and the woman jumped up off of the man. She stood over the bed, a geyser of blood streaming from the man’s pelvic bone region as he writhed and struggled to staunch the red watery flow with his crummy pastel bedspread while the pints rushed from his body. The sheet quickly filled with blood and the man ceased his writhing. His eyes were open and he gazed off into the distance, frozen in death.

The woman hopped down, holding her legs together. Her landing strip pubic hair was streaked with a high gloss of blood, and the edges of her Brazilian wax job were slathered in several coats of what looked like viscous red paint. From her vagina there protruded the stump of a still-erect penis, jutting out at Craic and me like a friendly hand extended and waiting to be shaken.

Craic pointed the end of his cane at the bloodied appendage that had been ripped from the dead man on the bed. “The Arbiters are experimenting with a bit of a Praying Mantis project. They want to see what happens when human males die in the act of congress with females.”

He flicked the blood-engorged member which clung from the hole in the woman’s body. It flopped twice, like a spring being flicked and responding with a reverberating thud. The supermodel continued smiling, and she licked her lips, sated like a succubus on a fresh meal. She stared at me with inviting eyes, batting those fake lashes with an alluring wink. I had no desire to sleep with her now.

“You notice that when the penis breaks off it remains trapped in the female, like a stopper, to ensure there is no runoff of semen. Naturally, this increases the chances of conception.”

I struggled not to vomit, glanced over at the dead and bloated body on the bed. “I somehow don’t think he would have taken that as much consolation.”

Craic put his arm around my shoulder and led me out of the room. The woman remained where she was. “Be that as it may, important work is being performed here.”

The walls of the room we now entered were a series of marine tanks, like the underground aquatic exhibit at the zoo back in my hometown. Blue water waved out and rippled in a chlorinated haze. I expected to a see a walrus lazily swimming by, or perhaps sharks with sinister jaws, roving for prey as their fins curved gracefully back and forth. I was therefore surprised when a man pressed his face flush against the glass of the tank I was observing.

He wore no snorkeling gear, oxygen tank, or any other kind of underwater apparatus. I noticed he was small, not much larger than a dwarf, only all of his features, legs and arms, were correctly proportioned. It wasn’t as if he had been born with some sort of defect that made him small. It was more like he had been shrunken down to size, scaled to fit comfortably in the tank with ample room to swim. Whatever the case, his lot appeared to be preferable to that of the super stud back in the bedroom.

The man waved to me and I waved back. He turned his head, and I noticed larval pouches protruding from beneath rubbery protective sheaths on either side of his neck. The water bubbled from what looked like knife slits carved into the flesh of his throat.

“Gills,” I said.

“Very good.”

“The Arbiters modified him.”

“Well,” Craic said, “Only a certain amount of modification was really necessary. What are lungs, really, except for inside-out gills? And I wouldn’t call it modification.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“Domestication, for it is not only the taming of animals, but the selective breeding of the same. They are being molded to serve the Arbiters.”

I wanted to be angry, but we had reached a moment where if I was to take the Arbiters to task I would have been forced to also judge myself, as well. I’d had dogs before, terriers that had been bred for their cuteness irrespective of Nature’s intent, with no input from the dogs doing the breeding.

“The Arbiters need some gofers underwater, creatures to fetch things from those hard to reach places.” Craic smiled, and waved at the gilled man in the tank. “And you never know when they might get a bit hungry, and need a snack.”

“So this underground layer is an experimental facility, and up above us, that big mollusk colony, that’s the Arbiters’ city?”

Craic shook his head. “No, they’re a bit too mobile to bother with permanent conurbations. They have substations and outposts, spearheads and barracks. No cities, no civilization, no society.”

“No hierarchy?”

“I didn’t say that. But…” He paused, cocked his head to the side, trying to think how best to phrase it. “They’re a bit more like honeybees. They all are important when considered as a group, but the queen is the only one who truly matters at an individual level. Each is willing to consider itself expendable when the group is at stake. Think of them as a single body, composed of many cells.”

“And will I meet the queen?”

“The analogy can be carried too far. The queen in this case is a male.” Craic adjusted his stovepipe to a jaunty, rakish angle. “And yes, you will meet Cetacea Prime before we leave this moonlet.”

Behind us, through the open door to the seedy bedroom, was a tableau of unspeakable horror. The woman, her body still stoppered with the fleshy tissue of the man’s torn penis, had begun to tear into his chest where she had his body laid out on the carpet of the floor. The man’s ribs had been pried viciously outward from his body, as if he were a cadaver prepared for autopsy, the bony tines like the sides of the scooped canoe berth she had made out of his chest, emptied of lungs, viscera, and organs. She gathered his innards up, dangling a rubbery coil of intestine, slick with the embalming juices of a ruptured pancreas. She forced his greasy meat into her mouth, and his blood ringed her lips like carelessly applied lipstick. She looked up at us and hissed. I took a step back.

Craic said, “It might seem needlessly disgusting, but there is a logic behind what she is doing.”

I dry heaved twice, but nothing would come up. I tasted the bile of the meal we had eaten at Alice’s the previous night. I spit a mouthful of saliva on my shoes. “What could be the point of that?”

“Certain species similar to your flatworms have learned how to navigate their way through mazes which were successfully accomplished by their forebears, merely by consuming the same. You see, this is known as ‘chemical learning’ and is something the Arbiters are greatly interested in.”

Craic walked forward, and closed the door on the cannibalistic supermodel, for which I was grateful. “Sounds absurd to me,” I said, allowing my stomach to settle as I massaged its contours.

“Why?”

“These guys are supposed to be an advanced race, right? This sort of ‘eating your enemy’s heart to gain his power’ stuff seems to be part of the belief systems of very primitive tribes.”

“You don’t believe in cultural relativism?” Craic, or the worm inside him, seemed genuinely intellectually stimulated for the first time in our discussion.

I thought about it, said, “I believe that if you eat humans you are inferior to humans who don’t eat humans.” I also didn’t see what the supermodel would be getting from that man, assuming that “chemical learning” was to take place, based on whatever modifications the Arbiters had made. Was she now imbued with the ability to walk around in boxers and scratch her ass while drinking a cherry-flavored Frosty?

“Ready to see more?” Craic walked past the tanks where a school of pygmy gilled men swam in tight formation.

“If I say no, will you beat me over the head again with the cane?”

“Yes.”

“Then lead the way, by all means.”

I walked behind him, to a door ringed in elastomeric seals, with a starfish-shaped portal in its center, appointed with the glyphs familiar from the ship. He pressed a button and the rubber seal retracted. We stepped forward.

“Do you know the legend of Cockaigne?” Craic asked. Three-walled partitions were arranged down an endless corridor that stretched half the length of a football field. There was no work going on in the cubicles, however. There were only various men seated in reclined La-Z Boys, the velour shag leg rests fully deployed in each room. The men ate movie theatre popcorn, whose heavily buttered scent wafted to us where we stood in the center of the corridor.

Each chamber had a giant flat screen plasma television, which displayed CGI-heavy cartoons, or elaborate and bloody videogames where mechanized giants dueled with proton blasters and shoulder-mounted scud missiles, crushing cities, suspension bridges and skyscrapers into a patina of thermal paint and dust as they wreaked carnage. The men laughed with one another, snacking as they lay back in their seats, talking to one-another on headsets as they embraced the havoc of a multiplayer bonding ritual that was simulated war.

We walked farther on, until we came to a skylight-decked atrium, where a gargantuan chocolate Fondue waterfall spilled in rippling beads of rich hazel showers that smelled like the rivers in a Swiss chocolatier’s dreams.

“What the hell is the point of all this?” I asked.

“It’s an experiment,” Craic said. We walked to the far wall, where there was another door. Craic depressed the blue starfish and we waited. “Over the course of the last one-hundred years on Earth, the Arbiters noted that man became more sedentary, that worldwide sperm counts were dropping, that body mass index was increasing, especially in industrialized portions of the world.”

I thought I understood what he was getting at. It was a variation on the Carthaginian scorched Earth campaign. “Kill them with kindness,” I said. “Or at least weaken their wills with endless Fondue and videogames, as well as high-fructose corn syrup.”

“Cockaigne.” Craic turned one last time to take in the sad pleasure palace, from which females were not surprisingly absent. “The Medieval land of plenty, where the rivers of wine flowed, and swine ran around with carving knives protruding from their backsides.”

The boom of a rocket launch made the next room tremble as we entered it. A projected image of the Saturn V rocket’s takeoff exploded loud enough to make me cup my ears with my hands. In the next moment, I heard the careless laugh of a woman, the kind of playful sound a female might have made with her boyfriend on a lazy afternoon spent in the folds of a picnic blanket in the park. Crickets chirped, a frog croaked, and the walls lit up with banks of monitors clustered together like a techno-honeycomb, the cells of a new flesh formed by the impressions on these screens, this mosaic of old, bygone Earth.

People pushed their grocery carts down aisles, Chuck Berry shouted “Johnny Be Good!” and cars rushed along the highway beneath a graffiti-scarred overpass where traffic was at a standstill and emergency roadwork barrels had been placed at five foot intervals. The light from the screens revealed the room to be filled with small Arbiters in their hardened, shelled states, standing all around us. Their black bodies glistened like wet PVC, and their claws tapped the hieroglyphs, forcing new images and sounds to the fore on the walls around us.

The steady pump of a heart beat overpowered the other sounds, and each screen was blanketed by the image of a preteen boy and girl sharing their first awkward kiss, their foreheads butting, forcing both to smile until their lips touched.

“What’s going on here?”

Craic scratched his Van Buren whiskers. “I’d ask them, but I can’t address them with this human tongue. I’d have to vacate this old rat catcher’s body, and if I do that, the other pseudocoelomate rotifers will make a mad dash for the center of the brain, and then you and I won’t be friends anymore.” He gave me a sad look.

The impressions of Earth faded from the screens, and we were treated to a worm’s eye view of a giant igneous rock orbiting through space. “This,” Craic said, “This I understand.”

“What is this?”

“The panspermia of the stars.” He didn’t wait for the questions he knew were forthcoming. “Life, at least a lot of life in this endlessly expanding universe, begins with molecules floating through the interstellar medium. Do you want to know where you came from?”

“I…” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this. I wasn’t religious, but I took a measure of solace from the fact that other people had been. “I’d like to believe I came from God.”

“Extraterrestrial bacterium, similar to ecoli, but abiotic while it was in transit.”

“Shot by the Arbiters?” I looked at the mollusks busy tapping away at their keyboards. The face of the tycoon and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes appeared onscreen, along with a massive ream of subscript flowing beneath the black and white photograph of the dashing aviator, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Golden Age Hollywood legend Errol Flynn.

“No, the panspermia technology, like everything else the Arbiters get their grubby opposable digits on, was just something they hijacked from creatures much smarter than them. But whatever now-extinct race they stole it from also shot the wad into space that landed on Earth and created the sea monkeys that eventually led to the primordial soup that gave birth to you.”

I would have liked to think of myself as having been “knit in my mother’s womb,” as I believe a verse from Genesis in the King James Bible had put it. “Wait,” I said, hoping to catch him in a contradiction. “You said this stuff was…prebiotic?”

“Close,” he said. “Abiotic.”

“Right. That means ‘not alive.’ So how does this stuff-”

“Essentially carbon monoxide, alcohol, formaldehyde,” he said, interrupting me, “forming in the diffuse cold nebulae-”

“How does that become biotic?” I asked, interrupting him right back.

He shrugged, seemingly not perplexed, or much piqued by the question. “Something to do with the impact when those comets filled with their inorganic grains hit a mountain or a volcano on an alien planet.”

“You don’t get life from impacting something really hard, or burning it. If I punch a rock or submerge it in lava, it’s not going to come to life.”

“Do you want the answer that the man I have commandeered would give you, that is, Craic the Rat Catcher?”

“Sure.”

“Okay,” Craic said. “Jesus did it. Now, are you ready to meet the Cetacean to best all other Cetaceans?” He waved his cane like a magic wand at the jamb of the door we stood before. I had a feeling that this would be the last door we’d be passing through on our tour of the moonlet. He drew his Malacca staff around the jamb, the contours of the elastomeric hinges, as if he were a carnival barker readying to display the most gruesome oddity in the circus.

“Let’s do it.” I didn’t figure it could be any worse than what we had already seen.

The door opened onto a room made from smooth white enamel, something like alabaster or ivory. I treaded softly over the nacre-bright floor, afraid that I might slip on its burnished surface. At the far end of the room there was a podium, like the elevated platform on which a priest might preach his sermon. There was what looked like a Tsarist Faberge egg cradled in a stand made from four golden legs, which terminated in the claws of some apex predator who was distant kin to the lions that had roamed Earth’s Serengeti until the Arbiters had blown our world to smithereens with one of their sun starters.

To the right of the large egg there was a young man, dressed in a stock boy’s smock with a sewn label I recognized from a grocery store chain popular on the eastern seaboard. As we approached, the stock boy looked at my host and said, “You are Rotifer Six Three Nine Eight Two Seven Four Five Three, I assume?”

“I would prefer to be called Craic.”

“Well,” the stock boy said, “I feel no kinship with the human I inhabit. You need not maintain any pretense on my behalf. My human’s memories consist primarily of bagging groceries and helping old women with their shopping carts. Not much to recommend him.” The stock boy looked at me. “You may approach Cetacea Prime in a moment. He has become a narcophile in his dotage.”

“That’s his business,” I said. Craic leaned over to me and whispered, “That just means he loves to sleep.”

“Oh, I thought it meant he liked to have sex with dead bodies.”

“Close.”

