WINTER 2012 ISSUE
(Scroll down to find each story)
Fast Track, by Patrick Forgette
Shooting at Diamonds, by Rebecca Clay Haynes.......*Editor' Choice*
Dorothy, by Julie Morgan King
Flat Iron Blues, by Arthur McMaster
Aunt Gwen Sneaks, by Kenneth Pobo
Calmato, by Donald Dewey
The Devil’s Cup, by E.G. Fulton.............*Editors' Choice*
Feast on Flies, by Heidi Kraay
Red Tiger Walk, by George Eyre Master
Arachnids, by Michael Onofrey
How Mac Got Promoted, by Gale Tanner.........*Editors' Choice*
The Man Who Harvests Redeemable Cans, by William Doreski...........*A Belated Editors' Choice*
On Not Being Able to Dance, by Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D.
Karner Blue Butterfly, by Jamie Taylor
Fast Track by Patrick Forgette
Shooting at Diamonds by Rebecca Clay Haynes
Dorothy by Julie Morgan King
Flat Iron Blues by Arthur McMaster
Aunt Gwen Sneaks by Kenneth Pobo
Calmato by Donald Dewey
The Devil's Cup by E. G. Fulton
Feast on Flies by Heidi Kraay
Red Tiger Walk by George Masters
Arachnids by Michael Onofrey
How Mac Got Promoted by Gale Tanner Prose Poetry
The Man Who Harvests Redeemable Cans, by William Doreski
Karner Blue Butterfly by Jamie Taylor
On Not Being Able to Dance by Milton P. Erlich, Ph.D
by Patrick Forgette
HOLDING A JOB INTERVIEW at the crack of dawn wasn’t my idea. It was Stan’s.
“Does the job start this early?” I asked.
Stan nodded. We sat at a table in the First National Bank, where to hear Stan tell it, they kept rancher’s hours. Stan took out a sheaf of forms and tapped them once on the tabletop. They didn’t seem to need the blow.
We stared at each other. The stupor of having been asleep only an hour before was probably evident on both our faces.
Stan fell back on praise: “You did excellent work for the Carl Group. Tell me more about it.”
I fell back on self-deprecation: “Programmers are regular Joes. We put our T-shirts on one leg at a time.”
It occurred to me that self-deprecation was a view of one’s life that should be left at the interview door.
Stan wrote “Delusions of Grandeur” in big letters across the form.
Some days you might as well stay at rest, even in a bed of nails.
# # #
Patrick Forgette taught English as a foreign language in Japan and as a high school subject in the States. His stories and poems have appeared in The Adirondack Review, DIAGRAM, Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Review, Poetry on Buses, Pontoon and Word Riot.
Shooting At Diamonds
by Rebecca Clay Haynes
THE RED PICKUP turned onto Highway 111, hewing to each turn tightly, cleanly, and heeding every touch on the wheel and tap on the brake. Luis drove that vehicle the way he made love -- no detours, no room for error, no unexpected stops -- through an autumn forest empty of people, empty of sound beyond the engine and the wind.
Towers of fir and pine shuddered at their passing. White and orange chainsaws rattled in the bed, well-greased and poised for their chance.
Paula aimed at the No Outlet sign and fired. As they passed the yellow diamond, she searched for the hole she was sure would be there. But the warning sign had long since been decimated by bullets and she could hardly read the words let alone find the tiny lacuna left by a .22 shot from a Ford doing 40.
“I think I got it,” she said.
“How could you miss?”
“I have, you know.”
“I know,” Luis said.
He parked the truck by a sun-streaked clearing crisscrossed with felled ponderosas and other conifers, their dense corpses showing few effects from their recent death. Mighty trees like this rot slowly. Sweet aromas rose up from the warm reds and yellows of the severed trunks framed by dead cones and the abandoned nests of fledglings long since taken to the wing.
“I wonder what Kit Carson would think of this place named after him,” Paula said, reaching for the smaller of the chainsaws, the one Luis had bought her last spring. It fit her hands perfectly, just like the gun.
“He might not care for it too much,” Luis said. “You know his father got himself killed by a tree he was chopping down that landed on him.”
“You never told me that.”
“I don’t tell you everything.”
He headed for some trees loosely stacked on top of each other and lowered a pair of white goggles over his laughing eyes, his chainsaw in one hand as he crouched beside the broken butt of the largest pine. His eyes were always amused, taking in the fervor of the human race, especially of the Anglos hustling Hispanic and Indian art back in Santa Fe, ever chasing a better trade, higher margin, more gullible prey. Luis had the blood of all three and respect for only one.
“So why do you spend time with me?” Paula had asked him once.
“You’re not like them.”
“My people killed your people.”
“And mine killed yours.”“But yours were here first.”
“And we’ll be here when you’re gone.”
The quiet recoiled with the wail of his chainsaw as it slowly cleaved the compliant wood. Paula watched the rounds roll off and cluster by their feet. Luis, his black hair and beard, his strong arms and thighs, his ready smile, loved her despite her tainted genes and roots. He refused to call it that but love was what it was.
She went to the truck and took out the ruana he had made her over coffee at Tia Sophia’s, with everyone wondering, especially the tourists, what this big man in a black Stetson was doing with a crochet needle in one hand and skein of dusty pink yarn in the other. This made him laugh all the more.
She draped the poncho over her shoulders and sat down on a stump to watch him work.
He gestured with the blade for her to pick up her equipment and follow suit. She smiled and shook her head. Not in the mood, she mouthed. He shrugged and moved on to the next bark-wrapped fir destined for someone’s kiva in the coming months. For friends and friends of friends and even family if they didn’t renege on their promise to pay. It was this and waiting tables that kept his old adobe roof over his head.
The aroma of resin blended with exhaust and dirt still moist from an overnight rain. Paula breathed it all in and looked up at the sky now clear and blue. She would have to tell him. She would have to tell him about how Carl wanted to marry her and how she could no longer say no. About how the lawyer could give her a home and babies and a future. And about how she wanted him, Luis, and not Carl, even though she had told Luis this same thing many times before and he had always chuckled. That was when Carl had been just a name and not a threat and before he had insisted Paula become his wife. Before he had said he loved her and wanted to spend every day of his life by her side, even getting down on one knee and kissing her hands. And before he handed her the diamond ring she had tucked it into her lingerie drawer before slipping on her cowgirl boots for this final day in the woods.
When the sun cleared the trees, it shone down hard on the man with the chainsaw and the woman with the heartache, seeming to hover and barely illuminate some truth neither could see.
Later, when the truck was stacked with firewood and Luis was sticky with pitch and needles, giving off the scent of man and nature at their best, she pulled him down on top of her, knowing this would be their last. The shadows stretched over them in the crumbled bark and sawdust they could neither taste nor feel.
“I can’t offer you what he can offer you,” Luis said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I can offer you nothing but this moment. And the next.”
As the afternoon light continued to ebb, like a tide washing their memories out to sea, they drove back in silence, his hand over hers and the .22 still loaded and tucked under their seat.
# # #
Rebecca Clay Haynes' stories have appeared in The Binnacle, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes and Mused, and are forthcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Rebecca is also a journalist and author of non-fiction children's books. In May, she set off on a literary journey around the world, staying mostly at writer residencies. She'll be in India for the next three months.
by Julie Morgan King
I FIND MYSELF drawn to vintage bathing suits and the stories of the women who filled them. Bathing suits hide as much as they reveal. Like a woman's body, the fabric becomes threadbare and worn, yet she is still strong and imposing. Both the bathing suit and the female form continue to be a rich source of inspiration to explore memory, nostalgia and the transitional phases of womanhood.
The pretty postcard-sized flier lay snail-nibbled and slimy in the garden bed under the letterbox. Josie meant to throw it in the trash, but something about the words drew her in and serendipity took over. They shared a love of nostalgia. They had worn vintage clothes for decades. One had been collecting vintage swimming costumes. The other had been painting them.
When Josie walked into the exhibition space, she saw the artist before she was pointed out. She wore an emerald green party frock. Josie’s was blue.
Josie coveted her dress and told her so. The artist laughed and moaned about a house bursting with clothes. Josie laughed and moaned about a house bursting with teenage daughters. They made a pact to get together when she decided to unload her wardrobe.
A warm breeze wafted over the gathering crowd. Josie wandered through the high-ceilinged space sipping chilled white wine and nibbling tiny cheese biscuits. Old swimsuits were painted in gentle water colours over tea-stained musical scores, snippets of love letters and dramatic wood block prints.
High above on ancient wooden rafters, the original costumes hung on rusty metal coat hangers, keeping watch, setting the tone. The fabrics were patterned and heavy, their once jolly colours bleached from years of sunshine and seawater. In their corseted shapes, they had become molds of long lost sweethearts, wives and mothers. Josie felt a sob in her throat. She mourned their absence as she would a beloved family member.
The artist’s respect for the women who wore the suits was palpable. Rose, Ruby, Jeanette; their life stories were lovingly depicted in the background collages. It was a sacred site, that white-washed room down by the sea.It was there, as the ocean wailed, that Josie fell in love with Dorothy.
She was full skirted and vivacious, and her polka dots and matching balloons floated over segments of letters in old fashioned cursive. How lucky Dorothy was, thought Josie, to live in an era where letter writing mattered.
Josie imagined Dorothy setting off with her faded, threadbare towel and daisy cap, her stocky legs tanned from daily swims in the rock pools near her home. Anyone in a polka dot bathing costume must have been jovial and kind. The perfect neighbour; one who kept her eyes on the local children, potted parsley cuttings and shared her old grandmother’s cake recipes.
Josie imagined having a quick chat with Dorothy before she dipped her toes into the sea. No wasting time, though! The washing needed a peg out before she met the girls for tennis and cards.
Josie considered her withering finances for a blink, and called for a red “sold” dot.
Time moves slower for Dorothy now. She watches over a household, not from next door, but from a hook on a wall in Josie’s lounge room. Dorothy brings an aura of peace to busy days. She doesn’t replace a departed mother, but her constant presence softens the loss.
Sometimes Josie and the artist meet for coffee around the corner from the studio, where unfinished canvasses line the wall and perch on wooden easels. The women are friends now, thanks to a grubby postcard discovered in the dirt one warm Wednesday evening, many summers ago.
# # #
Julie Morgan King is a writer from Sydney, Australia with a background in social work and social policy. Her stories, essays and articles have been published online, in newspapers and in magazines. You can find more of her writing at www.julesdog.blogspot.com.
Flat Iron Blues
by Arthur McMaster
EVERETT BEAL STARED from the window, unaware of how long he’d been dreaming, or drifting.
He took in the casual ambivalence of Madison Square Park, below—an acre or so of browning grass, bloodless statues, and moldy benches on the belly of midtown Manhattan.
Beal examined the crowd around the vendors, people nursing on tall coffees, walking around or sitting, alone or encumbered, whatever people did to get away a while. A young man could see just about anything from here, he figured, except how to get where he needed to go.
Ev considered what else he might be, a musician, a man with a horn, a man apart.Several swallows flew past his window. Dark darts on blind missions.Across the way, over on 23rd, countless other distracted people would be looking out their windows—countless birds in artificial aeries. Did he have the will to leave, to fly? Ev half turned to the woman who had just come into his office.
“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” he said.
“What?” she asked, busy with something. “Did you just make that up?”
“No.” he said. “John Lennon, I think.”
“Don’t you have work?” she asked, turning to leave, placing something on the corner of the desk. “This is for you,” she added, closing the door, leaving Everett Beal to his own devices.
“Uh huh,” he murmured, distracted.
Looking out on the city, Beal considered his choices. Was he doing what he wanted to do? Or like so many others did his calling place him just outside Dante’s seventh circle of hell? Something smelled good and he was hungry. He thought it must be nearly noon. Someone would be making sandwiches down there, in the park. Fat, meaty ones, he thought. Maybe he’d go down there some day.
He turned to his desk. Could he work a bit more? If only he could concentrate… Ev was a serious student of incomplete efforts. He also knew that nearly anything was possible. Nothing was out of reach. Music drifted in and out of the room. Or was it all in his head? Beal caught the plaintive notes of Chuck Mangione. The distinctive, moody, “Feels So Good.” Of course, that was it. Mangione’s trumpet was never wrong.
Ev could feel the horn in his own hand. Mangione, baby!
“Hey! Hey, Everett!”
He heard his name.
Then again: “Everett Lafayette Beal. You goin to eat this sandwish I made you boy, or not?”
“What?” he asked.
“Pork muffelata,” she told him. “And get back to your horn playin, boy. Eat that sandwish and get back to practicin. You not gonn ever be no good eff you keep on staring out that window a yours.”
“OK, mom,” Ev said, setting the instrument down on the chair, by the window.
“I swear you eat like a bird,” she added, picking up a worn postcard of New York that had fallen by the young man’s window, then walking out the bedroom door.
# # #
Arthur McMaster writes short fiction, poetry and stage plays. His poetry volume, The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold, was published last year by Finishing Line Press. A former intelligence officer, he now teaches creative writing and American Literature at Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC . His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Aunt Gwen Sneaks
by Kenneth Pobo
THE SERVICE BEGINS promptly at 11:00, the hour of the week that Gwen most hates. As a minister’s wife, she feels that she is hard ground and the church members are a trowel, all scratching to open her up. She wants to be liked and has spent her first forty years trying to please. Uncle Jim is tough to please though many call him a “loving spirit.”
Hymns done, the morning prayer said, Jim grabs the pulpit as if it’s a football he’s going to toss into the end zone. Mr. Ranwood, the oldest deacon at 95, says such displays prove that Jim Dremon is “spirit filled.” While her husband preaches, Gwen pulls a screen over herself in the front pew. She changes clothes. Jim leads twenty-four souls in a prayer that can also be used for tanning lotion. In a bikini, Gwen stretches out. The sun breaks through stained glass and kisses her. Pelicans and cockatoos roost on the organ bench.
