“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).

“Seven years in the City” by Ron Clinton Smith

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Before beginning an acting career, the only thing I wanted to do was write. I rented a dark little hovel in the basement of a large yellow house on Winn Park for ninety dollars a month, an upscale, eclectic, colorful neighborhood near downtown Atlanta. Peachtree bordered one side, Piedmont Park the other. White-columned mansions mixed in with modern remodels, old-moneyed families with young professionals. My shower stall was so small you had to duck into it, and there was a tiny kitchenette next to the toilet. But it was all mine, I thought, until one night I heard rustling in the trash by my bed, was sure I was dreaming it, and bolted awake as paper and orange peels flew in the air.

I’d hear them gnawing every night, teeth-sawing, realizing there were fat rats sharing my hole in the wall, grandfathered in from generations. The white-haired owner, pretending surprise, installed poison and traps. I heard one slap shut in the middle of the night and found a rat the size of a cat smashed in it. There was a healthy tribe of them though, and all night they’d grind and work on a few feet away. I was waiting tables at a popular steak house built out of train cars, then up late reading, working on stories. The second I moved in a major construction project broke ground up on Peachtree called Colony Square, a twenty story building. I’d be trying to rest after getting in late and being gnawed awake by my rat pals, the whistle blew, cranes cranked up, and I was stuffing my ears with pillows, writhing around trying to get some sleep. One morning I heard pounding at my door, groggily cracked it, and there was a pamphlet from Jehovah’s Witnesses that said AWAKE!

I escaped my rat hovel after a year, scraping up enough for my girlfriend and I to travel in Europe, and when we came back I found a large efficiency one bath with a two person claw foot tub on the third floor of an old red brick off Piedmont. The landlady told me it was the same floor Margaret Mitchell lived on when she’d been struck and killed by a taxi cab on Peachtree in 1946. I wasn’t bothered by Margie’s company; she was a bit daunting at first, but comforting too in a colleague sort of way. I was charting my first novel, and late at night I’d feel a curious presence looming over my shoulder. But the old place had been there since the turn of the century, so no telling who was still hanging around.

It was a high-ceilinged room with tall windows looking out on white oaks with a nice view of houses across the street and rooftops and trees beyond. I had a large antique dining table I wrote on, listening to Debussy and gazing out into the green space. I’d disappear and forget about time, writing until I was hungry, pick up Chinese from Tong’s Kitchen, or run a few miles through Winn Park down the street.

Continue reading ““Seven years in the City” by Ron Clinton Smith”

“Constructing / Deconstructing” by Stephen Mead (Non-Fic)

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Why should an empty aquarium in a dusty cellar pick up enough sun from the sooty windows to switch on a light bulb in my brain?  Why is it I think not just of fish; angel, tetra, neon, clown, but of a display case instead? Why should that second thought become a compulsion and take precedence over the first?  Is this how hoarders start? Filled with adrenalin to collect, and even have some organized system to the stockpiling which, to others, just seems like disarray? Those who take up athletics may collect objects of the sport, be it pigskin or baseballs the way a choir master hunts for particular choral sheets or cooks; spices.  I think of a main character from Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”, how she enjoyed scrubbing labels off of tin cans and stacking them, watching their aquamarine silver shimmer. Whatever gets you through the night, John Lennon might sing.

Washing off the ten gallon fish tank in my paint-stained porcelain kitchen sink I don’t give too much thought to who else in the building might have owned it, or owns it still.  Soaping, rinsing, swooshing the grit down the drain, I do have a thief’s excitement but also an archeologist’s sense of an unveiling. It feels fitting to me that I found a use for this tank, a use which has the memory of water even while I plan on leaving it dry.  A heavy vase of cut crystal fits the center perfectly. Its height calls for marbles, blue, green, mottled, an aggie variety from childhood to fill the whole and reflect its facets. Next starfish and shells go around the vase: ammonite, conch, turitella, even clam, the whorls and spirals arranged to suggest wavy treasures, what forms were housed, crept over sand and left behind beach mysteries.  Lastly an art project which fell apart completes the tableau and I can breathe a sort of catharsis that I’ve found an outlet for being so covertly covetous, vicarious even, engaged with lives which were borrowed for awhile but not really mine.

I feel relief in finding a home for that broken art project too, chunks of it kept for years in an old plastic shopping bag, under shoes at the back of a small closet.  The origins of that project went from thought to clay, the concept of taking impressions of various textures and creating a means of tying them all into one. “Metamorphosis” was the name of the finished piece and it was fitting since so many shapes and grooves took on life by being placed beside others, a sort of rounded organic jigsaw in-the-making as shapes were moved around while attempting to form a pattern of cohesion.

