“The Hanged Man” by Zac Smith

4026444138_08956ebda2_o.jpg

We stipple on my scruff and tie the noose around my ankle. She kisses me deeply and we restipple my scruff. She puts on her helmet. I whip my noose around, give it a twirl.

I play the Hanged Man, and Mary is Death. She offers hard candy to children, tells the parents reassuring things. I just dangle upside down. Sometimes I sway. Hard candy would just fall out of my pockets. And I hate children. And their parents.

The kids are always afraid of meeting Death. They don’t yet know that Death isn’t too bad. In terms of the Tarot, Death is a good omen. This is why they picked Mary. Mary is a good omen. If you get too close to her, you can hear her breathing from behind the skull mask. You can smell her perfume. She smells like lavender.

My face is perpetually red. I sweat. My beard smears and runs. The children point and laugh because I’m so silly. But the parents don’t laugh at the Hanged Man. They often feel hanged. I am a bad omen. I am a bad omen for everyone.

 

♦♦♦

 

I wait for Mary in the break room. I corner her and I complain. I eye The Fool, The Magician, warning them off. Death is mine. They eat their leftovers, their bagged lunches, their frozen things reheated. I don’t bring food, I just pick at Mary’s salad. I ask her if she is going to eat her chips and she looks at me imploringly but I do not acknowledge her look. The Hanged Man needs to have a perfectly neutral stare. My stare is practiced and blank.

The Hanged Man stares down Death at all times. He knows he is destined for Death, which means that Death is destined for him. We belong together. Some interpret this as wisdom, enlightenment. They are wrong.

I take a whore’s bath in the sink. Scrub my face, dry off with paper towels, restipple my beard, wrap my chest, button my romper.

Dennis climbs up the back of the cross, ties the noose to the top. I hold on, like I am touching my toes. I lower myself down like way back when, when I did gymnastics. Tuck my left leg behind my right knee. He tugs the noose, grunts deeply, slaps the cross, says “all set, buddy.” I hang, and I don’t think about what Dennis means when he calls me “buddy.”

I breath through my nose. I think about Death, and so do the people who come through. They have just seen her, or they are looking for her. No one looks for me. The rooms shuffle and change, the hallways on interwoven, rotating disks, and they come to me by chance. Or fate, I guess.

They see me on my cross, they see my neutral stare, they see my hunger, all the things I hunger for. They see how I am stuck. I show them that they, too, are stuck. Hungry. I wish them all ill. I wish them more, worse things. I wish them all visits with The Tower. The Devil. Calamity and injustice. But not Death. Not Death.

 

♦♦♦

 

After work, I smoke while Mary brushes her horse. Death’s stallion. They both hate the smoke but I never leave the stable. I hate the smoke, too, but I justify it as well-deserved. It feels natural, blue collar, butch. The Hanged Man has long hair. He wears a romper. It’s comical.

Mary feeds the horse an apple. She is a bouquet of niceties and treats. Sweet things live in her pockets, in the folds of her skin. I stare until she gives me an apple as well. A bigger, crisper apple she knows to save for me. I eat half and throw the rest out into the field for the crows and mice. Stub out my cigarette, blow smoke at the horse.

Mary faces me, struggles with her armor, all the buckles and straps. I don’t look, I don’t make eye contact. I am The Hanged Man. I don’t make anyone happy. I only reveal how you are trapped.

My skin itches under my bindings and grease paint and tights. I want Mary to unwrap me. I want her to wash my face. I want her to walk off the job, throw the candy onto the ground, untie me from my cross. Drive me to a motel. Some city far off and unwelcoming where we are all we have.

But instead she drives us to her apartment. She talks about a trip, somewhere fun. Somewhere on the coast. I tell her I’m broke, that I hate the beach. That I love her.

I shower, using all the hot water, and when we’re in bed, she kisses me, but I don’t kiss her back, I just turn on my side and sleep.

