Fall 2012 Issue
Past Matters, by E.A. Aymar
What I Live For, by Robert Boucheron
Regarding the Privies, by PJ Cox
The Hole, by Tricia Fields
On Frying Fish, by George Masters
The Transit, by Banks Miller
Ship Sails On, by Valery Petrovskiy
Somewhere There's a Pony. by Bernie Hafeli
How Many Raccoons is a Cat Worth?, by Doug Johnson
Unfortunate Luck, by Lasher Lane
Counting Cars, by Joplin Rice
The Awakening, by Hollis Whitlock
Cuba, by Jéanpaul Ferro
On the Proper Role of Desire, by Craig Fishbane
by E.A. Aymar
MY WIFE AND I can barely come up with new ways to insult each other. She tells me that I am the last goddamned person on earth she should have married, but I reply that her insult isn’t really clever. Susan insists that it was effectively degrading and she, for one, will be apoplectic if I ever call her that. And then Susan leans across the table and watches me expectantly. I’m tempted, but just for a moment.
Susan and I once saw better days.
I tell her this and she replies, “None of the good times matter anymore.”
“Not at all?”
“No, Mike. You ruined them, because you’re the last goddamned person on earth I should have married."
We argue about whether or not the past matters and ignore three fat orange-white shrimp curled over a glass and solemnly placed between us, and then Susan storms to the restroom, knocking her chair over in the process.
The waiter is clearly frightened and doesn’t approach when I indicate he can take the shrimp appetizer away; I’m hungry, but too upset to eat. I sit and stew and imagine what Susan is doing now, and my hand tightens. My phone trembles against my leg but I don’t pull it from my pocket. I can’t deal with Susan’s family now.
Ten minutes pass until the restroom door flies open and my wife stumbles out, regains her balance and walks toward me, too slowly and deliberately. I watch the manager watch her, and know that it’s only a matter of minutes until he asks us to leave. Other diners look at her until she looks back, and then they look away. Susan abruptly stops walking and her hand fumbles inside her purse until she pulls out her phone and her head lowers to it, reverentially. But I know my wife is too high to answer her phone, or move, or do anything other than stand in the middle of the restaurant and sway.
Her parents should probably talk to her, I think, but when I check my phone I learn the call wasn’t from them. And then I get scared, because if this woman has called me without a response then she may feel I am ignoring her. And she may call Susan. In fact, maybe she already called Susan; somehow found her number and left an incriminating message, or called and hung up, or played some sort of sick game where she pretended to be someone like a doctor just to talk to my wife (this has happened before). And I’m so concerned about whoever might be calling that I don’t see Susan needs help.
But I finally realize the silence in the restaurant. I look up. My wife wavers like she’s about to fall and no one rises. Susan stands alone, a heartbreakingly uncertain smile pushing through her nervous expression, her hands hoping for support. I want to help her but I’m too far away, like a time traveler staring at the broken shards of his time machine as, around him, a strange and threatening people close in.
# # #
E.A. Aymar's debut novel, Goodbye, Beautiful, will be published next year through Mitchell-Morris Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in the SNReview, the Menda City Review and Bewildering Stories. He recently received his Masters in Literature from Marymount University, and you can follow him on Twitter @EvenEd74.
What I Live For
by Robert Boucheron
LOIS WATCHED a bead of sweat form on Mark’s forehead, as he expounded on a topic about which she knew nothing. The droplet swelled, grew heavy, and at last trickled down his cheek, leaving a bright trail.
“. . . without some internal structure to manage decision-making, the group inevitably ...”
He looked like he was weeping and didn’t know it. The way some people tap a foot, or adjust their glasses, or twitch.
“. . . doesn’t matter what the issue is or the personalities involved. It’s about size, the number of people, the rate of growth . . .”
Another bead of sweat gathered strength on his forehead. Lois was fascinated. Without warning, the drop raced down his other cheek, then hung from his chin.
“. . . in villages that outgrow the local food supply. If you ask them why, they talk about the will of the gods, or some petty dispute that goes back generations.”
Despite the heat, they were sitting at an outdoor café, on spindly metal chairs at a round table. They were in the shade of a building, on a pedestrian plaza. There was no traffic to shout over, but also no movement in the scene. And no breeze. Lois dangled an arm. The metal tubing of the chair, which ought to be cool, was warm to the touch. She sipped iced tea through a straw. The ice was melting.
Mark was so intent on developing his argument that he forgot to drink his beer. The golden liquid was losing its fizz, going flat. Warm beer was disgusting. Lois preferred cocktails, especially ones colored green or pink, with names that evoked tropical islands. Trade winds. Coral reefs and turquoise waters.
“They take sides, almost at random, to either side of the aisle in a church or a meeting hall.”
The beer glass was wet with condensation. Mark’s face was dripping. Lois, however, was in her element. She liked hot weather, felt more alert, like a lizard that comes alive in the noonday sun. Thin, with dark hair and a medium complexion, she could pass for Mediterranean. Except that she lacked intensity or passion or whatever it is that makes people burn inside. I am an observer, she thought. A collector of impressions.
Mark had reddish hair, thick and curly. It was reddish all over, Lois was pleased to discover. He had thick arms and legs and a thick torso. He was full and fleshy. Lois liked meat. A nice face, finely drawn. Maybe he would run to fat when he got older, maybe not. He was active, when he wasn’t working at a desk. He bicycled, hiked, rowed and sailed. He liked water, swam well. He was young, only twenty-four. Lois had a few years on him. She declined to say how many.
“. . . splits in two, like a cell undergoing mitosis.” He smiled—an infectious, sunny smile, with sweat streaming down his face. Like tears of joy?
“And here’s the wonderful part. The half is immediately a whole. It grows, acquires new members—if it’s healthy, anyway—develops complexity . . .”
This was the climax. Lois had only a faint idea of what he just said. She was a poor listener, but she followed the emotional arc. Mark did not require an interactive audience. Passive acceptance was okay. He was a born lecturer. He would be terrific on video.
As a reward, or grateful to discover it was still there on the table, Mark seized the glass of beer and poured most of it into his mouth. Lois watched the sudsy slime trickle down the side of the glass. Mark wiped his face with a paper napkin, which turned to pulp. Lois swallowed involuntarily, looked at her iced tea, and shivered.
“It’s too hot to think,” he said. “Why did we come out here? Do you want to go somewhere else?”
“No, I’m fine. Sit still, slow down, and let the blood settle.”
“Am I red in the face?”
“Rosy, maybe. Florid.”
“So, do I get the job? Assistant adjunct, one-year appointment, meager salary, no benefits, with option to renew?”
“They would be lucky to get you, mad to turn you down.”
"Waiting is such a drag. The suspense.”
“That’s why we left the apartment. The walls were closing in, you said. A breath of air, a cool drink. We got one out of two.”
“You don’t mind if I ramble on?” The smile was clouded by doubt. Brains and brawn, that’s what the dating service promised, and for once they understated. Yet Mark had moments of insecurity. This was her cue.
“Mind?” Lois sat up. “Your voice is music to my ears. It is what I live for.”
# # #
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. He writes on housing, home improvement, gardens, communities, and electric motorcycles. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Cerise Press, Cossack Review, Dark Matter, Echo, Mouse Tales Press, Niche, Northern Virginia, Piedmont Virginian, Prime Number, Real Estate Weekly, Rider, Streetlight, Talking Writing, 34th Parallel and Virginia Business.
Regarding the Privies
by PJ Cox
TENDAL WADDED UP the pages and threw them in the trash. It didn’t feel like enough, so he took them out and tore them to shreds. The sound of the paper tearing satisfied something deep inside. It felt so good. He took his time ripping them to bits. When the whole lot of it was little more than confetti, he took a lighter and set the pile on fire.
The flames breathed into life and swallowed every last bit of it down into its fiery maw. Tendal felt better than he had all day.
He stripped off his clothes and went over to his computer, scratching his abundant bottom as he sat down in his comfortable oversized leather chair.
Tendal shook the mouse to pull up the screen. As the wall loaded, he thought about the pages and looked in the bin. A pile of gray ash formed at the bottom. He tried to ignore the newspaper article, but couldn’t.
He stood up, took the can into the kitchen where he washed out the remnants. A fine ray of warmth traveled down his body as the last bit of dust swirled down the drain.
Take that, bitch, he thought, satisfied. He wiped his brow. Now I can get back to work.
The thought of all the new preparation thrilled him. He could go to his favorite site or better yet, unload the pictures he’d taken at the mall earlier.
He set the waste basket back in place and plopped down in his chair, hitting the link to his gmail account.
Fuck! She’d sent him the link. He punched the delete button continuously until the offending mail was gone.
He stood up and walked over to the little chest he kept under the bed and ran his fingers along the patina surface of the wood and lovingly opened the box.
Reaching in, he brought out the first of his privies, the purple nail – the one with the lavender jewel in the center. He held it to his heart as memories flooded his mind. Gingerly, he put it back in the first slot and ran his rough finger over the others.
She didn’t have a fucking clue what she was talking about, he thought. Telling everybody that we’d just throw our privies on the floor like so much garbage.
With another idea in mind, Tendal went back to his computer and looked up the story. He wasn’t interested in reading it again. Aha! He found what he was looking for. It links to her profile.
He studied her picture.
She was standing on a balcony. Long blonde curls bouncing in the breeze. Chuckling bow mouth frozen in time. It made him wonder if she was laughing at him. He zoomed in on her hands. There it was – painted bright red. He needed one like that.