Every city, town, room, has so many details that clay can take an impression from the way paper and charcoal can be used for a grave rubbing.  There architectural embellishments are everywhere: cornices around doors, carved faces in pillars, iron ivy in staircases, or just something more minimal, like the scallop curves found in heating vents.  Aside from the writing on a manhole cover and the top of a water main’s knob, I don’t really recall all the different impressions I took which went into that bas relief art piece, nor do I remember the steps involved to take it from clay to plaster.  I remember the pouring and casting of the plaster though, the thick creamy whiteness settling around details and how I used a broom to whisk more lines at the bottom and top of the piece, creating a beach comber frieze. I also can’t remember if it was black paint or ink which I used to make certain lines stand out though in retrospect I wish I’d either left the entire thing milky or found a way to create the effect of moss, in particular fronds of sphagnum.

In the end, adhered to thick wood, “Metamorphosis” was quite heavy and also bit of a millstone to cart around from one apartment to another as I continued to get older and move about.  Still, I know of a local artist who does her paintings on slate and she must be like a female hybrid of Moses and Hercules hauling the testaments of her art around from gallery to gallery.  Still, there’s been a little bit of pain, a sort of inner wince felt every time parts of “Metamorphosis” have broken off. After awhile however I realized I enjoyed removing the other pieces and that sculpture as an art form was too heavy for my spirit anyway.  As a matter of fact plaster and I never quite got on from the start.

Before doing “Metamorphosis”, the first project of working with clay and plaster involved taking a piece of the kind of Styrofoam used in couch cushions.  By the cunning use of durable rubber bands the class instructor twisted this thick foam into a shape that was sensual on the right hand and somewhat comical on the left.  I mean I found it comical.  Though others found the shape vaginal I found it hemorrhoidal and kept picturing the talking buttock typewriters out of Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.  At one point I even put large space alien veins on the piece but wound up removing them before inflicting my inane view on the art instructor’s more sensible one.  It wasn’t his fault I was so grouchy about wanting to do some sort of art that would have earth shattering meaning.  

Most likely it was my attitude which got me into trouble with the whole plaster thing.  I still have no idea what exactly I did wrong. Like many in the class I added food coloring, baby blue and girl pink, into the liquid plaster mix spread upon the initial white layer that went over the clay.  I believe we did this to somehow know what plaster strata held the shape of the clay that was the actual sculpture when it came time for the clay to be removed. For some reason though my blue and pink plaster never quite set and I wound up peeling it off like chunks of melting Slushies into a garbage bag while the teacher advised me to go out and get drunk.  Instead, bad nerves and all, sans the food coloring, I stated over the next morning, even receiving an “A” in the end, but at that point the teacher had profound pity for me and my sufferings for art.

It’s amazing what a nervous wreck I was about the whole damn thing but I was often this way when it came time to being around other people in general.  The teacher, despite his steely penetrating turquoise eyes, was an incredibly gentle and good man, and seemed to have extra patience with me when it came to using a blow torch and put the finishing touches on the project.  Blow torch? When I was a kid I witnessed a wagon house on our farm burn down but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when worried about conflagration in the art shop. No, like sentinels from some futuristic terrain, with twisted pieces of welded metal standing upright all around, pyromaniac fears loomed.  Would the flame of yellowish indigo hypnotize me to some point beyond sanity? Not to worry. Breathe deep. Hold ground. Through foggy goggles I watched as fire sparked over the sculpture’s lunar turf, letting certain scratches in the surface bleed beyond the char.

I called this art piece “The Survivor” but others joked about it being more of a burnt turkey.  Its weight again was also bowling-ball substantial. My lesbian roommate at the time saw its sensuous folds and rolling inward protuberances as having the character of a feminist deity, something fun to put out, as if for worship, when she had her womyn’s circle meetings.  Still, for several years, “The Survivor” lived up to its name, its char rubbing off on my hands or clothes as it followed the bouncing balls of my apartment moves. Eventually however, when my parent’s farm was being sold I decided to give the relic a final resting place. A creek ran by that property, one which my sister had dug clay from for some of her own early art projects, so I found burial at creek bed a fitting demise.  Down, down, down, “The Survivor” looked as if lightning was playing tag over it as white tipped black waves of the creek’s cold current took it on home. Sometimes I wonder if there was anything left of the sculpture when the water receded. I wonder if erosion obliterated it completely or if pieces were scattered to shores further on. I imagine them catching the eye of someone wandering along or being caught in a fisherman’s twine.  The mud and eely algae greens slough off and the remains startle with the sheen of whale bone.