 

Zac Smith lives in Boston, MA, where he likes to walk his dogs. His stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Soft Cartel, and other very sweet online journals. His twitter is @ZacTheLinguist

“The Baby Changing Facility” by David Cook

14435710826_524b4c0124_o.jpg

Stuart stood aside as a woman left the baby changing facility, shoving a black-haired tot in one of those fancy pushchairs that cost more than your average house. It grinned gummily in his direction and he waved, in that slightly foolish way that adults wave at babies. He slid inside, wheeling his own boy, Theo, in front of him in a much lower-budget pushchair. He ruffled Theo’s blonde mop.

Inside stood a woman with too much make-up, big hair and a smile so bright it could guide ships away from rocks. Her name tag read: ‘Hi, I’m Belinda. Ask me about washable nappies.’ Behind her, shelf upon shelf of babies, each displayed neatly in boxes fastened with colourful ribbon, stretched to the ceiling. ‘Hello, Sir,’ said Belinda. ‘Here to change your baby?’ Stuart nodded. She peered down at Theo. ‘Christ,’ she said. ‘Look at the nose on that. Can’t say I blame you. Do have a browse around, I’m sure you’ll find a kid you can swap for little hooterface here.’

‘Been open long?’ he asked as his eyes scanned rows of tiny tots. The noise made by dozens of thumbs being sucked simultaneously reminded him oddly of crickets.

‘Just a couple of weeks,’ said Belinda. ‘But we’re so busy! Honestly, everyone moans about the government, but this baby exchange was such a great idea. People can dump their old kids, get brand new ones, no questions asked. And it saves the state ever such a lot of money. No more homing and rehoming unwanted babies for them. It all happens here!’

Stuart nodded, then pointed at a child that caught his eye. ‘That one, please.’

 

♦♦♦

 

A few minutes later, Stuart strolled towards a nearby coffee shop, pushing a baby girl. His fiancee, Sarah, was waiting at an outside table. When she saw him with the girl, her eyes went wide. ‘Stuart,’ she yelled, pointing at the infant and almost spilling her chai latte. ‘Who the hell is this?’

‘Cute, isn’t she?’ said Stuart.

‘But–’

‘Much better than Theo. Glad to see the back of him, to be honest.’

Sarah was sobbing now. ‘What have you done?’ she choked, tears dribbling down her face and pooling on the table.

Stuart realised he’d made a terrible mistake. ‘Oh, now, listen, babe…’

‘I said,’ shouted Sarah, recovering somewhat, ‘go to the baby changing facility and swap Theo for another boy, one with dark hair, a bit mediterranean-looking, like you see in those holiday ads for Greek islands. A kid more presentable for my Friday morning get-togethers with the other mothers than the Incredible Conk. What I didn’t ask for was a bloody girl! And most certainly not a carrot-top! What the hell is wrong with you?’

‘I think she’s pretty,’ sulked Stuart. ‘She’s got the same colour hair as my Mum.’

‘As long as she doesn’t sink a bottle of gin every day! Or steal from my purse when she thinks no-one’s looking!’

Stuart glared at his betrothed. ‘She did that once!’ he yelled. ‘Once!’ He marched away, shoving the redheaded newborn ahead of him. Sarah glanced at him, back at her latte, then reached a decision and scuttled off in pursuit.

As she left, a young couple entered the coffee shop and approached the counter. The girl had Theo clasped to her chest. ‘What’ll it be, folks?’ asked the barista. He glanced at the infant. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Look at the nose on that.’

Theo sneezed. A wodge of green snot hit the barista in the eye.

 

David Cook’s stories have been published in the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Barren, the Sunlight Press, Spelk and more. Say hi on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter, who was never swapped and never would be.

 

“Everyone Loves a Bionic Man” by Jessalyn Johnson

16177201380_f2b95bd669_o.jpg

The infection in Myron’s tendon had gotten to the point where there was no choice but to remove the leg completely. the doctors were shocked that someone of his age and otherwise normal health had allowed such a thing go untouched for so long, but removing the limb was the only option. He was excited for the procedure, though he pretended to be just as nervous and heartbroken as his loved ones for show.

