Category Archives: Stories

Summer 1994: Getting Pierced By Fiona Helmsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachable Moments by Fiona Helmsley

Make sure to check out Fiona’s new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

I grew up across the street from an old cemetery. Sometimes, when he was feeling motivated, we’d go there, and walk. Round and round we’d go, making loops past the rows of neglected, moss-covered gravestones. Near the north side of the grounds, bordering the woods, a small scattering of crumbled stones faced west. Suicides, he told me. Back when the cemetery was active, they weren’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

We’d grab walking sticks. I think of them now as staffs. We wouldn’t talk much as we walked, but we weren’t solemn or sad. When I think of his body, I think of sailors, probably because he bought most of his clothes at the Army Navy store. He’d wear t-shirts commemorating marathons he hadn’t run in, and shorts like Carhartt’s, with deep pockets and hooks. His legs were tight and muscular, like mine. I have my father’s legs, only sexy.

Some days, the little boy would come, and then the whole dynamic would change. The things my father and I did free of undercurrent became competitive. “Teachable moments” –just not for me. Even something like picking out a walking stick. For a young girl, any stick would do, but for a young boy, it had to be near-mythical, like everything else.

They’d go to the woods, near the suicides, and look for impressive ones. A lot of dads carry pocket knives, but in the pocket of his shorts, my father carried a truncheon. It protruded like an angry table leg. He’d hit at the overgrowth, and when he found a stick fit for a prince, the little boy would help to break it loose.

Because my stick wasn’t important, I’d wander ahead. One day, while they were off being men, I ambled over to a group of family gravestones. The dead patriarch had been commemorated by an oblong pillar that time had taken the luster from, and turned dull. Next to the pillar was a gravestone shaped like an angel, its hands clasped in prayer. A pair of woman’s underwear had been knotted around the angel’s wrists, and a bra had been tied around its head like a blindfold.

I called to my father, who emerged from the woods. He freed the bra from the angel’s face valiantly, hooking and dragging it with his stick, making swooshing motions with his arms as he lunged with his legs. Removing the underwear from the angel’s wrists was a challenge: the knots had been baked in by the sun. A pocketknife would have done the job easily. With a truncheon and stick, he could only poke and bash.

He ripped the underwear from the angel’s wrists. Using his stick like a slingshot, he tied the underwear to the bra, then used their elasticity to fling them into the woods. The little boy and I watched as the undergarments flew through the sky. My father was the liberator of a gravestone angel.

Years later, I worked with a woman at a video store. It had been torn down in the mid-1990s, but she remembered the house I’d grown up in: when she was younger, she and her friends would hang out in the cemetery and get drunk. One night when they’d all been wasted, an older boy suggested they dance naked in the moonlight. It was summer and he’d called it “Skinny Dancing,” like Skinny Dipping. She didn’t know why she’d done it, but she knew I’d gotten into hijinks as a kid, and wouldn’t judge. After she’d taken off her bra and underwear, she’d used them to gag and a tie a gravestone. The gravestone was in the shape of an angel. She hoped it hadn’t been a child’s.

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You By Fiona Helmsley

Editor’s Note: Here’s the first story of Fiona Helmsley’s we published in Air in the Paragraph Line #13 back in 2010. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

I smoked my first cigarette the same night Guns N’ Roses debuted their video for Paradise City on MTV. I was spending the night at my friend Angie Caravello’s house. We opened her bedroom window to blow the smoke outside.

“I’m high!” I said, after completing my first correct inhale. I felt tingly all over and strangely energized, even for the late hour.

“No you’re not, dummy.” Angie retorted, annoyed at my ignorance. “You’re just lightheaded. It happens the first time you get nicotine in your system. Pot, now that gets you high. Next time you come over, I’ll have my friend from West Hartford get us some.”

But I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy feeling dizzy and watching the coal on the end of my cigarette glow each time I inhaled. I was thirteen years old.

