by Gerard Brennan
“I was watching out for you.” His voice, a sudden intrusion, blotted out the traffic hubbub for an instant. “To tell you a truth.”
Jeanine almost knocked a batch of traybakes off the chestnut sideboard. She’d dragged it out of her café that morning, onto the still busy Upper Ormeau Road footpath. Her first attempt at a socially distanced business diversion since panicked government restrictions forced her to close her doors to the clutch of semi-regulars she’d managed to net. Bent over the remaining wares, sunlight warmed the back of her neck. She resisted the urge to turn and face the source of the voice. To squint at a mystery silhouette framed by a sky full of pink clouds.
The man’s voice crackled, like it needed more time to warm up. “I saw the wee ‘Honesty Stall’ sign and wondered if it was some sort of God thing.”
“I don’t pay much attention to religion,” Jeanine said; Belfast-speak for, Let’s not make this an us-and-them thing.
Her face reddened, but still she didn’t look away from her task of gathering little Tupperware boxes, mostly empty, into a larger Tupperware box. She just wanted to carry them inside, get the empty ones washed, and hole up in her bedroom, directly above the shopfront of her halted business.
“Pity.” This time he tried to clear his throat; the noise muffled by a tissue or sleeve. A cough disguised. “The Godly things ’round here are usually free.”
Jeanine wanted to go indoors and wash her hands. She considered leaving the boxes behind, to be coughed on and touched by strangers. Maybe stolen by bored kids with no school to go to. Then she could tell herself that her modest business model couldn’t possibly work in this climate. She was too scared of catching the virus anyway. Refused to believe that hand sanitiser and polite coughing techniques could save the world.
Her interim business idea was inspired by a news article about a young man living with Down’s Syndrome who sold baked goods in the country. People drove to the entrance of his family’s farm and collected a bag of cookies from a pillar-mounted wooden box, shaped like a barn. They completed the transaction by squeezing a donation into a padlocked moneybox bolted to the bottom of the miniature barn. The suggested donation was a measly quid. Janine would get a lift out there someday and stuff a fiver into the moneybox to thank him for the inspiration. She just hadn’t gotten around to it before the lockdown.
But she’d come up with her own version of an Honesty Stall. The sideboard had a few traybakes on the upper surface, and the donation tin was in the drawer on the righthand side, glued down rather than bolted. The drawer on the left had tissues and plastic knives, for anybody that wanted to cut their sugary treat in half. Both drawers were left open to reduce the need to touch the handles, since they were deep enough to stop the napkins sailing down the road in a gentle breeze.
The previous week, Jeanine’s nephew, Jason, designed a poster based on her vague outline. He printed out and posted a colourful A4 sign for the price of a few caramel squares.
“How does it work?” the man asked.
The instructions were written on the sign. She should have listened to young Jason when he said she needed a bigger page with clearer instructions. But she’d liked his first effort and didn’t want to torture him with extra work just because he had a computer and printer in his bedroom.
Jeanine looked over her shoulder to see how close the stranger was. The volume of his voice suggested mere inches, but she could see he’d heard the news about standing two metres from strangers. If anything, he’d overcompensated his distancing as much as he had cranked the volume of the crackled enunciation of his speech. The man was younger than she’d first thought. Was his voice deepened and gravelled by a throat infection? A virus? The virus? Her palms slickened under disposable rubber gloves. She wished she’d worn a mask or a visor or something. They still hadn’t decided if face coverings made a difference, so far as she knew. Certainly, there weren’t many to be seen around Belfast right then.
“What do you mean?” Jeanine asked, and wished she hadn’t.
“The sign says, ‘Honesty Stall,’ but I can’t see the small print from two metres away.” He nodded towards the inadequate instructions. “Do I tell you something, then get a wee treat?”
Jeanine couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be funny. Winding, as her generation put it, or banting, as young Jason had taken to saying since he’d started big school. The maturing sunlight behind the man made it harder to read the creases in his face. She decided to play it straight rather than risk angering him with a misunderstanding.
“No, it just means that I have to trust you to pay what’s fair, because I can’t stand outside and serve you.”
He tilted his head. “Oh. Well I have money. Just not on me. How long before you close? I’ll go get some.”
“I’m closing up now.”
“Will them ones go in the bin?” He nodded at the remainders.
Jeanine needed the loo. She didn’t want to be outside any longer. The risks were higher than ever. Used to be she’d be worried about getting mugged on her way to the bank with much needed takings. Found her breath quickening every time she passed a soul. Now her anxiety could be triggered by somebody attempting friendliness with a passing ‘hello.’ She wanted to shout at people to be quiet, irony be damned. That’s how she knew she wasn’t in great form. How she knew she was only a breakdown or two from homelessness. From begging in the street. Or relying on ‘Godly stuff’ to get by.
She reminded herself that it was often a good idea to be kind. And the man still hadn’t made a move to go fetch his money, despite the silence between them swelling towards infinity. Jeanine made a snap decision before doubts could start prickling her scalp.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’m going to leave these tubs inside. You help yourself to what’s left and next time you’re passing you can drop a wee bit of money in the box.”
“But what if I don’t pass by here again?”
“Are you not local?”
“Aye, I am. But like…”
The man started to mutter. Jeanine couldn’t make out what he’d said under his breath, and she didn’t want to lean in to spitting range.
“Well, don’t worry about it, then. Just have them.”
“I don’t want to owe you.”
“It’s grand. You owe me nothing. Just enjoy them and tell your friends about the wee stall. We’ll call it advertising.”
She stopped just short of winking at him.
“I don’t have friends anymore.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Jeanine started to feel like she was being sucked into a sob story. One that might end up costing her more than some leftover traybakes. It was time to bail. “It was nice talking to you. Goodbye.”
“I should probably die,” he swatted at his ear. “I miss my old friends.”
Jeanine bumped her backside into the front door of her café and swung it open too hard. She stumbled backwards across the threshold and dropped her Tupperware. A swift kick sent the nested boxes across the café floor and she slammed the door shut. Turned the lock. Took a breath. The man had come closer to the door. She felt safer with a pane of glass between them but briefly considered rolling down the metal shutters for good measure. They’d be too slow, though. If this man wanted to put a brick through the window, she couldn’t stop him.
The man raised his arm. Jeanine flinched, expecting him to hammer-fist his way in. But he hadn’t curled his hand into a weapon. He touched the tip of his index finger to the tip of his thumb and fanned out the other three fingers. Then doglike, he tilted his head and pushed out his lower lip, turning the okay sign into a question.
“I’m fine,” Jeanine said, so loud she hurt her own ears. “Don’t worry about it. Just help yourself.”
“Not unless I can give you something for them.”
Jeanine no longer felt the urge to be kind.
“Then could you just go away, please? I’m finished working, right?”
Now that his face was close enough to mist up the other side of the glass Jeanine could see he was younger than she first estimated. She could also see that he was scared. Maybe more scared than she was herself.
“I don’t want to go home. Barney’s dead and I don’t know what to do with him. And if I die tonight, there’ll be two messes to be cleaned up instead of one. But maybe Barney could be my ghost friend then.”
It was time to lower the shutter. Thank God she’d put the extra money into fitting an electric one. She turned the key from her side of the door and watched its maddeningly slow descent.
The man breathed more mist onto his side of the windowpane. He used the tip of his finger to draw a simple sad face. Two dots for eyes and a downturned slash of a mouth.
“Barney was my last friend. My best friend. I don’t know what to do with him.”
“Try phoning the police.”
“What if they think I killed him?”
The shutter stopped in its tracks. Jeanine turned the key left and then right. She pressed the button again. More movement, but not far enough to end their encounter.
“I’ll phone the police,” Jeanine said.
“Then they’ll definitely think I killed him. Don’t worry about it. He’ll probably fit in the wheely bin.”
Jeanine had heard the bins wouldn’t be emptied for a few weeks. Jesus wept. Should she tell him?
“That was the truth I wanted to tell you,” the man said. “Barney’s dead, but I didn’t kill him. I was trying to keep him safe. That’s all.”
“I believe you,” she said.
Neither of them believed that.
The man knocked on the window, three slow beats. “I wish I could come in there and tell you stuff. Tell you the truths. But I know I’m not allowed.”
Jeanine thought about her mobile phone. The one Jason had chosen for her. It had a touch screen and loads of gigabytes and Facebook for her café and it counted her steps and she sometimes felt guilty about clicking into Daily Mail articles about women older than her who looked twenty years younger and she could use it to phone the police if she could remember where she’d last left it.
She’d left her phone beside the till. Everything would be okay. The police would come and take this poor, sick man away and they could deal with dead Barney. Everything would be okay. They shouldn’t even need to talk to her in person. Not during a pandemic. She just wanted to make sure this man got taken care of. Or investigated. Maybe arrested if he’d hurt somebody.
The man knocked at the window again, still polite, and yet Jeanine almost loosed her bladder. The bloody shutter needed a service or something. She decided to give up on it.
“I think I’ll take one traybake,” he said. “Would I owe you anything for one?”
Jeanine pretended she couldn’t hear the question. She turned her back on the man and hoped that he wouldn’t smash his way in.
“Did I tell you enough truth for one traybake, missus?”
She walked past the till, decided in the split second it took her to spot her phone that a knife would be a better option, and continued on into the café kitchen.