He was provided with the latest in prosthetics, computerized limbs that went above and beyond any normal man’s physical ability.

After the third amputation, it was clear Myron had a bit of a hidden agenda, but no one dared accuse him of anything. He was an anomaly, as the doctors called him. They had never seen someone need so many prosthetics in such a short time span with no profound explanation.

A few decades back it wasn’t so safe to have so many artificial moving parts, but the rate at which technology was advancing allowed those who needed it access to extraordinary limb replacements. It was slowly becoming more common, seeing folks out and about with their bionic parts. At the laundromat, buying groceries. Most often it was a leg and and an arm at most, but at thirty-seven Myron became the first to have all four limbs replaced by computers.

His wife said he had a horrible addiction, and though he denied it as something he could control it was clear he wouldn’t stop until he was almost entirely built as a machine. He was fast as light, sleek as a new car.

It feels great, he said.

He ended up with an artificial heart as well, something the doctors said would save his life completely.

Myron concerned himself only with the TV networks, the online fame. The world was mesmerized by Myron, the bionic man.

Everyone loves me, he said.

Talk from the neighbors, even his closest friends and family, slowly began to voice concern. His eating dwindled, as did his sleep.

You can’t keep doing this, his wife pleaded.

It’s for my health, he said. All the doctors agree.

The places he frequented stopped asking him how he was doing, because everyone already knew. When he was out in public people of all ages would ask for a photograph and to touch his arms, which were always exposed, shiny and flawless under light, slick and noiseless during the night hours.

Producers asked him to star in their commercials, and Myron accepted every offer.

You’re like a superhero, they said. Everyone wants to be like you.
He was the first to know about what organs he could replace with electronics, what pieces of software he could acquire. The brain was his latest concern, and he knew when the phone rang that would be it for him. They found tumors, dozens of them, and the success of the surgery would make history.

It’ll save your life, the doctors told him. Maybe even prolong it.

A new brain. The things he could know, the people he could impress.
His wife and kids asked him not to, but it was an impossible offer to turn down. She said she would want a divorce, take the kids, the house. Myron let the surgeons wheel him into the operation room.

This won’t hurt a bit, the doctor said. Myron grinned for the last time and let the anesthesia rinse his blood.
To the sound of his own gears waking up he opened his eyes and saw the world in static, without its vibrant colors, electronic and measurable and rigid.

This is just want I wanted. He said. I feel nothing, I feel nothing at all.

 

Jessalyn Johnson is a fiction writer and poet from Central Florida currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She recently graduated with a degree in English Literature and currently attends The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program. You can follow her on Twitter @jessalyn451 and Instagram @jessalynjohnson. 

“Out of Office” by Timothy Boudreau

4727685047_001be44ce9_o.jpg

 

Westfield Office Crew—a few reminders for while I’m out of the office next week:

 

  • Patricia Anders: Please debit GL 4358 to rebate her check fees.  If she’s satisfied with our service she’ll bring oatmeal raisin cookies.  She puts nutmeg in them, they’re outstanding.
  • John Hennessey: Jacki H. is our Loan Dept contact on Mr. Hennessey’s home equity loan.  Please use TLC with both Mr. Hennessey and Jacki H. We all know how Mr. Hennessey can be, and Jackie’s held a grudge since I questioned one of her loan turndowns.  Please exercise caution in all interactions. She’s efficient but vengeful.
  • Promotions: The credit card contest runs through the end of the month.  We’re already lagging behind other offices; I don’t have to tell you how much it would mean to me to win one.  Just once in my life please Lord let it be now.
  • Cami Allan from the Conway Office may call, I hope so with my body’s every breath.  Please remind her I’ll be out all week. Use a lightly sweet tone, a tone of affectionate friendship.  Confirm that she has my cell number; encourage her to call me at home. Disregard any rumors that we’ve dated or spent quality time together.  It’s also untrue that I’ve haunted her inbox with jokes and cartoons, and that I’m pining away for her emotional support, sly sense of humor and throaty work phone voice.  Please don’t tell her I love her and forget that you know.
  • Glenn Dodge from the Prescott Office may call seeking help, in fact he’ll definitely try to bully you into forgoing your lunches to cover theirs.  Fuck him, he’s got plenty of staff over there, tell him to use it.
  • Emergencies: Please have Facilities, Security, IT and Branch Admin emergency contacts ready.  For God’s sake try not to bother Danielle in Branch Admin. She already thinks I’m incompetent, she used the phrase “scaredy cat” in the last Managers Meeting, it made me look like a jackass.  You may call my cell, but be advised that I’ll spend much of the week studying old episodes of The Voice and American Idol.  You may not realize but I was in choir in high school, singing was my passion.  I don’t know if you’ll believe that about me—I actually don’t know what you think about me.  Ashley, Teagan, Bobby—in your eyes am I a paunch-bellied creep?  A slump-shouldered dumbbell with a face full of burst capillaries?  Just a nice guy in over his head? I have absolutely no idea, it makes me sad.

