“The Theory of the Leisure Class” By Mike Lee

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Paraphrasing the jazz legend Cannonball Adderly. “Sometimes we just don’t know what to do when we are faced with adversity.” But he is wrong. There are innumerable ways to face adversity. One can deny the horrors surrounding you, ignoring them until the sudden darkness of oblivion. Or break down immobilized in tears, again, until sleep comes down, the kind you never wake from.

Those are two ways. There is no not knowing what to do when the proverbial shit hits the fan, so Adderly is wrong, but hey he was a great player, and Joe Zawinul wrote fantastic songs, and a superlative jazz pianist. In 1970, he founded Weather Report. He died in 2007 of a rare form of skin cancer.

Consumption is not just an archaic synonym for tuberculosis. It is also a term in economics having to do with the use of goods and services. In a book by a man named Veblen, he postulated that the wealthy waste material resources in conspicuous consumption. Whether it be on sports, entertainment, buying useless objects of art, gambling or clothes often worn once—if at all—the one percent and those slightly below on the capitalist pyramid essentially throw their money away.

Perhaps consumption as tuberculosis and consumption as financial waste is similar. Both are rather chic in their respective times. Wasting away, coughing blood and having the pallor of a vampire seemed rather attractive to the smart set in the 19th century.

Blowing a bunch of bucks in a very short period of time is celebrated always. Waste is the most celebrated of commodities, since everyone loves having a good morning shit. How is that not what it is?

At the jazz club in Chicago, Cannonball Adderly performed Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. This song was written by Joe Zawinul, and it became a surprise hit, just missing the top ten on the American charts in 1966.

But this song was not really recorded at a club in Chicago. The musicians performed in a Hollywood studio, before friends. There was an open bar.

Standing at the bar, waiting for his Balblairs neat, Bobby coughed into his handkerchief. He stared at the bloody phlegm stains before jamming the cloth into his trouser pocket.

When he began getting sick, Bobby decided he wanted to drink the worst liquor in the world. He chose scotch. He’s been drinking scotch for five years.

When he gets the scotch, he fingers the rim with a calloused forefinger. Bobby is a bassist. Had a brief stint with Harry James, and sits in at the hottest spots on Central Avenue. Pays the rent, cleans the suits, but not much more.

He feels his chest is ready to burst.

When Cannonball introduces a song about facing adversity, Bobby takes a sip of scotch, which deadens the fires burning inside.

He leans against the open bar, knowing he does not have long to live.

But he exists for the rhythm, and the crescendo of the upbeats. That’s how to deal with adversity.

“Kickin’ ” by Sam Childs

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One time a poet told me that if you let someone kick you five times, then they would kick you five times.  If you let them kick you four times, they’d kick you for four, and so on down the line until he said that if you broke off their foot, they couldn’t kick you no more.  I’m not saying that he’s wrong, but have you tried breaking off someone’s foot? That shit ain’t easy; you gotta wrestle them to the ground (if they’re already kicking you then you ain’t in a good spot to do that), force their leg up at the right angle, twist it pretty hard, it’s a lot of fucking work.  Not to mention that they’re just going to turn up the goddamn heat on you where before they were just knocking on you for spite and shiggles, now they’re going to go all the fuck out to keep their feet in one (or is it two?) pieces, pulling out all the stops on your ass because now they have skin in the game.  It’s a hell of a lot more personal when someone goes for broke, forgive the pun, and once the two of you get invested y’all gotta see it through.

 

That’s a lot of goddamn work, a hell of a lot more than just getting kicked.

 

Sam Childs is a college student trying to turn his ennui into a liveable paycheck. His top three favorite things are good criticism, waltzing, and Chartreuse. Fans of his words can find a few more on Twitter at @AdmiralOPG

“The Scary Lady” by Jeffrey Penn May

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Not long after Mike and Katherine moved into their spacious St. Louis county house with pillars and brick facade, its value plummeted. But it was a nice house, woods in the back, nice deck.

“What will we do when they’re gone?” Katherine asked, brushing a tangle of brown thinning hair.

“Who?” he responded. She was talking about their kids. Two more years and both would be in college.

“All this space,” she said. “Empty.”

“We’ll be fine,” he replied, but he hadn’t been “fine” for a long time; he was working sixty hours per week, troubled teenagers cussing him out every day. Maybe he needed a break. He hoped his own children were okay. And he worried about his wife, a brilliant elementary school teacher for twenty years, her job now nothing more than data collection.

“We can show-off our hardwood floors,” Mike said, echoing her long forgotten dreams. “Entertain important guests… old friends.”

“You think so,” Katherine said, practically falling into her slacks, bright with primary colors, her body still slim. Actually slimmer than ever. Still attractive if a bit bony, almost skeletal. Had she stopped eating altogether?

He gave her a hug and asked if she wanted to “mess around” knowing of course that they wouldn’t, but he went through the motions, recalling all those sleepless nights when he thought sex would help and she thought the opposite. They’d gone as long as a year without. They had hardwood floors, marble counter tops and ceiling fans.

In their cluttered garage, Mike leaned on his wife’s car door. “What do you think?” he asked. “Tonight?”

“Sure,” she responded. She said this in the same way he had said “let’s mess around” knowing nothing would come of it.

