February, 2013. Issue 40.
by Ken Poyner
She loved the processed food. Most of us could not stand it, but she eloquently craved it. It became an obsession. She sat in her home at the edge of our village and cried out for it. She had grown larger and more plush and now could barely leave her house, and yet she called out for the mechanically processed food: that food, in its strangely pliant boxes, wrapped in heavily decorated sleeves, covered endlessly with such prurient excess of production and effort. How much labor it must have taken! How many men and boys and unmarried women must have swayed listlessly in work dirges to make it!
Children would run to town to get it for her, and bring it back with all its fierce wrapping intact. She would pat each child and unclothe the gift, depositing the bags and papers and boxes out of her nearest window, then set into the food as though it would escape without her application of immediate attention.
Beneath her window there was not the expected on-going pile of discards: only the day's fresh collection of packaging and papers and cardboard and Styrofoam. Nights, the villagers would come to claim these valuable leavings; and many homes were festooned with cardboard and paper, all gaudily ornate: painted, it seemed, almost as though with a madness of message. Roofs slowly disappeared under the water-shedding miracle of flattened white boxes, and walls became yellow wrap or stripes on aluminum foil. Every home, for the mix, became different and distinct. While the mere utility of covering mud and thatch with material that was far closer to immortal remained our driving purpose, nonetheless we began to judge amongst ourselves which houses were ostentation, which were dreary, which had caught the modern sensibility just so.
Before long, some villagers did not wait until night. They came as soon as they saw the children run for the woman's home with their arms emboldened with her precious provisions. These precocious citizens would stand outside of the woman's window, unabashed, signaling their right to the best of the packaging, collecting with an imperious eye: gluttonous, even though we all knew no one had any special right, no one was due more than anyone else. This trash was out of her window, and thus the village's gain.
Public shame could not deter the early gatherers. They crossed their arms and glared at passing neighbors who looked to them in disapproval. The public morality was to wait until nightfall; to gather and sort, contend and select. Every individual was assumed to be aware of his or her own needs; yet some of these early collectors already had covered their houses twice over, and for them it was not enough. They were willing to displace those who had not collected sufficient leavings even to cover a roof, or those who had yet to place one thin layer on the windward side of their exposed abodes. And amongst themselves, the early gatherers cooperated when it came to claiming the most, or the best, of the pile, in opposition to the coming of the rest of us to collect; yet, when there was no competition from the village proper, the early gatherers competed amongst themselves, ferocious both in quality and quantity.
Our village, once the drab of utility, was growing to be a festoonery of panache, a flock of many species of color and patch: piebald, and less a place to live than a place to inhabit, a showpiece. Food wrappers and packages and Styrofoam hung everywhere like triumphal streamers. Many admitted: it had its charm, and the old utilitarian abodes seemed less comfortable in hindsight. Looking over all the houses, it was easy to pick out favorites, to classify styles, to see who had put thought into arrangement.
The houses of the early gatherers stood out like a wink in a full moon, the laundry of outlanders, or the laughter of lame magicians.
Soon, the early gatherers began to believe their success, that all success, was more truly a side of entitlement. Having covered their homes many times over, each would decry that, having the most, he was due ever more; and that everyone could see by her success at covering her home with the food packaging discards that she surely knew how best to arrange and display the collected material; and so he should be allowed to take the best of it, so as to make the best use of it. Those who had not collected as much apparently did not have the talent for it, or lacked the industry. We who wished to wait for the sun to set, to take a communal and ordered approach, we, to the early gatherers, were dullards and slackers and lie-abouts: unworthy. The useful discards should go to those who had the most talent to use them, they would say, and it was almost a duty for those with the most packaging already claimed to rescue the largest share of the bounty available from those who would make no progress with it.
We disagreed, claiming that there are other pursuits a villager should be engaged in, and that too much of anything is the sign of a person who cannot be filled up. But the gatherers were not willing to listen to our reason and were settled to continue, to any unforeseen end, their overarching efforts to gather ever more. The remedy collectively seemed more and more to be some violence of restraint, an enforcement of civility that would surely create a reaction in the early gatherers, that might in opposition create a hunger for even more, ever more: to take this need which had already surpassed the practical, and then the ostentatious, to a need encompassing the social and soon the religious.
The woman simply ate, and soon her husband could not see the whole of her in one session of looking. She sat on the floor, unrestrained by furniture or gravity, and the bolts of her body slowly slipped dejectedly groundward. Her laugh at the resupply of her constant meal was but a gurgle of trapped air expelled as its last wish before execution. She could not stand against her own corporeal success; her movements became compromise, and in some cases ceased when their mission could not be mapped to her torrid ingestion.
But then a man, long in the tooth and tired of the hunt, took up the processed food as well. His grandchildren would run to town and come back with the brightly colored bags and boxes and he would sit in his house, growing larger and less able to navigate even the floors of his own home. He would toss out of the window the magnificent resource the foul food had come in. At first the hollows of his cheeks filled in, and then the space between his ribs, and soon he was eating as much as the woman and the bounty flew out of his window in a stream no less wondrous than the one from her lazily admired window.
The village took notice. Many had not even a full layer of the flashy paper on their walls. A few had none of the white compressible food boxes, boxes that worked so well to beat back the rain, on their unspectacular, lusterless roofs. Some who had covered their homes once over began to think: if there is more to be taken, why not add more; why not take away the bland and unexciting and replace it with desperate, private explosions of color and texture; why not replace a wrapper with a bag, a bag with a box?
The early gatherers would have split into groups: those who felt they could find better at the man's house; and those who felt that soon better would be left unclaimed at the woman's window after some of the others had gone to raid the man's growing pile of discards. But before any grand reorganization, there were rumors that a strap of a girl who had married too young and too cheaply was thinking of the processed food, had had her fill of reaping and picking and curing and salting and foraging. It was said in the body of village gossip that her children had been asking about the run to town: about the time and distance, and the ritual shuffle at the place where the processed food product was assembled and clothed in its princely boxes. And the early gatherers put by any thoughts of disagreement and competition amongst themselves and began to think: too much of anything is too much for all. When there is no more to want, then thinness will come back again and the subtlety of thin walls and a porous roof and open air through thatch will stand again as all the rage and the colors and papers and boxes and aluminum will disappear. There must be control. There must be one level higher that can manage want and keep it predictable. Where in that circle are the early gatherers, and the publicly traded plutocracy that their own industry has evolved out of mere want?
And so they created a market.
Table of Contents
by Timothy Gager
Where Do You Bury The Survivors?
Staring at the uniform of the panicked maitre d', I only saw his authority as something which needed to be overcome. I knew he supervised the ship's meals only and had no experience in a situation like the one we were facing. I needed to not respect the chain of command that placed him as an active captain of this perilous situation. I only saw him directing our lifeboat back toward sinking cruise ship, whose suction would drag us down. I saw my mother hunched over in prayer and hoped I was wrong about the existence of God.
Most of all, I saw no hope in the faces of the rest of us. When you are forced to use a lifeboat, somehow the word life seemed like wishful thinking. I raised my voice and yelled, "I am in command here!" Hearing the words out of my mouth surprised me. Seeing the maitre d' immediately sit down surprised me just as much. Now, I was in charge. I directed the people rowing to turn around and head as quickly as possible in the other direction. According to the newspaper, I was the hero. I saved their lives.
It destroyed mine. I read later accounts of the two hundred other passengers whom died. Every night I drank over them. They could not be saved but I was the one still here. I had dreams about bodies being left behind, floating dead besides the lifeboat. I had other ones where I was the only person sitting in a damaged boat, rowing as quickly as possible as the water filled up higher than my knees and then higher still.
I also burned through relationships; felt I didn't deserve friends or lovers. I went to various therapists but they were ill equipped to deal with the survivors. I went through a quick marriage with a woman who also saw the world as simply a place to escape. She exhausted all of her vices and when she was clear enough to have a good look at me, she got as far away as possible.
I was a whirlpool, dragging down anyone that would get too close. I was in the center, spinning out of control. One day, I sat in my house with a gun to my head. I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I was left stunned, reached for my whiskey, but couldn't get the drink down. I felt no longer intoxicated.
