“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 Author’s Ego” By Alexander Blum

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“Here’s how we’re running this down – there will be a twenty-minute exam, where you think the most interesting thoughts you can, and if they aren’t good enough, you’ll be killed on the spot. Here’s how we’ll deal with overpopulation – those who don’t think good things and instead think useless things, idiots, all of them, will be removed from the surface of the planet, leaving only the impressive people behind.

“We do not know, yet, how stringent our criteria will be, or how finely we will pull the culling nets. We do not know how many will be saved and how many will be killed. But practice yourselves, hone your minds, for the next five days, because on the fifth day, we’re going to start shooting anybody who fails a twenty-minute exam of their thoughts on the basis of whether or not they are cool or interesting or worthwhile enough to keep them around.

“Yes, we have a machine that can reach into your brain and see exactly what you’re thinking, imagining, words, pictures, sounds, all of it. And we’re not ideologues, either. We won’t blame you for thinking of controversial things. But if you can’t think of anything interesting at all, you have to die.

“Climate change is coming, anyway, and at least two-thirds of you will have to go. Emissions must decrease. Ah, I guess I spilled the beans there. Yes, two-thirds of you will end up shot. So even if you can think of something sort of interesting, if someone else thinks of something better, and if there are a lot of those ‘someone elses’, you’re dead.

“Lastly, please don’t think of us, the board members of the illustrious CCE, as a pack of ruthless fascists. In fact, we love humankind. We love all humans. We love them when they are at their best. So if a lot of people have to go, it only makes sense to save the best ones. So in fact, we’re doing you a service. We could pick randomly, but we decided, instead, we should pluck the tallest, straightest nails from the board and allow the rest to go down with the ship. Capisce?

“We have a great doctor here, Dr. Jorge Vorhes, and he’s prepared the live test according to perfect medical neuroimagining and neurotextual standards. Basically, if Dr. Vorhes doesn’t see anything but a dim light, a partial flicker, inside your soul, we can do without you. The ark is sailing, people. Get training.”

The blocks of the city that was once Rome were finely-cut black granite obelisks. Walls of sheer polish, criminal perfection. How did they get it away with it, those architects? Those blasted fiends – how did they shine ebon marble to so fine a pitch, so nimble a timbre? It is unfair, what they have achieved with this city. Their symmetry makes it so I cannot sleep at night, so I stay up, leafing through pages, critical of what I’ve done, critical of what I’ve written, stabbed with regret at words I’ve said.

At first, I didn’t believe them. When the architects who erected the city said that they would be killing two-thirds of us, I wanted to rationalize it. I assumed their perfection gave them the right to decide. Their merit was not mine. The city they made was not mine. And they, in the final analysis, could do what they want with me.

I understood that I was the property of the architects. But nobody could put a face on them. If you understand, they were a collection of bankers, gangsters, coin-hoarders, pimps, salesman and policemen. They were the nameless, faceless structure that we call upon to indict criminals.

But then they had Borga, my favorite author, a fanatic, a national hero, deliver that announcement, sitting in a velvet chair trimmed with lionfish gold, his fingers cusped tightly around a glass of Hennessey in his right hand, smiling, in the luxury lounge of some micro-dosing bar in some floating micro-city, and my stomach dropped beneath six or seven other organs in my congested gut, it dropped with despair.

The light emanating from the screen on the marble wall soaked us in a dim glittering gold. That gold belonged to Borga and the architects, not to us. We stood, stupid, in the face of their plans. The panic and murmur of the crowd was replicated inside my own heart. There, in the ninety-nine chambers, I found all my desires to become an author like Borga liquefied, shot, stained. Is it so true what he feels about us? That we are so worthless? My mother, my father, my brother…none of them will pass this test. None of them will meet Borga’s threshold. My father is a lumber worker, he is no intellectual. My mother makes cherry pies for soldiers, she too will be cut down. My brother is a doctor, true, but his intelligence is very narrow. He has no imagination. So I trust, he too, will be shut down and killed.

Only I, the author, have a chance at passing this test of imagination. But I’m not even good. In fact, I’m terrible. I have written seventeen manuscripts and with every single one I have turned around to despise every last one of them. Nothing sticks. I have prolific output, but I am fundamentally mediocre. Maybe age can change that. Maybe, like wine in stale bottles – agh, a stale metaphor. Nevermind. You see how doomed I am? How unoriginal I am?