In the nooks and crannies of my brain’s landscape, where images and memories play peek-a-boo over the hills and valleys at any unexpected time, I can see that sculpture rising, smooth here, porous there, and ready for the empty ephemera of a clean aquarium display case that too will be dismantled when parting is nigh.

 

Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer.  Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online.  He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance.  In 2014 he began a webpage to gather links of his poetry being published in such zines as Great Works, Unlikely Stories, Quill & Parchment, etc., in one place: Poetry on the Line, Stephen Mead For links to his other media (and even merchandise if you are interested) please feel free to Google Stephen Mead Art

“Items Not Found in Home Depot” by Kyle Lee (NF)

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What exactly does an accountant need with a belt sander? What does a lawyer need with a power drill? What do I need with an air compressor? Why do so many people need power tools complete with rechargeable batteries, an array of various attachments and a lifetime warranty that will likely never be put to use?

It’s not like I came to these questions lightly. I can justify a need should the need arise but do I aim to be my father and house half a hardware store in my garage? What is it I, and the accountant, and the lawyer and everyone else need to fix with this cornucopia of not oft used power tools? What are we trying to fix?

What are we meant to fix?

Coming to this question began by my falling down the stairs. It wasn’t a large flight, one of only a few steps. Earlier, I had brought down a three-hole punch from my study, a power tool of a different sort, for my wife and the hefty amount of paperwork she attempts to slay on a regular basis. With her task done, I left the punch on the third from the bottom step so I would remember to take it back up where it belonged. This is the sort of thing that’s akin to writing on your hand. One may think he or she will remember since it’s placed in so obvious a spot but it’s a magic trick, the kind where objects hide in plain sight.

Alas, the three-hole punch worked its magic and I went up the steps without it. This lead to my downfall, as on my return, my foot found the silvery object. In an instant, I crashed and carpet burned my way down the steps to the cold tile floor.

There I laid, staring at the ceiling, hating the popcorn texture left by the previous owners of the house. It spread before me like a static ocean of dusty white around an island of a light fixture that I hated because it was both ugly and held lightbulbs that took forever to warm up to full brightness. The bulbs I could change without much effort, but that popcorn would haunt me.

My parents once put up a popcorn ceiling, realized they hated it and scraped it all off a week later. The popcorn floated down like snow, leaving their hair just as white as the ceiling. The process aged them prematurely in various ways. Surely, Home Depot had a tool to make this easy.
But the popcorn and the impending war against it would have to wait for another time. On the way down to bruising my pride and dignity, my hand reached out to the handrail out of instinct. Though the fall was short, it was plenty blunt. Out from the wall came the bannister.

Again.

I’m not clumsy but the stairs marked me a target from the day my wife and I moved in. They fed on the suffering of bipedal creatures and the kinetic energy generated by their collapse.

So, onto the list of chores this priority repair went. I needed new hand rail brackets, screws and maybe even a new power drill because the one I already owned wasn’t worth the twenty dollars I spent on it at the big box store. Those places sell Band-Aids, not aid.

Unfortunately, this felt like the sort of thing that stays on that “Honey Do” list for a while because life builds up a Hoover Dam of obligation. Just enough gets through to grant one the power of authority but should it all come at once, it’s overwhelming. I’m perfectly fine being “whelmed.” But somewhere in that obligation rise the floaters and cracks and brownouts and aggravations.

The house seems to be falling apart all at once.
The children are going through that phase you don’t know how to handle.
Work becomes less an occupation and more servitude.

The humorless robots you try and explain yourself to occupy more of your thoughts than they should.

There are things that thousands of years of existence have never produced an easy fix for and these things always find a way to rear their ugly head. These are human problems no doubt, but consider that dinosaurs had a similar problem structure. One dinosaur finds food. Another dinosaur wants said food. A third dinosaur decides that eating the two smaller dinosaurs is best for everyone that just so happens to be him. It worked for millions of years, but no mega lizard could figure out that meteor on its way down, could they?

I suppose we have missiles and Bruce Willis for that, but the problem remains despite human ingenuity and the need to push somebody over. There are things in life that have no easy fix. The grand difficulty in this observation is we, as a species, are way too slow to arrive at this conclusion. More so, we are too damned stubborn to accept it.

Until the house drives you to the edge of budget and reason.
Until the children make Lord of the Flies look tame.
Until your job slaps you awake with recursive reality or a pink slip.
Until the humorless robots activate Mother Machine.

