Summer 2014

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FICTION

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Mirror Mirror on the Door by Paul Germano

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Mirror Mirror on the Door

Dumpy pharmaceutical salesman Douglas Mulhern took a good hard look at himself in the full-length mirror affixed to the bathroom door of a musty overpriced room on the fifth floor of a rundown hotel in a seedy section of Baltimore.

“Son of a bitch,” he said right out loud. There was a lot about his body he had grown accustomed to. His hairline was receding; his skin flaked up if he stayed in the sun too long. His fingers tended to swell, at times, making it extremely difficult to slip his wedding band back on, and at other times, nearly impossible to get the damn ring off. He had always been on the short side, but now he had all this sloppy extra weight added to the equation. He was, to put it kindly, portly. His face was getting rounder. He had a tire around his waist and an ass the size of Montana. He had gotten used to it, all of it. But this latest discovery really floored him. He wished his eyes were deceiving him, but his 20-20 vision was one of his few attributes that remained intact. There was no denying it; Douglas Mulhern had grown himself a genuine pair of man-boobs.

Douglas glared at himself in the mirror. How in God’s green Earth did he let this happen? And just when did this happen? The last time he looked, the last time he had paid any real attention to his flabby chest, that is exactly what he had seen, an ordinary run-of-the mill flabby chest. But now the flab had officially turned into breasts. Douglas Mulhern had a set of boobs to call his very own. With his right hand, he cupped his newly discovered left breast. And then with his left hand, he cupped his right breast. With criss-crossed hands, he jiggled these new-found playthings of his, really getting a good bounce going. He felt gleeful and giddy, then in the next moment, disgusted with himself. What was he doing? He shifted his eyes away from the mirror; but still, he kept his hands firmly gripped on his man-boobs. If it wasn’t for the hair on his chest, they would feel like an honest to goodness set of woman’s breasts.

In fact, these breasts of his, had a lot more girth and bounce to them than the sorry set of sagging boobs on the hooker who had been in his hotel room, just a few hours earlier.

She had entered his hotel room with a sense of bravado, strutting around like she truly believed she was something special. She has long brown hair, pulled back in a grown-up pony tail and held in place with one of those red flowery things. She had on a low-cut black dress and long glittery earrings. She shook her head a whole lot when she talked, making her earrings dangle, apparently thinking the gesture was visually alluring. She looked to be in her late-thirties, Douglas had guessed, though he would not have been too surprised to find out she was younger, maybe still even in her twenties. In her line of work, a person tended to age early, this Douglas knew to be true. She was scrawny and drenched with cheap sickeningly-sweet smelling perfume. He was thinking to himself that she smelled like a cheap French whore and realized how redundant his thoughts were, when, in an unconvincing French accent, she said, “yewww can call me Renee.”

Make no mistake, Douglas Mulhern had no regrets for the time he spent with the so-called Renee, nor any regrets for the money he had laid out for her services. She showed him a good time, more or less, sagging boobs and all. But her pitifully droopy rack was no match for his own set of buoyant bouncy man-boobs.

Finally, Douglas removed his groping hands from his own body. “I got me a bodacious set of tatas,” he said, forcing out a laugh. Again he looked at the spectacle of himself in the mirror. “Face it Dougie boy,” he said right out loud, “you gots to get yourself to the gym. Yep, yep yeppers, gots to get your big ole’ butt to the gym, gots to get rid of these puppies.” Again, he cupped himself. Once again, he began bouncing these newly discovered playthings of his that he still couldn’t quite believe were actually part of his own body.

His thoughts drifted back to Renee and how he had jiggled the whore’s  sagging boobs. He had been standing on the bed, in nothing but a pair of plaid boxers and black socks. He was jumping up and down on the mattress, treating it like a trampoline. He always liked to have a little bit of fun when he was on the road. He had bought a bottle of Jack Daniels from a liquor store three blocks down from the hotel and had already knocked off a third of the bottle by the time Renee arrived.

“C’mon sweetheart, hop on up,” he said to her, holding out his hand.

She laughed. “Whatever you say hon’; it’s your nickel.” She kicked off her heels and took his extended hand. Her black dress, short and tight, crept up, revealing, pink floral panties, as she stepped onto the bed. She laughed just a bit as she tried to get a good footing on the lumpy mattress. He stepped behind her, hugging her waist and helping her steady herself. She was facing the TV set, which was spewing forth local late-night Baltimore news. The grim-faced anchor bellowed about a disturbing crime incident in West Baltimore. The hooker, seemingly more focused on the TV screen, than on the groping hands pawing away at her breasts, shook her head at the grim news.

“What’s the point,” she asked breathlessly. “People, they have triple locks on their doors, but then they got all these large windows all over the house. How safe is that? When there ain’t but nothing more than a pane of glass separating you from the criminals?” Again, she shook her head; her earrings dangled.

“Hey sweetheart,” Douglas said, his hands still firmly gripped on Renee’s tiny sagging breasts, “don’t be worrying about such things, I mean, well, do you live in West Baltimore?”

Again she shook her head. “No, no I don’t, but it makes no never mind hon’, there‘s crime everywhere and it sure as hell ain’t isolated to West Baltimore. It’s all over the city; it’s way past the city limits out in the suburbs, over in Goat Town; it’s just everywhere.”

Douglas snuggled in a little closer, breathing heavy. Her hair smelled of strawberry shampoo. “Well sweetheart, crime like that, it surly is not here in our little Baltimore hotel room,” he whispered, trying his best to sound sexy. “No ma’am, no crimes are going on in here.” He let go of her breasts and reached down on the night stand for the remote and clicked off the TV.

“No crime in this here hotel room?” she said coyly, her eyes still fixed on the now-blank TV screen. “Well actually what we are doing here hon’ is considered a crime by the Baltimore police.” She said “poh-lease,” the way they like to say it in Baltimore, letting the word roll around on her tongue.

He laughed. “Well sweetheart, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.” Again, he straddled her from behind, reaching his arms around her waist in a bear hug, then moving his hands quickly upwards and cupping her breasts and bouncing them playfully.

“Bounce little titties, bounce,” he chanted, which she seemed to find amusing. Or maybe she just acted amused since he was, after all, paying her to be attentive. She was on the clock, so to speak.

“You’ve got the cutest little set of tomatoes there Miss Renee,” he told her in a positively giddy voice.

“Why thank yewww so much monsieur,” she purred, slipping back into her less-than-authentic French accent.

So there they stood, spooning in an upright position on a lumpy mattress. She began to dance, her body swaying from side to side; he held on tight from behind, keeping in rhythm with her movements and continuing to play with her breasts. He started to sway a little faster, then spun her around so they were face to face. Her breath smelled of mints; his own was a mix of Jack Daniels and toothpaste. He smiled, gave her a peck on her cheek and then guided her down to her knees. He thought it quite gentlemanly of himself to have her do it this way, her knees being on the soft mattress. Oh Douglas Mulhern was so proud of himself for what a gentleman he could be.

He even told her, “Au revoir mon cheri,” as she was leaving. He figured, what the hell, if she wanted to pretend she was French, he could play along.

She was a fine little piece of ass, sagging boobs and all, he thought to himself, his eyes again fixed on his own reflection in that full-length mirror that was affixed to the bathroom door. He had one more night in Baltimore. Tomorrow he was back on the road for a few stops in Washington and then some of the DC suburbs, mostly on the Virginia side. He would make a point of buying something real nice for his wife when he got to DC. Maybe he could find a nice set of bookends with Thomas Jefferson on them or something classy like that. Bookends would be good for all those books of hers. She was always reading John Grisham novels, one after another. Those damn Grisham novels! He would walk into their house and instead of asking about his day, she would greet him by shoving a book in his face. “Oh Douglas, look,” she would say, holding up the book like it was some kind of treasure, “it’s the new Grisham; I just can’t put it down; it’s so good!”

He wished she could be as enthusiastic about him as she was about those damn books of hers. Lost in his thoughts, he startled himself when he realized his hands were still firmly gripped on his newly-discovered set of buoyant bouncy breasts. His wife in her day, she had a real nice rack on her. But those days were long gone. Oh they were still big, big as ever, yes, big, but lifeless, just like her.