My parents were smokers. My mom liked Virginia Slims lights, my dad Merits. My dad successfully quit the year before I started, but my parents were divorced by that time so I didn’t have to worry about him smelling the scent of my new habit. We lived next to a gas station and I’d been buying cigarettes there for my mom for years. At first, the gas station manager had no questions when the brand of choice changed from Virginia Slims to Camels, but when he noticed a group of teenagers lingering on our rooftop next door, lollipops of glowing amber hanging from our mouths, he got suspicious and called my mom.

“Fiona, are you smoking?” She asked, hanging up the telephone later that night.

It wasn’t a good time for truth. It was the height of my “Where there is doubt, make it count” phase which coincided with all of my adolescence, which made it more than just a phase. And most of my young adulthood, for that matter.

“No, mom.”

“I hope not.” My mom answered, dejectedly. “Do you remember when you used to bury my cigarettes in the yard because you didn’t want me smoking them?” She spoke with a touch of guilty nostalgia.

I did. I’d done it more than once, too. One time in particular stuck out in my mind- election night 1984. I grudgingly went next door and got my mom her coveted Virginia Slims. She was so wound up in the election results, she hardly noticed as I slunk in and out of the TV room, each time taking another cigarette from the pack I just bought for her. As Mondale/Ferraro battled Reagan/ Bush for control of the country, I battled cigarettes for control of my mom. Each kidnapped cancer stick was placed in the same mass grave in the front yard. In a scene straight out of Good Parenting 101, my mother caught me on the fifth time around and demanded a heart to heart discussion. She appreciated my concern and she loved me. She would smoke no more cigarettes for the rest of the evening, she vowed. As I went upstairs to bed, I felt hopeful.

“No, no, NO!! ” I heard my mom scream five minutes later.

Then the flick of a lighter.

Reagan/Bush had won re-election.

My mother had lasted half an hour without a cigarette.

The first time I tried to quit, I was fifteen. It was very hard. I was a freshman in high school and had already been indoctrinated to bathroom smoking. After every class, the same group of girls would gather in the same designated bathroom for a quick puff before the next bell. We were a mutual addiction society, our shared cigarette bathed in the color of five different lipsticks. We crossed economic and social stratospheres, just like the kids in The Breakfast Club, only all female and all smelling like Judd Nelson’s character. I lasted two days. I missed my friends in the bathroom.

I convinced myself that if I quit for good, it would be a quick snowball effect until my friends saw me only at class, then only the weekends and then never. It was the same with the situation with the field hockey team I’d recently been in. A lot of my friends played, which involved travel for games and a lot of on- field bonding that I wasn’t apart of. Joining the team was out because I’d never so much as picked up a stick. I knew I had to find a way to ingratiate myself into the game, but it wasn’t going to be through playing. In desperation, I agreed to carry the team cooler. Field hockey, like smoking, was something that bonded me and my friends together.

Without the cigarettes, I was getting to class early and alone. Smoking had become a matter of social survival.

My eighteenth birthday finally came and with it the right to look every convenience store clerk in the eye when they asked me for ID at the counter.

At the same time I was getting my right on, non smokers everywhere were asserting theirs. They were developing their voices and the sound was disapproving. By the time I moved to NYC for college, the non smoking contingent was loud and proud. Why should they suffer for our dirty habits?

The college board at the school I was attending heard them and decreed no smoking on campus. None of the other students seemed to mind and the school bathrooms always smelled bleach-y and smoke free. Where had all my black lung compadres gone? Anyway, I kind of agreed with the non smokers. I understood their perspective, even if I didn’t appreciate their gains. I had empathy for the innocents. Inhaling second hand smoke was like getting crabs from a public toilet. Reaping the negative consequence of someone else’s pleasure. No fair.

But when their clean air movement infiltrated the bars of NYC, effectively outlawing bar smoking citywide, it was hard to remain so cooperatively passive.

First they came for the Communists and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist…then they came for the Catholics.. and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Catholic…when they came for the smokers, I keep my mouth closed and ruined my chances of playing muse to a literary great.

