Superficial Flesh Fall 2008
Volume 3 Issue 1 STICKY FINGERS MAKE YUMMY PAGES!
Recipe Remixes Apples into Apples Butter is the most important ingredient. Besides the apples. Two tablespoons sounds okay. Granny-Smith. Peeled. Cored. Six to eight of them. 1/4 inch thick. Larger and you might be digesting a very heavy rock. Two tablespoons of flour. White, wheat, whole? Who knows? A cup of sugar. To wash down the nutrients. You might like a teaspoon of cinnamon, if you’re the type. I haven’t said anything about you as a person. Deep dish pie crust. Top crust. I won’t tell you how. You’re smart. I know it. Mix the dry. Moist apples now wish to mingle with the mix. Mountains upon mountains of apples. Slip wet slices of butter all over the apples. Fashion a tent of crust over the mountains. Flute the edges! Fork vent holes! Now they go to the spa for 10 minutes at 450 degrees. It’s too hot! Turn the temperature down. The apples now wish to meditate for thirty-five to forty-five minutes at 350 degrees. I told you it was too hot. Their aura will be golden brown. You will glow.
CONTENTS Superficial Flesh —Fall 2008 Letter from the Editor
Alan Tolleson Recipe Tips Karen Greenbaum-Maya Aaron Pearce Nathan Logan Kelly Davio Silva de la Peña
Patricia Cronin Alan Tolleson Jake Oresick Alan Tolleson
Drippy Cowboy Apples to Apples Cochonnerie Hole in a hole Omelet Let the Wookie Win I Come to You, Thirty-Six Hours by Train All-Girl Post-Punk Electro Pop v. Screamo Lemonade Visitation Median Liver & Onions These Phantasms are Real JSB hangin’ out Eavesdropping in the Louvre. Bites Cheney Spooky Becky Number Three Foot in Tub Notes on the District Raping Kayfabe Dead Flowers
1 2 3 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 20 21 46 47 48 50
Christopher Collins Gabriel DeCrease Karen Greenbaum-Maya Micah Robbins Jen McClung Manisha Sharma Leah Foster Jess Myers Alan Tolleson
Push-ups Garden Hose Sad Steps St. Denis and Head Crop Praise & Worship October is a goldfish Godhara Dryness Zombie, Me Love The Imaginary Road
51 51 52 55 56 63 67 91 92 109
The Dark Knight//Mrs. Doubtfire Pretty Monsters//The Bible Fight Bite//Captain & Tennille Drive by Truckers//Woody Guthrie
93 96 102 104
VERSUS REVIEWS VJ Boyd Lucas Johnson Jon Lee Hart Walter Moore
SUPERFICIAL FLESH Volume 3, Issue 1, Fall 2008. First online printing. You go a-go-go. First print edition; 100 copies. Superficial Flesh is published bi-annually in the spring and fall. Editor, Lauren C. Dixon Fiction Editor, John Waddy Bullion Database Webmaster, L. Dixon The editors wish to thank the contributors, our mentors (who shall remain nameless), and the breath of the living who inspire us toward greatness. Subscribe to Superficial Flesh at our website: http://www.superficialflesh.com Submission Guidelines: Please submit your written work in the body of your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If the email body does not preserve spacing, you may submit your work in .rtf format, but please be sure to note this in your email. All submissions must include “Submission” and the author’s last name in the subject heading. Please note the type of submission you are including as well (fiction, poetry, etc). All artwork must be sent in .jpg format. Please send no more than five poems, or one story during our reading period (for Fall, April 1-June 30; for Spring, Nov. 1Jan. 31). All translations must accompany proof of rights from the original source language publisher. Email submissions, queries, concerns, admiration, or gutteral angst: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org 6
Letter from the Editor So we missed our Spring issue. Forgive us. We were busy. We always seem to find ourselves short on submissions and time, and often long on wistful enthusiasm and rosy idealism. That being said, I’m happy to say that we’re back, with a strong cadre of work and a few new changes to the journal. First up, we’re re-introducing reviews, but reviews as they were destined to be: VERSUS style. “What’s that?” you ask. Only, my dear friends, works of art pitted against one another in a fight to the death. Who will win? Ask our reviewers, VJ Boyd, Lucas Johnson, Jon Hart, and Walt Moore. Funny, no women here. If you are a woman and want to write a review, I’d be more than happy to shake off the chauvinism stick and give your idea a chance. We only have one requirement for this area of our journal: smart, witty, and buoyantly braving the waters of wicked prose, poetry, film, art, and music. Or anything else—just ask first. Second, we’re still looking for actual film and music for this here journal of ours. “How do you put film on paper?” you ask. My dear friends, we’re a hybrid of many things, and one of those many things includes a snarling taste of internet savagery. One of these days, if pigs start to sing “Oh Susannah!” or start gardens of their own, we’ll produce a CD/DVD/Print concatenation of work, but for now, we’re using the internet for all its worth. So, send us your stuff. We’ll screen it, put it through the ol’ word/food/ microprocessor and see if it fits our taste. If it does, consider yourself destined for a ride on our carousel of delight—I mean, our website. So those are our changes. But I’m even happier to say that in this issue we’re featuring several stellar writers and artists. Among them: Alan Tolleson, Kelly Davio, Silvia de la Peña, Karen Greenbaum-Maya, Patricia Cronin, Jonathan Braucher, Micah Robbins, Christopher Collins, and many others. Welcome one, welcome all. And we promise: spring comes, SF will follow. Sincerely, Lauren C. Dixon, Editor 7
Aaron Pearce Hole in a hole
Hole in my pillow and the feathers falling out Why is my pillow so small Because the feathers are falling out Hole in the microwave and the radiation falling out It’s a small hole Hole in my beard That’s what I eat with The microwave is chained to the counter The microwave is under the counter The microwave is wrapped in a garbage bag Zombie man pulling popcorn from a bag shouldn’t cook popcorn in a microwave with a hole in it Microwave in a bag in a hole in the counter with a label on the door The label says “Hole” The label has an arrow pointing at a hole Zombie man gonna stuff you in his beard
Omelet You roll up the veggies in the eggs and throw some cheese on top, doesn’t matter what you’re rolling, mushrooms, ham, you do the same thing. Today I’ll have tomatoes because I’m American. Eating healthy is great because then you can eat junk. If you want, and I do, you can eat them both at once and they cancel out. If there’s one veggie and two fats, for example, one tomato with eggs and cheese, this means you must have been eating well earlier in the week. It means you will enjoy this omelet. Get the hot sauce and eat.
Aaron Pearce 9
Nathan Logan Let the Wookie Win Betsy won the strongwoman competition with ease. She’s the only one who pulled a Hummer through mud without her arms popping like bubble wrap. The victory felt hollow, so she entered the strongman challenge a week later. A new event confused competitors – Strongman Chess. It was designed to test finesse among the brutes. To no one’s surprise, Betsy mopped the floor with her opponent. In checkmate, she tore off her opponent’s arms. The flailing stubs made a mess all over the board. No one else would play Betsy, so she was declared the winner and hasn’t lost a game since.
Kelly Davio I Come to You, Thirty-Six Hours by Train Sweaty, my skirt sticking to my leg, beginning to feel aware of my own skin’s scent, an empty box of crackers wedged under the seat. A small man sits beside me, claims his name is Shorty. He’s nervous, pokes my shoulder whenever I close an eye. We roll one mile between each creaking stop in an Oakland stockyard. I pull a hat over my eyes as I imagine old sailors do, and try to look hard, immovable. The woman behind me throws a leg over the knee of her seatmate, her heel knocking my seat’s back in her arc. She doesn’t speak. With the brim of my hat growing stale under breath, the woman’s head nods in false sleep, onto the man’s button-stretching belly. When Shorty gets off the train somewhere near the Oregon border, he won’t look at me, but slams his Samsonite against my knee and leaves me with a dark-fisted bruise. The woman behind me mutters about meeting her mother-in-law at the streetside of this stop. The bellied man helps smooth her hair, but it stays concave on the side that pressed at his flesh.
Silvia de la Peña All-Girl Post-Punk Electro-Pop v. Screamo Then you knew what to expect on a Friday night – everyone dancing in the living room, some on the coffee table singing Daft Punk in Spanish, other short girls in silvery skirts and kitten heels, the string of Hello Kitty lights striking everyone as normal, Cynthia falling asleep in the bathroom and pushing Jessica in through the window to wake her, Jorge and Nicole lying laughing atop the broken wood slats of what was once the aqua colored patio bench, a fight at the stereo over the next song because the girl with the neck tattoo doesn’t like Le Tigre, the neighbor’s pit bull breaking its chain and tearing through the party, falling asleep on the floor in rows with the music still on, and in the morning walking home between rows of palm trees, the sun on the water, everyone on skateboards or beach cruisers and five barefooted boys running towards the beach balancing an inflatable canoe in the air as you are on your way to a breakfast burrito and a long nap so by nighttime, you are ready to do it all again. Now it could be anything – in a coat over a dress over a shirt over leggings over wool socks over more, a party in a neighborhood with no street lights and boarded up apartments, a screaming band and the singer’s veins popping out of his neck, latch key kids, the smell of day old vegetable soup, rickety old warehouse elevators covered in graffiti, a broken locket found resting on the keys of a broken piano someone begins to play and tells you, “I know Moonlight Sonata,” but it sounds more like Dracula’s theme song, a mile long line for the bathroom with no ceiling and a missing wall, and during your turn a girl in line with neon fishnet stockings yells, “Hey, 12
are you pissing on the floor in there?” because your roommate’s date from the internet is puking loudly nearby, a girl with a plastic knife pretends to slit everyone’s throats, and when you come home the boy from the internet pukes some more in your downstairs toilet while you fall asleep on the couch watching your favorite show about the dramatic lives of teenagers living on the beach in California.
Lemonade A doctor ruffles through papers on his clipboard making marks with a red pen. He shoves a banana at the small monkey sitting on the hospital bed and says, “Eat!” The monkey sighs and turns his hospital identification bracelet around on his wrist. “When can I go back to the jungle?” “Not until you eat this banana,” the doctor says. The monkey shivers. “Can you turn off the AC? It’s too cold in here, I’m going to freeze,” he says. The monkey slowly freezes into a giant cube of ice. “I don’t like to see you like this,” the doctor says. He dunks the monkey into a large cup of lemonade and takes a sip. Silvia de la Peña 13
Jonathan Braucher Visitation
Shadowy creatures appear, still or moving in the peripheral of my vision, darting under chairs, tables and on the unslept portion of our bed. They’re gone as I turn to look upon them. Little gods visiting, checking in, protecting, angels or perhaps more sinister? I can’t catch them, just like I can’t catch that little mouse that keeps running around shitting on our traps and counters. But these gods are no mouse. As soon as I turn, it’s dust floating in the fading sunlight falling onto the scratched wood floor mingling with the mouse turds and bits of spiral binding. Some are long and dance up to the backs of my ankles as I brush my teeth. I look down thinking water fell and glimpse the god slithering under the counter behind the roach traps. Others are small, shapeless. These dare to get close, climbing to my shoulders, their soft paws almost unnoticed upon the nerves of my skin. A shiver and then gone. The gods don’t scare me, the mouse doesn’t either. I’ve held him in my hands. Try to do that with a god. The mouse fell into the steel sink trapped dangerously close to the garbage disposal. He jumped, landing in my palms, his eyes centered in mine. I’m sure the gods looked on but I was distracted. In that moment we were no longer enemies – and as quickly as it begun, it was over. Just like the gods, the mouse leapt away. He dove down into the oven through his tunnels underneath the burners. Gone before I could act. Helpless, I’ll treat mice like gods, continue setting my traps and cleaning after their nightly adventures, storing my food above the fridge and turning on the lights quick to see them run away. 14
Median The forested areas in the medians hide secrets. The place in-between highways is sacred. Druids meet there. When I was a child I thought there were landmines or spikes in the median strips – to prevent cars from crossing. There are none. The druids pull their cars off to the side of the road and place an orange flag in the window or tied around the antenna. Then they make their way into the tree line, up the grassy ramp through a door hidden in the rocks. There they hide. There is the secret place of rituals. It was there before the highways –the highways had to build around them – not knowing themselves why. Why couldn’t they break that ground? No one asked any questions. That’s the power of their magic. They’re safer now. More out in the open but more protected than ever. With walls of highways – it’s a moving barricade – a chain saw blade of cars chopping any spirits that dare to cross. These are the desolate zones – the sacred areas.
Liver & Onions That diner has changed hands about as many times as money, has changed hands inside that diner. Silver Diner, Mountview Diner, Double T Diner... What’s your name now? Oh. Closed again—renovation. Why? They always change the inside but the outside is still silver curves. People could learn a lot from that diner, constantly re-defining itself. Well no, people shouldn’t learn from that diner. It never got it right. The food was never good. Always over priced and under taste. You can’t trust a menu with too many options.
We can’t be good at everything, the liver and onions said to me upon my first bite. Coke syrup burns my throat. Would it be so wrong to run out on my bill? This place will be closed in 3 months anyways.
The best liver and onions was my stepmother’s. How could such a nasty woman prepare liver so well? I wish she couldn’t, then I’d have no positive reason for her. Liver is a strange meat, its dark purple runs through and through, there’s never any pink, makes me wonder how you know it’s ready? My father must have been attracted to her cooking. My father should have seen what would be the future of his family – poisoned food. I paid my bill and my gut paid me back in full.
These Phantasms are Real A wall is a wall and the wolf is really a wolf and yes, we do go into her throat to find a garden and a waiter repeating himself over and over again.
Karen Greenbaum-Maya Eavesdropping in the Louvre.
Have you ever heard of the Post-Modern Neoclassical Style? I like it, it’s very architectural. I like ABC art—it’s the simplest you can find. Framing is soooo important. It’s very accessible these days. Rembrandt had all his drawings framed. You can always find some group of people that cares about that. Nobody really likes Picasso. It’s all just a scam from the critics, did you know that? Harbingers of the future is what I’m about— but I’m really low-tech about it. During my hiatus I got into antique art, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Do you know how much it sold for? Fifty-three million! Did you ever eat at Nordstrom? I’m unemployed, I’m just making my art. Do you smell garlic in here? I don’t like it as an air-freshener. Maybe it’s a new perfume. Have you ever read anything by Timothy Leary? He’s written some books. I’ve read “Exo-psychology.” Have you read the Bible?—I have. Do you believe in Christ? I’m not a Jesus freak, or anything, but I like Christ the Light. The Light. (The Light.) You can’t call yourself a man if you don’t make art. 19
Bites Potato chips, the snack of pique, sweat-salty, bone-crunchy, greasy-defiant. Each greedy clutch leads to another, and each so-what chomp says, “Beat it. I’m busy.” My awkward scoop looks ample but I buzz through each one like a pencil sharpener getting to the point.