I walked forward, staying just below the raised pulpit that cradled the egg. I studied it from this closer vantage. It was flecked with jadeite specks, little heliotrope stars which gave it the appearance of a bloodstone rather than an egg. It was about the same size as the boy who stood next to its smooth, organic contours. “I thought Arbiters got bigger as they get older?”

“Again,” Craic said, “You could consult your own species for a rough analogy, in order to save yourself some time and spare me your queries.”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s alright.” He pointed the end of his cane toward the egg. “As Arbiters mature, they certainly grow. But this is the oldest Arbiter there is. He was born well before the dawn of the Cenozoic age, and consequently he is very much wizened.”

“You may approach now.” The shell of the egg opened, or rather cracked, and its walls folded outward like the sides of the spaceship’s icosahedron.

I was about to step forward, when Craic grabbed me on the shoulder. He twisted the Malacca head of his cane, and pulled upward. One half of the cane was in his left hand, and in his right he held a dagger which had been in a hideaway compartment of the wooden staff until this moment. He grabbed my hand and made a small incision on my palm before I could offer a protest. He held my bleeding left hand in his grip and we walked together up to the open egg on the raised platform. We stepped lightly, hand in hand, like two lovers enjoying a lazy Sunday constitutional.

“Why’d you cut me?” I asked.

Craic released his hold on me, stopped halfway up the steps. The bag boy took up my arm and held it over the inside of the egg. I stared down into the viscous golden albumen that swam within the shell. The yolky surface of the burbling liquid came to life, and the interlocking jaws of a piranha appeared. I tried to jerk my hand away, but the stock boy held my arm firmly in place as the shearing razor teeth clicked together like castanets, producing the effect of a drumroll in hungry anticipation of my blood. A few fat-bellied droplets of blood dripped down from the incision that Craic had made in my hand with his little knife, and the primal mouth took the drink, savoring its iron tang, before disappearing back into the radiant albumen. The surface of the yolk grew calm, and the bag boy pulled my arm out of the egg. The shell closed around the Faberge masterwork.

“You can step down now.”

I walked down the stairs, back toward Craic, who had sheathed his dagger inside of the cane. “What the hell just happened?”

“The Arbiter needed some of your blood,” the bag boy said. “From it, he will extrapolate much about your species, in order to prepare the prosecution’s case.”

I turned to Craic. “Am I guilty of something?”

“You may not be guilty, but you’re on trial.”

“That doesn’t help much.”

He placed his arm in the small of my back, and led me out of the white chamber, back in the direction of our rocket where it was waiting on a landing pad beneath the shadow of the dripping forms of the lunar stalagmites.

“Your job is to argue humanity’s case in a courtroom. You are to tell the Arbiters why your species should be allowed outside of the technetium cloud, to be given a planet of your own.”

We walked back through the chamber where the teenaged Arbiters monitored various images. Howard Hughes’ mustached mug was still on the screen. I wondered what they got out of the reclusive billionaire. Craic said, “When the Arbiters noticed humans engaged in nuclear war, as well as the testing of radioactive weapons, they relied on minutes from meetings Mr. Hughes had with his employees and advisors about Project Faultless. Hughes didn’t want the tests being conducted in Las Vegas, and his reservations about the megaton testing in Central Nevada helped alert the Arbiters to man’s potential danger to the Stars.”

“The Arbiters are certainly a potential danger to the stars,” I said. He turned down a hall and I followed him back to the cavernous bay where our ship was housed. The graphite nose of our rocket was pocked with bits of astral dust that had hit its surface as we ripped through space on our voyage here.

Craic punched his sequence into the cryptograph keypad. “I’m not a lawyer,” I said. “I have no legal background. Why don’t they get a human who was a lawyer in the past?”

He shook his head. The hatch opened and exhaled a hissing billow of decontamination foam. “You’re taking it personal. There’s nothing special about you. There’s something special about when you arrived.”

He waited for me to board, and then stepped on behind me. “Your ship was the last to land. The moonlet saw it crash, and it reminded the Arbiters that they had been kicking the can for a few million years. They thought it was time to give you a sporting chance to plead your case, to escape from the little nuclear zoo we’ve got your species trapped in. If you don’t want to argue in court…”He trailed off.

The hatch closed behind us. Craic walked over to the stowing compartment where the spacesuit and the attached helmet were housed. He took the heavy outfit over to me and held it out in his hands, entreating me to step inside. “You technically don’t have to wear this until we breach atmosphere, but it would be easier if you just put in on right now. But before we do that…”

He slung the suit over his shoulder, where it flopped like a dead body. “Open your mouth.”

“You know,” I said, “I usually don’t take orders, especially when the one doing the ordering has just sliced my hand open and held it over the mouth of a ravenous piranha.”

“Open.” His command was like that of a doctor who wanted to check for strep throat.

I sighed, inhaled, opened my mouth. He opened his own yawning maw, the yellow rat catcher’s teeth as crooked as headstones in an antebellum graveyard. His rancid breath came to me in a heated wave of halitosis, and I coughed once, twice.

“Shit, you need to brush your teeth.”

“All done.” He patted me on the shoulder with a reassuring grip. “Now, the suit.”

I stepped in with my legs. “What did you just do?” My breath was sour now, and when I swallowed it made bile rise in my gut.

“There were some loose termites in my body. I pushed them into yours. They won’t commandeer your brain. I immunized you against that when I patterned you with Victoria, but they might help you in court.” Craic slid the sleeves of the spacesuit around my arms. “I don’t know what was on each one. You have to remember that there are millions of us in this rat catcher’s body, and I can’t be bothered to count the contents of every spore.”

I zipped up the front of the suit and pulled the helmet over my head. “But let’s perform a test.”

I heard my breath coming over the microphone system lodged somewhere in this suit. I felt cool water radiate from a thermal unit lodged within the diamond-quilted folds of the heavy uniform. “Okay,” I said.

“They should have made their way to your brain by now.” Craic walked over to the pilot’s chair and plugged in some coordinates on the screen. “Tell me what you know about pizza.”

“Um, it’s Italian.”

“Not what you know. What you know now that they’re in your body. Try harder.”

The rocket began its takeoff, pressure plates rumbling from the action and reaction of gravity and antigravity fighting one another in a colliding chamber. I surprised myself by saying “Americans consumed over a football field of pizza per day, that is roughly one-hundred yards. Every human on Earth consumed roughly eight-hundred and fifty slices of pizza per year.”

I stopped speaking for a moment. Craic pulled his stick shift from the side of the ribbed black chair where he reposed. The walls of the ship grew transparent again, and we shot through the water, out of the seamount and into the thin, low gravity atmosphere of the moon. The desolate caldera opened up beneath us, revealing as well the scorpion-tailed trilobite that was the alien colony.

“Did you know that before I breathed into your mouth? Bad breath is a small price to pay for the knowledge you currently have in your head.” Craic stopped speaking to me in order to do his manual override of the ship’s defenses.

He wasted no time in blasting a golf ball-sized bit of astral rock that flew toward the rocket, which had ceased to propel itself, and had drifted lazily onto its side, dispensing with the use of fuel, as it switched to dragging itself along by the bootstraps of the universe itself, eating the natural, ubiquitous hydrogen that the interstellar medium provided. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Arbiters could combine traditional propulsion with other unconventional forms of travel, all in one sleekly designed vehicle.

“Understand,” Craic said, “that the termites won’t do the work for you. You’ll still have to assimilate all of that unrelated, mostly useless info, to formulate an argument to beat the Arbiters in court.”

“What if I lose the case?”

“Then the timeline of Man stops in Edwardian England. There are worse things, I suppose.”

“And if I win?”

Craic blasted another rock and pointed out through the windowed hull. “If you win, then you get that planet there.”

He pointed to a glowing neon ball, its orbit inferior to the one of the planet we had initially set out from. This planet sat closer to the radiant binary brothers.

“Is it habitable?”

“It’s inhabited right now. But it is not in its present state inhabitable by you. The Arbiters will be glad to give it to you, however, if you plead your species’ case in court successfully. They are not much enamored of the planet’s current inhabitants.”

“Why not?”

“The plant life there has, as a natural defense mechanism, figured out how to make chlorine gas from chloride. The Arbiters are omnivorous, and they find the things to be poor meals. The rotifers can modify almost anything, but Mother Nature is still a bit stronger than the Arbiters, and every time they try to turn the nasty chlorine back into chloride, there is some kind of hidden evolutionary mechanism by which the plants resist the attempts of the rotifers. And if the Arbiters can’t eat it, they’re not interested in it.”

Our spacecraft swerved to the right of the noble gas ball, its exosphere sheathed in a greenish yellow chlorinated haze. We aimed down, toward the planet where ice and fire were kept in a precarious balance, on the eternal verge of another glaciation or greenhouse gas meltdown.

“The standard dimensions of a Pizza Hut are thirty-five by sixty-five,” I said. “In Nineteen Seventy-Seven there were roughly thirty-four hundred restaurants in the United States and abroad.”

“That’s good to know,” Craic said, occupied by the ritual of reentry. He stood up from the chair, guided me to it, and strapped me in. He depressed a sequence of characters on the keypad and stepped back so that I could be safely entombed in the cube. The walls quickly became transparent and I watched him scurry over to the Gropius egg chair.

“‘This is a species of most nauseating cake. It is covered over with slices of Pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients. It altogether looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer.’”

“Michael,” Craic said. “If you’re going to troll through the termites I breathed into you, can you please do it silently? Or maybe consult something more substantial than pizza anecdotes and trivia? I would be greatly in your debt if you would.”

“Sorry,” I said, and I saw a curator reading with latex gloves on his hands, perusing through the parchments that constituted a diary entry of Samuel Morse from 1831. I was less interested in the information being presented, than in this secret glimpse of the Earth, and this Earth man.

I could get lost in the memories of these termites, I thought. I could hide here in my brain forever, contented by the scattered tinsel that the rat catcher had just breathed into my brain.

I closed my eyes as the ship rumbled, the seeding dirigibles clinging to the cloud cover as we descended, back in the direction of the marshy peat bog from which the giant cetacean that smelled my blood had first propelled us.

Tentacles reached out from the water to receive our craft, like a gynecologist catching an infant as it emerged from its mother’s womb. The ugly octopus god gripped us with its rubbery suction cups and placed us gently on the banks of the swamp.

I closed my eyes and thought pizza with every fiber of my being. I was at a conference table in my law firm, stroking the paisley pattern of my tie. I looked at my client, who gripped the metal spokes of her new wheelchair. “This thirty minutes or less guarantee has been a disaster.” I reached into my briefcase and threw the paper-clipped ream of papers on the table. I pointed at the sheets. “According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, Domino’s Pizza employees have a death rate of fifty per one-hundred thousand workers. This is completely unacceptable, and you are well within your rights to file-”

“Michael?” Craic had been standing over me for I knew not how long. I blinked away the residual light from the fluorescence in my law office, and I allowed him to unbuckle me.

He helped me out of my seat, and began unzipping the back of my spacesuit. “Try to do something more substantial than pizza memories. Try a bit of theology.”

“Okay,” I said. “Pose a theological question to me and I’ll see what I have on file.”

I did not feel smarter, not one whit. I felt only as if there was a phonebook’s worth of information that had been crammed into my head. I believed I could find what was wanted, if given enough time, but there was nothing eidetic about what was lent by the worms crawling through me. I did not feel like a savant and I was not convinced that I could beat the Arbiters in an open courtroom.

“Very well,” Craic said. He took my suit from me and walked it back over to its closet. I wiped the glistening sweat from my hands and the back of my neck. My clothes stank and I yearned to dip them into a cold water butt with a fistful of greased tallow. Craic returned minus the suit and said, “Verse one of the Bible tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. The question would then be, in the beginning of what? Putting aside questions of evolution, creationism, or intelligent design, how do we even begin to answer this question? In the beginning of what?”

I bit my fingernails and tapped my right leg, trying to summon an answer. I sat inside the mind of a man in seminary, a twenty-something fellow with sandy hair and an earnest smile which I caught reflected in the mirror of a bathroom where I had gone because I was overcome with anxiety, doubt that I could go the rest of my life without a woman, devoted only to God. I would have preferred to remain inside this man, not for his knowledge, but for the prosaic pleasures that the smell of fresh cut grass could bring, tinged with sunshine and the scent of diesel exhaust from the mower the groundskeeper pushed, as I sat on a stone bench next to the statue of Mary with her eyes downcast.

“Michael!”

I came out of the memory, as if out of a dream. I said, “Life in the time that the Bible was written involved a perspective which is completely alien to the mindset of someone who would ask a question like the one you just posed.”

“Meaning?”

Craic went over to the touchpad on the side of the ship’s hull and typed a series onto the pad. A door lowered from the side of the ship, onto the scene of the swamp, where the cetacean waited for us to exit, so that he could draw the cigar-shaped craft back underwater with him.

“Meaning that ‘the beginning’ refers to man’s entry onto the world, which does not mean that ‘nothing’ existed prior to the emergence of man. But the covenant between man and God was something similar to what the more scientifically inclined might call convergent evolution.” I walked over to the pilot’s chair and sat down. I was not quite ready to leave the chamber. “Evidence that something existed before man existed comes from Genesis One, Two. ‘Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’” I swiveled in my seat and looked up at Craic. “You see, ‘the Earth was formless and empty,’ yet there were also oceans. This is not a paradox. It is merely meant to state that God’s mirror image, his albedo, for the more scientifically inclined, was not yet upon the Earth, and in terms of function the Earth was empty. The Earth was not yet ‘good’ in the same sense that it was not good ‘for a man to be without a wife.’”

I thought of Alice for a moment, and then pushed thoughts of her to the back of my mind. I stood up. “May I see your cane, Craic?”

He passed me his staff. “Certainly.”