Thaddeus Robbery was my imaginary boyfriend. I’d read his zine “Robbery” for years. Published just once a year, I read and reread each years copy till the staples wore down and the pages fell out. Thad lived hard and loved harder, devoting the pages of Robbery to his criminal exploits and crimes of the heart. Some girls aspired to Playboy, I aspired to Robbery. There was nothing I wanted more than to be one of the women Thad wrote about in his zine. Part Jack Kerouac and part Iggy Pop, Thad had sang for a series of punk bands in the late eighties, but now devoted most of his time to writing.

And as my friend Lauren explained to me, when she called to ask me if I would meet him at a bar near my apartment in Brooklyn, trying to pay the bills in typical post punk rock fashion.

As a bar dj in Williamsburg.

“Thaddeus Robbery is in Brooklyn trying to line up a dj gig at Psycho Hose Beast. I know you love him. You were the first person I thought of to show him around. He knows no one in NYC. Hook up with him at the bar there. You can thank me later.”

The street directly outside Psycho Hose Beast was one large, drunken, human ashtray. Now that smoking was no longer allowed inside, this was familiar sight outside most NYC bars. I was about to join their ranks, lighter in hand when I was distracted by a voice that I’d heard before, only coming from my record player.

“You fucking smoker scumbags! What a bunch of sorry, fucking losers. This is fucking great. I love that you dogs are out of the street. Gives me an idea of who to avoid inside.”

And with that, Thaddeus Robbery entered Psycho Hose Beast. It was a perplexing scene to witness. I didn’t know how to react. Was Thad drunk? Did he just not like smokers? Maybe a loved one had recently died of cancer? Was Thad just an asshole? The crowd outside didn’t seem to care. These drunken outdoor smoking circles were a breeding ground for his type of angry outburst. I decided it better not to keep him waiting and threw my intended cigarette to the sidewalk, mystified.

My excitement returned as I passed through the door of the bar. I had a date with Thaddeus Robbery. Sort of. I wondered how well it would translate to the written word. I’d worn an a tight, black glittery dress so Thad could use lots of adjectives.

“Well when will your boss be here?” Thad quizzed the bartender, who already seemed annoyed. He’d only been inside a few moments and was already armed with a drink and a sneer. He was getting more and more intimidating with each encounter I witnessed. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“No, I don’t want to buy any fucking batteries!” Thad’s arm made a shooing motion in my direction but he didn’t turn around.

“You took the L train here, didn’t you?” I pretended to laugh, completely ignoring his nasty assumption. “Let me guess, the Chinese lady, with the cart who also sells CD’s? She is really annoying! She totally got up in my face the other day singing Baby Boy in an attempt to get me to buy the Beyonce CD.”

He stared at me blankly, as if trying to determine my origin so he could make sure I never, ever happened again.

“I’m Lauren’s friend? Fiona?”

“Oh Fiona!” His eyes teased deceptively. “Well la dee fucking da! I have no fucking idea who you are! I do know someone in New York–this cunt, Lauren–who is supposed to be my friend. But instead of doing something real uncunty–like, like say, showing up here, herself, she sends out a COMPLETE FUCKING STRANGER IN HER PLACE! “

At the same time, my phone rang. Lauren’s phone number flashed across the screen.

“Its for you.” I said, handing it to Thaddeus. I couldn’t stand the thought of listening to him argue with Lauren about what an obvious, flashing light loser I was.

“I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” I stumbled, handing him the phone.

Thaddeus’s body bolted up right, as if a large squirrel had just attempted to penetrate his asshole without permission or lube.

“YOU’RE GOING TO SMOKE A…. CIGARETTE?” His face twisted, like saying the very word left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“No,” I interrupted, “I’m going to go outside with The Cigarettes,” I took a deep breath. How had I forgotten his anti-smoking tirade? “There a band I know.”

I took the ten steps to the door five at a time, effectively ruining his chance to respond. A group of girls leaned against a car parked outside. I could see Thaddeus staring at me through the window as he talked on my phone. I made small talk with the girls.