Chef knife. Psycho blade. She could barely grasp the handle tight enough to draw it from the wooden block it resided in. When she managed to wiggle it free it felt unwieldy. She laid it on its side by the blade block and snatched at a paring knife instead. It looked nasty enough to scare someone but wasn’t so top heavy that it would slide through a shaking, sweat-slicked hand.
Jeanine tucked her right hand behind her back and started a breathing exercise. She closed her eyes and sucked in air for four seconds, held it for five, then blew it out again for six seconds. Once, twice, three times.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that the man was gone. Or maybe he had moved a few paces to the left or right, just to get out of her line of sight. It didn’t matter. A few more rounds of measured breathing, only this time with her eyes opened and fixed on the ghost of a sad face drawn on the other side of the door glass, and she felt brave enough to venture forward.
“Relax yourself,” she said. The sound of her own voice made her feel foolish, but she continued to talk. “Just make sure he’s gone, try the shutter one more time, and don’t panic. It’s going to be fine.”
Baby steps turned to a disjointed shuffle. She got to the door before she could figure out how she usually walked.
And he was gone.
Jeanine giggled a little and called herself stupid. She tried the shutter again, this time raising it slightly before trying to lower it. Something fell out of the track closest to the door. A little wedge of wood. Jeanine squinted at it until the shutter rumbled to her eye level. She blinked and moved backwards, her movements still a little alien to her.
Somebody must have put that wedge high up in the shutter track to stop it from closing. But when and how? Even a tall man would struggle to place it high up enough to stick. Her creepy visitor hadn’t seemed particularly big. And it wasn’t like there would be much point breaking into her wee café to rob her. She hadn’t had a customer in a few weeks and the Honesty Stall had barely made enough to cover her ingredients since she’d started.
Maybe somebody wanted more than money from her. Something physical?
“Stop thinking like that.” Jeanine shook her head. “And for the love of Christ, stop talking to yourself before you end up in the same care home as Barney’s mate.”
Her wee jibe made her feel guilty, but she couldn’t suppress a sneaky smirk.
She halted the shutter at waist height. Relief flooded her body, and she took a second to think. Her Honesty Stall was still outside. It would need to be dragged in if she wanted to try again in the morning. Otherwise some scumbag would lift the whole thing. Either an opportunistic thug hoping to make a couple of quid, or some drunk students thinking petty theft was hilarious.
Although, if somebody did steal it, she could give up and admit that she shouldn’t have taken redundancy from the civil service last year. She should have kept that dull job for the rest of her life and not taken any chances on her wee retirement dream. Maybe she could get another job. Just not in an office or a café.
Before she could decide, her mobile phone rang. She almost stabbed herself in the face with her paring knife when she automatically raised her hands to her mouth. Jeanine dropped her weapon and kicked it towards the dropped Tupperware. She bustled to the till and snatched up her handset. A video chat from Jason. Such a good boy. Her world began to feel more normal.
“Hiya, Jason. Ach, I’m so glad you called.” She squinted at her screen. “Are you all right? You look worried.”
“I saw your café on Snapchat. Where’d that weird guy go?”
“Snapchat? Why would one of your friends…?”
“They aren’t friend-friends. We have a streak, just.”
Jason looked away from his phone then back at the screen. “Mum’s making faces at me here. Never mind why I saw it, but I did.”
“Put your mum on.”
“I can’t. She’s trying to phone the police.”
“She’s worried about you. That man got beat up after he tried to break into your place. Some kids dragged him away.”
“He’s only been gone for a minute.” She checked her watch. “Maybe five minutes.”
“Mum says you have to come stay with us.”
“But the virus. The lockdown.”
“She says it doesn’t matter. They’ll only fine us if somebody touts on her, but nobody’s like that ’round our way. Dad went out in the car and mum doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Pack an overnight bag, phone a taxi and come on.”
“That poor man.”
“He was trying to rob you. There’s been burglaries all over Belfast since this whole thing started. And they’re targeting people who live on their own.”
Jeanine thought about her visitor, and her reaction to him. How the little wooden wedge had fallen out of her shutters. The man had scared her, but logic started to whisper in her ear. He didn’t seem capable of planning a robbery. He didn’t even look like he’d have been strong enough to break through her window, now that she really thought about it. She had been anxious, scared of the virus. Odder people had come into her café and left without incident. It wasn’t the man, it was the situation. For all she knew, Barney was the guy’s pet dog. Barney seemed like a common pet name. The weird guy just needed to talk to somebody.
And because of her, and her overreaction, he’d been hurt.
“I have to go out there. See if I can help him.”
“It’s not your responsibility, Auntie Jeanine. Wait, I think Mum’s got talking to someone. Uh-oh, she doesn’t look impressed.”
Jeanine heard her sister ask for Jason’s phone.
“Tell your mum I’m fine,” she said, then her view of Jason flipped and there she was, upside-down on the screen for an instant before the image turned 180 degrees. “I’m fine, Beth. Don’t worry about me.”
Beth still had her own phone pressed to her ear. Strands of wet hair straggled over her hand. She looked like she’d just jumped out of the shower.
“You’re staying with us tonight,” Beth said. “Lockdown or not. You’re family.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
Jeanine could have bit her own tongue in half for saying something so daft. She wasn’t that old. Beth could probably use her about the house to help out while Jason was off school. Her husband, Rory, was a keyworker pulling long shifts and Beth had been asked to work from home despite pleading her case for furlough. Jeanine could cook for them and earn her keep. But when she tried to take her words back her mouth refused to comply.
“The police aren’t going to help,” Beth said. “They have me on hold here. Apparently there’ve already been calls about other shops on the Ormeau getting robbed. These hoods are jamming shutters and breaking into shopfronts while the emergency services are stretched. Stretched they said. Like, I understand nurses being thin on the ground, but cops? Jeanine, just come, will you? It’ll be fun.”
Jeanine thought of the wedge of wood. “Why would they break into my place? There’s no money here, no valuables.”
“Apart from all your kitchen equipment. These vultures would sell granny’s jewellery for a bottle of WKD.”
Jeanine needed to get off the video chat before she threw up on her phone.
“I’ll phone a taxi now, Beth. Thanks.”
Her sister spoke while Jeanine jabbed at her screen, trying to end the call. “Thank God. Only grab your essentials. I’ve everything you need here until Rory gets a chance to bring you back for a proper pack.”
Jeanine killed the screen and ran to the customer toilet. She threw up in the sink and stumbled away from the smell of it. Her balance was off. She ignored the instinct to clean her mess with anti-bacterial spray. A cold drink would be better.
“Barney said I should thank you for the traybake.”
She could hear him, but she couldn’t see him. Cold sweat stung her eyes. How the hell did he get in? The shutter was down, her back door deadbolted. But he’d got in. The hints of guilt she felt for her earlier overreaction disappeared. She was in survival mode again. And the knife block was just steps away. All she had to do was open the toilet door and run. If the weird guy stood between her and the kitchen…
Jeanine didn’t finish the thought. She reacted. And when she shoved open the bathroom door, the man stood there, blood drenched and bedraggled. For once in her life she picked fight over flight. Jeanine charged at the man, clenched her teeth expecting impact, and ran through him.
She skidded to a halt at the entry to the kitchen and looked back, expecting to see him lying on the ground. But he stood, his back to her now, mercifully hiding his damaged face. A painfully thin cat wove figure eights around his ankles. Jeanine sat down on the floor.
“How did you get in?”
The man shrugged. The skeletal black cat hissed at her. Jeanine closed her eyes and refused to open them.
That crackled voice grated over Barney’s mewls: “I have more truths to tell, if you have time.”
by Bobby Carlson
I wish I could have met Mary Oliver,
I think as I also think about the sources of food
In the tortilla wrapped hibiscus burrito from Tanya’s 33.
Watering the garden in Las Cruces
Had to wait until the sun sufficiently went down
Flat tire on the Astro Van
20 miles to White Sands
Air conditioner puttering
Under the midday sun
The three dogs
Bearing three crosses
No, they were just wondering
Why we’d want to go to where we did
Trying to eat slower: be present
Trying to chew more deliberately
My teeth and the inside of my cheeks
Have been trying to tell me for years
I remember having acid reflux back when
I drank ten thousand beers or so every single year
That was my body
Employing a more urgent approach
Falling asleep in the passenger seat
On the way back from Cloudcroft
Alton Ellis “Why Do Birds Follow Spring”
There were deer in the Lincoln National Forest
And squirrels jumping on the oak
Juniper and ponderosa pine
Sent a CS Lewis book to my mother for her birthday
I suppose I found it to be a middle way
Or a cop out
I should have sent
The Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama documentary I watched
With my love last night
Sitting in bed with a wrecked back
Listening to Pharaoh Sanders
After a long night of dreams
I don’t want to go home
Or go to work
Laid off since March 25th
Getting to know the woman I love
Learning new things
My friend’s dad died yesterday
Probably not COVID related
I never met the man
Seen him in photographs
But of course- it makes me think
Of my dad, our relationship
How much I miss him
I can see him on the hospital bed
In dipshit Texas
Playing him Beach Boys songs
While my step mom pretends not to worry
Spooning honey in my black tea this morning
Swirling it around, feeling the weight
Of leaving this place
The main thing I get from Buddhism is
There is absolutely no reason in this world
To ever be a dick
But of course
We’re all going through our own pain
If we can just maintain control
When another cannot
And give support
There is nothing we can’t accomplish
Karma is not a mysterious cosmic force of justice
It’s just a synonym for natural consequence
Sitting at the dog park
Watching the dogs, people
Reading about Chinatown
Considering my own script
This is the last day
Not bothering to take note of the time
How much is it worth?