A minute before he is ready to invite people up to accept Christ, Jim notices his wife. Alarmed, he keeps speaking. It’s important not to make a scene, to do things in the promised order. But he can’t resist – blocked by the pulpit, Jim calls to her, calls to her, calls to her.
# # #
Kenneth Pobo won the Qarrtsiluni poetry chapbook contest for Ice And Gaywings. They published it in November 2011. Also published in 2011 was Tiny Torn Maps, a collection of microfiction, from Deadly Chaps. He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University in Pennsylvania.
by Donald Dewey
“They have the net up.”
Always at the same point, Klein thought: Calmato. B-flat, turn for home, tinker around the bridge, draw out the final bars. But always the coda coming off as lost, not accomplished; no continuation, no natural flow. Why was that B-flat so short of breath?
“Not a very big net.”
Klein looked over to the window. Richie Bronsard was eye-level across the street; right hand on the wall behind him, left hand cradling a ferocious toothache.
“He’ll clear it.”
Edith said nothing. She was in as much of a trance as the wretch on the ledge. For an hour now she had been bracing the back of the recliner, afraid to look away in case Bronsard took that as his final excuse for jumping. The suicide had become her stateliest apology for being tall; she admired him for letting her stand erect. For the right basketball player, would she even grow out her hair again?
“Funny. He never struck me as sensitive.”
Klein bit off a note. Richie Bronsard was about to leap off a ledge, so he was sensitive. When had the worst cliches become her gospel?
“God, be careful!”
He looked up to see Bronsard taking a step away from a redheaded fireman who had come down the fire escape. The fireman was holding out his hand. “That idiot will kill him!”
Klein grabbed his crutches and yanked himself over to the window. “What else can they do, Ed? He’ll fall anyway.”
“Then let him fall! Don’t kill him!”
“What sense does that make?”
Klein didn’t know. But the fireman seemed to accept it because he started back up the fire escape. Richie Bronsard stopped inching backward. It was calmato again.
He looked down at the street four floors below. There was a jaggedness to everything. The squad cars, ambulances, and hook-and-ladder converged at sharp, random angles. The fences hemming in the three-story houses to either side of Bronsard’s building had never looked so spiked. A tree branch covered with snow in the area-way of the Sardi house might have been a stalactite. A good dozen cops and firemen were teamed around the net. Two other firemen sat atop the hook-and-ladder watching Bronsard as though waiting for him to test their equipment.
Klein looked back at the suicide. And that was what Richie Bronsard was now, whatever happened: a suicide. Nobody standing in the street would ever be able to hear his name again without thinking of the morning he had crept out onto his building ledge. One act in decades of them, and that was what marked people. For months he had seen the man hanging around at all hours of the day. He hadn’t needed Edith’s report from the deli that Bronsard had lost some teaching job. He had learned to recognize unemployment by watching his father meander around the house for more than a year, always hoping the union would beat him to his Thursday check-in call. Between one Thursday and the next his father’s silence had been on three tiers — on the top level, hope battling hurt; on a middle one, bitterness against bemusement; on the deepest one, the growing fear that the shock over what was happening to him would turn out to be the least of it, that once the shock had subsided, a sicklier paralysis more indefinite in time would descend. Klein had sensed the same three tiers in Richie Bronsard, and now finally this morning there was the same announcement of pain his father had made with his stroke.
“That’s a dangerous job,” Edith said, following the fireman’s final retreating steps up to the roof.
Klein squinted for a better look at the people herded together behind the police barricades. Most were commuters who had been cut off from the subway by the rope strung between the wooden horses. He grunted to see Mildred Fox with her long pearl earrings and Fifth Avenue heels, and at the thought of her 12-year-old genius William calling on him for lessons in “New Age Music.” Just like she bought her jewelry and clothes, he thought, Mildred Fox was raising her son to buy fads.
Klein swung his legs around and headed for the kitchen. He still had time for another coffee before the Fox kid showed up.
“Don’t you want to see what happens?”
“What’s that, Edith? He falls and cracks his head like a melon? Or maybe he flops in the net? Or what, he just goes back inside and thanks us all for wasting time with him? There aren’t that many possibilities. We just like believing there are.”
He reheated the water still on the stove. Of course he was curious to see how it ended; a suicide he couldn’t do anything about happened once in a lifetime. But who knew how long it might take?
“Something wrong, Ed?” She was standing in the kitchen door. She looked proud of her panther-paw slippers’ latest triumph.
“I don’t like this so-called New Age Music.”
“I don’t hear any.”
“Wait till the Fox kid gets here. Music for emotional cripples.”
“You said he barely knows the scales.”
“I’m not talking about what he’s good at. I’m talking about what he wants. But forget it. It pays the bills. We should be grateful.”
“I didn’t say that, Ed.”
“Nobody’s forcing you to keep him.”
“Like hell! Even the city’s forcing me. The little geniuses have to be in school by nine, so they fit me in around that. Suddenly I’m part of the goddamn education system!”
“I’m sorry I woke you up so early. Now you’ll be ranting all day.”
“It’s an idea.”
“I’m sure it is,” she said, billowing up in her nightgown and flying back inside to the studio.
Klein thought about getting in the last shot, then realized he already had: She would tiptoe around him all morning. He poured the water into some Nescafe and eased himself into a chair. He made a decision: He would tell William Fox that Mozart and Bach were the only New Age musicians and they had aimed at more than putting people to sleep with their treacly harmonics. If the kid didn’t buy that, he could spend his hour before school twice a week looking up the skirts of the girls in the schoolyard. As for Ed Klein, there would be no more trudging up Wyndham Hill.
He felt better with his decision, and would have felt better still with the opportunity to announce it. But a quarter-hour after William Fox should have rung the bell, he got bored reading the rings around his cup and returned to the studio. “I guess he’s not coming,” Edith said, still at her post against the recliner. “They don’t call to cancel, you should charge them anyway. You’ve always been too soft about that.”
Klein didn’t bother replying; she was mainly interested in watching a priest talking to Bronsard, anyway. If nothing else, the scrubbed lesson gave him a few more private minutes on the piano, to try to understand once again why his tinkering with the bridge never led anywhere. But then, as soon as he sat down on the bench, he realized Edith’s presence put him in a hypocritical mood — caused him to drive out notes merely for the sake of driving them out, to assume an intense artistic expression merely for the sake of assuming an intense artistic expression. She said nothing, and he understood he was supposed to be aware she wasn’t saying anything. For final proof he dropped in a melodic line she couldn’t have heard before — and still she said nothing. It was her benevolence keeping her from commenting, and he was supposed to appreciate it.“Did you say something, Ed?”
“I’m going to take a shower. He may be there all morning.”
“That’s one of the possibilities I mentioned.”
“Don’t be annoying, Ed.”
With the thudding of the water against the shower curtain, Klein felt left to his own devices. He had until noon, until the city education system allowed him his lesson with Stephen Buddhoz. Riffing, doodling, intensifying bars he had let grow sacrosanct because he had written them so long ago, seemed the best way to avoid looking over at Richie Bronsard. His grandfather wouldn’t have forgiven such a ghoulish distraction. “There’s too much power in you to waste on frivolous things, Edgar,” Micah Gross would have said to him. “Your music is why God put you here. You want to tell Him He shouldn’t have bothered?”
Who could dispute it? What William Fox, Stephen Buddhoz, and the others played for him once or twice a week he had once played before breakfast every day. And he had practiced with a purpose, not just to be respectable or fashionable. He had wanted, they dreamed. And how long did even their dreams last? By upper high school they thought only about the stock market, dentistry, or other chicaneries. Bums without commitment, bums every day of the week and every week of the year. T’kioh, t’ruoh, t’kioh — not just at Pesach, but every minute of their fraudulent lives they summoned the call to their own sacrifice because they had no devotion, no music. All they wanted was sugary harmonics.
The shout across the street made him start. The priest was ducking his head back inside the window near Bronsard’s knees, his hands held out in front of him to concede he had gone too far. Bronsard was two-thirds turned to the priest, his black loafers somehow having found room on the ledge to let him twist around and into the building. What he couldn’t see were the cops and firemen clustered in the room behind the priest.
Klein hopped over to the window. He pushed his nose into it, creating a fog patch on the glass with his breath. He told himself to focus, to fix on Richie Bronsard’s black loafers, green corduroys, and blue dress shirt. The key was that only he and Bronsard understood each other. The two of them had to stop thinking, stop clouding their heads with lost jobs and idiot students and the rest of the garbage. To hell with the priests and firemen and policemen. They had to be beyond the reach of all the would-be saviors. The fact was, it had to be exhilarating to be out where Bronsard was — to have no idea how high he was, how narrow the ledge was, how crazy all the men in the room he couldn’t see thought he was. Richie Bronsard was totally self-absorbed, in full command. He had the arrogance of the artist, of a blindered genius who didn’t worry about the practicalities. Richie Bronsard took it for granted he would be held aloft by the breaths of all the people watching from the street and from their apartment windows.
Klein recoiled. He had wanted Bronsard to turn his head and look directly across at him, but the actual move caught him off guard. He felt his left leg tremble under the man’s stare. He was cool enough to know that was impossible, that the synovitis had numbed him beyond any such sensation, but he suddenly remembered the feeling so keenly it didn’t matter if the leg in fact trembled or not. Before Bronsard’s profound incomprehension he was back to being completely mobile, back to being a frightened nine-year-old trying to explain to Micah Gross why he had skipped practice after school. There had been no legitimate explanation, of course.
Klein dismissed his tears as unworthy self-importance. He had never wept for himself, not even at the Methodist Hospital when they had told him his legs would never be of any use to him, so why start now? And yet, beneath what seemed to be a surface to his body, legs and all, down in the cavernous pool he had once imagined was filled with magical notes swimming around waiting to be hooked, he felt another, stronger stirring. Richie Bronsard sensed it, too, and craned forward to listen. Klein shook his head to warn the fool back, but Bronsard kept leaning, testing every ounce of equilibrium in his loafers. The man was so intent on hearing the imaginary music he didn’t notice the priest and a cop with gold braid on his shoulder hurtling themselves back into the window. He didn’t care anymore that he was being held up by the suspended breaths of all those watching him; he’d had enough of all that useless tact.
For the longest moment Richie Bronsard seemed to hang from the ledge, as if each part of his body was demanding separate, individual confirmation it had stepped out into a void. Then all the parts simply dropped — black loafers, green corduroys, blue dress shirt sticking to him as he lolled his head back twice and half a third time, opened his mouth to scream, then just crashed down into Sardi’s branches, sending up a great cloud of snow dust.
“I’ll get it! It’s probably Fox!”
Klein hadn’t heard Edith come out of the bathroom, or even the bell. But he had no doubt she was right, that it was William Fox — late for his saccharine ambitions, but still there. He assumed the frantic scurrying around and screeches of horror down in the street were for something else lost rather than accomplished.
The voices from the foyer calmed him. They were much clearer than whatever was being said down in the street. They were practicality. New Age Music, Old Age Music — it was still $30 an hour. He wiped at his eyes. He was sorry he’d never get the chance to tell Richie Bronsard that he wasn’t the one who had exhaled so erratically, that it wasn’t Ed Klein who had executed the miserable, jobless son of a bitch.
# # #
Donald Dewey has published 30 books of fiction, non-fiction, and drama, as well as had some 30 plays staged in the United States and Europe. He has also contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals.
The Devil’s Cup
by E.G. Fulton
I AM JUST UNHINGED ENOUGH to believe the earth may tilt in my favor, that I will be able to free myself from this fatal current, that I will slide away from the Devil’s Cup and never be stew for Lucifer. Delusion is the solace of a dying man.
Soaked to the bone, I wonder at a pleasure perhaps reserved for fish. The wrinkled phase is passing into a new reality. My skin grows blue and swollen. I am crazy scared, so I am talking to myself.
My body’s processes stutter. Sensitive response grows less and less sensitive. Everything inside me is sloshing around in a diminished vessel. All the living systems, pumps and tributaries, their symbiotic arrangements, their membranous exchanges, are breaking down. The parts, no longer unified, become strangers to each other.
A laugh escapes me. It is the lunacy of terror, you see. Everything is perfectly fine, except the part about impending doom.
I had slipped the carapace of my city life somewhere between LaGuardia and Wolf Creek Pass. The waters tumbled. Gone was my phone, my briefcase and the last resume I would ever hand out in my life.
Hours ago things were exhilarating. Bobby and I carried our kayaks through a narrow canyon pass, and put in where the water ran flat and wide. Everything was glinting. It was warm and fresh. Glorious! We were strong. We were stupid. We were running the river, five feet above flood stage.
“Cool,” Bobby grinned, “just strap on that jacket and we’re outta here.”
But then she was ten years younger and gutsy. Her motto was never surrendering your chance to get a good juicy bite out of life even if circumstances are slapping you around. She was a tomboy who looked sexy as hell in a pair of jeans and a ratty old shirt. She told corny jokes and drove a car that was more rust than metal. We were new to each other so we pried cautiously into each others’ lives, detouring around old wounds. For her everything was about the next thrill.
That she took me along on this river ride was a miracle I didn’t question. Bobby was wild company and I should have known better. I’m a natural born coward.
She paddled ahead, whooping and hollering, her stroke graceful, ever rolling and dipping. She had become the boat. She was the river and the sky.
She plunged onward, cackling in the sunshine, pointing out birds and the old Native American sites. She ran with the water, piloting that peapod of a kayak, plastered with the insignias of daredevil companies and hi-tech, hell-for-leather gear.
The water summoned her. She loved the speed of it, the velocity of the giant shivering snake of a river, carrying her on its back.
I marveled at her pleasure. Caution infected my joy. To be honest, she was nuts.
We were three hours into the expedition when the first shockwave hit. A raptor was being chased through the sky by a couple of raucous blackbirds, eager to protect their nest. There was a sharp keening noise coming from the hawk and I shouted to Bobby. I pointed at the sky and her eyes followed. A moment later I heard the bang.
