“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

“Listening To Voicemails” by Mike Corrao

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The answering machine sat on the end table, beside the doorway and the floor mat. There were pens and pads of paper in the drawer. A red light flickered on the face of the machine. It was pressed, the dial tone droned, and the message played:

I’m an audio-visual man. I see things and I hear things. That’s all I’ve got. It makes abstractions hard for me. I can’t fathom that ambiguous cloud in the mind that is sublime or ennui or whatever. All that is for me, is reality. There is the reality of a situation sitting in front of me. There are the things that I can hear and see, what I can put together from the environment and arrange until completion. If it’s made out of something else, a feeling of doubt, or the epiphany through religious icons, I’m damned. I can’t put it together. I’ll have a collage, but no coherency. Someone will have erased the edges, and allowed the colors to run out of the physical source. They’ll spread into the surrounding environment and blend in until I’m left with an inability to understand. It will all turn into a monotonous gray. My fear is this, in a dark pit, where there is no light, where I am for all purposes blind, my existence loses its meaning. I am not a physical being. There is no place. Places? There would be no places. I would be the floating and disembodied. I would not be. I would be separated. I would be the anti-matter in an oblivion. The total darkness wells up. I would lose awareness of my body. I would hear my mouth as it swings in the wind, carried away like ashes, circling the perimeter walls. I would remember that I have a face, and a torso, and legs, arms. I would know that my face was capable of contorting into different expressions, but I wouldn’t have the know-how to do it again. I couldn’t replicate the behaviors I knew before. I wouldn’t have a body to do them with. It would get away from me.

The light flickered again. The button was pressed again. A voice played loudly and clearly over the white noise of the room. It began to sync with it, and move at the same cadence. Both remained in the room, ever-present and droning.

Memories would resurface. I could. The tense? What tense is this? What time is it? I will. I will. In the resurfacing memories, I will build a nostalgia machine. I will understand the workings of myself through the mechanical tasks performed. A contraption of sorts, it turns its gears in a certain manner when the gears are attached to certain apparatuses. And these apparatuses will power the software that reenacts my memories. It will perfectly construct them in this oblivion. I will return to a body. Maybe not mine. I don’t care. A body. It is mine when I arrive in it. I will return. And the machine will let me live out in these memories, noting all of the specific and physical details that I remember from them. The world will be tactile, like I couldn’t be before. I will have a sense of smell, and sight, and hearing, and taste, and touch. The skylights in the living room will reflect strange shapes on the ground, bathrooms will smell like lavender soap, the television will be set to one of the music stations. Lounge music, if it’s there. But then those memories will collide. A nostalgia machine is weak. The nostalgias will begin to overlap and confuse each other. They will start to mistake themselves for different moments. The past will form a grid, overlapping and intersecting. It will overwhelm and the gears will melt. The machine will fall apart, and the oblivion will return to being an oblivion. And then I’m thinking about death. Or the way that I can’t materialize that event. I will think about death, and I won’t be able to move. And that lack of movement will create a death in my arms and legs. It will paralyze me. I won’t be able to move until I stop thinking about death, but when I start to forget and I try to move, and I can’t, I will feel another burst of complete remembrance and I will be incapable again. Oblivion will paralyze me forever. My mouth will continue to circle around the perimeter wall, my legs will be collapsed on the ground, my arms will be on the ceiling trying to crawl through the non-existent gaps, and I will remain.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

There is an image in my mind of a measuring tape. It extends from the outer wall to the center of the dark pit where I assume to be existing. The distance doesn’t matter in inches; there is no light to distinguish what the end of the tape says. Instead it acts as a means of physicality. There is a measuring tape, and if there can be a measuring tape, that means that the hole is a physical place. If it is a physical place, then it can be comprehended. This is a room in which the lights have been turned off. The world is not audio-visual. It is now only sonic. One must listen to the architecture of the room and navigate themselves through by these means. The body is not oblivion, but it no more important than a body in oblivion. Or. This is not true. When I try to walk, I can’t hear myself walking. If I can’t hear myself walking, then I am not moving. If I can’t move my feet, it must not have feet. If they could move, they would be moving. Signifiers have called for movement, and there is none. The body is not moving. The measuring tape is not measuring. I can understand now. The oblivion. Not what it is. I do not know. I understand that is the lack of my awareness. I am not here, but I am confined. The non-corporeal form. There is not a physical means to escape. Ungodly. I can feel myself aging. Wrinkles are forming. There are grooves in my skin. How old am I now? I’m floating dust. This is oblivion. I’m in the dark pit; hanging residually in the air. Nothing here is real. I can’t grab onto the sides of the wall, or carefully walk from one end to the other. There’s an air of uncertainty. I cannot visualize it, or place what it is. The pit is real and it is not real. I find myself here. It is real. But it is not a place within the boundaries of existence. It is not real. I don’t know where this places us. There is no clear hook to latch onto.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

The beginning of this problem cannot be a dark pit. It is more than this. I realize that, inside of this reality, where-ever I am, I have been constructed. All physical forms have been constructed. The dilemma of this circumstance is that I have thought through this problem as a problem solved through language. I would like to stop thinking in language. I would like a more pure way to conduct myself, not done only through abstract means. I could mutate my thoughts into pictograms, but these are language. They are allusions to physical objects, but not the objects themselves. I would like to rid myself of language.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