Mike had always worked hard, the guy in charge, making sure everyone else stayed sane. But the questions persisted, how long can I do this? How did other people work long hours in cubicles all day and mow their lawns on weekends? Katherine had been urging him to go on anti-depressants. She’d been on them for a few years and said they worked well – although she still had occasional weeping spells.

Mike took the day off. Maybe that would help. It was 100-degrees, the heat persisting through August and into September. He stood in the driveway, the concrete searing his bare feet. He sat and pulled on his socks and running shoes. Down the street, a garage door opened and a Lincoln Navigator roared out and away.

Mike believed in exercise, and if he ran, ate better, everything would be okay. However, he injured his foot, then his thigh, then his groin, and feared he couldn’t run anymore without re-injuring himself. Funny, he thought, his knees were okay.

He walked down the white-hot sidewalk, past the True-Green lawns, and he walked toward the house on the corner where a woman seemed to emerge every time he passed. She came from a house like theirs, except for superficial design differences – red door, brown shutters, and a brass crucifix doorknocker.

Usually he waved politely at the woman, but seldom did she acknowledge him, and only then with a slight nod in his general direction. She wore thick round glasses, so maybe she didn’t see him. But he suspected she did, otherwise why did she always seem to pop out when he passed? He began to feel anxious about her, eventually thinking of her as that “scary lady.”

Maybe Mike’s Catholic upbringing was the source of his fear. The scary lady reminded him of a nun who loved Father Graham, and Mike remembered his elementary school classmate Jimmy Seckman.

He walked courageously and as expected she appeared, lurching from her wide, pillared front porch and lumbering across the manicured lawn. She stepped onto the sidewalk, and they nearly collided.

“Pardon me,” she said with a sultry, weirdly seductive voice. Her round glasses were pushed against a bulbous nose. Her shoulders were broad, square, and her full-bosomed chest seemed as if the nipples might have hair, her body a disjointed aggregate of curves, muscle, and ambiguity. She was perhaps an inch taller than he… or maybe it was her shoes, cross-trainers, although he had never seen her run. She’d probably fall apart at the joints if she tried to run. She reminded him of his students, a little unusual, outside the statistical norm, ready to explode at any moment. She walked in front of him. He slowed his pace, avoiding getting too close to her round, oddly attractive rear end.

Mike recalled an affair he had about eight years ago, short-lived because he wanted to be a great father and husband; he wanted to arrive at some sort of ideal, kids at prestigious colleges, thin wife, enough money.

Now he didn’t know what to do. Should he turn around, or keep following the scary lady? Should he take his normal route to the far end of the subdivision? Go up the hill past basement excavations rimmed with piles of hard-packed red clay? Follow the trail into the woods ending abruptly in a tangle of jungle-like underbrush – perhaps at one time, leading somewhere.

He felt awkward walking too close to her, wondering if she sensed him. Would she turn and confront him? He headed back to his empty house, glancing over his shoulder. She moved on, something to talk about that evening when he and Katherine zoomed toward parent-teacher conferences at the high school. “She seems nice enough,” Katherine said. “Why don’t you just talk to her?”

Mike said, “She’s too scary.”

After a gloomy silence, his wife said, “Go see Doctor Long.”

He knew this was code for suggesting he take the anti-depressants, so effective for her, but he was afraid of the side-effects. He would be a mess. He knew this from watching his wife. He kept thinking that if they just made love more often, he wouldn’t need to see the doctor. Too simplistic, he thought. What good would it do anyway? After all, the few times they had sex, nothing much changed.

Mike took another day off, which seemed to irritate Katherine. He followed his normal route, up the hill onto his one-way path into the thick woods, sweat dripping from his chin, horse fly circling like a fighter jet. He flailed madly at the fly, his eyes stinging from sweat, and traipsed off the end of the path into a tangle of vines and thorns, underbrush full of spiders, tics, and chiggers. He stopped and the horse fly landed on his forehead. Christ, he muttered, tearing himself free, a thorn puncturing his leg.

Mike headed back with the blazing sun rising to its apex. He shielded his eyes, the path narrow where the woods met the suburbs, and the scary lady appeared suddenly. They brushed against each other. Mike stumbled, and she squeezed her big hands onto his arms, as if to steady him. He mumbled “excuse me” and emitted the obligatory chuckle at their absurd dance and then wondered – When was the last time he had a blow job?

“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice velvety. Mike nodded, and said he was fine. She stared, her eyes no less scary than the rest of her, dark brown and magnified behind the thick glasses.

“What about you?” he asked, and she responded that she wasn’t the one hurt. Her hint of superiority irritated him. He wiped blood from his leg.

“Helen,” she said.

Mike was startled that she had revealed her name, and he was hesitant to give his own, as if they were making a pact, and he didn’t know what for. He gave his cocktail party smile and talked about Helen of Troy, Trojans, spyware, condoms, a nervous cascade of bad jokes.

She smiled so slightly he almost missed it – maybe more of a smirk – and she stared, as if his banter were a reason for reflection. But he’d had enough of reflection… he needed jokes to survive. Didn’t everyone? She walked disjointedly into the woods.

Mike thought about following her, but knew right away it would end in disaster. She would accuse him of immoral thoughts, immoral behavior, and there would be rumors, eventually legal problems. Perhaps he was desperate, yes. On edge, yes. But no, he would not be stupid…. He could see the story now – Principal for troubled children caught in nefarious affair with neighbor in woods. Besides, if he were going to risk everything, have another fling, he would choose wisely, choose someone like his wife when they first met.