Currently, about 17/hr
Seven strangers sitting at desks
At least six feet apart
Leaf blowers blowing
Is the opposite of beauty
Learning a copyrighted version
Of nonviolent crisis intervention
Figuring out a health insurance plan
Is the height of absurdity
What human decided that there should be a premium, a deductible?
What a lost opportunity for the concept of premium
How much these things should be
What is covered and what is not?
The human capitalist invents the pre-existing condition
The Sonoran Desert Toad
Feasting and bounding
So beautifully around
The new developments
Rio Nuevo Incorporated
7.24.20 Happy 70th, Dad
The reggae neighbor
Plays his cheap keyboard
And sings the same song
Through the wall
I can’t make out any of the words
Spiraling concentric mind
Birds fly in present time
Two coyotes on Bonita Avenue
I have no interest in
Focusing on the scope
Sequence for the school year
Visible half moon
Walking the dog
Santa Cruz River
Walking my dog at night
When the winds blow burning charcoal warm
The rain did
Not make it
All the fake medicine
Crickets on the dead baked sidewalk
8.6.20 RIP VERN RUMSEY
Working is weird and dangerous
Men on cooking concrete medians
With cardboard signs
Begging to live
Jazz by Ken Burns
The music comes over
The music never goes away
Call and response of the spirit
Spirit to spirit
The churches make perfect brothels
The classic American minstrel show
Sing the gospel
Spirit to spirit
Baptism is a step
Like onto the moon
Garden to garden
To garden to garden
Spirit to spirit
Ragtime to the end
Plessy v Ferguson
There is a mistress
Tracing her ancestry
Following her muse
Spirit to spirit
North Dodge neighborhood clinic schedules me for an antibody test
I arrive on time and everyone is polite
They sit me in a chair
And look for a vein
They settle for my hand
I can’t feel the ice pack they put on my neck
I can feel my whiteness
I can feel the inside of my stomach
They give me peach tea
And I complain about the high fructose corn syrup
Listed high on the multicolored corporate label
They give me a bottle of water
And take my spit
Minor baptism on Mt. Graham
Too many human people
A hawk takes off from an eastern white pine
The all mighty everunchanging unrelenting
Word of god
Jammed down my throat
Like a grown man’s fist
Or a McDonald’s ice cream cone
My sister tells me that my stepmother
Knows not what she does
I believe her
I was born in a hospital in a mall parking lot
That turned into a funeral home
Then just a parking lot
When Taco Bells served enchiladas
With three olive slices on top
And every Christmas I got plastic toys
Bare feet on the stones in the front yard
Watering what I think are maybe hopseed bushes
Deathly and dry, trying to save them
8.22.20 RIP Turtle
Going out again in pandemic
USA can’t figure out
There’s a man, a new one
That walks around
West of downtown neighborhood
Talking to himself, sometimes yelling
I don’t know
How to get him the help he needs
I feel useless when I see him
I called myself a slave
Like an idiot
Under the fluorescent lights
Of the classroom
Where I breathe the air
During clockable hours
And the trans Black man
Shamed me as he should
And I wonder if I’ll redeem myself
The United States is a scourge
Failing and giving up so easily
I wonder if there are Mexicans
Proud of their nation state
On their special holidays
“Pity the Country”
By Willie Dunn
Guitar strings echo
“Just one more thing”
To a cop that knocks
On a no knock warrant
There is no escape,
Says a portion of philosophers
Not very illuminating
The sun goes down
On a prideful people
That struggle to find love
Maybe one day we’ll sell
Enough Bibles and gasoline
To say our history
Is no more toxic
Than a sea
We can say
They’re just the boats
That bring us our freedoms
We’ll believe anything
A response on social media:
That’s all fine.
Your argument is that kneeling is disrespectful.
Your distaste to the protest is cultural.
If people listened to the reasons
Instead of making up their own
There wouldn’t be people in the street
Offending you so
With their feelings of hopelessness and rage.
What’s disrespectful is hucking wares in public office.
What’s disrespectful are phrases like “good genes” and “racehorse theory.”
What’s disrespectful is “Make America Great Again.”
Please explain exactly when America was great.
Disrespectful is ignoring the reality of white privilege.
It’s disrespectful to ignore the insipid everliving history of white supremacy in this country.
A history of genocide.
It’s disrespectful to look at a woman’s criminal history when all she was doing was sleeping in her own bed when she was gunned down chasing low level drug shit. It’s disrespectful to say that the unlawful bullets were the ones that missed.
The dog watches the lizard
Through a fence she can see through
The lizard knows it’s safe
My dog loves carrots
When I hand them to her
She pulls one gently
Into her mouth
George Romero saw the future
A true Buddha in a dead country
Low prices as advertised:
Men have skin too
This must really be big
St James Infirmary
Make it easy to support local
I’ve wanted to believe
Voting was an important
For so long
As long as I could
George Washington Carver
Low prices as advertised
God is with us
God is with us
God is with us
Low prices as advertised
God is with us
God is with us God is
God is with us
I have to take a shit
I want to walk around in sentimental Aspen trees
And birches and see if I can tell the difference
Like crows and ravens
I buy books
Because I’m a privileged motherfucker
And my children
are not in cages
Because I’m a privileged motherfucker
I chose not to have children
Based off the education I received
As a privileged motherfucker
That didn’t have to start
Hustling as a preteen
Wherever I want
I’m a privileged motherfucker
I don’t know how to fix my car
I’m a privileged motherfucker
“He never directly addresses
Race, class, or gender”
I’m a bona fide
The dog eyefucks a fly
Tracks it through the room
An audible THWOP
Everytime her jaws clamp down
The fly lands on the VP of the USA
Present self to fifteen year old self:
Music will take over your entire life
It will mark your time
Crawl into every corner
You’ll never get out
Of your very own cul de sac
All will be defined
By the records that take you
To your very favorite
Your very very own cul de sac
You will see quite a few shithole clubs
Because of your love beyond love
In your favorite
In your very own
In your very own cul de sac
In the outdoor
Same as it ever was
Ladies on the bed
Capitalism creates nothing.
Cooperation, knowledge, experience, collectivism
And imagination have created the marvels of the world.
Capitalism stole them and choked them and smothered them
To get the profit out
What’s it called
When the moon
Is two days past full
In the early morning?
All thoughts blear
To the past
Of the present moment
And it still feels
Like a dream
The simple things that bring us joy
The simple things that bring us joy
The simple things that bring us joy
Just a little bit of a wobble in it
A perfect custard filling
Time is always against us
The first time you held someone’s hand
Your first job
Your favorite teacher
A time you were lost
Why you write
Your dream vacation
Two friends have a disagreement
Outside the window,
You see something
You can’t believe
I smoke a lot of dog hair
I drink a lot of tears
My favorite thing is scratching
Behind her ears
Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture
The Trap Gets Set
A book and a song
Waiting on a joyous arrival
It won’t be long
Waiting for her
To pull in
I take a phone call
An offer to extend
My vehicle’s warranty
But they don’t have
Because I won’t
Give it to them
Birds or leaves
Tree outside window
Las Cruces, New Mexico
It’s not a coincidence
Birds and leaves
Are similarly shaped
We’re never the same
Pondering the mind of dog
Consciousness of dog
Some of us don’t take it lightly
Or lesser, even if it’s in a
Comic strip or offhand remarks
Not to say there’s anything to be
Said disparaging about those things
Dog state: in the moment
To learn, explore, to always
Be learning, exploring
To care for
To know the absolute value
Of taking care and caring for
Self-awareness/lack of self awareness
To know and understand the
Knowing of fragility of a
Who the fuck is this Vince anyway?
Why’s he hunting for vampires?
He just shows up with his cloves
But free enterprise is making money
They’re stealing cars for Crazy Horse
Among the trees outside of Sioux Falls
by Bart Lessard
Eliot paces better
Which is not to say
She needs attenuation
by Gerry Loose
in your house there should be nothing
your house should be nothing but a hut, a shelter
in your hut there should be
three shelves, which is all you need
the first is for books you cannot remember
the second is for herbs and pulses
the third is pots, pans and knives
the second shelf is highest
since though you are happy to share with mice
rice and your sheltering books are forbidden
there will also be a fire or
these days an iron stove, surrounded by logs
nothing but logs and kindling
you have gathered, felled and split
with your own axe and nothing hands
maybe your nothing also
contains a bucket and cup for nebulous water
you have something of nothing
which is everything
by M.V. Moorhead
The day after I learned I had cancer, I had myself frozen alive. I was a man about it. No screwing around, no weighing the options. I saw the course of action and I took it. One Wednesday morning I got up to take a leak, and it came out looking like crude oil. I went to the doctor, she ordered a bunch of tests, and the next day they were back.
Cancer. The “Big C,” as the great Duke Wayne called it. Pancreatic cancer. One of the few kinds they hadn’t figured out yet. She didn’t soft-soap me. I think she sort of enjoyed telling me I was a goner.