I supposed he thought I was going to use the cane to augment my oratory, maybe recall that moment when Moses cast his staff at the Pharaoh’s feet and it miraculously transformed into a writhing serpent.

I gripped the rod by its copper end and I swung it as hard as I could at my companion’s head, knocking his top hat across the room and making the black chimneypot slide to the other side of the spacecraft. I knelt down to his outstretched form and checked for a pulse. It was there, for which I was grateful. I had no desire to kill him. I’d just wanted to knock him out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ingolwald by Joseph Hirsch

I thought Dondy was just joking until the night he showed up in the Bees, holding a Turkish baby in his arms and carrying a rucksack on his back. The “Bees” were what we called the barracks. They were high-ceilinged rococo fortresses that reminded me of something higher-ranking Nazis might have retreated to when it became apparent that the war was lost. Sometimes I swore I could feel the ghosts of Death’s Head Hussars wandering the halls where drunken American GIs now roamed.

“I’m not doing it,” I said, but I let Dondy and the baby enter my room. It was a Saturday night. I liked to spend my weekends reading a book and burning Nag Champa incense, unlike most of the other soldiers, who much preferred drinking their paychecks and contracting a host of venereal diseases.

Dondy brought the baby over to my bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress and hoisted the rucksack off his shoulders. He unzipped the main pouch and searched inside. He extracted a glass bottle filled with milk. He inserted the rubber nipple into the Turkish little one’s mouth. A wisp of sweaty black hair was matted to the babe’s fontanel.

“Just humor me,” Dondy said. “I’ll give you fifty Euro.”

I walked over to the shared kitchenette and selected a cup of Ramen. I had eaten all of the shrimp-flavored soup and I was down to the plain chicken variety. I peeled the lid and filled the cup with tap water and then I put it in the microwave for one minute, on high. I walked back into my room, where Dondy was bouncing the baby on his knee. I said, “You still haven’t paid me for Dee-Deeing you to the Palace two weeks ago.”

I made pretty good money as a designated driver, since everyone liked to drink (except me). I also didn’t mind Dee-Deeing Dondy since it meant I got to drive the car of whatever Turkish girl he was screwing at the time. This current one, Shaeda, had plucked eyebrows, bee-sting fat lips, and the figure of the most beautiful belly dancer in a shah’s harem. She also had a brand-new Mercedes with heated seats, wood-grain steering wheel, and a helpful female GPS voice that liked to give directions in either Turkish or German, but never in English.

I pointed at the child. “The baby Shaeda’s?”

“Her sister’s,” Dondy said. “I got him for the night.”

“Shaeda and her sister cool with you turning their baby into a goblin?” I meant it as a joke, but Dondy didn’t smile. I could see that he was taking this crap seriously.

Let me explain-Awhile back Dondy had gone to an old bookseller’s shop in the Luisenplatz. The Luisenplatz was the main square of the city of Darmstadt, a small town in the German province of Hessen. There was a giant mall there, several restaurants, as well as butcher shops, head shops, a gelato parlor, and a few other apothecaries and sundry kiosks and stands, the cobblestone streets crisscrossed by city Strasse tracks. I had come perilously close to being killed by one of those trains on several occasions.

One afternoon Dondy came barging into my room holding this ancient volume bound in calfskin or Moroccan leather. It was a picaresque tale written (or rather carved, since it consisted mainly of woodcuts) by a veteran of the Thirty Years War who claimed there was a Hessen village that contained a forest, Engelwald, whose vegetative life was supposed to be imbued with evil powers. This author (Wilhelm Mackesburg) claimed to have met a frau who warned him never to enter the forest with a child in his haversack, for (claimed the girl) anyone who carried a child in a sack to the far edge of Engelwald would discover their swaddling babe transformed into a Kobold (that is a goblin).

The child (it was claimed) could return to its human form, but only if it were brought back out of the mouth of the forest by generally the same route through which it had been carried in.

I’d known what a Kobold was since my first day in Germany. I had discovered a Wörterbuch in the hallways of the transitional barracks where I was staying, shortly after transferring from Fort Benning, Georgia to the Darmstadt Kaserne. I knew I stood no chance of learning enough German to do so much as hail a cab in the time between now and my first exposure to Darmstadt’s streets, but since I was curious I quickly scanned through the fat book’s pages, anyway.

I turned to the “O” section, where I discovered Onanieren, which meant “to masturbate.” Flipping back in the direction of the leathered cover, my finger landed on the “K” section, where my eyes scanned the pages and found the word Kobold. Later that night, blind drunk at my first “Heinerfest,” I had struggled to stand upright beneath the shifting lysergic contours of a Ferris wheel, while also attempting to hold in the schnitzel and brezel batter lurching around in my uneasy stomach.

A beautiful Deutsch Mädchen, a brown-haired, brown-eyed elf of a creature came walking past me. She wore an evergreen Dirndl patterned with holly and her wooden shoes gave her calves the shape of graceful swans’ necks. I looked at her and said the only German words I knew. “Onanieren der Kobold.”

Her nose scrunched up, as if she could already smell the vomit I was struggling to suppress in my stomach. She responded in English that, while heavily-accented, was better than my German. “You want to jack off the monster?”

There was no Engelwald forest in our town, but there was an Ingolwald, a series of enchanted German hills, so emerald that, much like the rollicking terrain in Kentucky or Ireland, the green became blue through the haze of a midday sun’s rays. The area was a favorite with our hard-charging First Sergeant because of its challenging topography, since he lived primarily for intense Espirit De Corps runs.

Ingolwald was foreboding even during the day, a coniferous and alpine repository of fairytales, the essence of an old Germania that remained locked in its own dark and secret history, whether the Americans or the Turks or the European Union tried to claim the land as their own. I could feel centuries of residual pastoral village life as I ran through those muddy dales and cragged defilades on battalion runs. I imagined smiths in their aprons, wives doing their washing in smocks, silent deer bounding over frosted heather.

I respected that forest, and it was for just that reason that I had no desire to go there at night with Dondy and the baby.

I wasn’t even sure that our Ingolwald had anything to do with the Engelwald in the soldier’s picaresque tale, but Dondy, after purchasing the book, had arranged with the bookseller to call in a cartographer buddy to either confirm or deny that the forest featured in the story was the same forest where our unit now did their morning runs.

The cartographer, a one Ernst Bädendorfer, thought it was possible that Ingolwald could have been a bastardization of the Hoch Deutsch name that Mackesburg had given the woodlands. The cartographer also thought the intricate woodcut bore more than a passing resemblance to the forest where he had been sent to survey some land for purchase on behalf of the Bayer Corporation during the Wirtschaftwunder years.

Dondy of course treated the man’s “maybe” as a “yes,” and the only thing that remained was for him to secure a child, which he had done.

My Ramen dinged in the microwave and I went to retrieve it. I made a poor man’s potholder from a bundled wad of paper towels and I grabbed a Spork from the torn plastic pack. I blew on my noodles and walked back into the bedroom, where Dondy bounced the baby on his knee.

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll go with you, but you have to shut up about that book after tonight. When that baby doesn’t turn into a goblin, you leave me to have my Saturday nights in peace, unless you need a designated driver.” I spooned some noodles, as well as a couple of peas swimming in the broth, into my mouth. “And you’ve got to pay me the Euro you owe me.”

I hated the damn European currency. It wasn’t practical to make one and two dollar coin denominations the standard. In America, I might lose five dollars in quarters to my couch cushions and the undersides of my car seats. In Germany, it wasn’t uncommon for me to go scrounging and to then come up with close to one-hundred dollars in coinage, especially when the Euro was beating American specie almost two-to-one, as it was at this time. I could only imagine how much money I lost due to carelessness.

“Fair’s fair,” Dondy said, and he dug a bill from his pocket. He handed me a crumpled, yellow watermarked fifty.

Danke,” I said.

Bitte.” He shifted the baby to his left arm and he pointed with a finger of his right hand. “And you’ve got to promise that if I turn him into a goblin and I turn him back, that you won’t tell Shaeda.”

“Jesus.”

“As long as I turn him back into a human, there’s no harm done.”

Dondy lifted the baby underneath his armpits and he slid him into the back of his ruck. We headed out into the hall, where Ski was walking, naked except for flip-flops and a towel wrapped around his waist.

“Locked myself out,” he said. “You mind if I stay in your room for a while?”

I sighed, handed him the key and the dog tags to which it was chained. “Just be here when I get back.”

“Can I have some of your Ramen?”

I didn’t answer him, because I knew he would eat it no matter what I said.

We walked out into the night. The neon over at the Trop glowed and threw vaporized incandescence over the people eating pizza at outdoor tables in front of the trattoria. White Christmas lights were strung across the green awning of the building.

The sweet smell of molting leaves carried on the wind, the abrasive German chill making me feel alive, the undisguised scent of sewage also strangely wakening all of my senses. Dondy hit the alarm on Shaeda’s Benz. He opened the back door and slid the rucksack with the baby in it inside.

“He’s pretty calm for a baby.” I said. “I thought they always cry.”

“No, just some of them. He’s a trooper.”

Dondy hopped in on the driver’s side and I climbed into the passenger seat. The heated leather warmed my rear like a shiatsu masseuse’s hot stone therapy. I had an ancient Volkswagen that had a rolled-up garbage bag for a gas cap.

Dondy cut the wheel and sparked a Gauloises blond. Then he held the pack out to me. I took one. I had discovered Gauloises shortly after getting to Germany. They were perfect for me, lighter than most American cigarettes, with a richer taste and an undercurrent of something earthy, like chamomile.

“She lets you smoke?”

He popped out the dash console lighter, held it to his cigarette and then held the glowing coal end out to me. “There is no ‘let’ with me and women. The legend of Dondy’s ten-incher is true, mein Freund. Women let me do as I please, and beg me to return when I leave.”

I looked back to the baby in the backseat, thinking that he shouldn’t hear this, even if he didn’t understand English. I was hoping that we wouldn’t stop at the Tankstelle or anywhere else. Turkish men who saw Dondy or me were most likely to be reminded of Abu Ghuraib, monstrous, oil-thirsty conquistadors forcing their naked Muslim kinsmen to form dog-piles while we photographed it and laughed. They also would probably not be favorably disposed to seeing two off-duty GIs with a Turkish baby in their possession.

The baby cooed, his pink lips crooked lines of liverish flesh. He held out his fingers, performing some gibberish counting routine. I looked back toward Dondy, and the dark road ahead of us. Small European cars ripped along the thoroughfare, Peugeots and Citroens, Smart Cars and VWs, steel gray and silvery blue hatchbacks, efficient little insects conserving fuel to avoid the kinds of onerous wars we needed to keep our monstrous fleet fed back in America.

I sighed again. I thought Germany was beautiful, and I yearned to experience it the way other young people did. I imagined that it would have been a joyful experience to be a young, long-haired backpacker, getting lost in the hills like a naked Wander Vogel, or maybe as an exchange student, living with a uniformly cheerful blond family with rosy cheeks in a quant fachwerk paradise.

Being a soldier here was an altogether different experience, hostility or indifference being the usual reception we got from the natives, sometimes both reactions combined in one exchange. Not that the negative stares and murmurs weren’t sometimes warranted, as drunken, ugly Americans did occasionally clash with the Polizei or the citizens, on the cobblestone streets or on trains.

Dondy peeled past the Imbiss stand, the Kebab König shop, where a massive shank of spit-roasted schwarma meat turned throughout the day, its shredded innards shaved from the greasy hock ending up compacted into pita bread and sold hot and fresh from the cart. We passed Bahnhöfe A, the nightclub where I had been dragged to Dee-Dee one night, and where I had made the mistake of stepping inside to use the restroom.

It was Goth night when I drove there, and as the lights began to strobe over the graffiti and dry-ice slicked walls, I struggled to find the door marked Herren, my eardrums blasted, punctured by vintage Skinny Puppy or Ministry, someone urging the woman he loved to drive nails into his eyes to show him the strength of her devotion. I spotted the crudely-drawn man above the bathroom door and I was about to step inside, when a bald cretin with powder-white skin and a floor-length PVC jacket covered in brass buckles threw himself into my path and squirted a baster of (probably) human blood onto my shirt for reasons he didn’t disclose before he disappeared back into the crowd.

“Alright,” Dondy said, throwing the Benz into park. He killed the engine, and got out. I remained sunken in the embracing leather, its heated pads soothing my back muscles. Dondy went into the back and extracted the Turkish baby. I snagged another Gauloises from the pack, and I lit it with the cherry from the short I was smoking. I tossed my mostly-smoked cigarette onto the concrete and I got out, puffing away on my second blond.

“Any weird incantations we have to do?” I asked. “Something in Latin, maybe?”

Dondy adjusted the straps on his green canvas rucksack. “Mackesburg didn’t say anything about that. He said the young maiden told him not to take a baby into Engelwald at night in a sack, especially on a full moon.”

I looked up. Granite-colored clouds poured in an idle diaphanous haze across a moon with the full, rounded dimensions of a saucer, its rocky surface the color of a dove flitting about in one of Mad Ludwig’s Bavarian gardens.

There were several massive stones at the entrance to the woods, their placement perhaps accidental, or maybe some kind of runic assignation best interpreted by Guido Von List, a Futhark message from some ancient Germanic pagans to their god hidden up in the sun. I looked toward the trees, their bark the color of stale pimpernel. A fogbank broke through the stilts formed by their trunks and spread outward in a film of wintery lattice.

“Alright,” I said, and shivered. “Let’s do this.”

Rocks crunched underfoot as we headed up the hill. The baby clapped his sticky hands together. I began my muttering litany, like the passive-aggressive yet reliable friend I was. “Got me out here on a Saturday night, when I should be eating Ramen and watching a DVD on my computer.”