At the top of the dark pit, maybe where the opening is, a blinking red light occasionally passes by. It circles for a moment before leaving the sightline. I don’t know what it is, or whether it’s alive or artificial. Maybe it’s some fragment of the nostalgia machine. How can memories be replicated without a light source? I look back and I’m not sure how a contraption is made, or how it could be maintained. Or how one is to rid themself of language. It might start with the sounds. If I found myself communicating in these sonic patterns instead of symbolic patterns. If I said: Luh-Luh-Awl-Ah-Om-Luh-Jah. Is the pattern still symbolic? Does it become the allusion of symbolism? Does it matter? Or. I can look for something without even the possibility of symbolism. There are no symbols here: __________________. But what does that accomplish? Do I exist without the thoughts in my head? Is this to spite someone? I’m still in the pit. There is still language looming around here, even if it doesn’t come from me. I can feel myself here. Nowhere specifically, not in any singular unit of area, but present in the completeness of the space. The body feels like a relic now. Remembering corporeality feels like an act of masochism. A throbbing headache begins, and then when I forget, it subsides. A hell is a hell is a hell is a hell is a hell. _________________________________. And nothing continues. I’m not sure what to do now. I don’t know if there is anything else to do. What does one do when they can no longer move, or see, or hear? Do I accept the emptiness and choose to exist in it? Do I get to choose whether or not I exist? I want to remember the physical existence that I had, and that I lost. I want to remember how I lost it. There is a sanity in retracing your steps. It is comforting to know exactly how you got from the first location to the second location. When something goes wrong, or an unexpected turn happens, I want to be able to see where that turn happened, and what led up to it. But now, instead, I am here. I was not here, and now I am.

The answering machine went silent. The red light stopped blinking A clock ticking. A near-silent breeze. A distant plane overhead. The dial tone buzzed.

Here I am: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Mike Corrao is the author of Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing, 2018) and Gut Text (11:11 Press, 2019). His work has been featured in publications such as Entropy, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis where he earned his B.A. in film and English literature at the University of Minnesota. Learn more at www.mikecorrao.com.

“The Boy with a Void” by Nick Farriella

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Monty was born with something missing. The doctors saw it in an x-ray when he was four. What showed on the scan was a small void, next to the heart, that gave his mother an explanation for his weird behavior; he didn’t find much pleasure in anything, he mostly just sat there, silently staring off, or walking around, curious, like he was looking for something. The doctor said he hadn’t seen anything like it, that Monty was a special boy. Not knowing what it was, the doctor also said there was a chance it could grow which meant Monty could die, and the doctor told his mother to teach him that life was precious and short.

Around the age of eight, when the void had grown double in size, Monty had the idea to try to fill it with something. His dad watched a lot of baseball. Every night he was in front of the Tv yelling all sorts of stuff, but mostly cheering, smiling. He seemed happy. Monty hadn’t really known what that kind of joy felt like. He figured if baseball could keep his dad happy, maybe it could help him feel that way.

One night Monty went into his father’s old woodshed in the backyard where his father kept a bucket of baseballs with Monty’s name sharpied on the outside.  Monty grabbed one of the balls on the top of the pile and went over to the corner of the shed where his dad wouldn’t be able to see the candlelight flicker from the living room. In the orange glow, Monty removed his shirt and tried to control his breathing. Staring at the red laces, he thought about the doctor calling him special and how life was short. Before that night, nothing really made him feel anything. He felt sort of like those laces, just woven and stitched so tightly into something, bound to unravel. Looking at the smallness of the ball and the shortness of life, Monty felt that the risk might be worth it. He gripped the ball like a fastball and jammed it into his chest. To his surprise, the baseball went right in—he felt no pain, only a warm sensation. Once Monty fit the ball into his void, he let go and slid his hand out. There was no blood or anything. He walked out of the shed not feeling complete, but smiling, for the first time in his young life.

The baseball lasted until Monty was fifteen. It got him through some hard times. Anytime he started to feel pulled towards his inner emptiness, he would just tap on his chest, knowing the ball was there all along. His dad seemed to enjoy it, too. He loved to watch Monty play; he was actually pretty good! He said Monty was going to be a New York Yankee. What his dad didn’t know was the ball was rotting inside of him. Monty felt a difference in the state of the ball, like it was no longer good enough, when he met Judith Hendricks in sophomore Biology.

Before Judith, Monty hadn’t really taken an interest in girls, but she loved all the same comics he did and wore her hair in this funny braided side ponytail that drooped over her left shoulder. She was beautiful and funny and smart and after a while he didn’t think much about baseball or anything else. The ball was dead inside of him. He could feel it. He felt sluggish and disconnected. All Monty wanted to do was sleep. Hanging out with Judith made him feel a little better, but even that seemed daunting. Monty knew that he had to take the baseball out of himself, to free up some space for Judith, to fully let her into his void.

After a school dance, Monty told Judith about the emptiness inside, that he had tried to fill it with a baseball and that it was dead. She didn’t look at him like he was crazy. She just said, okay, what do you want to do next? It was then Monty told her he loved her; not knowing what it meant or felt like, but something that he knew he should say, just so Judith would understand.