As it happened, Arizona had just become the first state to make it legal to freeze yourself alive. People had been getting their bodies frozen just after death for decades, but the technology had improved. They’d frozen animals and brought them back a year later good as new. Eventually they tried it with human subjects—overseas, of course, not with good Americans—and a year later these wog guinea pigs were back too, happy and smiling and demanding their fee. A few of them went on speaking tours.
So under pressure from a lot of influential Scottsdale and Sedona holistic health nuts and futurist dingalings and New Agey trophy wives, it became legal to get yourself turned into a human Popsicle—if you could afford it, of course—in the hope that they could thaw you out in fifty or a hundred years, or whenever whatever was about to kill you became curable. Time travel, the hard way. The perfect gift for future generations, I remember thinking—a bunch of sick rich white people.
Yes, I had a good laugh about it with the boys down at the club. But somehow it didn’t seem so funny when my doctor—again, barely concealing her pleasure, I think—told me my pancreas was rotting and I was weeks away from the last roundup. On Thursday afternoon I made the call; and that evening I toured the facility, a vault in the basement of a plain cement building in an industrial park in Phoenix. The guy who ran the place didn’t seem like a kook. There were already more than twenty people frozen, in long black metal tubes with self-recharging coolant systems. The guy said that they’d be out of room soon. So I thought, why not?
Because it becomes relevant later, I suppose I might as well tell you now that the idea of freezing myself was starting to seem attractive to me even with cancer removed from the equation. And the reason why is simple.
I was pushing fifty, and I was rich, and I was respected in the business community. I had reached the point in life where a man expects to be able to call the shots. And yet I called no shots. Except for the few hours a week I spent at the club, or on the golf course, my whole life was about taking orders from women. My wife. My ex-wives. My daughters. My secretary—she called the shots at my office, and Christ protect me if I forgot it. My mistress. My doctor. The cop who pulled me over for an illegal left turn on my way to Phoenix. The world wasn’t just going to the dogs, it was going very specifically to the bitches.
Now, don't get me wrong. I’m not a sexist. I am a misogynist, that I’ll grant you, but I’m not a sexist. I didn’t think women were inferior to men. Based on most of the men around, I didn’t see any evidence of that. I just didn’t like women very much; their nagging and narcissism, their feelings and resentments, their lack of interest in my feelings and resentments. And above all, I didn’t like what women were doing to men in those days. Men had fed them and kept them safe for countless centuries, and in less than a century they took for their own all the things that used to be exclusively male—our confidence, our swagger. And they demanded that we take on everything that used to be exclusively female—the subservience, the emotionalism, the indecisiveness. And I had fallen into it as much as anyone else.
And then we got new leadership. A new President. Stupid and mean and full of shit as a man could be, but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t give a rat’s ass who he offended. On the contrary, he loved offending people. And he especially loved to offend the people that most needed offending, in my never-humble opinion. Especially women. It felt, for a moment, like the country—maybe even the world—might get back, at least partway, to a place that guys like me could recognize and be comfortable in. It was glorious. It was fucking glorious.
But of course it couldn’t last. Women didn’t like him, so of course we couldn’t have him. A lot of, let’s say, the underclass didn’t like him either. Why would they? And neither did a lot of Uncle Tom white guys who wanted to suck up to women and show how virtuous they were. But I think it was women, more than any other single group, whose hatred of him led to him being run off after just four years. It seemed like four hours to me, but it was just four years. We tried like hell to keep him, even got a little rough about it, but in the end, just like always, the bitches got their way.
So I thought, what’s to lose by skipping ahead a century or two? Maybe men will have taken their old turf back when I wake up. Or maybe not—maybe men will have become such wussies by then that I’d be an automatic alpha male. Or maybe they’ll never find a cure for pancreatic cancer, and I’d just stay in the deep freeze until Judgment Day, in which case at least my wife would never again make me go to some dinner benefiting local dance companies or Tibetan monks or whatever.
I met my lawyer Friday morning. He was appalled by my decision until he learned he’d get his fee early. I told him not to tell my wife and daughters until after I was on ice. I didn’t want to go through the drama. Besides, when they found out they were getting their trust money, I doubted they’d be all that inconsolable. And if they did need consoling, my daughters had their moron boyfriends—except for my youngest, who had her oh-so-fashionable girlfriend—and my wife had the pool guy.
So that afternoon I signed what seemed like a hundred releases, got injected with a tranquilizer, and crawled naked into the tube. The technician sealed it up. As I listened to the hiss of the coolant and felt the temperature start to drop, I drifted off to sleep.
“You’ll feel a pain in your side.”
There had been a quick dream, of fishing with my friends in Mexico, and then I was awake. Somebody had decided to wake me up.
I couldn’t move and couldn’t open my eyes, but I could hear this voice.
This woman’s voice.
The voice didn’t lie. There was a sharp pain in my side, just below my ribs. It was gone almost as soon as it started, replaced with a tingling vibration.
“You should be able to see in a few minutes, and move a little,” said the voice.
The woman’s voice.
It felt like I had been asleep for an hour or two, tops. Somebody woke me and my cancerous pancreas up. My wife or my daughters had managed it; no doubt, to torment me with God knows what horseshit that didn’t interest me. They’d decided to let me croak slowly, pumped full of useless drugs. I hoped my lawyer would enjoy the new ass I was going to rip him.
I could hear somebody else in the room, speaking. Speaking another language.
Another language, being spoken by another woman.
“Our body scans indicate that you have a... a malignancy in your pancreas,” said the first woman’s voice. She was translating for the second woman. “This is why you were frozen, likely? You don’t have to worry, this treatment will also cure that condition.”
The voice spoke slowly and deliberately, often putting the emphasis on odd syllables. English wasn’t her first language, either.
My eyelids began to twitch, then they quivered open. The light in the room was dim. A machine of some sort hummed at my bedside, with a cord that led to an attachment on my side. Even the slight glow that came from it stabbed at my eyes, and I squinted as I looked upward. Two women were standing over my bed. A door was open behind them, and more women were crowded in the hallway, peering in at me. I didn’t know any of them.
Some feeling was returning to my body—I could feel a soft mattress beneath me, now, and the cool air of the room on my face.
I parted my lips, and tried to speak, but nothing came out. The women saw my effort, and the foreign-speaker said something to my interpreter, who spoke to me:
“Don’t try to talk now... sir. You’ll need about thirty more minutes of exposure to this... this infusion treatment... sir... and then you’ll need to rest awhile. Then you should feel fine. Better than ever, likely.”
My interpreter stood there watching me, smiling, fascinated, while the other woman fussed with the machine, and fussed with me. Then they shooed away the curious crowd in the hallway, and then they left, too.
At the door, my interpreter turned back to me. I noticed she held a sort of transparent envelope in her hand, with a paper enclosed in it. A very old, very yellowed sheet of paper. It was the medical chart from the top of my cryo-tube.
In her tentative English, the woman at the door said:
“Try to rest awhile, Mister... Mister...” she consulted the chart.
I managed something like a smile. I didn’t want them to think I was brain damaged, and couldn’t understand anything. Besides, this infusion treatment of theirs, whatever it was, was starting to work. I was starting to feel pretty good. Damn good, in fact. Like she said, better than ever.
She left, sliding the door shut behind her. After another ten minutes, I had enough strength to turn my head. And there it was, right there on the other side of my bed from the humming infusion machine: My tube, wide open, a few wisps of Freon still rising from it. It was faded-green with oxidation, and covered with dust.
If someone was putting me on, they were doing a hell of a job of it.
It wasn’t a put-on. I knew it wasn’t. I’d been asleep a long, long time. No way the infusion treatment was a fake. I was starting to feel ten years younger. I was starting to feel like I could run a marathon, once I got my joints moving again.
And they said my cancer would be cured. And I believed it. I could almost feel it.
Ingratitude set in fast, though. I was glad I was back, glad I was cured, but...
...All these women. No men to be seen anywhere. Not a good sign.
On the other hand, there was an encouraging sign:
All the women had been wearing skirts.
The infusion machine must have had some sort of tranquilizing effect, because even though I could feel energy starting to surge through me, I still fell into a deep sleep within a few minutes of the two women leaving the room. When I woke up, the machine was gone from my room, the tube was gone from my room, and daylight was seeping in through closed Venetian blinds.
I felt great, incredibly refreshed and energized. I couldn’t stay in bed. I got up, feeling only a slight creak in my joints as I stood—less then I did, mornings, in my pre-frozen days. I was naked, but when I glanced around the plain, white-walled room, I saw a robe had been laid out for me on a small chair near my bed. I put it on.
Then I went to the window, and opened the blind.
I was on the upper floor of a three-story building, in a sprawling desert city of cylindrical buildings, none of which was higher then six stories. The architecture was rounded and curving, the colors soft pastels. It looked like a city of huge mushrooms.
There were car-sized vehicles in the street below me, shoehorn-shaped things that hurtled along a few inches above the pavement. Hovercrafts of some sort. There were pedestrians, too; lots of them.
I looked everywhere. Yes, it was true. Every person I could see was a woman. A tall, strapping woman with long hair, wearing a long skirt. Well, no, that wasn’t right—there was a woman wearing a short skirt. A woman in her late teens or early twenties, wearing a skirt that went down only a few inches below her waist, showing her legs to fine advantage. Her very good legs. I suddenly realized how very, very much better I was feeling.