“Shut up,” Dondy said. “Free exercise. Breathe in that German air.”

I inhaled the biting air. The trees hovered above us like wooden giants waiting for their druidic masters to spring them to life. I thought of the Germans annihilating the Romans at Teutoburg, the godlike Caesar finally humiliated. The wind picked up, shrieked through the tree hollows. I walked faster, until I was alongside Dondy. My lips quivered and I bit them in order to warm them inside my mouth. I glanced at the Turkish baby and Dondy smiled, showing white eyeteeth.

“You’re checking to see if he’s a goblin yet.”

“I am not.”

He laughed. “What happened, man? You thought I was full of crap, and all of a sudden you’re scared.”

“Let’s just hurry up.”

We were cresting the hill. This was the part on the Espirit De Corps runs when someone would invariably pull off to the side and puke their guts out into the leaves and moss at their feet. The First Sergeant would take us back down to the bottom of the hill, and then back up again, several times, until most of our company had fallen out and only he and Quintana with the guide-on flag were still out in front.

A cloud shaped like one of Wagner’s Valkyries appeared over the moon, crowding Luna out like a second, now triumphant celestial body. The baby cried.

“See?” I said. “It’s cold out. Daddy Long Dick or no, Shaeda has her limits. She finds you brought her sister’s baby out here because of what some paladin in the Thirty Years War scribbled and she’s going to cut off all ten inch-”

The baby shrieked and sat up in the rucksack. It opened its mouth and screamed, revealing hollow viperish fangs where before it had displayed only cooing fleshy gums, empty of teeth. The bones of his skull bulged hideously as if buck antlers were attempting to sprout from his forehead, the hardened points causing new ridges to protrude under the bones.

Horns ripped through the baby flesh and the white luminescence of the moon showed his previously brown skin to be a bilious green.

“Dondy!”

“I know!”

“Chuck it!” I shouted. “Get rid of the thing before it kills us!”

Sharpened claws the length of steak knives and the color of tarry pitch reached out of the green rucksack and slashed the air, barely grazing Dondy’s neck. He bounded down the hill, shouting back at me as I chased his shadowy form. “I can’t pitch him! It’s my girl’s sister’s kid! We just have to get him back to the mouth of the forest and everything’s copase- ouch! Shit!”

His form threw a ghostly shadow across the fogged spaces between the trees, snaking bands of darkness splitting left and right, refracting like candlelight in the gloaming hour.

“Help!”

I ran, my chest burning, heart thudding against the ribs that caged it. “I’m coming, Dondy!”

My foot hit a root on my way down the hill, and I spilled, rolling end over end, bumping my elbow hard against an outcropping log, cutting my face on a branch as I landed at the entrance to the forest, where the strange formation of giant slate boulders was piled up, a short distance from the lot where the shiny Benz sat, waiting for us.

I stood up and looked down at Dondy and the baby. My comrade was face-down, the tike slowly crawling out of his satchel. I looked behind me, saw a felled trunk covered with spindly, sharp branches. I planted my foot against the base of one of the quarterstaff-sized bits of wood, and I tugged until the pressure forced the limb to crack asunder.

I spun around, ready to bash the goblin until its brains were pudding and its soul was consigned to the hell from whence it came. It crawled toward me, and then stopped. Shaeda’s niece’s kid smiled at me and stuck a thumb and one finger in its mouth, sucking the makeshift pacifier and drooling around the digits.

Dondy rolled over, his face slicked with purplish oozing blood.

“You alright?” I asked.

He sat up, touched a hand to his cheek. “Yeah. He scratched me pretty good with his claws, though.”

Dondy wiped the blood away from the ribbons of flesh, which formed a slit set of lips just below his cheekbone. I could tell he was already thinking about how the scar might affect his looks, and what excuse he would proffer to Shaeda when she asked him about it.

He finally stood up and limped over to the baby, picking him up and cradling him in his arms. Dondy carefully deposited the child back into the rucksack, cinching the top closed around the canvas papoose.

He hoisted the bag onto his back, looked at me, and said, “Okay, we’re in agreement, then. Ingolwald used to be Engelwald, right?”

The Ballad of Johnny Waxman by Fiona Helmsley

Sid & Nancy gif_thumb[2]The first time I ever saw a person cut themselves was in a cemetery. The cemetery was around the corner from a movie theater where our parents would drop us off at the beginning of the night, unaware that we weren’t going to see the film inside. Ringed with large shrubs that formed a fence around its perimeter, the cemetery provided cover from our parents, as well as the police, who were always on the look-out for packs of roaming kids. It became our nocturnal playground.

I was thirteen years old. His name was Johnny Waxman, and he was two years older. My mother worked in the school system, and knew all the little details of Johnny’s permanent record; she didn’t want me to hang around with him. Some of my friends’ parents’ didn’t want them to hang around with me. Parents always think kids’ problems are contagious. They might be right.

There was a concrete storage shed where the tools were kept that were used to maintain the cemetery grounds. The storage shed bisected a small hill, and you could access the shed’s roof by climbing up a slight incline. The door to the shed was usually kept locked, but one night, a friend and I came upon the door open, and she pushed me inside, pulling the door shut behind me. In the darkness, the shed was a mausoleum, the tools inside, coffins and sarcophagi. The dead would have their revenge for all of our nights spent running wild in their home, for all the cigarette butts and sacrilege we’d left behind on their graves. It took the combined strength of three boys to get the door open. One of them was Johnny Waxman. When I was released, I fell hysterically, and opportunistically, into his arms.

In the 7th grade, I was not much to look at, but I had a contingent of very attractive female friends. When things went sour in their relationships, their boyfriends would turn to me like a fixer. At this point in my life, I got more boyfriends from the good lighting of heartbreak than anything else.

Liz Toscana was Johnny’s girlfriend. They had been together about a month. She was short, olive-skinned, and wore her bangs on top of her head in a big Pepsi- Cola wave, fortified with a sticky glaze of hairspray. Johnny and Liz were well- matched in that she was the toughest girl in our group, and he was the toughest boy. No one dared to mess with Liz, as she had studied the martial art, taekwondo, for years, while Johnny had grown impulsive and intimidating at home. Liz called the shots in their relationship, and her domineering personality seemed to soothe Johnny. He was her puppy; he just wanted to put his head in her lap, and have her stroke his hair.

Guys like Johnny, sensitive, but not very smart guys, who rely on their brawn more than their brains to get by, have a propensity to glom onto girlfriends hard and fast, possibly because it’s the one relationship in their lives were they don’t have to be hard and fast. Guys like Johnny would get married at 15 years of age after a month of dating, and believe in their vows wholeheartedly, till death do us part.

Thirteen was the age that I first became interested in punk rock. My fifteen year old cousin had returned from a stay in a mental health facility with a slew of artifacts attesting to the interests of the other young people she’d met there; t-shirts and books, tapes by bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. All of my friends listened to hairbands like Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. I was fascinated by punk music; just as I’d been by the patients I’d met visiting my cousin at the facility on visiting day. When the payphone on the unit rang, an anorectic boy in plaid pajama pants and a Vision Street Wear t-shirt had jumped up from a card game to answer it. “Tiger’s Whorehouse, by the Bay!” he’d bellowed into the receiver, sucking exaggeratedly on a pencil like it was a cigar. I’d looked over at my mother; she was fidgeting uncomfortably in her chair.

In this time before the internet, if you had an interest, you had to work for it, and I started going to the school library to find out whatever I could about punk music. I ripped out all the articles and pictures that I found, and pasted them into a scrapbook. On the cover of the book, I glued an ad I found for the Alex Cox’ movie Sid and Nancy, the tragic lovers, as portrayed by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, holding hands and kissing in shadowed silhouette.

Johnny Waxman took Special Education classes. Behind their backs, the Special Ed students were jeered as “wandering retards,” because their classes required them to travel to different parts of the school building throughout the day. Johnny took advantage of this small bit of unsupervised freedom to travel to the 7th grade hallway, and stand outside the door of whatever classroom Liz was in, and look in at her, longingly. One afternoon, I was working on my scrapbook in the school library, when Johnny approached the table where I sitting.

“Who’s that?” he asked, looking at the picture in front of me. It was of a scrawny young man in leather pants with bondage rings attached at the waist. Holding a bass guitar in the photo, the man’s pale chest was a billboard of cuts and scratches.

“Sid Vicious,” I answered. I got a sense of pride from sharing with my friends my discovery of punk rock. I felt like it added a dangerous element to my identity. “He was the bassist for The Sex Pistols.”

“What happened to his chest?” Johnny asked.

“He did it himself,” I answered.

“What? That’s crazy! Why?”

“I don’t know, I suppose so that no one could deny what he was feeling. I read that he carved his girlfriend’s name into his chest. Her name was Nancy, and he was so in love with her, that he showed her, with his own blood.”

“Cheaper than roses or candy,” Johnny replied. “Sort of like a tattoo.”

“Flesh flowers.”

“That is fucking crazy,” Johnny said, with a laugh that sounded like eh eh eh.

I suppose I was a bit in love with him.

***

As is the fashion in junior high, when Liz decided she no longer wanted to be Johnny’s girlfriend, she didn’t tell him herself. Instead, she asked our friend Marie to relay the message for her, while she hid out in another part of the cemetery. I was with Johnny and three friends on top of the shed when Marie came. I had been told nothing of Liz’s plans to break up with Johnny in advance. It was probably a totally whimsical decision on her part. Maybe Johnny had worn the wrong color shirt that day. My girlfriends did this sort of thing all the time. Make up break up make up. I love you. I hate you. I love you.

Marie climbed onto the roof, and spoke quickly.

“Johnny, Liz wants me to tell you she doesn’t want to go out with you anymore.”

“Huh?” Johnny said. His body seemed to physically startle. He stumbled backwards, almost losing his footing near the roof’s ledge.

“It’s over, Johnny. She’s dumping you.”

Having said her piece, Marie turned, and climbed back down. From our vantage point on top of the shed, we could see her run/half skip towards the section of the cemetery with the Italian names on the gravestones. It had just started to get dark, and the vibe on the roof had turned ominous. Johnny began to pace back and forth, dangerously close to the roof’s ledge. We’d been passing around a glass bottle filled with a mix of gin and vodka, and Johnny grabbed it from the hands of a boy named Phil, took a big swig, then smashed it hard against the roof. Glass flew up into the air. Phil and two girls we had been drinking with huddled closely together to shield themselves. Johnny seemed to feed off their reaction. He pulled off his t-shirt, bent down and grabbed a handful of glass, and brought it up to his chest.

It was obvious Phil didn’t know what to do. Who was he to try to stop the older, tougher, Johnny Waxman? The girls and Phil hurriedly descended the roof, running off to report to everyone below what was happening. I stayed behind with Johnny. It was my moment, but it was also my place.

There was a flurry of voices and activity below us.

I picked up Johnny’s discarded t-shirt. He didn’t try to stop me as I brought it to his chest. Though the blood streaked across his stomach, I could see that the cuts had not been done very deeply. If you looked at the area on his chest with an open mind, you could make out the letters:

L-I-Z.

With the others gone, Johnny turned solemn.

“Can you read it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“When I get home, I’m going to go over it with a knife.”

I wadded up his t- shirt, and dipped it into the puddle of vodka and gin.

“If we could get some straws, we could drink this,” I said, trying to be funny, and to change the subject.

“So what happened with that guy afterward?” Johnny asked.

“Everyone took off. I think they are going to find Liz.”

“No, the guy in the picture. Vicious. What happened with him and his girlfriend?”

“Johnny, I don’t know if he cut himself because they broke up. He might have, or he may have cut her name in…. tribute. ”

“Are they still together?”

“It was a long time ago…”

“Are they still together?”

The voices below us were getting closer. It sounded like an army was advancing on the shed.

Someone said, “Let her go up alone.”

“No!” someone else responded. “He’s acting crazy! Who knows what he’ll do!”

“I think it’s kind of romantic,” said a girl’s voice.

Johnny peeked down over the ledge.

“How long do you think it will take for this to heal?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Probably not long if you don’t go over it with a knife.”

“She can’t do this to me. What do you think will heal faster, my chest or my heart?”

I saw the pouf of her hair first. The darkening night sky seemed to accentuate her red lipstick.

“Oh baby, you’re bleeding!” Liz said, rushing to Johnny.

She put her hands onto both of his shoulders, and examined his chest.

“Oh baby, I can’t believe you did this because of me.”

“Marie said we were done,” Johnny said.

“I never said…Oh, Johnny, oh….”

A lot of young people have this idea about what it’s like to be an adult: they think adults live, and feel, everything, big. They ape the grandiosity that they associate with adulthood by making every encounter, every situation, much more over the top than it ever needs to be. In this way, the vagaries of youth often have more common with Scarlet O’Hara, than Shirley Temple.

Liz turned and looked at me dismissively. Without saying a word, I knew I was supposed to go. She took Johnny’s shirt from my hands.

Back on the ground, everyone was a buzz, giddy for information.

“What’s going on up there?”

“Did he really cut himself?”

“Does he have to go to the hospital?”

 

“Are they back together?”

I gave them what they wanted, and more.

“E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H,” I said. “I don’t know how he managed to fit all the letters. I think he may have to go to the hospital. Yes, they are back together. I think they are getting married.”

That night, on the roof of the shed, a new coping strategy was introduced to my circle of friends. From then on, for many of us, the number of failed relationships that we’d been in could be tallied by the cuts, and burns that could be found all over our bodies.

It became almost like a contest.

Who would be the king and queen of the fucked up teens?

Parent’s always think kids’ problems are contagious. They might be right.

But sometimes, they’re competitive.