Karen Greenbaum-Maya 20
Becky Number Three After two months of sit-ups in the humidity of June and July, Carolyn’s stomach was stone flat. She ran her hand across her rib cage and hips. The feeling of being carved out still made her wince. The two things Carolyn craved were the feeling of cocoa butter on her skin and the smell of chlorine from the Garden Greens swimming pool, a teasing distance of four blocks away. But instead of diving into the cold, clear blue, her lungs burning slightly as she swam underwater the entire length of the deep end, she turned over on her right side as she lay on the living room floor and began her regimen of leg lifts. She was finally up to her pre-summer goal of two hundred. A half-eaten bowl of Cheerios was near her head and on the plate beside that was an apple cut in half, its beautiful white flesh turning brown. Somewhere between seventy and eighty Carolyn lost count. On the front porch she heard footsteps. She figured it was the mailman but the footsteps stopped and didn’t make their usual descent. Even with her back to the screen door she knew someone was watching her. She turned around to see her twelve-year-old neighbor Randall peering in, shielding his eyes from the sun to get a better view. He didn’t wait for an invitation before entering. “Can Dean come over and play?” “What am I, his mother?” Randall sat down next to Carolyn as she lifted her left leg slowly up in the air and slowly back down again. He spooned around the cereal mush and said, “Maybe, you never know.” Carolyn stood up and straightened out her Blackburn College T-shirt, then flopped down on the couch. She stretched out, nestling her back into the soft cushions. 21
Her blond hair hung loosely over the armrest. Randall crawled up behind her and held her hair in his hands. “My sister showed me how to do a bun yesterday.” Carolyn felt his small hands moving quickly, the gentle twisting of her hair wrapping above her head. “You need bobby pins or it’s gonna fall out as soon as I get up.” “Got something better, Barbie pins.” Though the volume on her television set was turned down, Carolyn was watching Let’s Make a Deal. Costumed adults waved their arms; some held signs reading “Hey, Monty! We love you in Omaha.” “That woman makes a good robot, but the man should have bigger antlers if people are supposed to believe he’s really a moose.” “You missed the three hundred pound ballerina with the black beard.” “Gross!” Randall stood up and bent closely over Carolyn’s face and said, “Well, can Dean come over or not?” “You’re such a Poindexter; he’s not even here. He’s over at Becky’s.” “My name is Randall. Which one, Becky the Stealer or Naked Becky? Because Naked Becky’s grounded again and her mom says ‘no boys in the house till next week.’” He shook a stern finger over Carolyn’s head. “Dean says he’s not going out with her anymore.” “What about the shoplifter?” “Broke up with her too, supposedly. Got a new girlfriend.” Carolyn looked over at Randall. “Becky Lindsey.” Patricia Cronin 22
Randall took a bite of Carolyn’s leftover apple. “Man, he’s really got a radar for Beckys, doesn’t he? I wonder where he finds them all.” He opened his mouth, letting the half-chewed apple fall back onto the plate. He thought for a moment and asked, “What’s the plural of Becky, anyway? Do you add an ies or just an s?” “Don’t you have some airplane glue you can sniff?” Carolyn reached toward the TV and turned the volume back up. “I hate this part--the people always start to argue and change their minds.” They watched Monty Hall sweep his arm toward the main stage, first at a curtain, then a large box. The robot and moose jumped up and down and pointed at the box. A few seconds later Monty slowly pulled a small envelope from his suit pocket. The dressed-up couple looked at each other, whispered something back and forth and pointed instead toward the curtain. “Another Becky, that’s no good.” The robot and moose shook their heads, as they were now the proud owners of a rusted-out Model T. Monty was now standing beside a couple dressed as playing cards, the three and four of clubs to be exact. The camera panned across the front stage to each of the doors that hid the latest prize choices. Carolyn stared ahead, addressing the TV, and said, “So tell us, Jay, just what is behind Becky Number Three?” After Randall left, when Carolyn walked into her bathroom, she saw what he meant by “Barbie pins.” Sticking up from the top of her head were two legs from a Barbie doll. The high heel-shaped feet and painted toes reflected back in the mirror. Patricia Cronin 23
Carolyn pulled them out and shook her hair so it fell down along her shoulders. She turned on the bathroom faucet. Carolyn’s day was planned out with strategy: After Let’s Make a Deal she had another hour to watch the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows before she’d shower and get dressed. Mrs. Williams lectured Carolyn whenever she was still wearing pajamas at 5:30. “Honey, why not advertise to the whole neighborhood that you’re out of sorts.” “Out of sorts.” Carolyn laughed. Her mother’s gift for euphemism only improved over the summer. Two months ago Carolyn was “in trouble.” A week after the abortion her mother mumbled words like “mistake” and “incident.” Heads shook and lips tightened. These days the focus was off the abortion itself, but in the wake of that truce there were definite rules: dinner at 6:30, laundry on Mondays and Fridays. Carolyn could use the car either Friday or Saturday night, but not both. Curfew was 11:00 p.m. The curfew thing pissed her off the most. Her brother Dean, three years younger, could come home at midnight and sometimes later when he had to work. Most nights Carolyn sat up in bed, her back straight against the cool plaster wall, her bedroom window open all the way. While the radio softly played love songs for the rest of the world, she’d listen to the noises outside. Cars drove up and down her street, and Carolyn noted which ones sped by and which seemed to slow down, even stop. She’d look over to her lighted clock that read 12:45, 1:03, 2:27. Sometimes she’d crouch down and look out the window to see who was coming home. She imagined herself coming home late, her mouth dry with the taste of beer, her lips raw from being over kissed. 24
One night, the sound of an idling car filled the cul de sac with its muffled purr. That’s how she found out about Dean’s escapes. He’d park the car in the garage and make a good show of coming in from work. He’d flick on the kitchen light, open the fridge door a few times and go into the living room and turn on the television. Then about twenty minutes later Carolyn would hear the front door open and watch as Dean hopped into someone else’s car. She prickled with jealousy, her shoulders taut. What made Carolyn really burn, however, was coping with this new throng of Beckys hovering and calling and slipping notes into the mail slot: “Please, Dean, can’t we talk?” “You can’t still be mad over last Wednesday, can you?” “CALL ME! I MEAN IT!!!” The notes signed, “Love Becky,” “Yours,” or just plain, “B.” The phone rang late at night and her brother was always rushing in and out of the house, harried and glowing in the summer heat. Carolyn hadn’t so much as even said a boy’s name since she came back from school. She couldn’t. She hated, too, that her parents came to expect the omission, where even her mother would come home from work and say, “So did Randall come over today?” Like he was her new boyfriend or something. Gazing out the kitchen window that faced the Kellys’ garage, Mrs. Williams watched as Randall watered the grass or fixed the hanging birdhouse. “It’s sweet he thinks so much of you, dear. Though he is a bit odd.” “Odd? Randall, odd?” Carolyn baited her mother. Then acted like she was just remembering last winter. “Right, that little snowman thing.” The previous December Randall and his dad built a huge snowman. It took them 25
most of the day and looked to be seven feet tall. As neighbors passed, they’d wave, beep, give a “thumbs-up.” The next morning the head was knocked off and a pirate sword was plunged right through the snowman’s middle. Large blobs of ketchup were splashed all over the snowman’s front. Red footprints led from the snowman up the Kellys’ front steps, with a second trail up to the Williams’ house. In the mailbox was a small wrapped package for Carolyn–two Almond Joy candy bars. The tag read, “To Carolyn from Santa.”
Carolyn’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her face slick from the oven heat. At 6:45 she brought the plate of meatloaf to the small kitchen table where her parents and brother waited. Dean hunched over his dinner plate, either very hungry or in a hurry. It’s funny, Carolyn thought, dogs can always look you straight in the eye. Earlier that afternoon Randall’s dog, Al Capone, wandered over into the backyard as she was taking out the garbage. He stumbled through the rose bushes that Mrs. Kelly constantly fussed over. “Hey, Big Al,” she cooed, scratching his ear. She took his black face in her hands, his mouth open panting, brown eyes attentive. She leaned closer. “How’s my guy, huh?” The dog gave two quick barks and licked her face, a swooping pink tongue across her lips. “Shit, you kiss just like Lonnie Thomas, you know that?” Old Al Capone, satisfied with the compliment, trotted back home through the red American Beauties. Carolyn wondered why she remembered that as she watched Dean squirm slowly 26
under the casual grilling of their mother. “Honey, why do they keep changing your hours at the Willowbrook? You know, I could give Harriet a call and she could talk to...” “Mom, it’s okay.” Carolyn wasn’t so sure. Late at night she’d hear Dean’s end of phone conversations with one of the Beckys. Not arguments so much as pleadings, barterings. Her brother’s voice, “But why Friday? Just give me one good reason it has to be Friday.” But then Friday night would come around and Dean would leave the house humming. He still wore his work clothes, but something wasn’t right. He didn’t act so nervous. He even teased Carolyn about another evening with Dexter. She sensed maybe her brother smelled too clean when he’d gotten home that night. That was the joke about working at the Willowbrook--how the smell of fried shrimp and broiled steaks distinguished the people who’d worked that night. At beer parties and wooded groves, guys showed up in their black pants and white shirts. The richer boys and stuck up girls held their noses and fanned the air in front of them. Even those who changed clothes still smelled. They were the rookies. They weren’t fooling anyone. But Carolyn’s mother knew nothing of this and, meaning well, pressed further. “Harriet’s now head waitress, she carries some clout.” “It’s just because of staff vacations,” Dean moaned, his hair still wet from the shower. Good answer, Carolyn thought. She imagined all of them appearing on Family 27
Feud, applauding and cheering one another on, “Yeah, way to go, Dean. Yes!” But as she listened, she saw more closely how Dean said it, timing his answer as he eased up from the table. How over his shoulder, barely turning his head, Dean said, “Eleventhirty” when their father asked what time he’d be home with the car. Then Dean would back-pedal, “Unless it stays busy . . .” trailing off as he set his plate in the dishwasher. Carolyn made small stab wounds in the skin of her baked potato. As Dean rinsed out his milk glass, he said, “Hey Mom, can I have twenty dollars?” “It’s in my purse, baby.” Carolyn steamed, twenty bucks! Suddenly all the parole-seeking good behavior she’d been working on exploded in her face. Days of starting dinner and folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher and washing the car, while her brother played Becky roulette. Carolyn couldn’t even drive to the Dairy Dream without her father peering over his reading glasses. She was exhausted from wearing the sole pair of shoes of the disappointing child. Yeah, she screwed up, but she was paying her dues. Carolyn picked up her fork and looked down at the road map of gravy lined along her plate of meatloaf. She inhaled slowly and waited until Dean turned off the faucet and put his glass in the dishwasher alongside his plate. When he turned around to make his way toward their mother’s purse, Carolyn caught him face to face and said, “Oh, jeez, Dean, I almost forgot. Naked Becky called.” He went pale. His shoulders dropped, his clean white shirt even started to look 28
wrinkled. “Carolyn!” her mother snapped, slapping the top of the kitchen table. “Her name,
dear, is,” she regained her tone, “is Vermelli, and you know Dean has no interest in hearing from her.” “Well, she called,” Carolyn said, looking squarely now at her mother. “I thought it would be irresponsible not to pass along the message.” Dean tucked his shirt into his slacks and glanced at the kitchen clock. “Oh, man, I’m late.” He kissed his mother on the side of her face and without looking back ran out of the kitchen, the faint jingle of car keys preceding the final slam of the front door.
Carolyn woke up the next morning at 7:30 to the sound of Randall’s voice singing, “Lemon . . . ade! Special recipe lemonade!” From her bedroom window she saw Randall facing the street holding up two Dixie cups. “Lemonnnade, right here!” A card table with white embroidered tablecloth held two pitchers and a small stack of cups. Randall was a tireless salesman singing out into the near-empty street all morning. Carolyn lay on the couch balancing a bowl of shredded wheat on her stomach. The volume of the television set again turned down. No matter what program was on, each actor repeated, “Lemonade! The best in town.” Sometime after 11:00 a.m. Carolyn walked over to the curb to get the morning newspaper. Among the green, full leaves on the maple tree Carolyn noticed about twelve doll heads hanging on the branches. It was a flash of deja vu—all her 29
childhood favorites were there: Barbie with the ponytail and Barbie with the flip. Malibu Barbie with sunglasses and black haired Barbie with the bouffant. She also noted Midge, two Skippers, Tressy, Chrissy, and Tammy. “What the hell did you do?” “It’s a Becky Tree. It just grew here overnight.” “And you think this is going to bring customers?” “Sure, it’s a tourist attraction. The Becky Tree will make you beautiful and bring you love.” “So, how many glasses of lemonade did you sell so far?” Randall held up four fingers. Looking over Randall’s shoulder to the front of his house, she saw all the headless, naked doll bodies planted among his mother’s begonias. Randall turned around, following Carolyn’s stare, shrugged and asked, “So Carolyn, what’s for dinner tonight?”
Later that afternoon as Carolyn pulled into her driveway she saw Randall wearing a black magician’s cape and white plastic fangs. He was now selling strawberry Kool Aid. From underneath his Becky Tree, Randall held a sign that read “Virgin Blood. Five Cents. Limited Offer.” Randall joined Carolyn inside and lifted up the tail of his cape as he sat down on the floor. He picked through the pile of magazines lying next to her. He grabbed 30
Glamour and read aloud, “’Hottest Dates for a Cool Summer.’ So what kind of dates does Dean take Becky Number Three on?” Carolyn propped herself up on her right arm. “Well, from what I can weasel out of Dean, Becky Number Three dates always include a movie, popcorn, soda, and Snowcaps.” “Hey, that sounds just like the menu at Hong Kong Gardens.” “What are you talking about?” Randall kept flipping through the pages and continued. “The family style menu always includes certain stuff. You know, egg roll, soup, fried noodles. Maybe you can choose one or two things, but mostly you don’t get to pick, ‘cause it’s just all included.” “Well, Randall, you’re on the money there.” Randall lay on his back and pulled his arms up into his short sleeved shirt, letting only his hands peek out of the tiny armholes. “So then, what else is included in a date with Becky Number Three?” and as he looked at Carolyn, he raised his eyebrows way up and back down in a clumsy but determined fashion. Carolyn blinked, “I think they go out for ice cream too,” she said, mostly to see if she could get away with such an answer. “Yeah,” he said, eyebrows again raised, “I thought so.”