* * *
My mother and I decided to take the cruise because of the bad blood simmering under the surface for the last couple of years. She was disappointed in me and me in her; a typical reaction when a person reaches the post college period of their life. I'd experienced too much of her ugly drinking during my upbringing and she thought I should have more to show after earning a degree at Boston University. "You can't do much with Political Science," I told her after she'd spent the money on my tuition. I had done a few things, such as take a sailing course, with tiny boats on the Charles River, during my third semester. I almost failed the week I was to be certified when the boom whipped around and knocked me unconscious. I recovered enough a few days later to pass, able to guide and dock the boat using correct tacking. While my mother and I were on deck in the beginning of the cruise, I told her that I wasn't ready, at the time, to pursue a trade at school, but only wanted to have fun. I needed an escape from what I felt I'd gone through with her during my childhood and college seemed to be the right place at the right time. Somehow, right now, sitting on a sunny deck by a pool, with a plateful of food and a drink, with multi layers of color, didn't seem like an escape at all. Yet, escape, was what I was forced to do, early the next morning when we were roused out of bed at 4 am, with smoke billowing from the boat and a call for evacuation just seconds away.
Mom and I were lucky, directed onto one of the first boats. When we loaded in, we were told to stay calm and at this moment we were. Within minutes after the lifeboat became unchained into the Alaskan ocean was when the first explosion hit. We heard panicked screaming above us that lasted another three minutes until the second explosion sounded and then it was only another hour or so before the ship's burning hull disappeared into the darkness.
* * *
When the gun refused to discharge, I sobered up. I was as if I had been given a third chance. I shook my way through a thirty day Detox, praying to save myself without thinking of the ones I couldn't save. I was told to look in the mirror and stop seeing the charred faces of those floating in the water, the same ones I'd pour a drink down for until they were all blocked out. My mother and I have become quite close after the disaster. I think how she saw me make the decisions I made in the lifeboat, made it impossible for her to feel any disappointment regarding my past or even my present, for that matter. She told me at hospice when she was dying of cancer that I'd done an amazing thing and that she was happy I was now looking at things in a clear way and no longer consumed by them. "You're life will continue to get better and better," she said and in a week she was gone. I was present for that.
* * *
I still hear from a number of the survivors from my boat. They call me Captain, and send me Christmas cards and e-mails which thank me. I few of them still ask about what exactly happened, as their memories remain cloudy toward the incident. I think they just want to hear the story again. It's mind blowing. I tell it bravely and how each and every one of them had an important role in the recovery and rescue. They are the only people I allow myself to talk to about what happened that morning, in fact, some of the closest friends I've formed since, have no idea I was ever on a cruise ship that sunk. I gladly open up to the survivors, about the moments before, during and after. I tell them what my life is like now. I always skip the part about the gun. I'm sure they have their own feelings about the randomness surrounding who lived and who died, but they don't need to know the dark part of my life when I felt that guilt. I tell them that they did exactly what they needed to do and how they too were heroes. Then I tell them to thank God, for their lives, the same way I thank Him for mine.
Once we saw the moon, big in the sky rising up over the scraggly arms of the shadow of branches. Once we saw the moon lying in the back of my parents' station wagon behind the screen of the drive-in. The movie was on but we weren't watching.
The moon. It followed us on paths, around ponds we swam in naked after midnight. We yelled to it, asking it to provide heat, the air being cool on a summer night. It just shone brightly back, doing what it did and I was so proud of the moon in that moment. It made your eyes two points of light, so striking that I stared into them for long periods, and it no longer mattered that we sat in the dirt, sharing a single towel, our bodies warming against one another. I was hypnotized, as you told me all our important things, until you reached for your boots and the trance was over.
Once we saw it, from our new home. I said, I'd like to lie on top of it like Snoopy on his doghouse. The doghouse, like the moon tonight seemed perfectly two-dimensional. It never appeared to actually have a roof, my eyes played tricks every time. My eyes see what I want to see, like when our first child was born, she had light in her eyes, just like yours did by the pond, blessed by God from the Universe. There are so many tricks.
Like the night I saw the moon rise without the two of them. Light was in the window when I walked past to answer the door. I wished the police would stay with me and repeat everything they said after "there's been an accident." I could have saved that. The moon hung in the sky over their shoulders as they spoke and I looked up to it because I couldn't talk, not even to tell him not to leave because everything else was gone.
I started seeing the moon from the lawn of my empty house. It taunted me, the way it kept coming and I stared at it with anger, hoping it would explode. I sat inside with the lights off and not be bothered with something as predictable as its visit every month. Every four weeks, it came to tell me that it was still there, to keep trying, not to give up and sometimes awful things can happen which you can't control---and that everything else in life continues as normal, whether you like it or not.
Slowly the moon gave back my life. I bargained that I would be willing to do whatever it took to begin to have joy once more. The stagnant gears began to turn and I began to move forward, slowly creaking.
Thank you. Now, I see miracles I cannot explain. I notice things; a convertible with people jumping up and down, a rock fly, a talking dog, and a cripple walking on water. The darkness sings me a hymn. I am able to see both of you, so clear and sweet, that I hold you in a hug inside my pale arms. The moon lived the bargain, and if I'm able, I'll hold up my end.
Let me tell you about the time I had to do what I had to do but first off there's a mini-version that's gonna represent everything else. If one thing represents another in life, it was Baby and I hiring a fresh student at half the usual price. This indicates a lot. It was her first time, all dewy and doe-eyed, about to do everything on film to help pay her tuition. When she gagged on one of the cocks, I had to cut the shot, leaving her on her knees, as if begging to return to an easy life. This time I wouldn't grant that request. We shot another scene.
The other time, Baby and I caught the boy who burned us for $5,000 and we shoved him down on his knees, arms behind his back. My roommate Russ, holding my gun, not a camera, stood frozen as I tried to direct him, yelling, "Shoot him! Shoot him!" The kid knelt there crying while Russ's arm shook, the scene lasted way too long, so I said, "Let him go."
I told the kid to remember us and what we did for him. He remembered us all right. Two days later his boys were over, laying some licks on me and Russ. I crawled away from that, but Russ needed an ambulance. When he was in Morton Hospital, he told the cops he didn't remember anything because he was concussed. When they found me I said it had been a bad car accident but I wasn't asked to produce nothing. No accident report, no receipt from the body shop; the cops knew I would have refused any of their requests.
So there were other residual problems. Baby worried that if we didn't produce another film we'd have no money for dope. All I have left was a camera and a soundboard. Everything else had been spent. We needed one more camera to do it right and we would have to steal to get it. Desperate measures put us here, time in essence was running out on us, which was what we needed to get some money. We knew stealing might bring time in the slammer.
We made some initial clips last week, using Baby, looking yellow and balloon-headed in the dailies, shot with the one camera; she and Russ. Russ always wanted to get with her so he just did it for free. We had no budget to pay someone even the college co-ed rate—the small amount of money we had, we needed to hold onto if we ever were to climb out of this deep well of a hole. Mostly we couldn't do anything, except wait.
We drove to Pawtucket, where the highway and back streets ran parallel to train tracks and waited for a mark. Perhaps a guy would get a flat or someone on the side street walking alone, only paying attention to his phone and then WHACK, we'd sucker him. He would be an investor in our new beginning. We would leave him to the world without a wallet. If he came to, he wouldn't care that we needed a new camera, or that Baby's dailies looked terrible, he'd just assume that some desperate person needed money or drugs in order to continue.
I cared about all those things, and I cared for her. She was a stellar beauty when we met and now all of that had been flushed away. It was all flushed away. We returned to our house and Russ was gone, and so was everything else I owned except the gun I hid in the closet.
When the world was young, my parents gave me a camera for my birthday. It was late spring and I took my previous girlfriend with me to shoot close ups of bright yellow dandelions against the green grass. Then I took photos of her in a white shirt, laying down on the lawn and then looked around and saw no one around to take one of us. I collapsed in the grass next to her, pulled her head toward mine and for the first time, we kissed. It was as perfect as I had imagined it.
Today, I'm not doing any of this. I look at Baby nodding, cross legged on the floor. I look back at her and to the open closet at the gun. Baby. Gun. Baby. Gun.