He told Katherine that the days off had helped, he felt better and was sleeping well, except it wasn’t true. Their teenagers were being as demanding as his students and Katherine, even with her anti-depressants, shouted at him, telling him that she could handle first-graders but teenagers were his specialty.

Must be the moon, he thought, waking at three a.m. unable to go back to sleep, keenly aware that such chronic sleep problems were a harbinger of major depression and that Katherine in her own hysterical way was right again. Lying on his back, moonlight seeping in around their thick curtains, he listened to his wife’s labored breathing. He could try going back to sleep, but it would be difficult. He would roll over, pull covers, reach for his water on the nightstand, spill it, and eventually Katherine would wake angry at him for waking her. So he dressed and went into the night, walking the subdivision, knowing that, if anything, the exercise might calm him enough to eventually allow sleep. Besides, he could watch the lunar eclipse. Wasn’t that the real reason for waking, not wanting to miss the eclipse, even though he’d seen one before, maybe two or three of them.

The moon was so bright the sidewalk glowed, and so did his hands. So did Helen appearing in the moonlight wearing tight black neoprene shorts, accentuating her bulging lower abdomen and her watermelon thighs with T-shirt tucked in, pulled tight against her breasts. They exchanged quiet hellos as if perfectly normal to be out strolling the sidewalk at three a.m.

“The eclipse?” Mike offered.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she said.

And he felt the effects of her arousing voice in the darkness, the sidewalk not wide enough for them both, so they stepped into the empty street. He struggled for something funny to say. For example, he thought, what cosmic joke placed him here walking with her.

Their silence and the darkness made Mike uncomfortable. He hadn’t intended on walking into the woods but they were headed that way. With the shadow moving over the moon, they approached the dark path, the moon frowning, and they stepped into the woods simultaneously, bumping into each other, her glasses reflecting the down-turned crescent.

She put her arm on his lower back, touching – a gentle push? Mike felt… awake, nerves pinging down his spine and yes he had an erection, no denying that, but he thought, what guy wouldn’t under similar circumstances?

They reached the end of the path and stood together in the dark woods, the air relatively cool, cooler than the hell of day, sliver of moon glinting through the treetops… they stood listening to the racket of insects surrounding them suddenly go quiet.

When his arm accidentally touched her breast, Mike thought, not enough space, and that’s why she didn’t flinch. Excuse me, he said, and she seemed to edge closer. Or perhaps she was merely shifting, turning to go. He almost shouted – wait!

He watched the shadow overtake the moon, no longer visible, no longer reflecting the sun – the earth, battered as it was, obliterating the light. Only a small dot of reflection remained and Mike heard her breathing in the quiet woods – Helen breathing deep, almost guttural, strangely frightening and exciting to Mike who at once felt like he should run and stay, choosing, he thought, to stay.

As the last glimmer of moon disappeared, her big hand crawled along his arm and her breathing deepened even further, husky, her hand running down his wound-tight back and brushing against his thigh. She edged closer, her breath hot and warm upon his face, smelling of garlic, and he stood still, thinking none of this was his doing, he hadn’t made the first move, he’d done nothing.

Besides, logically adultery was okay. He had, after all, had an affair and it worked out well for him because his wife never found out and overall it improved their relationship, didn’t it? In his heightened arousal he had worked hard at stimulating Katherine, and it was exciting for them both for awhile. But this felt different, more like a betrayal. Perhaps a little perverse. But Mike reminded himself, he and Helen were two consenting adults, he, an agnostic workaholic on the verge of a breakdown, a sinner, and she, perhaps a fundamentalist determined to convert sinners. Maybe this was how Jimmy Seckman felt in the seventh grade learning to drive while sitting in Father Graham’s lap.

All his thinking seemed to be affecting Helen, her breathing becoming shallow because he had not responded to her touch. He had a split second to act, moving ever so slightly, but it was enough, enough to prod her… continue what he could only call or justify as a seduction. But he was a willing participant. He almost blurted the joke about God giving men two heads… Could he only use one at a time?

Helen ran her fingers along his belt loop while her other monstrous hand grabbed his leg, adding to his excitement, the anticipation, but this was unlike him… he enjoyed talking during sex… sharing… probing with wondrous words and with touch… but this… this was different.

Total darkness. No dot of moon. The night black and even blacker in the Ozark woods. Only touch. He felt he might explode. He grunted in a feeble attempt to initiate conversation, to reassure himself. “You…” he gasped but was unable to say more as Helen unbuckled his pants, pulled them down. He felt her lips. What did they look like? He had no memory of her lips – he’d been distracted by the bulbous nose and bulging midriff and Christianity. But now as her lips slid over him, they became who she was, saliva, tongue, silky whirling, and no longer did he have to deny his wife’s allusions, no longer did he have to act as if all were alright, no longer did he want hardwood floors, ceiling fans, gas fireplace… “No,” he said, but she didn’t stop, he yelled again no and pushed on her broad shoulders, but she was strong, and both her hands gripped his rear as he moved reflexively in and out exploding and…. as he shrank away, his body falling limp, he felt embarrassed, dirty… already torn between wanting to do this again and wanting to flee, to move, get away, run to the doctor and get his anti-depressants, or move away, go… go somewhere.