She had crashed into the outside edge of a concealed boulder and spun 180 degrees. Rushing water swallowed her on the downstream side. She and the kayak were jerked fully vertical. The boat bucked hard against the river bottom as water pumped like a broken main, pinning her down. The hole was barely three feet across, throat deep. The river tightened its embrace.
We were smack in the middle of a long, treacherous bend. The water was well beyond its banks, drowning scrub and pine, writing deadly new currents in the undertow.
The churning held Bobby’s boat nose down. She was locked fast, getting jack-hammered by the rushing water. She could breathe. Her head was just above the onrush. She tore her spray skirt loose and with heroic effort, she ground the paddle against the rock, splintering it as she popped herself out of the boat. The kayak followed, spit out by the river, like an unnecessary tooth. It was flung out of Bobby’s reach, caught in the downward rush of the river…going south.
Encouraging gibberish left my mouth as I tried to hold steady, plowing at the water with my clumsy stroke, turning to get a look at what force could challenge that free spirit. And there went Bobby, her yellow life jacket a flash of color on a sea of brown turbulence, heading down river, in white caps, shouting “Holy, shit! Holy shit!”
But the river wasn’t finished. My own demo kayak was sucked backwards into an eddy and before I could say, “Oh, my god,” we were lurching downward. In a second the centrifugal force yanked me out of my boat and pitched me into the maelstrom. The Devil’s Cup.
“Bobby!” I sputter, clawing for breath. “Mayday. Mayday!”
Did she turn her head?
It was the great and terrifying unseen, this whirlpool, this trapdoor to hell. Now, in its clutches, I could read the power of its inside edge. This was no Disney ride. It was an unrelenting swirling basin of thousands of gallons of pounding water. The vortex literally sucked the oxygen out of the air and left me panting on river vapor. It dripped down my throat. I was petrified. I struggled, but there was no escape. Any move could flip me, upend me.
Swallowing water, trying to summon some supernatural swim stroke to save me from this terrible force, I realize I am not alone. A dead cow, reeking of decay, inhabits a third of the circumference of this unholy cauldron. She spins, this half-ton ungulate, like a bad trip, raggedy and discolored, with just enough movement from the water to mimic life in her animated limbs. She is creepy. There is terror captured in her eyes and it seems to me, a last fatal look skyward. I share that terror. I bellow for her and for me.
I am in the grip of something that can kill me and it doesn’t take me a hundred revolutions to ponder: Number one: Who’s going to know? Number two: Maybe Bobby survived and would find help. Number three: If I moved around too much I would flip my body upside down and end my life in this spin cycle of chocolate brown water. Welcome to the demon’s Slurpie machine.
The ride was shocking and powerful. That game! Crack the whip? This was a constant whipsaw that threw our heads back, the cow’s and mine, and required every neck muscle to keep above water. The river raged. It howled and sent spray high so that everything onshore was painted this dismal river-bottom-brown. And it stunk. It stunk like a wet dog with a dead rabbit in its mouth, like rotting melon rinds and old milk, like fetid death.
It was only luck that set that cow orbiting on the other side of the soup bowl, rather than in my lap, where its rankness and frozen despair might have driven me mad.
Prayer was the only thing left. No atheists in fox holes. Yep, heard that. Did that cow say a few cow prayers, Ol’ Bessie, before she was done, cooked, finished? The flesh hung loose off her huge skull changing her expression now and then. The tongue, once pink, was now purply-white. It was extended in a lascivious manner, revolting in its suggestion.
Did I say the river was cold?
I was wearing my Hot Tuna shirt and a pair of skivvies. My flotation device was the US Coast Guard approved PFD I picked up in an army-navy store on the way from the airport. The rental car, a spunky little tin can with enough speakers to blow my brains out, was about twenty miles back in a lay-by near the trail to the put-in. The rangers would find it. They would send help, but how would they know of any dangerous incident if Bobby just floated on by, unseen. Bobby. Little tomboy, Bobby. And the tears sprang and it started about her and turned into the racking sobs of all encompassing self pity. Jesus, getta grip… the last thing we need here in the cow basin, is a crybaby.
Where are the granola bars? Oh yeah, in the boat with the fresh water and the rest of the gear.
Will anybody really notice if two people get swallowed by the river? The spring storms had changed the river into a menace, less-traveled. Kayakers could coast for hours, maybe a day or two, without making contact or passing another team in rafts or boats. We hadn’t seen a soul. Geez, Bobby, not a soul. Perhaps they reckoned the river was a mite swift!
Bobby was a reckless girl, refreshing in her Annie Oakley quality. She’d find a way back. She would, and then she’d find me. I’d met her at one of those corporate team spirit things where people drop willingly into each other’s arms, blindly trusting their being there . . . until they aren’t. The company imploded not long afterward.
But Bobby, she was like a picture postcard for Outward Bound. She was probably born with a paddle in her hand. Or a shotgun. Yes, dependable, true, toothy and bold. She was all right, that girl, except when she was hitting the bourbon, and then, what the hell, another force to be reckoned with, like all the stormy experiences that shape a life.
If I shouted for help would anybody hear? Maybe I could startle a bird and know I wasn’t the only living thing in this diabolical river. Everything that stood on shore was hung with detritus, all stained brown from river splash. There were wind-strung baskets of twigs and grass, shredded ghosts of poly-ethylene, faded strips of hide, pine cones clustered like rusting grenades, all caught in the trees that had fallen to their knees in the surge at the river’s edge.
My feet and hands were sculling a mile-a-minute, trying to keep me upright and steady. My movements grew clumsy and inefficient. The current was unstoppable. It was like the water was solid, like some alien substance, where you could cut space with your hand, but it popped your fingers out again as if there were no room in the world but this hard driven, heavy-bellied monstrous water.
“Don’t be afraid,” my Dad would say and then chuck me in the sea.
“Use your engine,” (my legs), he’d say, as I swallowed half the ocean, paddling, stroking, bouncing, eating sand off the bottom, knocked silly by the surf. He’d fish me out, shake me off and toss me in again.
When I was in fourth grade my Dad took me on a trip. I had a broken front tooth, a black eye and a case of poison ivy that frightened the bejeezuss out of the neighborhood kids (and my mother).
My Dad vowed that we would swim in as many swimming pools as possible during this two-week trip to the Midwest. It was all about the swimming for us.
In an epidemic that terrified the nation, my father caught polio in 1953. It came with a chill on a summer’s afternoon and wiped out his muscles from the waist down.
It was hydrotherapy that got him through his paralysis, a huge steel vat full of warm water where he could work his limbs without fighting gravity. After a year’s rehab he walked with a cane. But he walked. And he became our diving and tumbling coach. He had lost his spring but he was determined to teach us how to find ours.
“Tuck” he’d yell and crack a towel so we’d tuck into somersaulting balls of exuberance. We brothers were made of rubber in those days.
There was a pool in Springfield, Illinois, the biggest I ever saw. And at the deep end, under the high diving boards, were jets of water. They came from nozzles spaced evenly all along the concrete at the deep end. I don’t know their purpose but they offered a peculiar sensation as I passed through them.
From the twenty-five foot board, which was pretty darn high for a ten year old, you’d spring, do your swan thing, hit that water spray at about a third of the way down and tuck. So your body went from air to water to air to water.
“Tuck,” my Dad would shout. “Tuck, now” And despite the occasional sting on my back when I overthrew my dive, I did all right coming in and out of the spin.
We made like fish, he and I, in thirteen pools before that trip was over. We forgot all about the poison ivy and the weird shit that was going on at home.
“What do you think, Dad?” I was speaking to the wind now.
But there was nothing but the river.
There was no way out for me without ropes and how could they possibly string me across this wide raging expanse? It was getting dark. There was no purchase, no foothold. I was being slung by a force infuriatingly mindless of my needs. Hey. Hey! Pay attention here!
Mine was a colossal stupidity. Perhaps I had overstated my prowess to Bobby.
The cow cast me a pickled eye.
I had ten thousand revolutions to examine my life.
I was a wuss really, when it came to thrill seeking. I had lived my whole pitiful life on the courage of others.
I turned down a ride on a wooden roller coaster not that long ago, the Cyclone at Coney Island, thinking of my bones banging around in the metal seats, slamming my innards. I’d be, what? What else, silent, ashen as we went down the harrowing descents, chilled by the clinking, clanking chains and wooden braces that rattled and creaked as we thundered by. It was doom, but doom that went away after a couple of seconds. Not here.
Many summers ago, my wild child of a daughter, Maggie, took me on the Gravitron at one of those irresistible county fairs. It was a hellish ride, a huge heavy metal rotating chamber of delirium disguised as a flying saucer with AC-DC playing full bore on the loudspeakers. Strobe lights flashed at alarming rates. The centrifugal force slammed our bodies upward on rolling slats and our faces felt like they were being stretched to the wall. Our hearts were thumping against our ribs like those shuddering bass notes. When the ride slowed down, Maggie grinned and took my hand. Our slabs slid back into place so we could unleash ourselves and wobble down the gangway into the blinding sunshine.
Bilious would be an understatement. The ticket taker stepped aside as I casually puked in the grass. Maggie just laughed to the sky. She wanted fried dough and another spin. She was all of seven. A marvelous age.
That was a long time ago. Maggie. She knows I love her. She knows and I am content with that.
Staying awake was easy when I first contemplated this watery grave. It’s hard to be anything but awake when you’re horrified and at the mercy of a force that broaches no rebellion. But then, I was time tripping, waiting for Lucifer to wrap his fingers around my throat. For what? For what sins? Did I really think my life would be judged on righteous behavior or was it more mundane than that? Would I just be another source of protein, snuffed and ready for the compost heap?
A shiver of reality snaps me back to the present.
The shore is tantalizing. It is dry, flat and stony. The terrain runs back through the scrub into the rock walls. Rescue could come at any moment. Couldn’t it? Yes, at any hour, let’s be honest, maybe by tomorrow. Maybe never. My watch has misted over. The crystal is broken.
I am tippy, like a badly made boat, tippy in my balance, in my body, in my mind.
“Bobby!” I shout and I swear that cow turns its head to listen. I am losing it now, scared out of my wits. The Devil would soon come to drink from his cup, chew on me and send me down into his cold belly.
I lean back against the circular tide and spot the tallest tree on the bank as I revolve. I am trying to hold down the nausea. I don’t want to be swimming in my own vomit. I take a piss. For a fleeting second it is warm.
Would I survive the night? The sky was already bruised with blues and purples. There was a slash of chemical orange emanating from the horizon. My skin was icy, changing color, too. My life jacket was cinched tight, so my body core was warm. Everything else had gone numb and swollen. I wasn’t pretty. I was like a Bratwurst in a life vest, growing uglier by the moment.
Predicament? You’re telling me. And when I’m dead, will they access my computer? Oh, Jesus. Don’t even think about that. Will they crack my password? Would my daughter understand all that forlorn ridiculous writing? Would she recoil from the private longings, the bad poetry, the anger at her mother who left us and never looked back?
The grave has no respect for the flesh. What is there left when the body electric blinks off? Look at Bessie the cow with her livered eye and lolling tongue. Meat, like me. I wonder why I shouldn’t let go, stop moving my fingers against the current, and let the Devil drink. Come on you old bastard. Would the funeral be sparse? Would there be a well-worn psalm, a hoary reminiscence? No, I don’t think so. Not even that.
“Oh yeah, did you hear about what’s his name? Yeah, drowned. They didn’t find the body for days.” No, no. In bliss, I’d be spun out of this existence in that exquisite nano-second, just before the darkness, when everything good, everything about love, brightens that final crackling moment of consciousness. It is about love, isn’t it?
Oh, death. It comes to me at an age when the thrills of my youth are no longer thrills, but unwise choices. I am numb. Brown stinking water surrounds me, enters my throat. I am drowning drop by drop.
I watch the cow and see the sliding skin moving away from her skeleton. The bony head breaks free and catches the moonshine in her frozen eye. Her cheeks drop away and leave that horrifying smile. It’s a warning. “Be ready,” it says. ”You are next.”
The branch shakes on the tall tree nearby and I catch the black flap of a bird. It lands on its precarious branch and sings badly, as crows do.
My feet? Were they still there? My eyes closed for a second, or was it longer?
Rational thought began to shimmy and slide like the cow’s skin. The bats had arrived and made shadow holes in the sky between heaven and earth, mouthing their catch of mosquitoes in the moonlight. A pair of orange eyes glowered on the riverbank. Was it Lucifer? Feral and calm? It dipped again at the muddy water and made its way away. Away from me.
Alone with death, with a cage of sharp-winged butterflies for a chest, I thought of hunger, thirst, doubt, fear, friend, foe. They would all be gone, soon. My hold on life was like spider filament; first breath, last breath, a delicate web so full of river spray as to have become a different thing. Tears came for Bobby, because she would blame herself. She would if she lived. She was a good girl. I wish I had known her better, maybe I wouldn’t have gone on this journey.
“Bobby, you idiot! I forgive you. I hope you made it. Here’s to you. Have a whiskey in my honor. Drink the whole damn bottle!”
More creatures with furtive eyes wandered the river bank chancing to put their mouths in the water. Drinking. Drinking it. I could not. It would fill me soon enough.
Did I say the water was cold?
Why would the river hold me here at this weigh station fifty feet from shore, teased by the bank, knowing even if I could get free from the grip of the maelstrom, there were other dangers. The eddy was dimpled and mercurial, mapping other flows that could pull me under. There were hungry eyes and tearing claws policing the bank.
I am calm now. My heart has slowed. The crow watches from the branch. The moon brightens. I see it through my lashes. It is harder to keep my eyes open. I have been crying. My nose is stuffed. The swelling is inside now.
The cow tears in half, and spills its bones. They make a terrible muffled rattle as the waters rage. A cloven hoof touches me and I scream. Her skin, in tatters, wraps me like a mummy in the dark. It is loathsome. I part the billowing shroud with shaking fingers.
Then, like judgment day, the air explodes with sound. No, not some heavenly choir. It is thunder and lightning. The night becomes day in a blinding flash. Chaos reigns.
