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Rind Literary Magazine

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Rind Literary Magazine Issue 5 January 2014

rindliterarymagazine.com

All Works Š Respective Authors, 2013-14

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Editor in Chief: Stephen Williams

Fiction Editors: Johnathan Etchart Jenny Lin Melinda Smith Shaymaa Mahmoud

Nonfiction Edit ors: Collette Curran Owen Torres William Ellars Anastasia Zamora

Webmaster: Omar Masri

Blog Manager: Dylan Gascon

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Contents Acknowledgements

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Contributors

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Fiction: Kama Suture 1973/ P.K. Read

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Trigger Finger/ Williams Cheshire

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Regards/ G.D, Mcfetridge

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Nonfiction: My Education Informs Me/ Miles Magnesi

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Cause and Effect/ Tom Moran

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Tell us a joke/ John Talaoc

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Cool 55: Strawberry Pie/ Gary Imperial

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Acknowledgements Thanks to all of our contributors, past and present, because without you this little publication wouldn’t exist. In the ostrich farm of the literary world, you are our precious poultry and we love you more and more for it with every submission you send us. We’re also indebted to the creative writing faculty of the University of California Riverside, Mount San Antonio College, Rio Hondo College, and Riverside Community College. Thank you for continuing to push our magazine like a sweet, citrusy drug. Here at the magazine, we’re always on the lookout for the next Albrecht Durer. So please send us your artwork and photography for future issues. Feel free to contact us with any ideas or queries you might have. Remember, the only stupid questions are the internal ones that you struggle with about whether or not to submit to us. Please support the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival because they are the loveliest people. You can find out more about them at www.sgvlitfest.com. Check us out on Duotrope, Facebook, and Twitter. For updates and general shenanigans, head over to our blog at www.thegrovebyrind.wordpress.com. Do you stay up at night, staring at your ceiling, visualizing your name spelled out in orange lights? Then become a contributor! Send your submissions to rindliterarymagazine@gmail.com. To Glory! -The Rind Staff

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My Education Informs Me Miles Magnesi Riverside had just been declared the most economically prosperous city in the Inland Empire. It was also the meth capitol of California, but hey, you take what you can get. I was seventeen, set to pursue a degree in Spectacular Poverty, desperate to continue the literary lineage of exasperated romantics. This moment in time fell in-between the cracks of my development, proceeding the sour, gothic grunge of high school, when my pretentious bigotry was still in chrysalis. An awkward manchild – irreverent and solipsistic – banality in stereo. They called their orientation BearFacts, because campus coordinators pick puns off of trees, and I'd only learned years later that this experience wasn't mandatory. Freshmen were urged to bring a parent along, but my mother was out of commission for the event, so I decided on bringing a good friend – we'll call him Gabe – who, while being only a year older than me, had smoked enough cigarettes since he was thirteen to make him appear ripe for hospice. We drove down the highway in his grandparents' Buick, listening to a bit of the industrial grind in order to scare the sleep from our eyes. My anxiety warranted an early arrival, as to avoid the initial jam of attendees, leaving us stranded on an empty lawn. We napped on concrete benches, toured the periphery of snazzy dormitories, until the counselors appeared with coffee and stale pastries, and they began setting up signs and tables with brochures, each fitted of them fitted in bright yellow and blue. I hate them immediately – a bunch of happy-go-luckies with strung-up smiles, like they'd never taken a piss in their lives, and my fellow freshmen began to arrive, pouring onto the green, all of them rambunctious and loquacious and fashionable. “I hope someone likes my shirt,” I said, speaking in a flavor of uncanny optimism. You can't teach an old dogma new tricks – Dorothy Parker's portrait – terribly sophisticated. “They won't,” he said, sipping his coffee, eyes locked on the swarm of colorful chatter. “Hiroshima is going to have shit on BearFacts.” It wasn't long until he merged into the crowd of parents, and I was assigned to my group of dilly-dally newcomers, meant to play nice as we took a gander about campus whilst sharing hopes, dreams, and musical interests. They asked me when I'd last cut my hair. I told them I couldn't remember. It was winter when I had first visited the campus, when the leaves made a colorful mess across the walkways and the evening settled in with a dampening calm. But that tour guide neglected 6


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to warn me that academic ambitions wither in the heat, and how the smog seemed to amplify the sun to the point at which a man could smell the molten aglets on his shoelaces. But none of that mattered. University seemed the natural order of things, carrying with it an air of reprieve. Distance from the desert from whence I came, and its nauseating, bro-and-tow denizens. But after fifteen minutes of campus prowling I realized that these new characters weren't exactly my cup of tea, either. The desire for a posse of broody intellectuals, cut down by topical banter and dick-jokes. And I couldn't even understand what they were saying, half of the time. Hella ill, shorty. The gets is effing gnar gnar. And they themselves seemed so fresh, so chill, as though they sprang from citrus groves and swam in clean oceans. What had started as a social venture became an anthropological breakthrough, confirming, yet again, that I came from fucking nowhere. I kept to myself, numbly mouthed the words of campus battle-cries, and took no fleeting breeze for granted. At one point, the counselor stopped and asked that we form, and then untangle, a human knot. Unfortunately for them, the only thing worse than my attitude was my equilibrium. After four collapses and an elbow to the face, my request to withdraw was accepted with enthusiasm. I was reunited with my friend at lunchtime. He looked thinner than I remembered, face raw, hair tacked to his blotchy forehead by layers of sweat and foundation. Having come from the desert, you would think that we'd be accustomed to the heat, but acclimation is slow-going when your natural habitat is your mother's living room. We retreated into the cafeteria and exalted the air conditioner with hysterical, primitive fervor. And then we grabbed our food and found a table tucked away from the crowd of parents, hunched over our plates spoke of our day amidst people and sunshine. Vietnam vets, fresh out of the camps, stunted by memories of cannibalizing our Lieutenants. “Chicken isn't supposed to be purple,” he declared, prodding the breast with his fork. That wiki-education, making all of us proud. And then he dared a bite and swallowed, and we awaited the result. It wasn't until a moment passed, absent foaming lips or convulsions, that I decided it safe to follow suit. “Did you meet anybody?” he asked with off-setting sincerity. I suppose he didn't know me quite as well, “No,” I said, “but I did find a nice little tree to die beneath, when the time comes.” “That's good. A lot of trees, in case you have to improvise.” “Maybe. The ones with the white flowers smell like semen.” 7


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“You need more things to do with your day. Parents glanced over at us occasionally, probably curious as to why we weren't outside with the young. They were an interested group of specimens, all dressed up for Disney Land with their fanny packs and visors. Each of them, so inquisitive, enthused and bug-eyed. Their pride had a pulse, striking the marrow with electric current. And for a moment – admittedly brief, but a moment – I felt guilty for my irreverence. I knew my mother would be one of them, thrilled and red in the cheeks. But there was just the dark duo, as it had always been, and the fear that, beyond today, I would become a one-man show. “Meet any single moms?” I asked in jest, turning back to my friend who, at this point, had braved the entirety of his plate. “A few. But they're all weirded out, I imagine.” “What do you mean?” “I told them that I was your step-dad.” Dusk had settled, the heat slowly dissipated, and the air, once bitter – almost congealed – finally sweetened into a comfortable breeze. So, naturally, they crowded us into a muggy gymnasium. And on the way in we jogged through a tunnel of waving hands and shouting faces, and the counselors had all managed to misread my name tag: “Milly,” they chanted, “Milly, Milly!” And at the end of the line they separated us into groups of three, and began rambling about icebreakers ahead. I could feel the circulation in my body begin to slow, and I prayed for mercy of a stroke. The small group exercise was the worst brand of forced socialization. In a larger bunch you could blend. Stay quiet. Wiggle out. Take your needed repose. But in a small group you were a necessary component, and your associates viewed you with diligent scrutiny. Agoraphobia was interpreted as unpleasant disinterest. You became subject to open dispute, and vomiting was simply out of the question. And because the universe's insatiable schadenfreude was quick to identify blood in the water, I had been lumped together with some well-groomed babe magnet with a monosyllabic vocabulary, and an absurdly attractive woman who spoke in the dialect of Likeness. The two of them hit it off almost immediately, talking about 80's rock n' roll and how eventful their summers had been. Kayaking. Rock climbing. Excursions in Mexico. And there I was, hunched awkwardly over my lap, rapping the rubber soles of my boots, unwilling to divulge my three-month conquest in Azeroth, or that I'd seen most of the porn on the internet. This greeting was to last for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes of indulgence. And we were to memorize these little factoids about 8


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each other and present them, out loud, to the greater populace. I was fascinated by social characters. As far as conversation went, I was an utterly inadequate subject, unless I had a prompt, or some gripe to openly bitch about. I didn't have the patience for engaging in topical platitudes, and my words had a habit of abandoning me mid-sentence. A fair amount of my spare time was devoted contemplating elaborate exchanges in my head – myriad questions and retorts that I might manipulate to provide the illusion of social interaction. But people aren't so predictable. After sparking a conversation I would quickly exhaust all I had to say, and then wait until the stagnant silence forced the other's complete withdrawal. It was a miserable thing to lament the conversations before they happened. Nothing quite as caustic as bearing witness to the inferno. And god forbid I ever found myself comfortable in any sort of exchange. I had a knack for regurgitating my life's thesis. Not that you would know anything about that. “You know who you look like?” the young lady spoke, pulling her hair behind her neck, revealing a tattoo paw prints that trailed behind her ear. I gave the ink a bit more attention than I should have. There was evidence of some alien demeanor, unlike the spiders and crossbones to which I'd been accustomed. “No, I do not,” I replied, doing my best to pry a smile over my face. “Drew Carey,” she spoke assertively, looking to our third for consensus. Every sexual delusion I'd ever had about college promptly died and dispersed into nothingness. I would have stood up and left if both of my legs hadn't gone numb on me. I did not know what could possibly compel someone to vocalize such a connection. And how the hell does anyone reply to this situation? Why Goddamn, thank ya miss! And here I was, thinking I was moderately attractive. “Nah, he doesn't,” the babe magnet finally interjected. He shot me a smile – that I got your back, check this shit out smirk that men give each other when one of them is stampeding towards a spell of mania. “He so does, look at him!” she exclaimed. Loudly. And then she proceeded to point out similarities in facial structure and weight that still have me avoiding mirrors to this day. “Nah, nah, you look like that one writer,” he said, playing on what little I told them about me. “I read him in high school. Oscar.. right? The gay dude with the long hair on the couch, you know?” At first I was flattered, honestly. Oscar Wilde was to flamboyant literary types as Michael Jordan was to inner-city hoopsters. Then I remembered what the man looked like. My self-esteem, now a tangible thing, like an insect, crawled toward the back of my skull, tuckered out and perished. I 9


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sat quietly for the remainder of the exchange, watching them flirt with one another, allowing every mundane detail about their lives to flourish into elaborate stories and laughter. The counselors herded us into another cramped space – a room that, even years after that night, I had never been able to find again on that campus. We stood against the walls and lent our attention to some headshrinker in a pantsuit at the center. It was simple, she'd said: I'll state a fact, and those to whom said fact applies are encouraged to step into the center of the room. Just fucking peachy. The students sneered and groaned reluctantly, but they all bitched-out and participated anyway: Who here likes to skateboard? … Who here goes to church or temple? … Who here is undeclared? … Who here is the first person in their family to go to college? … Who here has lost someone close to them recently? … Who here has had financial hardships, resulting in the loss of their home or keepsakes? … Who here grew up with an alcoholic in the home? … Who here has a family member with a serious illness? … Who here has been abused by a parent? … Who here has been abused sexually? That space became a vacuum. Despite the increasingly macabre nature of that woman's inquiries, students continued to unveil themselves. Many stood stoic, others in tears, merging to and fro. There was something terribly wrong about all of this, I thought. They were supposed to be reinventing themselves. But here they were, still schlepping old baggage, the cowards upon the walls all gnawing at their indiscretion. And in that moment I saw my leather boosts, tattered jeans and studded bracelets – articles of some sardonic carapace that had long since relinquished its relevance and utility. Those characters were stripped of their ancillary status, and I stood now in a room with human beings; their lightness, their expressions, pastel t-shirts, designer sandals and dick-jokes, all withstanding. I knew this feeling would dissipate, as had every catharsis hitherto, but I remember well that incredulous boy who basked in the radiance of the strange and the young.