Carolyn was not on speaking terms with any of the Beckys. The girl everyone called Naked Becky lived two towns over, and Becky the Stealer, Patricia Cronin 31
whose real name was Sullivan, lived on Carlson Avenue. Carolyn knew who each of them was and any time their paths crossed she just gave a wave or a nod. She liked that arrangement, the safe distance. She didn’t have the energy to be the repentant daughter, watchful older sister, and pal to all Beckys, great and small. One Tuesday afternoon as Carolyn and Randall watched Another World, the doorbell rang. On the Williams’ front steps was a small brown-haired girl carrying a beach bag, asking if Dean was home. Randall took one look at the girl and quietly ducked behind the living room drapes. “I’m sorry, he isn’t,” Carolyn said. The girl opened the front door and made her way to the sofa. “Well, my name is Becky and I thought maybe he’d like to come swimming with me.” Becky Lindsey reached into her purse and pulled out a small unsealed envelope. “Well, I’m sorry I missed him, but could you see he gets this?” Carolyn said sure and ran upstairs to Dean’s bedroom. On the way up she looked inside the envelope to find a photograph of the girl, her straight brown hair combed sleekly over her shoulders. She wore a perfectly white angora sweater and a tiny gold cross glimmered around her neck. Carolyn flipped it over--a flawless pink lipstick kiss on the back and the date of August 8th. She signed it, “Luv, Little B.” Carolyn stuck out her tongue and placed the picture among the clutter on Dean’s dresser alongside the watch and penknife that Becky the Stealer had given him for his birthday a few months before. 32
Becky Lindsey sat poised at the edge of the couch finishing up a fresh application of the same pink lipstick that branded her photograph. “Could ya ask him to call me when he gets home?” she asked as Carolyn came back down. Randall peered from behind the living room curtain as Becky Number Three smiled back at them and walked down the stone path. Carolyn waved before closing the front door. “She seems pretty nice.” “No way, that one’s trouble.” “Oh, please! Just how would you know?” “Her skirt is pleated and there wasn’t even a wrinkle in the back from when she sat down. That proves she’s a witch. She’s got powers.” Later as the two watched another soundless episode of Dark Shadows, Randall stalked and posed with Carolyn’s hand knit afghan draped over his shoulder. He fixed his arm in a pretty good Bela Lugosi right hook, partially shielding his face. Carolyn wondered whether Barnabas Collins was a good kisser or just a neck biter. She drifted off to sleep as dark-clothed demons lurked on screen and Randall made soft howling noises next to her ear. When she awoke the afghan covered her from head to toe, and Randall was gone.
The next morning Carolyn got up early to do the laundry. She had heard Dean come upstairs sometime after 3 a.m. He passed by her room smelling of cigarettes and sweat. When she washed her brother’s sheets she poured in extra bleach. Everything 33
about him smelled of desire. She then hung all the bedclothes outside, something even her mother hadn’t done in years. But Carolyn found herself delighted in this colorful tent of fabrics--prints, stripes, solid whites—blocking her neighbors’ view of her. Arranging the linens in two long strands from garage to house, she boxed off a private square of solitude for herself. She listened lazily to the clean snaps of the laundry rippling all around. No one, not Randall’s mother or the Mitchums on the other side, could see her. She lay on the chaise lounge in her bathing suit and finally felt far away from all of them, their obvious questions, probing stares, unspoken curiosities. Carolyn sniffed her hands, a clean, fresh smell, and felt smug. She imagined a narrator’s voice, deep and earnest, like in a soap opera, saying, “And today, the role of the helpful daughter is being played by Carolyn Williams.” The bright sun sparkling overhead made Carolyn drowsy. She drifted in and out of sleep, listening to the strange music of the wind moving through the cotton bedclothes. When she awoke, there was an odd feeling in her legs—warm and scratchy. The cool early evening breeze brushing up her sunburned legs made them itch, the tops of her bare feet now a pinkish red against the pearl-colored polish on her toes. She came to slowly, watching sheets and pillowcases sway, hiding the now-setting sun. She looked to her left and saw a pair of legs on the other side of the hanging laundry. “Hello, Randall.” Randall tiptoed from behind Carolyn’s pink and yellow bedspread. He held a plastic blue vase in the shape of a mermaid. Inside was raspberry Kool Aid. In the vase Patricia Cronin 34
was a straw and a yellowed paper umbrella. “Here, I thought you might be thirsty.” He bent down to look at her feet. “Wow, you’re gonna be sore later.” Carolyn reached for her towel. “Yeah, I think I overdid it.” She took out the paper umbrella and sipped on the Kool Aid. “So, how much did you make?” “Six big ones,” Randall said, and pulled high on his jeans pocket so the coins inside jingled loudly. Randall sat down on the brick patio next to Carolyn. He surveyed her cloth haven. “You’re a good tent maker. This is like the Sheik of Araby.” Carolyn laughed. “My mom would never let me do this.” The two of them sat quietly as the sheets shimmied and tugged on the line. When she closed her eyes she heard Randall begin writing on the brick with a piece of chalk. He did things like that all the time, wrote words or drew pictures in front of people’s houses. Nothing mean or filthy, just odd. In front of the McCarthys’ he’d written “FREE FOOD” and near the stairs of the Mitchum’s porch he’d drawn three purple cats. In front of Carolyn’s house he’d written the word “avocado.” When she asked him what it meant, he tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a sort of “knock-knock” joke. Sometimes, when he said things that made her mad, Carolyn would tilt her head and say, “Avocado, who?” Patricia Cronin 35
Carolyn had the evening off when her parents went out on their monthly Fish Fry date with the Mitchums. She made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner and took it up to her room. On the floor at the end of her bed, underneath the accumulation of shorts, underwear, and pajamas was the shiny blue footlocker she carted home from school. In the eight weeks she’d been back she hadn’t had the nerve to unpack it. Her parents had left hours before and Dean wouldn’t be home from work before midnight, at the earliest. She sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the trunk, pushed her dirty clothes aside and lifted the lid. There was nothing in there to look for or wonder about. She had every object memorized and carefully stored. Everything inside reminded her of being the happiest, luckiest, smartest girl who did triple cartwheels and perfect jackknife dives. She wanted that girl back, but the still-present emptiness that echoed inside, stretching from her sternum to thighs, reminded her that that wouldn’t happen. Carolyn needed for the first time in months the feel of the dingy green fur of her Dicky Dragon puppet. Dicky Dragon made his college debut one late night in Carolyn’s dorm room. It was a week after Carolyn met John Tunney, and she wanted so badly for him to call. For the entire first year and half of the second, Carolyn kept Dicky hidden. She knew other girls brought old dolls and ratty-looking stuffed animals from home, but Dicky stayed locked up because she couldn’t just lay him on her pillow or prop him up against her desk lamp and not let him talk. That was the problem, the talking, not his orange Patricia Cronin 36
forked tongue or black spots or his jagged dragon mane. It was the singing and jokes and whispers and advice. Carolyn’s roommate Mara came home around 11:30 with two other girls from the Henderson Dorms and a six pack of beer. After two cans of Old Style and one full week of staring at an unringing telephone, Carolyn pulled out Dicky, who immediately began sharing dating advice and heatedly condemning the insensitivity of college boys. The other girls hooted and screamed, begging to hear more of the puppet’s wisdom. Dicky himself threatened to call John Tunney and tell him what a jerk he was. But Mara was more interested in exploring the chemistry between the green dragon and her own pink stuffed doll she called Pixie. The next afternoon John called and Carolyn immediately took Dicky Dragon to be some wondrous love charm. She no longer tucked him out of sight, not until four months later when she returned from Planned Parenthood with her pregnancy test positive.
Carolyn slipped the matted puppet onto her hand and began to flap his mouth open and closed. Dicky’s left button eye was loose and dangled by a worn black thread. She put the puppet up to her eyes and in her low, slow Dicky Dragon voice she said, “I’ll buy you an ice cream cone if you stop crying.” Carolyn took the puppet off her hand and kissed its wet mouth. Then she threw on her favorite sundress, grabbed the keys to her father’s Impala, and was pulling into the Dairy Dream parking lot fifteen minutes later. Patricia Cronin 37
Leaning against their mother’s blue Buick were Dean and Scott Brice. Her brother was wearing his work clothes, not a wrinkle or salad dressing stain on him. Smiling wide she walked over and said, “Hey Dean, I hear table seven is ready to place their order.” “Nice of Dad to give you permission to take his car.” “We’re out of milk,” she said and nudged him. Carolyn took a long gaze at the full parking lot, kids she recognized from high school talking in groups and leaning into car windows. “Buy me a fudge ripple, Dean. Please?” “Double or triple?” “Single, with a plain cone. How’s it going at Willowbrook?” Carolyn asked Scott. “You know the drill,” he said. “Your brother’s been pretty good about it though,” Scott added. This summer was Scott’s first and like most of the rookies he bussed tables, filled water glasses, and hauled garbage. The freshmen always went through a kind of fraternity hazing. The more seasoned guys who worked as waiters were always pulling off practical jokes, like one played on Dean a few years ago by Frank Scarpelli. One night in the middle of dinner rush Frank whispered to Dean, “The lady at table five says her fish is bad and if it’s not taken away in two seconds she’s gonna raise hell.” Dean, frantic and already sweating, runs up to the woman, grabs her plate and bursts into the kitchen asking, “Now what?” Everyone else collapsed laughing, bent over or slapping 38
their legs. Dean walked back slowly holding two cones—the fudge ripple and a double dip bubblegum, already half-eaten. Grabbing the tail of his Oxford shirt was Becky Vermelli, laughing and clumsily following, leaning over his shoulder for another taste. The two of them had blue and pink smudges on their lips from the gumballs in the ice cream. Carolyn watched as Dean first held the cone close up for Becky to lick, then moved it quickly, kissing her instead. Carolyn already knew that Dean was spending time with Naked Becky again. She’d seen them once the week before parked behind the Willowbrook, Carolyn stealing out on her usual excuse of being out of milk or cereal or bread. Becky Vermelli sat next to Carolyn on the parking lot guardrail. “You’ve been keeping a low profile these days.” “Yeah, I guess,” Carolyn said. “Like I don’t know how it is,” Becky said and wiped her lips on the sleeve of her tee shirt, leaving a streak of rainbow blue. “Pretty soon my own grandmother’s going to start calling me ‘Naked Becky.’” Carolyn noticed for the first time the girl’s wide smile and easy laugh. “So what excitement have I missed?” Carolyn asked. Becky Vermelli sat with her chin in her hand. “Well, you probably already know that Kevin Rigdon is now dating Marie Grassley. He dumped Barb two weeks ago, surprise, surprise. Frank Scarpelli is telling everyone he scored with Judy Mitchum, 39
and you can’t go anywhere in this town without having to watch Bill and Laurie on top of each other.” Carolyn listened to Becky recite the pecking order of social activities, the high school parties, college parties, and whose parents would be out of town that weekend. “So, my guess is Mandie will take one last shot at Bradley Dugan before she takes off for Braxton U. again. That’s the problem, you college girls horning in on our turf.” And running her hands through her curly black hair, she craned her neck to see how Carolyn took the joke. Dean leaned against the passenger door of the car holding court as different friends came by, giving high fives and bumming change for Cokes. He lit a cigarette and stretched out his arm to Becky Vermelli, offering her one. Scott Brice sat in the passenger seat of the Buick and turned up the radio. Sticking his head out the window, he muttered, “Holy shit,” and pointed. Little Becky Lindsey, head held high and dressed in matching leopard print shorts and top, walked up to Dean, took him by the hand and led him to a picnic table at the other end of the parking lot. Dean’s expression fell into an embarrassed smile. He held out his arms toward Becky Vermelli in a helpless shrug. She in turn blew him a kiss, then said, “There’s no love like the grip of a girl who’s decided you belong to her.” Carolyn thought of Randall, “She’s got powers.” “How old is she?” Carolyn asked. “Sophomore,” Becky exhaled through a cloud of silver blue smoke, then yelled over to where Dean was now sitting, “Hey, Dean, can you still give me a ride home, or do 40
I have to bum? You know Emily Post frowns on such poor manners.” Becky Lindsey’s mouth sank into a stunning pout. She crossed her arms and looked as if she was going to cry. Becky Vermelli looked down at the dried stripe of ice cream that had landed on the front of her tee shirt. “Oh, well,” she said and with the smooth arc of her right arm, pulled the shirt off over her head. Underneath she wore her fluorescent pink bikini top. She tossed the shirt over her shoulder, “So, Dean, gonna make me hitch?” Dean shoved his hands in his pockets, stalling for time. Becky Lindsey roped her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear. Carolyn stood dead still, mesmerized by how casually Becky Vermelli held her ground. Carolyn shifted her weight from one foot to the other before blurting out, “No problem, I was just leaving. I can drop you off.” Becky Vermelli took a few steps around Dean to get a closer look at Becky Lindsey. “Nice outfit, by the way.” She then leaned up against Dean and reached into his shirt pocket and took his last cigarette. “They’re bad for your health.” From behind Dean’s shoulder, Becky Lindsey mouthed the word “Whore.” As Carolyn waited for Becky Vermelli to get in the car, she saw Dean’s other girlfriend Becky the Stealer standing in line for ice cream. She had on another new pair of Levi’s.
It was only 9:30 when Carolyn lay on the chaise lounge on her patio. She closed 41
her eyes and recalled the parking lot teeming with bodies, desires, a sea of hopeful heat-stricken hearts. Three months earlier she had bought two new bathing suits and a canvas bag shaped like a slice of watermelon with matching beach towel. They all still had the price tags on. The week before she missed her period, she’d spent the weekend at home for Mother’s Day on the pretext of a family celebration. In her spare time she walked through the town hoping to bump into Mrs. Gordon to ask about Steven, who was a junior at ISU. She stopped Ben Sharkey on his way to little league practice to find out how his older brother Devin was doing. Carolyn wanted a boyfriend for the months she’d be away from John Tunney and felt the smart thing to do was to shop early. She wanted this summer to be perfect. Or if not perfect, fun; predictable, a known entity. “Instead,” she thought, “I lie on my couch watching game shows and bad soap operas.” She had her old beach towel draped over her like a blanket and thought how in even two years she’d want to remember this summer, to be able to tell somebody, explain to them, “I’d like to say I didn’t even think about sex that summer. The whole experience was punishment enough, so awful that I’d replace any thoughts of John Tunney with math equations, French nouns, facts about medieval architecture. But that’s all I thought about. That’s why I hardly ever left the house. I wasn’t sure I could control myself. What if I found my body surging toward Bradley or Frank against my will? Dean only mentioned his friends in passing, but always in my head, I could picture exactly where they were.” 42
Carolyn was sure it was Lonnie Thomas’ car she heard driving by late at night. Randall wandered out his back door in his pajamas. Carolyn smiled to herself, watching him stumble over, half asleep, pajama legs cuffed and baggy, sleeves hanging too far past his hands. Carolyn realized that in about two more years even Randall would become wrapped up in the melodrama of summer. She imagined him waiting tables at the Willowbrook, doll heads peeking out from behind a radish garnish on someone’s steak dinner. He sat down next to Carolyn, grabbed a corner of her beach towel and clutched it against his chest.