Bright beams flash on the cow’s skull, and the whomp of helicopter blades bends the trees. The noise shatters the lullaby of the grave. Oh, fury! The downward wash rocks me, driving me deeper into the pit of water. Small lights shine on shore and I hear the braying of a donkey, but I am dizzy now, plunging left and right, looking for oxygen. There is no up or down, just noise and suffocation.
I have no strength. I cannot make my limbs function. I struggle to make them move, but get nowhere. I think if I reach for a dangling rope, my arm would rip off and join the cow’s bones. Dear God help me. And then something catches my foot, a string of cow tendon, a locking pin of bone. I recoil, but no avail. I am being dragged downward. I claw the water and come up for air. Choking, coughing.
And then someone grabs my shoulders, the neck of my life vest, hooking me in a rope harness. I hear the winch screaming.
“Hang on, man,” he says.
I can feel the strength of his fingers and even better, I can see the aluminum basket.
“Get in. Get in!” the man shouts. The wind from the rotors is rocking it back and forth.
“My legs! They’re dead! My foot. It’s…” and the cow pulls me under again. She wants to take me with her, into the river forever. I fight. We rise to the surface, her eyes and me. I see the devil there and it is surrender.
“Tuck” the rescuer yells.
I can hear the terror in his own voice now as his lower body becomes caught in the turbulence. I kick the cow loose. The chopper’s wash has flattened the lip of the whirlpool and all the bits and pieces of her slip away.
“Tuck” a voice shouts again. My brain shivers. I hear a familiar voice say “tuck” just behind my right ear and I know who it is, and yank my sorry-ass legs toward me and tumble into the basket. My rescuer clamps his harness to the line. I hear the metallic strain of the winch, then the squeal as it reverses. The cable hauls me up, twisting into the belly of the helicopter.
Could life get any more insane? I swear I hear “Highway to Hell” on some heavenly speakers. And the people below, wearing lamps on their heads and pulling donkeys loaded with gear, yell and wave, but I did not see. They only told me so, my rescuers.
I shake and they pile blankets on me and I rattle them off and grind my teeth. They handle me gently fearing they might peel my waterlogged skin. They pat me softly and my bones shudder inside. To the marrow! Tremors like on a seismic scale. But will I shake out of my skin? Am I whole? Almost. I am passing into unconsciousness on images of that deconstructing cow. I am dreaming of warm suns, miles from the water.
At the hospital, I wake slowly, hearing sweet noises, dinging bells and rubber soles on hospital floors. Elevator doors whisper open and shut. Shunk. The room is spinning. I touch Bobby’s hair. Bobby! Her head rests on the bed.
She bursts into tears. And I start bawling like a child.
I am grateful. The room stands still suddenly. Now I am spinning, turning into something more complicated. In the days to come, the spinning slows, then ceases. My sea legs find the land. My soul finds peace. My skin returns to its right size, fitting me seamlessly. I dream of the cow and the devil, but I do not follow.
Bobby’s picture is on the front page of the local newspaper, grinning in her yellow life vest.
“When I finally broke free of the river, I hauled myself up on shore,” she said.
“I saw his kayak float by me,” she told reporters. She waited for me to bounce down the rapids like she did, but no. After an hour of watching for me, she hiked out to the highway and flagged down a car.
The rescuers lifted off a helipad forty miles away, armed with infrared equipment, following a detailed river map.
There it was, written in red, “The Devil’s Cup,” a gaping maw of doom sitting just to the left of the civilized world.
# # #
E.G. Fulton: I'm a longtime journalist. The fiction writing keeps me sane. I have spent time in the wilds of the world, the sacred sites and the seething cities with the burning cars, where the guerillas fire and beasts patrol the perimeter. Discontent and fear tend to find their creepy ways into my writing. Sometimes my sentences spill into the supernatural.
Feast on Flies
by Heidi Kraay
Gerald’s mouth looked salty whenever he was out of bed. Whenever he was in bed, which was much more usual, the smell in his room was like cauliflower molding through cheese. He stank until the walls molted into paste.
Always nearby, Sharon spent her time in a chair opposite the bed so that Gerald could feel human. By his side throughout day, she tried to find work online but knew she was kidding herself with useless searching, all the same. Gerald was a full-time job.
One winter morning, he told her how much he missed eating flies.
“My Thursday treat,” he said. “Where is it?”
“Flies?” asked Sharon, checking his head for fever.
An argument lasted between them for three hours about the snack. Gerald insisted they were like Baklava or rum punch. He claimed they were a delectable dessert, though Sharon swore she never saw him eat them on her watch. She refused him the insectivore’s meal, of course, but the idea itself shook them both up the rest of the day.
The rest of that day, Sharon was stewing but kept her mouth shut. She thought about how attractive this man used to be to her. His sharp black hair and ruddy voice used to make her stomach squirm. As she focused on him from the corner chair, trying to remember that feeling and bring it to life again, Gerald sneezed convulsively and pointed at her.
“Now what?” Sharon asked him.
“It’s your perfume!” he shouted. “I’m allergic. You know that. Are you trying to kill me or something?”
If Sharon had been wearing any scent besides her own sweat, Gerald’s rants would have alarmed her. Instead, without even deodorant on—by his constant requests—she needed to scream and left the room to do so. As she opened the door and he sunk back into bed, however, she lost her voice and irritation, as well. That was when Sharon realized she had forgotten how to feel alarmed.
Her hand on the door, Sharon watched Gerald closely and thought of the medicinal way he had taken over her life. It was like a precisely planned science experiment. He wandered in one day, held onto her and lived through her for years afterward. Gerald was a parasite. Stuck with a man who insisted on using his former lover as his caregiver, it struck Sharon that he fooled her daily and for years. Like a tarot card reader’s audience, she had been made to ooh and ah at his street tricks. That realization was when she should have left.
Gerald was a master of all the surefire, winning traits every con artist should know. After three years, all Sharon knew was that he didn’t care about her. She no longer believed that cancerous illness stuck to his lungs as he claimed, either. Instead, she saw that Gerald’s paranoid mind had taken over all of him. There was nothing wrong with him physically. His brain was poisoned by anger and self-pity. Doubting her new observation, though, Sharon stayed on further.
Every night, he snorted through sleep. She watched his drool collect into swimming pools on the corner of her pillow—a pillow that, like her bed, apartment and life, was no longer hers. The room, the house, the man had consumed her. A year ago, when he was in perfect health, Sharon felt lucky to kiss the ground Gerald walked on. Learning is painful.
Outside the window it was still frost bitten, but the sun was making its bold entrance downstage center. Away from the room, the whole world was paradise in warm rays, but inside it, Gerald coughed and spattered, rising every now and then to shuffle around the house. When he did get up, he looked like a tyrannosaurus rex, hunched over in his red and blue striped nightgown. Stumbling all over the house on his way to the bathroom, he cursed at the walls and slammed his fist on the door’s molding. If she had just met him, Sharon would have thought he was eighty years old.
Weeks later, she was still there by Gerald’s side. Months later, Sharon still hadn’t left. The room progressively stank of cigarettes, pot and disease as though layers of stench was building up, an inch a month. Sharon brought Gerald food and listened to his complaints. That was her life. The nerves in her back and brain seized up daily, rebelling against that loyalty. By June, Sharon was fed up. She was ready to be done with him.
If I serve him flies after all, she started to wonder.
Sharon let the thought fester. After enjoying the meal of flies he requested in January’s hallucinatory ravings, perhaps he would contract true illness. Maybe he would drop away. Then she could escape. It sounded easier than breaking his heart. If she ended it verbally, Gerald would soon find a way to reel her back in, anyway.
As the peeling walls caved inward and she exploded within its shrinkage, Sharon shut her eyes and dreamed of easy sleep and freedom, then snapped awake. It was time to go. The decision was made. The room spat her out into the summery front yard, which was blooming and alive despite neglect. For a year’s time, except for errands for groceries and medicine, the two of them had both forgotten about the outside world.
There on the porch in July heat, Sharon decided to abandon that house, room and man the next morning. What would fill her life instead she did not know. She did not know where to find new belongings or living quarters. She did not know much of anything, except that it was time to leave. Whatever came afterward, nothing else mattered or made sense.
Satisfied with her decision, Sharon went around the house and the neighborhood, picking flies out of cobwebs for Gerald’s dinner. She looked forward to his bodily reaction, but knew she may be gone before any real fun happened as he partook of his feast of flies.
# # #
Heidi Kraay writes plays, poetry, stories and arts columns and also works in theatre and music production. She lives in Boise, Idaho, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts from Boise State University. Plays produced include Survivors, Carny Veil, Mere Ending, The Monster in the Bookstore and Devour Your Ultimatum, and her play Kilgore is currently in development with the help of Seven Devil’s Playwrights Conference and id Theater. Heidi's poetry has been published by Oedipus Text, the Used Gravitrons and Cobble Magazine and she is now seeking publication for her full-length poetry manuscript, Take Down Contagions. She frequently collaborates with musicians in poetic-music creations and is currently completing one such project, Where the River Runs Red, a book based on a song of the same title by musician Sean Hatton. Heidi is always looking forward to her next creative endeavor.
Red Tiger Walk
by George Masters
AFTER THE STORM, the Gulf of Alaska settled into shallow rolling hills. In heavy coats and boots, gloves and wool caps, Tom Harp and Donny Evans moved down a catwalk checking the containers above deck.
Ice underfoot, snow swirling off the top containers, a black hooded snow monkey poked his head up through the ship’s catwalk and blinked. The wind howled around his hooded ears, and flattened his eyes. Up through the hole, he turned sideways. Arms and legs in practiced rhythm, each move deliberate, he crouched and paused for a moment before pulling himself up. Holding a railing with one hand, he leaned with the roll of the ship. A second snow monkey came up through the hole, a little slower, but the same way.
Harp looked at Donny’s cold boiled face. A couple of snow monkeys indeed, both of them looking like the Red-faced Macaques that inhabit the snowy forests and rocky outcroppings of northern Japan. Harp and Evans, two simians, climbed and hung from this steel mountain gone adrift.
With Harp in the lead they ape gaited along the catwalk checking containers and shaking turnbuckles. Finding a loose one, Harp stopped and tightened it.
Up the ice sheathed ladders and down, each step and hand grip was calculated to keep him from falling. The wind sang through the alley of containers. Harp's boot slipped, gloved hands locked on steel and his heart jumped. Regaining his footing, he glanced down. Better to land on the deck break every bone in his body, than to fall overboard.
A nasty cut of wind or a rogue wave snap rolled the ship and it's tough luck kid. No chance in that ocean. Not captain and crew, not God himself, could save you. With the ship making twenty five knots, to fall into the cauldron would be the skin boiling, eye popping, breath sucking end.
Harp stood, took the wind on his face and waited for Evans. Hundreds of miles at sea, he felt it clearly-- the Orient, the domain of the dragon. A vibration hummed up through the soles of his boots as they closed on Asia. It came as an ancient song played on a crude stringed instrument.The song flared his nostrils and he smelled the land. A drift of bamboo, mud and canvas, a smoked and overcast sky, a blackened jungle marked by urine and fear, the ground littered with brass shell casings. He tasted cigarette smoke, the copper tang of bleeding gums, the flirting sweetness of canned peaches.
* * *
Before he went to sea, Harp took Danna Palumbo to visit her brother Eddie at the VA hospital in San Francisco. Eddie, an alcoholic, was back in rehab. It was Sunday and Danna packed a lunch of sandwiches, pasta salad, and chocolate cake. Behind the hospital cafeteria, above the Pacific’s entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, they sat at one of the picnic tables.
Eddie Palumbo’s circuits were blown. Hollow eyed, he knuckled his nose and coughed. Turning his head, he looked out to sea. Harp sat at the picnic table with half his sandwich untouched.
A Band-aid ran diagonally across Palumbo’s forehead. Eight stitches from where he had fallen down the public library steps. "Yesterday," said Palumbo nodding, the sun bright on his pitted face. "No, not yesterday, what am I talking about?” He shook his head. “It was last Saturday. They gave us a choice, the zoo or class, you know, like a field trip. We picked the zoo. Anything to get out of here. I went to the Cat House to see the lions because, you know, I'm a Leo. It was feeding time.”
Taking a bite of chocolate cake, Palumbo got it all over his lips. “Lions growling and roaring and ripping meat- what a sight. There was about twelve of us and this one brother says, 'Hell, I ain't havin' no fun'. So I point to a sign that says Gorilla World. He looks at me like maybe I meant something by it, but we went over. There was a crowd around the fence and everybody's watching these gorillas and how they walk around on their fists or sit there and pick their noses and feet. Well I couldn't see too good, everybody crowding the fence, but this baby gorilla cured that. He took a shit, a big shit for a baby gorilla, picked it up and started throwing it. Cleared out Gorilla World, I’m telling you. The brother who wasn't having no fun at the Cat House? Man, he was picking shit out of his afro until we got back and he could take a shower."
Danna said, “Eddie, please, we’re eating.”
Palumbo covered his mouth and laughed. Still drunk after being sober three weeks, Eddie was with it enough to be self conscious about his missing and rotted teeth. Danna smiled, reached across the table and touched her brother’s arm.
Eddie stood and pointed. "Not bad up here, huh?" The three of them took in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin headlands and open ocean beyond. He looked at Harp.
“Shipping out, Tommy?”
“In a few days.”
“I wish I could. Man this place gives me the creeps.”
Danna said, “Come on now, Eddie you have to be here until you’re better.”
“Better than what?” Eddie looked at his sister. Danna picked at her bow tie pasta salad then ignored it.
Danna brightened. "Like another sandwich? I made plenty."
"No thanks, I'm full. Not used to eating too much, you know. They feed me pretty good here, you get seconds on everything. I think I’m getting new teeth soon."
Palumbo sat, frowned a moment, then chuckled. “I don’t know if I ever told you this one. Day after the Niners won their fifth Super Bowl? Tommy, you was somewhere in Japan or Hong Kong, I don’t know, but I was here in Chinatown.”