They went to the basement of her parent’s house. She propped him up against a rusty washing machine and he removed his shirt. She started to cry and told him she was scared and didn’t know what was happening. Monty told her that life was short and whatever happened was not her fault. She said okay, and he said okay.  Monty took a deep breath then jammed his hand into his chest. Judith screamed. He told her that it doesn’t hurt. Inside, he felt a mix of sharp thread and goop. He pulled out a fistful of it and opened his hand. In his palm was a clump of black tar with hints of the red laces woven throughout. Judith puked. Monty went upstairs to get her mom, told her Judith had eaten some bad chips. Later, he left and rode his bike home, weeping the entire way.

After a week with nothing in his void, Monty felt awful, like he wanted to die. It felt like the emptiness inside had fully consumed him. His mom took him to the doctors where the doctor told him the nothingness had grown so large it was starting to cover Monty’s heart. His mom had a look on her face that said she knew this day would come. The doctor prescribed him pills that made his head feel woozy, like he was watching the world from the inside of a fish tank. Later, when Monty told Judith about the growth of the void and that he thought he might kill himself, she said she had an idea.

They went back to her basement and this time she laid him down on her couch. She kissed him and said that even though life was short, he shouldn’t be the one to determine how short it was. She told Monty to close his eyes, then removed his shirt. She kissed him hard and he fell into a daze. Before he realized it, Judith had forced her hand into his chest and dropped something into the vacant space inside of him. He felt it clang around; it was something small and metal. When he asked what she put inside, she smiled and said, “my locket.”

The days got better. Between the pills and Judith, Monty started to feel whole again. The rest was a trip; from prom, to graduation, anniversary after anniversary, holiday after holiday, birthday after birthday. There were bad days sure, but each bad day was a day closer to a better day; Monty found if he could just make it to those special days, he was able to hitch a ride off the high to carry him along a little further. The years ran away like that. Judith went to college at Rutgers. Monty worked for a demolition company in New Brunswick and lived in her dorm. Their small, insignificant life was good. Monty felt happy. It seemed her locket was enough, that it was the missing piece. At night, he often stayed awake a little longer than she did, imagining growing old with her, living out the rest of his years with this little piece of Judith inside him.

When they were twenty-four, Monty had gotten Judith pregnant. Six months after leaving the clinic, they were on the stairs inside of her apartment, smoking cigarettes. She said she’s been having this dream about a void growing inside of her, too. Judith told him on most nights she dreamt of their baby standing at the foot of their bed gnawing at her toes.

“Everything is different now,” she said.

He asked what had changed despite what happened.

“It’s just that—every time I look at you, I see what we did.”

She then told Monty how sad she’s been for the past six months, how she grew distant and cold. Monty noticed, but didn’t care. He was blinded by the anxiety that maybe the locket was rotting inside of him, because, after the clinic, he started to feel a change too. The locket felt uncomfortable, as if it was lodging itself in his throat, trying to escape. Monty became self-obsessed, only worrying that his void would come back. She said that it was over.

From the bottom step, he watched as Judith went back upstairs, where she called down to him to follow her. He found her kneeling next to the couch, crying.

“I have an idea,” she said.

She told him to lie down. She unbuttoned his shirt then laid a soft hand on his chest. She said that this needs to happen, that it’s the only way she can live again. Monty said, okay. She took a deep breath then drove her fist through his skin, crushing through the sternum, into the caverns of dark matter next to his heart. Monty watched as her wrist dug into his chest and felt her small hand moving around inside him. Things squished and bones cracked. For the first time, Monty felt pain. The locket must have rooted itself to something; she was having trouble pulling it out. Finally, after a quick tug, Judith removed her hand and revealed its contents. Another pile of black tar with blue and red vines cinched around it, the locket and its chain buried deep within. He watched as she failed to insert it into her own chest, then settle for putting it around her neck.

After Judith left, Monty felt more than empty, that even the darkness had depths, and he was suspended in its lowest tier. He spent some time in the hospital. The doctors said the dark matter had fully consumed all of his organs. They guessed he only had a few days to live. Monty asked if he could go for a walk.

In the woods outside of the hospital, Monty came across a section being cleared; mostly broken branches and leaves. He lay beside the mounds of brush and thought of Judith. She was doing well, he saw it on Facebook. She was into hiking and nature now. He was happy her void was only in her dreams. He didn’t want anyone to know his condition first hand. Lying there, Monty watched dark clouds scroll by and thought about how life was short. He heard Judith’s voice telling him to keep trying to find what was missing, that he owed it to himself. He knew the abyss would take him soon. It started to rain. Monty could hear his mother calling his name, but he was too tired to get up. With a last surge of energy, he reached out to grab a bundle of twigs and dirt and dry leaves and stuffed it all into his chest cavity. He still felt half empty. He leaned over for some more branches and grass, and packed his void until dirt was coming out of his mouth. Lying back, exchanging final breaths with the trees, he thought of Judith sitting in the lotus position on a rock, her hair in a side braid, and felt full again.

 

Nick Farriella’s fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey and works as a copywriter and is the founder of Freedom Through Literature, an organization that runs annual book drives for prisons. He has a story forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance. 