# # #
PJ Cox has written flash, short-stories and novels for nearly twenty years mainly for her own enjoyment. This is her first flash fiction publication. She is a psychiatric nurse and lives in Spartanburg, SC.
by Tricia Fields
SHE CUPPED the glass bowl in one hand and pried each bullet from the crumbling plaster wall with his rusty pocket knife, dropping each one into the bowl with a plink. Counting each one, as if the number wasn’t tattooed on her heart for eternity. Six times he pulled that trigger; time enough to stop and think, regret, feel something other than hate for the woman he married forty-nine years ago in an Alabama church house while the preacher laid hands and prayed.
She bent her tired knees, closed her eyes at the pain in her legs, and set the bowl and knife on the floor. Standing again, she traveled the familiar path with her finger: from her chin, down, dipping into the hollow at her neck, then down and over, her finger slipping into the indent like a plug in a socket. A stubby hole where all the hatred from one man’s soul split her skin and burrowed into her marrow, forcing himself inside her for the last time. Sixty years of venomous words and fists forced into a piece of steal no bigger than the tip of his pinky finger. If she pushed hard enough, she could touch the steel still buried in her bone.
In her mind she watched herself as if in a movie, digging the bullet out with a knife, then taking a screwdriver to the bone in the next scene, getting done what the surgeon could not. She imagined feeling clean again, purged of him forever, but in her heart she knew that once a hole is made it can’t ever be patched or filled. The hatred flows free just under the tissue-thin surface of the scar.
# # #
Tricia Fields is a mystery writer publishing with St. Martin's Press/Minotaur. Her first book, The Territory, was published this past year. Her second book, Scratchgravel Road, will be out in April 2013. Book three, Wrecked, will be out in April 2014. The mystery series follows a border town cop as she struggles with issues presented by the drug cartels and violence in northern Mexico. More information can be found at her website: www.triciafields.com. Reviews of The Territory can be found on Amazon.
On Frying Fish
by George Masters
IT IS THE MIDDLE of March in Maine. Snowed yesterday, raining today. The afternoon sky is the color of dirty socks. Waiting for a telephone call from a woman I do push-ups. I make cornbread. I want to thank her for the two pounds of San Francisco coffee that arrived yesterday. More push-ups. I drink a cup of her coffee and try to read. I try to write. The house is quiet. I go out to the kitchen and make a pot of rice and peas. She usually calls twice a day. It’s been two days since I heard from her. I’m not leaving any more messages on her machine. The last five were just to hear her voice. I know what’s missing.
First thing I need is good fish. The half mile walk up Ocean Avenue is salt air, and seagulls. I pass a big grey hotel closed for the winter. Across the street, fishing boats at anchor strain against the inbound tide, their bows pointing to the mouth of the Kennebunk River and the open ocean beyond.
Inside the fish store three men wearing bloody aprons fillet cod with blades you could shave with. Wet red hands, tough and sure, smooth the way they work. They, themselves haven’t shaved in a few days. The old chocolate lab that belongs to the store sleeps on his blanket near the wall. When I go to him and kneel he opens his one good eye. I stroke his sweet broad head; he gives me a tail flap of recognition.
I walk home with a pound and a third of cod so fresh it doesn’t smell. No messages on my answering machine. I build a fire in the living room, watch how the flames work into the logs and warm my hands.
In the kitchen I make the preparations. Skillet, flour, bread crumbs, cornmeal, cornstarch, seasonings, eggs, milk, Tabasco sauce, cooking oil, rice and peas. Outside it’s beginning to get dark. I open a bottle of red wine.
When frying fish it’s best to be mostly sober. I put on a Chieftains album. Irish music is how I’m feeling. I take a drink of wine and give a long look at the photograph on the window sill of Jack, my dog. Jack died last June. I buried his ashes in the flower bed outside my bedroom. Jack loved fried fish. Don Williams is singing “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The song starts at my feet and travels straight up the middle.
I cut the cod into serving sized pieces. For oil I use one part olive to three parts canola. I break a couple eggs in a bowl, add some milk and four or five dashes of Tabasco- more for flavor than heat and then beat it with a fork.
In a separate bowl I mix the flour, corn meal, bread crumbs and a bit of corn starch. The corn starch will help make the fried fish crispy. For seasonings I add sea salt, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, dry dill weed, oregano, dry mustard and a pinch of chili powder. I glance up and see that Jack is watching all this John Prine and the Chieftains are doing “The Girl I Left Behind.” I dip the pieces of fish into the egg mix and then dredge them in the seasoned flour. Waiting for the damned phone to ring, I hope she is safe and wish to hell she’d call.
I smell the oil getting hot. I do a test by lowering a corner of a piece of fish into the oil. It starts to bubble and fry, I’m good to go. Two pieces at a time and very carefully. Too much at once and you will lower the temperature and screw up the process. Most careful when I turn the fish. During this part I never leave the stove, I don’t dance around. Involved in the process I have stopped listening for the telephone. Lost in the primitive satisfaction of a wood fire, of fish frying and the haunting Irish music behind it all, I pause. With the fish fried and the stove off, “Danny Boy” comes to me achingly clear.
Time to eat, I say aloud. I put a couple small logs on the hungry fire and treasure its warmth and light. In the kitchen I pour another glass of wine. Lifting Jack’s picture off the window sill, I bring him with me into the living room. My co-pilot won’t allow me to fly alone. On this March night Jack and I share the fire. I eat, he watches and together we wait for the phone to ring.
# # #
George Masters returns to The Zodiac Review following his fine story, Red Tiger Walk, published in our Winter 2012 issue (January 2012). He served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and later graduated from Georgetown University. His work has appeared in national magazines, newspapers and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. He has recently finished writing the crime novel "Trouble Breathing" and is seeking a publisher. To support his writing he has been a commercial fisherman, bartender, construction worker, car salesman and teacher. As a stuntman, he was consumed by the beast in the film "Alligator.” He currently cooks aboard ship. More of his work may be found at www.georgeeyremasters.net.
by Banks Miller
IN THE OBSERVATORY on the ancient, stony peak, a cluster of students were gathered around an old and somewhat battered telescope, now pointed at the Sun and set up for solar viewing, many staring expectantly at the image it projected. The lenses cast a greatly enlarged image of the Sun on a white square; clearly visible, but not as unalterably
bright as such a magnified image of the Sun seen directly through the telescope would be. The dot of shadow that was the planet Venus had now begun to approach very near to the edge of the solar disk, its motion not immediately visible, but when one looked away for a while and then looked back, its progress was clear. There seemed a tension in the air as the planet moved ever so slowly toward the limb of the Sun; Aran pointed towards the predicted point of contact with a baton, though it was unnecessary, as all eyes were already focused there. He found himself briefly holding his breath in the moments before contact. When the shadow of Venus finally touched the image of the Sun, eyes around the room sparkled with intent interest. This was the event, that they had been waiting for so long; now that it was actually occurring, with no troublesome clouds to block it (as they had feared), they were enraptured.
In the century and more since the last transit of Venus, human beings had even walked on the surface of that furnace-world; seeds of life were sprinkled in its toxic air. But all such projects had gone to ruin, darkness and decay consuming what had begun so well. The cities of that golden age still stood across the world, mute memorials; but already, only half a century after the collapse, they were empty places and accursed, shunned superstitiously by the inheritors of those lands; already, crime bosses and warlords had been transformed by time into chiefs and petty kings, and tribes waged wars of feud across the withering plains that had once been the world's granary.
As the shadow continued to slowly creep into the Sun's projected image, Aran reflected on those students who surrounded him. Though after the collapse destruction had spread across the world, the fires of war fanned by the collapse of trade, wars burning up what resources yet remained and fueling still more wars, a downward spiral toward doom – it was for this Avalon had been founded, a refuge placed high in the mountains amid shielding deserts. It was established as a place far from the chaos of those days, a place where knowledge was valued for more than military purposes - but most of all, Avalon was a beacon of hope, a way to pass down the best of what had been to the next generation in a world that had seen so much destruction and horror in the aftermath of the Great Disaster. The crucial thing was that drive in the hearts of humankind – a flame all but blown out: except here.
This generation would be a new light to the world grown dark. The burden of years of decay would have no hold on them, for it was a thing of the past already gone by, only history no more a part of their own experience than the fall of Rome. The terrors of the collapse itself, the subsequent horrors seen that still haunted the strongest of them in the night, the desperation of the struggle to establish and protect the few refuges such as Avalon that had carried any semblance of civilization through the crisis, would die with Aran's dying generation. They would be remembered, of course, but as history – with none of the personal horror that shook souls and daunted dreams, none of the paralyzing doubt and futility which affected at times even the most committed of Avalon's old guard. It was scarcely possible for those who remembered, even dimly from childhood as Aran did, the wealth and peace and wonder of the world Before not to despair at the painstaking pace of rebuilding and the apathy to learning shown by so many, to see the glories of the past as insurmountable difficulties, never to be rebuilt; but to the rising generation, the history of past achievements would be a spur only to their dreams and ambitions.
# # #
Banks Miller has been writing since a very young age, but his first publication was in 2008, a poem on the "The Night Land" website (http://www.thenightland.co.uk). Banks has also had poems published in Inkscrawl and on the Indigo Rising Magazine website. Banks graduated from Texas A&M in 2011, and is currently attempting to make time for writing poetry and short stories without compromising work. Details of Banks´ other writing are at http://sublunarythings.wordpress.com.
Ship Sails On
by Valery Petrovskiy
ON DECK some folks were taking a promenade, others just stood talking, and everybody was forced to listen to loud music booming around. It was like in a Fellini film: pointlessly a ship steamed ahead, and I knew the heading. For me it was a pleasure trip with my girl. Long before I had decided to take a trip, twice I went to see a ship cast off, and then I boarded it for an outing with the girl. I had devised a tour out of love, and there she was sitting, burying her face in a book.