  • Final reminder: Though internally everyone knows this is an unpaid disciplinary suspension, there’s no need to inform our Westfield Office customers.  I have a position in Town I need to maintain. Not a word, do you hear? A reminder that at Granite State Savings we’ll be rewarded appropriately if we do as our Superiors ask.  That is if I’m allowed to return to employment. The Bank is doing better lately guys! It’s not just a line we’re feeding you, this time it’s the truth.

 

Timothy Boudreau’s work appears or is forthcoming at Fiction Southeast, Lost Balloon, Milk Candy Review and elsewhere. His collection Saturday Night and other Short Stories is available through Hobblebush Books. Find him on Twitter at @tcboudreau or at timothyboudreau.com.

“Decline and Fall” by Ryan Napier

10616403973_52cc548db3_o.jpg

In 218, Elagabalus became emperor of Rome. He was fourteen years old. Soon after his acclamation, the boy-emperor shocked Rome by announcing the death of the old gods. Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and the rest were no more, and in their place, Elagabalus proclaimed a new religion—the worship of the sun.

He ordered the construction of an enormous temple on the Palatine Hill and served there as the high priest. Draped in heavy silk and jewels, painted head to toe in gold dust, Elagabalus presided over elaborate sacrifices to Sol Invictus, the undefeated sun. Day and night, wine and blood poured onto the marble altar.

Across the empire, the statues and images of the old gods were destroyed. Elagabalus commissioned tens of thousands of new statues depicting a beautiful youth with light streaming from his head—a portrait of himself as Sol Invictus. The largest of these was erected in front of the Circus Maximus in Rome, its head carved from white marble, its body made of gilded bronze.

Outside the temple, Elagabalus devoted himself to pleasure. Nothing was denied to him, and he soon grew bored and sought out the strange and the obscure. He ate only the rarest foods—peacock’s tongues, milk-fed snails, parrots cooked in the stomachs of swans. Though impotent from generations of inbreeding, he brought concubines of every age and sex from across the empire and directed them in massive orgies. On his seventeenth birthday, he ordered a hundred live tortoises to be encrusted in gems and watched as they suffocated under the weight of their shells.

Elagabalus quickly depleted the imperial treasury, enraging the military. On March 10, 222, he was assassinated by his own guards. His body was hacked into pieces and dragged through the streets of Rome. A mob set fire to the temple of the sun. The statue in front of the Circus Maximus was decapitated and the marble head thrown into the Tiber.

The head sank to the riverbed and settled into the mud. Over the centuries, reeds twisted their roots around it, and algae bloomed from the cracks in the marble.

In 1845, in an attempt to improve the river’s navigability, Pope Gregory XVI hired English engineer John Blount to dredge the Tiber. Two of Blount’s workers found the head of Elagabalus and brought it to him; Blount swore them to secrecy and smuggled the head back to England. There, he consulted with classical scholar Samuel Grenville, who identified the head as Elagabalus and restored it. Despite some water and root damage, the head was relatively well preserved. It was shown publically for the first time at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, where it was seen by millions. The Vatican protested that the head had been stolen and demanded its return.

