“The Society of Morning Fuel Pump Parkers” by Greg Oldfield

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I butt through the Wawa double doors with my three-creamer, two-sugar jumbo Colombian in one hand and a plastic baggie with Combos and an egg and bacon muffinwich in the other, letting the door slip just before the old lady with the furry rat in her arms can grasp the handle. In the parking lot, a black jeep stops to let me pass, and I give Seth Rogen’s brother a pinky wave then hurdle a puddle with swirls of oil slicks as if created by a gas station barista. I see the NFL logo in there today. Last week, I swore I saw my ex-internet girlfriend’s schnauzer, Honey.

Seth creeps behind me like the paper boy in Better Off Dead asking for my two dollars, and when I reach my Camry at Pump 14, he cuts the wheel and stops a foot off my bumper. I rest my coffee on the roof, drop the bag on the front seat, and shut the door, avoiding Seth’s eyes as I nudge between the two bumpers, finger over the sippy hole so nothing spills onto my khakis. Or the hood of Seth’s car.

Seth honks his horn when I insert my debit card, calls me a fucking helmet head when I shove the nozzle into the tank, and reverses when I engage the automatic lever.

I take a sip of coffee and shrug my shoulders. “Non est mea culpa,” I say. Should have gotten here sooner, Seth. Took me almost two years to work up to an end spot.

Seth loops around while a few more cars pull into the lot. One of them betas him to the opening at Pump 1. Rodney must be running late.

I finish fueling, which is more like a top off since my drive is only nineteen and a half miles each way. Barely a gallon and a half. Two more cars jockey for my spot after I put the nozzle back and screw the gas cap on. One driver honks at the other to show he’d made it first.

I’m pretty good at acting. My favorite is the forehead slap, check around the inside my bag as if I’d left my hoagie inside on the counter. Once or twice I’ve tapped my pockets, cursed out loud, thrown my hands up like I’d lost my debit card. Sometimes it feels good to kick it old school and actually hand Wendy the cashier a twenty and tell her I’m going to fill ‘er up.

Today, I take my receipt, stare at it for a few seconds, then glance back at the driver and point at the pump. Faulty valve, overcharge, it really doesn’t matter because I kick the metal trashcan, grab my coffee, and storm back inside. I should have joined the theater. Instead, I’m an accountant for a company that makes cardboard boxes.

There’s a number of us who make up The Society of Morning Fuel Pump Parkers. Rex, a married IT consultant with four kids, parks in Pump 3. He’s a breakfast skipper, but that doesn’t stop him from hanging out by the coffee with me while I wait for my hoagie. He takes advantage of the ninety-nine cent deal, refills a few times so he’s hot to the brim before he heads out.

Nancy is a middle-aged manager at Target who parks at Pump 7. Her go-to is an egg and pepper on a shorti with American cheese. Pepper-jack when she’s having a bad morning. She drinks the French roast black with two Splendas. Nancy may look like a nurturing mother figure with her red polo and her Lisa Loeb glasses, but she’s one hell of a ball-buster.

“Playing with your puds again, boys,” she says to Rex and me as she taps her order into the screen. I thought about asking Nancy to play on our Fortnite team. She’s not afraid to pull the trigger.

“Easy on the mayo today, Jerry” she says to the community college sophomore behind the counter. “Had to scrape the sides of my roll with a napkin yesterday.”

Jerry says he’ll be better.

“Be best,” Nancy says.

Carlos the painter from Pump 8 comes in with the crew of landscapers who take up 9 and 10. They have an animated conversation while Carlos checks the winning numbers at the lottery kiosk

“Did you win?” I ask him.

“Nah,” he says, “Just getting an update on my football club back home.”

Jon Grayson from 11 likes to shit in the communal bathroom. “Can’t drop it like it’s hot in the office,” he says when he joins us.

“So gross,” Nancy says.

“Not when you’ve perfected the hover technique,” he says. Jon grabs a pack of peanut butter Tastykakes off the rack then pours a dark roast.

I can tell he’d been out drinking the night before because the next few guys that follow him stop at the open bathroom door, make that mangled-car-wreck-victim face, and go shirt mask up before they enter.

McNally, an elementary school teacher from Pump 5, pats him on the back and says, “Good one today, Jon. Fucking burned my nose hairs off.”

We laugh then Rex asks if any of us need as refill on the cream. I tell him I’m good.

“Trying to cut back,” I say. “Beach season’s in a few months.”

“Funny, Ray,” Nancy says, “Looks to me like the season’s still a few years away.”

That one stings, but I shrug it off and tell her I’m starting the Paleo next week.

Most mornings we spend about thirty minutes inside just shooting the breeze, commenting on work, family life, politics, sports—the typical water cooler stuff. All while our cars occupy the pumps. We often look out the window and laugh when the rush hits and dozens of cars jockey for 2,3, 6 and 13. Timing is everything. Most mornings it’s eight twenty, eight fifteen when we want to be safe. Get here at eight twenty-five, though, and we’re screwed. Last Thursday, I lost my keys and pulled in at eight thirty. Took me forever to get my spot. There’s a post time for the lunch rush and evenings, too, but that only goes into effect pre-holidays and snowstorms. Shit, mistime those and the lines are at least four-deep.