“The Quest” by Ken Poyner

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I now use electric shears.  I have a set of various sizes, bends of scissor, length of blade. All are rechargeable cordless models. I have both a home recharger and one that plugs into the car AC outlet.  The problem with the car charger is that you have to charge one set of shears at a time, and often you just cannot get all the ones you think you will need done when you need them.  You have to predict what series of shears you are most likely to use, what conditions you think you might most likely find in the wild.

But it is better than when I had to use manual clippers.  More awkward, more time consuming. I don’t know how I ever got a monkey shaved.  But I did. I got so many monkeys shaved that one day I lost count. I held one monkey nearly shaved and thought to myself, this will be … will be ….   I realized I could not remember how many had come before, could no longer fathom the simple mathematics of my conquests.

I am faster now with the power clippers, but before the upgrade I was fast, too.  The longer it would take, the more likely the monkey would squirm away, the animal would land a solid punch or bite, or I would be caught.   Speed has always been prized. I’ve heard the wardens thrashing through the brush, certain they were going to slap cuffs on me and send one more monkey shaver to be fined and his shears confiscated – but, by the time they made the clearing or game path, where the monkey hair was spread all around like the leavings of a celebration, all they would find is a newly shaved monkey.

I’ve changed my method since the electricity was introduced.  I start now at the head, work down the back. Used to, I would always use a harness to keep the animal from biting me; but now, while I use the harness with most shavings, quite a few I can whip through with dexterity alone, abandoning the harness to harvest more speed.

The object, of course, is not always the cleanest of shaves.  So what if there is a tuft left here or a tuft left there? Sometimes you get down to the skin, sometimes there is a half inch of fur left.  The wardens getting close, or even a particularly unruly monkey, can cause you to speed up, to rush the process as much as you can. Nick a monkey good and proper, and his or her resistance goes up several notches, you had better hope you had used the harness and that it holds.  I’ve nearly lost a finger to an angry monkey, been kicked so hard I thought some of my ribs had been displaced.

But it is worth it.  Worth the near misses of the wardens.  Worth the ire of an uncontrollable, incensed monkey before or after the indignity of shaving.  Worth the small injuries, the long road trips, the treks through the brush, the hubris of the jungle.  Worth learning which shear is best to use on what species of monkey, what combinations of blades are properly combined for rough and detail work, worth learning the delicate angles of restraint.

It is all for the enlightening result:  that newly shaved monkey, howling, picking at the hair left, the look of unknowing in its eyes slowly becoming the shielded look of an animal that understands that it has been mastered, utterly mastered in a way beyond its widest understanding.  Some men might capture or hunt or cage, but the animal understands that. The wardens understand that. But we monkey shavers, we ask for more out of our efforts, more out of our lives. We look for the dull disbelief, the lost connections, the rootless alienation.  In our wake, we leave both men and monkeys completely perplexed, mysteriously astounded. It gives us that precious visceral, almost sacred, understanding of our overlord achievement: a shaved monkey racing away, and our strange dominance is again for a while undeniable.

 

Ken’s collections of short fiction, “Constant Animals” and “Avenging Cartography”, and his latest collections of speculative poetry, “Victims of a Failed Civics” and “The Book of Robot”, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, www.barkingmoosepress.com, as well as Amazon and most on-line book outlets.  He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs, where she continues to set world raw powerlifting records.  His poetry lately has been sunning in “Analog”, “Asimov’s”, “Poet Lore”; and his fiction has yowled in “Spank the Carp”, “Red Truck”, “Café Irreal”.  New books annoying potential publishers:  “Gravity’s Children”, speculative poetry; “The Revenge of the House Hurlers”, brief fiction. www.kpoyner.com.

“Brad Gointer: CIA Intern” by Keith Manos

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I read the credit card-sized advertisement on the back page of the TV Guide:  “Are you looking for an exciting and challenging internship? Consider interning with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).”

The ad showed a well-dressed, dark-haired girl smiling at the camera. She looked like Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in the Ted movie, and we all know Wahlberg is a rich actor and can have any woman he wants, so I thought why not apply? Maybe the CIA would send me to another country, and I could finally get out of my mom’s house. Of course, I’d tell them don’t bother sending me to Mexico or New Mexico because I didn’t speak Mexican. I was okay, however, with traveling to England because I could speak Britain thanks to watching Austin Powers’ movies.

I filled out the online application and gave my name and birth date. It also asked about sex, and I wrote, “Hopefully with Mary Sue Allen or that girl in the Crest commercial.” Regarding the question about my weight, I wrote “How long?” I’m not making this up; the CIA really asked those questions.

Three years out of high school and I was still working part-time at Subway waiting for Justin to quit so I could become the assistant manager. He kept saying he hated working there because the owner was a Republican, but he liked eating a free sandwich every day in the little office in the back. Actually, I ate free sandwiches too, but the job sucked. A hundred times a day: “Do you want cheese with that? . . . Do you want it toasted?” It got so annoying I stopped washing my hands after I used the bathroom.

Two weeks later after submitting my application, two men in brown suits and striped ties stomped down the steps into my mom’s basement where I was watching television reruns – Rocky and Bullwinkle to be exact. I thought at first that Mom had stolen the neighbors’ lawn chairs again, and these guys had a search warrant. Instead, they showed me their CIA identification badges and glanced around the basement like they were looking for hidden cameras. I raised the volume on the set and pointed at the screen. “Tell me,” I challenged them, figuring worldly guys like them would know this. “Tell me that it’s not a dude doing the voice of Natasha Fatale. C’mon, what broad talks like that?”