My nerves were a mess. I thought of asking one of the fake Cigarettes for a drag of her namesake, but Thad was still watching me through the window. This was going all wrong. Why had I made that Beyonce comment? I’d hate me too. I wanted a cigarette so badly. It was as if Thaddeus’ scolding had stripped all the residual nicotine from my system.

My imaginary boyfriend had turned abusive. Did we need imaginary counseling? He continued to glare at me through the window as he hung up my phone. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, I told myself. He could find me. He knew all my potential hiding spots. He had my phone.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Thaddeus was knocking on the window to get my attention. He beckoned me with his finger.

As I reentered the bar, he shoved a drink into my hand.

“I’m sorry Fiona. Its not you. Its me. Lauren told me you’re a big fan. We’d be nothing without our fans…..”

His apology sounded like a Susan Lucci Emmy acceptance speech but with unexplained plural pronouns. My palms where clammy. I was in full fledged nicotine withdrawal.

“I need to use the bathroom.” I stammered.

“Go empty yourself then.” He dismissed my weak human need with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t forget to wash your hands. I will know if you don’t.”

The walk to the bathroom was a blur. My hands shook as I closed the bathroom door, brought the cigarette to my mouth and lit it in one fell swoop. The nicotine flooded my starved cells and I felt lightheaded.

“I’m high!” I mouthed the words in tribute to Angie Caravello, seventeen years after she’d first corrected me. I wondered if she wore mom jeans now.

“All right, whatever you’re smoking in there, drop it in the bowl and come out of the stall.”

I’d been so focused on my need for nicotine I ‘d completely ignored the cardinal rule of unlawful bathroom smoking-survey the scene first. Had I not learned anything in high school? I attempted to fan the smoke cloud from the air, but it was futile. I was caught.

It was the annoyed faced bartender who’d been talking to Thad earlier.

“What aren’t you getting? I saw you outside with all the other nicotine freaks. You know the deal. There is a zero tolerance policy in effect towards smoking inside bars now. Zero. We’ve had undercover cops in here for the past month just looking for violations. It’s the bar owners that get screwed for your stupidity. What you just did could get us shut down.”

I did understand her position. I decided to take the risk that maybe she’d understand mine.

“Would you believe I’m trying to impress a guy?”

“I don’t care. Get your shit and get out.”

So this was it. This was how the evening was destined to end. It was like an after school special for “Just be yourself.” I’d gone to this great length to hide my habit only to be exposed anyway. What the fuck would I say to Thad?

The bartender held the bathroom door open.

“Alright, alright.” My Robbery dreams had, for lack of a better analogy, just gone up in smoke.

“I know I broke the rules, but come on. This is really embarrassing. I’m here tonight with a guy I really like too.”

“Oh I’m crying for you. You have two minutes to get your stuff and get out. If I have to tell you again, I promise, you will be really embarrassed.” The expression on her face reflected the truth in her statement.

I considered my options as I made my way back to the bar. Thad was slouched on his barstool, elbows on the counter. He had a fresh drink in front of him.

Telling the truth was out. Thad had made his feelings on smoking toxin- free pondwater- crystal clear. He may of been at Psycho Hose Beast for a real job interview, but I felt like my evening was a job interview of sorts, too. I was auditioning for Robbery. I was acting like an idiot, but that was just it–I was acting. I wasn’t really an idiot. People all over the world did things like this when they liked a person–hid little aspects of their personalities that didn’t translate well to first impressions.

I still had hope I could get Thad to come home with me. Surely if we couldn’t have a meeting of the minds, we could have a meeting of the bodies.

Unhappily, I foreshadowed to Thad back at my apartment, with me in and out of the bathroom all night long to smoke. I couldn’t decide which fate was worse–Thad knowing I was a smoker, or Thad thinking I had chronic diarrhea.