Nancy tells us she has to get to work early. Thinks she has to fire a stock boy for picking off clearance DVDs.

“That’s a stupid way to get fired,” Rex says. “At least get caught clipping electronics or whacking it in the lingerie section or something.”

“Such a weirdo,” she says, “How you ever found someone to legally mate with is beyond me.”

I cover my mouth with my hand, say damn, and wait for a comeback. But Rex just tops off one more time and says he wishes Rodney were here. Rodney always has witty responses.

We stagger our exits so the place doesn’t clear out at once. Can’t have anyone else try to weasel their way into our thing. I’m last to leave because motivation is low today. Have a stack of invoices to input before reviewing our accounts receivables. Not exactly what I’d dreamed about when I finished college, but it kills time in between Tinder rejections.

“The fuck,” Seth says when I walk outside. He finishes his smoke and misses the cornhole cigarette trashcan thing. I never understood why they put them right beside the front door. It’s like asking for lettuce, tomato, and a little Marlboro on my sandwich.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“What do you like, live here or something?”

I snort. “What are you, the parking police? Or something.”

“I waited ten minutes for a spot. And you’re in there having a fucking pow wow.”

“Sucks,” I say and walk away without looking back.

What does he want? A shot clock violation? A pump coordinator? The thing is, how did the Seth’s of the world not see this coming? It’s the evolution of fuel pump parking. Am I supposed to get in my car, drive a hundred feet around to the side, and park again? Who has time for that?

Maybe they should build more pumps because who needs parking spaces anyway. Just make it the Sonic of gas stations. These are some of the ideas we come up with when the conversations are slow inside. We’re not complainers, we’re problem solvers.

I’d say call the cops, but just then one walks out with his baggie and coffee, strolling to his squad car at Pump 12.

“See you tomorrow, Travis,” I say.

“Stay out of trouble,” he says. He glances at his firearm then back at me.

I hurry into my car, and the Combos squish under my rear. I let the car warm up while I switch from one talk show to the next until I hit 90’s Top Forty. Brings me back to my glory days. I already miss the others. Before pull away, I remember tomorrow’s Two for Two Tuesday on breakfast sandwiches. Usually brings in the masses. Might have to get in at eight fifteen to be safe.

 

Greg Oldfield received his MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University, and he teaches PE and coaches soccer in the Philadelphia area. His fiction has been published in Barrelhouse, The Broadkill Review, and HCE Review.

“The Confrontation” by G.P DeSalvo

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G.P. DeSalvo lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.  He is a civil servant,an artisan, a sorcerer and an amateur psychiatrist.  He has lived three or four different lives.  Now he’s getting to be an old man.  He may- one day in the near future- actually get something published.

You can visit G.P DeSalvo’s blog here: https://theblackboulder.blog
and follow him on Twitter here: @DurbanMoffer 

“Following Her Footsteps” by Ilene Dube

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Before leaving the car I used a toothpick to free the particles of garlic and mint lodged between my incisors, remnants from the lentil salad my wife served for dinner. I took the last few swigs of Diet Coke, hoping it would mask my breath, then hauled my gym bag from the back seat, taking care not to pull my shoulder again.

I passed the elevator, a temptation for my arthritic knees, before climbing to the second floor—I swear those risers are especially steep—and stashed my stuff in a locker, then positioned myself on the rowing machine just outside the dance studio. Opening iTunes, I hit the play button, tucked the ear buds into my head and the phone into an arm band as I started rowing, slowly at first. I was supposed to be doing intervals—I’d work my way up to a faster speed.

As far as anyone could tell, I was watching ESPN on the overhead flat screen. In truth my attention was focused inside the dance studio. Through the backs of the heavy-set older women trying to whittle away fat I could catch a glimpse of the hot hot Zumba teacher. She was the age of my daughters, and reminded me of them.

Tonight she was wearing a silky sleeveless top with a shimmering pattern and a long hood that swooshed, like a scarf, each time she set out in a different direction. Her long black hair, too, was flying all over the place. You could see her firm round breasts and buttocks moving under the slinky fabric, though not too much—not like the jiggles on the other ladies.

My wife sometimes does Zumba, but tonight she was out running. My wife runs about five miles a day. This is more than she ran before all her surgeries.

The Zumba teacher should be dancing on Broadway—she’s got all the moves. It’s funny watching the older women in the class try to imitate her. Either you have it, or you don’t. Not only can she move, but her face—always posed, either in a smile or a high-energy look. If I had cancer, I’d choose this woman over chemotherapy.

One of the trainers came over and suggested I up the speed on the intervals. I felt like I was having a heart attack already, but tried to go faster. I was dripping. I felt gas in my stomach—damn that lentil salad.

The Zumba class had broken up. The teacher was organizing her stuff. I started packing my bag as well. I had it timed. I entered the elevator just as she did. The doors closed and we were alone. She didn’t have a drop of sweat on her, though she glistened. I was schvitzing.

“You remind me of my daughter.” I hadn’t planned to say that.

“Does your daughter do Zumba?”

I nodded. “She teaches it.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Then you should come to the class.”

“Really?”

“Why not?”

The elevator doors opened, and she was gone, that swoosh of hair following her.