The sun starting to go down and a breeze coming up made it cool at the picnic tables.
Eddie said, “San Francisco, the whole town’s going nuts. Traffic’s backed up, cars honking, crowds in the street, Chinese kids setting off firecrackers, and of course they got their own parade. This big old green and red and gold dragon snaking down the street, all the little tennis shoes dancing there underneath the dragon's belly. It was neat.”
Palumbo lit a cigarette. “Damn, the parade dragon’s at least forty feet long, fire red eyes and silver horns--.”
He stopped and looked at his sister. “Okay, I’ll get to my story. I might have told you before, anyways, Chinatown’s full of tourists loving the show. Me, I got a McDonald's coffee between my knees, and the firecrackers popping are giving me fits, and I’m about ready to get the hell out of there when these two big German guys stop in front of me. One’s wearing a 49er sweatshirt, the other one, an Alcatraz T-shirt with prisoner’s stripes. Both dudes in socks and sandals, both of ‘em loaded. The kraut with a camcorder’s laughing and directing the other one holding two beers to sit down on the bench next to me. So the kraut in convict stripes sits down and puts his arm around me and toasts his pal with the camcorder, making like he was my best friend and guzzling beer. I try to get up but he’s got me around the shoulder, laughing and spilling beer down the front of himself and me.”
Danna squeezed Harp’s hand. Eddie didn’t notice and went on. “So now I’m getting upset, and in a burst of panic I throw his arm off and jump up. Germans are backing off, still laughing, holding their hands in the air, you know like krauts in the movies surrendering, I guess showing me they meant no harm. Well I’m backing up, trip over a bench and land on my ass. The krauts are laughing harder. Then the one with the camcorder stops shooting and walks over to me. He takes two bills from his pocket, says something and tosses them on my chest and they both walk away.“
Here comes the good part. I stand up and watch them get lost in the crowd. Then I bend over and pick up the bills and look real close. They’re not two one dollar bills, but two hundreds. Well I see that, crunch them up in my fist, and I’m taking some long strides down to Kearny getting out of there fast before the krauts realize their mistake and come back for their money.” Palumbo laughed, slapped the picnic table and took a big swallow of tea, so happy with his story he forgot to cover his mouth and the bad teeth.
On their way home, Danna said, “Eddie ever tell you those stories before?”
She wiped an eye. “He didn’t go to the zoo last week. That happened what, two years ago? He doesn’t remember, does he?”
“He remembers the krauts dropped two hundreds, not two ones.”
She blew her nose. “God, what am I going to do?"
* * *
Vietnam grows a hundred shades of green. Just after dawn, a platoon from the U.S Army’s 1st Division, the Big Red One, is on a patrol through an abandoned Michelin plantation. In two columns along both sides of a dirt road, they pass through the mist beneath rubber trees, their leaves coated in dust. Helmets, eyes, flesh, and rifles, the men move like ghosts in the underwater hues of blue and shadow.
In the distance a rooster crows. The point man in the lead squad sees something and stops. Leaning forward, he tracks a set of footprints that cross the road. The bare feet lead east. Looking in that direction, he sees nothing but an open field and distant tree line. Wondering about the prints and starting to get thirsty, he takes another step and detonates a land mine. The explosion lifts him off the ground, blows his right leg off and tears a hole in his chest.
The soldier ten yards behind him takes steel fragments in his groin, chest and neck. The soldier on the opposite side of the road gets hit in the face. Blinded in the right eye, shrapnel rips his mouth back to his wisdom teeth. The ear on that side hangs on a strap of skin like a bloody apricot.
The platoon radioman calls for a priority medevac. The company radio operator, five kilometers to the east, relays the call to battalion headquarters. At the field surgical hospital at Lai Khe, medic Eddie Palumbo, asleep inside the helicopter, awakens to the sound of his crew boarding the aircraft.
On the hospital’s helipad, the Huey's jet engine clicks on. The high pitched whine starts screaming. As the rotors begin to turn, pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, and two medics prepare for take-off.
At thirty five hundred feet, the pilot has the hammer down. Through the open door a cool wind whips Palumbo’s face and ripples the fabric of his flight suit.
Twenty two minutes later, the medevac arrives over the rubber plantation, banks hard and comes down fast. On the ground, Palumbo joins the platoon medic working on the point man’s bloody stump.The "WOP-WOP-WOP" of the waiting chopper drowns out the cries and moaning of the wounded. The second medic off the chopper tends to the other two casualties.
The platoon starts taking fire from the tree line. Finding cover in a ditch by the road, they return fire. Palumbo ducks as rounds snap through the trees, slap into tree trunks and shred leaves.
Palumbo re-ties the jagged stump that used to be a leg, gives the kid a second shot of morphine, packs the hole in his chest and wraps two bandages around the torso to secure it. The point man’s face is pock marked, blistered red and purple from shrapnel. His left hand, fingers shredded by the blast, twitch. Palumbo tightens the tourniquet and notices a white slice of bone protruding from the upper thigh.
The point man groans. "Face hurts, glad my legs are okay."
Shaking in pain, the kid hiccups and rocks sideways. Two soldiers and the platoon medic crawl over to hold him while Palumbo injects more morphine.
"Don't matter about my left hand Doc, I'm right handed anyway."
"Okay, okay, take it easy Buddy, where you from?"
“…Paul,” he mumbles, the firefight cutting out his words.
"What?" says Palumbo.
"Saint Paul, Min…"
The kid nods.
Palumbo shouts, "You a hockey player?”
The kid blinks.
“Hang in here for me, tough guy, you’re going home." Palumbo, the platoon medic and two other soldiers prepare to ease him into the center of a bloody poncho.
The kid mumbles and blows pink bubbles. "’My going to make it, Doc?"
"Fuck yeah, Minnesota, wish I was going home."
The kid shakes. His hand opens and closes, the fingers trembling. The pilot’s waving at Palumbo.Blood splattered across the front of his flak jacket, the air medic jacks his thumb at the helicopter. Trotting like coolies, they carry the wounded to the chopper as rounds kick up the dirt road and buzz overhead.
Airborne and climbing, rounds punch through the helicopter like can openers. The crew chief leans into the door gun and opens up. Cool air and spent brass whip and bounce through the open door. Palumbo’s boots slip on the bloody steel deck, but he holds on to the hand that won’t let go. The point man’s eyes clear for a moment. Jerking with an involuntary spasm, he looks past Palumbo, opens his mouth and dies. Palumbo keeps hold of the kid’s hand. That’s all he can do.
* * *
In the night, in San Francisco's Tenderloin, on the second floor of a dirty little hotel, Eddie Palumbo lay curled up on the floor under the bed. The bed was shoved up against the door but somehow, the tiger found its way in. Maybe it came down the fire escape and through the open window. He had forgotten to close the window. Too late now, the big cat had him trapped.
From under the bed, he listened to water dripping in the shower. He watched the tiger pace. He needed a beer but it was too dangerous to try for that last can of Bud on the bureau drawer.
The big red tiger had paws the size of a man’s head. Stepping around the beer cans on the floor, its tail snapped back and forth like a bloody rope. Stopping, the beast lowered its massive neck, sniffed Palumbo and nosed him with its wet muzzle. Not breathing, Palumbo felt the hot breath and the tickle of the tiger's whiskers. Making not a sound, he watched the tiger return to the bathroom, to the bodies laid out there and stacked in the shower.
Eddie Palumbo’s charges lay shoulder to shoulder in the bathroom, stiff from combat rigor mortis. Maybe one of them, still alive, would move or moan and distract the beast. Maybe the manager would come knocking to ask for the week’s rent and the tiger would jump through the door and rip his turbaned head off.
The tiger returned from the bathroom and sniffed the mattress. It smelled of mud, iodine and old bandages. The big cat tracked blood across the floor and now the room began to fill with helicopter exhaust that smelled like burning charcoal lighter. The tiger burned and Palumbo played dead. Curled under the bed, eyes open, nose running, Eddie Palumbo’s hands clawed around his kneecaps. Needing something to drink he rocked and drooled. Without making a sound, he screamed for his sister.
Later that morning Eddie made himself better. A six pack of 16 ounce Buds and two packs of Lucky Strikes sat on the bureau drawer. The door to his room was locked. He could breathe in the daylight like this.
Looking out the window, he thanked the fog and found himself grateful for the morning street trashed with paper cups and hamburger wrappers. Counting his blessings, it reassured him to watch two old ladies at a bus stop. Encouraged by the sight of the optimistic whore smoking in a doorway, he lit a cigarette. Passing a hand in front of his face, he wiped away an annoying cobweb. With the red tiger gone, he was safe for the moment.
* * *
On Nob Hill at night, Danna Palumbo was in bed reading when the telephone rang.
"It's me, can you hear me?"
"What's all that noise?"
"I'm calling you from the pay phone in the lobby."
"I got a room in the Loin. It's the cops and paramedics. Two guys had a knife fight, there’s blood everywhere. Hey, shut up, can't you see I'm on the phone?"
"I wasn't telling you to shut up, these guys ain't got no common sense. Reason I called, I want to know if you want to come down to Chinatown. I could take you to dinner."
"Tom’s on a ship, I thought you might want to get out. I got my check. We could go to SamWo's. Have some chow mien and egg rolls, whatever you want."
"Eddie, I've already eaten and I'm in bed. Why did you leave the hospital?"
"Sorry I bothered you."
“You’re not bothering me.” She took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling. “You have to go back. Your doctor called, they’re looking for you."
Palumbo chuckled. "Okay Danna, guess I'll hang up now, let you get some sleep.”
“Eddie, please.” The phone clicked dead. Palumbo went up to his room, sat on the bed, gnawed on a chicken wing and looked out the window. At his feet stood the last 16 ounce can of Bud. His eyes flicked to the beer and to the street outside."
THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP-" Bending down he watched the police helicopter stabbing a shaft of light on the rooftops across the street. "THUMPTHUMP-THUMPTHUMP-", the sound of the rotors started to get to him. Seeing the bloody steel floor of a helicopter and the blood puddles that shivered with the helicopter's vibration, the kid from Minnesota lay dead in his lap. Scared and shaking, he licked his lips and reached for the beer, the can as big as a fifty gallon drum of morphine.
* * *
At sea, around midnight, Harp marked his place and closed “Moby Dick.” Bundling up in boots, coat and watch cap, he went on deck. Taking the cold night sharply through his nose, he looked up at a sky jammed with stars.
In the bowels of the ship, the chief engineer blew the stack to clear it. As if a dragon had sneezed, the stack erupted with a volcanic rush of sparks – drunken, blood-orange fire flies, thrown skyward and come to life. Skipping and dancing, they hopped the rail and raced astern. Hopeful and new, in a hurry to be everywhere at once, reckless and madly out of control, each fire fly ended his brief and bright existence in the lost forever of the ocean’s night.
# # #
George Masters 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.nt.
by Michael Onofrey
EARL FALK ATE HIS LUNCH later than his coworkers and took his breaks later as well because Earl covered the phones and took care of Will Call while his colleagues ate their lunch and took their breaks. Regarding sustenance, Earl never deviated---a sack lunch and a thermos of black coffee. At around ten in the morning, and then again at noon, there
was a catering truck, but Earl bought nothing off that mobile enterprise. As for the three-in-the-afternoon break, there was no truck, but there were a couple of vending machines that filled in. But there again, Earl didn’t participate. Earl ate homemade sandwiches for lunch and drank coffee, while during his breaks he had one or two flour tortillas along with his coffee.
Situated in back of the warehouse for the convenience of employees were eight picnic tables on a slab of concrete with an aluminum awning overhead that provided shade. While on break or during lunch Earl always sought the refuge of those tables unless it was fatally windy, in which case he huddled in the cab of his pickup that was parked nearby in dirt lot.
Laura Minn, who worked in accounting, bookkeeping actually, came out the large rear door of the warehouse one Friday afternoon and saw Earl sitting alone at a picnic table, other tables unoccupied. Laura was taking a late break due to a spirited, one-way conversation with Ms. Cobb, Laura’s supervisor. That conversation had lasted all through break, Laura holding up her end of the exchanging with a nod now and then. When Ms. Cobb left Laura’s cubicle, Laura’s fellow workers in the office section of the warehouse were returning to their desks. This left Laura with two choices: She could either skip break altogether, or take a late break. Laura spent about a half second thinking about this before she stood up and headed out of the office area and into the warehouse. Near one of the freight doors she purchased a cup of coffee from a vending machine.
Outside, Laura stood for a few moments looking beyond the loading area and beyond the parking lot to where a dull portion of the Mojave Desert stretched into a bleak distance. Laura sipped her coffee and then walked over and sat down at Earl’s table. It was a nice day. There was no wind.
* * *
“Well, I heard this yelp and turned and saw people moving away from the bar and then a man brought a briefcases down on the bar and there was this loud crack and everyone along the entire length of the bar was moving away and then there was a man who threw a glass of beer. People were making for the door, while others were getting up from tables and from the counter at the windows to come over and look, and some of those people went for the door as well. It was then, when I looked at the people getting off their stools at the counter that faced the street, that I saw two people out on the sidewalk, a man and a woman. They were laughing, and I suppose it was that which caught my eye, because what was going on in here was anything but laughable. But, there was something else, something . . . like enjoyment, like they were enjoying something, enjoying life, the two out on the sidewalk. It was so strange, because I caught myself almost smiling, almost wanting to join in. It was that feeling that caused me to stop in the middle of this whole . . .” He waved a hand.
“And you think it was them that did this?”
“You know, I honestly don’t know. I didn’t see them do anything. I didn’t see them in here or anything. But they might have been in here. We’re busy on Friday, happy hour, particularly as it’s winding down, is a very busy time, everyone wanting to get one more cheap drink. No, I didn’t see them in here, didn’t notice them until I saw them out on the sidewalk, and to tell the truth, I wouldn’t have noticed them then if it weren’t for the way they were laughing.”
“And that makes you think it might have been them?”
“Well, yes. But I don’t know why.”