He shook his head at himself in disgust, removed his right hand from his breast and slapped himself hard in the face for being such a pig. But his left hand was still cupped on his boob. He just couldn’t let go. Again he thought, if it wasn’t for the hair on his chest, not only would they feel like a real set of women’s breasts, they would also even look the part. He tried to remember the last time he had his wife’s breasts in his hands, but he couldn’t recall. He was trying to decide how his wife’s rack measured up, compared to these man-boobs of his. He thought about it, stroked at his chin.

“Well,” he said out loud, “as they might say in one of those damn Grisham novels, the jury is still out!” But one thing Douglas was absolutely certain about, was that his own set of fun bags stacked up better than Renee’s real pair. Yep, no question about it, his own boobs felt more vibrant than the sagging set on the allegedly-named Renee; his were bigger and bouncier. Yeah, if it wasn’t for the hair.

And then a ridiculous idea popped into his head. He flung open the bathroom door and dashed over to his suitcase. Quickly unzipping it, he splattered its contents all over the bed, rummaging through the mess for his razor and shaving cream.

It took him a good fifteen minutes, but it was done. His chest was smooth and silky, just like a woman’s. Now his man-boobs really lived up to their name. “Look at these puppies,” he said out loud, cupping them and wiggling the hell out of them. He giggled like a little school girl and felt as excited as a little school boy at second base and ready for more.

This was his last night in Baltimore. Earlier in the evening, he had Renee. Tonight it could be anyone he imagined — Pamela Anderson, Christina Ricci, Jenna Jameson or maybe the French-looking hottie in the red bra on page 27 of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Tonight was up for grabs, he could be with anyone he damn well pleased.

He had little more than a whisper of whiskey left in the Jack Daniels bottle. But he still had two full bottles of red wine that he had picked up in Annapolis. For good measure, he’d make an emergency run to that all-night mini-mart right across the street and get himself a six-pack; that would do him just fine he decided.

Tonight, Douglas Mulhern planned on getting himself rip-roaring drunk and then taking advantage of his own liquored-up self. Tonight, Douglas Mulhern would be taking himself to bed. And he already decided that when he woke up in the morning, he would roll over in bed, give those shaved man-boobs of his, a hearty squeeze and he would even tell himself “bonjour” in a French accent that he was certain would sound far more convincing than the one Renee wasn’t quite capable of pulling off.

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Zion by Jesse Sensibar

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Zion

This is how it is now. Right at this little point, right at the tip of this particular little bloody pin-prick in time. Baca is standing there, right in the middle of the little vista view pull-off on the scenic highway. He’s leaning on the sloped sign shaped like a giant podium which tells you what you’re looking at, and he’s looking at it. His hands are outstretched on the sign. Holding onto the top corners, like a preacher at the pulpit, screaming at the sinners, and maybe he is a sinner, maybe we all are.

But Baca isn’t screaming. He doesn’t see any sinners out there, all he sees is beauty. Deep red beauty, three-dimensional beauty. The kind you couldn’t ever reproduce. The kind you can only see once. The kind of beauty that will remain only in his soul because he’ll never be able to capture it. In fact, he’ll never tell anyone about it. It’s that kind of beauty, deep-down and personal. Some things you just have to leave unsaid, because you’ll never get it right if you try to explain.

And just then, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Peach from Liberal, Kansas, roll into that little turn-off with Baca. But they don’t get out of their Estate Wagon because right as they pull in they see him, and Baca is an impressive sight.

Now just at this moment, Baca begins to cry. He isn’t crying out of any sort of sadness or pain or loss or anything like that. No, he’s crying at the sheer beauty of what he sees spread out before him in the late-afternoon, red-setting sunlight. This has never happened to him. Baca has never seen this kind of beauty before. He is discovering something, being reborn if you will. Not in the sense that anything that came before was dead or is dying, but like something he never knew existed is being opened up inside him.

But of course Mr. and Mrs. Peach don’t know any of this. All they know is what they can see. Which isn’t much, and they don’t like it. In the foreground is this dirty, black motorcycle. Not just any dirty, black motorcycle, but to their minds a low, mean, aggressive looking, dirty, black motorcycle. The kind that Mr. Peach sees in his rear view mirror coming up fast on the left and it makes his hands tighten involuntarily on the wheel and his thought go to tales of motorized gangs of Huns attacking carloads of decent, god-fearing Americans at high speeds with clubs and chain whips. Fade to Peter Fonda, you know the story.

Past that they see a person, dusty-looking and dressed to match the bike. He is this kind of Mexican-Indian looking person to their way of thinking, or at least he would be if he wasn’t so tall. All Mexican-Indian looking people back in Liberal, Kansas are short and squat, don’t you know? So they don’t quite know which inferior race he’s from. But it doesn’t really matter because he is obviously up to no good. Hanging onto the sign like that with both hands. Most likely drunk and wearing filthy clothes.

This is what Mr. and Mrs. Peach see as they drive up so they don’t get out of the Estate Wagon. In fact, they don’t even completely stop. They just kind of coast through the pull-off, and Mr. Peach does an imitation rolling stop and Mrs. Peach just kind of waves her video camera around like a magic wand without even looking through the viewfinder. They quietly turn back onto the main road, Mr. Peach looking in his rear view the whole time, and continue towards La Jolla to visit the grandchildren. And Baca, he never even realizes they were ever there.

No, he never even notices them. Baca is busy, busy being reborn and loving every minute of it. The thought that someone else might be witnessing it never enters his mind. Everything behind him has, in fact, ceased to exist right now. Right at this little point in time when his life is changing once again. All he can see through his tears are the canyons, towers, and mountains spread out before him. Even the sound of another Harley-Davidson rumbling by, a sound as familiar as his own heartbeat, goes unheard in the face of the unspeakable beauty spread out before him.

When Baca gets back on his bike in about twenty minutes and the sun begins to disappear behind the mountains, he is going to head west. About two miles down the road he is going to pass a set of skid marks which will disappear off the road and over a small cliff. Baca won’t notice the marks, he’ll never know they were there. He’ll keep riding, feeling as happy and as full of blood-red earth and light as he has ever felt in his life. But I’ll tell you about those skid marks. When that other Harley went past Baca (the one he didn’t notice when he was busy being reborn), it was moving at a pretty good clip. It soon caught up to Mr. and Mrs. Peach from Liberal, Kansas who were on their way to La Jolla. Mr. Peach saw it in his rearview and was sure it was Baca come to kill and rob them. At that moment they went around a sharp curve and out of view of the motorcyclist (whoever he was) behind them. Mr. Peach’s hands tightened around the wheel and they went sailing off the road and over the cliff. The Estate Wagon tumbled through the air and went into a hundred foot free-fall. It landed upside down in the scree field at the bottom of the cliff. The roof was instantly crushed level with the hood. Mr. and Mrs. Peach from Liberal, Kansas were killed deader than dead, right there on the spot, and not discovered until both the vultures and the coyotes had had their way with them.

 

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Higher and Higher and Higher by Jonah B. Finn

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Higher and Higher and Higher

I was seven the first time I met Mr. de la Cruz. Well, actually, it wasn’t until later that I actually met the man, but I would say I became acquainted with him at the age of seven.

When I was younger, St. Raphael’s used to hold a fundraising carnival in the church parking lot once a year. Pops would always take me- it was one of few times I could ever remember him going out of his way for something I wanted. My favorite ride at that point was still the merry go round, but Nicky Sparks, who I had elected to bring along with me that night, had already matured onto swinging ships, roller coasters, and generally every ride that made me sick to my stomach.

“My ma gave me ten dollars, so that way we can go on that pirate ship at least three times, maybe even four if we want but we also gotta do the Runaway Mouse a couple of times because those turns almost make you fall out your seat-and I call end on the first one! Then you can have it the second time and we can rotate after and oh yeah! When we go on the pirate ship we gotta sit all the way at the top because then we get to go higher and higher and higher…”

He went on like that for most of the car ride, and steadily Nicky’s imagery began to torture my already panicking mind.

“Alex, it really makes you feel like you’re gonna fall off!”

And that feeling had already begun. My disoriented mind was overwhelmed by fear and a distinct feeling of nausea had crept into my stomach. As Pops took turns at twenty miles per hour, I hung on for dear life to anything I could grab on to. The door handle was soon covered with my perspiration, and I could feel a cold sweat comprised of dread and trepidation begin to soil my body.