“What should I wear to go to a Zumba class,” I asked my wife when she came back from her run. My wife doesn’t sweat so much either, but her skin gets very red. She has always turned red, even before she became bionic. She definitely jiggles a lot less than she did about 30 years ago. After the mastectomy and uterine prolapse surgery, she became a fitness nut and lost about 20 pounds. She works at it almost every minute of her life.

Even still, she has a muffin top and a flabby ass. She works out so much harder than I do, and is so much more careful about what she eats. Maybe that’s why I eat her lentil salad, but at lunch time I sneak out for a burger. She knows this, and it annoys her, but she doesn’t say anything anymore.

When we met, in grad school, she helped me out and sometimes wrote my papers. She helped me get my first job, but after that I always made more money than she did.

After the vaginal surgery, she got really horny—wanted to have sex all the time. I think she just wanted to test that all the parts still worked. Now that she was running and cycling, she wasn’t interested in sex.

“Since when are you interested in Zumba?”

“My trainer suggested I give it a try.”

I called my youngest daughter and asked her what I should wear.

“Don’t wear those American flag shorts!”

“But you gave them to me.”

“They’re good for a Father’s Day barbecue. For Zumba you…”

As I was talking to her I Googled men’s Zumba clothes. “I’m looking at a guy wearing black harem pants with stars shooting across them,” I interrupted. “There’s also a guy in a Hawaiian shirt. Oh, wait, here’s one for me—a guy wearing a tank top that says ‘babes waves.’ And look, here’s a video of men doing Zumba wearing suspenders and jeans.”

“Dad, why do you want to go to Zumba? You hate that sort of thing.”

“I thought I’d try it. The trainer wants me to challenge myself in different ways.”

I found a pair of gray shorts and a gray T-shirt my wife had laundered and folded neatly in my drawer. I wondered if I should puncture the shirt with strategic holes to look younger for the Zumba teacher, but in the end I wore what I’d usually wear to the gym when I knew there was going to be a lot of sweating.

Usually I’d see one guy in the Zumba class, though not always the same guy. I noticed the men have more trouble with the rhythm than women. I was never much of a dancer, but it’s never too late, right?

“No judgement,” I would hear the instructor say.

“Welcome,” said the hot Zumba teacher, wearing a tangerine top with a plunging neckline that her shimmery necklace dipped into. “My name is Nicole. If you’re new to Zumba, it includes a little bit of everything—salsa, merengue, Arabian rhythms, country, samba, reggaeton, cha-cha, belly dance, bhangra, martial arts, belly dance, hip-hop, world rhythms…”

I didn’t know what half of those things were—but, sure, bring on the reggaeton.

“Just follow me, don’t think about it too much, and most important, have fun!”

I tried not to look at the wall-to-wall mirrors to see how incredibly stupid I looked.

Nicole put on the music, and everyone was moving: Two steps to the left, kick, pivot, two steps to the right, kick, pivot. Just when I thought I caught on to the sequence, she’d change it up. To heck with it, I thought, as I kept moving. It was all about getting to watch Nicole up close, without a barrier between us. I felt like I was tripping over my own feet. Now we were supposed to be walking like an Egyptian, lunging… what had I got myself into? I tried to avoid looking at that omnipresent mirror.

“I told you,” I could hear my wife gloating.

All those old ladies I’d made fun of from my position on the rowing machine suddenly seemed like gazelles. I watched a wiry haired woman, thinking she’d be easier to follow than trying to do what Nicole did, but I couldn’t keep up. My sweat-soaked clothes started to feel very heavy. I could smell myself and it wasn’t a good thing.

I looked around to see if there was a defibrillator. What if I had a heart attack? Would Nicole try to do CPR or would she call 9-1-1? I was picturing her doing mouth-to-mouth on me.

The first song was over, and Nicole was applauding. “Bravo, everyone, great job!”

Before she put the next song on, Nicole said—and I’m sure it was directed at me—“It’s all about losing your inhibitions. Just let it go, set your inner wild child free. Dance like nobody’s watching!”

I could feel a stitch in my side. Trying to ignore it, I stepped, shimmied and shook.

“Looking good,” Nicole said. Was she addressing me?

She let us take water breaks between numbers. I’d forgotten my water bottle and had to run out to the fountain. Cold water never tasted better.

I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket, but ignored it. What could be more important than the proximity of my view of Nicole’s ass. Mostly she kept her face in a smile while she moved, like the star that she was, but now her face was in a kind of grunt, like she was having sex. As we swirled our asses all over the place, I imagined I was having sex with her, bumping and grinding. Unbelievably, Nicole was standing before me, thrusting her chest in and out to the music. I looked around and saw all the old women doing the same, thrusting their boobs at me, like Betty Boop.

“That’s it, you’re done,” Nicole said at the end of the class, and everyone applauded. I grabbed my towel, wiped my face, then hobbled out to the water fountain and the men’s locker room where I collapsed. I could really use a cold beer, but decided to start with a cold shower. As I soaped myself and felt every aching joint, I decided a nice soak in the hot tub would be just the thing.

I reached into my gym bag for a swim suit but all I could find were the American flag shorts. They had a liner, and would work just fine. I pushed open the door into the pool area, and there she was in the hot tub, surrounded by ogling middle-aged perverts like me. As I got closer, I could hear them all speaking in a foreign language. I couldn’t tell if it was Spanish or Polish.