My mind loops, day in and day out, with facile tides of rusted garbage, discarded stereos, shattered flutes, splintered PlayStations all roiling together in a repetitive tide. There is nothing new I can offer the world. This, I have always known. There is not a spark of creativity in me. I have the will, and the proficiency, to write, to make worlds, to tell stories. But none of them are my own. They are all coming from some demented portal that shits them out improperly, with fundamental defects, a single crack running through a whole story that breaks it, no matter how much I edit and refine, the thing is split in two.

Borga is not like me. Borga is great. He, too, has written seventeen novels, and all of them are masterpieces, sweeping up prizes, New Yorker reviews, Man Booker prizes, even a Nobel Prize in Literature, collected in his fiftieth year. The man is a titan. He is Metatron with wings expanded, each flush of the petals of those metallic feathers dripping glittering gold dust into the streets, into the world, gracing us with magic, symphonies of another world. That is the heroism of the author.

But what do you do, at last, when the hero turns his back on his readers and announces: “I am great, you are mediocre, and I no longer wish to share this Earth with your repetitive, repugnant mediocrity”? Well, I suppose you light the midnight oil.

There were some measures to prevent cheating. A drug test would be administered before the examination. Anyone on mushrooms or LSD or DMT would be shot. After all, it wasn’t really their brain that was doing it. That was the faeries talking. Execution on the spot.

Anyone with a microchip or a program playing a great film hidden inside their brain or stuck to their temple would be found out. Metal detectors were brought to the examination site, inside the remains of the old Roman Colosseum.

Engineers from Tesla were flown into Rome to set up X-rays for the sniffing out of plastic chips and other 3-D printed devices designed to stimulate thought, to stir the pool of colors inside your head and move it along faster and more brilliantly than before. That, of course, would be cheating.

The goal of this movement was to deprive the world of average people. Really, Borga, and the architects of the CCE, hated the average man. “Averages,” reads a famous line from Borga’s third novel, Songs of the Dispossessed. “Averages are the seats of pure mediocrity that sit along the deepest dip of a bell curve. Averages are the measure of the common man, who knows nothing, who can be trusted with nothing. A fear of the average is the healthiest impulse in modern man.”

How I relished those words! How I turned them over in my head, sitting in the back of a black car, Flashing Lights by Kanye West blaring, the lights of the cityscape pouring into my soul, as I found solace in those words. Now, those words were spears, accusations, assembled in a crown formation pressed upon my heart. I fell in love with luxury, with elite standards. And now those same standards would crucify me.

I had a friend, Alberto, who asked me what to do one night on the phone in a frenzy. I told him to buy and read all of Borga’s novels. So he did. He called me a day later, even more desperate – they’re sold out everywhere. Even Amazon had no copies. Anyone who lives to see the next week can see just how big a publisher’s check Borga received.

Borga was a God. I do not say this lightly. It’s not just that he won a Nobel Prize – it’s that he has written seventeen novels, all of them masterpieces, twenty-six short-stories, all of them masterpieces, nine plays, all of them also masterpieces, and two-hundred and twenty-four poems, all of them, as well, perfect. I do not know how much imperfection Borga had to wade through to get there. But wherever he is, that is where I want to be. At the supple age of twenty-nine, when he hit his stride, it never let up. Not once. There is no slack in Borga’s career. Every writer should model themselves after Borga. He was, at last, the wall through which all writers must pass, and the wall has no doors, it must be climbed. So I read, and I read, and I sought his gold, the gold he had buried in language, the mental sparks that ignited the spirit to sing, not to drudge along in a dismal tune.

The trials began. I watched them unfold on YouTube livestreams. They never showed us the executions, only the machines of judgement and the people passing through, long metal claws clamped on the rounds of their heads. Once the examination was concluded, and the result was shown, the livestream shifted to a new gorgeous actress, a new young woman, a new bespectacled man, seated with his or her eyes closed, thinking, tears rolling down cheeks, conjuring up the most beautiful thoughts, images of magnificence and splendor, the finest poetry, all their souls were working to weave majesty through the loom. And as soon as the test was over, and a pair of eyes shot up, gasping for approval, the camera switched to someone who had just begun the test.