The last two weeks of vacation felt like an eternity, a longer, more painful stretch than the rest of the summer combined. Finally, on the last Saturday of August, Carolyn packed up her mother’s car to drive back to Blackburn. She had already made eighteen trips in and out of the house, changing her mind over what to bring. Randall sat on a milk crate of books as Carolyn shuffled back and forth. Sometime in the middle of the night he’d placed the head of Malibu Barbie on the car antenna and stuck a Valentine underneath the driver’s side windshield wiper. Carolyn reached up and turned the doll so it faced straight ahead. “I picked her because she’s the prettiest,” Randall said. A week after the Dairy Dream incident, Carolyn drove back to Becky Vermelli’s house. Becky had come to the door dressed in a bathrobe, her hair fanned out, wild and wiry. She held a can of Diet Coke and a Twinkie. “Hey, I was just having breakfast, 43
come on in.” Carolyn explained she couldn’t stay, only wanted to drop something off and handed Becky the beach bag, towel, and two unworn bathing suits. “There’s still a little bit of summer left,” Carolyn said. “God knows I won’t be using them.” “Wow,” Becky said. “Where’d you get these?” Carolyn paused a second, then answered, “Becky Sullivan.”
The old blue Buick was packed and Carolyn grinned as she checked her watch. Last night her mom and dad had had “the talk” with Carolyn, the one that had been brewing all summer. They said they were sorry and that they still loved her. People make mistakes, they said. What they didn’t ask, but really wanted to know, the cloudy fear in their eyes saying it all, was if Carolyn had learned her lesson. “It’s just, honey, it’s such a small town and people like to talk.” That they do, Carolyn thought. Plenty of times she heard her own mother tsk-tsk over the bad luck or ill timing of romance gone awry. This summer it was Carolyn; next summer, surely it would be someone else, maybe one of the Beckys, or Judy Mitchum. It seemed contagious. Behind the newly stained cedar of the ranch houses up and down the street, there lurked lost virginities, missed periods, stolen Levis. It was just a matter of who got caught and who was mean enough to spread the word. As Carolyn backed slowly out of the driveway she saw Randall standing on his front porch. He now had tin foil wrapped around his arms and legs and wore a bent 44
coat hanger on his head forming two antenna-like arcs. He held his sister’s hair dryer, which he’d painted silver. He was aiming it at Carolyn, calling out, “Zzzzzz-zap! Zapzap-zap.” Carolyn knew she was at the final moment of her personal soap opera. One last opportunity for the neighbors to peek out their front windows and whisper. Her foot throbbed as it pressed lightly against the accelerator, sending a warm rush up her legs. The thought of being in the car for six hours alone on an open stretch of road going sixty-five, maybe seventy, made her hands tingle as she gripped the steering wheel. She imagined each exit ramp taking her further and further away from that summer. But with a quick glance at her own front porch, the blue mailbox, and picture window, Carolyn inched out into the street. She waved good-bye to Randall before setting her sights due west. Already the narrow block of 58th Place began to shrink in her rear view mirror and Malibu Barbie’s blond hair was flying free as the car picked up speed.
Notes on the District I. Romanticism is all in interpretation. II. Do not capitalize articles. III. Do not unfold origami souls. GOD BLESS THE SINNERS, writes a ghost on a park bench. “Let’s not fuck this up,” sings the girl in my bed. “Eight weeks til New Hampshire,” shouts a suit on a cell phone. “It’s time to be gone,” says the voice in my head. We love when irony is lost on everyone, And I’m going to need to look over your notes. IV. Everything is a question of sleep. V. That building? That’s the Eisenhower Building. VI. Except for you. You do not sleep. VII. It’s mostly offices, I think. Pizza Hut on Wisconsin has specials on Mondays, But it doesn’t matter cause my girlfriend is rich. Did I tell you that my girlfriend is rich? VIII. Sex is very, very personal. I do not have to love Militant black separatists To love my country, and I wonder how Much of this will be on the exam. IX. Drinking is not necessarily a vice. X. There are things of which even I don’t keep track. Please do not hold my heart that way.
Raping Kayfabe I want to start out by saying That I really do like the summertime, But enough with the sweating. Nyquil is not quite being Rubbed to sleep by two giant Hands, but I’ll concede you’re Adept in the ways of the simile. The first time You kiss a person Is often the best. The champaign party In your basement this Tuesday, I was wondering if I could come. Mrs. George taught us a trick To learn long division: Dirty monkeys smell bad. A knife fight on M Street— A seven-foot Ukrainian— But tell me, first, what your news was. I sometimes wonder where the wind goes. Sorry your girlfriends Found out about each other. There should be Hallmark cards for that. Babies are soft. Jake Oresick 48
Ears are hilarious If you take the time To think about them. Yes, Jesus watches wrestling. Other times The first kiss Isn’t best at all.
Dirty monkeys smell bad, Swirling around in my brain. Doctors are like angels. Like very expensive angels. St. Ignatius would’ve liked TV dinners, The chicken carbonara And all that sulty modesty. You are a sultry spectacle of excess. Airplanes are safer than cars. Cars are safer than knife fights. I do not like avant garde shows. Do not think I’m obsessed with understanding art. Do not care if you believe me. Divide, multiply, subtract, bring down. And I just want to tell them, “Enjoy it while you can, babies.” Jake Oresick 49
The word you’ve been using Doesn’t mean what you’ve been Intending it to mean, and there’s an Internet Dictionary that I think may change your life. There are shards of kayfabe In a pile in the kitchen. And poetry is bullshit, But it’s all we’ve got. Jake Oresick
Christopher Collins Push-Ups
At the academy, we wrapped our wrists in red cotton, and except for writing, wiping, or pissing, that hand was unused to teach discipline for the holstered weapon strapped to sides. For a mistake—the touch of a fork, or the friendly pat of another cadet’s shoulders in the hallway—our instructors would push our bodies to outer limitations, reached early by some who wished badges and not survival.
Garden Hose To step upon a garden hose in Florida’s wet grass is Death to a boy who believes a father’s lie that pygmy rattlesnakes slither free from creekbeds into to people’s backyards.
Gabriel DeCrease Sad Steps
After Philip Larkin One Christmas Eve-night, my mother climbed out the window of the one-room where we lived above a two-car garage, scaled lattice up to the rooftop, and stomped the roof in shit-kicker boots five-sizes too-big for her pigeon-toed feet. She had stolen a leather strap lined with aluminum bells stapled to it from some public-housing office. She rang those bells, then shouted herself hoarse, trying so hard to lower her tenor to a baritone as she repeated, Ho! Ho! Ho! And, Merry Christmas! She even tried to name, then command imaginary Reindeer onward. She said, On Donner! On Rudolph! On Vixen! On Vixen? Is that one of them? Oh shit! Whatever. Ho! Ho! Ho! The lattice broke with a sound like fifty raw carrots breaking when she tried to come back down. My mother, holding onto a string of Christmas lights, crashed back through the window at such speed that one boot shot off her foot. I was standing there, in front of the window, waiting to catch her in the act of impersonation. At that age, I used to circle my scars with magic markers and number them in order of importance. Number five was a Y-shaped burn I made by holding my arm against joint on a hot water pipe to mourn a neighbor who taught me to fight. He had a scar just like that. I wanted to be so honored. My mother crashed through the window like an action-movie star fleeing machine-gun fire. That right boot flew off her foot and broke my nose. I saw all that glass on the linoleum floor. Each shard became singular and lonely as it gathered moonlight. I saw that glass and I asked my mother, Are you cut? I inspected her like she was a side of meat, rolling her over to look for holes or slashes. 52
She slapped me away and said, No! No! I am not cut. I just broke my fucking ass. Oh, shit, look at your feet? Look at your fucking face? Her voice was unruly music. Her words seemed so unlike language, so like a dissonant recital. Every time I hear Bartók’s weird-compositions, I remember that night. It was the same kind of music. My mother grabbed me by the neck, led me into the bathroom, pointed my face toward the mirror the way she had once pointed a pet cat‘s face towards a neat pile of its own droppings that had been left in the center of the loft where we lived, somewhere else. She pointed my face at a reflection of my broken-crooked nose and my chest that was bloody from both nostrils turned on like soda fountains. Oh, oh, oh! No! I asked her, Is this bad? She said, It’s not good. My feet? I had two-hundred-fifty-some-odd shards in my toes and heels from the walk across the broken glass to my mother. She washed the blood of my chest, mouth, feet so slowly, like polishing boots, that I did not notice she was using the towel I used that day to clean up the Bully Kutta piss one of Chicago’s fighting dogs sprayed on our doorstep on his way to a killing. I was sick for a month, after that, I told every boy I fought at school I would win, I had become part fighting-dog. I lost half those fights. But, forget about that. Before my mother and I went to the hospital that Christmas Eve-night she used the same piss-covered towel and some bar-soap to wash all the marker lines and numbers off my body. After she was done, she said, You go to the hospital painted-up like that and they will think you are some kind of nutcase. She paused after that so long I remember, clearly-enough, sitting in the cast-iron bathtub watching my body 53
develop or just heal a little, change in observable increments. She went on, as if no time had passed at all, They will think I am some kind of awful motherâ€Śto have a son who writes graffiti all over old cuts and burns. Crazy people do that. And I donâ€™t want anyone to think you inherited your crazy from me. If you are crazy, you got that from your father. She looked at me, looked at her feet, then said, All I got from him was a pair of boots. I laughed first, then she did, and we laughed together until we hurt from laughing. My nose is still crooked to the left, twenty-some-years-later. In all my years of boxing, I was never punched at an angle just right to straighten it out. This morning, it is sometime in December, I am stomping the floors of my apartment in my fatherâ€™s boots that are an almost perfect fit now, talking on the phone to my mother. I tell her how unemployment does not bother me, not just now. I tell her how I could not care less. She claims not to remember anything specific or clear about crashing through the window to finish her impersonation of Santa Claus. She cites her seizures, seriously, as a reason for not remembering. She cites her drinking, in-jest, too. She says, I forget Chicago every chance I get. I have done that one thing right. I will just make whatever assumptions I want in the absence of an answer. Doing so feels hopeless as writing a question in a letter. I lean back on my heel. I can still feel a few shards of glass inside the meat of my heel, full of what moonlight they keep, pushing against or protesting all the weight of this body.
Micah Robbins Praise & Worship
Pastor West doesn’t like Ed’s new keyboard. Makes Praise and Worship feel like a European disco when it should feel like an American revival. The Praise Team suggests Ed choose a new sound. Tone it down a little. Ed channels through his selection—marimba, reggae, deep cello, chimes. He settles on Funk Piano #2. He’ll just increase the number of notes he plays. Shift the tempo. He fingers out a double-time version of How Great Thou Art, and the praise team bob their heads, grooving to Ed’s new sound. Reverend Capstone, the founder/mentor/old master of the New Fundamental Fellowship, reassures Pastor West with a stiff slap on the back. He pinches his shoulder and leans close, whispering, Let ’em play their little funky monkey music there, Charlie. Things change. Pastor West accepts Reverend Capstone’s advice, but not without some concern for how the congregation will react. Doesn’t want everyone dancing in the isles. Wants to keep the tongues to a minimum.
Ed says, WE’RE GONNA BRING THE FUNK TO PRAISE AND WORSHIP! The Praise Team says, HALLELUJAH! THE SPIRIT IS MOVING HERE TONIGHT!
Pastor West looks at the large-beamed gilt cross hanging over the baptismal and wonders where Reverend Capstone got such a thing. Are there cross-making companies? 56
He remembers having the baptismal installed, but that came through a pool company. Shore Pools and Spas. $6,000 for materials and labor. Really just a square blue fiberglass tub. No jets. No gadgets. Four steps down. Diaphragm deep. Room for two and a dunk. They tore out the whole back of the stage to make room for it. Still hasn’t been put back together, but once every three months they run a hose into the tub and fill it for baptisms.
Reverend Capstone’s head is drooping. He’s starting to breathe hard, falling asleep with his hand still gripping Pastor West’s shoulder. Ed is standing now, playing his double-time renditions, tapping his foot and swinging his hips. Pastor West is thinking about the time he took Mrs. Mungschlichtner into the baptismal after Friday night rehearsal. The sound of her feet splashing into the water. The distorted look of her submerged face.
Ed says, WE’RE GONNA ROCK ‘EM ‘TILL THEY ROLL! The Praise Team says, PRAISE THE LORD! PRAISE THE LORD!
After a dizzyingly fast version of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the Praise Team breaks for coffee and cigarettes. They scoot and duck from behind their instruments and leave Reverend Capstone and Pastor West alone in the sanctuary. Pastor West wants to wake Reverend Capstone. His shoulder feels tender under the 57
old man’s grip, but he knows how irritable Reverend Capstone can be when woken prematurely from a nap. He hopes that Mrs. Mungschlichtner will bring him some coffee when she comes back.
Ed and the Praise Team beat rhythms on the counter with swizzle sticks as they wait for the coffee to brew. They stomp their feet for bass and click their tongues like high-hats. Joanna suggest they use a couple of old spirituals this Sunday. Maybe Oh Freedom, or Steal Away. Craig thinks a few old spirituals would make a nice transition from the Praise to the Worship, but Missy has been preparing a special performance all week. She needs that time to uplift the congregation with her singing. Ed knows how sensitive Missy is. He knows she may cry if they go ahead with the spirituals.
Mrs. Mungschlichtner is outside with the smokers. She doesn’t smoke, but she takes a cigarette from June and lights it. The smoke feels dry in her mouth. Makes her thirsty. The others have looks of rapture on their faces as they blow thin clouds into the dusk, but she wants to gag.
Maybe this is why Pastor West hates smoking so much, she thinks, remembering the time he threatened to ban smokers from the Praise Team. Fortunately for June and the other smokers, Reverend Capstone stayed Pastor West’s judgement. 58
I hope he smells it on me.
The Praise Team grind out their cigarettes. They stir sugar and dry milk into their coffee and file back to their instruments. The amps and mics are back on, and their sips and slurps sound out through the sanctuary. Mrs. Mungschlichtner sets a steaming cup on the seat next to Reverend Capstone and gently nudges his knee. He wakes, and she shows him the coffee.
How coy! Pastor West thinks, watching her skirt shake as she walks back to her flute. Bringing him coffee! But he’s glad that Reverend Capstone has released his shoulder.
Ed says, WE’RE GONNA BRING DOWN THE HOUSE! The Praise Team says, PRAISE HIM! PRAISE HIM! WE ALL FALL DOWN!
Pastor West moves to the back of the sanctuary. He paces back and forth, making sure that all the chairs are neatly aligned. He’s stiff in his pants thinking about Mrs. Mungschlichtner in the baptismal. The way her long skirt ended up floating around her chest. How she trembled when he held her under two seconds too long. The way her wet shirt clung to the creases in her fatty stomach when she stepped out of the tub. Ed and the Praise Team are rehearsing the Worship section of the Sunday service. He has selected Woodwinds on his keyboard. Something sweet and airy. The 59
music is slow. Sentimental.