“And don’t forget to lean forward when the ship swings to the top,” said Nicky from the back seat, oblivious to my frightful quandary.

Pops wasn’t though. And with hardened, determined eyes we began accelerating to forty around turns.

The last time it happened was two weeks ago. Not that this was anything out of the ordinary, as it had happened at least four times a year since the day in seventh grade when Adam had proudly walked up to James Bishop and told him he liked him, but this time was especially heinous.

It was always something small that set it off; I could never rightly predict a “fight” as they called it, or an assault, as we all really knew it to be. Maybe they were just bored, or something was going on at home. All I know is the Urban twins, Louis and Raymond, would all of a sudden find an excuse to draw their bodies up close to Adam and start generously pelting him with spit rockets and strictures.

This time was no different, and I could see a resolution in Adam’s eyes that was almost able to block out how petrified he really was. Almost. I could still see his fright, but over the years it had matured into an acquiescent acceptance of what was to come.

At first it was routine, the customary procedure, and nothing out of the ordinary. Adam’s back was pressed up against his locker, and Louis and Raymond stood flanking him, each possessing a sneer eerily similar to Pops’. Adam was stretching his lanky sixteen-year-old frame up tall, his neck raised back and his chin up. He was scrunching his nose tight, and I could tell he was trying to avoid the putrid breath of the twins.

“Look at the fucking traitor,” Raymond was saying. “Sticks and stones will break his bones, ‘cause words will never change him.”

He thought this was so original, and his devilish smile increased.

“That’s all for now though,” said Louis, “But we’ll see ya later, I’m sure buddy.” He patted Adam hard on the shoulder so that his trembling knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor. They walked away laughing.

When we got to the carnival, Nicky bolted straight for the ticket window, while I slogged along in his shadow with Pops towering over me. I could feel his gaze on my back, tacitly coercing my unwilling legs toward Nicky, who was cavorting forty yards away under the ticket booth, jumping from one foot to the other and waiting for Pops to saunter over and purchase the tickets.

“No merry go round tonight,” said Pops abruptly.

I had already known this of course, but hearing his vicious voice cut through the cool night and into my body made me shiver. I turned around, hoping to implore him into compassion.

“P-Pops, please?” I mumbled, my mouth quivering with fear and my eyes fixed on the ground, avoiding Pops’ punishing gaze. I couldn’t avoid it entirely though, as their palpable energy seared straight through me.

“What did you say boy?” he demanded. “Speak up and look at your father when you address him.”

“P-Pops, can I please g-go on the, on the m-m-merry go round? I don’t like those o-other rides,” I said, cautiously lifting my head up halfway and taking nervous glances up into his face every few seconds. It took me a while to get all these words out, as I was still murmuring and stuttering incessantly.

Pops grabbed my arm tightly, yanking me the remaining twenty yards toward Nicky.

“It’s time for you to grow up and stop being such a faggot,” he seethed.

That increased my terror exponentially. I didn’t know what those words meant, but the vindictive way he said them told me I would be spending my night trembling in dread and trying not to puke.

As I watched Adam struggle to his feet, his decrepit, clammy hands pathetically groping for the handle of his locker, I felt a wave of nausea crash into me. I was used to the regimented amount of unsolicited punishment he endured, day in and day out, and yet every time I bore witness to it, it still made me bilious and embarrassed.

Adam finally located the handle of his locker, and held on for dear life while he tried to pull himself up. It took him three tries, as his defective legs needed some time to regain their composure. I could see the confused fear overtaking his mind. Cold sweat stained his shirt, and the locker handle was slick and shiny with his perspiration.

There was a semicircle of kids surrounding him, but no one moved forward to help him up; after all who knew if the Urban twins had really left yet?

Adam made it back up to his feet, and I was struck by how he seemed to tower over the halo of bodies surrounding him. He had a resolute look on his face, one that implied complete confidence mixed with stout mettle and an infrangible backbone of faith that when all stirred together produced a lustrous radiance that was so startling it caused some of the onlookers to stumble backwards with confusion.

That’s at least what I saw, though I have to admit I didn’t have the greatest view. I was in the corner, curled up against the wall trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The last thing I wanted was to be drawn into all of this.

My anxiety didn’t seem to temper Nicky’s enthusiasm, or even to dull it. As we stood in line for the pirate ship and he clamored on about strategies for riding, I was contemplating strategies for survival. Stupidly, I scanned the area for potential escape routes, but all I found were two smiling mannequin pirates at the front of the ride, flanking me and leering as I moved as far back on the railing as I could without falling off. They were carrying bright silver swords, and were poised to attack at any time.

The ride ended, and the line shuffled forward. I approached these two baleful buccaneers apprehensively. Mercifully, they let me pass, and I proceeded underneath them and took a seat at the back of the ship, where Nicky had kindly reminded me we needed to sit to go higher and higher and higher…

The ship began to rock back and forth, slowly at first, but gradually increasing in speed and height. My mind, already swimming with fear, began to rock with the ship, swaying at first from the small waves, then being tossed around as those waves churned heavier, faster, and higher. With each tumble, the distance grew further, the speed augmented, and the air screamed past my ears louder and louder.

We reached the top, and I was thrown overboard, tossed into a sea of hysteria, an abyss of torment. My face was parallel to the ground, and I was looking straight down at the cold, hard pavement. I ceased to swim; my mind was drowning in terror, my body convulsing to try and keep it afloat.

And then we were falling. And, just when it seemed like I would be introduced to the pavement, I was spared, only for the ship to take me up again to continue the cycle, higher and higher and higher…

I stepped off in a daze.

“Fun, huh?” said Pops.

I mumbled something about going to the bathroom and staggered off toward the Porta Johns on the other side of the lot. Behind me, Pops had his arm around Nicky, casually chattering away as if they were the oldest of friends. Pops’ loose, easy laugh at Nicky’s words stalked me across the pavement, mixing with the stagnant, persisting rush of wind through my ears to form a sickness I couldn’t contain for much longer.

Adam drifted through the side doors of our high school, clutching his books, papers, and emotions tight to his chest and out of harm’s way. I was relaxing across the parking lot on the back steps of the library, lying back with my head propped up on my backpack and a book resting on my knees. I’d been sitting like this going on almost two hours since school ended, just reading and thinking about all sorts of things. My eyes followed him as he crossed the schoolyard. I was curious to why he had still been in the building so late, and made to wave him over to talk. He didn’t notice me though, and just kept trudging along with his head down and eyes averted from the world. As he slogged through the wet grass and trekked across the basketball courts, I had the sudden, irresistible urge to call out to him, to warn him, and to protect him from imminent dangers I knew nothing about, yet were an intimate part of my life.

He continued on through the parking lot, past the brick wall where one would normally find amiable young children laughing as they scampered across the lot, immersed in their game of stickball. But it was barren now. The only evidence that remained of these innocent, carefree games was a lonely bat, lying forgotten in the dirt. A few stray tennis balls, having given up their fight long ago, succumbed to the swirling wind and allowed it to drag them helter-skelter across the parking lot, resigned to the fact they were powerless to break free. The wall was spray painted with a giant box conscribing an X that was meant for a strike zone, but now loomed ominously like a target, with Adam well within range.

Then the stones started to fly. I shot up in surprise, and my book jolted off my lap, tumbling down the steps. The first one hit him in the shoulder, causing his body to contort as it fell to the ground. The next two missed, but the forth collided with a sickening thud into the side of Adam’s head, just above his ear. It fell alongside him, stained red before it hit the ground.

Then the Urban twins were there, brandishing thick, long sticks. They beat Adam efficiently and systematically. One would bring his branch down with a dulled clunk, while the other raised his up with two hands toward the heavens, devilish smile on his face, ready to bring it down once the other had finished in his duty. They did this no more than three times each before rapidly retreating back behind the tennis courts.

It had all happened in less than twenty seconds, and I doubted anybody else had bore witness to it except for me. The only evidence that remained, besides Adam’s broken body, was a few leaves and twigs that had broken off of the twins’ branches and fallen to the ground. They surrounded Adam’s head, forming a conspicuous coronet of bracts and birch.