* * *
Laura glances around, a tentative smile on her thin lips. Earl has a large head and close-cropped brown hair and small eyes that are black. Laura can’t see any whites in Earl’s eyes except when Earl looks to the side, but he doesn’t look to the side often, and he doesn’t blink hardly at all. In addition, he hardly has eyelashes.
“I just had this so-called conversation with Ms. Cobb,” Laura says.
Earl nods slowly while continuing to look at Laura. Earl doesn’t have a neck because his head melts into his shoulders. His shoulders are big and so is his torso. When he nods, it’s a peculiar movement.“Do you know Ms. Cobb?” Laura asks.
On Laura’s face there are a few blemishes. She’s a thin woman, but her body has some shape. Her choice of blouses sometimes outline that shape. On this particular day at the beginning of May, she’s wearing one of those blouses that outline her shape.
“I know who Ms. Cobb is,” Earl says.
Laura waits for more, but more isn’t forthcoming. Laura brings her paper cup up and sips instant coffee. Earl, whose blunt fingers are around a red plastic cup, brings his cup up and sips.
“Have you ever had a conversation with Ms. Cobb?” Laura asks.
“No, I haven’t had that pleasure.”
Laura chuckles, a rough sound that comes from her throat. It takes a moment, but then Laura notices that this seems to entertain Earl. Laura chuckles again, but this time on purpose, but now Earl only looks at her, entertainment gone from Earl’s expression. Laura’s fake chuckling stops. She looks at the desert.
“It’s not a pleasure to talk to Ms. Cobb,” Laura says.
There’s a moment and then Earl says, “I see.” This utterance strikes Laura in such a way that she wonders if there isn’t a hint of sympathy in it, along with its implied understanding. Laura looks at Earl, but Earl is as he was before, a blank expression, direction of his gaze Laura’s face.
“Even when Ms. Cobb talks about something as plain and simple as numbers,” Laura says, “she has a way of making you feel small and insignificant.”
Earl brings his cup up with a studied motion. He sips his coffee in the same manner while looking at Laura over the rim of his red, plastic cup.
“Numbers,” says Laura. “That’s what our department is all about, every part in the warehouse with a number, every number with a value, incoming and outgoing values, and when the difference between the two isn’t big enough, it’s time for a change. Ms. Cobb and Mr. Wilson make those changes. But really, it’s all programmed in the computer. The only real challenge in our department is inventory, physically going out into the warehouse to count parts, and the only reason we do that is to see if anyone is stealing anything.”
From out of the warm, blue sky a crow caws. On the underside of Earl’s left forearm there is a tattoo of a scorpion, a tricolor depiction. Earl’s forearm rests on the table. On the topsides of Earl’s arms there is black body hair, but on the undersides there is no hair. Earl is clean-shaven, but there is a woolly feeling about him, perhaps because of a nest of black hair that escapes from the collar of his dark blue T-shirt.
“You seem to understand your job very well,” Earl says.
Laura sits with this for a moment looking at Earl’s tattoo. She then says, “It’s boring.” And then she adds while raising her view to look at Earl’s face, “Boring, boring, boring. I’m going out of my mind with boredom. Someday I’m going to bring a baseball bat in and smash those florescent lights that are on the ceiling.”
The crow continues to caw but intermediately, its sound weakening as it progresses into a hazy distance.
“Be sure to protect your eyes,” Earl says.
“When you hit those florescent tubes with the bat, there’s going to be glass flying. You don’t want to be looking up into that.”
Laura listens to this while looking at its maker, of which Laura detects no mirth.
“How long have you been working here, Earl?”
“Five years. Started out as a puller, all day long, pulling orders or stocking shelves. Then I became a driver. That was nice, driving around and delivering auto parts. But then, after about a year and a half of that, they asked me to be a checker. You know, you get a raise with each step. Six months ago they brought me in and put me on the phones. I get to sit down now. You got to know the parts to be on the phones. Our customers, as you well know, are the managers or owners of auto part stores. The phones brought on another jump in pay, a noticeable one.” Earl brings his cup up slowly and sips.“Don’t you think this place is boring?”
Earl swallows and then sets his cup down on the table.
“Right now, things aren’t so boring for me,” Earl says, “because two weeks ago things changed in a big way.”
“You mean at work here?”
“No, not at work. But now that you mention it, work has changed too, because I don’t have to work here anymore, whereas up until two weeks ago I did. I’ve been thinking about this—now that I don’t have to work here, working here isn’t so bad.”
Laura searches Earl’s face as if looking for something, but Earl’s face remains expressionless.
“What happened two weeks ago?”
“My mother died.”
Three sparrows are hopping on the concrete between tables. Laura shifts her weight and the sparrows take flight.
Earl reaches for his thermos and uncaps it and pours coffee into his cup and then says, “Would you like me to pour coffee into your cup?”
Laura looks at her cup, which is half full. “Okay,” she says and holds her cup out for Earl to pour coffee into.
“It’s straight black coffee,” Earl says. “Is that how you take it?”
Earl recaps the thermos and sets it back down on the table.
“She was in the hospital for two weeks and then she died,” Earl says. “Up until this last stint in the hospital, she was mostly at home.”
“I came into the living room one day,” Earl continues, “and she was spraying the wall with a can of insecticide. I asked her what she was doing, and she said she was killing ants. I told her that there weren’t any ants on the wall, and she said, ‘What are you talking about? They’re all over the wall. Can’t you see them?’”
Earl taps a finger on the side of his red cup, three taps, and then the finger stops.
“So I said, ‘Ma, give me that can. There are no ants on the wall.’ I took the can from her and then sat her down in her armchair and called her doctor, which turned out to be an answering service. Her doctor called me back in about fifteen minutes. He told me to bring her to the hospital, so that’s what I did. It turned out that she was suffering from a potassium deficiency. She was in the hospital for ten days that time.”
“Yes. It can cause hallucinations. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“Yes, it is.”
“That wasn’t the only thing—diarrhea, dementia, asthma, headaches, blood problems. And there was bruising that didn’t go away. She was hard of hearing. She’d crank the TV up, sometimes at three in the morning.”
Earl looks down at his cup. Laura looks at Earl’s head. After a moment Earl says, “I know what you mean about Ms. Cobb. The world is full of people like that.” Earl continues to look at his cup. Laura continues to look at Earl’s head.
“People who think they’re better than other people,” Earl says.“
Yes,” Laura says. “That’s exactly what I was talking about. Have you been in the Pink Iguana?”
Earl raises his head. “What’s the Pink Iguana?”
“It’s a bar, an artsy-fartsy bar and grill kind of place.”
“I don’t go to bars anymore.”
“Janet and I went in there last weekend. Aircraft-industry people—high up—you know, engineers, executives, secretaries, programmers. That lineup. During happy hour they set out taquitos, and for those who want to get out their credit cards there are oysters in half shells on a bed of crushed ice. Need I say, cologne, perfume, brand goods, footwear from Italy.
“Janet and I stood there for fifteen minutes at the bar, ignored. I was about to scream. Janet said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ And we turned and walked out. It was so humiliating. Even now it sets me off. And that Ms. Cobb, she’s just like that.”
Earl is looking at Laura’s face. Laura looks at the desert and brings her cup up and sips.
“Up until five years ago,” Earl says, “I was up in Bishop. I was working at an auto parts warehouse up there, too. That’s where I was before I had to come home to take care of my mother.”
A crow caws and then there is another crow that answers. Crows, sparrows, and doves frequent the area. Laura’s view returns to Earl’s face.
“I got into an altercation in a bar up there, a place called Nat’s. In the end, I wound up with a year’s probation. I haven’t been to a bar since that afternoon at Nat’s. Sometimes there are people in bars who are like the people you are talking about. They don’t necessarily have to be executive-type people, because this world is full people who think they’re better than other people.”
Laura tilts her head and says, “That’s right.”
* * *
“They didn’t look like anything, the two out on the sidewalk, and that was part of it, because the people that come in here look like something.”
The plain-clothes officer nods.
“What worries me is the effect this is going to have on business.”
Again, the officer nods.
* * *
“I had the body cremated.”
“It’s cheaper that way and there’s less rigmarole. I went to this office the other day over in Victorville and picked up the ashes. Actually, I picked up a square tin box about the size of a cantaloupe. I thought I was going to get an urn, but the ashes were in a tin box that looks like pounded copper. At least I think the ashes are in there. I can’t open the box up. There’s no place to open it.”
“I guess you have to pay more if you want an urn,” Earl says. “They had some on a shelf, but I didn’t bother to ask because I had already sent them a check. I didn’t want any backing up, I didn’t want any confusion. I don’t like confusion. So I thanked the lady and picked the box up and left. I got the box at home. I’m thinking of doing a little ceremony today after work. I plan to stop at that big liquor store down the road here to buy some imported beer. I’ll go home and set the box with my mother’s ashes in it on the table in the patio. There’s an awning and the view from the patio is of the desert and the mountains. The foothills aren’t far away. I have some votive candles and I got some incense. I’ll set all that up on the table with the tin box, and then I’ll sit there with my mother’s ashes and drink beer and look at the desert.”
Laura blinks her eyes while looking at Earl. Unlike Earl, Laura has eyelashes.
“Yes,” Laura says. “But aren’t you going to have a priest or a minister or somebody?”
“No. It’s just going to be me,” Earl says, but then says, “Of course if you’d like to attend, that’d be okay. Do you drink beer?”
“Yes, I do.”
Earl brings his cup up and sips.
“Where do you live, Earl?”
Earl lowers his cup and says, “Over by Llano at the end of a dirt road. I can draw you a map. I’ll leave the gate unlocked. My mother’s house, which is now my house, is on ten acres of land.”
Earl looks at Laura and Laura says, “But I didn’t know your mother.”
“That’s okay,” says Earl. “She won’t mind.”
* * *
"The only other thing I can remember about them was the man. The man was large in the upper part of his body. Something about the shoulders and head caught my attention.”
“What kind of haircut did he have?”
“Maybe a buzz cut.”
“Was he military?”
“That didn’t come to mind.”
“What came to mind?”
“A bowling ball.”
“And the woman?”
“Waiflike. But her eyes. Her eyes were lit up like I don’t know what. Like I said, they were out on the sidewalk in stitches. It was just the opposite of what was going on in here. That’s why I noticed them.”
* * *
Laura followed the map Earl had drawn on a piece of brown paper torn from Earl’s lunch sack. At a mailbox painted green, Laura turned left onto a narrower dirt road than the graded one she had been following, the narrower road rutted instead of graded. Shortly, she came to a chain-link gate with a padlock, but the padlock was unlocked. Getting out of her car, she opened the gate and then drove through and then closed the gate and locked the padlock as Earl had instructed, soil beneath her cowboy boots gritty, creosote punctuating the area. Continuing on with plenty of sunshine left in the day, air conditioner off, windows down, daylight savings time in full swing, she circumnavigate a low knoll and saw a modest stucco house set in a clearing fifty yards further down the road, Earl’s pickup truck in front of the house.
Judging the temperature to be around eighty degrees, air chalk-dry, dust catching her up, she parked next to Earl’s truck. It took a minute for the dust to settle around her Ford Focus during which time she turned the engine of her car off and noticed that it was very quiet.
* * *
“Do you know how many there were?”
“No, I don’t. I killed two, and the man with the thin briefcase killed one. I think someone else stomped on one. There were others though, and that’s what really worries me—they’re still in here. But I don’t know how many and that gives me the creeps. When I first saw them, there must have been at least ten, but it wasn’t like I stood there to count them.”
“What am I going to do? We’ve looked all over. They’re dangerous.”
The officer, mid-fifties and with bulk on his frame, glances around.
“I suggest you call an exterminator.”
* * *
Earl had pushed the benches for the patio table under the table and had set the tin box with this mother’s ashes on the table, a votive on either side of the tin box. Behind the box he had placed a cup with sand and had stuck a stick of incense in the sand. He had also placed two patio chairs made of molded white plastic near the table, direction of the chairs facing the table and the desert beyond, where the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains rose as backdrop.
Laura had brought flowers and Earl had set them down on the table just to the right of the tin box and Earl had said: “Flowers. That’s wonderful. Thank you very much. I hadn’t thought of that.” The flowers were red carnations.
Opening an ice chest that was on the patio Earl asked Laura what kind of beer she wanted. Laura looked into the ice chest and Earl shuffled things around so she could see what was available. Laura selected a bottle of Beck’s. Earl thought that was a good choice to begin with. He also went for a bottle of Beck’s.
After Earl lit the candles and the incense and he and Laura stood, bottles of beer in hand.
“Well,” Earl said, “what can I say?” which turned out to be the sentiment of the moment as Earl then shifted his weight from foot to foot as if searching for more to say but not finding it, ceremony stalled in silence before Earl gave up on words completely and raised his bottle of beer to hold it aloft, thus allowing Laura time and opportunity to raising her bottle in a gesture of toasting before both Earl and Laura tipped their bottles to drink thirstily, and perhaps thankfully, stilted formalities resolved.
They sat down. But then Earl got up, as if remembering something, and went into the house and came back out with a large bowl of peanuts, goobers in their shells. He set the bowl on the table before himself and Laura, carnations lying lengthwise at an angle near the bowl, tin box in back, votive candles flickering, incense smoldering, desert and manzanita-blotted foothills beyond.
“I chose this day,” Earl began, “just before you came and sat down at my table this afternoon. You see, there’s no wind today. That’s why I chose today. Also, it’s Friday.”
“I see,” Laura replied.
“And then you sat down at my table, and I thought that was a good omen.”
Laura looked at Earl. Earl was looking at the arrangement on the table. Laura reached for a peanut.
“Just drop the shells on the patio,” Earl said. “I’ll sweep them up later. Or, if I don’t sweep them up, the wind will blow them away.”
“Could you do me a favor?” Laura said.
“Yes. I want to see you smile.”
* * *
“Do you think this was an act of terrorism?”
“No, I don’t think this was terrorism. I think this was something else.”
* * *
Gapped teeth were in Earl’s smile. Mouth wide.