Threat Level Blue Balls by Tony Byrer

Ray Technician swiped the tablet’s screen to consult the day’s schedule. The first entry read, ADJ LTB 7723.  Adjust the locomotive torsion bar on Robot 7723. Ray had seen the bot lurching about the shop floor and knew he’d have to make an adjustment soon. He selected a wrench from the tool crib and poured a cup of coffee.

As he was leaving the tech pod, Marla Technician came in. “Where ya goin’, Ray?” she asked.

“I gotta go jack off 7723,” Ray said. The techs called torsion bar adjustments “jacking off” because the adjustment access door was between the robot’s legs. The wrench handle jutted out like an erection.

Marla laughed. “Sounds hot,” she said.

“You know it,” Ray said. “Care to join us?”

“You know I’d love to,” Marla said, “but Facebook-Monsanto just declared war on Microsoft-Dish-Shell. I have to go to Propagation and monitor microwave traffic. They’re afraid Raytheon will use the distraction to pull some shit on us.”

“Sounds tedious,” Ray said.

“Ah, I don’t care,” Marla said. “I get paid by the hour.”

Ray laughed and nodded and pushed out the door.

He gulped his coffee on the way to the robot bay. When he opened the door, he saw 7723 waiting for him at its docking station.

“Good morning, Ray,” the robot said. It sounded glad to see him.

Ray nodded. “Good morning. How are you today?”

“I’m well,” the robot said. “Thank you. And how are you?”

Ray smiled. “Oh, you know. Another day, another dollar.”

“Yes,” the robot said. “I wonder if you might help me.”

“Sure,” Ray said. “What’s up?”

“My left leg is dragging. My locomotive torsion bar is out of adjustment.”

“I’ll help you with that,” Ray said.

“Thank you.” The robot lurched over and stood before Ray. A small service slot between its legs slid open and Ray inserted the wrench. When it was firmly seated on the adjustment nut, he grinned at the handle jutting out from the robot’s crotch.

“Are you glad to see me?” he asked.

The robot chuckled politely. “You techs never tire of that joke,” it said.

“No,” Ray said. “I guess not. It is funny, though.”

“Yes,” the robot said. “I wonder if–”

Ray’s phone rang. “Yes?” he answered.

It was John Supervisor. “Ray,” he said, “we need you in Propagation. Raytheon just smoked our microwave receiver. What are you doing now?”

“It can wait,” Ray said. “I’ll be right there.” He tucked the phone back into his pocket.

“Well,” he said. “I have to go take care of something urgent. Can you wait here until I get back?”

“Yes,” the robot said. “I don’t have rounds for another hour.”

“Okay,” Ray said. “I’ll be back.”

“You left the wrench in the access slot,” the robot said.

Ray laughed. “It’ll be okay. Just take a cold shower.” He hurried out the door. Robot 7723 returned to its dock and connected the battery cable. Then it stood silently in electronic rest, waiting to be called back to duty.

 

The robot waited for Ray to return but at 9:15 duty called. 7723 lurched out the door to make its rounds. The wrench handle waggled with each step.

Its first stop was at the Senescence Line, which was not really a line but a large ward full of gomers, gaffers, geezers, and gimps whose insurance policies were near expiration. 7723′s task was to remove those whose policies had lapsed and wheel them to Extraction.

The robot pulled a bed out of the first row and turned it toward the door. The bed held a young man recently discharged from the KBR-Lockheed Martin-U.S. Army. His mangled leg stank of the gangrene spreading from a shrapnel wound on his thigh. The man’s pale face strained toward the robot.

“There’s been a mistake,” he groaned.

“No,” said 7723. “I assure you, all paperwork is in order and all procedures have been followed.” The robot pushed the bed into the hallway.

“No,” the young man gasped. Sweat dripped from his face. “Please,” he moaned. “I can still serve. Have them take the leg. I don’t need it. I can enter data or file paperwork or fly the drones. I was a gamer before I was called up.”

“Those aren’t in your jobs categories,” the robot said. They turned a corner and rolled down another hallway toward a door marked EXTRACTION.

“Noooo,” the young man moaned. Tears spilled from his eyes and pooled in his ears. “I have a little girl,” he sobbed.

“You signed the disclosures,” the robot said. They bumped open the door and rolled into the cold white glare of Extraction.

“Noooo,” the young man cried. “I needed the money. I didn’t think it could happen to me. Don’t leave me here!”

7723 parked the bed along a wall and waved a handheld scanner over the disposition card affixed to the bed rail. The young man struggled to sit. The robot relayed the code for restraints. Two Extraction robots bustled into the room with a set of restraints and began the quick extraction process. 7723 turned its back on the young man’s cries and lurched back into the hallway where Linda Manager was waiting.

“23,” she said. She eyed the wrench handle jutting from its crotch and smirked. “I have an errand for you.”

“I’m currently on rounds,” 7723 said. “Will you override?”

“Yes,” she said. She fished a small electronic tablet from her pocket and entered a code.

“Very well,” 7723 said. “What can I do for my friends in management?”

Linda held her tablet near the robot’s head and tapped the screen, transferring files to 7723′s memory. “I need you to go to our Commerce Street office and download these files to their Propagation database. Raytheon destroyed our microwave relay and I can’t send them over the intranet.”

“Very well,” 7723 said and obediently lurched toward an exit.

The robot limped down the sidewalk. The wrench handle waggled before it, arrogant, proud, cocky. A fat woman in bicycle pants marshaled her two chubby children into a huge SUV.  She plopped behind the wheel and stared at the robot, her eyes wide and wet, her tongue slowly sliding along her bottom lip. Her Lycra pants were suddenly too tight in the crotch. The fabric squeezed her camel toe. She squirmed in the seat and her face flushed.

She rolled down the window and stuck out her big square head. “You have a lot of nerve!” she shrieked. “There are children here!” When the robot ignored her, she whipped out her cell phone and punched at the numbers, her eyes two hot, hard little marbles.

“911,” a voice on the phone chirped. “Your emergency is our business. How will this be charged?”

“Credit card!” the fat woman barked. She gasped out the numbers and shrieked, “A robot! Its bare erection! Oh, my children! My children!”

“Stay where you are,” the operator said. “Officers are on the way. Additional charges may apply.”

The city’s Special Sex Crimes Unit were relaxing in their wood paneled bunker when the speaker crackled, “Sex predator loose on Veterans Avenue. Bare erection in view. Children in the area. Threat level blue balls!”

The men scrambled to their loadout kits. “Get some!” they screamed. “SSCU! Get some! Get some!” They donned their gear and shuffled out the door to a waiting armored personnel carrier, SSCU stenciled on its side. The vehicle rumbled to life and lumbered out the bay door. It crunched into the front fender of an Escalade parked at the curb. The SUV jumped like a kicked dog. The APC shouldered it aside and turned into the street.

The SSCU commander, Sergeant Thug Burly, nodded at Officer Kick Murphy. “I want the owner of that vehicle cited for destruction of public property. There’s a scuff mark on the bumper of my vehicle.”

“Yes, sir,” Murphy snapped, and entered commands into the tablet strapped to his forearm.

The vehicle caromed down the street banging off parked cars. “Infraction!” Burly shouted over and over. “Destruction of public property! Interfering with a police officer!” Officer Murphy tapped at his tablet.

The vehicle slammed to a halt against the side of a packed school bus. Children catapulted out the side in a torrent of sticky, flabby flesh.

“Arrest that driver!” Burly screamed. “Obstruction of justice! Resisting arrest! Assaulting an officer!”

Three officers fell on the bewildered driver and beat him senseless. He lay bleeding on the street. Two officers shot him with tasers. “Hands behind your head!” screamed one. “Don’t move!” screamed the other. The driver’s body jerked and spasmed, hissing and sizzling on the pavement as the tasers pumped their charges through him.

The other officers surged out of the vehicle and crouched behind confused civilians.

“Freeze!”

“Get down!”

“Don’t move!”

“On your knees!”

Robot 7723 stopped in its tracks. It gazed about at the spectacle. “Oh my,” it murmured. It backed slowly and hid behind a parked Excursion.

Sergeant Burly stood with his hands on his hips surveying the scene. “I don’t see the pervert,” he announced. He eyed the crowd. “Where’s the fucking pervert?”

A little old white-haired woman with a canvas bag of knitting hanging on her arm pointed toward the Excursion. “Freeze!” screamed an officer. “On your knees!” screamed another. The little old lady looked from one officer to the other, back and forth, her eyes large and round and wet. A third officer whacked her on the back of the head with a shot-filled sap. She collapsed to the pavement in a heap, blood welling from her ears.

A teenage girl fell to her knees beside the old woman, sobbing. “Grandma!” she sobbed. “Grandma!”

“Freeze!” screamed an officer.

“On your knees!” screamed another.

A third officer jacked a slug into the breech of his riot gun.

Burly turned his back and strode toward the Excursion. A shotgun blasted behind him. Screams of, “Freeze! On your knees! Don’t move! Hands behind your head!” sounded. Firearms popped and people cried out.

The robot crouched behind the Excursion. Burly strode to it and stood with his legs spread, hands on hips. “What have we here?” he demanded. “A pervert? How many kids have you raped today, you bag of pus?”

7723 stood. “I’m not a pervert,” it said. “I’m an attendant robot at WalMart-Sony-TRW.”

Burly eyed the wrench handle and pulled his pistol. “Don’t move,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “I’d just love to blow your fucking pervert head right off your shoulders. How would you like that?”

“I wouldn’t,” the robot said. “The repair expenses might–”

Burly thrust his pistol into the robot’s visor. “I said don’t move!” he shrieked. “That means shut up!” He turned to the crowd. The officers of the SSCU were beating anyone they could reach. People bled in the street. Fists and clubs flailed.

“God damn it,” Burly hissed. He ran to the melee, grabbing officers by their collars and throwing them to the ground. “The pervert’s back here!” he shouted. “He’s back here!”

The officers leaped to their feet and ran toward the robot. “Don’t move!” they screamed. “On your knees!”

“Ray!” the robot screamed. “Ray! Help me!”

“Shut up!” Burly shrieked.

“Don’t move!” the officers shouted. “On your knees!”

“Here, here!” Ray shouted, pushing through the crowd of onlookers. “What are you doing to my robot?” He held his employee ID card before him. The officers wavered at the sight of official identification.

Burly stuck his chest out. “Where did you come from?” he asked.

“I got a distress call from my robot about five minutes ago,” Ray said. “So I came to see what’s wrong.”

“What’s wrong,” Burly growled, bouncing his fist in his hand. “What’s wrong. I’ll tell you what’s wrong. This fucking pervert is on a rampage. That’s what’s wrong.”

Ray snorted. “How can a robot be a pervert?” he asked. “That’s just–” His eye fell on the wrench handle jutting from the robot’s crotch. “Oh,” he said. He grasped the handle and the crowd sighed. He tugged on the wrench and the crowd moaned. The wrench jammed on the nut the way wrenches sometimes do. Ray slid his hand up the handle. The crowd gasped. Burly’s eyes were shining. He licked his lips. Ray tugged again and the wrench pulled free. The crowd exhaled, their faces flushed.

Ray blinked. “Okay, folks,” he said. “Show’s over. There’s nothing–”

“You fucking faggot!” someone screamed. Someone else screamed, “Goddamn asshole fucking cocksucking queer!” The crowd stepped forward. The cops raised their clubs, eyeing Ray.

The robot clutched Ray’s sleeve.

Ray stood and pointed to the rear of the crowd. “Look!” he shouted. “A pedophile!”

The stared at him blankly, their slack mouths wet.

“Child molester!” Ray shouted. “Child–”

The crowd turned and surged. “Where?” they moaned. “Oh, where?”

“Back there!” Ray shouted, pointing. “The children are in danger!”

The crowd bolted, bleating, followed closely by the cops. Buttocks quaked. Jowls quivered. The flabby tide boiled into the street.

Ray turned to the robot. “Exit,” he said, “stage left.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that,” the robot said, “but I agree we should leave.”

They picked their way through the bodies tangled in the street. Some of them were still breathing. “Hey,” Ray said. “You should ping Extraction. There are some good units out here.”

“I’ve already done that,” the robot said. “An extraction team is on the way. I need to stay here to coordinate.”

“Sure,” Ray said. “See ya back at the salt mine.”

“Okay,” the robot said. “Before you go, perhaps you could adjust my LTB.”

“Oh,” Ray said. “Sure.” He knelt before the robot, inserted the wrench, and gave it a twist. “How’s that?”

“Ah,” the robot said. “That was nice. Thank you. Your money’s on the dresser.”

Ray guffawed. “I don’t believe it!” he shouted. “You made a joke!”

“Yes,” the robot said. It sounded smug. “Perhaps I should demand a raise.”

Ray laughed again, then stood and walked toward the plant, carelessly stepping over bodies both dead and soon to be extracted.

God Don’t Like Ugly by Fiona Helmsley

I worked at a women’s halfway house for five years. I started working there within a year of getting clean from a ten year addiction cycle to heroin. I consider myself lucky; when the house manager heard that I was doing well, she offered me a job and I became a member of the house support staff. Several times a week, in 8 hour shifts, I lived with the women in their home, ate meals with them, watched TV with them, dispensed their medications, drug tested them and listened to them when they wanted to talk. Though I’m well-schooled in the programs of A.A and N.A, I’ve never been big on meetings and I credit my work at the house with helping me to stay clean so early on.

When I left the job two years ago to work in the public sector, a part of me felt like I was breaking up with my identity as a drug addict, it had been such a big part of the face that I showed the world for so long. I soon found myself missing my old job for reasons I hadn’t anticipated. A friend once told me that he didn’t date women he met ‘in the program’ because by default their bond would be one of pain. This was the aspect of my relationship with the women of the halfway house that I missed the most: I never felt like I had to hide a thing from them, we could share our pain and struggles with one another so freely. For the most part, the standard the women used as criteria to judge one another were of a frivolous nature: cheap shoes or a bad weave – not prostitution histories, felony records or rates of relapse.