 

Jeffrey Penn May has won several short fiction awards, including one from Writer’s Digest, and has published numerous short stories, poems, and mountain climbing articles. His novel Where the River Splitsreceived an excellent review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and his work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jeff has been a waiter, hotel security officer, credit manager, deck hand, technical data engineer and currently teaches writing and fly fishing. His adventures include floating a home-built raft from St. Louis to Memphis, navigating a John boat to New Orleans, digging for Pre-Columbian artifacts, and climbing mountains from Alaska to South America. Please visit www.askwritefish.com.

” East Side Swing” by Matthew Lovitt

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The night was quiet save the sound of bugs slapping against the sodium lamp illuminating the Whataburger parking lot the sickly yellow of derelicts with liver disease. The scent of artificial food cooked in dirty grease lingered like a wet fart dealt beneath the sheets. Sam sat next to me, atop the curb stop, eating limp fries soused in ranch dressing. We met three nights previous, I think. She had just disembarked a Greyhound, and noticed me failing to score from any of the several dealers that hung out behind the cash-for-gold shop across the street. She must’ve liked what she saw, because when I said hello, she agreed to come home with me. We spent our time since telling lies about who we were, where we’d come from, and why us together felt like a moth batting against a flame, but before it got burned up, in a dance that was more like forgiving. And for an instant the craving had gone, which for the first time felt mostly okay.

 

 

In the back of a Yellow Cab we rode to meet her new friend, also a run-away. She said they met cleaning houses for the same company, but when that would’ve happened was another detail lost to the blur of time that was my first and heretofore most substantial foray into sobriety. Heading east from downtown, high rise offices and luxury hotels devolved into squat government buildings, their windows clouded with what I imaged the vaporized perspiration of generations worth of poverty. Past them spread overgrown lots, liquor stores, bail bondsmen, and dilapidated homes with slanted porches upon which dark-skinned families laughed and sang. The terror shot through me was like I was strapped into one of those zero-G machines that twist off kilter near the mall food court in third tier cities—me spread eagle in the center of a series of concentric rings. Every measure of resolve diffused into the gravity that thinned around my body.

Sam grabbed my hand, and said, Isn’t this exciting?

I’m terrified, actually.

She laughed.

Seriously.

Oh, please, she said. My friend is nice as can be.

That’s not what I meant.

Well then I guess we’ll see.

I pursed my lips, and the cabbie dropped us in front of a slipshod building—sheet metal, wood, and ribbed plastic seemingly held together with too little duct tape. Brass-heavy music seeped through the club’s poor construction, besting the thud of my heart throbbing in my brain. Above the empty front door frame was clipped a shop-light that spot lit a sign that said East Side Swing.

She squeezed my knuckles, and said, Don’t be a pussy.

 

 

I met them at the back door, Sam and her new friend LaShae. A melt of scar tissue covered one whole side of the girl’s head, her ear more like a rodent burrow in a fire-fallowed landscape. And for an instant I knew her pain, not for the scars, but for the sure grimaces of strangers, or, worse, their inability to look her in the face. I imagined my insides looked the same, and then she handed me her half-drunk drink.

Vodka, she said.

Thanks?
LaShae nodded, waved for us to follow, then cut across the dance floor, to an unsteady four-top at which sat a weatherworn man and his best lady. She said, This is Pops and Mammy.

Are they dead? I said.

Sam elbowed me.

What?

She smiled a big smile, then said to them, He’s kidding.

LaShae shook her head, then took my last hundred dollar bill to the bar for fresh drinks. I told Sam that I needed to pee, but instead went to the patio, stood beneath an unfinished pergola built from fence plank, and gazed into the trashcan fire, spitting embers, putting off a black smoke that smelled like paint. Shadowy figures jostled about, spitting harsh words at one another, kind ones at me. But I kept my eyes down, taking long, slow sips of my drink. It was perhaps the first time I ever felt guilty, but for what I couldn’t say. And to put it down right here would smack of cliché.

 

 

LaShae found me outside, and said, Who you be, Willie?

I said, Nobody.

Ain’t that the truth.

I mean—

But who is when you really look at the thing?

I don’t know what you mean.

You will one day.

I hesitated, then said, Where’s Sam?

LaShae led me back inside the nightmare of East Side Swing, and set me at the bar, ordered me a whiskey. And then the music dropped and the mob on the dancefloor split, separated down the center, as if at the seam. The two sides faced one another, their postures aggressive, the air between them roiling.

I said, What’s happening?

She disappeared into the sway of bodies.

My nerves burst with electricity.

A sonorous song played.

On the floor, a tribe of men presented their chief, wearing a yellow headdress and an intricately stitched breastplate. He belted a song more like a lullaby for the deranged, then stood tall, jutted his chin, and crossed his arms, more like artillery. The other chief emerged, in a light blue costume, but with wings. Both sides chanted and sang. The chiefs squared up, breathing down the bridge of a major break, then smiled, embraced.

And I was deadened by a crosswise sensation, something like revelatory shame.

 

 

I stood on my balcony, urinating through the railing. Sam and LaShae were inside, on the couch, laughing, whispering. On the sidewalk below, a fat cop looked up to me, his head tilted back in such a way that gave him the appearance of a bipedal manatee. He wore a handlebar mustache and sunglasses of the sporty, hyper-aggressive variety. In my gut knotted a ball of pity; there was nothing more pathetic than the false bravado put on by authority. And so I jerked to splash him, but he jumped back, shook his fist, then looked around for witnesses, detaining an accordion-shaped woman carrying a reusable grocery sack stuffed with other reusable sacks. She screamed, and I laughed, then went inside for a bowl of Wheaties.