Reverend Capstone has his hands raised in the air. A tear clings to the corner of his eye. The Praise Team pauses, and Missy takes a microphone from its stand. She moves to the center of the stage. A one, two, a one, two, three, four, she counts before Ed starts the intro. The Praise Team waits, sipping their coffee and re-examining their rarely used sheet music. Just piano and vocals for Missy’s special gift to the congregation. She doesn’t want the quality of her voice to be eroded by guitars and drums and tambourines.
Ed says, CLAP YOUR HANDS, PEOPLE! CLAP YOUR HANDS! The Praise Team says, MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE!
Reverend Capstone’s nurse comes to pick him up. She helps him into his wheelchair and pushes him away. Ed says, That’s a wrap, and the Praise Team turn off their mics and amps, pack up their instruments, and arrange their power chords into neat little spirals on the floor. They shake hands and hug.
Pastor West broods around the sanctuary as they leave. Mrs. Mungschlichtner is slow in cleaning her flute. 60
Pastor West approaches Mrs. Mungschlichtner. Can I speak with you for a moment? he asks. I’ve got to get home, she says. I promised the kids I’d bring pizza for dinner. Just for a moment, Pastor West says, stepping close to her. She’s kneeling, and the stiffness in his pants is close to her face. Just for a moment, he says, resting his hand on her head. Ed is gone. Craig is gone. Joanna, June, and Missy are gone, and Reverend Capstone has been led away. Pastor West and Mrs. Mungschlichtner are alone in the church: her face close to his cock; his hand resting on her head. Let me baptize you again, Pastor West says, gripping her hair in his fist. Mrs. Mungschlichtner waits, her eyes closed. Why? So you can play like Jesus with a hard-on? she asks, looking up at his face. Pastor West loosens his grip on her hair and lets his hand fall to his side. What did you say? he asks. She stands and leans close to him. Her mouth right under his nose. I said, are you going to save me this time, or are you just going to tease me again? Pastor West smells smoke on her breath. His nose wrinkles. His chest feels tight and his teeth clench. Mrs. Mungschlichtner leaves her flute. She runs away. Wait! Pastor West shouts after her. “Wait!” but she is gone, and he is alone in the sanctuary. He walks back and forth across the stage, pacing beneath the largeMicah Robbins 61
beamed gilt cross. Blasphemy! He kicks her flute when he comes to it. Shoves a mic stand over. He paces and rages and curses her insolence. He grabs his stiff cock hard. Drops his jacket to the floor and loosens his tie. Blasphemy! His mind screams as he undoes his top two buttons, rolls up his sleeves. A tease! Unfastening his belt and zipping down his fly. He steps into the baptismal alone. Teasing and mocking! He slips into the water. Cool on his feet. Cool on his thighs. Teasing and mocking and blasphemy! Falling to his kneesâ€”the water rising toward the cross.
Jen McClung 65
Manisha Sharma Godhara Sita joined the increasing line of passengers outside Ticket Window One at Ayodhya railway station. Ahead of her, a lanky man shifted his feet. She knew why he was trying his best to keep his distance: she smelled like rotten vegetables, a stench that lingered with her since she had started to work as a maid scrubbing dirty dishes in people’s houses. She could imagine the peevish expression on the man’s face, empathize with the reason behind his need to maintain the physical distance. Sita scuffed on her feet, raised her eyelids, which a moment ago were focused on Pilu, her three-year-old son, diverted her stare from the man, displaying nonchalance. With her hands she continually swatted away flies that swarmed around her, their buzz making her deaf to the hubbub of the railway station. Sita looked at her leathery hands— hard to the touch like a man’s, the tips of her fingers rough and textured, her fingernails black with dirt, crooked as if she’d been gnawing on them. She held onto Pilu with one hand. He was mostly quiet, his gaunt figure showing traces of childhood by the occasional waddling he engaged in, thumping tiny feet on the dull mosaic railway station floor. Sita noticed the signs of malnutrition: a large, disproportionate head, a starved thin body, dark bowed legs, and smiled. Pilu
will be healthy like the other children. The ticket to Ahemadabad would change their future. She knew her family’s physical, mental and emotional state was mainly due to destitution. With a contented smile, dreaming of better days ahead, Sita looked at Pilu’s innocent face, gently rubbed her hands down his scrawny cheeks. Her uncle in Ahmedabad had gotten her husband Biju a job at a dry cleaning store. The job would 67
pay three times than what she presently earned, and both Sita and Biju embraced the idea of Ahemadabad, a passport to prosperity and better life. Sita recalled her uncle’s assurance: “If Biju works hard at this new job, he can get frequent raises.” Sita was sad to leave Ayodhya, where she had spent her entire life, but was also happy to bid her birthplace a final goodbye. Today Sita observed the railway station with a child-like curiosity. At five in the evening, the station was busier than a bazaar: it buzzed with human sounds, train arrival and departure announcements blared in a monotone, people both arriving and departing the station with luggage in hand jostled. Suddenly, a rush on another ticket window resulted in a fight when a passenger broke the line. People crawled in like ants, but the few policemen in khaki uniforms and porters in red were hard to miss. She’d been aware of the recent explosion in the number of rich and poor visitors to Ayodhya. Every day the crowds bearing orange flags multiplied; people, she thought, had perhaps come to Ayodhya as part of a religious group. Sita didn’t often consciously think about politics or religion. But the thought of a comfortable life made her mind alive with things that were foreign to it. Or maybe it was optimism, which expanded her thoughts beyond her family and the perennial worry of food. Sita knew that the sudden increase in the railway traffic to Ayodhya was because it was the Hindu God Rama’s birthplace. It was also her birthplace, she thought. How much had changed in Ayodhya since the politicians started exploiting this fact of Ayodhya being Lord Rama’s birthplace. Were the orange flags just a bunch 68
of sanctimonious hypocrites? She muttered a prayer for forgiveness, the instant this thought crossed her mind. She was aware that the subtle communal tension between Hindus and Muslims could explode anytime. She was fortunate; neither she nor her family had ever been a victim of the civil unrest, but she always feared the worse. She could recall the riots that took place some years ago in December. Ayodhya was no longer a safe haven, this she knew. She felt relieved that her family would no longer live in the city. It was like living on the rim of a volcano. Sita saw some children pulling at their motherâ€™s saris, displaying an adamant behavior, demanding a fifty-paisa coin to drop into the weighing scale. She glared at the scale as if suddenly jealous of the attention it was receiving. Its dimensions made it look like a monster, a monster that refused to work without devouring the fifty-paisa coin. When in operation, the scale looked enormous, balanced against a wall, tall as an average human being, with red, yellow, blue and flashing green bald-headed bulbs. Money lit up the machine, Sita concluded on seeing the bulbs flash with the click of the coin dropping into the slot. For a second, she wanted to use the scale to read her futureâ€” the machine printed tickets with the weight on one side and future on the other, which was never a bad one. If anything, the future on the ticket would make her feel lighthearted. But leaving her spot in the ticket line meant losing it, and she was reluctant to take that risk. Sita pulled Pilu closer to her. It troubled her to see his stunted growth. A glass of milk each day was what he needed. She succeeded in making him smile by saying, â€œLook! 69
A moving train.” She picked Pilu up and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. “Why don’t we ride a train every day, Ma?” Sita paused. She hunted for a response to satisfy Pilu’s curiosity. “Riding trains every day will make you dizzy,” she told him. The mention of the word “train” excited Pilu. He repeated it like a parrot. Sita was thrilled she could delight him without spending a single penny. She was coming closer and closer to the ticket window, when suddenly a middleaged man pushed against her and Pilu. “Be in your spot,” said the middle-aged man to Sita in a surly manner, brushing his hand on an exceptionally odd long beard that reached halfway to his stomach. He tried to get ahead of Sita in the line in front of the ticket window. “I am in line, where else do you think I am?” Sita replied indignantly. “You were behind me, and see how you’ve been trying to get ahead of me?” He looked toward the other people in the line: “All of us are here for a train ticket only. You aren’t anyone special?” “Fear your Allah before accusing a lone woman, just because I am a woman and am—” Another man, a fairly aged one, interrupted Sita. “Don’t get into trouble, beti1. Get your ticket and leave.” Overcome by the reverential tone in his drawl, the experience in dealing with 1. Beti- a daughter, literal translation from Hindi.
life reflecting from his haggard-looking skin and tiny eyes set deep down in their sockets, Sita felt compelled to adhere to the old man’s advice. She stayed in her spot, quiet and unwavering, waiting for her turn. She looked at the big wall clock in front of her and wished the clock hands moved frantically. It was hard for Sita to hear the tick-tock of the clock lost in the hum of human and mechanical noises. She wanted to reach Ahemadabad sooner, to start a new life at a new place amongst an unknown set of people, and to forge a new identity.
Sita’s lemon-yellow blouse looked dull. Dirt had caked around the edge of her blouse’s sleeves, sleeves that ended at her elbows, and at the folds. The rotten vegetable stench emanating from her became stronger when she lifted her hands, revealing discolored patches of semi-dried sweat at the armpits. Her burgundy polyester sari was frayed on the edges, smudged, the pills of fuzz revealing tales of its ancestry. Because of the breeze created by the ceiling fan running on full speed, the thin polyester fabric of Sita’s sari often rippled and ballooned round her legs. Sita felt uncomfortable in her dirty, rumpled clothes when she looked at the clean clothes of people surrounding her. She knew she looked disheveled and poor. She had free formal education until class five at a government-run school. At nine years of age, family circumstances made it necessary to quit school; she joined hands with her mother in working as a maid in people’s houses, carrying on the family profession. At first, Sita was amazed at her mother’s speed and efficiency. Her mother cleaned dishes, 71
swept and mopped five houses in the time that Sita could barely do one. Sita was glad that she was taking a step toward a better life before her son reached school age. That she would be able to afford a decent education for him in Ahemadabad made her less regretful about her own incomplete schooling. Just when she was weaving sand castles in the thick air of the railway platform, Pilu stepped on a pool of vomit and broke into a whimper; it also broke her reverie. Sita was sure she was not going to leave her spot and look for water to clean his foot, especially when she was only one place away from the ticket window. In front of Sita, a stout woman, probably the wife of a well-to-do businessman, dressed in an expensive henna-green silk sari, was counting the change the man from inside the window had slipped onto her hand. Her exquisitely carved gold bangles clicked, producing a soft jingle. Sita looked at her own pair of glass bangles dangling on bony wrists. In a quest to calm Pilu down, Sita told him, “Papa will get peanuts for you. Stop crying.” The mention of peanuts cheered up Pilu; the crying changing into a whimper and then to silence—Sita feared this, so unlike a child to be quiet, she thought— and he raised his foot from the ground. People behind Sita in the line distanced themselves from Pilu. At last it was Sita’s turn to buy a ticket. “Two Sabarmati, till Ahmedabad,” Sita spoke into the circle cut out in the glass window. She looked at the once transparent glass of the window, now a bearer of the testimony of passengers’ fingerprints and sweaty hands. 72
“No reservation. Train full,” a male voice from inside said matter-of-factly. “I just want tickets, not reservation.” Sita said to the man inside, her voice firm. She knew even if there was reservation available on the train, she could not afford it. “Hundred and eighty rupees,” the man from inside the ticket-window said. Sita pulled out a carefully wrapped and knotted handkerchief from under her left breast inside her blouse, undid the knot, and took out two bills of a hundred each. The green bills smelled of her sweat. She shoved the money into the window. There was a clamping sound. The man inside stamped two tickets and handed them over to Sita with fifteen rupees in change. “I gave two hundred, this is just fifteen,” Sita said, annoyed, demanding an explanation. “No change. Next,” the man replied nonchalantly and moved onto the next customer in the line. Sita stared at the uniformed railway personnel, his sky blue shirt with a black badge on the top left of his chest announcing his name in capital letters, a framed poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall behind him saying Truth Always Wins in Hindi, and a calendar announcing February, 2000, in bold red. The air conditioner blew cool air. Calendar pages flapped. She drew in a puff of the comforting office atmosphere before turning her back to him and giving relief to the row of people eagerly waiting for their turn to buy a ticket. Sita knew she was not getting her five rupees back. The uniformed man inside the ticket window was making extra money by not returning her the exact 73
change. She knew she could do nothing about it. The train would arrive at Platform Number One in half an hour. It was Sita’s job to hold onto seats in the reserved compartment. The general coach would be crammed with people like her, people without reservation. “Get into the first second-class reserved compartment, and I’ll join you,” Biju had said to her. She took pride in this decision of Biju, a confident decision, probably his first after their marriage. Without a reservation, she had to reach there as soon as the train would arrive so that she could pay some money to the ticket checker and get a seat. It would cost them a lot less than buying the reservation for all of them. The vomit on Pilu’s foot had thickened into a gel-like consistency. When he walked, his foot made a light slapping noise against the crisscross patterned white Hawai chappal sole. Sita was looking for a water tap, when suddenly her attention glued to the TV hanging from the ceiling like a fan. The colorful screen of the TV relayed images of Hindus and Muslims attacking each other; Hindus armed with tridents and Muslims with anything from a spear to a gun in hand. For a moment Sita was petrified. She recognized the site on TV as Ayodhya. Biju, where is he? She was worried, but relaxed the next moment, realizing the TV was playing a clip from riots that took place when she was a lot younger and unmarried. Ayodhya was no longer a peaceful abode on the banks of the holy Saryu. Followers of Rama were rapidly increasing. Scenes of men dressed in orange clothes, wearing shawls saying Rama all over the fabric and carrying tridents in hand had become ubiquitous. She saw several of them on the railway 74
platform. It was the end of February; evenings were still cooler and mostly pleasant. “Look for a window seat facing the platform,” Biju had told her. As she recalled her husband’s words, pent-up anger against him exploded in her mind. Why couldn’t he come a little early to the railway station and reserve the seats? Sita was infuriated. Biju didn’t do anything besides play cards or loaf around the neighborhood. If only she could, she’d have walked out on him a long time ago. But this world would not let Pilu or Sita live if she left Biju. She wished leaving him were as simple as abandoning Ayodhya. Sita thought about how her life degraded after marriage, not that the pre-marriage life was any better. She had dreams about starting a new life with Biju. She recalled how proud her parents had been when Biju had agreed to marry their daughter. She was also ecstatic about quitting her job cleaning other people’s houses, cleaning the dishes they’d cooked in and eaten from. She was happy to leave her parent’s house, to leave the everyday burden of food and rent behind her. Sita remembered her mother’s joyful face on knowing that Sita would not have to experience the same fate her mother had endured all her life. Sita would have a husband who had a well-paying job. Sita pretended to be modest when her mother told her how lucky she was to have Biju, who had agreed to marry her knowing that she was coming from a poverty-stricken household. At eighteen, Sita’s world changed. Changed completely. She was a married woman now, a cow lassoed to an unfeeling tree trunk. She was not happy to recall this 75
part of her life, but was convinced in an eerie sort of way that recalling her bad moments would mean leaving them behind in Ayodhya. She got pregnant soon after marriage, and truths surfaced one by one, truths that attacked her dreams, her youth, her nascent motherhood and turned her life into a barren, rancid desert. It took no time for Sita to discover that the clothes Biju wore so proudly were merely “a show off”; they belonged to his affluent clients at the dry cleaner’s shop where he gave new life and shine to dirty, crumpled clothes. Biju lost his job when he was caught red-handed wearing the clothes his customers paid to get dry cleaned. Even before their life as a husband and wife could get on track, Biju had ironed out the ripples of excitement Sita had first experienced with him.