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KAMA SUTURE 1973 P.K. Read Except for the muffled screams, it was a regular late afternoon in summer. Golden light bouncing off the Pacific, off the twisting limbs of red madrone and manzanita trees, bouncing right off the A-frame windows like a prism. The Inverness ridge was a mild hush of pine needles and dusty oak leaves, peppered with the shrieks coming from the house. “That’ll be Kama,” my dad said, electric with excitement. He got like this before performances, and sometimes before we met certain people. Whoever we were going to see tonight made him buzzy. The skin on his head looked too small to hold his face. Sam Michael’s house was set back from the road in a small clearing. There were no other houses nearby. Three Harley Davidsons threw puddles of lengthening shade. Their leather and gas smell cut through the cooling air. The front door of the A-frame opened and the wails burst out to fill the clearing. A covey of quail broke and ran. Two Hells Angels emerged from the house and watched us as we approached. The door swung shut behind them and the screaming came to a corked halt. “Why are we going to Sam’s tonight?” I’d asked earlier, while we were driving up the steep road above Tomales Bay, the Marin hills already falling into a honeyed dusk as the sun lowered over the ocean on the opposite side of the ridge. “Sam asked me to come up and help out with Kama,” my dad said. “Don’t people usually go to the hospital to have babies?” I had met Kama this summer, and knew her as a hugely rounded and deeply bronzed naked lady who I saw a lot at Shell Beach, where no one wore any bathing suits. Impossible to imagine her with a baby in her arms instead of in her stomach. “Some do. But having a baby is natural, you don’t need to go to the hospital. Humans have been managing to have babies without hospitals since before Olduvai,” he said. He glanced at me. “You remember Olduvai, right?” “Yeah, where Leakey excavated. I know.” My dad was always harping on the anthropology and geology stuff, which I didn’t mind, but not in answer to a completely different question. “But, why is Kama having her baby at Sam’s?” “‘Babies are born in hospitals,’” he snorted. “It’s just another way to get you in to the system from the moment you’re born.” 12


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“But…I was born in a hospital, right? And so were you and so was my mom, right?” “That’s right, little Wiggles. It’s too late for us, we is already sucked into the system. Stamped, registered, monitored. It’s got us by our little vestigial tails. That’s why Kama isn’t going to a hospital.” Then, smiling at a secret joke, he said, “Well, that’s one reason, anyway.” “I don’t have a tail and neither do you,” I said. “Just a figure of speech, honey.” As we hit the top of the ridge, the road was speckled with leafy shadows of the trees that made a kind of dizzying strobe effect as we drove along. I liked Kama. She had welcoming eyes of a strange green I hadn’t seen before, a sad smile, and big features hewn like someone had stopped working on them before they were quite done. She was maybe twenty years old, Martin’s girlfriend. Martin (which everyone pronounced Mar-teen) rode around on his big Harley and only took off his black leather vest with its Angel patch if we were at the beach. He mainly struck me as being very tall. Most people treated him with cautious respect, except for my dad and Sam, who treated him like a friend. “I’ve been around a couple of home births, and it’s pretty far out. There’s some yelling, some pushing, and plop! Out comes a baby!” My dad paused for a moment. “Mainly, I think Martin doesn’t like any place where they ask a lot of questions. His buddy is kind of like that, too. “Buddy?” “Guy named Bear,” my dad said. “Another Angel. Nice guy. Not sure if they’ll have any other Angels along.” This whole expedition was starting to sound like one of those math problems with too many sentences and names where you weren’t even sure what the question was. This much I knew: ‘The System’ was like the machine in Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin gets caught in the gears and there’s nothing he can do about it. My dad thought that my school back in Milwaukee, everything else about my non-summer, non-California life, all cops, and politics, the army, straight people including my step-father and probably my mom too, all businesses, hospitals, and even money, were all gears in The System. Seen this way, if you were having a non-System baby, the first step would be to avoid hospitals. It was perfectly reasonable. “Hey, Ted, how you doin’, man?” said the first Angel on the porch. Both of them dressed like Martin, completely in black. The burly guy who spoke to us had reddish blond hair, a long mustache and sideburns, and might have been scary looking if he hadn’t been smiling. The other guy 13


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was brown-haired and shorter. He wasn’t smiling, and he looked scary. “Hey, Bear,” my dad said in his deepest manly voice, which I knew meant he was excited. “Ted,” said Bear, by way of introduction to the other guy. “Friend of Mar-teen’s.” The other guy nodded, a bit less alarming now. “Frank,” he said. Their eyes flicked to me. “This is my daughter, Dana,” said my dad. Bear’s smile widened. “Dana. Come to see what happens when babies get made, huh? Can’t learn too early.” I shrugged. “I guess so. Why are you here?” That came out a little sassier than it had been in my head. The two men looked at me blankly for a moment, then looked at each other and burst out laughing. Bear put a hand on my shoulder and started to lead me into the house. “You ask good questions, little girl. We’re here cause a brother’s in need, and we take care of our brothers. And in this case, his old lady,” said Bear. “Fuckin’ A,” said Frank. “You just have to be yourself,” my dad had said earlier in the car, about hanging out with Hell’s Angels, “and then it’s cool.” “I’m always myself,” I said. This was only a half-truth. I was mostly myself during the summer, in California. I couldn’t tell anyone how much I liked school or getting good grades, but at least I was barefoot, laughing when I felt like it, and engaging in age-inappropriate activities. During the school year back in Wisconsin, I was a girl who was careful to say what was expected, laugh only when it was safe, and always wear matching outfits. Secrets had to be kept everywhere, but there were fewer of them in California. “I was talking about me,” my dad said. “Martin took me to one of their hangouts once. I started acting a little, well, you know how I can do an energy mimic of the people I’m around…” This happened when he wanted to impress people. It was embarrassing. “Yeah, I know.” “Well, I was doing that with the Angels, even though I didn’t mean to, and Martin took me aside.” My dad put on Martin’s mild but dangerous drawl. “He said, ‘Ted, I brought you here because I like you. You’re a friend, but you’re not a badass. If you fuck around like this, they’re gonna kill you, and I won’t be able to stop it.’” “Kill you? Actually kill you, or kill you like beat you up?” Acting in an embarrassing way 14


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was one thing. Getting killed for it was another. He giggled nervously. “Kill me, like, kill me dead. And so I got my shit together, and everything was fine.” He did a couple of deep Zen breaths. “So – now I know you just have to be yourself, and then it’s cool.” So I concentrated on being myself – or, as much as I could without pretending to be more ‘myself’ than I really was. In any case, everyone’s attention was on the massive naked lady sprawled on a mattress in the middle of the living room. I’d seen Kama without clothes plenty of times out at the beach, so her breasts and stomach came as no surprise, although she didn’t usually lie on the beach with her legs splayed so wetly. She smiled as I walked in. “Hi, Dana,” she said. As if the screaming I had heard outside had come from some other woman in the house who was in labor. Martin was sitting on a sofa, rolling a joint. “Ted,” he said, glancing up at my dad. “Thanks for coming, man. Brought your guitar, I see. Far out.” Martin grinned up at me. “Que pasa, chica?” “Bien!” “Muy bien.” Sam walked in from the kitchen at the back of the house. Slim, cheerful, Sam always seemed to be organized and on top of the situation, like he was used to taming chaos. “Hey, guys – welcome to the birth happening. Kama’s water broke this morning. We’re waiting for the contractions to get a little closer before we get too worked up, though. I’m just gonna go get some water from the well.” “Lemme give you a hand,” my dad said, following him out the back door without a backwards glance. The guy named Bear was already smoking the joint Martin had fired up. He waved it in my direction and I shook my head. “I’m not allowed.” I had taken hash and LSD by accident more than once, but my parents never voluntarily included me in their daily drug use. The hash brownie incident that immobilized me for several hours at the age of six had put me off the whole business, but saying ‘it wasn’t allowed’ wouldn’t make me look like the only kid in California who didn’t want to get high. “Ah,” he smiled, inhaling a little further. “How old are you?” “Eleven.” “Eleven! Well, gotta save something for the teen years, right?” “Sure.” 15


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“You live out here with your dad?” he asked. “No, I live in Milwaukee with my mom and step-father. I only come out for the summer.” I knew what was coming next, and sure enough – “Milwaukee! The beer that made Milwaukee famous!” They all laughed. “What the hell beer is that, the beer that made Milwaukee famous?” he said into the room. “Schlitz.” I knew the answer as well as I knew the Wisconsin state song, ‘On, Wisconsin!’. “But they make plenty of others.” “Schlitz! That’s it. I like a kid who knows her beers!” Bear said. He looked around. “Any beer around here?” Frank, who had sucked the joint halfway down in just two puffs, still looked about as benign as a coiled viper. “Shit no. No fridge, either, man. Let’s do a quick beer run before the stores close.” And with that, Bear and Frank were out the door. The air expanded with the supersonic boom of the Harleys being fired up. The windows had just stopped rattling when Kama spoke. “Here comes another one,” she said calmly, as if watching for large waves at the beach. Her stomach tensed into a rock-hard mountain and her mouth formed a big ‘O’. The screaming started again. Martin positioned himself behind her and held her head, stroking her hair. “Breathe, baby,” he said. She looked up at him, breathing hard as if she was running from a nightmare. Then she wailed again. My dad and Sam returned through the back door carrying Gallo wine jugs filled with water. They paused as Kama’s wailing sliced the quiet forest evening, and then came in once she had finished. “Shit, that one hurt,” she said once she had finished. “Goddamn, that hurts like a sonofabitch.” She looked over at me. “Did that scare you? ” No one else looked frightened, so I didn’t want to admit that the hairs on my neck were on end and I’d peeled a fingernail bloody. I shook my head. “Well, it scared me for a minute, there,” she said. “You stopped after a few seconds, so I figure you’re okay.” They all laughed. Kama said, “Far out. I am okay.” Time passed, punctuated by breathing and shrieks. The sun set and a thin moon crept up over an inky tree line. The night blew up again when the Harleys came back, Bear and Frank each with a 16


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case of beer strapped to their seats. “We’ll put the cases under the house,” offered Sam. “It’s coolest there.” Frank carried the two cases to the back of the house and down the back stairs. “It’s already like a fucking black cave down there. Got a fucking splinter.” He examined the palm of his left hand like it was a dog that had just peed against his leg. “Deep motherfucker.” He produced a large buck knife from a sheath in his boot. While he attacked his palm with the blade, he said, “That little shit down at the store slipped a bunch of warm bottles into a case. We told him they all had to be cold.” His knife was bloodied. Frank sucked hard on his hand. “Now we got tepid beer. That asshole needs a lesson in customer satisfaction.” He wiped the blade of his knife against his boot before sheathing it, and spit the splinter out the back door. He produced a bandanna from a pocket and wrapped his hand. “He’s just a dumb kid, Frank. He’s not worth it,” said Bear. Bear’s hard glance didn’t match his easy tone and smile. “You know, man,” said Bear to Sam, “You should get some electricity in here. Then you wouldn’t have to fuck around with these lamps.” He gestured at all the old-fashioned kerosene lanterns. “I like the way they smell,” I said. Bear looked over at me. “You probably sniff magic markers, too, right?” I grinned. How had he known that? “Yeah, all the little kiddies start with markers and glue,” he said, inhaling from the joint and passing it along to Sam. “Then it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to kerosene lamps, hash and speed.” Kama grabbed the joint that was passing over her head from Sam to my dad. “Gimme a hit of that.” She took a deep drag, and continued, her voice tight with held breath, “I like the lamps. Makes you feel like you’re at the end of the world.” “Thought you were holding tight until the baby comes,” said my dad, taking the joint from Kama’s fingers after she had taken one more tiny puff. “Ah, fuck it.” She grinned and slowly exhaled. “You’re supposed to relax into the pain and not resist it,” she said, drawing her hands toward her as if embracing a wave, then pushing it away again, sending it back out to sea. “And a wise woman told me that the pain is easier if you’re smiling. So, I’m just gonna smile and relaaax.” She grinned broadly and leaned back against the pillows. “Righteous,” said Bear, adjusting his large frame on the sofa to mirror Kama’s reclining position. “That baby is gonna be the stonedest little motherfucker ever born, it’s just gonna float right 17


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outta there.” Martin made Kama get up and walk around a little, with Bear holding her up on the other side. We all looked on as her stomach led the way out to the front porch. She leaked a bit of fluid. “Back, back, back!” she said, doubling over. Kama’s wails drowned out all conversation for a few moments again. Frank, who had been silently observing the scene with his snake eyes, went out back to get more beer. Kama seemed to be trying to smile, but her mouth kept expanding too wide to let out the howls. She smiled once it was over, though. “See,” she announced, “That was much better.” My dad started strumming the guitar. “Play ‘The Great Silkie’” I said. I’d been sitting in a corner near the front window of the Aframe for most of the time since we’d arrived, watching everyone, watching it get dark outside. Bear shifted. “Why you hiding over there, anyway? You nervous about sitting next to the fat lady and Uncle Bear?” “Nope,” I said. “I just don’t get in the joint circle.” “Ha! The ‘joint circle’! Hey, Ted, man, how come you don’t let your girl get properly high?” said Bear. He patted the cushions next to him. It seemed rude not to accept the invitation, so I brought along an extra cushion and sat down between Bear and Frank, and made myself comfortable. My dad looked up from his guitar in surprise, as if he hadn’t really been listening. “She can get high if she wants. I never said that she couldn’t.” He looked back at his fret board and started humming. Bear looked back at me. “Want to be in the ‘joint circle’?” Frank was rolling another joint. Bear was grinning, a groovy new head man who was going to introduce me to the fun side of life. “Um, thanks, no. I don’t li-…I don’t really want to.” My dad was whistling the beginning of the The Great Silkie as if he hadn’t just left me twisting in the breeze. “How do you know if you haven’t tried it?” said Bear, as if he were offering a fruit of untold delights. “Better than markers and glue, believe me.” “Well, I – I inhale a lot just by sitting around, and so far it just makes me sleepy.” Bear looked at the fog of smoke around us. Frank had lit the joint and was holding it out in my direction, friendly-like, eyebrows raised. He gave it a persuasive wiggle. I shook my head. “Thank you, no.” Frank shrugged and passed the fresh joint to Bear, who inhaled deeply while looking at me. “Well, little sister, if you decide you want to have a hit, you just come on over to Big Bear or Brother 18


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Frank here and they’ll give you some of the good shit, okay?” “Okay. Thanks. By the way, silkies look like seals. Seals are pinnipeds.” Bear looked at me in silence, then grinned broadly and put a warm hand on my shoulder. “Thanks, sister. I never knew that.” My dad started singing his song, and everyone was quiet and listened. This had been my bedtime song when I was very small, and seemed to make everyone else very thoughtful and quiet. My dad’s voice rang soft like a prayer bell. I snuggled down in the cushions to daydream to the haunting lyrics. For he came on night to her bed feet, And a grumbly guest, I'm sure was he, Saying "Here am I, thy bairn's father, Although I be not comely." "I am a man upon the land, I am a silkie on the sea, And when I'm far and far frae land, My home it is in Sule Skerrie." And he had ta'en a purse of gold And he had placed it upon her knee, Saying, "Give to me my little young son, And take thee up thy nurse's fee." "And it shall come to pass on a summer's day, When the sun shines bright on every stane, I'll come and fetch my little young son, And teach him how to swim the faem." "And ye shall marry a gunner good, And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be, And the very first shot that e'er he shoots Will kill both my young son and me."