We each have our moment of realization, an epiphany of mumbled cussing and forehead slapping madness. Mine occurred late at night, not long after my rebelling children finally fell asleep, dreaming of fire breathing dragons and nightmaring about Mickey Mouse. The house was quiet for the first time in hours and I sat on those same damnable stairs looking at the broken handrail. I took up the brackets, took up the screws and went to work. I couldn’t quell the inhabitants of the madhouse any better than a general need for sleep could but at this instant in time, I reached the summit of Everest and the surface of the moon all at once. Why? Because at that very moment, it was a singular thing I knew I could fix. We fix the things we can when we are faced with the things we can’t. It’s a Zen of misplaced attention and I suppose, it’s also quiet contemplation.

How many banisters have been fixed during an offspring’s naturally scheduled rebellion? How many track lights have been installed when the boss wants more productivity for less money? How many significant others complained about the in-laws only to get a refurbished attic instead? How many toilets have been fixed when teenaged daughters were dumped?

How many dad jokes were launched from that one alone?

By this theory, I’d say there’s a power tool that corresponds with each problem. These are the modern human contemplative devices, idols and totems of significance and reassurance. So yes, the accountant will own a belt sander. The lawyer will need a power drill. Fathers will have garages full of tools because of their children alone.

I know my father did.

More so before the garage sale that happened to coincide with my graduation from high school.

This “Unified Theory of Power Tools” may not work for everyone of course. Trade workers own what they own for obvious reasons and people like engineers and architects and the like love power tools for a different reason. But these are the sorts of people who look for similar answers by painting serene landscapes, baking chocolate chip cookies larger than their head or doing lawn work.

My dad had tons of lawn equipment, too.

Maybe karma is its own power tool.

But do you know the miraculous thing of it all? There are whole stores dedicated to “home improvement.” These corporate entities know full well that they sell bears the weight of double meaning, all while understanding that for thousands, possibly millions, they have created the very issues that drive a man or woman to his or her tools. Is it an illusion? The friendly neighborhood T-Rex didn’t have a Home Depot. And where is he now?

Aisle 14 in an oil can.

Consider for a moment that we’ve not always had these big box home improvement entities. Before these there were mom and pop stores to provide that down home comfort and service. And let us not forget the handymen who’ve driven nails and maybe shared a little bit of homegrown advice that only comes with experience. Somewhere, a Grecian urn shows a philosopher who may or may not have been a handyman himself.

There have been TV shows about handymen, their tools and their wisdom. Songs have been written about these toolslingers, one even sung by the King of Rock n’Roll. And lest we forget that the King of Kings himself was a carpenter, handy for your home and your soul?

Rome wasn’t built in a day since they probably didn’t have enough tools.

Would this then make Hal at Home Depot and Libby at Lowes gurus of life coaching or new age doctors of a real do-it-yourself mentality? Is your friendly neighborhood Ace Hardware a temple of transcendence? Can we find on the shelves the answers we so crave?

No.

They don’t sell everything at Home Depot, especially not the easy answers. These are people with their own set of things they can’t fix. But they do get an employee discount on the things they can. And they can certainly guide you toward that table saw on clearance that has “senior prom” written all over it.

 

Kyle Brandon Lee is a Texas born and raised writer of prose, poetry and plays. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Literary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and has seen short stories published at Mirror Dance and Furtive Dalliance. You can follow him on twitter at @Kyle_B_Lee  

“Shooting Johnny” (NF) by Terry Dawley

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The sun festered overhead like an inflamed boil while we sweltered in the train yard and waited for them to shoot Johnny.

I raised a hand to my brow to shielded my eyes from daggers of sunlight, glinting off the polished rails, and peered at those gathered to witness the affair. They were the faces of familiar strangers.

“Where is he?” I whispered to Tom, standing next to me.

He nodded in the direction of Johnny’s sisters. “Over there.”

Sherri, the older of the two, wearing a solemn expression, had Johnny pressed tightly against her chest. He was ashen and featureless. Their mother stood beside them, her face a mask of confused numbness.

It wasn’t every day that a mother would watch her son get shot on the tracks.

Sad as it was, it was a fitting way for Johnny to be disposed. He’d always had a thing for blowing shit up and burning things down. Like the time he’d set fire to the wooden walls on the inside of a boxcar with flares he’d stolen from a caboose.  

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The oily smell of creosote bleeding from the sun-heated railroad ties took me back to happier days. I could almost hear the creaking sway of a slow-moving line of cars being shuttled about by a switcher engine—see the younger versions of us partying in an empty boxcar with a keg of stolen beer—feel the giddy flutter of excitement while hightailing from the law.

The crunch of tires on the cinder access road brought me back to the here and now.

A pickup truck rumbled toward us.

“It’s here,” Tom said out of the corner of his mouth.

“Where’d they get something like this from?”