So we had no idea who lived and who died, or how many got through and how many were killed. It was a total black box. After an hour, I shut off the livestream. I’d seen enough faces, the faces of my heroes, cinematic, literary, musical and entrepreneur, sobbing as they worked their brains to produce greatness. It wasn’t enough. I knew, none of it was enough. Even the genius Brahmma looked like death, no faith in his thoughts, sitting down in the chair with grit teeth, his jowls warped by stress and hate.

Days went by, and tabloids began to report: “The actress Gaincarla Solo has disappeared! Surely she was mediocre!” A new headline every day: “Tech magnate Frankas Gipolio has not been back to his apartment in days, says maid, he is reported dead!”

The great went first, and it was a bloodbath. The great weren’t so great. Us ordinary people had another two weeks to study, to hone our grey matter, to prepare. Personally, I was working on a little skit. I had an image playing through my soul, a miniature day dream, of a host of Indian soldiers roaring down white rapids in bear furs, alongside an open snow valley of gorgeous creatures on either side, strange and fantastic monstrosities, camels with the heads of hammerhead sharks suspended upon their tiny necks, elephants with towers rising from their backs, their feet on enormous hooves. I saw brass and bronze lanterns carried at the pinnacles of these towers, and birds, white and enormous pelicans, circling the tops of the towers as the Indians sailing by watched and smiled, copying down sketches in their notebooks, discovering the world anew.

And then it hit me – this was the river scene from Jurassic Park III, where they’re rafting alongside a bunch of brachiosaurs. All I’ve done is replace the characters from the film with fur-coated Indians, and the dinosaurs with my own amalgamations of strange beasthood. Once I made this connection, the images curled. The thought lost all originality. It was a rip-off of an OK scene from a third-rate movie.

I began to pray.

Alfredo called me one night while I was out walking, listening to Kanye West.

“The authors have gone,” he told me.

My neck stiffened. “And?”

“Borga.”

I paused. I stopped at the edge of a red-soaked alleyway, paper lanterns hanging from ebon eaves, holding my phone to my ear.

“He’s dead?”

“Yeah.”

My blood went cold. There was not even an original phrase in my heart to describe my own suffering at the death of my idol, the man who caused all this in the first place.

“You’re shitting me,” I said.

“It happened really suddenly. He got rushed to the front of the line. They showed the full thing, because he was supposed to pass with flying colors. They had a monitor tied up to his brain. They even showed the monitor on livestream. His mind went blank. All we could see was white. There was nothing there. Every few seconds, some image would begin to reverberate around the edges, some semblance of a thought. A word might begin to form on the inlet of his imagination. But it never came to pass. For twenty whole minutes, Borga sat, wide-eyed, the contraption on his head, and couldn’t think of a single thing. He was taken away, and he was probably killed.”

“No…”

“The CCE thanked him for all he’d done, but they said that, probably, they would replace him with Santino Carlo, the novelist who passed an hour earlier, and who had written ten books, all of which were pretty good, and which, perhaps, might have been even better than Borga’s-”

I tossed my phone hard on the cobblestone.

I was never tested by the CCE. The examinations were ended the next day, in the autumn of Rome, when the head of the party, the fat old bastard in the wheelchair, thought about spaghetti and a woman’s tits for twenty straight minutes, with random appearances of the n-word, and at last was removed from the machine and huddled off somewhere to hide. They wouldn’t kill him, and they didn’t kill Borga either. But the embarrassment of the whole spectacle allowed the Unionists to beat them the next fall in an election and usher in a ban on all brain-reading technology. Maybe it was a luddite move. But Dr. Jorge Vorhes and the men from Tesla went back home, and the CCE was disgraced, and the whole event was written about in the foreign press as another glorious failure of a fascist group to immanetize the eschaton and split apart the human species into a grand Ubermensch off-world and the low of us who remained grounded in Rome in autumn.

Those who passed the examination still held a kind of egotism about it. Their careers were more successful, after, than those that had lost. No record label would turn down artists who had made it. Creativity, it seemed, had been given a definite standard. But then again, those that had lost died anyway, with only two exceptions. The author Borga and the party leader, who died of an aneurism the next May.