The end of the song was like salty caramel – it never failed to give me a delicious, melancholy feeling. I always pictured the leave-taking, the Silkie walking down to a stony shore and disappearing into waves. When he resurfaced, he was a seal who only looked back once at his lover on the shore before swimming away. Why did she marry a gunner if she knew what the Silkie had foretold? Everyone knew that when strange half-human half-beast creatures spoke, it was a good idea to listen. It was a little different this time because it was interrupted towards the end by Kama’s labor yelps, but my dad kept playing the guitar and then finished the song once the contractions had 19


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subsided. I got up and wandered through the little house to look over Sam’s large collection of books. It was apparent that even though Sam owned and ran a bookstore, he never got tired of books at home. There was a lot of poetry by people, some of whose names I recognized as acquaintances of San Francisco and Inverness friends – Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti – their names came up in conversation, and it was only standing in front of Sam’s bookshelf that I began to put two and two together. These were real people in our circle of friends, who wrote things that got put in books and then people talked about what they had written. I felt a bit silly for not having realized this simple connection before, even though we knew plenty of musicians who made music that got put on records that people bought and played at home. There didn’t seem to be a straight line between the people I knew in person and the books and records with their names on them. Unfortunately, a lot of the books in Sam’s house were poetry and poetry felt like too much effort. I found a copy of The Hobbit, which I had already read the previous summer but which would do for the moment. I settled into a corner near a lamp and went for a walk in the Shire. When I woke up, the lights had been dimmed and everyone was still sitting around Kama, who looked like she had fallen asleep. My father had put aside his guitar. There were several empty beer bottles on the floor. Frank was sleeping in a sitting position, his head nodding forward, while the others were deep in conversation. “…It’s not that I like or don’t like the way things work in the world…” Bear was saying. He paused, and then opened his palms and smiled. “Hey, if everyone was enlightened hippies such as yourselves, how could me and my brothers be outlaws?” “Damn straight,” interjected Martin. Kama hadn’t screamed in a while, but her belly was still huge, so she couldn’t have had the baby yet. Sam and my dad looked at one another and laughed. “Well, first of all, we are not hippies, Bear,” said my dad, as Sam shook his head and said, “No, that we are not.” “But every group or society has rules. So what’s the difference between your rules and any other bunch of rules?” Bear considered this for a moment. “People think being an outlaw means you’re a criminal, but that’s ass-backwards. Criminals just want money, with or without rules. What we have is our brothers, and our bikes. That’s it. No rules. That’s what makes us outlaws.” “Free as a bird,” mumbled Kama, who hadn’t been asleep after all. Martin and Bear nodded. Sam had been quiet the whole time, nodding along but actually 20


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watching Kama. “Martin,” he said, “I think you better check her again.” Sam wiggled his fingers. “Yeah, ok.” Martin started to move around to between Kama’s legs. “Ready, babe?” Sam jumped up and grabbed a bottle from the floor next to him. “Hands!” he said, and made Martin clean his hands with rubbing alcohol. Then Kama nodded, and Martin stuck his hand right up between her legs. He felt around a bit, and came out holding his index and middle fingers just slightly apart. He looked at Sam. “Cool?” Sam frowned. “Huh. Thought she’d be farther along by now.” Sam seemed to be the only one who had any notion of how this whole birth thing really worked. Kama had another contraction and moaned loudly, but didn’t yell as much as usual. “It must be coming soon, it seems to be getting better,” she said, before drifting off again. Frank was still in his sleeping position, but I saw he was observing Kama, then Bear, his eyes narrow slits. “I’m gonna hit the sack,” Sam said. “I’ll get some blankets.” When I looked back, Frank had closed his eyes again. Sam gave me a blanket and sent my dad and me upstairs to the loft of the A-frame to sleep. We climbed the wooden ladder to an area that was large enough to hold a double bed. Martin, Sam and Bear talked, then Sam joined us a few minutes later, and sat down next to where my dad and I had stretched out. I could see the shadows of the four below sprawled across the cushions and sofas. “I’m not sure this is going well,” whispered Sam. “No,” my dad agreed in a low voice. “We may need to take her in.” “Yep. Martin has that warrant out, Bear doesn’t want her to go in, and if the shit hits the fan, we may not be able to get an ambulance out here in time.” “Could get hairy. And that Frank guy – speed freak, you think?” “Yeah, I think so.” The two exchanged a silent look. “Christ,” my dad said. He sighed. “It’ll probably be okay.” Not sounding at all like it would be okay. “Yeah.” Sam blew out the final kerosene lamp. The cabin fell into the deep forest darkness that I still found unnerving. The men’s snoring and Kama’s occasional groans and whimpers from below just made it worse. I had been lying there, trying to fall asleep for a while, when I realized I had forgotten to go to the bathroom before going to bed. I had never spent the night there, and if I needed to pee, I just did what I always did out in 21


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Inverness when I wasn’t in a normal house: I found a quiet forest corner and peed there. No big deal. But I had to do more than pee. I tried to wake my father to ask him where to go, but he was too deeply asleep. I felt my way down the ladder, and then inched forward in bare feet in the direction of the back door. There were no secret doors that led to rooms with plumbing. I figured I would go in the forest like I always did, and kick some pine needles over anything I left. No one need be any the wiser. But when I managed to get out the back door, the forest was nowhere in sight. I could hear trees rustling in the breeze, and I could smell the pine oil on their trunks, but no matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t see them. I worried that once I walked toward the trees, I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. If I didn’t go soon, the problem would resolve itself right there at the base of the stairs. Moments later I had inched along what felt like a long way and there was still no forest. The house had receded into invisibility, and now I was in a pillow of black. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I squatted right there, did my business, and started going back in what I very much hoped was the direction from which I had come. I hit the house wall with my face, felt my way around to the bottom step, crept back into the house, and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the house was flooded with light and the loft was empty. I looked down and saw everyone sitting around Kama, who was awake and sitting upright, breathing hard. She was pale beneath her tan. “I must just have a – a mental block or something. Something that’s slowing down the labor.” Sam was talking, my dad nodding along with him. “Well, yeah, maybe. But sometimes you just gotta be on the safe side, and I don’t remember the contractions going away like this. This isn’t, you know…things are probably fine, but…” “The mother knows how to do this,” said Martin. He was holding Kama’s hand. “We go in, there’s no going back.” “That might be the case if we stay here, too,” my dad said. “The hospital is forty-five minutes away. I can drive down to the Point Reyes clinic and see if they have a doctor who can…” “No, fuck that, I don’t want some guy coming up here and messing around,” said Martin. Kama eyes darted wildly between the men as they talked about her. Sam sighed. “Okay. Well, let’s see if we can have you walk around a little. Maybe that’ll get this thing moving again. Maybe you’ve just been lying down for too long. I’m going to get some 22


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fresh water, we’ll get you a little cleaned up, and then we’ll walk around.” Frank, who had been skillfully balancing his knife on the point of his finger, tossed it in the air and caught it as he stood up. He stalked out the back door without a word. Martin and Bear started to help Kama to her feet. She held on to them and looked like she might be sick. “Oh, head rush. Far out. I think I might puke.” So they put her back down and sat next to her instead. There was a yell from out back. “What the fuck?!” We ran to the back of the house. Frank was maybe ten feet from the house, looking at his bare foot in a blaze of disgust and anger. “Fucking dog shit! Goddamn it! I fucking hate it here!” He hopped around like a gimpy scorpion. “I ever see the mutt that did this, I’ll kill it.” In the dark, those ten feet had seemed so much further towards the forest. I slipped back into the house and made myself small. Frank angrily wiped his foot off in the dirt and marched off in direction of the well. Kama started screaming again. She struggled on the mattress, wailing and sweating while Martin and Bear kept her from flailing, and then she seemed to pass out. Sam and my dad spoke briefly in the kitchen, and then they came in to the main room and sat down. Kama came to again, but her green eyes weren’t quite focused. “Ok, listen, I know you don’t want to hear this, but –“ Sam started, but he was interrupted by Martin. “We already decided the hospital is bullshit. This is just taking a long time,” he said. Kama started wagging her head back and forth. “No, no – something’s not right,” she said, breathing heavily. “Baby, that’s just the pain. This is your baby, your body,” Martin said. “My woman is tough – you can do this. This probably means the baby is about to come out.” Kama was shaking her head back and forth more violently now. “No, no – I need to…I can’t…” “Hey, man,” said Bear. “Maybe they’re right. This has been going on for a long time, and if it were my old lady…” Frank marched in from the back, one foot dripping wet, but shit-free. He had his knife out and pointed it at Kama. “I say we try and cut it out, you know, and then sew her back up…” He motioned with the arc of a long cut in the direction of Kama’s belly and her eyes popped, completely focused 23


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on the knife. “People do it all the time.” Kama wagged her head. “No, no, no…!” Martin’s face was a stone dagger of anger pointed at Frank. Frank was all loose, swooping his knife back and forth. My dad and Sam watched the scene unfold, their mouths slightly open, eyes darting, but neither moving to stop Frank. “Nobody’s going to open her up,” said Bear, calm and low. He stood up very slowly, like he was just stretching his legs. “It would be a fucking mess, and we’d never get her stitched back up right,” he continued, as if Frank had made a reasonable but ultimately flawed proposal. “Now sit your ass down, Frank, and stop freaking everyone out.” Frank stood for a moment, mumbled, “Ah, fuck it. I need some food.” and sheathed his knife before heading to the kitchen. My dad breathed out audibly and blinked a couple of times. Kama’s voice broke the silence. “It’s my body, I’m the mother, and I say I need help,” said Kama with a finality that ended the discussion. “I love you guys, but you aren’t slicing me open or letting me die here.” “So let’s go,” said Sam, as if the matter had been happily decided and all were in favor. Bear gave Martin a hard look, Martin grunted and then helped get Kama on her feet. Sam grabbed a large, flowing dress with embroidered flowers and appliquéd mirrors and slipped it over Kama’s head. “When we get to the hospital, I’ll take her in,” he said. “We can go in together, if you want,” said my dad. “Naw, that’s cool, man – you’ve been here all night. One person taking her in is enough,” said Martin. He and Bear moved Kama in the direction of Sam’s car. Frank emerged from the kitchen, his mouth full. “Finally,” he said, grabbed his boots and followed them. “Well, thanks for coming by, man,” Martin said, giving my dad a hug. “You’re a real brother.” “Okay, girlie, you hang in there and grow up, right?” Bear said as he gave me a one-armed hug. “And don’t let bad old Uncle Frank freak you out – we all get a little twitchy once in awhile.” Frank was bent over, stomping his bare feet into his boots. He looked up at me, squinting against the sun. “Hey, didn’t mean to weird you out, little girl. I would never have really cut open a brother’s old lady.” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Nice meeting you, though. You’re okay.” He ambled off to his bike. Bear put his arms around my dad for a quick hug, then got on his bike. The ground rumbled beneath our feet as all the Harleys roared up. Their little caravan set off, the white prow of Sam’s old Volvo surrounded by an Angel escort, and disappeared down the road. We could hear the bikes’ 24


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thunder carried on the breeze all the way from the other side of the ridge. My father went back to the cottage to retrieve his guitar, and we started to head back home. “Will Kama be okay?” I asked. “I guess we’ll find out,” was all he said, which didn’t reassure me at all. We were driving back to our place when he shook his head in bemusement and laughed out loud. “What?” “Oh. Well, it’s just, Martin told me and Sam if we ever needed any, uh, help – help of the kind he has to offer – that we just have to say the word for a freebie.” “What kind of freebie does he have to offer?” “The kind of work he does for the Angels.” “What does that mean?” “It means,” my dad said slowly, “that I am very glad I have Mar-teen as a friend, not an enemy, and that any enemies I have need to watch their asses.” “Ugh, Daddy, just spit it out. What does that mean?” My father burst loudly into a Kurt Weill song he liked. There was no reasoning with him when he sang like this, so I joined in.