They exchanged a look, and then the taller one said, “Is your name Brad Gointer?” His voice sounded like a television news guy.

I nodded.

“Then pack a bag.”

I stood up and clicked off the television. “Where am I going?” This was going to be awesome – I imagined shaking hands with the Vice-President, shooting a gun, and being given a cool spy name like Daxx Domino. Mom couldn’t complain anymore that I watched too much television or peed on the backyard lawn instead of using the upstairs bathroom. Like these guys who just walked into my house, I would be able to do anything.

They glanced quickly at each other again and then back at me. “You’ll go with us now and then to a foreign country,” the shorter one said. “Your internship begins today, Brad.” Neither smiled.

I knew they were serious. “It’s not Mexico, is it?”

The shorter one – with his stocky frame and bruised ears, he looked like he used to wrestle – shook his head. “No, you’re not going to Mexico. By the way, how many pushups can you do?”

I shrugged and got on hands and toes on the cold basement floor. I did about a hundred although the shorter one only counted out loud to fourteen. I kinda felt bad for him. He must have gone to a public high school like the one I attended.

“Good enough,” he said and patted my back after I collapsed breathless on the floor. Next to him, the taller agent peered up the stairs, listening. Mom, however, was probably gone. Today was Tuesday. She had to meet with her parole officer.

I sat up. “Do you want me to do anything else?”

The taller dude turned his head back to me. “Just pack a bag and don’t leave any note.”

So I did, and I didn’t.

In the black Lincoln Navigator, the shorter agent sat next to me in the back while the taller one drove. The former wrestler reached into a small, navy blue gym bag that rested on a clipboard on the seat between us. He pulled out a pistol and showed it to me.  “Do you know how to use one of these?”

“I think so,” I said. I was confident because I’d seen 21 Jump Street, a documentary about police work, and last year I’d won a stuffed dog at the county fair shooting water into a clown’s mouth.

He turned the pistol so the barrel was directed away from me and pointed at the trigger. “Well, it’s pretty simple. Just pull this with your finger.” Then he handed me the pistol.

I held the gun and felt its weight – like maybe it weighed as much as can of soup, the chunky kind. I pointed it straight ahead. In the front seat, the taller guy ducked away, causing the car to swerve. “Don’t point that at me, you idiot.”

As ordered, I lowered the pistol into my lap. “Then where should I point it?”

The wrestler leaned into me, winked, and whispered. “At foreigners.”

Who?”

He sighed. “Anyone who doesn’t look like an American.”

I remembered 8th grade world history. “Even the Greeks?”

The shorter one grimaced. “Well, yes, you . . ..” He paused to check a chart on the clipboard. “Wait, no.” His finger slid down a column of names. “The Greeks, they’re okay. Don’t shoot them.” He peered again at the chart to be sure and then glanced at me. “You do want to work for the CIA, don’t you, Brad?” He raised an eyebrow.

My packed bag was in the trunk. I had a pistol. I was finally done working at Subway. “For sure.” But I wasn’t a fool. In fact, I was pretty certain I had some leverage here. “But do I still have to pay taxes? I’m thinking that now since I’m working for the government, it’s like I’m paying my own salary, right? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You have . . . We all have to. Wait . . ..” The wrestler reached into his pocket, pulled out a clipped paper – a paystub, I think – and studied it. He tapped the right shoulder of the tall guy driving. “How much federal tax do they take out of yours?”

The tall guy turned a corner and accelerated. “What? I don’t know. My wife handles all of that.” He took one hand off the steering wheel and extended a pamphlet to me. “Maybe all of that is explained in here.”

Inside it said, “In the CIA, you’ll find a supportive environment to help you grow and excel both professionally and personally. And a culture that expects you to do your personal best every day. Explore our world and imagine yourself working for the nation, in the center of intelligence.” But that was it.

“I still don’t think I should have to pay any taxes,” I told them. I was still thinking leverage. “Plus, I want a CIA badge like what you guys have so I can show it to my old high school principal. You know what that turd told me at graduation?” I didn’t wait for them to respond. “He said that the next time he saw me, he expected the conversation to end with him telling me to add fries to his order. Then I told him the whole school knew he was having sex with that Croatian lunch lady in the cafeteria after school. That’s against the law isn’t it? I want to scare the shit out of him.”

“Just keep the gun pointed down,” the wrestler said and zipped up the gym bag.

I couldn’t let it go, the memories still strong in my mind. “All that bullshit we were told, like you can do anything you put your mind to. A science teacher told us we could grow up to be like Lance Armstrong and walk on the moon. My social studies teacher said that maybe one of us could be President and end the cold war between Alaska and Russia. I watch the news, you know, and neither Alaska nor Russia are any warmer.” I spent the rest of the trip staring out the passenger window.

We reached a building they called HQ, and they led me inside to an empty room with a wrestling mat. When the shorter one with the banged up ears took off his coat and shirt, I saw a body resembling a fire hydrant plopped on top of two legs – yeah, he was a wrestler. He pointed at the navy blue mat. “C’mon, Gointer. Let me show you some things.”