Table of Contents
by Aaron Jacobs
The train rolled on, making all local stops, before screaming to a halt in the black and musty tunnel of the terminal, a dank place where Edward imagined the homeless to live among tracks and gears and electrical grids and other apparatuses central to the operation of the trains. Three days away had been long enough as he saw it, as there were expectations he had to live up to, job or no job, since the business world embodied more than what alone took place in an office, and there was quite little debate that morning in whether or not he should don his work clothes, drive to the Park-and-Ride, and catch his usual 8:04. After all, what did his brothers-in-commuting think about his absence? Or hadn't they noticed? That he was unremarkable wasn't impossible.
Now he rushed off, keeping pace with the crowd, when he remembered there was no place where he was expected, no one who might take note if he came late. He bought a cup of coffee, took his time stirring sugar into it, spied an old man helming a shoe shine concern beside the pastry kiosk, motioned for his attention.
"How much?" he asked.
"You won't scuff them, will you?"
"Sit or be moving. I haven't got the patience."
He sat. He looked down and saw the old man's scalp through the thin wisps of hair still clinging to his head and he ran a hand through his own hair, as if to make sure it was all there. The old man began applying the polish. Edward sipped the coffee and studied the morning rush, a deposed king taking one last view from his throne.
"You've been a while without a shine," the old man said.
The commuters, along with upstate day trippers and foreign tourists, streamed past him, while marching from the other direction was another crowd, equally urgent in their transit. Yet they never touched. The social contract survived their desire to walk over those in front of them. Edward, savoring his coffee as though it was the last cup in North America, marveled at the rules of public conduct. He felt his laces come undone. The old man was vigorous with a buffing brush, muttering, "Got to get in the cracks. It's the only way. The only way."
Edward looked again at the crowd and saw a dozen versions of himself. There I go, he thought. There and there and there. He was pleased to count himself among the majority of men his age, although this tiny satisfaction faded as he became keenly aware that he had no idea when he would be welcomed back into their good graces. If he even wanted to rejoin them. More than a small part of him never wanted to work again. It was an exhilarating feeling that emerged, not a feeling exactly but an insight, that he'd known this for a long time, but only now—watching from his shoeshine throne—did he finally accept it.
The old man finished wiping down his shoes with a white rag streaked with polish. Three final swipes over the leather. "Done, done, done."
Edward handed him a five, started walking. He took a seat on the great marble steps near the ticket windows, the constellation of stars flickering in the ceiling overhead. What to do next? He was stumped. And then, all at once… well, at this point it was a fragment of a memory but he recognized its potential: an image of Times Square forged at sixteen, when on St. Patrick's Day he and his friends wandered west of the parade until the bagpipes and drums and tin whistles merged with the riotous dissonance of the city. They were beckoned by names like Peep World, Peep-O-Rama, All Nude Revue, Girls—Live Girls! He wanted to bathe again in the glow of the flashing lights, immersed in the neon sparkle of a sign that read: All Nude Peep 25 cents.
Next, he passed from the shuttle to Times Square, through the tunnel, up to the pavement, smelling the sweet air, with eyes agleam, like someone prepared to do God's work. He swiveled his head in search of a peep show. His pulse beat in his temples, the disorderly excitement surging with his blood. It didn't occur to him it would be a difficult task.
He gawked at signs and lights, finding everything he wasn't looking for: theme restaurants, mega-stores, Broadway plays. A throng of people moved in disarray around him. He stormed over the blocks. Where did they go? He was persistent in his search. At that moment, he formed a connection between the loss of his job and finding this store. Locating it would diminish the fact that twelve years had been cleaved in an instant. To give up before then justified the layoff because if something as simple as this was too difficult for him, he didn't deserve success of any kind. He loosened the knot in his tie to accommodate the lungfulls he drew. Times Square shrank at his back, almost twenty blocks. On the corner of West Twenty-fifth Street and Sixth Avenue, he stumbled across a tiny storefront with tinted plate glass windows. The neon should have flashed and buzzed but the letters were lifeless, gray flecks of bird shit splattered on them. Stapled flyers and circulars covered the entrance, a padded red door, leaving visible a small heart-shaped window of opaque Plexiglas.
He heaved open the door. A man sat at a cash register, reading. In front of him were rows of magazines, videos and DVDs. Edward walked among the racks, stopping now and then to get a closer look, affecting the casualness of a man grocery shopping. Displayed along one wall was erotic torture paraphernalia. Straps and cuffs and riding crops, gags and clamps and paddles. He inspected a two-foot long dildo and rapped it against his thigh, imagining the welts that would rise from a pale flank. The explicitness was jarring for someone whose formative years were pre-modem. His generation had needed to hustle for their smut. Reports consistently showed American students lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts, but Edward remembered working like an electrical engineer to descramble cable channels for glimpses of late night full frontal. Even then there was no penetration.
Replacing the rubber dick on the rack he began looking around for the peep shows. Their whereabouts lay hidden. He would need to consult a professional, the man at the register.
"What do we have here? A little beach reading?" Edward said, sidling up to the employee, possibly the proprietor.
The man closed the book, agitated by the disturbance. "What do you want?"
"I'm curious: what's the bulk rate on latex pussies?"
"How would you like it if I came out from around the counter?"
Edward wished there was a way to advise the man to treasure these interactions, for one day his job might be taken from him and his brusque demeanor with customers would rank among his regrets. Seeing no way to impart this wisdom, Edward said, "Fair enough. Can you point me in the direction of the peep shows? I can't seem to find them."
"Private viewing booths are back and to your right," the man said, returning to his book.
He walked back and, to his right, discovered a narrow hall with several doors on either side. The floor tiles were stained yellow with age. Some curled from the corners where the adhesive quit. The smell of urinal cakes filled his nose, though he saw no men's room. He approached the first door, tried the knob, found it locked. A voice inside yelled, "Fucking occupied!" He continued down the hall to an open door and closed himself inside. The tiny room had a plastic bench bolted to the wall. Opposite the bench was a large monitor. Next to that was a machine that operated the monitor. Above it, a sign read: $1.00 for three minutes. The booth shared the same dimensions as the changing room at Banana Republic in the Westchester Mall. Here it was, early enough for brunch, and Edward heard the muffled moans of men humping their hands. He sat on the bench and slid a dollar bill into the machine. It began humming and the monitor came alive.
At first he watched only to commit the moment to memory and retell it one day in a bawdy anecdote full of sights, sounds, and smells. The girl had pale skin but dark hair, a fine down across her upper lip. Her pendulous breasts carried the weight of whatever circumstances had led her to a couch in motel-esque room, to be broadcasted simultaneously to who knew how many private viewing booths around the world. Then the girl stared at him, a fragile hypnotized look on her corrupted face. As her hands worked over her body, the look told him that she believed her own hands weren't good enough. The look told him that she needed his hands but since that was impossible she was left with no choice but to satisfy herself, even though that meant not getting what she really wanted. He watched now with his hand unconsciously rubbing his hard dick through his pants. When he realized what he was doing, a fair amount of shame ordered him to stop but he didn't stop. He couldn't. His dick coerced him with its far more persuasive wish to be pulled from his pants. No, no, he feared, the plastic bench was rife with bacteria and viruses. As the dollar ran out and the monitor went blank, he imagined every other naked ass to sweat on this bench, while he continued helplessly to tug his dick and wrinkle his wool pants. He imagined evil microbes leaping from the bench, clinging to the hair on his ass and crawling into his butthole, or swinging onto his pubes, like subatomic monkeys on vines, scurrying the length of his shaft, and sliding into his dickhole, contaminating him with incurable infections that mutated and reproduced exponentially. Still, he couldn't stop.
Fuck it all, he thought, and undid his belt with one hand, frantically fumbling with cash in the other, trying to bring back the girl. Here she came back and he ignored the possibility that while she looked at him she thought of someone else. He ignored the possibility that she was on the other side of the earth and that she couldn't see him at all. He believed in her imperfect face. His sweaty hand pulled his dick sore, red. He might not make it another dollar. One was lying ready on the machine, in case he did make it. He did make it, not the whole dollar, maybe twenty-seven cents worth. What the hell, let them keep the change!