Let's all go barmy, live off the Army See the world we never saw If we get feeling down, we wander into town And if the population should greet us with indignation We chop off your bits because we like our hamburgers raw!

We found out later from Sam that Kama had been close to losing her baby and her life, even without Frank’s assistance. “Martin has that warrant out, so he didn’t come in, and the other guys took off when we got to the hospital. So I went in with her,” he explained, “and they operated right away. It was a healthy girl, thank God, just the wrong way around. They said she never would have come out without some kind of help, and Kama probably would’ve died in the process. Christ, it was freaky.” “So much for the beauty of birth,” I blurted. “Eh, it’s not always like that,” my dad said. “Usually they just pop right out.” “Yeah, don’t be put off by one bad experience,” said Sam. “And it’s the ‘miracle’ of birth’, not ‘beauty’. Not all miracles are beautiful.” 25


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A couple of weeks later I was back in Wisconsin. One of our weekly magazines had an article trumpeting the crazy violence of the Hell’s Angels, detailing with relish a method of beating that involved holding the victim’s open mouth against a sidewalk curb and then kicking him in the head from behind. Martin and Bear’s chapter was singled out for criminal activity. I was strangely relieved not to find either of them in the photo spread. I couldn’t picture any of the Angels from Sam’s place smashing someone’s face against a curb. Well, maybe knifey, snake-eyed Frank, just a little. I hadn’t told my mother or step-father about the birth happening. Now I was certain I would never mention that night, or any of the Angels. Like the names of the poetry book authors that I had only belatedly connected with the real people we knew, I couldn’t match the magazine stories with the people I had met. It was like they were Silkies – one kind of creature if you met them on land, another if you met them at sea. Homo pinnipedae. Maybe we are all Silkies in some way, depending on our surroundings. Maybe it would be easier to get along if we weren’t like the gunners, treating every Silkie we see as if it’s a seal for shooting.

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Strawberry Pie Gary Imperial Strawberry Pie, two words that seem like they would go together but like Military Intelligence they do not. Both pretty at first glance till the attempt at consumption has you realize that they are underdone and hard to swallow. No glaze can haze over the bitterness of fruit unripe for picking. Strawberry Military Pie, indeed.

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Trigger Finger William Cheshire The wooden slot opens to reveal jade eyes with camel lashes. Leda studies them, gloved hands tucked in her armpits. She rests both feet against the rotting wood wall of the confessional, looking from those eyes to her gloves, the color an exact match. "Something to say?" Leda whispers. The eyes search for her. "Yes." The voice belongs to a young woman. She clears her throat. "'But his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of sand.'" Leda's head sinks into the long-fingered cradle of her porcelain hands. Goddamn passphrases, she thinks. "Salt," she stresses. "Not sand, salt." "Yeah, that's what I meant," Leda's visitor says, taking a deep breath. "Well?" "So, I've heard that you're a, you know..." "No, I don't know. Speak." "A cleaner." "Windex is a cleaner. You're going to have to be more specific." The young woman lets out a frustrated sigh. "Fine. A gun for hire. A killer." "You heard wrong." "You haven't killed people?" "Just 'cause you swim in the ocean doesn't mean you're a mermaid." "That's not--" Leda bangs on the wooden divider. There's a yelp from the other side. "Listen," Leda says. "If you've got something that needs doing, I'll hear you out. But I'm no puppet--I do things my way. If this is a problem for you, leave." The young woman remains still, waiting. "Alright then," Leda continues. "Let's try this again. Think before you speak." The jade eyes close. A year ago, Leda would already be walking away, leaving this girl to deal with her own mess. But with her regulars thinning and costs skyrocketing, Leda has no choice but to court new business. "It's my sister," says the girl. "She went out to meet a man two weeks ago but never came home." 28


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Great, Leda thinks. I might as well be a babysitter. "So? Maybe she doesn't want to go home." The girl's head shakes back and forth. "No. She's not like that. I went out looking for her, checked every restaurant, coffee shop and bar I could find, showed her picture to everyone. Nothing. Then, two nights ago I got this." Leda tenses as the visitor takes something out. Old habits, she thinks with a smile. In the slot appears a slim severed finger with a hot pink nail. "Just a finger?" she asks. "No note? No ransom?" "No." The visitor withdraws the disembodied digit. "I'm sorry," Leda says. "This is awful, but--" Now it's the young woman's turn to bang on the screen. "I don't need your condolences. What I need is for you to find my sister, or what's left of her, and the bastard who took her." Leda rolls her eyes in the darkness. "You know, what you're asking for isn't cheap." The visitor pushes a fat envelope through the wooden slot. Leda takes it and begins to count the money inside, easily twice the normal rate. "Half now, half when you find her." Leda's throat is dry. "Where did you get all this?" "Find my sister and maybe I'll tell you." Harsh streetlight floods the apartment Leda's been calling home for the last half year. In the right hands, it would be cozy, maybe even enviable, but with empty cardboard boxes in place of furniture and a torn sleeping bag for a bed, it's barely a step above homelessness. Leda stands in front of the closet mirror, erasable marker in hand. She's written out all the details Yin--her visitor--provided: addresses, descriptions and a single name overheard during a phone call, Marcel. It's enough to cover the mirror from head to toe, enough to keep Leda busy searching for a connection for the past two hours. She catches her reflection in black denim and a ratty white tee. There are bags under her eyes, and her chestnut hair is tied up in lieu of a washing. She tries to remember the last time she put on makeup. Leda stretches out along the hardwood floor and begins doing pushups. Five, ten, fifteen. The blood rushes to her face, muscles already cramping. Marcel. The name rings a bell. Twenty, twenty29


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five. Exhaustion creeps up. Leda recalls not a person, but a place, worn and filthy. Thirty, thirty-five, forty. Laughter, loud music, heat down her throat. Her arms give out at forty-nine. Catching her breath, Leda cranes her neck to look at the scribbled notes on the mirror. And then she laughs. "Redbreast 12 neat, with a ginger back," Leda says. The thick man behind the bar rolls out his lower lip. "That ain't on the well menu." "No shit." Leda's wrapped in a long black peacoat, her hair cloaking all but a slender pane of her face. The bartender reaches for the whisky and Leda takes a look around the room. The walls are unfinished, bent nails worming out of wooden beams and the sagging floor creaks as patrons ferry rounds back to their tables. There are three or four dozen bodies packed into the tight space, the crowd clumped into their own little cliques. Glass clinks on the bar. "Redbreast 12, ginger back," the stout man says, plucking the bill out of Leda's outstretched hand. He doesn't bring any change. She takes a sip of whisky and another look. The last time she'd been to Bar Marcel was before she became self-employed, when she still worked for a trash bag of a man named Trilby. He used the bar to introduce new recruits to the rules of his crew. "There are just three," he'd said, nose wheezing. "First: The house gets sixty percent. Second: No side jobs. Third: Quitting requires one month notice." That last one was a bit of a joke--Trilby never let anyone quit. Those stupid enough to give notice were worm food within the week and those smart enough to slip away, Trilby left alone, as long as they stayed out of sight. There's a cough from Leda's left. She takes a long sip of her ginger back. There's another cough, closer now. "Cash up front." She sets the glass down. "How stupid do I look? You don't even know what I'm going to ask." Leda glances sideways at the man's unshaven face and pale blue eyes. He looks like a hungry dog. "Doesn't matter," he insists. "I'll know the answer." "Really now?" The man grins, tapping his fingers on the bar. "I know everything. I could even tell you how big God's cock is, if you got the money." The whisky burns Leda's throat. She always preferred to think of God as a woman. The Devil 30


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too. "Looking for a girl," she says, showing the man the picture Yin gave her. He licks his chapped upper lip. "She was here two weeks ago or so with some guy, probably older." The man's wet eyes drink up that picture. "Yup, I'd never forget a pretty little pussy like this. And I remember the asshole she was with too. Happy to tell you, for two grand." "Try two hundred." The man tut-tuts. "I don't like haggling," he says, looking at the buttons of Leda's coat. "Eight and that's it." Leda wrinkles her nose, right hand curling around the whisky glass. She fights the urge to smash it against his temple. Eight hundred is steep, but compared to what Yin gave her it's practically chump change. Leda reaches into her peacoat and pulls out a wad of bills, dangling it in front of the man. "Half now," she says, thinking of Yin's offer, "and the other half when I get my answers." He snatches the cash, counting it several times. "Meet me in the crapper in five," he says. "Last stall." Leda watches him scuttle away and takes another sip. Every time the bar door opens she expects to see Trilby's frowning, double-chinned face. But it's always just some nobody looking for whichever pack of nobodies they belong to. There are the Gearheads with slicked back hair and awkward beards, their packs full of hot electronics; the Social Engineers decked out in suede and sideburns, swapping drill lists; and even the new flavor of Leda's old game, the Grifters. They call themselves Longcons now and have traded black frame glasses for colored contacts, chunky leather bracelets for fingerless gloves. Too bad most can't even remember their plays much less execute them correctly. Leda picks up her whisky and heads to the bathroom. The stink of old piss greets her as her boots clomp on the tiled floor. She approaches the last stall and just as she's about to knock, it bursts open, smacking her in the face. She hits the ground hard, vision churning. Whisky spills everywhere. A fat man in white denim overalls charges out of the stall and onto Leda, sweaty hands wrapping around her neck. He's got an easy hundred pounds on her and uses it to keep her pinned. She digs her nails into his doughy forearms but he doesn't even seem to notice. Leda sees the man with the blue eyes emerge from another stall. She claws around wildly for the whisky glass, fingertips scraping along the rough grout of the damp tiled floor. 31


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"See, me pee-teet pesh," he says in an awful French accent, reaching into his pants. "Told you I'd show you how big God's cock is. Gonna make you a believer." Leda struggles to breath, her hands still searching. The denim-clad man laughs, mouth splitting open and revealing an uneven row of rotted corn kernel teeth and his breath like old egg salad. The glass brushes against Leda's finger and rolls away. She hears the sound of a belt buckle being undone. And then reality hiccups. The denim-clad man's head disappears in a sangria spray of red and white and pink, his body collapsing beside Leda. Through watery eyes she sees a tall figure with blonde hair, dressed in a tapered gray suit. There's something metallic in his hand. "Howdy." His voice is gravel on glass, the start of a smoker's rasp. Leda recognizes the man's gun as a .357 Magnum outfitted with a comically oversized silencer. Around his left eye is a constellation of freckles, dotted with the occasional mole. "Jack," she says. One of Trilby's men, probably a Champion by now. But back when Leda met him he was the fledgling prince of Trilby's crew, a nasty sweet talker. Rape and death at the hands of the denim wonder would've been bad enough, but this, she realizes, might be much worse. "Listen." She tries to stand. "Don't you fucking move." The Magnum's barrel swivels towards her. "What the hell is going on?" "Info deal gone sour." "Why were you getting intel from these little shits? Why were you getting intel at all, Leda?" "A girl's gotta make a living." Slowly, she slides her hand across the bathroom floor. "You had a job. You quit. Remember?" "Silly me, I forgot," Leda says, finding the glass. Jack clucks his tongue. "You wouldn't get within five feet of me before I blew your head off, Leda. Put it down." She rolls the glass away. "Well, before you decide to blow my head off for any other reason, hear me out. You owe me that much." "I don't owe you anything," Jack says. The unshaven man seizes the opportunity to rush the door, but his first step ends in pantstangled failure. He crumples to the ground. "Fine. Let's hear what you wanted to know so badly that you were willing to pay these clowns... how much?" 32


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"Eight hundred." Jack's laughter is like a shotgun. "Believe it or not, I'm trying to help a girl find her sister." "Does she have gold up her cootch or something? Eight hundred..." "Let's just say I'm trying to atone for past deeds." "As I recall, your problem was not having enough deeds to atone for." "I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on that, Jackie." Jack flicks his gun at Leda. "I hate it when people call me that." He lets his arm drop. "Alright, let's see if this piece of shit actually knows anything." Leda guards the door while Jack works. It's a slow process that starts with a toilet paper roll gag and the tearing off of fingernails. Next comes the finger breaking. After the second one, Leda shuts her eyes and looks away. "How did you know?" Leda asks as they snake through the alleyway behind the bar. "Truth is in the eyes," Jack says. "The ones who really don't know anything have a hopelessness to them, a belief that they're already dead. That fucker had a card to play and, well, I just made him play it is all." He waves a scrap of paper in her face that bares the sixth--and final--address the informant gave them. They exit out onto the street, a siren in the distance. "Thanks Eastwood, but I meant how did you know I was in there?" "Oh, easy. I saw you go in. Your disguise sucks." "Disguise?" The wail of the siren is suddenly upon them as a police car passes. Jack watches until it's out of sight. "Yeah, the whole saggy face, unwashed hair thing." "Anyone ever tell you what a massive asshole you are, Jack?" "All the time." "Hey," Leda says in a low voice. "You know what I've gotta ask next, right?" Jack steps in front of her, with a blank expression. "If you ask that question, I have to answer it. And you sure as shit know what my answer's gonna be." Leda rubs her neck. "So what, you're gonna come play white knight with me and then let me go, just like that?" "Just like that." 33