So only Borga was alive to have failed the examination and survive. And I, around the time I was thirty-five, was able to sell a manuscript and published a decent novel that sold decently well. I also worked for a tabloid to supplement my income, and I was sent off to interview Borga, nearly a full decade after he had been jailed for cooperation with the fascists and indicted for eugenic crimes against humanity, a new and recent stipulation placed in international law.

The UN Human Rights Council had agreed that judging a person’s humanity based on their inherent ability was the definition of fascism. After all, no person could control their own thoughts, their own ability to weave up gold in the fine pink fibers of their dusty brains. It was unrealistic and cruel to judge human beings based on ability. This was stamped into law, and corporations judging prospective employees based on ability would be seen as little more than champions of eugenic evil.

I talked to Borga through a glass wall, where he clung to the phone, my former idol, and he told me he had written four-hundred books since he had failed the examination. My eyes buckled, and saw nothing for an instant. Four-hundred? Mad, a light in his eyes, he told me, yes, absolutely, he had written four-hundred novels and every last one of them were his best novel yet, trumped only by the next. But the guards in the prison were not allowing him to disseminate them or even leak them to the press.

He had contacted a friend of his at the newspaper where I worked, and had asked if he could arrange some kind of deal to leak at least one of his new books, one of his treasure pile, to me, and have me bring it to the world. He said that the guard listening to our phone call right now was in on it. The guard had been a former fascist, and loved Borga.

The former fascists all coalesced around one topic – competency. Isn’t it right, they would argue, that the most competent people should rule the world? That the great and the wide should prevail over the small and the narrow? I couldn’t disagree with their logic. I could only curdle at where it took me.

When I sat down with Borga, I only asked him one question: “Why did you fail the examination? After all you’d written, why were you unable to think of a single word?”

Borga, his old eyes and fat face illuminated, only smiled. “Sometimes, when you abuse the powers of God, they are taken from you. That was one of those times. God was sick of me. And I suppose, really, I was sick of myself too.”

I thanked him, got up, wordlessly, and left the hall. There was no interview. There was nothing, really, to say. On my way out, a burly bearded guard handed me a sealed manila folder with a packet of papers inside. A dense brick of printer paper that I knew was filled with magnificent words, truth, beauty and Godhood.

I stepped out into the cold rural air, the orange leaves suspended in the glittering light of a fading sun, the cold mountains surrounding us, only the green grass and the pavement holding the lost splendor of shed leaves. I looked to the book. I considered, for a long time, what I would do with it. I didn’t know. Really, I didn’t know.

At last, when I got home, I had some understanding. I crossed out Borga’s name, on the title page, and wrote my own beneath it. The title was beautiful – A New Symphony. I wrote my own name, Jose Alvarez, beneath it. And I began, methodically, to re-type the novel into my laptop, under my own name, and every last word I stole, and made my own, and I became Borga, and Borga was dead, and I had inherited his corpse.

When I took it to my publisher, he read the opening page intently for about five minutes, then looked up at me.

“This is Borga.”

My heart sank. I clutched the manila folder to my chest.

“No it isn’t,” I lied.

He chuckled, shoving the manuscript back across his desk. “Yes, it is. This is something Borga wrote. You can tell instantly. Honestly, Alvarez, I should kick you out of the literary world forever for this. It’s really a disgrace to envy someone else like that. But I think I’ll give you a break. This is a trying time for us all. Still, how’d you get something written by Borga? That’s an interesting achievement in itself.”

I swallowed. My throat was too dry to swallow. I caked in the desert of my pride.

“You need to offer us something that’s yours,” he told me, shaking his head. “You can’t just be an imitator forever. Maybe it worked for your first novel, for the one after that – but it won’t work forever. You have to think of something original. Really, genuinely new. You’re aping others’ styles and it’s embarrassing.

“God, it’s times like this when I think the fascists were right. Too many mediocre writers, too many copy-cats. Too many influences, no original thoughts. Train your mind, Alvarez. Think of something unique. Then I’ll take a look at it. But not this.

“This theft, what you’ve done here today – this is pathetic.”

 

Alexander Blum is a freelance writer on mysticism and politics. He has a website and a novel.

 

twitter: @AlexanderBlum10