Blount spent the second half of his career in India, working with the Royal Corps of Engineers to build canals in the Madras Presidency. During the Sepoy Rebellion, he participated in the second relief of Lucknow, and in 1859, he was knighted for his services to the empire. After his retirement, Sir John returned to England and dedicated himself to collecting, buying a house in Russell Square and filling it with antiquities. He accrued urns and busts and tiles and sarcophagi, but the prize of his collection was the head of Elagabalus. He placed it on the second floor of the house, in the yellow drawing room, across from a twelve-foot Louis Quinze mirror. Prince Edward visited the house in 1864 specifically to see the head.

Sir John suffered a massive stroke in 1869, leaving him paralyzed on his right side and increasingly confused. He began to speak to the head of Elagabalus for hours at a time in a slurred mixture of English and Tamil and public school Latin. In his final years, he required his servants to carry rifles at all times, believing that he was still in India at the time of the rebellion.

After Sir John’s death, the house and collection passed to his only son, Cyril. A student of Walter Pater, Cyril had been expelled from Oxford, and scandal followed him throughout his life. His parties at the house in Russell Square were notorious. “Elagabalus is the presiding genius of the place,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “As his marble head surveys the guests in the yellow drawing room, the lips of the beautiful boy almost seem to a smile.”

The parties came to an abrupt end in 1892, when a young man died under mysterious circumstances in the house. Hounded by newspapers and the police, Cyril fled England. The house was shut up and the head of Elagabalus covered with a dustsheet. Cyril spent the rest of his life in France and died childless in 1924.

To the disappointment of his many cousins, Cyril left his entire estate to the National Trust, with instructions for the house in Russell Square to become a museum dedicated to the family collection. The dustsheets were removed, and in 1927, the Blount Museum opened to the public. Travel books noted that though its collection was unremarkable, the house offered a well-preserved example of Victorian décor. The gift shop sold postcards of the head of Elagabalus.

Overshadowed by the nearby British Museum, the Blount Museum always struggled to attract guests. In the 1980s, its funding was slashed and its hours of operation significantly reduced. The final blow came in 2009, when the government’s austerity measures deemed it a “non-essential museum” and designated it for closure. The house on Russell Square was sold to a developer and the collection put up for auction at Christie’s. The two most expensive lots were the Louis Quinze mirror and the head of Elagabalus, both of which were bought by American billionaire Robert Sacher.

Sacher was the head of Knox Pharmaceuticals, the drug company founded by his father Phillip. Knox held patents for a number of opioids, including Laudia and Codenyl. Under Robert Sacher’s leadership, the company aggressively marketed its products to doctors and patients, and by the mid-2000s, its annual profits exceeded $30 billion. Sacher was also a noted art collector and member of the board of trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After displaying the head of Elagabalus for several years at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Sacher lent it to the Met; the museum had chosen “Sol Invictus: Celebrating Bodies and Pleasures in Ancient Art of the Sun” as the theme for its 2020 gala. The head of Elagabalus was placed at the top of the grand staircase on a mirrored pedestal designed by Anish Kapoor. During the gala, Beyoncé and Jay-Z emerged from an enormous jeweled rose and performed “Apeshit” as they ascended the staircase. A picture of the couple posed in front of the head of Elagabalus, their arms folded across their chests, received 2.7 million likes on Instagram.

For decades, Knox Pharmaceuticals had been involved in lawsuits related to its culpability for the opioid crisis. Prosecutors alleged that Robert Sacher and other executives suppressed research showing the addictiveness of the company’s products and misled doctors and patients. In 2022, the company reached a settlement with the federal government. Sacher pled guilty to various criminal and civil charges and was required to pay $490 million in fines and perform 750 hours of community service.

As Knox’s stock plummeted, Sacher was forced to sell most of his art collection, including the head of Elagabalus. It was purchased at auction in 2023 by an undisclosed buyer for nearly three times what Sacher had paid: the head’s value had appreciated considerably due to its appearance with Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Met Gala. The media speculated on the buyer’s identity. Some said it was the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; others, Beyoncé herself. There were even rumors that the Vatican had bought back what it had long claimed was its rightful property.