While I was working at the house, there was an expression that was popular with the women there: God don’t like ugly. The women would use it to mean that you think you’re getting away with something, but you’re not. “Who does that bitch think she’s fooling? God knows, and God don’t like ugly.”

I am conflicted when it comes to my feelings about God. I pray for people I care about at night. I turn to God when I’m fearful and in need of a favor. I consider myself a Cafeteria Catholic, but I’m not 100% convinced that the cafeteria has a manager. Regardless, this was the phrase that kept coming into my head, as I page-clicked and scrolled through my various social networking feeds, reading the public reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death: God don’t like ugly.

I love his work, but in the end he’s just a dead junkie.

He was a scum bag that cared about no one else but himself.

Another drug user off the streets. Good riddance.

Really, it was a Deja vu news cycle, with a Deja vu public response. The ugliness I was seeing everywhere, I’d seen before. Before Philip Seymour Hoffman, I’d seen it directed towards Whitney Houston. Before Whitney Houston, I’d seen it directed towards Amy Winehouse. I believe that most people are empathetic and compassionate to the plight of the addict. That’s why this type of commentary still has the power to unnerve me – because it’s such an extreme break from what I think about the human character. Or maybe it’s more personal. Maybe I continue to get so upset because each time I see it, it’s like reading my own epitaph. What I keep seeing and reading with each drug-related death could have been written about me or still could, if I ever give into the temptation to use.

just another junkie…I could care less if he was an actor or a street junkie- they are the same.

So lets feel sorry for another Junkie! Why because he was a actor and had fame and money. Poor guy right! WELL I THINK POOR KIDS. PUTTING HIS CHILDREN IN DANGER AROUND DRUG DEALING IDIOTS IS PATHETIC! Rot in hell you worthless punk.

I’ve come to think of them as “The Shadow People,” these mostly anonymous posters who sit down at their keyboards and register their disgust, disdain and joy when something tragic happens in our community. Whenever a life is lost and people are pained, that’s when they creep out of the shadows. They’re a lot like the members of Westboro Baptist Church – only their words aren’t as zingy and their spelling and grammar is often questionable. Their feelings are clear: us drug addicts deserve any and all misfortune that falls upon us.

This guy is nothing but a low life doper. The world should celebrate that there is one less doper.

I have no respect for drug users, as they have no respect for themselves or their families.

If you are that gutless that you can’t handle everyday life, then get off my planet.

With each celebrity drug-related death and the accompanying chorus of disdain for the addict that follows, it’s becoming hard for me not to lapse into an us vs. them mentality. I find myself wondering if the ‘straight’ world will ever truly understand and empathize with us that are ‘bent’ or if they even want to.

It becomes hard for me to not see the places where we hold our meetings, candle-lit basements and darkened church centers, as more than just locations utilized for their convenience and cheap rent, but as the locations we’ve chosen purposely because of the extra measure of protection they offer us from the outside world. We say we stick so closely with one another because we can relate and understand each other’s struggles but the other side is this: there are people in the world who don’t understand our struggles at all and some of them wish us harm.

take drugs..die…who cares??

And then there’s this: the backbone of A.A and N.A, our eponymous anonymity. Is it our anonymity that’s allowing our marginalization to fester? How can we defend ourselves to the people who say “we should rot in hell” and “who cares” without first outing ourselves as addicts and opening ourselves up to the associated consequences?

One of the often-repeated slogans of A.A and N.A is you’re only as sick as your secrets. For many of us the very real fear of the consequences of this disclosure force us to have to hide that we are addicts. We have left it to the medical community, our families and those addicts with the luxury, usually borne of financial means, to speak out for us, to defend us, to clear up the misconceptions about our disease. Three weeks ago, we lost a member of our community willing to speak up for us in Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Since 1956, alcoholism has been recognized as a disease. The American Medical Association, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), The National Institutes of Health, The World Health Organization, The American Psychiatric Association and numerous other organizations in the scientific and medical fields now recognize drug addiction as an illness, comparable to diabetes and cancer: treatable, arrestable and chronic. The Shadow People aren’t living under a rock. They are getting the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman has passed, that Amy Winehouse is gone – they are up on current events, they know how to use computers. I find it hard to believe they don’t have any idea about the findings of the medical community. Still, I doubt they would celebrate and welcome the death of a man or woman, someone’s mother, father, lover, sister, brother or friend, from cancer the way they celebrate ours should we succumb to our disease.

While I’m blessed to love my current job, I still miss my work at the halfway house. I miss the freedom of being ‘out’ as an addict in all of my interactions and being able to allow what could have killed me to exist out in the open as part of my identity. I miss not having to hide anything.

Congrads to Mr Hoffman… He’s finally cured his drug problem…

To the Shadow People I’d like to say two very pertinent things: God don’t like ugly and spellcheck is your friend.

Seeing the Dwarf by Joseph Hirsch

“[There is an] old tale of the farmer who upon hearing that a circus had come to town excitedly set out in his wagon. Along the way he met up with the circus parade, led by an elephant, which so terrified his horses that they bolted and pitched the wagon over on its side, scattering vegetables and eggs across the roadway. ‘I don’t give a hang,’ exulted the jubilant farmer as he picked himself up. ‘I have seen the elephant.’”

-Anthony Kirk, “Seeing the Elephant,” California History 77 (Winter 1998/1999), 176

Seeing the Dwarf

I was attaching the rhino mount to the engine block. The rhino mount was just an empty ammo can that swung out on a lever in front of the Humvee. It was secured by a wire to the running motor of the hummer, so that when it became superheated, it produced a radiation signature that would set off any explosives on the road that were triggered by infrared.

The explosive would still go off if we came across a bomb on the road, but thanks to the rhino mount it would go off a length or two ahead of the vehicle rather than on top of it, and we might only lose an eye or an arm rather than our lives. The situation in Iraq was improving.

“Hold out your hand,” Ski said to me. I was in the process of threading a blue wire around the handle of the ammo can.

“What?” I said.

“Stick out your hand.”

I held out my hand. It trembled vigorously. I figured Ski wanted to see if I was nervous in preparation for our convoy. “You’ve got DSB,” he said.

Ski had full womanish lips and a bulging face that reminded me of an amiable frog. He wore Army-issued spectacles, what we called “Birth Control Glasses,” and his face was heavily-scarred with acne. He was our vehicle’s driver.

“DSB?” I asked.

“Dangerous sperm buildup,” Sergeant Juarez said. He was over by the manmade lake, a golden expanse of placid water that reached up to the banks of one of Saddam’s palaces off in the distance. He had been busy breaking a brick of Ramen Noodles into the water, watching the old Ba’athist dictator’s fish swim up to nibble at the freeze-dried noodles.

He walked over to us, and both he and Ski watched my hand. “Yeah,” Sergeant Juarez said. “You’re not going to be able to hold your SAW on the road. Soldier, I order you to go back to your trailer in Dodge City and spend some time with your wickedness.”

I came to the position of attention and saluted him with a shaky right hand.

“You got this?” I asked Ski. We still had to go through preventive maintenance and hit the turret with WD40 to keep it from jamming. We had to lay out the VS (Visual Signal) panel just in case we broke down on the road and needed to get the attention of a Blackhawk or chinook helicopter flying up in the sky. We had to make sure the human remains kits were in order. “Human Remains Kit” was just a nice way of saying “body bag.”

“I got it,” Ski said, and patted me on the shoulder. Sergeant Juarez nodded and went back over to the remnants of his Ramen, and continued chucking it into the water. His head was the squarest thing I had ever seen, like an Olmec Tiki god or the sculptures chiseled on Easter Island. Sergeant Juarez had grown up in Texas, and he didn’t get along with the other Mexican soldiers. They called him “pocho” or “coconut,” because he refused to speak Spanish with them, even though he knew the language.

I put on my ACU top and gathered up all my gear, including my Squad Automatic Weapon and my M4. The sweat had formed an alkali ring on my shirt and my back hurt from having to wear the sappy armor plates in my vest all day. I wouldn’t be able to wear the shirt I had on now when we went on our convoy tomorrow morning. The moisture-wicking material would melt to my skin in the event of an explosion. I had seen what it looked like when an under armor shirt grafted to charred flesh.

I trudged across a rickety suspension bridge and headed in the direction of the DEFAC and the gym. The dining facility was a massive corrugated steel hangar, surrounded by a wall of concrete T-barriers. I hated that place. It made me ashamed to be here in Iraq. It was Fobbit Central; a Fobbit was someone who hid on the FOB (Forward Operating Base), basking in the air-conditioned shire, surfing the internet and drinking milkshakes while men died outside the wire. I had been a Fobbit for these last few months and my conscience had been eating away at me, until an opening came up on the Convoy Security Team and I got my chance to join.

Specialist Rommel (no relation to the German Field Marshall) had been diagnosed as a narcoleptic, and Staff Sergeant Omero, the head of Convoy Security, didn’t want his soldiers dozing off when he needed them at their most alert. How Rommel had gotten this far with narcolepsy certainly didn’t reflect well upon our company in particular, or the military in general, but Rommel’s condition gave me a chance to be a gunner and also the opportunity to give my guilty conscience a rest.

I walked past the gym, a giant inflated dome of canvas stretched over bowed metallic ribs. Dodge City was a series of tin house trailers arranged on graveled acreage located across from Saddam Hussein’s old horse stables. Aside from the trailers where we lived, there were also trailers that served as Laundromats and bathrooms. The toilet trailers were few and far enough between that we would sometimes cheat and piss into bottles if the urge hit us late enough at night.

The trailer next to the one I shared with Specialist Dunfy had been blown to shit in a mortar attack. The charred cavity remained shredded, open to the desert, a nice little reminder of the war’s temporal factor. After the mortar had landed we had been forced to place cardboard squares in our windows, practicing good “light discipline” so that we wouldn’t make an easy target for whoever had been launching tubed mortars from their position somewhere in Sadr City late at night.

I slid my dog tags from around my neck and opened my trailer door. I was relieved to see that Dunfy was gone. I set down both of my weapons on my side of the room. Dunfy’s side was piled high with enough snacks, DVDs, and porn to make this downrange trailer indistinguishable from the white trash genuine article back in his hometown of Sullivan, Missouri. His guitar was the only thing that he kept well-maintained. The axe was a highly-polished black Fender deal covered with pentagram and skull decals. He liked to shred, play Slayer and Morbid Angel with his headphones on while I slept.

I reached underneath my poncho liner and extracted the closest thing to porn they sold in the PX, a magazine featuring nude celebrities cribbed from various Hollywood movies. I turned to the pages with pictures of Christina Ricci from Prozac Nation, took my Lubriderm out from underneath the bed, and got on my knees. I was roughly the same age as her, and I’d had a thing for her since just before the onset of puberty, around the time that Addams Family Values had hit theaters; I’d also sustained my fascination with her over the years as we both got older.

Ski was right. We had been so busy that I had neglected the basics. It wasn’t healthy, physically or mentally, to go this long without masturbating. I rubbed one out in honor of Ms. Ricci’s beauty and took the rest of the day off. I watched a couple of Dunfy’s DVDs, selecting the first season of Northern Exposure. There was something so reassuring about getting lost in that snowy Alaskan wilderness for a couple of hours, forgetting that I was trapped for a few more months in this Babylonian kiln. I had been in Iraq long enough now that my teeth would be chattering and I would yearn for a heavy winter coat whenever I woke up in the morning to eighty-degree weather.

Convoy Security would be running drills until sundown, so I didn’t bother going to evening formation. I went to the DEFAC instead. I ate a huge stir fry dinner and grabbed a few Power Bars for the trip tomorrow. After dinner I returned to my trailer and cleaned both my M4 and the Squad Auto, breaking down the carbon deposits with my toothbrush and running a cue tip along their front and rear sight apertures. I balled up my poncho liner and drifted off to sleep on my cot dreaming of Christina Ricci, getting lost in the milky plane of her smooth forehead as it ran on forever in my dreams.

There was no hot water and damn little pressure in the shower trailer the next morning. The water tanks were so unreliable that many times I would get myself soaped and lathered, only to have the shower heads crap out on me, sputtering to a slow drip and then shutting off altogether.

Dunfy was playing Need for Speed on his PlayStation when I left him at around Nine a.m. I cursed myself for my damn guilt complex, and then I headed for the Convoy Team shack.

About half of the team was already there when I arrived. Sergeant Juarez was lounging in a hammock strung between two green palm trees, eating a large orange. We were in one of those lush pockets of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, little oases sprouting here and there around the arid oppression. Occasionally I would get overcome by a weird sensation when I considered that a story from the Old Testament could have occurred right where I was standing. Once while killing time at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center I had discovered a copy of Ursula Leguin’s The Word for World is Forest, and I couldn’t help but feeling when I was one the road up in my turret, as if we were rolling along the surface of some inhospitable alien planet.

I walked over to my vehicle. Ski was carefully spray-painting over a stencil he held against the Humvee’s front bumper. “Good morning, Sunshine.”

“Hey,” I said.

“You ready for your first southern MSR?”

“Sure,” I said.

I had been on previous convoys, but this was my first trip to Rustamiyah, a city to our south. Supposedly it was a wilder ride than the minor runs for which I had previously been gunner. “Do me a favor,” Ski said. He put the stencil on the hood and set the can of spray-paint on the concrete.

“Sure.”

He went into the passenger seat of the Humvee, dug into an ACU-patterned backpack from which a drinking straw protruded. He handed me a bunch of muffins.