When it was over, when his pants were refastened and his penis was shrinking, when the wet tip was sticking to his underwear and all its persuasiveness had been coughed onto the floor, there was nothing to counterbalance the shame that piled up higher and higher. As he searched his pants to reassure himself that his keys and wallet hadn't fallen from his pockets, he avoided the monitor, though the girl was gone, broadcasted now into another odoriferous corner of the world. The embarrassment was reminiscent of the time, during the summer after sophomore year in college, when his grandparents stayed with his family. One night he came home drunk and, having an overwhelming need to piss, he barged into the bathroom to find his grandfather on the toilet, pants around his ankles, bending at his porous hips and struggling to reach an arthritic hand behind his back to wipe his ass.
Table of Contents
Chad and Willie Break a Leg
by M Cid D'Angelo
He'd lost a leg because Willie ate Corporal Ferguson's Rawhide Chili and had to get up in the middle of the night and ended up falling down a shithole. The bone had shattered, and since they'd been out from the column, near some godforsaken Afghan village with no medical facilities, the damage had destroyed all the arteries and he had to lose the limb.
Willie's got a titanium prosthetic leg now. It's a shiny, metallic blue fuck-you from the U.S. Marines because instead of losing a limb in a firefight, he'd lost it clamping his butt cheeks together in the pitch black of night trying to find a latrine. In the sunlight, it possesses the same hue as the old '87 Camaro he had in high school. It's ironic, when you think about it.
"So, I ask again," his wife says, "this will make you feel more like a man?"
The salt flats of northern Utah are whizzing by in a whitish gray blur. Katie's driving, of course, her forehead and hooked nose as prominent as the concrete monuments in Salt Lake City, breaking through the glare of the morning sunshine. She's not pretty all-around, no, Willie thinks. Katie is one of those women who make up for a rugged, masculine face with decisive, deadly curves everywhere else. That was because she was part Indian or something. India Indian. Katie claims lots of things, but the only certain bet is that she's just typical desert trash from Moab who'd been more impressed with the fact that Willie had looked good in his Marine uniform than with his GED and five years experience working the counter at Pep Boys.
"I mean, I understand. But couldn't you think of doing something a little safer?"
Willie grimaces, but she doesn't see it. She behaves most of the time, especially since his discharge. There'd been a time when Katie used to hit him hard with a mouth of venom just because she was a bitch. Nowadays, her compassion annoys him more than their absent fights.
"I told you I could've come up with the guys."
"No, no. I want to see this."
There's no clear assault of sarcasm in her tone. And you know, he thinks, if she really doesn't approve, fuck her, yeah? Even so, the half-conscious need to have Katie approve of anything since his return home slithers like an oily snake at the bottom of his belly. He hadn't cared at one time. His mother had told him it was maturity.
"So, did you do this in the Marines?" she asks innocently. "Jump out of planes?"
Willie shakes his head slightly. She knows the answer. He'd been a grunt humping through the desert hills west of Kandahar. Hey! Barbecue smoke in Cave Delta-Two-Three! And then there'd be some shots back and forth until somebody would die. It was usually an Afghan or two, wrapped up in white and brown rags. Willie had never been in a firefight. He'd wanted to be, just so he'd have something to say, but he'd heard all the stories from the guys who'd been there before once or twice. After all, Willie had gone because he'd wanted to make a difference, see the world – even if it was just Afghanistan or Iraq. If he got wounded, it would equal Gramp's Vietnamese plug in the small of his back in '72.
But, no, Willie had spent a few weeks burning his brown skin in the Afghan sun, dug into Ferguson's home chili, got the shits, and fell down an open hole and shattered his leg. So, fuck you, Katie. I want to jump out of a fucking airplane because this kiss-the-Corps'-ass prosthetic blue bullshit ain't gonna keep a brother down. What the fuck, woman?
It is moot, yeah. Okay. Getting his wife to understand won't happen in this life.
At that moment, Katie looks at him with a whiplash smile and says she loves him. What has she said on occasion? Everything happens for a reason, hun. Even you losing your leg. The gods have everything worked out. You'll see.
That absent leg itches and he forgets and scratches the metal of the false one.
He sighs. "I just want to make a difference, Katie."
"Uh, dummy? You haven't? You were in Afghanistan, fighting for your country."
"But I lost my leg being an idiot." He isn't aware there's a whimper in his voice. Anyone with half a conscience wants to make good. They want to make a difference in the world and try to balance out the karma of the universe.
"No one can live your life better than you." Katie's really big into self-empowerment. She buys lecture CDs by the gross.
He sniffs, coughs up phlegm, and dispatches it in disdain out the window. "Are you going to hang around or am I going back with Charles?"
"Uh! I told you I was sticking around this time." She indicates the distant crowd on the flats with a nod. "They got the whole platoon here."
"I told you it wasn't some bullshit."
"Good! I'm glad we're getting our money's worth making you a man again."
They pull up in a dusty gray-white smoke. Kate gets out first because she's going to help her husband, but Willie anticipates that and has himself unbuckled and on a balancing act before she rounds the vehicle. She stands there with her hands on her hips, smiling.
"Got your lunch?"
"I'm not eating up in the plane." He has to say something; silence will just make her press him and that would be embarrassing. The others stand in a semi-circle to welcome him into their midst. All the more reason now to walk alone, Willie thinks. At least they won't be grinning at him falling through the clouds.
Gonna take this Glock bitch and give 'em all lead airmail. Gonna open this up and let it go. Let it all go. Don't care who's all there! Gonna take this bitch and open it up and let it out a little. Troy Dickenson first if he's in the fucking lobby. He's always in there yapping about sales figures with some VIP fuckhead. And the bitch VIP is gonna get it too! All of them if there's more than one. It's almost lunchtime! I'll slip in just before noon, and hit the suits!
Chad drives, raises an eyebrow, and checks the digital display on the radio.
So, gots ten in a clip, and I've got three clips, bitch. Now I don't think I'm gonna get through them all if I watch who the fuck I shoot at. There's more than thirty bastards in there. So, Troy Dickenson, and Randi Harleson – and you talk about an HR manager who's gonna be eating some lead – she's gotta be in the first five I hit. Fuck, sitting there during the "exit" interview all shitty like she is and saying "we would like to think this as not a termination, Chad, but a transition for you and for the company." Maybe she's wearing all red like she does and has the gold choker around her neck, preening over her desk. So – lobby first, and then HR. It would be a stretch 'cuz HR is on the third floor and they will hear the shots in the lobby first ….
Chad grimaces, snarls at the traffic. 50 Cent jams the speakers.
So, maybe not hit the lobby first. Maybe slip in before Daria at the front desk sees me. She's always playing World of Warcraft on the computer when she thinks no one is around. She'll probably have her head down. But – fuck – what if Troy Dickenson is there? He'll be yakking it up with a VIP and he'll go "whoa Chad, you were terminated. You can't come in here." So, Troy's gotta be taken out first. Brains all over the linoleum, or whatever the fuck they pave the lobby floor with. But then if anyone is up on the game, they'll be rushing out one of the back emergency exits before I hit the call center floor. Not that I plan to hit everybody there – just Vincent, Florine, Caleb, Jonathan, and Patty Goldblum. Aw, fuck yeah, PATTY GOLDBLUM! The lesbian Jewish whore who had set this all up anyway! Complain about me making offensive remarks about how they should throw a wall around Israel and have the Jews and the Palestinians dig at each other with rusty hooks until only one race was left standing. I mean, that would solve the fucking Israeli problem, wouldn't it? Let those dumbasses waste each other and then give whoever survives the whole fucking place, right?
Chad shakes his head.