The taller one left, and Mr. Fire Hydrant squeezed my head until I thought it would look like one big ear. Then he wrenched my shoulders so hard from now on I thought I would have to hear through my armpits. He showed me moves like the groin pull and barrel cruncher and lectured me, “Don’t ever let them barrel crunch you, or you won’t be able to shit for a week.”

The rest of the training wasn’t that tough. I had to read the pamphlet again, do more push ups, swim laps in a pool, and interpret ink blots of insects, a woman’s vagina, and the Eiffel Tower. I said they made me think of potato salad and the time two years ago when an old girlfriend handed me a STD pamphlet as she broke up with me. Plus, they made me study pictures of about a couple hundred bad men and women, one of whom I think was my third grade teacher Mrs. Anderson. Figures she was a communist, all the time talking about union rights with the other teachers in the hallway.

A week later I was on my first mission to Istanbul. Alone. I still had the pistol.

My assignment was to find out if the Turks were getting friendly with the Russians. Were the Turks our friends or our enemies? Plus, the CIA really wanted to know why the Turks sweated so much and if Noah’s Ark was on Mt. Ararat. We were a Christian nation and wanted it.

I began right away. I asked people at the airport what they thought of Russia, but after eating dinner with a group of them I found out they weren’t Turks. They were Dutch! I had gotten confused because they didn’t wear wooden shoes and they had a lot of nose hair, even the women. When I asked, they told me they considered Russia to be a nation of pornographers.

In Istanbul I did see a lot of sweaty men kissing each other on both cheeks, but I didn’t know for sure if one was Turkish and the other was Russian. I kept my gun inside my jacket and remained ready to shoot anyone who wasn’t a Greek. I did see a sailboat on a trailer but not the ark.

My second day in Istanbul a Turkish woman who looked like Pee Wee Herman’s older sister approached me while I was smoking dope in a hookah tavern. “Are you an American?” she asked, smiling warmly.

Finally! Someone who could tell me if the Turks liked the Russians. But then I thought for a moment. Maybe this was a trick, and she would try to seduce me into revealing classified secrets. Moreover, I didn’t want to blow my cover. I was travelling as Looney Ward, a volleyball and kneepads salesman. So I gave a half-smile and answered, “I’m not an American. I’m an Ohioan.”

She gently squeezed the top of my hand. “Come with me.” She turned, and her long, black hair fell down the back of her red spandex top. I didn’t get up right away because I’d been warned during my training to remain cautious about women who were beautiful – they’d shown me almost all the James Bond movies. Not the George Lazenby one, however. According to the CIA, he was a pussy.

Nevertheless, I was on a mission so I left the hookah bar with the woman and followed her down a narrow brick road into an alleyway. Mostly I followed her exotic scent, its warm fragrance a strong contrast to the fish gut incense my mother burned at home on Sundays so she could still get religion but not have to go to church. The Turkish woman looked back every few seconds to be sure I was following her, always giving me that same smile I saw in the hookah tavern.

At a steel door she stopped abruptly, turned, and faced me. “You here for fun, yes?”

I remembered my training: You ask the questions. Complete the mission. “I can’t tell you that. By the way, are you friendly with the Russians?”

“If he’s a man, I am friendly with him.” Actually she said, “Ef heez man, I am frenly weeth hem.” Then she waved a slender arm, prompting me to follow her, and opened the door. I liked being a CIA intern, but I pondered if I should shoot her because she wasn’t an American. She sorta did speak American, however, so I remain conflicted and kept the gun inside my jacket.

We walked into a room that had a weird purple light, and I stuck close to her because I could hardly see. In fact, I bumped into a chair without armrests, and she told me to sit.

Then she hovered over me, her knees straddling one of my legs. “Do you have money?” Her perfume washed over me. She caressed my cheek.

I had a hundred dollars in my jeans pocket, but I remembered my training: Spend wisely. Keep your receipts. “I only have ten dollars,” I answered.

Her hand went from my cheek to my shoulder. She sighed. “That is only enough for mouth.”

“I already have a mouth.”

She knelt in front of me. “What are you talking about?”

I remembered my training: Turn the tables whenever you can. “What are you talking about?”

She began unzipping my pants. “Okay, ten dollars,” she groaned and lowered her face into my groin.

I tried to get my bearings and recalled I represented the United States, the greatest nation on the planet. With my jeans at my ankles, I felt linked to other great American patriots like Clint Eastwood, Hulk Hogan, and James T. Kirk.

She abruptly stopped. “Is something wrong?” Which sounded like, “Eeez sumtheenk wronk?”

I took my hand off the top of her head. “Wrong?”

“Is it okay?” She pointed at my groin.

Then I understood. “No, it doesn’t get any bigger. That’s it.”

She looked up and smiled sympathetically. “Like a peanut with two peas.”

“At least it’s American,” I announced proudly and pushed her head down.

When I got back to CIA headquarters at the end of the week I told them I still wasn’t sure if the Turks did or did not like the Russians. They liked Americans however. A lot! The CIA guys were pissed, though, that I didn’t have a receipt for the ten-dollar expenditure.

Keith Manos has published ten books to date, including his debut novel My Last Year of Life (in School),which was published by Black Rose Writing in October 2015.  Other books include Writing Smarter(1998, Prentice Hall) and 101 Ways to Motivate Athletes (2006, Coaches Choice). His fiction has appeared in national print and online in magazines such as The Mill, Visions, Attic Door Press, Hicall, Lutheran Journal, and Storgy. He was recognized as one of Ohio’s top writing teachers by Ohio Teachers Write magazine.