I sat there, debating whether or not to go over and help his limp body up. I mean, my heart certainly wanted to, but my intellect correctly pointed out that if I did, Adam would know I had seen the whole thing. Then, all kinds of dangerous situations began to present themselves. Like having to talk to the police and principal, telling them what Louis and Raymond had done- maybe even having to testify if Adam wanted to press charges. And most unnerving of all, taking over for Adam as the preeminent object of the Urban’s continuous wrath.

So I just stayed there, choosing a painful conscience over a painful body.

I made it all the way to the Porta Johns; only trouble was I didn’t make it all the way into the Porta Johns. I had stumbled across the parking lot in a doubled over sprint. My left leg took the lead, with my right dragging along just trying to keep up. I was hunched over, as if my arms were grabbing some intangible object and drawing it close into my bosom to shield it from the world.

I reached the Porta John and extended my hand towards those few square feet of refuge. This plebian little toilet, with dark brown stains running down its walls and the distinct stench of decaying urine radiating from the inside had been transformed into my sanctuary. It was a place I could unload- not only my churning stomach, but everything else that I had been forced to hide from Pops. Even if it would be for only a few seconds, I could shut the door of that stall, and within those four walls I could be the scared little kid I was. I was tired of trying to be someone I was not, of accepting things I found wrong, and letting fear control me.

But just because I was tired of being controlled didn’t mean I would emancipate myself. I was still scared, and I knew as I reached for the door those next few moments would be my only moments of peace, and that once I got back outside it would all be back to normal.

But as I said, I never did get into my sanctuary. When I reached out my hand to open the door, I found it was locked. And in that instant, I realized I couldn’t hold my stomach down any longer and puked right on the spot- just as a tall, burly man unlatched the door and stepped out.

Chunks of it rained down on his white pants. He leaped back in shock, limiting the damage somewhat but causing the vomit to start dripping down my shirt. I looked up at this man and gave him the same pleading look I’d given Pops when he told me I couldn’t go on the merry go round that night, fully expecting him to lash into me with the same fury as Pops had. But his face, rather than moving from shock to rage, made a transition I hadn’t thought possible to that point. After all, I had never really met any other grown ups outside of Pops, and I had kinda figured they were all as callused as he, all infused with the same bitterness and indignation at the world. And because they couldn’t lash out at the world, they would cling to me. But no matter how hard I tried, my behavior always managed to remind them of whatever it was they hated so much. And so I became their metaphorical punching bag. But this man’s face mellowed into concern, and what was more, a concern for me.

“Son, are you okay?” Son. I was too stunned to answer. He must’ve took my silence to mean I was still feeling nauseous.

“Where are your parents?” he asked gently. I glanced back towards the pirate ship. Pops was nowhere in sight. As my gaze returned to the man, a strange, foreign feeling of relief surged through my body. It was as fleeting as it was unfamiliar, and when it left and I had returned to my usual state of exhausted anxiety I could only mumble “I’m not sure” before my eyes retreated back to the pavement.

“Come,” he said, picking me up off the ground and carrying me over to the nearest drink stand. His touch was gentle, as if he was carrying some invaluable, priceless antique he valued more than his life. My body felt the warmth of his hands caressing me into a feeling of safety. He was careful not to let the vomit on his pants touch me, but disregarded the stains on my shirt that were making his white polo orange.

“You need some water, and a comfortable place to lay down,” he told me with a reassuring smile. “You’re going to be okay.”

We reached the drink stand, but there was a pretty sizeable line. The man elbowed his way toward the front, shouting to the lady running the stand for a bottle of water.

“Please ma’am, the boy is sick. Could we get some water?”

She looked up, startled at the urgency in his voice. Around us, people were stepping back, waving their hands in front of their noses and grumbling about the smell. Not wanting to face their disappointment, I nestled my face deeper into the man’s chest, taking in the clashing aroma of regurgitated steak and cologne.

“Oh!” she exclaimed in shock. “Poor boy, of course!” She turned abruptly towards the cooler, knocking over a bottle of mustard in her haste. As she bent down to grab some water, the man turned to the crowd.

“Anyone know whose boy this is? We can’t find his parents.”

I emerged from my refuge to scan the sea of faces surrounding us, but the overwhelming stench of vomit quickly caused me to dive back into the safety of his shirt. The hair poking out from underneath the unbuttoned collar brushed against my face, and as I closed my eyes and burrowed deeper into his chest his comforting scent washed back over me.

“Isn’t that Hunter’s kid?” a voice asked.

“Think so,” came the gruff reply.

The man holding me moved towards the voices, reaching out his hand.

“Antonio de la Cruz,” he said. “You know his pops?”

I felt my body sway up and down as Mr. de la Cruz shook hands with the two strangers. A familiar feeling of nausea swept over me.

“Yeah that’s Alex,” said one of the men. He paused to spit, and I could smell the tobacco on his breath as he examined me. “I’ll go find Hunter.”

By the time he had sauntered off, the bottle of water had reached us. I felt a gentle nudge on my shoulder, and when I looked up Mr. de la Cruz was deftly unscrewing the cap with one hand while still supporting me with the other. I could feel his grip on my body slipping.

“I’m gonna put you down for a second, okay Alex?” he said.

His voice came from far off. I was once again standing alone on the ground. Supporting my own weight. Slipping.

He bent over me.

“You need to drink Alex. You will feel much better if you do. I promise. Here.”

He brought the bottle to my lips, tilting it slightly so the water poured out in a steady stream. As it sloshed through my mouth, my lips cracked, and the taste of vomit returned. Above, the stars flickered down upon the parking lot, shining through the crisp fall air. The breeze had picked up, sending a chill through the crowd and causing a single brown leaf to float lazily up towards the bell tower of the church. As it settled on the roof, the bells tolled loudly, signaling the end of the carnival.

When Pops found us, he didn’t say much. Just scowled at Mr. de la Cruz and told him he didn’t want a man like that hanging around his kid. I barely had time to see the hurt flash across his face before Pops scooped me up and carried me back to the truck.

It took Adam a good five minutes to get up. By then, I had already fled beneath the canopy of trees that lined the back entrance of the library. Leaves crunched under my feet as I walked towards the creek, and the forest draped over me, choosing to shelter me rather than batter my body with its sticks. I stopped just long enough to see Adam limp off. He was clutching the left side of his ribcage with both hands, and his gait was uneven. After walking about ten steps, he stopped and turned, staring back towards the woods. Removing one hand from his side, he put it above his eyes to shield them from the sun and squinted in my direction. How long he stood like that, I don’t know. I had put my head down and didn’t pick it back up until the sound of flowing water grew louder and louder and I felt the creek running between my toes.

Looking up, I saw that the stream was starting to become overgrown with brush. Green leaves poked out across the water as if reaching towards each other in desperate search of a connection with their brothers on the opposite bank. I kicked off my sandals and rolled up a joint, trying to tell myself that I wasn’t like them. That I was different than Adam and Mr. de la Cruz. Pushing any conflicting thoughts to the back of my mind, I closed my eyes, rested my head on my backpack, and listened to the birds chirp above me. I could almost hear Nicky’s voice as I drifted away, higher and higher and higher…

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Book Review by Scott Holstad — Warren Hammond’s KOP

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KOP by Warren Hammond

Seldom have I enjoyed a novel so much as I enjoyed this one. It’s a gritty, noir mystery wrapped up in a sci fi package and it doesn’t disappoint. I feel drained from reading it and I don’t think I can write anything worthy enough to do it justice, so I’ll just highlight some things for those reading this review.

Juno Mozambe is a bad man. Yet he’s a cop. A dirty cop. Very dirty. Former enforcer for the Chief of Koba’s Office of Police (aka KOP) on Lagarto, a world that once exported a type of wine that got taken off world and was produced elsewhere for cheaper, thus leaving Lagarto a giant slum, for all intents and purposes. When we meet Juno, he’s working as a bag man for the boss, taking bribes, hiding a shaking hand and thinking of retirement. He’s been on the force for 25 years. Things seem grim.