“Hello, world,” I said. I didn’t sound as hoarse as I would have thought.
Just then the door slid open behind me, and the two women from the previous night came in.
“Mister... Devlin,” said the English speaker. She was a tall, olive-skinned woman who gave the impression of being about fifty, though her tanned face was free of wrinkles. She had thick, curly reddish-brown hair. She still had my chart. Her companion, the foreign-speaking woman, looked to be younger. She, too, was tall, and had long hair, but hers was straight and blond. Her face was stern and a bit suspicious. She spoke.
What the hell was that language? I’d been all over the world with my business, spoke some Japanese myself, but I couldn’t place it. It sounded a little like German, a little like Spanish, a little like Latin. More then anything, like some elaborate form of Pig Latin.
“Mister... Devlin. May I call you...” said the English speaker, looking at the chart. “May I call you...”
“Call me Biff.” They both jumped. It was the first time they had heard me speak. “That’s what my friends call me,” I added. This always worked when I was introduced to new clients.
“Fine,” said the Interpreter. “Biff. Biff, how do you feel?”
“You were right,” I said. “I feel great, never better. Sure wish we’d had treatments like that back in my day. So, uhm... How long have I...”
“My name is Dr. Teele,” said the Interpreter quickly. Uh-oh. She didn’t want to get into that matter just yet. “This is Dr. Piper.” The blond woman nodded at me a little.
“Well, thank you for saving my life,” I said to Dr. Teele.
“I can’t make credit... make credit...?”
“Take credit?” I offered.
“Take credit, yes, I can’t take credit for that. Dr. Piper is the physician. I am a Doctor of language, and of... of history.”
“Ancient history?” I asked, with a smile.
“You’d better sit down... sir. Biff. I’m here so that we can communicate with you. American... well, what you would have called English, our language, it has changed since you were suspended.”
“Yes, and how long ago was that?”
She paused a minute, then decided to take the plunge.
“About a thousand years.”
“This isn’t Phoenix,” I said. “I don’t recognize these mountains.”
“Yes, this city was called Tucson before you went to sleep,” said Dr. Teele.
We were on the roof of the building—the hospital, it turned out, though apparently sickness had grown so rare that it was more like a spa. There was a running track on the roof, and we were strolling around it together.
“What’s it called now?”
I didn’t ask her what this meant. I had a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer.
An especially tall black woman walked behind us, her long skirt fluttering in the warm breeze. Dr. Teele didn’t say so, but she was plainly a security guard. She also didn’t say why we were walking on the roof of the building, but she didn’t have to—it was the only place I could get some fresh air without being stared at.
“How did I get here?”
“The vault with your tube was discovered at an archaeological dig in the ruins of Phoenix. Because I specialize in late 20th-and early 21st Century studies, I was called in from Berkeley to consult.”
Berkeley was still Berkeley, I thought. Of course.
“What about all the other people in the vault?” I asked.
“The coolant systems had failed hundreds of years ago on all of the other tubes except yours and one other person’s. They’d all thawed out and mummified.”
“One other person survived?”
Dr. Teele seemed uncomfortable. “Yes, there was one other... recovery.”
“Can I ask who?”
“A woman from the same time period as you. Her name is Dawn Hacker.”
“Oh, Christ,” I blurted. “Of course! I know Dawn Hacker. She was on a bunch of women’s boards with my wife. I should have known nothing could kill her but a stake of holly through the heart!”
I immediately wished I hadn’t said it, but to my surprise, Dr. Teele smiled. “Yes,” she said. “She... she remembers you too.”
“So you’ve met her?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Teele. Then she sighed, and said, “She’s been assisting me, helping me learn conversational Old American, at my department in Berkeley for nearly five years.”
I whirled on her. “Five years? You mean you found us five years ago? And you only got around to waking me up...?”
“Mister... Biff,” she said. “You might as well understand right now that you are a... I guess you would have called it a hot potato, politically. I wanted to revive you from the start, but there’s been a lot of resistance to the idea. It’s taken me years to persuade the authorities of its scientific value.”
“But Dawn, you were able to thaw out five years ago.”
“Well, Biff, you likely must have noticed... ”
“Indeed I have,” I said. “So let’s quit dancing around the big question. Where are all the men?”
“They’re around,” said Dr. Teele.
I had been in business long enough to know a prepared answer when I heard one.
“Are they?” I asked. “Where?”
“I think maybe we should go in now,” said Dr. Teele. “You need your rest.”
The big security guard came striding up. She was prepared to enforce this. I wasn’t going to get any more answers right now.
So in I went. I did what the women told me to. Some things never change.
They gave me a really horrible-tasting dinner, and then a bunch of doctors and researchers poked and prodded me, and waved hand scanners over me. Most of them, especially the older ones, wore the long skirts; a few of the younger ones wore mini-skirts. Most of them, young or old, were really good-looking, if you liked the earth-mother type. Which I didn’t, but hey...
Dr. Piper pointed a scanner at my abdomen briefly, looked at the readout, then, through Dr. Teele, told me in so many words that I now had the pancreas of a twenty-year-old health food nut.
Through all of this ordeal, Dr. Teele sat watching me, giving me enigmatic smiles. I think she felt a bit sorry for me.
I certainly felt sorry for myself. I was thinking about an old movie I had seen on television on the late show, back when I was a kid, a thousand years and several decades ago. I’ve forgotten the title, but it was about a spaceship that lands on a distant planet, which the crew—all men, of course—discovers is entirely inhabited by women. These women all go instantly boy-crazy, of course, and start trying like hell to seduce these spacemen. It seemed to me like a pretty good deal.
Despite Dr. Teele’s oh-so-casual response to my big question, as far as I could tell I now found myself in the same situation. Except that these women didn’t look at me as an exotic new prospect from the romantic past. They looked at me, and touched me, as if I was a frog that had been submerged in formaldehyde.
The next day, I took exercise again on the roof with Dr. Teele. Again, the big black Amazon walked a few paces behind us on the track.
“Do you have a first name?” I asked Dr. Teele.
“Yes, my name is Marjorie.”
“I like that name,” I said. “Any chance I could call you that?” I was turning on my charm, such as it was. I figured what the hell, maybe these women didn’t have any resistance to male charm. It was worth a try.
“Certainly,” said Dr. Marjorie Teele, with a smile.
“All right then, Marjorie,” I said, as casually as I could. “Let’s try it again. Where are all the men?”
She sighed. “As I told you yesterday, they’re around.”
“Are you sure you weren’t fibbing to me about that, Marjorie?” She looked blankly at me. “Are you sure you ladies haven’t mastered the art of Virgin Birth?”
“No, Biff, pregnancies occur the same way they always have.”
“But it looks like... well, it looks like women run the show.”
“Run the show?” The idiom hadn’t survived, apparently.
“It looks like women are in charge of things. Like they rule society, make the decisions.”
“Oh... yes, I suppose that’s true.”
I stepped off the track, and walked to the rail on the edge of the building. Dr. Teele followed me. The big black Amazon stood on the track, watching.
We stared out for awhile at the cityscape of Tucson/Agavia.
“So, are the men slaves?” I asked at last.
“No,” said Dr. Teele. “Males are not slaves. They are very devoted and very well-loved husbands and fathers.”
In other words, slaves, I thought.
“When will I get to meet them?”
“Not yet,” said Dr. Teele.
“You aren’t ready.”
I turned to face her. “I want to see a man, any man, right now!”
“Well, you can’t, not just yet.” Dr. Teele said. “I’m sorry.”
“You keep us in stud pens or labor camps or something, don’t you, Godammit? Just admit it.” I said it too loud, too aggressively, and the Amazon started toward us. But Dr. Teele held up her hand, and the big woman stopped.
“No,” snapped Dr. Teele. “Labor camps and slavery were products of your era, not of ours.”
I made myself calm down. This wouldn’t get me anywhere. I looked back out at the city, and the barren mountains beyond it. Finally I spoke.
“Is it this way all over the world, or only here?”
“All over the world, Biff,” she said, gently now.
“So, the world is perfect now, I suppose? No more war, and all that? No more violence, no more prejudice?”
“Of course not,” said Dr. Teele. “I wish that was true, but there’s still plenty of war and violence... ”
“Well, there’s unrest in the Middle East, of course,” she said. “And there’s a war going on right now in southern Europe—the Sapphist Front is trying to take control of New Lesbos. And there’s been terrorism on the Moon lately, too, in Diana Dome. Hecatian purists insist that it’s a holy city to Moon Goddess worshippers.”
“Women run the moon, too?”
She smiled at me. “Doesn’t that, at least, seem fair?”
Late that evening, I tried to escape. It was pathetic really. Another large, burly woman was posted outside my door at night, and I had already noticed that the night shift didn’t take the detail as seriously as the big Amazon that followed me around during the day. She’d leave to go to the bathroom every few hours, apparently assuming I was asleep, and be gone for four or five minutes. So that night, after another appalling dinner, I lay in bed and waited until I heard her pad down the hall. I cracked open the door, and saw that the corridor was empty.
I made it, without being spotted, to a big spiral staircase that wound its way down the center of the building, ending in a big round lobby at the ground level, three floors down. I crept to the foot of these stairs, but as soon as I got there, I realized I was going to be spotted, and indeed I was—a nurse at the front desk looked up from her screen, looked back down, then did a big double take.