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"Bullshit." He exhales through his nose. "If you didn't trust me Leda, you woulda ran off in the bathroom or when that cop car drove by. But you let those opportunities go." "Maybe I'm just getting sloppy." "Hell, you've always been sloppy." By the time they arrive at the informant's address, night has crept into every empty window and down every unlit driveway. Jack removes a 9mm pistol from a concealed holster and hands it to Leda. "I know you were never very good with these, so be careful." "Actually, I was--and still am--rather good with these, Jack. I just didn't want to put someone in the ground with one is all." Jack snorts. "You think all your snake charming didn't put plenty of people in the ground? You lied and you conned people down to the bone Leda, left 'em hungry and desperate. Then you walked away before you saw the fall." Leda stays silent. "At least with one of these--" Jack puts his hand on the pistol, palm grazing Leda's "--you see the consequences of your actions." Jack stalks off. Leda follows, the two walking down a wide, quiet street lined with sleepy houses, more vacant than not. She's ditched the peacoat in favor of a vest and a long sleeve tee and Jack's changed into jeans and a pullover. From afar they look like a married couple coming home from their honeymoon. At the far corner is a squat house, the second floor windows boarded up with old planks. Faint light shines through. Jack crouches down behind a brown station wagon and pulls out a pair of binoculars. He observes for a few moments and then hands them to Leda. "Second window from the right." She looks at the magnified world, catching a waterfall of black hair and the bruised jaw line of a girl's face. "Hard to say." "Oh Christ Leda, this ain't the time for diversity training. How many people do you think have Chinese girls stashed in the second story of their home?" "Hard to say," she repeats, smirking. 34


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The two crouch-walk towards the house, peeking through the windows but finding no one. Jack leads her to the back door and uses a rock to knock off the cheap knob. They split up and search the ground floor. Leda notices the decor is new and cheap, some of the electronics not even plugged in. They rendezvous at the base of the stairs. "This feels off," Jack whispers. Leda nods. She starts up the steps and when she gets to the landing, she sees just one door with light seeping through its cracks. She inches towards it, the smell of fresh paint burning her nostrils. Her heartbeat drowns out all other sound, the 9mm slipping in her palm. Pressing her ear to the door, Leda listens, hearing only deep sea silence. The hinges whine as she pushes it open, the room stripped bare save for a dark green carpet and the girl facing the corner. She's on her knees, wearing a dirty sundress and no shoes. Her inky hair reaches down to just above her bound hands. She's shivering. Leda hurries over and says, "It's going to be okay." As she pulls the girl away, her stomach sinks. It's Yin. Her face is bruised and streaks of eyeliner run down her cheeks. An old sock shoved in her mouth keeps her from speaking. "Put down your gun and raise your hands," orders Jack. Leda does as told and turns around. Jack is joined by an older man and, despite the bigger belly and thinner hair, Leda recognizes him instantly--Trilby. "So much for trust, eh Jackie?" She looks him in his freckled, birthmarked eye and for a moment she swears she sees his brow twitch. "Over here," Trilby says, snapping his fingers. Leda turns to look at the heavyset man. "Good girl. I'd wish you'd been this attentive when you worked for me. We might have been able to avoid this nasty little encounter." "Oh, absolutely. How rotten of me to help a girl find her sister, huh?" Trilby sneers, his jowls hanging over the tight collar of his dress shirt. "This isn't your only client and you know it," he says. "I gave you plenty of time to get your ass out of town but you went ahead and started playing the game on your own. Looks like you lost." "Then why not just have your dog over there shoot me at Bar Marcel?" She points to Jack who gives a small frown. Trilby's belly rises and falls as he exhales. "Because, Leda, I liked you. I even thought of you 35


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as a daughter, in some ways." "Oggling my ass sure is a hell of a way to show it." "Well, tell you what--I'll make it up to you. How's a bullet for a bullet sound?" Leda raises an eyebrow. Trilby continues: "You put one in that little china doll's brain and Jack here spares you an extra hole in that thick head of yours. "Jeez, you just can't let it go can you? You had dozens who would pull the trigger for you but still you got your panties in a twist because I refused you." "You weren't allowed to refuse me. You made me look weak." "And killing this kid's gonna make it better?" Trilby rests a hand on his double chin. "Well, I don't know how much of a kid she is anymore. She did sell you out, after all. More to the point though, this isn't to make anything better, Leda. It's my largess granting you a shot a forgiveness. If you don't want it, I can have Jack shoot you first and then her. Or her then you. Or maybe both at once?" He shrugs. "Honestly, it doesn't make much difference to me. How about you?" Leda looks from Jack to Trilby and back again. "Fine." Trilby claps his hands. "Excellent. You can go ahead and use the piece at your feet. And no funny stuff." She picks up the 9mm and points it at the back of Yin's head. The girl cries through her gag, a dark pool spreading underneath her. Leda worked under Trilby for years. In that time she saw him laugh, kill, fart and fuck, but never once did he forgive anyone. Once a rabid dog, always a rabid dog, he liked to say. She hefts the 9mm in her hand. I should've known, she thinks. She closes her eyes. A shot roars throughout the room. With her neck as stiff as concrete, Yin turns to see Trilby's body plastered against the wall, bloody fireworks springing out of his broken skull. She looks at Jack, arm rigid and gun still pointing her way. And then she looks at Leda. The woman's eyes are still shut, the 9mm in the her hand aimed at Trilby's slouching corpse. "Told you I was good with these things," Leda says, opening her eyes. "Well damn," he says. "I wasn't sure you had it in you." 36


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"Yes you did," says Leda. "You sneaky power-hungry fuck." Before Jack can react, Leda swings her arm in his direction and takes aim for his left eye. Then half his face simply vanishes, just like that, every last trace of his freckled birthmark gone forever. Leda looks at Yin and plucks the sock out of her mouth. "Don't shoot me!" the girl begs, "I didn't know what they were going to do, I swear!" She's shaking so badly now she can barely stay upright. "Relax." Leda helps Yin up and inspects the girl's bruises. "Nothing too serious. You're lucky." "Are you going to kill me?" Leda spies out the window, spotting several dark shapes rushing towards the house. Trilby's men. Yin clings to the wall with trembling hands. "Listen to me. We need to get out of here before the men outside find us." Leda walks over to Jack's crumpled body and crouches down. She stays there for a moment with her back to Yin before picking up his Magnum. After a long look into the girl's eyes, Leda hands her the 9mm. "Don't shoot unless you have to. The kickback will knock you on your ass and the sound will give us away. Got it?" Hot tears roll down the girl's face. Leda says, "It's going to be okay, I promise." She turns towards the door, leaning against the frame. If only she'd had someone back then, before she got in deep with men like Jack and Trilby. Someone to teach her. To look out for her. But maybe that's what all this was for--to understand what it means to be there for someone else. Leda listens to the muffled noises below. Behind her, Yin's body stops shaking as she aims the 9mm at Leda's head. She pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. "You still got a lot to learn kiddo. And not much time to learn it."

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Temptation By Jenna Lee Mason

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Cause and Effect Tom Moran

My friend Tom Sewell calls it his Diane Arbus moment. Arbus, of course, is famed for her chillingly rendered photographs of outsiders, freaks, and other less than glamorous members of our human race. When Sewell describes what happened more than four decades ago, as he has done for me on several occasions, when he was making his rounds and knocking on doors in a Venice Beach neighborhood, it is clear that what occurred was indeed that, an awkward, bizarre, even freakish moment. Perfect for an Arbus photograph. Curiously enough, it all started with Michael Blodgett. Blodgett, a blonde, blue-eyed actor who looked a bit like an ultra-pretty Rainn Wilson, had a very successful film career in the early 1970’s, playing gigolos, cowboys, playboys, and vampires. No one with the fortitude to sit through Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls will forget the scene where Blodgett’s head is lopped off by a she-male wielding a razor-sharp broad sword. But earlier in his career, landing television and film roles was hit and miss, mostly miss, and, like all struggling actors, Blodgett found a number of ways to pick up extra money. One of his profitable sidelines was painting seasonal decorations on the windows of Hollywood storefronts during the Christmas season. But in 1966, just after Thanksgiving, Blodgett’s hemorrhoids were causing him considerable pain. He had to schedule surgery and asked his old pal Tom Sewell to fill in for him and take over his window painting clients. Sewell and Blodgett had grown up together in Minneapolis and reconnected after both moved to the West Coast. Painting the decorations would be a natural for Sewell who was an artist and photographer. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, his first job, which Blodgett had also set up for him, had been body-painting two topless dancers for a memorable scene in Roger Corman’s LSD movie, The Trip. The window painting would mean extra money, enough to temporarily placate Sewell’s landlord with a little extra to spread some holiday cheer. Sewell picked up Blodgett’s poster paints and, with his girlfriend Katharine, drove into Hollywood. The pair were at a restaurant called Jay’s Elegant Chicken adorning the plate glass windows with candy canes and snowflakes when a man came up and introduced himself. He was a paper salesman named Jack, and he offered to provide the two artists with a supply of left over and odd lot specialty papers they might use for drawings or paintings. Sewell was convinced that it was Katharine’s attractive looks and curvy figure, not their artistic skill that had sparked Jack’s interest. Nevertheless, it was not long before he and Jack became great friends. With the Christmas decorations complete, Sewell went back to his obsession, turning 39


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everything he found and touched into some sort of art. He had given each of the rooms in his house at Venice Beach a different look, covering the walls and ceilings with egg cartons and sprayed on foam, mirrors or huge pieces of polished stainless steel rescued from the nearby rock emporium, the Cheetah Club. Decorations included a gruesome collection of mangled and deformed dolls as well as found objects of every sort. The bizarre result was so striking that the Los Angeles Times magazine section, Home, featured the house in a double-page spread. Sewell stayed busy creating multi-media sculptures and photographing Los Angeles’ weirdest buildings and advertising neon, as well as every beautiful woman he could get to pose for his cameras. It was all great fun, of course, but quite costly, even though Sewell got most of his raw materials by scouring alleyways and dumpsters for discards. Katharine had left him to take a job in Japan making dives from high platforms into absurdly small containers of water, and a new girlfriend, Christine, had moved in. Collectors were not queuing up to buy Sewell’s art pieces and he was finding it difficult to keep a growing list of creditors at bay. He pawned his cameras to get some money and Christine, who worked as a beautician, was able to help a bit with the rent. But money was running out and Sewell knew he had to do something fast. Jack, the paper salesman, had quit his job during a difficult divorce, and had begun selling Fuller Brush products door-to-door. His territory was Benedict Canyon, an upscale neighborhood between Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks, where he soon discovered that he could work a few hours in the afternoons and do quite nicely. Jack suggested that Sewell consider life as a door-to-door salesman. Today, we don’t get many strangers rapping on our doors. A few religious zealots. Teens wielding political and environmental petitions. Girl Scouts at cookie time. Most of us are not very receptive with these intrusions. “Who is it?” we ask warily over an intercom, one eye pressed to a peephole. “What do you want?” Few of these uninvited visitors will get the door opened. Fewer still will ever get inside the house. In was different in the years following World War II and the adventures and mishaps of doorto-door salesmen provided a rich lode of material for gag writers of the era. Hollywood even made a pair of movies that starred Lucille Ball and Red Skeleton as Fuller Brush peddlers. Although by the late 1960’s the popularity of door-to-door sales had waned considerably, there were still thousands of independent Fuller Brush dealers scattered throughout the country doing their best to make a living by knocking on strangers’ doors. Sewell decided to join their ranks. After a brief training session, Sewell was assigned his own territory in Venice, the Oakwood 40