Things get much more grim when a brutal murder occurs with potential political ramifications, in which he’s pulled in to act as investigating officer, with a new partner — a younger, attractive, rich woman who plays by the book. What follows is a brilliant novel of hard boiled twists and turns, mysterious characters and motives, a lot of violence, some of which can be hard to stomach, and it’s a page turner til you get to the end. The characters are well written, and feel real and believable the entire way through the book. There’s not a lot of technology here, though, so I guess the setting on a distant world makes this sci fi — the plot could take place anywhere, any time — but when you finally realize toward the end of the book what’s actually going on, you could care less — you’ve been sucked in.

Everyone in this book is dirty. Juno is a kind of anti-hero, but one you can identify with. His new partner starts playing by his rules soon enough, and you sympathize with her as she struggles with what she wants to do versus what she must do to solve this case. Juno reverts to his enforcer role, beating confessions out of thugs and criminals, but does this make him just as bad? That’s never really answered, even though the book throws that out there.

Juno, and the boss he’s so devoted to, his former partner Paul Chang, took over KOP 25 years ago by making a deal with the largest crime syndicate, effectively splitting up the city between them. The new mayor wants to clean house, but he’s as big a crook as everyone else.

I kept waiting for the pacing to slow down, as many books have slow middle sections, but this one never did. It kept pushing the envelope. Furious pace. I strongly, strongly recommend this book to all sci fi and mystery fans. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID J THOMPSON

 

Granada Street Art

“Granada”

Gigante

“Gigante”

Dollar Signs

“Dollar Signs”

Your KungFu

“Your KungFu”

Eat Dreams

“Eat Dreams”

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POETRY

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Swans by Charlie O’Hay

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Swans

I had an uncle who could make an origami swan

from almost anything: a napkin, tinfoil, a lampshade,

a license plate. All day he sat at the window

of his room, folding the trees with his eyes,

making wings for the sky. For his last decade

he never spoke a word. But when it was his time,

we all knew. He folded himself from the corners inward

and then again in triangles. When the nurse came in

to check on him, he was gone, the sheets smooth

as a pond at first light.

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Goodwill by Charlie O’Hay

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Goodwill

A new Goodwill opened down
the street, in a supermarket that stood
empty for a dozen years. Now it’s full

of other people’s pasts. Baby clothes
outgrown. Golf shirts out of season.
Shot glasses of the newly sober. Yawning

shoes of the dead. The security guard smells
of bourbon. Eyelids at half mast,
he strides among us, tame as a llama

at a petting zoo. Like the rest of us,
like these racks of sweaters and pants
and dresses and coats, he has been

discarded. Set by the curb. The radio
plays the great hits of the seventies.
I pick out a pair or striped pants

for $2.50. From the right pocket falls
the last owner’s divorce. From the left,
a nasty case of crabs.
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Can We Live Like This? by Scott Laudati

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Can We Live Like This?

it didn’t take so long
did it?
your story’s
in your
smile, those lips
once said
“i’ll
never
love again”.

i know
you’re a fighter, kid,
life
didn’t take
its time
with
you, but you’re
not so bored,
there’s still a light
in there.
sure,
you
can sway
like the
breezy
palm trees
of your hometown
but i don’t
want to
know
if you can bend …
can you break?

i remember
your greasy
hair from
the plane,
your legs crossed
on the white sheets,
the slow surrender
of your eyes
when you realized
i thought
you
were beautiful.
it was sudden
and eternal.
i chose you
to erase
all my sorrows.
will you?
you see
life in the raw
and that makes me
trust you.
we know
when
we
find
our own

i think
about what it
will be like.
the coffee.
the date.
the booze.
the bed.
the cigarette.
but
i can
leave those
for the men
that came
before.
i
want
your window,
to
watch
the breeze
through the leaves
of those palms
and wonder
if this life
actually
existed before
you got here

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The Subliminal Room by Joan McNerney

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The Subliminal Room

That weepy October
marigolds were so full.
I made an omelet with
them. Do you remember?
All November, leaves
mixed with rain, making
streets slippery. We
listened mostly to Chopin.
Leaves droop in September
too ripe and heavy for
trees. I was careful
not to slip, dreading
when leaves would grow
dry and crumble.
Some live all winter
through the next spring.
Chased by winds, they
huddle in corners,
reminding me of mice.
I confessed to you
how I loved Russian
poets and waited for
a silent revolution,
revealing my childhood
possessed by rosaries
and nuns chanting Ave,
Ave, Ave Maria. “Your
navel exudes the warmth
of 10,000 suns”, you said.
We still live in this
subliminal room.
Jonah did not want to
leave the whale’s stomach.
We continue trying to
decipher Chopin. Your
eyes are two bunches of
morning glories. Sometimes
the sky is so violet.
Will we ever live by the
sea, Michael, and eat
carrots? I do not want
my sight to fail. Hurry,
the dew is drying on the
flowers.

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Rendezvous by Joan McNerney

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Rendezvous

That was the name of a paint
can from J&M Hardware.

With sweat lingering on her
face, she colored her room.

Tinted now like insides of
ripe plums, like perfect grapes.

When the sizzling lemon sun
dropped from heaven…night
became moist and black.

Her fan whirled thick air
stained with cigarettes
coffee, turpentine, white wine.

She sank into her wicker couch
as fog horns trail the horizon.

Lotus screech relentlessly for water
always wanting more more more water.

Closing her eyes, remembering him
now tasting the feast of his smile.

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SHE CALLED HER ASS A HORSE by Len Krisak

_________________________________________________________________

SHE CALLED HER ASS A HORSE

I knew a woman lovely in her bones
As well. Sulky, she’d call her ass a horse
To get my goat, in loving, peevish tones.
Her burro was a donkey, though (of course),
And stubborn when it heard its proper name
(Recalcitrant within its equine class—
Genus, I mean—when called, it never came).
She never would have called her horse an ass,
But she was right. She did Linnaeus proud
(Whose real name was—in Swedish—Carl Linné).
Well, here’s a thought I’ve never spoke aloud:
Toxic taxonomy was just her way
Of showing me which one of us was boss.
I hope at least that clearly comes across.

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THE GEOGRAPHY OF DECLINE by R.T. Castleberry

_______________________________________________________________

THE GEOGRAPHY OF DECLINE

Midday, mid-September,
Sundays come down
to patterns of salvation radio or Pay-Per-View.
A lowland Atlantic storm
hurries the scent of jasmine and river willow,
carries the jumpy sound of rainfall and rolling water.
My clothes and crutches are tumbled on the floor.
A Shelton blanket pulls at stitches,
black against raw red.
I snap from Vicodin dreams every 3 hours,
ink their code in a moleskin grifter’s log.
I don’t own my history.
Memory, illness, accident
belong to Yahweh
or Seagram’s 7.

This time, these days
I fear the January trait
that finds me soured and savage.
At each step, each limping half-step
down stairs and street
I’m seized by failure.
Empty, early avenues are mounded with mud,
debris of water bottles, toys, single shoes.
Falling leaves are dried darts in the heavy winds.
In a season exhausted by rain,
there is no pause.

_______________________________________________________________

FROM A HISTORY OF SERVITUDE by R.T. Castleberry

_______________________________________________________________

FROM A HISTORY OF SERVITUDE

I’m in the wrong cycle:
Mondays marred by hospice runs,
mid-week and weekends languishing
in dramas of heat wave and drunks on benders.
I am my own beast–
closer to insect than animal,
best friend to bastards who pay debts
with conflict diamonds and Juneau furs,
who fill their silences with
rolled scraps of maps and message blanks.
I’m aging out of despair.
It can’t carry humor savage as the sun.
Borne out by warnings of drying rivers,
by dust furrows, drought sky,
I’ve wronged the weather.

_______________________________________________________________

SILENCE AS WELL by R.T. Castleberry

_______________________________________________________________

SILENCE AS WELL

Coarsened by confusion and conflict,
half-mastered phrases of self-analysis and step program,
you make a decision. I make one as well.
With the return of Bogart videos, borrowed tee shirts,
we disassemble, disassociate.
I am curious as ever about
the complaints of March through May,
the absolute Yes and No
that was your reflex, your first emotion.

I have watched you in sleeping, distant disarray—
eyes closed off, dream-crushed,
stilled by the chill lyric of Sinatra and Chardonnay.
I have seen the night sliver of a quarter moon take your spirit,
a storm of birds shatter your language of illness and destitution.
Culled from memories of selfless parents and self-criticism
there is a portrait you favor:
of wound bandages in shades of umber and ochre,
scapular, worn rosary, missal,
shredded curls of divorce decrees and wedding catalogs.