She hit a button on her desk, and began to yammer into it in her language.
“Shit,” I said, and bolted for the door. As I opened it, I could hear my guard yelling at me she charged down the stairs behind me.
As soon as I ran out onto the street, into the cool night air and the light of a moon full of squabbling women, it occurred to me that this was without a doubt the stupidest thing I could possibly do. It was the panicked response of an animal. Marjorie had already told me that the authorities hadn’t wanted her to thaw me out at all; this would certainly prove them right, prove that I was a dangerous beast and couldn’t be trusted. I was in strange world where I didn’t speak the language, where I had no resources, and where I was immediately recognizable as out of place—as a monster, in fact. I was going to be recaptured, no question about it, and very possibly put to death. The only remotely smart course of action at this point would have been to give up peacefully, and apologize.
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself go passive and throw myself on the mercy of a bunch of women. I’d slept for a millennium and outlasted cancer, and after all that I just couldn’t beg these bitches for my life. I kept running.
But to no avail. I was a fugitive for less than two minutes, as it turned out. I crossed the broad, empty street and dodged between two of the shoehorn-shaped vehicles that were parked along its side. The streetlights were really bright; I needed some kind of cover. I turned into a wide concourse between two of the mushroom-shaped buildings. Immediately I came face to face with three pedestrians, all women of course, all around forty, with long hair and long skirts. They shrieked when they saw me, but they didn’t scatter—they charged me. I turned and ran the other way, and there was the night-shift Amazon coming toward me fast, her skirt billowing behind her.
“Leave me alone!” I screamed, and took a swing at her—something I’d never done in my earlier life, I might add. My sad little punch missed her nose altogether, and I stumbled. She grabbed my arm, twisted it behind my back, and hurled me down to the pavement. I flailed with my free arm, but the other three women ran up and helped restrain me. More women emerged from doorways all around, alerted by the scuffle, and descended on me.
I started to scream at them. “Where are the men? Bitches! What did you bitches do to all the men?”
I was sure they were going to tear me apart, but they didn’t. They just held me fast, talking excitedly in their Pig Latin-ish lingo, until more guards from the hospital arrived. I was taken back to my room and put in restraints, and the door was locked. About half an hour later, Dr. Teele came in. She had a book in her hand.
“That was unwise,” she said.
“Where were you planning to go?”
“I know, I know, it was stupid. Screw you.”
“Screw me... what does that..?”
“Never mind,” I said. “Ask your buddy Dawn Hacker; she’ll tell you. So I suppose now you’re going to stuff me and put me in a museum or something?”
“The council wouldn’t mind that, I admit,” she said. “But we have laws against that sort of thing. We’ve awakened you, and now we have to keep you. I’m not the most popular person in the world right now.”
“Well, look at this way, Marjorie,” I said. “You’re still more popular than me.”
“Listen, we have to come to an understanding, you and I,” she said. “I was wrong not to explain to you the situation with... with the males from the start.”
“I agree,” I said. “So tell me.”
“I brought you something to read,” she said, and took off my restraints. “I had this flown in from my library at Berkeley. It’s a very old book. It’s in your language.” She handed it to me.
It was indeed a very old book—it had already been at least a couple of decades old, I bet, when I got frozen. Once brightly colored, it was faded with age and with some sort of thin coating that had been placed on the pages to preserve them. The title was Fish Are Astounding! and the cover also bore the legend “A Read and Learn Book.”
“It’s for children,” I said petulantly.
“I know,” said Dr. Teele. “I’m not trying to... to... econdesendu...”
“Condescend to me?”
“Thank you, yes. I’m not trying to do that. But we don’t have much time, and this is the only piece of literature on this topic that I have in your language.”
“On what topic? Fish?”
“Just read it,” she said, “And then we’ll talk.”
So I did. There was a cloth marker in the volume, and I opened to that page. And there was a picture of large, snaggle-toothed, football-shaped black fish with spiny fins and a long, antennae-like projection from its head. From its belly there dangled, almost unnoticeably, a tiny, tadpole-like appendage.
This is what the text underneath said:
“Did you know that when you look at this picture, you’re looking at two fish, not one? This big girl in the center of the page is a female anglerfish, a predator of the deepest parts of the ocean. She hunts by attracting smaller fish to the glowing lure that extends from her head. But her mate is also in the picture—he’s the little fellow, less than three inches long, hanging from her underside! When a male angler is very young, he grabs onto his mate’s body with his mouth, and hitches a ride. Eventually his jaws grow right into her skin, and he feeds directly from her bloodstream for the rest of his life. As time goes by, most of his non-reproductive organs degenerate, including his sensory and digestive systems and his brain, and he depends on his mate completely for survival and nourishment.”
I read the paragraph through twice. Then I looked up at Dr. Teele. I cleared my throat, which had gone sort of dry. I wanted to crack a joke, say something, but Dr. Teele put up her hand and stopped me.
And then she pulled up her skirt.
And there it was—or, rather, there he was, hanging down from the front of her right leg, just below her hip. A shriveled pinkish GI Joe body with melted-down arms and legs, a buttcrack grown shut and a bald, eyeless head, mouth fused to her skin. Only one part of him was plainly not vestigial, and that part was very well developed indeed.
“Biff,” said Dr. Teele, “I’d like you to meet my husband.”
When I came to, Dr. Teele was sitting next to my bed. Her skirt was down. Mercifully. She handed me a cup of water, and I drank it.
When I was finished, I spoke.
“I took college biology,” I said. “I was asleep for a thousand years, give or take, right? Evolution...”
“...Couldn’t have made such a big change in just a thousand years? You’re right, it couldn’t.”
“Human genetic science stepped in. Hundreds of years ago. I can you give the whole history if you want to hear it. It was a deliberate conspiracy, and I can’t say that the females necessarily behaved with perfect justice toward the males, although they had been pushed far. I can only say that this... this is the way things are now, and the way they’ve been for a very long time. It’s the only way that any of us have ever known.”
“Which makes me very out of place.”
“I’m afraid so,” she said. “None of us are quite sure what to do with you.”
I wasn’t listening. A new question had just occurred to me.
“Jesus, does Dawn Hacker know about this?”
“Dawn’s had a husband of her own for more than three years,” said Dr. Teele. “They have two daughters.”
I asked for paper and a writing utensil, and was surprised when they gave them to me. I lay awake all last night, writing this account. This morning, I asked Marjorie to take a proposal to the authorities—that I be frozen again, for another thousand years at least, and try my evolutionary luck with the next Millennium. A copy of this manuscript could be attached to the outside of the tube, to help future generations decide if they want to try their luck with me. Less than an hour later, Marjorie came back, smiling at me a little sadly.
She said they’d be happy to oblige.
Until now, we’ve chosen our authors. Now we’re ready to also let authors choose us. If you have a manuscript you think would be at home with us, click here.
by Zak Mucha
The Meat Empire
The sausage king of Moscow was found zip-tied and
run through with bolts like St. Sebastian in bed.
Impatient extortionists let his girlfriend slip
away to collect her cut after they ditch the
car and crossbow and do something with the other
guy they left drugged and cuffed to the bed in their flat.
One last job, just like they say in the movies,
to reach the land of Crown Royal bikini tops,
shopping mall lots filled with camouflaged Hum-vees,
and Jason Stratham movies that have a sense of humor.
The patron saint of second place check his numbers
on Wednesdays and Saturdays, knowing end times come
gently with soft thuds at twilight in fields where
men jump from barn gables to meet The Man mid-air.
Just one fly was the debate’s surprise. That guy should
have been covered head-to-toe within the hour,
choking from bees born in his mouth like Candyman,
a rain of black frogs dotting the studio floor.
Jesus could have stepped on stage, shaking the Buddha’s
other sandal from his crook like clicking batteries
into a sock, ready to sift wheat from
the tares right before the cameras cut away.
Ghazals for Fat Possum Records
They ran out of North Mississippi bluesmen grown
old with swollen ankles, bad hearts, and diabetes,
shirtless in their front yards, cigarettes dangling,
posing as if they didn’t give a damn or as
if they didn’t know any eyes were on them. Or
as if they had no say or as if maybe they
were in on the white boys’ opportunism long
after the first waves of dry recitations.
R.L. slipped from the hospital like Lazarus
calling for a wire transfer to the casino.
More white boys who couldn’t sit behind the beat
brought the first Theremin to Oxford screaming drunk.
One Rockefeller cannot feed a whole tribe.
R.L. reimagined trickster tales of late-night,
pajama-clad, panic attacks shared by Hitler
and Tojo hiding with their heads in paper sacks.
And a little monkey, who was actually
the probation officer, forcing his way into
the bigger animals’ party, badge hidden, with
a front pocket of whiskey and a ass pocket of gin.
The student’s watch and glasses were left behind on
an old canoe, his dissertation in his dorm room,
a signal to Mom buried in the scratches of
open note hillbilly music before the war.
She responded with a quarter-million dollar
reward for information on her boy. Fortune
hunters and documentarians paralleled
the shore as arrows plinked the water. Customer
survey cards would fall from Fat Possum packaging,
questions mocking embedded race and class issues:
“Where at you get this?” “Where you stay?” “How much money
you make?” And above an empty rectangle, the
instruction: “Trace your house key in this box.” The joke
died with R.L., leaving British aristocrats
to simulate music of the antebellum
south on Jumbotron screens in exchange for your rent.