“My mother was a Scorpio,” Earl said.
“Scorpio. Is that important?”
“Yes and no.”
Laura cracked the shell of the peanut in her hand and then separated the nuts from the shell.
“I don’t believe in astrology,” Earl said, “but I believe in coincidence.”
“Everyone believes in coincidence.”
“Not everyone,” Earl countered. “Some people believe that everything in the world is their doing. If they work hard, they’ll be a success. That means that if they are rich, they deserve it. On the other hand, if someone isn’t rich then they deserve that for reasons connected with laziness and stupidity. I’ve talked to people who think that illness, all illness, is brought on by a lack of proper thinking. This is to say, if someone were thinking correctly he or she wouldn’t get sick. Healthy people are healthy because they are thinking right, and because they’re thinking right, they deserve to be healthy. Of course this leads to arrogance. ‘I’m great and I deserve it. You’re not great and you deserve that.’ They put themselves above others. They ignore good and bad luck. They relegate coincidence to a minor role in the affairs of life, and they ignore randomness altogether.”
Laura was looking at Earl's face. When he spoke, his mouth hardly moved.
“I think you’ve hit the nail totally on the head,” Laura said.
Earl sat a moment andthen raised his bottle of beer.
“My mother was a Scorpio,” Earl resumed, “which has something to do with scorpions. As it turned out, after I returned home from Bishop I accidentally took up the hobby of scorpions.”
“Hobby of scorpions.”
“Yes. I was out back here.” Earl gestured. “And I was cleaning up the area when I flipped over a piece of plywood and found two scorpions on the ground. They were apart from each other and they didn’t move. At first I wondered if they were real, and then I wondered if they were alive.”
Laura rubbed her thumb over two nuts that were in her hand to shed the nuts of their reddish skins.
“Scorpions are repulsive creatures,” Earl said. “My first thought was to kill them. But then, as I stood and looked at them, there was something else, which had to do with rarity and unusualness, at least unusualness in our lives. It was like they were a visitation from another world, which, as it turns out, isn’t exactly untrue. Scorpions date back 430 million years. You take dinosaurs, for example, they lived 230 million years ago and then died out about 65 million years ago. Scorpions go way back. What’s more, they’ve hardly changed in all those millions of years.”
Laura put the nuts in her mouth and chewed.
“So what I did was, I set that piece of plywood back on top of those two scorpions and went looking for something to capture them with.”
“Yes. And that’s how I began my hobby.”
“What’s your hobby?”
“Collecting scorpions? Alive ones?”
“Yes. I got a whole room full.”
Laura looked at Earl. Earl’s expression was blank, not a wrinkle or a dimple on his flat face.“
Of course I have them in terrariums. I converted the garage into a room for them. Put a couple of window in, did some insulating, put up some drywall, bought blackout curtains for the windows. You want to control the light. Scorpions are nocturnal. They’re very sensitive to light. This condition is called ‘photophobia.’”
Laura reached down and picked up her bottle of beer from off the patio and brought the bottle up and drank.
“Anyway, I showed my mother the scorpions, but she didn’t seem to care. I’m not sure if she even understood what she was looking at. I told her what they were, but still, she only looked at me. This was after I had a few, maybe a dozen or so, and by then I had taken notice of my mother’s astrological sign, her birthday falling right in the middle of Scorpio, November seventh, but it was just a coincidence, but there are those who might draw conclusions.”
Laura gave her beer bottle a shake. Earl noticed.
“Another bottle of Beck’s?” Earl said.
"Yes, thank you.”
Earl leaned and opened the ice chest and withdrew two bottles and uncapped them and handed one to Laura.
“My mother spent her entire working life at the phone company. She bought these ten acres of land and the house. We moved in when I was six years old. For all practical purposes, this is where I grew up.” Earl waved a hand. “Odd in a sense, because in all those years and I never saw a scorpion. But after I started looking for them, I found them everywhere.”
“And your father?” Laura asked.
“Never met him. My mother was a single-parent.”
“I’m in the same condition.”
“What condition is that?”
“Well, there you go,” Earl said. “Another coincidence.”
Laura looked at Earl’s wide face, a profile view, because Earl was looking out at the desert.
“The house and the ten acres and some money in the bank,” Earl said. “And of all things, a life insurance policy to cover the expense of burial—funeral, plot in a cemetery, and so forth.” Earl chuckled. “But we kind of short-cutted that, didn’t we?”
Earl turned his large head to look at Laura. It took a moment before Laura realized that Earl was waiting for a reply.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
A hummingbird came to the edge of the patio to hover for a couple of iridescent moments before it flew away.
“Do you want to see my scorpions?”
* * *
“Why would someone want to do something like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you ever come across a crime like this before?”
* * *
The room was the same temperature as outside, but it was quieter than outside, which Laura hadn’t thought possible until she entered the room. Some of the tanks, about eight, were lit with black lights. Heavy curtains over the windows were drawn and it was only the black-lit tanks that enabled her to see.
“I closed the curtains a while ago,” Earl said, “so that they’d be active if we came in.”
Laura and Earl had brought their bottles of beer with them.
“We can sit down over here,” Earl said and gestured toward a couple of chairs that were situated in the middle of the black-lit terrariums. After sitting down it took a minute or two before Laura discerned a couple of small scorpions on the bottom of one of the terrariums. After that, she saw more and more, each black-lit terrarium with two or three scorpions.
“You see here,” said Earl, and brought a hand up to indicate a terrarium to his left. “These two here are Giant Hairys. Most of the Giant Hairys I have I got in southern Nevada, near Laughlin. They’re four inches in length, about three times the size of the others I have here.” He made a broad sweep of the hand. “I have three more tanks with Giant Hairys, but those tanks aren’t lit.”
“Jeez. How many tanks do you have?”
“Twenty-four. I stopped at twenty-four because it’s divisible by eight. Scorpio is the eighth sign of the zodiac, which is appropriate because scorpions have eight legs. They are a true arachnid.”
“Yes. That class of creature that distinguishes itself with eight appendages, eight legs, such as spiders.”
Laura looked at Earl and saw him raise his bottle of beer to his lips, and then she heard him swallowing. For the next couple of minutes they sat without speaking, which allowed Laura to settle into what surrounded her. At first her eyes darted from tank to tank, but then her eyes calmed and she began to follow the movement of one particular scorpion that was in the terrarium in front of her, the scorpion moving slowly on eight legs, two small pincher-claws out in front feeling things, bits of wood, a rock, a cutting from a plant, and as she watched, she began to sense a calmness in the room that had a soothing effect. She thought about the grotesqueness of the scorpions, which contrasted dramatically with the room’s tranquility, but then, perhaps because of the room’s tranquility,
This idea of grotesqueness began to fade into something else, which Laura couldn’t quite articulate. But, she could feel it, and it was like there was something tickling her nerves. She brought her bottle of beer up and took a sip, and it wasn’t such a bad experience.
“What do you feed them?”
“Mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers. These larger ones, the Giant Hairys, will take on a small lizard, no problem. Scorpions will not eat dead food. Only live food.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“You mean to people?”
“They’re dangerous if provoked, but of course they can be provoked accidentally. If you’re camping, you never want put your boots on in the morning without turning them upside down and giving them a shake.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“All scorpions have a stinger at the end of their curved tails, and all stingers have venom, but the toxicity of the venom varies. The ones I have in this room will sting and it will hurt, something like a wasp. There will be swelling and numbness, and it’ll be painful, but you won’t die.”
“There is a variety, though, that lives primarily in western Arizona, southern Utah, and southern Nevada, which is very dangerous. It’s a Bark Scorpion. It’s small like most of the ones I got here, about an inch and a half in length, but it’s a very light color, light tan or beige, whereas the ones in this room have dark bodies. A Bark Scorpion can kill a child.”
The room was warm, but Laura sensed good ventilation.“Don’t you find all this kind of weird, Earl?”
“We live in a weird world, Laura, a world with any number of dimensions. Pick up a newspaper and tell me that stuff isn’t weird. It’s just that we’re used to it.”
Earl sipped his beer. Laura sipped her beer.
“Do you know what I’d really like to do?” Laura said.
“No. What would you really like to do?”
"I’d like to go over there to the Red Iguana and drop a bag of these beauties on the bar.”
Earl’s head rotated his head so that he could look at Laura, purple light and shadows on Earl and Laura’s faces.
“I’d like to introduce those people to another dimension.”
There was a moment and then Earl said, “I think we can do that.”
* * *
“Oh, no. That’s all we need—a TV crew.”
* * *
Earl used a scooping device to take the scorpions out of their terrariums and put them in jars. He had a number of scooping, trapping tools, all of which he had made himself from cans and lengths of wood.
“What I’ll do,” Earl said, “is put a dozen jars into that wooden crate over there, one scorpion to a jar.” He pointed to a box on a worktable. “In the parking lot I’ll transfer the scorpions into a paper sack, like the kind I use for a lunch sack, except I’ll cut the bag down to half-size or so and put a few pinholes in it and then a single fold at the top with a paperclip to secure the fold. You don’t want all these scorpions in the bag now because that’s too many in a small space. They’ll start fighting and maybe kill each other. We don’t want that. So I’ll put them in the bag when we’re sitting in the parking lot, and then once they’re in the bag we’ll go into the bar. I imagine it’ll only take us a minute from my pickup truck in the parking lot to the bar.”
“What’s going to happen in the bar?”
“Well of course I’ll put on a long-sleeved shirt before we go over there. Don’t want anyone to notice the tattoo. We’ll walk in like a couple of nobodies, and we’ll go to the bar and stand there like you and your friend did. If the bartender comes over, I’ll order us a couple of beers, and I’ll pay for the beers and leave some money on the bar for a tip, but we won’t drink any beer, we won’t touch those glasses. We’ll just leave the glasses sitting there, and I’ll unclip the paperclip from the fold of the sack and loosen the fold so there’ll be an opening and then I’ll set that cut-down bag on the bar next to the glasses of beer. I’ll set the bag on its side so the scorpions can walk out.”
Earl paused, and then he continued.“Of course if we are completely ignored by the bartender then that makes the whole procedure that much more simple. I’ll just set the unclipped bag on the bar while we are standing there.”
Earl continued to talk while he put scorpions in jars, lids with small holes for ventilation screwed onto the tops of the jars.
“We’ll wait until someone notices the scorpions. I imagine that pandemonium will break out soon after that, you know, after someone notices. That’s when we’ll walk to the door and leave. We might not even be the first ones out. No one will notice us, not with these babies walking on the bar. I’m going to put four Giant Hairys in with the regular ones, the smaller kind. Just think—some woman with her elbow on the bar and she senses something near her arm and looks.”
Earl chuckled. Laura watched him chuckling.
“Are there windows in that bar?” Earl asked.
“Yes. There are big, plate-glass windows that face the street. The bar and cooking area visible—shrimp scampi, wok food, garlic and olive oil with a high flame.”
“Good. We can go outside and take a peek in to see how things are going.”
* * *
She’s coming off her barstool and she’s stumbling backwards, her two friends, both female, look, and then they are backing away, but then one of them has the wherewithal to snatch their purses from off the bar, a Giant Hairy and two smaller scorpions moving tentatively in the direction of the purses. Someone lets out a yelp, not one of the three women, but someone from the next clique over, two women and a man, the three of them off of their stools. Two more scorpions, a Giant Hairy and a regular one-and-a-half-inch scorpion are coming out of the bag.
Laura and Earl are moving without haste toward the door. There is a noise. Perhaps someone has thrown a dish. Two people shove past Earl and Laura, a man and a woman.
Someone says, “Oh, my God.”
The doors of the bar let out unto the parking lot. Laura and Earl go right, and then right again at the sidewalk. This puts them in front of the place where the plate-glass windows are.
* * *
In the parking lot people are standing in small groups, others are getting into cars. The parking lot has three exits. Earl eases out of the lot onto a wide street.
* * *
Twilight is in progress, orange spreading from the west, shades of lavender darkening in the east. Earl turns onto a graded dirt road.
“And we didn’t even have to buy a beer,” Earl says. “That bartender never even looked at us.”
Laura’s still laughing, it comes in spurts, bubbling up from her stomach, windows in the cab of the pickup down, balmy air brushing the side of Laura’s face.
“Oh, he looked at us. But he didn’t see us.”
* * *
Ms. Cobb’s hair is in a semi-rough pageboy as if to insinuate youth and modernity. Her choice of clothing reflects the same sentiments, colors lifted from modern art and splashed over sharp-cut blouses, flaring pantsuits, signature scarves. Weight-gain, though, along with folds in her complexion, complicates this endeavor.
When Ms. Cobb walks into Laura’s cubicle at three minutes before break time on Monday morning to discuss the particulars of going out into the warehouse to take a physical count of shock absorbers, Laura turns on her swivel chair and greets Ms. Cobb with what might pass for courtesy, and maybe even cheerfulness.
Laura seems eager for one of Ms. Cobb’s enlightening conversations, which will probably continue through morning break. No problem. Laura can always take a late break, the same as Ms. Cobb does whenever she’s forced to work through her break, but of course Ms. Cobb never goes outside for a breath of warm, dry air. Ms. Cobb takes her breaks in the privacy of her air-conditioned office, which has a real door and a sense of permanence, as opposed to a modular space, such as the one Laura occupies.
“My, we are chipper this morning,” Ms. Cobb says. “Any particular reason?”
“No, nothing in particular. Well, maybe the weather. It’s a nice day.”
“The weather, Laura? The weather’s always the same around here. Everybody knows that.”
A stalled moment, Ms. Cobb and Laura looking at one another, before Laura’s view goes to a clock on the wall, a smirk beginning on Laura’s face.
# # #
Michael Onofrey is from Los Angeles. He now lives in Japan. His stories have appeared in Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Imagination & Place (anthology), Natural Bridge, and Two Hawks Quarterly, as well as in other literary journals and anthologies.