There is no noise to you—
no larger part of aptitude or process,
no thought but modern rock and Marlboro Reds,
no lies, though you are dishonest.
You are less than your delusions,
less than the protocols of passive departure,
the survivor’s ritual of hosannas in shrouded white.
I am resolved to silence.
Were you to ask
I could not say what you are to me:
lover for a lifetime or a long distance call.

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NONFICTION

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Whole of Creation by Francine Marie Tolf

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Every cat is unique. Sheeba was vain. Darling, elegant, dear – and vain.   Some would accuse me of anthropomorphizing. They would be wrong. My black-haired, green-eyed beauty knew exactly how fetching she was when she batted her eyelashes (yes, cats can do this) and chirruped for treats in a ridiculously high octave.

After Sheeba passed away in my arms at the age of 20, I was sure it would be months, maybe years, before I could bring another cat into my life. Yet eight weeks later, I drove to Minnesota’s Golden Valley Humane Society one crisp Saturday morning, determined to adopt one. Home wasn’t home without a cat.

I walked past cage after cage of rescued or abandoned kitties: gray cats, calico cats, tuxedo cats. One captured my eye because of her golden coat and topaz gaze, a gaze that was shy but not fearful. I opened the cage door and carefully lifted her into my arms. She mewed in protest but made no attempt to scratch or bite. A staff volunteer hurried toward me.

“She was spayed just yesterday, ma’am. She really shouldn’t be picked up.”

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry! I had no idea. I’m so sorry, Kitty!”

I returned her to her cage as gently as I could and continued looking. Why, I don’t know. How could I not take home a cat sweet-natured enough to let a stranger handle her 24 hours after a major operation? Especially after I learned she was a two-year-old feral who had recently given birth to a litter of four kittens who had all been adopted?

Of course I took her home.

It was not a happy journey. The cardboard carrying case she was transported in sparked panic in Lilly (volunteers had named her Sunny, but I preferred Lilly). She mewed frantically and began biting through the box. Soon her golden head popped out of its side. She rode the rest of the way home stuck like that, no doubt wishing she had never left the shelter.

Lilly probably wished this more than once in the months that followed. It was the last fall that Ben and I lived together, and it was a miserable one. I could no longer ignore Ben’s drinking or the black moods that descended on him nightly. Lilly zigzagged in streaks throughout our apartment each evening as Ben bellowed and swore and mimicked me. She spent her days avoiding him and escaped into the hall whenever possible.

The low point came when I woke up one night around 1:30 a.m. to an eerie silence. Usually, I heard Ben muttering on the couch or at least low voices coming from the TV. But that night there was nothing. I walked into a living room full of shadows and saw the man I had loved and lived with for twenty-five years – the man who listened to all my insecurities and wrote me tender notes taped to the refrigerator in the morning – standing over a rack of CDs, swaying like a great tree in wind. I was terrified he was going to fall.

For the next 45 minutes, I struggled to keep Ben steady as I begged him to lie down, please, for God sake, just lie down! Ben refused, arms lunging about, his entire frame smashing into furniture. Shelves of books fell around us, a potted plant overturned, the flat screen TV teetered as he grabbed it for balance. Finally, despite shouting and threats from Ben, I called 911. By the time paramedics arrived, he had collapsed into the stereo cabinet and could not get up.   There was a deep cut above his left eyebrow. He asked one of the paramedics in a slurry voice for a light.

My body shook as I walked out of Hennepin County Medical Center five hours later. It was January in Minneapolis, and I hadn’t thought to bring a coat or gloves when I rode in the ambulance with Ben to the ER. I didn’t know where I was in the city or what bus to take home. Thank God for my friend Marge. Marge didn’t ask any questions or make any excuses when I called her at 7:30 in the morning.  She left a warm and comfortable home to battle rush hour traffic, pick me up at Hennepin County’s main entrance, and drive me back to my apartment on the other side of town. She wanted to buy me breakfast, but I felt too disoriented to eat.

The apartment was chaos. My eyes wandered over the wreckage, noting a CD Ben and I had listened to often when we were younger and happier. Strunz & Farah, Primal Magic. Latin music with mystery and wisdom woven into its hypnotic melodies. After calling in sick to work, I took the disk into the bedroom and played it on my portable CD player. I listened to every track. I knew it would hurt, but I had to do it. And for the first time in years, I cried.

I spent hours cleaning but could not mend the smashed tapes, the glass door that had broken off from the stereo cabinet, a hand-painted triptych I’d bought at an art fair that was in pieces. By the afternoon’s end, I was calm. Hennepin County was going to keep Ben for one more night, and I realized it felt good not to have him there. Ben had not worked in years. He was always home; I never had the apartment to myself. But now I did, and it occurred to me that Lilly had not been her wild, unruly self all day. Instead, she had observed me from a polite distance and was now stretched out on the carpet, purring quietly. I had told myself as I made coffee that morning with hands that still trembled that I had to move out. I didn’t believe I could do it until I saw Lilly, peaceful and content as I had not seen her since bringing her home.

Weeks later, Lilly and I moved into a small garden apartment where there was no shouting, no second-hand smoke, no overturned furniture. Lilly bloomed into the delightful goofball she was meant to be. Every morning after sleeping next to me on the pillow, she lies in wait for me to come out of the bedroom so she can mock-attack my ankles, swiping at them with a sheathed paw, then galloping away. She follows me faithfully from room to room, but if I remain somewhere for long, she stretches out on her back, legs spread wide, and watches my doings from upside down, eyes lolling as I move from desk to window to chair. Lilly thumps her tail hard on the floor when she approves of something (usually me!) and holds no grudges if I spray her because she is knowingly, naughtily snacking on my plants. But those few instances I lost my temper and yelled at her over a torn screen or broken dish, she hid in the closet. Each time, I sought her out and apologized. She forgave me immediately and was bored by my subsequent kisses and passionate assurances that I was sorry, truly sorry! Saints don’t forgive so divinely.

In a spiritual memoir I am currently reading, A Deeper Faith, Jeff Golliher describes an afternoon he descended into a temporary hell. Every unkind, selfish act and speech he had ever committed in his life suddenly resurrected itself with ferocious clarity into a tape that would not stop playing in his head. This was all the more stunning as it happened while he was walking contentedly under a magnificent canopy of live oaks.

Golliher emerged from this experience with genuine gratitude for the healing that ultimately took place under that grove of trees. “When I look back on that day,” he writes, “I always remember the trees. They taught me that the whole of creation participates in our healing. There’s no one to exclude because everyone and everything is involved.”

If it weren’t for one scrap of creation – a feral cat who ended up at a shelter – I might still be in a doomed relationship, mistakenly believing that because love still existed between Ben and me, I had to be loyal and stay with him. Lilly saved me from this. It’s because of Lilly, whose welfare mattered more to me than my own, that I have the clean, quiet home I always wanted, filled with books and plants and a few cherished objects.

Do I feel lonely sometimes? Yes, terribly. Ben understood me. No matter what bad times we weathered, I knew it was going to be all right as long as things between us were OK. I could face challenges with Ben I never could have taken on alone. I remember the morning we were getting ready to move from Manhattan, Kansas to Minneapolis, where I had been accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program. I was dragging a beat-up chair to the dumpster. It was ninety degrees at 9:00 a.m. and instead of feeling excited about what lay ahead of me, I felt sick and scared. What am I doing, entering an MFA program at the age of forty-four? Why did I ever make this crazy decision? What am I going to do once I get out? Just then, Ben pulled into the parking lot driving the 22-foot Ryder truck we’d rented. Sporting a Ryder baseball cap, he wolf-whistled at me from the cab, grinning like he did not have a care in the world. I knew everything was going to be fine.

Alcohol stole that man from me. I am now living a new life chapter I never asked for, but luckily I have a full-time job, good friends, and responsibilities – including Lilly – that keep me from wallowing too long in misgivings and regrets. Lilly puts me first as no human, perhaps, ever will again. She makes me laugh and she comforts me. Every day, she participates in my healing.