The ship pushed on, not a big one, just a water bus for a jaunt. They would take a trip in every movie: on deck heroes fell in love, or they were in a hurry to catch the train, and there they met their love. So I got two vouchers for a jaunt as if lottery tickets to take my chance, like in a movie. Oh, if it were only possible to get a piece of good fortune at a booking office.
So, she was sitting beside me reading. I like reading, too, but not aboard when one can view a coastline. From ashore, a ship seems to flounder about leisurely, but when one is on board, then the bank streams away fast. How can it be so? To my mind it should be the same, if one is ashore or travelling by water. But no, it differs greatly.
And so it was with my love. If she told me to jump into water, I’d do it at once, yet I couldn’t ask her to put her book aside. I‘d rather drop it into water and see the book float away. All was going wrong, not the way I would have liked.
I went upstairs to the main deck. A fresh wind blew there, and deafening music was bawling from the loudspeakers. Maybe they made waves, music and wind jointly. Aft, two young girls, seventeen or eighteen years old, sought shelter from the wind. It seemed that I knew one of them; yes, I lived on the same floor that she did.
I always failed to recognize the girl. That wasn’t too surprising since she was growing up every day. I recognized my old friends of many years, but I could never remember the girl, my neighbor. She had been changing continually, and all I could tell you about her is that she was lively. It’s inconceivable, but I can’t describe her, though her friend’s fine features, blue eyes and brown hair, have stuck in my memory. She resembled my ex-wife; it struck my eye right away. The girl was silent, smiled softly and listened to me.
It wouldn’t have been appropriate to speak to them loudly as if I were scolding. On the contrary, I was eager to please the girls; I mean, please the one with the sky blue eyes. But I couldn’t shout into her ear that she was a beauty! Such simple things one could never utter, so I lapsed into silence just gazing upon her. It confused her a little. She seemed to shrink back, or perhaps she felt cold there under the open sky.
What was the wind for if no clouds? And down below, my girl was just sitting there. Afterwards I took pictures of her on shore, at an excursion. I photographed her, the one I took the trip with, but I was looking at the other girl. I was not very pleased with the photos. I didn’t keep either of them as mementos…there were only two, and they each had me in them. A sorry sight, as if I had known then that parting was to take place.
Back in the city, I ran into my neighbor and her friend near my house. Actually, I overtook them in a shop at the corner where they dropped in for cigarettes. I saw that they went to smoke; they sat on a bench in the next yard and kept on talking in a girlish manner, chirping like songbirds. They were having a lot of fun, and I didn’t want to spoil everything. “Next time, maybe”, I thought.
I don’t know what I could have ruined there: maybe a good mood one is always in during summer when you’re young. Then one can be sitting on a swing just dangling one’s legs and be happy because there is everlasting life in front, unceasing as a river the ship sailed on.
I ran into my neighbor girl about six months later, on my landing. Anywhere else and I wouldn’t have been able to identify her. We talked a little about the past summer, and when we touched upon the trip, I asked her about her friend.
“Oh, she died… I don’t know why…”
…On the deck I’d caught her name through the strong wind then, she dinned it into my ear.
And how can I remove it from my memory, just tell me…
# # #
Valery V. Petrovskiy is a freelance short story writer from Russia. He is a Chuvash University, Cheboksary graduate in English, a graduate of VKSch Higher School, Moscow, in Journalism, and earned a degree in Psychology from Kazan State Technological University. His prose was published in the U.S. in The Legendary, DANSE MACABRE, The Other Room, Apollo’s Lyre, among many others; a few pieces of fiction in the Australian journals Going Down Swinging, The Fringe Magazine and The Skive; and a collection of short stories in RYGA journal, Canada. Valery lives in Russia at a remote village by the Volga River.
Somewhere There’s a Pony
by Bernie Hafeli
“You saw Shondra at Kroger’s.”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
George and I are sitting on my back patio, watching a hummingbird sample the September flowers.
“Do I need to talk slower?” George asks as the hummingbird zips from the flowers to the red hummingbird feeder, as if on fast-forward; then hovers at the base of the feeder, as though I’d pushed resume play. Before she left, Shondra hung the hummingbird feeder on the lowest limb of the cherry tree, and I keep refilling it when I remember it’s there. It never attracted hummingbirds while she was here. Maybe they could sense the high degree of tension, like animals anticipating an earthquake, and stayed away.
“Did you say hi?” I ask George.
“Of course not. I grabbed my Doritos and ran.”
Speaking of Shondra reminds me of a dream I’ve been having, where we’re both in a counseling session with two other women. Although the faces of the women are video-smudged to protect their identities, I just know they’re ex-wives. The truth is we spent many hours in the rooms of counselors, Shondra and I. It started after her visit to the psych ward, which had walls the same color as one of our counselor’s—the shade of rosé wine. Havenwyck Hospital was where she ended up, after regaining consciousness in the middle of knocking on some complete stranger’s door, about five miles from where we lived. Shondra had walked there in her bare feet, wearing only a robe, but was left with no recollection of anything. When I arrived at the hospital, her wrists had red rings from the restraints. She kept rubbing them. “You drive me crazy,” she told me.
“Look, maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this.” George is looking at me like I’m the pale, dry remains of some light-dazzled moth, and the slightest breath might turn me to dust.
“You can’t tell a man who isn’t listening,” I say. (Of course, Bill Bernbach originally said that. Actually he said: “You can’t sell a man who isn’t listening.” Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the revolution of the ’60’s didn’t happen in the streets like many of us had hoped. It happened in advertising agencies—the Creative Revolution—and Bill Bernbach was its Abbie Hoffman. I work in advertising. I should mention that.) I go on: “Maybe I’ve got better things to do than listen to you tell me about someone who thinks I’m full of shit.”
“And what might that be?” George inquires. “Mow your piddly postage-stamp lawn? Put your CD collection in alphabetical order?”
I should say I worked in advertising. I haven’t been employed for months.
“The trouble with you, Loomey, is you’ve started believing your own bullshit.”
This gives me pause. I’m always amazed at how willing other recovering alcoholics are to point out the errors of your ways; as if they’ve ascended to some higher plane where the knuckleheaded behavior you seem so fond of no longer afflicts them. Which may be the case. But what’s really annoying is that they may be right.
“Which bullshit is this we’re talking about?”
I glance at George. He’s slouched back in the plastic deck chair so his legs seem to splash out in front of him, like streamers of blue paint pitched from a bucket before falling to the ground. One hand crawls around in his hair, spider-like. People are always attracted to George; maybe it’s the blonde hair and big aquamarine eyes, the mouth that seems always on the verge of a smile, as if it wants to tell you: “Look here. It can’t be that bad. I just heard this joke about a Chinese-German restaurant. Let me tell it to you.” On the bus this morning, with rows and rows of wide-open seats just begging for someone to occupy them, a homeless man sat across from George and me. He smelled like he’d been recently exhumed then dipped in shit. When he looked at us, his eyes rolled in different directions, like the little balls looking for holes in those old handheld games. “They just don’t fuckin’ listen,” he shouted at George, who sat closest to him. “No one!”
“We’re talking about the bullshit,” George says without looking at me, gazing instead at the postage-stamp backyard, now hummingbird-less, “in which Loomey blames everyone but himself for his sad state of affairs.”
“You think it’s my fault I got fired.”
George looks at me and arches one eyebrow. He knows perfectly well it was Shondra’s phone calls that led to my dismissal, her drunkenly haranguing the secretaries, my coworkers, my bosses: “Where is Loomey, that son of a bitch? Which one of you little sluts is sleeping with him? Tell me, God damn it!”
I shake my head. “It was Shondra. She was crazy.”
“She may be crazy, but she didn’t drive your car into a lake.”
Some nights I still have dreams of driving circles around the lakes of Oakland County: Orchard Lake, Pine Lake, Sylvan Lake. Around and around we go, Royal Gate and I. If all the miles I put in circling those lakes were stretched from Detroit westward, they might reach Omaha or Laramie or Pocatello, Idaho. My contemplation tours as I thought of them then, at all hours of the night or day, even with the temperature topping ninety degrees, hot vodka sliding down my throat, hitting my empty stomach and exploding. All in all though, the driving dreams are preferable to the recurring dream of the therapy session with Shondra and the ex-wives, in which one blur-faced wife sometimes shouts: “Bastard!”
“Here, here,” seconds the other.
“Ditto,” Shondra echoes.
I notice George is staring at me. “Who drove your car into the lake, Loomey?”
“Is that a trick question?”
George sighs and looks at the rosebushes Shondra planted after returning from the psych ward, during the period she stopped drinking and we were going to AA meetings; I pretended I’d stopped drinking too. On the bus this morning, the ripe-smelling homeless man reached over and tapped George on the knee. “I’m a Democrat,” he said. “Vote for Obama.” “The election was two years ago,” George informed him. “Obama’s been president for two years.” The homeless man squinted at George, as if trying to determine the validity of this. “Whatever,” he said finally. At that point, George fixed him with a look I can only describe as bemused amusement, as though he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard, but was ever grateful to have heard it. He gives me the same look now. “Gotta go,” he says after giving me the look for a while. He slaps his thighs, grabs the arms of the plastic lawn chair and pushes to his feet.
“Don’t leave before the miracle happens,” I say to his departing shadow.