Is that justice? I would've come off the remark if they woulda just said, "Yo, Chad, that's kinda harsh, don't you think? When did you become an anti-Semite?" Hell, I told them all it was just a joke anyway. People are too fucking sensitive these days. This is a Mormon town anyway. What the fuck? So, how does some bitch like Patty Goldblum get so much leverage to get me fired? I'd been there three years longer than she has. I'd been promoted five fucking months ago to Regional Manager of all of East Millcreek. That cunt's a customer service lead! A fucking lead! She gets ME fired? It doesn't matter anyway. Patty Goldblum was just an excuse to get rid of me. I'm there every fucking day on time. I don't drink. I don't snort up white shit like Andrea Jackson does on Fridays when most of the suits have vanished for the links. And what about that? I'm in the war-room busting my ass on SOD production reports for the coming Monday because I love my work. Who was the stupid bastard who traded his last two months of weekends spot-checking warehouse production numbers? Not some dumbass temp from Office Staffers! Yours. Fucking. Truly. That's why Garett James promoted me to RM. I work. I. Fucking. Work.
Chad nods his head in grim determination. A glance at the Glock and its additional bullet clips on the passenger seat indicates the means.
Well, I may be checking out today for good. I mean, fuck, I'm losing my house – thank you, Endritch Bank! And just when I got up the nerve to start dating after the divorce too, the new bitch ups and goes because I told her I'd been terminated. Ah, now that was MY fault! I shoulda kept my fucking mouth closed. I knew that platinum shine on her head wasn't because she ever loved anyone. Any bitch who revels in coating her head platinum isn't looking for a man to love. She's looking for cash, fuckheads! But no matter, Glock bitch is with me now and there's the building. Hollander and Brooks: Software for the Ages. Gonna be "Death for the Ages" here in a fucking minute or two.
Chad pulls up and parks sideways in the handicap spot. The thousand-dollar fine can kiss his ass, he thinks. He reaches over and takes the gun and pockets the two clips.
Smooth. No hesitation. If I think about this, I won't do it and I'll let those bastards get away with it. By the time lunch is over, I'll be famous anyway. CNN and FOX News will be all over this. Chad Gifford went off the rails today, babies. What a heinous bastard! A Regional Manager for H&B shot thirty fucking people today – video at fucking six PM! The families of the fuckhead victims are outraged and devastated! Columbine has nothing on this. And those crazy postal workers? Who remembers them anymore? This isn't crazy. This is just justice. They'll say it's crazy, yeah. They'll say I was fucking nuts. Let's lobby for better gun control! And we know what a pipedream that is. This is America, babies. Land of the Free. And I got my gun, and I'm gonna be making lots of people FREE today.
Chad takes a breath and opens the door. He pulls himself out of the black and gray BMW and rearranges his clips in the jacket pocket. His Glock is thrust down in the opposite one. The jacket has a black hood. He pulls it on and closes the door.
There's a strange buzzing whir from above, just as Chad's right foot comes down on the asphalt. It sounds weird – something that borders on a high metallic whistle and a hive of angry bees. If Chad had a moment, he'd look up, but before his second step, his head is smashed to the side and his upper spine shatters. His body remains curiously erect for a few moments until his knees buckle and he falls forward to the pavement, a spray of blood heralding the bounce of his Glock as it throws itself from his jacket pocket and skitters along the gutter.
His body, clothed in the dark-blue hooded jacket and a pair of jeans, twitches almost five whole minutes before people inside the building rush out to find Chad lying there in a growing pool of blood. In the perfectly manicured green hedge leading up the walk, having bounced there from its impact, a shiny metallic blue prosthetic leg exclaims the triumph of the gods.
Table of Contents
by Lewis Harrison
"No way," said Claire, the other temp, laying her half-eaten rice cake down on top of its empty packet.
"You've got to be kidding," the girl across from me whispered, leaning forward – somewhat conspiratorially, I thought.
I had only said it to make conversation. In the same way one might gently prod a dozing centenarian to check he was still alive. But within seconds it seemed the entire office was gathering around my desk.
"How can you not show up on Google?" the Project Manager with the sleek blonde bob and severe-looking trouser suit asked as she strode over, a frown daring to crinkle her otherwise unblemished forehead. "Everybody shows up on Google."
"I-I don't know," I'd said, feeling my cheeks start to flush. "I just – don't."
I had thought it might be a fun little thing to mention. That it spark some interaction. Goodness knows that place needed it. Since I'd arrived for my first day that morning, the people at the web agency had spoken a couple of hundred words to me at the most. The rest of the time it had been deathly quiet.
And I suppose they did find it interesting to begin with. A little, anyway. I don't think they'd ever met a person who didn't use Facebook or LinkedIn religiously, let alone somebody who didn't show up on the Internet at all. Perish the thought.
Google, then Bing, flashed up bright and wide on monitors all around me, as a mission began to disprove my story. Those who'd left their desks whipped out their iPhones with a sudden flash of silver. Some endeavoured to try both avenues at once. It became a race to find the missing person.
"How, exactly, are you spelling Karen?"
"And you're sure there's only one 's' in your surname?"
But as search after search went by without success, the mood gradually shifted. Suspicion crept into their glances, as though the temping agency had planted me in their workplace for some nefarious purpose.
Finally, the Project Manager spoke again.
"Jesus. That's weird, isn't it," she said, her lip curled. It sounded like a rhetorical question but she left it there, dangling in the air, like it wasn't. "It's like you don't even exist."
A minute or so passed by without any further comment, which seemed to be the signal my new colleagues were waiting for. Everybody shuffled or else rolled back to their desks on white plastic swivel chairs, and the quick, quiet padding of deft fingers on keyboards resumed.
Silence returned to the office for the rest of the afternoon.
I arrived home earlier than I'd expected to that evening. After closing the front door and placing my keys on the side-stand, I let my handbag drop to the floor and stood before my reflection in the large hallway mirror.
I breathed on the glass, drew a little rectangle in the fog. Regarded myself through it.
I believe I stayed like that for quite some time.
Completely and Forever
"Don't leave," she says.
Her voice is calm – but her brow furrowed. Dark semi-circles stain her navy blouse beneath the armpits.
"Don't leave," she says again, but he has already turned his back on her to go.
He has to, of course. After everything he's done.
He steps towards the doors and—
"DON'T WALK OUT THAT DOOR!"
—reaches for them, as she scrambles for something beneath her trouser leg.
There is the loudest noise. Louder, he thinks, than anything he can remember. And a taste like molten iron in his mouth.
Outside now, prostrate on the sidewalk. Somewhere he can see lights: streetlamps, or shops, maybe. They are smudged and blurry, like he's looking at them through a window running with rainwater.
"God damn you, Michael" she says. Her voice, it floats in the air above him.
She rolls him onto his back, pushes the gun he was holding and the bag, stuffed with crumpled, bloodied banknotes, away to one side.
"God damn you." It's just a whisper.
He hears police sirens moving maybe a block away; the relentless hubbub of the city; a bird, calling, up high. And then, with surprising speed, it all begins to fade – completely and forever.
Table of Contents
Love in the Cheap Seats
by Benjamin F. Jackson
On the last day of October, Al Fine sat with his wife in the shadow of the Budweiser sign. He first purchased these tickets, high in the bleachers of Fenway Park, in the summer after he came back from the Pacific. For eighty-one days every year, they sat together in these seats and cheered on their Red Sox.
Slumped and wrinkled and gray, Al could no longer see the ball leave the pitcher's hand, but he didn't care. The roar of the crowd told him of the hits, and their despondent moans of the misses. He was at home in these seats, their hard wooden slats as familiar to him as the stoic, silent presence of his wife Joanne to his left. She nearly never spoke during the games, content in her role as his good luck charm. Walking home after the afternoon matchups—a walk that took longer and longer as the years went on—she would open up again, remarking on the game and the crowd, and slowly turning the topic to matters more important.
It was on these walks that Al learned to love her.
"Do you remember that first game in forty-six, Josie?" he asked her.
On a late April afternoon in nineteen forty-six, Al sat for the first time in those hard seats. It was the day after his homecoming, the months after the bombs spent patrolling the Japanese coast. The very first thing he wanted to see was his Sox put a hurting on the Yankees. Strolling down Commonwealth Avenue in his dress whites, he was keenly aware of the smiles he attracted from a number of young women.
He was glad to be home.
Approaching Kenmore Square, Al marveled at the size of the Citgo sign dominating the skyline. It had been erected in the year before the world went crazy, and the lights blazing from its hundreds and hundreds of bulbs had been the talk of the town. Before shipping out, he had kissed a now-forgotten girl in its commercial glow. He was glad to see it had not lost its ability to amaze him; that the years on the sea killing a distant foe and waiting to die had not robbed him of his ability to marvel at the wonders of Boston.