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neighborhood just west of Lincoln Boulevard. Today it is a pricey area where a number of artists have homes and studios. In 1968 it was a much different place. There was a large African-American community, a growing number of Latino families, as well as outlaw bikers, carnies, hippies, drug dealers and odd sorts of every description. This was just fine with Sewell, who had decided to approach his new role with the panache of a street performer. Sewell attracted attention immediately; driving into the neighborhood behind the wheel of a car he had dubbed the Picklemobile. The 1949 Studebaker’s exterior had been coated with thick, bumpy, uneven layers of sprayed on polyurethane foam and then given a $29.95 Earl Scheib sea green paint job, transforming Raymond Loewy’s classic bullet nose design into something that at least faintly resembled a long pickle on wheels. Sewell would park the Picklemobile on the block he had selected to canvas, and then, sample case in hand, hop out onto the sidewalk. One morning he might be wearing a sharply cut suit with a grey fedora, looking as if he had just stepped out of a 1930’s gangster film. The next day he could arrive in a long flowing winter coat with a military cut that had been used in the production of Dr. Zhivago, one of a closet full of costumes he had bought when MGM held a sale to thin out the inventory of its wardrobe department. Each foray into his territory saw him in a different outfit. He had a white suit alleged to have been worn by Gene Kelly; a French postman’s costume with colorful buttons, big loops, and decorative stitching; and a tap dancer’s outfit with wide stripes sewn along the pant legs. He even tried out a special shoe that made it appear that he had a club foot. The strange and ugly car, the wild attire, it didn’t take long for Sewell to become well known throughout the Venice neighborhood, embraced as its colorful and very clearly oddball Fuller Brush salesman. It’s not that everyone welcomed him. Sewell readily admits that doors were slammed in his face eight times out of ten. But at a few of the houses he was able to chat up the occupants, maybe get a chance to demonstrate his insect spray on a spider or ant trail near the doorway, and then be invited inside to show off more wares from his sample case. Every visit was an adventure. Sewell was fascinated by the different smells he found within the homes, the framed photographs on their walls, the music coming from the radios or phonographs, the knick knacks on display. In one house he was introduced to a pet anteater. An Afro-American family invited Sewell to sit down to eat with them. And, here and there, he made sales. A bottle of perfume. Some cleaning brushes with a lifetime guarantee. Roach poisons. Mops and hairbrushes. A deodorizer. The money, as his friend Jack had promised, wasn’t bad at all. One afternoon Sewell was making his rounds, this time wearing a white linen double breasted 41


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suit that, the story went, had been worn by Danny Kaye in some movie from the ‘50s. He walked up to a small, neatly kept cottage and rapped on the door. A few minutes passed, there was noise on the other side, and the door opened a crack. Sewell started into his spiel, asking if he might show off some of his wares. “We’re nudists,” a gruff voice came from inside. “Do you mind?” “No,” Sewell answered. “It won’t bother me.” A man pushed open the door and Sewell stepped into a well-lit living room where he was greeted by a couple in their late thirties, both wearing nothing other than slippers. The woman was sitting on a low couch. Sewell found her reasonably attractive with large, dark-nippled breasts and a triangular patch of thick, black hair below her belly button. The man had hairy shoulders and a massive belly that shadowed and nearly hid his genitalia. “What’s going on?” the man asked as he plopped down next to his wife, leaving Sewell standing in the center of the room with his sample case. “I am selling Fuller Brush products in your neighborhood and I have all sorts of little wares here that I’d like to show you.” “Great,” the woman replied. “Let’s see what you’re hiding in there.” Sewell liked her enthusiasm and smiled as he popped open his case, pulled out a set of matched hair brushes and started his pitch. Soon the couple was following him around the house as he swabbed their toilet and basin with special brushes, dusted off the curtains in a bedroom, deodorized a closet, and polished away the smudges on a mirror. Sewell and the nudists hit it off. They asked him who he was and how he came to be selling his brushes. He wanted to know what it was like spending so much time in their nakedness. When he left, the couple had ordered an assortment of brushes, salves, and beauty products. It was the biggest sale of Sewell’s Fuller Brush career, the Diane Arbus moment he has never forgotten. Sewell had been at his route for six months when a Santa Monica lawyer bought one of his art pieces, paying $5,000 for a huge multi-screen sculpture called the Expanded Television. With the money from that sale in his pockets, Sewell no longer needed to knock on doors with his sample case. His career as a Fuller Brush salesman was over. Michael Blodgett went on to become a successful novelist – The Crimson Pirate was a best seller - and screenwriter, with credits that included Turner and Hooch, Run, and Rent-a-Cop. He died from a heart attack in 2007. Sewell now lives in Hawaii where he swims every day, pals around with the poet W.S. Merwin, and continues to photograph and make and exhibit films, large sculptures, and multi-media art pieces. I frequently talk to Sewell on the phone, listening as he recounts stories of colorful escapades 42


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from his past, including the tale of his afternoon visit with the nudists. It was, I tell him, definitely a Diane Arbus moment, a truly memorable and odd encounter. But the weirdest part of his story is not the nudists, I explain, but instead lies with Michael Blodgett’s hemorrhoids. If they hadn’t flared up, Sewell would never have been painting windows in Hollywood. Nor would he have met the paper salesman, or gotten the job selling Fuller Brush products. The actor’s discomfort, I argue, led directly to Sewell’s weird Diane Arbus moment in the nudists’ cottage. Without those hemorrhoids, I contend, everything would have been different. Cause and effect. Sewell, I am afraid, remains skeptical.

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Tom Sewell, wearing one of the outfits he used during his days as a Fuller Brush salesman, 1968. Photo courtesy of the Sewell Archive, Haiku, HI.

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Regards

G.D. McFetridge Caitlin left Saint Peter’s private high school in San Diego a little before noon. When she met Gordon at Montgomery Airfield, he suggested they drive across the border and have lunch at a seaside bar and restaurant called La Fonda. She wasn’t sure about going to Mexico. He said it was only sixty kilometers on the toll road and he’d eaten there many times. “They have great food and a view of the ocean, plus it’s a safe drive. No drug-gangs or kidnappers,” he added. They arrived two hours later. Gordon ordered a margarita and the lunch special. Caitlin wanted a Caesar salad and large ice tea. Gordon was tempted to try a little Spanish with the waiter but couldn’t recall how to conjugate the conditional perfect tense of a verb he needed to use. After ten minutes of trivial chitchat, he looked over his drink at Caitlin and said, “I still can’t believe you divorced Frank. After twenty-two years you couldn’t work something out?” “Don’t start, Gordon … you and mother. You two only knew one side of Frank’s character— the jovial people-person side—good old Frankie boy. There’s more to him, believe me.” Gordon finished his margarita and gestured to the waiter for another. He smiled at Caitlin and allowed his gaze to drift out over the ocean. The sky and sea created a striking contrast, the heavens sapphire tempered and sun rich, the ocean etched by breaking waves. “So how’s the life of a high-school teacher?” Gordon asked. “I enjoy my work … at least most of the time.” “How are the kids?” “Grace just got a scholarship to an art academy in New Hampshire—she starts in the fall. Matt’s still scraping by at Santa Cruz. God willing he’ll graduate at the end of next year.” Her tone was more declarative than affectionate. “Any chance he can spend a week or so with me in July?” “Gordon, I really wouldn’t count on that …” “I’ve been thinking about a kayak trip down the Salmon River. I was hoping to recruit Matt. It’d be a great experience. And next summer, when Mike gets out, the three of us can do it again. Or maybe try the Snake River.” “That’s a nice idea. But I think Matt’s taking summer classes so he can graduate on time.” Caitlin’s tone had finality indicating the subject was no longer open. Gordon forked a grilled shrimp from his plate. “I sold my Austin Healy.” “The one you restored?” 45


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“I needed money to pay off Mike’s crooked lawyer.” “Shhh … you’re talking too loud.” Gordon forked another shrimp. “The sonofabitch conned us into fighting the case on Fourth Amendment grounds,” he said in a loud whisper. “Which sounded good on paper but it ran up thirty grand in legal fees, didn’t convince the jury and pissed off the judge. So then she slapped a harsher sentence on Mike.” Caitlin rolled her eyes. “Your son broke the law. Or have you compartmentalized that fact into one of your philosophical platitudes?” “Do you even know why marijuana is illegal? It’s public record, look it up.” “I’m not going to listen to this, Gordon, it’s not relevant.” “So … what would you like to hear, Caitlin, something warm and fuzzy about noble justice and the American way?” “I don’t want to hear your justifications. Your son broke the law.” Her eyes averted from Gordon’s face and floated around the restaurant, as if taking in the ambiance. Gordon drained his margarita and smiled at Caitlin. He suspected she was counting drinks. He waved at the waiter and ordered a beer and a shot of tequila. Caitlin glanced at her wristwatch and reached for her purse. “I hope you’re not planning on getting drunk.” “That would require an entire bottle.” “You need to lose weight.” “You need to stop doing your impersonations of my soon-to-be ex-wife.” “As if that changes anything.” “For me it would change a lot.” “That’s fine, Gordon.” He ran his fingers back through his thinning hair and grinned. “Come on, let’s start over. I’ll keep my mouth shut, no conspiracies, no more arguing.” She didn’t look at him and pawed through her purse for cigarettes. Gordon swallowed the tequila in one gulp and washed it down with beer. “You’ve hardly touched your salad,” he said. She fingered a cigarette out of the pack and lit it, exhaling a jet of blue-gray smoke. Gordon watched her. “I’ll give up booze if you quit smoking,” he offered. Caitlin raised her eyebrows and blew a stream of smoke across the table. Gordon waved it away and drank more beer. 46


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“I need to use the bathroom,” she said and stood. He pointed to the far end of the restaurant. The waiter came to the table and asked Gordon if he needed anything. Gordon glanced over his shoulder. “Another shot before she gets back.” The waiter hurried to the bar and brought a fresh shot of tequila with a slice of lime. Gordon downed it and asked for the bill. He handed the waiter two twenties and a five and told him to keep the change. Caitlin walked up behind the waiter. “I really need to get home, Gordon. I didn’t plan on a long day.” He stood and pulled his car keys from his pants pocket. Caitlin extended her hand. “Maybe I’d better drive, Gordy. You’ve had four drinks.” “Four drinks is nothing—” “It’s enough to put your alcohol blood level over the legal limit.” “We’re in Mexico.” “It doesn’t matter.” “Yes, it does matter. I’ve never had a DUI and I don’t plan on getting one in Mexico.” “What exactly do you plan on?” He shook his head and handed her the keys. Driving north, the afternoon sun caught the peaks of the high bluffs east of the highway, casting warm amber light above shadowy crags and steep gulches. Farther north, little shanties and makeshift houses followed the coastline. Where the land was yielding and rich, row upon row of green corn pushed skyward. Gordon noticed a group of boys playing soccer in a dusty field. They seemed energetic and happy. Forty minutes later, Caitlin stopped behind a long line of cars snaking back from the border crossing. She lit a cigarette and rolled a ringlet of hair around her index finger, twisting it tighter and tighter. Gordon talked about the Salmon River and the fun of tackling an outdoor adventure. He asked her to reconsider the kayak trip. “Gordon, it’s not Matt’s obligation to keep his lonely old uncle company on some crazy escapade.” “It’s not crazy for chrissake.” “I’m sorry about Michael being in prison but you have only yourself to blame. Your behavior during his formative years didn’t send a good message to that boy.” She tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel, punctuating her words. “You’re exaggerating.” “You know what? You’re still the same old Gordon. The family knows about your drinking. 47


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Liz told mother and father about the scene you made at Uncle John’s birthday party. “Hey, the old bastard was drunker than I was and then he started lecturing me about Mike. I didn’t want to hear it. So I shoved his fat ass in the swimming pool. Everybody thought it was funny. He deserved it.” “For God sake, Gordy, you’re forty-six and still carry on like you’re twenty-four. Stop trying to recapture your lost youth.” “My lost youth … all youth is lost. The question is why. And where exactly does it go?” “No, the question is who are you, Gordon? Where’s your master plan for the future?” “I had plans all my fucking life.” “Precisely my point.” For a younger sibling, Gordon thought Caitlin played the role of the scolding sister a little too well. He frowned at her and said, “I wonder if you’ve forgotten who taught your son how to ride a bicycle? Who showed him how to climb trees, to fish, catch lizards and snakes? I took the boys camping and hiking. I taught them how to surf and skin dive and ride motorcycles. And I'm the one who went to little league practices every summer, to every game. I made time for Mike and Matty. They were just like brothers until you guys moved to the coast.” She glanced at her watch, exhaled smoke, and flicked the cigarette butt out the window. Another driver cut in, forcing his way into her lane. “Asshole!” she shouted. “Take it easy,” Gordon said. “You should have warned me about this god-awful border crossing—I never would have agreed to this.” Caitlin rolled her head back and forth, massaging the back of her neck. Gordon brought up the kayak trip again. “I already told you my feelings about that.” She continued massaging her neck. “Maybe you could think it over just a little longer.” “Not to change the subject, but my friend Elaine’s brother got caught with marijuana down in Louisiana during last year’s Mardi Gras. The judge gave him five years in state prison. Michael got off easy.” “Marijuana laws are the handiwork of corrupt politicians and corporate moguls.” “I think you’re missing the point, Gordon. It’s one of your many defense mechanisms. You focus on specific details and manage to ignore the big picture.” Gordon felt his face flush. Caitlin lit another cigarette. 48