Now that George is gone, I feel bad. If I still had my license, I’d get in my Nova and go drive around some lakes. Instead I go into the bedroom and find an old leather belt; then I cinch it around my neck, knot the end of it around the horizontal garment pole in the closet and curl my legs up. One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. Who was I kidding? During the morning AA meeting, I’d heard about somebody trying to end it all in this manner. “Imitation can be commercial suicide,” Bill Bernbach once said. As I put the belt away, I’m reminded of the time last year when I came across a toy gun from my childhood, along with some Greenie Stickem caps. I was sitting at the kitchen table, pointing the gun at my temple and pulling the trigger. Most of the caps were too old to detonate but when Shondra walked in, one cap unexpectedly went off. “If only,” she said.
I decide to go for a walk. "Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move." It’s one of Satchel Paige’s rules for staying young and seems at least as useful as some of the advice I hear in meetings. Where I live, it’s pretty leafy; the houses date from just before Prohibition, when the town was first incorporated. But if I turn left at Hooton, I’m quickly in a neighborhood of cinderblock businesses: janitorial service companies, tool-and-die makers, collision shops, scrap yards, each with a high-rising cyclone fence sometimes topped by razor wire. Invariably, this is where I go when I’m out walking; it suits my mood. On the corner of La Grande is a little redbrick bar called Trixie’s. I’ve accumulated months sitting in its dim interior, mostly after disagreements with Shondra. Today I pass right by, although I shudder at the recollection of some of those disagreements. How many times did I wish Shondra dead, my cheeks mottled with rage, shouting the words into her own clenched fist of a face? Thirty times? Fifty? A hundred?
At Ida Street, an old Crown Victoria passes by. The driver, I can't help but notice, is wearing a gorilla suit. When he sees me, he flashes a hairy-handed peace sign or maybe it's the victory sign; I'm never sure which anymore. "The memorable never emerged from a formula," Bill Bernbach said.
Before I know it I’m on Crump Street. Here, all the houses face the railroad tracks, each one at a different stage of disrepair. I see that the Atta-Boy burger wrappers have returned to number 27 Crump, pressed by the early autumn wind against broken cinderblocks, the rusted husk of the ’64 Dodge, and the bony branches of battered bushes, murdered by neglect and the accumulated urine of the neighborhood dogs.
Lorraine and Eli’s old house is a distinctive green—avocado green if you had asked Lorraine, puss green if you asked Eli—and not too large, in fact not large at all, a shoebox in truth, with two broken windows and gaping black patches where the siding has worn away. When I listen hard, I imagine I still hear their voices through the useless windows. In fact I do still hear their voices. They still live there, it seems. “Where’s the crystal meth?” booms angry Eli. “Don’t tell me you did it all, you selfish bitch!” “Blow it out your wrinkled ass, you ignorant prick!” Lorraine screams, bringing Eli down a few notches.
By now it’s late afternoon; they must have just gotten up. I know this because when Eli storms from the house and jumps in the Plymouth Valiant parked across the street, whose door hangs invitingly open, he still wears the ratty watch cap he sleeps in to keep his hair from springing up in its trademark Bozo wig. Once he starts the car—which takes a minute, you have to know the trick I guess—Lorraine lurches onto the front porch and launches a saltshaker at escaping Eli. The shaker barely misses the Valiant, exploding with a percussive pop on the potholed pavement, the salt disappearing in the wind like the last of the crystal meth.
At this hour of the day, with the sun low and pale, not at its best, like a picture of the sun instead of the actual sun, Lorraine may at any moment turn and see me standing there in the trash and weeds and say: “What the hell are you staring at?” Or: “Christ, Loomey, you scared the shit out of me!” Then she might gesture with her skinny, goose-fleshed arm and invite me up the buckling steps into that listing house. But only if I have some dope.
I leave before that happens. I decide to reverse my course and walk into town, taking the dirt road that winds around the old Detroit Edison pole yard. Stubborn wildflowers are still in bloom along the roadside, interrupting the dry, butter-colored grass with injections of orange, white, and purple. Every so often, there is fragrant evidence of a horse’s passing—gathering flies. Over the hill, on the other side of some trees, lies Blue Lake Stables, where Shondra used to go riding; for a while she worked there too, tending the horses. Her favorite was Lakebiscuit. Early in our relationship, she loved to take him out in the evening just before dark. Sometimes I would accompany her aboard Barney, a much more docile horse, who at a certain point would want to turn around and head for the barn. On those rides, we always stopped and passed the bottle back and forth that either she or I had remembered to bring. We shared our hopes and dreams. “I want to own my own stable,” she told me once, “with a farmhouse. We’ll turn the attic into a study where you can write your novel.”
When I reach the outskirts of the small downtown, I turn in the direction of Aorta Music, believing a fresh copy of Axis: Bold As Love might cheer me up. “New bud,” whispers a greasy-haired kid sitting on the sidewalk in front of the music store. When I look at him, he smiles, revealing a missing tooth. He can’t be more than seventeen. “Prime flower top,” says the Joni-Mitchell-1967 lookalike lounging next to him. I ignore them and go inside. “Mushrooms,” the girl tries again before the door closes.
The music store isn’t a good idea. Instead of calling up heady memories of the distant ’60’s, when life had the snap of freshly laundered linen being shaken dry in the spring breeze, the old records, tapes, and CDs just make me feel old. Maybe the kids out front have something to do with it. I leave without buying anything.
On the way home, I stop by the Save-A-Lot for a few groceries. “The magic is in the product,” Bill Bernbach once said. In the soft drink aisle, a woman walks up and grabs my shirt. “They said I had cancer,” she tells me. She seems very desperate. “Then they cut my guts out. My liver and my kidneys were stolen from me while I was under anaesthesia.” She starts to cry. “What should I do?” A store attendant sees her, comes over and takes her by the arm: “This way, Mrs. Lubanski. Your cart’s at the check out.” “Be careful,” she says, turning back as she’s being led away. “I warned you.”
Back home I turn on the Tigers game. A relief pitcher picks up a bunt and heaves it over the first baseman’s head. Two runs score. The next batter hits a home run. For this, the pitcher is paid three million dollars a year. Next to the TV is a small lamp table with a drawer full of receipts from the motels I used to frequent after fights with Shondra. The plan was to claim them as tax expenses but now they’re too old. Are you still there, Rip Van Winkle Motor Court? Does your ice machine work yet, Ramble On Inn?
On top of the table is the phone. I decide to call Shondra. As I dial the number, I remember another snippet of the dream involving her and the ex-wives with smudged faces: “I wish you were dead,” one of the wives says. “No,” says Shondra. “Let him go on living with his own miserable self. Punishment enough.”
After the seventh ring, Shondra’s voice comes on and tells me to leave a message. For some reason this infuriates me. “Your heartlessness will come in handy in your future divorces,” I tell her machine. Immediately I regret it. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it. I’m a mess today.” “This is Loomey,” I remember to add.
After that I call George. As his machine tells me to leave a message, I notice a flyer on the table for a lecture series in Ann Arbor. “Is explaining away the world via the constructs of math and science,” I ask his machine, “any different than trying to account for it with myth, magic, or superstition?” Next to the flyer lies last week’s Blue Lake Picayune. I pick it up and read again the small item reporting that Blue Lake Stables has been sold to the Invescom Development Company, who plans to knock it down and erect apartments. When George doesn’t respond in half an hour, I call his machine again. This time I quote Bill Bernbach: “Evaluating creative work is like dissecting a frog. It’s a very messy and unpleasant business, especially for the frog.”
Ten minutes later, George calls back: “Loomey, what the fuck?”
When I hear his voice, any lingering appetite for glib repartee vanishes. On the bus ride this morning, every time someone reached up and pulled the wire to signal a stop, a synthesized voice came on the intercom and said: “Please hold on.” At one point, for reasons known only to him, the homeless man started weeping like the kid at the end of Old Yeller. “Please hold on,” the voice told him.
“Do you want my help or not?” George asks. “Sweet bleeding Jesus on the cross.”
“I want your help. I need to get to a meeting.”
“Needless to say,” George says needlessly.
# # #
Bernie Hafeli’s stories have appeared in The Rejected Quarterly, The Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel and Ampersand. His poetry has appeared in The Hiram Poetry Review. After earning an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco, he has completed two novels and a collection of short stories.
How Many Raccoons is a Cat Worth?
by Doug Johnson
THE EARLY MORNING LIGHT was enough that I could see by the way she stared at me through the glass of the sliding door to the deck that she was upset. She paced back and forth with a continual scolding noise which implored me to do something about this ongoing outrage, whatever it was. Behind her relatively soft but persistent feline cry was a raw primal rage which made me think that if the sound were recorded and played back at a slow rate it would become the deep rumble of a very angry lion. Anyway I had a pretty good guess what the outrage was. A raccoon had either recently gotten into her food or was still eating it. I hoped it was the former because all I really wanted to do was sit down with a cup of coffee and the morning paper and start the day. If it was still around, the opportunity to resolve the problem was now. In any case, as a man well-seasoned by the spice of female companionship, I knew that the demands of a female pacing, feline or woman, would not abide delay without cost.
I moved down the basement stairs as quickly and quietly as possible, grabbing the 12 gauge from behind the file cabinet and a handful of double-O shot shells from the box on top. I slipped one shell into the chamber and another in my pocket. Listening at the door which divided the basement into a finished, heated section and the bare unfinished part where the automatic cat feeder was, I heard movement on the other side. I jerked open the door and flipped on the light just in time to see a large bushy raccoon tail slip out the cat door turned into a cat/raccoon door. I leaped for the handle of the people door into which the cat/raccoon door had been cut, and followed it into the yard. As a house burglar and petty thief, I assumed it was a male. A more charitable conclusion would have been that it was a poor female struggling to provide for her young. My temperament favored the harsher view and the quick just outcome which such a position encouraged.