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Synaptic Journey by Diane Payne

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“All the most acute, most powerful, and most deadly diseases, and those most difficult to be understood … fall upon the brain.” Hippocrates

 

It’s dark outside. The grass is cool. I crawl inside the sleeping bag, then put a blanket over Max and me. It’s weird. It’s almost like sleeping with a child. Or a man. I’ve slept alone too long.

Max is exhausted. His brain has betrayed him. I pat his head like I do my daughter’s when she’s not feeling well. I’m exhausted. Too damn tired to cry. Some people have suggested that I put him down. They don’t know Max. If he recovers, he’ll return to being a relatively healthy dog.

 *

New Year’s Eve marked the beginning of cluster seizures. New Year’s Day we drove one hundred miles to an animal clinic, the closet vet available on a holiday. The drive was hell. Seizure. Piss. Vomit. Shit. No place for Max to pace but over everyone in the car. The howling. The crying. The claustrophobia.

After all the tests came out normal, the vet assumed he was epileptic. Max didn’t seizure at the clinic, so he didn’t get a shot of Valium. We left with a handful of Phenobarbital, which he wasn’t supposed to start taking until we made it home again. One hundred more miles of seizures. Stop car. Let disoriented dog pace. Whine. Howl. I wanted Valium for me.

After a few days, those seizures stopped and I started researching canine epilepsy. Avoid pine needles. We have ten pine trees in the yard. I ordered Max an all cotton bed because the polyester filling in his old bed may cause seizures. I moved the TV up higher, hoping any strobe type lights that may emerge from the screen wouldn’t reach Max and cause a seizure. I removed the blinking lights still hanging in the kitchen from Christmas. I started making Max home cooked meals because even the most expensive brand sold in our town was supposedly not healthy enough. I started giving him Breyer’s All Natural Vanilla ice cream before bed to help calm him down and boost his sugar level for some reason or another. I bought herbal remedies. There are so many reasons. So many possibilities. According to the books, everything could provoke Max into having a seizure.

I e-mailed people from a support group for epileptic dogs. Someone wrote me long, detailed instructions on how to inject Valium in his rectum when he seizures. My vet thought taking Valium during an emergency while he was taking such a large dosage of Phenobarbital on a daily basis would kill him. Others suggested I stop the Phenobarbital and just keep Valium on hand for emergencies. Everyone had a suggestion. Everyone could point out something wrong about our regular routine. I grew weary with the research, depressed with the responses.

Eventually Max returned to his old mischievous self. We went on long walks. I quit worrying about seizures. Against all the warning in the books, Max went swimming. I kept the What To Do During a Seizure note posted on the refrigerator. I made sure there was always a bag of ice available because the ice was supposed to distract him from seizuring or cool him down or something miraculous.

 *

Long ago, walking along the Lake Michigan shoreline with the men who lived in the group home, I remember when Jim fell and had a seizure next to the shore. At eighteen, I was the group home mama.   I was younger than every resident. Jim liked to call me his daughter, the daughter he never had because long ago when he was a teenager, he was shipped off to a mental institution for being epileptic and suffering from “fits.” Like with Max, every day I made sure to remind him to take his Phenobarbital. He also took Dilatin. After Michigan closed down the institutions, the people moved into group homes. Jim deserved a real home. He was a great gardener. Loved to cook. There was no reason for him to be around men who banged their heads on walls for no apparent reason, other than pure frustration for being forced to live a life in a group home, a life filled with restrictions, a shoddy job at a sheltered workshop, and no connections to the people who once were their true family. Jim banged his head on the ground because he had no other choice.

Before Jim, I don’t remember ever watching anyone have a seizure. Jim was a tall man who had a bad back, so he was always stiff. I knew Jim was an epileptic and suffered from occasional seizures. But Paul, a much larger man than Jim with no history of epilepsy, fell on the ground next to Jim, and either mimicked Jim’s seizure so keenly that it seemed real, or he suddenly became a victim of seizures.

Supposedly there are three phases to seizures. The aura, which lasts from a couple of minutes to several days, is the phase where a dog or human appears agitated and anxious. Paul was always agitated. I could hear him upstairs in his bedroom, howling to the same Linda Ronstadt record, over and over. Once I made the mistake of running upstairs to check on him and discovered he was masturbating. Jim, on the other hand, rarely appeared agitated, unless someone erroneously killed one of his plants or didn’t clean up the kitchen.

The men and I gathered around Jim and Paul, pulling them away from the shore, and watched their bodies contort and shake, until Jim slowly regained consciousness, and became apologetic, embarrassed, then frustrated that his “damn body” let him down again. Paul had a confused look, rather similar to the look on his face after I walked in on him while he was ejaculating on the album cover.

We helped the men stand up and continued walking along the shore, both men a bit wobbly, but both eager to return to normalcy.

When I called Paul’s physician about the seizure, he assumed Paul was faking it and instructed me to ignore him. How do you ignore a 300-pound man writhing on the beach, joining his friend in that strange world where the brain shoots off rapid-fire synapses, all bound for the wrong direction? Fortunately Jim didn’t have that many seizures.

 *

Max’s aura phase seems to last about seven seconds prior to the seizure. He becomes disoriented a few seconds before he collapses. Every now and then, I’ve been able to yell “No seizure,” and he’ll look at me and lie down. What do I know about this mysterious aura? He may have woken confused.  A fleabite may have irritated him. I don’t know if he was really going to seizure, but I want to believe I’m helping him prevent a seizure, anything to relieve some guilt for all those things I may be doing wrong.

Long before Max started his seizures, I came home from work one day and noticed Max had eaten about twenty azaleas. I kept wondering what would happen to him after eating so many toxic plants. He didn’t get sick, at least not that I noticed.   Max may have been having petite mal seizures all along, and I just assumed he was twitching, experiencing a myoclonic jerk while sleeping.

 *

I remember watching a girl have petite mal seizures in class and on the playground when I was an elementary school teacher. Sometimes she’d start shaking, then fall asleep at her desk. I never saw her entire body convulse or her jaw clamp down.

Sometimes, she’d sit up afterwards and ask, “Did I just do that?”

I’d shake my head yes, and she’d look depressed. Fortunately her classmates were sympathetic, and probably somewhat awed by this unexpected reflexive behavior.

Kids would ask her what it felt like, and she’d try to explain, but it’s not easy articulating how one feels after their brain takes off like a pinball machine. In my childhood home, we had an old refrigerator in our leaky Michigan basement. If I opened the door without stepping on the rubber mat and wearing rubber soled shoes, I’d get a terrible shock. I suspect a seizure starts out similar to that initial shock, and then reaches that fatal electric chair state before the brain finally gets its act together, and frees a person from death. The power of the brain.

 *

After eight seizure-free months, I hear Max roll over near my bed and seize. Ania must have fallen right to sleep and didn’t hear him banging on the floor in my room. I run and grab a bag of ice, then start my militant approach of trying to make him stop. “No seizure! No seizure, Max!” I sound like a desperate coach screaming during a losing football game. The cold ice bag I place on his haunches distracts Max more than my incessant pleading.

For a while.

It doesn’t take long, and Max enters the world of cluster seizures.

Within minutes of one stopping, another begins. No longer can I run and grab ice. I keep a cold washcloth on his fur, wiping away the foam and piss. Once the seizures hit cluster mode, I can only make a feeble attempt to protect his body from slamming against the wall and floor, and assure him he isn’t alone.

Eventually, Max struggles to get up off the floor and stumbles into Ania’s room. I curl up next to him, trying to coax him out of her room before the next seizure begins, hoping to spare Ania from any more epileptic grief.

Ania wakes. Bursts into another round of tears. I try to dole out tasks so we both feel less helpless. She breaks a pill in half and puts it in a dog treat. Then she sprinkles Bach Rescue Remedy on his head. The label on the bottle says it promotes natural stress relief. I wonder if Ania and I should be drinking it instead of sprinkling it on Max’s head. He’s way over and beyond the stress stage. With a name like Rescue Remedy, one can only hope it will work.

It’s one in the morning. A school night. Ania helps me lead Max outside, which is no easy task since he’s whining, banging into everything, unable to walk straight, think clearly. I follow Max around the yard. Ania crawls into my bed. That last seizure has drained all comfort from her room.