The clock at the railway platform, neatly encased in the carved stone tower, struck five times. The Sabarmati Express was not due to arrive until six. Sita amused Pilu by showing him the clock tower. Pilu was excited to see the trains entering and leaving the station. “A train set! Bogies, lots of bogies and an engine like the king leading them all,” Sita said and looked at Pilu. “A train,” Pilu exclaimed. Sita looked into his eyes gleaming with the expectation of a new toy. Sita pointed out to Pilu the maroon-colored train leaving the platform, asked him if he wanted a toy train like the one that just left them behind. Instead, Pilu 76
wanted the blue train that had slowed to a stop on Platform Three. “I want that,” he said. “You’ll have that, The Rajdhani Express, small little blue coaches, an electric engine. You’ll have it...your own train set to play with,” Sita said. “No, I want this one. Ma, stop it! It’s going, it’s gone.” Pilu started to cry. “Look over there.” Sita diverted Pilu’s attention to another train coming to a halt at Platform Two and continued to say, “that’s yours.” Continuing her observation, Sita looked at the beggars lined up at the railway station, a permanent rent-free shelter, the hope of receiving alms transparent in their expressive eyes staring at each passerby. She did not fear the pickpockets for whom a busy place like the railway station was an opportune site. What do I have to fear? She thought and perched on an iron bench under the square, white, lit sign that said “One”— for Platform Number One— in dark blue hanging over them. Pilu rested his head on Sita’s legs and stretched the rest of his body on the bench. Close to them was a yellow sign erected on two green poles saying “Ayodhya” in capital English letters. The city’s name was also written in Hindi and Urdu under the English one. Sitting on an iron bench in the railway platform, Sita watched a crowd of people carrying luggage. Very few rolled expensive V.I.P. branded suitcases; instead most people carried metal trunks painted an absurd green or red with names and complete addresses on them. Uniformed soldiers carried black metal trunks. People also carried different types of water bottles: expensive insulated ones to keep water ice cold, cheap plastic 77
ones, or even previously used mineral water or soft drink bottles. Sita was happy to spot fair-skinned foreigners, so unlike her, with heavy backpacks and very few clothes on, almost as few as most beggars had. She was always surprised by the fact that beggars had no choice in what they wore, and the foreigners wore very few clothes because they wanted to. There were small shops, half the size of a regular cabin that sold newspapers, magazines, comics and other books. She bought a cup of chai from one of the peddlers moving along the platform with insulated containers of chai and plastic cups. She gave Pilu some of the chai sheâ€™d bought. She took one last look at the food stalls that prepared fresh breakfast, lunch or dinner besides selling soft drinks, tea, coffee and fresh juice. It was quite unusual for Sita to observe people, the items they carried, the clothes and shoes they wore. She had already started to embrace the new life she would have. She made a mental list of the things she would want in her new house and life that would come with the move to Ahemadabad. She looked at Pilu and attributed this change to her son and the good karma heâ€™d performed in his past life. She was careful not to move around too close to the walls stained with urine, which attracted flies, bugs and insects. A stray dog was licking stale food crumbs from between the tracks. She wondered about the gap between people in society when she saw passengers flinging away food, banana peels, empty tea cups, glasses, plastic water bottles from moving trains onto the tracks. She was careful not to step on the people sleeping under the benches or huddled close to each other on the platform. As a rule, she always looked away from those who were eating. She did not want to give an impression that she 78
was starving and eyeing othersâ€™ food. Entering the platform from a curve, the Sabarmati Express appeared grand. To Sita, the approaching train was as graceful as a classical dancer. She saw the children scampering down the platform suddenly stop, cheer and wave to the passengers inside the moving train, and looked at her own son who, with hesitation, tried to imitate the actions of other children on the platform. As soon as the train arrived on Platform One, people rushed and jostled each other to get inside. Reserved coach S 6 was right in front of Sita. The clock in the tower struck six times and the same announcement, Attention
passengers going to Ahemadabad, Anand, Godhara...Sabarmati Express is arriving on Platform One, was repeated umpteen times even after the train had arrived and halted. Passengers selfishly pushed and nudged one another to get inside the train. Activity at the station suddenly became fast-paced. Sita shielded Pilu, holding tightly to his hands. Getting into the train, she looked carefully for an untaken seat or two. With the eagerness of a hawk clutching its prey, she instantly occupied the two unclaimed seats she spotted at first and asked Pilu to spread his legs so that they could occupy both the seats completely. A little later she fed him some rice mixed with vegetables, the leftover food one of the women she worked for had given her. Within no time, the coach was full. It had a musty, decayed smell of food and people. Sita was comfortable with it because she smelled so bad. She constantly looked for Biju outside the train window. He came in just when the train was leaving the station. He looked different with his shaven face and clean clothes; Sita embraced 79
the idea of making a fresh start in a new place. After a few hours into the journey, another family with a child boarded the train. It turned out that the seats Sita and Biju had occupied were their seats. “Twenty-eight, twenty-nine and thirty. These are our seats,” said the man who had boarded the train with his wife and a daughter. By the way the couple talked to each other, Sita knew that they were husband and wife and the little girl holding the man’s hand, their daughter. The daughter seemed to be the same age as Pilu. “We have reservation,” the woman said furiously. Her black hair was tied tightly in a bun at the back of her head. Biju said nothing and gave up his seat. “I have a child and he is not very well, just tired. Please, I’ll sit in the corner,” Sita pleaded to the woman with the bun and almost bent down to touch her feet. “Away,” the black-haired woman said, gesturing at Sita with her hand and continued, “these people will do anything to gain our sympathy. We spend all our money in getting reservations and they just want to grab our seats for free? Forget it. Go find some other place. We are not here for donating our seats.” After completing her sentence, the woman put her luggage on the seat that Biju had vacated. The husband of the woman with the bun spoke: “Let her. She’ll sit in one corner. If it wasn’t for the little boy, I—” The man wore an oversized dark blue unbuttoned shirt and white pants. Sita could see his orange t-shirt peeking from between the buttons of the dark blue shirt. 80
“Now you don’t say anything. What if my child gets some unknown disease from this, her child, and wait, what’s that on his feet? Chee2!” The woman had a disgusted expression. She pointed at Pilu’s foot, still covered in vomit. “Never! Neither my daughter nor I am going to sit near this woman or her child.” The woman with the bun relaxed further in the seat. “Sheila. Our daughter will be safe. Didn’t you get all her vaccinations? Polio, cholera, tetanus, diphtheria, booster dose...” “Yes. I did.” Sheila replied. Sita said, “I’ll clean his foot right away,” and disappeared with Pilu. Before leaving to clean Pilu’s foot, she turned toward Biju, who was looking out the window. Sita walked to the nearest toilet. In the tight space of the toilet, she lifted Pilu up with both hands and lowered his vomit-covered foot into the steel wash basin. Balancing Pilu on one hand, she pressed the spring-loaded button on the tap. The water came gushing out as long as she kept her thumb pressed against it. After Sita washed away the vomit, she dried Pilu’s wet foot with a corner of her sari. She felt uncomfortable in the filthy bathroom that already smelled like a community latrine. She held her breath and dreamed of a clean, marble bathroom in her new house. On Sita’s return to the train cabin, there was silence until Sheila’s daughter broke into a whimper. In her broken language, she kept asking for a fish toy. Sita saw that Sheila finally gave in to her daughter and took out a bright pink plastic fish, the 2. Chee- An expression in Hindi that symbolizes disgust.
size of Sita’s palm, from a jute bag saying Famous Banarsi Saris. Then Sita looked at Pilu, who just stared at the whole tamasha without saying a word. The realization that Pilu’s childhood lay buried under a cover of maturity hurt her. She blamed her destitute state for robbing him of his childhood. After giving the plastic fish to her daughter, Sheila engrossed herself in reading a woman’s magazine, Manorama. Sita took her silence as an opportunity to sit at the edge of the seat where the daughter was sitting, playing with her plastic fish. Sita observed that Sheila looked away from her magazine for a moment and moved her daughter closer to herself. Their daughter could hardly occupy half of the seat. A little later, Sita stood up and laid down Pilu, who was fast asleep, where she sat a while ago. “Don’t let him touch my daughter,” Sheila’s voice sounded mad with rage. “I’ll be careful,” Sita responded calmly. From the adjoining cabin, different food smells and muffled sounds, perhaps of joy and disappointment, echoed in Sita’s ears. When Sita had sold the very little stuff they owned, she had collected a total of two hundred rupees. Sita saw the ticket-checker arrive. He was dressed in a black coat and pants with the tie hanging around his neck like a noose. After asking for passengers’ tickets, he would look up their name and reservation number in his reservation chart, mark the ticket with a blue pen, and return it. If there were any vacant seats, he would issue people a reservation by charging some money. When the ticket-checker approached Biju, he forwarded the two tickets to him. 82
“You know, this is a reservation coach?” The ticket-checker said to Biju annoyingly. The man kept his sight on his chart when he spoke to the passengers. “Yes, Sahib3. But you can do anything. I can give you the money I have, to get a seat,” Biju pleaded. “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.” The ticket-checker moved toward Sita. “And you? Are you with him too? This child? Yours?” “Yes,” Sita said. “If you people didn’t have a reservation, why didn’t you get on the general coach?” the ticket-checker asked. When Biju did not say anything, Sita said, “Our son is not well.” At that time Biju pulled out a bill of fifty rupees from the back pocket of his coffee-brown pants and tried to hand the money to the ticket-checker. “Is that all you have?” the ticket-checker asked Biju. Without waiting for a response, the ticket-checker moved down to the next passenger. After the ticket-checker left, Sita asked Biju why he couldn’t ask for a berth or even a seat. “Who has the money? Do you?” Biju sounded suspicious. Sita stayed quiet. Relaxing, Biju took out a pinch of tobacco from a tin box, pulled up his lower lip, placed the tobacco between his lip and the jaw, and began working at it. Sheila warned him, “Now no bidi here.” The other family in the cabin decided it was time to go to bed. Sheila spread 3. Sahib- Translated as Sir in Hindi. 4. Bidi-An inexpensive cigarette.
printed sheets on their berths, one each for her husband, herself and her daughter. On the lower berth, which was for her daughter, she folded the sheet and covered just half of the berth with it. Quite reluctantly, Sheila told Sita, “You can put your son to bed here, but be careful he doesn’t get close to my daughter or even dirty the sheet.” Sita was grateful to her. The lights of their cabin were turned off, and very soon the sound of snoring filled the coach.
Sita asked Biju to look after their son while she went to the toilet. She lied to him; she went to look for the ticket-checker. She crossed the coach her husband and she were in and was relieved to spot the ticket-checker at the end of the next coach. “Sahib, do you have any vacant berth or seat available? I have money. Even one will do,” Sita implored. The ticket-checker scanned her from head to toe and gave her a lewd stare she wasn’t unfamiliar with. He said, “There is one in the next coach, the last seat of the cabin, the one right next to the toilet. You want to come?” It took Sita no time to understand his intentions. She rapidly turned away from him, covered her chest with the frayed end of her sari and ran back to her seat. Her legs ached with every step she took in a bid to save her honor. “Eh, wait! I’m not asking for any money.” He called behind her.
It was pitch dark outside, and no fun to stare out of the train window. The chuk,
chuk, choo, choo sound of the train became frightening with every passing night hour. Activity on the train too became dull and died. No one spoke. Any little sound that would have passed undistinguished during the day became prominent at night. When all the people in their cabin were asleep, Biju spread a shawl on the floor of the cabin. “I am tired, take care of Pilu,” he said to Sita. “What did you do the whole day?” Sita asked Biju. “I...I don’t remember, but is it important? I am tired and want to sleep,” Biju said. Sita did not say anything, and Biju covered his face with a sheet. Soon he was fast asleep and snoring. Sita wondered how he could relax. She could not imagine herself sleeping so soundly if she was the head of the family without a job. Perched on the corner of the berth where Pilu slept, Sita tried not to fall asleep. She was worried that Pilu might fall off the berth, since he was almost at the end of it, or that he might wake up the couple’s daughter. Sita had transitioned into sleep, and woke up at a station when the train halted with a jerk. It was around seven in the morning, but almost everyone in their coach was fast asleep. She checked on her son and gently kissed him on the forehead. Quite late in the night, she could still hear peals of laughter coming from the adjoining cabins. The train left a small station, Godhara. From her cabin window, Sita had seen the board on 85
the platform that the Sabarmati Express was leaving behind. Hearing sounds of people, luggage and footsteps entering the train, she gathered the courage to walk to the toilet. The train started. The toilets in their coach appeared to be in use, and so she crossed into the next coach. As she locked the toilet from the inside, the train screeched and came to another abrupt, jerky halt as if someone had suddenly and forcefully applied brakes to a vehicle in acceleration. The physical shock almost brought her squatted body on the Indian-style latrine down to the floor. An accident? She dismissed her thought as soon as it had occurred. She heard subdued human voices and hurried footsteps. People always got off and on the train. It was when the sound continued and she heard sounds like stones pelting on the toilet roof that she felt certain something was wrong. The first thing that came to her mind was her son. Pilu, did he fall off the berth?
He’d be fine, she thought. She’d made a boundary of a sheet to act as a barricade for him. And then she’d also asked her husband to keep watch on him. But she also knew well not to trust an irresponsible man like Biju. Sita pulled on the door handle to open the toilet but it was stuck, stuck as a tree to its roots. It simply would not open. The noises outside got louder; she pushed harder. It took her some time to realize that the door had been locked form the outside. My son. She screamed, yelled for someone to open the door, hit her fists against the door. “Open the door. My Pilu!” she shouted. No one answered. An acrid smell nauseated her. Petrol or kerosene, she didn’t know which. Soon her screams were lost in the bigger commotion of other noises and stomping of feet coming from the outside. Excruciating bone-jarring 86
cries of pain and horror multiplied her dread. Panic gripped her. Like a lunatic, Sita struggled to break the door or the window rails free, banged, hit at the door with her fists, hands, legs, her frail body. She collapsed.