“Friend of Frankie’s.” Tom swiped a hand across his sweat-beaded forehead. “Guess he’s a tool and die guy.”

The truck came to a stop a few feet away from the group of us. Frankie stepped out the passenger side door, a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his eyes squinted against the smoke. Some guy I didn’t know got out the driver’s side. Both went to the rear of the pickup and the tailgate banged open.

Though the cannon was only about the size of an overfed poodle, I could tell by the strain on their faces when they hefted it from the bed of the truck that it had some weight to it. The two of them muscled it between a set of rails and eased it down.

“Jesus Christ,” Frankie muttered, the cigarette between his lips jerking with every word. “That little sucker’s heavy.” He massaged the small of his back.

The guy I didn’t know knelt down on one knee and tinkered with the midget piece of artillery. He ran a hand over its sleek barrel as if it were the thigh of a lover. It was easy to see the thing was his pride and joy.

Someone burped.

I glanced over at Peanut. His face was lost inside a tangled mass of graying beard and shaggy hair. A pair of jaundice eyes—like two piss holes sunk into a dirty snowbank—stared back at me. In his shaky hand, he clutched a can of Bud. “Scuse me,” he said, the beard spreading enough for me to catch glimpse of his sparse-tooth grin.

“She’s ready!”

I turned my attention back to the guy and his cannon. He stood, brushed some cinder from his knee, and gave a thumbs up.

With an air of somber formality, the sisters escorted their brother forward to meet his explosive destiny, while their mother sniffed and dabbed a tissue at her reddened, puffy eyes.

When they passed by Peanut he raised the can of Bud as if he were about to make a toast. “So long, Johnny,” he slurred, brought the beer to his whisker-curtained mouth, tilted his head back, and chugged the can dry, then crunched it in his hand and let loose another belch.

The sisters walked Johnny to the front of the cannon. With their backs toward the assembled group of witnesses, they positioned him, then stepped to the side out of the line of fire.

A current of electrified anticipation crackled throughout the group when Cannon Guy leaned forward, struck a lighter and held the flame to a fuse poking from the top of the barrel. It caught, hissed snake-like, and curled into itself on a slow sizzling burn. Everyone—with the exception of Johnny—held their breath.

The bark of the poodle-sized artillery had the volume of a bull mastiff. Ears ringing, I watched in open-mouthed shock as a gray cloud exploded into the air.

“Holy shit!” Tom adjusted the hearing aid in his right ear. “Somebody’s gonna call the cops.”

Sherri stepped back up to the cannon. She dipped her hand into the plastic freezer baggie she held, scooped out more of the powdery ash, and reloaded the cannon with another fistful of Johnny.

 

Terry Dawley resides in the snowbelt of Erie, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Cleveland Review, Soft Cartel, and Law Enforcement Today. He is an award winner of the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition and a five-time award winner of the Pennwriters Annual Writing Contest.

Nick’s Poetic Ponderings -“Getting Rich the Easy Way”

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Have you ever thought to yourself: “ahhhh geeze, I wish I could ask a poet for life advice,”? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m Nick, a real-life poet, and I’m here to give you guidance.

 

Today’s Question:


“Dear Nick,

I’m going to be getting my tax return back soon, but I’m not sure what I should do with the money. Do I pay my bills or buy something exciting?

Thanks,
-Fiscally Frightened”


 

 

Dear Fiscally Frightened,

I’m gonna be blunt with you, friend: both of these ideas are terrible. Paying your bill is boring and buying something cool is a onetime thrill.

You need to be able to buy yourself new stuff constantly.

Which is why you need to invest that tax return, baby.

I’m not talkin’ the stock market, none of that billionaire nerd ass shit. You gotta do it the good old fashion way. Here’s your best bet for stretching that tax return to the stratosphere:

Option one: Have you been eying some dunks? Or some Birkenstocks? Why waste your money on a fresh pair, when you can put your DIY ethos to action. No, I’m not saying make your own shoes, I’m saying make your own sweatshop.

How do you think Nike makes all that money? Do you think they’d pay bills with their tax return, if they paid taxes in the first place? Of course not.

Just find some kids, pay them pennies to work, and you’re all set.

Option two: Let me explain a little economics 101 for you. When you receive money, the amount you have is finite. That means that when you spend it, you’re going to eventually run out.

But there’s a really neat hashtag lifehack to get around that: counterfeit money from Wish dot com.

Wish sells a whole lot of fake money. Some is designed for movie props or whatever, and a lot just has some Chinese characters printed on top. That’s totally fine though, just get $1s and $5s. No one checks that shit.