After a seizure, dogs, and probably humans also, tend to lose their vision temporarily. I turn the porch light on so I can follow Max in the yard. He’s regained the strength to walk. But he doesn’t walk. He paces frantically, banging into everything. Whining. Delirium. The cats have moved into the porch, keeping a watchful eye on Max. Barto, our older dog, feels a sense of loyalty and stays outside near us, but not too close. No one, not even spectators, can handle one seizure after another for hours on end. I doubt Max will be handle it much longer. He’s a large dog and I wonder what I’ll do with his body if he dies.

I’m worn out. Vets have told me he may die during cluster seizures. Or he may live. It depends how strong he is, how much more his body can handle. Sitting outside in the yard with Max, I remember being a teenaged girl with my dying mother, getting up throughout the night to see if she was still breathing, still alive, still suffering. I’d sit by her bed and listen to her wheezy breathing. Just like with Max, I had reached the point where I could only put a wet washcloth on her forehead. What more could I possibly do? Nothing but wait.

Max collapses on the grass. Every time he twitches, I fear he’s going to seizure again. I’m tired. It’s two in the morning. I’ve never slept in this yard. The last time I remember dragging a sleeping bag outside to the yard late at night was to sneak outside for sex with a lover while my daughter slept soundly in the house. I didn’t want her to wake and find a lover in my bed. She’s possessive. She’s manipulative. It has always been the two of us. A third person would shift our foundation. She’s smart. She knows lovers are clingy, have needs, would want to put their heads on my lap and have their heads rubbed. My lap is hers. A lover would be cataclysmic.

At first the sleeping bag lover probably found it somewhat romantic lying beneath a full moon in the desert. But the romantic aspect diminished when I made him disappear before the sun emerged. Barto was the only witness of this romantic escapade, and he didn’t seem to mind. He has a foot fetish. It was a bit like a game for him.   The lover wasn’t thrilled by Barto licking his feet. Oddly enough, if I had licked his feet, he’d probably go way over the edge into that exotic land of intense pleasure. How a lover responds to the critters is how I predict the odds of a romance surviving. Needless to say, it has been a long time since I’ve slept with a man.

Max moans in his sleep. The grass is cool on his belly. Keeping him beneath the blanket makes me feel maternal.   I have him in this safe cocoon so he knows he’s not alone. I do this for me. But then I worry the same way I do about my daughter. Is it starve a cold, feed a fever? I know Max’s body has been overheated. The books say the seizures make a dog feel like he’s just ran a marathon. It’s September in Arkansas. It’s probably in the 50’s. I wonder if I should remove the blanket. At this point in the seizures, it feels like nothing I do is right, nothing is helping.

I know Max may moan throughout the night, and then simply be dead. I don’t want him to die alone. I have to live with my conscience. I’m already enduring enough guilt for things I’d rather forget.

If I were dying, I’d want to be outside. When I don’t feel well, I like being outside. When I feel well, I want to be outside. I always want to be outside. I found Max burrowed beneath a tunnel of weeds and shrubs near a baseball field. One by one I removed the entire litter and took them home.

Tonight the outside world calls Max out of his screwed up synaptic state. A couple of yards over, cats struggle in a fight, and Max turns his head. His energy slowly returns. The Bassett hounds do their nocturnal barking and Max stops moaning and listens. As morning approaches, it’s the noisy birds that bring Max back to life. They are loud.   Max pulls his body up from the ground. I watch him cross the yard to pee. This is an optimistic move. Then he returns to look at me, uncertain why I’m outside at his hour. He walks to the door and barks. He wants me to let him inside. Be normal. He eats a bit of his food, drinks some water, then walks into my bedroom and plops down on his bed. Barto and the cats follow behind. Everyone is ready for bed.

I push Ania over so I can crawl into bed. The alarm will go off in an hour. She’ll probably wake wondering why she’s in my bed. Eventually she’ll remember. Just like Max will remember. Then he’ll go through the crying stage. He’ll stand by the spot he had his worst seizures and bark, whine, bark, and there’s nothing I’ll be able to do to explain why his brain betrays him in such a painful way.

In a week, Max will be back to his old self.   I’ll think about Barto worrying about losing his friend. How I’ve gauged so many lovers. How a broken dog disturbs my daughter’s sense of routine and hope.   How this epilepsy is a test of compassion. How it’s such a confusing state of isolation for Max. How Jim always got up, brushed himself off, and carried on with so much dignity. And how Paul developed such a deep form of compassion, deeper than empathy, and went down with Jim into the land of shock so that Jim was never truly alone. And then, after enough time passes, I’ll finally trust that life has returned to normal, whatever that may be.

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CONTRIBUTORS

R.T. Castleberry’s work has appeared in Abramelin, Texas Review, Comstock Review, Green Mountains Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Alembic, Pacific Review, RiverSedge and Caveat Lector, among other journals. He is a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has been featured in the anthologies Travois-An Anthology of Texas Poetry, TimeSlice, and The Weight of Addition. His chapbook, Arriving At The Riverside, was published by Finishing Line Press in January, 2010. An e-book, Dialogue and Appetite, was published by Right Hand Pointing in May, 2011.

Jonah B. Finn currently works in the Middle East, traveling frequently and writing as he does. He is a graduate of Colgate University and is originally from New Jersey.

Paul Germano lives in Syracuse, NY with his dog April, a strong, muscular and lovable Pit Bull. Germano’s fiction has been published in roughly 25 print and online magazines, including The Aroostook Review, Fiction 365, Hobart, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette, the Vestal Review and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana. Most recently, his story, “Nine Times Out of Ten,” was published in April 2014 in the Journal of Microliterature.

Scott C. Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.

Len Krisak has had his work published in Agni, The Antioch Review, The Sewanee Review, The Hudson Review, PN Review, Raritan, The London Magazine, Agenda, Plume, The Hopkins Review, Stand Magazine, Commonweal, The Oxonian Review, Literary Imagination, and The Oxford Book of Poems on Classical Mythology, among others. He’s the author of 10 published books and has won the Richard Wilbur Prize, the Robert Frost Prize, and the Robert Penn Warren prize, among others. He’s also a four-time champion on Jeopardy.

Scott Laudati lives in Brooklyn with his Boxer, Satine. Visit him at www.scottlaudati.com.

Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Camel Saloon Books on Blog, Blueline, Vine Leaves, Spectrum, three Bright Spring Press Anthologies, and several Kind of A Hurricane Publications.  She has been nominated three times for Best of the Net. Four of her books have been published by fine literary presses.  She has recited her work at the National Arts Club, New York City, State University of New York, Oneonta, McNay Art Institute, San Antonio and other distinguished venues.  A recent reading was sponsored by the American Academy of Poetry.  Her latest title is Having Lunch with the Sky, A.P.D. Press, Albany, New York.

Since 1987, Charlie O’Hay’s work has appeared in over 100 literary publications, including The New York Quarterly, Cortland Review, Gargoyle, West Branch, and Mudfish. In 1995, he received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship in poetry. His first collection of poems and photographs, Far from Luck, was published in 2011 by Lucky Bat Books (Reno, NV) and is available in both print and Kindle formats via Amazon.com.

Diane Payne is the MFA Director of UAM’s creative writing program and lives in a small town with a house filled with dogs and cats, and her daughter when she’s home from college.  She is the author of Burning Tulips and Freedom Is Just Another Word. “Synaptic Journey” originally appeared in Fiction International, Winter 2007.

David J. Thompson grew up in Hyde Park, New York, and spent the last 16 years living in metro Detroit. He has been living on the road since October 2013 and spent ten weeks traveling in Spain this winter. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks. Please visit his photo website at ninemilephoto.com.

Jesse Sensibar loves small furry animals and assault rifles with equal abandon and still has a soft spot in his heart for innocent strippers and jaded children.  He retired in 2010.  He is currently trying to make sense of his past while working on his MFA in creative writing and teaching Freshman Composition at a large southwestern state university in the mountain town where he has lived since the late 1980s.

Francine Marie Tolf’s poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals including Rattle, Water-Stone, Under the Sun, GHLL and Southern Humanities Review. She has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2010) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing, 2012), as well as a memoir and a number of chapbooks. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming / Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine lives and works in Minneapolis.