Sita woke up and found herself in a hospital. It smelled strongly of phenyl. Moaning, whimpering, and sharp cries made the air inside the building thick. Sita looked at the blue walls and masked doctors and nurses, stethoscopes hanging round their necks. A nurse in a white uniform told Sita that the Sabarmati Express had been attacked and burned. “Several people died and many are hospitalized.” “Pilu, my son, he was in S 6. Take me to him.” Sita pulled at the nurse’s uniform. “He was wearing a green shirt, black knickers, Hawai chappals. He was sick, was three. No troublemaker. No one will attack him, a child.” When the nurse didn’t respond, Sita became hysterical, yelled her son’s name and tried to run away. “I want my son!” She raised her voice. A man with a white coat and a badge bearing the name Dr. Venugopal entered the ward. When he saw Sita, he said to her in a matter-of-fact way, “You’re not the only one. There are several others like you here who’ve lost a son, a daughter, a husband, relatives, friends. This is a hospital. Please let us do our work.” The doctor told the nurse that since Sita had no physical injuries—she had 87
inhaled the petrol fumes and suffered a shortage of oxygenâ€” she could be discharged. She had gained consciousness. The beds needed to accommodate other casualties that were pouring in. Sita immediately pulled out the IV cord from her slender wrist, rushed out of the hospital ward, her burgundy sari crumpled and loose from the waist, her hair tangled like knitted yarn. The nurse and doctor did not run after her. Outside the ward, a young man, who had a cloth bag hanging from his shoulder, approached Sita. On seeing him, Sita broke down into tears and told him her story. He said that he was a journalist with the local newspaper, Janta, and could take her to the railway station. With the help of the journalist, Sita made it to the Godhara railway station. At the railway station, she could hear people say, â€œFifty-seven dead, thirty injured. Coach S 6 of Sabarmati Express completely burned. A genocide. A horrible, terrifying act by man against man.â€? With the help of the journalist, Sita had no problem entering the barricaded site at Godhara railway station. Her unkempt and disheveled state and the look of terror in her deep-set eyes made it clear to the authorities that she was a passenger on the Sabarmati Express. Sita said to the authorities that she was there to find her son. What she saw at the railway station was the coach, S 6, in no way similar to the one she had boarded with her son and husband almost twelve hours ago. In her heart she wished she would not see anything that made it clear Pilu became a victim of the incident. There
are several other hospitals where the sick are, and Pilu could be in one of them or maybe 88
he might have completely survived the attack. The attackers would spare the life of an innocent little boy. Pilu can’t die, he has to live. How could he die before giving me a chance to make his life worth living? With these thoughts in mind, Sita moved as close to the burnt coach as she was allowed. She didn’t even want to think of Biju. Aghast, Sita saw that the maroon paint of the train had peeled and burned to grey-black. Fire and smoke still smoldered inside the coach four hours after the incident. She couldn’t see anything clearly inside the coach. No one except the firemen or the police was allowed within six feet of S6. Sita made a desperate effort to look into the coach through the window rails of the train. What she saw petrified her, parched her throat. Grey-black human remains, bodies burned and reduced to a flimsy layer of carbon; a leg severed from below the knee; an arm that was looking for the shoulder it was once attached to; a body genuflecting; two or three bodies glued together— as if they had been over-baked in an oven; another disfigured as if it was a rotten fruit eaten by insects at several places; a body whose abdominal cavity was burnt. Then she gazed at an object resembling Pilu’s Hawai chappal, near what looked like a charred body. The chappal seemed intact and Sita felt her heart beat faster, her eyes cold stone pellets, paralyzed. She refused to acknowledge what her eyes saw. She imagined something, or was it real: she saw the plastic fish toy, the jute bag, the cover page of the magazine Sheila was reading devoured by a spark. She’d been robbed of the ability to distinguish. She felt her feet morphing into wood, the reaction rapidly traveling to the rest of her body. Jolted, she forced herself to lift her feet, ran closer 89
to the train, but the police dragged her back, dropped her a few feet away from the barricaded site, warned her not to go too close or else she’d be thrown out. Sita huddled her body like a fetus, stared at the policemen, the coach S 6, her mouth and eyes dry, her head buzzing with images and the drone of flies. Just then she noticed that the journalist who had brought her to the site was busily clicking pictures of her. She rose up like Kali, shrieked at him, snatched the black loop hanging from his camera like a snake. The journalist pushed Sita away with a kick of his shoe. She fell. Other media personnel saw this and approached Sita, who was lying on the ground. Soon the police gathered around her. The reporters demanded an interview: “You’ll be on TV, all over the country, the world. Just say...say something. What did you see? What did you hear? How did you escape? Did you lose someone? Say something, anything and you’ll be famous.”
Zombie, Me Love All there is a red vein of pulsing need, a cloud filling my eyes searching But then I find you things change across the horizon in the heart of the sun you are there hiding You smell like sweet no you don’t smell I can’t smell I want you to love me I think I can hear you say “Please! help! oh God no!” you wouldn’t say this I rip out and wield your not-screaming brain You feel like love should feel I take a lick I taste your iron and acrid blood your eyes open, red looking back filled with Me
VERSUS VERSUS VERSUS!
Triple V Action! Triple V Suspense! Triple V Sensuality!!
VJ Boyd The Dark Knight vs. Mrs. Doubtfire or, Robin Williams Should’ve Played the Joker Don’t all of you pounce on me at once. I realize it would have damaged (more than you’re willing to admit – admit it) the box-office draw of the juggernaut commonly known as The Dark Knight to cast an actor not scheduled for a tragic tabloid-wet-dream death involving an Olsen twin, but hear me out. By the way, remember the countdown clocks to when those two turned 18? And then they turned out to be skanky vegetarians who drink like fish and eat like birds and probably smell like one of those as well. Funny, right? Well, Heath Ledger dying isn’t funny, and I’m not joking about it, so don’t get it twisted. What I’m joking about is your unwillingness to admit that the insane success of the latest man-in-a-cape caper has a lot more to do with that death than you think it does, and all things being equal, if you’d just taken my advice and cast Robin Williams, you’d have an even bigger smash on your hands. Wait a minute, you ask, isn’t this supposed to be a comparison of The Dark Knight and Mrs. Doubtfire? Bear with me, I’m getting there. So remember what I said about “all things being equal” a few sentences ago? Imagine for a moment that Robin Williams did get cast as The Joker in this here Dark Knight film. Imagine the uproar. “Robin Williams is washed up!” “This will be worse than Jim Carrey in Batman Forever!” “Get those anal beads out of my glovebox!” Never mind the fact that back in ’95 Jim Carrey was the shit and you were 93
totally stoked to get him in your Batman movie. And remember, please, that there was some significant uproar regarding Heath Ledger, too. Even after the trailer, plenty of people were unconvinced. But let’s say it was Robin Williams, and then he’s the one who died and whose masseuse called an Olsen twin instead of calling 911. And let’s say Robin Williams performed the exact same script that Heath did. And Robin Williams, Oscar winner, beloved for thirty years, known to two, probably three generations, is dead and his last role is rumored to be dark and gritty and over the top mad-crazy. Do you really think you wouldn’t still love that effing movie? You’d be like “Robin Williams had lost his edge for a while, but that last performance, wow. Dude, why’d he have to die on the top of his game like that.” And you’d also get all the old fogies who think Heath Ledger might be the name of a futon at Ikea, because they remember all those times Robin Williams made them cough up a prune chortling at his impression of a sexually dysfunctional marmot on the Tonight Show. And Mrs. Doubtfire proves everything I just said. Mrs. Doubtfire sucks. Hardcore suckage. It’s sappy, stupid, induces internal warts, etc. You might have liked it as a kid, but that’s because kids are stupid. Try watching it now, because you probably don’t remember much about it apart from “Robin Williams made funny voices that made my ten-year-old body quiver as it erupted in overly loud, exaggerated bursts of laughter influenced more by my conception of how I was supposed to act in the situation than by anything actually happening on-screen.” What you do not remember, though, is that Mrs. Doubtfire made more money than 94
Batman Begins. Mrs. Doubtfire’s gross was $219 Million. That’s without adjusting it for inflation and current ticket prices. Do that and you’re talking about $373 Million. That’s insane. What’s more insane is that Mrs. Doubtfire was in the top two at the box office for eleven weeks. Read that again. I can’t even remember the last time a movie was in the top TEN for eleven weeks. “Heath Ledger is so frightening as The Joker!” you scream. “He’s the embodiment of the insanity of the character! Robin Williams could never do that!” Really? Because I think Robin Williams proved in Mrs. Doubtfire that he can handle crazy. What’s scarier, a guy talking funny while he robs banks and kills criminals and cops and such and burns big stacks of money and lies about how he got scars on his face, or a guy talking funny while he dresses like an old woman and lies to his own exwife and children and meddles in their lives and has to do this for something like eight hours a day every day?! And Williams’ performance temporarily convinces us that this is okay! We’re watching this movie about a psychotic, clearly narcissistic and possibly perverted man bypassing the court system and all laws of common decency and he makes us buy it. Keep in mind this wasn’t some over the top Will Ferrell film where the whole thing is separated from reality, this was the 90’s, so the whole thing was played straight. Like any of that crap could ever really happen. In real life his kids would need psychiatric treatment and his wife would start walking around with a derringer in her stockings. The point of all this is, as much as we like Heath’s crazy-man act, how hard is 95
it really to act crazy? I can act crazy. Any actor worth his broccoli can act crazy. But it takes a really great actor like Robin Williams to play a deranged person and play it like he sees himself as completely normal and in the right. Because if you really think about it, isn’t it clear that Heath’s joker KNOWS he is crazy? And if you know you’re crazy, you’re not even really crazy, you’re just an attention whore. Heath’s Joker is like an angry child, whereas Robin’s Mrs. Doubtfire is like a Nazi, fully convinced in what he sees as a rational mind that he is in the right. Which is scarier? VJ Boyd
Lucas Johnson Pretty Monsters vs. The Bible Kelly Link vs. GOD You know what’s silly? The Bible! Nevertheless, this heavyweight collection of stories continues to exert tremendous influence on our cultural icons – Will Ferrell and Laura Bush, to name just two – despite the fact that it was published back in olden days, before the Internet was invented, and even before TV! Tonight we’ll pit this classic collection of stories against a modern-day champion – Kelly Link’s short story collection Pretty Monsters – and see which one emerges victorious from a 3-round Ultimate Fighting Book Championship cage match!!! ROUND 1: MONSTERS The two titans leap into the fray, overloading our senses with supernatural stuff and fantastic flights of fancy, often in the form of bizarro bogies. In The Bible’s corner we see some respectable standbys – giants and demons– 96
and also some uncommon cads like the egregious Gibborim, humongous baddies with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foul foot. Wicked! Pretty Monsters answers with its own lethal combination of creatures: werewolf, grave-robber, pillowy ghosts, backstabbing traitor, mad king, and one monster too nasty to name! We also get a glimpse of the Specialist, a monster whose hat can make sounds like a rabbit, a squirrel, a whale, your spouse’s hair, and more! But watch out! The Bible still has some tricks up its sleeve – check out the evil Lord Jehovah! He commands his faithful follower, “Abraham! Kill your son! Do it now!” Then right before Abraham’s about to slice his son from ear to ear, Jehovah goes, “Just kiddin’.” Now the Lord transmogrifies Lot’s (un-named) wife into a pillar of salt! A cold move, no doubt -- but it could’ve been truly devastating, if The Bible had done the footwork of making me care about the wronged wife. Instead, since I haven’t been able to shamble in her shoes, the only thing I feel is mild disapproval toward the grisly god. Still when you combine this level of monstrous madness with such unprecedented power, clearly, Lord Jehovah is not a monster to be messed with. Pretty Monsters counters with a different move: it shoves its characters in my face and forces me to care about them! Then, when these characters are threatened, even though the thugs aren’t as powerful as Lord Jehovah or as digitally advantaged as the Gibborim, the blows are just as brutal! Here’s Jeremy Mars, from the Pretty Monsters story “Magic For Beginners”; he 97
doesn’t have to deal with any monsters at all! But I know this kid; so when he’s afraid his parents are going to get divorced, or when he’s confused about his feelings for two different girls, it’s a sock in the gut! And I quickly come to care for Halsa, from “The Wizards of Perfil,” even though she’s a little bitch who tries to take from her little cousin the earrings that belonged to his dead mother – Pretty Monsters whisks me away to her weird world, where I see, hear, taste, smell and feel the extenuating circumstances that bring a girl to behave as she does. When she suffers, I feel it like a sock in my solar plexus! Our contenders are both looking strong. But things might get ugly in… ROUND 2: POPULARITY The Bible comes out swinging with savage strength, powered by a popularity that’s persisted over a thousand years! The Bible has accreted a kind of cult following, and it’s obviously feeling the confidence that comes with all that popularity -- you can see that extra surge of power behind each punishing blow! Pretty Monsters, our underdog, reels under the buzz-fed barrage, failing to land a single religion based on one of its characters! The Bible shows no mercy, pummeling its opponent with big-budget movie adaptations, fannish cable channels in multiple languages, and even a spin-off starring Kirk Cameron! Pretty Monsters wobbles but stays on its feet; it lashes out with a desperate accolade, a Hugo! 98
The Bible sneers and bats aside the forgettable prize —swaggering now, arrogant in its unassailable stardom! It attacks Pretty Monsters with a vengeance, buttressed by entire chains of bookstores devoted to its puissant pages, an entourage riding on its coattails, lured by lucre! Reinforced by writers who build their entire careers on books that try to elucidate The Bible’s perplexing parables. Now Pretty Monsters is actually taunting The Bible! “If someone had to write a whole nother book just to make sense of you, you must not be that great!” The Bible just laughs, beyond any hurt that its opponent can dish out; it continues to rain punishment on our underdog, fueled by fans who can recite long passages by heart, who set the story to music. The uber-geekiest meet regularly to debate finer points of The Book -- some of them base their whole lives on The Bible, in the same way that some Star Wars fans follow the Jedi code! Pretty Monsters is on the ropes! Just when it looks like it can’t keep its feet another instant — Ding, ding!! Saved by the bell, Pretty Monsters retreats to its corner. Just having stayed in the fight this long says a lot about this little book -- it’s a trooper, for sure. A precious moment of rest, and now it’s time for the final round… ROUND 3: PURE ENTERTAINMENT! Pretty Monsters, plainly hurting, puts on a brave face as it trots back out into the ring. The Bible insults the underdog by turning its back to its opponent, talking to the crowd, as if the fight is over. After blowing a kiss to an adoring disciple, The Bible 99