The Herald has reviewed The Heavyweight Champion of Nothing:
“Today, Zak Mucha is a psychotherapist living and working in Chicago. But in a previous existence he used to haul furniture, and this novel is inspired both by his own experiences and those of clients he’s treated who were stuck in dead-end jobs and turned to crime. His narrator is Johnny, “an average guy with a babyface”, who has worked for a removal-truck business for five years and fallen in with the “bad boys” on the team. When not griping about their bosses, customers and working conditions, they’re copying keys and robbing homes, fencing stolen goods through a crooked antique dealer – until, inevitably, the law closes in. In prose that’s blunt, direct but eloquent, Mucha summons up the reality of being stuck in no-future jobs and dysfunctional relationships, of men whose lives are defined by tedium, inertia, resentment and empty rituals. A novel that deserves recognition as a street-level classic.”
LATEST NOVELS FROM DOCKYARD PRESS: BELFAST NEO-NOIR, CHICAGO WORKING CLASS CRIME, AND ZOMBIES AT CHRISTMAS
Today we announce the release of three books by authors new to Dockyard Press: The Night before Christmas of the Living Dead, a holiday-themed zombie thriller by M.V. Moorhead; The Heavyweight Champion of Nothing, a Chicago novel of working-class disillusionment—and burglary—by Zak Mucha; and Shot, by Gerard Brennan, the first in a new Northern Irish crime series featuring Shannon McNulty, a former London cop gone home to contend with the murder of her gangster uncle and the disappearance of a politician’s daughter. All titles are available as e-books through our in-house store, and in paperback at all discerning bookshops.
by M.V. Moorhead
In the summer of 1970, for me the summer between second and third grade, my mother had an operation that left her bedridden for several weeks. I was sent to stay with my Aunt Marion in Washington, DC, for the month of June.
It was a cicada summer that year in DC, a summer of sexual maturity for the Periodical Cicadas—after seventeen summers as underground larvae they had risen, to fill the trees with their vast choral love-music, and to make the birds fat.
Standing on the balcony of Aunt Marion’s apartment one afternoon, I saw a starling grab a cicada in mid-air. Possibly my earliest clear memory of death. Then I went home to Pennsylvania, where I finished out the summer, and finished out grade school, and finished out high school. Then I went to Penn State for a while, but left to get married, and then I got divorced. And then I got accepted as a transfer student at Georgetown, and landed back in DC—not Richard Nixon’s DC; now it was Ronald Reagan’s—seventeen years later, in 1987. That’s when I met Stan Zelinski.
He was drunk when I met him, and in danger of losing his life. I had gone to work, a couple of nights a week, as an usher at a movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. One of my fellow ushers was Trent, a big aggressively friendly Georgetown undergrad, and a frat boy. Trent talked me into showing up at a frat party one Friday night after work.
Loud music, smoke and none of the decadence I’d seen in the movies. Oh well.
Less than an hour, and I was about to leave, when I happened to notice a kid of eighteen or nineteen, a yuppie-type with full cheeks and brown eyes, talking to a fleshy, buxom blond girl of about the same age in a blue blouse too small for her.
She was doing the talking, actually—talking and talking away to this kid, and dancing while she talked, with a beer in her hand. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it looked like the usual: what’s your major, what’re you going to do this summer? The kid wasn’t saying much. He was smiling at her, his eyes lowered. It looked like they were lowered in shyness. It was a charming expression.
Then he grabbed her bouncing tits, one with each hand.
For me, it was like a stretched-out moment in a car accident—I knew he was going to do it a split second before he did.
She yelled and pushed him away, and he fell on his ass. One of the other frat guys also saw it happen, and told several others, including Trent, and they dragged him out the door. I wandered out after them, and followed them around the side of the house. By the time I got there, they had already bloodied his nose.
“Want us to lose our fuckin’ charter, you little fuck?” Trent was saying, as he flung the kid to the ground. He raised a foot over the kid’s head.
“Hey, Trent. Cool it.”
They all looked at me.
“You see what this piece of shit freshman did?”
“Yeah, I saw it, and he deserves everything you gave him. But go any farther, he’ll end up in the hospital. Or worse. And then you’re screwed. There goes your summer.”
I said I’d take care of him. They said to make sure he never came near the place again. I helped the kid up, and walked him off into the milling streets of Georgetown. Bloody and mumbling though he was, we attracted surprisingly little notice from passersby.
“What’s your name?”
“Stan. Who would’ve thought frat boys would take it so hard?”
“Yeah, who would’ve thought. Where do you live?”
“Brlffnglb. Hllllb...” He dropped to his knees and vomited. Then he told me which dorm he was in.
“Shit, that’s far. OK, let’s get you there.”
“You can stay over, if you want. My roommate’s gone for the summer. Thank God. Are you gay?”
He sang a few bars of some song in a foreign language. Odd, he didn't look or sound foreign. Then he stopped, dropped and vomited again, several times. A trio of girls laughed at us as they gave us a wide berth on the sidewalk.
I got him up and kept him going. He started singing again, in English this time. “‘When I get excited, my little China Girl says, ‘Oh baby, just you shut your mouth’...”
“Bowie,” I said. “If you like Bowie, you can’t be too evil.”
“I like China Girls. China Girls.”
“Oh yeah, and that was a real lotus blossom you were putting your smooth move on back there.”
I cleaned him up in the dorm bathroom, then helped him back to his room. It was cluttered on his side, empty on his roommate’s side.
“Like I said, you can stay over, if you want. Are you gay? It doesn’t matter, you can stay. Are you gay?”
“No, I’m not gay. And if I was, I wouldn’t be interested in your drunken ass.”
“Haw. I’m drunk.”
“That’s like saying Madonna’s got an ego.”
I laid down on his roommate’s sheetless bed.
“You’re the best friend I ever had,” he slurred, face down across the room.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Within a few days, we really had become friends. It turned out his name was Stan Zelinski, like I said, and like me, he was a Pennsylvanian. He was from the other side of the state, though, from Philadelphia.
By the middle of May, he had moved in with me. I lived in a one-room cellar, with adjoining bathroom but no kitchen, in the bowels of a rowhouse not far from the steep stone staircase the priest plunges down at the end of The Exorcist. I had shared it that year with a guy named Danny, our futons homophobically at opposite ends of the room. But Danny was moving in with his girlfriend Gretchen in Bethesda, and even a cellar in Georgetown was more than I could afford on my own.
Stan had decided to stay in DC for the summer, so the fit was perfect. He even bought Danny’s disgusting futon for thirty bucks.
By the first week in June, I’d gotten Stan a job, too. Trent had left the movie theatre for a summer job in Florida, and Stan took over for him.
That’s where he met Grace Khanket, which ruined his whole summer. You see, it also turned out that when Stan Zelinski drunkenly told me that he liked “China Girls,” he hadn’t just been raving. He worshipped and coveted Asian—or, as we still said in those days, “Oriental”—women.
He had been an exchange student his senior year in high school, to Thailand. He’d fallen in love with every third girl he met, and also with the food, and the weather, and the land. And also with the language—he’d picked it up easily, and soon discovered that he was the rare and lucky American with a gift for Asian tongues. It was a prodigal gift, really—he was fluent in Thai and Lao already, and had a smattering of Japanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese.
He hoped that a Georgetown degree in Japanese would get him a lucrative career in international business with a Far East specialization. But the a priori behind this ambition was the hope of a string of delectable Asian girlfriends, culminating in a delectable but bringable-home-to-Mom Asian fiancée.
“You’ll have to meet this chick, Grace, who works down at the theatre,” I said.
Grace Khanket, who worked the concession stand, was a tiny, maddeningly beautiful Thai-American girl who dressed in black and wore Lois Lane spectacles.
She was a freshman, too, at George Washington University, but she didn’t live in the dorms; she was local, and lived with her large family across the river in Arlington, near the restaurant they ran.
The minute Stan saw her, the first night he worked, he knew why he had been put on earth. I introduced them, and as soon as she wasn’t looking, Stan turned back to me with his eyes bugging out and his teeth clenched, an expression of something like rage, as if I should have known, should have known upon meeting him that he needed to be introduced to her at once, shouldn’t have delayed this meeting all these weeks.
Though she was really a reserved, even slightly dour young woman, Grace chatted with him pleasantly enough that night. Between shows, when he tried some Thai on her, she paid him the compliment of saying that his pronunciation was better than hers. This was true, too; even a nonspeaker could tell that—Grace’s Thai, while flawlessly confident, was delivered in a honking Yank shopping-mall accent.
Stan was transported. After work he and I got burgers at Roy Rogers, then walked toward home, through the mugginess of a June night in DC. When we reached The Exorcist stairway, we sat on the top step and ate, and looked out across the black Potomac at Virginia.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgetown,” I said.
“I’ve met her,” said Stan. “I’ve met her already. I figured it would be years. I figured I’d be twenty-five, thirty maybe, and I’d meet her over there somewhere.”
“Her. The One. The Perfect One for Me. The perfect balance of sexiness and class. I feel cheated, almost.”
“I had anticipated years as a single man, years to date dozens of women of all races, mostly Oriental but all races, to savor all that life has to offer. That’s out of the question now.”