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“Forget the goddamn marijuana. As usual, you’ve redirected the conversation to fit your own needs. You don’t want to give me any credit, do you? You won’t admit that I did positive things for Matt, treated him like my own son.” “What exactly do you expect, Gordy? Some sort of parity on all fronts, a pat on the back, a little tea and sympathy? You’ve changed since Jane left you and I’m not sure if it’s for the better.” “I wised up about a few things—I reevaluated my life.” “Can we talk about something else?” “I’m serious. I don’t believe in the big lie anymore.” “Okay, I’ll bite. What big lie?” “The so-called American dream.” “You have such a wonderfully pure mind.” “Have you seen these shows on TV where people audition to be super models or singers or to get a date with some celebrity? Then there’s this other show where the prize is getting their bodies overhauled, you know, get their tits fixed and noses remade and whatever else.” “What’s your point?” “It’s horrifying. The American dream has de-evolved into impersonal sex, tattoos, grubbing money, cheating anyone trusting enough to get cheated, and chasing after phony images created by Madison Avenue and Hollywood.” “Do even hear yourself, Gordy? You seem defeated. You alienated your wife, bought a ranch you don’t ranch in bum-fuck Idaho, you drink too much and then show up here because you’re lonely and you want to kidnap Matt to help fill the void.” “Get it all off your chest, sweetie.” “You remind me of father. He retreated from life just like you’re doing now. He never came to terms with himself—he lived in a glass bubble. I don’t think that man ever looked in a mirror and saw himself for what he really was. And he treated mom like shit.” Caitlin’s blunt appraisal hit him like a sledgehammer. But Gordon had his own opinions about his father and his mother. “Blame it all on the old man. Mother was a goddamned saint. Right?” “She held up her end better than he ever did.” “This isn’t about them anyway. You never complained about my influence on Matty when Frank was working seventy hours a week and was never home,” Gordon said. “I could have made twice the money I made if I’d worked as much as Frank. But I didn’t think it was worth it. Mike and 49


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Jane would have paid the price.” “Are you in denial? They paid anyway. You didn’t work as much as Frank because you were too busy running around with your secretary, using cocaine and having martini lunches with your socalled clients. Jane put up with more crap than I would have ever endured. Good God was she codependent.” Gordon thought Caitlin was both clever and mean in the way she drew on the past for her own purposes. Despite rumors, he’d never cheated on Jane, not once in over twenty years, but it wasn’t a point he’d dignify by repudiation. “Do me a giant favor, Caitlin, don’t apply horseshit jargon from the latest Doctor Phil and Doctor Laura CDs you’ve been listening to. If you’re going to assassinate my character, at least be original.” “Maybe you need to come back to the church, Gordon.” “Are you serious? The good old Yahweh fearing hypocrites we grew up with? There’s no difference between those Jesus-thumping lunatics and the Taliban.” She kept her eyes on the road ahead, her fingers tightening around the steering wheel. Gordon mumbled something to himself and let out a throaty groan. “That came out a little—” “Can we not talk for a while?” “Wasn’t the lack of positive communication the problem with our parents?” “What about any of this is positive? Do me a giant favor and just shut up for once.” Forty-five silent minutes later they arrived at Montgomery Airfield. Caitlin circled until she remembered where she’d parked her car. Gordon’s ears were ringing. The alcohol had long since worn out of him and he wanted a drink—make that many drinks. She handed over the keys without looking at him. “I’ll fly down and pick up Matty. It won’t cost either of you a penny,” he offered. “It’s a river trip, a fun expedition through beautiful wilderness.” “All right, Gordon. For God’s sake, I’ll call in a couple weeks and let you know what we’ve decided. But don’t get your hopes up.” “I need something to hope for,” he said and offered an uncertain grin. “You need to change your life and the way you do things.” “What did Freud call it? Projection? Or is this more a matter of displacement, like kicking the dog?” 50


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“Fuck off, Gordy.” He knew the fragile bridge between them was gone, fire bombed and vaporized. He tried to hug her goodbye, but she was rigid like a governess with a board strapped to her back. She left without giving any indication that she wanted to see Gordon again. Her shiny SUV stopped at the airfield’s gated entrance and then disappeared. Gordon opened the door of his rented sedan and slid behind the wheel. When he flew to San Diego, he had originally planned to visit other relatives. The time he’d spent with Caitlin changed that. He thought about calling Jane, but there was probably another man by now and the situation would be uncomfortable. Having exhausted his options, Gordon drove to a liquor store and went back to his motel room to drink and watch television. Tomorrow he would file a flight plan and head home to his ranch in the Idaho panhandle. The following day just before sunset, having suffered delays, Gordon took off in his Piper Cherokee. He’d changed his plans and would fly to Las Vegas and spend a couple days gambling. At twilight he was over the clog of traffic on I-15. A half-empty vodka bottle lay sideways on the passenger seat. The northbound lanes made a trail of red taillights, the southbound lanes blazed white. From 3,500 feet it looked pleasing, sparkling stripes flowing through the darkness. Mike’s drug bust was really where it all started. Or so Gordon was thinking to himself. His parents had been bitterly disillusioned and the old man made it clear that Gordon was not only a failed parent, but also a failure of a man. His mother lamented in grand style how the family had suffered terrible humiliation. Jane had also blamed Gordon. He shrugged it off and told her that it was only marijuana. Not like the boy had committed a series crime. She left Gordon a couple months later. North of Escondido, Gordon climbed to 5,000 feet and changed the plane’s heading to northnortheast. The moon, a thin crescent of pale white, rose into the sky above the southeastern edge of Palomar Mountain. The long mile-high series of peaks and saddles made a shadowy silhouette, a line between the mountain’s darkness and the starry sky. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Mike’s legal juggernaut and prison sentence had cut a three-year hole out of Gordon’s life. It had left him discouraged and self-doubting. Jane would likely have the divorce finalized in a few months, and Caitlin would remain distant and unforgiving—as would the rest of the family. It almost seemed as if twenty years had gone down the drain. But for what? Making a new life was never easy. Gordon’s mind wandered and he thought about the good 51


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old days, the days of his youth. All those light years ago when he was a student at Cal Berkeley. He remembered an open lecture given by a soft-spoken psychologist named Carl Rogers, a prominent figure in the humanist movement. He’d opened the lecture by saying: The therapeutic process begins and is founded in the psychologist’s unconditional and ongoing positive regard for the client. Those words had stayed with Gordon. What an unfamiliar concept, rare and ineffable. “Unconditional positive regard …” he muttered aloud. “When’s the last time I heard anything like that?” He shook his head and stared ahead into the night sky. He reached for the vodka bottle and unscrewed the cap and took a drink. No highway patrol to roll up on him in midair, no scolding sister to count how many nips he took. Suddenly the airplane’s engine sputtered. His body tensed and his eyes scanned the gauges. He’d forgotten to fuel up before leaving. The primary tank was showing nearly empty. He reached for the switch to open the valve to the reserve tank. The engine sputtered again, three, four times. Then cut out. The plane buffeted and started to nose down. The hissing sound of air rushed past. He flipped the switch and turned the ignition. The starter motor groaned and the engine turned over. Moments seemed like minutes. “Start goddamnit!” Then it fired, sputtered a couple times and caught. He throttled up to full power but it took another long moment for the engine to reach its power band. The plane had lost airspeed and nosed downwards. He pulled back on the stick, hoping to see the invisible line separating the mountain’s dark silhouette from the starlit sky, the demarcation above which he must now somehow fly.

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Sunset and Mountains By Stina Stjernkvist

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Tell Us a Joke John Talaoc

I waited patiently behind the counter of the Irvine Improv box office. All I needed was a pen, but the two girls were frantically working as droves of college students swarmed the ticket window with their free tickets. It was always funny to see their looks of glee as they handed them in, as if they’ve lucked out or landed a sweet deal. Little did they know it was my job to hand them out like candy to any passerby I could. It was summer time, which meant it was busy time; busy handing out tickets and making posters to promote for each weeks show. I had been interning for the Improv for a few months, so I had a good idea of what to expect; blonde girls with long legs and high heels, guys in dress shirts, ties and a gallon of pomade slicked through their hair. It seemed like the Irvine Improv was the place to be seen, which made no sense considering they would all be sitting in the dark. It was fine though; it gave the comics plenty of ammo for their stage time. Being a comedian wasn’t something I planned on doing. I admired comedians and what they did. Mitch Hedberg’s “fire exit” joke still to this day cracks a smile on my face, even if I’ve heard it a million times. And I’ve always liked making people laugh, but the idea of standing on stage for ten minutes with a microphone in my hand never crossed my mind. Not until I was one of those giddy college kid with a free ticket. That’s when I felt it firsthand. I felt the electricity and the excitement of having over three hundred people explode into laughter, including myself. I felt in awe of a man who had the courage of joking about whether or not tampon commercials were really necessary. It was inspiring, in the strangest way imaginable. So the next week, I found an open mic, and faced an unbearable seven minutes of mumbling and stuttering. And to my delight, I heard scattered bits of laughter, most likely out of pity. But that was good enough for me. It was all the encouragement I needed to get more shows, and I eventually landed an internship at the Irvine Improv at one of the busiest shows of the week. It was a scary endeavor; I had just graduated college and didn’t have a real job. I was still living at home with disgruntled parents. They were urging me to move out, but as the days went on it seemed more like they were going to kick me out. I hadn’t even told them I was doing stand up for fear that they would think I was just wasting my time. But landing this internship made it worth it. I continued to idly tap my fingers as my patience grew thinner. I needed to get emails from the patrons waiting in line so we could update them about upcoming shows. And all I needed was a pen. Finally, I reached over the counter and plucked a blue pen from a mug. “Excuse me, can I help you?” I looked up to see the girl at the window with a cocked 54


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eyebrow. She leaned back in her chair with her legs crossed. “Oh. I just need a pen.” She rolled her eyes and continued collecting tickets. It seemed as though the workers here refused to acknowledge that I was an intern, but rather I was just an inconvenience for everyone. I stepped outside of the Improv and took a quick glance down the line. There was a group of girls at the front, arms crossed, whispering amongst each other. Behind them were three, heavy eyed stoners, standing silently with flat faces. There was a group of good looking people behind them smoking cigarettes, all in their mid-twenties and donning smooth skin and strong cheekbones. Then I cleared my throat and shouted, “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Irvine Improv. I’m handing out an email list, and if you sign up we’ll update you on upcoming shows, and even better, you’ll get free tickets for the rest of the year!” The crowd slowly turned away from me and continued their conversations, like I was some beggar rattling a tin cup for change. “Anyone?” I said, but it was useless. I continued down the line, repeating my speech, adding more gusto to my voice. A few people would raise their hands and scribble down barely legible, poorly imagined email addresses. I was halfway through the line and waited as a couple wrote their email down, and that’s when Robbie walked up to me. He was wearing his typical, just rolled out of bed attire; faded jeans, dirty jean jacket and scuffed sneakers. He was trying to grow out a beard at the time and it was in the scruffy phase that looks like sandpaper. “What’s up,” he said. He extended his hand for a high five. “You’re looking more homeless every week,” I said. “It’s what I’m going for.” I would like Robbie if he wasn’t so completely useless. Our job was easy: get emails, hand out tickets and make posters to advertise the show. Instead, he liked to sit in the corner and sip on his whiskey, chumming it up with the other comics. It enraged me to know that our boss gave him shows for doing absolutely nothing, which was a complete waste of time because he wasn’t funny. Watching Robbie flounder on stage was more painful than satisfying; I’ve never seen anyone die before, but watching Robbie perform is the closest I’ll get. But other than that, I would like him. “You want to help me get emails?” I asked. Robbie hesitated. “Sure, but I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” He walked off and I knew he wasn’t coming back. I reached the end of the line and gave my little speech. A few people wanted to get on the email list, so I handed them the clipboard. As I waited, I heard a girl from the back of the line. 55


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“Hey.” She was short, standing only to my chest, and she was wearing a purple cardigan that draped over her like a bathrobe. “Are you a comic?” “Yeah actually.” I was surprised. It was the first time someone had acknowledged me as a comedian. “I’ve seen you perform here.” “Oh. Cool. I hope you enjoyed it.” I felt my chest tighten. I spoke slowly to avoid tripping over my words. I forced myself to resist the urge to bite my lip, a nervous habit I’ve had for years. “How long have you been doing stand up?” “For a few mon—“I was cut off as the group who was signing the email list gave me the clipboard back. “Oh, thanks. Uh, a few months.” “Really? You were really good.” I felt my eyebrows shoot up in amazement. Someone not only remembering that I was a comic, but that I was good, seemed impossible to me at the time. “Thank you, I really appreciate it.” I looked down to my clipboard. “Do you want to get on the email list?” “I’m already on it actually. That’s how I got tickets for this show.” “Oh. Cool. Well, enjoy the show.” I quickly turned around and walked back to the entrance in quick, choppy steps. I was reeling over my inability to talk to the opposite sex; should I have kept talking? What would I have said? None of that mattered though. She remembered me, and thought I was good. And good to me meant that I was great. As I reached the entrance they started letting people in, marking people who were under 21 with x’s on their hands. I waited for a break in the line to walk in and showed my clipboard to the bouncers. Nothing says official like a clipboard. I walked past the bouncers and awkwardly stumbled my way through the crowd that was quickly filling the lobby. It was dim inside, and Jeff, the sound guy, was playing some electro music for the college crowd. They filed in single line, excited to get their drinks and food before the show. I made my way to the back corner where the comics hung out, the V.I.P. section as I liked to call it. It was just a corner booth for the comics to sit and eat. Raymond, another intern, was on his phone, one hand resting on a cardboard box filled with what I assumed to be fliers. “What’s up. When did you get here?” I said. He gave me a nod as he wrapped up his phone call. “Hey. We have a lot of shit to do tonight. I need to find Mark, he owes me like a hundred bucks.” 56