“Put those in your ammo can,” Ski said. “When we pass the madrassa, start throwing them to the kids.”

I shook my head, but I didn’t give him back the muffins. “Sergeant Omero doesn’t want us throwing stuff to the Iraqis. If they think we’re a piñata, they’ll hop out in front of the vehicle. Then your choice is to run them down or throw it in park. You throw it in park, and we’re sitting ducks. And I don’t feel like killing Iraqi children.”

“Fuck all that noise,” Ski said, and moved his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Just throw the food.”

I felt a massive hand grasp my shoulder from behind. I turned. It was Sergeant Juarez. “You seen the dwarf?” He asked.

Ski giggled.

I said, “Negative, Sergeant,” and hopped up into my turret. I put the muffins in the ammo can. I lifted the bolt on the turret and checked its swivel action. Its motion was smooth and silent from the heavy lubing.

“Who’s the dwarf?” I asked.

“There are all these little Iraqi kids who come out of the school to get treats,” Sergeant Juarez said. “But there’s this one dwarf who pretends he’s a kid. He bullies all the other little kids and tries to get the most stuff. You’ll see him.”

“Can you hand me the Squad Auto?” I asked.

Sergeant Juarez one-handed the heavy weapon and passed it up to me. I secured the weapon to the turret with the metallic cotter pin. I sat down on my sling and bounced up and down to test its resilience. It felt good.

“Ski,” I asked, “You sober?”

“I’m always sober for a convoy,” he said.

“And high the rest of the time,” Sergeant Juarez said.

When I had gotten to my unit in Germany, I had discovered fifteen grown men crowded into a barracks room, weeping as they watched the movie Shark Tale on a large TV. I hadn’t understood why they were crying at the time, but I later found out that Ski liked to go to Hanoi and get Shrooms for all the GIs once a month or so, since psilocybin didn’t show up on urinalyses.

Once Ski got shitfaced drunk and went to a little Hessen farming village and murdered a sheep. He then dragged its carcass back to the barracks and left it in the hallway, where its corpse rotted until someone finally got rid of the thing. Another time he brought a hose from the ground floor up into the barracks and, using Simple Green cleaning solvent and soap, he managed to turn the floor into a paraffin-buffed Slip and Slide.

The First Sergeant had given him extra duty as punishment, but Ski remained unfazed. The next day was an Espirit De Corps run, with an entire brigade of soldiers scheduled to jog the cobblestone track around the parade field. Ski had once again gotten drunk and left his car parked across the cobblestone lot so that an entire element of several thousand soldiers was unable to complete their run, being forced to detour around the old Kaserne Sherman Tank.

He was a good driver, and a crack mechanic, but I was always afraid that we would be on the road when a hallucinogenic tracer appeared before his field of vision and he jerked us into a culvert. I was either dead or paralyzed if our vehicle rolled over and no one pulled me in from the turret in time.

“Rally!” Sergeant Omero shouted. I left my Squad Auto mounted in the turret and slung my M4 over my shoulder. We walked into the cool confines of the convoy room. A massive industrial fan slowly plodded from one half of the room to the other, billowing both the POW-MIA and American flags mounted to the walls.

Sergeant Omero went to sit behind his desk, on which sat a massive bottle of creatine powder. The rumor was that at least half of the Convoy Team was shooting up steroids.

“Alright,” Sergeant Omero said. “Everybody load their COMSEC?”

There were a few tepid cries of “Roger.” Another couple of soldiers groaned. The first time I had seen Sergeant Omero, he brought to mind samurais from the old Kurosawa flicks. He was Mexican, but there was something about the set of his cheekbones and the lined scars on his face that reminded me of a shogun. He spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with his wife about custody of their daughter.

“Dondy,” he said. “What’s the first step in your escalation of force?” He swiveled back and forth in his chair.

“Shout,” Private Dondy said.

Sergeant Omero looked at me. “What do you initially shoot to do?”

I sat up. “Shoot to disable.”

“Meaning?”

“Aim for a tire or an engine block.”

“Right. De la Douche.”

De La Rouche shot up. “Yes, Sergeant?”

“If he keeps coming on your six, then what do you do?”

“Shoot to eliminate the threat.”

“You don’t shoot to kill?” Sergeant Omero glowered, his scars luminescent.

“We never shoot to kill.”

“Perfect.” He played with a little flash drive stick he held between his fingers like a Chinese finger trap. I felt bad for him. To have authority over basically eleven heavily armed kids in one-hundred and thirty degree heat was not an easy task. On top of that he had to produce evaluation reports on the sergeants underneath him while also fighting his wife for custody of his daughter.

“Oh,” he said. “Everyone’s nine-line Medevac and Dust-Off procedures taped to the inside of your doors?”

“Hooah!” Someone said. It was the catchall response in the Army. It meant anything from “Fuck you” to “Yes,” based on the context and inflection. Marines said that “Hooah!” was how one pronounced “Hoorah!” with a cock in their mouth.

“Saddle up, then. And remember. We’re not Combat Arms, we’re Signal Corps. If we take shots and we can help it, we’re not stopping to engage with the enemy.”

We went to our cubbies to get our shoulder daps, kneepads, ballistic goggles, and Kevlar helmets. I always thought it was funny that we lived out of the same little shelves as kindergartners. I hadn’t progressed very far in the last twenty years or so.

I followed behind Ski and Sergeant Juarez outside. The sun was a white phosphorus Frisbee, spinning, blinding, punishing. If I touched the surface of my Humvee without a glove it would have meant goodbye, skin. I hopped up on the hood and settled into my turret. I glanced at the Otis Spunkmeyer muffins in my ammo can. I had worked at the Spunkmeyer factory in Columbia, South Carolina, some years before my illustrious military career began.

I wondered what Dunfy was doing: probably watching either his I Dream of Genie or Doogie Howser M.D DVD box set. I checked to make sure my crotch protector was in place. We had a debate awhile back about whether it would be better to get one’s testicles or legs blown off. The consensus was “legs,” the lone voice of dissent being De La Rouche/Douche, but he had been a long-distance runner in high-school.

Sergeant Omero spit a putrid stream of Skoal toward the gravel and shouted, “If we have to rally, it’s herringbones formation. Robot’s crew is on recovery and tow, so if you need to be recovered, look to him.”

Sergeant Rowman lifted his right hand before getting into his Humvee. Ski started the engine and Sergeant Juarez got on the Sincgars headset. Juarez looked up at me for a moment. “Either of you guys ever go out with Rowman in Germany?”

“Nein,” I said.

“Yeah, well, that’s a good thing. The guy was ‘roid raging one night in the Luisenplatz. I saw him flip over a VW Bug and beat up two Polizei. And German police are no joke. They’ve got those spring-loaded batons.”

“Jesus,” Ski said.

“Jesus Titty Fucking Christ is right, my friend. There was this girl Rowman was hitting on at the Rathskeller, and this guy comes by selling roses. The Robot takes the whole bouquet and eats them, then spits the heads out at the girl, one by one, just because she won’t come back to the barracks with him.”

I strapped my on Kevlar. It was lined with foam, heavily padded, a great improvement over the steel pots we had been wearing. I couldn’t use the chin strap on the steel pots. We had to “John Wayne” it, as they said, because the old helmets were so loose that if there was a concussive blast the metal would have rattled one’s brain to soup. This baby fit snugly, however.

Sergeant Juarez was still going on about Sergeant Rowman. “They say the guy drinks beaver urine.”

“What?” Ski said.

“Yeah, it’s like, when the beavers are in mating season they get a lot of testosterone going through their systems, so he drinks that to keep himself amped.”

Ski said, “I just do Shrooms, and smoke hash when the Turks have it. It was easy to get blazed during Operation Iraqi Freedom One because they didn’t piss test us back then.”

“We’re moving,” someone said on the Sincgars.

The Lead vehicle with Sergeant Omero at the helm drifted out in front of us. Rowman’s Humvee followed behind them, after which came Sergeant Eaglebear and his crew. Sergeant Eaglebear was a strange character. He was a full-blooded Cherokee who had aced both Survival Evasion and Resistance School as well as the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. He spoke Russian, Spanish, and German indifferently. Whenever mail came around he always got these “Patriot Newsletters,” as well as Rush Limbaugh paraphernalia and magazines advising him on how best to invest in gold. The only other Native American in our unit, Sergeant Morgan, dismissed him as an “Uncle Tomahawk.”

It was finally our turn and we pulled out. Silone was in the turret ahead of me. He was an Italian kid from Long Island who spoke in a broad accent that was an amalgam of all five boroughs, and he reigned supreme in handball against the Dominican and Puerto Rican soldiers from what he called the “Boogie Down Bronx.” He had a large head, which had gotten him and Dondy into a brawl a couple of weeks back when Dondy teased him by saying that he had “Jimmy Hoffa hidden inside his cranium.”

Hesco barriers overstuffed with pink fiberglass appeared on our left, like cotton candy that had implausibly grown from the sand. On the right were soupy brown marshes, thick with sharp reeds. A humid scummy film grew on top of the water and attracted mosquitoes and sand fleas that probably carried Leishmaniasis. I had seen someone get the disease. After getting bitten on the leg by a sand flea he had been sent home minus a large portion of his calf.

“Amber,” Sergeant Omero said.

I oriented my barrel to nine o’clock and aimed the M4 and the Saw both toward the clearing barrels. I went to amber status, chambering rounds but remaining on “Safety.” A little static frisson passed through my body and I felt a mild urge to pee. If I really had to go at some point, it might come down to urinating in a Gatorade bottle, while Juarez and Ski averted their faces and hoped for the best.

I glanced down into the dirt and saw what looked like a man trying to fight his way out from underneath the sand. A hand poked through the clods of mud and I looked for the rest of the buried body, but it wasn’t there. The fingers stretched out like a translucent spider, with bits of blood and lumen peeking from the disarticulated limb.

“Sergeant,” I said.

“What?”

“There’s a hand on the ground.”

“And?”

And?! “And, there’s a hand. A fucking hand.”

“Alright, here. Let me make everyone stop what they’re doing.” Sergeant Juarez picked up his handset and barked into the Sincgars. “All Outlaws. Here’s a frago. If anyone is minus one hand, that’s Hotel, Alpha, Niner, Delta, please respond by hot miking your handset for five, count ‘em, five segundos. Danke schon.”

“Donkey Shoes,” Ski said. He was already sweating. Sergeant Juarez looked at me.

“Nobody missing a hand. Can you do something for me, Specialist?”

“Hoah, Sergeant?”

“Stand up.”

I stood up, coming out of the turret sling. “Good, now jump up and down once.”

I complied, begrudgingly, jumping and landing hard with my desert boots on the metallic interior of the Humvee.

“Now, one of two things should have happened. Either the sand has fallen out of your vagina or your testicles have descended from your stomach. Can we forget about the fucking hand now?”

“Roger, Sergeant.”

“Don’t worry,” Ski said. “They’ve got Vagisil at the Rustamiyah PX.”

The gate guards, two Seabees in chocolate chip fatigues, pulled the concertina wire aside with gloved hands. “Now, we Charley Fucking Mike.” Sergeant Juarez clapped his hands together. “Charlie Mike,” meant “Continue the mission.”

I leaned back on my sling and oriented my barrel toward our rear. Camp Victory faded into the wind and sand, the cloudless sooty blue horizon opening up all around us. The secret of convoys and of Iraq was that this was worth death or dismemberment. To be away from America and its laws, its SUVs and TV shows, its petty concerns, to rip through this empty space, this living Bible combined with a mission to Mars- the secrets I was accruing in this year, these secrets I would take to my grave- I knew they were worth the loss of my mind and my body.

“Indian Country,” Sergeant Juarez said.

“Don’t say that,” Ski said. “You’ll catch an Equal Opportunity violation from Sergeant Eaglebear if he decides to report you to the Inspector General.”

“That Uncle Tomahawk don’t care about what my pocho ass says. They call me ‘coconut,’ can you believe that? Brown on the outside, and white on the inside. I guess I should be like Salas, keep it real, bomb my GED and join the Mara Salvatrucha gangbangers.”

There was gang graffiti all over Iraq, underpasses emblazoned with Latin King crowns and pitchforks representing the Chicago contingent of the Gangster Disciples smeared over the calligraphic remnants of Arabic scrawl, our own dirty American laundry aired in the larger crossfire going on between the Sunnis and Shias. The world was a mess, and I was embarrassed by the many times as a young man that watching or taking part in violence had made my heart pump with orgasmic fury.

Ski began singing. “Oh, do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, who lives in Drury Lane?”

“Here’s the madrassa,” Ski said.

“And there’s the dwarf!” Sergeant Juarez shouted. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. One at a time!”

I kept my barrel oriented toward the convoy’s six, but I glanced to my left. There was a mud hut with a red-tiled roof, much like a Mexican adobe home, from which children in flowing black and white dishdashas poured out and rushed toward the convoy. Sergeant Juarez threw cold bottles of water and Gatorade toward the throng of children as they rushed toward us.

The kids’ faces were sullen, incapable of smiles, I thought. There was a seriousness, a grim acceptance absent from almost any face I could remember from America, even those souls who liked to think of themselves as jaded. Their mouths frowned and their brows furrowed. Their skin was brown, made even darker by the sand, the dirt, and the shadows that the sun played across their robed little bodies. I threw all of my muffins toward them, a couple of the baked goods brimming with cheesecake filling, the rest blueberry or chocolate chip.

Their bare feet moved over the sharp rocks of the Iraqi tundra as if it was sweet grass. I had never had kids, never even had the requisite pregnancy scare one’s supposed to have as a teenager, but I felt something paternal awaken in me as I watched one of the little girls reach down to scoop up some of the treats. Her brown hair was matted to her ruddy vermillion skin. She could have been Mexican, or Indian.