Just sneak yourself a fake $1 in between two real $1s; 7-11 ain’t gonna notice. Buy a Slurpee with it. Shove candy bars in the Slurpee cup before you fill it.

Boom. You just paid three dollars and left with like $6 worth of shit.

Option three: Why take a lump sum when you can easily quadruple your money at any Kroger in the country?

That’s right baby, I’m talkin about the magic of scratch offs.

You invest your whole tax return, turn that thing into a bunch of $1 lottery tickets, you’re bound to make it all back and then some.

Like, I haven’t actually done the math on this but it seems to make sense. If you buy enough, you’ll probably end up with a quarter of a million in no time.

 

And really, that’s all there is to it. Just invest your money in any of the above ways and watch your “bread,” as the kids say, multiply.

 

Have a question for Nick? DM him on Twitter! @dollartreevegan

“That’s Cereal, Hunny” (NF) by Kat Giordano

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I met “Koji” on a 2D sidescrolling MMORPG called Maplestory back in ~2008. I was in 7th grade, going into 8th. Looking back, that summer was a very special sweet spot, the exact point of diminishing returns between freedom and responsibility after which the demands on my time would only increase. The following summers would either be taken up by work or poisoned by a deeply troubling undercurrent of shame at my lack of productivity. But this summer marked the first time I had enough interiority for my free time to feel interesting and perhaps the last time it would be socially acceptable, if not celebrated, to vegetate around the house for multiple days doing nothing but melt in the heat.

Being only 13 at the time, I failed to see this chunk of time for what it was. In fact, I mostly resented having nothing to do but sit in front of my family’s computer eating Hot Pockets and El Monterrey Taquitos and trying to get my archer to level 30. So when I met “Koji” on a boat traveling between Maplestory continents one summer afternoon, I was more thrilled than perhaps was appropriate. Sure, I was still just playing a video game alone in the nook off my parents’ living room, but communicating with someone else immediately galvanized it for me. I’ve always had this thing where I never felt like I was really Doing Anything, almost like I didn’t exist, unless someone was interacting with me. Talking to “Koji” made my solitude feel less pathetic and more purposeful, like I was having some sort of measurable net effect on the world around me. We hit it off, he added me to his guild, and suddenly I had what felt like a decent approximation of a Group of Friends.

Of course it wasn’t long before I made him my boyfriend. Looking back, I’m not even really sure what made us originally start talking or what we even talked about. I do remember that we both listened to The Shins, which may have been the only actual interest outside of Maplestory that we shared. I used to send him poems that I wrote, and he pretended to understand what I meant, and we both pretended that either one of us knew anything about poetry. I found that even that mostly-shallow sort of interaction made me feel less alone than most people I knew in meatspace. Besides, he apparently lived outside of Pittsburgh, and the fact that he lived in the same state as me made him seem more real somehow.

Once, he messaged me to let me know he’d written a poem about me on a Taco Bell napkin and typed it up for me in the in-game chat. For years, I had it memorized and kept it close to me because for years, it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done in my honor. In 2018, I have it scrawled in the front cover of an old diary from middle school that I pull out from time to time just to laugh at it, because it is fucking hilarious:

Just wishful thinking

The girl whose mere grunts form poems

That’s cereal, hunny¹

For every word that spills from her lips

My heart fills like a pool

At the bottom of a waterfall

The other guys in the guild were cool as well, though they never meant as much to me as “Koji” did, and we didn’t really keep in touch. They were all roughly 16-20 years old, including “Koji,” and I spent most of my time trying to throw off the scent of someone significantly younger and more innocent than they were. Even “Koji,” who was 16 at the time, thought I was at least in high school, and as a result, I was privy to a lot of stories he and the guild guys would have (hopefully) been uncomfortable telling a naïve middle schooler. For instance, one of the older guys told me about the time an old girlfriend’s parents once caught him fucking her mid-orgasm in her house and then proceeded to lie to them that his visible ejaculation stains were actually him “pissing himself from fear².” In exchange, I told him the story of the time a part of my bathing suit came loose and I had a minor wardrobe malfunction on Assateague Beach. He then proceeded to let me know there were probably “a lot of boners” on the beach that day, a statement that flattered my underage, mosquito-bite tits off back in 2008 and now sends me cringing into a singularity.

I took all of this as a sign that I was becoming One of the Guys, that I was making some real impression on “Koji” and his friends. I started to imagine a real future together, both of us meeting in the middle of Pennsylvania and falling in love in real life and somehow inviting all of our Guild Friends to the wedding. It was, at the time, the closest approximation of Deep Love I could muster.

And then he went on vacation.