As I got to the edge of the tub, she turned and looked at me. “Nice shorts!” she beamed, then quickly turned her head back to her groupies, that black mane swishing even when wet. Her skin still glistening.

I jumped in, but couldn’t get to my usual jet because Nicole’s fan club was in the way. They were speaking so loud, it was giving me a headache—I wish I’d worn my ear plugs. Maybe they were speaking Russian, or Latvian. I swear, people always revert to their native tongue to say things they don’t want you to hear. Maybe they were talking about me. All the guys were laughing at something Nicole said, and now she was laughing too.

Here was the moment of a lifetime, to be in the hot tub with Nicole, and yet with all these foreigners I couldn’t be further from her. She turned her head from side to side to hear them speak, that hair swooshing each and every time. Within a few minutes, she climbed out. She was wearing a bikini, and her round ass and firm curvy thighs were smooth even when not squeezed into spandex. Within moments, her Pied Piperettes were gone and I had the hot tub to myself.

Was Nicole Russian? I wondered. I never detected an accent.

After toweling off and putting on clean clothes, I remembered that my phone had buzzed. I listened to the message—it was my wife. She’d been running in the park and tripped and fell. She was badly bruised and bleeding. Could I pick her up?

I looked at the time—a good hour had passed since she left the message. I phoned her back, but she didn’t pick up. I tried a few more times on my way to the parking lot, then let the phone keep ringing her as I drove home.

Her blue coupe was in the driveway. I opened the door and called her name. I could hear her faint reply from the family room, where she liked to read her iPad when I wasn’t blasting the TV. I rushed to her side.

“Are you OK?”

She looked OK.

“Did you get my message?”

“I was in Zumba class, then the hot tub and shower… as soon as I got your message I rushed home.”

“I was hoping you’d come and rescue me.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“There was a nice young fellow who picked me up off the asphalt. He helped me to his car. He had a first aid kit and cleaned me off, then drove me home in my car and ran back to his car. He was very sweet.”

“Oh, honey,” I said, rubbing her shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

My wife could have died there on the asphalt path in the park, blood everywhere, not found until the next morning, thanks to my inattention. Even then I was still thinking of Nicole in her bikini.

“How was Zumba?”

“It was OK.”

She took my hand in hers. “I’m proud of you for giving it a try.”

 

 

Ilene Dube is a writer, artist and filmmaker. Her short stories, poetry and personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Atticus Review, Corvus Review, Former People, HerStory, Huffington Post, Iconoclast, Kelsey Review, Foliate Oak, The Grief Diaries, The Oddville Press, Parhelion, Penny Shorts, the Same, Unlikely Stories and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction. She writes about the arts for Philadelphia Public Media, Hyperallergic and many others. For more, see https://theartfulblogger1.wordpress.com/

“PHOTOGRAPHS OF MADNESS: INSIDE OUT” ‘Part One: Flask Drowning’ By Alec Ivan Fugate

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On the Evenings of November 18th – 19th, 1924, From the Eyes of Shelly Griswold

 

Swimming back and forth my drunken eyelids my pupils blistered with red ribbons of red red color red god everything, everything is red, gather the color from the basement of a Mr. Holliday or a Mr. Hickory or a Mr. Holly and grab the coat and move out into the knee deep white shredded with copper footprints. Grab my senses wrap myself up from the wandering men grab my fists in my fists and move along the sidewalk toward Apt. 1 at 1802 Little St. in this city, this wind writhing wriggling through hair thrown up out of my hat. First snow sobriety check.

The door to the lobby creaks open as I fall inside to flickering lights in the new construction. They got the wiring all wrong; the strapping blink, blink, blink would make my father roll in the dark deep ground. He’d be on a ladder reworking the guts of the ceiling trying to get the lamps to set their luminescence right. He’d be telling me to climb up there with him, take my gloves off, work with him, learn from him, work. I stare foaming in my stomach at the lights and almost allow them to take me away to a different spot or country or life before I stagger and my flask drips to the floor, nearly draining itself. I right it in my pocket, take a snag, take a sip, take a bite, my hair is in my mouth and there are no suitors to get it out, nobody touching, nobody, I chew the hair, feel the tender stalk of that curly blond my husband liked.

My husband liked a lot of stupid things, like my hair, like my skin, like…

I like the bourbon from the bartender down the street who stops by with the password every week.

I like the way an empty bottle looks on the floor and I like it when I wake up next to my bookshelves.

I like the way this one-bedroom creaks with every step, like it knows it’s old and good despite, in spite of, its age, its youth. The furnishings are new and shiny and made fresh from my cousin in New York but the walls crawling from the singing floor to the paint-chipped ceiling are already in their hundreds, haunted.

I stumble to the table with one chair in the little kitchen and toss my coat aside, light candles scattered through the place, notice how I decorated this in my sobriety like some housewife who’s afraid of the mud and the dirt, may as well be empty, the chairs don’t even look real, they look like they belong in a picture book, they look like something my mother would drag me to gawk at and feel with long nails and rub up against as if it were the last sensation on earth, I notice this: this apartment was a mistake from the beginning, and so was my husband’s accident. I feel sick for both and because of both can only stand to be in the bedroom away from both where there are no lights or heat only a mattress I have never slept on and an oak floor stained with my chamomile vomit.