Soon, the truth emerged: the buyer was Gary Gould, the chairman of Citigroup. The news was met with outrage, since Citigroup had been one of the driving forces behind the student-loan bubble that had recently plunged the global economy into a depression. Under Gould’s leadership, the bank had become severely overleveraged, and its collapse in 2022 had required a $55 billion bailout from the U.S. government. In testimony before Congress, Gould admitted that buying the head of Elagabalus during an economic crisis was “insensitive” but argued that his personal actions should not interfere with Citigroup receiving its next round of bailout funding.

Gould displayed the head of Elagabalus at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. It was seen there for the last time on September 6, 2027. The next day, Hurricane Julia hit south Florida, and the wind and the water obliterated Palm Beach. Exacerbated by the effects of climate change, the storm was the deadliest and most damaging in U.S. history, though both records were broken two years later.

Insurance adjustors searched the ruins of Gould’s house for the head of Elagabalus but found nothing. It had been taken by the rising sea.

 

 

Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier

“Playing It Safe” by Hema Nataraju

Would you like some candy, honey?” Her eyes dart over my face, searching for something. Of course, I’d like candy.

“No, thanks.” I mumble.

She’s one of those people who wear perfume at home. The house is pristine and cool like the inside of a fridge. Her husband is sitting next to her at the edge of the plush cream couch, smiling nervously at me. It’s adorable how jumpy they are. Makes me want to laugh. First time foster parents, I guess.

The husband’s hands are clean, no visible tattoos, no dirt under his nails. They don’t look like hands that hit. He looks like someone I’ve seen on TV. TV makes me think about Magda at the group home where I came from. Nine kids and one TV.  Magda knew exactly where to whack it when it stopped working and where to whack the kids when fights over the remote erupted.

“What? I can’t believe you’re saying no to candy!” She smiles and pushes the bowl towards me. “Go on, you’ll like ‘em.”

I pick a round one wrapped in golden foil and quickly fold my fingers over it. I really should’ve cut my nails.

It’s like candy of the gods, the shell gives in with just a touch of my tongue and silky chocolate lava floods my mouth. I’ll come back for more at night.

“Your room’s upstairs. Come see,” she says.

I clutch my backpack and follow her. My bare feet revel on the carpet. It’s like walking on marshmallows.

The bedroom smells faintly of baby powder. Marks of a peeled-off wall decal hang like a ghost on the blush-pink wall behind the headboard. I’ve walked into something unfinished here, someone else’s room. It’s going to be really weird to sleep here all by myself, on this big bed. Magda said I was lucky. Maybe I am, I don’t know.

“Let me help put your things away.” She reaches for my bag, but I pull away before she can lay a hand on it. She raises her palms and backs off. I almost feel bad for her; she seems like a nice person, but I don’t want her to find my cigarettes. Or my pocket knife. Or the only picture I have of my mom.

She’ll want to be friendly and then casually ask why Mom’s in prison. Everybody does that. I don’t want to tell her. Mom had made me repeat – It wasn’t me who hit her boyfriend with a cast iron skillet. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.

I won’t be able to keep my hands off their things. They won’t understand when I tell them I really can’t control it.

They’ll yell and I’ll curse like I always do.

They’ll never adopt me.

So, that night, I sit up on the bed, bring out my knife, and slash their beautiful sheets before I like them or anything.

 

Hema is an Indian-American writer living in Singapore with her husband and their five-year-old daughter. Her work has appeared in The Sunlight Press, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Aerogram, The Brown Orient, National Flash Fiction Day, and in a couple of print anthologies. She blogs at www.hemas-mixedbag.com and tweets @m_ixedbag.

“The Theory of the Leisure Class” By Mike Lee

15801242606_a70486d088_o.jpg

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

5447549356_20923c00d1_o.jpg

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

41421734782_c169df8e41_o (1).jpg

 

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

4071631676_3fcd8056aa_o.jpg

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.