 

 

Sam undid her bra from the front, let it slide down her arms, then flung it away. I licked the smattering of freckles that ran from her belly button, down between her legs. Her body gave off a low vibration, as if she might explode into a low combustion of light, a white dwarf collapsing into empty space. Minutes later we gazed out the window opposite my bed, into what I assumed was the Milky Way. She said that where she was from in real life, on such nights it was like you could see all the way to the other side, glimpsing heaven, perhaps a world that was safe. I said that we were but specks in a bottomless hollow of pain. Stuck in my nose was the smell of wild animals, blood matting their face fur, traipsing a snow-covered…

 

 

Sam said, I came to Austin to spite my family. There was an incident; where I’m from, God is everything or you are nothing. It doesn’t matter your brand of Christianity as long as you are bound up in Him, to the point of losing personality. I wasn’t convinced or didn’t think dirt farming a reward for died-in-the-wool faith. The only way I could figure to show them my contempt was to fool around with a boy in the rectory. It wasn’t anything crazy, but by the congregations response you would’ve thought it the rapture coming. And the preacher called me up to the pulpit the next Sunday. I had to ask for forgiveness if there was any hope of being saved. I told him to fuck off; the boy only got a few Hail Marys. I will never be made an example of, and for that I’m not sorry.

Uncertain of what to do or say, I pretended to sleep.

 

 

Some weeks later, we crossed paths downtown, heading in opposite ways. She was dressed to party. I had just come to from passing out by the river for who knows how many days. Her eyes met mine, and I looked away. I never learned how she found out that I slept with LaShae, but free of me she looked better, brighter, as if never knowing those three glorious, gruesome days. I would like to say I was happy that she escaped, but that would be a lie—I’m not as noble as I sometimes think. But what I can tell is that things never get better, not as long as there is anything left for them to take. To the bottom of the well we must go in order to find a life that’s reasonably safe.

 

Matthew is a recovering drug addict living in West Texas. He spends too much time on Twitter.

“Into the Canyon of the Doomed” by C. Barnes

 

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*trigger warning: scenes following include that of attempted sexual assault*

The victims were struck from behind as they idled on their motorcycle just as the light turned green. Grainy footage from the gas station at the intersection shows a man in the flatbed of a dark Silverado swinging a long 4 by 4 and striking the individual at the rear of the motorcycle on the back of her head as the truck sped by. The oak 4 by 4 fell to the earth and was retrieved and checked for fingerprints, but without success. There were plenty of dark Silverados in the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, and plenty more passing through. The individual at the rear of the motorcycle, Inola Romero, 22, a Paiute-Shoshone Indian from the Big Pine Reservation, was struck with such force that she died on impact. The individual driving the motorcycle, Kelly Bosworth, 29, of Lone Pine, is in critical condition, but her prognosis is grim. Inola’s forehead slammed so hard into the back of Kelly’s skull that the doctors say even if she survives, she’ll be a vegetable.

Cousins Earl and Vernon Taney parked at the Fr. Crowley lookout, their favorite spot in Death Valley, and climbed over the rail and followed the trail to an isolated outcrop of stone that jutted out like an eagle’s nose over the abysmal canyon. It was mid-April and the weather was pleasantly warm. Earl took a bottle of Gentleman Jack out of his backpack and the cousins passed it between them as the dusky sun painted the canyon in varying shades of maroon.

“It’s like all the devils of Hell are out to get me,” Vernon said. “It was my curse to have to love her, a lesbian who’d never love me in return.”

“What’s done is done,” said Earl. “Them lesbians are gone, and they aint comin back. We can’t do nothin bout it now. Shouldn’t uv made us mad. That’s what happens. Ladies should never make drunk men mad, not if they know what’s good for ‘em.”

On the night of the attack, Earl and Vernon met up with Inola and Kelly in the parking lot of Diaz Lake. Vernon had been in love with Inola since she came to work for him as a maid at the Comfort Inn. He was the Assistant Manager and lead maintenance man. Her long, luxuriant hair reminded him of the desert night, jet-black but shimmering with points of light. Inola knew Vernon was sweet on her, and wasn’t above flirting with him to get what she wanted. She knew that if she kept him intrigued, every so often he’d give her and Kelly free speed.

Long after midnight, in the back of the dark Silverado in the parking lot of Diaz Lake, Inola and Kelly took hit after hit on the glass pipe as Earl and Vernon got drunker and drunker on their Johnny Walker. Under the blanket draping the quartet sitting in the flatbed, Earl reached over and grabbed Kelly’s thigh, squeezing it tightly and slipping his fingers down to her crotch. When she looked at him in shock, he swept his hand up to her breast and twisted her nipple between his index finger and thumb.

“That hurts! What the hell are you doing?” Kelly roared walloping the side of Earl’s head with her palm.

“Speed aint free, baby,” Earl said grabbing her by the throat and pushing her down to the flatbed. When Kelly tried to fight back, he punched her in the stomach and rolled over on top of her.

“What are you doing, man?” Vernon said as Inola dropped the glass pipe.

“What does it look like?” said Earl. “That one’s yours, and this one’s mine.”