The flask gargles itself. Bubbles pop from the tip of the rim and drip down to sting my cracked knuckles. The flask and the bourbon inside throw themselves into my body. There are pockets of my coat in which I hide many secrets, all of them are filled with blood and tufts of men’s hair; there are bourbons I have not yet tried in this world. There is always hope that something better will come.

I lie on my back and spin and listen to the early snow footsteps of women with men they either love or hate. Trees sway on the street. Mud cakes the only window which is too high for me to see out of. It is cracked open so my cigarettes don’t suffocate me before I need them to. It is cracked open so I can hear people talk without talking, so I can hear people laugh without making jokes. It is cracked because I am.

Somebody talks about a war.

I lift my feet up off the ground and keep them and their heels suspended in the air to let all my blood collect in the middle. I prop my head more toward the pillow, and with this movement brings a small wheeze of air which tosses aside the smoke from the ashtray and rooms my nose for something scented much like my friend’s herb and spice cabinet; the lavender, the cloves, citrus yellow citrus orange citrus green, cinnamon, oh the cinnamon! Herbal hearts waving right in front of my face, blasting potency up inside my head. I swing myself up, wobble, steady, wander to discover the scent. I lift my nose up to the corners of the ceiling, down to the dusty cracks, open the empty cupboards and move the dirt around, pick it up inhale it. I wrangle furniture cushions off parts beat against my knee releasing dust but no smell. I exhaust myself sweaty and sit down at the edge of the bed and feel myself falling asleep to the sound of the owls’ hoo.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

I wake halfway off the bed. Sunlight crawls through the smattering of dirt on the window. My mind is clear of all will and my flask is empty and there’s not a single bottle of booze in the house. Straying outside in my nightclothes, I must look like a mad old woman or an opioid freak. I must look like my twenties hurt. I must be hurting.

I wait and smoke outside of the speakeasy tapping my foot like mad. Sweating in the cold wind. It would freeze against my body if I stood out here for too long, but barkeep comes around the back corner into the bushes and to me and the cellar door.

“Shell,” he says. A lock clicks, the bolts crack back, the doors swing and slam and the trees above us smack against each other, hardened.

I say nothing. We are led inside by the dark until a slip of a matchstick ignites the oil burners propped to the beams. The bar lights up in surrounding loath. Everything is broken and smeared with crust and sticky bourbon leavings. Empty unlabeled bottles lie hollowed on the dirt floor, whistling in the draft’s whine.

“Welcome home, Shell.”

“Thanks.”

I wish I knew his name, where he got his timepiece swinging from a battered rag of a vest, why the rim of his boiler cap is in such tatters. His life has been broken somewhere, somehow, by somebody. Sadness in his eyes, drooping and blue, tells me this. Wrinkles line every inch of his otherwise perfect skin as canyons of age. He is only twenty-three.

His wife, assistant, partner, comes inside minutes after and begins polishing the rocks glasses. I sit and stare at her short nails, her callouses. She trims her hair every week so it keeps under that ridiculous feathered hat.

“Shell,” a nod of her head, small smile.

“You’re a little late today,” into my first drink.

“Police on every street now. I have to walk slow. And anyway you’re the only one comes in here in the first few hours. Nobody else knows we’re even active before eight.”

I hold my drink up to the light. Lipstick from nights and nights past rides the rim of the glass like bloodstains. “I like to keep up on things.”

“You only like to keep up on this, Shell,” she says. “Can’t blame you, though. Wouldn’t want to go around making a name. After the thing, I mean. The incident.”

She winks at me like it gives me shreds of pleasure anymore. I inspect stains on the bar.

“Anyway, Shell, you should know that we’re closing for Thanksgiving. Both of us have families.”

“That’s not for weeks, I’m going to forget by the time it’s important.”

“Thanksgiving is in just about one week, thank you.”

Flashes of Husband tossing bottles at me, flashes of his dry arms flaking from his Hard Work flashes of these so close to my eyes when they slept over my jugular.

“Never was a fan of Thanksgiving anyway.”

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Fucked fucked god I’m slawed walking out of here walking with men in both arms both arms and leaving them pissing on the sidewalk when the coppers come to take them away but not me not me I’m too fast too much for them I struggle toward the night crowd I bump shoulders say watch out look out say out loud I am almost home and then I am home.

I am home.

And it never looks any better the more I drink. Never. Never seems any less suffocating and small, never less like some insect prison for me. I am a roach. I am to be exterminated. I am nowhere to be found. I have already disappeared.

Bed unmade. There are no sheets I threw them away. I’ll throw the bed away too. Pantyhose line the floor like a carpet of slipping death. They are the only clothes I own, I feel. My blouses are all stolen and I need to give them back. Dresses taken from strangers when their eyes blend into the watercolors of any simple summertime scene. I steal I hate I drew my cards long ago.

Stripping to my knotted muscle I ghost past the closet and get a whiff of that candle shop again, that herb wagon again…it comes back so strong I throw up the nothing I ate today onto the wall. I hang back, stare at it, look at the way it spreads down the wall, it is acid and I am a bucket of horror; the smell from the closet, the smell!