It would only be for a week, he explained, and he would be back online as soon as he got home, but none of that mattered to me. I was already crushed, already abandoned. My unexpectedly soul-filling summer was screeching to a halt before my eyes, and I didn’t even bother trying to hide my devastation. We may have only been in an Internet Relationship, but “Koji” knew me well enough to reassure me using metaphor.

“Pretend it’s the gold rush,” he said, “and I’m heading out west to go make us some money. But pretend when I get back, it’ll be even better than gold. It’ll be diamonds.”

Diamonds. Diamonds. I held onto his words for the next few days, willing myself to remain optimistic in light of my sudden loneliness. I believed he meant it, that things would be even better than expected when he did eventually return. But without someone to talk to every day, a person to revolve my life around, I was quickly sucked back into myself, restless and paranoid. What if he didn’t come back? What was he doing right now? Was he thinking about me? When would we be together? A few days turned into a week, a week into two, and when he still hadn’t returned as promised, I spiraled even deeper.

For a few more weeks, I tried to resume my typical Maplestory activities. They weren’t nearly as exciting without “Koji” to share them with, but they were the closest thing I had to a routine. I felt like a widow. I didn’t know how else to fill my day. With no way of contacting him outside of the game, all I could do was open up our chat window every few hours, searching for some sign he’d logged on, at least for a minute or two. I’d reached the point where I didn’t even care if he talked to me again. I just wanted stimulus, input, some sign that he was still generally himself or even still existed. I asked the Guild Guys about him, but they didn’t know him any better than I did and eventually got tired of my questioning. With no other leads, I resorted to Googling his Maplestory username, with surprisingly revelatory results.

First of all, I noticed that, in addition to the PinnPointt account I had come to know and have weird cartoon lust for, there were a variety of other “PinPoint” accounts, with a variety of distributions of n’s and t’s, presumably also operated by “Koji.” The Maplestory website had a listing of all of the players and their stats, and it seemed as though these other iterations had been abandoned at lower levels, leading me to wonder what had led “Koji” to keep creating new accounts. I also noticed that he had not stopped at PinnPointt, as there appeared to be usernames with even more n’s and t’s (PinnnPointtt, etc.) that had also been abandoned at early levels. This suggested that at some point. “Koji” had toyed with creating a new version of his Maplestory persona and then regressed back to the one he’d used to meet me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the reason for his attachment.

Second of all, “Koji” had a YouTube account that I was able to locate using the names of one of his many failed PinPoint experiments. The channel mostly featured videos of Maplestory Gameplay, but there were also a few shoddy recordings of him and presumably his younger brother doing weird outdoorsy things, like blowing up and destroying things in their backyard. Sitting in the nook off the living room late at night, cicadas screeching through the windows, I sat in a frog-squat on the computer chair, mining each one for small details about “Koji” and his life. He had a younger brother, who seemed to be around my age (the irony). Wherever he lived, his family seemed to have a lot of land. And he was chillingly boyish, judging by his interest in doing recklessly destructive experiments in his parents’ backyard. Strangely, the revelation of his appearance was low on the list of my concerns. I remember thinking he was normal-looking. Not the sort of stereotypical Pained Expression Emo Boy I would have had a crush on in those days, but not prohibitively nerdy or weird-looking the way I’d secretly feared he would be. These details both galvanized my ideas about “Koji” and alienated me from them. The more I came to discover about him, the more I missed him. And yet, it became increasingly clearer that we knew relatively little about each other, and I began to feel silly for pinning so many of my hopes to him – both for the summer and for much further in the future than I would like to admit.

It took me around two months – practically the rest of the summer – to accept that “Koji” probably wasn’t coming back. And by “accept,” I mean acknowledge his absence and then use the heartache as fuel for this ultra-horrible poem

Where are you?

Don’t you miss me?

Didn’t you say I was your everything?

I thought we could do anything.

So why didn’t you say goodbye?

I waited, I really did.

But I can’t wait like this forever.

I need you now,

Not this summer.

Not a few months from now.

Not tomorrow.

You said we were on a carriage ride out west.

That this was a bump in the road.

That at the end, there wouldn’t be gold.

There would be diamonds.

But all I see is that stupid poem you wrote me.

I’m sick of seeing it every time I open my notebook to write.

It’s not good enough anymore.

Come find me.

Please, just come find me.


The title of this poem is “Stepping on a Pinn,” and I decided to include it in a note instead of in the body of the essay itself because I feel like both the poem and its ridiculous, emotionally tone-deaf pun title deserved their own comedic moment. Sorry for the interruption. Go on.