Like a coiled snake Inola suddenly struck, springing across the flatbed and pounding Earl’s face with her fists. Kelly struggled beneath Earl’s weight and would’ve escaped if Vernon hadn’t grabbed Inola from behind and held her arms to her sides. “That’s enough of this bullshit, Earl,” he said. “Come on, man, what the hell are you doin? Let her go.”

“She aint goin nowhere until she gives me what I want,” said Earl. “You should git some from yer girl while I’m gittin some from mine.”

Inola glanced back and saw a dark madness sweeping over Vernon’s eyes, like a sandstorm rolling in from the horizon. “Please let us go, Vernon,” she cried.

“This one’s mine, and that one’s mine too if you don’t do what I tell you to,” Earl said to his cousin while reestablishing full control of Kelly and putting his hand over her mouth.

Vernon wrestled Inola back down to the flatbed and straddled her as he drunkenly fumbled with the buckle of his belt. “Wait, wait just a minute!” Inola said. “Be patient, both of you, we’re gonna give it to you. But you guys gotta take it slow.”

“That’s right,” Kelly said when Earl removed his hand from her mouth and reached for the button fly of his jeans. “We’re gonna give it to you. Just let us help get those pants off of you.”

Earl rolled off of Kelly and leaned back as she helped him pull his jeans down, and Inola unbuckled Vernon’s belt and pulled his pants down as well. When both men’s genitals were exposed, Inola looked over at Kelly, and yelled: “Crush his balls, Kelly, do it now!” and the women squeezed as hard as they could as the men screamed in pain. Earl and Vernon punched at Kelly and Inola to make them release their grip, but the women held the squishy sacks firmly for a good half minute, until, finally, the men were able to break free. As Earl and Vernon recoiled in agony in the flatbed, Inola and Kelly leapt out of the truck, hurried to their motorcycle across the lot, and sped off.

“Let’s get ‘em!” Vernon said stumbling out of the back of the truck and limping over to the driver’s side door. “Let’s get ‘em, and get ‘em good!”

Vernon started the truck and took a hard left on the 395 while Earl, still hunched over in the back, slowly rose to his knees and wrapped his brawny hands around the long 4 by 4 that was pressed against the edge of the flatbed. A mile or so down the road the women came into sight in Lone Pine, idling on their motorcycle at a red light. When the light turned green, Vernon continued to accelerate, thinking he’d terrify the women by speeding past them before turning around and chasing them down, but Vernon just kept going after Earl swung the 4 by 4, for he could tell by the terrible thump that the women had been badly hurt.  

In the days that followed, Vernon lived in terror that the sheriff would come knocking on his door. He was smart enough not to take his truck to work, and when news of Inola’s murder spread around the Comfort Inn, no one suspected him. Most of the maids thought the killer was Inola’s ex-boyfriend, evidently the jealous type, who she dumped for Kelly after she left the Reservation to move in with her in Lone Pine. The cops came by on one of Vernon’s days off, but they didn’t ask the Manager any questions about him or his truck.

After several weeks, Vernon felt confident that he and Earl weren’t on the radar of the police, but the dreams he had night after night of Angels of Vengeance with flaming swords keeping him out of Heaven grew increasingly intense, and no matter how he tried to justify what had happened—that Earl had killed the women, not him—he still couldn’t get any peace. He wondered if he was insane, or if it was real, when one of the avenging angels that haunted his dreams told him: “This world’s not the blink of a gnat’s eye in the expanse of God’s eternity. Every hair on your head is counted, Vernon, as is every one of your sins. Confess and repent! Ask for God’s forgiveness! It’s better to confess your crime and spend your mortal life in a prison cell than to conceal it and be forever damned in Hell!”

Earl knew that Vernon was more susceptible to the scare tactics of old-timey, fire and brimstone religion than he was, so he invited his cousin to their favorite spot in Death Valley so they could talk about what was troubling him over a bottle of whiskey.

“It’s like all the devils of Hell are out to get me,” Vernon said.

“Them devils is just in yer head,” Earl replied. “Aint nothin above, aint nothin below, aint nothin but the here and now.”

“You don’t think there’s gonna be a punishment for us, you don’t think we’re gonna have to pay up? You don’t think when we’re dead we’re gonna have to face up to those women, and to God?”

“We won’t have to face up to nothin but the dirt above our noses that we’re buried in. Aint nothin gonna happen to us when we’re dead, cuz when a man’s dead, a man’s dead, and that’s it.”

“I hope you’re right, Earl, but I just don’t know.”

“Watcha bin thinkin bout, Vernon? Clearin that conchiss of yers by tellin the coppers bout what we did?”

“I’ve thought about it, thought about it a lot, but you know that’s something I can’t do. Wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“Damn straight. That conchiss of yers aint nothin worth us goin to prison for. Yer conchiss aint nothin but a preacher’s trick they put in you to keep you down when they aint round to keep you down thimselves.”

Vernon took a big swig from the Gentleman Jack and stood up on the rock to take a piss off of it. Earl stood up with his cousin and wrapped his arms around him. “You know I’m always round if you got problems you wanna talk bout,” he said hugging him firmly.

“I know that Earl, thank you,” Vernon said patting his back before turning around to relieve himself. As the little yellow waterfall descended to the world below, Earl looked around to see if he and Vernon were alone. When he was satisfied that no one was anywhere on the trail or in the canyon, he lunged at Vernon like a linebacker and knocked him off the rock with his shoulder. Only the faintest, most astonished gasp emitted from Vernon as his body tumbled like a ragdoll into the darkening abyss.