I open the door, crack my fingers, move in and bend down past the coat hangers to be faced with a handle of pig iron bleeding all rusty red orange on a white trapdoor. The spice wave can only come from there. Touching the handle feels greasy, invalid and inescapable and the door is heaving with such weight. Grinding wood edge against the floor I manage to lift the thick thing all the way up and over to reveal nothing but the blackest place with iron rungs built into concrete wall moving down past the border of my sight. I look back at my home. Empty, dead before I got here. If there’s anything I could have given this place it wouldn’t have been life. The city knows me too well, which is not at all. I hear pattering of freezing rain on my one window. Lonely, all of it. Devoid of things for me to take without guilt anymore. My bare feet touch upon the rungs and from there it feels as if I cannot go back up. There is something down here for me. Just for me.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Hundreds of feet I fall when I slip. Rungs wrought with urgency they let me go and let me fall and I swear when I fell I felt the foolish center of the earth pass me by. I land on my ass and something cracks instead of pain I feel relief and instead of blood I see a glittering upon the wet, wet soil crawling with pillbugs or maybe the pillbugs are my blood or maybe I have died already. Forward. The ceiling is not a ceiling but an end and the walls crunch against me and the floor is squishy. I am inside a cylinder, maybe 4 feet in diameter. Breath cannot find me here, but neither can the cops and neither can my friends who do not exist. Crunching against the insects my knees propel me against a draft through the dark. Light also escapes here. Light dies here in the night and the dark. Light is dead here. I am alive in the death of luminescence.

Nocturnal spending is thick and profitable. Air becomes my enemy and the farther I go the less of it I need. Gills I grow for the lack of oxygen; oxygen has been reinstated as a dark woman with a mask just like my face and she is composed not only of herbs and spices now but the incantations of herbs and spices, like when I said there was cinnamon in this line of grasping lungsweets now it’s transposed over an olfactory triptych that looks like

hot toddies

     ///

     cream&honey

         ///

                coffee&cigarettes

and the like. And I follow that, each scent beleaguered with such nuance that I can’t help it can’t help but move forward toward the lack of light the dark dark deep.

Yet in the dark there are visions. Things happening. Others.

Others.

I start smelling vanilla but not just vanilla; vanilla like in bourbon or scotch or vanilla like the smell of Mother like vanilla that is too nuanced now, too much. Light’s demise brings up a ringing in my ears.

“How’s your Hubby, little Shelly?”

I stop. Who are you?

“My the knife passed through his work shirt like workhorse horsey horsey you said amen amen jesus amen thank you lord for the no-longering of this evil evil thank you lord!”

I go to talk. Speak. Shout. And yet there are nails in my throat I cannot do these things much less, swallow, I gulp fire and gag and throw up in the crawlspace.

“My the knife sure stays sharp,”

The blade, that thing, appears as if vivisected from reality in front of me it hovers, it swirls around playfully jumps, hops and skips and my heart sinks.

“in your drawer it sure does it gawks for the taste again do you have another man did you remarry or did you accept your appearance as some greasy whore some spunkfilled dirtbag whore did you accept this reality?”

I did.

“You did and you will accept this one.”

This voice it changes it is the voice of everyone I have ever known or fallen in love with or loved or liked or hated in general and in this way, it is filled, to the brim, with meaning. Meaning; it means nothing, anymore, to me.

“You accept you are a useless slut. You accept this, that you will be destroyed by your cowardice. You accept this.”

And I nod without meaning to.

“And you accept this without love.”

And my eyes blur and water without meaning to.

“And you are without love. And you are a killer. And you will leave this place. A killer.”

And every shot of booze I have taken since my husband’s blood sloshed all over our kitchen floor revisits my insides, recoils through my throat, and reveals itself in a single flood from between my teeth that takes everything within me and forces it out into the open dark.

 

THE END OF PART ONE.

 

Part two coming soon, perhaps sooner than you think.

Alec Ivan Fugate is some guy sitting in some swamp in some city in northeastern Indiana. His work is floating at Occulum, Burning House Press, Bending Genres, and other darker, spookier ponds. 

“Prominence” by Mike Lee

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I do not belong here.

I check my compact, and see my lips are too red.

I slip it back in my clutch.

My hands, folded, rest on my periwinkle sheath dress with the lace bodice. My legs are closed. The dress is too tight. My knees sweat. I sweat when I lie.

I am like my father. But when we speak truth, the silences between the spoken is where the prevarications nestles comfortably, curled up undisturbed until suddenly roused with an unexpected follow-up question.

Everyone takes your word until they don’t. My father did all right until one silence between words betrayed him. They tied him to the back of a wooden chair and shredded him through his tan cashmere overcoat.

Through tears I learned: no false moves. When you talk your way into a situation, know exactly what to say to walk it back. Nothing is a full circle, just a high wire strung.

Do all these things, and you will die old. With what I intend to do today, this will not be my fate.

I slowly grow nervous. I shift weight, pulling my legs behind me like a child in class, ankles crossed. I went over the script in my head, visualizing the scene playing out as it was planned—and how I want it to happen.

Then the door opens, bringing forth a rush of wind with color and light splayed out around me. Through the light I see forms take shape to human, before becoming clear in my mind’s eye. From this formlessness I see fingers, knuckles, nails, and the palm gestures with an underhanded twist, fingers in unified motion. Fingertips elegantly turn inward to the person, an aging press officer with a sharp, straight hairline forming a short military haircut.