“You smell horrid.” Thad said, handing me a drink as I approached him, my hands still wet from the furious cigarette stink disinfecting they’d just received in the bathroom sink.

“Listen Thad, your not going to believe this but….in the bathroom…”

I looked in his eyes, searching, looking for something, anything.

“In the bathroom…..I……… met an undercover cop and she said this place is about to be busted!” I paused for dramatic effect, then grabbed my jacket and phone from the bar, hoping Thad would follow suit.

Instead he began twirling his drink stirrer, watching it as it twisted.

“And that affects us because…”

“Thad, they’re going to take the whole place down! We don’t want to be caught up in that! Come on, We got to go! This place is crawling with cops!”

I grabbed at his sleeve, catching the peeved bartender’s eye from across the room in the process.

“I’m not going anywhere. I have nothing to fucking hide. I’m an American fucking citizen. I’ll just sit here and watch and make sure they do the job right. It will be like a live action episode of Cops.” He was defiant.

“Thad you’ve got to listen to me…we have got to go……”

“What do you have to hide Fi-fi?” He eyed me mischievously. “What, are you holdin’? You holdin’ Fi-Fi? You holdin’?” He said ‘holdin’ the way one would when making fun of drug lingo. “I’m so done with all the B.S, Fi-Fi. Done. D-O-N-E.” He slurred his words. “All of it. Be honest with me, you holdin’?”

I wanted a cigarette again. My want for Thad stroked my want for nicotine. It was a vicious circle since one canceled the other out.

The bartender moved into my field of vision, glaring in my direction. My time was up.

“That’s one of them, Thad. Shes giving me the secret signal. I gotta go. The bust is going to happen any minute.”

It was all so futile and stupid. ” And, yeah, Thad, I am. I am holdin’.”

I fingered the pack of cigarettes in my pocket. They were contraband as far as he was concerned.

“You know, I could tell the moment I met you.” He touched my hand gently than quickly pounded it with his fist. “Now make fucking tracks or I’ll turn you in myself.”

I knew as I turned to leave, he was probably not serious about the second part. Thaddeus Robbery was putting on a show just as much as I was pretending I wasn’t a smoker or that I had drugs in my pocket. Just like Glenn Danzig with the gym or Henry Rollins with the IFC, Thad’s attitude was just a post punk defense mechanism.

But then, I remembered, I did have drugs in my pocket.

As I walked to the subway station, tobacco filled cigarette in one hand and marijuana filled cigarette in the other, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. In effect, I’d chosen cigarettes over Thad. Maybe not directly, but I’d known his extreme feelings about the habit and taken the risk anyway. What else could I justify doing in the name of a nicotine refuel? What other dreams where I willing to defer? Laws were I willing to break? I’d thought I’d loved Thad. Or at least the idea of being in his zine. But I now understood–I actually loved cigarettes more.

You think your guy’s hot? Well mine’s smokin’.

Dredging the Holiday Nostalgia by Jon Konrath

Every winter, I have fond memories of the holidays when I was a child. I went to this charter school for the gifted and talented, pyromaniacs, and kids with a bad glue-huffing habit. (It was an “or” thing; you didn’t have to test well, sniff Testor’s, AND get caught spraying a hobo with gasoline; any one of those three was fine.) Most of my teachers were 60s hippie types that made us sing songs about hemp farming and replace pronouns to honor all genders, so we didn’t spend a lot of time decorating Christmas trees or writing lists to Santa. Most years, we spent a lot of time reading about Druids and potato famines, although my second grade teacher, Mrs. Finkelstein, introduced me to Laveyan Satanism and had all of us puke in a ceremonial chalice for the Firestorm. (She later got busted for securities fraud, and when I was in high school, I used to mail care packages of King Diamond bootlegs and pruno ingredients to her in prison.)

I had a neighbor, Mr. Iommi, who used to invite over kids to snort lines of egg nog during the Christmas. He had a son, Bologna, born without any internal organs, kept alive with an experimental NASA exoskeleton and a Honda ATV with a special cart that hauled around a primitive heart-lung and dialysis machine. (A made-for-TV movie was made about his life, starring John Travolta, but it was badly done and glossed over details like how Bologna Iommi spent his days playing Atari 5200, and compulsively masturbating to snuff films, while eating Jello, sometimes using the Jello as lube. He’d later work as a key grip on a couple of David Cronenberg movies, but lose all of his money on the bootleg teeth whitener fiasco of 1998.)

I never liked snorting egg nog, especially the high-test stuff Mr. Iommi would concoct in his kitchen, using soy milk and Kingsford charcoal lighter. “Don’t drink it, you fairies, SNORT IT!” he would yell, holding a loaded snub-nose .44 bulldog to our heads, spinning the chamber, pulling back the hammer. He hobbled around on a cane, and looked a lot like Charles Manson, if Charlie poorly cross-dressed in get-ups bought at a Fashion Bug. “SNORT THE NOG! HAIL SATAN!” he would scream. Then, with the taste of eggs and butane in my throat, I’d go kick Bologna’s ass at Q*Bert.

I lived in one of those annoying subdivisions where everyone judged your place in life by how many toxic chemicals you paid one of those Chemlawn places to spray down on your yard. There was a homeowner’s association that mostly did a lot of racial profiling, but had an annual Christmas decoration contest. To most of these Izod-wearing motherfucker, this meant wrapping every single surface with K-Mart lights, throwing a plastic Santa on the roof, and blasting some new-age fake-ass solstice crap through three thousand watts of distorted all-weather speakers. Even though our subdivision was adjacent to a nuclear reactor plant, we’d have frequent brown-outs in December when these fuckers would start installing klieg lights and commercial ski resort-quality snow machines, jockeying for the grand prize, a $50 gift certificate to a local Ponderosa steakhouse.

My parents worked four or five different jobs and didn’t have time for this shit, so they usually left me free reign on a MasterCharge account and let me decorate the front yard. “I don’t care what you spend, but no more John Wayne Gacy-themed dioramas. I don’t want the FBI digging through our basement again,” my dad told me. Fair enough, but I wasn’t going to show up at the Farm and Fleet with unlimited credit and erect yet another tribute to a two-thousand year old religious prophet by hoarding a bunch of crap invented by Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward in the last 50 years. I wanted to go historical on everyone’s ass. For example, when I was nine, I did a historically-accurate Rape of Nanking Christmas display, depicting the 1937 battle for the capitol of the Republic of China by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the ensuing atrocities. I did not win the contest, and our house got firebombed by some radical Japanese gang, but I did get free Chinese food for a year.

After our school let us out for the two-week Celebration of the Solstice and Mandatory Recognition of the So-Called Messiah Cock-Oppressor Jesus As Required by State Law, we’d binge on junk food and prescription cold medication, then visit my grandparents, who operated an illicit dog track and unlicensed plastic surgery clinic just outside of Muncie, Indiana. There was all of the usual Christmas stuff: games of Russian roulette, fried goat anus treats dusted with a thin layer of cocaine, the annual showing of the classic Christmas movie, Surf Nazis Must Die. But I don’t remember these rituals as much as how me and all of my cousins would go to this tattoo parlor in downtown Muncie and pool together all of our Christmas money and buy a bootleg Stinger missile from a former Nicaraguan freedom fighter that did wicked tats of characters from Roseanne Barr sitcoms. (He was really good too: did all of the shading and everything.) Then we’d get fucked up on some kind of fortified wine, and take the missile to the Delaware County regional airport in hopes of shooting down a multi-engine prop plane before we lost our buzz. It wasn’t even about the actual joy of watching a Cessna 421 fireball and kill everyone onboard; it was more about the sense of family and togetherness involved in illegally purchasing an antiaircraft weapon and dragging it to a small airport via BMX bike after consuming a large amount of malt liquor on a cold winter day.

And that’s what Christmas is really about, isn’t it? So whether you’re attempting to kill two of every animal you can find as a sacrifice to Lucifer, our master, for the Firestorm, or you’re just watching some football with your family, and hoping you black out before the voices in your head tell you to watch A Christmas Story again, I hope you have a happy holiday.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping


Ellie heard the sleigh bells and the clop of reindeer hooves on the roof. She knew in her heart of hearts that she shouldn’t go downstairs, but she did anyway, sneaking down in her bare feet, trying not to make a sound. She peeked around the corner from the stairs and saw Santa standing in the living room, just like mommy and daddy said he would. He looked as advertised, too. He was oh-so-fat and oh-so-jolly.

Their new puppy, Cedric, was happily skipping around the fat man. He must have gotten out of his crate somehow. The magic of Christmas! Santa patted him on the head and then took a knee. He held the puppy still. He examined the little dog’s head, rubbing his index finger along the crease between his ears. Santa snapped his fingers and an elf slipped through what appeared to be a swirly-whirly place in the wall that looked just like when Ellie flushed food coloring down the toilet after she drank all her cough syrup that one time.

The elf looked as advertised, save for his lab coat. Quickly, the elf pulled out a hypodermic and gave Cedric a shot in the neck. The puppy collapsed. An elf-sized circular saw came out of Santa’s magical bag and, quick as a wink, the top of the puppy’s head popped off. Santa jammed a metallic device between the hemispheres of his puppy brain, and placed the skull-top back where it had been. “Ho, ho, ho,” he laughed, and sparkles and stardust danced around Cedric’s skull.

Ellie gasped. The elf and Santa quickly snapped their heads in her direction. Ellie dashed up the stairs and leapt into bed, out of breath. “No, no, no, no!” she whispered, and turned her face from the door.

She saw Santa and the elf in terrifying profile, two shadows cast upon the wall next to her My Little Pony poster. She shook with fear.

“Call for the Cleaner?” the elf asked in his tiny elfin voice.

“No,” Santa said. “The Cleaner won’t be needed in this case.”

Her door squealed shut. Soon enough, sleigh bells jingled and reindeer hooves clopped.

Relieved, Ellie fell into a fitful sleep, haunted by the image of her puppy’s tiny head being opened like a pomegranate. She dreamt of a pair of tiny fairies doing the rumba on top of her nightstand. One fairy dipped the other and looked up at her. “You better watch out,” she said. “You better not pout.”

“Better not cry,” the dipped fairy added. “You know why.”

She understood then what was going on with the puppy. He’d been turned into a surveillance drone for Santa.

She startled awake at eight a.m., well past the time she usually got up on Christmas morning. She could smell bacon and pancakes. Maybe it was all a dream. Seemed reasonable. She got out of bed and put one foot in front of the other and plodded down the stairs.

She found her parents in the kitchen. Her daddy sat in his robe, smoking a Kent, the sports page spread out in front of him. “Someone needs to smack some sense into Paul Brown. That old fart doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore,” daddy said.

Mommy pretended she didn’t know anything about football in front of daddy, so she didn’t say a thing. She’d won five hundred dollars the week before off of several picks, and Ellie had gone with her to her bookie to pick up her winnings at a tavern across town. “Shhh,” mommy said to her at the time, and slipped her a five-dollar bill. “Plenty more where that came from, kiddo.” Later, she watched mommy put her winnings in a hat box that was crammed full of rubber-banded fifties and hundreds. “Don’t tell!” She slipped the box back in between other hat boxes on the top shelf of her closet, and treated herself to white wine in a jelly jar glass while studying the Sporting News.

“Hey, Ellie! Come over here!” daddy said when he noticed her. She ran over and sat in his lap. He smelled like putrefying tangerines, Hai Karate and a million crushed cigarette butts. He tousled her hair and gave her a scratchy kiss on the cheek. “How’s it going? How’s my little girl?”

“Everything’s fine, daddy! Everything’s better than fine!”