“That’s what you git fer havin a conchiss,” Earl said.

As dusk was giving way to night, and the stars were getting brighter in the zenith of the sky, Earl finished off the whiskey bottle and followed the trail back to the empty parking lot of the Fr. Crowley lookout, where he climbed into Vernon’s dark Silverado. Starting the engine and turning to the left, he drove east on the 190, going ever deeper and deeper into the Valley of Death.

 

C. Barnes was born in Berkeley and raised in Denver. He was educated at UC Riverside and St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he studied History and English. He was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal and Next Generation Book Award for his essay, “Musings at the End of Modernity”.

“For Love of Magpie” by Karen Foster

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February 5th, 2015

There have been no people or dogs at Magpie’s house for over a week now. We worried that she would freeze and so we kept an eye out for the little piebald and when she visited, we brought her inside to warm up. Since Elizabeth’s boyfriend moved overseas and left Magpie here we have watched out for her. We can see her porch and front door from our kitchen window. So we are in the habit. Elizabeth and I have a standoffish connection. She has asked me not to feed Magpie, but she comes to our porch meowing; hungry and lonely. Elizabeth is a “dog person.” When she walks Toby in the morning, Magpie often follows behind. Neither Toby nor Elizabeth seem to notice.

 

February 7th

Magpie sits and waits for her people. Elizabeth’s friend Claire moved in a year ago so she could be treated in Boston for cancer. The house had been full of friends, but now it is dark.

 

February 8th

We learn that the people are with Claire in the hospital. Someone is coming to feed Magpie, but she is an outdoor cat and it is the extreme cold that worries us. I met Claire once when I opened the door to the basement to let Magpie in. A bright-eyed woman wearing a headscarf was doing her laundry. She didn’t look thirty-two.

“Hi, I’m Karen. I live across the street and I thought Magpie might want in ‘cause it’s so cold outside.”

“Thank You,” she said smiling.  “It’s fine to do that.”

 

February 13th

We haven’t seen Magpie for days and worry that she might have gone on one of her walkabouts. But there are lots of people inside the house now and she is a social cat. It is still frigid outside so we continue to look out for her.  

The backup beeping of a large truck brings us back to the window. A woman with a clipboard has arrived at the same time as the truck. She opens the trunk of her small car where I can see large bottles of bleach and jumbo packages of paper towels. The back of the truck is open.

“They are probably bringing in a hospital bed,” my husband says.

We did not stay to see the bed carried inside.

 

February 14th

People bundled up and carrying handle bags decorated with valentines are coming and going. I see them reach for the key above the door to let themselves in. Cars parked out front in sooty snow drifts make it difficult to pull out of our driveway. Claire’s family dog, “Roosevelt” is there. Her parents brought him from their home in Ohio.  

We see someone different walking Toby and Roosevelt each day. The two blond dogs–one curly, one not—trot side by side sniffing the air, anticipating the freedom of the meadows behind our street.

 

February 18th

A white van parks against the snow; children in colorful winter wrapping tumble out over the huge drifts and run to the front porch.

“How is Claire doing?” I ask a young ski-parka’d man shoveling the sidewalk in front of the house.

“Not well. She’s medicated a lot of the time– out of it.”

“I just saw the dogs going for a walk.”

“Oh yeah, Claire’s brother took Toby and Roosevelt for a run over at the dike.”

“I’m so glad that Roosevelt is here. Do you know Magpie?”

“Oh Yes!” He smiles.  “Magpie is with us too.”

“It is so unfair….”  I say.

“Ye…” the word fading to a nod.

“Do you need anything? Can we bring a meal?”

“There are so many people visiting, someone can always go out and get what we need. But Thanks. I’ll tell Elizabeth… What’s your name?”

“‘Karen’– across the street.”

 

February 20th

A young man leaving the apartment stops on the front porch lifting his glasses to wipe tears. Others come out from time to time to sit and smoke. I am glad that I shoveled out their front porch after the last storm. Two people set up folding camp chairs in the snow on the side of the house where the sun is strong and drink their coffee. Magpie has lots of people in her house and she stays inside where it’s warm. I light a small candle in our kitchen window in the early morning dark.  

 

February 21st

I recognize a pair of Claire’s friends talking in the cold air some distance from the house. Later I see them sitting on the front porch; one bows his head into his hands, his upper body folding over suspended above his lap. I remember them in summer clothes sitting in a large circle of laughter.

 

February 24th

It is eerie-quiet. No cars are parked out front. No people going in and out of the house. I see Elizabeth walking only Toby. Magpie is outside today. She sees us empty the recycling and meows as she crosses the street feeling the salty slush beneath her pink paw pads. I get her some food and sit with her on our porch in my parka and slippers. She alternates eating and rubbing against my shins, marking me.

 

February 28th

My downstairs neighbor is emptying her car from a weekend in New York.

“I guess the young woman passed away,” she says.

“Are you sure?” I ask. “We haven’t seen anything.”

“The other night when I got home from work there was a group of people outside hugging and crying. The body language made me think she had passed.”

“What night was that?” I ask.

“Monday or Tuesday. I guess she is at peace.”

How could we have missed it? I wonder. We have been watching. Magpie is lying on her back on our porch rolling from side to side asking us to play with her.