He looks like Albert Camus with acne scars.

My impression of him is he’s the type that brags in bars that he is a press secretary. He isn’t: a press officer is an underling used for passing messages, writing memos and working on first drafts of talking points. Also a sacrificial lamb when things go terribly wrong. Press officers are thrown down stairwells and machine-gunned for the cameras. Quite the Baader-Meinhof, but that was a long time ago.

Father remembered. Told me stories. He kept reminding me that he did not live them, only read and watched on television when he was an inspired child.

Eventually he joined the resistance with fanatic enthusiasm, pressing his luck until no more.

I hear a sting quartet playing in the distance. It’s music that conjures Mama. This provided the key to open the cipher—I never knew her. Shortly after my second birthday she was picked up in Peru and died in jail before I turned 7.

The permanent revolution is an eternal war. Generations pass ideas as grenades from one to another.

I feel a sense of disassociation when I greet the press officer, whose name escapes me. I forget everything, names, places, everything except the mission. This drives me further, encourages. Distance from existence focuses my attention on the goal.

He leads me into the large museum gallery. The strings reach for the crescendo.

Everything unfolds as I expect. I am calm to the point of deadness. I make eye contact, smile, and nod in pretend recognition. I hold my clutch close to my stomach. My message to the world is within.

We meet. He is a middle-aged man with tousled wavy hair, and an ageless face. His hazel eyes, however, betray a sad, weary expression.

I smile, inch closer to him and press hard with both hands on my clutch.

Suddenly, I’m thrust into the Gnostic divine. I reach to grasp the light.

Dad. Mom. Achieve dialectical synthesis.

 

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

“A Vigilant Soldier” by G.P. DeSalvo

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G.P. DeSalvo lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.  He is a civil servant,an artisan, a sorcerer and an amateur psychiatrist.  He has lived three or four different lives.  Now he’s getting to be an old man.  He may- one day in the near future- actually get something published.

You can visit G.P DeSalvo’s blog here: https://theblackboulder.blog
and follow him on Twitter here: @DurbanMoffer 

“Two Passing Galaxies” by Alexander Perez

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Alejandro thought the last time he would speak with his father was at his college graduation party. Alejandro’s father served in Vietnam. He earned a Purple Heart. According to Alejandro’s father, God saved his life. One night, camped outside in enemy territory, while he slept, a band of Vietcong approached. They could hear the whispers, the swish of machetes cutting through the jungle bush. They were trapped. But Alejandro’s father saw what the others couldn’t see. A passageway of light. The light showed them a path out past the Vietcong. Alejandro’s father, Fernando Perez, earned a medal for his bravery in leading his unit out of a heavily infiltrated area. They could have been ambushed and slaughtered. But Fernando did not take the credit. He only gave credit to God. Alejandro knew the story, but his father never shared it with any other soul. It was their secret. He was trying to convince Alejandro to have faith, to recognize the presence of God in their life. But Alejandro was rational and thought of other reasons for the miracle. like survival instinct, or a keen sense of night vision, or maybe even the role of luck. Alejandro remembered as a boy that he was warned never to approach his father while he was sleeping. And once, when he did to ask for ice cream, his father awoke screaming and lashed out to strike him quicker than a startled snake. There was no recognition in his eyes.

It was twenty years since the graduation party when he had last seen his father. He got a call from his younger brother, Jose, that their father now had Alzheimer’s, was in a nursing home, and that Alejandro should visit him before he died. They had held the graduation party in the basement hall of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church. His mother (now dead from ovarian cancer) and his father saved a lot of money to be able to rent the hall. It was a joyous day since Alejandro was the first in his family to graduate from college. They were proud even though they were not sure what he was going to do with an English degree. They did not understand literature, or the value of fiction. But they were still hopeful that he might make lots of money and not have to work as hard as them (his mother cleaning offices and his father as a laborer in a construction crew). That morning of the party he had received his diploma with honors and afterwards they went back to the house to get ready. His whole extended family was going to be there, so he put on his suit and wore a white carnation in his lapel. He remembered the sadness he felt because he would have to move back home and find a job and his years of experimentation were over.

They went to the hall. His aunts served him his favorite dishes, cheese enchiladas and tamales. He drank beer with his brothers, cousins, and uncles, and everyone cheered his future success as a college graduate. But for him his future felt like a trial. It was as if he walked around with a fresh amputation, a ghost limb that he could still feel and caress but that was actually missing and he would now have to learn to cope without.

His brother was telling him about this girl Maria that he wanted to introduce him to. He tried to play along, but he was reminiscing about the first time he met Jack at the club. The DJ was playing Ricky Martin. He got up to dance and Jack followed him to the dance floor. At first they tried to pretend that they were dancing alone, but slowly, they started circling each other like two strange dogs sniffing out each other’s scent to see if the other was friendly or dangerous. By the end of the night, they were back in Alejandro’s car making out. He and Jack had been dating but they kept their relationship secret. Jack’s parents raised him as an evangelical Christian and struggled with the notion of sin. Alejandro had given up his Catholicism the minute he stepped inside the gay bar. That was his new church. At this graduation party these worlds came crashing together like two passing galaxies. And one was either going to absorb the other or they would intersect and continue moving farther away.