Despite all of the angst it entailed, I don’t remember exactly how long his absence lasted, only that at some point during my eighth-grade year he reappeared and explained that he had contracted Lyme disease on a family trip to Presque Isle³ and then fell out of the routine of playing. I showed him my shitty poem, and he apologized for worrying me. He also gave me his AIM screenname so we could continue to keep in touch regardless of our commitment to the game. Around this time, he also informed me that “Koji” wasn’t his real name (hence the quotes), and that he used it in-game to seem more interesting and skilled as a player. I won’t share his real first and last name here, even though they are extremely generic, because I’m already toeing the line as it is, and this guy and I still interact once a year on Instagram. In some ways, I finally got what I had always wanted – some information that placed “Koji” outside the context of Maplestory, something that gave me more access to him, almost like someone I knew in real life. But things were never the same between us as they were that summer. We kept in touch, but he wasn’t as crazy about me as he’d been before, and I was busy with school. I largely stopped playing Maplestory and focused much of my internet time on trying to nurse my extremely tumultuous and pathetic relationship with a real-life crush.

Then at some point, he interrupted a conversation to let me know he had met a girl at his school and that he wanted to ask her out. Whatever still remained between us was done. I said something like yeah, me too, haha. Even though that wasn’t remotely true and nobody was going to date me let alone be genuinely interested in me for at least another year. For a while, we still talked. Then, we talked once in a while. Then, we didn’t talk at all.

I stopped using AIM in the beginning of high school, when I finally got a Facebook account and migrated most of my communication to Messenger. As a result, I lost touch with “Koji” for around five years, until I randomly decided to add him on Facebook one summer between college semesters. To my surprise, he accepted my request, and we caught up over the course of a couple days. Unlike me, he’d opted not to go to college and found himself a pretty well-paying job as a programmer, only for that to fall through a year or two later. At the time, he was working as a toll booth operator until he could find something else to do. That’s the most we’ve talked since I was in middle school. We’re mutuals on Instagram and I think about six months ago he told me one of my outfits (camo shirt, orange jacket, combat boots) looked nice.

Sometimes he’ll DM or Snapchat me a video of himself listening to the all-to-familiar Maplestory soundtrack, panning over to the grin on his face. And in those moments, it feels like we’re sharing something special – certainly generationally unique, but also unique to us. An acute nostalgia over something that’s both universal and completely obscure. A connection so small and so fleeting it almost aches, like we’re touching hands through a thick pane of glass.

 


¹ To be fair, I think this was an inside joke of ours, though I don’t remember the context, which I’m sure was also stupid.

² This story has haunted me for my entire life. When I first heard this back in 2008, I thought it would eventually make more sense to me, like maybe after I’d acquired some Sex Knowledge I would understand what happened here and/or how the fuck it was even possible. But it is the year of our Lord 2018 and this story still makes absolutely no sense to me, and after typing it out for the purpose of this memoir I am utterly convinced it didn’t happen and that the guy who told it to me was also an underage catfish virgin. First of all, I don’t really understand how “ejaculation stains” (?) could reasonably pass off as that or why someone’s parents would point them out in the first place. Secondly, assuming this is even true and these “ejaculation stains” (??!!?!?) were a thing he would have to lie to them about, why would telling them he was pissing himself out of fear be even remotely better than just owning up to what happened? I’m writing this at 12:53 AM and I am about 2.4 unanswered questions away from producing a full-scale, straight-to-Netflix investigative documentary on this. As the years continue to pass and this story continues to remain a nagging enigma to me, I’m increasingly worried that my final thoughts as my soul leaves my body will be about this fucking weird Maplestory Cum Anecdote and I don’t know how to cope with this creeping inevitability, tbh.

³ Later, and without any significant recollection of my whirlwind 7th grade internet romance, I would later attend college in Erie, PA, where my friends and I would frequently drive out to Presque Isle to grill hot dogs or walk on the frozen lake in winter. Given my many years in the Erie/Pittsburgh part of the state, I’m sure that “Koji” and I have visited many of the same places at different times, but it specifically warms my heart to know we have both been to Presque Isle and put our feet in the same water. Not because we’re still close, or anything, but because it reminds me that Internet People exist on the same plane I do, even if we never encounter each other on it.

 

Kat Giordano is a poet (1%) and massive millennial crybaby (99%) from Pennsylvania. She co-edits Philosophical Idiot and works for a law firm somehow. She is also the author of many highly embarrassing social media meltdowns at @giordkat. Her poems have appeared in Occulum, Ghost City Review, Awkward Mermaid, The Cincinnati Review, CLASH Magazine, and others. Her debut full-length poetry collection, The Poet Confronts Bukowski’s Ghost (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1732292205/), is available now.