turns to its foe and begins walloping it with whimsically funny names! One of The Bible’s characters is named Ham, for God’s sake – and no, it’s not a nickname!! Stunned by this jocular jab, Pretty Monsters tries to block The Bible’s blows, but they’re coming hard and fast: Hoham, Jeroham, Abraham, and a whole tribe of Hamites! Now The Bible unleashes a barrage of funny, non-Ham names: “There was a certain man of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the grandson of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite!” Oo, that’s gotta hurt! Pretty Monsters lands a few blows with Onion, Zilla, and Dodo; but snoozers like Karl, Maureen, and Bryan Jones miss their mark. And The Bible isn’t letting up! Ahimelech, Agag, Adoni-bezek! This is a slaughter! Now, seemingly toying with Pretty Monsters, The Bible blatantly panders to its heterosexual-male core audience by parading entire generations of heroic bigamists across its pages! Oh, this is a sad sight for Pretty Monsters’ fans, if there are any! But what’s this? A fire has ignited in Pretty Monsters’ eyes! It’s angry! Holy shit, this fight isn’t over! Pretty Monsters lashes out with a lethal onslaught of gut-busting guffaws and sidesplitting belly laughs, one after the other! “Two florists had misspelled Bethany’s name on the ugly wreaths, BERTHANY and also BETHONY, just like tribe members did when they were voting each other out on the television show Survivor, which had always been Bethany’s favorite thing about Survivor.” 100
Where is all this coming from?! We’re only on page 7!! Even the characters’ T-shirts wield taut one-liners: I’M SO GOTH I SHIT TINY VAMPIRES. The Bible strikes back with its most brutally funny name yet: Dorcas! But to no avail! Pretty Monsters swats away The Bible’s hokey handles and clouts the Good Book with character-based comedy! A know-it-all teenage girl who’s a fan of personality quizzes and self-help books gives relationship advice to her unappreciative friend. Boof! A conceited young soccer stud with dreams of going pro gets quarantined in a Costa Rican warehouse, where he alienates the girl he has a crush on. Pam! The lucid language and dead-on dialogue is making even strange situations breathtakingly believable, immaculately immediate, wildly and entirely entertaining!! The Bible is weakening! It staggers back into the corner, trying in vain to shield itself from Pretty Monsters’ unpredictable plot twists and quirky characters! A gorgeous grandmother/Scrabble savant bops The Bible in the belly, hard! Oh my God, Book Fans, I have never seen a comeback like this! In desperation, The Bible squeaks out, “Rhoda,” but it’s too little, too late! Pretty Monsters winds up and delivers a knockout – a stunning story that none of us will ever forget!! This fight is over!! What an upset!! The fans pour into the ring as the ref announces the new Ultimate Fighting Book Champion: PRETTY MONSTERS!! Lucas Johnson 101
Jon Lee Hart Fight Bite’s Emerald Eyes vs. Captain & Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together Usually it isn’t fair to compare a major label band like Captain & Tennille with a couple of indie kids like Fight Bite because one has access to skilled producers and professional recording equipment while the other has access to pro–tools and a dime bag. I don’t know why Fight Bite chose to record to tape rather than digital, and I hope this choice wasn’t made to impress its indie compatriots. Because of the quality of the recording this debut album sounds more like a demo than a final product. However, for what the album lacks in production value, the band more than makes up for in artistic depth and value. Emerald Eyes is full of heavy mood and the keys are circus-like, which is always fun. Leanne Macomber’s voice is beautifully Nico-esque; however, the lo-fi production makes some lyrics so muffled that they may as well be spoken in Japanese, which is a shame. Although the vocals may be muffled at times, the band, which also features Jeff Louis, deserves to be praised for its artistry. This isn’t a band that is trying to sound like anyone one else—although past bands like the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star do come to mind. Emerald Eyes is a focused album that is successfully somber without becoming too annoyingly depressing. Let’s face it, every relationship fails until one doesn’t, and if every song is taken to be autobiographical, Fight Bite’s members get their hearts broken…a lot. The song “Spring Rain” crosses the sentimental line with lyrics like “I thought I could get by killing myself/ And now it looks as though I kill everyone 102
else.” Cheer up pouty face, cheer up. While Fight Bite are in desperate need of some Paxil, Captain & Tennille have taken one too many. Since the 70’s this duo has been muskrat lovin’ their way through the airwaves, signifying the coming of the apocalypse. Now I love “the classics” as much as the next person, but just because an album was made in this era doesn’t make it great. Love songs such as “Disney Girls” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” are simply too much. These songs are so annoyingly g-rated and conservative that they seem more tailored towards the Republican National Convention than any dancehall in America. Songs like “The Way I Want to Touch You” are misleading with promising beginnings. Tennille sings, “I never wanted to love a man the way I want to love you,” and just when visions of double dongs and sex slings fill your head the image is shattered with the chorus, “You are sunshine/ You are shadows.” However g-rated and Disney safe these songs may be, taken out of context “Love Will Keep Us Together” is surprisingly creepy. With lines like, “You belong to me now/Ain’t gonna set you free now,” Tennille begins to seem an awful lot like Kathy Bates circa Misery. Creepiness aside, “Love Will Keep Us Together” is as contagious as herpes-and whether you like it or not, the melody will repeat in your head long after you stop listening. Although the album itself is masterfully produced, you can’t help but notice that it is single driven. Tracks like “Cuddle Up” and “Honey Come Love Me” are happily forgettable next to hit singles. Fight Bite’s repertoire is not nearly as infectious, which is not necessarily a flaw. While Love Will Keep Us Together is comprised of hit singles placed in between shit 103
Jon Lee Hart
tracks, Emerald Eyes is more of an opus with songs that bleed from the first track to the last. Tracks like “Widow’s Peak” and “Swissex Lover” stand out, but only slightly. In fact, Emerald Eyes is one of those rare albums that need to be listened to from beginning to end to be fully appreciated. Overall, Emerald Eyes is cohesive and tightly wound, and while a little more variety would have been appreciated, it is impressive for a debut album—and in terms of maturity, artistry, and integrity—it totally kicks Captain & Tennille’s ass.
Jon Lee Hart
Walter Moore The Drive-By Truckers and Woody Guthrie: Lyrics for Postlapsarian Folks “Everybody might be just one big soul. Well it looks that a way to me. Everywhere that you look in the day or night That’s where I’m gonna be, Ma, That’s where I’m gonna be” (“Tom Joad”/Woody Guthrie) We all have read the Bible, or at least listened to it on tape, and we all know about the Fall of the South, post slavery and abolition, but not all of us uses fancy terms such as lapsarian (“a loss of innocence”) and postlapsarian (“after the expulsion of Adam & Eve, after original sin, etc.”). But I will. Such terms are relevant. Such polysyllabic words sound appropriately sophisticated as I sit here in Central Texas typing in my underwear while looking into my basset hound’s eyes and listening to the Drive-By Truckers.
The Drive-By Truckers, a Rock & Roll band out of the Deep South (northern Alabama and the progressive, not-so-deep Athens, GA), newest release, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, continues the band’s reputation as a soulful, articulate group of misfits. Plenty of comparisons of DBT have been made. With contemporary music, the label Southern Rock has had a resurgence, and with it has come the nostalgia for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. And, while it is true that the band’s sound resembles that of these so-titled true Southern Rock bands (purists beware!), DBT’s lyrics are better than their predecessors, so much so that they transcend Southern Rock, harking back to music for “Folks,” ala ballads written by Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie. Many of the Okies fled, it was the Great Depression, and Woody Guthrie traveled with the workers in search of better lives. He wrote songs about and for the proletariat; he wrote “Folks” music, not the campy “folk” music. This was long after slavery, of course, and Oklahoma is not the South—their postlapsarian reality was more about wind and dust and poverty—but the Okies had to flee in discontent and despair all the same. Some of the people down in the South didn’t flee, they stayed around to handle the wrath of their downfall. They looked for betterment while remaining Home. Here lies the main difference and universality of the music: Guthrie wrote about suffering during the toils of searching for a better life somewhere else, and DBT writes about suffering had while attempting to improve your home, post wreckage; however, both artist and band channel the sufferings of the working masses with a deadpan rawness. Both write “Folks” music for voiceless folks. Walter Moore 105
Guthrie writes about the prelapsarian state of the Okies in “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”: Back in Nineteen Twenty-Seven, I had a little farm and I called that heaven. Well, the prices up and the rain come down, And I hauled my crops all into town—I got the money, bought clothes and groceries, Fed the kids, and raised a family. In the next stanza of the same ballad, in a postlapsarian mode this time, Guthrie writes about fleeing the wreckage: Rain quit and the wind got high, And the black ol’ dust storm filled the sky. And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine, And I poured it full of this gas-i-line—And I started, rockin’ an’ a-rollin’, Over the mountains, out towards the old Peach Bowl. In a similar fashion, Guthrie writes in “Pastures of Plenty”: It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold. And, as predicted, life gets harder. People have fallen further: I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ‘round, Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town. And the police make it hard wherever I may Go and I ain’t got no home in this world anymore. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, key vocalists and guitarists, of DBT spin their own versions of aftermath. Hood’s “The Righteous Path” epitomizes the strife of the Southern family man who feels compelled to stay home:
I got a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas I got a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast I got a dog and a cat that don’t fight too much I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch I got a beautiful wife and three tow-headed kids I got a couple of big secrets I’d kill to keep hid I don’t know God but I fear his wrath I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path I got a couple of opinions that I hold dear A whole lot of debt and a whole lot of fear I got an itch that needs scratching but it feels alright I got the need to blow it out on a Saturday night I got a grill in the backyard and a case of beers I got a boat that ain’t seen the water in years More bills than money, I can do the math I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path. Hood draws a line in the sand, but forgets the line soon enough. He writes songs such as “Daddy Needs A Drink” and “You And Your Crystal Meth” that indicate that the reparation of destruction isn’t only filled with innocuous neighborhoods, kids and beers. The newest songwriter of DBT, bassist Sonya Tucker also writes about this interwoven duality in her “The Purgatory Line”: This ain’t exactly hell. It sure as hell ain’t heaven. I love you like the dickens and I miss you like the Devil. I guess I’ll do my time waitin’ in this purgatory line. For it’s purgatory at best in various guilt-stricken pockets of the current South where good people seek redemption and hope for reward. 107
In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Pa Joad dies soon after leaving the farm in Oklahoma (against his will), and while on the road, Preacher Jim Casy gets killed, Tom Joad kills a cop and goes on the run. The Pa in this analogy would be DBT and the words of the most recent Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, as one gets the sense, that even though they are a hard-travelling road band, they need their home and roots for better or worse (a purgatory at best); and, of course, Guthrie’s lyrics represent the hardships of the road(side) travelers. Yet, both band and folk-artist icon transcend place and time with lyrics. Each source’s writings embrace the struggle of the spirit, the beautiful sorrow of a worker with a memory and conscience. Walter Moore
Contributors VJ BOYD is a writer living in L.A. JONATHAN BRAUCHER lives in Baltimore, and his creative endeavors include poetry, screenwriting and all aspects of video production. He recently finished his MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. The poems featured in this issue come from a collection inspired from many long, long, long drives alone. CHRISTOPHER COLLINS is an AP English teacher at Covington Catholic High School (Kentucky) and a former police officer. Chris says that being a teacher is like being a cop, but without the protective equipment. He is married with two kids and one overweight Labrador. PATRICIA CRONIN has an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online literary journals. She also develops and markets her own creative writing workshops. KELLY DAVIO is an English Language instructor in Seattle, Washington, where she lives with her husband and pursues an MFA in Poetry at Northwest Institute for Literary Arts. Her most recent work can be found in The Broome Review, Soundings Review, Beeswax Magazine and Dos Passos Review. SILVIA DE LA PEÑA is the author of The Strange Vacation (Somethingclever Press, 2008). A recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program at the University of Baltimore, Peña now lives in Los Angeles with her non-existent pet. GABRIEL DECREASE is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at Allegheny College, and earned his MFA at The University of Pittsburgh. He was awarded the 2005 Mulfinger Award for Poetry and first-prize in the 2007 Edwin Ochester/Academy of American Poets Award. His poems and reviews have appeared in French Creek Journal, Paradigm-3, Word Riot, Mudlark, Fawlt and The Cortland Review. LEAH FOSTER is a junior Arts and Performance student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She says, “I hope to use my photography to change the world. Whether I’m here in the States or across the world, I want to make a difference, using my camera as my voice.” 110
KAREN GREENBAUM-MAYA, a clinical psychologist in Claremont, California, studied German Lit so that she could read poetry for credit. She has reviewed restaurants for the Claremont Courier, sometimes in heroic couplets. She laughs at things that no one else thinks are funny. Her poems and photos have appeared in Untamed Ink, O Tempora! and online whispers & [Shouts] and Schmap, and will appear in Lilliput Review and the forthcoming San Diego City Works Press anthology of Hunger. JON LEE HART is a poet and humorist located in Dallas, Texas. He is pursuing a Masters in aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas and co-edits Sojourn, a literary and art journal. LUCAS JOHNSON lives in Dallas, Texas, the 3rd worst city in the US for bicycling, according to the radio. He will soon be touring the Dallas area with his futuristic rock band, the Banns. NATHAN LOGAN had to buy his own little league baseball helmet. He is the editor of Spooky Boyfriend and an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Some of his work can be found in Literary Tonic, No Posit, The Scrambler, and The Subterranean Quarterly. JEN MCCLUNG writes mostly poetry, a bit of fiction, and the occasional non-fiction travel essay. She is also a singer-songwriter and a visual artist in every medium she can get her hands on. Her most recent art-craze is watercolors, Sumi ink, and graffiti. Currently, Jen lives in Ames, Iowa. WALTER “WALT” MOORE, a native Texan, just moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he writes in the attic of an old Victorian mansion and teaches Writing at the University of Rhode Island. He’s a published poet and journalist who feels most comfortable in a bathrobe. JESSICA MYERS is a second-year MFA student at Chatham University. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
JAKE ORESICK’S work has appeared in American Literary, Jones Av. and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He serves as a political aide to elected officials and candidates in southwestern Pennsylvania. AARON PEARCE is a six-foot citizen. He goes to college. MICAH ROBBINS s a poet, fiction writer, book artist, and the editor of Interbirth Books. He lives with his wife and son in Dallas, Texas, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in English at Southern Methodist University. MANISHA SHARMA is an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. She lives in Blacksburg, VA, and in India. Her nonfiction has appeared in Pinnacle Living Mountain Homes Southern Style. She has poems in the fall issue of Silhouette. “Godhara” is her first published short story. ALAN TOLLESON is an artist, art teacher and weird musician residing in Arlington, Texas. He is currently working on a collage series titled “Animals Wearing Jeans.” One of the animals is a tornado.
i c i f h r s e e p l u f s Oh, the delight that awaits inside! Recipes! Prizes! Kisses! Pigs! Well, one pig.
And donâ€™t say we didnâ€™t warn you.
Published on Apr 26, 2009
Superficial Flesh is an off-the-cuff literary ‘zine that welcomes and features all forms of art, be they poetry, fiction, non-fiction, music...