Now, the raccoon had a choice. He could move fast and slip through the hedge for a clean getaway in the first rays of a winter dawn, or he could run a safe distance and turn and give me the raspberry. He must have been a politician because he did not want his deeds to go unrecognized. He stopped at the far edge of the lawn and defiantly turned to own up to what he had done.
He got his recognition quickly. The safety was thumbed off by the time the Mossberg was up and aimed. The quiet stillness outside of time while we looked at each other across the steel of the shotgun belonged to the moment before. Everything else was the moment after. It all came together as one: the kick to the shoulder, the flash, the boom hitting the side of the house and rolling through the trees and across the water. The raccoon was thrown back on the lawn and was making last slow involuntary tai chi movements while the last spark of life went out.
So now I have shot four raccoons over the course of the last several months only after each one had managed to figure out how the cat door works and that there is food on the other side. I do not like to kill things. It is not that I am opposed to killing since it is so woven into life itself that being for or against it is beyond meaning. I just don’t like to watch death in any creature great or small. So I was mad at the raccoon for making me kill it and now having to dispose of it, either by bundling it up into a garbage bag or digging a hole and chucking it in.
As soon as the raccoon had been disposed of, the same old questions came back to me. I had killed a raccoon so a cat could eat unmolested. Was the cat’s life worth more than a raccoon on some cosmic scale? I couldn’t make that argument but I could say that it was my cat and as such I had the duty to protect and nurture what was mine. Some postulate that God is man writ large. Such a position would suggest the converse: that man is God writ small. If so it is proper that I should protect and save my creatures and consign others to destruction. The cat and I had a covenant. We were bound together. I would provide food, water and a place to get out of the weather. In return she would disregard me except when she had needs. Those needs would drive her to beg to come into the house to seek a warm lap and a gentle caress. This need arose most often in the fall and remained through the winter until the weather began to warm in the spring. After that and through the summer I was pretty well forgotten except for the occasional belly rub which went well with a roll in the sun-warmed gravel.
By my lights as a superior being, the cat frequently engaged in behavior which was consistent with her lower state. She often would emerge from a warm rest in a protected space, a stomach full of the manna which I had provided in abundance and kill for the mere pleasure of it. Her favorite prey was the small sparrows and finches that would sometimes drop to the ground to pick up the seed they or other birds had scattered from the feeder hung above. This would cause me great sadness for I loved the birds. I took great pleasure in their song and plumage. It was a joy to watch them hover as they jostled for their turn at the feeder. They would fly to the trees or the roof top and fill the air with song. The life which they lived so fully and exuberantly filled me with a joy and satisfaction at creation. So it was all the more sad when I had to pick up the torn wing savagely ripped from the small beautiful body by the aloof and indifferent cat. But then I would remember that this is how it should be because the cat belonged to me and I had given it dominion over all other creatures to treat them however she saw fit.
My protection of the cat was absolute and forever, at least in the temporal state. As a pretend deity, life’s edge marked the limits of my power. If any harm befell her, it would be through her own failings and not my love and care. If for example the neighbor’s Rottweiler caught her before she could make it to the cherry tree, and ripped her apart leaving cat guts strewn about the yard, it would only be through her own lack of alertness and care, not because I didn’t cover her with my protection. I established the conditions for her to prosper; it was up to her to honor the constraints of those conditions. And so she lived the life of the elect: flawed, evil, and sinful by nature but always forgiven and protected because she belonged to me.
But doesn’t the receipt of grace require an awareness of its existence and gratitude for its bestowal before its conditions become operable? That is asking a hell of a lot for a cat. Indeed, it is asking a lot of a human. But of course this is my theology so I can construct it and then tweak it as the mood strikes, pretty much like the other high priests of the world. Yet for all the flaws and painful constructs, the symmetry of the relationship of the Deity to man and the relationship of the man to the lesser creatures seems to hold a compelling beauty. In the effort to comprehend the incomprehensible, maybe a subjective perception of order is about as far as we can get; a perception however flawed which belongs to the individual alone.
The raccoon was disposed of, the shotgun put away, and mental ablutions performed. All I needed was a cup of coffee and I could begin the day.
# # #
Doug Johnson returns to The Zodiac Review with another fine story (see his Dewey Lake in our Summer 2012 issue). This story, How Many Raccoons is a Cat Worth? – on the surface a look at a clever burglar with a black mask – gives us reasons to consider the contract we may have with creatures lower than ourselves on the food chain.
by Lasher Lane
JOSÉ WAS SCREAMING AGAIN, rocking to comfort himself with his hands over his ears. This time it was because he heard a cricket in the ceiling vent. His mother, Maria, never knew what loud noise would set him off, but she knew how to distract him with anything that spun. For that reason alone, he loved to watch the lottery drawing on TV. He was obsessed with the balls that would spin around in that clear box then pop up as the lady read the numbers on them to the viewers at home. He’d sit there watching, mumbling to himself as he always did, even though his mother constantly reminded him to keep his thoughts in his head. Then she’d check if her recent lottery tickets matched, if she’d won, but she never did. It was her obsession, too, but for different reasons. She couldn’t bear to spend another summer in that run-down bungalow in Reseda, where the summers were as close as you could get to hell on Earth, when even the shades drawn and box fan were no help. Sometimes, the heat seemed to last until November, and the macadam even seemed to melt. Maria could remember days when the fierce and simmering Santa Ana winds blew scorched leaves and palm fronds off the brittle trees, and the crows, trapped in their inconvenient black bodies, sat on parched lawns like statues looking up with their mouths open, hoping a drop of water might fall from the sky.
Housebound, Maria would light her la suerte de la loteria every day, the same candle she’d gotten at a yard sale years ago, hoping it might bring her luck, and hoping she might win so they could finally get out of that place, she and her son, and move to somewhere cooler with air conditioning that worked, a house with a pool, maybe up north. It was hard to light that candle, hard to do anything around the house, even water the dying plants, being stuck in a wheelchair. With her bad heart only getting worse, she knew she was lying to herself that she was even well enough to make a move somewhere else when just getting from one room to another was difficult enough. And she was fooling herself too, knowing she hadn’t even driven for years or left the house. But even though she could barely afford the rent and utility payments or money for food, she’d make sure to set aside enough cash to send her son to 7-Eleven every day with a list of numbers she chose for those lottery tickets to help keep her dream alive. Alongwith those tickets, hope had become her new obsession.
At 16, José knew the alphabet and double-digit numbers, but he had never learned to read, write or tell time. When she’d send him to the store for tickets and groceries, she’d have to give him photos of food items she’d cut from magazines or the Sunday coupon section. He found it wasn’t a difficult task since he’d requested and eaten the same thing every day for years anyway, nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or SpaghettiOs, but, afraid of fire and knives, he couldn’t make either one for himself. She knew that was partly her fault. She’d always done too much for him. “Too good is no good,” her husband always said.
With their washing machine long broken, and not wanting to let any strangers in to fix it, she would not only send her son to mail the bills and get groceries, but she would also have him take their laundry to the local lavanderia. He never minded since it was something else he could watch spin, and he’d sit there engrossed, watching the entire dry cycle like it was some classic movie on TV. She’d always time how long he was gone, worried that he might be yet another daily victim of a drive-by from some gang member thinking he was showing disrespect by wearing the hood of his sweatshirt up just like they did, or that the police might shoot him, thinking he was looking or acting suspiciously when they saw him talking loudly to himself.
Whenever he was gone, every police or ambulance siren or hovering helicopter she heard made her uneasy. Today he’d be late because although he’d already mailed the bills, bought the groceries and lottery tickets, and was almost done with the laundry, as he was about to take one wash out of the dryer to fold it, some local kids who had been hanging around, listening to him talking to himself, began watching and taunting him and calling him names. First they pushed him away from the dryer and poured all their Hawaiian Punch onto the white clothes, then ran away laughing. He had no choice but to start the whole process over again with barely enough change, and when he finished, the clothes looked no better. Maria sat by the front door the whole time, with chest pains from worrying. The sun was long gone when he finally got home.
He was upset when he told his mom what had happened, that the clothes were still stained, but she didn’t care. The clothes were just material things. She’d rather have him home safe. She was just about to call the police to help find him but was relieved she wouldn’t have to because then they’d see her and her son’s living conditions. She’d never kept the house that way when her husband was alive. Now there were three-foot high piles of newspapers allowing only a narrow path to the front door, recessed lights blown out from a leaky roof that were too high and out of reach to replace, ripped window shades and broken panes, springs coming through the couch, and last but not least, the yard with its tall weeds and abandoned car. Her son tried to help, but it got past them long ago. He’d carry out the trash and some of the newspaper piles, but it never seemed to make a dent. He’d wash the dishes, always trying hard not to drop and break the few pieces they had left, the only ones that hadn’t already accidentally slipped out of his hands.
Anything and everything seemed possible when her husband was alive, before he got sick, and before she became confined to a wheelchair. For twenty-five years, he commuted back and forth to that aluminum plant, coming home every night with his skin and clothing covered in a dark, powdery dust, believing the whole time that, unlike his fellow workers, he was immune to the death grip of that metal. As time passed, he naively attributed his diabetes and high blood pressure to age, but then came the tremors, the loss of memory and coordination, and finally the long battle he’d fight with lung cancer.