 

March 5th

Papery, mint green hospital bedding is piled on Magpie’s porch chair. I know exactly what is happening and my chest tightens. The three jumbo plastic bottles appear on the porch in front of the piled-up chair. Magpie is huddled on the railing looking cold.

We take care in picking out a card for Elizabeth expressing our condolences. We each choose birds, but our tastes are different. His is more “Spring” and mine is an owl. We go with “Spring.”

 

March 6th

Walking home from town I see Elizabeth heading down our street with Toby. I call over, “How are you doing?” and begin to walk toward her. Toby’s dark eyes are looking hard at me. I am not familiar to him. In the moment I pause, I hear, “I’m fine, how are you?” reflexively called back as she continues to walk in the opposite direction. I think, “Why would she ask me how I am?”

 

March 7th

A large cardboard box now occupies Magpie’s chair.  I see Elizabeth’s mother leave the apartment to get something from her car parked out front. She has long, blond hair and wears a cape. I wonder whether she is a difficult mother to have.

We open the back door and hear Magpie’s meow as she navigates the snow drifts to cross the street. Elizabeth’s door suddenly opens and her mother comes out with a tan-colored Boxer dog wearing a black muzzle. Elizabeth comes out with Toby to join her and we know that Magpie will manage to get inside when they return from walking the dogs.

 

March 8th

I go downstairs to feed my neighbor’s cat while she is away. As I fill the kitty’s bowl with dry food, I see a sticky note that she has left for me on the counter. It is attached to an obituary. Deep sadness floods my chest. I can’t read this alone.

 

March 9th

Elizabeth’s mother is on the front porch without a coat in the frigid air. She is matter-of-factly shaking the wrinkles out of a small skirt, but then slowly folds it and places it in the open cardboard box still occupying Magpie’s chair. Magpie has found a sunspot on the porch stairs and is watching the birds.

The wind has picked up and our chimes are clanging madly. I go out to grab them and see Elizabeth carrying the open box piled high with clothing threatening to fly away. Her car trunk is closed and I wonder how she will manage to open it. Her mother leaves the house carrying a small, colorfully painted shelf that she takes to her car. Magpie watches from the porch rail.

Elizabeth has squeezed the box into the trunk of her packed wagon and is sitting in the driver’s seat. Her mother walks toward the wagon and I wonder whether she is saying “goodbye” or getting into the passenger side.

“THE EIGHTH GRADE BASKETBALL GAME” by Michael H. Brownstein (NF)

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The eighth graders challenged members of the school’s faculty to a basketball game in order to raise money to bring down the cost of the eighth grade trip. I was asked to play, and I know I’m probably the worst basketball player in the city, and much to my amazement I said I would, but there would be one condition.

“Only one?” they asked.

“My class cannot get more than three zeroes for the entire week.”

It seemed a simple enough request, and it worked, until the day of the big game. Now you need to know that I don’t own a pair of basketball shorts, my gym shoes are tore up and raggedy, and I don’t even know if I have a pair of white socks anywhere. So I went out and bought some new gym shoes—twenty-four dollars. I haven’t paid that much for shoes in ten or fifteen years. I dug through my drawers and found one pair of sort of white stockings. One of the school volunteers told me he would lend me some basketball shorts. Team shirts would be provided.

The morning of the game, my class had to present their research project. This was six weeks of work. Not one day. Not two weeks. Six weeks. And though most of the students tried, nine students didn’t do anything at all. Nine zeroes. Yay! I didn’t have to play. And I’d get my twenty-four dollars back cause I didn’t really have any need for those new gym shoes.

It didn’t happen. Eighth grade girls came into my classroom after they heard and talked to every one of the students who earned zeroes. OK. I let them in. And it worked. An hour later, all nine of them made a presentation. Not much of a presentation, but a presentation that earned twenty points out of a possible three hundred. Twenty points is no longer a zero.

I had to play.

So here I am, 3:15, in the bathroom changing into basketball shorts so big I have to pull the drawstring with all of my might, pulling up my sort of white stockings (we’ll call them off white), putting on my new gym shoes, and the red shirt they gave me.
I walk into the gym, the edges of the basketball shorts tickling my knees (how do you get used to that?) and the students start applauding. Applauding like I’m a superstar. I would smile if I didn’t feel so out of place. Everywhere people are warming up. And now they’re high fiving me and chanting my name. I try to figure out where I can hide.

After all, I knew I had to be the worst basketball player in the city. Probably in the state.
The game starts and I’m a starter. The ball is passed to me. I take a shot. I miss. Not an air ball. At least it hits the backboard. I pass once, take a pass and pass again. That’s enough. With my help the other team is winning. Not by a little either. The score is eleven to four.
I have to tell you I pretend to play in every quarter. At least my son will be proud. “Every quarter? And you weren’t tired?” How would I be? I only ran back and forth a few times, the other players quickly knew not to pass to me (one open pass bounced off my knees into an eighth grader’s hands and he easily scored), and I couldn’t even contain my own students (even though I towered over them).

No matter. It was fun. We lost by six—73-67, but the school raised some money and I humiliated myself in front of everyone.

OK. Here’s the deal. No zeroes for the rest of the month and I’ll eat an earthworm sandwich. But there’s a catch. I’m not letting the eighth grade girls in to convince everyone to do their work.

 


Michael H. Brownstein’s poetry volume, A Slipknot Into Somewhere Else: A Poet’s Journey To The Borderlands Of Dementia, was recently published by Cholla Needles Press (2018).