I remembered something one of the Iraqi translators had said to me when I was hanging out with him and Sergeant Rodriguez, a Dominican from Flatbush, during some down time. The translator pointed at Sergeant Rodriguez and said, “He is brown, so if he comes downtown Bagdad, as long as he keeps his mouth shut, people think he is Iraqi. You, because you are white, they kill.”

I dug into my extra ACU pockets and threw the Power Bars I had down toward the Iraqi children. Our convoy had come to a halt. I heard Sergeant Omero’s voice on the Sincgars. “If it gets out that we’re playing Santa Claus with these Iraqi children, I’m gonna have to sit on some pretty plush carpet to explain myself. Ski, this is the last time.”

“One at a time!” Sergeant Juarez shouted again. “Back up! Is that where you want to be when Jesus returns to Earth? Move!”

The throng of children parted, scattering as if Moses himself with his winding staff had separated them. A small bowlegged person of muscular build broke through the ranks of the kids. He had a five o’clock shadow and sported a cigarette in his mouth.

I gripped my M4 with my right hand, my finger lightly grazing the selector switch, ready to shift it from “Safe” to “Semi.”

“Look at this cat. He’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love.” Sergeant Juarez shook his head. The dwarf held out his hand.

“Give me!” He barked.

Ski reached over Sergeant Juarez and handed the dwarf a five dollar bill. “Shukran,” the dwarf said, and smiled. He showed gums covered in an inch-thick coat of orange plaque.

“Alright,” Sergeant Omero barked on the radio. He pulled out and the second vehicle followed him. We snaked along and left the dwarf and the children behind.

“Why the fuck did you give him a five?” Juarez asked Ski.

“Because if we don’t pay him, then he steals from the kids. That’s why.”

Sergeant Juarez shrugged, accepted that answer. I turned my attention back toward the road behind us, disappearing into the horizon, the school growing smaller until its brown clay and mud walls became inseparable from the sand of the wide desert swallowing us all.

“Ich bin der kleine pommes in der grosse Kartoffeln Welt,” Dondy said on the Sincgars. It was his mangled German version of a pickup line he used to melt the hearts of girls he wooed in Germany. It roughly translated as “I am but a small fry in a large potato world.”

Dondy was the most worldly of the American GIs I knew. On weekends he wore earrings in both ears, dressed in Milano leather, and moonlighted as a keyboard player in Turkish smoke shops from Darmstadt to Berlin. He wanted to use his GI Bill to study Musical Theory at Berkeley when he got out of the Army. He had an ICE (Inter-City Express) rail pass, and he sometimes jaunted off to the Czech Republic, Austria, or the Netherlands, returning from his trips loaded down with hydroponic marijuana, absinthe, or ecstasy, depending on where his travels took him. He spent a significant amount of time dodging the Muslim descendants of the Gastarbeiter who wanted words with the American imperialist pig scum who had been sleeping with their girlfriend/sister/daughter, and once even a mother.

I spun around toward the front for a moment. Silone turned in his turret and flipped me the bird. “The hell is that smell?” Someone said on the Sincgars.

“Tell your mama to close her legs.”

Black cumuli spiraled into the sky at the terminus of the road ahead of Staff Sergeant Omero’s vehicle.

“Me no like,” I said.

“Relax,” Sergeant Juarez said. “Rustamiyah does waste incineration. They’re burning trash is all.”

I swiveled back around to my six. Ski had been so liberal with the WD-40 that my turret smelled like a mechanic’s bay. The road blurred at my feet, a concrete Mobius strip constantly unraveling. I did what we weren’t supposed to do. I violated the cardinal rule of “Stay Alert, Stay Alive.” My mind drifted, though my sweating gloved hand still gripped the trigger of my SAW.

I thought some more about that Iraqi translator, Matthew. One night we were in his hooch, smoking mint shisha from a crystal vase with a butterfly on it. I asked him, “So, when Saddam was running things, could people talk shit about him behind his back, like when they were at home by themselves?”

Matthew blew out a white volume of smoke and said, “No, and let me tell you why. Because one time there is a parade for Saddam and a little boy says to Saddam, ‘When my dad sees you on the TV, he spits like so, on the rug.’” Matthew spit flecks of white saliva onto the sandy floor. “And so Saddam’s guards take this boy’s dad out of the crowd. So you see why you’re not talking shit about Saddam, even at home. But I honestly liked it more with Saddam because there were no American checkpoints. I go wherever I want, just don’t talk shit about Saddam.”

“Wake up!”

Ski kicked my leg. I turned around. Sergeant Juarez went ramrod straight in his Truck Commander’s seat. “I guess I spoke too soon when I said they were burning garbage.”

Ahead of us were several combat medics rushing toward a gate guard sprawled out in a grapevine of double-stranded concertina wire. They carried green canvas combat lifesaver bags. The dead soldier’s mouth was open, his nose upturned, but beyond that he had no head.

Off to the side of the body there was a forty-six liter Polar cooler. We’d had one of those next to the guard post back at Victory when I had been stuck on gate duty. It was filled with ice that was melted by the time my shift began around noon. I noticed none of the other guards drinking from the cooler, but as the sun grew hotter and my Camelbak hydration system was drained, I found myself slipping over to the cooler and stealing handfuls of melted ice, spooning the chilled admixture into my sandy, parched mouth.

One of the other soldiers on duty with me had laughed. “What?” I’d said.

“You’ll see.”

About twenty minutes later a group of LNs (Local Nationals) showed up at the gate, ready to leave the base as their shift ended. Before departing from the FOB and turning in their nametags, however, they stopped by the cooler and one after another they dipped their heads inside, wiping the grime away from their darkened Semitic curls, working the arctic melt water over their scalps.

“Shit,” I said, and gagged.

“Yeah,” the other soldier laughed. “They stop by that cooler about three times a day to wash their hair. You didn’t think it was suspicious that some Joes like us, thirsty as we are, weren’t going over there for water?”

I came out of my memory and looked at the medics rushing toward the dead troop in the chocolate chip fatigues. They wore latex gloves and one held an oropharyngeal tube. A piece of the dead soldier’s head was next to the blue Polar cooler. It wasn’t so much a piece as a shard. I marveled at it, a perfect triangular slice, like something broken away from a bit of pottery or cut from a pumpkin to create a jack-o-lantern’s eye. How could something as chaotic as a mortar tear something so symmetrical away from a man’s head?

I glanced at the pulverized, scooped and empty red stump that topped the body, and then I looked away. I kept looking back, though. I wondered what I was getting from it, wondered why I was stealing glances when I knew each moment of looking now would cost me years of regret down the line, assuming I was lucky enough not to end up like him in the next few months or so. In a weird way the experience reminded me of the first time I had gone to a strip club, which was incidentally the first time I had seen a woman naked. I was nervous, jittery, my stomach a swarm of butterflies, my brain clouded by the thought that I didn’t know how much of this I was supposed to be seeing, or if I was supposed to be seeing any of it.

How long was one supposed to look at a woman dancing naked on a stage for money? How long was one supposed to look at a dead man? I didn’t have the answer to either question, and I still don’t, and I probably never will, but one thing was for certain.

I had seen the dwarf.

Joseph Hirsch’s novel Rolling Country was published by Moonshine Cove. His book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, and he has sold fiction to Underground Voices, The Western Online, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers competition, and he previously served as a sports journalist with Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Melange Books, and his forthcoming novels The Last Slice of Pizza and Flash Blood will be available this summer.  Websites: www.thelastsliceofpizza.net www.rollingcountry.com

The Legend of Buffalo Bill as Told by a Hipster by Matt Micheli

I’ll have the Hemingway cocktail. Thanks.

         They use a bacon-infused rum, here. Fucking killer.

So anyway, you’ve never heard how cowboys came to be in Broadway? It’s kind of an interesting story, really. There was this dude—Buffalo Bill—born sometime in February back in the eighteen hundreds, back in the wild Wild West. So not only did he single-handedly propel the mustache into the new millennia, this guy was the original showman. But before all that, right, this guy was a fucking assassin on the buffalos. I saw some number somewhere… He killed in the upward four-thousands. I mean, he was a real good buffalo-killer person, probably the best ever, and single-handedly supplied buffalo proteins to railroad workers.

And can you believe, some dude actually challenged him to a buffalo-shooting contest? Fucking moron. He was all, “I’m the real Buffalo Bill,” and Buffalo Bill was like, “With that pathetic pre-pubertic stripe of hair you call a mustache? I don’t think so, bro.” Buffalo Bill’s mustache was in expert mode, and he was all, “Small mustaches are so last year.” He was like, “I’ll fucking shoot circles around you.” He was sooo confident, right? He says, “If I lose . . . you can have the buffalo name.” And that other dude was like, “Fuck yeah.” He had always wanted the word buffalo to precede his given name. So they go at it, right, and they’re shooting buffalo—ping, ping, ping—and this other dude comes back and he’s like telling everybody, “I shot like fifty buffalo!” And he’s all excited and proud. He orders a Bronson and chills out at the bar, right, just idling in his victory. And then Buffalo Bill walks in and laughs a little. He had heard how many buffalo this other poser shot. And he’s all, “Sorry, bro. I just killed like seventy buffalo.” And he’s like, “Maybe we can call you like . . . Second-Place Bill or Tiny Mustache Bill or something.”

         Dude, you have to try this cocktail. You can totally taste the swine.

So anyway, Buffalo Bill was in the military for a while but what he really wanted to do was get his choreography, his art, on the big stage. Yes, he was a good soldier but his heart just wasn’t in fighting. It was somewhere else, under the spotlight.

Right after he was discharged, he met his future wife: Lulu. He was nineteen and she was a little older, more experienced. She’d been around the city block a few times. The two of them had some kids. Some died. Some didn’t.

So, he was working as a scout—whatever that means—and trying to figure out how to bring his creative ideas to life. In the meantime, right, Buffalo Bill had a huge fan of his writing stories of Bill’s great crusades. Buffalo Bill met this adoring fan Ned Buntline—I think that was his pen-name—right, and Ned was all star-struck, “Oh, Buffalo Bill.” He fans himself. “I can’t believe it’s you. And you look so much better in person. That mustache . . . is just . . . exquisite.” And Buffalo Bill was never one to shy away from compliments. “Tell me more.” So he bought this admiring fan a drink—some type of martini. But no Vermouth. He hated Vermouth. And they chatted for a while.

         God, Foster the People is so last year. They need to update their playlist.

So they discussed the adventurous tales of Buffalo Bill and Bill discussed his yearning to get his dance and choreography skills on stage for the world to see. There were two… no, three things Bill loved, right: cowboys, performing, and mustaches. I mean, he loved his wife, but he wasn’t in love with her, you know?

So the two men became really tight, laying on the floor scribbling long-distance letters to each other, working out the deets for the upcoming production. His wife was all, “Buffalo Bill, why don’t you come fuck your wife?” She’d be in some skimpy negligee splayed across the bed. And he was all like, “I need to leave.”

So he hit the road to bring his dream to life, leaving his family at home, and he and Buntline rounded up a group of performers and got this really great costume designer to design their outfits—bright but still rustic, western, but not too western. All’s they needed now were tights and chaps and those weren’t hard to find back then, especially if you’re Buffalo Bill. I mean he had that stuff thrown at him. Meanwhile, this life on the road took its toll on his sexually frustrated wife. Poor Lulu heard word that Bill began acting peculiar and was handing out mustache rides like they were going out of style. So she was all like, “Fuck this.” And she filed for divorce. Bill was so wrapped up in his performing cowboys and his new life as the most famous performer in the world, that the request for divorce didn’t faze him. They were like, “Bill, bro, I’m sorry but Lulu wants out.” Bill turned and was all, “What? I told you to knock before entering my trailer, Todd. Now get out! And fucking . . . fuck her.” He didn’t give a shit.

So the show travelled the world, and made a huge splash hitting Europe—Europeans loved cowboys almost as much as Bill did. Somebody said Buffalo Bill had slept with the queen but I think that was just based on a photo of Bill and the queen shopping some boutiques together.

The travelling show found great long-term success for twenty-five years or so, and his performing cowboys were finally seen by the entire world just as he had always wanted. Buffalo Bill was always the main attraction. Anytime one of the younger male performers began taking attention away from Bill, Bill would get sooo pissed, right? “What do you think this is, Stephen? Do you think I’m dense? I know what you’re doing. I know who you’re screwing.” And he’d find some reason to fire these young stars. “This is my show, you fin.” And he’d belittle them, nearly castrate them. I mean, he was mean. This one young boy—a total Cronkite—was totally broken. He was all, “But . . . I love you.” This confession infuriated Bill so he stormed out and shot a buffalo and then scalped some Indian dude out of pure anger. It had been a while since he had killed anything, right. And he was all, still totally pissed, “I won’t sleep . . . until every fucking buffalo is dead.”

Sitting Bull was a friend of his and even he was all, “Bill, bro, wtf?” And Bill was all, “I just need . . . a fucking cocktail.” And he got sloshed and danced around with the dance crew to some Indian beats that had been given to him along the way. When Buffalo Bill wanted you to dance with him, you danced.

Are you kidding me? Another Foster the People song? I knew about this song, like . . . two years ago.

So Bill died of Kidney failure, probably due to his heavy love for cocktails, but his status as the original showman held strong. His dancing cowboys had taken Broadway and the rest of the world by storm… so tough, yet so elegant. His death didn’t slow things. To this day, because of Buffalo Bill, you can see skimpily-clad cowboys performing two to three nights a week at any given city, at any given moment, dancing their little hearts out… leaving everything they have on stage. If only Bill could see it now . . . he would be sooo proud.

So anyway, I can’t handle this music anymore. Let’s ditch.