Maria wheeled over to the stove and got the SpaghettiOs from the countertop to heat as José put the pink-stained laundry away. Then he sat down in the chair by the TV patiently waiting for his dinner but mostly waiting for the lady with the numbered balls to come on. He didn’t realize that there was a relation between the balls and the lottery tickets he always bought; he just liked to watch them spin around in the air inside the box. When his mom called from the kitchen that his dinner was ready, José carried it to his TV tray, along with her tea that he set on the coffee table right beside her new tickets. When the lady appeared, they both kept their eyes on the screen, mumbling to himself as he always did, right before each numbered ball flew out of the box and into position. Once more, Maria told her son to be quiet, to keep his thoughts in his head, only to realize she’d lost again.
She wished he didn’t talk to himself so much in public, especially since 9/11. It always seemed to scare those who didn’t understand. But at three, he didn’t talk much at all, and he seemed in constant motion with little interest in food or sleep, so their pediatrician suggested having him evaluated by a hospital team. She remembered sitting in a room with him while the team showed him simple line drawings of everyday objects. They had asked her beforehand not to coach him. He knew what a lot of them were, except for one that was of an iron used to press clothes. As Maria sat with her son and a speech therapist at a tiny round table while the rest of the team stood behind, the therapist showed the drawing of the iron and asked José, “What do we do with this?” When he seemed to have no clue, the therapist and the rest of the team were perplexed. The professionals decided that not being able to recognize this common, everyday object could only indicate how really out of touch he was with the world around him, until Maria was finally allowed to speak. Then she was embarrassed to admit that her son probably didn’t recognize the iron because he’d never seen one. She’d never owned one. By divulging this, she was secretly hoping with one last ditch effort to make him as normal as possible before they wrote up their reports, hoping the iron story might help ease their diagnosis. They only held off on their instincts and suggested early intervention, special-ed pre-school at three, then he was to return at six, when they’d confirm what they suspected…autism.
She and her husband cried. One of the therapists told her that as the years went by, besides shedding a lot of tears, they’d become experts at the terminology that went along with the affliction; a vocabulary that included words like echolalia and perseveration. That kind of expert she had no desire to be. And so at three he had begun riding short buses thirteen years from dawn until dusk to public schools, enduring mental torture from teachers who believed in dehumanizing aversive techniques and students who believed they were superior to him. With water thrown in his face, being locked in closets and tied to chairs, she would move him from school to school hoping for better treatment. After her husband died, she made the decision to keep him home, to lock the professionals, the teachers and doctors out of their lives for good, her own doctor included.
They were alone in the world now with no relatives or friends nearby to rely on, but she decided that that absence of no friends was certainly better than what he’d been forced to tolerate in the outside world all those years. All they had was each other. Maria was José’s best friend and he was hers. And because of her failing health, she’d spend countless nights awake with the thought always in the forefront of her mind about what might happen to him when she was gone. And Maria was tired of the arguments and the looks she got, as if she were insane whenever people asked her why she thought her son was “autistic,” and she dared to question what was in the air, the water, or God forbid she should say the word vaccines. She wondered if it even could have been aluminum poisoning somehow passed on from father to son, or husband to wife to son. She remembered reading that prenatal exposure to aluminum caused behavioral changes in animals. In humans, it was known to cause aversion to light, noise and touch, apprehension, irrational outbursts, sleep disorders and tics. Her son had all of the above. But searching for answers to his affliction got her nowhere, and neither did buying those unlucky lottery tickets.
Most of the time, she felt like she and her son were two rats in a trap with no escape.
Maria was grateful that over the years with much practice José had learned shower and dress himself and had thankfully acquired language. His favorite holiday was Halloween, probably because since her husband died and she had become disabled, it was the only one they could really celebrate. Not being able to get out and buy gifts or groceries for holiday dinners, holidays became just like every other day, except for frozen Swanson turkey dinners and a Mrs. Smiths’s pie they’d splurge on for Thanksgiving. Otherwise, there were the holiday TV specials they’d watch together and the artificial tree she decided at one point was easier to just keep up all year.
On Halloween, he still went trick-or-treating. He’d put together costumes from stuff he’d find in his dad’s closet. Maria allowed him to go only if he promised to stay in the neighborhood, and she’d always time him. He looked too big for the small, orange plastic pumpkin he’d take with him. He’d go door-to-door, getting turned away, often yelled at by some that he was much too old. He even scared some parents escorting their children with flashlights, too, but that didn’t stop him. Thankfully, some of those handing out candy were wise enough to spot right away that he was just a child in an adult’s body, his size yet another affliction just like his disorder. When the pumpkin was filled to the top, he’d go home, making that candy last for months, sometimes until the next Halloween.
But now Halloween was long gone. It was March and raining heavily. Soon it would be spring, the season that brought hope. José sat in front of the TV watching the lady. Before the numbers even flew out of the box, he knew. “Thirty-six,” he said. The lady said, “thirty-six,” repeating him like a parrot. “Seventeen,” he said, forgetting to keep his thoughts in his head. “Seventeen,” the TV lady echoed. As his mother was wheeling in from the kitchen, she stopped herself in the hallway and quietly listened, amazed at what she was hearing. He continued to know every number before the balls would appear.
“What are you doing?” she yelled.
He thought she was angry with him for talking out loud again.“How did you know what the numbers would be? Do you know them every time?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? That means we could move out of here. Someplace that’s not as hot, maybe with a pool. And we can go on vacations. Wouldn’t you like that? Wouldn’t you like to be rich?” He nodded, then asked if that meant they could go back to Disneyland, where he hadn’t been since he was little.
She answered, “Of course,” knowing again that she was lying to herself but even worse, to him. He still didn’t understand how the tickets and numbered balls fit together, so she explained. Then she got a pad and paper and asked him to recite more numbers for her ticket he’d buy the next day.
The next morning, the rain was still coming down, and he noticed his mom, as usual, had fallen asleep on the couch, the TV still on. Excited at the thought of a new life, he carefully covered her with a throw and took the money, along with the grocery photos and lottery list, then got his raincoat and quietly left the house.
When he returned she was still asleep. He kept himself busy washing dishes, taking out the trash and some of the newspaper bundles, then he made his bed. Hours went by, and it was getting dark. He sat in his chair by the TV, staring at the time on their small alarm clock, trying to make sense of the numbers while looking over at her, waiting for her to wake.
It began to rain much harder. There was a sizzling sound above him, as he noticed the last working ceiling light blow out and rain begin to slowly drip through. He was frightened in the dark, with the TV the only flickering source of light in the living room. He called, “ Mom, Mom! ” trying to let her know the lady would be calling their numbers soon. And the lady did call them.
Hungry, he took some of his old Halloween candy from the plastic pumpkin and began to eat it, waiting for his mom to wake. When she did, she’d make him dinner and they’d talk about Disneyland and what their new house would be like, then she’d tell him how proud she was of him.
# # #
After many years as a graphic artist for Prentice-Hall involved in the creation of books, Lasher Lane is happy to be on the other side of publishing – as an author. She has had one short story published and another is forthcoming in Down in the Dirt. The shorts feature characters from her novel, a work in progress about the tiny, off-the-map East Coast town where she was raised.
by Joplin Rice
HERE, IN THE DERELICT SILENCE of nowhere in particular, I count cars.
You know those tripwires you drive over that measure your speed and count vehicles? The ones that lie across the road like dead snakes? That’s me.
I’m who they call when they can’t afford one of those machines but they still need the numbers for their big bosses. Sometimes they call me if one is broken but they still need the numbers on that particular day. They call me and I show up at a certain spot just off the road and write down how fast cars are going and how many pass by. I’m only assigned to rural, out-of-the-way places because those are easiest to take care of with only one guy on the payroll. They need to know if the road is busy or dangerous enough to warrant new signs or repairs.
I sit hunched over the steering wheel with an ancient, oversized radar gun in my hands for ten, sometimes twelve hours straight, aiming it at the cars like a traffic cop stuck in the old west. Sometimes I aim at the heads of the drivers to pass the time, sort of like target practice. I do this all day.
You don’t get any bathroom breaks, so we advise against coffee, they told me.
I asked how I was supposed to stay awake.
They asked me if I wanted the job or not.
I said yes, I was desperate.
You never go a day without work because no one else wants to do this. I’ve gotten used to it. They call you in and you go all around the state, one day at a time, counting cars, shooting your speed-hungry ray gun at them from the bushes. You’re a modern-day commando of law enforcement and they don’t even give you a badge, the proud bastards.
But really, I only do this job because of the crashes. I like watching the different colors mesh into each other, creating a heap of disfigured metal and flesh. I love the screeching tires, the mazes of skid marks, and the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline.
I’ve been doing this for three years and I’ve seen forty-three crashes. Twenty-one of them were fatal. Nine killed more than one person. One of them killed all five occupants involved. Thirty-six deaths, total.
Red Toyota runs seventy-two around a hairpin curve, meets a white SUV as he drifts around the tree blocking his left side. Catapults twenty feet into the air and rolls seven times. Double fatality.
I keep the book with the cars for the big bosses and I keep my own book with the crashes for myself. I go to the courthouses in nameless counties and I request crime scene photos when they become public domain. I have a kind of scrapbook of the crashes in my trunk.
Motorcycle with lone male occupant, no helmet, seventy-three miles per hour. Skids on a piece of tire going down a steep road in the open country. Slides under a semi and a coupe, and then a soccer mom in a silver mini-van pulverizes his skull.
Page thirteen. Edison County. Route 24.
I try to tell them, hey, you have to fix this hole.
You should put up a sign for this tight curve.
You need to post a lower speed limit.
But they don’t listen. Maybe letting these people die will get someone’s attention. Someone important. In the meantime, I get my fill of crashes and maybe, just maybe, someone gets saved in the long run. It’s a win-win. That’s what I tell myself when I take down stop signs and throw them into the trees when no one is looking. Sometimes the sharp edges have their way with my hands, but I hardly feel it because of the adrenaline.
Memorial Day is the best. I have it marked on my calendar like it’s Christmas. In the past three years there have been eight collisions, two of them fatalities, on that one day. It’s the perfect storm.
Man in a Hummer barrels down a straight stretch on a back road where I’m determining if there’s enough traffic to necessitate putting down new blacktop. A deer jumps out of the brush next to the road and embeds itself in the driver’s windshield. Broken neck, but he survived. They didn’t repave the road and no one put up a sign about deer.
My mom, she died in a car accident. Maybe that’s why I got the job. Never really thought about it. She was coming back from getting groceries in the evening, probably driving twenty or twenty-five. Drunk teenager thought he could get past the red light in that moment, that split-second before the light on the other side changed to green. But the light had already switched. My mom never stopped and neither did he. Destroyed the driver’s side, car went up in flames…they had to identify her with old dental records.
That quick light was never recalibrated.
I’m watching, now, as a red coupe crosses the centerline slightly, praying that it’s a heart attack behind the wheel or that another vehicle will come around the curve I’m surveying and clip his right headlight, initiating a barrel roll. I would run to help and get to witness the carnage, the smells, and the sounds firsthand. The car drifts a few more feet into the wrong lane and then corrects itself with one jerky movement.
He was probably texting.
What a missed opportunity.
Fifty-third car. Sixty-one miles per hour.
# # #
Joplin Rice is a writer who lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He is currently a freshman at the University of Kentucky, where he is majoring in Secondary English Education. Joplin's work has previously appeared in Fiction365, Crack The Spine, and Crack The Spine's Summer 2012 Print Anthology.
by Hollis Whitlock
JOHN AWAKENS at dawn in an alleyway in the downtown slums of his hometown. The right side of his face is cold and numb. A welt throbs above his cerebrum. He sits upright and leans against a brick wall. Nonsensical graffiti reads like the morning’s comic strip of the daily newspaper. Cravings, for the fumes of an Indian cigar, agitate relentlessly.
John pulls a butt and lighter from his pocket. He straightens the tip with his blackened fingers, strikes the lighter and inhales. Relief is fast. Exhaust is blue. John flicks the filter into a puddle. Smoke slowly rises and dissipates with the breeze.
Beside him, a streetwalker lies sprawled like the chalked outline of a murder scene. Dried blood runs from her nose, over her cheek, to her torn blouse. Her hair is matted across her forehead. Her right eye is swollen shut. Decaying teeth protrude from her contorted mouth. Fingers are rigid like the claws of the ravens that are hopping closer.
John grabs a handful of gravel and slides up the wall to a standing position. Nausea induces vomiting. John hunches. Fragments of undigested waste spew. His throat burns. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve. The ravens begin to peck.
“Get out of hear!” John tosses the handful at the scavengers. Fluttering wings fly to perches. Cawing echoes repeatedly. Wind whistles past with the stench of human excrement. Engines blare from the road.
John staggers around the corpse to the end of the alleyway and peers around the corner. Exhaust hovers in a dark translucent haze. Vendors are opening shop. Black suited men and long legged woman are busting to buildings. Pigeons are foraging for crumbs. Cars are parking beside meters. Transit busses are unloading.
John’s image reflects from the windowpane of a limousine. He slips the hood of his black coat over his mangy hair and pulls the zipper to his neck. A month’s growth of dark whiskers encircles his chapped lips. Dark glasses hide his sensory vision. Sagging jeans conceal his genitalia.
John strolls along the sidewalk toward his begging location. He grabs a paper coffee cup that is on top of a newspaper stand. A warm mouthful circulates in the bottom. John savors the sweet stimulant in a single swill before scouring the ground for the discards of the wealth’s luxuries.
A butt burns like red embers in a fire. Two hours of addiction can be satisfied. John grabs the slender cylinder and sits with the cup extended. Rouge lipstick and lavender perfume adhere to the filtered tip. John inhales twice. Visions of long blonde hair stroll along the sidewalk from the bank.
Slender heeled legs stop abruptly. Blonde curls waver in the breeze. An adjustment to sleek shades reveal two pools of blue. Glossy white sparkles from parted red lips. Water runs in two streaks of black. A hand hides despair. Three steps toward the white limousine. The door opens. Knees silhouette against black slacks.
“Michelle,” John murmurs.
Blonde wavers in the breeze. Rackety heels spin on concrete. A purse opens. Paper ruffles in a thumb and forefinger snap. Sirens blare from afar. Long expanded wings circle overhead. Shining blue, glossy red and sparkling white energize the pump of life.
John’s head sinks. His eyes peer upward through the gap between the frame and brows. Sunrise brings color to the shades of gray. He hides the cigarette under his palm and extends the cup.
Grinding plastic on concrete approaches. Long straight fingers, with sharp red tips, extend downward to the cup. Lincoln’s upper lip is bare. A forced smile alleviates anxiety. Two blackened raindrops moisten the concrete from above. Two more run through the dark strands of winter’s warmth. Long strides toward the open door bring anguish.
“You’re just fueling the addiction,” a man bellows from inside the limousine.
“Who was that?” the blonde woman asks.“It’s nobody.”
“Get inside. Let’s go,” a female voice demands.
“They said my name like they knew me,” the blonde woman says.
“Just forget about him.”
Lower cleavage resurrects a forgotten pleasure. Condescending chatter slams a white door. The Muffler’s exhaust spews in a translucent cloud of toxins. Cawing brings fear and warns of danger. Sirens blare. People in white stride to the alley’s entrance. Watering blue eyes peer from a veil of dark glass.
John rises to an erect stance. To his left, two men with a stretcher are carrying the lifeless body of the streetwalker to the ambulance. To his right, the anguished soul of his lost love speeds through traffic.
Men in blue suits gather information in a formal display of accusation. Shop owners shrug their shoulders. Hotdog vendors are baffled. Pedestrians are unknowledgeable or too busy to care. Patrons shake their heads. Street folk remain silent in their torment for justice.
John skulks along the sidewalk to the intersection and stops to the command of the blinking red hand. Perfumes of fine ladies linger amongst the stench wafting from below. John unzips his coat and tosses it into a garbage bin. Dark curls fluff into a lion’s mane. The ragged remains of his collared shirt adhere to his torso. The white walker replaces the blinking red hand.
Pedestrians march to ringing phones, the orders of bosses, and the ticking of digital timepieces. John’s skulk becomes a mirroring stride of intensity. Disdain, disapproval, and disgust affront him. John avoids the emotional attacks and races into his past, searching for his lost life.
He passes the building of cubical pigeon holes that provided him with warmth, running water, and protection. His dry mouth salivates to toast, milk, and marmalade. Soft foam, fluffed pillows, and scented linen ease his aching back and legs. Hot water, foaming shampoos and sharp swipes revive his soul.
Four years of intense study at the local university earned him an undergraduate degree, an opportunity for a career, and a paycheck. Relief was satisfied with an evening’s socialization at the campus pub with classmates, beautiful women and a bottle of beer.
The road ran straight for miles. His parents had carved the path like a modern highway. The crash was unexpected, unannounced and fatal. The turmoil was somewhere in his past. John was searching to fill the void in his predictable and lonely life. He found it in the alleyways of downtown Delaware.
Michelle was his high school sweetheart. Her presence brought stability during bouts of confusion. She suppressed his rebellion and inspired conformity to his parent’s wishes. Dreams of the life preached in the pastor’s sermon became his desire. John was the model student and athlete.
Now, he is a derelict searching to find the path of salvation. He sprints to an adjoining field, past the white posts, to the centerline and kicks a pinecone down field. Shuffling left and darting right, he flicks the sacred object around oncoming apparitions and shoots. The rebirth of life scuttles between two white posts. John’s arms raise high in victory.
Students raise their fists and cheer from the sidelines. Clapping hands and mocking laughter reverberate. Girls whistle. A suited supervisor, with a green and golden tie, strolls onto the field. Exasperation reflects from tinted spectacles and a hand running through graying hair.
A second wind rushes. John rips his shirt from his chest and tosses the rag like the town idiot. Cheers, laughter and whistles follow his step. John runs from the field to the street. Glistening perspiration drips from his stark white physique. Cramping feet ache in his sole less shoes.
John slows his pace to a meander and breathes deeply. He strolls to a park while a subtle breeze cools his reddened cheeks. He sits on a bench and removes his footwear. Aching blisters soothe in the warmth of the easterly sun. John closes his eyes and daydreams.
Pattering feet open his eyes. Bats are swinging at floating balls. Children touch bases while running in circles. Parents cheer. Fresh bubble gum, fizzing soda and hot dogs drift in the zephyr. A microphone voice announces each movement. Sides change. Numbers accumulate. A fat man umpires.
John strolls through a wood onto a rock mound behind the centerfield fence. He climbs onto an overhanging branch of an oak tree and swings like a child at play. Shock, fear and disgust radiate from the spectators. A barking voice halts play. A Microphone echoes animosity. John drops to the ground like a juvenile delinquent and scurries farther into his past.
He skips along the sidewalk past rows of houses. Pristine front lawns, manicured flowerbeds, and trimmed hedges adorn the buildings. Life sprouts from the barren branches of winter’s frost. Silent gnomes peer fearfully from behind flowers, shrubs, and trees. The morning newspaper spreads like the infectious spiels of conglomerate monopoly.