 

“I am a Wolf Raising a Human Child and My Wife Thinks It’s Time for him to Learn to Shave” By Jason Gong

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After a long day cooped up in a sweltering cave, I decide to meet up with my buddy, Buck, down at the watering hole like we always used to do on big moon nights.  It’s one of the few times a month I can just relax and not have to worry about the pack or the wife or the pups, including the one human we adopted after his parents starved to death in the woods and we ate their remains.

The watering hole isn’t a nice place to hang out.  The trees around it are hollow and decayed, and a thin layer of scum covers the murky water.  It’s so shallow that most wolves think of it as more of a mud pit than a respectable place to socialize.  But ever since we were young and trying to look cool for the she-wolves, it’s always been the place for Buck and I to grab a drink.  And this was one of those nights where I really needed a drink.

I almost never get to see Buck anymore.  As pack leader, I’m usually at the den pretending to give a damn about whatever bureaucratic shit is thrown my way, and as a hunter, Buck is usually out trying to find foode.  Buck isn’t his real name, obviously. We gave it to him after he let a big deer get away and Buck told us, “When I looked into his eyes, I saw myself looking back,” and Buck never says poetic shit like that, so we had to give him this nickname, so he could never live it down.

Buck is my go-to guy because he’s a straight shooter and when you’re the leader of the pack sometimes you just need someone to shoot the shit with.  My father always said, “If you’re gonna shoot the shit, may as well shoot it straight,” and hell if I know what that means, but the ol’ man was alpha so his word is law.   

So anyways, I go down to meet Buck, and when I get there, he’s already there drinking and for some reason his fur is all slicked back nice-like, and I see he’s put some dead frogs in the water for flavor.  I sidle up next to him and he takes his scruffy snout outta the water and says, “First rounds on me,” like a frigging big shot.

Before I say a word, I put my own big muzzle in the water and lap it up.  The frogs he found were pretty tasty, and with the right amphibians you can get a nice buzz going too.  I stay in there a while- I’m talking like my whole face, almost up to my eyeballs, which doesn’t even make drinking any more efficient since we lap up water with our tongues, but it feels refreshing.  When I’m finally done, I pull my head out and Buck says, “One of those nights, huh,” and I say, “Don’t I know it,” and he says, “So what’s up?”

And before I come out and tell him how I’m on double shit duty between the pointless pack meetings at work and the rowdy pups at home, I ask him, “What’s with your fur, you dress up all fancy just for me?” and he grins, as much as a wolf can grin, and says, “Nah, I saw Cassidy tonight,” and I say, “If you saw Cassidy tonight, what the hell are you doing here?” and he just shrugs, as much as a wolf can shrug, and goes, “Tonight wasn’t my lucky night,” and I say, “Me neither, brother, me neither.”

He doesn’t say anything.  He has this rule where if he asks “What’s up?” or “What’s wrong?” and you don’t answer the first time he doesn’t ask a second.  So we take a couple more swigs from the water and I say, “Mel thinks it’s time for Cain to start shaving.”

“What’s shaving?” he asks me.

I furrow my brow and say, “I’m not really sure.”

And then I tell him how Cain has started to grow more of his long fur on parts of his face and crotch that he never grew long fur on before, and Buck says, “That’s great, that kid has almost no fur,” and I say, “I know, he only had it on the top of his head for the longest time,” and Buck says, “I didn’t want to say anything, but I always thought it was weird,” and I say, “It is fucking weird!”   We both howl with laughter.

A few coyotes in the distance howl back.

“But anyway,” I continue, “Mel says that humans aren’t supposed to let their fur grow too long, and that for Cain to become a man he has to cut some of the fur off, and that’s shaving.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Buck says.

“I know,” I tell him, “But apparently it’s a human ritual and if a human male wants to become alpha they must learn shaving.”

“I dunno,” he muses, awkwardly raising a hind leg to scratch his scruffy chin, “Sounds like a myth.”

“That’s what I said,” I say, “But then she pulls out these papers with pictures of humans on them that we found near his human parents and points out all the male humans and how none of them let their face fur continue growing too much.  She always notices stuff like that.”

So Buck thinks about it for a while and says, “Okay, but how do you know when the right time to start shaving is?”

And I say, “I don’t know, but I think it’s too early, Cain is just a pup.”  And Buck says, “Right, how old is he again?” And I tell him Cain is 12 human years old, since humans count four seasons passing as a year.  And Buck says, “That’s not that old.” And I say, “That’s what I told Mel, but she says that 12 human years is like 53 wolf years,” and Buck says, “Wow, Cain is old as fuck,” which made me snort frog water out of my nose.

“She says I need to be the one to teach him,” I say, and suddenly I find myself staring at the ground, unable to meet the gaze of my own reflection in the murky water, “But I don’t even know how to do it.”

“Right,” says Buck, “Is he supposed to use his teeth?”

“I have no idea,” I say.

And then we don’t say anything for a little bit, and my head is still drooping, and Buck breaks his rule and asks, “What’s wrong?”