He drank more and more and the sadness was building. It was now or never. He took his mother and father outside. At first he wanted to thank them for the wonderful party. His mother was already crying. They presented him with a silver watch of his grandfather’s. Alejandro didn’t know what to do because the silver watch was the most valuable thing they owned and an important heirloom. It should have gone to his oldest brother Fernando Jr., but Junior was addicted to heroin and he would have pawned it the first chance he got. They had guarded the watch with their lives.  According to legend his grandfather had brought it from Mexico and when he enlisted in the U.S. navy it had survived the Pacific Theater. So here he was with the watch, the pride of his parents, the one with the most promising future, and what happens? He blurted out, “I’m gay.” His father slapped him. His mother screamed. His aunts and uncles heard the scream and his whole family came running. His brothers latched to his side because he was holding his face and blood was trickling down his chin from his bit lip. Then his brother Jose asked, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” and he could not say a word. He just handed his father back the watch and walked away. As he was walking to his car in the dark, he started to cry, but knew that he would call Jack as soon as he drove off, and then he heard his father yell out, “You’re not my son!”

That was some twenty odd years ago. His brother Jose and he were the only ones left (his brother Fernando Jr. dying of a heroin overdose at thirty-five) in his father’s life. He walked up to the window at the Ann Lee Nursing Home. They took down his name and walked him to his father’s room. Alejandro saw him for the first time. His father was sleeping wrapped up in a white blanket. Everything in the room was white, except the TV, the picture of his mother on the nightstand, a crucifix on the wall, and the silver watch on the windowsill. He didn’t know if he should wake his father up, so he had a seat in the corner in a plastic chair. It smelled like antiseptic and a faint odor of urine. He had to go to the bathroom, but he held it. He looked over at his father. His father had shrunk to the size of one of those Egyptian mummies they just discovered. His brown skin was dry and wrinkled and you could see the bones of his clavicle and hips poking up through the blanket. His father had been small to begin with, but he always carried a lot of muscle from working construction. He could not believe that this was his father. He could not reconcile his memory with the new reality. He wanted to leave right away before his father woke up. He wanted to call Jack who was minding their flower shop. They had opened their shop right after graduation and it was doing very well. Since gay marriage had been legalized, they had made lots of money providing flowers for weddings and parties. His father would never know what a success he had become. He got his hardworking gene from his father, but he could not share any details of his new life with his father. He especially wanted to tell him how Jack and he were planning on adopting a child. Fernando would be a grandfather.

The nurse came in to check on them. She gently shook Fernando awake so he could visit with his son. She had seen this type of thing before when a relative does not know what to do with the new situation facing them. She felt sorry for Alejandro. His father woke up slowly and started to raise himself up in bed. He looked over to the corner where Alejandro sat, and he said, “Fernando.” The nurse said, “No hun, that’s your son Alejandro.” Fernando didn’t say a word he just looked confused. The nurse put on Wheel of Fortune. She left the room. Alejandro just sat there silent. Alejandro looked at the watch. He was surprised it was still there. He picked it up and his father started talking: “I always wanted to give that to you, but I was afraid you would sell it.” Alejandro didn’t say a word. His father looked at him. “Go ahead and take it. It’s yours now.” Alejandro did not know what to do. He did not want his father to wake up later and think the watch was stolen. But it was his inheritance as the oldest son. His father continued, “I am so glad you got off those drugs. They were killing you. I was scared every night.” Alejandro decided it was time to play along. What harm could it do? That was how the reunion was going to go. “Yes, dad. This is Junior. I am doing better.” His father looked at him. His face started twitching. Tears started streaming down his stained t-shirt. He started heaving and trying to catch his breath. Alejandro wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe he should go get the nurse. “I thought I lost you. I wanted you to have that watch twenty years ago, but things got screwed up. I am so glad you are better and that you came to see me. I missed you.” Now Alejandro wasn’t sure who he was talking about. Was it him or Fernando Jr.? “I lost Alejandro, then your mother, and then you. I don’t want to lose anyone else.” “So, he missed me too,” Alejandro thought. “He still thinks I am Junior, but he said he lost me.”  He had an idea. “Well, Papa, if Alejandro were here, what would you tell him?” His father stopped crying and took deep breaths. He was still shaking but he could talk. “God sent me many challenges. I walked through fire. Now he is challenging me again. Alejandro was one of those challenges. But I would tell God that it was his choice he made Alejandro that way and that I cannot question God’s choice. I would tell Alejandro that God made him and that God loves him and because God loves him, I love him too and that I am sorry, I made a mistake, just like I made a mistake being too hard on you which probably made you do the things you did.” Alejandro was trying not to cry. He was holding it in. He would wait until he got in the car and he could talk to Jack. It would be hard to leave his father here like this but at least he got his answer. It was a hard compromise but at least he knew that in their way his family loved him. “Thank you pop. I will take the watch now. I have to go. But know that I love you and I will be back to visit.” His father turned to him as he was at the door and said, “Bring that husband of yours too.” And then he faced back to watch Wheel of Fortune.

 

 

Alexander Perez writes from his home in Schenectady, NY. He has a piece forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance.