Category Archives: Stories

Uncommon Mercy by Joseph Hirsch

I had really tried to keep things under control, but after a while I had to face it: Every time I got into my car and went to the grocery store it meant a war for me. I did my “five-twenty five” checks, scanning the sidewalks for improvised explosive devices whenever I turned a corner. If I saw roadkill on the highway I would swerve like a madman to avoid the carcass, which I knew was not packed with explosive, a reality which my reflexes unfortunately refused to accept. I would occasionally look up at the sunroof of my little Honda and think: Why the hell can’t I make that into a turret, mount my m249 up there, and grab a little ammo can? The ammo can would be filled with rocks, which I would throw at any civilian vehicle stupid enough to get within shooting range of my car. If they didn’t stop riding my bumper after I threw a rock, then I would escalate my force according to Geneva Conventions, and-

I couldn’t turn my mind off, couldn’t relax, and I felt myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I drove to the local VA facility, told them I was suicidally afflicted with PTSD, and that I needed to spend some time in the hospital on an inpatient basis. I signed some forms and traded my civilian outfit for some pajamas, nonskid socks, and a little bit of nametape they wrapped around my right wrist.

They brought me upstairs in a wheelchair (a formality) and I was processed onto the ward by a creepy RN who wore a bolo tie and exuded the air of someone who had more problems than the patients. He asked me a series of questions, including whether I heard voices. I pronounced a series of “No’s” to pretty much everything he asked me, and then I was led to the linen closet. The creepy RN gave me some sheets, a blanket, and a pillow. Then we walked down the hall, to the last room on the right.

There were three beds, two of them filled by other men who were already asleep. One snored loudly and an acoustic guitar was propped against the footboard of his bed. I spread out my linen on the torn rubber mattress, and I plopped down on the hard bed.

I tucked my hands behind my neck and stared up at the dimmed fluorescent light fixture above me. What the hell, I asked myself, are you going to do with your life, other than contemplate suicide and perhaps commit the same once you get out of here? I had been out of the Army for several months, which meant I could collect unemployment for a little while longer. After that, I could go to school on the GI Bill, which gave me a BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) of thirteen hundred dollars per month, tax-free, for up to four years. Between that and the money I saved up while deployed to Iraq, I stood a good chance of avoiding the job market, the cold reality of American life, for the foreseeable future.

I could read books, watch movies, play videogames, and occasionally get drunk in order to pass the time, but we (me and my mind, that is) both knew that I was just delaying the inevitable. I had committed no war crimes, slaughtered no Iraqi children, but I had seen and done enough to have the stink of the war on me for the rest of my days. Finding a woman and settling down, having children and a career, was out of the question. Women could smell insecurity and the scent of defeat was an even ranker odor. I was a broken toy that reminded people of a bad memory for America, whose impression would only fade once me and people like me were out of the picture for good. Maybe, I thought, I can stay in this hospital forever. I drifted off to sleep drowning in bad thoughts which volunteered themselves one after another to my aching mind.

In the morning I met my two roommates. Both were Vietnam vets. Lancer was getting discharged that afternoon, and he carried a clear plastic bag filled with his civilian clothes in one hand, the guitar in his other.

Foxwood was my other roomie, the one who would remain with me over the course of the next week or so. He had a long gray beard and mustache which covered most of his face up to his cheekbones, and though this masked most of his features, every bone in his head was so sharp and narrow that I guessed that even if he were to shave with a straight razor, there wouldn’t have been much chin hiding under there. He had a cane with a steel tip and a handle shaped like a green mallard. He was thin, short, and he trembled like a terrier trapped in the pound with several feral and rabid Pit-bulls.

“Name’s Mitchell Foxwood,” he said.

“Hey…”

I stuck my hand out to shake his. He gripped my palm and his milky eyes gazed into mine. I thought maybe he had cataracts. “Can you do me a favor?” He asked.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t see why not.

“My knees are bad, especially in the morning. You think you can bring my breakfast back here?”

“As long as it’s okay with the staff.” I shrugged.

“It will be.”

Someone stuck their head into the doorway. He looked to be about my age. His pajama top was opened so that his naked chest was exposed, a globe & anchor tattooed against pale skin. He pointed at my new roommate. “You’re my boy, Blue!” Then he looked at me. “Don’t get him shit. The old cocksucker’s too lazy to hoof it to chow, that’s his problem.”

My roommate lowered his eyes, smiled faintly, a weak expression that seemed to say Now you know I’m the local joke around here. I didn’t have balls enough to start a fight with a marine on a psych ward, but at the same time I didn’t feel obligated to pick on Foxwood. I also didn’t understand why the marine had called him “Blue.”

Then I remembered. In the movie Old School with Will Ferrell (very popular around the barracks in my unit) there was an old man who pledged to the fraternity run by the characters played by Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. This old man’s name was Blue, and occasionally the Ferrell character would shout “You’re my boy, Blue!”

I thought that marine was a cruel dickhead (maybe most marines were), but now that I looked at Mr. Foxwood, he did sort of resemble the character from the movie. I suppressed a smile, tensing my jaw muscles, and then I walked down the hall. I followed the other sleepy psych patients through a door which was opened from a buzzer at the front desk, where one of the nurses watched a series of monitors and fielded incoming telephone calls.

A massive steel scullery on rollers was at the far side of the dining room. Two obese women with hairnets and latex gloves read the names off the trays in the steel shelf, one by one. “Mr. Bowman!” “Mr. Gordon!” “Mr. Alwood!”

One of the two women called my name and I took my tray from her. I remained standing in front of the woman and her shelves, rather than sitting down like the other patients who had received their food. One of the lunch ladies looked at me. “Whatchoo doing?”

“Mr. Foxwood said he wanted his meal in his room.”

She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and then she glared at me. Still, she took his tray out and stacked it on top of mine. “Mr. Foxwood got diabetes, so don’t give him none of your meal, you hear me?”

“Yes ma’am.”

I balanced the two trays and walked slowly back to the ward. I buzzed the intercom once, and the RN on duty spied me in the fisheye mirror in the corner of the hall. He hit his switch, an alarm sounded, and I was allowed back onto the ward. I turned down the corridor into my room, where Mr. Foxwood sat on the edge of his bed, resting his grey sliver of chin on the mallard’s head. He gazed off into the distance.

Lancer had changed into his civilian clothing in the time that I had been gone. He wore an old field jacket covered with air assault rockers and 101st Airborne patches, along with some paint-spattered jeans. He stuck his hand out to Foxwood. “Foxy, it’s been real and it’s been fun, but it ain’t been real fun.”

Foxwood grunted, came back to reality, and shook his comrade’s hand. He looked up toward me, and at his tray balanced on top of mine. His filmy eyes brightened, the diaphanous milk scattering away from the irises. “Thank you, sir.”

“No problem.”

I leaned down so that he could take his tray. After he had unburdened me, I sat on the edge of my bed and dug into my breakfast, which consisted of three hard flapjacks and two curled slices of rubbery bacon. I was hungry enough not to care about the poor quality of the food. Lancer gave a quick, crisp salute, and then departed.

“See ya on the hill!” Foxwood shouted to his friend’s retreating form. I figured it was some sort of inside joke that only Vietnam vets understood.

I scarfed my breakfast quickly, and thought of Iraq for a moment. I thought not of the bad times, but the gentle bits, of which, believe it or not, there were quite a few. I thought of the Iraqi Jundhi who would lay his rifle on the ground and then tell me, “He is sleeping, my rifle, he sleeps.”

I remembered the MPRI (Military Professional Resources) contractor who would wake up every morning, put on his vest and fill it with heavy sappy plates, and how he would then run through an Iraqi village unarmed and throwing candy and Gatorade at Iraqi children. I remember once when he was returning to the base gate, and I turned to the two Iraqi Jundhi guarding the gate with me, and I said, “He is crazy.”

Normally in a joking mood, the Iraqi soldiers turned to stone and shook their heads. “Abu,” one of them said. “Abu” translated as “father.” He meant that I shouldn’t make fun of an old man. It was strange, sitting in that hospital and eating my cold food, to think that as violent as that country was, Iraq in many ways was saner and less cruel than the United States of America.

I realized, as I finished my breakfast, that I was probably too weak for this life, and suicide would undoubtedly look even better by the time lunch rolled around.

“What are you thinking about?” Foxwood asked. He spun his cane and pointed the mallard bill at me, as if he expected me to discuss the subject with his duck.

“Tell me about Vietnam,” I said, and regretted my words a moment later. There was a certain etiquette that I should have been observing. I truthfully didn’t want to talk about Iraq, so I had no right to ask him about Vietnam. Foxwood didn’t seem to mind, though.

“Generals always fight the last war.” He shifted on his crinkly unmade bed, and pushed his half-finished meal to his side. “They prepared us for wave fighting in Hawaii. Oh, they had the climate sort of right, Vietnam was hot and rainy, but we didn’t fight any waves. We fought holes.”

“You fought holes?”

“Tunnels, to be exact.”

“Oh, you were a tunnel rat?”

I had become fascinated with Vietnam during my last year in the Army. My uncle had been a Marine in the war, and I had always looked up to him when I was younger. I thought that I could perhaps unriddle my own attraction to war if I came to understand things through the prism of previous conflicts. I had read probably a hundred books on Vietnam in the space of a year, everything from No Bugles, No Drums to Joe Haldeman’s 1968.

“Of course I was a tunnel rat. Look at me.” He opened his arms wide to expose his thin frame. “I was in Cu Chi. We found all kinds of crap down there, believe you me. We found a Forty-Eight Patton tank down there in a hole once.”

“Patton tank?” I wasn’t too familiar with heavy duty tanks, especially those of the past. I knew about Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and we had armored Humvees, but that was about all I knew.

“Yeah, you’re talking twelve feet wide, thirty feet long, damn near about fifty short tons of steel.”

“No shit,” I said.

“No shit.”

“What would they need a tank underground for?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine them being able to turn the barrel in a tunnel, let alone firing through several layers of soil.

“They didn’t need the firepower,” Foxwood said, shaking his head. “They needed the battery energy. They had lines running from the tank to their little underground TMC.”

“No shit,” I said again.

“I wouldn’t shit you, son, you’re my main turd as of this moment.” He nodded toward the food I brought him. “One thing I’ll give Cronkite is that he was right that the war was unwinnable. Know why?”

I shook my head. “Well, when I followed the lines from that tank to the source, like I said, we stumbled onto this little Ho Chi Minh TMC. And I saw a gook, sorry, a North Vietnamese, doing surgery on one of his little yellow buddies who had been shot in an engagement earlier that day.”

Foxwood spun his cane once, so that the mallard’s head rotated three-hundred and sixty degrees. “The soldier doing the surgery had gotten two of his fingers shot off earlier. He’d taken some shoestring and tied the two finger stumps together, I guess to give him a better grip on the scalpel he was using to extract that bullet from his little friend.” He leaned closer to me. “Now, tell me son, you think you’re going to beat someone who’s got that kind of piss and vinegar pumping through his bloodstream?”

He removed one hand from his cane and stroked his chin. “No,” I said, “I guess not.”

I spent the rest of the morning in the room, listening to him tell Vietnam stories. All of the group meetings were done on a voluntary basis, and since I had no desire for my condition to improve to the point where I would be discharged, I continued bringing Mr. Foxwood his meals, and listening to him tell me about Khe Sahn and the Perfume River, and the Ia Drang Valley, and how his friend had forgotten to bend back the pins of his grenades and as a result turned himself and every man within a twenty-foot radius of him into bacon bits one day. He used the steel-capped end of his cane to draw diagrams on the floor, as if the waxy tiles were a sandbox in which he could demonstrate the movements of various elements and air support units. He had a desultory opinion of Operation Rolling Thunder and he spoke especially disparagingly of Lieutenant William Calley and the My Lai Massacre.

Occasionally, someone would pop their head into the room to harass old “Blue” and break his balls about using me to get him food, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices. Once there was a psychiatrist who came into our room bearing a clipboard. He sported a hideous silk polka dot tie, whose cravat hung ragged and loose, like the first leaf on a single-ply roll of toilet paper. The shrink glared at me: “So aside from free meals and turndown service, do you think you’ll be availing yourself of any therapy at all?”

I just ignored him, tuning him out in order to listen to Mr. Foxwood tell me about the checkered keelback (Xenochrophis Piscator) that would come swimming alongside his aluminum patrol craft when he was cruising through the delta. He turned his cane sideways and waved it along the floor to simulate the motion of the snake. After a couple of minutes of this the psychiatrist stormed out of the room in a huff.

Eventually, however, the day came when Mr. Foxwood had to leave. On the morning of his discharge, he stood over my bed. He patted me once on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for listening to me ramble on. Also, thanks for the meals on wheels, my good man.”

I scratched the rheum from my eyes. “No problem.”

And then, apropos of nothing, he said, “I want to go back.”

I knew to where he wished to return. “Okay,” I said, still half-asleep.

“I mean it. I just need someone to go back with, and my only good buddy’s got a son with cortical blindness from the dioxin.”

“You mean Agent Orange?” I asked, sitting up.

“Agent Orange, Dioxin, defoliant, call it what you will. The point is, no one will go with me and I don’t want to go alone. My niece is a kind sort, but I don’t want to take her with me. I don’t want her to see me cry.”

“Fuck it,” I said. “I’ll go.”

“I’ll pay.”

“I have money,” I said, which was true. I had managed to save twenty-thousand dollars while in Iraq. I had been stationed at an out-site, a tiny base where occasionally some Finance personnel would land in a Blackhawk to dole out money, but my needs were very nominal. The Iraqis sold bootleg DVDs (I bought fifteen seasons of The Simpsons for twenty dollars) and since I ate in the dining facility, my only other real expense was for hygiene products. Even as a lowly Spec-4 there was only so much money I could spend on things like toothpaste and soap.

“We’ll do it, then.” Foxwood stabbed his cane along the paraffin covered floor. “Direct flight to Hanoi. My niece will give you my telephone number and address.”

“Your niece?”

“Yes, she’s here to pick me up.”

Mr. Foxwood walked out into the hall.

“YOU’RE MY BOY, BLUE!” Someone shouted.

I heard Foxwood let go of a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said. “I’m your boy blue.” I didn’t think that he got the reference. His pop culture catalogue probably stopped soon after Merle Haggard recorded the “Okie from Muskogee” and the Duke wrapped filming on The Green Berets.

I stood up and walked out into the hall. I wanted to wish him well on his journey. Foxwood took his clear plastic bag from an RN who sat behind his command center with its monitors and buzzers. To his right there stood an unbelievable creature, the kind of woman who would have been well within her right to mace me for making eye contact with her, the kind of woman seen in a club where I wouldn’t have been allowed entrée to do so much as clean toilets.

Her hair was an aureate corn shade, something approximating the color of the sun before factories had filled the sky with smog and occluded our view of the holy star. Her breasts were large, bouncing out of her raglan white halter-top, at once confrontational and maternal. She embraced her uncle, both of them oblivious to her breasts, the rest of us on this ward less so.

“Holy shit,” the marine with the chest tattoo said, his voice a half-whispered exhalation borne on disbelieving breath. “Look at Blue’s niece.”

I personally couldn’t look at her anymore. I went back into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. Women were out of the picture for me, permanently now. I remembered once walking through an open air bazaar near Besmayah Range Complex, the small post where I had spent the most memorable months of my year-long tour in Iraq. Among all of the items on sale, the pirated DVD box sets and the souvenir ashtrays made from camel bone, there were bottles of Viagra.

I laughed and pointed. “Why do you sell this?” I asked the shopkeeper, a man in a red keffiyeh.

He saw nothing humorous. “Because too many boom! in Bagdad means Iraqi man can no more fucky fuck his wife.”

It took me awhile to appreciate what he was saying. When I finally redeployed to Germany, I noticed my first gray hairs sprouting on my head. Late one Saturday night, bringing a girl out of the Irish Pub and back to my barracks room, I also noticed that my penis would not do what I told it to do, what both my date and I needed it to do that evening. Too many boom! had indeed ruined my ability to fucky fuck.

I could still masturbate, but that night had been so humiliating that I avoided women as often as I could, and I tried to even avoid thinking of them. Now, as I sat on the edge of the bed, I prayed that Foxwood would not ask me to meet his niece. I didn’t want to feel the warm flesh of her palm grazing my own hand. I damn well couldn’t make eye contact with her, not without her seeing my weakness, not without registering her disgust. Women needed men, not leftovers.

I thought back to my time in Germany, before deploying, before I had known what war was. I remembered walking across the parade field with Santana, a Dominican from the Bronx who used to go to the gym and play handball with me sometimes after afternoon formations on the quad. We had stopped at the shoppette, the little miniature PX on post.

Soon, I thought, I’ll be a war veteran; I will have the same sort of secret, the same dark beauty as my uncle, who taught me to fish with authority in his voice and alcohol on his breath. I remembered picking up some beef jerky and a copy of Army Times from that shoppette. I opened that Army Times to an article about a Special Forces soldier who had committed suicide shortly after redeploying from his second or third tour of Iraq. His father was interviewed for the article, and recalled his puzzlement the night his son took his life. His son had come down the stairs from his bedroom, and had asked to sit in his father’s lap, which his dad naturally thought was odd. The father accommodated his son, however, and read his boy a story while cradling him awkwardly.

I quickly threw the newspaper in the trash, wishing I hadn’t read the article. A dark coal began to glow in my stomach, my uneasiness churning as if my death in Iraq was now predestined. If war could do that to him, a real Special Forces soldier, what the hell could it do to a line unit pussy like me whose job was basically fixing SINCGARS radios and programming frequencies and communication security?

I couldn’t even finish my beef jerky that day.

The door to my hospital room opened a moment later, bringing me away from that quad in Darmstadt, Germany, that field of green with its old Sherman tank at one end of the lawn and a billowing American flag at the other end.

It was Foxwood’s niece.

I tried to say “Shit” and swallowed a mouthful of spit, choking. “Stand up,” she said.

“What?”

She brushed a golden slice of her bangs away from her face. “Stand up.”

I stood up. “I need to get Mr. Foxwood’s number, and I think we’ll take a direct flight to Hanoi. I have the money to-”

“Shut up.”

I stopped speaking. She pushed me back. “Go into the bathroom. Quick.”

I backed up. My heart was pounding hard enough for the sound of the blood rushing in my ears to resemble the waves of the ocean slapping against the sand of the beach at high tide.

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

“You’re the one who talks to my uncle all day, who brings him food, the one who doesn’t call him ‘Blue’?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good then. Shut up.”

She closed us into the bathroom. I stood along the far wall. I was about to speak, but she held up a finger as she knelt down. “Don’t say ‘You don’t have to do this.’ I know what I do and don’t have to do. I want to do this. Okay?”

I closed my eyes. Truthfully, I would have preferred to perform cunnilingus on her, but that is hardly comparable to the combat expedient ritual of a quickly executed blowjob. Before my hair had turned gray and my manhood had evaporated in a cloud of mortar-induced impotence, I had enjoyed going down on girls, found that it put a pacifying end to the charade of a “war between the sexes” and the little mating rituals and struggles for power that go on in bars and on dance floors. My feeling is that I came out of a vagina, and that therefore the vagina wins, and I always enjoyed communicating this deeply hidden feeling of female superiority (something I could have never admitted to any of my male friends in the barracks) to a girl’s clitoris and clitoral hood with alternating strokes of my nose, tongue, and chin.

But I also have to be honest and say that I could have never done for her what she did for me in less than three minutes. I remembered once reading a book about Civil War surgery, possibly called Gangrene and Glory, in which a Union veteran recounted the loss of his leg to a minie ball. He described in agonizing detail the working of a single-blade amputation saw as it sliced through the outer layer of skin and muscle in a process called a “circular amputation,” after which a tenaculum, a sort of hook, was used to snag loose arteries and pull them away from the bone so that they could be tied around the bloodied stump where the gangrenous limb had been removed. I remembered how this veteran said that through the ether fumes he could no longer feel the pain past a certain threshold, and as strange as it was, the thought came to me during this blowjob, the first in many years, the first successful contact I had experienced with a woman since my dance with death had begun under that hot sun, that she was moving so fast and mercilessly over my penis that I had no choice but to surrender, to let go of my fear that she would judge me less than a man. She revived me and freed me and she didn’t stop until semen with the consistency of an egg’s uncooked yoke squirted out of my body and into her mouth. She spit a mouthful of sperm cells fortunate enough to find no fertilizing purchase (imagine being my kid) into the toilet, and then she smiled at me.

“Women,” I said, “are one of only two or three good things about life.”

She grinned. “What are the other ‘good things’?”

“I’ve forgotten,” I said. “I guess women are the only good thing about life.”

I also forgot, as it turned out, to get Mr. Foxwood’s phone number and address. I hope he got back to Vietnam okay.

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

Distant Observations Concerning Rednod 5 by Anthony Spaeth

Fig 1: 5-A and 5-B

Deep in the Horseshoe Nebula, there were two more or less livable planets circling a Class G star called Rednod 5. These planets were typically referred to as Rednod 5-A and Rednod 5-B. 5-A was a desert planet with only one sizeable ocean. 5-B’s surface rippled with the glinting waves of its enormous, planetary sea. Even from seventy thousand light years away, it was easy to tell them apart.

Fig 2: A Klunod girl

In the course of its three billion year existence, 5-A had developed some relatively intelligent life, the Klunods. The Klunods weren’t particularly competent—they hadn’t attempted space flight and their experiments with nuclear energy all ended catastrophically—but on the other hand they were a relatively peaceful race. When they fought, it was usually just over females and their wars tended to be over within a couple of weeks. Once peace returned, the Klunods re-committed themselves to the drudgery of work in the day and composing free verse poetry at night. Some of the poems were actually quite good, if a bit florid.

Life on 5-B was quite different. The Blovats, who were amphibious, lived on the one relatively small continent in the middle of the planet’s global ocean. This island teemed with all sorts of life—Furmers, Buglemouthed Gits, Giant Poisonous Shrims, and so on. But even among all the vernal weirdness of the island, the Blovats stood out with their long blue tentacles, fishlike heads and monumental egos.

Fig 3: Blovat street performer

The Blovats were a precocious species. They’d brought everything worth ruling on 5-B to heel in relatively short order. For example, they had zoos and kelp farms and computers and derivative markets and an extensive cosmetics industry. Their favorite form of performance art involved polychromatic skin displays, where Blovat artists manipulated their natural camouflaging mechanisms to spectacular, almost pyrotechnic effect. In some of the larger cities, there was a skin performer on virtually every street corner.

Ultimately, the Blovats learned of the Klunods, and here is how it happened: Blovat scientists created a powerful telescope and aimed it toward their sister planet. Through this lens, the Blovats watched as the endless plains of 5-A rippled with windblown mossballs and stoic Klunod cowboys wrangled herds of triangular flooglits and Klunod businessmen commuted from their low-slung pyramidal houses in the suburbs to their low-slung pyramidal offices in the cities.

The Blovats thought the Klunods’ existence to be rustic and somewhat pointless. However, once they’d learned of the Klunods, the newly-discovered species became a sort of planet-wide obsession. Virtually every front page of virtually every waxy Blovat

Fig 4: The Daily Blovat

newspaper contained at least one story concerning the Klunods. The Blovats were especially fond of comparing Klunod society unfavorably with their own. Blovat articles often concerned subjects such as Klunod governmental dysfunction, Klunod wastefulness and profligacy and the Klunod practice of culling their litters with rubber mallets.

After a while, the Blovat polity became divided in two factions. The first group wanted to visit 5-A in the name of science. Another group, now bored with Klunods, adopted the slogan, “Really, I’m Just Not That Interested.” These two

Fig 95 Apathetic Blovat

Blovat factions and their elected representatives clashed for a while. Ultimately, they reached a compromise: Instead of building a dozen giant space ships capable of taking twenty Blovats to 5-A and bringing forty Klunods back to 5-B, the Blovats built a single robotic space pod, which they loaded with recorded messages concerning the origins of the cosmos and the virtues of free capital markets. They also threw in a few choice videos of their polychromatic skin displays. Then they launched it into space.

Fig 6: The Blovat ship reaches 5-A

Now, 5-A had no flying life aside from winged, tick-like parasites called orsurgrumblers. Consequently, in the cosmology of the Klunods, the sky was menacing and inhospitable. It held no gods. Instead, the Klunods believed that beyond the clouds there was an endless void filled with the wailing souls of the slothful. (They had a corresponding belief that Paradise was at the center of 5-A, where dutiful souls lived out an eternal, languorous retirement.) So, when the Blovats’ robotic spaceship burst through 5-A’s atmosphere in a ball of flames, the Klunods fell into a blind panic. Those closest to the landing site actually squirmed all over each other to get away, giving off a big blast of their defensive goo. The whole place became a slippery mess.

Fig 7: Misunderstood probe

Many of the Blovats pretended to be horrified by what they’d done. Maybe they hadn’t thought things through as thoroughly as they could have, they said. Perhaps they could have foreseen the Klunods’ unsophisticated reaction to the space ship. Perhaps, being the technologically superior species, they should have introduced the Klunods to the idea of alien life more gently, over time. But the truth was that, deep down, the Blovats found the sight of the Klunods oozing all over each other to be pretty amusing. They really couldn’t help but secretly laugh. Honestly, how could they blame themselves for frightening the Klunods with something as simple as a robot droid filled with a message of technological progress and enlightenment?

For their part, the Klunods might not have been the brightest species in the universe, but they were nothing if not resilient. So, a couple of days after the probe arrived, the Klunod leaders—a deliberative body called the Dunglebuss which met in a huge, transparent petri-dish-like building—made a plan. Or rather they made two plans. First, they ordered the construction of the largest magnifying glass in Klunod history, some thirty gnobinks across, in order to peer into the sky and see what else was out there. And second, they covertly sent a team of Klunod commandoes to sneak up on the Blovat droid and destroy it.

Fig 8: Klunod attack spatula

The Klunod special forces attacked the probe with their favorite weapon, which looked like a spatula but shot out a moderately powerful electrical jolt. These commandoes swarmed the droid, hacking off its tentacles with their spatulas until finally one of them accidentally whacked off the antenna, rendering the whole droid lifeless. Then a Klunod mob fell on the defenseless robot and tore it to scrap. All the bits and pieces were taken home as souvenirs.

Imagine the Blovats’ surprise when, looking through their giant telescopes, they saw their gift of cosmogonical knowledge and mercantilism ripped to shreds. They were flabbergasted. Appalled. More than ever, they considered the Klunods to be an inferior and, dare they say it, intellectually stunted species. So they spent roughly 1.5 Earth years talking this over and debating the best way to proceed.

Fig 9: Klunod view of 5-B

Meanwhile, when the Klunods had finished their primitive magnifier, they positioned it on a mountain top and gathered around it, looking into the sky. For the first time, they saw another planet there. Not just another planet, but a sister planet, orbiting the same star. At the equator, there was a single large, green island. It looked like a pupil in the middle of the blue-green eyeball staring back at them. And on that island they saw the fishlike Blovats with their rubbery appendages and environmentally friendly cities loaded with bicycle paths and wind farms. They were sickened by the sight of it.

Fig 10: Klunod fears

This provoked a time of great uncertainty in the Rednodian system. The Klunods became rather nihilistic. They were acutely aware of how far they trailed the Blovats, technologically speaking. It seemed to them that at any minute the evil fish from the enemy water-planet might attack and destroy 5-A, or conquer its populace, or kill off all the males and enslave the females for sex (this last possibility being the most common and widely-discussed speculation). So the Klunods poured all of their energy and national treasure into developing more powerful telescopes and interplanetary weapons.

But eventually 5-A and 5-B, which orbited Rednod 5 at different speeds, moved to opposite sides of the star. They remained in opposition for nearly .7 Earth years.

During this interlude, the Blovats once again argued about what they should do in response to “the 5-A problem”. One Blovat faction wanted to build a super weapon to sterilize 5-A down to the last atom, while the other wanted to send a second, less-threatening probe droid bearing a message of neutrality and separate-but-equalism. Then again, there was a tiny but vocal third party of Blovats who said, “Why do we even care about this? Those blobs of mucus don’t even have television.” This third party spent most of its time mocking the other two parties with performance art.

Fig 11: Klunod preparations

Neither were the Klunods idle. They applied all their inherent industry with single-minded dedication. By the time the two planets came back into view of one another, the Klunods had built something that looked like a giant, purple, cement volcano. It was more than 3,000 gnobinks tall with a large, round hole at the top. Clearly, it was some form of weapon. Blovat scientists estimated the Klunod cannon might be able to launch a projectile into space, perhaps something large enough to reach 5-B and destroy all life there.

Now it was the Blovats’ turn to collectively squirm and defecate on themselves. They began nervously watching the skies for signs the Klunods had fired their space cannon. At the same time, they rounded up several thousand of the most infamous Blovat political satirists and grilled them alive for their sedition. A military council was convened and it concluded that the Blovats really had no choice but to destroy the dangerous and unstable Klunods lock, stock and barrel. And it just so happened that they’d secretly developed a biological super-weapon just in case something like this happened.

The planets slowly drew closer and closer to one another. The optimal time for the Klunods to use their cannon—because of the confluence of their orbits and certain gravitational effects—was approaching. It might be in as little as a week. The Klunods seemed to be readying for this; they’d built a railway to the cannon and the cars that rode the rails disappeared fully-laden into one side of the mountain and emerged from the other side, empty.

Fig 12: Approaching space fungus

The same was true of the Blovats. If they meant to launch their bioweapon, the time was drawing near, though their superior technology gave them a bit more leeway. They could afford to wait, but not much.  They counted down the days.

Neither the Blovats nor the Klunods were even aware of the existence of Space Fungus. The fungus—which had previously knocked off entire galaxies—came into the Rednod system undetected. The granular spores traveled in clouds. To a distant observer, they looked like nothing more than flecks of interplanetary dust. Most simply floated in the vacuum of space for all eternity. But some few of them happened across the orbits of 5-A and 5-B, almost at the same time. When the fungal spores hit the planets’ respective atmospheres, they made a pleasant light show and then flitted down all over the planetary surfaces like snow. There, they infected every living thing on 5-A and 5-B—the furmers, the tods, the flooglits, the shrims—with Space Fungus of the Brain. Gradually, the fungus took over the bodies of the Klunods and the Blovats alike, using their grey matter for food and reproduction.

Fig 13: Dead Blovat w/ mushrooms

Because of the distance involved and the speed of light, the photons and EM waves containing the information about the apocalypse around Rednod 5 took almost 70,000 years to reach Earth. That is, the Klunods and the Blovats were already dead and had long been so when humans first learned of their existences. But the Hubble XCIII Deep Space Array got pretty good images of the final chaos on the planets and also caught the very last bit of the Blovats’ doomed broadcast news. So human scientists were able to observe 5-A and 5-B as the cloud of fungal spores approached, and then watch as all the Blovats and Klunods looked skyward, took in the light show, and then lay down on the ground, curling up in balls. They twitched spastically for awhile, then little white mushrooms grew out their ears and nostrils.

Fig 14: Earth and environs

However, it seemed pointless to the Earthlings to pine over something that had happened so long ago, so far away, especially since it did not involve quick weight loss, firmer erections or multi-level marketing. To them, it was almost as though the events around Rednod 5 had never really happened. They were just a fiction. And so the humans refocused their space instruments on other, more interesting planets, never once suspecting that they too were under distant observation.

Joan Vollmer Burroughs Died for Somebody’s Sins not Mine by Fiona Helmsley

Here’s the thing. I am very distrustful. I’ve been burned many times. One time in particular that was quite painful was by Patti Smith. She was with her then boyfriend, the young man who would go on to become the photographer, who would be wearing monogrammed slippers in fifteen years’ time, shooting flowers and whips up his asshole. A good looking fellow with unkempt curls. Bill would not have cruised him as he liked Spaniards.

They were at the Chelsea Hotel, what we used to call the Literary Leper Colony as a kick. Not out of disrespect for the address but because so many of the greats had gone there to die. Patti was very aware of the anniversary, she’d even found out approximate times from somewhere, though she and the boy did travel in the same loose circles as Bill when he was in town. They had dressed for their parts, the boy in a handsome Salvation Army suit coat and matching pants and Patti in a diaphanous slip dress and pearlescent shawl. There’s not much written as to my sartorial flair. Despite having such a prolific circle of writers for friends, it’s amazing how invisible I have remained. It was because of this that when dressing as me Patti defaulted her look to that of Ophelia before hitting the brook.

At 7:15 PM, Patti and the boy exchanged words like they imagined Bill and I might have before I was shot. So much pageantry was involved in their reenactment it’s a wonder they didn’t sell tickets. It was like a warped wedding ceremony, the groom being artistic sensibility. We now pronounce ourselves outlaw artistes!

“I think it’s time for our William Tell Act,” the young man said without emotion.

“I don’t think I can look, you know how I can’t stand the site of blood,” Patti replied.

The only aspect of the recreation they’d neglected was the weaponry. Instead of a .38 the boy had a small plastic water gun, painted brown and filled with red food coloring. He put a tumbler glass onto her head and backed up not too far. I saw something in his face, it read like hesitancy. A squirt of food coloring hit her squarely between the eyes. She twitched and the glass fell without breaking. As the pinkish- red trail ran down her forehead she collapsed to the floor.

Finé.

The whole thing was really a rather crass affair, but who’s to say, I might be biased. My husband and I have become one of the most popular his and hers Halloween costumes in certain circles of New York. More popular then Zelda and Scott, atleast as popular as June and Henry. I’d seen my share of these farbs but Patti’s was the first by a person in circumstances similar to my own and with a connection. I suppose it was the reason I was drawn out. That and it was obvious she was outré enough not to be completely spooked by the idea of talking to a ghost.

She dropped to the floor, feigning the last wheezy breaths of my death’s rattle. The boy waited a few seconds before leaning down and helping her to her feet. She moved her hand to his face as he lifted her, to caress his smooth skin and invite him to kiss her. Instead he moved her hand away.

“I have to go,” he said. This going of his had become a reoccurring motif. Though he was rejecting her advances it was not with cruelty.

“Where?” she asked. The food coloring had streaked down her forehead and pooled at the bridge of her nose. Her costuming was in such stark contrast to the boy’s. He looked debonair, brashly handsome; with the blood, she looked like a Bellevue escapee.

“To Terry’s loft…”

“You spend more time with Terry than you do with me, Robert. Not a small feat considering we live together.”

“I said I’d do this with you…” He moved his hands in the air, though the fleeting traces of their reenactment. “I don’t want to argue. He’s waiting for me. I’ll be back late tonight, I promise.”

Once the boy had gone, she went over to the bookcase and took out a small, elegantly constructed handmade diary. She poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle she had planned to use as an aid in the seduction of the boy, if only she had made it that far.

She picked up a pen, sat down at a small table and began to write: Rimbaud, Whitman, Blake, Burroughs: Robert and I are similar in the way we express our idolatry. We commune with our influences; covet their experiences like cicerones to luminosity. But it appears for Robert having one such experience Rimbaudesque hasn’t been enough. Jim Carroll said he knew he wasn’t gay because he only did it with men for money. I’m fairly certain that Robert is now doing it with them for free. 

Without confirmation from the boy she was in purgatory. Without confirmation as to the circumstances of my death, I was too. You could say I thought we could help each other out of a jam.

Not wanting to scare her but conceding that some fright was inevitable, I waited till she had finished her first glass of wine and had the beginnings of a glow on. When she got up to use the bathroom in the hallway, engaging all three door locks behind her, I even refilled her glass to encourage more consumption.

There was so much riff-raff in the halls of the Chelsea that when I did manifest, in the second chair at the table, the boy’s chair, she did not even seem that startled. I wore a knitted cloche low on my forehead to cover the bullet hole and moved my chair in a way advantageous to the dim lighting of the room.

“How did you get in here?” she demanded, catching sight of me when she looked up from her journal. She clenched the pen in her hand like a javelin.

“Joan Vollmer, Patti. I was watching your reinterpretation of my death.”

As could be expected, the revelation came as quite a jolt. She jumped up from her seat and bolted towards the door. “You old freak! You were spying on us! Get out now or I’ll get the police!”

“Touch me Patti,” I said following her as quickly as I could with my gimpy leg. She was frantically trying to undo all the locks on the door. “I can prove it to you if you touch me…”

She wouldn’t acknowledge my request, so to offer up irrefutable evidence of my nature, I walked through her, through the door, out into the hallway, then back into the room and beside her.

“I’m a ghost, Patti. An eidolon.”

She frantically continued with the locks. As she was both tipsy and unnerved, all she could do was fumble them. “I’m asleep,” she whispered, closing her eyes and shaking her head side to side as if she could wake herself up. “I passed out in the chair, this is a dream…”

“You’re awake,” I interjected.  “Robert left a little while ago. You’ve been drinking wine, writing in your journal.”

An uncomfortable silence rested between us. A sort of stalemate. She could either resist believing what I was or she could accept it.

When she finally spoke it was with such a release of emotion I thought she might cry.

“Did I… conjure you?”

“I don’t know exactly what you did, but everything lined up. I don’t have long though. I’m like Cinderella at the ball and can’t dance all night. Can we sit down?”

She didn’t respond but followed me back to the table, keeping as much of the small room between us as she could.

She stared at me for a good moment, then leaned across the table to touch me skittishly, like someone might if trying to gauge the heat of a hot stove. When her hand cut clear through the air, clear through me, she threw back her head and began reciting verses from Whitman: “And thee my soul, thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet thy mates the eidolons!” She assailed her hands upon the tabletop and cried out, “Old Bull Lee’s wife!” referring to my husband by his character’s name in Jack’s book. Talking a mile a minute and with much animation, she began speaking of her and the boy’s reenactment of my death.

“It…it… was meant as a tribute, a paean to you and your relationship with Old Bull Lee… You are such an inspiration to me, Joan. You were the hippest, the smartest girl on that scene, a real firecracker. Robert has said I’m so obsessed by my icons their like my imaginary friends. I’ll be writing in my journal and he’ll say, “What are you doing over there Patti Lee, communing with your dead pals?” I’ve always been thought of as this sort of ‘little girl who cried wolf’… “Oh Patti and her imagination!” they always say. That’s probably why you came to me Joan, you knew from my mouth no one would ever believe it! A visit from you is just the sort of thing they would expect me to claim!”

She was so excitable and schizophrenic it dawned on me we might go on like this forever unless I got stern.

“Robert is homosexual Patti,” I said. “His sexual encounters with men are not just some artistic experiment. I know all about the denials and justifications. I went through the same thing with Bill. I had as hard a time accepting it as you are.”

“Joan Vollmer Burroughs in my room at the Chelsea! Commiserating with me about man troubles!” She pulled her feet up into the seat of her chair and wrapped her arms around her legs, adjusting the skirt of her dress for modesty. “I’ve felt so jaded lately. My belief in the magic of the world has really been on the wane.” She inhaled deeply and fidgeted with a loose gold band on her ring finger, twisting it in circles it as she spoke.

“At one time, Robert and I were like one person, Joan. Psychic twins I used to say. Telepathic, like you and Old Bull Lee. I’d always dreamed of meeting another artist to love and create with. Robert’s my muse and my maker. I’m resistant to give that up no matter who he shares his bed with.”

She must have forgotten I was untouchable because she started to reach across the table, then pulled back.

“I feel so blessed to have this time with you, Joan.”

“You’re blessed to have someone to have this conversation with,” I replied. “I had no one. At least no one who wasn’t in some way caught up in our madness. You can’t just talk to anyone about your lover, your husband, being fey. They don’t understand why you just don’t leave, that you can’t just turn your feelings on and off like that. Then there’s the denial. I used to say to Bill, “How can you be a faggot when you fuck like a pimp?”

A sly smile spread across her face that led me to think she could relate.

“I need to ask you a favor, Patti. I want to know if my husband shot me on purpose. I want to know once and for all if my death really was just an accident.”

“Oh Joan, I can assure you right now that it was! Lee was devastated by your death. It ruined him. It took him to depths so low, he had to write to find his way out. Your death is what inspired him to become a writer. It’s the reason he writes now!”

“Bill had been writing for years before my death, Patti. He was starting to become more ambitious about it with encouragement from Allen and Jack. He was writing two books at the time of my shooting. I had read parts of them. One was about boys, the other was about junk.”

“I’m staggered that you would even question this, Joan. Lee had no reason to do you in. You were the mother of his child. You had a partnership, a numinous understanding…”

“He’d been home for three days from a trip to South America with his boyfriend when I was shot. They were in South America for over two months, Patti. Two months! I don’t know what happened over the course of that trip. Maybe the thought that once he came home- the looming threat of returning to that existence… I suspect he was done with us. Billy could go and live with his parents- and me, I don’t think he really cared where I went, as long as it was a way from him.”

“Oh Joan, I don’t believe that for a second. You had tolerated all of his lovers in the past. Whatever would have been his complaint?”

“I think he wanted to be free of the trappings and responsibility of a family, Patti. Free to be an artist, to bugger boys where and when he wanted to, with impunity. Free of my loud mouth, my ugly face. I moved my chair over here because the lighting is better and you won’t get a good look at me. At my teeth. They’re like rotting tombstones from all my years on Benzedrine. What you would see isn’t damage done by any bullet. I was off the speed by then, but I was foul- mouthed lush with a gimpy leg from polio. Twenty-eight years old, but looking closer to fifty. I was only a few years older than you and you made me for an old freak when you first caught sight of me! And I can’t be positive because I’d been drinking, but I think I saw something in his eyes when he pointed the gun…”

“You were both drunk, Joan. That’s probably why your recollection’s so hazy. You were blitzed. You and Bill were at a party, at friend’s house when you were shot. You were performing your William Tell Act, something you’d done many times before…”

“No Patti. I remember what happened. I remember clearly. Bill and I hadn’t even come to the apartment I was shot at together. I hardly saw him over those three days after he returned from his trip. We met up at the apartment where I was shot by coincidence. His lover, the boy he went to South America with, was one of five or so people that lived there. And I think it bothered Bill. He wanted me out of his life and there I was, a guest at his lover’s apartment, and it made him feel like he’d never be free of me, he’d always have to tolerate my presence in some unbearable way or another. He’d come to the apartment to sell a gun. And I was at my wit’s end with him, Patti. I had to call his parents for money to feed the children while he was off in South America gallivanting with his catamite! We bantered there. I knew him so well, I knew just what to say to get him good and make it sting. He hated to be embarrassed. He was such a show off, with a machismo streak a mile long. I made a comment, not even a clever one… I said, in front of his catamite, in front of his claque, I said, “The big man with the gun who can’t shoot straight.”  You see, Bill was a great shot, it was one of the things he prided himself on, his marksmanship. I was being cheeky; I meant it as double entendre. I just wanted a response. Some pathetic acknowledgement of my existence. And he said, “Oh yeah?” And then to prove it, to prove me wrong, I let him put the glass on my head. It was the most interaction we’d had in months, Patti… Yes, it was something we’d done once before, but it wasn’t any party trick. I wasn’t suicidal Patti; I would have never let him put that glass on my head if I thought for a second he might miss…”

“I don’t believe it, Joan.”

“I saw something in his eyes, Patti. I’m not saying it was a total set-up, but I think in that moment, he saw a way to get what he wanted…he saw a way out. What I’d like for you to do is, I’d like for you to put it out there for me. I’d like for you to say that you suspect I was murdered…”

“Oh, Joan! I’m a fairly new face on the scene here. I don’t want to alienate anyone… I’m a poet, Joan. I’m not any kind of investigative reporter…”

“You could write a poem. Nothing will happen to Bill, Patti. It was eighteen years ago. I don’t want him rearrested. He already got his sentence, which he ran from, by the way. I just want some acknowledgement of what really happened to me that night…Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to say it aloud? To even question it? Is it because all of you who venerate him so would have to confront an ugliness about yourselves?”

“Look at my bookcase Joan! I’m a scholar of your lives!”

“What are you saying? Because you’ve read all my husband’s books you are somehow better qualified than I am to judge what happened to me that night?”

“William Burroughs is like another bible to me, Joan. He’s one of the reasons I became an artist. He’s one of the reasons I moved to New York…”

“Another bible…Do you like science fiction, Patti?”

“Science fiction? I mean, I suppose. I’ve read some Ray Bradbury…”

“What about gay pornography? Do you enjoy gay pornography, Patti?”

“I’m not against any kind of sexual expression, Joan. It’s not what gets me off, if that’s what you mean…”

“What about pederasty? Child fucking. How do you feel about child fucking, Patti? Because that’s what my husband writes about. That’s your bible. Or is the real reason my husband’s your favorite writer what you think he represents? Gentleman- degeneracy with a Harvard degree and a handsome hat? Is it the kitsch value of his lawlessness that you venerate? Is my husband your favorite writer because you’re so frantic to viewed as outsider you’ll pardon his transgressions’ so you can be associated with them?”

“I’m sorry I came here tonight Patti, but I have no choice who I come to. Because of that, if you keep with your crass reenactments, I may be back.” I was so angry now that I stood up and removed my cloche.

“Yours will wash away, Patti.”

I picked up her pen from the table, the one she’d been using to write in her journal, and jammed it into the hole in my forehead. “Mine won’t.”

Then I left her there, at her table, in her room at that hollowed hotel.

Left her with the lepers.

***

Bill is dead now, so what does any of this matter?

I have not seen him since his passing, but I came across something the other day, something interesting. It was a transcript of an interview a man named George Laughhead did with my husband right before he died. I can’t get into the logistics of how or where I saw it, but in it Mr. Laughhead concedes to something I waited over sixty years to hear someone admit.

He says, “I don’t really care if William Burroughs murdered his wife.”

My husband was allowed my death. His status as an icon allowed for him to transcend my shooting to such a degree it was no longer considered a criminal act, but a celebrated one.

In his old age, it appears Bill himself felt a little more emboldened to speak closer to the truth. In the same interview, he yells out, “SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK….THAT’S WHAT I DID.”

     It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword.

     And sometimes it is the sword.

     Don’t let me down.

     Joan Vollmer Burroughs

Suckle by Gary Anderson

So this thing happened a few months back. Nobody knows about it but my brother-in-law Phil—not counting Norma. I only told Phil because he had a thing with his testicles a few years back—cancer I guess—before his divorce. I don’t really know why that made a difference to me. I guess I just thought he had some weird stuff going on with his body too so maybe he would think mine wasn’t so weird. He looked up at me from his plate of soggy eggs kind of shocked and said You oughta take that fuckin’ shit on the road Bennie. But that was just Phil—always making jokes but mostly meaning nothing by them. It was like part of his makeup or something. Like the grain of his wood I guess.

Phil’s works for KNOB—a local radio station with stupidly bad call letters. That’s what Phil says and I guess I’d have to pretty much agree. Phil’s not a disc jockey anymore. Now he says he’s an on-air personality because he doesn’t just spin tunes—he’s a shock jock. That’s one of those radio guys that are always calling celebrities at home and telling them they’re fat or saying some artist or hockey player is a fag or calling some politician a douchebag. But Phil has never said anything like that—not on the air anyway. He can’t really call anyone a fag or a douchebag on air but he might be able to call some local celebrity fat if it’s not a sponsor or something and as long as they really are fat. Like I said—KNOB is a local station so it can’t be too shocking. I guess the truth is Phil just tells kind of mean jokes for a living and that’s about it. Not like me—I watch people for a living. I’m a security guard. It’s not exactly my dream job but I guess it could be worse. I spend my day mostly watching people come and go from the offices of Tower Plaza on a grease-smeared security monitor. It’s not real exciting work. Not like Phil’s. But a few months back I did blow the whistle on a janitor who was putting his man-thing all over this chubby girl’s office stuff. Phil said I did the right thing because the guy was a real sicko and that it was primo shock jock material. I remember because it was around then this weird thing happened to me.

It’s kind of hard to explain about the thing so I’ll just come out and say it—I started to lactate. I know that’s what it’s called because I looked it up—lactate: to secrete milk. I mean it was a shocker because I thought it was just mothers who lactate. And I guess I don’t need to say I’m not a mother. I’m not even a woman. When I said this to Phil he said No shit Bennie. And when he wanted to see me lactate right there I said Right here? In Big Boy’s? And he said Yeah why not? Give me a shot of half and half in my coffee. Ha ha I said—but it wasn’t a real laugh but just the words ha ha. I told him it’s not like that. I said I have to be kind of excited. Phil picked up his coffee mug. What do you mean? Like Super-Bowl excited? Like Stanley-Cup excited? He stuck his fat lips on the rim and slurped real loud. At first I thought he was joking but then I saw he wasn’t so I said No I mean excited—like you know sexually. Phil’s Adam’s apple did this kind of tap dance thing under his chin. I could tell he almost sprayed coffee all over the booth. Jesus Bennie. Is this some sick way of tricking me into some homo thing with you? Has it really been that long? I pulled my knock-off Lacoste shirt tight against my man-boobs. Watch I said. Then I thought about Norma until it was like I could see the top of her head moving around down there or something. Pretty soon a wet spot soaked the little green alligator with man-milk. That’s when Phil said his thing about taking my act on the road.

 

Phil and I mostly got along better after Sam died—better than when we were still brothers-in-law for real. I guess we’re still brothers-in-law for real—even if the person who made us brothers-in-law is gone. But now I think about it I’m not really sure about that just like I’m not really sure why we got along better after Sam was gone either. Maybe we both needed something from each other. I guess I should say Sam was my wife—and Phil’s sister. She died having our little girl Becky. We already picked out the name and I guess Becky was Becky for about three minutes before she died too. That was three years ago. And all that stuff they say about not a day goes by—well it’s pretty much true. Not a day goes by. My little Becky would’ve been three years and three minutes old if she’d lived. And I’d be bouncing her on my knee right now. And I’d be happy I’m sure. And Sam would be happy too.

After Sam died Phil started coming around more. He’d just walk in and sit down without really saying anything. Maybe he’d watch some TV with me for awhile. Then maybe he’d go out to the kitchen and do the dishes or go outside and water the dying rose bushes. Always something like that. Like I said—we needed something from each other and I guess Phil got something out of it too. He was going through a divorce around then so he didn’t like to stay home much. His wife Steph moved out after the cancer turned Phil into a one-nut lunatic. That’s what Phil called himself mostly—not Steph. And not me—but I thought it sometimes. The truth was I think Steph didn’t care about the cancer mostly and she probably would’ve stuck around but Phil got all weird and morbid and stuff. He kept asking people if they wanted to see his withered scrote or his one-melon gunnysack. When they didn’t know what to say he’d stick a hand into his fly and pull out a shriveled flap of skin. I wish I could say I never saw it myself but I did and it wasn’t much to look at—that’s for sure. It was kind of like the pink and bumpy skin Sam used to pull off chicken breasts and throw into the sink but it wasn’t really pink—it was more like black I guess. Anyway Phil almost got himself fired but somehow he didn’t. He hung onto his job.

Then the shock jock thing opened up and it worked out pretty good for him. I guess it was a real good release for all the stuff he was holding inside.

Me—I took some time off after Sam died. I went through all the stuff that people go through mostly but I didn’t get weird and morbid like Phil did. Anyway six months later I was back at work—bored and drinking coffee in front of the security monitor. I guess I was living like the people on the screens I watched all day long—gray and silent. For the next two years I lived gray and silent. A kind of pointless life is what I’d say now. I mean it’s a different kind of loneliness. Like you know that it’s never going to go away. Even if you do meet someone else it’s still going to be there. Like a kind of constant hum in the background that you finally just get used to. At least that how it seemed then. And not that I was really thinking about meeting someone else. It never really crossed my mind but it seems like that’s when that kind of thing happens mostly —when you’re not really thinking about it. And that’s when I met Norma but I didn’t know she was Norma then. She was still Rosie to me.

 

I sometimes went for beers after work with a couple of guys from the Plaza. We’d cross the street to this afterhours placeOrion’s Belt My Ass. I mostly just wanted some beer to relax some—like my boring night shift was stressful or something. After a few I’d drive home and watch reruns of Barney Miller and Soap and fall asleep in front of the TV. I guess it was around Christmas Eve when I first saw Rosie in Orion’s Belt, My Ass. The guys from the Plaza were mostly just looking for something easy—looking to stuff some Christmas turkey. That’s what Rudy said high on industrial cleaning products like he always was. Like I said—I was just there for a couple of beers. But when I went to the john there was this girl in there losing her lunch in the sink. I mean the stuff coming out of her was fluorescent or something like she’d been drinking radioactive martini’s or kryptonite & tonics. So I pulled a bunch of paper towels from the dispenser and stood there waiting for her to finish. Finally she straightened up and pulled her hair back into a ball of frizz. There was a kind of shine on her dark skin—sweat I guess—so I handed her the paper towels and she took them in her long nails that looked kind of like bloody bird’s claws or something and then she wiped her lips and face and she looked at me. I’m Rosie she said like she hadn’t just lost her lunch in the men’s john. Bennie I said. That was very sweet of you Bennie she said and she bent in and put her lips on my cheek. I could smell some spicy kind of perfume mixed with some tequila and vomit. Are you here alone Bennie she asked and I said I was with some guys from work. No I mean are you here with a woman. Do you have a date? I didn’t even know till right then she was a professional but I heard that line so many times on TV that I figured she must be. No—no date I said. She sat on the sink and kind of opened her legs some. So do you want a date Bennie she said. But before I could answer Rudy walked in and blabbed something about shots on fire and flaming Christians and I better get my ass back out there. Rosie put a hand on my chest and she dug her claws in some. Maybe later then Bennie she said and then she kind of swayed out the john. I didn’t know you were into the whores said Rudy. Black whores too. I thought I might knock him down—but I didn’t. I’m not I said and not because she was black. I didn’t mean it that way. I meant I’m not into the whores like the way Rudy said I was.

 

I want to say here that I never cheated on Sam when we were married—when she was alive. I never went to the city looking for hookers or got hand jobs in Koreatown. Not like Phil. I never screwed around with anyone. I mean I had a thing for Stephanie my sister-in-law but nothing ever happened—mostly nothing I guess. We got drunk one Thanksgiving and when everyone else was passed out we kissed and I think I felt her up too but I’m kind of foggy on that part. But anyway we stopped and I guess the truth was she stopped—not me—and we never said anything about it and no one ever found out. It was like it never happened mostly but sometimes I saw something in Steph’s eyes. It wasn’t really guilt but more like she was ashamed or something and I couldn’t tell if she was ashamed of what we did or if she was ashamed that she did it with me. I guess maybe I would’ve let it happen if she would’ve. That’s the real truth and the sad truth all rolled into one worse truth. I should probably say that I’m not the handsomest guy in town. I mean unless you’re into fat and bald—then I might be handsome. But I’m not real fat—a bit fat though and bald is just bald because it doesn’t matter how much. Like you can’t have three quarters or half a head of hair the way you can be ten or fifteen pounds overweight. Anyway Steph was a good-looking woman—still is a good-looking woman I guess. So for someone like me it was something pretty tempting. So like I said—maybe I would’ve done it. Or probably I would’ve done it I guess.

But I don’t want to make it seem like Sam was unattractive or anything like that because she wasn’t ugly at all. I mean you could say she was plain and that would be true mostly I guess. But her kind of plain looked okay to me and parts of her were pretty good—like her calves. They were something to look at for sure—I mean long and thin and muscley. I guess every woman has something about them that’s real good like that. I mean I could’ve watched Sam walk around all day long. The way her calves pulled tight and then let go. I only have one picture of them. It was at her mom and dad’s in Montana in front of their above-ground swimming pool and Sam’s in a swimming suit walking away from the camera. I guess I said something—I don’t remember what—because she’s looking over her shoulder kind of smiling like she’s angry but not really. And her calves are perfect.

 

I left Orion’s Belt My Ass a little drunker than usual that night because I guess those flaming Christian shots just about did me in. My mouth tasted like candy cane mostly and a bit of beer but my legs were all rubber and I didn’t need a breathalyzer to tell me it was a good night for a taxi. I waved one down and was just getting in when two hands reached around from behind me and I recognized the bloody claws right away even though I was pretty drunk. Share a cab Bennie? said Rosie. I guess I didn’t say anything because next thing I knew we were in the backseat and Rosie was doing these little kiss things on my neck kind of like a pigeon pecking at bread crumbs but I was sitting straight and stiff like I was a statue or something so she stopped pecking. Let me guess—you don’t normally do this kind of thing right? she asked. No I answered. Married? she asked. Was I answered. Divorced? she asked. Died. How long? Three years I answered. Oh Bennie said Rosie and sighed like she was sorry about Sam or like maybe she’d died and left people behind in another life too. Then she dropped a leg over mine like if we were one person we would’ve been sitting with crossed legs and she rested her head on my chest and it felt good. I mean I knew I was going to have pay but it still felt good because in three years nobody touched me mostly if you don’t count the bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding last summer. I guess she passed out on the sofa and I kind of put her hand in my crotch but nothing really happened and it wasn’t much more than a small scuffle between me and her boyfriend. So I guess what I mean is I didn’t really care how much it was going to cost me.

Rosie started doing the kissing thing on my neck again and then she slipped one of her claws inside my shirt and started flipping my nipple up and down like it was the light switch for a burned out bulb or something and the whole time she was rubbing me with her leg. At first I was thinking about the taxi driver—watching us in the rearview mirror but Rosie didn’t seem to care so I tried to ignore him too. Then she unbuttoned my shirt and starting doing the pecking thing and licking my chest with a real pink tongue and I was getting worked up some by now and my man-thing was pretty much through the roof. Next thing I knew Rosie was latched onto one of my man-boobs and sucking like one of those baby deers you see on TV that they feed with a bottle but I guess what was weird was I really liked it. I mean it was like a real turn on or something but then Rosie stopped all of a sudden like something was wrong and I didn’t want to say anything because I was breathing so heavy I knew I would sound all shaky and out of breath so I just waited mostly although my hips were still kind of rabbitting up and done some. Rosie sat up and put a pinky to her lips. She looked at the red claw and tasted it like the way someone tries to figure out what kind of dressing is on their salad or something. What’s wrong? I asked and she pinched my man-boob and it squirted man-milk on the Plexiglas shield. You’re leaking she answered.

 

When I was ten I had a purple banana-seat bike and for about six months I guess I was the most popular kid in the neighborhood until Bobby Schwartz got a trampoline. Anyway I knew the other kids only liked me because they wanted to ride my bike but I didn’t care because I was just happy they liked me some even if it was for just awhile. I guess that’s how I felt about lactating too—and about Rosie. She really took to the teat just like the old saying says and I don’t really know why for sure. Maybe because she’d done everything else already—all the different positions and all the weird stuff and all that but she’d never been with a lactater. I mean I’m guessing about the lactate part but I’m pretty sure she hadn’t. And for me—I was just happy she seemed to like me some. I was happy to be with her and near someone I guess. Three gray and silent years was enough I thought. So I guess you could say I became a regular of Rosie’s.

At first we had a lot of sex. I mean good sex—normal kind of sex. But it always ended with Rosie suckling at my man-boobs and staring up me with big round eyes and it was disturbing some I guess because it was like they were looking at me like they were looking for something but I didn’t know what exactly and even if I did know what they were looking for I probably didn’t have it anyway. After awhile we kind of stopped having sex and went straight to the suckling part. It’s hard for me to explain how this was better than the best sex. I don’t know—it was kind of churchy or something. Like something somewhere deep inside but from I don’t know where.

I guess the first time it happened was maybe three weeks after the time in the taxi and I was meeting Rosie every night mostly then. We’d have drinks at Orion’s Belt My Ass and cross the street to the King’s Head Inn and we’d get one of those full suite rooms—the same one every time with the same sawed-off broom leaning in the kitchen and the same scratches on the inside of the door like maybe someone had used a gooseneck jimmy to get out or something. Anyway we’d mostly go straight to the sex and end up suckling—always end up suckling like I said. But this night was something different. We took a taxi to the somewhere in the east end and Rosie took me up the fire escape of this four-story brick building. It didn’t really look like a hotel or anything and I guess it was some factory or something once. Anyway she took me in and it’s her place—her own place so it was kind of a shocker. I mean not the place itself because the place was real normal—real kind of womany I guess like I could tell a woman lived there. Candles and pictures and long mirrors and dishtowels folded in half and orange juice in a pitcher. Anyway I didn’t know what else to do so I tried to pay her because the pay was always upfront and she told me to keep it. She said Buy me breakfast in the morning and that was a shocker too. I mean we never stayed all night at the King’s Head. Who would want to really? But we stayed all night there and the next morning I bought her breakfast like she said and later when I tried to get going she stopped me and said there was something more she wanted to do. So she took me to this theater and I don’t even know what the name of the movie was but it was some kind of old war movie—black and white and bad sound. Anyway we found a seat near the front and there were lots of people around and we sat down in the middle of them and the gray pictures were flashing on the screen and next thing I knew Rosie started suckling. She opened my shirt wide and my belly kind of pushed up and stretched all around and she was pulling and sucking at my man-boobs. I mean I could tell people were looking at us and watching us more than the movie mostly but Rosie didn’t care and I didn’t care and my man-thing sure didn’t care and pretty soon my man-milk was running down her chin.

The theater kind of changed me I think and it changed Rosie too because we never had sex again. Like I said—we stopped having sex and just suckled. And Rosie stopped calling herself Rosie too. She told me her real name was Norma and I have to say it was a bit of a shocker. I mean both things were a shocker—the part about her telling me her real name and her real name being Norma too. Phil made a joke about it when I told him. The only Normas I know need mustache wax and liposuction he said. It was kind of funny at the time although not really anymore but I guess he was kind of right—she didn’t look like any Norma I ever saw either except maybe Norma Jean—like she was kind of black Marilyn Monroe or something. That would be about right I guess. Anyway I don’t really know how it happened but I remember looking down at her suckling and the sound of gun blasts and bombs were all around us and I was thinking I loved her. I mean that was the real shocker I guess because like I said I wasn’t really looking for anything like that but then there it was—the plain truth and the simple truth rolled into one bigger truth. I loved Norma and that was that.

 

When things with Norma and me started getting regular some I told Phil about it and he thought it was okay mostly but he wasn’t sure about Norma being a professional. He said Whores are only a Band-aid solution and I guess he would know. Later when things started getting a little weird with Norma and me I told Phil about it too. I mean I say weird but not weird like some kind of stupid crazy weird or something but just different weird. So I was trying to explain this to Phil and we were in Big Boy’s again—something me and Phil did a lot I guess—and when I told him me and Norma started suckling outside he said What do you mean outside? Like outside the bedroom? Like in the kitchen outside? Phil was poking the pointy end of his toast into a yolk that rippled some but mostly didn’t break. No like outside the house in public I said. Phil did that thing with his Adam’s apple again and I thought he was going to spray coffee all over the booth. So breastfeeding you’re whore girlfriend isn’t enough—now you gotta breastfeed her in public? he asked. I knew it wasn’t a real question but I nodded anyway. So where in public? he asked. I told him pretty much everywhere. So where’s everywhere? Be specific. By now he’d punched a hole in the the yolk and was lapping it up with his toast. I told him about the theater. Okay—weird but not super weird. Where else? he asked. In the park I said. Which park? he asked. Livingston I replied. Kind of busy he said. And I said Yeah it was. Where else? he asked. In the public library I said. I’ve seen worse there he replied. One time I swear I saw a guy going down on the Easter bunny in the public library said Phil. I heard Phil tell that story before but I didn’t say anything. So where else? In the cathedral I said. Wait! No! That’s just wrong. So wrong! he said. I said I knew that. You’re going to hell he said. I said I probably was yeah. Then he got all serious like I’ve never seen Phil before. You gotta stop Bennie. You know I love you like a brother and I’m glad to see you’re moving on but I’m telling you as a brother and a friend you gotta stop. He picked some egg from his mostly blond goatee and I asked him why. Why? Are you fuckin’ kidding? Where do think this is going to end? he asked. I said I didn’t know. He said I better think about it. I said I love her Phil and I guess this time there was no stopping it—he sprayed coffee like he was the broken handle of a two-bit carwash or something.

That was the end of our talk that morning but every chance he got Phil told me I had to stop and it wasn’t right and it was sick he would say but I didn’t see it like that. What Norma and I had wasn’t sick. I didn’t know exactly what it was we had but I knew it wasn’t sick. It couldn’t be sick and I told Phil that and I asked him why he wasn’t happy I found someone to love after Sam. I mean it kind of made sense to me that the woman I found wasn’t like Sam at all because I can’t just plug the hole that Sam left with another Sam because there is no other Sam. I mean Phil was trying to plug the hole that Steph left with another Steph and it wasn’t working good for him and that’s just more of the truth but he couldn’t see that and he didn’t like it when I said so. Anyway pretty soon he stopped coming around mostly. The last time I talked to Phil he told me I should see a doctor and when I asked him why he said Exactly! Why! Don’t you wanna know why? Don’t you wanna know what’s up with your man-boobs? Why you’re squirting milk like Bessie the fuckin’ cow? I never answered him I guess because I didn’t want to know why. I didn’t care because deep down I guess I was scared the doctor might do something to stop it and I didn’t want to stop it so I just sat there mostly not saying anything and Phil got up and left. I guess I didn’t care much then because of how he was being about things and all the things he said and I guess that’s how people drift apart. Like a sea of words just kind of washes up between them or something and the next thing they know they’re so far apart they can barely see each other anymore.

 

Me and Norma kept things real regular—suckling a lot in public mostly. She told me about growing up in the Midwest and about moving to the coast thinking she’d be a dancer and she laughed like it was some kind of inside joke and I guess it was because I didn’t really get it. Anyway after that we drove into the city and found one of those five-dollar-coffee coffee shops to suckle in. Norma wasn’t ripping my shirt open anymore because she cut holes around my nipples and they looked kind of like two pink antennas sticking out or something when I opened my jacket so it was pretty easy to suckle pretty much anywhere we wanted. The coffee shop was full and loud and we bought fancy coffee with foam and cinnamon and found a place by the window. Some jazz song was playing in the speakers—Someone to watch over me it said slow and breathy and pretty soon Norma started suckling and I guess it was kind of loud because people got up and left but some stayed and watched. Pretty soon the manager came over and asked us to leave and said he was going to call the cops if we didn’t but that just made Norma mad mostly and she said something about not doing anything wrong—nothing against the law. I wasn’t real sure if what we were doing was or wasn’t against the law so I didn’t say anything. Anyway we left and drove out the city back to Norma’s place and we watched TV and suckled some more. I was on the sofa sitting low and kind of slouching with my shirt off and Norma was doing this thing to my man-boobs with her teeth and tongue at the same time and my man-thing was like a frozen rock or something and when she was done we lied down on the sofa and I just held her. Norma always looked happy or content or something after she was done suckling. Anyway I don’t really know why but I thought about what Phil said to me about where this was all going to end and I thought about asking her the same question like the way Phil had asked me but I don’t know what happened—I lost my nerve I guess and I couldn’t do it so I said I love you and she said I love you too Bennie. Then we fell asleep.

 

The next morning I went in for dayshift. I never said anything about Norma to the other guys at Tower Plaza so work was pretty much the same as always—watching the screen and drinking coffee. But the gray and silent screen didn’t seem like my life anymore because now the screen was just work. Like my life had color and sound now or something and like my senses were dead before and now they came back to life again—like that guy from the Bible that Jesus brings back. When I thought about it I wondered what he did first after that. Maybe he found a bar and got drunk or maybe he just went home to his wife or maybe he never went home but just started a whole new life somewhere else with someone else. Anyway that was kind of like what Norma did for me Iguess—brought me back. She changed everything and gave me a whole different life. Sometimes at work I thought about Sam and I wondered what she’d think of me and Norma. Maybe she’d say the same thing as Phil and maybe she’d think I was being stupid or sick or something. I mean I don’t know for sure but part of me thinks she wouldn’t say that or think that at all. Part of me thinks maybe she might say it was okay.

I went home that night and it was the first time staying home in maybe a week or so because I wasn’t staying at home much now I guess now that Norma liked me to stay with her and suckle her to sleep. I parked my bel-air on the street like I always did. Phil parked in the driveway mostly when he used to come by but I didn’t parked in the driveway after Sam died. I don’t know why for sure but it just didn’t seem right or something. Anyway the bel-air was a classic but Phil said it was junk—Shit on wheels is what he said about it. It’s only a classic when it’s fixed up. Just ’cause something’s old doesn’t make it a classic he said. I thought Phil was wrong about that. It was a classic even if the fender wells were dented and the rusty front bumper hung crooked and I liked the bumper because it was kind of like a smirk or something. Anyway I got out and walked to the house and I noticed a couple of rose bushes out front had some pink and yellow flowers on them. I took in the mail and opened some windows and then I went in the kitchen and found a beer in the fridge and I cracked the can and sat at the table. Sitting there I saw the dishes were done. I guess I mean it looked like they were done so I thought maybe Phil came by when I was gone but it could’ve been from before so I didn’t know for sure—I couldn’t remember. But I still thought maybe he came by. I mean I couldn’t say for sure he didn’t come by so I took a drink of beer and thought it would be okay if Phil came by again. And I thought maybe if he did we’d be okay again—me and Phil.

Gary Anderson lives and writes near Princeton, New Jersey. His works have appeared in numerous magazines. Most recently, he has published stories in Gadfly, Menacing Hedge, Umbrella Factory, and Literary Orphans. His first novel, Animal Magnet, was published in 2011 by Emmerson Street Press. His second novel, Best of all Possible Worlds, was published by WordsworthGreenwich Press in May of 2012.

Your Own Pornography By Chett Tiller

Lizavetta calls you from a sex shop in Beaumont (it really is Liz!). Your family hasn’t heard from her in six months. Despite the tremble of excitement, you manage to hold up a finger in front of the pretty redhead who sits attentively across the diner booth from you. One second, you say.

Liz (her chirpy voice) says she’s in a porn shop in Beaumont, Texas. You imagine your lanky sister behind a yellow counter (yellow is the color of insanity your mom says) while sex toys assault the senses: plastic dildos point their heads at acrid and wet panties on clotheslines (you’re making it up, you’ve never been in a sex shop), all the while an assortment of mildewed gels and condoms grow like weeds along the base of the molding.

Your sister, Lizavetta, tells you in her chirpy voice that the shop’s nice. It’s operated out of the nook of a mall and everything’s well lit and open. There aren’t any windows for obvious reasons, but it’s sort of like the ABC store down the road from Mom’s. You’re a little relieved.

She tells you that she said something funny today. She says, Listen to this, a regular customer, a guy named Zeke, came into the shop and asked me what it’s like to be Russian. I said that being Russian’s sort of like being a lesbian, I only want to have sex with other Russians.

You guess that Zeke isn’t Russian, that he’s a Beaumont person, a Texan. You’re like him, like an American redneck. Unlike your adopted sister.

You’re about to ask Liz why she’s in Beaumont but she interrupts and says, Customers, hugs and kisses brother.

The redhead still sits in the booth with its mauve, synthetic leather seats. She runs a finger around the top button of her black blouse. When you give her the signal she continues to talk about post-structuralist theory. You absently arrange the sugar packets into towers and they slip and topple when the redhead gives you her phone number on a napkin. She thinks that you want hear more about Zizak.

 

Go to (1) if you call the redhead later that night. Go to (2) if you call Lizavetta instead. Go to (3) if you’re responsible and work on your thesis for the rest of the night.

 

(1)

The redhead answers her phone immediately and giggles when you attempt to joke about your physics thesis (weak interaction theory). You ask whether she’d come over for a beer. It’s a long shot (Come over for a beer?) but she does.

And later you lie in bed with a hand over her bare shoulder. Lizavetta’s lanky body pops into your mind surrounded by fluorescent mall lights. For some reason you need to tell the redhead about your sister.

The redhead listens with half-closed eyes about the time Mom warned you not to hit your sister. Sometimes you hit your adorable sister because she didn’t share candy or toys. You must’ve been nine or ten when you stopped. You tell the redhead (What’s her name?) that Mother still tells the story (you were six) about Lizavetta rushing into the living room with a black eye. You can vividly remember the scene. You sit on the floral print couch and see your sister with the blueberry welt around her pupil.

But your memory doesn’t make sense, you had to be in the other room where you hit your sister. Your Mother specifically won a leather couch in the divorce, not a floral print.

The redhead (What’s her name? What’s her name?) turns to you and says that memories are subjective. She fingers your bottom lip.

You realize the redhead’s name is Mary and you tell Mary that you’re so sure the couch hadn’t been leather.

Her name isn’t Mary.

 

Go to (2) if you call Liz after the redhead leaves. Go to (3) if you try to fall asleep on top of the warm covers.

 

(2)

Liz answers from the porn shop again. You recognize James Brown’s voice on the in-store speaker system and ask what song he’s playing.

Something about ‘hot butter popcorn,’ Liz says. I’m so tired of this mix. It’s all funk and techno music. Arnold claims it ‘gets people in the mood’ (Arnold’s my manager by the way) but I think we need some pop music. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilara. What man doesn’t want to screw a pop star?

You laugh and tell her you would.

She says, I can mail a Lady Gaga blow up doll your way.

For a second you hesitate and then tell her not to bother. The description of the redhead you met bubbles quietly in the back of your throat but you fight it down and away from your lips. Instead you ask where Liza’s been the past six months.

Abruptly your sister counters with a question.

Do you think it’s safe to hang out with Zeke?

At first your brain clogs and you tell her that you can’t remember Zeke. She says that Zeke stopped in the store every single day.

He wants to bone me,” she says, but he’s not Russian, remember? Some dumb Texan redneck. But he seems genuine in a weird sort of way. What do you think?

 

Why does she care what you think? Go to (3) if you tell her to hang out with Zeke. Go to (4) if you tell her not to bother with him.

 

(3)

In the morning your phone rings rudely through the haze of sleep. Red sunlight weighs into your naked back and you turn your head to the nightstand (papers, textbooks on quantum mechanics). When you flip open the phone a rough Southern voice blares with laughter (the sound of a tobacco chewer you assume).

Haw! That’s your brother, huh?

Give it back you hick, Lizavetta says in the background.

You ask who’s speaking (Who the hell is this?). The man laughs and says, Zeke, brother. You a Russian like your sister?

Yeah, Zeke, Lizavetta says, Peasants fleeing from communist oppression, my whole fucking adopted family.

You decide to lie, even though you’re not Russian. You tell Zeke about your crazy, Vodka swilling parents and how you escaped through the iron curtain while a pack of hounds and communists nipped at your heels. You tell Zeke that the Russian words for communist pigs are ‘Boristoy Blagovich’ and it sounds Russian enough. He laughs at your stories (always laughing at things, he sounds like his belly shakes when he laughs) and Zeke hands the phone over to Liz.

Sorry to call you so early. It’s Zeke’s fault, she says.

She went to Zeke’s house last night and fell asleep on the couch. When you ask what movie they watched she replies, A new porno from the store, ‘Charles Dickings in Great Ejaculations.’ (She pronounces each accented syllable with the pomp of a victorian.) When I woke up this morning I went to the kitchen and there’s Zeke in nothing but his boxers, huge gut hanging out, big dick out of his boxer shorts. The guy pulls a beer out of the fridge, a yellow fridge, have you ever seen one of those, like, egg shaped fridges? He pulls a beer out and tells me he’ll look sexier with some alcohol, and he means alcohol in my system. I’m in the bathroom right now. Just by the way, if it gets all echo-ee.

You can hear muffled country music start up through the walls. You ask what’s wrong.

Like, I slept with him last night in his bed, didn’t get on the couch. I mean we got nasty, you know. You heard about the stuff I did in highschool. But he does have a yellow fridge. He says I should be a porn star. I don’t like the guy, but he says he’ll hook me up. It could work.

You ask what she means by that (it could work?).

Just, like, please, tell me whether I should go with the scumbag or not, Lizavetta says.

 

Go to (4) if you warn her against it. Go to (5) if you tell her to do what she thinks is best.

 

(4)

Applications for grad school lie on the table. Printing them out didn’t keep your mind from wandering through Beaumont’s porn shop. What kind of a mall? Does Lizavetta spend lunch breaks in the food court?

On your laptop you look up Beaumont malls. Two names appear on the monitor, Parkdale and Antiques of Beaumont. Parkdale doesn’t have an adult store on its directory map. Antiques of Beaumont doesn’t have a directory.

The phone rings and you snatch it up but a recorded monologue buzzes in your ear instead of Lizavetta’s chirp. You tell the recording to go to hell and it pauses.

I don’t appreciate that tone of voice, sir, the monologue says.

Goosebumps cover your arms. The monologue quickly warms up and understands that every once in a while someone assumes it’s pre-recorded. The voice tells you not to worry and then asks if you’d like a lifetime membership to Suds Digest, the premiere magazine for soap and detergent enthusiasts. You decline with only three words (No thank you) and then the voice asks if you’re interested in Esquire with a free month of Men’s Health. You press the red End button.

You stare again at the applications that clog your bed. The phone rings again and luckily the screen reads Liz.

Hello, a man’s voice says.

The voice isn’t Zeke’s. You ask who’s calling.

Milton. Are you Lizavetta’s brother? That’s what it says on the contacts list, Big Bro.

You ask why he has her phone.

She left it at the studio. I’m her co-star, we met today for her first film. You’ve got a wonderful sister, you know that? I mean, not just a sexy girl, she’s kind. I hear she’s adopted, kind of a shame because in another life you two would be lovers. She wouldn’t stop talking about her adopted brother.

So do you know where she lives? I need to return the phone.

 

You go to (5) to tell him to leave it at the closest porn shop. The feelings well up inside you. What feelings, disgust? Hatred? Love?

 

(5)

You look up the Beaumont personal ads on craigslist for both men and women. The men generally post pictures of their penises, the women post pictures of their faces. Your conscience wants to gag but the combination of penises and faces (penis plus face?) leads you deeper into the personals.

Mother had always kept you closer. And one day Liza explained sex to you in an urgently whispered conversation. During that lecture in the back of the stationwagon you didn’t mind that your sister had arrived from Russia or that Mom wouldn’t be able to conceive again. You liked the feathery touch of her breath on your ear, talking about all the things hidden in plain sight across your world.

Later, Liza dropped out of highschool and ran off with a boy, maybe several boys, and what else could be said? You were about to graduate.

(Ring ring) Lizavetta calls. She seems a little upset. You ask her whether she did the porn and she says yes but that she wants you to listen to her. You ask her what she wore for it. She pretends not to hear and you immediately feel the heat in your face. But you wanted the details.

Lizavetta tells you that a guy, some guy named Milton, came in her during the porno. She’s scared because she isn’t on birth control. She asks you what to do.

 

Go to (6).

 

(6)

Lizavetta doesn’t call again. During the night you dream a strange dream of her. You see her in a refrigerator box deep under the east Texan peat. She’s naked and her skin sticks to the cardboard. She constantly peels it away, first her freckled back and then her breasts and then a thigh but the box closes in on her.

When you awake you try to call Lizavetta but the line informs you that her phone’s been disconnected. You wonder what it’d be like if you could call her again, just one more time.

 

Go to (7).

 

(7)

Lizavetta tells you she’s going back to Russia. At first you protest and tell her to move in with you instead. She says no, she wants to move back to her real hometown.

You know it’s an eastern Siberian place named Anadyr. You ask her to describe Anadyr but she only remembers the big and barren mountains. To her three year old mind they looked like giant anthills. She remembers a fog that hides the ships in the harbor. She remembers mosquitoes in the summer, mosquitoes bigger than her hands.

You tell her it’s good to leave and that you’ll visit her one day. You try to mean it.

 

Go to (8). If there is no (8), it’s bed time.

Chett Tiller is a writing consultant living in Asheville, NC where he performs secret underground military tests on semi-colons. His short stories have been published locally in MetabolismRedaction!, and Headwaters. He’s currently the writer for a comic book named Bad Moon, and beats his head against the ineffable as a form of amusement. Give him some love at: chett.tiller@gmail.com.

Jesus Christ, Boy Detective and The Freshly Squeezed Slugger by J. Bradley

“This…how…” Officer Jones looked around the kitchen, the wallpaper and tile stained with chunks of Little League uniform, blood. His latex glove covered right hand dammed the vomit from coming up.

“Awwww, what’s wrong rookie?” Chief Donaldson walked into the crime scene, pipe lit. “Can’t handle a little…” The pipe fell into an isolated puddle of blood. “Holy…Hell. What the Hell happened here?”

“I dunno, sir. I was hoping you could…” Officer Jones gagged, holding back another wave. “I was hoping you could figure that out.”

“I don’t think…I’m the right person to do that, Officer Jones. I keep the lights on, keep the public off your backs when one of you mess up. I think it’s time to call for some outside assistance on this one.”

“Couldn’t…our detectives handle this?”

“One’s on vacation, the other’s out on maternity leave. We’re short staffed and I believe this was your career path, wasn’t it Officer Jones?”

“Yeah, it is, but not…not like this.”

“Then make the call, Jones.”

***

“What do we have here?” Timmy Hightower stood in the door of the police station, his New York Mets cap backwards to better look around. Officer Jones stood up from behind his desk.

“Hi, you must be Timothy Hightower.”

“Please, call me Timmy.” Timmy walked over to Officer Jones’ desk and shook his hand. “I understand you’ve got a case for me.”

“Yes.” Officer Jones handed a manila folder to Timmy. “Do you know Sergio Connor?”

“He was the star third baseman of the Taco Dog Devils, the national Little League champions. Saw him around in school here and there but never talked. We didn’t run in the same circles. Why?”

“We found him yesterday…juiced.”

Timmy opened the file and looked at the photos and the police report. “Juiced?”

“Juiced.”

“And you’re asking me…to figure this out? Don’t you have detectives better equipped to deal with this kind of case?”

“One’s on vacation, the other is out on maternity leave. The Chief recommended we bring you in on this.”

“Have you tried figuring it out, Officer Jones?”

“I’m…I’m not ready for this kind of case.”

“And you think I am?”

“Not me. The Chief.”

“I guess I have no choice if Sergio has a shot at seeing any kind of justice.”

***

“Have you…thought of asking him for help, of talking…to the boy?” Leopold Franz, knife thrower extraordinaire, asked Timmy.

“I can’t. I’m still locked out up there. I’m lucky that I figured out how to access Timmy’s skills again after that stroke. I don’t think my father realizes that yet.”

“Your father…”

“Don’t say it, Leopold. He might be listening.”

“What’s…his plan?”

“To see if I stop believing in the good of humanity, that they weren’t really worth dying for after all. He’ll keep throwing these kinds of cases at me until I stop believing or until I find a way back home.” Timmy opened the file. “This boy was…juiced…for some reason. I have to find out why, Leopold. I haven’t regained access to Timmy’s memories though so I need your help. Who would have the biggest motivation to kill Sergio?”

“Hmmmm…” Leopold twiddled his handlebar mustache. “I have an idea, Timmy, that might give us a list of suspects.”

***

Timmy looked through the binoculars at the people sitting around closed casket burial of Sergio Connor. Leopold held a listening device. Both had a set of ear buds to listen.

“The person…who looks the least sad Sergio is dead…is our prime suspect.” Leopold said over Timmy’s shoulder.

Timmy watched Cara Connor, Sergio’s mom. Her over sized black sunglasses muffled any signs of grief she had, her dress equally black, not muffling her figure. Theo Connor, Sergio’s older brother, clutched at his mother, soaking her forearm with his tears. Timmy looked around the crowd, all of them grieving at various volumes until he noticed a boy Sergio’s age trying to grieve but slightly giggling beneath his hand.

“Leo, is that boy…laughing?” Timmy handed Leopold his binoculars.

“Yes…yes he is.”

“Who is he?”

“That’s…Travis…Travis Evans. He was the star third baseman for the Taco Dog Devils…before Sergio came along.”

“He might be our guy then. I’ll have to have a talk with him.”

***

“Hello, Travis.”

Travis turned around from his open locker and saw Timmy Hightower standing in front of him.

“I heard what happened, Timmy, and I understand why you would suspect I did it. Yeah, I hated Sergio, a lot. I spent years, years working my way up the food chain. Sergio just walked in and…just had everything I spent so long trying to have a tenth of. He was too good.”

“Do you have an alibi, Travis?”

“Yeah. I was home playing Dungeon Crawlers with my younger brother when that happened.”

“Got a problem if I check that?”

“Nope, no problem. I wanted to beat Sergio fair and square.”

“Why were you laughing then at the funeral?”

“Come on, he got juiced. Don’t you see the irony in that?”

***

“Travis’ alibi checked out, Uncle Leo. What now?” Timmy chomped down on a Five Alarm Taco Dog, the chili cheese sauce escaping the hard corn tortilla shell.

“You’ve got…the mother…and the younger brother to talk to.”

“I think I need to look at the crime scene up close. I have a feeling Officer Jones missed something.”

“Are you…sure?”

“I’m not twelve, Leopold, remember?”

***

Timmy looked around the kitchen, the ghost of the blood and chunks in the blender. He looked in the manila folder. “Really…no fingerprints? How are these people allowed to be police officers?” Timmy closed the manila folder and walked upstairs to look around the bedrooms. Before walking into Sergio’s room, he noticed a bloodied aluminum baseball bat sitting outside of the master bedroom. “How did Officer Jones miss this?”

***

“Hello, Ms. Connor.” Timmy sat on the hood of Ms. Connor’s white Volkswagen Golf.

“Timmy…what brings you here?”

“Chief Donaldson asked me to work on finding out who killed your son and I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.” Timmy held up the bloodied baseball bat encased in a plastic bag.

“Would you like to tell me how this was sitting outside of your room?”

“What…what are you talking about?” A police siren blared closer and closer.

“Don’t bother trying to run, Ms. Connor.” The police car pulled up and Officer Jones stepped out, gun drawn and aimed at Timmy. “Why did you do it, Officer Jones?”

“That kid was stopping us from being happy, Timmy. His obsession with baseball, the constant training, the money she had keep spending. He had to be stopped. We were going to ship Theo off to his father due to him being so traumatized over Sergio’s death and then live happily ever after.”

“So you would blend him to death instead of being supportive of Sergio’s dreams? What is wrong with you two?”

“You’ll never find out.” A knife flew out of the bushes and into Officer Jones’ hand. Leopold leaped out of the bushes, holding one of his throwing knives to Officer Jones’ throat.

“You…you dare not…”

“No, Uncle Leo, don’t do it. You will become him if you do it.”

“I’ve…killed before.”

“But you haven’t since. Don’t do this. We got them.”

Leopold put the throwing knife back with the other knives on his leather vest as additional police sirens wailed. He walked over to Timmy.

“How do you…how can you keep turning the other cheek despite this madness?”

“I have to believe, Leo, I have to keep believing in them or all hope is lost.”

 —
J. Bradley is the Falconer of Fiction at NAP, the Interviews Editor of PANK, and a contributor to the Specter Collective. He lives at iheartfailure.net.

Already Gone by Hassan Riaz

When my wife started cheating on me, I was no longer a wimp, and so I cannot understand her whorish pursuit of that pencil-necked loser at the Speedway, the guy with the shaved head and trail of tattoos on his arm and neck.  My puzzlement is genuine and not the result of any mental deficit on my part.  I am a man who deals on a daily basis with subtle differences, such as that between a quick ratio and a current ratio and how a current ratio is a significantly better predictor of liquidity in a recessionary environment, and so I am suitably trained to delve into complex issues.  Women, especially not my wife, do not suddenly sprout interests in small-block engines and caliper braking systems without a well defined impetus.  Dr. G—- has confirmed this observation.  Despite what people say, the profession of accounting does not lack panache.  These detractors are misguided, and do not know the nature of my work, of my responsibility to this robust economy, of my key involvement in maintaining financial uniformity and transparency.  Ask my clients about the importance of my work.  They are well aware of my relevance, and this awareness is the reason why they coerce me into untenable and unethical corners.  My clients, who typically have revenues in the range of $5 to $15 million, approach me for audit services either because they want to appease and reassure their partners or they are looking for a neutral, third-party rubber stamp on their less than generally acceptable accounting practices.  No bank or venture group wants to provide mezzanine or bridge financing to a company with questionable financials.  When I meet with the managing partners or owners of these small, mostly industrial firms, I am forced to sit across from a massive man in his forties or fifties who is accustomed to using his considerable girth and physical presence to squeeze an additional discount or extended term from a supplier and so thinks nothing of insisting that his 6 foot, 129 pound CPA sign off on his company’s financials.  I did not think that my wife was capable of whoring around, especially not with that loser who was incapable of understanding her even a little bit, and who was, I thought, entirely incompatible with her.  She had always been concerned about miles per gallon, water purification, and emissions control.  The anti-conservation streak in the Inland Empire, with its massive mudder trucks, noise pollution, and the curtailing of land for planned communities, disturbed her.  She was biding her time, waiting for our return to Oceanside.  But she did not wait long enough, and now she does not need to wait anymore, because I am not here for her, and I have not been.  She can rot beneath a canvas canopy while she shields herself from the UV rays that pierce through the depleted atmosphere, wrinkling her skin and causing spontaneous cancerous mutations in her genes, while she cheers that tatted up, emaciated asshole at the Speedway.  I could care less.  Several of my staff at the office, when they discovered my wife’s infidelity, asked me if I should have known better, if I should have seen this activity coming, even if I had expected it, and to all of these questions I answered in the negative.  “No,” I said to each and every one of my prying staff of CPAs and secretaries, “I did not know my wife was a whore.”  This response, while not an answer to their exact question, at least served the purpose of shutting them the fuck up.  Dr. G—- says that the key to adding fat free mass is the maintenance of an anabolic state.  Many novices are overzealous in their regimens, allowing insufficient time for their bodies to recuperate and grow, such that even though they are expending vast amounts of physical and mental energy trying to coax size out their deltoids or latissimi dorsi, they do not optimize their anabolic condition.  My wife never had to worry about bulking up, because like most women, she had naturally low levels of circulatory testosterone and testosterone derivatives.  Instead of adding bulk, she only added tone, which is what most women, including her, desire anyway.  I always enjoyed our time together in the gym, even if we had different routines and crossed paths in the weight room only to a limited degree, because neither love nor lust is a bad outlook on life, and I had both for her.  “You are my scarecrow,” she said to me on our third date five years ago, back in the days when I remained steadily below 18 on the body mass index.  I took this statement as a compliment, as a testament to her interest in me, which I believe, even after her nonsensical affair, had been genuine.  Dr. G—- has a laminated body mass index table in each of his four examination rooms, and on my first visit to his practice, he circled my height with a dry erase marker, but was unable to circle my weight since it was too low to be on the chart.  He calculated my body mass index nonetheless.  Six feet is 1.8288 meters and 129 pounds is 58.6 kilograms, so you can do the math.  My clients, the same ones who pound donuts, coffee, and double cheeseburgers, and who have deluded themselves into believing that girth is equivalent to mass, routinely remarked on my wife’s appearance when they saw her pictures in the office.  Three pictures sit on the top shelf of the bookcase behind my desk.  Two of the pictures are from happier days, and in both of them, she is staring off to a point slightly beyond the eye of the camera.  Her love for me in them is obvious.  The third picture is more recent and was not taken by me but by that ‘photographer’ in Chino.  I dislike this picture even though my clients gravitate towards it.  She is ‘modeling.’  My clients, when they saw the pictures, used to say things such as, “She is a good looking girl, man” or “You lucked out, man,” or “You have it like that, huh, man?”  The problem of being underweight is correctable, and not just in a manipulative, perfunctory manner, such as booking revenue that will never be realized or restating inventory even though sales are sluggish.  The key to modifying a person’s frame is the controlled addition of fat free mass, which as Dr. G—- told me, involves the use of concentric and eccentric movements and the consumption of a high protein, nitrogen rich diet.  At six feet, I was never short.  I was only sleight, and so the foundation of my frame was paramount in expanding my physique.  Based on my potential and Dr. G—-‘s techniques, my success was entirely predictable.  On his recommendation, I bought The N– E———– of M—– B———–, and studied it, digesting it daily during my lunch break, so that I could implement its techniques in my thrice weekly, post-work workouts.  She enjoyed spending this time in the gym with me, and I enjoyed spending it with her as well.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I left the office in Claremont sometime between 5 and 5:30 p.m., hopped aboard the 10 freeway, and arrived at our house in Rancho Cucamonga.  I picked up my wife, who did not need to work out for any cosmetic reasons, before continuing on to the gym.  Not all of my clients are assholes.  A good chunk of them are decent.  They do not request that I abet their fraud.  And I know that my hard earned expansion to my body mass index is not the reason for their uprightness because these clients were my clients in the 17.5 body mass index time of my life as well.  They have always been ethical.  During the first three months of my training regimen, I learned the exercises in the E———–, and implemented them, while Dr. G—-kept me abreast of the latest growth inducing supplements, such as whey protein powders, creatine powders, long- and short-chain amino acid powders and capsules, androgen derivatives, low fat mass gainers, glutamine, and vitamin supplements.  The sex life between my wife and me was never lacking.  Not only did we love each other, but we were emotionally and intellectually connected, and for these reasons she enjoyed making love to me.  During those first three months we spent together i
n the gym, our intimate life only improved.  I had not even added any real mass yet.  My weight, at 133 pounds, was mostly unchanged.  But still, the anabolic furnace was being fed.  We have a casual dress code in the office.  Male associates usually wear khakis and polo or linen shirts while female associates usually wear jeans and cotton button down blouses.  I wear polo shirts.  My clients, who are usually running between warehouses and distribution centers in Ontario and San Bernardino, dress similarly to us.  The biceps muscle, which runs from the radial tuberosity distally to the coracoid process of the scapula in the short head and superglenoid tubercle of the scapula distally in the long head and whose function is to flex at the elbow, supinate the forearm, and also, to a lesser degree, flex at the shoulder, goes well with polo shirts.  By month three of my weight training regimen, I purposely wore polo shirts that had a tendency to inch upwards on my upper arm, and whenever my clients would speak to me in my office, I would smile, lean my elbow on the table, and prop my head on my balled up hand, an action that served to accentuate the increasing height and fullness of my biceps muscle.  I did not have issue with my clients remarking on my wife’s beauty but I never liked the surprise or bewilderment in their voices.  I am not the richest man in Rancho Cucamonga, but I do okay.  I, like my clients, have my own business.  I, like my clients, control my own destiny.  Month three of my weight training regimen was not only when I achieved 19.5 on the body mass index scale but it was also when Dr. G—- prescribed me t———– in addition to the i—— and h—- g—– h—— that he was already giving me.  I added another 10 pounds over the next two months, and entered winter at a body mass index of 20.7.

Contrary to what people say, a person that takes t———– does not routinely suffer fulminant liver failure, wild mood swings, or testicular atrophy.  The key to avoiding these real but unlikely side effects is the monitored administration of t———–.  As Dr. G—- said, even acetaminophen in excessive doses can cause irreversible liver failure.  A person who takes t———– in controlled, therapeutic doses usually feels slightly more confident and euphoric.  He thinks more clearly.  He has an increased libido.  He more easily adds fat free mass and loses subcutaneous fat.  Accordingly, t———– is anabolic, and I required an anabolic state to increase my mass.  T———– was the proper supplement to round out my anabolic state.  Even though she is a whore, my wife is conservative by nature and does not believe that a person should use science to augment his or her body’s natural physiological processes.  For this reason, I did not relate to her all of my anabolic techniques.  I allowed her to know about the mass gainer shakes and protein powders because we lived in the same house and revelation between spouses is important in maintaining a transparent marriage, but I never told her about the t———– injections and creams.  Maybe this need for transparency in a marriage was part of the reason why she made no attempt to hide her so called ‘modeling’ gig.  But modeling requires perfectly symmetrical features, stage presence, a height of at least 5’10”, and a uniquely lean frame.  Her ‘modeling,’ though, required nothing more than a tan, G-strings, a handful of black, pink, and red checkered bikinis, and high heel shoes.  Three of the six secretaries in my office could do this kind of ‘modeling,’ even though none of them, like my wife, can model.  Even though she complained that the gym and my anabolic lifestyle made me egotistical, she should have taken a look at herself.  Just because she narrowed her hips and flattened her belly and toned her legs and buttocks, does not mean that she was entitled to become a whore.  And just because a loser from Chino has a makeshift photography studio in his home and messages you on the internet and tells you that you would make a great model, does not mean that you should follow through on being a ‘model.’  If you cannot be a model, you should not be a ‘model.’  When I was up to a body mass index of 21.4 with a body fat of 12% and drawing all kinds of stares in the office and at the gym, I told her this seemingly obvious truth, but she didn’t take my no-nonsense statement of fact well.  Instead she took it as a personal attack, a remark on her supposed belief that because of my new physique I was elevating myself above her.  She was wrong.  I am not a model, and I know that I am not a model.  I am just a CPA with sixteen inch biceps and a forty-two inch chest.  I am just someone who can crunch a financial statement and sit on even ground with some of my more physically immense, ethically decrepit clients.  My meetings nowadays go smoothly.  My biceps peek out from under the sleeves of my polo, and my neck is wide, and I sometimes flex my pectoralis muscles during meetings.  My clients do not push nearly as hard as they used to for me to validate their financial statements.  Bullying around a sculpted man is a difficult thing to do, even if you weigh 260 pounds and try to squash my hand with your handshake and are the one paying the audit fee.  Intimidating a man who does not want to be intimidated is not a pleasant enterprise.  And having a wife who ‘models’ is not a pleasant enterprise.  Dr. G—- has a wife who ‘models’ but who could very well model.  But she is too smart to model, and instead ‘models’ for the advertisements Dr. G—- places in the I—- E—– W—–.  When I saw Dr. G—-‘s wife in person during a routine visit to his office for a t———– injection, I immediately knew that not only was she was too attractive and physically perfect to ‘model,’ but that she was too intelligent to model, and so I deduced that she was doing neither.  Rather, she was working, helping Dr. G—- with his half page weekly advertisements.  Her beauty is best appreciated in person, and not via some pictures in an advertisement.  T———– increases libido.  In fact, testosterone is largely responsible for the sex drive in both males and females.  But sex is not a purely biochemical process.  My wife is testament to that statement.  After she had decided she was good at ‘modeling,’ she decided to pursue it further.  She enlisted the guidance of that loser in Chino to expand beyond the internet, and he lined her up with a ‘modeling’ agency from Orange County.  These ‘models’ could have been the baristas who work at the S——– across from my office.  They were ‘models’ because they were not ‘dancers.’  My wife told me that she did not like the new me, the one with the bulky frame and cocky sneer and disparaging remarks.  But she is a whore, so she lacks credibility.  When I achieved a body mass index of 23, Dr. G—- said that not only is my physique proof that science can build a better body but that my perfectly normal laboratory values and minimally changed mental profile were evidence that controlled anabolic enhancement was safe.  He said that I was his walking atypical result.  The addition of fat free mass in the amount of 33% of a person’s initial weight is a remarkable achievement by any measure.  Now that I have physical presence, my clients like to slap me on the back and ask me in a jovial manner as to how they can expense their lapdances.  But the difference between their tones now versus then is that now they do not really expect me to conjure up ‘creative’ methods to minimize their taxes.  They do not attempt to bully me around.  They know better.  Taco Tuesdays is not a place where models go but it is a place where ‘models’ go.  Every girl around here who works behind a counter or answers phones thinks that she is a model but I do not see her in any advertisements for D—- & G—— or even B— or A———- & F—-.  Furthermore, neither the ‘agents’ nor ‘photographers’ of these ‘models’ are gay.  Accordingly, these girls cannot possibly be models.  They are ‘models.’  Excellence requires talent.  My ability to completely delineate the health of a company through a dissection of its financial statements is a combination of innate ability and experience.  Modeling requires elements of height, beauty, and symmetry, all of which are God-given.  These elements cannot be coaxed out of a girl by a loser who is trying to make a DVD about ‘models’ and V8 engines.  Even after I achieved 23 on the body mass index, I did not allow my body to become a vehicle of distress.  I tried to make gentle, soothing love to my wife.  But mostly she resisted my romantic overtures.  I told her that if she was allowing random men to ogle her, she should at least allow me the opportunity to do the same.  ‘Modeling’ cannot be valid ‘work’ when our joint tax return places us in the highest federal tax bracket and we have a 4,200 square foot house in Rancho Cucamonga with a three car garage and no Mella-Roos and an almost paid up mortgage and a A— sedan for me and a rimmed up C—- T—- with a trailer hitch for her.  Ten years is not a major age difference between us.  Her youth is not the reason for her destructive actions.  Before she started whoring around, she was mature.  She understood that a husband and wife needed to form a bond of trust in order to stay together, avoid strife, and be happy.  Although I have become impressed with my physique as of late, I have never seen myself as anything other than a CPA, small business owner, and providing husband.  Although t———– increased my libido, her toned body did more to heighten my interest in her than the t———– did.  But again, I must say that our sex life in the pre-gym, pre-anabolic days was never lacking.  Neither of us had reached a point in the relationship where we felt we had to liven up our marriage.  We were intellectually
and emotionally in sync with each other and so were sexually connected as well.  When I had a body mass index of 19, back in the days before my wife became a whore, I showed Dr. G—- a picture of my wife, and he said, “You did well.”  His comment, unlike those of my clients, did not irk me.  Dr. G—-‘s observation was professional in nature while the comments of my clients during my low body mass index days were part of their psychological warfare on me.  My wife did not understand that she could not simultaneously ‘model’ and withhold love from me.  These actions are incompatible with each other.  “Whores must be whores,” I told her, after we had not made love for almost three months.  She did not appreciate my comment.  While I was finishing up my Masters in Business Administration at the University of S——- C———, she was dropping out from the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.  Our respective classmates understood that we were emotionally and intellectually connected and so never remarked on our age difference.  Our intellectual and emotional bonds broke after our physical relationship disappeared.  I was, I must admit, still physically attracted to her, but my ability to muster up interest in her life disappeared when the sex vanished.  Dr. G—-, although not a behavioral specialist but a Board Certified internist who not only maintains a private practice in Claremont but also serves as an Associate Professor of Medicine at L— L—- University Medical Center, confirmed that sex is an important part of a relationship.  When the sex is gone, the relationship is over.

When I had a body mass index of 21, my wife’s ‘modeling’ agency added three ‘models,’ and the owner of the agency pimped this new collection of girls out to the Speedway, where the girls walked around on Sunday afternoons, handing out bottle cap openers that were emblazoned with the logos of sponsoring alcoholic beverage and energy drink companies.  For $20 a picture, my wife and the other ‘models’ posed with heavyset, greasy, socially maladjusted losers who for some reason felt the need to stand beside a glorified whore.  When I reached 172 pounds, Dr. G—- told me that the addition of any more mass to my frame would increase the stress on my joints, thereby creating additional benefit at too great an additional cost.  Upon his recommendation, we cut back on my t———– dose, and I modified my weight training regimen so that I would develop the mass I already had in lieu of adding any more bulk.  The secretaries in my office compliment me weekly on my ever improving physique but I am careful not to cross the line of professionalism.  I am not a vulture.  I do not ask them out to dinner or after work drinks.  Plus, I am still married, and do not want to be a whore, even if my wife is one.  After my wife takes pictures with these losers at the Speedway, she refers them to the agency’s website by handing out a glossy black business card, which lists the name of the ‘modeling’ agency, its internet address, and information on how to book the ‘models’ for private events.  The photos are uploaded to the website every Monday morning under a section titled ‘Events.’  The men get the satisfaction of being on the internet with a ‘model’, and the ‘models’ get to think that they are models just because they maintain a body mass index of under 30 and know how to coat their faces with makeup and shop at stores that are geared towards ‘dancers’ but are really intended for strippers.  Dr. G—- says that happiness begins within.  He also says that unhappiness begins in the home.  Unlike many of my physician clients, Dr. G—- has never been divorced, and so has no need to bitch at me about how his spousal and child support payments are killing him.  He has no need to tell me about the additional emergency room calls he needs to pick up at the hospital just so that he can keep his ex-wife and kids mired in the luxury that his own life now lacks.  If Dr. G—- did not have a successful marriage, I would be less inclined to ponder his outlook on life, but he is happy and peaceful.  In the two years that I have known him, he has been universally correct in his assessments, and not just about the maintenance of an anabolic state, and so I subscribe to his viewpoint on happiness, which he says stems from peace in the arenas of health, home, work, and spirituality.  I am at peace with two of these elements in my life.  Back before my wife became a whore, I used to be at ease with three of them.  I am working on the fourth element now.  I have purchased several books about non-theistic and monotheistic religions from the B—— at Victoria Gardens, and read them nightly.  I must admit that I feel that I will find spiritual peace before I find domestic tranquility.  Even though my wife is gone, the bulk of her clothes and personal effects, including her jewelry, cooking instruments, and romantic comedy DVDs, such as S——– in S—— and C— of A—–, remain in the Rancho Cucamonga house.  But her ‘modeling’ clothes are gone.  I knew about the asshole at the racetrack before I saw the pictures of her and him on the Speedway’s website, but I could not confront her just yet.  The key to my confrontation revolved around the fact that the pictures of her and that asshole on the website were publicly available.  My wife drove a three ton T—- only because it was my engagement present to her, a symbolic manifestation of the vastness of my love for her.  She swallowed her social guilt, and dealt with the truck’s 14 miles per gallon.  She pushed that behemoth around the Inland Empire with pride and affection.  Whenever I saw her small, 5’3″, 115 pound frame inside the truck, which rode on custom 22″ wheels and low profile tires that I got from one of my clients who owns tuner shops in Pomona, Fontana, and San Bernardino, I wanted to hug and make love to her.  When I hit a body mass index of 21, she began using her ‘modeling’ money to trick out her truck, and not just in the purely cosmetic fashion of changing the decal and trim, but in a more performance oriented one.  She added headers, a cold intake air system, dual exhaust tips, and a full ground lowering kit.  But women like my wife do not throw away their Oceanside values on a whim.  Neither do they suddenly gain proficiency in modding out a truck.  They need motivation and guidance for their maneuvers.  I have a client who owns a security firm that provides low and medium level security services for several of the clubs and minor celebrities in Orange County, and I hired him to trail my wife.  Over the course of two weeks, he discovered that she was trekking weekly to Murrieta, where she would meet with this waiflike asshole from the track, this guy who is at least five points lower than me on the body mass index, this guy who thinks that stock car racing is a way of life.  When my client provided me pictures of this loser, I had difficulty appreciating the motivation for her infidelity.  I still cannot fathom her desire to be with this wimp.  Not only is he not a good looking man but he is bony to the extreme.  When I asked Dr. G—- if I was morally in the wrong by spying on my wife, he shrugged, and said, “I cannot tell you that answer.”  I took his response as ‘Yes’, and so stopped the surveillance.  Even though I continue to maintain a body mass index of 23, my physique continues to improve.  My body fat percentage, which had reached a high of 14% in the days when I underwent rapid anabolic growth, is now 9%.  I am absolutely ripped.  Furthermore, my strength is remarkable for my size.  Several of the powerlifters in the gym ask me to spot them on the bench press and squat rack.  They trust me not only to keep the weight moving but also to protect them from injury.  I finally confronted my wife a month ago.  On a Friday night when she was actually home, I placed the laptop on our granite counter while she made dinner.  I pulled up the pictures of her ‘modeling’ with that loser from the Speedway website.  “Look at these,” I said.  She stopped salting the pot of water she was boiling.  “I’m trying to have you and me reconnect,” she said, “and that’s why I’m here tonight.  That’s what tonight is about.  I’m not cheating.  He’s a client.  It’s just work.”  I laughed.  “I’m trying to stop you from being a whore,” I said.  She stared at her fingers for several seconds, before turning off the stove, wiping her hand on the dishtowel, and saying, “I want somebody who understands me, somebody who treats me the way you used to treat me.”  I flexed my biceps muscles beneath my polo shirt, and said, “Why the hell would you want to get with that wimp when you have me?”  I did not have to look in the mirror to know that the veins of my neck were protruding against my skin as I spoke.  I followed her to our bedroom, which she had decorated over the years with puffy pillows, bright colored sheets, and scented candles.  “We can have the whole world in our hands if you can just return to Earth,” I said.  She didn’t respond.  Instead she pulled our wheeled garment bag, the same one we used on vacations, from the top shelf of our walk-in closet.  As I watched her pack, I felt a tang of remorse, but even so, I could not be sure if this brief moment of sorrow was genuine or simply a result of Dr. G—-‘s lowering of my t———– dose.  In either case, she and I had not made love in more than six months.  Not only had she resisted on a nightly basis every one of my advances, but she’d also glued herself to her corner of our California king mattress, turning her body away from me and drawing her own separate comforter over her shoulders.  When my c
lients learned about my wife’s departure, several of them attempted to comfort me, even suggesting ways to begin my love life anew.  They recommended that I begin using internet dating services, hook up with a speed dating agency, or even close the gap in my celibate life with the temporary use of escorts.  I am sure that these men would not have been eager to help me had I still been physically sleight.  If I were still skinny, they would have expected my wife’s infidelity.  But I am not puny anymore.  I have presence, and so they are as perplexed as I am about my wife’s whorish activities.  Even so, I have not attempted to enter the world of dating.  I also have not disturbed the contents of my wife’s closet or of her half of the bathroom counter, just in case she decides that she is done being a whore, and wants to come back to our house in Rancho Cucamonga.  I have not touched the rows of clothes that she bought on our trips to Victoria Gardens, nor have I moved any of the half dozen tweezers that she had used to shape my eyebrows and pluck my blackheads.  A body mass index of 23 enables me to maintain flexibility, which is a key determinant of strength and overall physical health.  Even though I added weight quickly, my mass is not cumbersome.  I am not massive to the point that my general health suffers.  I always liked my wife’s body, and did not require that she go to the gym with me.  Rather we went to the gym together because we enjoyed spending time with each other.  Although she looked better when she worked out, she looked good even when she did not.  Her weight was perfect for her height.  Even during our bad times, when she was isolating herself from me and whoring around, I always complimented her on her physical appearance.  I have no plan to disturb her things in the Rancho Cucamonga house, but even so I am not completely sure that I would welcome her back into my home, because she has changed for the worse, and I am not confident that she can change back into the wife I used to have.

Hassan Riaz is a writer, physician, and Paragraph Line veteran. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where he earned degrees in creative writing, medicine, and finance. When he is not writing or seeing patients, he can be found scouring Los Angeles for wide receiver talent for his hapless flag football team. He can be found on the web at hassaninla.com.

Run by Joshua Citrak

Me, Juan and Lima Bean were coming from the deli around the corner where they don’t card. We’d pooled all our money to buy a pack of Basics Gold and were now arguing about how three didn’t divide twenty right.

Juan was saying, “Man, I ain’t gettin’ stuck with six.”

“How is that fair?” I said. “You only kicked in like seventy-five cents.”

“Fuck fair.” Juan held out his palm, motioned with his fingers for me to put something in it. “I gotta habit.”

The final bell had already rung and the three of us were supposed to be in the gym with the rest of the basketball team getting ready for practice. But we were in no hurry. School was out for the weekend. The weather had girls wearing skirts. There really wasn’t anything else on our minds.

“Ok, ok, fine. Be like that. I’ll just bum ‘em off you guys once I’ve smoked mine.”

“You do that anyway,” Lima Bean said. “Maybe you should just quit.”

Juan stepped on Lima Bean’s shoe, then gave him a shove. “Maybe you should just shut up.”

At the rear of school property, we peeled back a broken flap of the sagging, rusted chain link fence and crashed through some bushes to end up on the breezeway that split right through the middle of campus. Coming the other way were Paige and Ashley, two identical twins from our grade.

Hey,” Paige sang, bouncing towards us on her tip-toes. She opened her arms, reached up and gave me the kind of big hug that made her boobs smush like water balloons in between us. “You’ll give a girl one of those ciggies, won’t ya’?”

Paige was the first girl I’d ever kissed and she’d been my girlfriend — in fifth grade — for three and a half days over the Columbus holiday weekend. Back at school on Tuesday, she had Ashley slip me a breakup note during lunch. Now, we were supposed to be just friends, but that didn’t stop Paige from laying the mack on me any time she’d get the feeling to.

I said, “Of course, yeah, sure, have two.”

Paige slipped out of my hands, passed one to Ashley and said, “What’d I tell ya’? Such a sweetheart, isn’t he?”

The five of us went around to the back side of the gym, where we couldn’t be seen from the teacher’s parking lot, to light up. We huddled along the long, brick wall with the weeds and wind blown trash next to a door that led directly into the boy’s locker room. The door was supposed to be exit only; its outside handle had been sawed off. There was no way to get in except to pry the latch open with a knife and then hope that Coach didn’t catch you on the sneak. We did it all the time.

Ashley took a mouth puff off her smoke, blew it out. “So what are you guys doing this weekend?”

“I dunno,” we said. “Nothin’.”

We’re going to Great America,” Paige said, meaning the theme park in Santa Clara, south of the city. She hooked her pinkie into my belt loop. “It’s gonna be so fun. You should come with.”

“I’m there. But you don’t wanna see Lima Bean on a roller coaster,” I said.

He shrugged, grinned at his shoes. “They make me barf.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re a freakin’ wuss,” Juan said. “I could ride ‘em all day. The crazier the better.”

“I’m that way too,” Ashley nodded. “I can’t help myself. Once I rode the Demon six times in twenty minutes and I got so dizzy that I fell over.”

You enjoy them a little too much.” Paige rolled her eyes, giggled, cupped her hand to her mouth like she was letting us in on a secret. “Ya’ know, guys, Ash’s an epic screamer.”

“Duh.” Ashley backhanded her sister. “Am not.”

“Hey. Ow,” Paige said, then returned the slap. “Are to.”

“What-ever. It’s just like, I get so excited and I gotta let it out or else I’ll explode or something.”

“I’ll bring ear plugs,” Juan said, putting his arm around Ashley and reeling her in close. “That’s all the protection I’ll need.”

Just then, the heavy, metal gym door kicked wide open and slammed against the brick wall with a bang. The door bounced outward from the concussion, but then fell back against the brick twitching on its hinges like it’d been knocked out cold. We all froze. It was Coach.

“Real cute, boys,” he growled. “But who’s gonna protect your lousy butts from me?”

I snapped to attention, whipping my hands behind me. Paige spun on her heels, plucked the cigarette from my fingers. I could feel her breath in my ear. “Meet up at the playground, after dark, ‘k?”

Coach watched the two sisters leave, then, never blinking, narrowed his eyes to us. “You’re late. Again. I’m done playin’ with ya’, fellas. There’s rules on this team. You break ‘em, you suffer the consequences. Emphasis on suffering.” He jammed his clipboard under his arm pit and hiked up his sweats. “Responsibility. Teamwork. Effort. Those aren’t just words I say when I feel like wastin’ oxygen — they’re what I expect from every ball player. And ‘til I start gettin’ that from you, your butts are runnin’ thirty suicides apiece after practice — every practice.”

“But, Coach,” we stammered. One suicide —  a continual sprint from the baseline to the free throw line and back, then to half court and back, then to the opposite free throw line and back and then, finally, baseline to baseline — was enough to make you want to puke. “Thirty?”

“Ten for bein’ late. Ten for smokin’ and ten,” Coach took Juan’s cigarette out of his mouth, snapped it over his thumb and ground it into the pavement. “Because the only way to get through your thick skulls is with pain. Now, don’t just stand there. Double time your butts inside, A-SAP!”

 

“Wow. What bullshit, man,” Juan complained. This was after practice. We’d survived, but just barely. Now, the three of us were in the showers, exhausted and doubled over with the kind of spastic, paralytic cramps you’d normally get from eating the cafeteria’s meatloaf. “Run. That’s Coach’s solution to everything.”

My whole body felt dead. Even the weight of the hot water spraying down on my head was too much to bear. I gave up, slouched my back against the tile wall, let my legs go limp and slid slowly to the floor.

Lima Bean moaned, “I’m not moving ‘til there’s no more hot water.”

“I’m not movin’, period,” I said.

But Juan was still going at it. “You’re late for practice? Run. Miss your free throws? Run. You fart and don’t say, ‘‘scuse me?’ Run.” Juan tipped his head back, let his mouth fill with water, gargled, then spit. “Builds character my ass. What the hell are sprints ‘sposed to be teachin’ us, huh? Only thing I’ve learned is that Coach is one sadistic motherfucker —”

“Ya’ can’t be that tired, numb nuts,” Coach shouted from his office on the other side of the locker room. “I can hear your mouths still runnin’.”

We choked back our laughter while Juan mimed an exaggerated replay of what Coach had just said, then, as he finished, whispered,  “I don’t fucking care if you can.”

“Consequences to your actions, boys. Get used to it. You think bein’ on time is small potatoes? I say it’s bigger than you know.” Coach’s voice sounded like he’d swallowed the bead in his whistle. Either that or he was just worn out from yelling at us. “Nobody goes good or bad overnight. Get me? They’re just walkin’ a road they’ve been buildin’ they’re whole lives. That’s why I’m bein’ so hard on ya’ now; ya’ gotta learn your lessons young. Some day it’ll click and maybe — you’ll wanna thank me for it.”

Maybe. But it wouldn’t be today. Because, we’d already toweled off and dressed and were heading out the back door into the night. We had more important things to do.

We were going to Juan’s apartment to swipe the last dusty jug of his father’s sweet wine from the cabinet above the sink. And then later, after we’d had a couple of sips to ourselves, take it up to the playground to share with the girls and hopefully, have a good time.

“You sure your dad won’t be home?” I asked Juan as we got on our bus. I was worried because that was the only alcohol we’d be able to get. Lima Bean lived with his mom and grandma and grandpa, who didn’t drink, and my mom had got wise to us and started marking her bottles with a pen. “Paige really likes that Boone’s Farm.”

“You’re hopeless.” Juan flashed his MUNI pass at the driver and elbowed his way past me. “One look from that girl could tease the knots right outta your shoelaces.”

Lima Bean agreed. “She could do pretty much anything she wanted to him.”

“And with a little liquor in her, sometimes she does,” I grinned, holding out my fist while the two of them gave me daps. “So, is he gonna be there or what?”

“Yeah, right, sucker. Keep it in your pants, man, jeeze. I told you.” Juan took the gum he’d been chewing on and stuck it underneath the seat in front of him. “He won’t be there. He won’t be there ‘cause he’s hardly ever home any more.”

“Whattaya mean?” I asked him. “Since when?”

“I dunno. I didn’t mark it on the calendar, stupid.” Juan bent the brim of his ball cap and pulled it down to his eyes. “Since awhile, ok? Like after Mom went back to Mexico. I guess he got his truck license and took a job drivin’ long haul. Every four or five days he pops in for a nap and clean laundry, then he’s gone again.”

Juan slouched in his seat, looked out the window, not saying anything as the scenes of the city jerked on past. He was the youngest kid in his family. His closest brother was more than ten years older. I think he lived in New York or something.

“It don’t bother me, though, all right? I don’t need anybody to take care of me. I’m not a freakin’ baby.” Juan stood up and yanked the pull cord rapidly six or seven times. This was our stop.

“I’m serious,” he repeated, as we pushed our way out the rear door. “It don’t bother me one bit”

As we crossed behind the bus to McAllister towards Juan’s apartment, which was in the middle of a large complex of public housing that sprawled all the way through the Western Addition, we could see that something serious had gone down. Flashing red and blue lights were swirling off the buildings and we could hear the canned burble of an incoming voice over walkie-talkies. Cops were everywhere and the entire row of Section 8’s where Juan lived had been yellow-taped off.

Half a dozen squad cars were jacked up along the curb, doors flung open like they’d been piloted by a bunch of drunks who just abandoned them anywhere. A fire engine idled in the middle of the street shining a spotlight on the unit a few doors down from Juan’s apartment. Uniform cops with Maglites swept the bushes and the grass and the security gate that had been erected by the city to keep the residents safe.

One of the officers was talking to the rent-a-cop responsible for patrolling the public housing. He was just an old man in a wrinkled uniform who didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything and whose only answer to the cop’s questions was to shrug his shoulders.

“They’re not going to let anybody through,” Lima Bean said.

“You have to talk to that cop,” I said to Juan. “Tell him you need to be let into your place real quick. You gotta get your homework or somethin’. They could be here all night. I don’t wanna keep those girls waitin’.”

“You mean you don’t wanna keep Paige waitin’, ‘cause if you do she’s liable get bored and find somebody else to hook up with.”

I gave Juan a dirty look because in my heart, I knew it was true. “Just go talk to him, ok?”

The three of us approached the yellow tape and listened in as the officer finished up with the old man.

“So this car,” the cop was saying. He sounded bored. “What color was it?”

“It was dark,” the old man replied.

“Black? Blue? Grey?”

“No, I mean, it was dark. I got these cataracts and can’t see well at night.” the rent-a-cop took a handkerchief from his back pocket and ran it across his nose. “I’ll tell you, all I could make out was them wheels. You know, the kind of big, shiny hubcaps these kids put on the beaters they drive?”

“You mean rims? The things the tires are on?” It was then that the cop caught sight of us from the corner of his eye. He tucked away his pen, took two long steps to the perimeter. “You kids need to move it back to the other side of the street,” he said and blasted the three of us in the face with his high powered LED.

The light’s brightness was sudden and shocking. For a second, my mind felt like it had been completely erased and I had an overwhelming urge to piss.

“Um,” Juan stammered, blinking blindly into the glare. “I, uh, just had a question. About my homework.”

“Now that you mentioned it,” the old man said, looking over the cop’s shoulder. “One of ‘em looked kinda like that middle kid there.”

The cop’s flashlight moved to our hands, to our knees, to our shoes and back to our faces. “So where are you coming from?”

“Basketball practice,” I said.

“Have you been drinking? Any drugs?”

“He lives here,” I heard Lima Bean say. “What’s wrong with you, man, tell him.”

“Uh —” The words just kind of fluttered out Juan’s mouth and died in mid-air. “Uh, um, I mean, yeah, yeah, that’s right,” he pointed.

I chimed in. “Number Four. That’s probably how that old dude knows him. We just wanna get in real quick. Grab school books and other school stuff to like, study. That’s ok, right?”

“Study, huh?” The cop gave me a suspicious look.

Just then, Juan dropped his backpack and made a sudden move for his front pocket. The officer took half a step back and grabbed for his hip.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he commanded, flipping the safety flap on his holster.

But all Juan was doing was going for his keys. They were in his right hand, held by the ring, jangling together softly. “Number Four?” he said, meekly.

“Jesus.” The cop exhaled, clicked off his flashlight. “Listen, I know you’re probably just worried about your family, but I can’t let anybody in. We did a door to door evacuation. No one was reported missing or injured in any unit other than the one in which the incident took place. Now, please, kids, back it up to the other side of the street. Let us do our jobs.”

We shuffled across the street and stood on the sidewalk with the rest of the neighbors dressed in their pajamas and slippers and work clothes from the late shift. We all stared across the road like we were waiting for a parade to go on by.

“That cop almost shot you,” Lima Bean said. “That was cool.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette. “At least he would’ve been doing something.”

I was getting impatient. Most of the policemen had already stopped looking for clues. Some of them had gotten into their patrol cars and left, others were making small talk with the firemen. Not a lot seemed to be happening, but there weren’t any signs of anything actually being wrapped up.

“Man, can’t they move any faster?”

“Somebody probably died or got all messed up or something,” Lima Bean said. “Have some respect, man, jeeze.”

But all I could think of was that soft sound that Paige made as my hand made its way underneath her shirt. It wasn’t even a sound, really, more like a purr that vibrated up from inside her lungs.

“Well,” I said to Juan. “I guess one good thing is that your dad wasn’t around. Who knows what couldda happened to him if he was.”

Juan didn’t say anything. In fact, he hadn’t spoken one word since the cop almost shot him, which for him, was probably a world record for silence. It had me a little worried.

I tried to cheer him up. “I wouldn’t sweat it, man. Probably he’s just workin’ a lot of weird shifts or whatever. A man’s gotta earn a living.”

None of the neighbors had gone back into their houses yet. Some were gossiping, but most were keeping a close eye on the police. One dude even had his camcorder rolling.

“They gonna act right when they know they on film,” he said.

“But soon as they get back to the po-lice station,” another said. “All them evi-dences is goin’ straight inta the trash can. They done proved time and again that they got no in-trest solving a crime perpetrated on poor folk.”

“Either that or his work is taking him out of town or something like that.” I nudged Lima Bean. “Right?”

“No,” Lima Bean said. “I know what it is. Your dad is like our boy here. Probably some honey’s got him all wrapped around her dainty, nail polished pinkie. He’s taking her out, spending his cash —”

“Dumbass.” I kicked Lima Bean in the knee. “His parents are still married.”

“Right, I knew that. I didn’t mean it in that way.”

A little ways away from the rest us a man was muttering and laughing to himself. All he had on was an old pair of boxers and a white t-shirt with a faded photo of somebody’s face printed across the front. The shirt read: Willie Green 1982-2000 RIP.

“Poor Po-Po don’t know his ass from his elbow,” he said to no one in particular.

I asked him, “Do you know what happened?”

“Saw the whole damn thing go down from right outta my winda’. Couple of muthafuckas came strapped with guns an’ duct tape an’ kicked the Lewis’s door in. Had the whole family from gran-ma to baby facedown in the livin’ room.”

“A home invasion?” Lima Bean said. “What were they looking for?”

“Who knows, kid. Ain’t nothin’ in these dumps but roaches an’ frustration.”

We all stopped talking for a minute to watch a young woman be escorted out of the Lewis’s apartment into a waiting ambulance. She had a bandage across her eye and was wearing a fireman’s blanket because her clothes had been mostly torn off.

An old lady followed close behind her. “Oh, Lord — why — just a innocent baby. A baby. Sweet Je-sus what’d we do to deserve this?”

The man continued, “Saw them fools climb outta the back winda empty handed an’ duck inta a se-dan that was waitin’. Took off thataways.”

Lima Bean said, “Whoa. Really? Man, you should let the cops know so they can catch those assholes.”

The man screwed up his face disgustedly. “Shit. Ain’ no bis-ness of mine. Talk to the po-lice?” He was now speaking loudly enough for everybody to hear. “You kiddin’? Boy, I ain’t no snitch.”

Then he turned, cursing us and anyone else, went in his front door, snapped the dead bolt, closed the curtains and turned out all the lights.

“What a dick,” Lima Bean said.

“Whatta perfect waste to a Friday night,” I complained.

“I’m bored too,” Lima Bean agreed. “Let’s do something else.”

“My place?” I said. “Madden marathon?”

Just then, a purple box Chevy on triple golds crept through the intersection. The passenger side window rolled down, a whiff of smoke floated out. The brake lights blinked twice and then the driver hit the gas. The car reared on its haunches and sped off.

“All right?” I asked Juan. He didn’t move, he was looking at the car’s taillights as they disappeared around the corner. “Ok?”

“Uh — hey, man,” Juan said. His voice cracked feebly, like he was using it for the first time after coming out of a long, deep sleep. “You think, like, it’d be cool with your ma if I maybe just stayed the whole night at your place, too?”

 —
16 in the clip and 1 in the hole/joshua citrak’s ’bout to make all the people say ‘oh!’