When Al made the sharp right onto Brookline Avenue, Fenway loomed in her green majesty. Her famed left field wall—they had taking to calling it "The Monstah"—towered over the saloons and souvenir shops on Lansdowne Street. Thousands of his neighbors packed the streets, jostling each other as they made their way to Gate A behind home plate. Some few were still in their service uniforms, but most had returned home the year before and long-since reverted to civilian clothes.
After shelling out his quarter for the bleacher seats, Al entered the gate and made his way up into the stands. Bright sunlight shined down into the seats, a drifting haze of smoke shimmering in the rays. The mellow scent of the cigars mingled with the odors of roasting peanuts, steaming hot dogs, and the excited musk of the assembled masses, ready to claim the top spot in the American League.
It had been a rough start to the year, with the Bronx bombers jumping out to a quick six game lead over the Boston boys, but the Red Sox had come back on a tear. Ted Williams, in his first year back from flying fighter missions over France, was hitting the ball like Hitler's face was painted in the seams, and the Yanks lead now stood at only one game. Sliding down the row to his assigned spot, Al overheard a blowhard spouting to his date that Jolting Joe was going to make sure the Sox never got closer than that one game.
Taking his seat next to the bewildered woman, Al boldly stated, "When the Red Sox win, I think you should ditch that guy."
The Sox did win, and that afternoon was the first walk Al and Joanne took together.
"You were always the best part of coming to these games," he told her. She remained silent, but Al knew she was listening. This was simply her way.
"Remember when Junior tried to take your seat?" he chuckled, "I don't know if I've ever seen you so angry. It was Dom DiMaggio's last game, that day. What was it? Fifty-three? Fifty-four? Damned if I can remember. If ever you were going to leave me for anybody, I think Dom would have been it. I could hardly blame you, mother, he was a heck of a ballplayer."
A teenager in a yellow shirt came up the aisle with a red cooler full of sweating cans of beer. A large blue button on his chest read "$7.00." Shaking his head, Al asked Joanne if she remembered how much they paid on their twentieth anniversary, while raising his gnarled hand and signaling for two beers. "Seventy five cents," he said, shaking his head. "Seventy five cents, and the beers were draft. Not these lousy cans."
He slowly counted out three crisp fives from his billfold, and passed them to his right, watching the beers pass hand to hand in his direction. When the first arrived, he popped the tab, his knuckles groaning in protest at grabbing the small metal flap. He placed the open beer in his wife's cup holder, and repeated the process with his own.
"Cheers, mother," he murmured, clinking his can off of his wife's.
The crowd roared, and chants of "Papi! Papi!" reverberated in the stadium and shook the concrete under his feet.
"Ortiz is up," he told his wife. The crowd rose to its feet, a cheer building in intensity before slowly falling into a collective groan.
"And Ortiz is out," he finished.
The crowd started filing out around them, sad eyes pointed at the old man and his wife. A woman who owned the seats behind him placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as she shuffled sideways down the row behind. Soon they were nearly alone in the park, the grounds crew rolling out the tarp over the storied infield.
"Well, that's that," he told her, a hitch in his throat.
"We lost so much, this year, mother."
A tear rolled through the folded flesh under his thick glasses. The green of the bleachers, warm and bright in the early days of spring now seemed dark and forlorn. He reached into the inner pocket of his team jacket and pulled out a small spoon, emblazoned with the 2004 World Series Red Sox logo.
With cold and swollen hands, he gripped the top of the small canister on the seat beside him, and gave a twist. It opened, revealing the gray powder within.
"We all lost so much," he whispered.
As the lights went out over Fenway Park for the last time of the year, Al Fine scooped ash into his spoon, and let a small bit of his wife drift away on the breeze. She blew around the stands, coating the seats from where she would watch the boys of next summer, and all the summers to come.
With a trembling hand, Al closed the lid on the urn and nestled the spoon back in the folds of his jacket. For the first time in more than sixty years, he walked alone out of Gate A, talking to his wife and wishing for an answer.
Table of Contents
Mike Fitzgibbons and His Morning Paper
by Donal Mahoney
For 35 years, Mike Fitzgibbons had never missed a day driving off at 4 a.m. to buy the newspaper at his local convenience store. Snow, sleet, hail or rain couldn't stop him. There was only one paper being published in St. Louis at the time but Mike was addicted to newspapers. He had spent his early years reading four papers a day in Chicago--two in the morning and two in the evening. He worked for one of them and enjoyed every minute of it. However, an opportunity to earn more money as an editor for a defense contractor required his large family's relocation to St. Louis. Mike needed more money to feed a wife and seven children.
"Words are words," Mike said at the time. "Being paid more money to arrange words for someone else seems like the right thing to do."
Writing and editing were the two things in life Mike could do well enough to draw a salary. It broke his heart to retire many years later at the age of 68 but it seemed like the best thing to do. His doctor had told him he might have early Alzheimer's disease and that he should prepare for the future since the disease would only grow worse. Mike never told his wife or any of the children about the problem. His wife was the excitable type, and all of the children had grown up and moved away, many of them back to Chicago where all of them had been born. Each of them had acquired a college degree or two and had found a good job. Most of them were married. Mike and his wife now had 12 grandchildren and were looking forward to more.
"You can never have too many heirs," he told his wife one time. "Whatever we leave, it will give them something to argue about after we're gone. They won't forget us."
After the doctor had mentioned the strong possibility that he had Alzheimer's disease, Mike decided to have the daily paper delivered to the house instead of driving to the store every morning to buy one. And on most days that seemed like a good decision. But not on the infrequent days when the deliveryman soared by Mike's house without tossing a paper on the lawn.
The first time it happened Mike called the circulation department and received a credit on his bill. He did the same thing the second time, managing to keep his temper under control. But the third time occurred on the morning after the Super Bowl. For Mike this was the last straw. Three times he told the kind old lady in the circulation department to tell the driver Mike was from Chicago originally and in that fine city errors of this magnitude did not go unanswered. A credit on Mike's bill, while necessary, would not suffice.
When his wife Dolly got up, he asked her, "How the hell can I check the stats on the game without my newspaper?" She was only half awake. Mike was a very early riser and Dolly, according to Mike, was a "sack hound."
A kind woman, Dolly had always tried to be helpful throughout the many years of their marriage, so Mike understood why she eventually suggested he drive to the QuikTrip and buy a paper. Then he could read about the game and check the stats, she said.
"That's not the point, Dolly," Mike said. "I have a verbal contract with that paper for delivery and they are not keeping their side of the bargain. A credit on my bill is not adequate recompense." Mike loved the sound of that last sentence as it rolled off his tongue. He always loved the sound of words whether they were floating in the air alone or jailed in a sentence or paragraph.
What made matters worse, Mike told Dolly, is that without his newspaper he would have no way to check on the obituaries of the day. The obituaries were Mike's favorite part of the paper. Back in his old ethnic neighborhood in Chicago, the obituaries were known as the Irishman's Racing Form.
Back then, many retired Irish immigrants would spend the day reviewing the obituaries in the city's four different newspapers. Finding a good obituary primed them for conversation at the local tap after supper. The tap was run by the legendary Rosie McCarthy, a humongous widow who did not suffer any nonsense in her establishment. But she did offer free hard-boiled eggs to customers who ordered at least three foaming steins of Guinness. Eggs were cheap in those days. It was rumored that Rosie had to buy 10 dozen eggs a week just to keep her customers happy.
"Rosie knows how to hard boil an egg, Dolly," Mike had told his wife many times over the years. And his wife always wondered what secret Rosie could possibly have when it came to boiling eggs.
One reason the obituaries were of such great interest in Mike's old neighborhood involved the retirees wanting to see if any of their old bosses had finally died. Some of those bosses had been nasty men, so petulant and abrasive they'd have given even a good worker a rash. There was also the possibility that over in Ireland, the Irish Republican Army might finally blow up a bridge with the Queen of England on it. The IRA had been trying to do that for years. Many bridges had been blown to smithereens but not one of them had "Herself" on it.