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“Where is he?” I asked. “Late. As usual.” “It cost you a hundred bucks to print this stuff?” “No, but this is the third time I’ve had to do it, and he hasn’t paid me back yet.” Mark, our boss, was a great guy. He was probably one of the hardest working guys I knew; ran three different shows, performed every day of the week and constantly promoted. But every now and then, some things would slip. He was a massive stoner, and there was only so much a stoner could manage. Sometimes he’d forget to give us stage time, others he’d forget to put a comic on a line up and in this instance he didn’t print out the fliers. We idly chatted as we waited for Mark. A few comics showed up and we greeted them and let them know about Mark’s absence. More often than not, most of the comics would just find a corner and browse through their material, whether it was in a Moleskine notebook, a spiral, or on one occasion, on a receipt from a Chinese restaurant. I hadn’t seen or heard any of their material before, so I was excited to see them perform. Of course, Robbie showed up out of nowhere, introduced himself and complained that our server wasn’t here. The place was almost full, and every table had a beer or a martini or a cocktail. Tonight was going to be a good show. A few minutes later, Mark came in through the back door. He looked exhausted and walked slowly with his hands stuffed into his pockets. His eyes drooped, and I didn’t know whether he was tired or high, but most likely both. He came up to us, shook our hands and scanned the audience. “Good crowd tonight. How’s it going?” he said in a flat tone. I could tell right away he wasn’t in a good mood. His squinted eyes were blank and looked past us, his mouth sagged into a small frown and his stance was stiff. We exchanged a few words, and he started to walk away. “Wait, hey Mark.” Raymond said. “Do you think I can get that money you owe me?” “Remind me before the end of the show and I’ll write you a check.” “Okay,” Raymond said in a defeated tone. He gave a slight chuckle. “I’m never getting that money.” “Get used to it. You’re a comic.” “Mark looks like shit,” Raymond said in a low voice. I nodded in agreement. “Yeah. I guess he’s just stressed out.” Suddenly, the lights shut off, and the introductory music started to play. “Ladies and gentleman,” Jeff said over the sound system. “Welcome to the world famous Improv.” I saw the first comic get up and prepare to step up on stage. He was a tall, overweight man, and he was wearing a 57


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black hoodie, a beanie and baggy jeans that were tattered around his feet. His expression was calm and his eyes remained focus on the stage. His chin was up and he swayed back and forth, slightly leaning on either leg. But I could see his feet shuffle back and forth, and his hands were clenched tightly. I had heard somewhere that Johnny Carson was nervous before every show he ever aired. Nothing helps someone perform more than having a near heart attack. Finally, his name was called, and he charged forward on to the stage to raucous applause. He snatched the microphone from the stand, and shouted “What is up Irvine!” He went around the stage giving high fives to the people in the front. “How are we doing tonight?” The crowd cheered. “No, no, no. You can do better than that. I said how are we doing tonight!” The audience cheered even louder. “That’s what I like to hear. It’s good to be in Irvine, where there’s nothing but BMW’s and Persian people as far as the eye can see.” The audience burst into laughter. I listened to his set for a while but realized how much work we had to do. Raymond and I started stapling tickets onto the fliers. “Wait,” I said. “Where’s Robbie?” “He’s hitting on some comics,” Raymond said. I looked to see Robbie leaning over a comic who was sitting in the booth, attempting to have a conversation with someone who clearly had nothing to say to him. I walked over and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, mind helping us with the fliers?” A fake smile split his face. “Yeah man, I’ll help, just give me a second.” He continued talking with the comic. I walked back to Raymond and continued stapling. “I kind of wish he dies in a car fire.” “Really? Only a car fire?” The third comic of the night stepped on the stage and the audience was in high spirits. We were halfway through the fliers and I ordered my whisky ginger. Raymond and I continued to talk trash on Robbie as we stapled, silently laughing at his expense. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Mark. “Do you want to smoke?” he asked plainly. “Sure.” I didn’t smoke weed that often, but if it meant one on one time with Mark, then maybe I could get a show out of it. Plus, I figured it would only make the night that much better. We walked out through the back and stood by the dumpsters as Mark pulled out a joint from his pocket. “So how’s life?” I asked. Mark lit the joint and inhaled deeply. “Shitty.” He passed me the joint. 58


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“Why is that?” I took a small hit and resisted the urge to cough. He shook his head and took the joint from me. “I tried to submit a show idea to Comedy Central and they didn’t take it.” “Aw man, I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Maybe next time.” It was quiet for too long and I hated awkward silences. “So, how’s that girl you’re seeing?” “Who? Esther?” “Yeah.” “She’s fucking crazy.” All I could do was laugh. I cringed inwardly at bringing up a topic that made Mark even angrier. He handed me back the joint and I took another hit. “I can’t blame her though. She’s 22.” “What does that mean?” “She does stupid shit that 22 year old girls do. She’s just dumb.” I didn’t know what he meant by that, but Mark was obviously bitter, so I didn’t want to press the issue. I started to feel my head lift from my neck. I was in that strange transition from sober to intoxicated and I found it difficult to speak. “She’s got a hot body though.” “So I guess it’s worth it.” “Maybe. Sometimes she can come off as conniving.” “Sounds like a great quality to have in a girl.” Mark gave a slight chuckle and took another hit. We passed it back and forth a few times in silence. “I’m done with this. Are you?” “Yeah.” I suddenly went from up in the clouds to having a massive weight slumped onto my head, and I could feel myself slightly bobbing side to side. Whatever Mark and I smoked was potent. We started walking back into the Improv and I kept my eyes to the ground, trying to avoid eye contact with people. When I came back to the table, I saw two of the comics talking to Robbie. I just assumed he was nagging at them. I came up behind Raymond and slapped him on the shoulder. “Miss me?” “Dude. Robbie was just on stage.” I looked back to Robbie who was still talking to the comics. “That motherfucker. How?” “I don’t know. I’m so pissed right now.” “Did he bomb?” 59


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Raymond shrugged. “Pretty much. But seriously, fuck that guy.” A flurry of questions raced through my mind. How could a bedraggled, homeless looking, useless, unfunny comic just get stage time on the fly like that. I had been waiting for a month to see if I could do time, and he just shows up. My mind was a blur, the weed causing my mind to spin out of control, losing thoughts before I could formulate them, only knowing that I was angry. I felt like throwing up. “Alright folks,” I heard the comic on stage announce. “Are you guys ready for your headliner?” The crowd cheered, but with less energy. It was midnight on a Tuesday and people were tired and had to get up early for work or school. To this day I still can’t remember his name, but he walked on stage, and he looked miserable. “How’s it going folks,” he started. “First, I’d like to apologize for the facial hair.” He pointed to his mutton chops that enclosed his face. “I know I look like Wolverine’s gay step-brother.” The crowd laughed. He had a deep voice with a morose tone. I figured it was just his style. He continued his set, but his voice began to sound more drained as he continued. “This is my life now.” And he kept going on about his life; how poor he was, how he hadn’t gotten laid in forever, how his car breaks down every other week. I’ve heard plenty of self-deprecating comics before, but this was different. It was different because he wasn’t joking. “Where did Mark find this guy?” I asked Raymond. “I don’t know. I heard he won some comedy competition. He’s supposed to be good.” “Clearly,” I said sarcastically. Suddenly the comic began to speak very quickly. He was making a joke about what to do when encountering a not so appealing vagina. The crowd played along, but then his words began to spiral into barely understandable muttering. He was tense, and so was the crowd. They were just as confused as I was, wondering if this was part of the act. The comic stopped speaking just as quickly as he began and breathed out a deep sigh. “This is my life,” he repeated. There was a pause. “I quit smoking,” he continued. Someone cheered. “Fuck that.” There was scattered laughter. “Who has a cigarette?” There was a silence, the audience unsure if he was actually asking them. “Seriously, who has a cigarette?” I heard someone cheer from the front. The comic walked up to him and said, “Give me a cigarette.” It was hard to see from where I was standing, but he must have been confused. The comic said, “I’m serious, give me a cigarette.” I watched him reach down, grab a cigarette from the audience member, and plucked it behind his ear. No one was laughing. The comic gave another deep sigh. “Well, I guess I should tell some jokes.” 60


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Raymond and I looked at each other. He shrugged in disbelief. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left to the lobby. There I saw Mark talking to another comic. “Hey,” I said. “Was Robbie supposed to get stage time today?” “Oh. He texted me today asking if he could get a spot, so I just squeezed him in.” That was it. A simple text was all it took. I didn’t know whether to be angry or impressed of how ballsy Robbie was. “Well,” I said. “Do you know if there will be any more open spots?” Mark shrugged. “I’ll have to see. You have a spot right?” “Yeah, next month.” I tried to hide any scorn in my voice. “Okay then. I’ll try.” And that was the end of the conversation. I heard music blaring from the show room. The headliner must have been merciful and finished early. Raymond came out into the lobby carrying a thick stack of tickets in his hand. He was nervously laughing in disbelief at what he witnessed. “How was the rest of his set?” I asked. “Dude, I don’t even know what to say. He started doing poetry.” “I wonder what happened to him.” “I’m pretty sure he’s just crazy.” A few groggy eyed audience members came shuffling out of the auditorium. We stood next to each other, handing out tickets. The crowd seemed tired and mostly confused. I heard murmurs about that “crazy guy” and “psycho.” I overheard someone ask, “Did that guy have a nervous breakdown or something?” “Well,” I began. “At least we can say we’re funnier than him.” “Yeah. But he gets to be the headliner,” Raymond said in a matter of fact tone. “Do you think that will happen to us?” I asked. “I hope not. Maybe it will happen to you,” Raymond joked. “Can’t wait.” We both laughed, but a nervous feeling crept up from my stomach. I felt myself deflate, and the crowd was now nothing but a blur. I was handing tickets to an amorphous blob of faces and hair and low cut dresses. I bit my lower lip. The last few audience members completely ignored us, and before we knew it the lobby was empty. Raymond and I followed after them and walked out to the front of the Improv. The crowd 61


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hung around smoking cigarettes or sobering up, while others headed towards the parking garage. I could still see that people were shaken up by the headliner, but they were laughing about it. Part of me hoped that the comic was doing it all on purpose, just to be strange. Andy Kaufman once read “The Great Gatsby” on stage just to piss off the audience. But that’s the thing with comedy; if it’s your job to be funny all the time, no one will ever know if you’re serious. I placed a cigarette between my lips and lit it. “That’s disgusting,” Raymond said. I exhaled a wisp of smoke. “No one wants to live forever.” “No one does live forever.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “I don’t know. Probably getting high.” I nodded in agreement. “Most likely. He could use it.” “So what are you doing tomorrow?” Raymond asked. “Do you want to grab lunch or something?” “Sorry man, I’m broke. I’m probably just going to be job hunting tomorrow.” “That sucks.” “Yup.” “Didn’t you graduate? Shouldn’t you have a good job by now?” I faked a laugh to hide any bitterness in my tone. “You would think so. I mean, I’m a 23 year old with a college degree. Who could say no?” “Everyone.” We both laughed. I finished my cigarette and we started walking to the garage. It was empty and I could hear scattered bits of laughter and screeching cars. There was a couple making out while leaning on their car. A group of guys playfully shoved each other. I was one floor up, so I said my goodbyes to Raymond and began to trudge up the steps. “Hey,” Raymond said. I stopped halfway up the staircase. “You should use that as a joke.”

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Contributors William Cheshir e is a Brooklyn native and currently resides in Manhattan, where he works with New York's writing, technology, and data analysis communities. Ever the infophile, Cheshire's latest interests include cocktail creation and urban real estate. His stories can be found in Skive Magazine and Flash 713, and on his website willcheshire.com. Gary Imperial likes to find his metaphor and meter in his mocha muse at his coffee office, otherwise known as McDonald's. He's been published online and in print and will be releasing his chapbook We Are Ether Eyes in February. Miles Magnesi grew up in the Inland Empire. He attained a BA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and is currently working toward his MA of English Literature at California State University, Long Beach. G. D. McFetridge, neo-postmodernist, iconoclast and philosopher, writes from his wilderness home in Montana’s majestic Sapphire Mountains. His fiction and essays are published in academic journals and reviews, and commercial literary magazines, across America, in Canada, India, Ireland and the UK. Tom Moran lives in upstate New York and teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology but his heart remains sheltered by the palm trees of Southern California where he lived and wrote for many years. His non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Stone Canoe, Reed, Brevity, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. PK Read is an American writer. Her recent work has been published in Stealing Time Magazine, Offshoots, and shortlisted in the Southwest Review Literary Prize and the Salt Short Story Award. She lives in eastern France. John Talaoc is a graduate of UC Riverside. He is currently developing and pursuing a career in stand-up comedy.

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rindliterarymagazine.com

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Rind Literary Magazine Issue 5  

The very best fiction and nonfiction from the Inland Empire and beyond.

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