I sigh and tell him quietly, “I don’t get Cain sometimes.  Sure, he hunts with us, and eats with us, and suckles on Mel’s breasts with the other pups.  But other times he picks up things with his paws instead of his teeth, and climbs up trees, and turns rocks and sticks into helping things, and I just don’t get it.”

“No father ever fully understands his pups,” says Buck, in spite of having no pups of his own, the lucky bastard, “But you’re trying.”

“I don’t wanna try.  I just want to raise him right.  But I don’t understand these rituals.”

“Look,” Buck says, looking at me, “The shaving ritual may not make sense, but the fact that you’re worrying so much over it means that you care.  That’s the most important part of being a father.”

I shake my head, “My father never did rituals with me.  He was so busy he couldn’t even take me on First Hunt. But that just made me stronger.  Strong enough to be pack leader.”

And Buck says, “Not everyone wants to be pack leader.  Most wolves would rather have a good father.”

And I feel a pain in my chest.  I glance down and somehow see in the water my years as a pup.  My father, returning to the den angry after a hunt turned up empty.  Me running to Buck’s small cave, where his family let me stay whenever my father bared his teeth at me.  Buck’s oldest brother by my side during First Hunt, as if I was his own pup. It reminds me of why I adopted Cain in the first place.  I decide then that I will teach Cain shaving.

“I will teach Cain shaving,” I say.

“Good,” says Buck, “You’re a good father.  We’ll think of a way to do the shaving.”

“A sharp rock or stick,” I suggest.

“Yes,” Buck replies, “Or maybe fire?”

I nod my head.  Fire could work.

“The next time I’m on a hunt, I’ll keep an eye out for a sharp rock, or stick, or fire and let you know, and you can perform the shaving ritual with Cain.”

“Thanks, Buck,” I say.  I find myself saying that a lot.

We hear a howl from the distance, and Buck’s ears perk up.  We both howl back, along with all the other wolves within earshot, but we all know it’s for him.

“That’s Cassidy,” he says, “She wants to know if I’m still awake.”

I look up at the moon.  It hangs high and bright in the sky now.

I grin at him, “You dog.”

He starts to turn away, but shoots me a final sly look and says, “I guess tonight’s my lucky night after all.”  Then he bounds off into the darkness.

I turn back to look at the water once more, and no longer see the pup I once was.  My reflection looks older than ever. My whiskers droop, and my once dark scruff has started to fade.  This doesn’t come as a surprise though. My son is old enough to shave.

 

 

Jason Gong is a Philadelphia-based writer and professional technology guy.  He has written for Points in Case and Philosophical Idiot, and co-written several short films.  He runs a podcast called Page to Frame, where he and his friends read books and then watch movies based on the books, and then talk about them.  You can find him on Twitter @page2frame. 

“La Torera” by Aila Doyle

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Cheers roll in the distance like the thunder of an impending storm. The faint rumble reminding me it’s time for battle. The muscles in my arms tighten and my heart pounds in my chest. I force myself to move forward. Force myself to face it again.

The chanting grows to a roar as I enter the stadium. My name on their tongues beckoning me into the arena. At first, the faces blend together. Fleshy masses without independence. But I strain my eyes, forcing myself to focus on each one. My mother. My father. My brother. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Ancestors lining the bleachers like a parade in Dante’s underworld. Friends with concern and curiosity lean their bodies forward in anticipation.

A door across the arena slides open. The scratch of wood against wood makes my heart race faster. The revealed room is dark. Sweat drips into my eyes as I await his arrival. The horns are first. Then a snout breathing so heavily the sand of the arena floor kicks up into the air. His brown eyes leer at me, and I swear I see a glint of recognition. We’ve met before. Numerous times. He’s studied my moves and fine-tuned his attack. He’s grown stronger.

I let him charge me. His hooves shaking my soul with each blow of the ground. Coming for me, ready to bowl me over. Just to dodge him at the last moment, with a flourish of the cape. A twirl, a dance, the beast and I do. A triumphant feeling floods me as the bull runs pass and trots around realizing his failure. Closer and closer he gets with each attack. His horns scrap my skin, the heat of his breath falls on my arm. The triumph fades and the fear grows. Both of us cannot survive the fight.

In the corner of my eye, I see a tall, bearded man leaning against the wall. He nips at his thumb as he watches me. Looking at him I feel a hope I haven’t felt in a long time. He holds the sword I need to end my dalliance with the beast. I run to him. Closer and closer I get. With each step, his smile grows, summoning me forth. But as I touch his hand, he dodges. Twirling and dancing away with each pass I make. I plead with him. I tell him I’m worthy. But his sideward glance reflects my own skepticism. Desperate, I chase him—knowing he’s the one that can save me. But he ignores me. I look to the crowd for the support. I wait for their jeers. But the bleachers are now empty. What remains is a deafening silence that is only broken by my own voice.

I feel the ground shake behind me and I prepare for the inevitable. The horn pierces me. The sharp pain catches in my gut. My breath is sucked from my body. I look up at the man. His grin deepens and he walks out of the arena—my hope evaporating as he fades into the distance. The horn of the bull vacates my body, leaving an emptiness searing in me.

Sated, the beast trots back into his pen. Alone, once more, I recount all the prior loses, pray for a single victory.

 

Aila Doyle resides in Chicago, where she currently is working on two novels. She tweets from @ailadoyle2.