"The IRA keeps blowing up bridges, Dolly," Mike would remind his wife. "You would think one of these times they'd get it right. They know what she looks like."
In addition to reading four newspapers a day as a young man, Mike had had other hobbies during his long and tumultuous life. He had bred rare Australian finches for decades and had won prizes with them at bird shows. However, after his last son had graduated from college and moved away, Mike sold more than 200 finches and 40 cages because he no longer had a son available to clean the cages. Five sons had earned allowances over the years cleaning the cages at least once a week. All of them ended up hating anything with wings. One son had even bought a BB gun and would sit out in the yard all day while Mike was at work. That boy was a pretty good shot. No one knows how many woodpeckers and chickadees he managed to pick off.
After Mike sold his birds, he took the considerable proceeds and plowed all of the money into rare coins. For the next ten years he collected many rare coins but when he retired he figured he may as well sell them because none of his children had any numismatic interest. Not only that, none of them would have known the value of the coins if Mike died. Some of them were very valuable--the 1943 Irish Florin, for example, in Extra Fine condition would have brought more than $15,000 at the right auction. Mike loved that coin and kept it, along with all the others, in a large safe in the basement. Guarding the safe was a large if somewhat addled and ancient bloodhound. Mike had bought the dog from a fellow bird breeder when it was a pup. The bloodhound wasn't toothless but he may as well have been. He wouldn't bite anyone no matter how menacing a robber might be.
"I love that dog, Dolly," Mike would tell his wife every time she suggested that euthanasia might be the best thing. "That dog, Dolly, is as Catholic as we are and Catholics don't abort or euthanize anything," Mike said.
When Mike finally sold all of his coins, he had a great deal of money that he viewed as disposable income. Dolly, however, viewed it as an insurance policy in case Mike died first. Mike had a couple of pensions but he had never made Dolly a co-beneficiary. In fact he convinced her to sign waivers so the payout to him would be larger. Dolly didn't want to do it but signing was easier than reasoning with Mike. His temper seldom surfaced but when it did, things weren't good for weeks around the house.
"I get mad once in awhile, Dolly, but I always apologize," Mike would remind her.
Mike finally decided to put the coin money into guns--big guns--although he had never shot a gun in his life. He refused to go hunting because he saw no sense in killing animals when meat was available at the butcher store. The kids used to joke that maybe deer and pheasant were Catholic, too.
Some of the guns Mike bought were the kind you would see in action movies. Mike always liked action movies. The more the gore, the happier Mike was. But he had to go to action movies alone because his wife hated gore but she liked musicals. No musicals for Mike, although he would always dig into his pocket to give her the money for admission, complaining occasionally that the cost of seeing musicals kept going up.
"I don't want to spend good money to see a bunch of people in costumes and wigs singing songs together when Frank Sinatra, all by himself, sings better than any of them." Sinatra had a good voice, the kids thought, and it probably didn't hurt that he was Catholic. One of them once suggested to Mike that it might be nice if they played a recording of Sinatra's "Moonlight in Vermont" at church. Mike didn't agree or disagree because he thought some sacrilege might be involved.
Mike remembered his gun collection on the day the deliveryman had failed to throw his newspaper on the lawn. He decided that the next morning he would sit out on his front porch at 3 a.m. with a big mug of coffee and the biggest rifle he owned. When the delivery van drove down his street, he planned to walk out to the curb, rifle in hand, to make sure he got his paper and to advise the driver of the inconvenience his mistake of the previous day had caused.
"There's no way this guy's a Catholic," Mike said to himself. "Three times now he has skipped my house with my paper."
The next morning things went exactly as planned--at the start. Mike was out on his porch with his rifle and coffee at 3 a.m. when the van came rolling down the street. Mike got up and strolled down the walk toward the van, his rifle resting like a child in his arms. Mike couldn't have known, however, that the van driver had been robbed several times over the years and that he carried a pistol in case someone decide to rob him again. When he saw Mike coming toward him down the middle of the street carrying a rifle, the driver decided to take no chances. He rolled down the window and put a bullet in Mike's forehead.
One shot, dead center, was all it took, and Mike, still a big strapping man, fell like a tree.
The next day the story about the death of Mike Fitzgibbons made the front page of his beloved paper and Mike himself was listed in the obituary section. The obit advised that friends of the family could come to the wake at Eagan's Funeral Home on Friday. It also pointed out that a Solemn High Funeral Mass would be said for Mike on Saturday at St. Aloysius Church, where Mike had been a faithful member and stalwart usher for decades.
Two days after the funeral, a neighbor was shoveling snow for Mike's widow. He happened to look up and saw the missing newspaper stuck in the branch of one of Mike's Weeping Willow trees. Mike had an interest in Weeping Willows and had planted a number of them over the years, too many some of the neighbors thought for the size of his property. This was the first time a newspaper had gotten stuck in one of the trees, his wife said. And it would be the last time because she had canceled the subscription to the paper the day Mike died. Like her husband, Dolly was a woman of principle and she thought canceling the paper was the least she could do in his memory. She had never read the damn thing anyway.
Table of Contents
by Russell Bradbury-Carlin
Jonathan gave me the flu. And, a fever. The fever was so bad that I hallucinated the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It sauntered into my bedroom and just stood inside the doorway, nearly touching the top of the frame. Its chest expanded and contracted in slow deep breaths, as if it was difficult for it to draw air through its gills. I knew it wasn't real, but I was still scared.
"Mom!" I called out. And within minutes the reality of my mother entering the room made the Creature evaporate like a piece of fog in a gust of wind.
Jonathan was my best friend in eighth grade. Some of the kids called us twins because we both had brown hair that we kept kind of shaggy behind our ears and we were both tall and rail-thin. The bullies called us the "faggy-twins" because we were nearly inseparable during the first half of that school year. We managed to get almost all of the same classes -- all except French II. Jonathan had the buxom and beautiful Mrs. Swain. I had Mr. Roarke, who all the kids called Spoon because of his oval face and the blank expression he seemed to always have.
"How are you, Kevin?" Jonathan's mother always asked me when I came to his house. She'd lean toward me with an eyebrow raised.
"Fine." I would almost always say in a flat voice.
"Fine? You sound like an old man." She would smile as she said this. Even then, I could tell she was only half-joking. She could detect something behind my angsty-teen response.
Jonathan's house wasn't a mansion, but it was huge. His family had a lot of things that my family didn't have: three cars, including the family convertible that they only took out on weekends; a television that seemed to get every channel that existed; and a heated driveway so that no one had to shovel snow –- just flick a switch and within a half-hour there was a nice, dry path to the street.
My family lived "on the other side of the tracks". Only the tracks weren't railroad tracks, but a highway –- Route 126. The northern half of the small bedroom community was where all the richer families lived. The southern half was where the working class families lived. My family had one car, but it had small dents and was far from new. We had a refrigerator, but in the summer it made loud hissing noises. And we had to clean the snow off our driveway with a shovel and a lazy old snow-blower that only liked to blow certain kinds of snow –- mostly the light fluffy stuff, not the heavy wet snow.
"You're coming skiing with us," Jonathan told me one day that winter.
"Oh, I don't know how to ski," I responded as I flicked through the channels on his television. I loved to pause on the Russian or the Argentinean stations and pretend that I was engrossed in the news or the soap operas that were inevitably on.
"I'm going to teach you," he declared.
"My family can't afford for me to go skiing," I volleyed back.
"Oh don't worry about that, my family will pay." Jonathan grabbed the clicker from my hand and expertly flicked a few numbers without looking and got us to a soccer game –- his favorite.
Even though a part of me wanted to go on this free, fun trip, I also hated the idea of being the "poor" kid that was always given hand-outs. I could already picture how I would look in my winter coat with the duct-tape band-aid hiding a rip (my mother promised that next year I'd get a new coat), and that I'd have to borrow a pair of Jonathan's ski-pants, the color of which wouldn't match my coat. I'd be the obvious welfare-case on the slopes.
I didn't argue back, but I was already trying to calculate some fake reason why I couldn't go. I could probably come up with something about my father, who lived in the city. Jonathan never saw him, so I could easily concoct a lie that would be untraceable.
Jonathan seemed to have the ability to impose his will on anyone and anything.