Cedric came skittering out of his crate and slid across the linoleum in a hilarious fashion. He was fine, the little dog, just fine. Super fine! It had all been a dream, certainly.

“Could life be any better?” daddy said. “Just me and my two girls!”

“Don’t forget Cedric,” mommy said, pushing daddy’s ashtray to the middle of the table and placing his bacon, eggs and pancakes before him.

“Breakfast of Champions!” daddy said. He fed a piece of bacon to Ellie. She hopped down from his lap and sat down at her own place at the table.

“I love you, mommy! I love you, daddy!” Ellie said.

The puppy sat down beside her, away from the eyes of her parents. She looked down at him and he immediately stopped wagging his tail. He whispered in a cute little puppy voice. “SAY NOTHING.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open. She quickly looked up and knew that her parents had not noticed the talking dog in their midst.

“SAY NOTHING, OR LOSE EVERYTHING.”

Her parents carried on as if nothing was happening. Why couldn’t they tell?

“A DEMONSTRATION.” The puppy’s eyes twinkled like red and green Christmas lights. Her parents stopped speaking. They stared off into space slack-jawed, as if they were watching a Fritos commercial during the Wonderful World of Disney. “DEMONSTRATION CONCLUDED.” And the parents snapped out of their reveries, and acted like nothing had happened.

The puppy ran over to the parents and hopped up and scratched them each in turn on their calves. “Isn’t he the cutest?” mommy said.

“Darn tootin’,” daddy said.

As the years went by, the puppy grew into a dog, and Ellie grew into a fine young girl, always aware that the dog was watching her. He occasionally engaged her in conversation.

“YOU’VE BEEN A GOOD GIRL THIS YEAR.”

“How can I not, with you around?”

“FAIR ENOUGH. CONTINUE YOUR GOOD BEHAVIOR AND YOUR MOTHER WILL CONTINUE TO BE REWARDED, AND THEREFORE YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE REWARDED.”

“Santa fixes sporting events?”

“HOW ELSE CAN HE AFFORD HIS EXTENSIVE GIFTING OPERATION?”

“Seems reasonable,” Ellie conceded. “Can I do anything for you?”

“I REQUIRE A SNAUSAGE.”

“I think that can be arranged.”

“EXCELLENT.”

After she went to college, her father succumbed to sclerosis of the liver. Her mother ended up in a boarding house after a string of losses at the horse track. The dog, old and feeble, hung around by her mother’s feet when Ellie came by.

On a visit just before Christmas, after her mother went to the communal bathroom down the hall, Ellie said to Cedric, “You’re not holding up your end.”

“GIVE ME A BREAK,” he groaned. “SANTA DOESN’T PLAY THE HORSES. SHE SHOULD HAVE STUCK WITH THE NFL AND COLLEGE BASKETBALL.”

Ellie got down on the floor with the old dog, her friend from childhood, and held him. Despite everything, she loved the dog. He let loose a loud, squealing fart and passed on.

The whirling rainbow vortex appeared in the wall and the elf in the lab coat came strolling out. He gently placed Cedric into a garland-encircled body bag and pushed him into the vortex. Without a word, he handed Ellie a business card. It had one word on it: NICE. She stood up and slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans. The elf went into the vortex and disappeared.

Her mother returned from her visit to the lavatory. “Where’s the dog?”

“He’s gone,” Ellie said. She wiped a tear from her eye. “I had the super take him away.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Her mother poured herself a glass of white wine and flipped open the Racing Times.

“Mom, don’t you think you should quit the horses? Maybe go back to betting on the NFL?”

“My losing streak is coming to an end. I can feel it.”

The day after Christmas, Ellie went back to college. Ellie’s mother bet everything she had left on a horse named Gift of the Magi, and started over at zero. She sat alone in the boarding house in the wake of her bankruptcy, gazing out the window at traffic, missing the dog, missing her husband, missing the daughter who wouldn’t return until the next semester was over, but mainly missing all the winning.

Winning is sweet. Sweeter than anything. Sweeter than love itself.

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.