The front page tells of murder, mayhem and drug addiction. Warnings of a killer evoke fear in the masses. Don’t walk alone. Lock your doors at night. Carry a weapon. Darkness is a Curfew. Another soul has succumbed to the grueling climb of the corporate ladder. John knows she was dead long before.
A raven swoops from a telephone pole. John ducks to avoid its sharp claws. Neurons swirl in his abdomen. He must be next. Cawing echoes repeatedly. John crumples the paper and tosses it upward. Stock quotes, sports scores, politics, comic strips and classifieds jumble together in a mass of confusion.
John gathers the pages and tries to piece the puzzle together. Nothing can be done to change old news. The events are permanent. He folds the pages like a lost driver reading a map.
Then he wanders like an abandoned child searching for its mother on the fist day of school. He never forgave the desertion. The fear subsided. He made more friends than enemies, won the heart of his true love, and defeated the school bully. The fight commenced after class at the bus stop.
John jogs to the school ground and lies on the soft grass next to the location. He stares at the sky and hallucinates on cloud formations. Faces of his classmates look down upon his corpse with bewilderment, stupefaction and ridicule. He wonders what became of their innocence, their aspirations and their sanity.
A ringing bell interrupts the transcendent meditation. Children escape the symmetrical formation of desks, from the suffocating cubical boxes of monotonous droll, which impedes free will. Their torment manifests in yells, pushes, laughter and tears.
Grinding brakes induces a stampede. John sits up and stretches his arms. Compressed air opens a door. Children scurry up three steps to their favorite seat. Windows open. Tongues, laughter, crossed eyes and pointing fingers project John’s circumstances. The driver shakes his head. Air is released.
John chases the slowly moving bus like a dog. Children cheer with wide eyes and toothy gins. John grabs hold of the bumper and rides through traffic. Eyes water. Curls flutter in the slipstream. John laughs like the clown at the fair. The bus slows to a halt. John jumps off. The children wave and jump with joyous jubilation.
John strolls along the sidewalk to a blue house with a white picket fence. He pushes the gate open and proceeds up the walkway to the front door. A silent gnome glares from the neighboring garden. An ancient key darkened from perspiration, jingles in his pocket like the chimes of Sunday’s prayer. John smiles and turns the handle that is frozen in time.
The gates to his parent’s sanctuary open with a familiar creak. John strolls through the living room. Photographs trapping time adorn the mantelpiece. Fine china locked behind glass is ageless. John steps into the kitchen. A gray tabby scurries across the floor to a cat-door. The sink glistens like polished nickel.
“Mom! Mom! I’m home.”
John waits for an answer. A humming refrigerator interrupts serenity. John opens the door and grabs a milk carton. He quenches his thirst with the creamy liquid and looks through the kitchen window into the backyard. A pitcher’s mound bulges from the ground. Home plate is sixty feet six inches away. The phone rings. John picks up the receiver.
“Hello,” John says.“What…”
Memories of father dilate John’s pupils. “Who is this!” Words of wisdom return. Keep the ball down. Stick with the hard slider. Push off the mound. Follow through with your right side. Keep your eye on the glove. Silence lingers. “Who the bloody Hell is this!” Angry memories awaken. Get in your damn room. For the last time take the garbage out. Clean up your room. “Are you going to answer me!”
“Mother’s not home right now.” Click.
John walks into a hallway and ascends the stairs to the second floor. A door is ajar. He peers inside at the museum of posters, compact disks, and sports magazines. John steps inside and opens the drawer. He takes a change of clothing and walks to the bathroom.
Two dark eyes reflect from within a tomb of graying curls and scruff. John runs an electric razor through the protective strands of time. A Youthful face appears from behind the mummification, while a bird’s nest of straw fills the sink.
John enters the shower and scrubs the preserving layers of film from his skin with soap. Swirls of bubbling brown run to the drain. A series of swipes removes the remaining stubble from his chin.
A young man searching for love emerges from the shower. He dresses in faded jeans, and a black leather jacket. He strolls downstairs to the phone. Her number is still in memory. John dials. An elderly woman answers.
“Can I speak with Michelle?”“Michelle hasn’t lived here in ages. Who is calling?”
“Johnny! Is that really you?”
“Yes it is.”
“…Michelle will be here for dinner tonight. You’re welcome to join us.” Opiates release in his brain.
John opens the front door. Flashing red and blue greet him with animosity. An elderly man’s fist is shaking. A microphone shouts.
“Turn around and put your hands up!” John becomes rigid. Faces of men in blue glare with conviction. John’s heart pounds like a grandfather clock. “Turn around and put your hands up!” John turns to the open door. He runs through the living room to the kitchen and out the backdoor to the surrounding fence. Charging footsteps clamber off a wooden floor.
Flashbacks of childhood rage open the passageway to forgotten trails that lead to secret hiding places. John darts behind a spruce tree in the far corner of the yard. He pushes beneath prickly branches to a hidden gate. Barking dogs pursue. John eases between the gate to the neighbor’s yard and slithers between two compost bins.
An elderly woman is pulling weeds from a bed of sprouting perennials. Her face is weathered, but her blue eyes and smile are unchanged.
“Good afternoon Mrs. Smith.”
“Good afternoon Johnny. Rod isn’t home right now. ”
John sprints along the fence line to the front yard. A garage and cedar hedge blocks the view to the street. Sirens blare. A motorcycle rumbles to the driveway and stops. The familiar face smiles.
“Johnny! Where have you been?” Rod says.
“I got lost Rod.” Shouting voices from afar bring panic.
“Did you see someone come through the yard!”
“Take my bike buddy. I’ll deal with it.” Rod says.
John mounts the bike and races out of the yard onto the street. Nearing sirens pierce. Shouting from the yard fades in the roar of the engine. Swarming ravens follow. Love becomes John’s only sense of direction when a jolt sends him into the fourth dimension. Flashing blue and red are oblivious to John’s specter, as he races through traffic to the embracing arms and lips of Michelle.
# # #
Hollis Whitlock lives in Vancouver with his wife and four children. He graduated in 2003 with a BBA from UFV and writes in his spare time. He runs a small hobby farm with fruit trees, blueberries and raspberry plants. He also enjoys gardening and koi ponds.
by Jéanpaul Ferro
We hid amid the swaying fields of sugar cane
when Castro overthrew that fool, Fulgencio,
you in your libidinous red dress that kept
all the men of Plaza Vieja very happy, every day
a procession after the bullfights and the executions;
I think I was dead every morning I was without you,
the statues of the city cold, but I understood them,
at night we drank and danced and then we retired to watch
all the old cars going fast under the trestles,
In the daytime, I worked right near San Cristobal,
trying to write like Hemingway on our old typewriter,
but you cured me for my lack of a reputation,
me, arriving home to find you naked and wet in bed,
leaving me hungry for your soul like a wallet longing
for crisp green bills;
but then change and revolution came!
and we were all happy and afraid as we hid in the fields,
dreaming of the former, hoping for tomorrow,
hiding for a day that turned into the last fifty years;
And now I am old and you have already gone,
nothing to quench my thirst like things used to do,
Jesus! I’m tired of waiting for Cuba to change!
Cuba is both a truth and a fiction, a great story of lust
and of craving,
A country that longs for tomorrow to be like yesterday,
and for yesterday to be like tomorrow. Amen.
# # #
Jéanpaul Ferro is a novelist, poet, and short fiction author from Providence, Rhode Island. An 8-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has been featured on NPR, Columbia Review, Connecticut Review, Contemporary American Voices, Arts and Understanding Magazine, Emerson Review, and others. His last two books, Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009) and Jazz, (Honest Publishing, 2011), have both been nominated for the Griffin Prize in Poetry with the latter also being nominated for the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Prize in Poetry. He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency.
On the Proper Role of Desire
by Craig Fishbane
THE TWO MONKS stood on the terrace overlooking the temple courtyard. A garden of lilacs and heliconia was spread out before them, the verdant textures of rain-soaked petals dissolving into a featureless but fragrant shadow. The older monk adjusted the wire frames of his spectacles as the first constellations of the evening emerged from the dusky sky.
“The question tonight,” he said to his apprentice, “regards the proper role of desire.”
The younger monk stood motionless in burnt-orange robes. He contemplated a moth circling a paper lantern on the marble balustrade. Tiny grey wings fluttered through dense moist air until it finally joined two other moths at rest on the translucent shade.
“The proper role of desire,” the student said, “is the same as that of fear. It exists only so that we can rise above it.”
“Does desire then lead to no fruitful paths?” the older monk asked, pouring water into an earthen cup from a wooden beaker.
“Desire is like the light of a flame to these insects,” the younger monk replied. He gestured at another moth that was spiraling toward the lantern.
“Desire calls us to where we cannot possibly go,” the student explained, “and leads us to abandon our own natural tranquility.”
“And what of these particular moths?” the older monk asked. “What would be their condition if there were no light, nothing luminous to attract them?”
The younger monk did not hesitate.
“It would be a state approaching bliss,” he said.
The older monk nodded. He studied the face of his apprentice—the subtle shifts of lips and eyelids—as he raised his cup and then dowsed the fire. The younger man could only squint at the flurry of wings scattering from the haze of rising smoke.
“It appears that, once again,” the older monk observed, “Nirvana lies in ruin.”
# # #
Craig Fishbane’s work has been featured in the New York Quarterly, Flashquake, the Boston Literary Magazine, Prime Number, Opium and The Nervous Breakdown.
End of Fall 2012 Issue