How Mac Got Promoted
by Gale Tanner
WHEN LUCIFER FELL, Makelzedek was the weakest angel to go with him. Many angels in heaven were weaker than Mac, but they stuck with Big Gee. It was the powerful angels that sided with Lucifer and took the plunge.
During the Great Depression that followed the Fall, when Lucifer sat on a rock in Fire Lake and let Hell go to hell, the strong angels formed bands and fought each other for what there was. All the bands beat and buggered Mac and used him as their punk. Mac bit his lip and took the abuse. What else could he do?But Reckoning Day finally came. Lucifer rose from the rock, walked across the water, and began to kick chaos into order. He ripped Beelzebub off Mac's back and tossed him into Fire Lake.
"Call me Satan," Lucifer told the angel bands. And they did, and knelt before him. Then he made them build him a palace, and when it was done, he took Mac into it with him and installed him in the least of its rooms.
Mac's job was to empty Satan's slops. One of the first things Satan did, once he had settled for being Satan, was to impose time on Hell, and every morning, though it was neither lighter nor darker than it had previously been, Mac would rise from the pile of rubble on which he rested and climb the thousand steps to Satan's bedchamber. Exerting great effort against so great a weight, he would force the stone door open wide enough to slip his slight being through, step soundlessly around the beautiful, strong angels who lay ripped and bruised on the floor after a night with their lord, and remove the stinking golden bucket, which he hauled to the shore and emptied in Fire Lake. Back at the palace, he would scrub the bucket until it gleamed, remount the thousand steps, and leave it outside the stone door. Then he would return to his room and rubble, and wait to be of use again.
One morning, Mac crept into the chamber and was picking his way among the gorgeous angels discarded on the floor when Satan spoke to him,"Mac."
It was terrible for Satan to call your name, and Mac was not the only angel in Hell who lived in fear of it.
"Yes, Lord?" he answered.
"Commere a minute."
Satan was standing on his balcony. It overlooked Fire Lake. The dome of Hell was rosy with the lake's glow, as it eternally was. Satan was gloriously naked. Mac averted his eyes.
Satan dropped one arm around Mac's shoulder and swept the other across their vista.
"Whatcha think, Mac? As good as Heaven?"
Mac remembered Heaven's seasons, its infinitude of colors.
"Almost, my Lord."
Satan laughed and hugged Mac against his hip. "That's what I like about you, Mac. You'll tell the truth. Almost."
Mac and Satan stood on the balcony and gazed at Hell while centuries passed. Nothing changed. "Do you know what came of our rebellion, Mac? What the product was of all that power we hurled in the name of justice?"
"A universe, Mac. A place not Heaven, not Hell. And it grows. From a speck no bigger that the tip of your prick, it grows, and pushes us farther from Heaven. I hate it, Mac. I swear that I hate it."
"Yes, Lord," Mac said.
Satan's arm tightened around Mac's shoulders. Mac tried not to tremble. Hell came alive as angels began to emerge from their hovels and go to their tasks that Satan had invented for them. At last, Satan loosened his grip and said, "Go empty your bucket, Mac.” Mac turned away and caught more than one of the angels on the floor closing his eyes.
"Thanks for your time."
Another morning Mac entered the chamber. No angels lay on the floor feigning sleep. Satan stood again on his balcony. His back was to Mac. Mac was almost out the door with his bucket when Satan said, "Got a second, Mac?"
"Yes, Lord." Mac set the bucket down and came out on the balcony.
Satan turned and gave Mac his full gaze. Mac's knees buckled. Satan seemed not to notice.
"Do you remember when I told you about the universe, Mac? The one that grows. The one that pushes us from Heaven?"
"I do, Lord."
"What do you think has happened now?"
"I don't know, Lord."
"It's got life, Mac. Life. Not at its center. Not on the biggest or best piece of it, but on some chunky little rock not worth being dropped in your bucket. Why do you think Gee would do a thing like that?"
"I'm afraid to answer."
"Tell me anyway."
"To spite you, Lord."
"Exactly, Mac," Satan said. "Exactly. To spit in my face."
That evening there was a knock on Mac's door. Beelzebub opened it and entered. Mac was sore afraid.
"Fear not," the angel said. "I'm a present."
A million mornings after, Mac came back from Fire Lake and set the bucket down outside Satan's door. He had one foot on the stairs, when Satan said,"I'm calling a council of the leaders of the angel bands, Mac. In the main room. I want you to sit in. Do whatever needs doing."
Satan smiled. "It could get ugly," he said.
All the angels were on time without being told what time the meeting was. Mac had arranged six golden thrones in a semicircle at the foot of Satan's rock, the one he had brought with him from Fire Lake. After all this time, it still glowed white hot. Its facets were sharper than swords.The strong angels took their thrones. Asmodeus. Beelzebub. Belphegor. Leviathan. Mammon. Moloch.
Mac wedged himself in the farthest corner of the room, sat on the floor, and hugged his knees.
Satan entered when he was ready to. The band leaders stood and applauded. "Sit down," Satan said.
Satan stretched out his hand and the image of what Mac thought was a blue gem appeared over his palm.
"Ooh," the band leaders said.
Satan caused the image to grow until it seemed to fill the room. Then he zoomed in on a section of it, and there were greens to go with the blues. And browns, too. Zoom again the angels saw that the gem was infested with beasts. Some galloped. Some slithered.
"Uhh," the band leaders said.
Zoom again, and Satan’s focus was on a pair of beasts on a savannah. To Mac, they seemed particularly disgusting. They were neither sleek-skinned nor furry. Such hair as they had was mostly about their heads. Nothing hid the marks of their sex. They were as filthy as if they had wallowed in the contents of one of Mac’s buckets. Brutality and stupidity were written as plainly on their brows as if they were literate.
As Mac watched, the beasts made a small progress across the savannah, though it was unclear to him why. What struck him was that the beasts had thumbs and fingers, like angels. With hands, they could play stringed instruments or hurl thunder at Heaven, but the beasts used their hands only as paws to lumber along. Then without any warning that they knew what they were capable of, the female rose on her hind legs and plucked a red fruit from a green tree, took a bite, and handed it to the male.
Satan dropped his arm, and the vision vanished. "Do you know what we just saw?" he asked.
None of the band leaders answered.
"Your replacements, gentlemen. Those useless beasts are Heaven's response to our quest for redress. The final product of Gee's spite."
Some angels cursed. Others denied the possibility. Satan smiled. When the clamor was over, he asked, "So what do you think we should do?"
"Attack them," Moloch said.
Satan moved so quickly that even with angel eyes, Mac saw only motion. A step. A strike. And Moloch lay on the floor, sliced and stunned. Satan dragged him by his locks to the window, kicked it out, and hurled Moloch into Fire Lake. Then he returned to the front of the room. "I want fresh ideas," he said. "Let's hear what you've got."
Satan called each band leader by name, and each gave him an idea. He carved the ideas into the wall with the nail of the index finger of his left hand. Then he added a couple of his own ideas to the list. He stood silent and studied it. Mac thought it was a pretty good list. Greed. Gluttony. Laziness. Lust. Envy. Anger. Self-importance. Satan, however, did not look pleased. He turned back to the angels and scoured them with his eyes. His gaze fell on Mac, who was pressed like a cockroach as deeply as he could get into his corner.
"Come on up here, Mac," Satan said. "We have an opening."
If angels could die, Mac would have. Certainly, he wanted to. Centuries flicked by before he could stand, but at last he did and made his way to the front of the room. He took Moloch's seat.
"See this little guy," Satan said. "He's got more guts and brains than the whole lot of you. Every morning he carries out my shit. The rest of you aren't worthy to. I don't know why I brought you with me."
Satan turned to Mac and winked. "Ok, Mac, show these guys how smart I am. Gimme an idea."
Mac looked again at the list. He read it frontwards, then backwards. He did not see anything that was missing."
Come on, Mac," Satan said. "Don't let me down."
"Wait," Mac said, his voice sounding sharp in his own ears. He heard the band leaders suck in air, though angels do not use air to breathe.
"Patience is a virtue, Mac," Satan said. "That's hardly the business we are in anymore."
"Think about it," Mac said, making it up as he went along. "These are beasts. They eat, copulate, and die. It'll be a million years before they think about anything but their bellies or their balls. In fact, it'll be a million years before they think of anything at all. In the mean time, we can slide on in, use the weapons on the wall against them. Nothing wrong with that. It'll be fun. Keep the pot stirred. But sooner or later, they're going to start to get an idea of Gee. They won't be able to help it, considering who made them. And that's when they'll be vulnerable.”
"Go on," Satan said. "I'm listening."
"They'll get it wrong. They're bound to. They're beasts. They don't have angel eyes. It'll be like they're looking through black glass. That's when we'll spring the trap."
"We'll tell them that they're right. Whatever crazy notion they have. Whatever little piece of Gee they think they see, we'll tell them that they are right. And that they are the only ones who are. Then we'll give them power. All the power we can shovel on them. Can you imagine what they will do to each other?"
Satan walked slowly to where Mac sat. With the tenderness of a mother, he lifted him up and held him as high as he could. Then he set him carefully on the hot seat. Mac glowed.
Satan stepped back and pointed to Mac. "This is my guy," he said. "If I'm not around, you do what he tells you to, just like it came from me. Got it?"
"We do," the angels answered.
"Good. Now let's get out of here and go to work."
# # #
Gale Tanner lives in Forsyth, Georgia. His fiction and poetry have been published in River Walk Journal, Press 53 Open Awards Anthology and,14by14. He has a story forthcoming in J Journal: New Writing on Justice. Gale is married to Isabelle, and is the father of Jessica and Justin.
The Man Who Harvests Redeemable Cans
by William Doreski
ON SEVENTH AVENUE, the man who harvests redeemable cans rattles like the skeleton in armor. I want to kneel beside him and pray that the next barrel will contain, if not the Grail, redemption enough for both of us. But since I'm not as mad, why should he kneel with me like Johnson beside Christopher Smart? The sky slings so low it rests atop the New York Hilton. Rented limousines with car-phone antennae like arrowheads nailed to their trunks creep among the flashing taxis.
No such thing as a native New Yorker: everyone's from someplace warmer. No one can name the man picking through the trash, no one can testify that the streets on homeless winter nights ring with the catcalls of the dead.
I want to warn the harvester of redeemable cans that bedrock a hundred feet below blazes with his steps, but it isn't so. The earth is cooling every day. It forgets the fossils memorized a billion years ago, forgets where the stones of New York came from, brownstone and granite and tinted marble. Someone ought to pray with this man, but the earth isn't listening, and the taxis honk so impersonally not even their drivers can decode the noise. Someone ought to shoulder his bag and walk beside him awhile. I’d do it, but rain threatens and I've books to buy, lunch to eat, a drink perhaps at the Algonquin Bar, the little "Blue Bar" where the whiskey induces a stupor innocent as Christian faith.
The rain sweeps the pavement, stings my face. The man with his bag of cans descends into the subway like Aeneas into the underworld. Down there he’s sure to learn more about the future his fingertips and flapping soles have already memorized.
# # #
William Doreski’s work has appeared in various e and print journals and in several collections, most recently Waiting for the Angel (Pygmy Forest Press, 2009). He currently teaches creative writing at Keene State College in Keene, NH.
Karner Blue Butterfly
by Jamie Taylor
I crush five yellow crab apples in my hand, and then a sixth.
The crunchy juice falls into the canyons of my skin and smellsof wine, fermentation, and iron. Ever since I started my bug collection I see butterflies alive that I would like to have dead.
This troubles me and I have no one to talk to about it.
I make wreathes out of cork and glass statues out of broken pieces from Skyy vodka bottles.
The dark is something I can’t help but travel into. When I was young all the other children said don’t go into the dark. My feet only took me forward into the veil. I am pinned.
# # #
Jamie Taylor is currently a Marine Biology and Creative Writing student at the Richard Stockton College of NJ. She has had several poems published in Stockton's Stockpot Literary Magazine and is currently building her ever-growing portfolio of poetry and short stories.
On Not Being Able To Dance
by Milton P. Erlich, Ph.D.
“Seventy years have I lived, Seventy years man and boy, and never have I danced for joy.”
ON SUNDAYS he went to swing dance lessons on the bridge at Golden Gate Park as an observer, never a participant; a stationary mime standing like a statue, barely tapping his toes, envious of the many miss-matched couples with less than perfect bodies swinging away in simulated libidinal bonding, transported with glazed eyes, flying like gulls in a downdraft, held aloftby the riffs and strains of the Dorsey and Glenn Miller Bands.
An elderly gent in a white linen suit wearing boots and a cowboy hat merges pelvis to pelvis with a bosomy blonde who sparkles like Venus from the star-studded side of her delicate nose. A ravishing long-legged beauty with amber hair flowing down to her derriere glides artfully dangling over a crusty dwarfish old man with bulging eyeballs and a bulbous nose.
Partners change with each number, romping along whether short or tall, klutzy or nimble, pot-bellied or scrawny; some move with grace and finesse in spite of a prominent rump, twirling, dipping and jitterbugging, rat-tat-tatting, as if they were jack-hammering the bridge or jumping and jiving, sliding and zigzagging across the macadam imagining it a sheen of pure ice.
Voluptuous bumblers careen, ferociously grinding and wiggling; strangers gyratecheek to cheek languorously drowsing in each other’s arms. Some struggle to master the razz-a-ma-tazz trying a Lindy Hop with steps painted by the numbers; their Charleston looks metronomically programmed as they shim-sham up and down and around strutin’ their stuff, gleeful as a room full of pre-schoolers.
Returning home to inexorable solitude, the man who couldn’t dance cranks up his stereo, strips naked and slowly begins to move, enraptured as he whirls away the rest of the day in an incandescent aura of light in the privacy of his mirrored room.
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Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D. is an 80 year old psychologist who has published numerous poems in periodicals such as the Antigonish Review, Toronto Quarterly Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Dream Fantasy International, Shofar Literary Journal, Parnassus Literary Journal, Poets Of New Jersey, Pegasus, Blue Collar Review, Chiron Review, Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.
End of Winter 2012 Issue