I told him that my father's office was having a party in which family members were invited and that he insisted that I come. Jonathan responded by staring at me with his "get real" expression. I remained firm that it was completely true, even though my response was uttered with stammered words.
"We'll see," he responded coolly.
A few days later, we were at my house watching some horror movie that we were lucky enough to find on the limited amount of cable stations I had, when my mother poked her head into the living room.
"Your father just called and said he won't be able to see you for the next two weeks, he's been called to some meetings in Toronto," she informed us.
Jonathan turned toward me with a sly smile on his lips. "So, looks like you're going skiing."
Sometimes it seemed that Jonathan's will could impose itself on physical reality as well as on people.
One warm fall day in the early part of our eighth grade friendship, I took Jonathan's bus home to hang-out.
"Let's go to the mall," he declared. The mall was where we went to hang-out, when we could get a ride. We never shopped. We just walked around and talked, and looked at girls.
"Do you think your mom will drive us?" I asked.
"Doesn't matter," he declared.
When we got to his house, we walked into the kitchen through the open garage. Jonathan marched over to the marble-topped island in the center of the room and grabbed a note that lay there.
"Visiting with Aunt Margaret. Back for supper," he read.
And without missing a beat –- as if this was all part of his plan, he grabbed a set of keys from a key-hook by the door and said, "Let's go."
Jonathan was, obviously, too young to drive. But his parents had let him, on numerous occasions, take the car to the end of the street. They, of course, would never let him drive it beyond that.
He backed the car out of the garage and put it into park. He reached up and pressed a button that pulled back the sun-roof. A splash of warm air rushed in. Then he pulled a CD out of the compartment in the arm-rest. He turned the music up. Loud.
And we drove to the mall.
And while we drove, surrounded by the deep muscle-quaking thumps coming out of the bass speakers, I realized that Jonathan seemed to move through the world as if it was going to part before him. That entire half-hour ride to the mall, it seemed like we were the only real people in existence, everything else was just a projection on a screen.
Jonathan drove in the fast lane –- going at least 80 miles per hour. Cars ahead of him moved, almost magically, out of the way just as he approached. He never needed to go around anyone or tailgate to get someone to move. It was clear sailing all the way.
I would turn to look at Jonathan every once in a while, and he would be staring ahead with a slight smile and look of pure determination on his face. Once or twice, he looked back and gave out a loud cackling whoop.
At one point, he pulled himself up and stuck his head out of the sun-roof while the tip of his toe kept on the gas. The wind blew back his hair and he drew in deep breaths as if he was only trying to relish the moment.
And, almost magically too, we never saw a single police car.
Sometimes, I wondered if Jonathan's will was really just pure unadulterated optimism. I had been friends with a boy named Eric in sixth grade who seemed to be surrounded by a grey mist. He always saw and expected the worst of situations. Even his voice, low and laconic, seemed to be weighed down by his pessimism. And, bad things happened to him. Teachers always caught him drawing in his notebook instead of taking notes. If there was a cold going around, Eric got it. And when he decided to experiment by taking a few sips from his parent's liquor cabinet, he got too drunk, too quickly. He puked all over the couch just as his parents came home early from their date.
Jonathan, I considered, might just be such a power-optimist, that he always attracted good situations.
But, there were also times when I thought that he could do more than just attract what he wanted.
Things shifted for Jonathan and me about half-way through eighth grade. It started with the flu he gave me –- the one where I saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon -- which was right before the ski trip. And it looked like, for a moment, that I might have gotten out of it.
My mother told Jonathan that I was probably going to be too sick to go skiing. The next day, the day after my hallucination, he insisted that he talk with me on the phone.
I told him, between coughs, about my fever and the hallucination it caused.
"That's weird," he said. "That's my favorite monster. I would think that you would have seen a werewolf, your favorite."
"I don't know about skiing," I told him, and then there was silence.
"Don't worry about it," he finally responded.
I thought he was letting me off the hook. Instead, I considered later, I think he might have been imposing his will, again. My fever broke that night. My cough subsided the next day. And I was back to normal by Thursday, just in time to be well enough to go skiing.
And, just as I expected, I hated every minute of it.
It was right after that trip, that I felt Jonathan's friendship gaze turn elsewhere.
On the trip, I made excuses to get off the slopes early. I could feel the elitist gaze of all the teen skiers on me as they spied the duct-tape on my jacket and rented skis. And I felt clumsy at dinners with his parents. We ate at expensive restaurants. They had extra silverware that I didn't know what to do with and things on the menu that I couldn't pronounce.
Perhaps, Jonathan became aware on that trip that we were really different, that money did matter, especially as a teenager. Though, to his credit, he never said anything to me about it. He encouraged me to ski longer, to eat with his family when I suggested the two of us just get pizza somewhere else.
More likely, though, he registered my discomfort, but probably didn't know why. The blindness of privilege.
And even though I could tell he was angry. I think he gave up on imposing his will on me.
When we returned, we started to hang-out less frequently. He began to learn to play the electric guitar. He stayed after school to practice with other kids and talked about forming a band. He drew a new group of eighth graders to him. And I began to pull away -- or was pushed away –- from his orbit.
Then, after I hadn't spent time with Jonathan for a month or so, he contracted chicken pox. This was before there was a vaccine. And my mother insisted that I pay him a visit, so I could get the virus as a child, and not as an adult when it could be more dangerous.
Jonathan gave me a flat-voiced, "Sure. Come by," when I called him.
His mother asked me how I was doing when she answered the door. I could tell that she was a bit sad that I didn't visit more often -- that my friendship with Jonathan had cooled. I think she enjoyed putting her protective wing around me.
"Great," I found myself saying.
She was a bit taken back. But she found a smile. "That's really nice to hear, Kevin."
When I entered Jonathan's bedroom, he was sitting up in his bed with his hands behind his head. A guitar magazine lay flat on his lap. His face and arms were speckled with the tell-tale red welts.
"So, did you come to kiss me?" he laughed.
"My mother wants me to get it –- to get it over with."
"Well, I'm not going to hug you. You know I'm not a hugger." He pulled one of his arms out. "Maybe you should go ahead and touch one of the pox?"
Jonathan eyed me carefully. I could tell that he was really just tolerating my being there.
I reached out and touched one of the fresh red pox on his arm.
"There. That should do it." I wasn't sure if he meant contracting chicken pox, or if he was referring to our friendship. Probably both.
I wanted to say something as I left. Something like "sorry". But instead, I looked back as Jonathan picked up his magazine and began to read it again. The rigidness of his body and how far he dipped his head to read –- so that I couldn't see his eyes –- told me he wanted to hear nothing from me.
So, I left.
I got the chicken pox. Bad. It made me way sicker than it did Jonathan, apparently.
I developed a high fever. And for a while, my mother wondered about taking me to the emergency room.
I was in a deeper fog than the previous time I had a fever. Everything around me seemed murky as if my vision was so steeped in humid heat that it was turning my eyeballs into mist.
This time, the Creature from the Black Lagoon returned. He materialized through the closed door and stood staring at me. His chest expanded and contracted as it did before. This time I wasn't really as scared. I didn't think to call for my mother. Maybe I was more delirious in my fever. Or maybe I had grown-up a bit over the last few months and no longer needed to ask for my mommy when I was afraid.
Then the Creature walked across the room. I began to feel a bit more fear. I could hear its flat wet feet scrap and slap against the wood floor of my room. It continued to stare intently at me. I tried to sit up, but was too weak to move. It leaned down and extended its arm toward the end of my bed –- towards me legs.
I held my breath.
The Creature held out its huge flat hand toward my left leg. I could see the details of its cracked claws and the veins in the webbing between its fingers. I thought
I could feel its hot breath on my hand as I start to lift it to block its touch.
Part of me expected The Creature to fade away before it touched me. But I wasn't so sure.
I jumped when the hand grabbed my leg and I could feel it. It grabbed me tentatively, as if the Creature, too, wasn't sure how real it was.
It looked at me –- stared into my eyes. Then it began to drift away again, like a thick piece of fog. But in that brief moment before it disappeared, I swear I could see something in its eyes. Something that reminded me of Jonathan.
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