“You’re drunk even when you’re sober.”
“I wonder if she masturbates.”
“I wonder. Do you think she masturbates?”
“Why am I having this conversation?”
“Seriously. It’s too incredible to imagine. To witness that would be like finding the Secret Elephant Graveyard.”
“I know what you’re getting at there, but you might want to find a different image before you say that to Grace.”
“Seriously, though, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“Maybe, say, a movie first, or some dinner?”
“A mere formality. Does she have a boyfriend? I’ll do a fucking header down these steps if she has a boyfriend. Not that it matters; we’re getting married anyway.”
“I don’t think she has a boyfriend.”
“But you still don’t have much a shot with her.”
“Bullshit, why not?”
“I heard her say she doesn’t like American guys.”
“She only likes Oriental guys?”
“No, she likes them even less. She gets into English guys. That guy from Room With a View, Something Something Hyphenated, she gets into him. You know, she’s an English Lit major, which tells you...”
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said Stan. He was looking up. “What the hell is that noise?”
I listened. I hadn’t been paying attention, but he was right. There was a high, insistent whirring, symphonically loud, pealing from the treetops all around us.
“It’s the cicadas,” I said. “They’re out this summer.”
“Cicadas. Okay, as long as I know that.”
“You ever see that movie when you were a kid, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, where the spaceships attack Washington? That’s what it sounds like to me. I thought maybe aliens were down at the Mall, blowing up the Capitol and the White House.”
“No such luck. Nope, just horny bugs.”
We’re not talking here about the big, clumsy, dull-black annual cicadas, or “locusts,” as they’re sometimes called. Like the name implies, those show up every year, looking like giant houseflies, to startle us with their loud, ungainly buzzing. That summer in DC was the season of their more glamorous cousins, the Periodical Cicadas or “Seventeen-Year Locusts”—smaller, sleeker, shiny black, with cherry-red eyes and lacy wings that hum rather than buzz.
Periodical Cicadas remain underground, around trees, feeding on the fluids of the root, for seventeen years, before emerging as yellowish-brown nymphs to crawl up the sides of the trunk. They shed their exoskeletons, leaving them behind, split-back and still clinging to the bark, and take to the air and the upper branches for a few feverish weeks of singing, mating and laying eggs. They don’t sting or bite, but they’re still technically regarded as pests, because the females inflict tiny wounds on trees with their ovipositors, the organs with which they plant their eggs. These “oviposition wounds” can be so numerous that it’s inadvisable to plant young trees too close to a Periodical Cicada season.
Periodical Cicadas are also a classic example of “predator satiation,” an evolutionary adaptation in which the survival chances of individuals are increased by the abundance of prey available to predators. So the cicada I saw the starling snatch that day when I was a kid was just doing its Darwinian duty to its species.
For a couple of weeks, it looked like I was right about Stan Zelinksi’s chances with Grace Khanket. She wasn’t unfriendly to him, and they had long, lively, sometimes even contentious conversations, Stan leaning against the concession stand in the longueurs between showtimes. But she was icy—aloof to his suggestions that they do something together outside of work. They were the same age, but she saw him as a pesky kid with a crush, and herself as a sophisticated woman.
Then one day, seemingly all at once, her manner toward him changed. I never knew how exactly—neither did Stan—but he’d broken through with her. Their conversations became softer, less animated, more intimate, less inclusive of the others that worked at the theatre. They started taking breaks together.
A few evenings later, on a Friday in late June, Grace agreed to go for a drink with Stan after work. He came back from this date to our wretched little cellar, beaming.
“Did you score?”
“Please. It’s not like that, I told you.”
“So you didn’t.”
“OK, so how’d it go?”
“Yep. For like half an hour.”
“That’s not all. I’m meeting her family.”
“I’m meeting her family. This Sunday.”
“You’re going to her house?”
“Nah. I’m going down to the Mall. Some Asian cultural festival this weekend. I saw something about it on the bulletin board. Turns out her family is going to have a food booth there. She wants me to come down there Sunday and meet everybody.”
“I have to say, I never thought you’d get this far. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. It’s fate.”
Maybe what happened that Sunday was fate, too. That was certainly Stan Zelinski’s disgusted opinion, after his big date on the Mall that beautiful Sunday, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. He came back around dusk, and I asked him once again:
“How’d it go?”
“I don’t know. Not good.”
“I was going to order some Domino’s. You want to go in on it?”
“No, I’m definitely full.”
“Well, tell me what happened.”
He flung himself on his futon, and stared at the ceiling for a while. Then:
“OK, I get there. She’s there, gives me a kiss. A kiss. On the lips. Right in front of her old man, who she then introduces me to.”
“Yeah. Her Dad is very friendly, but he seems nervous, like he thinks I’ll kill him or something. Her Mom is not friendly. At all. But there are a bunch of brothers and sisters around, and working the booth is Gramma.”
“What’s she like?”
“Just what you’d expect. Several thousand years old, and about the size of a fireplug.”
“Wispy gray hair, wire-rimmed-glasses?”
“You’ve met her. She doesn’t like me either, I don’t think, but Grace is obviously her favorite, and I’m Grace’s guest, so she hands me a Styrofoam plate. Shrimp. I say thanks, and she just nods. So she doesn’t speak English, I gather. This, I think, is my opening. So I eat the shrimp, and man are they good.”
“Pretty spicy, yeah, more so than the crap you get in the restaurants here. But I’m a vet, right? So I just wolf them down. Then I say thank you to her, and tell her it was great, in Thai. And she gives me a look, the old lady. Not a smile, exactly, just a startled look like I may not be completely worthless. And she hands me another plate, this one with chicken in some kind of black sauce. Absolutely delicious. So at this point Gramma starts talking to me, slowly at first, but then she’s talking faster and faster.”
“About food, mostly, at first. The kind of food they made back in her village in the old country. She’s giving me more food while she talks—a plate of this and a plate of that, and it’s all great. I’m actually starting to get full. She’s talking faster and faster, testing me I think, and I’m keeping up, pretty much, talking back almost as fast. Pretty soon she’s talking about Grace, what a special girl she is and everything, and I’m agreeing all over the place of course. And then Grace’s parents are listening in, they can’t believe it.”
“And then it happened.”
He rolled on his side and faced me.
“The old lady hands me a plate of your bugs. Those cicadas.”
“Oh, Jesus. No way.”
“Oh yeah. Nicely wok-steamed, in some kind of light sauce. All golden-brown.”
“You see the position I’m in? I can’t turn them down. But I figure, anyway, hey, this’ll cinch the deal with Gramma, thus with Grace. So I dig in.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Nope. I just started crunching them up. There were all these little Americanized Thai kids with their skateboards standing around, and they’re all going, ‘Whoa, Dude, that’s sick.’ But I ate the whole fucking plate.”
“How were they?”
“Not bad. Not real good, either.”
“No. Sort of like shrimp, I guess. But not as good.”
“Oh, shit. You threw up, didn’t you? That’s where all this is heading?”
“Nope. Like I said, I’m full. But after I was finished, I’m thinking, I’ll be Grace’s hero now. I turn to her, and she’s looking at me with this look of revulsion. She was looking at me just like the kids were. She couldn’t believe I’d eaten them.”
“Wasn’t she pleased? I mean, you must have made a great impression with Gramma.”
“Oh, Gramma thinks I kick ass. So do her parents, I think. That’s just it. I don’t think that I was supposed to make a good impression. I think I was supposed to piss them off.”
“Ah. You should’ve showed up in a leather jacket, on a motorcycle.”
“Exactly. Shit, man, I really fucked up. Grace walked me back to the Metro, reluctantly, and she didn’t want me to kiss her goodbye. She shied away and laughed when I went to kiss her. She was too grossed-out by what I’d been eating.”
“After she kissed you in front of her parents.”
“She kissed me in front of her parents, but she wouldn’t kiss me when we were alone.”
“Well, at least you got a good meal out of it.”
“You’re a fucking riot.”
That was that. At the theatre the following night, Grace was back to chilly reserve toward Stan. Even their earlier conversational rapport was gone. After a week he couldn’t take it any more. He quit the movie theatre, and took a job waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.
By mid-July, the cicadas had gone quiet.
Stan and I lived together for a few more months, but then we both got better-paying jobs which allowed us to move into better digs, mine in Adams Morgan, his elsewhere in Georgetown. We saw less and less of each other after that, and within a few years we had both left DC. I still get an email from him now and then.
He did spend one semester in Osaka, but that was it for his Far East dream. After graduation he got a very good position with a firm in Texas, and married a woman he met there. He sent me their wedding picture. His wife was blond and fleshy and looked not at all unlike the woman he violated the night I met him.
Predictably enough, Grace ended up—according to Stan—marrying a Thai doctor she met at a cousin’s wedding. They had four kids, and still live in Arlington.
I moved west, and I got married, too. The other day it occurred to me that next summer will be cicada time again in DC. The descendants of the very bugs that Stan Zelinksi ate that day on the Mall, in a misguided attempt to win Grace Khanket’s heart, will be singing in the trees, trying to win hearts for themselves.
I wish I could get there, just to walk the streets, and hear the music. After all, how many seventeenth summers do I have left, before the Big Starling catches me?
© DOCKYARD PRESS